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‘Communism: A Love Story’ by Jeff Sparrow

sparrow_communism

2007, 294 p.

‘Communism’ and ‘Love Story’- now they are two words that you don’t very often hear in the same sentence. Jeff Sparrow’s book centres on Guido Baracchi, a wealthy Melbourne political activist and Communist, described by historian Stuart Macintyre  as “the knight errant of Australian radicalism…a man of considerable wealth and emotional spontaneity, utterly without guile  or worldly ambition, of luminous innocence and limitless self-centredness” (cited on p. 5).

It’s hard to believe now, with liberalism under threat in many places, with Putin becoming such an unnerving presence and after Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, that Communism in the first half of the 20th century could have elicited passion -and yes, love-  amongst its followers. But as Sparrow explains:

Communism provided an alternative. It was, in many way, the alternative, the most important indicator that society could be remade. Between 1917 and 1989, its star shone bright and its star shone dim, but its continuing sparkle in the political firmament allowed millions to believe in a world beyond the free market. Even those who despised communism felt that while it existed, change- whether they wanted it or not- was a possibility.

Today that feeling is gone….With communism gone, few of us can articulate a different kind of society, another economic model or even a philosophical challenge to the buy-low, sell-high ethics of the market. (p. 3)

Guido Baracchi was born in Melbourne in 1887, the son of the Italian-born astronomer at the Melbourne Observatory who had responsibility for the Great Melbourne Telescope.  He provided his son Guido an education that would seem to almost guarantee ‘respectability’.  He went to kindergarten with later Governor-General Richard Casey, attended Melbourne Grammar School where later Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce was an older fellow-student, and studied at Melbourne University with later Prime Minister Robert Menzies. He was diametrically opposed to them politically.  He threw himself into student politics at Melbourne University, – through the Melbourne University Historical Society no less- was arrested for an anti-conscription speech he gave on the Yarra Bank in 1918, started the Victorian Labor College and edited ‘Industrial Solidarity, the journal of the International Industrial Workers, the successor to the banned Industrial Workers of the World. He was a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920, and edited their journal Proletarian.

But if there was romance and idealism, there was also disillusionment, especially in the 1920s. Travelling to Europe in 1922 after the failure of his marriage, Baracchi worked as a professional revolutionary in Weimar Berlin, and was part of the disastrously failed uprising of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1923. Returning to Australia, he found the Australian communists in disarray.  The Melbourne branch had collapsed completely, many branches were dysfunctional, the Sydney branch was hollowed out. Those members still active were exhausted, others quarrelled over doctrine and Baracchi despaired of the leadership. In 1925, he suggested the dissolution of the CPA as a separate entity, urging the formation of a ginger group within the ALP instead. The leadership of the party expelled him, and he was to pay for this ‘disloyalty’ for years afterwards.

Although not part of the CPA, he travelled to Russia, where he stayed for a year, working as a translator in the Co-Operative Publishing Society for Foreign Workers.  Returning to Australia with his communist credentials burnished, he was eventually readmitted into the CPA. But he wasn’t to be there for long, because he was expelled in 1940 for Trotskyite tendencies. He turned his attention to the ALP instead, hoping to promote socialism within the party and died in 1975 after a day handing out how-to-vote cards for the Labor Party.

I’m not particularly familiar or interested in the intricacies of Marxist theory or the schisms and alliances between different branches of Marxism. However, Sparrow did not dwell on this, although I’m sure that a reader more versed in such things would pick up on observations and comments that just passed me by.

But this book is more than a book about Communism politics in 20th century Australia. Sparrow combines the political and the personal, and certainly Guido had a tumultuous love life, marrying and partnering several times.  There must have been something about him, though, because often his wives/partners got on well with their predecessors and successors. He shifted between Melbourne, Europe,  and back to Melbourne in 1924 to claim his considerable inheritance in nearby (to me) and highly respectable Ivanhoe – the thing that prompted me to read this book in the first place. He travelled through Russia, and later shifted to Sydney where he lived at Castlecrag, the estate designed by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin.

He was thoroughly imbricated in the progressive intellectual network of the time. He had an affair with Katharine Susannah Pritchard, he was a close friend of Esmonde Higgins, the nephew of H.B. Higgins and sister to Nettie Palmer.  He had an affair with the poet Lesbia Harford; he lived with the playwright Betty Roland in Russia, and circulated with her amongst the artists at Montsalvat and Castlecrag. This is a story not just of one man, but of an intellectual milieu, over several decades.

This book brought me everything that I like most about biography: a clear and chronological narrative of events; rich context to make sense of them; depiction of a complex social network around the subject; an appraisal of emotional entanglements, and most importantly, a curiosity about the subject that acknowledges foibles, complexities and inexplicabilities. All this, written with sensitivity and insight- an excellent biography!

My rating: 9.5 / 10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Movie: H is for Happiness

Yes, it’s another of my ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ postings about a movie I have seen just before it finishes its run at the cinemas. I knew nothing about this movie, except that it was Australian. With a cast of Miriam  Margolyes, Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth and Deborah Mailman, I thought that it must be doing something right. Set in Albany W.A. it’s the story of a 12 year old girl trying to heal the grief and anger in her family. She befriends her young classmate who is dealing with his own trouble through believing that he is living in another dimension, and endangering himself trying to return to another dimension.  It walks the narrow line between saccharine tweeness and an affecting, brilliantly acted depiction of family grief. Both child actors were excellent, and I’m sure young Wesley Patten will be the new Aaron Pederson in the next 10 years.

My rating: 3.5 / 5

 

‘The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047’ by Lionel Shriver

shriver_mandibles

2016,  402 P.

[Spoilers ahead]

My local library has taken to labelling their fiction book collection as ‘Romance’ ‘Australian’ or in this case, ‘Humour’.****  Anyone reading this book for a chuckle would be sadly disappointed. Sure, there are spikes of satire and parody, but this dystopian novel could only be called ‘humour’ by someone who shares its libertarian, anti-Government, gun-toting politics. And that sure ain’t me.

[****And don’t get me started on my library’s determination to turn itself into a bookshop by grouping books into ‘Travel and History’ and ‘Mind and Body’ and leaving you to work out the category. Sheesh.]

In 2029 the Mandibles ( get it? jaw bone, consumers etc.) are a wealthy family, waiting on the elderly patriarch to die and allow the fortune to trickle down to his son, Carter Mandible, former newspaper editor, and his expatriate author daughter Enola. Carter’s children, Avery and Florence, and grandchildren are waiting on the inheritance too. Avery and her economist husband Lowell live an affluent lifestyle with their three children Savannah and sons Goog and Bing (get it? names of search engines). Living a more abstemious lifestyle, Florence works in a homeless shelter as a community worker, with her husband/partner Esteban from Mexico and son Willing  (get it? I don’t know if I do. I tired of Shriver’s smartarsery with naming. He was the most competent one there, so perhaps Willing and Able?)

There had been rumbles of trouble brewing before 2029, when the book opens. In 2024 all internet-based infrastructure had failed, a crisis five years later known as the Stoneage or “Stonnage”. It was just a blip – although the government and power companies insisted that all payments to them be made by old-fashioned cheque – and by 2029 it was seen as a problem largely overcome. The real problem came in 2029 when a supranational currency known as the ‘bancor‘ (actually proposed by John Maynard Keynes in 1940) made the American dollar redundant in international trade. Mexican-born POTUS Alvarado defaulted on America’s debt. Deciding to go it alone, the American economy relied on the surrender of all gold reserves and the strict prohibition of the use of the bancor.  Almost overnight the Mandible fortune had been wiped out, along with the middle-class professions which American’s indebtedness had made possible.

Margaret Atwood has famously said in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale that she only wrote about things that had already occurred somewhere in the world at some time. Dystopian fiction – especially in the near future –  is at its best, I think, when it just extrapolates slightly from current events. In this regard, Shriver does pretty well. Our increasing acceptance of digital monetary transactions, the rise of China and Russia as world powers, the increasing Latin-Americanizing of the United States – all these things are happening now, and the book doesn’t demand a great deal of imagination to accept the scenario she is drawing.

But the scenario itself calls from her a great deal of explanation – too much explanation – much of which is carried through conversations at dinner parties and when the much-reviled economist Lowell and his smartypants son Goog and nephew Willing hold forth about the economy.

However, once the scenario has been established, the indignities and implications of economic collapse in our soon-present world mount up. What happens when the toilet paper runs out? How does a family deal with dementia when aged care is impossible?

Shriver squibs it a bit when she leaps from 2029 to 2047 in one jump. The establishment of a new, equally uncomfortable world order is glossed over, and here the politics of the book take over. It’s off to Nevada we go, with no Big Government looking into your bank account, with 10% taxation, with people taking responsibility for themselves.   It’s no Utopia, as the Nevadan keep telling themselves, but it’s freedom. And at this point, my Australian lefty-ness starts to arc up and I remember that I’m not particularly  enamoured of Lionel Shriver as a polemicist.

That said, I have found myself thinking about this book quite a bit since I finished it. When I first started it, I was also watching the excellent Years and Years on SBS On Demand, which I found a bit confusing as they both deal with near-future dystopias. Once I settled into Shriver’s book, and left behind the explanations and moved into the family dynamics, I was transfixed. I still don’t like where I ended up though.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee’ by Casey Cep

cep_furious-hours

2019, 274 pages & notes,

[Spoilers ahead]

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favourite books. I used to teach it for Year 10 English, and every year as I re-read it in preparation for teaching it again, I enjoyed it more and more. Even now, just hearing the music in the opening shots of the film brings tears to my eyes.  I didn’t want to spoil my pleasure of Mockingbird by reading Go Set a Watchman, and I came to this book, with Harper Lee’s name prominently circled on the front, with a degree of trepidation. I needn’t have feared.  Harper Lee didn’t end up writing her book about Rev Willie Maxwell, but if she had, I think that it might have sounded somewhat like Casey Cep’s book.  Barak Obama named it as one of his best reads for 2019, so I was keen to finish it in case there were holds on it at the library. Strangely, I could have probably reborrowed it after all. Not to worry- I was so thoroughly engrossed that I happily just settled in for a good long read.

It’s almost three books in one. Part One ‘The Reverend’ tells the story of Reverend Willie Maxwell, a keen purchaser of insurance policies on the lives of people close to him who were later found dead. There was no evidence, forensic or otherwise, to link him to the deaths, but as the deaths continued to occur and the insurance payouts continued to accumulate, it certainly looked very suspicious. Then, someone close to his last victim took the law into his hand, and the brilliant defence lawyer who had ensured that Rev. Willie Maxwell kept being found innocent, was suddenly defending the man accused of killing his former client.

Part Two, ‘The Lawyer’, shifts its attention to this brilliant defence lawyer, aspiring Democrat politician Tom Radney, who found it difficult to be elected in Alabama. He turned to the law instead, and this is the story of the trial. It goes through the trial day by day, with the moves and counter-moves. In the crowded courtroom, so reminiscent of the courthouse where Tom Robinson was defended by Atticus Finch, there was a small, middle-aged female writer. It was Nelle Harper Lee.

Part Three ‘The Writer’ focuses on Harper Lee. I hadn’t realized to this point how autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird had been, and although I knew of her friendship with Truman Capote, I didn’t realize that he was the real-life Dill Cunningham! This section traces Lee’s life, from childhood in Monroeville, through the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, her struggle to get another novel published, her journalism and assistance to Capote with In Cold Blood and her final days.  In aiming to write her never-published (and perhaps never-written) proposed novel The Reverend, based on Rev. Willie Maxwell’s courtcase, Lee was moving out of her comfort zone. The critique of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird would not apply in this courtcase where an African-American man killed an African-American preacher.

This book is beautifully written, just as evocative as Harper Lee’s work is. I don’t know if the author has tried to channel Lee’s style, or whether it’s a natural sympathy with it.  In a book with three themes like this, it would not be surprising if one section was more engaging than the other, but this is not at all the case.  It is a sensitive depiction of the craft of the writer, and an evocative description of 1970s Alabama.

It is excellent

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

An Australian beach summer

09Jan2020_beach

I’ve always loved summer, but it has an edge now.  I know why that sunset is so orange. For the first time in my life, I think, I heard a forecast of a 35 degree day as being a “bad” day instead of a beautiful day, a stunning day, a fantastic day.  I’ve been down by the beach – a somewhat unprepossessing bayside beach, really – and I’ve been aware of those Australians whose summer holiday dream has become a nightmare, and those whose retreat in the country has been blasted by flame. And it just keeps going on, day after day.

‘La Distance Entre Nosotros’ by Reyna Grande

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2012,  354 pages

Yes! 354 pages in Spanish! I read this book as part of my Parceros participation with Spanishland School. Our teacher Andrea held a weekly podcast where she would ask questions and discuss one or two chapters, but I fell behind on the podcasts and just kept reading, two pages per night.

The book is probably aimed at Year 7 and 8 kids in American schools. It was written in English by the author, who was born in Mexico and learned English as a second language, and then translated into Spanish.

The author, Reyna, was born in a small village in Mexico and both her parents left in order to work illegally on the ‘other side’ (i.e. America) when she was a very young child. First her father left, then he called for his wife to join him, so the children were left with their paternal grandmother, who because of her clear dislike for the children’s mother, distrusted that they were indeed even her own grandchildren. Their mother returned alone, when she found that her husband was cheating on her, and the children ended up with their maternal grandmother while their mother went back to America with another man.

In Part 2 of the book, their father returns with his new wife and grudgingly takes the three children over the border. A violent and hard man, their lives are still hard and it is only Reyna who breaks free of the poverty in which they are living. Through it all, she desperately wants her father’s approval.

Reading only 2 pages a night meant that Reyna’s long howl of abandonment wore a little thin by the end, but I came away with a much richer understanding of the ‘Dreamers’ and the desperation with which illegal immigrants try to achieve a better life.

The level was JUST right for someone who has Intermediate level Spanish. I generally had to look up about 4 or 5 words per page, which was not enough to slow me down, and I found that I could easily guess many unfamiliar words.  It is well written and poignant- I really enjoyed it.

 

Challenging myself again…

I’ll be doing the Australian Women Writers Challenge again for 2020, hoping to read twenty books during 2020. I’ll try to read a little more fiction this time.

And while I’m at it, I’ll nominate the same number of books on the Goodreads challenge – sixty- which I achieved this year by the skin of my teeth.

So off I go into 2020…..