‘The Chase’ by Ida Mann

1986, 217 p.

Our face-to-face book went into hibernation during the lockdown throughout 2020, so when received our most recent read, The Chase, an autobiography by Ida Mann, we opened the box with anticipation. But what a smell ! the books had obviously been unread for a very long time (probably pre-dating COVID) and they were very musty. And having finished the book now, there’s probably a good reason why this book has not been particularly popular. Published in 1986, it’s very much a product of an earlier time, drawing on fairly pragmatic and workmanlike ideas of autobiography, and expressing attitudes for which Ida Mann would be condemned today (and indeed, in the 1980s as well).

If you’re wondering ‘Who is Ida Mann?’, you’re not alone. She was a world-famous ophthalmologist, born in 1893 in England, who had already reached the peak of her research career when she emigrated to Australia with her husband Profession William Guy, an acclaimed cancer research in 1949. After her husband died in 1952, she continued her work in ophthalmology, researching the prevalence of eye disease (especially trachoma) in indigenous populations, and speaking at World Health Organization conferences in many places throughout the world. She was also an inveterate traveller.

As might be expected from a woman steeped in the sciences, the book is very much a start-at-the-beginning-and-go-through-to-the-end endeavour. The presence of lines of verse scattered through the text does little to dispel this impression, reflecting the old-fashioned nature of the narrative rather than the author’s literariness. In its tone, the book reminded me of military histories, where every single individual has to be named and acknowledged, and Christmas family letters regaling the reader with travel tales to exotic places (from the days when we still could travel). Neither genre particularly appeals to me. The book (which admittedly has been edited from an even lengthier text) descends into an extended travelogue at the end.

This is not to detract from her professional achievements, which are many. One hundred and forty three published papers, a string of scholarships and fellowships, a CBE and DBE attest to her hard work and professional reputation within the field of ophthalmology. She was, however, no feminist. Just as Margaret Thatcher did little for the cause of feminism, Ida saw the ‘nonsense about women’s rights’ as unnecessary, because if you wanted a job enough, you would get it. She was vehemently opposed to the NHS, and it was its introduction, along with her husband’s ill health, that prompted her shift across the world. She expresses little empathy for patients, preferring the research aspect of her work. She was dismissive of the Australian slap-dash attitude when the pure genetic lines of her research mice were compromised because insufficient care was taken. Particularly repellent was her classification of the Aboriginal people she examined for eye disease into the categories based on their likeness to ‘us’: Similar, Almost, Rather, Hardly and Not-at-all. (p. 150)

Yet this intensely driven and pragmatic woman had a mystical side as well. She writes often of her dreams, particularly one vivid dream where she was presented with two doors. In the dream, she chose the door that opened onto sunshine, blue sky and fear, and this dream changed her life. She rejected the life of an office-worker that her parents had chosen for her, and became proactive in choosing and pursuing her own career. As in most autobiographies, there are elisions and silences, most particularly in her response to her husband’s death and a rather curious allusion to incestuous feelings towards her older brother, Arthur.

You’re unlikely to find a copy of this autobiography very easily. In a way, that is a pity because autobiographies of female scientists are not common. On the other hand, the stilted narrative, incessant name-dropping and dismissive individualism are not appealing features of this autobiography. Perhaps Ida Mann needs a biographer who can rescue her life from her own narrative.

My rating: 6/10

Sourced from: CAE as the March book for The Ladies Who Say Oooh (i.e. my face-to-face bookgroup). The other ladies enjoyed the book more than I did, and were more appreciative of her achievements than I was.

Ida Mann appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, so I have included her on the Australian Women Writers Challenge Database.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-8 March 2021

Latin American History Podcast In The Conquest of Mexico Episode 6 the presenter, Max Sarjeant, says that he is about half way through his planned series, and that for the last time he will explore Cortez’ character (which he sees as crazy-brave and impetuous) and the inevitability of the conquest of Mexico. He suspects that the ‘Montezuma thought Cortez was a god’ trope is a bit of ass-covering (not that he says that) and also that European conquest was an inevitability. In The Conquest of Mexico Episode 7, it’s all action with Cortez having to go off back to the coast to fight Spanish soldiers who had been sent from Cuba to stop his progress, then returning to find that the relationship had really deteriorated with the Aztecs. Montezuma died and the Spanish needed to escape Tenochtitlan. I watched the SBS series Hernan a while back, and this is the point where the series finished.

Heather Cox Richardson In her podcast of 5 February, Heather Cox Richardson turns her gaze westward, where, as she points out, the new areas being opened up already had well-established government systems, be they Spanish or Mexican. Treaties were signed with Indigenous tribes that were more a relationship with obligations rather than a land-ownership matter, and when the settlers did not keep up their side of the bargain, all bets were off. The indigenous people were purposely excluded from the 14th amendment, which is ironic given that the whole point of the Civil War was over men’s rights.

The Real Story (BBC) I like this podcast. It has experts who don’t necessarily settle into the expected left/right, liberal/conservative dichotomies. In China’s Advance into Latin America, the guests are a Brazilian economist, a former Mexican ambassador to China and two directors of academic programs- one at the centre for Inter-American Dialogue, and the other the director of Latin American programs at a Beijing University. Lots of parallels between Australia and Latin American countries, especially in terms of China’s use of market power for political outcomes.

Dan Snow’s History Hit. Carol Dyhouse, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex talks about her book Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen. Her book of the same name examines how women’s (and mens???) attitudes to love have changed since 1950, when Disney’s Cinderella was released, up to the present day. Actually, there’s an interesting timeline to accompany the book on the OUP blog here.

Con subtítulos en español: La Mitad del Cielo (1986)

As part of their celebration of the Spanish actress Angela Molina, Instituto Cervantes has been streaming her films for 48 hours. In this film, Molina plays Rosa, a young woman who leaves her much-loved grandmother and her remote village in order to marry a young knife-grinder who ends up being a swindler. He dies in prison, and Rosa and her young daughter move to Madrid. She gradually works her way out of poverty and opens a restaurant.

But the REAL star of this show I thought was Margarita Lozano, who played the grandmother. She looked at her granddaughter and great-granddaughter with such love. And these shoes! Abuela (grandmother) clomped around in these shoes, in the village and then in Madrid when she came to stay with her granddaughter. They are wooden pattens, worn by peasants across Europe from the 12th century onwards, to protect your feet from the mud. (You can learn more about pattens from the Two Nerdy History Girls here).

‘The Shadow King’ by Maaza Mengiste

2019, 424 p.

When I started reading this book, I started feeling a bit panicky. Ethiopia in 1935?? I knew nothing about it and started furiously Googling Ethiopia/Italy 1935 (‘Duck Duck Go-ing’ doesn’t slip off the tongue quite as easily, in my feeble attempt to stand up to Google’s ubiquity). But then I thought: hold on, this is the author’s job, not mine – no Barthesian ‘death of the author’ for me- and so I sat back and let Mengiste take me where she wanted. I was right to trust her: she took me to a war that I was only vaguely aware of, to the men and the women who fought it, and to soldiers on both sides.

Hirut is a young girl who, after the death of her parents, has been taken as a servant into the household of Kidane, a friend of her parents, and his wife Aster. All that Hirut has left to remind her of her father was his old rifle, that he used during the first Italian-Abyssinian war in 1896. Although Aster had been forced into an unwilling marriage to Kidane, she is also jealous of her servant Hirut, and almost beats her to death. However, as Italy invades Ethiopia, Aster is determined to fight alongside the men, and she drags Hirut into the conflict as well. Hirut’s gun is confiscated and added to the meagre cache of the Ethiopian rebels. Kidane, who veers between kind and abusive towards Hirut, assumes the leadership of a group of rebels -both men and women- who harry the Italian troops.

Carlo Fucelli is the leader of those Italian troops. He is a sadistic man, particularly after his own masculinity is challenged, and realizing that he has leverage over Ettore Navarra, the Jewish Italian photographer amongst his troops, he forces the photographer to photograph the atrocities that he commits. Compliant but deeply uncomfortable, Navarra is feeling his own position becoming more precarious as the anti-Semitism in Europe increases, especially learning about his father’s own history, something previously unknown to him.

The ‘Shadow King’ of the title is a peasant with an uncanny likeness to the now-exiled Emperor Haile Selassie. While Selassie frets in Bath UK, his ‘shadow’ appears, almost like a vision, before the troops to inspire them. I wasn’t particularly convinced by this Shadow King character. He seemed rather implausible and unnecessary and by choosing the ‘The Shadow King’ as the title, the author gives him a prominence not found in the book itself.

There is a lot going on in this book. Told in the present tense, the point of view switches back and forth between characters, separated only by an icon. The text is interrupted by short incantations by the ‘Chorus’, evoking a Greek play. There are short descriptions headed ‘Photo’ which describe a photograph taken by Navarra, or his framing of a photograph that he will take.

All these diverse elements add to the breadth of the book. Even Fucelli, the butcher of the story, is explored with sensitivity, and Kidane is seen as both ally and monster. Navarra is conflicted: he is the photographer who has captured atrocity but he is also a son, in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous. Women in this book are at the mercy of men, but they too can be violent.

The book is beautifully written, if a little overwrought at times. However, Mengiste was not served well by her proof-reader, who let several typos go through. Notwithstanding these glitches, I finished the book feeling as if I had been in the hands of a masterful, poetic writer, who had taken me to a theatre of war totally unknown to me. She has eschewed the male-dominated military narrative to see women as active fighters, and ultimately all actors as victims. I can see why this book was short-listed for the Booker. It makes me wonder how ‘Shuggie Bain’ bested it.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. I have had it reserved for months!

‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

2017, 320 p.

SPOILER ALERT

I’m always a sucker for an American Civil War book, but I didn’t realize that this was going to be one until I started reading it. (I should have read the back of the book, where it is quite clear that this is set in 1850s America). I had been more attracted by the author, Sebastian Barry, whose A Long, Long Way and The Secret Scripture I had read before. Those two books were both set in Ireland, and I expected this to be the same.

It was only when I started reading that the memory floated back of a fellow postgraduate working on the Irish involvement in the American Civil War. Thomas McNulty, the main character in this book, is such a man: driven as a 17 year old from famine-struck Ireland, he joins the army to fight in the Indian Wars and there he befriends- indeed, more than befriends – falls in love- with his brother-in-arms John Cole. I certainly hadn’t expected that, and was brought up with a jolt when Barry comes out and says it: “And then we quietly f**ked and then we slept”.

Before joining the cavalry, and both destitute, Thomas and John work as ‘girls’ on the stage in a mining town starved for women, until they get too old and big to carry off the pretense. Needing work, they join the cavalry. Their platoon is charged with ‘clearing’ the land for white emigration, and they encounter the Oglala Sioux chief Caught-His-Horse-First first in an act of generosity, then betrayal. Discharged from the army, Thomas and John head for the midwest, taking with them Winona, the niece of Chief Caught-His-Horse-First, to form a make-shift and unusual family. They rejoin the theatre-circuit, and Thomas reprises his cross-dressing act. When the Civil War comes, they join up on the Union side. It is an ugly war, and its ugliness pursues them into their post-war life.

It’s strange: I was completely drawn into this book and finished it in an afternoon. Yet, when writing this post, I was left mainly with impressions and I confess to having to look up other reviews to remember the actual plot. The book as a whole made a stronger impact than the individual details.

In reading this book, there were flashes of Cold Mountain and unexpected echoes of Blood Meridian. There is a certainly violence, but somehow it is dream-like and disconnected. The narrative voice in this book, speaking in the present tense throughout, in my head sounded to be a completely American accent, without even a trace of Irishness. It is, essentially, a love story, with beautiful descriptions of landscape and climate. I don’t often read a book with a film in mind, but I expect to see this on the screen one day, as it has a very filmic, epic quality.

My rating: 8

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Con subtítulos en español: Segundo Lopéz aventurero urbano (1953)

I have recently discovered that the Instituto Cervantes sponsors free access to Spanish movies on Vimeo, for a period of 48 hours per film. They are streamed through Vimeo, with English and Spanish subtitles. I don’t really know much about Spanish or Latin American film (or any film, for that matter) and my awareness of Spanish directors or actors is very limited. Nonetheless, I’ve been watching a few of these with the Spanish subtitles on. At times I have to stop the video if there’s too much text, or if I think that there might be something particularly important happening. I’d be doomed trying to watch these films without subtitles, but so far, I’ve been able to keep up as long as the Spanish subtitles are there.

Segundo Lopez is about an honest, good, somewhat naive man who leaves his village after his mother dies. He befriends a street urchin, El Chirri who at first tries to rob him, but they decide to stick together. Segundo gradually goes through his money, buying presents for people he befriends. Segundo and Chirri become close to Marta, a young, ill woman living in their boarding house. Eventually they lose everything and decide to move on.

The film was directed by Ana Mariscal, a leading actress in Franco’s Spain. She also stars in the movie as Marta. It is filmed in black and white, with consciously old-fashioned lighting.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-28 February 2021

Heather Cox Richardson Her ‘Reconstruction’ series continues on January 28th where she discusses the ‘switch’, where the Republicans went from supporting the idea of every American (man) being able to get ahead, to the protection of Big Business. In order to pay for the Civil War, the Republicans introduced taxation (yes, the Republicans) and erected a tariff wall around the whole US economy. When the economy soured, the argument (that we still hear trotted out today) was that the economy and business had to be protected so that the little man could be employed. There’s a fair bit of economics here, but I’ve always wondered when the Republican/Democrat switch occurred.

The Daily (NYT) Down here in the Southern Hemisphere, we have been watching the icy storms in Texas with disbelief. Texas?! The Blackout in Texas (February 17) has an interview with someone huddling in their icy house, having charged their phone in the car, and then another energy journalist with the NYT.

In A Battle for the Soul of Rwanda, they look at the current situation of Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of Hotel Rwanda, who is currently facing terrorism charges in Rwanda. I feel disappointed that things seem to be becoming more repressive in Rwanda- I was very impressed with the beauty, cleanliness and apparent reconciliation in the country..

Conversations (ABC) Australians are very familiar with Dr Norman Swan and his Coronacast podcasts, but most of us had not heard of his son, journalist Jonathan Swan until his Axios interview with Donald Trump. Jonathan Swan now has a podcast How it Happened and in this Conversations episode Trump’s Last Stand Richard Fidler talks with Jonathan Swan about Trump, and the journalistic environment in the Trump White House.

How It Happened And so of course, I then listened to Jonathan Swan’s podcast How It Happened. It is in five episodes. He argues that there is a direct line between Trump’s premature declaration of victory on Election Night and the invasion of Congress on January 6. He goes through Trump’s clutching at a new legal team, his rupture with Barr and Pence, and finishes with a very detailed analysis of what happened on January 6 from the point of view of the congressmen. Unfortunately, instead of having named sources, he is having to work with “deep backgrounding” where he can use the information given to him, but not identify the source. Nonetheless, the series gives a good fly-on-the-wall retelling of post-election Trump antics.

Background Briefing (ABC) Down in leafy Mt Eliza, there was an ashram led by Russell Kruckman. The chilling secrets of a Melbourne guru is a pretty typical cult-story, complete with manipulation, exploitation and sexual abuse. The chilling secrets of a Melbourne guru spends more time than it should on even questioning whether this is a cult.

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Phosphorence’ to….

I haven’t read the starting book for Six Degrees of Separation in March. It’s Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence and it’s sitting beside the bed unread. In fact, I had to look up what phosphorescence actually IS and I find that it is a sort of light. So, for the March Six Degrees, I’ll go with the theme of ‘light’. You can read the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website but essentially it’s a form of trigger association based on the books that you have read. So, thinking of light….

I really like John Banville’s intelligence and the way that he makes you work hard as a reader. In Ancient Light, he effortlessly handles two narrative lines, while expanding your vocabulary. I must confess that I didn’t realize that it was part of a trilogy – and a trilogy that I had read, no less!- and I felt rather foolish when I realized that the books were all related.

I was rather less impressed by Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light, a collection of short stories arranged around three themes: Heat, Water and Light. It was a bit of a ‘curate’s egg’ of a collection- very good in parts, but some stories made less of an impression.

I read Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark before I started writing this blog. Set on a lighthouse on Bruny Island, it is a story within a story where an aspiring author returns to the lighthouse once tended by her great-great-grandfather and decides to write about her great-great aunt. There are lots of descriptions of landscape and reflections on history.

M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is set on a lighthouse, too, but this time in the 1920s on the Western Australian coast. A husband returns from the war a changed man, and his wife Isabel cannot understand the existential changes that have been wrought on her husband. Their marriage is wracked by tragedy and loss. There’s a Jodi-Picoult-esque ethical dilemma, which was concluded a little too rapidly for my liking.

There was no rushed ending in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. The third of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, it’s the brilliant culmination of a marvellous work of historical fiction. You know how the story is going to end (not well), but Mantel keeps you engrossed right to the last page.

And finally, someone who could barely remember seeing light: Helen Keller. Light in My Darkness is her compilation of autobiographical writing. Originally called My Religion, it’s pretty turgid in places and I found it easier to skip the chapters on Swedenborgianism. Frankly, I wouldn’t bother reading this and instead read Dorothy Herrman’s Helen Keller: A Life.

So, mainly fiction this month and a rather crabby collection of reviews. Rather ironic really, given that the theme I had chosen for myself was ‘light’!

‘Summer’ by Ali Smith

2020, 379 pages in large font

There! I’ve finished the whole quartet. I must admit that I really wanted to enjoy this multi-volume work. I liked the idea of it being written in real-time, and I enjoy series that have an over-arching shape, as well as the detail of the component works. But, I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed.

I had expected there to be more integration between the four books, but the previous three were only loosely connected – indeed, so loosely connected that you wondered whether you had imagined the inter-relationships. I sat up and started taking more notice in this book, once the connections were more overt. “Am I getting too old to read books like this?” I wondered, as I found myself having to flip back pages or dig out reviews of the earlier books (or the actual book if I had it) to remind myself who characters were, and how they fitted into the story. I can imagine that the problem would be further magnified if you read them over four years, instead of over a few months as I have done.

New characters were introduced in this final volume: a rather unlovely brother (Robert) and sister (Sacha) Greenlaw, who live with their mother Grace, while their father lives next door with his new partner Ashley, who has stopped speaking. Characters from the earlier books reappear, but now in a different timespan. Daniel Gluck and his neighbour Elizabeth pop in from Autumn, while Art (in Nature) and Charlotte from Winter make another appearance. Then there is the ubiquitous SA4A security firm, which lurks in the background, refugees, Brexit- and now the Australian bushfires as well as COVID. (My stomach sinks at the thought of all the books that are going to be written with COVID and lockdown as their premise. Oh spare me.) As with the other books, there is a dual (and often triple) narrative being worked out, separated in time, with Summer featuring WWII and the plight of interned ‘enemy aliens’ and resistance workers. Once again, we have another female artist- this time the film-maker Lorenza Mazzetti- and the Shakespeare play this time is A Winters Tale.

There is beautiful writing in this book, and eminently quotable political commentary but it still felt very heavy-handed. Having read all four, I think that they would be best read one straight after the other in order to pick up on the links and connections, although I don’t really know that the prospect particularly appeals to me.

This is not a multi-volume saga like Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, or the Poldark series. Family does not lie at its basis, although networks and connections and kindness are important. The politics is shout-ier, and the books crackle with current events (that will soon no longer be current). You sense that Ali Smith could just go on producing one volume a year forever because there is no overarching plot. I don’t begrudge the time in reading any of them, but it was not the overwhelming reading experience that I thought it would be.

My rating: 8/10 (I did like the way that the connections became more apparent)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘En el tiempo de las Mariposas’ por Julia Alvarez

In the Time of the Butterflies

1994, translated into Spanish 2001 and revised 2005, 424 p.

I’m rather proud of reading this in Spanish- just look at the number of pages! Let us not speak too much of the fact that it took me six months and the reality that each page would have between 5-10 words underlined and written out with the English translation. I read it: I understood it, and I would have enjoyed it in English just as much.

“Las Mariposas” was the code-name for the four Mirabel sisters, Patria, Minerva, Maria Theresa and Dede who, for different reasons and to differing extents, were involved in clandestine actions against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (El Jefe) in the Dominican Republic. The whole of the family came under official suspicion, and two of the girls and their husbands and father were imprisoned at various times. In 1960 three of the sisters were assassinated in an ambush that was made to look like a car accident, leaving their sister Dede to guard their legacy. They are today recognized as symbols of social justice and feminism, and their images appear on the Dominican 200 peso bill and on a mural painted on the huge 137ft obelisk that Trujillo constructed to commemorate changing the name of the capital city from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo (it reverted to its original name in 1961 after Trujillo himself was assassinated). That’ll show you, Trujillo.

The narrative of the book switches between 1994 in the voice of the remaining sister, Dede, and chronological chapters told in the varying voices of Minerva, Maria Teresa and Patria. Although clearly Alvarez has researched the topic thoroughly, it is historical fiction with invented conversations and scenarios. The description of Minerva and Maria Teresa’s imprisonment was chilling, and the suffocating presence of male lust dressed up in military costumes is palpable.

I’m particularly pleased that I was able to read a book that was not translated for language learners, but for Spanish-speaking readers. At times I was frustrated by the presence of so many synonyms, but of course any literary text written in English would vary its vocabulary too, avoiding the repetition that language learners hold onto life a life-raft.

So – it may have taken six months, but it was well worth-while!

My rating: if I had read it in English, I would have rated it 8

Sourced from: purchased from Book Depository.