Movie: Destroyer

Counting up on Wikipedia, Nicole Kidman’s filmography comes out at more than 60 movies.  She can be forgiven, then, for the occasional dud. But Destroyer isn’t a dud, and she is brilliant. Told in present day, where Kidman plays haggard, dysfunctional cop Erin Bell, the film flashes back where she plays that same cop some 30 years earlier, operating undercover in a gang that holds up a bank with tragic consequences.  There’s a fair bit of violence in the film, both in the present day and flashback sequences, and rather too much of ‘old’ Kidman staring impassively at the camera. The makeup is excellent, as ‘young’ Kidman doesn’t look all that different to how she looked 30 years ago in her early films.  Certainly, there’s little of the cool sophistication of many of the characters she tends to play now.

My rating: 4 stars

‘The Glad Shout’ by Alice Robinson

The-Glad-Shout-Alice-Robinson

2019, 310 p

This book opens right in the middle of the action, with Isobel clutching onto the arm of her husband Shaun, with her daughter Matilda clamped to her hip. They are in what reads like the MCG in Melbourne, which has been turned into an emergency evacuation centre after Melbourne has been lashed by a destructive storm. Set in a near future, encroaching sea levels have poisoned bayside gardens and lap the boulevards along the bay, and with storm damage making places uninsurable, the suburbs have become increasingly derelict and dangerous.  We have seen flashes of this in our news already: the Louisiana Superdome stadium after Hurricane Katrina, the huge waves crashing onto the Malecon in Havana Cuba, people sitting on their roofs in Queensland floods, awaiting rescue. In The Glad Shout, Robinson sets her story after the consequences of climate change have come crashing, literally, into Melbourne. Tasmania, which has heeded the perils of climate change, is still safe; Western Australia has finally seceded, and the other states are closing their borders against the climate refugees who want to join family members interstate and escape this climate nightmare.

The book has two narratives, told in alternating chapters. The present-day chapters, written in the present tense, have Isobel having to fend for herself in the stadium and finally making the decision to leave, putting her own life and that of her daughter into the hands of people-smugglers. We’ve seen this scenario too: people crammed onto dinghies with insufficient food and water, the lifejackets and the oil slick of dysfunctional engines.

The other narrative is flashback to Isobel’s tense relationship with her mother Luna, her sometimes ambivalent love for her husband Shaun, her guilt over her own mothering of Matilda. Her mother Luna, who had purchased the house that was swamped by floodwaters, was a real-estate agent and property investor. She placed great store on possessions and wealth, and she grieved intensely when Isobel’s brother, Josh, left home. Much of the flashback sections is involved with the nuances and Isobel’s sense of grievance over the people who surround her, and her conflicted relationship with motherhood, both as daughter and mother herself.

There’s always a risk in having double narratives running through a novel. Too often, as in this case, one is more compelling than the other, and so the reader feels a sense of impatience at having to wade through this section before reaching the next. I tired of the flashbacks, which bordered on the banal, and rather implausibly, they increasingly found their way into the present-day-disaster section as well. I suspect that the author herself has young children, and perhaps its my middle-agedness that makes me impatient of her obsession with her birth-experience with Matilda: something that is only a small part of the relationship between mother and child, in the long run. I wouldn’t presume to know what those exhausted, bedraggled mothers we see on television stumbling ashore from refugee boats had been thinking on the journey. But I suspect that they haven’t been mentally rehashing the slights and annoyances of their relationship with their mother, or castigating themselves for their ambivalence over their own motherhood.

On the other hand, I liked her celebration of  women’s strength in an emergency. I liked the politics of climate change and refugee policy being brought into the personal realm, and her exploration of the instincts of maternity, survival and communality in the midst of disaster.  I think that these will be the things that I take away from the novel, and that will keep it memorable. I just wish that there had been less of the emotional angst over relationships and human frailty.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 16-25 May 2019

sausagesizzle

Bunnins Sausage Sizzle Wikimedia

History Listen. We’ve just had an election here in Australia, and just about the only commentary that I can bear to listen to at the moment is the History Listen’s ‘Unauthorized history of the sausage sizzle.’ More than just the democracy sausage, it includes Lions and Bunnings sausage sizzles and a brief history of the humble snag.

 

 

Somewhat more serious is their episode ‘Escape from Iran‘ where the narrator tells her mother’s story of escaping from Iran after the revolution on account of her Baha’i faith, and the family’s life in Australia.

Grenfell_Tower_fire

Grenfell Tower Fire Source: Wikimedia

The Documentary (BBC) This is a wonderful trove of podcasts! Flat 113 at Grenfell Tower is a wonderful (if rather distressing) piece of story telling about the fire that engulfed the 14th floor of the Grenfell Tower building in London. Taking just one floor (and yes, I know that Flat 113 was on the 14th floor, even though the numbering suggests otherwise- just a symptom of the questionable renovation of this public housing), the podcast traces through the sequence of events and mis-steps that led to several deaths in Flat 113.

Order!Order! is a look back at the Brexit question. Somehow 31 October is drawing closer again and still the whole sorry saga goes on.

Bolivia’s Mennonites, Justice and Renewal tells the story of the extremely conservative Mennonite communities who have established themselves in Bolivia since the 1920s. Almost Amish in appearance, they speak a form of low German, and they eschew modernity (although, as the documentary points out, there are now break-away communities which take a more liberal and modern approach).  In 2009 more than 100 women and children reported rapes within the community, for which a group of men were convicted, but within the traditional Mennonite groups there are attempts to have the sentences overturned.

Slavery’s Untold Story. Did you know that the Cherokees held slaves? After the Civil War, these slaves were liberated as ‘freemen’, but in recent years as people of Cherokee origin are encouraged to reconnect with their culture, a document from the 1860s is crucial in establishing claims to be admitted as full members of the Cherokee tribe. The waters are muddied by the casino money and entitlements that attach to Cherokee identity, and prejudices against African American appearance amongst people who also hold Cherokee heritage.

99% Invisible. From the 1950s up until the collapse of Communism, Russian theatre-goers were exposed to a steady diet of Bollywood movies. Part of it was that the Russian government wanted an alternative to Hollywood, but this documentary suggests that there might have been cultural affinities between Russia and India as well.  From Bombay with Love is well produced and interesting.

New Books in History  The podcasts here are very low-tech, and involve a historian talking about their recently released book. In Reforming Sodom: Protestants and Gay Rights, Heather R. White looks at both the liberal, reforming Christianity in the UK and US of the 1970s onwards (think: Unitarian Universalism and ‘Love Finds a Way’; the churches’ response to Stonewall etc) , and conservative Pentecostal Christianity of more recent decades (think Israel Folau), and their differing responses to homosexuality.

 

‘ Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli

Lost+Children+Archive

2019, 400 p.

Hailed as “a vital work for the Trump era”, Lost Children Archive is a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Valeria Luiselli’s non-fiction essay Tell Me How It Ends. In both her essay and this novel, there is a road-trip across the states of America: a genre familiar to Australian readers through American film and television and explored in our own films (think Mad Max, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and literature (think perhaps Rabbit Proof Fence, and most recently Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View). Both Luiselli’s essay and the novel are concerned with the fate of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into America, an issue thrown into the author’s own personal spotlight after volunteering to act as an interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking entry to the U.S. and writ large by Trump’s mantra of Building the Wall.  The essay Tell Me How It Ends was named for her daughter’s pleading to know how the story of these unaccompanied children ends, and already the crossover between the fictional and nonfictional works is blurred. It combines the personal and the political, and among other things, is about story-telling and story tellers.

The Lost Children Archive has resonances of W. E. Sebald’s work, with its integration of photographs and documents. The narrative is structured as an archive in itself. The book is divided into four parts. Its chapters reflect seven archive boxes that stowed in the boot of a car that is carrying an unnamed woman and her husband, and their two children, across the southern border of the US. The two children are not related by blood, each coming from their parent’s previous relationship, but they are considered “our” children and despite (and perhaps because of?) the difference of five years in their ages (10 and 5) they are very close. Sitting in the back seat of the car, day after day, the older boy in particular is aware of the tension between his father and his step-sister’s mother. They had met during a project to document the soundscapes of New York, he as a sound engineer and she as a journalist/producer, or as they distinguish it, one a documentarian, the other a documentarist.  The father wants to embark on a project capturing the lost sounds of the removal of Geronimo and the Apaches, while the mother has been drawn into looking for two little girls sent across the border with only a phone-number written onto the collar of their dresses. The son is aware, without being told, that this will be their last trip together as a family and he and his stepsister decide to run away and become like the lost children that Mama is so driven to find.

The first half of the book is narrated by the mother, and it comes as a surprise to have the narration taken over by her son half way through, and to revisit events and conversations from his perspective. Each section starts with an inventory of one of the boxes, listing  the books and articles, maps and CDs that have been gathered together, and the book itself ends with a series of Polaroid photographs that have – supposedly?- been taken on the trip.

This is a very clever, self-aware book that echoes influences as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,  Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and David Bowie’ Space Oddity. There is a long, twenty-page sentence near the end of the book that echoes Molly Bloom in Ulysses. A type of bibliography at the end references the resonances in the book, not direct quotations, many of which are translations of translations. Such reflexivity could be clunky and derivative in clumsier hands, but it’s not: it’s confident and deliberate, and a book of the heart and head.  All of my mental contortions that I’ve had  about a narrator inserting herself into the text dissolve here, with her very clear sense of what she is doing as a creator in a piece of autofiction , as distinct from memoir. As soon as I started reading it, I knew that I was in the hands of a very talented, intelligent writer. It’s been ages since I enjoyed a book as much.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

Tiffany_ExplodedView

2019, 191 p.

Carrie Tiffany seems to be writing about times at twenty year intervals. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was set in the 1930s, Mateship with Birds was set in the 1950s and here now with Exploded View we find ourselves in the outer suburbs in the late 1970s. As with her other books, this most recent book is made up of fragments and set in the present tense, with short sentences and a slow rhythm.  This time, however, Tiffany gives us a nameless adolescent narrator, who is fragile, dissociative and in trauma.

The title comes from the type of diagram that one finds in a car repair manual or instruction book, where an action or object is pulled apart, with the separate components shown separately.

example_exploded_view

Wikipedia

Our narrator knows cars well. Her stepfather (‘father man’) repairs cars in an unlicensed repair shop at the back of the block, but she is not his willing assistant. Instead, she sabotages his work, taking the cars out at night and damaging their motors. She does not speak and she reads the Holden workshop manual, not for what it says but for its depiction of what she cannot say.

If you had never touched an engine, if it were only a matter of looking in the manual, you would think it was a miracle, that it couldn’t have been made by a man…In the manual you can choose to look at the parts, or the air in between them. The air in between isn’t nothing; it isn’t blank. If you make yourself look for what’s not there the empty spaces become parts themselves. (p. 27)

The narrator avoids naming the trauma, but she tells it in “the air between” the parts. Father man is violent and abusive, and her impotent mother turns a blind eye. Her brother is irrelevant. The longest part of the book is taken up with a rather pointless road trip taken across the country where they drive, drive, drive and sleep in the car at night. At night, the darkness comes.

Threaded through the book is a sense of menace, but there is no plot or climax as such. It reminded me of Sonia Hartnett’s disquieting work with which it shares an adolescent narrator, quivering tension and long silences.

I loved Carrie Tiffany’s earlier books, but I was disappointed in this book. Tension held for a length of time becomes excruciating, and I felt that way about this book.  It would have been better as a short story.

AWW2019I have added this book to the Australian Women Writer’s database.

Exhibition: Cold War Games

cold-war-games-2

Royal Historical Society of Victoria, 239 A’Beckett St ( cnr. William St opposite Flagstaff Gardens) Closes 4 June 2019 Open weekdays 10a.m-4.00 p.m. Gold coin donation.

The 1956 Melbourne Olympic games were promoted and remembered as ‘The Friendly Games’, but they were permeated by political currents that are perhaps most easily seen at a distance. Of course, 1956 was right in the midst of the Cold War, when communists were supposedly hiding under our beds and secret services on all sides were active. 1956 was a politically febrile time and several countries boycotted the games over global incidents: Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted in response to Israel’s invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis; and Netherlands, Cambodia, Spain, and Switzerland boycotted the games after the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. Communist China withdrew just two weeks out from the Games because Taiwan was attending.

Quite apart from any rivalry in the sporting arena, there was rivalry between the various secret services. Australia did not want Russia and its large contingent to boycott the games, and so America was asked not to send CIA. They did, of course, with the aim of encouraging defections to America, with all the attendant propaganda benefits.  The Australian secret services were active too, keeping a close eye on the leftist groups here in Melbourne, and rather futilely using the Petrovs (who had at this stage defected to Australia) to identify various Russian political actors and spies.

But the political tension did spill over into the sporting fields as well, most particularly in the swimming pool in the Hungary vs. Soviet Union water polo teams. It was an ugly game, culminating in a Hungarian player leaving the pool with blood streaming from his face (making sure that the newspapers got good pictures) until the game was called early with a 4-0 Hungarian victory.

Given the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, American Cold War agents particularly targeted Hungarian athletes with blandishments to defect. There’s a curious cable sent from Melbourne to New York, talking about a VFL team touring America to play an exhibition match after the Games, but being reluctant to do so because they were being watched by fans and followers. Given that the VFL season was well and truly over, and the MCG filled to pussy’s bow with Olympic spectators, this might seem strange.  But this is a coded telegram: the ‘Aussie footballers’ were in fact Hungarian athletes and the ‘fans and followers’ were the KGB minders. Many of the Hungarian defectors joined the American Freedom Tour, which travelled America under the sponsorship of Sports Illustrated Magazine: a real propaganda coup.

There’s the story of a romance between American hammer throw champion Hal Connolly and Czechoslovak discus throw champion, Olga Fikotová, and the defection of a female Ukrainian ship steward from the Russian team ship the Gruzia. These stories, which are featured in this exhibition, provide a narrative thread and a human interest to a topic which might otherwise be weighed down with diplomatic and clandestine machinations on the one hand, or sporting hoop-la on the other.

The exhibition, researched by Harry Blutstein who has published a book of the same name in 2017, is fairly print-heavy and thus takes a bit of attention. I first saw half of it in April but had to leave it half-way through because a talk I was attending was starting, then today a grizzling four-month old granddaughter didn’t share her Nana’s enthusiasm for an exhibition (thanks to the other Nanas who emerged from offices and reading rooms for a cuddle!) Baby asleep, I was able to return and finish reading, and it was well worthwhile. It does have a Melbourne focus, with images of the buildings specially constructed for the Games and some memorabilia, but the exhibition has a much broader focus.  It’s a completely different view of the Melbourne Olympics, and one that you think “Well, of course…” when you remember the political influences of the time.

If you’re interested in hearing Harry Blutstein talk about his book (which forms the basis of the exhibition), he was interviewed at the 2017 Melbourne Writers Festival and can be heard on Big Ideas here.

 

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 May 2019

Forest 404 (BBC) I don’t know quite how I got onto this, but somehow or other it ended up on my phone. I don’t even quite know what it is: I think that there are stories, (of which this Episode 1 is the first) that are linked to soundscapes and related talks. Anyway, this first episode is set in the 24th century when a librarian, Pan, is charged not with conserving but destroying sound files from the 21st century, which are taking up too much storage space. After the Cataclysm (which waits to be explained), data storage space was recognized as finite, so all the sounds of the past, e.g. a Barak Obama speech, the words when man first walked on the moon etc, are being expunged. Then Pan comes across a recording of a rainforest, and even though she doesn’t know what it is, she finds herself drawn towards it.  I don’t know if I’ll persist with this, but the concept of ‘sound’ as artefact is ideal for the podcasting medium.

99% Invisible. Pharmaceutical companies direct their energies towards diseases where they are going to make profits – big profits. This program, Orphan Drugs is actually from November 2018, and it looks at the drugs that pharmaceutical companies decide not to continue manufacturing, even though they may have been life-changing for a small number of people. It tells the story of Abbey Meyers, whose son suffered with Tourette’s Syndrome, who finds herself as an advocate for orphan drugs, trying to lobby government and drug companies to continue to make these no-longer-lucrative drugs available. Of all people who stepped in to help with Jack Klugman and his brother, from Quincy M. E. (remember that?) who used the program to highlight the issue. But, as Abbey Meyers, be careful what you wish for. The resultant Orphan Drugs legislation, which she spent decades lobbying for, has had unintended consequences.

dopesick_macyConversations (ABC) And while we’re on the subject of Big Pharma, the estimable Richard Fidler interviewed Beth Macy, the author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America.  In ‘Taking the Pulse of a Dopesick Nation‘, she tells the story of how drugs like oxycontin etc. were falsely marketed as being slow-release and therefore non-addictive, as the memory of the dangers of prescription medicine receded and ‘pain’ began to be seen as a treatable condition in its own right again in the 1990s.  The information that came with these prescription drugs warned not to break the coating of the pill, because, as it happened, it was only the coating that made them slow release. Ironically, she sees the only solution in treating addiction as a medical problem and using other drugs as a way of treating the ‘dopesick’ feeling after coming off these drugs, because abstinence and all-or-nothing thinking just doesn’t work. Very interesting and makes you disgusted at the lack of morals of Big Pharma.

While I was there at Conversations, I also heard Susan Orleans (who wrote The Orchid Thief) telling the story of the burning of the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986 – something that certain escapes my memory. Did you know that when books are wet, they either need to be dried out within 48 hours or frozen? That’s how thousands of books ended up in meat storage freezing facilities for years. You can hear it at ‘When the Library Burned

And although there was nothing particularly new in it, ‘How a milkmaid with cowpox changed history‘ was quite interesting in that it brought together a lot of stories about disease and vaccination.

Background Briefing The Night Parrot is the Holy Grail for bird watchers, and there have been a number of programs on the ABC celebrating the ‘discovery’ of the Night Parrot by bird watcher John Young. But in this program ‘Flight of Fancy: the mysterious case of the Night Parrot’, there are now real questions about the veracity of this ‘find’, and I can only assume that Our ABC did its legals before broadcasting this program, made by Ann Jones from ‘Offtrack’.

The Documentary BBC World Service Well, this was depressing listening from two very different places in the world. ‘Polands Partisan Ghosts‘ is about the adoption by the far right of the ‘Cursed Soldiers’ who were responsible for murder and arson in the time immediately following the Second World War. ‘India’s Forbidden Love‘ is about inter-faith and inter-caste marriages that are running up against the prejudices of the past, fanned by increased religious/national identity. Poland and India couldn’t be more different, but the rise of intolerance cloaked in nationalism right across the world frightens me.