‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

2021, 288 p.

I must be getting cynical. You look at the headlines and peep over the edge of the cauldron of the bubbling social media brew, and you know that you’re going to see all this moulded into fiction within the writing-and-publishing lead time that drives the book industry. MeToo, neurodiversity, gender, bushfires, climate change: I bet that readers in the future will be able to predict the publication date of a book by its theme (although, I do wonder if that hasn’t always been the case). Capturing the zeitgeist, yes, but there’s a narrow line that separates it from a form of political bashing-over-the-head. Perhaps it was because I’ve just watched the contortions of COP26, or been listening to a series of podcasts on Australia’s response to the climate crisis, or because I read The Guardian, but Richard Powers’ Bewilderment felt too heavy-handed for me.

Theo Byrne is a widowed astrobiologist, working on a long-term government-funded project programming simulations of life on other planets, spinning tales of other forms of life and society amongst the immensity of space. These are the stories he tells his son Robin, a brilliant and neurodiverse nine-year old, whose obsessions and volatility have led to his threatened expulsion from school. Both father and son are left bereft by the death of Alys, an environmental activist, in a car-crash two years before the story starts. When the school issues an ultimatum about medication or expulsion, Theo turns to a family friend who is working on a technology called Decoded Neurofeedback. Cocooned into an MRI machine, Robin learns to control his mental waves to approximate those of another subject, who just happens, in an ethical WTF, to be his mother whose neural records had been retained from her participation in earlier iterations of the technology. He adapts quickly to the learning, and begins to draw on not only his mother’s emotional and intellectual brain waves, but also on her world view and even, at a stretch, her relationship with Theo, Robin’s father. Already attuned through his father’s work to the contingency and explosive variation of life – in all its forms – Robin’s awareness of the climate crisis is heightened to the point of anguish. Publicity about the Decoded Neurofeedback technology catapults Robin into social media celebrity which, driven by his mother’s environmental passion that he is now channelling, he uses as a platform for activism in a world hurtling towards climate oblivion.

I hadn’t noticed the ‘Science Fiction’ designation on the back cover of this book, and when I heard someone else talking about it, I had felt that it sounded a bit implausible. However, for me, science fiction is most accessible when it is written in near-time, with the emphasis on the human rather than the science. I know that neurofeedback is increasingly being drawn into the medical and psychological mainstream, and there are many characters in this book who are familiar: a Donald Trump-type President (maybe even the Real Donald Trump) who tweets in capital letters and exclamation marks, and a Greta Thunburg- type character, an “oval-faced girl in tight pigtails”, called Inger Alder, who inspires Robin to action. There’s a nice little twist in the title with the inclusion of “wild”, reflecting its environmental theme. Also running through the book are allusions to Daniel Keyes’ short story Flowers for Algernon, but perhaps these references should have come with asterisks and links to an online bookshop, because it is important to the plot which becomes patently obvious to anyone who has read Keyes’ story or seen the film ‘Charly’ which it spawned. Although, perhaps it would have been more powerful if you were unaware of these antecedents.

The book is written from Theo’s point of view, with both Robin’s and his wife Ally’s words in italics, as if they are coming from somewhere else. There are no chapters, but instead a series of short episodes, each marked by capital letters in the opening sentence, giving the book a filmic character. Emotionally it is powerful, just as Keyes’ short-story was, leaving you with a hollowness at the loss of passion and intelligence, as the world and the protagonists of the book subside into a dark silence.

Much of the science in this book passed me by, but it is a testament to Powers’ writing that, instead of repelling, its complexity helped build a cosmological imagination, against which our heedlessness and intransigence in relation to climate and the environment seems particularly bone-headed. I regret, though, that the book veered into telling and not showing. It was just a bit too didactic for me.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I read this book because it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. It merits its place on the shortlist, but its inclusion validates my fears that the Booker Prize would lose its distinctively Commonwealth nature, as it is a very American book.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 8-15 December 2021

Democracy Sausage (ANU) Lying with a Smile takes us over to the UK with Elizabeth Ames, Board Director of the Britain-Australia Society, and Chair of the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London, to talk about Boris Johnson. How does anyone support this clown? Sleaze, lies, bombast and a complete failure to take responsibility for anything.


The Philosopher’s Zone (ABC) I don’t very often listen to this program but, knowing my newly-aroused interest in translation, my husband suggested that I listen to Yan Fu: China meets Western liberalism. Yan Fu was a late 19th century naval officer and writer who was fascinated with Western philosophy. His translations of works by Thomas Huxley, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and others were celebrated successes in China. However, in making these texts comprehensible to a Confucian culture, he has been accused of mistranslation – e.g. Huxley’s ‘Ethics of Evolution’ became translated as ‘Heaven’s Progress’. Still, he was hugely influential- in fact, Mao Tse-tung read his works in Yan Fu’s translation. At the end of his life, he eschewed Western liberalism and returned to Confucianism. I wonder what he would make of China today?

Women, the alt-right and the liberal centre is an episode from 1st August 2021. The promotion for this episode is “Why do women join white nationalist and other far-right movements?”. I’ve wondered that too. This episode features Louise Richardson-Self, lecturer in Philosophy and Gender Studies from the University of Tasmania, and Tracy Llanera, Research Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Society, University of Notre Dame. Neither of them have any time for the Alt-right at all. One of them has based her study on reading the comments on The Australian’s website, particularly the resistance to the idea of quotas in political representation.

History of Rome Podcast Episode 91- Marcus and Lucius and the Parthians. Antoninus favoured Marcus as his successor and gave him good opportunities to develop his bureaucratic skills, but because Antoninus didn’t go anywhere, neither did Marcus. He was attracted to Stoic philosophies, and when Antoninus died, it was Marcus who insisted that the terms of the will be complied with and that Lucius co-govern with him. Perhaps this way from a sense of duty, or perhaps because he realized that the empire was becoming too big for one man. Almost immediately war with the Parthians broke out. At this point, Mike Duncan backtracks to explain who the Parthians were i.e. they were one of the tribes that took over the Persian empire, which was very dependent on the Silk Road for its economic strength. As soon as Vologases IV of Parthia realized that there were two militarily inexperienced emperors in charge, the Parthians went to war. Episode 92 The Parthian War Severanius, the Governor of Cappadocia in Albania, on the front line was convinced by the prophet Alexander of Abonoteichus (whose Glycon cult was then as popular as the Christian cult) that he would have a stunning victory so he launched an attack against the Parthians, but he was defeated. It looked as if the Parthians would defeat Rome but Marcus shuffled generals and legions around, and sent the party boy co-emperor Lucius to take charge. Meanwhile the Antonine plague broke out, and there was unrest on the Danube border where the Goths were causing a refugee crisis. In Episode 93 The Marcomannic Wars, the tribes above the Danube, which had previously been kept weak by Rome’s divide-and-conquer strategy began joining together. The Marcomanni were just one of the tribes who began resisting Roman rule. Marcus had to take control of the legions himself, even though he was known more as philosopher than fighter. Fortunately for him the Miracle of the Lightning and then the Rain Miracle bolstered his reputation as the gods’ favourite. However, the Antonine Plague was running rampant through the legions, especially as they crossed back and forth across the empire to quell problems in the east, then back in the north and to make matters worse the Tiber flooded as well. As well, there was refugee pressure from people fleeing the Goths who were pushing down from the north.Then news came from the east of an uprising in Syria led by Avidus Cassius, a formerly loyal Senator who had been given Imperium over all of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Episode 94 Revolt and Meditations looks at Cassius’ revolt against Marcus in 175 AD. This might have been a case of ‘fake news’ because, now that Lucius had died, there was no clear succession because Marcus’ son Commodus was not old enough to take over. It is suggested that Cassius had heard from Marcus’ wife Faustina that Marcus was about to die, and that he declared himself emperor to forestall any civil unrest. Or not. Mike Duncan then goes on to talk about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a series of short notes to himself based on Stoic philosophy. Episode 95 The Beginning of the End takes us to Marcus Aurelius’ death and thus, the end of the Five Good Emperors. His son, Commodus (unfortunate name- it sounds like an invalid aid) was the first biological heir since Vespasian back in 79AD- all the rest of the emperors had been adopted sons. Marcus allowed Commodus to become a troop mascot, just as Caligula had been – never a good move. His father pushed him up the ladder, and became co-ruler with him (although Marcus retained ultimate authority). When Marcus died, Commodus was only 18. I’ve got a feeling that this isn’t going to end well.

Emperors of Rome Podcast. There’s a bit of an interlude with Episode LXVI – Fronto who was a senator appointed as tutor to both Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, but Marcus got more benefit from Fronto’s wisdom than his brother did. He tutored them in rhetoric and oratory and remained in contact with Marcus for the rest of his life. We know about their correspondence because 200 letters were recovered in the 19th century, having been written over by a council making use of good parchment. The episode features Dr Callain Davenport (ARC DECRA Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland). Episode LXVII Heir and a Spare introduces the two co-emperors Marcus and Lucius. Hadrian seemed to have a bad touch choosing heirs because they tended to die, so he hedged his bets by choosing two. Marcus was from Spain, continuing the heavy influence of Spain in imperial circles. They point out that in today’s British Royal family we see a similar pattern of Very Serious Heir and Playboy Spare (think Charles and Andrew; William and Harry). Episode LXVIII – Never Underestimate the Parthians The first threat the empire encounters comes from the east, where the long-time enemy of the Romans, the Parthians, make their move. They were encouraged by Alexander, who they liken to one of the cult leaders in Monty Python’s Life of Brian holding the shoe with a crowd following him. Still, he was a popular cult leader, so it was not unusual that he was convincing. The Parthians moved on Armenia first, then Mesopotamia. Marcus sent Party Boy Lucius to the front, where he acted more as supervisor than warrior. Episode LXX – The Marcomannic Wars sees Marcus go to the front himself. There had been a long standing fear of the people from the north (Dr Rhiannon Evans prefers ‘people’ to ‘tribe’), and it was to be a long term malaise, coming to a head two centuries later. The northern people first mounted in an incursion into Roman territory, then went on to invade Italy itself and at this point Marcus himself took charge.

‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

2021, 368 p.

As I have grown older, and as more images flood our screens, many of the mental images I used to have of disasters have changed. I always thought of a tsunami as one of those enormous waves that big-wave surfers challenge themselves against, only to see in the Boxing Day tsunami that inexorable advance of water which, although not particularly high, just engulfed everything in its path. Bushfires I envisaged and saw as a roaring furnace, but not that blood-red, sullen sky of Mallacoota. Likewise with earthquakes. I knew about the shaking, the crumbled buildings and the ruptured roads but I had never heard of liquefaction. But liquefaction is here in this book:

Liquefaction is a fascinating, frightening seismic phenomenon. When it occurs over large areas it behaves as quicksand, a natural hazard capable of swallowing people and vehicles, and causing subsidence in buildings. It is a cruel epilogue to upheaval. Just as the survivor of a seismic event grapples with injury, damage and ongoing aftershocks, as they attempt to reel in their runaway panic and rush to check on children and property, as they disconnect gas bottles and grapple with what has just happened, within those hectic minutes a rising tide of liquefaction might come to lurk beneath the surface, seeking to pour forth a second wave of destruction….

What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun, it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.

p. 277, 278

I knew from the title of this book that it was about the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Tom uses the five stages of an earthquake as the organizing structure for her memoir, but only the fourth stage deals directly with 22 February 2011. The earthquake is a rupturing, all engulfing moment in the narrative, but it only part of Tom’s own memoir of her family, written as a promise to her forty-three year old younger sister whose burial occurs in the opening pages. Michelle is the eldest of three children, but both her siblings have died, Meredith through melanoma cancer and her youngest brother, Paul, through suicide after a long struggle with schizophrenia. Michelle is very much the ‘golden child’ and her sister Meredith the scapegoat, and all three children are damaged by the toxic, inexplicable and warped relationship between the parents.

The five stages of the earthquake frame Michelle’s telling of this family trauma: Stage One- the secret straining and warping long before; Stage Two – the replacement of water in the fissures of the rock by air ; Stage Three- the forcing back of water into the cracked, expanded rock and the accumulation of elastic strain; Stage Four- the rupture of the earthquake and the release of energy in seismic waves; Stage Five – aftershock, sometimes for many years afterwards, dangerous in their ability to bring down already weakened structures.

Within these stages, the narrative is presented as short, non-chronological bursts, almost like rocks that grind against each other. Each segment is at most ten pages long; sometimes only one or two pages, and they jump back and forth. It is as if the narrative itself is moving under the surface, squeezing, forcing, with the pieces rubbing up against each other. It is not an easy read, emotionally or in terms of sense-making.

In another review I read recently, I came across the term ‘authorial hand-holding’. I think of the vignettes in this book, put into groups under an overarching structure, but without any clear organizing principles. There’s certainly no hand-holding going on here, and I wonder if the writer has eschewed authorial responsibility altogether -with the exception, perhaps, of the fourth, ‘earthquake’ section. Each separate vignette is carefully written in very polished, introspective prose but it is the reader who puts them together into a narrative. For me, it is the connections and transitions across the whole of a narrative that mark out good memoir writing, and I tend to think that this mosaic-type, pointillist style of assemblage baulks at that final step of integration and creation.

Perhaps I’m getting too old. Not only do I find such splintered writing difficult to read, but I’m also more jaundiced and less empathetic, perhaps, at reading ‘family trauma’. Is it that as I get older, everything is flattening out? Or is it that with time I am more aware that everyone has their wounds, their secrets, their weaknesses, their uglinesses as well as their unfulfilled intentions and their failed attempts? I keep wanting to wriggle out of the author’s shoes, in order to stand in those of the people she is judging. With age, I am less deafened by the howl of the child’s pain drowning out everything else, and I am listening for those other mutterings, those other pleadings. I think, perhaps, that I need to put family memoirs aside for a while.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

This will be my last Australian Women Writers Challenge book for 2021.

‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens

2020, 384 p.

If I had been the person who identifies the genre in marketing a book, how would I have classified this book? It starts off with a murder, moves into a sensitive depiction of neglect and isolation, interweaves evocative descriptions of landscape and nature, shifts towards being a coming-of-age novel and ends up in a court case. It is like five books in one, and I’m undecided whether it is a skilful mish-mash of genres, or whether it is a genuine attempt to move beyond the murder/courtroom genre by providing a protagonist with nuance, depth and change over time.

The chronological narrative shuttles between a court case and the backstory starting back in the early 1950s, gradually moving forward until the two timelines converge in 1969 with the discovery of the body of footballer and small-town Lothario Chase Andrews in the swamp. Accusations mount against Kya, the ‘Marsh Girl’, who lives alone in a shack in the North Carolina swamp marshes. In 1951, her mother walked out one day in her crocodile-skin shoes, leaving her five children to their violent, drunken father. Gradually Kya’s siblings leave home, unable to cope with their father’s beatings and neglect. At the age of six, she is left to fend for herself as her father disappears on days-long benders until he, too, disappears leaving Kya as a ten-year-old to make her own way. Able to negotiate the inlets and tides of the swamp, she earns enough money from fishing to buy bare necessities, but she does not attend school and ekes out a precarious, lonely existence. She is very much a child of the marsh, attuned to the rhythm of the tides, the turning of the seasons and the wildlife that surrounds her. The people of Barkley Cove know that she is living there, and she is shunned as ‘swamp trash’ by the people of the town, but as she grows older, she attracts the attention of two boys – Tate Walker and Chase Andrews – both of whom show remarkable restraint (at least initially) with a young, feral, unprotected girl living on her wits. Tate teaches her to read, and opens up to her an avenue by which she can draw, and write about and study the natural world that teems around her. Wary and self-sufficient, she is slow to trust either man, and as a reader you feel the latent menace of them both. Betrayal comes, as you know it must, but in different ways. When Chase Andrews’ body is found near an abandoned fire tower in the swamp, it seems to justify many of the prejudices of the people of Barkley Cove.

Of this ‘five for the price of one’ volume, I liked the landscape writing most. Delia Owens has written non-fiction environmental writing before, and she does it well. Not for nothing has she been likened to Barbara Kingsolver. The swamp is depicted as a living, breathing, moving body, and Kya is closely attuned to its movements and changes. I thought that the author captured well the fear that Kya and her siblings felt in the face of her father’s rages and neglect, and the petty and oblivious cruelties played out on her by the people of Barkley Cove. So did the book need a murder as well? For me, Owens could have rested on these two themes alone.

But if Owens was determined to have a murder and court-case, then she did write it well, even though it marked an abrupt change in pace and intent. The court case sections reminded me a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird, with its small-town setting and the rejection of a Mayella Ewell-type character, albeit in very different circumstances. I found the book a real page-turner at this point. I often rail about being left at the end of a crime book wondering ‘So who did do it?’ but there was no danger of that with this book. I just don’t know if the whole murder and its aftermath was necessary.

The part was was least convincing to me – and it’s an important plot development – is Kya’s transformation from a feral, illiterate child into a writer/scientist, with published works under her belt, and sufficient experience of the world to want to purchase comforts to make her shack more habitable without changing the outward appearance. Kya the child is plausible: Kya the adult is less so.

And so, how do I assess this book? I admit to sharing Jonathan Franzen’s wariness of a book emblazoned with an ‘Oprah Book Club’ sticker, and knowing that this book was endorsed as part of Reese Witherspoon’s book club did not necessarily endear it to me. I hadn’t noticed Tic-Toc book reviews until I searched for this book. Certainly the book has achieved best-seller status. Was the murder and court-case added to appeal to a wider audience? Or is this a book that moved beyond the two-dimensionality of many crime/court novels, just as I have often craved for them to do? I felt as if I was being buffeted around by the different genres that the book drew upon, even though most of them were done well in their own right. Perhaps it was the amalgamation of different types of writing that disconcerted me, leaving me feeling stuffed with too much plot.

My rating….a difficult one. I’d have to rate a book highly that has me sitting up in bed until 1.30 a.m. to finish it. And yet, and yet…. let’s go for 7.5

Sourced from: purchased as an e-book

Read because: Ivanhoe Reading Circle suggestion.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 1-7 December 2021

Emperors of Rome. I’m really enjoying this Australian podcast, with the interplay between the presenters, Dr Rhiannon Evans (from my very own La Trobe University) and Matt Smith. So I’m five years behind- doesn’t matter. Episode LII Hadrian the Little Greek goes through Trajan’s search for a successor. His wife was pushing for Hadrian, but Trajan wasn’t completely won over and made sure that Hadrian went through the usual career path (military, governor etc). As usual, Dr Rhiannon Evans is very concerned with sources, noting that with Hadrian we actually have a biography (however biassed) to draw on. Episode LIII Rome Welcomes Hadrian sees him take over power, although he got off to a bad start by having four prominent senators assassinated. Not a good start. He pulls back troops from Parthia, which doesn’t go down well either. Episode LIV There and Back Again (An Emperor’s Tale) sees Hadrian taking the scenic route of about four years to tour his empire, planting cities and planning building projects. While withdrawing troops into defensible areas, he fortified the walls to the north (Hadrian’s Wall) and south (in Africa). These walls were part of the cultural declaration of Roman power, and they made a finite line on a map as well as keeping the Army busy as peacekeepers. He finally finished off the Temple of Olympian Zeus, 638 years after it was started. Did I mention that Hadrian really liked Greece?

Temple of Olympian Zeus- Wikimedia

Episode LV What Hadrian Loves Best looks at the three things he loved most. First, building big buildings. He built the Temple of Venus and Roma in Rome itself (thus bringing together his love of Greek and Roman ideas) on the last bit of land remaining from Nero’s Golden Palace, and he rebuilt the Pantheon for the third time (it had burnt down twice). He didn’t tend to put his own name on buildings. His second love- well, maybe- was his wife Vabia Sabina, although it didn’t seem to be a particularly happy marriage. His third love was his young lover Antinous, who died in controversial circumstances although no-one seems to think that Hadrian was behind it. Some say it was form of self-sacrifice. Anyway, how he died is not that important, but Hadrian’s action in deifying him afterwards is, especially as it was the first time that someone outside the imperial family was deified, and very quickly. Episode LVI May His Bones Rot deals with Hadrian’s treatment of Judea and Jerusalem. Titus had wrecked Jerusalem, and Trajan was struggling to put down a Judean Revolt. He had to deal decisively with Judea. He sacked it, rebuilt it as a Roman City, forbade Jews from entering it and banned circumcision. No wonder Simon Bar Kokhbar rose up as a messianic leader (something that the Christians weren’t keen on) and a guerilla fighter. It was a bloody 3.5 year war, even for the Romans, and the market was flooded with Jewish slaves. Just as with the Daicians, they were completely dispossessed, but the Jews managed to keep their culture intact. Episode LVII Little Soul, Little Wanderer, Little Charmer brings Hadrian’s life to a tetchy close. He executed Apollodoris, the architect (who had mocked Hadrian, long before he was emperor, as the designer of ‘pumpkins’, given his penchant for domes) as well as Fuscus and Servianas. He took a long time to die.

Then, because History of Rome podcast has moved onto Antoninus Pius, I thought I’d catch him on Emperors of Rome as Well. In Episode LXV Anoninus Pius they deal with him in one episode (think, twenty two years of power for one measly episode). Still, he only became emperor in 138CE as a means of keeping the empire safe until Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus came of age.

Things the British Stole (ABC) This episode The Headhunters discusses the trade in decapitated, dried, and tattooed Māori heads that has led to their presence in museums across the world. The British, prompted by Joseph Banks, were an insatiable market for these ‘curiosities’, which were often obtained by other Maori tribes and exchanged for weapons. Meanwhile Ta moko facial tattoos, once synonymous with Maori urban gangs, are now becoming popular again as a sign of cultural identity. As with Australian indigenous artefacts and human remains, there is now an indigenous-led movement to get the objects and remains repatriated home.

Boyer Lectures 2021 (ABC) Soul of the Age- Shakespeare’s Women Of course, women were not allowed to act on the stage in Shakespeare’s time, so all the parts written for women were done so with a male actor in mind. He goes through the different types of women in Shakespeare’s work- comedic characters, gender-bender confusions, women showing up the men in wisdom and empathy, women ‘unsexing’ themselves to become like men. He considers Cleopatra to be the best female Shakespearean character. It’s a shame he spoiled it by drawing an unduly long bow at the end of his talk to linking Shakespeare’s women to “issues of domestic violence, predatory male behaviour in the workplace, be it on the factory floor or in Parliament House. It forces us to confront the issues of equal pay, equal opportunity and redefining of male/female roles in our society.”

The History of Rome Podcast Episode 85- Antoninus the Dutiful. At least Hadrian had worked out the succession before he died, and Antoninus was embraced by the Senate as being a Senator’s Senator. This is generally seen as the “Golden Age” of the Roman Empire, because it was stable, although in many ways Antoninus just kicked the can further down the road. He was 51 years old when he came to power and lived and thus ruled for much longer than people thought he would. He was called Antoninus Pius either because he lobbied hard for Hadrian to be deified (because it reflected on his own legitimacy) OR because he stopped persecuting individual senators. Either way, he didn’t travel around like Hadrian did and was an Italian homebody. Despite skirmishes on the borders (e.g. he had to build a second wall further north in Scotland called the Antonine Wall), there was no big war and continuity was valued. In Episode 86 Wealth and Class, he draws breath at last to compare life in Second Century Rome with late republican Rome (he last did this in Episode 28, so it has been a while). There was real inequality, with the wealth of the emperors increasing with expansion. Society was divided between slaves, freedmen, and free citizens of every economic class. Despite the influx of Jewish slaves after Hadrian razed Jerusalem, there was a low birth rate among the slaves, and it was a sign of status that you could afford to manumit your slaves. Freedmen remained in a client relationship with their former owners. Free farming families were pushed to the cities by large slave-owning families, although many peasants stayed in their birth place. The poor urban masses were provided with grain and games, but the lower middle class had to scape by. Actually, it all sounds a bit grim really. Episode 87- Thinking and Feeling goes through the pretty soul-destroying education system in the Second Century, where fathers no longer educated their sons but instead outsourced it first to educated Greek slaves, and then to schools. At primary level both girls and boys were drilled in the 3Rs, while secondary school concentrated on grammar and then rhetoric. It was all so stultifying that no wonder they looked to philosophy and religion for meaning. The Romans had always been polytheistic, and now Eastern mystical religions were added to the mix. Christianity was one of these cults (and lots of American Christians are taking offence in Mike Duncan’s comments feed about Christianity being called a cult). Christianity was particularly problematic because it insisted on just one god, and attracted the underclass, who were the majority. Philosophy attracted the higher, leisured classes, in particular the Stoics (where reason overcame emotion) and the Epicureans (who believed that if something caused you pain, you should stop doing it). Both philosophies led to peaceful citizens, but they were derided at the time. Episode 88- A Day in the Life is about everyday life in Rome, which is more or less why I started listening to this podcast in the first place. A Roman day went from sunrise to sunset, because there was no street lighting and the streets were dangerous and full of delivery vans at night. So all that sitting around in the bath-house and lounging over a meal took place during the day. Episode 89 Provincial Matters takes us on a whirlwind tour of the Antonine empire, following Hadrian’s route previously. There were more or less 42 provinces, which were either Senatorial or Imperial Provinces (i.e. under the direct control of the emperor, with legions stationed there). I really enjoyed this, although it would have been better if I had the map (on his webpage) with me while I was listening.

‘The Rúin’ by Dervla McTiernan

2019, 400 p.

As the author explains in a preface, the word ‘rúin’ can be read in English, or it can be given its Irish meaning. In Irish, it means secret, but it is also a term of endearment. All three elements of the word come in to this debut novel by Irish lawyer Dervla McTiernan, now resident in Australia.

The first one section of the book is set in Galway in1993. Cormac Reilly, a young and inexperienced Garda (policeman) responds to a call to a derelict house, where he finds a mother dead in bed, and two silent, neglected children. The oldest child, 15 year old Maude, is protective of her five-year old brother, insisting that they both be taken to the police station.

Twenty years later, Detective Cormac Reilly is back in Galway, after climbing the promotional ladder in Dublin. He has moved to be with his partner, Emma, who is undertaking a research project based there. His deployment to the Mill Street station is treated with suspicion, and despite his long and successful experience, he is relegated to reviewing cold cases. He is largely side-lined from a new case where the discovery of Jack Blake’s body in the river is treated as a suicide. Jack’s partner, Aisling is devastated – and McTiernan captures this so well – and his sister refuses to believe that it is suicide. And Detective Reilly finds that the two cases are connected: Jack was that five-year old silent boy in the derelict house twenty years ago; his sister Maude is still fighting for her brother – this time rejecting the easy solution of ‘suicide’ that the police are pushing.

Like many detective/crime novels, this book combines the plot line, the personal home life of the detective protagonist, and the office politics of the police station. The book is told in chronological sections, stepping forward a few days at a time. The focus of the action switches between Aisling and Maude in their fight to get Jack’s case investigated more fully. Cormac reviews that early case from his older, more experienced perspective, following up on the cold cases that he has been assigned, and negotiating the resentment and duplicity of his fellow police officers.

There are a lot of characters here, and often found myself stopping to think “Hold on, who’s that again?”. I’m not particularly good with television crime programs either, which have many small characters who may or may not be associated with the plot line, and I found it even harder to keep track of when I didn’t have a clear visual picture of the characters in my head.

Crime is not one of my favourite genres, and I have mainly read it because it has been a book group selection (which is the case here too). Despite my frequent confusion, I was certainly drawn into the story and I liked the way that you were not left reading and re-reading, not quite sure what the ending was and who ‘dun’ it. I found myself thinking of Peter Temple and Garry Disher, two Australian crime authors whom I have read, and I think that I preferred the more layered treatment of characters that McTiernan provides. She’s not writing against a toxic masculinity, the violence is less bloody but more intimate (and disturbing) and there is a depth to the ‘victims’ – indeed, she doesn’t see them as such, but more as individuals in their own right who have been dragged into a mess not of their making. If I’m going to read another crime novel, I think I’d like it to be one of hers.

I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

My rating: 7.5 maybe 8

Read because: CAE bookgroup.

Zooming history: Child Labour and Slavery

History Council of Victoria 25 November 2021

available online here: https://youtu.be/CPA_7m2XGEw

This seminar looked at the issue of child labour and slavery from three different perspectives, countries and time periods. Jane Lydon (University of Western Australia) spoke about the Swan River Colony, which commenced at much the same time (1829) as Caribbean slavery was coming under scrutiny in Britain. Swirling around the anti-slavery debates of the time was the trope that slavery and child labour in factory were analogous. In Swan River, land grants were made available on the basis of the number of people in the settler’s family, with wife and children of various ages being ‘worth’ a certain number of acres. The ongoing labour shortage in Western Australia meant that the most vulnerable children were targetted: child labour schemes and industrial schools were a source of young labourers, and indigenous children, especially girls, were taken into pastoral stations as domestic labour.

Claire Lowrie (University of Wollongong) took us to British colonies in the ‘Far East’ – Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia where the practice of Mui Tsai where young girls from impoverished Chinese families were taken far from their families and sold into a family to work as a servant. At the age of 18 they were either married off, became concubines, or went into prostitution. In 1878 the Po Leung Kuk (Society for the Protection of Women and Girls) was established in Hong Kong but it was only in the 1920s and 1930s that the League of Nations and the International Labour Organizations brought pressure to bear on Britain to bring an end to the practice.

Susie Protschky (Deakin University) used the photograph albums that Dutch soldiers were encouraged to create and send home to the Netherland from Indonesia during the Indonesian National Revolution (1945-9). Amongst these amateur photos could often be detected “Henkie”, the Dutch name given to young boys whose work as domestic servants around the barracks sometimes crossed the line to child soldier or army mascot. These photos were often taken to depict a form of domestic paternalism to their families back home.

A good final question to the panel went to the issue of agency (or lack thereof) amongst these children. Jane Lydon noted that Dr Shino Konishi is leading a project to develop an Indigenous Australian Dictionary of Biography, which will seek to recover many of these stories. Claire Lowrie observed that in many cases agency was limited, although building emotional connections, particularly with the woman of the house in the case of the Mui Tsai girls might bring some protection. Susie Protschky noted that the Indonesian boys could obtain food for their families from the Dutch, and that the practice of ‘swapping sides’ (which the Dutch saw as particularly dishonourable) was a way of maintaining agency.

An interesting panel, although unfortunately the sound quality was poor for Jane Lydon’s contribution. The perils of the webinar.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24-30 November 2021

Wikimedia Commons

History of Rome Podcast Episode 81 The Greekling introduces us to Trajan’s younger cousin, Hadrian. He had been adopted by and brought up in Trajan’s house after his father died when Hadrian was 10. Even though Trajan didn’t push him forward as a successor, Trajan’s wife Pompeia Plotina was very ambitious for him and may have even manipulated the news of Trajan’s death to present his accession as a fait accompli. He was Governor of Syria when Trajan died, and he immediately ordered the withdrawal of troops from the recently acquired territory in the east- a very unpopular decision. But this ‘highly aggressive defence’ of the empire by withdrawing from contested and unruly territories marked his rein, and really annoyed the Senate who took pride in ‘Big Empire’. Episode 82 Hadrian’s Walls – The Romans had a god called Terminus, the god who protected boundary markers, and Hadrian today is best known for his boundaries- especially Hadrian’s wall (which was originally white-washed with a very different appearance to today) and also in North Africa, although in both cases the walls were as much for population control as anything else.. Hadrian’s reign started off with him putting down the Second Judean War, where the rather anti-semitic sources depict the Jews as being the main aggressors. After putting it down and securing Judea, he decided to reign in the Eastern boundaries and even made a settlement with the Parthians- a very unpopular policy given that the Empire had reached its widest extent under Trajan. He got off to a bad start with the senate with a string of assassinations of four ex-consuls who were accused of conspiracy against him, and the senators feared a second Domitian. However, he worked hard to appease the senate, and instituted popular acts like debt forgiveness and lots of games to win over the populace. Unlike Trajan, he micromanaged the provinces, spending a lot of his reign travelling around checking on his governors. Episode 83 May His Bones Be Crushed deals with Hadrian’s homosexuality. In many ways Hadrian was not a “roman” Roman. He loved Greek culture, he was Spanish, and he had a beard. Two things that were immediately dispensed with on his death were: 1 the amalgamation of the 17 provinces into just 4, making Rome just another province 2. The Pan-Hellenic League, a project to support the Greek city states coming together to make a powerful state. He fell in love with Antinous, a young boy (14?), who became his constant companion. But Antinous drowned in Egypt, and the grieving Hadrian deified him (which really annoyed the Senate) and started a cult of Antinous which almost rivalled the cult of Jesus. In 132 there was the second Jewish-Roman war led by Simon bar Kokhba, who claimed the independence of Judea. Hadrian crushed the revolt, in an act of cultural genocide, burning the Torah, banning circumcision and renaming it Syria Palaestina. Every time his name was mentioned, Jewish people would add “May his bones be crushed”. Episode 84 Longing for Death sees off Hadrian, dying of congestive heart failure. He had been obsessed with security and peace during his reign, and now he had to choose a successor. He overlooked his great-nephew Fuscus, fearing that he would be another Nero. He really wanted Marcus Aurelius, but he was too young. So he chose sickly, nondescript Lucius instead who died before Hadrian did. Then he chose the fairly unambitious Antoninus Pius, on condition that he adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. He did indeed long for death, and died aged 62, after ruling for 21 years.

Democracy Sausage with Mark Kenny. Lies, damned lies, and election campaigns addresses the question of civility, cynicism and truthfulness in politics. With a very good panel of Judith Brett (emeritus professor La Trobe University), Bernard Keene (Crikey) and regular podleague Dr Marija Taflaga, they come to the conclusion that things went downhill with Tony Abbott, both as opposition leader and then Prime Minister. An interesting episode.

Stuff the British Stole (ABC) It’s a living thing this time, but it was stolen anyway. Best.Named.Dog.Ever. is about the Pekingese owned by Queen Victoria, who was given a dog stolen as part of the sacking of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in retaliation for the imprisonment and torture of diplomats in the wake of the Second Opium War in 1860. Check out the Old Summer Palace – it’s incredible, and is now more a tourist destination for Chinese people than western tourists because it has been incorporated into the Chinese ‘Century of Humiliation’ story. And what did Queen Victoria call her dog? You’ll have to listen yourself.

Boyer Lectures (ABC) Lecture 2: Soul of the Age- Order vs Chaos looks at Shakespeare’s ideas about power. Bell reminds us that Shakespeare was writing during tumultuous political times, with Mary Queen of Scots challenging Queen Elizabeth, and the Guy Fawkes terrorist plot. Shakespeare has ideas about Kingship (with Henry V his go-to guy), populism and order that he often had to drape in the clothes of past or distant civilizations. A better lecture than the first one- more specific, with better supported examples.

History This Week (History Channel) Here in Australia we always think that we are so important, and it’s always rather amusing to see how little we matter to the rest of the world. Freedom Rides Down Under looks at the Freedom Rides, based on the American example, that took off from the University of Sydney in late 1964/5 to visit outback towns in NSW. Anne Curthoys and Peter Read are featured, and there is sound footage from the time, capturing the anger in Walgett and Moree (rather oddly pronounced by the American host) when the embedded racism of the towns was publicized.

‘The Sweetness of Water’ by Nathan Harris

2021, 356 P.


I can remember when I was young, I sometimes deliberately stretched out the ending of a book because I feared that it was going to end badly for the characters. If I just left them there, suspended, the bad thing wouldn’t happen to them. Magical thinking, I know, but that’s very much the way that I felt when I only had about 50 pages of this book left to go. I would make excuses that my reading circumstances weren’t good enough- I was too tired, the light was poor, I’d enjoy it better tomorrow – but I know that it was because I feared the ending.

Over the last 18 months or so, I have been remediating my dearth of knowledge about American history by listening to Heather Cox Richardson’s history videos on Facebook. I really knew very little about the Reconstruction era: that 13 year period between 1863 and 1877 immediately following the American Civil War. The whole concept of a civil war chills me, with the contortions of morality and identity that must take place in order to be able to fight someone who shares language, place, experience. And then when it stops- what then? How do you step back from that?

Old Ox is a small town in Georgia, staunchly Confederate during the war, and resentful and broken afterwards. Emancipation has seen formerly enslaved people suddenly free, but without resources, money or plans. Many of them stay in Old Ox, some still living and working for their former owners, others building shanties under the eaves and in the alley-ways of the buildings in the town. Landry and Prentiss are hiding out in the woods where they are discovered by George Walker, a small-scale white farmer. They agree to work on George’s farm, planting peanuts, in return for shelter in the barn, food and a wage. They had been enslaved on a nearby plantation, and the cruelty of the owner, Ted Morton, had stripped Landry of speech. The brothers dream of finding their mother, who had been sold, and now that they can earn some money, they have a chance of doing so.

George’s sudden plan to plant peanuts is triggered by his need to turn his hand to something. He and his wife Isabelle are mute in their grief for their son, lost in the war. Never particularly close, now Isabelle in particular is engulfed by mourning, and largely oblivious to the two men in the barn, and George’s absence working the land by day.

Suddenly their son Caleb returns. He has sustained facial injuries, which we learn are not a battle injury, but instead meted out for desertion. His childhood friend- indeed, more than a friend- August had visited Caleb’s parents earlier to inform them of their son’s supposed death, and their secret sexual relationship starts up again. When they are discovered, a whole cascade of events is triggered, leading to George, Caleb and Prentiss fleeing north.

This is a beautifully told book. It has a slightly formal, 19th century lilt to the language and it’s hard to believe that the author is only 29. The characters have complexity, although George’s confidante, the prostitute Clementine, is less well drawn. It captures well this liminal time, when the gaping newness had not yet solidified into inevitability. It was long-listed for the Booker Prize, but it didn’t make the cut. It did make it as an Oprah Book Club read, for what it’s worth.

I really enjoyed it – once I had the courage to finish it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 17-23 November 2021

The History of Rome Podcast Episode 77 What Time Is It? follows through on Domitian, who after a rising in Germany led by Governor Saturninus in 89 AD, became even more paranoid and dictatorial than he was before. As a result, there was an explosion of edicts against him by the Senate, although the rank and file of the Praetorian Guard and the Legions remained loyal to him. He had been warned by a soothsayer that he would die at noon, and each day asked “What time is it?” and heaved a sigh of relief when noon had passed. In the end he was assassinated by court officials, who lied about the time. He was 45 years old, and had ruled for 15 years. Like Augustus, he was broad in his approach but he never had Augustus’ gravitas, and as soon as he was killed there was a concerted campaign to impugn his reputation. In Episode 78 Imperial Stopgap, the Senate now had to decide who to have as emperor, because Domitian had no sons. What the Senators really wanted was a childless old man who might choose one of their sons to be his successor. They settled on Nerva, who fitted the bill, but was never accepted by the troops of the Praetorian Guard or the troops of the Legions, with whom he had a strained relationship. He was a populist, with policies like low taxes and giving people stuff, but the economy faltered. He melted down statues and cancelled the games. The best thing he did was choose Trajan as his successor (and for this he is known as the first of the Five Good Emperors) and at least he died of natural causes, after 15 months. And hooray! We’ve reached the 2nd century A. D. (or C.E) Episode 79 The Dacian Wars sees Trajan biding his time while Nerva was still alive, and not appearing to be too eager when taking power. He was actually born in Spain, not Rome and was the second of the Five Good Emperors and officially acclaimed by the senate as optimus princeps (“best ruler”). He was an army man, but he knew that armies need good infrastructure, and this is what he is best known for building the Trajan Forum, the Trajan Market and the Trajan Column (which still stands). He defeated the Dacians (present day Transylvania) and incorporated it into the empire as an imperial province in 106CE. Episode 80 Optimus Trajan goes through the many good things that Trajan did: infrastructure, keeping the peace, and supporting the provincial governors to use their own initiative as long as it was for the common good. He was a friend of Pliny the Younger, and much that we know of him comes from the letters between them. He advised Pliny to give the troublesome Christians (who seemed to be spreading) an opportunity to recant without penalty, but if they refused, then to execute them. He launched another war against the Parthians, prompted by conflict over Armenia, and reduced it to client kingdom status. He reportedly said that he wished he was younger, so he could keep going to India, like Alexander the Great had done. But he wasn’t young, and he got sick and died at the age of 63 after a reign of nearly twenty years.

By Tataryn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19625326

Emperors of Rome Is it very naughty of me to cheat on Mike Duncan by listening to another podcast about Rome at the same time that I’m listening to his? I confess to feeling a bit apprehensive that all this Roman history is just washing over me- especially as all these emperors seem to have variations on about five names- and so I’d really like some of this information to ‘stick’. I had seen the Emperors of Rome podcast on my podcast feed, but I wasn’t expecting it to be Australian! And, even better, from ‘my’ university just up the road, La Trobe University. It’s presented by Dr Rhiannon Evans and Matt Smith, which means that there’s a nice interaction between them as presenters. You can really tell that Evans has academic chops compared with Mike Duncan, because she is very concerned with sources and documentation, whereas Duncan’s is more of a chronological, survey approach. Given that I’m up to Trajan with Mike Duncan, I launched right in to episode XLV In Trajan We Trust where I learned that Trajan is one of the emperors where most of our information comes from material ruins, rather than written sources. Episode XLVI – Trajan vs Dacia explained that Dacia is where Romania is today. Episode XLVII Pliny the Younger sidetracks a bit to go into the life of Pliny the Younger, the nephew of Pliny the Elder, who gave us probably the best account of the eruption at Pompeii. Episode XLVIII – Trajan: Optimus Princeps sums up Trajan’s life, and gives him a pretty good score. I’m delighted to have found this series. Even though these episodes were recorded in May 2016, the podcast is still going! They have a Facebook page with all their episodes too.

Australia vs the Climate (The Guardian) Part 4: Fossil Fuels looks at the influence of the fossil fuel lobby on the Morrison government- although it has been a potent force in Australian politics for decades. Most insidious is its inclusion in government climate change policy announcements- and sure enough, who is sponsoring Australia’s stand at Glasgow but Santos.

Conversations (ABC) The frequency of cleft lip or palate in Australia is 1:800 births. I’m often mystified: why don’t you see prominent people with them? As a person with a cleft lip and palate myself, I notice instantly when I meet someone else who has one (and I bet they notice mine too). But why aren’t they in Parliament, or on television, or writers at Writers Festivals? Good on you, Wendy Harmer, for being right out there. In The Trailblazer: Wendy Harmer Richard Fidler, a fellow comedian, talks with Wendy about her childhood, her surgeries, her career and her success.

Lit Hub The very scratchy Lit Century podcast looks at Freud’s 1930 book Civilization and its Discontents in the episode How Has Freud Changed the Way We Tell Our Stories. I haven’t read this book, and I don’t know if I particularly want to after listening to this podcast which made it sound Damned Hard Work. The podcast features Jessica Gross, the author of the novel Hysteria about a young woman’s relationship with Freud. They note the irony of Freud’s contention that with aggression curtailed, it turns inward- just as the world was to embark on another aggressive world war. Basically, they argue that Freud encourages us to ask why we, or a character in a story, are the way we are. Freud takes an idea which, self-deprecatingly he says is nothing new, then turns it upside down or pushes it out of shape. Both Jessica and the interviewer Catherine Nichols observed that they would be exhilarated and challenged by new ideas, but on shutting the book would be hardpressed to explain the idea to anyone else. But I really do wish they’d buy a proper microphone.