I can’t quite remember why I ordered this book from the library. Theresa Smith reviewed it back in 2019, and I think that I must have read a more recent review of it as well. It’s the debut novel of an American historical fiction author, Andrea Bobotis, who has a PhD in English Literature, and has published academic articles on Irish writers, as well as short stories. She teaches creative writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver.
Perhaps I was attracted to its setting in the decaying, hard-luck town of Bound in South Carolina, where Judith Kratt, an elderly spinster, has been living in her family home all her life. It is 1989 and the quiet, if cluttered, domesticity of Judith and her African-American companion Olva is disturbed when Judith’s younger sister Rosemarie suddenly turns up. She had run away sixty years ago at the age of thirteen in 1929, just after her older brother Quincy, had been murdered.
Quincy’s murder is announced on the first page of the book, with an extract from the York Herald.
Quincy Kratt, aged 14, sustained a fatal gunshot wound to his person in the early hours of Friday, December 20. Young Mr Kratt was a scion of the cotton industry in Bound, South Carolina. His father, the influential businessman Brayburn Kratt, is one of our local captains of that industry. The principal suspect in the shooting is a negro called Charlie Watson, who is employed by the Kratt Mercantile Company and whose whereabouts are as yet unknown.
That Charlie Watson was responsible for the murder was local lore, but when Rosemarie returns in 1989, this certainty is unsettled. We can tell from Judith’s 1989 narrative that although Olva is a ‘companion’, there is a complex power imbalance here, only partially explained by colour. As the remaining matriarch of the Kratt family, Judith decides to compile an inventory of the objects within the family home, and these items trigger off memories from the past. Each chapter closes with an ever-growing list of objects, which have enhanced resonance for the reader after travelling with Judith back to the 1920s. These are not happy childhood memories. Her father, Brayburn, was a violent and mercurial man, who cultivates his son Quincy as a spy on the employees of Kratt Mercantile company, and who tries to coerce Judith into his racist activities as well.
This book is probably more heavily plotted than what I am used to reading, and at times I felt that some of the plot turns were a bit implausible. However, she captured well the insolent, swaggering menace of racism both in 1929 and 1989 and I liked the slightly stilted, rather self-serving narrative voice of Judith. It was well-researched too (says she who has listened to just one podcast about the South during the 1920s!) in capturing the economic decline of Southern towns prior to the Depression. The device of the ever-growing list of objects at the end of each chapter worked really well in highlighting both the uselessness of sheer objects, but also the freight of memories, both good and bad, that they carried.
My rating: 7/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as a large-print book. I wonder why it was only in that format.
First Saturday. Six Degrees of Separation Day. This meme is hosted by Kate at BooksAreMyFavouriteandBest and it involves drawing links from the book that Kate chooses – in this case, Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge – and nominating six other books that you mentally link with the starting book.
I don’t remember reading Postcards from the Edge, but I do know who Carrie Fisher the actress was. But another “Miss Fisher” who is far more familiar to me is Kerry Greenwood’s creation Miss Phryne Fisher. I’m not really into mystery novels, but I did read a Phyrne Fisher years ago. I had no idea how to pronounce her name then, but the television series has taken care of that. To be honest, I can’t remember which one I read, but let’s go with Murder on the Ballarat Train because that leads me to….
…Ballarat, and Clare Wright’s fantastic history of women in the goldfields in her Forgotten Rebels of Eureka. This book won the second-ever Stella Prize in 2014, highlighting that the Stella was for both fiction and non-fiction books. It is written in Clare’s trademark warm, bubbly voice but underpinned by serious academic research. It is based on the Eureka Stockade rebellion which took place on the Ballarat goldfields, which leads me to…
Another goldfield, but this time in New Zealand with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Actually, when I look at my review, I didn’t seem to be particularly impressed with it, and rather disgrunted about its length even though it won the 2013 Booker Prize. As I remember it, much of the action took place on a boat, which leads me to….
Robert Drewe, who is drawn to writing about water. The True Colour of the Sea is a collection of short stories, several of which make reference to the sea. We’re taken to a Pacific Island and to Cuba, as well as more recognizable Australian oceans and beach-side settings. And as a good little Australian school child, I was well and truly drilled in the importance of Captain Cook, one of the greatest navigators of Empire which leads me to….
Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife by Marele Day. As suggested by the title, this is not a straight biography, but nor is it pure fiction either. The book is organized around a fairly large collection of existing Cook artefacts which, from the the notes at the back of the book, are located in various museums, libraries, churches and parks across the world. She uses these real-life objects as the tethering posts to which she attaches her fictional narrative, complete with conversation and internal speech. I don’t seem to have been terribly impressed by this book either. But another book about the sea that I was impressed with is….
A very recent read, Kathryn Heyman’s Fury. You might think from the front cover and the opening chapter that it’s going to be about a woman clinging onto the boom of a fishing trawler in a howling storm, which is it. But it’s about far more than that. It’s about class, femaleness, sexuality, the power of story and the narratives we tell ourselves.
Thanks, Kate, for hosting this meme, even though I very rarely have read the book you start off with. September is Rachel Cusk’s Second Place, nominated for the 2021 Booker. I don’t like my chances of having read that one, either.
Perhaps this post should be titled ‘Re-reading The Corrections’, because I read it in 2002- think, nearly twenty years ago. I was interested to see what I wrote about it in my pre-blog reading journal back then:
I can’t remember having such varying feelings about a book. It is really a tragedy mixed with farce. In its tragic parts, I felt uncomfortable at the harsh glare of reality: in its farcical sections I felt bored and tired of the author’s look-at-me cuteness and self-conscious wittiness. It is, as the author admits, five novellas and for me, the sections dealing with the cruise and the Lithuanian venture could easily have been dropped.
But the family dynamics were brilliant: the well-meaning but manipulative mother who wants to bring the family together for one last Christmas; the father bewildered by his Parkinson’s Disease; a psychologically-hypochondriac son bullied by his wife and children; a son who throws away a career because of sexual indiscretion and ends up doing very shady deals in Lithuania, and a daughter who discovers her lesbianism only while wrecking her own career as a chef because of an affair with both her employers. Incisive, current, but very in-your-face. 8/10
So how does it shape up 20 years later? I was more impatient this time of the self-indulgent length of 653 pages, the long lists of objects, and sheer show-off-iness of the writing. I just wanted him to shut up, frankly. Too much talk, too much self-indulgent angst.
It now seems very much of its time – pre September 11 and the GFC, it’s a time of American bombast and certainty, where greed was still good (if somewhat grubby) and the American viewpoint dominated the world. Trump, the non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction and the whole Middle East mess that it gave rise to, and COVID have punctured all that.
The search for the ‘Great American Novel’, fat and sneering and self-important, seems now to be a very masculine endeavour, with Franzen being likened to Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth, Don de Lillo, Thomas Pynchon etc. (all men, I note). Actually, I think that Elizabeth Strout should be in this list too, and her books are so different from these. Yes, there are deeply flawed and unlikeable characters in her books too, but there isn’t the superciliousness in these other contenders.
Of course, I’m not the same reader either. Twenty years on, Parkinson’s is a much more sensitive topic, given that someone I love dearly has it. Twenty years later, having sat beside both my parents as they died, I understand more about death and age. Hell, twenty years later, I tick the 65+ age box now. Now I’m the grandmother and mother-in-law. Given that Franzen himself is now 61, I wonder if he would write the same book.
This is an unkind book that is far, far, far too long. Twenty years later, I’d downgrade that 8 to a 6.5
Nothing on TV. I just love these podcasts by Robyn Annear. The episode Buried Treasure is a little different from her other episodes in that she starts off with a newspaper article that is not in Trove, because it comes from the Sun News-Pictorial in March 1936 about a ‘foreign’ man who turned up in Richmond, wanting to dig up the back yard of a house in Canterbury Street. She riffs off this story to talk about overseas ‘swindlers’ who would send letters claiming that treasure was hidden nearby and that for a price, they would send the map (an early manifestation of the Nigerian scam email!). She then goes on to talk about other so-called buried treasure in Victoria. A lovely, chatty, discursive story.
History This Week I really don’t know much about Roman history, and I wish I knew more. Perhaps that might be a little project for me. Fiddling with the Truth is about Nero, and the story that he ‘fiddled while Rome burned’. This episode featured Anthony Barrett, author of Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire That Ended a Dynasty. It was all very clear, even for someone who knows little Roman history. He talked about how Nero got to be emperor (a grubby story) and what happened afterwards (another grubby story) and explained why this largely false story was created to meet the political needs of the time.
The History of Rome Podcast. I’ve done it. I’ve launched into Mike Duncan’s 170-odd episode podcast series on the History of Rome from start to finish! At least the episodes are much shorter in this series (about 10-15 minutes), although they may increase later on. In Episode 1 In the Beginning he traces through the Romulus and Remus myth (for myth it is). I didn’t realize that there was a supposed link to Troy, many generations previous. Episode 2 Youthful Indiscretions covers the remainder of Romulus’s life, his questionable morality and ultimate disappearance from the world of men. Really, the Romans were pretty warlike and dodgy. I always wondered what the Rape of the Sabines was about – it was a violent mass abduction to bring women (and children) to this male-dominated society. Episode 3a The Seven Kings of Rome looks at first three of Romulus’s successors to the throne: Numa Pompulius (715-673 BCE), Tullus Hostilius (673-642 BCE) and Ancus Marcius (642-617 BCE). They seem to alternate between warlike: religious: warlike: religious. Mike Duncan raises an interesting question: what is the difference when religion is introduced to a basically warlike society compared with introducing war and fighting into what had previously been a religious society? Episode 3b deals with the three Tarquin (Etruscan) kings: Tarquinius Priscus (616-579 BCE), Servius Tullius (578-535) and Tarquinius Superbus (535-510BCE) . The first was a wily, manipulative but essentially competent King who usurped the two sons of Ancus Marcius by sending them out of the country; the second was his adopted son, who came to power by pretending that his father was still alive and that he was acting in a temporary capacity only. The third, Tarquinius Superbus was a tyrant. He knocked off Servius Tullius (literally) and eventually the people decided that they didn’t want any more kings. The first built the Circus Maximus and started the tradition of the Triumph; the second started the census and the system of contributing to the army by social class and the start of representative democracy for some, and the third limited the power of the Senate. His son Sextus Tarquinis was even worse: he was the one who raped Lucretia. Tarquinius Superbus’ nephew Brutus got the support of the army, the aristocracy and the people, and they overthrew Tarquinius Superbus, the last of the Etruscan kings. They decided not to have any more kings: just two consuls. And all of this might be bullsh** anyway, because the sources all tell a different story.
Rear Vision (ABC) I really do not like Jair Bolsonaro, and this episode The Trump of the Tropics: Jair Bolsonaro reminds me why. He sat in Congress alone for years, mouthing off his anti-liberal policies, and came to power on a wave of anti-politician sentiment and the Beef, Bible and Bullets mob. None of the commentators on this program thought that he would be impeached, no matter how bad his handling of the pandemic, because Lula will want to keep his powder dry, and at the moment another centre right politician would replace him who might attract more support.
Outlook (BBC World Service) I was in 1st year uni in 1974 and I really don’t remember Frank Sinatra’s comeback tour. He didn’t really mean much to me: he was the sort of singer that my parents liked. Frank Sinatra’s Australian Showdown tells the story of his rambling conversation about the press during his opening show, leading to union bands and HAWKIE! This is a replay from 2018.
The Spies in my House tells the story of East German activist Ulrike Poppe who discovered, when the Berlin Wall fell, that she had been under surveillance for 15 years. She went through her files and was interested to find what they did, and what they didn’t know about her. She found the Stasi officer in charge of her case, and out of curiosity and a sense of injustice, she met with him.
I’m not really sure if I know what this short film was about, but it wasn’t a problem of language! It was a homage to Alicia D’Amico, the Argentinian photographer who died in 2001. Her father owned a commercial photography store in Buenos Aires, but when she became a photographer in her own right, she concentrated more on ethnographic and political photography. She was a prominent feminist and lesbian activist. You can read more about her here (in English!)
The film was very arty, with lots of long lingering shots, and the use of D’Amico’s own films and photographs from Buenos Aires, Paris and Switzerland, interviews and fragments of written letters. It was very beautifully filmed and after reading (in English) more about her, I guess that I understood more than I thought I had. The film was part of the Instituto Cervantes series of LGBTI short films.
You can start reading a book thinking that it’s going to be about one thing, then it ends up being another. When that happens, it can be disappointing, or it can be exhilarating. For me, with Kathryn Heyman’s Fury, it was the latter. It’s a tightly constructed, human, affirming memoir that took me to places where I had never been, but also took me back to places that are less comfortable to visit.
I first heard of this book when I was in the car, listening to a sliver of Richard Fidler’s Conversations program: I didn’t catch the start, and I missed the ending, as you do when you’re in the car. The title of the program was The girl who ran away to sea: the making of Kathryn Heyman. With her rounded vowels and obviously well-educated speech, I was under the impression that the book was about a young girl who joined a fishing-trawler fleet – and indeed, at one level, that is true, but it is much more than this. When I saw Kathryn Heyman speaking via Zoom at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival, she was just as she sounded: cultured, quite beautiful, confident, animated, middle-aged (but younger than I!). But she was not always this way. In her telling, she was overweight, from an unhappy family and acutely conscious of wanting to have friends and be accepted.
The book starts with her hanging onto the boom of a fishing trawler in a howling storm, handing down tools to a co-worker as huge waves swamp them. We return to this precarious situation near the end of the book, but in between we learn about what has led her to join a fishing fleet. This is not a straightforward chronology, but instead she jumps back and forward, always with consummate authorial control.
As a child, she was “a biter” and her father christened her “Little Fury”. Her father was a policeman, a violent and explosive man. Unhappy both at school and at home, reading was her escape. She tried hard- too hard, probably – to win the friendship of female friends, and as she grew older, the attention and affection of men for whom she was expendable and, at times, exploitable. The fury in this book – implacable, focussed – is more a product of the mature, adult woman she is now, rather than the needy young woman she was then.
Women tend to excuse and forget the small, mounting accumulation of male abuse. It doesn’t have to be physical violation: it can be the leer, the jeer, catcall, the mirth of a ‘flash’, the opportunistic grope. When you add them up, it’s a pathetic litany, and one that I had almost forgotten until she took me back there. She writes so well that I could almost feel it again: the anxiety and desperation of being a young girl, unsure of yourself and your body. When she was raped, she was belittled at the police station, and again in the courtroom. It was her impatience with herself – with her anger, with the repetitions in her life, and her weariness of being the victim – that led her up north. Wanting the money to travel overseas to re-invent herself, she signed onto a fishing trawler as a cook. It was a risky decision. In the first place, she was not, and never had been, a cook. But more importantly, given what she wanted to escape, she was going into a confined, live-in situation with only men. The potential for it all going wrong was high.
This is such a well-written book, so carefully structured and so controlled. All memoirs are constructions, and the more skilled ones go beyond chronology, as this one does. Here is a writer who knows her craft. It is a reflection on class, femaleness, sexuality, the power of story and the narratives we tell ourselves. It has emotional rawness and fidelity, but it is also lyrical and evocative in its descriptions. There is a slow-burning fury, but because she has moved beyond it and can look back, there is also forgiveness and tenderness for herself. This book was so much more than I expected it to be.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book
Another short film offering from Instituto Cervantes in their LGBTQI theme for July, this time from Colombia.
Alma has transitioned and has started at a new school. A boy is attracted to her, but unsure of herself and still only part-way through her transition, she rebuffs him. She really doesn’t seem very happy. Things seem a bit more optimistic at the end. It must be so hard to be so young, so nervous about a new body and having to negotiate a new life.
Perhaps Joyce Morgan is channelling the spirit of Mary Beauchamp/Elizabeth von Armin, the subject of this biography, in choosing such a deceptive title. Particularly for those of us who do not live in Sydney, Kirribilli is synonymous with the ‘second’ Prime Minister’s Residence located on the shores of Sydney Harbour ( a cause for some interstate disgruntlement when the incumbent Prime Minister is from NSW and spends most of his time on Sydney Harbour rather than in Canberra). So who is this Countess?
It’s all a bit misleading, because when young Mary Beauchamp lived at Beulah House in the suburb of Kirribilli, she was certainly not a countess. She was born in Australia in 1866, with an English-born, merchant father, and a Tasmanian-born mother Louey. After living in several houses in Kirribilli, they finally shifted to a (now demolished) waterfront house, Beulah, close to their wealthy maternal uncle Frederick Lassetter and his family. When she was three, her father decided to follow the Lassetters when they returned to England. Mary – or ‘Elizabeth’ as she was better known through her first book Elizabeth and her German Garden, a name which she adopted permanently as a widow, – never returned to Australia again. She made no claim to Australian identity, and it’s interesting that she has no entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.
So where did the ‘Countess’ part come from? She gained the title through marriage to Count Henning August Arnim-Schlagethin, a Prussian aristocrat, fifteen years her senior who, while titled, had also inherited his father’s debts. They lived in Germany, and she soon found herself burdened by serial pregnancies with three children in less than three years, five in total. She and her husband spent much time apart. Mary and her children lived in Nassenheide, in a dilapidated schloss, which she renovated. It was a marriage marked with conflict. After Henning died, her next marriage, to Earl Frank Russell (grandson of Lord John Russell the Prime Minister) and brother of Bertrand Russell, was no happier. She kept her ‘Countess’ designation, but now she was Countess Russell. She seems to have swung between happiness and misery in a tempestuous and emotionally labile second marriage. After this marriage broke down, she had other affairs, possibly with her friend H. G. Wells, and with Alexander Frere, who later became a noted publisher, 27 years her junior and literally half her age.
Her former brother-in-law Bertrand Russell warned his children “Do not marry a novelist”. He was right. Elizabeth’s life and experiences very much informed her books, and she drew on both her husbands as characters in her books, and not to their advantage. Framed humourously at first, but then in a more sinister light, she called the Henning-like character in first book Elizabeth and her German Garden ‘the Man of Wrath’. When she wrote The Pastor’s Wife in 1914, the epynomous pastor was Prussian, and took his innocent English wife Ingeborg to provincial life where (like Henning) he studied agricultural developments, and kept her constantly pregnant until an artist (not a writer, as H. G. Wells was) came into her life and convinced her to leave. Vera, seen as the darkest of her books is a “terrifying portrait of domestic tyranny” (p. 185). The husband in this story, Wemyss, takes his young wife Lucy to a gloomy house The Willows (very similar to Frank Russell’s house Telegraph House) where he works to exact total submission from his wife through his moods, vile tempers and manipulation.
Elizabeth worked hard as a writer, almost constantly working on a book. She made sure that she had a working studio in each of the homes she created, and would keep working even when hosting an ongoing stream of visitors. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of any of her 21 books, which seem to range from whimsy to some rather dark domestic themes and back to memoir again. In a literary biography, there is a narrow line for authors to tread between giving the flavour of their subject’s writings for those who have not read them on the one hand, and delving into a more detailed analysis that assumes that the reader is familiar with them on the other. I think that Morgan handled this well, demonstrating the variety that can be found in von Armin’s writing, integrating these largely-autobiographical works into her telling of von Armin’s life, and encouraging the reader to actually read her books.
Most striking is just how well connected in a literary sense Elizabeth von Armin was. Her cousin was Katherine Mansfield, with whom she had a close, but at times, strained relationship. She counted H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Rebecca West, D. H. Lawrence amongst her friends and acquaintances, and she knew innumerable people amongst the English intelligentsia. She lived through both the first and second World Wars, fearing for two of her daughters still in Germany, and apprehensive about the Jewish connections in her first husband’s family. Even though she hated travelling by sea in a time when air travel was not yet available, she travelled and lived in various places in Europe and visited those of her children living in America.
She was an idiosyncratic mixture of exhibitionist and dissembler. She wrote best-sellers under a non-de-plume for almost 30 years before her identity as ‘Elizabeth’ was definitively established. She kept secrets from her friends and family and she burned many of her letters (which fortunately the recipients kept). Yet she treated her life as raw material for her semi-autobiographical writing, thus putting her family and friends into the public arena, without consulting them.
Joyce Morgan has presented an enigmatic, fascinating woman who lived a life very far removed from an Australian experience. She has a light touch as a biographer, starting each chapter or section with a narrative, scene-settling, imaginative paragraph or two, as if she is coming up for air, before diving down into description and analysis again. This leads to a fairly ‘choppy’ sort of reading experience, but it also keeps the biography at an easily-accessible level. It is only when you turn to the back of the book that you realize how well she has integrated primary sources into her narrative, drawing on journals and letters by Elizabeth, Katherine Mansfield and H. G.Wells. A rather odd coda has been added to the book where Morgan delves further into von Armin’s Australian family history, almost as if the author feels that she needs to ‘prove’ her Australian-ness which is otherwise incidental to the rest of Elizabeth von Armin’s life.
For me, Morgan has piqued my curiosity sufficiently to seek out one or two of Elizabeth von Armin’s books, and Gabrielle Carey’s biography as well. For a biographer, I’m sure that means ‘mission accomplished’.
Continuing on with the series of LGBTQI films from Instituto Cervantes in July, Snap is an 18-minute Chilean film.
Actually, this trailer is almost as long as the movie was! The directors saved postings from Snap Chat, which usually disappear after a day or so, and chose three to form the narrative of this small documentary. (I assume with the permission of the poster? Interesting question- if you put something on Snap Chat does that mean you’re alright with a documentary being made of it?) The first is of a teenager who is haranguing his mother into buying him an i-phone; the second is of a drag queen; and the third is of a young man undergoing genital surgery to become a woman. I felt rather voyeuristic watching this, and the self-absorption, particularly of the drag queen, I found quite off-putting. I finished it, feeling very old.
Democracy Sausage. I’ve only just started listening to this podcast by Mark Kenny, who used to write for The Age (he may still, for all I know because I stopped subscribing once it became Herald-Sun-Lite). The Prosperity Gospel features Peter Martin (who writes for the Conversation) and Marija Taflaga (from ANU Centre for the Study of Australian Politics, with a research interest in the Liberal Party). This podcast is from May and before the budget, so it’s a bit outdated, but it starts with an interesting commentary on Scott Morrison’s talk to a Christian conference about God speaking to him through a picture of an eagle, and his habit of ‘laying hands’ on people he was comforting. That certainly creeped me out, and despite their Christian affiliation, it creeped out Peter and Marija as well.
Heather Cox Richardson Her Facebook video of 11 June 2021 is Part Two of her series on Native Americans. She returned to the Northern Plains people, and the spread of settlers into indigenous land encouraged by the homesteading acts. The invention of barbed wire, mining, and technological change that made it possible to use buffalo skins commercially all put indigenous land under pressure. I obviously didn’t watch enough cowboys and indians or Saturday afternoon matinees, because I really didn’t know much about the Battle of Little Big Horn, which she discusses here.
China If You’re Listening(ABC). The final episode of this series is Are the ‘drums of war beating’ over Taiwan?. He starts off with the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which China has constructed and is now claiming. We might not go to war over the Paracel Islands, but we might over Taiwan. He goes through the history of Taiwan and Hong Kong, and how they fit into China’s world view in the 21st century. Rather chilling.
The Real Story (BBC) With the recent demonstrations in Cuba, this episode Cuba at a Crossroads features commentators from outside Cuba (including an academic, a former US diplomat, an author and an economist). I’m not sure that they are particularly well placed to speak for Cuba, but they do agree that the US sanctions and bans on remittances re-imposed by Donald Trump are doing real harm. They also all agreed that the US should not get involved, even though Díaz-Canel is blaming the US for instigating the demonstrations. There’s no Castro charisma there any more.
The Last Archive This episode was a cross-posting from History This Week, a History Channel podcast. The Fairness Doctrine was introduced when television licences were strictly controlled and highly sought, but it was overturned in 1987. The Fairness Doctrine decreed that television news should present both sides of an argument, but over time both people on the left AND right came to see it as problematic, for very different reasons. Since it has been abolished, it has given rise to the stridently partisan nature of media in US in particular, although cable TV and the internet would not have been covered by it anyway.