‘Death Sentence’ by Don Watson

deathsentence_watson

2003, 191 p.

I must confess that my heart sank when I saw that my CAE reading group book for this month was Don Watson’s Death Sentence. I had read it when it came out in 2003 and now  I struggled to re-read it for our meeting.  It seemed repetitive and unstructured, with just one argument repeated over again. So I was interested to dip back into my reading journal from 2003, prior to starting this blog, to see what I thought of it then. Here’s what I said in 2003:

An interesting reading experience, given that at the time I was reading RMIT’s Teaching and Learning Strategy as part of an assignment. This is part-diatribe, part-essay about the intrusion of managerialist language into places where it doesn’t belong. It certainly makes reading the ads in Saturday’s Age, policy documents and government advertising at all levels an exercise in cutting out ‘clag’. Knowledge Management as a discipline comes in for a particular serve. In many ways this is an extension of Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’ but longer, and at times less disciplined. Good critique of the use of public and political language, but just a bit self indulgent. 8/10

I’m surprised now that I rated it so highly, but perhaps it was a new perspective back in 2003. After all, in the midst of a Howard Government, we hadn’t at that stage been deluged with Rudd’s verbal sludge, which made Watson’s critique almost self-evident.

The book itself has several unnamed chapters, marked only by a blank page separating them from the previous chapter. It’s hard to work out quite how one chapter differs from the next, or if there is a theme to distinguish one chapter from the other, especially as the book goes on.  The pages have a wide margin, in which are quotes from other texts: some pithy and elegant; others the type of verbal glue that he declaims against.  I can’t help feeling that the book is too long: that it would have been better served in a Quarterly Essay format of a lesser length.

Some fourteen years on, I suspect that Watson’s howl of anger is more about the application of managerial thinking as a construct, rather than the language itself (although the two are, admittedly, inseparable). It’s something that I abhor too, and I’ll have more to say about it anon.  However, I think that programs like the ABC’s brilliant parody of the National Building Authority Utopia have done much to skewer it, far more than this book with its arch tone could ever do.

Read because: CAE bookgroup choice

My rating (now): 6.5

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‘El Quijote’ by Miguel de Cervantes

elquixote

1602, this version 2014, 96 p. Adapted by J. A. Bravo

Now, I concede that reading this classic in a version suitable for 7 year olds might not do it justice, but I’m glad that I didn’t struggle through the 1000 page version in English either.  Fortunately this 96 page version finished at the end of Part I.

Don Quixote, or rather Don Alonso Quixano, has been addled by reading too many books about chivalry and decides to become a knight errant himself.  He persuades his neighbour Sancho Panchez to accompany him, and the two spend an inordinate amount of time on fruitless follies borne out of Don Quixote’s hallucinations, or fighting and falling on the ground.

I know that it’s famous for its antiquity and its foray into metafiction but, oh dear, in my baby Spanish it was just too silly for words.  It was a bit like reading Alice in Wonderland, where all the cleverness was stripped away in the process of making it easy to read. However, for language learning, the chapters were a good length, and it was fairly easy to follow.

I do concede that the book has survived four hundred years and that it has probably lost nine hundred pages in this version, so perhaps I should just reserve my judgment about the original!

 

Movie: Wind River

Set on a Native American Reservation in Wyoming in winter, this is a harsh country. A hunter finds the body of a young girl splayed out in the snow, miles from anywhere. She dies from natural causes, but she has been raped.  The young female FBI agent sent from Florida, who quickly realises that she is completely out of her depth, enlists his help in tracking down those responsible for her death. This film reminded me of Fargo, both in the landscape and the amount of violence, but it also explored themes of loss and dispossession.

My rating: 4 stars.

‘Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara’ by Aleida March

remembering_chev

2012, 146p. (e-book) (translated by Pilar Aguilera)

I was spurred to read this book more by my recent trip to Cuba than anything else, but it is particularly apposite given that it is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Che Gueverra in Bolivia on 10 October 1967.

Moreover, there has been a little bubble of fictional books recently, told from the perspective of the unheralded wife of a famous man:  Mrs Cook, and Emma Darwin “the inspirational wife of a genius”.  This book, however, is told in Che’s wife’s own words. It is the translated work of a woman who is not a natural writer, and it is a rather stilted and at times hagiographic work. But beyond this, the restrictions and even mundaneness of life with a man lauded as a revolutionary hero (and criticized for his inflexibility and his ruthlessness in exacting ‘revolutionary justice’ too) comes through in this book, despite its limitations.

Aleida March was quite a bit younger than Ernesto Che Guevara, and when she first met the man already dominant in revolutionary circles, she did not think of him romantically at all.  He was already married, and she was working as a teacher as well as circulating on the edges of the leadership of the revolution.  She had brought contraband goods to the revolutionaries, taped to her body, and she needed his assistance to remove the tape that had adhered to her skin. After this rather intimate start, they were married only for eight years, and had four children in that time.

As might be expected in such a book, there are a lot of names, as various people are name-checked and credited. She assumes, as might be expected in a book written in Spanish and published in Cuba, a familiarity with the events and people of the Cuban revolution that readers on the other side of the world might not necessarily have.  There are short, but useful, footnotes giving some of the details that March has skated over, but I wish there had been a map as well.

Despite all his revolutionary ardour, Che seems to have held fairly traditional views of gender roles, and his wife seems to have been just as much relegated to the stage-curtains of obscurity as other wives of famous men.  He was quite blatant in his preference for sons over daughters, and it was quite clear that the mission of spreading revolution in Africa and other South American nationals was paramount over any other family or personal ties.

Which is not to say that it was easy. I was really touched near the end of the book when she relates how Che disguised himself as an old man to return clandestinely to Cuba, before leaving for Bolivia where he met his death.  He wanted to see his children, but they could not let the children know who he was, because they were too young to be able to be trusted completely not to tell others. So he put on padding, and dubbed himself ‘Uncle Ramon’ and visited the family for one day under the guise of being an old family friend. When his daughter fell and hurt herself, he tended her injury (he had been a doctor). She came up to her mother afterwards and whispered to her “I think that man loves me”. How sad that he couldn’t tell her who he was: how poignant that she sensed it anyway.

The circumstances around Guevara’s death are given little space. She was left in her thirties, with four young children. She did remarry, but gives few details. In fact, she is rather absent in this book, which is more about her husband than herself.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

‘Jetties and Piers: a background history of maritime infrastructure in Victoria’ by Jill Barnard

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2008, 65 p. & notes

I came upon this publication by chance a few months back, while I was looking up ‘quarantine’ for my  posting about Port Phillip during March 1842.  The report had been divided up into separate PDF files, and my interest piqued, I set about finding the rest of the publication.

Update: The author has since made the whole publication available on their website. Thank you! You can find it at http://livinghistories.net.au/our-work/commissioned-histories/

The author, Jill Barnard, is one of the team from the Living Histories group of professional historians. As part of her conclusion, she  cites the  founding member of the Australian Association for Maritime History  historian Frank Broeze , who pointed out that Australia’s maritime identity is as important as “sheep and land, railways and goldmines, bushrangers and bankers” in shaping Australia’s identity. It’s certainly an argument that has been reinforced for me in reading about Melbourne’s earliest days through the three Melbourne newspapers. The shipping news took up nearly 3/4 of one of the four pages in each issue; people were constantly falling off boats and jetties; and overseas news finally arrived long after the event, on account of the vast sea distances being covered.

This publication, sponsored by the Heritage Council of Victoria focuses as its title denotes, on maritime infrastructure and thus reflects a ‘heritage’ approach, based mainly on structures and their usages. The report is divided into two parts: Part 1 deals chronologically with 1800-1850, then Part 2 adopts a thematic approach, adopting the Australian Framework of Historical Themes (2000, 2001). No longer being involved in curriculum development and coming from a historical rather than heritage perspective, I was completely ignorant of such frameworks. The Framework is explained in detail here, and the Victorian Framework (2010) which was developed to respond to it is here (ah- Federation at work!)  I suspect that the impetus for ‘frameworks’ reflects the late 20th-early 21st century desire for checkboxes,  wall charts and verb-driven, economy-focussed competencies and I must confess that the whole process passed me by completely. Will I live long enough to see this whole approach to conceptualizing history itself historicized? I wonder.

I suspect that the two-part structure of this report reflects the constraints that such a framework placed on the author. As she points out, during the earliest years of Victoria’s white settlement there was a scramble by both private investors and governments to provide sufficient infrastructure to keep pace with the ever-increasing needs, and such infrastructure served a variety of purposes for immigrants, merchants, fishermen, postal services and customs officers. Her Part 1, reflecting the years 1800-1850 progresses chronologically. In Part 2 she adopts a thematic approach, with the chapters directly linked into one of the categories or subcategories of the Australian framework:

1. Improving Victoria’s Ports and Harbours (Theme 3 Developing local, regional and national economies)

2. Migrating to Victoria (Peopling Australia)

3. Moving People ( Theme 3.8 Moving Goods and People)

4. Moving Goods and Cargo (ditto)

5. Defending Our Shores (Theme 7.1 Governing Australia as a Province of the British Empire and Theme 7.7 Defending Australia)

6. Commercial Fishing (Theme 3.4  Utilizing Natural Resources)

7. Making Ports and the Coast Safe (Theme 3.16.1 Dealing with Hazards and Disasters)

8. Boat and Ship Repair and Building (Theme 3.8 Moving Goods and People)

9. Accommodating Seamen (Theme 3.22 Providing Lodgings)

10. At the Beach: Using the Sea for Recreation (Theme 8 Developing Australia’s Cultural Life)

As Barnard points out in her introduction, this thematic approach does not necessarily serve her well. Different sites have changed their functions over time and do not fit into the neat themes of ‘recreation’ or ‘moving people’ that she has selected. Moreover, the thematic approach gave rise to a degree of repetition. As she admits, “it is difficult for the reader to simply follow particular sites or themes through from the beginnings of European settlement to the present day”. She’s right.

Notwithstanding  the author’s own misgivings , I found this an interesting read. Although Victoria has a long coastline, there are few deep-water harbours. The Heads made the whole entry to Port Phillip treacherous, and both Melbourne and Geelong ports were ringed with sandbars. The settlement of Melbourne  on the Yarra River up on the Falls (which I’ve often mentioned in this blog ) meant that there was no direct connection to the ocean, although a canal was mooted for some time. She doesn’t just deal with Melbourne and Geelong: she also discusses  Portland, Port Fairy, Port Albert, Warrnambool and Lakes Entrance, as well as fishing and boat-building ports along the Bay.   Coastal shipping remained dominant for a long time because overland transport was so slow to develop, and the development of railways often bolstered port activity.  Nonetheless, the infrastructure for getting goods on and off ships remained primitive for some time. She cites the example of timber-loading at Mt Martha (on the Mornington Peninsula) where logs would be tossed off the cliff-face, where they fell to the beach to be loaded onto small boats and from there, onto larger ships. No wonder the container, which reduced double- and triple- handling, made such a difference to maritime transportation.

Most immigrants and passengers arrived at Melbourne, although during the 1840s and 50’s  there were attempts to channel immigrants directly to the pastoral stations that were crying out for their labour by landing them at Geelong and to a lesser extent Portland. Vessels for specifically inter-state travel continued until 1961 when they were replaced by international liners who had several ports on their itinerary. Her analysis extends up to the mid-twentieth century as she traces the demise of Station Pier and other passenger wharfs, especially after the opening of Tullamarine Airport in 1970.

It was fascinating to read about the early defence arrangements for the gold-rich Port Phillip Bay, in what are now inner suburbs like South Melbourne and St Kilda. Although sometimes the fortifications took so long to construct that military technology rendered them largely redundant, by 1890 Victoria was assessed as being “the best defended commercial city of the empire” (p.42)  Fort Nepean has the dubious distinction of being the site for the first British shots fired in both the First and Second World Wars.

I’d heard of Sir John Coode and the straightening of the Yarra, but I hadn’t realized how much of a ‘go-to’ man he was for infrastructure works on all Victorian ports.  The cost for infrastructure like beacons and lighthouses was borne by the colonies because they benefitted directly from the port activity, but after Federation the Commonwealth government took responsibility for ocean or ‘highway’ lights. I’ve seen sheds cantilevered over the water on the side of jetties and didn’t realize that they were rescue boats, and now I have a new appreciation for the rocket and mortar sheds where a ‘breeches buoy’ , similar to a pair of trousers, allowed a person to sit in them to be winched to shore.

My favourite part was the final chapter ‘At the Beach’ which reflected popular cultural use of the beach, as distinct from the largely economic focus of the other chapters.  Promenading at the beach was more important than swimming at it during the middle of the 19th century. At first sea bathing was forbidden between 6.00 a.m. and 8.00 p.m. because men swam nude, although this restriction was relaxed in 1917.  I’ve long been amused at the presence of life saving clubs at the mill-pond like bay beaches (e.g. 1912 Black Rock, Elwood and Hampton) and ‘baths’ separated out from the sea but these no doubt reflect the change from ‘taking the waters’ for health reasons to recreational swimming. The seawall that runs along Sandringham, Brighton etc. was constructed between 1935 and 1939 using stone recycled from city buildings including the old Melbourne gaol.  Other fences were made of ‘basketwalling’ made of ti-tree (which I can just remember). Boat sheds and private jetties reflect the purchase of beach-houses by well-to-to Melburnians.

All in all, an informative and well-told read for those of us interested in Victorian history.  It does assume a familiarity with the ports and places under examination, so it’s a fairly localized publication. It’s an interesting exercise to see the narrative limitations when a thematic framework is imposed onto a narrative, especially when dealing with an extended 150 year timeline.  I also found it a challenging idea to restrict the focus to activities that leave a physical presence in the form of infrastructure.  This object-based,  heritage-focussed approach is not one with which I’m particularly familiar (or, I admit, completely comfortable), but is is one that probably reflects the economic and public uses to which history is put today.

aww2017-badgeI have posted this review to the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge website.

 

‘Havana: A Subtropical Delirium ‘ by Mark Kurlansky

havana_kurlansky

2017, 229 p. & notes

I’ve read this book twice within six weeks. First I read it before leaving for my trip to Cuba, vowing that I’d write up my review in South America with all the free time at night I anticipated.  Well, most of the free time was spent blogging on my little phone, so the review wasn’t written. Then I borrowed it again a couple of days ago, to refresh my memory before writing this review and I was immediately drawn into a second reading, recognizing things and places that I’d seen and kicking myself for the things I’d missed.

Mark Kurlansky is an American writer who has spent over thirty years visiting Cuba, and so he writes from an American, rather than Cuban perspective. He is a prolific author, with many of his non-fiction works centring on an object like Cod, Salt or Oysters, as well as the histories of the Basques, European Jewry or the effect of baseball on San Pedro de Macoris.  In this book, he writes the history of Havana with affection, but you’re always aware that it’s an outsider’s perspective.  It’s a very literary history, with many allusions to Hemingway, Marti and other more contemporary Cuban authors. The author is aware that these works might not be familiar to his readers, and so he translates his quotations and gives sufficient context to make them meaningful. The book meanders its way through a cornucopia of themes in a basically chronological fashion, although the revolution itself is not described in much detail.  It is illustrated with 19th century woodcuts from magazines, and Kurlansky lets his words rather than images do the describing.

I was a little disappointed in the ending, which trailed off into a discussion of baseball, but having now seen the crowded baseball bleachers at a local small-town match, I have a better understanding of the Cuban love for the game.

That criticism aside, I really enjoyed this book, both before visiting Cuba and even more afterwards. In fact, I think that I inadvertently stumbled on the very best way to read it.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (although if you’re visiting Cuba, why not buy the e-book for $12.50 AUD and take it with you)

Rating: 8.5/10

‘El Sabueso de los Baskerville’ por Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sabuesobaskervilles

Ah! This is the Sherlock Holmes I like. None of that Benedict Cumberbatch smart-arsery and supercilliousness.  Really, I think that the new Sherlock Holmes episodes are too post-modern for their own good.  Is that the fin of a shark I see circling?

jumpsharkgraph

This Sherlock Holmes only arrives at the end to announce his words of wisdom and solve the mystery in words simple enough for me to follow (even in basic-level Spanish)

You know, I don’t think that I’ve ever read the Hound of the Baskervilles before. Country houses on the moor; mysterious servants and neighbours and an eerie howl that pierces the fog in dark nights. What more could you want?