Category Archives: Uncategorized

Serenading Adela: the short movie!

You might remember that in January of 2018 I was involved in a street opera ‘Serenading Adela’, which commemorated the centenary of Adela Pankhurst’s imprisonment in Pentridge Prison, and the night when women marched to the prison to ‘serenade’ her with socialist and anti-conscription songs.  A full video of the performance will be made, and this short promotional film has been released to attract potential funders.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find me, although occasionally I can be glimpsed.  Anyway, enjoy the performance…. it was great fun.

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‘Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden past’ by Giles Tremlett

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2012 second edition, 446 p.

I’m not a particularly keen reader of travel books, but as I’m going to be in Spain in the next few days, I decided to read this book which has gathered pretty good reviews. It’s written by a journalist who has lived in Spain for over twenty years, making him enough of an insider to understand what he is seeing, but enough of an outsider to have his attention attracted by the unfamiliar.

Throughout the book he refers to the ‘two Spains’ – the conservative, religious Spain and the outward-looking, liberal if not socialistic Spain – that still exist in Spain today. The first three chapters are about Franco and the Spanish Civil War and the general agreement to look the other way and leave well enough alone.  After these first chapters I thought that the book was going to continue in this vein, but it became more journalistic and digressive. He moves around different regions of Spain (the Basque Region, Catalan district and Gallacia), as well as discussing childrearing practices and death rituals.  There’s a good map and a good index, so it acts well as reference book.  It’s fairly current, with a good discussion of the Madrid terrorist bombings, immigration and the economic recession following the global financial crisis that particularly affected Spain and Greece.

I won’t know until I’ve been there how useful any of this is going to be, and whether there will be resonances in what I see. Quite apart from the anticipation that the book has aroused, it was an interesting and entertaining read with a narrator that you feel you’d like to know.

My rating: 8/10

Read because: Voy a Espana!

‘Like a Fading Shadow’ by Antonio Munoz Molina

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2017, 308 p. Translated from the Spanish by Camilo A Ramirez

This book takes as its starting point the little-known fact that after the assassination of  Martin Luther King, the chief suspect James Earl Ray spent ten days in Lisbon, trying to obtain an Angolan visa. When this did not succeed, he went to London, where he was arrested.

This thread of the story, based on true facts, is interwoven with the author’s own narrative of the act of writing. This itself is split into two further threads: in 1987 when, as a young writer, the first-person author went to Lisbon to write another story (which we never get to read) set in Lisbon, and then a return journey in 2012,  when the author returns to Lisbon, then travels to Memphis to research the James Earl Ray story for, presumably, the book you are reading.

This all sounds rather complex, but it’s not really while you’re reading it, once you realize that there are two separate author narratives in play.  In a way, it is almost a relief to break away from the increasingly fevered, paranoid world of James Earl Ray which, left unmediated, would be suffocating.  As his money runs out, he is becoming encircled by his own fears and distrust as much as anything else.  When the end comes – as we know it does – Molina jumps ahead to James Earl Ray in prison years later, writing his own narrative that centres on ‘Raoul’, the man Ray claimed to have been behind the assassination. Molina reports this, but sceptically.

Separated by twenty-five years, the older author ‘I’ is a more balanced, reflective man than the younger author, who left his wife with a newborn second baby in order to follow his passion in writing his novel.  As an older man, he is by now reflective about the act of writing, the role of novelization and the narrative imagination.

The last part of the book takes us almost minute-by-minute to Martin Luther King, hanging over the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.  We know exactly what is going to happen, yet Molina manages to wind up the tension as we wait for the finger to press the trigger.

The time shifts in this book are complex, but Molina keeps good control of them.  It’s a taut, controlled book that draws you on, even though you know how it’s going to end.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Off we go again

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Guess where I’m going this time? Some wedding shoes; a hiking hat and boots; a Spanish phrase book.  Yep.  I’m going to David’s wedding in Nairobi, I’m going to look at gorillas in Rwanda/Uganda then I’m off to the south of Spain.

Wot larks!  You can follow me at my other blog:

https://landofincreasingsunshine.wordpress.com/

‘A Good Day to Die’ by Lisa Birnie

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1998, 227 p.

When I saw that this book was my bookgroup’s selection for May, I wondered how I would cope with it, as Dad died at home in January this year. My qualms might seem rather paradoxical, given that I chose to read Pat Jalland’s Australian Ways of Death right in the midst of Dad’s passing. Somehow that seemed different.  I wanted to read Jalland to contextualize what I was feeling within a historical frame of distant times and foreign mindsets – a comfortable and comforting exercise for me- whereas these were contemporary, personal stories told from my own city.  I felt that I could trust Jalland’s distance and span as a historian, but I didn’t feel the same way about a journalist with an eye to the good story.  As it turned out, the book wasn’t as confronting as I feared it might be, but my misgivings were not assuaged by the time I finished it.

Lisa Birnie was a writer-in-residence who spent several weeks at McCulloch House, a palliative care centre attached to Monash Medical Centre. There she spoke with patients, families and staff members while seeking the answer to her question: “Is euthanasia desirable or necessary or could accessible palliative care supplant the need for it?” As the weeks went on, and as she met more patients, her question changed to “Should a rigidly circumscribed law be drafted that permits patient-requested euthanasia in cases where all palliative care practices to control pain have been unable to do so?”

The fraught question of euthanasia was one that she had grappled with in her earlier book Uncommon Will: The Death and Life of Sue Rodriguez (1994), where she followed the legal battles of a young woman with Motor Neurone Disease to commit suicide with a doctor’s assistance.  She came away from that case concerned that euthanasia would inevitably be used against people who did not want it, and that it would pre-empt further research and provision of good palliative care.  Moreover, by her own admission, Birnie acknowledges being ‘spiritual’, and I think that both these dispositions drove her to explore and frame her questions as she did.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each fronted with an epigraph and a short title: Hope, Denial, Searching for Meaning, Pain, Living Fully Until Death, Attitude, the Caregiver, Faith, Last Rites, Grief and Love, The End and the Beginning.  Each chapter is similar in structure, starting first with the story of a particular individual, their illness and their family, followed by an interview with a staff member.  I felt just a little voyeuristic, prying into this most intimate and physical of events, but there was much to think about too. There was young Michael, aged 30, dying with melanoma shortly after his second child was delivered by caesarean so that he could see him before he died; or Adrian, also in his thirties, whose mother clung to the hope of a miracle.  There were people who kept having more and more surgery; a woman who wanted her daughter and friend to be part of her death; a man with sarcoma of the mouth who drew from the strength of his brother; and most memorably a driven business-man whose anger at his illness was an extension of his need to control his family and business as well.

Her approach is anecdotal, not analytic.  Only in one chapter did she venture beyond the walls of McCulloch House to consider palliative care in the home (as we did with Dad). I feel that she was somewhat ‘captured’ by McCulloch House and her feelings about palliative care in the home are equivocal.  She did not ever come to a definitive view. She was more conscious of the limitations of pain relief for a small percentage of people and her concerns about euthanasia becoming normalized still stood.

This book was written twenty years ago. I wonder how she would feel about the Assisted Dying legislation passed in Victoria last year.  She alluded to negative experience from the Netherlands, which does not tally with my perception of the overseas data presented to the enquiry and legislation last year.   Most particularly, her book deals only with patients dying with cancer. She does not deal with patients with dementia, or MND and other degenerative diseases (not that the Victorian legislation gives any comfort to dementia sufferers and their families.) By the end of the book, I was left feeling that she had not really shifted all that far in her attitudes from where she was at the start i.e. a spiritual woman concerned about the ‘slippery slope’.  On the other hand, I was pleased that the question was still left open in her own mind.  I do wonder, too, if she’s still alive (she was born in 1928, although still very actively writing in 2014) and whether she still feels the same way.

It was interesting (and somewhat sobering) to listen to our book group discussion, amongst a group women aged mid-60s to mid-80s. I was a bit surprised at the strength of feeling against assisted dying held by some of our members, reflecting the strength of my own feelings to the contrary, I suspect.

Read because: CAE bookgroup

My rating: 8?  It’s difficult to separate my own feelings about her conclusions, from my feelings about the book

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I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of her before and I didn’t realize that  she was Australian. She was born in Australia and started her career at the Warrnambool Standard, then the Hobart Mercury and Argus before travelling to London to cover royal events. She then travelled to San Francisco, and later lived in Vancouver.

There’s a podcast from 2014 where she talks about her journalistic career at https://soundcloud.com/cjsfradio/sxw-oct-15-lisa-hobbs-birnie

‘Chinese Market Gardens in Australia and NZ: Gardens of Prosperity’ by Joanna Boileau

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2017, 327 p.

Most Victorian country towns and suburbs that had access to a river with a floodplain  tended, at one stage or another, to have a Chinese market garden.  Not just in Victoria either-  there were Chinese market gardens right along the eastern coast of Australia, in Western Australia too, and in New Zealand. They’re largely forgotten now, as most had disappeared by World War II.  However, for about 50 years between about 1880 and 1930 the Chinese market gardens fulfilled an important role in providing fresh vegetables to urban markets.

Joanna Boileau’s book takes a transnational approach, locating these gardeners not just in sites across Australia and New Zealand, but back in China as well. The majority of Chinese immigrants to Australia and the Pacific from the mid19th century onwards came from a restricted area of Southern China, the Pearl River Delta region of Guandong Province.  There, a highly developed agricultural economy had reached the limits of its cultivable land in 1850, leading to mass emigration where single men travelled overseas to earn money to send home to their families. They had little capital, and indeed indebted themselves to family and labour agents in order to make the journey, but they took with them their labour and agricultural skills.

In Australia, the dominance of large scale pastoralism and agriculture for export or mixed farming meant that small scale, intensive market gardening as the sole source of income was considered of low status.  This opened up an economic niche that Chinese labourers filled, lured by the gold rush, but aware of the high prices for vegetables.  They also started up businesses in laundries and furniture making, but discriminatory legislation introduced in Victoria to curtail Chinese business opportunities left them few options other than market gardening and restaurants.

The gardens were run by profit-sharing syndicates of almost exclusively single men. They tended to live beside the gardens in small sheds in poor conditions, where they were often robbed. With time, these syndicates integrated the various occupations involved in food supply: gardening, hawking, running fruit and vegetable stores, and the wholesale fruit and vegetable distribution network.  Between 1910-1920 in Victoria, they attained a virtual monopoly of the business at the time.

But they worked hard. The Chinese market garden was highly labour intensive.  The soil was prepared, straight furrows were dug, seedlings were transplanted from their own seeds, they were watered by bucket over the shoulders two rows at a time, hoed, harvested, and prepared for sale. They were manured with fermented human excrement and urine, that was collected in large stone urns. This technique was admired by some, and abhorred by others.  Unlike European market gardeners, who tended to plant whole paddocks with the one crop, they mixed together different vegetables with differing harvesting times.  They dealt with plants individually, rather than as a bulk crop. Their intent was to have a steady supply of produce, cropped and earning monetary return as soon as possible.

However,  the number of Chinese market gardens began declining after 1910 and by WWII most of them had disappeared. With the enforcement of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, there was not a steady influx of new generations, and so the existing market gardeners became older and older. New Italian, Greek and Maltese arrivals were moving into market gardening from the 1920s and 1930s e.g. at Werribee in Victoria, and landowners now subdivided their land instead of leasing it for market gardening.

I suspect that this book has probably emerged from a PhD thesis, with its rather theoretical opening chapter that deals with diaspora, technology transfer, material culture studies and transnationalism. The book covers the eastern states of Australia, and New Zealand, so it really provides a good survey of Chinese market gardening. I found her account of the relationship between Chinese and Maori gardeners fascinating, and it marked a real difference between Australia and New Zealand in terms of the relationship between indigenous people and the Chinese.  Despite the broad scope of its analysis, she also identified individual market gardeners by name, something that the housewives on their back doorstep could do too, because of their familiarity with these men who called weekly with their vegetables.  The subject matter of this book may be rather specialized, but it reads very easily and really fleshes out with individuals a stereotype that has largely disappeared.

Sourced from: State Library of Victoria e-book (did you know that you can borrow them at home?)

Read because: We’re including Chinese Market Gardens in an upcoming display at Heidelberg Historical Society

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I’ve added this book to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘Reason and Lovelessness: Essays, encounters, reviews 1980-2017’ by Barry Hill

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2018, 488p.

This is a big book and it took a long time to read.  ‘Big’ because it’s pushing 500 pages in length, and ‘big’ because it spans  37 years – a whole career.  But it wasn’t just the size that made it such a drawn-out reading experience.  It’s also because the essays are dense with ideas, and I found myself only able to read one at a time.  They were mentally chewy and I wanted to let each one sit for a while.

Barry Hill has hovered on the edge of my consciousness without ever really breaking through.  I was aware that he won plaudits for Broken Song, his biography of Ted Strehlow, and I’ve been vaguely aware of him through the Australian Book Review.  Looking through the long list of publications at the beginning of the book, he’s been writing novels and poems since the 1970s. However, I haven’t read any of them.

I like reading essays, largely because they allow me to meet the author half-way: to sit in on a conversation, if you like.   The essays that I enjoyed most in this collection were where he wrote as a son, writing about his father – an old union man and peace activist-   in ‘Letter to My Father’; or about his mother in ‘Brecht’s Song’.

But many of other essays were more cerebral than emotional.  After an excellent introduction by Tom Griffiths, the book is divided into four parts: Close to Bones; Inland; Naked Art Making, and Reason and Lovelessness, from which the collection takes its name.  Part II (Inland) can be fairly easily characterized as being explorations of  colonialism, with reviews and commentaries on W. E. H. Stanner, Greg Dening and elaborations on his own work on Ted Strehlow.  He has really enticed me into moving Broken Song up from ‘one day’ to ‘soon’ as far as my own reading is concerned. He really does not like Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines at all (I haven’t read that one, either).  In Part III (Naked Art Making) there are several essays on Lucien Freud, John Wolseley and the Australian artist Rod Moss whose work is on the front cover.   Parts I and IV are more diverse, several of them based on interviews with poets, writers and artists. In Part IV in particular there are steps of logic that seem to link the essays together.

But I must confess that for many of these essays, I felt left behind.  I hadn’t read the work or the author he was discussing, and on the few occasions when I had, I realized the richness of what I was missing.  (e.g. his essays on Greg Dening and Robert Manne;  his excellent essay about William Buckley who lived with the Port Phillip Wathaurong people after escaping from the convict settlement at Sorrento in 1803, his essay on George Orwell).  Reading through his essay on Ezra Pound, I asked my very-widely-and idiosyncratically-read  husband “Have you ever read any Ezra Pound?”.  He had  (of course), and then went on to talk about several of the things that Hill discussed. ” Well, have you heard of Rabindranth Tagore?” I asked him.  Again, yes he had, and again mentioned things that Hill had also covered. “YOU should be reading this book!” I told my husband, and I meant it. There’s a conversation going on here, but I’m not part of it.

Should that matter? I found myself thinking of Montesquieu of all people, and the beguiling ease with which he draws you into his conversation. I rarely felt that same ease with Hill’s essays, beyond the more personal ones about his own family.  Perhaps that’s because in many of these essays, he’s writing as a critic.  Summarizing the content of a work is not part of the role of the critic, and there’s an implicit assumption that the reader is familiar with the work under discussion.  That is the  reader that Hill is writing for; not someone on the outside looking in.  Several of the essays are reflections on interviews and conversations he has conducted with writers –  Christina Stead and Rai Gaita – underlining that he is part of their milieu.  As a poet, he writes about other poets – Fay Zwicky, Shonagon (the author of The Pillow Book)- and he shares in own poetry in several of the essay.

Given that these essays were written over thirty-five years, they have probably been selected to resonate with the 2018 political climate. ‘The Mood We’re In: circa Australia Day 2004’ was given as an Overland lecture, and it captures that strange era of Latham-esque politics.  He still rages over the Bush/Blair/Howard invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his feeling of impotence when protests across the world were futile permeates his essays ‘The Uses and Abuses of Humiliation’, ‘Poems that Kill’ and ‘Human Smoke, Bared Throats”.  There is not – mercifully- even a breath of Trump.  I suspect that he would find Trump almost beyond words.

This is not an easy book, written by “a truly learned man” as Tom Griffiths notes in his introduction. It demands intellectual chops and familiarity with an eclectic and erudite reading and artistic menu that strays far beyond my knowledge. I felt a bit intimidated by it, frankly.

Sourced from: a review copy from Monash University Publishing.