Posts filed under ‘biography’



Its Iceland and its eighteen twenty three,
there is work and the stink of poverty,
there is a crime and there is water,
and there is Agnes Magnusdottirr. She is no-ones daughter.

She is in the hands of fat man in red coats,
with their blame and certainty
they have privilege in plenty, but not much mercy.
She has the cold, and now she knows she is never growing old.
Its motivation enough to slit their throats.

She is sensitive and intelligent.
She is observant, but practical enough to lie.
She is tragic and arrogant,
and she is condemned to die.

They work, eat, sleep and pray
in the Badstofa. Its a room with 6 beds,
where they squint through the northern gloom
to pick lice from each others’ heads,
and ignore the stink of the chamber pot
and the cattle in their sheds.

They dress in wet wool and eat blood sausage, these folk,
and they cough blood on to dirt floors through thick smoke.
Their windows have no glass,
they are made from the membrane of a fishs’ arse.
The free, the servants and the condemned
endlessly knitting socks as if it will help her mend.

This is rural Iceland, not a museum diorama.
It is so detailed it beats the real thing.
This world imagined by Hannah Kent,
as the backdrop for what was a true life drama.
Its pre-industrial and pre-modern, its pre everything
except the enlightenment,

because its poverty
and religiosity
are washed with democracy,

and the rights and freedoms of John Stewart Mill.
The poverty is still brutal,
but the politics are not feudal:
there are no lords that kill,
it’s the courts and the people’s will;

there are landed farmers with servants,
but all alike can read and write
and everyone sleeps in the one room, though I don’t know how;
there are no landlords and no tenants;
and everyone gets tried in a court, they have that right.
In a sense it’s a stop on the way, to how we live now.

But for Agnes Magnussdottirr,
no one’s daughter,
it is too little and too early,
not enough to stop the execution of this surly girly.
She’s the right woman in the wrong time.
A time when a criminal is needed for every crime.
She is too smart for her own good,
a clever woman cannot be good,

so the fat men say, and they say it was Agnes Magnessdottirr.
We may not like it
but even so
we cannot know
it was not her.

Hannah Kent
gives her character the cold,
not only of Iceland but also of the soul.
She paints her less emotional than competent,

as a smart woman in the wrong time.
A disappointed peasant, rather than deranged witch.
But this is a version of history,
She could have been a bitch.

It’s not the real Agnes Magnusdottir.
We can never know her.
She could be a witch or deserve to be sainted.
Is this portrait a beautiful painting or is it tainted?
Yu know all this, its just like the moon lander,
but this version seems more like history than propaganda.

And partly thats because the Cinderella of this story
meets her prince up to her elbows in mince.
He’s an unbeliever but he sees her,
unfortunately their first kiss starts a love that couldn’t be more gory.

There are no metaphors in this love story.

She really did lose her head, and he really did take it like a knife to the heart,
It really was till death do us part.

While her history seems like great work of letters,
judging from the sources listed in the authors notes,
her literary achievement is even better.
For example, review these quotes

mostly, though not all, from Agnes the star of the show. She says:
Her poetry made lamps out of people;
The dark comes, it has settled down in these parts like a bruise in the flesh of the earth;
The world has stopped snowing;
The verses lifted over the snowy field and fell about them like mist;
I won’t let go of you Agnes I’m right here;
You are not a monster.

I say –
we are all monsters
when forced together
like chicks in a nest,
in a fight for food, warmth and rest.

So, in conclusion, it’s a novel about what went wrong.
The prose is decorated but not too long,
It is a sad story,
touching and a little gory
in the tradition of a Scandinavian Saga song.


There is a rather annoying academic review here. the author’s own website may be more informative than that or the above


December 16, 2014 at 10:27 am 1 comment


nedWe each read a book on Ned Kelly and then talked about whether we thought he was a psychopath, a disadvantaged youth, a political activist, or all of the above, as generations of australians have before us.

If you have any interest in Ned  ironoutlaw is the place to visit. It reviews every book there is about ned, fiction, non-fiction and everything else, and gives them a rating of 1 to 5 Neds. peter carey’s booker prize winner for instance, which many book groupers read, gets 4.5 Neds whereas robert drew only gets 1.5. quite a few get 5 Neds including one called ellen, which is a biography of ned’s mum. some of the 5 Ned rated fiction and non fiction are shown below.

The most recent non-fiction ned book is by peter fitzsimons. one book grouper read it and said it was fantastic. she had no problem finishing it, even though it is a real door stopper at 700 pages.

I read the jerilderie letter. It is ned’s own words and he uses a very peculiar style, much like james joyce used 25 years later in ulysses. It is the style imitated by carey in his booker winner. its a great read from an historical, political and psychological perspective.

another book grouper read one on the legal issues. the most interesting aspect being that there was a specific act of parliament passed about ned and his gang. great compliment to gangster you would think.

insearch Ned-Kelly-masson Ellen_Cover_Small Book_WhistleMan Book_TrueHistory Book_InnerHistory Book_FarBeyondTheFalls Book_Australian_Son_Newned by fitzjerilderie

The Wild Colonial Boy‘ is a traditional australian bush song from the bushranger era. that is the era of australian history to which ned belonged, and of which ned is the  most legendary character. The song was rearranged as below specially for our bookgroup event on ned, which was held in glebe.
There was a wild glebe island girl

Zell Barker was her name

A poor but honest poodle
Found abandoned in a lane
She was her fathers great despair
her mothers pride and joy
And dearly did her parents love

That wild glebe island girl

So come away me hearties
And let our minds run free
Together we will eat
And together we will drink
We’ll read in every valley
we’ll talk all or’er the plains,
And scorn to live in slavery,
Bound down by iron chains.

a philosopher of note

Zell never shirked a choice

in every controversy known
she always had a voice
She called upon the book group
To come and take a stand
To decide upon Ned Kelly
and leave uncertainty alone
So come away me hearties
And let our minds run free
Together we will eat
And together we will drink
We’ll read in every valley
we’ll talk all or’er the plains,
And scorn to live in slavery,
Bound down by iron chains.
Let’s read about Ned Kelly
and ask just what it means
to love this murdering Irishman
a psychopath it seems
he may have loved his mother
And been a damn fine poet
But he also loved his violence
This Wild Colonial Boy
So come away me hearties
And let our minds run free
Together we will eat
And together we will drink
We’ll read in every valley
we’ll talk all or’er the plains,
And scorn to live in slavery,
Bound down by iron chains.
He was born down in Victoria
 that was his native home,
Accross  Australia’s sunny shores
A bushranger did roam.
he made that iron suit
To escape the government attack
But not even iron it seems could save
That Wild Colonial Boy
So come away me hearties
And let our minds run free
Together we will eat
And together we will drink
We’ll read in every valley
we’ll talk all or’er the plains,
And scorn to live in slavery,
Bound down by iron chains.

January 14, 2014 at 12:31 pm Leave a comment


bookgroup decided to do the happiest refugee by anh do because it was looking for something funny and every report i heard from people said this was the book – the comments by readers attached to this review were typical of what i’d heard. their rating of the book is off the scale as you can see

the book is also very timely in that it tells the story of an asylum seeker coming bere by boat, and becoming a successful well loved australian. not only does it tell that story but it has become a very popular book and seems to have received nothing but praise. this review is yet another example. given current political attitudes that seems surprising

the story is amazing – i thought he was a comedian but he has a commerce/law degree as well, and it seems his brother and sister have also done well. its a great tribute to them but also to the way this country used to treat boat people, which makes it even more puzzling as to why we dont do the same now

so with all this build up and expectation did the book deliver for bookgroupers? – well i think you can guess the answer

October 7, 2012 at 7:09 am Leave a comment


all that i am could be seen as yet another book about WW2 and the Nazis but its actually about the inter-war period, and lots more besides – sydney, old age, masculinity, self identity, love and what is it that is important about our lives – to name a few

the small number of bookgroupers present were very positive about the book, some, me included, very positive.

Its billed as a novel, because it is written in the first person in the voice of two characters. toller is a famous german poet and activist amending his autobiography in a hotel room in new york on the eve of WW2. while ruth is an elderly former photographer and teacher in bondi looking back on her life as a refugee and activist in germany and london between the wars, and on her life as an old lady in bondi in the 90s. However, both these characters are real people and the events described actually took place.

This fact that the events are real is important because the plot includes a number twists where characters do things that seem inexplicable, and if it were fiction the reader would not find it believable. Knowing these events really occurred forces the reader to consider why.

The events follow the life of dora. she was a real life pioneering feminist, socialist and anti-nazi activist. She is also ruth’s slightly older cousin and best friend, and toller’s editor and the love of his life. The book is largely the two of them retelling the same events in dora’s life and death from their respective viewpoints.

the question of why we do what we do, in particular why he does what he does, is the one that pre-occupies toller. As the book commences toller is the man that every, slightly bookish, teenage boy wants to be. He is a war hero from WW1, a poet, a successful playwrite that dates actresses, a progressive political activist, great speech maker and prisoner of conscience. That is some resume, but as the book progresses it turns out toller is as dysfunctional as all men, and probably much worse.

the character of toller is very revealing of the contradictions within men, particularly our attitudes to the women we love and to the idea of our worth and our legacy. for example, on love, and therefore dora he says

so much of love is a curiosity, a search inside the other for some little piece of self, emerging from the bear cave of them with your birthday candle and a filament of ore: the same as i am made of p93
when you are in love with someone you cannot see around them, you cannot get their human measure. you cannot see how someone so huge to you, so miraculous and unfathomable, can fit, complete, into that small skin. p150

on the woman he stupidly left dora for he says “her standards of decent treatment from a man were way to low to protect her from me”.

on the question of what should we do with our lives, he struggles with whether he should continue to write, keep at politics, or give up on life. in end he can no longer do politics, although he thinks he should, and he says to the poet auden “its a strange pathology dont you think to want to be something other than what you are” Auden replies “all that we are not stares back at all that we are”

The revealing, but at times annoying self absorption and introspection of the depressive writer and politician, toller, contrasts sharply with the self effacing, but insightful, observations of the photographer, ruth.

ruth has numerous great lines throughout the book, about modern sydney, about the english, the other characters in the book and by extension about all of us.

on dora (p285)

Everyone thought her so independent as to have no needs, or at least none that they single handedly could meet. This is the curse of the capable, it leaves them prone to pockets of aloneness

on retrospection and the end of life, and what ifs (p283)

We don’t understand one another, we may not ever give each other just what we need. All that remains is kindness.

my favourite is what she says about the looks on peoples faces as she, now a frail old lady, but also many other things beside, refugee, activist, photographer, teacher, wife, walks down the street (p138) “I am a woman on her way to eat cake.” in the context it felt like reading the declaration of independence, or liberty fraternity equality…. and cake.

April 6, 2012 at 6:46 am Leave a comment


The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, came highly recommended to several bookgroupers by several different people. It was also the subject of a lot of talk in Sydney in 2011. Can you believe the hype?

It is the history of the Ephrussi, a jewish family, and some japanese netsuke owned by the family. These pictures show the netsuke and the family.

The author is a world renowned potter, and the book opens with him in Japan, making pots. This introduction tries to explain the potters’ obsession with things, physical objects and how they feel. He inserts this introduction to justify writing a whole book about 250 small, old, objects. This justification is not successful at this point in the book. However, it quickly becomes clear that from the point of view of the reader, the book is a lively and engaging history of many of the key places and events of the last 150 years, so no further justification is needed. The author remains focussed on the Netsuke, but the reader need not.

The real interest in the book, and the reason it has drawn such high praise from so many, i think is that many of its central characters are at the same time heroic, but also deeply puzzling. Many of their efforts and achievements are very impressive, whilst at the same time some of their key life choices seem so obscure and quirky.

The first and possibly best example being Edmund, the author. We see him obsessing about Japanese pot manufacture, and willing to devote years out of his successful potting career to write a history of these objects – the netsuke. These seem like dubious choices but he turns them in to triumphs, as the book is huge success, and he remains a very successful potter.

The other key characters in this mould include:
– Charles in 1860s and 1870s paris. He could have been a dissolute wealthy young man, but he becomes a patron of obscure artists, and many of them go on to be famous. He becomes so successful in this role that Proust bases his legendary character ‘Charles Swann’ from La Recherche du Temps Perdu on him.
– Viktor, the intellectual third son of fabulously wealthy Ignace. Being the third son he sets his sights on a life of literature and culture in Vienna, but suddenly his father and brothers die or flee. He then takes on the the entire empire, apparently uncomplainingly, and marries a young beautiful fashionista and carries on the family business – only to stay far too long in Vienna and lose it all to the Nazis.
– Iggie the gay wannabe fashion designer who goes to tokyo immediately post war – and stays to build a successful life.
– Elizabeth, a jewish woman who becomes a lawyer in anti-semitic, anti-woman post WW1 Vienna.

Apart from these characters the other key attraction of the book is the times and places in which it is set. The Paris of Proust, the Vienna of Freud and Einstein and Klimt, the Vienna of Hitler, and post Hiroshima, American occupied, then booming 20th century Tokyo.

As the family is wealthy and famous there are public records of the day to day activities of these characters, in these times and places. This detail brings these places to life in way i had not previously experienced, and made the book a great way to get a much more vivid, fleshy, understanding of some of the key events of modern history.

For the keen students there is lots more info out there on the book and the issues it raises. For example:
This episode of All in the Mind about Freud shows how he went thru almost exactly the same things in the late 30s as the Ephrussi in order to get out of Vienna and none of his family ever went back, much like the Ephrussi.
This episode of The Philosophers Zone shows what an amazing collection of characters there were in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. As the book says, Vienna at that time invented the 20th century both its best and worst bits.
This segment of Saturday Extra backs up that point, arguing that even though we in the anglophone west speak english we think german.
– This episode of the bookshow on radio national, was all about the book.

December 31, 2011 at 7:01 am Leave a comment


It was like a reverie or that moment you notice on a Sunday afternoon when you’re falling into sleep. The focus was elusive much of the time but as a fey tone this wasn’t necessarily a flaw but a deliciousness. only once or thrice I wondered if I was going to be able to grasp something that would stay with me for more than a few more blinks of the eye.

WG Sebald is a well known german author who died in 2001 after living in england since 1966. he published The Emigrants, in 1993 about four different jewish germans that emigrated, mostly in the early twentieth century, well before the holocaust. if he had been me, and had written about our bookgroup meeting on his book, it might have read something like this.

We gathered at the apartment of Mr D only a short walk from the railway station at M. It was a clear bright winters day but I arrived out of focus having just heard, simultaneously, that my elderly mother was very ill and that i was much closer than i expected to a woman who had been much in my thoughts. she was still young and beautiful, still in a time and place when youth is not quite yet a memory, not yet just a series of images about which we can talk and imagine the feelings we may have had at the time, but can never be sure that really was how we felt. I can recall the smell of grass clippings in summer in L where i grew up. L was a tropical place so i imagine the sweat, and the itchy feeling of grass clippings on tanned skin, even the resentment i may have felt at being forced to do the mowing again – maybe i thought ‘why didnt i have a dad or brother or somebody who could do it’. Memories, i was thinking as we knocked on the door, are like a country from which we have emigrated, the beds, the bread, the houses, every time we go there in our minds we remake all these things anew. was the bread fresher, were the summers longer did everyone smile, was it always more perfect than today. we will never know for sure sure because it was then and we are not that person anymore, we can only imagine ourselves into the remembered picture like we imagine ourselves into the heads of characters in a book.

Mr D, as usual, had wines with a story, a pinot noir from a particular region that i took a liking to and a shiraz that left me wondering why all wine could not taste like that. equally Mr K had desserts from an obscure corner of the metropolis and just when i was thinking i know where these men come from so what could explain this sophistication, Ms A asked the same question – what food had we grown up with and how many books we had in our houses. The answers may have been guesses, one can never be sure.

part way through a dessert somebody said something very interesting but i only got half of it because I was thinking mildly of mother lying in hospital, wondering if she was thinking back, had there been a time in her life when she was too young and too beautiful for someone?

That really was interesting what they’re saying about the book, that it was so beautiful but it was so slow, like grey hands moving in a grey mist, so you cant be sure how many there are, or if they have, or they are just about to, grasp something, or if they never will, they will just keep moving in the mist, twining and untwining, back and forth, up and down in a dance both beautiful and dull, ceaseless, and beyond beauty, purposeless.

in the end the book was like that, soft, dreamy, grey, beautiful, intensely human but disturbingly pointless. long sentences that lasted whole pages and lengthy dialogue in which it was not clear, always, who was talking – was it the author, or the character, was the author talking to the character, or reminiscing for the reader, or just dreaming on the borrowed memories of his characters.

July 16, 2011 at 6:37 am 1 comment


nomad by ayaan hirsi Ali

The book demands that readers question their views on cultural relativism, religious freedom, and the universality, or otherwise, of womens rights. Bookgroupers disagreed strenuously on whether the book went over the line, from defending women’s rights into racism, religious intolerance and cultural stereotyping.

It was a very spirited debate with some bookgroupers apalled by the book and others very positive.

The book interweaves the life story of the author and her family with her reflections on that story. Her reflections are focussed the implications of migration of people from tribal Muslim cultures like her own, both for the countries they arrive in, and for the cultures they leave behind.

Bookgroupers agreed that her personal story is interesting. She was raised in a somali family in Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Kenya. Her grandmother was a traditional desert nomad, her father a Somali politician of sorts. As a teenager she was circumcised and then exported to Canada, to an arranged marriage with a relative she had never met. She ran away en route and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she went on to learn the language, go to university, get an arts degree, and become an MP, author and film maker after working as a translator for the dutch Somali community.

Bookgroupers agreed this was a good story and with some of her conclusions, such as that genital mutilation should not be tolerated.

However some bookgroupers felt there was no value in her defence of muslim women because in the process she lumped all muslims together, saying they all have the same attitudes and practices as those that she had experienced in her own childhood.

Those on the other side, like myself, felt she contextualised her comments adequately, because it was clear she was talking about practices and cultures like those she grew up with, not all muslims.

We had a mini dual of quotes. On one side was the following two quotes

“textbooks gloss over the fundamentally unjust rules of islam and present it as a peaceful religion. institutions of reason must cast off these self imposed blinkers and reinvest in the ability to think critically, no matter how impolite some people may find the results.”

my view does not defame Muslims who do not have this belief and do not themselves oppress women

on the other side it is definitely true that she refers repeatedly to the ‘closed islamic mind’ which on face value does seem offensive.

The other issue of debate between bookgroupers was how she seems to be sympathetic towards christianity. Once again the debate was about whether she was making sweeping anti-islam and pro-christianty statements, or whether these statements were appropriately conditioned and contextualised.

i thought they were – as while she called for an ‘islamic enlightenment’ she pointed out that christianity had gone through the enlightenment over a period of centuries, prior to which it used to have the same problems. She also acknowledged that some current christians are fundamentalist.

However, what annoyed other bookgroupers was that she not only said moderate liberal christians are ok, but went on to propose that liberal churches, and she includes parts of the catholic church in that group, should provide services to, and seek to convert, islamic immigrants. you can see how some people might want to call that cultural imperialism rather than religious competition, as she calls it.

In conclusion, bookgroupers appreciated the feisty debate and we had heaps food and booze which helped to digest the argument, and ensured an air of xmas festivity.

Bookgroup blog readers titilated by these ideas and wanting to follow up any of these trails of thought should read on for more ideas, links and resources.

This podcast is an interview with a woman concerned about the same issues as hersi ali but going about it in a different way

Ida Lichter talks about Muslim women who are fighting back against discrimination and persecution. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and all around the world, women are demanding reforms. Some reject Islam as patriarchal, others believe it’s completely compatible with equality.

this podcast is about how the law in australia and deals with forced marriage. it reinforces a number of things said in the book and in a piece on other blog

Finally, something to contemplate from left field is that all these discussions of these issues use a rights based approach. that is, they talk about the’right’ to freedom of religion, or ‘cultural rights’, on one hand versus women’s ‘rights’ on the other. there is an alternative mainstream paradigm called utilitarianism. for example, peter singer, one of the most famous philosophers and vegetarians in world, argues for vegetarianism on the basis of utilitarianism not on basis of animal rights.

it would be interesting to look at the issue of cultural oppression of women from that basis, ie do these practices, on balance, for society as a whole promote ‘the general happiness’, as john stuart-mill would have put it.

the reason utilitarianism might be useful is the following proposition which seems to flow logically from a rights based approach.

On a right based approach you end up with the conclusion that practices are ok if they don’t harm people or if the people harmed consent to being harmed. This argument is detailed here. In relation to the part about consent there are clear questions about whether women consent to these practices. In relation to harm it’s clear there is harm to women in the case of violence, but it’s possibly arguable in the case of dress. Another interesting argument tribal men might put forward is that socalled bad behaviour by their women harms the men, through the honour concept. They might argue they have been harmed without their consent and the perpetrator should be punished.

December 12, 2010 at 3:40 am 3 comments

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