Posts filed under ‘biography’

THE OPTICIAN OF LAMPEDUSA by EMMA JANE KIRBY

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby- see the Guardian’s Review – Was a very detailed and moving portrayal of North African boat people being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, and some of them being rescued by italian passersby – one being the optician of the title.

The book details the impact on the optician and his friends across a full year after the rescue. In this way it gives some insight into what the actual story is behind the news headlines.

The bookgroup was very split on it. One half of the group, predominantly the women, thought it was great. A great insight into one persons experience of a tragic event and an insight into refugee issues. The other half of the group mostly men felt it didn’t deal with the issues at all. They also questioned whether it was actually non-fiction. Feeling imstead that really it was fictional in the sense that it was the journalist imagining what was going on in the head of the optician. Whereas the pro group felt it was the journalist describing what the optician had said to her, and it was real. It was actually what the optician was thinking.

I confess to being in the anti group. My problem was that I’m not sure what the point of it was. We have all seen the headlines a lot and I don’t think it takes much imagination to imagine what the events are really like behind those headlines. What impact it has on the people on the scene. I guess maybe some people don’t make the effort to do that, so maybe for them it will really help imagine what it is like to be involved.

For me I didn’t think it added anything. It certainly doesn’t change the political response, so I’m not sure what the point is of spending time wallowing in the pain and sorrow of tragic events like this, which you do reading this book. It does nothing to really change anything.

To me it feels a little bit self-indulgent to wallow in the sorrow of it when there’s nothing we can really do anyway. There are so many other tragic events in the world every day, many on a much larger scale than the migrant boat wrecks in the Mediterranean. You could easily write a book like this on the sorrow of malaria, diarrhoea, TB, or one of the various wars going on around the world, or just just any neighbourhood of extreme poverty. so why wallow in this particular tragedy in this particular place. it doesn’t seem to serve any particular purpose.

However, it is really well written and it does really take you there in a vivid way and gives you stories about the background and the lives of people involved, and their responses. It’s good to get that level of detail behind a headline.

My reaction to the optician himself was similar to my reaction to the book. I was a bit annoyed at his focus on the individuals. he seemed almost incapable really of seeing the bigger picture and seeing the complexity. Instead he was constantly complaining about ‘europe’ not doing something as if it’s obvious what could be done. The best example of this really was his desire to go back and rescue more when told they are all dead. he seemed vey naive, wilfully so.

A good thing though about the book was the description of post-traumatic stress, the impact on the lives of the optician and his wife, their sleep and so on. Although it was a bit frustrating. They didn’t seem like they sought help for all of that which was the obvious thing to do

Another thing that i found annoying about the book was its focus on the optician and the Italians. it really didn’t say much about what the African survivors went through in the 12 months after the rescue covered by the book. It did not go into at all the reasons why they left Eritrea. it really could’ve said a lot about this issue. It really is interesting and makes the Mediterranean boat people a completely different issue from the Syrians coming into eastern Europe and from the boat people in Australia and elsewhere.

However I think in the end the pro group probably won me over. I think a lot of my issues are criticising the book or something it was not trying to be. In particular it says on the cover that it is a novella. That is the author admitting that it’s a work of fiction. Also inside the front cover it says the book talks about the optician and not about all the other issues, that’s its goal. Those are the answers to me and the other people who criticised it. So I think i could recommend it to people who want an eyewitness account of what it’s like to be involved in those very tragic scenes that you see on the nightly news, but not to someone wanting a broad account of the issues behind those tragic scenes.

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July 20, 2018 at 3:59 am Leave a comment

A WOMAN IN BERLIN by ANONYMOUS

A Woman in Berlin is a first person account of one woman’s experiences, and the women she knew, of men in Berlin as WW2 ends.

A line used in the first couple of pages of the book sums up the view of these women – ‘better a Ruskie on top then an American overhead’. The line is essentially saying that when a women has only two choices, rape is better than death. The more of the book you read the better you understand the detail and meaning of that line, and how in some cases it wasn’t true.

Its a diary covering a few months in mid ’45 as Russian men take over Berlin street by street from the east, while allied forces continue bombing from the west.

As the Russians invaded thousands and thousands of women were raped repeatedly. We now know there was nothing unusual about these Russians. This is what all ‘conquering’ armies do everywhere and have done throughout history. But the book is unusual. It places the reader in the position of the women, a woman, experiencing this. It gives names and faces and feelings and life histories to the women dealing with these events, and tells you what they are thinking as it happens.

And deal with it they do. If you have to, how do you decide rape is better than death? how can you make such a decision? How much pain is bearable, will it be possible to live with the pain afterwards, and if so how? What are the consequences, will life just go on? The book is an amazing first person, written at the time, account of this scenario. One that has occurred in so many places, and so many times, in history, but is really if ever described, especially from a woman’s perspective.

However it is not limited to that one issue. It touches on gender politics more broadly. More correctly, it doesn’t just touch on it, it goes into a lot of detail and provides great insight into the the construction of the role of women. It also touches on all the questions that arise at the end of wars, including justice in relation to war atrocities, reconstruction after war, the role of the victors and the vanquished, the impacts on the defeated population, in particular the relationship between genders with the defeat.

One of the key reasons that the book is fabulous, and everybody in bookgroup enjoyed reading it despite the difficult subject matter, is that it seems incredibly 21st-century. Although it was written in 1945, by a woman who had grown up in the first half of the twentieth century, many of the attitudes in it seem very sophisticated and 21st-century. As if it was written today in 2018. The way she talks about war, women, politics, education and class all seem entirely contemporary to 2018.

The other reason we all loved it is that the author has such a clear voice. I think the best way to illustrate this, and just how 21st-century she is on all of these issues, is to provide a series of quotes.

Any minute I expect sublieutenant Anatol to show up as arranged. I’m worried because I suspect there will be a fight. Petka is strong as an ox, of course, and clean, but he’s primitive, uncouth – no protection. A sublieutenant on the other hand, ought to guarantee a kind of taboo, or so I imagine. My mind is firmly made up. I’ll think of something when the time comes. I grin to myself in secret, feel as if I’m performing on the stage. I couldn’t care less about the lot of them. I’ve never been so removed from myself so alienated. all my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. they shall not destroy me.

I have this repulsive sense of being passed from hand to hand; I feel humiliated and insulted, degraded into a sexual thing.

And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other, by speaking about it, hearing their pain and allowing others to and spit out.

All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.

Are there differences? Yes, substantial ones. But from what I can tell these distinctions are mostly ones of form and colouration, of the rules of play, not differences in the greater or lesser fortunes of the common people, which candy was so concerned about. And the individuals I encountered who were meek, subservient and utterly uninterested in any existence other than the one they were born into didn’t seem any unhappier in Moscow than they did in Paris for Berlin – all of them lived by adjusting their souls to the prevailing conditions. No my current gauge is an utterly subjective one: Personal taste. I simply wouldn’t want to live in Moscow. What oppressed me most there was the relentless ideological schooling, the fact that people were not allowed to travel freely, the absolute lack of any erotic aura. The way of life just wouldn’t suit me.

A man in the rathaus lobby was chiseling away at the relief of Adolf. I watched the nose come splintering off. What is stone, what are monuments? An iconoclastic wave such as we have never seen is surging through Germany. The new twilight of the gods – is it remotely possible that the big Nazis could ever rise again after this? As soon as I have freed my mind a little I really have to turn my attention to Napoleon; after all, he too was banished in his day, only to be brought back and glorified once more.

Incidentally Nikolai doesn’t think there will be inflation or a new currency – I asked this morning. He thinks the money we been using will stay in circulation for the time being, but that the banking industry will be overhauled and drastically simplified. ‘Probably socialised right’? I asked. No, he said ‘not that. These are completely different conditions’. And he changed the subject.

We took advantage of Herr R’s absence for a little female gossip. Ilse is a worldly, discriminating woman, very stylish. She’s travelled all over the globe. What’s her opinion on the Russian Cavaliers? ‘Pathetic’, she said, wrinkling her nose. ‘No imagination whatsoever. Simple minded and vulgar every last one, from everything I’ve heard around the building. But perhaps you had better experiences with your officers?’. No not in that regard’. ‘Maybe they have the latest in socialist planned economies but when it comes to matters erotic this still with Adam and eve. I told my husband that too, to cheer him up’. Then she says with a wink, ‘with food so scarce a poor husband doesn’t count for much. Mine is already getting a complex about it; he thinks that the red army with all its Lady killers really has a chance with us women’. We laughed and agreed that under normal conditions, 99 out of 100 of our worthy enemies wouldn’t have the slightest chance with us. At most this hundredth might be worth a try.

As I’m writing this I’m back in the widow’s apartment, where on spending the last night. It’s an orphans lot to wander, I suppose. The most better thing in the life of a single woman is that every time she answers some kind of family life, after a while she ends up causing trouble: she is one too many many, someone doesn’t like her because someone else does, and in the end they kick her out to preserve the precious peace. And still this page is smudged with a tear.

As you can see its just marvellous. Nevertheless because its so modern sounding questions about the authenticity of the diary have been raised.

I certainly understand the questioning. It seems hard to imagine a woman in that situation being able to abstract from her own situation to generalise so insightfully and articulately as she does. However its also impossible to imagine anyone inventing it. In any case, apparently these questions about authenticity have been dismissed by people who know other diaries of the era well – according to Antony Beevor’s intro to the edition i read – and he appears to be on such expert.

The fact that rape on a mass scale happens in war is not at all surprising. It’s repeatedly referred to in every account of every war that’s ever happened. What is novel about the book is that it’s the first hand account from a woman’s perspective. Normally these accounts are written by male historians years later so they are much less immediate, much less real in their impact on the reader, and really give no details at all of the women’s reactions – how they manage the situation. So the book is a new and interesting take on a really well known situation.

The other thing that’s interesting about it is that this woman’s perspective on mass rape is not just relevant to complete war and conflict scenarios it’s really the situation women have been in for most of history, in particular poor women.

If you imagine the life of a poor woman in the Roman Empire whether they be slaves or Roman they would’ve had no rights and the wealthy man in their lives could do whatever they like with them. Similarly in the Viking times, similarly mediaeval Europe, similarly with the aristocrats and peasants right through history. In the early days of the industrial revolution i imagine women having to resort to similar tactics as those described in the book to manage their landlords and the factory owners, and their rent collectors and foreman. Likewise in many hunter gatherer or other traditional societies i imagine the chiefs, priests and elders in many cases had little on no accountability and used that to rape whoever they wanted whenever they wanted.

The heart of the issue really is that in any scenario where there is no rule of law as we now call it, where there is no accountability, people will do appalling things as there are no consequences. People, specifically men, do appalling things if there is no figure of power figure that has the ability to impose consequences on the perpetrator. And if there is a power figure, or if that figure cannot be held to account, then he will do appalling things. So women throughout time have to find a way to manage that, as the author, and her neighbours, in the book did. Women have to do this whenever the social, cultural or legal barriers that impose consequences on the behaviour of men are weak.

I also think you can take a wider lesson from the story. There are no good people and no monsters. Someone can be good one minute and a monster the next, or good in one situation and a monster in another, and that applies to all of us. We should not be so arrogant to think that if we were unfortunate enough to find ourselves in a lawless situation that we would not be a monster.

One of the questions raised by the book is how did the author, how did anyone, survive these experiences and carry on. The book seems to answer that question with the quote I’d like to finish on. This quote seems to sum up the attitude of the author, and also of the whole war generation on both sides of the war. It perhaps provides part of the answer to how they were able to survive the war and go on to build the world as we know it.

‘Let’s just declare the whole thing over and start a new chapter.’

June 11, 2018 at 7:51 am Leave a comment

SAM’S BEST SHOT by JAMES BEST

This is an autobiographical story of a doctor who took his teenage autistic son, Sam, backpacking through Southern Africa. It is what he describes as an n=1 experiment. That is, an experiment with only one test subject. In this case the subject was Sam and the aim was to test whether ‘forcing him to endure’, or if you prefer ‘exposing him to’, lots of variety and chaos in the would, via brain plasticity, help his brain develop more connections and give Sam his ‘best shot’ at being ‘more normal’ as his dad puts it at one point in their book.

The author came along to the bookgroup so we were able to ask him about the book directly. Unfortunately I could not attend so i asked bookgroupers to send me their thoughts. Although i could not attend i did read the book and i think the bookgroupers have covered most of my thoughts below. I definitely liked the travelogue aspect.

Bookgrouper 1

As another bookgrouper reminded everyone, we normally talk about the book for about 45 minutes before the conversation descends (or in some cases elevates) to the subjects of politics, religion and sex. But having the author present changes that dynamic entirely. We were all very pleased to engage and be engaged by James for three hours straight. Sam was not able to attend but with James’ assistance made a video about his African experience specifically for the bookgroup. This was of special interest to us as it gave the bookgroup something more of a first-hand exposure to the unique way that Sam observes and negotiates the world. Also it provided insights into the dynamic that exists between Sam and James and places the events of the book in a more intimate context.

Fundamentally the book tells the story of James and Sam’s expedition to Africa for the purpose of exposing Sam to high levels of new and unpredictable experiences, without many (but not all) of their daily supports. Their travels took them through many countries over six months and presented them with constant daily challenges to not only simply negotiate their movement through, and experience of, Africa but also to complete a number of neuroplasticity exercises that would increase the flow of traffic across Sam’s corpus callosum (the part of the brain that facilitates communication between the hemispheres). Learning to play chess, boxing, writing, engaging in prolonged conversation with the general public were all exercises that extended Sam through this time. And all the while their experience was being recorded on video to document the project and also to produce a movie that might be broadcast on TV. In fact a month or so ago this video was shown on Australian Story.

It’s interesting that everyone in the group was so engaged with the broad subject of how we interact and work with people who have disabilities. It seems that everyone in the group either had a family member or friend who had a disability of some sort and were eager to discuss the subject of how our perceptions leads us to reach conclusions about what life must be like living with a disability (particularly an intellectual disability in this case) and how we can best interact positively and productively.

Of course travelling through Africa can be quite a challenging experience, and the regime that James set himself and Sam in order to test if Sam’s neuroplasticity could be expanded seemed on the surface like it would make the whole trip so much more difficult. And in many aspects that’s exactly what it did. However they could not have anticipated how generous people they met on route turned out to be, from fellow travellers, to local identities, to just people that they met in the street. Everyone seems to resonate with the effort that Sam and James were putting in to the project and were keen to participate and further the experiment in whatever way they could.

Autism still remains a big mystery for me even though I have met Sam on a few occasions and have also met other autistic children and adults in my daily experience. Someone like Sam seems to have so many capabilities alongside a kind of emotional myopia and the mix leads to a confusion on my part whether to step towards him or away from him. Fundamentally though he as a very friendly boy (nearly a man) even if at times outspoken and lacking in normal social graces. I appreciated the chance to get alongside both Sam and James’ experience and watch how this great experiment unfolded.

Bookgrouper 2

I’m still reading the book in drubs and drabs – ie it hasn’t captivated me but it has amazed me as to what they planned and endured together. Certainly demonstrates a father’s commitment to see if a strategy which has a reasonably strong scientific rationale but not strong evidence might make a difference to his son’s development and independence.

It is hard to imagine the real daily challenges of the minute by minute, hour by hour behavioural and situational challenges they both experienced and then have the energy to keep a diary, take videos, do the regime of physical and mental exercises and sustain this commitment for six months. Quite an achievement. I also have a better understanding of autism on a day to day basis with ongoing examples dotted throughout the book. I am certainly enjoying some of the vivid descriptions of the African countryside, animals and people.

More than just a book for parents of children with children autism.

Bookgrouper 3

One of the questions I asked was about why he chose Africa and could the trip be duplicated locally particularly for people without the resources to travel. James indicated that for him it was useful to have travelled outside Australia because if he had stayed within Australia he might have been tempted to return home when things were tough. Being in Africa encouraged him to deal with the difficult times. That said he was of the view that the tools and interventions he used could be duplicated in other environments.

It was a very enlightening and interesting bookgroup.

Bookgrouper 4

Just a few thoughts as I said yesterday…mostly

-I am a bit inhibited when the author was there

-he explained the there was no intention of a book or film until suggested by patients or friends who had a connection with a film mob and publishing mob

-went to Africa instead of Australia as he would have tossed it in, too easy to give in locally

-offered other sons the trip as well but they didn’t want to go, not because they wanted to have a break from Sam, just had other stuff on.

-he said it was really tough a lot of the time

– Sam did a video for us as he negotiated his way out of coming ” as he does”, very generous of James to come

– met some amazing people especially people like Morton who could look at their situation objectively and have an empathy with Sam

bookgrouper 5

You can¹t really tell the Author what you thought of the writing but it was good to discuss the issues of Autism and travel.

I asked questions relating to the issue of labelling people and what that does to them and everyone else and their relationships.

Also what the concept of NORMAL is. How its a socially constructed human and cultural invention.

Its was interesting to hear The writers research on what Autism might occur and how it develops to affect parts of the brain.

Of course the discussions about Africa and its beauty was also great.

Bookgrouper 6

Sam’s dad is a man of energy and purpose. He was generous in taking about his concern that the book not be read as ‘proof’ or a ‘cure’. We talked about the role of single case studies as building blocks in the long road of research and documentation.

He described how his practice had already focussed on children when Sam came along.

The book was aimed widely at everyone with an interest in and concern for autism. While James had written non-fiction before it was a fresh insight into the writing process; sitting up late any night he could to record the day, happenstance connections leading to the filming and the publication. James knew that his editor was supportive and skilled but I don’t think he knew that Jane Palfreyman is considered by many people I know to be the best in the country.

James must think that Don is (a) his favourite patient and or (b) an excellent cook because he went all out bringing his photos from the trip to share with us and recording a video with Sam specifically for the book group.

Oh and if the soup were to ever be reported to the Nobel academy I reckon its a shoe in!

bookgrouper 7

Sams Best shot was an interesting read for me. To be honest it’s one of those books that but for (a) bookgroup I would not pick up.

That’s because of its assumed intent. Who is this book primarily targeted to? Medical circles? Well the author is a doctor. The “autism community”? Well the author is well and truly inside. The “general population”? How could I consider myself one of these?

Well into the book the author uses and repeats a phrase “this is autism”. If he had produced a thirty page brochure with the same title I reckon fewer people would have read it. A travelogue with some family dynamic and personal struggle is more likely to take a general reader (like me) beyond page 3. So if it’s trying to reach me it worked.

Still it did leave me with questions;

What’s the intent of the book?

Who is the primary target audience

Why choose the format and genre used?

Should he have included more method – academic analysis? If yes why not and if no why?

At the end I did not feel compelled to read or look for more. What does that say about me, us, and maybe the book?

December 24, 2017 at 6:51 am Leave a comment

BURIAL RITES by HANNAH KENT

burial

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

NED KELLY THEME

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

THE HAPPIEST REFUGEE by ANH DO

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 http://www.anhdo.com.au/

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

ALL THAT I AM by ANNA FUNDER

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

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