Ranty Tuesday: more racism

Remember the 1950s social studies text and its blatant racism?

Well, the author doesn’t confine racist descriptions to First Nation peoples. It must be reassuring to be so certain your way is the right way, the only way. But how unsteady must the ground feel, when the world changes, when orthodoxy is questioned, when values are shown to be hypocritical and views proven to be views, not facts.

The section sweetly titled “Peeps at Peoples of Other Lands” covers quite a diverse range of countries far from Australia. But the attention on the differences seems not to highlight our common humanity. Rather, it’s like a freak show of oddities and amusing tidbits.

  • The Lapps and their Reindeer
  • The Eskimos and their Igloos
  • The Dutch and their Windmills
  • The Arabs and their Date Groves
  • The Malays and their Kampongs
  • The Javanese and their Tea Plantations
  • The Chinese and their Sampans

Some of the descriptions are positive, but while understandable given the one page brevity, vastly generalised. So, it is nice to know the Javanese are fond of music and plays and they work for very long hours picking tea. The author’s advice “when you hear mother telling father that the price of tea has risen again, [it] may be due to some increase in the wages of the poorly-paid pickers and poorly-paid packers” may be to induce some sympathy for the hard working but poor Javanese. To me it reads like blame ‘cause the reality is the price rise is probably to give more profit to the company shareholders.

But the Gold Logie to Racism in this section, the following description of Chinese people:

These cheerful, yellow-skinned people with their straight black hair, slanting eyes and flat noses differ from us in many ways.

So they differ not just with their slanting eyes and yellow skin? But with even more ways?

Ah yes, the author tells us they put their family name first and their “Christian” names last. (Christian! Did you just spurt your mouthful of tea over the device on which you’re reading this? Yes, the author calls the given name, the Christian name.)

The author goes on to say, they “lift their food to their mouths” with chop-sticks. I don’t know, but that just strikes me as strange. They don’t eat? They lift food.

All in all, not as bad as the resoundingly negative picture given of the First Nation peoples. It’d be another decade until Aboriginal peoples were considered citizens in Australia, their own land. Still, there’s no question, all these “odd little peoples” from around the world are amusing and oh! aren’t we lucky we live. in Australia are linked to Britain! [Lets be clear. This isn’t my view but the clear message from the textbook.]

I haven’t kept this book – threw it in the recycling bin.

I wasn’t surprised by the racism of a much earlier text I just read – Captain Cook’s journals. But the violence inflicted was breathtaking.

I know we should judge the past by our own standards but when that past is not so long ago and when the actions contradict with those own espoused values, it’s quite easy to judge. And be shocked.

The whole bravery of travelling in a small boat into the relative unknown is amazing and brave, but the violence is quite distressing. And obviously the precursor to the 1950s text book.

Winnowing books

The ease with which I have abandoned books astounds me.

Three books … out. Didn’t get past thirty pages. One I didn’t even open.

Okay, I didn’t buy any of them. So I had no original desire to read them. They were actually all gifted by the same man. (There’s a novel in the man but privacy precludes me from telling the tale. Though one day ….)

Anyway, this man is German and feels a connection to me because of my German heritage. He’s a strange fish, with a strangeness that comes from being oh so German. Possibly autistic. And basically just strange. actually, maybe a sociopath.

Let’s call him Hans, cause he has multiple names anyway. (Did I mention there’s a story in there?)

Hans gave me Book 1 and Book 2 of Goethe’s Faust. I opened Book 1. Read the autobiographical notes. Skimmed the introduction. And faulted on page 2 of actual Goethe. Nope, not going to try.

Given the introduction said Book 2 was heavier, out with that too.

I thought I may as well try the adventure book Hans gave me. He said the author is a well-known writer of adventures in the Wild West, as in the American Wild West. I thought it might be interesting to get a German perspective, after all, there were quite a large number of German settlers.

With the first dozen pages, I knew this wouldn’t be for me. The central character is a perfect shot, the best rider, breaker of horses that no one else can do, the hardest worker, the strongest man, a great hunter, a clever engineer, best ever teacher, the only …. You get the picture. Thank god for those Germans! The Wild West would never have been settled, no railways built, no work done.

The translation reads like they’ve used Google translator. So poorly done. Dialogue lacking in natural rhythm and idiom. Tenses all over the place.

Luckily, I will never have to tell Hans I haven’t read the books. (The reason I won’t tell him lies at the heart of the tale about him which I will tell in about 10 years.)

For now, I am happy in clearing space on my shelves. These books are not going to sit on my shelf, challenging me, making me feel guilty at not reading them.

Out, out, out.

(But I must admit there is no space on my shelves. I have bought a dozen books from the second hand book store – had to help out local businesses in the COVID Shutdown, didn’t I? And then a friend gave me some books. The Reading Down the House isn’t going too well.)

Decluttering books

Did not finish!

I’ve told you how hard it is for me to stop reading a book when it is, by all reviews, a great book.

I don’t start every book I pick up.

But once I’ve started a book that is well-written or literary or intellectually challenging. I feel I must persevere; must not let the book beat me.

It’s like a central thesis of mine: get into a book, it must be finished.

But I’m going to break my own internal laws.

I’ve stopped reading this:

It’s beautifully, lyrically written. I love the sense of place. The concept finding self in a fishing town in Tassie; the conflict between helping dad on the fishing boat or being consigned to the horror of working in a cannery or moving to the big unknown, this all has the potential to be original and insightful. The author is a surfer and it shows in her descriptions of surfing – she gets surfing.

So why am I not finishing the book?

It’s not a hard read. I could finish it in a weekend.

It’s the abuse that I know is coming. And one of the sons dies. That’s obvious to me. And confirmed by reading reviews and questions on Goodreads.

Why did the author have to go to melodramatic extreme? It’s like all those books that came out a decade or so ago about child abuse. Those Cathy Glass ones.

OK, Past the Shallows is much better stylistically. It has a better plot, not formulaic. Sense of place is strong.

But it’s not the book I want. I want it to be a book on identity, on coming from a small Tassie fishing village with low employment options where allowing self-expression is actively crushed, where options for masculinity are very limited to hard-drinking, gruff monosyllabic utterances. But the character wins out. The dad may have hit a kid once but doesn’t routinely abuse his children and doesn’t force his child to leave school early.

I want what the blurb on the back says isn’t enough, to be enough. Brotherly love. Secret friendships. Small treasures. I want their power to be enough.

So I’m not finishing it. And I’m giving the book away.

Thomas vs Ned

Last summer I was obsessed with Ned Kelly. Time ran out before I could read and view everything I wanted to on my man Ned. 

Mr S approved of my obsession and was slightly thankful as it meant I was willing to accompany him on yet another trip to the same ski fields he always goes to, if it meant visiting Kelly Country. Which we did but to my shame I did not blog about. 

 This summer finds me feeling slightly guilty at abandoning Ned before I have completed all my reading. 

Yes, it is true. I am no longer obsessed with Ned. As the title tells you, Thomas has entered my world. 

Thomas who?

Remember when I was reading down the house? No! Well get back to here. I just couldn’t get into Wolf Hall. I tried three times and three times I was thwarted. 

My god, there must have been a shortage on boys’ names. A dozen characters were called Thomas. Then there’s several Johns and even more Henrys. If this was fiction, an editor would tell the author to make up some new names. 

That and the use by Mantel of “he” to refer to the central Thomas rather than the last male named as is the grammatical convention in English just left me feeling quite the un-intelligent being. 

Enter the BBC series. Ah, now I get it. And thanks to the wibbly wobbly net, I have been able to look up details of all the  players – major and bit players in the saga of Henry VIII. And the places. 

Yes, I knew the outline of the time and wives but not all the characters. Tudor history doesn’t feature heavily in Australian school history.  

I am loving the novel. I am going to buy the next book in the series as soon as I finish this one. 

My obsession is affecting my language. Posting comments on FB with the most exquisite language. My words would impress you all. Words like alacrity and louche and sybaritic. And, oh my phrasing and syntax. 

While Wolf Hall is colder and with less passion (funny though as they are having or wanting sex and Ned didn’t) the language is more appealing.

So which Thomas am I interested in?

You know how I hate suspense as a manipulative tool?  (Wolf Hall proves how pointless suspense is. We know there ending and we still love the tale.)

Anyway, you will have to wait until a future post to find out my Thomas and why I love him. 

Reading Down the House – December

Last October I joined in with Dar’s idea of Reading Down the House.

The goal: to read those books languishing on the shelves at home. You know those books you bought a while ago, which for reasons unknown get overlooked, replaced by the new. Maybe what attracted you to them – the mood, the feeling, the time – was of a time, and that time has now passed.

The year is up. Here’s my original list:

  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Midwives by Chris Bohjalian
  • The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey
  • Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh
  • The Second-last Woman in England by Maggie Joel
  • When Will There Be Good News? and Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • Hannah and Emil by Belinda Castles
  • The Somnambulist by Essie Fox
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • and finally Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
  • IMG_2093.JPG

    I’ve read all but two – Wolf Hall and Testament of Youth. Should I donate these two? Or should I hang onto them for possible future reading? Of the ones I read, I only disliked one – Gone Girl. (No, I do not want to see the movie. What is the point? The whole tale rests on the twist. If you know the twist, there is no point. And it was stupid and annoying the first time. Again, no I don’t want to see it. If I repeat myself it is because a friend asked me many times to go. How many times do I have to say no? Friend loved the movie, but then her favourite book is the 50 Shades series. Enough said!)

    In the past 12 months I have bought other books – some now sitting on my shelves waiting to fulfil their purpose – which is to be read, not collect dust, after all. And I could have placed other books on the list – books that I bought before October last year.

    My reading, like my writing, has slowed. Book club book choice for November was Evie Wilde’s All the Birds Singing. Structurally interesting, but too teenage angst-y for me.


    I followed this with How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland. A double dose of teen angst. I realised I had read this before. And suffered the same misunderstanding then. I thought this was going to be about a young person caught in a cult. No such luck. That would be too dramatic. Just another self-involved teen hating the world and herself. (Apparently considered a female version of Catcher in the Rye. Hated that too. No need to be rude and totally selfish just because you’re a teen unhappy with your life.)


    (Sorry about the size of image. The old WordPress app let me resize photos. Can’t find where I can do this on the updated – and definitely not better – app. And I only blog on my iPad, not the desktop.)

    Ever thought a book was going to be about something else, twice? As in thought the story would be something else, read it, then forgot that you read it, only later to come across the book in a book shop and repeat the process, thinking it will be about the thing you thought before you read it the first time. No? Well, I did. Maybe I should just write the book I thought it was going to be? Would be so much more interesting, if so much worse in terms of style.

    Don’t be fooled by both being such worthy books – one a Miles Franklin winner, the other worthy of being reissued in Penguin classic form. But then don’t be swayed by me. Many others love both books. And feel for the characters. And both are obviously literary and well-written.

    On a much lighter note, I read Gilbert Adair’s The Act of Roger Murgatroyd . A pastiche of Agatha Christie, the plot almost directly follows a Poirot story of almost the same title. Such fun!


    I think I read another book, besides the one which will get a post of its own (oh, yes it was THAT good that it deserves its own post and indeed its subject will be the subject of my summer – have I sparked your interest?), but I can’t remember. Maybe TopChook can help out?

    Reading down the House in July

    Of my original 13 books on my Reading Down the House list, I’ve read nine. Makes four to go by the end of September. No guesses that I’ve left Wolf Hall to last. It might not get read until the next holidays. I think I will need time undisturbed and without distraction. So from that list this month comes two Kate Atkinson novels.

    When Will There be Good News , the third Jackson Brody novel, contains several mysteries with annoying coincidences that join all the characters together. I mean, come on, even in Edinburgh there are enough people that the same half a dozen characters wouldn’t be running into each other. Still, I loved this book. And all the characters, even the not so good ones, I liked.

    Great writing from Atkinson. How’s this for a line?

    Who were these people who didn’t know how to use an apostrophe? They must be looking for Billy. Billy knew a lot of ungrammatical people.

    I’ve met a few ungrammatical people in my time myself.

    Then straight into book 4, and possibly the last, Jackson Brody mystery, Started Early, Took my Dog.

    I found the beginning a bit annoying – all the thoughts of the actress suffering from dementia. But great lines abound :

    Hope McMaster shared with Julia a (misplaced) faith in exclamation marks.

    Love the description of a character based on their view of punctuation. And love the qualifier “misplaced” as an aside. I, too, hold this misplaced faith.

    And what about this character assassination:

    …her parents thought [a private maternity hospital] would give their baby (hopefully a boy) a better start in life than an NHS word. The maternity hospital was so under heated that Dorothy Waterhouse came home with chilblains and the infant Tracy with croup. Still they had mixed wi a better class of mother and baby and that was the important thing.

    Expect coincidences. They are Atkinson’s thing.

    I’ve enjoyed all the Jackson Brodie mysteries, so was happy to find out that they were turned into a TV series by the BBC and my local library stocked the DVDs. Now while it is not exactly Reading Down the Month, the DVDs fit in here.

    As expected the series was well done. It’s great to see the places in the novel.

    Do you sometimes find that the actors don’t represent the characters as you imagine them? Jason Isaacs plays Jackson Brodie brilliantly. He is worthy of taking his shirt off, which he does quite a bit despite the cold.


    Not a good shot but you get the picture. (And googling him, I found out he played Lucius Malfoy, which I never picked through 5 episodes.)

    I was slightly annoyed that some of the plots were changed. Watching the two episodes based on When Will There be Good News with my son, I kept saying, “That’s not how it is in the book.” My son responded with, “It’s a different story for a different medium.” Look, I know that the structure of a TV drama is different and that coincidences in a novel may look ridiculous on the screen and that many details have to be simplified for the screen. But still, it did lose some of the uniqueness and become similar to other gritty Northern crime dramas. (And I wished they’d left the Aussie doctor in – but just for jingoistic reasons.)

    Be warned: it is very violent and scary so deserves the MA15+ rating.

    Reading Down the House – June

    I took up An Exacting Life’s challenge: to read the books languishing on my shelves.

    The first book is one such book – it’s been in my shelf for a while, and thus was on my read it down list. This novel is at once compelling and stupid. A Victorian gothic, with modern twists (ie more sex), there’s fear of ghosts, a brooding castellated house, spiritualism, lies, family secrets, evil goings-on that all impact on the narrator, an innocent, powerless girl to whom things happen.

    The compelling nature stems from the narrative drive of this novel. So many things happen, and the descriptions of places are so visual, that you want to keep reading to find out “what next?”. But stupid: I mean the confession in the dark to the narrator is so unbelievable! And why the incestuous sex?


    For my book club I read The Cooked Seed by Anchee Min. In her memoir, Min, author of many best sellers set in China, tells the tale of her escape to the US, her constant struggle to earn income and a green card, her writing and raising her daughter. It’s a very interesting book, not least for the perspective it gives on aspects of Western culture that we take as our norms. In classic Western irony, I read her tales of long, hard work while I was lazing in bed one cold and windy Saturday, eating chocolate. A day well spent.


    People Like Us by Waleed Ally, a Muslim born and raised in Australia, was very interesting, addressing the Muslim/Western divide and misunderstandings. I like a book that challenges me intellectually and challenges my beliefs. An insightful review is here. I mean how could I ever compete with Mungo MacCallum?

    I started skimming bits – too much political history of which I have no prior knowledge so can’t place it in my schema, and frankly didn’t/don’t care enough about to put in my head. I found the chapter on perceptions of women wearing the veil most interesting, though I don’t necessarily agree with it.

    Unfortunately, I borrowed this book as a digital copy from my library. Unfortunate, because I had one chapter to go but the dastardly electronic Big Brother deleted my version on the due date. No overdue fines OK, but no allowance to finish the book and be just one day late. You get four weeks when you borrow a real book, but only two when it is electronic. And my library won’t fine you if you are a couple of days late with a real book. Just more reasons why real books win.


    My last book of the month was truly moving. So haunting, parts that are so sickening, dealing with the worst of human nature and acts – it took me days to process. And as soon as I finished the book, I skimmed it again looking for a specific quote (which I didn’t find). But the novel was also uplifting, promising hope and redemption.

    And the writing!! So lyrical. (I want to wave this novel at the publishers of The Goldfinch and say this is what good writing and good editing does – gives us so many characters, so many back stories, and has so much that happens, and makes us question so many things – the death penalty, redemption, can people change, once evil are we always evil – and all in less than 250 pages.)

    The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld, read it!!! I don’t say that often, bossy as I am. But even if you hate the elements of magic realism, or do not like the technique whereby characters are not named, or don’t like reading about what makes children/humans into monsters, this book will have you thinking and will move you.


    Reading Down the House in May


    God, it’s long. And has a heft to it (an in-joke if you make it past page 550) at over 700 pages.

    I varied between loving it and hating it. It just went on and on. Get to the point already!

    It’s like there are four books. No really, it felt like four different, well-written stories. Just that they are different parts of one person’s life and it is one novel. Just a bloody long one.

    I was fascinated by the first “book” – how a terrorist attack affects a young boy – when it moved to another story. I gave up. I didn’t want another story about this boy. So put the book down. A month or so later I gave it another go. And loved the second story. My favourite character, Boris the Russian boy, is introduced here. Then it moved to another story/book. So gave up again for a few weeks until yet again I gave it another go. This story I didn’t enjoy as much. It could have done with some serious editing. Too much mediation on drug use. Have to admit I skimmed through this bit. I don’t normally do this. If I like a book, I read it. If I have to skim, it means I’m not enjoying I and life is too short and books too plentiful to waste on a book I am not enjoying. But then, this book is well-written and I did like the characters and the stories. And it was kind of like the investment Rolls Royce made into jet engines. So much time (money in the case of RR) that I couldn’t give up. I had to keep going.

    And then Boris returned. Yeah! He adds action. The novel came alive again.

    So generally I’m not one for long, long novels. I think the publishers have just either been cheapskates by not employing an editor or the editor is too gutless to tell the author his book needs editing. So many US best sellers seem to be massive epics.

    Tartt’s writing appears effortless (maybe that’s why they didn’t edit it), it is also very cinematic – you can see all the action taking place on the big screen.

    But, God, the main character, the narrator, gave me the shits, especially in The Netherlands.

    In complete contrast is the novella, The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey. This little book has illustrations largely compiled from old pictures and advertisements. Like many, I loved Silvey’s Jasper Jones. The Amber Amulet is a sweet tale but it is difficult to see if it too does the crossover of young adult to adult fiction. The illustrations and the central character may make it appeal to young readers. But the lyrical quality and the deep wistfulness of the tale and the imitation vintage book cover and illustrations may not. But perhaps there are sensitive 12 year olds who will “get” the book.

    I cheated and read this today – the first of June. Which is also when I finished The Goldfinch, but am counting these in May’s reading, otherwise I wouldn’t have read a book in May and my sense of identity can’t admit to that.

    If I were given the choice and was only able to read one of these books it would be The Amber Amulet, not because it is shorter (though that too was a nice counterpoint to The Goldfinch), but because I love the tone of wistfulness and hopefulness. I loved the little boy trying to keep calmness and peace, above all good, in his street, with the hint that his motivation comes from a father not truly connected to him.


    April reading

    Two books finished this month, with one from my Reading Down the House list, here.

    Unconditional Surrender is the last in Evelyn Waugh’s WWII series, The Sword of Honour. I read the two books earlier in July last year and January. This was not my first reading. I bought my copies when I was an undergraduate (paid $5.95 for each volume, fancy books being that cheap!) and loved his satire and style then.

    Waugh does have a brilliant command of English and his style is, as Clive James says, so elegant. Yes, the ending is bleak with the loss of morality of the Allies, and, in particular, Britain. But there are still glimmers of hope – in individual acts of honour. If you haven’t read any accounts of WWII, this is the series to read. You can get a redacted version in one volume.

    I’m going to borrow the DVDs of the 2001 series (which stars Daniel Craig, oh yummy). Would love to get hold of 2013 radio play.


    Next book is the June pick for my book club (I’m a goody swat, reading ahead), A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell. You may know him from the Wallander mysteries, dark, brooding, violent affairs. This is very different. A poor rural Swedish girl heads for Australia in the early 1900s, working as a cook on a Swedish boat laden with wood. She has no power or carriage over her life, being a woman and is first ordered to leave her home, then her country. She never makes it to Australia, jumping ship in a Portuguese colony in Africa.

    Colonialism, violent treatment of Africans, powerlessness, and the oppressive heat are at play in this tragic tale. Scenes of violent racism are sickening. But so too is the racism taken as normal, everyday interactions. I couldn’t put this book down. I found the central character frustrating but no character from the early 1900s could have totally modern sensibilities.


    I always like to learn new things and learnt a lot about Portuguese imperialism from this book and the googling it prompted. Did you know the death penalty was outlawed, except for treason, in Portugal and its colonies in the mid 1800s?

    This was a compelling book.

    Reading down the house – March

    Three books this month – two from my list to read of books that have been hanging around the house for too long and one newish book for my book club.

    And an enjoyable month of reading it was!

    First book off the shelf: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I loved the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. But not so the novel. The central character frustrated me. He was very socially inept. Maybe a non-comic Aspie, not at all like Sheldon in The Big Bang or Don in The Rosie Project. But without enduring empathy, and without the humour, I just felt he was a pompous fool who placed work above life. I didn’t get a sense of duty or of a flawed but basically honourable man from the book. I also didn’t feel the deep sadness as I did in the movie. I will watch the movie again and see if I think differently about it.

    Midwives by by Chris Bohjalian. What rock have I been hiding under? I didn’t know this was an Oprah Book Club choice. As a result it obviously was a best seller. I enjoyed a later book of Bohjalian’s, Skeletons at the Feast, about the last days of WWII on the Eastern front.

    OK, so Midwives was also made into a movie. As a dramatic tale, it is easy to see it would make a melodramatic movie.

    It was a great read, thrilling, thought-provoking and suspenseful. Though I did pick the hints dropped, and it did seem a bit Jodie Picoulty to me, with the final twist.

    Last was Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan. What a brilliant read! This gets my pick of the month. Actually a young adult novel, it is a cross-over to adult reading. A mix of myth of the selkies (seals that shed their skin to be human) and Stepford wives/feminist tale, it was compelling. Set in the isolated northern Scottish islands, the isolation is as much a presence as the characters.

    Why do men want compliant, happy (even if they know the happiness is false), beautiful wives? And do all men actually want this? What would you forgo for an attractive partner? Honesty? Denying your partner’s true feelings? Hide their escape, even if you knew they wanted to leave and were desperately unhappy staying? And what role was sex in this? How much of yourself, your values, would you put aside to satisfy desire?

    The novel suggests there was not true freedom of choice – magic may have over-ruled free will. Still, the men knew what they were doing. Well, maybe. Were the men bewitched or the women captured? But one thing fixed causes another complication – a betrayal, an enchantment.

    The different narrators gave a strong narrative structure. I loved how we got a whole different perspective on how animals may see the world – very interesting. The prose is also very beautiful.