Saturday, 28 January 2017

Stain on our Nation's Soul

In 1838 a posse of convicts travelled from farm to farm searching for Indigenous Australians. They found a group of around 28 Wirrayaraay men, women and children who were peacefully camping at Myall Creek Station. The posse rounded up these defenceless people, tied them together and marched them to a most gruesome death, before burning their bodies. The posse thought they would get away with it, as who would care about the killing of Aborigines? NSW Attorney General John Plunkett was determined to put these men on trial at a time when charging white men with crimes against blacks was unheard of.

Senior Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC has written a remarkable book about this shocking massacre in Murder at Myall Creek (2016). But more than a devastating true crime account, this is an exploration of John Plunkett and a story of the early days of the colony.

Plunkett was an Irish Barrister who had faced discrimination at home due to his Catholicism. In 1832, newly married and eager for a fresh start, Plunkett and his young wife travelled to NSW to take up the Solicitor General position. When he arrived he found a colony divided with factions of convicts, former convicts and non convict settlers.

At the time of the massacre, the murder of Indigenous Australians at the hands of white settlers was a common occurrence. As such, when Plunkett sought to charge the stockmen with the murders, society was divided as to whether they should be convicted or praised. Plunkett and his wife were socially ostracised and pressured to give up the cause, but he perservered.

Plunkett never received the praise he deserved in his lifetime, and has been largely forgotten. Indeed, I cannot recall hearing much about him during my years in law school. He was committed to equality before the law, and throughout his tenure in NSW he worked to legally protect Aborigines and give them a voice in the law. More than Australia's legal system, Plunkett shaped the whole colony by ensuring a separation of church and state, reforming the education system, and abolishing many corrupt and inhumane practices that existed in the colonies.

Tedeschi brings his legal mind and research skills to this case, and his clear admiration for Plunkett is evident throughout. In fact, this book is more of a biography of Plunkett, than a true crime story. While it may not be a book for everyone, it would certainly be of interest to those who enjoy Australian history and those with a desire to learn more about one of Australia's great legal minds.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Random Reads (20/01/17)

As the end of the world draws nigh... er... On the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump, there have been many column inches published on the confirmations of his Cabinet, the conflicts of interest his Presidency presents, and many reflections on the Obama administration.

Some of the more interesting articles are:
  • NY Times Editorial Donald Trump Keeps It In The Family - which explores Trump's appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner and how it may be a violation of anti-nepotism laws. Not only is Kushner's role in the administration unclear, but it will make it difficult for White House employees who are not family members.
  • Andrew Rosenthal writes in the NY Times about Republican Hypocrisy on Trump's Nominees - which highlights how Republicans are rushing through the confirmation hearings of Trump's nominees prior to comprehensive vetting by the Office of Government Ethics. This is a stark contrast to the way Obama's nominees were treated. It is especially concerning given the individuals Trump has appointed. Bad precedent.
  • David Remnick in the New Yorker writes about John Lewis, Donald Trump, and the Meaning of Legitimacy - Representative Lewis is a civil rights hero who has served his constituents and his country well for decades. Trump engaged in a Twitter war with Lewis because Lewis said he would not attend the inauguration of an illegitimate President who only got the job because of Russia's interference. 
  • Leonard Downie Jr writes in the NY Times about Donald Trump's Dangerous Attacks on the Press. Having watched the circus that was Trump's press conference in which he declared himself unable to have a conflict of interest and decided that some news outlets were invalid "Fake News". This article talks about the danger legitimate journalists are in and how difficult it will be to hold Trump accountable. Downie calls for news media to be 'fair but aggressive' in its coverage and to scrutinise those journalists/media outlets that lack standards.
  • In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart writes about Trump's New Foreign-Policy Direction. American Presidents have historically delivered inaugural addresses that have positioned America as committed to bringing freedom to the world. What will Trump's message be given his disinterest in NATO and the UN, commitment to ripping up trade agreements, wall building, and his isolationist views?
Before I move on from Trump, two of the best things on the internet this past week have been Meryl Streep's takedown at the Golden Globe Awards. Amazing!

And, I also love Huw Parkinson's Life Accordion to Trump! Hilarity!

Now, for Obama. I cannot express how sad I have been feeling these past few weeks as Obama prepares to leave the White House. It is too early to know what his legacy will be, but his dignity and class will be missed as he hands the keys over to a megalomaniac frat boy. Some articles worth reading are:
  • Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic for NY Times, interviewed Obama about literature. The article Obama's Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books is a fascinating piece for book nerds/policy wonks like me. What is even more interesting is to read the transcript from their discussion, and how it informs the article.
  • Time Magazine asked historians to weigh in on Obama's Legacy. Other than the obvious - the first African-American becoming President - there are many achievements. His stable economic management, Affordable Care Act, opening of Cuba, ordering the raid on Osama Bin Laden etc. But perhaps he also ushered in an era when Trump could happen...
  • Politico also looks at Obama's Hidden Legacy. This article explores things Obama did that I had no idea about - such as closing the diaper gap in recognising that these essential products were costing poor people too much, Obama launched an initiative to get reduced-cost diapers to non-profits around America. Very interesting.
I love Michelle Obama - a smart, sassy, compassionate woman who has served her country well. 
  • And, there has been much commentary on her wardrobe. Normally I hate that sort of thing which diminishes a woman's achievements to what she wears, but nothing can detract from Michelle's fabulousness and it is worth being reminded of her incredible style.
Finally, if you have an hour to spare, read Obama's article in the Harvard Law Review about The President's Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform. He highlights incarceration rates, sentencing reform, clemency and other concerns. He talks about the work he has left unfinished - reducing gun violence, opioid addiction as a public health issue, improving forensics to overturn wrongful convictions, improving data collection, restoring the vote for felons who have served their time, engendering trust in law enforcement - and more. Powerful stuff.
While the Obamas move on to life after the White House, I look forward to seeing what they do next. They will be greatly missed, but I expect they will find new ways to contribute to world affairs.

Obama Out!

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Crazy for Cornwall

The following is a guest blog post written by my mother, a self-confessed Poldark Tragic. She has quickly consumed the first four of the Poldark books with great enthusiasm. So I invited her to write about the books and why she enjoys them so much. 

Back in 1975 I watched with great delight the BBC television series Poldark, all 29 episodes, starring Robin Ellis in the lead role of Ross Poldark and Angharad Rees as Demelza Carne. Robin Ellis was the pin up of the moment as the dashing Ross Poldark.

Too busy travelling, and with motherhood and family taking up much of my time, I never did get to read the books by Winston Graham that the series was based on. And overtime, I completely forgot all about them.

Fast-forward forty years to 2015 when BBC One aired the first series of a new Poldark drama.  Remembering how much I enjoyed the series in 1975 I could not wait to view this new adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels.

Playing the role of the protagonist is the charismatic and handsome heartthrob Aidan Turner along with charming Eleanor Tomlinson as the spirited Demelza Carne. Aidan Turner has drawn in the viewers helping BBC One record one of its highest ratings in a decade and he has certainly cast his spell over the female audience, myself included. As series two drew to a close towards the end of 2016 I found myself wondering how I would manage without Ross Poldark in my life until series three aired sometime in 2017.

I need not have worried. A very thoughtful gift was found under the Christmas tree – the first four books of Winston Graham’s wonderful novels, the saga set in the time period 1783 to 1820. In order they are Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan. Winston Graham wrote twelve Poldark novels in all, the first four were written between 1945 and 1953, the remainder from 1973 to 2002.

The books tell the story of Captain Ross Poldark who returns home to Cornwall from the American Revolutionary War to find his life greatly changed. His father has died during his absence, the girl he had hoped to marry was now engaged to marry his cousin and his beloved home, Nampara, was in a state of disrepair to say nothing of his financial situation with the failing of the copper mine that he inherited in his father’s estate. 

In essence he must begin afresh and the novels cover his struggles as he goes about building a family and home and improving his lot in life. Ross Poldark is a decent landlord who is on very good terms with his tenants and believes in fairness and kindness. He is a caring man, particularly towards the local mining community where he goes to bat for the poor and impoverished, at times regardless of how he may be adversely affected by the outcome.

Winston Graham’s Cornwall looms large in these books. Many years ago while living in England I was fortunate to visit Cornwall to see the picturesque smuggling coves dotted along the dramatic coastline, the rugged seashores and impressive cliffs, the beauty of the moorlands and the remains of the copper and tin mines. Graham’s mention of places such as Falmouth, Truro, and Bodmin bring back memories from long ago.

His descriptive writing style is easy to read and his characters breathe life into every page. Graham’s story lines keep me turning page after page and now that book four is finished I find I still have a few months to go before series three of the television series goes to air.

I do not usually read the book after I have seen the movie/television series but this case is different. The 2015 television series is very true to Winston Graham’s books and I look forward to ploughing my way through all twelve novels and of course watching the remaining television series.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Wretched and the Damned

Booker Prize winning author Richard Flanagan and Archibald Prize winning artist Ben Quilty are two men I admire greatly. Flanagan is the author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013), an environmentalist, and an activist who serves as an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. Quilty has campaigned against capital punishment and is known for his portraits of the impact of war.

In early 2016 the two travelled together to Greece, Serbia and Lebanon to examine the mass exodus of refugees from the unending conflict in Syria and record their experience in a moving essay on the refugee crisis, Notes on an Exodus (2016). These notes give a human face to the abstract. Each chapter is a few hundred words and focuses on a different person or family who has fled their homeland to escape Daesh or the bombings from the Assad regime.

Here we meet Raghda, who makes dresses in a Lebanese camp after leaving Raqqa when Daesh arrived and began killing. She was at risk as a seamstress because she works with nude mannequins and says of the terrorists 'Whoever treats humans like they do is not human'.

Mohanad is a 24 year old dying of diabetes and kidney disease. His family is in debt because it costs so much for the life saving dialysis he needs but could not get in Syria after the government bombed the hospital where he was treated.  He mourns for the life he had in Syria and wishes it was safe to return.

Feisal was leader of his village where he lived a good life as a fruit farmer. He and his family fled to Lebanon when the missiles came. Now his whole village has relocated. The children learn at a makeshift school and dream of becoming doctors and teachers who will one day rebuild their homeland.

Nine year old Jamal earns $3 a day for his 10 hour shifts as a welder. His younger brother Omar collects plastic bags which he sells for 80 cents to buy four flat breads. These funds are vital to support their family who fled Aleppo. Their thirteen year old sister is getting married to a cousin, so another family can care for her and there is one less mouth to feed.

It takes only twenty minutes or so to read this slender volume, but the magnitude of these stories are vast and deep. Harrowing tales bring the plight of the refugees to life - you can feel the chill in their makeshift tents, smell the fumes from the garbage they burn to keep warm, marvel at the resilience of people who have lost children on doomed boat voyages, and feel rage against the people smugglers who sell fake life jackets to the desperate souls.

Flanagan concludes with a reminder that many of us hail from refugees who have fled previous conflicts, and that we have a collective responsibility to support our fellow human beings:
Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me. That terrible river of the wretched and the damned flowing through Europe is my family. And there is no time in the future in which they might be helped. The only time we have is now.
My only quibble with this book is that I would have liked more of Quilty's artwork. His illustrations of some of the refugees detail the impact of war and the hollow ageing of those living in camps.

These stories are available on the Guardian website and through World Vision. The authors recommend donating to World Vision and calling on the Australian Government to spend more money on helping the Syrian people.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Planning for 2017

The new year has begun and my To Be Read pile is staggeringly high! I need to sort and prioritise my books to start the reading year off well.

I plan to read at least two books a month - 24 for the year - which I almost achieved in 2016. I blog about most of the things I read, so that should give me a good year of blogging as well.

In the first instance, I need to finish books I am currently midway through or decide whether to take them off the pile:
  • Women I've Undressed (2015) by Orry Kelly
  • Not My Father's Son (2015) by Alan Cumming (update: read review)
  • Unfinished Business (2015) by Anne-Marie Slaughter
  • Farewell Kabul (2015) by Christina Lamb

Then I have my pile of new books to prioritise and read:
  • The Good People (2016) by Hannah Kent (update: read review)
  • The Dry (2016) by Jane Harper (update: read review)
  • The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty
  • Fantastic Beasts (2016) by JK Rowling (update: read review)
  • The Princess Diarist (2016) by Carrie Fisher (update: read review)
  • The North Water (2016) by Ian Maguire (update: read review)
  • Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett
  • The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford

I also want to get my hands on Hillbilly Elegy (2016) by JD Vance (update: read review) and White Trash (2016) by Nancy Isenberg so a trip to the library is likely on the cards.

I will need to save space in my reading schedule as there are new works coming in 2017 from authors like Roxane Gay (Difficult Women), Colm Toibin (House of Names), Arundhati Roy, Joan Didion (South and West), Sofie Laguna, Jane Harper, Barbara Gowdy, Paula Hawkins (Into the Water) and more. Plus there are some other interesting books to come, like Tony Jones' debut political thriller, Sarah Schmidt's novel See What I Have Done (about Lizzie Borden).

My Random Reads will continue in 2017 as I subscribe to several regular publications including the New York Times, Vanity Fair magazine, and others. It will be an interesting year - with the new US President, Brexit and more unfolding - and it I look forward to reading different views on these activities. Plus I will have my Quarterly Essays to keep me occupied (can't wait for the next David Marr - On Politics and Prejudice!).

Finally, I am travelling to Europe this year and hope to read a few books about places I will be visiting - Berlin, Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Krakow etc. Top of my list is Graham Greene's The Third Man (1950), set in Vienna. This blog may suffer during the five weeks of holidays (as I will be travel blogging instead) but the reading will continue on planes, trains, boats and buses!

Let the reading begin!

Sunday, 1 January 2017

My reading year - 2016

2016 has come and gone. Before I commence my planning for the coming year, I will reflect on the year that has gone by. In 2016 I set myself a goal of reading 24 books - two a month - and blogging in equal measure. I managed to write 47 blog posts this year, but fell short of the 24 books, completing only 22 by 31 December 2016.

At the start of the year I wrote a post about what I had planned to read in 2016, in which I announced my goal of the year and some of the books I wanted to read.

At the outset I wanted to finish some of the books that I had already started but never finished. I managed to complete several of them, including:

But somehow I never finished other books I am midway through - Not My Father's Son (Alan Cumming), Executioner's Song (Norman Mailer) and My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferante) - all of which I enjoy while reading but never seem to hold my attention long enough to finish.

I also read a lot of things that are not books, and late in 2016 I decided to add "Random Reads" posts to my blog to account for some of the articles I was reading.

My reads in 2016 can be roughly clustered as follows:


I read some great Australian fiction in 2016, including my favourite read the year - Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things (2015) which has lingered long after I finished the book. Winner of the Stella Prize and countless other accolades, Wood has a remarkable voice and I look forward to reading whatever she publishes next.

I also greatly enjoyed Emily Maguire's An Isolated Incident (2016), and Anna Funder's brief novella The Girl with the Dogs (2015).

A new author I found and admired is Graeme Macrae Burnet with His Bloody Project (2015), a Booker prize shortlisted novel which has taken the publishing world by storm. It was a terrific novel and I am thrilled to have found this new author.

Other fiction included Tegan Bennet Daylight's short story collection Six Bedrooms (2015), Fleur Ferris' Risk (2015), JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016) and her alter-ego Robert Galbraith's Career of Evil (2015).

For a second year running, I read a lot of biographies this year which told the life stories of remarkable women. I really enjoyed reading Gloria Steinem's recollection of her years travelling in My Life on the Road (2016). Meeting her at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May 2016 was one of the highlights of my year. She has long been a hero of mine and to hear her speak in person and have her sign a copy of her book, was a real treat.

I also enjoyed Jeannette Winterson's bio Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? (2012) which I read after hearing her speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival this year. Clementine Ford's memoir Fight Like a Girl (2016) was another interesting read.

While not strictly a biography, Helen Garner's Everywhere I Look (2016) is a wonderful collection of essays which gives great insight into Garner's thinking on a range of topics. It was a delightful read, so crisply written.

Two tales of loss bookended my reading this year: Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk (2015) and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) both explored grief and the aftermath of losing a loved one. Didion's book had long been on my list to be read and I am so pleased to have read it.

I read a lot of other non-fiction in 2016 including Nikki Savva's expose on Tony Abbott in The Road to Ruin (2016).  This juicy account of the downfall of the Abbott government was a real page-turner.

I also really enjoy the Quarterly Essay which arrives every three months in my mailbox. In 2016 I read:

Bits and Pieces

In 2016 I also read some poetry, completing Kate Tempest's Brand New Ancients, starting (although not finishing) Clive James' latest collection, re-reading the inimitable Dorothy Parker. I enjoy poetry and have quite a lot of it, but I don't always make the time to enjoy it.

I blogged about many of the events I attended, like the Sydney Writers' Festival, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and All About Women. I also wrote about plays like All My Sons, Speed The Plow and The Literati and about various literary awards that crop up throughout the year.

Favourites of 2016
If I had to chose, I would select as my favourites of 2016, Charlotte Wood, Gloria Steinem and Helen Garner would be my choices. But I would give an honourable mention to Emily Maguire and Graeme Macrae Burnet. 

All in all it was a good year of reading. I tackled some new authors (Wood, Maguire, Burnett, Paine, Savva), and enjoyed some old favourites (Rowling, Steinem, Winterson, Garner). I also managed to complete some books that were lingering on my "To Be Read" pile (Macdonald, Galbraith, Didion). Looking forward to new adventures in reading in 2017!