My Thoughts on David Malouf’s A First Place

This poor blog has been neglected and ignored. It’s not that I’ve ceased to be Bewitched by Books over the past months, rather that I’ve probably bitten off more than I can chew. I’ve kept reading away but not managed to write reviews or comments.

I’ve been bewitched by a short story, though and felt inspired to write My Thoughts on David Malouf’s A First Place. I decided to write it on my family history blog because it’s a reflection on somewhere I’ve spent many years of my life.

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Alice Springs by Eleanor Hogan

awwbadge_2013Synopsis: this is a book about life in Alice Springs, and the joys and challenges of living there. It is not a paeon to the glories of the desert and the openness of space in Australia’s red centre. Rather it is more of a social commentary and a reflection on the human challenges that Alice Springs provides in abundance and in-your-face.

Hogan states “Alice Springs is a place of extremes –of climate, of distance, of attitudes, of social privilege, of racial and gender divides –that are often highly conflicted.” Her goal is “to throw light on the texture of its everyday life through describing a typical year in the life of the town[i].”

Review

Alice Springs HoganHogan is not a “blow-in[ii]” two-year tourist writing about her experiences then heading back to the big smoke. Nor is she a FIFO, fly-in fly-out adviser. She and her friends reflect a dilemma perhaps more typical of Alice than Darwin: will they “serve a two-year, three-year, five-year, eight-year sentence[iii]”? The use of a word more typically referenced in the judicial system perhaps provides an unintentional insight. The fact that they even question how long they’ll stay separates them from long-term residents, but perhaps gives them a comparative insight into life in a different place.

She also queries when one becomes a Centralian, or indeed a Territorian. Officialdom apparently requires that you reside in the Centre for 25 years before being invited to attend the Annual Centralian Dinner in “Territory rig” (the local dress code). Popular myth has it that if you see the Todd (River) flow three times you’ll be in Alice for life. Perhaps that only applies if you live there when it flows, for which I’m grateful as I’ve seen it under water twice during work visits.

It’s only in writing about the book that I’ve come to realise a particular omission. Although sights and places are referred to, there’s no description that I recall to bring to life why people love the town and its region: its beauty, starkness and the sheer grandeur of some of its places and flora. The book is not intended as a tourist guide but it does mean that we miss out on some of the wonders of the place.

I was much amused by the familiarity of her description of those who work and travel to the Aboriginal communities (or indeed many places in the Territory) “it was difficult to tell apart a tradie returning from a maintenance job or a lesbian coming home from a social justice mission to an Aboriginal mob out bush[iv]”. Why does she single out lesbians in this way? Because Alice has the country’s highest proportion of lesbian women.

A further omission from the book is the level of animosity and distrust between central Australia and the powers-that-be in Darwin. It’s an undercurrent that is evident in most workplace dealings across the regions. Australians would best understand this in the sense of how Canberra’s bureaucrats and politicians are perceived in the rest of the country.

One story Hogan tells is of her Sydney friends arguing that women over 30 shouldn’t wear shorts. She says that wearing shorts came to mean “a shift to being in another, quite unmetropolitan place[v]. I confess I found this whole Sydney attitude downright bizarre, but then I’ve lived my whole life in tropical and sub-tropical regions….and I spend my non-working life in shorts.

The book focuses on, and emphasises, the vast social challenges of Alice Springs and the region, of which the Indigenous issues are paramount. One can live in urban Australia and rarely see an Aboriginal person, or one who is noticeable as “other”. Life in the Territory, and in Alice in particular, presents a vastly different experience, one that grey nomads and other urban tourists will likely find confronting and perhaps reinforce their racial stereotyping.

A key focus throughout the book is the vast dichotomy between Indigenous lives and that of their whitefella counterparts, in terms of violence, health and education[vi]. Hogan’s stories will be both shocking and enlightening to those who’ve had little exposure to the level of the problem. She quotes a social worker, Dale Wakefield: “you prepare for the worst in Melbourne, but the worst happens in Central Australia[vii]”. Long-term residents of the Territory and the Centre tend to become inured to the sights and problems they see around them, frequently becoming judgmental and critical.  Hogan frequently quotes social justice experts that it will take a generation or more to turn things around. I suspect this is a generous estimate and it may well take another two generations at least, despite the good will and efforts of many people.

Over time Hogan comments “even a simple trip up the street to buy groceries might involve seeing an ugly incident[viii]”. It was the on-going impact of the social dichotomy that seems to have led to Hogan’s departure back to the big smoke, remaining forever changed no doubt by her life experience in Alice.

A further consideration in Hogan’s decision to leave was the turnover of people with the loss of friendships: by calling them expats she essentially marks them out as different from the long-term residents.  The caution of old-timers in accepting short-term incomers is one of the hallmarks of the Territory and a mark of the regular flow in and out of expats: it takes time to earn your local stripes.  On arriving in the Territory 16 years ago we found this strange and unexpected. We had been accustomed to the expat situation in Papua New Guinea, where even though there was a regular turnover in any given town, you expected to maintain the friendship over time and place by visits during leave or by further postings.

I thought this was a great book which provided excellent insights into the daily challenges of life in Alice Springs. Hogan has teased out many of the issues, especially those of social justice, which confront residents daily and is both sympathetic and empathetic. I recommend this book to those who want to learn more about the day-to-day complexities of Indigenous issues.

Quoting Dale Wakefield again “in Alice you walk down the street and see beaten women….You see kids wandering around by themselves and you know there’s nowhere for them to go. It’s very, very confronting[ix]”.

How pertinent, then, to read this weekend’s in-depth commentary by journalist Paul Toohey in the NT News.

For an alternative view on this book, you might find this review interesting http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/2012/09/04/bleak-tunnel-vision-in-new-book-on-alice-springs/

[i] Page 38.

[ii] See page 139

[iii] Page 140

[iv] Page 150

[v] Page 137

[vi] She includes some statistics starting at page 174 but stories are revealed throughout the book.

[vii] Page 181

[viii] Page 267

[ix] Page 274

Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me by Gina London

Last week I read an e-Because I'm smallbook called Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me: The World According to my Four Year Old by CNN reporter Gina London.

Synopsis: This is the story of a small girl, her funny sayings and the family’s life in Paris France, USA and Arezzo, Italy.

 Review: They say never to compete with children and animals and the author wisely avoided this dilemma. Instead she has turned it on its head, using her daughter’s humorous comments and world-view to tell a delightful tale of life in three countries. Her professional skills  leavened with some maternal cynicism as well as pride, make it an enjoyable and amusing read, though perhaps not one which would appeal to those with an aversion to children. Personally I found it enchanting.

Lulu is a bright child who knows her mind and leads her parents something of a merry dance..challenging but rewarding and adaptable! Parents and grandparents may well find themselves thinking “why didn’t I write something like that?”…probably because, unlike the author, many of us simply think it’s cute on the day, and don’t record the saying or the context. There are elements of familiarity here and it could easily have turned saccharine but for the spicy dollop of cultural differences quite unlike other versions of “my life in Tuscany/Paris”.

library thingThis is a fairly light book which is easily read but it reminds us just how adaptable children can be…Halloween visits at midnight anyone? And as someone who can’t manage to roll their “r’s” I can empathise with Gina’s dilemma.

 Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Library Thing on the understanding that I would write an honest review.

Magic Carpet Factor: 3.5

Travelling to Infinity: My life with Stephen by Jane Hawking

Travelling to infinityWhile at the library recently I picked up Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking. I often borrow books from the library that I might not otherwise read and this is one of them.

Synopsis: This is the biography/memoir of Jane Hawking, wife for 25 years of Stephen Hawking the famed physicist. It traces not only their lives but that of their families as well as his remarkable scientific discoveries and the impact of his degenerative illness, motor neuron disease, on himself, his wife, family and colleagues.

 My thoughts:

I was intrigued by this story and astonished that a woman as young as Jane married and took on the responsibilities associated with a brilliant but increasingly ill man. The rigours of their lives and the physical and emotional hardships were perhaps made more difficult, rather than less, with a husband who was a scientific genius. Everyday people would have most of the same strains but presumably not the added pressure of a brain which far outstripped anyone else’s. Jane’s persistence and determination and her family’s support are remarkable. The sheer generosity of Stephen Hawking’s students and colleagues is also amazing.

Throughout the story, I was increasingly annoyed with Stephen Hawking’s selfish disregard of his wife’s needs and lack of recognition of her academic ability which is evident throughout the memoir. While not reaching Stephen’s standard of genius, it’s plain that Jane is no slouch intellectually. However she sacrifices a great deal for her husband’s well-being both physically and intellectually. He appears not to have reciprocated her generosity or regard.

While the details of the science, and sometimes her own linguistic endeavours, were often lost on me (or I didn’t bother to try to keep on top of them), the life story was intriguing.

While it could be argued that she has “puffed herself up” this is not how it strikes me, rather the opposite if anything. As the book neared its conclusion I was increasingly irritated with Stephen Hawking’s lack of respect and regard for his wife and her significant contributions to his achievements. His fame seems to reflect this grandiose view of himself, which is perhaps the real reason why he becomes besotted by his nurse. After all, in traditional terms nurses are accustomed to deferring to the supposed greater intellect of the medicos, a phenomenon which is perhaps less common today. And yes, Jane does have a relationship with a “family friend”, initially platonic and later physical, who continues to help the whole family, at great sacrifice to himself. Who could blame her struggling with the depths of despair.

Frankly I wondered why Jane Hawking continued to denigrate her own abilities and remain in the marriage. Stephen Hawking’s elitist perspectives were increasingly infuriating to me as he appeared to intimidate, if not bully, his wife and family. As the famed scientist his needs were held to be greater than those of the rest of the family. Personally I agreed with the local minister who assured Jane that irrespective of intelligence or genius, each member of a family has equal rights if not always equal needs.

Magic carpet factor: 3.75 

Aggravation factor (with him!) 4.75