John’s reading for December and January

 When Innocence Trembles:

Christian brothers orphanage tragedy, a survivor’s story

By Kate Davies

1994, 2004

 When Innocence Trembles

This is a reissue of a seminal 1994 book that generated great interest in the patterns of sexual abuse and quasi-slavery of  children in Australian institutions of all varieties but especially those run by the Christian Bros in W.A. in the 1930s and 40s.

Edward “Skinny” Davies, an unwanted illegitimate child of a 17-year-old girl, spent ten years at three Christian Brothers’ institutions: Castledare, Clontarf, and the notorious Bindoon Boys’ Town that was represented in the ABC series “The Leaving of Liverpool” which emphasised the experiences of overseas born children who became inmates. While Davies and so many others experienced what can only be described as callous hard labour, there is also clear evidence of sexual and psychological abuse originating from some of their carers and indifference from their superiors.

There is clear evidence of the centrality of the importance of institutional empire-building and personal glorification suborning the interests of those placed in care. It has been tragic that it has taken, and continues to take, so long for public awareness and understanding to grow, both of the formative influences that created and maintained such institutions and of the physical and mental developmental consequences for those place in their ‘care’.

I must confess to a long-term interest in this topic after reading in my late teens Michel Del Castillo’s  ‘Child of Our Time’ Ace, London. 1960. [Published in French as Tanguy – Cocteau said of this work “It is terrible and admirable”]. It is the story of a young boy (Tanguy) at the end of the Spanish Civil War. His father ‘dobs in’ his mother (a communist) and the boy finds himself very much on his own as WWII comes to a close. He has to deal with the Gestapo, POW camps and oppressive religious brothers (Christian Brothers if my memory holds) while in ‘care’. He encounters a lot of abuse but also learns to hold close the few elements of genuine friendship he encounters. The same can be said for this Australian experience.

If you need to confront the reality of what happened until relatively recently in many institutions, this could be the book for you.

Rules of Summer

By Shaun Tan

2013

 rules of summer

Shaun Tan’s books have claimed the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award as well as an Academy Award for the animated adaptation of his book ‘The Lost Thing’ on which I wrote a note for this group. The style of illustrations (his own) is always key to his work along with a viewpoint that is quirky and often somewhat ‘apart’ like a young person trying to understand the mysteries of the adult world

In this new book, ‘Rules of Summer’ Tan has accented this visual side of his work with a series of pages from his oil paintings that are highly attractive while reinforcing his notions of apartness and quirkiness – take a look at the cover page above). The story line in text form is almost non-existent with two boys, one older and one younger investigating the ‘rules of summer’ – learned rules that are the fruit of personal exploration and discovery. In some senses, there is so little text and so many unknowable elements in the mysterious illustrations that beg for creative resolution that I saw the book as the kind of children’s subjective apperception tests employed by psychologists to explore children’s psyches. Tan has a wonderful facility in blending the mundane and the surreal.

John Purcell’s Review

How do you review a Shaun Tan book? Each time I open Rules of Summer I find a different book. I remember my excitement on being offered a sneak peek a few months ago. I was left feeling a little bewildered. Did I like it? I don’t think I did on that first look. Then a few months later I was given an advance copy. I flicked through the pages and found a completely new book. Or so I thought. But no, the preview was exactly the same as the finished copy. Had I changed? I read through it time and time again. The book bewitched me. I then stood it on my desk in the office so that I could look at it during the day.

Rules of Summer is dark comedy. Or tragedy. It is a self-help book. It is a graphic novel. A child’s picture book. A nightmare. A warning. A guide. A fun way to pass half an hour. Ten minutes. A minute. It is art. It is entertainment. What the hell is it? It’s a bizarre thing. I love it. Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer is something you must own.’

About the Author

Shaun Tan’s award-winning books include the highly acclaimed wordless novel The Arrival, The Lost Thing, The Red Tree, The Rabbits And Tales From Outer Suburbia. In 2011, Shaun won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, shared an Academy Award for his work on the animated short film version of his book The Lost Thing’, and was presented with the Dromkeen Medal for services to children’s literature in Australia.

Shaun has also worked as a theatre designer, as a concept artist for the films Horton Hears a Who and Pixar’s WALL-E and as an animator on the Academy Award-winning short film adapted from his book The Lost Thing. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages and have won many prizes both in Australia and internationally.’

Tudor: The Family History

By Leanda de Lisle

2013

 tudor graphic

If you have been enjoying Hilary Mantel’s Tudor series (soon to be completed with Vol III, we are told) you might appreciate an overview of the whole Tudor dynasty that approaches matters from the viewpoint very much of a family dynasty (Murdochs/Packers of their day?). I have read my fair share of histories and biographies of the period, but I very much appreciated a broad overview that is less interested in political machinations (though they are unavoidable) and more focussed on family relations. This is a very readable work, based on quality research, which gives the reader a feeling of travelling along as an outside observer privileged to see this family’s ‘doings’ up close and intimate.

As a result I found many female characters such as Margaret Beaufort and Margaret Douglas more interesting than ever before. Given that the dynasty encompassed a  relatively short period of time (five generations) and was largely self-invented, the focus on heirs in the family ‘firm’ becomes much more understandable whatever moral rights and wrongs emerge.

There is even the possibility that young Edward VI who died in the Tower may have shared his Great-Uncle Richard III’s scoliosis. Also, I had never previously given much consideration to the romantic union of founder Owen Tudor and Catherine of Valois –

“There was music playing, and her servants were dancing. While Catherine watched, Owen performed a leap which span out of control, and he fell straight into her lap. As an Elizabethan poet asked, ‘Who would not judge it fortune’s greatest grace, Since he must fall, to fall in such a place?’ “

EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI

The Concubine Who Launched Modern China

By Jung Chang

2013

 dowager

I must confess to a weakness for things Chinese (five visits from 1981 onwards) and Jung Chang as the author of “Wild Swans” (10+million copies) and (in concert with her Soviet scholar husband Jon Halliday) “Mao: The Unknown Story” has granted many valuable insights. Both these books are banned in China though Jung Chang does visit and research there. It will be interesting to see how the Chinese government reacts to this new title which re-examines the life, times and imperial contributions of the last effective Manchu ruler of China, CiXi.

The Empress Dowager CiXi (at least two different pronounciations of this name – real family name unknown) has often been demonised for her 50-year rule leading up to the brief reign of Pu-Yi (subject of the movie ‘The Last Emperor’) and this was certainly a time of great tumult, revolt and general disintegration for the Manchu empire. But what was her real role and how did she manage that 50 year stay in power paralleling and shortly out-living Queen Victoria?

Jung Chang has specialised in revisionism. “Wild Swans” was an opportunity to look truthfully into the experiences of the women in one family starting with the time of CiXi (she banned foot-binding but Jung Chang’s own grandmother still experienced it as her family were more traditional) through to the turmoils of communist China. Her co-authored volume on Mao was a carefully crafted debunking of much of the Mao Myth especially his personal and sexual life, his Imperial disdain for the peasantry and his dubious role in the ‘greats’ be they the Long March or the Great Leaps forward. She has come under extensive attack for this work but her research is impeccable.

Once again, her research especially in sources and materials that have become more freely available in the last 15-20 years, is extensive and revealing. She points out how two terms used to  denigrate CiXi are, in fact pointers to her considerable strengths. ‘Old Buddha’ was an honorific used in the past for honoured Emperors and is a measure of the esteem in which she was held by a majority in the Han community. Likewise, ‘She Dragon’ can be taken as a Tudor-like determination to ensure the continuing rule of her Manchu ancestors against all kinds of constant external and internal forces while still managing to accept the notion of an elected Parliament by the time of her death.

Far from depicting her subject as a sinister conservative who obstructed reforms, Chang portrays CiXi as smart, patriotic and open-minded. In her view, the empress was a proto-feminist who, despite the narrow-minded, misogynistic male elite that made up the imperial bureaucracy, “brought medieval China into the modern age.” Chang concludes that CiXi was an “amazing stateswoman,” a “towering” figure to whom “the last hundred years have been most unfair”.’

Pelagia and the Red Rooster

By Boris Akunin

2008

 red rooster

Boris Akunin is not only a highly decorated best-selling Russian author with an international multi-lingual reputation, he has the courage of his convictions in the face of a leading world bully –

Popular Russian detective novelist Boris Akunin on Wednesday declined an invitation to meet President Vladimir Putin, saying he could not be around him while Russia jails political prisoners. In one of his strongest ever statements, the opposition-supporting novelist said he was boycotting a Thursday event where Putin is set to meet writers to discuss government support for literature’.  November/20/2013.

I have previously written notes for the group on two of Akunin’s incomplete Erast Fandorin series of detective novels and have been given another as a Christmas gift. I decided, instead, to look at the last of his three female detective series based on an Orthodox nun, Sister Pelagia. I hasten to point out that is no Miss Marmelade, she is a warmly human character, feminine and strong, with almost intemperate curiosity and willingness to take risks to explore her self.

The action is set across late C19th Russia from St Petersburg, down the major river systems, across the Urals and then down to the Palestine of that time. Pelagia plays a central role without dominating but manages to tie together a range of colliding story lines that vary from the comic absurd (a Gothic castle inhabited by a fearsomely rich and mad gay noblemen whose servants are attired in tight black leather with massive cod-pieces and a cabinet of curiosities including a smoked head, purses made out of breasts and a collection of dried vaginas) through to the dark, mad paranoid murderous ramblings of the highest officials of state in St Petersburg.

There is a plot that can be followed if you don’t mind accepting the importance of selecting the right cave and accompanying red rooster as the starting point of the Second Coming. Yes, it is at times quite complicated and crazy but always entertaining, enthralling and informative. Akunin’s views on life in an autocratic state colour everything with a parallel shading coming from  a continuing exploration of Jewish life in Russia leading to the early emigrations to Palestine. While there is no shortage of occasional severe and bloody violence (literally eyeball-popping), few characters are seen as outright evil, rather poisoned by political, economic and religious madness.

He comes closest to a direct expression of the views Putin dislikes when he has the saintly mad character Emmanuel tell a group of settlement Jews who are celebrating a victory over predatory locals –

‘”You will defeat the Arabs and the Circassians. You are few, but you are strong. Only, he said, “your victory will be your defeat.” How can a victory be a defeat, we asked him? But we couldn’t understand his answer. He said that a victory over another person is always a defeat. A genuine victory is when you overcome yourself. Well, our people wouldn’t listen to him after that – they  started arguing again. But it turns out he was right, about victory!’

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