Two books about the Holocaust

Fairly sure I said something about not reading much about the Holocaust in the last decade or so because I overdid it in the eighties and nineties… Anyway, seems that went out the window when I read The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman and The Toy Maker by Liam Pieper, one after the other.

The books are similar in many ways – both tell the story of an Australian man living in the present alongside the story of a Holocaust survivor; both are set in the ‘Canada’ barracks at Auschwitz–Birkenau and examine the role of the Sonderkommando; both have themes of good versus evil, penance, and the measure of crime; both show that there are lessons in history.

“History can provide comfort in difficult or even turbulent and traumatic times. It shows us what our species has been through before and that we survived. It can help to know we’ve made it through more than one dark age. And history is vitally important because perhaps as much as, if not more than biology, the past owns us and however much we think we can, we cannot escape it. If you only knew how close you are to people who seem so far from you… it would astonish you.” (Perlman)

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These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper

Stories about people in apartment buildings are a bit like stories about groups of school mates for me – you invariably have a mixed bunch of characters who are tied together because they have one (physical) thing in a common – a building. I generally quite like these stories, which is why I picked up Fran Cooper’s These Dividing Walls (the very pretty cover also swayed me).

These Dividing Walls is about a particular apartment building in Paris. It’s described beautifully, just as I imagine the quintessential apartment building in Paris to be – a courtyard, heavy wooden doors, flower boxes, winding staircases, a garret room at the top and, the pièce de résistance, a bookshop at the bottom. Continue reading

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

Five thoughts about The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak –

01. It’s full of glorious eighties details (so beautifully accurate that I’m wondering if it’s a tiny bit autobiographical…?).

We played marathon games of Risk and Monopoly that dragged on for days and always ended with one angry loser flipping the board off the table. We argued about music and movies; we had passionate debates over who would win in a brawl: Rocky Balboa or Freddy Krueger? Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel? Magnum P.I. or T. J. Hooker or MacGyver?*

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The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

In Maxine Beneba Clarke’s twitter bio, she says “I try to write beautifully, about ugly things.” And that’s precisely what she does.

The Hate Race is a stunning, devastating, and powerful memoir. Clarke tells of her ‘typical’ Australian childhood – there was just one major difference between her and the rest of her classmates – she has brown skin.

The most striking thing about The Hate Race is how similar Clarke and my childhoods were. And also how very, very different. Continue reading

Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir by Catherine de Saint Phalle

Poum and Alexandre by Catherine de Saint Phalle is a curious book. It’s a memoir, focused on Saint Phalle’s Parisian childhood with her unconventional parents, Marie-Antoinette (Poum) and Alexandre –

“The patterns of the eccentrics are often rigid. My parents have many idiosyncrasies and any new ones become instant habits. Theirs is a disciplined madness.”

The book reads like a fairy tale. Told through the eyes of eight-year-old Saint Phalle, her stories are studded with references to Greek mythology, The Odyssey, the Magna Carta, visits to Givenchy, the Napoleonic Wars and the French Resistance.

“He talks the whole time about Alexander the Great, Constantine, Caesar, Julian the Apostate. He tells me of palaces and forests, galloping  horses and raped women. His voice gathers momentum and his hands seize javelins and slave girls. He canters up hills where we stare at burning cities.” Continue reading

The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard

Geez… it’s always a bit tricky when something doesn’t do what it says on the label. That’s not necessarily a bad thing… But expectations and what-not…

Which brings me to Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre. The subtitle is Port Arthur 1996-2016 – most Australians would understand that the title refers to the twentieth anniversary of the Port Arthur massacre. The blurb suggests an exploration of the journalistic intent after the tragedy, with particular reference to the ethics of reporting traumatic events. Voumard poses the question, “Is there a right amount of storytelling surrounding the Port Arthur massacre?” Continue reading

Wasted by Elspeth Muir

Two things to get off my chest about Elspeth Muir’s memoir, Wasted

  1. This is an extremely important book that examines the impact of alcohol on a family and, in doing so, highlights the fact that drinking to excess is normalised in Australian culture.
  2. In my opinion, this book was robbed – it really should have made the 2017 Stella Prize shortlist.

In 2009, Muir’s 21-year-old brother, Alexander, finished his last university exam, celebrated with friends, and then jumped 30 metres from the Story Bridge into the Brisbane River below. His body was found three days later, with a blood-alcohol reading of 0.25. This tragic event provides a starting point for Muir to explore her grief; her own drinking habits; and Australia’s drinking culture. Continue reading