What I’ve been reading
Eula Biss, ‘Time and distance overcome’
Eula Biss’s short essay on the history and impact of the telephone on America begins simply enough with the premise that it was not particularly welcomed nor deemed as necessary by many people when it was first rolled out in the late 19th Century. On top of this, the tall wooden poles needed to facilitate the modern invention were considered unsightly and were sometimes met with open hostility.
Biss writes in a note at the end that she searched the New York Times archives for all mention of telephone polls between 1880 and 1920. She was shocked but not surprised by what she found—
‘In 1898, in Lake Comorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City,. And in Brook Haven, Mississippi. And in Tulsa, where the hanged man was riddled with bullets. In Pittsburg, Kansas, a black man’s throat was slit and his dead body was strung up on a telephone pole. Two black men were hanged from a telephone pole in Lewisburg, West Virginia. And two in Hempstead, Texas, where one man was dragged out of the courtroom by a mob and another was dragged out of jail.‘
and it goes on, an unbearable litany of crimes over the years, an inextricable link between the advent of the telephone, and the use of telephone poles as opportunistic instruments of lynchings.
What begins as a fascinating piece on the nature of time and distance overcome becomes something much darker and more complex, a racial reckoning that Biss never flinches from. Her conclusion however, is sublime in its sense of hopefulness.
You can read it here—
Fiona Kelly McGregor, Iris
Fiona Kelly’s McGregor’s exceptional book about the historical figure of Iris Webber is impressive in the breadth of its research and imagining. Covering the life and known events of the protagonist’s life, the prose attempts to fill in the blank spaces of what such a life might have really been like to have lived. The narrative never shies away from the culpability of Webber regarding the violence enacted both upon her and by her, but it does manage to place it into the context of a time and place very different to our own. Having lived some years in inner Sydney and frequenting pubs in many of the featured locales, I found myself invested in this sense of dissonance, and how looking back at other eras is never a matter of mere time. In this regard, McGregor captures a snippet of a fascinating vernacular, and of the small domestic realities of life in Sydney in the Depression, at home, work and play.
Though the life and times of Iris Webber are portrayed as almost unrelentingly grim, with no possibility of class mobility or the promise of lasting economic stability to change her fortunes, McGregor still manages to imbue the text with small moments of reprieve for her character. These islands of balm are portrayed as surprising iterations of kindness, as well as snatches of humour, song and forays into both eroticism and love. In many ways, this book is reminiscent of Dorothy Park’s Harp in the South novels, so it was unsurprising that McGregor acknowledges their influence, along with a number of other listed texts.
At 429 pages Iris is longer than your average novel, but I found myself wanting to leave behind other tasks in order to make time to sit down and immerse myself again into the world that McGregor has so carefully recreated—a perfect balance between what can be known about the past and can only be remade as story.
Writers on writers: Sarah Krasnostein, On Peter Carey
I loved the sense of place in this book, as it takes in North-East Victoria where I live, in what is known as part of the landscape of the Kelly story, aka Kelly Country as it’s known around here. What is most compelling about Black Inc’s Writers on writers series is that the brief (100 pages, give or take) hardcover essay is as interesting for the writing of the essay writer, in this case Sarah Krasnostein, as on the writer they are considering, in this case Peter Carey. The fact that the essay doesn’t attempt to take in Carey’s entire oeuvre, but rather relates to his Booker Prize winning True History of the Kelly Gang helps to distil the flavour and attendant themes of Krasnostein’s study. As such, ideas of exile and belonging feature strongly in this work. It’s a lovely, quick read.
Andrea Trevitt, I had a father in Karratha
This recent publication from Upswell is quite the page turner: I read it in 24 hours, and as a full time student and mum of two primary school aged children, this is not something I tend to manage often. The format of the book probably helps, as it is arranged in vignettes interspersed with place holders for time and sentiment in the form of text messages. It is the content that is the real page-turner though. Trevitt documents the arduous emotional task and toll of being executor to her late father’s complex estate in Karratha, WA from her home in Melbourne. Though this probably doesn’t sound like something that would keep you invested, the way this book takes in aspects of history, politics, memoir and family, as well as the questionable practices of the banking industry is an incredibly moving piece of work that never falters in its pacing.
Olivia Laing, To the river, A journey beneath the surface
I read Olivia Laing’s account of the river Ouse in England, as she notes, most famed for being the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself. Laing, recovering from the traumatic break up of a long relationship, decides to walk the length of the river from its source to the sea. While she meanders its length, she muses on its history and the culture and people who have been immersed in it over time. She dips meanwhile in and out of history and her own life story. The river flows, green and brown and amber, replete with tales of pike in fields, and Virginia Woolf swimming rapturously in fields in flood after they have been bombed and their natural course restored. Virginia wears Leonard’s brown tweed pants, swearing to buy some of her own, though she will choose instead to fill her pockets with river stones in the coming weeks. In the Goodreads reviews, one reader gives the book a 1-star review, complaining sourly about the incongruous cries of starlings when Laing should have written swifts and the perceived slander of another bird. The review writer takes heart that perhaps they can look to writing a book on walking in nature despite not being a trained environmentalist.
Susan Howe, Spontaneous Particulars, the telepathy of archives
I never get tired of the National Library’s database of old newspapers. I have a few research areas of personal interest where I go in as a volunteer and transcribe articles, including the sad story of my Great grandfather’s youngest brother, who made the news in newspapers all over Australia for all the wrong reasons in 1924 and 1936, and also the story of Harriet Cleary, dubbed the Widow of Waranga in 1906 by then Victorian Premier Tommy Bent, as she refused to vacate her house to make way for the flooding of the Goulburn River into Gunn’s Swamp in what was then the largest irrigation scheme in the Southern Hemisphere. My other interest is the irrigation channels that derive from the eventual Waranga Basin. Lately, I came across something utterly precious that had been preserved in local newspapers in 1947, the pre-wedding gatherings in Mulwala New South Wales of my maternal grandmother and grandfather.
Corowa Free Press (NSW : 1875 – 1954), Tuesday 17 June 1947, page 4
(From Our Correspondent)
Congratulations to Mr. and Mrs. Moore on the birth of a daughter. Also to Mr. and Mrs. Coombe on the birth of a son.
Mrs. W. McFarlnne is at present holidaying in Melbourne. On Monday, 2nd inst, a very enjoyable evening was spent at the home of Mrs. Loughman when Miss Francis Nicholson was entertained by the members of the Mulwala Basketball Club (prior to her marriage to Mr. C. Anderson, which took place at St. Brigid’s Church on Saturday last at Mulwala). The evening took the form of singing, games and competitions. The president (Mrs. Loughnan) on be half of the basketball club, presented Frances with a silver cake tray, and wished her every happiness in
her future sphere. Mrs. Armstrong, Miss Jean McKee and Messrs. R. Mullarvey and T. Savage supported the remarks of the president. Mr. C. Anderson responded on behalf of Frances. A delectable supper was served. On Tuesday, a large number of friends of Miss Frances Nicholson as-sembled at the Church of England Hall, Mulwala. The evening took the form of dancing, and vocal Items’ were rendered by Mrs. Milstead. Misses Patricia Williams, Kath and Joan McDonald and Mr. Tom Savage. During the evening Mr. Tom Savage on behalf of the large number present, presented Frances with many beautiful gifts. Mr. Hogan, president of the Mulwala Football Club, presented Mr C. (Digger) Anderson with a pair of silver salt and pepper shakers on behalf of the club and wished them every happiness. The previous speakers were supported by Mr. Ray Mullarvey. ‘Mr. C. Anderson suitably responded. “For They Are Jolly Good Fellows” was sung by all present. Supper was served and a happy evening terminated with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”.
(Also reading (for PhD) all things Nox by Anne Carson, and all things writers are thinking about the lyric essay and how it does what it does.
Also, the latest eds of Meanjin, Westerly and HEAT (special mention to Antigone Kerala’s wonderful diary entries and to Bonny Cassidy’s fragmented thoughts on her father’s decline—beautiful work indeed. And I am currently fifty pages in to Anna Funders’ superlative book, Wifedom: Mrs Orville’s Invisible Life with its interleaving of life writing, biography and counter-fiction, and I cannot seem to put it down. And a similar amount into Salmon Rushdie’s latest, Victory City. And a few other things. Stay tuned for thoughts on these, and happy reading to you).