The May Beetles by Baba Schwartz

One of the most moving memoirs I’ve read.

The May Beetles by Baba Schwartz

‘The Germans are taking over Hungary!’

In this memoir, Baba Shwartz writes of the first twenty years of her life.  She was born in Nyirbator, a small town in eastern Hungary in 1927, and enjoyed a happy childhood.  She writes of a town, of around 12,000 people, where the Christian and the Jewish families lived in harmony, each respecting the others customs and traditions.  But life changed, when her family and the other Jewish families in the town were transported to the ghettoes and then to the death camps.  Her family was transported to Auschwitz, where her father Gyula perished.  Baba, her two sisters Erna and Marta and their mother Boeske survived.

This is recounting of the past, both good and bad, of specific wonderful moments from childhood, of  an encounter with Josef Mengele:

‘A tall, handsome German officer standing opposite the newly arrived Jews gestured with a wave of his hand which of two lines each of us was to join.  What it meant if you were assigned to this line or that, we didn’t know.’

Boeske’s strength in keeping her family together, in looking out for others, comes across in this memoir.  Baba writes of how, having survived Auschwitz, they were transported to several other camps as slave labour.  They were eventually liberated by the advancing Russian army.

This is a memoir of the first twenty years of Baba Schwartz’s life, of which her Holocaust experiences are part.  The contrast between her life before the war and her experiences during it make those experiences more harrowing.   Baba’s family lost seventeen members, including her father and grandfather. And, as Baba Shwartz writes:

‘- that our lives were just like their lives, that our thoughts and feelings were just like theirs.  That we weren’t another breed; only the times were different.’

Unfortunately, we still need this reminder today.  Perhaps especially today, as the number of living witnesses to the Holocaust continues to decrease.  Baba Schwartz herself will be 90 this year.

After a short stay in Israel after the war, Baba Shwartz, her husband  Andor  and their sons emigrated to Australia in 1958.

I found this memoir both difficult and uplifting to read.  Difficult because of the reminders of inhumanity, the dislocation and loss of lives, while uplifting because of the reminders of humanity.  Baba Schwartz wrote a version of this memoir during the 1990s: I am grateful that she published it.

‘Even at Auschwitz, we wished to sing.  Human beings can feel pain and hunger and terrible fear, but we must also give vent to our feelings of joy.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



SPENCER ZIFCAK. Three Ministers vs. Three Judges: Executive Government gets Flattened | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

  In Victoria’s Court of Appeal last Friday, an encounter unprecedented in Australian legal and political history played itself out. Through the Commonwealth Solicitor-General (SG) three Commo…

Source: SPENCER ZIFCAK. Three Ministers vs. Three Judges: Executive Government gets Flattened | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

ROBYN SAMPSON. Ending child immigration detention is just a matter of time. | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

Momentum is growing around the world to end child immigration detention. All major human rights experts now agree that immigration detention is a child rights violation. Meanwhile, more and more co…

Source: ROBYN SAMPSON. Ending child immigration detention is just a matter of time. | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

Gonski’s troublesome twin | The Saturday Paper

The reason I supported the original Gonski schools funding formula was because it was both needs based and sector blind. The formula wasn’t perfect, but what is? Implementing it, for example, was more expensive than it should have been because of the ridiculous condition that no school – no matter how high their fees or luxurious their resources – should lose a dollar. That was a waste of scarce funds, but even with its flaws, at least Gonski provided badly needed money to the schools – and students – that needed it most and where it would really make a difference.

Source: Gonski’s troublesome twin | The Saturday Paper

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

A novel about one of the lesser known Stuarts of the 16th century.

The Girl in The Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle

‘Memories are like that cracked pane of glass with its subtle distortions.’

Lady Arbella Stuart is ‘The Girl in the Glass Tower’ and I picked up this book with interest: Lady Arbella Stuart had always been a shadowy figure in my reading about Tudor/Stuart history. I knew that she had been considered as a possible successor to Elizabeth I, and when I first came across her name I was convinced it had been misspelled.  But I knew little about her.

First, some biography.  Lady Arbella  Stuart was the only child of Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox and his wife Elizabeth Cavendish.  She was a grandchild of Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox and Lady Margaret Douglas, whose parents were Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus and Margaret Tudor, daughter of Henry VII of England and widow of James IV of Scotland.  In short, Arbella Stuart was the great-great- granddaughter of Henry VII, and was in line to the English throne.  While it seems that she did not seek the throne herself, there were others keen to push her claims.  Her grandmother, Elizabeth Cavendish, better known as ‘Bess of Hardwick’ was key.

In this novel, Elizabeth Fremantle brings Arbella Stuart out of the shadows.  Arbella’s story is told in the past tense, in conjunction with the story of another historical figure, Aemilia Lanyer (Ami) a writer and poet whose story is told in the present.  It makes for an interesting juxtaposition: Ami’s story moving back in time as Arbella’s story moves forward.  The gaps in one story are filled in the other.  Arbella spends much of her time with her grandmother, effectively imprisoned behind the imposing glass windows of Hardwick Hall.  She is being kept safe: there is much danger in the world for those with royal blood.  And living within this glasshouse, unable to take control over many aspects of her life, Arbella wishes to ride her horse Dorcas, and longs to be free.

‘You may not be Queen of England but you are queen over the realm of your body.’

The historical facts can be found readily for those in search of them, having all of the detail before reading the novel may well spoil the experience for some readers.  Arbella wanted to marry, but because of her place in the succession neither Elizabeth I nor James I would agree.  There were offers made for her, but they came to nothing.  As Arbella grew older, she sought to control her life by controlling her body.

In this novel, her one last chance for happiness was thwarted. Ami Lanyer is part of this and, while aspects are wholly fictional, it provides an interesting dimension to Arbella’s story.

I finished this novel feeling like I had some greater sense of Arbella Stuart, but also wanting to know more about Aemilia Lanyer.  I was left with a small question, though: were containers really called cartons in late 16th   and early 17th century England?

Note: My thanks to Michael Joseph and NetGalley for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Phoenix Cycle by Bob Collopy

‘You are the best stock this Phoenix Cycle could hope to reap!’

Picture this.  The world has been ravaged by storms of ash and debris.  Only one city has survived: New San Francisco.  New San Francisco has survived because it is ruled by the General.  He has ensured that the people of New San Francisco understand that there is no room for weakness, no room for pity.  The city is ruled by the Inner Circle, and Steve and Leslie have a chance to join that Inner Circle.  It’s a once in a life chance to apply, and if they don’t they’ll be condemned to spend the rest of their lives in the ghettos of Edingburg.

There is another possibility.  There is opposition to the General.  A revolutionary army, known as the IRA, led by a voice known as ‘Mom’ is trying to overthrow the General and free the people of New San Francisco.  Steve will choose one path, and Leslie the other.

What follows is an interesting and busy dystopian tale.  The IRA wants a famous philosophical speech broadcast.  Many will die trying to do this, but is anyone listening?  The novel follows the main characters in a world that has been largely destroyed by the effects of environmental disasters and war, where the government keeps most people in a captive virtual reality.  There’s not enough detail to work out how all this happened, but there’s enough connection to the current world to make much of it believable.

A dystopian environment with philosophical characters –  there are several aspects to this story.  It’s not a straightforward narrative: some aspects are delivered by journal entries and broadcasts.

I’ll need to reread this novel.  I wonder whether the the Department of Smoke has been able to exert any influence over the final manuscript?  I know that the version I read is not the final version…

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Bob Collopy for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Ache by Eliza Henry-Jones

‘Annie has never been the sort of person to have nightmares.  But since the fires on the mountain, her dreams have changed.’

A bushfire twelve months ago has ripped Annie’s world apart.  Her grandmother Gladys is dead, her daughter Pippa is traumatised, and her mother Susan’s home was half destroyed.  Although Annie, her husband Tom and Pippa live in the city, she’s never really settled there.  The mountain is her home, and after her uncle Len calls her, she takes Pippa back to Quilly for an extended visit.  The pressure of work means that Tom can’t join them, and he’s frustrated that Annie hasn’t thought this through.

‘It’s too easy to forget how good it feels to have purpose.’

Back in Quilly, we meet Annie’s eccentric mother Susan, her uncle Len and his wife Rose.  Gradually, we learn more about Annie’s life on the mountain, her relationship with Gladys, and the fire that has devastated the lives of so many.  And Pippa, so traumatised by the fire, starts to open up to her grandmother and find her way gradually through her own trauma.

It took me a while to adjust to the rhythm of this novel.  Ms Henry-Jones tells the story gradually, revealing pieces of information about people and events.  There are several finely drawn characters, each dealing with the consequences of the bushfire the best they can.  Some within the community see Annie as an interloper, and this undermines her sense of belonging.  Can individuals within the community move on?  Can Tom and Annie’s marriage survive this separation?

For me, this novel captures some of the trauma of catastrophe, as well as some of the issues individuals and communities need to deal with as a consequence.  The devastation is clear, the grief understandable.  There’s hope, as well, for the future – for the land and for at least some of the characters.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann


‘Like others on the Osage tribal roll, Mollie and her family members each received a headright – essentially, a share in the tribe’s mineral trust.’

In the 1920s, the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma were amongst the richest people in the world.  Oil had been discovered under their land, and the headrights could not be sold.  They could only be inherited.  This was to keep the mineral trust under tribal control, but it resulted in many Osage people being murdered.  Just how many were murdered and over what period is not clear.  Mr Grann writes that according to most historical accounts, the Osage Reign of Terror spanned from the spring of 1921, to January 1926, but there were other killings.

In this book Mr Grann writes principally about one matriarchal Osage family, about the plan to murder the women in that family, in a way guaranteed to enable their headrights to be inherited.  Mollie Burkhardt’s older sister Anna was shot dead, then her mother was slowly poisoned.  As the death toll climbs, with more than twenty-four Osage killed as well as almost anyone trying to investigate the killings, the case is taken up by the newly formed FBI. After a bungled start, J. Edgar Hoover, puts Tom White (a former Texas Ranger) in charge of the case.  Tom White and his undercover team, working with the Osage, began to expose this awful conspiracy.

Poor Mollie Burkhardt.  She discovers that her husband, Ernest Burkhardt, was part of the conspiracy.  He and his uncle, William Hale planned the death of Mollie and her entire family, including the Burkhardt children.

If only it were fiction, not fact.  Mr Grann sets out the tragedy in a way that is easy to read, even though the scale of it is not easy to comprehend.  This tragedy raises so many questions about the treatment of Native Americans, about greed and about systemic corruption.  And now?

‘History is a merciless judge.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

BRIAN TOOHEY. Building submarines in SA simply sinks Australian dollars | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations

Despite claims to the contrary by the defence industry minister Christopher Pyne, this sector is not driving growth in the economy or jobs. A defence economics specialist Mark Thompson has debunked…

Source: BRIAN TOOHEY. Building submarines in SA simply sinks Australian dollars | John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations