The Pull of the Stars

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It’s the day before Nurse Julia Power’s 30th birthday in 1918. As the war draws to an end the deadly influenza pandemic sweeps the world. Julia’s early-morning journey to work reveals a city of chronic poverty and suffering, the two catastrophes contributing to system collapse. She arrives at her busy Dublin hospital to find herself left alone in charge of the ‘Maternity/Fever’ ward – a converted supply room – for expectant mothers diagnosed with the “Grippe”. Her work is classic chaos-management: monitoring and treating the illness, managing women in labour, delivering babies and rapid-fire decision-making. Demanding and difficult but as Julia reflects, “I realised something then: no other job would ever satisfy me.” Into this world comes the mysterious Bridie Sweeney, an untrained volunteer of “about 22” of whom Julia muses, “It baffled me that this young woman seemed to lack experience of the most ordinary things – bicycles and thermometers and unborn babies. Still, she was so grateful for everything from skin lotion to ashy tea. And how quickly she got the knack of whatever I taught her.” Bridie is a masterful creation with an instinctive wisdom and compassion born of a cruel upbringing. There is also new doctor Kathleen Lynn, a political activist/’terrorist’ arrested after her crucial role in the deeply unpopular Easter 1916 rebellion. Julia notes with approval both Dr Lynn’s medical abilities and her willingness to trust the judgement of nursing staff – unlike the dismissive male doctors. Both women will quickly change and enrich Julia’s life.Ireland is ruled by Great Britain and the English king, part Catholic theocracy and male-dominated. The hospital is analogous: a hierarchy of clerics and men – even the orderlies treat the nurses with disdain – where the doctors are gods. But change is coming: soon the war will be over, the rebels of 1916 will come to be seen as heroes and Ireland will demand independence. Her interactions with Bridie and Dr Lynn will find Julia challenging the rigid codes of hospital behaviour to the point where she will walk away from the work she loves if she cannot do it more on her terms. The narrative takes place over three consecutive days into which are crammed those profound human experiences – birth, death, love, tragedy, sacrifice and courage. The chapter titles – Red, Brown, Blue, Black – relate to the colour code nurses use for the progress of the pandemic. The writing is effortlessly evocative, particularly the first two chapters relating Julia’s non-stop, frantic roller-coaster first day. There are wonderful lyrical moments such as, “Bridie’s eyes slid away” – describing her attempt to hide a secret.Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue is a multi-award winning writer and Booker Prize nominee. She had intended this novel to mark the hundred years since the 1918 pandemic, and with exquisite timing it was ready for publication just as COVID-19 arrived. Like Maggie O’Farrell’s wondrous ‘Hamnet’, which is set during an outbreak of the Black Death, it is also superb historical fiction.

Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking

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Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking (1985) by Allen Carr. Something different this week. Allen Carr was a prolific English writer, the author of books aimed at helping to quit various addictions and fears: nicotine, alcohol, other drugs, overeating, flying, anxiety and even digital addiction (in ‘Smart Phone Dumb Phone’). Carr is best known for his work on quitting smoking, and milked it for all it was worth with no less than six books on the topic, plus another on quitting vaping! One, titled ‘How to be a Happy Non-smoker’ would seem to me superfluous, but then I haven’t read it. His approach is unique, eschewing scare tactics for a genuine empathy with unhappy smokers nevertheless fearful of losing their ‘pleasure’ and living a healthier-but-miserable life. He had been a very heavy smoker in despair at ever stopping until, as he explained in an interview, “only by the grace of God” he put together two pieces of information and the light-bulb moment occurred. Having cured himself, with the zeal of a religious convert he set out to cure the world. Carr quit his work as an accountant in 1983 to set up his first clinic. Since then his methods and treatments have spread across the globe. The Allen Carr method is by far the most successful, statistically more effective than any government-approved or other approach. He persuasively argues that quitting is easy – not frightfully difficult as so many are convinced – and that it is partly a matter of semantics: for example, it should not be labelled “giving up” which sounds like being deprived of something enjoyable. (Giving up is what you do for Lent or Ramadan.)I first came across this book more than twenty years ago and was quickly taken by its unusual approach to nicotine addiction. But I also read it very slowly, fearing that it might work! Finally, on a sunny Saturday morning in March 2000 AD I did the course in a Melbourne suburb and smoked my last cigarette. Ever. The Allen Carr method must take some credit, but I had also reached the right psychological moment in life where it felt like Now or Never. Almost seven years later, Carr died – ironically of lung cancer quite possibly caused by passive smoking as he assisted addicts to quit.

The Dry (2016) by Jane Harper

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“ … very involved with the book – it’s a page-turner, with a plot that develops quickly and deftly.”“ … it’s good to read such a fine Australian novel.”Dear Reader, the above are not extracts from book reviews but my own notes made as I plunged into this very readable book. At one level it’s a cracking murder mystery and detective story but it is also a work that captures something of the essence of rural community life in Australia.Four teenagers in a Victorian farming community find friendship and romance together. When the novel begins, two of them have died in tragic circumstances – Ellie Deacon in an apparent suicide twenty years earlier and Luke Hadler just a week before in one of those farming family murder/suicide events that happen all too often in this country. One of the four, Aaron Falk and his father had fled the small town of Kiewarra under a cloud soon after Ellie’s death by drowning. Now an AFP officer, he is back for the first time to attend his mate’s funeral. His brief return is greeted with suspicion and outright hostility by those who hold him to have been involved somehow in Ellie’s death. Others, not convinced that Luke was capable of killing his own family, urge him to stay longer and investigate. The community has been devastated by drought. The deep river in which Ellie died is dry dust. Tensions are at breaking point; many wonder if the Hadler family tragedy is only the first. Aaron Falk’s return is difficult, even dangerous. He reflects on his current unsatisfying city life:[he] spent a lot of his days under fluorescent office lights, but at least his livelihood didn’t hang by a thread on the whim of a weather pattern. At least he wasn’t driven to such fear and despair by the blank skies that there was even a chance the wrong end of a gun might look like the right answer.Jane Harper’s writing is sure and uncompromising in this her first novel; her character assessments are shrewd and piercing, as in this very minor character sketch:A woman stepped out, her squashy figure backlit by the television glow. Dull chestnut hair was scraped back in a limp ponytail and her hips spilled over the top of her waistband. Her face was the purple-red of a woman whose drinking was crossing the line from social to serious. She lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, staring at Falk in cold-eyed silence. ‘Help you, mate?’‘The Dry’ is a masterful narrative peopled with complex and authentic characters. The unfolding of the twin mysteries, recent and distant, are managed with a confidence and touch that is engrossing to the end. Having said that, I did find myself suspending disbelief with one part of the ending, just a tad over-dramatic. And – this has also been said of the splendid recent film version with Eric Bana in the lead role – at times the dialogue doesn’t quite ring true of rural Australia. I tut-tutted when Gretchen (the other surviving member of the four) said, “I’m on the school board.” In Victoria there is no such thing; we have school councils. I’ve been on a couple myself. However, these are minor quibbles with what is a major work by an outstanding Australian writer.

What Is to Be Done (2020) by Barry Jones

Australian National Living Treasure, ex quiz champion, leader of the campaign to abolish the death penalty, polymath and our longest-serving Science minister (phew!) Barry Jones’ recent book consciously echoes Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s 1902 treatise, What Is To Be Done? – but there is no question mark; Jones is not asking a question but telling us what must be done. His 1982 book Sleepers, Wake! won international acclaim and was known to have influenced the thinking of Deng Xiaoping among others, but Australia and much of the world continues to snooze.

Sub-titled ‘Political Engagement and Saving the Planet’ (and speaking as a former Labor party stalwart), Jones proposes that just as we face a climate crisis poised to spiral out of control both major political parties are failing us miserably. Aware of the grave danger of climate change since 1967 and believing that our continent’s vulnerability should have propelled Australia to be a world leader on the issue, he comments, “Australia’s response has been feeble, confused and, at times, corrupt”. One answer could be for concerned citizens to join the major parties in large numbers so as to force reform of party platforms. Another could be to form a new party; Jones and Malcolm Fraser seriously discussed doing this before Fraser’s death in 2015 and had agreed on a strong progressive agenda. However, since early in the 20th century Australians have conservatively voted for one of the two big parties and only strayed elsewhere in relatively small numbers.

Barry Jones is indeed a great Australian: an idealist, a dreamer and a formidable intellect, but also with a former teacher’s tendency to over-explain. He is remembered for his contribution to then Labor leader Kim Beazley’s ‘Knowledge Nation’ policy – a complex diagram of circled phrases mocked by Coalition politicians as ‘Noodle Nation’ and hence not taken as seriously as it deserved. Linda Jaivin notes of parts of this book, “If any male reader … is curious what it feels like for women to have things mansplained to them, I commend these sections.”

The Labor party Barry Jones joined as a young man consisted of mostly men, as he ruefully admits, but men who were “actual workers … passionate readers, had strong convictions, and knew how to debate a powerful case. Some had been jailed for their political/industrial activity.”                            He continues:                                                                                                                                                                             I regularly receive requests for advice from young people who tell me, ‘I’m thinking of going into politics.’ I ask, ‘Which party?’ Typically, they respond, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.’ Then I ask, ‘So, you’re passionate about an issue?’ Mostly, I receive a quizzical look and the response, ‘Oh, should I be?’

No wonder we are so badly served by our politicians when for the most part they have no commitment other than to a generous salary and retirement plan, no passion about issues or interest in ideas – let alone a conscience – and imagine that staying ‘on-message’ is an appropriate substitute for debate.