As we settle into the midst of winter, the staff at the Centre are enjoying their evenings lazing in front of the heater and immersing themselves in the stories that have captured our attention this month. Whether it’s rereading our favourite classics or travelling back through time to explore the Soviet Union, each book is guaranteed to make these cooler months slightly more bearable.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Program Officer
The red tenure and post-collapse circumstances of the diverse states that became the Soviet Union are full of fascinating stories and incredible histories. As Kurt Johnson shows in his forthcoming book The Red Wake, the legacy of the USSR is a powerful force across the former Soviet states. Johnson captures a turbulent point in the post-Soviet world, still caught between East versus West narratives. While the Western tendency is to overlook Soviet successes (such as the Soviet contribution to the Axis defeat in World War II), in Russia there is a movement to rebrand Soviet crimes as ‘mistakes’. The risk of praising Stalin for his wartime management strategies is that these ‘mistakes’ – the repression, the dictatorship, the gulags – will be repeated, as some interviewees point out to Johnson.
To better understand the Soviet Union’s long shadow and the state of its former republics, Johnson travels to places that are more challenging or radioactive than the average traveller might be inclined to visit, such as the Polygon, an area of Kazakhstan where the Soviets tested 40 years’ worth of nuclear weapons. He manages to visit Perm-36, the last Soviet gulag, which until recently was preserved in its original state (it’s now a timber production museum). He recounts ethnic strife between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz and between Armenians and Azeris, juxtaposing this history with the impact and reverberations of Soviet art and design around the world. Johnson successfully blends travel and history with his own family’s story – his experiences are captivating.
Sherry Landow, Membership & Development Officer
The colder the months get, the more I seek out comfort-books from my shelf, the ones that I return to time and time again. This month I reread an old favourite, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Each reread transports me back to my thirteen year old self reading Brontë for the first time, but with added depth that I didn’t quite grasp as a teenager. Certain reactions still ring true – I still want to high five Jane as she delivers her impassioned speeches (“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will; which I now exert to leave you”) and cheer her on when she defies authority (e.g. punching certain family members who most certainly had it coming). There’s something about kick-ass 19th century heroines that I just can’t get enough of, and I’m sure that I’ll feel the same when I undoubtedly read it next winter.
Jane McCredie, Executive Director
Klaus Neumann’s Across the Seas is a fascinating, and often surprising, history of Australia’s response to refugees, from Federation through to the arrival of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s. It’s a kind of pre-history of today’s debates about refugee policy. Neumann’s meticulous historical research ends up seriously undermining the often repeated claim that Australia has a proud record when it comes to welcoming refugees. Particularly shocking is this country’s documented reluctance to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s. Perhaps less well known is the refusal to allow Asian brides of WWII servicemen into the country after WWII, based on a desire to maintain racial purity. This intelligent, important book has the potential to raise the quality of current discussions about refugee policy. That’s if enough people – and the right people – read it, of course.
Reilly Keir, Intern
I’ve just finished reading Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s first novel Purple Hibiscus. It is the coming of age story of Kambili, a young Nigerian girl from a respected and wealthy family during a politically and economically tumultuous time for Nigeria. The novel follows Kambili and her brother Jaja through a process of disillusionment with her fathers strict Catholic lifestyle and often harsh discipline. Spending time with her aunt and cousins opens Kambili up to music, art and the opportunity for freedom of expression. The novels strength lies in its attention to the beautiful and simplistic details of life often paralleled with elements of nature as well as the subtle yet powerful transformation its central character goes through.
Bridget Lutherborrow, Projects & Communications Officer
I’m part way through reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which are everything everyone said they would be. I already know I want to read at least the first book again, because it sets up so much, but you can’t see it at the time. The way the reveals are handled is so effortless and seem so true to life. Right now I’m on the second book, The Story of a New Name, and it’s definitely my favourite of the two I’ve read. It’s so viscerally relatable, but so specific to a certain stage of life. I’m wondering what the story will be like once the character’s experiences eclipse my own.