Friday, 13 September 2013

Notes from Eve Abbey ~ September 2013

Greetings Readers,
I’ve been off the air for a while. I hope you have been reading some good books. Meanwhile I’ve been on a long cruise to such places as Brunei, Shanghai and Guam, I’ve been to hospital to have my thyroid gland removed and I’ve been taking it easy. I’m 83 now so it’s time I did. However, I miss telling you about the books I’ve read, so I plan to do an occasional report.

First some very nice news. The Sydney Peace Prize people will present the 2013 Award to Dr Cynthia Maung who has run a Health Clinic at Mae Tao, near Mai Sariang, just inside the Thai border with Burma since 1989. When daughter Jane Abbey went up there in 1992 to work with the Karen people, the Clinic was already famous. Not only was it providing essential care, it was also training the 'medics' who then returned to their refugee camps able to provide help on the spot. Dr Cynthia’s Clinic is now famous throughout the world. Aung San Suu Kyi and even Hillary Clinton have visited. The Award is great, especially as it seems AusAid will not renew their grant this year? A great shame. Some things may have changed in Burma, but it will be a long time before villagers see any improvement in the standard of their health services. The Award will be at Sydney University on November 7th and Dr Cynthia will give the Peace Prize Lecture at Sydney Town Hall on November 6th. For tickets and information go to

There are several good books in our Asian History section about Burma, including two written by Thant Myint-U, grandson of the famous U Thant who was Secretary General of the United Nations when I was young. These are The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma and more recently Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. Read the latter one and you will be very surprised at what is going on at the edge of the Himalayas.

Another popular book about Burma is Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. This beautifully written book describes his childhood in a Padaung village and later his amazing fortune to receive a scholarship to Cambridge University to study English Literature and to escape the troubles in Burma. The Padaung tribe is famous for their long-necked women – perhaps a practice that is disappearing.

Just now I have been reading an addition to these books. It is called Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma written by Wendy Law-Yone. It is a family memoir and wanders about a bit, but is especially interesting because her indefatigable, ever-optimistic father was the founder of The Nation, the first English-language newspaper in Rangoon in 1978 and closed when the opioniated editor was put in jail. Ed Law-Yone was an idealist, radical, full of hope for Burma and full of confidence in himself. As Editor of The Nation, which became an important political voice, he found himself (or often arranged for himself) to be in important meetings and a familiar of Prime Minister U Nu, as well as the very erratic General Ne Win, who took over the Government as leader of the Junta. Ed worked for the American OSS during the Second World War and made many useful contacts and was heavily involved in the Burmese Government in Exile with U Nu. He was a Gadfly indeed. Wendy’s book is written after she, finally, read the memoir her father had written in five exercise books while he was imprisoned. There is a lot of intriguing background history in this, as well as a loving picture of family life – a family of some importance.

Another book I read was Hard Times: A Runaway’s Adventures in the Americas by Jack Mercer published by Transit Lounge (who seem to do some unusual, and very good, books). In the spirit of A.B.Facey’s A Fortunate Life, this is the true story of a young Australian country kid who in the early 1900’s ran away from an abusive step-father who owned a country pub. He found himself on a sailing ship to Chile where he worked on a huge estancia, found himself shipwrecked and adrift in Argentina, then on the streets of New York. But luck favoured him and he eventually became a businessman who finally returned with his wife and family to Australia in the 1930’s as the General Manager of an American trading company. The manuscript was rescued by his grandson and a good thing too. Like Facey, with almost no education, this modest man was able to write beautiful, simple prose, able to enjoy simple pleasures, and to include fascinating details such as how much he was paid and what he did and how much things cost in those days. The description of the shipwreck and rescue is marvellous.

Another interesting and unusual book is Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. Ostensibly this is about one of the first, and most notorious, divorce case of the 19th century. Did you know that prior to 1857 a special Act of Parliament had to be passed to ratify a divorce? Of course only the rich and powerful could afford this. Mrs Robinson’s disgrace is mostly to be found in the very effusive diary she kept after meeting a most charming man, unfortunately married, and much younger. But Mrs Robinson, a very intelligent woman, unhappily married to a businessman, set about living another life through her diary which became the chief evidence in the divorce case. This was at a time when such diaries were often the basis of popular novels. However, the book becomes more than this and covers a great deal about unsatisfied female desire, and the yearning for learning. Remember all those Virago books written by Victorian women exploring Egypt and other places? They were supposed to be “ill” and on a voyage to recuperate, but really they were running away from boring lives!

I really enjoyed Ramona Koval’s By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life. For many years, Ramona presented The Book Show on ABC Radio National. In her book she talks about some of the many books she has read and describes their influence at various times in her life. Her time capsule coincides with mine. If I haven’t read all those books, I have certainly sold them! It was a delight to read and she provides a very useful and interesting list of books at the back.

I plan to see Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Sydney Theatre Company, but will read the play first. Such complicated word play needs a bit of background. Of course I found a copy on the shelves at Abbey’s in a paperback that also contained three of his numerous other plays – Jumpers, Travesties and Arcadia. There were collections of his other plays as well. I suspect I enjoyed Stoppard better first time around.

A reminder: If you want to know price and availability for any books I have mentioned, just click on the title to see more information and maybe reviews about the title.

Keep well! Eve

Buy these books at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

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