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After a pretty good run of books, including two history/biographies each of Imperial Rome, the First Fleet, the Donner Party and Hollywood in the seventies (spoiler: it’s settler colonialism all the way down), I have come to an annoying halt. You know when you pick up this book and that and you KNOW they’re good and if you were in another mood you would devour them, but today, eh? That.

Mostly, I think, it’s that I want to read more books exactly like Emma Southon’s Agrippina and A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Imagine I, Claudius rewritten by Tamsyn Muir: hilarious, serious, queer and profane.

I want this kind of telling of my own history, but the closest I found were the biographies of Esther Johnston, my umpty-great grandmother the Jewish convict and First Lady of New South Wales (Esther), and of her contemporary – NOT friend – Elizabeth Macarthur (A Room Made of Leaves). Weirdly, both books end halfway through the story, with Esther’s triumphant closure being social acknowledgment by Elizabeth, while Elizabeth’s is feeling a sense of connection to her Paramatta farm despite knowing perfectly well that she had wrested the land from it’s traditional custodians.

I mean, those narrative choices make sense when you consider that Esther died an alcoholic widow and Elizabeth’s entire life was mythologized to justify the attempted genocide of the indigenous people. The true stories are kind of a bummer and don’t fit traditional (imperialist) Chosen One story structures. But this is where Emma Southon is so fucking good. Agrippina’s story is also embedded in histories of violent dispossession and oppression, but Southon embraces the ambiguity and complicity and tragedy. Plus there are jokes and swears.

The Donner Party books – The Indifferent Stars Above and The Best Land Under Heaven – came closer to scratching that itch if only because there is no way to frame that story as anything like a triumph. The worst you can do (and this has been done plenty) is to cast it as a weird aberration, a sort of Californian Dyatlov Pass incident, whereas in fact it’s the logical consequence of white Western expansionism, manifest destiny literally eating its young.

And that’s how you get the US state of California, superimposed (by force) on the Bear Flag Republic and the Mexican Californios and Spanish Alta California and before and throughout all of that a landscape of indigenous cultures and languages maybe as ancient and diverse as those in Papua New Guinea. I went on to read The Mighty Franks and Hollywood’s Eve, both of which have to reckon with the titanic legacy of Joan Didion, the ur-pioneer. And look, back in the 90s I venerated Didion like any other young white woman would-be new journalist, but when you read Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting and are reminded of her callous line on El Salvador, “Terror is the given of the place,” that veneration turns a little sour. Given by whom, exactly?

Hollywood’s Eve makes a decent case for Eve Babitz – sensualist, humanist – as a counterpoint to Didion’s ironic analyst, but it’s weird and deeply Californian that each in the wake of profound personal tragedy has taken a hard right turn. I can’t think of a neat way to end this post. History, and especially history with white women in it, is just like this: frustrating, messy and inconclusive.

spqr, by mary beard

The beginning of empire and the beginning of literature were two sides of the same coin.

the white possessive, by aileen moreton-robinson

It takes a great deal of work to maintain Canada, the United States, Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Australia as white possessions.

agrippina, by emma southon

Being a woman near power is lose-lose most of the time.

a room made of leaves, by kate grenville

Sydney Town was a dusty ugly angry place, a sad blighted bit of ground on which too many souls tramped out their days dreaming of somewhere else.

esther, by jessica north

When the Pilgrim Fathers had sailed in the Mayflower to establish the first European colony in North America, there had been only about a hundred colonists—all of them free settlers—and half of them had died during their first winter. Captain Phillip was taking more than a thousand people—most of them already weak, unhealthy convicts—on an eight-month voyage to the other side of the world.

the indifferent stars above, by daniel james brown

What they remembered for the rest of their lives was not the cabin itself but rather the warm, yellow lamplight that shone out through loose chinking—light coming to them through the black night as if miraculously, beckoning them to come back in out of the cold, to the hearth of humanity.

the day that went missing, by richard beard

The dividend for shutting down emotions as a routine response is invincibility at moments of stress. This is a psychological gamble, in England embraced as a gift. The English don’t fall apart, our most prized national characteristic. Look at history and see how economically productive this quality can be.

jigsaw, by sybille bedford

Everybody believed in the Guide Michelin.

a fatal thing happened on the way to the forum, by emma southon

It was an outrageous moment in Roman history and not one person complained because everyone suddenly knew the consequences of complaining. Everyone knew that there was no power balance between the Senate and the people of Rome. Democracy was a charade. There was just the Senate and they would kill to keep it that way. And there would be no consequences when they did.

the last of the wine, by mary stewart

They have passed a law forbidding logic to be taught.

sing to it, by amy hempel

What if you are someone who does not know when something is over?

a psalm for the wild-built, by becky chambers

…it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live.

code girls, by liza mundy

It was a nice posting; the intercept operators could hitchhike into San Francisco. Chamberlain began fiddling with her dial, trying to pick up the Hiroshima station she received. Hiroshima sent out a very good signal. Now all she got was dead air. There was nothing at all.

new people, by danzy senna

Was I molested? No, I wasn’t fucking molested. I mean, no more than the average female born circa 1970.

white magic, by elissa washuta

Every day, the universe reminds me that, yes, I am safe now, but I am in America.

having and being had, by eula bliss

The barriers that prevent people from entering the middle class are the defining feature of the middle class

the life of the mind, by christine smallwood

How typical of her not to know something was over when it was over.

the devil comes courting, by courtney milan

Belonging in two places makes you a bridge.

my father and myself, jr ackerley

Of my father, my mother, myself, I know in the end practically nothing.