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Category Archives: Best read of 2009

Tony Parsons “My Favourite Wife” (2008)

At one level this is a fairly generic love-triangle story, but in sharp contradiction to this reviewer I found the characters quite well developed and sympathetic. The great triumph of the book, however, is that it provides more understanding of contemporary China and Chinese than a thousand ponderous tomes and learned articles might deliver. Having been very close to a Shanghainese (and knowing quite a few others) I congratulate Tony Parsons on his depth of understanding. He is also remarkably aware of the paradoxes of the new superpower, that, for example, its wealth, while benefiting many, depends on even more people being held in poverty. True though that mass famine has become a thing of the past.

… Bill walked. He was hungry to see what he thought of as the real China, the China that was nothing to do with plasma tele­visions and Dom Pérignon. The real China was somewhere nearby. It had to be. There were blocks of flats as far as he could see in a bewildering jumble of styles, but broken up with patches of manicured green and oversized statues. There were strips of restaurants – he could see Thai, Italian, everything but Chinese – a Carrefour supermarket, and a couple of international schools, including the one that Holly would go to in the morning. Little parks. A nice neighbourhood. Gubei was greener and cleaner than the grimy, crime-ridden patch of London they had left behind. His family could live here. His wife and daughter could be happy here. He felt a quiet satisfaction, mixed with relief.

He glanced at his watch and decided he had time to explore before Becca and Holly stirred. So he walked towards the rising sun and as he left Gubei New Area behind, the streets quickly filled. Women selling bruised fruit stared through him from shaded side streets. Someone bumped into him. Someone else spat at his feet. There were men in filthy, dirt-encrusted two-piece suits working on a building site. On a Sunday. And in the streets there were people. A tide of people. Suddenly there were people everywhere.

He stopped, trying to get his bearings. The roads were wide and traffic flew by, horns mindlessly beeping, ignoring red lights and pedestrians and the rest of the traffic. He saw a chic girl in sunglasses with her hair up behind the wheel of a silver Buick Excelle. There were flocks of VW Santana taxis. A muddy truck piled high with junk and men. And more trucks, lots of them, with their strange cargo of cardboard or orange traffic cones or pigs or yet more cars, so new they still shone with the showroom wax.

As the sun got higher, and Bill continued to walk east, the city got noisier, adding to his sense of dislocation. A woman on a scooter mounted the pavement and just missed him, beeping her horn furiously. Schools of cyclists with giant black visors over their faces swarmed past. Suddenly he was aware of the time difference, the light-headedness that follows a long-haul flight, the sweat of exhaustion. But he kept walking. He wanted to know something about this place.

He walked down alleys where thin men shaved over ancient metal bowls and fat babies were fed, and where ramshackle buildings with red-tile roofs were draped with drying laundry and satellite dishes. Then abruptly the jumbled blocks with their red-tile roofs suddenly gave way to the new shining towers and shopping malls.
Outside Prada men with their skin darkened by sun and grime tried to sell him fake Rolex watches and DVDs of the latest Tom Cruise movie. Young women hid from the sun under umbrellas. Naked Western models advertised skin-lightening products on giant billboards.

And as Bill walked on, he felt something that he had never felt in his life, and it was an awareness of the sheer mass of humanity. All those people in the world, all those lives. It was as if he truly believed in their existence for the first time. Shanghai gave him no choice.

Bill hailed one of the Santana taxis, impatient to see the Bund, but the driver didn’t understand a word he said and dropped him by the river, glad to get rid of him. He got out next to a wharf with a ferry; not a sightseeing ferry but some kind of local public transport.

Bill handed over his smallest note, received some filthy RMB in return, and joined the milling mob waiting to cross to the other side. He tried to work out where the queue began. Then he realised that it didn’t begin anywhere.
And as the ferry filled with people, and then continued to fill even more until Bill was hemmed in on every side, and fighting back the feeling that the ferry was overloaded, he saw that here, at last, was the real China.

The numbers.

It was all about the numbers.

He knew that the numbers were why he would be starting his new job in the morning, why his family’s future would be decided in this city, and why all the money problems of the past would soon be over. They filled the dreams of businessmen from Sydney to San Francisco – the one billion customers, the one billion new capitalists, the one billion marketplace…

See also the author’s site and The Independent.

This is indeed popular rather than literary fiction, but for its insight I give it star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25.

I also wonder whether Parsons’ working class accent still arouses snobbery on the part of some English reviewers? Oxbridge he isn’t.

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Well, I’m enjoying it…

Hot on the heels of Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography, I am reading Will (Christopher Rush 2007). There’s an excellent review here by Joyce McMillan from The Scottish Review of Books. Rush follows Ackroyd’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s life quite closely but has involved himself in Shakespeare studies for several decades. He certainly knows his man.

Rush doesn’t spare us the smells as well as the sights of Elizabethan/Jacobean London. If you want to know just what was involved in hanging, drawing and quartering, or in bear baiting, you will be more than satisfied. Much of the book is pastiche, a mash-up of lines from the Bard – and I mean that as a compliment as it is most cleverly done. Here is an earthy and believable Will Shakespeare on his deathbed going back over his life as he dictates his will to his rather Falstaffian lawyer – a device that could stretch belief just a bit if you let it.

Joyce McMillan knows a lot more about the Scottish author than I did.

…In terms of the development of Rush’s own work, the origins of this book are not difficult to trace. It’s no secret that following the sudden death of his first wife in 1994, Rush experienced years of despair, depression and writer’s block, released only when he was able to write his own painfully frank 2005 memoir of that experience, To Travel Hopefully: Journal Of A Death Unforeseen. As a lifelong teacher of literature, he found some small, companionable solace even then in the profound knowledge and awareness of death that runs through all Shakespeare’s work; and now, he has gathered all his feeling for Shakespeare’s mighty dialogue with death into this startilng first-person account of the life, set in the framework of the last days – the settling of accounts, the making of bequests, and the final walk into the dark.

At first – as Will talks of his chiildhood and family, his brutal schooling, his father’s humiliating business failure, his early trade as a slaughterman’s boy, and his sudden dizzying fall at 17 into lust and love with Anne Hathaway, followed by a suffocating early marriage and fatherhood – the dialogue format works well, with the gluttonous Francis alternately shovelling down food, and chirpily contributing his own local insights and opinions. Later, the structural moorings begin to slip a bit, as the more familiar Shakespeare of the London years emerges, in great avalanches of narrative and descriptive prose to which Collins has little to say.

But always, Rush’s prose retains the same intense, hallucinatory quality, a strange mixture of brisk, frank modernity and Shakespearean pastiche, alarmingly laced, at every turn, with sudden shifts into Shakespeare’s own words, culled from those ever-present plays…

I am thoroughly enjoying the ride. star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Fiction, Shakespeare

 

Two non-fiction books that have impressed me lately

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 1. Tariq Ali, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008)

Yes, I know: Tariq Ali, famous 1968 alumnus and “wild man” of the Left. But even London’s Spectator, hardly famous for Marxist leanings, concedes, while also drawing attention to the book’s very pleasing style:

… Tariq Ali’s universal cynicism might have been oppressive, but in fact his narrative is funny and gossipy, the high points being his own encounters with key players, including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir and Indira Gandhi. He believes that the country’s satirists, writers and poets serve as Pakistan’s collective conscience and uses writers and poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhianvi, Habib Jalib and Ustad Daman to provide the moral compass for his wanderings.

Political turbulence has revived interest in stories from an earlier period of Muslim in the region, Ali says. He relates a 16th-century story that — with some modifications — sums up life in today’s Pakistan with painful accuracy. A man is seriously dissatisfied with a junior magistrate’s decision. The latter, irritated, taunts him to appeal to a senior judge.The man replies, ‘But he’s your brother, he won’t listen to me’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the mufti’. The man replies, ‘But he’s your uncle’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the minister’. The man replies, ‘He’s your grandfather’. The magistrate says, ‘Go to the King’. The man replies, ‘Your niece is engaged to him’. The magistrate, livid with anger, says, ‘Go to Hell then’. The man replies, ‘That’s where your esteemed father reigns. He’ll see to it that I get no satisfaction there.’

The government, the political parties, the civil service, the mullahs and the army all have reason to be angry with Tariq Ali and The Duel will outrage as many in Washington as in Islamabad. But Americans should read it for its explanation of why so many in Pakistan hate the US, blaming it for the dire situation in which they now find themselves.

In fact this sprightly romp should be read by anyone who wants real insights into Pakistan. It is as good a primer on Pakistani politics as you will find, with the caveats that it is not the whole story, it is not always accurate and Ali’s prejudices are his own.

Yes, but he makes more sense of this part of the world (including Afghanistan as these stories are inseparable) than most. I see a great love for his subject despite what the Spectator calls cynicism – and indeed cynicism seems to me quite rational in this case.

See also Democracy Now and The Independent. There is also a one hour YouTube and some shorter ones you may access from there.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 2. Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography (2005)

THE biography – a touch presumptuous that! But this is nonetheless a feast of a book which until recently I had just nibbled at for reference purposes. Some say Ackroyd speculates too much, but I find many of the speculations fruitful. It is also very grounded in excellent social history. Here’s a quick taste.

… Of his earthly life there was much less certainty. In the sixteenth century, the mortality of the newly born was high. Nine per cent died within a week of birth, and a further 11 per cent before they were a month old; in the decade of Shakespeare’s own birth there were in Stratford 62.8 average annual baptisms and 42.8 average annual child burials. You had to be tough, or from a relatively prosperous family, to survive the odds. It is likely that Shakespeare had both of these advantages.

Once the dangers of childhood had been surmounted, there was a further difficulty. The average lifespan of an adult male was forty-seven years. Since Shakespeare’s parents were by this standard long-lived, he may have hoped to emulate their example. But he survived only six years beyond the average span. Something had wearied him. Since in London the average life expectancy was only thirty-five years in the more affluent parishes, and twenty-five years in the poorer areas, it may have been the city that killed him. But this roll-call of death had one necessary consequence. Half of the population were under the age of twenty. It was a youthful culture, with all the vigour and ambition of early life. London itself was perpetually young.

The first test of Shakespeare’s own vigour came only three months after his birth. In the parish register of 11 July 1564, beside the record of the burial of a weaver’s young apprentice from the High Street , was written: Hic incipit pestis. Here begins the plague. In a period of six months some 237 residents of Stratford died, more than a tenth of its population; a family of four expired on the same side of Henley Street as the Shakespeares. But the Shakespeares survived. Perhaps the mother and her newborn son escaped to her old family home in the neighbouring hamlet of Wilmcote, and stayed there until the peril had passed. Only those who remained in the town succumbed to the infection.

The parents, if not the child, suffered fear and trembling. They had already lost two daughters, both of whom had died in earliest infancy, and the care devoted to their first-born son must have been close and intense. Such children tend to be confident and resilient in later life. They feel themselves to be in some sense blessed and protected from the hardships of the world. It is perhaps worth remarking that Shakespeare never contracted the plague that often raged through London. But we can also see the lineaments of that fortunate son in the character of the land from which he came…

See also Looking at Shakespeare, in 3 Different Ways.

 

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Louis Nowra “Ice” (2008)

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 Ice That’s my rating; not everyone agrees.

I have to admit I had my doubts for a while, but once I had travelled a bit further with the novel I found myself increasingly bowled over by it. It is definitely up there with my best reads of 2009 – close to the top.

One dissenter from my view is Tim Milfull:

Malcolm McEacharn was one of those larger-than-life nineteenth-century figures: a self-made man who built up a massive fortune on the back of a Victorian-era obsession with industry and technology. He revolutionised refrigerated transport in a time when export industries were becoming large-scale, modernised Melbourne’s transport system, became mayor of the city, represented the region in federal parliament, and permanently changed the face of his adopted city. The man’s achievements were many, and his exploits and adventures similar in number—all perfect fodder for biography, especially given the reading public’s insatiable appetite for creative nonfiction. Why then, in his latest novel Ice, would memoirist, essayist, playwright and scriptwriter Louis Nowra choose to have a fictional character read a poorly-written, magic realist biography of Malcolm McEacharn to his comatose wife?

… When I read the blurb outlining the stories within Ice, I was immediately hooked by Nowra’s premise, especially after his superb work co-writing the SBS series First Australians: The Untold Story of Australia. I was prepared to invest myself in an epic love affair that spanned more than half a century, and drew in characters over an even longer time. Sadly, more than 300-pages later, I found myself more frustrated than sated by romance or transported to another universe.

A100257 Certainly McEachern – of whom I had never heard before (he is after all mainly Melbourne!) – was a fascinating character in real life.

Closer to me but with some reservations is Historical fantasy skates on thin ice by Andrew Riemer.

… Colonial society is pictured in vivid, at times compelling ways. There are memorable images of Melbourne’s nouveau riche magnificence – which soon peters out into muddy marshes and shanty towns. Nineteenth-century Sydney is vividly depicted, too. I was also impressed by Nowra’s sketches of the Victorian goldfields, particularly by a description of Bendigo’s splendid palaces of commerce lining a dusty, treeless road from nowhere, going nowhere.

A novel needs more than this, however, to engage its readers, to make McEacharn interesting, to give him an inner life. Nowra’s secret history of the colonial tycoon is filled with all kinds of ingenious though sometimes unhistorical conjectures and inventions.

The first of these, at the beginning of the novel, is a nice conceit. On a stifling summer day, a ship arrives at Circular Quay towing a gleaming iceberg. The iceberg was McEacharn’s first great adventure, an anticipation of his subsequent (and historical) attempts to develop ways of keeping meat frozen on the long sea voyage to London. How ice preserves flesh that would otherwise decay is a leitmotiv throughout the novel. The iceberg itself conceals a secret: the perfectly preserved body of a young seaman who died in the Southern Ocean decades earlier….

Ice transforms workaday history into an at times lurid romance. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Depicting McEacharn’s grand obsession leads Nowra into several traps from which he does not extricate himself (or his novel) very happily. A chamber of horrors fantasia played out in the basement of McEacharn’s mansion struck me as ludicrous. Nor could I see much point to the narrative surrounding this historical fantasy – except, that is, for a play on the word "ice".

It is the story of Beatrice, who sank into a coma after she was mugged by a man high on ice. At the time, she was working on a biography of McEacharn. Her grieving husband, a translator of scientific papers and articles, decides to complete the project, and tells her inert body about what he has accomplished. Unnecessarily, it seems to me, he insists on spelling out for her the connection between the two meanings of "ice".

Yes, I do share some of these reservations but I was prepared to go with Nowra I have to say – though not at first.

Finally, Maggie Ball is an enthusiast.

There’s a Dickensian grandeur to Ice which is made all the more powerful by the way in which Nowra twists time’s arrow. Those reading this solely as an historical fiction may be made uncomfortable by the way in which the reader is drawn into the story, placed in the role of the unconscious Beatrice; as silent confident. For those of us who like our fiction as rich, complex, and painful as possible, Ice is a tremendous story, and one which begs to be read more than once.

That is also my conclusion.

See also Louis Nowra on Ice from ABC’s Book Show.

 

Listening to Gorecki, reading Nowra

A rather powerful combination…

I’ll have more to say on Louis Nowra’s Ice later.

Ice

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2009 in Best read of 2009, Fiction, music, OzLit, personal, reading

 

Oral: thoughts while reading Mark Davis

This is my second spoken post, but this time I used my digital camera to make the recording. I was drawn to what Davis has to say about Geoffrey Blainey.

spoken Click to listen

 

Reading Jasper Fforde

A couple of years back my former Sydney University boss Ken Watson recommended Jasper Fforde to me.

fforde

Now at last I have read one of his amazing books, The Well of Lost Plots.

Imagine Little Britain meets the Cambridge Companion to English Literature + literary theory. Hilarious. The Wuthering Heights anger management day is just one gem of many.