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Category Archives: Best read of 2009

David Leavitt, “The Indian Clerk” (Bloomsbury 2007)

star30 star30star30star30star30 No problem with thinking of a rating. This novel is superb.

In the world of mathematics, Srinvasa Ramanujan had a beautiful mind.

The 23-year-old was an uneducated bank clerk in the Indian city of Madras when, in 1913, he wrote a nine-page letter to Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy filled with prime-number theorems. Soon after, Hardy recruited Ramanujan to work at Cambridge.

In his new novel, The Indian Clerk, author David Leavitt re-creates the lives of these historical figures, delving deep into their intellectual and personal worlds. Though Ramanujan died just six years after arriving in Cambridge, he had a lasting impact on his colleagues and on the world of mathematics.

That summary is from NPR, which also includes an extract from Chapter 1.

The man sitting next to the podium appeared to be very old, at least in the eyes of the members of his audience, most of whom were very young. In fact he was not yet sixty. The curse of men who look younger than they are, Hardy often thought, is that at some moment in their lives they cross a line and start to look older than they are. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had regularly been mistaken for a schoolboy up for a visit. As a don, he had regularly been mistaken for an undergraduate. Now age had caught up with him and then outrun him, and he seemed the very embodiment of the elderly mathematician whom progress has left behind. "Mathematics is a young man’s game" — he himself would write these words in a few years time-and he had had a better run of it than most. Ramanujan had died at thirty-three. These days admirers smitten with Ramanujan’s legend speculated as to what he might have achieved had he lived longer, but it was Hardy’s private opinion that he wouldn’t have achieved much. He had died with his best work behind him.

This was at Harvard, in New Lecture Hall, on the last day of August, 1936. Hardy was one of a mass of scholars reeled in from around the world to receive honorary degrees on the occasion of the university’s tercentenary. Unlike most of the visitors, however, he was not here — nor, he sensed, had he been invited-to speak about his own work or his own life. That would have disappointed his listeners. They wanted to hear about Ramanujan.

While the smell of the room was in some ways familiar to Hardy — a smell of chalk and wood and stale cigarette smoke — its sounds struck him as peculiarly American. How much more noise these young men made than their British counterparts! As they rummaged in their briefcases, their chairs squeaked. They murmured and laughed with one another. They did not wear gowns but rather jackets and ties-some of them bow ties. Then the professor who had been given the task of introducing him-a youth himself, whom Hardy had never heard of and to whom he had been introduced just minutes before-stood at the dais and cleared his throat, at which signal the audience quieted. Hardy made certain to show no reaction as he listened to his own history, the awards and honorary degrees that authorized his renown. It was a litany he had become used to, and which sparked in him neither pride nor vanity, only weariness: to hear listed all he had achieved meant nothing to him, because these achievements belonged to the past, and therefore, in some sense, no longer belonged to him. All that had ever belonged to him was what he was doing. And now he was doing very little…

leav190 I am a mathematical retard, but I could still enjoy this wonderful imaginative recreation of a fascinating place and time. The tone is astonishingly good, rarely faltering – quite a tribute to an American author venturing into the Cambridge world of Bertrand Russell and many another known figure from that time. I found the book to be about G H Hardy as much as about Ramanujan, and also about the gay world c.1900 – c. 1936 – very well captured. This is gay fiction come of age in that it does not depend on gayness but rather explores wider human issues.

For more see The New York Times and  The Elegant Variation at THE INDIAN CLERK WEEK CONTINUES: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID LEAVITT:

TEV: How did you first become aware of the story of the relationship between G.H. Hardy and Ramanujan, and what made it seem like there was a novel in that story?

DL:  A few years ago Jim Atlas, publisher of Atlas Books, asked me to write a non-fiction book of Alan Turing and the invention of the computer for his series "Great Discoveries." In the course of researching Turing’s life, I bumped up against the Riemann hypothesis, which is widely considered to be the most important unsolved problem in mathematics. Like many mathematicians, Turing was fascinated by the Riemann hypothesis, and, at one point, even designed a machine intended to test the zeros on the critical line. To understand what I mean when I say "test the zeros on the critical line," you need to know a little about the Riemann hypothesis, which, at the time, I didn’t. Luckily four books explaining the hypothesis to lay readers happened to have been published the year that I was working on Turing. The first of these that I read was Marcus du Sautoy’s superb The Music of the Primes, which included a chapter on Ramanujan and an account of his collaboration with G. H. Hardy, part of which touched on the Riemann hypothesis.

I admit that what first fascinated me about the story of Ramanujan’s relationship with Hardy was the language that Hardy himself, years later, used to describe it. He called his "association" with Ramanujan "the one romantic incident in my life." Knowing already that Hardy was perceived—at least by his other principal collaborator, J. E. Littlewood—as a "non-practicing homosexual," I decided to investigate the history of this odd "association" between a devout but poor Hindu Brahmin from rural Tamil Nadu and a fixture of Trinity College in the years just before and during the First World War. In sharp contrast to Turing, who was socially awkward and a bit of a loner, Hardy—and this was unusual for a mathematician—traveled in sophisticated circles. He was one of the only scientists to be inducted into the Apostles, the elite and secret Cambridge society the other members of which, at the time, included Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. He also had close ties to Bloomsbury and literary London.

Rich fare indeed.

 

First July reviews – mainly comic

star30a Dante’s Cove 2 (2007 DVD)

I watched just 15 minutes of this heap of crap. If one was drunk or drugged and with friends it may work. Fortunately my copy was free, thanks to Surry Hills Library.

star30 star30star30star30a Julian Halls, The Museum, Hobart, Knocklofty Press 2008.museum-cover240

This gets two rather dismissive lines on SameSame.com.

Halls’s strength as a comic author lies in his sharp, crisp and snappy lines. Unfortunately, the novel sounds like a guidebook in places, and a boring one at that. This probably explains why the Tasmanian government gave the project its support.

I agree about the “sharp, crisp and snappy lines” but was certainly not bored. In fact I found the novel hilarious.

It is indeed “old-fashioned”, as the publisher says.

This is a most unfashionable book: it’s funny, it’s well written and constructed — and it has a happy ending.

It’s that rarest of things in an increasingly sad and troubled world: a comic novel, a genre which has almost disappeared under the weight of political correctness, post-modernist claptrap and the self-regarding seriousness of far too many authors.

Julian Halls has created an unlikely assortment of oddball characters — and they’re all people we’ve met or close to it — and placed them in and around a mouldering, half-forgotten regional museum in Tasmania.

The complex main plot concerns the relationships between two same-sex couples, one male, one female, and the whole thing is set in motion by a blowfly; it gets even more bizarre after that, although it’s never incredible—just like real life. Several curious sub-plots emerge and they are skillfully woven into a surprising conclusion…

The museum itself reminded me of the Australian Museum in Sydney in the 1950s, even down to the enormous whale skeleton in the entrance hall. Its sudden descent begins the series of crazy events. You can tell Halls cut his teeth in theatre – the novel is nothing if not a farce, but a pungent one.

The artist Benjamin Duterrau (1767-1851) is an important element in the plot.

17nat_conciliation_painting

Duterrau, “The Conciliation” 1840. Click on pic for more.

I liked this book.

star30star30star30star30star30a J G Ballard, Millennium People, London, Flamingo 2003

Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is one of my favourite books, and the 1987-8 Spielberg movie of it one of my favourite movies. Millennium People is a dark comedy whose targets include the romanticism of revolution, the mindless violence of events such as 9/11, and the sacred cows of the middle class on England – though there may well be a degree of endorsement of the latter.

One could also add, with this very perceptive profile in a source I don’t often agree with, that another target is the reader who, given Ballard’s profile, is probably in that same middle class. Joane McNeill writes:

In Ballard’s slapstick satire Millennium People (2003), the bourgeois residents of a gated community commit terrorist acts. They riot, clash with police, and bomb upper-middle-class establishments such as the Royal Albert Hall and the Victoria and Albert Museum. What are they protesting? “Double yellow lines, school fees, maintenance charges…cheap holidays, over-priced housing, educations that no longer buy security.” They are rebelling against, in one character’s words, “the barriers set out by the system. Try getting drunk at a school speech day, or making a mildly racist joke at a charity dinner. Try letting your garden grow and not painting your house for a few weeks.”

Like most of Ballard’s fiction from the last 20 years, Millennium People uses the framework of a middlebrow English novel as a way to parody the reader. For Ballard, as he explained to Salon in 1997, the novel is “the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It’s a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader and at every point offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate’s court. I think it’s far better, as Burroughs did and I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.”

I have his last book, Miracles of Life (2008), in line for reading. Millennium People joins my 2009 top reads.

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2009 in Australia and Australian, Best read of 2009, dvd, Fiction, film and dvd, movies, reading, satire, Top read

 

June review catch-up 1

Yes, I know how long I have been promising a string of reviews on that “sticky” above. ;)  Well, now to get started…

star30 star30star30star30star30 1. Simon Schama, The American Future: A History (2008).

Rather snooty review by David Brooks in The New York Times: “His book is called “The American Future: A History” (which is a puerile paradox before you even open the cover), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American future.” When you actually read the book you do get the title: historically “The American Dream” (the phrase itself, if not the idea, first appeared in 1931) has been very much about possibility and the future – witness the ending of The Great Gatsby. Beginning each chapter with vignettes of the 2008 Presidential Election, Schama traces a series of themes back through a number of intelocked and fascinating profiles. The result, in my view, is one of the most subtle portraits of the USA and its evolution that I have ever read. Nothing puerile about the title or the book.

Much nearer the mark is Carmela Ciuraru in The Christian Science Monitor.

William Faulkner once famously wrote that “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past,” a quote that aptly describes the perspective of Simon Schama’s latest book. In The American Future: A History, the eminent British historian and Columbia University professor offers a kaleidoscopic view of our national identity – by way of examining war, immigration, religion, and prosperity.

He sets off these themes with the 2008 presidential election, “impregnated with history,” an event that Schama likens to Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural in 1801, when Jefferson similarly spoke out against divisive rhetoric, proclaiming that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Weaving in original reportage, analysis, and historical events, Schama investigates where our nation of boundless appetite and ambition might be headed. The book (a companion to his BBC documentary series) is both a celebration and a wake-up call. “The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation,” he writes. “The American past is baggy with sobering truth.” The author is particularly harsh about our country’s recent past, notably “the woeful performance of [former president George W. Bush] and his hapless maladministration.” …

He isn’t striving for objectivity; this book is part history, part polemic. As a scholar and an outsider in his adopted country, he views the Bush administration as an unmitigated disaster. Yet the author is smart enough to (mostly) keep his opinions to himself, and let others do the talking – whether through contemporary interviews or quotes from historical figures…

He’s especially adroit at studying our historical ambivalence toward immigrants, and how religious ideology has shaped our identity. (He notes that American evangelism has always puzzled “habitually secular, skeptical Europeans.”)

American history is endlessly rich and fascinating, but Schama’s travelogue makes it come alive in a wonderfully accessible way. Sure, some of his pronouncements seem a bit obvious, but he includes so many surprising moments (an amusingly candid off-the-cuff encounter with George W. Bush, for instance) that all is forgiven. Schama happens to be a marvelous storyteller, too. Never condescending, his portrait of America’s complexities and contradictions is entertaining, provocative, and above all, hopeful.

The chapter on religion — “American Fervour” – is particularly valuable. It is a nuanced corrective to the polarised and polarising views of the subject one so often sees.* Let’s face it, too much we see and hear about the USA is at the level of cartoon thought, whether it be mindless patriotism on the one hand or subscription to the idea that the USA is at the bottom of all that is wrong with the world on the other.

You can read Chapter One here. Some idea of the TV series may be seen here. A definite Best Read of 2009!

* See also Caspar Melville “Free Market Faith”, New Humanist May/June 2009.

star30star30 star30 2. Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (2007)

I really have mixed feelings about this one.

"Many US high school students think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife."

The book is written for a popular audience and serves several good purposes. It contains a useful “encyclopedia” of relevant religious movements and ideas that really does encapsulate much that we all “need to know” to make sense of the world around us. These entries cover most of the main world religions. They are sane on Islam-related matters.

On the other hand much of the historical section is, to my mind, quite odd – a nostalgia for contexts and situations that even the author eventually admits we can’t return to, and probably shouldn’t try.

star30star30star30star30 3. June 2009 Monthly Magazine

I particularly enjoyed Waleed Aly “Patriot Acts”, Fiona Capp “In the Garden” (about Judith Wright and Nugget Coombs) and Peter Sutton “Here I Stand” – a very insightful profile of the undoubtedly brilliant if controversial Noel Pearson: “Peter Sutton reflects on the many facets of Noel Pearson’s thought as it appears in Up From the Mission, the Cape York leader’s comprehensive new collection of writing.”

The blurb for “Patriot Acts” follows.

“American patriotism does not celebrate a country that exists or has ever existed. It is a celebration of the idea of America: of possibility, what Barack Obama calls ‘America’s promise’. Where we may look upon America as the country of slavery and racial segregation, Americans see a country that overcame these things … This is a concept alien to those whose sense of patriotism has an older, more European flavour. The message of Australia’s staunchest patriots is that ours is a great country with a great history and no need for change.”

In “Patriot Acts”, Waleed Aly looks beyond the cheering and flag waving to provide a unique and compelling analysis of American patriotism, its history and complexity, and the lessons Australia can draw from it. “The secret to America’s unique brand of national identity,” Aly says, is that it “coheres principally around not a social culture but a political one”; it is this, he argues, that allows American patriotism to be embraced by even the most marginalised in US society.

“The demands America makes of its minorities are less trenchant than those preferred by anti-multiculturalists. Its demands are civic demands. If Australia has lately had a message for its migrants, it has been, ‘Fit in’. America’s message is, ‘Participate’. The two are worlds apart. The latter expresses a national identity that is dynamic and open, and that offers citizens a belief in their own freedom of conscience and the opportunity to contribute something new. The former expresses a national identity that is comparatively fixed, that makes its demands without inviting input and that, as a consequence, inspires little fidelity.”

 

A Partisan’s Daughter

star30 star30star30star30star30  Louis de Bernières, A Partisan’s Daughter, Harvill Secker 2008

9781846551413 I thought this was just brilliant. I am quite amazed that some critics saw it as rather lightweight; I found it just right, and very insightful on human fallibilities and the nature of relationships. I see one complaining the Serbian history is tiring; I found it fascinating. The narrative voices are beautifully realised, the construction superb. What’s to complain about?

In The Guardian Joanna Briscoe writes:

Because Chris is narrating retrospectively, with the viewpoint shifting fairly seamlessly between him and Roza, an awareness of later events in Yugoslavia is enhanced by Roza’s descriptions of different factions and nationalities as she grows up. The Russians, she claims, "say we’re all just bandits and we’ve only got loyalty to our relatives, and we make pacts with our enemies just to take advantage of our neighbours". As a writer, de Bernières is truly international in his scope, inhabiting one country after another with convincing detail and authority.

The novel’s charm works by stealth. It reads like a memoir; it offers subtle comment on the art of storytelling; it rarely strikes a false note, and it contains lessons about love and regret and seizing the moment. Like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, A Partisan’s Daughter is a novel about missed opportunities and wrong paths taken, tracing the way in which one false move can alter the history of a life. "I have never lost the pain in the chest and the ache in my throat that Roza left behind," says Chris.

This is a work whose soul is too quiet to make a big impact, but whose artistic integrity should be applauded. It’s a wise and moving novel, perfectly accomplished. It shows that no life is ordinary. It shines fresh light on the nature of love.

Well, it made an impact on me; all to the good that it isn’t a blockbuster.

See also Sarah Vine in The Times.

 
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Posted by on May 26, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Fiction, reading, writers

 

Book reviews as promised…

Fiction

Certainly Siddon Rock has many fine moments and does evoke a rural setting and its period (the 1940s) very well, even if Persia is referred to as Iran and Pakistan, then non-existent, mentioned. Perhaps too I am tiring of magic realism, or, in our Australian context, the Wintonesque; when people wander around with blue spots floating above their heads I tend to turn off. Nonetheless, the novel is well worth reading.

Cut Her Dead is an effective crime fiction, but the best of this lot is the witty T is for Trespass.

Non-fiction

In a field where pseudohistory is rampant – think Da Vinci Code – this intelligent, well-written introduction is a must read. It is so refreshingly no-nonsense.

Excerpt:

Introduction: Recouping Our Losses

It may be difficult to imagine a religious phenomenon more diverse than modern-day Christianity. There are Catholic missionaries in developing countries who devote themselves to voluntary poverty for the sake of others, and evangelical televangelists who run twelve-step programs to ensure financial success. There are New England Presbyterians and Appalachian snake handlers. There are Greek Orthodox priests committed to the liturgical service of God, replete with set prayers, incantations, and incense, and fundamentalist preachers who view high-church liturgy as a demonic invention. There are liberal Methodist political activists intent on transforming society, and Pentecostals who think that society will soon come to a crashing halt with the return of Jesus. And there are the followers of David Koresh — still today — who think the world has already started to end, beginning with the events at Waco, a fulfillment of prophecies from Revelation. Many of these Christian groups, of course, refuse to consider other such groups Christian.

All this diversity of belief and practice, and the intolerance that occasionally results, makes it difficult to know whether we should think of Christianity as one thing or lots of things, whether we should speak of Christianity or Christianities.

What could be more diverse than this variegated phenomenon, Christianity in the modern world? In fact, there may be an answer: Christianity in the ancient world. As historians have come to realize, during the first three Christian centuries, the practices and beliefs found among people who called themselves Christian were so varied that the differences between Roman Catholics, Primitive Baptists, and Seventh-Day Adventists pale by comparison.

Most of these ancient forms of Christianity are unknown to people in the world today, since they eventually came to be reformed or stamped out. As a result, the sacred texts that some ancient Christians used to support their religious perspectives came to be proscribed, destroyed, or forgotten — in one way or another lost. Many of these texts claimed to be written by Jesus’ closest followers. Opponents of these texts claimed they had been forged.

This book is about these texts and the lost forms of Christianity they tried to authorize…

It is worth the price of admission for Chapter 4 alone, on Morton Smith and the “Secret Gospel of Mark”. Is it a forgery, and if so, whodunnit? Fascinating, whatever your own religious views. Ehrman delivers an open verdict.

See also Gospel Secrets: The Biblical Controversies of Morton Smith by Anthony Grafton in The Nation January 7, 2009. “The sexual undertones of the document have led some to suggest, explicitly or by innuendo, that Smith, a gay man, forged the text for personal reasons…”. From Grafton’s article:

In 1973, Morton Smith, professor of ancient history at Columbia University, shook the world–or at least the world of scholars who work on early Christianity. Fifteen years before, Smith had found an unknown document in the Mar Saba Greek Orthodox monastery, fifteen kilometers southeast of Jerusalem–an ancient Christian text that no one before him had ever mentioned. A letter in Greek, originally composed in the second century by a church father, Clement of Alexandria, and addressed to one Theodore, it was handwritten in ink, in an eighteenth-century hand, on the blank end pages of a seventeenth-century printed book. Less than a thousand words long but rich in detail, the text attacked one of the wonderfully named sects that made the early centuries of Christianity so complex–the followers of Carpocrates, or Carpocratians. These heretics, as Clement and Theodore saw them, claimed that they possessed a secret version of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, they believed, had taught his followers that they were freed from the law and could do whatever they wanted without sinning. According to one of their Christian critics, Irenaeus, they actually thought they earned salvation by "doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts."

Clement assured Theodore that he had been right to silence these "unspeakable teachings." But he also admitted that there was a secret version of Mark’s Gospel–a version that the Church of Alexandria made available only to initiates. In a passage that Clement quoted, Jesus raised a rich young man from the dead in Bethany. "And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan"–a passage that suggests a libertine interpretation of its own, at least to the twenty-first-century reader. At the same time, Clement denied that an inflammatory phrase, "naked man with naked man," which the Carpocratians had cited, came from the true secret Gospel. The evil Carpocrates had obtained a copy of the text and "polluted" it with lies.

It was an astonishing discovery…

 
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Posted by on May 25, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Christianity, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, History, OzLit, reading

 

Some non-fiction read recently 2c – tentative conclusions

And I really mean tentative. Further, there is no way a shortish post like this can do more than indicate rather than expound. After all, the books with which this series of posts began comprise around a thousand pages, while this post will most likely be just one to three! And I am about to add to that by recommending another thousand pages or more, which I have either skimmed or, in the case of Jason Burke, read attentively since commencing these posts.

Supplementary texts

star30 star30star30star30star30star30 Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: the true story of radical Islam, Penguin 2004. This is the most thorough and most convincing book I have read on the subject. The writer has gone to first-hand sources and has relevant language skills, unlike very many who write on this. He speaks Urdu, the principal language of Pakistan and a second language understood by many of the players in Afghanistan. He has been to many of the relevant places and spoken to many of the people involved and thoroughly documents everything he says. His understanding of Islam and of the bewildering array of groups and their connections, or lack of direct connections, with Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda is superior to that of most western commentators. Anyone at all interested has to read this book. It outclasses the derivative work of Burleigh in this area by a factor of what – 1000%? The small sample of his work I attach below barely indicates the strengths of the book, but does indicate the direction Burke takes.

star30star30star30star30star30 Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: the Islamist attack on America, Granta 2002. There has been an edition since then, which I don’t have. This was the first book of its kind that I read and remains among the best, but some of his conclusions about his subject need to be reconsidered in the light of Burke’s book. He is sceptical about the direction much US and UK policy was taking at that time, particularly about reliance on military solutions. That remains true, but does not rule out all military involvement. Excellent on the ideological background of “Islamist” groups.

star30star30star30star30star30 Karen Armstrong, Islam: a short history, Verso 2001. Short it is indeed, but also scholarly and fair-minded.

star30star30star30star30 John Gray, Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, Faber 2003. Even shorter! The thesis is very interesting, however, and has a lot going for it.

star30star30 Melanie Phillips, Londonistan: how Britain is creating a terror state within, Gibson Square 2006. Burleigh endorses this book, but I still find it tendentious. Phillips does, however, highlight some of the ironies of following our own values of free speech. She overdraws, as does Burleigh, the “multiculturalism is to blame” argument. In The Mighty and the Almighty Madeleine Albright comes almost to the opposite conclusion: that a deep understanding of cultural pluralism and a willingness to respect the Other may be part of the solution. There’s a big difference, I would argue, between that position, which I share, and craven surrender to the bizarre and positively dangerous in our midst. Getting the balance wrong in either direction won’t help us, and may indeed do worse than that. The temptation to divide the world into goodies and baddies, alluded to below under “complexity”, must be resisted.

star30star30star30star30star30 Abdullah Saeed, Interpreting the Qu’ran: Towards a contemporary approach, Cambridge UP 2006. Saeed is Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne. I am sure this book would not please either of the speakers at that 2005 Mine Seminar, but it will please very many Muslims and seems to me, by analogy with my understanding of some parallel dilemmas in Jewish and Christian circles and with my understanding of the nature of text and reading generally, to be a very fruitful approach for all concerned. Accepting, as all observant Muslims do, that the Qu’ran is indeed of divine origin, Saeed argues that interpreters of the Qu’ran are not so blessed.  He distinguishes three approaches, and in that respect adds nuance to the rather too broad idea of “fundamentalism”. The three approaches are: i) textualists, who argue for a strict following of the text and adopt a literalistic approach to the text; ii) semi-textualists, who “essentially follow the Textualists as far as linguistic emphasis and ignoring of the socio-historical context are concerned, but … package the ethico-legal content in a somewhat ‘modern’ idiom, often within an apologetic discourse.” Apologetic there is in the theological sense of presenting scripture in a way meant to refute sceptics. Having broken that sentence structure, I now present: iii) contextualists, who emphasise “the socio-historical content of the Qu’ran and of its subsequent interpretations.” Or, as a Presbyterian minister I knew many years ago was fond of saying, “a text without a context is a pretext.”  Thus, while I agree with the very well expressed statement by Sheik Yasin on context towards the end of that video referred to in the previous post, it is clear nonetheless that he is not a contextualist in Saeed’s sense, and may even be in camp i), though possibly in camp ii).  I still find it unfortunate that contextualism does not, in general, go as far in Qu’ranic studies as perhaps it should, as it has (much to the distress of many) in Biblical Studies.

Complexity

0402occidental140 So much could be said here! People often resist complexity. They like their boundaries neat. Thus the vision of Al-Qaeda that emerges in Burke’s book may be resisted because the appeal of something resembling a Western or a James Bond movie is far easier to imagine. This can be a fatal trap when the true situation is simply not so neat, as Burke convincingly demonstrates. See too a 2005 post here: Lernaean Hydra – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. I posted that at the time of the London bombings.

Let’s just take one example: Did the CIA fund the Taliban?

This is a widely held view. I even shared it myself. However, is it true? It may well be that it is not. There are issues of chronology involved – the Taliban emerged rather late in the day compared to other mujahadeen groups, and Burke is excellent at unpicking all that. (Some thought of by many as Al-Qaeda in many books turn out to have been very loosely connected, or not connected, or even rivals of Al-Qaeda.)  Certainly the CIA, mostly via Pakistan intelligence and along with Saudi and other financiers, did fund some of those fighting the USSR and the Afghan Marxist regime, but it appears the US backed off from that policy during the Clinton years, and that further in the stage when such funding was occurring the Taliban hardly existed. Nonetheless, much of the materiel did fall eventually into Taliban hands.

This video is a typical example of the case for the CIA having funded the Taliban, but looking at it carefully one does see much chronological sliding going on. Rather, when the Taliban did emerge it appears the question really was “Who the hell are they?” See for example The Taliban Files from National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 97. Various Pakistani groups, on the other hand, were heavily involved, but Pakistan too is another instance of complexity, but there isn’t space here to go down that track. See also Beyond the Burqa: The Taliban, Women and the C.I.A. (September 12, 2001).

Idealism

shsislam I am really trying not to sound patronising, because I respect idealism and even cling to some to this day, modified as it might be by experience and knowledge, especially of history.

The young, confronted with a world that all will admit is not the best of all possible worlds, may react with cynicism, apathy, or a deep desire to make a difference. Those who desire to make a difference will soon seek out how to make a difference, and therein is some danger, as well, of course, as much of the hope of the world. Those boys at The Mine, just like their confreres in the rather fundamentalist Christian and Jewish or political activist groups in the school, look for people who offer convincing solutions. Now you have to admit that both those speakers in the 2005 seminar (the video linked from the previous post in this series) are quite excellent public speakers. As a former debating coach I wouldn’t mind having them on my team, and it is no accident that one of the two sixteen year old presenters was indeed a valuable member of his age-group’s debating team, as was the brave young lad in cadet uniform who got up to rebut what he had heard. (The body language going on behind him, if you have seen the video, is interesting; it’s almost as if the presenters wish there was a hook in the wings or a trapdoor under the stage.) That lad, by the way, is now one of my Facebook friends.

You will also note on the right that the seminar the previous year directly dealt with the issue of terror. The tactic was definitely not recommended.

We need to remind ourselves that terrorism is a tactic and not an ideology, nor is it inevitable in a Muslim context. The nearest that terrorism came to being a rather empty ideology was in the case of the Russian nihilists and the weird Germans in the 60s and 70s. Burleigh is actually very good on both, especially on the Germans.

On the other hand, when an ideology goes in for group judgements, whether these be based on class, race or religion, there is a likelihood that terror may become an attractive tactic. In my view we need to strenuously resist group judgements. It also must be said that the ideology recommended by the two speakers in the 2005 seminar is ultimately total – they said as much – and you can’t get a higher authority than God as its author. Indeed, if the premises of the speakers were in fact correct it would follow that we should listen, but unfortunately I think the premises are highly questionable.

But as the speakers also said, we do have to all live together. Their solution, however, is not mine. In the world, let alone Australia, we all have to find ways to harmony in difference. It is a challenge, one we have not done too badly on here in Oz, comparatively, much better in fact than much of Europe.

Language

One small but important example. In Blood & Rage (p. 468) Burleigh defines takfir as “the art of deluding infidels”. Burke notes (p. 331) “Takfir: excommunication, a practice in Shia Islam but until recently almost unknown among Sunnis.”  See also this from a conservative Muslim source. The authority referred to there is a key figure in the development of political Islam in the 20th century.

Jason Burke article.

 

Some non-fiction read recently: 2a

See also Some non-fiction read recently: 1.

The first two books have led to much thinking – to that degree they are both good books. The thinking is so profound – in the sense that I am exploring again some important territory, not in the sense that I can offer great depth – that it will lead to post 2b in the near future. I will attempt there to draw out some ideas and will relate them to some things I have said before. I have also downloaded a video I found while looking for something else; it turns out to be a document, in a way, from my own recent past – or at least I know and have spent much time with some who feature in it. It is a video that will knock the socks off some readers. It is related to the issues in the following two books.

star30 star30star30star30star30 Madeleine Albright, The Mighty & the Almighty: Reflections on Power, God, and World Affairs, Macmillan 2006.

Yes, that Madeleine Albright. The thesis is that while there is a place for the military in the struggles that engage us, the more important struggle is in the world of ideas, and that must include a recognition of the significance of religion to the majority of the people in the world. I find this a very wise and persuasive book. Some of the policy moves the Obama administration has made in recent times are less surprising in the light of this book.

Albright was involved too with the Changing Course – A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim WorldReport of the Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement September 2008 (SECOND PRINTING, WITH A NEW PREFACE AND ENDORSEMENTS February 2009). You can download a PDF copy here; I strongly urge you to do so.

See also Madeleine Albright’s Take on Religion and Politics by Jim Zogby on Muslim Media Network.

star30star30star30 Michael Burleigh, Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, Harper 2008

This isn’t really a cultural history of its subject, but rather a series of narratives of selected terrorist movements from 19th century Fenians through Russian Nihilists to of course the current phenomenon of terrorists who claim to be advancing the cause of Islam – a long-winded expression I have devised as more satisfactory than alternatives such as Islamists, Jihadists, or Islamofascists. The last one Burleigh also rejects, and he makes fairly careful use of the first two. He prefers another term that is unlikely to catch on: jihadi-salafist. On p.353 he compares the world of Islam to a series of concentric circles. The largest, outer circle “includes the world’s one and a half billion Muslims, divided into Sunni, Shia, and hundreds of other sects…” He doesn’t have a problem with most in that circle. The next circle inside the larger one includes “Islamists” – people who want Muslim states to introduce or maintain Islamic law. These too are in the main not terrorists. The next and smaller circle are the Salafi, but even there while “most [violent] jihadists are salafists, not all salafists are jihadists.” The final smallest circle Burleigh seems to forget about, but clearly it is those who actually embrace terror.

Now that isn’t too bad, really, as a kind of model. I had approached the book with dread, since he does at one point tell us that John Howard was the world’s most successful conservative leader. He is, on the other hand, not very fond of Rumsfeld and Cheney, it would appear, but does speak fairly kindly of George Bush. The book was after all written in the rarefied atmosphere of the Hoover Institution.

One of the book’s most annoying features is the author’s habit of parading his Aunt Sallys, his King Charles’ Heads, his hobbyhorses, rather too often and sometimes too smugly. You can almost guess what they might be. But the book is not quite as bad as some left reviewers have made out, nor nearly as good as Quadrant thought. Its great strength is that he tells his stories very well, when he’s not doing the right-wing whinging bits, and those stories are fascinating and disturbing enough, and I believe, going on the ones I already knew about, the telling is accurate enough. So the book really is informative. To his credit, too, Burleigh is firmly opposed to torture, and cognisant of right-wing terrorism.

See also a Google search. Especially look at Those who live by the bomb (Jason Burke) and Shadows of the gunmen (Giles Foden). Historian Fred Halliday is particularly pissed off in Blood and Rage, By Michael Burleigh.

Blood and Rage proclaims itself to be a "cultural history of terrorism". In eight far-ranging and fluently written chapters, it covers the Fenians in 19th-century Ireland, Russian nihilists, American anarchists, ETA, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany and Red Brigades in Italy, as well as the ANC, Black September and – in a long concluding chapter – more recent Islamist groups. All are, for Burleigh, examples of one phenomonon, a cult of death and destruction that has little anchorage in politics and is more the product of "a pre-existing chemical mix" that is set to explode.

The first thing that strikes the reader of this book is its mediocrity. All is based on secondary material, and the main stories, events and characters are well known. Despite the fact that most episodes involve people who are still alive, or who lived through them, Burleigh never sees fit to interview anyone. The overall analytic framework is weak, and unoriginal. We never learn what a "cultural history" means, as if there could be such a thing. Compared to some major works on terrorism, by authors such as Walter Laqueur, Conor Gearty or Gerard Chaliand – who, without any shred of indulgence, do seek political causes, and recognise political context – Burleigh’s account is lacking. Equally, in his discussion of Islamist guerrilla groups, he has nothing to add to the works of such writers as Jason Burke, Fawaz Gerges, Olivier Roy, Malise Ruthven or Steven Simon….

Rushed opinion is buttressed by arrogance, not least towards former colleagues and institutions in which the author worked. A reference to the students of his former institution, the LSE, whom I have had the pleasure of teaching these past 25 years, has them described as "Eurotrash and Americans doing ‘Let’s See Europe’". At one point he sneers at fellow-participants at a conference in Madrid in 2005 on the dialogue of civilisations, "the usual obsfuscatory cloud of ecumenical goodwill". He fails to note that some of those who participated, such as the Egyptian Nasser Abu Zaid, had suffered at first hand from Islamist violence and knew far more than he about the matter.

In predictable vein, the final sections launch a general offensive against academics who write on terrorism for failing to engage with the reality of suffering involved. A survey of books shows, Burleigh tells us, "how unserious academics have become as a group". This would be as much a surprise to the Laqueurs and Geartys of this world as it is to those of us who have worked, over decades, on the Middle East. Bashing academics, the stock-in-trade of the sometimes virulently anti-intellectual Robert Fisk, is best left to others….

And there’s more. I agree about Jason Burke and Malise Ruthven, as I have read them. On the other hand, I did learn quite a bit from Blood & Rage.

star30star30star30star30 James  M McPherson (ed), The American Presidents, DK Publishing 2004 (revised).

This is a set of essays on all the US Presidents up to George W, each essay more or less of equal length and each by a different historian. Considering I knew so little about some of them I found the book worth reading. Some of the essays are brilliant. In the back you’ll find all the Inaugural Speeches. It is lavishly illustrated.

Now I am not promising Part B for tomorrow. I have a lot of thinking to do. But you may in the meantime be interested in this rather Marxist essay: Terry Eagleton, Culture & Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism.

Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God? Who would have expected theology to rear its head once more in the technocratic twenty-first century, almost as surprisingly as some mass revival of Zoroastrianism? Why is it that my local bookshop has suddenly sprouted a section labeled “Atheism,” hosting anti-God manifestos by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others, and might even now be contemplating another marked “Congenital Skeptic with Mild Baptist Leanings”? Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question broken out anew?

Can one simply put it down to falling towers and fanatical Islamists? I don’t really think we can. Certainly the New Atheists’ disdain for religion did not sprout from the ruins of the World Trade Center. While some of the debate took its cue from there, 9/11 was not really about religion, any more than the thirty-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland was over papal infallibility. In fact, radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith, and there is good evidence to suggest that its actions are, for the most part, politically driven.

That does not mean these actions have no religious impact or significance. Islamic fundamentalism confronts Western civilization with the contradiction between the West’s own need to believe and its chronic incapacity to do so. The West now stands eyeball-to-eyeball with a full-blooded “metaphysical” foe for whom absolute truths and foundations pose no problem at all-and this at just the point when a Western civilization in the throes of late modernity, or postmodernity if you prefer, has to skate by on believing as little as it decently can…

Eagleton always writes well.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2009 in America, Best read of 2009, book reviews, fundamentalism and extremism, generational change, History, Islam, Middle East, politics, right wing politics, terrorism, USA

 

Four from Surry Hills Library 3 – strange but good

star30 star30star30star30 we-disappear_sm Scott Heim, We Disappear, Harper Perennial 2008.

The body of a teenage boy is discovered in a Kansas field. The murder haunts Donna—a recent widow battling cancer—calling forth troubling details from long-suppressed memories of her past. Hoping to discover more about "disappeared" people, she turns to her son, Scott, who is fighting demons of his own. Addicted to methamphetamines and sleeping pills, Scott is barely holding on—though the chance to help his mother in her strange and desperate search holds out a slim promise of some small salvation.

But what he finds is a boy named Otis handcuffed in a secret basement room, and the questions that arise seem too disturbing even to contemplate. With his mother’s health rapidly deteriorating, he must surrender to his own obsession, and unravel Otis’s unsettling connections to other missing teens . . . and, ultimately, to Scott himself.

The Backroad Librarian sums up a very insightful review thus: “with We Disappear he has created a work of subtle, eerie potency.” I agree. The novel successfully combines American Gothic with documentary realism – not only about rural Kansas but also about gay life and drug life in the cities.

The edition I read features a “P.S.” of considerable interest.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2009 in America, Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, reading, writers

 

Four from Surry Hills Library: 2 – and two OzLit blogs

star30 star30star30star30 ozshortstories_logo.indd Aviva Tuffield (ed), New Australian Stories, Melbourne, Scribe 2009.

This eclectic anthology of new stories showcases some of our finest short-story writers and proves that the short story is alive and well in Australia. From seasoned practitioners of the form through to rising and emerging stars of the short-story firmament, New Australian Stories caters for all tastes. There’s humour, mystery, drama, and even some delusion and deceit. Whole lives are captured in just a few satisfying pages. Ideal for dipping into and perfect for those seeking inspiration and escape, this collection is designed for your reading pleasure.

Contributors include: Cate Kennedy, Amanda Lohrey, Carmel Bird, Tony Birch, Nicholas Jose, Paddy O’Reilly, Max Barry, Margo Lanagan, Lenny Bartulin, Michael McGirr, Georgia Blain, Chris Womersley, Patrick Cullen and many more.

Perhaps it’s just me, but while agreeing there is plenty of variety I was struck by how many of the stories are concerned with ageing and dying. I do commend this anthology though. Nicholas Jose is in good somewhat comic form on a not quite as adventurous as she would like fictional grandmother. Wayne Macaulay’s “The Farmer’s New Machine” offers a somewhat Gothic solution to an agricultural problem. Isabelle Li looks at the ageing and dying issue from a Chinese Australian perspective in “A Fishbone in the Throat”. Paddy O’Reilly’s “Breaking Up” is admirably concise and takes the title in an unexpected direction. Chris Womersley’s “The Possibility of Water” is very clever.

I could mention many more; there are very few duds.

Scribe is one of Australia’s treasures – an independent publisher. The future of such ventures may be under a cloud in these times, not helped by the Book Supermarket-friendly mooted changes in our publication laws, an issue the founder of Scribe takes up in his blog. It is also mentioned, though with less apprehension, by this reviewer.

If short stories are biopsies, then the writers of New Australian Stories are skilled surgeons. The best short stories can conjure a past and a future out of a segment of present. Lots of the stories in this collection do this well. Highlights for me included Abigail Ulman’s Chagall’s Wife, whose tale of a high-school student angling for the attentions of a teacher easily evokes the nonchalance and unexamined alertness of burgeoning sexuality. It also stands out for its lean, direct prose; most of the other stories have a tendency towards fleshier prose which can sometimes be less effective. Another stand-out was Vivienne Kelly’s The Third Child. In this story, Frances writes yearly letters about her unchanging life to an aunt who lives abroad. Kelly’s restraint is admirable and pays off in an unexpected way; it’s a breathtaking story.

In relation to the talk of eliminating the territorial copyright provisions, there has been some fear that if it were to go ahead, uniquely Australian voices and stories would be lost. I get the feeling that the production of this kind of book will be negatively affected by major changes to the Australian parallel importation laws; I’d guess that the risk to independent Australian presses of putting out works by new (to books) Australian authors put is offset by their domestic sales of big-ticket overseas titles and books by established local heroes. The way the Productivity Commission is going (i.e. arbitrarily hedging their bets), if you love short stories, you should buy books like these and make them bestsellers in their own right.

And that is from the first of some new (to me) literary blogs I found while searching for New Australian Stories. It’s 3000 BOOKS // LET’S TELL MORE STORIES.

Another is Angela Meyer on Crikey Blogs: LiteraryMinded.

 

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Four from Surry Hills Library: 1

star30 star30star30star30star30star30 wandstarSM J M G  Le Clézio, Wandering Star (translated by C Dixon, Curbstone Press 2004) — “a deeply moving novel about a two young girls caught up in the turmoil of the Middle East, who aspire for peace–Esther, a Jewish girl who takes part in the founding of Israel, and Nejma, a Palestinian girl who becomes a refugee.”

This beautiful novel eschews overt politics, but is no less powerful for that – in fact perhaps all the more moving because it avoids propaganda and displays a warm but realistic empathy with both characters. Here is an extract.

Hélène

Saint-Martin-Vésubie, summer 1943

She knew that winter was over when she heard the sound of water. In winter, snow covered the village, the roofs of the houses and the fields were white. Icicles formed on the edges of the roofs. Then the sun started burning down, the snow melted, and water started trickling drop by drop from all the roofs, the joists, the tree branches, and all of the drops ran together forming rivulets, the rivulets ran into streams, and the water leapt joyously down all the streets in the village.

That sound of water might be her very first memory. She recalled the first winter in the mountains and the music of water in spring. When was that? She was walking between her mother and father down the village street, holding their hands. One arm was pulled higher because her father was so tall. And the water was running down on all sides, making that music, those whooshing, swishing, drumming sounds. Every time she remembered that she felt like laughing because it was a strange and gentle sound, like a caress. She was laughing then, walking between her mother and father, and the water in the gutters and the stream answered her, rippling, rushing.

Now, with the burning summer heat, the deep blue sky, her entire body was filled with a feeling of happiness that was almost frightening. More than anything, she loved the vast grassy slope that rose up toward the sky above the village. She didn’t go all the way up to the top because everyone said there were vipers up there. She’d stroll a little way along the edge of the field, just far enough to feel the cool earth, the sharp blades against her lips. In places, the grass was so high she completely disappeared. She was thirteen years old and her name was Hélène Grève, but her father called her Esther…

Le Clézio won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature. Definitely my top read so far in 2009

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Fiction, Israel, Middle East, writers

 

2009 book notes 2

Grace Notes cover.indd Four diverse choices from Surry Hills Library.

1. Cormac Millar, An Irish Solution (2004)

I read and greatly enjoyed Millar’s second novel The Grounds in January. I was glad to find his first novel which was alluded to time and again in the second, although The Grounds also stands alone quite well. I have to say I enjoyed The Grounds more, though I still rate this clever novel ***** and add it to my best reads of 2009. For more on Millar go to that January entry.

2. Sheri Holman, A Stolen Tongue (1997)

The title is literal as well as figurative. There are some high praise grabs from some famous people on the covers and fly leaf, but The Name of the Rose this isn’t. It is not without interest in its portrayal of the medieval mind, but I do tend to agree with this blogger.***

3. Jenny Pattrick, Grace Notes (2008)

This one is from New Zealand. The central characters are all in their eighties. Occasionally Grace Notes is a little cloying, but generally speaking it is very witty and often insightful. Some episodes are quite brilliant, and it did retain my interest. Pattrick captures voice very well. I couldn’t but compare the manners portrayed as reflecting an Australia (in my experience) of long ago, but imagine there are parts where the New Zealand portrayed in Grace Notes would still apply here. It is a very warm and genuine book. I was reminded a little of McCall Smith. ****

4. Shobhaa De, Sultry Days (1994)

This is from India. I can imagine many Indians may find her offensive. In The Nation (May 2004) is a profile of Shobhaa De titled The Maharani of Muck.

Shobhaa De, perhaps better known here as the Maharani of Muck or the Princess of Porn, is India’s most commercially successful English-language author. It’s a crazy claim for a 56-year-old middle-class Indian woman–one who describes herself as a "traditional" mother to six children–to be able to make. But sex sells, even in one of the world’s most socially conservative countries. Bucking all convention, for years De has dared to write lusty, shocking sex scenes, and from a female point of view. In a country where women rarely bare more than two inches of leg and hardly ever file for divorce, she writes about women who, like herself, flee marriages because they are bored. De is author of more than a dozen titles, all of which start with the letter "s" (Sultry Days, Starry Nights, Strange Obsession–you get the point) and all of which depict a level of privilege that most of India’s more than 1 billion impoverished masses cannot even imagine.

The India De knows and writes about is also a far cry from the India pictured by most writers, that of abject urban poverty or quaint village life. "My books put an unflinching gaze on upper-middle-class India," she says. "It wasn’t done before, mainly because we didn’t have writers out of that class." Although her readership represents but a tiny fraction of India’s population–only about 2 percent of India reads English–De’s books are consistently bestsellers, which means they sell between 20,000 and 30,000 copies. Those sales figures sound meager, but they make her Penguin India’s star, and the publisher can’t get enough of her. This year Penguin is repackaging her entire oeuvre in a sleeker format to position her better in the mass market. De’s editor, Karthika Menon, is especially enthusiastic about her second novel, Starry Nights, which she calls "near classic in its freshness and vitality." …

Shobhaa De has a well-rehearsed rebuttal to the criticism that she writes only for the elite: "I don’t have to go live in a slum to prove that my heart bleeds for anybody. There’s no point in me writing for the poor because they are illiterate." De is well aware that, in addition to being the most popular English-language writer in India, she may be the most hated as well. She once boasted that she had received a record number of bad reviews–165–for one book. But she now says that writing forthrightly about sex, as she did in Starry Nights, was a childish rebellion against the strict protocol for women’s behavior in India. "The bad press was just something that acted like a prod to see how far I could take it, and I really didn’t give a damn."…

I found the novel enormously entertaining. ***** Best read of 2009

Shobhaa De is also a blogger.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, writers

 

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Rudd in “The Monthly” – but there really is more

Just about everyone in this country must know by now that Kevin Rudd has been doing some homework — writing an essay indeed — and  the result is now on show. First off, there is a note at the end suggesting it isn’t entirely K Rudd’s unaided work. I rather think Andrew Charlton, among others, may have had some input at the very least.

Now to be offensive to some.

After a century and a half* of playing at Marxism in one form or another we ought really to be totally disabused of that blind alley. May as well base Chemistry on the phlogiston theory. It’s still good (like Freudianism or Neo-Freudianism) for some spectacular academic performances, but otherwise has gone the way of all grand theories. I have met so many ex-Marxists – it seems to be the inevitable outcome – who nonetheless remain Left, though you do get weird exceptions who polarise in the opposite direction. Then on the other hand there is the equally touching faith and mysticism masquerading as scientific economics and politics under the banner of Hayek. Pox on both, I say.

Now with that out of the way, you may see why I found the Rudd essay to be actually rather good – in fact, very good. I suggest reading it is much better than reading about it. Just $7.95 at the newsagent, after all, and even on my pension I could cop that just this once.

What has escaped notice, however, is that it isn’t a one article magazine. There is an excellent dissection of Baz’s Australia by Peter Conrad.

A paragraph of introductory piffle in Australia defines the outback as a place where ‘adventure and romance were a way of life’. Nothing could be less true. Hardship, privation and dying remain a way of life on our unromantic frontier, where adventures are as scarce as trees on the Nullarbor Plain. We know that the land we only marginally occupy will always be indifferent to human incursions; we also ruefully acknowledge our lack of moral right to possess it, since earlier settlers evicted its traditional owners…

Wanting his characters to be mythical embodiments of the land, Conrad organises a continental orgasm when Kidman and Jackman make love. Hot monsoonal rains drench them. The sky splits open, the earth heaves, and the camera giddily skims across Australia as rivers overflow and waterfalls froth. Back at the desert station it is suddenly Christmas, with wild flowers blooming from the fertilised earth. I wouldn’t dream of impugning Jackman’s virility, but I can’t quite imagine that one man has the capacity to irrigate and inseminate the whole drought-parched nation…

There’s a generous account of Professor Ian Harper by John Hirst, which you may read online:

Ian Harper’s free-market friends rib him about his job: what’s a liberal economist doing setting a minimum wage? Better a liberal economist, he replies, than anyone else. But he is rather bemused by how little Australian employers of the low-paid believe in the market. They rely on him to set and alter their wages. They are mostly happy to pay a decent wage but they want to be told what that is and they don’t want to be undercut by a rogue employer; nor do they want to be ahead of the pack in the wages they pay."…

Harper is a good talker and performer; he tells of his work in public policy as drama, playing himself and all others verbatim, with full inflexion and gesture. He calls himself an academic economist but the skills he most enjoys using are political. He likes settling conflict, hearing both sides sympathetically, prodding antagonists to see a common purpose, finding a route beyond an impasse. He is an economist but not a labour economist, yet he was charged with fixing a minimum wage where he could use his skill in reconciling employers and employees. His work on the Melbourne Town Hall organ was in the same way political …

I was delighted to find a free-market economist who was so ebullient and warm-hearted, and chastened, as an old social democrat, to discover that his free-market principles made him highly creative about the proper use of public goods.

There’s also a photo essay on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper. And much more…

So if you don’t happen to like the Rudd essay (unlike me) you will probably find something more to your taste…

* Dating from The Communist Manifesto (1848).

 

Book reviews concluded

First a “neglected classic”  — James Hanley, Boy (1930 – Oneworld Classics edition with extra material by Chris Gostick 2007). I do recommend Oneworld Classics; there are some excellent titles there, and if they are all as well presented as Boy the series is well worth looking for.

Hanley’s novella was banned for years. There is a detailed account of that on Penniless Press.

But in spite of this outcry from respected figures in the literary world, Boy remained banned from 1935 to 1991, with the exception of two reprints by Jack Kahane’s Paris-based Obelisk Press (in 1936 and 1946) from which Hanley did not receive a penny in royalties.[35] The effect of such a legal case so early in the career of an up-and-coming author was devastating, and it haunted him for the rest of his life. Hanley’s strongly Catholic family were horrified by the incident,'[36] and as John Fordham notes, Hanley himself was outraged by "the publishers’ ‘sheer greed’ in issuing his novel in such a provocative format in the first place, and at their betrayal of professional integrity in their admission of guilt."[37] But the indignity would seem to have severely affected Hanley’s professional confidence too. He refused to speak of Boy for years afterwards and turned down all publishers’ requests for a reprint: although Horizon came close to securing the rights to a fiftieth anniversary edition around 1981, Hanley backed out at the last minute and there was to be no new release of Boy in his lifetime.[38] In the essay ‘Oddfish‘ quoted earlier he is quite scathing about the novel, calling it "shapeless and crude and overburdened with feelings,"[39] and claiming it was a rushed job produced in just ten days. (This is, as Fordham points out, not the case; Boy was in the planning stages at least as early as 1930, one year before its publication.)[40] But the trial of Boy also put a stop to the truly innovative experiments with gender and sexuality that make Hanley’s early works such as The German Prisoner and A Passion Before Death so exciting. After 1935 Hanley turned his attention to more archetypal proletarian writing without the daring homoerotic elements that had featured in his output before then. Dull, formulaic love stories like Stoker Bush (1935), reportage books such as Grey Children (1937) and the overlong and over-rated family drama that is The Furys Chronicle are the products of Hanley’s insecurity about writing books that might have been received in the same way that the 1934 edition of Boy was.

Here perhaps we see just how much wrong can come of the sort of paranoid literary censoriousness that characterised the 1930s. Boy is, as Ken Worpole puts it, "a truly disturbing novel;"[41] it is, in the words of Edward Stokes, "horrifying and dreadful… sordid and horrible,"[42] and it is, to quote Frank G. Harrington, "a gruesome story of the fate of an inarticulate victim."[43] But because the law could see no purpose to the horrors it portrayed other than to lead the country into moral ruin, the creative development of a writer who may have had much more to say on this subject was abruptly curtailed and altered. It’s only with hindsight now that we can see that Hanley’s works of the early thirties were the best he ever produced. This is not to downplay the quality of his writing produced after the trial some of which is excellent. It’s merely to illustrate that, had it not been for the intolerant spirit of the time in which he worked, the writing of James Hanley might have taken a very different course, and Boy would be recognised not for the reasons it is today, but for its inherent quality as a bold and powerful work of 1930s English literature.

Even the Oneworld edition has a clear gap in the chapter describing an “initiation ceremony” on the Liverpool docks; according to Chris Gostick’s afterword, the one good manuscript copy has about four pages of detail which have clearly not found their way into print yet.

I found it bleak indeed, but a great corrective to romantic ideas about the past, and indeed about the working class, even if it is very much on the side of the working class. But there isn’t much hope in Boy. It isn’t nearly as good as Conrad, despite some of the more overheated rhetoric of Anthony Burgess in his preface, but it is more realistic and more honest than D H Lawrence. There are some passages of memorably bad writing, but others that are quite wonderful. I do think enough of it to add it to my Best Reads of 2009. Ken Worpole, a chronicler of working class writing, notes:

Yet these faults are minor compared with the enduring literary impact of the novel’s description of adolescent humiliation. It can be easy to forget just how brutalising physical labour can be. As a former soldier and merchant seaman, Hanley never did. His novels often centred around individuals and small groups trapped by circumstances, and driven to extremes. I interviewed him shortly before his death: a polite, modest and pugnacious man who declared himself obsessively fascinated by those deemed inarticulate, yet whose inner worlds were, in his words, "like great forests or endless seas". Overwrought at times, Boy remains unforgettable; and the meek have yet to inherit the earth.

The second novel is really very good: David Hewson, Dante’s Numbers (2008). It appears that we have a Da Vinci Code takeoff from the title, but this is not really the case. It is much less pretentious, much more ironic, and very much better written that the Great Brown. I give it an 8/10, I think, just short of a “best read”. Perhaps it falls short because I have also been reading Jesse Kellerman’s quite outstanding novel, which I reviewed here yesterday.

You may see what another reader thought here.

In my mind Dante’s Numbers is action-packed suspense at its most intelligent. By transplanting Nic Costa and his fellow Italian detectives into the dizzying world of Hitchock’s ‘Vertigo’ in San Francisco the author is able to juxtapose the US and Italy. This makes for some fascinating plot and character developments.

The absence of clichéd police officers is to be highly commended. Although pathologist Teresa Lupo is a light-hearted character, she doesn’t hang around making horrible jokes. All four of the main characters are thoroughly plausible human beings.

There is a great author blog too: davidhewson.com.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, writers

 

Quote of the week, and book reviews 1

The quote of the week comes from the best of this week’s three books, The Brutal Art by Jesse Kellerman (2008).

I’ll end as I began: with a confession. I am not now, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be, a genius. Odds are, neither are you. I feel obligated to point this out, both because it has taken me a while to understand my own limitations and because these days we’ve gotten the idea into our heads that every person has infinite potential. The briefest spell of sober reflection reveals this to be a gentle lie, designed to cradle those with low self-esteem.

Ordinariness is nothing to be ashamed of. It carries no moral weight. I don’t believe that geniuses are worth more in some cosmic Blue Book. They are worthy of more attention, of course, because they’re so rare – one in a million, or rarer. What that means for the rest of us is that someone has to be the first of the remaining 999.999 souls; and the higher up you are, the closer you are to the genius’s vantage point.

To pursue that – to clamber up – to stretch out fingertips in the hopes of grazing the surface – can you imagine a more uniquely modern aspiration? A better metaphor for our oversaturated era than the desire to be president of the fan club? The hero for the age is Boswell…

Bit of a genius himself is Kellerman, and yes a US writer. The Guardian preview notes:

Faye and Jonathan Kellerman are both bestselling thriller writers, but it seems that their greatest contribution to the genre could be their son, Jesse, whose latest psychological drama is as startlingly original as his first two. This author, already an award-winning playwright, has no need of blood and bullets to build tension; he knows exactly which buttons to push to keep readers anxiously engaged – even when the plot apparently involves nothing more sinister than a New York art gallery owner, Ethan Muller, who discovers a cache of brilliant but disturbing drawings by a mysterious artist who has since disappeared. Kellerman writes with grace and style, and shows nimble creative footwork when long-buried secrets about Ethan’s own family begin to break through the fictions carefully constructed by people who want the past to remain somewhere else.

“An essential read for all, The Brutal Art is the best thriller I’ve read in years.” That’s Civilian Reader’s view. I would agree. Definitely a best read of 2009.

From Jesse Kellerman’s site (linked above):

Who are some of your favorite writers?

This is a very partial list that follows no particular order.

My parents
Vladimir Nabokov
Stephen King
Evelyn Waugh
Jim Thompson
Ruth Rendell
Elmore Leonard
John Fowles
Kurt Vonnegut
David Mamet
David Ives
Sam Shepard
Graham Greene
Samuel Beckett
Tom Wolfe
Richard Dawkins
Both the Bible and the Bab

Two more book reviews to come…

 
Comments Off on Quote of the week, and book reviews 1

Posted by on February 4, 2009 in America, Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, USA, writers