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Category Archives: book reviews

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Waltzing Matilda 21st century style – current reading

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Circular Quay 1938

Illustration from A D Fraser This Century of Ours 1938

How the wool industry dominated this part of Sydney back then.

The past is another country,

I am in retrospect/introspect mode at the moment. My gut feeling about my country is very much this:

"For all their embrace of enterprise," writes Davis, "Australians want to live in a fair society — an Australian-style egalitarian society, not a US-style harshly competitive society."

Now that truly resonates. It comes from an Age review of Mark Davis’s The Land of Plenty: Australia in the 2000s (Melbourne, MUP 2008) which I am currently reading. Mark Davis hitherto has been best known for his spray Gangland published ten years back. It didn’t impress me overmuch, I have to say, but his recent book certainly does. I’ll have more to say when I have finished it.

Meanwhile there is an extract on Crikey.

Australians have always been dreamers and thinkers, who, over the past 200 years, have worked to make this one of the world’s innovative democracies. One of the world’s oldest continuous democracies, most Australians lived under democratically elected governments by the mid-1850s, and the nation as a whole has been a democracy since Federation in 1901. In 1856, three Australian colonies in Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria introduced the world’s first secret ballot, a system that was known as the “Australian ballot” on its introduction in the United States in 1888.

In 1856, Australian workers were among the first in the world to campaign for an “eight hour day”, a measure that was progressively adopted across various industries and states until it was formally granted to all workers in 1948. In 1899, Queenslanders gave the world its first Labor government, intended to represent ordinary working people rather than powerful vested interests. In 1902, Australian women became the second in the world to get the vote — New Zealand had led the way in 1893.3 American and British women had to wait until 1920 and 1928 respectively. In 1907, the “Harvester Judgment” helped enshrine the principle of a basic wage, a world first that laid the foundation for the wages arbitration system.

Progress continued through the twentieth century. In 1973, in another world first, the Whitlam government appointed an adviser on women’s affairs, a lead that was followed after 1975 by all state governments. In 1982, the Fraser government introduced freedom of information legislation, the first of its kind for a Westminster-style government. In 1993, in another pioneering move, the Keating government legislated to ratify the overturning of the doctrine ofterra nullius, by which Australia had been considered untenured land pre–white settlement. In an innovative twist, white law was able to reach back before white settlement to recognise law that had come before.

Being Australian is an ethical project. It was in these pioneering moments that the specifi c combination of traditions and ideas that makes up Australian values — egalitarianism; the “fair go”; the idea that one person is as good as the next, irrespective of background — was founded. What all these reforms had in common was that they were levellers that sought to protect the small from the powerful. These ethics were to a degree oppositional. Australia, perhaps more than anything, offered the chance of an escape from nineteenth-century Europe and especially Britain, with its industrial squalor and workhouses, intractable class differences and rapidly worsening inequality, brought on by economic laissez faire.

This colonial outpost wasn’t just a sunnier and more bucolic new beginning; it also gave a chance to a basic fairness and equality of opportunity at odds with the prevailing ethos at “home”. Nor did these reforms simply happen by themselves, as if the universal pursuit of fairness is an essential Australian national character trait. Rebelling miners, small farmers, unionists, feminists, judges, politicians, intellectuals and others all played a part in struggles for social justice that have rarely been doctrinaire. Australian people, on the whole, haven’t aspired to ideological purity. They’ve aspired to become middle-class…

See too a WordPress blog.

Part of the mix too are several of Jim Belshaw’s recent posts, some of which are first-rate in terms of thoughtfulness. I am sure Jim would find Mark Davis stimulating if sometimes annoying.

 

Meanwhile, there is a bit of fiction to account for…

Yes, I have read quite a few things this past few weeks.

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 1. The Hours – Michael Cunningham’s 1998 take on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is just a delight. I love the little bit of trivia in the Wikipedia entry:

On her way to Richard’s apartment, Clarissa Vaughan thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa Vaughan in Stephen Daldry’s movie adaptation of "The Hours". In the book, Clarissa Vaughan considers it might also have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw. Curiously, Redgrave plays the part of Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs Dalloway.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 2. The Chameleon’s Shadow, Minette Walters (2007). The Iraq War is background to this psychological thriller.

This novel is a compelling page turner from the first page.  Acland may be frightening in his unpredictability, but the reader’s sympathy is caught and you want to know what will happen to him.  The story is another classic example of smoke and mirrors from Walters, where she tests perception and reality during the unraveling of fact.  It’s another of those "once started, must finish" psychological thriller novels that demands complete absorption. – It’s a Crime!

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 3. Past Mortem, Ben Elton (2004). The weirdest – and most unlikely — serial killer ever, and yes it does have a very heavy sex scene or two. At the same time the book is very funny, in a black kind of way, yet does have much to offer on the subject of bullying.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 4. Southern Cross (1998) has Patricia Cornwell in lighter vein than in her Kate Scarpetta novels.

The book’s pivotal event, and its most pleasing tilt at Southern pieties, takes place when Smoke brings Weed, the budding artist, to the South’s premier cemetery for the climax of his gang initiation ceremony. Weed, equipped with paint, is to “ruin” the statue of Jefferson Davis that dominates the cemetery. With no idea who Jeff Davis was, Weed is inspired to re-paint Davis as a tribute to Weed’s late, beloved brother, a budding basketball great recently killed by a hit-and-run driver.

By the following morning, the towering statue that greets mourners and early visitors to the cemetery is no longer of Jeff Davis, but that of a lanky black basketball player in the uniform of the University of Richmond Spiders. Meanwhile, Smoke has robbed another ATM and, this time, killed his robbery victim. Chief Hammer and her team are on the wrong trail, since a chance radio intercept has alerted them to what sound like evil designs on the part of the book’s most catastrophically inept character, the perilously named Butner Fluck IV.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 star_icons25 Damnation Falls (2007) by Edward Wright.

Randall Wilkes, his big-city journalism career in ruins, has returned after twenty years to Pilgrim’s Rest, the Tennessee hill town where he grew up. He has taken on a lucrative but low-prestige writing job for Sonny McMahan, a former governor and Randall’s boyhood friend, whose own career is under a shadow and who needs a ghost-written autobiography to ease his way back into politics. Faye McMahan, Sonny’s mother, is addled with age, imagining that her dead husband is alive and worrying that her son might be in danger. Amid a violent autumn storm, Randall finds Faye hideously murdered, hanged by the neck from a bridge over the town landmark called Damnation Falls. Within days, another person connected to the McMahan clan is murdered in an even more grisly fashion. And the bones of a third, long-buried murder victim — a young woman — have emerged from the earth. Randall’s ties to the victims force him to acknowledge debts that go back decades. Drawing on his investigative skills and his roots in the region, he sets out to discover who is behind the killings. His search takes him the length of the state – a land once split by civil war, where history lies close to the surface and tales of murder and betrayal weigh heavily on the town of Pilgrim’s Rest. Before all the answers are in, more people will die, an old score will be settled, and the dead will finally tell their stories.

“Complex, layered but never laboured, Damnation Falls weaves between fact and fiction, the past and the present, truth and lies, without ever missing a beat. Nice work.”  — Sydney Morning Herald. That review notes something I missed:

Wright was born in the same Arkansas town of Hot Springs as erstwhile American president Bill Clinton. Comparisons may be odorous (as Mrs Malaprop once said) but Sonny McMahan, the fictional former governor of Tennessee, is a man so charismatic that when he walks into a Nashville restaurant all the diners turn to watch his progress, "lifting their faces as if towards the sun". Further allusions to Clinton’s Arkansas days and the Whitewater property scandal are never spelled out but lurk suggestively in the background as McMahan is revealed to be up to his clean-cut jaw in something not entirely kosher.

 

Two works of fiction from my August reading

star304 star304star304 star30a1 1. Tom Coffey, Blood Alley (The Toby Press 2008)

Blood Alley seeks to recreate post-war New York. It does so very successfully, the plot ultimately concerned with underworld and high capitalist shenanigans around the creation of the New York UN headquarters. The political incorrectnesses of the time on race and other matters are faithfully recreated, but there is a fairly subtle moral compass for the 21st century at work in the tone too, without losing the authenticity and, um, colour.

I really enjoyed this one.

Chapter One

The dead girl lay beneath me.  The pale yellow streetlamps shed just enough light to let me see her feet and legs clearly.  Black heels and flesh-colored stockings faded into a dark form that curled into a fetal position.  I wanted to look away, but I was here to observe.  I blew on my fingers to warm them and began to take notes.

Finkel turned on his flashlight.

“This is aces,” he said.

She had sustained two bullet wounds, one in her forehead and the other in her midsection.  Purplish bruises circled her neck.  She wore a dark blue dress and a sleek, unbuttoned overcoat that I guessed was cashmere.

An open handbag lay a few feet from her body.  Almost comically, her hat had remained on her head.

It was the middle of November in 1946.  The war had been over for more than a year.  With rationing at an end, people were buying whatever they could afford, although I suspected I was looking at a Manhattan society girl who was never denied anything.

She appeared to be in her twenties.  The hair I could see was red, with permed curls that fell to her shoulders.  Her features were pretty but too thin, as if she ate only half a meal a day.  Her eyes were hazel and had the troubled glaze of a tortured soul who was, at last, at peace.

A smooth line of blood tracked down the alley toward the street.  I wondered if I had stepped in it.

Finkel said he needed stuff from his car.  This was gonna make a swell pitcher.  He gave me his flashlight and told me not to move anything until he came back.  Then he hurried away, threading through stacks of wooden crates stacked ten feet over his head…

See also the author’s blog.

star304star304star304star304 2. Iain Banks, Dead Air (Little, Brown 2002)

As Callum Graham says in the review linked at the title:

…The plot seems to move, not because of, but in spite of global terrorism. Iain Banks looks more at the effects, such as the media’s caginess to deal with the issues of reporting the events on radio, the effects on the public and the general climate of Britain after the events, without getting wrapped up in the hysteria of it. Perhaps this is because, like many of Iain Banks previous characters, Ken is originally from Scotland and sees himself more as an outsider looking in.

By noting these little changes which appear to have happened to England over night Iain Banks captures perfectly a snap shot of every day Britain. He also creates a picture of the British relationship with America. If the planes had been flown into the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia would we have given it as much media coverage?

However, it is not just the above which makes Dead Air irrevocably the here and now of the 21st century. It is the way that Ken as a broadcaster lives and works. Iain Banks successfully contextualises our time period through the voice of Ken on his radio shows. This is done with mentions of the IRA threat from the 70’s to the 90’s, commenting on the now familiar removal of bins from train stations. Ken’s radio tirades also cover the Israeli/Palestine conflict which although has been going on for centuries is just as relevant now as it has ever been. He even comments on his scepticism of those who are against the EU, or as he calls them ‘Europhobes’, and the infringement of CCTV into personal freedoms; all very current issues today…

Stephen Poole in The Guardian was less impressed:

… Dead Air is narrated by Kenneth Nott, a shock-jock on commercial radio who takes a swollen pride in his contrarian opinions. We first meet him at a drug-fuelled loft party in the East End of London, where everyone, for some reason, starts chucking fruit and furniture off the balcony. Ken’s girlfriend, Jo, does PR for a snotty young British indie band called Addicta; he is also sleeping with a woman called Celia (or "Ceel"), who happens to be married to a dangerous gangster.

You probably wouldn’t like to meet Ken. He is one of those annoying, professionally opinionated people who are never off duty. Large portions of the novel are dedicated to expounding his reactions to the latest topics of media discussion, whether he is on air or just chatting in a pub: gun control ("Guns for nutters only; makes sense"), American imperialism, CCTV cameras, Euroscepticism, the death of Diana ("put on a fucking seatbelt"), all get extended libertarian rants. It is a tribute to Banks’s chatty prose skill that these discussions are largely entertaining, if superficially argued.

After hundreds of pages of colourfully diversionary drinking, shagging and talking, Banks eventually remembers that he needs a plot, and so Ken does something unutterably stupid with a mobile phone..

I didn’t fret about the apparent lack of plot in those pages – even if Poole is exaggerating, I feel. I was caught up in the voice, which is brilliantly created; you don’t have to like Kenneth Nott after all. And he is saved by his self-deprecation.

A quote:

… Maybe, even, some tiny little strand of [religious belief], like, for example, the Wee Frees, who are part of the Presbyterian movement in Scotland, which is itself part of the Protestant franchise, which is part of the Christian faith, which is part of the Abrahamic belief-set, which is one of the monotheistic religions … maybe they and only they – all few thousand of them –  are absolutely bang on the money in what they believe and how they worship, and everybody else has been wrong-diddly-wrong-wrong all these centuries. Or maybe the One True Way has only ever been revealed to a one-man cult within the outer fringes of Guatemalan Highland Sufism, reformed. All I can say is, I’ve tried to prepare myself for being wrong, for waking up after I’ve died and finding out that – uh-oh – my atheism was actually, like, a Really Big Mistake.

… If people want to respect their environment by believing that the fish they eat might have been an ancestor, or learn to lower the toilet seats because their chi is leaking out, I’m happy to accept and even honour the results even if I think the root of their behaviour is basically barmy. I can live with that and with them. I hope they can live with me…

 

Is objectivity about Israel and Palestine possible?

One does despair. The nearest I have read to an objective account is an ageing book called The Palestine-Israeli Conflict by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami (Oxford, Oneworld 2001) – and that achieves “objectivity” by placing side by side a Jew and a Palestinian with space at the end for “addresses in reply”.  It seems you can buy a used copy from Amazon for one cent!

So I was surprised to find an evangelical writer – albeit what I would call an “informed evangelical” – veering very close to objectivity on the question of who “owns” Jerusalem. While the opening chapters of Whose Holy City? (Lion 2004) treat the accounts of Genesis through to Judges less critically than I would – for example I don’t believe the stories of Abraham, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, are strictly in the realm of history – or no more or less so than tales of the Trojan War, Colin Chapman becomes a very reliable guide to what happened from the reign of Constantine to close to the present day. He does concede that the Book of Daniel was written some four centuries after its apparent date, and further that it is reading against the grain to use it as any kind of road-map of the future.

A former Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Chapman well understands the claims of all parties to the “Holy City”. His solution is, unfortunately, not one the current Israeli government is likely to countenance.

One very useful contribution Chapman makes – just one of many – is to unmask the currently fashionable “rapture/Christian Zionist theology” as, well, heterodox in the extreme, a Johnny-come-lately in Christian history and, frankly, a parodic interpretation of the Bible. On that see too this page of quotes and reviews of another book, Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, Inter-Varsity Press (an evangelical publisher) 2004. I haven’t read it.

Related too is the Joint declaration by Christian Leaders on Israel’s 60th Anniversary, signed by, among many others, our own Tim Costello.

We, the undersigned, church leaders and representatives of our different denominations and organisations, join together on the 60th anniversary of the Israeli state to offer a contribution to that which makes for peace.

We recognise that today, millions of Israelis and Jews around the world will joyfully mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel (Yom Ha’atzmaut). For many, this landmark powerfully symbolises the Jewish people’s ability to defy the power of hatred so destructively embodied in the Nazi Holocaust. Additionally, it is an opportunity to celebrate the wealth of cultural, economic and scientific achievements of Israeli society, in all its vitality and diversity.

We also recognise that this same day, millions of Palestinians living inside Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the worldwide diaspora, will mourn 60 years since over 700,000 of them were uprooted from their homes and forbidden from returning, while more than 400 villages were destroyed (al-Nakba). For them, this day is not just about the remembrance of a past catastrophic dispossession, dispersal, and loss; it is also a reminder that their struggle for self-determination and restitution is ongoing.

To hold both of these responses together in balanced tension is not easy. But it is vital if a peaceful way forward is to be forged, and is central to the Biblical call to “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14). We acknowledge with sorrow that for the last 60 years, while extending empathy and support to the Israeli narrative of independence and struggle, many of us in the church worldwide have denied the same solidarity to the Palestinians, deaf to their cries of pain and distress.

To acknowledge and respect these dual histories is not, by itself, sufficient, but does offer a paradigm for building a peaceful future. Many lives have been lost, and there has been much suffering. The weak are exploited by the strong, while fear and bitterness stunt the imagination and cripple the capacity for forgiveness.

We therefore urge all those working for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine to consider that any lasting solution must be built on the foundation of justice, which is rooted in the very character of God. After all, it is justice that “will produce lasting peace and security” (Isaiah 32:17). Let us commit ourselves in prophetic word and practical deed to a courageous settlement whose details will honour both peoples’ shared love for the land, and protect the individual and collective rights of Jews and Palestinians in the Holy Land.

See also Changing Sides in the Middle East: Zionist and Palestinian Exchange Opinions about Jerusalem.

 

Why the religious Right can be dangerous, but…

… how their influence is both exaggerated by and strengthened by the media.

As we know, the media thrive on conflict and dichotomy. We have a good example today in the Sydney Morning Herald where the activities of a minority group in Australian Christianity are puffed because of the potential for sensationalism: Christian leaders plan anti-Islam conference. Now how anyone can take seriously something that is the brainchild of someone who “was widely criticised for issuing a press release in the week after the Victorian disaster claiming the fires which claimed 173 lives were punishment for the relaxation of Victoria’s abortion laws” escapes me, but it does make good copy. A much more mainstream approach to the issue of Islam may be seen here.

The great irony of simplistic and confrontational approaches to Islam is that they mirror and give credence to the views of the violent extremists who are the cause for concern in the first place. Forget for the moment reflex cries of “racism” and “Islamophobia”. The truth is that such “good souls” as those concerned Christians are feeding the “enemy” whose recruitment drive among the young, idealistic or alienated* totally depends on believing that Islam is under attack. I am sure they thank Allah daily for the work of Pastor Nalliah, Fred Nile and David Clarke for making that belief even more acceptable. So without meaning to, some of the greatest friends of violent jihadist extremism in this country are Pastor Nalliah, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

evangelicalnation That the influence of the Religious Right in the USA is something of an illusion for which the US Right and liberals have both fallen is the thesis of an excellent book by Christine Wicker: The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (HarperOne 2008). By carefully examining the available statistics and how they are created Wicker proves, to my satisfaction, that the voice of the Religious Right has been magnified way beyond its actual potential strength. Rather than the commonly quoted “fact” that 25% of US citizens are “fundamentalists” the true figure is between 5% and 7%. That seems incredible until you see Wicker’s very readable analysis. According to Wicker, the fastest growing “religious” movement in the USA is “nonbelievers” – even if there is still a reluctance for various cultural reasons for Americans to identify on a census form as “atheist”. Then too there is a very active Religious Left, of which we normally hear little. Evidence of that may be seen every day on this blog: check “God’s Politics” in the side-bar.

Updates

See my 217 posts tagged “Christianity” and 151 tagged “Islam”. Go to Imran Ahmad for a fresh and good-humoured Muslim view and check Phillip Adams interviewing him. See also: “Jessica Stern is an expert on terrorism. She teaches it as a subject at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was recently the Superterrorism Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. In this conversation, first broadcast in 2003/4, Jessica talks about her book which is the result of 4 years research, interviewing a range of Jewish, Christian and Muslim terrorists.”

* 11 August the young, idealistic or alienated: See the sad tale of 18-year-old Jakarta bomber Dani Dwi Permana.

…Friends, neighbours and worshippers at his mosque yesterday said Dani – almost universally described as ”very nice” – was the unlikeliest of mass murderers, albeit someone who was easily persuaded…

His mother lived in Kalimantan after a messy divorce. Things got worse when his father was imprisoned about a year ago for robbery. It was then that Dani seems to have fallen under the spell of Saifuddin. ”Ustad Saifuddin usually spent time with the caretakers [young devotees] at the mosque. Usually they would gather here after evening prayer,” said Harno. ”Sometimes he would go out with them camping. But that didn’t seem to be suspicious because that is what an ustad should do.”

Even so, Dani had clearly become radicalised. According to a school friend, he talked openly of waging jihad, the Islamic notion of struggle that is typically a peaceful pursuit by the devout but is twisted by terrorist groups to justify mass murder…

”We now know that [Saifuddin] was trying to brainwash many young people here. He told these youngsters that American was bad.”

Saifuddin is believed to have groomed up to 10 men from the area. According to Indonesian counter-terrorism sources, Saifuddin is suspected to be one of Noordin Mohammed Top’s most trusted talent spotters. Noordin is thought to have organised the Jakarta bombings on July 17. On the weekend Indonesian police believed they had killed him in a siege but were mistaken.

That last, unfortunately, simply adds to Top’s legend.

 

One fiction, one non-fiction

Two good reads for the last July 09 book review.

star30star30star30star30  1. Gary Bryson, Turtle, Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2008

I am not overfond of some of what passes as magic realism, but in this case the magic is really magic and the realism gritty and true. This is a wonderful first novel from Bryson, who works as a radio journalist on Radio National’s Encounter. From the title link above:

Mandy Sayer interviews Gary Bryson

Mandy Sayer was Gary Bryson’s creative writing lecturer when he was writingTurtle. She calls the book ‘one of the finest debut novels I have read in years’ and says Bryson’s storytelling is ‘quite simply, enchanting’. She spoke to Gary for Readings on the eve of Turtle’s release.

What are the chances of finding a turtle in Scotland?

You might find one in the zoo, but otherwise the turtle steers well clear of Scotland. A country where you have to wear two pairs of socks most of the year is no place for our flippery friends.

So how did a turtle that speaks with a Glasgow accent come about?

When Donald (the story’s narrator) has to imagine his escape from his mother’s curse, it’s a turtle that he latches on to, as an exotic creature that’s seemingly about as far from Glasgow as you can get. But Donald’s imagination is shaped by his culture and his upbringing, so the turtle he conjures up as his saviour is a distinctly Glasgow one. The Turtle in the book is a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of genial, foul-mouthed banter which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love. It’s not so far-fetched, really. On the face of it a turtle is about the most un-Glaswegian creature you could imagine, but on the other hand, it hides itself behind this big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians…

star30star30star30star30 2. Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

Sounds dry, doesn’t it? But is really is a most interesting book. As the reviewer in the title link says:

This is a real gem of a book – especially if you’re a translator. Eco does a great job of exploring the complexities of the translation process and the problems faced by literary translators in particular. Translation is not just "typing in a foreign language"; translators are forced to continually analyze, interpret, evaluate and – as Eco puts it – negotiate with a text in order to craft a translation that conveys not just the "meaning" but the intent of the original. As both a translator and a "translatee", Eco has a unique insight into translation, and he provides numerous intriguing anecdotes relating to how the trickier passages in his own books and the books of others have been dealt with successfully – and sometimes less successfully – by translators. Being a translator myself, I couldn’t help but nod and smile in agreement all through this book…

The Guardian reviewer exaggerates the book’s difficulty, though there are indeed some knotty passages. On the other hand very many of the anecdotes and examples are highly amusing as well as instructive, such as the passing of the opening of Genesis through several languages in a computer translator by which the Spirit turns into alcohol…

 

Two rather different experiences: book and dvd review

star30 star30star30star30star30  The Tracker (Rolf De Heer 2002)

This truly magnificent movie — so resonant, so beautifully made and acted — came out when Australia was lost in Howard’s Great Stony Desert. As Margaret Pomerantz said at the time:

The film opens with a painted landscape – and this is signficant because paintings by Adelaide artist Peter Coad are integrated into the action of the film to historify events and to move the violence from realistic representation. Into this landscape come four men – four archetypal characters. They are the Fanatic, Gary Sweet, a government trooper who is heading an expedition to find an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. Others in the expedition are the Follower, Damon Gameau, a greenhorn trooper, the Veteran, Grant Page and the Tracker, David Gulpilil. Like a tapestry unfolding the film charts the attitudes, the shifts and balances of power within the group as if it were the history of white settlement here. Along the way are confronting scenes of violence. But at the heart of every scene is the Tracker. Graham Tardif composed and Archie Roach sings on the soundtrack and it was one of the most emotional film experiences of my life to see The Tracker with Roach performing live at the opening of the Adelaide Festival. De Heer’s use of Coad’s paintings adds an uncanny power to the film, strangely making the violence more meaningful, more tragic, taking away any notion that’s it’s only a movie. David Gulpilil brings important heart to the film. De Heer’s screenplay and direction has extraordinary compassion despite the violence. It’s actually a film that’s important not to miss.

It still is important not to miss. For more reviews and a synopsis see Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker.

star30star30star30star30star30 Alexander McCall Smith, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (Edinburgh, Polygon 2008)

This is the sixth in the 44 Scotland Street series; I reviewed the fifth here. Again I was delighted. What was true of the fifth is true of the sixth:

The thrust is gently conservative, with a folk wisdom that has much to commend it. I see that captured in a quotation I planned to use myself, but fortunately Kerryn Goldsworthy has used it in a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, thus saving me some typing:

For the most part, we treat others in a matter-of-fact way; we have to, in order to get on with our lives. But every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others in their real humanity, in a way that makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims, almost, on a perilous journey.

Po-faced indeed would be any reader who is not drawn in and delighted, even if at the expense of an odd cringe or two — the latter probably being therapeutic.

One issue that runs through the novel is the discomfort some (perhaps many) Scots experience about social change, particularly relating to immigration, though it would be silly to accuse McCall Smith of racism. I can understand the discomfort, as Scotland has been until recently an exporter rather than an importer of migrants: I am part Scot myself! Even if quite a lot of what passes for Scottish tradition was invented by or after Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century, I do sympathise with the sense of loss. At the same time McCall Smith skewers ultra-romanticism with his very funny Pretender travelling across Scotland in a motorcycle sidecar attempting to replicate the saga of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A lovely book, with much wisdom to offer.

 

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.