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Category Archives: literary theory/criticism

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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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.

 

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…

 

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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Here’s another “100 best novels of all time” post

Here is the preface and the top ten; go to the full list.

We all love lists . . . well let’s stir the waters with an ambitious one highlighting
the 100 best novels.  Be warned:  this ranking is based on cranky and
subjective standards.  (But aren’t they all?)

1.    Marcel Proust  Remembrance of Things Past
“The only paradise is a paradise lost.”
2.    Fyodor Dostoevsky  The Brothers Karamozov
“If God is dead, then all things are permitted.”
3.    Thomas Mann,  The Magic Mountain
“Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or
blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even
when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off
pistols.”
4.    Henry James  The Ambassadors
"The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have."
5.    Miguel de Cervantes  Don Quixote
"For the love of God, sir knight errant, if you ever meet me again, please, even
if you see me being cut into little pieces, don’t rush to my aid or try to help
me, but just let me be miserable, because no matter what they’re doing to me
it couldn’t be worse than what will happen if your grace helps, so may God
curse you and every knight errant who’s ever been born in the world."
6.    Herman Melville  Moby Dick
"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I
grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my
last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and
since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee,
though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"
7.    William Faulkner  Absalom, Absalom!
"I learned little save that most of the deeds, good and bad both, incurring
opprobrium or plaudits or reward either, within the scope of man’s abilities,
had already been performed and were to be learned about only from books."
8.    Leo Tolstoy  War and Peace
“A thought that had long since and often occured to him during his military
activities — the idea that there is not and cannot be any science of war, and
that therefore there can be no such thing as a military genius — now appeared
to him an obvious truth.”
9.    Henry Fielding  Tom Jones
“Jenny replied to this with a bitterness which might have surprized a judicious
person, who had observed the tranquility with which she bore all the affronts
to her chastity; but her patience was perhaps tired out, for this is a virtue
which is very apt to be fatigued by exercise.”
10.  Mark Twain  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
“But that’s always the way; it don’t make no difference whether you do right
or wrong, a person’s conscience ain’t got no sense, and just goes for him
anyway. . . . It takes up more room than all the rest of a person’s insides, and
yet ain’t no good, nohow. Tom Sawyer thinks the same.”

I have read only five of those, though I did begin two others! Isn’t that a dreadful confession to make?

How did you score? Would you add anything to the list, assuming you are a good Floating Life reader and click on the link…?

Coincidentally, British crime fiction writer John Baker includes a similar list in his latest post: Presque vu LXXVI.

 

Recidivist bore now writing for the Sydney Morning Herald

I refer of course to Miranda Devine, who cites in support of her diatribe about English teachers, and the NSW English Teachers Association in particular, just two people: Sophie Masson, one of Quadrant’s better writers whose son seems, from what I can tell, to have had a bad HSC English experience, and, of course, Kevin Donnelly who gets all sentimental about the admittedly superior Western Shane — the book not the movie. From this, with a catch-all almost cliched allusion to Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” and a few very selective and occasionally distorted quotes* from two submissions the NSW ETA made to the Board of Studies warning against narrowing the range of English Studies and assessment, Miranda asserts English teachers have lost the plot. I can’t be bothered rebutting her or even quoting her further. She’s been here before. See for example The HSC English moanings of Miranda… — a post from January 2007.

I am prepared to quote the Bible though: As a dog that returneth to his vomit, so is the fool that repeateth his folly. That’s Proverbs 26, and I thought the 16th century Catholic translation most apt for Miranda’s case.

Go to Posts Tagged ‘Miranda Devine’ in Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07, and also for a wider view of English Studies go to the Archive for the ‘English studies’ Category here on Floating Life.

Treat Miranda’s ranting with great caution. It is a tissue of prejudice and opinion from end to end with hardly a fact to fly from. It is journalistic laziness of a rather obvious kind, concocted over a cup of coffee after a chat to a couple of mates.

Instead, read the ETA’s submissions for yourself. I thought them worth uploading. They are far superior to Miranda. At least they seem to know what they are talking about. So it seems to me anyway, but what would I know? I only taught English for around forty years…

  1. The NSW ETA response to proposals on Australian content
  2. ETA on HSC exam and assessment proposals

* For example, Miranda mocks the ETA for only having 43 submissions to back their proposal, neglecting to mention that some, perhaps many, of those submissions were from English Departments, not individuals.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2008 in awful warnings, culture wars, education, English studies, literacy, literary theory/criticism, right wing politics

 

Sense, nonsense, speculation and invective

Always a lot of the last three around, not so much of the first — though there are times all four can coexist. Such seems to be the case with Paul Keating’s interview on last night’s 7.30 Report, which I did not see as I was watching the movie I tell you about in the next entry. The occasion of the interview was the launch of Unfinished Business: Paul Keating’s interrupted revolution by David Love, a book I wouldn’t mind reading. Keating, it appears, was in fine form.

KERRY OBRIEN: What, so Kevin Rudd does talk to you? Have you come in from the cold because Labor in opposition didn’t seem to know how to treat you, did they?
PAUL KEATING: The great pity for the post-me Labor Party is they gave — as this book today, the cause of our interview says — they gifted to Howard and Costello a two per cent inflation rate, a four per cent growth rate, a three per cent productivity rate, which they said thank you and stuck in their pockets. So now the Labor Party has come round to reality. You now have to deal with real things.
KERRY OBRIEN: How do you critique the first eight months of the Rudd Government?
PAUL KEATING: Um, solid. Solid but cautious. I think if there’s any problem the Government has it is that. When I say a problem I don’t any it’s a problem necessarily but it is to not have an over arching narrative in place. You know, I always talked about the internationalisation of the economy, the opening of the product financial and labour markets, the flexibility of the kind we have with all of our financial institutions, the exchange rate, wages. All of the Cabinet understood that, the message was always the same. We call that the narrative…

KERRY OBRIEN: Kevin Rudd has been painted as micro manager. Now whatever you and Bob Hawke were accused of as prime ministers I don’t think micro manager was one of them. Can a Prime Minister afford to engage in the small detail in running Government? In the end do you have to invest trust and significant autonomy in your ministerial colleagues?
PAUL KEATING: Absolutely. You can’t micro manage a thing like the Commonwealth…

Not entirely nonsense, that.

Pretty close to nonsense is Miranda Devine today psychoanalysing Liberal Party leaders (or leadership aspirants) in terms of sibling rivalry. It isn’t the worst thing she has ever written, and is quite innocuous comparatively speaking, I suppose.  I should add I was #3 in our family…

Everyone’s favourite topic has surfaced again as the annual Great HSC Sacrifice of Youth approaches: The futile 13 years: lid lifted on HSC. Anna Patty starts with a suitably sensationalist hook after that shock horror headine:

MOST students can complete 13 years of school without having to demonstrate basic literacy and numeracy skills, says a leading educational assessment expert.

The chief executive officer for the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, says minimum standards of reading, writing and maths should be met by all students before they are awarded an HSC or equivalent qualification.

In his address to the council’s annual research conference in Brisbane next week, Professor Masters will raise concerns about Australia’s failure to ensure all students have reached basic standards when they finish school…

There is, Anna, a great difference between “demonstrating” something in accordance with some universal bureaucratic benchmark and actually being able to do that something. It strikes me as sheer hyperbole, and quite misleading, to suggest the most — what: 90%? 51%? — students get through to the end of high school without “basic literacy and numeracy skills.” In fact these days the poor mites are tested and measured to death through their thirteen years of schooling, much more so than my cohort was fifty years ago. We just had an Intermediate in Year 9, mostly internal and none of it “objective” or “standardised”, and a Leaving in Year 11. (I speak of course of NSW there.) No basic skills tests in Year 3, Year 6, Year 7, Year 8 and Year 10 in our day.

The article goes on to quote OECD figures showing “13 per cent of Australians aged 15 were below the standard at which students were considered to be at risk of not having the basic skills.” Let’s just take that at face value for the moment: I think you will agree that 13% is by no definition “most students.” Whether that figure is disgusting, or simply a reflection of what might be expected in the real world, and what it actually means, I have gone into before. Check the literacy tag in the side bar, and for a systematic discussion see an essay from 1998: Literacy on Ninglun’s Specials. Honestly, there’s not much new under the sun in this area; take it from one who has been around the education business for over four decades, whose familiarity with the issues through family connection and reading goes back more than a century.

It may be that Geoff Masters has something reasonable to say, but that seems to have been filtered somewhat in the Herald story.

Finally, I should mention that one of my favourite books on English Studies is the mock-critical collection The Pooh Perplex by Frederick Crews.

The essays:

  • Paradoxical Persona: The Hierarchy of Heroism in Winnie-the-Pooh (Harvey C. Windrow)
  • A Bourgeois Writer’s Proletarian Fables (Martin Tempralis)
  • The Theory and Practice of Bardic Verse: Notations on the Hums of Pooh (P.R. Honeycomb)
  • Poisoned Paradise: The Underside of Pooh (Myron Masterson)
  • O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh (C.J.L. Culpepper, D.Litt,, Oxon)
  • Winnie and the Cultural Stream (Murphy A. Sweat)
  • A la recherche du Pooh perdu (Woodbine Meadowlark)
  • A Complete Analsis of Winnie-the-Pooh (Duns C. Penwiper)
  • Another Book to Cross Off Your List (Simon Lacerous)
  • The Style of Pooh: Sources, Analogues, and Influences (Benjamin Thumb)
  • A.A. Milne’s Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex (Karl Anschauung, M.D.)
  • Prolegomena to Any Future Study of Winnie-the-Pooh (Smedley Force)

As Danny Yee says in the review from which I took that summary, The Pooh Perplex is very old (1964 — just in time to delight me during my Honours English year at Sydney University) but has had a 2001 sequel Postmodern Pooh. I couldn’t help thinking of Crews when I read Darwin to the Rescue: A group of scholars thinks evolutionary science can reinvigorate literary studies via A&L Daily about a week ago.

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Comments Off on Sense, nonsense, speculation and invective

Posted by on August 7, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, awful warnings, book reviews, education, English studies, exams and assessment, literacy, literary theory/criticism, politics, reading, teaching, weirdness