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Category Archives: OzLit

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.

 

Sunday Floating Life photo 33 AND Friday poem 18

Is that confusing enough for you?

Peter Skrzynecki’s “Immigrants at Central Station, 1951” was the subject of my tuition session yesterday. The coachee is doing the ESL course in English. On my way I took some pictures of Central from the perspective of the speaker in the poem – as I read it anyway. (We read the poem carefully so he could see why I had chosen my angles.) Of course it isn’t 1951 any more, but I do vividly remember migrant camps, and Central Station in the 1950s. What follows the poem is a sketch commentary around that HSC topic de jour — “Belonging”.

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Immigrants at Central Station, 1951

It was sad to hear
The train’s whistle this morning
At the railway station.
All night it had rained.
The air was crowded
With a dampness that slowly
Sank into our thoughts –
But we ate it all:
The silence, the cold, the benevolence
Of empty streets.

Time waited anxiously with us
Behind upturned collars
And space hemmed us
Against each other
Like cattle bought for slaughter.

Families stood
With blankets and packed cases –
Keeping children by their sides,
Watching pigeons
That watched them.

But it was sad to hear
The train’s whistle so suddenly –
To the right of our shoulders
Like a word of command.
The signal at the platform’s end
Turned red and dropped
Like a guillotine –
Cutting us off from the space of eyesight

While time ran ahead
Along glistening tracks of steel.

Peter Skrzynecki’s “Immigrants at Central Station” describes a family who with other families has just arrived in Sydney from a migrant camp in western NSW. The poem is about the poet’s own family. As well as describing the scene, the poet tells us a lot about their feeling of not belonging in this new place and their fears about the future.

Their journey to Sydney had been through a night of rain, cutting them off from the landscape they were passing through, making them feel uncomfortable, and echoing their feelings

The air was crowded

With a dampness that slowly

Sank into our thoughts –

The families each huddle together not just for warmth but also because the only sense of belonging they have left is to the family and their few possessions represented by their luggage. In this city whose cold “benevolence” has controlled their lives for years now they feel anxious and lonely. They do not know anyone in those “empty streets”. They don’t even really know where they are going next, or what it will be like when they get there. They feel like “cattle bought for slaughter” or people about to face the guillotine. They have had very little choice in life up to now. But there is nothing they can do except to accept what they are given.

But we ate it all:

The silence, the cold, the benevolence

Of empty streets.

The whistle of the departing train which had left them at Central is a “sad” sound – the poet uses the word twice. The tracks back to where they came from are also tracks into their future. Like the steel of a guillotine blade the tracks are “glistening tracks of steel”. It could be though that the last image offers a little hope, as “glistening” does suggest light.

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— Photos – Neil Whitfield 1 November 2009

 

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Listening to Gorecki, reading Nowra

A rather powerful combination…

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

Ice

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

 

Friday poem 17: Judith Wright

dust14

Australia 1970

Die, wild country, like the eaglehawk,
dangerous till the last breath’s gone,
clawing and striking. Die
cursing your captor through a raging eye.

Die like the tiger snake
that hisses such pure hatred from its pain
as fills the killer’s dreams
with fear like suicide’s invading stain.

Suffer, wild country, like the ironwood
that gaps the dozer-blade.
I see your living soil ebb with the tree
to naked poverty.

Die like the soldier-ant
mindless and unfaithful to your million years.
Though we corrupt you with our torturing mind,
stay obstinate; stay blind.

For we are conquerors and self-poisoners
more than scorpion or snake
and dying of the venoms that we make
even while you die of us.

I praise the scoring drought, the flying dust,
the drying creek, the furious animal,
that they oppose us still;
that we are ruined by the thing we kill.

Photo by Graeme Greenwood

 

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Norm, Ahmed, Shafana, Aunt Sarrinah, radicalisation and Australia

The first of the Things to look forward to is now done. It was the world premiere of Alana Valentine’s Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah and a revival of Alex Buzo’s 1969 classic Norm and Ahmed.

pakistanirestaurant shafana-0026-aunt-sarrinah-8low

Left: “Ahmed” takes “Norm” to a Pakistani Restaurant

Right: the opening scene of Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah

Pics from the Alex Buzo Company blog linked above.

Of her new play Alana Valentine writes:

I hope Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah will surprise audiences with its portrait of Afghani Muslim women, who are articulate, highly educated, deeply spiritual and enraged by the way Australian and global media paint them as oppressed, meek and silent. To be part of a project where Buzo’s theme and concerns might be reignited through a new work…is genuinely exciting. In effect, it allows the ‘conversation’ to move into a third dimension: not just Buzo speaking anew to the 21st Century, but Buzo reflected and responded to through the voice of a contemporary playwright. It’s a vision of Australian theatre as a historical continuum…

Alana’s plays are always grounded in in depth research and interviews with the groups she is representing; that depth came through in last night’s performance which both Sirdan and I found very thought-provoking. The issue is whether or not Shafana should wear hijab. She eventually decides she will, even if Aunt Sarrinah, whom she dearly loves, is somewhat appalled by that decision. The play takes us beyond our often mind-numbingly dreadful understanding (if that is the right word) of the issues Australian Muslim women face and that we face in our response to them. A valuable exercise well dramatised, if, I thought, just a bit slow off the mark at the beginning.

As for Norm and Ahmed I agree with the woman sitting next to me in the theatre: “the more things change the more they stay the same.”  Sirdan was born in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at the time) but could well relate to Norm and Ahmed – for him it was, unlike for me, as new as Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. He agreed that the contemporary relevance of this forty-year-old play was quite amazing.

A thoroughly good night out.

By coincidence, my mind still on Alana’s play especially, I read a truly excellent article in this morning’s Australian: From a human to a terrorist by Sally Neighbour.

… The perplexing question is: Why? How does a seemingly ordinary young man come to embrace violent extremism? Its corollary, the question that confounds counter-terrorism experts worldwide, is: how can we stop them?

The rapidly morphing nature of global terrorism demands an evolving response. Since 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida has diminished but its ideology has flourished, spawning hundreds of like-minded groups and cells across the world. US terrorism specialist Marc Sageman describes this new phenomenon as a "violent Islamist born-again social movement" straddling the globe. Its fragmented and anarchic nature makes it arguably a bigger threat than al-Qa’ida, according to Britain’s Strategy for Countering International Terrorism, unveiled in March this year. Unlike the once highly centralised al-Qa’ida, the new grassroots terrorism cannot be fought with border protection measures or military strikes, but must be tackled at its roots.

This reality has spawned a new buzzword in the anti-terrorism fraternity: counter-radicalisation. Its aim, in Sageman’s words, is to "stop the process of radicalisation before it reaches its violent end"…

Sageman, the pre-eminent expert on radicalisation theory, is a former CIA mujaheddin handler in Pakistan, now a psychologist and author of two books, Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad. After studying 165 jihadists, Sageman is adamant that terrorists are not born but made. There is no psychological profile of a terrorist and Sageman believes "root causes" such as socioeconomic deprivation are overrated. The most common factor in the making of a terrorist is alienation. Of the jihadists Sageman studied, he found that "a remarkable 78 per cent were cut off from their cultural and social origins". He concludes "this absence of connection is a necessary condition for a network of people to join the global jihad"…

Sageman adds they are not violent psychopaths but "generally idealistic young people seeking dreams of glory fighting for justice and fairness"…

Much better in its analysis that most of the rants you see. The dynamics of that alienation, though not in a form likely to lead to terrorism, are also seen in Alana Valentine’s play.

Oh – and a footnote. I have always thought taking the French path and “outlawing” the hijab in Australia would be really stupid. Fortunately both John Howard and Kevin Rudd have not been tempted.

* Special thanks to Emma Buzo. 🙂

Update

See the The Australian Stage review.

[On Alana’s play] …This is a powerful night at theatre and a welcome, bold, essential addition to the culturally homogeneous theatre one can expect to see in some of the larger venues around town. I believe this to be an extraordinarily brave and bold double bill containing four very fine performers. Actors who embrace the challenge of new work, with new perspectives are worth their weight in effusive praise and I feel compelled to mention the spectacular performances by Camilla Ah Kin and Sheridan Harbridge who confront this subject with tenderness, fierceness and great compassion – to the extent that I felt stunned and broken by the time the lights dimmed.

 

Things to look forward to

Politics-free and controversy-free today, people. Instead there are these things I am looking forward to:

1. Friday night

Emma Buzo has kindly sent free tickets to The Seymour Centre: Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed (1968) and Alana Valentine’s Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. Sirdan and I are going. See also Indian students, racism, theatre news.

2. Sunday lunch

This will be at Sirdan’s and is for Sirdan’s birthday. There could be a mystery guest… Or more than one…

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2009 in OzLit, personal, Sirdan, Sunday lunch

 

The Macquarie PEN Australian Literature anthology

I mentioned this here. It has now been published. You may listen to the Radio National Book Show for more information. There is also an interview on Late Night Live.

 
 

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…

 

Last night: Oz Lit, refugees and other matters

Sunday dinner rather than Sunday lunch at M’s yesterday.

There were in fact three guests of honour. Nicholas Jose I mentioned here. Yes, we did talk about the new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. No, I can’t say what was said because any detail is embargoed until the official launch later this week, but I can tell you it is big (around 1,500 pages) and anyone interested in Australian Literature will want one. There may be some surprises.

The second guest was Claire Roberts.

Claire Roberts is Senior Curator Asian Arts and Design, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney and a Research Fellow with Geremie Barmé’s Australian Research Council Federation Fellowship project at The Australian National University…

Claire is a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University for 2009-10.

She has a Master of Arts in Chinese language and art history from the University of Melbourne and a PhD in Chinese history from The Australian National University.

Nick and Claire are both about to go to Harvard for a year. That is why M had the gathering.

The third guest I shall call M2. He works in Thailand with refugees but may soon be going to Africa or the USA. He was briefly in Australia because of family matters. He is an old friend of M, so M took the opportunity for us to catch up. In one of those small world moments I discovered he met my ex-student Evan Ruth in Peshawar in 2001.

Also there was William Yang. I was interested to hear that William is currently reading Anthony Venn-Brown’s autobiography. He is really impressed with it, as was I.

There were several other friends there, and of course Sirdan.

 

New anthology of Australian literature

macpen_auslit_shadow In today’s Australian Nicholas Jose has an article about the new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. A companion, the excellent Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature, has already been published.

… But what is Australian literature anyway? If it seems a dumb question, the answer is not as obvious as it may appear. Does a piece of writing have to be about Australia to qualify, or is it enough if it is written by an Australian, or someone who was in Australia some of the time? Can fantasy or science fiction be Australian if it is written by an Australian but set in another world?

My answer would be yes, potentially, but it helps to be able to point to something Australian, however elusive. Nikki Gemmell’s novel The Bride Stripped Bare is an interesting case. First published by Anonymous in 2003, it was no surprise when the author was revealed as Australian.

There’s a giveaway when the heroine escapes the London cold for Morocco and the sun heats her up in a way she seems to know from some other life … down under.

And how do we define literature? Does genre writing such as romance and crime fiction count, and what about history writing or the speeches of (some) politicians? Again my answer would be yes, potentially, depending on what’s happening in the language, the ideas, the literary imagination of those writers, and what effect their words have on us as readers.

The terms Australian and literature are a potent but unstable combination, invoked in lofty charters and fierce debate…

There’s a touching scene in Alien Son, Judah Waten’s 1952 memoir in which the boy’s mother, a migrant to Melbourne from Odessa, wanting a "musical education" for her kids, takes them to listen to records at a friend’s house. The music "sounded far away and thin, like the voice of a ventriloquist mimicking far-off musical instruments". They go to a music shop where the mother asks the salesman to play records to the embarrassed children — Caruso, Chaliapin, "whole symphonies and concertos" — until the manager asks if she ever intends to buy one.

The son must translate his mother’s reply about her children’s "right to music and culture and in fact the rights of all men": "Just because we are poor must we cease our striving?"

The striving of many people such as Waten’s mother, and Waten himself, as a writer, has given Australia an extraordinary culture, including a great body of literature, transformed from distant mimicry into something of our own, something to share, to argue with, to extend and pass on.

I cherish in all the arts a space for Australian voices – even if it is just to remind ourselves that we are not, after all, Americans. ;)  This is not jingoism. Arts that can show us who and where we are with conviction and authenticity (old-fashioned words I know) are to be cherished, and the paradox is that it is often those works from other countries and cultures which are most “local” that move us most. So rather than being the literary equivalent of McDonalds, works like The Great Gatsby or even To Kill a Mockingbird speak to us of – and beyond – a locale they so wonderfully evoke.

I guess I will be able to learn more of the Macquarie anthology; I’ll be dining at M’s on Sunday and Nicholas Jose will be the guest of honour.

 

Indian students, racism, theatre news

Given recent concern over attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and Sydney it is fitting that Sydney’s newest theatre company, The Alex Buzo Company, is mounting two plays in August at The Seymour Centre: Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed (1968) and Alana Valentine’s Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. The first Sydney production of Norm and Ahmed made history. Not long before his untimely death in 2006 Alex Buzo told ABC what happened.

ALEX BUZO: Those words, I mean sorry, the first word, had been used in a lot of overseas plays and so I just assumed it was OK, it was legal.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: It had been said on stage?
ALEX BUZO: Yeah, it had been said on stage. But because it happened in an Australian play, there was a double standard and they thought it was shocking and the actor was arrested and eventually exonerated.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes indeed, the whole matter was actually quashed by the Attorney-General. But there was some… there was a bit of a drama to go through until that happened, when the charges were laid and Graeme Blundell and Lindsay Smith were charged with obscenity. There was a great deal of discussion about it in the press.
[VT] Did it dishearten you?
ALEX BUZO: Well, I had actually been boasting in private that my aim as a writer was to put Australian drama on the front page. I didn’t anticipate this sort of front page treatment but, I thought it did have a good result in the sense that people knew that Australian drama was alive and well, whereas up until that point it had no publicity whatsoever, so it did have positive things. On the other hand it was very draining for the actors to go to the Magistrates Court and then the Supreme Court and then it went eventually to the High Court in Canberra. So, it certainly was a wearing process but it did have its upside.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: In a sense looking back on it, it’s a little disheartening, I guess, that the fight all the way through the courts had to be about two words, had to be about a swear word, rather than something a heck of a lot more important than that. I mean, you can imagine going to the courts in defence of art, but something much more important than just those words.
ALEX BUZO: Yes, I mean, I’d be disappointed if people didn’t think the play had something to say about racism and generational envy. But it is a literary play, it is an art play, it’s meant to be humorous and imaginative, it’s meant to have other things going for it other than the final two words.

I was fortunate enough to meet Alex Buzo on several occasions, most memorably when I played a Rugby League commentator in his The Roy Murphy Show for the Balmain Theatre Group in 1978.

I also see Alana Valentine quite frequently as we have some common interests. I shall go to this double bill if I can possibly do so.

Meanwhile around 4 am on Sunday a couple of Indian students were bashed on Bathurst Street near George Street Sydney. This isn’t surprising, unfortunately, as parts of George Street are notorious for this kind of thing especially in the small hours of Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. I would hesitate to wander there myself. The assailants were respectively 16 and 17.

It is pleasing to note The Times of India reporting on 28 June Indians in Australia are safe.

Australian scientist Jose (Jimmy) Botella, who is attending a three-day international conference hosted by Vinoba Bhave University in Hazaribag, on Sunday said that Indian students in Australia are safe and that reports about repeated attacks on them in Melbourne and Sydney have been blown out of proportion by the Indian media. Botella said that Melbourne and Sydney are cities like Delhi and Mumbai in India where criminal activities are no exception. "This does not mean that Australians are indulging in a hatred war against Indians. In fact, Indian students are very bright and intelligent and Australians like them for this quality."…

True enough. See also Delegation tries to allay ‘racist’ attack fears.

There is, however, another basis for complaint. Some of the “private colleges” students might be lured to are store-front operations of dubious pedigree. Students should conduct careful checks preferably with recognised education sites and the Australian Government before enrolling.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, current affairs, education, events, friends, OzLit, racism, South Asian

 

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Pause: cub reporter again

Aside from the standard weekend posts and the Photoblog and Ninglun on Blogspot, I am pausing while I play cub reporter again for the South Sydney Herald. The topic is “The Price of Books”. Oz readers: feel free to sound off on the topic in the comment thread. I know some of you have strong views on this. I, on the other hand, have only 500 words to play with.

 
 

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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

 

Depression and creativity

I read about this first on Matilda, Perry Middlemiss’s OzLit blog.

A couple of weeks back James Bradley, on his "City of Tongues" weblog, reprinted an essay he had written and had published in "The Griffith Review". The title of that essay was "On Depression and Creativity", which was reprinted, in an edited version in "The Age" Review section over the weekend [not currently on the paper’s website].

And for the past couple of weeks I’ve wanted to link to this piece and bring it to your attention. The trouble was that every introduction I thought of came across as insignificant and trite. So I’ve decided not to bother with one…

In the same spirit I refer you to Never real and always true: on depression and creativity. I found it personally interesting too of course.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2009 in health, humanity, OzLit, personal, writers