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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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Listening to Gorecki, reading Nowra

A rather powerful combination…

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

Ice

 
2 Comments

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

 

Oral: thoughts while reading Mark Davis

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

spoken Click to listen

 

Reading Jasper Fforde

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

fforde

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

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

 

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.

 

Reading several books at once may do your head in…

… or it may set up a rather interesting and unexpected harmonic.

The three books in question are:

All three are well worth reading. 

I give Armstrong five stars more as a history than as a work that is entirely convincing theologically – it is if you agree with her, which I am inclined to do, but even so I still take the Axial Age hypothesis with a grain or two of salt. What is good in this wide-ranging work is the fresh insight it has afforded me into unexpected and often hitherto unexplored parallels in the thinkers and prophets of the ancient world in Greece, India, the Middle East and China. Armstrong is no fundamentalist; her very respectable scepticism on the historicity of much of the Bible as “fact” bears witness to that. On the other hand, her opposition of mythos and logos will not appeal to everyone, even if I think there is much to be said for it so long as one realises it has the weakness of all such dichotomies. Religion to Armstrong is not well served by being treated as logos. Paradoxically that is what fundamentalists tend to do. Mythos reminds me more than anything of John Keats and “negative capability.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

More on Armstrong: Heavy-hitter stands up for God and religion; Richard Dawkins vs. Karen Armstrong: "Where Does Evolution Leave God?"; Man vs. God – the Armstrong/Dawkins “debate” which was reprinted in The Australian this weekend: it mostly shows two contrasting sensibilities, in my opinion.

I repeat: Armstrong is an excellent historian of ideas.

D Michael Lindsay is an excellent ethnologist of religion. I very much agree with this review.

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America – politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay’s essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don’t necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay’s documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don’t always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result…

It is “thick description” – far more subtle than the standard rant pro or con religion in US politics. I found it fascinating.

SONY DSC                     Timothy Clack is far younger than I thought! He is “[St Peter’s] College [Oxford] Lecturer in Archaeology and Director of Studies in Archaeology and Anthropology. Tim is an anthropological archaeologist with diverse research and teaching interests. Themes with which he is currently engaged include: archaeology of experience, archaeological mediation, syncretism and religious fusion, anthropology of conflict, and memory and cultural landscapes. He has been fortunate in being able to conduct archaeological and anthropological research in the UK, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Borneo. Timothy is an elected fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is also holds associate membership of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.”

He has, however, not been well served by proof-readers – there are quite a few clangers in Ancestral Roots. For example, I am sure Dr Clack knows that T H Huxley is not the same as Aldous Huxley, though they are related.

The book is in the evolutionary biology genre, but ranges much more widely than most. According to Alan Bilsborough in The Times Educational Supplement: “Overall, Ancestral Roots is a fluent and wide-ranging account of the human condition viewed from an evolutionary perspective, although the author’s preaching sometimes obtrudes to interrupt the flow. The text suffers from the selectivity of all such eclectic accounts, and there are sufficient errors of detail in the bits I think I know something about to make me wonder as to the accuracy of those I don’t. In other words, read this book as a stimulating and engaging survey, but don’t take it too seriously as a definitive diagnosis of our current predicament.”  I didn’t mind the preaching, personally. Loved what he says about ethnocentrism, religion, and co-operation – just to name a few areas.