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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.

 

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.

 

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…

 

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…

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich fare indeed.

 

First July reviews – mainly comic

star30a Dante’s Cove 2 (2007 DVD)

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

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

This gets two rather dismissive lines on SameSame.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17nat_conciliation_painting

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

I liked this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Comments Off on First July reviews – mainly comic

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

 

The hidden power of language

The idea that language shapes (if not determines) our perspectives, indeed what we may think, has been around for a long time. I have encountered examples of the phenomenon in teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). For example, some Chinese students and I once disputed the colour of something we were all looking at only to discover that our mother tongues cut the spectrum into somewhat different arbitrary bits in the blue/green section. The “real” spectrum has no divisions; our language imposes or constructs divisions.

So I am drawn (via the Arts & Letters Daily) to HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09] by Lera Boroditsky.

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it’s impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it’s impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can’t be true, let’s find out what is true…

I am storing a copy for future reference: Edge_ HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE pdf.

 

Best reads of 2008

I notice I began the “best read of 2008” category this time last year, so anything from now will be a “best read of 2009” – and I do have one lined up. But today, in order of time from 26 December 2007, here are my 2008 choices. They aren’t always the latest books, as my choice is determined by Surry Hills Library and by what I may from time to time get at a bargain bookshop. Go to the linked posts for details.

1. Travis Holland, "The Archivist’s Story" (Bloomsbury 2007). Fiction.

2. Brian Leung, “Lost Men”. Fiction.

3. Conservative but informative and very entertaining: James Franklin on "Corrupting the Youth". Nonfiction.

4. Anita Brookner, “Latecomers”. Fiction.

5. Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land: A New History of Australia. See also here and here. Nonfiction.

6. Anne Holt, “The Final Murder”. Fiction.

7. Gregg Hurwitz, “The Crime Writer”. Fiction.

8. Like a benign psychotic episode: East/West imagination in "Kafka on the Shore" (2005) – Haruki Murukami. Fiction.

9. When a blog is good enough to be a book – Riverbend’s “Baghdad Burning”. Nonfiction.

10. Denise Mina and “Tartan Noir” — “The Last Breath”. Fiction.

11. Sharp yet gentle satire in McCall Smith’s parochial epic: "The World according to Bertie". Fiction. See also here.

12. I like Norman Davies – essays “Europe East & West”. Nonfiction.

13. James Lovelock, “The Revenge of Gaia”. Nonfiction.

14. Anna Kavan, “Guilty”. Fiction.

15. David Day, “Conquest: A New History of the Modern World”. Nonfiction.

16. Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist. Fiction.

17. A Life of Unlearning — a journey to find the truth — the book – Anthony Venn-Brown. Nonfiction.

18. ::: Alexander McCall Smith ::: “The Careful Use of Compliments”. Fiction.

19. Believe Me, It’s Torture: Politics & Power: Hitchens – an essay online. Nonfiction.

20. George Monbiot, “Heat”. Nonfiction.

21. River of Heaven by Lee Martin – Random House 2008. Fiction.

22. Rich Merritt, “Code of Conduct”. Fiction.

23. The Sourcebooks Shakespeare series.

24. John Dominic Crossan, “God & Empire”. Nonfiction.

25. Unheroic, super-intelligent gay fiction: Samuel R Delany’s "Dark Reflections". Fiction.

26. One of 2008’s top reads: Tom Perrotta “The Abstinence Teacher”. Fiction

27. Last episode of SBS’s “First Australians” and a must see anthology — the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.

28. Adrian Murdoch, “The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate”. Nonfiction.

29. But I have been reading comics… – Mike Dawson, “Freddie & Me”. Fiction.

30. Lawrence Potter, “This Book May Help You Understand the World”. Nonfiction.

31. My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008). Nonfiction.

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2008 in 2008 in review, Best read of 2008, book reviews, reading, Top read

 

My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008)

0801-Grayling My reading these days comes from two main sources: Surry Hills Library or the bargain basement bookshops. I am after all a pensioner. Naturally, this does impact on my “Top Read” choices, but has not prevented my finding quite a few in the past twelve months. I will be listing them in another post later on, but you can also check the tag.

So the latest came via the bargain bookshop, $12.95 instead of $35 for the hardback.

I recommend Counterknowledge with two reservations.

The first is encapsulated in this otherwise very favourable review by British philosopher A C Grayling (no relation to a blogger some of us know) in New Humanist.

…The sentences that need to be added to this otherwise superb crusade against despoliation of truth and reason concern what harsh critics would, I am sure wrongly and unfairly, call a sleight-of-hand by Thomson, given that when he is not debunking counterknowledge he is none-too-indirectly associated with one of its most egregious forms by being the editor of the Catholic Herald. Early in his book he says that religion “does not fit neatly into the category of counterknowledge” because its claims are not about the material world and cannot be tested empirically. And he leaves it there; protected, you might say, behind the wholly admirable pyrotechnics of his assault on “misinformation masquerading as fact” to be found elsewhere.

This, I am afraid, will not do. As already suggested, the most persistent and influential forms of counterknowledge, including many false claims about the origin and nature of the universe, what it contains and what it is influenced by, which heavenly bodies go round which, what can be effected by prayer or the laying on of hands, and so vastly on, are the religions. Thomson rightly criticises the fact that the British state supports five homeopathic hospitals and pays for six degree courses in homeopathy, but says nothing about tax-funding of faith-based schools – not a few teaching creationism. He quotes Popper on falsifiability as the test of a genuine knowledge claim, but does not mention Popper’s correlative stricture, that “a theory which explains everything explains nothing”, as a direct refutation of the meaningfulness of religious claims.

He grants that religion becomes counterknowledge when it is controverted by the evidence of our senses, but does not admit that all religion is therefore so. He does not address the point that when factual information is lacking with respect to some claim – as is standardly the case with the major tenets of religion – constraints of rationality come into play…

Even so, Grayling says: “This excellent little book, if supplemented by a single brief sentence – a draft of which I offer below – should be put in the satchel of every secondary school child, in the departmental pigeonhole of every undergraduate…”

The second reservation I have is that there are times Thompson seems to me to be too Eurocentric, or a little too quick to label something as “counterknowledge” simply because it does not quite fit with his version of Enlightenment philosophy. I am sure you will see something paradoxical there in my two reservations!

I would go further than Thompson by quite happily regarding the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke as pseudohistory, in which I am no different from many mainstream theologians. (You may get a post on that before Yuletide!) On the other hand, I would not be quite as dismissive as he is about Chinese Traditional Medicine.

I would also express some reservation about the use to which his generally perfectly correct criticisms of much thought in the Muslim world might be put by the likes of Daniel Pipes or Melanie Phillips, but then I am rather more of a cultural relativist than Thompson is.

That aside, the book is very stimulating and very useful. The chapter on Intelligent Design/Creationism is quite brilliant.

You don’t even need the book, really, though I do recommend it, partly out of a continuing belief that the reading of actual words on paper does have some advantages over absorbing matter from a screen – some of the disadvantages of which are actually made clear in the book! Nonetheless, the book was simultaneously published with its website, which is very comprehensive and also stimulating. Most of the people it will infuriate are people you really wouldn’t want to know anyway!

See Counterknowledge.com.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, challenge, culture wars, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, historiography, History, Top read

 

Last episode of SBS’s “First Australians” and a must see anthology

Last night The First Australians dealt with Mabo. I will confine myself to a positive note, having already blogged this very significant contribution to understanding the past of all of us in Australia. I thought I knew this episode’s material rather well, having read much about it at the time, but there is always something to learn. Last night I learned a great deal more about the particular culture Mabo belonged to, and I learned a great deal more about the man. All honour too to those elements of the Catholic Church that played such a vital role at that time, and continue to do so.

Nice to see that crowd of Indigenous Australians in Sydney in 1988 when many thousands from all over Australia descended on the city for the Bicentennial. I was in that crowd.

wb

a memory of 1988

bookcover-sml An ideal companion to The First Australians is the recently published Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, with a preface by novelist Nicholas Jose. Check the link, as the site offers many extras.

A groundbreaking collection of work from some of the great Australian Aboriginal writers, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature offers a rich panorama of over 200 years of Aboriginal culture, history and life.

‘This volume is extremely significant from an Indigenous cultural perspective, containing many works that afford the reader a treasured insight into the Indigenous cultural world of Australia.’  From the foreword by Mick Dodson

The cover picture is by Michael Riley, whose art I celebrated in August: Michael Riley: sights unseen.

In the preface Nicholas Jose writes:

This transformative survey of Aboriginal writing presents the stories and patterns of Australian culture and societies in new ways, foregrounding and celebrating Indigenous experience and expression. It introduces powerful and creative individual voices as it also reveals a history of struggle, suffering and strength. No doubt there are gaps and limitations. There are always more voices to be heard and other stories to be told. Yet in their gathering of literature the editors show that Aboriginal authors have created some of the best, most distinctive and most significant writing to come from this country.

That may seem hyperbolic, but to read this anthology is to be convinced of the truth of that, and to be encouraged that there is more to come.

I was taken with a final statement from the late Eddie Mabo, as reported in last night’s First Australians: the momentous events of the Mabo era not only set free Indigenous Australia, but also non-Indigenous Australia, because after that none of us ever again would be living a lie about who we are. That, I suspect, is the true spirit of reconciliation. Despite all the ups and downs of the last twenty years, despite all the problems that remain, that is, I believe, where we find ourselves and where we may find solutions for all of us.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, Best read of 2008, challenge, generational change, History, Indigenous Australians, OzLit, reading, Reconciliation, Top read

 

Place and voice spot on: Peter Corris, “The Big Score” (2007)

I do enjoy Peter Corris, even if one suspects it is a well-honed act, perhaps even a touch automatic at times, particularly in some of the short stories in this collection of eleven. That’s in no way to diminish the pleasure the stories gave me.

One of the great pleasures of good crime fiction is its evocation of place, of the nitty-gritty of the mean – and sometimes not so mean – streets. For a Sydney reader, especially an inner city reader, there is always the pleasure of recognition. For example:

fri31 001

Her office was in Surry Hills near the park named after Eddie Ward, ‘the firebrand of East Sydney’. My mother, an ALP groupie, had played the piano at his wake.

sun26 035

I met him in the middle of the street. Newtown people walk on the street because the footpaths are narrow and often blocked by overhangs from front gardens and the trees planted in the gentrification era.

Though that is Surry Hills, not Newtown, in the photo*.

The other thing is voice. Cliff Hardy is instantly recognisable and totally true to age and place. The ironic asides are often delicious.

Here’s another blogger’s view: Reading : The Big Score by Peter Corris.

* Photos by Neil 2008

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, local, OzLit, reading, Surry Hills, Top read

 

One of 2008’s top reads: Tom Perrotta “The Abstinence Teacher”

abstinence_teacher_jacket I borrowed Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher (NY St Martin’s Press 2007) on spec from Surry Hills Library and have found it a delight, but more than that – aside from perhaps being a bit didactic. It is comedy of manners 21st century suburban US style rather than satire. It isn’t cruel enough to be satire. (I have in mind there, for example, Evelyn Waugh’s classic The Loved One, which really is rather bitter and supercilious, though laugh-out-loud funny.) There are very funny moments in The Abstinence Teacher, but the humour is more often wry and kindly. Even so, the novel exposes utterly the mindlessness that is fundamentalist moral thinking, especially but not only in the area of sexuality. It is also quite a frightening expose of the curriculum programs proposed by the Religious Right, showing that to regard such programs as “education” is a travesty.

On his own site Tom Perrotta describes the novel:

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise kids. It’s got the proverbial good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It’s the kind of place where parents are involved in their children’s lives, where no opportunity for enrichment goes unexplored.

Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school. She believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Ruth’s younger daughter’s soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church that doesn’t approve of Ruth’s style of teaching. And Ruth in turn doesn’t applaud The Tabernacle’s mission to take its message outside its doors.

Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively mistrust each other. But when a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk to each other, they are forced to take each other at something other than face value.

The Abstinence Teacher exposes the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of modern American family life and explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people.

Yes there are soccer moms (and dads), and a wonderfully drawn gay couple… I would seriously suggest Christians read this one; they may think again afterwards – at least I hope so. The book just may prove subversive in the benign way good literature often is. If you are not a religious person you will enjoy it anyway, so long as you don’t mind a book that is really quite suburban, but better and more believable than soap opera; many of your fears about the Religious Right in America will be confirmed as you read, but you may find yourself empathising more with people you might not otherwise consider… That can’t be bad.

This is a very wise, and often funny, novel.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, Christianity, culture wars, education, faith, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, pluralism, reading, religion, right wing politics, Top read, USA

 

Unheroic, super-intelligent gay fiction: Samuel R Delany’s "Dark Reflections"

delany You have to hand it to a writer who can so deflate his own self-importance that he has The Poet Arnold Hawley, black and over 65 and over-weight and the central character in this novel, lament that publishers foisted on him the “vomitous” title Dark Reflections for a slim volume of verse when he himself had called it Pretences. Unheroic but not an anti-hero, Hawley sees through so much of the pretension that is the New York literary world, and even turns his jaded yet innocent eye on the shifting political correctnesses of his times. He wonders when and exactly how Negro became “black” and then “Black”. He wonders about “gay liberation”.

In ’88, a year after he won the Alfred Proctor Prize in Poetry, three days beyond June’s Gay Pride Day, Arnold was walking through the West Village. Somehow, Arnold reflected, the closet had just… dissolved around him. Nearly twenty years before, in the summer of ’69, Arnold, yes, had read about the riots that had begun in his onetime stomping grounds, the Stonewall Inn. They occurred over on the other side of the Village, where no one Arnold actually knew lived. He had assumed they were as unimportant as any such city disturbance. But he kept finding more articles about them. Then more. His conviction was that this “Gay Liberation” business, which so clearly was just an imitation of “Women’s Liberation”, itself only a spin-off of civil rights, had to be a social aberration that would dissolve when people grew tired of it.

But it hadn’t.

Arnold was always vaguely bewildered as to why…

We should beware of taking the Prufrockian Arnold as the author’s voice, of course, even if the usual distinctions of fiction are quite often blurred in Dark Reflections.

We are reminded of the fact that in 1950 the great American poet Wallace Stevens said of African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks at a Pulitzer banquet: “Who let the coon in?”….

If such a novel as Dark Reflections had appeared in the Australian literary scene we would have heard of it over and over again as heralding a great step forward in Australian literature — or so I suspect. Certainly among those in the USA and elsewhere familiar with Samuel R Delany’s work, Dark Reflections attracted its share of attention, as it should. It is a marvellous novel. I was not familiar with Delany’s work, partly because much of it is in the fantasy/science fiction genre, which I rarely read.

I commend Dark Reflections to you.

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, reading, Top read, USA, writers

 

River of Heaven by Lee Martin – Random House 2008 — and Waleed Aly on Andrew Denton last night

leemartin River of Heaven by Lee Martin reminded me somewhat of the movie Stand By Me, (above) and no harm in that as it is one of my favourite movies.

On an April evening in 1955, Dewey died on the railroad tracks outside Mt. Gilead, Illinois, and the mystery of his death still confounds the people of this small town.

River of Heaven begins some fifty years later and centers on the story of Dewey’s boyhood friend Sam Brady, whose solitary adult life is much formed by what really went on in the days leading up to that evening at the tracks. It’s a story he’d do anything to keep from telling, but when his brother, Cal, returns to Mt. Gilead after decades of self-exile, it threatens to come to the surface.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Bright Forever, Lee Martin masterfully conveys, with a voice that is at once distinct and lyrical, one man’s struggle to come to terms with the outcome of his life. Powerful and captivating, River of Heaven is about the high cost of living a lie, the chains that bind us to our past, and the obligations we have to those we love.

That is from the publisher’s blurb, but I wouldn’t quarrel with it. The novel is beautifully written. Given that the writer is not, so far as I can see, himself a gay man, his empathy with the central character, a 65-years-old who is closeted by social setting and past events, is utterly commendable. This is a book that just may shift a few out of their homophobia, should they be part of that sad but, one hopes, dying social phenomenon. Well, perhaps not in some cases.

In last night’s brilliant interview on Enough Rope Waleed Aly had this to say on another matter — but it fits:

ANDREW DENTON: Can logic speak to prejudice?

WALEED ALY: … it depends on the brand of prejudice …

ANDREW DENTON: Well, that that brand for instance.

WALEED ALY: No. That’s you’re not going to dismantle that through logic. There’s what is there’s a famous saying, you can’t reason a person out of a position they didn’t arrive at through reason, and I think that’s a good example of that. that’s a certain there’s a there’s an emotional rage to that.

You really must read that interview, really!

Back to my current novel. See:

lhb

That is a music blog, but the post linked to the banner is about River of Heaven — and music; Lee Martin wrote the post.

The first time Largehearted Boy invited me to write liner notes for one of my books it was for my novel, The Bright Forever. At the time, no one knew that the book would end up being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction or that I would spend some wonderful afternoons and evenings chatting with book clubs. Inevitably, during those chats, someone mentions the fact that so many songs are referenced in that novel. This happens in all my work, most recently in my new novel, River of Heaven, a story told from the first-person point of view of Sam Brady, a sixty-five-year-old man, living with a secret in the small town of Mt. Gilead, Illinois. “You have to know the rest of my story,” he says at the end of Chapter 1, “the part I can’t yet bring myself to say. A story of a boy I knew a long time ago and a brother I loved and then lost.” With that, he sets into motion this tale of the death of a boyhood friend and what it brought to Sam’s life, particularly his estrangement from his brother, Cal. River of Heaven is Sam’s confession, and along the way, a number of songs underscore his involvement in a past wrong and his present-day journey toward redemption…

A Top Read of 2008.

And back to Waleed Aly for a moment. This so resonated with my own Teenage Calvinism back around the time George Monbiot (previous entry) was born:

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2008 in America, Australia, Australia and Australian, Best read of 2008, book reviews, faith, Fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, humanity, Islam, pluralism, reading, religion, Top read, TV, writers

 

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