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Four from Surry Hills Library: 2 – and two OzLit blogs

star30 star30star30star30 ozshortstories_logo.indd Aviva Tuffield (ed), New Australian Stories, Melbourne, Scribe 2009.

This eclectic anthology of new stories showcases some of our finest short-story writers and proves that the short story is alive and well in Australia. From seasoned practitioners of the form through to rising and emerging stars of the short-story firmament, New Australian Stories caters for all tastes. There’s humour, mystery, drama, and even some delusion and deceit. Whole lives are captured in just a few satisfying pages. Ideal for dipping into and perfect for those seeking inspiration and escape, this collection is designed for your reading pleasure.

Contributors include: Cate Kennedy, Amanda Lohrey, Carmel Bird, Tony Birch, Nicholas Jose, Paddy O’Reilly, Max Barry, Margo Lanagan, Lenny Bartulin, Michael McGirr, Georgia Blain, Chris Womersley, Patrick Cullen and many more.

Perhaps it’s just me, but while agreeing there is plenty of variety I was struck by how many of the stories are concerned with ageing and dying. I do commend this anthology though. Nicholas Jose is in good somewhat comic form on a not quite as adventurous as she would like fictional grandmother. Wayne Macaulay’s “The Farmer’s New Machine” offers a somewhat Gothic solution to an agricultural problem. Isabelle Li looks at the ageing and dying issue from a Chinese Australian perspective in “A Fishbone in the Throat”. Paddy O’Reilly’s “Breaking Up” is admirably concise and takes the title in an unexpected direction. Chris Womersley’s “The Possibility of Water” is very clever.

I could mention many more; there are very few duds.

Scribe is one of Australia’s treasures – an independent publisher. The future of such ventures may be under a cloud in these times, not helped by the Book Supermarket-friendly mooted changes in our publication laws, an issue the founder of Scribe takes up in his blog. It is also mentioned, though with less apprehension, by this reviewer.

If short stories are biopsies, then the writers of New Australian Stories are skilled surgeons. The best short stories can conjure a past and a future out of a segment of present. Lots of the stories in this collection do this well. Highlights for me included Abigail Ulman’s Chagall’s Wife, whose tale of a high-school student angling for the attentions of a teacher easily evokes the nonchalance and unexamined alertness of burgeoning sexuality. It also stands out for its lean, direct prose; most of the other stories have a tendency towards fleshier prose which can sometimes be less effective. Another stand-out was Vivienne Kelly’s The Third Child. In this story, Frances writes yearly letters about her unchanging life to an aunt who lives abroad. Kelly’s restraint is admirable and pays off in an unexpected way; it’s a breathtaking story.

In relation to the talk of eliminating the territorial copyright provisions, there has been some fear that if it were to go ahead, uniquely Australian voices and stories would be lost. I get the feeling that the production of this kind of book will be negatively affected by major changes to the Australian parallel importation laws; I’d guess that the risk to independent Australian presses of putting out works by new (to books) Australian authors put is offset by their domestic sales of big-ticket overseas titles and books by established local heroes. The way the Productivity Commission is going (i.e. arbitrarily hedging their bets), if you love short stories, you should buy books like these and make them bestsellers in their own right.

And that is from the first of some new (to me) literary blogs I found while searching for New Australian Stories. It’s 3000 BOOKS // LET’S TELL MORE STORIES.

Another is Angela Meyer on Crikey Blogs: LiteraryMinded.

 

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Four from Surry Hills Library: 1

star30 star30star30star30star30star30 wandstarSM J M G  Le Clézio, Wandering Star (translated by C Dixon, Curbstone Press 2004) — “a deeply moving novel about a two young girls caught up in the turmoil of the Middle East, who aspire for peace–Esther, a Jewish girl who takes part in the founding of Israel, and Nejma, a Palestinian girl who becomes a refugee.”

This beautiful novel eschews overt politics, but is no less powerful for that – in fact perhaps all the more moving because it avoids propaganda and displays a warm but realistic empathy with both characters. Here is an extract.

Hélène

Saint-Martin-Vésubie, summer 1943

She knew that winter was over when she heard the sound of water. In winter, snow covered the village, the roofs of the houses and the fields were white. Icicles formed on the edges of the roofs. Then the sun started burning down, the snow melted, and water started trickling drop by drop from all the roofs, the joists, the tree branches, and all of the drops ran together forming rivulets, the rivulets ran into streams, and the water leapt joyously down all the streets in the village.

That sound of water might be her very first memory. She recalled the first winter in the mountains and the music of water in spring. When was that? She was walking between her mother and father down the village street, holding their hands. One arm was pulled higher because her father was so tall. And the water was running down on all sides, making that music, those whooshing, swishing, drumming sounds. Every time she remembered that she felt like laughing because it was a strange and gentle sound, like a caress. She was laughing then, walking between her mother and father, and the water in the gutters and the stream answered her, rippling, rushing.

Now, with the burning summer heat, the deep blue sky, her entire body was filled with a feeling of happiness that was almost frightening. More than anything, she loved the vast grassy slope that rose up toward the sky above the village. She didn’t go all the way up to the top because everyone said there were vipers up there. She’d stroll a little way along the edge of the field, just far enough to feel the cool earth, the sharp blades against her lips. In places, the grass was so high she completely disappeared. She was thirteen years old and her name was Hélène Grève, but her father called her Esther…

Le Clézio won the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature. Definitely my top read so far in 2009

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Fiction, Israel, Middle East, writers

 

The American Dream – Vanity Fair, Howard Fast, and some right-wing flummery…

Very late on Sunday night ABC1 ran an old documentary on US communist writer Howard Fast, best known these days for his novel Spartacus, on which the movie by Stanley Kubrick was based. Since Fast died in 2003 the doco had to be quite old; it included extensive interview material. Fast left the US Communist Party – which he had been in and out of – in 1956 following Kruschev’s revelations about the Stalin years and other events of 1956 in Europe. He was quite a man though, first published at the age of 19 and last published in 2000. His life is a neat alternative history of the USA. There is a good site on his work. Until seeing the documentary I hadn’t realised Howard Fast wrote crime fiction under a pseudonym – especially during the years of internal exile in the Cold War days. And during World War II – while a communist – he virtually was the Voice of America.

When I was a boy, I developed a passion for Howard Fast’s novels, and read all I could find in my school library. Then, one day, I no longer found his books. Fast was blacklisted for being a member of the American Communist Party…

"…in May 1952 The New York Times reported intimidation of librarians across the nation by Legionnaires, by Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, by Minutemen in Texas and California. School texts showing city slums, UNESCO material, all books by such threats to the free world as Howard Fast were purged from school libraries."   (Victor Navasky, "The Social Costs," in Naming Names, Viking Press, New York, 1980)

Citizen Tom Paine, formerly used as a school text, was banned from use in NYC schools. In 1956 Fast broke with the Communist Party, and published his rationale in 1957 as The Naked God. His 1990 memoir Being Red goes more deeply into the issue.

So with that in mind I read with interest (via Arts & Letters Daily) Rethinking the American Dream by David Kamp in Vanity Fair. It is a good example of the introspection going on post-Bush.

…Whatever your opinion of [Norman] Rockwell (and I’m a fan), the resonance of the “Four Freedoms” paintings with wartime Americans offers tremendous insight into how U.S. citizens viewed their idealized selves. Freedom from Want, the most popular of all, is especially telling, for the scene it depicts is joyous but defiantly unostentatious. There is a happily gathered family, there are plain white curtains, there is a large turkey, there are some celery stalks in a dish, and there is a bowl of fruit, but there is not a hint of overabundance, overindulgence, elaborate table settings, ambitious seasonal centerpieces, or any other conventions of modern-day shelter-mag porn.

It was freedom from want, not freedom to want—a world away from the idea that the patriotic thing to do in tough times is go shopping. Though the germ of that idea would form shortly, not long after the war ended…

…what about the outmoded proposition that each successive generation in the United States must live better than the one that preceded it? While this idea is still crucial to families struggling in poverty and to immigrants who’ve arrived here in search of a better life than that they left behind, it’s no longer applicable to an American middle class that lives more comfortably than any version that came before it. (Was this not one of the cautionary messages of the most thoughtful movie of 2008, wall-e?) I’m no champion of downward mobility, but the time has come to consider the idea of simple continuity: the perpetuation of a contented, sustainable middle-class way of life, where the standard of living remains happily constant from one generation to the next.

This is not a matter of any generation’s having to “lower its sights,” to use President Obama’s words, nor is it a denial that some children of lower- and middle-class parents will, through talent and/or good fortune, strike it rich and bound precipitously into the upper class. Nor is it a moony, nostalgic wish for a return to the scrappy 30s or the suburban 50s, because any sentient person recognizes that there’s plenty about the good old days that wasn’t so good: the original Social Security program pointedly excluded farmworkers and domestics (i.e., poor rural laborers and minority women), and the original Levittown didn’t allow black people in.

But those eras do offer lessons in scale and self-control. The American Dream should require hard work, but it should not require 80-hour workweeks and parents who never see their kids from across the dinner table. The American Dream should entail a first-rate education for every child, but not an education that leaves no extra time for the actual enjoyment of childhood. The American Dream should accommodate the goal of home ownership, but without imposing a lifelong burden of unmeetable debt. Above all, the American Dream should be embraced as the unique sense of possibility that this country gives its citizens—the decent chance, as Moss Hart would say, to scale the walls and achieve what you wish.

On the same page of Arts & Letters Daily was one of those insufferably humorous pastiches of social “analysis” some on the Right seem so fond of – rooted in a superficial knowingness, in impregnable smugness and snobbery masquerading as “conservatism” but really just marking and confirming territory – or “Aren’t I glad I’m not a prole, and neither of course are you!” You know the genre. Here in Oz we have a number of practitioners, not all of them named Tim. The case at hand is a slash at Facebook, and it gives itself away a bit by using the term “sheeple” for those who inhabit the site. Oh, and it’s in the Weekly Standard – of course. See Down with Facebook! by Matt Labash.

What nobody bothers to mention about the social-networking site is that it’s really dull–mind-numbingly dull.

Look at the outer shell–the parachute pants, the piano-key tie, the fake tuxedo T-shirt–and you might mistake me for a slave to fashion. Do not be deceived. Early adoption isn’t my thing. I much prefer late adoption, that moment when the trend-worshipping sheeple who have early-adopted drive the unsustainable way of life I so stubbornly cling to ever so close to the edge of obsolescence, that I’ve no choice but to follow. This explains why I bought cassette tapes until 1999, why I wouldn’t purchase a DVD player until Blockbuster cashiered their VHS stock. Toothpaste? I use it now that it’s clear it’s here to stay.

So I’m not inflexible. But there is one promise I’ve made to myself. And that is that no matter how long I live, no matter how much pressure is exerted, no matter how socially isolated I become, I will never, ever join Facebook, the omnipresent online social-networking site that like so many things that have menaced our country (the Unabomber, Love Story, David Gergen) came to us from Harvard but has now worked its insidious hooks into every crevice of society…

…the reason to hate Facebook is because of the stultifying mind-numbing inanity of it all, the sheer boredom. If Facebook helps put together streakers with voyeurs, the streakers, for the most part, after shedding their trench coats, seem to be running around not with taut and tanned hard-bodies, but in stained granny panties with dark socks. They have a reality-show star’s unquenchable thirst for broadcasting all the details of their lives, no matter how unexceptional those details are. They do so in the steady, Chinese-water-torture drip of status updates. The very fact that they are on the air (or rather, on Facebook) has convinced them that every facet of their life must be inherently interesting enough to alert everyone to its importance.

These are all actual status updates (with name changes): "Maria is eating Girl Scout cookies. … Tom is glad it’s the weekend. … Jacinda is longing for some sleep, pillow come to momma! … Dan is going to get something to eat. … Anne is taking Tyler to daycare. … Amber loves to dip. I can dip almost any food in blue cheese, ranch dressing, honey mustard, sour cream, mayonnaise, ketchup. Well, I think you get the point." Yes. Uncle. Please make it stop. For the love of God, we get the point…

Well OK, the article really IS funny, if also silly. What Facebook is like for you really is up to you. You don’t have to use all those gizmos it offers, nor do you have to accumulate “friends”.

You may as well rail against the telephone – and I am sure there were conservatives who did.

On the other hand – and Jim Belshaw has succumbed I see – you’ll never catch me Twittering! 😉

 

Friday poem #6 – A E Housman “On Wenlock Edge”

Bit of a classic today. You may find a generous selection of Housman’s work here together with links to more information.

XXXI
On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
  His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
 
'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
  When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
  But then it threshed another wood.
 
Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
  At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
  The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
 
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
  Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
  Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.
 
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
  Are ashes under Uricon.

Patrick White used this as an epigraph to his great novel The Tree of Man.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2009 in poets and poetry, writers

 

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2009 book notes 2

Grace Notes cover.indd Four diverse choices from Surry Hills Library.

1. Cormac Millar, An Irish Solution (2004)

I read and greatly enjoyed Millar’s second novel The Grounds in January. I was glad to find his first novel which was alluded to time and again in the second, although The Grounds also stands alone quite well. I have to say I enjoyed The Grounds more, though I still rate this clever novel ***** and add it to my best reads of 2009. For more on Millar go to that January entry.

2. Sheri Holman, A Stolen Tongue (1997)

The title is literal as well as figurative. There are some high praise grabs from some famous people on the covers and fly leaf, but The Name of the Rose this isn’t. It is not without interest in its portrayal of the medieval mind, but I do tend to agree with this blogger.***

3. Jenny Pattrick, Grace Notes (2008)

This one is from New Zealand. The central characters are all in their eighties. Occasionally Grace Notes is a little cloying, but generally speaking it is very witty and often insightful. Some episodes are quite brilliant, and it did retain my interest. Pattrick captures voice very well. I couldn’t but compare the manners portrayed as reflecting an Australia (in my experience) of long ago, but imagine there are parts where the New Zealand portrayed in Grace Notes would still apply here. It is a very warm and genuine book. I was reminded a little of McCall Smith. ****

4. Shobhaa De, Sultry Days (1994)

This is from India. I can imagine many Indians may find her offensive. In The Nation (May 2004) is a profile of Shobhaa De titled The Maharani of Muck.

Shobhaa De, perhaps better known here as the Maharani of Muck or the Princess of Porn, is India’s most commercially successful English-language author. It’s a crazy claim for a 56-year-old middle-class Indian woman–one who describes herself as a "traditional" mother to six children–to be able to make. But sex sells, even in one of the world’s most socially conservative countries. Bucking all convention, for years De has dared to write lusty, shocking sex scenes, and from a female point of view. In a country where women rarely bare more than two inches of leg and hardly ever file for divorce, she writes about women who, like herself, flee marriages because they are bored. De is author of more than a dozen titles, all of which start with the letter "s" (Sultry Days, Starry Nights, Strange Obsession–you get the point) and all of which depict a level of privilege that most of India’s more than 1 billion impoverished masses cannot even imagine.

The India De knows and writes about is also a far cry from the India pictured by most writers, that of abject urban poverty or quaint village life. "My books put an unflinching gaze on upper-middle-class India," she says. "It wasn’t done before, mainly because we didn’t have writers out of that class." Although her readership represents but a tiny fraction of India’s population–only about 2 percent of India reads English–De’s books are consistently bestsellers, which means they sell between 20,000 and 30,000 copies. Those sales figures sound meager, but they make her Penguin India’s star, and the publisher can’t get enough of her. This year Penguin is repackaging her entire oeuvre in a sleeker format to position her better in the mass market. De’s editor, Karthika Menon, is especially enthusiastic about her second novel, Starry Nights, which she calls "near classic in its freshness and vitality." …

Shobhaa De has a well-rehearsed rebuttal to the criticism that she writes only for the elite: "I don’t have to go live in a slum to prove that my heart bleeds for anybody. There’s no point in me writing for the poor because they are illiterate." De is well aware that, in addition to being the most popular English-language writer in India, she may be the most hated as well. She once boasted that she had received a record number of bad reviews–165–for one book. But she now says that writing forthrightly about sex, as she did in Starry Nights, was a childish rebellion against the strict protocol for women’s behavior in India. "The bad press was just something that acted like a prod to see how far I could take it, and I really didn’t give a damn."…

I found the novel enormously entertaining. ***** Best read of 2009

Shobhaa De is also a blogger.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, writers

 

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Book reviews concluded

First a “neglected classic”  — James Hanley, Boy (1930 – Oneworld Classics edition with extra material by Chris Gostick 2007). I do recommend Oneworld Classics; there are some excellent titles there, and if they are all as well presented as Boy the series is well worth looking for.

Hanley’s novella was banned for years. There is a detailed account of that on Penniless Press.

But in spite of this outcry from respected figures in the literary world, Boy remained banned from 1935 to 1991, with the exception of two reprints by Jack Kahane’s Paris-based Obelisk Press (in 1936 and 1946) from which Hanley did not receive a penny in royalties.[35] The effect of such a legal case so early in the career of an up-and-coming author was devastating, and it haunted him for the rest of his life. Hanley’s strongly Catholic family were horrified by the incident,'[36] and as John Fordham notes, Hanley himself was outraged by "the publishers’ ‘sheer greed’ in issuing his novel in such a provocative format in the first place, and at their betrayal of professional integrity in their admission of guilt."[37] But the indignity would seem to have severely affected Hanley’s professional confidence too. He refused to speak of Boy for years afterwards and turned down all publishers’ requests for a reprint: although Horizon came close to securing the rights to a fiftieth anniversary edition around 1981, Hanley backed out at the last minute and there was to be no new release of Boy in his lifetime.[38] In the essay ‘Oddfish‘ quoted earlier he is quite scathing about the novel, calling it "shapeless and crude and overburdened with feelings,"[39] and claiming it was a rushed job produced in just ten days. (This is, as Fordham points out, not the case; Boy was in the planning stages at least as early as 1930, one year before its publication.)[40] But the trial of Boy also put a stop to the truly innovative experiments with gender and sexuality that make Hanley’s early works such as The German Prisoner and A Passion Before Death so exciting. After 1935 Hanley turned his attention to more archetypal proletarian writing without the daring homoerotic elements that had featured in his output before then. Dull, formulaic love stories like Stoker Bush (1935), reportage books such as Grey Children (1937) and the overlong and over-rated family drama that is The Furys Chronicle are the products of Hanley’s insecurity about writing books that might have been received in the same way that the 1934 edition of Boy was.

Here perhaps we see just how much wrong can come of the sort of paranoid literary censoriousness that characterised the 1930s. Boy is, as Ken Worpole puts it, "a truly disturbing novel;"[41] it is, in the words of Edward Stokes, "horrifying and dreadful… sordid and horrible,"[42] and it is, to quote Frank G. Harrington, "a gruesome story of the fate of an inarticulate victim."[43] But because the law could see no purpose to the horrors it portrayed other than to lead the country into moral ruin, the creative development of a writer who may have had much more to say on this subject was abruptly curtailed and altered. It’s only with hindsight now that we can see that Hanley’s works of the early thirties were the best he ever produced. This is not to downplay the quality of his writing produced after the trial some of which is excellent. It’s merely to illustrate that, had it not been for the intolerant spirit of the time in which he worked, the writing of James Hanley might have taken a very different course, and Boy would be recognised not for the reasons it is today, but for its inherent quality as a bold and powerful work of 1930s English literature.

Even the Oneworld edition has a clear gap in the chapter describing an “initiation ceremony” on the Liverpool docks; according to Chris Gostick’s afterword, the one good manuscript copy has about four pages of detail which have clearly not found their way into print yet.

I found it bleak indeed, but a great corrective to romantic ideas about the past, and indeed about the working class, even if it is very much on the side of the working class. But there isn’t much hope in Boy. It isn’t nearly as good as Conrad, despite some of the more overheated rhetoric of Anthony Burgess in his preface, but it is more realistic and more honest than D H Lawrence. There are some passages of memorably bad writing, but others that are quite wonderful. I do think enough of it to add it to my Best Reads of 2009. Ken Worpole, a chronicler of working class writing, notes:

Yet these faults are minor compared with the enduring literary impact of the novel’s description of adolescent humiliation. It can be easy to forget just how brutalising physical labour can be. As a former soldier and merchant seaman, Hanley never did. His novels often centred around individuals and small groups trapped by circumstances, and driven to extremes. I interviewed him shortly before his death: a polite, modest and pugnacious man who declared himself obsessively fascinated by those deemed inarticulate, yet whose inner worlds were, in his words, "like great forests or endless seas". Overwrought at times, Boy remains unforgettable; and the meek have yet to inherit the earth.

The second novel is really very good: David Hewson, Dante’s Numbers (2008). It appears that we have a Da Vinci Code takeoff from the title, but this is not really the case. It is much less pretentious, much more ironic, and very much better written that the Great Brown. I give it an 8/10, I think, just short of a “best read”. Perhaps it falls short because I have also been reading Jesse Kellerman’s quite outstanding novel, which I reviewed here yesterday.

You may see what another reader thought here.

In my mind Dante’s Numbers is action-packed suspense at its most intelligent. By transplanting Nic Costa and his fellow Italian detectives into the dizzying world of Hitchock’s ‘Vertigo’ in San Francisco the author is able to juxtapose the US and Italy. This makes for some fascinating plot and character developments.

The absence of clichéd police officers is to be highly commended. Although pathologist Teresa Lupo is a light-hearted character, she doesn’t hang around making horrible jokes. All four of the main characters are thoroughly plausible human beings.

There is a great author blog too: davidhewson.com.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, writers

 

Quote of the week, and book reviews 1

The quote of the week comes from the best of this week’s three books, The Brutal Art by Jesse Kellerman (2008).

I’ll end as I began: with a confession. I am not now, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be, a genius. Odds are, neither are you. I feel obligated to point this out, both because it has taken me a while to understand my own limitations and because these days we’ve gotten the idea into our heads that every person has infinite potential. The briefest spell of sober reflection reveals this to be a gentle lie, designed to cradle those with low self-esteem.

Ordinariness is nothing to be ashamed of. It carries no moral weight. I don’t believe that geniuses are worth more in some cosmic Blue Book. They are worthy of more attention, of course, because they’re so rare – one in a million, or rarer. What that means for the rest of us is that someone has to be the first of the remaining 999.999 souls; and the higher up you are, the closer you are to the genius’s vantage point.

To pursue that – to clamber up – to stretch out fingertips in the hopes of grazing the surface – can you imagine a more uniquely modern aspiration? A better metaphor for our oversaturated era than the desire to be president of the fan club? The hero for the age is Boswell…

Bit of a genius himself is Kellerman, and yes a US writer. The Guardian preview notes:

Faye and Jonathan Kellerman are both bestselling thriller writers, but it seems that their greatest contribution to the genre could be their son, Jesse, whose latest psychological drama is as startlingly original as his first two. This author, already an award-winning playwright, has no need of blood and bullets to build tension; he knows exactly which buttons to push to keep readers anxiously engaged – even when the plot apparently involves nothing more sinister than a New York art gallery owner, Ethan Muller, who discovers a cache of brilliant but disturbing drawings by a mysterious artist who has since disappeared. Kellerman writes with grace and style, and shows nimble creative footwork when long-buried secrets about Ethan’s own family begin to break through the fictions carefully constructed by people who want the past to remain somewhere else.

“An essential read for all, The Brutal Art is the best thriller I’ve read in years.” That’s Civilian Reader’s view. I would agree. Definitely a best read of 2009.

From Jesse Kellerman’s site (linked above):

Who are some of your favorite writers?

This is a very partial list that follows no particular order.

My parents
Vladimir Nabokov
Stephen King
Evelyn Waugh
Jim Thompson
Ruth Rendell
Elmore Leonard
John Fowles
Kurt Vonnegut
David Mamet
David Ives
Sam Shepard
Graham Greene
Samuel Beckett
Tom Wolfe
Richard Dawkins
Both the Bible and the Bab

Two more book reviews to come…

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2009 in America, Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, USA, writers

 

Friday intellectual spot 2

Not all that intellectual today, but two items of interest from the recent Arts & Letters Daily selections.

The first I immediately thought was another reactionary rant on its subject, but closer examination shows it is better than that. I was put off by the A&L’s intro:

Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. All in the name of progress… more»

Much better than that would lead you to expect. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.

The second is from The Atlantic Monthly: The End of White America? by Hua Hsu.

"Civilization’s going to pieces,” he remarks. He is in polite company, gathered with friends around a bottle of wine in the late-afternoon sun, chatting and gossiping. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?” They hadn’t. “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

He is Tom Buchanan, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book that nearly everyone who passes through the American education system is compelled to read at least once. Although Gatsby doesn’t gloss as a book on racial anxiety—it’s too busy exploring a different set of anxieties entirely—Buchanan was hardly alone in feeling besieged. The book by “this man Goddard” had a real-world analogue: Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920, five years before Gatsby. Nine decades later, Stoddard’s polemic remains oddly engrossing. He refers to World War I as the “White Civil War” and laments the “cycle of ruin” that may result if the “white world” continues its infighting. The book features a series of foldout maps depicting the distribution of “color” throughout the world and warns, “Colored migration is a universal peril, menacing every part of the white world.”

As briefs for racial supremacy go, The Rising Tide of Color is eerily serene. Its tone is scholarly and gentlemanly, its hatred rationalized and, in Buchanan’s term, “scientific.” And the book was hardly a fringe phenomenon. It was published by Scribner, also Fitzgerald’s publisher, and Stoddard, who received a doctorate in history from Harvard, was a member of many professional academic associations. It was precisely the kind of book that a 1920s man of Buchanan’s profile—wealthy, Ivy League–educated, at once pretentious and intellectually insecure—might have been expected to bring up in casual conversation.

As white men of comfort and privilege living in an age of limited social mobility, of course, Stoddard and the Buchanans in his audience had nothing literal to fear. Their sense of dread hovered somewhere above the concerns of everyday life. It was linked less to any immediate danger to their class’s political and cultural power than to the perceived fraying of the fixed, monolithic identity of whiteness that sewed together the fortunes of the fair-skinned.

From the hysteria over Eastern European immigration to the vibrant cultural miscegenation of the Harlem Renaissance, it is easy to see how this imagined worldwide white kinship might have seemed imperiled in the 1920s. There’s no better example of the era’s insecurities than the 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, in which an Indian American veteran of World War I sought to become a naturalized citizen by proving that he was Caucasian. The Court considered new anthropological studies that expanded the definition of the Caucasian race to include Indians, and the justices even agreed that traces of “Aryan blood” coursed through Thind’s body. But these technicalities availed him little. The Court determined that Thind was not white “in accordance with the understanding of the common man” and therefore could be excluded from the “statutory category” of whiteness. Put another way: Thind was white, in that he was Caucasian and even Aryan. But he was not white in the way Stoddard or Buchanan were white.

The ’20s debate over the definition of whiteness—a legal category? a commonsense understanding? a worldwide civilization?—took place in a society gripped by an acute sense of racial paranoia, and it is easy to regard these episodes as evidence of how far we have come. But consider that these anxieties surfaced when whiteness was synonymous with the American mainstream, when threats to its status were largely imaginary. What happens once this is no longer the case—when the fears of Lothrop Stoddard and Tom Buchanan are realized, and white people actually become an American minority? ….

Do make sure you read on. It becomes even more interesting, and it is very relevant to our thinking here in Australia, despite its US emphasis, and to our own past. In fact I’ve PDFed it too: Hua Hsu article. Of course there are major differences between the US and Australian experiences, but there is common ground in some of the thinking Hua Hsu alludes to.

Putting both articles together, you might say a 21st century Tom Buchanan would be running an ultra-Right blog! 😉

The relevance to our own past? See earlier entries here: That hypothetical Year 10 lesson on “White Australia” and Updating that hypothetical Year 10 lesson on "White Australia". My contention would be that in the context of the time, given what was “normal” thinking in much of the Anglophone world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it would have been very surprising if Australia hadn’t had a “White Australia Policy”. We don’t have to agonise about it, because we have moved on since then. Sadly, not everyone has moved on, as we know, but generally speaking there has been a lot of progress, especially here in Australia.

It doesn’t hurt our international reputation though to be frank about our own past, while equally assertive about the progress that has been made; I’d go further and claim it is very desirable so to do, setting an excellent example to others less honest about their chequered pasts. That’s why I don’t accept Keith Windschuttle’s special pleading on the subject. Our White Australia Policy was indisputably racist, whatever else it may have been – protective of labour, concerned with Empire and with internal social cohesion, inspired by distance and vulnerability, and so on – all part of the mix too. But it is really not surprising that racist thinking shaped much of the rhetoric at the time.

Jim Belshaw and I have thrashed this one out several times in the past, as visiting those two posts will show. 🙂

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday intellectual spot 1

Here you will see some real thought because I have not written what I post in these spots. Sometimes I will harvest something from the Arts & Letters Daily, which is very good even if it favours the Right somewhat, but it does seek a degree of balance and almost always offers at least one post per day that is worth a look. 3 Quarks Daily is also an excellent source, but I have that in my Google Reader picks. The poems on 3 Quarks Daily are especially good. They always feature in my Google Reader.

Today it’s from New Yorker.

…This rejection of inwardness, so constant in Arendt’s work, from “Rahel Varnhagen” on, is the key to what is most valuable in her legacy, and also what is most questionable. No one has argued more forcefully than Arendt that to deprive human beings of their public, political identity is to deprive them of their humanity—and not just metaphorically. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” she points out that the first step in the Nazis’ destruction of the Jews was to make them stateless, in the knowledge that people with no stake in a political community have no claim on the protection of its laws.

This is the insight that makes Arendt a thinker for our time, when failed states have again and again become the settings for mass murder. She reveals with remorseless logic why emotional appeals to “human rights” or “the international community” so often prove impotent in the face of a humanitarian crisis. “The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments,” she writes in “Origins,” “but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.” This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and what is happening now in Darfur. Genocide is a political problem, Arendt insists, and it can be solved only politically.

Yet the supreme value that Arendt places on individual pride and aristocratic distance, on intellect and excellence, also sharply restricts the human understanding that must be the basis for any confrontation with political evil, especially the evil of the Holocaust. Too much of life and too many kinds of people are excluded from Arendt’s sympathy, which she could freely give only to those as strong as she was. If, as she wrote, “it is the desire to excel which makes men love the world,” then our love for the world actually makes it harder for us to love the people who inhabit it. This is the dilemma that runs through all Arendt’s writing, demonstrating that what she observed about Marx is true of her as well: “Such fundamental and flagrant contradictions rarely occur in second-rate writers; in the work of the great authors they lead into the very center of their work.”

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2009 in faith and philosophy, Holocaust, human rights, humanity, intellectual spot, magazines, politics, writers

 

But I have been reading comics…

… or rather a “graphic novel”. Now I have long since got over snobbery about this format, even since Maus and its sequels. That old “quality” thing can be found here as much as anywhere else. Yesterday I borrowed Freddie & Me (2008) by UK-born (1975!) artist-writer Mike Dawson, now in the USA. I have finished it already and will read it again, so delightful I found it. To quote the review linked to the book title:

Mike Dawson’s graphic memoir, FREDDIE & ME, is structured after the Queen song "Bohemian Rhapsody", and his approach to comics bears a lot of resemblance to his favorite band in more than just that overarching structure. Like Queen, Dawson’s debut long-form work is ambitious, bombastic, all-over-the-place, larger-than-life, quirky, clever, self-indulgent and ultimately irresistible…

That said, FREDDIE AND ME isn’t about Queen. We learn almost nothing about the band that wasn’t common knowledge, nor is Dawson really interested in pursuing that line of inquiry. Instead, it’s a book about memory mediated through a common reference point. The story’s central conceit is that every significant memory of Dawson’s is connected somehow to Queen. The reality is that this connection, as he notes in the end, Dawson created those connections, perhaps in part as an anchor for the memories that were most important to him. For Dawson, memory and identity are one and the same, and the loss of the former leads to the loss of the latter, and loss of identity is oblivion.

The sequence about one-third in about memory is really quite haunting; it certainly hooked me.

The style? Here, if Mike Dawson will forgive the appropriation, is one small example:

 fre2

I do commend this, so much that I am adding it to my Best Reads of 2008.

You may read more here.

A good supplementary text for anyone doing the NSW HSC’s “Belonging” module too, I would have thought…

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, humanity, humour, reading, Scottish, USA, writers, writing

 

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

 

Australian poem 2008 series #21: Adam Aitken

Here, for a change, is a poet I actually know. I first became aware of Adam Aitken when I was editing Neos back in the early 1980s; I subsequently met him on a number of occasions.  The poem which follows is from Adam’s excellent blog ADAM IN CAMBODIA. Adam is of Thai/Anglo-Australian parentage. He was born in 1960.

The fig tree is neither in Cambodia nor Thailand, but in the front courtyard here in Surry Hills.

 

elizabeth4 004

 

The Diary of Louis De Carné. Louis de Carné’s Travels in Indo-China and the Chinese Empire describes the work of the Colonial French Mekong Exploration Commission (1886 -1888). It is a mix of travel diary and a trade report, and a guide French colonial policy in Indochina. De Carné predicted that India would one day fall into the hands of the Australians. He considered Indochina’s climate too enervating for whites, and describe Annam (Vietnam) as a “counting house”. In his introduction, De Carné wrote: “by a kind of natural law, which one can hardly admit without sadness, there is scarcely an alternative, for races outside European civilisation, between a melancholy transformation, or a remorseless extinction.” For the English translation, see Travels on the Mekong, Cambodia, Laos and Yunnan, White Lotus, Bangkok 2000. — Adam Aitken

Louis De Carne’s Diary

Stunned by the noise of the waters we reached Khemarat
where M. Delaporte awaited us.
Nothing could express the horror
of the petty mandarins, the imbecile governor,
and the yellow waters twisting through a narrow pass,
a child of seven smoking a cheroot,
or the site of a prisoner impaled by the tusks
of an elephant.
The light a deadly shade, the forest a blacker hue of green,
the boat shaped serpent-like, whirlpools we could not see.
The river all tributary – no one knew or cared
for the source or predominant
direction of its flow, a river unfit
for commercial intercourse.

Man had fled its banks, an abyss on both sides.
I was hot, too hot after my ramble
through an expanse of fetid mud.
I wondered what economic utility
Parisians might find in a lake full of fish
(how to get them to Paris?)

But I could write all night in my tent
cobwebbed in ennui and
sucking on the leg bone of an iguana,
or recline under the implacable serenity of the heavens,
the all powerful constraints
of influences so fatal to human personality,
that thought dies away by degrees
like a flame in a vacuum.
At least I knew there were guards
(of vagabond stock, with the timid air of the aborigine)
whom I barely trusted
posted around the perimeter.

 

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Moving post from gay ex-Marine

Earlier this month I reviewed Code of Conduct by Rich Merritt. I have to confess I put the book on one side and have only just finished it, after extending my library loan. I still have some reservations about some of the plot devices and dialogue, but it really is a very powerful and important story nonetheless, and offers considerable insight into US military life — quite different in many respects from the Australian version — and into US conservatism.

Just yesterday I highlighted a post on Rich Merritt’s blog in my new blog collector in the side bar. It is a post I don’t want you to miss, and so important to the writer that he came out of blog hiatus to write it:

10 years ago this month I resigned from the United States Marine Corps as a captain after thirteen years of service, receiving an honorable discharge…

In 2000 I voted for John McCain for President in the republican primary. I believed that as a former military man and POW, he understood my beliefs even more strongly than I did.

I was wrong.  At some point in the last thirty-five years John McCain lost his way.

Since 9/11, one-by-one John McCain has violated many of the beliefs I expressed above by supporting the George Bush administration’s assault on our liberties. A once honorable man has been corrupted by his ambition to be President, no matter what former “principles” he must sacrifice to reach that ultimate goal.

Barak Obama may not have the experience to be President but over 18,000,000 of my countrymen and women believe that he has. That’s how democracy works. And now Barak Obama is our last, best hope to resurrect this nation, a land I love so much that I was willing to sacrifice my life to protect its values.

With this posting I’ve broken my personal vow not write about politics. (I’ve also come out of a blog hiatus into which I will quickly and gladly retreat.) I believe this election is the most important at least since 1932. And as an optimist, I believe that we will do the right thing.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2008 in America, current affairs, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, politics, USA, writers