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Any ordinary day, in Sales’s book (2018), is the day when something terrible happens to you, to someone you love, or even to strangers who are part of your broader community. After her own brush with death during pregnancy, she began thinking more deeply about how we come to terms with the fact that life can ‘blindside us in an instant’. How do we cope if it does happen? What responsibility do we have to people caught up in some terrible tragedy? And what does this tell us about how we should live?

To try and answer these questions, Sales interviews people who have experienced unexpected loss or trauma, often in a very public way. She talks to them about ‘the shock, the grief, the media intrusion, the community reaction, the struggle to keep going.’ Among the interviewees are a survivor of the Lindt Café siege, the sole survivor of the Thredbo landside disaster, a man rescued after being lost for 43 days in the Himalayas, a man who lost his family in the Port Arthur massacre, and a woman whose husband was murdered by his mentally ill son. She talks to them about how they coped in the immediate aftermath and in the longer term. She finds they had a range of strategies, such as ‘locking away’ memories of lost loved ones, working actively for change like gun control, and creating a practical memorial to the lost ones, like a charitable foundation. Some of her interviewees said their Christian faith was strengthened by their ordeal, though most did not profess any religious belief. Sales also talked with some of the people who offer help in crisis situations, including a detective, a priest and social workers. One of the worst things, one of the interviewees told her, was being shunned by people too embarrassed to offer comfort: ‘You could sort of understand, but by the same token it’s another part of loss.’ Sales concludes that just being there, accompanying rather than actively intervening, is the best form of comfort.

Sales also surveys some of the academic literature around these questions, and this gives context to her interviews. She is interested in finding out why the public is so interested in these stories, in questions of probability – ‘it could have been me’ –, in the incidence of coincidence, in the idea that things are ‘meant’ to happen and the human brain’s the need for predictability. She questions why Australians are sometimes more fearful of things that are very unlikely to happen, and over which they have no control, than of things like behaviour leading to ill health which are much more likely and are within our control. She finds the literature on such issues crosses philosophy, mathematics, law, religion and psychology. She finds, for example, from the relevant statistics, that the likelihood of Louisa Hope, the survivor of the Lindt Café siege being both diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a serious blow she was already having to cope with, and experiencing the siege, were one in 1.39 billion. But it is really the individual’s response to their situation that she is more interested in.

In the book, which is written in the first person, Sales also talks about her personal and professional response to tragedy. She reveals her own insecurities about and emotional reactions to disasters she has reported on. She admits to making some mistakes, mostly arising from insensitivity. But she considers that ‘asking the questions everybody secretly thinks about’ is part of her brief in writing the book. She notes that the media has a huge responsibility when reporting on disasters, as it has ‘enormous impact on our sense of personal security and our collective ability to recover’. She also looks at the ways in which the media can intrude on survivors, and based on a study of press interactions with survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, suggests that despite some lapses, most journalist reported in good faith, the interviewees mostly having positive interactions with the media. She also defends the right of journalists to probe survivors’ stories, though acknowledging that ‘maximum public interest and therefore maximum media harassment coincide with peak vulnerability of the people involved.’ I would probably judge they get it right rather less often than Sales thinks they do.

Overall Sales feels that the responses of her interviewees are ‘life affirming’, and I have to agree that their reaction to tragedy is a tribute to human resilience. I couldn’t help noting, however, that there is only one example of a failure to cope in the book. The coroner found that Private Jake Kovko had died when he accidently shot himself in Afghanistan; his mother has never accepted this verdict. Naturally, Sales could hardly interview her. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to interview anyone whose life was in tatters because something terrible had happened to them. But if the stories of those who do cope are life affirming, does this mean that those who don’t are somehow weaker? Sales might have acknowledged that there is a large element of luck in who gets the necessary support, who has the family backing or the financial means to move on from tragedy. The book is a bit unbalanced without this.

You can read a little more about Leigh Sales, her journalism and her other books here.  Or you could simply watch her on the ABC’s 7.30 program each weekday evening.

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This book, published in 2016, has an intriguing title. It is a French phrase used to describe twilight, where shapes become indistinct and it is impossible to tell the difference between a wolf and a dog. This makes it an uncertain and potentially dangerous time, and it is such a time that Blain chronicles in the lives of the major characters in this book.

The story, which is set mainly in Sydney, takes place on one day and concerns the interplay of the lives of three members of a family and one ex-member.  There are also flashbacks to some of the events that have brought them to where they are. Hilary, widow of a well-known painter and a film maker in her own right, has two daughters, Ester, a family therapist and April, a singer. The fourth member of the cast is Lawrence, a pollster, Ester’s ex-husband and father of her twin daughters. All of them are on the cusp of change, though not necessarily for the better. Hilary has cancer, though she hasn’t told her daughters. They are estranged from each other for reasons that become clear in the story. Ester might be about to start a new relationship, April to find some direction in her career. Lawrence might well be facing professional disgrace (and is definitely facing the impact of technological change on political polling. I was interested to note that this reflects reality; polling methods did change to robo polling about this time. Small irony: one section of the story turns on Ester not answering the phone because she thinks it might be a robo-poll.) The narrative is taken up by each of the characters in turn, but such is Blain’s skill that the end of one chapter seems to slide into the next, like one scene of a film dissolving into the next, as one critic has perceptively noted. True to its title, the story does not fully resolve any of their dilemmas with complete clarity, though some of the outlines are clear and others becoming more so.

The theme of shifting perceptions – maybe wolf, maybe dog – is strong throughout. The interplay of past and present is a shifting boundary. Of Hilary’s film she thinks ‘Yes, it is about death, but it is also about living – about what we cling to and what we relinquish – about how we remember.’ Ester’s professional consultations which occur throughout the day and give the story structure are also an interplay not just between psychologist and client but also between experience and the memory of it. The characters themselves are in flux. Is Lawrence really, as Ester claims, in love with the power of lying and cheating? ‘That’s what Lawrence does,’ he thinks; ‘he lies, he cheats, and he fucks up.’ But now he has lost all sense of himself: ‘he doesn’t know what wants …or what it was he desired. It’s all shifting, and he is seasick with the motion …’ Can he redeem himself, crossing back where he can be trusted?

Liminality is also inherent in the descriptions of time and place in the story. The day in Sydney is rainy; rain on glass reflects and distorts. Lawrence ‘sees himself reflected in the rain-streaked window and flinches.’ It’s still day, but ‘it’s so bloody dark and miserable outside it might as well be night’ says April. Yet the rain can also make things beautiful: Hilary, looking at the wet plants in her garden, thinks ‘The world is a place of wonder’. At the climax of the book it is twilight. ‘It is that hour’, thinks Hilary ‘Where day turns to night.’ And ‘the daylight slides away’. Metaphors reflecting the duality expressed in the title abound throughout the book.

It might be possible to argue that the problems of the characters are of the kind designated ‘First World’ problems. Blain is aware of this; Ester remembers that Lawrence says that as a therapist she ‘pedalled false hopes to a spoilt middle class. She handed out security blankets to children who should just grow up.’ It is ironic that this sentiment comes from Lawrence, who has clearly never grown up. But the story is about growing up. And the pain that Ester as a therapist and all characters in their lives deal with is real, and the issues of love, regret, aging and death are universal, even if most of the characters are solidly middle class.

When I read this book, I did not know that when it was in the manuscript stage in 2015, Blain was diagnosed with a brain tumour similar to the cancer that Hilary is suffering from in the book. Blain died thirteen months later in December 2016. As Kerryn Goldsworthy notes in her thoughtful review in the Sydney Review of Books, ‘It was difficult to read the book through any lens other than a sympathetic awareness of the situation’s terrible irony, and almost impossible, though most reviewers at the time tried honourably hard, to read the book purely as a work of fiction on its own terms, something separate from the fate of its author.’ I was fortunate to be able to read it unencumbered by this knowledge, and thought long before I included mention of her death in this review. I did so because I think the knowledge of it does add depth to an already complex and subtle story.

You can read more about Georgia Blain here. This was Blain’s eighth novel and second to last book. Her final one was a memoir, The Museum of Words, which was written during her treatment for cancer; it is reviewed here, again in the Sydney Review of Books.

  1. There’s one passage – among others- that struck me as particularly relevant to someone of my age. It is an illustration of Hilary’s concern about what we remember and what we forget. She acknowledges that her grandchildren will miss her ‘for a while’. ‘And then life will go on, and I will be someone they remember occasionally, with fondness, but with no real substance to the recollection. And that’s the way it should be … And then there’s a fainter imprint left behind, a period in which you are remembered. After that you are gone.’ How important it is to have someone say this.

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I came to read this book – subtitled The Present and the Future of the World (2018) – by accident. The book my sister intended to give me for Christmas is the one that Frankopan wrote immediately before this one: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015). This much longer book turns away from the Eurocentric view of history we are familiar with, and begins with the rise of the Persian Empire, taking the Caspian Sea, rather than the Mediterranean as its centre. The silk roads of the title are the arteries – networks rather than actual roads – along which people, goods, ideas, religions, disease and many other things have flowed between China and the west. The book chronicles the history of the peoples who migrated, traded and fought across central Asia for centuries before the rise of the west.

The book I did read – The New Silk Roads – follows on from where The Silk Roads ended. In that book Frankopan described how the Silk Roads are rising in importance. In this book, he follows that rise from 2015 -2018. He writes in his introduction that it is not possible to make sense of what is happening today – including Brexit in Europe and Trump in the US – without taking the region lying between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific into account. More and more, he says, decisions that will shape the future of the world are being made in Beijing and Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh, Kabul and Ankara rather than Paris, London, Berlin, Rome or even Washington.

The main reason for this shift in the balance of world power, he argues, is the growing wealth of the east. This in turn is being fostered by the development of a web of economic, political and cultural interconnections between states – like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, or Kazakhstan – that might on their own wield little power on the world stage, states that are middle powers but rising in importance like India and Iran, major players like Russia, and above all, China, the emergent super power. Discussion of its ‘Belt and Road’ strategy to foster infrastructure like roads, ports, airports, energy plants and pipelines by lending money to countries close by, but also as far away as Africa, is central to the book. China needs the resources of these countries; they need her development assistance.

While ‘the story across large parts of the region … has been about consolidation and trying to find ways to collaborate more effectively’, the story of the west on the other hand has been one of ‘isolation and fragmentation,’ of ‘separation, the re-erection of barriers and ‘taking back control’’ – as seen not only in Brexit, but also in the rise of anti-globalist parties in central Europe.  He argues that President Trump’s incoherent foreign policy has only exacerbated the decline of American power in the world; he is particularly critical of the tariff war Trump is trying to wage against China, and his application of sanctions against Iran, both of which, he says, only encourage other countries into China’s orbit. ‘While Beijing has been busy trying to find partners in all places at all times, it is striking then to see how few friends the US and the west have along the Silk Roads.’

China’s expansion hasn’t all been plain sailing – ‘because of strategic rivalries, competition for resources and personality clashes between leaders who might be described as charismatic visionaries by their supporters and as having autocratic tendencies by their critics’. There are territorial tensions between many of these new players, like India and Pakistan, and Russia and Turkey, and Russia and China herself. There are also questions about the level of debt that some countries have entered into, with fears that it may inhibit development rather than fostering it. In some of these countries, the new wealth is going only to a few, fuelling discontent among the rest. Frankopan makes it clear, however, that few if any of the countries he is writing about are concerned about civil rights; they will savagely repress any internal opposition. Western style liberal democracy is not an option. But this will not hinder the rise of the Silk Roads.

Strangely for a book about this region, there is no mention of Islam, or any other religion. And I could have done with a map. Frankopan gives a nod in passing to the realities of climate change and the challenges of sustainable development but does not explore their implications for this region in any detail, even though access to water resources is likely to be an international flash point in the region as the climate changes. He clearly doesn’t see the demand for oil rapidly diminishing; any substantial decline would affect the strategic clout of countries like Saudi Arabia, but this isn’t mentioned. In terms of structure and argument, the book, described by one critic as ‘highly discursive and free-flowing’, suffers from a sense that it has been put together in haste, as if Frankopan has asked his research assistants to collect every reference they could find to the Silk Road countries, then thrown them all together.  But this doesn’t stop his major themes from emerging very clearly.

Western leaders, including Australia’s, should be very concerned, as they appear to have no viable response to this changing world. For example, at a time when China is investing in nations in the Pacific, the current Australian government has over the past five years drastically slashed foreign aid and is only now – probably too late – beginning to realise its mistake . The aid to the Pacific in the current budget, which experts say is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, is to fund an underwater communications cable – which would otherwise be funded by China.

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he is also Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He works on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East, Persia/Iran, Central Asia and beyond, and on relations between Christianity and Islam. You can check out his website here. I’m going to make sure I read the 2015 book as well.

 

 

 

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Published in 2017, this book deservedly won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Quite randomly, a character in the book wins a Pulitzer Prize. ‘It’s not Pew-lit-sir’, he says. ‘It’s Pull-it-sir’. That’s an in joke. Perhaps if you want to be deeply moved or challenged it’s not the book for you. But if you want to forget for a while the awfulness of things, you’ll love it.

Arthur Less is a middle aged, middle brow writer. He lived for a number of years with Robert Brownburn, doyen of the Russian River School of writers in California; he’s the one that wins a Pulitzer. (The Russian River Writers Guild is real; Robert sounds a bit like the ‘beat’ writer Alan Ginsberg.)  Arthur has more recently been living with Freddy, but they have split up, and Freddy is about marry someone else. Though he is of course invited, Arthur cannot bear the thought of being anywhere near the wedding, so he accepts a swag of invitations that will take him overseas – to a teaching post, a conference, a travel article, anything … He plans to spend time in Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India and Japan. What could possibly go wrong? The book is the story of his travels, with flashbacks to earlier events; it is also an exploration of getting older, and what it means to love.

Arthur’s surname, Less, is an aptronym, a personal name aptly or peculiarly suited to its owner; think of Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind. Less is – or at least he feels he is – less of a writer, less of a person, less loveable than other people. He is, he says, ‘Nobody’.  When his most recently published book is praised in Italy – having been largely ignored in the United States – he thinks it must be because the translator ‘worked his mediocre English into breathtaking Italian’. Believing he must have been mistaken for someone else and is in the wrong car, he ‘readies himself for full mortification’. Asked to read from the book in Germany, he thinks he is being set up for a ‘writerly humiliation planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.’ In France, criticism from another writer leads him to think not just that he is ‘a bad writer … a bad lover, a bad friend, a bad son. Apparently the condition is worse. He is bad at being himself’. In India, he thinks ‘What an ass he is, everywhere he goes.’

The book is suffused with a gentle, wry humour. Often this arises when things go wrong. He’s (naturally) lost his luggage; ‘he is well acquainted with humility. It is one piece of luggage he has not lost’. What he has lost ‘will circle the globe to no purpose, like so many travellers.’ Sometimes it is because of the disjunction between Less’s catastrophizing and what actually happens; when, for example ‘life has pardoned him at the scaffold steps’.  And sometimes it’s just in the writer’s understated observations, as in ‘the restaurant … is very old and water stained in ways that would delight a painter and trouble a contractor’.

Less’s most recent manuscript has been rejected by his publisher, and one of his hopes for the journey is that he can somehow fix it up at a writers’ retreat in India. This doesn’t happen quite as he hoped, but he does get to revise it. His agent says it is ‘Too wistful. Too poignant.’ Arthur realises ‘with a joy bordering on sadism’ that he can ‘deglove every humiliation’ of his character ‘to show it’s risible lining’. And ‘somehow bittersweet longing begins to appear in the novel … It changes, grows kinder … our benevolent god grants his character the brief benediction of joy.’ ‘If only one could do this in real life!’ And this is exactly what Greer does for Less.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator saying: ‘From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad’. And Greer gives him some victories. Another character says to him ‘You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool, you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won.’ Arthur’s response is of course that he doesn’t feel victorious, he feels defeated. But he isn’t, in fact, the terrible, undeserving person he thinks he is. We know he is a good person from the narrator, who seems to have an overview of Less’s life. I didn’t think much about this narrator at the beginning; it was as if it was just Greer writing about Less. But as the story goes on and Greer inserts the narrator more and more, he or she takes a bigger and finally crucial role. I didn’t guess who he or she was until almost the end of the book, though looking back there are clues there for the more astute reader. These post-modern conceits might in less sure hands – pun intended – have been annoying, but here I think they work very well. As the narrator says, it is a love story.

You can read more about the author and his other five books – four novels and a book of short stories – on his website.

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Being Mortal (2014) is a blend of memoir, research and comment, with a number of case studies which Gawande uses to make his point. The book’s subtitle, Illness, Medicine and What Happens in the End is a useful summary of the contents of the book but doesn’t give any clue to the emotional weight it carries, dealing as it does with death – which in this context is inevitably a reminder of one’s own death.

Gawande bases the book partly on his own experience as a surgeon. He says he learned little about aging or death in his medical course; learning how to deal with the problems of old age and dying had to be learnt first by experience and then by personal research. Thus he also draws on his experience as a son, and son-in-law. His parents, both medical doctors, migrated to America from India, so he never knew his grandparents. The first old person he really came to know was his wife’s grandmother, Alice. Over the course of the book, both Alice and his father get sick and die. This lived experience on his part adds considerable emotional depth to what otherwise might have been a colder, technical discussion.

Gawande is concerned with two related issues: the institutionalisation of the aged, and the medicalisation of death. He understands why families are no longer willing or able to look after their aging relatives, and indeed why aging relatives often seek independence from their children. But he abhors the regimentation many institutions impose on old people, supposedly for their own safety but often for institutional convenience; it saps purpose and hope from old people’s lives. Through several case studies, including that of Alice, he looks at some of the attempts to humanise institutions or find alternatives to institutional care, such as assisted living facilities. This latter was an attempt to meet the needs of old people for independence, rather than subjecting them to regimentation, even if it kept them safe. Though initially successful, he admits that with the proliferation of assisted living facilities, the concept has been weakened, and regimentation, being cheaper, has crept back in.

But no matter how independent old people are able to be, there comes a time when illness, or failing health due to old age, shunt us into the medical system. Where once people died at home, without much medical intervention, they now (at least in the Western world) mostly die in hospital after sometimes lengthy medical intervention has run its course. At what point is hospital necessary? And more importantly, how should doctors treat people who are near death but not yet terminal? This is perhaps even more of a problem for younger people with terminal diseases than for older people, as one of Gawande’s case studies shows. He argues that doctors are trained to solve medical problems, so favour treatment options which may prolong life, even if they reduce quality of life. He considers that medical professionals are very good at offering options for treatment, but very bad at explaining to patients and their families the options for not treating. He acknowledges it can be very difficult to decide when treatment does not offer reasonable hope. Even when patients have specified they don’t want to be resuscitated, the decision to withdraw treatment can be difficult and relatives often press doctors for further procedures against the patient’s wishes, such is the faith in medical science.

While he does not suggest there are easy solutions to such dilemmas, Gawande, from his own experience and research, advocates home hospice care for people who are terminally ill. Hospice care – called palliative care in Australia –  involves provision of pain relief or other medication to ease suffering, but not usually other forms of treatment. But the first step is to find out what the patient really wants, which in turn involves talking about their death. What is important to them? Is being with family and friends more important than living a little longer in hospital? Gawande touches briefly on euthanasia, which is legal in three American states, concluding that while people are comforted by knowing it is available, few use it. He clearly prefers the home hospice alternative, and studies have shown that people may in fact live longer using it than they would have in hospital. His case studies, however, including that of his father, show that no option works smoothly, without pain to the patient or their relatives and friends.

I noted that all the case studies Gawande uses are of people with loving families or concerned friends. Spouses are willing to help their terminally ill partners with daily routines and to make accommodations to all their needs. But what of those without such support of whom there must be many? Furthermore, few people can afford to pay for the personal home care old and frail people require. Institutional care may be their only option. It is not clear in the book how care or treatment is paid for. Most of the forms of care Gawande describes are private, though some appear to be state-subsidised. Indeed, how Gawande has dealt with funding is the only issue on which his book disappointed me. He does acknowledge that being well off means being able to afford better care both in terms of accommodation and medical treatment. But the vast discrepancy in health care between the rich and the poor in America is not discussed, and nor is the growing disparity between the life expectancy of rich and poor Americans.

Gawande’s plea that we think about our own deaths, and discuss our wishes with family and friends is relevant to everyone. But it is particularly relevant to older people like me. I found Gawande’s perfectly correct insistence that old people get ill and die a bit depressing, though challenging. Would what seems like common sense – that quality of life and imminent death are preferable to longer life but extended suffering – look the same when the choice has to be made? But there is also hope in the book that we can retain our right to choose the best death possible.

You can read more about Gawande’s writing, surgery and research here on his web-site.

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The full title of Don Watson’s The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia (2014) is truly revealing of all the questions he asks in this book. First there is the matter of ‘the bush’ itself, which Watson shows can mean anything from not-the-city, through landscapes such as scrub, grassland, mallee, rainforest or any specific remnant of the pre-European countryside. The nature of Watson’s ‘bush’ is in the eye of the beholder; it is a cultural creation. Then there is the sub-title, which is both literally and metaphorically accurate. Watson travels throughout Australia – inland, into its heart – visiting people and places and telling their stories. But the book is also a journey in the sense of an exploration of people’s different cultural understandings – both past and present – of the bush, of the values that it encapsulates and their place – for better or worse – at the heart of Australian society today.

This is not a ‘start at the beginning and go on to the end’ book. As Watson says, ‘Readers will soon find this story straying all over the place, as the bush does, as I did’. It does start with Watson’s childhood on a dairy farm in East Gippsland, and ends with him living at Mt Macedon, an hour out of Melbourne. But in between, each chapter is to a degree random – swagmen here, pesticides there, and Major Mitchell thrown in for good measure. But there are themes running throughout which give shape and form to Watson’s meditation. These, addressed in no particular order, include the Aboriginal relationship with the bush before European invasion, Aboriginal dispossession – there seems to be reference to a massacre in nearly every chapter- European attitudes to the bush, the struggles of settlers, the degradation of the land by farming and pastoralism and the hold the bush has over Australians’ idea of themselves.

Watson is remarkably fair in his discussion of these themes. Perhaps because of his own rural background, he understands the pride settlers took in ‘civilising’ the bush and making it productive in European terms. ‘Good human lives were lived where the forest had been, enterprise was rewarded, the fellowship of men and women flourished, history was recorded. The bush we know would not exist if we had not cut it down.’ On the other hand, he is fully aware of the costs this enterprise had for Aboriginal people, for the plants, birds and animals, both native and introduced, that were destroyed along the way and the ultimate environmental damage white settlement has caused. He recognises all the good and socially useful values fostered by life in the country, but is equally aware of the narrow, anti-intellectual cast of mind it also produced. He talks about some of the attempts to reverse the degradation of the land, as well as the foolish rejection of expert advice about the effects of a warming climate. And he is fully aware, as anyone reading this book must be, that the civilised benefits we now enjoy were made possible by the destruction of Aboriginal society and the natural environment. ‘In the plainest terms,’ he writes, Australians would not be who they are – and would not know themselves – if they had not fought the war with nature. The same is true of the war fought with Aborigines’. All the while reading the book I felt the truth of this; my own ancestors were among those clearing – or destroying – the bush, the creatures, and quite possibly the people – who had lived there.

The sense of melancholy versus the sense of optimism which the book engenders feeds into the dispute between the left and right of politics about what are Australia’s central values. This dispute, commonly known as the ‘history wars’, involves an argument over whether Australia’s history post colonisation offers a bleak vision of destruction of people and environment, as opposed to a triumphalist one of successful white settlement. Watson addresses the central issue in this war; that of national identity. He looks at the ‘Australian Legend’, the idea that the virtues of mateship, solidarity, egalitarianism and disdain for authority were born in the bush and became part of the Australian national character. While the legend was initially part of a radical vision, it has more recently been appropriated by conservatives who have elevated the bush ethos into the ‘national interest’, and gloss over the racism, narrow mindedness and anti-intellectualism that are the other side of the coin. Russel Ward, who described – or -possibly conjured up – this legend, concedes that ‘It is not so much the bushman’s actual nature that matters, as the nature attributed to him by so many men of the day.’ Watson would agree; the bushmen he describes were honest, hardworking, lazy, drunken, idealist, mad and foolish in the same proportion as anyone anywhere else in Australia. ‘It is possible that for every couple of bushmen who chose to be mates’ he writes,’ half a dozen others had mateship thrust upon them.’ His judgement, finally, is even-handed; he gives both to the bleak and triumphal. ‘Along with steady, sometimes near miraculous progress, the record includes not only follies, but repeat offences and incalculable lost opportunities. The mistakes were so many and so devastating in their consequence we have to remind ourselves sometimes that the story overall is one of triumph: over formidable, indifferent, inscrutable nature; over all kinds of hardship, including the self-inflicted kind; over ignorance, fashion and dogma.’

Of the bush, Watson says ‘we need to love it as it is and can be, not the way it was and never will be again’. At his home at Mount Macedon, he does not try to recreate the ‘original’ bush, which would indeed be impossible because the bush was never static. Instead, his motto seems to be ‘whatever works’, in his case a mixture of local plants, plants from elsewhere in Australia and introduced plants, chosen with an eye for their fire-retardant properties.’ This balance of local and imported vegetation can stand as a metaphor for the subtle complex of meanings Watson has woven in this book. Dip into it.

You can read more about Don Watson here. Or you might like his book There It Is Again: Collected Writings(2018).

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I admire J.K. Rowling. I love the way she uses her fame to support social justice causes and to call out sexism and racism; see for example her tweets lambasting Donald Trump. After a tentative start with the first couple of Harry Potter books, I enjoyed the series. (Everyone loves the Harry Potter books, but I think they improved as they went along.) I am also very much enjoying Rowling’s crime series written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith; here’s my review of the first one. But The Casual Vacancy? Not so much.

This book (2012), the first she wrote after the Potter books, belongs in the category of adult social comedy, though like many books so categorised, it is certainly not funny unless you like you humour very black. It is set in Pagford, a small, post-card-perfect town in the West Country. The town is run by an elected Parish Council (a local government term, nothing to do with the church). The Council is also responsible for the maintenance of a rather squalid housing estate, known as The Fields, just outside the town; it is largely inhabited by welfare recipients. The Council is divided between those who believe that the residents of The Fields benefit from their association with Pagford, and those who want to be rid of any responsibility for them. The casual vacancy on the Council arises when one of the elected representatives, Barry Fairbrother, a keen supporter of The Fields, dies suddenly, leading to a bitter campaign between the two factions to fill the vacancy.

There is a large cast of characters; Wikipedia lists twenty main ones, rather too many in my view, making it hard, at least initially, to remember who is who. While the main plot centres on the battle over the vacancy, all the characters have their own stories, for most part concerning relationships between husbands, wives, partners and friends, and parents, their children and their friends. And there is not a really happy person amongst them.

I have no idea what her intentions were, but to me this book reads as if Rowling, having written only children’s books up to this time (albeit wildly successful children’s books), decided to show she could write about people in ways other than the black and white characterisations we find in the Harry Potter stories. With this in mind, she makes sure that almost every character has both good and characteristics, motivations or actions. This of course reflects reality. The problem I have is that she pretty much emphasises the various ways in which the characters are unpleasant to each other, to the point I found it hard to much like anyone in the book. This undermined my enthusiasm for reading on, and after the account of a particularly miserable dinner party about half way through, I started skipping to find out what happened, rather than seeking to understand the situation of all the characters. A member of my book group thought Rowling was perhaps challenging the reader to go beyond initial dislike and look more deeply at the human condition, but if so, I failed the test.

Some characters have no redeeming features at all, like the Chair of the Council, Howard Mollison, and his wife Shirley. Theirs is not a Voldemort take-over-the world-style evil; it is petty malice, snobbery and racism expressed through gossip and inuendo – a distinction I expect Rowling was consciously making. Others, like their daughter-in-law Samantha have some redeeming features, whereas others again, like Kay Bawden, are basically good, though with insecurities and terrible judgement that get in the way of happiness. Of the five teenagers who play a significant role, four – Krystal, Andrew, Sukhvinder and Gaia – are kids trying to find their way in varyingly difficult circumstances. But Stuart, aka Fats, with his possibly realistic but nevertheless nasty lack of empathy, his calculating selfishness and his self-justifying glorification of a warped existentialism, seems to me to have little going for him. Only Barry Fairbrother, dead by page 4, seems to have been a genuinely nice person, and even then his wife resented the time he spent helping other people. (His grief-stricken wife and children seem more or less ok too.)

As you would expect from Rowling’s juxtaposition of Pagford and The Fields, the book touches on a number of social issues including racism, addiction, theft, domestic violence, rape and child neglect. And the writer being who she is, it is not surprising that while residents of Pagford might like to think that these are issues only in The Fields, they are also issues in middle class Pagford, though manifested in somewhat different ways. Class is also an issue; I was a little surprised that Rowling emphasised the class difference between the Pagford and The Fields residents so starkly in the language they use – standard English versus lumpen argot – but maybe this is an accurate representation of reality. And if the poor characters come off worse, then that’s a reflection of reality too. Given the complexity of these issues, and the minefield of personal relationships between the characters, it’s not really surprising that there isn’t a happy ending for any of them; for some there is tragedy, deserved or undeserved, while for others there is the merest vestige of hope.

It’s a long book. I think it might have benefitted from some judicious editing. I preferred some of the Harry Potter films to the books because the films were rather more condensed, and the same may well be true here. Fans of the book – and there are many – can point out that every character has important interactions with other characters, so none could be left out. And I do agree that underneath the verbiage Rowling weaves a very good plot. This is her great strength; she engaged me so that I certainly wanted to know what was going to happen, even if I finished up not reading every word. But books I really like I know I’ll read again, and this won’t be one of them.

You can read more about the book – its characters and plot, and its critical reception – here. You can read more about J.K. Rowling here. The Casual Vacancy was made into a three-part TV series in 2015.

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Lynne Kelly is a science communicator and teacher. This book (2016) is essentially her PhD thesis, but also an account of her journey to understand the scope and importance of the insights she has gained into the uses of memory in non-literate cultures. Beginning from an interest in the stories told by Indigenous Australians about animals, Kelly developed a theory of memory use by non-literate cultures across the globe.

Kelly starts by explaining the breadth and depth of knowledge that existed in non-literate cultures. Societies that were to any degree nomadic required knowledge of where to find water and edible plants. They needed knowledge of the habits of animals and how to hunt them. They needed to know the forms of the land, the weather, and the seasons. They needed to know their ancestors and their founding myths, who they were, and where they came from, who they could marry and who they could not. They needed to know the terms and conditions of trade. They needed to know secular and ceremonial songs and dances. As hunting and gathering gave way to settled farming, some of the same information was still crucial, but there was further information needed about tools were made and much, much more. How on earth did they remember all this?

She then expands on her theory that people in non-literate cultures used systematic memory aids. Those in nomadic cultures, like Australian Aborigines, who moved about in the landscape, developed what are known in Australian ethnography as song lines, physical and mental maps of the landscape where specific features acted as aids to memory, not just for direction, but for layers of meaning about time and place, seasons, the stars, ancestors, kinship, hunting and so on. Aboriginal people also carried portable memory aids, small objects often marked with abstract patterns, which were understood by those initiated into certain levels of understanding. Kelly establishes that memory spaces equivalent to song lines and portable memory devices existed across a range in quasi nomadic cultures.

A major change in the form of memory aids came about, Kelly argues, when quasi nomadic groups began to settle into farming communities. As they no longer routinely travelled long distances, the ‘song line’ model no longer suited their needs. Instead, they began to build memory spaces near their settling communities. She argues that while some archaeologists claim agriculture freed up time for people to build monuments, she believes the reverse is true: that ‘people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle’. These monuments usually took the form of standing stones or wooden pillars, arranged in precise patterns; there were also mounds, passage cairns and long barrows. Each stone or pillar represented a body of knowledge. Some also encoded the seasonal calendar. Kelly argues further that access to knowledge was restricted to initiated groups, with a hierarchy of knowledge held by a hierarchy of elders, on a continuum from public knowledge to highly restricted knowledge. In line with this, memory sites had both public and restricted areas; the public areas were for performance of songs and dances, and the restricted areas were for restricted performance and higher-level initiation into knowledge. Kelly argues that  societies creating such monuments were relatively egalitarian; the labour to build the memory spaces, which involved huge numbers of man hours, appears to have been freely given, and any elite burials found at such sites ,ie where grave goods have been have been part of the burial, appear chronologically later in the history of the site, and often not at all. This suggests, she says, that knowledge, rather than wealth or military power, animated the societies that built the memory spaces. Wealth and might came later, superseding knowledge, and the memory spaces gradually fell into disuse.

Kelly then goes on to look in detail at a number of memory spaces which she believes fit this pattern. The best known (to me, anyway) are Stonehenge and the standing stones and earthworks around Avebury. Similar monuments also exist in Brittany. But comparable memory spaces, can, she says, also be found in Orkney, and in Ireland. Then, perhaps more surprisingly, she uses examples from the Americas, suggesting that the creation of these memory spaces is a natural human reaction, rather than a learnt one, as these cultures can not have had any contact with the European ones. I found these sections of the book particularly interesting as I was completely ignorant of these cultures.

So it she right? She certainly assembles a convincing array of archaeological evidence, as well as the little remaining oral evidence from descendants of those who used the memory spaces. Earlier archaeologists tended to see the sites she describes in religious terms, and to label any portable items as ritualistic. Kelly suggests the emphasis on religion is a reflection of modern concerns for which there is not much archaeological evidence. She writes, for example, that attempts ‘to marry the actions of non-literate cultures to behaviours in contemporary Western religions acted as a barrier to understanding these complex sites’. She agrees that the chanting and dance that she believes were characteristic of the memory spaces did have a spiritual or aesthetic side, but sees much of it as the promulgation of practical information – though she would argue that knowledge was holistic, containing layers of complexity that could combine all these elements. I certainly find her argument convincing.

As a book, I did find it a bit repetitious in places; she perhaps overdoes the need to hammer home her argument in the simplest of terms. I would also have liked a coherent argument about the earlier misinterpretation of the sites she describes. I also question her use of the term egalitarian for the societies she is describing; they were clearly hierarchical to a considerable degree, though not necessarily rigidly so. I think it likely that there were ordained roles, some granted more respect than others. She is not able to talk much about whether there were gendered roles, though there probably were; one example she gives is from Pueblo culture where men used a coded language that ‘women would not be able to understand’. For me, the saddest thing is that we can’t know: the content of most of the knowledge is gone beyond recall. It is particularly sad that this is true for much of the culture of Indigenous Australians, despite their tenacious efforts to hold onto what they can.

Kelly says she has tried using memory spaces herself, with considerable success. I thought also of historian Tony Judt’s memoir, Memory Chalet, which is based on the same technique.  I don’t think I can manage it though.

You can read more about Lynne Kelly here.

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Unreliable Memoirs was first published in 1980 and I read it around that time. It was reissued in 2015, which is perhaps how my book club came across it. Back in the 1980s, it was memorable if for no other reason than that my husband could not read it aloud without almost crying with laughter. So I was very interested to see what I thought after all this time.

The book covers James’s life in Australia from his birth in 1939 to his arrival in England in 1962, that is, his early childhood, school and university years. Brought up mostly in the Sydney working class suburb of Kogarah, he chronicles a list of the sort of small doings, disasters, passions and friendships that make up a young person’s life.  In his introduction to the 2015 reissue of the book, P.J. O’Rourke claims that James ‘by a wild act of exaggeration’ makes his experience universal. ‘He takes the yeast of his memory and plants it in the bread dough of ours’. Yes, James does capture the insecurities of childhood, the friends won and lost, the battle to become independent. But it doesn’t feel at all relevant to my childhood experience – even less so than it did when I read it thirty years ago. And I’m afraid I no longer find much of it funny.

What James aims to do is to lift his experience out of the ordinary and into the realms of legend through humour. His two main techniques are exaggeration and bathos. He does warn us about the exaggeration, making an overstated joke about the whole idea of memoir: ‘Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel’. At the end, he writes: ‘Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.’ You can find examples of exaggeration like this on just about every page. Testing showed he had a high IQ, so he was sent to a school with an advanced curriculum, where ‘One boy with bifocals would be turning an old washing machine into a particle accelerator’. Instead of turning a forward summersault over him, a large girl drove him into the floor ‘like a tack’. The best swimmer in his school ‘trained about a hundred miles a day’. He is also keen on bathos. When his grandfather dies, James ponders whether he ‘died in a redemptive ecstasy after being vouchsafed a revelation of the ineffable’, but concludes ‘he just croaked’. This descent from the sublime to the ridiculous is carried throughout by James’s comparisons with people and places in Kogarah with writers or characters from high culture as in ‘I suppose if I had been John Stuart Mill’. He compared his liking for The Saturday Evening Post with ‘the way Turgenev felt about the emblem book he wrote of to Bakunin’. The juxtapositions are clever, but seem designed to let his audience know that he isn’t really as ignorant as he presents himself as being. Does the humour work? Not really. I still find the exaggeration and bathos funny sometimes, but more often the humour he draws out of the incidents he describes is that of cruelty and humiliation. Why is it funny to smash up a neighbour’s prized garden? Or disrupt a ballet performance? Or take part in what sounds remarkably like gang rape?

James was brought up by his mother, his father having been killed in a plane crash when being repatriated from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. I can’t help feeling sorry for his long-suffering mother. We do not get a clear picture of her; James doesn’t even tell us she worked in a factory to support them. It’s all about him. Even allowing for the exaggeration, he must have been a difficult child, anxious and needing constant reassurance and a terrible show off. He presents himself as the leader in many of the incidents he describes, but always seems to be courting popularity. As he notes towards the end of the book, ‘excessive conceit and defective self-esteem are often aspects of each other’. It’s true his older self shows some self-awareness; he is ‘too spoilt to profit from disappointment’; he has ‘cocksure ignorance’; and he ‘rather liked the idea of being thought of as a shit – a common conceit among those who don’t realise just how shitty they really are’. He must have had considerable charisma – how else at university did he break so easily into not only the North shore cool set but student intelligentsia as well? But knowing that he played the clown out of insecurity does little to make the self he describes more likeable; his self-assurance seems to have been accompanied by an absence of empathy.

One of the questions I had in re-reading the book is how well James had dealt with sexism. The answer is badly. Of course, growing up in the 1950s, the young James couldn’t be expected to do anything other than accept the norms of his time, where girls were almost without exception seen as sex objects by boys. As well as the gang rape of the ‘town bike’, we get a whole chapter on James’s love affair with his ‘prong’, and the way he transferred his interest from the boy down the road to girls. But might the older James write about this in a way that suggests he thinks differently? No. Take for example ‘the Libertarians freely helped themselves to each other’s girlfriends’. At one level this is a joke about Libertarians and free love. But at another, it reveals James’s sexism; clearly girls couldn’t be Libertarians, merely their appendages. He’s not writing as someone immersed in childhood; his bathetic juxtapositions show that. Writing in the 1980s, he should have known better.

I should also admit that any youthful affection I felt for James has been tarnished by his rejection of climate science in favour of a smart-ass scepticism. According to his Wikipedia page, he identifies as a liberal social democrat, but many of his views are now conservative. It’s hard to know whether he just enjoys swimming against the tide – though which tide is unclear – or whether he has come to share the views of his rich and famous friends. He has made a very successful career by being a very clever clown. However I note that he also has real literary and scholarly achievements to his credit.  It’s worth having a look at his website – http://www.clivejames.com/ – which is his attempt to put ‘a lifetime’s experience as a cultural critic to a new use, and so offer a critical guide, through the next medium, to works of thought and art by other people, and sometimes in other eras. The only criterion for inclusion would be intensity of expression, with the aim of creating, in this latterday Babelic flux we call the web, an island of quality where every word is meant, and every image meaningful.’ Now that he’s dying of chronic lymphoid leukemia, I don’t think he’s trying to be funny anymore.

Here’s a rather different view of James.

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Published in 2008, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. And deservedly so in my opinion. I recently reviewed the 2014 winner – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – and this one is, if not a better book, then without some of the flaws that made Tartt’s book so frustrating at times.

I also recently wrote that I preferred books with a strong narrative thread. It is obviously foolish to generalise in this way, because this book does not have a strong narrative thread, and the structure still works well. It is essentially thirteen interconnected short stories, a form that allows both sustained development of character and setting, and the quick insight of short stories. Olive Kitteridge, her husband Henry and to a lesser extent their son Christopher are the main characters in seven of the stories; Olive’s role in the other six varies from significant to just a mention. The two in which she has only a mention are perhaps the weakest links of the thirteen, lacking the connection the Kitteridge family gives to the whole . With one exception, when Olive goes to New York to visit her son, they all take place in the small town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine; the book presents a slice of small town American life, as well as a portrait of Olive from mother of a young child to a 74 year old widow. No dates are specifically mentioned, but the sequence begins when Christopher is quite young, in perhaps the 1970s, and ends during the presidency of George W Bush. We know this because Olive is concerned about ‘another’ terrorist attack and is horrified to find that someone she is getting know and like voted Republican.

The stories all deal with events of everyday life in families and the community. People go to work, plant tulips, have breakfast at the marina, walk their dog. They are faithful or unfaithful to their partners, good friends or sometimes not. They gossip. They have people over for tea. Underlying these ordinary activities are the themes of public and private grief, loneliness, aging and death – though not all who die are old. In several of the stories there is some sort of betrayal. This makes the book sound depressing, but it isn’t. I think this is because of Strout’s humanity; she shows deep empathy with all her characters and their situations, even the unpleasant ones – and that includes Olive at times. Ultimately Strout seems to be suggesting that people do what they can to cope with life. Olive knows that things aren’t fair: ‘Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right’. But she ‘had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life had increasingly become’. And Olive does ultimately does find some comfort. The prevailing tone is bitter-sweet.

The book begins with Henry, a good and kind man, looking back at the joys and sorrows of his life as the town pharmacist and husband of Olive, who teaches maths at the local junior high school. After this, the Kitteridge family chapters are dominated by Olive’s point of view. She is anything but good and kind; she is often combative and angry, her judgements harsh. She is as one critic says, both fierce and thwarted’ .People are morons, simpletons, snot-wats. As she later acknowledges, she never says sorry. But we also see a different side of her; her humour, her love of people, her acute self-awareness and her a concern for others. In several of the other stories she is a source of comfort.

Strout’s empathy is amplified by the form of her writing. She uses ‘free indirect speech’, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. At her son’s wedding, for example, Olive ‘drops her gaze so as to avoid getting stuck in one more yakkety conversation’. The use of ‘yakkety’ is very much Olive’s word, as is the word ‘ridiculous’ in ‘The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor’, though both are narrative statements. We are seeing the world from in this case Olive’s perspective. This means Strout never takes an authorial overview which can make use of a wry or sardonic perspective to deprecate a character or point of view*. There is no satire in the writing but what the characters impart; mostly there is an honest realism about people’s feelings and relationships, even when they are deluding themselves, or hiding their feelings behind polite nothings. This, coupled with the small town environment, might make it sound like the writing is folksy, but it isn’t. There is the bitter as well as the sweet.

In 2014 a mini-series of four episodes based on the book were shown on American TV to universal acclaim. I hope they didn’t glamourise Olive too much. In the book she is large and not particularly attractive; it is part of what makes her a compelling character. The Wikipedia entry on the min-series describes Olive as ‘misanthropic’ so I guess it doesn’t. Her part is played by Frances McDormand, who won various prizes for her acting and also co-produced the series, so hopefully it was well done. It was shown in Australia (but not free-too-air) in 2015. You can read more about the mini-series here, and about Elizabeth Strout and her work here.

 

*I don’t mean it is a bad thing to have a satirical authorial voice – some of my favourite books and all that – it’s just that the free indirect speech give a different result.

 

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Questions of Travel (2012) won the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 2013, and has been highly praised by many reviewers – see for example this long review in the Sydney Review of Books, or this one from Frank Moorhouse in the Guardian. I read it for my book club, and though there are things to like in it, overall I found reading it a chore. Why don’t I respond to it like the judges and reviewers?

I can’t write about this book without disclosing important aspects of the story, so it’s a case of spoiler alert, though the book isn’t plot driven and other reviewers seem to have no qualms in revealing much of what happens. You’d probably call its form picaresque, a term I recall from English 101 many years ago, in the sense that it’s a series of loosely connected episodes. De Krester describes this form of writing as ‘like walking down a corridor and you find a niche in the wall or a door might be open and you can go into a room or peer in, and sometimes the door is closed but you know there is a space in there’. The book follows the lives of Laura Fraser and Ravi Mendis over about forty years, in more or less alternating chapters. In the first half, Laura leaves Australia to travel, living in Naples and London; Ravi lives in Shri Lanka. In the second half, Laura returns to Sydney and gets a job with a company that publishes travel guides. Ravi comes to Australia on a tourist visa and seeks asylum after the politically motivated murder of his wife and child in Shri Lanka.  He works for a time at the same company as Laura, though the pair scarcely know each other.  Along the way are many people and places, some social satire – which I don’t find very funny – and some tragedy, which is truly tragic.

The judges and reviewers are right that the book reflects on major aspects of Australian life. The experience of living in Sydney runs throughout the second half of the book for both characters, though of course they experience it in different ways. The harbour, the bridge, Waverley Cemetery, Sydney’s weather are all lovingly evoked. Laura’s life seems dominated by a series of unsatisfactory sexual relationships, which aren’t distinctively Australian, but Ravi’s experience as a refuge in Australia does throw light on important issues. De Krester says she didn’t want to make Ravi, as the refugee, all good, and Australians all racist; his situation is indeed much more nuanced. He does experience racism, both visceral and casual – how can he claim to be a refugee if he wasn’t in detention? – but he also experiences kindness and support. This is a subject well worth exploring.

But more than the book’s specific Australian content, its theme – as you might expect from the title – is travel, away from and towards Australia and Shri Lanka; ‘travel of all kinds: colonial expansion and its postcolonial manifestations, migration, exile, tourism’, as one reviewer notes. The book is dotted with clever little aperçu about tourists and travel: ‘Time after time Laura would learn that she had missed the moment; to be a tourist was always to arrive too late’. Tourists from the former Easter bloc countries were ‘serious, appreciative and archaic: travellers for whom the link between travel and holiness still held’. ‘The twentieth century was best represented by an unwilling traveller … people who don’t belong where they end up and long for places where they did.’ ‘There’s no past in tourism. It’s one thing after another.’ ‘Tourists see invisible things.’ When tourism promoters try to give customers an ‘authentic’ experience it is written off as ‘spectacle and show’. And producing travel guides removes all romance. At the end of the book, Ravi returns to Shri Lanka because he doesn’t want to be ‘a tourist in his own country’, even though he has been granted asylum in Australia and faces possible death in Shri Lanka. And Laura travels to Shri Lanka to get away from her life in Sydney; both arrive on the day of the 2004 tsunami and an unknown fate. I guess de Krester wants us to see both sides of travel. Here is how she sums it up:

Travel connects us to the world and brings us closer to other cultures … But it’s possible to spend a very pleasant three weeks in another country and come away with no idea of what life is really like for people who live there. The native lives in history and there is no suspension of knowledge, but as a tourist you do have access to wonder.

Reviewers have commented at some length on de Krester’s prose, which is sometimes unashamedly lyrical, full of what one reviewer calls ‘baroque flourishes’. Her Atlantic Ocean is ‘slow as a slattern that smears its grey rags along the shore’. Australians ‘succumb to chicken parmigiana and to sex’. ‘Surfers with eyes like blue fish.’ Sydney ‘squinted over its brown back at Africa, at India.’ In Melbourne, ‘the balloon-like faces of people dressed in black float down laneways’. I agree that the water imagery – beginning on page 1 with Laura almost being drowned by her brothers and ending in the last with her probably being drowned by a tsunami, give structure to the story it otherwise lacks. This is fine if you like this sort of thing – which can only be appreciated in retrospect- but for me there are just too many words. In other places her tone is satirical, but I seem to detect a note of superiority in the unkind humour. The thought she gives to Laura about Australian literature – that ‘She approached Sydney gingerly in fiction. Was it really up to literature, even the Australian kind? … What if the performance came over as provincial and amateurish, or blustering and self-important?’ – is simply smart-ass. And having Laura vote informal at an election without apparent interest in or knowledge of politics? Too cool for school.

It’s always difficult when I fail to enjoy a book that judges and reviewers have found extremely rewarding. Am I failing to appreciate fine writing? Making facile judgements? Or is it a matter of taste? I think I found the book difficult to read for two reasons. First, I don’t really like the picaresque form. I prefer a clear narrative thread. I can’t keep track of all the characters; on the odd occasion that someone turns up from the past, I’m scrabbling to remember who they are. Characters fall out of the story. The incidents, more particularly in Laura’s case, don’t add up to anything, and are fundamentally unmemorable. Perhaps life is like that. But it doesn’t make for pleasurable reading.

The second reason is that I can’t engage with either of the main characters. I know you don’t have to like characters to find them compelling. And as I noted above, de Krester wants her characters to be realistically flawed. But above all they do have to be interesting, and as far as I’m concerned, Laura isn’t. Despite the occasional flashes of self-knowledge she is allowed, she is self-centred and entitled, her travel is drift, her relationships are superficial, her lack of desire to do anything with her life is pathetic. No doubt there are people like this, but I don’t want to read about them. Up to the point where he loses his wife and child I felt much the same about Ravi. The numbness with which he is inflicted afterwards is no doubt realistic; it presumably explains his often perverse behaviour, though his thought processes remain obscure to me. By the end, I didn’t much care what happened to him, though in his case, I’m probably more frustrated than bored with him.

But probably the overall reason I didn’t like the book was that it didn’t offer me any hope. De Krester seems happier mocking than affirming. There were people that she presented as good and kind, but they were outweighed by those she chose to present as selfish and shallow. The message the main characters portrayed was one of misery and emptiness. Her vision may be true to what I read in the daily press, but I look for something a bit more inspiring in literature.

You can read the very little there is on Wikipedia about Michelle de Krester here. Most of the quotes from her above come from this interview. I note that she has a new book, The Life to Come being released this October. I read that it eschews ‘conventional narrative structure’ and is ‘beautifully elliptic’, so it’s probably not for me, even though it is reported to be ‘ultimately hopeful’.

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I desperately need more space on my already overcrowded bookshelves, so I’m always looking out for books that can go to the op shop. My eye recently fell on a row of aging paperbacks by two American detective story writers, Ross MacDonald and John D. MacDonald. (No, my books aren’t shelved alphabetically, I’m not that organised, it’s just chance they were together.) Ross McDonald (no relation to John D. and in fact a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar) published a series of eighteen detective stories featuring private eye Lew Archer between 1949 and 1976. John D. came a little later with his twenty books featuring Travis McGee, a sort of private detective, between 1964 and 1985. So my paperbacks are at best over thirty years old, the spines show wear and tear, the print is small and the pages are yellowing. Would anyone want them? Is the recycle bin more appropriate than the op shop? I decided to re-read a couple before making up my mind.

The Lew Archer books are very easy to read so I read two, The instant Enemy and The Zebra-Striped Hearse, which is a catchy title but has little to do with the story. First published in 1968 and 1963 respectively, they are among his later books. They are in some important ways very similar, and I think it likely that they are fairly representative of all of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer stories. This similarity arises firstly because of the ongoing, and engaging, character of Lew Archer himself, a former policeman turned private detective working in Los Angeles. He is the natural successor of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Like Marlowe, Archer is tough and honourable, with a good line in deadpan humour. Secondly, both of the stories involve family dramas and secrets. There is remarkably little sex, though there is of course some violence; you can be sure that at some point in the story Archer will be variously left for dead, but most of the violence happens off stage. Archer is more concerned with the patient acquisition of information, what he learns from one person leading on to the next until the missing connection is made and the puzzle is unravelled. And this is where a third similarity comes in; both these plots, and probably the plots of most of the books, depend on misdirection. The real baddy is never who he/she appears to be, leading to quite complicated dénouements in the last few pages. So although the plots are clever, Archer is a delight and MacDonald’s prose is slick – as in ‘under the sound of money, her voice remembered times when there hadn’t been any’ –  there is a degree of sameness about the stories that marks them as genre fiction, rather than something more challenging – though not everyone agrees with this.

John D. MacDonald included a colour in the titles of each his Travis McGee stories (he wrote lots of other books, including suspense and science fiction) and the book I read was Free Fall in Crimson, first published 1981 so it’s a fairly late one. McGee works out of Port Lauderdale in Florida calling himself a ‘salvage consultant’, with a talent for ‘finding things for people’, or, as another character puts it, ‘slipping about, doing shifty things for people’. He fought in Vietnam, is large, physically fit and good at the rough stuff. And though he is not a private detective as such, he operates very much like one. Clearly Travis got fairly battered in the previous book (The Green Ripper, 1979) and is trying to put his life back together, but he agrees to follow up an unsolved murder for the son of the man who was killed. This involves him in talking to everyone with any connection to the man and his family, including bikies and film people, and stirring things up until he gets the information he needs – though not without further murders;  these however mostly occur off stage. Travis acquires a girlfriend, which Lew Archer never does, so there is a bit of sex, though it is chaste by today’s standards. It doesn’t add much to the story, so I guess it’s about fleshing out Travis’s character. I’m always interested in how civilian detectives – or salvage consultants – resolve their case, since they have no power to arrest anyone. Travis finds a clever way to deal with this problem.

One of the things that surprised me a bit is that none of these books feels particularly dated. There are of course no personal computers or mobile phones to play a role in detection but in any case, both Lew and Travis rely on talking to people face to face, seeing their reactions and making judgements about their credibility. I noticed that there are almost no people of colour in the books; it is a white world, which is doubtless no longer the case. Doubtless someone from Los Angeles or Fort Lauderdale would see many social and physical changes since these books were written that an outsider would not be aware of. But they are nevertheless remarkably modern in their concerns.

Both these writers have received high praise. Ross MacDonald has been favourably compared to the two earlier ‘hard boiled’ crime fiction writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he has had a major influence on writers like Sue Grafton and his books are now being reissued. John D. MacDonald has been praised even more fulsomely, for example by Stephen King as ‘the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller’ and by Kingsley Amis, who claimed that MacDonald ‘is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels’. I think Amis is a bit over the top, but can certainly agree with King about John D. being a great story teller. I personally prefer Lew Archer to Travis McGee, but that’s a matter of taste.

You can read more about Ross MacDonald here, and John D. MacDonald here.

So op shop or recycle bin? In truth I can’t bring myself to do either. They are classics. They’ll stay on the shelf for a while longer.

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Where do I begin? The Goldfinch, which runs to around 770 pages, was published in 2013 and won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which recognizes distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.The judges called it ‘a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart’. Sometimes I just wanted to put it down and leave it, other times I could have gone on reading it all night.

The story is a bildungsroman, a story of growing up. Theo Decker is thirteen when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He survives, but his life changes dramatically; almost all subsequent events flow from here. In the aftermath of the explosion a dying old man presses on him a painting that has been blown from its frame; it is The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. Theo takes it with him as he escapes the crumbling building. He also carries a mental image of Pippa, the girl who was with the old man; she becomes his unattainable ‘missing kingdom’. (The book is sometimes described as ‘Dickensian’, and I thought often of Estelle in Great Expectations, though of course she is unattainable for different reasons.) He lives briefly with family friends, but his father, who had deserted him and his mother, takes him to live in Las Vegas. He returns to New York and eventually becomes an antiques dealer. He carries with him a sense of irreparable loss and of self-blame. I can’t tell you any more without giving away the plot.

Some of the fifteen or so years the story covers are dealt with in great detail; others are left almost blank. Reading the book I found this a bit frustrating. Why, for example, did we have to hear in such detail about Theo’s drunken and drug fuelled-life with his friend Boris in Las Vegas? But by the end, I could see by the balance of the story why Tartt had chosen to write at such length about it. There are other set pieces that are quite long, but all serve a purpose. Maybe Tartt could just overall write with more economy; there is an awful lot of detail – some might say padding – in the book, though maybe this is just a question of taste. But best of all in terms of the plot, there was for me a real ‘wow I didn’t see that coming’ moment, a moment that both pulls together and undercuts the action. There are not many books that have done this so powerfully for me; Tartt is a great story teller.

But much as I ultimately came to see the strength of the plot, it is Theo’s thoughts and actions that dominate the book. Although he was already testing the limits – he and his mother had only dropped in at the museum on their way to a meeting to discuss Theo’s suspension from school – the death of his mother and his own narrow escape dictate his future choices. He has survivor guilt – ‘the why did I and if only that had wrecked my … life’. His wild behaviour arises from his narrow escape from the exposion; sometimes he is manic, ‘with a self-propelling recklessness … that I associated with having narrowly missed death’. But at other times he feels he has ‘suffered a chemical change of the spirit … [that] leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair’. His possession of the painting sometimes makes him feel ‘tainted and worthless and wrong’, but at other makes him feel special and different, not bound by the same rules as other people. ‘How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret …?’ he muses. ‘Yet I had.’ I guess this is a thoughtful even brilliant picture of a boy placed in just such a situation. But at the same time I found some of his terrible choices over- the- top stupid; it was then the bond between reader and character weakened and I stopped wanting to read on. But there’s a good chance that this reflects more about the reader than the book.

And then there are the big ideas in the novel, about the enduring qualities of great art, the search for meaning in life and death, fate and choice. If Tartt comes to any conclusions about these, I’m not sure what they are. Perhaps a second reading would make them clearer.

Unsurprisingly for a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, it has received many rave reviews. I find it interesting, though, that a few of the most highbrow literary critics have pushed strongly back against this tide of approval. Here are some quotes taken from an article in Vanity Fair discussing the literary controversy. From James Wood, in the New Yorker: ‘Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature’; he considers it  ‘a book stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness’. In The New York Review of Books, novelist and critic Francine Prose wrote that, ‘for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language … and [it contained] passages that were bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase’. Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, writes that ‘A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them … It coats everything in a cozy patina of “literary gentility.” ’

This kind of criticism is hard to deal with because it makes you feel that if you like the book, your judgement is immature. Well perhaps mine is. I can agree with a few of these criticisms, but not most of them. I didn’t find the plotting far-fetched; I thought the connections Tartt establishes were a major strength of the book. I did find Theo’s behaviour over the top at times, but am not convinced that someone in his position would not in fact act as he does. As for clichés in the language, the book is written from a young person’s perspective, and this is how they think and speak. I do agree that the language is over-lush in places. I don’t really understand Theo’s justification at the end of the story, and find it – in so far as I do understand it – remarkably self-regarding. But I’m not sure what the highbrow critics want, if not this. It seems to be an argument about what constitutes not only good writing, but serious literature, a question that can often only be answered by the passage of time. For me, it’s probably a question of whether I want to re-read the book, and in this case, despite my reservations, I certainly do.

Donna Tartt is a very private person and there is little about her on the internet. Here, however, is a quite revealing interview she gave to the Sydney Morning Herald after the publication of The Goldfinch.

 

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The Last Explorer (2005) has the sub-title Hubert WilkinsAustralia’s Unknown Hero. And before reading this book I had never heard of him. As Nasht points out, even though he was born in South Australia, he hasn’t even been accorded the honour of a commemorative plaque on Adelaide’s historic walk. Yet Nasht makes a convincing case for his heroism that should have made it impossible to ignore him. Why then is he so little known in the country of his birth?

One explanation is suggested by a review of the book in The Age by Bruce Elder, who puts Wilkin’s relative anonymity down to the fact that Wilkins ‘spent most of his life being either unsuccessful or living in the shadow of others’. Nasht certainly works hard to refute this view, and Wilkins’s life gives him plenty to work with. You can read the Wikipedia summary here and his somewhat underwhelming biography in the ADB here. Born in 1888 in the mid-north of South Australia to a family struggling to make a living on a farm on marginal land with patchy rainfall, he dreamt early of improving meteorology, a passion Nasht says informed the rest of his life. Falling almost by accident into the dangerous career of aerial photography, he took part in various Arctic expeditions, and became an official Australian war photographer in the First World War.  He was decorated for bravery and praised by General Sir John Monash as ‘a highly accomplished and absolutely fearless combat photographer’. After the war he took part in scientific expeditions to the Southern Ocean, and in northern Australia. But his passion was exploration in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, which he believed could best be undertaken from the air. After a number of hair-raising brushes with disaster, he succeed in 1929 in flying across the Arctic from Alaska to Norway, a feat for which he was knighted.  His next major expedition involved trying to sail an American First World War submarine named Nautilus under the Arctic ice, but the Nautilus was ill-equipped and possibly sabotaged and the mission failed. Wilkins kept busy, but never again attained the hero status he had previously held in America.

I don’t think Nasht has overstated his outstanding bravery, or his tenacity. But Elder is right that despite these qualities, he didn’t make major discoveries, and the submarine venture was a dangerous folly.

The explanation which is offered by Nasht for Wilkins’s relatively unknown status in Australia is that on the expedition to northern Australia, he criticised both the treatment of Aboriginal people and the wholesale destruction of the local flora and fauna. This he suggests, was considered unforgivable by the Australian government and public alike. This seems unlikely to me. More important was the fact that after the war, Wilkins lived and worked in America, and was famous there, rather than in Australia, because several of his expeditions were financed and publicised by the Hearst newspapers, which had no reach in Australia. He’s probably also right that Wilkins was a modest man who disliked self-promotion, unlike several of the other explorers operating at the time. Nasht emphasises his commitment to scientific exploration rather than the simple race to be the first to be somewhere or to do something which dominated the media reporting of exploration up to the Second World War. But then he would, wouldn’t he.

Given that the risks of polar exploration were so great, I was hoping that Nasht would shed light on what motivated Wilkins to put his life in danger so often, especially after his marriage. He quotes Wilkins as follows:

Is it the primitive thirst for adventure, the desire to penetrate the unseen and unknown; to experience the thrill that comes from the presence of danger and the satisfaction one feels at facing and narrowly cheating death that takes me again and again to the polar regions? Yes, it is, to a certain extent, but the experienced know that there is a thrill greater than that of adventure. It is the thrill of worthy accomplishment.

What are we to make of this? It sums up for me the reason for Wilkins’s lack of recognition; he is ‘worthy’, but dull, and this makes it hard for Nasht to tell a good story about him. Indeed despite the daring things Wilkins did, I only occasionally found the book gripping. Furthermore there is something a bit pedestrian about Nasht’s writing; it does not inspire. This is not an evaluation of Wilkins’s achievements; Nasht rarely criticises him, and seems determined to prove him a hero. Elder suggests the book would have been improved by being shorter, and he may be right; Nasht seems to have included material from every source he could find, leading to an unnecessarily detailed account.

For all that, I think Wilkins does at least deserve one of those commemorative plaques in Adelaide.

Nasht is a journalist, and film maker in partnership with the entrepreneur Dick Smith. I wondered if he felt a sense of affinity with Wilkins in having to scrounge around to get funding for his projects, which you can read about here. One notable one is the ABC documentary I Can Change Your Mind About Climate (2012) in which he placed together a climate change activist and a climate change denier, allowing them both to discuss their views with people they claimed as authorities on the topic. Many people thought it presented the reality of climate change as a debatable topic rather than something for which there is overwhelming scientific evidence. You can read his defence here. In the book, he highlights the ways in which Wilkins had an early understanding of climate change, perhaps another reason why he deserves to be better known.

 

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After reading some of Mitchell’s recent books, I’ve gone back to the beginning to read his first one, published in 1999. It’s probably just as well I enjoyed some of the later one before trying Ghostwritten, because without some understanding of his work, I doubt if I’d have got beyond it. I would probably have admired his prose, but given up entirely on the content.

Like Cloud Atlas (2004), which I reviewed here, and The Bone Clocks (2014) – hereGhostwritten is a novel in a number of parts – nine in this case. Each part has a different narrator, a different location and a completely different feel to it. The first and the brief coda at the end have the same narrator, Quasar, who is a member of a millenarian doomsday cult responsible for a gas attack on the Tokyo subway, based on a real terrorist incident. The second is about Satoru, a young Japanese jazz lover working in a record shop in Tokyo. The third is a monologue narrated by financial lawyer Neal Brose, who is part of a money laundering scheme in Hong Kong. The fourth is told by an old Chinese woman who runs a tea house on Mt Emei, the Sacred Mountain, and who has lived through and suffered under the warlords, the Nationalists and the Communists. But heaven forbid that Mitchell be considered a realist writer; the fifth section is told by a disembodied spirit, a ‘noncorpum’ which survives by inhabiting living hosts. This section takes place mainly in Mongolia, where the spirit is trying to trace its origins. The sixth section is set in St Petersburg, where Margarita Latunsky is a museum attendant in the Hermitage Museum; she is also working for a gang of art thieves. The seventh section features Marco, a part-time drummer and part-time ghostwriter in London. In the eighth section, Mo Muntervary is a physicist studying quantum cognition; she returns to her birthplace in Ireland in an attempt to evade American officials who want to use her work to create intelligent weapons. The ninth section is the text of segments of a talk-back radio program in New York, where the announcer is contacted by an entity, Zookeeper, that seems to the reader, though not to the host, to be a disembodied artificial intelligence. The brief coda returns to the Tokyo underground.

As one might expect from having read other of Mitchell’s books, these sections have some links, with characters from one having walk-on roles in another. Thus Neal Bose sees Satoru and his girlfriend in Hong Kong, his maid is the granddaughter of the Chinese tea house keeper, a backpacker staying at the tea house goes to Mongolia as the unknowing host of the noncorpum, Marco shoves Mo Muntervary out of the way of a taxi, the man whose life story he is ghostwriting knows one of the art thieves in Moscow and so on. A few of the characters appear in some of his later books.

These ‘coincidences’ highlight one of the major themes of the book – the importance of chance. Quasar has been given a code phrase and number to ring after completing his mission but the cult has betrayed him and the number connects to a random phone – that of Satoru’s record shop. But in going back after closing up to answer the phone and hear the, to him, meaningless message, Satoru meets the girl he is already attracted to and they begin a relationship. Marco’s section deals overtly with chance. His band is called the Music of Chance. He speculates on a possible pregnancy arising from a tear in a condom he has used: ’Weird. If I’d bought the pack behind on the shelf …’ Then there is his own identity. ‘Why am I me?’ he muses. ‘Chance, that’s why. Because of the cocktail of genetics and upbringing fixed for me by the blind barman Chance.’ And he visits a casino, just to rub in the point. Mo Muntervary’s quantum cognition also raised the issue of chance: ‘Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty’, she thinks.

But are these encounters and actions coincidences? There is also a counter theme; that of design. Some actions are controlled by a non-human intelligence, either the noncorpum – as when the backpacker decides to go to Mongolia – or by artificial intelligence in the radio talk back section. It seems that Mo Muntervary – from the previous section – has designed this artificial intelligence to conform to four ‘laws’. But there are circumstances in which it is impossible to comply with all of them at once. So has design failed too? I found the radio talk back section deeply confusing. A check of comments about the book on the internet confused me even more; see for example this one, which tries to trace the supernatural connections through all the sections.

So what is Mitchell trying to do? His deliberate refusal of coherent narrative, and the themes of chance and design, suggest he wants the reader to approach perceived reality with scepticism. And maybe this is where the title comes in. Marco, the ghostwriter, is talking to the man whose ‘autobiography’ he is writing; the man says ‘the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.’ Marco replies ‘it doesn’t seem very honest. I’m not writing what really happened.’ ‘We’re all ghostwriters, my boy. And it’s not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us’. ‘So where does that leave us?’ Marco asks. ‘How well does the thing read?’ is the answer he receives. Hmm. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Nothing that I’ve said takes away from the undoubted power of Mitchell’s writing, though I think it is even better in some of his later books. But I might not have gone on to read these, based on this one. This is because I found it pretty depressing. The hopeful sections seem well and truly cancelled out by the hopeless ones. Mitchell sees a dystopian future, and, it seems to me, no chance of avoiding it. But given how opaque it all is, I might be quite wrong. Do tell me what you think.

David Mitchell doesn’t seem to have a web page. But here’s a review of the book – not that it helps all that much.

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Published in 2015, The Brain’s Way of Healing is a sequel to The Brain that Changes Itself (2007). Subtitled ‘remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity’, it continues the popularisation of the concept of the brain’s neuroplasticity described in the earlier book. Doidge, a doctor himself, is a skilled medical science communicator. I found what he had to say in the earlier book about how the brain can compensate and redirect was fascinating and exciting, as the concept that the brain is not a hardwired machine was new to me. This book looks at understanding and using healing techniques that make use of this neuroplasticity, the reality of which is now, Doidge considers, taken as a given by neurological research. I found it mostly interesting, but sometimes a bit preachy.

Each chapter is devoted to a particular condition that Doidge argues is amenable to a treatment that makes use of the brain’s inherent ability to repair itself. As in the earlier book, he uses a particular case study to illustrate how a specific treatment can ameliorate or even cure the patient’s symptoms and/or underlying problem. These problems include chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, learning difficulties and stroke. Doidge identifies four stages in the healing process: neurostimulation, which helps revive dormant circuits in a damaged brain; neuromodulation, which helps build new circuits and overcomes learned non-use in existing circuits; neurorelaxation, where the brain stores energy needed for regeneration; and neurodifferentiation and learning, where the brain’s circuits begin to regulate themselves and allow for normal functioning. The treatments all rely on this ‘rewiring’ of the brain by methods including visualisation, lasers, sound/music therapy, electrical stimulation and exercise both physical and mental, though he is essentially claiming there is no difference between the physical and the mental. (He approvingly quotes Moshe Feldenkrais, who wrote that ‘the unity of the mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an indispensable whole while functioning.’) He notes in an appendix that while he has linked one possible treatment to one problem, in practice some combination or sequence of treatments would usually be tried. He doesn’t claim that all – or indeed any – of the treatments will work for all people with these conditions, but argues that any or all are worth trying, as they have no adverse side effects, and often at least improve the situation where conventional treatments including surgery and medication do not.

The treatments – at least as practiced in the West – all seem to be the brainchild of a particular individual or small group of researchers, though some have roots in Eastern practice. No doubt Doidge is correct that neuroplasticity is now accepted science, but the practitioners he discusses all seem to be working on the margins of recognized practice. Some, indeed, such as Moshe Feldenkrais, worked on their treatments well before there was any understanding of the brain’s plasticity, an understanding which Doidge says now explains why their tratments work. I seem to remember that the early leaders in neuroplasticity were loners on the scientific frontiers, and presumably that’s how scientific breakthroughs are made. Doidge only includes examples that he has personal knowledge of, the researchers and practitioners that test the science often belong to well-regarded institutions, and there is a whole section of notes and references at the end of the book to which the sceptical can refer. He notes in the acknowledgements that his editor suffered a stroke part way through the publication process, and was told he wouldn’t recover much of his lost functioning, yet recovered sufficiently using techniques from the book to finish editing it (though I wish he’d put the picture of the brain at the front, not the back of the book). Some of the cures are, nevertheless, hard to believe.

And the response to the book has been mixed. One critical review, for example, concludes that ‘[t]hese cures and their emphasis on the patient’s willpower and moral fibre are, at best, bizarre’. Certainly some of the cases Doidge outlines involve highly motivated people who would not have succeeded without that motivation. As one of the patients says ‘you have to want it really badly’. The problem here is that someone else trying the technique, who for whatever reason lacks that will power, will feel themselves to blame if the treatment doesn’t produce results. And yes there can be a moral element to the judgement that they just didn’t try hard enough – victim blaming in other words. On the other hand, some of the treatments, for example those targeting learning difficulties, are designed to help children, and at least initially only require a passive response. It’s true that a number of the examples are cases of last resort but this is presumably because the techniques are new and not yet adopted by most mainstream doctors, who continue to offer treatment within the existing paradigm. A further concern is that such cures offer false hope to patients and their families. Doidge never says they are suitable for all people with the conditions he discusses, and emphasises that they are mostly not do-it-yourself remedies – they require skilled assessment and monitoring, which are resources in very short supply in most parts of the world. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for the techniques would give hope to those with the conditions – but a hope probably unable to be fulfilled.

I was telling a friend about this book, and she asked why, if the techniques Doidge champions are so successful, are they so little used? Are they the sort of crazy stuff you might find on medical self-help sites on the internet? Have they been rigorously assessed and found wanting? Or will they, like the concept of neuroplasticity itself, become in time the new paradigm for the treatment of conditions affecting the brain? Time will tell.

You can read more about Dr Doidge and his work here. Here’s a rather less hostile review. And here’s one totally hostile one from a medical writer and parent of an autistic child (and yes Doidge does come close – dangerously in my view – to linking autism and vaccination). And here’s another totally hostile one from an evolutionary biologist who pulls no punches. Ah well, science thrives on controversy.

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Here are some comments on two crime stories by relatively new Australian crime writers, and one by one of most established in that genre – though he’s not Australian by birth, and it isn’t set here. Compared to him, however, the other two still have some ground to make up.

Ecstasy Lake, by Alastair Sarre

Ecstasy Lake (2016) is the second of Sarre’s crime stories, featuring Steve West, ex professional footballer, now mining engineer. I liked the first one, Prohibited Zone (2011), which I reviewed here, and this one has many of the same strengths. I’m not sure the plot holds up quite as well though. West arrives back in Adelaide at the behest of his old friend Tasso, who believes a geologist they both know has found gold in outback South Australia. The only problem is he’s been murdered. West is soon involved in a gang war in Adelaide over drugs, as well as moves by Tasso to get an exploration licence for the area covering the putative find. And then there is the question of who killed their friend. All this provides plenty of scope for action, but I found the plot overall lacks the coherence of structure of the previous book. And some of the characters, like Tasso and his off-sider Bert are just a bit too convenient: Tasso is just too rich and Bert is just too competent, making them functions of the plot not fully credible characters. (Bert reminds me of Cam Delray in the Jack Irish stories, always turning up with a car or a gun just when he’s needed. Maybe such a device is always needed by amateur heroes.) West is an enjoyable character, with plenty of zippy dialogue, and I enjoy the way Sarre writes. There’s lots of Adelaide in it too – so no wonder I like it.

In The Evil Day, by Peter Temple

Written in 2002, this is Peter Temple’s sixth crime novel. I’ve read and enjoyed his four Jack Irish books, all except the last of which come before this one. I reviewed the first one, Bad Debts, including comments on the telemovie made from it here. (There’s a 2016 TV series too.) But what made me read this one is the excellence of his two subsequent novels, The Broken Shore (2005), reviewed here, and Truth (2009) reviewed here. I think both these brilliantly supersede the crime genre by virtue of the quality of their writing and social commentary. Here’s some support for that view. So I was interested to see how this earlier book stands up in comparison. Unlike these, this one is set primarily in Hamburg, and briefly in South Africa (where Temple grew up), London and Wales.

There are two main characters, Con Niemand, ex-soldier now working in security, initially in Johannesburg, and John Anselm, a journalist once held hostage in Beirut, now also working in security but the surveillance rather than the muscle kind. In the course of his work, Niemand comes across the film of a massacre somewhere in Africa. He tries to sell it, and then is the subject of a number of attempts to kill him. The company Anselm works for is conducting illegal surveillance of two businessmen, apparently for an entity wishing to recover assets from them. Inevitably, the two stories intersect. I found the Anselm story a bit confusing at times, but there’s quite a big hint which helped make sense of it. Niemand is a conventional tough hero, extraordinarily resourceful in escaping his pursuers, and extraordinarily lucky in finding someone to help him. Anselm is a more fully drawn character, whose feelings and relationships ring rather truer, and whose life in Hamburg is more fully fleshed out. His dialogue in particular is spare and effective. The plot is quite clever, but relies a bit much on conventional crime genre conventions, particularly happenstance; Temple admits as much when Anselm says he ‘knew the buoyancy of the moment when intuition intersected with luck’. It’s also a bit violent for me – though that doesn’t mean it’s very violent. Overall, a very good crime novel, but not rising above genre like Truth or The Broken Shore.

The Falls, by B. Michael Radburn

Published in 2016, this is the third of Radburn’s books, though the first I’ve read. There are two main male leads, Taylor Bridges, a national park ranger who appears in Radburn’s previous book, The Crossing, and Quade Marsden, a detective who has been demoted to uniformed sergeant in a small town in Gippsland, Victoria, apparently as a punishment for exposing corruption (‘Whistle-blower or snitch?’ asks one character). Just before they are forced to flee a bushfire, two rock climbers discover a body in a canyon, but the site is destroyed by the fire. Bridges, a close family friend of one of the climbers, agrees to help Marsden with the geography of the area. But the two discover not only the entrance to an old lost mine, but a number of other grave sites. More help is called in, headed up by Detective Sandra Norton. The action moves between these three, but also involves the viewpoints of the climbers, who were looking for the mine, and someone who could be the villain. Could stories about a religious cult that centred on the mine be true? Could the descendants of the family that owned the mine by involved? Can Detective Norton flush out the murderer? The characters all have a bit of back story, and are adequate for their part in the plot, if not fully convincing. Radburn seems to subscribe to the idea that something dramatic has to happen every three pages, and I wondered if he were writing with a TV adaption in mind; both plot and landscape seem to invite this. I had hopes for the plot, which seemed to be developing nicely into a satisfactory jigsaw, but by the end there were some pieces that didn’t fit, and a strong whiff of deus ex machina in the resolution. Still, it kept me going on a hot summer’s day. But please Mr Radburn it’s bushfires, not wildfires. That’s what they have in America.

 

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The Seven Sisters (2002) is the fifteenth of Margaret Drabble’s nineteen novels. I’ve only read one other of her books, The Red Queen (2004), which I quite enjoyed (here is my somewhat underwhelmed review) so I can’t say how far The Seven Sisters compares to her other work. But she is clearly a major and revered figure in the English literary landscape, so maybe she’s allowed a few minor efforts like this one.

Candida Walton has found herself in late middle age divorced and alone. She has moved from Suffolk to London and bought a flat in Ladbroke Grove in north-west London; she describes the area as run down (though it must have had a renaissance since 2002). She determines to write a diary, and this makes up the first, and the much longest section of the book. In it she chronicles the small events of her life such as her visits to a health club, shopping, her prison visiting, her dental appointment or entertaining a friend. There is information about her previous life and her hopes and fears about the situation she finds herself in. The second section, which is told in the third person, describes a visit to North Africa and Italy she makes with some friends and a tour guide – the Seven Sisters of the title. Several of the friends are from an evening class she attended on Virgil’s Aeneid; this fires her enthusiasm to trace Aeneas’s legendary route from Carthage to Naples. The third section is from the point of view of Candida’s daughter Ellen, and the final section is told by Candida back in London.

When I first started reading, I was very attracted to Candida’s self-awareness – and her tendency to play too much solitaire, a weakness I suffer from myself. The reflections of a middle aged and middle class woman are bound to be of interest to a similar (if somewhat older) sort of reader. At times it seems that Drabble must have had direct access to my thoughts and feelings. ’Self-pity is a seductive emotion … It deludes as well as seduces.’ Well yes. And if at the beginning of a novel you find the words ‘Nothing much happens to me now, nor ever will again’, you experience the wry enjoyment of recognising an unreliable narrator, because of course something is going to happen – there’s a whole book ahead. A reader might expect it to be about Candida reinventing herself, and this is the main theme. However as a character she is undoubtedly passive; unfortunately it makes her rather boring. She doesn’t have the gumption to go out and get a job; the thing that shakes her out of her passivity is an unexpected financial windfall. By the end of the diary section I was beginning to wonder if I really liked Candida, or whether in her own words, she is ‘mean, self-righteous, self-pitying’. As one critic says, ‘Drabble has managed to capture this sensation of insignificant life, but without forging it into significant fiction.’

The story is actually a bit frustrating too. I don’t really mind that nothing much happens; it’s more that there are so many lose ends, events that seem about to lead somewhere but end up petering out. This may be true to life, but it’s hard to turn it into ‘significant fiction’. One example is the audio tapes that Candida is given, but can only hear noise on, when the friend that gave them to her obviously thought they would be meaningful. And what is the mystery surrounding what Anaïs is purchasing? Other linkages seem artificial, like the man Candida visits in gaol for murdering a woman by drowning her; he is presumably only in the story to contribute in some vague way to the theme of water and drowning that runs through it. (Though if we are following the Aeneid, Dido self-immolated, she didn’t drown.) I’m don’t know the classical references well enough to really comment, but it’s not clear to me that they add much to the story.

It’s true that the story line isn’t completely linear, and that there is a bit of postmodern fictional playfulness, though I’m not going to spoil the twist by saying what it is (more than I’ve already done). Drabble is playing with the idea of ‘voice’ – in more ways than one. She is probing the limits of the fictional voice when she attributes to Candida doubt about her ability to render the speech of others: ‘yet again’, Candida says, ‘I seem, relentlessly, inescapably, to have given the other person my own syntax and vocabulary’, and ‘I probably shouldn’t attempt dialogue’. Yet this is precisely what Drabble the author does all the time. The narrative twist is quite clever, but for me it fell a bit flat. Maybe I was already disengaged by the time I got to it.

Friends have pointed out to me the psychological depth of the story; Candida must be reborn to transform herself, and get outside herself to do this. Their insights did add gravitas to the book, though I could ask if we all need to be psychologists to appreciate it? But I guess getting different perspectives is the whole point of having a discussion.

I have one other quite unfair but inescapable reaction to the story. Published in 2002, it is of course set well before the Arab Spring made travel such as Candida and her friends undertake difficult and dangerous. Tunis, the site of Carthage (more or less) has escaped most of the worst of the violence, though a lone gunman killed a number of tourists at a nearby resort in 2015. And the passage across the Mediterranean is now a life and death affair for thousands of refugees, with Naples an uncertain refuge. I know this has nothing to do with Drabble’s book, but I can’t help but see today’s reality in contrast to the well-meaning, well-to-do English tourists of the story.

Margaret Drabble doesn’t seem to have a web-site, but you can read a bit about her here or here. And you can read her version of her famous feud with her sister A.S. Byatt here.

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Run was published in 2007, following the success of Bel Canto (2001), which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and which I reviewed with some reservations here. I have a few reservations about this book too, but overall found it enjoyable and quite moving.

The action is decidedly domestic. It takes place over twenty-four hours, with background about the characters and their lives filled in along the way, and a sort of epilogue at the end. As one character reflects, ‘he didn’t think the entire story could possibly take more than ten minutes start to finish’. The book begins with background: the story of a statue of the Virgin Mary that has been in the Doyle family for several generations. It then moves to the present day Doyle family. Bernard Doyle and his wife Bernadette had one child, Sullivan, and then adopted two black baby brothers, Tip and Teddy. They were still very young when Bernadette died of cancer, leaving Doyle to bring up the boys. He is a successful lawyer and sometime Mayor of Boston, and hopes that either or both of his two younger sons will take up the political career he never achieved. Sullivan, who is older, has not lived at home for some time and has most recently been working in Africa. Neither of the younger boys is much interested in politics; they feel they have heard it all before. Tip wants to be an ichthyologist and Teddy seems drawn to the Church through his closeness to his uncle, who is a retired priest. One snowy night outside a political lecture, Tip argues with his father, and not looking where he is going, only avoids being hit by a car because a woman, Tennessee Moser, pushes him out of the way, though she herself is seriously injured. Her young daughter Kenya is distraught, but she knows why her mother wanted to save Tip from harm. The rest of the book draws out the connections between the characters, including Sullivan who has unexpectedly returned, and reaches a resolution which establishes new patterns between them.

Family relationships are at the heart of the story; these are teased out through both actions and dialogue. ‘Tip knew how to put words to things while Teddy knew how to follow what was in his heart’. Sullivan can be charming, but so far has been essentially selfish. Doyle is the reasonable parent who is nevertheless unreasonable. Kenya is loyal and honest – a bit unrealistically so. It is from her ability – and desire – to run that the book takes its title, and there is a great description of how she is truly herself while running. The title might also be taken to imply that everyone is running – either to or from something. Sullivan certainly is.

The structure of the story works quite well except for what I think is an extremely clunky way of introducing the backstory of Kenya’s mother, Tennessee. But it reveals information that is known only to the reader; the characters form their relationships without knowledge of it. I think this is a strength of the story because it reinforces the theme that families form in many ways. However I am less sure about the role of the uncle, Father Sullivan, who has attracted an unwanted and, he thinks, unwarranted fame as a faith healer. A series of incidents related to touch suggest Patchett is close to endorsing faith healing. Even if it is allowable in fiction, I don’t think faith healing is necessary to the structure of the story. Father Sullivan is necessary to the book because of Teddy’s attachment to him, but I don’t think he adds much else. Patchett has been praised for her warmth at a time when more cynical writing is the norm. The danger is that warmth can spill over into sentimentality, and I think this is a trap she has fallen into here. If she actually believes in faith healing, does that make it any the less sentimental?

As well as the theme of family, there is reference to both race and class. As black sons of a white father, Tip and Teddy are unusual in their social circle, but they scarcely notice it because they are from a socially and economically privileged elite. Patchett makes us aware of this through Kenya’s eyes; the daughter of a poor, black single mother, she can scarcely believe the comfort in which the Doyles live. Waking in a bright bedroom in the Doyles’ house, ‘she wondered if there wasn’t a way that light was divided and somehow … more of it wound up in better neighbourhoods’. Tennessee has no medical insurance, but Doyle, a Democrat, isn’t interested. ‘The uninsured poor are such a compelling political issue until you actually meet one,’ Sullivan taunts him. Despite this dig, Patchett, who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for President, makes it clear that Doyle’s insistence that his sons take an interest in politics arises from a hope that they might improve the lives of others, rather than just living out his unfulfilled dream. But though she points out the Doyles’ privilege, Patchett doesn’t really criticise it; indeed there is a Cinderella-like quality to the final resolution. Sums up the Democrats, maybe.

You can read more about Ann Patchett here. Her most recent book, Commonwealth (2016), has been widely praised – see here, for example.

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‘If David Mitchell isn’t the most talented novelist of his generation, is there any doubt that he is the most multi-talented?’ This is one critic’s assessment, and I can only agree with it. David Mitchell is one of the best prose writers I have ever read. He’s pitch perfect whatever voice he is using. I wondered in my earlier review of his Cloud Atlas (2004) whether he was anything more than a very clever mimic. But reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) – reviewed here – convinced me that he actually has that rare ability to make all the voices the novelist uses sound utterly authentic.  This capacity is again on show in The Bone Clocks (2014). And while I thought the convoluted structure of Cloud Atlas might be a bit over-clever, I accept that the episodic structure of Bone Clocks works perfectly. I really am a convert!

But aside from how he writes, I still have some hesitation about some of what he writes about. The book consists of six sections – almost short stories – set over a period beginning in 1984 and ending in 2043. The first and the last concern Holly Sykes; the other four have different narrators, though Holly is in all of them, and several other characters recur. And although each is completely different in time, tone and content, there is another aspect linking them all which I’ll come to in a moment; it is this aspect I’m not entirely comfortable with.

In 1984, Holly is a teenager completely smitten with slightly older man. She fights with her mother over it and runs away to live with him, only to find his declarations of love are false; she keeps on running – or rather walking. Over the next couple of days she has some strange experiences but returns home after hearing that her younger brother is missing. In 1991, Hugo Lamb, a postgraduate student at Oxford, is clever and charming. But it soon becomes clear that he is an also accomplished con man. On a visit to Switzerland for the skiing he meets Holly Sykes. Can she redeem him? In 2004, Ed Brubeck is a foreign correspondent just back from Iraq to attend the wedding of Holly’s sister; he is Holly’s partner and they have a daughter, Aoife. He denies being a war junkie, but he can’t get what he’s seen in Iraq out of his head. The next section covers the years 2015-19 in the life of an aging novelist named Crispin Hershey. He at first despises Holly, who has written an unusual and popular book, but comes to love her. In 2025 Iris Fenby is a psychiatrist, but I can’t summarise this section without giving away much else in the book. And then in 2043, Holly is an old woman living in the west of Ireland with her granddaughter and a Moroccan refugee she has adopted. It is the time of the Endarkenment. The economy, electronic communications and transport are breaking down. Her small community is threatened by the meltdown of a nuclear power plant, and civil order is collapsing. She and the children live precariously on what she can grow or barter. This is the section of the book that stays most in my mind, though it could be seen as a coda to the action. Its power derives from the sense that this is what the future will be if we continue to destroy the environment and fail to take steps to curb the growing inequality of wealth across the world. But there is fine writing in all of the sections, mixing grim reality with psychological insight and even a bit of humour.

But there is something else altogether going on in this book. In each section, but particularly in the fifth one, there is a perpetual war being waged between tiny groups of Atemporals, the Horologists, and Anchorites, the former being entities that can enter people’s minds, and who enjoy a form of immortality through transference to new bodies, the latter being humans that are able to defer death, though only through taking another human’s life. (I’ve oversimplified that a bit, but then these entities are oversimplified into good v evil.) In addition, a few people have the gift of precognition. Humans, being mortal, are ‘bone clocks.’

At times Mitchell appears to make fun of both himself and the idea of magic powers. Hugo Lamb for example says that ‘the paranormal is always, always a hoax.’ ‘The mind-walking theory’ is only plausible ‘if you live in a fantasy novel’ – which of course he does. A critic in the story says of Crispin Hershey’s novel that ‘the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s state of the wold pretentions, I cannot bear to look.’ And critics have said much the same about this book. But other less compromised characters defend the idea. Holly says ‘Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.’ And another character says that some magic is ‘normality you’re not yet used to’. So I guess Mitchell at least wants readers to take the paranormal elements of the book seriously. And this is a problem for me, not so much in accepting what I perceive as fantasy – there are many great fantasy stories, not least two of my all-time favourites Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials – but because of the mixture of fantasy and reality. As one critic put it, ‘The fantastical elements can … appear overblown and absurd when placed against some of the beautifully realised human moments.’

There is a lot more complexity to this book than I have covered here, and I haven’t even begun to comment on the way that some characters, and major themes like the precariousness of civilisation, appear in most if not all of Mitchell’s books; all Mitchell’s novels form a unified, if extraordinarily complex, whole, an ‘uber novel’. You can read more assessments of his work, as well as the place of The Bone Clocks in it, in two great reviews, one from the Sydney Review of Books (from which the quote above comes), and one from the Atlantic Monthly, entitled ‘David Mitchell’s Almost-Perfect Masterpiece’. And this one, from which the quote which opens this post comes, even has a connection guide. And here’s another one, where Mitchell discussed The Bone Clocks.

Overall, despite any reservations, The Bone Clocks is a rewarding, challenging – if at times frustrating – and memorable novel. I highly recommend it.

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