Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Published in 2006, this book purports to be an account of the work of an American writer, speaker and philanthropist, Greg Mortenson, as per the subtitle: One Man’s Extraordinary Journey to Promote Peace … One School at a Time. It is a flawed book about a flawed man. But I found it inspiring. I say ‘purports’ because it turns out some of the details are not true. I’ll nevertheless stick with ‘inspiring’ because the essential truth is that not only did Mortenson single-handedly begin the work of building schools for children, particularly girls, in remote northern Pakistan and later Afghanistan, he also told the American people that the war on terror could not be won by bombs; it had to be won by education.

Mortenson, a trauma nurse by training, was an avid mountaineer. In 1993, having failed in an attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world, located in northern Pakistan, he stumbled into a village below it. The villagers helped him recover. He saw they had no school building and promised to return and build one. The details about how this happened are among those contested; apparently, he only briefly visited the village and in fact returned later to promise the school. I agree accuracy is important and here Relin, the professional author who did most of the writing, has tried to make the story a bit more dramatic than it actually was. But given how subjective biography always is, I don’t find this a knockout blow. (There is at least one other contested incident where Relin has overdramatised; some people take this as invalidating the whole.) The book then goes on to explain how Mortenson went back to America and tried to raise funds for his school, how he was assisted by a benefactor who set up the non-profit Central Asia Institute for him, how from one school it grew to many, how Mortenson negotiated  the incredibly difficult landscape of northern Pakistan – physical, political, social and religious – and how he fared after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre led to an American war on the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The book is a sort of case study of the growth of one person’s commitment to an idea into a significant non-government organisation, with all the strengths and weaknesses this involves. Mortenson had the dream and the drive to make it happen. Even if Relin overstates the devotion Mortenson seems to have attracted in Pakistan – and he certainly does lay it on a bit thick – Mortenson was clearly visionary, brave and dogged. Maybe he was a bit obsessive. But it is amazing that one man, with just a small band of supporters in Pakistan and America, could accomplish anything where past promises of government aid had come to nothing. That he succeeded in establishing any schools for girls in a poor Muslim country is particularly to his enormous credit. There is a bit of discussion in the book about whether NGOs coming in and changing traditional practices is a good idea, as it will change a way of life in balance with its environment; the book heads one chapter with an approving quote suggesting ‘an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth … that ancient cultures have never abandoned.’ It is clear, however, that improving education, water supply and maternal health are welcomed by those who have to live with the downside of the traditional practices. On the other hand, Relin makes it clear that Mortenson didn’t have the administrative skills or inclination to control the organisation properly. He is open about the fact that Mortenson disliked the fund-raising side – though he got better at it as he went along – and that he was ‘goofy and unbusinesslike’. For the first several years, funds were limited, and he begrudged spending money on administration in America that he felt could be better used in Pakistan. He found it hard to do tasks he disliked – like keeping CAI’s board informed of what he was doing. Even by the time of publication of the book, the organisation was suffering from poor administration.

Just how badly it suffered only became clear after the book was published. It was an enormous success and generated revenue far beyond anything the CAI had previously enjoyed. Mortenson also made a lot of money from speaking fees. Then came the backlash. In 2012, questions about the authenticity of the book were raised, as were concerns about whether all the money was going to the charity. People who had previously supported Mortenson turned against him. After an inquiry found there was no intentional wrong-doing on his part, Mortenson agreed to repay $1 million to the organisation, and was banned from taking a leadership role in it. Sadly, the allegations about elements of the story being untrue caused Relin, already suffering from depression, to commit suicide.

While scandals about the book and Mortenson’s financial mis-management seem to be the frame through which many people view him, to me there is a much more important story. And that is Mortenson’s attempt to argue to his American audience that education is more important than bombs in the war on terror. Indeed, he was acutely aware that bombing, which inevitably killed civilians, made Americans hated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He saw with concern the spread of Saudi Arabian funded madrassas, preaching the fundamentalist Islamic creed of Wahhabism, some of them home to militant extremism. He respected Islam, but wanted children to have a balanced general education, not religious indoctrination. He understood that support for the Taliban came from anti-Americanism, ignorance and a perversion of Islam. This was not what many in America wanted to hear. Of course, only a conspiracy theorist could possibly suggest a direct connection between his criticisms of the war on terror and accusations of impropriety against him. However, framing him as corrupt and incompetent has deeply compromised other possible ways of looking at his work in promoting peace one school at a time.

You can read more about Mortenson and what happened after the book was published here. And this is a summary from the Washington Post giving both sides of the story, and where he was up to in 2014. These are also interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bFnjDigs_w; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH7wmSuMB8k.

Read Full Post »

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’.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Published in 2000, my book club’s most recent choice has achieved a wide audience – well, a wider audience – through its recreation as a film of the same name (2015). It stars Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, and the cast and film won five awards at the 2015 AACTAs: Best Lead Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), Best Supporting Actor (Hugo Weaving), Best Costumes (Marion Boyce and Margot Wilson) and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film. But the book began life as a project for a creative writing class, and it shows. You can just imagine them workshopping the blurb: ‘an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute couture’. It’s true, though, that I saw the film before I read the book; this inevitably changed the way I read it.

Tilly Dunnage arrives back in her small home town of Dungatar with a suitcase and a sewing machine, and incredible skills as a dressmaker (and yes, I think I mean incredible, but that’s maybe because I don’t have any skills at all in the area myself). She has returned to care for her mother who lives in squalid seclusion in a house at the top of the only hill in town. We learn that Tilly was banished from Dungatar after being involved, in some initially unspecified way, in the death of another child; she has in the meantime learnt dressmaking in the leading European design houses. The residents of the town are initially almost uniformly hostile. The two main exceptions are the town’s only policeman, Sergeant Farrat, who himself loves making outrageous outfits to wear in the privacy of his house, and Teddy McSwiney, who comes from a family of outcasts himself, but has won popularity as the local football team’s star full forward. He finds Tilly the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Gradually the women of the town warm to Tilly when they find she can make clothes that make them look attractive and stylish, and gradually Tilly warms to Teddy. But then tragedy strikes. Can anything be saved from the ruins? Quick answer: no.

I bet that when they were workshopping that blurb, they thought about including ‘revenge’ and ‘magic realism’ in the list. And I’m not sure why ‘gothic’ made the cut, because it’s not a horror story, though of course horrible things happen. But it is a tale of revenge, initially satisfying, but then rather over the top. I’m not sure if revenge was always what Tilly intended; I didn’t get that impression, though others have suggested it. And perhaps the magic realism is rather more cinematic than inherent in the story, though Sergeant Farrat certainly defies ordinary credibility. The town’s entry into the eisteddfod is pretty surreal too.

Tilly’s story is the main one, but there are a number of sub plots involving the town residents. This is one of the areas that sounds to me a bit like a creative writing class exercise. Have lots of characters and tell us something interesting about them all. There were so many I had to keep going back to work out which was which, whose story belonged to whom. Most of these sub plots show people in a poor light that is sometimes funny, but often just rather nasty and rather two dimensional. One of the sub plots is actually part of Tilly’s story; it’s just a bit hard to pick it out from amongst all the others – though maybe this is intentional to add an element of mystery. The way the relationship between Tilly and her mother Molly develops doesn’t ring true to me either; I thought it was handled better in the film. (The overall plot was sharpened up a bit in the film. The beginning of the book drags a bit.)

So what of the other tag words in the blurb? Australian the book certainly is; the landscape is beautifully evoked, and the dialogue has an Aussie ring to it. The small town pettiness could probably be found anywhere, but seems to take on a particularly Australian character. And the haute couture is interesting for those with an interest in such things – whether, for example, Tilly used ‘Paris stitch for the lace trim … when she knew she should have used whip stitch.’ I’m assured by those who are interested that the haute couture is the highlight of the book. But is it enough to hang the story on? It’s perfectly legitimate to have an exotic or highly specialised craft that is central to the story, but too often it is clearly a device that doesn’t sit quite comfortably – think The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato, reviewed here, or A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones, reviewed here. There is only one point at which the author poses the question of the human value of Tilly’s dressmaking. Teddy asks Tilly why she makes clothes for the nasty women of the town; she replied it’s what she does. ‘They’ve grown airs, they think they’re classy,’ says her mother. ‘You’re not doing them any good.’ But Molly is painted as contrary by nature (or illness and neglect), and so this can’t really be taken as the author’s view. Indeed Tilly replies ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ I was left completely unsure whether Tilly is from the beginning using her dressmaking skills to build the women up only to tear them down, whether she uses them to get the town to accept her, or whether at least initially she just likes dressmaking. Certainly her revenge is ultimately complete.  But is the haute couture part of it? Or does it lead the town to destroy itself?

You can read more about Rosalie Ham here, and more about the film version here. It’s described as ‘a revenge comedy-drama’. Unusually, most of my book group preferred it to the book.

Read Full Post »

Published in 1988, this is Kingsolver’s first novel. Having read several of her later ones and enjoyed them very much – Prodigal Summer (2000)  is reviewed here, The Lacuna (2009) is reviewed here, and Flight Behaviour (2012) here – I was interested to see where all this started. The Bean Trees is a short book, in contrast to the much longer ones she later wrote, but she introduces some of the same themes she later develops about families and friendships, and you can see in her writing something of what she later achieves much more fully.

Marietta – Missy Greer – she later changes the Marietta to Taylor – is born and brought up by her single mother in poor, rural Kentucky. But she clings to the idea that she doesn’t have to do what most of the local girls do – get pregnant, get married and stay there for the rest of their lives; as her mother says, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen isn’t her style. Her life is changed when a new teacher arrives at the high school, not in the usual way in stories of opening her mind to education, but by the fact that his wife, a nurse at the local hospital, needs someone to work there part-time, and he gives Missy the job. She saves enough that, after graduating from high school – an achievement in itself – she can change her name to Taylor, buy an old car and head west in search of adventure. But in Oklahoma her car breaks down. She stops at a garage and restaurant near a Cherokee Indian reservation, and is literally left holding a baby when a Native American woman thrusts it into her hands and drives away.  What should she do?

The plot is relatively slight; as I said, it’s a short book. It also seems to me a little unrealistic. However It turns on the fact that the child Taylor is given is Native American, and maybe what happens is possible in such a scenario. The story also has some interesting present-day relevance, one strand being about illegal immigration into the United States. But plot isn’t everything. Kingsolver also delights in set piece descriptions which add warmth and colour, but aren’t really about advancing the action. Examples are scattered through the book; they include the results Missy sees of an accident when working at the hospital, the fast food restaurant she works at, a dinner, and a picnic. These all give her the opportunity to draw a cast of sympathetic characters; there is no one with any significant part in the plot who is cruel or unpleasant, though cruelty and misery lurk on its borders.

I find it interesting to compare this book with Flight Behaviour, which is also about a woman, Dellarobia, from a poor white community, this time in Tennessee. Both Taylor and Dellarobia are struggling to take control of their lives. Like Missy, Dellarobia dreams of flight, though unlike her, she did get pregnant, married, and stayed in her community. Like Taylor, her life is changed by a stranger (though he is a product of strange events, not chance). Like Taylor, her main concerns are her children, and family relationships. But in the later book, these issues are treated with much greater sophistication and maturity. Though The Bean Trees is told primarily in the first person, and Flight Behaviour in the third person, Dellarobia comes alive much more vividly for me than Missy/Talyor. And the great social and environmental issue addressed in Flight Behaviour, the impact of climate change, is much more fully developed, and more integral to the story than the illegal immigration strand in The Bean Trees. I say this not as a criticism of the earlier book, but to note how brilliantly Kingsolver’s work has matured.

One of the attractions for me of Kingsolver’s work is the deep commitment to social justice that runs through all of her books that I have read. In 2000, she established the Bellwether Prize, a literary prize is intended to support writers whose unpublished works support positive social change and human justice. Given her support for feminism, environmentalism and human rights, it not perhaps surprising in today’s America that she has her critics. Writing in the New Republic, (not, to be fair, a conservative publication) one commentator responded to The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by calling her a master of “Calamity Writing” and wrote that she offers “the mere appearance of goodness as a substitute for honest art”. He also characterized her as an “easy, humorous, competent, syrupy writer [who] has been elevated to the ranks of the greatest political novelists of our time”. I certainly don’t agree; I think she is a great political novelist. For example, I find it interesting that Kingsolver gives us a detailed and sympathetic, yet acute picture of the poor white communities to whom Donald Trump, now the President elect, appeals, and who are often demonized by liberal Americans. And I find her writing masterful. You can, however, read her opinion of Donald Trump here. I can scarcely imagine what she must be feeling about the outcome of the election.

You can read more about Barbara Kingsolver here. Pigs in Heaven (1993) is a sequel to The Bean Trees.

Read Full Post »

Foreign Correspondence (1997) is an early autobiographical work, coming before Brooks had published any of her prize-winning fiction. You can read my review of one of her well-regarded novels, People of the Book (2008) here. This one is not really an autobiography as such; rather it’s a view of her life through a particular lens which focuses on the themes of staying and leaving.

The book has a sub-title – which doesn’t for some reason appear on the edition I read – which pretty much tells you what it is about: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over. As a child being brought up in what she suggests was one of the more boring suburbs of Sydney, Brooks finds ‘the opening I’d looked for to the wider world’ by writing to pen friends, first in Sydney, then America, Israel, Palestine and France. Much later in life, she decides to follow up her pen friends and find out what has happened to them. Thus in Part I the book follows her life growing up in the suburbs and her departure from Australia to become a foreign correspondent – hence the full double meaning of the title. Then in Part II comes the later intertwining of her life with those of her pen friends and the wider world. ‘The geography of this childhood correspondence,’ she writes, ‘has become the road map of the adult life.’

Although she is quite self-deprecating about it, Brooks is clearly exceptionally clever. Is there something in her childhood circumstances that contributed to this? Is it nature or nurture, or possibly, a bit of both? She was effectively an only child; her only sister was eight years older. Her father was an American jazz singer who put all that behind him soon after settling in Australia, to become a sub-editor on the Sydney Morning Herald; he has clearly influenced her life choices. Through his interest in journalism, she came to see that ‘Australians had lives that were worth writing about’. He was not an easy man; ‘I learned that if I wanted to talk to him it was easier to follow his adult interests’. From this she comes to see that there is a world outside Australia, and sets out to find out about it though reading, and her search for pen pals. However in this account, Brooks’s mother is perhaps the greater influence. As a child Brooks was often ill and unable to go to school; it was her mother who helped and encouraged her, and played games that inspired and informed her creative imagination. It was her mother who could ‘enter a child’s world with ease and spend comfortable hours there’, giving Brooks comfort and security in what might otherwise have been a lonely childhood. School – a Catholic girls’ college – is passed over with little comment; clearly she does not see it as an important formative influence.

Brooks grew up passionate about whatever it was that caught her interest, be it Star Trek, kibbutz in Israel, or the Paris student uprising in 1968. All of these coincided with or contributed to her search for pen friends. Sometimes she doesn’t get quite what she expects, either from her pen friends, or her unfulfilled teenage rebelliousness. She is, nevertheless, able to conclude from the victory of Whitlam’s ALP in the 1972 Australian election that ‘It is a great thing, at seventeen, to learn that it’s possible to change the world’. But it is inevitable that she will, like many others, leave Australia to pursue the fulfilment she seeks overseas.

I’m not going to outline the stories of each of Brooks’s pen friends. They all raise interesting and sometimes disturbing questions about life choices, perceptions of the world, and its realities. Each of them opens up a conversation that Brooks confronts with honesty and humanity, and sometimes humour. She writes with an easy fluency, honed perhaps by her experience as a journalist, and coming to full fruition in her later fiction. The use of her penfriends as a way into her life and experiences works exceptionally well as a structure for the book.

As an Australian brought up in an even more boring suburb than Brooks, I can’t help comparing our experiences. She’s younger than I am – though her schooling was apparently a bit less empowering – and that makes it a bit easier for me to accept her complete superiority in everything she’s done. I can only admire her courage and determination, as well, of course, as her intellectual prowess. Why didn’t I keep writing to my pen friend?

You can read more about Geraldine Brooks here. And this site contains a list of her works of fiction, which include the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March, a major achievement since the prize is for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. Brooks became an American citizen in 2002. But she still calls Australia ‘home’, sort of; you may be interested in her Boyer Lectures 2011: The Idea of Home (or “At Home in the World”).

Read Full Post »

Graham Swift is not a prolific writer; he publishes a new book every four or five years. Having loved two of his earlier ones, Waterland (1983) and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders (1996) (reviewed here), I always have high expectations of a new one. Wish You Were Here (2011) (not to be confused with Taylor Swift’s song of the same name) is the second to last of his books. It covers some similar ground to Last Orders, but somehow it doesn’t quite come up to the standard of the earlier book.

The story uses the same techniques as much of Swift’s writing in that it jumps backwards in time from present to past. Like Last Orders, it tells of a journey that ends in a funeral. Jack Luxton, the last of a long line of dairy farmers in Devon, has sold his land and with his wife Ellie has become the owner/manager of a caravan park on the Isle of Wight. The story begins with Jack standing with a shotgun in his Isle of Wight cottage after a fight with his wife. Is he going to shoot himself, or her, or both of them? The pressure of not knowing builds throughout the story. The fight seems to be over something relatively trivial: Ellie’s refusal to accompany Jack to the funeral of his brother, a soldier killed in Iraq. But it has called into question everything in Jack’s past: the effects of the mad cow disease cull of their farm animals, his brother Tom’s decision to run away and join the Army, the death of their father, his marriage to Ellie, daughter of a neighbouring farmer, the sale of the farm land, and of the old farm house to London yuppies as a country retreat.

Unlike Last Orders, where a range of people had a voice in the story, this story is told largely from Jack’s perspective, though Ellie and Tom do get brief turns. This allows Ellie to be presented in a largely unfavourable light. It is she who has taken the initiative in selling the farm and moving to the Isle of Wight, she who resents the hold the memory of Tom has over his brother Jack. Has she trashed the things that were important to Jack? Her contributions to the story do something to balance this negative view of her, and after all, Jack went along with all this. Perhaps it is his sense of self-betrayal that Swift is getting at – the giving up of his heritage. ‘The smell of cow dung mingling with earth, the cheapest, lowliest of smells, but the best. Who wouldn’t wish for that as their birthright and their last living breath?’

One of the issues with Jack is that although the story is mostly in his hands, he is essentially inarticulate. He has trouble putting his feelings into words. The title of the book comes from the wording of a postcard he sent as a boy to Ellie while away on a rare beach holiday in a caravan with his mother and brother. The holiday is one of the best times of his life. Yet he misses Ellie. How can he convey this complex message of ‘honesty and guilt’? The other side of the inarticulate coin is that a single word, like ‘holiday’ or ‘caravan’ conjures up a whole complex of emotions. When his brother leaves, he gives him a card and says goodbye at the same time. But he can’t think of anything better or more intimate to say than: “‘Good luck, Tom. I’ll be thinking of you.’ Which was a foolish thing perhaps to have said, because it was exactly what he’d written on the card.” While I’m sure that Swift is making the point that inarticulate people have strong feelings, it forces him at times into third party narrator expedients like ‘he might have said but didn’t’ which aren’t really convincing. Which is not to say that Swift doesn’t write well; he does, really well.

Even though both are about a death, Wish You Were Here is a much grimmer book than Last Orders. It seems that Swift’s world view has darkened. The decline of the dairy industry, hit first by BSE and then by foot and mouth disease (after Jack has sold up, but he still feels somehow involved), the war in Iraq, the shadowy war on terror, economic and social inequality, all have more or less direct impacts on Jack. One of Swift’s great talents is to draw connections either directly or through metaphor; Jack’s shotgun, for example, is both a real object and a symbol of other deaths, both in the story and beyond, so a story that is limited in time and space acquires much wider ramifications.

I note that the Guardian review sees the story as a meditation on Englishness. Certainly Jack thinks of the farm as a ‘little bit of England’. It is an elegy for a lost world, and perhaps loss is a particularly English sentiment at the moment. I’m not sure of Swift’s intention. It may be so, but he is at least as interested in the impact of writers from outside Britain in the magic realist tradition as in internal soul searching. There isn’t any magic realism as such in the story, but there is a slightly surreal quality to some of the writing. For example Jack finds he can’t be sure of what’s real and what’s merely in his head. And to bear out my point about the interrelatedness of Swift’s themes, there is the madness everywhere – arising from BSE, reflected in of culling healthy animals, the madness of the war in Iraq, the madness, it seems, of modern life … Such madness is hardly confined to England.

You can read the review I referred to here. Swift doesn’t seem to have a website – which isn’t really surprising, he seems a very private person – but you can read a bit more about him here. His most recent book, Mothering Sunday (2016), has received much praise, so is a must read for me.

Read Full Post »

This book is set primarily in the 1930s at the time of the Japanese invasion of China, with all the horror and suffering that involved. And Mo Yan does not shrink from graphic accounts of cruelty and death. I went on reading this distressing book for three reasons. First, it is my book club novel, which I therefore feel I have an obligation to read. Second, events like this happened, and continue to happen; it is little enough to ask that I accept the challenge of reading about them and facing the awfulness on the page that some people face in reality every day. And third, Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012; this book, published in 1987 (translated 1993), is an important part of the work for which the prize was awarded, and as such deserves huge respect. But it was still a struggle to get through it.

The story is written as if it were a family chronicle by a son looking back at the lives of his father and mother and grandpa and grandma, though the son hardly ever comes into the story himself. It is in fact quasi-biographical. It is not chronological, moving mostly seamlessly between the experiences of his grandma as a young woman, and the Japanese invasion of China a few years later. The story begins with his father taking part in a guerrilla attack on the invading Japanese near the village of Northeast Gaomi but then moves back in time to when his grandma as a young woman is sent to be married into a rich peasant family in that village – they make wine from sorghum – though things do not go as planned. Incidents may recur, though with slightly different details and emphasis. One example is the accounts of why the family’s wine is so good. Another is the death of Uncle Arhat, who by one version was a resistance martyr and by another a foolish man carried away by rage, though it is presumably Yan’s point that both may be true.

Duality is at the heart of the story. In the landscape there is ‘the Yang of White Horse Mountain’, and ‘the Yin of the Black Water River’. The narrator both loves and hates the village: ‘I had learned to love Northeast Gaomi Township with all my heart and to hate it with unbridled fury,’ he says. The township is ‘easily the most beautiful and most repulsive, the most unusual and most common, the most sacred and most corrupt … place in the world.’ The ubiquitous sorghum turns red when the grain is ripe; it looks like a ‘sea of blood’, and that is what it becomes with the arrival of the Japanese. The narrator’s grandfather Yu is both brave and cruel, a man for whom murder is simply a means to an end. Yet is there a difference between murder and killing wounded enemy soldiers? And I couldn’t help wondering about the duality of the whole project of resistance to the invaders; certainly it was heroic, but equally it was doomed, and brought frightful retribution.

Yan has no qualms about being graphic about the violence which both sides inflict on each other, though the Japanese have greater fire power and therefore more occasions to display their brutality. But life in rural China even before the invasion was no picnic. In a way the book is partly a love story, but there is no room for sentimentality; life for the peasants was, to use Hobbes’s phrase, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Yan views life with a slightly wry air; for example the spade Uncle Arhat has attacked a mule with sticks out of its side ‘at a jaunty angle’. The reader already knows just what is going to happen to Arhat because of his actions, making the use of the word ‘jaunty’ highly ironic. This no doubt intentionally makes the story even more difficult to read. I have to confess that I did skip over some bits of the violence.

In line with this duality, there is much lyrical writing, especially about the landscape, and the ever present sorghum fields. The red sorghum represents life and regeneration; there is again a conscious irony that when the narrator returns to the village at the end of the story, the red sorghum has been replaced by a hybrid green variety. It is only through pursuit of red sorghum that he can redeem himself.

Mo Yan’s life seems to reflect the duality that inhabits his writing. Mo Yan is a pseudonym which means ‘don’t speak’, and he rarely gives interviews. He says that ‘for a writer, the best way to speak is by writing. You will find everything I need to say in my works. Speech is carried off by the wind; the written word can never be obliterated’. Some of his writing is critical of the Chinese Communist Party, but he has been a member of the Party for many years, he had a career in the army and is – or has been – the deputy chairman of the party-aligned China Writer’s Association. As the first mainland Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature he received praise from the Party, but Chinese expatriate writers are critical of him for not being more critical of the repression of free speech by the regime. He has, however, had his share of criticism by the government for his sometimes unsympathetic portrayal of Communist Party members. As one reviewer noted, his readers ‘have long been puzzled by the disconnect between his unequivocal criticism of the state in his work and the conformity of his appearances’. Here is the text of a rare interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel – though it didn’t really clear up much of the confusion. On the other hand, if resistance to the regime is as suicidal as resistance to the Japanese, which of us would undertake it?

You can read more about him here, including details of the controversy that surrounded the awarding of the Nobel Prize to him. A highly acclaimed film of Red Sorghum was made by a Chinese studio in 1987-8, released in the West in 1989; here’s a review. I don’t think I want to see it.

Read Full Post »

I really believe that some crime fiction is as rewarding to read as some literary fiction, and both of the books discussed here fit into the rewarding category, though for different reasons. And just for a change, I’m including TV crime series that is based on crime fiction which, though offering other pleasures, for me falls short of the written word.

Even the Dead (2015) is I think the eighth of the Quirke mysteries by, as the cover tells us, John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. It’s a story that picks up some of the threads left hanging in the first of Banville’s crime stories, Christine Falls, reviewed here. Quirke, a pathologist in Dublin in the 1950s, has been on a sort of indefinite sick leave, but at the urging of his second in command, returns to work to consider anomalies in the autopsy of a young man apparently killed in a car crash. He teams up again with Inspector Hackett to find out what really happened, and it is soon clear they are treading on the toes of the rich and powerful. ‘This is Ireland ..,’ Quirke says. ‘There’s nothing the Church can’t get away with.’ But as Hackett retorts, they are ‘fierce inquisitive men, disinclined to be put off’. Quirke is also driven by his past, or rather lack of it (he was adopted); he needs to find ‘other lost creature(s)’. As in earlier books, his daughter Phoebe plays an important part in the story. With her involvement I think that Black the crime writer allows for coincidence to play rather too great a role. Perhaps Banville is rebuking Black when he has Quirke repudiate coincidences: ’they seemed to him flaws in the fabric of the world’. Black contrives a satisfactory ending where justice is seen to be done, but it is nevertheless for Banville that I read this series. His writing is a true pleasure, and I only had to reach for the thesaurus once.  (See my review of The Sea to decode that.)

Silent Kill (2014) by Peter Corris is his umpteenth Cliff Hardy story. It is in no sense ‘literature’ in the way that Banville/Black books are because of the fine writing they contain. The pleasure of Corris’s crime fiction is the characterisation of Hardy – a sort of Australian Philip Marlowe.  He doesn’t exactly walk the mean streets of Sydney, but he has his own code of honour, and dead-pan wisecracking repartee.  Here he is employed as a body guard to Rory O’Hara, a self-styled ‘self-funded righter of society’s wrongs’ who is about to undertake a speaking tour in which he promises to spill the beans on political corruption. He has already been victim of a hit and run accident. But the tour is disrupted when it has only just begun; there is treachery within O’Hara’s ranks, and a murder. Hardy does the basic detecting; ‘asking the right questions to find someone was my bread and butter, and I set about it.’ The story gets quite complicated, with shadowy intelligence services involved, which I find a bit of a cop out as it involves access to information and resources that are beyond the ordinary private detective.  It’s exciting in the same way TV crime shows can be: more action than explanation. But it’s still a satisfying story.

Speaking of more action than explanation, this is also my problem with the recent six-part Jack Irish TV series. It is the fourth Jack Irish production, the three previous ones, Bad Debts, Black Tide and Dead Point being telemovies based on Peter Temple’s books of the same titles. This one uses many of the Temple’s characters, but has a plot written specially for the series (with Temple’s consent). To my eyes, this has resulted in a less carefully crafted plot. The action is exciting enough – and of course you can see it – but I was often left thinking afterwards ‘how did that happen’? Being a six part series also meant that every episode had to end with a cliff-hanger situation, which gives a different shape to the story from that of a novel, which can build more slowly and establish firmer causation.  There is, too, a huge coincidence built into the story. Jack is hired to find a missing person, but finds himself framed for his murder. (One of the things that was never clear to me was why bother to frame him, when all the baddies needed to do was to use him to find their quarry. Or simply kill him.) He sets out to discover who did frame him, and finds himself enmeshed in a shadowy conspiracy doing something nasty, and murdering anyone in their way, though it takes a while to find out exactly what they are up to. Coincidentally, Jack’s on-again off-again girl-friend Linda Hillier has taken a job in Manilla that just happens to involve her in the same conspiracy. Hmmm. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. Guy Pearce makes a wonderful Jack, his horse-racing buddies are working on yet another racing scam and his old mates are still mourning the demise of the Fitzroy Football Club from the same seats in the pub. The Philippines connection makes for exciting viewing. In fact visually it was all pretty good. I think my problem is that I’m more attuned to reading than watching, whereas I should simply see these as two activities that aren’t really comparable. Then I might enjoy each for what it is. I doubt it though.

You can read more about John Banville here. Benjamin Black has a separate web page here; there’s also a 2013 three-part TV series based on the first three Quirke books. You can find more about Peter Corris here. And here is a review of the Jack Irish series which has recently finished on the ABC, so you might be able to catch it on iView, or DVD. You might also like Peter Temple’s two other crime stories, The Broken Shore and Truth – both of which fit into my ‘literature’ category; see my reviews here and here.

Read Full Post »

Before we start, I have to declare an interest. The Jack de Crow of the title (2009) is a Mirror dinghy. I also own a Mirror dinghy, long disused in the back shed, but nevertheless familiar in all its quirks and pleasures. I’ve even rowed a Mirror dinghy and know just how hard it is; even loaded it sits high in the water. Mackinnon’s unlikely voyage is simply amazing.

This is an account of a nearly 5000 kilometre voyage sailing single-handed in an eleven foot dinghy from North Shropshire to Sulina in Romania on the Black Sea. Mackinnon didn’t set out to sail further than a few kilometres, but after reaching each destination it seemed a good idea to go just a bit further. Quite a lot of the journey was on canals, where he mostly had to row (a skill which he learnt on the job), but he sailed across the English Channel and where ever else the waterway – river or canal – was broad enough. It took over a year, as he couldn’t sail in the depths of winter. And along the way he had many adventures.

Of course he’s only picked out the most interesting events and encounters to write about. ‘The next five days were utterly wonderful,’ he says at one point, ‘and so make poor telling, alas.’ This of course dramatizes the journey, which must at some points have been relatively mundane – that is if sailing every day into unknown waters in Eastern Europe could ever be called mundane. ‘I Exaggerate For Effect – my friends tell me I was born for that motto,’ he writes, and perhaps he does overstate some incidents. But even if understated there is more than enough interest to keep the reader eagerly turning the pages to find what scrape Mackinnon will get into next. There is also a certain amount of foreshadowing – as in ‘I set off in a jaunty frame of mind for what was to be, without a doubt, the worst day of my life.’ Really? Read on!

Mackinnon has certain attributes which made the trip possible; he is a skilled sailor since childhood in Australia, he is strong and brave and cool (mostly) in a crisis. On the other hand these are flimsy enough advantages to set against the weather, the waves and perils of his mode of travel, particularly as he was doing it on a shoestring budget. He acknowledges the considerable support he received from family and friends; who of us could rock up to the gates of Eton, drop the name of a housemaster and be taken in and made comfortable for the night? But one of the aspects of his story that makes the book really pleasing to read is the kindness he received from strangers all along his route. Of course he met a few churlish characters as well, but overwhelmingly he found people willing and eager to give him a meal and a bed for the night, and even more important, help him repair his boat after each of the numerous mishaps that befell her. Perhaps the somewhat eccentric figure that he cut – for most of the journey wearing a pith helmet until it was stolen – or the audacity of the venture itself caught people’s attention. But their genuine and unsolicited kindness and care revive even the most wilted belief in people’s innate humanity.

Mackinnon also writes amusingly. His style is self-deprecating and somewhat confessional, which makes him seem like a friend to the reader. He’s happy to share his mistakes and misjudgements. He imagines, for example, that the crew of a Romanian barge big enough to ‘sit squarely in the middle of two football pitches end to end and not leave a lot of room for the players’ will likely ‘live on vodka, deep-fried pig’s blood sausages and any dinghy sailors they can run down and gut.’ In fact they saved the dinghy from certain destruction, and treated Mackinnon with every kindness – if that’s what you call plying him with schnapps.

There isn’t much about Mackinnon on the internet; here is a very brief biography. Since writing this book he has published The Well at the World’s End (2010), which is about a journey from New Zealand to the Scottish island of Iona. A longer review of Jack de Crow is here. And if you want to find out more about Mirror dinghies, try here. Ours has one refinement over Jack de Crow – an automatic bailer, but it only works at speed – and almost certainly not if you’re rowing …

Read Full Post »

Eucalyptus (1998) has won praise and prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It has been described as ‘a masterpiece’, ‘highly original’ and ‘a pleasure’. This just goes to show that different books appeal to different people, as for all its strengths, this isn’t one that particularly appeals to me.

Holland (no first name), an unlikely settler on an outback NSW property, has become obsessed with eucalyptus trees, and has acquired and planted at least one of each of the over five hundred species and sub species on his land. When Ellen, his beautiful only child, grows up, he decides that she will be given in marriage to the man who can correctly name all of the trees on the property. Many try and fail. Eventually a suitor arrives who looks as if he might win the prize. But what if Ellen has given her heart elsewhere?

None of this is meant to be realistic – except for the very specific identification and naming of the eucalypts. The story seems to draw on fairy tales, or to use Bail’s own word, fables, which he says, are ‘stories that take root’, and ‘pass through many hands without wearing out or falling to pieces.’ They reproduce ‘ever-changing appearances of themselves; the geology of fable’. There is, obviously, the archetypal tale of the king who sets difficult tasks, the prize for success in which is his beautiful daughter and his kingdom. Scattered throughout are stories about people, often left incomplete, a device that seems to hark back to A Thousand and One Nights. The princess at one point pricks her finger on a needle and later has to be woken from lethargy by the rightful prince. So there is an intentional disjunction between botanical facts and narrative fantasy. This is echoed in the two strands of the story dealing with the suitor who has technical knowledge, and the lover who tells stories; one deals in classifying and naming, the other in stories about people – empirical knowledge versus imagination. Not that the trees themselves represent prosaic reality; far from it. There are lovely, lyrical descriptions of the trees and the landscape they create. Bail is also good at descriptions of people; after years on the land, Holland’s face had ‘become a reddish terrain of boulders, flood plains and spinifex’. I’m less convinced by Ellen’s ‘speckled’ loveliness – the idea of moles and beauty spots enhancing beauty doesn’t work for me. All this is told with a sort of whimsical lightness that befits the essence of the story, which is romance.

So what is there not to like? While some of Bail’s writing is beautiful, I find some of it annoying. He has a tendency to utter gnomic statements such as ‘The father is always waiting for the daughter’. Really? What does this even mean? Or ‘Art is imperfect, unlike nature which is casually ‘perfect’. To try to repeat or even convey by hand some corner of nature is forever doomed.’ I understand that there can be levels of meaning within the story; for example Holland’s planting of eucalypts not native to the area could be seen as imperfect ‘art’ rather than ‘nature’, but this sort of speculation, which some people may well find satisfying, I find distracting. And then there are the stories. Holland tells his daughter to ‘beware of any man who deliberately tells you a story’, though of course she doesn’t heed his warning. Stories are what win her. But what do the stories add up to? Some of them are about women trapped by circumstance, but I can’t hold enough of them in my head at once to discern a pattern in them – if indeed there is one. I assume Bail hasn’t just written whatever comes into his head, so I wish he’d clarify the meaning of the stories for me.

Then there is the whole question of fairy-tales. It isn’t reasonable of me to object to the fact that most fairy tales come from a time in the past that was patriarchal in the extreme; they are what they are. But I can’t help feeling very uneasy with the translation to modern times of the ‘woman as chattel’ to be given away by the figure of male authority. That the story doesn’t go quite to this script doesn’t alter the fact that Ellen is essentially passive. Bail is certainly not setting out to subvert the traditional fairy-tale; male competition for a female prize is at the heart of the story. This makes Ellen a weak character for me. I know that fairy-tale characters are stereotypes, but I find her essentially uninteresting, which doesn’t make for a satisfying read. Bail is said to wish ‘to challenge reader expectations and complacency’, so maybe I’m just not responding to that challenge. Other readers have obviously found this ‘experimental fiction’ much more enjoyable.

There isn’t much about Murray Bail’s life on the internet, though you can read an outline of his career here. (Nowhere does it say he was married for a time to the novelist Helen Garner. You have to go to her Wikipedia entry for that.) Here is a favourable review of the book from the New York Times. And here is rather nice piece of writing by him.

Read Full Post »

Somehow these very hot summer days – of which we in Adelaide are having far too many of late – seem to preclude serious reading, so here’s three crime stories that that I’ve been wallowing in, sitting in front of the air conditioner.

The first is The Reversal (2010) by the great American crime writer Michael Connelly. I’ve read nearly all of his series featuring Harry Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department (see for example my review of The Black Box (2012) here), but this is the first one for me of the related series about his half-brother, defence lawyer Mickey Haller. The title has at least two meanings: the most obvious is that Haller appears for the prosecution, a reversal of his usual role. The second is that he is prosecuting in the re-trial of a man who has had his original conviction if not reversed, then at least granted a re-trial because new information has become available. Haller chooses his half-brother Harry Bosch as the detective who helps him to look at the evidence from the first trial, and to find new evidence. I don’t usually read court-room dramas, but I found the unfolding of the case quite compelling, with the added interest of information that Bosch discovers which could or could not be a red herring. The story is told mostly in the first person from Hallers’s perspective, with Bosch’s sections in the third person. This still allows for a certain amount of tension between the two men over their different perspectives and roles. Bosch is upset when he thinks the justice system is being ‘manipulated by smart lawyers’, whereas Haller prefers cases to be ‘confined to the courtroom’.  There is a nice legal twist at the end.

Give the Devil His Due (2015) by Sulari Gentill is another in her series featuring Rowland Sinclair and his friends, set in Sydney in the 1930s. You can read my review of the previous one, A Murder Unmentioned (2014) here. As in the rest of the series, there is much reference to current events and places. The central story – so far as there is one – concerns a charity car race which Rowland has agreed to drive in, to be held at the Maroubra Speedway, commonly known as the ‘Killer’ track. There is murder and attempted murder and a series of spin-off sub-plots, concerning the New Guard, with whom Sinclair has had run-ins in the past, Sydney gambling identities, Italian migrants and witchcraft. As with the other books in the series, Gentill uses a number of real people in the story, including the Australian racing car driver Joan Richmond, the actor Errol Flynn, pavement artist  Arthur Stace, the occultist Rosaleen Norton, the poet and editor Kenneth Slessor and the New Guard’s Eric Campbell. I find this quite amusing, especially as there are some sly jokes involved, but I have an interest in history, where others may not. Gentill seems to be a believer in the ‘having something exciting happen every three pages’ school of writing, so the story moves along at a good pace, but some of the action seems there for the sake of having action. And as one character says of an incident, ‘it seems a bit of a coincidence’ … He’s right, and not just about that one.

In Mozart’s Last Aria (2011) Matt Rees sets out to explore the still unclear circumstances of Mozart’s death in Vienna in 1791. His protagonist is Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna, known as Nannerl, herself a talented musician who gave up a career as a pianist to look after her father, later marrying an uninspiring Austrian bureaucrat. Was Mozart poisoned? Nannerl travels to Vienna to find out. Was it the jealous husband of one of his pupils? Or was it to do with the shadowy Masonic Brotherhood, celebrated in Mozart’s last great opera The Magic Flute? Was he part of a conspiracy against the Austrian Emperor? This was after all the height of the French Revolution. Or was he simply a great composer and artist caught up in events beyond his control? Rees, a journalist who had been reporting the conflict in Palestine, wrote the book in a break from the dangers of life in the middle-east. He is the author of, among other things, The Palestine Quartet, a series of novels about Omar Yussef, a Palestinian who gets caught up in crime; you can read my review of one of the quartet, The Saladin Murders (2008), here. In this book he has consciously shaped the structure of the story around the three movements of Mozart’s Sonata K 310, which he wrote in great distress after the death of his mother. This is an ambitious project which I’m not sure succeeds unless you know the music really well. There’s lots of references to works of Mozart in the text, and of course no way immediately after his death of identifying them other than by key signature, so I was pleased to find a listing of the mentioned works at the end giving the Kochel numbers. Listening to the music added to my enjoyment of the book, which I’m sure would please Mr Rees.

There’s a fairly recent film about Nannerl, if you’re interested – Mozart’s Sister. You can read more about Matt Rees here, Sulari Gentill here, and Michael Connelly here. Enjoy your summer reading.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »