March 10, 2008

BOOKS: Mar 05, AU Edition

OVERDONE EGGERS
But Q & A answers plenty of questions

How We Are Hungry.jpgHOW WE ARE HUNGRY
By Dave Eggers
San Francisco. McSweeney’s Books 2004 ISBN: 1932416137
Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, has compiled a list of factors that compel people to write: ‘Free time. Technology. Material. Education. And disgust’.

People are working less and living longer; computers are everywhere, spell-check included; anything goes; we are constantly being told where to put our commas; there is so much bad writing out there and there’s the belief that people are making money from it. Disgust provokes an I can do better than that mentality that has created the hordes of story-telling punks now being published all over the place.

Dave Eggers is one of their leaders, and How We Are Hungry is a collection of fifteen of his short stories. But don’t let that put you off: short stories are changing again, and for the better. Traditional surprise endings à la Roald Dahl are on the rise, while academic experimentation is out. The market for these pieces is still slim with the number of stories being written greatly outweighing the number of people who are willing to read them. With everyone rushing off to writing workshops, this situation worsens daily.

In the New York Review of Books (October), Diane Johnson articulated a hope that the genre is making a come-back: ‘Readers and nonreaders alike are affected by the Internet and television, the byte, the sound bite, and the accelerating pace of life, and have only a short story’s worth of time to give to literature.’ Proof is still to follow. Last year, the publication of John Updike’s Early Stories: 1953-1975 received much positive attention but few sales considering his status. Annie Proulx’s new anthology Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 has not had shining reviews but surely it will sell.

Eggers’ first book, a memoir entitled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, came out four years ago and made him very famous. Since then he has enjoyed an escalating cult following. His magazine The Believer, his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, and his publishing house, McSweeney’s, are all very popular. Eggers himself is well-liked, not least of all because he runs free writing labs for children in Brooklyn (Superhero Supply Co.) and San Franscico (Pirate Supply Store) offering one-on-one help
with homework.

So, how are we hungry? Each of the stories in this book answers this question directly. Self-conscious desperation is the key motivation. Mostly, Eggers’ human characters are a miserable lot. They collect cacti and count their lives away. They don’t want to be like they are, but are only momentarily allowed to transcend all that which debases. The urge to find a gigantic pair of tweezers and pluck Dave Eggers from Generation X and put him somewhere more meaningful (and less anxious) overwhelms.

The prognosis is better for dogs and the final story “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” is enjoyable:

When I run I can turn like I’m magic or something. I can turn like there wasn’t even a turn. I turn and I’m going so fast it’s like I was still going straight. Through the trees like a missile, through the trees I love to run with my claws reaching and grabbing so quickly like I’m taking everything.

This dog’s a Jack Kerouac but his name is Steven.
One of the most topical stories in How We Are Hungry is called “When They Learned to Yelp”. It is also one of the most annoying ones. Though he never makes this explicit, Eggers is at pains to define ‘yelp’ as what happened to young Americans upon witnessing the destruction of the Twin Towers. The word ‘yelp’ appears over thirty times within three pages and Eggers gets his message across just fine. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe a yelp is what happens when you accidentally tread on your puppy’s foot. He’s hijacked the wrong word and the experiment falls as flat as his character in “Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance”, who attempts suicide by jumping from a two-storey building.

It’s all the more annoying when Eggers’ writing falters because we have already looked through the windows of his enormous potential. In “Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly” the writing is so good you don’t even notice it’s there. First published in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, it’s about a woman who sets out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for reasons that elude her. This story is as full as any novel ever could be. And the ending… it’s no wonder Eggers is winning so many awards. A trophy room is in order if he intends to keep this up.

On the eve of her departure, Rita, from “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly”, visits the hotel bar and meets a stranger: ‘They talked about capital punishment, the stenographer comparing the stonings common to some Muslim regions with America’s lethal injections and electric chairs. Somehow the conversation was cheerful and relaxed.’

And yet somehow this book is actually quite funny, a most curious mix. There’s also lot of fooling around here and that’s probably why so many people think he’s pretentious. The posturing in How We Are Hungry is irritating; it distracts from the quality of the writing and the quality of thought. I’d give it an A for achievement and a D for effort and attitude – Eggers might consider this the perfect grade.
It’s unsettling that quite a few of these stories have been revised since their original publication in prestigious places like The Guardian and The New Yorker. One worries that the new ones are going to change too – so wouldn’t it be better to wait and read the final version? Old-fashioned, I would prefer Eggers’ words to stay put.


Q&A.jpgQ & A
By Vikas Swarup
London. Transworld Publishers 2005 ISBN: 0385608144. Distributed by Random House Australia. Paperback. $32.95.
“I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.”
This is the eye-popping opening line of Vikas Swarup’s debut novel Q & A - a picaresque tale of an orphan who wins “Who Wants to be a Billionaire?” Unable to pay out the prize money, the organisers of the show conspire to have him arrested for cheating. Our hero is Ram Mohammad Thomas – a name part Hindu, part Muslim, part Christian, designed to please everyone.

Ram’s excellent adventures are presented to us in the form of a quiz show, with a chapter dedicated to each question. It’s a clever set-up and the novel takes full advantage of the quiz-show phenomenon, namely that the audience desperately wants the contestant
to win.

Ram is as smart and brave as his tales are tall. This boy is far from lucky but lucky coincidences are everywhere in Q & A. In an extraordinary act of generosity Ram gives away a huge amount of stolen money to save a dying boy he’s never met. The father of the dying boy gives him his business card which he puts in his top pocket. Moments later the police arrive to frisk him but he no longer has the stolen cash so he walks free. Further down the track, a question on Shakespeare pops up in the quiz and Ram doesn’t know the answer. He elects to use a ‘life boat’ but can’t think of anyone to call. While reaching into his pocket to find his lucky coin, his hand brushes against the business card. He reads it for the first time and miraculously it says, “Utpah Chatterjee, English Teacher, St John’s School, Agra” and then gives a phone number.

Though the story is related entirely from Ram’s point of view, Swarup bends the rules so that the limited perspective is never isolating or dull. Though we are encouraged to doubt Ram’s honesty, this is done in a genial sort of story-telling way: there’s no edgy postmodern uncertainty here. It’s a book that began as a good idea and will probably end up a movie.

Like any great ride at the fair this book succeeds in making you feel a bit sick and it would be irresponsible not to give it an MA rating. Q & A is a fictional story about fortune, both good and bad. Swarup is not remotely concerned with presenting a factual account of a street kid’s life. For example, the only time Ram complains of real hunger he reports, “even something as basic as a boiled egg, which I have never liked, makes me salivate”. I am not sure how basic a boiled egg is to a penniless orphan but to nit-pick is to miss the point. If reading is at all like traveling then Q & A is like riding fast across India on a motorcycle. The view is blurry but the journey is lots of fun.(Trivia: Turkey has just chopped another six zeros off its currency, so that country’s show, “Who Wants to Win Five Billion Turkish Lira” might finally get a catchier name.)


bkturn.jpgTHE TURNING
By Tim Winton
MacMillan Australia. ISBN: 0-330-42138-7. $46.
I have a confession to make. When I gave The Turning the dreaded flick test and came across a page (say p.294) of skinny unpunctuated dialogue, I thought “not more Hemingway please”, and closed it. A review that lavished it with praise prompted me to give it a second go. I’m very glad I did. When I actually read the first story, I was instantly hooked. Here was a story whose main characters I could easily identify with – dropouts on the run, adolescent losers in quest of the big city or, as it is entitled, “Big World”. It’s a warm but unsentimental account of friendship and doomed destiny that any man who has ever worked a dead end job and one morning got up before dawn, jumped in his rust bucket and muttered to himself, “I’m gettin’ outta here,” can identify with. Or, as Winton puts it ,”Monday morning everyone thinks we’re off to work as usual, but in ten minutes we’re out past the town limits and going like hell.” And somehow you sense hell is where they’re headed, though at that moment, the exhilaration of escape is all they know about.

Accordingly, Winton’s stories have a place of honour in what Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor identified as the central literary short story tradition – people dreaming of escape but not quite achieving it. The short story becomes a kind of mournful but touching parable that shows the trapped protagonists attempting a wild tangent of hopeful escape but essentially returning to where they first started, returning to where they belong. It’s a pessimism about overly quick change in our lives that seems acceptably lifelike in a short story but perhaps unbearable in a novel. In a way, the short story has permission to be more honest about life’s bitter containments than a novel.

The small town world of coastal West Australia is here fictionally embodied in a place called West Point. Gradually and subtly, it
becomes clear that some of the characters’ lives have intersected. After all, West Point isn’t that big a place. Melanie, for instance, who is a central character in “Abbreviation”, is alluded to in “Damaged Goods” as “a farm girl whose ring finger ended at the first joint”. The effect of this and other such intertextualities is to create a sociological mosaic, a village-sized cosmos that is warm and compelling.

As well as Frank O’Connor, Winton’s stories with their drifting losers, drunken wife beaters, abattoir workers, down at heel train catchers, rusting Kombi owners and small town trailer trash put me in mind of what Granta magazine identified twenty years ago as a then new trend in American writing – dirty realism. The principal star of that “group” was Raymond Carver, a modern master of the post-Hemingway story, complete minimalist unpunctuated dialogue, feelings of entrapment and social doom and, unintellectual characters with low social horizons. Like Hemingway, Carver’s work was spare to the point of boniness, and cool to cold in tone. Winton partakes of that heritage but has a warmer tone, a plusher vocabulary with apt colourful similes that sketch in the backdrops effectively. The easy but rich style, the expert characterisation and feeling of small town enclosure make a heady and exciting brew. As of now, Tim Winton is one of my favourite short story writers.


bkshot.jpgSHOTGUN CITY: Melbourne’s Gangland Killings
By Paul Anderson
Hardie Grant Egmont. ISBN: 1-74066-210-5. $19.95.
What do Nikolai Radev, Jason Moran, Pasquale Barbaro, Willy Thompson, Mark Mallia, Housam Zayat, Michael Marshall, Graham Kinniburgh have in common? They were all criminals and they were all (save one who was incinerated) shot to death in 2003 during Melbourne’s ongoing gangland wars. By mid - 2004, when this book went to print, six more had been killed. This book is a grim progress report on the “Second War”.

None of these gun battles nor gang warfare are anything new. The opening chapter entitled “The First War” gives an overview of the era from the late 1950s to the early 1980s when an estimated 40 individuals were taken out as a result of warring factions of the notorious Painters and Dockers Union. Veteran of the murderous streets, Billy Longley says sardonically of the Second War, “they’ve got a bit of catching up to do”. Maybe so, but if the present spate continues at its current average, twenty years will see at least 62 well-dressed corpses laid to rest in classy coffins.

Why gangsters murder each other might not be a question that keeps a lot of honest citizens awake at night. However, there is some variation in theories of motivation. A study conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology and the South Australia Police Major Investigation Branch surprisingly fingered “dissolution of an intimate relationship” i.e. bumping off straying partners, as a major factor. It also noted money, drugs, silencing a witness, revenge, or profit from crime as motives. Anderson is adamant that in the case of the recent 1998 – 2004 orgy of assassination by bullet, most were drug – related hits.

As a result of reading this clinical to morbid text, the following advice could be given to those contemplating a career in
violent crime:
* Don’t leave your car unattended
* Don’t leave home without a pistol down your pants
* When dismembering a corpse, use a meat cleaver. Chain saws get clogged with skin and blood.
* Arrange for a minimum $100,000 donation to the police as an information incentive to help track your anticipated killers
* Move out of the Melbourne Central Business District Area
* Stop seeing Quentin Tarantino movies

Regarding the latter, it is fascinating to read that gangsters do watch and like crime movies. Billy Longley’s favourites are Unforgiven and On the Waterfront. Other movies favoured by the older generation are Scarface and Little Caesar. In more recent times, The Godfather, Heat, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs have prominently figured. Plus the cult series, The Sopranos. It must be said that the bad guys have good taste in films as they do in the expensive clobber they buy with drug money.

Cause and effect should not be confused. Crime movies don’t create criminals but if you are walking the street with a Colt .45 in your belt, the mode and code of your crime, not to mention sartorial style, may be film-influenced. It seems the local hoods do follow the general style of their American counterparts as regards dress, code of silence, mode of execution and nicknames - plus a liking for the more authentic crime movie. Overall, the Anderson account is a cool-toned hard-boiled history with traces of American slang - though reading too much at a sitting has a depressive effect.


515V38FCRQL._SS500_.jpgPENGUIN ENCYCLOPEDIA
Edited by David Crystal
Penguin Books 2004. ISBN: 0-140-51543-7. $75.
What can you say about an encyclopaedia that gives twelve lines to Alexander the Great and sixteen lines to the Beach Boys? Clearly, the pop present is being privileged over the classical past. However, this 1698-page tome is often factually inaccurate when dealing with the present (20th century). Under Mexican Art, David Alfaro Siqueiros has his last name omitted so he becomes David Alfaro; Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme is credited with the 1992 publication of Bait, a novel that she has yet to publish; Postmodernism only deals with architecture, ignoring the fact it is de rigeur in literature and art. Spelling mistakes include the Mexican president’s first name printed as Vincente instead of Vicente and painter Jose Clemente Orozco’s second name spelt as Clementi.

The omissions are a wonder indeed. Mick Jagger is in, “Keith Richards” is out; Al Capone is in, Lucky Luciano is absent; Keri Hulme is in, Janet Frame is not; Stalingrad is in, Kursk (world’s greatest tank battle) is missing; Michael Jackson is in, Peter Jackson is not; Everest-conqueror Edmund Hillary is necessarily in but Reinhold Messner, the world’s greatest mountaineer is not; Saddam Hussein is in and Osama bin Laden, as always, is invisible. Structuralism is in but astonishingly poststructuralism is not (though it is sneakily mentioned under Deconstruction with which it is mistakenly identified). I was surprised to find Timothy Leary, Peggy Guggenheim, Bryce Courtenay, Pierre Bourdieu (renowned anthropologist), Takla Makan desert and Google absent (though Desktop Publishing is in).

Another anomaly – perhaps common in other encyclopaedias – is contradictory entries. The Aborigines entry has them arriving in Australia 60,000 years ago while the Australian history section has a figure of 40,000. (Some have advanced the figure to 100,000 BC – shouldn’t all three estimates have been discussed?) The entry on Australian literature make no mention of Judith Wright, yet she merits a separate entry under her own name. This inconsistency of analysis is possibly explicable by two different people doing the two entries. But shouldn’t there be a match up? Similarly, William Burroughs is not mentioned under Beat Generation but under his own entry is declared to be a “spokesman of the Beat movement”. Also, stingily, there is no colour in any of the maps and no portraits (though that does allow more text).

Now for some appreciation. There are compendious lists of phobias, popes, highest mountains, deserts and, best of all, Crusades which includes sub-headings under Background, Leaders and Outcomes – though regretfully no Nobel Prize listings. Listings of musicians, artists and scientists are generally good. The quality of the paper and binding is excellent. Some may be wondering – in this Internet age do we still need encyclopaedias? I, for one, would not like to see them become obsolete because they present the opportunity par excellence for browsing by association and the alphabet. Also an encyclopaedia offers greater authority than the crackpot and often wildly inaccurate entries frequently found on the Internet. It cannot be repeated too often that an encyclopaedia, being a book, can never have power failure, a virus, intrusive advertisements or the irritatingly busy format deployed by many website homepages. However, the Penguin Encyclopedia needs a clean up on accuracy, improved expansion and consistency of inclusion and could do with some colour in its bland white pages. Hey, it’s still an encyclopaedia, my favourite kind of book for browsing new arcana and esoterica.


tolkien's_smal.jpgTOLKIEN’S GOWN & Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books
By Rick Gekoski
Constable and Robinson. ISBN: 1-74066-210-5. $29.99.
In general, I have regarded book collectors and first edition freaks as fetishists who are more interested in the wrapping than the present, brassieres instead of breasts. Having enjoyed Mr Gekoski’s lucid prose and accumulation of delightful anecdotes, my previous value judgment has been white-anted somewhat. Despite his eye for the deal, the multi-talented Gekoski also has an ear for the interesting human story, hence this witty and attractively presented book (which I am hoping will one day prove a valuable first edition).

The book kicks off with a chapter on the controversial Lolita, Nabokov’s sordid tale of a middle-aged lecher’s seduction of a barely pubescent girl. Shocking as this relationship might be, Nabokov’s exquisite prose turns it into a tragic love story.

In his cheerfully lucid style, Gekoski relates how after he sold a first edition of Lolita for $4900, he received a letter from Graham Greene asking how much he (Greene) could get for a copy inscribed to him by the Russian author. Apparently, this in an example of what rare book dealers call an “association copy”, one presented by the author to someone of importance. As Greene eminently qualified, Gekoski insisted on paying him $7200 (Greene wanted less!), and sold it for a profit (mysteriously, or tactfully, not revealed). When Gekoski last heard, the on sold book fetched $264,000 which left him “sick with seller’s remorse”. Since reading this revealing anecdote, I have been urging my friends at launches of my books to hurry up and become “persons of importance” so I can buy the book back off them and resell it for a whacking profit. So far, the scheme has yet to take off. And is unlikely to, for almost none of my books have that piece de la resistance, a dustwrapper, which rockets the price for any rare book into the ionosphere.

If over a quarter of million dollars sounds like big money, it has been topped by Gekoski’s estimate for a first edition Lord of the Flies – $450,000. A first edition inscribed Ulysses actually sold for $460,000 – the highest price thus far. Touchingly, Gekoksi admits that Ulysses is a tough read, even though he considers it the greatest book of the twentieth century. This promisingly profitable spiral was recently put in the shade when the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road sold for $2,430,000 which makes me wish cryonic preservation really works and poor old Jack could return and feast off the posthumous profit.

Packed with colourful stories of famous writers, this book is surely one of the more notable of the 110,000 books published in England last year, most of which, Gekoski reminds us, will soon be forgotten. I am hoping the first edition of his book will soar in value – when Gekoski soon visits the Antipodes I must ask him to inscribe it.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 08:57 PM | Comments (0)

BOOKS: Nov 05. AU Edition

MONSTERS AND THE DARK
Plus: Looking back at Old Blue Eyes and Australia’s really ancient history

books_mao.jpgMAO: The Unknown Story
By Jung Chang and Jon Holliday, Jonathan Cape, $59.95
This is how this large and extraordinarily well-researched book begins: ‘Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth century leader.’ Apart from the bogglingly high total of deaths, the other shocking word is ‘peacetime’. Surely only a world war like that started by Adolph Hitler is needed to kill so many? Not so, it seems. And how is it possible – and what is the point – of killing or causing so many to perish?

The answer, which unsurprisingly isn’t at all rational, was given by Mao himself in Moscow in 1957: ‘We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of world revolution’. He repeated much the same statement in 1958. Of course the ‘we’ is Mao himself. ‘Deaths have benefits,’ Mao once callously declared. ‘They can fertilise the ground.’ Hence crops were ordered to be planted over burial grounds which caused ‘intense anguish’. Naturally, Mao suffered from no such qualms.

While his cohorts were Communists with similar aims, some of the minions were slightly more ‘reasonable’. As the authors put it, ‘Whereas Mao had been using terror for personal power, Chou En-lai employed it to bolster Communist rule’. Liu Shao-chi, Mao’s No. 2, was like his master, interested in industrialisation and superpower status but wanted these goals ‘at a more gradual tempo’ by ‘building a stronger economic foundation and raising living standards first’. Mao seemed to take sadistic pleasure in making the populace suffer. His early predilection for public torture and executions to create public terror, as well as his own enjoyment of it, is grimly detailed. Even Stalin and Hitler tended to have their terror performed off stage, as it were (Siberia, Auschwitz).

While the folly of Mao’s Great Leap Forward to make more steel at any cost (burning homes for fuel, melting down farm tools and cooking utensils) is well known, less well known is that all the while China was exporting grain and soybean on a huge scale to east European countries and to Russia either in exchange for arms – or even sometimes as a donation. Indeed, the percentage of foreign aid reached a staggering 6.92 per cent of the GNP, proportionately 70 times that of the United States. The result was in the peak year of famine (1960), 22 million died. In all, 38 million died from hunger in 1958-1961. Yet so tight was Mao’s control, he was able to convince both the CIA and Francois Mitterrand, along with many other gullible western observers, that there was no famine. All in the name of Mao trying to convert China into a world superpower in a few years. The supreme irony is that today China is headed for economic superpower status, but not as a result of following Mao’s policies.

What this monumental biography makes stunningly clear is that though China seemed isolationist at the time, Mao was constantly badgering the Soviets to supply him with nuclear technology and missiles and made a surprising number of aggressive overtures towards other countries – three million troops were sent to Vietnam, for example.

Developing the atomic bomb, which he had earlier hypocritically described as a paper tiger, cost a staggering $4.1 billion – at 1957 prices! In the authors’ view, China’s nuclear bomb cost more than 100 times the deaths caused by the two American bombs used on Japan.
In early pre-communist dominant times he was never keen to fully engage with Japan as Stalin wanted. Mao wanted the Japanese to destroy Chiang Kai-shek so Stalin could then carve up China, leaving Mao as ruler of the remainder. Nor, as is commonly supposed, was Mao even fully engaged with the Nationalists until much later on – when his sleeper-spy generals betrayed them. In fact, it suited Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy to allow the Communists rag-tag army to pass through relatively unopposed. (Furthermore, his son was being held to ransom by Moscow.) Even the notion of Mao’s personal courage during the Long March turns out to be a myth – the authors reveal he was carried in a sedan chair.

Alongside the other mental disorders that have been identified there should be one called Dictator Disorder – the most deadly of all. Those who suffer from it torture kill and murder their enemies (including family and friends), waste economies on vainglorious schemes, try to destroy the past (Mao hated Chinese architecture) and while making sure that the populace suffers, enjoy as much food, luxury and sex as they can. While Hitler is often described as having been ‘mad’ and psychiatrists have tried to diagnose Hitler and Stalin as manic-depressives, no one seems to have done the same exercise with Mao. He was horribly sane and unrelentingly evil. At one point, he even considered the ultimate de-humanising strategy of removing people’s names and giving them numbers. Mao’s perverse code: ‘Do to others precisely what I don’t want done to myself’.

Taken as a whole, I found this book with its long catalogue of crimes against humanity a depressing read. However, the authors have done an astonishingly thorough job. They interviewed people who knew Mao in 38 countries. Corpses and all, this will be the definitive biography of Mao.


books_blinding light.jpgBLINDING LIGHT
By Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton, $49.95
One - though not the only – disconcerting thing about Theroux is his prolificity. Seemingly after a few short months, he pops out yet another book. Justly renown as a leading travel writer, he’s a captivating novelist as well and I was surprised (well, not really) to note that this is his 27th novel.

Blinding Light’s central character is a highly successful travel writer (like Theroux) who is suffering from that weird American condition called ‘writer’s block’ (very unlike Theroux). I say weird because if there is such a thing as writer’s block why haven’t we heard of painter’s block, architect’s block or composer’s block? On closer examination, writers who are ‘blocked’ are usually suffering from depression, alcoholism or simply find that their talent has run dry.

Slade Steadman is a one-book wonder with good reason – his first and only book was about a guy (himself) who crossed countries without a passport and without luggage – ever since then he has lived off the lucrative spin offs: leather jackets, sunglasses, pens, knives. It’s such a good idea I’m thinking of trying it myself and hope that the customs officials of the world’s 227 or so countries will cooperate.

As the book opens, Steadman is on his way to South America in quest of a chemical cure – a psychoactive plant that will extend his mental horizons and clear his creative blockage. He tries first ayahuasca and then a more deadly concoction, datura. The insights that the plant’s ingestion brings comes at a high price – Steadman first experiences a kind of ‘darkness visible’, along with insights into his oafish fellow travelers, but eventually the controlled blindness becomes permanent. There is much heavy though successful symbolic play and irony by Theroux on the various meanings and types of blindness – and the punning title resonates throughout the text.

Steadman’s desire to write fiction – in particular, a recapitulation of a richly erotic life – is excuse enough for Theroux to saturate the book’s middle section with much ingenious and at times perverse sexuality. It has to be said Theroux has a gift for this kind of writing though it may seem an excuse for self-indulgence to some readers. By contrast, he is even more gifted in writing about relationships that persist in a savage limbo-like aftermath – yet can still mysteriously rekindle – such is the perversity of human attraction. In the end, Steadman is a tragic and doomed figure. Presumably, it is Theroux’s successful deeper intention to show us that salvation by dark means leads to a dark end.


books_sinatra.jpgSINATRA: The Life
By Anthony Summers & Robbyn Swan, Doubleday, $49.95
Sinatra was one of those perennial entertainers who seemed indestructible and ever-present, so it is almost a surprise to be reminded that he is no longer with us in person – though very much so in records and films and from time to time on the radio.

Ambition and achievement are close to alignment in the singer’s life. Sinatra said, ‘I’m going to be the best singer in the world, the best singer that ever was’. The authors more or less concur that Sinatra was indeed ‘... the most celebrated popular singer in history’. Today, the early crooning Sinatra who sounded a bit like Bing Crosby – the singer Sinatra set himself to surpass – has been overtaken by the later Sinatra with that street-wise, nightclubby voice that makes the Sinatra timbre instantly recognizable. For a guy who boozed so heavily, it is astonishing that his singing voice lasted as well as it did – but then Sinatra was often described as a man of astonishing energy and stamina. His lineup of performances would make some younger fry quail – in 1946 he was on stage 45 times a week, singing one hundred songs per day while also doing 36 recording sessions and 160 radio shows.

Sinatra was no angel – he punched out bothersome photographers and in later years was always accompanied by heavies who would beat up people at Sinatra’s signal. On the good side of the ledger, he was a generous man – he gave away 300 gold cigarette lighters and helped pay medical bills for poorer entertainers and hated racial prejudice of any kind. Rumour, apparently supported by fact, has it that Sinatra was buddies with many of the powerful gangsters of the day such as Lucky Luciano and Sam Giancana. The authors inform us that Sinatra’s grandparents came from the same small Sicilian town as Luciano; that Sinatra once acted as courier in taking a satchel with a million dollars from Giancana to Joe Kennedy on behalf of Jack Kennedy’s presidential campaign; that Harry Cohn was threatened with death unless he gave Sinatra lead role in the film version From Here to Eternity. All these statements are encyclo- paedically footnoted and so they may well all be true. My only reservation is that Summers was one of the main protagonists for the widely held belief that Marilyn Monroe and Jack Kennedy had an affair – a connection that been seriously challenged by some biographers.

What is indisputably true is that Sinatra had affairs (and marriages) with some of the most beautiful women in America including Ava Gardner (his most lasting but doomed love), Mia Farrow, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Juliet Prowse plus many others less known though some of them – judging by photos – were even more beautiful than the better known names. The much-publicised adoration of bobbysoxers was according to George Evans, Sinatra’s press agent, 98% synthetic.

Faults and all, Sinatra was a guy who is hard to dislike – at least from a distance. His lasting achievement was to turn pop music into an art form. As for the now much vaunted ‘I Did it My Way’ as a biographical theme statement – hotly denied by Sinatra himself – his own son said it summed up his father exactly.


books_digging up.jpgDIGGING UP DEEP TIME
By Paul Willis and Abbie Thomas, ABC books, $34.95
This book has a resonant title – what could be more romantic than finding the fossilised remains of strange and unknown animals from the distant past? That our earth and the universe is so ancient seems appropriate in the grand scheme of things. Currently, scientists believe the earth is 4.6 billion years old and the universe at least 13 billion years old. A five-decade-plus living fossil such as myself has no business feeling old.

Australia is one of the oldest chunks of terra firma and is particularly fossil-rich. This book visits fifteen of the most well known sites. At Marvel Bar, the hottest place in the country, are the microscopic remains of bacteria known as cyano- bacteria believed to be 3.465 billion years old. Also long in the tooth are stroma- tolites found at Shark Bay, Western Australia, which resemble stone cauliflowers. The Marble Bay fossils are not accepted by all scientists; Martin Brasier of the University of Oxford thinks the ‘fossils’ are just tiny clumps of impurities in the rock.

The theory that life on earth could have originated from Mars - prompted by the finding of an Antarctic meteorite in 1996 – is given an airing but no firm conclusions drawn. Until we find better or indeed some evidence of life on Mars itself, the Martian hypothesis, drawn only from objects found on earth, looks shaky.

In 1979, myoscolex, the world’s oldest fossilised muscle tissue, was discovered on Kangaroo Island. Also located – and boxed in high relief – is the World’s Oldest Poo though tantalisingly, the age of this Methuselah-style dung is not given. At times the prose of the enthusiastic authors waxes poetic – the elegant (!) lungfish (it was news to me that some fish had lungs) is described as ‘graceful and beautiful as an exotic dancer in flowing gowns’. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholders.

Arguably, some of the most colourful finds were found at the Wellington caves which were water-colour sketched by Augustus Earle of the HMS Beagle. This New South Wales site yielded up two of my favourite beasties – Thylacinus Carnifex, better known as the marsupial lion, which could snap off an arm with one bite, and the buffalo-sized Diprotodon, the largest-known marsupial (which was originally mistaken for an elephant.)

Boxed biographies of leading fossil finders and locations indicating where to view the fossils are appended to the end of each chapter in this highly informative book which is a must for school-aged paleontologists or anyone interested in fossils.



books_surviving with wolves.jpgSURVIVING WITH WOLVES
By Misha Defonseca, Portrait, $49.95
At first viewing, it sounds like a fairy tale or extract from a mediaeval bestiary: One snowy morning a Little Girl’s Mother and Father are taken away by Bad Men to a Far-Off Land. The little girl is adopted by a nasty godmother. One day the little girl decides to run away and find her parents. She gets lost in the woods and is adopted by a mother wolf who brings her food ... and the little girl survives to tell her tale, though unlike a fairy story she does not find her missing parents.

Surviving with Wolves is one of those heroic harrowing stories that makes me reflect on what a soft, hardship-free life I’ve been lucky enough to lead. Defonseca survived freezing weather with no shoes, encounters with brutal German soldiers (including one who tried to rape her whom she stabbed to death) wild gypsies, a primitive terrain all but bereft of food. She began her journey with two apples, a loaf of bread, some gingerbread and a compass. She was eight years old.

A prominent role model and undoubtedly one who gave her an example of courage was her grandfather, who said of Hitler, ‘... he’s a madman who wants to repaint the world in his own colour’. It is, of course, Hitler who is behind the disappearance of her parents. From he grandfather she learnt much about nature, how to use a compass, and how to laugh while from Virago, her bullying foster ‘mother’, she learnt how to hate. During her privation when she would eat the pine needles, bark of trees and even dirt, she would lift her morale by talking to her painful feet, telling them that they must go on.

This soul-warming story of heartbreak and perseverance draws the reader in so that when she finds bread and a piece of bacon we too feel as though we are enjoying a banquet. The scenes with wolves are deeply moving and in my view are yet another illustration of how mammals at large often show the unlikely capability to form a bond with other mammals. The key is to be neither aggressive nor afraid.

Her mother had read her stories of wolves which did contain any notion that wolves were dangerous. When she read Little Red Riding Hood she was outraged by its false notions of human cannibalism. In the end, she smelt of wolf which made it easier for other wolves to accept her. Acting submissive around the top wolf and even rolling on her back with her limbs in the air in imitation of a lolling pup also earned her wolverine approbation.

After surviving such a barbaric environment, the sight of a young American soldier handing out chocolates, sweets and tinned beef must have been a surreal experience. Surviving with Wolves is an honest and moving account of how an angelic-looking little girl showed extraordinary physical and moral courage in a quest for love and belonging.

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BOOKS: Feb 05

A FONT OF KNOWLEDGE?

bkpeng.jpgPENGUIN ENCYCLOPEDIA
Edited by David Crystal, Penguin, $75
What can you say about an encyclopaedia that gives 12 lines to Alexander the Great and 16 lines to the Beach Boys? Clearly, the pop present is being privileged over the classical past. However, this 1698-page tome is often factually inaccurate when dealing with the present (20th century). Under Mexican Art, David Alfaro Siqueiros has his last name omitted so he becomes David Alfaro; Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme is credited with the 1992 publication of Bait, a novel that she has yet to publish; Postmodernism only deals with architecture, ignoring the fact it is de rigeur in literature and art. Spelling mistakes include the Mexican president’s first name printed as Vincente instead of Vicente and painter Jose Clemente Orozco’s second name spelt as Clementi.

The omissions are a wonder indeed. Mick Jagger is in, Keith Richard is out; Al Capone is in, Lucky Luciano is absent; Keri Hulme is in, Janet Frame is not; Stalingrad is in, Kursk (world’s greatest tank battle) is missing; Michael Jackson is in, Peter Jackson is not; Everest-conqueror Edmund Hillary is necessarily in but Reinhold Messner, the world’s greatest mountaineer is not; Saddam Hussein is in and Osama bin Laden, as always, is invisible. Structuralism is in but astonishingly poststructuralism is not (though it is sneakily mentioned under Deconstruction with which it is mistakenly identified). I was surprised to find Timothy Leary, Peggy Guggenheim, Bryce Courtenay, Pierre Bourdieu (renowned anthropologist) Takla Makan desert and Google absent (though Desktop Publishing is in).

Another anomaly - perhaps common in other encyclopaedias - is contradictory entries. The Aborigines entry has them arriving in Australia 60,000 years ago while the Australian history section has a figure of 40,000. (Some have advanced the figure to 100,000 BC — shouldn’t all three estimates have been discussed?) The entry on Australian literature make no mention of Judith Wright, yet she merits a separate entry under her own name. This inconsistency of analysis is possibly explicable by two different people doing the two entries. But shouldn’t there be a match up? Similarly, William Burroughs is not mentioned under Beat Generation but under his own entry is declared to be a “spokesman of the Beat movement”. Also, stingily, there is no colour in any of the maps and no portraits (though that does allow more text).

Now for some appreciation. There are compendious lists of phobias, popes, highest mountains, deserts and, best of all, Crusades which includes sub headings under Background, Leaders and Outcomes — though
regretfully no Nobel Prize listings. Listings of musicians, artists and scientists are generally good. The quality of the paper and binding is excellent. Some may be wondering - in this Internet age do we still need encyclopaedias? I, for one, would not like to see them become obsolete because they present the opportunity par excellence for browsing by association and the alphabet. Also an encyclopaedia offers greater authority than the crackpot and often wildly inaccurate entries frequently found on the Internet. It cannot be repeated too often that an encyclopaedia, being a book, can never have power failure, a virus, intrusive advertisements or the irritatingly busy format deployed by many website homepages. However, the Penguin Encyclopedia needs a clean up on accuracy, improved expansion and consistency of inclusion and could do with some colour in its bland white pages. Hey, it’s still an encyclopaedia, my favourite kind of book for browsing new arcana and esoterica.


bkgreen.jpgTHE LIFE OF GRAHAM GREENE Volume Three: 1955-1991
By Norman Sherry, Jonathan Cape, $79.95
At 906 pages, this is the largest of the three volumes of an ongoing Greene biography that now totals 2251 pages — possibly the largest biography in history. It is a labour beyond love — 27 years in the making — and, to be honest, it is somewhat of a labour to read it.

Sherry’s ultraviolet style contrasts uneasily with Greene’s always clipped, spare prose. In contrast to the trouble-seeking journalist— novelist Greene, Sherry is an academic obsessive — he had already written five books on Conrad — and he surmises it was his dedication to Conrad (a kind of early Graham Greene) that may have helped in his selection as his biographer. Plus his hands-on willingness to go to exotic countries as part of his research. Following the wide-ranging peripatetic trail of Greene and his work has meant Sherry has been to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia, Kenya, Panama, Mexico, Barbados, France, Switzerland, Argentina, Paraguay, Ireland and Spain - bravo! (And shouldn’t Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba be added?)

This biography is of the Boswellian type — no detail omitted. No pithy one liners when a paragraph will do the job - Sherry uses large half page (or more) quotes. When he deals with some of Greene’s major novels, such as A Burnt Out Case, he gives us three chapters whereas one would have sufficed. The overall effect is one of sauntering excess and under-editing. While it is arguably in order to refer to Greene as a maverick, loner, provocateur, rebel and anarchist, the description of Green as politically immature, unripe, callow and jejune looks like three adjectives too many.

Sherry works assiduously, and a trifle over-gleefully, in identifying originals for Greene’s characters, marking him as a biographer of the old school and not a text only postmodernist. His actual literary approach to Greene - influence of cinematic techniques or Hemingway (say) — in the light of contemporary trends of biography, is surprisingly limited.

Having detailed — elaborately as always — Greene’s stubborn inability to quite believe in hell, heaven, angels, heaven or Satan (though he does think of God as Christ), Sherry concludes in somewhat exasperated tones, it’s difficult to buttonhole Greene as either Roman Catholic or Christian - yet there is Green’s oxymoronic statement that he is was a “Catholic agnostic”(or worse still “Catholic atheist”) plus the agonised arguing that occurs so powerfully in Greene’s novels about the nature of evil, God, sin etc. For this reviewer (and I suspect for many more than fully admit it), this agonised I-want-to-believe-but-can’t-quite-believe strikes a resonant chord. Certainly, it is clear—and I am at one with Sherry on this — that Greene is pro-victim which can render his ideological stances fluid, rather than consistent.

Two of the most interesting matters dealt with are Greene’s clash with corruption in Nice - his tough dedicated fight on behalf of his daughter-in-law against a local thug and a corrupt mayor which alas, ended in legal failure - and his failure to win the Nobel prize. I am convinced by Sherry’s account that it was a dedicated Greene-opponent on the controversial committee, one Arthur Lundkvist, who vowed never to vote for Greene because his play The Living Room, was Catholic “propaganda of the most vulgar type”. Even if this were so, the large amount of brilliant work that flowed from Greene’s busy pen plus general world literary opinion should have prompted the committee to press for Greene’s strongly merited award. Unsurprisingly, the English literary establishment considered Greene the most deserving of the writers who had never won the world’s most prestigious literary prize.
While it frequently gives off the sanctimonious odour of hagiography, Sherry does reproach Greene from time to time — e.g. for being a supporter of Castro after executions became commonplace. Despite its stylistic infelicities, tortured metaphors, lapses into banality, embarrassing asides to the reader, excessive detail, over extended treatment, and its occasional presumption to read Greene’s mind too dogmatically, this biography is a must read for any Greene fan.


bktolk.jpgTOLKIEN’S GOWN & Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books
By Rick Gekoski, Constable, $34.95
In general, I have regarded book collectors and first edition freaks as fetishists who are more interested in the wrapping than the present, brassieres instead of breasts. Having enjoyed Mr Gekoski’s lucid prose and accumulation of delightful anecdotes, my previous value judgment has been white-anted somewhat. Despite his eye for the deal, the multi-talented Gekoski also has an ear for the interesting human story, hence this witty and attractively presented book (which I am hoping will one day prove a valuable first edition).

The book kicks off with a chapter on the controversial Lolita, Nabokov’s sordid tale of a middle-aged lecher’s seduction of a barely pubescent girl. Shocking as this relationship might be, Nabokov’s exquisite prose turns it into a tragic love story. In his cheerfully lucid style, Gekoski relates how after he sold a first edition of Lolita for $4900, he received a letter from Graham Greene asking how much he (Greene) could get for a copy inscribed to him by the Russian author.

Apparently, this in an example of what rare book dealers call an “association copy”, one presented by the author to someone of importance. As Greene eminently qualified, Gekoski insisted on paying him $7200 (Greene wanted less!), and sold it for a profit (mysteriously, or tactfully, not revealed). When Gekoski last heard, the on sold book fetched $264,000 which left him “sick with seller’s remorse”. Since reading this revealing anecdote, I have been urging my friends at launches of my books to hurry up and become “persons of importance” so I can buy the book back off them and resell it for a whacking profit. So far, the scheme has yet to take off. And is unlikely to, for almost none of my books have that piece de la resistance, a dustwrapper, which rockets the price for any rare book into the ionosphere.

If over a quarter of million dollars sounds like big money, it has been topped by Gekoski’s estimate for a first edition Lord of the Flies - $450,000. A first edition inscribed Ulysses actually sold for $460,000 - the highest price thus far. Touchingly, Gekoksi admits that Ulysses is a tough read, even though he considers it the greatest book of the twentieth century. This promisingly profitable spiral was recently put in the shade when the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road sold for $2,430,000 which makes me wish cryonic preservation really works and poor old Jack could return and feast off the posthumous profit.

Packed with colourful stories of famous writers, this book is surely one of the more notable of the 110,000 books published in England last year, most of which, Gekoski reminds us, will soon be forgotten. I am hoping the first edition of his book will soar in value — when Gekoski soon visits the Antipodes I must ask him to inscribe it.


bkhelsinki.jpgTHE FACTS BEHIND THE HELSINKI ROCCAMATIOS
By Yann Martel, Canongate, $29.95
The Life of Pi was such a delightful book I vowed I’d read anything else that came from the pen of Yann Martel. As is often the case, the massive success of one book prompts an issue (or reissue) of earlier titles. Helsinki consists of two novellas and two short stories published earlier in the author’s career.

The title short novel is by far the most significant work of the quartet. Of the remaining stories, the formally experimental “Manners of Dying” which presents postmortem letters about an execution as variations on a theme of what the condemned man ate and the manner of his death, is the most interesting. The star of the collection is without question the Helsinki novella.

A well-known literary phenomenon is that a grand (as it were) disease eventually prompts the creation of some grand literary masterpieces. Among these are - The Magic Mountain (tuberculosis), Doctor Faustus (syphilis), A Burnt Out Case (leprosy), Awakenings (sleepy sickness). When AIDS played its dread hand in the early 80s, I was (almost) morbidly waiting for the appropriate literary work to do it justice. Several plays and films have so far appeared but none as powerful or skilful as this novella. It could not be validly claimed that this work is a grand masterpiece but it is a minor one, relentless in its grim clinical detail.

However, Helsinki offers more than just pathological footnotes.
Inspired by the story-telling in the face of the Black Plague in Boccaccio, a nameless narrator puts the proposition to his blood transfusion-infected friend Paul that they should mutually invent stories to, as it were, defeat the doom of the encroaching disease. One event chosen from each year the century thus far — 86 stories in all — would form the narrative backdrop. The stories would centre around a Canadian family in a city neither of the two story tellers had ever been to Helsinki. The combination of factual base combined with an imaginative family in an “imagined” though real city, would form a satisfyingly solid tapestry. It may sound a bit contrived but it makes a compelling counterpoint to the deepening and irreversible manifestations of the disease.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone who has not heard of AIDS. Yann Martel’s short powerful novella tells us of the brutal destruction wrought by the disease and of how two friends responded to it with “narrative therapy”.. If art does not work a physical miracle, it can provide the next best thing - a compensatory defeat by the imagination.


bkwater.jpgHELL OR HIGH WATER: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River
By Peter Heller, Allen & Unwin, $35
Until the arrival of maturity and arthritis, I used to nourish the fantasy, however remote, that I might one day go kayaking, preferably on some previously unkayaked river. This would prove to myself (and to others) that I had at last acquired the warrior manhood that my prior dismal performances at football, fighting, and free climbing had failed to evidence; that I might at last be redeemed by one all out fluke performance on raging white water. A fantasy I can no longer sustain. Instead, I can now recline on my sofa, sip the “white water “off my beer” and read about how real men do it. Among these intrepid dudes are two New Zealanders - Mike Abbott, said to be the best paddler in the world, and Dave Allardice. When Abbott won a big cash prize he shared it with his broke mates.

Like so many exponents of extreme sports, participants peak early 25-30 (say). It’s not an activity for one’s middle years (though there are exceptions). Just to reach the Tsangpo river is a feat in itself. It’s buried at the bottom of a 15,000 foot gorge at the eastern end of the Himalayas and has defeated earlier explorers for more than a century. Heller vividly revisits Victorian times when fearless Indians (who came to be called Pundits) crossed the border into forbidden Tibet as pilgrims and proceeded to map the terrain for the British by walking 2000 measured steps per mile, using modified prayer beads as pedometers, carrying prismatic compasses inside their prayer wheels and thermometers in hollow walking sticks in order to obtain hypsometric altitude readings. James Bond’s 007 antics were just a feeble continuation of this daring nineteenth century espionage ingenuity. These early measurements ascertained just where Lhasa was situated and established that the Tsangpo met the Brahmaputra.

Heller, who is a kayaker himself, describes the phenomenon of white water with a specialist vocabulary - “wave trains”, “mean comber”, “boulder garden”, “center of the tongue”. The prose, like the river, is wild but also like the paddlers, controlled. Almost beyond imagining, is an exhilarating though arguably insane activity called squirt boating where the kayak becomes submerged and then pops out - squirts back into the air. Another exhibitionist variety is freestyle or rodeo kayaking where the kayak “catapults forward in a series of fast end-over-end cartwheels” — I think I’ll take another sip of my beer, thank you. Though some consider freestylers made the best river runners, Scott Lindgren, one of the best paddlers in the world, asserted that the opposite was the case. His view was that “riding holes” would be worthless on the mighty Tsangpo.

The first Victorian explorers hoped to find a cataract as mighty as the Victorian falls but it turned out to be a “mere “ 150 feet high - now shrunk to 112 feet. For kayakers, the glory of the Tsangpo river is its wild white water, gloriously rendered in the controlled tumult of Heller’s expert prose.

Beside the wonder of the world’s most terrifying foam piles, wave trains and rolling haystacks, there is also the ferocious and lyric beauty of the landscape, rebellious porters who want more money and the ominous possibility of being eaten by a Bengal tiger. An intoxicating broth of a book.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 04:49 PM | Comments (0)

BOOKS: Dec 05. AU Edition

FLY ME TO THE MOON
Plus: Guinness’s records are not so stout anymore, and falling in love (again) with Venice

books_guinness.jpgGUINNESS WORLD RECORDS 2006
Edited by Craig Glenday, Guinness World Records, $45.00
Up until recently the Guinness Book of Records was a quiet black and white document with every record imaginable recorded in small sombre print. Not any more. The cover looks like the inside of a pulsing nightclub, complete with hologram-like reflectors that image anything close by with a series of green and silver highlights. The contents page is adorned with the world’s Most Pierced Women and an actual-size cane toad. The razzle-dazzle continues with the Most Hula Hooped Woman, a Dog with Five Tennis Balls in his Mouth and the proud possessor of 137 Traffic Cones. Impressed? But wait – there’s more! – 31,424 Students Cleaned their Teeth for 60 seconds! 937 students and staff wearing Groucho Marx Masks! 1254 Students Danced the Scottish Reel! Leonardo D’Andrea Crushed 22 Watermelons with his Head! And here’s my favourite – Most Valentine Cards Sent to a Guinea Pig – Over 206 cards from as far away as New Zealand!

Old time Guinness Book of Records readers – fact crunchers who took their records and achievements seriously – must be wondering what the hell is going on. No question – Guinness has gone upmarket with flashy collages, in-your-face images and silly records that anyone could help set. The new format declares that you don’t have to be a fact-geek or a horn-rimmed nerd to read this book – a skateboarder or a guy with 258 straws stuck in his gob will be fine. I guess all this new mass participation is nicer than a group of Islamic terrorists squashed into a bus but it seems to eliminate the point of setting records for true human endurance which are mostly an individual matter requiring either guts, ingenuity or perseverance. Brushing your teeth for one minute with 30,000 others hardly qualifies.

OK, I’ve had my beef. The compendium still has plenty to endear the true record lover. Paul Hunn can burp at 104.9 decibels. Rene Alvarenga has eaten 35,000 live scorpions. Michel Lolito, whose teeth can grind at eight tonnes per cm, has eaten 18 bicycles, 15 supermarket trolleys, 3 TV sets, 6 chandeliers, a set of skis, a computer and a Cessna light aircraft. Whether or how long he brushes his teeth is not recorded. I was impressed to learn the largest private library contains 1.5 million books and the record for one finger pushups is 126 (pushups not fingers). I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been, that the world’s fastest solo circumnavigation record is held by a woman (Ellen MacArthur) and astonished to learn that the world’s most dangerous stinging nettle is in New Zealand – Urtica ferox can kill dogs, horses and even once killed a man.

Bacteria are tough cookies – samples have survived over two years in outer space (they were attached to satellites). I learnt that there is such a critter as a Wolphin, the result of a whale-dolphin cross, and that the fastest humanoid robot can only stomp along at a snail-like 1.8 mph. On the human side, the oldest surviving couple have been married for 78 years and the world’s largest wedding banquet had 150,000 guests – a missed opportunity to set a dishwashing record. It is satisfying, though slightly absurd, to learn the longest prison sentence handed out (fraud, Thailand) was for 141,078 years. Though I’m sure the fraudsters will be out after only 140,000 years for good behaviour.

More criticism – many records that could reasonably be expected are absent - examples (from a list of many) could include world’s largest aircraft, most poisonous snake, world’s loudest band, largest extinct bird. In its present format, the Guinness Book of Records is no longer the exhaustive compendium of yesteryear. Perhaps they should consider a smaller formatted pocket edition which is mainly print?


books_the city of falling angels.jpgTHE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS
By John Berendt, Sceptre, $49.95
What is all this fuss about Venice? This question is usually asked only by those who have not visited the famous watery city – the only city in the world without traffic noise. When I spent a weekend there some years back, I knew little about the place but on arrival, I became, as many have done, an instant convert to her decaying charms. There’s something about magnificence in decay that stirs me deeply, just why I don’t know. Perhaps because magnificence at its peak is often accompanied by the expression of tyranny that expects obeisance whereas when the civilisation has passed away and only the buildings remain, we can enjoy them as architecture minus the tedious and oppressive trapping of visible power.

In the long litany of adoration that Venice has enjoyed from art critics, poets and composers (there are of course notable exceptions among the eulogists), most of the travel writers and essayists have looked at the city as a kind of architectural poem – which it very much is – and somehow overlooked the Venetians. As Mary McCarthy, renown American author once pre- sumptiously said, “Nothing that can be said about Venice has not been said before” – and she was echoing another famous American literary visitor to Venice, Henry James. As Berendt triumphantly demonstrates, these statements have about as much objective correlative as the fatuous statements made around the end of the nineteenth century that science had discovered nearly everything about the universe. Berendt, a skilful social observer, has managed to find out and report back on various scandals and upheavals in contemporary Venice - events that would make a wonderfully dramatic film. Events that give the reader a fresh view of an embattled city.
The City of Falling Angels begins - a perfect film prologue – with a destructive fire in 1996 that incinerated the Fenice Theatre, a stately opera house that was a symbol of Venetian cultural grandeur.

Three days later, with the smell of charcoal still in the air, Berendt arrived. His mission – to see Venice sans tourists – was to be fulfilled in a way he could not have anticipated. For the obvious ensuing question was, was the fire an accident or deliberately set? Either way guilty parties had to be fingered. The book has the feeling of a triptych, with the first event and eventual culprits identified enfolding many additional and wild characters, who, of course, are flesh and blood not novelists’ invention – a forwarding note says: “This is a work of non fiction. All the people in it are real and are identified by their real names.”

Presumably, Berendt (or his publisher), insisted on such a note, otherwise non-Venetians night be inclined to imagine that such fellows as Ludovico De Luigi – a latter day Dali – a surreal painter, who arranged for a porn star politician to arrive in a gondola, topless, climb one of the famous horses at St Marks and proclaim herself a living work of art – might not exist. (And in fact, I’m still wondering, if, after all, as Berendt tells us, the Venetian embellish everything and consider truth tellers a bore, whether he hasn’t added a bit of colour.) The intricate drama of intrigue and plotting that Berendt details is a modern soap opera from real life. Naturally, the Mafia come under suspicion and in my innocence, I didn’t know that they had used arson against art institutions as an extreme form of cultural terrorism.

In the middle chapters, Berendt, who seems to have a knack for engaging friend and foe alike, explores other dramas of great poignancy such as a rift in an ancient family of glass blowers from Murano. First, we side with the father, then sneakily, we see the rebel son’s point of view. Either way, the glass creations emerge, whether fire-inspired or technically innovative – some photos would have been nice. Another long chapter is devoted to Olga Rudge’s struggle with other Poundites determined to secure the old poet’s papers for a song and the bitter battles that ensue. If all of the above sounds unrelentingly highbrow in scope, Berendt slips in a rat exterminator who attributes his huge success at his chosen profession by feeding rats the same (but slyly doctored) food that local humans eat. Is Berendt trying on a symbol for the wiliness of Venetians?
Owing to the fortuitous events of history, what was intended to be perhaps just another travel book, an architectural swan song, became an enthralling and immediate social history. This is only Berendt’s second book, so it will be interesting to see which part of the globe he brings his acute gaze to next.

PS: Against difficult odds, the restored opera house re-opened in 2003.


books_lunar park.jpgLUNAR PARK
By Bret Easton Ellis, Picador, $27.00
Lunar Park which is not to be confused with Luna Park, the Sydney amusement park, and indeed there is little chance of that. Luna Park possibly brings a smile to the face of its users but Lunar Park, Ellis’s latest novel, is neither amusing, uplifting nor entertaining. In fact, it is a tiresomely bad book. The reader may well wind up asking “is this a horror or a horrible novel?”, and the answer is yes on both counts.

Initially, Ellis pulls out that tired metafictional trick of an author turning himself into a character in a novel. Witty when Philip Roth does it, alas not here. The opening chapters with their confessions of druggy parties read like a straight autobiography so the casual browser could be tricked. The blurb tell us “that every word is true”, an assertion which even the dimmest reader will slowly realise is fictional puffery. Ellis, the character, keeps complaining that he is not cut out for suburban married life. And it might appear, Ellis, the real author, is forewarning us not to expect this brat pack novelist to turn respectable and suburbanly settled, anytime soon.

Enter Terby, a nasty doll that seems to have stepped out of the B-grade pages of Stephen King. What’s worse or better, depending on how you look at it, is the presence of a young man dressed up as Patrick Bateman, sadistic-psychotic villain of Ellis’s previous notorious novel, American Psycho, who appears to be leaving a trail of corpses. In other words, art is copying life, even though that “life” is also fiction. Stated thus, something shallow sounds metafictionally deep. I can assure you this is not the case.

The gratuitous slaughters in the pages of American Psycho leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth and here the narrator (Ellis) seems to want explain and excuse the author (also Ellis) by maintaining that brutal murderer Patrick Bateman was a notoriously unreliable narrator and that the crimes may well have been fantasies, “fuelled by his rage and fury about life in America was structured and how this had ...trapped him ...”. The book “was about society and manners and mores, and not about cutting up women”. Or is Ellis, the real and actual author, seeking to let himself off the hook of accusations of unrelenting sadism towards women as grimly reported in American Psycho? It certainly looks that way.

Another unconvincing theme in Lunar Park is that Ellis is trying to make peace with his father and the nastinesses of Patrick Bateman were based on anger against his dad. This notion at least leads to the only good piece of writing in the book – the last two magnificently lyrical pages which describe the ashes of the dead father being cast into the sea. Which is possibly what Ellis should have done when this book was still a manuscript. Except, of course, for those last two pages.


books_country life.jpgGRANTA 90: Country Life
Edited by Ian Jack, Granta, $27.95
Established some 20 years, the very non-literary (no criticism or poetry) literary book-formatted magazine, Granta continues to publish first class short stories, travel and sociological memoirs. There is a Granta package – meticulous detail, lucid elegant English, sympathy for the underdog, particularly the working class underdog – the old style factory or field worker – which is sometimes presented as the worker speaking or narrating non-stop for several pages. This approach is used for the lead feature – an evocation of a fading rural way of life in England entitled “Return to Akenfield” by Craig Taylor.

Akenfield – first published in 1969 – was “a rich and perceptive portrait of life in an English village, told in the voices of the farmers and villagers themselves”. Akenfield has had a boom – population 298 in 1950, by 2001 it had rocketed to 358. We learn that picking black currants is bloody (actually sticky) hard work and buying a reasonably-sized dairy farm nowadays will set you back a cool five million bucks.

In former days, Granta tended to mainly feature big name writers but the only one featured here – unless you count Studs Terkel interviewing Bob Dylan back in 1963 – is Doris Lessing’s “The Death of A Chair”. I found Lessing’s piece uninspiring. She is surpassed by less known authors like Barry Lopez (noted for his book on wolves) who writes a poignant piece on salmon fishing with his son; “Fantastic Mr Fox” by Tim Adams, a satisfying look at the crazed dedication and frantic antics of the anti-fox hunters, and “Nightwalking” by Robert Macfarlane, a celebration of noctambulism (walking at night especially in search of melancholy) as opposed to somna- mbulism (sleepwalking, possible at high noon).

The intriguing thing about Granta is if you open it at random you will find it difficult to tell fact from fiction. Actually, the fiction is in the minority but when I read “Constitutional” by Helen Simpson (fiction) I took it to be the kind of typical personal memoir piece that Granta writers do so well. Does this mean my reading filter had fallen asleep? Or that fact and fiction have become indistinguishable? Neither, I believe; it’s just the hard bitten exactitude of the Granta style.

The collection is rounded off by the postcard-tinted style photographs of tree blight by Robert Gumpert and the solemn dignity of English folk parading their showtime farm animals by Liz Jobey. The piece de la resistance (almost) is a bunch of gloriously cheerful Englishwomen holding up their prize chooks on a Hertfordshire farm in 1933, exceeded only by four behatted gentlemen clutching their piglets. The inscription on the building behind reads, “Adolph’s Kindergarten, Bombing Verboten.” Great stuff.


books_space race.jpgSPACE RACE
By Deborah Cadbury, Fourth Estate, $67.95
As a small boy I informed my parents that one day a man would fly to the moon. My parents, aunties and grandparent (I had only one) laughed with amiable derision. Man fly to the moon! Consistent aerial Luddites, none of my elders so much as set foot in an aeroplane though they lived into the 70s, the era of cheap flight.

Today – setting aside the conspiratorial sceptics – we know men have flown to the moon not once but six times. The notion that flight to the moon was possible was most prominently mooted by Werner Von Braun, a refugee from Nazi Germany, a former member of the SS whose scientific prophecies included space stations, artificial sunlight, rocket planes crossing the Atlantic in 40 minutes – all in 1945! A series of articles published in Colliers in 1952 continued the hype and were read by millions. Certainly, I knew the name von Braun when I was in short pants. As adolescence hit, I became a science fiction fan. The moon trip was a certainty – it was just a matter of time. My parents were alive when the moon was reached, though kindly, I never crowed ‘I told you so’.

Space Race is a very apt title and just how fiercely it was contested is the thrilling tale related in this gripping book. Major Staver was responsible for the Americans gaining an early lead over the Russians by acquiring – just hours before the Brits arrived – 100 V2 rockets, 15 tons of documents, 1000 technicians, plus the inimitable and charismatic Von Braun, ever after to lead the American half of the space race. Later, the Americans secured some 7000 “German experts” from all branches of industry. By any standards, they had a head start. In fact since they had the V2s, they had a flying start.

What of the Russians? Stalin was furious that they had no V2s, no documents and no senior experts. But SMERSH agents managed to get hold of a gyrostabiliser platform used in a V2 rocket, a talented young engineer called Helmut Grottrup and some blueprints for parts of the V2. Later the Russian’s trump card was an outstanding rocket engineer, Sergei Korolev, brought back into favour after a period of incarceration in a gulag on the usual trumped-up charges.

It was the genius of Korolev in pioneering the R-7 rocket that led to the dramatic overtaking of the American space program by the Russians. I am of the generation who reeled under the impact of Russian success – A satellite! A dog! A man! A rocket impacting on the moon! – while the Americans languished in miserable technical failure. In relatively uncensored America, the press had a field day calling the failed American attempt to catch up Flopkin ... Dudnik ... Puffnik ... Oopsnik ...Goofkik ... Kaputnik. Of course, the Russians had their disasters too, though Soviet propaganda meant that a massive explosion in 1960 which killed 150 was hushed up. The Americans had their small successes and further humiliations, but their moment of triumph finally came with the awesome moon rocket Saturn V whose 5 F-1 engines delivered 7.5 million pounds of thrust and were so powerful they could be heard 100 miles away. Meanwhile, in an ironic reversal, the Russian equivalents began blowing up. This is drama on a grand scale and no has told it better than Deborah Cadbury. It’s a blast!


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BOOKS: Mar 05

RICHARD PEARSE DIDN’T FLY
A new Wright Brothers biography tackles Pearse, as Michael Morrissey discovers in this crop of the latest literature offerings

books_natural world of NZ.jpgTHE PENGUIN NATURAL WORLD OF NEW ZEALAND
By Gerard Hutching, Penguin, $39.95
Some days I think surely we have had enough books about New Zealand flora and fauna and then two counter thoughts come to mind :
a) we can never have enough books about our plants, trees and wonderful birds and insects,
b) if it’s a good book, yes, we can do with it.

The Natural World prompts both of these positive thoughts. And of course new species get discovered and so we need new books to document these discoveries.

This book has two parts – the first part (In the Beginning) is only 26 pages long and the second part (Our Natural Heritage) has 343 pages which at first glance looks a trifle unbalanced but then the second half contains “New Zealand’s Natural World A-Z” which is the central part of the book. This central alphabetised section mixes up fauna and flora which might disquiet some though it makes for easy reference and encourages that free wheeling habit of association and contiguity by alphabet alone which is the hallmark of browsing dictionaries and encyclopaedias.

I’ll start negative and finish positive. There is an entry on snails but none on slugs. (And we have some magnificent slugs.) Naturally, our unique creepy-crawly, the 550 million old peripatus, is well displayed. Alas and alack, no giant centipedes – well, they have become rare. No entry on insects. There is an entry on endangered plants but none on endangered birds though there is a list of rare (ie, endangered) birds on p 380 – but it has only five (why not ten?) Parakeets are listed but not lorikeets. The entries on beetles, mountains and rivers (no mention of braided rivers) are far too short as is, arguably, the entries on dinosaurs. The entry on blue whales states they weigh up to 150 tonnes but it is well known that a specimen weighing 190 tonnes was caught in Antarctic seas in 1947.

Let’s look at the positives. Wetas are well documented – I learnt there are at least four species of giant weta alone. And it was honest of Hutching to note that the giant wetapunga sometimes patriotically claimed to be the heaviest insect in the world is outweighed by the African Goliath beetle. Impressively researched is the note on the huia – often erroneously stated to be the only species where the sexes have different-sized bills (so do the African green woodhoopoe, Hawaiian honeycreeper and the trembler from the lesser Antilles (admit it – you had no idea!). Other choice new titbits of knowledge – the largest extinct gecko (“Two feet long and as thick as a man’s wrist”) used to live in New Zealand; male puriri moths live for only one day; New Zealand has only 10 species of ants while Australia has 5000; New Zealand has 3153 glaciers (I thought it had about 20); Maori called English “cicada language”

because of its harsh sound; Mitre Peak is the highest sea cliff in the world; New Zealand’s wild ferret population is the largest in the world; whales eat an estimated 100 million tonnes of squid a year; and why sleeping fantails don’t fall off branches (you’ll have to buy the book to find out why not).

Photography is excellent – particularly striking shots are those of a wetapunga half covering someone’s face, a trio of spy-hopping orcas, a male kakapo doing a mating dance, the third largest ammonite fossil in the world (as large as a wheelbarrow), and a tuatara snacking on a gecko. Perhaps I have been a mite tough on this book – despite some omissions and overly short treatment of some potentially larger topics, it’s excellent overall.


books_the devil's disciles.jpgTHE DEVIL’S DISCIPLES: The Lives and Times of Hitler’s Inner Circle
By Anthony Read, Pimlico, $34
Adolf Hitler may well be the twentieth century’s most written about person. Logically, that is because, for better or for worse, he is regarded as the individual who most influenced history during that apocalyptic epoch. Less well known are his gang of offsiders – Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Speer, Borman, Heydrich, Hess, Rohm etc. This outstanding, well-researched and well-written multi-biography gives detailed psychological, political and historical portraits of these top Nazi officials both in relation to Hitler and to each other.

Prior to reading Devil’s Disciples, these figures were only known to me as two dimensional cartoon-like characters. Now, regrettably, I know them better. Out of the shadows into the light, they appear morally as dark as ever. It must be said they were all highly competent individuals with the exception of the bumbling Ribbentrop (though even Ribbentrop had his times of triumph) – and, of course, totally ruthless. Goring, in particular, was a man I had conceived as a rather foolish fat guy, morphine-riddled, who got things wrong. Fat he certainly was – in later life (though handsome, lean and dashing in his youth) – foolish he was not. (And apparently not morphine-addicted either.) He wasn’t a coward either but a fearless top air ace, renown for his boldness. Militarily, he was more prudent than Hitler for he opposed the invasion of Russia. A collector – or looter – of top class European art, he lived like a medieval monarch complete with forests, fire-lit castles, baronial halls stuffed with hunting trophies – a vulgar but formidable Teutonic lord. He was popular even in Germany’s darkest hour and when captured had his jailors rocking with laughter. Judge Norman Birkett described him as “suave, shrewd, adroit, capable, resourceful”, though by any moral standards, a monster. Yet (almost) I found myself having a sneaking liking for him. It must be remembered that Hitler, Goebbels and Goring all had great charm as well as charisma.

Himmler, by contrast was a more colourless individual whose Machiavellian ruthlessness eventually ousted Goring as Number Two beside Hitler, though when he betrayed Hitler at the end, he himself, like them all, lost everything. All of Hitler’s cohort – particularly Goebbels and Goring – were engaged in an eternal dance of power around the central focus of Hitler. As has been often commented – and here explored in telling detail – Hitler often encouraged the competition.

No Hollywood mogul ever wielded as much power as the club – footed Goebbels. Unlike family man Goring, he had an insatiable sexual appetite and made full use of the casting couch – as dictator of all art forms he controlled casting for films. Like Hitler, he was a failed artist (ie playwright) who, surprisingly, nourished the delusion that Hitler would emerge as a socialist. Ironically, a Hitlerian ban on any art that wasn’t beautiful and true to nature – which led to an exhibition of degenerate abstract art – proved so popular Goebbels had to shut it down.

Excellent as the histories by Richard Overy and Antony Beevor are, none of their books tops this massive, compelling labyrinth, expertly documented and unravelled by Anthony Read – a drama, which however one may dislike it, is the greatest of the twentieth century, a doomed Gotterdammerung-like tragedy that haunts us still. Though the Nuremberg trials may have seemed like the conclusion of these dark performances, the curtain calls of history continue.


books_the wright brothers.jpgTHE WRIGHT BROTHERS
By Ian Mackersey, Timewarner, $29.95
What are the greatest inventions of all time? I’m going to stick my neck out and say the wheel, harnessed and transmittable electricity and the aeroplane. The aeroplane in its transmuted form, the rocket, will one day take us to the stars...

What this book makes powerfully clear is that the first flight on December 17, 1903 was no accident, no fluke, no product of amateur backyard inventors, but a technologically sound construction – the product of many hours of meticulous, planning, research and always-dangerous trials.

True, the Wright brothers had a bicycle shop (often used by less successful rivals as a put down of their efforts), but don’t kid yourself – these boys were astute and patient engineers/technologists. Of the two, tall ascetic Wilbur was the knowledge-retentive, mathematical one, while girl-shy Orville turned out to be the better pilot. They were both non – drinkers, non-smokers, sons of a venerable but ideologically stormy bishop; upright, morally beyond reproach yet courteous and, when not working with their fabled concentration, friendly. In short, they deserved their success. When international recognition and success came – five years after their first flight – it was overwhelming. In France, a crowd went wild, the French pilots, including Louis Bleriot, had never seen such impeccable flight control, such steeply banked turns.

It had started years before with the lads making experimental flights with engineless gliders. Wilbur grasped firmly the notion that it was control and lift that were the key problems not the engine. Mackersey paces his book expertly so that the long build-up of experimentation and partial success climaxes initially about half way through with the brothers’ first successful flight. This is one of the great technological dramas of history and a defining moment of the twentieth century – the American century.

Three key figures – among many – are well outlined in this enthralling account – Samuel Langley who had $50,000 from the American army to develop a glider that was never to achieve true flight; Octave Chanute, an important pioneer of flight who greatly encouraged the Wright brothers before eventually falling out with them; and Augustus Herring, a confidence man of the worst type who kept trying to cotton on to the tails of Wright brothers – thankfully, he did not succeed though not from want of trying.

Though their initial successes were satisfactorily witnessed, the brothers cagily withdrew from the public eye and got into a Mexican standoff with several governments – the brothers wanted money (lots of it) before they would demonstrate. The governments, understandably, wanted performance first, before any money was handed over. The brothers were overly defensive and poor negotiators – yet they triumphed in the end. For some years, (after Wilbur’s death in 1912), the Smithsonian Institution tried to claim that Langley’s craft had attained flight before the Wright brothers but eventually they backed down. It is gratifying to know that Orville at least survived to see their place in history indisputably confirmed. Footnote: Mackersey, cruelly, though I believe accurately, briefly mentions Richard Pearse as becoming airborne but not an achiever of true controlled flight – a failure that Pearse himself admitted in a letter in 1928.


books_susan sontag.jpgREGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS
By Susan Sontag, Penguin Books, $27
This will probably be Sontag’s last book as this eminent woman of letters recently died of cancer – though, on occasion, posthumous works are quarried from a well known author’s unpublished papers. A New York-based writer, Sontag always seemed more like an essayist who wrote novels than a novelist who composed essays. Despite The Volcano Lover winning the National Book Award, it is her essays which will be remembered and re-read more than her fiction.

Sontag’s early collections of essays – Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will – were dazzling. She was an intellectual of formidable powers who wrote essays which the “average” educated person could understand. Not for her the wilful obscurities of the poststructuralists, though she was a keen admirer of Roland Barthes and edited a reader of his work. Her speciality – in the tradition of the great essayists – was the epigrammatic sentence compressing several notions into a single witty byte.

Sontag’s work also revealed an early obsession with cinematography and photography. In the world of the Sontagian essay, Hollywood did not exist – her preferred choices were European auteurs like Ingmar Bergman and Jean – Luc Godard. In this final book length essay, she combines her fixation on photography with her ongoing moral concern with man’s inhumanity to man – plus as noted by Virginia Woolf and Sontag herself – women and children.

War photography is the central theme. Roger Fenton, official photographer at the Crimea, was the world’s first war photographer – the camera having been invented only a few years prior. Fenton’s brief was “not to photograph the dead, the maimed, or the ill”. The result, as Sontag sardonically observes, was “war as a dignified all – male outing”– complete to carefully rearranged cannon balls showing the aftermath of the doomed charge of the Light Brigade. This sterilised view of war couldn’t hold up for long. Sontag alludes to the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich who in 1924 published close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds and, naturally, to Robert Capa, most famous of all war photographers, killed in action like so many of that singularly dangerous occupation.

Ever the true intellectual – ready to retract earlier ideas if time reveals a different perspective – Sontag pulls the carpet from under ideas she espoused in On Photography, written nearly 30 years ago. There are millions, she says, who are not inured to what they see on television – “who do not have the luxury of patronising reality.” In a rebuke directed at intellectuals (including herself), she insists that images of atrocity continue to remind us, do not allow us to forget, what awful things human beings are capable of. The conclusion of this moving essay rises to a fever pitch of humane pleading that is not found in her earlier work. Perhaps it was her own suffering as a cancer patient that informed these passages. If so, it is a pain Sontag has declined to centre on herself but pass onto us, all humanity, at large. Thus Sontag’s final work concludes on a note of high moral uplift expressed as always in her elegant and eloquent prose. Bravo, Susan!


books_rats.jpgRATS: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
By Robert Sullivan, Granta Books, $35
Rats are usually a non-starter as a dinner conversation topic. Femmes and chaps alike don’t care for the disease-carrying rubbish scavengers as gossip. The Black Plague gave them some of the worst press any animal has had to live with. To call someone a rat is about the worst insult you can dish out. And we’ve all heard those suburban horror stories about rats chewing on babies’ faces. The scene in 1984 where Winston Smith has to face his worse fear – rats – is arguably the most horrible in all literature.

If this is your take on rats, you will probably give this book a wide berth; on the other hand, gnaw your way into it and you might find there’s more to the much disliked rodent then you imagined. For a start they are tough little buggers. Their teeth, dedicated rat-watcher Sullivan writes zestfully, are “stronger than aluminium, copper, lead, and iron. They are comparable to steel ... they can exert a biting pressure of up to seven thousand pounds a square inch”. This compares to 1500 pounds for a wolf and a mere 750 pounds for a German shepherd. No wonder they can chew through concrete.

All your fears about rats are more or less true – rats do bite babies; there have been instances of them attacking fully grown adults; they carry bacteria, viruses, protozoa, fungi, mites, fleas lice and ticks; they spread trichinosis, tularaemia, leptospirosis. (I don’t know what the last two are but they sound bad). And for a bonus – typhus, rabies and salmonella.Reader, there have been no surprises so far but here come three :

1. the author finds rats disgusting (surely he loves them just a bit?)
2. he spent a lot of time prowling around in dirty, dangerous dark alleyways watching them
3. he really doesn’t know why he set out on the rat-watching project.

It appeared Sullivan gathered enthusiasm as he went. Or was that when he had enough information to quit alleys and skulk home to write his very well-written book? Rats of course do die themselves and one of New York’s less savoury nineteenth pastimes was getting tough dogs to kill as many rats as they could in as short a time as possible – the record was 100 rats in five minutes 28 seconds.

The tough Irish impresario drew the line (and please don’t try this at home) at men biting rats’ head off. Amazingly, I learnt from Sullivan’s compendious little book that kiwis are global leaders in rat extermination. In 2002, 120 tonnes of rat poison taken to Campbell Island did in 200,000 rats – a world record!

Sullivan gleefully lists some of the dottier causes of plague before it was discovered (only as recently as 1894) that rat fleas were the culprit – restless night birds, huddling frogs, wormy fruit, large spiders, circling ravens, mad dogs and vapours rising from the earth. To which I say – rats. Rats are renown for their versatile eating habits and you want to encourage them leave cooked rather than raw food. They love scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese and cooked corn kernels but tend to dislike raw beans, peaches and raw celery.

Sullivan is adamant that the notion that there is one rat per person in a city is erroneous – that would mean in New York there were about 8 million. A rat expert has estimated the Big Apple’s quota as 250,000 – which sounds a bit on the low side. Why? Rats have sex 20 times a day.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 02:12 PM | Comments (0)

BOOKS: Sep 05. AU Edition

MEN BEHAVING BADLY
This month: sickos, school shooters, and English-language abusers – plus a great sea tale

books_Mr  Muo's travelling couch.jpgMR MUO’S TRAVELLING COUCH
By Dai Sijie
Chatto & Windus, $39.95, ISBN: 0 7011 7739 X
Dai Sijie’s first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Mistress, was a delightfully written fable which showed how appealing forbidden Western literature (Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens) could be to people living in an oppressive regime. Sijie’s second novel, also exquisitely written, similarly deploys the encounter of a strand of Western thought with Chinese culture, but this time Western psychology – i.e. psychoanalysis – is depicted to satiric and ironic effect. Mr Muo is a French-educated travelling Freudian psychoanalyst but his dream interpretations are considered by his listeners to be either fortune telling or greeted with howls of laughter. Freud and psychoanalysis are easy targets to mock (Nabokov never spared the ‘Viennese witchdoctor’) and at times I found myself chuckling along with the mockers and knockers.

The plot also oozes satiric mockery towards Chinese society and government. For Mr Muo’s real quest in China is not to spread the ideas of Freud but to find a virgin with which to bribe a corrupt judge to free his first love who has been imprisoned for selling articles to the West that describe scenes of Chinese torture. Believe it or not, Muo has trouble finding a virgin – the villages are filled with old women and young girls – the eligible young women having moved into the cities. In other words, the plot is fanciful and Mr Muo is something of a Chinese Quixote tilting at windmills.

Dai Sijie, let me note, writes safely in Paris and in French. I am reasonably confident this book will not be on sale in China, a land of widespread corruption and censorship, anytime soon. The richly elegant style and the multiple layers of irony (Mr Muo is himself a virgin) make this very much a writer’s book. But it also clearly has a political message – albeit one couched in an ironic fable of folly.

Despite its excellence of style, some of the monologues seem inordinately long and discursive though I suspect Chinese readers (hopefully it will find some) may locate more resonance in them than an Occidental one. Also the basic plot engine is left unsatisfiedly unresolved (a Kafkaesque touch, perhaps) or yet another irony? Readers must decide.


books_I choose to live.jpgI CHOOSE TO LIVE
By Sabine Dardenne
Virago Press, $29.95, ISBN: 1 84408 2105
In recent times few crimes have been more shocking than those perpetuated by Mark Dutroux, the Belgian paedophile who kidnapped, raped and murdered several girls, two as young as eight.

Sabine Dardenne, a slightly built pre-pubescent twelve-year-old, who by her own description looked about ten, was cycling home from school one day in May 1996 when a van pulled alongside her. She was quickly abducted then chained up naked in a small dirty dungeon-like room where she became prey to Dutroux’s psychopathic lust.

As well as being her physical tormentor, Dutroux played havoc with her fears. He kept referring to a mysterious boss, who, if he was let loose on the hapless Sabine, would torture and murder her. By contrast, Dutroux’s treatment was self portrayed as ‘kind’ – he even tried to portray himself as her saviour and brainwash her that her parents had not paid the ransom asked for her life.

Being young and in fear of her life, Dardenne believed him. His physical power over her was absolute yet he never broke her spirit.
Eventually, desperate with loneliness and thinking she might spend the rest of her life chained up in that dismal room, she asked if she could have a friend. When another girl barely two years older than herself turned up, drugged and chained, she was beside herself with guilt. But this is one contemporary horror that has something of a happy ending for Dutroux was caught and told the police about the two trapped girls. The two eight year olds were not so lucky – they starved to death behind that massive concrete door that secured the makeshift prison.

Dardenne tells her own story in simple direct prose – and it is all the more moving for that simplicity. If there is any reader seeking titillation from these pages they will get absolutely none: there are no descriptions whatsoever of the sexual humiliations Dutroux inflicted on the two girls.

At the time the story broke, speculation was rife about a vast underground network of paedophiles in Belgium. Dardenne always believed that Dutroux was the main protagonist (though he had a couple of accomplices including, incredibly, his wife). Subsequent information indicates that Dutroux did not have a secret boss and his attempt to make out he was a humble cog in a large network, who procured for others, was an attempt to lessen his own guilt.

That the two girls survived was a small miracle; that Dardenne’s resolute strength of character carried her through to a normal adult life and a normal relationship without any help from psychiatrists is perhaps the biggest miracle of all. Her body may been violated, her mind temporarily downtrodden, but her soul stayed pure and strong.


books_rampage.jpgRAMPAGE: The Social Roots of School Shootings
By Katherine S. Newman, Cybelle Fox, David J. Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth
Basic Books, $32, ISBN: 0 465 05104 9
I recently read a book called We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, a fictional work which made it plain that Kevin, a fifteen-year-old murderer, was basically an evil kid and his mother’s failings as a parent could not be blamed for his horrible deeds – even though she tortured herself psychologically with the possibility. In Kevin, the psychological, let alone the social, causes of youthful carnage were not presented as the explanation for psychopathic behaviour. Rampage examines psychological factors but seeks to place more emphasis on overlooked sociological factors.

School killers, as the name suggests, perform their mass murders at school. They are disturbingly young and getting younger – Andrew Golden was just eleven when he teamed up with 13-year Mitchell Johnson to shoot dead five people and injure a further ten at his school in Arkansas. Although like most mature men I tell myself I am not easily shocked, an eleven-year-old shooting dead or wounding several people does appal. At that tender age, I was doing projects on tea or sugar, and had never been exposed to a gun more powerful than an air pistol.

Quite often, there aren’t many clues to forewarn. Johnson had been rejected by a girlfriend and Golden was cruel to cats. Hardly sufficient reason or motivation to shoot fifteen people. They, like several such killers, came from a small town. The multiple contributors have tried to find a commonality among school killers by a series of graphs that list factors such as age, ethnicity, urbanity and aspects of social marginalisation such as being a loner, being teased or bullied, or indeed even just feeling marginalised. They also looked at mental illness or family problems, disciplinary history, violent writings, trouble with the law, issued threats, mental illness, suicidality, and depression. Finally, they considered access to guns. Summing up their findings, the authors says that there is not enough commonality to compose a reliable or predictable profile. Depressing news, isn’t it?

My gut instinct is that the sociological explanations offered (structural secrecy, institutional memory loss, loosely-coupled systems, counsellors having too many roles to fill) are weaker and more abstract than the psychological ones. Small towns and being loners seem to figure prominently but also, alas, there are plenty of school killers who had friends and even mentioned their intentions to create havoc – which were of course often not taken seriously.

The authors seem to contradict themselves on pages 268-269 when they write ‘... and they weren’t all bullies or teased either’ which is followed three lines later by the statement, ‘And nearly all of them were bullied or teased.’ So which is it? Were they bullied or not? The table on pages 312-313 shows each of the shooters were either bullied or that there was ‘no evidence’. I know it’s not strictly kosher to say so, but if every known case shows bullying, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that a healthy percentage of the remaining teenagers were also bullied? Not that being bullied is sufficient cause for wholesale murder.

The chapter on prevention offers some cautious measures: keeping better records, more school resource officers, challenging notions of masculinity, zero tolerance policy of disciplinary breaches (how is this ever possible?), encouraging kids to report threats. All very well and good. But I am left with the lingering feeling that this is a study from the inside of American society and to an outsider three factors which, though they are in part included in the book, have a peculiarly American flavour – (a) the wide ownership, obsession and ready access to guns; (b) the status anxiety which makes Americans (especially socially marginalised ones) willing to do anything to achieve fame; (c) a society which accepts adolescence as a zone of complete freedom and independence. America, one could say, is paying a high price for its freedoms.


books_passage.jpgPASSAGE TO TORRES STRAIT: Four Centuries in the Wake of Great Navigators, Mutineers, Castaways and Beachcombers
By Miles Hordern
John Murray, $39.95, ISBN: 0 7195 6496 4
This is a book to stir the salt in the blood of even the most landbound reader. Isn’t that what shipping clerks and ‘customer sales representatives’ (receptionists, bank clerks, office workers) secretly yearn for – to sail off on a blue ocean and anchor in remote and gorgeous lagoons there to parley with beautiful bronze-skinned inhabitants? In days gone by, your best security measure to obtain a benign reception by the locals was to be alone – a lone survivor is no threat – and not be part of group (certain to be bumped off).

So off we sail with the Waiheke Island-based author and his 28-foot sloop for high adventure and re-exploration of history on the high blue seas. By the way, this is how it starts: ‘At lunchtime I finished a bottle of rum’. That I assume was the dessert – and not the aperitif – following a lengthy journey. Horden’s adventurous sojourn was to take him north of Auckland to the Melanesian islands, west across the Coral Sea to the Great Barrier Reef and into the dangerous maze of Torres Strait, wrecker of ships, killer of men.

In Dillon’s Bay, Eerromango – south of Vanuatu – Hordern outlines the protocol of the Melanesian approach to a lone vessel. ‘They would circle the boat in perfect silence...when ready they made a deliberate noise, slapping the paddle against the surface or clearing their throats. Then they waited for an invitation to come alongside’. After boarding they would make requests, in this case for tobacco.

This happened three times and just as Horden was tiring of the one-way traffic after an exhausting journey, the Erromagans returned with sixty pieces of fruit. Erromango may seem an out of the way place now, but in the nineteenth century these waters saw a brisk trade in sandalwood, used for soap and cosmetics. At first, sandalwood was traded for beads, fish-hooks then saws, tomahawks, carving knives and butchers’ cleavers and still later muskets, powder and tobacco.

Some of the castaways or survivors of shipwreck were treated like kings. For in times of early contact, white sailors were assumed to be spirits or supernatural beings. One character known as Big-Legged Jimmy was plied with feasts, kava and young women and left hundreds of grandchildren. By contrast, others like Leonard Shaw, who survived a massacre in the Kilinailau Islands, New Guinea, was kept as a pet and tortured by children who pulled out his facial hair. Hordern describes the enthralling survival tales of the like of William Lockerby on Fiji, John Young on Hawaii, and Peter Dillon on remote Tikopia, even today without airstrip, wharf, white residents, electricity or telephones. Both Conrad and New Zealand castaways get a look in.

All around the vastness of the South Pacific, Horden narrates, the castaway, mutineer or beachcomber was often the envoy of European culture. First encounters were not as we so often fondly imagine – a high ranking officer (Captain Cook, say) with a formidable well- equipped ship meeting a noble chief on white beach and exchanging gifts, but rather a lone and miserable survivor often seeking advantage and sometimes getting it, sometime not. The somewhat throwaway term beachcomber has been immeasurably enriched for me by reading this book. So we are on double journey with Horden, the still adventurous present – the difficult and complex passage through Torres Strait is thrilling reading – and the even more adventurous past.

I have left the best wine (or swig of rum) to last. Horden, a proven sailor, can also write like the roaring forties. Graham Billing is probably our best naturalist writer but Hordern (English now settled in New Zealand) is running him close. ‘Tepid strings of spray spun into the cockpit as if coughed up from the belly of a waking beast.’ On virtually every page there are descriptions as fine as this. This is an ideal book for either sailor or landlubber.


books_mumbojumbo.jpgHOW MUMBO JUMBO CONQUERED THE WORLD
By Francis Wheen,
Harper Perennial, $24.95, ISBN: 0 00 714097 5
I’ve always liked books that take a wide overview (it saves me work) and authors that debunk – for there’s lot in this world that needs debunking. Francis Wheen does rather nicely in both categories. Wheen is firm but fair: he’s tough on everyone. Madame Thatcher, Reagan and the George Bushes cop heavy flak. So do Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra. As do Ayatollah Khomeini and Milton Friedman. And readers will be pleased to hear that Holocaust denier David Irving gets a roasting.
On the evidence of quotation, Chopra sounds the daffiest: ‘People who have achieved an enormous amount of success are inherently very spiritual’; this must make Bill Gates the holiest man one earth apart from the Pope and the Dalai Lama. How about, ‘Ageing is simply learned behaviour’? Demi Moore agrees, and she hopes to live to 130. Wheen can be unfairly cruel, as when he quips, ‘Why the longevity formula failed to work for Princess Diana, with whom [Chopra] lunched shortly before her death remains a mystery’. Whether it’s Wess Roberts’ The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun or Mars and Venus’ John Gray or ‘Six Hats’ de Bono, Wheen wraps them all up in a chapter entitled ‘Old Snake Oil, New Bottles’. Wheen summarises them all as writers of ‘lucrative twaddle’ and blames Dale Carnegie for starting the vogue back in 1948. Whereas Carnegie contented himself with phrases like, ‘If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive’, today’s gurus use ‘neologistic jargon’ like ‘re-engineering’, ‘demassing’, ‘downsizing’, and ‘benchmarking’ in an attempt ‘to give their twee clichés an appearance of scientific method and intellectual rigour’. Right on, Francis.

But if the gurus are mouthing clichés and twaddle, how come top management pays them so much to talk to their staff? Good question – and apparently there is an answer. One executive manager explained, ‘What he’s saying is a lot of common sense and not new really. But if I pay him $15,000 to say it, my general mangers and my people listen’. So there you are – it’s not really the message but the messenger – and the high fee.

Moving on from self-improvement, he sideswipes the‘boa-deconstructors’ (Derrida and his ilk) and includes the twitty Luce Irigray who referred to E=mc2 as a ‘sexed equation’ that privileged the speed of light over less masculine speeds. When Allen Sokal, author of the most famous intellectual hoax of our time (and someone of whom Wheen wholeheartedly approves) accused Julia Kristeva of using mathematical terms she did not understand, she conceded she was ‘not a real mathematician’. Derrida cops it for asserting that Paul de Man’s wartime blatant Jew-baiting was somehow an implicit repudiation of anti-Semitism. I’m surprised Wheen didn’t quote American philosopher John Searle whose demolition of Derrida was published in the New York Review of Books, but the field of debunkers – like the producers of bunkum – is richly crowded.

Wheen’s learning is formidable. He cites, usually for purposes of intellectual demolition, dozens of books and authors of which and of whom I am ignorant.

To catch up with his list of targets would mean reading for a couple of years at least. It’s easy at times to have a moment of confusion between George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, Thomas Friedman and Milton Friedman and the two John Grays, one American and one English.
As debunkers go, I rate Francis Wheen up with the best – with Martin Gardener, or H.L. Mencken. I look forward to further books from this acid-penned guru who hates gurus.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:10 PM | Comments (0)

BOOKS: Apr 05. AU Edition

DON’T GIVE IT A THOUGHT!
Business guru Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering says, yes, you can choose a book by its cover

books_blink.jpgBLINK: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell
Penguin Australia 2005. Paperback, $32.95. ISBN: 071399844X
Malcolm Gladwell has a gift for taking obscure scientific experiments and tying them in to much broader ideas. Take, for example, Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg’s study which took two groups of equallymatched students playing Trivial Pursuit. Members of the first group were told to take five minutes before the game started and think about what it meant to be a professor. The second group were to think about football hooligans. The first group faired a lot better. They were in a “smart” frame of mind. This is just one of the many investigations Gladwell covers. He analyses the Pepsi challenge, the Amadou Diallo shooting in New York, speed-dating, the “love lab” and the DNA of marriage, height-salary ratios, Morse code, involuntary facial expressions and Pentagon war games. It’s fascinating reading. But do all these disparate parts meld to form a cohesive theory? I’m not so sure.

The problem is that the publishers are pitching Blink as a self-help title. The best-seller list is littered with diet books and money-making manifestos – French Women Don’t Get Fat; He’s Just Not That Into You; Rich Dad, Poor Dad – which explains what the publishers are up to. But business guru Gladwell’s intentions are a bit more fuzzy.

On the surface Blink is about trusting your gut – hardly a new concept, but the author is such a science-based individual that the book reads as if it’s all news to him. Anyone who’s read his internationally acclaimed first book The Tipping Point will have pretty high expectations for this new release – expectations which, as it turns out, have the power to colour our judgement in either good or evil ways.

The sub-title, “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, is misleading if you read the word power as solely a positive thing. It’s true that much of Blink is taken up with impressive examples of snap decisions that make people heaps of money or save lots of lives. An equal portion is devoted to those subconscious decisions produced without the rational mind even realising a decision has already been made. First impressions are powerful, but not necessarily in a good way. Blink proves how we justify our instinctive judgements with a logic entirely unrelated to them – thereby validating prejudices we didn’t even know we had.

“Thin-slicing” is a key term in Blink and it refers to “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behaviour based on very narrow slices of experience”. For example, when we have to make sense of something very quickly – in a crisis, say, or when interviewing candidates for a job.

Gladwell introduces us to psychologist Samuel Gosling, who has shown how effective thin-slicing can be when judging people’s personalities. His experiment involved getting eighty college students to complete a personality questionnaire about themselves. He then had close friends of the eighty students fill out the same questionnaire. Next Golsing repeated the process with complete strangers who had never even met the people they were judging – all they saw were their dorm rooms, and were given 15 minutes to look around with a clipboard. The results of the experiment are quite surprising: While the close friends were better at measuring how agreeable and extroverted the subject was, on the whole, the complete strangers came out on top. Their conclusions were far more accurate in all other regards, like predicting emotional stability, conscientiousness, and openness to new experiences.

Concludes Gladwell, “Forget the endless ‘getting to know you’ meetings and lunches, then. If you want to get a good idea of whether I’d make a good employee, drop by my house one day and take a look around”.
For me, there’s an absurd side to scientists proving the existence of instinct. Gathering reams of data to pinpoint and explain intuitive responses – it borders on the ridiculous. Granted, the human mind is naturally driven to explain the inexplicable, but to take this further and promote the supremacy of snap decisions over logical thinking is like saying that water is more important than food. We live in a technological age obsessed with data, but have we forgotten so much that we need to rediscover it all again?

Over-thinking has always been frowned upon. While the research in Blink is highly original, the concept isn’t:

In the words of the ancients one should make decisions in the space of seven breaths. Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil.” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly.” – Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai, written in the 1700s.

Conceding that Blink is preaching to the converted in my case, the focus shifts away from the book’s actual subject toward the biographies of the remarkable Americans collected for the project. We meet the owl-like professor and the smart cop; there’s the fireman who thinks he has ESP and the virtuoso car salesman. Gladwell paints beautiful portraits of these people and many more; he really is the Rembrandt of journalism in this regard. Together they form a brave and intelligent representation of American thought and endeavour.

So, is Blink lamb dressed as mutton or mutton dressed as lamb? Enlisting the Blink philosophy of utilising positive reinforcement to override subconscious prejudice, (perversely) I choose to read Blink as an antidote to the anti-American sentiment that currently plagues us. Medicine like this I’d happily take every day.


books_patron saint of eels.jpgTHE PATRON SAINT OF EELS
By Gregory Day
Sydney. Picador 2005. $22.00 ISBN: 0330421581
Do not be afraid of the saints of the new millenium. Fra Ionio, Patron Saint of Eels, seeks only to protect the eels and remind us of the magic of nature. The Patron Saint of Eels is set in the southern Victorian town of Mangowak, where the bush meets the sea. Noel Lee, an artist, is as concerned about tourism as the rest of the locals. When heavy rain floods the neighbouring swamp, hundreds of eels overflow into the ditches that surround Noel’s loft. The immortal Fra Ionio materializes – deus ex machina – to set them free.

The Patron Saint of Eels is a contemporary fable. Traditionally, fables carry wisdom through the ages. They are cautionary tales that tell us what we ought to do. Unlike fairy tales that give us hope and promise happy endings, fables are not concerned with wish-fulfilment. They are overtly moralistic and use scare tactics to prevent us from doing the wrong thing. Contemporary fables are losing their dark side, it seems.

The master of this genre, Italo Calvino, himself wrote a fable about eels. “The Cloven Youth” tells the story of a boy who is cut in half by a witch. This half-boy grows up, with half a head, half a body and just one leg. Out fishing one day he catches an eel and the eel says, “Let me go, and whatever you wish will be granted, for the sake of the little eel.” The boy lets the eel go. Then one day, as he is passing the palace, a princess on her balcony laughs at him. To punish her for laughing at his misfortunate appearance, he wishes that she were pregnant with his child. A baby is born and the princess is abused by her parents for the disgrace. When it is discovered that the cloven youth is the baby’s father, all three are trapped in barrel sent to the bottom of the ocean. The youth wishes again and for the sake of the little eel, they are safe on dry land with a banquet
before them and a palace all of their own.

The cloven youth, who is no longer cloven but handsome and whole, uses the little eel’s magic once more to punish the king but the princess pleads mercy for her father and he relents. “The king took them back to his palace where they all lived in harmony from then on. Unless they have died in the meantime, they may well be there to this day.”
Calvino’s fables are deadly – by which I mean phenomenally good. Gregory Day’s new work is more reminiscent of Tim Winton’s fable, Blueback. They are both set in small towns threatened by gentrification where nature is the maiden in need of protection. The characters are the keepers of the land and salvation lies in understanding and enjoying that responsibility. Day’s Nannette is wiry and freckled to Winton’s Dora, tough and sun-streaked. Both women like to keep to themselves. Despite their similarlities, these are very different books. The Patron Saint of Eels is in your face. Blueback is far more subtle.


books_Never Let Me Go.jpgNEVER LET ME GO
By Kazuo Ishiguro
London. Faber and Faber 2005. $29.95. ISBN: 0571224121.
The other day I saw a toddler wearing a t-shirt saying “Ruining It For Everybody”. Not wanting to wear a shirt like that myself, I’m in a difficult position reviewing Kazou Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It’s been five years since his last book came out, so the new one is eagerly awaited and now I’m afraid I’m going to hold out on you too. It’s lucky that it’s not just about ‘that’ anyway; as with all of Ishiguro’s books (think Stevens, the troubled butler in The Remains of the Day), there is always more going on than meets the eye.

So here I am, talkin’ loud and saying nothing, while Ishiguro does the exact opposite. When discussing his work I feel the same obligation to stay silent that one might feel in a library. His writing is quiet. His themes, on the other hand, are radical and universal – loud, that is. Never Let Me Go deals with love and friendship; it scopes out death. This uncanny mix of softly spoken clout has impressed the critics to the point where every one of his books has either won or been nominated for a major award. Look at how Ishiguro makes an insightful indictment of international defence and security policies, without going anywhere near the subject of current affairs. These are primary school children who think someone is plotting to abduct their beloved teacher.

“When it came down to it, though, I don’t recall our taking many practical steps towards defending Miss Geraldine; our activities always revolved around gathering more and more evidence concerning the plot itself. For some reason, we were satisfied this would keep any immediate danger at bay.”
How elegant and understated is that! Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

There are surprisingly few big-game writers that take it all on. Ishiguro’s style is both contemporary and classic. And he’s not afraid of fiction. Lately there’s been an obsession with keeping it “real”, which often results in books that fail to strike any chord at all. This book strikes so many chords you’ll end up feeling like a banjo in West Virginia.

To be honest, Never Let Me Go is really creepy. I didn’t actually enjoy reading it – though I’d recommend it highly. Ishiguro always opts for the first person narrative and he’s done so again this time. In interviews he will often discuss his somewhat unique method of auditioning characters for the lead role, spending a long time viewing the situation from one perspective then switching to another. Of course this means that by the time the book is published, we are only given access to the inside of one head. This is why I read the first page of Never Let Me Go with a sinking heart. I didn’t want to know this person who was talking to me and I didn’t want to hear her story either. The sense of something being very wrong here is immediately pervasive.

I’ve made this all sound like some big mystery and it’s not. It’s just that some things are better approached fresh, with as little prior knowledge as possible. It’s a shame I don’t want to say what it is about because that’s probably the reason a lot of people will buy it. Never Let Me Go is very topical, very now; let’s just hope it’s not very soon.



Reviewed by MICHAEL MORRISSEY:

books_going native.jpgGOING NATIVE: Living in the Australian Environment
By Michael Archer and Bob Beale
Hodder Headline Australia 2004. $35.
ISBN 0733615228.
Awakening of ecological consciousness - and conscience - can occur at any time. A book, documentary, even a photograph can do the trick. However, I know of few books of this type that are as eloquent, well-documented and, in very sense of the word, down to earth, as this one. Its range is wide-sweeping, immense - from geology to palaeontology, from firestorms to educating children about the unique animals of their own country.

When the authors asked forty children to name ten animals that first came to mind - “no prompts, no preludes, no explanations” - all named cats and dogs and 85 per cent mentioned cows, horses, rats, elephants, giraffes, zebras, tigers, rhinoceroses and lions. Only 15 per cent named any Australian animal. Unsurprisingly, kangaroos were among the most mentioned. Koalas got a look in. With children’s animal perceptions firmly focused on African exotics and imported farm animals, what hope is there for full local ecological consciousness, for heart-felt caring for Australia’s numerous unique species?
In a reversal of cat and dog domination - and moggies come under heavy attack for various nasty diseases they can carry - Archer suggests buddying up with a quoll which, by his account, has all the best aspects of canine and feline qualities combined. It is clean like a cat, affectionate like a dog (even when not hungry!). Alas, Archer’s human-loving quoll bit a cane toad and died - legitimate reason for Archer to bring some heavy artillery to bear on this poisonous and ugly import. Mysteriously, the quoll appears to have two penises (penii?), or what Archer calls “a second erectile structure” - function as yet unknown. If their pro-pet theories seem a trifle cute, how about this (alas, too late) practical notion - if thylacines had been kept as pets, they might still be with us. Quolls and thylacines aside, the authors are no animal rights sentimentalists and strongly urge for the culling of kangaroos - “tasty, free-range, low-fat, low-cholesterol, disease-free, high-protein and environmentally superior” - for human consumption. The departure from the nineteenth century love of local animal tucker was of course a product of urbanisation.

This is a serious and sobering (though humour-seasoned) book which pleads for a radical change in the Australian agricultural sphere. Basically, a shift from sheep to trees. One of the main reasons for this suggestion - more than a suggestion - is the emergence of vast amounts of salty groundwater. A strategy to compensate for the resulting desertification is the hardy saltbush which thrives on salinity that will reduce less tough vegetation to bare ground. In the Bultarra region where merino farmer Robin Meares spearheaded the change, some 7.5 million plants have been earthed.

The authors deftly reel off summaries of all major extinctions by asteroid and meteor impact. The text in general is fact-studded with both actual and estimated figures. In contrast to their factual bombardment, the authors also include some vivid imaginary description of homo ergaster meeting kangaroos long before even the most recently extended date of man’s first arrival in Australia - say 100,000 years ago - and a similarly vivid evocation of Miocene forests at Riversleigh where numerous fossilised remains of unknown species of mammals have been found. They also challenge Tim Flannery’s “Blitzkreig Hypothesis” of megafauna extinction and assert that the impact of mining is actually very minimal and controlled whereas agriculture - the major factor in erosion - is not.

While Archer and Beale spare us no gloomy facts they also offer many practical solutions. Unlike the kind of ecological disaster books that only proffer litanies of doom - possibly to scare us into reacting - Going Native offers down to earth hope in the form of kangaroo culling, native grasses, planting saltbush and trees, and so on. This is an inspired and inspiring book that should be “planted” in all schools and libraries.


books_who's who_layers copy.jpgWHO’S WHO
Hoaxes, Imposture, and Identity Crises in Australian Literature

Edited by Maggie Nolan and Carrie Dawson
University of Queensland Press, $22.50.
ISBN 0702235237.
Caution: that latest Aborigine-authored novel may have been written by a whitefella; that heart-wrenching tale of racial prejudice, sexist control, arranged marriage, and murder in the name of honour may have been written by a housewife living in the suburbs of a reasonably safe city. Nor is academia safe from hoaxes, trickery, posing, chicanery.
None of this is new. History abounds with literary quackery. Sir John Mandeville’s 14th century Travels are widely considered to have been written by Jean de Bourgogne, a knavish Frenchman with a penchant for a tall tale of lands he had not visited. In Who’s Who, thirteen academics write thirteen essays examining the strategies of literary imposture, of wilful authorial schizophrenia. David Carter writing about Nino Culotta (aka John O’Grady) suggests there are two kinds of hoaxes - the first, which only works as long as it remains undiscovered, and the second which depends on being discovered. Carter observes that most scientific hoaxes belong in the first category. However, “examples of the second kind are `core business’ for the arts and humanities, from the Ern Malley affair to Sokal and Social text”.

The interesting thing about the good-natured (shall we say) mask of O’Grady is that when it was removed a month or so after publication, the truth seemed to boost rather than mar sales.

When the mask cannot be easily lifted, when it sticks too close to the skin, the wearer gets uncomfortable. O’Grady wrote to his son: “I have had Mr Culotta. I am heartily sick of Mr Culotta. There will be no sequel. There will be no `Cop this Lot’” – but of course there was. The moral might be – if the laughing guests like your clown face better than your own plain mug why not enjoy the ride? It can’t have been all bad because They’re a Weird Mob sold more copies than any other Australian novel until Bryce Courtenay came along.

If the case of Nino Culotta/John O’Grady was only an amusing soft shoe ethnic shuffle, the Demidenko-Darville duplicity has justly called forth righteous wrath. Susanna Egan indignantly notes that Darville talked of travelling to the Ukraine when she was 12, where she found her relatives in grinding poverty living in cottages with earth floors. She had been forced to give up her seat on the train to Jewish Communists, her grandfather and other relatives had been murdered by Jewish Communists, et cetera. Clearly, we are in the dark realms of what the intellectuals term imposture – though we could also call it hate-mongering fraud. Whatever one thinks of Darville and her misrepresentations, the scrutiny was prolific – three book studies within a year and countless more articles. In another such case, Binjamin Wilkomirski aka Bruno Dosseker (a Swiss gentile), who claimed to have been a child survivor of Nazi concentration camps, fell under suspicion because he kept shedding tears, whereas genuine survivors like author Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel remained dry-eyed. I keep thinking there is something we should all be learning from these cases but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Perhaps all authors should be subject to a pre-publication gender and ethnicity check (just kidding). From one deception to another, the motives are different. Some want a new and more successful literary career, some (I suspect) want to make their own ordinary life stories more interesting, more exotic than they are. This is an all too human wish to which many of us succumb every time we embellish a story about ourselves.

Being an academic set of texts, this psychological explanation is less fully examined than might have been the case otherwise. We are all wise, though no wiser after all is revealed. When truth wills out, the gaps in the lies seem glaringly obvious.

In the notorious case of Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Messages Down Under it was unearthed there was no “Real People Tribe”, no kidnapping, no voyage in the desert. And of course no one in the relevant area had heard of Morgan. The American term “Down Under” - never used by Antipodeans - should have been a leading clue to its falsity.

Despite this, Cath Ellis notes that the book is required reading in several American universities and an extract appears in a guidebook to Australia. Ms Morgan’s New Age trash fulfils an eternal desire that we all desperately want to be true - the civilised being can be made uncivilised and return to some more idealised primitive state. Lord Greystoke always wants to be Tarzan. It appears, then, that Morgan, by appealing to a mythic-cultural desire, has “succeeded”, while Darville, who told unsavoury ethnic lies, has failed. This collection of essays offers a thoughtful dissection of this intriguing ongoing phenomena, though its scope and analysis could conceivably have gone further: is this imposture peculiar to “developed” countries? Is Australia a world leader in literary deception? Watch this space.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:48 AM | Comments (0)

BOOKS: June 05. AU Edition

KILLERS, GREAT AND SMALL
From September 11 to Alexander the Great to hapless would-be crims, a range of books that looks at murder and its consequences

extremelyloud.jpgEXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
By Jonathan Safran Foer
New York. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. ISBN: 0618329706. Available on import and currently stocked by unusually good book shops. To be released by Penguin Australia in July 2005.

To write a second novel after the first has been a bestseller is famously difficult. Many never manage it at all. After To Kill a Mockingbird, nothing. The author was said to have begun writing a new book the very next year but nothing else ever materialised from the pen of Harper Lee.

With a seven-figure advance on his conscience, Jonathan Safran Foer must have been under enormous pressure when he set to work on his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It probably didn’t help that Foer’s debut, Everything is Illuminated, (winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2002) was hailed as work of genius. It can’t be easy to follow that.

Foer decided to up the stakes and raise them dramatically. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is based on a child’s experience of September 11, possibly the most provocative subject a contemporary author could address. Has Foer stolen the emotional pull of September 11 in a desperate effort to produce another powerful work of fiction?
Salman Rushdie says the book ‘completely earns the right to take on the Trade Center atrocity. The powerful emotions generated feel deserved, not borrowed.’ A good book, or an honest book, creates its own power whereas a bad book tries to claim its power from external sources. And so it goes that a good writer can elicit more feeling from a sneeze than a bad writer could ever hope to glean from a sunset.

Employing big themes to cover up small writing doesn’t work. Readers already have intense feelings about the attack on the World Trade Center so while many books have previously approached the subject, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the first to become a best seller.

Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about the same age as Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Foer chooses a similar method of approaching a grave issue through the eyes of a child. Foer maintains that he writes out of a need to read something rather than a need to write something and has contrived Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a non-political response to the tragedy.

A crazy coffee-drinking kid whose father died in the World Trade Center tragedy, Oskar’s grief sets him off on a journey to find the lock that fits a mysterious key he has found in his father’s room. Obviously traumatised, he invents many things that might help avert catastrophe. There’s a birdseed shirt in case you need to make a quick escape and a big sign for the top of ambulances flashing messages like ‘IT’S NOTHING MAJOR!’ or ‘GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE!’

Oskar speaks a bit like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye (another one-hit wonder) over-using the phrase ‘heavy boots’ to talk about being depressed:

On Tuesday afternoon I had to go to Dr Fein. I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren’t wearing heavy boots then you need help. But I went anyway, because the raise in my allowance depended on it.

The word association test that Dr Fein conducts during this meeting is very funny. Critics in New York have been quick to accuse Foer of ‘getting cute’ about the atrocity, reminding me of one of the characters Oskar meets on his journey. Ruth Black, a tour guide, hasn’t left the Empire State Building for years, not since the death of her husband. In conversation with Oskar, ‘she let out a laugh, and then she put her hand over her mouth, like she was angry at herself for forgetting her sadness’. Reactions to Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud become more positive the further one gets from Manhattan.

Foer’s writing falls into the category of magical realism, a mode of literature that commonly surfaces when a government overrules its people. In our culture, magical realism it is often mistaken as an attempt to be amusing, whimsical or surreal. As a form, it seems well-equipped to accommodate the pluralism required to describe a complex and mythic city like New York, now also a site of intolerable pain.

Flipbook style, the novel concludes with a series of images of a man falling from the World Trade Center, but the order is reversed so it appears as if he is bouncing back up again. My feeling is that Foer’s decision to pepper the book with photographs doesn’t quite work. The German writer W.G. Sebald uses photographs in his texts to majestic effect, so by no means is it a technique destined to fail, but these photos seem to dilute the book rather than enhance it.

Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud doesn’t need to bank on the gravitas of September 11. Oskar could have lost his father under any circumstances and given his perculiar leanings need not have lost his father at all before embarking on this strange journey. If you take away the references to September 11, you are still left with a whole book.

Nothing stems ability half so well as weighty praise and the burden of high expectations. Remember Ian Thorpe flopping into the pool at the trials for the Athens Olympics? He went on to take out the gold again, but not before embarrassing himself in front of the nation. Like Thorpe, Foer finds the gold, but not where you might expect.


optimists.jpgTHE OPTIMISTS
By Andrew Miller
London. Sceptre, 2005. ISBN: 0340836555.
Structured like a brilliant photograph, The Optimists is Andrew Miller’s best novel to date. Clem Glass, a successful photo-
journalist, is struggling to overcome the trauma of a massacre in Rwanda. Though accustomed to harrowing assignments, Clem returns home to London unable to resume his life. Miller writes as a perceptive photographer might record, knowing that the edges of a scene are often far more interesting than the scene itself.

Genocide is not the theme here for The Optimists is about salvation. His inability to detach from the wickedness he has witnessed obstructs Clem’s quest for redemption. Throughout the novel, he carries three images around with him in his wallet: an early portrait of Sylvestre Ruzindana, the man responsible for the massacre; a picture of a ravaged classroom showing the legs of upturned desks and a whitewashed wall sprayed and smeared with blood; and a girl called Odette Semugeshi, 10 years old, standing in front of her bed at the Red Cross hospital and staring into the camera ‘with a gaze of the quietest imaginable outrage.’

The experience in Rwanda has awakened Clem’s innermost fears – that the soul of mankind is ruthless, heartless, evil. ‘Drawn increasingly to every manner of portent’ Clem searches for proof to the contrary. He visits his father who, after the death of his wife, has withdrawn to a monastery where the monks keep a vigil in the chapel, each taking a two-hour shift:

‘Can I ask what you pray for?’

‘Me? Oh, for understanding.’

‘Always that?’

‘Yes,’ he said, smiling to himself and slipping his hand again under his son’s arm as they came onto the road. ‘Always.’

Although his previous novels demonstrate an ability for sumptuous prose, Miller’s writing draws little attention to itself in The Optimists. Clem chases down Frank Silverman, the journalist with him in Rwanda, but Silverman’s losing it too and instead of offering consolation, he hands Clem a brown envelope full of heavily corrected notes. Both disturbing and beautiful, Silverman’s fractured account provides a vivid contrast to Clem’s paired down, straightforward narrative.

‘Fear is a darkroom where negatives develop’ said Usman Asif, and almost everyone in this book is afraid of the dark. The notes Clem is handed describe Silverman’s terror of the unlit city where all that is unseen threatens.

Still unable to return to work, and thinking about giving up on photography completely, Clem retreats to the country with his sister, Dr Clare Glass. Clare, an esteemed art historian, has sunk deep into depression after suffering from a bout of malign hallucinations. One night during their stay in Somerset, a fuse blows and the cottage is plunged into darkness. Similarly haunted, Clem is almost as frightened by the experience as his demented sister.

Before she grew old, Clem’s mother went blind and Clem becomes increasingly concerned about his vision. As keenly aware the eye’s sensitivity as a photographer would be, Clem is tormented by the fear that witnessing such atrocities could have irredeemably damaged his retinas.

Like the rest of us, Miller’s ‘optimists’ are trying to make sense of a world where so many bad things happen. They are not optimistic fools but characters who strive towards a positive perspective, battling against the painful and the discouraging, never content to blank it out.


Reviewed by Michael Morrissey

books_sunset.jpgSUNSET
Penguin Australian Summer Stories
Penguin Books, $22.95, ISBN 0143002724
I believe all books should have identified authors/editors, so why then an anonymous compiler? Or did the authors select themselves? If so, who invited them? With no editor, there is no introduction which is, or should be, a necessary part of any compilation; it offers guidelines to the anthology’s intention.

The collection as a whole disappoints – the editor hiding his/her shame, perhaps? The problem is, too many stories here have the same even kind of tone, which is warm but somehow bland. Possibly this is a conscious/unconscious strategy: summer is a time of relaxed warmth (let us say), so let’s have stories with a relaxed warm tone, stories that give a suntan without skin cancer. However, there are some gems.
With the exception of veteran story teller David Malouf’s novella-length contribution, the best stories are in the earlier part of the book. First up is Gabriel Lord’s ‘Surprise Lunch’, a chilling little tale of an intended murder that backfires. This has the kind of sting-in-the-tail punch we might associate with Roald Dahl, modern master of the horror-terror tale derived from the inventor of it, Edgar Allan Poe. This is the kind of story that - apart from the great Luis Jorge Borges – has been unfashionable in literary circles for some time, but damn it, I enjoyed it.

Peter Goldsworthy’s ‘Run Silent, Run Deep’ brings a sharper and more contemporary note with its forbidden tape in a possibly stolen camcorder. Marion Halligan’s ‘Irregular Verbs’ defiantly breaches the almost uniform tone with a luxuriantly descriptive stream of consciousness technique.

By and large, these are coastal or suburban rather than outback stories. No billabongs, kangaroos or snakes – though an echidna makes a guest appearance. There tend not to be professionals in crisis, more ordinary folk in a jam, such as the lady in Andrea Mayes’s ‘The Bag’. With possibly an outsider’s perspective, I wondered about the absence of well-known Australian denizens like sharks, snakes, and blue-ringed octopuses. Casting on eye back to (say) Coast to Coast, a collection edited by Frank Moorhouse when summer-oriented hippiedom was at its height, I felt a tinge of nostalgia for some of the authors current at the time – Peter Carey, Murray Bail, Michael Wilding – and wondered about their absence. Frank, I would guess, has thrown away his swimming trunks and became an unabashed winter-loving Europhile. After many a summer, can autumn be far behind?


books_inside hitler's bunker.jpgINSIDE HITLER’S BUNKER
By Joachim Fest
Pan Books, $25, ISBN 0374135770
It’s interesting to read a biographical study, albeit a short one, focused on the last days of Hitler by a German historian, rather than what is more typical for most English readers, one by a British historian. Fest’s cool, cogent overview of what is most probably the greatest drama of the twentieth century offers a fascinating view of the necessities of military crisis – permission was given to Goebbels to set up a battalion of women soldiers – an unthinkable idea in the earlier triumphal days of the Third Reich. This book contains some of the familiar photos of Hitler’s last days but some touching new ones – including a fifteen-year-old youth alongside a much older man: the last futile strategy – to defend doomed Berlin.

What Fest’s study shows clearly is the extraordinary contradictions in Hitler’s personality. On the one hand, clutching at chances of last-minute victory (hoping that Roosevelt’s death would split the alliance), while on the other, seeming to exult in a dramatic and final destruction – a gotterdammerung of his own making. While he had become a pathetic shambling physical wreck with a ‘pathological craving for cake’, Hitler could still convince generals who knew the situation to be hopeless that it was nevertheless possible to save it at the last hour – Gauleiter Albert Forster in Danzig had but four tanks to face 1100 Russian tanks, yet after a brief time in Hitler’s study he emerged ‘completely transformed’.

Fest argues forcibly that German soldiers felt swept up in a great cause – ‘called on ..to be the participants in the final act of a great tragedy’. Further on, he maintains, ‘An infatuation with hopeless situations has long been one of the characteristics of at least one strand of German thought.’ Hitler is portrayed as a fanatical exemplar of this kind of infatuation. This psychological-Zeitgeist theory makes a lot of sense and would explain what British historian A. J. P. Taylor found inexplicable, namely, why German soldiers and Hitler went on fighting when the cause was hopelessly lost. Fest’s analysis also helps rebut the tiresomely glib explanation of the phenomenon of Hitler – that he was simply mad.

Hitler’s epic rages are vividly described yet Fest doesn’t try to explain them as amphetamine-fuelled - though certainly the drugs he was taking wouldn’t have helped. Ultimately, Hitler’s personality contradictions remain an enigma, but Fest’s acute analysis, more than most, helps us decode it.


books_alexander the great.jpgALEXANDER THE GREAT
By Robin Lane Fox
Penguin Books, $22.95,ISBN 0141030768
The recent justly-panned film about Alexander the Great, history’s greatest general and conqueror of the then-known world, has prompted a re-issue of this magnificent one volume history of the enigmatic Macedonian. According to some critics, it is the finest history so far written and, though I am not a professional historian, I am inclined to agree. A scholarly work, it has 50 pages of microfiche-sized footnotes. In the main text, it’s all here in dazzling detail: the fantastic siege machines that stormed the island fortress of Tyre, the wheeling feints and massive concentration of attack that defeated every military adversary, the brutal methods used to defeat King Porus’ elephants (javelins in the eyes, hamstrings cut with axes, hacking off trunks with razor-sharp scimitars) plus the founding of cities, the grand Hellenic vision, the spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity, the ruthless treatment of enemies, not to forget alcoholic and sexual indulgence.

Historians like Schachermeyer, Tarn and Hammond praise Alexander while others like Badian, O’Brien and Green condemn him. Depending on one’s cultural and historical perspective, Alexander’s life and deeds lend themselves to either favourable or denunciatory interpretation. Among ancient historians Callisthenes, Aristobulus, Arrian, and Plutarch praised Alexander while Curtius Rufus and Cleitarchus were harsher in their assessment. Plutarch saw Alexander as a civilizer of barbarians – an attitude with which we no longer feel comfortable. When Fox writes warmly of the spread of Hellenic or Greek culture, I am tempted to ask, isn’t this Plutarchian praise in a more sophisticated form? On balance, Fox admires Alexander and there are numerous incidents of his nobility of character as well as the darker side. At times, so overwhelming is the mass of Alexander’s achievements, both cultural and military, in such a short life, one feels a kind of admiring historical vertigo. Did the man never sleep? Apparently, very little.
Fox writes with angelic erudition throughout his closely detailed book. He excels in outlining military technicality but is even more outstanding when he offers intensive psychological analysis – the exact motives and circumstance of Cleitus’s murder by Alexander; the acute examination of the controversial proskynesis or homage with prostration paid to social superiors; the intelligent consideration of Alexander’s “godhood” – are all masterly, superb.

Now for some brickbats: the maps are ridiculously poky affairs and printed in such a way that it is hard to read place names. Also the maps show only Alexander’s journeys, not his battles. Why such an important omission? The new issue – save for a changed cover – is exactly the same as it was 30 years ago, surely a missed chance to
improve and extend the maps as well as an opportunity for Fox to update his views.

Fascinatingly, Fox was historical consultant to Oliver Stone’s recent film and made a non-negotiable’ demand that he be included in the front ten of every major cavalry charge on location. Fair enough. By now, of course, Fox is as old as the hardy veterans of Alexander’s concluding campaigns – nearing 60, yet still a champion horseman. But why oh why did he apparently sanction a major rewrite of history in the film? King Porus is shown as wounding Alexander with a spear, whereas in actuality Porus was captured by an unwounded Alexander.
Prior to Jesus Christ, Alexander was probably the most famous and written-about of men. Curiously, no one has ever doubted that Alexander existed even though nearly all the original documents written about him were lost and recast some three to four hundred years after his death. The consequence is that many of his famous (and infamous) deeds exist in variant accounts. Thus he has become partially mythical though indisputably a real figure. In the case of the Gospels, they are all written close together, soon after Christ’s lifetime and are consistent with each other. Yet some nineteenth historians suggested that Christ never existed. The same theory applied to Alexander would never have gained an inch of traction. Such are the paradoxes of history.


books_the full catastrophe.jpgTHE FULL CATASTROPHE
By Edna Mazya
Picador, $22, ISBN 033044215549
Thrillers are like fast food – they fulfil a need with suspicious ease but leave you undernourished. On the other hand, there is the deeper psychological thriller more or less invented by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, one of the world’s greatest novels. This wonderful first novel by Israeli playwright Edna Mazya aspires more to the Dostoyevsky ‘genre’ than the usual airport trash. As in the great Russian novel, we know who the murderer is – it’s the main character, Professor Ilan Nathan, who kills his wife’s lover, not with a knife, gun or heavy object but with – you’ll never guess – his pipe. If the unlikely death of Oden Safra is black humour, it’s difficult to mourn the demise of such a callous smug bastard.

What is gripping about this book is the way Nathan keeps drawing attention to himself, his guilt is an inner motor that drives him to perpetrate the most infelicitous of actions. He leaves a trail of self-incriminating evidence that a blind man could follow. The superbly detailed sequence where Nathan keeps trying to dispose of the body is both nail-bitingly suspenseful and blackly funny. This book, along with countless movies – including Unfaithful, which it strangely parallels – makes one thing perfectly clear: never take a stiff to the rubbish tip.

Apart from the expert plotting, black humour and acute psychology, the novel’s outstanding feature is its unusual style. The sentences are disconcertingly long rolling affairs, yet once you get used to their rhythm they carry you along like giant surf. This eminently readable yet in depth novel is a good antidote to the trashy Hannibal Lecter books. I’ve never quite believed in Hannibal but Ilan Nathan is more credibly human – complete with an unemotional mother who loves him and saves him in the end. Just how, you will have to find out by treating yourself to the book.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:40 AM | Comments (0)

BOOKS: July 05. AU Edition

GREAT MAN THEORIES
Curl up this winter with these tales of occupation, exploration, and depredation

Books_Attila.jpgATTILA
By John Man
Bantam Press, $39.95, ISBN: 13579108642
Of all would-be world conquerors, Attila the Hun (406-453 AD), self-declared Scourge of God had the worst reputation. And his ferocious Hungarian hordes – reputed to be descended from the Xiongnu – were the subject of some very bad early PR: ‘They were squat, with thick necks, so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be two-legged animals ... there was nothing like them for cruelty and ugliness ... they knew nothing of metal, had no religion and lived like savages, without fire ... eating their food raw ... once they put their necks into some dingy shirt, they never took it off until it rotted ... their legs so bowed that they could hardly walk ... stunted, foul and puny ... pinholes rather than eyes’.
You get the idea.
If the Huns swept all before them, due to their mobility, horsemanship and rapid-firing archery, the victims were determined to have the last say. Since the Huns had no written language, it is others who have described their culture – and their appearance. John Man, while not exactly an apologist, balances up the evaluation by telling us of the Huns’ metal work, cooking, religion and even, at times, their comely women. Above all, he vividly details the formidable power of their archery: 2000 arrows could hit 200 of the enemy in 10 seconds, a rate equivalent to ten machine guns as they wheeled in whirlwind fashion, even firing back over the shoulder (the parting or Parthian shot.) The trick is to hold a bunch of arrows in your bow hand and fire when the galloping horse – which you control with your knees – is off the ground.
Priscus, Attila’s principal historian, describes him as ‘excellent in council, sympathetic to supplicants, gracious to those who received his protection’. Not to be outdone, Man adds, ‘I think he had a sudden smile that could melt rocks.’ At least this item of whimsy is prefaced by the words ‘I think’. Man’s book is well written and a good read, but suffers from certain disturbing oddities in its approach. There is, as suggested above, a tendency to novelise history and to add in embellishments or dialogue that are blatantly of Man’s own imagination, not historical fact. Surely this sort of thing is better left to historical novelists – or is the writing of history undergoing a quiet revolution?
Man dismisses or challenges traditional accounts of the time. Pope Leo’s miraculous turn-around of the Hun hordes was the result of a bribe not a miracle; the great defeat of Attila by Aetius was a stalemate followed by a strategic withdrawal; the 11,000 Ursuline virgins were really 11 – an ‘M’ which stood for martyrs was mistakenly interpreted as ‘1,000’. Then he adds one of his own – he muses that had Attila played his cards right, Britain would have fallen to the Hun and Chaucer and Shakespeare would have written in Hunnish!
The book also has an odd structure. Attila is briefly mentioned in the first few pages, then disappears for over 100 pages. This long lead time is used to describe theories of origins of the Huns and the political situation that preceded their dramatic arrival on the stage of history. Fair enough, perhaps, though a trifle imbalanced. There is a detailed account of Lajos Kassai – a contemporary – who has remastered the art of mounted archery. Fascinating stuff to be sure, but why place it before outlining Attila’s military feats? Surely it would have been more appropriate as an appendix instead of as a ‘flash forward’ in the historical backdrop to the saga of the Huns’ brief domination of central Europe? Once you get used to Man’s time machine approach to history this is an enjoyable and informative read – I learnt, for example, that the habit of referring to First World War German soldiers as ‘Huns’ was derived from a 1902 poem by Rudyard Kipling.


Books_The final solution_2.jpgTHE FINAL SOLUTION
By Michael Chabon
Fourth Estate, $24.95, ISBN: 0007196024
I throughly enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a romp through the golden age of American comics, but this short novel by Michael Chabon is a much lesser work. A note on the copyright page notes that this book was published in an earlier form in the Paris Review in 2003. So it is a backdated, then updated, work written prior to the rambunctious Kavalier & Clay work. It’s cruel thing to say but The Final Solution would have been better left in the prestigious pages of the Paris Review, otherwise noted for its definitive interviews with world-famous writers.

The basic plot is – depending how one chooses to look at it – either preposterously whimsical or intriguingly colourful. An 89-year-old Sherlock Homes (only ever identified as ‘the old man’) encounters a mute nine-year-old boy with an African grey parrot that spouts numbers in German. The numbers are subsequently speculated to be a top-secret Nazi code.

I have no quarrel with resurrecting the world’s greatest detective and surely one of the most well-known characters in literature. After all, Conan Doyle (though admittedly under publisher and public duress) did the same after he had killed off Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. Other crime fighters like Bulldog Drummond and James Bond have been revisited by subsequent admiring author-fans.

Chabon has successfully rendered the high Victorian prose and elegant speech of Doyle, plus the surprise villains and implausible plot but there is something slight and flimsy about the work as whole. Now and then, Chabon writes a dazzling sentence that hints at the stylistic splendours manifest in Kavalier & Clay. Even the fanciful plot fizzles in a way that would have dismayed the plot-conscious Conan Doyle. I look forward to new novels by Chabon that are not rewrites of minor material.


Books_Over the edge.jpgOVER THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
By Laurence Bergreen
HarperCollins, $24.95, ISBN: 0007118317
Great as was Columbus’s voyage to America, it was exceeded in length, duration and endurance by the globe-encircling expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan 27 years later in 1519. Indeed, as Laurence Bergreen notes in this excellent biography, Magellan’s voyage was fifteen times longer and encompassed far greater hardship and adventure as well as more spectacular feats of navigation. The discovery and navigation of the 300-mile-long straits that now bear his name is regarded as the greatest single feat of navigation of all time. Magellan was also the first to cross the vastness of the Pacific Ocean in a single journey – 7000 miles of uncharted water. The mediaeval map-makers of Europe did not know of its existence – hence their estimate of the circomference of the earth was about 18,000 miles instead of the true figure, 24,900.

It should be made clear that educated people of Magellan’s time did not believe the earth to be flat. The whole expedition was predicated on the globularity of the planet – in particular, the possibility of approaching the Spice Islands from a westerly instead of an easterly direction. The motive behind the expedition was to grab the spice-rich islands off the Portuguese who had a passion for secrecy and had been harvesting them for some time.

Apart from any few remaining doubters of a round planet, the men may have feared that they would boil alive at the equator, meet a variety of monsters (including the wondrous Socolopendra with a face of flames) or sail near a magnetic island that could pull nails out of ships. They did meet sharks, whales and flying fish, but ultimately the greatest dangers they encountered were those of scurvy and mutiny. Bergreen notes that Magellan and his officers did not get scurvy while many of the men succumbed. The explanation, unknown at the time, was because the Captain and his officers were eating preserved quince which had enough vitamin C to keep them healthy. It is humbling to think that without a few regular helpings of preserved fruit the expedition might never have succeeded at all. Magellan and others thought the cause of scurvy was ‘bad air’.

All in all, there were four mutinies. Magellan, a man of his time, didn’t treat the ringleaders lightly – they had to endure strappado, a thoroughly nasty form of torture involving weights tied to the feet and being hoisted and violently dropped. Bergreen doesn’t spare us the details. In reading about Alexander the Great, Captain James Cook and Magellan, a strange similarity becomes evident: all came to be treated as gods, and when they came to half-believe it themselves, they became arrogant and cruel.

Some three years later, one ship out of an original five and 18 battered survivors from an initial crew of 260 arrived back in Spain to tell the tale of the greatest sea voyage of all time. Without Antonio Pigafetta, the ship’s chronicler (also a lucky consumer of preserved quince), we would know almost nothing of these extraordinary events.

This is a grand tale, perhaps the grandest in all sea-faring history, and it is thrillingly told by Bergreen. This will be the definitive biography of Magellan for quite some time.


Book_The Mermaid Chair.jpgTHE MERMAID CHAIR
By Sue Monk Kidd
Review, $36.99, ISBN: 0755307623
Many satisfying novels have been written about what is cynically called the eternal triangle – the situation where one partner strays from the marital bond and has an affair with a third party – but regrettably this is not one of them. In today’s up-tempo world, it’s risky to set in motion a plot of this kind – attractive married woman and rookery-minding monk about to take his final vows meet and are overwhelmingly attracted – and not have anything happen between them until more than half through the novel. They ‘make love’ twice at my count and their dialogue is unlikely to set the world on fire: ‘I can’t believe how beautiful you are’; ‘I’ve wanted you from the beginning.’

It’s hard to get interested in the jilted psychiatrist husband who does a good turn in angry jealousy but otherwise is fairly ineffective as a character. Two women sidekicks also fail to rouse interest. Then there’s the dog, Max (yawn). I’ve tried to warn writers about allowing in dogs as characters in serious novels but to no avail.

There is also a saint-demented mother who keeps lopping off digits and apparently is intent on severing all ten – though thankfully the narrative only takes us up to two. (How do you chop all ten anyway? The way I figure it is, it’s got to be damn difficult to finish the job after you’re chopped off eight of them).

It’s a convention with this type of story that the sudden rush of blood to the head (and other parts) isn’t always the strongest foundation for new lasting relationships. Whatever, Graham Greene did this sort of thing infinitely better a generation ago. Ms Kidd also needs to work on her style: ‘He stood. He lifted his shoulders. I don’t think he knew what to feel any more than what to say.’ I rest my case.


Books_magical thinking.jpgMAGICAL THINKING
By Augusten Burroughs
Hodder, $29.95, ISBN: 0733619002
Most of us want to be thought of as nice people but Burroughs has made outrageous capital of the opposite tactic. By his own confession (though can we always believe him?) he is cruel to mice and children, hates babies and is promiscuous as an alley cat. By way of self-deprecation, he tells us he has an undesirably skinny ass, is domestically grossly untidy, and once had sex with an undertaker. And in case you’re wondering, yes, there was a body only 20 feet away.
Depending on the location of your funny bone, there is black humour to be extracted from these real life tales.

Burroughs’ accounts of his frequent meeting of partners through ads, picking them up willy-nilly, affirms the stereotype of the extremely promiscuous homosexual. With paradoxical humour, Burroughs reports there was one fellow with whom he was sleeping but not having sex with – ‘I told him how it’s really difficult for me to have sex with somebody unless I know them very well and am extremely comfortable with them. This sounded better than the truth which is I can’t have sex with somebody unless they’re a stranger and I’m drunk’.

The sexual high jinks (or low jinks) quickly pall and it’s easier to feel more sympathetic to Burroughs at his missing out on being in a TV ad as a child and – after goggling at a sumptuous Vanderbilt mansion – informing his parents that they had kidnapped him and in reality he is a Vanderbilt who wants to go back to where he rightfully belongs.

‘You’re monsters. I hate you I hate I hate you’, he screams at his parents. Confirming the impression he was a difficult child and maybe a worse adult, Burroughs cheerfully lists his flaws as a ‘wide, deep cruel streak’ plus ‘fear of intimacy, sexual dysfunction, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, social anxiety disorder and mania’. (And don’t forget that skinny ass.)

Looked at from the outside, all of Burroughs’ weirdness belong to a tradition of potentially harmful eccentricity and self-endangering lifestyle which we can readily identify as a sub-set of American behaviours most frequently associated with the inhabitants of California or New York (Burroughs is a Manhattanite). Burroughs’ rollicking lucid style make for an easy read though it leaves the reader jaded after several very same-sounding chapters about casual sex. The reader, whether bemused or shocked, must be wondering if Burroughs is a nice guy pretending to be an asshole, an asshole who somehow wants us still to like him, or a guy who just can’t help himself – or a combination of all three?


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 10:49 AM | Comments (0)

BOOKS: May 05. AU Edition

CRAZY FOR YOU
This month’s crop of books looks at sanity – and the lack thereof – and sees novels by authors new and established

Books_Going Sane.jpgGOING SANE
By Adam Phillips
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005. Distributed by Penguin Books. ISBN: 0241142091 $29.95

‘If sanity was a game then how would you learn to play it if the authorities could only tell you when you had broken the rules, but not what the rules were?’

In his new book, Going Sane, Adam Phillips highlights a gaping hole in our language.

Madness is lavished with attention from all quarters, but its perceived opposite, sanity, is barely ever mentioned. Famously mad characters abound in literature and the arts while their sane counterparts fade into the background. The word ‘sanity’ appears only once in Shakespeare, whereas ‘madness’ is referred to over two hundred times. Consideration is similarly uneven in dictionary definitions. Whole sciences are devoted to the study of madness, yet until now a study of sanity has been too dull a notion to consider.

Going Sane’s basic premise is that it might be useful to know what true sanity is: ‘It should matter to us, especially now, that sanity is something we can’t get excited about’. (Phillips must be using the royal ‘we’ as he is definitely getting very personally excited.)
Typically, the definition of sane is ‘not mad’. Justifiably unsatisfied with this, Phillips analyses the reasons that sanity is so difficult to define. Traditionally, madness is equated with loss of control, while sanity is law-abiding. To be mad is to be excessive, unpredictable, dangerous; to be sane is to be safe. He contends that the opposition between sanity and madness is not as absolute as has sometimes, rather often, been asserted.

Going Sane begins with the casual attitude that it will all come together in the end (which it does), but the book’s no good to anyone if you can’t get through Part One. Lengthy, muddy notes toward a definition of sanity are enough to send anyone barking. A little bit more of the humour that mitigates his earlier books wouldn’t have gone astray.

Many interesting points are raised but they lose impact in the jungle of information presented. Phillips has a habit of bracketing his insights: the sane, as so often happens, are rarely contemporary. He is clearly brilliant enough to write on these matters, so the unpolished delivery must reflect a conscious decision to keep it loose. Going Sane has no index; it’s not supposed to be that kind of book.

Anthropologists, philosophers, writers and poets are all thrown into the mix. There are quotes from the likes of Freud and Foucault, and many obscure sources too. This amalgam of quotations in Going Sane indicates an obsession with well-written doctrines, regardless of origins. The theories are expansive rather than reductive and to distil them is to deny them their scope.

For almost twenty years, Phillips worked in child psychotherapy. In Going Sane he examines many different schools of thought. There are those that believe children reflect our primitive selves and will thrive with sufficient understanding and those that sanction the taming of this wild side, all the while paradoxically aware that it’s an impossible task. He writes, ‘All modern prescriptive child-rearing literature is about how not to drive someone (the child) mad, and how not to be driven mad (by the child).’ Phillips conducts an open-minded discussion of the contemporary approaches parenting, ever so quietly exploring the folly of our ways. Did I mention he was clever?

The term ‘thought-provoking’ is bandied about like a power tool so perhaps a combination of radical and perceptive is a better way to describe Going Sane. I argued along as I read it, which was not as unpleasant an experience as it might sound. Going Sane crystallised personal beliefs and opinions on subjects that might have otherwise have passed through the censor unchecked.

Often compared to Alain de Botton (author of best-selling Status Anxiety and originally famous for How Proust Can Change your Life), Phillips is also a philosopher of happiness. Both men filter centuries of impenetrable wisdom into a palatable format fit for contemporary taste and have a reputation for laying it straight. Phillips doesn’t match de Botton’s wit and has never been anywhere near as hip. However, it could be argued that de Botton is in the business of rehash while an ambitious Phillips plots out new turf.

Colours magazine recently devoted an issue to the mentally ill featuring vivid portraits of people from all over the world confined in treatment facilities for the ‘mad’. Unnervingly, when interviewed, many of them don’t sound that unhinged. There is a photo of a man living in a small African village who has been chained to a tree stump for roughly seven years. Phillips can expound on the glamourisation of madness all he likes, but there are real people (literally) at stake who might argue otherwise. It is a shame that despite all the best intentions, academic excursions rest somewhat uncomfortably in the context of human suffering.


Books_singing.jpgTHE SINGING
By Stephanie Bishop
NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2005. ISBN: 1876040548 $26.95

Stephanie Bishop’s first novel, The Singing, does not have any songs in it. The ‘singing’ in this book is atmospheric - it refers to the essence of the work rather than its substance and was probably a good call given that anything along the lines of ‘Decaying Love’ would not have had quite the same ring. While a broken love story about a relationship that folds under the weight of long-term illness may not immediately have punters reaching for their wallets, the quality of Bishop’s writing certainly will.

Triggered by a chance meeting with an ex many years on, The Singing is the story of one woman’s endeavour to understand and contain the past. The relationship begins as they always do, with the sense that this was the start of the rest of their lives. After a time, the woman develops a serious illness that no one can name and quietly watches the world as her health deteriorates. Her partner assumes the role of caretaker. A natural to the task, he has a history of falling in love with fragile women. He has left his children from a previous relationship and he has also abandoned his painting for work that can support them.

The Singing is prefaced with a quote by Virginia Woolf that begins ‘the Public would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot’. No doubt, Bishop is hoping to head them off at the start with this one – however, afraid of Virginia Woolf as I am, I have to say I found the story a little indulgent. Nevertheless, the writing is sublime.

With a poet’s gift for expressing the symbolic in literal terms, Bishop thankfully also has the clarity to avoid any of the funny business that often pairs with this tendency: ‘I saw words fall from him… I did not know what they were but I knew they were there. I heard them hit the ground.’ She apprehends the point in a relationship when there is nothing left to say. The heroine feels ‘like a statue of a woman whose lips are open while her mouth remains filled with stone’.
Like Woolf, Bishop is intrigued by ‘that very ordinary thing of the present depending on the past and the future depending on the present, and visa versa.’ Memory has always been a hot topic. I think both Freud and Aristotle would appreciate Bishop’s take on it: ‘We do not get over anything. It becomes, over time, less acute, but it comes back, it always comes back, hitting me hard in the chest when I least expect it and never quite making it to that tame place that is known to us as memory.’

The Singing is startlingly well-written and there is a lot of hype surrounding Bishop’s debut. Helen Garner is launching the book in Melbourne and has described Bishop as ‘a striking new voice, calm and fresh’. It even has a painting by Tim Storrier on the cover. Bishop, 25, is doing well to have the big guns on side so early in the piece but then again, good novelists almost always start young.

Stephanie Bishop has taken the time it takes to compose something beautiful and the results instil great trust in her abilities as a writer. It’s a promise not quite fulfilled, I feel, but then how many writers hit their stride on the first attempt? Helen Garner pulled it off with Monkey Grip, which was an immediate success. More recently, Gregory David Roberts managed it with Shantaram, but it does not generally work out like this; Charles Dickens is not exactly famous for Sketches by Boz.


Reviewed by Michael Morrissey:

books_Working with monsters.jpgWORKING WITH MONSTERS
By John Clarke
Random House, ISBN: 1740511549 $22.95

They intimidate. They manipulate. They show no remorse. They are superficially charming. And they may be sitting at the desk next to you. That’s the surprising –or unsurprising – message of this book. From movies like Psycho and a thousand sequels we all feel we know what a psychopath is – someone who kills without feeling – except sadistic enjoyment. Psychologist John Clarke has some grim news: the majority of psychopaths are not homicidal maniacs but are instead all around us, in the workplace.

It is a male-dominated field. Clarke estimates between one and three per cent of the adult male population are psychopaths, while only .5 to one per cent of women qualify. Clearly, women have some catching up to do, unless they’re just more subtle about it. As Clarke sees it, psychopaths are highly intelligent, score well on job applications, and often rise quickly up the corporate ladder. Having no conscience, they feel no guilt, and can therefore fly through a lie detector test.
Apart from the well-known criminal variety, Clarke analyses in detail three ‘civilian’ types of psychopath: organisational, corporate criminal and occupational. The difference between the organisational and occupational psychopath seems a bit subtle; the former is on his way up the ladder, while the latter may stay on the same rung for ages. The corporate criminal psychopath, meanwhile, has his eye on fraud.

The corporate criminal type is very similar to a con artist: the guy who plays on the victim’s weakness, extracts money for some get-rich scheme, and when challenged, as Clarke puts it, states that ‘maybe the victim really does not deserve to have the dreams fulfilled as they do not have the courage or the determination to achieve them’. The victim may at this point be asked to inject even more money into the ‘scheme’ to prove their commitment to the psychopath. The psychopath may pretend the extra money is still not enough to win back his `trust’.

Eventually, the victim, as well being financially drained, is emotionally crushed. When the scam is revealed, the victims lose confidence in their own ability to make decisions because the biggest final decision they made ‘proved to be the biggest mistake of their lives’.

It’s hard to come up with a punishment to fit the crime and Clarke doesn’t even try - that’s not his bag. Chillingly, he warns that treating rather than curing psychopaths may make them worse: in group discussions psychopaths ‘may learn more effective methods for committing crime’. Clarke does, however, make a number of practical suggestions to ‘manage’ the organisational type beginning with talking to employees about bullying.

If the pattern of manipulation and bullying sounds like someone in your office, Clarke warns against a quick amateur diagnosis and recommends a professional be called in. A warning sign of psychopathological presence: well above-average rates of resignation. Consider yourself warned.


books_Surender.jpgSURRENDER
By Sonya Hartnett
Viking, ISBN: 0670028711 $29.95

Surrender is a passionately wrought tale of adolescent obsession. The narrator, Gabriel, makes a pact with wild-boy Finnigan. To his regret, one might imagine. Or not? Blood oaths, pacts, secret societies, friendships unto death are, it seems, built into the male psyche. At a revolutionary level, let us speculate, it may be the dog-wolf in us – the part of the psyche that says survival depends on close ties with fellow warriors, banded together against the enemy.

There is a fierce poetry to Harnett’s style that sits nicely with the more inward-thinking Gabriel but less well with the near-psychotic Finnigan. Gabriel, who is in hospital reflecting on his short life, says of himself, ‘I weigh perhaps as much as a small suitcase carrying the necessities of a night’ – a lovely encapsulation of self diminishment, an insightful sliver of self doubt. When Finnigan, vicious arsonist, declares, ‘I wanted to break my knuckles on his pathetic rebellion, crack his skull on his poxy immunity’, it comes across as a tad overwritten, not the more urgent demotic voice one might expect. The narrative only allows very short excerpts from Finnigan which to my mind makes the book imbalanced.

A dual first-person narrator has worked well in such noted novels as The Collector, The End of the Affair and A One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding and it works best when the two voices are widely separated in tone and language and each given plenty amounts of space to have their say. Part of the problem I had with Surrender is I don’t relate well to books that have dogs as prominent characters. Then there is Vernon, Gabriel’s idiot brother. So we have two characters who, by necessity, have nothing to say.

The hatchet blows that suddenly strike Gabriel’s mother and father have the same leisurely yet shocking quality of the Southern Gothic novel – of, say, Flannery O’Connor – yet they shock us less. Surrender is full of a dark and vivid poetry that invites us to admire but not quite so successfully to feel.


book_plot.jpgTHE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA
By Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, ISBN: 0224074539 $49.95

A new novel by Philip Roth is always an event worthy of notice – will it win the Pulitzer or the National Book Award? My guess is, not this time. While Roth’s latest book has dazzling passages that show the aging virtuoso can still write like an angel, there are also plenty of dull stretches, making this an uneven work. It lacks the authoritative passion of the recent American Pastoral and The Human Stain.

The Plot Against America is a fictional re-write of American history which has the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh ousting Roosevelt as president in 1940 – a critical time in world history as Hitler’s armies were swarming over Europe. The book belongs to the growing number of novels that portray a world where Hitler won – books like The Sound of His Horn by Sarban, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris.

Like Hitler, Lindbergh offers political solutions in very simple terms: the election is a choice between Lindbergh and war. Choose Lindbergh and America stays out of war, choose Roosevelt and involvement in world war ensues. To the dismay of the Roth family, Lindbergh is given the mandate and America begins a slow, inevitable slide into pro-Nazi anti-Semitic fascism. A lesser writer than Roth might have had it happen at breakneck speed, yet the slowness of its unfolding is its fictional undoing. The gradual extinction of liberal pro-Roosevelt voices like popular columnist Walter Winchell and the detaining of Roosevelt himself takes too long. Worse, when they do occur they are not all that convincing nor dramatic. Dramatically speaking, the novel has a saggy midriff. The intermingling of large public events, narrated in newsreel style, and the personal lives of the Roths doesn’t quite gel.

As with most Roth novels, the best parts lie in family divisiveness – the bitter arguments between turncoat son Sandy and his father Herman, the stubborn heroism of cousin Alvin. The frighteningly bland Rabbi Bengelsdorf, connected to the Roth family by marriage, who espouses his repugnant views during an uneasy dinner party, shows Roth’s passion for ideological debate at its most lively. Alvin gets the novel’s finest line when he says that Bengelsdorf is ‘koshering Lindbergh for the goyim’. Disappointingly, Lindbergh is a remote grey presence never dynamically present and his ‘kidnapping’ by Nazis is a weird and unconvincing echo of the real-life kidnapping of his son.

In case any readers might literally believe in the gloomy events outlined in the novel, Roth includes a lengthy postscript giving potted biographies of major historical personages such as Lindbergh (the meeting with Goering and the swastika-crowned medal all true!), Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Winchell – and the full text of Lindbergh’s 1941 speech wherein he claims that Jews have a dangerously large ownership of motion pictures, press, radio and government and are using that influence to get America involved in the war.

Despite its winning touches and always-assured (though suitably doctored) historical and clever social detail, The Plot Against America lacks the grim dramatic darkness of 1984 – which was after all another ‘what if?’ novel – a black view of a world completely run by communist totalitarianism. While 1984 always seemed gloomily possible, The Plot doesn’t quite convince – and the postscript, while a fail-safe document for those who have either forgotten history (or never knew it), has the ultimate effect of sabotaging the premise on which the novel is based.


books_Saturday copy.jpgSATURDAY
By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, ISBN: 0375435328 $49.95

Booker Prize-short listed Atonement was arguably one of the best novels of the last ten years and Saturday, McEwan’s tenth novel, is also a finely written and powerful work - though of a lesser stature.

The main character of Saturday is a highly respected neurosurgeon, loyal husband, a man of principle who, when all is said and done, is that rare thing in fiction: a good man (though some my find him stuffy). Being good is not always good enough to deal with life’s bitter twists. And goodness unassailed by wrong, evil or harm would be fictional suicide. Henry Perowne surveys all human beings through a merciless medical gaze and when he is threatened by a petty psychopath whose car he has pranged, he can’t help noticing that Baxter’s ‘poor self-control, emotional lability, explosive temper’ is ‘suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding sites on stratal neurons. This in turn is bound to imply the diminished presence in the striatum and lateral pallidum – glutamic acid and decaboxylase and choline acetyltranferase’.

In short, Baxter has Huntington’s Chorea.

It’s a swag of medical minutia to flood your brain just before you are about to be thumped, but the exhaustive and meticulous detail that McEwan has lovingly researched – much in the manner we have come to expect from American rather than English novelists – serves McEwan’s dramatic purposes very well. In the end, we start to see as Henry Perowne sees. However, it’s much more than medical insight; it’s the true stuff of novelist’s irony when Perowne, who has every reason to hate Baxter for his thuggery towards his family, is called upon to operate on the fellow’s brain after he has been of necessity nearly de-brained by his son.

The passages of threatening, then escalating violence, are superbly done in thriller-like mode. These contrast with the – by comparison – almost duller passages of family background in which McEwan can sometimes sound like that other well known document-maker of twentieth century life, Iris Murdoch. Satisfying as Saturday is, it is thinly plotted compared to a Murdoch novel – it sometimes feels like a novella roller-pinned out to a novel.

The attempted political dimension to the novel – numerous encroachments into Perowne’s eyes and ears of contemporary events in Iraq, considerations of Bush – are rather less successful than the expertly detailed medical-cum-violence drama that is the book’s inner heart beat. Nevertheless, the argument between son and father brings out a more conservative side than the good surgeon expected – and makes the perceptive psychological point that different people provoke in different ways. This seems but a minor flaw in Perowne’s stable upper middle class moral strengths, which border on the priggish. The trouble with a happy marriage (choke) – and a happy family (gag) – is that it is not the stuff of arresting fiction, though McEwan makes a fair fist of it. He even gets away with the happy ending - and I’m not sure if I’m happy about that.


Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:17 AM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2007

Book Reviews: Aug 07 issue

In association with The Nile
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HUNKS OF BURNING LOVE

Michael Morrissey writes of infidels, painted ladies and the ghost of Elvis

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INFIDEL by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Free Press
(click title for more information)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born woman who rose to be a member of the Dutch parliament and became world famous (in the case of Islam, world-notorious) for her scripting of a short film that showed the words of the Quran on a woman's body. The intention of the film was to criticise the treatment of Muslim women. It was anticipated the film would create a furore but on its initial release nothing happened.

However, in 2004, a Muslim assassin murdered the film's maker, Theo Van Gogh, who also happened to be a descendant of the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. His dying words were, “Can't we talk about it?” A letter pinned to Van Gogh's chest promised that Hirsi Ali would be killed next. So far, thanks to the protection of the Dutch and American governments, she has managed to survive.

This autobiography traces Ali's mental, social, political and religious evolution from being a member of a Somali tribe to a non-believer - hence the title, Infidel. Apart from the blasphemous nature of the film she scripted, according to Muslim religious law, she merits death as an apostate. Officially therefore, Islam is a religion that is easy to join but very difficult to leave. This is a moving and courageous book but one calculated to anger and even enrage Islam rather than make peace with it - if indeed that were possible. Obviously, Hirsi Ali's conscience and newly acquired beliefs will not permit any reconciliation.

This review began with the book's conclusion but necessarily this account starts with Hirsi Ali's childhood. It begins movingly with her grandmother asking “Who are you?” This is the prompt for the five year old Hirsi Ali to recite her blood lines going back 300 years.

The psychological effort required to leave such a deep inheritance cannot be underestimated. Her grandmother tells them history and stories as she cooks. Some are stories of how to survive against wild animals, others are tales of treachery, bloodshed and revenge - a rich brew in other words. When Hirsi Ali's liberal father was in prison and her mother was away, the grandmother, who could not read or write, arranged the children's circumcision. When one reads of the trauma, bleeding and infection, and the resultant sewing up of the wound, the word has a euphemistic ring. Though circumcision predates Islam, Hirsi Ali states that Islam reinforces it. Imams do not discourage the practice because it keeps girls pure.

Hirsi Ali relates how her mother, a frustrated and angry woman, often beat her children. Though thankfully a reconciliation occurred in later life. The book's odyssey sees Hirsi Ali growing up in several other countries – Saudi Arabia (which she and her father hated for its oppressive practices) and Kenya and Ethiopia. Despite his pro-democratic attitude, her father enthusiastically arranges a marriage for her to a man who is not to her liking. Her rejection of the marriage proposal alienates her father and her departure from the Islam faith makes that alienation permanent. By now Hirsi Ali has fled to Holland and this is where her gradual secularisation really begins. She observes that the more provocative dress of the Dutch women does not produce the sexually aggressive reaction she had been told to expect; that Holland is better and more fairly run than her own country; that the government is fair and liberal and not tyrannical and corrupt; that women have rights and are free citizens. In a word, Hirsi Ali becomes pro-Western and pro-democratic. Her “conversion”, so to speak, is of her own free will.

Hirsi Ali is no saint. She admits she told lies to gain entry to Holland and these later rebounded on her when her citizenship was annulled – though later reinstated. From the cover of the book, Hirsi's steady unflinching gaze must strike any who pick up the book as a woman who is resolute and defiant. Though her actions have been provocative in the extreme, she can only be viewed as a woman of extraordinary courage.


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RAW PLACES by John Horrocks, Steele Roberts, $24.95

John Horrocks is a new, confident and mature voice on the over-crowded New Zealand poetry scene – over-crowded it must be said with much prosaic mediocrity and chopped up banal prose masquerading as poetry which often reads - and indeed may be – random
line-breaked regulations copied from the back of bus tickets. In other words, dried-up wheat biscuits masquerading as caviar. Horrocks gives us a full banquet and leaves the reader's palate still moist.

This collection of honest, honed poetry is from a man who has not only worked the land – sixteen years farming north of Auckland and in the Wairarapa – but has written an impressive complex PhD thesis on William Blake called “Imagining the Tiger”. Horrocks also lectures on psychology and in a former life was headed for a PhD in the now more or less obsolete school of Skinnerian behaviorism. In other words, the still handsome Horrocks, scion of the distinguished Auckland Horrocks family, is somewhat of a Renaissance man - a concept that has increasingly become anomalous in today's world of contemporary specialisation.

Horrocks sees the landscape not only with a local eye but with a historic perspective


The sky over Waitaha
mimics those ostentatious sunsets
the Chinese saw two thousand years ago.


The reference to Chinese history isn't just dropped as a one liner but is pleasurably extended:


Those courtiers in their brocaded gowns
looked fearfully at trumpet flames
and dusts of strange vermilion light

Steele Roberts is to be congratulated on publishing some interesting new voices which might otherwise have not seen the light of day.


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RAINFOREST by Thomas Marent, DK, $68

Just as you think photography has reached its zenith in warm detail of that far-off organic cranny another book happenstances along that caps the last one. In other words, as far as my eyeballs are concerned, Rainforest tops anything I've previously irised.

Take the orange-magenta explosion spreadeagled over pp178-179. It could be a galaxy giving up the ghost, a psychedelic utility belt, but actually it's a Peruvian caterpillar with finely erect hairs that make it difficult for parasitic wasps to land and lay their eggs.

Or take the eye of the fruit-eating toco toucan on pp 110-111, it could be closeup of a deliriously expensive Van Gogh or the eye of a marooned alien from one of Saturn's moons, but it's clearly terrestrial, a wild shock of colour.

The fallen flowers of a sea poison tree resting on the black volcanic sand of a Sulawesi beach could be bursts of refined lava mushrooming out of fumaroles.

Yes, New Zealand is here but rather modestly and rather disappointingly in a few Fiordland ferns. It's a shame really - for the author could have caught a giant Mahoenui weta or a pohutukawa blossom being raided by a tui or a tuatara basking in the sun.

Apart from the less than satisfactory inclusion of New Zealand – not a major flaw given the ambitious scope of the book – this book would be ideal as a Christmas gift or a boon to school libraries.


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PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: Mistress of Modernism Mary Dearborn, Virago, $32.99

Any culturally-minded visitor to New York will probably have the Guggenheim museum in mind as a place to visit. And they will not be disappointed – the building is unique, its giant conch design spiraling ever upwards, and the art collection is impressive. Alas, for my temporary ignorance, this Big Apple gallery was created by Solomon Guggenheim, Peggy's uncle. Never mind. Having read this absorbing biography I am equally if not more impressed with Peggy Guggenheim's own bona fide achievements in the art field.

Peggy Guggenheim came from a rich German-Jewish family with strict social and marriage expectations of their daughters - they should marry a banker or lawyer of similar background. Peggy decided to rebel. She went to Paris and got involved with a handsome, dashing, golden-maned poet called Laurence Vail. Unfortunately, Laurence was also an alcoholic and an abuser. He regularly beat and humiliated Peggy in public. Peggy seems to have been somewhat of a masochist because several of the men that figured in her life were physically abusive. The sadistic Laurence goaded her with the assertion that she had only been invited into the art-bohemian scene because of her money and that without him she would have no such entry. Yet despite humiliations, drunkenness and general indulgence, Peggy was making her way in a milieu that she preferred to the safer more sedate world from which she sprung: “They're full of wonderful ideas and fantasies, they are so much more alive than stockbrokers and lawyers”.

Though rich, Peggy was not nearly as wealthy as her hangers on supposed. On the death of her father, she received an inheritance of $450,000 or about five million in today's money. However, she gave steadily and generously to many artists and writers such as Djuna Barnes, the talented but alcoholic author of Nightwood, the anarchist Emma Goldman, Dorothy Holms, Eleanor Fitzgerald as well the abusive Laurence plus donations to a relief fund for out of work coal miners in West Virginia – and yet she was accused of stinginess! Whatever her faults, Peggy had a kind heart and a conscience..

Being part of the bohemian whirl of Paris, Peggy was able to throw a sumptuous party for Isadora Duncan, famous modernist dancer. Included among the guests were Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Andre Gide, plus Marcel Du Champ. One hand grenade would have destroyed many of the giants of modernism. When a fracas occurred in a cafe (as they often did), the artistically witty Du Champ would suggest turning on the charm of which he had a ready supply. Despite her large nose, which an early attempt at plastic surgery failed to improve, Peggy also had her share of charm, attractiveness and wit (and money too of course). Among her many amours were Du Champ and Samuel Beckett, who at the time was a struggling writer and not the world-famous author he was to become.

As the clouds of war descended on Europe, Peggy fled back to the United States. And as war peaked in Europe, she began her financial and artistic support for the stormy artist Jackson Pollock who became the most noted painter of his time. For this alone, she might have found a place in art history but there were grander things to come. When she set up her own gallery in New York, Peggy truly entered the history books. This was a bold move for a woman to make at the time – there was one other woman art dealer in New York. As Dearborn puts it, “her gallery would change the course of art history in the twentieth century”.

She achieved this by creating a gallery that was not sedate and stuffy but “vibrant and innovative”, “a real experience to visit, which drew guests in and encouraged them to interact with the art and any artists or critics they might meet there”. She was greatly assisted in this enterprise by Frederick Kiesler, a diminutive but brilliant Viennese architect. Under his direction, all manner of unusual viewing strategies were put in place such as unframed art for immediate impact; showing as many paintings in a small space as possible; lighting devices that would switch off, but could be turned on by the viewer pulling a lever plus an eyepiece attached to a large spiral like ship's wheel to view one of Du Champ's creations - all of these devices were part of Kiesler's Kinetic Gallery allowing the viewer to interact with the art.

Following the end of the war, Peggy acquired a famous palazzo on the Grand Canal of Venice. Previously occupied by Browning and Henry James, Peggy assembled within its wall a famous collection of Surrealists and modern American artists which can still be viewed by visitors to the watery city.

This biography is a well-focused study of a lively woman who helped change the way art is displayed. So vivid is the portrait of the subject with warts, big nose and all, I felt a twinge of sadness at her parting - a tribute to Mary Dearborn's carefully detailed study, rendered in flowing highly readable prose.


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IN SEARCH OF ELVIS by Charles Connelly, Little Brown, $39.99

It was 1956, year of the Suez Crisis. Waikato had resoundingly defeated the Springboks, and the country was in a Mooloo delirium.

Not this Mt Roskill state house boy.

I was reading Foundation by Isaac Asimov and my mind had been blown by the notion of galaxy containing a quintillion human beings – 40 billion alone on Trantor, eg Earth.

I turned on the radio and heard Heartbreak Hotel sung by a young Memphis boy called Elvis Presley. He sounded as though he was singing from the bottom of a well but that just added to the thrill of the new. He was singing about loneliness and love - common themes in songs at the time. Other artists popular at the time included Connie Francis, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Pat Boone, the Four Preps, and the Four Aces. Generally, a wholesome bunch. Elvis wasn't wholesome – he was indefinably bad, from the wrong side the tracks, singing the Devil's music – this latter charge turned out to be ironic because Elvis cut his teeth on gospel singing and recorded several gospel songs himself. Apart from his Brylcreemed swagger, mobile hips, brooding gaze, Elvis had an extraordinary voice. It oozed a confident, alley-smart sexiness never since equaled or surpassed.

It seems the world concurs because according to Connelly's charming account, the world is being overrun with Elvis Presley lookalikes. (“In 1977 there were 185 impersonators in the world. In 2005, there were 186,000. At that rate of growth, by something like the year 2060 one in four people in the world will be an Elvis impersonator.”) No other artist is copied or mimicked as much as Elvis. Actually there are two types – serious Elvis impersonators who try hard to look and sing like the King - including his skillful body gyrations - and playful imitators (usually fat guys) who just pretend to be imitating Elvis.

Some of the Elvis worship is close to that given to saints. So quite soon, don't be surprised if someone with a lame foot claims to have had it straightened by praying to Elvis. One could say his posthumous adulation is a sort of secular miracle. But let us go on a journey courtesy of Elvis enthusiast Charley Connelly – and he, by the way, claims to be a mild case of the genre.

It seems the Presleys come from Scotland. Andrew Presley emigrated from Lonmay, forty miles north of Aberdeen to North Carolina in 1745. This Scottish origin has led – have you guessed already? - to the creation of a Presley tartan though not thankfully a Presley haggis. Alas there is a dark side - like the woman in Australia who shot her husband for playing “Burning Love” over and over again.

How about Elvis in Uzbekistan? Uzbekistan has the privilege of being one of the only two countries that are double-land locked. This geographic remoteness doesn't mean they are sufficiently out of the way to escape Presley mania however. The Guli-Bonu Producer Center is swathed in Elvis memorabilia and there is an Elvis Cafe. In Porthcawl, Wales a black Elvis lets loose on the stage.

Connelly's Elvis odyssey necessarily takes in Sun Studios where Elvis cut his first disk - the same studio that kick-started the careers of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash - and Las Vegas where the King reigned supreme for several years. Canada has Dan Hartal, better known as Schmelvis, the world's leading Jewish Elvis impersonator. And perhaps most exotic of all is Dr Jukka Ammonds who perform and records Elvis songs in Latin and Sumerian. Most lavish of the tribute spots is the Elvis diner in Israel which has displayed on the ceiling “a fantastic painted mural that depicted Elvis's life from start to finish and ran the length of the room in a distinctly Sistine manner”.

After a book filled with light-hearted banter about the peculiarities of Elvis obsession, Connelly closes on a moving note. He was given a hand-signed picture of Elvis by a German fan and entrusted to deliver to the diner in Israel. He does just that then he realises something deeper is going on – two members of formerly enemy nations are being linked by a shared obsession. Elvis here becomes a sort of peace maker uniting people more effectively than politicians have done - not only German and Jews but Arabs and Jews have been blissfully united by Elvis enjoyment. Quite simply there was nothing more for Connelly to do than sip his beer, watch the sun set and listen to Elvis singing “I Just Can't Help Believing”.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 09:16 PM | Comments (0)

May 28, 2007

Book Reviews: July 07 issue

In association with The Nile
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Mailer’s Magnum Opus

Michael Morrissey enthuses about the possession of Hitler

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THE CASTLE IN THE FOREST by Norman Mailer, Little Brown, $36.99

What on earth (or indeed - highly pertinent in Norman's case - Heaven and and Hell) are we to make of Norman Mailer? That one of America's leading novelists should produce a work of considerable, even enviable, vitality at 84 is an occasion for wonder and admiration. While earlier giants such as Faulkner had accelerated their early demise by alcohol or blown their brains out (Hemingway), the nuggety little Brooklyn battler has shown us that he is not down for the count, no way. He is alive and kicking God and the Devil's shins. And from the way Norman writes, he is often not entirely sure whether he is knocking the Divine patella or Satanic tibia. Who knows? - perhaps Norman will become the world's oldest novelist and still be tackling the Big One (ie Novel) at age 100. It's always possible that he might succeed in writing that great novel that has so far eluded his creative grasp.

The question is how great a novel is The Castle in the Forest? In its research - in the form of a large bibliography – it is impressive. In order to write about Adolf or Adi (as he is cutely dubbed) the child, Mailer has read all the great biographical classics on Hitler, the adult – from Bullock to Kershaw to Trevor-Roper with main titles asterisked – a list that curiously omits Mein Kampf but does include Milton and Heidegger. The question must be asked - is Mailer merely trying to impress us for little of this massive research material is in evidence in the text of the novel.

The novel unfashionably supposes that Hitler's monumental evil is the result of devilish influence. Dieter (D.T. for short) who works in the SS under Heinrich Himmler is actually a devil assigned to guide young Adolf along the pathway of evil. I warned you it wasn't a fashionable view. A more conventional view might be located in (say) a somewhat vitriolic review of Mailer's novel in the New Republic which concludes that “the Nazis were neither gods nor demons but finally all too human”. Mailer opts for the view that the vileness of the Third Reich had its origins in demonic influence. We are not talking about rolling eyeballs, levitating beds, projectile vomiting, swiveling heads or crucifixes burning flesh, but subtle and undetected intrusions of the human psyche by a diabolic mind. Mailer's Dieter, a minion of the Maestro (Satan), enters young Adolf's consciousness via dreams, thoughts, wishes, fears. In other words, the Devil's influence is psychological though real nonetheless. Mailer's description and analysis of this subtle control is almost spooky in its accuracy. The problem from a literary point of view is that this often acute analysis is not dramatically integrated into the book. It's all from the sideline. So while the book is brilliant in patches, its brilliance is “added on” as it were.

No one can accuse Mailer of not tackling the Big Issues of our time. His record is extensive as it is bold. World War Two in The Naked and the Dead; Communism in Barbary Shore; President Kennedy and nuclear war in The Presidential Papers; Vietnam in Why are we in Vietnam?; the 1968 Chicago riots in Miami and the Siege of Chicago; the moon landing in Of a Fire on the Moon. In the 1000 page plus The Executioner's Song, he examined what makes a murderer tick; in Ancient Evenings he explored the 18th dynasty of Egypt. In Harlot's Ghost, he took on the CIA with a massive 1300 plus pages. This was followed by 700 pages on Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's assassin, and more recently The Gospel According to the Son which dealt with a topic already examined by George Bernard Shaw – are voices in the head of the saintly merely the mind talking to itself or divine directives? All of these weighty themes in which evil or God is so often at the centre of the enterprise might entitle Mailer to be dubbed the American Dostoyevsky, but for one important fatal flaw. In nearly all of Mailer's work save for The Naked and the Dead and An American Dream, the essayist wins over the novelist and the trenchant analyst triumphs over the dramatist. We get raw slabs of ideas admittedly couched in richly turned phrases but devoid of novelist's drama and interaction. This is why Dostoyevsky is the greatest novelist of all time and Mailer, his struggling bastard son, tries hard but never quite achieves the title he so sorely craves – the greatest writer of his time, the literary Champ, the Muhammad Ali of the contemporary novel.

Thus The Castle in the Forest is a heroic failure of sorts. While rich in wit and insight, it is dramatically and novelistically impoverished despite having Adolf Hitler as its subject matter. The focus is often more on beekeeper Father Alois and his grubby colleague Der Alte than young Adolf himself. Adolf, more often than not, is viewed via the diabolic lens of Dieter's subtle influences.

Nevertheless, it must be presumed that Mailer, like so many, feels that there is a “mystery” to Hitler – how did this humbly-born fellow come to nearly conquer the world? How did he manage to “secretly” bring about the death of six million Jews? I myself have come to believe or accept that there is no particular mystery. That Adolf was not mad but “merely” like so many would-be world conquerors before – Stalin, Mao, Napoleon, Tamburlane, Alexander the Great – evilly ambitious on a grand scale. Or as Mailer has fictionally explored, Satanically influenced. Hitler was a powerful orator (whereas Stalin and Mao were not) and used radio more fully as a propaganda device than before; also he used the aeroplane to move rapidly around the country and therefore appear omniscient, a media god. Prior to this time (1930s), these devices had not been used to the degree that Hitler used them - but again, where's the mystery? He had the new technology, he used it to be powerful. Is there any mystery in that?

Hitler irrationally hated the Jews and used them as a scapegoat but there have been plenty of other examples of genocide both before and since - horribly in Rwanda in 1994 when a million Hutus were slaughtered at a faster rate than the Jews were killed under Hitler's regime - and in like manner the world did nothing.

If there is a mystery, it is in Hitler's numerous bad military decisions - Dunkirk, attacking Russia, delaying the assault on Moscow, failing to use the new jet fighter in adequate numbers and so forth. However, if you accept German historian Joachim Fest's persuasive argument, that there is something in the German psyche that is attracted to a great doomed tragedy, and here we may find an explanation of the “mystery:” We have plenty of evidence for Hitler's fascination with the Ragnorak, the twilight of the gods – the ultimate destruction of civilisation, in this case brought about by a doomed war. Mailer too, believes there is a mystery - “the most mysterious human of being of the century” says Devil Dieter, prominent narrator of Hitler. If there is mystery (which I am inclined to doubt), then why not examine the childhood of the tyrannical monster? Perhaps it is here the “mystery” of his enormous evil will be revealed? Thus is Mailer's fictional strategy.

Nonetheless, I found it is, alas, hard to care about the wicked Alois and the would-be wicked Adolf – and this, after all, is the acid test for a book – do we care? The details of beekeeping might have been fascinating in their own right if rendered by an Updike or a Roth but here they seem like Mailer is away on an unfruitful tangent until the text mentions the bees are gassed to death. Alelluia, the reader might cry understandably thinking that here is where Adolf got his genocidal ideas from. The text undermines its own metaphor by asserting, “...I would warn the reader not to make too much of the gassing ...” Is Norman embarrassed by the straightforwardness of his own metaphor? The denial seems either coy or forced. Mailer is always second-guessing and contra-qualifying his own text.

Dieter, talking about the methods of Satanic usurpation, is more interesting than Alois holding forth on bees but again Mailer fails to make this potentially riveting material dramatically interesting as Dostoyevsky always does. The bees, one is compelled to suppose, are a metaphor for the German people but one that palls. In fact - and regrettably - you can learn a lot more about the complex intertwining of good and evil from the superb Sopranos than by reading The Castle in the Forest. Thus this grand attempt at a portrait of Hitlerian evil is a missed opportunity and no amount of essayist's glad phrasing will make for an adequate substitute. Norman should shut up and let the characters speak for themselves - that's what novel writing is all about. When they do speak, they only monologue about bees.

Nevertheless, in an age of increasingly misguided liberalism and confused values, veteran author Norman Mailer has the moral courage to believe that in the fight between God and Satan (who at times reminds me of a naughty child that needs a good smack or two on his red behind), God “needs” human help. In other words, even though God was, is and for all eternity been destined to win over the Devil, our job as human beings is to join in on His side as freely, gracefully and powerfully as we can - each and every one of us – all six billion plus of us - and thereby create a happy pure life on this wonderful Spaceship Earth created for our enjoyment providing we also love God and each other. With Faith and Hope added in, it may not be difficult as people think. God throws a knock out punch and Satan goes down for the count – permanently! His red eyes close, his brain is damaged beyond repair and it's all over – he dies in the ring and the crowd goes wild with joy! A big fat prayer recited to God in a humble spirit can do wonders.

Alas, from time to time, evil men like Hitler distract us with false gods sated with lust for power. This novel – flawed though still powerful in parts - portrays the early life of Hitler as told by one of Satan's lesser devils and shows the boy being tutored in the ways of evil. If the very idea that is the central motor behind this, by turns, brilliant and laboured work - a tome of astonishing vitality for an author for 84 – seems far-fetched - “merely a work of fictional invention”, readers might like to consider this astonishing passage from The Dictators by leading English war historian Richard Overy:

“Two British generals at a Hitler rally in Berlin in 1934, seated in the stadium just feet behind him, watched him captivate his listeners with the familiar rising passion and jarring voice. “Then an amazing thing happened,' continued the account: ' (we) both saw a blue flash of lightning come out of Hitler's back ...We were surprised that those of us close behind Hitler had not all been struck dead.” The two men afterwards discussed whether Hitler was actually possessed at certain moments by the Devil:' We came to the conclusion that he was”.

This passage – and it is to be noted that this account is from England's leading military historian and not some “hollyroller” fruitcake - is quoted from a book entitled True Account by F.W Tennant p. 182-183. Thus we may reflect, as per the old saying - Is Truth Stranger than Fiction? I have come to accept that Satan can enter people without their knowing but perhaps in the more dramatic cases of visible evil, the host is a willing collaborator. Thus is raised the spectre of the Faustian pact, a situation hinted at in the passage quoted above. In The Castle in the Forest, it is Dieter, a minor devil acting on behalf of the Maestro (Satan), who does the tempting and Adolf who is successfully tempted.

Some historians consider that Hitler was insane though that is a minority view. His main medical problems were physical not mental. It is more accurate to consider him as a man who chose evil. Any dictator who orders up the cold-blooded murder of six million Jews and caused the death of additional countless millions must be considered evil, not mad. In the case of Hitler, madness is a glib excuse. Alternatively, such a view suggests that evil - i.e. mad - people are not responsible for their actions. Let us remember that Hitler chose evil and he paid the price – his thousand-year Reich crumbled in 12 years.

Modern psychiatry increasingly continues to tell us that morality or free will has no place and that the quick fix for such disturbances is a pill. To this degree, psychiatrists are often of the Devil's party without realising it. Major mental disturbances such as paranoid schizophrenia and manic-depression (politically correct term: bipolar disorder) are most likely coded messages from God – patterns of inner wisdom in code. Episodes of “Mania” are like the giant fifty-foot high waves of Hawaii (where surfing began) – if you can learn to surf you get the terrific thrill of defying death and if you do it accurately you don't get injured. Or injure anyone else.

So Mania (which has of course “afflicted” little battler Norman and let us not forget Stormin' Norman) is really a misunderstood gift from God which one day may enable humanity to spread out to the stars and realise that glorious future that God was planned for us. As Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) says in Contact, if the colossus of the universe is noting but stars, gas rocks and the odd planet than it's an “awful waste of space.”

Mailer can never be accused of tackling lightweight subjects – for as already noted, one of his earlier books was entitled The Gospel According to the Son which considered the important question asked by Jesus - Is God speaking to me? Or am I hearing voices? It would seem that Mailer though Jewish – has moved closer to the Christian view in his latest work - perhaps the old slugger will convert one day? Imagine - Norman, a veteran of six marriages, turned celibate priest! Nonetheless, Mailer's view is more Manichean or Zoroastarian than Christian – God is not all powerful but struggles to perfect His creations as well as struggling with Demons and evil influences. To some extent, the sense of this metaphysically asserted struggle provides the missing novelist's drama. If the Mailerian view of God as less than all powerful being is unacceptable to Christians, it is evident he does take Satan and evil seriously – very seriously indeed.

Mailer may just turn out to be America's most important novelist in the heady realms of Ideas. Though often ignored by local reviewers who unfortunately have fallen under the influence of femminazism and the rigid-minded doctrines of the politically correct who seek to reduce art's richness to barren formulae, Mailer's vitality of intelligence offers a rewarding though novelistically marred reading experience. No other major writer has changed his tonal voice so many times making a thesis on his work a formidable task indeed.. The way in which he has been largely ignored here is a matter of cultural shame. Unfortunately, The Castle in the Forest is a heavily flawed book though still worthy of our attention - as is much of Mailer's locally neglected work which for several decades has continued to assault the heady realms of theodicy, eschatology, ontology and metaphysics.

When I met Mailer in late 1985, in a boxing gym in New York (where he was giving a poetry recital), I was struck by his mystical blue eyes. Hitler too, apparently had mesmeric pale blue eyes. However, Mailer's seemed – almost cerulean, a Heavenly blue – a sign that paradise is to come? Only God knows. And though at first it seems unlikely, compared to Hitler, Norman must surely be on the side of the angels (or Cudgels as Dieter calls them) - as well as, of course, fallible humans.

Stop press: my old friend Michael O'Donogue, long time sub-editor at the Herald tells me – source New York Review of Books - that The Castle in the Forest is is only the first part of an intended trilogy. Norman, this is your big chance for a literary TKO at age 90.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 10:26 PM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2007

Book Reviews: May 07 issue

In association with The Nile
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What Males A Woman Tick...

And other stories...Michael Morrissey’s autumn discoveries

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THE FEMALE BRAIN by Louann Brizendine, Bantam Press, $37.99
This book is strongly reminiscent in design to an earlier book entitled Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps. It has crystal-clear almost baby talk language text much in the style you might read in women's magazines, but at the back of the book is an encyclopaedic follow up in the form of almost line by line references and a bibliography of mammoth proportions. As much of the references are very recent, it seems childish or stubborn to occasionally resist their conclusions, though it is well to remember that however up to date the research is now, it will be revised in the future.

The former book had a distinctly patronisingly anti-male tone while The Female Brain deals principally with the female perspective, so has a cast-iron excuse for any seeming “bias”. In the main, both books tend to reinforce a lot of the time-honoured perceptions about the differences between men and women and militate strongly against the view which peaked in the 1970s that the principal differences between men and women were all socially and environmentally produced. The Blank Slate approach is gone and the Previously Coloured Slate is back. Actually, it's not that simple because the current view - which makes perfect sense to the reviewer, is “that the fundamentally misconceived nature versus nurture debate should be abandoned: child development is inextricably both”.

One of the important areas that Brizendine clarifies is why fewer women succeed in the sciences - it is not due to lack of mathematical ability but because at the crucial stage of adolescence, estrogen floods the girl's body compelling her to focus on emotions and communication whereas boys find it easier to withdraw and be alone. Curiously, I still find myself at odds with the characterisation of the reluctant-to-talk male either in adolescence or in adulthood. I was a non-stop talker throughout and all the truly marathon talkers I know are male. Maybe there is a special geek/intellectual hormone as yet undetected?

The general impression gained from Brizendine's writing is that we are as hormone-driven as surely as a motor car is driven by fuel. On page 55 it is admitted, “a hormone alone does not cause a behaviour”. Nonetheless, it is the former rather than the latter view that comes through most strongly. Thus, for women, talking or telephoning brings up pleasure-reinforcing amounts of dopamine and oxytocin – the latter being especially stimulated by intimacy. Men on the other hand seek independence rather than intimacy. Though she doesn't say so, I would assume what is labeled bonding is often more important to men – bonding with each other. I also find it hard to square off the assertion that women will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid conflict against the sassy feminists and women I know.

Despite my resistance to some of its points, this book is crammed with revelation and affirmation of traditional gender different perceptions. Chapter three informs us that only 5 per cent of mammals are monogamous – and so you must be wondering are humans (and in particular males) part of that five per cent? The answer seems to be kind of. From observations of prairie and montane voles, the critical factor (so we are told) is the length of one's vasopressin receptor. The prairie voles with the longer version are more faithful. So in future women may be in quest of mates with long vasopressin receptors. This is of course if men are like voles.

My general take on this book is that everyone should read it - for it rings a lot of bells at the biological level. And yet curiously I find some of its assertions contradicted by my own experiences. Also, if all its views are accepted as stated, it seems to deny human beings the capacity to make decisions contrary to their hormonal promptings - in other words it denies us free will. Which one of my hormones, I wonder, prompted that remark?


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THINGS I DIDN'T KNOW by Robert Hughes, Knopf, $65

More than a generation ago, I saw a picture of Robert Hughes that aroused deep envy. He was young (relatively), good looking, had a powerful-looking motorcycle and was Time magazine's new art critic - presumably at a princely salary. I was a little published writer mail-sorting in the Sydney Post Office and did not own a motorcycle - and was not earning all that much. Now, some thirty years down the track, I have published a fair amount but still have no motorcycle - and no princely salary. Hughes is moderately famous and I am relatively unknown. Apart from that, what else is in common?

Surprisingly, quite a bit. Irish background, both raised as Catholics, destined for the law (but dropping the bench for more literary pursuits) plus jaffas, Minties, harbour ferries, trams, flying boats, the strap, Dad & Dave and Mandrake the dapper Magician gesturing hypnotically. And both were maturing as young men when our respective countries had scant confidence in local art – when the only way to view the grand masterpieces of European art was to go to Europe and see them - and there was little informed art criticism or art history. But since that time (1950s/1960s), both have developed enormously and large scale exhibitions from overseas are relatively common. Despite having five times the population, Australia had much the same colonial cringe as its smaller younger brother across the Tasman.

Hughes slid rather casually into the role of art critic in a way that is hard to imagine now. “I've just fired the art critic,” announced the Observer's editor Donald Horne, “Anyone know anything about art?” Hughes, the cartoonist, became an overnight art critic. Since that fortuitous beginning, Hughes has done his homework. Over the ensuing decades, it is clear from his richly detailed account that he has made himself at home with western art throughout England, Europe and America - the range of references is impressive. Included among his cultural formative icons are George Orwell, drama critic Kenneth Tynan, Kenneth (“Civilisation”) Clark; heavyweight Australian painters like Sydney Nolan and Arthur Streeton and writer Alan Moorehead.

Reading of Hughes' cultural life – the major part of the book – is in stark contrast to the opening sequences where the unlucky art critic was recently involved in a hellish car crash and wound up having dream-hallucinations that suggested the pins needed to hold the shattered bones of his arm together were a medieval torture device. Born into a rich and privileged family, Hughes has made good use of the flying start his background gave him.

At times, Hughes is in almost in danger of overdoing the litany of great art that has subsequently kissed his privileged eyeballs but what saves his account from any nuance of showing off or the tedium of experiencing unrelenting excellence, is his marvelously rich essayist's style which - despite its arcane vocabulary - remains lucid. Orwell crossed with Ruskin, one might say.

The still sneakingly conservative Hughes has little time for hippies and New Age goofiness,
though he likes the outrageous satirist Robert Crumb whose art he acutely analyses. If one imagines the life of an art critic as an endless browse through art galleries clutching a glass of wine – surely not too distant from the truth - Hughes was fortunate enough (so to speak) to be sent over to capture the great flood of Florence in 1966 which damaged countless works of art. Here Hughes's prose rises to fresh heights of descriptive power and leads him to this startling conclusion: “What the Florence flood drowned in me was a belief in the potency of the avant garde”. I would have thought the destruction wrought would have hammered home the fact that all art is vulnerable. Surprisingly, I find myself increasingly in agreement with him – whether creeping middle-aged conservatism or due respect for the past, I leave readers to decide.

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THE SMELL OF POWDER: A History of Dueling in New Zealand by Donald Kerr, Random House New Zealand, $ 29.99

The time is dawn. The place a little visited locale. Two gentlemen stand sideways to each other and fire pistols at one another. Assistants called seconds hover, making sure that everything is run according to the “rules”.

Rules? Believe it or not dueling has rules. Twenty six commandments were drawn up by an interested group of fellows at Clommel, Ireland in 1777. However, in the heat of the moment – though dueling is by nature generally a “cool” practice ie one done after the moment of provocation – sometimes seconds and the rules are forgotten.

Dueling was and is an illegal activity indulged in by “gentlemen” (though one or two women have tried it) who should be of equal social status. Kerr notes that in the forty plus one years of George 111's reign (1760-1801), there were 172 reported duels and 91 deaths. In New Zealand, on the other hand, there were but 31 duels from 1809 to 1935 with only two deaths. Since, prior to reading Kerr's beautifully produced book, I didn't know there had been any, the unexpected number is sufficient to merit the period-charming history that Kerr has compiled.

My surmise is that New Zealand’s “Jack is good as his master” attitude – the desire to create a democratic rather than a tiered society with a small number of “gentlemen” – has helped work against the importation of this practice to Aotearoa. Possibly the rise of boxing as a sport and meeting behind the shed for a punch up as a way of settling differences has also played a part.

Kerr's elegantly written accounts are an intriguing visit to a bygone era. Remarks that seemed provocative back then have lost their sting by now. Dudley Sinclair called Bendigo Mack an “adventurer” resulting in a thrashing with a pickled whip and a challenge to duel which, like several listed here, was called off at the last minute. Another insult that aroused ire was “ranker” i.e. someone who had risen up through the ranks of the army. Another gent was hit by “a rebounding orange”, and demanded satisfaction. Accusations of cheating at cards and impugning a lady's reputation were also prominent among the causes to call for pistols at dawn.

On occasion, swords were the order of the day - such was the case in the last recorded duel in New Zealand in 1935 when an insult launched at King George V by a Russian officer resulted in a stabbing by an outraged loyalist. One can't imagine any sleight upon a royal provoking such a reaction today.

Failure to respond to challenge could result in the passive party being “posted'' - being publicly denounced as a dastardly coward, unprincipled villain, black guard, scoundrel etc. Reading between the lines, I can't help wondering if wounded pride demanded the challenge and speculate there was relief when the injured parties were talked out of it - in one case by their own mothers arriving at the scene of pending combat. If only, one might wish, all occasions of violence were so easily defused, what a peaceful place the world would be.

This is a delightful and elegantly produced book which would make an ideal gift especially for a “gentleman” who presumably now will not “call one out” even for a sleight. And it appears that very soon even the smack across the cheek, that Hollywood has taught us is a prelude to a challenge, will also itself be illegal.


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FROM THE WRITER'S NOTEBOOK by Lydia Monin, Reed Publishing, $29.99

Not so long ago when prominent overseas visitors arrived in New Zealand, they were anxiously approached for their impressions of New Zealand. If the often almost forcibly solicited response was favourable, well and good, and if not – well, that was something to worry and fret about. In other words, we had a bad case of colonial cringe and were eager for approval – especially from the Overseas Expert - an attitude satirised in Allen Curnow's play of the same name.

At this time in our history, such writers as Trollope, Twain, Conan Doyle and Shaw were to some extent world cultural gurus and their visitations to these shores were hugely prominent events. Hence, the terrific attention paid to their observations. Nowadays – thanks to writers' festivals – famous writers have become more commonplace. Besides, in the pre-war and Victorian era - when psychology, sociology and anthropology were infant sciences – writers were expected to have opinions on everything under heaven. In the case of Twain and Shaw, in particular, this was a role in which they appeared to cheerfully revel. Twain had good reason to be publicly loquacious – he was in debt and his world tour was a way of making badly needed cash.

J.B. Priestley, who visited in 1973, was probably the last writer to be feted as a general guru of our culture and society – thereafter, we have haltingly inched our way to a greater sophistication though we have lapses into “Overseasure” and colonial cringe from time to time. Like Kerr's account on dueling, Monin's book is chaptered in accordance with New Zealand geography – from north to south - and the book's inner front and back pages offer a charming map of these noted literary travellers' itineraries.

The scenic reputation which New Zealand justifiably enjoys to this day was in no small measure due to the praise heaped on our Pink and White Terraces (now sadly destroyed), Bay of Island fishing, Waitomo glow worm caves, Rotorua thermal area, Lake Taupo and Milford Sound and walk, by these visiting literary giants. We all appreciate praise and when a tough and sardonic critic like Shaw described the Waitomo glow worm caves as “sufficient to blot out all memories of ordinary scenery”, the whole country must have blushed with pride.

Shaw was to prove a most prescient observer. Whereas Trollope ventured to suggest Auckland might one day rival London (we are still awaiting this eventuality), Shaw accurately predicted that we would one day harness geysers for power. He also suggested that we should found our own film industry to help develop national identity, distribute milk freely, and cut the economic strings with mother England – and all of these ideas came to pass.

Among the past writer-celebrities, Monin has sprinkled a goodly number of more contemporary visiting scribes eg Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Robert Creeley and the sad case of Chinese poet Gu Cheng who murdered his wife on Waiheke Island in 1993, then committed suicide.

For the reader who may not even be aware that such eminences as D.H Lawrence, Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, and Noel Coward touched down on our shores however briefly, this book is a goldmine of critical comment, whether for or against. Wellington, Lawrence declared, was “a cold, snobbish, middle-class colony of pretentious nobodies” which makes me wonder if he spent his time in parliament. And the last word - and a surprisingly sweet utterance from so trenchant a critic - quoted by Monin, is from redoubtable old sage Shaw, who said on his departure, “If I showed my true feelings I would cry. It's the best country I've been in.” The carpet laid out before the old cynic must have been very red and very thick indeed. But now, who's being cynical?

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WHYKICKAMOOCOW by Nicola McCloy, Random House, $19.99

The title is the English phonetic version of an imaginary Maori language-named town called Waikikamukau. I guess the intended pun is more humorous for English readers than Maori ones.

The interesting thing about this anthology of explanations for the origins of town or location names is how often the obvious notion proves not to be the historically accurate one. Bombay, for instance, just south of Auckland, is not named after the ancient city but the ship Bombay which brought settlers to the area in the 1860s. Interestingly enough the great Indian city has recently returned to its original Hindu name of Mumbai but Bombay, New Zealand, is sticking to its nomenclature. Dagg town is not named after sheep poo or comedian Fred Dagg but Captain Dagg, a whaler who made a massive haul of seal skins from there in the early 1800s. Other towns that have possible naughty nuances to their names such as Waipu and Pigroot are also noted.

Bulls does not come from the district sustaining a plenitude of male bovines, but from James Bull, a woodworker and carver, who funded a store which wound up providing everything from a beer to a bed for the night. The energetic Bull also established a carrying and sawmilling company. Soon locals said they could go to Bull's for anything and everything.
Hence the town became Bulls - apostrophe omitted. Hinds in Canterbury has nothing to with the proliferation of deer farms but is named after Captain Hinds, an ardent Anglican and supporter of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.

Thankfully humour can sometimes have a place in history. Take Nightcaps, a town so humble that at one stage it was possible to buy a house there for one dollar (plus installation expenses). One can't imagine a committee of civic-minded burghers coming up with such a moniker and such proves the case. A Captain Howell, a retired whaler who had 19 children (two by the first wife, 17 by the second) was gazing at the tops of the Takitimu mountains one typically misty night, and reportedly said, “They have their nightcaps on”. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since McCloy's aim in part is to look for humour, quirkiness and oddity, she finds more of these in European names and the book as a whole has a European flavour. However, some. Maori names fit the brief. Taumata is the abbreviation for the longest place name in the world. Kumara in the South Island is not named after the delicious sweet potato and the town was originally called Kohimara. Ngatimoti, in the Motueka district, is misnomer – there is no tribe called Moti. The explanation is that Timoti is Maori translation of Timothy who carved into a tree “Na Timoti” – “belonging to Timoti”.

However, much of the time things are what they might seem – Auckland is named after the Earl of Auckland, Wellington after the Duke of Wellington, and Christchurch after Christ Church at Oxford. The humorous, the quirky and the odd, it seems, tend to gravitate toward the smaller towns. The larger metropoles take themselves more seriously.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:52 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2007

Book Reviews: April 07 issue

In association with The Nile
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PAGE-TURNERS

Michael Morrissey's picks for an Indian summer

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INES OF MY SOUL by Isabel Allende, Fourth Estate, $36.99

Ines of my Soul is Allende's tenth novel – and an excellent one it is too. Initially a fully paid up member of the Magic Realism school, she, like Louis de Bernieres, has to a large degree moved onto being a historical novelist sans the Irish tall story-style embellishments which characterise this highly influential manner of writing fiction extensively deployed by Latin American writers for several decades.

Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, widely regarded as the world's greatest living writer, is most famously associated with Magic Realism. While Allende is not quite in Marquez's class, she is a very good writer indeed and this novel shows off her talents to great advantage. Magic Realism, richly imbued with what might be dubbed the Latin American voice, is characterised by narrative being overwhelmingly dominant over dialogue which becomes correspondingly sparse; a heavy Latinate style; highly colourful character contrasts and of course touches of wild exaggeration.

In Ines of my Soul the exaggerations are minimal, and Magic Realism greatly diminished. Instead we have a rich surfeit of blood and thunder sixteenth century conquistadors armed with sharp swords and large doses of warrior spirit as they set about the brutal conquest of Chile. Blood lust, gold lust (as well as the usual fleshy variety) permeate this complex tale narrated by Ines Suarez, a passionate woman who loses a husband and gains a lover - the war hero Pedro de Valdivar, a lieutenant so to speak, of Francisco Pizarro, the most famous conquistador of them all.

Ines, like the men who stride through these pages, is no lily-white lady herself. She is a swordswoman who beheads her enemies, and doesn't seem overly bothered by the ruthless conquest of the local Indians and the unflinchingly stoic Mapuche – who do not break even under torture. I did not, as some hostile reviewers imagine, that Allende herself condones this behaviour but assume like all good fiction writers she is letting her story and character speak for themselves with the voices of their time – accordingly, it is for us in more hopefully enlightened times to make a more strict moral judgment.

The book is energetic and colourful throughout though at times I found myself wondering is every man so swashbuckling (ie tall, handsome, cruel, a great lover, an even greater swordsman, and always greedy for gold) – aren't there cobblers and or cooks labouring away humbly? But this is after all the dashing world of the conquistadors and the violent world of sixteenth century Chile.

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CROCODILE by Lynne Kelly, Allen &Unwin, $39.99

Whether through fear, sound survival instinct or meagre travel, I have led a crocodile-free existence. Reading this book - unlike a book on orangutans or dolphins - doesn't make me pine for any personal encounters. The scaly monster, which may well be the fact-founded basis for dragon legends, more than lives up its reputation as a fearsome man-muncher.

Some crocodile facts – there are fourteen species of crocodile, eight of alligator and caiman and one only of gharial. One of the India crocs is cutely named a mugger. The most recently discovered crocodile is the Philippine crocodile - in 1935. The most to be feared are the Australian fresh water crocodile affectionately nick-named “freshies” and the Nile crocodile both of which have claimed many lives. The latter kills hundreds of people a year though Kelly points out there are 800 million people in Africa – and the hippo kills more. In general, people do not survive a crocodile attack but Val Plumwood survived three of the dreaded death rolls by an Australian freshwater crocodile in 1985. Some accounts of their ferocity have proved to be exaggerations – the tale that nearly a 1000 Japanese soldiers were eaten in Burma during the Second World War in a single night is a wild exaggeration spawned of wartime wishful thinking.

The crocodile is a remarkable animal. It can advance on prey without causing a ripple, and their blood's unique chemistry enables it to utilise more oxygen from a breath of air than any other animal; it is the only animal that has actively controlled muscular valves in its heart. Its incredible immune system means that even serious gashes heal in a few days due to an antibiotic in their blood called “crocodillin” – currently the object of research to see if we humans can befit from it – hopefully it will not turn our skins scaly. (And just to confuse, crocodiles are often referred to as crocodilians.) Their toughness is legendary. Captain Lort Stokes of the Beagle wrote, “It was not before he had received six balls in the head that he consented to be killed”.

Though the alligator is a much more peaceful beast than the crocodile, attacks have increased because people feed them – they then begin to associate food with human beings and act accordingly. Though reputedly you can keep a crocodile's jaws shut with a strong rubber band (something I'm not about to test any time soon), it takes an almighty amount of force to open them once they are closed shut.

This is a lovely and well-informed book with inside covers appropriately rendered in a crocodile skin motif plus some startling art illustrations ranging from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary Aborigine showing the crocodile and humans have been acquainted for thousands of years. An excellent gift for reptile lovers - and one that won't bite.

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IN THE NAME OF HONOUR by Mukhtar Mai,Virago, $34.99

Mukhtar Mai's tale is a harrowing but ultimately heroic one. In the savage world of Pakistan tribal custom in which she was raised, western notions of justice do not figure. In this brutal world, one member of a family can be punished for the crimes of another. Standards of proof are low or difficult to impossible. A woman who is raped, for instance, needs the testimony of four honest Muslim men and, as Mai ironically points out, sometimes – as in her case - the only four such witnesses are the very ones who perpetrated the deed! And what criminal is going to testify against himself?

Mai's living nightmare began when her younger brother aged but twelve was accused of flirting, then of raping Salma, “a rather wild young woman in her twenties”. His punishment was to be kidnapped, beaten and sodomised - for merely talking! If that were not enough, Mai was abducted and then systematically raped by four men. In her society, it was expected that through feelings of shame, she would commit suicide. Instead, her anger compelled her to live and seek justice. Sometimes “shamed” women are mutilated – their noses cut off – at least Mai was spared this barbarity.

In her rage, Mai contemplated hiring hitmen to kill her attackers or buying a gun herself but in her society women have no money. Instead she chose to seek justice through the legal system. Fortunately, the judge who heard her story was fair, impartial and patient. She describes him as “a distinguished man, very polite, and the first official to call for an extra chair so that I may sit down”. Whenever she became agitated he told her to calm down, take her time, have a sip of water. Thus gradually was her story revealed.

Over and over again, Mai makes the point that the fact she was illiterate made her vulnerable to manipulation. A standard technique was for the police to write the “confession” or statement the way it suited them and for the non-literate woman to affix her thumb print. Obviously the woman in question is not accurately aware of the content of what she is 'signing'.

Luckily, Mai's case was taken up by the media and Amnesty International also became aware of it. The course of justice was not smooth. Initially,14 men were arrested, six condemned to death, eight set free. Then five were acquitted. Finally, after the intervention of the Prime Minister, the men were re-arrested together with the originally freed eight. Thus at the conclusion of the book justice appears to have won out – no easy task in her country. Mai ends her book with this plea: “.... the real question my country must ask itself is, if the honour of men lies in women, why do men want to rape or kill that honour?”

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LIMERICKS: THE OAKLEY COLLECTION by John Bentley, Polygraphia, $25

John Bentley is already a noted short story writer of witty complex stories deploying a neo-Joycean playfulness with language accompanied by learned footnotes giving his oeuvre a late modernist ambiance. In addition, he is a noted limerickist and this collection has numerous amusing example of the genre.

The limerick is a five-line poem with two recurring rhymes in an aabba formation. Though it has been most famously associated with Edward Lear – who write 212 of them and is known as the poet laureate of the genre – it dates back to ancient Greek times. There are also several examples in the plays of Shakespeare. Other distinguished writers such as Tennyson, Swinburne, Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson have seasoned the mix.

The modern limerick, like the short story invented by Poe, often has a twist or punch in the last line – and bawdy or ribald examples are legion. Many of us have probably heard, over a few pints, bawdy variations of the man from Nantucket. The form allows for play with language, deliberate misspellings, split line typography to achieve unlikely rhymes and so forth.

Bentley's limericks range far and wide from the local to overseas, with learned references from history, literature and psychology:

“The Magic Flute takes more time that it warrants,”
Said Bruno (the muso and thespian) Lawrence,
Whose company, Blerta
Never performed “Zauberflote”
I believe Freud would explain his abhorrence.

And in more satirical vein:

Said J Hunt, “There's a current malpractice
To address me, on e-mail or faxes,
In a manner quite sinister,
As a Cabernet minister!
Be assured, when I order a cab, it's a taxi!”

In naughtier bawdier vein – and more salty examples can be therein located - is this item:

There was an old fellow from Clapham
Had bollocks so low he could trap 'em
By crossing his knees
Though a cough, frat or sneeze,
Or patellar reflex would un-wrap 'em.

In addition, there are a goodly number of paintings and line drawings which add an attractive visual flavour to the combination - Bravo John Bentley!

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NEW ZEALAND AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN edited by Stephen Levine, Victoria University Press, $35

This intriguing book is a collection of 14 essays by leading academic historians speculating on alternative pathways for New Zealand history. Normally the zone of fiction writers - consider for example the large number of works on the topic of Germany winning the war – here the new 'discipline” of counterfactual history is debated and defended. While some historians (though none are named) are not happy with this type of speculation, the historians contributing here have gleefully taken part and cooked up multiple versions of our possible pasts. Time travel by historians instead of fictioneers is a pleasing novelty though at times the ideas might have enjoyed a more dramatic exploration by the latter instead of the former. Still, this is a brave and in the main, successful attempt by customarily fusty academics to plumb alternative futures, or should I say alternative pasts.

As a World World Two freak, I found the alternative of Japan invading New Zealand by leading war historian Ian McGibbon the most adrenalin-raising and the notion of Nelson becoming the capital of New Zealand by editor Stephen Levine the least interesting (sorry Stephen). McGibbon's exploration has Japan invading Wellington and occupying the central part of the country. As many as 6 atomic bombs instead of the historic two are needed to bring about eventual defeat in 1946.

Giselle Byrnes asks “What if the Treaty of Waitangi had not been signed on 6 February 1840?” and concludes that the most likely outcome is that “the British would have annexed only those areas that British settlers had occupied leaving Maori with their autonomy intact”. A similar speculation – looking at the notion of Maori not being made British subjects in 1840 - leads to the startling conclusion that the wars of the 1860s could have been avoided.

Erik Olssen looks at the possibility that strikers in the 1913 Waihi strike - New Zealand's largest – succeeded and concludes that New Zealand would have moved more sharply to the Left and the Labour Party would never have been founded in 1916 – tough luck Helen!

Donald Anderson has several startling variations to offer - Churchill killed in the Boer War so no invasion of the Dardanelles, no entry of Turkey into the First World War so no glorious defeat at Gallipoli. And a chapter in a similar vein by Denis McLean has Prime Minister Savage reversing his famous words thus: “Where she goes, we cannot blindly go; where she stands, we do not find cause to stand”. Heresy!

John Wilson suggests that Muldoon Think Big projects may have failed in the late 1970s due to an unexpected drop in oil prices but the current oil crisis may force us to re-examine this philosophy. Other topics covered include speculation over the All Blacks not winning the final test in 1981, Ruth Richardson not delivering the mother of all budgets and Winston Peters not going with Labour in 1996.

To my mind the obvious omission from this collection is What if the Spaniards Had Discovered New Zealand Before the Dutch and the British? The notion has been investigated by several authors including Robert Langdon, Roger Herve, Ross Wiseman and K.L. Howe and many others including my own fictional account in Paradise to Come.

It will be fascinating to see what other professional historians of the non-counterfactual variety make of this collection of essays by their more fearless - or should that be reckless? - colleagues.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:38 PM | Comments (0)

March 25, 2007

Book Reviews: March 07 issue

In association with The Nile
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MY FAVOURITE BOOK

And other stories, by Michael Morrissey

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TIGERS IN RED WEATHER by Ruth Padel, $29.99

I began this column seven years ago and in that time I have reviewed 370 books. In the main, they have been books I either enjoyed or admired though occasionally some were read out of cultural duty. From memory, the only two I have done “hatchet” jobs on are The Beach by Alex Garland and The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown Alas my negative reviews probably did nothing to deter sales and to date I have not received any aggrieved letters from the authors, presumably (especially in Brown's case) guffawing all the way to the bank.

It is my happy task to report that this month's lead book Tigers in Red Weather is one of the most outstanding books yet consumed during this on-going delicious seven year literary feast. As an example of naturalist writing, it often attains the heights of fine poetry and indeed the title is a quote from that brilliant poet Wallace Stevens, who along with Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot, must be considered one of the greatest American poets of the last century.

A sample of Padel's sumptuous yet precise prose:

“Brown water drops fall like cappuccino from his belly on split-end grass. A racket-tailed drongo calls, the mimic of the Indian jungle, a black glossy bird with tail-feathers like two black lollipops. A sentinel langur monkey barks from a sal tree over the pool. Both have seen the movement of a tiger, a predator, jumping. The tigress's whiskers twitch in irritation. Alarm calls cross the species barrier: they are the jungle's lingui franca. Everyone wants to know when a predator is near. Grey langurs, the silky silvery monkeys of the India forest, large as Labradors, are the eyes of the jungle, packing the trees with black judgmental faces.”

Padel, a great-great grandaughter of Darwin, takes us on a world tiger tour. Among the 14 countries or islands that still have wild tigers, she has visited three of the most dangerous and remote – Eastern Siberia, Bhutan and Sumatra – though she has been to nearly all of them. The Siberian, Bhutan and Sumatra chapters are especially fascinating both because of the remoteness of location, extraordinary fauna and flora and in the particular case of Sumatra, the fabulously rich mythology about the tiger, absolutely central to that large island's culture.

The preservation of the tiger in the wild is not merely a matter of liking a large and beautiful animal - it is a symbol of the entire conservation mode of thought. Because the tiger is the top predator, a healthy tiger means a healthy jungle. The Mahabharata, that epic Hindu poem, made exactly the same point in 400 BC: “The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers.”

Tiger preservation is not “merely” a matter of conservation ideology, it is a small war. In India, which remains the country with the largest number of wild tigers (current estimate 3000), fifty guards are killed every year by poachers, another 100 mutilated. Because of poor funds, the guards often have old-style .303 style rifles whereas the poachers have modern weapons. It's an uneven contest dangerously loaded against the felines and two of India's prominent tiger defenders have opposing views of the tiger's future. The somewhat black-tigery Valmik Thapar, author of 14 books on tigers, is a pessimist (though he will fight for its right to live in the jungle while there is breath in his body), while biologist Ullas Karanth is optimistic. Only the future will show which view is the more accurate.

Unfortunately, the villain in the world scene is China. Most of the world's illegally poached tigers wind up in the markets of the world's most populous nation. I used to cherish the idea that the proven to work Viagra would defeat the mistaken traditional Chinese medicine notion that the tiger penis was useful as an aphrodisiac but alas the tiger is also valued for its bones not to mention its magnificent skin. The current situation has become desperate and tiger skins are openly sold for approximately $13,000 dollars.

Padel admits that the tiger itself will not become extinct because there are many thousands in zoos or in private ownership (4000 in Texas alone!) who will presumably continue to breed and be placed in other zoos and reserves though not of course back into the wild.

The tiger has twice before been saved from extinction – in the 1930s in Siberia and in India in 1973. It is therefore possible to do so again though the odds currently look horribly bad. Governments have to treat it as a top priority and at the local level the welfare of peoples who lived in, around and, indeed, with tigers must always be fully taken into account. If this happens – and it is still possible - the tiger's roar will still be frightening those langur monkeys and every living thing within a five kilometre radius in the years to come.

Needless to say there are no wild tigers in New Zealand though a friend told me a specimen was once released in the South Island for hunting purposes and later died of the cold (factoid?). Meanwhile two fine Sumatran specimens can be see at the Auckland Zoo – Oz (male) and Molek (female). Mating and breeding is intended but it takes time for the two giant felines to get acquainted. Once you have seen these animals, even through the filter of protective glass, I defy you not to wish for their survival at large. Let us all hope that Tigers in Red Weather brings about a benign change in the climate for tigrine survival.


THE DISCOVERY OF THE HOBBIT by Mike Morwood and Penny Van Oosterzer, Random House Australia, $40

Late 2004 saw the announcement of a scientific and paleoanthropological bombshell – real-life hobbits! The “hobbits” were the remains of very small hominids – about a metre tall - found in the Liang Bua cave on Flores Island in Indonesia, by a joint Australian-Indonesian team led by New Zealander Mike Morwood and Indonesian Raden Pandji Soejono. As outlined by Morwood, the tiny humans hunted giant rats, pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons until 13,000 years ago. In other words, human beings far smaller than previously imagined - no larger than leprechauns - co-existed with normal-sized humans on this remote island. Needless to say, the world has been agog ever since.

If your first reaction is to think this is either a forgotten chapter from Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World or the most brilliant scientific hoax in human history, I'm not surprised. (More about scepticism presently.) Science has had to admit the existence of meteorites (once not believed in) and more recently giant rogue waves, so why not tiny humans? Once upon a time gorillas and Komodo dragons weren't believed in either.

The climactic discovery of the first hobbit occurs about a third way into the book - prior to that point, the authors give a sober outline of various background aspects – methods of excavation and dating, plate tectonics, the Wallace line, the twin theories of human origin and so forth. This effectively sets the scene for the (literally) earth-shattering discovery of the first hominid bones. The announcement provoked a media explosion of nuclear proportions - 200 enquiries a day for the first week, 98,000 websites and articles in 7000 newspapers plus a lead feature in National Geographic, world circulation ten million copies.

So far so good. Now the plot thickens. While Morwood was in Australia, his Indonesian colleague handed over the hominid remains to Professor Leuku Jacob, “the undisputed king of paleoanthropology in Indonesia.” The bones were eventually returned but according to Morwood, moulds had been taken in a way that caused serious damage to the remains. Further, Jacob spearheaded a counterclaim that the hominids, rather than being a new species of homo sapiens, were in fact pygmies suffering from microcephalis – a pathological explanation of the unusually small skulls. Morwood and his colleagues staunchly maintain that the teeth and the pelvis shape and other healthy characteristics plus long term existence on Flores suggest that the hominids were not microcephalic but another kind of human. The unusually small cranial capacity – only 380 cc – is also way below what was thought to be the size for human intelligence to be feasible. Morwood says the skull formation indicates “enlarged frontal and temporal lobes” – precisely those areas concerned with cognition and planning”. Plus the presence of stone artefacts - how could retarded folk have made them?

Unlike the notorious Piltdown man hoax of 1912, and the controversial Tasaday tribe “discovered” in 1971, no one is accusing Morwood of fakery - simply mistaken interpretation of fossil evidence. What would appear to weigh against the sceptic case of Jacob and his supporters is that at least 13 sets of bones have been found all indicating a uniformly small stature plus evidence of hunting skills. In general, the world has accepted Morwood's claims. If future excavations yield still more tiny hominids, Morwood's case will only be strengthened. In the meantime, I would love to speculate that evidence of a race of giants might come to light – though this seems rather less likely. Watch this space.


THE BOOK OF GENERAL IGNORANCE by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, Faber and Faber, $35

What Edison invention do English speakers use every day? This is one of hundreds of comparable 'trick' questions contained in this snappy little tome. Some of the obvious answers might be the electric light or the phonograph. According to the irritatingly well-informed authors, the correct answer is “Hullo” which they assert was originally used to express surprise but Edison decided a nice loud Hullo! was the best way to kick start an immediately audible phone conversation.

In other words, this book works hard and, in the main, succeeds in revealing unexpected answers, unusual facts, while simultaneously puncturing widespread but erroneous beliefs. My guess is that in some cases the correct answer (that is, if it is correct) will not always be accepted.

I found it hard to swallow that the largest thing the largest living animal on the planet (ie a blue whale) can swallow is a grapefruit. It was sad to read that St Bernard's dogs did not carry brandy barrels around their necks though I do remember brandy being kept in the home as a means of reviving the weak and the swoony. (Perhaps it was the bite of the taste in which case whiskey would have done just as well. Note: James Bond's favourite drink was not the vodka martini but whiskey – mentioned 101 times!) Apparently, the brandy barrel was added “for interest” by an artist in an 1831 painting. So there!

Some items that either surprised, flabbergasted or I found hard to believe – alcohol does not kill brain cells though it does make new cells grow less quickly; Hitler was not a vegetarian though his doctors recommended it as a cure for flatulence (in fact, he ate Bavarian sausage, game pie and stuffed pigeon); feminists did not burn their bras but did throw them in the trash can (the burning detail was added by a journalist); practitioners of Voodoo do not stick pins in dolls.

Among such a litany of myth-busting, it was a relief to read that plaster of Paris really does come from Paris, that cats can fall great heights without injury and that the monicker “poms” is an abbreviation for pomegranates.

Too bad about those people who believe you can see the Great Wall of China from the moon - you can barely make out continents. However, from space – 100 kilometres up - you can make out all sort of objects – motorways, railways, cities, buildings etc.

The only fact I would dispute is the assertion that “from the fourth century BC almost no one anywhere, has believed the earth was flat.” A goodly number of Christian thinkers stated that the earth was flat - these include Lactantius, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chryostom, Severian, Diodorus of Tarsus and the improbably named Cosmas Indicopleustes. However, it is true that Columbus and his men did NOT think the earth was flat as is often stated - this notion sprung from Washington Irving's popular semi-fictional book about Columbus, published in 1828.

According to one website I visited, Zhang Heng (inventor of the seismograph) was the first to introduce the notion of a round earth into Chinese thought but not until the 2nd century AD – 600 hundred years after the author's date for the widespread acceptance of the roundness of the earth. As late as the early 17the century, the popular belief in China was that the earth was flat.

I have saved two knockout drop-jaw facts till last - the biggest man-made thing on earth is not the Great Wall of China but the Fresh Kills rubbish dump on Staten Island New York and a chicken survived without its head for two years - the axe missed the jugular and it was fed with an eye-dropper. Please don't try this at home.

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AVA GARDNER by Lee Server, Bloomsbury, $59.99

Being hailed as the world's most beautiful woman is enough to swell anyone's head but according to this exhaustive biography it left Ava's down to earth personality more or less intact. In the words of one of MGM's early stars John Gilbert, “Very matter-of-fact about everything, nothing drippy or saccharine about her at all, a real no-nonsense kind of girl”.

When the young Carolina star-to-be arrived at MGM's headquarters, it was the largest dream factory on earth - 117 acres of offices, cottages, laboratories, barnlike soundstages big enough to house zeppelins, plus an artificial lake, a stretch of railroad track, a street of New York tenements, a castle and a patch of African jungle. It had 4000 employees, though just 100 of those were contracted actors, among them the diminutive though perfectly formed Mickey Rooney who, like so many, was instantly smitten with the young Ava. Rooney wound up proposing marriage to Ava 25 times before she said yes. Rooney and Gardner showed spirited determination in defying film mogul Louis B Mayer's decree that they should not get hitched. The marriage went well for a while until Ava, possibly with justification (though Rooney swore otherwise), felt he was being unfaithful.

Ava Gardner had a warm but stormy personality as Howard Hughes, oil tycoon and aviator, discovered. The eccentric billionaire had tried to bribe his way into her affections with expensive gifts but she resisted. An intrusive control-freak, Hughes had her followed and even bugged her room. When he discovered she had a lover (not him) he became inflamed with jealousy and attacked her. Giving as good and more than she received, Ava hit Hughes with a large bronze bell. She was given a steak for her black eye, while the world's richest man was driven off in an ambulance.

Ava's tempestuous life was of course just beginning. A volatile person, alcohol proved a bad mix that helped accelerate natural storms to hurricane or even tornado status. Ava herself could be candid about her faults: “Yes, I am very beautiful but morally I stink”. Such an admission of course never frightened off any new suitors of which there was always a ready supply. After Rooney, she married intellectual musician Artie Shaw and her third marriage to crooner Frank Sinatra assisted in boosting both careers to iconic status.

In an acutely perceptive passage, Server describes the two personalities as very much alike in temperament, tastes, sympathies, neuroses”. Both had taciturn fathers and outgoing mothers, and both hated racial prejudice. According to Server – no reason to doubt his analysis – “both were independent-minded, hotheaded, selfish, possessive, suspicious - traits intensified by the alcohol of which they were equally fond; they were both generous, open, affectionate, sensitive, funny.” And, of course, both very voraciously promiscuous - a trait that does not lend itself to happiness. Though their marriage predictably ended after bitter quarreling, their bond lasted until Gardner's death at the relatively early age of 67.

Beside Hughes, Sinatra and Rooney, many other rich and/or famous individuals passed through Ava's meteoric career, among them Clark Gable, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, Fidel Castro, Robert Graves, Adlai Stevenson, George C. Scott, Man Ray, John Houston, New Zealand plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe and champion bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin (and yes, Ava did try her hand at bullfighting).

Server's sardonic-cynical-American style is not always to my taste but he gives an exhaustive treatment of Gardner's roller-coaster life plus a very full analysis of some of her important films such as the memorable The Killers which launched Burt Lancaster's glittering career. The question sometimes asked of such glamorous stars is – but can they really act? In Gardner 's case, having watched several of her classic films, I can say the answer has to be a resounding yes. Despite her many faults, Gardner seems to have been one of those uniquely charming individuals who wind up being forgiven by everyone - even those she hurt the most.

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THE FAINTER by Damien Wilkins, Victoria University Press, $30

I have enjoyed and been impressed by Damien Wilkins's earlier novels The Miserables and Little Masters but regrettably The Fainter, his fifth novel, is a lesser work. Billed as a comedy of manners, it has the drawing room concentration of the genre but little of its dance. By tradition, the comedy of manners is associated with a style of English theatre from the 17th century (eg William Wycherley, William Congreve), which was given a new lease of life by Oscar Wilde. In more recent times, the notion has been linked to Joe Orton, Noel Coward, Marcel Proust and many others. It has been said to find its comic effect in the contrast between codes of expected mannerly behaviour and the ironically concealed motives of self interest shown by the characters. The comic effects of The Fainter are marginal and its sense of theatre weak.

The novel's character is Luke, a youthful diplomat evidently on the rise – he is a junior legal adviser on Environmental law to the New Zealand wing of the Permanent Mission at the United Nations. One night he witnesses a murder in the streets of New York but it's never altogether clear what he sees and that makes his onlooker role curiously passive. Seemingly, this event is central to the book but its dramatic follow through is oddly muted. Like Luke himself, it seems to have fallen asleep on the job i.e. fainted Generally, Luke is more passive than a central character can afford to be.

As the novel's focus shifts to Luke's stay with his sister's farming family in South Canterbury a more straightforward conflict ensues – that between the bookish fellow with soft hands surrounded by more mannish types who farm, pilot glider craft and so forth. The dialogue tends more to the banal and lifelike rather than the witty but there is one glorious burst when it is suggested that Kerry O'Keefe, Luke's retired boss turned amateur military historian, has gone over to the “dark side.” “Bestiality?” 'The National Party.” Ouch! Generally there is more interest in the mild frisson of his on-going bruising at the hand of Alec, who ironically is rescued by Luke from choking, than Luke's lack-lustre interest in Sheila, Alec's wife.

There are intriguing bits of political consciousness and know-how scattered slyly through the text and some focus on the way the late David Lange's oratory and political style impacted on an impressionable Luke. Alas, Luke is no Lange in the making neither in political clout or wit. Here and there are traces of the old Wilkins' magic but on the whole it is a curiously dull and unfocused performance. The atmosphere of the text is disconcertingly cosy and complacent. Perhaps the author needs to be parachuted into a more dangerous zone for a few weeks.


Posted by Ian Wishart at 11:21 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2007

Book Reviews: Feb 07 issue

In association with The Nile
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FLYING A KITE

Michael Morrissey tracks the Rich, and finds a skeptic promoting unproven theories of her own

THE RICH By William Davis, Icon Books, $29.99
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Judging by earlier titles such as It's No Sin to be Rich, Have Expenses, Will Travel, Children of the Rich - Davis is much given to writing about the wealthy. It is a breed of which he thoroughly approves. He vehemently attacks the arguments that being rich is a matter of exploitation. Terms like “stinking rich” and “filthy rich” spring from envy or flaunting of moral superiority, he says. He also makes favourable mention of those who give large sums to medical research or other worthy causes. Examples include Elton John, Eric Clapton and Bill Gates. The world's wealthiest person, Gates has put $29 billion into a charitable foundation and claims he will give away 95 per cent of his wealth before he dies. Bravo Bill!

And if this sounds too serious, just remember – as Davis reminds us – the rich do buy things like yellow submarines, Zeppelin airships and five-foot-high acrylic aquariums shaped like elephants.

While it is heartening to read about the wealthy giving back the money to the wider community, Davis does not examine any of the sharp practices and ruthless conduct that often accompany the building of a large company though there is a chapter dealing with rich crooks. To be condemned by Davis you have to be outright crooked. Puzzlingly, Pablo Escobar, the Colombian cocaine drug warlord and arguably the richest crook in history, is not mentioned.

In case – though it is probably unlikely – you find yourself invited to a weekend house by Old Money, Davis lists some handy tips on how to conduct yourself. Don't, for instance, boast about a recent deal through which you made a packet - “simply not done”. On no account be impressed by the $50 million Picasso hanging on the wall of a room as large as a football field. After all, you are used to such luxuries, right? You must participate in any silly parlour games played by these idle folk. Suitable topics for discussion include horses, dogs, gardens, taxes and, of course, problems with servants. Old Money conducts itself thus: “We do not hustle, we do not push, we are not aggressive”.

Alas some of the rich, especially those showy folk called nouveau riche, appear not to have heard of these rules. Examples might include William Randolph Hearst, Donald Trump, Richard Branson and the late Elvis Presley. Monarchs are usually not bashful about flaunting their wealth either as Davis duly reveals. The rich can be found everywhere though still mainly in the United States followed by Germany, Russia, Japan and Britain.

While providing an informative Cook's tour of the famous wealthy, Davis's accounts and analysis tends to be shallow and the inner psychology of what drives people to stop at nothing in the accumulation of wealth is not explored in any depth. His writing style is banal and often given to generalisations when particularity would have better exampled his case. Eg “... cancer and heart disease continue to kill many people ...”

While many a successful entrepreneurial rise to success has been made by ignoring negative advice - “It can't be done. It costs too much. It's risky. It takes too long to get returns” - there is, in the name of pro-wealth positivity, little examination of the overwhelmingly larger number of people who also ignored sensible advice and wound up broke. And, one wonders, is Davis himself getting rich by writing about the financially over-endowed? For his sake, I hope so.


MICRO NATIONS by John Ryan, George Dunford and Simon Sellars, $29.99
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If you stopped someone in the street and asked them, “What is a micro nation?” their eyes might momentarily glaze then they might respond, “A small country?” And they would be right. But in the context of this fascinating, entertaining and handsome little book, a micro nation is more or less an imaginary country invented by a single individual or a few which may have no actual territory or a very tiny amount, e.g. the “nation” founder's own property – though there are some interesting exceptions to this definition.

Though some of these “countries” have no dominions to rule or no recognised government, the ingenious inventors have composed a geography and history. Some even have passports and stamps. One of the grandest of these non-United Nations recognised nations is the Hutt River Province principality in Australia.

Hutt River was founded in 1970 by wheat farmer (now Prince) Leonard George Casley, after a dispute with the legitimate government about his crop allotment. The Hutt Valley nation is one of the larger micro nations covering some 75 sq kms with its own passport, visas, stamps and currency. In a spirit of invention that may owe something to Jonathan Swift and Lord of the Rings, The Hutt also has Province magnets,T-shirts, stickers, commemorative spoons, badges and CD recording of the national anthem plus a Royal Art Collection. There is a tearoom that offers light snacks but if you plan an overnight stay you are advised to bring your own food. Relations with the Australian government have proved difficult - it failed to recognise the province and demanded taxes – so the Prince declared “war” in 1977. So far no shots have been fired.

Other colourful examples - though they are all colourful - include Freedonia, which was originally named from the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup and associated with a disastrous claim to land in Somalia; the Copeman Empire which consists of a mobile caravan in Sheringham England - the owner and King, who owns a corgi, offers cucumber sandwiches and tea for a modest fee; Lovely, an invention of British comedian Danny Wallace who fronted a 6-part TV programme entitled How to Start Your own Country; Danny's own country consists of his own flat, address not to be revealed – though a map is provided. In terms of exotic appellation, my favourites are the Sovereign Kingdom of Kemetia, Principality of Trumania, the Kingdom of North Dumpling Island and the redoubtable republic of Kugelmugel. There are more of these novel geographic beasties that you might imagine – Micro Nations has 52 entries but one website lists over 100.

Are there micro nations in New Zealand? Indeed, there are. Two are mentioned here – Whangamonona near Stratford which in micro national terms has the full monty - its own football team, beer, hotel cafe and motor camp. “Buying a passport (NZ $3) is advised as the border guard has been known to be armed with water pistols”. Honourable mention is made of Borovnia, an imaginary land invented by Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme who murdered Parker's mother in Christchurch in 1954 and recently the subject of the excellent Peter Jackson film, Heavenly Creatures.

So far so good. But why no mention of the Sultanate of Occussi-Ambeno, an imaginary micro nation with an historical foundation - a former Portuguese enclave in east Timor excised from maps when Indonesia invaded in 1975 - invented by the mildly notorious Bruce Grenville. Apart from its magnificent stamps, it has an elaborate history and geography, and the photograph of the Sultan may possibly be Grenville himself in a fez.. Fauna include the Garuda bird and the flying Naga Unggu which curiously is related to the flightless Komodo dragon. I can only urge the editors of Micro Nations to do a revised edition and include this third kiwi micro nation.

Obviously an imaginary country without any territory is a lot easier to create than one that lays claim to any land. Attempts to create new nations micro or otherwise in the real world are fraught with peril. When a Las Vegas real estate property developer had several barges of sand poured on a reef just off Tonga and christened it Minerva, the Tongan government sent in troops to pull down the Minervan flag. To make it really difficult, the wet-blanket 1982 United Nations Convention of the Sea decided that any micro nation created at sea falls under the jurisdiction of the nearest country. Unless you own your own patch of dirt, the conceptual country existing purely as a work of fiction looks the safer bet.


IN THE NAGA'S WAKE by Mick O'Shea, Allen & Unwin, $32.99
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Mention the Mekong river to most people and you might get a mention of the golden triangle – and not much else. This gripping travel account will expand the reader's knowledge of the world's eighth longest river – 4909 kilometres long. The kayak-based journey successfully completed by Mick O'Shea and his companions is not for the faint-hearted, involving numerous class V and the even more terrifying gateway to terror, class V-plus runs on boiling white water.

The Mekong – which is sourced in the Lasagongma Glacier - along with the Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Salween and Brahmaputra rivers originate on the vast and high Tibetan plain. Surprisingly – for this reader – fish can be found at 4600 metres above sea level. Journeys like these are a two-edged sword – much of the time death is not far away; at the same time O'Shea writes: “I don't think I ever felt more alive.” And that was just at the beginning of his adventure. The last time a comparable exploration had been done was over 100 years earlier.

The author's daring is not just on the physical level - which involved 12 hours a day on the turbulent river – but also deciding to proceed without a permit. In the grand tradition of exploration, if you run a rapid you get the right to name it - or should one say, re-name it as the local inhabitants may already have named it.

Like all specialist activities, kayaking has its own vocabulary. So we have wave trains, rooster tails and keeper holes. The latter is a whirlpool that keeps the kayaker whirling around in trapped circular fashion. Also “fat bastards” - big walls of crashing water named after the character in the Austin Powers' films. In contrast to the gripping descriptions of battling turmoiled water, there is the generous warmth and hospitality of the Tibetan people, some of whom were more than a tad worried about O'Shea's death-defying feats on the mighty Mekong.

In the latter part of his book, O'Shea gives a lyric account of his travels through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma and notes with regret that the enormous Chinese dam projects on the Mekong will have a devastating effect on the lives of river-dependent tribes and people down river. He also reminds us of the devastation wrecked in Laos during the Vietnam war by American bombing and the tragedy of Cambodian landmines. All in all, O'Shea's tale is a triumphal run through troubled waters.


ODDZONE by Vicki Hyde, New Holland Publishers, $29.99
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Vicki Hyde is a leading New Zealand skeptic. She is chair-entity (!) of the New Zealand Committee of Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal aka NZ Skeptics and also manging editor of SciTechDaily Review. Mention of Little Green Men is enough to bring her out in a Large Green Rash.

In this tidy tome, she disposes of UFOs and aliens, ghoulies and ghosties, mediums and psychics, possibly surviving moose and moa and, in the last and largest chapter, hoes into alternative archaeology. But before tackling these controversial notions head-on she has an interesting introductory chapter entitled a “Toolkit for the Mind”. She makes the philosophical point that “if something cannot be explained it does not mean it is inexplicable”. She reveals that her own early reading has charted the familiar path of the believer in “alternative thinking” e.g. lashings of science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov) plus Immanuel Velikovsky and Erich Von Danikin. However, rather than becoming a convert, she has reacted back into the apostasy of being a skeptic.

As she points out, many an investigator would give their eye teeth for absolute proof of mind-to-mind communication but various offers of considerable sums of money from the likes of Harry Houdini, James Randi as well as skeptic-minded organisations in Australia, India, England and New Zealand have failed to produce convincing demonstrations and tend more to show the opposite. She concludes by noting that proving something is not the case is more or else impossible. To prove there were no moas left in Aotearoa, for instance, you would have to search every square inch of New Zealand. On the other hand, to prove there is a moa all you have to do is capture one and produce it – so far no one has succeeded. And it seems highly unlikely – though there's always that lingering romantic hope. After all, the storm petrel was re-discovered 155 years after it had “disappeared”. Cloning, anyone?

To her credit - in case you think Hyde is a cast-iron skeptic about anything that runs against science - she instances the existence of meteorites. The French Academy of Sciences dismissed their extraterrestrial origin until some 3000 stones fell near L’Aigle in 1803. No one now doubts that they come from beyond the earth.

Some of the skeptical explanations for not-quite-explained phenomena are cheerfully romantic. The first New Zealand UFO sighting in New Zealand occurred in 1909. Hyde comments, “It's just possible that a lone German Zeppelin cruised through New Zealand skies in 1909.” What an exciting idea! - worthy of a Peter Jackson film. On the other hand, alien abductions fail to convince her. Some UFO abduction proponents claim as many as five million Americans have been abducted while here in New Zealand the total is a more modest 3000.

Barry Brailslford, Martin Doutre, Ross Wiseman and most recent of all, Gavin Menzies, are all considered by Hyde but in her view fail to prove their colourful theories concerning Waitaha tribe preceding Maori, or the Celts, Phoenicians or Chinese arriving in New Zealand prior to other ethnic groups. I am sure I am not alone in wanting some of these assertions to be authentic; and if they not literally true then they are the stuff of exciting fiction. The possibility of relevant special effects films is even more pulse-raising. Imagine a fleet of Chinese junks sailing into New Zealand and encountering Maori tribes! That Hyde has not quelled a mythological yearning in her own mind is indicted by her concluding thought that if hoofbeats heard at night prove to be a unicorn, give her a call – or is this her ever present skepticism?


UNCOMMON ENEMY by John Reynolds, Polygraphia, $29.50
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John Reynold's first novel belongs to a genre that continues to fascinate – what would happen if Germany had won World War Two? Dozens of examples of the genre have been published. Prominent titles include The Sound of His Horn by Sarban, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris. The Sound of his Horn and Fatherland were both set in Europe and Philip Dick's book set in America. Daringly, Reynolds places his Nazis in New Zealand.

Uncommon Enemy is an intriguing alternative to the more expected Japanese takeover which is prominently featured in an essay in the recent anthology of speculative alternative history New Zealand As It Might Have Been edited by Stephen Levine – “What if Japan had Invaded New Zealand?” Curiously, many more novels have been written about Germany winning than Japan emerging victorious. Though not formally part of this particular strand of alternative future fiction, C.K. Stead's Smith's Dream comes to mind as another exploration of a neo-fascist takeover of the New Zealand government.

In Reynold's well-detailed period piece, Auckland and nearby environs are the centre for much of the action. In particular, Auckland's North Shore - a more than familiar literary landscape as a consequence of Devonport/Takapuna being New Zealand's largest literary colony so to speak – is the backdrop of much of the vigorous in-fighting that features in this book.

The hero of Uncommon Enemy is an idealistic high-spirited young man called Stuart Johnson, and from early on in the novel he is locked in combat with the odious and bullying Hamish Beavis. Initially, they are rivals for the affections of Carol Peterson, and later, perhaps a little predictably, given Beavis's aggressive nature, they found themselves as ideological protagonists. Stuart joins the resistance and Hamish joins the Nazis.

War time Premier Peter Fraser has a cameo role as a leader who pays the price for refusing to make a Nazi salute by being assaulted by Von Ribbentrop's henchmen. Reynolds describes an effective Germanisation of England and New Zealand – fascist Oswald Mosley is made Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill's home becomes a Gestapo headquarters and the Duke of Windsor is reinstated as King Edward V111; in New Zealand, the Northern Club is occupied and the Academic Values Authority squashes academic freedom at Auckland University College with the decrees of its New Order.

A secondary thread in the plot which adds to the mounting drama of the story is the presence of a couple of White Rose members one of whom does not turn out quite as she seems to be. The White Rose was a student resistance group against the Nazis in wartime Germany. The novel reaches an exciting climax which leaves a lingering strand of hope for the future of the resistance movement. Reynolds' novel should be enjoyed by those old enough to remember New Zealand's wartime years but also by younger generations interested in the dark possibility of Nazi rule.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 02:45 PM | Comments (0)

Book Reviews: Jan 07 issue

In association with The Nile
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Great Kiwi Novels, and other stories

Michael Morrissey tracks Lloyd Jones’ latest and some historic kiwiana

MISTER PIP by Lloyd Jones, Penguin, $35
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Lloyd Jones is probably our most sophisticated stylist and also delightfully unpredictable in the kind of novels he writes. What is the gifted fellow going to do next? Like so many successful recent New Zealand novels, this one is set “abroad' i.e. outside New Zealand waters. Probably this trend will continue, and the versatile Jones persist in pleasantly surprising us in subject matter, technique and setting.

Triumphantly written up in a recent Listener as Our First Million Dollar Novelist, I could not help subconsciously – though I knew the feeling was sure to be mistaken - expect some large complex blockbuster type of novel (say the New Zealand equivalent of Sacred Games by Vikram Chandler (see below)). Instead we are given a modest work of 220 pages in largish print. Up until recently, a lot of New Zealand fiction had a kind of moral pokiness, a gauche wooden style with lapses into political correctness - this is definitely not the case with Jones's minor masterpiece.

The novel's main character is Matilda, a young Bougainville girl who has the kind of teacher we would (or should) like to have - a gentle, cultured, morally upright man who invites them into his imaginative world by reading from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. In what has become almost the new politically correct world of contemporary criticism (Edward Said for example), this act might be seen as an act of colonisation - here it becomes a sharing of an exotic distant world that excites the minds of the children, leaving Matilda awake at night wondering what marshes or leg irons might be like. Mr Watts, aka Mr Pip (main character of Great Expectations) charms us with his quiet low-key manner and equally Lloyd Jones charms us. Do teachers still read to their pupils I wonder or has electronic media taken over completely?

Mr Watts, the teacher, succeeds too well. Pip becomes of greater interest to Matilda than stories about her dead relatives and her mother is understandably indignant. An ideological battle of wills develops with Matilda's mother addressing her class mates about crabs and the weather, God and the devil. What Jones does with great skill during these scenes – reminiscent of Graham Greene - is interweaving the personal, the ideological and the political. It is the latter that slowly closes on the adult protagonists like a vicious vice.

With a further Greene-like twist of the ironic knife, Jones has the oppressive Redskins (government soldiers) threaten mayhem if the imaginary though now treated-as-real Mr Pip's whereabouts is not revealed. Proof of Mr Pip's fictionality relies on presenting a copy of Great Expectations but unfortunately Matilda's mother has stolen it. And Matilda feels duty bound to remain silent. No problems accepting this response but I had credibility problems with Matilda's mother keeping quiet about stealing the book when concealment meant the whole village was burnt down – though that may be my European perspective. The subsequent murder of Mr Watts is brutal and brief and all the more shocking because of its suddenness and brevity.

This is a deceptively straightforward novel in which irony piles on irony. The meditations on the colour white, for instance, or the view of the “real” Mrs Watts that her husband was a weak man when we have seen his stubborn strength. At the conclusion, I felt a little breathless with the dazzle of Jones's talent. The international success of his novel is well deserved.


INSTRUCTIONS FOR NEW ZEALANDERS by Richard Wolfe, Random House, $34.99
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Let's say you were a woman in 1915 looking for a career in teaching. What would be the requirements? Actually they were quite strict. Marrying was forbidden and the teacher curfewed between the hours of 8pm and 6 am. She was not allowed to travel outside city limits without permission, not smoke nor dress in bright colours, nor dye her hair. And most importantly, she was not to loiter downtown in ice-cream stores, presumably seething dens of vice. If, by 1946, our modern Ms had been lucky enough to become a mother to twins and was endeavouring to breast feed, Modern Mothercraft: A Guide to Parents, provides a detailed schedule.

Instructions are what we all need and instructions in abundance are what this natty little pocket book provides. There may be some who will read this delightful book with a straight face but I think most of us will smile and may even laugh. Of course this humour is the by product of a shift in historical perspective. For all we know, the instructions of today – only a few are listed – may prove a matter of hilarity to future generations. Instructions can be found here on Hanging Pictures, Carless Days, Using an Electric Oven, The Prevention of Slugs, Clothing Required by Steerage Passengers, Starting the Engine, Playing the National Anthem and Filling a Hot Water Bag (Do not use boiling water!). In other words, for all of life's exigencies, small or large, some thoughtful soul or government committee has written a detailed set of instructions on how to do and how to cope. I was cheerfully reminded of the extraordinarily resourceful Junior Woodchuck's Guidebook – frequently consulted by Donald Duck's nephews in emergencies.

Under the “The Art of Rugby Football” dated 1902 there is a chapter entitled How to Bump, first practised by Mr. J.G Taiaroa, the famous Otago back. The text continues, “It would therefore seem, a Maori invention and knack.” Bumping? “Bumping is done by the timely transmission of the weight and momentum of the runner to a would-be tackler, and is generally only effectively done when the runner is going at top speed, when the momentum does the trick. It is done by throwing one's weight plus impetus into the tackler's shoulder, and brushing him by with the arm”. Whether the Bump is still legal fare in today's rugby is unknown to a non-footballer such as myself but I am sure Stadium-voters will know. Perhaps a future edition will include a chapter on “How to Choose a Football Stadium”? At the time of writing it seems the nation and the council desperately need Instructions.

Among many gems, my favorite (almost) is instructions on Using the Long Baton issued in 1976. Astonishingly, there are eighteen different uses of this handy instrument of law enforcement. These include the Front punch, Back punch, Flat Chop, Forward spin, Pool Cue Jab from long extended position, Wrist drag, Running Armlock, and the Yawara strike. It is reassuring to discover that the art of the bludgeon has been so scientifically detailed.

Instructions for New Zealanders is an ideal book for a gift or a bit of summer levity and I look forward to a revisit in 50 years time.

TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM by Paul Auster, Faber & Faber, $39.99
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Either you're a Paul Auster fan or you're not. I am – most of the time. Writers tend to be melancholic beasties and most of Auster's central protagonists (often furtive writers) are melancholic or in the modern terms depressed, alienated, passive. Not for long.

Something puzzling awakens them from their depressed state.
This short novel starts off cheerily: “The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor.” Somehow – since this is a Paul Auster novel – you guess he isn't about to be brought a dish of strawberries and cream by a beautiful young woman dressed as a French maid. From the drearily sterile circumstance of his surroundings one might guess that Mr Blank (yes, that's his name) is a political prisoner of sorts but then it seemed the mental patient fitted the bill more accurately – there are references to treatment, nurses, pills that make his hands shake. That doesn't seem to quite fit either. A reality TV show gone wrong (there are cameras present)? A Dystopian political allegory? Perhaps. A Kafka-esque fable of alienation comes closer yet even that doesn't seem quite appropriate. Since the room is locked and Mr Blank so miserable, comparisons with Beckett could also be drawn. In the end, it seems Mr Blank is trapped in the pages by that sadist, the writer, nominally N.R Fanshawe yet who ultimately must be, Paul Auster.

Even by stern Austerian standards, this novel takes a deeper plunge into gloom than most and the reader may feel like abandoning Mr Blank to his monotonously awful fate but there is something compulsive about the book, the Austerian capacity to surprise, that sustains interest.

The apparent window pane clarity of the beginning slowly gives way to a tricky corridor of fictional mirrors. Auster uses the multi-level device of the spliced in narrative that appears to have little connection with the main story but eventually interweaves with it.

The enfolded narrative describes a land that is much like a nineteenth century American frontier circa 1830 with murderous Europeans and butchered Indians. It is, in fact, an unfinished novel that Mr Blank feels compelled to finish in his own way.

All of Mr Blank's visitors are characters from earlier Auster novels which is either the writer being lazy or richly extending his fictional universe. Or playing a metafictional game. If the sole purpose of the book is to tell us that writers are trapped in rooms writing that is scarcely an original thought. In the end, this was my least favourite Auster novel and I hope next time Mr Blank is Mr Somebody and gets out of that locked room.

RESTLESS by William Boyd, Bloomsbury, $35
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William Boyd, one of the leading novelists of today, has just published his ninth novel. It's cracking espionage thriller, thoroughly authentic in period detail and atmosphere, recounted by two narratives – the first by Ruth Gilmartin is about how she discovers her mother Sally Gilmartin is really Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigre and spy, and the second, Eva's narration of her life as a secret agent. Ruth lives in Oxford and teaches English as a second language, while trying to write a history thesis, the time being1976.

For obvious reasons, the war document is the more gripping, yet the book as a whole is enthralling with Ruth having to put up with shady characters who boast of making porno films and being mixed up with the Baader-Meinhof Gang – though who knows if it is all true? As with all such double narratives, we wait for them to intersect which satisfyingly they do.

Eva is recruited at the funeral of her brother Kolia by the novel's suave bete noire, the polished and urbane Lucas Romer with an “upper class, patrician” accent - “swarthy, with dense eyebrows, uncurved, like two black horizontal dashes beneath his high forehead”. Her brother's death is given as a reason for her to join up for Kolia who also used to work for Mr Romer.

As war clouds gather over Europe, Eva is given her exhaustive training. In terms of detail, this struck me as more authentic and meticulous than anything previously encountered – though obviously I haven't read every spy novel in existence. She is taught how to remember number by association with colours, how to recall at least 80 of 100 objects on a table; she is taught Morse code, use of a compass, code breaking, forging, how to tail someone and detect if she is being followed. Her training is topped off with a spot of orienteering - being left out at night at a remote location and finding her way back. Interestingly enough, Mr Romer dismisses unarmed combat as being a waste of time and comments, “you have nails, you have teeth - your animal instincts will serve you better than any training”. So much for the James Bond style of espionage – though don't forget the Russians did try to kill someone with a poison-tipped umbrella (or latterly a tiny nuclear bomb in the arteries) which makes it mildly plausible when Eva dispatches a Mexican heavy by stabbing him through the eye with a pencil.

Eva winds up working at British Security Coordination in the Rockefeller Center in New York where they release phony propaganda stories to the media, and curiously enough they can never be sure if they are believed by the enemy or not. The aim is to spur the United States into joining the war. The presence of this large British spy agency in New York is well founded in fact. As we now know, the bombing of Pearl Harbour was far more effective than its efforts.

The double plot is complex with lots of richly realised secondary characters drawn in along the way. Excitement begins to mount when Ruth meets Romer and reaches full-blown thriller adrenalin when she and her Eva meet the ruthless Romer for the last time. Like Graham Greene, Boyd has managed and quite superbly, to inject full characterisation and psychological depth into an espionage thriller. Not even John Le Carre has done it better.

SACRED GAMES by Vikram Chandler, Faber & Faber, $39.99
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This whopper of a novel – 900 pages – is only Chandler's second but with it he leaps to the forefront of Indian and world literature.

This is fiction writing and characterisation on an impressive nineteenth century scale so it's tempting to dub him the Indian Dostoyevsky. I make this comparison not only because the clash between gangster warlord Ganesh Gaitonde and Sartaj Singh, a Sikh police inspector, is somehow like an extension of murderer Raskolnikov versus Detective Porfiry in Crime and Punishment but also because of the depth of psychology explored plus the use of full-on dialogue and the book's large scope and size.

Though the novel begins with a dog tossed out of a fifth story window - and this may be in part to illustrate that policemen have to attend to crimes other than murders – the novel really gets a grip on its two main protagonists in the second chapter. Ganesh is holed up in his nuclear bomb-proof concrete box with Sartaj Singh trying to flush him out. It's a standoff resolved when Singh orders in a bulldozer with a driver who knows how to tackle the task. By the time the siege is successfully accomplished and the arrest of the decade about to be made, we - like Singh - are disappointed to find the Hindu warlord of Mumbai has committed suicide. Thus does the grand drama begin.

While at first it seems like anticlimactic beginning, it becomes clear it's part of Chandler's fictional strategy. As in a modern thriller we have the James Bond-like beginning and the remainder is a furious and colourful flashback on a massive scale. From this point onward, the novel moves from Ganesh's story to Sartaj and back. At first, Sartaj is the chief character but then Ganesh, as the more colourful guy, tends to overwhelm.

There are additional interludes called Inserts, which alas, I tended to skim over in my eagerness to keep track with the main story. These additions plus the size of the novel tend to give more detail than might be needed but the novel picks up the pace from time to time just enough to keep one reading onward.

The Dramatis Personae lists some 35 main characters but there are hosts more weaving in and out. The vicious world of Mumbai's underworld is the overriding subject matter. Mumbai, formerly Bombay is if course, famous not only for its criminal underworld but also Bollywood. And no surprise to find that they are interwoven with wonderful dramatic effect. Chandler, it is abundantly clear, loves Mumbai for its colourfulness as Dickens loved London or Doctorow loves New York. In many ways, Mumbai is the third great character in the novel. Even the glorious sunsets get a mention though symbolically the cause of their splendour is thought to be pollution.

As in so many great works of literature, the moral undertow of the narrative is the battle of good and evil, here explored in great depth. Whereas Sartaj is basically a good man, he is a policeman in a corrupt city. As the text almost mournfully informs us, the money he is paid would not even pay for the paper on which he writes his reports, so what choice does he have but to accept bribes and payoffs? When he was married, his rich wife had enabled him the “luxury” of not having to take them but at the time of the novel he has little choice. Indian police methods, the text makes clear, are not overly gentle.

Ganesh Gaitonde, by contrast, is a ruthless gangster though naturally he has a human side which the book skilfully invites to follow with fascination and sympathy. But in the end he is a bad guy and the murder of one of his few genuine friends - a woman whom he admires for standing up to him - because of a blow to his sexual pride shows him in his true dark colours. An extra strand in the elaborate plot is Ganesh's servile relationship to a slick-talking guru who turns out to be a sinister terrorist intent on making nuclear mayhem.

This is a bravura performance that shows off a huge talent. Two reservations – it seems a shame that Ganesh's shadowy rival Suleiman Isa is off stage at all times and the show down between Ganesh and his guru also indirectly reported. However, the book remains a masterpiece of colour and high drama and the text teems with vibrant portraits of Mumbai's exotic city life. This would make a fabulous movie though hopefully the director will not cast from Bollywood.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 02:26 PM | Comments (0)