Tuesday 31 October 2006

I was smiling when I backed the car into my parking spot behind my apartment block yesterday evening. It was about 8:30 p.m. when I got home after having a few drinks with my classmates at Manning Bar just across the street from the University of Sydney's gorgeous Quadrangle, its flowered borders and a small parking lot. Our tutor, Mark, was there, and some of us stayed until the bar closed at 8:00, nursing a half-full jug of Toohey's New. Fain to let go of the aura of belonging, fain to depart on the next endeavour of our careers.

I was smiling because of what happened earlier in the evening, when the girl who always sits next to me in class left the table and went off into the twilight with joy in her heart. Before she left, she declared that "I'm going to eat a roast dinner!", because her relative had invited her to come over for dinner. She jumped up from the bench and, turning round to face me, grabbed me by both shoulders and planted a good, solid kiss on my astonished cranium.

I wonder if it was pleasant. I doubt it. I smoke, and last semester, when we had a class exercise where we smelled each others' heads and wrote a description, my neighbour declared that mine smelled like a traditional gentleman's smoking jacket (or something similar). I forget now exactly what she said. Let's just say that my black, wiry hair gives off an odour of cigarettes, and make no mistake. It's also going grey around the edges.

The smile endured throughout the evening. I was still smiling after Media Watch and the SBS 9:30 News. I was still smiling as I made some last-minute touches to my assignment, and when I slipped the chain onto the door. I was still smiling while brushing my teeth, and when I tucked myself into bed at around 11:00.

Today I'm not smiling, but the memory of that strange kiss, accompanied by the words "It was good working with you" that she announced thereupon, endure in my heart. I'll never forget it. I don't even know her first name or her surname, although I know she lives in Kings Cross.

Maybe the not forgetting was the whole point.

Sunday 29 October 2006

Dastgah bookcover; Allen & UnwinReview: Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip, Mark Mordue (2001)

This book I picked up after searching on Abebooks, where it was listed for $7. But I noticed the seller was a second-hand bookshop near where I worked, so instead of buying it online I telephoned them and asked them to keep it for me. A day later I stopped by on my way home and paid $9.30 for it.

It is also written by my tutor, for my Advanced Writing for the Media course. I am on edge today as I need to finish my feature for this unit of study. So it's possibly appropriate that I'm reading his book, when in a few weeks he'll be reading — and marking, assessing — my own work: a 2500-word piece that started out as an essay but now I think should be classified as a memoir. A memoir. I feel slightly guilty about this change in plan, as it seems that anyone can write a memoir. Just say what happened to you in somewhat poetic language, and voila!

To get back to Dastgah, though, I must say it was an interesting read. It took off slowly, the beginning sections slightly out of synch with the subject matter. Once he gets to Turkey and Iran, however, the pace and the topic are in step, and it's a very satisfying read. Mordue has lived in Sydney for many years and is about my own age, so there were many points of relevance for me personally. I felt a kinship with him. I could also hear his high nasal tones reading out the prose as I skimmed along the lines of text. I could hear him reading it to me, and that added a layer of complexity to the mixture of questioning and seeking that yields so many insights in this book.

As a piece of literary non-fiction, Dastgah is very interesting. If you manage to get hold of a copy, it rewards close reading.

Friday 27 October 2006

The Roayl Family bookcover; VikingReview: The Royal Family, William T. Vollmann (2000)

Running alongside the main narrative arc of this 774-page novel, which shows how Henry Tyler gets involved with the prostitutes of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, is the path traced by his brother, John, a successful lawyer. Henry tends a flame for John’s ethnically-Korean wife, Irene. When Irene suicides, Henry is bereft, driving 300 kilometres south to Los Angeles to visit her grave on those weekends he isn‘t in Sacramento visiting his ageing mother.

John despises Henry, who works as a private detective. John is exacting, driven, and enjoys the finer things of life. While he can quote from Gibbon’s classic history work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he prides himself on being a straight-shooter, telling people how it is. Henry’s involvement with the whores of the Tenderloin is a matter of shame for John.

But Henry is past feeling shame, and even past redemption. The grimy, damp, scabby underbelly of society is a congenial environment for him, and slowly he adapts to its influence.

Both strands of the story are told with feeling and empathy. We get to know both brothers intimately, their secrets and regrets, their aspirations and desires, their loves and hates. Vollmann’s lyrical prose drives the plot along at a ripping pace. Although a very long novel, it seems much shorter because of the unconventional artistry employed in its construction. In fact, it reads like a nineteenth-century novel, and I was frequently surprised by the depth of emotion it elicits from the reader.

Rendered with charm and emotion are the prostitutes of the Tenderloin district. The most volatile and captivating of them all is Domino. She is “a blonde mosquito,” “luminously blonde,” “an old sack of trash,” “one of the most reasonable women in the world,” “the most outspoken,” a woman who “had visions that life would never live up to,” “a mighty beautiful woman,” “angry and unbalanced,” “silver-miniskirted,” “her crooked mouth twitching into a sneer,” “not much given to self-abasement,” “grinning elfishly,” “her long silver fingernails whirling like airplane propellers,” who “just takes it under her tongue and spits it out when she can,” “pitiless,” who “with her crazed lightning flashes of intellect sought only to escape her own torment like a fish wriggling on a gill-hook,” “fitful, terrible, dangerous,” “facing traffic with her hands in her hair,” “a royally vicious pain-in-the-ass bitch,” “intuitively excellent at times”.

The tawdry sleaze inches its way across the page like a shot dog crawling home.

As Tyler & Associates, Investigative Services languishes, Henry’s sentimental education proceeds apace. Henry never seems to get over Irene’s death, and he languishes in his sad furore. He latches onto the charms of the Queen of the Whores, a slim woman named Africa, but even there he seems at a loose end. The finale of the book, told in a cubistic style, is short and sweet, ending the great central section which is filled with characters such as the paedophile Dan Smooth and a bunch of cops and johns.

He strode quickly out, got into his car, and drove back to San Francisco, passing the airport with its gloomily lit runways and warehouses, its planes like robot iguanas waiting for the heat of some unholy day to burst through their dark torpor. Nothing but concrete, lights and fog ahead … The nearest parking garage was a sickening prismatic crystal of light. No security-minded Queen would ever set up shop there.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday 25 October 2006

Production of the film based on J. M. Coetzee's book Disgrace is scheduled to start on 22 January, in South Africa. I blogged about this story at the end of June and since then the book has been voted "the best Commonwealth novel of the past 25 years" by a bunch of literature boffins assembled by England's The Observer newspaper. Anna-Maria Monticelli, who is the writer-producer of the fledgling film, "was thrilled" at the news, according to The Australian:

John Malkovich plays a professor living at his daughter's remote farm after having an affair with a student. He will be in Sydney for one week of shooting in March. Monticelli wrote the script, to be directed by Steve Jacobs, and is producing alongside Emile Sherman.

Looking at Monticelli's filmography discovers that she was an actor in Paul Cox's wonderful My First Wife (1984), playing Hilary. I remember the film well, but unfortunately I don't recall the character.

Sunday 22 October 2006

The History Question bookcover; Black Inc.Review: The History Question: Who Owns the Past?, Quarterly Essay, Inga Clendinnen (2006)

Clendinnen says that historians should stay clear of the creation of myths. The history question is too important for historians to get involved in the public debate at a superficial level. They should concentrate on finding the truth about the past, and not mix with the pundits and the commentators, the politicians and the journalists who dominate public debate.

Historians need to resist participating in the concoction of large, inspiriting narratives, because any large, inspiriting narrative requires significant narrowing of vision and manipulations of the truth.

She also wants Australian history to be studied in the context of the global events of whatever time, so that students will get an understanding beyond the parochial, of the broad narrative of history.

Clendinnen also gets the nod from John Hirst, Associate Professor at La Trobe University, in his piece published in The Monthly (October 2006). Her book Dancing with Strangers (2003) is last on a list he compiled of "the best eleven history books on Australia".

As an ethnographic historian, her skill is in deciphering cultures that have left few, if any, records. She finds meaning by interpreting action as it was described by outsiders hostile to or puzzled by what they were seeing. ... She develops startling new views of the spearing of Governor Phillip and his ordering of the first punitive expedition against the Aborigines. She calls her reinterpretations hypotheses or even guesses, but they are so dazzling that we are left groping to offer alternatives. All previous accounts are now in question.

Both Hirst and Clendinnen were among the "23 academics and other community leaders" who attended the History Summit called by the federal Education Minister to discuss the teaching of history in secondary schools. According to an article in The Sydney Morning Herald:

A five-member panel has been asked to write a model curriculum to give the Minister for Education, Julie Bishop, later this year.

It'll be interesting to see what they come up with.

Friday 20 October 2006

Balmain Road
On the way home this afternoon, after popping into the SRC bookshop (where I picked up Off One's Tits: Ill-considered Rants and Raves from a Graceless Oaf Named John Birmingham), taking $50 out of my cheque account and picking up a kebab to munch on, I swished over the Anzac Bridge to the Balmain Town Hall on account of the 2MBS book & record bazaar.

The big room upstairs
The fiction section is at the back of the big room. Without counting the cost of my selections as I went along the tables, I miraculously managed to stay on budget, taking up with my right hand and placing in a long column on my left arm 16 books, for $49:

Cannibals & Christians, Norman Mailer (1967)
A Man in Full: A Novel, Tom Wolfe (1998)
The Best Australian Poems 2004, Les Murray Ed. (2004)
The Information: A Novel, Martin Amis (1995)
Morality Play, Barry Unsworth (1995)
Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev, Robert Dessaix (2004)
Poems of Thomas Hardy (1979)
Fourteenth Century Verse & Prose (1928)
A Passage to India, E. M. Forster (1942)
The Poems of William Blake (1913)
Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe (2000)
Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties, Christopher Isherwood (1938)
The First Stone: Some Questions About Sex and Power, Helen Garner (1995)
Remembering Babylon, David Malouf (1994)
The Unvanquished, William Faulkner (1955)
Another Day of Life, Ryszard Kapuscinski (1988)

Wednesday 18 October 2006

Bookmooch founder John Buckman has returned from a promotional tour and is back in his home state of California. To mark the occasion he sent out an e-mail to all members of this fantastic online tool, detailing some things remarkable ("BookMooch now has 100,000 books, 10,000 members, and 20,000 books have been mooched. 1600 books are being mooched right now. And all this, since Bookmooch launched 9 weeks ago, on August 6th.") and others welcome to committed moochers, like yours truly ("the "find books and people by location" feature is back. I had taken off while I was traveling because it didn't work right, but now it's all fixed and here to stay").

The stats say it all, and while the 'by location' tool returning is terrific news, it doesn't solve a basic problem faced by Aussie moochers. (It only takes one point to mooch a book from someone in your own country, while it takes two to mooch a book from overseas.) The problem is in the stats. As of today: Australia: 1775 books, United Kingdom: 5883 books, United States: 53756 books. So it's unlikely that I'll find what I want here at home. It's far more likely that I'll find it in the inventory of a U.S. resident.

Tuesday 17 October 2006

New Yorker, Oct. 9, 2006Review: 'What is a Novelist? How Great Writers are Made,' Milan Kundera; The New Yorker, October 9, 2006; pp. 40 - 45

What makes Milan Kundera tick? What makes a famous author thrill with pleasure? "Let's try to sharpen the terminology," Kundera writes:

a man becomes famous when the number of people who know him is markedly greater than the number he knows.

That's so modest of him. But Kundera is a natural at this kind of thing and, presumably, a natural at French, since that is the language this piece was translated from. It is an appeal to our better natures, a sort of common-sense primer to appreciating great art. In this post-modern age, anything that can cut through the river of sub-standard fare we are daily accustomed to seeing and reading and hearing about, must be a Good Thing. One story Kundera tells is worth quoting in it's entirety:

  I was nineteen when, in my home town, a young academic gave a public lecture; it was during the first months of the Communist revolution, and, bowing to the spirit of the time, he talked about the social responsibility of art. After the conference, there was a discussion; what I remember is the poet Josef Kainar (a man of Blatny's generation [Ivan Blatny was "Ten years older" than Kundera and "the poet [he] most admired when [he] was fourteen"], also dead now), who, in response to the scholar's talk, told this anecdote: A little boy takes his blind grandmother for a walk. They are strolling down a street, and from time to time the little boy says, "Grandma, watch out—a root!" Thinking she is on a forest trail, the old woman keeps jumping. Passersby scold the little boy: "Son, you're treating your grandmother so badly!" And the boy says, "She's my grandma! I'll treat her any way I want!" And Kainar finishes, "That's me, that's how I am about my poetry."
  I'll never forget that demonstration of an author's rights proclaimed under the mistrustful gaze of the young revolution.

He also talks about how Cervantes took back control of the Don Quixote franchise after a rival author appropriated it following the success of the first of the famous novels. "Cervantes reacted at the time the way a novelist would react today: with rage."
He attacked the plagiarist violently and proudly proclaimed, "Don Quixote was born for me alone, and I for him. He knew about action, I about writing. He and I are simply one single entity."

Kundera also tells us about what he thinks of humanities academics who thumb their way through a writer's produce and proclaim 'variants' of a great text:
Every novelist, starting with his own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and for everyone else the ethic of the essential!

(Italics are his.) But, he goes on:

The ethic of the essential has given way to the ethic of the archive. (The archive's ideal: the sweet equality that reigns in an enormous common grave.)

(Again, his italics.) Like Nabokov, Kundera has STRONG OPINIONS and is most willing to voice them. In this case, via The New Yorker, he has given us all pause. Surrounded by the pungent and penetrating effluvia of his common sense, we can rest easy, and enjoy with pleasure and no sense of guilt, the great literature that surrounds us.

Friday 13 October 2006

Breakfast at Tiffany's bookcover; PenguinReview: Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote (1958)

Set in 1943 during World War II the eponymous novella is a fast-paced, episodic ramble with a highly entertaining young woman at its heart. Resembling Sophie's Choice, it tells the story of a young writer in a tenement in New York who becomes acquainted with an older woman, who has not only a clouded past but a propensity for flouting convention.

Unconventional as she is, Holly Golightly is refreshingly frank and stubbornly loyal. Fred, the writer, seems to become part of her life from the time he lets her in at two o'clock in the morning with the front-door buzzer: she has forgotten or lost her front-door key. It's not clear how she earns her living, but she does have an arrangement to visit Sally Tomato in Sing Sing prision in Ossining once a week and afterward relay a message to his friend Father O'Shaunessey. This liaison will come back to bite her later on. As it is in Norman Mailer's novel The Deer Park, from the same period, much of the dialog is opaque to us now, and attitudes to sex are so quaint as to seem almost Victorian. The realities are there, but set in code, a code the key to which which we have now lost.

The volume also contains three of Capote's short stories, one of which, A Diamond Guitar, contains the following:

Except that they did not combine their bodies or think to do so, though such things were not unknown at the farm, they were as lovers.

'They' in this quote are a pair of convicts, 'the farm' being a labour camp in the woods somewhere in the United States, a place where the winters are cold and the forests tall. Capote's frankness in this instance is compromised by his ass-backward way of talking about prison sex. These days we are far more open and deliberate about 'such things'.

Similarly, in Breakfast at Tiffany's, which is quite a racy story, the way that sex is discussed is encoded to prevent scandal. What Holly does for a living is not clear, but has something to do with restrooms and fifty dollars and men. No doubt people in those days would have understood the code, but since the swinging sixties we are oblivious to it.

The novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's is a masterpiece.
Lunar Park bookcover; PicadorReview: Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis (2005)

In the chilled suburbia of his middle age, Bret Ellis is confronted by a resurgent past. A number of strange things have started up, while he fights lethargically against his wife's irritation, his son's intransigence, and his step-daughter's crazy communing with spirits. Her doll, Turby, he is convinced, is a deranged psychopath on the loose: eviscerating small creatures, leaving slimy deposits on her bed, and frightening the bejeesus out of him.

A number of young boys have gone missing.

The police visit him, revealing a strange pattern: the recent murders are copycat crimes that follow the destruction unleashed in the novel he published twenty years earlier: American Psycho.

Shades of his hated father appear: a beige Mercedes that pops up at odd moments, a young man who looks the spitting image of Patrick Bateman, the psychopathic killer of his old novel.

Bret is quiety unravelling.

Postmodernism is supposed to be a dirty word nowadays, at least if we are to believe the federal Government. Ellis has worked his way into the guts of the postmodern aura and has nestled there, grinning, with this book. A slightly dead feeling militates against the gothic horror story that he creates, and that sends chills down your arms. Lunar Park is alternately chilling and bewildering, confusing the role of author and main character, and apparently saying something about how we are reflections of our pasts. Bret's past catches up with him big time, and in the ensuing maelstrom of special effects and eviscerations, we find a sort of peace.

An interesting novel, not for the faint-hearted.
The Planets bookcover; Harper PerennialReview: The Planets, Dava Sobel (2005)

This lively, epigrammatical little book uncovers secrets that most people will have been blissfully unaware of. Now we can read about our stellar neighbours in a series of bite-sized tranches that expose with a crackle and snap innumerable facts that are delivered to us in a creamy, chocolate-covered style.

Like hors d'oeuvres or sweetmeats, these treats are both tasty and nourishing. Sobel's idea of fun is to wrap up the complexity of astronomy in imagery that brings home knowledge with an immediacy normally found in novels. I wouldn't call it literary journalism, but it comes close to that. Very close, in fact.

The outlying ancient debris distributes itself over such a distended area that the Solar System's periphery is transparent as a crystal ball. Through the bubble of its outer boundary we can see for ever — across the Milky Way home of our Sun, into the other galaxies that twirl like pinwheels strewn across the Universe, their many billion stars frothing with planets.

This is heady stuff, and makes you lust after further information from up above. If only Sobel would launch a blog that delivered daily updates, followed expeditions, traced trends, and solved riddles as they are posed. To keep up with the exploding volume of galactic data we need a committed commentator, and Sobel seems the right person for the job.

I think people forget that science is an imaginative process. Scientists are extremely imaginative people, which is not the general impression of them...

Too true. Sobel can work wonders in this area, I'm certain of it. With her powers of journalistic invention and her firm grasp on the nettle of knowledge, Sobel is ideally placed to be our interpreter, our oracle, our modern-day shaman.

This little book is recommended.

Thursday 12 October 2006

A Tale of Love and Darkness bookcover; VintageReview: A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz (2005)

A "sickly child", a "word-child", Oz was born Amos Klausner (he changed his name to Oz, which means 'strength' in Hebrew, when he went to kibbutz Hulda at the age of 15), the son of parents who had arrived in the Levant during the time of British dominion in the late nineteen-thirties who were escaping rising anti-Semitism in the Europe they had grown up in.

Both my parents had come to Jerusalem straight from the nineteenth century. My father had grown up on a concentrated diet of operatic, nationalistic, battle-thirsty romanticism (the Springtime of Nations, Sturm und Drang), whose marzipan peaks were sprinkled, like a splash of champagne, with the virile frenzy of Nietzsche. My mother, on the other hand, lived by the other romantic canon, the introspective, melancholy menu of loneliness in a minor key, soaked in the suffering of broken-hearted, soulful outcasts, infused with vague autumnal scents of fin de siecle decadence.

The narrative arc of this memoir forms its axis around his mother's suicide. We know of it from the beginning but not until the last few pages of the book are we told how it happened. The narrative moves dramatically back and forth in time, building slowly throughout this 270,000-word monolith of a work.

Oz remembers events in great detail, from the time he was a small boy. The gradual accretion of detail serves to create strong characters who appear again and again in the narrative. Such as the little bird that always sings the first few bars of Fur Elise outside their tiny apartment in Jerusalem. His maternal and paternal grandparents come alive, as do his teachers, his parents' other relatives (aunts and uncles), and people from the neighbourhood in this lower-middle-class district of the city. As for his own friends, they are not detailed to any depth.

I have never again blended happily into an ecstatic crowd, or been a blind molecule in a gigantic superhuman body.

This after, as a young boy, he had exploded in laughter at the words of Menachem Begin during the time of the Jewish settlement, and been chastised by his great uncle. This passage immediately precedes the author's manifesto of intent: to escape his parents, the stultifying "suffocation of life in the basement" and all that it contained. He was only 12 years old, but already his mother had "turned her back" on him and his father's failure was a "burden". This is a turning point for the young Amos. The narrative immediately moves to the kibbutz, where he tried hard to fit into a new lifestyle of work and independence. He lived there from 1954 to 1985.

The novelty of kibbutz life was apparently something of a joke for some people living in Jerusalem. Kibbutzim were considered somewhat 'socialistic' and therefore suspect. For eastern European Jews who had escaped both Hitler and Stalin, the idea of living on the land was something less than edifying: hard physical labour and nothing else. At least that is how Oz' father treated the idea. He had to be brought around gradually to accepting his son's decision. But he had remarried by that time and Amos — who never once talks about his stepmother — felt constrained by his father's aspirations. They had certainly never got him very far, Amos must have thought. His father aspired to be an academic, was very cultured, but was always refused and eventually worked as a librarian throughout his life in Jerusalem.

After moving to the kibbutz, Oz discovered a work of Sherwood Anderson: Winesburg, Ohio:

At half past three in the morning I put on my work clothes and boots, ran to the tractor shed from which we set out for a field called Mansura to weed the cotton, snatched a hoe from the pile, and till noon I charged along the rows of cotton plants, racing ahead of the others as though I had sprouted wings, dizzy with happiness, running and hoeing and bellowing, running and hoeing and lecturing myself and the hills and the breeze, hoeing and making vows, running, excited and tearful.

A Tale of Love and Darkness, with its red-and-yellow, slightly Asiatic cover and lacquer-red spine, is in part an autobiography, a description of how he became a writer. From the time as a little boy when he wanted to grow up to be a book, to his mother's decline, to his decision to go to the kibbutz, to his discovery of Sherwood Anderson's novel, we are treated to a delightful lecture on the genesis of genius. Oz is 67 years old this year. This is a tribute to the past, a slow hymn for the state of Israel, a solemn and joyful farewell to the past, a gesture of sorts to the future. A wonderful book.

Monday 9 October 2006

A Long Long Way bookcover; Faber & FaberReview: A Long Long Way, Sebastian Barry (2005)

Willie Dunne's father is a policeman in Dublin when Willie goes off to war in Flanders. Against a background of horrific warfare the Irish independence push flares up. Conscripted in 1917 at age eighteen, Willie does three years without accident in the trenches. The moral problems he and others face are brought to the fore by a series of plot devices that are intricately woven into the narrative.

The beautiful, poetic language employed throughout this wonderful book is counterpoised by the vivid dialog, that brings to life life in the trenches. Country as well as God are the catchcries of the soldiers and their tribulations are mesmerically produced in a distinct language invented for that specific purpose.

The journey seems endless as the war drags on and more and more of the 16th are killed or incapacitated. Willie seems blessed. We wait for the end that we know must come. We wait and wait, but still it does not come. Barry deftly balances the troubles at home against the historical record of the Great War to produce great tension and suspense in the reader. But he also brings to bear the methods of modernism on a time when writers used different tropes. This is effective and stirring, as when Willie thinks on the process of thought:

Funny how a person thought of one thing and then thought of another thing. And then another thing. And was the third thing brother at all to the first? He stopped a moment and leaned on his spade like a bad worker.

And again, as he thinks about language:

Willie had no words to tell what he was feeling in response to Father Buckley's words. He wondered suddenly and definitely for the first time in his life what words might be. Sounds and sense certainly, but something else also, a kind of natural music that explained a man's heart or heartlessness, words as tempered as steel, as soft as air.

Willie's journey becomes in time a parable for the Irish state as it gradually stirs into motion, against the centuries-old dominion of England. And it is also simultaneously a parable of the commitment of all the soldiers, from whatever country, who died in the Great War. May they never be forgotten.

Sunday 8 October 2006

Martini bookcover; KnopfReview: Martini: A Memoir, Frank Moorhouse (2005)

Excessive pedantry about anything can be tiresome and bewildering. This book, which takes about three hours to read from cover to cover, avoids such pitfalls by displaying a mordant wit and trenchant irony. Humour is the overriding sensibility, good-natured banter, mainly between the narrator, Frank Moorhouse, and his American friend Voltz, the dominant method.

When the book has exhausted the topic of martinis — how to mix, drink, appreciate and savour them — Moorhouse gives us the low-down on some of the main characters he has introduced in the course of the preceding chapters. These people have been important in his life. There is much here of interest to the would-be biographer.

The book's presentation is stylish and whimsically spicy, a sort of modern-day salute to the Art Deco era. The endpapers are delightfully patterned and each chapter begins with an ornate header illustration.

In tying up loose ends of his life, Moorhouse discloses his bisexuality in a candid and unashamed way that is in keeping with the tone of his fiction throughout his life. He has always been a bit of a bon-vivant and a robust aesthete, looking to further his experiences without hurting others. A man of his times, he was born in 1938 and so, today, is clearly a healthy sestagenarian.

In 'A Letter to My Drinking Companions Around the World' Moorhouse sets out his parameters:

This memoir is not a comprehensive overview of my life or my relationships and is not meant, therefore, as a complete diagram of my life now or in the past. It is, in the main, a ruminative set of memories and ideas triggered by a consideration of the martini and its folklore. Nothing more or less. It is, in a way, a commonplace book of personal notes, a project of connoiseurship and folklore. And as I look back, surprisingly, a small project of self-reconciliation.

A delightful read and well worth getting hold of. This book contains some writing of a complexity that is not immediately apparent, that rewards close reading.
Live and Learn bookcover; Harper PerennialReview: Live and Learn, Joan Didion (2005)

It's very difficult to extract quotations from the pieces in this collection, which spans from 1966 to 1990, comprising a large part of the journalism of this diminutive author. The four-and-a-half-page piece titled Bureaucrats is just one of the more concise exemplars of a very concise and elegant style.

The flow is rapid, which is why quoting bits is so hard, because you never really know when you should stop quoting, to get a nice, homogeneous section complete in itself. The flow doesn't stop at the end of the paragraph, even at the end of a section; it seems to continue on meandering like a broad river on a flat plain, certain that eventually it will come to the sea.

In Bureaucrats, Didion does short work on the self-obsessed functionaries in the traffic control office — it's not clear though if that's what they do, although you'd expect something more than just 'verifying incidents' in their remit — and we only wish she would do a similar job on some of the colossal failures in our own back yard, the Cross-City Tunnel for example.

There is no introduction to this book, although the back cover tells us briefly what it contains. But there is no synopsis of Didion's life, nothing about where she was living when these pieces were written, what prizes she won (if any) and what events might have had a bearing on her journalism. Of course she is still writing — she has a piece in the latest New York Review of Books on Dick Cheney — and so presumably considers herself to be outside the club of writers whose anthologies get this sort of treatment. She was born in 1934. The picture on the cover of this 'omnibus edition' shows a woman considerably younger than she must now appear, presumably to show us what she looked like at the time these essays were written, or at least some time at the mid point of that expanse of years.

We do not get, for example, any indication of the reason for entitling the second section of this 'omnibus edition' The White Album. We do get an intro for Slouching Towards Bethlehem: the title comes from the inanely famous Yeats poem of 1920, 'The Second Coming', which retired politico Barry Jones has also used for his new book, just out.

California obviously unsettles Didion:

'What a sacrifice on the altar of nationalism,' I heard an actor say about the death in a plane crash of the president of the Philippines. It is a way of talking that tends to preclude further discussion, which may well be its intention: the public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony. 'Those men are our unsung heroes,' a quite charming and intelligent woman once said to me at a party in Beverly Hills. She was talking about the California State Legislature.

Hers is an existential angst of a particularly worldly kind, and one that throws up glistening jewels of prose ('Old Man River' is humming along in my head as I read).

But what is most striking about her essays is that they don't 'date'. As fresh as when they were first written — presumably on a typewriter of some kind — thirty and forty years ago. So: this is the face she presents to the world, rather than the concession to her publishers that adorns the book's cover: an ageless, firm and silvery-liquid aspect with the purity of wind chimes early on a spring morning.

My only quibble with this 'omnibus edition' is that rather than 'live and learn' it should have been titled 'read and think'. A splendid collection, anthology, whatever-ya-call-it. Recommended.

Thursday 5 October 2006

Shalimar the Clown bookcover; Jonathan CapeReview: Shalimar the Clown: A Novel, Salman Rushdie (2005)

This book starts slowly, as if the importance of the subject in the author's mind was a burden, making his imagination clumsy and his wit slow. It only really gets going around page 100 when Boonyi tells the Tortoise to fuck off.

There's something of the children's adventure story about the Kashmiri episodes: a multicultural Eden surrounded by the strains of thunder, the roar of fighter jets and the sterility of realpolitik. That old, neat-o magical realism kicks in, I suppose. But the cosiness that characterises the episode that opens the book — California circa 1990 — also seeps into Kashmir circa 1960.

Strasbourg circa 1940 is an entirely different place. Stuff happens, and some of it is pretty ugly. I wonder how many of the historically myopic Iranian mullahs will read this book and choke on their ugly pronouncements. Rushdie clearly has these people, like Iranian President Ahmadinejad, in his sights.

How much does Rushdie hate them, the people who have screwed him over since 1989? Going by the evidence in this book, he's still got some things to say about fundamentalism and those who practice it. There are some very unpleasant people in there.

He found a bottle of cognac that had somehow been spared. It lay unbroken in a corner next to a chaise between blowing curtains. He pulled out the cork and drank. Time passed. No, it did not pass. Time stood still. Beauty passed, love passed, bloody-mindedness and mulishness passed. Time stood still with its hands up. Stubborn bastards faded away.

The character of Shalimar is slightly confounding, as he starts out as a love-sick adolescent pining for the favours of his heart's desire. But Kashmir loses its innocence, and when Boonyi suddenly decides to change her trajectory, Shalimar the clown is shattered. Like a stubborn child, he lashes out at the world and his subsequent actions jar heavily when the novel moves from Asia to the more parochial surrounds of California, where the final chapters play out. Notions of honour that are valued as noble and right in Kashmir suddenly look distinctly low-rent when they are transmuted into crime amid the moral tonalities of the West.

Boonyi is a Promethean figure who aims higher than those around her, those who are simply not up to her standards. Her subsequent decline and fall seem symptomatic of a culture wherein women are perpetually relegated to second-class status.

Innocence is lost and all hell breaks loose, in this massive creation of one man's busy mind. Watching from the wings we sense that things in the region that have gone badly for so long are likely to continue to go badly for some time yet. Even in the hearts of innocent young men, age-old prejudices and constraints are so deeply ingrained that we can imagine change happening only after successive shocks to the entire fabric of society.

My Pakistani workmate said to me the other day that if you say to a Pakistani that he is a 'bastard' he'll try to kill you. But if you say he is a cheat, he'll just say: 'isn't everyone?' The opposite holds true in Australia.

Tuesday 3 October 2006

Leviathan bookcover; VintageReview: Leviathan: the unauthorised biography of Sydney, John Birmingham (1999)

"History is never bloodless. Someone always gets hurt." This is taken from the book's afterword, where he outlines the approach and method he has used to write this interesting "history" of a city. Not just any city, but the premier city of the southern hemisphere. In these few words we get a basic idea of his attitude toward history, and the guiding principle that informs his approach to the task.

As a journalist, his instinct is to follow up on what seems important, to investigate in as much detail as possible the questionable, the suspect, the unpleasant, the noteworthy. "Perhaps I have written a black armband biography and have been unjustly selective in my choice of material," he goes on. Saying sorry may be part of the answer, but that's not enought for most people. It's also not enough for Birmingham himself, as he follows this with:

If I could take the ghost of Arthur Phillip on a tour of the city he founded, I'd want him to be proud. I'd take him to the highest towers and shout him the most expensive lunch. I'd tell him that all things considered, he'd done well. I'd say a free people now live where he pitched his camp so long ago. The city he helped raise is one of the finest in the world. ... I'd want him to know that it was all worth it.

It's not exceptional to find such a set of contradictory attitudes. We all share them. We all want to be proud of our history, and our achievements. But there's so much to not be proud of.

The knowledge that The Sydney Morning Herald was a bastion of conservatism is a bit of an eye opener. And Birmingham's coverage of the police corruption of the nineteen seventies is perfectly scandalous. As a history, as a piece of literary journalism, this book entertains while it informs. In trying to get to the bottom of things in a way that is "richer than a standard textbook and accessible to a much wider audience" he has succeeded.

Monday 2 October 2006

My Name is Red bookcover; Faber & FaberReview: My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (2001)

In this savagely brilliant novel Pamuk has reached a level of conspicuous artistry that few attain. With the plotting of a master of crime fiction, the intensity of a philosophical treatise, the empathy of a great nineteenth-century novelist and the knowingness and humour of the ascendant tradition of postmodern fiction, he has covered all bases and struck the ball way over the boundary.

Often reading like a fable and focalised through different characters — men and women, children, high and low even, at one point, through the consciousness of a debased gold coin — the novel draws us into a dense tangle of conflicting desires and shared destiny. The city of Istanbul rises, gloomy and heavily trod, above the minutiae of the events that are recounted with enormous gusto and verve. It lives and breathes like another character, riding on the boundary between East and West, and subject to forces that alternately draw together and force apart the two hemispheres of the early-modern historical world.

At the end of the book is a chronology, where we learn that the events that take place take place in the year 1591. The Renaissance is in full swing, Shakespeare is entering into his prime, and Turkey hesitates on the sill of a great cultural transformation that will rend the West now, and leave the East in peace for a few hundred years more, until it, too, is challenged by modernity.

Concepts such as 'style' are seen by Pamuk to embody this transformation, as cultural practitioners in the West begin to bring the individual into a central position in the universe. In the following passage the first voice is that of the miniaturist known as 'Olive':

  "But I have no style whatsoever," I said. "I'm not saying this out of pride to counter the latest tastes. Neither am I saying so to prove my innocence. For me, having a style would be worse than being a murderer."
  "You have a distinct quality that distinguishes you from the old masters and the others," said Black.

Having lived as a clerk with the entourage of a nobleman, touring the Far East for twelve years, Black has returned to Istanbul to find that the woman he once wished to marry, Shekure, has lost her husband. His hopes revive. But he has enemies, particularly Hasan, the brother of the cavalryman who has not returned from the front. Meanwhile a miniaturist named Elegant has been killed. The identity of the murderer and the anger of Hasan, as well as the ruthlessness of the government that has become involved in the drama because of the personal interest of the Sultan in a particular book that Shekure's father was having made, combine to create a tense atmosphere, with a constant sense of something about to happen. This tension remains throughout the book, hovering in the background while the characters tell their individual stories and render a faithful picture of the city, its sectarian violence, its rupturings and wounds.

Iconoclasts are abroad also. For the miniaturists, these men are the common enemy, and a powerful one. This theme is intensely topical in the light of the recent attacks on Danish properties in Middle Eastern cities following the publication in a Danish magazine of cartoons lampooning Mohammad. In fact, the entire book rests in the realm of 'engaged' fiction.

A brilliant book. Totally worth reading.

Sunday 1 October 2006

Holding the Key bookcover, ScribnerReview: Holding the Key: My Year as a Guard in Sing Sing, Ted Conover (2000)

As well as spending seven weeks in the training Academy, and the remainder of a year in the service of the New York Department of Correctional Services, Conover read at least 37 books in the writing of this interesting work of literary journalism. Sing Sing, one of the 71 prisons in the state, is located nowadays in a prosperous residential area of Westchester County. But back in 1825 when it was first planned, the site was a remote quarry that would furnish building materials for the growing metropolis.

The complex procedures used in the maximum-security prison by prison guards — the correct term is correctional officer (CO) — and the air of paranoia that motivates them to act in the way they do, are published for our scrutiny, amusement, savour and judgement. At the time of publishing, DOCS was the second-largest employer in the state. When the book came out, DOCS at first barred inmates from reading it. Then they changed their minds and resorted to excising certain passages from copies distributed in prisons: "Mainly Academy stuff ... along with what to do during a red dot emergency and the ways in which officers were made vulnerable by the antiquated configurations of Sing Sing's exercise yards." Although at first DOCS was dismissive ("'Why would I be interested in the view of a newjack?'" a DOCS spokesperson told a newspaper reporter following the release) Sing Sing COs came to the talk and book-signing organised by the publishers in Ossining, the suburb where the prison is situated.

Conover initially became interested in the book idea after talking to some union representatives. When he approached DOCS with the idea of following a new recruit through training and into the prison "DOCS turned me down flat", writes Conover. After writing up the application form in 1994, he waited several months before receiving notice of his successful application.

A 'newjack' is a newly-graduated OC. On the floors of the prison, they are subject to particular attention by the inmates. They are considered fair game in the endless battle of wills between OCs and inmates.

Sing Sing was a world of adrenaline and aggression to us new officers. It was an experience of living with fear—fear of inmates, as individuals and as a mob, and fear of our own capacity to fuck up. We were sandwiched between two groups: Make a mistake around the white-shirts and you would get in trouble; make a mistake around the inmates and you might get hurt.

Conover gradually decides that some methods of coping with this dichotomy are better than others. One new officer, who he names Smith to protect his identity, gets his attention because of the way in which he goes about his work:

... it seemed to me that Smith succeeded because he viewed the inmates as human beings and was able to maintain a sense of humor in the face of the stress of prison life—traits that are two sides of the same coin.

Conover is glad to leave the prison for the last time after his allotted year expires, to return to his privileged life of a writer, to his customary pursuits, to get away from the fear and anxiety that has infected his dreams and caused his personality to change.

This is a very satisfying read.