Sunday 31 December 2006

Resistance bookcover; AbacusReview: Resistance, Anita Shreve (1995)

There is a dreamy inevitability in the tone of this book that militates against the twists of its plot. Nevertheless, like a well-concieved thriller or crime novel, there are rewards — shivers on your arms, anticipation of resolution — that come possibly despite yourself. It is packaged for women, that is at least clear, and I can imagine that women would enjoy the languid tension the book generates. I have already recommended the author to my mother.

Ted is a lieutenant, a pilot, who is forced to abandon a mission and go down with his crew in the south of Belgium in 1944. German fighters have shot up the aircraft badly, and they jetison their payload in the countryside. Injured during the crash landing, Ted crawls away into the forest. A boy, Jean, follows the trail he has made and succeeds in rescuing him.

Jean knows that there are few people he can trust when he buries Ted in a trough in his father's barn under a heap of potatoes. He goes to the house of Claire and Henri. He knows, as do many in the village, that they will help.

Of course, Ted recovers, although he limps dashingly. He is hidden by the husband and wife behind an armoire (a wardrobe in English; it's not clear why Shreve doesn't use the regular word for this particular piece of furniture) in their bedroom. There is a false back that opens onto a space in the roof of the house.

The Germans are ever-present but rarely to be seen or encountered. They remain in the background, a malign force that visits evil on the townspeople from time to time. There will be hangings, beatings, interrogations.

Henri returns home one day in a state of shock and he and Claire have sex. Shreve is both coy and inventive:

It had possibly been an act of love on her part, or more precisely and act of generosity, but for Henri it was a necessary act to forget what he had seen. She thought of the way an animal shook another in its teeth; the way a cat, in a sudden burst of animal frenzy, climbed the bark of a tree.

This, to me, is a very curious and expressive way of describing the hurried and desperate fuck that Henri forces on Claire. She has been avoiding sex, fearing pregnancy during a time of war.

Her scruples don't last long when confronted by the attentions of Ted, however. But Shreve is always polite and their amorous betrayal is tinged with romance. They can't help themselves.

The mechanisms of the Resistance are rendered with some scrupulousness, although as an exponent of the genre it doesn't compare with Italo Calvino's The Path to the Nest of Spiders (orig. Italian publ. 1947). There is a curiously rounded feeling at the end, when all the threads of the plot are seamlessly knotted together, forming a golden halo of pure satisfaction around the heads of the survivors.
The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation bookcover; Blackwell PublishingReview: The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, Alister E. McGrath (2004)

This book in parts assumes significant knowledge of the medieval scholastic tradition. Many people will already have knowledge of the basic ideas surrounding humanism, which is a part of the Renaissance trajectory arising initially in Italy but spreading out to the rest of Europe. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a major, and often-mentioned, exponent of this movement. He is well-known to those interested in English history, especially that of the sixteenth century.

But in McGrath’s book there is a significant set of cognates without which you will struggle to understand some parts of the narrative.

It helps, for example, to understand the difference between ‘nominalism’ and ‘realism’ as historical constructs. Knowing about the Pelagian and Augustinian attitudes toward justification will also help. In fact, what does ‘justification’ mean?

Further important cognates are the via moderna and via antiqua. Doing Google searches on these terms may result in finding some clarifying texts, but I believe that to really understand this book it is necessary to have already read about the medieval scholastic tradition, and particularly about William of Ockham, an English theologian of the fourteenth century.

The discussion that McGrath puts forward frequently is as to how Luther developed his idea of “faith alone”. Whence did this strongly-held belief arise? McGrath postulates that Luther was intially a follower of the via moderna, which meant that he held to ‘nominalism’. But the pessimistic notion of human nature that his idea suggests can be seen to derive from the thought of Augustine of Hippo.

Nevertheless, McGrath makes specific pronouncements about the role of humanism in the emergence of both the Lutheran and Reformed churches, which he says arose independently, in two separate geographical loci.

Zwingli clearly follows Erasmus’s lead in several important areas, particularly in relation to biblical exegesis, the “spiritual” (in other words, internalized) understanding of religion, and the concept of imitatio Christi. Indeed, Zwingli frequently emphasized the importance of Erasmus’s philological techniques to his expository work. The evidence certainly suggests that the Zwingli who began his ministry in Zurich on January 1, 1519 was an Erasmian, albeit with political convictions reflecting those of a narrower Swiss humanism, rather than the cosmopolitan humanist espoused by Erasmus.

This covers the Reformed church. As for the Lutheran movement:

It is clear that Luther regarded the humanist movement as having placed at his disposal the textual and philological techniques necessary for his program of theological reform.

So, therefore:

Without humanism, there would have been no Reformation — because the Reformers needed the scholarly and political support of humanism until the movement had developed sufficiently to take care of itself.

This all seems quite straight-forward. It is when McGrath turns to the influence of medieval scholasticism — as how could he not — that the general reader will struggle. Nevertheless, as for myself, the book opens up a number of identifiable channels of further study. For example, who was William of Ockham, and what was he really saying? What did the papal schism of the fourteenth century entail, and what were the historical outcomes of it?

The best online summary that I found resulted from the search term ‘what is the “via moderna”’, and is located here. This summary manifests the basic thrust of the book, but without exposing the theological complexities it contains.

Other avenues that the curious might pursue are elucidated in the following:

One of the most enduring stereotypes of the relation between the Reformation and the late medieval period is that the latter is characterized by an appeal to both Scripture and tradition as theological sources, whereas the former appealed to Scripture alone (sola scriptura). … The Reformation, therefore, may be regarded as marking a break with the medieval period in this important respect, so that Wycliffe and Huss may therefore be regarded as “Forerunners of the Reformation.”

But McGrath does not take this assertion at face value, and so attempts to clarify exactly what is meant by ‘tradition’ in terms of late medieval scholasticism, noting that medieval scholars also relied absolutely on Scripture as the basis for salvation. McGrath is to a certain degree very interested in historical commonplaces, and is thus keen to use his immense scholarship to debunk the most obviously erroneous ones. In this respect, the book is a tonic for the benefit of the jaded enthusiast. We can only take so much bunkum, after all.

McGrath concludes by restating his belief that the movements that occurred in Wittenburg and Zurich were distinct, and that the German one relied more on a development of late medieval scholastic methodology, and was a more academic movement, while the Zurich one depended more on humanism and was more social and political in nature.

He also points again to the fact that the Great Schism (the Western Schism) had caused, for a hundred years, doubt about what was catholic dogma and what was merely theological opinion. In this context, he suggests, the Reformation, rather than being essentially revolutionary in nature, was actually an intrinsic development of Christian organisation that was some time coming. It combined with the vigorous inroads made by Renaissance humanism, and managed to find fertile ground in two separate loci in northern Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Was the Reformation an inevitability? This survey of the intellectual currents on the eve of the Reformation indicates that some form of upheaval within contemporary catholicism was highly probable. The factors that have been documented in the present study suggest that a significant degree of doctrinal instability had developed within catholicism by the end of the first decade of the sixteenth century.

He then goes on to suggest that social developments had an impact as well.

The rise of nationalism, the growing political power of both the south German and Swiss cities and the German princes, the rise of lay piety and theological awareness — all these coincided with this crisis within the world of religious ideas, turning an essentially intellectual movement into a political upheaval.

Saturday 30 December 2006

A Sportsman's Notebook bookcover; Everyman's LibraryReview: A Sportsman's Notebook, Ivan Turgenev (1950)

First published in 1852 as a series of pieces for the radical periodical The Contemporary, A Sportsman’s Notebook canvasses issues that were pressing for Westernisers in Russia at the time.

The format is ideal. As anyone who has read Jane Austen will know, a ‘sportsman’ was a hunter. Ideal because the hunter travelled all over the place (“Probably not many of my readers have had occasion to look inside a country pot-house—but we sportsmen, there's nowhere we don't go” says the narrator in a story midway through the book, ‘The Singers’).

Naturally, he was of noble birth. Serfs were not allowed to travel freely, and would be punished for taking another man's game. Accompanied by his retainer, a serf, the nobleman spent the spring and summer months chasing birds through wood and coppice, and shooting them.

Part of the travelling experience was meeting with the people who lived on the land which was the birds’ habitat. The book is thus filled with a dense kaleidoscope of characters, and allows the writer to display the many human relationships that obtained in the countryside of Russia. Many freemen abused their serfs, as we find in these short stories.

University-educated and noble himself, Turgenev was early exposed to this kind of abuse: his mother was apparently something of a psychopath, meting out beatings on a whim. Turgenev also travelled widely, and was exposed to Western modes of thought and living, from a young age.

The pieces in this collection are generally not referred to as short stories. Max Egremont, who wrote the introduction to my Everyman edition, says: “The episodes are not stories but glimpses of situations or characters, occasionally descriptions of scenery or landscape.” A Web site that provides a good intro to Turgenev including biographical information, calls them ‘sketches’.

I feel this is an abuse of Turgenev’s seemingly casual artistry. Certainly there is something ephemeral about the pieces, but that is all a part of their charm. Like a well-executed but spontaneous shot from the bore of a gun, as the birds flee their cover, the stories are swiftly entered and end with a quiver, a sudden silence that leaves reverberations in your mind. “Max Egremont is a historian, not a literary scholar,” says another Web site. Egremont studied modern history at Oxford University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He is also a bit of a stuffed shirt. His introduction is graceless and impossible to enjoy. The biographical bits only are worth remembering.

The 25 short stories in this 400-page book are very memorable, however. What amazes me most is that Nabokov did not mention him, as far as I can recall, even once. Nabokov’s dislike of Dostoyevsky is well-known, but he may also have been put off by the ‘engaged’ nature of Turgenev’s work. Nevertheless, I feel that he is at least equal in quality to Tolstoy, of his peers.

Turgenev's love of nature is striking, and the passages devoted to describing its beauties cause you to reflect in interesting ways on the other content he presents you with. He is not religious, he is liberal (“… when the serfs eventually won their freedom, Turgenev's text was credited with helping to secure their emancipation.”), he is educated. He seems to be the ideal guide, for an Australian, to the society he came from.

The flow of the stories is also very creative. One story, in particular, stuck me as being different from the rest, and displeased me somehow. In ‘Tatyana Borisovna and her Nephew’ the lady does not read (“Read?—no, she doesn‘t read; to tell the truth, books are not printed for the likes of her…”), but is nevertheless a good soul who all her neighbours respect. There is much talk in this story about philosophy and aesthetics; feelings, in other words. They seem to be important to Turgenev.

It happens that Tatyana had taken in an orphan, Andrei. He is something of an artist, and when he reaches the age of twelve, he is introduced to a man who has the pretensions of a connoisseur, and who takes Andrei to St Petersburg. There Andrei turns into an insufferable fop. When the man dies seven years later, Andrei, out of cash, returns to the countryside where he causes the hearts of the local maidens to flutter and his aunt to dote on him. But: “Many of her former acquaintances have stopped visiting Tatyana Borisovna.”

That’s the end of the story. It’s typical Turgenev: a sharp, almost brusque termination that leaves you thinking.

Thursday 28 December 2006

30 Days in Sydney bookcover; BloomsburyReview: 30 Days in Sydney: A wildly distorted account, Peter Carey (2001)

Brief synopsis: writer returns to home town for a month after years living as an expatriate in New York, meets some friends, who take him to some of their favourite haunts, where he meets a few new people.

As a sample of Sydney, the places these friends take Carey to are hardly representative of today's average inhabitant. Woollahra, the Blue Mountains, Pittwater, Paddington, Bondi, Vaucluse. Pretty upper-class, actually. He never gets to meet any of the millions who live in the multicultural west or south-west, or the denizens of the McMansion dormitory suburbs of the north-west. His encounters with Sydney are distinctly A-list and apart from one Aboriginal woman who drives a tow-truck and likes reading, almost exclusively AB demographic.

For all that, this is a book I'd recommend to any traveller intending to make the trip out to Sydney. It is a world-class city and deserves this type of treatment. It's just a pity that Carey doesn't know anyone who lives outside the exclusive selection of suburbs he samples. For that reason the subtitle is apt.

It's apt for other reasons, too. As in any book by Carey the level of humour is high and feisty. It's a punchy introduction. Although the people he meets up with — his old friends — are real people, they get the Carey treatment and seem larger than life, somehow. Bigger, stranger, odder, more representative. This is what fiction does well.

Carey does it extremely well, and nobody who reads this book should be disappointed. You get the feeling that the narrator is working hard just to keep up with what the city throws at him. It's too beautiful, too outrageous, too corrupt, too human to encapsulate in a paltry 250 pages. And it is. For this reason, the book has a frantic edge that supplies much of the humour.

The book provides a series of brief snapshots. It is easy to read, and great fun if you know the city and can 'get' the geographical and socio-political cognates immediately. For people who have never visited, it provides a quick intro to some of the things that matter to Sydneysiders. I just wish his snapshot of Parramatta Road had been longer.
Head of an old manThe ancient Egyptians were quite able to do realistic representations, as this bust of an old man shows. Why they didn't do it more often is an interesting mystery.

The generally-understood Egyptian figure is highly stylised, and is pretty much unchanged over a period of thousands of years. That means that thousands of craftsmen were producing almost-identical representations of the people who paid them.

As this exhibition, 'Journey to the Afterlife: Egyptian Antiquities from the Louvre', shows, most of the extant artefacts from this period were used in funeral ceremonies. The gods were ubiquitous and the journey to the afterlife was so perilous that it required considerable preparation, and assistance from the living.

As the gods have become gradually less and less ubiquitous, artists have been freed from the stylistic constraints demanded by their representation. But the Egyptian artists were sometimes called on to show warts and all, as the above bust illustrates. "Statues of people with shaved heads and marked features were in vogue between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE," says the catalogue. "Sculpted in dark and relatively hard stone, they combined an idealised depiction of the face with features inspired by reality. The irregular shape of the head and the marks of age on the face give these sculptures an unusual presence."

Not only unusual, but frankly striking. While walking among the exhibits, I was startled to come across this piece. It riveted me. So different from the stylised poses and features of most of the other artefacts!

Wednesday 27 December 2006

I'm in Canberra. I drove the distance yesterday in the Echo. I turned onto the M5 Motorway at 8.45am and an hour later had passed the Bargo turnoff. I stopped for breakfast at around 10.20 and passed the Marulan turnoff at 10.45. By 11.45 I was driving out of a rest area about 40 kilometers from the capital.

These shots I took of the countryside are typical of it, all the way from Sydney (which is about 300 kilometers away). The drought has made the landscape very dry and predominantly brown. This is Lake George. Nobody knows why it sometimes fills and is at other times a pasture for cattle. Right now, as you can see, it's totally dry.

Lake George
The next photo shows the dry hills behind the lake. From a distance, these hills look purple.

The highway and the hills next to Lake George
After arriving in the city I stopped at the information office on Northbourne Avenue and got a map and a free copy of The Canberra Times. They also gave me a leaflet for the Egyptian 'Afterlife' exhibition, which is the reason I came down in the first place. At the hotel, I opened a stubby of VB at 12.30, after booking in.

This morning I arose at my usual time of around 6.00 and had some breakfast. I read for an hour or so and arrived at the National Gallery just after 10.00am. Which was a good thing, as the carpark was already almost full.

Hundreds of people were queueing when I walked in the front entrance at around 10.10. It was really packed. Crowds of people, whole families, children, older citizens, teenagers all dressed for the hot weather and mingling in a bunch around each exhibit.

I wouldn't mind coming back later — the ticket is actually a day pass, so I can return later. I'll have some lunch and see if it's less full this arvo.

There are so many items on display that it is impossible to take it all in in one go, in any case.

Monday 25 December 2006

A Wanderer in the Perfect City bookcover; Hungry Mind PressReview: A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Passion Pieces, Lawrence Weschler (1998)

A neglected abstract expressionist painter suddenly discovered by an Indian polymath, a conductor and musical lexicographer of 92 who is never happy with his achievements, a Danish cheese manufacturer who converts an abandoned country house into one of Europe's finest art galleries, a rocket scientist and stock analyst who aspires to be a clown. If there's a thread running through these pieces it must be that we, as a species, are adaptable.

Weschler, a New Yorker feature-writer, is something of a wonder himself. He seems to bring out the best in his subjects, to make them reveal their essential humanity. His medium of literary journalism, or creative non-fiction, is ideal. It enables him to explain in mimic detail the contours of each life that is being opened up to him.

And the tone that emerges in his pieces is wonderful. I was almost going to say 'unforgettable', but that would be precipitate. We will see just how unforgettable they are, in the coming year. Nevertheless, there's a level of quality in these pieces that transports you to other realms of feeling.

Weschler is an urbane and open-minded liberal. How he comes across these stories is one of the abiding secrets of the book. It seems to have something to do with the fact that the more he publishes, the more he becomes known for this type of thing, and people just bring stories to him. It's kind of like those news stories with human interest on the TV some nights. How do they happen to find, for example, just the right type of working mother who is paying $95 a day for child care? Does someone in the studio make an introduction? Surely they don't have time to advertise. The news is breaking, current.

The stories in this book are not breaking news, but they are current in a profound sense. Frequently having to do with art and artists, they seem to point to an essential need in people to be creative. In this sense, the method he uses is ideally suited to the content. Using literary techniques to tell deeply moving stories.

Not only is he liberal in his thinking, but Weschler also writes an urbane and smooth sentence. His timing is perfect. But achieving this pitch, this sense of ease, is an indication of the artistry involved in the telling.

This will not be the last of his works I will read. I found him by reading The New New Journalism, which I bought in August and reviewed in September. In fact, I've been buying and mooching titles gleaned from that work consistently over the past few months. The reward for my acquisitive patience has so far been unmitigated pleasure.

Sunday 24 December 2006

Wyatt Mason has written a great retrospective review (published in the 18 December issue of The New Yorker) of the works of R. K. Narayan, an Indian writer who falls just outside the purview of a gen-Y (border-boomer) literary enthusiast such as I am.

The six-page piece covers a lot of ground, and Mason has obviously done his homework. I always find it amazing that a critic is able to condense so much into such a small space, and I am envious. Judicious and detailed writing all along the way, I suppose, must be the secret.

But why would you spend six months — for I would not expect his research to have taken less time than this — working on the work of a writer so obviously out of fashion as Narayan?

Of course I'd heard of his name, but only as a footnote to the real game: the Rushdies and the Naipauls.

Mason is canny with his points, working through a life of letters to a point we can sympathise with. As an Indian writer — an Asian — how does Narayan's world-view differ from ours?

Though crammed with incident, Narayan’s novels do not—indeed, cannot—chart a progression toward the formation of character. His characters, “strangled by the contour of their land,” are doubly circumscribed: by their nation’s political fate and by the inexorable fate of Hindu cosmology. In Narayan’s world, no less than in his lived life, we do not become; rather, we become aware of that which, for good or ill, we cannot help being. Through the novel, a form long used to show how things change, Narayan mapped the movements of unchanging things.

What I wonder about is whether Mason came to this thought through the fiction itself, or has he interpolated a point that has been made elsewhere many times before (about Asian cultures)?

Regardless of the answer to this question, the observation itself is apt. Having lived in Asia for almost a decade, I can attest to this sentiment being both pervasive and true. Which is why fate holds such a power of fascination over, say, the Japanese mind.

We do not make our destiny. It is delivered to us.
To get to the Paddy Bedford show at the Museum of Contemporary Art and back should take only an hour or so. I left home just before nine o'clock and walked down a deserted Beamish Street, stopping only to buy a sausage roll at one of the Chinese bakeries along the strip. When I returned to Campsie Station it was already twelve o'clock and the street, naturally, was bustling with crowds of shoppers, as it always is on the weekend.

What happened to the time? I only spent twenty minutes at the exhibition, a retrospective housed on two floors of the museum. Arriving too early by half and hour, I stepped into a cafe on the Quay and ordered a coffee plus a sugar-covered roll filled with sweet ricotta and cinnamon. The rain was falling on the tourists and the guy emptying the rubbish bins along the footway. Pigeons flapped under the awning to scrounge. I snapped a picture of the Opera House, relishing the pale tones of the scene: white on grey.

White on grey
The Paddy Bedford show was great, but nothing really grabbed my attention apart from a lemon-yellow composition for which there was, unfortunately, no postcard. I read about the Bedford retrospective yesterday and decided to visit to see if it was as good as Sebastian Smee said it was.

Bedford's work is mainly made up of few colours. The paintings can reliably be grouped into three categories. There are the ochre ones with mainly black designs. There are the multicoloured ones that resemble Mondrian (as both Smee and I, independently, pointed out). Then there are the black-and-white ones. In some ways, these last are the most dramatic.

But I'm still trying to decide if he's really as good as Smee says he is. After all, a retrospective at the MCA doesn't come to just anybody. Flicking through the fifty-dollar catalogue in the shop after leaving the hung rooms, I noted how prolific Bedford is. I just wonder how long it takes him to complete your average painting. They seem so simple.

Arcs, polyps, arches, arachnid forms, things that look like lakes, heads, snakes, emus. All these shapes. And the black-and-white ones with their swathes of darkness and ribbons of white. Very dramatic and compelling. But the ochre ones sort of command attention, too. Here's one on a card I bought.

Emu Dreaming, Paddy Bedford
I guess the impressionistic contours of his work remind me most of all of Cy Twombly. There's something unfinished and contingent about it all.

After leaving the exhibition I headed up Pitt Street and popped into Dymocks. Then on to the big shopping precinct located between King and Market Streets, where Borders and Angus & Robertson beckoned. Finally, I spent fifteen minutes or so in Kinokuniya's. My purchases:

Bali: Paradise Lost?, Emma Tom (2006)
A Writer At War: Vassily Grossman with the Red Army 1941 - 1945, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova (2005)
Music for Chameleons, Truman Capote (1975)
The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures, Peter Ackroyd (2001)
A Capote Reader, Truman Capote (1987)

I also picked up the latest issues of The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. No newsagent around here sells either. I have checked them all out. But I did manage to purchase a premium-priced litre of milk at the newsagent on the way down Beamish Street.
A Book of Common Prayer bookcover; PenguinReview: A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion (1977)

This novel is written in a spare prose that owes much to Didion's other metier of journalist. ("Novelists who have trained as journalists can usually be identified by their lack of plumage," says R. Z. Sheppard in Time magazine. "There is something about trying to interpret the world in narrow columns that keeps the feathers compact and flat.")

This formidable novel also employs structural techniques reminiscent of those employed by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. The narrative moves unpredictably back and forth in time. The reader is forced to build up, his- or herself, a story from scraps of conversations and interactions between the main protagonists, and minor players. We work hard, but the pay-off is worth it.

Charlotte Douglas exhibits a distracted and vulnerable femininity. She seems to be surrounded by obnoxious men who are too knowing and worldly-wise for her brand of breathless insouciance. At the beginning of the story (though not the novel — the story comes later) she is with Leonard Douglas, her second husband. Her daughter, Marin, is involved in a terrorist attack and is being hunted by the FBI. Leonard is a cut above the other men in the book. A lawyer, he is urbane and kind.

But Charlotte for some reason that is never explained then goes on the lam with her first husband, Warren Bogart, who is not. In fact, he's a drunkard and a bully. He is also Marin's father. Marin is like a prayer that Charlotte repeats to herself even after she has travelled to the fictional country of Boca Grande. She appears to be intent on losing herself, forgetting the past, moving onto something better.

Boca Grande does not supply what she wants, and she is reduced to having breakfast at the Caribe and dinner at the Jockey Club ("always the same table at the Jockey Club"). Not even a friendship with Grace Strasser-Mendana, the narrator, can bring her out of her cone of silence. As if she wants the world to disappear.

As in Didion's earlier novel, Play It As It Lays, there is a pregnancy. Who the father is, again, seems irrelevant. Here, also, it ends badly. Then Charlotte goes south.

She never returns to America.

During her meetings with Charlotte's American men, Grace also learns some dark secrets of her own.

The themes of insurrection and terrorism that swirl around Charlotte and her family are cogent reminders of the roles America has played in several global theatres.

This novel is as fresh and unsullied by time, as it was when first published, thirty years ago. Highly recommended.

Saturday 23 December 2006

I mooched The Railway Station Man (1984) by Jennifer Johnston from Woosang. Seeing that I lived in Campsie, she invited me to visit her workplace to pick up the book. This morning I received an e-mail with directions and a phone number. So this arvo I hopped into the Echo and drove down through Earlwood and Dulwich Hill to the location, between Marrickville and Sydenham.

The book's title is apt, as Woosang works in the switching station for the southern area of Railcorp. After I called her on my mobile she came down and buzzed me in. Up the stairs is the control room. There are three multi-screen consoles facing a mimic panel mounted on the wall. Inside it is dark and cool (the weather is very muggy today, with spots of rain dropping onto the tarmac).

We chatted about trains while standing outside the control room, leaning against the rail that bounds a viewing platform. (Politicians sometimes visit and wish to see inside without impacting on the operation.)

The entire system in computer-controlled, using Windows NT-based servers. Apparently my line, the Bankstown line, is totally automated, and is one of the most sophisticated lines in the country. At least that's what I gleaned from our conversation. "You're very lucky," she said.

Near Sydenham
On the way out (I stayed about ten minutes) I turned and snapped this photo, showing Woosang returning to the building. You can see from the sky how close to rain we are.

Friday 22 December 2006

Angus & Robertson, the chain bookseller, sets traps for unwary bookaholics like me. Their green-spot specials are deadly. I went out on a whim for a few Xmas presents, and I got what I aimed to buy. But in the process of mooching around the shop I also picked up five books with the green spot (indicating half price) on their spines.

For Antony, who has invited me over for lunch on Xmas Day, I purchased Inside Little Britain, because we used to laugh about it in the mornings when we went to get coffee before work. For Glenn, his partner, I always have some trouble buying presents. He used to be a cook, so I got Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar.

For Ant's mother and father, and his brother and sister-in-law, who will also all be there on Monday, I bought long pink packets of Italian nougat.

The green-spot specials are:

Les Murray by Steven Matthews (2001), a collection of critical essays
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis (1973)
Rock Springs by Richard Ford (1988), a collection of short stories
Electric Light by Seamus Heaney (2001), a book of poems
Totem by Luke Davies (2004), more poetry

And because I'm fascinated by her story I also purchased a Xmas present for myself: Girl in the Cellar: The Natascha Kampusch Story by Allan Hall and Michael Leidig.

Thursday 21 December 2006

Metropolis Books, a new independent store in downtown LA, first came to my attention via a post on the Counterbalance blog. Then today I came across a great piece written by Scott Timberg for the Los Angeles Times.

It's really worth reading, just so you get a feel for the environment of this part of the city. Gentrification, apparently, is predominant and the bookstore's appearance seems to be part of this process.

I've never been outside the airport of Los Angeles, and this piece provides a welcome glimpse into the workings of a major metropolis. The bookshop is well-named.

"Ultimately, what it comes down to is reclaiming these blighted areas," said Andre Coleman, a science-fiction writer. "You have to put culture back — you can't just put in a Subway or a Starbucks. I know we're close to an area called skid row, but a bookstore gives people hope."

What is happening in LA sounds a lot like what happened in Sydney. Much of Glebe, for example, where Gleebooks has prospered for decades, was until the mid-nineties pretty run-down. Newtown was even worse, but now offers readers many opportunities for choice and bargains in numerous bookstores.

It's interesting how cities work.
The Best Australian Essays 2006 bookcover; Black Inc.Review: The Best Australian Essays 2006, edited by Drusilla Modjeska (2006)

A successful stint as editor of this year's collection by Drusilla Modjeska is almost spoiled by three heavy opinion pieces latched onto the book's end. Political pundit David Marr, history professor Alfred W. McCoy and philosophy wonk Raimond Gaita, on the loose, are quite able to fill up 50 pages with an unappetising brew of tired lefty gumbo. I say the collection is 'almost' spoiled because the quality of the other contributions is very high indeed.

I would advise the curious to stop reading at page 354.

Most memorable for me among the essays offered here were the ones that provided insight conveyed with humour and style. Such as Saskia Beudel's fascinating account of a bush walk gone almost tragically wrong. 'Walking: West MacDonnell Ranges 2002' makes you fear to read on, but after creating suspense she clevery allays it with several judicial flash-forwards.

I certainly didn't know that author Linda Jaivin was a subtitler from the Chinese, and 'Tanks! Tanks! (You're Most Welcome)' offers the uninitiated a glimpse into the world of the subtitler. We learn about the difficulties these hidden drudges are faced with on a daily basis. We are, most importantly, amused.

The discoveries Gideon Haigh made when researching his essay about Google, 'Information Idol', have dissolved from my consciousness (I finished the book yesterday). But it, too, was a good read.

Even better is the next essay, by Lyndel Rowe, 'Soap Opera International', about the ins and outs of washing your clothes in public laundromats. Joel S. Kahn continues the travel theme in the following essay, 'Departure and Arrival', which provides an insight into the cultures of south-east Asia and the nature of work as an anthropologist. The terminology is technical but not insurmountable for the layman reader.

Earlier in the book is found 'Beyond the Comfort Zone', a delightful essay by Margaret Simmons about the trubulations a parent undergoes when faced with choosing a high school for her kids. The piece fairly rips along, collecting on the way dozens of cogent facts about this particular high school in Melbourne, Debney Park Secondary College. Appearances can be misleading, we learn.

'Armed for Success' continues the education theme. By an Aboriginal, Chris Sarra, it is a curious little piece, and is written in an engaging and feisty bureaucratese that nevertheless enables him to commit to paper some of the most important issues surrounding aboriginality. The key to success, it seems, is honesty and courage. It would be possible to be inspired by this man.

Robert Hughes takes us into the life of Rembrandt with his piece, 'The God of Realism'. Clearly a winning label, 'realism' here means a revolutionary approach to depicting his subjects, which permits the seventeenth-century Dutch painter to endure as a master-figure into the twenty-first.

And there is much more in here. Forget the last three pieces and instead focus, if you choose to buy this book, on the pleasures inhabiting the other 29 essays enrolled herein.

Wednesday 20 December 2006

The Dubai International Film Festival is covered by Sophie Tedmanson in today's The Australian. She travelled to Dubai as a guest of the festival and wrote just over 1100 words about her experiences.

They seem to have been rewarding, and justify the length of the piece. A lot of space is dedicated to the film Felafel by Michel Kammoun, a Lebanese director.

Also interesting is what an Iranian distributor of films, Katayoon Shahabi, says about the Middle East:

"We need such an event as the festival because we don't have a window for our region for cultural exchange," she said. "Especially for us to get to know each other better, for Arab countries to know Iranian films and how we can build our own bridges. It is a very good initiative, but there is a lot of work to do."


"Just because we're neighbours doesn't mean we know each other. We think we know each other but we don't," she said. "We have to create a public for our cinema in the region. The only way to save our region, through all the misunderstanding, war and politics ... is through educating people with culture."

This reminds me of what I read about European cinema while watching the telecast of an awards ceremony. Hollywood is so powerful, and successful at distributing its product, that other players are squeezed out of cinemas. It is important, they said, for European movie houses to support European distributors, so that an alternative voice could be heard.

Nevertheless, on another point raised by Shahabi, I don't think that culture can be considered a force in education, nor should it. If it is, there is the equal danger that people will blame artistic productions for such things as "moral decline". Culture should be considered purely a method of entertainment. Anything further that derives from exposure to cultural products must be considered an additional extra, a side-effect, marginal to the main effect — entertainment.

Especially in countries where education levels cannot support liberal humanism. God knows, it's often enough that you hear the pundits complaining, in Australia, that television is a corrupting influence. It's even more likely to happen in places where morals are thought to require legal bolstering, such as in Middle-Eastern countries.
Haruki Murakami has translated F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and is interviewed (via e-mail) by Yomiuri Shimbun's Tadashi Yamauchi, a staff writer.

"Is there any common ground between Fitzgerald's world and today's Japan?" asks Yamauchi.

One of Fitzgerald's themes is maturity--individual maturity and society's maturity. He was in his 20s in the 1920s, a very special time for American society. His youth and society's youth closely corresponded to each other and synchronized in a way. America was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, and the young Fitzgerald was enjoying fame.

The novel Gatsby was born almost by itself in the innocent fever of such times. But despite that fact, the novel itself is not innocent at all. Fitzgerald apparently captured a dark side of the noisy and tumultuous boom time.

Fitzgerald, through Nick, has a nagging sense that something is wrong. He also pursues the possibility of maturity as the story develops. However, the pursuit is swallowed by the lure of the good times and lost without bearing fruit.

Then comes the 1930s, the age of the Great Depression. It's a dark age in contrast to the flashy '20s. Fitzgerald matured as a writer as America did as a society. Both became introspective, and they had to mature in their own ways.

I think those years may correspond to Japan's bubble economy, its bursting and the "lost decade" that followed. I believe that Japanese society has matured to a new level by going through this stage (or that's what I want to believe). For this reason, now is precisely the right time for Japanese to read Gatsby, which in a way will seem very realistic to them.

There's a lot of good stuff in this interview. Highly recommended.

He aspires to write like Dostoyevsky, apparently, and doesn't consider himself a genius:

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I'm not a genius, so I can't live without taking control of various aspects of my personal life.

Thanks to Return of the Reluctant for the heads up.
Karen Armstrong has reentered the religious debate by publishing a new book about the Muslim prophet, Muhammad. As covered by Laurie Goodstein in The New York Times, the book, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, promises to be widely read and thoroughly discussed by Westerners, if not by Muslims. Sharon Bakar blogged in May last year about the banning of one of Armstrong's books (A History of God) in Malaysia because it would be “detrimental to public order”.

Then, this year, another book, Bakar reported, was banned. The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been prevented from being sold in the South-East Asian country because it was "deemed to be able to disrupt peace and harmony".

Among other things:

“Muhammad was not a pacifist,” Ms. Armstrong writes. “He believed that warfare was sometimes inevitable and even necessary.”

This is why some passages in the Koran are rules for warfare. Terrorist groups cite these selectively — or contort or violate them. The Koran says not to take aim at civilians; some terrorist groups declare all Israelis to be combatants because Israelis are required to perform military service.

It'll be interesting to see how the Internal Security Ministry treats this new book under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, which was used to prevent the sale of the other two titles.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

In BookMooch news: today a woman in Missouri mooched my extra copy of Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov. That's an additional three points, bringing my total points to almost 12 (you get a tenth of a point each time you submit notification that you have received a book). That's enough for 12 books from Australians or six books from overseas. Yippee.

But I've had problems with books I've mooched. Two are still pending, and have been for over a month. I wonder if it's because, coming from overseas, they've been mailed surface.

Nevertheless, I recently received two mooched books. One is Rituals by Cees Nooteboom. I've been wanting to read something by this often-mentioned Dutch writer for some time. My favourite visual arts critic, Sebastian Smee, has named him in reviews. Well, I found an Australian BookMooch member with a copy, and it arrived within days. That's the advantage of mooching from people in your own country: fast delivery.

The other book that arrived recently is What It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer. This is a work of literary journalism published in 1992 that takes a behind-the-scenes look at the struggle that was the 1988 presidential election. I came across Cramer when reading The New New Journalism, which I reviewed in September.

If you want to see my BookMooch inventory, click here.

Monday 18 December 2006

Wendy Bacon has written an amazing story that was published today on page 4 of The Sydney Morning Herald. It's unusual to find a senior academic breaking a story of this kind, in Australia.

The story is horrific. It is amazing that it took so long for anything to happen. There is no doubt in my mind that she should have gone to the media earlier. She only decided to come out during the trial.

Good on the Herald for running this story. We need more of this type of journalism: committed, caring, intelligent, topical.

And good on Bacon for keeping her hand in.
Website redesigns can be fraught. But two of the broadsheets I visit daily have bitten the bullet. The Australian's new look is cool. They've redone the links on the left-hand side of the page to make them more visible and distinctive.

Interestingly, they've given the 'Strewth!' column front-page exposure. In the printed version, this column is buried in the back of the news section on the daily features page, but is always worth pausing for. It contains light, humourous snapshots of events that occurred on the previous day, and has boldface names that make it easy to skim.

They've also diminished the 'Breaking News' section. It was twice as tall before. But if the stories are arriving fast, and it's really only for the purposes of scanning the latest events, a smaller window for this portion is no drawback. Most people, I wager, don't often click on items that appear here. I know I don't. But it's nice to see what's happening when it happens.

The fonts are new. They've chosen serif fonts this time, instead of the blockier sans-serif font they had before. This design feature gives the page a cleaner, more agile flavour.

The other paper that has changed its look is, of course, The New Zealand Herald, which is owned by the great rival of News Corp. (which owns The Australian), Fairfax Limited.

Their new look is also welcome. Brighter, more accessible, cleaner. The only problem is that now, to get to the books page, it takes two clicks. Before, to get to 'Arts & Literature' was just one click. From there, you were able to filter out the non-books headlines by clicking on the 'Books' link.

But I don't mind really. Now, to get to the books page, you must click on 'Entertainment' and then 'Books'. No great hardship.

Once you get there, however, you're in for a treat. They display more headlines and you can see what day each item was first posted on (which is an improvement on the previous layout). You can also read a few lines of content without clicking, which is also good.
Meme time!

Kathryn Koromilas has tagged me. The instructions:

1. Grab the book closest to you.
2. Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence.
3. Post the text of the next three sentences on your blog.
4. Name of the book and the author.
5. Tag three people.


1. The Best Australian Essays 2006, Black Inc.
2. Done.
3. "[Patrick Nugent, the young man who had shared the cell with Moordinyi when he died] admits he'd been drinking heavily and sniffing petrol that morning, and it's clear even now he has at best a rudimentary understanding of what is going on. He is labelled a liar by the police lawyers. That evening he goes home and tries to set himself alight."
4. The essay in question is, of course, 'The Tall Man' by Chloe Hooper. It goes from page 111 to page 137. It was originally published in The Monthly, March 2006. Hooper was a winner at the Walkley Awards for this inspiring essay. She followed it up with a sequel in the November issue of the same magazine. I covered the event.
5. Kimbofo at Reading Matters, John Baker, and Meredith Jones at Marrickvillia.

Sunday 17 December 2006

David Milofsky chronicles a blogging debacle that happened recently in the U.S. Apparently "Lee Siegel, a senior editor at The New Republic, has been suspended by the magazine for using a "sock puppet" or Internet alias to respond to critics on his web-log". A 'sock puppet' apparently is an anonymous e-mail address, used so that you can't be identified.

In response, Siegel said: " never occurred to me ... that I was doing something wrong. Anonymity is a universal convention of the blogosphere, and the wicked expedience is that you can speak without consequences. What was wrong is that I did it ... as a senior editor of the magazine."

It's true that anonymity is a right, in the blogoshpere. My own online persona is a mask over my true identity (and I'm going to keep it that way). Milofsky, who writes for The Denver Post, mentions another online spat between a blogger (Edward Champion — see link on this page) and a literary pundit (Lev Grossman, book critic of Time magazine). He then goes on to indulge in some musings on the nature of the blogosphere and, particularly, the "larger questions about blogs, truth, and the Internet".

Buyer beware, is a good maxim to follow when dealing online. Nevertheless, Milofsky points to a type of post that he labels "blogofascism" (coined by Siegel) and "freewheeling". The blogosphere, he says is "the Wild West of journalism".

Certainly Champion is now well-known for his sharp tongue. He seems like an intelligent man and he's certainly passionate about what he does. It's that passion, ("bloggers are more subjective ... about their literary passions" says Champion), that will help bloggers to win in the end.

"Do you think we need more 'emotion' and novelistic 'empathy' in journalism?" I recently asked a journalist by e-mail. "How strongly do you feel this?"

Her reply? "Very strongly. Those who claim to be uniformly "objective" should be sued for false advertising." Polls regularly rate journalists pretty low, although not as low as politicians or used-car salesmen.

But there are moves to right the wrongs. Robert Cox says that he wants to credential bloggers. How?

Members would have to take an online course offered by the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, covering legal issues related to blogging.

Members also could seek credentialed status by undergoing training or demonstrating other work as professional journalists. They also must agree to the organisation's ethical standards and adopt formal editorial and corrections policies.

Interesting. I'll certainly be looking into it as soon as I finish this post.

For myself, I do believe that there is rather too much acrimony online. Rather than read Return of the Reluctant (Edward Champion's blog) I tend toward the more sedate tone of Matilda (run by Melbourne-based litblogger Perry Middlemiss). But that's just a personal preference.
Indur Goklany makes a positive case for globalisation and industrialisation, says Deborah Coddington in The New Zealand Herald today. His book, The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet, renders facts about material development in a more favourable light than is generally the case.

The world's poor, he reckons, now enjoy the most dramatic rise in their standard of living. And, telling us something many of us already know, as countries have abandoned communism, state control and/or poverty, they have become more environmentally clean and their people more healthy.

Having visited China several times, this is something I already knew. But in an age of deathly doomsayers who endlessly pour climate-change into our living rooms, it is nice to hear someone else ringing the same bells.

The statistics Coddington quotes speak for themselves. As for climate-change, I personally see no evidence that it is caused by industrial activity. In Chaucer's day they grew grapes in southern England. In the time of Elizabeth I, the Thames would freeze over in the winter-time and the people would hold fairs on the ice. Climate-change is a fact of life, and not necessarily a result of carbon emissions.

Initially reviewed by Allister Heath in The Spectator, the book seems to bear a welcome message. It augurs well for peace and prosperity into the future.

In response to Heath's review, one letter-writer claims that climate-change is the new Christianity, a gospel that is aligned with the dominant force in modern culture (science) that "is so easily accepted by the non-church-attending masses". The state, as always, follows, says Paul Horgan.
V. S. Naipaul made a rare public appearance on 11 December at the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre at Somerset House in London to address the Royal Society of Literature (of which he is a Fellow). The moderator was John Carey and the audience included Claire Tomalin.

This is really worth reading. It's short and dense. Go ahead.

Thanks to The Literary Saloon for the heads up.
Alex Miller, two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award, gave a lecture at the State Library of Victoria recently which has been edited for inclusion in The Australian's Review supplement this weekend. I forsee that it will go largely unremarked. This is a shame. It is very good.

In it, Miller examines the way that different forms of remembering — including both history and fiction — enrich our understanding of ourselves and our culture.

I read the piece on the train yesterday coming back from Pennant Hills, where I lived until a year ago. What took me north yesterday was a mechanical problem with my car. Surrounded by memories, many of which I have been glad to distance myself from, Miller's words struck me as very true. The effect of the piece titled, sentimentally, 'Written in Our Hearts', is cumulative. It is most compelling at the end. These quotes come from near the end of the piece.

The novel is often also the history of the so-called losers rather than the powerful ones, giving voice to those unremarked women and men who slide into the dark and leave scarcely a trace of their passing. This sense of the novel, and in fiction generally, of the private and the unofficial, the unrecorded and the silent finding its voice is one reason we are so powerfully drawn to the genre.

And I would also add another genre of writing that Miller leaves unremarked: literary journalism. The writing of non-fiction using writerly techniques is a form of expression somewhere between history and the novel. It allows the writer to explore in greater detail the reality of his or her choosing, but also with recourse to the compelling premise of literature: that empathy is the goal of the writing.

Which is related to another element of what Miller talks about: relative truth.

The real test of whether we succeed in our writing, no matter if what we write is history or fiction, is not whether we believe what we write to be true — though we must believe this — but whether the people we write about are able to celebrate in our work the truth they know of themselves.

Even if they are dead. Even if they cannot read it themselves, what is written should reflect the reality of the subject honestly. This must be the foundation of empathy.

This essay is timely, coming as it does at a time when there has been much debate in the media in this country about the relative merits of history and fiction. Miller seems to be seeking a way out of the contest of claim and counter-claim that has been sapping our patience and causing unnecessary friction between the two camps: academics and novelists. A third way.

I submit for consideration a third party, also. Why journalists have been left out of the equation is a separate issue. But presumably they are not to be taken as seriously as the other two groups. I think this is a shame. Journalists — who deal mainly in facts but are also often extremely accomplished and engaging prose stylists — are often shunned. Without deserving it.

Saturday 16 December 2006

Bratz dolls vs. Barbie dollsIn October, Caroline Overington published a story in The Australian that brought into the mainstream media a debate on the representation of young girls. The basis of the story was a report written by Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze entitled 'Corporate Paedophilia:
Sexualisation of children in Australia'.

The retailer, David Jones, which was named in the Australia Institute report as an offender, complained bitterly and threatened legal action. But it is not only the retailers and tween magazines that are at fault, according to Margaret Talbot, whose story in the 4 December issue of The New Yorker, 'Little Hotties', charts the emergence of the Bratz line of dolls for girls. Since 2001, sales of Bratz dolls have risen sharply so that they now account for 40 per cent of the U.S. market, against Barbie's 60 per cent.

Bratz dolls have large heads and skinny bodies; their almond-shaped eyes are tilted upward at the edges and adorned with thick crescents of eye-shadow, and their lips are lush and pillowy, glossed to a candy-apple sheen and rimmed with dark lip liner. They look like pole dancers on their way to work at a gentleman's club.

"Bratz are really just trashy," says Tiffany Holmes, a Maryland mother of three girls (aged seven, six and three). "I mean, these are dolls that look like streetwalkers," says her husband, Christopher.

Bratz dolls don't have Barbie's pinup-girl measurements—they're not as busty and they're shorter. But their outfits include halter tops, faux-fur armlets, and ankle-laced stiletto sandals, and they wear the sly, dozy expression of a party girl after one too many mojitos.

Not being, myself, father of a girl in this age group, I was dismissive when I first saw Bratz merchandise in my local post office. I thought it Japanese manga-inspired trash from China that the store was trying to push onto an unwilling public. Until I read Talbot's article. Then I realised that this is what sells in the target demographic. I also realised that it fits in with a pattern of K.G.O.Y. (Kids Getting Older Younger) that is actively pursued by marketers.

What Bratz dolls are both contributing to and feeding on is a culture in which girls play at being "sassy"—the toy industry's favored euphemism for sexy—and discard traditional toys at a younger age.

"Many parents," writes Talbot, "find this aesthetic weird, even repellent, but somehow hard to dodge."

Bratz girls seem more like kept girls, or girls trying to convert a stint on reality TV into a future as the new Ashlee of Lindsay or Paris.

Parents may try to fight against this trend — which Rush and La Nauze say resembles what paedophiles want to do to kids when they 'groom' them — but the incredible growth of Bratz in the past few years is a strong signal that this is what young girls want. Maybe there's not much to worry about. Apparently, when Barbie was first launched in 1959, mothers' reactions were similar.

Many girls loved her, many mothers did not—and the disapproval they expressed sounded a lot like the disapproval you hear mothers expressing about Bratz today. Either the complaints that children are becoming too knowing too early are to some extent perennial, or companies keep pushing the bounds of what parents find acceptable, and parents are limited in what they can do to push back.

Rush and La Nauze may try to explain the problem but they miss the fact that what we may consider sexualisation is merely childrens' way of coping with a world in which image and style is more and more a matter of self-expression. And to keep up with the pace of change, they are choosing models that seem to them to be adaptable. From their report:

When these three sources of children’s sexualisation are considered together – as children actually experience them – it is apparent that young children today, particularly girls, face sexualising pressure unlike that faced by any of today’s adults in their childhood.

This last statement may simply be untrue. What is incontestable is that the increased role of media of all kinds has encouraged debate at a level that was unthinkable in the late nineteen-fifties. It may be a debate that we need to have, but in the end the children will simply make up their own minds.

Talbot points to a hundred-dollar, high-end substitute called American Girl that has failed to keep pace with either Barbie or Bratz. It "will never be a mass consumer brand", she decides. Bratz may be "peddling the toy world's version of gangsta chic" but that seems to be what little girls want to play with. And no wonder. As long as TV and magazines continue to transfer mainstream cultural products into the living rooms and bedrooms of pre-pubescent girls, they will continue to want to emulate what they see.

It seems to me that what we need to focus on is the source of these products, not the media through which it is communicated. Bratz is an avatar designed to be acceptable in the world girls are surrounded with. As such, Bratz and the "corporate paedophilia" targeted by Rush and La Nauze are merely symbols of a deeper social malaise, it seems to me, where overt displays of selfhood are being channelled by capital into a kind of proletarian pornography.
A joint biography of Wordsworth and Coleridge is reviewed in The Guardian by Jonathan Bate. Adam Sisman's The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge doesn't quite live up to the reviewer's expectations. But the review provides a very good introduction, in itself, to the Romantic revival that powered through the nineteenth century until World War One knocked it soundly on the scone.

Previous biographers have tended to favour either Wordsworth or Coleridge, so it is Sisman's great achievement to have approached the relationship in an even-handed way; but the reader is left wanting to know more about the dynamic of the wider household and the domestic life of Alfoxden and Dove Cottage, that could offer both inspiration and admonition for the post-nuclear family.

Unfortunately, Bate considers these two worthy writers to have been the first Romantics. Many academics call this flowering of artistry the Romantic Revival, in consideration of the many poets of earlier decades whose work holds the seeds — already sprouting with unquenchable vigour — of a Romantic sensibility.
Nineteen writers were asked by the Melbourne broadsheet The Age to recommend books that they read in 2006.

Most interesting for me were the words from Peter Temple about Cate Kennedy, whose collection of short stories I reviewed last month.

Cate Kennedy's collection of short stories, Dark Roots (Scribe, $28.95), announces the arrival of a major talent in Australian fiction. She has a near pitch-perfect voice and a feeling for the precise moment when stars move in the cosmos.

I'm afraid he put it in better words than I did. Nevertheless, the more people talk about this wonderful new writer, the better. I hope to see more of her stories published in The New Yorker in future (that was where I first came across her fiction, and the discovery made me immediately rush out and buy the book).

Nearly as interesting were the recommendations of a writer I hold in very high esteem indeed: Christos Tsiolkas. He has read Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East and E. L. Doctorow's The March.

He also recommends a movie: Terrence Malick's The New World:

This is an epic literary work, the closest American cinema has come to the breadth and power of Melville or Hawthorne. This masterpiece disappeared from our cinemas within a week and the critics largely neglected it. What a stupid, junky, facile world we live in.

Thanks to Reading Matters for the heads up.
Nuri Vittachi's newest book, The Feng Shui Detective's Casebook is mentioned in the Spectrum supplement in this weekend's The Sydney Morning Herald.

I will always remember Vittachi as the author of 'Travellers' Tales' in the Far Eastern Economic Review, a feature page which collects odd stories from the region and publishes them in an engaging and comical format.

Unfortunately, the magazine has made 'Travellers' Tales' a subscription-only option, so the curious and simply outlandishly funny snippets of language and custom in Asia are barred for most surfers. They have, however, a blog called Travellers' Tales (which may or may not be the same thing) so there is some light relief available for readers with a taste for serendipity.
An interview with Gore Vidal is published in The Sydney Morning Herald today. John Preston of The Telegraph talks with Vidal about a couple of things.

It's not a very interesting interview. Possibly Vidal, who is 81 this year, is past being interesting and has instead become orphic. The non-sequiturs start to kick in at a certain age, and I think Vidal has reached that stage.

He's remarkably funny, nevertheless. The interview coincides with the publication of a new book of memoirs, Point to Point Navigation.

As Vidal heads towards what he calls "the door marked Exit", so too does the species he represents: the famous writer. Nowadays, writers simply aren't famous any more - or, rather, "to speak of a famous writer is like speaking of a famous speedboat designer. The adjective is inappropriate to the noun."

The reasons for this are twofold, Vidal believes. "The French auteur theory of the 1950s had a lot to do with it. People who might have written books started trying to make movies instead. I remember all these terrible hacks in Hollywood coming up and telling me, 'I'm an auteur, you know.' And I would say, 'I always knew you were by the way you parted your hair.'

"Also, the GI Bill of Rights after the war meant that milllions of people who had never been educated before went to university. The trouble was they liked it so much they decided to stay there and become academics. And if you want to meet someone who really hates literature, then just talk to an academic."

'Auteurs'? 'GI Bill'? As if he's just too damn famous to make a cogent reply, Vidal sends off sparks of thought instead of answering the questions put to him.

In this case, instead of an edited article, I think it would have been better to have provided a transcript, so that we would know exactly who said what. I personally would like to have followed the flow of ideas more closely.

For example: who brought up the idea of the death of the author? Was it Preston or Vidal? It's actually an interesting question, whoever initiated it. Recently, when the dress that was worn by Audrey Hepburn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's was sold at auction for over a million dollars, there was no mention of Truman Capote as the author of the novella used to make the film. None. Not on the TV and not in print. It's disgraceful.

Friday 15 December 2006

You Witness is a new service offered by Yahoo! that allows anyone to upload digital movies and photographs into an online news environment. The story was covered by The Economist (9-15 December issue).

The movies and photos can then become part of Yahoo!'s news Site. "Upload your photos and video here to have them considered for use in articles and features on Yahoo! News," says the Web site.

This is a new instance of the type of opportunity that Channel Seven (which has a joint venture with Yahoo! in Australia) has offered viewers for some time now Down Under. Following each news program every night, Seven has run ads seeking contributions from individuals in the community covering notable events.
"John Fairfax is believed to be planning a launch of internet-only titles in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth early next year," writes Michael Sainsbury in yesterday's edition of The Australian. Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the story in The Sydney Morning Herald, which is owned by Fairfax.

Interesting also to read that "an analyst" says there will be war with News Corp if the initiative goes ahead. No name. I wonder why the analyst was so worried about being quoted on the record? It's hardly the sort of story that would lead to violent enmity. I imagine the analyst, whoever she or he is, is worried that good relations with Fairfax, the leading publisher of news in the major south-east markets of Sydney and Melbourne, would be destroyed if she or she were named openly.

But it's actually big news, and demonstrates how concerned print journals are by the rise of the Internet as a vehicle for advertising. In a related story, The Australian revealed that a consortium of real estate companies would be likely to launch a Web portal for home and apartment ads. The Internet changes everything, indeed.
'Aceh poll underlines popularity of GAM' reads the headline in The Jakarta Post following the return of results from the recent election for governor of Aceh, the beleaguered Indonesian province.

The article by Tony Hotland (warning: music plays automatically on this Site) makes interesting reading for anyone who has watched a process of reconciliation between the rebels and Jakarta's powerbrokers emerge over the past year or so.

Irwandi Yusuf is the surprise winner of the poll, which will hopefully serve to help establish higher standards of accountability throughout this ethnically-diverse nation. Corruption, which is a major element of public life in many countries that impedes the motions of democracy, may now become less endemic. We can only hope.

But you only have to read the work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer to understand the challenges facing Indonesian society. I generally refrain from laying blame at the door of colonialism, but in this case there are grounds for imagining a different present — and a different future — if things had been done differently in the past.

One welcome outcome from the point of view of Australia is that the Islamist party has fared as badly in the poll as "those endorsed by the traditional national political parties".

Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono said Wednesday the early result of the gubernatorial poll giving a landslide win to the Irwandi Yusuf-M. Nazar pair was a message to Jakarta that Aceh wanted more action not more words.

"I think it's an expression of a desire for autonomy by the Acehnese. The message is that the central government must be more attentive to the Aceh people," he said.

Juwono said the failure of candidates endorsed by Jakarta-based political parties showed how badly Jakarta had treated Aceh in the past.

Now the challenges that president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his colleagues will encounter must spread to the equally-beleaguered province of West Papua, where separatists are also active. The stink that blew up in May when a group of men, women and children found refuge in Australia by crossing from their country in a small boat promises to return if Jakarta cannot get its act together.

For the Islamists this result will be a blow they may not easily recover from in the short term. On TV the other night we were regaled with images of the politeness police driving around in their expensive vehicles and chastising young people who dared to express affection in public or who allowed a few stray hairs to emerge from beneath their hijabs. This kind of Saudi-inspired foolishness must stop.
Matthew Clayfield has written a really great post on his Esoteric Rabbit Blog about Howard Arkley, the Melbourne painter who died tragically young in 1999.

The post also brings to our attention the fact that there will be a major retrospective of this interesting painter touring the country. In 2007 it will appear at the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Queensland Art Gallery. The NGV Web site explains the interest Arkley continues to generate:

Howard Arkley is popularly conceived as the foremost painter of Australian suburbia. His signature houses and domestic interiors and fascination with vernacular, quotidian experience, however, were produced always in dialogue with his preoccupation with abstraction, patterning and the slide between two and three dimensions. Arkley's paintings, painted sculptures and installations collapsed distinctions between abstraction and representation, and questioned certain utopian aspirations - whether it is the suburban dreams of home ownership or the functional design of modernist furniture and architecture. Arkley's literally spectacular pictorial abstraction involves a slippage between the real and the model, between utilitarianism and decoration, and between the elevated and the commonplace.

Clayfield makes the interesting connection to the major hit series that has been broadcast over the past few years by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Kath and Kim.

It's probably television's Kath & Kim that comes closest to achieving the same ambivalence—and therefore complexity—of Arkley's work, but even it has a tendency to go one way or the other (which is inevitable really, given its obligations as a satire).
Haruki Murakami continues to fascinate Western readers. In Opinion Journal Emily Parker, an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal, interviews the writer in his Hawaii home and comes away feeling frustrated that he doesn't make more of an effort to provoke a serious debate about Japan's murky past.

Themes of history and memory clearly run through Mr. Murakami's books. Yet he seems loath to analyze his own work for political messages or historical lessons, saying that he just wants to "write a story." But if Mr. Murakami feels so strongly about facing the past, and so concerned about the future of his nation, why doesn't he address these issues more explicitly in his writing, using his prose to shake Japan out of its historical amnesia? The novelist answers that sending overt political messages is simply not the job of a fiction writer.

Parker also evinces some surprise at Murakami's normality — as a Japanese.

Even as he chooses to spend much of his time in Honolulu, Mr. Murakami appears to reveal the punctilious ways of his homeland. (He reminded me to take off my shoes before entering his home, an airy Hawaiian residence that offers a breath of quiet and anonymity for the celebrity writer. Then he promptly sat down at a light wood table--in formal repose--and looked at me expectantly, waiting for the interview to begin.) And as if to confirm this impression, the Kyoto-born Mr. Murakami says that, in some ways, he is 100% Japanese. "The difference," he says, "is that I'm kind of individualist."

Murakami's difference is actually legendary to afficionados. He refuses to run with the pack and this puzzles the Japanese intellectuals who would otherwise compete to celebrate his celebrity in the West. The usual suspects who appear on TV chat shows are another breed or, rather, Murakami is.

But one thing's for certain: there's nothing fake or superficial about him, and his insistence on the outward forms of Japanese civility indicate to me his deep sincerity. This is a good, long interview that is worth reading if you have any interest in Japan at all. It highlights the differences in attitude that serve to make Western commentators — such as your truly — question whether Japan is actually a free society, in the profound and compound sense that we normally understand when the phrase is uttered.

Thanks to BookFox for the heads up.
'Puffins are not baby Penguins' says Puffin marketing officer Justin Renard, who also says he's been in his job for nine months. The Penguin Blog is a striking exemplar of an interesting phenomenon, as corporations attempt to make themselves into user-friendly entities and "engage" more meaningfully with customers. I read it regularly, just to get an idea of the different characters who inhabit the offices of this spectacularly successful publishing concern.

Apparently Puffin, which was born in 1940 as the children's imprint of the company founded by Allen Lane, will turn 70 in 2010. Renard is one of the employees charged with the task of making the milestone a memorable, and of course profitable, one.

So I open the question to you. What does Puffin mean to you? What do people remember? Cherish? Judge? Criticise? And what would you like to see us do in 2010? Afterall, like Penguin, Puffin is not a brand that just sits there idly on the shelf. It is a part of us all. Or is it? What say you? And who knows, we might even pilfer your ideas.

So far there is one comment. Claire of blog Sit-Down-Comedian cherishes her memories of the books that emerged from the presses put into motion by the founders of the imprint.
Barry Unsworth's The Ruby in Her Navel: A Novel of Love and Intrigue Set in the 12th Century is reviewed by books editor Frank Wilson in The Philadelphia Enquirer.

Unsworth seems to be the perennial also-ran of British fiction. Born in 1930, he was awarded the 1992 Booker Prize along with another contender and has been short-listed for that prize several times over the years. I only got my hands on one of his books last weekend, at the 2MBS book and record bazaar. Still in my TBR pile or, rather, on the top shelf of my new bookcase. I purchased 35 books last week, and this one, The Song of the Kings, is also a historical novel.

Wilson states his case efficiently:

The emphasis here is less on action than on character and motivation, and the tempo overall is mostly andante moderato, not allegro vivace. The measured pace is essential, though, since this is a tale about how one can walk very deliberately - though altogether unintentionally - toward misery and mayhem.

It's difficult to know what sort of pleasures Unsworth offers the reader. This book seems, from Wilson's review, to be decidedly literary. Although historical fiction has become quite popular in recent years, Unsworth's profile seems not to have been noticeably lifted. This is no doubt due to his rep as a writer of literature, rather than the more popular genre of historical fiction.

In any case, I look forward to reading the book now in my collection.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa's Skin Museum, a collection of postmodern poetry, is reviewed by Hillel Wright in the hip Tokyo free magazine Metropolis. The poet is based in Aichi, which is the prefecture where Toyota has its headquarters. Largely agricultural and located a couple of hours by bullet train from the capital, Aichi is unspectacular if frequently picturesque.

Joritz-Nakagawa's poems are superb, however. Wright scrambles to do some research on postmodernism, an admitted influence on the poet's work.

I found it interesting that on the acknowledgements page, Joritz-Nakagawa cites as a source Postmodern Literary Theory, a book by Niall Lucy. Any mention of the word “postmodernism” is like opening a literary can of worms, and I hurried to Wikipedia to double-check my rather vague understanding of this controversial theory.

If you google Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, you'll find plenty of little online magazines featuring her poems. I urge you to do it. There is a lot to admire in these gamey verses which flow and thrust from so many different angles, deconstructing themselves while they turn a curious mirror onto a familiar world.
William Powell Frith: Painting the Victorian Age ed by Mark Bills and Vivien Knight is reviewed in the British national tabloid The Telegraph by Sarah Wise. Titled, with superior disdain, 'The archetypal Victorian hypocrite', the article also attempts to provide some redress for the obscurity — which began its work during his lifetime — that has overtaken the work of this once-famous painter.

Like Dickens, Frith was a special correspondent for posterity, and by freeze-framing everyday folk in their "unpicturesque" mid-century clothing, doing humdrum things, his work has, as he'd hoped, had a "chance at immortality". It is difficult for us to appreciate how revolutionary this was for an art world that saw historical and literary scenes as the only proper subject matter for high art.

William P. Frith's The Railway Station (1862)
Frith's revolution happened almost by accident: sketching on holiday at Ramsgate in 1851, he sensed that groups of people were "unconsciously forming themselves into very paintable compositions", and he was struck by the variety of the human animal. Frith's paintings form a compendium of brilliantly realised human features and expressions, and the viewer's eye works tirelessly to follow the gazes passing from upwards of 80 characters in each panorama. Who is looking at whom, why, and what are they thinking?

Frith seems to occupy a place of distinction in the Romantic tradition. It was Wordsworth, of course, who first made notorious the rendering of common life in British literature. There were precedents, however, notably the scene-portraits written by William Cowper (widely considered to be a seminal influence on the younger poet).

Painting in Britain seems to have needed time to catch up with the steps already taken in the prosodic sphere. Cowper was writing in the 1760s about common folk in the countryside where he lived in seclusion with his rabbits and his translations of Homer. Then came the thunderbolt of Lyrical Ballads in the early 1790s. But these early renderings of common life were enthusiastically lambasted by reviewers.

In our ruthlessly secular age, there is little danger of this type of thing reoccuring, and unsurprisingly Wise exalts this aspect of Frith's work.

... Frith had tired of churning out endless Merry Wives of Windsors and highwaymen, and felt a strong urge to depict "modern life – with a vengeance", just as novelists had been doing for more than three decades.

Wednesday 13 December 2006

Geoff Gallop, director of Sydney Uni's graduate school of government, has written a piece for today's Higher Education Supplement to The Australian.

Gallop retired from politics earlier this year in order to combat depression. It's good to see him back in business and taking up a challenge. Often it is hard for people who have suffered mental illness to recover sufficiently that they are able to return to the workforce. Gallop's is a success story.

His piece introduces a book that I wrote about earlier this month. Edited by Ken Turner and Michael Hogan from the University of Sydney, The Worldly Art of Politics "outline[s] the assumptions about politics that underpin media commentary when terms such as ticker, strong leadership, backflip and poll driven are used to assess performance".

But is the media at fault? Busy parents have little time for the details of any issue and, in any case, most people like rubber-necking. We stare at conflict. It's probably a throw-back from the time when hunting was our way of life. Weak prey would often mean a good meal. We drill into the issues just as far as our short attention spans let us.

All too often the commentary on politics focuses on self-interest and conflict between personalities and factions, and glories in the indiscretions and misdemeanours of politicians in their private and public lives. The other world of politics - purposeful activity on behalf of genuinely held beliefs and a commitment to public service - also needs serious investigation and (I would add along with Turner and Hogan) celebration.

Most punters work five days a week, watch half an hour's news in the evening, and worry themselves to death about their job and economic security. Why should politicians be let off the hook?

Personally, I believe that in this tripartite structure — people, press and politicians — the press gets stuck in the middle and receives the rough end of the stick more often than it deserves. Maybe I'm biased. But until the pollies stop attacking each other, we'll never leave the tracks.

I should say something about the way I read the newspapers. I avoid opinion pieces like the plague (unless I find one that deals with a topic the appeals to me). I never read anything about health. I skip pre-election prognostications and wait until the results come in before spending time with the reporters. I never read anything about federal Labor politicians. I ignore stories about climate change (there's no proof that it is due to industrial activity). These are a few of my least favourite things.

On the other hand, I love Emma Tom, who writes a column every week or so in The Australian. She's totally daft.