The Story of My Teeth is a most unusual book. It’s very clever and very witty – but… I can’t say that I really enjoyed reading it.
Valeria Luiselli isThe Story of My Teeth is a most unusual book. It’s very clever and very witty – but… I can’t say that I really enjoyed reading it.
Valeria Luiselli is a rising star in Mexican literary circles and this novella is published by Granta. The blurbs praise her intellect and her mastery of prose. The book itself is a postmodern pastiche of styles which come together to explore the value of the things we buy and the way that celebrity attaches itself to consumer goods to inflate the price. All you need is a good story, and the narrator of this book, auctioneer Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, tells stories of increasing absurdity to achieve ridiculous prices for the goods he auctions…
It’s an ambitious quest, to write the story of an Aboriginal hero of colonial times. Reading Libby Connors’ account of the life and violent death of tIt’s an ambitious quest, to write the story of an Aboriginal hero of colonial times. Reading Libby Connors’ account of the life and violent death of the warrior Dundalli and how she untangles events from sources that are inevitably Eurocentric makes for fascinating reading. Warrior is an important contribution to the debate around the exclusion of the colonial frontier wars being excluded from the national military narrative and its associated memorialising.
Events unfold in what became Brisbane in the 1840s as the fledgling British settlement came under attack. Dundalli, a powerful warrior and lawman who led indigenous resistance against incursions onto traditional lands, was captured and executed after a shambolic trial which had no legal reason to take place. Connors also shows how the indigenous justice system of ‘payback’ ritual spearing escalated into much greater violence in response to cases when the British broke their own laws.
Winner of the Walkley Award for Young Australian Journalist of the Year in 2010, Latika Bourke is a 30-something journalist who works for Fairfax, covWinner of the Walkley Award for Young Australian Journalist of the Year in 2010, Latika Bourke is a 30-something journalist who works for Fairfax, covering national politics for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. She has also worked for ABC and 2UE in Canberra. But From India with Love is not a book about federal politics, it's a book that's on a mission to promote the value of inter-country adoption. From the horse's mouth, so to speak, because Bourke considers her own experience as an inter-country adoptee a success story.
I should say at the outset that I don't have an opinion about inter-country adoption. But I know that there are very strong opinions out there, on either side of the debate, and that there is an Australia actor (whose name escapes me) who is currently on a high-profile mission to have Australia's controls relaxed. So this book, From India with Love, for all its wit and charm and confessional style, has politics at its heart.
Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, definition "of, for, or relating to citizens") is the practice and theory of influencing other people. (Wikipedia)
Although I read poetry, I don’t usually write about it here because poetry reviews are difficult to do, but Sylvia Plath’s 1965 collection Ariel was tAlthough I read poetry, I don’t usually write about it here because poetry reviews are difficult to do, but Sylvia Plath’s 1965 collection Ariel was the first of the Faber classics that I picked up to read. I was having a difficult day, and I needed something really absorbing to take my mind off things. The very first poem, ‘Morning Song’ is such a remarkable tribute to the universal experience of motherhood, it brought back memories from many years ago.
Love set you going like a fat gold watch The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry Took its place among the elements.
She confesses that disbelief in her new self as mother, that all of us, surely, have felt some time:
I’m no more your mother Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow Effacement at the wind’s hand.
Here is the ever-present alert attention in the night :
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral In my Victorian nightgown Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try Your handful of notes; The clear vowels rise like balloons.
But this is Plath, a tortured soul, so as well as confessing the ambivalence of mothering, she also writes bitterly about death, and suicide, and anger. There is a surreal sense of menace and dislocation in her allusions to nature (trees, rabbits, poppies) and it’s dark reading.
Four Lives in Art couldn’t be more different to the last biography I read, but the undertaking is the same: to rescue from obscurity Australians whoseFour Lives in Art couldn’t be more different to the last biography I read, but the undertaking is the same: to rescue from obscurity Australians whose lives have been overlooked. And though the reasons are different, like Dundalli in Warrior, the four women in Awakening present challenges to those who would reconstruct their lives.
Successful in their lifetimes, today these four are largely unknown, and it is our view that their remarkable lives and achievements deserve recognition. Although all four women are mentioned in anthologies and are now the subject of postgraduate research, only Louise Dyer has received in-depth attention, from Jim Davidson, in his account Lyrebird Rising: Louise Hanson-Dyer of Oiseau Lyre, 1884-1962 (1994). With the exception of Louise Dyer, much of the work they made also no longer survives. It has suffered the fate that Germaine Greer described in The Obstacle Race (1979), having been lost or assimilated by their better known male contemporaries. Sculptures by Dora Ohlfsen in public collections, which for years languished in storage, are now lost. American and Australian collectors bought Mary Cecil Allen’s work, yet today the whereabouts of most of these works is largely unknown. (Introduction, p. vii)
Not mentioned in this paragraph is the publicist, Clarice Zander’s work. More about her later…
The book doesn’t claim to be an exhaustive biography. With about 40 pages for each subject, Awakening spans the period between the close of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of the Second World War, focussing on the career paths of these women from the heady days of the post Federation era to the calamities of war
I love reading Peter Singer’s books; he inspires me to be a better person.
The Most Good You Can Do is about the concept of ‘effective altruism’; basicI love reading Peter Singer’s books; he inspires me to be a better person.
The Most Good You Can Do is about the concept of ‘effective altruism’; basically it’s about interrogating your own philanthropic choices to ascertain whether it’s money, time or other forms of altruism well spent.
All of us are influenced to some extent by emotion when we give. There’s some rather dismaying research that shows that we are more likely to give to one child with a photo and a name than we are to photos of more than one child in need even when we know that we could save more lives for the same amount of money. We respond to cute and lovable, or tragic and sad, and we respond to personal appeals from someone we know. Too many of us give small amounts to lots of charities even though the cost of administering these small amounts often outweighs the donation. This is why charities pursue us for regular monthly deductions from our credit cards, because it’s the most cost-effective way of collecting the money and it’s money they can count on.
From this book I learned that there are organisations such as Charity Navigator in the US and Give Well that exist to evaluate the effectiveness of the charity dollars we donate. But it’s not as simple as it looks: a charity with lower administrative costs may not be using some of its money to monitor due diligence or the effectiveness of what it does. There must be effective checks to ensure that the money is being spent properly, but research into effectiveness needs to take into account that some programs are long-term and others are short-term. Provision of clean water to schools (my favourite Oxfam Christmas gift) has an immediate impact on health outcomes (and school attendance) but adult literacy programs may take longer to take achieve results and the effects on community health or the local economy may be indirect and harder to trace.
Robbed of Every Blessing is a splendid book; it’s compelling reading.
It begins in the 1800s as the Brits impose harsh repression on the Irish in the wRobbed of Every Blessing is a splendid book; it’s compelling reading.
It begins in the 1800s as the Brits impose harsh repression on the Irish in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars and the action then moves to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) when the rebel Maurice O’Dwyer is transported after a shambolic trial. His trials and tribulations are vaguely reminiscent of For the Term of His Natural Life except that with plot and characterisation Tully draws a link between the colonial appropriation of indigenous land and the British Occupation of Ireland. Marcus Clarke, writing in the 1870s when it was believed that the indigenous people were on the verge of extinction, excluded them from his narrative, but John Tully’s convict escapee finds an indigenous ally in the bush, and authorial respect is paid to indigenous bushcraft and survival.
(Please see my review of Lyndall Ryan’s Tasmanian Aborigines, a History since 1803 for an overview of indigenous life in this period and how the myth of extinction came to be perpetrated).
Robbed of Every Blessing shares with For the Term of His Natural Life the themes of guilt, treachery, redemption, and the nature of evil. Like Rufus Dawes, Maurice O’Dwyer is tested to the limits of human endurance, and part of the interest in the book lies in how far he can be pushed before his spirit or his integrity fails.
There’s a certain synchronicity about finishing this book today, the very day on which I attended the History Writers’ Festival at Readers’ Feast, wheThere’s a certain synchronicity about finishing this book today, the very day on which I attended the History Writers’ Festival at Readers’ Feast, where one of the topics under discussion was the issue of historical truth. Because this novel, The Profilist, is a splendid example of playing with the historical truth to tell a riveting story, the story of our fledgling nation, through the observant eyes of an artist. This novel brings history alive…
Samuel Thomas Gill was a real-life English artist who migrated to Australia in 1839 with his parents and siblings, and you can read all about him at the Australian Dictionary of Biography Online. You can also see dozens of his goldfields landscapes if you do an image search using his name. What Adrian Mitchell has so cleverly done is to imagine the voice of a character called Ethan Dibble who’s a man ‘very like’ Samuel Gill. He travels to the same places, he paints the same scenes, he suffers very similar setbacks in his life, and he dies the same undignified death on the steps of the Melbourne Post Office. But where the real Samuel Gill’s legacy comprises wonderful sketches, lithographs and watercolours of life in the new Australian colonies, the imaginary Ethan Dibble’s droll observations form a journal that is a delight to read, each chapter introduced by a relevant painting from Gill’s oeuvre.
There is a moment, towards the end of this biography when the subject, Archbishop Daniel Mannix (1864-1963) is in his nineties, when any thoughtful reThere is a moment, towards the end of this biography when the subject, Archbishop Daniel Mannix (1864-1963) is in his nineties, when any thoughtful reader will pause. Commenting on the Archbishop’s decision to buy his first electric razor at such an advanced age, his friend, Father Hackett said that Mannix didn’t like to be touched. I think that is terribly sad. No matter what you may think about the priesthood and its scandals, it seems to me to be a dreadful thing not to have the comfort of human touch in old age. This one small snippet from the book really brought home to me what a lonely life is imposed by the Catholic priesthood…
Daniel Mannix was a man associated in my mind with destructive authoritarian power wielded from the pulpit to interfere with Australian politics. He died when I was a child, but his protégé B.A. Santamaria (1915-1998) was active long after that, and the name of Mannix used pejoratively often made its way into the newspapers and books when I was old enough to take an interest in politics. But elsewhere in the book Niall comments on the man’s loneliness, and this, I think, is her achievement in this book – not only does she tell the story of his life to correct so many of my erroneous impressions, she also shows the human price he paid for the way he lived it.
Mannix was born in Catholic Ireland to a family of six at a time when it was customary for a son to be gifted to the priesthood. Daniel was the clever one and in time off he went to the seminary at Maynooth. He was ordained in 1890 but never had a parish: he became an academic at the seminary instead and remained there until – in his forties, and without consultation – he was despatched in 1912 by the Vatican to be Coadjutor (archbishop-in-waiting) to the Archbishop of Melbourne. Niall begins her book by noting that Mannix had his personal papers destroyed after his death, so there is no record of what must surely have been dismay. He was passionately interested in Irish nationalism, and to the consternation of some in the church had been to some extent intemperately involved. He was – publicly – a supporter of Sinn Fein, an admirer of the then radical Eamon de Valera and an opponent of making the Irish language compulsory for Matriculation. Mannix was an Irishman, with a keen interest in Irish politics. But off he went to Melbourne…
Catholics in Melbourne then, were almost exclusively Irish Catholics, disdained by the Protestant majority as a matter of course and automatically considered suspect in the matter of loyalty to Britain. Nobody was expecting a local man to replace Archbishop Carr because all the archbishops were Irish then, just as all the Governors-General were Brits. But the Irish Catholics were delighted with their new coadjutor who was tall, handsome, beautifully spoken and an impressive orator, and the rest of Melbourne looked on with apprehension.
I’ve read two other books by Yan Lianke: Dream of Ding Village (2005) which was an indictment of China’s scandalous blood collection scheme, (see my rI’ve read two other books by Yan Lianke: Dream of Ding Village (2005) which was an indictment of China’s scandalous blood collection scheme, (see my review) and Lenin’s Kisses (2003) which mocked China’s get-rich-quick entry into capitalism (see my review). Lianke, living and writing in China, is a scathing critic of his society but although his works are censored, he (unlike other Chinese writers in prison or in exile) has so far avoided curtailment of his personal liberty and freedom to write.
This is, he admits, because he has exercised some self-censorship in the past. But with The Four Books he decided to write as he pleased, knowing that he would have trouble with the censors anyway. The book deals with a no-go area of China’s history, The Great Leap Forward, (1958-1961) which was Mao’s disastrous campaign to effect the rapid transformation of China from an agrarian economy into an industrialised socialist state with collectivized farming. It caused the Great Chinese Famine resulting in millions of deaths. (The numbers are disputed, of course. Estimates vary between 15 and 45 million people.)
As expected, the authorities have prevented publication of the book in mainland China. In 2010 it was first published as Sishu in a small print run for friends and colleagues in Hong Kong, but is now enjoying a wide readership outside China since its translation into English by Carlos Rojas (who also translated Lenin’s Kisses). It is sad to think that ordinary Chinese cannot know their own history, an ignorance foreshadowed in the novel when the hapless members of the brigade try to find out if the famine is localised, or affecting the entire country. They never do find out, and their naïve belief that the higher-ups would surely send food if they could, is only one of many sharp ironies in the novel.
As you could tell from the Opening Lines of Anchor Point that I posted on my blog, I was thoroughly impressed by this debut novel. It’s an absorbing,As you could tell from the Opening Lines of Anchor Point that I posted on my blog, I was thoroughly impressed by this debut novel. It’s an absorbing, satisfying book that suggests a promising future for Melbourne author Alice Robinson.
What precipitated ten-year-old Laura’s swollen eye in that opening scene was that she had broken a pot created by her mother, an amateur artist. The drama that ensues has lifelong implications for Laura who ends up becoming mother to her five-year-old sister Vik and a helpmeet for her father, who is a simple but single-minded man, devoted to the hardscrabble land on which he hopes to develop sheep pasture. She is a mere child when she helps Bruce to clear-fell the land and help with the lambing…
The writing is vivid:
More months passed. The palms of Laura’s hands, like the surface of the land, were changing. Blisters rose like pearls of water, breaking, bleeding, running dry. Then the skin hardened – so much so that it started cracking as the weather grew cold. Blood and then pus marked the fissures in the tissue along the lifeline and along the one for love. The cracks took ages to heal, but she couldn’t very well not use her hands. Fixing the ute’s engine, covered in grease, head pounding through the fumes, she thought her skin might come right off. (p.63)
Habits of guilt and self-sacrifice define Laura’s life, compromising her relationship with Luc, the man she meets at Agricultural College, and with her sister.
A Short History of Richard Kline is an ambitious exploration of discontent. Written from the male perspective (alternating between first and third perA Short History of Richard Kline is an ambitious exploration of discontent. Written from the male perspective (alternating between first and third person), the novel traces Kline’s ‘history’ from adolescence through to middle age, focussing on his perennial angst. In childhood his family is baffled by his moods, and he himself is at a loss to explain why he fails to enjoy the good times or to take joy in the moment as others do.
Despite these moods, Richard is an outwardly successful person. He has no difficulty finding work as an IT professional and he does some rewarding international travel until it suits him to come back to Australia. He progresses from a succession of girlfriends to a nice wife called Zoe; and he loves his son, Luke. They have a social life with friends and colleagues, and while their home life has some ups-and-downs, their relationship seems steady enough. Like any other everyman, he also experiences some tragedy (as when his brother dies), but he has sufficient resilience to cope with it.
Reading this, one may well be thinking, well, what’s his problem? It’s basically that he can’t understand why he gets bored in situations where other people are clearly exhilarated, and he is bothered by his inability to find meaning in life.
I am in two minds about Trio, the fourth novel of Western Australian author, Geraldine Wooller. On the one hand it is a wise and thoughtful depictionI am in two minds about Trio, the fourth novel of Western Australian author, Geraldine Wooller. On the one hand it is a wise and thoughtful depiction of the bonds of friendship over many decades, but on the other, it is a novel that lacks narrative drive. It’s rather like eavesdropping on a café conversation; enjoyable enough, but there’s no great impetus to stay and listen to the end of it.
But I stayed with it, interested enough in the lives of the characters, enjoying the nostalgia, and chuckling in recognition at the pontificating about aspects of modern life.
The trio comprises Celia, Marcia and Mickey who become friends in London in the 1970s. All three want to work in the theatre industry but only ever succeed on its margins. Celia (the Australian) is a set designer; Marcia (who’s English) is an actor; and Mickey (from Ireland) is a director. Their friendship is close, and it sometimes involves sex, but it’s not a menage-a-trois and it’s not a competition between the two women for the man. No, in this novel the betrayal that really hurts is a failure to pass on contact details so that a possible job is missed…
I’m always really pleased when an author makes the leap from producing acclaimed short stories to writing a full length novel. (I know, I know, shortI’m always really pleased when an author makes the leap from producing acclaimed short stories to writing a full length novel. (I know, I know, short stories are not a lesser form, but they are often part of the pathway to publishing novels – and novels are what I like to read). A.S. Patrić is an ‘edgy’ writer, and IMO the longer form of Black Rock White City allows that edginess to flourish in a way that his shorter works have hinted at. (See my reviews of Las Vegas for Vegans, and Bruno Kramzer).
Set in the suburbs of Melbourne at the turn of the last century, Black Rock White City opens with a hospital cleaner, Jovan, tasked with the removal of graffiti that keeps mysteriously appearing throughout the hospital. This graffiti takes various forms and becomes increasingly menacing, triggering consequences that shock the reader out of the complacency that comes with living in a modern city where graffiti is part of the background of our lives.
Woven through Jovan’s semi-articulate verbal responses are his thoughts – he thinks in poetry, as he did in his former life as a professor of literature in Sarajevo. His wife Suzana, as damaged as he is by the death of their two children during the Bosnian War (1992-95), wants a more satisfying, objective picture to dwell on than the suburban wasteland that surrounds her and searches for a way to live – but they approach their new life in different ways.
She knows that Jovan used to be able to turn almost anything over to a new perspective, see something deeper, redeeming, more beautiful even if pitiful. It was what made him such a superb poet back in Yugoslavia. And it still takes her breath away, an actual gasp of air at the top of her lungs, when she thinks how crucial poetry used to be to him. How Jovan used to wake in the mornings with poetry emerging in rhapsodies. How it used to drive him, his body slumping over a bedside table and writing with eyes that couldn’t open from sleep, and with a drowsy hand, poetry that cut through all the usual bullshit poetry was, the usual mediocrity, and opened up new ways of feeling, seeing, understanding and being. And now nothing. He doesn’t write anymore and it’s as though he never did. (p. 89)
I was quite right to have doubts about Miss Carter’s War. It would have been a disappointment except that I wasn’t expecting much…
I’m reading James KeI was quite right to have doubts about Miss Carter’s War. It would have been a disappointment except that I wasn’t expecting much…
I’m reading James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late and although I’m fascinated by it, I’m finding the Glaswegian dialect hard work and not suitable for late night reading before bed. I thought that Miss Carter’s War would be suitably undemanding to read, and I was mildly interested in the adventures of a heroine of the French Resistance adjusting to life in post-war Britain. But the novel fails to make good use of a promising concept: in Sheila Hancock’s hands it’s a rather mediocre story which has been allowed to succumb to a Grumpy Old Author Getting Things Off Her Chest.
The novel works its way through the life of Marguerite Carter, a mildly left wing school teacher of Anglo-French extraction, who was, somewhat improbably, sent by the Brits to organise the Maquis resistance in the Vaucluse region of France during WW2. Drip fed her memories of various atrocities, the reader gets a vague impression of these activities but never really finds out much about this, except that she holds a torch for ‘Marcel’ even though she chose not to stay with him after the war. This leads to the conclusion that the ‘war’ of the title is a war of a different kind, as indeed it is. Miss Carter is on a mission to change the world: she wants to prevent social injustice, prevent war, and educate young people.