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Lynne Kelly is a science communicator and teacher. This book (2016) is essentially her PhD thesis, but also an account of her journey to understand the scope and importance of the insights she has gained into the uses of memory in non-literate cultures. Beginning from an interest in the stories told by Indigenous Australians about animals, Kelly developed a theory of memory use by non-literate cultures across the globe.

Kelly starts by explaining the breadth and depth of knowledge that existed in non-literate cultures. Societies that were to any degree nomadic required knowledge of where to find water and edible plants. They needed knowledge of the habits of animals and how to hunt them. They needed to know the forms of the land, the weather, and the seasons. They needed to know their ancestors and their founding myths, who they were, and where they came from, who they could marry and who they could not. They needed to know the terms and conditions of trade. They needed to know secular and ceremonial songs and dances. As hunting and gathering gave way to settled farming, some of the same information was still crucial, but there was further information needed about tools were made and much, much more. How on earth did they remember all this?

She then expands on her theory that people in non-literate cultures used systematic memory aids. Those in nomadic cultures, like Australian Aborigines, who moved about in the landscape, developed what are known in Australian ethnography as song lines, physical and mental maps of the landscape where specific features acted as aids to memory, not just for direction, but for layers of meaning about time and place, seasons, the stars, ancestors, kinship, hunting and so on. Aboriginal people also carried portable memory aids, small objects often marked with abstract patterns, which were understood by those initiated into certain levels of understanding. Kelly establishes that memory spaces equivalent to song lines and portable memory devices existed across a range in quasi nomadic cultures.

A major change in the form of memory aids came about, Kelly argues, when quasi nomadic groups began to settle into farming communities. As they no longer routinely travelled long distances, the ‘song line’ model no longer suited their needs. Instead, they began to build memory spaces near their settling communities. She argues that while some archaeologists claim agriculture freed up time for people to build monuments, she believes the reverse is true: that ‘people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle’. These monuments usually took the form of standing stones or wooden pillars, arranged in precise patterns; there were also mounds, passage cairns and long barrows. Each stone or pillar represented a body of knowledge. Some also encoded the seasonal calendar. Kelly argues further that access to knowledge was restricted to initiated groups, with a hierarchy of knowledge held by a hierarchy of elders, on a continuum from public knowledge to highly restricted knowledge. In line with this, memory sites had both public and restricted areas; the public areas were for performance of songs and dances, and the restricted areas were for restricted performance and higher-level initiation into knowledge. Kelly argues that  societies creating such monuments were relatively egalitarian; the labour to build the memory spaces, which involved huge numbers of man hours, appears to have been freely given, and any elite burials found at such sites ,ie where grave goods have been have been part of the burial, appear chronologically later in the history of the site, and often not at all. This suggests, she says, that knowledge, rather than wealth or military power, animated the societies that built the memory spaces. Wealth and might came later, superseding knowledge, and the memory spaces gradually fell into disuse.

Kelly then goes on to look in detail at a number of memory spaces which she believes fit this pattern. The best known (to me, anyway) are Stonehenge and the standing stones and earthworks around Avebury. Similar monuments also exist in Brittany. But comparable memory spaces, can, she says, also be found in Orkney, and in Ireland. Then, perhaps more surprisingly, she uses examples from the Americas, suggesting that the creation of these memory spaces is a natural human reaction, rather than a learnt one, as these cultures can not have had any contact with the European ones. I found these sections of the book particularly interesting as I was completely ignorant of these cultures.

So it she right? She certainly assembles a convincing array of archaeological evidence, as well as the little remaining oral evidence from descendants of those who used the memory spaces. Earlier archaeologists tended to see the sites she describes in religious terms, and to label any portable items as ritualistic. Kelly suggests the emphasis on religion is a reflection of modern concerns for which there is not much archaeological evidence. She writes, for example, that attempts ‘to marry the actions of non-literate cultures to behaviours in contemporary Western religions acted as a barrier to understanding these complex sites’. She agrees that the chanting and dance that she believes were characteristic of the memory spaces did have a spiritual or aesthetic side, but sees much of it as the promulgation of practical information – though she would argue that knowledge was holistic, containing layers of complexity that could combine all these elements. I certainly find her argument convincing.

As a book, I did find it a bit repetitious in places; she perhaps overdoes the need to hammer home her argument in the simplest of terms. I would also have liked a coherent argument about the earlier misinterpretation of the sites she describes. I also question her use of the term egalitarian for the societies she is describing; they were clearly hierarchical to a considerable degree, though not necessarily rigidly so. I think it likely that there were ordained roles, some granted more respect than others. She is not able to talk much about whether there were gendered roles, though there probably were; one example she gives is from Pueblo culture where men used a coded language that ‘women would not be able to understand’. For me, the saddest thing is that we can’t know: the content of most of the knowledge is gone beyond recall. It is particularly sad that this is true for much of the culture of Indigenous Australians, despite their tenacious efforts to hold onto what they can.

Kelly says she has tried using memory spaces herself, with considerable success. I thought also of historian Tony Judt’s memoir, Memory Chalet, which is based on the same technique.  I don’t think I can manage it though.

You can read more about Lynne Kelly here.

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Unreliable Memoirs was first published in 1980 and I read it around that time. It was reissued in 2015, which is perhaps how my book club came across it. Back in the 1980s, it was memorable if for no other reason than that my husband could not read it aloud without almost crying with laughter. So I was very interested to see what I thought after all this time.

The book covers James’s life in Australia from his birth in 1939 to his arrival in England in 1962, that is, his early childhood, school and university years. Brought up mostly in the Sydney working class suburb of Kogarah, he chronicles a list of the sort of small doings, disasters, passions and friendships that make up a young person’s life.  In his introduction to the 2015 reissue of the book, P.J. O’Rourke claims that James ‘by a wild act of exaggeration’ makes his experience universal. ‘He takes the yeast of his memory and plants it in the bread dough of ours’. Yes, James does capture the insecurities of childhood, the friends won and lost, the battle to become independent. But it doesn’t feel at all relevant to my childhood experience – even less so than it did when I read it thirty years ago. And I’m afraid I no longer find much of it funny.

What James aims to do is to lift his experience out of the ordinary and into the realms of legend through humour. His two main techniques are exaggeration and bathos. He does warn us about the exaggeration, making an overstated joke about the whole idea of memoir: ‘Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel’. At the end, he writes: ‘Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.’ You can find examples of exaggeration like this on just about every page. Testing showed he had a high IQ, so he was sent to a school with an advanced curriculum, where ‘One boy with bifocals would be turning an old washing machine into a particle accelerator’. Instead of turning a forward summersault over him, a large girl drove him into the floor ‘like a tack’. The best swimmer in his school ‘trained about a hundred miles a day’. He is also keen on bathos. When his grandfather dies, James ponders whether he ‘died in a redemptive ecstasy after being vouchsafed a revelation of the ineffable’, but concludes ‘he just croaked’. This descent from the sublime to the ridiculous is carried throughout by James’s comparisons with people and places in Kogarah with writers or characters from high culture as in ‘I suppose if I had been John Stuart Mill’. He compared his liking for The Saturday Evening Post with ‘the way Turgenev felt about the emblem book he wrote of to Bakunin’. The juxtapositions are clever, but seem designed to let his audience know that he isn’t really as ignorant as he presents himself as being. Does the humour work? Not really. I still find the exaggeration and bathos funny sometimes, but more often the humour he draws out of the incidents he describes is that of cruelty and humiliation. Why is it funny to smash up a neighbour’s prized garden? Or disrupt a ballet performance? Or take part in what sounds remarkably like gang rape?

James was brought up by his mother, his father having been killed in a plane crash when being repatriated from a Japanese prisoner of war camp. I can’t help feeling sorry for his long-suffering mother. We do not get a clear picture of her; James doesn’t even tell us she worked in a factory to support them. It’s all about him. Even allowing for the exaggeration, he must have been a difficult child, anxious and needing constant reassurance and a terrible show off. He presents himself as the leader in many of the incidents he describes, but always seems to be courting popularity. As he notes towards the end of the book, ‘excessive conceit and defective self-esteem are often aspects of each other’. It’s true his older self shows some self-awareness; he is ‘too spoilt to profit from disappointment’; he has ‘cocksure ignorance’; and he ‘rather liked the idea of being thought of as a shit – a common conceit among those who don’t realise just how shitty they really are’. He must have had considerable charisma – how else at university did he break so easily into not only the North shore cool set but student intelligentsia as well? But knowing that he played the clown out of insecurity does little to make the self he describes more likeable; his self-assurance seems to have been accompanied by an absence of empathy.

One of the questions I had in re-reading the book is how well James had dealt with sexism. The answer is badly. Of course, growing up in the 1950s, the young James couldn’t be expected to do anything other than accept the norms of his time, where girls were almost without exception seen as sex objects by boys. As well as the gang rape of the ‘town bike’, we get a whole chapter on James’s love affair with his ‘prong’, and the way he transferred his interest from the boy down the road to girls. But might the older James write about this in a way that suggests he thinks differently? No. Take for example ‘the Libertarians freely helped themselves to each other’s girlfriends’. At one level this is a joke about Libertarians and free love. But at another, it reveals James’s sexism; clearly girls couldn’t be Libertarians, merely their appendages. He’s not writing as someone immersed in childhood; his bathetic juxtapositions show that. Writing in the 1980s, he should have known better.

I should also admit that any youthful affection I felt for James has been tarnished by his rejection of climate science in favour of a smart-ass scepticism. According to his Wikipedia page, he identifies as a liberal social democrat, but many of his views are now conservative. It’s hard to know whether he just enjoys swimming against the tide – though which tide is unclear – or whether he has come to share the views of his rich and famous friends. He has made a very successful career by being a very clever clown. However I note that he also has real literary and scholarly achievements to his credit.  It’s worth having a look at his website – http://www.clivejames.com/ – which is his attempt to put ‘a lifetime’s experience as a cultural critic to a new use, and so offer a critical guide, through the next medium, to works of thought and art by other people, and sometimes in other eras. The only criterion for inclusion would be intensity of expression, with the aim of creating, in this latterday Babelic flux we call the web, an island of quality where every word is meant, and every image meaningful.’ Now that he’s dying of chronic lymphoid leukemia, I don’t think he’s trying to be funny anymore.

Here’s a rather different view of James.

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Published in 2008, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. And deservedly so in my opinion. I recently reviewed the 2014 winner – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – and this one is, if not a better book, then without some of the flaws that made Tartt’s book so frustrating at times.

I also recently wrote that I preferred books with a strong narrative thread. It is obviously foolish to generalise in this way, because this book does not have a strong narrative thread, and the structure still works well. It is essentially thirteen interconnected short stories, a form that allows both sustained development of character and setting, and the quick insight of short stories. Olive Kitteridge, her husband Henry and to a lesser extent their son Christopher are the main characters in seven of the stories; Olive’s role in the other six varies from significant to just a mention. The two in which she has only a mention are perhaps the weakest links of the thirteen, lacking the connection the Kitteridge family gives to the whole . With one exception, when Olive goes to New York to visit her son, they all take place in the small town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine; the book presents a slice of small town American life, as well as a portrait of Olive from mother of a young child to a 74 year old widow. No dates are specifically mentioned, but the sequence begins when Christopher is quite young, in perhaps the 1970s, and ends during the presidency of George W Bush. We know this because Olive is concerned about ‘another’ terrorist attack and is horrified to find that someone she is getting know and like voted Republican.

The stories all deal with events of everyday life in families and the community. People go to work, plant tulips, have breakfast at the marina, walk their dog. They are faithful or unfaithful to their partners, good friends or sometimes not. They gossip. They have people over for tea. Underlying these ordinary activities are the themes of public and private grief, loneliness, aging and death – though not all who die are old. In several of the stories there is some sort of betrayal. This makes the book sound depressing, but it isn’t. I think this is because of Strout’s humanity; she shows deep empathy with all her characters and their situations, even the unpleasant ones – and that includes Olive at times. Ultimately Strout seems to be suggesting that people do what they can to cope with life. Olive knows that things aren’t fair: ‘Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right’. But she ‘had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life had increasingly become’. And Olive does ultimately does find some comfort. The prevailing tone is bitter-sweet.

The book begins with Henry, a good and kind man, looking back at the joys and sorrows of his life as the town pharmacist and husband of Olive, who teaches maths at the local junior high school. After this, the Kitteridge family chapters are dominated by Olive’s point of view. She is anything but good and kind; she is often combative and angry, her judgements harsh. She is as one critic says, both fierce and thwarted’ .People are morons, simpletons, snot-wats. As she later acknowledges, she never says sorry. But we also see a different side of her; her humour, her love of people, her acute self-awareness and her a concern for others. In several of the other stories she is a source of comfort.

Strout’s empathy is amplified by the form of her writing. She uses ‘free indirect speech’, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. At her son’s wedding, for example, Olive ‘drops her gaze so as to avoid getting stuck in one more yakkety conversation’. The use of ‘yakkety’ is very much Olive’s word, as is the word ‘ridiculous’ in ‘The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor’, though both are narrative statements. We are seeing the world from in this case Olive’s perspective. This means Strout never takes an authorial overview which can make use of a wry or sardonic perspective to deprecate a character or point of view*. There is no satire in the writing but what the characters impart; mostly there is an honest realism about people’s feelings and relationships, even when they are deluding themselves, or hiding their feelings behind polite nothings. This, coupled with the small town environment, might make it sound like the writing is folksy, but it isn’t. There is the bitter as well as the sweet.

In 2014 a mini-series of four episodes based on the book were shown on American TV to universal acclaim. I hope they didn’t glamourise Olive too much. In the book she is large and not particularly attractive; it is part of what makes her a compelling character. The Wikipedia entry on the min-series describes Olive as ‘misanthropic’ so I guess it doesn’t. Her part is played by Frances McDormand, who won various prizes for her acting and also co-produced the series, so hopefully it was well done. It was shown in Australia (but not free-too-air) in 2015. You can read more about the mini-series here, and about Elizabeth Strout and her work here.

 

*I don’t mean it is a bad thing to have a satirical authorial voice – some of my favourite books and all that – it’s just that the free indirect speech give a different result.

 

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Questions of Travel (2012) won the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 2013, and has been highly praised by many reviewers – see for example this long review in the Sydney Review of Books, or this one from Frank Moorhouse in the Guardian. I read it for my book club, and though there are things to like in it, overall I found reading it a chore. Why don’t I respond to it like the judges and reviewers?

I can’t write about this book without disclosing important aspects of the story, so it’s a case of spoiler alert, though the book isn’t plot driven and other reviewers seem to have no qualms in revealing much of what happens. You’d probably call its form picaresque, a term I recall from English 101 many years ago, in the sense that it’s a series of loosely connected episodes. De Krester describes this form of writing as ‘like walking down a corridor and you find a niche in the wall or a door might be open and you can go into a room or peer in, and sometimes the door is closed but you know there is a space in there’. The book follows the lives of Laura Fraser and Ravi Mendis over about forty years, in more or less alternating chapters. In the first half, Laura leaves Australia to travel, living in Naples and London; Ravi lives in Shri Lanka. In the second half, Laura returns to Sydney and gets a job with a company that publishes travel guides. Ravi comes to Australia on a tourist visa and seeks asylum after the politically motivated murder of his wife and child in Shri Lanka.  He works for a time at the same company as Laura, though the pair scarcely know each other.  Along the way are many people and places, some social satire – which I don’t find very funny – and some tragedy, which is truly tragic.

The judges and reviewers are right that the book reflects on major aspects of Australian life. The experience of living in Sydney runs throughout the second half of the book for both characters, though of course they experience it in different ways. The harbour, the bridge, Waverley Cemetery, Sydney’s weather are all lovingly evoked. Laura’s life seems dominated by a series of unsatisfactory sexual relationships, which aren’t distinctively Australian, but Ravi’s experience as a refuge in Australia does throw light on important issues. De Krester says she didn’t want to make Ravi, as the refugee, all good, and Australians all racist; his situation is indeed much more nuanced. He does experience racism, both visceral and casual – how can he claim to be a refugee if he wasn’t in detention? – but he also experiences kindness and support. This is a subject well worth exploring.

But more than the book’s specific Australian content, its theme – as you might expect from the title – is travel, away from and towards Australia and Shri Lanka; ‘travel of all kinds: colonial expansion and its postcolonial manifestations, migration, exile, tourism’, as one reviewer notes. The book is dotted with clever little aperçu about tourists and travel: ‘Time after time Laura would learn that she had missed the moment; to be a tourist was always to arrive too late’. Tourists from the former Easter bloc countries were ‘serious, appreciative and archaic: travellers for whom the link between travel and holiness still held’. ‘The twentieth century was best represented by an unwilling traveller … people who don’t belong where they end up and long for places where they did.’ ‘There’s no past in tourism. It’s one thing after another.’ ‘Tourists see invisible things.’ When tourism promoters try to give customers an ‘authentic’ experience it is written off as ‘spectacle and show’. And producing travel guides removes all romance. At the end of the book, Ravi returns to Shri Lanka because he doesn’t want to be ‘a tourist in his own country’, even though he has been granted asylum in Australia and faces possible death in Shri Lanka. And Laura travels to Shri Lanka to get away from her life in Sydney; both arrive on the day of the 2004 tsunami and an unknown fate. I guess de Krester wants us to see both sides of travel. Here is how she sums it up:

Travel connects us to the world and brings us closer to other cultures … But it’s possible to spend a very pleasant three weeks in another country and come away with no idea of what life is really like for people who live there. The native lives in history and there is no suspension of knowledge, but as a tourist you do have access to wonder.

Reviewers have commented at some length on de Krester’s prose, which is sometimes unashamedly lyrical, full of what one reviewer calls ‘baroque flourishes’. Her Atlantic Ocean is ‘slow as a slattern that smears its grey rags along the shore’. Australians ‘succumb to chicken parmigiana and to sex’. ‘Surfers with eyes like blue fish.’ Sydney ‘squinted over its brown back at Africa, at India.’ In Melbourne, ‘the balloon-like faces of people dressed in black float down laneways’. I agree that the water imagery – beginning on page 1 with Laura almost being drowned by her brothers and ending in the last with her probably being drowned by a tsunami, give structure to the story it otherwise lacks. This is fine if you like this sort of thing – which can only be appreciated in retrospect- but for me there are just too many words. In other places her tone is satirical, but I seem to detect a note of superiority in the unkind humour. The thought she gives to Laura about Australian literature – that ‘She approached Sydney gingerly in fiction. Was it really up to literature, even the Australian kind? … What if the performance came over as provincial and amateurish, or blustering and self-important?’ – is simply smart-ass. And having Laura vote informal at an election without apparent interest in or knowledge of politics? Too cool for school.

It’s always difficult when I fail to enjoy a book that judges and reviewers have found extremely rewarding. Am I failing to appreciate fine writing? Making facile judgements? Or is it a matter of taste? I think I found the book difficult to read for two reasons. First, I don’t really like the picaresque form. I prefer a clear narrative thread. I can’t keep track of all the characters; on the odd occasion that someone turns up from the past, I’m scrabbling to remember who they are. Characters fall out of the story. The incidents, more particularly in Laura’s case, don’t add up to anything, and are fundamentally unmemorable. Perhaps life is like that. But it doesn’t make for pleasurable reading.

The second reason is that I can’t engage with either of the main characters. I know you don’t have to like characters to find them compelling. And as I noted above, de Krester wants her characters to be realistically flawed. But above all they do have to be interesting, and as far as I’m concerned, Laura isn’t. Despite the occasional flashes of self-knowledge she is allowed, she is self-centred and entitled, her travel is drift, her relationships are superficial, her lack of desire to do anything with her life is pathetic. No doubt there are people like this, but I don’t want to read about them. Up to the point where he loses his wife and child I felt much the same about Ravi. The numbness with which he is inflicted afterwards is no doubt realistic; it presumably explains his often perverse behaviour, though his thought processes remain obscure to me. By the end, I didn’t much care what happened to him, though in his case, I’m probably more frustrated than bored with him.

But probably the overall reason I didn’t like the book was that it didn’t offer me any hope. De Krester seems happier mocking than affirming. There were people that she presented as good and kind, but they were outweighed by those she chose to present as selfish and shallow. The message the main characters portrayed was one of misery and emptiness. Her vision may be true to what I read in the daily press, but I look for something a bit more inspiring in literature.

You can read the very little there is on Wikipedia about Michelle de Krester here. Most of the quotes from her above come from this interview. I note that she has a new book, The Life to Come being released this October. I read that it eschews ‘conventional narrative structure’ and is ‘beautifully elliptic’, so it’s probably not for me, even though it is reported to be ‘ultimately hopeful’.

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I desperately need more space on my already overcrowded bookshelves, so I’m always looking out for books that can go to the op shop. My eye recently fell on a row of aging paperbacks by two American detective story writers, Ross MacDonald and John D. MacDonald. (No, my books aren’t shelved alphabetically, I’m not that organised, it’s just chance they were together.) Ross McDonald (no relation to John D. and in fact a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar) published a series of eighteen detective stories featuring private eye Lew Archer between 1949 and 1976. John D. came a little later with his twenty books featuring Travis McGee, a sort of private detective, between 1964 and 1985. So my paperbacks are at best over thirty years old, the spines show wear and tear, the print is small and the pages are yellowing. Would anyone want them? Is the recycle bin more appropriate than the op shop? I decided to re-read a couple before making up my mind.

The Lew Archer books are very easy to read so I read two, The instant Enemy and The Zebra-Striped Hearse, which is a catchy title but has little to do with the story. First published in 1968 and 1963 respectively, they are among his later books. They are in some important ways very similar, and I think it likely that they are fairly representative of all of Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer stories. This similarity arises firstly because of the ongoing, and engaging, character of Lew Archer himself, a former policeman turned private detective working in Los Angeles. He is the natural successor of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Like Marlowe, Archer is tough and honourable, with a good line in deadpan humour. Secondly, both of the stories involve family dramas and secrets. There is remarkably little sex, though there is of course some violence; you can be sure that at some point in the story Archer will be variously left for dead, but most of the violence happens off stage. Archer is more concerned with the patient acquisition of information, what he learns from one person leading on to the next until the missing connection is made and the puzzle is unravelled. And this is where a third similarity comes in; both these plots, and probably the plots of most of the books, depend on misdirection. The real baddy is never who he/she appears to be, leading to quite complicated dénouements in the last few pages. So although the plots are clever, Archer is a delight and MacDonald’s prose is slick – as in ‘under the sound of money, her voice remembered times when there hadn’t been any’ –  there is a degree of sameness about the stories that marks them as genre fiction, rather than something more challenging – though not everyone agrees with this.

John D. MacDonald included a colour in the titles of each his Travis McGee stories (he wrote lots of other books, including suspense and science fiction) and the book I read was Free Fall in Crimson, first published 1981 so it’s a fairly late one. McGee works out of Port Lauderdale in Florida calling himself a ‘salvage consultant’, with a talent for ‘finding things for people’, or, as another character puts it, ‘slipping about, doing shifty things for people’. He fought in Vietnam, is large, physically fit and good at the rough stuff. And though he is not a private detective as such, he operates very much like one. Clearly Travis got fairly battered in the previous book (The Green Ripper, 1979) and is trying to put his life back together, but he agrees to follow up an unsolved murder for the son of the man who was killed. This involves him in talking to everyone with any connection to the man and his family, including bikies and film people, and stirring things up until he gets the information he needs – though not without further murders;  these however mostly occur off stage. Travis acquires a girlfriend, which Lew Archer never does, so there is a bit of sex, though it is chaste by today’s standards. It doesn’t add much to the story, so I guess it’s about fleshing out Travis’s character. I’m always interested in how civilian detectives – or salvage consultants – resolve their case, since they have no power to arrest anyone. Travis finds a clever way to deal with this problem.

One of the things that surprised me a bit is that none of these books feels particularly dated. There are of course no personal computers or mobile phones to play a role in detection but in any case, both Lew and Travis rely on talking to people face to face, seeing their reactions and making judgements about their credibility. I noticed that there are almost no people of colour in the books; it is a white world, which is doubtless no longer the case. Doubtless someone from Los Angeles or Fort Lauderdale would see many social and physical changes since these books were written that an outsider would not be aware of. But they are nevertheless remarkably modern in their concerns.

Both these writers have received high praise. Ross MacDonald has been favourably compared to the two earlier ‘hard boiled’ crime fiction writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he has had a major influence on writers like Sue Grafton and his books are now being reissued. John D. MacDonald has been praised even more fulsomely, for example by Stephen King as ‘the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller’ and by Kingsley Amis, who claimed that MacDonald ‘is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow only MacDonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human-heart chap, so guess who wears the top-grade laurels’. I think Amis is a bit over the top, but can certainly agree with King about John D. being a great story teller. I personally prefer Lew Archer to Travis McGee, but that’s a matter of taste.

You can read more about Ross MacDonald here, and John D. MacDonald here.

So op shop or recycle bin? In truth I can’t bring myself to do either. They are classics. They’ll stay on the shelf for a while longer.

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Where do I begin? The Goldfinch, which runs to around 770 pages, was published in 2013 and won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which recognizes distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.The judges called it ‘a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart’. Sometimes I just wanted to put it down and leave it, other times I could have gone on reading it all night.

The story is a bildungsroman, a story of growing up. Theo Decker is thirteen when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He survives, but his life changes dramatically; almost all subsequent events flow from here. In the aftermath of the explosion a dying old man presses on him a painting that has been blown from its frame; it is The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. Theo takes it with him as he escapes the crumbling building. He also carries a mental image of Pippa, the girl who was with the old man; she becomes his unattainable ‘missing kingdom’. (The book is sometimes described as ‘Dickensian’, and I thought often of Estelle in Great Expectations, though of course she is unattainable for different reasons.) He lives briefly with family friends, but his father, who had deserted him and his mother, takes him to live in Las Vegas. He returns to New York and eventually becomes an antiques dealer. He carries with him a sense of irreparable loss and of self-blame. I can’t tell you any more without giving away the plot.

Some of the fifteen or so years the story covers are dealt with in great detail; others are left almost blank. Reading the book I found this a bit frustrating. Why, for example, did we have to hear in such detail about Theo’s drunken and drug fuelled-life with his friend Boris in Las Vegas? But by the end, I could see by the balance of the story why Tartt had chosen to write at such length about it. There are other set pieces that are quite long, but all serve a purpose. Maybe Tartt could just overall write with more economy; there is an awful lot of detail – some might say padding – in the book, though maybe this is just a question of taste. But best of all in terms of the plot, there was for me a real ‘wow I didn’t see that coming’ moment, a moment that both pulls together and undercuts the action. There are not many books that have done this so powerfully for me; Tartt is a great story teller.

But much as I ultimately came to see the strength of the plot, it is Theo’s thoughts and actions that dominate the book. Although he was already testing the limits – he and his mother had only dropped in at the museum on their way to a meeting to discuss Theo’s suspension from school – the death of his mother and his own narrow escape dictate his future choices. He has survivor guilt – ‘the why did I and if only that had wrecked my … life’. His wild behaviour arises from his narrow escape from the exposion; sometimes he is manic, ‘with a self-propelling recklessness … that I associated with having narrowly missed death’. But at other times he feels he has ‘suffered a chemical change of the spirit … [that] leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair’. His possession of the painting sometimes makes him feel ‘tainted and worthless and wrong’, but at other makes him feel special and different, not bound by the same rules as other people. ‘How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret …?’ he muses. ‘Yet I had.’ I guess this is a thoughtful even brilliant picture of a boy placed in just such a situation. But at the same time I found some of his terrible choices over- the- top stupid; it was then the bond between reader and character weakened and I stopped wanting to read on. But there’s a good chance that this reflects more about the reader than the book.

And then there are the big ideas in the novel, about the enduring qualities of great art, the search for meaning in life and death, fate and choice. If Tartt comes to any conclusions about these, I’m not sure what they are. Perhaps a second reading would make them clearer.

Unsurprisingly for a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, it has received many rave reviews. I find it interesting, though, that a few of the most highbrow literary critics have pushed strongly back against this tide of approval. Here are some quotes taken from an article in Vanity Fair discussing the literary controversy. From James Wood, in the New Yorker: ‘Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature’; he considers it  ‘a book stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness’. In The New York Review of Books, novelist and critic Francine Prose wrote that, ‘for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language … and [it contained] passages that were bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase’. Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, writes that ‘A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them … It coats everything in a cozy patina of “literary gentility.” ’

This kind of criticism is hard to deal with because it makes you feel that if you like the book, your judgement is immature. Well perhaps mine is. I can agree with a few of these criticisms, but not most of them. I didn’t find the plotting far-fetched; I thought the connections Tartt establishes were a major strength of the book. I did find Theo’s behaviour over the top at times, but am not convinced that someone in his position would not in fact act as he does. As for clichés in the language, the book is written from a young person’s perspective, and this is how they think and speak. I do agree that the language is over-lush in places. I don’t really understand Theo’s justification at the end of the story, and find it – in so far as I do understand it – remarkably self-regarding. But I’m not sure what the highbrow critics want, if not this. It seems to be an argument about what constitutes not only good writing, but serious literature, a question that can often only be answered by the passage of time. For me, it’s probably a question of whether I want to re-read the book, and in this case, despite my reservations, I certainly do.

Donna Tartt is a very private person and there is little about her on the internet. Here, however, is a quite revealing interview she gave to the Sydney Morning Herald after the publication of The Goldfinch.

 

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The Last Explorer (2005) has the sub-title Hubert WilkinsAustralia’s Unknown Hero. And before reading this book I had never heard of him. As Nasht points out, even though he was born in South Australia, he hasn’t even been accorded the honour of a commemorative plaque on Adelaide’s historic walk. Yet Nasht makes a convincing case for his heroism that should have made it impossible to ignore him. Why then is he so little known in the country of his birth?

One explanation is suggested by a review of the book in The Age by Bruce Elder, who puts Wilkin’s relative anonymity down to the fact that Wilkins ‘spent most of his life being either unsuccessful or living in the shadow of others’. Nasht certainly works hard to refute this view, and Wilkins’s life gives him plenty to work with. You can read the Wikipedia summary here and his somewhat underwhelming biography in the ADB here. Born in 1888 in the mid-north of South Australia to a family struggling to make a living on a farm on marginal land with patchy rainfall, he dreamt early of improving meteorology, a passion Nasht says informed the rest of his life. Falling almost by accident into the dangerous career of aerial photography, he took part in various Arctic expeditions, and became an official Australian war photographer in the First World War.  He was decorated for bravery and praised by General Sir John Monash as ‘a highly accomplished and absolutely fearless combat photographer’. After the war he took part in scientific expeditions to the Southern Ocean, and in northern Australia. But his passion was exploration in both the Arctic and the Antarctic, which he believed could best be undertaken from the air. After a number of hair-raising brushes with disaster, he succeed in 1929 in flying across the Arctic from Alaska to Norway, a feat for which he was knighted.  His next major expedition involved trying to sail an American First World War submarine named Nautilus under the Arctic ice, but the Nautilus was ill-equipped and possibly sabotaged and the mission failed. Wilkins kept busy, but never again attained the hero status he had previously held in America.

I don’t think Nasht has overstated his outstanding bravery, or his tenacity. But Elder is right that despite these qualities, he didn’t make major discoveries, and the submarine venture was a dangerous folly.

The explanation which is offered by Nasht for Wilkins’s relatively unknown status in Australia is that on the expedition to northern Australia, he criticised both the treatment of Aboriginal people and the wholesale destruction of the local flora and fauna. This he suggests, was considered unforgivable by the Australian government and public alike. This seems unlikely to me. More important was the fact that after the war, Wilkins lived and worked in America, and was famous there, rather than in Australia, because several of his expeditions were financed and publicised by the Hearst newspapers, which had no reach in Australia. He’s probably also right that Wilkins was a modest man who disliked self-promotion, unlike several of the other explorers operating at the time. Nasht emphasises his commitment to scientific exploration rather than the simple race to be the first to be somewhere or to do something which dominated the media reporting of exploration up to the Second World War. But then he would, wouldn’t he.

Given that the risks of polar exploration were so great, I was hoping that Nasht would shed light on what motivated Wilkins to put his life in danger so often, especially after his marriage. He quotes Wilkins as follows:

Is it the primitive thirst for adventure, the desire to penetrate the unseen and unknown; to experience the thrill that comes from the presence of danger and the satisfaction one feels at facing and narrowly cheating death that takes me again and again to the polar regions? Yes, it is, to a certain extent, but the experienced know that there is a thrill greater than that of adventure. It is the thrill of worthy accomplishment.

What are we to make of this? It sums up for me the reason for Wilkins’s lack of recognition; he is ‘worthy’, but dull, and this makes it hard for Nasht to tell a good story about him. Indeed despite the daring things Wilkins did, I only occasionally found the book gripping. Furthermore there is something a bit pedestrian about Nasht’s writing; it does not inspire. This is not an evaluation of Wilkins’s achievements; Nasht rarely criticises him, and seems determined to prove him a hero. Elder suggests the book would have been improved by being shorter, and he may be right; Nasht seems to have included material from every source he could find, leading to an unnecessarily detailed account.

For all that, I think Wilkins does at least deserve one of those commemorative plaques in Adelaide.

Nasht is a journalist, and film maker in partnership with the entrepreneur Dick Smith. I wondered if he felt a sense of affinity with Wilkins in having to scrounge around to get funding for his projects, which you can read about here. One notable one is the ABC documentary I Can Change Your Mind About Climate (2012) in which he placed together a climate change activist and a climate change denier, allowing them both to discuss their views with people they claimed as authorities on the topic. Many people thought it presented the reality of climate change as a debatable topic rather than something for which there is overwhelming scientific evidence. You can read his defence here. In the book, he highlights the ways in which Wilkins had an early understanding of climate change, perhaps another reason why he deserves to be better known.

 

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