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Any ordinary day, in Sales’s book (2018), is the day when something terrible happens to you, to someone you love, or even to strangers who are part of your broader community. After her own brush with death during pregnancy, she began thinking more deeply about how we come to terms with the fact that life can ‘blindside us in an instant’. How do we cope if it does happen? What responsibility do we have to people caught up in some terrible tragedy? And what does this tell us about how we should live?

To try and answer these questions, Sales interviews people who have experienced unexpected loss or trauma, often in a very public way. She talks to them about ‘the shock, the grief, the media intrusion, the community reaction, the struggle to keep going.’ Among the interviewees are a survivor of the Lindt Café siege, the sole survivor of the Thredbo landside disaster, a man rescued after being lost for 43 days in the Himalayas, a man who lost his family in the Port Arthur massacre, and a woman whose husband was murdered by his mentally ill son. She talks to them about how they coped in the immediate aftermath and in the longer term. She finds they had a range of strategies, such as ‘locking away’ memories of lost loved ones, working actively for change like gun control, and creating a practical memorial to the lost ones, like a charitable foundation. Some of her interviewees said their Christian faith was strengthened by their ordeal, though most did not profess any religious belief. Sales also talked with some of the people who offer help in crisis situations, including a detective, a priest and social workers. One of the worst things, one of the interviewees told her, was being shunned by people too embarrassed to offer comfort: ‘You could sort of understand, but by the same token it’s another part of loss.’ Sales concludes that just being there, accompanying rather than actively intervening, is the best form of comfort.

Sales also surveys some of the academic literature around these questions, and this gives context to her interviews. She is interested in finding out why the public is so interested in these stories, in questions of probability – ‘it could have been me’ –, in the incidence of coincidence, in the idea that things are ‘meant’ to happen and the human brain’s the need for predictability. She questions why Australians are sometimes more fearful of things that are very unlikely to happen, and over which they have no control, than of things like behaviour leading to ill health which are much more likely and are within our control. She finds the literature on such issues crosses philosophy, mathematics, law, religion and psychology. She finds, for example, from the relevant statistics, that the likelihood of Louisa Hope, the survivor of the Lindt Café siege being both diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a serious blow she was already having to cope with, and experiencing the siege, were one in 1.39 billion. But it is really the individual’s response to their situation that she is more interested in.

In the book, which is written in the first person, Sales also talks about her personal and professional response to tragedy. She reveals her own insecurities about and emotional reactions to disasters she has reported on. She admits to making some mistakes, mostly arising from insensitivity. But she considers that ‘asking the questions everybody secretly thinks about’ is part of her brief in writing the book. She notes that the media has a huge responsibility when reporting on disasters, as it has ‘enormous impact on our sense of personal security and our collective ability to recover’. She also looks at the ways in which the media can intrude on survivors, and based on a study of press interactions with survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires, suggests that despite some lapses, most journalist reported in good faith, the interviewees mostly having positive interactions with the media. She also defends the right of journalists to probe survivors’ stories, though acknowledging that ‘maximum public interest and therefore maximum media harassment coincide with peak vulnerability of the people involved.’ I would probably judge they get it right rather less often than Sales thinks they do.

Overall Sales feels that the responses of her interviewees are ‘life affirming’, and I have to agree that their reaction to tragedy is a tribute to human resilience. I couldn’t help noting, however, that there is only one example of a failure to cope in the book. The coroner found that Private Jake Kovko had died when he accidently shot himself in Afghanistan; his mother has never accepted this verdict. Naturally, Sales could hardly interview her. It would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, to interview anyone whose life was in tatters because something terrible had happened to them. But if the stories of those who do cope are life affirming, does this mean that those who don’t are somehow weaker? Sales might have acknowledged that there is a large element of luck in who gets the necessary support, who has the family backing or the financial means to move on from tragedy. The book is a bit unbalanced without this.

You can read a little more about Leigh Sales, her journalism and her other books here.  Or you could simply watch her on the ABC’s 7.30 program each weekday evening.


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This book, published in 2016, has an intriguing title. It is a French phrase used to describe twilight, where shapes become indistinct and it is impossible to tell the difference between a wolf and a dog. This makes it an uncertain and potentially dangerous time, and it is such a time that Blain chronicles in the lives of the major characters in this book.

The story, which is set mainly in Sydney, takes place on one day and concerns the interplay of the lives of three members of a family and one ex-member.  There are also flashbacks to some of the events that have brought them to where they are. Hilary, widow of a well-known painter and a film maker in her own right, has two daughters, Ester, a family therapist and April, a singer. The fourth member of the cast is Lawrence, a pollster, Ester’s ex-husband and father of her twin daughters. All of them are on the cusp of change, though not necessarily for the better. Hilary has cancer, though she hasn’t told her daughters. They are estranged from each other for reasons that become clear in the story. Ester might be about to start a new relationship, April to find some direction in her career. Lawrence might well be facing professional disgrace (and is definitely facing the impact of technological change on political polling. I was interested to note that this reflects reality; polling methods did change to robo polling about this time. Small irony: one section of the story turns on Ester not answering the phone because she thinks it might be a robo-poll.) The narrative is taken up by each of the characters in turn, but such is Blain’s skill that the end of one chapter seems to slide into the next, like one scene of a film dissolving into the next, as one critic has perceptively noted. True to its title, the story does not fully resolve any of their dilemmas with complete clarity, though some of the outlines are clear and others becoming more so.

The theme of shifting perceptions – maybe wolf, maybe dog – is strong throughout. The interplay of past and present is a shifting boundary. Of Hilary’s film she thinks ‘Yes, it is about death, but it is also about living – about what we cling to and what we relinquish – about how we remember.’ Ester’s professional consultations which occur throughout the day and give the story structure are also an interplay not just between psychologist and client but also between experience and the memory of it. The characters themselves are in flux. Is Lawrence really, as Ester claims, in love with the power of lying and cheating? ‘That’s what Lawrence does,’ he thinks; ‘he lies, he cheats, and he fucks up.’ But now he has lost all sense of himself: ‘he doesn’t know what wants …or what it was he desired. It’s all shifting, and he is seasick with the motion …’ Can he redeem himself, crossing back where he can be trusted?

Liminality is also inherent in the descriptions of time and place in the story. The day in Sydney is rainy; rain on glass reflects and distorts. Lawrence ‘sees himself reflected in the rain-streaked window and flinches.’ It’s still day, but ‘it’s so bloody dark and miserable outside it might as well be night’ says April. Yet the rain can also make things beautiful: Hilary, looking at the wet plants in her garden, thinks ‘The world is a place of wonder’. At the climax of the book it is twilight. ‘It is that hour’, thinks Hilary ‘Where day turns to night.’ And ‘the daylight slides away’. Metaphors reflecting the duality expressed in the title abound throughout the book.

It might be possible to argue that the problems of the characters are of the kind designated ‘First World’ problems. Blain is aware of this; Ester remembers that Lawrence says that as a therapist she ‘pedalled false hopes to a spoilt middle class. She handed out security blankets to children who should just grow up.’ It is ironic that this sentiment comes from Lawrence, who has clearly never grown up. But the story is about growing up. And the pain that Ester as a therapist and all characters in their lives deal with is real, and the issues of love, regret, aging and death are universal, even if most of the characters are solidly middle class.

When I read this book, I did not know that when it was in the manuscript stage in 2015, Blain was diagnosed with a brain tumour similar to the cancer that Hilary is suffering from in the book. Blain died thirteen months later in December 2016. As Kerryn Goldsworthy notes in her thoughtful review in the Sydney Review of Books, ‘It was difficult to read the book through any lens other than a sympathetic awareness of the situation’s terrible irony, and almost impossible, though most reviewers at the time tried honourably hard, to read the book purely as a work of fiction on its own terms, something separate from the fate of its author.’ I was fortunate to be able to read it unencumbered by this knowledge, and thought long before I included mention of her death in this review. I did so because I think the knowledge of it does add depth to an already complex and subtle story.

You can read more about Georgia Blain here. This was Blain’s eighth novel and second to last book. Her final one was a memoir, The Museum of Words, which was written during her treatment for cancer; it is reviewed here, again in the Sydney Review of Books.

  1. There’s one passage – among others- that struck me as particularly relevant to someone of my age. It is an illustration of Hilary’s concern about what we remember and what we forget. She acknowledges that her grandchildren will miss her ‘for a while’. ‘And then life will go on, and I will be someone they remember occasionally, with fondness, but with no real substance to the recollection. And that’s the way it should be … And then there’s a fainter imprint left behind, a period in which you are remembered. After that you are gone.’ How important it is to have someone say this.

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I came to read this book – subtitled The Present and the Future of the World (2018) – by accident. The book my sister intended to give me for Christmas is the one that Frankopan wrote immediately before this one: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015). This much longer book turns away from the Eurocentric view of history we are familiar with, and begins with the rise of the Persian Empire, taking the Caspian Sea, rather than the Mediterranean as its centre. The silk roads of the title are the arteries – networks rather than actual roads – along which people, goods, ideas, religions, disease and many other things have flowed between China and the west. The book chronicles the history of the peoples who migrated, traded and fought across central Asia for centuries before the rise of the west.

The book I did read – The New Silk Roads – follows on from where The Silk Roads ended. In that book Frankopan described how the Silk Roads are rising in importance. In this book, he follows that rise from 2015 -2018. He writes in his introduction that it is not possible to make sense of what is happening today – including Brexit in Europe and Trump in the US – without taking the region lying between the Eastern Mediterranean and the Pacific into account. More and more, he says, decisions that will shape the future of the world are being made in Beijing and Moscow, Tehran and Riyadh, Kabul and Ankara rather than Paris, London, Berlin, Rome or even Washington.

The main reason for this shift in the balance of world power, he argues, is the growing wealth of the east. This in turn is being fostered by the development of a web of economic, political and cultural interconnections between states – like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, or Kazakhstan – that might on their own wield little power on the world stage, states that are middle powers but rising in importance like India and Iran, major players like Russia, and above all, China, the emergent super power. Discussion of its ‘Belt and Road’ strategy to foster infrastructure like roads, ports, airports, energy plants and pipelines by lending money to countries close by, but also as far away as Africa, is central to the book. China needs the resources of these countries; they need her development assistance.

While ‘the story across large parts of the region … has been about consolidation and trying to find ways to collaborate more effectively’, the story of the west on the other hand has been one of ‘isolation and fragmentation,’ of ‘separation, the re-erection of barriers and ‘taking back control’’ – as seen not only in Brexit, but also in the rise of anti-globalist parties in central Europe.  He argues that President Trump’s incoherent foreign policy has only exacerbated the decline of American power in the world; he is particularly critical of the tariff war Trump is trying to wage against China, and his application of sanctions against Iran, both of which, he says, only encourage other countries into China’s orbit. ‘While Beijing has been busy trying to find partners in all places at all times, it is striking then to see how few friends the US and the west have along the Silk Roads.’

China’s expansion hasn’t all been plain sailing – ‘because of strategic rivalries, competition for resources and personality clashes between leaders who might be described as charismatic visionaries by their supporters and as having autocratic tendencies by their critics’. There are territorial tensions between many of these new players, like India and Pakistan, and Russia and Turkey, and Russia and China herself. There are also questions about the level of debt that some countries have entered into, with fears that it may inhibit development rather than fostering it. In some of these countries, the new wealth is going only to a few, fuelling discontent among the rest. Frankopan makes it clear, however, that few if any of the countries he is writing about are concerned about civil rights; they will savagely repress any internal opposition. Western style liberal democracy is not an option. But this will not hinder the rise of the Silk Roads.

Strangely for a book about this region, there is no mention of Islam, or any other religion. And I could have done with a map. Frankopan gives a nod in passing to the realities of climate change and the challenges of sustainable development but does not explore their implications for this region in any detail, even though access to water resources is likely to be an international flash point in the region as the climate changes. He clearly doesn’t see the demand for oil rapidly diminishing; any substantial decline would affect the strategic clout of countries like Saudi Arabia, but this isn’t mentioned. In terms of structure and argument, the book, described by one critic as ‘highly discursive and free-flowing’, suffers from a sense that it has been put together in haste, as if Frankopan has asked his research assistants to collect every reference they could find to the Silk Road countries, then thrown them all together.  But this doesn’t stop his major themes from emerging very clearly.

Western leaders, including Australia’s, should be very concerned, as they appear to have no viable response to this changing world. For example, at a time when China is investing in nations in the Pacific, the current Australian government has over the past five years drastically slashed foreign aid and is only now – probably too late – beginning to realise its mistake . The aid to the Pacific in the current budget, which experts say is ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, is to fund an underwater communications cable – which would otherwise be funded by China.

Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford University, where he is also Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He works on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, the Middle East, Persia/Iran, Central Asia and beyond, and on relations between Christianity and Islam. You can check out his website here. I’m going to make sure I read the 2015 book as well.




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Being Mortal (2014) is a blend of memoir, research and comment, with a number of case studies which Gawande uses to make his point. The book’s subtitle, Illness, Medicine and What Happens in the End is a useful summary of the contents of the book but doesn’t give any clue to the emotional weight it carries, dealing as it does with death – which in this context is inevitably a reminder of one’s own death.

Gawande bases the book partly on his own experience as a surgeon. He says he learned little about aging or death in his medical course; learning how to deal with the problems of old age and dying had to be learnt first by experience and then by personal research. Thus he also draws on his experience as a son, and son-in-law. His parents, both medical doctors, migrated to America from India, so he never knew his grandparents. The first old person he really came to know was his wife’s grandmother, Alice. Over the course of the book, both Alice and his father get sick and die. This lived experience on his part adds considerable emotional depth to what otherwise might have been a colder, technical discussion.

Gawande is concerned with two related issues: the institutionalisation of the aged, and the medicalisation of death. He understands why families are no longer willing or able to look after their aging relatives, and indeed why aging relatives often seek independence from their children. But he abhors the regimentation many institutions impose on old people, supposedly for their own safety but often for institutional convenience; it saps purpose and hope from old people’s lives. Through several case studies, including that of Alice, he looks at some of the attempts to humanise institutions or find alternatives to institutional care, such as assisted living facilities. This latter was an attempt to meet the needs of old people for independence, rather than subjecting them to regimentation, even if it kept them safe. Though initially successful, he admits that with the proliferation of assisted living facilities, the concept has been weakened, and regimentation, being cheaper, has crept back in.

But no matter how independent old people are able to be, there comes a time when illness, or failing health due to old age, shunt us into the medical system. Where once people died at home, without much medical intervention, they now (at least in the Western world) mostly die in hospital after sometimes lengthy medical intervention has run its course. At what point is hospital necessary? And more importantly, how should doctors treat people who are near death but not yet terminal? This is perhaps even more of a problem for younger people with terminal diseases than for older people, as one of Gawande’s case studies shows. He argues that doctors are trained to solve medical problems, so favour treatment options which may prolong life, even if they reduce quality of life. He considers that medical professionals are very good at offering options for treatment, but very bad at explaining to patients and their families the options for not treating. He acknowledges it can be very difficult to decide when treatment does not offer reasonable hope. Even when patients have specified they don’t want to be resuscitated, the decision to withdraw treatment can be difficult and relatives often press doctors for further procedures against the patient’s wishes, such is the faith in medical science.

While he does not suggest there are easy solutions to such dilemmas, Gawande, from his own experience and research, advocates home hospice care for people who are terminally ill. Hospice care – called palliative care in Australia –  involves provision of pain relief or other medication to ease suffering, but not usually other forms of treatment. But the first step is to find out what the patient really wants, which in turn involves talking about their death. What is important to them? Is being with family and friends more important than living a little longer in hospital? Gawande touches briefly on euthanasia, which is legal in three American states, concluding that while people are comforted by knowing it is available, few use it. He clearly prefers the home hospice alternative, and studies have shown that people may in fact live longer using it than they would have in hospital. His case studies, however, including that of his father, show that no option works smoothly, without pain to the patient or their relatives and friends.

I noted that all the case studies Gawande uses are of people with loving families or concerned friends. Spouses are willing to help their terminally ill partners with daily routines and to make accommodations to all their needs. But what of those without such support of whom there must be many? Furthermore, few people can afford to pay for the personal home care old and frail people require. Institutional care may be their only option. It is not clear in the book how care or treatment is paid for. Most of the forms of care Gawande describes are private, though some appear to be state-subsidised. Indeed, how Gawande has dealt with funding is the only issue on which his book disappointed me. He does acknowledge that being well off means being able to afford better care both in terms of accommodation and medical treatment. But the vast discrepancy in health care between the rich and the poor in America is not discussed, and nor is the growing disparity between the life expectancy of rich and poor Americans.

Gawande’s plea that we think about our own deaths, and discuss our wishes with family and friends is relevant to everyone. But it is particularly relevant to older people like me. I found Gawande’s perfectly correct insistence that old people get ill and die a bit depressing, though challenging. Would what seems like common sense – that quality of life and imminent death are preferable to longer life but extended suffering – look the same when the choice has to be made? But there is also hope in the book that we can retain our right to choose the best death possible.

You can read more about Gawande’s writing, surgery and research here on his web-site.

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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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Published in 2006, this book purports to be an account of the work of an American writer, speaker and philanthropist, Greg Mortenson, as per the subtitle: One Man’s Extraordinary Journey to Promote Peace … One School at a Time. It is a flawed book about a flawed man. But I found it inspiring. I say ‘purports’ because it turns out some of the details are not true. I’ll nevertheless stick with ‘inspiring’ because the essential truth is that not only did Mortenson single-handedly begin the work of building schools for children, particularly girls, in remote northern Pakistan and later Afghanistan, he also told the American people that the war on terror could not be won by bombs; it had to be won by education.

Mortenson, a trauma nurse by training, was an avid mountaineer. In 1993, having failed in an attempt to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world, located in northern Pakistan, he stumbled into a village below it. The villagers helped him recover. He saw they had no school building and promised to return and build one. The details about how this happened are among those contested; apparently, he only briefly visited the village and in fact returned later to promise the school. I agree accuracy is important and here Relin, the professional author who did most of the writing, has tried to make the story a bit more dramatic than it actually was. But given how subjective biography always is, I don’t find this a knockout blow. (There is at least one other contested incident where Relin has overdramatised; some people take this as invalidating the whole.) The book then goes on to explain how Mortenson went back to America and tried to raise funds for his school, how he was assisted by a benefactor who set up the non-profit Central Asia Institute for him, how from one school it grew to many, how Mortenson negotiated  the incredibly difficult landscape of northern Pakistan – physical, political, social and religious – and how he fared after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre led to an American war on the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The book is a sort of case study of the growth of one person’s commitment to an idea into a significant non-government organisation, with all the strengths and weaknesses this involves. Mortenson had the dream and the drive to make it happen. Even if Relin overstates the devotion Mortenson seems to have attracted in Pakistan – and he certainly does lay it on a bit thick – Mortenson was clearly visionary, brave and dogged. Maybe he was a bit obsessive. But it is amazing that one man, with just a small band of supporters in Pakistan and America, could accomplish anything where past promises of government aid had come to nothing. That he succeeded in establishing any schools for girls in a poor Muslim country is particularly to his enormous credit. There is a bit of discussion in the book about whether NGOs coming in and changing traditional practices is a good idea, as it will change a way of life in balance with its environment; the book heads one chapter with an approving quote suggesting ‘an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth … that ancient cultures have never abandoned.’ It is clear, however, that improving education, water supply and maternal health are welcomed by those who have to live with the downside of the traditional practices. On the other hand, Relin makes it clear that Mortenson didn’t have the administrative skills or inclination to control the organisation properly. He is open about the fact that Mortenson disliked the fund-raising side – though he got better at it as he went along – and that he was ‘goofy and unbusinesslike’. For the first several years, funds were limited, and he begrudged spending money on administration in America that he felt could be better used in Pakistan. He found it hard to do tasks he disliked – like keeping CAI’s board informed of what he was doing. Even by the time of publication of the book, the organisation was suffering from poor administration.

Just how badly it suffered only became clear after the book was published. It was an enormous success and generated revenue far beyond anything the CAI had previously enjoyed. Mortenson also made a lot of money from speaking fees. Then came the backlash. In 2012, questions about the authenticity of the book were raised, as were concerns about whether all the money was going to the charity. People who had previously supported Mortenson turned against him. After an inquiry found there was no intentional wrong-doing on his part, Mortenson agreed to repay $1 million to the organisation, and was banned from taking a leadership role in it. Sadly, the allegations about elements of the story being untrue caused Relin, already suffering from depression, to commit suicide.

While scandals about the book and Mortenson’s financial mis-management seem to be the frame through which many people view him, to me there is a much more important story. And that is Mortenson’s attempt to argue to his American audience that education is more important than bombs in the war on terror. Indeed, he was acutely aware that bombing, which inevitably killed civilians, made Americans hated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He saw with concern the spread of Saudi Arabian funded madrassas, preaching the fundamentalist Islamic creed of Wahhabism, some of them home to militant extremism. He respected Islam, but wanted children to have a balanced general education, not religious indoctrination. He understood that support for the Taliban came from anti-Americanism, ignorance and a perversion of Islam. This was not what many in America wanted to hear. Of course, only a conspiracy theorist could possibly suggest a direct connection between his criticisms of the war on terror and accusations of impropriety against him. However, framing him as corrupt and incompetent has deeply compromised other possible ways of looking at his work in promoting peace one school at a time.

You can read more about Mortenson and what happened after the book was published here. And this is a summary from the Washington Post giving both sides of the story, and where he was up to in 2014. These are also interesting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bFnjDigs_w; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH7wmSuMB8k.

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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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