Saturday, August 16, 2008

White Album / Wash / Lie / House

Aravind Adiga is a graduate of Oxford and Columbia universities and writes business journalism for Time magazine. In this Man Booker long list 2008 finalist novel the notion of The White Tiger - a rare and beautiful event - is used to characterise the transition of a young man in India from 'the Darkness' to the light - from empty belly to full belly. The metaphor is flawed - the white tiger is not a rare endangered species, but a genetic misfit bred for profit. According to Adiga the transition to wealth is best accomplished by sacrificing family (quite literally) loyalty and morality. Many Indians of my acquaintance would take a different view. But for those of us who travel to India, and are assigned a driver who sits in the car and waits, this novel certainly provides a sobering pause for thought.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lovely Linda

Here's a delectable novel for lovers of London, particularly those mysterious mansion blocks just west of the Marylebone High Street. Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs teems with the spirit of place - and time too, the glorious seventies and the rich variety of costumes which went with them. The story concerns the gradual self discovery, through the vicissitudes of life, of the only child of elderly Hungarian refugees. Through her eyes we enter the exotic private world of a notorious slum landlord - her long lost uncle. And learn that European affluence also often conceals a bleak and tortured history. Surprise surprise, things are seldom what they seem. Love and splendor are not the sole province of the beautiful people. In short, then, another strong contender for the Man Booker prize - what a marvellous long list we are enjoying this time round.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Lost Narrative

The first half of this 2008 Booker long list contender is engrossing, moving and strong, with a beguiling richness of story-telling and achingly lovely prose. Then Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog seems to get rather lost in the Aussie scrub itself. The tropes, the scenes even the authorial voice become repetitive: they tell us nothing new. The reader starts to skip impatiently forward. Interesting characters are introduced then fade puzzlingly into the background. Stasis threatens. From the simple yet crucial perspective of plot, too much remains unresolved, the mother and her failing body, the art gallery owner and his sexual ambiguity, the son and his disputed parenthood, and most of all, the missing millionaire husband, who surely is the real 'lost dog' of the title. Will he too come crawling back bruised and starved, but still wagging his tail? (...or, perhaps, wearing that little black dress?)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Zia zia piano piano

So it goes: first book very good, second book very bad. Well, just plain awful actually. Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes essays a fictional account of an actual event - the assassination of the deeply unpleasant President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan on August 17th 1988. It shares something of the manic, riotous, image-laden quality so often evident in writing from the sub-continent, from Rushdie through Arundhati Roy to last year's Animal's People, but here applied with what my mother would call 'a nasty streak'. Every character is venal, self-obsessed and corrupt, and they all suffer various repulsive humiliations before meeting sticky, unpleasant ends. You finish the novel feeling as if you've supped on carrion. Haven't been to Pakistan, but it's hard to believe that any place on earth is as bleakly unpleasant and unredeemable as Hanif's fictionalised homeland.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

We of the Nether Nether

Well well well, what a surprise, a veritable bobby-dazzler for the first station of the cross in this year's Bookerathon - Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. Just my favorite sort of novel is all, a sweet murder mystery love story covering off New York, London, big business, cricket, cooking, cute lawyers, 9/11, Eros, Google Earth, the Chelsea hotel, the odd angel, and all of it neatly packaged in a dreamy, stylish first person narrative with plenty of purple patches. So good it's tempting to give O'Neill my personal Booker here and now and skip the rest, but for one slight problem - we never get to learn whodunnit. That may be just one genre transgression too many. Or have I missed a crucial subtext?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Not too shabby, Abbey's!

Best Booker local harvest ever: Abbey's bookshop has all bar four of the long list, so it's only the Arnold, Berger, de Kretser, and Hensher will have to come from Amazon UK. Kicking off the marathon with Netherland.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bookies 2008

This chronicle now reverts as always at this time of year to the novel, in particular the 13 just announced for the Man Booker long list. So nicely timed for the European summer hols. Interesting to see how many are already available in Oz. The Rushdie is the only one already read*

The Man Booker Prize 2008 Long List

Aravind Adiga The White Tiger
Gaynor Arnold Girl in a Blue Dress
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture
John Berger From A to X
Michelle de Kretser The Lost Dog
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs
Mohammed Hanif A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency
Joseph O'Neill Netherland
Salman Rushdie The Enchantress of Florence
Tom Rob Smith Child 44
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole

*or to be honest, just the first 100 pages before getting distracted - just the same as with every Rushdie ever sampled.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


So much to write about, where do I start?
Iridium? MOMA? Or Stewart’s Macbeth?
(A Star Trek alumnus’ sanguinary death
˗ astonishing, how well he suited the part)
Maybe Iridium: old Jimmy Cobb,
seventy-nine, remarkable, black ‘Miles’ baseball cap
perched jauntily, battering that high hat
for five hours straight – hell of a job!

When I’m in America, I think of growing old,
Of all those tunes unplayed, stories left untold.
Tina Turner’s touring soon, so fine at sixty eight,
Like Nancy Pelosi, while MCain’s 71 out of the gate.
What will become of us? Don’t answer that!
Already too old, too grey, too forgetful, and too fat.

* Japanese for ‘dead person’ & by extension ‘Buddha’. Also a restaurant in New Brunswick NJ

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Boston the sonnet

Mission@bar+grill - ah, two Sam Adams!
Sharing the tenderlings off on the side
(Hoping for grilled but, natch, they're deep-fried)
Friday night, molto crescendo: Aida & Rhadames
Beckon, but me & Frank are heading out
To MOFA for just a bite or two to eat.
Chatting: academia & industry; quiet, discreet.
The discord more a whisper than a shout?

Harvard, the NEJM, all sacred sites
Wisdom & ritual, knowledge & pride
Spiritual leaders' earthly delights
- Nothing to live for, too much to hide...
The old schizophrenia festers apace:
Dump the arcana for a more human race.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sic transit

Air France nearly bought
Alitalia yesterday.
Last minute, walked away
(Hunky dory till they fought).
Doesn’t matter, still flying,
Green livery, down to Rome,
Then to London, nearly home…
…barely laughing, nearly crying.

4 weeks in Europe, my DNA’s home –
denatured Oz makes it fit for a poem.
Too many paintings & sculptures & crap
fall out of the sky & go splat in my lap.

Culture-free Sydney is beckoning now
Welcome to Haymarket’s Concertgebouw.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Usually Thursdays the crossword defeats me.
In sunny Piazza Maggiore, failure streams
down ancient brick courses like sunbeams.
So is this where a misplaced rapture meets me?
Three clues answered of one thirty two:
inn / lay / needed – that’s it!
Can’t cheat on the Blackberry – it’s on a hissy fit
Substitute another cap, a croissant – well, what would you do?

Later to via della Belle Arte, to try viola bows,
perhaps after lunch at Zanarini, pasta and local red wine.
Just wander up old via Oberdan, turn right and follow your nose
So the mundane is rendered transcendent, the quotidian divine
Travel making strange always, overthrows
The signifier – but we’re luckily left with the sign.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Back in Bologna

Lazy late breakfast in this lovely town
- this time in via Clavitura, where
Il Calice has thank goodness reopened. Over there
the bearded bullying patron fusses around
his red check tablecloths and broad bowl
of ice, which will fill later with bottles
of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio (after Giotto?)
A town full of food, art and an academic soul.
But I’ve abandoned all that, thanks,
in favour of a sonnet a day,
a long walk, a good lunch,
the casual observation of assorted cranks,
the internet, perhaps a brief sharetrading foray,
anything to avoid the final crunch.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mr Watts Pigs Out

This Jones boy has had more than a few books published in New Zealand on a disconcerting variety of themes but according to the flyleaf this seems to be the first to crack the UK publishing circuit. And - ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora! - straight to the Booker Long List!

Quite an enjoyable read – exotic location: Bougainville at the time of the troubles – and a familiar theme: how a good read can help you through tricky times. The character of Mr Watts (who is also Mr Dickens AND the eponymous Pip) is rather evanescent, perhaps on purpose, perhaps due to some untidy drift in the narrative flow. But clever young Matilda who tells the story, and her Godbothering momma, come through loud and clear.

Published, interestingly enough, with three vastly different cover designs in different markets - the one shown to the left is much the best. So the main quarrel is with the choice of Charles Dickens Great Expectations as the redemptive novel: such a dreary load of old rope – no, no, anything but that - bring out the machetes! Chop chop!

Booker 2007 Long List
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

Monday, August 20, 2007

Watery Eyes / Grave / Prose

Here’s a tortuous, tortured cry of the heart, an Irish epithalamium for a lost brother. Easy to put down, hard to read. Brutal, bawdy, bathetic and all too heart-felt.

But by giving her narrator a family of 20 odd members, Enright creates such a tangle of narrative complexity that the reader gets lost in the maze – which one was Kit again, which one Ada? Probably they are all quite distinct in her mind, but they aren’t in mine.

Booker 2007 Long List
The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Reluctant New Yorker

As you tackle the opening paragraph you sigh a little, because this novella is written entirely in the first and second person, rehearsing in real time just one half a conversation taking place over dinner in a market stall in Lahore. So often Booker judges seem to go for the oddball voice, which palls after a couple of chapters and then simply irritates.

But your sigh is misplaced, because in this case the undeniably severe boundaries of time/place/person to which Hamid has submitted create a narrow, pure form which he carves, a master sculptor, into a compelling cul-de-sac of a narrative.

Lahore, Princeton, Manhattan, Lahore. Warring cultures. Our own contemporary nightmare. And less convincingly, a rather sad little cross-cultural love story that goes all wrong. Take you an hour and a half to read these 190 brief pages, longer to try to decide whose side you're on.

Booker 2007 Long List
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Booker, Tea & the MGs

For some odd reason the Man Booker mob have shortlisted 13 novels instead of last year's 19. Makes the task of the obsessive Booker completist slightly easier, at least, although Abbey's only had 5 of them on Sunday, not counting On Chesil Beach.

And natch, a nagging incentive to fire up the world's least read blog one more time. So I brought The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Gathering with me to Johannesburg, but can't really start them until I've finished John Gray's extraordinary Straw Dogs.

Long List
Nicola Barker: Darkmans (4th Estate)
Edward Docx: Self Help (Picador)
Tan Twan Eng: The Gift of Rain (Myrmidon)
Anne Enright: The Gathering (Jonathan Cape)
Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Hamish Hamilton)
Peter Ho Davies: The Welsh Girl (Sceptre)
Lloyd Jones: Mister Pip (John Murray)
Nikita Lalwani: Gifted (Viking)
Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach (Jonathan Cape)
Catherine O'Flynn: What Was Lost (Tindal Street)
Michael Redhill: Consolation (William Heinemann)
Indra Sinha: Animal's People (Simon and Schuster)
AN Wilson: Winnie & Wolf (Hutchinson)


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ambivalent Ambos

The wonderful world of books! You learn new things and visit new places, not accessible in any other way. How grateful you feel.

In this case, for instance, who would have thought that those Blitz ambulances were manned by gay women, and that their private lives & loves would be so vividly documented by the liquid prose of Miss Waters, who has mined the lesbian seam (as it were) so effectively in recent years.

She does write exceptionally well, but this is a long book, over 500 pages, and the last 100 or so pages are quite an effort, the more so as chronologically speaking they are actually the first 100 pages. One was tempted to go back to the beginning and see how it all fits in... as it were.

But this reader proved rather better at resisting temptation than Helen, Julia, Kay, Vivian and the rest.

Carry On Ireland

Maria Joan Hyland was born in London of Irish parents, but her Arts/Law degree from the University of Melbourne surely qualifies her as an Aussie author, particularly if she wins the Booker. Or so the Australia Council must have thought when awarding her the scholarship which supports her to live in Rome these days.

But she won't, not for this one. The 2006 Booker seems to be specialising in odd authorial voices, in this case that of a gangly 11 year Irish child who only gets about 30% of whats going on around him. That trick worked a treat for Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day but here one rapidly tires of the child's obtuseness and obsessions.

Short Black List

Well, the Booker short list was out last week - an event noted rather belatedly on this site due to a quick disconnected flip to Brisbane for the writers festival of which perhaps more later.

Kiran Desai. The Inheritance of Loss - Hamish Hamilton
Kate Grenville. The Secret River - Canongate
MJ Hyland. Carry Me Down - Canongate
Hisham Matar. In the Country of Men - Viking
Edward St Aubyn. Mother’s Milk - Picador
Sarah Waters. The Night Watch - Virago

Hmm. Nice to see Carey omitted, but rather a surprise that Gordimer was overlooked. Aussie firm Text Publishing - one of the very few Australian companies to take literary fiction seriously - can celebrate contributing two authors (Grenville and Hyland) to the list. So two Aussies, two coffee colonials, a Lebanese, the usual liquorice allsorts. Only one member of the traditional British literary aristocracy, St Aubyn (Westminster, Oxford) and even he has had the odd encounter with the dark side.

Suppose there's no escaping finishing the Grenville now, abandoned after the first 60 pages due to its intensely irritating authorial perspective. To be struggled through somehow. But Booker completism will be something of a challenge with the Matar and the St Aubyn not due for publication in Australia until well after the winner is announced

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Got it, thanks

Now this is more like it. Give this one the Booker now and save eyestrain.

Gordimer is well known of course, but still something of a discovery. This is her 32nd book, 14th novel. Nobel Prize for literature 1991. The voice is distinctive, but also has echoes of Coetzee – is it a South African cadence, this laconic, incisive, ironic note?

Get a Life is brief – just 187 large font double spaced pages. At around 270 words per page that’s slightly more than 50,000 words. You, dear reader, writing at 1000 words a day, could create something similar in less than 2 months.

Well, perhaps not similar. The same length. For this is writing of the highest quality, elliptical, amusing, insightful and compelling. It’s the tale of an affluent South African professional family – the father a businessman, the mother a lawyer, a son who is an ecology campaigner, married to an advertising executive. They fall in and out of love, acquire children, advance their careers. Just human.

Two plot devices overlay the domestic: in the first, the son develops thyroid cancer in his thirties, requires surgery and then the ingestion of radioactive iodine to ablate the remaining tumour cells. This works. The enforced retreat - while he is ‘hot’ - to his childhood home provides a caesura for reflection, and the inevitable intimations of mortality.

The second revolves around a campaign to save certain ecologically sensitive parts of South Africa from development. This, frankly, doesn’t work as well: it’s dull and repetitive, the issue is presented monochromatically, and one tends to skip forward. It may be possible to write grippingly about the environment, but it doesn’t happen here.

What makes this novel successful, as so often, is the writing. The epigraph is from Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror

O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?

An unanswerable question, of course, but an engrossing one. Good things and bad things happen to these folk, as good and bad things happen to us all. The soft-shelled carapace of language Gordimer constructs as their ordinary story unfolds creates beauty of its own accord, makes the particular universal, and not only leaves the reader noting, as Donald Rumsfeld did, that stuff happens, but also, as Donald didn’t, wondering why.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Carey get out your cane

The story of my brief infatuation with Carey's prose goes like this: The Fat Man In History was just fine, improving on multiple re-readings. Bliss stretched the friendship almost beyond endurance, and about half way through Oscar and Lucinda as the church was floating down the river the whole edifice sank without a trace, never to be salvaged.

So it was solely with Booker completism in mind that I tackled Theft - only to be pleasantly surpised by the opening few paragraphs, which had a narrative clarity and urgency which recalled the finest moments of The Fat Man

But it was not to last. For half of Theft is a tale told by an idiot. As you might expect, then, it is full of sound and fury, but just doesn't signify. In alternate chapters Carey affects rather unconvincingly the voice of some mindless rural dolt from his (real) home town, Bacchus Marsh VIC, but it is the voice of an idiot more savage than savant. This complex and over-elaborate device rapidly becomes tedious, and slows the narrative down to a skin-crawl.

Theft tries to be about art, and moral rights, and also as the subtitle implies about love. We don't learn more than we knew already about any of these subjects. Too many of the characters can be sketched on the back of an envelope - the too cute root, the rich drug addled scion, the nasty enigmatic art buyers... even Slow Bones the duffer brother reads like a gloss on Dostoyevsky's Myshkin, or Steinbeck's Lenny.

And the overbearing tweeness of the name-borrowing, the all-too-knowing phrases from popular song, the Condé Nasty travelogue and the slender sub-Grisham plot. Even at 279 double spaced large font pages, by half way through I was skimming Hugh's automatic/automaton writing and longing for the end...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

You kiss by the Booker

OK, Booker season, long list announced today, so time to reactivate Quo Vadis and see what sort of malarkety the judges are up to this year.

For those even to lazy to clip on the link, here they are:

Peter Carey Theft: A Love Story (Faber & Faber)
Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton)
Robert Edric Gathering the Water (Doubleday)
Nadine Gordimer Get a Life (Bloomsbury)
Kate Grenville The Secret River (Canongate)
MJ Hyland Carry Me Down (Canongate)
Howard Jacobson Kalooki Nights (Jonathan Cape)
James Lasdun Seven Lies (Jonathan Cape)
Mary Lawson The Other Side of the Bridge (Chatto & Windus)
Jon McGregor So Many Ways to Begin (Bloomsbury)
Hisham Matar In the Country of Men (Viking)
Claire Messud The Emperor’s Children (Picador)
David Mitchell Black Swan Green (Sceptre)
Naeem Murr The Perfect Man (William Heinemann)
Andrew O’Hagan Be Near Me (Faber & Faber)
James Robertson The Testament of Gideon Mack (Hamish Hamilton)
Edward St Aubyn Mother’s Milk (Picador)
Barry Unsworth The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton)
Sarah Waters The Night Watch (Virago)

As Hermione Granger, chair of the judging panel, once commented wisely:

Books! And cleverness!
There are more important things -- friendship and bravery.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

St Francis bites his own Animals

Is there any commentator more regularly misjudged and misquoted than Fukuyama? His 1992 magnum opus The End of History and the Last Man has been the launching pad for innumerable opinion pieces, most structured along the lines of "ho ho ho, silly old Fuku-san thought history was over, but hey, he was wrong!"

Actually, he's not such a soft target. EOH is not an easy read, but it repays the effort, and offers a genuinely thoughtful and at the time fairly novel proposition: that there is now a broad global consensus, right across the political spectrum, that liberal democracy, capital markets and competition work better than any other known system. So it is history in the Hegelian and Marxist sense of the word which he proposes has come to a conclusion rather than all human history, as his sillier detractors imply.

Even if you do not agree with him, it's a thought provoking idea, and who is to blame an author of a fairly abstruse work for dreaming up a catchy title.

Anyway, this is his latest effort, published a few weeks ago - bought in Oxford St, London, with the flashy cover you see above. Amusingly, in the US it has a sober black cover and an alternative title America at the Crossroads

So FF's nose for a catchy title or two, tailored to the local market, is still in fine working order.

This one is much more readable. Success and fame have brought in their wake better prose - pointed, concise and with a refined sense of humour lacking before. Fukuyama claims, perhaps with some justification, that his ideas became part of the intellectual apparatus of the neoconservative administration of George Bush. He now wishes to formally repudiate the association, and mounts a ferocious critique of his government's current foreign policy and ideology.

This brief monograph (just over 190 pages of large double spaced type plus critical apparatus) traces the early history of neoconservatism as a school of thought, then explains how its ideas, perhaps not that intrinsically smart to start with, have been systematically altered and debased by the current rulers of America.

He concludes with a couple of chapters of positive suggestions, one on alternative and more effective global institutions, and one on American foreign policy.

The reader may mutter, well, well, easy enough to be an armchair critic and theorist, of course, (but is it really that easy?) Nevertheless, the views which emanate from Fukuyama's cosy upholstery at Yale are always a cut or two above the average, and usually do merit thoughtful reading and debate, never more so than here, where we can all enjoy the rare enough spectacle of one of the most celebrated and respected conservative theorists decisively distancing himself from the increasing global catastrophe that is George Bush abroad.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Si vuol ballare

Do you wanna dance, under the moonlight, kiss me kiss me, all through the night, oh baby, do you wanna dance? Le Nozze de Figaro, Act IV

David Cairns was music critic of the London Daily Telegraph and founded the Chelsea Opera in 1950 with the sole purpose of giving himself the opportunity to sing Leporello in an amateur production of Don Giovanni

Those two factlets tell you everything you need to know about this book - it combines a British urbanity and considerable erudition and insight with a tireless commitment to self-indulgence and a rarefied hedonism. This is not as maladroit a recipe for an engaging read as you might suppose.

Does the world need another book about Mozart, Cairns asks in his introduction - probably not, he cheerfully admits, but he plans to write one anyway. He loves these operas so much, he tells us, he feels compelled to share the love. Well, if you have an obliging publisher, why not?

So he takes us lovingly through a detailed analysis of the historical context and musical structure of Mozart's most legendary works - Idomeneo, the three Da Ponte operas, Zauberflote and La Clemenza di Tito. This harmonious sextet is topped and tailed by a preliminary recitative covering Mozart's early life and operas and a coda which briefly charts the well known story of his final days.

If you love the operas, as Cairns does, you'll enjoy the book, and the love. Unnecessary books are sometimes just a delicious treat. Not unlike dancing in the moonlight...

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Raisin Hell

By no stretch of the imagination a good book, but an unusually interesting one for followers of contemporary British politics.

You know, of course, Bonkin' Boris , elected representative of the commutariat of Henley-on-Thames in the Commons, former editor of The Spectator and, in between episodes of tabloid disgrace, a shadow Tory minister. One of London's great erudite and erring eccentrics. Who would not wish secretly, as I do, to be Boris, with his wit, his bicycle and his series of improbably high profile amorous folies a deux

Steeped (like its author) in the comic tradition of the early Evelyn Waugh, without for a moment reaching those heights, this book does start rather well - indeed, schooled by the British literary establishment in the supreme importance of a memorable opening sentence, Boris has slaved over his to get it just about right.

As it is improbable in the extreme that you, dear reader, will ever buy or wade through this book, it is no great sin to reproduce it here:

On what he had every reason to believe would be the last day of his undistinguished political career Roger Barlow awoke in a state of sexual excitement and with a gun to his head, the one fading as he became aware of the other

Unfortunately, the story also rather detumesces from that point on, in the effort to keep an impossibly complex plot involving a bumbling Jihadist conspiracy to blow up Uncle POTUS in the crumbly if hallowed precincts of Westminster Hall. No subplot, byway or implausible background story is left unexplored, nor is any opportunity to show off arcane knowledge left unexploited.

Johnson's primary political question for the persevering reader (growing every more dispirited as the light touch is replaced by weary slog) is whether one should love or hate America, in the light of Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Paul Newman salad dressing, and a thousand other indignities. After a few enjoyable set pieces and a great deal of self-indulgence, the question is left unanswered, apart from one's prior knowledge of The Spectator and its general attitude of amused contempt and affection for the Yank.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Greene Blues

Our very own Aussie lass Shirley Hazzard came across Grahame Greene on the island of Capri in the late 60's and managed to strike up a friendship based initially on her superior ability to quote Browning. The interaction lasted over the next 20 odd years despite Greene's erratic and occasionally nasty behaviour, and only faltered when he became too frail and elderly to travel to Italy.

This book documents the interaction, with moderately charming vignettes of other local and not-so-local characters. Worth a look even if you're not that much of a Greeniac.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Babylon a la Polk

This is a short (220pp), pithy, beautifully written account of Iraq and the Iraqis from earliest times to today, written by an American whose Middle East academic credentials are impressive and who was also actively involved with US Middle East policy under the Kennedy administration. He dismisses the current disastrous US/UK military action in a few short sentences - it was always about the oil. His point, and its hard to disagree, is Santayana's dictum: those who don't understand history are condemned to repeat it...

Strange to realise for the first time, reading this on Anzac Day, that the spectacularly unsuccessful attempt by Australian troops and others to occupy Gallipolli was a direct consequence of Britain's decision to invade Iraq in November 1914 and a few days later to declare war on the Ottoman empire. On that occasion, they made no bones about the reason: to protect their oil sources. Forty odd years of uneasy British occupation of Iraq followed, until the revolution of 1958 which installed Saddam's predecessors.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Oh, Pears!

One of several pleasing byproducts of a recent trip to NYC and Philadelphia was the discovery/digestion of Iain Pears' rather cerebral but entirely entertaining art history mystery series - six titles altogether of which The Raphael Affair is the first. Managed to pick up five of them in Barnes & Noble on 5th Ave and probably 43rd St for $6.50 each, and the last in Philadelphia, more expensive (not really a problem) but larger and bound differently and therefore, irritatingly, spoiling the arrangement on the bookshelf.

Like most good detective story sequences these must be read strictly in order. Together they chart the history of the affable, muddleheaded but inevitably utterly charming English art historian Jonathan Argyll as he more or less accidentally embraces life in Rome, a gradual love affair with an (equally inevitably) beautiful but feisty Roman detective, and a series of art-related crimes in which the crime itself is reflected, and its solution contained by, the art work at the centre of the story.

Tore through these at a tremendous pace, finishing the last one up on the plane home. Perhaps time to re-tackle Pears rather more serious effort An Instance of the Fingerpost (1998), which many readers have liked much less. But look, how organised, one book a year for six years...

The Jonathan Argyll Art History Mysteries
The Raphael Affair (1991)
The Titian Committee (1992)
The Bernini Bust (1993)
The Last Judgment (1994)
Giotto's Hand (1995)
Death and Restoration (1996)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Back, aye, there's the rub.

In response to popular if not inexorable demand from its admiring fan, this blog has resumed transmission.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

You kiss by the book

The thought provoking news is yesterday's launch of Google Print. You need an 'account' to use it properly, which means giving the Googlopoly an email address so they can track your usage habits and breakfast cereal preferences. With this sorted out, you are offered the familiar search screen. But this time round, entering a phrase searches a whole great slew of the world’s books instead of the Internet.

Example: key in the phrase The Gentle Sin is This (great title for a novel, by the way, if you happen to be Louisa M Alcott). In 0.43 seconds you get ‘42 pages’ - but from a list of just 20 books. First up are editions of Romeo and Juliet from Signet (now published by Penguin) and from the Cambridge University Press. Then a dozen or so literary and scholarly works, of which the clear favorite is Fantasies of Female Evil by Cristina Leon Alfar (great title for a movie, by the way, if you happen to be Dario Argento)

A propos of Juliet’s passage Cristina, who teaches EngLit at CUNY, advises that ‘...patriarchal authority, orginating in a patrilineal God and represented by the sexual conservatism of early modern religious beliefs, cannot accommodate a faith based on sexual desire’ Quite disappointing news really for many of us.

Today at Google Print you can’t read all 256 pages of Dr Alfar’s opus, published originally by the University of Delaware in 2003. Just pages 64-68. Put aside firmly the unworthy thought that you can make a pretty fair guess as to what the rest says anyway. That’s not the point. There’s plenty enough here to lift into an overdue assignment. Or you can click to buy at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. US$46.50. Bargain.

What pays for all this free access is, natch, a sponsored link, in this case to the Chicago-based House of Jacob Bible Study Class, a website which has enjoyed just 11,503 hits in its brief existence -an amazing twenty two times more popular than Quo Vadis. Seems their ears pricked up on the sin thing. Whether they share Cristina Leon Alfar's striking views on the patrilinear deity and desire is a matter well worth further contemplation.

So anyway, big change in the way we think about and use books coming, it seems. More granular, less bound. Meanwhile over at Amazon soon, you can buy by the page rather than having to fork out for the whole kit and caboodle.

When you’re digitizing a book, the first step you take is to remove the binding to make a loose stack of pages, ready to feed into the autoscanner. While it is a bit too soon to kiss the book as we know it goodbye, that simple deconstructive act may be assuming some metaphoric power.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Paris Remembered

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Bali Low

In the left hand corner, the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the Enlightenment. In the right hand corner, Confucianism. Javanese animism and the Buddha. Oh, we can argue about the sources, but this week’s news underlines clear differences between Asian and European cultures on the crucial issues of forgiveness and redemption.

Drug couriers are the rank and file foot soldiers of the crime world, and by definition foolish, not very bright, and a little bit evil. But should a child of seventeen, or even twenty-five, pay for a serious moral error with their life? Most thoughtful Europeans would say no. There is always time to repent, be forgiven and begin again. Justice and mercy.

These archaic phrases retain their relevance and moral power, the more so in a post-religious world: indeed paradoxically today it is the religious fundamentalists who dole out death so casually, while we modern secular moral relativists will always favour the medieval paradigm of confession, repentance, forgiveness and absolution.

Does reflection on these issues, or indeed any shred of careful moral reasoning, inform the actions of the Federal policemen who delivered a bunch of young Australians so readily into the callous and corrupt arms of their Indonesian colleagues? And can we rely on our Western, civilised courts to unwaveringly condemn their actions even as Indonesia's shadow puppet courts line their sad victims up before the rifles?

Friday, October 28, 2005

A Fine Line

Bought this one to read in the plane on the way to Singapore. Just continuing the Booker Prize fetish really – this was last year’s winner, passed over at the time principally because the subject matter was entirely distasteful: the tired Notting Hill lifestyles of upper class Brits, Margaret Thatcher, the Victorian novel, and the anatomical intricacies of gay sex. All the stuff we really don’t need to read about.

How wrong can you be? What saves this novel and makes it a deserving winner is the only measure which actually matters: the quality of the writing. Exquisitely constructed, ironic, indirect, nuanced, beautifully observed. Full of resonances, very funny and still a grand/petty tragedy.

Impossible to read rapidly, each paragraph needs to be savoured like a glass of old Crozes. So no alternative now but to pay Hollinghurst the usual compliment and read through his previous three.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Slings and Arrows

Four days in sunny Singapore... all hotel (the Copthorne Waterfront, not that well known but not that bad), all work, no play

... well apart from the Tuesday night dash to eat chili crab at Famous Seafood and then meander on to the Long Bar at Raffles. Oh, er, and a brief visit on Wednesday to the night safari just to see the hippos, the tapirs, and one of those sad anthropomorphic animal shows.

Ah, the Singaporean sense of humour, the desperate attempt to be cool and interesting, just a notch or two below Carry On Up the Jungle.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Manuale or Automatico?

Manuale d'Amore is a charming, silly Italian film directed by Giovanni Veronesi which was chosen to open the short Italian Film Festival currently running in Sydney. Using the old formula so common in Italian movies of the sixties it is a series of interlinked stories about aspects of love. Think Love Actually for a recent UK example. It's fun because it's so beautifully acted and the settings are such a delight, but the stories are rather cartoonish and trite. Commercial fare rather than festival fare then, and slightly disappointing in that regard.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Crying Woolf

Classic whodunit, classic plot, classic setting, classic cast, classically told by a classic 85 yr old baroness, whose neurones are clearly in better shape than some other baronesses we could mention

With respectful nods to Marlowe, Virginia Woolf and Auden this is - of its sort - just a classic.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Unsolicited advice to my sons and nephews - Part I

When approaching young ladies at parties the following words never fail to astonish:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
this holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

(Last tested December 1968: worked just fine)

Monday, October 17, 2005

Jerry Can

Quite a good read actually, if you like health policy, pharmacoepidemiology, risk-benefit and so on.

Breezy style, lucid analysis. And as he mentions, he's been at Harvard Medical School continuously since 1969, so what would he know?

Or save yourself a few dollars and just visit his site.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Sinking Fund

Didn’t read Berendt’s first bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil¸ discouraged by the unbearably pretentious title. This one was harder to resist at the Philadelphia airport bookstore last week – promising the story of the rebuilding of the Gran Teatro La Fenice after the catastrophic fire of 1996

In fact it is a kaleidoscope (or perhaps just a mish mash) of reportage about a variety of connected and unconnected aspects of Venice and the Venetians – stories that caught his eye or his ear during a lengthy stay. The blurb on the fly leaf says Berendt is a journalist: that’s the key: his prose comes straight from Time magazine. Every subject’s clothes and hair are documented, and the contents of every room. Every conversation is meticulously transcribed – presumably a taperecorder never left his side.

The spaces, inferences between the ponderous observations are left for the reader to fill in, as he describes all the venality and vanity which present themselves to his unflustered gaze. So this more recent title turns out to be a rather unsubtle metaphor for the human descents from grace documented so carefully in its slow-turning pages.

La Fenice
The reconstruction
John Berendt

Saturday, October 15, 2005

To Phat

As we say in Vietnam: heaven, I'm in heaven...

Pancreatic Duck

So to the book every bleary Aussie is reading – the Latham Diaries – unlike most political memoirs, an actual bestseller, more than 13,000 copies gone in the first week – second only to the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet (19,800 copies) and way ahead of the 2006 Guinness Book of World Records (7,800).

Latham has consistently seemed quite consistently inconsistent and largely loathsome in his posturing and spouting on the Australian political stage – a rather unfortunate mix of arrogance, intolerance, inexperience, misplaced self-confidence, lack of self knowledge and vulgarity.

But in his diaries, attempting an approximation of the truth, he is occasionally unexpectedly honest and insightful. Certainly the fundamental structural flaws of the Australian Labor Party are spelt out clearly: with seats in parliament in the vice-like grip of a tiny group of increasingly irrelevant back-room union fringe manipulators, success at the ballot box and in government has to be achieved in spite of the political talent pool rather than because of it.

These days, most of us don’t belong to unions. Maybe we should, but we just don’t. So the contemporary voice of the left (or even just the voice of those of us who can't stomach John Howard's immigration policy) really urgently needs another forum which doesn’t rely on corrupted Fabian dreams. Which, according to the Gospel According to Mark, just isn't going to happen.

It helps that he writes well with a larrikin sense of humour and is no respecter of dignity or privacy. It’s a rambunctious read, and while it may not help your waistline, it sure has helped his, and the world’s shortest political picnic is of considerably more interest than the world’s longest picnic table.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Pinter bitter? No way.

Well after 29 plays including a couple of really quite memorable ones, Harold Pinter gets the Nobel Prize for literature to widespread astonishment and muted applause. Apparently the big money was on the Syrian poet Adonis (che? Can that be his real name? Or is someone sending someone up?)

Anyway how strange that The Guardian is pleased but various American thinkers are not. One disappointed US critic even has the temerity to quote a very very rude poem Pinter wrote about the Iraq war (warning: really very naughty words in poem so don't click on the link if you hate rude words).

...of course, if you do link to the very rude poem, quoted by the disappointed American (who felt it important to mention that she did understand the sporting metaphor, she really did) you will benefit from a couple of investment opportunities as well, because unlike this one that site is supported by a vigorous and free marketplace: you can buy up Iraqi dinars - which used to be worth $82,000 and are now worth $45 - bargain! Or if you want a sure thing rather than mere speculation you could purchase a snugly fitting 'conservative tee' emblazoned with the peace sign, a B52 and the motto Peace through superior firepower.

Dear old Harold surely would be pleased (pause).

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


While we're obsessing about prizes, here's the complete list of Nobel Prize winners for literature since 1901. Divides nicely into three:

The Clearly Deserving.


The Give Me A Breaks.

Rudyard Kipling
Rabindranath Tagore
Sinclair Lewis
John Galsworthy
Pearl Buck
Bertrand Russell
Winston Churchill

The Who Was That Agains.

Everyone else


...this year's winner will apparently be announced Thursday.

Fifty thousand pounds dumped into The Sea

Well, the hot news is that my least favorite book of the lot has won the Man Booker prize...

Here's Banville's modest comment:

"It's nice to see a work of art winning the Booker Prize " seems as if its not just his novel that's insufferable.

Just for the record, here are the 35 previous winners, presumably not works of art but works of something else altogether - Satan, perhaps? Cast your eyes down to 1978 and you will note that Banville's book is just on half of Iris Murdoch's winner.

Perhaps I should back my judgment and bet on my least favorite next year? At 7-1 Banville was a rank outsider and would have paid nicely.

'This was a travesty of a result from a travesty of a judging process.'
Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

Martha & Ira

The winner of the Man Booker prize for 2005 will be announced in about 45 minutes time at a glittering ceremony at the Guildhall in London - it will be around 10pm local time. BBC2 is providing live national television coverage. Will Good Morning Australia be crossing over to cover it? Perhaps not.

At any rate, this green cloth-covered eccentricity by Julian Barnes is the bookies favorite to win. But while it is hard not to include Flaubert's Parrot (1985) in any list of all time greats, Barnes has been spiralling downwards ever since and this workmanlike, enjoyable tale doesn't really reverse the trend.

Actually it's rather reminiscent of David Lodge's recent retelling of the last years of Henry James' life, and his unfortunate foray into the theatre - Author! Author! (2004)- which had the same oddly disengaged authorial stance. As in, hmm, time to write another book, don't care about much anymore, how about a historical reconstruction?

Or is to say that to naively miss the allegorical dimension, the commentary on injustice and race in contemporary Britain? Don't think so, sorry, no.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Muddy waters

Well meaning offers of 292 pages of ghastly Flanders and Ypres and Irish teenagers dying for England in 1918 are usually politely declined, even when they come as this one did from Barnes and Noble on Rittenhouse Square courtesy of a friendly concierge.

But self-imposed arbitrary Booker duty called and just as well, as this lovingly crafted brief text flows around the meaningless nastiness and the memorable voices and the rest of it. Soaring above the other candidates in terms of technical brilliance, depth of thought, beauty, austerity and compassion, this one wins round here…

…with Zadie Smith proxime accessit and most improved player.

Except of course that apparently The Accidental is not available in Sydney, or the States, not for love or money or other negotiable currencies. So exclude that, add in Coetzee’s Slow Man and McEwan’s Saturday if you like, and for this punter little Willie Dunne still dies winning.

On Zadie

One of several unfair crticisms levelled at Zadie Smith at the time of the storming success of her first novel White Teeth (2002) was that the fuss was more about her, as a brainy beautiful black 20 something East Ender, than about the book.

So perhaps she is hitting back by titling her third novel On Beauty? At any rate it’s another sprawling, technically assured success, and the breathtakingly beautiful brainy young black girl who sashays through its pages does wreak a certain amount of havoc.

A large cast of (yes, largely black) characters and a complex plot, set mainly in academic Boston not inner London and all the better for it. And though long it’s a zippy and intensely enjoyable read. For this reader most of the characters perhaps lack that extra layer which makes them live on outside the page, but how many writers can achieve that? Only the very best, which Our Zadie is surely well on her way to becoming.

Thought this was the clear Booker winner until I read the Barryman, and perhaps for most judges it will indeed be the one.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Shall We Creak

Firstchosen by young Anthea for a run on the DVD player at Moss Vale out of a box of five F&G musicals bought late at night at Tower Records on Broad St Philadelphia for $US59 – this creaking 1937 flummery has its moments, true, but Bringing up Baby was 1938, while 1939 saw The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind and La Règle Du Jeu... not quite in the same league.

Still, hmm, the way you wear your hat…

Moss Vale

Friday, October 07, 2005

Deneuve wracking again

Actually Repulsion (1965) was the other inflight movie to Philly, not from dreary Qantas needless to say, but on DVD on the new G4 iBook. Bit different from Bewitched. That this and Chinatown (1974) are Polanski’s two masterpieces hardly bears repeating. The disk came from a boxed set which also includes The Knife in the Water (1962) and Cul-de-Sac (1966).

Saw it in the late sixties when it first came out, and it did rather stay in the mind! The added attraction this time round is the audio commentary from both Polanski and Deneuve, he reiminiscing on the technical and economic challenges of getting the thing made, and she just plain reminiscing, charmingly, natch.

Polanski's first film in English (he'd made 10 previously in Polish and 1 in French) and worth watching several times to figure out why it works so extraodinarily well.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Bothered and bewildered

Watched it twice on the plane and fell asleep after the first hour both times. What is wrong with this movie? On paper it has everything it needs to be a screwball classic, cute story, classy writer/director team, cast of proven winners, great music. Nicole clearly adores cloning Marilyn (but don’t they all) and Caine/Maclean are in form. But it just doesn’t work. Shame. Best moment is during the romance montage (yeah right) when Sinatra suddenly starts singing Witchcraft and you are suddenly reminded that real greatness suddenly gives you a chill.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Absurdly rapid hop to Horsham, the North Ryde of Philadelphia, for a day and a half of quasi business meetings and quasi dinner in a quasi Morrocan restaurant in a genuine suburban strip mall. Not quite MoMo. But the usual warm welcome from the dear old Park Hyatt on floors 15-19 of the nineteenth century Bellevue building on the corner of Broad and Walnut with its elegant spaces and fusty corridors. And most surprisingly welcome, a Reblochon on the breakfast buffet.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Reichs staggers

Can’t read that highbrow muck non stop without a bit of roughage to ease the digestion, not in seat 11K anyway. But oh dear oh dear, the usually reliable KR has gotten herself an attack of the Dan Browns, with mysterious married messiahs infesting Jerusalem like so many FTAs in an Evanovich. Oh, and btw Temperance Brennan has finally discovered sex. Quite enjoyable, apparently, according to her, in a series of coy veiled asides. Kathy, Kathy, bring back the angst!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Issey Fits

A coruscating collection of frocks from Japan has just opened at the Powerhouse - Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto and of course the magisterial Miyake inter alia. Quite catoptric catalogue too. Such a shame about the food - this otherwise competent museum must surely have the two worst caffs in the fine arts world.

Banville is Dullsville

At times the image of her would spring up in me unbidden, an interior succubus, and a surge of yearning would engorge the very root of my being. One greenish twilight after rain, with a wedge of wet sunlight in the window and an impossibly unseasonal thrush piping outside in the dripping lupins, I lay face down on my bed in such an intense suffusion of unassuageable desire - it hovered, this desire, like a nimbus about the image of my beloved, enfolding her everywhere and nowhere focused - that I broke into sobs, lavish, loud and thrillingly beyond all control.

If you enjoyed reading this sentence, read this book: The Sea by John Banville, one of the six finalists for the 2005 Booker Prize. For everyone else it's enough to note that it's terribly sad, terribly implausible, terribly overwritten and in fact just plain terrible.

The other Booker finalists:

Kazuo Ishiguro Never Let Me Go
Julian Barnes Arthur & George
Zadie Smith On Beauty
Ali Smith The Accidental
Sebastian Barry A Long Long Way

Winner (GBP50K) published on October 10th.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

There's the rub

Went down to Dymocks at Worldy to pick up reserved copies of Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George and John Banville’s The Sea as part of a vaguely highbrow plan to read through the Booker shortlist. And Michelle behind the counter said, ‘Wanna freebee?’ and tossed Rubdown by Leigh Redhead in the bag as well. Started it with low expectations, but what a pageturner… funny, sharp, zippy/unzippy and quite rude in spots. Great sense of place (er, Melbourne)… and the right price. More on the other two some other time.

Friday, September 30, 2005


Brief flit back to the cosy old Imperial Hotel for some meetings and to give a talk at a DIA meeting - and of course to drop in on a couple of sacred sites in the Ginza. But why on earth did they pull down Frank Lloyd Wright's lovely old concrete pile?