Monthly Archives: January 2012

‘Aphrodite’s Hat’ by Salley Vickers

2010, 262 p.

My face-to-face bookgroup has a bit of a Christmas tradition, whereby each of us lends a copy of a book that we have enjoyed from our own bookshelves to another bookgroup member.   It’s a Kris Kringle-y sort of arrangement because you don’t know who donated the book you receive, and you can’t tell where your book is going to end up.  At our February meeting, the first for the year, we talk about the book and try to guess who chose it for us.  It is a bit of a hit-and-miss affair: sometimes you receive a book you’ve already read; sometimes you loathe the book you’ve received and wonder how you’ve managed to sit all year talking about books with the woman who chose it; other times you give a much-loved book (as I did with Kristin Lavrensdatter), only to have it trashed!

February is coming on quickly, so I thought that I’d better get stuck into my ‘present’.  Aphrodite’s Hat,  I see, by Salley Vickers.  I’ve read two of her books, with wildly different responses.  First I read Miss Garnet’s Angel with an online bookgroup and just loved it.  My response to  it was complicated by one of the bookgroup members arguing strongly and fairly (but not completely convincingly) that there was a whole other reading of the book possible that turned the plot on its head.  To this day, I’m still not sure.  When Instances of the Number Three came out, I snapped it up but this time felt that it was twee, repetitive and just plain silly.

But ten years have gone by, and I’m now well and truly of the middle-aged demographic that she writes about.  And, despite my frequent declarations that I don’t like short stories, I was quite happy to see that the book was in fact a collection of her short fiction. I’m finding myself happy to read something light and put-downable just before I go to sleep.

The longest story in this collection is ‘The Buried Life’,  after the Matthew Arnold poem of the same name, which she very helpfully gives at the end of the story (just as the cover of the book helpfully shows ‘Aphrodite’s Hat’ which is the title and theme of another of the stories in this collection). It’s a beautiful poem: this is one part:

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

A longing to enquire

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us- to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

This captures the themes of many of these stories: middle aged people -generally women- often in their second marriages, who are disappointed that this second chance at love has not worked either; unhappy people teetering on the edge of infidelity;  loss of a child through death or intransigence.  They are very still stories that seem calm on the surface but cover a deep well of sadness.  As with Miss Garnet’s Angel,  there is a hint of the supernatural but it is so closely interwoven with love and longing that it pushed my derision to the side.  Many of the stories are set in England, with visits over to Rome or Venice for honeymoons and naughty weekends away, in the twentieth century tawdry version of the Grand Tour- again, shades of Miss Garnet’s Angel.  Most of the stories are very short, with a similar narrative voice, and often even start the same way with a voiced comment in a conversation.  They are very similar to each other, but I enjoyed each one so much that I found myself wanting more and happily turned to the next.

As I said, February approaches, and not only do we talk about our Christmas gift book at our meeting, but we also have our February selection- in this case, a collection of – you guessed it- short stories by Z. Z. Packer.  Somehow, I couldn’t bear to mix up my reading of these two very different authors.  I wanted to let the quiet, middle-aged, introspectivity of Vickers’ stories  have their own space, without being swamped by a younger, more rambunctious writer.

It doesn’t surprise me that, according to Wikipedia,  Salley Vickers is a 64 year old woman, or that she is a psychotherapist, and that she has had two marriages, both finished.  I suspect that there is an autobiographical bent to these stories, and perhaps my criticisms of Instances of the Number Three  could well apply to these stories as well.  Except that I am older, except that there is a clarity about human nature, except that I was utterly charmed by them.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Who knows??

Read because: it was a reading gift over Christmas from my bookgroup.

‘Black Glass’ by Meg Mundell

2011, 281p

This book is set in Melbourne, but it’s a dissonant Melbourne- recognizable, yet there’s something wrong.  Locations were familiar to me, and yet I think that inhabitants of any affluent city could recognize their own here: every city seems to have a Docklands with high-rise buildings, a ‘Westgate’ bridge or some variation on a similarly anodyne name, malls, a waterfront, a Casino, tourist Ferris wheels [although, unlike Melbourne, most cities seem to have one that actually works.]

In this future Melbourne, the tourist, civic, retail and commercial centres have been made safer by close electronic surveillance and the requirement for official entry documentation. The inner suburbs have been declared an  ‘interzone’, providing residential housing for those permitted to work in the city centre.  Those without the required documents, or the ‘undocs’ are prohibited from working legally and are thus forced into a marginal existence, scrounging for food, working illegally and squatting in disused buildings and under viaducts, bridges and in tunnels.  The proper place for ‘undocs’ is outside the city, in the Regions, where services are non-existent and civic governance seems to have collapsed.

Tally and Grace are teenaged sisters living in the regions, dragged from town to town throughout the Regions by their drug-dealing father.  They had long been planning an escape to the city, even though they would be ‘undocs’, but when their father is killed in a drug-kitchen explosion, they are separated and unsure how to find each other again.  The book traces their two paths as they search, each struggling to find a toe-hold in this dystopian society.

The structure of the book is interesting.  It is divided into 12 chapters, each announced with a rather excessive unnecessary title page, such as you might see when a book has Part I, Part II etc.  Within the chapters, each scene is headed by an annotation of place and people present, as if part of a dossier. Multiple scenes make up each chapter, and this device  quickly contextualized the episode that followed, but also endowed a filmic quality on the narrative.  The scenes were quite distinct from each other, and the writing was so fresh and careful in each one that you almost felt as if they were written, and should be read, each time as a polished episode in its own right.  I don’t normally like such disjointed writing as it sometimes seems a bit of a cop-out from the hard work of maintaining the narrative and moving it forward.  But in this case, each one was so beautifully written and worked well in inching the story forward that it felt like a considered and well-chosen narrative structure.

Tally and Grace and their search for each other lie at the heart of this novel, but there are other themes woven in as well: exploitation, surveillance, dissent and authoritarianism.  Unlike some science fiction (or is it ‘speculative fiction’ these days?) she does not spend a great deal of time on the logistics and details of this chilling world but instead uses it as a backdrop to the story of these two lost sisters.

My rating: 8.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: it is the second book that I am reading for the Australian Women’s Writers Challenge 2012

Moving Here- 200 years of Migration in England

Another good way to while away an hour or two or three- I found a fascinating website about migration to Britain.  Being on the receiving end of wave after wave of British migration, we tend to forget that Britain itself was- and still is- a migration destination.  The National Archives are the lead partner in a consortium of other British heritage organisations and museums, and the site contains photographs, stories and timelines of Caribbean, Irish, Jewish and South East Asian migration to Britain.

Australia Day 2012/1842

Ooops- is it over already?

I haven’t spent the day driving around with Australian flags fluttering from my car, announcing “Australia- love it or leave it”. I’m uncomfortable with the aggressive edge to both these relatively recent incarnations of a swaggering nationalism and I’m disturbed by the images I’ve just seen on television.  I have written about Australia Day each 26 January since I began keeping this blog in 2009, and if you’re interested you can read my mutterings listed here  and some ruminations about alternative national days here  and  here.

The ‘Australian’ editorial on the eve of Anniversary Day, the NSW precursor to Australia day had this to say in 1842:

To-morrow is an universal holiday in the Colony. The Regatta will be witnessed by assembled thousands of our countrymen. The most extensive and liberal preparations have been entered into for its good management, and for creating a spectacle worthy of the wealth and public spirit of the most important and most ancient Colony in the Southern Hemisphere. The Governor, as heretofore, will be present with a numerous suite. A military review will also take place. The harbour will be alive with steamers, and its crowded shipping will be decorated with all their colours.

In the evening 220 fellow citizens will set down to a sumptuous entertainment at the Royal Hotel, presided over by a native Australian second to none in worth and respectability. The festivities of the evening will not be marred by political discord, but will have reference solely to the celebration, common to all, of our natal day. These anniversaries are proper in themselves, and are worthy of the approval of the wise and the good. They tend to mitigate the rancour of party, and to cement the bonds of brotherly esteem, to knit man to man closer together in the struggle for common interests, to melt the frozen springs of selfishness, to teach us the value of sympathy under national depression. It is no mean thing, amid the conflict of antagonistic opinions, to know of a resting place where the hand of one man can meet that of another in the grasp of friendship, where the better feelings of human nature can, for however short a term, be allowed to display themselves. It is something to know that one land mark at least is periodically pointed at by the hand of time, the attainment of which is hailed by united and national re joicings. So that some pause is hereby given for the recovery of temper, ere the armour of party is once more buckled on by those, who from the all-powerful associations of youth, and from the unalterable determination of mental purpose which springs from maturer conviction, must inevitably continue on[?]. It is something, we say, to fling the flowers of present good will upon the grave of departed bitterness.     Enjoy yourselves then, Australians, on this your native day. But we beseech you to temper even the most festive hour of relax- ation with thoughtfulness for the future. Probably there never will be, certainly there never has been, a time in your history, when a national heed for the future was more called for.

The Australian, 25 January 1842. From Trove

‘Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes’

2009, 357 p. plus notes.

I haven’t read a book like this before.  It certainly goes some way towards filling a gaping hole in my knowledge of the world. Night after night I watch the television news with Shi’a and Sunni hostilities.  I am aware of Muslim groups in Africa, Indonesia, Central Asia, ex-Soviet Republics and the Middle East without knowing how they fit in with each other. I know about Mohammad (without really knowing when he lived); I know about the man who built the Taj Mahal (without really knowing when he lived, either). How do the Sultans fit in? And the Mongols? I’m only vaguely aware of dates where the Muslim and European worlds intersected- the 7th century and the Crusades (and do I really know when they were?) I lack a chronology: I lack an overarching narrative. And this is where this book comes in.

The book starts by decentralizing us geographically. There is not ‘East’ and ‘West’. Instead there is the Mediterranean World, linked by sea routes and the Middle World, an overland kingdom situated between the Mediterranean to the west and the Chinese World to the east. Each world had more interaction internally with itself than with the other, and each had good reason to think that it was at the centre of human history. And, as he points out, the intersection between these two worlds, along what we now call the Middle East, has been a fault line then and now.

Next we are decentralized chronologically as well: the book starts at Year Zero (622 CE), not with the birth of Mohammad, but with the Hirja- the emigration of Mohammad and the Muslim community from Mecca to Medina. This, in Islam, is the turning point of their fortunes, dividing all of time into before the Hirja (BH) and after the Hirja (AH).

The European world is largely absent in the first half of this book. The expansion into Spain is just a sideshow on the edge of the Islamic world; the Crusades, for all their brutality, do not actually change anything once they come to an end. What does change the Middle World is the brief explosion of the Mongol holocaust around 614AH (1218 CE) and yet even here, the Muslims ended up reconquering them not through territory or warfare, but through conversion. In the next four hundred years there is a rebirth of Islamic culture, with the three Islamic empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire and the Moghul Empire- displaying diverse local customs and a variety of languages- but united by common elements as well into a single, coherent civilization.

It is only at Chapter 11, and halfway through the book that the narrative picks up “meanwhile in Europe” and brings the Western and Middle World narratives together. Although the Muslim world was at a peak, the Western world had been fundamentally transformed by the emphasis on the individual fostered by the Protestant Reformation, science and mercantilism. It was not a clash of civilizations, but the gradual infiltration of traders, business advisors and technical consultants. Reform movements erupted within Islam itself, bifurcating into wahhabism and fundamentalism on the one hand, and secular and islamic modernism on the other. Overlaid by industrialism, constitutionalism and nationalism, Islamic countries found themselves as the playpieces of wider diplomatic tensions during the World and Cold Wars. On Sept 11, the two world histories crashed together, but it was not as Francis Fukiyama famously claimed, the end of history.

Ansary closes his book by observing that

Islam can be seen as one world history among many that are unfolding simultaneously, each in some way incorporating all the others. Considered in this light, Islam is a vast narrative moving through time, anchored by the birth of that community in Mecca and Medina fourteen centuries ago. The story includes many characters who are not Muslim and many events that are not religious. Jews and Christians and Hindus are part of this story. Industrialization is an element of the plot, and so is the steam engine and the discovery of oil. When you look at it this way, Islam is a vast complex of communal purposes moving through time, driven by its own internally coherent assumptions (p. 357)

In the preface the Afghan- born author (now resident in US), Tamim Ansary explains that he is not a scholar or a historian, and that his book is neither a textbook nor a scholarly thesis.  He emphasizes the “story”, and he writes in a colloquial style with minimal footnoting. He admits that he has devoted what might seem like an inordinate amount of time to the career of Prophet Mohammed and his first four successors, but

I recount this story as an intimate human drama,because this is the way that Muslims know it.  Academics approach this story more skeptically, crediting non-Muslim sources above supposedly less-objective Muslim accounts, because they are mainly concerned to dig up what “really happened”.  My aim is to convey what Muslims think happened, because that’s what has motivated Muslims over the ages and what makes their role in world history intelligible (p.xxi)

As a reader, I felt as if the author was leading me confidently and forthrightly through a history that spills out of current day national boundaries and which is studded with confusing and unfamiliar names.There were maps almost exactly at the point where I found myself thinking “Gee, I could use a map here”, and if he signposted that there were three groups that he was going to examine, then there they were 1,2,3.   I don’t know enough to detect whether there were inaccuracies or not, and although some critics were disconcerted by the colloquial tone, I found it a relief that at no point did the narrative bog down.

I’m really pleased that I read this book, and I can’t remember how long it’s been since I read a book that I learned so much.

Some reviews if you’re interested:

San Francisco Chronicle

The Globalist

My rating: 9.5/10  (I do like to leave a little bit of rating up my sleeve!)

Accessed from: La Trobe University Library

Read because: My internet friend SuLu reviewed it on her blog here.

The conference you have when you’re not having a conference

Friends of the Turnbull Library, Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream: a Reconsideration,  Wellington, GP Publications, 1997, 200 p.

There’s a lot to be said for an edited collection of conference papers, particularly if the conference was held seventeen years ago in another country.  Think of it- you don’t have to make choices between clashing streams when you’re interested in both, or having to summon up a shred of enthusiasm for a session where nothing is of any earthly interest at all.  You can read the argument in its entirety, rather than having the speaker say “Oh?! My twenty minutes is up already?? Oh well, I’ll leave it there”.   The published chapter is often longer and more detailed than the 3000 word maximum paper that can be read aloud in 20 minutes, and it has all those delicious and helpful footnotes hanging off it.  It’s faster to read it than to listen to it.  Of course, not all papers are published, and it’s very possible that the one paper that had everyone buzzing  and which became a touchstone for extempore comments and questions throughout the conference is not represented in the printed collection.  But it might be.

In August 1996 the Friends of the Turnbull Library convened a conference called Edward Gibbon Wakefield and New Zealand: 1830-1865 to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.  Apparently one commentator referred to the seminar as “the most politically incorrect event of 1996”, and you can see why s/he would say that.  A Wakefield seminar could have been quite unremarkable in the 1950s, when Wakefield was still celebrated as the father of New Zealand settlement. But in 1996, the Waitangi tribunal and the work of historians like Michael Turnbull (The New Zealand Bubble), John Miller Early Victorian New Zealand: a Study of Racial Tension and Social Attitudes 1839-1852) had dulled the lustre of Wakefield entirely.

Papers from the seminar were published under the title Edward Gibbon Wakefield and the Colonial Dream: a Reconsideration, and as with all seminars, the title, themes and streams that are presented are as much a reflection of the historiography of the present as they are of the subject matter itself.  The papers are divided into five parts:  Wakefield’s Life;  Wakefield’s Thought; Wakefield’s Historical Influence; Views of the Land and Wakefield’s Cultural Legacy.

Wakefield’s Life covers biographical aspects of Wakefield’s career, and here Philip Temple gives a taster of his then-unpublished book which eventuated as A Sort of Conscience.  Ged Martin presented a far more damning perspective of Wakefield, which is repeated in a different but similar paper here.

A more positive view is found in the section on Wakefield’s Thought, especially in Erik Olssen’s paper which marks out Wakefield’s place within the wider field of Scottish Enlightenment thinking by looking more closely at Wakefield’s published annotations on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. This paper picks up on Olssen’s Sinclair Lecture, delivered in 1995 and available here.

Graham Butterworth examined Wakefield’s thought in terms of the Quaker tradition, while acknowledging that Wakefield himself did not identify as a Quaker even though there was a strong Quaker influence on his mother’s side.

Part III on Wakefield’s historical influence looked at historians’ depictions of Wakefield in Australia,  in terms of labour history, and in relation to the Scottish settlement at Otago- a paper that was too regional for me to make much sense of.

The Views of the Land section picked up on the ecological and spatial approach to history that is still influential today.  Marian Minson’s paper examined pictures and lithographs that were produced for investors and potential immigrants still in England and they are reproduced in the volume.

The final section of the book, Wakefield’s Cultural Legacy takes a cultural theory approach to his work, – look! Here comes Foucault again!- examining Wakefield’s corpus of writing as artefacts existing within a particular fantasy/polemic genre, and drawing links with a 1986 novel Symmes Hole.

The book commences and closes with papers by Maori presenters, both condemning the loss of Maori land.

So, all in all, I enjoyed my day at a conference held 17 years earlier in Wellington.  All I needed, really, was some stewed percolated coffee and a blueberry muffin for morning tea, a  ribbon sandwich with incongruous and mysterious fillings  for lunch, and a piece of chocolate caramel slice and a lemon tea tea-bag for afternoon tea and I’d be right!

I have a ‘Mrs Harris’ too

What a wag Edward Gibbon Wakefield was! Well, not really, but I did smile at this. In November 1848 he wrote to J. R. Godley:

For once you will be glad to hear of an approaching death.  My Mrs Harris is in a bad way; and I feel pretty confident of seeing the last of her some time next month.

To Robert Rintoul he wrote in December 1848

For fear of accidents I write to say that the coffin containing Mrs Harris’ remains was put on board the Albion steamer, belonging to the Steam Navigation Company last night.

So who was this unfortunate Mrs Harris?  Mrs. Harris is a character in Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit– a very ‘colonial’ novel for Wakefield to reference. In the novel, Mrs Gamp had much to say about her but the narrator of the novel could only explain:

a fearful mystery surrounded this lady of the name of Harris, whom no one in the circle of Mrs Gamp’s acquaintance had ever seen; neither did any human being know her place of residence…the prevalent opinion was that she was a phantom of Mrs Gamp’s brain… created for the express purpose of holding visionary dialogues with her on all manner of subjects and invariably winding up with a compliment to the excellence of her nature.

For Edward Gibbon Wakefield, “Mrs Harris” was his book The Art of Colonization.  I’m increasingly convinced that my own thesis is taking on the qualities of Mrs Harris too- a phantom of my brain, very familiar to me but rarely seen by others.  Mrs Harris- I embrace you.

The pipes, the pipes are calling

One of the joys of living in Macleod is the sound of bagpipes that drifts up the hill on Thursday evenings as the local bagpipe band has its weekly practice.  Up past Ferguson St, Strathallan Rd, Erskine Rd, Argyle St, Munro St it comes, borne on a hot summer breeze or cutting through the cold air on a still, brittle, frosty night.

But what was that rattle of the drums this morning?- and the pipes- lots of them! There they were on the basketball court at the local high school at 9.30 on a hot Tuesday morning

I’m not quite sure what it was: it may have been a camp for a band perhaps because people were wearing nametags on lanyards around their necks.

It was really encouraging to see such a wide range of musicians: young, old, male, female, Asian, Indian.  Somehow I think there will still be Scots Pipe Bands in fifty years time.  A thoroughly good thing too.

‘The Voyagers: a love story’ by Mardi McConnochie

2011, 268 p.  Extract here .

I was drawn to read this book, the first as part of my Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge 2012, through encountering the author previously in her earlier book Coldwater, and by the promise of a book that traversed different settings during World War II-  Sydney, London, Shanghai and Singapore. It was ironic then, that the treatment of the breadth of its canvas was what I found to be its weakest feature, even though it was what attracted me in the first place.

In the opening pages Stead, an American sailor, returns to Sydney in 1943 hoping to spend his leave with Marina, a musician  he had taken up with for three days before the war.  When he retraces his steps to her home, he finds that she has been missing for almost five years.  The book then zig-zags back and forth in time, jumping forward and back, tracing between Marina, then Stead as they traverse their own journeys in a ruptured world, oblivious to each other’s experiences, and gradually honing in on their search for each other.

The complexity of this plot was handled well, and I found myself drawn through the book, wanting to know what would happen next and whether they would, eventually, find each other.  The strong emphasis on plot means that I am reluctant to say much more, lest I spoil your enjoyment of the book.

Yet in making these large leaps from location to location, and event to event, the book at time lapsed into an almost documentary flatness.  It was almost as if each new section was introduced by a film-reel summary (think Movietone News) that skated across events, evoking familiarity with images of historical events without actually tying them into the consciousness of her characters.  Big things happened,  in particular in the final part of the book, and yet they were compressed into a rather disengaged, almost saga-like retelling, tumbling quickly one after the other into an “and then…and then….” string of events.  Things happened to Marina especially, but it seemed that it was in the smaller, more intimate events that she seemed more present as a character.

It’s interesting that the author has marked out so clearly in the title that this is “a love story”. In an interview about the book with Angela Meyer on the Literary Minded website, the author explains that the book sprang from a discussion with her book group ladies about the paucity of contemporary literary love stories.  When I saw this, it explained some of the unease that I felt about it- that it seemed almost written-to-order for a female-dominated bookgroup, raising as it does issues of motherhood, careers, loosening boundaries and the artistic life. It was as if it was writing to a genre or niche.

Like the author, I am resistant to the big all-lived-happily-ever-after ending.  In this regard, I think that the heightened  pace and the emotional distancing in the last third of the book worked against the ending.  I did not cry for the Marina we have at the end of the book, but I may have for the Marina we found half-way through.

On the other hand, I think that the title and the cover of the book work well as a marketing strategy in that they mark it out as a love story, if that’s the sort of book you’re looking for.  But I think of other love stories that I have enjoyed- the same love stories that McConnochie herself identifies in her interview (Cold Mountain, The Shipping News, Possession, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and with all of them the love story crept up on me unawares, and I think that I appreciated them all the more for that unexpected delight.

My rating: 7.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I wanted to read an Australian woman author as part of the Australian Women’s Writing Reading Challenge

Albert Nobbs

We went to see Albert Nobbs. I know that it’s receiving only lukewarm reviews, but I really enjoyed it.  Glenn Close plays a repressed, reclusive little wisp of a man who is, in fact a woman.  He works as a waiter in an Irish  hotel in the late 19th century, painstakingly saving enough to realize his dream of one day owning a tobacconist shop, and terrified of exposure.

It’s a sad little story, and for much of the film, I feared for Albert.  There have been criticisms that Glenn Close is wooden, but I don’t agree.  It’s a very tense, coiled performance and the character of Albert is so repressed and taut that his emotions can only be portrayed as minute gradations, tightly controlled.

Apparently Glenn Close first played the role off-Broadway in 1982, and she and John Banville wrote the film adaptation.  It doesn’t surprise me that John Banville was involved: the film is bleak and sharp, as much of his writing is.

Critics be damned! I liked it.