Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Lest We Forget ...

Today is the 25th of April, a day sacred in Australia as ANZAC Day. On this day in 1915 Australian troops - both of my grandfathers amongst them - landed at what became known as Gallipoli Cove, in Turkey.  I am not here going to talk about that hellish campaign, or the death toll of the troops - amongst the Australians, the New Zealanders, the French, the Canadians, the British, and, greatest of all, the Turkish. This is not a day for statistics but for remembrance and respect. Today, in cities and towns all over Australia, in Turkey, in France, in various other places overseas, people will solemnly recite World War I poetry, listen to the playing of The Last Post, and think of young men going into battle, perhaps with scenes of Peter Weir's famous film "Gallipoli" playing in their heads. I have chosen today to post here a poem, "Homecoming", written by my favourite modern day Australian poet, Bruce Dawe. The poem is set, on the surface at least, in the era of the Vietnam War, but is as appropriate for the campaigns of World War I, World War II, Korea, Afghanistan, and every conflict since cavemen first shook their clubs at each other in anger. It is taken from Bruce Dawe's wonderful collection, "Sometimes Gladness".


"All day, day after day, they’re bringing them home,
they’re picking them up, those they can find, and bringing them home,
they’re bringing them in, piled on the hulls of Grants, in trucks, in convoys,
they’re zipping them up in green plastic bags,
they’re tagging them now in Saigon, in the mortuary coolness
they’re giving them names, they’re rolling them out of
the deep-freeze lockers – on the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut
the noble jets are whining like hounds,
they are bringing them home
- curly-heads, kinky-hairs, crew-cuts, balding non-coms
- they’re high, now, high and higher, over the land, the steaming chow mein
their shadows are tracing the blue curve of the Pacific
with sorrowful quick fingers, heading south, heading east,
home, home, home – and the coasts swing upward, the old ridiculous curvatures
of earth, the knuckled hills, the mangrove-swamps, the desert emptiness …
in their sterile housing they tilt towards these like skiers
- taxiing in, on the long runways, the howl of their homecoming rises
surrounding them like their last moments (the mash, the splendour)
then fading at length as they move
on to small towns where dogs in the frozen sunset
raise muzzles in mute salute,
and on to cities in whose wide web of suburbs
telegrams tremble like leaves from a wintering tree
and the spider grief swings in his bitter geometry
- they’re bringing them home, now, too late, too early."

Monday, 23 April 2012

By Nightfall (Author: Michael Cunningham)

The Blurb From Macmillan:

Peter and Rebecca Harris, midforties, are prosperous denizens of Manhattan. He’s an art dealer, she’s an editor. They live well. They have their troubles—their ebbing passions, their wayward daughter, and certain doubts about their careers—but they feel as though they’re happy. Happy enough. Until Rebecca’s much younger, look-alike brother, Ethan (known in the family as Mizzy, short for the Mistake), comes to visit. And after he arrives, nothing will ever be the same again.

This poetic and compelling masterpiece is a heartbreaking look at a marriage and the way we now live. Full of shocks and aftershocks, By Nightfall is a novel about the uses and meaning of beauty, and the place of love in our lives.

My Thoughts on "By Nightfall":

I was very much looking forward to meeting Mr Cunningham, particularly as a good friend whose taste in literature I respect is such an avid fan of his work. This was probably a very good introduction, being a book which is neither particularly long nor particularly confronting.

Unlike many readers, I didn’t dislike the main character, Peter. I actually found Peter to be a totally believable, rather likeable, character. Sure, he didn’t tell his wife about her younger brother’s continued drug use, but, quite without the complication of finding himself physically attracted to that younger brother, Mizzy (Ethan, “the Mistake”), simply the raising of such a subject is fraught with difficulties. After all, Peter’s wife – Rebecca - adores her little brother, wants to believe that he is brilliant, that he is genuine in his expressions to begin a new life and career, needs to believe that he has abandoned his drug use, is aware that he is in their home against her husband’s better judgement. How, then, does Peter tell his wife that she has been played by Mizzy, that far from being the sophisticated New Yorker which she believes herself to be, she has been taken-in and fallen under the spell of a typical druggie, simply one hiding behind the mask of beauty?

Was Peter wrong to allow himself to develop the feelings he did for Mizzy? I think those feelings were not really homosexual at all; I think they were a longing to reconnect with his dead brother and with the younger Rebecca, to feel younger than he ever has, and of course to become the owner of an object of beauty which he could normally not afford; as an art dealer, the perfect young male is the absolute work of art. And Peter, of course - no different to Rebecca - is used callously by Mizzy.  

What a nasty little piece of work is Mizzy! I would put him into one of those special categories of absolute cads which we come across periodically in literature, somebody in whom you find no redeeming qualities. Hiss, Mizzy – I hope you grow a wart on your nose, one with thick bristles sprouting from it.

There were a few passages in the book which I thought absolutely spot on, as per:

Peter philosophising:

            “The problem with the truth is, it’s so often mild and clich├ęd.”

Or talking here about his parents:

“Their father, handsome but a little blank, unfinished-looking, vaguely Finnish, never fully adapted to his good fortune in marrying their mother, and lived in his marriage the way an impoverished relation might live in the spare room.”

Peter again, and this perhaps is the entire back-story to his infatuation with the beautiful Mizzy:

“He was the reliable, unexceptional one; the good-enough boy.”

How terrible to be thus described, or to believe yourself to be thus described.

Further on in the book, a paragraph quoted frequently for the simple reason it is so beautifully eloquent and elegant:

“Peter glances out at the falling snow. Oh, little man. You have brought down your house not through passion but by neglect. You who dared to think of yourself as dangerous. You are guilty not of the epic transgressions but the tiny crimes. You have failed in the most base and human of ways – you have not imagined the lives of others.”

I think that is one of the finest paragraphs I have ever read.

I loved the last line of this book, “He begins to tell her everything that has happened.” Did he really? Honestly? Do you believe that? Not sure whether I do or no.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Longest Memory (Author: Fred D'Aguiar)

The Blurb From Goodreads:

From William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner to Toni Morrison's Beloved, modern American fiction engaged with slavery has provoked fiery controversy. So will The Longest Memory, the powerful, beautifully crafted, internationally acclaimed fictional debut of prizewinning Guyanese poet Fred D'Aguiar. In language extraordinary for its tautness and resonance, The Longest Memory tells the story of a rebellious, fiercely intelligent young slave, who in 1810 attempts to flee a Virginia plantation - and of his father who inadvertently betrays him. The young slave's love for a white girl who slakes his forbidden thirst for learning and his painful relationship with his father are hauntingly evoked in this novel of astonishing lyrical simplicity. It is a measure of D'Aguiar's achievement and bravery that The Longest Memory is informed not only by the complicities between black slave and white master but also by the tensions among slaves themselves - between stoic survivalists and passionate rebels. Remarkable for its keenness of observation, subtlety, and restraint, The Longest Memory heralds the arrival of a major new voice in the contemporary literature of the African diaspora.

My Thoughts on “The Longest Memory”:

A while ago I had the privilege of reading this very short, very beautifully crafted book by Fred D’Aguiar, a writer whose name I had never come across before, which is of course a reflection on my own literary ignorance as this book was a winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award.  When I say very short, the book is only about 130 pages long, a length that easily fits into an afternoon, but the story it tells is immense and the feel of the book will stay with you, or, as Paula Burnett of the New Statesman puts it:

            “This deceptively simple book resonates long after it is finished.”

D’Aguiar’s main interest, and the theme of most of his writings, is the slave trade and the history of slavery in the US, and so this lovely, lyrical book relates the events immediately prior to and after the death of a young slave who received 200 lashes as punishment for running away from the Virginia plantation where he had been born.

The story is told through the voices of the young slave’s grieving and guilt-ridden father, whose punishment is perhaps greater than that of his son; his mother, who learns that  kindness is the greatest form of love; his lover, someone who believes that people really can change the world; the plantation owner, a man who has a vision of the future and who battles within himself over the issue of owning other human beings; the overseer who ordered the 200 lashes, a man perhaps haunted more by the future than the past; and, in a chapter written so musically and beautifully in verse,  the young man himself. 

Perhaps because the author himself is black - sorry, as an Aussie I never know what label is applicable or acceptable these days - he is able to write on such a subject with a tenderness which is absolutely tangible.  At one point the overseer is addressing Whitechapel, the father of the dead young slave, and, comparing him to his own father, says:

“I am his son.  I think like him.  You yourself said I resembled him, that I was my father’s young self.  But my memory of him is sullied.  He lacked your courage, Whitechapel.  If you were white I would have wanted you as my father.”

At the end of the book, Whitechapel, who believed that a slave who behaved, who served his master faithfully, who showed respect, could in turn expect to be treated fairly and also shown respect, but whose beliefs were shattered with the death of his son, says:
“My head is too heavy for these shoulders.  Eyes that have seen too much for one body, rest.  Mouth that has kept too much to itself, utter.  Night and day this mouth refuses to speak; cannot begin to speak; has too much to say.  The mouth turns down.  All the things it has never managed to say have soured there.”

I've heard one writer say that his favourite books are those he keeps on the top shelf of his bookcase.  This beautiful work must indeed take its place on the top shelf of all those privileged enough to read it.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

A Three Dog Life (Author: Abigail Thomas)


The Blurb from Amazon:

When Abigail Thomas’s husband, Rich, was hit by a car, his brain shattered. Subject to rages, terrors, and hallucinations, he must live the rest of his life in an institu­tion. He has no memory of what he did the hour, the day, the year before. This tragedy is the ground on which Abigail had to build a new life. How she built that life is a story of great courage and great change, of moving to a small country town, of a new family composed of three dogs, knitting, and friendship, of facing down guilt and discovering gratitude. It is also about her relationship with Rich, a man who lives in the eternal present, and the eerie poetry of his often uncanny perceptions. This wise, plainspoken, beautiful book enacts the truth Abigail discovered in the five years since the acci­dent: You might not find meaning in disaster, but you might, with effort, make something useful of it.


My Thoughts on "A Three Dog Life":

My sister lent me “The Book Thief” with the great recommendation that it was “the best book she had ever read”.  I read it, and she was almost right – I give it second place.  My sister lent me “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”, telling me that it was a real joy.  I hated it so much it’s actually one of those rare books which I couldn’t even finish, and swore not to feel guilty about doing so.  My sister lent me “The Faraday Girls”, assuring me it was a quick, easy, delightful read.  I finished it simply because I did after all feel guilty about abandoning “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” when it had been recommended to me by my sister, my best friend.  And so, when my sister lent me a bundle of books with no comments attached I approached them neutrally.   

In this way I came to “A Three Dog Life”.  I just finished it.  I wonder if there is a statutory waiting period before you can read a book again.  What I really want to do is book a plane ticket and fly off to Woodstock, to sit down with this amazing writer, Abigail Thomas, and just do nothing but perhaps chat and perhaps drink - red wine or tea, either would be good. 

This book is Abigail’s account of how her life did a 180 (no, not a 360) degree turn after her lovely husband, Rich, suffered massive head trauma when he was hit by a car while out walking their dog one evening in New York.  The life which they had imagined building together suddenly was swept away and Abigail created for herself an alternate life, a three dog life, that phrase being taken from an Australian Aboriginal description of a night that is so cold that it would take three dogs to keep you warm.  And, yes, she does end up with the warmth and comfort of three dogs. 

This book is so full of precious moments, little gems, that I have to buy my own copy – or maybe just forget to return my sister’s copy – so that when I go back to read it, as I will do very soon, I can underscore and highlight those pearls as I go, pearls such as: 

On getting older, “I just couldn’t imagine what my life would be like without the option of looking good.” 

On her husband’s constant need to move, ”No, no, and no.  Rich just needs to be moving.  And I ask myself what use is a destination anyway?” 

On living a life unexpectedly alone, “… my house doesn’t fit me anymore.  Maybe it’s because from here I can see into the empty kitchen, and then turn my head and look into the empty living room.  On either side are these uninhabited rooms, quiet, waiting, but only for me, and I can’t sit everywhere at once.” 

And then to come to the last page and read this passage, where she and her husband, in an almost lucid moment, are chatting, “I ask Rich if he knows how long we’ve been married. ‘About a year’, he answers.  I shake my head.  ‘Seventeen years’, I say, ‘we got married in 1988 and it’s 2005.’  “Abby’, he says, smiling, ‘our life has been so easy that the days glide by’.” 

It almost breaks your heart, but that would be impossible because this book is not a heart-wrenching, tragic tale of woe; it is a beautiful sharing of the funny and the sad, and definitely not written to glean pity or bring on feelings of despair.  A lovely, lovely book, and I wonder why my sister didn’t attach a comment to this loan. 

PS. I highly recommend you check out Abigail's website at:

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Element - How Finding Your Pashion Changes Everything (Author: Ken Robinson, PhD)

The Blurb from the ABC Shop: 

The Element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.

In this groundbreaking book, world-renowned creativity expert Ken Robinson considers the child bored in class, the disillusioned employee and those of us who feel frustrated but can't quite explain why – and shows how we all need to reach our Element.

Through the stories of people like Vidal Sassoon, Arianna Huffington and Matt Groening, who have recognized their unique talents and made a successful living doing what they love, Robinson explains how every one of us can find ourselves in our Element, and achieve everything we're capable of.

With a wry sense of humour, Ken Robinson shows the urgent need to enhance creativity and innovation by thinking differently about ourselves. Above all, he inspires us to reconnect with our true self – it could just change everything.

My Thoughts on The Element: 

After listening to Ken Robinson on a podcast, I felt inspired to read this book and duly checked it out at my local library. In the podcast, Mr Robinson, an educator and lecturer, spoke passionately about the need to find our passion in life, to pursue our true calling so that we ultimately find ourselves in “the Element”, a place where we are completely ourselves, where we find absolute fulfilment. Basically, it’s about stepping outside the square and finding our perfect place, irrespective of whether it’s the perfect financial place, so that we find and live in our right position in the universe. 

I wanted so badly to enjoy this book. I wanted so badly to read what Mr Robinson had to say. I wanted to feel inspired, to feel a desire to run, Rocky-like, up steps, arms waving in the air, and shouting, “Yes, yes, yes”, my mind lit up like an Osram. However, that did not happen.  

Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that the main thrust of this book could have been covered in about 20 pages, including the fantastic few pages given over to illustrations which put planet Earth into perspective in the scheme of the universe (the book is worth checking out for those few pages alone). What we do have is, basically, recital after recital of stories of people who have reached the “Element”, who live their lives in their perfect place. We learn, for instance, that Sir Paul McCartney hated music lessons at school and was turned down by the choir he applied to join because they felt his voice wasn’t up to scratch; we learn that one of the most famous choreographers in the world came close to being sent to a “special” school because of her inability to sit still and concentrate in class, and was saved only through the insight of a brilliant psychologist; we learn that Sir Richard Branson hated school, leaving very early, and was considered the boy most likely to either make millions or end up behind bars. One or two examples of success against the odds are inspiring; a whole book of them becomes repetitive and you start to check out how many pages you are from finishing, never a good sign. 

Having said all this, if Mr Robinson was to give a presentation in my home town I would have no hesitation buying a ticket to go along and listen to him because I am always fascinated by people of true passion. However, I am very glad that I borrowed this book from my library and didn’t pay out hard-earned dollars to purchase it.