Bernard’s ‘History Book Reviews’ from November 9th
Regular listeners to this program will know that I am pretty interested in history books. More specifically, I find ‘HISTORIOGRAPHY’ - the study of how history is recorded – totally intriguing. But why is history, usually recorded by ‘white’ males, from the material left by dead ‘white’ males? Well, maybe things are changing, have a look at the bookshelves in your library… Anyway, that is a topic for another time. In the meantime, as we approach the gifting season, I thought I should tell you about some books available which talk about some contemporary history, some recent publications as well as a few famous events, a favourite subject for writers of history books.
I have mentioned before my admiration for the work of some-time television broadcaster, Simon Schama. You may have to dig around for his books, but he has written beautifully about the French Revolution [in “Citizens"], the American slave trade [“The Middle Passage”] as well as a general history of the United States [“The American Future”.] His newest publication, "Scribble, Scribble , Scribble…” awaits me, with its promise of “Writings on Icecream, Obama, Churchill and My Mother”.
Tony Wright is a respected journalist with “The Age” [who can be heard weekly on Denis Scanlon’s “Front Page” on this station]. Ten years ago he visited the Gallipoli Peninsula on assignment and has returned several times. Allen & Unwin have just published his excellent book “Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula” which is much more a walker’s guide. Tony has done his homework and provides a rich background to events of those dreadful months in 1915 that add fresh insights, especially for the intending traveller. [I have grave personal uncertainties about just what we as a nation are doing with our wartime mythology – led by less-scrupulous politicians? - which is not to take anything away from the pain suffered by those “diggers” and their families.]
In this election year there has been an unusually large number of ‘post mortem’-type books published; have there ever been so many before? [“Montes parturiuntur/Et nascitur ridiculus mus” indeed! I laughed as I browsed “Best Political Cartoons of 2010”, out already, reminded of the unique place filled by our cartoonists in the work of the Fourth Estate. The often-hilarious, always-perceptive comments of Leunig, Tanberg, Petty, Nicholson, Leak, etc. are all there for you to smile over. Barry Cassidy is well-known for his work on ABC TV, particularly his addictive “Insiders” on Sunday mornings. He has called his record of the past three years in Australian federal politics “The Party Thieves”, a title which hints at the revelatory contents. It is for the lay reader rather than the serious student, but a good read nonetheless.
And that brings me to Bruce Guthrie’s “Man Bites Murdoch”, probably one for the media tragic's. You may remember Guthrie as a leading Melbourne newspaperman over many years who took on and beat Murdoch Snr in a recent wrongful dismissal case. His book reminds us just how capricious life can be at the upper end of the media circus.
We leave the public life of the nation now for more local histories. Victory Books are clearly cashing in on the popularity of the recent film “Animal Kingdom” by re-releasing former tabloid journalist Tom Noble's “Walsh Street", though I would say this story deserves to be recalled continually as our police go about their dangerous calling. The cold-blooded murder of two young officers is still a 'powerful and emotional’ one as Noble says in his introduction. The crime remains unsolved.
World-famous novelist [Sir?] Salman Rushdie was being as provocative as usual when he wrote in 1984 that “Adelaide is the perfect place for a horror story….because sleepy, conservative towns are where these things happen. Adelaide is an Amityville, or Salem, amid things go bump in the night.” Well, we always allow Rushdie a bit of poetic licence, but journalist Sean Fewster goes all the way back to Edward Gibbon Wakefield to explain why he thinks the “City of Churches” has been the site of so much bizarre crime. Adelaide was to be a 'planned' community of free men, avoiding the “hated stain” of convictism of the other colonies. Fewster reveals that Wakefield himself had his own skeletons clanking away in his English cupboard. Anyway, was it not inevitable that Adelaide’s obsession with propriety and secrecy would build a pressure-cooker society that must periodically burst into infamy, this is a racy read, tabloid in style but well-researched and rather compelling.
David Hill is something of a local Renaissance man, arriving as a British WWII orphan he has since taken on many prominent roles in the service of his adopted country. After being head of the ABC and running the national Soccer Federation, he has turned to writing history books. His “Gold: The fever that changed Australia” was certainly an ambitious project. The hallmarks of sound history writing are there: the footnotes, bibliography and index are sound. I feel his enterprise may have been rather over-reaching as he attempted to cover the search for the precious metal from the Palmer River to Ophir to Central Australia[Lassetters Reef] over 150 years. People like Geoff Blainey Geoffrey Serle and [Deakin’s own] Weston Bate have made it hard for later writers of the history of gold discovery in Australia. Find “The Rush That Never Ended” or “Lucky City” for the very best. That being said, Hill provides a pretty extraordinary introduction to this vast topic. He even gives the associated bushrangers a run. [Pun intended!]
To a completely different scenario. British academic Jeremy Black has written a comprehensive yet concise history called “The Battle of Waterloo". I found it dovetailed neatly with my finishing “Citizens”. Clearly the vast majority of unfortunate participants in that bloody conflict were illiterate so as usual the history is drawn from 'official' records. The work of the American, Ken Burns [with "The Civil War", notably] and our own Bill Gammage [“The Broken Years”] have been able to acknowledge the role of the ‘ordinary’ soldiers in war. People such as Black rely on the politicians and military leaders for what are usually secondary sources anyway. The people in the field are normally silent. However, this is a good all-round introduction to this area. I get annoyed with the absence of maps in such books….Not many of us know these places, for heaven’s sake. What I found most interesting was Black’s discussion of the impact of Napoleon’s campaigns, and the end of same, on the events of 19th century Europe.
It is these sorts of connections that are the real stuff of history, methinks.
Tony Wright: "Walking the Gallipoli Peninsula", A&U, 2010, 287pp, rrp $ 32-99 pb.
Jeremy Black: "The Battle of Waterloo", Icon Books, 2010, 236pp, rrp $35 hb.
David Hill: "Gold…", Heinemann, 2010, 497pp, rrp $34-95, pb.
Sean Fewster: "City Of Evil", Hatchette, 2010, 322pp, rrp $35, pb.
Bruce Guthrie: "Man Bites Murdoch", MUP, 2010, 353pp, rrp $45, hb.
Bernard’s Crime Book Reviews
Here are two very good new crime novels, one by Martin Cruz Smith, the well-known creator of Russian cop/investigator ‘Arkady Renko’, the second by a newcomer the aptly-named Attica Locke. As well as being more or less investigation genre novels, each novels presents a city that is almost character in the drama – a not unusual facet of modern crime writing [ cf Rankin and Edinburgh, JL Burke’s “New Orleans”.]
Ever since his wonderful “Gorky Park”, Smith has made modern Moscow almost as well known to readers as New York has become to TV viewers. The capital of the new Russia is depicted as a little boy grown too big for his pants: its infrastructure is groaning, its streets full of drunks pimps and petty crooks of all kinds while at the top new sorts of mafia control every aspect of business. Locke’s setting is a city new to me – Houston, in the 1980s, oil capital of the USA. Her version of this sprawling city on the Gulf coast is far from glamorous; there is little of Burk’s exotic bayous and juke joints here. Smith’s latest has Renko caught up in contemporary crime on a small scale as he stumbles onto the murder of a young apparent prostitute and, as is usual for Renko he cannot leave the initial plausible investigation alone. Meanwhile another young female vagrant from the provinces arrives in Moscow to have her new-born baby stole. The two threads inevitably come together while Renko fights to retain his status as a policeman. This is not Smith at his best. The scale is reduced from his more world-shaking plots. He writes as if in cruise control. It is worth reading, but a bit on the lazy side.
Martin Cruz Smith, “Three Stations”, Pan Macmillan, 2010, pp 241,rrp $32-99,pb
Locke’s novel shows us 1980s Houston, wrestling with its resources boom and in the throes of ‘labor’ troubles concerned with the oil trade. It opens, however, with a couple celebrating a wedding anniversary who accidentally become involved in a late-night criminal incident. He is an African-American lawyer, a bit down-art-heel, a veteran of the glory days of the civil rights movement of the 60s-70s. The story takes a while to get going, but builds into a searching investigation of just how permanent the social advances wrought by ML King Jr and the his great movement for change in race relations were. Locke’s Porter had been a prominent small player in local race politics in his younger days, but has more or less moved into the settled middle-class life of American suburbia when his father-in-law summons him to stand up again on a justice issue, labour rights this time. Meanwhile, the possible murder, from the book’s opening pages, emerges as a threat to his new-found attempts to lead the better life.
Jay’s character is multi-layered. It seems every book nowadays carries its “Acknowledgements”, etc. addendum. Locke’s is worth reading because she explains how the genesis for her novel was an incident involving her father very like the occurrence of the assault that opens this novel. Jay has to take new risks; faces up to aspects of his past that he had hoped were left behind – while looking after his wife as she prepares for the birth of their first child. Not surprisingly, the ripples spread until we discover the lurking influence of Big Oil in the mix. If this sounds soap-operatic, fear not. Locke handles a complex plot with the skill of a veteran. This is by far the best book in this genre I have read this year. It combines the intricacies of crime-and-investigation with a frank look at an aspect of US history - the advancement of “coloured people” – that resonates today as we consider the situation of the embattles President!
Attica Locke, “Black Water Rising”, Harper Collins, 2009, pp 430, rrp $ 24-99, pb
Bernard’s Review of “Nemesis” by Phillip Roth
Now, listeners, a question for you. What do the following people have in common? A wartime American President; a famous Australian soprano; two of my childhood neighbours ;one of my cousins ;the younger brother of one of my lifelong friends? Give up? All of these people, unfortunately, suffered the lifelong effects of a cruel disease that is happily no longer with us – poliomyelitis. If I call it by its earlier name, ”Infantile paralysis”, you will remember that ‘Polio’s” cruel legacy was at least the withering of one limb; the worst cases at the time led to the patient’s quick death from an epidemic that swept the Western world, including Australia in the 1940s. I think it was about 1953 when we were all immunised with a vaccine developed by the American Jonas Salk. It has been so easy for the rest of us to forget the life-changing trauma Polio visited on so many of our contemporaries, many of whom of course still live with its effects.
This is all by way of introducing this week’s book review. Eminent American writer Phillip Roth may be best known for his forgettable yet briefly notorious 1960s novel “Portnoy’s Complaint”. [I won’t embarrass anyone, myself included, by reminding you what young Portnoy’s actual “complaint’ was.] And there was another mildly successful novel, “Goodbye Columbus”, made into a reasonable film with Richard Benjamin and [the new] Ali McGraw which many of us saw in the late 60s. Fortunately Roth’s prowess as an observer of middle-class American life – I hasten to add from a Jewish point of view because his ethnicity is at the heart of his perspective - has improved with age. I venture to suggest he is now, in his 70s,at the height of his powers. I refer you to his two Zuckerman novels and “American Pastoral” of recent times – and now “Nemesis”, the last of a quartet completed in the past couple of years. Though Roth is much lauded in his own country, I could never see why until I read these later novels.
Our central character is “Bucky” Cantor whom we meet as a 23-year-old PE teacher who has been seconded to a new sports program for inner-city boys in inner Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1940s. He has been left at home by his peers because of his poor eyesight; they are off in the Pacific, fighting the Japanese. By the sheer generosity of his nature, he becomes a charismatic figure to the twenty-or-so adolescents whom he daily teaches softball and swimming. It is the dreadful summer of 1944. Not only is America on a full war footing: an epidemic of a new and fearful virus – Poliomyelitis – is afoot. The war, meanwhile, is turning; remember the awful effect the recapture of Europe had on the young JD Salinger? Bucky believes his sad childhood background has made him self-reliant, resourceful, empathetic. Nothing, however, has prepared him for the deaths of some of his charges and the awful choices that suddenly confront him as a result. His lover, Marcia, has “escaped’ the epidemic for the apparent safety of the mountains of Philadelphia where she is counsellor at a school camp attended by her younger twin sisters. Bucky not only yearns for Marcia: he is beginning to grapple with the problem of the ‘death of innocents’ up against his Jewish religion’s teaching about the mercy of God.
That covers the first half of this beautifully-written story. You will have to read it yourself to see how it unfolds. Roth’s command of prose is masterful. Unlike a lot of [dare I say] younger contemporary writers, Roth is not afraid of complex sentences, of the longer paragraph or of exploring human emotion or of establishing the particularity of a setting in place and time. Yet he never lapses into verbosity much less sentimentality. This is a gem of a novel. Now a senior in the writing academy, he has obviously learned his craft by endless practice. The prose is polished, his eye always discerning and accurate – and his heart is unerringly sensitive to the ebbs and flows of humans in history.
This is up there with “Matterhorn” and “Love Story” as my best reading so far this year.
Philip Roth: “Nemesis”,Jonathan Cape,2010,pp 28o,rrp $35 HB.
News for October 19th
* The latest ABR [from “The Australian”] was a bit esoteric…academic…for me.
* The ever-active TOM KENEALLY recently turned 75, in time for his latest history venture “Three Famines’.
* A recent column in the Fairfax ‘big paper” from The Emerald City bemoaned the scarcity of female writers in the winners’ lists of international fiction awards. Cited was JODI PICOULT’s opinion. Now I have to challenge her claim to be a “serious” novelist.
* Australian Poet GWEN HARWOOD – whose work you we heard again today – is studied for the HSC English course in NSW.
* October is Cancer Awareness Month. Two books around the topic:
Janet Elder:”Huck” and [Australian] Susanne Gervay:”Always Jack”.
* The October edition of independent news magazine “The Monthly” includes JOHN [“After America”, recently reviewed] BIRMINGHAM on the ‘Wikileak’ phenomenon.
* National Geographic continues to be about the best value read around. For about $50 pa, it provides wonderful ‘wildlife’ photography as always, but also amazing articles about world history and environmental issues. This month it tackles the huge story of the Mexico Gulf oil fiasco.
* The Age”’s JANE SULLIVAN wrote recently of her experiences as a judge on one of our leading fiction awards, speaking of the dominance of ‘the big four’ novelists: can you guess who?
* When I calm down sufficiently, I will deliver my review of the 2010 Booker Prize winner, Howard Jacobson’s “The Finkler Question”. Yes, I was appalled – especially when Andrea Levi’s beautiful book was in the mix.
* Did you read the interview in “The Age” recently with playwright EDWARD ALBEE? He will be in Melbourne soon for a lecture. A superbly succinct writer.
* The latest quarterly essay includes several letters commenting on the previous edition’s now-famous David Marr’s discussion of Kevin Rudd [before his removal.] They are relevant to John Bartlett’s recent comments on our program on “the essay” as a genre.
Bernard’s Review of “Private Life” by Jane Smiley and “The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson
They are both well-known in their own countries – Smiley won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Literature in the US in 2000 for the splendid “One Thousand Acres” [which was spoiled by a mediocre film version.] Jacobson’s new book was awarded this year’s Man Booker Prize [for best novel published in the British Commonwealth in 2010.]
While Smiley’s works are firmly located in various parts of the USA, Jacobson in fact wrote a couple of early novels while he was teaching at Sydney Uni ,in the early 70s. Smiley’s works have a firm but gently-observing tone, whereas Jacobson’s have a more robust and satirical bent. For the last decade or more, his target has been upper middle-class life in urban England.
Smiley is looking at the life of a middle-class American woman, Margaret, from the 1880s through until the middle of World war II. She is more a Jane Austen than a Joyce Carol Oates, concentrating on the ‘small’ lives of ordinary Americans, but she does it with an unerring gaze which she uses to uncover frustrations and yearnings that are very painful, for all their banality.
On the surface, Margaret is a boring character. No, her sad life is boring. Raised the least attractive of three Mid-West daughters, she gladly allows herself to become hitched to the wonderfully-named Andrew Jefferson early. Fortunately for the reader, most of the story is filtered through Margaret’s eyes for she is a tireless observer, able to wring every possible sensory observation form the quotidian routines of hers and her family’s lives.
Her husband is a pedant. Not only does he [apparently] know everything about most things, in the areas of science - especially astronomy and cosmology – he is forever pushing into what he claims is new territory. The methods he uses in this lifelong pursuit are found to be a little dodgy, just one of the sources of the novel’s little tragedies.
Through a rather loveless courtship and marriage, Margaret makes her way into tedious middle-age. Two miscarriages and the early death of her only child leave a dark scar on her psyche, but at least they also give her a new privacy which she learns to enjoy and exploit.
The historical and political backgrounds are etched in beautifully. It is the time of America’s great industrial awakening and then its emergence as a world power. Amid all this, Margaret lives modestly but with a subtle style of feminine [not quite feminist] independence of heroic dimensions, I think it is her continuing empathy and compassion for those around her; she is never cruel, even to her awful husband. On the contrary, she reaches out to people, quietly, unobtrusively…effectively.
I really liked this novel. Smiley has created an unlikely heroine in Margaret. The scale of the book is quite vast – epic almost. The background events are more momentous than those of Austen’s books, yet they are just there, intruding but so subtly. She is a beautiful stylist. As I recommend repeatedly, read a paragraph aloud and enjoy the flow, the resonance, the language.
Rating: A strong ***
Jacobson writes social comedy. in the style of, say, the American Lisa Adler [What ever happened to her? Great stuff 15 years ago…] In the UK, Martin Amis, David Lodge, Tom Sharpe write similar satire. It is a change for the Booker judges to reward this genre. [Privately, I have not agreed with their judgement since they followed the great “Midnight’s Children” with a lesser Roddy Doyle.]
As a young academic, Jacobson spent a few years lecturing in English at our oldest university. His lectures were apparently both hugely entertaining and very scholarly, a fairly rare combination. “Coming From Behind” and “Redback” and “In The Land Of Oz” come from this period and sold well at the time.
Jacobson is in good form in “The Finkler Question”. It is a witty treatise on his favourite theme of recent times – ‘Getting Older’ – and, of course, there are Jewish men involved. I feel this is a bit anachronistic for our times. Hasn’t Woody Allen done this to death for us, albeit in a different medium?
To quote the cover blurb: “Julian Treslove, a former BBC worker, and Sam Finkler, A Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite different lives, they’ve never lost touch with each other – or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech more concerned with the wider world than exam results…’ [Those familiar with the novelists mentioned above will already see the relevance of my reference.] Sure, the novel is “Funny, unflinching and furious…” as claimed. I couldn’t agree, however, that as “a story of exclusion and belonging, justice and love, ageing, wisdom and humanity”, it has succeeded, if that is what the author was attempting. Jacobson has definitely become kinder in his later middle years, but his characters just did not engage this reader.
I wonder whether the novel would have worked better as a play; Jacobson is very good at conversations. A lot of people will buy this book on the strength of its Booker win. Maybe I missed something.