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Archive for March, 2010

A couple of spoiler-free sentences, randomly chosen from my current read: Wanting by Richard Flanagan, p2:

“Though he was weaning them off their native diet of berries and plants and shellfish and game, and onto flour and sugar and tea, their health seemed in no way comparable to what it had been.  And the more they took to English blankets and heavy English clothes, abandoning their licentious nakedness, the more they coughed and spluttered and died.” 

It’s an opening that describes a part of Tasmanian history that Mark Twain wrote about in The Wayward Tourist, and which I explored just last week: see my review.  How’s that for a coincidence?!

What are you reading?

The D!

PS: Teaser Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by shouldbereading.

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What with Twain’s Wayward Tourist and now John Nicol’s autobiography, I’ve been on a rather enjoyable journey into Australia’s past. I wanted to read this book because of the Australian connection, but it is just one of the several intrepid voyages John Nicol undertook in his life. Taken as a whole, there are adventures aplenty, and fascinating historical contexts abound – American and Napoleonic wars, slavery, convicts, whale hunts, trade, indigenous peoples, visits to China, press gangs, storms and superstitions, daring rescues and lucky escapes, illnesses, remedies and heart-breaking deaths, alien customs, and if that wasn’t enough, love on the high seas. All told in short chapters of plain yet eloquent language – which is an interest in itself.

Given the incredibly high mortality rate of sailors in those days – 15% per year – John Nicol was certainly a lucky charm for the many ships he sailed on, and whilst his memory lets him down occasionally, it is remarkable that he remembers so much from such a varied and busy life at sea. His eye for detail is excellent and adds to our understanding and interest at every turn. Further context is added by Tim Flannery’s introduction.  It may well be the life of a simple man, but there is greatness in him too.

There are numerous sections worthy of recall, but I shall relay just two:

Whilst in China, Nicol relates how the ship’s dog Neptune bit a local boy whose father subsequently requested some of Neptune’s hairs which he cut off and then used to dress the wound. Nicol writes: “I had often heard, when a person had been tipsy the evening before, people tell him to take a hair of the dog that bit him, but never saw it in the literal sense…” Other interesting herbal remedies are noted here too.

I also can’t resist noting that whilst in China, the ship engage a man named Tommy Linn as a barber for the crew and as a trade agent. Each day he walks onto the ship like a cast member from Project Runway, with his customary salutation: “Hey, yaw, what’s fashion?”(!)

The chapter relating to the Lady Juliana and her voyage from London to Port Jackson (Sydney) is of particular interest to me, being a Sydney-sider and someone with convict blood, (though not of this ship). It is intriguing hearing first-hand accounts of life in and around this very special transport – with a cargo of all female convicts. Every crewman ‘took a wife’ (lover) whilst onboard and several babies were born on route as the voyage took almost one year. Nicol was no different, falling in love with Sarah Whitlam, whom he believes is “as kind and true a creature that ever lived”. He confesses that he would have married her on the spot had a clergyman been on board, (so perhaps captains of ships weren’t allowed to do such a duty in those days?).

Sarah tells Nicol that she had borrowed a mantle from an acquaintance and was subsequently tried for theft when this person prosecuted her. She received seven years transportation. We sigh and say ‘what a poor unfortunate girl’, as Nicol himself does, but records show that she was arrested for the theft of a large amount of clothing. Many such stories were falsified in those times. Reputation was king. Sarah bears him a son before they reach Port Jackson, where they are separated; despite Nicol’s efforts to stay, he had no choice and had to leave.

They promised to remain ‘true’ until they could be re-united. But Sarah was married the very next day(!). It must have been the only choice available to her in a colony of around one thousand souls, with a newborn baby to look after. It is touching that Nicol left his trusty bible with Sarah, a constant companion to him on all his previous voyages. He believes she had gained great comfort in reading it on the voyage out. However, it turns out she was illiterate, signing the marriage certificate with an ‘X’. Sarah was clearly not the women Nicol thought she was! She was living by her wits, with what little she had available to make a life from. But we feel for poor lovesick Nicol as he travels off, trying to create some pathway back to Sydney and to Sarah, all to no avail.

I also have to add that on just my first reading of this paperback it started to fall apart in my hands. I felt like I was reading Nicol’s own time-ravaged papers as I raced to get through them before they blew off into neighbourhoods unknown! If publishers really want to stave off the rise of the e-reader then they’d better produce sturdier binds than this.

The Dilettante’s Rating: 4/5

The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner – by John Nicol, edited by Tim Flannery, with an Introduction by Tim Flannery

Canongate

ISBN: 9781841950914

198 pages, (which includes an 18 page Introduction)

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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The highly entertaining Wayward Tourist publishes edited extracts from Mark Twain’s Following the Equator (1897).  Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, traveled to Australia in 1895 as part of a world tour of 150 lectures.  It is a fascinating, sometimes sad, but often very humorous excursion through Australia, its people, its cities and its peculiar histories.  In this sense, it’s really an early pointer to books such as the very funny Down Under by Bill Bryson.  They both successfully mix tragedy, success, history, culture, and bizarre travel experiences, and neatly wrap them in a laugh-filled package.  For lovers of Bryson and/or those with an interest in Australian history, this is a wonderful book.

The excellent introduction, written by Don Watson, summarises Twain thus:

… the essential American and the still small voice of the flimsy, paradoxical, eternal good in the democracy.  For most of those who have read him he still is.  The trick, as he said, was all in the telling.

Twain’s skill in ‘telling’ is evident throughout as he recalls his journey to and around Australia in short and amusing tales.  At the time of his visit, Twain was one of the most well known people in the world, and he and his family “were greeted – almost literally – like royalty, and the lectures, called ‘At Homes’ were triumphs.”

Twain also came to Australia at a very interesting time, with the rise in federalist sentiment, lead by Sir Henry Parkes and others, whom Twain met, that would lead to the formation only a few years later of the Federation of Australia.  Twain advised it would be ‘unwise’ and unnecessary for the colonies to ‘cut loose from the British Empire.’  The fact that Twain was such a keen observer gives us a fascinating insight into Australia at the time from an outsider’s perspective.

The stories start with Twain’s arrival in Sydney.  Twain finds the harbour “superbly beautiful” and then, on a “natural impulse … gave God the praise.”  The local he said this to suggested that Twain had only captured half of Sydney, stating: ‘God made the Harbor … but Satan made Sydney.’”  As a Sydney-sider myself, I have read this beguiling quote many times before and … cannot argue it!

Twain then describes, with some displeasure, the “most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australia can show” … when he and all his fellow travellers must get out of one train and onto another in bighting evening cold near the border of NSW & Victoria because of the different track gauges used in the two states at the time.  He goes on: “Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth”.  Unfortunately for me, it seems the paralysis of transport planning still dogs Sydney, though Melbourne fairs much better.

Some pages read a little like reportage, but there is always a humorous anecdote to follow.  Some of the biggest events (and mishaps) in our fledgling history are explored.  Examples include the Rum Corps’ iron-grip on the early Sydney colony through its monopoly on rum imports; the Eureka Stockade which “may be called the finest thing in Australian history”; and the Melbourne Cup.  Twain is effusive in his praise of Cup Day: “The champagne flows, everybody is vivacious, excited, happy; … Cup Day is supreme – it has no rival.”  I’m happy to report that the fervent and national ritual of Melbourne Cup Day continues unabated.

We soon arrive at another of Twain’s famous ‘Australian’ quotes which Peter Carey used in introducing his wonderful Illywhacker, (a personal favourite).  Twain describes the splendour of Melbourne and reflects on how this “majestic” city grew from the most inauspicious, convict-laboured start.  He concludes:

Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it is itself the chiefest novelty the country has to offer, and so it pushes the other novelties into second and third place.  It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful of lies.  And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones.  It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened. 

It’s a perfect summation, and all the tales in this book reflect this.

Twain describes the locals as having “English friendliness with the English shyness and self-consciousness left out.”  But he can’t resist poking fun at the local accent, with its mislaid ‘y’, relating a chambermaid’s morning comments: “The tyble is set, and here is the piper [paper]; and if the lydy is ready I’ll tell the wyter to bring up the breakfast.”  It’s a perfect summation.

Twain is also much taken with the expression: ‘my word!’ He references it throughout the book, concluding that Americans “must import it. … spoken with the proper Australian unction and fervency … it is music to the ears … the first time I heard an Australian say it, it was positively thrilling.”

Everything Comes to He Who Waits describes Twain’s arrival into Adelaide, known in Australia as ‘the city of churches’ – and for good reason, as Twain tabulates the published census and the exhaustive list of religions, after which he delightfully observes that there are: “About 64 roads to the other world.”

Twain explores the collision of aboriginal and white settlers, particularly in Tasmania.  A staunch anti-racist, most of his observations are spot on.  However, some are not.  In The Conciliator Twain details the amazing story of one George Augustus Robinson, who set out in search of the remaining 300 Tasmanian aboriginals, in an effort to persuade them to be peacefully resettled on Flinders Island in Bass Straight.  This was the government’s last-ditch effort to save the aboriginals before they were exterminated.  Over four years he persuaded all of them, without shedding one drop of blood.

I say amazing, but it is also heartbreaking, for whilst Robinson was able to persuade the aboriginals, whose numbers had been decimated because of running battles with white settlers, the re-settlement was of course a complete failure.  The aboriginals were given religion and set classes and work and pay, but soon realised that they had been taken away from their land – their home – and the set structure of life on these foreign islands was a complete anathema to them.  Instead of a home they were given a prison camp, and many died of disease and broken hearts – one of the few times that expression will hold any truth.

(What Twain does not report is that Robinson reputedly offered inducements to the aboriginals that included the freedom to continue their own cultural traditions.  This was effectively denied them once they got to Flinders Island.  Robinson is effectively now seen as a negative figure for aboriginals despite what may have initially been good intentions.  Twain does capture the tragedy of the aboriginals’ loss, but there is some uneasiness in his notes that they widely practiced infanticide as a means of keeping their population low, as well as cannibalism; I have not heard of these before, and I thus suspect error; they may or may not be true, but I am unsure what to make of them without reading further.)*

I was hoping to find a quote of Twain on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, which I read some years ago, in which he compared it very favourably to his beloved Mississippi.  But alas, the Hawkesbury does not rate a mention and now I wonder whether I read such a quote at all!  Instead, we get a different river reference: Watson’s introduction explains that the pen name ‘Mark Twain’ originates from the river: “Mark Twain means ‘mark two’, the ‘two’ meaning ‘two fathoms’, meaning, on a paddle steamer … the river is twelve feet deep, which was the safe minimum for navigation.”  (You learn something new everyday).

I love thoughtful cover art for books – and this book is simple but effective, with a portrait photo of Twain on whose head sits a laughing kookaburra, perhaps Twain’s alter-ego for his trip ‘down under’.  I really enjoyed this entertaining read.  I can only sign-off on such a review with the surprised salute so-loved by Twain:

My word!

* Update: After reading Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers, as well as other primary sources of early colonial history, it is clear that Aboriginal peoples did commit infanticide in some situations, particularly when a suckling mother died. As Clendinnen states, the Aboriginals of the Sydney region were a warrior culture; men were extremely violent to women (a fact, of course, shared by white settlers too).

The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia by Mark Twain, with an Introduction by Don Watson

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 9780522854312

189 pages including Afterword and Notes, (plus an Introduction of an additional 27 pages)

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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The Lost (1970) Booker Prize Shortlist has been announced.  The six books are:

The Birds on the Trees by Nina Bawden (Virago)
Troubles by J G Farrell (Phoenix)
The Bay of Noon by Shirley Hazzard (Virago)
Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (Arrow)
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (Penguin)
The Vivisector by Patrick White (Vintage)

So Patrick White is still in the running with The Vivisector.  I mused on the irony of his inclusion on the long list because he had refused to be shortlisted for the Booker for The Twyborn Affair in 1979, saying that it should be won by someone young.  (The double irony of this is that the winner was Penelope Fitzgerald, who was just four years younger than he was!). 

And Shirley Hazard, who was born in Australia, is also still in there with a chance for The Bay of Noon

There is no role for the judges from here.  It is up to the public to vote for their favourite on the Man Booker website

It will be interesting to see how this democratic experiment works…!  

The D

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Jonathan Safran Foer took an introductory writing course whilst a freshman at Princeton ran by Joyce Carol Oates who took an interest in his writing, saying he had: “that most important of writerly qualities, energy”.  This observation is spot on – and for those readers who enjoy narrative pyrotechnics and manic energy in the style of Dave Eggers, Everything is Illuminated is most definitely the book for you.  Published in 2002, and winner of that year’s Guardian First Book Award, the story traces the journey of a Jew named Jonathan Safran Foer to the Ukraine, in search of Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Nazi destruction of his family’s shtetl – or township, named Trachimbrod – during WWII.  The search is facilitated by his local interpreter, Alexander, Alexander’s supposedly blind grandfather, and ‘Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior’ – the grandfather’s supposed guide dog – or “Seeing Eye bitch”.

The story is constructed in two arcs, with Jonathan Safran Foer’s high-energy magical-realist novel-in-progress – which tells the story of the people of the imaginary Trachimbrod in Ukraine where his forebears are from – and a straightforward, but equally humorous account of their travels, written by his interpreter Alexander, whose interpreting skills are not up-to-scratch.  He boasts that he is ‘fluid’ in English and each sentence is littered with wild attempts at writing good English, but they betray the use of a ‘fatigued’ thesaurus without any real, first-hand experience of English.  He is excited by the chance to work: “… I was so effervescent to go to Lutsk and translate for Jonathan Safran Foer.  It would be unordinary.”

There is much ‘reposing’ (sleeping), things are often ‘rigid’ (hard or difficult), ‘currency’ is used instead of money, and things are not so much wonderful as they are ‘majestic’.  Good things and people are ‘premium’.  And Alex signs his letters ‘guilelessly’ rather than faithfully.  And this is not even the ice atop the iceberg of translation transgressions.  This comical translation yields a great deal of fun, where absolutely nothing is ‘unordinary’, but some will find that Alex doesn’t quite ring true – a real person trying to learn English might make mistakes of tense and quickly ape any English they hear with their ear.  ‘Reality’ is sacrificed here for the sake of comedy, which I enjoyed, but others may not.

Meanwhile, Safran Foer’s story arc captures the hilarious and odd townsfolk of Trachimbrod, where there is a balance between the Jewish Quarter and the ‘Human Three Quarters’.  This arc commences with the death of Trachim B, in 1791, whose wagon has rolled on top of him in the river, pinning him to the bottom.  There is much debate amongst the people as to whether to proclaim anything – it seems proclamations are very important – the candy-maker saying they need a proclamation … “not if the shtetl proclaims otherwise” corrects another(!)  In amongst the wagon’s rising detritus a baby is found – none other than Safran Foer’s great-times-five-grandmother.

The two story arcs move in opposite directions: Safran Foer’s starts way back in 1791 and moves forward, whereas Alex’s begins in the present day and travels backward to find out the truth of what his grandfather did in WWII.  This structure and interplay works well and is one of the successes of the book.  Like Dave Egger’s A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, Safran Foer’s narrative bristles with verve, energy and wit.  Reading Safran Foer is like having a marching band trump through your room with symbols clashing and trumpets blaring.  No-one can deny the brash, brute-force energy of it and its willingness to test the limits.

Laughter is never far away when Jonathan arrives in Lvov on the train to be met by Alexander, who describes the meeting:

“Your train ride appeased you?” I asked.  “Oh, God,” he said, “twenty-six hours, fucking unbelievable.”  This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic, I thought.

The knowing and wink-wink letters from the ‘guileless’ Alex to the ‘hero’ are rife with suggestions on how to make the story better, as well as questions over whether the story should be so funny given the sad events it depicts.  Alex writes:

“We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes?  The both of us?  Do you think that this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred?” … and after suggesting alternatives, he adds: “I do not think that there are any limits to how excellent we could make life seem.”

But the life of the story is not going to be easy or ‘excellent’.  When they arrive where Trachimbrod once stood, in the dark of night, Augustine says: “It is always like this, always dark”.  It is as if they are physically stepping into the dark past and the end of the shtetl.

Some sense greatness in Safran Foer’s style, whilst others point to a overuse of devices and pretension.  And yet others will sit somewhere in between, enjoy and go along with it to spot all the styles and cues of authors past – such as Garcia Marquez’s magical realism, Dave Egger’s narrative exuberance and pyrotechnics, and Günter Grass’s wonderful The Tin Drum whose protagonist Oskar hides beneath a relative’s skirt – just like a character in Safran Foer’s novel.  I find myself in the later camp, and whilst budding authors naturally tend to echo the styles of authors they in turn admire or borrow ideas or images to suit their own story, I’m less convinced of other reviewers’ claims of Safran Foer’s ‘startling originality’ and statements to the effect ‘that the novel will never be the same again’.  The Dilettante eschews such over-exuberance!  That said, there is much to admire, and given that Garcia Marquez and Günter Grass are two of my favourite authors, reading something excellently written, humorous and poignant that also reminds me of them was a very enjoyable experience.

It is a hard task to sustain such energy for the duration of a whole novel, but Safran Foer manages it.  His climactic remembrance of past evil is well executed, and the memory of it will live long, although others have pointed out that it reminds them of Sophie’s Choice but lacking its emotional knockout punch.  What does ring true is that whilst this is a story of Jewish history and the ‘Final Solution’ inflicted by the Germans upon European Jews in WWII, Alex’s grandfather rightly states at the beginning of this scene: “Just because I was not a Jew, it does not mean that it did not happen to me.”  For the truth is that when Evil occurs, it occurs to us all.

For a gushing review, see: The Times’ (UK): Luminous Talent in the Spotlight.

For a more balanced review, see one of the Guardian’s reviews.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141008257

276 pages

Source: Personal Library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.

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A couple of spoiler-free sentences, (not-so-) randomly chosen from my current read: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, p32:

“Your train ride appeased you?” I asked.  “Oh God,” he said, “twenty-six hours, fucking unbelievable.”  This girl Unbelievable must be very majestic, I thought. 

It’s a very funny read…

What are you reading?

The D!

PS: Teaser Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted by shouldbereading.

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What is it with Japan? Mysterious land of things small and perfectly formed – haiku, bonsai, sumo … ok, so sumo is the exception (and more than balances out the distilled essence of the poet and the plant!) 

Hello again, welcome to the much-anticipated second installment of The Friday Haiku .  Well last week was definitely a tease, as I mentioned the ultimate expression of minimalism: a one-word haiku.  Brace yourselves, for here it is:

tundra

Cor van den Heuvel (Curbstones, 1998)

What a sublime haiku!  So evocative, with the merest hint or sense of season, it is wistful, epic, expansive, remote, vital, romantic, bracing, it hints at ‘survival’; there are just so many emotive reactions from a single, perfectly formed image.  I dare you to ponder that one word for a time and not conclude as I have… the Dilettante thinks it is a haiku masterpiece

A one-word masterpiece?  Yes!

(This raises some very interesting questions about ‘authorship’ – it reminds me of the race of painters to minimalise everything down to the blank white canvas).

What do you think? 

The D!

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I don’t get too excited by longlists, but both the Miles Franklin and The Orange Prize for Fiction longlists have been announced, and already there are interesting ‘clash of the titans’-type billings in each. 

In the Miles Franklin, heavy-weights Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally lead the list, with some other notable inclusions such as Alex Miller:

Lovesong by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)

The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro (Giramondo Publishing)

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin)

Sons of the Rumour by David Foster (Picador)

The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster (Vintage)

Siddon Rock by Glenda Guest (Vintage)

Boy on a Wire by Jon Doust (Fremantle Press)

Figurehead by Patrick Allington (Black Inc.)

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Hamish Hamilton)

Truth by Peter Temple (Text Publishing)

Butterfly by Sonya Hartnett (Penguin)

The People’s Train by Thomas Keneally (Knopf)

In the Orange Prize, will it be another shootout between Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Waters’ The Little Stranger?  Or will someone else surprise?  I know a couple of people who will be cheering Waters on that’s for sure. 

Also, I read a very interesting article by Daisy Goodwin, one of the Orange judges for this year who, after reading 129 entries(!!) has pleaded with authors and publishers to ‘spare us the misery’ and asks the question: where is all the humour?  I couldn’t agree more!  It seems the misery memoir just won’t die. 

The longlist is:

Clare Clark, Savage Lands

Amanda Craig, Hearts and Minds

Roopa Farooki, The Way Things Look to Me

Rebecca Gowers, The Twisted Heart

M.J. Hyland, This is How

Sadie Jones, Small Wars

Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna

Laila Lalami, Secret Son

Andrea Levy, The Long Song

Attica Locke, Black Water Rising

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Maria McCann, The Wilding

Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy

Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs

Monique Roffey, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Amy Sackville, The Still Point

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger

Now that is a long list!

Also, continuing her remarkable run of success, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in the US. 

Your thoughts?

The D!

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