War and Peace

SBS is about to screen the 2016 BBC adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

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I’m looking forward to it. In preparation I am rereading the novel, which I last read some twenty years ago. I am really enjoying it, more so I think than last time.

Happens I am reading the Project Gutenberg e-book version on my laptop, using Calibre. Something I have noticed before: long works seem less daunting this way, and I seem to read them faster!  I am about half-way through.

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More of those Wollongong Library books…

penguinThis one is outstanding: Penguin and The Lane Brothers by Stuart Kells (2015). I had, I thought, a fair idea of the story behind Penguin Books, one of the 20th century’s great blessings, but this book convinced me that I didn’t know the half of it. Nor did I know the Australian connection.

The back page of every low-cost reprint in Australia tells the story of how Allen Lane was stuck for a decent paperback to read at a train station.

Allen then came up with the idea of cheap, high-volume publishing, and Penguin, with its famous logo, was born.

Except, Stuart’s extensive research revealed that isn’t what happened at all, and the truth is far more interesting.

The real story of Penguin involves three pioneering brothers, a highlife in London, wife-swapping, cocktails, bathroom board meetings, tragedy and betrayal.

Graham Greene, Agatha Christie and George Bernard Shaw all play bit parts in this tale of a publishing revolution.

howlNext some Southern Gothic in Taylor Brown’s Gods of Howl Mountain (2018):

In Gods of Howl Mountain, award-winning author Taylor Brown explores a world of folk healers, whiskey-runners, and dark family secrets in the high country of 1950s North Carolina.

Bootlegger Rory Docherty has returned home to the fabled mountain of his childhood – a misty wilderness that holds its secrets close and keeps the outside world at gunpoint. Slowed by a wooden leg and haunted by memories of the Korean War, Rory runs bootleg whiskey for a powerful mountain clan in a retro-fitted ’40 Ford coupe. Between deliveries to roadhouses, brothels, and private clients, he lives with his formidable grandmother, evades federal agents, and stokes the wrath of a rival runner.

In the mill town at the foot of the mountains – a hotbed of violence, moonshine, and the burgeoning sport of stock-car racing – Rory is bewitched by the mysterious daughter of a snake-handling preacher. His grandmother, Maybelline “Granny May” Docherty, opposes this match for her own reasons, believing that “some things are best left buried.” A folk healer whose powers are rumored to rival those of a wood witch, she concocts potions and cures for the people of the mountains while harboring an explosive secret about Rory’s mother – the truth behind her long confinement in a mental hospital, during which time she has not spoken one word. When Rory’s life is threatened, Granny must decide whether to reveal what she knows…or protect her only grandson from the past.

With gritty and atmospheric prose, Taylor Brown brings to life a perilous mountain and the family who rules it.

I really enjoyed it.

indexPPZ6BXFGThird, a thriller: Scottish author Alexander Lindsay, The Naked Soul (2015). Worth the effort.

Reverend Jack Mallund knows his SAS regimental reunion party won’t be for the faint-hearted. When a pornographic movie is played, he turns away, but before doing so, the face of one jumps out at him with a familiarity that makes him sick: it is his teenage daughter, missing, presumed dead. That night turns Jack’s life upside down all over again. With police reluctant to reopen the case, Jack must go it alone. His faith is pushed to the extreme and his conscience to the precipice of insanity as he fights to find his daughter.

Of those Wollongong Library books…

hutcheonSo inspiring! I have long admired Jane Hutcheon’s ABC series One plus One. China Baby Love (2017) is about Gympie woman Linda McCarthy Shum’s Chinese Orphans Assistance Team and their quest

…to help orphans, many with multiple disabilities, reveals the hidden human aftermath of the One-Child Policy. A tentative visit to an orphanage in a small Chinese city turned into many over a period of twenty years. Linda’s curiosity transformed into sheer determination to battle superstition, bureaucracy and a constant lack of funds, to found foster homes and a special needs school that has transformed hundreds of lives, including her own. What Jane intended as a five-minute ‘human interest’ segment in a news broadcast inspired an unexpected friendship and the writing of a book, that would take Jane back to China. Through the story of Linda Shum’s life and work, Jane gets to the heart of some painful truths behind modern Chinese families living in a one-party state.

5 stars!

morrisonBlake Morrison’ s The Executor (2018) was a novel I expected to enjoy, and did.

What matters most: marriage or friendship? Fidelity or art? The wishes of the living or the talents of the dead? Matt Holmes finds himself considering these questions sooner than he thinks when his friend, the poet Robert Pope, dies unexpectedly. Rob had invited Matt to become his literary executor at their annual boozy lunch, pointing out that, at 60, he was likely to be around for some time yet. And Matt, having played devotee and apprentice to ‘the bow-tie poet’ for so long, hadn’t the heart (or the gumption) to deny him. Now, after a frosty welcome from his widow, Matt sits at Rob’s rosewood desk and ponders his friend’s motives. He has never understood Rob’s conventional life with Jill, who seems to have no interest in her late husband’s work. But he soon finds himself in an ethical minefield, making shocking and scabrous discoveries that overturn everything he thought he knew about his friend. As Jill gets to work in the back garden, Matt is forced to weigh up the merits of art and truth. Should he conceal what he has found or share it?

The poems appear in stages throughout the novel, with the final “published edition” at the end. They are not half bad either! You will be encouraged to explore Ovid again….

4 stars. See also The Executor by Blake Morrison review – a novel with poetic vision.

I could not help but think of Laurie Duggan’s smart Martial’s Epigrams (1987). Duggan is an Australian poet. Do explore.

indexJK5EIT18And for something completely different: Drinking in America : our secret history (2015) by Susan Cheever, who turns out to be the daughter of  John Cheever. Well worth a look.

Goes back to earliest colonial times, but this extract is from a chapter on Prohibition:

The intersection of writers with Prohibition was at its most intense in New York City — the mecca for all talented young men and women in the 1920s. Seven thousand arrests for alcohol possession in New York City between 1921 and 1923 (when enforcement was more or less openly abandoned) resulted in only seventeen convictions.

For some writers, Manhattan, with its habitual speakeasies and after-hours clubs as well as its famous flouting of the law even in restaurants, became synonymous with drinking too much. Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald were two writers who were only able to stop drinking, or at least moderate their drinking, after they left what one minister called “Satan’s Seat.”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that writers drink too much and that, at least in America, writing goes hand in hand with a bottle or a brew, a bad liver, and a very bad temper. “Of course you’re a rummy,” Ernest Hemingway comforted his friend Scott Fitzgerald, “but no more than most good writers are.” In the mid-twentieth century, five of the seven Americans who won the Nobel Prize were alcoholics—Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. The writer Ring Lardner once listed every writer he knew and concluded that at least a third were alcoholics. “There is no question that alcohol ran through the lives and works of great writers,” notes journalist Kelly Boler. “Stories of the grand boozy excesses of twentieth-century literature provide a substantial part of our cultural currency.”

So prevalent was the combination of writing and alcoholism that when Dorothy Parker went to a famous writer’s funeral and a friend commented on how well the man looked in his coffin, Parker remarked that of course he looked well — “he hasn’t had a drink in three days.”

Malouf and Maalouf: reading July 2005

Both worth revisiting!

On a bit of a Malouf trip lately…

07 July 2005

Because of Erwin, and Jenny, my new coachee. Rebadging my ex-Salt Mine site also means I can use it shamelessly for my own purposes too, so I have done so on Malouf and Wordsworth. Mind you, there are people at The Mine who will benefit from that.

The resulting entry is informative and very pretty, if I say so myself… As I do, as who else will? 😉

Mind you, I don’t mind being on a Malouf trip. Malouf isn’t only the best gay writer in Australia, perhaps closely followed by Robert Dessaix, but is arguably one of the best English-speaking writers today. So far as such grand statements of opinion mean anything, of course.

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Mind you, in the gay Aussie author stakes, Christos Tsialkos’s Dead Europe could be putting in a challenge. There is a book I am keen to read.

Amin Maalouf’s keynote speech… September 11 2004

07 July 2005

This is just wonderful. Amin Maalouf is one of the wisest people I have read since 2000! I have posted the text of this speech, delivered to PEN International in Oslo in 2004, on my Tripod English and ESL Site.

To save you time and trouble, I am pasting the entry here.

Last year (Tripod site) I said the most important book I had read in the previous five years had been Amin Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (2000), also known as On Identity. I still think so, but on checking the links on the entry on it, and on the links to the left, I experienced Net Rage: the link no longer works. Such a shame, as that link gave you the complete introduction to On Identity!

Fortunately the problem did prove temporary…

In the meantime I found the text of Amin Maalouf’s keynote speech during the farewell dinner, 11th September 2004, at a meeting of PEN Norway, so execrably presented that rather than refer you to the original I am reproducing it, cleaned but not edited, here. I find it extraordinarily wise and moving, but you must make up your own mind about what Maalouf says.

When my friend Kjell Olav Jensen, president of the Norwegian PEN, asked me to say a few words during this farewell dinner, I noted it was on Saturday evening, but I did not immediately notice the date…

When I finally realized our gathering would take place on September 11th, I was, understandably, overwhelmed by memories of that dreadful day. How did I learn the news? At what time precisely? What was my very first reaction? Whom did I call?

Then I remembered what my father used to say about a colleague of his — they were both poets, old friends but slightly rivals in literature: “This gentleman is so self-centred that if you ask him how did the Second World war begin, he would tell you: ‘I was shaving when my brother rushed in to tell me that Hitler had invaded Poland’ … as if the world war had been launched from his bathroom.”

On that September 11, I was not in my bathroom. I was already watching the news. I had been writing since early in the morning. Then, noticing it was almost 3 p.m. I had decided to listen to the news. I had heard on the previous day, or maybe on the day before, that there had been an attempt on the life of Ahmad Shah Massoud. There were conflicting reports; some saying he had been only slightly injured, and others saying he was badly hurt, and possibly dead. I switched on the TV, just in time to watch the breaking news signal: an unidentified airplane had just crashed into one of the twin towers.

Since I was a child, I had always listened to the news very closely. My father, apart from being a poet, was also a journalist. He rarely missed a news bulletin. I followed in his steps. Some of the greatest sorrows of my life were linked to international events. Some of my greatest joys as well.

The fall of the Berlin wall, fifteen years ago, was a personal moment of hope. After years and years of confrontation, which translated into many deadly local conflicts, and with the frightening Damocles sword over our heads — that pile-up of nuclear devices ready to destroy and overdestroy every living creature on our earth, now came the sigh of relief. The arms race had come to an end without even a gun being shot. It was almost a miracle. Our human species was such a wise brand of creatures! Now we could hope for the best! Democracy and freedom would now extend to cover the whole world. Humanity would get rid of its old ways, to enter into an era of reconciliation and peaceful competition. Ready, at last, to confront its true enemies, its common enemies: poverty, illiteracy, and disease.

Hopes were very high indeed. Although, in the nineties, came the internal conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, instances of religious strife and ethnic cleansing… Quite disturbing events, but, well, we said, this is the unavoidable adjustment period. We tried to believe that ethnic wars were the last song of the dying ghosts of the past. We could not imagine they were signalling the emergence of new ghosts that were coming to haunt our future.

Then came September 11th. Not an accident. Not a natural disaster. But a man-made disaster that seemed to be an ominous introduction to the new century.

What went wrong? Why were our hopes so brutally dashed?

Those who pinned hopes, like I did, on the end of the cold war, may have overlooked one or two significant features of the world of yesterday. Namely: that it was divided along ideological and philosophical lines. And that it had been replaced by a world divided along identity lines.

I am not fond of ideologies, especially when they have so often led to appalling practices. But when people define themselves through their chosen ideology, there is room for debate. When people define themselves through their inherited identities, there is no room for debate. Everyone states and overstates his identity, and that’s it, there is nothing more to say. In today’s world, there is no true debate. Only shouting, imprecation, condemnation, mobilization. Hatred and hatred, violence and even more violence.

And when there is no debate, when there is so much mistrust, so much hatred, democracy and freedom cannot expand. In fact, they are receding, and one could expect them to recede even more in the years to come.

Every morning, we get up to learn that another bomb has exploded somewhere, that another massacre has been perpetrated. And there seems to be no end to it. The aftershocks of September eleventh go on and on and on.

This is not the world we dreamt of fifteen years ago! This is definitely not the future we hoped for.

Our world has lost its way, it is heading backwards. The West is fast losing its moral credibility, and nobody else seems to be offering valuable alternatives for mankind. Certainly not the Arab world where I come from!

Let’s face it: this entire world is in total disarray. It desperately needs to be re-imagined, re-invented, in order to be rebuilt on sounder grounds. We need to overcome that sterile conflict of identities. We need to build a human culture which would include significant elements of each culture, so nobody would feel excluded. So nobody would indulge in hatred and self hatred, in destruction and self destruction.

Re-invent the world, re-imagine the future: that is not a task that should be left to political or religious activists. It is precisely the task of poets, essayists and novelists. It is up to the writers of the six continents to strike the right notes, to find the right balance between universality and diversity. Universality of fundamental human values, diversity of languages and cultural expressions.

It is ultimately up to us to determine whether our century will go down in history as the century of suicide or the century of imagination, the century of human folly or the century of human wisdom, the century of the bomb or the century of the pen.

At no time in History were writers more indispensable. At no other time in history was the burden of change so heavy on their shoulders.

NOTE: Now you can read chunks of Amin Maalouf — enough to get his drift — on Google Books: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.

No, I didn’t watch it…

By which I mean the “tell-all” paid interview on Channel Seven last night.

I did watch the new TV series of Mystery Road though. Loved it!

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About:

Filmed in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, Aaron Pedersen and Judy Davis star in Mystery Road – The Series a six part spin-off from Ivan Sen’s internationally acclaimed and award winning feature films Mystery Road and Goldstone. Joining Pedersen and Davis is a stellar ensemble cast including Deborah Mailman, Wayne Blair, Anthony Hayes, Ernie Dingo, John Waters, Madeleine Madden, Kris McQuade, Meyne Wyatt, Tasia Zalar and Ningali Lawford-Wolf.

Directed by Rachel Perkins, produced by David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin, Mystery Road was script produced by Michaeley O’Brien, and written by Michaeley O’Brien, Steven McGregor, Kodie Bedford and Tim Lee, with Ivan Sen and the ABC’s Sally Riley as Executive Producers.

I have in fact been reading a lot lately, including some very interesting choices from Wollongong Library. Kudos to whoever is responsible for buying new books there! I may list my recent reading in another post, but here is my current one:

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I am finding it quite riveting. I don’t think I could ever read or see Gone With The Wind ever again! The book is not uncontroversial.  Here is a post by a dissenter. But see also Harvesting Cotton-Field Capitalism.

“Have you been happier in slavery or free?” a young Works Project Administration interviewer in 1937 asked Lorenzo Ivy, a former slave, in Danville, Va. Ivy responded with a memory of seeing chained African-Americans marching farther South to be sold.

“Truly, son, the half has never been told,” he said.

This anecdote is how Edward E. Baptist opens “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” an examination of both the economic innovations that grew out of the ever-shifting institution of slavery and the suffering of generations of people who were bought and sold.

Mr. Baptist, a history professor at Cornell, said in an interview that his book represented his decade-long effort to blend these two aspects. Published in September, “The Half” joins a new wave of scholarship about the centrality of slavery — and the cotton picked by slaves — to the country’s economic development.

Mr. Baptist shows the ways that new financial products, bonds that used enslaved people as collateral and were sold to bondholders in this country and abroad, enriched investors worldwide. He also emphasizes viciously enforced slave labor and migration. The cotton boom led planters to sell slaves — one million moved from old to new slave states from the 1790s to the 1860s. Productivity, he argues, came through punishment. Enslaved and formerly enslaved people like Ivy are at the center of this sprawling story….

Sometimes unfolding in a novelistic way, his book casts unreimbursed labor as torture and Southern plantations as labor camps. Mr. Baptist imagines the thoughts of a slave being put to death. He quotes exchanges between planters about the sexual exploitation of enslaved women….

As he writes in the book: “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African-Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people necessarily are happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.”

It is the specific human stories that make this book so compelling. It would appear that our convict era was a holiday camp compared with the ante-bellum South!