November 2015: My Reading

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This month I have made a conscious effort to finish a number of half-read books and finally investigate some that have been on my “to read” lists for years.

Fiction

Shaun Tan is another Western Australian who produces highly original, inspired words and images. Several of his books are truly wonderful. I have spent many hours with his earlier work – especially The Lost Thing, The Red Tree and The Rabbits – but have not been enamoured with his more recent releases, as good as they are, until this month when I was gifted his new book for speaking at a conference.

The Singing Bones (2015) is a work of art that will grace both children and adult lives, partly due to the content, long after some of his other books have been forgotten. One lingers over many of the images admiring their mysteriousness and then often turns back to check it out again a few minutes after moving on. It is a special book.

Tan explains the project at his webpage, telling us that his:

“…book features 75 sculptural works that I constructed and photographed between 2012 and 2015. They originally grew out of the German project Grimms Märchen, a retelling of 50 classic tales by Philip Pullman, published by Aladin in 2013…”

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The brief excerpts, episodes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, are perfect to interest young and old, regardless of how much one already knows of the story. The synopsis of each of the seventy five tales at the back of the book is a wonderful resource for keen young readers who wish to be further enthralled.

Read Philip Pullman’s introduction closely. He captures what so impresses about the sculptures Tan originally crafted for Pullman’s edition of the famous German fairy tales. It would be wonderful to see these sculptures in an exhibition but the photographs, in some  strange way, seem to make them even more otherworldly and perfect. Tan “was much inspired by Inuit stone carvings and pre-Columbian clay figurines” and you can read more about sculpture processes at his blog.

This book will be loved by English, Art and primary school teachers. There are endless ways the text could be employed with students, from 5-18 years of age, in many classroom contexts.

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“Forget family, or ethnic and religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe.” Tom McCarthy

Satin Island was shortlisted for the Man Booker this year. Tom McCarthy had me laughing aloud at his exploration of futility and repetition, which never feel like genuine ennui – although it probably should – as it is too intellectually interesting. Oddly, according to those who have heard me say this before, I always find writers writing about ennui uplifting and amusing. It gives me a little shudder of appreciation, a thrill of sorts to see someone rake over the darker coals of life. McCarthy should receive a special award for his contributions to this existential sub-genre.

I really loved this novel. Narrated by U, a “corporate anthropologist”, McCarthy is cerebral and although he has the most serious of topics to skewer is never feels terribly serious. His parodying is delightfully playful and light.

U’s doctoral thesis, about club culture in London, was successfully published which led to him being headhunted by an international consultancy firm, Peyman. Anthropologists are meant to keep a distance from their subjects but U does not follow the usual professional distinction between “field” and “home”. Effectively he spends a great deal of time clubbing to write his thesis. His ruminations about time spent at house venues – like the Ministry of Sound, Turnmills and Bagleys – may amuse many a doctoral candidate from 1990s London as he spends increasing amounts of time organising raves, using coded messages put out on pirate radio and sampling illicit substances. All this leads to U working for Peyman, unpicking “the fibre of a culture” with the intention of helping his client “get traction on this fibre so they can introduce into the weave their own, fine, silken thread…(to) sell their product.” 

There is a playfulness about the novel that is very intellectually engaging. U never really gets much done although he is always busy collecting clippings and pondering deeply on what he sees around him or just watching footage of spills for countless hours and seeing the beauty of this oil, coating birds and coastlines. U follows a story in the news about a parachutist who plunges to his death and looks for possible answers as to why. Was he murdered? Suicide? This image functions as a motif in the novel and some of the descriptions are very beautiful. His enjoyment of continental philosophy is particularly evident:

“The first move of any strategy of cultural production, he’d say, must be to liberate things – objects, situations, systems – into uselessness.”

U’s waking dreams, especially his plans for conference keynote presentations are very amusing. McCarthy’s insights into all kinds of contemporary madnesses incisive.

“Forget universities! he snorted, interrupting me again. These are irrelevant; they’ve become businesses – and not even good ones. Real businesses, though, he said, his hand describing in the air above his desk a circle that encompasses the whole building: these are the forge, the foundry where true knowledge is being smelted, cast and hammered out.”

I plan to read the novel again when I have time to investigate some of the “borrowings” McCarthy mentions in his note at the end of the book:

“Satin Island, like all books, contains hundreds of borrowings, echoes, remixes and straight repetitions. To list them all would take up as much space as the text itself. The critical reader can entertain him- or herself tracking some of them down, if he or she is that way inclined.”

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I imagine The Story of a New Name will be the last of Elena Ferrante‘s books I read (and I am not yet finished this second tome in the series). This does not seem like a good decision but it is the only one I can make and I acknowledge it is quite unfair.

Ferrante is original, writes dialogue insightfully and transports the reader back into the world of Naples last century brilliantly well. I should finish the series. The quality of the story and writing insists I do. However, I just find it all so suffocating. Ferrante is the victim of her own success and I just don’t want to head back into this carefully crafted expose, this world of women and convention, catholicism and misogyny. I just can’t do it!

The only thing that makes me hesitate…I know of little else that explores friendship in such an insightful, detailed manner…and friendship is the new black (NSFW).

More Books for English Teachers

‘Right, Whitbread. Read it out.’ ‘Fiction. Inven-ted state-ment or narra-tive, novels, stories collectiv, collectiv-ely collectively; Blimey.’ ‘Go on, have a go at it, lad.’ ‘Convent, convent-ion-ally, I know, conventionally accepted false-hood. Fic-tit-ious, fictitious, not genuine, imagin-ary, assumed.’

A Kestrel for a Knave* (1968) by Barry Hines is an English teacher’s kind of book and one that I have never read – although I have seen it in many book rooms and watched the highly acclaimed adaptation by Ken Loach – until this month. I have probably gotten around to reading it now as a result of all the books about raptors read recently; Helen MacDonald, JA Baker and TH White not least.

Set in a Northern mining town in the year of my birth, the protagonist Billy has a tough, unstable home life and is a petty thief with little formal education. Hines writes convincingly in the vernacular of the period and location; the story has a feeling of almost documentary realism (as does the film). I often found myself deeply affected and emotional especially at scenes in the classroom and at the bleak resolution.

Billy’s school teacher, Mr Farthing, is a sympathetic character who takes an interest in his student’s unusual hobby – falconry. Hines writes evocatively about the kestrel:

‘What I like about it is its shape; it’s so beautifully proportioned. The neat head, the way the wings fold over on its back. Its tail, just the right length, and that down on the thighs, just like a pair of plus-fours.’ He modelled the hawk in the air, emphasising each point of description with corresponding sweeps and curves of his hands. ‘It’s the sort of thing you want to paint, or model in clay.

It’s fierce, an’ it’s wild, an’ it’s not bothered about anybody, not even about me right. And that’s why it’s great.’

I had a Twitter conversation with the author of H is for Hawk, who feels it was possible for Billy to train his kestrel as quickly as suggested in the narrative.

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I am not sure that I would hand out A Kestrel for a Knave in 2015 to a class as a set text for study but any student who finds their way to the book will likely have it in their mind for many years to come.

*The novel is named after a poem found in the Book of St Albans. In medieval England, the only bird a knave was legally allowed to keep was a kestrel.

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‘In fact,’ I said, ‘maybe we could skip Christmas altogether. It’s just another stupid fake holiday created by capitalism to make us spend money on stuff we don’t need.’

‘Nope,’ said Hiro. ‘I’ve spent the past eleven years hating institutionalised learning. I don’t want to do any more.’

Green Valentine by Lili Wilkinson appeals to my prejudices and ideology. Environmentally conscious and largely suspicious about the motivations of corporations with some heady, philosophical concerns about a world where consumerism and has more sway than most other isms, the protagonist is unlike most teenage girls (or boys for that matter) I know. Astrid Katy Smythe would say the same thing about herself too compared to the other residents of Valentine:

“The problem with living in Valentine, was everything. Valentine was one of those in-between suburbs. It wasn’t old enough to be urban and interesting and full of artsy people wanting to reinvent it. And it wasn’t new enough to have had actual town planning with parks and wetlands and curvy streets lined with native trees. It was an ugly grey expanse of concrete, too far from the city to be convenient, and too far from the country to be pretty. The houses were all built in the sixties and seventies from asbestos, fibro and concrete. Most of the local shops had closed down after the big shopping mall opened –an enormous box filled with multinational brands and soul-sucking fluorescent lights. It was awful. Living in Valentine was like living in a bleak dystopian wasteland. The most colourful thing was the signs outside fast-food restaurants. The only greenery in the entire suburb was the football oval. Everything else was grey and dry and dusty. Our local council had distinguished itself by managing to achieve nothing in ten years other than embezzling a truckload of public funds, and had recently been impeached. So despite my endless petitions and letters, we had no bike paths, no electronic waste recycling scheme, no community gardens and no sustainability awareness programs. I’d heard rumours that our new mayor was more proactive, but I wasn’t holding out any hope.”

Astrid meets Hiro when she is protesting at the local mall dressed in “a giant lobster suit”. Many readers will find their banter amusing. The conversation allows many themes of interest to teenagers to be explored, including the challenge of relationships at high school. Astrid is very much a beautiful, motivated, straight A student and a member of the group of popular girls known as “Missolinis” by other kids. Hiro is a “stoner” even though he does not smoke at all. Their different perspectives are probably interesting to students:

‘Seriously, though,’ I said. ‘What will you do after high school?’ ‘Travel, I guess,’ said Hiro. ‘Read, think. Try and find some meaningful work that won’t send me crazy.’ I suddenly realised why he’d asked me about uni. ‘You’re not going to uni, are you?’

‘What would you do, if you could do anything in the world?’ I thought about it. ‘Do I have to choose just one thing?’ ‘Pick as many as you like.’ I smiled. ‘Everything,’ I said. ‘I want to be the first Greens prime minister. I want to head up an environmental science project team. I want to invent a new kind of clean energy. I want to protect wetlands from developers, and fragile ecosystems from resource-hungry corporations. I want to be a primary school teacher and an urban planner and a journalist and an awareness-raising rock star.’

I really enjoyed Green Valentine, as did my 12 year old daughter. It is probably best suited to students 14 years and older. Lili Wilkinson is an Australian author but it felt like the book was written with the international market in mind. There is little to identify it as an Australian school or characters, in fact, it feels very much an American novel for young teenagers.

There was some part of me that found the book too shiny and predictable. When I said to my daughter, would you know what I meant if I said the novel was a little like the fake Christmas trees and shopping malls it complains about? she said, “yes, it aint no Little Prince“.

The novel would undoubtedly make a great film but not much money, even if it was released one festive holiday season.

One new, one old but both of these book are likely to be beloved of English teachers for quite different reasons. Who will teach either or both next year?

 

Non fiction

“I believe in movement. I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world. I believe in midnight and the hour of noon. But what else do I believe in? Sometimes everything. Sometimes nothing. It fluctuates like light flitting over a pond.”

M Train by Patti Smith is exceptional – a real reader’s read. I really should have held off on it as an earlier, yet unread memoir, Just Kids, is on my Kindle awaiting attention but after dipping into a few pages at a cafe I could not put it down and devoured it in a single sitting while my daughter played board games (for what would have seemed an interminably long time without this book) at the local library with her friends.


flickr photo shared by Darcy Moore under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

“I’m sure I could write endlessly about nothing. If only I had nothing to say.”

Smith, who you know as the bohemian, punk rocker of Horses fame or as the original performer of Gloria, is the most literary of writers. You can sense she has spent her life inhabiting the lives and worlds of writers and books. I love how she pursues these worlds in her endless travels to remote places.

She is brilliantly able to take a moment or detail and make it imbued with much more meaning than one would imagine. Her prose is as pleasing to the reader as her breakfasts of coffee, brown toast olive oil seem to be to Smith (who is also a photographer and poet).

Smith is the most quotable of writers and can both reflect on nothing and turn it into something. She reminds me of Emily Dickinson.

“If I got lost along the way I had a compass that I had found embedded in a pile of wet leaves I was kicking my way through. The compass was old and rusted but it still worked, connecting the earth and stars. It told me where I was standing and which way was west but not where I was going and nothing of my worth.”

Highly recommended (especially as cafe reading).

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Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland follows the same trajectory as the 3 Unit Ancient History course I enjoyed for the HSC in the 1980s. I have read Tacitus and Suetonius so Holland’s book is pretty much a recount of that information. It is much appreciated, old-fashioned narrative history. Lets face it, no new sources are coming to hand any time soon about Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, C-C-Claudius or Nero so it is hardly surprising that the representations of each in this book are very familiar.

For those who know little of the Julio-Claudians, it is truly shocking to chart their depravities. For those, like me, who have not thought about the period much for a while it is truly remarkable to be re-acquainted with cruelty and absolute extremes of these first Roman emperors who had such ultimate power over life and liberty.

As a teenager, Caligula amused me endlessly as stories of his depravity and how he made his horse a senator or ordered the army to ‘pickup seashells’ just seemed so ludicrously impossible in a modern state. Now, I see it a little differently and can list a frightening number of more contemporary leaders from the last 100 years that were even more extreme in how they abused power. I am certain that our teacher thought the class’ interest in Caligula a little prurient but what 17 year old would not find these lessons about such a monster interesting?

Holland’s other book about Roman history, Rubicon, explores the period of the late Republic and is also highly readable. I would recommend both to fans of the period and those looking for an introduction.

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Keating by Kerry O’Brien is a very lengthy biography of the former treasurer and prime minister. I have about 100 pages left to read of 750 or so.

For those who viewed the four-part ABC television series, this book explores familiar territory but in more detail. From my perspective, Keating has been the most interesting of our more recent prime ministers but I am grappling with his ‘spin’. Keating says he will never write an autobiography but he has certainly spent the last two decades trying to explain and ensure his historical legacy.

Each chapter has an introduction by O’Brien which serves as an overview of the period to be discussed. Then there are questions that Keating answers. O’Brien challenges the responses; it is rare for Keating to agree with him or to accept the provocation. Keating does talk about his self-deprecating sense of humour but not much is on display throughout the book (or on the public record). He discusses at length Bob Hawke’s narcissism and egomania but rejects the criticism that they are peas in a pod. The reality is that it matters little who was the bigger megalomaniac and I buy into Keating’s assertions that he was all about policy rather than personality politics.

Keating talks about being an educator. He takes pride in having educated the press gallery, his colleagues and the citizenry about a raft of issues. Chief amongst these were economic matters and how he moved the ALP away from it’s historical policies regarding protectionism. This role as an educator also extended to Australia’s history and place in the world. I cannot think of too many politicians, in this country or others, who see themselves in this light.

I do find myself grappling with the fundamental nature of the historic record and interpreting it honestly. I always liked Keating, especially his Big Picture politics and cultural assertions about our place in Asia. Keating’s take on our history, whether it be Indigenous issues or his interpretations of WWI and II, I have always felt comfortable with – he was and is right about these issues.

However, I find it harder to accept that his economic policies, although they created great wealth, will be wonderful for our nation in the longer run of things. Basically, Keating allowed “the market” to run the place feeling that was the only reality that could be accepted if Australia was to become an exciting, economically progressive country that avoided the boom and bust cycles of our history. We seem to have incredibly high numbers of citizens, especially younger people, who seem likely to never have full time work or to be able to break in to the housing market now that Sydney, for example, is truly international city that a growing number of Australians cannot afford to reside.

Gough Whitlam was the first prime minister I remember. Both Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke loom large as the PMs during my primary and high schools days but Paul Keating was the first incumbent of the office I really thought (and read about). Recollections of a Bleeding Heart by Don Watson is a magnificent read and the fact Keating hates it (and his umbrage with his biographer is quite understandable) probably makes it a good balance with this new release about “the Placido Domingo of politics”. 

If you have watched the ABC TV series, you’d have to be a real enthusiast to read this massive tome. I almost have and am sure many more than one would expect will too. Keating is just too interesting and his changes too important for Australia for one to ignore.

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True Style: The History and Principles of Classic Menswear by G. Bruce Boyer is a great deal of fun. Learned and wise, literary and anecdotal, the stylish prose matches the ideas about traditional men’s fashion he espouses. Boyer has the unusual career path of having been a professor of English literature and a fashion magazine editor, usually, I would posit, mutually exclusionary positions which are hinted at in several passages:

I like to think of it as a sort of old-fashioned, dusty, professorial approach that coordinates easily with my love for porridge-thick tweed, old flannel, and rumpled linen. A low-keyed statement of the subtle ease and charm of tradition, a good mix of tat and chic. And amazingly enough, it actually seems to work very much in my favor. Sometimes I carry a few old books—hardcover of course, without dust jackets—around with me, anything faintly grubby and esoteric looking, to reinforce the impression that I’m studying something of mind-bending importance. I’ve found a satisfying form of one-upmanship is to rummage the index of one of them whenever someone takes out their latest high-tech device.

 

Boyer’s book is as interesting for those interested in history as fashion conscious. The text is sprinkled with trivia, much of it interesting. I never knew that ‘cravat’ basically means Croat (which is where this neckwear originated). Who would have expected, on commencing the book, that the author would explore optics:

There seems to be agreement that the first treatise on optics was written by an Arabian astronomer and mathematician named Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haitham, known in the English-speaking world as Alhazen. His seven-volume Treasury on Optics was completed in Egypt in 1021 and came to be known in the West after it was translated into Latin in 1240. Alhazen’s experiments were concerned with the properties of glass to make objects appear larger. This eventually led to glass and crystal balls being used as “reading stones” in the Middle Ages, a form of what later would be simply called a “magnifier.”

I found his section on glasses fascinating too:

Many über-fashionable folks, on the other hand, prefer small, round frames, which are a suitable accessory for a variety of homespun, weathered looks: nerd chic, vintage chic, prairie chic, heritage chic, utility workers chic, and of course preppy chic. Funnily enough, this more capriciously retro approach in spectacles seems to runs parallel with its opposite style—and this is so often the case with spectacles—the rimless, titanium, supersonic, high tech, wraparound speedster variety, sleek as a new Porsche.

I was not expecting any commentary on beards either but Boyer has this to say:

The subject of facial hair was for many years well understood: there wasn’t any. From just after World War I to the 1960s, the “business look” prescribed a clean-shaven face. Occasionally a man might try a mustache (think of film star Clark Gable for example), but beards of any sort were thought bohemian, the sort of thing you’d only see in New York’s Greenwich Village on Beatniks in the 1950s (think poet Allen Ginsberg, for example). We’ve loosened up a great deal since those restrictive days, and both beards and mustaches are a popular alternative to being clean-shaven.

As soon as I’d finished True Style I reached over to my “to  read” pile for a Christmas gift left half-read. The Philosophy of Beards (1854) by Thomas S. Gowing is both amusing and a little tedious. A light-hearted lecture from the mid-19th century, it has some really quotable quotes but is often a chore to read which is probably why it lay unfinished since I initially dipped into it on Christmas Day.

Published by the British museum, I note it graces a wide-range of shops (and online stores) where hairy men may shop.

‘The absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness.’

‘There is scarcely a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man. The Beard keeps gradually covering, varying and beautifying, and imparts new graces even to decay, by heightening all that is still pleasing, veiling all that is repulsive.’

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I continue to pursue Philip K. Dick and this following book is particularly interesting as the author has become a bestselling and critically acclaimed sci-fi author. The Novels Of Philip K. Dick (1984) is Kim Stanley Robinson‘s published, updated Ph.D thesis and it is a most thoughtful exploration of Dick’s work prior to the flood of film adaptations, except for Blade Runner, that followed the author’s death.

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I would suggest that a number of English teachers could make grand use of this quote with senior students:

“A literary genre is a grouping of conventional practices, which guide and limit writers when they write, and give readers a set of expectations when they read. All genres are mutable: they are born when writers transform and combine conventions from earlier genres; they change as writers adapt their conventions to particular needs; and they die when writers find them no longer useful, and readers find them no longer interesting. Indeed, it is from the body of works produced during these stable periods that writers, readers, and critics are able to abstract and articulate the central conventions that have been established.” 

Here’s what I have read in November and for the entire year. What is on your pile? What books do you want from Santa?

 

Featured image: flickr photo by Darcy Moore http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/22890104940 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

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