Saturday, 28 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

Island Home by Tim Winton

This book follows beautifully from the harrowing Blood on the Wattle I read last week. Tim Winton puts some salve on the wounds with his reflections on how he loves this land, and how deeply it has affected him.

The book came with me to Kanangra Boyd National Park on the weekend. 

He begins with the assertion that though we non-Aboriginals may not have a long history of connection to this wide, ancient land, we may be shaped by it more than we realise. He's not speaking of "Australia the Idea", which, he says, is just a vague political and social notion, but the physical land itself. 

"I'm increasingly mindful of the degree to which geography, distance and weather have moulded my sensory palate, my imagination and expectations. The island continent has not been mere background. Landscape has exerted a kind of force upon me that is every bit as geological as family." 
I found this comforting because though I'm a lover of our natural landscapes, I have sometimes felt, with my sun-sensitive skin and lack of knowledge of the land, that I don't truly belong here. Winton admits that us newcomers have been "like alien cells entering an organism", but we're here now and must find our own sense of connection to country. He suggests lyrically this may be by "submitting to its scale, acknowledging its irrepressible particularities, listening for its cryptic music and seeking to learn its ways".

On the topic of white invasion, Winton makes an interesting distinction when he says he feels ancestral shame for the way Aboriginals have been dispossessed of their land, but he does not feel guilt. He says we are not responsible for the culture we're born into, "but that doesn't mean we're absolved from reflecting upon our inheritance." This is an idea I haven't heard before and need to contemplate for a while.

The book is partly an unfolding, meandering essay on the important places in Winton's life, from the bush over the back fence in his Perth childhood to the rocky coves and surfspots of his Albany teenage years and the many trips he's taken as an adult. Each chapter provides insights into the source of the preoccupation with landscape that shines through in his novels.

Though at times I felt the book was lacking a bit of charge,  it gathered momentum and built up to the last glistening chapter. While acknowledging that those in power in our country are willfully blind to the call of ecology, Winton writes with a fragile optimism about a change coming through with younger generations. He  sees it as vital that we finally listen to our Indigenous people, whose wisdom is "the most under-utilised intellectual and emotional resource this country has" as a way forward. And on this he pins his hope for our land, that we finally accept this gift that has been offered and spurned for many decades.

This book inspires me on my journey to learn more.

[Thanks for the lend of the book Jo & Pete!]

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Sunday, 22 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

Blood On The Wattle by Bruce Elder

I normally read for pleasure. Even when I hope to learn from a book, I enjoy the reading and I enjoy what I'm learning about.

This book provided no enjoyment for me; it was sickening, harrowing and completely demoralising. But I'm glad I read it.

In recent months I've come to think that I need to take responsibility to learn more about Aboriginal Australians. I want to learn the history, I want to know about their customs and beliefs, I'd love to gain some understanding of the way they relate to the natural world. I expect this to be a long, slow journey, but I now believe that any sort of reconciliation in our country requires non-Aboriginals to take some steps - and this year I'm taking my first small steps.

Vincent Serico's 2002 acrylic dot painting, Kilcoy Massacre No. 2.

This book is subtitled "Massacres and Maltreatment of Australian Aborigines since 1788" (it was published in 1988 when "Aborigine" was still a commonly used term)  and it is primarily a factual account of many of the mass killings of Aboriginals by the British from the time of settlement until the early twentieth century. Elder uses his journalistic training to bring a mostly dispassionate tone to the book as he draws on sources such as letters, diaries and newspaper reports to relay each event. It is compelling writing, as he describes the landscape and the character of the people of the time. He hardly needs to use evocative language because the facts alone are enough to have a reader shaking to their core as he relates the details of massacre after massacre.

Before reading this book I had a vague knowledge that the Aboriginals had been mistreated, of course they had. But never before had I been confronted with the plain facts of how often, how widely, how brutally and how relentlessly they had been stripped of absolutely everything they held to be precious, and pursued across their own wide land. I was also unaware of how desperately they fought - to the limits of their ability - to hold onto their country. While I am still processing what I've read, I now feel I have a more clear-eyed understanding of our nation's recent history. We owe our history to murderous, devious cowards with guns.

Only in the introduction and conclusion does Elder provide a substantial commentary, and I found what he wrote to be heartfelt and appropriate. The final words are:

"The blood of tens of thousands of Aborigines killed since 1788, and the sense of despair and hopelessness which informs so much modern-day Aboriginal society, is a moral responsibility all white Australians share. Our wealth and lifestyle is a direct consequence of Aboriginal dispossession. We should bow our heads in shame."

Somber thoughts, and there were times when I was reading that I wondered if there was anything to be gained by learning of these atrocities, but I have a feeling we need to more fully face the darkness of our past if we are to move forwards as a unified country. Any thoughts?

Do you have any recommendations of other books I could read to help me along on my journey?

In a word or two: Horrific

Saturday, 14 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I rarely reread books, even old favourites. I've found it can be a disconcerting experience, like meeting up with a great old friend only to find the same vibe isn't there anymore. The book hasn't changed; each and every word is the same. But I'm not who I was when I first read it - I'm in a new place, I've grown and learned, so that what I at first found so exciting now seems a little dull.

I'm sure this isn't always the case, and that's why I took a chance this week and got out a book that I count as being amongst my most loved. My previous reading of Cannery Row was a magical experience. I spent a wonderful afternoon stretched on my back in Big Sur National Park, on the California coast, looking up through the branches of the redwood trees, reading this extraordinary tale which is set just up the road from my forested nook, in Monterey.

The book is small, it clocks in at only 135 pages. But it is packed with the most warm, loving descriptions of the ragtag collection of inhabitants of Cannery Row in Monterey - where the sardines were brought in and canned in the 1930s. There are the local hobos and squatters, the Chinese store owner, the fishermen, the residents of the brothel and at centre stage is the remarkable Doc:

"Doc is rather small, deceptively small, for he is wiry and very strong and when passionate anger comes on him he can be very fierce. He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth. It is said that he has helped many a girl out of one trouble and into another. Doc has the hands of a brain surgeon and a cool warm mind. Doc tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up at him and smile."

The tale has the innocence of an earlier time, though there are dark undertones handled with the delicate hand of a master writer. There's warm humour that stems from an author's glowing love of his characters, and the way they care for each other. Steinbeck has written some more famous epic long books, but this little gem shows how much feeling he can create in a short space.

I'm often a bit daunted by the big five hundred page books, (and they're extra weight to take on a hike), so I think the little novel might be about my favourite type of book. I'd be interested to hear about any other great ones I should read!

In a word or two: Warm

I kept up the tradition of reading this book in beautiful places by taking it with me down into the Grose Valley on a sunny Saturday. 

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Saturday, 7 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

Sky Dancer by Witi Ihimaera

I'm going to New Zealand for the first time this summer and I wanted to take the pulse of the place first by reading some Kiwi novels. This one is by the author who wrote The Whale Rider, on which the film of the same name is based. Sky Dancer follows a similar recipe, in the way it uses Maori mythology as a base from which to launch a contemporary adventure story. I'm not sure how much of the story uses real mythology, and how much is created by Ihimaera. 

Sky Dancer is all about an ancient battle between sea birds and land birds. A bird lover myself, some of my favourite passages describe the joyous bird calls in the forest:

"Below her the forest began to peal with the most extraordinary music. Snatches of descant. Bits and pieces of an indescribable tune. Fragments of other melodies drifting in on the playful morning wind... From every part of Manu Valley came birdsong, outpourings of liquid trills and runs swelling with unrivalled wildness and passion."    

The strong connection of the Maori people to their land, to the forest and to the creatures within is evident in the story. There's also plenty of Maori language scattered throughout - sometimes with translation, sometimes not - which I really enjoyed. Letting the unfamiliar sounds and syllables roll around my mind and off my tongue gave me some sort of insight into the Maori world.

"Welcome, waewae tapu! Welcome to the marae of nga kaka iwi." 

This is not A grade literature though. The characters are cartoonish and simple, the dialogue is clunky, the writing is loose with too many bad cliches, and the book is far too long. The battle scenes are spelled out blow by blow, and last for whole chapters. There were so many bits of weird slapstick comedy that I thought could have been written by a high school student:

Airborne and intent on the kill, Arnie didn't give a shit. "Use it or lose it, Kawanatanga," he said. "Nothing's fair in love and war. Time for you to go. Hasta la vista, baby." 
I didn't know what to make of a passage like this:
"Arnie glared down. Contemptuously, he turned his bum to Kawanatanga and delivered his message. A long white string of crap arced through the air, splattering Kawanatanga and the sacrificial victim, who still shuddered in her death throes." 

Ihimaera is far from a high school student. He is a former diplomat and now lectures in creative writing and literature at the University of Auckland. So I guess that his style of writing is intentional, and perhaps even grows from a Kiwi sense of humour.

I found it painful reading, but it got me thinking. Most of the books I read are written by white males, and I bring my own white male perspective to what I read. History has shown that white males have an unfortunate tendency to think their own way is superior to all others. Who says that the criteria I use to judge what is quality literature is valid? Perhaps Ihimaera's writing connects with the audience he is writing for. I suppose the books I love would be despised by that audience.

Having said all that, while I appreciate the exposure to Maori mythology and language, I couldn't get past my tastes and preconceptions so that I found this book barely readable.

In a word or two: he toharite moka (a bit average)

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Monday, 2 November 2015

I've been reading lately...

 On Writing by Charles Bukowski

The only previous work I’d read of Charles Bukowski was his famed novel, Post Office, and when borrowing it the librarian said it was the most frequently stolen book in their catalogue. After getting to know Bukowski, it’s easy to see why.

He incites mayhem.

Bukowski was a writer. Of poems, short stories and novels. “If you chopped off my hands, I’d type with my feet” he says. 

On Writing is a collection of his letters to friends, editors and other writers from early in his life in 1945 until just before his death in 1994. The letters selected are those in which he talks of his writing career, his method and inspiration for writing, or shares his opinion on other writers. The book is a glimpse in to the life of an alcoholic living in poverty, as he develops into an alcoholic living in notoriety achieved through his outrageous writing.

He wrote through the years, he says, “not because I was so good but because they [all other writers] were so bad, including Shakespeare.”

In his letters he conjures images of magic and mischief to cut to pieces the madness he saw everywhere, and writes with ragged warmth of the many nameless women walking in and out of his door, his love of the racetrack, his love of drinking, and most of all his love of - his dependence on - writing.

“Sometimes I’ve called writing a disease. If so, I’m glad that it caught me. I’ve never walked into this room and looked at this typewriter without feeling that something, somewhere, some strange gods or something utterly unnameable has touched me with a blithering, blathering luck that holds and holds and holds. Oh yes.”

 Bukowski hated the pretense he saw in other writers, saying he could learn more about life from talking to garbage collectors and hobos than from hanging in the hip writers' circles.

“I do not believe in techniques or schools or sissies. I believe in grasping at the curtains like a drunken monk and tearing them down, down, down...”

He thought there were too many bad writers, and most of them had lived no sort of life at all. Writing of a critic who had given him a bad review, Bukowski says:

“Don’t think he ever missed a meal or broke a leg or got pissed on by a whore or ever slept on a park bench and so forth. Not that these things are necessary, they happen, but when they do you tend to think a bit differently.”

For me, he gets away with his bombast because, like a crazy uncle, he's damn funny.

"Say you call a plumber nowadays. He'll come over with his pipe wrench in one hand, his plunger in the other and a small chapbook of his selected madrigals in one of his asshole pockets. Even see a kangaroo in the zoo, he'll eye you and then pull a sheath of pomes from his pouch, typewritten, single-spaced on waterproof 8 and one half by eleven." 

I loved this book for two reasons. Firstly, it was inspiring to read of a man who believed down to his bones in what he was doing.  Me, I'm always hedging my bets, giving something a go and then quitting if it doesn't work out. Bukowski submitted work for year after poverty-stricken year to tiny literary journals because he knew it was his life's work, and this inspires me to give myself more fully to the paths my life is taking. It had me asking what cause have I ever really sweated over?

Secondly, the man writes like there's a malicious demon perched snickering on his shoulder. The letters are strewn with phrases sharp and cutting as slivered glass. The book has a swing and a rhythm that had this middle class, white-boy primary school teacher walking with a swagger and thinking of stealing a sack of library books.

In a word or two: Outrageous

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