Archive for October, 2008

I’m almost embarrassed to write about this book because I finished it way back at the beginning of the year. So much for wanting to remember the things I read. I took it with me to the beach over summer — funny holiday reading perhaps, but it’s a satisfying, pithy and comprehensive book, a great example of Text Publishing’s quick-response, issue-based publishing (see also Henson Case, The).

There are seven chapters, each by a different author addressing a fraught facet of the war in Iraq. Gaita has arranged them in a simple, intuitive order, beginning with Robert Manne’s breakdown of relevant events, progressing through Hilary Charlesworth’s mindful assessment of the legality of the war, and ending rather chillingly with Mark McKenna’s chapter called ‘Howard’s Soldiers’. Though the viewpoints range in the angle taken, the overall tone rather leans towards emphatic, which is not surprising given the take-no-prisoners title.

Why the War was Wrong served an important purpose for me in that it brought together arguments on a state of current affairs in an accessible and coherent way. Much broader and deeper in coverage as a whole than newspapers and even the essays singly, it was a much-needed platform from which to ascertain the nature of my own unease about Iraq.

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(Picture also includes evidence of my weekend lifestyle magazine habit. I’m totally busted.)

Okay, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. There’s a new highly coveted prize in town: the 3000 Books Book of the Month. Yes, that’s right.

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How do you feel about that? I feel pretty good about it.

Anyhow, this book blew my mind and then some. Konrad Lorenz was the post-Hugh Lofting Dr Dolittle, an ethologist whose house was besmirched by the droppings of birds, monkeys and dogs alike. Lorenz had a blessed combination of curiosity, patience and skill which enabled him to observe and comprehend the activities of animals. Not only that, in King Solomon’s Ring he relates them with such humour and gentle enthusiasm that you’re a fair way to being as in love with him as the jackdaw who tried to feed Lorenz with mealworm goo.

King Solomon’s Ring is so readable because, as well as possessing a charming and occasionally distinctly German turn of phrase (“You have got a chaffinch, he is lovely and sings well.”), Lorenz is a genius at describing animals with reference to human behaviour. Thus, the war-dance of the male fighting fish, probably perceived by the regular Joe as a mere watery wriggle, takes on the significance of Homeric lay. It is an honest-to-God page turner, and I can’t recommend it any more highly. I even used ‘jewel font’.

October 27, 2008

No book review today i’m afraid. I just got back from a lovely dinner at the City Wine Shop. But here’s a link to tide you over — my writing is going to appear in Story To… a Melbourne publication clawing the eyes out of MX with its independence and goodheartedness. Another exciting thing happened on the weekend, something to do with books — 50 of them! (look at the side panel for clues.)

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A quick glance at the author biography tells me all I need to know about Kate Constable, i.e. that she’s a woman after my own heart for sure. Growing up, Constable loved Greek myths and knew nothing about football. I think we even went to the same school and university. Like me, she did an Arts/Law degree but unlike me she lived in Papua New Guinea, worked at a record company and married her boss.

I’m no stranger to Constable’s work (nor to the funny feeling I get when referring to someone as ‘Constable’) or the young adult female heroine fantasy genre (YAFHFG?). The Taste of Lightning is a premium example of both. Tansy, Perrin and Skir are three young people brought together by political intrigue and magic. By all rights, they shouldn’t be in the same place, let alone become travelling mates–their respective homelands are at war, and they come from wildly differing backgrounds. But between each other they find enough respect, skill and attraction to make a fist of helping Skir, a red-headed Priest-King, return to the Cragonlands.

Lightning is a wonderful book, with a spectacular hammer-home ending that reveals secrets of all kinds. The book smells of build-up, and I can’t find anything about it on her website but I would assume there will be a series of two or three.

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October 21, 2008

Bigger is not always better, nor is newer…except in the case of my long overdue hardback copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which thankfully supercedes my 1960s version picked up in a second-hand joint some time ago. Courtesy (inasmuch as courtesy can be paid for, which of course is quite a lot) of Book Depository, which will be on the list St. Peter will hold up with one hand while wagging his finger at me with the other. But also…

…don’t fret, I only bought the top two today. I bought Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy (book club) and David Crystal’s How Language Works (editorial cred?) about six weeks ago, but today I ponied up $18.10 (RMIT staff discount!) for Delta of Venus (sentimental value) and Dark Star Safari — research for Estelle’s December-January Africa trip (should have a catchier name by now).

There should really be a ban on parentheses soon, but I’m a messy thinker, so I’m afraid they will stay put for now.

‘Count Robert,’ Koroviev whispered to Margarita. ‘An equally interesting character. Rather amusing, your majesty…he was the queen’s lover and poisoned his own wife.’
‘We are delighted, Count,’ cried Behemoth.
One after another three coffins bounced out of the fireplace, splitting and breaking open as they fell.

When the Devil comes to town, he doesn’t hold back. Don’t let the patronymics put you off–the wicked games of The Master and Margarita can be enjoyed on as many levels as Moscow contains arms and legs. In what may rightly be called his masterpiece (don’t ask me, it’s the only one I’ve read), Bulgakov puts plenty under the microscope, from the entitlement-as-desperation of the Russian middle class to the insularity of the literary establishment.

To begin, a strange outsider, Woland, engages two Russian gentlemen in a seemingly harmless Socratic dialogue. Not much later, one is dead and the other is headed for the asylum. It seems obvious that this diabolical dude is not who he says he is. Meanwhile, the Master is in the same asylum, a deflated but likeable man who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate. Excoriated by the press at the height of Russia’s enthused embrace of atheism, he has retreated from life and his lover, Margarita. Many tricks that are much more than tricks ensue.

Bulgakov plays with traditional ideas of the good/evil dichotomy. Devil Woland, with his anarchic tricks and playful entourage, resembles no-one more than the trickster god Loki. If Bulgakov reconstitutes the Devil as a trickster, he posits Jesus as a philosophical human, albeit one with the power to enchant for millenia. The Master’s novel forges an anastomosis between the eras of New Testament Jerusalem and Stalinist Moscow, as well as an accord between the forces of good and evil that is balanced yet ineffable. It is in the nature of good and evil that true understanding of them should be elusive, and so the most enduring impression left by this novel is its reverence for integrity in literature: as much as the hijinks and high historical drama are the dream of a repressive political regime, they are also the triumphant and enduring product of a writer exorcising his demons.

October 17, 2008

Last night was the final Melbourne Uni book club meeting for the year. The book was The Master and Margarita, which I found tough to talk about. I enjoyed it a lot, and a review will be up next week, but I’m not so up with my Russian history. I hate feeling like I’m missing out on something.

After book club we went for dinner at Tiamo 2, and I told Anna that I was almost up to 50 books for 2008 (I am!). She asked me what my favourite book this year was, and I had to say that I rarely induct a book into my favourites. I think favourite books stopped accumulating when I turned 17. Obviously, I enjoy books. But these days I have a pretty diffuse, indulgent pleasure in all the books that I read. Because of course, I’m the one choosing a book, I can put it down if I don’t like it. But am I the only one? Do you permit new books to latch on, heart-side?

To take us out this week, from The Onion: oh dear. Not really book related, but short and distrubingly relatable (the secrets of my socially inept self are revealed). Happy weekend!

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