Monday, December 29, 2008

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2008, Part Fifteen: Lucy Sussex

Lucy Sussex:

2008 as an Antipodean arts consumer? A bit of a blur. I tend not to buy music myself, as these days it comes through the door courtesy of the resident record collector. And most of the films are forgotten, with the exception of the totally unrecommended Towelhead (I walked out around the time of the second sexual assault) and Australia, which I just saw. Hmn. Firstly it is an exercise in genres—comedy turns into western turns into war story with the bombing of Darwin, then race relations melodrama. Secondly, the Australian Tourist Commission must have been leaning heavily on the producers, hoping for the hobbit goldmine New Zealand gained from the Lord of the Rings. Thirdly, it’s only a story, and the historical accuracy is never allowed to get in the way of filmic conventions. Fourthly, it’s made for the overseas markets. Fifthly, Nicole is not as bad as she’s painted. If you want better films about Australian indigenes, try The Rabbit-Proof Fence, or Ten Canoes.

As regards books, here followeth an assortment, stuff I liked, which should be readily available via your friendly internet terminal.

Best anthology

James Doig, ed.

The Gothic was the predominant literary form as Australia was settled, and it took to the new land with an eldritch vengeance. Doig is an archivist, and his selection is full of pleasures. Possibly the most striking story is Marcus Clarke’s “Cannabis Indica,” a nightmare reverie that despite the name was written under the influence of opium. Elsewhere Fergus Hume, best known for the pioneering crime bestseller The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), shows a deft hand at the comic with a Banshee in the now touristy Queenstown, NZ. Vampires, ghosts and werewolves all figure, but the predominant motif is the hidden guilt behind colonization, the fear of the indigenous supernatural. Enjoy! Available from

Best biographical writing

J. G. Ballard
Fourth Estate

In the 1960s, the major writer of Britain’s New Wave was a single father living in suburbia. J. G. Ballard’s wife had died suddenly, leaving him with three young children to raise. So he penned his poetic, dark visions of the future after (a) getting the kids to school in the morning (b) a Scotch. His children, not his works, are the miracles of his title. Another miracle was Ballard as a child surviving internment by the Japanese, which gave rise to Empire of the Sun, his most famous book. The first part of this autobiography revisits that time, formative for Ballard the acute, dispassionate observer. His fiction and his memoir are both marked by coolness of tone; he is not a cold man, just an odd one. On the whole he does not like other authors and he observes himself and his writing with neither pity nor egomania. Typical is his observation that his friend Kingsley Amis was an acute fiction judge, who nonetheless “disliked a good part of my later writing.” At the end of the book Ballard notes that he is dying of cancer. Even then he avoids self-pity, being gracious, almost cheerful about his impending dissolution.

Jill Roe
4th Estate

Some may know Miles Franklin from the Australian classic film of My Brilliant Career, based on her New Woman debut novel. Her life was like—and unlike—the novel. In the Australian bush, where she was born, women were mothers, wives, and helpmeets. To wish for anything else was eccentric and unnatural; to actually achieve it nigh impossible. My Brilliant Career made her name as a young woman author, but the Australian literary market was small. Earning a living from writing meant living overseas, tragic for a writer whose attachment to home was total. She worked for American women’s organizations, struggled with a follow-up novel, and avoided an easy and risky surrender to marriage. From our perspective her life was unimaginably hard, but her courage blazed like a bushfire. She worked as a nurse in WW1, returned to Australia, and found new writing life via a male pseudonym. Jill Roe’s biography has been some twenty-five years in the making, and is worth the wait. It presents a full and engrossing account of a talented and exquisitely contradictory personality: a gifted writer, of letters and novels; a delightful personality; a Nationalist; and perhaps most significantly, an independent woman

Best essays

Michael Chabon

“Chabon,” said the reader, “is a writer who can do whatever he likes.” Including violating a border as tightly policed as any Chinese Olympiad, that between literary and genre fiction. This collection of essays begins with a quotation from Herman Melville, on fan fiction. Really? Read it and see. Maps and Legends reads like a breath of fresh air, being intelligent and audacious. At its (big) heart is Chabon’s sheer enjoyment of literature, and the writing of it. He deplores the contemporary novel as an exercise in disenfranchising the reader, where arty words and dull characters are expected to carry the plot. Why should storytelling be banished to genre? he asks. This book ranges from Sherlock Holmes to Walter Benjamin to McCarthy’s The Road, which Chabon fruitfully reads as horror. It also contains some of the best autobiographical essays on the writing process that I have ever read.

Best non-fiction

Sudhir Venkatesh
Allen Lane

Sociology has been responsible for some of the driest texts in known space. This book is an exception, as sociologist Venkatesh has the acute eye of an investigative journalist. As an Indian immigrant and complete outsider he could venture into the toughest parts of Black Chicago and survive. It helped to be a “Brown” man, something which intrigued crack gang leader JT. He protected Venkatesh, who thus gained entrée into a hidden world. His subjects, people largely abandoned by US society, lived in a black economy, a mixture of violence, street-smarts, and co-operation. Gangs did favors for preachers and youth workers and expected favors in return. Venkatesh documents a milieu that was dangerous, rough, but bound together by community spirit.

Best crime fiction

Graham Hurley

Among the very best crime writers is Graham Hurley. His milieu is Portsmouth, but his broader concern is modern England. Hurley has two sleuths, Faraday, detective inspector and bird-watcher, and DC Winter, a rough and unorthodox cop. Within a short space of time a property developer dies in an apparent gangland execution, and a government minister is assassinated by terrorists. The two cases show an almost forensic efficiency, but does that alone mean a link? Hurley’s major target is the devastation wrought by Thatcherism, which ten years of Labour government has failed to fix. When those in power worship market forces and hate community, it is hardly surprising that their enforcers—the police—suffer. Consequently burnt out and bitter, they are prey to the temptations of the dark side. Powerful stuff.

Phillip Gwynne

A key feature in crime fiction since the Mysteries (of London, of Paris, even of Melbourne) genre is the importance of place. Gwynne, who made his mark initially as a writer for younger readers, innovates now in his Darwin setting. Here be fringe-dwellers, the disaffected, and a milieu strongly tinged with the Asian. The title refers to the period prior to the Monsoon rains, a time of climatic and social tension. Detective Dusty, a maverick female cop, finds it a busy time for crime as well. A body appears, then disappears from a billabong. The possible culprits include a serial killer or an activist group of Vietnam veterans. So a chase begins, amongst a rich cast of characters, including bird-watchers, and a pot-bellied pig. The humor is quick, but rarely judgmental. The Build-Up is a first crime novel which heralds the start of a fine police procedural series. Sample prose: ‘The Chick Cop/Bloke Cop routine was based on a very simple psychological premise—men don’t like women telling them what to do. Once again it’d worked a treat.”

Science fiction

Charles Stross

Charles Stross can write the hard technology, but also has a winning sense of humor. Halting State is a techno-crime story, using a device much favored by William Gibson—alternate narrators who will eventually converge. Small wonder Gibson was asked for a blurb, for once accurate: extremely smart fun. Sue is a Scottish uniformed cop; Jack a computer programmer; and Elaine an auditor with a fondness for role-playing games. They all investigate a very strange robbery: in a virtual world, a bank heist is performed by orcs and a fire-breathing dragon. While Halting State uses the thriller format, its object entertainment, the book also speculates and educates. In an era where so much is reliant upon computer networks, Stross asks what happens when spycraft spills into the virtual world. Will warfare follow? The book contains much serious thought about the future of network security, gift-wrapped in a package including murder and sword-fights.

Best Travel

Rachael Weiss
Allen & Unwin

I admit I approached this book with faint groans: the sub-genre of Bridget Jones travel books can be cringe-making. What makes Weiss’s work different is its total honesty and that a search for family history/identity underlies it. When she found herself forty, with a sense of carpe diem, it was her Czech background she seized. She had already published one travel book, and now she thought she might, in Prague, write a novel. She didn’t, but this book resulted. It details an alien life, of a country used to invasion, with a distinctive pragmatic black humor. Buildings vary between picture postcard and Soviet shoddy, and the typical response to a stranger is rudeness. Weiss went through stages of loneliness, hanging out with expats, and family reunions without a language in common. When her money ran out, she left—and found herself missing Prague. The book is warm, and wittily observed: Weiss didn’t find a great love, except of motherland.

Ian Klaus
Hodder & Stoughton

For an American to teach English and his country’s history in Iraq seems now foolhardy. But Klaus was young and in Kurdistan, where Gulf War II was less problematic. At Salahaddin University he would teach people whose lives were blighted by Saddam Hussein’s regime. They in turn would teach him. Klaus was a Rhodes Scholar, idealistic, and insular in a very American way. He taught Martin Luther King, Lincoln, the good and the bad about his country. His students, diverse and smart, ranged from Islamists to entrepreneurs. They quizzed him about US motives, and thus a dialogue opened up—about the complexities of history, and where cultures meet. While Klaus’s students might disagree with him passionately, it was always with respect. He made friends and created links.

Best History

Giles Milton

The city of Smyrna (now Turkish Izmir) was a cool place in the early 1900s. The coffee and food were good, and a multicultural mix of Turks, Jews, Armenians and Greeks co-existed without rancour. Its geography, between West and East, would ultimately doom it—and the ending was savage. Milton paints a broad canvas here, with characters as diverse as a wily and tolerant Turkish governor, wealthy English expatriates, and a mild-mannered American YMCA worker, Asa Jennings. He needs the epic mode, for a clash of empires is depicted here. WWI saw the end of the Ottoman empire, and the hope of a resurgent Greek one, the Megali idea. The Greek army invaded, with dreams of an Anatolian province, but were defeated by Ataturk. His army burnt the city, trapping refugees between an inferno and European ships—who were neutral and would not intervene. Jennings did, and saved hundreds of thousands. An extraordinary if grim read.

Best Science

Jim Endersby

This book is cultural history applied to science. The theme is the development of biology and how we came to understand the complex system of animals and plants around us. Endersby takes apparently insignificant organisms, from weeds to the titular cavy, and explains how they have enriched our knowledge. His focus is not on divine inspiration, but hard teamwork. As he writes, “the ideas of science come second, in every sense, to the work of science.” It is a collaborative, sharing enterprise, and few have worked harder for it than the experimental plants and laboratory animals. The guinea pig has contributed to no less than 23 Nobel prizes, which should earn the species a gong of its own. Small things, Endersby shows, have big consequences: the repeal of the English tax on glass led to Charles Darwin’s greenhouse and the plant observations in the Origins of Species. He is clear-eyed, but not wide-eyed about science, recognizing the ethical problems of vivisection and OncoMouse. A fascinating read.

Best Music

Time Out
Ebury Press

Music is the soundtrack to many lives, but finding the good stuff among the dueling guitars can be difficult. Hence this book, in which 30 extremely well-informed essayists and guest artistes like Bjork discuss some 1500 songs. Also scattered through the pages are rewinds, extracts from Time Out’s formidable archive of interviews. Not all of the content is from the rock canon. An essay titled “Better the Devil” concerns Opera baritones, who get some of the best roles and songs; we also get a section on jazz improvisation. Some juxtapositions are cheeky, with the “Countdown to Ecstacy” section dealing with Disco, Drugs and Gospel, the connection being altered states of mind and body. Some content is predictable, as with the top ten of drinking songs. And some is provocative, as when Colin Irwin argues that Death Metal and Hip Hop are pussycats compared with the moral depravity in folk song lyrics.

Best Novel (Mainstream)

Mavis Cheek

Amenable Women is a slyboots of a novel. The cover suggests yet another Tudor historical, but between the pages is a story of parallel lives. Flora is the plain widow of a dashing egomaniac; Anne, properly Anna of Cleves, was the famously “plain” fourth wife of psychopathic King Henry VIII. Alone of all his wives she escaped a dire end, with a generous divorce settlement and the respect of her royal stepchildren. Clearly she had brains. That Flora’s husband, in an unfinished local history, dismissed Anna as much as he did his wife is the impetus for this story. In a decorous revenge, Flora sets out to finish the history and rehabilitate Anna. Her hope is to rehabilitate herself, though her obstacles are less formidable. The book toys with magical realism, as when Flora interrogates Anna’s glorious Holbein portrait, perhaps not with complete success. The real gems of this novel are the wry observations, which can make you smile several times a page. And the sense of character, as people maneuver and manipulate so vividly they almost step off the page. At the end Flora is her own mistress, her house and income to herself, as was the case with Anna of Cleves.

Best Religion

Michael Bachelard

“You can always tell a cult from a religion,” says Karen Joy Fowler. “A cult is just a set of rules that lets certain men get laid.” Such is the case in the first chapter of this book—and the resultant sex scandal is still vehemently denied by the Exclusive Brethren. There is much denial detailed here, which is one of the most sober and well-argued exposés I have ever read. For most, the Brethren were an inoffensive religious group, notable only for the women’s headscarves. That attitude changed with the revelation of their political meddling, particularly rich for a sect that does not vote. Perhaps the nadir was their hiring of a private detective in New Zealand, to smear Prime Minister Helen Clark’s husband as gay. However, this book details less sordid but equally nefarious practices. Perhaps worst is the Brethren’s technique of social control, in which members are policed with the threat of exclusion. Such practice has caused custody havoc, as an excluded member’s family will be torn apart. Bachelard reveals the Brethren’s God as Mammon, their behavior as that of schoolyard bullies, and their Christianity all about self-love.

Best fashion

Nina Garcia
Collins Living

Fashion writing has always been prescriptive, since its buying power lies in making women feel insecure. Project Runway judge Garcia’s approach is less bossy than, say, Trinny and Susannah. In this book, as in her earlier The Little Black Book of Style, the emphasis is on finding the look that suits you, rather than the red-hot fashionable. Here she considers classic items, wardrobe essentials. Some of these are predictable, such as the trench coat, and some hardly dress at all, such as champagne and iPod. The little black dress appears, but also the little white dress. The illustrations by Ruben Toledo are fun, and as Garcia says, you should always self-edit.

Best True Crime

Lisa Clifford

Writer Lisa Clifford married into an Italian family and fell in love with her in-laws’ stories. One of the most dramatic was a murder mystery. In 1907 her husband’s great grandfather was murdered in the mountains of Tuscany. The police were never involved, and nobody was ever brought to justice. Why? Wondered Clifford, as Tuscany is not a Mafia area. She investigated the cold case, unearthing the story behind the crime. What emerges reads like more of a social realist novel, as she details the stories of those involved. The victim, Artemio, was a peasant farmer, working as a sharecropper on another’s land. From dawn to dusk he and his family labored, with even the small children working, guarding livestock. With so little to share, envies arose and could turn murderous. Clifford describes a life far removed from today’s Tuscany and its holiday villas. Here is Italian peasant cookery, as it is not in glossy cookbooks: dictated by the seasons, and with the specter of starvation always present. And she solves the murder, too.

Best Post-colonial and Women’s History

Clifton Crais & Pamela Scully

This biography faced a formidable job of research, in resurrecting a highly influential but forgotten colonized woman. Sara Baartman was born on the South African frontier and lived from the 1770s–1815. She was a Khoekhoe (then known as Hottentot), who found Eureopean fame in an ethnographic freak show. Because she was steatopygous, she was displayed in “traditional” garb, near-naked in Northern hemisphere cold. As the “Hottentot Venus,” she attracted discourses of race, gender, and sexuality, most of it using her difference as evidence of inferiority. Anti-slavery activists tried to make an issue of her, but her exoticism was too powerful a commodity. As was the agenda of scientists who wanted her as a link between human and animal. When she died, from the cold, her body continued to be exhibited—it would only return to South Africa for burial in 2002. Faced with such a complex but unknowable subject, the authors refrain from putting words into Sara’s mouth. Rather they reconstruct her life and times, placing her in context. Sara bore at least three babies, all of whom died, she worked as a servant, was fluent in Dutch, and adapted to changing circumstances with courage and dignity. A remarkable story.

Best Cookbook (for non-vegetarians)

Adrian Richardson with Lucy Malouf
Hardie Grant

For chef Richardson, being a carnivore is perfectly natural, provided you respect the animal that died for your dinner. His first cookbook aims to teach the reader about quality meat meals. So I sent out an SOS to the Barbeque Blokes, connoisseurs of blackened meat and good grog. A couple of serious girl cooks came too. The terrine was pronounced tasty, though the recipe got nitpicked: “What size onion?” “Does smoky bacon mean streaky?” and “How do you get the b--- terrine out of the mould?” The barbecued kangaroo was found to be divine, and the pork ribs were good, even though one step was accidentally missed. The salad and beetroot jam recipes were fine too. Direct quote from a happy attendee: “It’s good enough I’d like it for Christmas!”

Lucy writes science fiction and young adult fiction; she's also a scholar of Australian literary history. (She knows a lot about 19th-century Australian pulp mysteries and the women and men who wrote them.) She's edited four anthologies (including She's Fantastical, which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award) and is the author of Scarlet Rider, a novel that combines crime, Victoriana, and the fantastic. Aqueduct published her collection, Absolute Uncertainty in 2006.

1 comment:

Jim Endersby said...

I'm delighted that you enjoyed Guinea Pig so much. I'll be in Sydney, talking about Darwin mostly, in March (see my website for details), so perhaps we'll bump into each other?

Best wishes, Jim Endersby