Monthly Archives: January 2010

White Rabbit revisited

Yesterday we visited The Tao of Now, the new exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale, and had a very good time. The wonderful bright red pig car whose tongue soars to the ceiling and has another, golden pig and two other figures hanging from its tip – that and other pieces that were in the foyer previously are still there, but the three upper floors have had a complete makeover and the works are as fresh and surprising as the last lot.

As we were chatting over a display catalogue of Qin Fengling’s work, a tall silverhaired woman with a chihuahua on her arm (‘He will bite,’ she said later) joined our conversation, saying, ‘We have her red piece, though not in this exhibition.’ She flipped through the pages and showed us the piece she meant, and then went on to say that the Guggenheim had been interested in it, but she’d beat them to it because she didn’t have to secure a committee’s approval.

Aware of my solemn responsibility as blogger cum citizen journalist, and sharp as a tack as always, I said, ‘You must be … the owner.’ Those three dots represent the moment in which the name ‘Judith Nielson’ didn’t get past the tip of my tongue. She didn’t seem to mind. ‘Not the building,’ she said. ‘That’s my husband. But yes, I own the artworks.’

We chatted for a couple of minutes (there were five or six of us in the room – that citizen journalist thing was definitely a joke), and she said something that explained part of the appeal of the gallery: ‘I never buy something because of the explanation. If I need to read about a work to be able to enjoy it I’m not interested in acquiring it. But once we’ve bought it and have it back here, we have a whole machinery that swings into action to fill in the background.’ and it’s true: whether it’s the motorbike and sidecar crocheted out of bright blue wire, the interactive screens based on classic Chinese watercolour scrolls, or the giant painting of a headless Mongol archer looking out over Tien an Minh square, the works in this exhibition grab the attention first, ask questions later. It’s a bonus that there are attendants on every floor who are keen to raise and answer the questions.

I don’t suppose Ms Neilson and her tiny, dangerous dog are always there, but clearly they sometimes are, as an extra special bonus.

Bloom & Blair’s Islam

Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair, Islam: A thousand years of faith and power (Yale Nota Bene 2002)

I bought this book some years ago in the hope of finding some insight into how a religion that has sustained so many people for so long over such a geographic and cultural range could be used to justify the barbarity of suicide bombings and videoed beheadings. Since I don’t have much insight into how Christianity or Judaism can be used to justify mass murder either, and I’m already reasonably familiar with at least some parts of the former, maybe I should have expected my hope to be dashed, but it springs eternal, and trust in book-learnin’ is hard to shake.

The authors’ expertise, and presumably their passion as well, lie in Islamic art. This book was written to accompany a US television series, and despite its self-described aim as ‘to help Americans – of whatever and even no religion – understand the religion and culture of another place and time’, what it actually does is to provide background, to tell the grand, sweeping narrative of the beginnings, growth and spread of Islam in its first thousand years, with an inevitable emphasis military conquests and defeats, political struggles and religious strife, with a couple of welcome chapters on the flourishing of science and poetry between 750 and 1200 CE. The succession of dynasties and ruling elites – Abbasids, Barmakids, Chaghatayids, Fatimids, Ilkhanids, Mamluks, Mughals, Ottomans, Seljuqs, Umayyads – is as bewildering and at times as dull as the begats of Genesis.

I’m not complaining. In fact I wish I’d read the book 50 years ago as a supplement and antidote to the Eurocentric version of world history I received in my schooling. It’s bracing to read the stories, even in broad outline as here, of people and places that I know mainly as elements of  Orientalist decor: Saladin of the curly-toed shoes becomes Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub; Suleyman (isn’t that the guy from Lord of the Rings? – yes, I’m that ignorant) ruled the Ottoman Empire for 46 years, Marlowe’s Tamberlaine the Great becomes Timur, a Great Mongol conqueror; Samarkand, Timbuktu, Xanadu all existed outside romantic poems and fantasy literature. Many things I have assumed to be creations of Western culture are in fact borrowed from the Islamic world: romantic love I already knew about, but x as a way of representing an unknown in maths was news to me; The Divine Comedy wouldn’t have existed if Dante hadn’t read in translation popular Arabic stories of Muhammad’s mystical journey to heaven.

I’d just finished the book when I heard Ramona Koval on The Book Show with James Delgado talking about his Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet. As Ramona, helping out her audience by displaying her own real or pretend ignorance, wrestled with the difference between Khubilai Khan and Genghis Khan, I realised how glad I am to have read Bloom and Blair’s book. If I had read it 50 years ago, when my memory was much more retentive,  I might have emerged from it knowing who all those people were. As it is, I can expect the names to ring some kind of bell, and I’ll know where to look for a quick rundown – and yes, as well as a list of further reading, this book is blessed with a substantial index.

A short walk

Philip M. Isaacson, A Short Walk Around the Pyramids & Through the World of Art (Knopf 1993)

I don’t do much re-reading of old favourites. Maybe I should. I first read this when it was new, with an eye to possibly publishing an excerpt in the School Magazine. (We had reviewed and excerpted Philip M Isaacson’s marvellous first book, Round Buildings, Square Buildings, & Buildings that Wiggle Like a Fish.) I picked it up again today because Penny had taken it to read to Mollie in the nursing home, and reported that it had been a great success – not just for the photographs of the pyramids, but also for the actual reading-aloud, at least of the first few pages.

It’s a minor miracle of a book. The author is an art critic, writing a general introduction to art for young readers, and he manages to do it without a whiff of the pedagogical. Hayao Myazaki’s motto, ‘Get lost along with us,’ seem to apply. We go from the Egyptian pyramids, by way of the Parthenon and African traditional art, to Jacques Lipchitz, Alexander Calder, painters including Vermeer, Monet and Gauguin, and then on to photography, industrial design, urban design, all at a leisurely stroll. It’s not a lesson, but a lively conversation, with at least colour illustrations.  The imagined reader / interlocutor may be a child, but I can’t see any upper age limit on those who might enjoy it.

One question: If the Step Pyramid, which dates from a little more than 4600 years ago, is ‘among the oldest works of art in the world’, what does that say about the rock paintings in Australia and elsewhere that are closer to 30 000 years old?

Web of Lies

Beverley Naidoo, Web of Lies (Puffin 2004)

Someone recommended this book last year during the kerfuffle over Bloomsbury’s US cover of Justine Larbalestier‘s Liar. That book’s narrator and main character is African American, but the girl on the kerfufflised cover was unmistakeably white, giving rise to animated  discussion of the many fronts on which racism us still being combatted in children’s and young adult literature (not just someone is wrong on the internet), including debate about the doctrine long propounded in Australia as well as the USA that books with non-white characters on the cover won’t sell. A number of well informed participants in the conversation gave us lists of books that are on the side of the angels – Web of Lies was one of them. That kerfuffle, by the way, had an excellent outcome: Bloomsbury replaced the offending cover with one that didn’t tell young readers of African heritage that they were profoundly anti-photogenic. A lesson had been learned.

Or had it? It turned out that when I finally got around to reading this book another kerfuffle had arisen over another whitewashed cover from, yes, the same publisher. This time the book is actually published. It might seem like a storm in a teapot, some blogospheric ephemera, but there’s an important issue here. A young woman named Ari published an open letter to Bloomsbury on the blog Reading in Color, which said in part:

Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don’t see them in your favorite books either. You get discouraged and you want to be beautiful and be like the characters in the books you read and you start to believe that you can’t be that certain character because you don’t look like them. I love the books I grew up with, but none of them featured people of color. I found those later, when I was older and I started looking for them. Do you know how sad I feel when my middle school age sister tells me she would rather read a book about a white teen than a person of color because “we aren’t as pretty or interesting.” She doesn’t know the few books that do exist out there about people of color because publishing houses like yourself, don’t put people of color on the covers. And my little brother doesn’t even like to read, he wants to read about cool people who look like him, but he doesn’t see those books in bookstores and now he rarely reads.

The whole letter is worth reading. So is Justine Larbalestier’s post.

With all that in mind, Web of Lies is impressive. Not only does it have a Black youth on its cover, but it’s a gripping yarn whose main characters are African asylum seekers in England. I don’t know what Ari’s little brother thinks is cool, but there’s a fair chance that – when he’s less little – he’d be interested in Femi, the boy who gets mixed up with what used to be called bad company, and finds himself on a slippery slope involving petty theft, then drugs and violence. The author is white, originally South African, and has clearly done more than academic research into the experiences of African teens living in London. The story rings true and powerful, and if anyone was thinking of putting it in a niche category because its characters aren’t white, they’d be doing the world a disservice.

I know, it’s a bit odd to spend most of a post that’s nominally about a book talking about other things entirely, but I suppose what I’m trying to do here is to admit that I wouldn’t have read this book if not for the kerfuffle, and while part of the reason is that I don’t read much YA literature, another part is that I’ve unwittingly bought the propaganda that books about Black people are only for Black people to read. Wittingly, of course, I don’t believe that for a moment and have read many books that should have made me wiser.

Update: Within hours of my blogging about Bloomsbury’s bloomer, they have withdrawn the controversial cover. To quote their web site:

Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.

Thanks to Alien Onions for the news. (Though you know the problem isn’t that the jacket ’caused offence’. You can’t do much at all without offending someone. I would have preferred them to say something like ‘the jacket design was unintentionally hurtful’ or even go so far as to use the word ‘racist’.)

Belvoir’s Book of Everything

The Book of Everything at Belvoir Street, adapted by Richard Tulloch from Guus Kuijer’s children’s book, directed by Neil Armfield, designed by Kim Carpenter of Theatre of Image, and performed by a brilliant cast, gave me the most satisfying evening I’ve had in the theatre for a very long time. The audience was mostly adults, though the smattering of children – or at least the ones in my row – were vocal in their enjoyment.

It has its controversial aspects. In a comment at the Stage Noise site, someone identifying self only as ‘Mummy’, wrote::

Parents should be warned that the “dark moments” in this play include graphic domestic violence where a mother is hit in the stomach and face by her husband. I wonder how many parents would take their children to see the play if they were warned about this content.

At Mim’s Muddle, in the course of an excellent account of the play, the eponymous Mim mentioned the portrayal of domestic violence, noting that if she’d been more alert she would have seen mention of it in the press.  She went on to say, ‘But, being a story intended for kids, there was resolution and healing at the end and it certainly led to interesting conversations about relationships on the way home in the car.’ Richard Tulloch commented:

Yes, in rehearsals there was naturally much discussion about the violence in the show. It’s unavoidable in the story, and without the shock of seeing it, we wouldn’t feel the same elation when Thomas eventually rises above it. But we hope that by making it stylized and short it won’t dominate the whole experience for kids, so that they are unable to appreciate the happier scenes.

Here’s my two bobs’ worth, and I speak as one who walked out of a previous Belvoir Street production because of its representation of violence. Violence on stage is very different from screen violence; we could see that the people in front of us were not being harmed (the noise of impact was provided by a person sitting in full view on the other side of the stage, the action was in slow motion, etc.). The violence was understood as dreadful, possibly even cosmos shattering, so there’s no question of it being normalised (as it is every afternoon in the cartoons), and there was indeed resolution and the hope of forgiveness at the end. I too wonder how many children would get to see the play if their parents were ‘warned’ about this content, and I wonder, in addition, if the children who weren’t taken would be deprived of something valuable. I worry that protectiveness of our children may sometimes do more harm than the things we want to protect them from. An age advisory might be called for, but I think it would be a rare ten year old (almost the age of the play’s main character, played with amazing grace and stamina by the 33 year old Matthew Whittet) who would be traumatised by this production.

When  The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll toured rural Australia in the late 1950s, I had the good fortune to see it, my very first piece of professional theatre. I was 10 or 11 years old. Someone, in my hearing, questioned my parents’ wisdom in taking me, given the play’s adult themes. My good Catholic father, bless his memory, fobbed off the concerned citizen with a joke. I loved the play, the adult themes sailing right past me, but I was transported by the intense emotion, which these days might well be classed as domestic violence, and still treasure the memory.

Possibly the best thing about  The Book of Everything is that it transcends the separation of children’s and adult’s culture that we have come to accept as normal. It’s a play about a child that adults can enjoy without condescension. A man playing a savage dog, ridiculously, runs through the audience; there’s the kind of audience participation that’s usually restricted to children’s theatre (we throw things onto the stage, and some of us get to sit up there in the final scene). We adults are allowed to enjoy as if we are children. And the children in the audience are allowed to engage with big themes: how do you deal with abuse of power? is there a God?

North: Poems of Home

Maurice Kenny, North: Poems of home (Blue Cloud Quarterly 1977)

This book found me by serendipity. A BookMoocher  said she’d be willing to send me the book I wanted if I mooched at least one more at the same time (same postage for her, twice the BookMooch points). I chose this pretty much at random from her list of moochable titles.

Maurice Kenny is a Native American poet who has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The blurb on this little book explains that the poems deal largely with ‘his childhood in the Mohawk Nation and his friendships there’. But the book lacks the personal touch that this description led me to expect, especially in the many incantatory list poems. I went looking on the web, and the very first Maurice Kenny poem I stumbled across, ‘Going Home‘, published a decade or so after this book, was of a completely different order. It’s as if in this book, he is in some way claiming, or proclaiming, his heritage:

north by the star
we go home, we go …
to the pheasant, woodchuck, muskrat
the last deer standing the summer
of flies on the blood of the wolf
howled in the north
(from ‘Home’)

And having claimed the heritage, he could look more closely at his relationship to it in the 1988 poem, which concludes:

home from Brooklyn to the reservation
that was not home
to songs I could not sing
to dances I could not dance
from Brooklyn bars and ghetto rats
to steaming horses stomping frozen earth
barns and privies lost in blizzards
home to a Nation, Mohawk
to faces I did not know
and hands which did not recognize me
to names and doors
my father shut

I don’t think I would have felt the pathos of that exclusion as fully if I hadn’t read these earlier, rhetorical poems.

Beyond Apollo

Barry N Malzberg, Beyond Apollo (1972, Pocket Books 1974)

In the real world, the Apollo moon program lasted from 1962 to 1972. Beyond Apollo, first published in 1972, tells what happened next: a failed attempt to land men on Mars in 1976, and then the Venus project in 1981. The immediate aftermath of the latter is the book’s present moment.  Malzberg’s future is our past. If he had been aiming for accurate prediction, he failed miserably. But this isn’t that kind of book.

James Tiptree Jr said of Barry Malzberg: ‘Everybody and everything hurts, for no known reason.’ She could have been giving us an abstract of this book. The main character, Harry Evans, has returned to earth after failing to land on Venus. His fellow-traveller, the Captain, died out there. Evans is probably deranged by whatever happened out there, although possibly his derangement out there led to whatever happened. He gives his debriefers – and us – about ten different versions of events, none of them cheery. Some are obvious fantasy, some probably lies, none is obviously true. He remembers (or fantasises) a lot of unpleasant sex with his wife, and possibly with the Captain. Actually, I probably approached this books thinking I should have read it when I was 14 – science fiction’s ideal reader is supposed to be a 14 year old boy, right? Well, no! I would strongly discourage any 14 year old boy, and a fortiori any 14 year old girl, from reading this. I read the horrible marital rape scenes as somehow parallelling the  mechanistic, soulless nature of the Venus project (Venus//sex, OK?), but they sure weren’t fun to read.

This is probably a very good book. Though there are aliens (possibly invented by Evans, possibly real, who is to know?), the book is not the romp with sexy aliens promised by the lurid cover. Nor is it an easy read. Everybody hurts, including the reader.

Bran Nue Dae

I usually restrict my blogging about movies to little notices in the feed on my right-hand column, but I’m making an exception for Bran Nue Dae because every review I’ve read has been tepid to ice-cold.

I want to shout from the rooftops: BRAN NUE DAE is FABULOUS.

It’s not a ‘well-made film’ – though it’s very well made. It’s funny, occasionally soppy, often sly and certainly capable of making a middle class white viewer like me interestingly uncomfortable. I mean, what is this movie doing when it has me wanting to sing along with:

There’s nothing I would rather be
than to be an Aborigine
and watch you take my precious land awa-ay.
For nothing gives me greater joy
than to watch you fill each girl and boy
with superficial existential shit.

It’s like David Gumpilil in his one man stage show tricking us into laughing at his humiliating arrest for public urination. The politics are clear, the dire consequences of dispossession are never denied, but we’re not being lectured at. We’re invited in, discomfort and all.

Mind you, I don’t know how it got its PG rating: in the first few minutes there’s a song about condom use that has very explicit lyrics, and Deborah Mailman’s, um, sexually active character is a pretty adult concept, I would have thought.

All the performances are terrific. I loved the choreography (and choreographer David Page’s brief appearance on a group shot at the end). I loved the look of it. I laughed out loud many times. Rachel Perkins has pulled it off.

The Bone Man of Kokoda

Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda (Pan Macmillan Australia 2008)

I’m not one of those people who are fascinated by World War Two. When war comics were all the rage in my primary school, I was off in a corner reading Donald Duck, Superman, Captain Marvel and a sophisticated detective whose name I don’t remember. But lately I’ve been getting myself an education on the subject. My sister-in-law gave me this book on the strength of recent blog entries, and I approached it with a double sense of obligation: it was a Christmas present, and it promised yet another perspective on a subject that had lain unconsidered in my mind most of my life. Obligation rarely leads to enthusiasm, and I started the book with a heavy heart.

It turns out to be a fabulous book, another of those micro-histories described by Judith Keene as making up history – where hers swam against the main current by being traitors, the hero of this one does so by extraordinary loyalty. It’s a man who, having made a solemn promise in his early 20s, dropped everything in his  60th year, not to go into comfortable retirement but to devote the next 26 years to keeping the promise. When his wife and sons objected, he gave them everything – the house, his thriving business, even his antique samurai sword – set out on his mission, never to speak to them again. His daughter, who understood something of what drove him, remained in touch and now looks after him in his old age.

What drove Kokichi Nishimura was the horrendous experience of being part of the Japanese invasion of New Guinea, seeing all his comrades killed in the jungle, mainly on the Kokoda Trail, and returning as part of a defeated force, despised in some quarters for not having suicided according to the code of bushido, and suspect in others because of the well-publicised atrocities committed by the Japanese forces. What do you do with the rest of your life after that? How do you live when you have fought in the battle of Brigade Hill at the age of 22, in kill-or-be-killed hand-to-hand combat:

Nishimura’s wounded arm was useless, but he drew his sword with his left hand and thrust it at the Australian’s chest; it hit a rib and stopped. The Australian grabbed the sword’s blade with his bare hands and kicked Nishimura in the stomach. The Japanese fell on his back and the sword went flying.
Noticing his enemy’s face up close, Nishimura was struck by how young the Australian was … For a moment, he thought: Why am I fighting this boy whom I don’t even know? But in the next instant he realised he would be killed himself if he didn’t get to his feet and tackle the Australian.
Nichimura launched himself again at the bigger man. Somehow, in the ensuing struggle, he regained his sword from the ground and this time drove it into the Australian’s stomach. The soldier pierced the air with a wail that sounded like an air-raid siren as he fell down, and slipped into unconsciousness. It was a chilling scream that Nishimura never forgot.

Some survivors committed ritual suicide. Many, possibly the mainstream, embraced the new pacifist Japan and tried to forget the war. Some foment rightwing nationalist politics. Nishimura’s path is strikingly individual. He promised his dead companions that he would return to honour their remains, and since 1966 his life has revolved around an uncompromising quest to keep his word, to bring families of the slain, if not the remains of their bodies for burial, then emotionally significant mementoes – a lunchbox, a flag, in one case a rusty pump. As a corollary, he invested his time and resources into projects to help the locals in the places where he conducted his search – building a school, bulldozing roads, helping people get training and set up enterprises.

He’s a fascinating man, a lesson in integrity. And the book is all the more fascinating because written by an Australian. Maybe the ghosts of the Pacific War are on the way to being laid to rest.


Fortuitous’ watch:

My current favourite mystery word makes two appearances in this book.

On page 86, Nishimura sustains nasty damage to his right leg when his ship is sunk by a US torpedo:

In a way his injury proved fortuitous. It meant he could again rest up in hospital and eat regular meals.

And on page 151:

He had relied heavily, too, on the fortuitous windfall he received from the sale of his parcel of land in Kochi.

In the first quote, ‘fortuitous’ clearly means ‘lucky’. It could be replaced by ‘fortunate’ with no change to the meaning. Or perhaps it has a slightly greater emphasis on the arbitrariness of the good fortune. Whichever, it’s used in a way the dictionaries recognise, though some still frown on it.

In the second, the word could almost have its pure, pedant-approved meaning, ‘happening by chance’, though paired with ‘windfall’ it is completely redundant if that’s what it means. It only adds meaning to its sentence if we understand it to mean ‘especially fortunate’.


Puppies (Snapshot series, Hinkler Books 2008)

I couldn’t find a photo of this little book’s cover online, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s very cute. The publisher’s site gives its ‘interest age’ as 6–12 years. I can report that the interest extends well beyond that, though I suppose a notice saying ‘Interest Age: 6–12 years and the demented’ wouldn’t sell many books.

But this book has featured in many pleasant interchanges with Mollie in the nursing home. Yesterday morning, it was sitting in the middle of her table. She gestured towards it with fluttering fingers. Though it was pretty much the same gesture that she’d used towards the piece of buttered raisin bread the nurse had given her with a piece of kitchen tongs, and which she had no intention of putting anywhere near her mouth, I interpreted her to mean that she wanted to look at the book. I placed it right in front of her, closed. With some difficulty, she opened it, and said, in he fluttering voice, ‘That’s funny.’ I was sitting on her left, and had to stand and peer over the half-open cover to see the page she’d opened to. It was the end papers, plain green except where someone had printed her name in block letters. She touched her first name with an index finger and said, half questioning, half marvelling, ‘Mollie.’ And if that lovely moment wasn’t enough, when we reached page five or so, where there is a lot of text, she touched the last word on the page, and read it too, only sightly more tentatively, ‘Puppies.’

It may not have intellectual heft of her reading of twenty years ago, but it looks to me as if there’s still pleasure to be had in reading at her intellectual limit.