Monthly Archives: December 2010

LOLdogs (not!)

Our dog Nessie has many virtues and at least as many vices. Here’s a seasonal story in which  the consequences of her vices, though vile enough by any reasonable measure,  are less vile than those of her virtues.

You could argue that the whole thing was the humans’ fault. On Christmas evening, the Art Student and I packed a basket of leftovers from lunch, including most of a roast chicken, and set off for dinner with my sister and her family who are in town for the holiday break and living just down the street. After a pleasant evening, in which the Art Student displayed her Auntie qualities to striking effect, and my sister’s leftovers, including spectacular poached salmon, won the day, we brought most of the chicken home with us. We went straight to bed, absentmindedly leaving the bag of chicken in the basket on the stairs.

Enter evil Nessie.

The next morning, Boxing Day, the chicken bag was on the kitchen floor, completely empty: no bones, no crumbs of stuffing, not even a smear of grease on the lino. We didn’t know which of the dogs was the culprit –  Oscar, the Honeymooners’ foxy Jack Russell, is staying with us while they’re in Thailand – but our dog-walks during the day made the criminal’s identity clear, as Oscar was his usual energetic and regular self Nessie was uninterested in chasing balls and failed to produce anything for our doggy-do bags.

That night when we humans went to bed, we shut doors as usual: the back door so the dogs couldn’t get out to bark at the possum, the front door in case of an unlikely intruder, our bedroom door, and the door that separates the front of the house, where we sleep, from the kitchen area, where the dogs sleep, because Oscar hasn’t quite accepted the principle of Separate Sleeping Quarters. The Art Student, usually a very light sleeper, took some anti-inflammatories for pain she’s been having in her hip. So there’s the setup: many closed doors, two deep sleepers (I don’t need drugs to make me stone deaf when asleep), and a dog with a dangerously overloaded digestive system.

I’ll spare you a description of the state of the kitchen floor the next morning. It was at least as retch-makingly noxious as you can imagine. That was the result of her vice –  and though the ghost of a smell still lingers, there was nothing that carpet foam, scrubbing brushes, newspaper, disinfectant, deodorant and the passage of time couldn’t fix. It was her virtue that caused the serious damage. Unlike A Small Dog That Shall Not Be Named, she recoils from the very idea of crapping or piddling indoors, and had tried desperately to make the back door open: from the evidence she knocked, scratched and bit, presumably in the hope that one of us would appear, godlike, as we normally do to the faintest of her knocks because the door is new and beautifully stained – at least it was. We didn’t hear. And the door is a mess. We didn’t have the heart to beat her severely or even yell at her, but our hearts bleed for the door. Behold just some of the damage:

Preincarnate

Shaun Micallef, Preincarnate: A novella (Hardie Grant 2010)

Shaun Micallef is a comedian who affects a kind of supercilious gaucherie, a little like Stephen Fry without the erudition or the authentic blue-ribbon class credentials. I’ve mainly seen him on television, and been amused, though not enough to make me watch  Talkin Bout Your Generation, the TV game show he MCs, unless by accident.

This book was a Christmas present from a friend who doesn’t watch a lot of television and was enticed by the stylishly witty cover. I gladly accepted it as a challenge to my prejudices. Sadly, I gave up a third of the way through, my prejudices unallayed. There’s quite an interesting plot involving time travel, culminating (I peeked at the last couple of pages) in logically determined absurdities redolent of the climactic scenes of excellent farces. My problem was that the writing was constantly striving to be ‘funny’, interrupting itself with strenuous jokeiness or sketch-comedy interludes. For example, in a seventeenth century context:

Moray wore a parrot hidden under his vest during all his subsequent meetings with the Dutch émigré , and every conversation recorded by the parrot was later transcribed. It was an arduous process. The parrot had a learning difficulty and Moray would often have to trick Leeuwenhoeck into repeating entire conversations, sometimes fifteen or twenty times. eventually, enough evidence was amassed to establish a prima facie case.

It goes on with the parrot shooting himself out of guilt, and none of it moving the plot forward perceptibly. Funny, if you’re in the mood. Otherwise annoying.

Clive James doesn’t like to be thought of a comedian, and has said so in a number of places, including in an interview with Peter Thompson on ABC TV’s Talking Heads:

I’m not really a comedian and I don’t even tell jokes. If I do anything funny it’s because I’ve expressed something real in a very short space. The result is, if you make an article interesting enough on that level … So you’re saying something complex but some of it comes out funny, and you get this reputation as a comedian, then journalistically these two reputations get in each other’s road. ‘He can’t be serious because he’s funny,’ ‘He can’t be funny because he’s serious.’

I hope I’m wrong, but it looks to me as if Shaun Micallef has bought into that journalistic dichotomy, and opted for funniness at the expense of all else.

Andrei Codrescu’s Poetry Lesson

Andrei Codrescu, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton University Press 2010)

Exquisite Corpse is the name of that game where players make up a story together. It’s also the name of an online literary journal. Andrei Codrescu, a poet who recently retired from teaching at the State University of Louisiana, is its editor, and this is his most recent book.

It’s not a book of poetry. Nor is it a book on bow to write poetry, though there are some possibly useful tips such as this list of ‘The Tools of Poetry’:

1. A goatskin notebook for writing down dreams
2. Mont Blanc fountain pen (extra credit if it belonged to Madame Blavatsky)
3. A Chinese coin or a stone in your pocket for rubbing
4. Frequenting places where you can overhear things
5. Tiny recorders, spyglasses, microscopic listening devices
6. A little man at the back of your head
7. The Ghost-Companion
8. Susceptibility to hypnosis
9. Large sheets of homemade paper, a stack a foot thick
10. A subscription to cable TV

The book is a wildly unreliable account of the first lesson for the year in his Introduction to Poetry Writing course, in which he assigns each of his 13 students a ‘Ghost-Companion’ – a poet living or dead whom they are to read and turn to for guidance. This slender narrative frame is fleshed out in any number of ways –  with sex-and-drugs-and-poetry reminiscence, gossip, a touch of postmodern cleverdickery, a hallucinatory moment or two, some surreal invention (at least I assume it’s invention) involving a disused missile silo, reflections on the weird intergenerational activity known as teaching, cranky-old-man observations on technological and other change, a lightning tour (during a pee-break) of his office, which is also the editorial office of Exquisite Corpse, and all manner of intelligent self-indulgence. It’s an oddity that reminds me of nothing more than of Brother Wilbred, my superbly eccentric Grade 8 teacher, who regularly treated us – 40 or so 13 year old boys – to impassioned and not entirely comprehensible rants on non-curricular subjects dear to his heart.

Andrei Codrescu taught for more than 25 years: I imagine many past students will enjoy the book as a comic look at what was happening on the other side of their student–teacher interface. Those of us who haven’t previously heard of Mr Codrescu, who have chosen the book as a replacement for a Christmas present we’ve already read, attracted perhaps by the incongruity between the title and the supplicant skeleton in the cover illustration, can only imagine that insiders’ pleasure, but we still get a privileged glimpse behind the tapestry, and an unexpected, sometimes exhilarating ride.

Happy birthsday

When I was in Rome 30 odd years ago with a toddler, we visited a laundromat in the Campo Dei Fiori every couple of days. ‘Buon giorno!’ the woman in charge would greet us. Then one day, she said instead, ‘Auguri!’ It took a bit of nutting out, but I realised that Easter was approaching, and her greeting was the equivalent of ‘Happy Easter!’ Literally, I’m guessing it means ‘Good wishes!’ No need to mention the festival that gives rise to the wish.

Here in Anglophone Australia we don’t have such a sweetly noncommittal greeting. My doctor, who has a mezuzah fixed to the doorpost of his surgery and wears a yarmulke, wished me a Happy Christmas the other day, and I didn’t know what to say in reply. Then I didn’t know what to say to his receptionist, who didn’t have any obvious signs of religious heritage.

I’ve heard people wish each other Happy Holidays, but that sounds like an awkward transplant from the US. ‘Seasons Greetings’ works fine in print, but it’s weird when spoken. Referring to the solstice just feels prissy and evasive – Christmas may originally have built on a Druidic celebration of the northern winter solstice but it’s part of the Christian tradition in its present forms.

I’ve been ruminating on what Christmas means to me. When I was little it was important to me that there was a baby in the middle of all the celebrations. Christmas was like a birthday, except that presents were given, not just to one special person, but to everyone. Unpacking that thought: if on someone’s birthday we celebrate the fact that they are alive, regardless of anything that they have done or endured since their birth, then at Christmas we celebrate all of us in the same way. And you know, in the crowd competing for attention at the fish market counter this morning, the mood was so amiable and generous, that it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that the often mentioned  Christmas spirit is actually about something of the sort. Sure, some people see it as a sectarian event or a consumerist orgy, but I think for me its secular meaning is a celebration of our common humanity. The baby Jesus is a symbol of what Quakers call ‘that which is of God within each of us’, a formulation that an atheist like me, stuck for words, will accept as good enough.

When I tried to talk about this at dinner last night, the conversation became heated, so maybe I’m being controversial here. But Happy Christmas to my readers anyhow, and if you don’t celebrate it yourself for whatever reason, I’m still thrilled to share the planet with you and say Hi in the name of our humanity.

The Children’s Bach

Helen Garner, The Children’s Bach (©1984, Penguin Australia 1999)

Having read Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup because it was on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s What’s What List and been sharply impressed, I decided to follow it up with this, which is also on that list. I am in awe of Helen Garner’s non-fiction, a category which for my present purposes includes the novel The Spare Room, but I’ve read very little of her fiction. Monkey Grip, her first novel, read to me like an elegantly processed diary: it was interesting and impressive, but didn’t entice me to read more. So reading The Children’s Bach involved reversing an earlier virtual decision.

I’m not sure my life is much richer for the reversal. Admittedly life was offering some stiff competition for my attention as I read it, what with the wedding, settlement day on our new house and the imminence of Christmas, but the book failed to enthrall me. About two fifths of the way through I was having trouble keeping track of who was related to whom, so I drew a diagram and was astonished to realise there are only ten characters, of whom three are children, yet I had trouble telling them apart. Dexter is the man who shouts a lot, cheerfully. Vicki is the young woman who has come over from Perth to live with her sister and then moved in with Dexter and his family. Which of the more or less indistinguishable women is Dexter’s partner? Who is Poppy again? When they talk about the little guy with the tatts are they referring to the same man who tells his daughter a bedtime story about the Paradise Cafe? Surely the man who is taking Athena out walking isn’t the same man who came into her house the other night and had sex up against the fridge with young Vicki, with whom she is kind of in loco parentis? Luckily, I drew my little chart of relationships and got it all clear before the main events of the book, which involve extra-marital sex (though I’m not sure any of the characters is married, strictly speaking).

I probably missed a lot. For example, I wasn’t sure if the first of two main sex scenes was actually a sex scene until the dying fall of the last sentence, just before one of the characters said something about having to make some phone calls. But even for as undiscerning a reader as I was, the book delivers a moral jolt. Each of the four characters involved in the sex scenes has a completely different take on what the action means: assumptions are challenged, values questioned, tensions left unresolved. There’s no tragedy, no high romantic drama, no ultimate judgement – just people making their way with each other. And beyond that, I think, a documentary impulse in the writing: it aims to tell us about the lives of a certain group of people – perhaps the ‘friends’ the book is dedicated to –

Epithalamion

At the urging of the Art Student and with the permission of the Groom (and by implication the Bride), here are the sonnets I read at the wedding on Saturday. At least, this is the text I read from – I fluffed at least one line and added an aside to another.

1. When the parents of the groom were young …
We didn’t see the point, we swore.
We said, It’s just a piece of paper.
We said, No church, no state, no law.
Will bind us to this wedding caper.
But times have changed, the point’s now clear
At Ballast Point, assembled here,
This site of grim utility
Now filled with light and poetry.
What better place to make your start?
Mid rings of concrete, iron, grass, stone
Give rings of gold. The way is shown:
Be ballast for each other’s heart,
Give weight to float on even keel,
Be steerable but strong as steel.

2. Love is …
Love is patient, love is kind,
It springs up like a red, red rose,
It can be mad, it’s free and blind –
These things everybody knows.
Today, though – here’s the nitty gritty –
Love bears the names of Liam and Kitty.
No abstract framed in a museum
It lives and breathes in Kitty and Liam.
So raise the roofbeam, shoot a flare,
Bear witness to their wedding vows
And whistle as they take their bows.
Dance a jig, let down your hair.
Life’s as gloriously unpredictable as Sydney weather
May they face its best and worst together.

A wedding in the family

Whew! Getting married is a big deal. I know that now because my younger son did it yesterday.

It was a wonderful event. The ceremony was in the relatively new Ballast Point Park, formerly – as the name suggests – a source of stone for use as ballast, and until recently a site dominated by oil storage tanks. Now parts of the largest tank have been used as a sculpture, an iron crown floating over the park, with a line of Les Murray’s poetry punched into the rusting iron. The park itself is pretty stark so far, dominated by a bare sandstone cliff, but indigenous plants have been planted there and promise that in time it will be a softer, kinder place. It provided us with a fabulous site for a wedding: a grassy lawn enclosed by rock, hacked into circular shape, presumably to accommodate an oil tank. (The only photo at this link shows the exact spot, though you’ll have to imagine the flowered arch and hundred people.)

The reception, at the bride’s parent’s home five minutes down the street, was just as fabulous. It was on a sloping lawn in front of a block of townhouses, right on the edge of the Harbour. We built a symbolic fence of bamboo flares to warn little children (of whom there were four) and people whose judgement might be impaired by alcohol (of whom there were potentially many) of the danger of falling over the edge.

I’m not going to attempt a full report. There were vows, beautifully pragmatic as well as romantic. There were poems, Pound, Shakespeare, Philip Larkin (‘This Be the Verse’!), and some written for the occasion. There were speeches. One running theme was that my son was taking a different path from his parents, who have never married. This theme peaked in the opening line from the Best Man, brother of the groom: ‘Liam and I are bastards.’ If only my mother had lived to hear the accepting laughter that rolled like thunder at that line!  The competitor for best line of the day came from the Best Woman, sister of the bride: ‘I pre-emptively love your children.’

There was loud music but no dancing, except for my little nieces and, according to the photographer, me. There was enough excellent non-alcoholic drink among the beer and wine to save non-drinkers such as me from dehydration.

Today the Art Student and I spent most of the day helping with the clean-up, post-mortemising, attending on the Opening of the Presents. We had tickets for Geoffrey Rush in Diary of a Madman at 5 o’clock at the Belvoir, but we were so done in by our weekend excitement that we gave them away, with hardly a qualm.

Delia Falconer’s Sydney and the Book Group

Delia Falconer, Sydney (New South 2010)

I don’t have a lot of time for blogging just now – a wedding this Saturday and the small matter of moving house by mid January are adding significantly to the seasonal distraction load. I’ve barely finished this book ahead tonight’s Book Group meeting. But I’ll stick to my usual Before and After format.

Before the meeting: This is a brilliant book. Delia Falconer combines colonial history, personal reminiscence, reflections on recent headlines (Bogle and Chandler, Anita Cobby, the Cronulla riots, Abe Saffron …), literary discussion (mainly of Patrick White), physical description (especially of  jacarandas), gossip about and from her friends (including a couple of unforgettably seedy images), and any number of other elements in an eminently readable and erudite extended essay. It may at times strain for effect (‘the light is unquestionably Sydney’s,’ she writes of a scene in the movie Bliss, ‘saturating, and warm, but also muted and inconstant’), the effect is generally worth the strain. She makes room for many other voices – William Dawes (Kate Grenville’s fiction about him, The Lieutenant, is tactfully not mentioned), Ruth Park, and many others, including eccentric photographer-clergymen, eloquent diarists and letter-writers.

The book is frankly personal, and by implication invites readers to reflect on their own experience of the city. I first visited Sydney in the 1950s with my parents, and remember seeing Arthur Stace’s ‘Eternity’ chalked on the kerb at Hyde park. I’ve lived here since 1967, the year I turned 20 and Delia Falconer had her first birthday. Where she lived on th lower north shore and then in student houses in Newtown and thereabouts. I lived in Dundas for three years and then moved to the inner west – Glebe, Leichhardt, Annandale, interrupted by a couple of years in lower Paddington. There’s plenty of overlap, but I don’t think my shared house days were ever as disgusting as she makes hers out to have been. I love her sense that Sydney is a city with something unacknowledged always pressing for recognition. Her discussion of the interplay of hedonism and wowserism is as good as any I’ve read. I’m persuaded by her reading in Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ a displaced sense of the dispossession of the Eora people.

After the meeting:
We had an animated discussion. Only one of the seven of us was born in Sydney, and he was born in the inner west more than 10 years before Delia Falconer, but we’ve all lived here for decades, and a good bit of the evening was taken up with shared reminiscence. The book doesn’t mention Bea Miles, gives the Push only a passing glance, doesn’t talk about theatres past and present, or the Depression – but it didn’t need to. One of us had put his name down for a walk in the Tank Stream after reading about it; another had done the walk and recommended it. We spent a lot of time reminding each other of bits we’d particularly liked, and generally agreed it was an excellent choice for the Group. The White Cockatoo in Petersham likewise met with general approval as the venue for our end of year meeting, though our appetites weren’t equal to the gigantic helpings of food.

Thea Astley’s Kindness Cup

Thea Astley, A Kindness Cup (©1974, Nelson 1977)

I mooched this because it’s on Kerryn Goldsworthy’s What’s What list, her personal selection of Australian works ‘that, for whatever reason, and almost independently of their writers, are simply scarily, eerily good, that move and startle and resonate and go on resonating, in a way that defies analysis’. It’s a great list, including movies, short poems, a long poem, a biography, short stories, novels … and I’m willing to be guided.

I feel warmly towards Thea Astley because she contributed indirectly to a lovely moment in my family. In the 1970s I heard her tell of a conversation with Patrick White. ‘Thea,’ she wheezed in what we young ones understood to be an impersonation of the Great Man, ‘if you’re going to write about a shit, you have to make him a monumental shit.’ I don’t know what possessed me, but some months later in north Queensland I relayed that line to my parents, in whose presence the word ‘shit’ generally created at best a shocked silence – maybe I thought the highbrow context would excuse the crudity. This time, it provoked my father to a rare moment of reminiscence and the only time I can remember him ‘swearing’ in my mother’s company: ‘When I was at school, the football coach would tell us the day before a big match, “Tonight I want you to have a big shit, and when I say big I mean twice around the pan with a curl on top,”‘ and he cackled like a naughty schoolboy. He was in his sixties, as I am now.

So I was warmly disposed to this book. The warmth soon evaporated: it’s not a book that asks for affection. Yet, oddly enough, an erasure of my first paragraphs is suggestively relevant:

… her personal selection of … Patrick White … I don’t know what possessed … north Queensland … a shocked silence … provoked … reminiscence … ‘swearing’ … in his sixties

That is to say, Patrick White’s magisterial presence is tangible from the opening sentence (‘This world is the unreality, he thinks between smiles and frowns over the letter’); the novel is set in north Queensland, and the main characters are sexagenarians raging, or keeping silent, about horrible events from 2o years earlier.

In the book’s present time, early in the twentieth century, people are returning to a small NQ town for a ‘Back to the Taws’ celebration. One of the returning townsfolk, Dorahy, was the teacher in the one-classroom school in days past when a number of Aboriginal people were murdered – or ‘dispersed’, to use the weasel word of the time. Dorahy was outraged back then, both by the massacre itself, which he had tried to stop, and by the magistrate’s finding that there was insufficient evidence to hold anyone to account. The men responsible for the massacre are now leading citizens gladhanding their way to an election of some sort, and Dorahy is determined to shatter the complacent silence about the past.

The massacre, which occurs at the book’s midpoint, is shockingly real, not with Tarantinesque buckets of blood but with a horrible frozen moment of realisation. The book’s real interest, however, is in how such an event is to be remembered. In a way, it prefigures the History Wars of the John Howard years, though Thea Astley’s imagination wasn’t up to inventing a Keith Windschuttle who would survey the evidence and then deny the history, or a slogan as pernicious as Howard’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’. When the voices that try to recall the history are silenced here, it is with ruthless brutality.

As an honourable attempt to face up squarely to white Australia’s black history, this makes an interesting comparison to Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. Both books have good whites and bad whites; in both, the bad whites are less well educated, though in Astley’s they are pillars of society where Grenville’s are a ruffianly lot; in both, the good whites who aren’t victimised along with the massacred Aborigines either collude or are ineffectual. Strangely, in Astley’s book, although we are shown the massacre very clearly, all the fuss twenty years later is about the hideous treatment of the one white who actually raised a finger to protect the threatened Aborigines. Perhaps this is a matter of being true to the times – perhaps a hundred or so years ago even people of conscience felt the torture of one white man to be a greater outrage than the massacre of eight Aboriginal men and women. Perhaps it was just not possible to look a genocidal incident full in the face in a novel.1 Or perhaps the chilling effect of the book’s last line is no accident. (Stop reading now if you hate spoilers.) The three men who have sought to reveal the truth from twenty years before are lying outside the town hall, battered, perhaps dead or dying, while ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is being sung inside ‘in nostalgic untruth’, as a deliberate turning of a blind eye to the ugly history:

Full-throatedly, the audience joins in the singing and roars chorus after chorus.
___It has almost forgotten the victims already.

In the immediate moment, ‘the victims’ are the three men. The way I read the phrase, though, it’s a brilliant piece of authorial restraint: the reader is left to ponder the phrase’s wider, deeper reach, with a sickening sense that the narrative voice, too, has ‘almost’ forgotten. It’s the opposite of being lectured at.
—-
1Interestingly enough, Alex Miller’s Landscape of Farewell takes the dislocation a step further, dealing with a massacre by North Queensland Aborigines.

End of Year Lists

The Art Student proposed that I post about my best five books, best five movies and worst three movies for 2010. And hers. Being an obliging fellow, and at the risk of exposing myself as a philistine, here they are. Do nominate your own favourites in the comments.

The five movies most enjoyed in 2010 (in no particular order):

By me:

Animal Kingdom, David Michôd’s first feature, so human and yet so vile. (When Jacqui Weaver was being made much of in the US for this performance, Michôd reportedly said to himself, ‘About time.’ To which I cry Amen!)

Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole, what some people would undoubtedly see as a fundamentalist left feminist feelgood movie – and what’s wrong with getting to feel good about a victory?

Peepli [Live], directed by Anusha Rizvi & Mahmood Farooqui, a wonderfully ebullient satire on the way the media in India just like here makes spectacle out of misery – a comic commentary on P Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought.

Temple Grandin, made for TV by Mick Jackson, starring Clare Danes as Temple Grandin, the woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who revolutionised the treatment of cattle in US slaughterhouses.

In the Loop, exuberantly enraged, foul mouthed satire directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Peter Capaldi, which I found cathartic.

By the Art Student:

City Island, a genial comedy directed by Raymond De Felitta, starring Andy Garcia, and Julianna Margulies playing a very different character from Alicia in The Good Wife on TV.

The Yes Men Fix the World, featuring culture jammers Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, and any number of corporation representatives being taken for a ride.

Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater.

Peepli [Live]. At last we agree on one.

Fair Game, the pic about Valerie Plame, directed by Doug Liman.

The film that most cried out for a thumbs down from both of us

Rob Marshall’s Nine. At least they had the good taste to wait until Fellini was dead before defiling his work in this way. The fault lines in our unanimity of taste showed when the Art Student had trouble choosing between this, Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, both of which I enjoyed.

Five favourite books read in 2010

By me:

I listed 121 books in my Reading and Watching blog during 2010. I didn’t finish all of them, but picking five favourites is necessarily pretty arbitrary because so many of them delighted and enlightened me. However, here goes.

China Miéville, The City and the City. Science fictional policier, marvellously taut and convincing us to believe in an impossible world.

Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda. Written by an Australian, this tells the story of a Japanese man who fought against and killed Australians in the jungles of New Guinea, and his resolve to honour his comrades who died there.

Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season. I read this in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Haiti. It is a very rich introduction to the culture and recent history of the nation created by the first successful black slave revolt of modern times.

Jennifer Maiden, Pirate Rain. This may not be the best book of poetry published this year. Many people would probably give precedence to Les Murray’s Taller When Prone or Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain. But Jennifer Maiden gets my gong.

Marilynne Robinson, Home. If I ever convert to stern Presbyterian Protestantism, it will be because of this book and its predecessor, Gilead. I love the characters’ unrelenting quest to love with integrity.

By the Art Student, in her own words:
While I have read quite a bit of fiction that I enjoyed, the books that stand out are all non fiction.

Reza Aslan, How to win a cosmic war. I heard him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. The book is a clear and compelling account of the past and current drivers of religious fundamentalism – Islamic, Jewish and Christian. It shows the common threads in religious fundamentalism while focusing on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. What is interesting is Aslan’s description of the difference between Islamic nationalist groups (which the West should learn to love) and internationalist jihadism. By fighting the former, Aslan argues, we are pushing alienated young western-born Middle Eastern  Muslims into joining the latter and terrorism.

Carol Duncan,  Civilizing Rituals, Inside Public Art Museums. This includes a fascinating account of the development of public art museums after the French Revolution liberated the Louvre. It mainly focuses on the development of public galleries in the USA and England, but links these developments to a popular movement to have art galleries in all major western cities (including Sydney). But most interesting are the struggles about what galleries were and are for, how they should be funded and what they should show. In the USA, private philanthropists were the driving force in establishing galleries, allowing them to build spacious monuments to benefactors. The down side was that those benefactors wanted control beyond death, so that many galleries are filled with replicas of ballrooms and indifferent art that are never to be changed. Duncan’s final chapters critique current public galleries’ approaches to their art and audiences, making it clear why many people find the experience of visiting galleries unsatisfying and alienating.

John Hirst, Sentimental Nation, the Making of the Australian Commonwealth. Federation? Surely the dullest topic in Australian history. But to my surprise this book was a wonderful read of the decades-long fight for federation. Depressingly familiar in some respects (the Murray–Darling debate, immigration, taxes, mining, Commonwealth–state power sharing) it was also a wonderfully inspiring account of democratic processes that gave Australia a constitution. There were three Constitutional Conventions, with 60 men voted from  the colonies to draft, debate and redraft the constitution over 12 weeks each time. Once agreed on, the constitution was subject to two referenda before being passed. Town hall meetings were held in every suburb and town in the country, each meeting often taking four hours while every section of the draft was read aloud,  explained and debated. Hirst makes the back and forth of politics come alive with a contemporary feel.

Richard in the Era of the Corporation

Patricia Hill, Alice Neel. Alice Neel (1900 to 1984) was a US artist who painted mainly portraits of ordinary working people over from the 1920’s until her death. She was a socialist and worked as part of the Federal Art Project (a New Deal initiative) during the Depression. She only received recognition of her work in the 1970s, partly because portraiture was out of fashion in Modernist American art circles,  partly because of her left wing views and partly because of her gender. I love her work. Her portraits are often distorted yet capture absolutely a sense of the person and their context. She saw herself as painting ‘definitive pictures with the feel of the era’, pointing to her portrait of her son in a business suit, ‘Richard in the Era of the Corporation’ as a good example.The book is largely Neel’s own words taken from interviews conducted by Hill. An inspiring read for someone at the very beginning of an art career as she approaches 60.

Do tell us your bests of 2010 in the comments