Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Book Group on Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies

The Group’s December meeting picked Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light for the next title, but word of that decision didn’t go out until a week before the February meeting, so those who, like me, had missed December had no chance of reading it. Instead, in February we each brought along a selection of our summer reading and had fun comparing and contrasting, recommending and lending. Those who had read or partly read the Moorhouse were having second thoughts, someone had an alternative in his briefcase, and the coup was complete.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (John Murray 2008)

Before the meeting: While waiting for my library copy I asked another Grouper how he was enjoying the book. ‘A lot,’ he said, ‘and I’ve stopped looking up the meanings of words.’ That remark is a lot funnier than you might think. There could be very few readers of this book who wouldn’t stop looking up unfamiliar words – unless you’re extraordinarily knowledgeable, you either ride the language like unruly surf or give up the book altogether.

It’s a wonderful book. I came across a tweet that said it well:Brian Minter: Just finished 'Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh - super good. Serious Literature + Adventure Story + Dickensian Saga.It’s the first instalment in a trilogy, of which the second – River of Smoke – was published last year. Set mainly in northern India, with the impending English-Chinese Opium War and the English outlawing of slavery as backdrop, it’s a riproaring adventure–romance with an extraordinarily diverse cast of characters: a peasant wife forced into dependency on the East India Company, a young Frenchwoman adopted by a wealthy English family after the death of her enlightened parents, a young Indian man who makes a living as a boatman on the Ganga and yearns to be a sailor on the open sea, a Hindu mystic who believes himself to be possessed by the spirit of his deceased female guru, a freeborn Black American sailor who passes for white, a rajah whose life is ruled by ceremony but who finds himself suddenly and humiliatingly deprived of his status, a ship’s crew of lascars. As the book progresses we realise that the disparate paths of all these characters are converging – from desire, necessity, ambition or coercion, they are all to board a former slave ship, the Ibis, which is to take a cargo of indentured workers to Mauritius. The first half is like a pool above a waterfall: it takes a while, but you realise that all the narratives are moving inexorably towards the same point, and they’re picking up speed. When the ship sails you can almost hear the roar of the falls in the trilingual prayers of those on board, and then there’s another hundred pages of churning and roiling, and just as you think perhaps it will all settle down (with a shipboard wedding here, a comic-mystic revelation there) we’re plunged into a new tumult – not so much a cliff-hanger as an over-a-new-cliff ending.

All that is marvellous, but it’s the language(s) that make the book sing: not just the sometimes familiar bits of Indian English like the dhoti, kameez and puja that occur on the first page, but the lascar lingo and the garbled slang of the English in India, the French- or Bengali-inflected dialogue of particular individuals, the technical terms of the opium and sailing trades, the traditional languages of Islamic, Hindu and Catholic prayer, botanical nomenclature … It’s a written equivalent of the spectacle that assails the senses in the streets of India. I’d love to quote lots, but will content myself with a scrap from an Englishman’s description of the hospitality of the Raja of Raskhali :

No fear of pishpash and cobbily-mash at the Rascally table. The dumbpokes and pillaus were good enough, but we old hands, we’d wait for the curry of cockup and the chitchky of pollock-saug. Oh he set a rankin table I can tell you – and mind you, supper was just the start: the real tumasher came later, in the nautch-connah. Now there was another chuckmuck sight for you! Rows of cursies for the sahibs and mems to sit on. Sittringies and tuckiers for the natives. The baboos puffing at their hubble-bubbles and the sahibs lighting their Sumatra buncuses. Cunchunees whirling and the ticky-taw boys beating their tobblers. Oh, that old loocher knew how to put on a nautch all right!

That tobbler, recognisably a bastardisation of tabla, makes me think that the more linguistically adept you are the more you will enjoy this and the book’s many other passages like it.

I happened to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel while I was reading Sea of Poppies. It’s not by any means a vicious film, but in part it presents modern Rajasthan as a kind of decayed remnant of the splendours of the Raj. Well, it will be hard ever again to think of the Raj as splendid after reading the account here of the East India Company: you’d be closer to the mark with vicious, hypocritical, callous, smug, treacherous. Another word whose meaning has been permanently deepened for me is indentured. The viciousness that lies beneath that economistic sounding word has been laid permanently bare. (My great-grandfather had indentured labourers from the Pacific Islands (Kanakas) on his Queensland farm.)

After the meeting: Our host for the evening hadn’t had time to make an Indian meal, though we did start out with bhajis. Not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was. One guy said that although he learned a lot of history and enjoyed the ripping yarn, he wasn’t swept away by the language. But we had all clearly read the same book, which isn’t always the case.

Who are these people?

Fay Zwicky, one of the poets missing from the Gray and Lehmann anthology, has turned up on the Poetry Foundation podcast with ‘The Age of Aquarius’. Among other things, I loved this:
between the holocaust and the atom bomb
who are these people?
Between the deep and shallow end,
never say thank you or good morning.
Ooh, that’s me!
You can read it or listen to it here.

Lehmann & Gray’s Australian Poetry since 1788: A first post

Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray, Australian Poetry Since 1788 (UNSW Press 2011)

This was a thoughtful and generous Christmas present, and it’s a daunting 1080 pages. After a bit of dipping and checking, I started at the beginning on Australia Day (after all, the title implies that in this book Australian poetry began on or after 26 January 1788), expecting to take a year or so to read it in bits here and there. Rather than wait till next January or thereabouts to blog about the book all in one go, I’ll post now and probably a couple more times over the coming months.

It’s the age of the interwebs, so naturally before I’d gone much past the Introduction I went looking to see what other people were saying. It was no surprise to come across snippets of ‘poetry-war’ conversation. John Tranter called the book the Death Star and blogged some inflammatory sarcasm. Someone on The Rereaders called it the Grey Lemon. So far so expected. I followed a trail of links to a video of a lecture given by Peter Minter at a seminar last October, and suddenly we were out of the poetry wars (in so far as that phrase implies squabbles among the marginalised) and into serious cultural issues. Minter starts out by saying that as a poet you don’t often have to take a stand, but this is one of those moments, and even though some of the lecture, particularly the discussion of the endpapers, is gleefully sarcastic, the over all feeling is a kind of passionate no pasaran. The anthology, he points out, includes only two modern Aboriginal poets. [Have a guess who they are, and if you’re at all familiar with Australian poetry you’ll probably get one right, but almost certainly your other name is one of the excluded. If ten of my readers did this in a room together we’d probably come up with ten names – that is to say, it’s an obviously significant exclusion.] This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t being sold as a grand canonising statement rather than a selection of stuff that a couple of men happen to like. As it is, though, the omission, along with the ethnographic treatment of the traditional Aboriginal songs that are here, amounts to a ‘disappearing of modern Aboriginal poetry’ (Minter’s phrase), a contribution to this country’s continuing genocide (my phrase, and though it’s intemperate I’ll defend it if need be). Minter lists numerous omissions beyond the Aboriginal poets, and says there are many errors in the commentaries (the only one he specifies is the description of the 1967 referendum as giving Aboriginal people ‘special recognition’ in the Constitution, whereas in fact it removed ‘special’ provisions). The video is well worth watching, even though it misses a lot because it doesn’t show us Minter’s slides.

Poor old Geoffrey and Robert! I’d heard one of them on the ABC’s late lamented Book Show being quietly pleased with the representation of women among their poets. ‘Whew!’ you could almost hear him saying. ‘We dodged that bullet.’ One mitigating factor is that while the book is generally being touted as in some way definitive, the actual Introduction presents it pretty unambiguously as a product of the compilers’ idiosyncratic tastes and preferences.

All the same, I gave quiet thanks for Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint (that is, roughly, rather than boycotting a work of art that is, say, racist, it is preferable to read it along side of work by the people it has belittled or slandered or erased), and promised myself that I would dig out my books of poetry by Lionel Fogarty, Kevin Gilbert, Samuel Wagan Watson and read them and other Aboriginal (and non Anglo, and so on) poets in parallel with this anthology.

The two Aboriginal poets who made the cut are Odgeroo Noonuccal and Elizabeth Hodgson. There are quite a few versions of Aboriginal songs and stories ‘as recorded by’ white men, and in the case of those recorded by Roland Robinson, the storytellers’ names are given. This doesn’t negate Minter’s main point, but it does indicate that the editors were more aware of Aboriginal people as cultural creators than his lecture might seem to imply.

Tim Parks on not finishing

Tim Parks has an article on the NYRblog with an interesting take on the virtues or otherwise of not reading books to the end, including books one likes. I do usually finish books I like, but I found his discussion of plot interesting, including this:

Yet even in these novels where plot is the central pleasure on offer, the end rarely gratifies, and if we like the book and recommend it to others, it is rarely for the end. What matters is the conundrum of the plot, the forces put in play and the tensions between them. The Italians have a nice word here. They call plot trama, a word whose primary meaning is weft, woof or weave. It is the pattern of the weave that we most savor in a plot — Hamlet’s dilemma, perhaps, or the awesome unsustainability of Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon — but not its solution. Indeed, the best we can hope from the end of a good plot is that it not ruin what came before. I would not mind a Hamlet that stopped before the carnival of carnage in the last scene, leaving us instead to mull over all the intriguing possibilities posed by the young prince’s return to Elsinore.

Hat tip to 3quarksdaily.

Jennifer Maiden on Poetica

Radio National’s Poetica was dedicated to Jennifer Maiden on Saturday (to be repeated on Thursday evening). For a while, it can be heard at this link:

Pirate Rain

Alice Parkinson and William Zappa read a number of poems from Pirate Rain lucidly (though words like insouciant and equinoctial tripped up the former’s tongue, and the line breaks do something on the page that it seems might be impossible to replicate in reading aloud), and there’s some commentary from the poet, which helps with the George Jeffreys / Clare Collins poems (which on this hearing sound to me like part of an ongoing novel). Maiden talks about the way fiction allows her to come closer to her own self than a lyrical poet–persona would.

Margaret Coel’s Eagle Catcher

Margaret Coel, The Eagle Catcher (©1995, Berkley Prime Crime 1996)

It think it was Julius Lester who named Margaret Coel  as one of  his favourite crime writers. And Tony Hillerman has provided a cover quote for this paperback: ‘Shouldn’t be missed … a master!’ I love Lester’s writing, and Hillerman’s, so these recommendations carried weight with me.

This is the first of the Wind River Reservation Mysteries, also known as the Arapaho Indian Mysteries, and I put it down to teething problems that it’s a bit clunky in places, a bit obvious as a whodunnit and a bit predictable in its climactic scene. But I’m not sure I read crime novels for the puzzle any more, if I ever did, or for the fine writing or innovative plotting. Often it’s the milieu that counts: Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Henning Mankell’s Sweden (but not Africa), Tony Hillerman’s Dinee. That, and the appeal of following a detective – whether it’s Lord Peter Wimsey or Sam Spade – through a series of reassuringly similar mazes. This book has the Arapaho reservation in Wyoming, which bears a strong resemblance to Tony Hillerman’s Navajo reservation in New Mexico, but does have a life of its own, and a pair of detectives – a tall redheaded Jesuit and a Arapaho woman lawyer – who offer a multitude of possibilities: a definite mutual attraction that each of them has to suppress, and a hint at the end that their collaboration will continue.

And then there’s the no-pressure history lesson about contact between whites (Niatha) and Arapaho, and the easy-to-take introduction to aspects of Arapaho culture.

Excellent for reading on the plane.

Thrill Seekers live

The Art Student and I are in Brisbane, wagging it from our Sydney lives to cheer for my niece Edwina Shaw whose book Thrill Seekers had its Australian launch at The Avid Reader last night.

I’ve blogged about the book before. It’s published by Ransom in the UK as part of their Cutting Edge series for reluctant teenage readers, and it’s pretty strong stuff. The promo on YouTube gives you some idea of its credentials to be part of something called Cutting Edge – lots of booze, drugs, sex, risk taking and rock and roll. Its final image of a wide-eyed, possibly terrified boy gives a glimpse of the book’s heart:

Though the book is grim and cutting edge, the launch was cheerful. A huge crowd crammed into Avid’s courtyard in the warm Brisbane evening (unlike Sydney, Brisbane has been having a summer) to be greeted by a slide show of Edwina and friends being young in the 80s. Jeff Cheverton, CEO of Queensland Alliance for Mental Health, kicked things off with a short talk in which he wondered aloud if Douggie, the boy in the book who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, might have had a less cruel experience if he and his friends had had a language for what was happening, and if there had been places then as there are now (though he seemed to say only two in Queensland) where young people who are losing it could go for support without being taken into the embrace of the medical model. Or words in that general direction – I didn’t take notes and I have a sieve for a memory.

Venero Armanno gave an elegant launch speech. He was at pains to say that while a great strength of the book is that it draws on the writer’s experience, it would be a mistake to see it as biographical, and especially so to see the alcoholic mother of the novel’s dangerously acting-out teenagers as in any way representing the author’s mother. The possibility of readers’ leaping to such an assumption has caused a lot of grief during the book’s long gestation, so the clarification was welcome. All the same, in other places the line between history and fiction are a little blurred. The book is dedicated to Edwina’s younger brother, whose life had a lot in common with that of the tragic fictional Dougie, and it’s his photo that ends the YouTub promo. I asked the elegant young man and successful artist sitting in front of me if he was a model for any of the characters. ‘Oh yes, he said, ‘I’m the one from a sugar farm who used to kill cane toads with his bare hands.’

Edwina spoke, and read a short passage, of which the emotionally charged last line caught her off guard, and she had to struggle to finish. Which must say something about the power of the book: she must have read that passage a hundred times in the writing-rewriting-rewriting-editing-proofreading process, but it still has that power for her.

And then she signed and signed and signed.
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Because Ransom is a tiny publishing house, Edwina is handling the Australian marketing and distribution herself. Her website gives regular updates on where it’s available.

Reading Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989, Harper Perennial 1990)

I started reading this three or four years ago, but the opening sentences put me right off:

When you write you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a miner’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow.

When I picked it up again – because it’s short and I was reading a big and sometimes tedious book I didn’t want to carry around with me, because it was by a woman and the VIDA figures are always at the back of my mind, because I’d started a little project to which the idea of the line of words as a tool couldn’t have been more apposite – I had trouble remembering why those lines that so threw me.

It’s a wonderful book, perfect for reading in small doses, not because it’s difficult but because so much of it cries out to be meditated on. I read it on the walk to the swimming pool (four minutes) and to the local shops (three minutes).

Annie Dillard writes about her life as a writer – the materiality of it, and a stunning range of metaphors for the process of writing: inchworms climbing blades of grass, aeroplane acrobats, a typewriter erupting like a volcano (this one had a whole short chapter to itself), a man rowing against a powerful current but getting to his destination eventually because the tide changes. There’s a pungent exposition of the role of scheduling, and a lot of whingeing raised to the level of the sublime. It’s not a how-to book, but it is deeply encouraging, even for people like me who are unlikely ever write a book.

On theatre blogs etc

Belvoir Street hosted a forum this afternoon about blogging and theatre criticism. There were two bloggers, two newspaper reviewers and the theatre writer from Time Out, who seemed to occupy a kind of in-between space – he has a word limit and a consumer guide brief, but there is a comments section.

Toward the end of the question time I felt a tremendous urge to grab one of the mikes and say some very interesting things. Luckily I’ve seen what happens when other people act on such urges (in case you’ve been spared the experience, I’m talking about those tedious types who talk about themselves to a hall full of people who are there to talk about something else). But this is my blog, so I’ll say my interesting things here.

One of my fondest memories of my eldest brother is walking home – it took nearly two hours – after seeing a preview of Steve J Spears’ The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin, talking our heads off. We thought the play had tremendous potential, Gordon Chater was wonderful, and the production was very interesting. We both agreed, though, that it missed the mark: the structure didn’t work, the morality was muddled, it tipped over into squishy self pity. Such a pity, we told each other. The pleasure with which I recall that walk, that conversation, that connection with my brother, is in no way dimmed by the fact that everyone else in the world saw it differently: the play went on to be a huge success, including a long season in New York.

By contrast I went to the Sydney opening night of The Rocky Horror Show with a newspaper theatre critic. We both enjoyed the show, but after we’d exchanged brief post-show comments, I realised that further discussion was being forcefully discouraged. She needed to focus, husband her responses, keep her next day’s review free of contamination.

In my mind these two evenings are emblematic of the difference between blogs and newspaper reviews: the former are about communication, connection, passion, excitement; the latter carry the burden of privileged speech – a readership with little or no right of reply, a position of influence that may of course be completely illusory.

Mostly these days I get my theatre criticism from blogs – Alison Croggon who sadly lives in Melbourne but made the trip up for today’s forum, and Kevin Jackson in Sydney, who sadly wasn’t there. Though I have profound respect for their ability to articulate and contextualise their experiences of theatre, I invariably argue with them, and occasionally even press send.

[I started writing this on my phone in the Belvoir foyer between the forum and the afternoon session of Babyteeth, and accidentally uploaded a fragment. Apologies to M-H and anyone else who got the fragment.]

Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light

Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light (Vintage 2011)

This book came highly recommended by what seemed like the whole world, and I can see what people admire, even enjoy about it.

It’s a rare thing, a novel whose main character lives consciously and deliberately as part of the great historical narrative of her time. Edith Campbell Berry engages with ideas, faces political realities, and tries to wield influence to make things better. In the first chapters she has returned to Australia in the early 1950s. She has a hand in the design of Canberra – in fact, her intervention seems to be crucial to the decision to go ahead with Walter and Marion Griffin’s plan for a lake. Through her brother and his partner she is a close-up witness to the Communist Party’s response to Bob Menzies’ failed attempt to ban it, and then to Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin and the invasion of Hungary. She dines at Menzies’ table, and chats with Whitlam soon after his election in 1972. She works with the International Atomic Energy Agency and is again close to the action when secrets about the English atomic tests in Western Australia leak out. At her death she is a special envoy in the Middle East for the Whitlam government.

But Edith is no cardboard cutout. Through all these years, she has to contend with assumptions that women’s place is not among those wielding power. Failing to gain official positions, she bluffs her way past public service obstacles and procedures, works her connections, takes advantage of gossip that she is some kind of spy. Her sexual experiences, and sexual might-have-beens, are unconventional and complex. Possibly the most attractive thing about the writing is the sense that Frank Moorhouse is discovering things about her as the novel progresses. Ambrose, Edith’s husband at the start of the book and the love of her life, is a transvestite, and I couldn’t resist the notion that this is a metaphor for the way the author slips into Edith’s skin and clothes – including on occasion her underclothes. Be that as it may, there’s a strong sense of Edith as someone Frank admires and loves, someone who exists independently of him. I didn’t need to be told that there was a real woman somewhere in the background (as Frank told Stephen McCarty at Ubud and on Slow TV a while back – it’s towards the end of the clip). It does feel at the end of the book that one has read the story of a life lived for its own sake and not to enact a writer’s world view. That’s really something.

But, you know, I can’t say I enjoyed the book. It’s the third volume of a trilogy and maybe I should have read the other two books first. As it was, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of recapping, an awful lot of ‘As you know, Bob’. I expect that if I’d read the other books, these would have been less irritating, and I might have had greater tolerance for Edith’s frequent ruminations because of a clearer sense of them perhaps as charting her mental journey. She ruminates on on her ideal capital city, on the nature of love, on the lessons to be learned from the League of Nations. I’ve got nothing against ruminations, but I couldn’t find anything wise, witty or provocative in Edith’s – I don’t think I’ve ever been so bored in a book that I still wanted to keep reading.

And then there was the sense that Moorhouse had done a huge amount of research and couldn’t bear to let some of it go even though it didn’t quite serve the story. I’ve got nothing against info dumps: my love of Neal Stephenson is partly due to the way he drops in great wads of information, and if Barbara Hambly’s Free Man of Color groans under the weight of her research into the New Orleans society of its time, it is the groaning of a table laden for a feast. But for whatever reason – perhaps because Moorhouse often presents his information as a character’s reveries or as even less plausible conversations – I wondered if the Readers Digest Condensed Version might be a better book. There’s an extremely poignant moment a bit past the novel’s midpoint, where Edith and Ambrose have parted, perhaps forever. And just as she – and the reader – have a moment to absorb the full import of the event, along comes this conversation with her driver:

‘How long will it take the Major to reach London?’ he asked, making conversation.
‘About fifty hours, plus the time from Canberra to Sydney.’
‘Many stops?’
‘Darwin – Singapore – Calcutta– Karachi – Cairo – Rome. I’d rather not talk, Theo.’
‘Of course, ma’am.’

Your mileage may differ, and I hope it does, but for me that was a case Frank the Irritating Researcher interrupting Frank the Passionate Story-teller. When Edith returned to her reverie, the moment for this reader had been lost.

I didn’t hate the book. I did learn from it. I do admire it. I’m glad I read it. It was a slog.