Category Archives: Book Club

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage 2013)

wyld.jpgMy copy of All the Birds, Singing announces on the cover that it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2014. As I read the first chapter, which is set in a generic British countryside, I wondered about that prize, given the insistence in past years that the Miles Franklin winner had to be set in Australia. The first paragraph of the second chapter put my questioning to rest:

We are a week from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.

Then, as if Boodarie and the redback aren’t enough to signal that we are now in rural Australia, the next paragraph lays it on thick:

The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it. […] The first stars are bright needles, and in the old Moreton Bay fig that hangs over the tractor shed and drops nuts on the roof while I sleep, a currawong and a white galah are having it out; I can hear the blood-thick bleat of them. A flying fox goes overhead and just like that the smell of the place changes and night has settled in the air.

The novel continues in alternate chapters. On an unnamed British island, the protagonist has a small sheep farm, and someone or something is killing her sheep. In Australia, some years earlier, she is a lone woman shearer, with a dark secret in her past. On the island, she has to deal with a series of men who refuse to take her story of a sheepkiller seriously. In Australia, the telling moves back in time through a series of unfortunate incidents, mostly involving physical and sexual abuse by men.

It’s a good read, but I have to tell you that if, like me, you prefer a book that sets up a mystery to arrive at a solution to that mystery, you will want, like me, to throw this one across the room when you reach the final pages.

All the Birds, Singing is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group & Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights

Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (Jonathan Cape 2015)

2yrs.jpgSadly (or not – you be the judge), I missed the book group meeting on Wednesday night. Unusually, though, there was a lot of email discussion of the book in the lead-up to the date. Here are annotated excerpts from the emails, with names changed and identifying detail removed:

3 March 1:35 pm, Alphonse:
NEXT BOOK: 
Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: ‘From one of the greatest writers of our time: the most spellbinding, entertaining, wildly imaginative novel of his great career, which blends history and myth with tremendous philosophical depth. A masterful, mesmerising modern tale about worlds dangerously colliding, the monsters that are unleashed when reason recedes, and a beautiful testament to the power of love and humanity in chaotic times.’
NEXT DATE: Wednesday 20 April / 7pm
NEXT VENUE: Bill … we voted last night that the next meeting would be at your place. Hope that’s OK with you and that you are able to join us.

That was all until:

15 Apr 2016 2:45 pm, me:
Hi all
I’m assuming our next meeting is confirmed for Wednesday 20th at Bill’s place, as in Alphonse’s last email.
Sadly I won’t be able to make it. I’m about three-quarters through the book, and mostly enjoying it. (I love the description of Obama on p 127.) I’ve read a number of children’s books dealing with similar subject matter and I’m not sure that this is any more engaging than the best of them. If you’re interested you could have a look for the Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud.

Having now finished Rushdie’s book, I would name Sophie Masson’s Snow, Fire, Sword as a more relevant children’s book: Sophie has supernatural beings from Arabic lore wreak havoc in Indonesia, with an implied parallel to real-world Wahhabism – a scenario not a million miles from Rushdie’s book. Here’s the Obama description I mentioned:

… the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man, eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in word and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who thought of himself as a man of reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon) and colour-blind.

The prospective roll-call began:

15 Apr 4:02 pm, Chrysostom:
Apologies from me too. Am in the bush

15 Apr 5:18 pm, Dionysus:
I’ll be there

And then the opinions started:

15 Apr 10:37 pm, Errol wrote:
I’ll be there, but as a complete bludger I’m afraid. I couldn’t get traction with the book. I tried three times but then I put it down and just couldn’t pick it up again.
Looking forward to other opinions
PS. What’s the address?

17 Apr 8:52 am, Ferdinand:
Same.

17 Apr 10:49 am, Dionysus being a little more forthcoming:
Glad to hear I’m not alone.

That’s three people who couldn’t get past the first few pages. I’m guessing that’s because there’s a lot in those pages about 12th century philosophical debates between Ibn Rushd (known to the West until recently as Averroes, and surely not coincidentally sounding a bit like ‘Rushdie’) and Ghazali (said to be the most influential Islamic scholar since Mohammad), mixed in with a lot of lore about jinn, plus some unconvincing sex. For a book that’s going to feature fairies and magic and levitation and comic book monsters, this beginning is perhaps just a little anxious to establish that the author has a serious underlying theme. Surely Salman could hear his readers muttering, ‘Get on with it!’

Back to the correspondence.

17 Apr 4:52 pm, Graham:
Just back this morning from overseas. So far I am enjoying the book but not finished yet. Has Bill said it’s on for Wed?
I am keen to come but may need to cancel at the last minute.
Keen to hear what people thought of the book

Hmm, enjoying it, but not going to move heaven and earth to talk about it with the comrades. And still no word from Bill.

18 Apr 8:17 am, Harald:
I’m on, got half way so far, with a similar lack of interest. Too much jinnying, to too little purpose.

Was ever a book so unenthusiastically greeted?

For my part, the place where I nearly put the book aside was page 107, well before the halfway mark:

… in Times Square … for a period of time variously described by different witnesses as ‘a few seconds’ and ‘several minutes’, the clothes worn by every man in the square disappeared, leaving them shockingly naked, while the contents of their pockets – cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, masks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips, plastic baggies containing white powder, spliffs, lies, harmonicas, spectacles, bullets, and broken, forgotten hopes – tumbled down to the ground. A few seconds (and maybe minutes) later the clothes reappeared but the nakedness of the men’s revealed possessions, weaknesses and indiscretions unleashed a storm of contradictory emotions, including shame, anger and fear. women ran screaming while the men scrambled for their secrets, which could be put back into their revenant pockets but which, having been revealed, could no longer be concealed.

That’s clever, it’s funny in a number of ways, and nicely written, with a touch of surreal silliness (when did you last see a sexual insecurity lying on the footpath?). But I was overwhelmed with a sense that life is short and Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights is long. Too much jinnying indeed, and if this is part of what the book calls the War of the Worlds, there’s a serious gap between what the book seems to be claiming to be and what it actually is. Oh Salman, Salman, the readers are still muttering. Still, I went in mildly to bat:

18 Apr 8:42 am, me:
I’ll be interested to know if people think his account of the ‘purpose’ towards the end makes up for all the jinnying.

And then things got all organisational.

18 Apr 09:12 am, Alphonse:
So we have:
*   4 apologies
*   3 yes (2 of whom haven’t got far with the book)
*   3 no reply
*   no confirmed venue
Do we reschedule to a new venue next week ?

18 Apr 1:16 pm, Errol (who, remember, hadn’t got past the first couple of pages):
The way I see it, it’s not our fault that Salman Rushdie is a stuffed shirt with funny ideas and a strange way of saying them.
What if we ignore him? How about those of us that are available just go out for a meal on Wednesday night and hang out?

Bill (who hadn’t read the book) finally surfaced from his heavy other commitments to say that his place wasn’t possible this week, and with a little back and forth it was decided to go ahead, in a restaurant, last night. Harald (of the ‘too much jinnying’ comment) said he’d try to finish the book in time, and Jamahl chimed in:

18 Apr 4:40 pm, Jamahl:
I’ve read the book and enjoyed it.
See you at the restaurant.

By now, I was spoiling for a conversation:

19 Apr 11:22 am, me: 
I’m sorry I can’t be there. Apart from the always excellent company, I would have enjoyed advocating for the book. It’s not as if I enjoyed it hugely. I struggled with the start and was tempted to give up at about page 100 (where the jinnery was getting tedious). Also, the sense that Rushdie was doing stuff that many children’s books had been doing for decades made me kind of resentful by proxy
BUT
in the end I was drawn in by the way he expects us to treat Arabic scholars with the same respect as we would western mediaeval ones; and the way he seduces us into seeing the ‘fairy’ world of northern Africa as central, with various more familiar Indian and Greek gods as manifestations of them. There’s a tiny bit where two characters are married at the Auribondo ashram in Pondicherry, by ‘Mother herself’ – an Indian email friend of mine has told me about Mother, who was a huge influence in my friend’s life. I wondered how many other references there were that non-Westerners would pick up on that just float by me. And yet, the book is definitely a novel in the western tradition, even if closer to children’s books and graphic novels than to Bleak House.
That’s my two bits.

Which drew Jamahl out with a perfect counterbalance to my over-seriousness. The book is after all a lot of fun, with goth-girls hurling lightning from their fingers and elderly gardeners floating a couple of millimetres above the ground, and terrible things happening to people’s skin if they tell lies in the presence of a magical baby:

19 Apr 5:06 pm, Jamahl: 
What a fantastic BUT.
Despite the river of references flowing by unnoticed while I read I still enjoyed the book. While I read I would suspend disbelief and wallow in the plasticity of time. There are also moments of ‘couldn’t give a fuck to consequence’ that I wholeheartedly supported.
While as a retiree you may be familiar with these freedoms this book allowed me to drift and swim in them.

No report from the dinner yet.

Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (Beacon Press 2002)

0807066095My copy of this book doesn’t have the subtitle it evidently carries in other editions: On Objects and Intimacy. If the subtitle had been there I might have been better prepared for what the book is. What it’s not is a dissertation on the painting it is named after (whose title has been changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters and which can be seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or online here).

The book starts with the painting, or at least with the writer’s having fallen in love with it, and it does discuss it and other still lifes from the period, but it roams far and wide, through memoir about objects and how they – or their memories and representations – can come to embody emotional truths, to lyrical reflections on love, mortality, bereavement and poetry. It ranges through cute childhood memories of bears and boiled lollies, a fortieth birthday in Amsterdam involving visits to the Rijksmuseum, a Gay bathhouse, and a fine Thai restaurant, and wonderful writing about the consolations of art.

I came away from the book liking Mark Doty a lot, and with a sense that my heart had been rendered that much more open to the world.

To give you a taste of the writing, here is a passage that crops up as a digression in a story about a chipped blue and white platter that Doty bought at a sale table when out walking his dog, at a time when his partner was gravely ill:

The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away; the sealed chamber of the pie, held aloft on its raised silver stand, has been opened. Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, its handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refuse perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time.
But there’s the paradox – they are depicted in a moment of being seen, contemplated between the experience of tasting, smelling, devouring; but this depiction places them outside of time, or almost outside of it, in a long, slow process of decay, which is the process of oxidation, of slow chemical transformation … Whatever time may have done to the original fruits, their depiction is now safe from the quick corrosions of local time and subject to the larger, slower, depredations of history.
And thus something of the imperfect, the quickly passing, the morning meal with its immediate pleasures has been imported into the realm of perfection, into the long, impersonal light of centuries.

PS: In the little blog that appears over in the right hand column of this one, I expressed frivolous misgivings as I was starting this book:

It’s a slender volume, published by a Unitarian publishing house. Is it a mattress to catch a falling Protestant and so of little interest to those who had a Catholic childhood?

Will commented:

No, not at all. It’s a lovely book of reflections on the real world as we see it. Painting and memory, seeing and interpreting. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s worth mentioning that Will is a librarian, and so may have a slightly more precise meaning in mind for the word ‘real’ than most of us do (see realia). He was right.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Don’t Cry, Tai Lake

Qiu Xiaolong, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake (Minotaur Books 2012)

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I’ve pretty much stopped reading detective novels. Inspector Chen, Chinese poet-detective tempted me back into the genre. There was a promise of insight into the workings of contemporary China, and Chinese poetry ancient and modern, all floating on a light whodunnit froth.

I should have known better. The whodunnit element is flimsy. The poetry feels inserted (though it’s a nice touch that Chen quotes Matthew Arnold as well as verse from ancient dynasties). And any issue of Asia Literary Review offers more insight.

I might still have enjoyed it but, perhaps because had just read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, my internal blue pencil was on the alert, and this book’s copy editor let far too much go by: not anything gross, but far too much tautology of the ‘There was something eerily familiar about the peddler, Chen noticed, thinking he might have seen him somewhere’ kind, and enough examples of words that don’t mean what they’re meant to mean, as in the book’s very last sentence, ‘He wondered if he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ A decent copy editor would surely have suggested ‘onset’ because who can wonder about naps in the middle of any kind of onslaught?

I reached for a collection of essays by the impeccable David Malouf.

Richard Powers’ Orfeo

Richard Powers, Orfeo (Atlantic Books 2014)

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Margaret Atwood, no less, is quoted on the cover of this book as saying, ‘If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century he’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big.’ That’s probably taken out of context, and it’s a wee bit over the top, but, you know, only a wee bit. If Melville had been writing about the music scene rather than the whaling industry, he might have written this book. The digressions are just about as long as the ones in Moby-Dick, and for my money at least as interesting; the quest at the centre of the story is as doomed and self-destructive; the frame of reference as global.

Peter Els, a 70 year old composer who has had very little popular or critical success, calls 911 when his dog dies. The police who come to his door have their security-threat detectors set off when they see that he is a DIY biochemist, and soon he is on the run with the full might of Homeland Security behind him. The story of his flight, which becomes a kind of Thelma-and-Louise flavoured 12-steps amends-making pilgrimage, is told in counterpoint with his back story. Folded into one story is the world of Homeland Security vigilance about real and imagined terrorist threats, media panics and the surveillance state; and into the other the history of 20th century US cutting-edge music in its broader world political context.

It’s a gauge of how well Powers writes that just as Els’s flight is reaching a critical moment, he stops off to give a lecture in an old people’s residence, and everything stops while we are told the story of the composition and first performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – and it’s so interesting that 17 pages later, when we return to the main narrative (‘That was the story Els told his eleventh-hour pupils … ) we do so as if waking up from a vivid, satisfying dream. There are other, shorter digressions, in which Els listens to a piece of music, and we are taken through it moment by moment: this is a book to be read, not just with Google on hand to chase up interesting references, but with access to a music library to listen along with Els to Mahler, George Rochberg, John Cage, Harry Partch, and on and on. And yet it has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

I scored (no pun) Orfeo at my book-swappng club. Since I’d had Powers’ Galatea 2.2 on my TBR pile for some years, I decided to read it first. If the creative and life crises depicted in the earlier book when author and character, both called Richard Powers and in their mid 30s, were based in reality, it seems that they passed. Six novels and 19 years later, I don’t know that Orfeo is any more cheerful than Galatea 2.2 but if Galatea 2.2 contemplated the abyss, then Orfeo is gloriously, operatically, romantically over the cliff.

Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes

Favel Parrett, When the Night Comes (Hachette Australia 2014)

wncFavel Parrett’s first novel, Past the Shallows, published in 2011, was a hard act to follow. In When the Night Comes, her second, she moves to a bigger world, out past Tasmanian waters to Antarctica and Scandinavia, and into a delicate, tender relationship between an adult man and a girl just entering her teens.

I’m tempted to say that it’s actually two novels.

First there’s the one described in the author’s endnote. This is a celebration of the Norwegian ship, Nella Dan, a real ship whose history is sketched in the note, along with affectionate quotes from a number of people who sailed in ‘the little red ship’. If such a celebration had been written by, say, Neal Stephenson, it might have included bravura passages dramatising the ship’s inner workings – the heat and noise of the engine room, the pinging wheelhouse, the compartmentalisation of the hull. But this is not that kind of celebration. Here the engine is background noise that helps the sailors sleep; we spend time in the ship’s kitchen, but no ink is spilled on describing the stoves; if the size of the crew may be mentioned I don’t remember it. In fact, apart from its bright red paint and its size – sometimes surprisingly small, sometimes surprisingly big – we don’t have much sense of the ship as a physical thing at all. What we do have is the way all the characters respond to it, to her, as a dependable almost-maternal, almost-comradely, presence. Almost those things, because Nella Dan never really emerges as a character in her own right.

The other novel is the one I read, and was moved by. In it, the Nella Dan is an interesting setting for part of human story. This story moves between two points of view. The first is that of Isla, 12 or 13 years old, who has recently moved to Hobart with her mother and her younger brother (never known as anything other than ‘my brother’) after their parents’ marriage break-up. A Danish sailor named Bo becomes a regular part of the family. As Isla is completely uninterested in the world of adult relationships, we pretty much have to deduce that Bo and Isla get to spend time together because Bo and Isla’s mother are having a fling, a romance, a domestic relationship of some sort.  Bo’s is the other point of view, and we travel with him on the Nella Dan into Antarctic waters.

Dramatic things do happen: each of the main characters has to deal with the violent accidental death of a close friend, for example, and the Nella Dan runs into the perils of the Southern Ocean. But the strength of the book lies in it depiction of the delicate connection between these two people that allows Isla to imagine herself in a much bigger world, and Bo to find sweet companionship. It feels easy, but when you consider we live in a climate where closeness between an adult male and a child not his own is often looked on with deep suspicion, I can only say I’m deeply impressed – and grateful – for what the book offers.

Sadly, my copy was on loan and has been reclaimed by its owner, so I can’t quote anything. Trust me. Favel Parrett writes lucid, supple prose. The book is full of pleasures.

aww-badge-2015This is the third book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014)

0141047380If this hadn’t been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize I wouldn’t have lasted more than 30 pages. The narrator is a dentist who has a gift for clever sounding banality. He goes on about US baseball teams, his dental hygienist’s Catholicism (he’s an atheist himself, of Protestant background), Jews (one of whom has described him as philosemitic), the internet and of course himself – his sorry history with women and, obliquely, his miserable childhood. When on page 96 he uses the phrase ‘the chronic affliction of my self-obsession’, I felt strongly that it was the readers who were afflicted. 

Take this, from page 120:

While standing in line to buy cigarettes …, I notices a headline on the cover of a celebrity magazine. ‘Daughn and Taylor Back Together?’ it read on big print, and my mind returned to it later in the day while I worked on a patient. I didn’t know that Daughn and Taylor had gotten together, to mention nothing of them breaking up, and now, possibly getting back together again. More troubling still, I didn’t know who Daughn and Taylor were. Daughn and Taylor … I thought to myself. Daughn and Taylor … who are Daughn and Taylor? It was clear that I should know them, given the significant real estate their debatable reconciliation had commanded on the cover of one of the more reputable celebrity magazines. But I didn’t know them, and not knowing them, I realised I was once again out of touch. I would be in touch for a while, and then a headline like ‘Daughn and Taylor Back Together Again?’ would come along to let me know that I was out of touch again.

And he ruminates for another page and a half until he finally asks his office manager/ex-wife who Daughn and Taylor are.

Some readers might be riveted. The plot, to that point, is very slight. Someone has set up a web site in his name advertising his practice, and there is an odd quote that could be from the Bible in his website bio.

I told myself that if the Man Booker judges liked the book enough to prefer it to Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, then something interesting must be lurking over the page. I read on.

The second half of the book is much more interesting than the first. It turns into a kind of Da Vinci Code or Foucault’s Pendulum, only written in decent prose and without exhausting historical research. It explores similar territory to  Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, with added fantasy. It even becomes fun. As a non US-er, I’m glad to have known a Red Sox fan and witnessed her joy when they won a 2004 baseball competition – it turns out that the narrator’s regular rants about the Red  Sox have an excellent pay-off (as the many rants like the one about Daughn and Co don’t – they just don’t).

So my recommendation, in short: speed read the first five chapters (as literary judges, being busy people, may well have done) and you might end up loving this book.

Kevin Powers’ Yellow Birds

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (Sceptre 2012)

1444756133Kevin Powers served in the US Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and this novel draws on that experience. It’s a story about combat told by someone who was there. It needs to be approached with respect. And I did. I was repelled by some callous and/or confused anti-Islamic imagery in the first paragraph (‘The war tried to kill us in the spring … While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer.’). But I read on.

The anti-Islam thing was clearly not deliberate. The narrative follows a small group of soldiers in Iraq – really just three characters. They do vile things, but they’re not triumphalist about it: this is what soldiers have to do, and they are pretty much as numb to the deaths of their comrades as to the enemies and the innocent bystanders they kill. There are flashbacks to home in rural Virginia. A terrible fate for one of them is foreshadowed. There’s a nasty scene in a brothel, a colonel who does what the narrator calls a ‘half-assed Patton imitation’, some clueless embedded journalists.

I had trouble believing any of it. I don’t for a moment think Powers is misrepresenting things. Certainly, there’s a fierce rejection of the sort of crypto-glamour of something like The Hurt Locker (I mean the movie – I haven’t read the book it draws on). I’m pretty sure he tackled some material that was unimaginably hard to face, and I admire him greatly for that. But nothing came alive for me, everything felt painfully constructed. I stopped reading at about page 90 when an embedded journalist was being a complete idiot.

So The Yellow Birds may be all the things that the distinguished writers quoted on its back cover say it is: ‘inexplicably beautiful and utterly, urgently necessary’, ‘born from experience and rendered with compassion and intelligence’, written ‘with a fierce and exact concentration and sense of truth’. It may, as one of them proclaims, be the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab Wars. Please don’t take my word against the combined judgement of Ann Patchett, Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín. Alice Sebold and more. As far as I read, I thought it was pretty good first novel on a very important subject, and hope Kevin Powers has a great writing career ahead of him.

Teju Cole’s Open City

Teju Cole, Open City (2011, Faber and Faber 2012)

0571279430 Julius, the narrator–protagonist of this novel, is a psychiatrist by trade, but as far as we’re concerned he is a flâneur: we don’t quite have a word in English for such a person, one who strolls (flâne) around a city, observing people and things with a detached, intelligent curiosity, and no other agenda. Julius strolls from street to street, from church to bar, gallery to movie theatre to concert hall. He visits an old friend who is dying, phones a former girlfriend, has a casual sexual encounter, chats with the man who checks the air-conditioning vents on the subway, is mugged, runs into the sister of a friend from his teenage years. Almost always, he is moved by whim rather than intention, and when he does set out on a quest at one point, the quest comes to absolutely nothing.

The city is New York, though Julius visits Brussels for a spell and continues his flâning ways there. I didn’t read the book with a street map open beside it, but I expect that if I had I’d have known to within a block or two where I was on almost every page. The same goes for time: he visits and responds to particular films, concerts and exhibitions, and I’m reasonably sure that the date he saw them on could be approximated by a quick check of past issues of New York newspapers.

In a way, just as Julius’ wanderings trace the shape of the city, his encounters (not all of them are conversations) build a picture of the less tangible social and political world, mostly from perspectives other than the dominant one, as most of the people he talks to are not white – he himself is the Nigerian-born son of a German mother and a Nigerian father.

But the book is not the meandering bore or disguised tract that description may conjure up. True, it doesn’t have a central quest or conflict needing resolution. Also true, there are reflections on the state of racism and internalised racism in the US, on ‘political correctness’, on Middle Eastern politics. But none of the reflections amounts to a didactic ‘line’, and there is a quiet and unobtrusive overall arc. We get to know Julius, and start to wonder about him. He has an ambivalent attitude to African-Americans in general – welcoming the sense of connection but shying away from the enforcement of identity. He loves his old English professor and knows he is dying, yet visits him only twice over many weeks, and when he discovers on his third visit that his old friend has died, he resumes his peripatetic ways without missing more than a beat. There is a striking lack of affect in his account of a sexual encounter with a Czech woman in Brussels. His quest to find his German grandmother is oddly half-hearted. His music references are incredibly erudite, and you might start to wonder if ‘incredible’ might be more precise than it at first seems – that he might be straining to project an image of himself as a man of high culture. It’s not that we’re being given a coded alternative version, but we realise that, perhaps inadvertently, he is telling us a lot about what it means to be a mixed-heritage, middle-class African immigrant to the US. Perhaps it’s a sop to the conventional reader that there is a surprise revelation towards the end, but I found it both disturbing and deeply satisfying that Julius lets the revelation sit on the page with only a broad introductory comment, as if he is as stunned by it as we are.

I’m not sure what the title means. An open city, in the usual wartime context of the term, has declared that it will not defend itself in case of attack. Perhaps Manhattan is wide open, ready to yield its secrets to anyone who wants to walk its streets and buildings with eyes and mind on the alert. Or perhaps Julius is the open city of the title – laying himself out there without defensiveness.

Open City was one of the books I took home from our last Book[-swapping] Club. It took me months to actually pick it up because I’m generally suspicious of books and movies that treat New York as a cosmos. This isn’t one of those.

Stephen Greenblatt’s Swerve

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the world became modern (Norton 2011)

This book tells of the rediscovery in 1417 of a copy of Lucretius’ poem De rerum natura (Of the nature of Things) as a key moment in the transformation of European culture – in the Renaissance. The preface begins promisingly with a moving account of the author’s own first encounter with the poem as an impressionable young man, but my antennae started twitching when, describing the contents of the poem, it said:

All things … have evolved over vast stretches of time. The evolution is random, though in the case of living organisms it involves a principle of natural selection. That is, species that are suited to survive and to reproduce successfully endure, at least for a time; those that are not so well suited die off quickly.

Hmm, I’ll bet London to a brick that the phrase ‘natural selection’ wasn’t around long before Darwin: even Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the mechanism, didn’t use the term. And that paragraph manages to suggest the very Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’. It looks awfully as if Mr Greenblatt is a bit over-keen to claim modernity for the poem, and to read the past through an excluding modern lens. A passing reference two pages later to ‘Robert Burton’s encyclopaedic account of mental illness’ (melancholy=mental illness? Really?) confirmed my distrust.

Sure enough, the book’s thesis, that the discovery of De rerum natura changed everything, comes across as a marketing hook rather than a serious argument. But then if you’re writing about something as dry as an ancient Roman philosophical poem, the temptation to play up any conflict or drama (mediaeval monks stupid and repressed / Renaissance humanists bold and clever) and to gloss over inconvenient complexities must be so great as to seem a necessity. In a deeply unsympathetic account of the early development of Christian theology, for example, Greenblatt comes close to saying the theology was formulated as a way of fighting off challenges from Epicureanism in general and Lucretius’s poem in particular, an implausibly narrow claim I would have thought. For the mediaeval Christian church, he tells us in other examples, curiosity was a mortal sin, and the silence during monastic meals was imposed for the purpose of preventing discussion. These assertions probably aren’t flat-out wrong, but it took five seconds with Google to find Thomas Aquinas going on about ‘the vice of curiosity’ in a nuanced way that makes it clear that the phrase has been taken out of context, and I’d like to see a debate about mediaeval monasteries and literacy between Greenblatt and Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization.

The book tells a good story. It gives a lively, heart-rending account of the destruction of the vast body of written work built up during Greek and Roman antiquity, and brings home with great force the way it was sheer chance that De rerum natura and many other works survived and were recovered – sheer chance plus the prepared mind of book-hunter Poggio Bracciolini, who knew what he’d found when he saw it on the shelves of a monastery somewhere in Germany. Poggio was fairly famous in his own time as a humanist writer and discoverer of ancient texts. Greenblatt has done us a service in giving us a lively portrait of him.

I’d just written that last paragraph when a link turned up in my Feedly reader to a review by Morgan Meis in n+1. As opposed to this blog post, it’s a proper review which gives a good account of The Swerve‘s argument and then gets stuck into its slipperiness from a better informed position than mine. I recommend the review as a whole, but here’s a quote for those who won’t click through to it:

The end of all Lucretius’s observation and wonder is to reach ataraxia, the point at which we look with indifference at the natural world. We realize we have no control over it and that it doesn’t matter what happens to us anyway. […]

A tremendous amount of desire is expressed in The Swerve. It is the desire, first and foremost, to present the modern age as a definitive solution to the human problem. Greenblatt wants Lucretius to be telling us it is OK to love the world and to be engaged with one another in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. There is immense joy to be found in that pursuit, Greenblatt thinks, and it is one that human beings have foolishly denied themselves again and again. Greenblatt finds great satisfaction in the fact that a two thousand-year-old poem expresses, in his view, this exact desire. Coming back to Lucretius is thus coming back to ourselves.

But Greenblatt can only make this argument by ignoring ataraxia, the whole point and purpose of Epicurean philosophy.

In other words, someone who knows quite a bit more about the subject than I do has confirmed my sense that the book should be treated warily. Greenblatt is a scholar writing for the masses, and he simplifies, which sometimes leads to distortion. He’s a secularist Jew writing in a US where self-righteous fundamentalist Christians are increasingly prominent in public life, and he goes in to bat for a different point of view, which sometimes leads to significant omissions and distortion. He’s witty, has an eye for the telling anecdote, paints a convincing picture of  life among the humanists employed in the courts of the more or less corrupt popes of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, reminds us that the renaissance didn’t just happen but had to be fought for, and above all whets the appetite for reading Lucretius (whose name, I now remember, was often on the lips of my high school Latin teacher).

Added much later: There’s a heartfelt smackdown of this book by Jim Hinch in the Los Angeles Review of Books of 1 December 2012.