d e a n   f o r b e s                                                                    w a l k i n g ,  n o t  r u n n i n g . . .
 

B O O K S  A N D  W R I T E R S

Book Reviews and Other Meditations on Writing: 2008-2014



ARCHIBALD 2014


The risk of a drenching couldn’t deter us from a late afternoon trek to see the finalists for the Archibald Prize. 


There were 884 portraits of men and women ‘distinguished in Arts, Letters, Science or Politics’ entered for the Archibald this year. 54 made it onto the walls of the exhibition.


The judges are trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which helps explain the overwhelmingly large number of NSW artists represented among the final 54. The winner was NSW artist Fiona Lowry’s elegant, ghostly portrait of NSW resident Penelope Seidler.


My vote for the People’s Choice Award was Jude Rae’s calmly understated portrait of ‘Sarah Peirse’ (below). For the first time ever, M and I agreed; we both independently thought it the pick of the 54 on show.


The others on my top five list, in order, were: Mirra Whale’s portrait of Tom Uren (it could easily have been my first choice); Qiang Zhang’s ‘Here’, the title of his portrait of Yang Lee; Wendy Sharpe’s ‘Mr Ash Flanders, actor’; and Zoe Young’s ‘Torah Bright’.


M’s choices after Jude Rae’s efforts were: Anh Do’s ‘Father’; Eliza Cameron’s ‘Nice shootin’ cowboy (Anson Cameron); Bridgette McNab’s ‘Grace’ (Grace Hellyer); and Zoe Young’s ‘Torah Bright’


M added a few extra favourites: Fiona Lowry’s ‘Penelope Seidler’; Julian Meagher’s ‘John Waters - the clouds will cloud’; Paul Newton’s ‘Portrait of Frank Lowry AC’; Martin Tighe’s ‘A familiar stranger’ (Emma Ayres); Mirra Whale’s ‘Tom Uren’; and Qiang Zhang’s ‘Here’.


Altogether we picked out the work of 12 artists. Ten were from Sydney; two were from Melbourne. Ah, the politics of art. (13/8/14)



WRITING-ART #PNG


Typically my family history and teenage surfing years memoirs have been written narratives. The structures are simple: they follow a conventional timeline with limited extrapolation. In parallel I have collected photographs, maps and other memorabilia, and devised genealogies. Together they add extra texture to the (unpublished) stories.


The approach to my current project is different. I am exploring the three years I lived in Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s, but I didn’t feel a narrative memoir was the best way to express it. Instead I wanted to do something innovative that would enable me to experiment with different ways of articulating the nuances and emotional vibrations of those years. Writing would be a part of the work. The other part would draw from the approach of artists.


My partner, Marionne, is an artist, and her influence has been important. Watching her work has shaped my thoughts on how artists communicate through their art. I also trail along on visits to public and private galleries, and see the photographs she takes when we amble along the beach or walk through the rainforest. Talking with her has shaped my critical appreciation of the visual arts by giving me an insight into how an artist reacts to light, colour and structure. They, at least, are visible to me. There is much more that I don’t see, but hope I will in time.


I settled on an approach that merges short-form writing with a visual art form. My intention is to create a different kind of record of the experience. It will combine two elements. A clipped narrative that will be complemented by, and intertwined with, a tangible enhanced visual expression of everyday PNG. I call it an artists’ book, though it is not the same as the artists’ books that I have seen in galleries. The book will combine both my initial experimentation with the form, as well as the final content.


In some of my past academic books I included black and white photographs, and other visual material, such as maps and diagrams. But the written narrative was the core. In the PNG project I will sail into unchartered waters. I am composing short texts of 50-75 words. In parallel I’m mining the patrol boxes of documents, books and other acquisitions I brought back to Australia in early 1975, and using them as props as I try to recollect and express the emotional ripples of those three years. 


The narrative that I write, including an annotated timeline and this blog, are moving along at a reasonable pace. So too is the fossicking through books, old slides, photographs, scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings, and cultural artifacts. Memories, memories, memories.


But when facing a blank, pristine, cream-coloured page of paper in my new Moleskine art book, I am jolted into acknowledging that this is foreign territory and I need to develop a new basic set of skills. What do I know about colour, texture and the different implements used by artists? Is my hand-writing elegant and consistent? How do I learn to let go and express what I feel on the pristine page? It’s the latter that is made hardest by four decades working in universities. (9/4/14)



PNG BOOKS


With the PNG component of the Cities of Memory and Meaning project underway it was time to go through my library of Papua New Guinea books. I kept about 50 of the 300 I had accumulated, mostly in the early 1970s, and took the remainder along to Oxfam.


I have become a regular visitor to the Oxfam shop, parking in the loading bay in front, and hurrying a boot-full of plastic bags into a lengthy and quite large store-room. Each time it is already overflowing with books being sorted by an army of volunteers who cheerfully welcome the new contribution.


My books are organised by region (PNG, Indonesia, Vietnam etc) or organised according to a theme (cities, economic and social development, non-fiction, fiction, and so on). Somehow, I think it is my conceit.


Progress on the overall project is slow. I haven’t looked at most of the books since I left PNG in December 1974, so much time was spent on leafing through old volumes, and getting distracted. Now, however, it’s time to look more closely at the books I have kept, and try and isolate the ideas and experiences that most affected me when I was living in Port Moresby.


I then have to work out how to best, and most concisely, express these ideas in a visual form. New territory to me in many ways, but stimulating and almost liberating, as I move away from the narratives that have been central to the bulk of my academic writing.  (14/3/14)



PNG MEMOIR


In 1993 a book of short essays by 31 Australian and other expatriate women who had lived in Papua New Guinea was published. It was titled Our Time but Not Our Place: Voices of Expatriate Women in Papua New Guinea, and it was edited by Myra Jean Bourke, Susanne Holzknecht, Kathy Kituai and Linda Roach and published by Melbourne University Press.


I read a few of the essays at the time it was released, then came across it as I collected books to donate to Oxfam. After finishing The Mountain I decided it would be a good follow-up read. It contains some very raw, sensitive accounts of life in PNG. The women generally recognised that they were aliens - sojourners, and not settlers - even though many had lengthy stays and acquired the skills to communicate in Pidgin English.


They sought out PNG women and often established close relationships but struggled to understand the complexities of power and local cultures. They sympathized with the hard life of the village women, but respected their strength and resilience. They gained insights into the knotty village cultures and the hardships it imposed on women, especially in child-birth and food production.


Almost all spoke of the significant impact their PNG years had on their own sense of self. They retained warm feelings towards PNG, despite the hardships they saw and, sometimes, experienced.


It has prompted me to read a few more of the biographical accounts of my contemporaries in PNG. Almost all are written by women, I am reminded, as I scan the book shelves. (2/2/14)



SECOND HAND BOOKS


The Oxfam Second Hand Bookshop in Hutt St, Adelaide, is a gem. So is its facebook page. I dropped off about 350 books on cities last Tuesday that I hope will eventually reach good homes. And improve Oxfam’s revenue stream. It’s getting easier to let go of my books, though I notice I am keeping more than I had originally intended. (30/1/14)  



THE MOUNTAIN #PNG


Drusilla Modjeska’s The Mountain (Random House 2012), set in Papua New Guinea, is an absorbing book. Reading it coincides with me thinking about my time in PNG; it was a tumultuous period of my life, as I am increasingly realising. The narrative woven in the book cut a swathe through my memories and emotions.  


It took a while to get into the story. I read it on an iPad and tracked each new character until I started to get a sense of who and what the story was really about. There is great depth in the writing, and skill and nuance in the interpretation of black and white cultures. Central to it is the human struggle to sustain relationships, and the importance of family and clan in shaping lives. Modjeska undertook an impressive amount of consultation and research in order to write her story, and it subtly shows through in the narrative. From my (white) perspective it has a feel of sympathetic understanding and hard-edged authenticity, and almost no cringe-moments.


A large part of The Mountain is set in and around the University of Papua New Guinea from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. My first academic position was at UPNG, from 1972 to 1974. Key characters in the book worked at UPNG in the anthropology department (I was in geography, which gets a mention or two) and lived on campus in Waigani, as I did. It is tempting to line up book characters with real people from that small community.


In addition to the University and other settings in Port Moresby (Hohola, Hanuabada), the story is also set in the area near Popondetta, which is referred to as The Mountain. The Mountain is a made-up place. On the map in the book it is somewhere south of Popondetta. I immediately thought of Mt Victoria, PNG’s highest range, which is southwest of Popondetta. Henry Ogg Forbes - not a relation, but from the same area of Scotland as my grandfather - made an unsuccessful attempt to climb Mt Victoria in the 1880s. Forbes was obsessed with Mt Victoria. So, also, many of the characters in the book have their own preoccupation with The Mountain and the somewhat isolated clans that live on its slopes.


Apart from a visit to Port Moresby as a consultant in the 1980s, and a few other activities related to international students, until recently I have not given much thought to PNG or my time there. Reading The Mountain reminded me that I am not alone in discovering how significant my PNG experiences were in shaping the directions I later took. (20/1/14)



BOOKS


While reading the end-of year best books of 2013 list in The Oz I realized I hadn’t read as many books as I thought I would this year. The reason is that this year I have done more reading online, but mainly not books for pleasure.


During our stay in DC I read Blair Ruble’s Washington’s U Street: A Bibliography (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington, 2010). I had looked at excerpts from the book in the past, but it had more meaning when U St was a 10 minute walk from our house in Shaw/Dupont. Blair’s interest in jazz and cities led him to U St, and he skillfully captures the complexity and character of the area, both in the past and the present.


Also while in DC l read, initially because I thought I needed to, Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why it Must be Protected (Public Affairs, New York, 2009). It was a long, rewarding  read, convincing me once and for all that the major research universities are almost as good as their inflated sense of importance would suggest.


Finally, I started the year with Brian Stoddart’s exceptionally readable and, as it turns out, timely book, A House in Damascus (ePublishing Works, Shrewsbury PA, 2012). It was the subject of my second blog of 2013. Regrettably, the situation in Damascus has become even more dire than in January this year. And, quite possibly, pointless. (26/12/13)



THE BOOK REMOVALIST


Books are important to me. Last year I made a rough count of my book collection. There were just over 3,000 in total. Half were in my office at Flinders so, shopping bag by shopping bag, I brought them home and piled them into two rooms. Slowly I am moving them on, hopefully to good homes. My future library will be about 100 books, I’m thinking - perhaps a little optimistically.


The problem is, of course, everyone I know likes books, but no one I know wants them. So I am gradually taking them along to Salvos on the Broadway in the expectation that their distribution system will get them to people who are willing to pay a dollar or so a book. The market mechanism at work.


I am finding it difficult, though, so it is taking some time. Initially I cherry picked books of fiction that I didn’t like. That was the easy part. It became harder as I found books and authors that I enjoyed or had had a big impact on me. It was an emotional separation.


So I thought I would write a blog as I transferred the fiction titles into the plastic bags destined for the Broadway. It took longer, but it meant I could identify the authors and honour some of the books before I recycled them. I felt more comfortable about the task; it was a last look at books that I had carted around with me, in some cases, since the late 1960s. So here is an annotated list of the books that had particular meaning for me.


Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim, seduced by the university setting);

Jessica Anderson (Tirra Lirra by the River);

Julian Barnes (The Sense of an Ending was brilliant, except, paradoxically, I thought the actual ending - the last few pages - was limp);

Malcolm Bradbury (The History Man and Rates of Exchange, the university setting, again);

Anthony Burgess (I read The Malayan Trilogy while on field work in Indonesia and sitting drinking coffee in a kedai);


Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’s);

Peter Carey (Bliss had a huge impact on me. It was my favourite Carey book, and it encouraged me to read more Australian writers);  

Leonard Cohen (I didn’t think much of his two fictional works, but his poetry and music were something else);

Joseph Conrad (not just a great writer, but it was also his journeys through the ‘Far East’ that interested me);

Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss, one of many fine Indians writing in English);


Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby and just about all his other books);

Helen Garner (The Children’s Bach);

Graham Greene (one of my favourite authors - The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-Out Case, Our Man in Havana, The Power and the Glory, and his non-fiction);

Shirley Hazzard (The Transit of Venus);

Frank Hardy (Power Without Glory);


Christopher Isherwood (Goodbye to Berlin);

Howard Jacobson (Coming from Behind);

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Heat and Dust);

George Johnston (My Brother Jack and Clean Straw for Nothing);

Patrick Kavanagh (The Green Fool);


P.J. Kavanagh (The Perfect Stranger);

Thomas Kenneally (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith);

Arthur Koestler (Arrival and Departure, and the nonfiction, especially The Act of Creation);

Laurie Lee (Cider with Rosie, of course, and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning);

David Lodge (Changing Places and Nice Work, both set in universities);


Bernard Malamud (The Natural; his books convey a great sense of life in New York);

W.Somerset Maugham (I adored his Collected Short Stories, and particularly those set in the ‘Far East’);

Timothy Mo (Sour Sweet, The Monkey King);

Shiva Naipaul (Fireflies);

V.S. Naipaul (I preferred his non-fiction);


Ruth Park (The Harp in the South);

Mario Puzo (The Godfather. I read it while working on the maintenance shift at the GMH car plant at Elizabeth during the university holidays. I credited it with getting me into serious reading of books; I was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines, but not books, and The Godfather changed that);

Henry Handel Richardson (The Getting of Wisdom, The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney);

Mordecai Richler (Cocksure was brilliant);

Tom Sharpe (the Wilt books are hilarious);


Randolph Stow (The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea);

Evelyn Waugh (Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, Black Mischief, and more);

Fay Weldon (I loaned my copy of Female Friends to many female friends and somewhere along the line it didn’t come back but there are several Weldon’s in the house);

Tom Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities; I will say more about Wolfe in a later blog, as his ‘new journalism’ writings had a huge influence on me).


Despite the importance they have had in my life, the books still must go, but I feel better having acknowledged the writers of fiction and the books that I collected (or still have after loaning them out).


My preferred reading is biography and non-fiction (eg the new journalism) and there are all those academic publications I have accumulated. They account for two thirds of the books that I want to recycle. (7/6/13)



DALY HEAD AND CACTUS


Surfing was my passion as a teenager. I was therefore moved to see two of South Australia’s best surf spots achieve national recognition.


Daly Head, on the southern tip of Yorke Peninsula, has recently been declared a National Surfing Reserve. The celebration event took place in mid-January at a farm on Corny Point. I missed it, but it sounded good. A book has been published titled, not surprisingly, Daly Head: A National Surfing Reserve.


Point Sinclair, adjacent to Cactus on South Australia’s desert coast, was also recognised as a National Surfing Reserve in January.


It brings me to another surf book, Christo Reid’s Cactus: Surfing Journals from Solitude (Strangelove Press, Forresters Beach, 2010). It is a standout in the literature about surfing. It is a history of the iconic surf beach and surf community at Cactus. He points out it has the same longitude and latitude as Liliput in Swift’s Gullivers Travels, and speculates a connection with the island paradise of Swift’s Houyhnms. 


My only surfing visit to Cactus was in 1967 or 1968. Three of us drove over in an old Holden ute. It was a long all-night drive from Adelaide. I distinctly remember the driver momentarily falling asleep and swerving off the road before recovering and narrowly missing a roadside post. Arriving at Cactus we bedded down in sleeping bags in the sand. One night a feral surfer threw a large fire cracker in among us, burning holes in my sleeping bag.


Cactus had a reputation for sharks, as does most of the SA coast, so I was wary of the two or three fishing boats active a kilometre or two offshore which might have attracted sharks to the area. However the waves were good and it was great to be there with a half dozen or so surfer friends.


Finally, I should also mention Tim Baker’s Surfari (Ebury Press, Sydney, 2011). It is a more conventional surfing travelogue. It is the story of his surf journey around Australia, beginning and ending on the Gold Coast. His coverage of South Australia is patchy, missing Yorke Peninsula altogether. However there is a whole chapter on Cactus, which he refers to as Desert Camp, deferring to the local surfers desire to keep public awareness to a minimum. More a gesture than a meaningful action, I suspect. (23/2/13)



A HOUSE IN DAMASCUS


I downloaded Brian Stoddart’s eBook, A House in Damascus, to read over the New Year break. It was a good choice. I knew very little about Damascus, and I became intrigued by its extraordinary history and the richness of life within the city. My one visit to the Gulf encompassed Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, long enough only to know how much I didn’t know.


On arriving in Syria to undertake consultancy work in higher education, Brian signaled his intentions to explore by finding accommodation near the ‘Old City’. The book is an affectionate account of Damascus, its rich past revealed through the extraordinary architecture. It is also a personal story of the people he met. He reveled in its ancientness and the diversity of its communities, Syrians, Palestinians, Muslims, Jews and Christians.


As a historian he provides an engaged overview of the mosques, churches and souks. He enjoys trying different food and eating in his favourite restaurants (especially Brokar). And he uncovers a personal connection between his life in Australia and in Damascus through a story about Arabian horses.


He is critical of the negative depiction of Syria in American film and television. He disagreed with its portrayal as lawless and dangerous.


Brian’s account is mainly up until his departure from Damascus in early 2011, shortly before the commencement of the present conflict. The troubles in Syria have escalated and the shocking destruction of areas of Damascus and other cities continues. Some 60,000 people may have died in the conflict. The final chapter reflects on the personal impact of the destruction on the human and architectural fabric of Damascus. It will be some time before the streets of Damascus will again be walkable for visitors, and the riches of the city accessible to those curious about life in this ancient place.


The eBook is available on iBooks, and it was free when I downloaded it.


Brian Stoddart 2012 A House in Damascus, ePublishing Works (Shrewsbury, PA) ISBN 978-1-61417-356-4  (15/1/13)



HITCHENS AND JOBS


There were two standout books for me in 2011. Both were biographical and both key figures passed away in 2011. No surprises I guess (neither Kim Jung-il or Muammar Gaddafi came close).


I bought Christopher Hitchens Hitch-22. A Memoir (Allen & Unwin, London, 2010) early last year and read it immediately. There are just a few writers/musicians for whom I have felt a sustained admiration; Leonard Cohen; Graham Greene; J.K. Galbraith.  Having long been a reader of Hitchen’s work and after finishing Hitch-22 I added Christopher Hitchens to the list.


Hitchens’ book interested me for two reasons. First, he has some foreign correspondent credentials, and I admire good newspaper foreign correspondents and non-fiction story-tellers. Second, because he shifted his political ground, distancing himself from his Marxist and leftist international socialist period. He became highly critical of the left, and significantly more appreciative of those who grappled with significant foreign policy dilemmas. Hitchens was a self-proclaimed ‘contrarian’ (p 387), but he was much more than just a contrarian.


I had mixed feelings about the outpouring of emotion which followed Hitchen’s passing. Many former friends on the left were inclined to put the boot in. Others, I thought, may not have read much of what Hitchens had written, but were drawn by his fame. He had, perhaps, been  Bono-ised.


I think he overwrote. He was a show-off, and it grates. He was a chronic name-dropper and besotted with the cleverness of himself and his friends. It was especially evident in the chapter on Martin Amis. But it is a passionate book, and his writing is fearless and brilliant at times.


The second was Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs (Hachette Digital, London, 2011). It is a long book of 907 digital pages. I have heard it described as a hagiography, but that is unfair. It tells a long and detailed story about Jobs, who comes across as self-centred, rude, inconsiderate, and a great exploiter of those with whom he worked. Could he have achieved all that he did if he had a different approach? The issue will continue to be debated by those interested in leadership models and strategies.


Jobs’ ‘reality distortion field’ enabled him to achieve significant breakthroughs but also brought about some dismal failures. He was inclined to blame them on others. However, his impact on information technology was enormous, as we all know. His sense of design was simply outstanding. 


I use a range of Apple products, having abandoned the Microsoft et al families about five years ago. Jobs has successfully locked consumers like me into particular technology, and created barriers to prevent crossing-over into new products evolving out of un-connected companies. Up until now, the benefits have outweighed the costs of the integration model. That will inevitably change in the future. The result for many of us will be a painful re-organisation of our ever-expanding digital assets.


Isaacson has written a narrative that strikes a comfortable balance between the two sides of Job’s career.  It is a cracking read.


I haven’t thought much about connections between Hitchens and Jobs. But one commonality is worthy of comment. Both lived in the USA; Jobs was born there (though his father was an immigrant) and Hitchens moved there from the UK, and took out citizenship. In the midst of all the political hullabaloo the US remains a land of opportunity (I know it’s a cliché) for talented immigrants and their offspring. In a world that is increasingly fearful of the consequences of cross-border migration, this point should not be forgotten. (1/1/12)



A LIVING DON


I bought Mary Beard’s book It’s a Don’s Life (Profile Books, London, 2009) in a secondhand bookshop in Brighton.  She is a Cambridge historian of ancient Greece, and the book is composed of her blogs, which can be found in The Times. Beard blogs about universities, and draws on her extensive knowledge of life in ancient Rome, especially Pompeii, her favourite city.  I particularly enjoyed hearing from the eccentrics who add their esoteric comments. The blog is popular; 80,000 hits for her ’10 things you thought you knew about the Romans...but didn’t’was her best.  (21/6/11)



MORE READING 2


Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge: A Coastal Memoir (Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, 1993) is a slim volume.  Despite a mutual love of the Australian coast and beaches, I avoided Winton’s books in the past.  He struck me as genuine and very earnest, but just not someone I wanted to read.  Land’s Edge changed my mind.  I got a sense of how he and his family connect with the Western Australian coast.  His prose is creamy smooth; perhaps a little too smooth.  (13/2/11) 



MORE READINGS 1


The Fry Chronicles (Michael Joseph, London, 2010) was one of the Christmas gifts from my daughter and her partner.  Stephen Fry is a polymath, chronic twitterer and a ubiquitous presence on television.  In QI he is often funny, but essentially plays the straight (sic) man; the humour is provided by his panellists, when they are on song.


It took me a while to get into the book.  Initially I didn’t like the typeface, or his extended account of his taste for sweets as a child. But slowly I got into the rhythm, and ended up very pleased I persisted.  It is essentially the story of his life from university (Cambridge, of course) through to the day he started to experiment with illicit substances.  The diary of a very successful young man, as he tells us, often.


Fry comes across as disarmingly honest.  A bundle of contradictions.  He is an inveterate name dropper, and exudes a narcissistic pleasure in his own success. At the same time he is touchingly self deprecating, prone to jealousy, insecure and at times rather dark.  And he doesn’t like Robbie Coltrane.  I enjoyed his story and his quirky honesty.  (25/1/11)



READING


As the weather heated up over the break, so I managed to read more.  Pre Christmas reading was an early Christmas gift, Robert Drewe’s The Best Australian Essays 2010 (Black Inc, Melbourne, 2010).  It’s not a vintage collection, being thin on humour and the feisty, iconoclastic writing I was hoping to read.  A highlight was Janet Hawley’s essay on the artist Charles Blackman.  Somewhat to my surprise I enjoyed Les Murray’s ‘Infinite Anthology’. 


On Boxing Day I browsed the local bookshop and found Anthony Reynolds Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life (Omnibus, London 2010).  I’m a life-long Cohen tragic, and managed to see his 2009 concert at McLaren Vale and the Hanging Rock concert in 2010.  Sheer bliss.  I never imagined I would get to see Cohen live on stage, even if it was outside on a blisteringly hot day in the southern Vales. 


Buying the new bio was a no-brainer.  It is an easy and absorbing read, and I was only occasionally distracted by the numerous misspellings and missing or misplaced words.  It appears it was never proof read. 


Much has been written about Leonard Cohen, and Reynolds has drawn on published sources and interviews with select contacts.  Cohen himself was not interviewed.  Nevertheless sitting in a sunny conservatory reading the book with Cohen’s music on at low volume in the background was an ethereal, sublime experience.


Cohen first emerged as a poet (a boudoir poet, some said), and briefly as a novelist, and then a songwriter.  However it was not until he reached his mid 30s that he became a singer.  Permeating his whole professional life was a firm belief in what he eloquently terms ‘the aristocracy of the intellect’.  He also comes across as polite, even gentlemanly, and humble, but stubborn and totally dedicated to his work.


He is a very skilled wordsmith; it is more evident in his lyrics than his poetry, though both are connected.  He worked with excellent musicians.  Cohen puts his emphasis on the emotional content of his words and music, not the technical precision.  It serves him well.  Much of the album Ten New Songs was recorded in Cohen’s home studio.  The jacuzzi was close by.  It was often accidentally left on and could be heard on some of the tracks; it had to be engineered out in the final production.


The book dwells a little too much on the details of Cohen’s recordings, and is thinner on his personal life.  Cohen says he was ‘blessed with amnesia’ when it comes to those matters.  As he said in ‘Anthem’, ‘there’s a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in’. 


Cohen believes his two best songs are ‘If it be your will’ and ‘Hallelujah’.  If I had to choose just two, I would probably agree.  Particularly after hearing Antony’s cover version of the first and k d lang’s version of the second, which apparently brought tears to Cohen’s eyes when he first heard her sing it. 


I have been listening to ‘Suzanne’ and others since 1973 and I think he has produced great songs across the whole span of his career.  Backed up by some extraordinary musicians, such as Javier Mas, he also recently delivered a superb concert performances at 76.  He is an inspiration.  That’s probably why I enjoyed the book as much as I did.  (9/1/11)



MAKING GRAVY


I am only passingly familiar with his songs, but I have always thought Paul Kelly was a musician with gravitas.  After all, he was the support act for Leonard Cohen at Leconsfield last year, and at Hanging Rock this year.  On both occasions he connected with the passionate Leonard Cohen fans. 


Kelly grew up in Adelaide and enrolled at Flinders University in the 1970s, but left before completing his first year in order to become a writer.  That was enough to fuel my interest in his book.


How To Make Gravy (Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne 2010) has an unusual format for an autobiography.  It is structured around music and lyrics, embellished with short essays, notes and old letters.  The book had its origins in a series of Kelly’s concerts in which he worked his way through 100 of his songs, and spoke about his memories associated with them.  It works.


It is bigger than a house brick, and almost as heavy, so it wasn’t easy travelling with it and reading on planes.  But its insights and reflections on the life of a respected muso gave me much enjoyment.  It also got me thinking about how to tell stories and write an autobiography from a less conventional perspective.  (29/11/10)



2008: THE FINAL BLOG...


Brian Matthews’ Manning Clark: A Life (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2008) is a remarkable book.  Clark (1915-1991) authored the six volume A History of Australia.  He was a controversial historian.  In Australia’s history culture wars Clark was criticised both as a leader within the ‘black armband’ perspective, and because his sweeping interpretations were not always substantiated by documented ‘facts’.  Nevertheless, he was a towering public figure among Australian historians.


Matthews’ book goes into extraordinary detail describing the shaping of Clark’s  character, his religious beliefs, lack of self-confidence, and emotional distance from others.  He has benefitted from access to Clark’s extensive diaries and insights from his wide circle of acquaintances.  Academic networks in Australia involve a relatively small group of people.


From the very beginning Matthews’ stylish writing sucked me deep into the construction and evolution of Manning Clark’s personality.  The book is engrossing and difficult to put down, despite its length and meticulous scholarly detail.  It ranks with the best biographies I have read.


During the summer break I also read Toby Young’s witty and irreverent How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (Abacus, London 2001).  I followed it by reading Geraldine Brooks’ Foreign Correspondence: A Memoir (Bantam, Sydney, 1998).  It starts slowly but picks up emotional momentum in the second half.  It prompted me to move on to read her Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (Bantam, Sydney, 2008).  (31/12/08)



READING 1 January 2008


Reading was prominent in my Christmas break.  Not long back I borrowed Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman (Bantam Books, Sydney, 2000) from Kathy’s bookcase.  Steinbach’s stories are about Paris, London, Oxford and Italy.  One of her devices is to write short postcards to herself, and post them to her home in Baltimore.


Before I finished Steinbach, I started on Bryce Corbett’s A Town Like Paris: Living and Loving in the City of Light (Hachette Australia, Sydney, 2007).  It was Kathy’s birthday gift to me.  I love the idea of a book by an Australian lad about living in Paris, and this is written straightforwardly, and with humour.  It is a boys’ book, and he revels in the larrikan behaviour of ‘the Posse’, as he and his friends liked to be known.  The book is pleasant enough, without being particularly revealing, or uplifting.  But it is a yobbo’s book.  Corbett matures during the last third of the book, after he meets ‘the Showgirl’ and falls in love.  His writing becomes less laddish, and superficial, and just a touch more reflective.



ORHAN PARMUK 2 January 2008


For Christmas Kathy gave me Orhan Parmuk’s Other Colours: Essays and a Story (faber and faber, London, 2007).   The Turkish writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.   I flicked through it and recalled Kathy telling me she bought it because he wrote about cities, and Istanbul in particular.  A light-bulb went on in my head.  I was writing my piece on the Asian City for an encyclopedia, and was planning to write about Suketu Mehta’s brilliant book on Mumbai. 


In the city to see a film, we idled away some time in Mary Martin’s bookshop.  I asked if they had Orhan Pamuks book on Istanbul, and they did, so I bought it.  Its full title is Istanbul: Memories and the City (faber and faber, London, 2005).


I like the structure of Other Colours.  Its essays are short: 73, plus three longer stories.  It is also self-indulgent, which I guess is OK when you have a Nobel Prize.



SARAH’S CHRISTMAS GIFT 3 January 2008


A book arrived from Sarah.  Her Christmas gift for me was Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2004).


Sarah wrote inside the cover:

Dearest Dad –

I will forever cherish our bond.  Every moment we have shared, all the inspiration you have provided, all the love you have given.

May this story inspire you to continue “the ice-cream years”

And perhaps – just maybe this author may become the new leader we have been searching for.

I love you,

Sarah xx


Obama’s mother was American, and his father from Kenya.  The book is a kind of family history, written soon after he graduated from Harvard.  The edition I have was revised and added to and published in 2004.