Tuesday, August 28, 2007

(Books) Out of Africa

When people ask South African journalist and singer Rian Malan why he stays in a country that’s clearly going to hell in a handbasket, he says, “It’s boring where you are.” And it is. Where else can you walk through adrenaline grass as tall as your elbow, knowing you could step on anything from a lion to a black mamba at any moment?

I’m a masochist and I enjoy torturing myself with daydreams of places I'd rather be, so I like to read books set in Africa. I’m not that fussy what sort, so long as they have a sense of place. I haven’t had a go at Wilbur Smith yet, but when I admitted that to one of my Saffie mates, he said, “So that’s what’s the matter with you!” Thanks Richard.

Anyway, here’s a selection of some I’ve read lately. I realise it’s all from a white perspective, but I can’t help that. It’s been too long since I read any Chinua Achebe to review him now. I think there might just be something for everyone here. Well, except people who don’t fancy Africa. No soup for you lot, I’m afraid.

All the way home, Bookey Peek
Bookey and Richard Peek own Stone Hills, a Zimbabwean wildlife lodge, and they love their land and the animals that roam it. They’ve shared their bed with squirrels, their study with owls and kingfishers and their couch with a pampered warthog that took an unseemly pleasure in peeing between the cushions. All the way home is a lovely memoir, full of stories of the injured or orphaned animals the Peeks have rescued, rehabilitated and released.

Richard Peek is an ex-National Parks ranger and a passionate zoologist and ornithologist who seems to find it particularly difficult to suffer fools gladly. Along with the animal tales, the book features all the usual cringe-worthy stories of feral tourists who drink the place dry and expect to see the big five all in one day.

Bookey Peek writes evocatively of her surroundings, bringing Stone Hills and its inhabitants to life. Their little patch of Africa is an oasis in the middle of the basket case that is Zimbabwe.

The Congo and Cameroons, Mary Kingsley
Mary Kingsley was one tough cookie. At the turn of the century, when upper class women were expected to marry, raise flocks of babies and manage the servants, Kingsley was following in her explorer father’s footsteps, wandering Africa.

This slim volume is an excerpt of the journal of her travels through western Africa. She climbed mountains, canoed in crocodile-infested swamps and trekked through jungles with no-one for company but a rather dubious band of cannibals. But forget the cannibals. Here’s the bit that amazed me the most: she did it all in long skirts.

When she was already that kooky white lady who wanted to poke around in jungles, I don’t understand why she didn’t go the whole warthog and become the kooky white lady who poked about jungles in trousers. After all, she spent half the time wringing wet, scratched to pieces by the numerous thorny things Africa has to offer, bitten by its equally bitey insects and red-raw from sunburn. In comparison, the battles with the locals she hired as bearers and guides were relatively minor and on the scale of a modern traveller’s stoushes with sneaky taxi-wallahs.

Kingsley went to Africa four times, dying on her last trip while volunteering as a nurse in a Boer POW camp in South Africa.

Disgrace, JM Coetzee
Disgrace was published in 1999 and won the Booker Prize, but it’s taken me a while to get to it. David Lurie is a Cape Town university lecturer who has been sidelined by positive discrimination after the end of apartheid. He teaches a bastardised English to uninterested students while composing an opera about Byron’s mistress. Like Byron, Lurie is a sensualist and it ultimately causes his downfall. When an affair with a student goes badly wrong, his pride will not allow him to save his career. Instead he walks away, hoping to find sanctuary on his daughter Lucy’s small-holding. Things go from bad to worse, though, with a raid on the farm that leaves father and daughter wounded in body and soul.

Disgrace is as much a story of modern South Africa and its spiral into lawlessness as a story of one man’s fall. Gradually, Lurie loses everything he once thought important, including his pride. Lucy has an almost unnatural sense of stoic acceptance of the misfortunes that befall her, but Lurie rages against them. By the end of the book, he has come a long way from the pompous fool he was in its opening pages.

Coetzee’s later books tend to make me feel as though I’m sitting through a rather dry and tedious lecture. Elizabeth Costello was a prime example and I didn’t even want to pick up his last, Slow Man. Disgrace, however, is in another league. I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it was far from a pleasant read, but as bleak as it was, it was confronting and thought-provoking and had a lot to say about what people will do when they feel they have no choice.

Safari, Tony Park
I doubt that Tony Park has ever been mentioned in the same breath as JM Coetzee. But then I know who I’d rather have a Zambezi Lager with. Tony Park’s books are my guilty pleasure. Come on – everyone has one. And I’m convinced thrillers are better than watching Australian Idol.

Park is an ex-journo Army Reservist who spends a few months a year in Africa and writes a cracking thriller. His heroes are ex-soldiers, his female leads are no-nonsense types and Africa steals the show as the main character.

In his latest book, Safari, ex-SAS soldier Shane Castle has been working security in Iraq. After a sticky incident involving the shooting of an insurgent, Castle takes a job as head of an anti-poaching team at a Zimbabwean hunting lodge. The lodge caters for the filthy rich, but as the poacher body count grows, it becomes clear that things aren’t quite as they seem.

Safari is a cracking page-turner with great Hollywood flick potential. I did pick the plot twist fairly early on, but there are plenty of shoot-outs, lots of tramping around the African bush and some rather racy bits. It’s not Booker material, but it's not meant to be. It’s fun and I enjoyed it.

Oh, and Tony Park's got a blog too, which makes him one of us.

I reckon you might like this one, Scorpy.

Eleanor Lipmann's 'My Latest Grievance'

Preface: I just wrote this for something else and thought I'd dual post...

The unfortunate reality for funny women writers is that they are often sidelined as ‘chick lit’, ‘summer reading’ or, worse, ‘light’. Publishing companies, clamouring to discover the next Bridget Jones, saturate what are perfectly respectable novels either with references to the aforementioned heroine or with garish illustrated front covers synonymous with literature that is lightly pleasant but has no real depth. One wonders why it seems so difficult for some publishers to accept that a good, funny book written by a woman can be wildly popular without being touted as a beach read.

Eleanor Lipmann, notable writer of previous works The Dearly Departed and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, is no stranger to such treatment. Despite such marginalization however, Lipmann continues to produce work of insight, intelligence and great humour. She is remarkably adept at laying bare the foibles and idiosyncratic obsessions of humans without losing their humanity. She creates characters that are at turns pompous, arrogant, incredible, moving, hilarious and remorseful. While she allows us to laugh at them, it is never without at least a pinch of affection.

Such is the way with My Latest Grievance. Set in the 1970s, Frederica Hatch is a 16 year old girl blessed with intelligence and cynicism in equal measures. She has spent all her life at a small women’s college outside Boston, where her political activist parents are dorm-parents. Given free reign to explore the world around her (both personal and political), Frederica’s natural moment of rebellion arrives with the excessive Miss Laura Lee French, vivacious and over the top bon vivant – and also the first wife of Frederica’s father.

At first, Frederica is taken with Laura Lee, expressing childlike fascination with her glamour and style. Soon though, it becomes obvious that Laura Lee is the key to all their undoing, and her selfish, thoughtless acts will change the future of the college forever.

Lipmann keeps a tight reign on her characters here, and provides a fresh voice brimming with intelligent humour. Frederica Hatch is one of the most amusing heroines to spring out of fiction in recent years and will simply delight you.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


I've decided to jump in with the first random review, as I had some notes on a book I've just finished (and loved) that were never going to make it beyond my notebook. 'Tis written accompanied by red wine and not much editing, but here it is anyway. No spoilers! (It's not that kind of book anyhow.)

I have to give you some of the details of the book, because I am a book nerd and can't stop myself.


Courage (Maria Tumarkin, MUP, $32.95 pb, Released September 2007)

This LOOKS like it could be either pretty dry or dripping with sucrose. But it’s actually completely fascinating – and liberally laced with gratifyingly spiky charm:

People care desperately about courage. For once, I am one of the people. Do you want to know what it means to care desperately? It means that I am prepared to give up dignity, talent and generosity for the attribute of courage. When I fantasise about what people will say after my death, I know what I want them to recall-whatever her flaws (too numerous to mention), she certainly had guts. Yet the courage I conjure up in my fantasies exists outside of the extremes of violence, endurance and fear. It is not primarily a virtuous ideal or an idea, but rather an expression of the human spirit-messy, explosive and morally ambivalent.

I loved Maria Tumarkin’s first book, Traumascapes, which was about the meaning of sites where great human traumas have been suffered: New York, Bali, Berlin, Port Arthur. It looked at the meaning of the sites themselves – encompassing the bizarre trade in disaster tourism as well as the meaning of the sites for those connected with the tragedy (survivors, relatives of victims).

Yes, the subject was morbidly fascinating, but the writing is what really drew me.

Tumarkin has the gift of drawing the reader into her thought processes and allowing them to join her on the intellectual journey. She writes as she thinks – in an almost conversational manner, drawing on her personal experience and observations where relevant, but supporting that with research. I read a book review of hers in The Monthly soon after I read the book and was similarly attracted to it. (It was a review of Anne Manne’s Motherhood, which also talked about Tumarkin’s own thoughts on the subject and her relationship with her daughter, who sounded like a right gutsy and intelligent little thing.)

Her new book, Courage, follows the same can’t-pin-it-down blend of genres, combining cultural studies, sociology, current affairs and memoir. With rather more of the memoir bit – which is a very good thing indeed.

She writes that the book is dedicated ‘to courage rather than heroism in all its guises ... for I see heroism primarily as a chimera we have to fight our way past in order to reach courage’.

What does this mean? Well, courage is about drawing on our inner reserves, and about being tested. It’s about doing things DESPITE obstacles. Heroism is about extraordinary actions in extraordinary circumstances – the kinds of things that many of us will never even have the chance to do, and is often done on instinct, without thinking. This strikes a chord with me.

She also writes about Steve Irwin in the context of courage – and concludes that he was neither courageous nor heroic. Which also strikes a big fat chord. She observes that in discussion boards and blogs everywhere, people said he was a hero because he ‘died doing what he loved’. Her rejoinder:

The same might be said, for instance, about an ageing businessman dying of a heart attack while fornicating in a hotel room.


As far as I can ascertain he did nothing heroic or truly courageous either, for that matter. If we are prepared to classify his interaction with animals as heroic we are, I am convinced, in a great deal of trouble.

Sure, he risked his life by wrestling crocodiles, etc. – but it wasn’t in order to save anyone or achieve anything beyond wrestling with animals. His work on behalf of the environment and promoting conservation of wildlife was admirable, but not heroic or courageous for the same reasons – what was he actually risking to do that?

Tumarkin is, as the first quote above demonstrates, darkly and dryly humorous. On Melbourne Uni (which she didn’t much enjoy):

It is not Cambridge and it is not Columbia, but graduating from it has never hurt anyone yet.

On (some of) her fellow students:

These rich private school students spit and sneeze privilege.

Wonderful imagery! I love that sentence.

And on the university’s lack of real debate, outside the sanctioned ‘isms’:

The opinionated students I come across are usually recruits to an existing school of thought. It is not really their opinions that they breathlessly insist on ... but those of their church.

Having never really been in that environment for long, I can’t comment in relation to Melbourne (or any other) Uni, but I do think that sometimes the most progressive and left-wing and well-intentioned people could do with examining their own thoughts on various matters more, rather than automatically adopting the branded view of the ‘people like us’. (And I include myself in that.) I do think that sometimes it can require real courage to openly disagree with your tribe.

There’s a lot in this book, and here I’ve just grazed on a few of the things I liked and had noted as I read. Tumarkin (who is Russian) tells stories of taking in a Russian stripper to live with her in her one-bedroom flat – and reflects now on whether she was as accepting and respectful of her choices then as she thought she was. She writes about deciding to go ahead with an unplanned pregancy and become a single mother – just because she knew it was what she had to do for herself (which I identify with!) and resulting issues to do with courage and motherhood. She writes about being a teenage migrant, of struggling with English and feeling stupid while knowing she wasn’t, of her relationship with a wild extended Aboriginal family who lived next door to her in Townsville (and charging next door to take in the women and children one noisy night – courage indeed). And there is, of course, philosophy and observations on filmmakers and artists and writers.

The anecdotes and slivers of memoir in this book are entertaining and interesting. But the arguments here, and the depth of thinking about her subject, exercise the mind, in an accessible and engaging way.

The book has recently inspired me to do something I was planning to turn down (public speaking engagements) because I am terrified of doing it. It's a reminder that courage is, at essence, doing unpleasant or daunting or risky things in order to achieve something. And that sometimes you fail - but that's the risk you take, and that's the way that life is meant to be lived.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

I have a cunning plan

"How cunning?" I hear you say.

So cunning, you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. That cunning.

I noticed from the last post that not many people like Bryce Courteney. I'm one of the Anti-Bryce Club. I'm not entirely sure how Mr Courteney sells books, actually. My theory is that everyone thinks their mum likes him and buys the latest book as a Christmas gift. (Not a present, a gift. As in something contained in a gift shop.) Mums are too unassuming to say, "Oh for fuck's sake! Stop buying me this tripe!" so Mr Courteney keeps selling his over-adjectived tear-jerky bits of squiff.

As far as I can see, the only thing the guy has in his favour is that he's South African by birth. Being a Saffie means many sins are forgiven because most of the guys are extremely hot. Not Bryce, of course. He's a tool. And so is JM Coetzee. But most of the others are way hot.

Sorry, the cunning plan? Yes, it's very cunning. You'll love it.

As much as I loathe Bryce Courteney and his ilk, I adore a good literary hoax. I'm not sure what I love more: seeing one uncovered or seeing one perpetrated and then revealed by the perpetrators. I think it's probably the latter, since Ern Malley is my favourite literary hoax ever. "Sting them, my anopheles, sting them!" I didn't think it was quite fair to prosecute Max Harris and the Angry Penguins for obsecenity, but at least he ended up with the copyright to the poems for his trouble.

I've followed many a literary hoax with great pleasure. Helen Demidenko/Darville/whatever-the-hell-she-calls-herself-these-days was possibly my least favourite, largely because she won a prize and she just annoyed me with her superior attitude and Aryan blondeness. But that made me enjoy it all the more when she was found out, so I guess it's those swings and roundabouts again. I didn't really care one way or another about A Thousand Tiny Pieces or Forbidden Love because I hadn't read either of them and if people were shallow enough to buy a book only because they thought it was a true story, then sucks be to them. I have no sympathy. Sting them, etc., etc.

I think I take the greatest pleasure from the literary hoaxes perpetrated on the publishing industry. Stirrers have made very minor changes to chapters of Patrick White, Charles Dickens and, most recently, Jane Austen and sent them to publishers to see whether they would recognise and accept them. Naturally, most of the publishing people have failed to recognise the chapters and rejected them as being dated and not at all what they were looking for. Though I think one of the Jane Austen victims did raise questions over plagiarism, so more power to them. So well done, those people.

But I also rather enjoy playing Devil's advocate. So, in the publishers' defence, these books have been sent to them unsolicited and as a consequence, landed on their slush piles. Slush piles are often huge stacks of paper and are dealt with by people who are either quite junior or by the more senior as a form of penance. You know, like jamming red-hot pokers up one's nose. As I understand it, the slush pile usually contains dull-as-dust memoirs, shitful sci-fi and speculative fiction and barely disguised rip-offs of The Da Vinci Code or the other Latest Big Thing. Only very rarely is there gold in the slush and reading through the dross may be even more demoralising then covering local council meetings for a suburban newspaper or writing advertorial.

So, back to the cunning plan. It's my theory that writers like Bryce Courteney get away with twaddle only because of their marketable names. "Hey, he wrote The Power of One, right? No, don't edit it! No, don't read it either! Just publish it! At Christmas!"

I'd love to take chapters of Bryce Courteney, Jackie Collins, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy and Barbara Cartland and send them into publishers under a nom de plume. Well, I suppose strictly it would be a nom de guerre, as it is a war on rubbish writing. But I'd love to see the comments. Would they run to things such as, "Potboiler. Start again." Or even, "You can't write. Please learn what an adjective is and stop using so many! Oh, and make your blasted tenses agree." Or perhaps, "Turgid crap. Never contact us again." Or what about, "'Alternate' and 'alternative' are not interchangeable. That is all."

Oh Ford, I'd love to do it! Getting people to refuse White and Austen and Dickens is like shooting fish in a barrel in a way, because their styles are now considered to be dated and have too many commas. But taking down the big guns as decided by Anus and Robertson - now that would be fun.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Here, have a wordtail

Shaken, not stirred, of course.

Yes, a book was harmed for this photo and harmed most grievously too. In fact it was partially shredded.

But I doubt anyone will be too upset when I say it was my review copy of House of Hilton, aka, House of Whores and People Who Get Drunk With Ducks and it was taking up valuable bookshelfage. It was one of those books that you would have a use for if you happened to be shipwrecked and it happened to wash up on your desert island. After sufficient drying over a palm tree, you could use it as kindling for a signal fire. Holy Ford, you didn't think I meant you should read it, did you?

Anyway, keep an eye out for a new look soon. Customising Blogger templates defeats me, aside from adding the odd link and a Shakespearean Insulter here and there. Miss Chesty has come to our rescue from the miserable bluey-green template we have now with the offer of something a bit more funky.

I'm also going to declare a moratorium on new team members, if that's OK with everyone. We've either hit 30 or are very close to it and 30 seems like the magic number. Non-team members can still join in in the comments - they just won't go on the extra-long list for choosing a book.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The order of things

All righty, a hat and some bits of paper were fussed with and an order has been selected. It's going to take a bit of time to get around to everyone, I'm afraid, because there are 24 of us! I hope it doesn't look like too much of a long-term commitment...

So, here we go:

October 07 - Rita
November 07 - millymoo
December 07 - scorpy
January 08 - hungry hungry hypocrite
February 08 - ThirdCat
March 08 - killerrabbit
April 08 - phishez_rule
May 08 - beer and skittles
June 08 - gigglewick
July 08 - audrey
August 08 - actonb
September 08 - Ariel
October 08 - nai
November 08 - harriet
December 08 - sakura
January 09 - Rosanna
February 09 - the ianandan expedition
March 09 - feminkneesm
April 09 - Chesty LaRue
May 09 - kiki
June 09 - yoffi
July 09 - blakkat
August 09 - dot
September 09 - gerl
October 09 - Mary Bennett

In the interest of getting things rolling, I'll take actonb's suggestion and start us off with a book from Booker Prize long list. September's book will be Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. The English bookies are paying 20/1 on it winning. Ian McEwan is the favourite to win with On Chesil Beach, but I'm still carrying a grudge over the first half of Atonement being such a monumental pain the arse, so I wasn't going to go there.

Here's the blurb from the back of the jacket:

"After the trouble starts and the soldiers arrive on Matilda's tropical island, only one white person stays behind. Mr Watts wears a red nose and pulls his wife around on a trolley. The kids call him Pop Eye. But there is no one else to teach them their lessons. Mr Watts begins to read aloud to the class from his battered copy of Great Expectations, a book by his friend Mr Dickens.

"Soon Dickens' hero Pip starts to come alive for Matilda. She writes his name in the sane and decorates it with shells. Pip becomes as real to her as her own mother, and the greatest friendship of her life has begun.

"But Matilda is not the only one who believes in Pip. And, on an island at war, the power of the imagination can be a dangerously provocative thing."

Admittedly I haven't read Mister Pip yet, so I'm not sure what it will be like. It's had good reviews and it hasn't been on Oprah's Book Club yet, so I figure those are points in its favour. And it's not Ian McEwan, Harry Potter, Jane Austen or The Celestine Prophecy.

I'll post the review on 15 September. Gosh, I hope it's not a dog...

In the beginning

Greetings all. Here's how it works:

We read one book a month. Whoever chooses the book writes a review of up to 500 words and posts it on the 15th of the month, then everyone else joins in the discussion in the comments section.

If you're choosing the book, please make the choice by the beginning of the month before your review is due. So, if you're choosing December's book, please let the rest of us know what the book will be by November 1. Post your choice here on the site with the month and year as the title heading (eg, Book for September 07) and the title and author in the labels section.

When you're writing the review, please put the title in the post title and the title and author in the labels. In the first line of the body of the post, put the author's name and in the first par, tell us why you chose the book. Everything else is up to you. Don't worry if you're including spoilers in your discussion. Presumably, we'll all have read the book and not being able to discuss the ending isn't going to work.

If for any reason you can't do your month, try to give us as much notice as you can. Post an SOS and the first person to reply in the comments can take over.

I'd like to stick to good quality fiction, with some non-fiction and biography thrown in. Preferably, the books should have been written in the past few years so that (a) most of us will be reading them for the first time and (b) they'll be fairly easy to come by. But that said, I can't see any reason why we shouldn't include a few classics or older books here and there. Try not to pick any huge, thick slabs of books, though. Anything over 500 pages can get a bit wearing.

We've already had objections to Harry Potter, so he's out of the running. Jane Austen and The Celestine Prophecy have had votes against them too. I despise James Joyce, so anyone who tries to make me read Ulysses again is just asking me to get my crazy pants on.

I'll select the order we choose books in by ballot and post the list. If new people join, I'll add them to the bottom. It could take a little while to get around to your pick, as the last count was 23 members. In the interests of getting started and because I'm a selfish git, I'll choose the first book.

Between official group books, feel free to post short reviews of anything you think the group might be interested in, or anything you fancy about books, reading, writing or writers. Mockery of celebrity authors or those who have their 'autobiographies' written by ghost writers will be especially well-regarded.

Bon apetite!