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.


The Blakkat said...

Good review - you've sold me.

redcap said...

Yay ariel for getting in and doing the first! I was afraid the crowd was going to turn on me if I bollocksed on much longer before the main act started ;)

It does sound like a really interesting book. I love the imagery of private school kids sneezing privilege. And I've never quite understood how dying doing something you enjoyed made dying any damned better. Big bloody deal! The guy's dead now and I'm sure if he were able to think, he wouldn't be that bloody happy about the whole idea. When someone dies at work by being crushed under a tractor or a forklift, does anyone say, "Gosh he loved his safety-orange vest."

Ripper review, missy! Keep 'em coming everyone :D

Scorpy said...

If she rushed into a Domestic dispute to rescue a woman and her children then isn't that, by her own definition, heroism and not courage? If she is really writing about courage then YES Steve Irwin was courageous (maybe a little luny) but all the same it took courage to wrestle crocodiles for the betterment, eventually, of the species and to the other animals and environments that he managed to save thru his donations and foundations...though, I too do not think of him as a hero.
Great review though...very insightful but I'm afraid not my cup of tea. Thanks :)

Ariel said...

Ah well, we can't all sip from the same cup of tea ...

Good and interesting points Scorpy - and I will go back to the book to address your first one. She didn't specifically say that her action with the domestic violence was courageous, but I think it was - I think that it falls into the category of pushing past your comort zone to achieve or protect something you belive in. And I think, sadly, domestic violence is a pretty everyday thing in a lot of people's lives and there are many, many people who would see and hear it and do nothing at all.

I think Steve Irwin's animal wrangling was akin to a kid jumping wheelie bins on his BMX - he did it for the thrill of it rather than to achieve anything. Separate to that was his work for conservation, which made him a good person and someone to be admired, but not a hero or courageous. I think Irwin would have wrestled crocodiles by himself (or in front of his mates) at home for the sheer joy of it if nobody was watching.

Scorpy said...

Good response Ariel and I agree that she was very courageous to confront her neighbour....but she said "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" so in her words she was a Hero but in my eyes hero and courage go hand in hand. Hero is a word bandied about so much nowadays that it has almost lost its real meaning. I agree that Steve Irwin was not a hero and that he would have and did wrestle crocs when the camera and others where not there to witness it but I still think he was courageous in his endeavours. He stood up to those that would oppose him and his cause and generally won. Are you trying to make me go out and read this book now? :)

Sakura said...

Great review arial. Sounds like a facinating book. I agree that courage is something is so hard to find or you don't really hear about the most courageous acts that go on in this world, perhaps becaus they aren't all glitter and glam. I don't know, maybe I am talking out of my ... ... ears here. But again, great review.

Ariel said...

Hmmm, I hope I'm doing the book (and author) justice. The part you quote is my interpretation of her definition, not her exact words. But yes, I see what you mean about where her domestic violence action fits in - and agree.

And Irwin ... ah, I could agree that - if we're talking about actions separate from the animal antics, where he did certain things despite opposition - that could be defined as courage. I don't know enough about what he did outside his life in the media circus ring. Are you trying to make me find out more about Steve Irwin so I can get my theory straight? :)

Sakura, I think you're spot on:

'you don't really hear about the most courageous acts that go on in this world, perhaps because they aren't all glitter and glam'

That's part of what I like about this book - it's not just high profile definitions of courage, it's how ordinary people live their lives.

(Redcap, hope it's okay to write long blathery responses here as I'm doing!)

Milly Moo said...

Wow, Ariel - you've certainly set a pretty high standard for book reviews and yours is just an ad-hoc one...! I guess if I choose 'Catch 22' then my review of:
Initially Confusing, then hilariously funny
....might be a tad brief?

As for Steve, I agree with you. He was doing what he loved - the preservation of all things furry and scaled occurred later on - he was going to hassle the crocs and yank out snakes from under stones regardless....

redcap said...

ariel, no - please restrict your responses to three words or fewer. He he he. Of course it is, silly. That's what the comments are for - discussion and a good old-fashioned argument.

Ariel said...

Shucks, thanks Milly ... and I actually think that would be a hilarious review!

Redcap: (sticks tongue out in very mature response) Excellent!