Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Dead Heart by Douglas Kennedy

We first meet Nick Hawthorne in a Darwin bar. As a stripper offers contorted perspectives on what Australia has to offer, our hero from Maine meets a fellow countryman from Detroit intent on doing to Asia what America does to most places. (Personal opinions, eh?) Nick has some of those. He has a personal approach to life, but feels he gets little out of it, despite having achieved the status of being the first person principal character of Douglas Kennedy’s novel The Dead Heart.

Nick is a journalist who has only ever had bit jobs. They interested him bit, earned him a bit, stimulated somewhat less. Then he found a map of Australia and became so obsessed with the continent’s emptiness that he sold up and left the US to discover the unknown, to visit the unvisited. He is less than impressed with Darwin. It’s not a good start. But a VW camper van bought from a Jesus freak promises a great escape along the road to Broome. Not round the corner…

A hitcher called Angie provides welcome diversion from the repetition of the road. She seems easy-going, not to mention easy, and a little threatening. She is travelling for the first time, but exudes confidence. Nick, however, retains control. Or so he thinks… Until he finds himself in Wollanup. It’s a town whose recent tragic history has removed it from the map. Nick has arrived at nowhere, the dead heart of a land. 

He is now unknown, has sex and beer on tap and an awful diet. A horror story haunted by powdered eggs… Until Krystal starts to cook… His mechanical skills come into play. The rebuilt camper van is destroyed again. Its renewed mobility is a threat. Events happen, like they do… Douglas Kennedy’s The Dead Heart evolves into a kind of fast-moving, page-turning thriller. But there are characters here. Something – not sure what! – seems almost credible. Nick is not the most likeable person, but this rather self-centred, thirty-odd, overweight hedonist does realise that there might be more to life than unlimited sex and beer on tap. He wants both, but clearly somewhere other than Wollanup.

What happens in The Dead Heart is crucial. It’s a plot-led work, but it is also engaging and well written. Its racy style fits the characters´ obvious preoccupations and helps to create a vivid portrait of lives that know only the here and now. The Dead Heart is a book to be read in a single sitting. The process will leave readers wondering how they might have reacted in such circumstances. And what about Australia as depicted? Is this a stereotype? You bet…

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally

The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally is based on the life of an Australian bushranger called Jimmy Governor. Fictionalised as Jimmy Blacksmith, the character takes several steps down the social ladder in terms of his name, but remains at the bottom of the pile in reality by virtue of being not only black, but also an Aborigine. As Jimmy Blacksmith, however, the character is not without skills. 

He speaks English and can build a uniform fence as strong and even as anyone. He can work as hard and deliver as much as any hired hand, except, of course, by definition. Thomas Keneally’s novel is highly successful in its presentation of white people’s assumptions of superiority.

Knowing that they occupy a level much higher up the Victorian pyramid of life that has God and The Queen at the top, they can be imperially confident that anything they might think or do must necessarily outshine what the likes of Jimmy Blacksmith can achieve. When reality suggests a contradiction, then their position of privilege allows them to change the rules in order to belittle achievement and deny results.

To label such attitudes as merely racist is to miss much of the point. These whites, always eager to proffer judgment at the turn of twentieth century Australia, did not regard their attitudes as based on race. The relevant word was surely not race, but species, since the indigenous population was seen as something less than human. So even when Jimmy Blacksmith displays complete competence, strength, endurance or cooperation, even if he becomes a Methodist Christian, marries a white woman according to God and The Law, even if he speaks the master’s language, he remains by definition something short of human. An ultimate irony of Jimmy’s acceptance of his duty to marry the pregnant girl, by the way, is that the child turns out to be white, fathered by another of the girl’s recent acquaintances.

So, as an oppressed black man, Jimmy Blacksmith is left carrying another white man’s burden. Jimmy reacts against his treatment. His reaction is violent. He takes an axe to several victims, most of them women. He then flees and is joined in crime by his brother, Mort. Together they evade capture, despite being pursued by thousands until an inevitable fate materialises. Jimmy Blacksmith presents several problems for the modern reader, however. Powerful it may be, but then Thomas Keneally’s attempt to render an accent in writing does not work. As a consequence, the dialogue sometimes seems confused and opaque.

The author stated some years later that if he were to write the book now he would describe events from the perspective of a white observer. This would, however, render Jimmy an object, and the reader is often surprised by occupying the role of subject in this book. Thomas Keneally does create some wonderful scenes. Jimmy’s shedding of blood is brutal, but is it any less brutal than the slaughter of thousands by the British? And in the end, did those with power treat their working class subjects any better than they treated Jimmy? Was the young white bride Jimmy took any better off than him by virtue of her species superiority?

Alongside Peter Carey’s Kelly Gang and, from a factual perspective, Alan Moorehead’s Fatal Impact, Jimmy Blacksmith provides a different and complementary insight. To experience the book’s power, the modern reader has to know something of Australia’s history and, crucially, something of the 1970s attitudes that prevailed at the time of writing. Any shortcomings then pale into insignificance when compared with the novel’s achievement.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Smarter Science of Slim by Jonathan Bailor

In his book The Smarter Science of Slim Jonathan Bailor presents much more than advice on lifestyle and diet. This is a complete argument relating themes of nutrition, exercise, digestion and food to their associated consequence, weight. Unlike many works in the area of diet, The Smarter Science of Slim presents informed consideration of the subject, offers no quick fix, no formulaic or unsubstantiated, quasi-religious claims. What the book does do is argue a coherent, rationally-constructed and evidence-justified position which identifies an approach to diet and lifestyle rather than a prescription. It is to the author’s credit that the book achieves its aims in a fluent, readable style that engages and entertains as well as informs. Jonathan Bailor begins with a criticism of current approaches, a corpus of advice that represents something of an establishment position. It’s a diet he labels INSANE. It’s not quite an acronym, but it gets the point across. The consequences of this diet are obesity. Yes, we are being officially advised into a state of obesity. In contrast, the SANE approach allows you to eat just about as much as you want. What’s more, it’s better nutritionally and your weight will stabilise at a lower level. Does this sound too good to be true? To prove the case the author cites research findings and extensive data to identify a diet that is roughly equally shared between protein, carbohydrate and fat. On the face of it, this may not seem to be such a radical departure from the current received position, except in relation to fats. But The Smarter Science of Slim approach differs markedly in the foodstuffs identified in each category. Jonathan Bailor thus declares war on starch! Out go grains, flour, potatoes, rice and pasta, for example. In comes as much water-rich vegetable as you want to eat. Crucial to Jonathan Bailor’s argument is that these fill you up and thus satiate, while simultaneously providing all essential nutrients alongside low calorific values. He is also confident that eating more proteins will restrict the appetite that currently craves more starch because it is fat and protein deficient. The argument then moves on to the concept of a person’s natural body weight. The norm can change and can be changed, but the human body always tries to maintain what the brain perceives an optimal or normal weight. The problem is that this norm is influenced by the digestive load that the diet presents. When this is changed, then the perceived norm can be changed. INSANE diets raise the norm and hence promote obesity, while SANE approaches encourage stabilisation at lower weights. But The Smarter Science of Slim goes beyond this. It also suggests exercise routines that don’t take all day, are efficient at burning energy and keep the body fit and trim. And all of this can be accomplished in just twenty minutes a couple of times a week. Cooks will be disappointed with Jonathan Bailor’s approach to meals that adhere to his SANE principles. But the ingredient list is extremely long and even five minutes in the kitchen would produce something palatable, tasty and also SANE, certainly something a tad more appetising than a veggie smoothie. The Smarter Science of Slim allows, even encourages consumption of almost anything you want in the line of meat or fish. Since fats are not outlawed, you can even take a slab of cheese. But you will have to make your sandwich with cabbage leaves, rather than bread. Anyone who has feelings of guilt or even mere concerns about weight, diet or lifestyle could profit greatly from reading The Smarter Science of Slim. The book illustrates that there is nothing to be afraid of, that there are multitudes of wholesome and tasty foods that can be eaten with abandon without fear of obesity or ill health. As a consequence of The Smarter Science of Slim’s SANE approach, these things will look after themselves, leaving you to get on with living life rather than worrying about it. Then you can read The Smarter Science of Slim again to admire the book’s style, scholarship and coherence.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Northern Ireland family - Reading In The Dark by Seamus Deane

Reading In The Dark is a first person account of an extraordinary childhood. On the surface, the family seems to be stable enough. They are Catholics and the novel’s narrator is about half way along his parents´ progeny. Nothing special there... They are not rich, and apparently not poor. They get by.

The lad explores the neighbourhood, makes friends, starts school. Eventually he proves to be quite academic and he clearly goes from personal success to further personal success. But all the time there’s something in the past that labels him. There are people who call him strange names, accuse him of things he hasn’t done. He does not understand, but feels the consequences.

Life can be complicated when you’re born to a Catholic family in Northern Ireland. The boy grows up in the 1950s and 1960s. Via short, dated chapters, arranged chronologically and starting in February 1945, we able to build and perhaps experience the lad’s world. We share the boy’s new experience, feel the changes in his life and body as he does. But there is always something unsaid, intangible, but undoubtedly real and of consequence. Everyone seems to know something, but he has little idea what it all means. Mother and father remain reticent. Relatives and acquaintances allude to Eddie, the boy’s uncle, who is not around any more. Clearly Eddie died in strange circumstances. But in the Northern Ireland of the 1950s, you have to be careful what you say, when you speak and whom you mix with.

Just being seen talking to Sergeant Burke, the policeman, can result in your being labelled a traitor, a collaborator, or worse. The boy’s relationship with the Church and its clergy is both fascinating and surreal. There are moments of humour, times of fear, often juxtaposed. There’s a maths teacher whose class rules are so complex that any response seems punishable. Serves them right… It seems that whatever contribution an individual might make has the potential to render that person in need of strokes, but the ground rules demand that no-one may opt out. It’s the same in the wider society. When you’re a Catholic in Northern Ireland – and perhaps if you are not! – there are no fences you can sit on. Whatever you do it will be wrong.

There are enemies on both sides of every fence, so wherever you climb down, beware. Tread carefully, know your place, stay on your guard. But what if, like our young lad, you don’t know what to beware of? Slowly, however, the real truth behind Uncle Eddie’s fate emerges. It’s only then that the growing boy, and indeed the reader, realises just how complicated – and vindictive – life can be. Reading In The Dark is a highly poetic novel. The scenes are vivid, beautifully portrayed. They are short, but each adds its own new detail to the bigger story of how a family has learned to cope with its own chequered past. 

Those who don’t know the mistakes of history are perhaps doomed to repeat them. Those misled by untruth are not necessarily liars when they restate it. But complicating the past probably confuses the present and disturbs the future. Seamus Deane’s novel, Reading In The Dark, is a vivid and moving portrait of a family troubled by a past it dare not admit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A review of Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

In her novel Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel presents a series of characters who ought to be Mr and Mrs, or Uncle and Auntie Normal. They all live near the M25, London’s orbital motorway and inhabit places as interesting as Slough, Maidenhead and Uxbridge. Even distant Essex gets a mention.

But many of these people aren’t normal, or average, or even alive, for that matter. Many of them are in fact the dreaded four-letter d-word, the word that the book’s principal character prefers not to say out loud. Alison is a medium. This m-word applies to her trade, not her stature, which is determinedly out-size. She is a large woman, fat, to be precise, if that is not an f-word. She regularly communicates professionally with the spirit world in front of a live audience. At least some of them seem to be alive.

Alison works with an assistant, Colette, a woman with a history of her own. They even live together, but don’t start thinking there’s any funny business between them. Oh no! This is the M25 we are near, after all.

Alison and Colette have their own lives, and their own pasts. Alison’s seems to be the more lurid. Mother was a professional woman, the kind that admits to the world’s oldest profession, and so can’t be sure who might have been Alison’s father. The mother and all the candidates for the role of father are now ex, deceased, d-word, but of course Alison is a medium – a large medium – so she can effectively meet with them whenever she wants. One of them is called Keef, but he probably spelled it Keith. Colette’s past is much more mundane, but it has had its ups and downs. She has had her share of dealing with men, enough to have them come back to haunt her. She seems to value the stability offered by Alison’s regular work. They even buy a house together, one of those new ones on an estate.

But don’t you think there’s anything going on between them! There are pleasant, even amusing moments in beyond Black. But overall the book is too long and presents little to challenge or inform the reader. These are people we have to take at face value, since their engagement with the world seems to go no deeper than this. And it always seems strange that, given the number of d-word people who clearly don’t exist any more, that a medium quite by chance encounters one of them who knows someone in that night’s audience. The chances of that happening must be very slim indeed, a lot slimmer than Alison, at least.

As Alison and Colette examine their past and current lives, Colette starts to tape their conversations with a view to putting it all down on paper. She might even write a book. But the recordings are regularly interrupted by memories from the spirit world who always want to have their own say. At least the dead are electromagnetic. I mean, it’s all in the past. Can’t they just let go? Thus we examine the two women’s identities. Beyond Black presents a sometimes funny, generally entertaining, if rather long read. But it is a book that challenges little and does not inform. It also only inhabits the surfaces of its characters. But then they do live near the M25.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Russian Pianist Elena Lasco plays jazz in Teulada-Moraira´s Auditorium

Elena Lasco’s jazz presents an eclectic mix. But this is eclecticism with focus, a focus that is provided by her perhaps unique musical personality. She is classically trained, out of a prestigious Moscow music conservatoire, no less. She was a child prodigy and learned the Russian greats, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. But then this was also the Soviet Union of Nikolai Kapustin, as jazz idiom composer of dots on paper, a writer who formalised music that almost sounds like it might have been improvised. Elena Lasco’s interest in jazz clearly derives from the post-war American greats, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk. And, unlike Kapustin, she does improvise. She also composes, and that’s where the eclecticism emerges. At her recent solo concert in Teulada’s new auditorium, Elena Lasco exhibited not only consummate pianistic and improvisatory skills, but also she delivered wit and originality. This she presented her own variety of eclecticism, a character that paradoxically is no mixture. It is nothing less than her own complex statement. She played Ellington’s “A Train”. But it’s not Ellington’s “A Train”, it’s “Don’t Take This Train”, a self-mocking variant of Strayhorn’s music. So here is the mix: jazz standard, reinterpretation by Elena Lasco, improvised upon by a performer of the same name and presented on a brand new Steinway. It was quite an evening! “There’s That Rainy Day” follows and then personal takes on “Autumn Leaves” and “I Love Paris”. “Stella By Starlight” is followed by “A Sad Day” and then “Round Midnight” appears as something completely different, but with a feminine angle. “A Night In Tunisia” takes on a new feel, something more classically oriental than the original. “All The Things You Are” unfolds, and then Caravan, to return us to Ellington. “My Funny Valentine” is a sad song given a happy ending. But while Hines, Peterson and Garner come to mind, so do Rachmaninov preludes, occasional pieces by Prokofiev, Tchaikovskian paroxysms and Chopin-esque lyricism. Musical quotes are peppered everywhere, sometimes obvious, sometimes disguised beneath an improvised sheen. The music has a brilliance throughout, but the wit and sophistication still shine through. This is music that deserves repeated listening. Elena Lasco is a pianist, a composer and a performer. How’s that for eclecticism?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru

In his impressive and successful novel, Hari Kunzru explores the nature of identity. For some people a sense of belonging is very strong, whereas for others such feelings are mere illusion. The former group may cite social group, language, culture or religion as evidence of their stance, while the latter group, perhaps, may cite exactly the same subject matter to prove the opposite. The more politically inclined may even cite our relationship to the means of production as the primary source or personal and social identity.

In that case, the way that we make our living provides much of what we perceive as identity, and, in Hari Kunzru’s book, The Impressionist works through several quite different lives. It’s not that The Impressionist, the principal character of Hari Kunzru’s novel, has no identity.

Indeed, The Impressionist has a whole host of them, and all of them are both complex and, at the same time, completely credible. It is those around him who endow him with the trappings that confirm who he is. 

And he, of course, responds, donning new lives according to each new coat he wears. The book’s style seems to owe much to the magical realism of Salman Rushdie. There is also a superficial similarity of subject matter, since The Impressionist begins in colonial India where we witness our hero’s chance conception. There are royal parlours, low-life slums and chance encounter. We see the inside of an English public school, a prestigious university and eventually travel to Africa in a professional but doomed role. 

And throughout, The Impressionist seems to do no more than merely fit into the niches that have apparently been prepared for him. Everything he tries on fits him well. So, as we follow The Impressionist on his personal travels through multiple identities, we are challenged by the transformations. They are opened up by chance encounters, but yet they also seem inevitable. We are thus encouraged to look at our own lives and ask how many times we might have changed our own spots. A reader with a strong sense of identity might find such a challenge quite threatening. But then it’s just a story, isn’t it?