Summer Reading

Arguably

by Christopher Hitchens

Allen & Unwin 2011

This book runs to 750 pages of text and 38 pages of excellent indexing. Apart from some continuing essay writing, this may well be Hitchens’ final work. It contains mostly shorter essay-style pieces though some go longer (4-8 pages) most of which were produced for magazines (on- and off-line). The collection is of relatively recent work. As in most of his work, one can clearly hear Hitchens enunciate every word and phrase and this is part of the joy of the book. Agree or disagree with him, find him sharply encyclopaedic in his use of resources or overbearing, there is never any doubting his presence in what he writes. This is book to be read occasionally, to be dipped into and then returned to again and again. There is just too much to be absorbed in one long a read from a man who lives up to one of his own titles –  ‘Don’t Mince Words’.

The writings have been organised into six sections. B. Waters’ Amazon review summarizes them as –

“All American” focuses on the history, policies, and distinguished figures of the United States. It appears to be sorted chronologically; beginning with essays on Jefferson and Franklin, continuing through subjects like John Brown and Lincoln, JFK, John Updike, and Gore Vidal, and then closing with essays on modern issues like capital punishment and atheism in the modern military.

“Eclectic Affinities” includes Hitchens’ best essays on notable literary figures. There are about 30 essays here, covering everything from Karl Marx, to Graham Greene, to George Orwell, to JK Rowling.

“Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments” is relatively short, with only 8 essays. However, these are some of Hitch’s most famous and controversial personal remarks, including the infamous “Why Women Aren’t Funny” and his charming “New Commandments”.

“Offshore Accounts” primarily deals with modern political conflicts. It includes his experience with waterboarding, his admiration for Kurdistan, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of current politics. This is probably the most notable section of the book, and also one of the longest.

“Legacies of Totalitarianism” takes us back to earlier conflicts, focusing especially on the first half of the last century. The essays here are mostly based on specific people, and the legacies that endured long after they did.

“Words’ Worth” covers Hitchens’ essays on language and culture. The earlier sections focused on Hitch as a political essayist, but this section closes the book with Hitch as a charming raconteur. More than the other sections, it allows Hitch to be more personal and candid, and that allows his inimitable writing style and witty humour to take centre stage.

The pleasure of reading Hitchens abounds throughout. Whether he is slashing and paring down opponents arguments and leaving them without much clothing; simply barely and harshly exposing the utter truth of some person, event or policy, or playfully revelling in the delights of literature and personality, it is all ‘in your face’ material. There is so much to enjoy, savour and be  challenged by here, some may even find something to despise or hate as well.

Among my favourites were ‘W. Somerset Maugham: Poor Old Willie’(even the title is pointed), ‘P.G. Wodehouse: The Honorable Schoolboy’ (revealing) and, on social matters, ‘Let them Eat Pork Rind’ and ‘On Animal Farm’.

I offer only one extended quote from his ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ in which he meditates on Vietnam, Agent Orange and the nature of history and belief. Hitchens attends a clinic seeking blood donations for Agent Orange victims, donates blood, rests and then is offered a tour of the facilities.

‘This privilege (a recuperative bowl of beef noodles), after a while, I came almost to regret. In an earlier age the compassionate term for irredeemably deformed people was lusus naturae: “a sport of nature”, or, if you prefer a more callous translation, a joke. It was bad enough, in that spare hospital, to meet the successful half of a Siamese-twin operation. This was a more or less functional human child, with some cognition and about half the usual compliment of limbs and organs. But upstairs was the surplus half, which, I defy you not to have thought if you had been there, would have been more mercifully thrown away. It wasn’t sufficient that this unsuccessful remnant had no real brain and was a thing of stumps and sutures. (“No ass!” murmured my stunned translator in that good-bad English that stays in your mind.) Extra torments had been thrown in. The little creature was not lying torpid and still. It was jerking and writing in blinded, crippled, permanent epilepsy, tethered by one stump to the bedpost and given no release from endless, pointless, twitching misery. What nature indulges in such sport? What creator designs it?’

Since the above was written, Christopher Hitchens has died. ‘The Australian’ gave him a three-quarter page obituary and a small Editorial mention under ‘Erudite and Courageous’.

 Christopher Hitchens

Journalist

b. Portsmouth, Britain, 13 April, 1949

d. Houston, USA, 16 December, 2011, aged 62.

Julian Assange : The Unauthorised Autobiography

By Julian Assange

Unacknowledged Ghost Writer Andrew O’Hagan

Cannongate 2011

Wikileaks was something I looked at briefly on my computer a long time ago and concluded I didn’t have the patience to wade through it and would rely on others to alert me when something interesting became available.

On that basis, I have looked at a number of its revelations and have been genuinely grateful for the incidents or matters it revealed. Throughout that time, I did not give a great deal of thought to the processes employed to obtain and present its offerings much less the persona of Julian Assange.

This book, with its internal flaws and its somewhat typical Assange-ish problems in publication, both fills in some of those gaps while intensifying some concerns about the man himself.

The material on his early life is undeniably interesting if patchily presented (much because of the relatively incomplete nature of the text). I would see his life as an example of how someone clearly gifted, but who found his way largely as an autodidact, can develop a strong personal morally justified orientation for the exercise of his powers but begin to lose sight of the need to integrate in a broader social context. This seems to become almost a mantra for Assange and can be seen at work in his relationships with individuals, organisations (‘The Guardian’) and even the matter of the Swedish rape accusations.
I am grateful for much of his work. I don’t know of any other way much of what Wikileaks has revealed would otherwise have become generally available. I believe his work has been timely given ever-increasingly rapid changes in the technologies of information gathering and control (governmental and ‘private’) and their aggregation and manipulation. However, I find Assange’s attempts to justify his actions in ways that are systematically laid out and sustained are painfully flawed. The targets and motivations are clear enough; their justification is jumbled and poorly integrated. Perhaps someone could one day work through and express this with him – unfortunately, finding someone who could sustain that process would seem part of his problems.

FRANKLIN AND ELEANOR: AN EXTRAORDINARY MARRIAGE

By Hazel Rowley

Melbourne University Press 2011

I approached the concept of this book somewhat warily. Like most I had read my fair share on the lives, history and politics of these two people. I was aware that their marriage had unusual elements, even some ‘scandal’. I was concerned that this offering might simply be a collation of  the kind of material that might fill an hour of television – fleeting well-coloured snippets.

How wrong could I be? Given Hazel Rowley’s similar work on Simone de Beauvoir and Jean- Paul Sartre, I ought not have been surprised to find I was reading the fruits of careful research into original sources and first-hand accounts all carefully detailed and woven into a remarkably even-handed text where the subjects literally speak for themselves.

This was a marriage and more. With its origins in the traditional world of what many 19th century Americans would have perceived as their aristocracy, this relationship grew in its complexity and depth even as the world in which it was played out became a wider and wider stage.

This is not to say that this ‘aristocracy’ was any more or less essentially fearful and defensive of its place in American society, or more or less full of borderline personalities unrestrained by financial considerations. Some of these make interesting reading and serve to highlight this extraordinary couple who surrounded themselves with some ripe examples who either came from this background (the entire extended Roosevelt clan) or gravitated to serve their wishes, needs and sometimes desires. I found myself comparing Franklin’s mother Sara (God help him) with Gen Macarthur’s similarly dominating mater. A reader could use these background factors to ‘explain’ away some of his apparent belief in the inevitability of his political power. Much can be made of the inadequacy of the opposition that Roosevelt confronted and his gifts. Yet the reader is aware of the man who followed him and came from such a radically different background.

One of the most enjoyable things the book does, is to bring to the forefront the collection of individuals who served the one or the other, sometimes to the point of death (Louis Howe). Howe almost literally created the public personas of both Eleanor and Franklin while creating the political and administrative pathway that carried Franklin to the White House.

Lucy Mercer, a kind of Wallis Simpson figure, was in and out of Franklin’s life (often for extended periods even after she married the money she needed) and was present at his death in 1945.

Marguerite “Missy” LeHand was the devoted Secretary (and eventual doorkeeper) whose level of dependence plumbed incredible and morbid depths while serving as a kind of non-sexual wife in governing his domestic arrangements. The book details a long list of others from varying backgrounds with whom there was either intensive flirting or romance.

Eleanor, initially left to raise a substantial family, found her pathway largely through indirect and direct political activity (again supported and propelled by Louis Howe who may have had ulterior motives in wanting to see the marriage remain solid and united at least publicly). As it was clear that Franklin had created a world in which she was less and less directly needed, Eleanor also developed other interests and ‘friends’. While some of these were male (almost ostentatiously so), the majority were women with whom she shared common political or artistic interests. These seem to have become increasingly lesbian and very emotional with her letters indicating increasing depth of feeling.

This is, in itself, a work of considerable clarity with mercifully controlled hero-worshipping. The readers are thus given an opportunity to evaluate for themselves what was achieved out of the relationship between these two extraordinary people.

That Woman

By Anne Sebba

Wiedenfeld & Nicholoson

2011

The above diamond encrusted Prince of Wales feathers brooch was part of ‘that woman’s’ fabled jewellery collection which was auctioned for at least $60 million over a period of time. It was purchased by Elizabeth Taylor on whose death it was again auctioned. On both occasions, AIDS research and charities were main beneficiaries and the British Royal family were unable to afford to reclaim many items their agent Earl Mountbatten had sought for return. The irony is that this outcast couple were able to doubly benefit others who had often been treated as outcasts themselves at the expense of the establishment.

People in my age group grew up very much with the story of Edward and Wallis in mind and surrounded by opinions (not always negative). These were supplemented by their autobiographies and then the mass of biographies, plays, films and TV series which have followed.

One could wonder, what more is there to be told? Certainly, I had this attitude before this reading this book and I largely remain the same. I have no intention of reviewing the story in its main elements as most readers are looking for something that is really new and insightful. The picture is occasionally clarified and extended with the use of either previously or newly released archival material. This is particularly so in the case of Mary Kirk, a childhood friend of Mrs Simpson who knew her very well and even married the cast-off Ernest Simpson. Simpson’s Jewish background gets more mention than previously but Wallis was quite unconscious of it in any case. Use has been made of the Lambeth archives which illuminates the role of the church in the time of crisis (Edward displayed no great love of the church). The fact is that key obscurities remain and probably always will.

This being the 21st century, the usual psychological theorising about Edward’s inadequacies (the ‘Little man’ especially in penile endowment) and Wallis’ need for comfort and security, her need for dominance and a contradictory nature combined with their mutual anorexia have now  been supplemented by genetic theorising.

Wallis is now seen as likely possessing genetically determined male characteristics – some degree of a Disorder of Sexual Development (DSD) or intersexuality. If she did suffer from Androgen Insensitivity, she would have been born as a genetic male with the XY chromosome. Developing outwardly a woman, she would still have had male characteristics in her face, hands, arms and legs – which she did display. She would very likely develop obscure internal organ problems – which she did. She would have a small vagina and would not enjoy vaginal sex – she is reported as having never had vaginal sex with her first two husbands though this characteristic may well have suited ‘the little man’.  On the other hand, Edward is seen as infantile with a penchant for older women. He was in need of the very sexual and psychological comforts which she had to offer – at a price. Most of this this conjecture based on very thin factual data and will almost certainly remain so.

There ate no clear-cut answers in this book, but there is much that enlarges and deepens our understanding of the great outcast couple of the 20th century.

Mozart’s Last Aria

by Matt Rees

Corvus 2011

I confess to purchasing this book as a Christmas gift for a friend who is very fond of music and knowledgeable in that respect. He also has an interest in anything to do with freemasonry, Templars etc. and a large collection of ‘whodunits’. Matt Rees’ offering covers all those interests quite neatly (and yes, I obviously did read it before gifting it). Rees’ motivation for writing this book lies in his successful background as a crime writer featuring Omar Yussef in Palestine as well and sundry TV series. He loves classical music, visited Vienna, imbibed the Nannerl story and saw an opportunity.

My interest was piqued as most readers/filmgoers are familiar with the ‘did Salieri do it?’ question of ‘Amadeus’ and was revived by the rather messy film ‘Mozart’s Sister’ which screened in 2010-11. While that film was a feast for the ear and eye, its combination of fact and fiction was daft and inconsistent.

In Rees’ faction piece, the focus, shortly after Mozart’s death, radiates from his sister, Maria Anna (Nannerl). She has been estranged from him for three years as a result of a falling out over their father’s will and is living comfortably but without much marital love from her minor aristocrat husband in a rural backwater.

Two things need to be known about this book. The first is some background in the mixture of rigid Imperial protocols and the ferment of radical new ideas in philosophy, politics, science, art and music abroad in Europe of the time. Rees exploits Mozart’s fascination with Freemasonry and its known connotations in ‘The Magic Flute’ to make his sisters’ experience with a performance of the piece the key to her understanding of her brother’s life and death. The second is Rees’s determination to make Nannerl into a modern woman. This is a flaw as he simply pushes this notion too far in language, plot and action. It is an understandable device but it does rob the book of a sense of recreating its time and place especially as he goes to some trouble to present the physical locations utilised – sometimes trying a little too hard. Also some of the modern speech used in dialogue jars.
A conventional crime writing device – a scrap of paper from Mozart’s journal which reads ambiguously – is used to push start an investigative process which takes Nannerl along a pathway which is colourful and interesting though accompanied by a love interest that I found unbelievable for time and place.

All told, however, a good read which can be somewhat instructive of the setting, time and place and intensifies the notion of a connection between music and the life lived.

The book has a lot of musical references, which, if not known, can be presumed from their descriptions. Otherwise iTunes beckons.

HipsterMattic  

by Matt Granfield

Allen & Unwin 2011

Known fact – The Hipstamatic for iPhone is an application that brings back the look, feel, unpredictable beauty, and fun of plastic toy cameras from the past. Check the App store for more (best read tongue-in-cheek). The photos used in the book were taken and modified using the Hipstamatic app to give the desired retro effect reinforcing the satirical intent of the book – I hope!

Another amazing fact – The young adults of the 2000s have made a major discovery – they want to be different!. They know what they are told or pressured to be, but the need to be cool transcends such commonality and emerges as someone above and beyond such influences to achieve ultimate (admirable) coolness. All of which sounds a bit like a form of Buddhism except that possessions (the right ones) are still key. The protagonist, on the rebound from a break-up from a very hip lady, decides to attain ultimate hipster status as he sees this as his much-needed ultimate self-actualisation (certainly his ex- told him so). The whole concept is depressingly Maslowian.

Naturally our hero inhabits New Farm and Fortitude Valley, the ground zero of hipsterdom and it is largely there that he undertakes a series of tasks designed to raise him to hipster nirvana. These include growing a beard, learning to knit, getting a tattoo, drinking up to 15 shots of coffee at a sitting, accepting vegetarianism, running a fashion market stall outside a hip bar, learning to  ride a fixed gear bicycle which he (partly) assembles, setting up a hipster band, and joining a fashion photographic course while only armed with an iPhone (hence the hipstamatic reference).

There are two extracts which highlight the occasional arch insights that are spelled out directly in the text.

“In 5000 years when alien archaeologist anthropologists want to identify the point at which human society began to devolve, they will dig up a homemaker centre car park and find the skeletons of 2000 white lower middle-class suburbanites, loading flat-screen televisions they can’t afford into Hyundais they don’t own, buried and perfectly preserved under a volcano of interest-free store credit paperwork.”

And

“There are three reasons why people choose to be vegetarians. The first is because they have a moral objection to eating animals. The second is for medical reasons. The third is because they’re trying to impress a girl.”

I very much enjoyed his early and later adventures especially the denouement at the hands of a bunch of hearing impaired lesser hipsters. It was an odd fascination as much born out of the sheer believable silliness of his quest as it is of feeling for his apparent earnestness. The book slows at times in the middle and some references (especially to contemporary music) are outside this reader’s ambit. Nevertheless, the point can usually be inferred.

I enjoyed my brief visit to this parallel universe but I was grateful that the quest ended with our hero  in need of a hipsterectomy!

The Rape of Mesopotamia

By Lawrence Rothfield

U of Chicago Press 2009

This is a sad book to read. Given that the titled region has probably the longest continuous history of literate urban civilization on this planet, it has certainly seen its fair share of war and mindless destruction. However, the manner in which looting was allowed to occur in 2003 without any kind of worthwhile prior precautionary measures and was then compounded by what can only be seen as heedless cynicism, makes for dire reading.

It can be understood that not everyone has a background, interest or understanding that would find its expression as a concern for the fate of the archaeological sites and artefacts that pepper this cradle of civilisation. Further, the greed of organised international art smugglers, dealers and purchasers must be shared by those Iraqis who were also involved (the very poorest having their poverty as their only excuse belied by those who chose not to loot).

This is a somewhat austere read without rage or anger only a deeply felt disappointment that builds as the reader is exposed the initial days of high confusion in Baghdad followed by weeks and months of inaction and buck-passing and stonewalling as more and more destruction occurred (at the most basic level, a US soldier was told when lodging a concern that known ancient artefacts were being sold in an on-base market to not mention the matter further). The usual defence of the need to plan hurriedly and secretly and act precipitately (‘shock and awe’) offers a few shreds of protection in the very early days but the indifference of planners and commanders is plain in the following months.

The Making of Modern Australia    

by William McInnes

Hachette Australia 2010

This book was produced as an accompaniment to the same named television series. The main interest in the series was that the stories illustrating the themes of Romance, Religion, Family were provided directly from the lives of everyday people who lived the changes of post WWII.  The stories at times intersect and a range of topics (the stolen generation, forgotten generation,  post WWII immigration, the baby boomers, communism and the cold war, sexual liberation, counter culture, the Vietnam war, the boat people,  education,  work, leisure, childhood and the childcare Industry, religious differences, the treatment of refugees,  reconciliation, music; and fashion) thread through many of the lives presented.

The series was narrated and this text written by William McInnes, the Brisbane raised (Redcliffe) actor and author who lost his filmmaker wife earlier this year.  McInnes did the narration for the ABC TV presentation of ‘The Slap’ with some viewers objecting to the fact of the narration and some to his speech (I  felt the narration mostly functioned extremely well). Certainly his writing and speech are distinctive, always rather quiet, reflective and understated. His writing easily evokes his speech patterns well and  the text reads as of he is having a quiet confidential chat with the reader.

As such, I found it a book that was interesting for the material revealed and evoked by the characters presented and foe the relatively gentle way McInnes makes his points.

Closet Reading: 500 Years of Humour on the Loo

by Phil Norman

Gibson Square Books 2009

This book was a reciprocal in that it was a gift from the friend who received  ‘Mozart’s Last Opera’ listed above.  He knew my taste well as this is gem of bibliophilia. It is not a collection of toilet jokes though it is written in a format, which could encourage its use in that place. It is a very effective and thorough history of the publication of those mostly brief publications that might otherwise fall under the heading of ‘pamphlet’, ‘Chap-book’, ‘magazine’, etc. I would suggest you visualize the cash desk counter in most bookstores (Avid Reader?) where you will find a range of such items. It is carefully authoritative, wide-ranging, and often plain LOL. Its only weakness lies in its depth as I was not familiar with quite a few of the 20th C references.

The Introduction sets the pace with an extract from an Alan Bennet poem ‘Place-Names of China’ which seemed oddly familiar …

Here I sit, alone and sixty,

Bald and Fat, and full of sin;

Cold the seat and loud the cistern

As I read the Harpic tin.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this work is the way origins of much that is familiar today can be traced back to its origins. An example would be in Norman’s coverage of the pandemonium of publishing that accompanied the Restoration and offended many while beginning (successfully) the fight for freedom of speech in the press when assaulted by the usual offenders.

He offers ‘The Midwife’ or ‘The Old Woman’s Magazine’ launched Oct 16, 1751 as a Grubb St threepenny wonder featuring Mrs Mary Midnight with its mock adverts, futurist predictions (by 1931, the average person’s height would be 2 ft. 6 ins owing to chronic gin abuse), spoof letters to newspapers and a note to the Royal Society on a truly pythonesque cat organ …

There is an engraved frontispiece featuring Christopher Smart and his publisher in full drag next to a chamber pot labelled ‘The Jakes of Genius’. It is so easy to detect the origins of the in-your-face panto-type dames such as Aunty Jack and Betty Blokk-Buster and much of the humour of the Pythons, Goodies and Little Britain in this.

The interest and humour continues as Norman surveys the fate of this publishing genre over the intervening years in some detail, In fact, the only times I was lost were when he included some very specifically English examples which I had never encountered before. Norman concludes with a sharply comical observation on the current Christmas book-giving trade – worth a read on its own particularly his description of the dreaded celebrity autobiography.

The Epigenetics Revolution

By Nessa Carey

Icon Books 2011

I knew I might have bitten off more than I could chew with this book, and it was a close-run thing. The earlier chapters that aim to educate the reader in the broadest terms were interesting, However, for someone with very little knowledge of human biology (me), the sheer number of acronymic details was close to overwhelming. However, the general interest of the topic and the author’s capacity to explain these mysteries, at times quite light-heartedly, carried me through.

My professional background took very seriously the examination of the nature – nurture debate, but how things have changed! Epigenetics examines the manner in which genes can be slightly but importantly modified by events (hormones, nutritional states and learning for example) and those changes transmitted to future generations – an almost Lamarckian notion that explains much while opening the door to possibility of engineered genetic therapies (already under way). The example of Audrey Hepburn as a member of the Dutch Hunger Winter cohort is explored as an example of the nutritional states, which can inspire such epigenetic change.

Two examples quoted caught my eye in the earlier chapters –

With regard to sex-typed imprinting for eggs and sperm, epigenetic changes strip cross sex changes from eggs and sperm, a condition which is then transmitted to new eggs and sperm while non-pluripotent cells lines can and do restore sex-based imprinted characteristics. An example of this is

‘Prof Gurdun Moore of Univ College London has made and intriguing suggestion. She has proposed that the high levels of imprinting in the brain represent a post-natal continuation of the war of the sexes. She has speculated that some brain imprints are an attempt by the paternal genome to promote behaviour in young off-spring that will stimulate the mother to continue to drain her own resources, for example by prolonged breast-feeding’  (anyone for ‘Tsolkas’ ‘the Slap’?)

Another example of epigenetic determination is the humble tortoiseshell moggie. A male cat has only one X chromosome, so it can only express all black or all ginger fur but not both. The female has two chromosomes and so can express a mixture of both as a result of a differential inactivation on those chromosomes, which expresses itself in patches on the moggies’ coat. Because this pattern can only occur in females, all tortoiseshell cats should be female. If you have one that has been sexed as male, he will, in fact has three chromosomes XXY and be infertile – poor Tom!

If you are curious about developing epigenetic-based therapies, this book could help you to get a grasp on the topic. This is an issue which is by no means to be taken lightly. There are a tremendous number of issues, medical, social and moral which flow from this work and any thinking persons needs to have at least some acquaintance with the basics.

 

 

 

~ John C

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