A quiet Revolution
By Leila Ahmed
This was a disappointing, and from my view, self-defeating book. I have long had an interest in the local (Australian) social and cultural implications of dress practices and their associated social codes in the Muslim community especially in schools. Let me also say that I am familiar with some of the similar behaviours that occur in many other religious communities including the Christian and Jewish, Sikh etc.
They key problem for me has always been the fact that many Muslim strictures (including various degrees of veiling) are not based directly on the Quran but rather on hadiths which often are backgrounded in pre-Quranic times, local tribal practices and (as an Abrahamic religion) patriarchal practices.
It is noteworthy that veiling had fallen away drastically in most Muslim cultures as recently as 60 years ago and Leila Ahmed sets out to examine what has changed in that period. One word of caution, as Professor in Women’s Studies and Religion at the Harvard Divinity School, this is a learned person and her text is at times somewhat laboured.
It is, nevertheless, an insightful history (short and long term) of this issue against the background of contemporary gender studies in which the author is skilled.
In brief, it seems to me that ‘the veil’ has come to mean a number of different things. In traditional rural societies is remains what it historically became, a symbol and engine of patriarchal practice. However, two other groups see it differently. Some quite highly educated women have seen it as a religio-political statement of their desire to identify with Islam and believe that it signifies subjugation to Allah alone and can imply empowerment and liberation through choice. Another group, usually based on a passionate reformist fundamentalism (Wahhabi especially), which is usually marked by a narrowly educated (?) and intolerant view, appeals particularly to the economically and politically downtrodden to the point of self-immolation. The practice here is highly traditional, impositional and patriarchal.
The result seems to be a mixture confusion and fear within and without Islam and one is left wondering whether this is simply a process of evolution that will unfold (teleologically?) through naturally occurring processes as it has done (and is doing) in the case of Christianity and whether the better-educated Muslim women may change course again as they have already done when adopting the veil.
In a tolerant society, as ours aspires to be, one can hardly espouse anti-veiling views when and if the practices signifies nothing more than religious devotion. However, I remain as I was before reading this book with the view that the practice lies somewhere between sad and silly but often with unfortunate consequences.
(The recent airing of the ABC TV program ‘Divorce: Aussie Islamic Way’ has done nothing to alter my view)
Mullahs Without Mercy
By Geoffrey Robertson
Continuing my campaign to understand the range and complexity of the Muslim world, I took up this book which focuses on the Iranian theocracy and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Geoffrey Robinson is a well-known causes lawyer – and it shows. He is arguing here for a case that would see international law abolish nuclear weapons on human rights grounds – and a very good case it is. The only problem is the world of realpolitik and he spends about 70% of the book spelling out that history and its current dangerously accelerating state of play. The problem is that he cannot realistically explain how it is likely that realpolitik and idealism are likely to end up sharing the same stable and birthing the process most thinking people would love to see – the abolition of nuclear weaponry.
His detailed overview of the past and the present nuclear behaviour of Iran against an (again) detailed history of the rise and rule of the Mullahs and their supporters who dominate that country makes for fascinating if sometimes stomach-churning reading. Certainly I was aware of most elements of the story from Mossadegh onwards and found his exposition of the behaviour of many of these religious oligarchs entirely in keeping with extreme Muslim fundamentalism and the egregious aspects of human behaviour. Iranian Shi’a leaders display all the hallmarks of paranoid defensive fundamentalism (a tautology?) along with the comfort of being able to hound and destroy in self-righteousness the source of their fears. The only hopeful balance to such behaviour when the nuclear alternative is offered, lies in the possibility that at least some prefer the fruits of personal power to the glory of the ‘end times’ so much loved and anticipated by most fundamentalists.
While, at one point, Robertson argues that legalistically, Iran has a case for attacking Israel, I would have liked him to apply more blowtorch to the historic behaviour of the Jewish state and its questionable behaviours employed in acquiring bombs – there is fundamentalism alive and well in the Jewish state as there is in Iran.
By Oliver Burkeman
This is a review (attack?) on the ‘Motivational Workshop’ power of positive thinking school (and business enterprise). As someone who long felt oppressed by this manifestation of the dominance of the need for Achievement in American (and world) society, I found this a refreshing and reassuring read.
This core of Burkeman’s book is pursuing what he dubs an oppositional “negative path”. This is the notion that while individuals constantly seek after illusory happiness especially through material and psychological ‘goods’, the less likely they are to achieve them and hence the need for regular ‘recharging’ through motivational seminars, texts, tapes etc. (which enrich their organizers). He argues that by adopting a negative path and considering the downers in life, such as the inevitability of death, the inescapability of suffering or the impossibility of security we are more likely to achieve something like ‘happiness’. This is not a ‘one school’ approach and Burkeman argues that there are many strands available, ancient and modern that can assist in developing this view.
A number of my heroes get a Guernsey in this respect including Epictetus and especially the grandfather of Stoics, Marcus Aurelius and psychotherapist Albert Ellis. Burkeman also journeys to London, Kenya and Mexico to look at how a variety of people live with their insecurities (threatened and real). My psychological father Martin Seligman did his initial work on why some TB patients got better while others failed. His initial conclusions tended toward the Positive Thinking ‘happiness’ position but have evolved into a position described as ‘flourishing’ which incorporate broader notions of affiliation and individual empowerment
If this book does some great good for the reader, it is to impel such self-examination and reconstruction of what is truly of value.
A Name in Blood
By Matt Rees
If you have viewed the Caravaggios of the Villa Borghese and sundry churches in Rome, Naples and Valetta, you will be a lifetime fan of this mysterious volcanic man whose life story is sufficiently shadowy yet peppered with enough outrageous incidents and behaviour to stimulate endless speculation in written and visual forms (Derek Jarman’s memorable movie – see above).
There have been at least nine books with varying focuses on the life of this man since Linda Murray published ‘The Dark Fire’ in 1977. Australian Peter Robb has brilliantly mined this source in Rome, Sicily and Naples with his wonderfully atmospheric trilogy ‘Midnight in Sicily’, ‘Caravaggio. M’ and ‘Street Fight in Naples: A Book of Art and Insurrection’.
I reported to the group on Matt Rees as the author of ‘Mozart’s Last Aria’, which focussed on the role of Mozart’s sister in a mixture fiction overlaid with detailed historical research. He does the same here though it must be said that, at times, the determination to present and arrange his research material occasional inhibits the flow of his story. Rees made his name as the author of a detective series with a Palestinian hero set in Amman, Jordan. Again, this background skill is brought to bear as the book presents as a detective might reconstruct a series of crime scenes – and there was no shortage of these in the life of Caravaggio. He also uses this approach to forensically examine how and why certain pictures may have been painted including the play of shadows and light (tenebrism) and the characters that mirrored his own life. For this reason alone, having access to the Internet to check on pictures mentioned is an invaluable supplement to those provided in the book’s colour plates.
Rees’ spin includes an enduring but doomed heterosexual love interest though there are some hints at some homosexual behaviour. Most of that is applied to church men (with some accuracy in the case of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte) though other authors have seen fit to make such behaviour attributable to Caravaggio along with his drinking, whoring, fighting and general dissipation. Homosexual affection is represented however without judgement or opprobrium. Rees also has an almost plausible explanation for the disappearance of Caravaggio though there has been a recent attempt to label remains found near a church at Porto Ercole as his.
This is as good as any introduction to the life of this amazing man and certainly is not a ‘dry as dust’ piece of art history.
The Fry chronicles
After ‘Moab is My Wash pot’, the first volume of Fry autobiography, this came as a mixed work and even at times disappointing. The main problem was personal as I am quite unfamiliar with a lot of the stage and television work that is extensively treated in the second half of the book. This is still Fry in full flight however, and mostly an enjoyable read.
One passage I particularly enjoyed occurs in the first half as he talks about his painfully emerging identity as a teacher and University student and the role of pipe smoking in that process. He provides an extended description of the anticipatory processes and joys of preparing a pipe to smoke through to the initial inhaling ‘rush’ which runs to two or three pages. I have seldom read a more rapturous and accurate description of the pleasures of addiction. It is spot on and marks him as a perpetual potential addict of one kind or another.
The book covers the period from about age twenty to his public emergence in the 1980s. This is after his credit card ‘problem’ and marks a growing awareness of where some of his life problems are going to lie as he grows in his range of entertainment skills. His Cambridge college years are pleasantly covered as he explains how he ‘got by’ through the grace of an excellent memory and the capacity to twist examination questions in the direction of his prepared understandings. One cannot help feeling that he continues to use this technique to this day. The social aspects of life at college are also appealingly described with lifetime associations formed.
The text flows effortlessly into the years that took him into stage work, writing and television always presenting his personal needs, angst and drives in tandem with his developing work, social and sexual (non) lives. This is where I had some problems with the book. As indicated earlier, I simply didn’t know about much of the work he was discussing and found my attention wandering. While his internal analyses are always effective and grant an understanding of his pretty constant fears and inadequacies, they do tend to be repetitive when unleavened by an understanding of their context.
If there is one thing that marks Fry, it has to be his all-consuming curiosity – about his world and himself. It is even apparent in his current TV show ‘QI’ when he is often clearly unhappy when he cannot present information that he finds intriguing and integrative (his old college technique).
He gets very excited about the development of the Apple Mac, an enthusiasm I share though I doubt to his expressed extent. Almost certainly his enthusiasm is founded on the its ability to further satisfy his desire to accumulate and integrate understandings about his world.
The heat of the Sun
After reading this book, I gave a copy to a friend as a Christmas present for two reasons. First, he is an opera tragic and second, it is a darned fine read perhaps even surprisingly so.
From the first meeting between the orphan Woodley Sharpless (mild, bookish, disabled, homosexual) and Ben Pinkerton (lively, wildly adventurous, gifted and from an illustrious background) at Blaze Academy, the operatic stage is set for a lifetime intertwining story.
Of course, it eventually emerges that the nicknamed Ben ‘Trouble’ is the son of Madame Butterfly and Lt Pinkerton, adopted by him and his fiercely determined wife Kate. Sharpless is, of course, the son of Nagasaki Consul Sharpless who oversaw the famous relationship.
The story is then written from Sharpless’ point of view and, in a tour de force of writing, describes the hedonistic life of the rich in Manhattan of the twenties before moving on through the thirties, wartime, and pivotally the development, testing and use of the Atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The title ‘Heat of the Sun’ could be taken to refer to the Icarean nature of relationships, Ben Pinkerton’s relationship to Japan (the flag) or the impact of the bomb and its surrounding controversies.
This is a multifaceted tale of happiness and sadness in relationships, of small and great events, of tragedy and humour (often campy and gay) with passages of great verbal intensity and beauty – it is operatic! All power to Australian David Rain for an enjoyable and thoughtful read.
When asked how he came to write this story, Rain replied …
‘I’d seen Madame Butterfly several times, but it was after one performance (in Prague, as it happened) that my partner Antony said afterwards, “What happened to that boy?” He meant Butterfly’s son, who, after his mother’s suicide, will be taken back to America by Lieutenant Pinkerton and his new wife, Kate. The novel started once I’d put together three facts: that the opera is set in Nagasaki, a city on which an atomic bomb would later be dropped; that the action is said, in the libretto, to be “in the present day” – the early twentieth century; and that, therefore, characters from the opera could still have been alive during World War II. At that point, I knew I had a story.’
The Two Frank Thrings
By Peter Fitzpatrick
This book was mentioned as having been read at an earlier meeting of the group, so I shall keep my comments brief. As mentioned in the group, this is a very detailed examination of the lives of the Thring father and son. I was aware of the importance of Thring Snr as an entrepreneur and his Efftee Films but acquired a great deal more detail from Fitzpatrick. The nature of the parental relationship from which Thring Jnr (how he would have hated to hear himself described that way!) emerged (and especially with his mother) goes a long way to explaining the persona that most knew.
I will restrict myself to a consideration of the role that Frank Jnr evolved into. Given his homosexuality and initial wealth along with his theatrical skills and inclination, there were a number of public roles he could have inhabited and it is instructive that he enjoyed playing the role of Sheridan Whiteside in ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ no fewer than five times. (I saw him play it at the SGIO in 1979). This classic Kaufman and Hart comedy is built around an arrogant, dominant, acerbic theatrical critic who, as a house guest, breaks a leg and stays creating mayhem in the lives of those around him. The play was written with one man in mind, Alexander Woollcott (Algonquinist and friend of Dorothy Parker), who actually stayed as a guest of Hart and wrote in his guestbook “This is to certify that I had one of the most unpleasant times I ever spent.” Though Woollcott, a repressed homosexual played the role later, the first performance on stage and screen was by Monty Woolley, another well-known closeted gay. Both displayed the characteristics of Whiteside in the play. This was their persona as it became for our Frank Thring. Incidentally, I played Whiteside in 1959 – there has got to be something about that role!
It is easy to see, against this background, how Frank slipped easily into the persona that was so well known while his chronic loneliness, alcoholism and depression was all-too-often his real world. As his funds shrunk, he tried to maintain his public image which had become increasing less relevant and dated in a world where public homosexual desire and relationships were increasingly acceptable.
An Irreverent Curiosity
By David Farley
This was a Christmas gift from a friend familiar with my love of anything to do with religious relic mania, but it proved to be quite a lot more. It did not fail the title which points to an attempt by travel writer David Farley to determine the history and relatively recent disappearance (1983 or 1986) of the foreskin of Jesus Christ (Santissimo Prepuzio or Carne Vera Sacra). This took place in a very odd but historic and picturesque Italian hill village called Calcata that was also Farley’s home during his extended investigation. This included Calcata, Rome, Turin and France and, as an experienced travel writer, his residence in Calcata and his travels are colourfully described with great interest in the often bizarre characters with whom he lived and interviewed.
There is no shortage of weird and wonderful material about the history of the foreskin relic. Not the least is that Saint Theresa of Avila, when Jesus appeared to her and took her as his bride, used the foreskin as her wedding ring. The relic disappeared mysteriously, while sheltering in a shoebox in the village priest’s wardrobe in Calcata.
Farley presents his search as a mixture of bumbling detective story and serious researcher stumbling through a landscape of quirky, weird, often internationally successful Calcatese who have come to prize a localised ‘energy’ that promises them opportunities to be creative, or at least odd. The organization of the book with occasional brief disjointed chapters points to the difficulties Farley had in combining the two threads in his story. However, I am happy to forgive the structural weaknesses for both his expository and travel components.
A fascinating aside is Farley’s mention in ‘The Keys of St Peter’ by Roger Peyrefitte of Vatican activity with regard to the fate of the foreskin. I read Peyrefitte’s ‘Particular Friendships’. ‘The Keys of St Peter’, ‘Diplomatic Diversions and Conclusions’, ‘The Exile of Capri’, ‘The Knights of Malta’ and ‘The Jews’ when much younger. He was important as a defender of homosexual love and a wild denouncer and ‘outer’ of hypocrisy especially amongst the aristocracy and church referring to the ‘black aristocracy of the Vatican’ and claiming to ‘out’ relatively recent Popes, amongst others, as homosexual. I am pleased to note that Stephen Fry recently referred to ‘The Exile of Capri’ and ‘Special Friendship’s as “unforgettable, transformative books” for him – as they were for me.
The Queen Mother : The Untold Story
By Lady Colin Campbell
First the author – Lady Colin (Georgie) Campbell was born into the Ziadie family in Jamaica in 1949 and (due to a physical defect) was brought up as male until she was 18 when an operation changed things.
From 19, she spent her early years as a model in New York and then briefly (14 months) married Colin Campbell, younger brother of the 12th Duke of Argyll.
She has developed a profile as an author specialising in society scandal – ‘Diana In Private’ (1992) – chronicled that ill-fated marriage, ‘Empress Bianca’ (2008) – a fictionalised version of an expose´ of the world’s richest widow which had to be pulped and ‘The Real Diana’ (2010) which detailed more alleged indiscretions and was similarly attacked.
She likes to be seen (and read) as an associate of ‘real aristocracy’ with a concern for truth and equality which may in fact simply be snobbishness in disguise.
This is a book with two elements. One is the claim that the Queen Mother’s real mother was her family’s French cook, Marguerite Rodiere (who may have been her mother’s illegitimate sister), her confused official birth details, and the events that flow from this. The second is a re-assessment of the lifetime behaviour and conduct of the Queen Mother including the claim that her two girls were result of artificial insemination either because of the Duke of York being sterile from Mumps or because she hated sex and had avoided it ever since her honeymoon.
‘For the fact is, royal and aristocratic circles had been alight for decades with the story that Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, while undoubtedly the daughter of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, was not the child of his wife Cecilia, nor was her younger brother David, born nearly two years after her on 2nd May, 1902.
‘The two Benjamins, as they were known in the Bowes Lyon family (in a Biblical allusion to the brother of Joseph, who was himself the product of a coupling between his father and his mother’s maid) were supposedly the children of Marguerite Rodiere, an attractive and pleasant Frenchwoman who had been the cook at St Paul’s Waldenbury and is meant to have provided Lord and Lady Glamis with the two children they so yearned for after Cecilia was forbidden by her doctors from producing any more progeny.
‘Hence the nickname of Cookie, which the Duke and Duchess of Windsor took care to promulgate throughout international society once Elizabeth proved herself to be their most formidable enemy.’
Whatever the reader may think of the substance of the claims made in the book (many are very thinly based with questionable sources), its construction is profoundly irritating as repeatedly a case (or supposition) is made, then, when diametrically opposed evidence arises, the author uses the ‘exception proves the rule’ ploy. Any balance tends to come with the ‘damning with faint praise’ approach which ironically she accuses her own target of employing. There is a tendency go off on long incidental pathways that lead to nothing and are as confusing as the endless references to bloodlines, relatives and liaisons.
There is absolutely no shortage of scandal and endless contrivances designed to show the Queen Mother in a duplicitous light. I have no doubt that the real Lady was not always as sugary-sweet and uplifting as she was so often cast and may well have had personal enmities she did not hesitate to pursue apart from her regal persona. However, the obvious bias of so many of the author’s sources and the structuring of her arguments let this book down badly.
It is, nevertheless, a reasonably interesting, if over-long and repetitive, read though I am sure my long-dead Mother would probably burn it if she could.
By Michael Chabon
I am afraid that I have to admit to a temporary defeat with this novel. I am a fan of Chabon but found myself halted early in the piece by the density of contemporary music and cultural references with which I have almost no familiarity (though I grant that Obama is pretty well-known). I will perhaps try again when I need a good long careful read (perhaps on Straddie for a few days).
By John Lanchester
This is my first GFC novel. It covers one year (2007-2008) in the lives of the residents of Pepys St, South London – a street for the arrived and arriving where the property values of the formerly middle class residents have gone stratospheric.
“Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner. If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich. It was the first time in history this had ever been true.”
It opens with the evaporation of an anticipated ₤1,000,000 bonus and progresses through a year of loss and change for all concerned.
The inhabitants are diverse, ranging from the archetypical City banker and wife (Roger and Arabella Yount) living lives of indulgence, an elderly long-term householder (Petunia Howe) who will die before year’s end, her daughter and an unloveable grandson, modern performance artist (Smithy) and a shop-keeping Pakistani family (the Kamals). There are also the employees and tradespeople (Zbigniew a Polish builder and Matya, the Hungarian nanny), even the local parking warden (Quentina Mkfesi) who is an illegally employed Zimbabwean refugee and transients in the form of a 17 year old Senegalese Soccer prodigy (Freddie Kamo) who is being groomed for fame.
This is a long and complex book (close to 600 pages) but the storylines are skilfully maintained and interwoven – the only exception being a few characters who do not resonate or develop memorably and a perhaps somewhat dubious monetary deus ex machina. It feels, in some senses, Dickensian in that it is London-set and has some rich characterisations while construction tends to be neat and episodic with a mixture of the humorous and moral. Both Dickens and Lanchester started out as journalists. The writing is hardly Dickensian and is mostly workmanlike and straightforwardly descriptive. There are frequent times, however, when musing over characterisations and some locations, that Lanchester holds attention well and generates a lingering emotional response.
All of the main events of our immediate past, GFC, Islamic terrorism and refugee crises are woven into the lives presented and, with few exceptions, some sympathy. Perhaps the least likeable character though we can laugh at her, is the ‘stuff’ and shopping obsessed Arabella who is an Edina Monsoon on steroids.
The novel concludes with musing over the nature of ‘stuff’ and the recurring theme of wanting what others have, the nature of worth and permanence and, as in the case of so many crashes, what is ‘safe as houses’?