Thursday, December 3, 2015

Peking Picnic, by Ann Bridge

Ann Bridge (1889-1974) is the pen name of Mary Ann Dolling Sanders. The wife of a British diplomat, she spent many years abroad with her husband in various diplomatic postings. It is these experiences which she used as material for many of her novels. Her first, Peking Picnic, is set in China during the 1930s.

Laura Leroy is the 37-year-old wife of a British diplomat posted to Peking. She is restless and somewhat ambivalent about the diplomatic lifestyle she leads in China, seeing it as artificial, even silly. It is not so much the place but the society of diplomats and their hangers on that she finds so trying. Laura also misses England and her two children, which she has had to leave behind. 

When a group of expats organise a picnic to a great temple at Chieh T’ai Ssu, Laura is dragooned into joining the party. The pleasures of the Chinese countryside (which Bridge describes with great delicacy in her precise prose) are enjoyed by all, but there is a danger looming. Two military groups are fighting each other. The lovely background of the tranquil Chinese landscape is disrupted by small arms fire. Soon enough, the group of gallivanting expats get caught up in the guerrilla fighting. Taken hostage, they must plot their escape.

Peking Picnic was first published in 1932 to wide critical acclaim. Reading it in 2015, it certainly has dated. Although the novel is very carefully constructed and skilfully executed, it has many problems. None of the characters are at all likeable. Laura Leroy, whom we see the story through, is cool, distant and withdrawn. I know that that’s the whole idea of her character, the ethereal spirit wandering through a foreign landscape dreaming of home, but it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for her. Her colonial arrogance leads her to think she has the whole country stitched up.

The second major problem is the novel’s chauvinistic attitude towards the Chinese. There are absolutely no well fleshed out Chinese characters. The one recurring Chinese figure, Laura’s servant, is simply portrayed as emotionless and tricky. When the Chinese guerrilla fighters and warlords are introduced, Bridge doesn’t hold back, repeatedly describing them as either yellow, simian, monkeys or apes.

Lastly, the novel has at its centre a lot of psychosexual dynamics. There is much sex talk amongst the characters as they contemplate affairs and relationships. A Freudian gloom hangs over everything, and all the players are frozen with hopeless indecision as they try to figure out the best way to proceed. After so many pages of sex talk, no one even gets it on. Worse still, when Bridge endeavours to describe the complex psychosexual mental states everyone is in, none of it makes much sense. It all reads like so much gobbledygook. I tried reading certain passages over and over to try and figure out what it meant, but couldn’t make head nor tail.

Why read Peking Picnic at all? Perhaps as a literary curio, as a great example of a novel that was much feted in its day, but has since fallen into decline. It is also very instructive about imperial attitudes towards the Chinese. Clearly the British didn’t think much of them at all. It reminds one of today’s imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US paid little attention to local culture, custom, politics and language. How much history repeats.  

Saturday, November 1, 2014

My Search for Warren Harding, by Robert Plunket

Robert Plunket's 1983 satire on Los Angeles culture and society is flawed but hilarious nonetheless.

Twenty years ago I read a brilliant comic novel by Robert Plunket called Love Junkie. It was about a homemaker and wannabe socialite who falls in love with a porn star. Pop star Madonna even bought the film rights to it. Alas, the book never made it into film. Plunket’s other novel, My Search for Warren Harding, was published some nine years previous to Love Junkie, in 1983. I never got around to reading the first novel. For some reason Robert Plunket entered my thoughts recently, so I decided to track down My Search for Warren Harding. (It’s no longer in print, so ebay came to the rescue.)

The story describes loafing academic Eliot Weiner and his discovery that American President  Warren Harding’s mistress, Rebekah Kinney, is still alive and kicking (sort of, she’s confined to a wheelchair, quickly running out of money and in her mid eighties). It’s perhaps worth noting here that Warren Harding, America’s 29th president, is pretty much considered its worst. For details on Harding’s extramarital affairs see Wikipedia.

Rebekah Kinney is living in Los Angeles in a large house. Eliot Weiner has heard that Kinney has a stash of love letters from Warren Harding. To try and get his hands on this cache, Weiner inveigles his way into Kinney’s house. Sort of. She has a pool and pool house that is attached to it. He agrees to rent it out at an exorbitant price. Eliot meets Kinney’s obese granddaughter, Jonica. The plot soon involves her in trying to get access to the rumoured letters. That’s simplifying matters, as Plunket’s story unfolds in dizzying complexity. It has an unending, almost surreal feel, like something Dostoyevsky would have dreamt up in one of his  farcical novels, like The Idiot or The Devils. You wait for situations to be resolved, then find them open out onto more nightmarish situations. It’s like a comic pandora’s box.

The novel is really a spoof on Los Angeles culture and society. More aptly, it’s a savaging. Plunket said that he wasn’t so much a writer as a person with an axe to grind. Boy is that the truth. Every aspect of the LA scene, its people, architecture, fame culture, urban landscape and economy come in for a drubbing. There is so much detail that as you read you wonder how much of it is describing real events that Plunket witnessed. The scenes on the boat, where Jonica has to be rescued by the coastguard, a day of unending horrors, are a tour de force. Plunket is undoubtedly a peerless comic writer and it’s a great tragedy that he hasn’t written a novel since 1992’s Love Junkie.

Having said that, My Search for Warren Harding does have its faults. There are parts of the plot that don’t seem credible. Some of those passages that strain credulity beg for some sort of aside or explanatory notes, but Plunket just races ahead. It seemed to me that his comic style - fast paced, keenly observed and acerbic - raced ahead of the plot. For example, when Eliot has an affair with Jonica, there’s no internal monologue of guilt or acknowledgement that he’s cheated on his long term girlfriend, Pam. It’s sometimes hard to take Eliot at face value as heterosexual. Reading between the lines, Eliot seems to fancy the thuggish Vernon, husband of Jonica. This is alluded to a little bit in the plot, but is never worked out properly. Very little of the sexual dynamics in the book seem credible.

These are faults that get in the way of the book perhaps being considered a mini classic. There’s a lot of incoherence you have to overlook. If Plunket could have made the people and their relationships more realistic, the novel would stand up better.

But if you can (and you should) overlook this, then My Search for Warren Harding is definitely worth a read. Plunket is a totally natural comic writer. His sentences crack along. Despite the novel’s irritating faults, I thought Warren Harding a great read.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul, by Jenny Nordberg

In this brilliant work of empathy and understanding, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg takes us inside the lives of Afghan women and their struggle for a better life.

There’s no other way to describe it: this is an exceptional book. So much that is written on Afghanistan comes from either a militaristic, political or academic angle. There are many important studies written by experts that give an abstract idea of the country, its wars, religion and history. Jenny Nordberg, a Swedish journalist based in New York, examines power,  gender and freedom in Afghan society through the cultural phenomenon of bacha posh: dressing up young girls as boys. By investigating a practice that is fairly common, accepted but not talked about, Nordberg paints a deeply human portrait of what it’s like to be a woman in Afghanistan.

Life for Afghan women is really no better than being a constant prisoner, with men holding the jail keys. Women must be covered up at all times lest they provoke the lust in men and they can’t travel without a man as an escort. Career wise, the only path is marriage. Marriages are arranged, brides literally sold off, and husbands must be obeyed. Domestic violence is treated as normal and acceptable. Once married, the first job for an Afghan wife is to produce a son. Having a son immediately raises a woman’s status, and that of her family. For a woman to have girl after girl and no boys lowers status. No one wants girls. So desperate are women and their husbands to have boys that, after producing several girls in a row, a couple may decide to turn one of their girls into a boy.  Turning a girl into a boy is as simple as cutting her hair and putting on boys clothing. There can be many reasons for this pre-pubescent gender bending.

There are practical imperatives to turn a girl into a boy. If a family runs a business and they need someone to help out, a daughter is prohibited from performing these sorts of duties. But sons are free. Thus turning a girl into a boy can provide a family with much needed economic help. Another popular reason that families may decide to turn a daughter into a boy is the widespread belief that this will bring good luck to subsequent pregnancies, promising the much prized boy. Jenny Nordberg interviews lots of Afghans who firmly believe they were able to conceive boys because they turned one of their girls into a bacha posh.

Mothers may wish to turn their daughters into boys because they were once bacha posh themselves and now want their girls to experience the freedoms that men enjoy, if only for a relatively short period of time.  Lastly there is the all pervading cultural demand to produce boys. A bacha posh, even though not a real boy, is seen as a definite step up from being a girl and a bit of a happy compromise. A bacha posh in the family will raise the family's status. Other families, even knowing the deception, will compliment the parents on such a wise decision.

Afghanistan being such a conservative country, you’d think that turning girls into boys would be frowned upon, perhaps lethally dangerous. Amazingly, it’s not. It’s much a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Girls passing as boys will go to school, perform jobs, run the streets and everyone will know they’re really girls. No one minds or disapproves. There are limits to this type of cross dressing, however. Most bacha posh are turned back into girls once they approach puberty. It’s seen as inappropriate to have girls on the cusp of womanhood enjoying the freedoms of men. So with a flick of the switch, gender is restored to female.

Jenny Nordberg does interview women who continue to dress as men into adulthood and puberty. One teenage girl she meets resists her parents urges for her to turn back into a girl. You get the impression, however, that her days as a boy are numbered. A couple of grown women manage to pass as men and hold down jobs. The main subject of the book is a female parliamentarian, Azita, who has decided to dress her youngest girl as a boy, given the male name Mehran. Azita is in a constant struggle to improve her family’s lot. Winning a seat in parliament has moved the family forward. Having a “boy” in the family, even though most people know she is her youngest daughter, has lifted the family’s prestige a knot. Yet with the country on the brink of civil war and the Karzai government notorious for its corruption, Azita’s future is precarious. She’s under enormous pressure to maintain the momentum in her career; the chance of sliding back into the role of a traditional Afghan wife, with all the restrictions that would impose, remains a very real possibility. The stakes are high.

What makes The Underground Girls of Kabul such an engaging book is Jenny Nordberg’s intimate reporting style. She’s lived amongst the Afghan women she writes about and has become in many ways entwined in their personal dramas. The book gives you a very real understanding of what it’s like to live as a woman in Afghanistan. But so much more than that, it shows how real people cope when living in such a society, in a country constantly suffering from war. You come to understand so many of the country’s problems through the lens of gender. Nordberg, wanting to complete the circle, even interviews Azita’s father. His replies show that he thinks Afghanistan’s strict rules on gender are stupid and limiting, but it is how society is organised and change seems too hard. When he is asked how he feels about his daughter being physically abused by her husband, he is clearly distraught, but can’t do anything. The husband must always be respected.

Another reason the book is so skilful at eliciting the reader’s empathy is that Nordberg throughout the text points out how we in the West have only very recently improved our laws to protect and emancipate women. Current day Afghanistan’s treatment of women is mirrored in Western history. We can’t hold the high moral ground.

If you really want to understand Afghanistan from the inside, what it’s like for its people, living with constant war, violence, poverty, yet still having hope of a better future, The Underground Girls of Kabul makes for essential reading.

The Underground Girls Of Kabul: The Hidden Lives of Afghan Girls Disguised as Boys, by Jenny Nordberg. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9781844087747  RRP: $29.99

Friday, December 7, 2012

Belinda, by Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) wrote her second novel, Belinda, as a ‘Moral Tale’, but that shouldn’t put readers off. Edgeworth’s fiction is full of invention and energy, with a plot that speeds (sometimes improbably) at a million miles an hour, all built around the sturdy, no-nonsense heroine Belinda Portman.  

Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) is best known for her first novel, the comedy Castle Rackrent, which was published in 1800. Edgeworth is also familiar to many readers as a contemporary of Jane Austen (1775-1817). Austen was seven years younger, but nonetheless she was busy working on early drafts of her novels at the same time Edgeworth was a publishing sensation. Edgeworth’s second novel, a bulky three volume ‘Moral Tale’ called Belinda, was published the next year after Castle Rackrent in 1801. All the hall marks of quick writing and hasty publishing are clearly evident in the text, in stark contrast to Jane Austen’s finely wrought masterpieces. But strangely enough (for this reader anyway), the clunky aspects are quickly forgiven and the novel turns out to be a hugely satisfying page-turner. 

Edgeworth states in the advertisement at the opening pages that her book is to be considered a moral tale and not a novel. Novels, we learn, have disseminated too much vice, folly and error. And it’s true that the novel does have a lot of zeal in this regard. Many of the characters in Belinda learn the errors of their ways. Bad behaviour makes its practitioners miserable, and they learn that true happiness comes from good moral conduct. In this manner Edgeworth’s Belinda has quite a bit common with the writings of Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), especially his epic Clarissa (1747-1748). The longest novel in the English language, Clarissa dissects in minute detail the compromised position of women in society and points to a moral need for feminism. But unlike Richardson’s victim Clarissa, who lacks autonomy and is helplessly storm tossed by events, Belinda is unquestionably in charge of her destiny and needs no man to help her out life’s complex problems. 

The story could be described as a romantic comedy that also addresses serious themes. A young Belinda Portman is sent by her Aunt Mrs Stanhope to stay with the fashionable Lady Delacour. Lady Delacour, who is a fascinating mess, hits the pages like a racing car in top gear. She’s very much like one of the glittering society belles of Oscar Wilde’s early plays. The lines come thick and fast from Lady Delacour’s sharp tongue, but the wit is all a shimmering facade. Beneath, Lady Delacour is on the brink of ruin due to her own dissolute lifestyle. The canny Belinda, a shrewd observer and quick learner, uses Lady Delacour as an example of how not to live. Along the way Belinda meets other similarly ruined characters and uses these experiences profitably to consolidate her views on best way to achieve a happy and fulfilled life. 

The romantic plot involves a Mr Clarence Hervey. There are many twists and turns until Belinda at last secures Mr Hervey, who she considers to be her intellectual and moral equal. And so like a Jane Austen novel, the heroine isn’t forced to marry beneath her.  

As mentioned, Belinda has many problems and faults. The plotting is clunky and disconnected. Many of the characters are completely inconsistent. One moment a rotten husband is described as a useless drunk, then a few pages later he magically turns into a sweet, sensitive soul. Edgeworth kicks her characters around in this manner to fit them into a wild, freewheeling and improbable plot. Not only that, she develops Lady Delacour at the beginning pretty much as a major character, then has her missing in action for much of the third volume (although she does reappear in the last pages).  

A question kept running through my head as I read Belinda: if there are all these faults I have to keep forgiving or overlooking in the text then why do I keep reading on with such delight? I think there are two reasons. The first is the character of Belinda herself. If there are shades of Austen in this novel, then they come through in the heroine. Belinda sits at the centre of the novel as an irrepressible presence. She approaches life’s trials and difficulties with stoical calm and resolve. We listen carefully to her intellectual thought processes and moral reasonings, and find that we can do no better than her. She is uncannily an almost three-dimensional character. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet sometimes flashes to mind when observing Belinda navigate life’s perilous shoals.  

The second reason the novel works so well is Edgeworth’s sheer sense of energy and fun. She mixes humour with a keen desire to tell a good yarn. She keeps the plot moving and her moral lessons are edifying without preaching to the reader.  

Edgeworth’s intent was to instruct the reader in proper conduct, which she achieves. Character’s like Lady Delacour and Mr Vincent are great examples of what happens when you follow the vain paths of easy self-gratification, seeking pleasure and fame in what Belinda dismissively calls ‘the world’, rather than living for yourself. But Edgeworth obviously also finds great pleasure in the act of writing and entertaining her readers. Belinda manages to be both a delicious entertainment and a piece of skilled literature, even if it does have its wild excesses. It’s as though Lady Delacour was doing a lot of the writing herself, with Belinda occasionally intervening to rein her in.

 

 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Too Much Luck: The Mining Boom and Australia's Future, by Paul Cleary

Paul Cleary’s Too Much Luck is a nifty primer on the Australian mining boom. For those who pay a cursory attention to the media but want a more detailed look into the subject away from all the noise of television and internet reporting, then this short book is just the ticket. Cleary works as a senior reporter for The Australian and so is on top of all the facts from a working journalist’s perspective. This means he writes in a sharp and punchy manner and can communicate complex information in a user-friendly manner. He distils the big picture into an accessible 160 page guide.

Too Much Luck acts very much as a cautionary tale. Historically, Cleary shows, economies that experience resource booms squander their money and skewer their economies. Easy money comes rolling into the coffers and the temptation is to spend like there’s no tomorrow. (One of the book’s big ideas is to create a foreign investment fund for future use, or for economic downturns.) Cleary is very critical of the Howard government’s use of the money from the China boom – ‘pissed up against the wall’ on tax cuts and other middle class entitlements.  

Other havoc that resource booms can wreak are to the structural fundamentals of an economy. Once investment, capital and other resources are deployed to a resource sector, other parts of the economy start to atrophy. This is why we have what is now described as a ‘two speed’ economy. Mining is going great guns, while retail etc. is struggling. For Australia, high commodity prices, which pay mining huge profits, also pushes the value of the dollar up. This makes life tough for manufacturers, tourism and retail.

The answer to all these woes? Saving for the future, taxing appropriately and supporting struggling areas of the economy that we may need when mining enters a downturn.  While globalisation may promote the idea of specialisation, an economy with a certain degree of diversity is a good idea.

Basically, we need to plan for the long term, not fritter easy money away on a short term shopping spree.

This will be a hard job for politicians as Kevin Rudd’s failure to implement the Resource Super Profits Tax has shown.

Too Much Luck: The Mining Boom and Australia’s Future, by Paul Cleary. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863955379  RRP: $24.95



Thursday, July 26, 2012

James Howard Kunstler’s follow-up to his 2006 book The Long Emergency is a slight disappointment, and suffers from its author having nothing really new to say. The book can’t be entirely dismissed, however, as it does have its moments of insight and is generally interesting. It’s just that it’s not the consistently bracing read that The Long Emergency was.

Too Much Magic can pretty much be considered the follow-up to Kunstler’s 2006 peak-oil treatise, The Long Emergency. It’s a shame to admit it, but in the six years since he published that compelling book he doesn’t seem to have really found anything new to say. This is always the risk when you obsessively read a writer who specialises in a particular topic. Perhaps someone coming with fresh eyes to the subject of peak oil would find this book interesting and useful, but to me it seemed a bit stale. You would think that the 2006 to 2012 period would be full of new developments to report, but Too Much Magic doesn’t seem rich in new insights.  

The book is divided into nine chapters that cover technology, American history, the environment, finance, alternative energy sources, global warming etc. It’s all fairly interesting, as far as it goes, but doesn’t provide any real ‘wow’ factor. On the more negative side, Kunstler is prone to making plenty of sweeping generalisations and predictions about the future. And as is so often the case with futurists, they are often embarrassingly wrong. 

Despite the above caveats, Kunstler still has many interesting things to say. He has a bracing prose style that is very reader friendly. He’s unique in being primarily a novelist who has crossed over into fossil fuel depletion as a passionate subject. While Too Much Magic has its faults, Kunstler is too smart to ignore.

Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation, by James Howard Kunstler. Published by Atlantic Monthly. ISBN: 978-0-8021-2030-4



Thursday, July 19, 2012

How to Have a Lifestyle, by Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp’s 1975 follow-up to The Naked Civil Servant is not so much a self-help book, as the title implies, but rather a long essay, or literary frolic, on the author’s favourite subject, style. Crisp’s prose glistens and shimmers like a Tiffany’s window display, while his ruthless wit delights and amuses. 

Quentin Crisp began his slow rise to fame (or notoriety) in the late 1960s with his autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant (1968). Crisp, rather alarmingly, insisted on presenting his true self to the world. Boldly wearing make-up and dyeing his hair red, Crisp made sure 1940s London knew he was an effeminate homosexual. For his troubles he received some type of verbal abuse everyday, and sometimes he was beaten up. His pacifist stance in the face of so much hostility makes him a bit of a gay Gandhi. His make-up and feminine airs were a form of non-violent resistance. The fact that he kept this up until social mores changed in the 60s is quite extraordinary. 

I confess to being a long time Crisp fan. His books provided quirky yet soothing advice for me when I was in my twenties. Crisp was a true outsider who had the stamina to stay the distance, meeting the world on his own terms and ever ready to take the consequences without complaining. On of my favourite Quentin Crisp sayings goes along these lines: ‘You must never go out to the world; always wait for the world to come to you.’ Translated, I think it means: victory is yours if you have the patience and tenacity to wait the bad times out.  

How to Have a Life Style, as far as I know, is Crisp’s second book, published in 1975. It really has little purpose besides allowing its author some 180 pages to employ his skills as a raconteur. It’s been years since I read a book by Quentin Crisp, and Lifestyle is the only book in the oeuvre that I haven’t read. Does his philosophy and style still work for me, so long after I first read him? I think so. His prose glitters like sharply cut diamonds. His quips and observations still make me laugh. When he tries to communicate intellectual ideas, he’s not so successful, but as a dry wit and philosopher of style and artifice, he hits the spot.  

Page 167 has my favourite quote of the book: ‘Self-mockery is a technique that all of us may as well learn’. As the reader can see, Crisp never committed the sin of taking himself too seriously.  

Quentin Crisp fans should be delighted with How to Have a Lifestyle. The book should be read for its shimmering surface, as the book is proud to have little actual content. Those new to this British wit should try his debut memoir, The Naked Civil Servant.

How to Have a Lifestyle, by Quentin Crisp. Published by Methuen. ISBN: 0-416-00141-6