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Archive for the ‘Language and Literature’ Category

I have been working on this list for a while, and wanted to get it finished this weekend. It is thirty-six books, plus a few extras. Essential books. One a month for three years. All of these are books you should know, and know well. Read them in a cycle, or pick and choose. If you do read them all, and know them, you will have a deep, well-grounded understanding of much of what makes us who are.

1. The New Testament. Christian or not, you cannot understand Western culture without being familiar with the New Testament. It is about 180,000 words – as many as a long novel, and slightly fewer than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Emptiness, sickness, despair and death, replaced by brightness and joy, by forgiveness, hope, healing, and peace. This is the foundation stone of Western aspirations, culture, and identity.

2. Shakespeare – Julius Caesar. You could substitute Othello or Hamlet or King Lear or Antony and Cleopatra or The Tempest or Henry V, or read them all in a cycle. Any one of them has as much of value to say as the entire literary output of many nations. I chose Julius Caesar because it has the best quotes, and one for almost every situation, enabling you to sound brainy and learned without too much effort.

3. Chaucer – Canterbury Tales. Not as hard to read as you might think. The tales are great fun, Chaucer’s characters are delicious, and offer useful insights into life and philosophical debates which are still current, like that between nominalism and realism. Go on, look it up.

4. Dickens – Bleak House. Possibly the best novel ever written in English. Honoria Dedlock is kind, rich and beautiful, but her fear creates a bleak house indeed, while Esther Summerson, who appears to have nothing and is disfigured by smallpox, lives in Bleak House, but makes it anything but bleak by her warm hearted generosity. Mrs Jellyby makes her house bleak by ignoring her own family in favour of distant charities. Horace Skimpole is the archetypal character of the irresponsible and self-indulgent 21st Century.

5. Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights. Another contender for best novel in English. In modern terms, this is a discussion of dysfunctional families and ‘nature vs nuture,’ but unlike many modern attempts to deal with these issues, Wuthering Heights is truthful about the cost of rebellion and selfish passion.

6. Emile Zola – L’Assomoir. Number seven in the twenty volume Rougon-Macquart series, L’Assomoir combines Zola’s beautiful writing and carefully drawn characters with an even now startlingly harsh and realistic picture of poverty and alcoholism. Perhaps one of the most depressing books ever written. There is no romance in being poor.

7. Stendhal – The Red and the Black. Many of the problems of youth could be forestalled by reading and absorbing this book. Except that those who would benefit most from it are least likely to read it. Julian Sorel is from a poor family. He is talented and ambitious and wants to be important. He is also lazy and naïve, and in the end is destroyed by his lack of self-discipline. The red and the black are the colours of the uniforms of church and army.

8. Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Cheating a little with two novels here, but neither is terribly long, both have wonderful insights into language and nature of reality, and both have characters (Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cat, etc) which have become part of Western language and culture.

9. Clive James – Cultural Amnesia. A series of essays of the ideal length to be read while sitting on the toilet. To read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it is to be instantly and though-provokingly informed on many of the most important personalities, events and ideas of the twentieth century. Even if you remember just one key fact about each of the people discussed you will feel very brainy, and you will be entitled to.

10. George Orwell – 1984. If you read this book you will understand why ‘political correctness’ is so dangerous. “Who controls the present controls the past. Who controls the past controls the future.” Star Wars’s ‘Greeto shot first’ heresy is a perfect example of the petty re-engineering of history, symptomatic of a desire to bring the past into conformity with a vision of a perfect future. But the creation of such futures, and of a perfected humanity, whether borg, socialist or islamic, must be forced. The cost is human life and freedom. Stalinist Russia has been defeated, but state attempts to control our thinking are expanding even in Western democracies which claim to value freedom of thought and speech.

11. Anthony Trollope -The Chronicles of Barsetshire. Six books, so this really is cheating. These are easy to read and have perfectly defined characters who develop through the series. What makes this essential reading, though, is his realistic depiction of day to day life, society, money, the little temptations to compromise. Trollope was enormously influential. George Eliot said she could never have written Middlemarch without having read the Barsetshire novels. And Dorothea, the hero of Middlemarch, is one of my favourite characters. So there’s that. If you can’t read all six, at least read The Warden.

12. H Rider Haggard – King Solomon’s Mines. This is wonderfully fun to read. It is the fruit of a five shilling bet between the writer and his brother, was rejected by numerous publishers, became an instant best-seller, and has remained popular ever since. It was the first English adventure story set in Africa, the first lost world novel, and one of the first to use first-person narration, as opposed to the god-like third person view.

13. Edgar Rice Burroughs – Princess of Mars.  John Carter, Confederate soldier, is teleported to Mars where the lower gravity gives him super-human strength. He rescues Dejah Thoris, a fierce princess, wins her heart and becomes Prince of Helium where they live happily for nine years until he is transported back to Earth after saving Barsoom (Mars) from a catastrophe. Yes, it is ridiculous. But it is great fun, and has had vastly greater influence on subsequent science fiction, especially cinematic science fiction, than Verne or Wells.

14. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The Brothers Karamazov. The last and greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels. Told from a variety of points of view and in a variety of styles, there is no particular voice of authority. This challenges the reader to engage with the story of the three brothers; Dmitri, Ivan, Alexei, and their relationships with each other, women and the authorities. Like all Dostoyevsky’s work, it is sometimes difficult, but more than worth the trouble. You will come away from this book with a deeper understanding of free-will, morality, and the influence of belief on action, and of action on consequences.

15. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby. There has never been a good movie of this great book. Baz Luhrmann’s recent extravaganza was moderately enjoyable, but it was Luhrmann not Fitzgerald. Where does Gatsby’s money come from? Anyway, it doesn’t do him any good. He is in love with Daisy, who is married to Tom, who is a dick. The story, told by neighbour and former war comrade Nick Carraway, ends with Gatsby being murdered after taking the blame for the death of a young woman killed by Daisy while driving Gatsby’s car. Makes you wonder what it’s all about, really, and that’s why you should read it. Also, Fitzgerald’s style is crystal bright.

16. J.R.R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings. Elves, elves and more bloody elves. And orcs. And the meaning of hope and leadership. This is a deeply, though not obviously, Catholic novel, with themes of self-sacrifice, providence and sacrament. But even if you miss those things, and Peter Jackson did, you will still find much to enjoy and ponder. And LOTR sets the rules for almost every subsequent fantasy book, game and movie of the twentieth century.

17. A.A Milne – Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Yeah, yeah. Two books again. You could probably read each one in half an hour, so stop complaining. The thing is, you won’t want to. You will want to read them slowly, chuckle, then back up and think for a minute. First published in 1925, six years later Pooh marketing – songs, dolls, games, etc, was worth $50 million a year. Pooh tells us we don’t have to be strong or clever to make a difference. Little things matter, just be kind. He is the Therese of Lisieux of children’s literature. If you don’t love these books you are probably a psychopath.

18. Gustav Flaubert – Madame Bovary. Enough of happy. Emma Bovary is beautiful, intelligent, well educated, married to a kind and hard-working man, Charles Bovary, a doctor, who adores her. But the grass is always greener, her husband is boring, and Emma searches for happiness everywhere except the one place she is likely to find it, with the husband she has written off as dull. She has a succession of affairs, is rejected and commits suicide. Choices matter, and sometimes there is no turning back. So choose wisely. The style of this novel has influenced almost every novel to some after it.

19. C.S Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia. Start with the Lion the Witch and Wardrobe, then read the series through in order beginning with The Magician’s Nephew. Don’t be put off by the films, which are awful, made by people who had no understanding of or love for the books. Narni, the Italian town, is hallway between Rome and Assisi, and that probably tells you quite a lot about Lewis’s intentions, which include insights into creativity, use of power, the cost of forgiveness, the beauty and purpose of creation.

20. Alessandro Manzoni – The Betrothed. Yes, I know you’ve never heard of it. It doesn’t matter. If some of the other books on this list are bleak and depressing, this one is not. Rich, complex, and beautiful, this wonderful novel is about hope, and especially about hope that comes from faith, and how that hope empowers ordinary people to keep doing what is right, even in the face of what seem overwhelming difficulties and frustrations.

21. William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying. I wanted to include a novel by Faulkner, and it was either this or Light in August. I love them both. Light in August opens with pregnant and single-minded Lena. It is hypnotic right from the beginning. But As I Lay Dying is even better. Each chapter related by a different character, including the recently deceased Addie Bundren. What is it about? Well, everything. Life, death, human nature. Choices. Just read it.

22. Nancy Mitford – Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. Recommended to me about ten years ago by a friend who could not believe I had not read them. Once I had read them I couldn’t believe I had not read them either. Hilarious, tragic, human. We may not choose our destiny, but we choose our habits, habits become character, and character becomes destiny. Probably Mitford didn’t have that in mind at all, but that was what I got from them, along with the enjoyment of getting to know some of the best drawn and most believable characters in English literature.

23. Patrick O’Brian – Master and Commander. The book has little except the main characters in common with the Russell Crowe film of the same name. The film is also very good, just different. Both film and book are exceptionally blokey – hardly a female in sight in either. The bonds and limits of friendship, loyalty, the tensions between love and duty, courage under fire, are all explored in the context of sea battles and betrayal. Forester’s Hornblower and Pope’s Ramage are deeply admirable as characters, great standbys if you enjoy seagoing novels, but do not have the depth of O’Brian.

24. Hannah Arendt – Eichmann in Jerusalem, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Letters and Papers from Prison. Yes, I know it’s two books. Both of them will challenge you in ways you do not expect. How should an ordinary human being respond when all around is darkness? Arendt’s chilling account of Eichmann’s activities during the war, and of his trial in Jerusalem, gives Eichmann’s answer; just be a cog in the machine, do your job, it’s not as if you have a choice. Bonhoeffer’s letters tell us there is always a choice, if only we are brave enough to make it.

25. Jack London – The Call of the Wild. This is short. If you are allowing a month for each book you could read White Fang as well, and you should. It is told from the perspective of Buck, a massive dog kidnapped and taken to Alaska during the gold rush. Buck was born to be wild, but he also yearns for loving human companionship. The underlying questions are about what it means to be who we are, and how we manage different aspects of our nature and desires. Or not. Maybe it is just a book about a dog.

26. Herman Melville – Moby-Dick. “Call me Ishmael.” It is one of the best-know opening lines in literature. When I first read this I was absolutely spellbound. I kept thinking “Can this really be this good?” It is. It is beautifully, magnificently written, not just narrative, but asides about whaling practice and nautical equipment, songs, poems, stage directions. It is a story of the power of obsession, and of human nature, of class and creativity, of harshness of man and nature, and of kindness. It was a commercial failure when first published. It is also one of the greatest books ever written.

27. Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose. The first and best novel by Professor of Semiotics Umberto Eco (although his latest, The Prague Cemetery, is also very good). By the time you finish this book you will know something about Church history, the middle-ages, literary theory, and the nature of human enquiry into reality. You will also have had a jolly good time cheering on William of Baskerville as he faces the dangerous labyrinth of human fear and suspicion. Or maybe that’s just the library. The rose – “Being fair, you will be unhappy soon.”

29 Augustine of Hippo – The Confessions of St Augustine. “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.” Probably the first autobiography written in the West, Augustine’s Confessions trace his life from infancy to his early forties. What makes them so valuable is the honesty of his accounts of his moral and theological struggles (Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet), the historical context, the love and faithfulness of his mother Monica, and his insights into the philosophical and religious issues of the day. Which are pretty much the religious and philosophical issues of our day. Truth can be simple.

30. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Time for something a bit lighter. But definitely not frivolous. This could be read easily and enjoyed by most teenagers. Huck is idle and vulgar, of poor breeding, with no idea of right and wrong. Except he has. He helps Jim, a young black slave, escape, even though all his up-bringing tells him this is wrong. Jim is, after all, someone’s property. Huck is both scheming and innocent, a typical boy, and a loyal friend. A simple and inspiring tale.

31. Jonathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels. This book has never been out of print since it was first published in 1726, and no wonder. Its insights into the boundlessness of human silliness are applicable in every age. The Grand Academy of Lagado, with its research into extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, and discovering political conspiracies by testing the excrement of suspicious persons, sound very much like some of the madness of modern state-funded scientific research. Also, this is where the word yahoo comes from. And you should know what Lilliputian means.

32. Franz Kafka – The Castle. This book is unfinished. If it had been finished, it would have been Kafka’s masterpiece. But it isn’t, and it still is. OK, whatever. Read The Trial instead if you like. Prisoner K has no idea what he is being charged with, or why. Nothing makes sense, everything goes round in circles. It all ends in death. Sounds like your life? Right. I like The Trial, but The Castle seems deeper to me. And you can make up your own ending. As long as it is pointless and depressing, you’ll be right.

33. Shūsaku Endō – Silence. Wow! Golly! Gosh! This book is good. The story of Rodrigues, a Jesuit priest in Japan, imprisoned and tortured for his faith. Others are being killed. There is no glory in this martyrdom, not that human eyes can see, just horror and agony and emptiness. Rodrigues can end the suffering of himself and the others if he denies Christ and tramples the cross. He won’t. But in the end he hears Jesus speak: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” God does not end suffering but is present with us and suffers and endures with us, in silence.

34. Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote. Tilting at windmills. There is more to it than that. The first great Western novel, it tells the story of Alonso Quixano, who has lost so much sleep due to excess reading that his brain has dried up. He sets out in search of noble adventure, and undertakes several quests in order to help people who do not wish to be helped, to defeat enemies who are not enemies, and to win the love the love of the Lady Dulcinea, a grubby neighbouring farm girl, whom he has hardly seen, never spoken to, and who barely knows he exists. Is there any point to all this? That. dear reader, is for you to decide.

35. William L Shirer – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Long but never tiring, it explains the collapse of Germany with astonishing precision and unflagging interest. Shirer was present for some of the events he describes, and met many of the key people, but his personal perspective never overwhelms the story. This book is perhaps the best way to develop an understanding of events leading to and during the Second World War. It is also a perfect example of how history should be written.

36. Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson is usually right, usually funny, and always worth reading. This is another “instant education” book, this time about science and technology. You’ll learn a little about gravity, the periodic table, optics, life, time, etc, etc. Not just what we know, but how we came to know it, and that is what make this book different, and better. Because it is how we came to know, and how we know we know, that is interesting. Again, read it and remember one key thing from each topic to be instantly more confident and better informed.

Now start again at the beginning, or make your own list and share it! Austen (weeps silently – I love Emma), Wolfe, Thackeray, Hemmingway, Hugo, Stevenson, Dante, are all missing from this list. What should we read for the next three years?

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An insightful and amusing article by Anthony Esolen on the banality of modern church music:

Why, when we have a trove of profound, beautiful, and poignant hymns, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, and silly?

We have a rich treasury of hymn-poems to read, to sing, and to keep close to the heart.  Some of them are almost as old as Christianity itself. They come from Latin and Greek, from our own English, from French and German and all the languages of Europe. Some were written by saintly divines with a fine ear for poetry: John Henry Newman (“Praise to the Holiest in the Height”), Charles Wesley (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”). Many were written by the great Dr. Isaac Watts, who set the psalms to English meter and rhyme. Some rose up from an anonymous lyricist among the folk: “What Wondrous Love Is This.” Some entered our language by the skill of great translators, like John Mason Neale and Catherine Winkworth. Some were the work of pious laymen who meditated upon Scripture all their lives: so the blind Fanny Crosby gives us “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.” Just as many of our most beautiful melodies were written by the finest composers who ever lived—Bach, Handel, Haydn—so too many of our hymn lyrics were written by poets of some renown: George Herbert, Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Milton.

So why, then, why do we have verse-by-numbers lyrics posing as real poems in our hymnals? Why, when we have such a trove of the great, the profound, the beautiful, the memorable, the poignant, the splendid, do we have to endure what is banal, clunky, clumsy, dull, vague, and silly?

Sometimes the very titles of the lyrics give them away. They are like the opening sentences of badly written freshman essays. You know the grade is a B-minus before you make it to the end of the paragraph. Let me give some examples from a recent publication:

Who is This Who Breaches Borders? I don’t know—check his passport. Can a border be breached, in English? A wall can be breached; you breach it by breaking it. But you can’t break a border; you can cross it, or trespass upon it. The next lines are worse: “And subverts the social orders, / Crossing chasms that divide.” Political slang, and an absurd redundancy at the end. What, doesn’t he cross all those other chasms that unite?

One of the commenters has it exactly right:

This is not about bad music – that’s the decoy. It’s about bad theology – an at best deistic world view, more likely a fairly Unitarian Universalist type human-centred absence of belief in the supernatural.

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The July New English Review is online.

A couple of highlights:

Geoffrey St John on why a nuclear Iran is a risk Israel cannot take.

The argument that Iran is justified in seeking nuclear weapons because it cannot trust the US or Israel seems to me to be utterly bizarre. The US has profited not one iota from its costly and painful interventions in Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has tried to build peaceful stable societies, and has largely failed, because it is not possible to build a peaceful democratic society where people do not want a peaceful democratic society.

Israel has a history of responding successfully to attacks on its borders and people. It has no history of attempts to enlarge its borders, or of unprovoked attacks on anyone. As St John points out, that is not true of Iran, which already supplies weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas.

And contrasting but equally insightful articles by Theodore Dalrymple on Haydn and the relationship between talent and its fruits, and character:

The difference between the significance of the work and conduct is likely to increase with time, at least if the work survives the death of its author. If it were to be shown conclusively from impeccable sources that Shakespeare had been a villain all his life, it would hardly affect our estimation of his work at all. A man can be a sublime artist but an unattractive figure, and in the long run it is the former that counts.

And Mark Anthony Signorelli on the continuing impact of TS Eliot:

One of the most admirable causes taken up by Mr. Scruton over the years has been his crusade against the hideousness of modern architecture. In much of his work on this topic, he has argued persuasively that the totalitarian impulse which has deformed so much of modern politics manifests itself as well in the overbearing concrete structures of modernist architecture. That is to say, Mr. Scruton has recognized that in the case of modernist architecture, style is not philosophically neutral, but rather embodies a certain perspective and way of approaching the world. ..

This is also true of literature and music; character affects the work so deeply (how could it not!) that the work necessarily marks the reader, listener, watcher with that same character.

Matthew Walter’s review of Lucas’s Style, the Art of Writing Well makes the same point:

Lucas admiringly quotes Anatole France’s recipe for good style (“First, clarity; then again clarity; and, finally, clarity”), but it is not one that he endorses. Character, according to Lucas, is the true “foundation of style.” Why did Lancelot Andrewes, Dr. Johnson, and Jane Austen write better prose than, say, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, and George Meredith—consistently? Simply put, to their rivals and contemporaries, they were morally superior.

Here I think Lucas is correct. Certainly Lucas’s style—vigorous, free of cant, occasionally playful but never frivolous—seems to owe a great deal to his own admirable character.

I doubt whether Jane Austen was really morally superior to Jonathan Swift. She was inclined to a kind of smug judgementalism, as this excerpt from a letter to her sister Cassandra demonstrates:

I am proud to say that I have a very good eye at an adulteress, for though repeatedly assured that another in the same party was the She, I fixed upon the right one from the first. A resemblance to Mrs. L. was my guide. She is not so pretty as I expected; her face has the same defect of baldness as her sisters, and her features not so handsome; she was highly rouged, and looked rather quietly and contentedly silly than anything else.

But whether Swift or Austen was the more honourable, the purposes of art are truth and beauty. The expression of those things depends on the ability to identify them, and that ability depends on the artist’s depth of character; his commitment to truthfulness in all things.

The works of an artist who is also a liar, whether in commercial dealings, his relationships with women, or his politics, may be convenient for a time, but can never have lasting value.

The trouble is, we have all failed. We all fall short. This does not mean that none of our works have value. It does mean that if we want to better artists, we must first try to be better people.

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Anna Funder has won the Miles Franklin award for her first novel All That I Am.

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on its literary merits. Winning a Miles Franklin is not necessarily a recommendation, since they seem frequently to have been awarded based on the level of agreement between the author’s political opinions and those of the judges. The general opinion in the Amazon reviews is that it is heavy going, but worthwhile.

The theme of the book seems to be the importance of standing up to totalitarianism, even in the face of personal failures, rejection and betrayal. It is a good theme, though well worn.

The problem is that it is easy for an author to look back at a troubled period in history and claim it was obvious what needed to be done, and by proxy, that she would have had the courage to do it.

I have known clergy to preach bravely about the need to learn from the martyrs about standing up for the faith, for justice and mercy, but who would not lift a finger to support lay people being bullied by members of the hierarchy, simply because they were scared some of the other clergy might not talk to them, or that, at worst, they would lose their jobs.

It is much harder to recognise and confront real threats to freedom now, than it is to recognise them fifty years later, and in imagination confront them. We always like to think ourselves wise and courageous.

I have heard nothing from Ms Funder about the two greatest totalitarian threats of our own time; radical environmentalism and radical Islam.

Instead, like Lady Gaga, she chooses safe targets. Most recently Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. Consider some of the comments she made while accepting the Miles Franklin:

She has taken aim at Campbell Newman who, in one of his first acts as Queensland Premier, axed the Premier’s Literary Awards to save taxpayers $245,000.   “I don’t really think they are the Premier’s to scrap. It’s the people’s money and the people want to have this recognition of the writers who reflect their world back to them,” she said on ABC Radio.   “And the first thing that someone with dictatorial inclinations does is to silence the writers and the journalists…

“Abolishing writers awards is a cost cutting measure but also a step towards the unscrutinised exercise of power.”

Firstly, let’s note the utter absurdity of talking about being silenced while giving a speech accepting a major national writers award, to hall full of people, being broadcast on the ABC, reported widely, while criticising the premier of the state in which the award ceremony was being held.

Second, to compare the removal of funding for a book award with the actions of the Nazis is devoid of any sense of moral proportion. Diminishing the evil of Nazism to make a point is either deeply immoral or so ignorant that it makes one wonder whether Funder has any understanding of the period and the people about whom she has chosen to write.

Third, it is not true that dictators go after writers and journalists first, for the simple reason that they can rely on ninety per cent of writers and journalists not to cause them any problems. Totalitarian regimes go after their scapegoat minorities first. Again, to put oneself in the same category as the Jews in Nazi Germany or the Copts in Egypt demonstrates an alarming lack of moral sense.

Fourth, a politician’s declining to take people’s money and force them to pay for books they don’t want to read is not a “step towards the unscrutinised excercise of power.”

For the government to take people’s money and give it writers who write the kind of books the government wants people to read, whether directly or through grants and awards, is far closer to being an illegitimate use of power and antithetic to democracy. For one thing, it means people have less money to buy the books they do want to read.

Finally, it is not Campbell Newman or Tony Abbott who are trying to restrict the free speech of journalists or anyone else, but Labor with its media enquiries, commissions, councils and tribunals. No word from Funder on those.

Based on her Miles Franklin acceptance speech, I very much doubt Anna Funder has anything to teach most Australians about reason, moral sense or courage.

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This will be my last post on this subject.

I have not read Anita Heiss’s book Am I Black Enough For You?, so I cannot comment on its literary merits.

But there seems to be to be a very clear difference between those who have left negative reviews on its Amazon page, and those who have left positive reviews.

It is not clear that the writers of the negative reviews have all read the book. Some are concerned about the quality of the writing, others about politics, the hypocrisy of the title, the shutting down of any response to Anita Heiss and her arguments. Some are quite forceful. A very few contain personal criticism of Anita or other Amazon reviewers. Even fewer could be considered mildly racist, in that they appear to make assumptions about aboriginal people as a whole. But in general, the negative reviews are well-written, thoughtful, and about the book.

The five and four star reviews are not. There is very little comment about the book and its merits, and rather more discussion of what a vile person Andrew Bolt is, and how the controversy is all his fault, and anyone who wants to ask the same questions he did must be one of his trolls and a racist.

I have copied below one review and the comments which followed. They seem to me to summarise the methods of both sides of the debate.

For more, see my earlier posts on Andrew Bolt’s trial, and Anita Heiss’s book.

Miriam Dorset

Five Star Reviews Are Politically Motivated

It is simply impossible that anyone who has read this book could give it five stars, or even four. This is the second of Heiss’s books I have read. The other was Manhattan Dreaming. On the Kindle page for that book she is described as the “best-selling author of Not Meeting Mr Right and Avoiding Mr Right.” But look at the sales figures for her books. Manhattan Dreaming is ranked 258,720th. In other words, two of Heiss’s friends have read it, and me. She writes at the same level as a moderately talented high school student. Her writing style is awkward and her plots are predictable. If she were male you’d call them puerile. I didn’t review Manhattan Dreaming because when I got to the end of it I had already given it far more time than it deserved. I could not finish “Am I Black Enough for You?” It is a trivial, self-obsessed book. The book makes it clear that Heiss, not mainstream Australia, is obsessed with notions of identity.

In 2010 Heiss was awarded $90,000 by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board to produce two non-fiction books – a collection of essays and a memoir. She has no reputation as an essayist. Am I Black Enough For You? is the memoir. On the Random House website she describes the hardships she had to endure while living in Paris at tax payers’ expense:

1. WEIGHT GAIN: I had to eat an embarrassing amount of bread and cheese, macaroons, croissants and chocolate – so I could actually write about it! This meant I had to put on weight for my job.

2. SORE FEET: Paris is a city for walking. Strolling down the Champs-Elysees eyeing all the designers stores and cafes is hard on the feet, trust me, I know, I did it quite a bit! 3. FLIRTING WITH STRANGERS: Now, let me preface this by saying, I was in character! Anita Heiss would never flirt with strangers, but for the purpose of `research’ I did what needed to be done for my craft. If you are serious about your writing, you will too!

Ms Heiss has made her race a matter of public interest, because she has claimed awards and benefits on the basis of race. The public is entitled to ask whether money given in grants, awards or benefits is going to the people for whom it was intended. She, and now the Australian ABC and her publishers, Random House, have attempted to shut down any discussion of this with which she does not agree. If it were not for this controversy, I suspect this book, like her others, would be languishing at 250,000th on Kindle, and in remainder bins at any shop silly enough to have bought it.

randr says: Great review. I also have read a couple of Heiss’s books, out of curiosity only as the genre of the books she writes are not to my taste. Regardless of any other issues she is a poor writer who I suspect would not normally get a look in by any publishing company. I’m sure she has valid points to make but is not skilled or imaginative enough to do herself justice. In many ways it’s a shame that she has generated all this response as her writing doesn’t warrant it.

Simon Santoro says: It is pretty clear that anyone who answers Anita’s question the wrong way, or even wonders about whether she is entitled to the benefits she claims, is going to be labelled racist scum or worse, or described as a hater or a blind Bolter. Silly. If there are issues here – and Anita has raised them in her book’s title – why not have a sensible exchange of views without calling people names?

The real point for potential buyers is simply that this is a dud book – boring, predictable, narcissistic.

Matthew says: Simon, if you have an opinion that is informed by facts and doesn’t resort to stereotypes and generalisation, then let’s hear it.

The problem with so many of the comments here are that they’re written by people who (a) have never read the original articles (eg people who claim they just “asked questions” or “didn’t attack anybody” or refuse to accept that there were stunning inaccuracies), (b) don’t understand (or haven’t even looked at) the case and judgement against bolt (eg people who think the judge inferred things that weren’t in the articles, or that it was all subjective or that he was only found guilty because he got irrelevant things wrong or because he was rude – all false), (c) think that there are now “illegal topics” or “illegal opinions” in australia (there aren’t – not only are mainstream newspapers – including The Oz – talking about them, the judge specifically said that he wasn’t setting a precedent to prevent discussion about anything), (d) think that andrew bolt has been “silenced” in some way (god forbid!), (e) think that he has been treated unfairly because the plaintiffs wouldn’t have won a defamation suit and took the soft option (almost certainly not true, not at all) or (f) actually believe the inferences made in those articles in the first place (a very misinformed decision).

So we get angry remarks based on misinformation by people who don’t know any of the facts of the stories, the case, the law or the truth behind the articles. They make angry generalisations that try to pin blame for serious problems on a selection of aboriginal people who – purely on the basis of skin colour and what they might happen to believe about their life story – are undeserving. And these are people whom practically nobody here would have even HEARD of had they not featured in a series of bogus articles and decided not to take the abuse lying down.

So sure, if you think you’re not one of those people, and you think you’ve got the bases covered, then let’s hear it. I promise not to call you racist

Simon Santoro says: Matthew you seem to have taken up a position as permanent Amazon commenter. I don’t have that much time. I did read Bolt’s blog posts, I followed the trial with interest, and read articles from both sides of politics afterwards. I think I am reasonably well informed on the issues. I am not quite sure why you make the assumption that anyone who sees things differently from you must be either ignorant, an idiot or a racist. The simple point is that regardless of the politics, this is a tedious, self-righteous and self-obsessed book.

Mal says: That’s right folks, Miriam Dorset must be right, because all those 1 star reviews couldn’t possibly be politically motivated could they? No, of course not. Especially since they rapidly went up after a certain Mr Andrew Bolt made an issue of it on his blog. Humbug! By the way, Miriam, you and a load of others around here obviously don’t understand that free speech generally doesn’t apply to the comment pages of corporate bodies. If it did, you and I would have blogs and columns and paychecks alongside Andrew Bolt. As to this “Ms Heiss has made her race a matter of public interest, because the public is entitled to ask whether money given in grants, awards or benefits is going to the people for whom it was intended.” – No, Miriam, Mr Bolt made it an issue by not properly researching his original articles (all of which can be read), getting a judgement against him for breaching the Racial Vilification Act, and now urging his witless followers in the most craven fashion to do his bidding for him. Finally I see that you are following the herd instinct her by attacking the person rather than reading the book.

Mal says: Stop being such a troll, Simon. In this post you are quite happily involved in the very abuse you are saying others are engaged in. And you do it in such a sneaky nasty way, don’t you. All this oleaginous concern about calling people names and then your last little piece of invective.

Simon Santoro says: I have read the book. I consider it to be poorly written and of little value. How is saying so abusive? There is a difference between discussion and criticism of a book – that is what these forums are for – and hurling abuse at people who do not share your view.

Mal says: Yes and you obviously followed his coded instruction to get on here and condemn the book, Mr Troll.

Miriam Dorset says: I am sorry my review has caused so much angst.

I wanted to make two points which seemed uncontroversial to me.

First, that by any normal measure, this is not a good book, either in insights or literary merit. This cannot be contentious for anyone who has actually read the book.

Second, when taxpayers fund special benefits or awards for people of a particular race, height, hair colour or whatever, they entitled to ask whether those who receive those benefits are the people for whom they were intended. In other words, if you claim publicly funded awards because of your race, then your race becomes a matter of public interest. Again, I cannot see how this is contentious. Nor can I see why making this point should justify such rage.

It also seems odd to me that the people who are asking why race should make any difference, and suggesting awards and benefits should be offered on the basis of merit or need are being called racists, while those who demand special privileges for themselves or others on the basis of race seem to assume a moral superiority which justifies insulting anyone who disagrees.

Cameron Dale says:

Yes – thankyou. It really is that simple:

1. This is not a good book, by any standard.

2. Race is only an issue because Anita has made it one.

Mal says: 1. Whose standard? yours and miriam actually – there isn’t any agreed upon standard about what constitutes a good book.

2. Wrong – Andrew Bolt made this and issue. The books is a partial response to that.

Mal says: Interesting that the proponents of “free speech” here are doing their best to cover up the speech of people who disagree with them.

Mal says: Watch out, folks that doyen of literary taste arbiters, miriam dorset has spoken. She has said there is no literary merit in the writing – so there mustn’t be – because miriam said it, and miriam is…Actually what are your qualifications miriam?

Mal says: And quit it with the phoney apologies while you’re at it, miriam. I also not a tone of moral superiority in your last comment.

Miriam Dorset says: If you think I am wrong, Mal, please feel free to quote some passages you think are especially insightful or well-written. I am happy to be convinced.

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This essay by Mario Vargas Llosa is a month old now. It has been available since then behind paywalls. I only today found a site where the whole essay is available free.

This is the first few paragraphs:

What is lost on collectivists is the prime importance of individual freedom for societies to flourish and economies to thrive.

The blessings of freedom and the perils of its opposite can be seen the world over. It is why I have so passionately adhered to advancing the idea of individual freedom in my work.

Having abandoned the Marxist myths that took in so many of my generation, I soon came to genuinely believe that I had found a truth that had to be shared in the best way I knew—through the art of letters. Critics on the left and right have often praised my novels only to distance themselves from the ideas I’ve expressed. I do not believe my work can be separated from its ideals.

It is the function of the novelist to tell timeless and universal truths through the device of a fashioned narrative. A story’s significance as a piece of art cannot be divorced from its message, any more than a society’s prospects for freedom and prosperity can be divorced from its underlying principles. The writer and the man are one and the same, as are the culture and its common beliefs. In my writing and in my life I have pursued a vision not only to inspire my readers but also to share my dream of what we can aspire to build here in our world.

Yes. Simply being ‘transgressive’ does not make something art. Art, in whatever form, is art because it helps us to see things in a new way. Good art, art that has lasting value, tells the truth. Bad art may be beautifully executed, but if it is not truthful, it is not good.

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I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I had finally finished my teen fantasy novel Jennifer Jones and the Corridors of Time. You can download the first five chapters free at that link.

I have also written a few horror stories based in an imaginary town called Rendlesham. Horror stories I write under the name Alastair Kayle.

There will eventually be ten of these short stories. They are can be read and enjoyed independently, but together they form a definite larger story. The ultimate theme is the triumph of courage and perseverance even in the face of fear, confusion and apparent failure. Essentially the same theme as the Jennifer Jones series – but Rendlesham is definitely not for children!

As an experiment I have self published one of these – Terminus – as a Kindle book on Amazon.

Here’s the product link:

You’ll need a Kindle, or the free Kindle for PC viewer, to read it.

It costs 99c. If you buy it and like it, please write a nice review!

The next story in the series – Evidence of an Unspeakable Act – should be available on Amazon this time next week.

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I have finally finished my teen fantasy novel Jennifer Jones and the Corridors of Time.

It will be published under the pen name Wynford Wilde.

Now begins the process of finding an agent!

This is the blurb:

When Jennifer Jones stepped off the footpath to help a friend, she expected a few moments of inconvenience. She did not expect to be catapulted behind the curtains of the universe, to the inner workings of time itself.

As Jennifer and her friends try to escape, they accidentally release an imprisoned monster, ancient and cunning. When they learn the creature has kidnapped a small child, Clare, they make up their minds to follow it, and to try to rescue her.

Their journey leads them through the corridors of time, where doors lead to infinite worlds and times. They are determined to succeed, and return home.

But how can four children stand against a destroyer of worlds?

This is the first in a planned series of five self-contained novels tracing the adventures of Jennifer Jones and her friends in the corridors of time, and the worlds to which they lead.

Here are the first five chapters of Jennifer Jones and the Corridors of Time I hope you enjoy them. Any suggestions about a suitable publisher or agent would be welcome!

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Sydney beats New York for Gatsby  – a thumb in the eye for New York. Great news for New South Wales and a $120 million boost for the Australian film industry.

Luhrmann has a chance with Gatsby to recover the credibility and fans he lost with the appalling Australia.

It is a film he could do well.

But Leonardo diCaprio as Jay Gatsby? I cannot see how that will be believeable – especially after Robert Redford’s performance in Jack Clayton’s 1974 version.

Robert Redford’s portrayal was not perfect – Redford doesn’t do enigmatic. And Mia Farrow, who was superb in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah Her Sisters, was simply dismal as Daisy. She looked as if she had wandered off another stage where she was playing a reprise of Blanche DuBois.

Jude Law or Daniel Day Lewis might have been better choices for Gatsby, with diCaprio as Nick Carraway.

But it is a great book – one of my all time favourites – and if Lurhmann can get his act together again, it will be a wonderful film.

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Or maybe not.

Sarah tweeted that she wasn’t happy with low-life leftist website Gawker (no link for them!) quoting large passages of her new book out of context, and without her permission.

This was Gawker’s reply:

“Did you catch the excerpt we posted yesterday from Sarah Palin’s new book? Sarah did. She tweets with rage: “The publishing world is LEAKING out-of-context excerpts of my book w/out my permission? Isn’t that illegal?”

[Sarah: If you’re reading this—and if you are, welcome!—you may want to take a moment to familiarize yourself with the law. Try starting here or here. Or skip the totally boring reading and call one of your lawyers. They’ll walk you through it.]

Oh Sarah, you’re so dumb. Reading that legal stuff will be too hard for you, so just get a lawyer to explain it to you, slowly.

Except…

From Gateway Pundit:

Unfortunately for Gawker, they don’t seem to have read their own links.  Or perhaps they simply didn’t comprehend them as explained to them, no doubt, by their attorneys. Harper Collins, Palin’s publisher, promptly asked for and received an injunction against Gawker Media, asking that the site be banned from what it termed “further copyright infringement.”  The injunction prohibits Gawker from “continuing to distribute, publish or otherwise transmit pages from the book” pending a hearing on Nov. 30.

The Other McCain has a copy of the court order.  He adds: The judge found probable cause that Gawker violated copyright and ordered Gawker to pull the leaked pages and appear in court to defend themselves and explain why this wasn’t a violation of copyright and why the leaked pages shouldn’t be permanently removed. This temporary restraining order prevents Gawker from potentially further violating copyright by keeping the pages up until the court date. Date set for Nov. 30th. This is a huge victory for HarperCollins’ lawyers.

And..

MacRanger at Macsmind is reporting that under US copyright law each page could cost Gawker up to $500,000 in penalties. (Gawker excerpted from 14 pages.) A spokesperson for Harper Collins told me that “Substantial Damages will be sought”. “We intend to put them out of the business of printing protected material ever again.”

I am not a vengeful person, but there is a certain satisfaction in seeing the self-righteous smuggery of professional mockers like those at Gawker get their come-uppance.

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This is neat.

Scott Wade is an American artist who wanders around supermarket car parks looking for dirty cars.

What he finds is dust. These are samples of what he leaves:

Mona Lisa from Dust

Car Dust Art

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I really enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, starting with ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ and I really enjoyed the Swedish film version. It was well acted, perfectly paced, and captured the atmosphere of the book brilliantly.

So news that Hollywood is planning on remaking the three films does not thrill me with anticipation. Rooney Mara is too prettty, but make-up can do wonders.

But Daniel Craig (in my view the best Bond ever) as Mikael Blomkvist is definitely off, a Hollywoodish choice. Craig is tough, a charismatic and manly action figure. Blomkvist is not particularly physical, a plodding and doubt-filled investigative journalist.

Sigh. Of course, I will go to see it, or at least rent it from the video store.

Occasionally Hollywood does do a remake better than the original. The Ring films, for example. The Hollywood versions were scarier and more atmospheric, with a more coherent storyline.

But the Millenium trilogy? I am not hopeful.

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