How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Terry Eagleton published How to Read Literature in 2013 in the United States and 2014 in Australia…and I missed it. It was only in recent weeks that I managed to lay hands on a copy. It was worth the wait. Eagleton examines literature with the mind-set of a lawyer. He pays scrupulous attention to the micro- and the macro-skills of reading a piece of literature and he considers the values we place on our reading. Heavy duty stuff? By no means. Eagleton’s not-so-secret weapon against pompous writing is his rapier-like wit, his sense of humour, and his joy in what he does.

The crux of everything Eagleton has to say is summed in these words: “Part of what we mean by a ‘literary’ work,” he writes, “is one in which what is said is to be taken in terms of how it is said. It is the kind of writing in which the content is inseparable from the language in which it is presented. Language is constitutive of the reality or experience, rather than simply a vehicle for it” (3). The man practises what he preaches, (to coin a perfectly original saying).

The author structures his book by identifying, and then elaborating on, his key focus areas- Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value. He handles all his chapters with confidence but is supreme in Chapters 1 and 5. However, each chapter contributes something of value. That language depends for its success on both what is said and how it is said, is emphasized over and over. Again, this sounds stuffy and conventional. It is not so, because of the saving grace of this author’s contagious humour.

Eagleton is a proponent of close reading. He turns theory into practice in Chapter One Openings, a chapter in which he takes as a teaching model, some of the most famous opening lines ever written. These are big opening lines that everyone, however scant their literature knowledge, will recognise.  One such example is the first line of the Book of Genesis: ‘In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’, described by Eagleton as “a magnificently resonant opening to the most celebrated text in the world, simple and authoritative at the same time” (17). He draws attention to the parallelism between “in the beginning” and “once upon a time” – according to Eagleton, the former is how myths of origin begin, while the latter inaugurates many fairy tales. “Once upon a time” is a signal not to ask certain questions. In the same way “in the beginning” instructs us not to ask at what point in time this event took place. Eagleton doesn’t fudge answers to awkward questions nor refrain from posing questions that will provoke. “There are no events in eternity” (19) and “Time and the universe sprang into being simultaneously” (19). Some of the religious fraternity or, as likely, the sorority, will respond no doubt with derision at that viewpoint.

All of this discussion, which rambles here but not in the text being discussed, deals with the micro-lives of literature. Its fascination is infective and time-greedy. Chapter two begins the discussion at a macro-level, the wider issues such as plot, character, narrative, interpretation, and the exposure of values. As Meghan Florian explained so cogently:

Eagleton proceeds to discuss the nuanced relationship between characters on the page versus how we think of real life people, considering among other things the limitations imposed on the existence of a given character within a text. Additional questions that come from this are whether and how the reader identifies with characters, a question that leads well into the next section, which considers narrative in terms of both structure and voice. As he discusses realism and romanticism, Eagleton considers basic questions such as where the story ends up in terms of a resolution (or lack thereof), and whether the narrator’s voice is reliable — or, can they sometimes be unreliable “to the point of being outright cheats”? (86). 

Condemnation of stock responses is a powerful part of Eagleton’s weaponry. “Hence the postmodern obsession with vampires and Gothic horror, the perverse and peripheral, which has become as much an orthodoxy as thrift and chastity once were” (51). As one might expect, such an approach clears the way to different ways of looking at texts much more closely than before. Eagleton remarks, in pursuant of this more open conversation, that humour is no longer cloaked in the limpidity of Victorian prose. “Few readers of Paradise Lost prefer Milton’s God (both not Victorian, God be praised!), who speaks like a constipated civil servant, to his smouldering, defiant Satan” (51).

In the chapter loosely called Interpretation comes the provocative thought that literature has meanings that have a life, beyond the circumstances obtaining at the time of writing. Works of literature are not reports whose reconstruction of events is feasible. Literary works lift the human spirit beyond what a factual recount can deliver. Why would you want otherwise? It is with a great deal of amusement that the reader absorbs Eagleton’s versatile humour. His assertions relating to Baa Baa Black sheep have to be read to understand the nuances of the improbable versus the impossible. The author’s wry commentary pursues evermore the doctrine that words and ideas are bound together. He names the Scottish poet William McGonagall in a discussion about different resonances between one community and another, and asks, “If Samuel Johnson could complain about some of Shakespeare’s most inventive imagery, is it entirely out of the question that one day McGonagall might be hailed as a major poet?” The response to his own question is improbable, but not impossible.

The chapter on values has a seasoned approach entirely consistent with what we’ve read so far, and its seriousness is tempered, as expected, by dry humour that only Eagleton can discharge so well. His comment that American creative writing courses have an air of spontaneity which is almost entirely fabricated is outrageous (197) but a good safety valve in the stern-ness of serious discussion.

I will not go into Eagleton’s discussion of the opening lines to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I do not own a tin hat of the quality Eagleton must possess.

A fine book that will honour my shelves until infinity meets time, that’s a certainty.

Florian, Meghan. “Terry Eagleton: How to Read Literature – a review” Englewood Review of Books, June 2013.

How to Read Literature

(2013)

By Terry Eagleton

Yale UP

ISBN: 978-0-300-24764-0

232pp; $29.99

To order a copy of How to Read Literature at the Footprint Books Website with a 15% discount click here or visit www.footprint.com.au

 Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

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Many Rivers to Cross by Peter Robinson

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

In this, the 26th installment of the DCI Banks series, author Peter Robinson displays his usual deft touch with the police procedural.

The novel has two stories, seemingly unrelated, running side by side. In the main one, Detective Superintendent Alan Banks and his team are trying to solve a murder in the north of England. In the other one, we follow Zelda, who is a survivor of years of abuse as a sex slave. She is now a consultant to the police in London and she looks into the unusual death of her boss at the National Crime Authority.

The main story touches on refugees, the drug trade and the ruthless world of organized criminals. The second one also has organized criminals, plying their odious trafficking of women and girls across European borders. Both feature dangerous villains and webs of corruption that reach across all strata of society.

Alan Banks is called in with the discovery of the body of a young teenage boy, who appears to be of middle-eastern appearance. They have no ID to go on initially and the motive for his murder seems unclear as well. Three businessmen with dubious reputations, who were dining nearby at the time of the crime, come into the picture.

Banks, along with his two female colleagues, DI Annie Cabbot and DC Gerry Masterson, follow up the slender leads to identify the victim. Another death of an older heroin addict nearby throws another complication into the mix. Are the crimes related? Are drugs involved in both cases? Robinson outlines the methods used by gangs to supply their addicts; young men sent from a nearby city with a mobile phone number using a derelict housing estate as their temporary base.

The second story features Zelda, an attractive 31-year-old, troubled by the death of her boss in a house fire in London. Because she alone is aware of a link between her late boss and an underworld figure from her Eastern European past, she begins a risky investigation into this dangerous corrupt world.

There are at least two unusual aspects to Zelda: she has an amazing talent as a super recognizer of faces and she is such a determined, resourceful seeker on her brave/ foolhardy quest. Robinson has seemingly cloned a Modesty Blaise figure in Zelda, but she is without a Willy Gavin to ride to the rescue. However, she does happen to be a personal friend of Alan Banks. This friendship helps to loosely tie the two stories together.

The tension builds when Zelda tracks down one of her kidnappers and sets about stalking him. The outcome of that encounter leaves Robinson with a new plot-line for his next novel.

While Banks, with his family and work colleagues, is a more rounded character, Zelda is more one-dimensional. She is a woman determined on her version of justice. We are given another insight into Bank’s moral character when Zelda stays overnight at his cottage.

Robinson is good at fleshing out the other characters as well, from the cocky businessman who is flirting with the Albanian gangs to the female Detective Constable learning the ropes of criminal investigation. Another well-drawn one is the ex-boxer who drives for a dodgy property developer. While not exactly a clean-skin, he does have a moral code.

A Neighbourhood Watch group leader comes into the picture and Robinson uses him to look at community in its various forms. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots is expanded on through some of the characters’ attitudes to welfare dependents and their higher risk housing estates.

I would recommend this book to readers for its plotting, pace and build-up of tension. The switching between stories works effectively as well. Fans of the Banks’ series won’t be disappointed and new readers should enjoy their encounter with a long running team of detectives in a contemporary setting.

Peter Robinson was born and grew up in Yorkshire, England. He now spends time between Richmond and Canada, where he has won six Arthur Ellis awards for the best crime novel of the year. His DCI Banks series have won awards in several countries and have been translated into many languages. A major ITV1 drama based on the books and starring Stephen Tompkinson and Andrea Lowe has been successful around the world as well.

Many Rivers to Cross

(2019)

by Peter Robinson

Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN: 9781444787030

384 pp;   $32.99

Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham

Reviewed by Angela Marie

“Sucking hard on the filter, I hold the smoke inside my chest, picturing the toxic chemicals and black tar clogging my lungs, causing cancer or emphysema or rotting my teeth. A slow death, I know, but that’s life, isn’t it – a long, drawn-out suicide.”

Welcome to Langford Hall, a children’s home in Nottingham. A home to imprison the cutters, the anorexics, the sociopaths, the pyromaniacs, the narcissists. The children flip side of the coin to rosy-cheeked Jill or cheerful Jack.

You’ve just met Evie Cormac aka Angel Face, considering one of the four cigarettes per day that she is allowed, electronic tag dangling around her ankle. She is sharp, with a sophistication of language that juxtaposes her past. With time you’ll learn how and partially why her young life was distorted and her youth destroyed. Her life a bridge to those confronting and sickening news reports of children imprisoned and unable to seek contact with others and the outside world. With a twist. First, you’ll have to tread through the minefield of bullying, baiting, sniping and sarcasm as the teenage inmates dance their daily rituals and pick their sides. No one picks Evie. And that suits just fine. Evie has an outstanding talent that makes for an uncomfortable existence. Evie knows when someone is telling the truth. We’ll read how this works to both her advantage and her despair.

Michael Robotham frequently layers his characters both biographically and historically, giving them anchor points of credibility. Evie, of indeterminate age, is petitioning the court for release as an adult. Forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven is the expert called in to determine her readiness. Although Good Girl, Bad Girlis Cyrus’ first major outing, readers of Michael Robotham’s recent crime novels may recall his appearance in The Secrets She Keeps. Coincidentally, we learn that Cyrus studied under clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin. We said goodbye to Joe in The Other Wife.  Perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for Joe’s resurrection. 

Cyrus Haven himself is a tortured soul, deprived of family in a most horrific way. Experience has bestowed relatability to the wounded rather than judgement. He is the glue of the tale, simultaneously aiding in the investigation of the death of Jodie Sheehan, a teenage ice-skating champion. His brief moves between Evie, the malnourished waif found by a policewoman near a decomposed body, and Jodie, a golden girl discovered discarded beside a path, weighing up the circumstances and history of both. Jodie’s voice is now silenced but with Evie his steps beyond traditional boundaries may have dire consequences.

Good Girl, Bad Girl has elevations of hope and possibility and redemption, and an extreme sense of loyalty. This pushes against the undercurrent of crime begetting crime, but we cannot shake off the gritty shroud that envelops the tale. We cheer for the good guys, but the users, purveyors and recruiters will have their way. For a time.

Regarding Jodie’s death, Good Girl, Bad Girl is peppered with suspects displaying a slow reveal of character and motive. We know little will be as it seems. The characters, no matter their part, are complex as are we all. So who is the guilty party – parent, brother, coach, teacher, boyfriend, opportunist, competitor? The author liberally sprinkles the tale with red herrings and reactions that may cast doubt on innocence or guilt. Or makes us question what our response might be. Good Girl, Bad Girl is a great read for those who relish crime novels. And Michael Robotham allows the penny to clink, but keeps a few surprises up his sleeve. 

Good Girl, Bad Girl is prefaced by the tempter on the cover. “One needs saving. The other needs justice.” Perhaps we’ll work out which is which. Perhaps this won’t be an absolute. Who is the good girl? Who is the bad girl? Who needs saving most of all? Is good an absolute? Is bad an absolute?

Although this novel reads as a stand-alone, there appear to be numerous threads that may build into either a continuing or a retrospective tale or both. Who is Evie and why was she imprisoned? Can she outrun the pro forma of how she was moulded? What is normality and is this attainable? There are significant descriptions and actions that do not tally with the ending of the tale. A writer as meticulous as Michael Robotham would have purpose for these. 

At times it can be challenging to follow a storyline that has more than one narrator. Not so with Good Girl, Bad Girl. The device is simple and efficient. By italicising Evie’s narration, the reader is left in no doubt as to whether it is Evie or Cyrus speaking. An effective contribution to the pace and flow. Leave time to read this. You may not wish to put it down.

Michael Robotham is a highly-successful and acclaimed Australian author, appreciated by Stephen King and David Baldacci, amongst others. Not only have his sales reached into the multi-million level, he has also been awarded the highly-coveted Gold Dagger Award, bestowed by the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association. He has acknowledged that he, as a former investigative journalist, can gain inspiration from news items. As we know truth can be stranger than fiction. Let’s hope we find out more of the truth about Evie.

Good Girl, Bad Girl

(2019)

By Michael Robotham

Hachette

ISBN 978 0 7336 3805 3 

405 pp; $32.99 (ppb); $15.99 (eBook)

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

Reviewed by Rod McLary

It is difficult to categorise this latest book by Stephen Chbosky written some twenty years after his first – The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  On one level, it is a straightforward horror story primarily involving a group of eight-year-old children but, on another, it seems to be a battle between good and evil.  Along the way, the book touches on social issues such as domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism, unethical business dealings, and schoolyard bullying.

The children themselves personify some of these social issues.  Christopher – the main protagonist – is escaping with his mother from domestic violence; Brady [the class bully] is punished by his mother by being forced to sleep [literally] in the doghouse; and Jenny barricades her bedroom door to prevent her stepbrother from coming in and molesting her.  Other of the issues are represented by the adults – ‘Special Ed’s’ father drinks himself to sleep each night; and Ms Lasko – the children’s teacher – starts her day with alcohol.  Even Mrs Henderson – the school librarian – has a husband who comes home at dawn after his nightly liaison with his ‘girlfriend’.

All of this is occurring in Mill Grove a small town in Pennsylvania.  No wonder good and evil have chosen this town to be their battleground for supremacy.  Good and evil are represented by the ‘nice man’ and the ‘hissing lady’ – which is which is not fully revealed until the end of the book and, even then, it is all rather ambiguous.  The source of much of the horror is the effect of the battle on the children.  But it is a battle which is largely fought out in Christopher’s mind as the reader is reminded more than once.

Fifty years ago, a boy called David – aged eight – disappeared from his home in Mill Grove and his body is never found.  He was taken from his home after he opened the front door when he heard a baby crying.  Of course, there was no baby – just a tape recording placed in a pram.  Although this is somewhat of a cliché, there is sufficient horror in the description of the event to engage the reader immediately.  This section is perhaps the most successful section of the book.  It is succinct and to the point.  The reader can almost feel the terror of the boy and the overwhelming guilt of his older brother Ambrose who was supposed to be looking after him. 

Everything is quiet until fifty years later Christopher and his mother come to town.  Somehow, he is chosen as the ‘next one’ and the horror starts again.

However, the horror is not able to be sustained over the subsequent 700 pages or so. 

The unfolding of the story occurs through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy – Christopher – and, although he is very bright, he is still just eight and some of the language reflects that.  This becomes rather tedious after a while and some of the descriptions of the various events and the characters are told and unnecessarily retold more than once.  Christopher’s thoughts as he navigates an increasingly complex and potentially deadly path to safety are set out in detail as in the following passage:

My mother is …

My mother is … with me on the real side.

My mother is …

My mother is …  saying she will get me out of here. [405]

Even some of the adult characters think in this way.  Jerry – the perpetrator of the domestic violence from which Christopher and his mother Kate are escaping – thinks the following about Kate –

You miss her, Jerry

But she doesn’t miss you.

She’s the best you’ll ever get, Jerry.  And she’s gone. [419]

The reader is tempted – and often succumbs to that temptation – to skip such passages.  Unfortunately too, there is also considerable repetition in the story which has the consequence of slowing down the narrative and interrupting the tension.  While there are some all too infrequent moments of real horror and considerable tension, the overall effect is of a book which just a little too long.

Stephen Chbosky has also indulged in some authorial tricks which add little to the narrative or to the horror.  Tricks such as one word to a page – presumably to emphasise the drama, the ‘nice man’s’ dialogue being in a smaller font than the rest of the book, and some parts written in faux handwriting are not helpful in sustaining the momentum of the story.

Imaginary Friend is Stephen Chbosky’s homage to the renowned horror writer Stephen King.  Like the characters in some of King’s books, the protagonists are young children dealing with a horror they cannot fully comprehend.  However, unlike King, Chbosky does not deliver what he would have wanted to.  Even though there are moments which rise above the rest, there are simply not enough of them so Imaginary Friend ultimately disappoints.

Imaginary Friend

[2019]

by Stephen Chbosky

Orion Books

ISBN 978 1 4091 8481 2

706pp; $32.99

Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Unfollow chronicles Megan Phelps-Roper’s difficult struggle to leave the extremist Westboro Baptist Church, Kansas, in order to live in the world beyond. In the process, she provides a starkly honest, uncompromising examination of life in the confines of the small community.

From the age of five, she joined the family of ten siblings, parents and grandparents picketing any “sinful” businesses or activities. There was a wide range of these, but dominated by a violent hatred of gays and suspected homosexuals. “God hates Gays” was their mantra.

Any group that the Westboro clan considered was contravening their selected Bible teachings was targeted.

Swept along in the joyful fervour of this, Megan was an ardent participant all through her childhood. She considers it to be happy – respectful parents, though prone to tempestuous rages, tyrannical grandfather to be feared and followed unquestionably.  It is surprising to learn she endured this until her 26th year.

Meeting church members from outside the family, Dustin and Lindsey, who had travelled and enjoyed living in the wider world, makes a niggling longing begin. Conversations with them exposes to both Megan and her sister, Grace, the fact that there is much to be explored beyond Westboro.

The book is not an unrelieved account of a bizarre cult/religion. The grandfather, for example, is a complex character. Initially a bullying tyrant, his image alters when Megan relates his untiring battle to defend the rights of black Americans. In Kansas, this further reduced his popularity. Some admired him for this, others sent death threats. He relished his fight against society’s two main evils – black slavery and white supremacy.

On the other hand, his extremist views can be summarised in his slogan: “a little’s good but a lot is better”

With the rise of the Internet, rantings had a new platform. The church’s antics became notorious internationally. The U.K., France, Australia and Germany investigated them. HBO made a series, Michael Moore a documentary.  Sweden was vilified.

Megan knew her first loyalty was to the church NOT the truth. However, the brutal beatings from Grandfather and her mother bred thoughts of how their beliefs were drowning logic and rational argument.

So, behind her long arduous path to freedom from this regime. Sympathetic GG texting her on line began her change of direction.

Then, the Elders’ criticism of her mother sealed her intention.

She had loved her family life but a secret, careful preparation begins.

Megan is spurred on by the egregious picketing of the funerals of returned soldiers from Afghanistan. The cruelty and grief this caused was shameful to her. The heartlessness was a stark illustration of their failure to be even slightly relevant to people’s lives.

As a very young child, she was puzzled by the apparent injustice of the fable of Jacob and Esau. Jacob was beloved by God; Esau was wicked and even before his birth was destined to be thrust into eternal flames. This indicates predestination. Human action is futile. God alone decides the destiny of souls. Repentance did not ensure the sinners’ forgiveness.

On the other hand, the chosen must adhere to the path of righteousness.

Unfollow is a detailed testament as to how people can be caught in the web of excessive prejudice thinly veiled in religious belief. Megan’s account of her struggle to come to terms with what the church, in contrast to the world outside has to offer, become quite tense.

Childhood has drenched them all in anger, hatred and intolerance of groups such as gays. It is a huge mental effort to examine and overcome this.

Books are vital in her realising the fallacy of many of Westboro’s ideas. She devours a range of classics, novels and philosophers’ writings.

Their emotional life was deeply affected when growing up. Engaging or arguing with others tended to erupt into rage and confusion. They sorely lacked the ability to engage with reason and restraint.

There is her joyful discovery that it is possible to have friends with differing opinions. She becomes aware that the “one true way” is not limited to religious circles. It dominates the political scene as well.

Unfollow is quite awe- inspiring. It gives a wide-ranging and moving journey of a young woman rejecting a world reduced to “black and white” and even “calcified positions are not impervious to change”.

Like the much praised Educated, this a story of triumph of the human spirit!

UNFOLLOW.  

[2019]

By MEGAN PHELPS-ROPER.   

HATCHETTE AUSTRALIA

Trade Paperback $32.99       

eBook $14.99

304pp

Almost Human: A Biography of Julius the Chimpanzee by Alfred Fidjestøl

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

I have just swung, Tarzan style, through the gamut of emotions from delight to sadness and anger.  Alfred Fidjestøl’s biography of Julius and his struggle to live a happy life reaffirms the importance of a safe and stimulating environment and a stable social system that provides calm justice.  Julius was lucky to have survived his mother’s rejection. His first year was a joyful adventure, but it is how Julius lived through the tough stuff, the long years of isolation and rejection that is so sad and at times infuriating.  Eventually fortune smiles and he finds a happy place.  In short it is a touching true story about life.  Incidentally, brave and resilient Julius is a chimpanzee.  

Almost Human is well researched, referring to international academic studies, to documented observations of chimpanzees living in the wild, and studies of zoo chimpanzees.  Julius is quite a celebrity in Norway, so Fidjestøl also uses some of the many media reports written about the life and times of Julius.  As such, this is both informative and entertaining.  Readers get an insight to chimpanzee society in general, and specifically about how Julius relates to humans and chimpanzees.  There are plenty of amusing anecdotes of chimpanzee love, loyalty and high intelligence. 

Julius was born in Kristiansand Zoo, Norway, at the end of 1979. His young inexperienced mother rejected him, and, to really make a point, had bitten off a few of his fingers.  Chimpanzees are empathetic and self-sacrificing; in the wild, another female chimpanzee would probably have cared for Julius, and so it would have been if an experienced mother had been available in his zoo troop.  As it was, it fell to the zoo humans to take him into their homes and look after him for the first year of his life, with the goal of returning him to the chimpanzee community.  This time is full of heart-warming stories, and how he became a television celebrity in Norway.   It seemed harmless at the time but really this was going to make his future life hard.

After a year of being socialized by humans, it was not so easy to reintegrate Julius back into his community.  He had become so very fond of his human family during his first year.  During this time, he had acquired celebrity status and performed for many photo shoots, which helped fund the zoo but interrupted his re-integration program. It was upsetting reading about Julius being caught between two worlds separated from humans but not yet accepted by the chimpanzee troop.  In fact, it took some twenty-five years to establish him as the alpha male of his own group but he never forgot his human family always recognizing them when they visited him.

Almost Human is a gripping biography.  Fidjestøl gives readers real insight into chimpanzee thinking, to understand that they are sensitive, intelligent, social beings. Sharing 98.6% of DNA with humans, it is unsurprising that they are so intelligent.  They collaborate together to plan future actions, and, like humans, they can be brutal, fighting for supremacy over mating rights and territory.

Hopefully, humans will continue to evolve and become truly understanding of animal sensitivities and needs, both in the wild and in captivity. 

Highly recommended!

Almost Human: A Biography of Julius the Chimpanzee

(2019)

BY ALFRED FIDJESTØL

Hachette Australia

Paperback:  ISBN 9780733642791 – $32.99

e-Book:         ISBN 9780733642807 – $14.99

Pp241

Gulpilil by David Rielly

Derek Rielly: Gulpilil

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

How this book came about is just as interesting as the information it contains.

When acknowledging his information sources, Derek Rielly says ‘It will come as no surprise to anyone who has spun, even briefly, in David Gulpilil’s orbit that this book only happened via the magic of cosmic coincidence. To write about the mysterious actor, first, I had to find him’ (243).

After chasing down many dead ends, a chance meeting with actor friend, Dan Wyllie, when Rielly was heading to Bondi Beach for a swim, created the breakthrough the author needed. A call, a visit and the project was underway.

The author has chosen to present information about the life and work of David Gulpilil, a Yolygu man, hunter, dancer, award-winning actor and recipient of the 2019 NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award, from interviews with notable icons, friends and fellow actors including Jack Thompson, Gary Sweet, Paul Hogan, Dennis Hopper; film critic Margaret Pomeranz and painters George Gittoes and Craig Ruddy (2004 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Gulpilil, Two Worlds).

Derek Rielly believed that through this method he could create a more personal picture of who this man really is and why he matters, why he still matters.

There are eighteen chapters in total, each dedicated to information from a friend or co-worker of the actor, and the book also includes ten photo plates. This is where I was a bit disappointed. In at least two of these photos the actors face disappears into the gutter of the book. That, plus the similarity of the poses, I felt took away from the presentation of an important life. I would love to have seen an image of the Archibald prize, as I was intrigued when reading of the painting being created over English colonial wallpaper- a juxtaposition of an ‘indigenous man over the culture that caused the ongoing Aboriginal catastrophe’ (60). This choice for the prize in 2004 was not without its controversy which could only be settled by the law.

This book is not just a biography of David Gulpilil. It is not really a biography at all. It is about this well-known aboriginal actor and the people he came across during his acting career, who, once in his presence, became his greatest admirers. However, there were many aspects of Gulpilil’s life that were not very admirable and this book does not shy away from allowing them to come to light. His life became one of walking a cultural tightrope and there were people from both camps who took advantage of him. He never had much money. He was never paid the same as other white actors and, when he did make money, his aboriginal culture decreed that he share what he had with his community.

Wayne O’Donovan, who became Gulpilil’s handler tells us in Chapter 13, that the actor was a First Contact Indigenous man, someone who lived the first eight years of his life without seeing a white man. To be thrust from this situation into the movie Walkabout in 1971 must have been a great culture shock for an impressionable teenager. His first fellow actors were seasoned thespians who loved to drink and party. In 1975 David starred in Mad Dog Morgan with counter-culture icon Dennis Hopper, who was once described as ‘one of Hollywood’s most notorious drug addicts’ (42).  The film industry is blamed for turning David into a drunk (165).

The author’s choice of content in each chapter leaves the reader with the strong feeling that people were drawn to Gulpilil because of his amazing personality and talent. From them we hear that he had a great natural ability to feed the camera; his acting never felt like it was a performance and his movements are like liquid. He has a willingness to tell stories and share his wisdom and knowledge. He’s an infectious character with a playful nymph-like quality and people tend to gravitate towards him. He’s such a free spirit. Directors who have met him or seen him on the screen have written parts for him into their own films.

Gulpilil’s 2004 one man show (chapter 10) probably gives the best overview of the life of this actor – ‘from dancing tribal boy to movie star who is feted by Queen Elizabeth II, to prisoner in Darwin’s Berrimah jail’ (121). This show also highlights some of the better-known movies this actor has featured in, such as Walkabout, Storm Boy, Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-proof Fence and The Tracker.

Although Rielly is a journalist and creator of several magazines and has contributed to various Australian newspapers, this is just his second full length book, his first being Wednesdays with Bob with Bob Hawke. In Gulpilil, a 256-page, hard covered book with paper jacket, Rielly has given a voice to many people where, through their remembrance of incidents they shared with the actor, we build up a picture of this incredible man.

I found this book to be a very interesting read with a lot more to it than the life of one man. This work also provides insight into the Aboriginal culture and the relationship throughout Australia’s history between the black and white races. It also details information about the Archibald Prize the many individual actors who impacted on the life of Gulpilil and the film industry as a whole. This book is just packed with snippets of information which this reader felt compelled to research for further information.

To answer why David Gulpilil still matters, perhaps the thoughts of two of the actor’s close friends might provide the answer.

Fellow actor, Jack Thompson believes that Gulpilil ‘is a gateway to a history that we’ve so far denied and not embraced. In this country, he’s more important than Ned Kelly’ (book jacket).

Film director, Phillip Noyce, who directed Gulpilil in Rabbit Proof Fence and has known him for forty-five years, refers to him ‘a living treasure …. He’s an icon’ (143).  ‘His face has just so much power.     He’s a living national treasure who is a link to sixty-thousand years of Australian history and culture. …. He is a living legend’ (145).

Enjoy Rielly’s Gulpilil, and celebrate the life of this iconic Aboriginal actor who is probably facing the greatest fight of his life – emphysema and lung cancer.

Gulpilil
(2019)
By Derek Rielly
Pan Macmillan Australia
ISBN: 9 781760 784973
$29.99: 256pp

Khaki Town by Judy Nunn

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Reviewed by Rod McLary

On 15 February 1942, Singapore fell to the invading Japanese Army.  Within days, Japan bombed Darwin and it was believed by many that this threatened a direct threat of attack on Australian soil.

On 30 March 1942, the Allied South West Pacific Area command (SWPA) was formed and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Supreme Allied Commander South-West Pacific Area.  His headquarters were in Brisbane.  It is said that up to one million US servicemen came to Australia and about 100,000 of these were African- Americans.  Many of these troops were based in Townsville.

These hard historical facts form the structure around which the author has woven a story of the day-to-day experiences of residents in Townsville and their interactions with American troops.  But the reporting of some of the events described in Khaki Town – those which are based on fact – was politically suppressed at the time.  This adds a frisson of excitement to the story as the reader experiences at one remove the ‘real’ story of what happened in Townsville in 1942.

The title Khaki Town comes from the contemporary description of Townsville.  As one of the main protagonists says:

… just military everywhere.  Army, navy, air force, you name it, and all in khaki.  … We’ve become a khaki town. [13]

The threat of war on one’s doorstep is at the very least a larger than life experience and the recounting of it demands larger than life characters.  And there is no shortage of them in Khaki Town.  From Val Callahan – the rough around the edges but with a heart of gold publican – to Baz Taylor the smooth and suave con man with the Ronald Coleman moustache – to Aunty Edie from Palm Island, all are Australian through and through.  Together with a host of other characters, each plays his/her role to perfection in the drama which unfolds as a small country town struggles to accommodate itself to an influx of Americans who are – by and large – ‘over paid, over sexed and over here’.

But the novel is not only about the war and the influx of soldiers into Townsville, it is a ‘book about racism’ as the author makes clear in her ‘Note to Readers’.  To emphasise the point. some of the language used may be considered offensive but reflects the values and beliefs of the era.

Simmering below the surface is the tension between the whites and the Aboriginal peoples, between the Townsville residents and the Army personnel [black and white, American and Australian], and between the white American soldiers and the African-American soldiers.  These African-American men are commonly referred to as ‘Negroes’ or ‘niggers’ using the derogatory language of the 1940s.  On more than one occasion, these tensions break out and some have quite serious consequences.  These sequences are written with sensitivity and drama although sometimes the explanatory dialogue is a little overwrought:

This whole tragic affair is not your fault, Corporal.  You mustn’t blame yourself, you’re hardly the guilty party.  Besides you’ve come to me now and I’m glad you have.  We must get to the bottom of this.  That is if it’s at all humanly possible. [220]

The presence of a United States Congressman sent by the President to investigate the deaths of a number of black soldiers is based on a visit made by Lyndon Johnson to Townsville in 1942.  His involvement is used as a mechanism by which the truth behind the deaths is brought to the surface.  The drawing of his character – which is presumably based on the ‘real’ Lyndon Johnson – creates another larger than life personality and he dominates the pages in which he appears.

Running alongside the main plot are two love stories.  One – between an African-American soldier and a young Townsville woman – suggests that skin colour is not a bar to love and that it is clearly possible for interactions between white and black to be without prejudice.  The second – again crossing cultural lines but this time between an American officer and the wife of an Australian soldier – plays out differently but again shows that cohabitation is possible.

These two love stories are more subtle in their telling than that of the main story of the antagonism between the white and black American soldiers.  While that story has to be told bluntly and without evasion, it is somewhat of a relief to read of the unfolding of the two romances.

Overall, Khaki Town is a good read.  It would be of particular interest to those readers who may have lived in or know Townsville. There are many references to local sites which add a verisimilitude to the story and those who know Townsville will recognise the street names and places. 

Judy Nunn is an Australian author and Khaki Town is her fifteenth novel.  While her first three novels were set in the worlds of television, theatre and film, her more recent ones have been historically-based fiction. 

Khaki Town

[2019]

by Judy Nunn

Penguin Random House

ISBN 978 0 14379 517 9

$32.99; 400pp

The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Andrew Lownie is a writer that I have come across before now. Not surprisingly, he has produced a very competent piece of writing based, as always, on wide-ranging and thorough research. As a result, his readers find themselves enjoying a well-balanced viewpoint on history while, incorrectly, retaining the feeling that this is a novel. The author sheds flowery language in the interest of a vocabulary and writing style that is masculine. We find ourselves reading an account, and then the discussion takes on the intimacy of a biography, while the reader has, unconsciously, taken the view that this is creative writing, not reporting.

Andrew Lownie took his Masters and doctorate at Edinburgh University. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and former visiting fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, he has run his own literary agency since 1988. He has written for the Times, Telegraph, Wall Street Journal, Spectator and Guardian and formerly served in the Royal Naval Reserve.

The absorbing interest in this particular book is not the writing but the characters themselves. Lord Mountbatten, known as Dickie throughout, was very closely related to the Royal family, became a mentor to Prince Philip and Prince Charles, and was involved at great depth in most important activities throughout the twentieth century until his assassination in 1979. Mountbatten’s self-praising comments to Richard Hough, reproduced in the preface to this book and easily identified, do not sit easily with today’s readers. They introduce pomposity into Dickie’s character, and highlight it, when in truth Mountbatten was much, much more.

As the book develops, so does Dickie. It is a low key style of treatment. He joins the Navy, shows himself a stickler for doing things right, socializes without stinting, and approaches examinations as one might a military conflict. The result is rarely unexpected and he often tops the class.  Other issues that assume importance are Lownie’s elucidation of the question: was Mountbatten an outstanding leader or was he over-promoted because of his royal birth, high-level connections, and ruthlessness; the relationship between Edwina and the Indian Prime Minister Nehru; the stories of the Dieppe raid and the Indian Partition. Lownie’s treatment of these controversies is balanced and his conclusions amply justified.

While Dickie was working hard, Dickie’s wife Edwina was engaged in an exhausting day socializing – cocktail parties, restaurants, music parlours, first nights at the theatre. This lifestyle might have been hazardous to her health, but having been raised to a life of ease, she knew no other. 

Lownie’s account reveals that, before 1939, Dickie and Edwina were virtually a waste of space. Their marriage was a sham, each ignoring the vows they made to one another. Unashamedly, Mountbatten comments: “Edwina and I spent all our married lives getting into other people’s beds” (quoted in Lownie, 2). Yet, despite numerous infidelities, each was totally supportive and loving of the other. Just part of the mystery of the Mountbattens.

The most interesting person in the book is Edwina. She was intelligent, elegant, a good dancer and conversationalist who, in the words of (Sir) Charles Baring, “had a great sense of destiny, but didn’t know what it was” (36). In the first part of the book, Lownie does not hold back in presenting her as the equivalent of a female lounge lizard, appearing at party after party, drunken, often presenting a deshabille appearance, and dependent on others to take care of her. Having inherited in the vicinity of one hundred million pounds (in today’s terms) from her grandfather’s estate, she was not short of a quid, and found plenty to look after her concerns. Lownie reveals her not-caring nature when he reports that she intended to marry Charles Rhys but, at breakfast, decided that he looked like a frog and changed her mind.

We are given a glance into Edwina’s character when, on accompanying her fiancé to meet Dickie’s parents, she purchases a third-class ticket, not realising that Dickie always travelled first class. His proposal came quickly on the near twin deaths of his father and of Edwina’s grandfather. Their wedding was a spectacle of great wealth. Lownie’s report on the wastefulness and amorality of the couple’s lifestyle stands in marked contrast to his descriptions of the leadership and initiative each showed and the speed with which they divested themselves of self-absorption and arrogance once World War II was declared.

Dickie’s war record is one of daring, of selfless leadership, and rather stupid decision-making. Lownie reveals him as a leader in his own mould, but a leader nevertheless. Both approving and derisory comments from various senior service staff who experienced Dickie’s leadership style have little effect. It is Edwina who shows what a force she could be when her path forward appears. Accepted into nurse training, she became a power house in taking care of the personnel working in shelters overnight. She dressed as a film star but was conscientious to an extreme.

“The couple were in unison, perhaps for the first time ever. Pressure brought out the best in them – their gifts of leadership, their organisational skills, their ability to use their connections, their meticulous preparation and command of their brief” (122).

Dickie’s attempts to stage-manage Prince Philip’s marriage to Princess Elizabeth with the same level of meticulousness was met with an acerbic response that amused me greatly (234).

Edwina was always a force to consider seriously, whether engaged in hunting down a new lover or travelling third class in a packed Indian train (she was ensconced for many hours in a luggage rack). She regarded Nehru as a responsible person, on her same level intellectually, and saw him as a close friend.

Wherever a reader turns in this magnificent book there are new ideas to consider. The Mountbattens were complex people, judgments of whom range from immoral lovers, society bludgers across the range to persons of heroic status. Lownie’s writing fits the complex nature of his subject yet is always completely unambiguous. I loved this book.

The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves

(2019)

By Andrew Lownie

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-78870-260-7

$44.99; 496pp

On Drugs by Chris Fleming

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

On Drugs is the title, and the cover image features a beautiful, sultry adolescent staring, spaced-out, at the prospective reader.   So, naturally, themes of Drugs, Sex and Rock ‘n’ Roll spring to mind. However, in this memoir by Chris Fleming, topics are more Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and drugs rocking reality.  This makes sense if one thinks to turn to the back blurb, where it is discovered that Chris Fleming is a philosopher, cultural analyst and essayist, currently an Associate Professor in Humanities at Western Sydney University.  Fleming is writing a personal account of his fourteen-year-long addiction to legal and illegal substances.  He gives an account of daily hassles of acquiring drugs, analyzes his childhood and struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder to discover possible roots causes for his addiction and his intellectual life both on and off drugs. 

This memoir begins as if in the hard-boiled noir genre: ‘It was tough scoring drugs off H.’ The first three chapters give readers an often-amusing account of daily life as a drug addict, with interesting insights along the way.  On reading, it might strike the reader that this is an exhausting life-style: long commutes to moody drug dealers whose odd rules and routines must be followed.  Not to mention acquiring heaps of money somehow.  Really it isn’t for the faint, or lazy, hearted.  Fleming gives the reader many insights to this world, such as, and this one is really odd, users experience a sense of euphoria, equal to the influence of taking drugs, while arranging a ‘deal’.  It seems acquiring drugs and holding on to them before ingesting provides a ‘high’ equal to actually imbibing drugs – anticipation acting as a placebo effect.   So why bother taking the drug one might ask.  If not intending to ingest drugs then, apparently, this effect is not experienced.  The mind is indeed a complicated piece of apparatus.

Fleming analyses his childhood to explain why he became vulnerable to addiction.   His accounts of suffering from an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), from the age of seven, engender reader sympathy.  The anguish of his mental illness was concealed from his parents so he coped alone.   From an early age, he reports that he had a sense of his body as ‘being permeable, porous’, of being changed by what he had ingested or inhaled.  He is not the only sensitive soul to experience such feelings: James Joyce expressed ideas of being porous, merging with, and bleeding into, the outside world. Fleming suggests his early experience with his family’s strict adherence to Catholicism, beliefs in the ritual of taking the body of Christ in the Eucharist, holy water and healing oils, might be the root cause of the above thoughts.  As a balance to their religiosity, his family also expressed some dissatisfaction with the church, thinking it hypocritical, often with amusing effect – his grandmother described a cardinal in his lavish garb as ‘a failed conquistador lost at the Melbourne Cup’.

As Fleming grew older his OCD manifested into fanatical approaches towards hobbies that jumped from martial arts, bodybuilding and music.  He acquired reams of magazines to research each hobby; his interest and research into heavy metal bands led him to drugs – and more research. 

At university his intellect, stymied at school, was given free reign.  He was thrilled by new ways of thinking.  Particularly, he reports being energized by Sapir-Whorf hypothesis re the identity of language and thought, whereby language guides, even determines thought.  This turned his ideas of reality upside-down.  

Whorf was talking about the structure of perception being partly or wholly determined by mind or language – that in some essential sense our framing was our world.  What shocked me was that the very idea I had about language was almost the opposite of the truth – language wasn’t an expression of thought; it was the determinant.

And in the same way, he experienced another revelation when on acid, which, apparently, replaced both thought and language and allowed him to experience Kant’s idea of the ‘thing-in-itself’, unmediated by preconceived concepts. 

On acid, The Real was there to be experienced, somehow directly.  In other words, the experiential effect of acid was to undermine the idea that had so captured me in first-year university: Whorf’s hypothesis about the identity of language and thought.  Perhaps drugs, I now thought, allowed one to access Immanuel Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, as opposed to things as they are mediated to us by our concepts and precepts.

He is actually describing another experience that many have when practicing transcendental meditation.  The whole point of meditation is to bypass mind, not so much to do meditation, but to let the meditating process ‘do’ you.  The end point in advanced practice is to be part of the (clichéd) lotus flower.  Fleming says something similar: I had the sense not so much of doing analysis, but of witnessing it.  

Fleming claimed he took drugs to help his intellectual work, not for recreation.   Whereas he claims drugs provided a new reality, the ability to re-think concepts via visceral hits of abstract thought, it seems transcribing these multiple lines of thought that inter-weaved in unfamiliar ways were mainly unsuccessful during or after the stoned effect.  So the reader might wonder how is it a ‘working’ drug if it does not result in a new hypothesis.  

Fleming writes brilliantly about his life, and readers do get the feeling of a lived experience, walking in another man’s shoes. In the end Fleming’s reliance on intellect hindered his recovery, allowing him to delude himself in many clever ways.  He spiraled into a very destructive pattern with only one obvious end point.  After several attempts, and much humble soul searching, he managed to be drug-free.  Even in the last few pages he continues to shed light on causes of addiction as he discovers more about his family history.

On Drugs is an insightful, occasionally amusing, foray into an intelligent man’s experience with addiction.

On Drugs

(2019)

By Chris Fleming

Giramondo Publishing

ISBN: 9781925818048 

$29.95 – 222pp