Posts filed under ‘non-fiction’


dark emu

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – Black seeds: agriculture or accident? makes a claim on all Australians. It wants us to reimagine pre-colonial Australia. It wants us to look again and see something new. On the basis of the words in the first white explorers diaries, it wants us to acknowledge that our landscape, ‘the bush’, is a cultural artefact, a product manufactured and maintained by the oldest culture on earth. It is a strong claim and convincingly made. It argues that what the explorers report is clear. There was no ‘wilderness’ here in 1788, and there hasn’t been one here for 60,000 years. Instead there was a group of cooperating nations applying a shared technology and law, to meet their economic and cultural needs.

In a way it throws white Australia’s words back in our face. It seems to say, in a very polite way, we don’t know why but you seem to thinks its important to believe we were nomadic hunter gatherers that didn’t plant crops, build houses or use pottery. The problem with that is that on many occasions the descriptions of us written by your own people at the time of first contact describe us planting and harvesting crops, and living in villages with houses, cemeteries and food storage facilities. So why is it that you have paid no attention to the words of your own people? Is there a reason you want to think of us as hunter gatherers only? if it was to help you justify taking our land and murdering us – where does that leave you now?

The message and the method of the book can be illustrated by an example from pages 204 and 205. They contain a quote and a drawing from Major Mitchell describing an Aboriginal cemetery he saw on the Darling River. Both the description and picture of the cemetery make it sound absolutely beautiful, and extremely familiar to european eyes of either the 19th or 21st century. After describing it and drawing it he says

With all our art, we could do no more for the dead, than these poor savages had done

This quote sums up the book’s message, and method, because it uses one unedited sentence, directly from a famous explorer (in this case Mitchell), to show us:

  • Aboriginal people had cemeteries, of a kind we would recognise
  • they were constructed with paths and gardens and therefore Aboriginal society had all technical the skills and the organisational power needed to produce a manicured landscape on a large scale for a ceremonial purpose
  • the explorers knew of them, recorded them, and recognised the technology and organisation required to make them but managed to maintain their belief in the ‘primitiveness’ of Aboriginal Australians
  • historians, and anyone else that has read the explorers diaries, must have known about these observations and knowingly chose not to tell anybody else about them
  • there must be reason for this selective and wilful forgetting.

All the book groupers loved the book. We were amazed we had never heard of all these observations before. The existence of the diaries and writings of all the famous white ‘exploerers’ was very well known to bookgroupers, as it is to all Australians because we have heard of people like Mitchell and Sturt, and read their quotes, our whole lives. But until now we were never told these writings included detailed descriptions, even drawings, of Aboriginal houses, crops, cemetaries, and large scale permanent fishing and and farming enterprises. Bookgroupers felt it was embarrassing and extraordinary that we didn’t know about any of this.

The book is very short and easy to read, which is a good thing, but in my case I found it a bit frustrating. Its argument is so convincing and so important i would have liked a lot more. Often it refers to other books and academic parers, just giving the reference and saying, ‘it reported this or that..’ but i often wanted the detail because i was so interested. However, I have to acknowledge the book is fully referenced, like an academic article, so i can go and look up all the references if i want to.

The first chapter deals with agriculture. Like the rest of the book, its full of quotes from the explorers. What these quotes clearly demonstrate is that Aboriginal people in a large part of Australia (a map of this region is provided on page 63) cultivated grain for processing, manufacturing and storage, while in other regions they cultivated various root crops generically called yams.

One of the quotes about grain crops is from Major Mitchell (p39)

the seed is made by the natives into a kind of paste or bread. Dry heaps of this grass, that has been pulled expressly for this purpose of gathering the seed, lay along our path for many miles. I counted nine miles along the river, in which we rode through this grass only, reaching to our saddle-girths, and the same grass seemed to grow back from the river, at least as far as the eye could reach through a very open forest, 

One of the quotes about yams is from George Grey in Western Australia in 1839

We now crossed the dry bed of a stream, and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil quite overrun with warran plants [the yam plant, Dioscorea hastifolia], the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. This was the first time we had seen this plant on our journey and now for three and a half consecutive miles [5.6 kilometres] traversed a piece of land, literally perforated with holes the natives made to dig this root; indeed we could with difficulty walk across it on that account whilst the tract extended east and west as far as we could see.

A key point to make about this chapter is the difference between it and what we have heard from other previous authors about Aboriginal land management. Tim Flannery talked about firestick farming in ‘the future eaters’ and Bill Gammage got a lot of press for the ‘the biggest estate on earth’ which made a similar argument to Flannery. That argument is referred to in this book and summed up with a quote it uses from Gammage saying ‘people farmed in 1788 but were not farmers’.

In my view though the quotes above, which are just a fraction of those in the book, seem to show that such a distinction is worthless. Whether you call them farmers or not, it seems clear that these people were doing agriculture, and that is not what we have been told.

The next few chapters of the book move on to what archaeologists call material culture – the stuff people make.

Remarkably, for those of us that grew up being told Aboriginal people did not build anything or live in one place, one of these chapters deals with housing. Two quotes from Major Mitchell illustrate its point in relation to housing

some huts… being large, circular; and made of straight rods meeting at an upright pole in the centre; the outside had first been covered with bark and grass, and the entirety coated over with clay. The fire appeared to have been made nearly in the centre; and a hole at the top had been left as a chimney.14

In crossing one hollow we passed among the huts of a native tribe. They were tastefully distributed amongst drooping acacias and casuarinae; some resembled bowers under yellow fragrant mimosae; some were isolated under the deeper shades of casuarinae; while others were placed more socially, three or four together, fronting to one and the same hearth. Each hut was semicircular, or circular, the roof conical, and from one side a flat roof stood forward like a portico, supported by two sticks. Most of them were close to the trunk of a tree, and they were covered, not as in many other parts, by sheets of bark, but with a variety of materials, such as reeds, grass and boughs. The interior of each looked clean, and to us passing in the rain, gave some idea, not only of shelter, but even of comfort and happiness. They afforded a favourable specimen of the taste of the gins, whose business it is to construct the huts.141page 83

Another quote talks about stone houses big enough and strong enough to ride a horse over, which sounds extraordinary – and a little dangerous.

The book includes a lot of examples of material manufacture other than housing such as fish traps, wells, irrigation systems for harvesting water, and battues for harvesting wildlife, and food storage such as granaries.

Page 84 talks about the remains of a battue in Euroa in Victoria

This particular drive brought kangaroos from a huge flat area to the foot of the range and then shuted them into a series of holding pens where narrow apertures could direct animals designated for slaughter one way and those to be released in another.

The stone works and nearby housing associated with these drives represents an incredible labour investment and a move towards sedentism comparable to that represented by the fish traps at Lake Condah and Brewarrina. Sites such as these are begging for further investigation.

And on page 87 another quote from Mitchell talks about fishing nets

the net, which, even in quality, as well as the mode of the knotting, can scarcely be distinguished from those made in Europe

The final three chapters move on to what these observations mean. The discussion covers two issues:

  • what it says about white society that these observations have been ignored; and
  • what these observations say about the nature of pre-colonial Australian society.

On the first issue the book makes a number of hugely important points. Firstly it says we need to rewrite our history (p144)

the observations of the first explorers and settlers provides an enormous body of material. In this book I am drawing on only a small sample of what is available to any Australian with a computer mouse or a library card. The reason I have provided so many examples, however, is to emphasise the depth of the available material and the desperate need for a revision of our history.

As a natural resources person i think it also means we need to rewrite our science because it means the landscape we are seeing is not ‘nature’ its a farm. It reinforces the point Tim Flannery made 20 years ago that the idea of ‘wilderness’ is nonsense. This book reinforces the message. There has been no wilderness here for 60,000 years

Most importantly though, as the last chapter points out, we need to admit the obvious reason why the writers of white Australian history have wilfully ignored these specific passages of texts that they have analysed and reanalysed. All over the world colonisers have found it to be in their interests to present the people and the places they colonise as ‘primitive’. Its the ‘warping of history and archaeology…to justify extermination..’ (p348) and dispossession. That is what has gone on here. Its obvious and we need to admit it.

To his great credit Pascoe also acknowledges that an additional reason that we have not heard more of Aboriginal agriculture and material culture (beyond racism, colonialism, war and dispossession) maybe that it was women doing the agriculture and the building. All Pascoe’s quotes have the explorers saying it was the women building the houses, harvesting the grain and digging the yams.

I think he could have been much stronger on this point, but he does cite someone writing on a similar situation in North America and says

One of the further impediments to the revelation of this aspect ,,,was that the gardens were constructed and farmed by women and children — and such knowledge was never revealed to male archaeologists. Even after the engineering of the gardens had been examined by independent scientists, there was enormous reluctance to accept the results

On the second issue, of what these observations say about pre-colonial Australia, the book does get a little romantic at times, but less so than i expected. On page 144 he even anticipates the romanticism problem I was worried about

You can read other theories of Aboriginal culture, spirituality and economy in New Age texts or the books of over-enthusiastic researchers, but often they are making guesses to bridge the gaps in knowledge. Too often they ascribe all sorts of mystical wisdom to their subjects but their earnest romanticism is unnecessary

True to his word he does largely avoid it although not entirely. For example there is a lengthy quote from Bill Stanner on page 283 that paints pre-colonial life in utopian terms.

However he absolutely nails the key message and the key way forward – that is -what do these revelations mean for post-colonial Australia?

Restoring Aboriginal pride in the past and allowing that past to inform the future will remove the yoke of despair from Aboriginal people. Despair is reinforced every day an Aboriginal person has to argue for her pride in the past, for his determination to honour the achievements of the ancestors

In case you think my take on the book might be idiosyncratic. this blog compiles a lot of reviews of the book in the one place, and the quote below which echoes my view is from here

Dark Emu argues for a reconsideration of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession. Accomplished author Bruce Pascoe provides compelling evidence from the diaries of early explorers that suggests that systems of food production and land management have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history, and that a new look at Australia’s past is required.

As book grouper Trish put it – In addition to saying sorry we need to say thank you.


April 26, 2016 at 11:43 am Leave a comment


house of grief

Helen Garner is one of the most respected literary figures in Australia, mostly because she writes books like this one. Very precisely written and minutely observed books, about very unpleasant situations, that draw out all kinds of extreme emotional responses from onlookers.

Based on this book it seems her purpose in doing this is to make us question those responses, and look at them from multiple points of view. What she seems to want us to understand is the diversity of human experience, that none of us can really know how we will behave in any given situation until it happens.

For that purpose her target in this case is well chosen. It is a murder trial that was big news for many years in Australia. A father was accused of murdering his three young boys by driving his car into a dam and drowning them. One of the more appalling things a human could be accused of doing, and an act that elicits strong emotional reactions.

Garner chose to sit through every moment of months and months of trials and appeals over several years. The book reports her observations of the participants and onlookers throughout this process, particularly her observations of herself.

In this process she makes you think about what it means to be a man and a father, what really is a ‘good’ life or relationship, and what should we be prepared to do to get them, or keep them, and how to respond when we lose them.

It’s magnificently written in a technical sense. The sentences are perfectly structured and punctuated. Their meaning is almost never in doubt, despite the complexity of the emotions she is trying to communicate. If you want to learn how to write clearly for professional purposes, you could do worse than copy her style.

Despite the worthiness of the project and its execution, for me it wasn’t worth my while to finish it. I read about a 100 pages then flicked to the end, to make sure the court verdict was as expected. To me it’s not news to learn that perfectly normal people, mostly men, sometimes do perfectly evil things, even in perfectly banal situations. Life is complicated and people can be strange. I didn’t feel I needed to read a whole book, a whole harrowing book, to confirm that.

However bookgroupers felt differently. They were very engaged by the book. They were particularly fascinated by the detail she gave of the court process, how expensive it is, and how difficult it is for the witnesses, even in what seemed like a rather open and shut case. I think Garner would be happy with this reaction as the book title refers to the court system, not the family in the story as you might assume. Bookgroupers were also very impressed by the way she brought all the various participants into the story, and reported on their reactions and feelings.

I agree the book is a spectacular display of empathy. She really makes an effort to take the reader inside the heads of the people involved: the mother; the barristers; the investigating police; the jurors; the grandparents; the accused; and even the journalists such as herself covering the trial. At times she does this with insightful flair like when she describes the effect of the testimony of mother’s lover on the jury, and the watching audience, saying ‘he had that certain glamour that hangs around Australian tradies’.

In conclusion I’d say this is a book for people fascinated with the psychology of crime. If you really want to know why people kill. If you can’t get enough of crime dramas that take you into the world of the accused, the victims, and the justice system this is probably for you. It could be described as a literary equivalent of high quality crime docu-drama, but that would miss a central core of the book, which is garner’s eye-witness account of proceedings. To make the analogy complete you would have to imagine such a docu-drama with a narration by the film maker, describing their feelings and impressions as the footage unfolds.

It’s difficult material, but covered from every angle and so precisely written you feel like you are watching it rather than reading about it.

August 4, 2015 at 8:22 am Leave a comment



forgotten war This is perhaps the most important book one can read as an Australian.

The subject of the frontier conflict between the white colonists and the Aboriginal nations of Australia is directly relevant to the life chances afforded their descendants. So much so that it is probably necessary for those Australians, people like me, to make a declaration of interest prior to commencing any comment.

I am from northern NSW. My ancestors mostly came from England and Ireland, mostly arriving in Sydney and Newcastle in the 1840s and 50s. Both sides of the family then arrived in the north of NSW in the first two decades of the 20th century. One side as small business operators in what was then a small coastal country town, and the other as wannabe farmers.

I have often wondered what interaction they had with the local Aboriginal people. Based on the timetables outlined in this book it seems likely that they arrived several decades after the Frontier War in that region. They were mostly therefore direct beneficiaries of the war, because their businesses were based on property acquired from it, though perhaps not direct participants.

The exceptions are the families of my paternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather.

My grandmother’s family were in far west NSW in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Perhaps this means they were present at the frontier, and may have had knowledge of it or been involved in it. She seems to have left that area as a young woman, and with nothing in the way of assets, so perhaps it can be said that she and her descendants did not benefit financially.

The family of my grandfather’s mother were on the far south coast of NSW from somewhere in the 1850s onwards. So again, they may have been present towards the end of the Frontier War, and may have had knowledge of it or been involved in it. However, in their case they were farmers, so whether they were involved or not, they were direct beneficiaries. Therefore, it could be the case that the benefits that the family gained from the frontier improved the life chances of my great grandmother and her sisters, and this my have somehow in one or more indirect ways benefitted my grandfather, my mother and me in turn.

And so to the book.

Reynolds begins by reminding us of the history wars that raged in the Australian media in the 90s and 2000s. He observes that during this time all sides of the debate, which was about how to talk about the colonisation of Australia, agreed on the importance of reconciliation, but none of them said what we needed to be reconciled to. It is hard to disagree with him. It does seem strange that we were silent on why there was a need for reconciliation even though we were happy to agree there was a need.

After this he returns to the familiar ground of the history wars in order to settle the key issue that was disputed at that time – what should we call the violence that occurred on the Australian frontier. Inside the first 50-60 pages he provides so many direct quotes from the highest British and colonial officials possible, one governor after another, that any doubt about whether the colonists thought they were at war is removed.  I had expected Reynolds tot go through the massacres one by one or detail deaths region by region, perhaps because this has been done elsewhere, so much so that it can now be accessed on wikipedia.

It’s clear they considered it a war. One that was unfortunate, but necessary in their view to bring violence to a swift end rather than prolong it. The governors also supported this view with all the legal, military, political and logistical measures they could manage at the far end of the empire.

The result was the Aboriginal peoples resisted occupation violently, as any people would, but we’re defeated by a more numerous, better armed, and better organized opponent.

From a white perspective I think it’s hard, though disturbing, not to conclude this approach was a huge success. It allowed waves of migrants to fill the nation up and exploit it’s resources, in the very effective way that capitalism does. They built a modern successful multi-cultural nation. If not the best in the world, very close to it.

However all that came after the Frontier War, and relied on perhaps Reynolds chief target in book. It relied on forgetting. It relied on a nation’s worth of energetic optimistic migrants, in search of a better life, to fill the place up with their energy, dreams and desires. An easier task if property is handed to you as sole vacant possession, rather than as tenants in common with people traumatized by decades of officially sanctioned violence. Violence sanctioned by the same institutions, if not the same people, now encouraging migrants to make the most of this large, and supposedly empty, land of opportunity.

From this perspective the logic of what Reynolds calls a national cult of forgetting is compelling. He draws attention to many examples of the effect of this cult. The one he seems particularly upset about is the Australian War Memorial. For example, he points out that the War Memorial is is recording the name of every known person who died during a time of war since 1885, regardless of the location of the death, or whether it was from combat, accident or disease (p45). This means Aboriginal and Islander families are encouraged to remember those who fought for the British Empire but expected to forget those who fought against it, in defence of their own land (p46).

Towards the end of the book he returns to the issue of commemoration. He spends a lot of time on it, which I initially found frustrating, but ultimately found rewarding, so I will also return to that issue at the end of this piece.

Most of the book from Chapter 3 onwards can be seen as a way of explaining to us – denizens of the cosmopolitan 21st century – what the Frontier War was like for the people involved, white and black, and how and why they could have done what they did.

He first tackles this challenge by using quotes from sources written at the time describing the state of mind of whites on the frontier. They seem to be as you might imagine people today in Gaza or Syria – constantly stressed  and in fear of their lives; never sure if or when attacks might come. As a result they fight back with overwhelming force – a reaction common in present day conflict zones, from the better armed side.

A question Reynolds does not really address was ‘why stay?’. If it was so dangerous why did they persist. They were the invaders why not go back? Particularly those who had brought wives and families – why not send them back? This makes you think they thought victory was certain, and it would be swift, they just needed to get through it. Alternatively perhaps where they came from was just as bad?

Apart from this issue, I found this first account of the frontier quite satisfying.

However Reynolds goes on to give an alternative. In this one, also based on quotes from officials of the time, the blacks or savages as they called them, were seen as having a “wanton and savage spirit’, that was ‘impelling them to mischief and cruelty’ (p102).

As Reynolds points out this is consistent with global colonial attitudes at the time and got reinforced throughout the 19th century by the rise of ‘scientific racism ‘.

I was pleased to see on page 167 that he also acknowledges ‘they were fully conscious of the fact they were invaders, and proud of it, believing they were participants in a crusade that was thrusting outwards the borders both of the Empire and of civilisation’.

As a young man I had always thought the British Empire was a massive exercise of arrogant acquisitive racism.  However when I went to Westminster Cathedral it became clear that at one level people of the day did think it was the right thing to do, because it was spreading god and ‘civilization’. Obviously this is a convenient self justification from our modern perspective, but to them it probably was real at some level. This really fits into the second version of the story that Reynolds tells about the people of the times – they saw the Frontier War as an unfortunate but necessary evil.

In chapter 5 he introduces a third version of the story. In this legal interpretation of events the key turning point is British claims in the earliest days of the colony that the continent was unoccupied. This resulted in the continent as a whole being claimed as property of the Crown, and meant the process of settlement proceeded in a different way from other colonies in the Empire where purchases and negotiations took place along with wars and killing.

The difficulty for modern Australians, which Reynolds points out on page 135, is that we no longer have this ‘armory of ideas that protected colonial Australians from irritating introspection’ the ‘whispering in our hearts’. Science has declared ‘scientific racism’ dead, god and the empire are dead, and the courts have declared terra nullius dead.

The interpretation of the Frontier War story that Reynolds does not tell, understandably I think given how much controversy he went through during the history wars, is one that I think is true everywhere in history and around the world. It is that in times times of war and lawlessness a certain type of men (it is always men) often become prominent and take control. The situation that I’m most familiar with was Northern Ireland towards the end of the troubles, as that conflict was called.

At that time people in Northern Ireland commonly described the paramilitary on both sides as gangsters, rather than as politicians. They used to describe it to me as a self-perpetuating wave of crime, where the para-militaries on both sides were effectively running protection rackets for the money.

It’s easy to imagine that in the Australian frontier environment that Reynolds describes its men such as these gangsters that would have flourished, perhaps with the tacit approval of more respectable folks back in the city. Once they had done their work they moved further out to the next frontier and the more respectable types took over, and they could reasonably claim they did not take part in or know a lot about what happened.

Towards the end of the book Reynolds spends a lot of time on what seems to be a semantic debate about whether the frontier violence was war, and on complaining about the War Memorial not commemorating it. I initially thought this was sidetracking, a diversion from the key issue as I see it – the killing, acknowledging what actually happened, not what you call it or how you commemorate it.

However on page 235 he makes the case that over the last 20 years the Australian Government has funded a campaign to memorialize overseas wars that ‘is designed to replace two other versions of history while appearing to be innocent crusade of remembrance”.

The older of the two alternative stories he is referring to is the bush workers, and the other one is the so called black arm band view of history. It is easy to see the political importance to the conservative side of Australian politics, which has been in power almost throughout that time, of refuting both these views. So In the end I was persuaded that this discussion was useful not just semantic.

However what was even more persuasive, and important, for me was the last few pages of book. In these pages he gives us a vision of two sides fighting for all the grand things that men (to the cost of women) have always fought for – freedom, nationhood, land, resources, a future, and family. Clearly the Aboriginal fighters had a noble cause, defending their nations, and the whites were invaders stealing the livelihood of those nations for their own benefit. But like all wars Reynolds points out that it is also possible to see a more complicated picture. No doubt there would have been some cruelty on the Aboriginal side – innocent whites killed and maimed. Likewise some nobility on the white side – those who sought to reduce the violence, those who, however wrongly, thought they were bringing civilisation, and those trying to escape violence and poverty where they came from.

In many ways it’s an actual real world for example of exactly what is so often portrayed, and glorified, in popular entertainment like Game of Thrones, or Lord of the Rings. A complicated mix of good and evil characters on both sides fighting for enormous stakes – in this case a whole continent. Some of these characters are fighting for the survival of their family, history, culture and nation; some for money; some for power; and some just because they like fighting.

And so what next? It seems clear there was a consensus on killing in the 19th century, among the ruling class at least, and that there has been a consensus on forgetting in the 20th. What should the next consensus be?

Strangely perhaps Reynolds points to his key target, the Australian War Memorial, for a way forward.  He points out that its two key slogans are equally, if not more so, relevant to the Frontier War than the overseas wars to which they refer.

The first slogan is ‘lest we forget’. It is perfectly appropriate for the Frontier War. The second is “here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they love, and here we guard the record which they themselves made’. It is hard to think of a better line with which to commemorate the black dead of the Frontier War.

September 2, 2014 at 7:39 am 1 comment

DIal m for Murdoch by Tom Watson

‘dial m for murdoch’ provides all the detail about the phone hacking scandal. it is written by one of the victims who pursued the perpetrators. it was published before the Leveson inquiry concluded, and to me it is a depressing confirmation of the overwhelming influence that power and money can have on societies such as ours.

The book however has a much happier, even celebratory tone. It gives you the impression that at the time of publication, Tom Watson the co-author in whose voice the book is written, felt vindicated. After years of cover ups, you get the impression he feels Rebekah Brooks et al will get their come-uppence.

Unfortunately I was reading it at the time Leveson published his recommendations. Their weakness seemed eerily predictable based on the history of cover ups and cop outs that characterise the previous inquiries documented in the book.

For readers that want to believe in democracy, that never wanted to buy the Marxist take on the power of capital, or that want to believe the press is an important foundational pillar of a free society, the book is devastating.

For readers that believe there is a need for a strong bureaucracy and independent regulators, including of the press, the book is further confirmation of both the need for these institutions and the reasons why they dont exist.

Strong civil society institutions don’t suit the rich and powerful or the politicians that live off them.

A big question raised by the book for readers outside the UK is why have there been no reports of similar behaviour by the press in other countries. The Murdoch press is huge in other countries, as it is in the UK, and presumably is under the same pressures of circulation and profit.

Have there been no reports in other places because it doesn’t happen or because it hasn’t been discovered? If it doesn’t happen is it because of regulation or the ethics of the press? Both are non-existent so neither is a good explanation. Perhaps it’s more likely to be to do with the way mobile voicemail works in the uk – it may be easier to break into than elsewhere.

Whatever the case, this question does give us an antidote to the depression causing poison offered by the book. it offers some hope that despite the gutter press, the power of money, and the do anything to win attitude of politicians, this situation is not inevitable. The fact it hasn’t emerged elsewhere suggests its a choice individuals made, sanctioned by their organisation, in the UK whereas similar individuals, in similar situations in similar organisations, have not made that choice elsewhere.

That can be read as a message of hope.

December 30, 2012 at 5:58 am Leave a comment


bookgroup decided to do the happiest refugee by anh do because it was looking for something funny and every report i heard from people said this was the book – the comments by readers attached to this review were typical of what i’d heard. their rating of the book is off the scale as you can see

the book is also very timely in that it tells the story of an asylum seeker coming bere by boat, and becoming a successful well loved australian. not only does it tell that story but it has become a very popular book and seems to have received nothing but praise. this review is yet another example. given current political attitudes that seems surprising

the story is amazing – i thought he was a comedian but he has a commerce/law degree as well, and it seems his brother and sister have also done well. its a great tribute to them but also to the way this country used to treat boat people, which makes it even more puzzling as to why we dont do the same now

so with all this build up and expectation did the book deliver for bookgroupers? – well i think you can guess the answer

October 7, 2012 at 7:09 am Leave a comment


other colors by renowned turkish author Orhan Pamuk is a collection of essays from the last 3 decades encompassing the history and politics of istanbul as seen through the eyes of the city’s most famous writer

Winner of the 2006 nobel prize, pamuk reveals himself in these essays to be extremely well read, obsevant and reflective, as you might expect for a nobel winning author, but also very hard working and perhaps obsessive.

One dissappointment of the book is that being non-fiction i dont think you get exposure to his full capacities as a writer. only occasionally, as on page 25 where he says ‘The inside of the refrigerator is as bright and crowded as the boulevard of a distant happy city’, do you get a real feel for his creativity.

However, there are lots of consolations, for example he talks with great sensitivity about relationships, about istanbul, in particular its ferries, and about reading.

Its this last one, where he is at his best. he is able to discuss the task of reading in general, and the experience of reading specific books or authors very articulately. so much so the middle third of the book is really literature 101, or a cheats guide to being well read, because you can read these chapters so you dont have to read the classics he discusses.

a good example is his discussion of tolstoy. as with several of the other authors he discusses, he describes for the reader how he reacted to tolstoy as a young man, middle aged and slightly older. how he has the time to read everything three times one can only guess. very interestingly for Australians he sees the connection between himself and tolstoy as being people outside europe, familiar with european literature and traditions, looking at europe and their own culture and trying determine something about their identity and the way forward.

For bookgrouper peter this was pamuk’s discussion of a big contemporary issue – authenticity. Is pamuk an authentic turkish voice or is he ‘too’ european, is he an authentic european or ‘too’ turkish? These are familiar questions for australians and the answers as always are complicated, nuanced, combinations of yes and no. i get the feeling pamuk ended up where a lot of australians end up. We are not sure why but we know when we go to europe, or other countries in asia, or america, or anywhere else that we are not european, etc, we are from here but with varying degrees of influence from europe, asia and america depending how much, as individuals, we’ve read, travelled etc from and in those places.

Some other issues the book sheds light on, particularly its stories from his childhood, include

– turkeys bid for eu membership, both why they want it and don’t want it
– the long tail of empires, in that the islands of Istanbul were used by the ottomans, the Brits and more recently the westernised turkish middle class, and bear the imprint of all those groups

finally pamuk it seems is an interesting, if somewhat obsessive guy. for example he has turned one of his novels, the ‘museum of innocence’ into a real museum, which is a pretty strange but impressive achievement

October 6, 2012 at 7:34 am Leave a comment


Taliban by James Ferguson was well received by bookgroupers. Its a detailed eye-witness account of the last 20 years in Afghanistan. It provides a lot of much needed history for all those news stories we have been hearing and watching for years.

For example, the book gives a great account, in detail of the role of Pakistan and its ISI, which you dont hear a lot about. In particular, how one of pakistan interests in afghanistan is the keep out india and indian culture.

Bookgroupers really appreciated the insights offered about Afghan culture, and geography. In particular though, they appreciated the personal stories of many of the key players, the war lords and Taliban leaders. Fergusson has met many of them, several times, and he gives the reader not only his view on the situation but the views of these warlords and Taliban leaders.

Bookgroupers also appreciated the point Fergusson was trying to make which in the end was pretty simple – we are not helping so we should get out. Which is quite a compelling argument given the cost in both lives and dollars that the current approach is costing.

Bookgroupers also commented on the style. It is easy to read jounalism, so even though its unpleasant subject matter, and a fairly lengthy book, most bookgroupers did not find it hard to get though.

Unfortunately for me I was the exception to this nearly universal positive response. I can agree with all of the above views but in addition, for me it pushed some buttons that made me quite angry most of the time I was reading it.

My problem was that he kept trying to play down the abuses of the Taliban. I felt it was outrageous to justify their abuse of women on cultural grounds (p61-62). To me it was like justifying the Nazis by referring to the tradition of anti-semitism and pogroms throughout Europe in the preceding centuries.

I admit I’m sensitive to this sort of writing because it is typical of the press of recent years. The book was a laundry list of scandalous outrages practiced by all sides. Unfortunately though, if the Taliban did them the author dismissed it on the grounds of culture and or religion, whereas if anyone else did them the perpetrators were, rightly, morally condemned.

So for me, but not the other bookgroupers, it was just a ridiculous exercise in the worst kind of culturally relativism. The classic example was on page 300. In relation to Hekmatyar (a non-Taliban warlord who did appalling things in the past and now, but despite this is part of the Karzai government) Fergusson says ‘I have my doubts such a fierce leopard can change its spots’. Whereas, on page 267 he is happy with the suggestion made by a so-called taliban moderate that a Taliban returned to government would be a ‘domesticated cat compared to a tiger’ as it was before.

Other examples of this relentless double standard include when he describes the casual disregard for human life of a Taliban commander in Chak, Abdullah, as ‘joie de guerre’ (joy in war), as childish and as religious zeal. In contrast, similar killings by americans and other non-taliban are all murders and outrageous and requiring investigation.

Similarly, vote buying by Karzai’s men is outrageous corruption, whereas intimidating voters and blowing up helicopters full of voting papers, when done by the Taliban is not commented on. Rather, the resulting non-vote in that region is taken as an illustration of popular support for the Taliban.

Another example of the double standard comes at the end of the book where he quotes the number of civilian dead, but he does not say how many by Taliban and how many by Americans, just implies its the American’s fault.

However, my main frustration with the book was that the point it wants to make is right, but ninety percent of the book is unrelated to that point. Yes the west should leave Afghanistan, but not because the Taliban are ok – which is what he spends 90% of his time asserting – because nothing is being achieved.

The book clearly shows the culture there, Pastunwali as he calls it, won’t allow anything sensible to be achieved because of the misogyny, the lack of education, the violence, the corruption. The culture needs to change before any help might usefully be offered. Therefore the only useful things the west can do is support initiatives that promote cultural change such as media and education.

And finally after hundreds of pages of complaining about the Americans not being willing to talk to the Taliban he says the Taliban won’t talk to the Americans. If that is true – what was the point of the book?

February 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm Leave a comment

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