November 2008 Archives

Crime and punishment

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I'm not quite done with Robert Hughes's excellent history of The System, otherwise known as the settlement of a continent with petty criminals, but since I'm actually going to Australia in a week (!), and I can see the writing on the wall as far as things getting crazier before I leave, I wanted to be sure to sneak in a blog entry now. More specifically, I wanted to recommend this book highly; despite the often brutal facts of the case, I have seldom enjoyed a history more.

Hughes's writing is clear and evocative, which is, I think, the primary reason I so enjoyed his book. I read a good amount of biography and popular history, but dislike the current trend toward "nonfiction" that is actually a novel masquerading as fact (The Devil in the White City, I'm looking at you!). Nothing against historical fiction, but I really feel that there is a marketing niche in book publishing right now that's trying to have its cake and eat it too: capitalize on the growing popularity of nonfiction by almost marketing certain novels as true fact. Which seems kind of scummy to me personally. The Fatal Shore, on the other hand, is as readable and welcoming as a novel, without the addition of fictional characters or subtly fantasist alternative realities. (Again, nothing against subtly alternative realities; I just dislike becoming embroiled in asinine debates with the people who read these historical novels as straight history, and start spouting off the "facts" they learned from them.)

ANYway, Hughes's prose is crisp and readable, and he has a fantastic story to tell. The Fatal Shore is not a novel, but it consistently evokes times, places and situations that make me want to read (or even write!) fiction set in early colonial Australia. He has a fine eye for detail, and uses primary sources to great advantage. I find that biography and history sometimes struggle with the constant transition between covering broad trends and including enough specific detail to keep things interesting, but Hughes has the technique down. Witness his description of the arrival in Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) of the mediocre early Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Davey:

"The two men hated one another on sight. Davey thought Macquerie a Scottish prig; and Macquerie considered his new lieutenant-governor a wastrel and a drunk, who manifested 'an extraordinary degree of frivolity and low buffoonery in his manners.' "So he did. Davey marked his arrival in Hobart Town in February 1813 by lurching to the ship's gangway, casting an owlish look at his new domain and emptying a bottle of port over his wife's hat. He then took off his coat, remarking that the place was as hot as Hades, and marched uphill to Government House in his shirtsleeves. Nicknamed 'Mad Tom' by the settlers, he would later make it his custom to broach a keg of rum outside Government House on royal birthdays and ladle it out to the passerby."

As well as enjoying the hilarious image of port being emptied over Davey's wife's hat, I love how this short passage communicates vividly and succinctly so much about the dueling characters of the two colonial administrators. Also, "low buffoonery"? Definitely going in my arsenal of excellent old-timey put-downs.

Hughes's talent for choosing just the right detail to resonate and amaze is spot-on. Describing the widespread myth among early Irish convicts in Australia that there existed an overland route to China, and the tragic escape attempts that resulted, he notes that "Since none of them had a compass (and few possessed any idea of how to use it even if they had had one), they went out armed with a magical facsimile consisting of a circle crudely sketched on paper or bark with the cardinal points but no needle." What could more forcibly communicate the pathetic desperation of these people, uprooted from everything familiar and dumped into a foreign and hostile environment?

Likewise, when Hughes is describing what passed for "education" at the boys' jail at Point Puer in Van Diemen's Land, where children were put through perfunctory scholastic and religious paces after a twelve- or fourteen-hour day of hard labor, he relates that "a few of the boys could parrot bits of an Anglican catechism, but none could recite the Commandments in correct order or show much grasp of scriptural history. Even their hymn-singing had declined, to the point that 'the screaming is almost intolerable to any person whose ears have not been rendered callous.'" The image of the exhausted, damp and caterwauling boys, often transported for trifles like "stealing two pairs of stockings," is both chilling and touching. Also chilling is this passage about the children of soldiers and free settlers, who

"played flogging games and judgment games as freely as their descendents would play bushrangers. 'I have observed children playing,' wrote one colonial observer in 1850, 'at the Botany Bay game of Courts and Petty Sessions, and noted the cruel sentences which were uniformly passed on those who were doomed to be 'damned,' and the favour and partiality which was extended to others! Justice appeared never to be thought of: - the gratification of a licentious and an unlimited Power being all they sought."

Although I'm not one to idealize the innocence of children, this paragraph certainly gives a clear view of the dark side of culture-formation.

And there is plenty of dark stuff in The Fatal Shore, from sadistic prison wardens to snobbish would-be-aristocrats, to prisoners whose flesh was crawling with maggots while they were still alive. Yes, there's even a vivid first-person account of cannibalism. The most difficult chapters for me to read, though, were those dealing with the plight of women and Aborigines, and with the role of homosexuality in the colony.

This book comes right on the heels, for me, of James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, and there were some depressing similarities between the two histories, despite an entire hemisphere's separation. The insane sense of entitlement felt and exercised by the European colonists; the gradual (or not-so-gradual) descent into a cycle of violence; the issuance of self-righteous tracts setting down legal boundaries, which the native people are unable to read as they are available solely in English: it all rings unpleasantly familiar in the ears of a United States citizen.

Perhaps the most confusing and circular part of European/Native relations in both America and Australia, is Europeans' fixation on a settled, capitalist existence as the only kind of life they were willing to acknowledge as legitimate. On both continents, the colonists assumed that nomadic peoples were "wasting" the land, that their movable lifestyle obliterated any claim they may have had to it - a tragedy of epic proportions, considering that connection to the land was usually much more integral to the native peoples' sense of self than it ever was to Europeans. Equally galling to the European interlopers was the lack of a fiat money system among native peoples, which the Europeans, tellingly, took as a sign of godlessness and dissipation. This is especially ironic in Australia, which was being settled in the first place because England had come to so fetishize Property that people were sentenced to death for offenses like "poaching a rabbit," "stealing a length of ribbon," or "cutting down an ornamental shrub." As a newborn infant could have predicted, this led to SO MANY death sentences that most of them had to be commuted, hence the waves of convicts and their attendant administrators, eager to convert the natives to their own property-loving way of life. In Tasmania, as in the American south-east, native people were herded into what were essentially concentration camps, where "they were shown how to buy and sell things, so that they might acquire a reverence for property." Awesome idea, guys! And those were the progressive settlers; most just wanted to kill as many natives as possible.

The chapters on treatment of women was also horrifying. Much of it, such as the passage describing how the new female convicts were sold at the country store, were grotesque parodies of still-familiar attitudes:

"The same woman might be sold several times during her Norfolk Island sentence, with Potter 'in most cases reselling them for a gallon or two of rum until they were in such a Condition as to be of little or no further use.' The sales would be held in an old store where the women had to strip naked and 'race around the room' while Potter kept up a running commentary on their 'respective values.'"

Female convicts were essentially the slaves of slaves, but the most infuriating part from an intellectual perspective is that they were looked down on as "prostitutes" as a result. Even female convicts who were never sold and re-sold on Norfolk Island, even those who had long-term, loving relationships, were viewed as whores by the self-styled "respectable" colonists:

As the historian Michael Sturma points out, the idea that the convicts shared the same ideas about sexual behavior as their superiors is very dubious: 'Working-class mores [in England] differed markedly from those of upper and middle classes...[A]mong the British working-class, cohabitation was prevalent. It is highly unlikely that working-class men, and in particular male convicts, considered the women convicts to be in some way sexually immoral...The stereotype of women convicts as prostitutes emerged ignorance of working-class habits.'"

Huh, how eerily familiar. It's disturbing how difficult it is to perceive, let alone acknowledge, value systems that differ from our own. It's also interesting - and problematic - to me, how few modern people know about the widespread acceptance of cohabitation among the Victorian working classes. The Victorian era is so often seen as the epitome of prudishness and ramrod respectability, wherein premarital sex is the Ultimate Evil that can befall a virtuous young woman, and while there was certainly truth to the stereotype, it's also important to remember that there were other realities as well.

If the way that misogyny played out in early Australia was tiresomely predictable, the role of homosexuality was much more complex, and tricky for a modern young lefty like myself to digest. Since the vast majority of the convicts were men, and since the jails were gender-segregated, homosexual activity among convicts was prevalent. To the bigwigs back in England, sodomy was "the unimaginable crime," unspeakable and disgusting regardless of the circumstances, so not a lot of effort was expended on distinguishing the pairings that resulted from genuine attachment, in which convicts bestowed the last, most human parts of themselves on loving another person, from those that represented stereotypical prison rape or other coercive power-plays. There's no doubt that both kinds of relationship existed, along everything in between, but to the mainstream English mind all was equally repulsive; in fact, one English reformer who visited Norfolk Island in the 1830's was especially shocked to see the male/male convict relationships which seemed genuine and caring, "parodying" a traditional marriage. As it turns out, the menace of sodomy was a key speaking-point in the movement to abolish the transportation system, as ex-convicts published memoirs about their horror at coercive sex, and the English public shuddered at the idea of any homosex at all.

For the modern mind, all of this is fascinating and difficult to parse - particularly when Hughes goes on to discuss how the perception of rampant sodomy among convicts contributed to the virulent homophobia of post-transportation Australians, who wanted to purge their society of "the convict stain." Anything suggestive of convictry was to be energetically suppressed, including homosexuality. In some cases, this homophobic urge was maintained after all consciousness of a convict past had been forgotten. If nothing else, reading this section was a good reminder that the "progressive" values of one age are often couched so differently as to be unrecognizable next to those of two hundred years later.

I seldom stopped underlining and note-taking throughout my reading of The Fatal Shore, and I could go on and on. However! Packing, list-making, and pattern-sizing await. Suffice to say, it was a very evocative and thought-provoking read, and one I highly recommend. Anyone with a passing interest in colonial, English or Australian history, gender studies or penal history would be well-advised to give it a look.

Bad reviews


The latest Booking Through Thursday prompt happens also to be a subject close to my heart: bad book reviews, and whether to give them. The original question goes like this:

I receive a lot of review books, but I have never once told lies about the book just because I got a free copy of it. However, some authors seem to feel that if they send you a copy of their book for free, you should give it a positive review.

Do you think reviewers are obligated to put up a good review of a book, even if they don't like it? Have we come to a point where reviewers *need* to put up disclaimers to (hopefully) save themselves from being harassed by unhappy authors who get negative reviews?

This question sums up the reason I could never be a professional book reviewer: I find bad reviews to be largely pointless, and while I am writing one, I feel like my time would be better employed flushing diamond brooches down the toilet, lying comatose in a gutter, or counting legumes in a peanut butter factory.

Which is not to say that I'm for good reviews of bad books. I just don't want to read bad books in the first place, let alone spend time writing about them afterward. When I'm writing about a book I love, I feel exhilarated. The effort to pinpoint the exact confluence of elements that made the work so special forces me to think more deeply, experience the book more fully, and cement favorite parts of it in my mind. If the thought behind the volume is mediocre, the prose lifeless and the characterization shallow, it is a waste of my time to put in the effort. And I certainly don't want snippets of mediocrity cemented in my brain for all time; I can already recite enough television commercials for that. There are SO MANY amazing books out there. I feel absolutely zero desire to read bad ones just because I could theoretically get them for free.

It's different if we're talking about a good book with which I disagree. When the argument is thoughtful and well-developed, it can be an eye-opening exercise to sift through it, crafting counter-examples and examining my own feelings so that I can articulate why I find the book so wrong-headed or offensive. Likewise, if it's a good but deeply flawed book (well-written but intensely racist, for example, or with an ingeniously structured plot but flat characters), that can serve as a jumping-off point for a stimulating discussion. But most bad books are just...bad. Boring. Mediocre. Stilted. Why would I want to spend my time dwelling on them?

There is a segment of the population that delights in reviews SO bad they are hilarious/transcendent. Dorothy Parker and her band of unhappy snarksters specialized in this genre. Me? I don't particularly enjoy reading it, and I definitely don't want to start writing it. Being funny via tearing down others' work is startlingly easy, I think; much easier, certainly, than crafting something of value independently. During the phases of my life when I've devoted a lot of energy to tearing others down (not thoughtful, constructive criticism but snark), my own creative ability has been hobbled: I can't stop imagining that other people are doing the same to me.

Plus, on the rare occasions when I have spent time reading bad reviews, I'm left with a hollow feeling. "Well!" I think to myself, "that's one fewer book/film/circus I need to witness." But since I had usually not planned to read/watch the spectacle in question anyway, knowing that some reviewer thought it sucked doesn't really add to my life. There is SO MUCH art out there, and I'm not going to get to most of it. Narrowing the field by one work at a time is not a very effective way to find the stuff I like; eliminating one book out of a million still leaves 999,999. Reading a good review, on the other hand, is very efficient: here is a piece of art I might enjoy! I am intrigued; perhaps I'll go check it out. After reading a good review, one that speaks to me, I feel richer, excited to experience something. I get the sense that those ten minutes I devoted to reading the review were not time wasted, but opportunity gained.

So. Not being willing to read or write about bad books, my career as a reviewer of contemporary literature is a non-starter. Being sent an advance copy of a book, I tend to give it a positive review or none at all, which gives me a spotty record over at LibraryThing Early Reviewers. I realize that this is not a practical approach for a professional reviewer, who needs to produce a column on a weekly or monthly basis. Certainly such a person should always give their honest opinion, which often obligates them to produce negative reviews. Luckily, I am not a professional, and can write about books however the heck I want. And right now, what I want to do is to write about an excellent history of early Australian penal colonies; the entry will be coming in the next few days.

Why buy?

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Apparently I'm way into internet-based, book-related games of late, because I just discovered Booking Through Thursday and it seems fun to play along. The question this week is, essentially, what makes you want to buy a book? If you normally buy rather than borrowing from the library, why pay for something you can get for free? And if you normally borrow, what classifies that special book that you add to your permanent collection?

It so happens that this is a subject close to my heart: despite all my efforts at ecology, reuse, minimizing consumption et cetera, when it comes to books, I BUY. Even when David and I were living together in 300 square feet, and books were spilling over every surface and packing every nook and cranny, I still persisted in buying more. According to LibraryThing, we live with just under five hundred volumes, and that's my bare minimum; there have been many books over the years that I sacrificed to space considerations, and which I bitterly regret losing. Just the other night, I was trying to remember that Byron quote that cleverly rhymes "adultery" with "climate's sultry," and discovered when I went to the bookshelves that I apparently got rid of my copy of Don Juan in a fit of rash abandon. Why would I do such a thing? The mind boggles.

Yeah, I know I can look up things like this online. In fact, I did just that, and found that the lines I was thinking of go

"What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,
Is much more common where the climate's sultry."

But that's not the point. For one thing, Googling does not have NEARLY the tactile appeal of taking a volume down from the shelf and paging through it for a remembered line. And what if the lines I was looking for were less famous, or not in the public domain? What if I was trying to remember the exact imagery Ian McEwan uses in that scene with the wet footprint from Atonement, or wanting to relive that crazy warren-of-thieves dénoument from Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans? The internet would be much less useful.

In the case of Don Juan, the lines I was looking for would have been even easier to find because I specifically remember that I marked that couplet for easy future reference. Which is another, more minor reason I buy books: I write in them, which is frowned on by most libraries. But more important than pristine versus besmirched volumes, is the function the marking serves for me: I can take the book off the shelf and easily locate a passage I haven't read for years. If it's eleven at night, and I'm engaged in a passionate conversation with a friend which reminds me of lines from Mary Oliver, I can look up the exact wording. If I'm working on an art project in the middle of the night and I want to incorporate the fantastic closing of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, there it is within easy reach. If I'm mired in a political argument and can't recall the facets of Andrea Tone's points in her chapter about 19th century mail-order contraceptives, I can take it down, page through it to my marks, and read out the passage for which I was looking. Even if I were willing to wait a day or two to check the same book out of the library, it wouldn't have my reference points inscribed on it. My own books are customized reference tools, specially suited to me. Not only that, but we - the books and I - exist in a synergistic feedback loop: I am more likely to remember a passage because I've marked it, and more likely to want to find it again because I remember it.

When I explain this to people, I get a lot of skeptical looks. "But how often do you actually want to refer to something?" they will ask, eyebrows raised. I think some of them go so far as actually to disbelieve me when I answer, "ALL THE TIME." Like, multiple times a week, week after week after week. I'm constantly looking up remembered lines and passages, whether to support a point I'm making, revisit a favorite literary haunt, or find inspiration for a project of my own. Not only that, but just sitting and gazing at my bookshelves, letting my mind free-associate among the titles and plots, often sparks interesting ideas. I sit on the couch facing the wall of books, and think about designing knitwear based on fictional characters, or about compiling my ten favorite love scenes of all time. I conceptualize the shelves as a giant dinner party, with each author a guest, seated next to the person next to them on the shelf: Bulgakov and Bukowski are in their cups, Colette is fast seducing Wilkie Collins, and the conversation between Loren Eisely and Norbert Elias must be fascinating. I'm sure the people sitting around the Foucault/Freud pairing want to stab themselves with their salad forks, but as a hostess, there's only so much I can do.

So, as long as I continue to so enjoy them, my bookshelves will keep getting fuller. The first order of business? Retrieving another copy of Don Juan from Powell's.

My long-lost friends

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Long, long ago, when the Family Trunk Project was just getting started and I was trying to work out how to use two different blogs, I decided that I would keep that blog fiber-related, and over here I would post both fiber stuff and all that other blogging that I would be doing. Yeah...ALL that other blogging. Oh, there has been so much of it.

Like, remember the Biography Project idea? Believe it or not, I have more or less stuck to this reading schedule (minus Gertrude Stein and plus a fantastic biography on Emily Post), but have I written about it? I have not. I have to admit that this whole pattern-writing malarkey has been significantly more time-intensive than I had anticipated. BUT. I'm hoping to change all that, starting soon.

Despite how often I fall down on the job blogging about them, I really enjoy having a year-long reading project. The year before last it was poetry-memorization; this year it's been biography. I've gotten a lot out of steeping myself in both of these art forms, but what I really feel like reading now, after almost a year of biography biography biography, are NOVELS. Lots of novels. But that's not a "project," reading novels. That's more of a default setting, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, I pretty much believe that the Church of Novel-Reading is my spiritual organization of choice. So, how to give novel-reading a bit more structure, so that it's not only the soul-sustaining backbone of my literary practice, but also a fun game? The other day I stumbled upon the answer: amazing 11-year-old book blogger Annie is hosting What's in a Name 2?, the second incarnation of a versatile little readalong centering on books' titles. The qualifications are that participants should read, at some point in 2009:

  • (A) book(s) with a PROFESSION in the title:
  • (A) book(s) with a TIME OF DAY in the title:
  • (A) book(s) with a RELATIVE in the title:
  • (A) book(s) with a BUILDING in the title:
  • (A) book(s) with a BODY PART in the title: and
  • (A) book(s) with a MEDICAL CONDITION in the title.

Fun! Lots of books I've been meaning to read fall into these categories, so I'm thinking I'll actually try to spend a month or two in each slot. The only one I'm coming up a bit short on is the "time of day" category, so if anyone has a great brainstorm about it, let me know. My short lists so far:

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, by John Le Carré
The Judge and His Hangman, by Friedrich Durrenmatt
The Monk, by Matthew Lewis
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas ("Count" is a profession, yes?)

Time of Day
Death in the Afternoon, by Ernest Hemingway
The Thousand and One Nights (or some selection thereof)
Blood Meridian; or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy

Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Dead Father, by Donald Barthelme
Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser

Body Part
The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie
A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch
The Nose, by Nicolai Gogol

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart
House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

Medical Condition
Cancer Ward, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft
Blindness, by José Saramago

Sounds like a lovely year of reading to me! Now, to knock out the last few of these biographies over the next couple months, so that my to-be-read shelf will have some extra room on it.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography