Monday, June 21, 2010

Recent Books Worth Reading

David Marr's Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd is a fascinating read. It's a sensitive and incisive overview of the driving forces in Rudd's life and career, and the final 20 or so pages (of 86 in all) are simply superb. Buy it for these alone. As a writer Marr has an extraordinary ability to cut through his expertly assembled material with arresting short, sharp jabs that give the narrative a punchiness that keeps it constantly moving and interesting. Many lesser writers would find writing a lengthy piece on someone as intrinsically deadening as Rudd an almighty challenge!

Here's a typical para:

 'Hours aren't the issue. Bureaucrats don't mind working hard, long days. They object to feeding material in when nothing much comes out; demands made at midnight that might be made at midday; wild flurries of activity driven by petty media squalls; calls for detailed briefing on fourth-rank issues that need never go near a prime minister; and urgent requests for material they know to be sitting in Rudd's office already. They mind wasting their time.' (p.72)

You don't have to agree with Marr's conclusion that Rudd is 'a politician with rage at his core, impatient rage.' But you will have to acknowledge that he has painted a truly revealing portrait of a profoundly irritating man.

Young, gay Brisbane writer Benjamin Law has written a truly enjoyable memoir of growing up in a rather eccentric Chinese-Australian family from the Sunshine coast.  His mother, Jenny, is hilarious, a wonderful creature, full of quirks and personality, and the rest of his family - five kids and an absent father - are pretty much the same. It's brilliantly written, with a deceptively light touch, often refreshingly crude, and frequently LOL funny.

Paul Harding's Tinkers won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction so I was keen to read it. It is quite a short book of 191 pages, but it is not an easy read. It's highly literary and tightly written as a poem. You need to be in the mood for this. If you feel miserable, profoundly ordinary and insignificant, and prone to wonder if it's all worth it, then you will be in absolutely the right frame of mind to enjoy it. It's a meditation on ordinariness, on little people with little, seemingly unnoticed and barely meaningful lives, as they just go about tinkering.

I can do no better than quote Marilynne Robinson's brilliant prose from the blurb: 'Tinkers is truly remarkable. It achieves and sustains a unique fusion of language and perception. Its fine touch plays over the textured richnesses of very modest lives, evoking again and again a frisson of deep recognition, a sense of primal encounter with the brilliant, elusive world of the senses. It confers on the reader the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls'.

If you read and enjoyed Scott Turow's magnificent bestseller Presumed Innocent, which was published in 1987, then you simply have to read his just published follow-up Innocent. Turow is a (still practicing) criminal lawyer and his fiction is imbued with the law and its players - the court system, the prosecution, the defense, and of course the guilty and the innocent. But what gives the the books their power is his ability to craft believable characters in all their emotional depth and complexity. The drama derives from them and their interaction as much as it does from the inevitable playing out of the legal processes in the courtroom.

Don't read this follow-up until you read the original. Do yourself a favor - take a week off and read them both.

I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography Infidel when it was published in 2007, and was profoundly moved by it. It was the story of her life as an intelligent girl in a Muslim family in the deeply tribal and war-ravaged African country of Somalia, and how she eventually escaped to the Netherlands and discovered the liberating philosophies and lifestyles of the West. Essentially the book was a relentless assault on Islam, and particularly its treatment of women.

Nomad, just released, tells of her time as a controversial and outspoken parliamentarian in Holland and her eventual migration to America after she received serious death threats from fanatical Muslims. It is a seriously enjoyable book. Ali is a highly intelligent and gifted writer, and like any convert, passionate about the new life of political, religious and intellectual freedom she has discovered. It is impossible not to cheer her on. The obstacles she overcomes are legion.

Yet, Hirsi Ali presents us in the West with an almighty challenge: she is a denouncer of all things Islamic. Not just the so-called Islamofascists, who commit terrorist atrocities; who murder their own wives, daughters and sisters to protect male 'honour'; who mutilate young female genitals as part of a cruel circumcision rite; who force women to cover themselves from head to foot in heavy, hot gowns, devoid of any religious meaning; who proclaim murderous fatwas against Booker prize-winning novelists and Danish cartoonists.

Ali is not just against these. She is against Islam as such. She does not believe there can be any such thing as 'Moderate Islam'. Westernised, moderate, Muslim theologians are 'trapped in confusion...because they want to maintain that the Quran is perfect scripture, and that all of its key injunctions - kill the infidels, ambush them, take their property, convert them by force; kill homosexuals and adulterers; condemn Jews; treat women as chattel - are mysterious errors of translation'.

'Afflicted with similar pangs of white guilt, many prominent Christian theologians have also become accomplices of jihad'.

According to Ali 'Islam is not just a belief;it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence.'

She calls on the Christian churches to reactivate their missionary past, to virtually re-create the crusades, and work to free young minds and spirits in Muslim countries from falling prey to the menace of Islam. Too many Muslims are 'seeking God but finding Allah', because they are not being exposed to more enlightened voices'.

It is a radical precept, but a potent one from a crucially important voice. Highly recommended.

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