Steep Stairs Review is a journal of reviews and commentary on literature and culture, curated by the Literature Department at Trinity College Foundation Studies, at the University of Melbourne, Australia. This WordPress site is our newest incarnation, however, Steep Stairs has a longer history. Please look here to see Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4 archived on the Trinity College website in a PDF as Collected and Neglected Works.

In this issue, we have a great selection of reviews on both literature and non-fiction, as well as some commentary on some deeply important, and some not so pressing but no less interesting, issues of our current times.

Rosalie Ham explains the rewards gained from her journey into the unexpected narrative turns in David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, 2010, in Lively Immersion. In Wit and Verve, Jennifer Sinclair considers the merits of A Visit From the Goon Squad, 2010, by Jennifer Egan, and why it deserved to pip Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom at the post for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The evolution of the physical experience of reading Literature – from paper book to the increasingly ubiquitous eReader – need not diminish the pleasures of the text, writes Jennifer Mitchell in Commentary and Opinion.

Our feature non-fiction review essay is a consideration of two recent publications on the Long Contested and Still Emerging debate over “who is the real Shakespeare?” Glen Jennings considers the fluent and considered contribution of James Schapiro, in his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare, 2010. Also included in this essay is a succinct outline of the diverse contributions being made to the still emerging body of scholarship on Shakespeare, in ‘Rapt in Secret Studies’: Emerging Shakespeare, 2010, edited by Darryl Chalk and Laurie Johnson.

In Voices From Elsewhere, Mike Heald reviews the collection of stories by Nam Le, The Boat, 2008, beginning with a wonderful anecdote about Le’s approach to addressing the fact that from his Vietnamese face an Australian voice emerges. And lastly, with the challenges of repairing the earth’s ecosystems still enormous, Mike Heald in Our World in Focus finds the analysis of this challenge by Jared Diamond in Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, 2005, still of immense validity, especially in the context of the rancourous Australian debate about carbon emissions.

We hope you enjoy this inaugural “blog” edition of Steep Stairs. Please follow us to have the latest issues and posts delivered to your inbox.


Lively Immersion

October 13, 2011

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2010

Reviewed by Rosalie Ham

Some professions require that we deconstruct and construct novels and subsequently risk becoming jaded. So it was exciting to find myself still reading David Mitchell’s book beyond page fifty. I found I wasn’t able to predict what was going to happen next. In his (long) review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, James Wood says, ‘Despite the novel’s liveliness and deep immersion in the foreignness of its world, there is something a bit mystifying about its distance from contemporary life, something a little contrived in its brilliant autonomy. The publisher promises “a bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history,” and this is not wrong, except that choosing rarely visited points in history for novelization seems to lack inner necessity.” (‘The New Yorker’, 5/7/2010)

Wood further emphasises his point by explaining that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace ‘because he felt compelled to examine and dramatize a great national crisis.’ But the reasons this reader enjoyed The Thousand Years of Jacob de Zoet are because of its distance from ‘contemporary life’ in a ‘rarely visited point in history,’ and more significantly, because it’s not about a ‘great national crisis’ the story lacks ‘inner necessity,’ and this makes it bold. To read a bold and epic story about an historically significant point in history is one thing, but to visit that place and time via a story that doesn’t express events in a familiar or unremarkable way, to encounter a situation that enriched my wonderment of a somewhat obscure, exotic and strange situation in history was to be amazed, excited and delighted. And to then discover that the book does not follow an expected path to reach an ending that sees all characters happily concluded in a story line that makes perfect sense in terms of fictional outcomes, was to be further rewarded.

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Wit and Verve

October 13, 2011

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

Reviewed by Jennifer Sinclair

This is a book worth taking notice of for a number of reasons. It is the book that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in a year when Jonathan Franzen, probably the most celebrated living author on the planet right now, also had a book in contention. Franzen’s book, Freedom, moreover, is a book about an idea close to America’s heart and, at a stretch, is a parable about the current state of that idea in parts of middle-class America. So whichever way you look at it, Freedom was going to be a difficult book to knock off for a prize. Publication of Freedom, after all, earned Franzen the rare honour of a fiction writer being on the cover of Time magazine, so you would think he would believe he was a shoo-in for a major prize. But Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, pipped him at the post. The politics of awarding prizes is an interesting topic in itself – perhaps one judge thought Franzen was getting too much oxygen. Having read both novels, Egan’s book is probably the better of the two, partly because of its inventiveness with form.

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Commentary and Opinion

October 13, 2011

Literary Aesthetics and the E-Reader. Not an Irony.

By Jennifer Mitchell

I am someone who loves real books a great deal. I collect works of some key modern writers, and covet hard to find and expensive to buy hard backs. I’ve gathered all seven first editions of Anaïs Nin’s Diary, published by Swallow. I also have a second edition of Nin’s collection of short stories, Under a Glass Bell, which she most likely personally printed on a hand press in New York in 1944. My most cherished book is a first edition of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, published in a small print run by Poetry Editions in 1945. I found an online photograph of the original cover (above), printed it to size, and made a dust jacket for it. There is nothing I would accept to part with it.

Fortunately, I can keep my first editions in their very good dust jackets with their sunned spines and their slightly foxed pages, and the scent of old book which will linger upon them for as long as they stay in solid form. There is no need for me to give them up, even with the advent of digital readers. I know!! It’s a surprise that people are still actually able to make their own choices about how they read, and what kinds of books they buy, despite the proliferation of worried commentaries about the death of the book.

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James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? London: Faber and Faber, 2010.

Darryl Chalk and Laurie Johnson (eds.), “Rapt in Secret Studies”: Emerging Shakespeares, Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? belongs to a rare category of academic book. It is rigorous, consistent, and fully in command both of its evidence and arguments. Contested Will is also fair-minded to opponents, self-critical in a highly partisan intellectual field, and beautifully written, with a powerful narrative drive. In fluent and accessible prose refreshingly free of jargon, Contested Will scrutinises a thesis largely ignored or wished away by other Shakespeare scholars: the claim that the glover’s son from Stratford did not write the poems and plays ascribed to Shakespeare. In the process of assessing and dismissing the rival claims to Shakespeare, Contested Will draws critical attention to the errors of Shakespeareans themselves, highlighting mistakes that opened the way for the misinterpretation, or outright denial, of Shakespeare.

Surveying the crowded field of rivals to the mantle of being the real Shakespeare that has accumulated over the past two hundred years, Shapiro notes the diverse and evolving list of candidates. This field has dramatically increased in the last century and is unlikely to abate now that pet theories have gone viral on the internet and Wikipedia trumpets the claims of alternatives to the man from Stratford. These candidates include Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Fulke Greville, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Derby, and even Queen Elizabeth I. But the two favorites remain Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. It is these two claims for Bacon and Oxford that Shapiro subjects to careful analysis in the two middle sections of Contested Will, with detailed evaluation of the respective claims for Bacon and Oxford bookended (or surrounded) by an introduction to Shakespeare and by a final summary and assessment of the evidence for Shakespeare.

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Voices from Elsewhere

October 13, 2011

Nam Le, The Boat, London: Penguin, 2008

 Reviewed by Mike Heald

Nam Le was recently invited to give a speech at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, on the topic “Voices from Elsewhere”. After finding himself somewhat uninspired by various conventional ways of approaching this theme, he consulted, so he tells us in the speech, his girlfriend, who suggested he try ventriloquism! In the speech, Le develops this idea with reference to an experience he had whilst addressing an audience in Paris. He encountered amusement when he began speaking, and afterwards an Australian approached him confessing how funny it was to hear such an accent emanating from his Asian face. Le says he felt like an Asian dummy ventriloquised by an Australian voice, and though he was somewhat offended at the time, and moved to a retaliatory comment, he acknowledges the basis of this response to his cross-cultural presence.

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Our World In Focus

October 13, 2011

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive,
New York: Penguin, 2005.

Reviewed by Mike Heald

The title of this book could give the impression of a pessimistic work – yet another catalogue of environmental disasters and impending doom. However, this is not at all the nature of this book. I would say that the primary effect is to invigorate the reader towards positive action, whilst making the scale of the task of repairing the earth’s eco systems very clear. Diamond convincingly, I would say indisputably, invalidates any simple notion of goodies and baddies in the environmental arena, so that we are freed, if we needed to be, from a feeling of being locked in battle with implacable forces of destruction. We are invigorated because Diamond’s analysis is so rational and well-informed that the possibilities of change and strategies for it become evident.

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