Steep Stairs Review Volume 6

December 16, 2011

When I start to read a new collection of essays or reviews, I prefer the introduction to be both informative and as brief as possible, to allow me to get started on the more interesting reading. But just let me say that putting together this latest volume of Steep Stairs Review has been a sincere pleasure. No reader of these excellent reviews should be left in doubt that literature, arts and culture are still vital and relevant aspects of contemporary society, or that current events in Australia and around the world cannot be illuminated and understood in very different ways, by considering them through the varied prisms of art, history, activism and the observant eyes of novelists and critics. There is a mix of classic and popular, longer and shorter, critical and praising opinions – something, indeed, for everyone’s tastes – and just in time for Christmas!

Michael Todd considers an intriguing new novel by acclaimed screenwriter Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk, based on a continuation of Conan Doyle’s Holmes’ mysteries, in “The New Sherlock Holmes.”  The Beach Beneath the Street, McKenzie Wark’s exploration of the enduring cultural legacies of the Situationist International movement, is reviewed by Gary Pearce in “Beneath the paving stones, the beach!” In Wark’s account contemporary protest movements, which could now also include the Arab Spring and the occupy movement in Pearce’s opinion, appear to re-ignite powerful traces of the Situationist’s ambition to “give form to the world” instead of merely breaking it down.

Mike Heald reviews the latest novel by Rosalie Ham, There Should Be More Dancing, in “An Unremarkable Life,” and finds a work of “deep humanness” … “an accomplishment of the soul” – in a novel which goes to the extraordinary heart of seemingly ordinary people. The most recent ‘bicentenary’ biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life, is explored in depth by Glen Jennings in “Charles Dickens: Special Correspondent for Posterity”. Tomalin presents some alternative readings of Dickens’ life and loves – some of which are engaging, and some which detract from a clearer evaluation of Dickens’ work. In “What is the world we want to make?” Katherine Firth reflects on the contribution to the Australian imagination of the long-running young adult series by Isobelle Carmody, The Obernewtyn Chronicles. The penultimate volume, The Sending, has just been published, with the final volume The Red Queen due in 2012.

“A Film for our Time? (but not in a good way)” is a candid evaluation of the film Anonymous by Gayle Allan. “Was Shakespeare a Fraud?” Why do we need to keep asking, and who’s raking in the profits? “It tells an exciting story and, if we didn’t know better (and we most certainly do), it could be plausible.” Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is reviewed by A.G. Craig in “The View from the Balcony”. The life of Harri Opuku, a Ghanian immigrant in poor urban London, is brought to life through the exploration of learning a new language: “Who’d chook a boy just to get his Chicken Joe’s?” Indeed! Neralie Hoadley finds that she has to read The Tree Singer, by Danny Fahey in ways she hadn’t anticipated.“Healing and Personal Meaning” are among the many lyrical strains in this lovely fantasy novel. The challenges and the gifts of reading and writing in new ways is the topic of The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell in “Writing and Reading in the Age of the Thrilling Unknown.”

In “Reopening the Case: A Chinese Murder,”  Glen Jennings reviews Midnight in Peking by Paul French, a book which explores in graphic detail the brutal murder of young Englishwoman Pamela Werner, in Peking in 1937. French looks closely at the precarious lives of foreigners and locals in the last heady and violent days of Old China. And in what will hopefully be a regular section in Steep Stairs Review, Rosalie Ham looks back at a classic novel from the past: Elizabeth Taylor’s 1947 novel  A View of the Harbour, in “Newby Revisited: An Appreciation of the Fiction of Elizabeth Taylor (1912 – 1975)”.

Thanks for reading – Enjoy!

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The New Sherlock Holmes

December 16, 2011

Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk, London: Orion Books, 2011

Reviewed by Michael Todd

Anthony Horowitz is a very successful novelist and screenwriter. He has written for television series including Foyle’s War, which starred Michael Kitchen as Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, a police officer based at Brighton England during WWII; Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet, set in the period between WWI and WWII; and Midsomer Murders with John Nettles as Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, a policeman investigating crime in a part of England that makes Somalia look peaceful judging by the endless murders committed in the hedge lined lane ways, bucolic villages, and stately homes.

Anthony Horowitz has also written a best selling Alex Rider children’s series about which I know absolutely nothing.

Amongst the original short stories and novels about Holmes, Conan Doyle made a number of references to cases that are considered too controversial to have been published when they were solved by Holmes, with oblique references to European royalty etc (but no Kardashians). Anthony Horowtiz has taken the title of one of these cases and written his own Holmes novel in the style of Conan Doyle.

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McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, London: Verso, 2011.

Reviewed by Gary Pearce

Last month on some particularly slow news day the Herald Sun rifled the tax-payer-funded reading material of a Greens senator and came up with – quelle horreur! –subversive items such as Slavoj Žižek’s Defence of Lost Causes and McKenzie Wark’s Fifty Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International. On the latter, the Herald Sun explained in its usual unprejudiced way: “Situationist International is an obscure movement of revolutionary Marxists in 1950s France that sought to overthrow capitalism.” That the Situationists should finally make it into the pages of the Murdoch Press is kind of appropriate given how heavily the latter invests in the media homogenisation described in one of that movements key texts, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The Herald Sun has no doubt moved on to fulminate against other targets so its readers might not yet be aware that Wark has now published a new book on the Situationists called The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and the Glorious Times of the Situationist International.

I guess one should just be resolved to the idea that the tabloid bafflement and traducements are as reliable indicator as any of things that might be worthy of note and appreciation. The impatience and perplexed responses, if not prejudiced hostility, of the media and local officialdom to the recent occupy movements is a case in point. Indeed, Wark has involved himself with and written about the occupy movement, and like others has noticed how it implies demands outside the conventional modes of political and media discourse and how it suggests new kinds of relationship with the spaces of the city. The novelty of the occupy movement, however, shouldn’t make us overlook some of the important historical resonances contained within it. A case for the ongoing relevance of that “obscure movement” of Situationists can be made here, and, Wark, an ex-pat Australian cultural studies academic, has now written a book that, just at our present conjuncture, commands some attention.

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An Unremarkable Life?

December 16, 2011

 Rosalie Ham, There Should Be More Dancing, North Sydney: Vintage, 2011

Reviewed by Mike Heald

Rosalie Ham’s third novel, There Should Be More Dancing, is centred upon an almost eighty-year-old woman, Margery Blandon, who has taken herself to the very top floor of a Melbourne hotel in order to throw herself to her death. The action of the novel proceeds as a series of flashbacks, which reveal how Margery has come to this suicidal position. Although the novel has a suburban setting, therefore, the characters and narrative are framed by a situation which is anything but mundane.

One of my strongest impressions from reading this novel is one of a deep humaneness. It struck me that the years writers spend developing their craft enable them to embody issues in the specifics of our lived experience, so that one encounters, in a novel, not abstract argument, but manifest significance. Rosalie Ham’s skill allows her to present a world which is both faithful to the reality with which we are familiar, yet also expressive. This takes her work beyond mere mirroring, and makes it an achievement which is both aesthetic, and ethical: an accomplishment of the soul, if you like. When we feel ourselves, for example, finding sympathy for Judith, Marge’s rather devious, manipulative daughter, it is a moment in which our generosity is, if not extended by art, then at least exercised, strengthened.

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Claire Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life, New York: The Penguin Press, 2011

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

No book is ever totally replaced by another book. It is often a mistake to think that books exist in competition with each other. Instead, books refer, relate and respond to previous arguments and styles, exploring new ideas, revisiting old evidence, echoing familiar voices, and experimenting with theme, structure and characterisation. Writers quote, allude, criticise, steal, correct and create. But never in a vacuum. The bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth in February 1812 is an opportunity for the bulging shelves of Dickens biography and criticism to become even more crowded, or rather to expand with the intellectual universe. The newly published books on Dickens do not force out the old.

Dickens has been well served by biographers ever since his longtime friend and adviser John Forster published his three volume Life of Charles Dickens from 1872 to 1874. Claire Tomalin’s new book, Charles Dickens: A Life, makes excellent use of John Forster’s pioneering work as well as the many volumes of Dickens’s letters, and numerous other primary documents. This engaging and accessible narrative also weaves in the research and arguments of other Dickens scholars and biographers, even those, like Peter Ackroyd, with whom Tomalin fundamentally disagrees on certain key points.

John Forster was the first to learn from Charles Dickens about the author’s painful, shameful but formative experiences of being sent to work in a blacking factory as a twelve year old child while his chronically spendthrift and financially unreliable father was held in Marshalsea debtor’s prison. Dickens, a small, sensitive but observant child, missed out on a good deal of formal education as a young boy as well as time and emotional bonding with his parents and siblings. He was conscious that his parents sent him out to work, and he remembered the day when a sympathetic man gave him a coin as he nimbly wrapped and labelled jars of shoe blacking while his father stood by in total silence. Dickens subsequently worked hard to develop his talents and to educate himself, teaching himself shorthand and taking out a ticket for the British Museum’s Reading Room.

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Isobelle Carmody, The SendingThe Obernewtyn Chronicles,  (Book 6 or 7) Australia: Penguin, 2011. 

Reviewed by Katherine Firth

Isobelle Carmody’s epic Obernewtyn series, begun in 1987, is finally drawing to a close, with the final novel in the series being published in two volumes—The Sending out now, and The Red Queen out in 2012. The Red Queen will conclude the story of Elspeth Gordie, the supernaturally gifted orphan, who has led the community of Obernewtyn from an isolated pocket of resistance to the head of a national, and now global, resistance to the oppressive and autocratic regime of the Council and the fantatical Herder Faction.  The Sending, however, is Book 6, or book 7, depending on your publisher.  The last two novels in the series have been so long they have been cut in two to enable reading without arm ache—even in their halved state, they are nearly 500 pages long each. This review was originally going to look back over the twenty-four year journey—but like the end of the Harry Potter series, the final work is being divided into halves and then halves again.  So, that review will have to wait till next year.  Instead, I want to look at what insights a long-running fantasy young adult series like The Obernewtyn Chronicles gives us into the Australian imagination.

Young adult (YA) novels allow us to ask, ‘Who do I want to be?’ Fantasy fiction allows us to ask, ‘What world do I want to live in? What is the world we want to make?’  Looking at successful young-adult fantasy series allows us to understand something of a collective cultural desire.  Obernewtyn is one of the earliest of the new phase of YA fantasy series that have crossed over into mainstream culture since the 1990s: Harry Potter (J.K. Rowlings, 1997-2007), His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman, 1995-2000), The Hunger Games  (Suzanne Collins, 2008-10) or Twilight (Stephanie Meyer, 2005-08)Many students say the reason they want to attend Melbourne University (and Trinity College) is a desire to attend Hogwarts, so we see these fictional worlds are affecting the real world decisions of young people.  Obernewtyn is unique among these series for three reasons: it was begun by Carmody when she was a teenager herself; it was begun in the 1980s and is not yet finished making it both one of the earliest and one of the longest running such series; and most interestingly for this particular review, it is Australian.

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Roland Emmerich (Director) and John Orloff (Writer), Anonymous, Centropolis Entertainment/Studio Babelsburg, 2011

Reviewed by Gayle Allan

From the man who brought you Independence Day, The Day after Tomorrow, 10,000 BC and Godzilla comes Anonymous (Emmerich, 2011), a film whose central premise shares much with its predecessors’ speculative nature (and sheer far-fetchedness), but which presents itself as a serious, historical response to the question that the film’s poster screams at us, “Was Shakespeare a fraud?”

And there, as Shakespeare says, is the rub. It is not the ludicrous and laughable inaccuracies of the plot (which appear with relentless regularity and with such insouciance) which make this a bad film, in fact in its own right it is quite watchable.(1) Nor is the dramatic licence taken in creating a fictional interpretation of a well-known story problematic – the practice of dramatically asking the question “what if” is a perfectly valid, and often successful, technique used by artists of all genres. No, the problem with Anonymous does not in fact lie in the film itself, but in its after-life, in the interviews and claims made by director Roland Emmerich and screen writer John Orloff who have been spruiking their film as a bold and courageous telling of the real history of Elizabeth I, Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford) and Shakespeare, that should, and must, be told. In his article on Anonymous (see footnote 1), Holger Syme quotes an interview Emmerich gave to Deutsche Welle where he claims that “only somebody like me, who’s … a bit of an outsider in Hollywood, … but also a person who’s very courageous, could have done this. I could not see an English director doing it, because they would be afraid.” In an interview with Amy Curtis, Emmerich dismisses his academic critics with this crafty argument: “…they are actually more biased than anyone else because they have the most to loose [sic]. And the Shakespeare Birth Trust, like it says, they have a 2-3 million people-a-year industry. If those numbers would go down they would freak out.”(2)  In a classic example of “playing the man and not the ball”, Emmerich prefers to attack and discredit his critics rather than defend the spurious (and indefensible) claims made in his film.

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The View From the Balcony

December 16, 2011

Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English, London: Bloomsbury, 2011

Reviewed by A.G. Craig

In this extraordinary novel Stephen Kelman writes in the voice of a young migrant boy. Harrison Opoku is a Year 7 student from Ghana observing his new world in London and experimenting with the language of his peers. Beautiful things are “dope-fine,” angry young men and the pit bulls that tear up the swings in the local park are “hutious,” and the weather is “proper cold.”

In England there’s a hell of different words for everything. It’s for if you forget one, there’s always another one left over. It’s very helpful. Gay and dumb and lame mean all the same.

Eleven year old Harri lives in a crowded housing estate with his mother and thirteen year old sister Lydia. His father and baby sister Agnes are still in Ghana. Whenever they can the divided family talk and laugh on the telephone until the phone card runs out. Harri is the man of the house, responsible for locking the doors and guarding against any invaders. Harri is the second fastest runner in Year 7, with the desire to become the fastest. And not just to impress Poppy Morgan, the girl with yellow hair that smells like honey. Harri loves Poppy and he loves sweets. But he never eats jelly babies. They are cruel and remind his Mamma of the dead babies at her work in the hospital.

Harri and the two women in his home life miss Papa and Agnes – especially when Agnes is sick with a fever – and they plan for the day when the family can be reunited. But this may be some time yet. Money is tight and loan sharks require monthly payments for the first set of visas and airplane tickets. At least Mamma hasn’t had to burn off her own finger prints like Auntie Sonia, and she doesn’t live with a violent standover man who menaces people with a baseball bat called the Persuader. Mamma knows men like Auntie Sonia’s Julius, and she fears for Sonia’s safety and teaches Harri to be responsible. “Mamma…says a man who smells of beer is a mess waiting to happen.”

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Healing and Personal Meaning

December 16, 2011

Danny Fahey, The Tree Singer, Perth: Dragonfall Press, 2011

 Reviewed by Neralie Hoadley

The Tree Singer by Danny Fahey, is a publication that resists easy categorisation. For this reader it was an exploratory venture in terms both of the type of story and its electronic delivery (my first eBook). In both cases the experiment was rewarded.

I am a new-comer to fantasy as a literary genre and made the mistake of repeatedly trying to understand this interesting book through the lens of another story-telling style. At first I found myself reading The Tree Singer as a fable. I tuned into the way Fahey uses the fairy-tale timelessness to speak about a community finding healing by moving through despair towards hope. In the opening pages, twelve year old Jacob is suffering with ‘the sickness’, an unspecified plague that has already killed many in his small fishing village and left the rest living in a state of fear, grief and impotent anger. Jacob meets a mysterious stranger, Simon, who imbues him with a wondrous sense that life has possibilities outside his poor stricken home. Jacob finds he can suddenly imagine his own future as a maker of lovely musical instruments, flutes, even though he has never played one. Simon is a healer who uses the laying on of his beautiful hands to bring things to right, to remind creatures both human and non-human of their deep natures so that they may fulfill themselves. Some of the writing in this section of the book is quite lyrical as it allows the reader to imagine the mysterious forces that allow the stunted garden to thrive, the fish to return, the mad to be made steady, the grieving to learn to look for what is present rather than absent, and for the talented to honour their skills. There is a lovely purity in the way Fahey writes of the power of affirming life and hope. It does not have the self-conscious artifice of popular modern fables such as The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Jacob, the hero, continues to grow and develop his talent, becoming a master flute maker of increasing renown, until the allure of the city draws him away from the simplicity of village life and love.

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Jeff Martin & C. Max Magee (eds.) The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2011

Reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell

The really interesting thing about the changing nature of books is to witness the corresponding changes in the ways people are writing. These are exciting times for writers, as new opportunities for publishing in many different formats open up. But not everyone is excited about the changes technology is bringing to writing and publishing. Anguished commentaries abound, including one recent complaint by author Graham Swift that the proliferation of e-reading devices would erode royalties for writers, leading to a decline in both the number and quality of published novels. The most negative commentary I’ve read recently comes from Australian writer Ali Alizadeh who comes to the worrying conclusion that there is a risk of the “e-reader becoming a subject capable of depriving people of the pleasure of reading”. Alizadeh fears that the limitless potential of devices to contain one’s library, and to add to it with such ease, may in fact divest the reader of his or her agency as reader:

The thing’s owner, compelled by the fantasy of limitless electronic interactivity offered by the object, is likely to transfer her desire, for passive satisfaction (that is, the simple pleasure of reading) onto the inanimate thing that is now no longer just an electronic device but an infinitely erudite subject which, in the words of one e-reader enthusiast, ‘allows you to carry a library in your pocket’; the e-reader becomes, in the true sense of the word, the reader.

I’m not sure that there isn’t an effort here to transfer the fear of loss of control brought by a new fluidity around publishing to the inanimate consumable. It’s easier to identify an object as an emblem of subversion, than to more deeply consider how to engage in a changing culture and turn it to your advantage. There are some positive stories emerging from these changing times too, such as a vibrant and fast growing online publishing model in China known as Freemium, which serialises literary fiction from contributors, the best of whom are moved to a pay for access level.

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Paul French, Midnight in Peking: How the murder of a young Englishwoman haunted the last days of old China, Camberwell: Viking, 2011

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

All tragedies are personal, and all moments of profound social transformation are experienced by individuals. The major success of Paul French’s new book is that he focuses on the murder of Pamela Werner in Peking and never loses sight of her individuality, and of her father’s despair and determination to uncover the truth about her death, while also illuminating the complex political and social life of China in the decisive year of 1937.

Pamela Werner was a nineteen year old student whose mutilated corpse was left at the foot of the Fox Tower in Peking, an ancient and reputedly haunted imperial fortification close to the Foreign Legation and set on the fringe of Peking’s criminal underworld. The Fox Tower, with its bats, stray dogs, and nocturnal fox spirits that kept people away at night, was only a few hundred metres from the home Pamela shared with her seventy-two year old father, the retired diplomat and noted China scholar Edward T.C. Werner, author of such works as Ancient Tales and Folklore of China.

Pamela Werner was a young woman not directly involved in the political struggles and tensions of her time and place. The legacy of imperial China and warlordism, the conflict between the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong’s Communists, and the imminent Japanese occupation of Peking were not her preoccupations. During the winter school holidays of 1936-37 her life was one of tiffin, tea parties, dating, skating, and catching up with friends. But her life and death were marked by circumstances and forces beyond her knowledge or control. Pamela’s birth mother was most likely a White Russian refugee, one of the many who left babies at the local Peking orphanage. Her adoptive father was an old China hand, a British diplomat to China since the late 1880s who had settled into the life of a scholar and single parent subsequent to his retirement from the diplomatic service in 1914 and the death of his wife in 1922, when Pamela was five years old. Father and daughter lived in a city marked, and at times scarred, by the past, in a society on the brink of violent dissolution and reformation. Edward T.C. Werner would ultimately live to see China through many epochs: from the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty, to the first Chinese republic, and from the chaos and bloodshed of the warlord era and the civil war, to the discipline and bloodshed of China re-united as the world’s most populous Communist state. Pamela lived and died only during a time of national disunity and unfulfilled hope, but she was partly cocooned by the wealth and privilege of declining colonial influence.

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Elizabeth Taylor, A View of the Harbour (1947)

Reviewed by Rosalie Ham

In delivering Elizabeth Taylor’s eulogy, Kingsley Amis said, ”Outside her family and friends her death wasn’t much noticed except among the smallish band who care for our literature. Her genuine distaste for any kind of publicity – that rarest of qualities in a writer – and her deeply unsensational style and subject matter saw to it, that in life, she never received her due as one of the best English novelists born this century. I hope she will in the future.” (Elizabeth Jane Howard, Slipstream, A Memoir, 2002)

Elizabeth Taylor is now receiving her due. I first read about her some years ago in a newspaper article, have since seen her name on a few ‘best reading’ lists and lately fellow readers and writers have enthusiastically advocated her books. The British critic Philip Hensher wrote that Taylor’s novel, The Soul of Kindness (1964), “…seems effortless. As it progresses, it seems as if the cast are so fully rounded that all the novelist had to do was place them, successively, in one setting after another and observe how they reacted to each other…. The plot… never feels as if it were organised in advance; it feels as if it arises from her characters’ mutual responses.”

A View of the Harbour (1947) is an absorbing read. Taylor’s writing is skillful, economic and reflects a lively, acute and wry wit. She has a knack for a cutting last line. A young school boy, Edward, while fare-welling his doting, divorced mother at the end of her mid-term visit says, ‘It’s a pity father couldn’t come.’

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