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‘We put our children in the hands of your people because we think we can trust you. If we can’t trust the university, who can we trust? We never thought we were sending our daughter into a nest of vipers. No, Professor Lurie, you may be high and mighty and have all kinds of degrees, but if I was you I’d be very ashamed of myself, so help me God. If I’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, now is your chance to say, but I don’t think so, I can see it from your face.’

Now is his chance indeed: let him who would speak, speak. But he stands tongue-tied, the blood thudding in his ears. A viper: how can he deny it?

‘Excuse me,’ he whispers, ‘I have business to attend to.’ Like a thing of wood, he turns and leaves.

Well folks, I am back. Yesterday was a fantastic day, spent with friends, family and my beautiful bride on a stunning headland by Austinmer beach overlooking the Pacific ocean. It could not have gone better. Stephanie and I had the opportunity to renew our vows in the company of people we wished could have come to our first wedding in Ireland – so instead we brought the wedding to them.

I was free to enjoy the day and its festivities thanks to the sterling work of my fellow bloggers who agreed to lend a hand with ‘A book a day’, this week. Take a bow you folks. I am extremely grateful to you all.

So back to the business of book blogging.

David Lurie is a Cape Town college academic more suited to expounding on his theories about Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Byron through his writing, than actually teaching students. However, his published books have failed to attract any acclaim and his frustrations with his classes aside, it does provide him with an income. With two failed marriages behind him Lurie instead indulges in affairs with college staff, or spending his time with prostitutes, for sexual relief. Inevitably his overly analytical mind ruins whatever pleasure he may gain from these encounters.

Then Lurie embarks on an affair with an eighteen-year old student, which leads to an official complaint from her family and a disciplinary hearing. Refusing to engage with the process, as he sees it as a forced confessional, the professor instead agrees to leave the university.

He travels to his daughter Lucy’s home, an isolated farm in the wilds of the Eastern Cape. Lurie remarks upon her vulnerability to attack living in such a lonely place, but she insists that she has found meaning her. She cares for a number of dogs and introduces her father to Bev, a local woman who euthanises those pets that have been too badly wounded, or are too sick to survive. Lurie dismisses their concerns for animals as inflated sentiment. His daughter in return rejects his emphasis on abstract thinking and academic concerns.

However, when the farm is attacked, both father and daughter are confronted with their own powerlessness and react in very different ways.

Nominally the title of this book refers to the professional misconduct of Lurie. J.M. Coetzee narrates his protagonist’s increasing disenchantment with his life that has led him to the disciplinary impasse with the college board, his refusal to ‘confess’, a product of his own confused feelings on the affair. In his mind his encounter with the student came as a result of passion, something his own ex-wife dismisses by pointing out that no young woman wants to see a man of his age in the throes of sexual climax. Indeed Lurie seems to lust after the student’s youth more than anything. When he later sleeps with someone closer in age to himself he is initially disgusted by her body, but then continues the relationship. It is not like anyone else wants him.

However, Lurie also later feels disgraced by his inability to protect his daughter. Coetzee draws an odd parallel between his refusal to engage the board and Lucy’s to speak to her father about what happened.

In effect, the author tells us the woman who had embraced life in the countryside has been beaten by it. It takes the rarefied academic longer to realize the same.

This book left me angry. Its characters are defeated by life and Lurie’s sub-Yeatsian carping about noble minds tied to aging bodies I could not take seriously.

Dispiriting and defeated.

The concept of the “motorcycle outlaw” was as uniquely American as jazz. Nothing like them had ever existed. In some ways they appeared to be a kind of half-breed anachronism, a human hangover from the era of the Wild West.

Today I got my right thumb caught in a car door. Thankfully I did not also succeed in breaking the bone, but it did promptly swell to an impressive size. As a result I chose to rely on my trusty Kindle this afternoon for my book, with my delicate thumb not being capable of handling a bound spine.

Hunter S. Thompson was always a touchstone of my early twenties. His writing attracts a certain kind of reader – and many a late-night party became more fun once I used my Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas radar to identify other fans in the room. I even chose a Ralph Steadman skin for my Kindle. It is a book which inspires a near fanatical devotion, with the style of writing ‘gonzo‘, it defined seen as a right-on study of how the world really is.

Then Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head while his family were in another room.

Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcyle Gangs set Thompson on the path that would eventually lead to Fear and Loathing. The later gonzo excesses are not quite as evident, with the book focusing mainly on the widespread media hysteria that followed the Hells Angels biker gangs in and around California. Over a number of months Thompson himself interviewed groups of Angels to get their side of the story, although by the time he was in their company, various chapters of of the gang had made a business of selling their insights on life on the road.

Such a confusion of fear and infame was inevitable. Early in the media’s coverage of the biker phenomenon, Hedda Hopper forged an indelible link between the real-world gangs and the 1953 Marlon Brando movie The Wild One. As it turned out the Hells Angels loved the film as much as the Mafia loves The Godfather. What they were less impressed with was hysterical reports of biker gangs invading country towns, ripping off stores and committing gang rape.

Thompson describes the broadly defined code of ethics of the various gangs he meets. They have a hostile relationship with most police, especially in the wake of the disastrous media coverage, but see themselves as patriots, fiercely anti-communist, even at one point offering their services as a black ops death squad in Vietnam to President Lyndon Johnson. When he obtains a bike of his own, Thompson even comes to believe that the Angels’ claims of harassment form the police are not just paranoid delusions spurred on by massive drug intake – after years of dangerous driving in a car, it only takes three weeks on a bike for his licence to be revoked.

The account culminates with an all-night drinking binge at Bass Lake, with seasonal tourists fleeing the advance of the bikes and deputies placing themselves between the boozing bikers and armed local vigilantes whipped into a frenzy.

To my mind the most enjoyable part of the book was discovering that Kenneth Anger‘s film Scorpio Rising was marketed years after its initial release as a Hells Angels movie. Thompson’s despair when his cache of beer is absconded with by the Angels is another highpoint.

What I did find, however, is that I have grown strangely tired of Thompson. Gonzoism here is not so much a right-on attitude of journalistic integrity, but a method of inserting the author into the narrative as a devil-may-care hero. This is a suspicion in part inspired by the writer’s own blinkered, Horatio Alger-like love of American individualism. Whereas Thompson enjoys shining on political hypocrisy, his discussion of rape in relation to the Hells Angels is quite disturbing, on the one hands denouncing fraudulent claims against gang member and then justifying legitimate instances as just spontaneous sex orgies.

The conclusion itself dovetails neatly with a sudden influx of sentiment, once again reinforcing the notion of this sympathetic account of the Angels as a construct. The book itself is also frustratingly overwritten, the epic tale of Thompson’s beer being stolen occupying far more pages than it is worth. And I say that as a lover of the hops – including this Ralph Steadman illustrated variety.

A disappointment overall.

He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:

“Only God knows how much I loved you.”

Today has been reported as the hottest day in Sydney for 85 years. I certainly felt it. When I set out this morning the air had been pleasantly cool. One quick deposit of previously reviewed book titles and the collection of this coming week’s novels and I was back outsde, stepping lightly on sizzling concrete.

Absolutely unbearable. While waiting for the bus I began reading Love in the Time of Cholera, a book I am sad to say I am mostly familiar with following its use as a prop in that Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity. I felt as if the heat simply dropped, so absorbed was I in the book’s fluid prose. Later when I retreated to my shady bedroom, with my wife curled up asleep beside me in bed, I felt like I was the luckiest man alive.

The story begins with the tragic suicide of a man who refused to grow any older once he had reached his sixtieth year. Though he does not figure in the rest of the story, a narrative that flashes back and forth across the lives of three individuals caught in a strange love triangle, this man’s refusal to grow old reflects the concerns of the novel itself. Whether love, that animating principle that sustains both generation and devotion, is possible in old age?

For fifty-one years, nine months and four days Florentino has remained passionately in love with Fermina. They met while they were both teenagers and conducted a secret affair of the heart through love letters. Florentino is given to over-romantic poetical outpourings of affection, gifts and persistent entreaties for Fermina’s love. For her part, she maintains a degree of reserve in her replies, although she is convinced that she loves him. Even after the affair is discovered, she persists in her shared attraction to the poet, until one day, having overcome many months of obstacles thrown in their path to be together, she sees him in a new light: as a pathetic looking figure, completely dependent on her reciprocation.

She rejects Florentino and instead finds herself courted by Dr. Urbino, sophisticated and possessing of wordly knowledge where her former lover was insular and consumed by an irrational infatuation. Urbino has returned from Europe with the sophistication of a true Parisian, a cultured interest in literature and modern medicine, having aided in the defeat of a devastating cholera epidemic. They marry and raise a family together, discovering an enduring domestic happiness.

Florentino fastidiously preserves his own body to remain in shape for his beloved and is incapable of writing anything but love letters in memory of the woman who rejected him – something of a hindrance when it comes to writing business letters for a shipping company. As the years pass he begins to take a series of lovers, generally widows, with whom he has clandestine relationships, never marrying, never accompanying any of them in public. As he rises up the corporate ladder rumours spread that he is in fact homosexual and with his studied vanity, unusual attention to his health and obsession with sex is seen as an odd character.

When Urbino finally dies, having fallen in an attempt to retrieve a parrot from a mango tree, Florentino presents himself to Fermina while she is still in mourning and presses his suit. Horrified she rejects him a second time, in disbelief that such an unnatural request be made while her husband sits in his coffin waiting for burial.

The death of Urbino occurs at the beginning of the novel, with the three lives of the spurned lover, wife and dead husband poured over for the rest of the book. There is a Proustian quality to the proceedings, with memory the fuel of the narrative. The frailty of the human body is ever-present. Florentino’s romantic obsession is symptomatic of cholera; the aging characters are betrayed by bodily effluvia. At one point someone declares that romantic love in youth is ridiculous – during old age, obscene.

This book remains passionately defiant and wickedly seductive till the last page. Delirious, amoral and bewitching.

She had been prepared to love it, but there was not very much to love. She had never seen a baby so thin and wizened. Its face was just creases, thick with down. It had the finest, darkest, sourest lips, disapproving anciently, godlikely, distantly. It had the look of a lamb born badly, of a baby bird fallen from the nest – that doomed look, holy and lifeless, swollen-eyed, retreated too far into itself to be awakened.

I have a confession to make. I have been running scared of this book for years now. Neil Gaiman’s jacket quote – “One of my favourite books in ages…powerful and moving”, – screamed at me from the shop shelves, but I kept on walking. See when Tender Morsels was first published, I read a review which described the opening chapters of this book. Margo Lanagan is a fearless writer, who does not shy away from disturbing material, in this instance rape and incest.

I cannot remember the newspaper in question, but I recall putting it down shuddering and making myself a promise never to read this book. I have said it here before, but as a child I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which left me deeply distressed. Even as an adult I did not want to revisit such matters in my reading.

My confession is that I was very wrong to avoid this book for so long.

Ever since Liga’s mother died, she has been trapped in a small hut with her drunken abusive father. Terrorised and humiliated by him, made to think that she is worthless, stupid and wanton, her father’s cruel taunting breaks her will as he repeatedly rapes her, convincing the teenage girl that his actions are her fault entirely. Longfield keeps his child in ignorance even of the children he begets on her, employing local witch Muddy Annie to supply different kinds of potions and treatments designed to abort them. When her father abruptly dies, Liga is left alone and vulnerable, delivering the one child he failed to kill. She continues to live in the family home, tries to keep to herself, but isolated in the forest she soon falls victim to more brutal outrages.

At her lowest hour, Liga is visited by a strange being, who transports her to another world that in appearance is not that different, and yet those whom she hates are not party to this private heaven. There is plenty of food to eat and comfort to be had. Liga raises two daughters, Branza and Urdda, in this realm where innocence is not punished and childhood is preserved in a permanent state of grace.

As the years pass, others find their way into Liga’s world. The borders between the real world – cruel, callous and full of pain – and this lifelike fantasy realm – where kindness is everywhere and the welfare of Liga’s family prized by both people and animals alike – erode. These strangers seek to exploit the fairy-tale world and threaten the innocence of Branza and Urdda. The two girls react differently to the temptations offered by the ‘real world’, and it is left to Liga to decide whether she will let her daughters return, or whether she will face the horrors buried in her past.

I cannot state this strongly enough – this book is marvellous. Lanagan’s Grimm Fairy Tale is a masterpiece of repressed sexuality and symbolism. Magic is shown to be a means not only to escape the pain of this world, but a tool to be employed to improve it. There are even conniving dwarves and bear-men, although they are quite different from the standards of fairy tales.

Reminiscent of Angela Carter‘s equally revisionist The Bloody Chamber, Tender Morsels is no mere parody. The dialogue is delivered in an unusual pidgin English, that can seem at times childlike, yet at other points deeply threatening. Time and space are rendered fluid by the border between the two worlds and some who cross over assume their actions in Liga’s world are little more than drunken visions, excusing them of any responsibility. Lovers parted by the divide age at different speeds.

For me though the most beautiful scene is Liga refusing the fantasy offered to her by the entity, insisting that she does not deserve it, only to realize that her daughter does and more.

Rich in symbolism and incisive psychological detail, a modern day fairy tale with incredible punch from a visionary Australian author.

For everywhere folk have again taken out the Christ they’ve kept hidden since Catholic days. Now, in every village and hamlet, you can see braided garlic and the holy images repugnant to the monster of Ropraz hanging from the window frames and catches, from lintels, balconies, railings, even from secret doorways and in cellars. Crosses are erected again in this Protestant countryside where none have been seen for four centuries. On hills, beside country roads, the object dominated since Reformation days is erected again. The vampire fears the symbol of Christ? “There, that’ll make him think twice! And the dog is loose.”

History is peppered with tragic accounts of rampant superstition in small communities leading to fevered accusations of witchcraft, vampirism and demonic possession against people whose lives were then destroyed by the enflamed mob. I once had an English teacher who claimed that women accused of being witches were in fact proto-feminists. I find that doubtful. To my mind those accused by the community were most likely already isolated from the other folk in the area, nevermind what they thought, or believed in. Victims of history if you like, our knowledge of the past passed down to us from the dominant narratives of those who dominate.

Jacques Chessex here presents a semi-fictionalised account of actual events. The town of Ropraz in Switzerland at the turn of the twentieth century was gripped by tremendous fear after the body of a young woman, the daughter of a local justice of the peace who had passed away from meningitis, is discovered to have been disinterred and interfered with in the graveyard itself. The young Rosa Gilliéron mutilated corpse was found by her own father only two days after she was buried. Ropraz itself having already been moved to great despair by the tragic death of the beautiful girl is incensed at the monstrousness of the crime. The body has been sexually molested, chewed on and even had organs cut away by a sharp blade. Only a fiend could be capable of such a horrific crime. The people take to their homes, arm themselves and whisper to one another at night of the Vampire of Ropraz.

After shock comes anger and a desperate need for swift justice. Accusations are thrown against innocents, family feuds are reignited, suspicion falls on medical students, butchers and well-known criminals. The police are unable to find the culprit and then as the winter snows melt further outrages are committed against two more girls, thought safely resting in their graves. The vampire seems to be on the move, striking out to find more amenable hunting grounds in neighbouring towns. Word of the crimes reach newspaper readers across Europe, Catholic superstitions return to Protestant Switzerland and no one can tell where the fiend will strike next.

Then a man known as Charles-Augustin Fevez, a drunk with an exaggerated gait due to a dislocated shoulder, is identified as the culprit. Found molesting a cow in a stable, the leap from bestiality to bestial savagery is an easy one to make in the eyes of the public. The vampire of Ropraz has been found and the people want revenge.

What follows is a fascinating account of mob-justice and early psychiatry. The descriptions by Chessex may take artistic licence with certain details, certainly this is a more lyrical record than usually found in history books, but he shows a keenly felt personal interest in the scapegoating of Fevez by the community that never wanted him. Not that any argument protesting his innocence is made – this book is more interested in how a human can be made into a monster to excuse the crimes of the people around him. The small towns in Switzerland are in this period crippled by poverty and misery, with alcoholism, incest and mental illness found everywhere:

They hang themselves a lot in the farms of the Haut-Jorat. In the barn. From the ridge-beam

There can be no justice, only the exacting of a brief vengeance before life trundles on.

Where before Fevez was an anonymous stable-hand, he is become a celebrity of sorts. A lady in white bribes a warden to be allowed to spend time with Fevez in his cell on several occasions. In a strange inversion, Fevez becomes alike to the virginal innocents he is supposed to have ravished. Chessex ends his tale with the troubled man from Ropraz gaining immortality from an unexpected source.

A very curious record of a grotesque and bizarre historical event.  

I don’t want to blend in, like some of the others, slough away the past, adopt this new place, or rather attempt to be adopted by it, as an orphan. No place will mother or father me now. Countries are not mine and I am not theirs. I feel nothing for them, they are merely temporary, political intrusions into geographic cartography. There is just me, my draftboard, my rented house.

The phrase a nuclear family has always struck me as a strange one. For all its clinical focus on defining the family unit as a set body, it manages to lose all sense of what makes a family, namely the messy series of overlapping relationships that exist regardless of dysfunction. Yet the family continues to be focused on as an exactly defined entity, whether it be for a moral crusade (gay marriage, abortion, even divorce – I remember the propaganda surrounding the divorce referendum in Ireland in 1995), a population census, or marketing. The idea of what the family should be seems to take precedence over the reality.

Lara Fergus’s novel is a discussion of how such ideals as family, ethnicity and personal identity can survive in a vacuum, whether the objective categories we structure our lives in relation to can survive indefinitely.

The story begins with our nameless cartographer already embarked on a strange personal obsession. She is determined to define her own home in relation to a central point, capture it with a map of her own creation. It will account for each of the objects within the house and even herself, a constituent element of the home, defined on paper by the rules of her profession. The interior is spartan and orderly, allowing for ease of measurement.

One evening the cartographer is disturbed by the arrival of her twin sister, begging for a place to stay. Initially she refuses. The presence of her sister would threaten the viability of her work, a foreign object straying into the controlled environment. Despite her objections, however, the twin sister refuses to leave and eventually is allowed to stay for a short while. The cartographer prefers to focus on her work, but her sister insists on discussing the outside world and trying to engage her in conversation. The two siblings have not seen one another for over a year, with the sister having abandoned the cartographer after the outbreak of a disastrous war. Now the country they called home no longer exists, their family is scattered across borders as refugees and their ethnicity is reason enough to be suspected by the police.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn some of what the ‘other’ sister endured over her time away from the cartographer. How she was forced to flee from the threat of murder and rape at the hands of soldiers, living like a fugitive in the wilderness trying to avoid checkpoints and patrols. While the cartographer has become obsessed with the study of ordered space, her twin is consumed with grief at what she has lost. The house itself becomes divided between them due to their polarised responses to the traumatic exile from their eradicated past.

Lara Fergus has fashioned a deeply intimate portrayal of the relationship between two sisters, made all the more affecting by the cartographer’s absorption in abstract ideas of space. Like the characters in Goethe’s Elective Affinities she is attempting to render the personal as something scientific, an objective reality. There is a telling moment when she mentions how her professional work is supposed to be referred to as ‘ours’, and not ‘mine’, to reinforce morale. She is denied ownership even of the tasks she performs to earn money (which in turn is spent on a home she rents). In the absence of real identity, she has turned to a self-created ordered universe emanating from her draft board.

Fergus’s descriptions of the house itself reflect the cartographer’s perception of the building, a living thing that waits for her to return from work. Its surfaces contract and expand with the temperature, the lit windows resemble watching eyes belonging to some massive creature that sits on her street. Her relationship to her home is similar to the notion of architecture defining our identity described by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. The presence of her sister is therefore a personal invasion into her sense of self.

This is a thought provoking and fascinating novel. I greatly enjoyed it.

With thanks to Spinifex Press.

The transportation to Botany Bay has the advantage of the former mode of Transportation to America, in securing the kingdom from the dread of being again infected with these pernicious members of society. From the mortality which has already taken place on the transports, it is supposed not more than 1 in 5 will survive the voyage; and should the remainder live to the expiration of their sentence, they can never pay the (sic) expence of a passage home.

Sailors used to complain that a woman on board a vessel was bad luck. Yet the practice of transporting female convicts, rescued from the stocks by the ‘king’s mercy’, in the 1780s by being sent across the world to Australia was quite common. They were intended for numerous purposes by the Empire, as an impromptu ‘birthing bank’, for the stranded colony, as well as a source of sexual relief for the colonial overseers stationed there.

From the point of view of the seaman on board these vessels therefore, they were very lucky indeed. As these were women of ill-repute, without the protection of either family or class, completely at their mercy. What Siân Rees teases out is a complicated series of relations between the men and women on these ships, that speaks not only to the hypocrisy of the Georgian era, but also to the entrepreneurial origins of the Australian colony itself.

I also should point out this book was lent to me by one of my in-laws.

The London of the 1780s was a grim metropolis of extremes. With the wealth of the British Empire funding extraordinary examples of architecture, palatial homes and spacious town houses marking the presence of the upper classes. Meanwhile ghettos of impoverished labourers and the unemployed ran rampant with disease and starvation. Crime was often seen as a necessary adjunct to survival. For women, prostitution became one of an ever narrowing selection of options. Rees presents a dizzying array of names and examples of ‘fallen’, young women. Some seasoned criminals, others desperate for a crust following the early termination of their employment, still others the innocent victims of a nefarious plot. All of the names given belonged to women who faced death sentences for crimes such as theft, prostitution and muggings ‘on the king’s highway’.

In a perhaps dubious show of mercy, to celebrate the alleviation of George III’s madness the prisons were ordered to discharge their prisoners scheduled for execution for ‘transportation to lands beyond the seas’. The vessels were intended to make the long voyage from London to Cape Hope and then onwards to Sydney cove. There the women brought on board in shackles would in a stunning show of hypocrisy be prostituted to the British officers waiting as ‘wives’. This was an urgent solution intended to both solve the issue of providing breeding stock to the colonists, as well as defeat the temptation of resorting to sodomy.

What Rees reveals, however, is a story that contains a great deal of hope as well as despair. For one there is the tale of John Niccol ship steward and cooper on the good ship Lady Julian. As soon as he laid eyes on the young Sarah Whitelam he fell in love. They would even have a child together, although his duties would take him away from her eventually. Returning to his young bride would become an obsession that would come to define the rest of his life. Also despite the hardships face by the colonists at Sydney Cove and neighbouring islands, some of the women managed to serve their sentences and even return to England as free women.

At times the wide series of ship names and prisoners overwhelms the fascinating narrative. Eventually Rees settles for focusing on the fraught romance between Niccol and Whitelam. She also employs a wry sense of humour to lighten the grim fare of forced exportation to Australia, press gangs and institutionalised rape. Ultimately though the story told is a hopeful one.

I closed the book fascinated to learn more about the era and the history of this nation. So chalk it up to a win.

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