Friday, August 03, 2012
In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but how many can get through to you.
Sunrise over Howrah. Seen from Sandy Bay. July 2012.
A little late today, but bear with me, I have the flu and stuff to do this morning. Two books finished this week.
First up is Bring Larks and Heroes by Australian author Thomas Keneally.
I haven’t read a lot of Keneally (Schindler’s Ark and Gossip in the Forest being the other two), and this book is a good reason to further chastise myself for that fact. It’s a ripper! Stylistically, it’s worlds apart from my assumption of his approach. It brings to mind a more accessible Patrick White, with a keen sense of tragedy without ever weighing down the who enterprise.
In it Keneally probably helped kick of an entire re-interpretation of Australian history: that of our past as a penal colony. It’s a brutal but beautiful book. Rich in history and imagery, the tensions in those first few years of colonisation at the remote ends of the Earth resonate with tension. Men vastly outnumber women. The Irish – both convicts and those press-ganged into the Royal Marines ¬- outnumber the English. The oppressed Catholics outnumber the Protestants. The natives are relegated to a harsh existence on the periphery. The alien land and climate test everybody. Suffice to say, things are tough.
This is the canvas that the author masterfully invokes an understanding of our past that was quite different to our self-perception up to that point; more The Gulag Archipelago than Gilligan’s Island.
The religious allusions are many, and when coupled with the brutal natural imagery the seeming futility of life in the late 18th century is stark. It’s a cruel lot for the masters of the colony, and only gets worse the farther down the tree you are: administrators, officers, wives of the elite, soldiers, convicts, female convicts, natives. The novel is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of convict life, and is dismissive of the vain hope that redemption is possible in such circumstances. Brutal times are brutal times, and there are no happy endings here.
I loved this book. Some people have found the intense Catholic strain of belief and guilt in Keneally’s early work hard going, but in the tale of a young Catholic servant of an Empire and a system who represses his people. This is a top read. Very highly recommended.
Next up is Swindled: The Dark History Of The Food Cheats by British chef and historian Bee Wilson.
A rich and diverse history of food adulteration, with a primary focus on the Anglo-American society’s post-Industrial revolution, Wilson explores how food adulteration has been endemic in modern, industrialised cities. She effectively demonstrates how modern science led the way in contaminating food for profit, exposing that contamination, driving forth new forms of adulteration and then catching the new cheats.
This is a very interesting book. Just make sure that you finished your dinner before you start reading! Recommended.