Monday, 20 January 2003

Clara Schumann, blue bears & bush fires

Listening to:

Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem.

Just read:

Walter Moers, The 13½ lives of Captain Bluebear.

This is a fun book. It’s the story of a blue bear, who lives and adventures in a fantastic continent full of strange people and monsters. Accompanied by the author’s own illustrations, the inhabitants and their homes are conveyed very vividly. The book is really just a series of relatively disconnected (13½ of them) episodes featuring Bluebear in a different locale in each. A book such as this is an exercise in whimsy, and it stands or falls on the strength of the strange and wacky inventions that the author has dreamed up. I’d say that Moers definitely succeeds. Memorable moments include the journey through a giant’s head, a career as tall-tale-teller, being a student at Professor Nightingale’s exclusive university, a spell inside a perpetual tornado, and the final climactic show-down with the megalomaniac master of the massive SS Moloch. The illustrations are great.

Janice Galloway, Clara.

This book is a strange hybrid between novel and biography. I think it definitely has to count as fiction because of the way that Galloway puts herself into her subject’s head and purports to speak for her. Nonetheless, I was quickly convinced that the story was an accurate one, and that the details and history were all there. (Perhaps I came to it knowing just enough to be easily misled.) Anyway, the book’s subject is Clara Schumann, née Weick, and it covers her life from childhood up to the death of her husband, Robert Schumann. This is long enough for Clara to become an international star (as a concert pianist), to fall in love with Robert, to stress over career (she was capable of earning much more than he ever was), and to have to support him as he sickens with mental illness.

I greatly enjoyed the whole book. Clara Schumann’s was definitely an interesting life, particularly up to Galloway’s cut-off point, and Galloway tells it very well. Her central characters are all believable and engaging, particularly Clara herself, Robert Schumann, and Clara’s father. Johannes Brahms (author of a certain requiem) makes a brief appearance towards the end of the story, as do other musical stars of the period, the Mendelssohns, Chopin, Paganini, Liszt and Joachim.

Now reading:

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone, another 19th century biography.

I’m now living in Canberra. Canberra has just had a disastrous weekend, with 368 homes destroyed by fire, and four people killed. Our university flat is on the other side of town from the fires, so we weren’t in any danger ourselves. Instead we got to walk around the centre of town on Saturday. It was incredibly hot, with a hot wind blowing smoke across the sky from the west. This caused the Sun to cast an eerie orange-yellow light across everything. While waiting for a bus, we saw two fire-fighting helicopters fly across the sky. A state of emergency has been declared, and you can read official status information on the web.

Monday, 27 January 2003

Momo & The far side of the world

Listening to:

Bach, A musical offering

Just read:

Michael Ende, Momo.

This is a cute children’s story; a modern day fairy tale. As such, it is written in a slightly portentous way, and features simple characters. Central is Momo, a young girl of uncertain origin, who has to take on the lead rôle in resisting the invasion of strange grey men in suits who are stealing everyone’s time. Needless to say, this can be read as an allegory about modern life. This allegory exalts simple childish pleasures, rages against artificial, unworthy toys in childish lives, and generally condemns all of capitalism’s trappings in adult lives.

Read this way, the story is tedious and predictable sermonising. If you can ignore this, it’s actually quite an enjoyable story, with some neat fantastic elements.

Patrick O’Brian, Far side of the world.

This is the tenth book in O’Brian's series, and definitely of the same level of quality as its predecessors. I'm impressed that O'Brian managed to keep coming up with stories using the same characters and in roughly the same setting, but where story-lines and circumstances varied in interesting ways. In this installment, Aubrey and Maturin are soon off to the Pacific, chasing an American frigate that is poised to wreak havoc with British whalers operating in this area.

The inevitable conflict between the good guys and the bad guys comes at the very end of the story and is not resolved in a naval engagement at all. Earlier, there's a perhaps slightly incredible, but compelling sub-plot featuring Aubrey and Maturin falling out of the back of their ship and floating for miles in the depths of the Pacific. Earlier still, there are water problems, a difficult re-supply, and on-board adultery to cope with. The novel is full of incident and adventure, peopled with characters that are likeable, and seem genuine. What more could you ask for?

To read next:

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March.

Australia Day

Today is a public holiday, because it was Australia Day on Sunday. This

celebrates the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip unfurling the British flag at Sydney Cove and proclaiming British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia on 26 January 1788. (Source)

Any Aborigines in the vicinity were not consulted.

Wednesday, 29 January 2003

Swallowdale & Georgiana Molloy

Listening to:

Schubert, Arpeggione sonata, in A minor, D821.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Swallowdale.

This is the second Swallows & Amazons book, and a very enjoyable read it is too. Though set around the same lake as the first book, it features a lot less sailing than the first, and Wild Cat Island (the island that was so central to S&A) features even less. In fact, Wild Cat Island doesn’t play much of a part in any of the subsequent books either. Ransome did an extremely good job at varying his stories; I would never accuse him of repetitive plotting. (Unlike, dare I say it, Rowling in the Harry Potter books.) Anyway, the story really is very good, with a number of overland adventures, a final race between the two boats, a neat camp-site, the Swallowdale of the title, and the distant presence of the awe-inspiring and awful Great Aunt. Definitely at least as good as its predecessor.

Alexandra Hasluck, Georgiana Molloy: portrait with background.

This is another of those 19th century biographies. Its subject was one of England’s first migrants to Western Australia, arriving there in 1830. She was newly married to retired Army Captain John Molloy, who had fought in the Peninsular campaigns under the Duke of Wellington. After finding Perth and Fremantle too hot, the couple, and some other families that they’d met on the ship out, decided to move to Augusta on WA’s south coast, where John Molloy became the state’s senior representative. Though she initially disliked the conditions, Georgiana came to appreciate the beauties of the Australian bush, and became a keen gardener. She struck up a correspondence with a UK botanist, James Mangles, and was encouraged to collect examples of WA’s unique plants and flowers and send them to the UK, where they were received avidly.

Even as Hasluck describes this strand of Molloy’s life, and does it very well, she also tells how Molloy and her husband had a number of children, and moved north, to what was to become Busselton, after they decided that conditions were too difficult in Augusta. I found this biography very appealing. It had it all for me, a setting with which I was slightly familiar (I have been to both Augusta and Busselton, I have seen Molloy Island), a bit of scientific history that could only remind me of the appealing Stephen Maturin character in the O’Brian books (who is in turn modelled in many ways on Joseph Banks), and an interesting general history of early settlement.

It’s funny reading Australian and American media in juxtaposition. In the US material, liberal seems to mainly be a term of abuse, levelled at the left-wing by the right-wing. In Australia, the Liberal party is the main right-wing party, and that of the current Prime Minister, John Howard.

I was recently reading a piece in the New York Review of Books about President Bush’s latest tax proposals. It pointed out that a plan that had most benefit for the top 1% of the country wouldn’t necessarily be such a hard sell. In Europe (or Australasia) people would get very indignant about such things. In aspirational America, people are more indulgent about being nice to the rich because that’s where they want to be themselves, and because they might just get there eventually. Indeed, the same article claimed that surveys had established that fully 17% of the population thought they were already in the top 1% of the population.

Friday, 31 January 2003

Gladstone, the dawn chorus ...

Listening to:

Brahms, piano concerto #2.

Just read:

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone.

This is a big fat biography of one the 19th century’s pre-eminent statesmen. Gladstone was Prime Minister four times, and came to dominate the British political scene for roughly 30 years, from the 1860s to the 1890s. He left Parliament just four years before he died, in his late eighties, and began his Parliamentary career in his early thirties. If Tony Blair were to do as well, he’d still be with us in 2020. The fact that this seems so inconceivable is perhaps a comment about modern age-ism more than anything else.

Jenkins is (was) a politician of the late 20th century, so it’s not surprising that his biography should concentrate on Gladstone as a politician. We don’t, for example, hear much about his relationship with his wife, nor what he liked to eat for breakfast (though there is a very interesting discussion about 19th century meal habits in general, dealing with, for example, how “lunch” gained its modern status as a meal of the day). On the other hand, Jenkins does describe many aspects of Gladstone’s more public life. In addition to his political career, Gladstone had a very busy life in other areas. He read approximately 20000 books, and wrote journal articles and books on a variety of often non-political subjects. Jenkins describes a number of occasions when one might have expected Gladstone to be giving all this time to political work (the night before presenting the Budget, for example), but when Gladstone took time off this to write poetry reviews and the like.

I had high hopes for this biography, and on the whole they were not disappointed. I found much of it quite fascinating. Jenkins is not stylistically perfect, and there were times when I couldn’t help but wonder if he was attempting to imitate Gladstone’s supposedly tortuous prose style. He also refuses to provide translations for his Latin quotations. Again this mirrors an aspect of Gladstone’s life: Jenkins has it that Gladstone was only comfortable with those politicians that shared a similar classical education, and with whom he could exchange Latin and Greek quotations. But these are relatively minor points. The biography brings a very interesting political period to life, and does it well. Parts I found particularly interesting were the discussion of Gladstone’s (increasingly bad) relations with Queen Victoria, his diary habits, and introductions to other significant people of the period (Disraeli, Palmerston, Peel, Parnell). For all his failings, Gladstone also comes across as quite a sympathetic subject, and this always helps.

It was 39°C yesterday, the hot wind gusted at up to 70km/h, and smoke from distant bush-fires filled the sky. Today it will reach a maximum of 26°, the breeze is cool and refreshing, and the sky is blue. Changeable Canberra!

One aspect of Canberra life that is novel to me is the large numbers of large birds around. In particular, there are lots of magpies, cockatoos and galahs (pink and grey parrots) about. They make an enormous noise as the Sun comes up. I wondered why the dawn chorus happens at all, and the Web came to my aid with this article, which is about why the different bird species in the chorus start at different times, but also says that it happens to make territorial claims and to attract mates.

A couple of links:

  • A web-collage, a constantly updating page of images randomly grabbed from the web. It occasionally features images that are probably not suitable for children, but it's usually just a strange and varied window on the world. (You can click on the images to find out where they came from.)
  • Stylish cartoons/art-pieces on the back of business cards.