Hamilton Hume

Hamilton Hume: Our Greatest Explorer, by Robert Macklin

Hachette (2016), Paperback, 352 pages.

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Like most Australians, I guess, at school I was bombarded with Explorers. We were lectured in serious tones about the history of Australia’s exploration and given a list parrot-fashion of all the explorers. One of the curious results of this is that all the explorers who travelled in pairs or threes have become run together in a sing-song fashion in most people’s minds. Burke and Wills; Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson; Hume and Hovell. I’ll wager most people can recite these names off by heart, but can actually remember very little about their feats. That certainly goes, in my case, for the last-named pair. The particularly alliterative Hume and Hovell comes very easily to the tongue, but apart from the fact that Australia’s busiest highway is named after one of them, I could have told you nothing about what they discovered. Until I read this book, that is. And it’s a great story. Hamilton Hume was in fact one of the few early explorers who was native-born. In the panoply of British-born soldiers, sailors and civil servants who navigated the country in the first 50 years of settlement, Hume stands out as the only genuine Australian to lead a major expedition. For this reason, his contribution was shamefully downgraded, the cultural cringe and shameless snobbery, that elevated British-born “sterling” over native “currency”, meant his part in the discovery of the land route bewteen Sydney and Port Phillip, which was to become the site of Melbourne, was barely acknowledged until well into the 20th century. Yet Hume’s contribution was pivotal, not only did the expedition he led open the way to travel between Australia’s two largest cities, along the way he discovered millions of acres of some of the richest farmland in the world, the bread basket of Australia and the cradle of its economic wealth. He did this largely without the help of his expedition co-leader, the Scottish naval officer William Hovell, who proved to be a whining defeatist, and who threatened to turn back several times. Hume saved the expedition from starvation through his superb bushcraft and his empathy for the indigenous people, whom he recognised before anyone else as not being savages, but a people finely attuned to the land, who has mastered the arts of survival that the whites needed to learn before thay could master the vast country. Yet after the expedition’s return, Hovell arrogantly assumed the lion’s share of credit, and because he was British, the establishment automatically accepted his version over the native-born Hume. Hume lived the rest of his life as a gentleman farmer, sinking into relative obscurity after his death, but Macklin has done a great job of resurrecting this early Australian hero. Not only are the early explorations of Australia well-covered, but along the way he provides an excellent potted history of the struggles and tribulations of the young settlement. This is one of the betetr books I have read on Australia’s early history in recent times. It’s really a cracking read as well as paying long overdue credit to a genuine hero of Australia’s past.

9.5/10

Seinfeldia

Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Simon & Schuster (2016), Hardcover, 320 pages

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I can’t truthfully say that I was an obsessive fan of Seinfeld. It took me a quite a while to start watching the show, my initial impressions weren’t good, and my frequently expressed opinion regarding the program to those who kept telling me how good it was were generally short and sharp However, like most of the TV programs I have watched in my life and come to enjoy, there was a breakthrough episode. I don’t even know its proper title, but it was the one where Jerry and Elaine are on the same flight, and for some reason Jerry ends up in first class, while Elaine is stuck in cattle class. It plays the very familiar trope of class envy, playing on something that everyone who has flown on a plane in economy class, and that includes me, feels when they walk through those comfortable, quiet first or business class sections, en route to the crowded, noisy confines of cattle class, “Why them and not me?”Seinfeld takes these feelings we have all had and articulates them eloquently and hilariously. And that I discovered while watching that episode, is what Seinfeld was all about, not a show about nothing, but a show that articulated the mute anger, frustration, envy, confusion and anxiety of modern urban life and made it very funny at the same time as it struck a nerve in everyone who had every experienced something akin to the many awkward social situations the show captured so well. This book is an excellent companion to the series, covering the show’s background, the story of how Seinfeld and Larry David came to sell the series to NBC, in pretty much the same way as was depicted in the fictional show “Jerry” which Serinfeld and George tried to sell in a hilarious mirror-image self-reference. The book further goes on to describe how each of the main cast members was chosen, how each of the numerous writers, a continuous rollover of them, each mining their own life experiences for storylines, came and went from the show. Also featured are the bit-part actors, who may only have appeared in one episode, but have become cult figures because of it, for example the eponymous Soup Nazi, who has parlayed his cult status into a profitable business catering to Seinfeld obssessives. The book is an absolute mine of Seinfeld trivia (The most frequently appearing character other than the main four is the unobtrusive cashier in the cafe; both George and Jerry’s fathers were played by different actors in their first appearances; Elaine was heavily pregnant during several episodes and was shown bundled up in voluminous clothes or concealed under blankets to hide the fact; the woman who appeared only on the poster for Rochelle Rochelle has become a cult figure). After the show’s less than stellar finale, Armstrong goes on to show how the fans refused to let it die, creating a world that she dubs “Seinfeldia”, part-reality, part fantasy, where the show has come to be more than the sum of its parts. This is a fascinating book, even if you don’t particularly like the show, but are interested in how modern TV is created, some of it not very edifying, to tell the truth, this is a must read.

9.5/10

Revenger

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

Gollancz (2016), Hardcover, 432 pages

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At first glance, and indeed for about the first 100 pages or so, this seemed like another in the ever-growing collection of what I like to call Firefly porn. The familiar trope – racketty spaceship, crusty but lovable captain, crew of misfits – there’s a lot of it out there. The beginning is pure Firefly homage – Adrana and Arafura are sisters who run away from a cossetted life and overbearing father on a planet in the Congregation, a collection of 50 million artificial worlds huddled together against the dark of interstellar space,  to join the Monetta’s Mourn, a ship engaged in the quest for baubles. Baubles are time-locked vaults left by long-departed aliens, full of advanced technology, and cracking them requires all the disparate skills of a crew like those of Monetta’s Mourn. The girls quickly find they have the talent to be Bone Readers, highly prized individuals who can tap the psychic emanations from a long-dead alien skull to scout for danger and spy on communications between other ships and learn where the best baubles are located. However, any thought this story might turn into just a long, cozy treasure-hunt are shattered, when in a orgy of violence, the Monetta’s Mourn is attacked by a vicious pirate and most of the crew slaughtered.  Adrana is kidnapped by the evil Bosa Sennen and Fura is left to plot revenge and get her sister back. It makes for a great story, and Reynolds manage to extract much mileage from a familiar story with quick-paced plotting, strong and believable characters and an idiosyncratic but plausible universe. Much of the strength of the book rests on the shoulders of Arafura, who quickly develops under the pressure of events beyond her control into a formidable but endearing character. In addition, there is an excellent support cast to back her up. I really enjoyed this book, there seems certain to be a sequel, and its one I am really looking forward to.

9.5/10

Revival

Revival, by Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton (2014), Hardcover, 384 pages

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This may be the best King novel I have read since his glory days in the 80’s and 90’s. I have felt there’s been diminishing returns in King’s offerings lately, none of them within the last 5 years have I felt like finishing, certainly nothing like the impact The Stand, Salem’s Lot, It, Needful Things, The Tommyknockers and the like had on me. Then Revival came along, and its a gem. Its probably one of the best novels I have read this year. Much less a horror story, although the ending is pure King, as a story of obsession, the questioning of faith and the catastrophic effects tragedy can have on a man’s life. It is also a superb evocation of childhood, of memory, of ageing both gracefully and disgracefully. The story revolves around the relationship over many years between Jamie Morton, a musician from a small town in Maine, and Charles Jacobs, who meets Jamie as a boy while taking over as minister in the boy’s home town. A bond grows between them, based on a mutual fascination with electricity, but it is shattered when Jacobs endures a horrific personal tragedy and reacts by cursing God from the pulpit. Years later, Jamie is a down and out, drug-addicted musician, whom is saved by Jacobs, now a carny act doing portraits of the rubes with electricity. Jacobs uses his skill with electricity to cure Jamie of his addictions, but Jamie is left with worrying after-effects and questions over exactly what Jacobs has done to him. Their last meeting occurrs when Jamie has found his calling as manager of a recording studio, and Jacobs is raking in millions as a faith healer, again using electricity. The suspense builds from there, and the ending is quite horrifying, but as I said, pure King. I didn’t really sleep well after finishing it, but its a great read, enthralling from beginning to end, and with characters who are human, realistic and who grow  on you. I loved it.

9.5/10

 

 

Van Gogh’s Ear

Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, by Bernadette Murphy

Chatto & Windus (2016), Paperback, 336 pages

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As an obsessed Van Gogh fan since first seeing photos of Starry Night at high school, this book approaches perfection. Bernadette Murphy, an amateur researcher living in Provence, became obsessed herself, with finding out what really happened in the village of Arles on the night of December 23, 1888, when the most famous self-mutilation in the history of art occurred. Everyone knows the story – distraught after an argument with Gauguin, Van Gogh hacked off his left ear and presented it to a prostitute he was fond of. Murphy started with that well-worn tale and decided to research not only the incident itself, but the whole of Van Gogh’s sojourn in Arles. And her research is amazing, it is certainly one of the most determined and exhaustive searches I can recall from an avowed amateur. Through dogged determination, lots of leg work, and what must have been weeks of poring over archive records, she meticulously documents Van Gogh’s life in Arles. She manages to come up with archival evidence and in some cases a back story for just about everyone Van Gogh interacted with in Arles. In fact, her research becomes almost as interesting as the story itself. This is a masterclass in how an amateur can top professionals who have combed over the subject’s life for more than a century. In the end, Murphy gets to the bottom of the ear severing incident, including, through finding a drawing done by a young doctor who tended van Gogh, lost for almost a century, exactly how much of Van Gogh’s ear was amputated. She also discovers that the girl Van Gogh gave the ear to was not a prostitute, but a girl of good family who worked as a servant in the brothel, in the process she discovers the back story of the girl and her ultimately tragic life. This is a tour de force of historical research, I cannot recommend it highly enough, it will fascinte those like me who obssess about that brilliant, tormented young artist, as well as those who love the history of art, and those who just love history, or for that matter a damn good read. Top-notch writing.

10/10