Books read February 2018

BOOKS READ FEBRUARY 2018

Stuart Kells: The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2017

This is a book for book lovers/second hand book searchers/library aficionados and historians of the written word.  If you have none of these interests it still contains some of the funniest and most unusual anecdotes you might ever come across including some spicy and little known gossip about some very famous people! The author is based in Melbourne, but Kells’ book travels the world of libraries with nevertheless particular interest because of its frequent reference to Melbourne’s State Library and other Australian libraries.

Kells has amassed a serious amount of out of the way knowledge about the origin and development of the written word. starting with indigenous Australian oral songlines  (with an ambivalent side analysis of Bruce Chatwyn’s scholarship), moving on to the origin of cuneiform and  ancient near Eastern clay tablets, parchment scrolls and the first codex.

Kells’ narrative proceeds to the accumulation of books following the disputed saga of the invention of the  printing press. He  delves into the intricacies, creation and destruction of libraries from the contested burning of the library of Alexandria (did it simply rot away?) to the complex formation of the Vatican library and other Renaissance developments, to the Pierpont Morgan Library in Washington D.C. and the amazing Folger Shakespeare Library. Some of these stories defy imagination including the professional book stealers, forgers, book destroyers (including the Puritans),  book wreckers and conmen (few women involved in this section!). The susceptibility of books to dry rot, rats and mice, water  and neglect is matched only by the massive destruction of books caused by war and bombing.  The burning of books has become a symbol of barbarism. (p172) and William Ewart Gladstone: ..there is no better way to destroy a culture than to destroy its books.  (p174)

In addition Kells relates some tragic stories of bibliomania which include the hapless Richard Heber, born 1774, preparing a detailed bibliographic catalogue at age eight and managing finally to amass over 100.000 books completely filling eight houses with piles extending to the ceiling  and dying among his books in the room in which he was born.  The sale of his books required 216 days of auctions in three European cities.

Kells even manages to analyse fantasy libraries with a detailed chapter on the complexity of Tolkeinian Hobbit libraries, Umberto Eco’s  monastic most enchanting library ever captured in words in his first novel The Name of the Rose, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s even more dangerously threatening library in The Shadow of the Wind. Hovering over the whole study is the master of library mystery, Jorge Luis Borges’ defining account of The Library at Babylon. Borges’ love of words, mystery and literature pervades this book from first word to last without his Babylon library  ever receiving the detailed analysis we might have looked for.

This is a book to savour, to think about, to come back to and to base some very worthwhile travel upon. A useful list of further reading at the back of the book is also helpful.  5 stars for me!

Mark Worthing: Graeme Clark: The Man Who Invented the Bionic Ear,  Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2015.

Science historian and Tabor College lecturer Mark Worthing has done us all a favour by meticulously charting the amazing journey of Graeme Clark’s achievement of enabling children profoundly deaf from birth and adults with later in life deafness to hear and understand human voice. He has achieved this worldwide first against all the odds including the scorn of some of his international peers and is deservedly fêted as one of Australia’s greatest ever scientists and a rightful member of the Royal Society, a winner of the prestigious Lister Medal, the Excellence in Surgery Award of the Royal Australasin College of Surgeons and many other international prizes.

I knew Graeme personally as we were both members of Ridley College Council for a period of time in the 1990’s. He was and still is a genial, quietly spoken but strong minded man with a deep Christian conviction.  One of the features of Worthing’s biography is that it charts the growth of Clark’s Christian faith which began with his church attending parents, was strengthened by his membership of the Student Christian Movement at  University; encouraged by the Challis Professor of Biology Charles Birch; Clarke’s first lecturer in Zoology at Sydney University, substantially deepened by his friendship with Neuroscientist and Communication Professor Donald McKay, author of The Clockwork Image and a dynamic evangelical leader at Keele University in the UK and brought to a personal faith in Christ through the ministry of the Christian speaker at an SCM camp he attended at Otford on the New South Wales coast. The speaker was  George Garnsey, whose father was then the Anglican Bishop of Sale in Gippsland Victoria.

Graeme’s vision for a solution to profound deafness was sparked by the partial deafness of his pharmacist father and apparently at age 8 Graeme was heard to say: “when I grow up I am going to fix ears!”  This goal remained front and centre as he pursued a study program which commenced with degrees in Medicine, Surgery and Ear, Nose and Throat specialisation  and continued in later life with studies in the engineering behind miniaturization of micro – technology. This laborious and extremely demanding program was shared with his young wife Margaret and their eventual family of five. Not the least of Clark’s challenges was finding the vast amount of money required to form his research team. He turned out to be a master of fund-raising as well persuading Reg Ansett to run three telethons on Channel 10, then premier Henry Boulte to supply Victorian State Government support and eventually obtaining substantial Federal funding.

The creation of a  bionic ear, a cochlear implant of a powerful tiny microchip contained in a leak proof gold box in the inner ear  uses electrical impulses to stimulate the nerves of the inner ear making signals which can be converted into audible voice by a person without any natural hearing. Such an achievement was declared impossible as late as 1964 by a leading American professor in ottarlayngology. By early 1980 Clark had made it a reality and by the mid-1980’s it was rapidly becoming the technology of choice to overcome deafness, much to the distress of the some in the Auslan community who saw Clark’s work as the death of their identity.  A feature of this book is the forward by Li Cunxin, of Mao’s Last Dancer fame whose own daughter was profoundly deaf and whose life was transformed by the bionic ear.

This is a quite remarkable all Australian story told in a clear and honest way with no frills, just like humble Graeme Clark himself. It is a read you will not be able to put down!  5 stars

E(dith) S. Nesbit: The Railway Children, London, Wells Gardiner, Darton & Co. Ltd., 1906

My childhood reading included, other than the Bible,  A A Milne’s Christopher Robin; a steady diet of fairy tales and stories from Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm and other Northern European legends; a green book of Robin Hood which I read over and over; a much thumbed King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green; hundreds of Golden Books and comics especially Phantom comics and Walt Disney stories and Bugs Bunny Classics and other Golden Book classics like Tootle, The Train to Tinbuctoo and Scuffy the Tugboat; the Little Black Sambo books; Beatrix Potter books; Classical stories like The Song of Roland and Jason and the Argonauts from volumes of Newnes Pictorial Knowledge; all the amazing short stories and poems in the  hardback grade level readers; Barrie’s Peter Pan; KIpling’s Mowgli and Jungle Stories; lashings of Capt W E Johns’ Biggles books: Johanna Spyrie’s Heidi series; Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows; Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland; a little known book about talking animals by Trevor Dudley Smith called By a Silver Stream; (I must have read this book at least 30 times!); Enid Blyton’s Noddy of course and all the Famous Five and Secret Seven series; The Just William series by Richmal Cromton; I loved  Ballantyne’s The Coral Island,  Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; and an Australian book by Erle Wilson about the Tasmanian Tiger called Coorinna; animal stories like Shadow the Sheep Dog,  Silver Chief, Lassie and Black Beauty;  a book called The Tower Room which I read over and over and an 1886 novel by G. Manville Fenn called Brownsmith’s Boy which my sister and I made Mum read to us over and over again; A number of Christian books (one called Tina and Tim); I read all of Conan Doyle’s short and long stories over and over; No doubt there were many other books and authors I have now forgotten.

Huckleberry Finn for me had to wait until English Literature at Melbourne University and Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles until I read them to my own children along with all of Tolkien. (except The Silmarilion !  I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables until I travelled with my wife Ann to Prince Edward Island and fell in love with Lucy Maud Montgomery and her poetry and writing.  I never got around to reading Jules Verne.  But no-one introduced me to E S Nesbit’s The Railway Children until I found a copy at our church second hand booksale and read it today (February 2018).  Old fashioned, yes; predictable in places, yes; twee in places, yes! But, after all these years still delightfully engaging, heart – warming, energising, funny, elevating and clever writing. The similarity with the four children in Narnia is striking (although there were only three railway children). There is nothing supernatural in Nesbit’s work either. In fact the life situation is quite realistic and beautifully described. If you can find her work I recommend it still for reading to young children. In spite of its 1905 setting I reckon literary young people in 2018 would still love having it read to them and beg for another chapter! (4 stars!)

Mark Tedeschi QC: Eugenia: A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage, Sydney,    Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Mark Tedeschi QC is the Senior Crown Prosecutor for New South Wales, a barrister of 39 years standing, a Keren trekker, an exhibiting photographer, fluent in Italian after living in Florence and has  a Masters in International Law from London….not a non-fiction writer to be trifled with. He regards the case of Eugenia to be perhaps the most significant trial that has been conducted by our predecessors during the last 175 years (p302).

The  1920 trial involved a charge of murder in which the accused was  Eugenia Falleni, the daughter of Italian immigrants to New Zealand..Eugenia was two when they came to New Zealand and grew up bilingual but was rebellious at school and never learned to read. A tomboy in her youth Eugenia,as she grew older was much happier dressing, behaving and working as a man. Leaving home she embarked on a successful career as Eugene, a male sailor but eventually her true gender was discovered and she was brutally raped by a ship captain, put off at Newcastle and eventually giving birth to his child. Eugenia found a family to care for the child and resumed her life in Sydney as a heavy drinking gregarious male casual worker. The story relates her complex life in Australia involving two marriages and her arrest, trial and conviction for the murder of her first wife all of which clearly had major implications for the rest of her life including requiring her to lead the final part of her life as a woman.

A large part of Tedeschi’s book involves the unsatisfactory nature of criminal justice procedure in the 1920s including police arrest and charging procedures, the impact of outrageous pre-trial media reporting, the improper use of witnesses both sighting and expert and the introduction of inappropriate evidence into the case. Whilst this sounds tedious Tedeschi’s obvious expertise and clear explanations make for compelling reading. Tedeschi also provides useful historical background to the people and places involved in the story and indeed the odd international historical summary. Needless to say Tedeschi is very confident that in today’s law court Eugene would have been found not guilty.

A further significant feature of this book is Tedeschi’s analysis of 1920’s ignorance and indeed fearful hatred of homosexuality and any form of transsexualism and the hurtful, indeed vicious way it was portrayed in the newspapers of the day. Tedeschi’s chapter Retrospective” provides useful distinctions between sexual orientation/ preference  and  sexual identity, describing the former as an expression of sexual attraction to others and the latter as an expression of one’s own inner gender identity. The terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘homosexual’ refer to sexual orientation or preference. A transexual is a person whose physical sex at birth conflicts with his or her perceived psychological gender.  (p.312). Tedeschi provides further medical definitions to clarify the above distinctions.

This is an unusual, demanding and at times disturbing read, full of tension, plot twists and some quite amazing encounters. 5 stars.

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