Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2014

2014 Folio Prize Longlist


I am pleased to see that books I’ve read and enjoyed have been nominated for the Folio prize longlist, and that I also have some of them on my TBR.

You can see the 80 books listed here, and the ones I’ve reviewed are

On the TBR  are

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2014

Acute Misfortune, by Erik Jensen


Acute MisfortuneThere was a lot to think about while reading this book, and it took me well out of my comfort zone.  I like reading biographies of artists, but although his prize-winning portrait of David *swoon* Wenham was on my radar,  Adam Cullen (1965-2012) wasn’t.  When the publicity blurb told me that this Cullen cultivated a ‘bad boy’ persona, (drugs, grunge, outrageous behaviour) I suspected that I was not going to like him – or the book.  As it turned out, I was right about the former – and wrong about the latter…

I like books that make me think.  And this book provokes the question, how tolerant are we as a society and as individuals, of people who don’t fit into everyday society?  I am not now thinking of discrimination, but rather of disapproval, whether expressed or internalised.  Erik Jensen writes the life of a most unlikeable man with some tenderness.  He makes the reader see that within the self-destructive egoist, Cullen had some charm.  And although Jensen is somewhat ambivalent about Cullen’s talent, implicit in the bio is also the question, are we willing, or obliged to be, more tolerant of someone of genius; and are we willing, or obliged to be, more tolerant of artists more ordinary that that?  Chris McAuliffe asks the same question in a more erudite way in his art criticism blog about the rad scunge exhibition.

This expectation that the artist’s task is to transgress raises the question of latitude; how much leeway do we grant artists, why do we grant it to them.  (Chris McAuliffe, art, writing, music, June 6, 2014)

I hope I have come to the conclusion that Jensen might have wanted, that genius is not the point. It’s easy to be tolerant and approving of Beethoven, who was cranky and rude and a genius.  His music is glorious.  But Cullen’s legacy is more debateable. He is said to be highly collectible as the Cullen Hotel testifies but he made the sort of art that polarises opinion.

I often like contemporary art, but I suspect that I am not alone in finding most installations peculiar and obscure.  Jensen distinguishes between Cullen’s sculpture and his painting, and if you want to imagine my struggle with Cullen’s art, try to read the following from the perspective of someone whose next overseas trip involves learning about Dutch Renaissance Painting with Academy Travel:

Adam was mostly a sculptor at this point.  He made scrappy works from used pens and unfired clay, giving them long names from theory and nonsense.  Everything looked as if it had been broken and he had tried clumsily to fix it.  These signs of caring were the works’ charm, and they were lost to some end in his paintings – perhaps because painting came more easily. The sculptures grew out of performances at art school: the lawnmower he started on stage; the cat he skinned while the Doors played; the cassettes he stitched to the soles of his feet; the pig’s head ball and chain that sparked his notoriety.

His sculptural masterwork, Residual paroxysm of unspoken and extended closures interrogated by a malady of necrogenic subterfuge with a nice exit, finally sold to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2008, almost two decades after being shown there as a part of the era-defining Perspecta shows.  It was, like many of his assemblages, maternal.  An air-conditioning unit, padded with disposable nappies, sits in a bathtub, connected to a television by a length of plastic tubing and, further on, to a battery of pharmaceutical instruments and drying mucus.  The impression is of a failed life support, an ectopic womb. The unplugged television exists as an aborted power source.  It is an extension of the idea explored in Cosmological satellite mother denied depressed speech, a beer keg to which he affixed a length of umbilical cord preserved in formalin, a specimen stolen from a closed teaching hospital. The works represented what had nurtured Adam: television, and then beer.

“It’s taken me eighteen years to f-ing sell it,” he said by way of celebration.  ‘They take this f-ing sh- out of my house and call it art.  It’s just so great.”

*

 (p.48-49)

Hmm.  Apart from the fact that this last is not true, Cullen didn’t sell it, the Art Gallery of NSW website page for this work says that it was a ‘gift of the artist’ in 2008, this comment looks as if Cullen is mocking his admirers.  That’s if we take what he says at face value…

(The arrangement of text suggests that Erik Jensen took this comment at face value.  That asterisk above signals the end of that episode.  It’s followed immediately by a sequence about Cullen’s abortive doctorate. So although elsewhere Jensen makes it obvious that Cullen plays fast and loose with the truth, there’s no rebuttal of Cullen’s claim that the AGNSW bought the work.)

Ok, the artist is representing a fractured view of contemporary life.  Just as *reluctant frown* the Impressionists represented their impressions of contemporary life.  But IMO it’s a whole lot easier to understand and admire their work.  *Another reluctant frown* Would I have been one of those reacting with a doubtful ‘hmmm’ when Impressionism was first exhibited at the Paris Salon?

By coincidence this video turned up on my Facebook page today, thanks Chris C in SW Rocks.  (Apologies if you’re not on Facebook and can’t view it).  As one of the comments says: ‘Sometimes life looks like a pile of trash. Changing your angle can make things a lot clearer’. 

(Changing my angle) what is a reader to make of the strange genesis of this book?  In 2008, with claims that there was a publication contract Cullen persuaded journalist Erik Jensen to move into his house and write his biography.  Over four years, Jensen eventually realised that Cullen, who was seriously ill due to years of drug abuse, had invented the story because he wanted to get to know the author.  There were macabre events such as Cullen shooting Jensen and throwing him off a speeding motorbike.  The author follows Cullen’s descent into hospitalisation, squalor and appearances in court for possessing an arsenal of weapons which his lawyer the celebrated Charles Waterstreet argued that he intended to use in his art.

I am not surprised that this book has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.  For the right kind of open-minded bookgroup, it would be a terrific book for a wide-ranging discussion not only about art and artists and the difficult issues they make us confront, but also to explore how much Jensen has invited the reader to trust or distrust his authorship, and whether his own ego (or the need to make use of four years of his own work) has influenced his perspective.

Author: Erik Jensen
Title: Acute Misfortune, the Life and Death of Adam Cullen
Publisher: Black Inc, 2014
ISBN: 9781863956932
Source: review copy courtesy of Black Inc

Availability
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Or direct from Black Inc, where you can also buy the eBook.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 13, 2014

Paris Under Water, by Jeffrey H. Jackson


Paris Under WaterI don’t know what possessed me to borrow this book from the library!  If I wanted to read about natural disasters all I had to do was read the news: this is a week when Super Typhoon Hagupit displaced thousands of people in a mass evacuation and Brisbane is cleaning up after a super cell storm caused a damage bill of over $800 million, reviving memories of the 2011 floods when the Brisbane River burst its banks.  Given that there are dozens of major cities around the world that are built on rivers, there have been countless major flood events for one reason or another, and historians could no doubt flood the market with stories about them all.

But tourists love Paris, and so a book about their flood in 1910 was bound to be of interest.  And so Paris Under Water appears to be, if you check the uncritical  GoodReads ratings.  But truth be told this is a rather dull book.  It’s well-researched (lots of footnotes &c) but badly written, with repetitive assertions and inadequate analysis.  Once the initial fascination with the idea of Paris under water lapses, the book becomes a bit of a slog.

Wikipedia provides a succinct summary of the flood (and – like the book – photos too):

In late January 1910, following months of high rainfall, the Seine River flooded Paris when water pushed upwards from overflowing sewers and subway tunnels, and seeped into basements through fully saturated soil. The waters did not overflow the river’s banks within the city, but flooded Paris through tunnels, sewers, and drains. In neighbouring towns both east and west of the capital, the river rose above its banks and flooded the surrounding terrain directly.

Jackson’s book makes 288 pages of this, expanding to explore the social, cultural and political history of the City of Light.  It places the flood in the context of a city proud of its technological developments that was brought to a standstill by filthy water spreading upwards from its smart new Metro tunnels and its spectacularly inadequate drainage system.  It has a hero, an indefatigable prefect of police called Lépine, whose fierce determination to his duty is likened to Victor Hugo’s Inspector Javert.  It has stories of Parisians helping each other, and hard-luck stories for added sentiment.  But in tracing the rise of the river, Jackson makes clichés of his own phrases, inundating the reader with numerous references to the Zouave statue on the Pont de l’Alma.  Used popularly as a measure of the river height, this statue is mentioned on twelve separate pages.

More importantly, Jackson seems unable to decide on his own stance about the matters which are at issue.

It’s common enough to see cities rise to the occasion when disaster strikes.  From the stoicism of Londoners under the Blitz to the way people in Brisbane rallied to help with the clean-up in 2011, it seems that people become their best selves in mass disasters.  This can be inspirational but it’s also fertile ground for myth-making.  For there are usually looters too, and selectiveness in the aid that’s provided, and there is anecdotal evidence that there are people who cope less well psychologically than others.  Again and again Jackson writes about the spirit of Parisians as they doggedly navigated the waters, moved to higher ground, organised flood relief and eventually managed the clean up.  But in a country that prides itself on liberty, equality and fraternity, there were inequities, and even a popular history should have made a more coherent effort to analyse the situation rather than muddying it with numerous examples of claim and counter-claim.  In the wake of events like Hurricane Katrina where there were accusations that discrimination affected the management of disaster relief, the Paris Flood offers an opportunity for critical analysis of this issue.  At the conclusion of this book I still did not know whether or not the historian thought the disaster relief was fair or well-coordinated overall.

Some loose ends are annoying.  In the chapter called ‘After the Flood’ we learn that suburban towns with fewer resources took longer to manage the clean up, and that a school in Villeneuve re-opened in an incredible state of filth and disarray.  Flood relief money went to families, not to public buildings, and there was no money to buy cleaning materials and little infrastructure to deal with waste removal and repair.  But presumably the school was cleaned up and I would have liked to know by whom.  Did the authorities let little kids splash around inside a filthy school?  Did the parents organise a working bee?  If the sources are silent, the book should say so.

Did you spot the puns in my review?  I couldn’t resist it….

Erik Johnson also reviewed it for the NY Journal of Books.

Author: Jeffrey H. Jackson
Title: Paris Under Water, How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910
Publisher: Palgrave, 2010
ISBN: 9780230108042
Source: City of Kingston.

Availability
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Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 13, 2014

A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie


A God in Every StoneThe DSC South Asian literature prize shortlist was announced the other day, and there are some interesting titles to explore:

  • The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
  • Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer
  • A God in Every Stone, by Kamila Shamsie.

Stu from Winston’s Dad and I have formed a Shadow Jury and are aiming to read these five novels and choose the best of them before the official announcement in January.  (This will be more of a challenge than you might think because The Mirror of Beauty is 900+ pages.)

I’d had reservations about Shamsie’s previous novel Burnt Shadows but A God in Every Stone is a much more coherent novel.  Set in Britain, Egypt, the Western Front in WW1 and Pakistan, it’s a story of divided loyalties and an exploration of patriotism.  While not a page-turner, it has a compelling plot and engaging characterisation and it covers a wide sweep of history from a post-colonial and feminist perspective.

Vivian Rose Spencer is the daughter of a man without sons who consoles himself with a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect.  So, unlike other young women of her class, she gets a classical education, studies history and Egyptology at UCL and ends up going on an archaeological dig with her father’s Turkish friend Tahsin Bey.

In Egypt she becomes interested in the mythical circlet of Scylax, the Greek explorer despatched by the Persian King Darius to explore the Indus River in the 6th century BC.  Tahsin Bey becomes more than a mentor to her, but as the war clouds gather, they are separated, and the first test of her loyalty arises back home in London when British Intelligence take an interest in the friendship.

Loyalty is tested too on the Western Front as Qayyum Gul, a young Pashtun from what was then British India, confronts the reality of fighting on behalf of the colonisers.  Wounded, he returns to Peshawar and becomes involved in the independence movement.  Vivian comes to Peshawar too, seeking a salve for her broken heart and a refuge from the horrors she had seen as a VAD nursing the wounded.  She settles into colonial society in a detached sort of way and takes up the search for Scylax’s Circlet in the ruins at Shahji-ki-Dher.

Somewhat to the disapproval of the English community, Vivian also mentors Qayyum’s younger brother Najeeb, fostering his interest in archaeology and teaching him English when he’s supposed to be going to an Islamic school.  When his family finds out, the lessons come to an end.  He is on the cusp of adolescence, and according to their customs, he should not look upon the face of an uncovered woman.

At a loose end, Vivian returns to England and takes up academic life as an archaeologist at University College London, while in Peshawar Najeeb studies history and takes up a position at the Peshawar Museum where Vivian first introduced him to the ancient history of his people.  The story reaches a compelling climax when Vivian returns to Peshawar to resume the search for the circlet of Scylax just as the independence movement gathers momentum and the British respond with the massacre at the Storyteller’s Market.

We in Australia tend to have a rather one-dimensional perception of the Great War so I suspect that I am one of many who know little about the participation of the Indian Army on the Western Front.  Shamsie captures Qayyum’s ambivalence in his memories of battle and the Brighton Pavilion hospital where his injury was treated.

Everyone, even Najeeb, assumed Qayyum’s stand against Empire stemmed from Vipers [Ypres], the suffering he’d been led into for a fight that wasn’t his to fight.  But he had never felt closer to the English than on that day.  Even now, he knew hatred could never truly take root in his breast so long as he remembered Captain Dalmohy shot again and again, getting back onto his feet as though his body were an irrelevance; and Captain Christopher, dying with Urdu words of gratitude on his lips for the sepoys who had rushed to help him.  It was later, at Brighton, that the questions began.  (p.234)

He was not alone with those torn loyalties when members of the Indian army were ordered by the British to fire on their unarmed compatriots.

I like books that explore moral complexities, but A God in Every Stone is also a good story, one that kept me interested right to the end.

Author: Kamila Shamsie
Title: A God in Every Stone
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2014
ISBN: 9781408847213
Source: Kingston Library

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 11, 2014

2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards


I am so very pleased to see some of the books I’ve loved on this shortlist!

FICTION

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin)

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett (Penguin)

The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)

Demons by Wayne Macauley (Text Publishing) See my review.

N  by John A. Scott (Brandl & Schlesinger) See my review.  (BTW John Scott has just won the $12,000 David Harold Tribe Fiction Award for his short piece Picasso: A Shorter Life. Which is excellent because I think he’s a great writer.)

To Name Those Lost by Rohan Wilson (Allen & Unwin) See my review.

NON-FICTION

The Europeans in Australia: Volume Three: Nation by Alan Atkinson (NewSouth) See Yvonne’s review at Stumbling Through the Past.

Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen (Black Inc.) (Currently reading this)

Darwin by Tess Lea (NewSouth)

Where Song Began by Tim Low (Penguin)

The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama by Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)

The Bush by Don Watson (Penguin)

DRAMA

Resplendence by Angus Cerini (Cerini/Doubletap)

Mayakovsky by Alison Croggon (Carriageworks/Sydney Chamber Opera)

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene (STC)

POETRY

Bed For All Who Come by Susan Bradley Smith (Five Islands Press)

The Beautiful Anxiety by Jill Jones (Puncher and Wattman)

Radiance by Andy Kissane (Punchman and Wattman)

YOUNG ADULT

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)

The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan)

The Protected by Claire Zorn (UQP)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2014

Mothers’ Boys, by Margaret Forster


Mothers' Boys I’ve been an admirer of Margaret Forster for a long time, but it’s been a while since I read one of her books. I’ve read Have the Men Had Enough? (1989); The Battle for Christobel (1991); her biography of Daphne du Maurier (1993); The Memory Box (1999); Lady’s Maid (2003); and of course Georgy Girl (1965), but I read all of these long before I started this blog. So when I saw Mothers’ Boys as an audio book at the library, it seemed like an ideal choice for the daily commute.

The novel was, in parts, rather confronting, but it was riveting. Like many of Forster’s novels it’s framed around the theme of family breakdown and loss, and the unexpected strength that women discover in themselves when life forces them into difficult situations.  And the situation in which these mother’s find themselves, though regrettably commonplace enough, is difficult indeed.

Earlier this year I read an impressive debut novel called The First Week by Margaret Merrilees, which was the story of a woman whose quiet life was shattered by her adult son who commits an incomprehensible crime.  (See my review).  In Mothers’ Boys, Forster explores a similar theme from the point-of-view of both the mothers – Sheila Armstrong, whose grandson Joe was the one involved in the assault, and Harriet Kennedy, whose fifteen-year-old son Joe was his victim.   The assault is particularly squalid, and Joe (who’s now in prison) won’t say a word to defend himself, while Joe – always a difficult child – is morose and rude and very hard to live with.

The back story of both families is gradually revealed, but it focusses mainly on the mothers and sons, not the husbands or other children.  Sheila Kennedy brought Joe up after his parents were killed in a car crash in Africa: she who had never been out of the country took off alone to bring him back to England.  Alone, because her husband was too afraid to travel.  She was a devoted mother to the motherless boy, and he grew to be a fine young man – until the fateful night when he took drugs and was found with a knife in his hand. This plunges Sheila into a world of courts and prisons and shame and guilty fears that she was not a good enough mother to him.

Harriet, on the other hand, is so convinced of her own importance to her son’s recovery that she smothers him in protectiveness to the point of obsession.  Where Sheila’s husband has a live-and-let-live attitude to life and it’s her father who refuses to have anything more to do with Joe, Harriet’s husband resents her eternal preoccupation with Joe and is angered by the way she lets him treat her like a doormat.

How these two women come to meet, and how the belated arrest of another man involved in the assault changes the dynamics makes for an absorbing story.  The narration by Susan Jameson is excellent.

Author: Margaret Forster
Title: Mothers’ Boys
Publisher: Chivers Audiobooks, 2009
ISBN: 9781408402986
Source: Kingston Library

Availability:

Hard to find.  Try your library.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2014

The Foundling Boy, by Michel Deon, translated by Julian Evans


The Foundling BoyThings are torrid at work at the moment as we hurtle towards the end of the school year, so much as I love a book that challenges me in style and form and content, I just wanted a story to read in bed as I try to wind down at the end of a long day.  The Foundling Boy has been just perfect for that.  First published in 1975 but only recently translated into English, it is a beautiful coming-of-age story set between the wars in France, thought-provoking enough to be interesting, but easy reading.

As it happened, there was a rare instance of a newborn being abandoned by its mother here in Australia in the same week that I read this book.  I can’t comment on it because matters are in the hands of the courts and social services, and quite rightly, the privacy of this tragic act is being respected.  There is an assumption that with support and care the mother and child will be reunited, and if not there will be an adoption process to find a loving family for the child.   But the fact that the courts and social services are involved contrasts markedly with the situation in the Michel Déon’s novel.  A baby is found mewling on the doorstep of childless Albert and Jeanne Arnaud – and they simply keep the foundling, with the blessing of the local abbé Le Couec and their wealthy employers the de Courseau family.  There is some rivalry for possession of the child from Madame Marie-Thérèse  du Courseau, but there is no question of any official intervention at all.

So Jean grows up in Grangeville, Normandy, enjoying the love and devotion of his adoptive parents and a close relationship with the family at La Sauveté where there are three children, Antoinette, Geneviève and Michel.  Playing with the reader’s suspicions about the paternity of the child, because Monsieur Antoine de Courseau is an incorrigible womaniser and it’s possible that he might be the father of Jean, Michel Déon portrays Michel as a hostile rival to Jean, and Jean’s would-be amorous relationship with the girls before he discovers his uncertain identity seems more than problematic.  The France that Déon depicts is relaxed about sexual liaisons but presumably not about incest, and the small town setting where this might unintentionally occur brings the matter into focus.  The abbé knows who Jean’s parent is, but he’s bound by the confessional, and the secret can’t be revealed by him.

The discovery that his parents are not his biological family unsettles Jean as he enters adolescence and his promising academic future is derailed.  He leaves the security of Grangeville to adventure in London, and to cycle through Italy with a young German who spouts Nazi doctrine at him without spoiling the friendship because Jean is so convinced that France is well-defended.  Along the way we see his naiveté, but also his remarkable good luck.  He has a number of carefree liaisons with young women, and becomes involved with a likeable rogue called Palfy.  The growing threat of war is not only foreshadowed by allusions to contemporary events, but also by the occasional intrusion of the narrator who foreshadows explicitly what will happen in the sequel, The Foundling’s War, which is waiting on my TBR as well.  I became quite fond of this narrator asserting his right to control the novel as he sees fit:

Have I said anything yet about the physical appearance in which Madame du Courseau, née Marie-Thérèse de Mangepin, offered herself? No, because it seems that it goes without saying, but a person reading over my shoulder is worrying me somewhat by describing her as in her forties, ugly, simultaneously authoritarian and sickly-sweet, dressed like those ladies of good works who seem constantly to be watching out for the sins of others.  Let us not allow free rein to anyone else’s imagination, apart from my own.  At the time this story begins, Marie-Thérèse de Courseau is thirty-eight years old.  In three years time she will cut her hair short, which will save her from too harsh a transition to her forties.  She drives herself to mass in her own trap, swims in the Channel during the three summer months, cooks very admirably when necessary, teaches the Gospels to the children of the village and, as we have seen, presides over her workroom at Dieppe.  Dressed by Lanvin there is no trace of the provincial lady in her Sunday best.  (p. 22)

Deon is a man of his time: he writes a lot about Antoine’s sports cars, notably a Bugatti, and is sympathetic not only to his serial adulteries but also to the cavalier way he behaves when the family fortunes take a plunge because of the depression. His representation of women and girls, and the role that they play in the novel is old-fashioned, but this is an old-fashioned novel.  Its charm lies in the depiction of French life and customs, and the way that domestic politics influenced attitudes.  Albert, who lost a leg in WW1 is a diehard communist pacifist whose one wish is that Jean should never go to war while Ernst – who loves Goethe as Jean loves Stendhal – has already absorbed the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Hitler youth.   The abbé is relaxed about Albert’s atheism and anticlericalism, refusing to side with Marie-Thérèse:

‘Madame,’ the abbé said, ‘to state the matter briefly, God knows how to identify those among his lost or straying sheep who have Christian virtues and sometimes a charity greatly superior to those who go to mass regularly.  Evan as a freemason who subscribes to L’oeuvre, Albert is an example to many. (p.20)

I hope that the little foundling from Sydney finds as much love as Jean did in this story…

Author: Michel Déon
Title: The Foundling’s War
Translated from the French by Julian Evans
Publisher: Gallic Books, London, 2013 (first published as Le jeune home vert in 1975)
ISBN: 9781908313560
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallic Books

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2014

Navigatio, by Patrick Holland


NavigatioNavigatio is an enchanting book.   Derived from an ancient text called the Navigatio, Patrick Holland’s novella is a retelling of the legendary voyage of St Brendan of Clonfert, and it follows the form of the Irish immram:

Irish immram flourished during the seventh and eighth centuries. Typically, an immram was a sea-voyage in which a hero, with a few companions, often monks, wanders from island to island, meets other-world wonders, and finally returns home. The story of Brendan’s voyage, developed during this time, shares some characteristics with immram. Like an immram, the Navigatio tells the story of Brendan, who, with some companion monks, sets out to find the terra repromissionis sanctorum, the Promised Land of the Saints or the Earthly Paradise.  (See Wikipedia).

*chuckle* I can almost see some readers thinking, ‘um, why would I want to read that?’  Trust me, it’s  gorgeous.   It’s a quiet, contemplative meditation on a spiritual quest that takes a temporal form, and I loved reading it in the frantic rush up to the end of the year when work overwhelms and the pressure to do stuff for Christmas wreaks its inexorable hold on everything.  Holland’s writing is sublime, and he takes you away from all that chaos into a dream world of myth where simplicity reigns:

At the end of Brendan’s watch the dawn wind stirred and the strength of night was broken.  Three stars rose in the northwest that he did not know.

What skies are these? he thought.  Will this dawn restore us?

The sun broke through a thresh of deep-sea rain.  A sweeter breeze had arrived, raucously announced by a flock of black and white gulls riding it inland in the hope of offal. (p. 134)

We need books like this.  Books that remind us that despite the enormity and malevolence of the cosmos, there is peace to be had.  In his tiny boat, Brendan might well be overwhelmed by the all-powerful sea, and like Ulysses he is confronted both by recognisable evils and those masquerading as helpful spirits or desirable women.  Satan seems indefatigable in his capacity to tempt this simple man of faith and lure him away from his quest for the Isle of the Blessed.  Even time can’t be trusted.  Yet Brendan prevails, and he does so despite his travails because he never loses sight of what is really important.

You don’t have to be a religious person for a take-home message like that.

The book is beautifully designed – bouquets to Peter Lo and the Transit Lounge team.  Underneath the dust-jacket which you can see in the image above, the hardback cover is slate grey like the sea under a lowering sky, and it is textured so that you can feel under your fingers the contrasting white print of the title and author, and the circular image of the journey stippled by pinpricks.  Inside, the vignettes are illustrated by black and white paintings by Junko Azukawa which add to the sense of the surreal because they are unmistakeably Japanese, remote in style and culture from a sixth-century tale set in the Atlantic Ocean.

BTW the press blurb that came with the book tells me that The Darkest Little Room (see my review) is currently in film development.  That is going to make a terrific film, I can’t wait!

Author: Patrick Holland
Title: Navigatio
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2014
ISBN:
Source: review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2014

Springtime, by Michelle de Kretser


SpringtimeI liked this playful little book.  Mildly provocatively, it plays up the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry, and it subverts its own genre.  It’s cunningly constructed so that the reader finds herself bemused and amused.

It’s very short, only 85 pages, and beautifully presented in hardcover with an elegant dust-jacket.  There are exquisite colour plates of ethereal flowers interleaved amongst the pages, the colour scheme contained to the soft brown and black of the dust-jacket.  The photographs are by Torkil Gudnason, and the design is by Sandy Cull from gogoGinko.

This gorgeousness is, of course, intended for the Christmas gift market,  a slim book easily slipped into Christmas stockings and priced just right for Kris Kringle.  But lucky recipients unfamiliar with de Kretser’s writing will find themselves surprised if they expect a conventional ghost story.  As one of the guests at a dinner party says:

‘Ghost stories work up to a shock, but the modern form of the short story is different. When a loose, open kind of story came in, writing about ghosts went out’.

But Frances is surrounded by ghosts, not the least of which is the ghost of Melbourne, the city she belongs in and has uprooted herself from.  She has fallen in love with an older, married man with a child, and like children they have run away to Sydney together.  After Melbourne’s graceful neatness, she finds a sense of chaos in Sydney when the streets ran everywhere like something spilled.  By coincidence I have been reading about city architecture in The Guardian and this sly comment made me think about whether the shape of our cities actually influences the way we see the world.  If you build a city around a massive harbour it can’t have a boulevard like St Kilda Road, but are we too neat here in Melbourne?  Excessive orderliness is what made me dislike Berlin so much.

Frances finds that her Melbourne Black fades in the harsh Sydney sun, mirroring the way she is fading along with her certainties about the new relationship.   She finds that ex-wives who make bitter phone calls and a partner’s child who is entitled to access are not so easily jettisoned, even when the visits are fleeting.  De Kretser also skilfully captures that awful moment when one discovers  in The Beloved some ghostly trace of a relation of whom one is less than fond.

The apparition which gives the novella its name is playful.  Frances is disoriented and her sense of strangeness in a new city is so palpable that the reader, even one open to fantasies of phantasms, never entertains the idea that there is a real ghost.  It is what happens when she makes it real by talking about it and confronting it that makes this clever little book so thought-provoking.

Author: Michelle de Kretser
Title: Springtime, a Ghost Story
Publisher: Allen and Unwin 2014
ISBN: 9781760111212
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 30, 2014

Changes, by Ama Ata Aidoo


ChangesIt’s just a coincidence that I happened to re-read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch this week while also reading Changes, but it certainly impacted on my reading of the novel.  Aidoo’s short book explores the journey of a modern, educated Ghanian woman as she tries to reconcile the demands of love with her own sense of self-respect.  It’s a journey many women took back in the 1970s when books like Greer’s provoked a reassessment of the idea that if you were a woman in love, you must give up everything for the beloved.  Higher education, ambition, time for yourself, your own preferences about almost everything, your own money?  These needs were all expected to be subservient to the love, but they were not choices that men had to make.  And while we were negotiating these matters in our personal lives, society around us was in a state of flux because feminism challenged the dynamic in so many ways.

In Aidoo’s novel, set in the late 20th century, Esi Sekyi is an ambitious statistician who works for the Department of Urban Statistics.  When she falls for Ali Kundey, she is already married, to Oko, and she has a child called Ogyaanowa.  Ali is married too, to Fusena, and they have children as well, but he is equally besotted by Esi.  Their paths keep crossing, and the inevitable happens.

Equally besotted, however, does not mean that the choices that must be made by both parties to this love affair are equal.  No indeed.  It is Esi’s wise old Nana who tells her that a man always gains in stature any way he chooses to associate with a woman – including adultery… But, in her association with a man, a woman is always in danger of being diminished. (p.196)  Ali, as a Muslim, can take a second wife, or he can have a mistress without shame, whereas to be either of these involves a loss of status and respect for Esi.

But the novel is about more than that.  Esi has a husband who tries to put the spark back into their marriage by forcing himself on her one morning as she prepares to go to work.  Esi is a modern, educated woman but she struggles with the issue of this marital rape: in her culture as in ours not so long ago, there was never any right of refusal for a woman and her husband could take her at any time against her will.  For Esi, the sense of violation is tied up with post-colonial perspectives, with modernity and with respect for traditions.  She can hear the reproof in her head: There isn’t a word for what happened in any of the African languages around her, and her distress would be dismissed as imported feminist ideas (p. 16).

You cannot go around claiming that an idea or an item was imported into a given society unless you could also conclude that to the best of your knowledge, there is not, and there never was any word or phrase in that society’s indigenous language which describes that idea or item. (p.16)

It is not just that society does not have an indigenous word for what happened because it is her husband’s right to claim her at any time and at his convenience, there is also a chorus of female voices that considers her lucky:

Besides, any sane person, especially any sane woman, would consider any other woman lucky, or talented or both, who can make her husband lose his head like this.  (p.17)

It is this tension between feminist principle and the reality of a traditional society around her that makes Changes such interesting reading.  The novel is mainly written from Esi’s perspective, but also from Ali’s.  We see his wife’s point-of-view too, when she tackles him about Esi: the first question she asks is, She has a university degree? It is telling that Ali has no idea what this has to do with it – because he has no awareness that Fusena has given up her plans for advanced study and a career in order to be his wife, and his wish now for intelligent company is a painful insult.

This is a wise and thoughtful book.  Highly recommended.

PS That lovely cover artwork is by Hassan Aliyu.

Author: Ama Ata Aidoo
Title: Changes
Publisher: Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1991
ISBN: 9780435910143
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2014

Australian and New Zealand novels on the 2014 IMPAC longlist


There are 142 books on the IMPAC longlist but these are the Aussie and Kiwi ones, with links to the ones I’ve reviewed, and some reviewed by Kim at Reading Matters, with further links from Sue at Whispering Gums and Kevin at Kevin from Canada.    We’ve nearly got them all covered!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2014

Crow Mellow, by Julian Davies


Crow Mellow Crow Mellow is a most unusual book, not like any other that I’ve read.  A collaboration between the artist Phil Day and the author Julian Davies, it’s a reinterpretation of Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow which I re-read a little while ago.  I read it then because  I wanted to see how this new novel by Julian Davies played with the original…

The answer is quite a lot.  Apart from its playful title, Crow Mellow is, like the original, a social satire that uses a gathering in a country house in order to poke fun at contemporary fads and fashions.  Davies borrows the structure of the Huxley novel, and his characters, transplanted into contemporary Australia, follow the Huxley script to such an extent that if you’ve read the original recently as I have, the interest lies not so much in the plot but in the witty correspondences.   So there is a pompous, confused young would-be writer called Phil Day who corresponds to Denis Stone; there is his lady-love Anna Rimbush (Anne Wimbush) who’s more interested in the artist Paul (Gombauld).   Mr. Scogan becomes Scrogum whose name with the transposition of a consonant allows Davies some rather adolescent humour.  And so on.

The satire covers all sorts of contemporary issues, not just literary and artistic pretensions but also capitalism, consumerism, gender politics and a parody of our not-so esteemed prime minister at a fancy dress party.   Julian Davies’ disenchantment with the state of modern publishing  finds voice in Scrogum’s inspection of Mitchell’s library, a strange and increasingly anachronistic place:

‘We all now believe in a world where knowledge has no physical existence, not substance.  It shimmers with electronic effervescence and swamps out minds with its sheer extent.  A hundred years ago it was likely that educated people anywhere in the West shared a good part of what they read.  Today what we know we know almost alone.  We exist in cyber isolation simply because we cherry-pick from a plethora of information on a whim.

‘So here, in this museum to the past, we can celebrate the mystery of lost certainties, lost commonality.  And yet what a motley spectrum these books create.  Look at them bunched together, their faded colours, the lettering running horizontal to the spine so that we must distort the posture of our necks to read the titles and end up looking like a pack of quizzical dogs. What a fine thing this is, you might say –  a collection of a good part of the dead knowledge of our species. But even this is a mere flippant smattering of the books of the world.  And what of the books of this year, even those of this year in Australia?  For against all expectations, books are still published.  When I last researched the numbers, as I do periodically, I found that there were over ten thousand titles published in one year in this country alone.  (Ch. 14, there aren’t any page numbers).

Scrogum goes on to mock titles such as Selected Prejudices and A Short History of Lost Opportunities, suggesting that it might be better to resist the temptation to open the book.  Davies has a lot of fun with the targets of his humour, though I can’t say that I enjoyed the scatological elements.

What makes this book most unusual, however, is the profusion of illustrations, line drawings by Phil Day.  They are like huge marginalia, swirling around the text, often dominating a double page spread.  I wish I could scan a page to show you, but that would be a breach of copyright.  The next best thing is for you to visit the Finlay Lloyd home page – but it doesn’t really show you how witty these drawings are: each character is depicted in a kind of shorthand cropped image, so that, for instance, Anna is a pair of impossibly long legs in high heels, topped by an impossibly short mini skirt and boob-tube.  No head, because the blokes aren’t interested in what’s in her head.  Melissa, on the other hand, is an impossibly long plait  – no body, as befits her intellectual pretensions.  The blokes are mostly just heads, though one is a hectoring pointing finger.   Mitchell’s head is like an egg with a Hitlerian moustache.

I’ll be interested to see what readers might make of this book if they come to it fresh, without the experience of reading Huxley first.

Update: Julian Davies has very kindly granted permission for me to scan a page of the book so that you can see the style of the illustrations. This double page spread comes from the beginning of chapter 8.

crow mellow ch8

Author: Julian Davies
Illustrator: Phil Day
Title: Crow Mellow
Publisher: Finlay Lloyd, 2014
ISBN: 9780987592941
Source: Review copy courtesy of Finlay Lloyd

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2014

Beethoven, Triumph and Anguish, by Jan Swafford


Beethoven Triumph and AnguishI don’t usually review books I haven’t finished reading – and I’ve barely scratched the surface of this one – but I know that there are music lovers out there who would love to have this book for Christmas so I’m breaking my own rules so that you have time to get a copy of it for the one you love.

I have been in love with Beethoven since I was just into my teens. My mother’s favourite symphony was the 8th, but we had them all on LP (the von Karajan recordings) and my friend Ruth and I would play them every weekend, one after the other in order, following along with the scores that we had between the two of us.  Sometimes I would take the train into the State Library and flop down on the floor beside the Beethoven books and read everything there was on open access.   I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Beethoven but I was wrong…

I did not know, for example, how strategic Beethoven was in planning his career.  In the chapter entitled ‘Generalissimo’ Swafford tells us how he crafted the progress of his first opus numbers because only the pieces with opus numbers were going to be ‘serious’ ones.  And he was very careful which genres he published. Mozart and Haydn were unassailable rivals that he had to manage in his early career if he were to avoid comparisons that he wasn’t ready for.  Since Mozart and Haydn owned the territory with string quartets and Haydn was ‘the Father of the Symphony’ to boot, Beethoven played instead to his strengths, making the piano trio his own.  This worked well for him because unlike his rivals, he had grown up with the piano:

Both his predecessors had spent much of their careers composing for harpsichord, while Beethoven was a pure pianist and piano composer. … When it came to idiomatic piano writing – exploiting the full range of touch, articulation, volume, texture and colour available to the piano as opposed to the harpsichord – one of his prime models was Muzio Clementi, who wrote one of the first substantial bodies of work for piano. At the same time, as a composer in general Clementi posed no threat to Beethoven.  Clementi wrote attractively and idiomatically for the piano, Mozart and Haydn beautifully in general, but as far as Beethoven would have been concerned , the first truly significant repertoire for the piano was waiting to be written.  He intended to write that repertoire. (p. 167)

Beethoven as we all know was a rather cranky fellow, and apparently even in his youth he was firmly convinced of his own genius, but – well, why not?  He was a genius.  It’s fascinating to read the little snippets that illustrate his contrariness, and this is a very well researched book that sustains reader interest from the get-go.  So, for example, it tells us that Beethoven never really resolved the tension between the artistic debt and the veneration he owed Haydn and the jealousy he felt, so he refused to put ‘pupil of Haydn’ on the cover of his first published opus as other students routinely did with pride.   It tells us that he was very cross with the publishers Artaria for pre-emptively publishing his ‘Se vuol ballare Variation as Opus 1.

 

And there you see the reason why it’s taking me so long to read this beautiful new biography….

It’s not because it’s a whopper (thought it is, at 1100+ pages) it’s because I keep stopping to source and listen to various compositions that Swafford refers to.  As well as tracing the events in Beethoven’s life he also goes into detail about how and when his compositions were created.  Let me give you an example…

In the chapter ‘Virtuoso’, we learn that Beethoven in 1797 published his cello sonatas, a four-handed piano sonata Op 6, and Twelve Variations on a Danse Russe.  He dedicated this last to Countess von Browne, who gave Beethoven a horse as a token of thanks. He rode this horse a couple of times and then forgot about it (!), so the enterprising stable-hand rented it out, pocketing the profits.  (Beethoven was not best pleased to subsequently receive a huge bill for feed).  Swafford then goes on to write about  a work that took Beethoven two years to write but became one of the abiding successes of his life, the song Adelaide.  In four stanzas conjuring up images of the beloved inspired by nature, this song is derived from the sentimental verses of a poet called Friedrich von Matthisson (to whom Beethoven dedicated it, along with a plea to write another such poem).  Swafford explains, as only a composer can, how this work fits into this period of Beethoven’s life, not only conjecturing about whether there was a woman behind his enthusiasm for romantic songs, but also placing the work in the context of his creative life:

…he created a singular style, limpid and direct, thought with far-roaming modulations.  Like the cello sonatas and other works of his early maturity, it is a style if note quite “Beethovian”, not derivative either.  (p. 201)

Now, who could read this, and not scamper off to You Tube to find a version of Adelaide, eh?

 

And the work that led to his troubles with a horse?!

 

Sometimes, even when I’m familiar with the music Swafford is referring to, I still want to hear it so that I can really absorb what he’s saying about it.  So reading this book is a work in progress, and will bring me hours of pleasure for a long time as I make my way through it.

Highly recommended, not just for Beethoven enthusiasts but for anyone who loves music.

Vienna, Beethoven's grave (3 weeks after my first ankle op!)

Vienna, Beethoven’s grave (3 weeks after my first ankle op back in 2010!)

BTW I love the handsome picture of my hero on the dust-jacket, and there are lots of other full-colour illustrations of various composers, family members and Beethovian pilgrimage sites as well.

PS Jan Swafford has also written a bio of Brahms, and a Vintage Guide to Classical Music.   Santa, are you listening?

Author: Jan Swafford
Title: Beethoven, Triumph and Anguish
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2014
ISBN: 9780571312559
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2014

Every Day is for the Thief, by Teju Cole


EEvery Day is for the Thiefvery Day is for the Thief is a curious book: the blurb says that it’s a novel but it reads nothing like a novel, more like a travel memoir, and a rather melancholy memoir at that.

Teju Cole was born in the US to Nigerian parents, brought up in Nigeria, and now lives in America where he won the PEN/Hemingway for his second novel, Open City.  The blurb on the back cover quotes Salman Rushdie saying that he’s one of the most gifted writers of his generation.  But I’m not so impressed…

Cole’s narrator is an expat Nigerian who goes ‘home’ after an absence of fifteen years.  The book consists of vignettes of Nigerian life, invariably depressing ones recording his dismay at the lamentable state of affairs there.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that the nostalgia that drove him home was very quickly replaced by a judgemental eye.  Like many a first novel, Every Day is for the Thief betrays the urge to get something off one’s chest, in this case the author’s disappointment with his own origins.

I’ve read a number of Nigerian novels, and none of them shy away from the problem of poor governance, crime and endemic corruption.  But Cole’s novel goes into overdrive: as the narrator goes in search of his identity successive chapters expose the routine bribery; the standover men; ‘area boys’ who (unarmed) turn up and intimidate grown men into handing over money; home invasions; the necklacing of a boy who kidnapped a baby for a gang; the unabashed scammers in internet cafés; the police who pull him over and demand ‘something'; and so on.  In an interview at the Africa Book Club Cole says that he is not interested in African optimism, he is interested in African realism.  But realism is necessarily selective, and for all that this is a story of homecoming – to family, old friends, a first love – the relentless negativity conveys a sense of the narrator as a hyper-critical outsider.

The writing is excellent – the vignettes are vivid, and the depiction of the narrator’s melancholy soul coming to terms with the gulf between nostalgia and reality, is compelling.  Maybe this is what Salman Rushdie admires.  But the pessimism of this purported novel of middle-class disenchantment depressed me in a way that the Song for Night or Waiting for an Angel did not, despite their horrific subject matter.

Other reviews are at the New York Times and the Guardian.

Author: Teju Cole
Title: Every Day is for the Thief
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2014
ISBN: 9780571307920
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

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A Thousand Peaceful Cities

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is a textbook example of how the internet has changed my reading habits.  Ten years ago when all my reading was filtered by what was available in bricks-and-mortar bookshops, I would never have heard of the Polish author Jerzy Pilch, much less read his amusing little book or be sharing my enjoyment of it on a blog.  But thanks to a tweet from the international champion of translated fiction,  Stu at Winston’s Dad, I signed up for the First 25 deal at Open Letter Books.  A Thousand Peaceful Cities  is the third book I’ve read from the collection; the other two are Gasoline by Spanish author Quim Monzó and The Sailor from Gibraltar by French legend Margaret Duras.  My horizons have widened.

A Thousand Peaceful Cities is the droll story of an attempted assassination.  Set in 1963 during the post-Stalin thaw, the novella is narrated by Jerzyk, a bemused teenager who wants to be a writer.  He practises his craft by recording the bizarre conversations around him, writing so fast that sometimes he predicts the end of sentence before it’s uttered.  The impossibility of anyone being able to do that alerts the reader that nothing in this narrative can be trusted and it’s a book to romp through without worrying about whether any of it approximates reality.

Jerzyk is a close observer of his world, which includes his aloof and cynical father, and his father’s friend Mr. Trąba, an incorrigible alcoholic.  Coming to the end of his life, Mr Trąba wants to do something of significance before he dies, so one vodka-soaked afternoon he hatches a plan to do something good for humanity: the assassination of the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party, Władysław Gomułka, the de facto leader of Poland (which back in the 1960s was still firmly under Soviet rule).

Actually, Mr Trąba would really like to bump off Mao Tse-tung, but there are practical difficulties that can’t be resolved, even by a man of his ambition (or Jerzyk’s imagination).

‘Maybe our terror is not a great terror,’ Mr Trąba flared up, ‘but it’s still terror. Better that than nothing.  Better a sparrow in the hand than Mao Tse-tung on the roof.  Yes, OK, I intended to do something for humanity, but after all, if I do something for Poland, I will have done it for humanity too.  Of course I would prefer a great deed on a global scale.  Of course I would prefer, as I explained to you,’ Mr Trąba raised his shoulders, ‘of course I would prefer to tighten my tyrannical fingers around the neck of Mao Tse-tung.  A person would get to see a little of China in the process.  But we don’t have the resources for such a long journey.’  Mr Trąba sighed regretfully, ‘and a short trip is out of the question for reasons of ambition.  You can’t expect me to humiliate myself with quasi-foreign trips around the block of the People’s Democracies.  Oh no, not that, no.  I certainly won’t go to Sofia to lie in ambush for Comrade Zhikov.  Nor to East Germany in order to administer justice to Walter Ulbricht.  Please don’t even try to persuade me.’

‘And what about Khruschev?’ Mother unexpectedly spoke up, neither asking nor quite proposing, from above an already considerable stack of potato pancakes.  ‘Have you considered Khruschev?’

‘Khruschev,’ Mr Trąba seemed to ignore the absolute astonishment with which Father and Commandant Jeremiah looked at Mother, ‘Khruschev may be removed at any moment.  It isn’t worth the effort.  I go to Moscow, which, however you look at it, is also a good hike, and on the spot I discover that changes have just then taken place at the highest level of the CC CPSU, and I’ll look like a boob.’ (p.43)

Mr Trąba also rejects the Commandant’s offer to turn a blind eye should he decide to choose the Bloody Dictator of Fascist Spain because (a-hem) he thinks that Franco is a great statesman…

So there they are, around the kitchen table with the potato pancakes, calmly discussing which world leaders to send to their maker, with all the aplomb of a Monty Python sketch.  The novella goes on in this vein, with an amazing assortment of digressions and diversions, all delivered with the sardonic eye of the narrator looking back on his adolescence with a kind of bemused wonder at the madness.   There are coming-of-age elements as Jerzyk tells us about his angel of my first love moments but it’s Mr Trąba who is the star of the show, a wonderful comic character worthy of Dickens.

There are laugh-out-loud moments right through this book, but it’s poignant too.  Under Stalin, under Mao, under Franco, there might well have been many kitchen-table fantasies about grasping at freedom with a well-planned assassination.  Except that all these monstrous regimes had surveillance of their own citizens down to a fine art and there were informers were everywhere, as Jerzy shows with the arrival of that genial commandant who knows all about Mr Trąba’s plot.  This book is a comic fantasy because the very idea of an insurrection was a fantasy.  For decades.

Also see the reviews at The Complete Review, and if you’re interested in Polish writing, also check out Stu’s inspiring reviews.

Author: Jerzy Pilch
Title: A Thousand Peaceful Cities
Translated from the Polish by David Frick
Publisher: Open Letter Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781934824276
Source: Personal library, purchased direct from Open Letter Books

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