Archive for the 'Reading' Category

11
Jun
15

Anzacs and WWI: part 6, Book and Film “Reviews”

Over the past few months I’ve read several books, watched several documentaries and seen some fictional depictions of the Gallipoli campaign. Here are some of the “reviews” I’ve written based on that reading and viewing.

My reading continues, so it’s possible additional reviews will be posted at a later time.

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Gallipoli and the Anzacs

gallipoli seriesIn 1915 British and French naval forces tried to force a way through the Dardanelles Strait, into the Sea of Marmara and then onwards to Constantinople, intending to end Turkey’s involvement in the war (WWI). Their ships found too much resistance coming from Turkish gun emplacements along the shores of the Gallipoli Peninsula so ground forces were sent to shut down the Turkish defences.

Landing on the Aegean coast, they faced more sustained opposition from the Turks than expected, and the terrain was found to be far more rugged and difficult than had been thought. British troops found themselves entrenched and held at bay in small coastal areas, unable to advance far to achieve the intended goal. A significant part of this invading army was the ANZAC force (Australian, New Zealand Army Corps). Their involvement with this Gallipoli campaign became central to ideas of Australian and New Zealand identity even though they were fighting a war as British and for the British.

The initial landing took place on 25th April 1915 that date has become known as Anzac Day, a day of commemoration when the dead of that campaign and subsequent wars are remembered in the Anzac nations. This year is the 100th anniversary.

Australian TV has recently screened Gallipoli, a TV series graphically depicting the experiences of the Australian and New Zealand servicemen at Gallipoli. There has also been a re-release of one of the modern classic books covering the topic, Les Carlyon’s Gallipoli from 2001, which was one of the guiding authorities behind the program; and several other books about that conflict have been released.

CarlyonI started my own “Gallipoli Campaign” (attempting to understand what Anzac Day is really about) by reading Carlyon’s book. It’s a sizable brick of a book, a solid 540 pages with another 50 pages making up the notes, bibliography and index. It was quite daunting to pick up at first because I know what an ordeal I’ve found history books to be; but most of this was quite easy to get through, with character studies of the major participants interwoven with excerpts of letters and diary entries written by officers and soldiers, and the author’s personal experience of visiting the various battlegrounds of the Gallipoli peninsula almost a century later. He gives a very raw and graphic account of what the men went through and the conditions they had to endure. He also makes it clear that the senior officers in charge of the campaign were completely unsuited for their roles, and the men under them suffered for it.

The only difficulty I had was trying to keep up with the many different battle venues and the various regiments and their officers. I think part of my problem was my ignorance of the geography. Until reading the book the only locations I’d ever heard of were Anzac Cove and Lone Pine, the places at the centre of Australian Anzac mythology. I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the many names of people and places. At times it was hard to remember who was who, where was where and who was where at what time.

When I neared the half-way point of the book I bought a similarly sized volume, also called Gallipoli, by Peter Fitzsimons. To get a foretaste of that book I read Fitzsimons’ introduction where he advised the reader to use the book’s maps to become familiar with the geography of the region before starting to read. Following that advice would have probably helped me through parts of the Carlyon book, and might have prevented me from imagining the events taking place on the peninsula’s eastern coast instead of the Aegean coast to the west.

MasefieldI also found another book with the same title, written by John Masefield. Having recently read Les Carlyon’s highly respected account of the Gallipoli conflict I was keen to read a contemporary view. Masefield wrote his short book in 1916, the year after the Gallipoli campaign.

When I saw that he had dedicated his book with the inscription: “deepest respect to General Sir Ian Hamilton” I suspected his view might be a little different to the one expressed in the Carlyon book which had been very critical of the British leadership of the campaign, and my suspicion was soon confirmed.
Compared to the Carlyon book, Masefield’s gives a different sense of the horror of what was experienced. Carlyon’s view is grittier, giving a stronger sense of the soldier’s daily life surrounded by death, decay and omnipresent flies. Masefield doesn’t hold back the details of death and sacrifice, but his descriptions seem more sanitised and palatable, having an aura of honour and glory, vivid but with a poetic grandeur. And while he does mention the plague of flies he writes: “Our camps and trenches were kept clean; they were well scavenged daily. But only a few yards away were the Turk trenches, which were invariably filthy: there the flies bred undisturbed”. Unlike Carlyon he gives no mention of the countless decaying bodies between the trenches that were the more likely breeding ground for the flies.

Maybe that sanitising is predictable considering Masefield was writing in 1916 and there were still men “gloriously” dying in the trenches of Europe at the time and there was a constant need to recruit replacements. A true picture of what they would encounter might make them think twice. Instead Masefield emphasises the bravery of the men fighting. The men and their actions are portrayed in an elevated and mythical way. “All that they felt was a gladness of exultation that their young courage was to be used. They went like kings in a pageant to the imminent death”. Such a portrayal would likely appeal to young men seeking an adventure to prove themselves.

Masefield’s strength is that he strips everything back to the basics to give a good “beginner’s” introduction, uncomplicated by analysis of character and strategy. He doesn’t go into complex detail but describes what happens at a few select locations, and through his poet’s eye adding vivid images like this, describing the landing at Anzac Cove:

“All the blackness was shot with little spurts of fire, and streaks of fire, and malignant bursts of fire, and arcs and glows and crawling snakes of fire, and the moon rose, and looked down upon it all”

But despite the poetic view he gives, and despite the clarity he gives to a series of events, he also gets carried away with strange interpretations of events, that are clearly coloured by the romanticised and mythic viewpoint encompassing his account:

“At Bulair, one man, Lieutenant Freyberg, swam from a destroyer towing a little raft of flares. Near the shore he lit two of these flares, then, wading to the land, he lit others at intervals along the coast; then he wandered inland, naked, on a personal reconnaissance, and soon found a large Turkish army strongly entrenched. Modesty forbade further intrusion.”

Would it be “modesty” that prevented a solitary naked and unarmed man from wandering around and confronting “a large Turkish Army” or the fact that naked or otherwise, he was in no position to achieve anything by engaging that army by himself. The implication that I read into Masefield’s account, is that Freyburg wouldn’t have withdrawn from the situation had he at least been wearing a pair of speedos to protect his modesty.

To me that example betrays a sense of unreality where the actual horrors of war are obscured by the same kind of heroic rhetoric used to recruit the war’s countless willing participants. The difference between the experience of the men on the ground and the mythicised images of glorious battle is as wide as the gulf between the conditions endured by the average soldier who couldn’t keep flies out of his food and drink and those experienced by the senior officers, away from the death and decay, sipping their port or whiskey each evening as they consider the day’s events.

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The Water Diviner

water divinerRussell Crowe’s film The Water Diviner is part of the growing focus on the 1915 Gallipoli campaign leading up to the event’s centenary.

It’s the story of a bereaved father who travels to Turkey to find the remains of his three sons killed in the conflict and return them to Australia.

Crowe plays the father, Joshua Conner, an Australian farmer with a talent for water divining, a skill useful on his drought ridden farm. He’s confident that his skill can also locate his dead sons.

Through his quest Connor learns about the campaign that robbed him of his sons and its cost to fighters on both sides of the conflict. Despite an official end to hostilities, peace has not been obtained and he finds himself caught up in some of the continuing violence.

This film was another part in my attempt to find out more about the approaching Anzac Day centenary. While portrayal of the actual Gallipoli conflict plays a relatively small part of the film, it is at the heart of everything; its effects linger in the lives of all of the characters four years after that particular series of battles ended.

There are a few scenes depicting Connor’s sons in battle that show the brutality of a conflict fought with weapons ranging from machine guns to rifles, bayonets and any blunt instrument that comes to hand. Death came on open ground where there was little cover to stop a soldier being cut to shreds by machine gun fire, as well as in claustrophobic trenches where it was barely possible to recognise enemy from friend. Those battle scenes aren’t pretty, but it’s the human suffering afterwards that is harder to watch (and hear). This isn’t an action movie where death comes cheaply and frequently, usually with a wise-crack from the hero. Death lingers and delays its coming leaving victims wailing with the pain suffered in their torn bodies.

One of the things that makes this story different to others about Gallipoli, is its view of the Turkish side of things: that the Turks were being invaded and were protecting their homeland, and that they suffered greater losses than all other participants combined: over 86,000 dead and 164,000 wounded compared to 44,150 dead and 97,000 wounded from the British led allies.

(http://www.anzacsite.gov.au/2visiting/tgallipoli.html and http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/interactive/gallipoli-casualties-country)

The film doesn’t glorify war and doesn’t set out to lay blame; it brings recognition of the dehumanising effects of war that can make anyone capable of regrettable acts and gives hope of the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness afterwards.

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A Chaplain at Gallipoli

BestJohn Masefield, mentioned in an earlier post could have been describing a different war to the one witnessed by Kenneth Best.
Best clearly writes from personal experience, while to me, Masefield’s account of Gallipoli seems to lack the authenticity that experience alone provides.

As an Australian my main interest is the Australian involvement at Gallipoli and why it has become such a focal point of our national identity.

Masefield described the Anzacs as if they were semi-divine in appearance, true Olympians and nothing like the scrawny troops from his own country but Best’s view was less complimentary describing the Aussies as reckless and undisciplined.

He has this to say about the Australian troops in Egypt prior to their departure for Gallipoli:

“No discipline. They obey commands, turn up on parade only if it suits them. They go for a route march, take towels and go swimming whatever the objective of the route march may have been”..

“General Maxwell desires not to be left alone with Aussie troops. Source of anxiety to medics, despair to officers and menace to Egypt and yet papers are full of their loyalty and efficiency. Why not put them in the front line, as David did to Uriah?” *

Masefield and Best also portray the battleground very differently from each other.
Best doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to describing the conditions and the overwhelming presence of the dead:

“Blood flies and smell – I shall never forget it. As one crawled along the trench, hands and legs of the dead hanging over the edge would strike one’s face. Here and there a familiar face, cold in death. Heartbreaking work”

Masefield’s battleground seemed to remain well-swept and spick and span (except of those dirty Turks who intentionally bred flies in their trenches to inconvenience the invaders).

It’s been helpful to read different perspectives of the Gallipoli campaign, but while I’ve found contemporary reports very interesting, I see the benefit of viewing events from a distance: the later historian can weigh up evidence from various sources away from the fervour, prejudices and limited viewpoint of those caught up in the actual events.

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* a biblical reference to this:

2 Samuel 11:14-15 “In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, ‘Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so that he will be struck down and die.’ ”

Full context can be read here:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2 Samuel+11&version=NIVUK

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The Price of Valour, by John Hamilton

price valourThe latest book in my Gallipoli quest is Price of Valour, a biography about Hugo Throssell VC.

Throssell, had survived some of the worst parts of the Gallipoli campaign. He was one of the few to live through the suicidal attack at the Nek, where wave after wave of charging Australian troops were cut to pieces by machine gun fire. Appeals to senior officers to stop the attack were rejected and the waves of troops sent to certain death continued. Only a few, Throssell included, managed to find cover and eventually edge their way back to safety.

Soon afterwards he became part of a move to take and hold “Hill 60”, where a partial trench was taken from the Turks who were kept apart from Australian troops only by a barrier of sandbags. The opposing sides attacked each other by throwing bombs into the trench occupied by their opponents. Survival meant catching the bomb before its short fuse burnt through and throwing it back to its source. Several men lost hands and arms during the several hours that this went on. Throssell was one of the few survivors, who despite being shot through the neck and his back peppered with bomb fragments, returned to the battle after being evacuated for medical attention. It was this involvement that earned him the Victoria Cross.

After the Gallipoli campaign he received a lengthy break for medical attention. During this time an attempt to correct a problem with his nose caused a penetration of his brain cavity from which fluid leaked and led to serious infection that caused problems throughout the rest of his life.

His final military experience was in Palestine where he was wounded again, but more tragically it was here that his brother Ric was killed. Later in the year he was part of the final assault on Jerusalem and was chosen to be part of the guard of honour when the victorious General Allenby entered the city.

Exalted to the status of hero after being award a Victoria Cross for actions at Gallipoli, after his return home he was soon pushed off the pedestal upon which he’d been placed, when he spoke out against war, saying that peace would never be achieved while some people could make substantial profits from war. This didn’t go down well in his conservative community, particularly after his marriage to writer Katherine Susannah Prichard, a committed socialist writer who became one of the earliest members of the Communist Party in Australia.

The effects of his war experience, the wounds he received, the legacy of a bungled wartime operation that gave him mild brain damage, the suspicions of his community, followed by the Great Depression when he fell into serious financial trouble – all led to his eventual suicide.

The book’s title is very appropriate and shows a different perspective of the glorious Anzac myth.

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The Other Anzacs by Peter Rees

Other AnzacsThe Other Anzacs is the story of some of the ANZAC heroes of World War 1, who weren’t given the official recognition they deserved.

They are the nurses who travelled across half the world to do what they could for the “British” war effort. Unable to take up arms, they dedicated themselves to saving the lives of the victims of battle and disease, and were confronted daily by countless deaths and unspeakable battle wounds.

The book draws heavily on the personal accounts of the nurses, using their diaries and letters to find a way into their experiences and their emotions.

The book was adapted into a recent TV series Anzac Girls, and a paperback edition of the book was released under that new title. I bought the paperback edition and then watched the series before reading the book. Before I was able to get around to the book I found a hardcover edition, signed by the author, in an antiques and collectables shop. I bought it and gave the unread paperback to my mum.
anzac girls
The series chose to concentrate on only five of the nurses from the book, but they gave a good representation of the general nursing experience throughout the war. Watching the series didn’t detract at all from the later reading experience.

One aspect of the book that interested me was finding out the many local references. I found several of the nurses had links to nearby places I know. That gives me some interesting possibilities for further study. I even found that one of them lived nearby after the war and is now buried in the cemetery less than half a kilometre from my home.

While the men they nursed recognised the worth of their work, from the beginning the nurses had to contend with a bureaucracy that didn’t want women involved in that kind of war work. And yet the women soon had an effect, at times having to literally build up hospital facilities from scratch with very limited supplies.

Grace Wilson's medals

Grace Wilson’s medals

Matron Grace Wilson (see photo on book cover) found patients having to lie out in the open on the Island of Lemnos when she and her nurses were transferred there to establish the closest hospital to the Gallipoli battle front. The nurses even had to resort to tearing up clothing to provide bandages.

Peter Rees writes that on Lemnos “The conditions were probably the worst experienced by any nurses during the war.” But despite that Wilson and her nurses were able to create a hospital that was able to keep death rates to a minimum.

Despite their essential work the sacrifices they made and the dangers they faced, the nurses (considered officers in rank) were only paid a fraction of what the orderlies working for them received. Likewise, after the war they were denied any of the entitlements that were offered to returned servicemen which included financial help with housing loans. Rees writes ” Authorities in Australia saw the nurses’ role as secondary to that of the soldier.” He later adds “Australia was slow to acknowledge the nurses who served in the war. This was belatedly rectified in October 1999 when a memorial to Australian nurses who served in all wars was unveiled on Anzac Parade in Canberra.

nurses memorial, Canberra

nurses memorial, Canberra

23
Jan
13

How Fictional can “Christian Fiction” Be (while remaining “Christian”)?

[subtitle: Can a Christian Write Non-Christian or Even Antichristian fiction?]

I recently wrote about my early writing ambitions, the study I did and the stories I wrote. Those ambitions never came to fruition but I haven’t given up on them. However things have changed significantly since those University days. Back then there were few restraints on what I wrote – I could tackle any topic, any style and any genre without too much concern. But now I see things differently.

At that time I was going through a spiritual crisis, battling with the beliefs I’d held throughout the previous decade or more. It was a time of questioning and the pushing of boundaries, trying to come to terms with what I did or did not believe and what I SHOULD believe.

My spiritual condition could be summed up in this (paraphrased from memory) description of a character in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “he could not worship a God in whom he could not wholly disbelieve”. To me this describes someone caught between two camps. On the one hand not certain enough of the reality of God to fully devote his life to God; on the other hand not certain enough of God’s non-existence to cast aside all restraint to live a totally God-less life.

It was several years afterwards that I emerged from that crisis with a renewed faith, a development that has consequences for any writing ambitions that I’ve retained. I feel there ARE now restraints on what I write and how I write. There are responsibilities that twenty years ago I didn’t feel were relevant. There are types of writing that wouldn’t be appropriate for me to tackle, to state the obvious: pornography.

But the “restraints” go further than personal moral convictions and extend to the type of spiritual reality that a story portrays. A good friend of mine suggested that there are serious problems with any story that leaves God and the gospel of Jesus out of the equation. To my mind this doesn’t mean that every story a Christian writes (or reads) should contain specific references to these important spiritual realities, it just means that a Christian’s fictional world should remain consistent with the foundational spiritual truths they claim to embrace. The framework of a fictional world created by a Christian writer needs to have Christian realities at its core – even if that core is not specifically mentioned.

I became even more convinced of this yesterday when I read the following on the blog of a Christian author where he describes a major plot-point of his first published novel:
“…a man who’d been used by God to raise someone from the dead was sacrificed to a pagan deity. His soul was effectively imprisoned and the Land was cursed. That curse was maintained by each successive generation. One of my protagonist’s goals becomes to “free” this healer and return his soul to God.

Several reviewers pointed out that, in the real world, this was impossible.
And I pretty much agree.”

Further into his article he decries what he labels “the Theology Police” (a term he “wield[s] with lotsa snark”) who would criticise his story’s premise.

I have a very serious problem with the attitude the author is conveying. He seems to suggest there is absolutely no responsibility on Christian authors to remain true to even the most basic of the spiritual truths their alleged faith upholds. As if they can cast aside foundational truths to portray an alternative spiritual worldview all for the sake of story. As if the story takes priority over truth.

I’m sure many will agree with him and disagree with me – pointing out that he is an author writing fiction, that there are no limits on what he should be able to write in his own created fictional world.

Of course any fiction writer can create whatever reality they think suits their story – but whether that fiction writer can still legitimately refer to themselves as a Christian writer, or by the more flexible label of “writer who is a Christian” is debatable. For the writer (and reader) with no strong religious conviction all of this wouldn’t be an issue. But to someone believing in a genuine spiritual battle in which there are personal eternal consequences the situation ought to be entirely different.

In the case mentioned above, the author himself recognises the problem with the scenario his novel presents: as if the “soul” of a Godly many could be imprisoned after death and need to be freed to return to God.
What kind of spiritual “reality” and God is that portraying? And does it really matter as long as it’s entertaining?
I’d say it is a false reality and a false God, and YES it does matter.

Personally I’d prefer to read a well written secular novel by a non-believing author than one written by a Christian that protrays a counterfeit spirituality and a false God.

At least with the non-Christian author I have no false expectations about what I’d be reading.

11
Jan
13

“Top 20” Book List 2009-2012

In November 2009 I started a record of my reading, adding books as I finished reading them*. The following list (not in order of preference) is my top 20 out of the 163 books read from when the record was started until the end of 2012.

While some of the books on this list are firm favourites (for example, the two Asher Lev books by Chaim Potok and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief), other entries would probably be different if I compiled the list again in a week or two.

Inclusion on this list does not mean I liked everything about these books or that I would jump to recommend them to other readers, but each of them had qualities that helped them stand out from the rest of my reading

I wrote reviews of some of them on my former “literary” blog here: http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/

1. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken
2. Artists in Conversation, Janet Hawley
3 Australian Gothic: a life of Albert Tucker, Janine Burke
4. The Gift of Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
5. My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
6. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
7. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
8. A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin
9. Worldshaker, Richard Harland
10. Foxeys Hangout, Cathy Gowdie
11. Our Hands Are Stained With Blood, Michael Brown
12 My Legendary Girlfriend, Mike Gayle
13 Anita and Me, Meera Syal
14 The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
15. All Clear, Connie Willis
16. Brand New Friend, Mike Gayle
17. A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby
18. 84 Charing Cross Road/ The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Helene Hanff
19. Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock
20. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

*The full lists can be found here: https://onesimusfiles.wordpress.com/books-read/

07
Aug
12

Reading, Writing, Failed Ambition.

Three years ago I started to keep a record of every book I read. This helped to motivate me to finish reading books I had started. I realised I had far too many partially read books on my shelves.

Here are my reading stats from the beginning of that exercise.

2009: 10 books (from early November to end of year)

2010: 63 books

2011: 47 books

2012 to 7 August: 25 books

 Total: 145 books to date.

During that time I have rarely given up on a book I started reading. From memory I can only recall three.

This year I’ve struggled a little. It’s been harder for a book to maintain my interest. I’m not sure whether that’s due to my state of mind or the kind of books I’ve been reading. Therefore my progress has been slower.

Fiction hasn’t interested me so much recently, so I haven’t come across many of those “can’t put down” novels.

 Mostly I’ve been reading art related books, trying to overcome a lifetime’s ignorance of art and artists. Those books are often heavily illustrated with reproductions of art works, so it’s not just a matter of reading all of the text and putting the book into a completed pile. I return to them for ideas and inspiration, considering the techniques used and thinking of ways I can try them in my own paintings.

This whole, recording exercise was initially linked to a perceived need to read more diligently. I had become increasingly disappointed with the direction of my working life; stuck in an office day after day doing work in which I had no interest. The possibility of an escape was becoming less likely.

Over the years I’ve made two serious attempts to change my employment situation.

20 years ago I left 13 years of work behind to commence full time University study as a “mature age student”. I spent three years studying creative writing and English literature with the hope of becoming a professional writer. I did very well and loved the experience. Then came a year of unemployment after which I eventually found myself back in the type of administrative office work I’d tried to leave behind.

12 years later I tried another escape route. I left my job, I sold my home, and moved from the city to a country town 4 hours inland. I had no firm plan of what I would do but my hopes were high. I started with casual farm work, stacking supermarket shelves and anything else that came along. The “anything else” included a few weeks working in an office. Those few weeks stretched out until four years had passed. Here I am again, different office but same old situation.

Back to the “need” to read more diligently.

When I started the reading exercise I was hoping to reignite a passion for writing – the only thing that seemed like it could offer a viable way out. It has been a recurring ambition: the ONLY realistic ambition I recall having even in childhood (I rule out trapeze artist, a fleeting idea I had after seeing a Burt Lancaster movie).

All of the advice I’ve seen given to prospective writers is their need to read, read a lot and read widely. My own reading had slipped away significantly over the years since I left university, until I found myself rarely reading at all. By rediscovering the pleasures of reading I hoped to find my way back to writing. But sadly, three years after starting the reading project, I’m no closer to achieving anything more than writing regular blog entries.




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