My Christmas reading

Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 6 January 2007, p. 25.

One of the joys of the Christmas and New Year holidays is the chance, once the festivities are over, to settle down with a book or three, not for work but for pleasure. This year some of the regular and usually reliable authors I turn to have left me somewhat disappointed.

Ian Rankin’s Naming the Dead, Frederick Forsyth’s The Afghan and Robert Harris’s Imperium, plus an older book by Martin Cruz Smith Tokyo Station, suggest that each of these authors was not at his best. You turn the pages, but the level of engagement seems lower. Rankin’s policeman, John Rebus, is heading for retirement and I got the impression that the author consciously or unconsciously is about ready to pension him off. Perhaps like Shane Warne he will have one last flourish before he goes, or will there be a Conan Doyle moment at the Edinburgh equivalent of the Reichenbach Falls?

Forsyth has a spectacular end to his thriller which is bang up to date in its study of the inside of a terrorist operation. Like Tom Clancy he seems to credit the security organisations of the United States and Britain with capacities and efficiencies which they don’t always demonstrate in the real world. Thoroughly researched, clearly written but somehow just lacking the zing of the Day of the Jackal. Curious. John Le Carre is, however, in top form in The Mission Song. Funnier and even more satirical than his recent works, this tale of a half-caste interpreter of African languages who becomes embroiled in a shady operation involving British security services and warring factions in the Congo shows the master has not lost his touch.

I wonder if Harris is setting up a future work on Julius Caesar, who is a mover and shaker, though mostly off stage, in Imperium. Harris’s book stops just when Cicero becomes Consul of Rome and so does not have to deal with the consequences of his apostasy, though it is foreshadowed in his ‘arrangements’ with his patrician enemies to secure the election result. The former tribune of the people, an efficient governor of Sicily and defender of the exploited, subsequently becomes a catspaw of the establishment. Little of the great rhetoric appears in the book, perhaps wisely since it would not all be attuned to modern tastes, but nevertheless it’s a pity since we don’t really get a sense of his command of language and political ideas. But my wife thought it was very well written and enjoyed it.

I have Les Carlyon on the Great War to start when I finish another blockbuster, David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football. Though it is written by a sociologist, there is no jargon and it zips along like a novel and has a huge range from Argentina to Zambia. So I will have to resist the temptation to be picky about lots of errors of detail and about Goldblatt’s failure to pick up on some recent research, particularly on the early history of the game. Some of what he has missed would strengthen his arguments. Mind you he has lifted some chunks of my own work without attribution, even citing an Australian sporting newspaper as if he had read it, rather than borowing the passage from one of my articles. C’est la vie.

Garrie Hutchinson contributed This Sporting Year, an illustrated selection of some of the best Australian sportswriting for 2006. Peter Wilson on Cadel Evans, the Australian cyclist who took part in last year’s Tour de France, gives some idea of what is involved in this quintessentially European event that has captured more than a cult following thanks in part to being juxtaposed with the Ashes on SBS late at night during the northern summer in 2005. Though you could complain that the content is drawn mainly from the Melbourne and Sydney broadsheets, this means that there is lots of Greg Baum’s writing which is always worth re-reading.

My brother sent me a copy of a Suffolk dialect book which is full of gems, while Australian friends clearing out their parents’ house found a collection of Nino Cullota’s and John O’Grady’s books on Strine and local quirks which had us rolling around once again.

Finally I obtained a copy of Gertrude Dubrovsky, Six from Leipzig. This is the story of the Kindertransport that brought 20,000 Jewish children out of Germany prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The children were rescued from the subsequent Holocaust in which many of their parents died. Others survived but were separated from their children sometimes for a decade, as were Hedwig and Fritz Bettelheim, mother and father of the first Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University, Professor Fred Jevons. Fred was sponsored and looked after by a family in England. Subsequently he moved to the home of his school headmaster from whom he took his new name and was only reunited with his parents, who had escaped to Venezuela, in 1948. It is a harrowing and moving story.

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