Book reviews

Western Horizon: Sydney’s heartland and the future of Australian politics, David Burchell. Scribe, 2003. isbn 0 908011 93 8, rrp $16.95

David Burchell examines the political phenomenon of western Sydney. Burchell goes beyond the everyday perceptions and uncovers many paradoxes. He recognises that while western Sydney bears the mark of poverty and poor infrastructure, it is also increasingly a place of prosperity—particularly for those who have benefited from the rise in housing prices and those seeking the advantages of living in open-space suburbs and ‘dream’ homes.

Since Tampa and September 11, western Sydney has gained a reputation for racism. In Western Horizon, Burchell concludes that while the area continues to attract high numbers of migrants, a culture of racism and intolerance persists.

Exploring the shift from traditional Labor voting behaviour towards a Liberal mind-set, Burchell offers readers an engaging view of the political culture of western Sydney. 

Miriam Bugden

Body and Soul: A Spirituality of Imaginative Creativity, Fintan Creaven. St. Paul’s, 2003. isbn 1 876295 59 7, rrp $21.95

One of the great discoveries of late has been the wealth of Celtic spirituality. The prayers, poems and practices of early Irish Christians have been widely published and appreciated.

Fintan Creaven, a British Jesuit, reflects on the connection between his Celtic and his Ignatian heritage. It is a journey of discovery, as it would be for many Jesuits of his generation. The emphasis in Celtic spirituality on wonder at the beauty and rhythms of creation, and to recover the same spirit in Ignatius and his companions. Qualities often obscured in the desire to make an orderly and teachable spirituality.

The book is notable for its enthusiasm and its quotations from Celtic literature. I would have loved only to see the writer go in for more recent spirituality through Patrick Kavanagh, George McKay Brown and John McGahran. 

Andrew Hamilton

One Fourteenth of an Elephant: A memoir of life and death on the Burma–Thailand Railway, Ian Denys Peek. Macmillan, 2003. isbn 0 7329 1168 0, rrp $35.00

Reading this book inspires you to sit down with a bottle of whisky and two glasses—one for yourself and one for Peek as he tells you his story. The book is not a narrative but a conversation.

It’s about being a prisoner of war on the Thai-Burma railway during World War II. The author is emotional and forthright. His attitude to his Japanese and Korean captors is hard to swallow, but his anger is understandable. Peek’s intense dislike of his captors is not racially based—others to feel his wrath include God, the Irish Unionists, his own officers, and a few of the rank and file prisoners.

Many people know a bit about the Thai-Burma railway, and the experiences of these men has inspired a latter-day tourist industry. Reading this book, I felt much more enlightened about the survival of those on the railway. It’s an amazing story. Sadly, it is a story Peek shares with too many comrades. Peek is cheerful and matter of fact about an experience that could have been soul-destroying, but wasn’t: something I can never understand. 

Chris O’Connor

What’s Right?, Eric Aarons. Rosenberg Publishing, 2003.  isbn 1 877058 10 6, rrp $24.95

Reflecting upon the events of September 11, 2001, Eric Aarons is particularly affected by the destructive use of modern technology intended for the benefit of ordinary lives. Aarons contends that the modern world delivers more misery than it is supposed to, and its achievements are often overshadowed by its failures.

‘What’s right?’ is an apt question for today. Since September 11, neo-liberal hawks on the political right have pursued an increasingly aggressive policy agenda, supposedly in the name of the morally right. Aarons analyses today’s pre-eminent neo-liberalism, in theory and practice: from the perversion of high-minded and moralistic classical liberalism to today’s market-fundamentalism.

Aarons embarks on a refreshing discussion of human nature, and its biological and anthropological history. Nonetheless, he wastes no time in relating this discussion back to the central dilemma: what is neo-liberalism, and what are its ethical values?

With candour and a tempered idealism, Aarons expresses dismay at the present situation, sketches possibilities for the future and warns against the blunders of the past.  

Tom Rigby

Giving it Away: In praise of philanthropy, Denis Tracey. Scribe, 2003. isbn 0 908011 90 3, rrp $27.50

One distinctive quality of the early Christians’ God was philanthropy. Unlike the neutral or hostile gods of others, their God loved human beings. But in the human world, philanthropy was a virtue for the god-like. Philanthropists who gave to their cities came in many colours, but it was taken for granted that they were rich.

What was in question was their love. The vanity displayed by the rich in their giving was commonplace, as were the complaints by philanthropists about the small-mindedness of their critics.

Denis Tracey goes beyond these stereotypes in his description of the willingness of Australians to give of their resources. He finds a fitful but growing tradition, with evidence of the meanness of those come to wealth, but also of a commitment to give and of creativity in finding better ways to enable good things to be done. Tracey’s interviews take the reader beyond stereotypes and display the full range of passion and perplexity among donors and
recipients.

A recurrent theme is the desire of contemporary donors to give effectively and to create new opportunities. Those who appeal for money now need to make detailed submissions and offer evaluation of their projects. It will also help if the donations they seek are seed funding. The philanthropic God is no longer an absent gardener. 

A.H.

 

 

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