Book reviews

A man after his own heart: A true story
Charles Siebert. Scribe, 2004. isbn 1 920 76914 5, rrp $30

Nearing the end of this ‘exploration of the heart’, the author recounts an occasion on which he tried explaining the idea for this book to an ageing and unnamed academic. Responding to Siebert’s comments, the gentleman seems uncertain of the author’s intended work, which he dismissively summarises as ‘some sort of book about the heart’.

This is a book about a man considering his father’s death (of heart disease), becoming aware of his own mortality and the possibility of inheriting the same disease. It is also a study of the life of Siebert’s father; an anonymous organ donor; harvester and recipient. Though impeccably researched and written with great sensitivity, there is something inexact about Siebert’s narrative. This is common enough in biography, but in a book about the heart I suspect it is almost desirable. This is less a book about certainties than a history of questions.

There are rich engagements with some of the scientific and theological characterisations and caricatures of the heart through history. Siebert suggests that it is only in lived experience that the extremes of science and religion maintain a precarious but satisfying tension.

Charles Siebert’s narrative is touching. His exploration of this symbol, archetype and pump is engaging at many levels. I heartily recommend it.

Luke O’Callaghan

Car Wars: How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities
Graeme Davison with Sheryl Yelland. Allen & Unwin, 2004. isbn 1 741 14207 5, rrp $29.95


‘Cars are everywhere’, Graeme Davison writes in this history of a city and its cars. ‘They monopolise our streets and roadways and mould the landscape to their insistent demands.’ Melbourne is a place Davison knows intimately, and about which he writes with insight. Car Wars analyses the effects of automobiles on cities—congestion, road trauma, suburban sprawl, motels, drive-in shopping centres, parking lots. It examines the aspirations of past governments—from the vast freeway networks of the 1960s, to the City Link schemes of the Kennett era.

Davison looks at protest movements against expansion along waterways and through Melbourne’s historic inner suburbs. He examines arguments of earlier critics, such as Robin Boyd, an opponent of Australia’s car-led transformation into ‘Austerica’. He examines gender constructions and the effects cars had on the lives of young people.

Car Wars is written engagingly, supported by meticulous research that reveals unknown episodes in transport history. In 1948, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, a car dealer, decided to inspect traffic congestion in the CBD from the air. Unfortunately the rare sight of a helicopter brought Melburnians out into the streets and out of their cars, confounding the mayor’s survey.

Car Wars is an excellent contribution to continuing development debates.

John Molloy

The Master

Colm Tóibín. Picador, 2004.
isbn 0 743 25040 0, rrp $25

The Master follows the life of American author Henry James at the end of the 19th century. Though admired by many, James fails at true affection, needing freedom and distancing himself from anyone who threatens to weigh upon this liberty.

Though the text is not plot-driven, the beauty is in James’ observations. We follow James through his life in Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris and finally settling in England. Tóibín’s images represent a stunning literary postcard of the Europe that so appealed to the American bohemian set.

Tóibín paints his work with several raw scenes that show great insight into human nature. The deaths of close family members and friends produce some of the most moving passages in the novel due to the honesty with which Tóibín expresses James’ reflections. Though the novel often reminisces on events in James’ youth, Tóibín  moves easily between past and present.

The images created in The Master linger in the memory. The description of the child James hiding in the family drawing room, listening to Dickens’ David Copperfield—a novel not viewed as appropriate for one so young—who gives himself away by crying at David’s mistreatment, is an image that remains because of its gentle humanity. I wasn’t always captivated by the text, because the pace tends to move slowly and the constant introduction of new characters can be confusing. However it is Tóibín’s narrative that makes The Master compelling, allowing us to see the honest self of Henry James.

Rachel Hewitt

Travellers’ Tales
compiled by Trevor Bormann. ABC Books, 2004. isbn 0 733 31364 7, rrp $24.95

‘To be perfectly frank, journalists despise normality’, Peter Lloyd confesses before describing the ‘bloodbath’ of the Bali bombings. Although it seems a catalogue of all that is wrong with this world, I couldn’t help experiencing a sense of levity after finishing Travellers’ Tales.

Travellers’ Tales contains the anecdotes of a handful of the ABC’s foreign correspondents. As well as insights into the world’s hotspots, it offers a glimpse into the motives of the roving reporter. When Michael Maher quotes Graham Greene’s description of the journalist as the ‘voyeur of violence’, one wonders if perhaps this phrase is inaccurate. For instance, Mark Corcoran’s engagement with mercenaries in Sierra Leone and Sally Sara’s description of suburban Johannesburg inspire deep feeling.
 
The eye for the personal characterises the accounts, satisfying the need for information and providing a glimmer of constructive promise. Perhaps it is important to laugh at the woes of the world at times (Chris Clark manages to express the funny side of Chechnya), lest we be struck by the sad fact that according to Mark Simpkin, North Koreans are often reduced to eating bark and leaves while a 20 metre high statue of their ‘dear leader’ watches magnanimously over them.

Nathan Kensey

 

 

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