Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

“Books ex­ist for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.” So said Di Mor­ris­sey at a re­cent din­ner in Syd­ney to mark her 25th year as a pub­lished au­thor. It was a plea­sure to meet this 68-year-old writer (and for­mer TV star) and some of her friends and fam­ily. Her son, Ni­co­las Mor­ris­sey, flew in from the US, where he is a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia. His speech was full of pride in his mother, and love. Mor­ris­sey’s first novel, Heart of the Dream­ing, was pub­lished in 1991. She has writ­ten just about one a year since, the lat­est of which, A Dis­tant Jour­ney, is re­viewed on page 31. Her sim­ple de­scrip­tion of books is one to which any reader can re­late: we all like books for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, we all re­ceive some­thing from them that is in­di­vid­ual and per­sonal. That can vary from reader to reader and book to book, but we know that books matter, that writ­ers de­serve re­spect. We may change our minds about that from time to time, but it’s a good start­ing point. It’s part of what Mor­ris­sey was say­ing, too. She may have sold a few mil­lion books, but it still hurts if critics di­min­ish her writ­ing. “I’m ter­ri­fied,” she said when called on to make a speech. It was lovely to see her hold­ing on to the shoul­der of the writer sit­ting be­side her, one who has pub­lished even more books: Tom Ke­neally. When he won the Man Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler’s Ark, she was a decade off her de­but. It was won­der­ful to see them to­gether, both still go­ing strong. I will con­tinue the Christ­mas books theme in a sec­ond, but first I want to note three more an­i­mal-themed works that didn’t make the dogs and cats pa­rade last week. Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?, by US jour­nal­ist Andrew Lawler, is a fas­ci­nat­ing, in­for­ma­tive and amus­ing study of the bird that pow­ers civil­i­sa­tion. There are 20 bil­lion of them on the planet. The book is full of sec­tions that start like this: “Chick­ens were al­ready in Bri­tain when Cae­sar ar­rived with his troops in 55BC.” It’s a page-turn­ing read. Cowspiracy: The Sus­tain­abil­ity Se­cret, by Kip An­der­sen and Keegan Kuhn, is based on their doc­u­men­tary of the same name. It’s a pro-ve­gan (and pro-cow) ex­am­i­na­tion of the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of meat pro­duc­tion. Scor­pion, by Syd­ney aca­demic Louise M. Pryke, is a se­ri­ous his­tory of the sting­ing arthro­pod, an an­i­mal revered, feared — and mis­un­der­stood. As a Scorpio, I em­pathise. “De­spite the scor­pion’s hos­tile rep­u­ta­tion,” Pryke writes, “most are not ag­gres­sive.” In­deed, they are “ex­cep­tional crea­tures”. So there! Christ­mas is fun but it can also be stress­ful, what with fam­ily and all that, so here’s a book that may come in use­ful if con­ver­sa­tion livens up over post-pud­ding port. Scorn, by Bri­tish politi­cian turned writer Matthew Par­ris, is billed as a com­pen­dium of the “wit­ti­est and wickedest in­sults in hu­man his­tory”. As the au­thor is a Pom, I checked for a sec­tion on Aus­tralia. It’s there, de­voted to pol­i­tics, and is dom­i­nated by Paul Keat­ing. He’s good value but it’s no com­pen­dium with­out Gough Whit­lam’s re­sponse to Win­ton Turn­bull’s dec­la­ra­tion: ‘‘I am a Coun­try mem­ber.’’ EGW: “I re­mem­ber.”

The book is full of cel­e­brated in­sults from fa­mous and in­fa­mous peo­ple, from Den­nis Lillee to Robert Mu­gabe, Vir­ginia Woolf to Os­car Wilde, Mozart to Yoko Ono, Princess Di to Donald Trump. I was cu­ri­ous to see who re­ceived the most ref­er­ences in the in­dex. I would have guessed Winston Churchill, but while he is ahead of Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker, and Hitler for that matter, he’s a dis­tant third to Wilde and, at the head of the pack, Ge­orge Bernard Shaw. The most ref­er­enced Aus­tralian is not a sports star (though we punch hard in that sec­tion) or Keat­ing but Clive James. Quote of the week: “Crito, we owe a cock to As­cle­pius. Pay the debt. Don’t for­get.” Yes, I’ve re­turned to the chicken book for that one, the fi­nal words of Socrates.

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