The Desert Island aka Shackleton’s Antarctic Collection.

I doubt there could be a more real life example of the ‘What would you take to a desert island?’ than Shackleton’s trip to the Antarctic. There is an exhibition of the photographs of that trip on at the RGS in London at the moment. One of the photos shows a wall of books, his floating library. The RGS has been able to digitally enhance it, so that we now know exactly what Shackleton took on this unhappy expedition.


Can you judge a book by its cover? The fact is that one often can. And taking that notion a little further, surely we can judge a man by the covers of his books. That’s something, with the advent of electronic book reading, that we will never be able to do again. It is so easy and cheap to download that one can never make assumptions about the relationship of the book to the machine owner. Here, however, of course we are entitled to draw conclusions. The man bothered to take the books to Antarctica. The books mean something.

I’ve arranged the list in order into:

  • literature
  • linguistic and general reference
  • exploration

Between the general reference section and the exploration books I’ve squeezed in two non-fiction books, one by the socialist JB Askew and one by Alfred Dreyfuss.

As for literature, it is interesting to note that it is relatively light on our notion of classics. Most of them are the best sellers or maybe, to convert to our idiom, the Goodreads trending books of his time. There are quite a few murder mysteries or similar.

I’m guessing that those reading this have never heard of:

Gertrude Atherton
Amelie Rives
Montague Glass
Ian Hey
AEW Mason
David Bone
Herbert Flowerdew
John Joy Bell
Louis Tracy
William J Locke
Rex Beach
Robert Hugh Benson
H De Vere Stacpoole

Yet Atherton was compared with Wharton, Rives was the EL James of her day, and William J Locke made the best selling US novels list in five different years. His stories were made into films 24 times, including Ladies in Lavender starring Dench and Maggie Smith in 2004 and four of his books made Broadway as plays. In fact, although not one of my 500+ goodreads friends has reviewed any of these authors, Locke is still well read and loved, judging by the reviews. I confess I did not know his name.

Potash and Perlmutter, the comic rag trade merchants of Monatague Glass, were all the rage amongst New York Jews. Stacpoole is the author of The Blue Lagoon of the film fame (some would say infamy) and Flowerdew used his novels to proselytise on the rights of women:

The Woman’s View: A Novel About Marriage (1903) is a marriage problem tale with a complicated plot drawing attention to the inaccuracy with which the marriage laws relate to how people, especially women, feel about marriage. Valerie marries a fortune-hunter, and discovers he had a wife who was alive when they were married but is now dead. Philip, who has always loved her, tells her she is free, but she still feels married, and remarries her husband. He beats her and her baby dies as a result, so Philip rescues her. The husband sues for divorce on grounds of adultery, and so she is once more free, though she has not committed adultery. She marries Philip to save his political career, but refuses to sleep with him, as she still has a husband alive. Her cousin, who is in love with Philip, tells her she must: Valerie then responds by telling him to get an annulment and going back to her husband. As in Retaliation, Flowerdew sacrifices plausibility for the sake of his thesis. Flowerdew published an article, ‘A Substitute for the Marriage Laws’ in the Westminster Review (September 1899). Oxford Index



Amelie Rives, whose steamy best-seller The Quick and the Dead?  earned her a vigorous campaign of hate mail. And there I was thinking hate mail was just a function of the ease of modern technology. 

Personally, I find it fascinating to read up on authors who were successful in their day but subsequently forgotten. I have included links to the biographies of the lesser known authors, leaving it to you to take your exploration from there. Be brave. Be inquisitive. Shackleton would be proud of you.

Books on Shackleton’s bookshelf:



My Dinner With André by Wallace Shawn, André Gregory


It would be easy to see this in a bad light, dominated as it is by the experiences of André. André is rich, privileged enough to be able to afford a mid-life crisis where he doesn’t have to work and can travel the world rejecting everything he has so far achieved as an artist. Wallace, whom he is trying to convince that this is the right path, is a poor struggling playwright.

As André tells him it is bad to feel warm in one’s apartment in winter – how can one tell one is alive? -, Wallace says happiness for him is when his coffee in the morning, cold from the night before, doesn’t have a cockroach in it. And he means this, he isn’t being a smart-ass. When you are poor you find your pleasures where you can.

A nice juxtaposition. I was reminded of a friend of mine some months ago telling me that life is not about material complacency. She has a penthouse in the city and a house in the south of France, but that doesn’t mean she is wrong, of course. I immediately tossed my warmest coat.

We find a complex balance between the views of the two men and although people tend to side with Wallace, I think it is not as simple as that.

pp. 77-78

Wally: Yes, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, André, because New York is cold, our apartment is cold in the winter. It’s a difficult environment. Our lives are tough enough as it is. I mean, I’m not trying to get rid of the few things that provide relief and comfort, because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I’m trying to protect myself, because really there are these abrasive beatings to be avoided, everywhere you look.

André: But Wally, don’t you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable, and I like to be comfortable too, but don’t you see that comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquillity? I mean, my mother knew a woman, Lady Hatfield, who was one of the richest women in the world, but she died of starvation because all she would eat was chicken. I mean, she just liked chicken, Wally, and that was all she would eat, and actually her body was starving, but she didn’t know it, because she was quite happy eating her chicken, and so she finally died. You see, I honestly believe we’re all like Lady Hatfield now. We’re having a lovely, comfortable time with our electric blankets and our chicken, and meanwhile we’re starving, because we’re so cut off from contact with reality that we’re not getting any real sustenance. Because we don’t see the world. We don’t see ourselves.

They are both right. But André doesn’t understand that it is only his material comfort that makes him right about himself, whereas Wallace’s lack of the same means his dilemmas are physical, not philosophical.

I had assumed when I first saw the Malle movie, that it was a movie of a play. In fact the situation is quite the opposite. The film is the result of many hours of André and Wallace talking. The book is the unedited script, so it is warts and all. I mean, if Wallace starts every sentence with ‘I mean’, so it reads. I really do think, under the circumstances, that it is best to see the movie before or instead of reading the book. It does add life to the book.

This is seen as part one of a trilogy, though it was a long time until the other two were written. See The Fever and The Designated Mourner.


I’m waiting for the book to arrive, but surely in any case, to see the movie, directed by Malle, is the best way to read this.

Being an aficionado of books and movies in which nothing happens, for sheer nothingness this takes the cake and had me on the edge of my seat throughout. And yet, Roger Ebert, in one of his reviews of the film, could call it a ‘thrilling drama – a film with more action than ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Indeed it is this. A film that is literally no more than two people chatting to each other for a couple of hours while eating dinner is thrilling. Ebert explains it thus: ‘What ‘My Dinner With Andre’ exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told.’

To try to convince you of this I can do no better than quote Ebert again:

…there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.

See it. Read it.

Love stories: Far from the Madding Crowd and The Castle

I happened to watch back to back the new movie of Far From the Madding Crowd and Hanneke’s take on The Castle. Was it just the watching of them in that order that made me wonder if Kafka had written a love story?

I’ve read neither book, but understand the film versions to be scrupulous renditions of the stories. Both of them place the development of a relationship based on romantic love in the midst of the social and economic conditions that play – or attempt to play – a determining role.

Each of them constitutes rather unusual output. For Hardy, a happily-ever-after ending is atypical. For Kafka to delve into the humanity of people, which it seems to me this novel does, is equally surprising. Or does he do so in other works but it is easier to see in this one? Or is it Hanneke who adds that element, which would also be, based on my experience of the director, unlikely.

I hope to get to the books soon and maybe I will find some answers.

Creole Belle by James Lee Burke

Recalling the first James Lee Burke I read, which was short stories, I can’t help thinking in his case that less is more. Has he gone the way of so many writers who seem to get to a point where they eschew an editor? I’m not sure why any book by Burke would need over 500 pages, but this one has almost no plot. Even if somebody had trimmed a hundred pages off it, it would still be a story cushioned in a lot more words than warranted. It is painfully repetitive, points that could have been made deftly once, hammered home time and time again. But it seems like an author gets to a point where nobody minds what he does any more. Reputation is everything. This book gets rave reviews which are not deserving.

He’s a wonderful writer. Just for the number of ways he has of describing penises and erections he might get a Pulitzer. The Louisiana setting, the backdrop of music and food and social relations and language are a winner. Clete is one of the great inventions of literature, if you ask me. Every time I read about him I wonder why these books – the ones with Clete in them – haven’t been made into movies. At some point reference is made in Creole Belle to Clete looking like John Goodman, an obvious candidate for the role. I wonder if that was a hint?

Read the book, the good about it is well worth it. Then sign my petition to bring back editors.

Five things I have to say about Hobbit 3

(1) I had no idea that Tolkien was such a great writer. The line where the dwarf dude says to the kungfu-elf-chick ‘You make me feel so alive’. And where she says in a marvellously anguished way about love ‘It hurts so much’. That I could think up such lines.

(2) Unfortunately when the giant rabbits appeared Manny had just started sucking a Malteser. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried doing that and groaning at the same time. It isn’t pretty. Fortunately somebody in our row knew the Heimlich maneuvre. Personally, the big bunnies don’t bother me the way they do Tolkien nerds. I mean, if you are going to have lines like ‘You make me feel so alive’, does it matter what size the rabbits are?

(3) Some Tolkien nerds say that the big bunnies aren’t supposed to be in The Hobbit. They say it is an invention of the crazed mind of Peter Jackson. If it is true, it is sheer petty jealousy. I heard it like this from a NZ friend of mine. The set of The Hobbit was next to the set of an ad where they were trialling the idea of Jenny Craig for animals. The rabbits were the before-the-Craig treatment look, Pete saw them and it was just one of those moments where movie magic is made. It’s things like the slightly too large rabbits that make Jackson the director he is. I won’t let anybody say different.

(4) I have also heard it said that Petey lives next to a farm where they are testing the idea of fois gras de la lapin. My hand-on-heart opinion as an Australian? Seriously? Kiwis would do that.

(5) Am I the only person who keeps thinking about what Gandalf looks like in the nude? I was in the front row when I went to see Gandalf doing King Lear, so I’ve been a few feet away from his tackle and somehow I can’t get it out of my head. I wish I’d gone to see him do it in Singapore where he wasn’t allowed to get it out and wave it about.

All in all, a vast improvement on number two and I’m greatly looking forward to The Hobbit 4.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

Written in 2012:

I hesitate about putting this on my better-written-than-Harry-Potter shelf. It is and it isn’t.

Poor Le Carré. He needed a new day job after the Cold War made his old one irrelevant. The stuff he’s churned out since is hopeless. He doesn’t have a clue how to understand anybody except Cold War spies.

I bought this for 3 francs and I read about that much worth of it. Moving on now.

2014 Update: I’ve been to see the movie, a sadly fitting last outing for PS Hoffman. It isn’t a great movie, but I suspect it has done a good job of improving on the book. Put it this way: I resent the 3CHF I spent on the book, but I’ve spent worse 25CHF on movies….They couldn’t fix up the lawyer, she was still dreadful.


Magic in the Moonlight The titles are done in a nice restrained font. Things go downhill from there. Woody just can’t help himself. The big message in this for all you middle-aged men out there is do what Woody did. Get a chick less than half your age. Got to be cute but uneducated, ignorant. Could be a liar, cheater, fraudster all okay. But whatever you do don’t get yourself an intelligent rational woman of your own age. As Woody’s step-daughter, aka wife, gets older – too old for him now? – his movie fantasies get younger.

This aside, which is only distasteful for females in the audience who fancy they are intelligent and rational, the plot is severely wanting.

SerenaI gather the critics hate this one, a trifle unfairly if you ask me. The film suffers from the usual trouble that if it is possible to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare, nobody has yet found the secret. Anybody who has gone through life untroubled by existence of Shakespeare (oooooh, say Hunger Games readers) would, I imagine, find this riveting. But for people who have even the most passing acquaintance with Macbeth, this movie’s twists and turns will be known to you well before they take place on the screen.
Bottom Line: The movie was as good as it could be.

Awful because it shouldn’t be. Like at least some of his other movies it desperately needs an editor. Maybe Nolan is above the use of such a hard man, but he shouldn’t be. He doesn’t know how to stop and he needs to employ somebody who does. In this case, however, unlike The Dark Knight and Inception, it isn’t just too long, but also has an explanation of love that had us cringing. It’s such a pity. It had a good cast – interesting to see that Michael Caine can act just as well dead as alive – visually gripping, and a reasonable sci-fi story to a point. But this went well beyond that point. I had an idea that the audience the night we went thought they’d been to like this amazing TED talk? It had all this amazing sciencey stuff in it? Truly ruly it did not. It had the usual sci-fi loop thing where the people in the future have organised the people of the present to save themselves, when the fact of people in the future negates the idea that this could have happened or needed to. Meanwhile it was like OMG, Earth’s this amazing doomsday scenario and like love saves us? It’s SO amazing. Sigh.
Bottom Line: The movie should have been much better than it was.

An Eye for Beauty
The latest Denys Arcand movie and better than Serena and Interstellar. You can read a lot of bad reviews of this online, but I don’t think any of the reviewers have a clue what the movie is about. It isn’t about relationships. It’s about a guy who is an architect, and whose eye for beauty is his entire life. This is not to say it is an ode to beauty, far from it. The entire movie is exquisitely beautiful visually, while drumming home the point of the sheer emptiness of the lives of those who are surround by, and live for, it. Nothing else is interesting to the architect. Not his wife, not the girl he shags a couple of times, not even his wealthy leisured life. Being surrounded by beauty is insufficient. He has to make it too. It’s unfortunate that the girl he sees on the side is seen as his shag, when in fact their relationship is entirely orchestrated by the girl. He is there because it isn’t important to him, not because it is. He might be there just and only there for the beauty. The girl is a really strange person, treading some fine line between honesty and stalking – either way she is creepy. It is mystifying to me that she is denied character by the reviewers. They presume that her presence is ‘the other woman romance’ but it is nothing like this. It isn’t a romance. It isn’t meant to be a romance, it isn’t like the director tried for a romance and failed. It is a relationship that meant everything to the woman and, for all the male’s botheration about it, nothing to him. Meanwhile his wife thinks that she can’t live without him but in fact does jolly well once she decides to move on – just to be clear, this isn’t anything to do with the occasional shag with the other girl. I can’t say that I could totally explain this movie, but as a friend said to me the other day, Arcand likes ambiguity. It’s okay, though.
Bottom Line: Ignore the reviews and take a chance.