An Italian Education by Tim Parks

I’m working my way through Tim Parks’ books, this being my third. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as his Italian Life, but the circumstances were invidious as I read the whole thing during several weeks spent at my mother’s bedside in hospital. It’s really hard reading in that environment, it’s all so noisy and there are constant interruptions. Ostensibly it’s about his children growing up in Italy. But is it they, or he, who are receiving the education? Both I suppose. There are some hilarious scenes – when his son takes it upon himself to learn to fish stands out.

On the more sociological side, the extraordinary, and I thought rather repellent, relationship between children and mothers, even adult children and aging mothers is discussed at length. The Madonna statues littering the countryside. Small children refusing homework answers from fathers. ‘I said I wanted mummy to answer’. Fathers might just as well not bother knowing what 7 x 3 equals. And then as adult children sharing beds with mothers. Mothers overprotecting their children in ways that we’d think of as neurotic, but apparently normal there.

There are no families in the way one thinks of Catholic Italy. Apparently one child families are the norm. Tim Parks and his wife are considered crazy by their friends and neighbours as they go ahead with child two.

The portrayals of school life are interesting and funny in a depressing sort of way. There is a nice example of rules, getting around rules, and expanding to how that affects government at a wider level.

I hope I haven’t made this sound dry, it isn’t. I’m looking forward to my next – I still have a few on the shelves.

Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro


Cleaning up: my goodness, I wrote this in 2014 and didn’t get around to publishing it. 

Sociologically speaking, Munro’s worth her weight in gold. Her stories preserve aspects of social history – mores, language, ways of living, the looks, the smells, the landscape – in a form that goes well beyond what is possible in documented sources. Nor does she need to introduce the drama necessary in movies. She can make things 3D without glasses. Layers of small vignettes that add up to a whole world – her world.

And because it is her world I suppose, her books, I see as I randomly attack them, seem to have a quality that reflects time and age. This set, her first, is preoccupied with the young and adolescent. It reads like a first. Slightly green and rough, they feel like maybe they were harder fought for than later stories, where she has found her exact voice and way. Even so, this first lot is still the same writer through and through. There is a sameness not just of topic and setting, but style which drove me to an impatient boredom in the end. Somehow Munro makes 3D very flat. I didn’t care to finish the last two stories, much as it included the title piece. She’d been writing already for many years by the time this book came out, it covers over a decade in terms of her output, so although it’s a first book, it isn’t a first book the way all those hyped up creations by creative university literary courses are; the writing may be a bit green, but the writer isn’t.

To be fair, as she writes largely of rural communities where her characters speak a very colloquial and uneducated brand of English, maybe green and rough reflects that, rather than her technique. That puts the reader of my edition, at least, in the bind in other ways. Mine is a shockingly proofread book. I have written to Vintage to try to find out more about this. We are talking about stories that were (in the main) published in magazine format, then into a book in 1968. My 2000 edition is a new one by Vintage/Random House.

Things don’t start well for Random House as one opens the book and there in the author’s biography is this in the opening sentence:

‘…including Open Secrets which one the WH Smith Literary Award.’

Some sort of team at Random House can’t tell the difference between its and it’s. It’s lacks its apostrophe at least nine times on pages 29, 129, 130, 138, 139, 141, and 156. Twice on two of those pages. There is nothing to suggest in the text as a whole that this is artifice on the part of the writer. This meant the person who set the copy, the copy-editor, the proofreader all failed this test for eight-year-olds.

p. 52 fourth line from the bottom it would appear that the word ‘his’ has been included instead of the word ‘this’. ‘Adelaide had said that his woman would probably let us use her front room…’ There is no ‘his’ in the story to make sense of this, so the simple fix is to make it ‘this woman’

p.76 One assumes that ‘promposity’ is supposed to be ‘pomposity’.

p.90 One assumes fom the description of the item of clothing in question that ‘kimona’ is supposed to be ‘kimono’ which is elsewhere correctly spelt.

p.178 ‘on’ should be ‘an’, presumably: She had ‘…a long wary face and on oblique resentful expression’.

I have so far sent two queries to Vintage Press to find out how the proofreading of this book was done. Unfortunately I don’t have other editions to hand to compare.

Update years later: Vintage Press replied asking me to give them a list of the mistakes. I asked for a job. I was not offered a job.

Italian Life, a Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal by Tim Parks

Italian Life, a Modern Fable of Loyalty and Betrayal by Tim Parks

On his website Tim Parks insists that much of this novel is made up…and maybe that’s true. On the other hand, you can see why he’d need to say that.

To begin with, the reader is mainly laughing whilst shaking their head. But as the story unfolds, it begins to horrify and you realise that you don’t even know how that happened, the process by which the laughing stopped. The night before I finished it, I had an angry sleep. James’ boss, the Rector, is – put-downable, by which I mean the world would be a much better place without this scumbag. I laid in bed probably feeling about the same as Robert De Niro does the night before he does the scenes where he bashes people’s heads in with whatever sporting equipment he happens to be carrying at the time. BRING IT ON. Memo to PA: cancel my craps game in the morning. I’m playing baseball.

Another way of putting all this is that it’s very hard to believe it’s made up. It could scarcely feel more real. And, as is so often the case when I read literature set in Italy, I see my own childhood, which was quite brutal in parts, on the page. The irony being that my father perpetuated what he had intended to avoid when raising kids. Uggggh.

I have a friend who is Italian working in an Australian university after doing her PhD here. Although she is having a miserable time, as all academics are – the ones who do all the shitwork, not the management academics who take all the money – I do wonder if it is nonetheless a better scene than she’d be experiencing at her level in Italy. I must ask her.

This is my first Tim Parks, he’s a great writer who I suspect is undervalued for the reason we look down on so many talented people today. He is good at more than one thing and declines to specialise. He is a highly regarded translator, a critic of note, a writer of memoir, and last but not least a talented novelist. I’d never heard of him and nor had half a dozen other well and widely read people I asked. I’ve now collected half a dozen more by him from secondhand shops. I’m going to read the lot.

After Method: Mess in Social Science Research by John Law

Addressed particularly to budding academics.

I wonder how revolutionary this book was in 2004 when it first appeared. Even now, in a world where text books and zoom classes teach neat methods for students at university level – eg Neuman’s Social Research Methods, considered a classic, doesn’t mention Law’s work, at least in the two editions I have – it apparently goes against the grain. We have a picture of how scientists to their thing, and no amount of pointing out that they live in messes quite contrary to those expectations, actually sinks through. Consequently, those in the field possibly hampered with the label social ‘scientists’, need to deliver packages which make sense even though they are generally investigating things that don’t.

The book also feels prescient. Everything he says about the mess of reality, the inability to grab it without it slipping away, relates even more to the world of twenty years later when we are all hooked into the internet, with reality being all the murkier as a consequence. This is how he introduces the problem in 2004:

No doubt some things in the world can indeed be made clear and definite. Income distributions, global CO2 emissions, the boundaries of nation states, and terms of trade, these are the kinds of provisionally stable realities that social and natural science deal with more or less effectively. But alongside such phenomena the world is also textured in quite different ways. My argument is that academic methods of inquiry don’t really catch these. So what are the textures they are missing out on?

If we start to make a list then it quickly becomes clear that it is potentially endless. Pains and pleasures, hopes and horrors, intuitions and apprehensions, losses and redemptions, mundanities and visions, angels and demons, things that slip and slide, or appear and disappear, change shape or don’t have much form at all, unpredictabilities, these are just a few of the phenomena that are hardly caught by social science methods. It may be, of course, that they don’t belong to social science at all. But perhaps they do, or partly do, or should do. That, at any rate, is what I want to suggest. Parts of the world are caught in our ethnographies, our histories and our statistics. But other parts are not, or if they are then this is because they have been distorted into clarity. This is the problem I try to tackle. If much of the world is vague, diffuse or unspecific, slippery, emotional, ephemeral, elusive or indistinct, changes like a kaleidoscope, or doesn’t really have much of a pattern at all, then where does this leave social science? How might we catch some of the realities we are currently missing? Can we know them well? Should we know them? Is ‘knowing’ the metaphor that we need? And if it isn’t, then how might we relate to them? These are the issues that I open up in this book.

I am charmed by the idiosyncrasies of composition in this book: it has Interludes, which reminds me of Eugene O’Neill. Again early on, he has this, in a box headed The Pleasures of Reading.

Why do the books fall into two heaps, the novels on the one hand, and the academic volumes on the other? Why do the novels get themselves read at the weekends, or on holidays, or in the ten minutes before falling asleep at night? Why do the work-books get read in the day, at prime times?

Then again, another kind of question. How do these different kinds of books get read? Why is it that reading a novel brings pleasure not only for its plot and its characterisation, but also for its use of words? If we reflect on the sheer pleasure of reading a well-crafted novel, one in which the words are carefully chosen, put together just right, then we may ask the question: what is the pleasure in reading an academic book? And how many academic books are really well written at the word-level? At the level of crafting?

How these two kinds of books get read is often, perhaps mostly, very different. If we read novels we read them, often, as an act in itself, for the pleasure of the read, the ‘good read’ of the airport novel, or the crafted text of a Barbara Kingsolver or a Penelope Lively or a J.M. Coetzee. They are pleasures in themselves, intrinsic. Whereas I guess we do not often read an academic book for the pleasure of the read itself, the pleasure, so to speak, of the journey. Rather we read it for the destination, where it will take us, where we will be delivered. We take pleasure, to be sure, in a well-crafted academic book – the ones that come to mind for me are, perhaps, mostly by historians. But the interest is different.

Perhaps, then, the distinction is between means and ends. Novels are ends in themselves, worth reading in their own right. Academic writings are means to other ends. The textures along the way, the actual writing, these are subordinate to those ends. It may be more agreeable to travel first class than third, but in the end we all arrive at the same destination.

What difference would it make if we were instead to apply the criteria that we usually apply to novels (or even more to poetry) to academic writing? Wouldn’t the library shelves empty as the ranks of books disqualified themselves? What would we be left with? And, more importantly, if we had to write our academic pieces as if they were poems, as if every word counted, how would we write differently? How much would we write at all?

Of course we would need to imagine representation in a different way. Poetry and novels wrestle with the materials of language to make things, things that are said to be imaginary. It is the making, the process or the effect of making, that is important. The textures along the way cannot be dissociated from whatever is being made, word by word, whereas academic volumes hasten to describe, to refer to, a reality that lies outside them. They are referential, ostensive. They tell us how it is out there.

How, then, might we imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself with the quality of its own writing? With the creativity of writing? What would this do to the referent, the out-thereness?

Some on Goodreads criticise him for being verbose and/or long-winded – the book could have been shorter than it was – but it’s always hardest to be the one who does it first. While acknowledging those who go before him, he wants to paint a big picture  a new one, not the nth version of The Scream. It’s easy to empathise that this is a struggle. He isn’t really writing for us, who know the story by now and for whom none of it can be a surprise. He’s writing for hostile academics who may be colleagues, may be enemies and may, most challengingly, be one and the same.

Having to apologise for the very idea of trying to write ‘well’ is part of that. As Binmore explicitly, and others no doubt keeping their disappointment to their chests, have realised, writing well does one no favours in the academic world. Best advice in this regard to budding academics is to get that urge to write well out of your system by writing Mills and Boons anonymously. It will have the bonus of supporting you financially so that you won’t need to rely on food stamps and living out of your car to make up for the exploitative conditions of being a junior academic. Write well in your day job and it will get backs up and create mistrust, the more so if you actually have something to say.

That said, After Method has been cited academically well over six thousand times. Law survived. But will you?

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Consider that this horrifying indictment of American capitalism was published in 2002, well before the dehumanising ‘gig’ platforms ripped through whole industries, destroying the conditions, such as they were, of their workers. Consider the setting is prosperity, with more jobs (if they can be called such) available than human beings to fill them.

This book generated much interest in the US – Ehrenreich suggests this is because ‘one of us’, nice white people, faked it for the story. You should read in conjunction with this, Hand to Mouth which is the the same story, but it isn’t a story, it’s the life of a bottom of the pond worker. Ehrenreich provides a foreword.

For more on Nickel and Dimed start with Wiki.

For an on the ground response along the lines of ‘Mr Walmart’s nice’ see Life at Wal-Mart.

And for a you-might-roll-your-eyes-too ‘I did what she did and it was super easy, barely an inconvenience, well on my way to riches in no time at all. Months even’ sort of article, there is this.

Out of Copley Street A Working-Class Boyhood by Geoff Goodfellow

I’m afraid I’m going to undersell this. It’s a wonderful book, indispensably adding to the theme of growing up in Australia.

It’s my second five star book in a row, the first by Helen Garner and now this, with Garner’s words on the cover: ‘a dry, sparkling clarity, a pure tone that hovers on the edge of laughter: these stories are a revelation’.

It is frequently observed that part of Garner’s attraction is the way she writes about Melbourne. One could say the same of Goodfellow about Adelaide, the difference being that she is looking and he is being. It’s his life, not hers.

For me, ten years younger than Goodfellow, raised in an asbestos Housing Trust house in an area full of them, on the outskirts of the city, this was memory lane, but it doesn’t need to be that. I don’t see why anybody wouldn’t be entranced by this collection of a now-gone way of life written with a poet’s understanding of keeping it simple and focussed. It’s a delight to read for its own sake. But it’s also important that we preserve history this way, if only to give life to research like Adelaide Housing and Planning 1946-1959.

It took a few hours to read this, but I will treasure it for a long time to come. A report on his poetry to come.

This House of Grief by Helen Garner

Why would you read a made up whodunit when Garner is writing these reflections on real cases? In her ruminations on, and observations of, human nature, she has the appropriate balance and sympathy, as well as empathy. It feels like she is calling it as it is, which is no easy task. It means to be involved, if only as observer, whilst being detached enough to admit and be inclusive of one’s feelings, without their corrupting the job.

You might read this because it’s a ripping good yarn, if a tragic one. Or because of the way it captures the small town Australia in which it is set, and the interactions between the people of that setting and the urban, sophisticated stage of the law with all its trappings.

On a more abstract level, an important theme is the nature of memory. The person accused of the murder of his three young boys comes out looking bad at a variety of levels. One is his entirely unconvincing attempts (if they are that) to explain what happened. Another, connected, is the way he behaved subsequent to having saved himself, while his children died. His behaviour convicted him.

Intellectually it is impossible to read his descriptions of what happened when he went into the dam and believe in him. But it brought to my mind a car crash I was in long ago. The car rolled several times and stopped. My real memory of what happened, and subsequently the memory of my memory was that the car stopped upside down. I ‘know’ that couldn’t have happened. How does one even get out of a seatbelt hanging upside down in a car? Certainly one wouldn’t forget it. And yet, even though I know it, the memory remains. Many years later, I told another passenger on that ill-fated trip about this memory and she immediately said, yes, this was exactly the same experience for her.

In our case, there was no crime, we were never interrogated. But if we had been, we would have sounded like complete dicks, unable to properly explain what had happened, stubbornly saying well, we were upside down, even though we weren’t. We would have been shown the car, stationary the right way up and been sternly asked, does this look upside down? And how did you get out if you were upside down? And so on and so forth.

The unreliable nature of memory, combined with how different people respond in a crisis leaves me with some unease as to the chap’s guilt. But then the bridge player comes to the fore. What happened is odds confounding unless it were deliberate.

Helen Garner has made a part of her long career writing these reflections on strange cases that attract her eye. Next for me is Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which I’m determined to read before watching the film.


YouTube by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green

I’ve discovered in my re-involvement in academia that books are hard to come by. To some extent that is a function of the extortionist practices of academic publishers which force university libraries into spending enormous amounts of money on subscriptions to journals and on a certain kind of text/reference book. They are priced at hundreds of dollars for no good reason and as a consequence they are not available to ordinary people who wish to purchase a – let’s face it, likely ordinary – book.

Polity Press is a happy exception, churning out accessible, useful books at a price which is not beyond consideration. Happily, even when they are doing rather contemporary subjects, such as the Internet, the books nonetheless have a comfortingly conventional appearance with a readable layout and typeface. Yay for Polity.

YouTube is one of theirs. If you are like me and know nothing about this site, you can mend your ways with this account of how YouTube works behind the scenes. I had no idea, for example, that there is a ‘community’ on YouTube and that it developed from the very beginnings of the site and bitterly fought the changes that began taking place after Google bought it, presaging its commercialisation. Since then an uneasy relationship has developed between YouTubers and the provider, with the notion of  doing it for money filtering down from the big business interests that kicked this off in the early days.

I’m especially interested in the ways in which online social network platforms are established and how that impacts upon the relationship between provider and user and from this point of view the book’s super informative. In fact it would be a really interesting exercise to compare the first and second editions of this, published 2009 and 2018 respectively, so much changed over this period. However, I’ve noticed how much I love – really LOVE – rabbit holes and I can’t figure out how to justify this one. 😦

Burgess, Jean, and Joshua Green. 2018. YouTube. Second edition. Cambridge: Polity Press.

PS: I had no idea just how huge YouTube is. A list here gives its present worldwide monthly traffic, not only at number one, but with the same number of hits as numbers 2-5, that is in order: Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter and Amazon.

Hand to Mouth: The truth about being poor in a wealthy world by Linda Tirado

I hadn’t realised, until I went to a seminar called ‘How to Thrive During Your PhD’ a few months back, that the self-help industry was completely hooked into academia…or vice versa. The psychologist presenting it had the gall to show a pie chart which suggested that a lot of how you feel is your own damned fault.

the pie of happiness edited for review

I might have been shocked anyway, but to show this to a bunch of 25 year olds during an event of cataclysmic dimensions which may change their lives permanently for the worst seemed to me….let’s say cheap. Tacky. Dishonest. And guaranteed to seriously depress any intelligent person watching.

The woman presenting to us did bother to mention Barbara Ehrenreich, who writes the foreword to this book, but it is only in order to dismiss her. You can’t, apparently, create a bookselling industry and an academic genre (sic) out of realistic, pessimistic thinking, EVEN if it’s demonstrably the path to success. Positive thinking, my friends, that’s where the smart money is.

And she followed up with segments like this:

cat and guitar edited for review

Hard to believe you would do this to a group of people who are supposedly ‘high achievers’. But seriously, we had to watch a 30 second video of a kitten and a puppy being aw-shucks-cute-together and lo, witness the change in what you wanted to do. In my case I wanted to ‘exit the seminar before I jumped out the window’ beforehand, whilst after I wanted to stab my own eyes out rather than watch another kitten video ever in my life. In case you are wondering, this was a definite decline as I’m on the ground floor and hence my prior state of mood was most definitely safer.

So after I finished this book, Hand to Mouth, aptly introduced by Ehrenreich, I looked up Tirado online. My hope was that she’d finally got lucky. In my world view, the appalling things that had happened to her to date were not a consequence of a baaaad attitude on her part. She hadn’t failed to make her happiness. The USA, that f*cked up sh]tt@ry of a place, had done that for her. Her stamina for not giving in to it all was awe-inspiring. Her realism, her acceptance of the point of capitalism, that in order for a minority to live in a privileged world (darling, COVID’s been such an opportunity to slow down), people like her have to live this humiliating, exhausting existence to support that other class….this should be profoundly embarrassing for nice white people. For the 40% of happiness which they have ‘made’ for themselves (intentionally), is directly linked to the horrifying exploitation of the author of this book and the millions in the US for whom she speaks.

Life fucking sucks big time. Where’s that on the pie chart above?

And what I discovered, when I looked her up, was this. On May 29, in Minneapolis, the first night of curfew, she was shot by police after telling them she was ‘press’. As a consequence she is now blind in one eye, with some hearing loss as well. She has a suit against the police, though without being able to identify the assailant, I wonder what her chances are like.

Her Patreon page is here.

Lost Illusions by Balzac; pt 2

Following on from part one.

This is such a wow of a novel. I gather that Balzac, in writing the vast book series, of which this is one, wanted it to be a document, as much as work of fiction. And so it is. There is a level of detail about subjects like accounting in early nineteenth century France and the legal system that is hard to believe one could get away with selling in a work of fiction. Then there is the paper industry – the Chinese were to blame then as now, the difficulties of cheap labour competition – the bookselling industry and its corrupt links to the reviewing industry. And the reviewing industry’s corrupt links to just about anybody. Reviewers who often scraped together the funds for their precarious existence by selling their review copies and the tickets they received as bribes from theatre managements.

Then there is his cynical eye, unblinking in its observation of the appalling nature of Parisian society, not to mention the hand-me-down version as practised by the best of provincial society. There are ‘good people’ depicted here, but they are all self-deluding dills and one wants nothing more than to bang their heads together or make them sit in the corner with their backs to class until they reform, or write a hundred times on the blackboard ‘I will get real’. Being ‘good’ is no way to escape the scathing judgement of Monsieur Balzac.

That said, there is one strange small group of men who stay true to their dedication to real literature, as opposed to the rascally reviewers with whom Lucien goes astray. And I feel like Balzac sees himself there. They have no weaknesses, they never betray themselves or each other. They worship no false gods, not fashion, not wealth, not status. None of the things that are like oxygen to Lucien.

I think Balzac needs them to balance David and Lucien’s sister. David is perfectly able to see Lucien as he really is, but he can’t do the right thing with that information. David’s ruination is that he knows everybody else without knowing himself at all. At least Lucien’s sister steps up to face the facts, way too late for it to help their dire situation, but still. David remains in fourth grade writing those lines and sitting in the corner while she’s going to get out of primary school for sure…if she doesn’t die of starvation first.

So Balzac wanted a tiny bit of this novel to show that there were real people out there, real writers, who did the right thing routinely, without question and they knew Lucien too, really knew him, but never deluded themselves. A fine little band of writers who are prominent in the story only briefly, but you always know they are there, never changing how they are. Despised by the status seekers. But we readers know differently.

I’ve always thought in the past that a modern writer – and I suppose I mean timeless – is one who is not profligate in their words. Chekhov most obviously. Camus. But here is Balzac, a tap that never turns off, surely paid by the word if ever a writer’s output indicated that. And it is all so now. I kept thinking that, oh, here is the Chinese problem, here is Air bnb. Ruination of people by gambling, a contemporary curse. The insane addiction to status, which destroys human beings now and did then. The doubtful nature of friendship – now on social media, where it is such a bargaining tool – and then.

Oh, oh, oh. Do read this marvellous book about what human beings are, right this very moment, written by somebody the better part of two hundred years ago. See your foibles and weaknesses, your dishonesty and willful lack of judgement, your capacity to give up everything for status, your  waste of money on fashion, your betrayals and your lies. The book is a mirror. See what we do.