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Read broadly

By Len King - posted Thursday, 3 January 2013


Obviously, there are a few dozen book titles I can recommend from a lifetime of reading, not least of which, to start at the beginning, are the Biggles series by Captain W E Johns (1893-1968), an apprentice surveyor who enlisted in the English Territorial Army, served at Gallipoli, transferred to the RAF Bomber Squad (life expectancy 11 days) and shot down over Mannheim, spending the short duration of WWI as a German POW. Johns subsequently wrote 169 books, almost all in the military action mode. His Biggles character was a runaway success and highly sought after at the municipal libraries where I was a card-carrying member during WWII and a little beyond.

I mention Biggles because he set the tone for early-teens boys like me, as did certain soccer players, and to a lesser extent, some cricketers too. Biggles was forthright, looked after his men and didn't mess around with the girls. And despite all the obstacles littering his path, it was always a case of mission accomplished, although I doubt he would have been a fan of George Bush.

And so through a reading life, one glides past the stoutly rigorous and thence into the ambiguous zones of tarnished heroes and heroines, where honour is suborned to the greater good. Particular favourites in this genre may include Herman Wouk's Winds of War, where serving US Navy officer Pug Henry, acting as a sounding board for FDR, reports on top-level German developments just prior to the 1939 Polish invasion. Wouk, also author of the hugely successful The Cain Mutiny franchise, forensically examines German Ministry machinations while his main character's wayward son shepherds a bunch of Americans, including Jews, out of Germany and into the relative safety of cross-border Siena. The point being, FDR and the British Government are, sotto voce, playing the big picture while technically neutral USA plays to the emotional needs of its war-shy electorate while clandestinely shipping armamets to Britain. We are all suckers for these well-crafted stories of real-life international intrigue, malfeasance, and ultimate but tarnished success.

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Earnestly recommended too, is Australian twin-biography Stravinsky's Lunch, by Australian feminist writer Drusilla Modjeska. So good I've consumed it twice, some years apart. Its subjects are two female painters, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith whose seminal works are displayed in major public-funded galleries throughout Australia.

Stravinsky's Lunch is a beautifully written treatise on two Australian-born female painters born a year apart. Bowen in Adelaide 1893 and Cossington Smith 1892 in leafy, conservative Turramurra, then as now the heart of Sydney's stockbroker belt in the northern fringes of the city. Bowen decamped to Europe on the eve of WWI and never returned, and Cossington Smith lived out her spinsterhood at the genteel family home, her habit punctuated only by a brief European sojourn with her sister and father.

This biography says a great deal about the disparate lives of Australians, in this instance pared-down to the experiences of these two women who never met and very probably, given the pre-digital age in which they operated, were never aware of the other's existence. I took up the whole tome as a reading project and didn't put it down till I made it to the last page a couple of weeks later.

Modjeska's biographies forensically inspect the lifestyles of two people engaged in the same endeavour but in widely opposing environments. One doesn't have to own an interest in the visual arts in order to appreciate the essence of the women's lives, although it possibly helps. My guess is, many ardent readers are also admirers of the painterly life, and of course this biography is replete with colour plates of the artists' works. Ergo, a recommended read.

But the gold medal goes to Charles Dickens and his greatest novel, Great Expectations. The copy I have on my desk has 566 pages set in 9pt Times Bold (an educated guess) and not the easiest typeface to consume at two in the morning after a few serviceable reds. Look, I'm up to page 64 and I'm enamoured of the writing style which could easily be passed off as contemporaneous. Every word is helpful to me, a fiction writer of sorts.

Look, I love the book even though there are some egregiously convenient ploys. Deus ex machina is hideously apparent in, for instance, Estella being the issue of Magwitch, and Jaggers' parlour maid. Pip is frighteningly real in his haste to give up on brother-in-law Joe's unquestioning love and sound judgment, in favour of his outlandish good fortune which he falsely ascribes to the frightful Miss Havisham and the execrable Estella.

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Film hadn't hit the common scene when Dickens was penning his hugely successful novel, arguably the most resplendent narrative arc encompassing numerous episodic devices. What a perfect vehicle this novel has been for the big and small screens, with a new movie version due for Australian release on March 7. I can't wait to see this next incarnation reeling out its interpretive performances of the villainous Magwitch, Pip's screeching sister, unctuous seed-merchant Pumblechook, bullying lawyer Jaggers and his clever and amiable clerk Wemmick. Have such repugnant characters ever before been deployed to surround the story of a pitiable young man's rise to gentleman status and an equally engrossing fall from grace? GE is as replete with unfolding plot devices as a man caught in a corridor of trick mirrors. I ask but once, is this Dickens work the greatest English-language narrative arc ever produced?

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About the Author

Len King is the author of three novels, numerous articles for obscure magazines, and some occasional journalism. These pursuits have been supported by real jobs paying real money. After being married to the same lady for 54 years he’s just starting to get it right by agreeing to everything. He spends most mornings reading the overseas newspapers, and recovers in the afternoons by painting pictures badly and walking with the dog.

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