Friday, 30 January 2009

BOOK REVIEW: A Whispered Name by William Brodrick

A mysterious visitor to the Larkwood monastery reveals an unknown aspect to the life of one of its oldest inhabitants, the founder of the monastery itself, Fr. Herbert Moore. Fr. Moore, however, is now dead, leaving his part in the sentencing of a young Irishman, Private Joseph Flanagan, charged with desertion during the battle for Passchendaele in 1917, shrouded in secrecy.

Caught up in complicated military legal procedures, the events distorted by unreliable and incomplete accounts, Brother Anselm, a lawyer who become a monk, tries to reconstruct what happened. As Father Herbert was also his mentor, Anselm has a personal stake in finding the meaning behind what appears to be a cruel decision in a cruel war.

The author masterfully recreates the conditions of the WWI trenches. He keeps up a cracking pace, redolent of the awful experiences that scarred a generation of young men both physically and psychologically. Brother Anselm’s interview with Harold Shaw, a survivor of the trenches, was poignant and pointed in its reflection of the utter waste of war.

This is a novel that captures the complexities of human nature, in both “normal” and “exceptional” circumstances. Brodrick tells a story that takes the reader through a moving journey, showing how the human spirit can reach for something greater than itself under the most tragic of circumstances. This is a story of a simple man who becomes a shining example of doing what is right, no matter the cost to himself. In doing so, Joseph Flanagan achieves an enduring victory for good even as all around him explodes into a futile madness.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the first I have read by Brodrick. I will be reading more.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

SOCIAL: Blog Award


Thanks to Nancy J Parra at This Writer's Life for giving me the Butterfly Award! You can also visit her webpage Nancy J Parra to read more about her books.

I love the concept of "paying it forward": passing on the good cheer received to others who make your life brighter with their writing and their thoughts.

Suggested guidelines when passing it along are:

1. Put the logo on your blog.
2. Add a link to the person who awarded you.
3. Award up to ten other blogs.
4. Add links to those blogs on yours.
5. Leave a message for your awardees on their blogs

Although all the blogs I follow regularly (and many I pop in to visit when I have time) are great (no, superb!) reads I've selected the two blogs I link to below. I've also added my reasons for choosing them.

  • "Ambition" by Justus M Bowman (a young writer who asks interesting questions. Go and vote in his on-line poll!)

Thanks to these two bloggers for their great blogs.

Friday, 23 January 2009

SOUTH AFRICAN SNIPPETS: Diary of a Bush Safari

Left: Spotted Eagle Owl sighted on a night drive. For more photos see Face Book.

Day 1: Arrived in time for a freak tropical storm. The heavens wept and we thought we’d never be dry again. Lodge beautiful; room luxurious, although not sure about the outside open air shower. What if the giraffe I saw in the distance meanders closer?

Day 2: Started with an early morning bush walk. So excited! Saw a buffalo thorn tree in the wild as a herd of zebra galloped past. Used the legend of the buffalo thorn tree in the narrative of my current novel.

Met our lodge companions, Gary and Dean from Battersea in the United Kingdom. What a relief! We’re so glad that we can share our bush adventure with a gracious and delightful couple.

Ended the day with a late night drive. Our search for leopard was unsuccessful despite the heavy bundu bashing over roads that didn’t look (or feel!) anything like what I’d call a road! We started by winning a challenge from a cocky elephant teenager: we were marginally bigger than he was if you counted the roof of the Land Rover, so he decided to run back to his Mom. Sissy. Later in the night, the matriarch of a nursery herd loomed out of the bushes, trumpeting a warning to stay away. We headed back to the lodge after that, stopping to recover our nerves and admire the night sky, studded with untold galaxies. The Pleiades and Aldebaran (the Eye of the Bull) were particularly beautiful.

Day 3: The vastness of the bushveld makes happy endings unlikely. Let’s hope the baby giraffe separated from his mother survives the predators. Here’s an interesting titbit for the crossword addicts: we saw a tower of giraffes and a crash of rhinos. We didn’t see a murder of crows, but we did go looking for a parliament of owls.

Another late night drive. The leopard remains elusive. Saw a jackal dance in the moonlight. Watched a spotted eagle owl hunt. Not quite the parliament we were hoping for, but he was very gallant with his company: he landed right next to the Land Rover and waited patiently for the photo shoot to be over. He made us late getting back to the lodge as, having enjoyed his company for so long, we ran into a herd of elephants browsing. Rather than risk annoying them, our fabulous game ranger Stuart let us sit in the great silence of the bushveld night as the elephants ghosted past us.

Day 4: What’s with the jackals? The Waterberg jackal population was all but eradicated by the farmers before the land was rehabilitated into bushveld, so sightings are rare. But we’ve seen six jackals so far. They’re monogamous once they’ve mated. The males chase other males out of their territory and the females deal with any nomadic female jackals. The jackal’s symbolism is connected to Anubis and thus jackals are psychopomps: they protect the souls of the dead on the journey to the underworld. My aunt (R.I.P.) died on Saturday as we left, and my other aunt is seriously ill. Am I reading too much into the jackal’s appearances?

Our morning coffee break was interrupted by a lone bull elephant. Two male lions were sighted in the plains. We searched for them but they remained hidden. Did see plenty of young: a zebra like a dinky toy and a gnu with its umbilical cord still drying under its tummy.

Our permanent game ranger Wikus arrived to take us on the last night drive. The first sighting was a plain of animals. Now I know what the Voortrekkers must have felt like as they crossed the Drakensberg into the inland plains for the first time. A massive collection of rhino, zebra, wildebeest, warthog and other animals grazing peacefully in the dying sun. Drove on to see hippos dozing in the dam and stopped for sundowners as we listened to the cough of baboons at play. Saw three more jackals! And then…we heard her roar.

Wikus tracked her down in less than half an hour and she loped towards us along the road. Tawny, powerful and regal, the lioness ignored us to continue her contact calling. The bars on the land rover vibrated with the power of her growl: what will a full-throated attack roar sound like?


We then listened to the call of the bubbling kasino frog and shared a last dinner, sitting on the deck overlooking the far horizons. One of the many great things about the bush is the people you meet. After exchanging email addresses so we can keep up contact, we said a sad “au revoir” to our new friends Gary and Dean who were off on a train trip to Cape Town. Have a great journey, guys!

Day 5: A quiet, quirky bush drive. Saw more jackal (eleven in total!) Watched a large baby rhino find it extremely difficult to suckle his Mom. Then we had a different rhino Mom & calf join us for morning coffee as we were entertained by Wikus telling us stories of the bush, including the time he was gored by a buffalo during a capture & transfer operation.

But my favourite story is how a guest's wife described a leopard to him: imagine a domestic cat, but twenty times larger. The fur colour is the same as the feel of the sun on your skin. The rosettes are the size of your fingernail, and the colour of what you see. The dark of Nothingness, for that man was blind and had been from birth. Our ranger said that, through this man’s appreciation of a Nature he could only feel and hear, Wikus himself came to understand anew the mystique of the bushveld.

After every visit I, too, feel the healing power of the bush work its magic on me and, by the time I return to the city, my soul is restored. But still it yearns to be back in the vastness of the African wilderness...

Sunday, 18 January 2009

SOUTH AFRICAN SNIPPETS: Going wild

The blog will be silent for a week. And that's not as sad as it sounds! Rather, I'll be playing at being a bush tourist and visiting Nedile Lodge, hoping to catch a glimpse of, if not the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo) at least a leopard and an owl. And maybe a honey badger, if we're really lucky on the night drives!

If I'm not back blogging by next Saturday perhaps I've been eaten...

Friday, 16 January 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng


Perhaps because as a teenager I took martial arts (GoJo Ryu karate) and, more recently, I have become a student of yoga (in particular Jnana yoga), I found “The Gift of Rain” by Tan Twan Eng to be a beautiful book. Longlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize, this is not a perfect book by any means, but it's an enigmatic one that will give the reader much to consider on each subsequent read.

Penang in 1939 is home to young Philip Hutton. A loner, the half-Chinese, half-English Philip feels he belongs to neither culture and finds an unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat and son of a former aristocratic Samurai family. A deep bond grows between the two, as Endo-san teaches Philip the art and discipline of aikido.

But the knowledge comes at a devastating price: Philip’s beloved sensei, to whom he owes absolute loyalty, is harbouring a terrible secret. As Philip – through his newly discovered aikido skills – begins to forge deep bonds with both his Chinese and his English family, the Japanese invade Malaysia and threaten everything Philip has come to know about love and loyalty.

“The Gift of Rain” captures the reader on several levels. With lyrical prose, haunting images, vivid sensory sketches and well-researched historical and geographical details, one experiences the contrasting reality of life in Penang before and after the Japanese invasion. But there is also a deeper, more profound quality to this novel in which all aspects – the characters, the settings, the narrative – explore the fundamental issue of what it is to be a unique human individual in an infinite universe that beholds an all-pervading Consciousness. Even as we are apart and different, we are one. All that separates us is the choices we make with our innate Free Will.

What is hard is also soft. What is circular is also straight. There are no easy answers to the profound philosophical questions Tan Twan Eng raises, but he has managed to create a novel of opposites that bridges both the secular and the spiritual worlds. Drawn along with the need to see how Philip resolves his personal struggles over the question of divided loyalties, betrayal and loss, the reader is also compelled to think deeply about the human condition and the sufferings we impose on ourselves and on others by the choices we make.

Any reservations I had about the novel were more because of my reading preferences than any limitations of the author. I prefer stories that do not have a lot of detail. There is an immense amount of minutely detailed description, which slowed the pace, particularly in the first half of the book. While the author’s skill in melodic metaphors is unquestioned, I would have preferred less of them. There were times when my imagination was overloaded with too many sights and smells and sounds.

These are, however, minor points and should not put one off reading “The Gift of Rain.” It is a story that leaves one melancholy and moved, complete and curious. And eager to begin reading it again.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

SOCIAL: Extreme High Flying Romance

My eldest niece Nikki has a friend who has just become engaged. Nothing as conventional as going down on one knee for this guy! Rodger proposed in a very romantic manner. How does anyone beat this?

Congratulations Rodger and Nadine. Wishing you many happy years together.

Friday, 2 January 2009

WRITING TIPS: Creation as Play

I love this Japanese folktale that Stephen Nachmanovitch relates in his book “Free Play : Improvisation in Life and Art”[1]:

A Japanese master musician came to play in a village. As he finished playing, the voice of the oldest man in the village was heard from the back of the room: “Like a god!”.

The villager musicians asked the Master how long it would take a skilled player to learn to play as he did. “Years,” the Master replied. So the villagers sent their most brilliantly talented young musician to be a student of the Master.

On his arrival, the Master gave the student a single, simple tune to play on his flute. The student quickly mastered all the technical problems of the piece, but all the Master could say was : “Something lacking!”.

The student exerted himself in every possible way; he practised endlessly, but all the Master would say was : “Something lacking!”. The student begged the Master to give him a new tune. The Master said “No.”

The daily play, the daily “Something lacking!” continued. The student’s hope of success and fear of failure became ever magnified, and he swung from agitation to despondency. Finally, the frustration became to much for him: he returned to his village, ashamed and impoverished. For years he avoided the village musicians, eking out an existence teaching beginner’s lessons on his flute.

One day, the village musicians came to him. They were holding a concert and wanted him to play. With effort, they overcame his fear and his shame until, almost in a trance, he picked up his flute and followed them. As he waited, no-one intruded on his inner silence. His name was finally called and, as he stepped out onto the stage, he realised he had nothing left to gain, and nothing left to lose.

So he sat down and played the same simple tune he had played for his Master all those years ago. When he finished, there was silence for a long moment. Then the voice of the oldest man was heard: “Like a god,” he said, speaking softly from the back of the room. “Like a god!”

[1] Summarised from Stephen Nachmanovitch Free Play : Improvisation in Life and Art” Pp. 1-3. Original tale translated by Trevor Legget in “Zen and the Ways”, 1978.