The Face of War: New Zealand’s Great War Photography – Sandy Callister (3.3)
WWI was not the first time that war was photographed, but it was the first time that it became the primary visual representation. Photography appealed as a medium because it was ‘real’ although no photo is neutral – all have a purpose. These photos, from the tourist snapshots the men took while on leave, to the studio portraits printed in the ‘Roll of Honour’ are all used for something.
The same images of gruesome facial disfiguring are used to support the anti-war movement and to promote the advances of plastic surgery.
As a book from a New Zealand perspective it focuses on Gallipoli – there was no soldier photography permitted on the Western Front, although there were no such restrictions in Gallipoli.
For a book about photography, there seem to be few photographs, and the author over-analyses and lacks common sense. It reads like an over-anxious university student trying to get a good mark for a thesis, but some of the images are worth looking at.
Home School – Charles Webb (4)
The sequel to The Graduate reads like a cross between Woody Allen and Tennessee Williams with fantastic theatrical dialogue and knowing, random asides, mainly about home schooling. Benjamin and Elaine are home schooling their two children which causes them to fall foul of the school principal. In an attempt to make him drop his efforts to get their children to attend his school, the pair enlist the services of Elaine’s estranged mother to seduce and then blackmail him.
Elaine’s mother is, of course, the infamous Mrs Robinson (now known as Nan), and there are soon seductions, recriminations and blackmail all round. When Garth and Goya, the hippy couple who introduced them to the home schooling notion, come to stay with their adolescent breastfeeding children and their notions of healing circles, the tensions in the household seem ready to implode.
It is the interweaving dialogue and the sardonic style that make this novel stand out. And it does stand out; it is not just another sequel. Webb is self-mocking of his authorship and his characters, looking down on them like a disinterested deity. It is as if Webb doesn’t want to get too close to them and therefore we can’t engage with them – they may be his idols but they still have feet of clay.
Deaf Sentence – David Lodge (4.2)
This intellectual novel is well written, with puns and witticisms combined with deceptively rambling asides that are actually tightly structured, in the tradition of grumpy old men.
Desmond Bates is a retired university professor of linguistics. He is bored in retirement and he has no purpose to his days save for trips to visit his elderly father in London. To make matters worse, he is losing his hearing and he drinks too much. When Alex Loom, a young PhD student asks him to tutor her he is flattered, despite the ghoulish subject of her thesis – a linguistic analysis of suicide notes.
Desmond begins to keep a journal in which to record his thoughts, writing up awkward escapades as short stories, to try and exorcise the humiliation and embarrassment of the experience. Sometimes he writes in the third person, sometimes the first, enjoying an exercise he often gave to his students.
As his oral and aural communication becomes more strained he likes the control he has over the written word. The paragraphs are dense without much dialogue and it’s quite heavy going but the effort is well rewarded, in a similar way to a novel by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Justin Cartwright or Alan Bennett.
Scapegallows – Carol Birch (3)
A scapegallows is someone who cheats death and that is what the heroine of this novel, Margaret Catchpole, does twice. Sentenced to death, her sentence is lessened and she is instead transported to Australia, where the novel begins and ends. The 400 pages in the middle tell of how she got there.
The style is laboured and reads like an account of ‘what we did on our holidays’. It is narrated by Margaret, who was actually a real character, and, as a servant, she has only recently learned to read and write, so her language is flat and even, with all incidents being given equal weight. This quickly becomes trying on the reader, as does her lack of judgement over Will Laud, the sailor and smuggler with whom she falls in love.
She is a free spirit who believes in equality, treats everyone the same way, and expects the same herself. When this proves unattainable, she attempts to equal the balance, and this, added to her misguided love, lands her in gaol. In some ways she is independent and adventurous, but she is also brought low by her love of a man – the stuff of sentimental ballads and melodramatic miniseries.