So, another burst of positivity, this time about books I’ve read recently. Firstly, a book I borrowed from the library (shock! horror!): Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. It is a fine memoir that does everything a memoir should do, it is a thoughtful reflection on the difficult business of being alive and how other people can often have a tougher time than you or me. Most acutely A Long Way Gone produces empathy, it is not possible to read it and not come away aware of how easy we have it. Without aggrandisement or violins playing A Long Way Gone tells the story of Beah’s journey from rural West African childhood, to refugee, to boy soldier, to junior lieutenant, to refugee again and eventually to safety in the US. Astonishingly there is very little reproach and almost no hint of a drama. It’s just a beautiful story, told well.
There was a bit of controversy in The Australian about the truthfulness of Beah’s account and there may be stuff in Beah’s account that wouldn’t stand up in court but the story is told so clearly, and without side, that a little embroidery or obfuscation impacts not at all. Besides The Australian basically asked how an African refugee could write such good English. What bullshit.
Continuing the African theme is Tim Butcher’s Chasing the Devil: On Foot through Africa’s Killing Fields which despite Tim Butcher and his monomaniacal self absorption is full of peripheral wonder. If you’ve ever thought who lives there and what do they do then there is a lot of intel to be found in Chasing the Devil. He’s a bit obsessed with death threats from Liberia and the Taylor regime, the end of which enables Butcher to make his journey, but he’s also a good journalist in that he lets a lot of people from very faraway places have their say and he doesn’t get all colonial on them, he knows he doesn’t know better.
Another excellent read is Chris Hammers’ The River which is a travelogue of Hammer’s wanderings throughout the Murray-Darling basin trying to figure out how the river got broken and how, if at all possible, to fix it. He comes to no productive conclusions, but he maps the needs of all those who tap the river and he’s aware that they’re all pretty reasonable needs but for the dead river that results. I loved reading about the towns strung out along the river banks, towns I grew up in, and hearing the voices of the river’s tenants and owners. He’s generous and open and he loves what he finds, he loves the river. He also hates mowing the lawn, which makes him an ally of mine.
Finally, Gideon Haigh. Haigh writes great cricket books, lovely indulgent cricket history. The Summer Game is history of Australian Test cricket from the fifties to the failed Springbok tour of 1971 and The Cricket War covers the Packer revolution, the World Series and the early eighties. Almost Glasgow-Robertson like in his sheer adoration of the game Haigh never reduces cricket to being just a game but neither does he make it so central as to be the only thing. Cricket, for Haigh, is about joy and the hardships endured for moments of it. Those hardships are what he explores through cricket. His memoir of one hapless suburban cricket season, The Vincibles, is a love story like few others.
For me though, the really wonderful books Haigh has written are The Racket, a history of illegal abortion in Australia, and Asbestos House which does a wonderful job of making corporate nastiness plain, a matter of men and women and their duties and responsibilities, as the shocking failure of James Hardie Industries asbestos compensation fund is revealed in terrifying detail. These are books that delve into the day to day, the law and its breaking is placed in a context of individuals making choices and living with them. For this I just love them, maybe him too: he’s not writing to be on the television or the radio, he’s not writing to please anyone either (a writer keen to please would stay well away from a subject as controversial as cricket). Haigh is a professional and you can tell, he works terrifically hard to make the end point of his professionalism something akin to justice.