Book Reviews: Aug 07 issue

In association with The Nile
Michael Morrissey writes of infidels, painted ladies and the ghost of Elvis

INFIDEL by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Free Press
(click title for more information)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born woman who rose to be a member of the Dutch parliament and became world famous (in the case of Islam, world-notorious) for her scripting of a short film that showed the words of the Quran on a woman’s body. The intention of the film was to criticise the treatment of Muslim women. It was anticipated the film would create a furore but on its initial release nothing happened.
However, in 2004, a Muslim assassin murdered the film’s maker, Theo Van Gogh, who also happened to be a descendant of the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. His dying words were, “Can’t we talk about it?” A letter pinned to Van Gogh’s chest promised that Hirsi Ali would be killed next. So far, thanks to the protection of the Dutch and American governments, she has managed to survive.
This autobiography traces Ali’s mental, social, political and religious evolution from being a member of a Somali tribe to a non-believer – hence the title, Infidel. Apart from the blasphemous nature of the film she scripted, according to Muslim religious law, she merits death as an apostate. Officially therefore, Islam is a religion that is easy to join but very difficult to leave. This is a moving and courageous book but one calculated to anger and even enrage Islam rather than make peace with it – if indeed that were possible. Obviously, Hirsi Ali’s conscience and newly acquired beliefs will not permit any reconciliation.
This review began with the book’s conclusion but necessarily this account starts with Hirsi Ali’s childhood. It begins movingly with her grandmother asking “Who are you?” This is the prompt for the five year old Hirsi Ali to recite her blood lines going back 300 years.
The psychological effort required to leave such a deep inheritance cannot be underestimated. Her grandmother tells them history and stories as she cooks. Some are stories of how to survive against wild animals, others are tales of treachery, bloodshed and revenge – a rich brew in other words. When Hirsi Ali’s liberal father was in prison and her mother was away, the grandmother, who could not read or write, arranged the children’s circumcision. When one reads of the trauma, bleeding and infection, and the resultant sewing up of the wound, the word has a euphemistic ring. Though circumcision predates Islam, Hirsi Ali states that Islam reinforces it. Imams do not discourage the practice because it keeps girls pure.
Hirsi Ali relates how her mother, a frustrated and angry woman, often beat her children. Though thankfully a reconciliation occurred in later life. The book’s odyssey sees Hirsi Ali growing up in several other countries – Saudi Arabia (which she and her father hated for its oppressive practices) and Kenya and Ethiopia. Despite his pro-democratic attitude, her father enthusiastically arranges a marriage for her to a man who is not to her liking. Her rejection of the marriage proposal alienates her father and her departure from the Islam faith makes that alienation permanent. By now Hirsi Ali has fled to Holland and this is where her gradual secularisation really begins. She observes that the more provocative dress of the Dutch women does not produce the sexually aggressive reaction she had been told to expect; that Holland is better and more fairly run than her own country; that the government is fair and liberal and not tyrannical and corrupt; that women have rights and are free citizens. In a word, Hirsi Ali becomes pro-Western and pro-democratic. Her “conversion”, so to speak, is of her own free will.
Hirsi Ali is no saint. She admits she told lies to gain entry to Holland and these later rebounded on her when her citizenship was annulled – though later reinstated. From the cover of the book, Hirsi’s steady unflinching gaze must strike any who pick up the book as a woman who is resolute and defiant. Though her actions have been provocative in the extreme, she can only be viewed as a woman of extraordinary courage.
RAW PLACES by John Horrocks, Steele Roberts, $24.95
John Horrocks is a new, confident and mature voice on the over-crowded New Zealand poetry scene – over-crowded it must be said with much prosaic mediocrity and chopped up banal prose masquerading as poetry which often reads – and indeed may be – random
line-breaked regulations copied from the back of bus tickets. In other words, dried-up wheat biscuits masquerading as caviar. Horrocks gives us a full banquet and leaves the reader’s palate still moist.
This collection of honest, honed poetry is from a man who has not only worked the land – sixteen years farming north of Auckland and in the Wairarapa – but has written an impressive complex PhD thesis on William Blake called “Imagining the Tiger”. Horrocks also lectures on psychology and in a former life was headed for a PhD in the now more or less obsolete school of Skinnerian behaviorism. In other words, the still handsome Horrocks, scion of the distinguished Auckland Horrocks family, is somewhat of a Renaissance man – a concept that has increasingly become anomalous in today’s world of contemporary specialisation.
Horrocks sees the landscape not only with a local eye but with a historic perspective
The sky over Waitaha
mimics those ostentatious sunsets
the Chinese saw two thousand years ago.
The reference to Chinese history isn’t just dropped as a one liner but is pleasurably extended:
Those courtiers in their brocaded gowns
looked fearfully at trumpet flames
and dusts of strange vermilion light
Steele Roberts is to be congratulated on publishing some interesting new voices which might otherwise have not seen the light of day.
RAINFOREST by Thomas Marent, DK, $68
Just as you think photography has reached its zenith in warm detail of that far-off organic cranny another book happenstances along that caps the last one. In other words, as far as my eyeballs are concerned, Rainforest tops anything I’ve previously irised.
Take the orange-magenta explosion spreadeagled over pp178-179. It could be a galaxy giving up the ghost, a psychedelic utility belt, but actually it’s a Peruvian caterpillar with finely erect hairs that make it difficult for parasitic wasps to land and lay their eggs.
Or take the eye of the fruit-eating toco toucan on pp 110-111, it could be closeup of a deliriously expensive Van Gogh or the eye of a marooned alien from one of Saturn’s moons, but it’s clearly terrestrial, a wild shock of colour.
The fallen flowers of a sea poison tree resting on the black volcanic sand of a Sulawesi beach could be bursts of refined lava mushrooming out of fumaroles.
Yes, New Zealand is here but rather modestly and rather disappointingly in a few Fiordland ferns. It’s a shame really – for the author could have caught a giant Mahoenui weta or a pohutukawa blossom being raided by a tui or a tuatara basking in the sun.
Apart from the less than satisfactory inclusion of New Zealand – not a major flaw given the ambitious scope of the book – this book would be ideal as a Christmas gift or a boon to school libraries.
PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: Mistress of Modernism Mary Dearborn, Virago, $32.99
Any culturally-minded visitor to New York will probably have the Guggenheim museum in mind as a place to visit. And they will not be disappointed – the building is unique, its giant conch design spiraling ever upwards, and the art collection is impressive. Alas, for my temporary ignorance, this Big Apple gallery was created by Solomon Guggenheim, Peggy’s uncle. Never mind. Having read this absorbing biography I am equally if not more impressed with Peggy Guggenheim’s own bona fide achievements in the art field.
Peggy Guggenheim came from a rich German-Jewish family with strict social and marriage expectations of their daughters – they should marry a banker or lawyer of similar background. Peggy decided to rebel. She went to Paris and got involved with a handsome, dashing, golden-maned poet called Laurence Vail. Unfortunately, Laurence was also an alcoholic and an abuser. He regularly beat and humiliated Peggy in public. Peggy seems to have been somewhat of a masochist because several of the men that figured in her life were physically abusive. The sadistic Laurence goaded her with the assertion that she had only been invited into the art-bohemian scene because of her money and that without him she would have no such entry. Yet despite humiliations, drunkenness and general indulgence, Peggy was making her way in a milieu that she preferred to the safer more sedate world from which she sprung: “They’re full of wonderful ideas and fantasies, they are so much more alive than stockbrokers and lawyers”.
Though rich, Peggy was not nearly as wealthy as her hangers on supposed. On the death of her father, she received an inheritance of $450,000 or about five million in today’s money. However, she gave steadily and generously to many artists and writers such as Djuna Barnes, the talented but alcoholic author of Nightwood, the anarchist Emma Goldman, Dorothy Holms, Eleanor Fitzgerald as well the abusive Laurence plus donations to a relief fund for out of work coal miners in West Virginia – and yet she was accused of stinginess! Whatever her faults, Peggy had a kind heart and a conscience..
Being part of the bohemian whirl of Paris, Peggy was able to throw a sumptuous party for Isadora Duncan, famous modernist dancer. Included among the guests were Jean Cocteau, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Andre Gide, plus Marcel Du Champ. One hand grenade would have destroyed many of the giants of modernism. When a fracas occurred in a cafe (as they often did), the artistically witty Du Champ would suggest turning on the charm of which he had a ready supply. Despite her large nose, which an early attempt at plastic surgery failed to improve, Peggy also had her share of charm, attractiveness and wit (and money too of course). Among her many amours were Du Champ and Samuel Beckett, who at the time was a struggling writer and not the world-famous author he was to become.
As the clouds of war descended on Europe, Peggy fled back to the United States. And as war peaked in Europe, she began her financial and artistic support for the stormy artist Jackson Pollock who became the most noted painter of his time. For this alone, she might have found a place in art history but there were grander things to come. When she set up her own gallery in New York, Peggy truly entered the history books. This was a bold move for a woman to make at the time – there was one other woman art dealer in New York. As Dearborn puts it, “her gallery would change the course of art history in the twentieth century”.
She achieved this by creating a gallery that was not sedate and stuffy but “vibrant and innovative”, “a real experience to visit, which drew guests in and encouraged them to interact with the art and any artists or critics they might meet there”. She was greatly assisted in this enterprise by Frederick Kiesler, a diminutive but brilliant Viennese architect. Under his direction, all manner of unusual viewing strategies were put in place such as unframed art for immediate impact; showing as many paintings in a small space as possible; lighting devices that would switch off, but could be turned on by the viewer pulling a lever plus an eyepiece attached to a large spiral like ship’s wheel to view one of Du Champ’s creations – all of these devices were part of Kiesler’s Kinetic Gallery allowing the viewer to interact with the art.
Following the end of the war, Peggy acquired a famous palazzo on the Grand Canal of Venice. Previously occupied by Browning and Henry James, Peggy assembled within its wall a famous collection of Surrealists and modern American artists which can still be viewed by visitors to the watery city.
This biography is a well-focused study of a lively woman who helped change the way art is displayed. So vivid is the portrait of the subject with warts, big nose and all, I felt a twinge of sadness at her parting – a tribute to Mary Dearborn’s carefully detailed study, rendered in flowing highly readable prose.
IN SEARCH OF ELVIS by Charles Connelly, Little Brown, $39.99
It was 1956, year of the Suez Crisis. Waikato had resoundingly defeated the Springboks, and the country was in a Mooloo delirium.
Not this Mt Roskill state house boy.
I was reading Foundation by Isaac Asimov and my mind had been blown by the notion of galaxy containing a quintillion human beings – 40 billion alone on Trantor, eg Earth.
I turned on the radio and heard Heartbreak Hotel sung by a young Memphis boy called Elvis Presley. He sounded as though he was singing from the bottom of a well but that just added to the thrill of the new. He was singing about loneliness and love – common themes in songs at the time. Other artists popular at the time included Connie Francis, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Pat Boone, the Four Preps, and the Four Aces. Generally, a wholesome bunch. Elvis wasn’t wholesome – he was indefinably bad, from the wrong side the tracks, singing the Devil’s music – this latter charge turned out to be ironic because Elvis cut his teeth on gospel singing and recorded several gospel songs himself. Apart from his Brylcreemed swagger, mobile hips, brooding gaze, Elvis had an extraordinary voice. It oozed a confident, alley-smart sexiness never since equaled or surpassed.
It seems the world concurs because according to Connelly’s charming account, the world is being overrun with Elvis Presley lookalikes. (“In 1977 there were 185 impersonators in the world. In 2005, there were 186,000. At that rate of growth, by something like the year 2060 one in four people in the world will be an Elvis impersonator.”) No other artist is copied or mimicked as much as Elvis. Actually there are two types – serious Elvis impersonators who try hard to look and sing like the King – including his skillful body gyrations – and playful imitators (usually fat guys) who just pretend to be imitating Elvis.
Some of the Elvis worship is close to that given to saints. So quite soon, don’t be surprised if someone with a lame foot claims to have had it straightened by praying to Elvis. One could say his posthumous adulation is a sort of secular miracle. But let us go on a journey courtesy of Elvis enthusiast Charley Connelly – and he, by the way, claims to be a mild case of the genre.
It seems the Presleys come from Scotland. Andrew Presley emigrated from Lonmay, forty miles north of Aberdeen to North Carolina in 1745. This Scottish origin has led – have you guessed already? – to the creation of a Presley tartan though not thankfully a Presley haggis. Alas there is a dark side – like the woman in Australia who shot her husband for playing “Burning Love” over and over again.
How about Elvis in Uzbekistan? Uzbekistan has the privilege of being one of the only two countries that are double-land locked. This geographic remoteness doesn’t mean they are sufficiently out of the way to escape Presley mania however. The Guli-Bonu Producer Center is swathed in Elvis memorabilia and there is an Elvis Cafe. In Porthcawl, Wales a black Elvis lets loose on the stage.
Connelly’s Elvis odyssey necessarily takes in Sun Studios where Elvis cut his first disk – the same studio that kick-started the careers of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash – and Las Vegas where the King reigned supreme for several years. Canada has Dan Hartal, better known as Schmelvis, the world’s leading Jewish Elvis impersonator. And perhaps most exotic of all is Dr Jukka Ammonds who perform and records Elvis songs in Latin and Sumerian. Most lavish of the tribute spots is the Elvis diner in Israel which has displayed on the ceiling “a fantastic painted mural that depicted Elvis’s life from start to finish and ran the length of the room in a distinctly Sistine manner”.
After a book filled with light-hearted banter about the peculiarities of Elvis obsession, Connelly closes on a moving note. He was given a hand-signed picture of Elvis by a German fan and entrusted to deliver to the diner in Israel. He does just that then he realises something deeper is going on – two members of formerly enemy nations are being linked by a shared obsession. Elvis here becomes a sort of peace maker uniting people more effectively than politicians have done – not only German and Jews but Arabs and Jews have been blissfully united by Elvis enjoyment. Quite simply there was nothing more for Connelly to do than sip his beer, watch the sun set and listen to Elvis singing “I Just Can’t Help Believing”.