Favourite Books

After he died, my brother Dennis’ lifetime collection of books was set out on tables and benches, in boxes and on shelves at our parents’ house, for family members to choose and keep. Revealed before us was a catalogue of the brilliant and searching mind of my big brother. Biographies, especially political, books on management, art books and book after book on music. And cooking books, books on sailing, on fishing. The study and the joys of a big appetite for life and ideas. Books of all sorts, but not much literature and very little fiction. 

 

Dennis always named his three favourite books as the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Kahlil Gibran’s, ‘The Prophet’, and Siddhartha’, by Hermann Hesse. I knew and loved the first of the three, I knew and liked (and mistrusted) the second, and – as for the third – I didn’t know Siddhartha from Hiawatha. 

 

Dennis would read my writings, shaking his head, unhappy with my obliquity and my complexity. ‘Read Siddhartha’, he’d say, ‘And learn the beauty of writing simply.’ Dennis admired narration that was free of ornament and artifice. ‘You make me think too much,’ he said. I felt flattered and confirmed in my path. And I did not take up Siddhartha.

 

‘Ecclesiastes,’ I read religiously, every year, entranced by The Preacher’s philosophic quest, as he tastes and tests every idea and temptation, as he broods and takes up and sets aside every sacred and profane thing. And the rhythms of the text, whether in Hebrew or in English, have always entranced: 

 

To every thing there is a season,

and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to cast away stones,

and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to get, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

 

 

Dennis’ birthday falls on November 22. Each year on that day the stated gap between our ages would open up from two years to three. On November 22, 2016, Dennis would have turned seventy-three. But he never reached even threescore years and ten. He died aged sixty-three. Ten years later I pick up Siddhartha and read it, to mark his birthday and to honour the wishes of the older brother who always willed me to be better in the particulars that he selected. I read the work, too, to learn more of my brother’s questing soul.

 

I need to digress here, to my misgivings about ‘The Prophet’. I find it calming, pleasing, gently uplifting. It is as smooth as gravy, as sweet as the dulce de leche upon which my Argentine relatives were weaned. That’s my problem: ‘The Prophet’ lacks grit. You read and you wallow. As an essayist remarks in the New Yorker: ‘In “The Prophet” Gibran (mixed) a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave. It is no surprise that when those two trends—anti-authoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the sixties, “The Prophet” ’s sales climaxed.’

 

 

Raised as we all were, in a strictly Orthodox Jewish family, Dennis chafed against God the father and against our godlike father. He found the courage – indeed the compulsion – to rebel, but he never ceased to feel the pull and the lull of the old-time religion of his early nurture. He tried to relinquish Jewish restriction but the ritual would not let him go. Hence the enduring attraction to him of ‘The Prophet’, with its ‘anti-authoritarianism and its nostalgia for sanctity’.

 

Back to Siddhartha, another huge hit among those who were young adults in the seventies. When a book is so uncritically adored as this I start to feel uneasy. When I take up my newly purchased copy and discover that Paulo Coelho has written the introduction, my unease deepens. For – possibly alone among its millions of readers and adorers – I found the pretentious simplicism of ‘The Alchemist’ alienated me.

 

So you see, these works find me out as cynical.

 

But cynicism falls away as I read Hesse’s account of his searcher for enlightenment. Dennis sought enlightenment with his strong, rational mind. I recognise Dennis as the Buddha’s chastens Siddhartha: ‘You are clever…,’ said the Illustrious One; ‘you know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness.’

I see here Dennis, my too clever brother, the troubled searcher, endlessly testing his traditions, endlessly questing. This is the brother who embraced ‘Ecclesiastes’, in which The Preacher seeks but never finds a truth that satisfies. ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity.’ It is an honest quest, brave and lonely. That was my brother Dennis, brave and lonely, longing, as his son remarked at the funeral, ‘to love and to be loved.’

 

But unlike the monk Siddhartha, Dennis did love: most particularly he loved our mother, and he loved me. And I loved him, and I miss him still.

 

 

 

 

Invitation to a Preview of my Next Book 

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The Man said to the Woman

The man said to the woman, look how beautiful is the wide blue sea. The woman looked at the sea and saw what the man saw. She saw how the sea sparkled in the light of beginning. She saw its beauty and she knew this was what she wanted. She wanted to share it with the man. She felt something in her hand and when she looked she saw the man’s hand was holding hers. The two hands looked comfortable and strong together.
 

The woman said, yes, it’s very beautiful. It looks like it has no end.

 

The man said, we’ll need to build a boat. The man and the woman looked down and both saw how each hand held the other; how the hands were comfortable and strong together. The woman said, we can build this boat together and we can sail it together on this sea that has no end. And the man said, we’ll build our boat and we’ll care for it together and we’ll sail on the endless sea together and we’ll never stop.

 

The woman and the man understood it would take a long time to build a boat. They had long dreamed of the beautiful voyage that had no end. In their dreams their longing moved to their lips, and one murmured about the beautiful sea, and the other murmured about the voyage that has no ending, and the murmurs entered their sleeping ears and when they awoke they both knew they would build and sail together.

 

They knew too a boat must be safe and strong. They both knew that the beautiful sea could become fierce and dark and stormy. Their boat would have to be strong enough for great storms, for hot weather and for cold, for rain and for long dry times. Their boat would need high walls to keep out the sea, especially if children might come aboard.

 

The man and the woman worked hard and patiently. In childhood they had floated sticks in the rain that ran down the gutters into the great drains and they had pretended their sticks were sailing ships. But neither had never built a real boat before. They chose the good stout timbers of the kauri tree. They weathered the timbers and after one year the timbers were ready for shipbuilding. The man and the woman measured and sawed and glued and soon their timbers took the form of a boat. Then the man and the woman caulked the gaps between the timbers, and they daubed the inside with tar. Finally they painted the hull with marine varnish, and below the waterline they applied anti-fouling to stop barnacles from spoiling the stout kauri timbers.

 

The boat was ready to float. The man built a cabin to keep the sun and the rain and the wind from his crew; and the woman built bunks inside the cabin and a galley where food would be made for the crew.

The man and the woman slipped their boat into the water and they saw it floating and their faces shone like the sun that blazed upon the bright blue sea.

 

The final task was to create a crew. This took time and care. The crew arrived one at a time. They were very, very small. The woman placed each one gently onto a bunk that she had made. After a good many years the man and the woman had a full crew of small children, and the children knew no home other than their good safe boat and they grew there and became strong on the face of that shining sea. The woman looked at the crew, all hale and bronzed from the sun, and she said to the man, let’s set sail on our journey of no end.

The journey took them years. The children grew bigger and stronger. All of the children suffered falls and cuts and bruises and burned in the strong sun, but all of them healed. The man and the woman steered their boat away from storms and pirates, away from icebergs and reefs that might crash or tear their boat apart. Together the man and the woman and their crew visited islands and ports, from Mombasa to Saskatchewan. They saw volcanoes from Vesuvius to the great extinct Mount Erebus. They saw the great leviathan that leaped and blew, they loved the merry dolphins that escorted them, they knew the flying fishes and the jelly fishes, the octopus, the inky squid, the dinified seahorse. Their strong boat housed them and moved them and kept them afloat and the crew and the woman and the man knew their planet as they knew their boat, which was their world.

 

Sometimes a sudden tempest would arise. The children would cling to their bunks as the waves threw the craft high upon crests then plunged it deep into troughs, and the winds shrieked in the sheets and the rain fell in torrents that ran down the decking and into the sea. The children looked at the great waves of dark green and the foaming crests of white and their world was angry and unkind. Deep inside themselves they feared their boat would break and they’d all be lost. And they felt a mighty fear for the man and the woman who made their world and kept it afloat. The children wept but their cries could not be heard over the scream of the wind and the thunder of the skies. And the woman did not come and the man did not come and each child feared and cried and shivered alone.  

 

And as suddenly as the squall arose it would subside. The sun shone upon a gleaming world and the terrified crew came up from below and joined the man and the woman who commanded their boat. And in that sunshine the world was at peace, the craft sailed on and the crew recovered.

 

In every storm the children knew those fears. And in every storm they understood the man and the woman could not comfort them. But luckily, after a few frightening storms the children found their own way to feel safe. The biggest child opened his eyes just as the boat climbed up, up, up a mighty wave then down, down, down the far side, and he saw the smaller crew weeping through closed eyes, and he sang to them. And as he sang the smaller ones heard snatches of sweet sound, a lullaby, and they opened their eyes and saw the singer was their big brother and they managed to smile. From that time, when storms came the crew would all climb onto the big bunk where the man and the woman slept, and they would hold each other and sing or hum and all knew they were not alone.

 

After every storm the children came out and looked anxiously at their boat, but the boat looked sound and the children mostly lost their fears. But the eldest child worried: how much violence, how many storms could the boat sustain and survive?

 

The storms came more often and they went on longer. The howling winds and the crashing seas were slower to make peace, and the children clung to each other and sang and hummed as they trembled and tried not to show their fear.

 

From time to time the man and the woman would steer the craft to a port and put in for repairs. And the boat’s invisible tears and strains and cracks and leaks were glued and tarred and caulked, the barnacles were sanded off the kauri and the hull repainted as before. And the boat seemed safe and strong. And the crew and the man and the woman continued their voyage.

 

One day the crew awoke to a frightful storm. They heard roaring and screaming. It was the voice of the wind that screamed and the voice of the sea and the thunder that roared. And the boat shook and the small crew members saw cracks opening between the timbers and water pouring in. The biggest little crew man grabbed a bucket and the smaller crew grabbed cups and bowls from the galley and all the small people filled their cups and bowls and bucket with the sea water and threw it over the side. Each of the crew filled and bailed and threw the waters away, each of them sensing they had to be the one who would save the boat. But it was no use: the waters came up through the floor boards and up to their ankles, then their knees. Now the woman came below and the man came with her and they told the crew what they already feared. Perhaps they already knew. Perhaps the sea waters had told the young crew that their beloved boat could no longer take them on their journey safely.

 

The woman spoke kindly and the man spoke gently. The man said, we will always protect you and you will sail again in peaceful waters. The woman said, you will always be our crew even when we no longer sail this boat that was so beautiful. And as the two spoke gently and kindly, the children realised the screaming and the roaring had stopped. And the small ones thought, no, that’s not going to happen; this beautiful boat will be made better and we will all sail in it again. But the biggest crew child looked at the boards, all swollen and splintering, and he knew the boat would not sail again.

 

The boat did not sink straight away. The brave man and the sad woman steered it and sailed it to a safe place. The bow of the boat rested on dry land, and the man jumped ashore and the woman lifted the children from the broken boat and passed the crew, one by one, to the man who set them down on the shore. The smallest crew person wasn’t used to the feel of sand and grass underfoot, and started to cry. The other crew tried to comfort the smallest one, but they could not speak; their throats were full of a great ball of sadness, and when the man and the woman tried to cheer the sobbing child their throats blocked too. Suddenly all found voice and the voice they found was the voice of sadness and they wept together. And when at last they all finished weeping they looked one last time towards the boat they loved. But the boat had gone. Only a swirl on the surface of the sea marked where it had been.

During Wind and Rain

 

During Wind and Rain

Like Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, I defied my wife’s advice. She said, as I mounted the bike, ‘they predict wind and rain. Don’t go.’

I did go and a pleasant ride it was through darkened streets, shining in the streetlight. Clouds muffled sound, the traffic was not yet up or much about, my old legs pedalled a judicious way and I felt cheerful and vindicated, like Julius before the Rotunda. My rotunda struck with fine – indeed wifely – force in the park, about fifteen minutes out from warmth and shelter. 

The wind was a whip that circled and struck, now flinging the bike broadside, now howling head-on against me. I pushed the pedals and nothing moved except a wifely voice saying she told me so.

I could still feel my fingers but they were not the fingers of one alive. My face stung, my shapely legs experienced piloerection within the all-weather tights that now sogged and flapped. My nipples froze and I knew I’d never breastfeed.

I thought of Thomas Hardy, the voice of winter’s wintering and I was warmed and cheered.  I saw beneath my wheels ‘the sick leaves reel down in throngs.’ I bethought myself of my loved ones, both those warm and safe and those lying outdoors, as ‘down their carved names the rain drop ploughs.’

Remembering a loved poem is like meeting a loved friend. Hardy wrote ‘During Wind and Rain’ in 1917, five years after his wife died.

They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face …
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss—
Elders and juniors—aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all—
Men and maidens—yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee…
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs…
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

 

Thomas Hardy: During Wind and Rain 

Blu, Blu, it’s Green they say… 

A lady young enough to jump rope inscribed her book of poems and sent it to me through my sister in New York City. The sister claims the poet as a friend. That is no small boast, for the poet in question is a celebrated thinker, a public intellectual who has advanced the thought of a generation.

 

First impressions: the book is slim, at my age a mercy. A quick glance at the cover – pleasing design, the lacing of leaves, a hint to the content, which is to do with the lacing of the generations.

 

The title, “Black Bread*” – innocuous enough; but then follows the subtitle:

 

Poems, After the Holocaust.

 

A sinking feeling, a bracing for the assault which must follow. A needful assault, I must declare. The world has forgotten; Europe has forgotten; the young at their universities agitate as if they never knew you needed to know.

But still, holocaust poems!  Did not Paul Celan write, ‘after the holocaust there is no poetry’? 

Inevitably there is poetry, inevitably man must sing. After Celan, as after Cain, we can sing no more of man in primal innocence. We sing on, however, because we remember, we sing because we lament, we sing because we breathe. This book of singing is singular because the commemorator was not there, not in the Shoah. But she was there – insomuch as I (with my family intact and untouched in Australia) – was also morally there, also implicated, wounded, alongside all my people, alongside all people of all peoples.

 

Open the book, read. You hear a voice that doesn’t hector or scream or even moan, a voice delicate, tactful; and lively with empathy. The poet, Blu Greenberg, born and raised in the USA, was not directly affected, but – as we have learned from the developing study of epigenetics – the trauma of a previous generation can, in a real and concrete sense, be heritable. Stress hormones are measurably increased in later generations of survivors. In this way the pain of one can spread, from the victim to her relative; from that relative – through her verse – to us all, an emanation for our sorrow and our enlightenment. Greenberg knows what she knows and by subtle indirection, she shares her knowing with us. And like Coleridge’s Mariner, we rise on the morrow morn, sadder and wiser.

 

 

Consider ‘TRIGGER WORDS:’               

             

 

Action

Barking

Boots

Butterfly

Bystander

Cattle car

Chamber

Chosen

Collaborate

Drek

Dysentery

Experiments

Eye sockets

Forests

Gold teeth

Lampshade

Latrine

Orchestra

Soap

Solution

Swine 

Transport

Wheelbarrow

Yellow
God

 

What’s poetic about that – a list?  “Trigger Words” is not a poem you’d recite for the beauty of its words.

 

But it all works as poetry by its density of meaning. Twenty-four words carry a universe of meaning, a world of pain. Without recourse to emphasis Greenberg manages to convey all.  Working simply through the alphabet of human experience she stirs the shared memory of humans. We read, we feel the uncommon jolt of twenty–four common words and we know what humans have known since Cain. And we remember.

 

 

Quite otherwise is “MAY 14TH: AN OLD PRIESTESS, A NEW PRIESTESS.” This complex poem weaves its path from the poet’s familial ‘Ke’hunah’ (her descent from the biblical high priest Aaron), through the appearance of two small girls of the 1990’s. The two wear green leaves and crepe paper in the pageant in which they represent the priesthood. Their appearance, ‘two laughing priestesses’, flings the poet’s mind backwards, forwards in time – backward to ‘that other planet’, forward to future great grandchildren, who will, like Greenberg, surely and inescapably remember:

 

 

“My Deborah will tell  

Her grandchildren

As they sprawl

On her carpet 

Inquiring

Of old photos

I once knew

A girl 

Whose mother

And

Father

Survived that other planet

Come here and touch me.

 

 

What that closing line works within me is alchemy. I remember a pain that was never mine but which is the inheritance of all, remembered through the electricity, the innocence of childhood, that universal time we all had and we all lose. 

 

 

* KTAV, Hoboken, NJ, 1994

Blog Wail

A week or so ago this blog wailed about the darkness of the news, the darkness at the heart of man. Two readers responded.
One referred to my wailing as my de profundis, an expression I’d seen bobbing along on the high cultural current over my decades, passing by unpassed. Now it came to me: from the depths. That rang a bell: David, warrior poet, king of ancient Israel, wrote a psalm,
min ha’ma’amakim, From the depths I called…’

Well, two answered my call.

From England, author, bloggish fruitcake maker and novelist Hilary Custance Green is writing her account of her father, a POW in the same camp as Weary Dunlop. He was
one of many untrained medical orderlies who worked in the camp under Canadian surgeon Jacob Markovitz. She writes: “I used to weep continuously as I read these accounts, but I found a dreadful tendency to habituate to the misery and cruelty…”

Robert Hillman, Australian novelist and ghostwriter of lives in ghastly times and climes, sent an antidote:

“Dear Howard – I’ve read your De Frofundis, and your blog about the Richard Flanagan book. I’ll get that book, most certainly, after all you had to say about it. The De Profundis was wonderful in its sincerity, Howard. It’s what all of (us) want to say. But you actually said it. And yet, you know, thank God that there are people of courage and grace in the world who also have a say. I’ve just finished writing a book (‘The Wailing Song’) for a guy who served – most reluctantly – in the Iranian armed forces in the last two years of the Iran-Iraq war. A situation arose when his most senior officer made a mistake, failing to issue an order to 2500 men under his command to withdraw to a ceasefire position in the face of an Iraqi advance. My guy knew of the mistake, and after awful soul-searching, decided to issue the order himself. If he had not, those 2500 men would have been massacred by the vastly superior Iraqi force. Usurping the authority of a Colonel when you are no more than a humble corporal will almost certainly get you court-martialed and hanged in the Iranian army. My guy accepted that he would be hanged, but went ahead and issued the order anyway – he was circumstantially in a position to do so, without having his authority questioned. The men were saved, my guy wasn’t hanged, due to the difficulty the Colonel would have had in explaining his blunder. Its one of those existential situations, a moment of truth, when all that you hope about yourself and believe about yourself is suddenly up for testing: do you have the courage to die at the end of noose in order to save others? Will your life have any meaning if you find a way to duck out? It must be like being thrust into an arena, a bright light directed at you. Here’s your chance. Yes or no?”

I know that moment of moral choice. I know it from reading with growing dread Conrad’s Lord Jim. I read it in the dread of self-knowledge that I would not rise to that challenge. However, since the start of my sixth decade I have imagined that I might.
(Free advice: read ‘Joyful’, which I enthused over in this blog half a year ago. Hillman writes in his own and in many voices of those who struggle in these depths and of some who rise in them).

Intersections, Signposts, Byways along the Road to the Deep North

I read a book yesterday. Started early, finished late. At intervals I had to break off reading to gasp, get to my feet, pace around. Then I sat down and resumed reading. Again I had to stop: I couldn’t read.:
my eyes were streaming and I was sobbing. Because I am a man and men do not give into tears I composed myself, went back to the book and finished it. Unusually for me, I was reading a novel I had read before.
My fortunate path through life is paved with storybooks, so many good books, a few even demanding the accolade of greatness. This is one of the great books.

The novel fictionalises the adult life of Edward (‘Weary’) Dunlop, an Australian surgeon and ‘war hero’, that shopworn term which perplexes and burdens the novel’s central figure for the decades
that remain to him after the War. Ï met ‘Weary’ late one Saturday night after he’d launched a friend’s book. I reminded him that my father and he had been classmates at Melbourne University
Medical School sixty years earlier. I mentioned Dad’s name. The old face looked down and away from me. There was no flicker of recognition: ‘Good man…very good man,’ he said, through the
whiskey of a long night and through the passing of too many years.

The novel which gives us the life and times and war of ‘Weary’ is decidedly unromantic. He is not a hero to himself, he’s simply perplexed, reluctantly drawn to greatness which he can never fathom.
The novel is a telling of one of Australia’s important stories. Like all the great stories the epic of the Burma Railroad (‘The Line’) carries the clout of magic and the endurance of myth.
We have read the tale before in an earlier triumph of storytelling, David Malouf’s ‘The Great World’.

One of Australia’s most original literary stylists is Nicolas Rothwell, the Áustralian’ newspaper’s northern correspondent. Rothwell delivered an oration recently in memory of Eric Rolls,
which was excerpted and published in the Oz a week or so ago. In the acutely elegaic piece Rothwell noted the death of the novel, lamenting exquisitely and I think romantically
on the passing of the genre into effete late middle age and irrelevance. As a keen reader of novels and of Rothwell, I read the essay in perplexity: here was a heartfelt requiem to the literary form of which Rothwell himself is a sublime practitioner. His novel ‘Belomor’ is a convincing rebuttal of his own thesis. If this were not enough to confuse and comfort me,
then ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winner, the cause of my gasping, crying, pacing, would demolish all doubt.

If I read Rothwell right it is not the novel that is dead but our capacity to hear a long story, to enter and journey and stay the distance in a world, to experience lives in their amplitude. We have become nerve-deaf, casualties of the quickening tempo of life, in particular of the crazed acceleration of information technology. I think this is what Rothwell means. I hope so. Because I travelled the Narrow Road to the Deep North, travelling to an extremity of feeling, going far out to sea into an enlargement, an expansion of my being. Mister Richard Flanagan told me a story that penetrated whatever is the deafness
of the age. He spoke to the same organs of wonder and imagination and belief that my mother and my father spoke to or read to when I was small. The same organs are alive and quivering in my grandchildren
when I tell them a story. We are, as Najaf Mazari – the Rug Maker of Mazr a Sharif – points out in ‘The Honey Thief’, ‘made of stories’. Stories are part of the protoplasm of the human. Rothwell knows this,
his writings show it.

Rothwell makes an important point, subtly and allusively as ever, but convincingly. In this continent the long story between covers is in its youth. There yet remains a task for literature to fulfill that is specific to this
country. The Australian novel is a necessary vehicle for the defining and redefining of our place here. If we are whitefella or blackfella we have a task ahead – to come to terms with our each otherness, to relate authentically to a landscape and to its stories, to Australia.

Between the covers of the Narrow Road Flanagan’s Dorrigo Evans and Darky Gardner take us a long way on that needed path. Novels such as this have the power to create new minds with new organs of knowing.