Thursday, August 30, 2012

Adult music, kids, and All the Swears

My eldest daughter, A, has excellent taste in music, if I do say so, and not, I gather, typical for her age. She's aware of her difference in this regard, and somewhat heartbreakingly canny about the implications of it; recently, the teacher in her class asked the kids to divide into groups based on their favourite singer or group, and A joined the sizeable Katy Perry contingent; "not," as she later told me, "because she's my favourite - she's OK I guess, but not my favourite! - but I knew no-one else would like what I like, and I didn't want to be by myself."

A likes the kind of music her Dad and I listen to. She likes lots of 80s and 90s bands - Cyndi Lauper, early Madonna, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Hunters & Collectors, and Paul Kelly are all on her hit list. In contemporary music, she likes folk / country and alternative music. And her two most beloved, most favourite bands of all? The Indigo Girls and Mumford & Sons.

Now, both the Indigo Girls and Mumford & Sons are excellent groups who produce melodic, thoughtful, folk (ish) music. Well and good. But both are adult bands, producing music for grown ups. The themes of their songs can be difficult for a 9 year old to come to grips with; and, while neither are particularly potty mouthed, both groups do, when the occasion demands it, make use of profanity to underline a point, complete a rhyme, or just because, really, it's the most appropriate word to express the sentiment. (To wit: Shame On You. Or, indeed, Little Lion Man.)

I'm not puritanical about language; I think swearing has a place in the rich gamut of human expression, and I am often admiring of the pithy amplification of mood that a writer or an artist can achieve with a well-placed f-bomb. I am not, myself, averse to dropping the occasional swear if the circumstances warrant it. I'm not a huge fan of non-stop effing and blinding, because, on the whole, I find it aggressive and off-putting, but that's not a moral judgement, more a tonal one, if you like. The deployment of swear words in music is, therefore, not remotely problematic for me as an adult listener.

What, though, should I make of my 9 year old enthusiastically listening to, drinking up in fact, music with adult themes and All the Swears?

Well, I am taking the view that, at 9, she is old enough to make the distinction between the socially appropriate and inappropriate uses of curse words. She understands full well that f-bombs are fine for Amy and Emily to sing on her stereo, in context, but that doesn't make them fine for her to say at Nanna's house. I think it's actually healthy for her to hear people using swears judiciously, deliberately, as the best (and selected) word to express their sentiment. Swearing is part of language and part of life. I would rather she learns its nuances in a variety of adult contexts instead of picking it up merely as an exciting but meaningless taboo on the back oval at school.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Conversation by a bathtub

3yo and 9yo are taking a bath. They are playing a game with plastic animals. The 3yo is being the crocodile.

3yo: "First I'm going to splash you, then I'm going to kill you..."

Husband and I look at each other in mild shock.
Husband calls into the bathroom, "That's enough of that, now. No more talk about killing, please."

A pregnant pause ensues. You can almost hear the wheels turning in C's head.

Then: "First I'm going to splash you, then I'm going to eat you!" Triumphantly, from the bath.

Cue laughter from us, and husband remarking, "Well, just so long as you eat her alive, then..."

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Reading Notes: Bring Up the Bodies and Umbrella

Having read (well ... read and / or sampled, as I'll discuss) two more of the Booker longlist titles now, I'm up to 8 read and it's not even quite the end of August, which is way better - in fact, 5 better! - than I managed last year before the announcement of the shortlist. I find this mystifying given that last year I was doing very little paid work, whereas this year I'm combining my reading with quite a hefty workload, and my childcare and household commitments are not less. Maybe this is just a really high quality, non stodgy list? Maybe I have invested more heavily in it because I'm reviewing as I go, or because reading is a key relaxaton for my work-taut mind? Who can say.

Anyway - on to Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies and Will Self's Umbrella.

Bring Up the Bodies is Mantel's sequel to the lauded Wolf Hall, which itself won the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Continuing the story of Henry VIII through the lens of his bovver-boy advisor, Thomas Cromwell, this book is, if anything, even better than its predecessor - and I say that as someone who loved Wolf Hall and thought it one of the most deserving Booker winners of the past 10 years.

Historical fiction, like other genre fiction, is often branded as less-than when considered with "literary" fiction. Perhaps the genre than suffers from this presumption of inferiority the most is romance fiction, but erotica, science fiction, fantasy, crime fiction and horror / thriller fiction are also tarred with the "not to be taken seriously" brush. Indeed, as I wrote in an earlier review, I think the unwillingness to take speculative / fantasy fiction on its merits will count against the wonderful Communion Town in this process.

However, every so often a book comes along that is just so good, just so stunningly, irresistibly well written and compelling, that considerations of genre are pushed aside. Wolf Hall was one such, and Bring Up the Bodies is most certainly another.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up the story of Henry VIII's self-glorying, brutal matrimonial depredations at the point where he is starting to weary of Anne Boleyn (and, specifically, her failure to give him a son) and has begun to notice meek Jane Seymour, the girl who will soon be his third Queen, mother of his only son, and corpse, in that order.

Using Cromwell as the focus and narrator (although, and this is a very interesting narrative choice, in the second person, not the first), Mantel unpicks the machinations, lies and distortions, the cruelties and tunnel vision, that led Anne to the chopping block. She spares nothing in her portrait of a clever, injudicious, arrogant woman who was nonetheless not evil, but undone by the petulance and inconstancy of spoiled-child Henry and the cunning, snakeish mind of Cromwell. As Bettany Hughes points out in her excellent review in The Telegraph, "The story of the world is littered with the corpses of clever, charismatic women. To make your mark pretty consistently over the past 3,500 years, as a female of the species you have had to be extra special; and being special in historical times usually led to the cold embrace of an early grave."

I like historical fiction generally (it's a genre that does appeal to me) and I've read more than one historical novel set in Tudor times; Henry and his three children-successors (boy king Edward, Bloody Mary, and Good Queen Bess) are colourful, attractive figures for storytelling in themselves, and each of their reigns also saw other significant shifts that make a good basis for a tale. But Mantel's books are a cut (and a half) above any other fiction I've read set in this period. They are completely rooted in the concerns, mentalities and preoccupations of their times, yes, but they also have much more far-reaching things to say about power and politics and gender. Mantel writes a story that is not just persuasive and completely engaging, but important, in the ways it shines a light on how power traps and declaws all challenges to itself, and how easy, how horrifyingly easy, it is to destroy a human being with nothing more than pretty, palatable lies.

In short, this is a truly great book. I would strongly recommend it to anyone (although read Wolf Hall first to get the proper lead-in!)

I must, in justice, preface my comments on Umbrella with an admission - I didn't finish this book. This is the first of the eight I've read so far that has defeated me; I just couldn't muster the will to push through, and I left it (according to my Kindle, at "63% read".) So it is possible that it turned some kind of significant corner and all came together in a wonderful crescendo at the end. (I doubt it, but I can't rule it out).

Umbrella is, in short, a book about consciousness and its absence. Using mental-home patient Audrey Death, and her treating psychiatrist Zack Busner, as its chief foci, it journeys through Zack's own dismal mental landscape, his bodies buried in the mind, and Audrey's frozen, amber-embedded world. A victim of encephalitis lethargica, which left some sufferers in a state of catatonic unreachability with repetitive physical ticcing, Audrey's inner dialogue is caught in her early 20th century childhood, featuring sisters, brothers, parents, and incidents that are long past and gone. Zack Busner's, on the other hand, is less sharp-edged; it's just dark grey and maudlin at all times, informed by his half-communicated memories of his ill brother and his own deep sense of futility.

It sounds like the makings of a good and interesting story; and, I must be fair, the book isn't without interest. Audrey emerges as an engrossing character, although Zack, to my mind, never lifts above "miserable and annoying". Some of the literary tricks are neatly executed, and there are some great turns of phrase.

However, I found the central narrative devices - dialect-based stream of consciousness for Audrey, and internal shape-shifting monologue for Zack - to be really difficult to get sense from, and, after a while, more wearying than rewarding. I understand (I think) what Self was doing with loading Audrey's text with heavily accented writing, but it made reading it a tiring and frustrating process, and I found I was spending my energy on decoding the thick text rather than allowing the story and its overarching themes to emerge and settle. Zack, and the picture of 1960s / 1970s medical treatment he provides, I just found unbearably depressing and bleak. After a while, between the hard to comprehend and the hard to like, there was nothing left to inspire me to keep pushing through to see if I could find the story arc hidden among the very literary stylings of the text.

So I would not go so far as to describe Umbrella as a "bad" book; that would be inaccurate and unfair, as I've not finished it and I did have moments of recognising power and engagement in the text. I would, however, unhesitatingly describe it as a challenging read, and one that, more than halfway into it, hadn't delivered nearly enough pay-off for the effort that it demanded of readers. YMMV, naturally, but this is definitely not one of my favourites.

Overall verdict for shortlist?
Bring Up the Bodies should be shortlisted if there is any justice in the world. The only reason it might not be (or might be but then won't win) is the bias against awarding the prize to two books in the same series.

Umbrella might be shortlisted if the judges like this kind of thing but there is no way I'd ever shortlist it. (I wouldn't have longlisted it either!)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Winner: Abigail the Story Bunny giveaway

This was a really hard competition to judge! Between Dr Seuss and We're Going on a Bear Hunt (all-time classics), Bob Graham's new book, and the lovely It's Okay to be Different, everybody presented a worthy option in the pantheon of great preschool stories.

However, there can only be one winner (sigh), and I have decided this time that it will be...

Bellabas, who told me about "A New Years Reunion" by Yu Li Qiong, a wonderful book that we were able to find at our local library this week and are really loving.

Thank you all for entering and giving me some great ideas for reading choices. Bellabas, could you email me at kathypllrd248 AT by Monday (27th August) with your postal contact details, I will arrange to have your Abigail sent out to you!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Death and the 7 year old

The 7 year old is upset. She doesn't want to go to bed in her own room; her eyes brimming, she creeps to my side, presses in, and mumbles "I want to sleep with you, Mummy." This is not particularly like her; an independent child and a great lover of sleep, she favours her own high loft bed, her little soft boat in the nightsea, for long and dream-filled slumber.

I brush her hair off her face and say, "Come sit in my bed with me for a while, love. We can have a talk. You might feel better then."

In my bed, she says, "This book I just read. Poppy. You know, in the Our Australian Girl series." She stops. A light dawns on me.

"Has it made you feel sad, darling?" I ask. She nods, and the tears trickle out.

"Her mum - Poppy's mum - dies in it," she says, her voice catching. "And Poppy and her brother go to an orphanage. Because their dad can't look after them." She pauses. "And then at the end, Poppy loses her dog, too!" She's really upset now, and I know why; the death of the mother has taken her back to the terrible winter of 2010, where a dear friend of ours (and mother to three small children) died, and the sucker punch of the dog's disappearance has closed the loop, as our own beloved dog Basil died in the spring that year, his old body worn and faded.

"Ahhhh, hon," I say, and cuddle her. She cries quietly for a little while. Then she says, "Mummy, I don't want you to ever die." But the tone of her voice is that of someone who knows they ask the impossible; she has seen dying people, she has been to funerals and cried tears for personalities gone from the world. She knows, actually, that all her wishing and wanting, the fierce force of her love and her will, isn't enough to deny nature; more, she knows that death doesn't always come only to the old.

Carefully, I say, "Sweetheart, Mummy's not sick, and I come from a long-living family. You know my great-grandpa was 104 when he died! There's a really good chance that I'll live a long time yet. You could well be a middle-aged lady yourself by the time I die." She is silent, thinking on this, and her tension is starting to release.

"I wish no-one had to," she says pensively. "Die, I mean. Ever."

"If no-one died, the world would pretty soon be full of people," I note. "Unless people stopped having babies, and I don't see that happening soon, do you?" She shakes her head.

"When you die, does your body turn into dirt?" she asks. "Sort of, over time," I answer. "Eventually it breaks down and turns into rich nutrients for the soil. So plants can grow and thrive. It's the way it's meant to happen, pet."

"Mmmmmm," she says. Then, "Mummy, are you afraid to die?"

Well, that's a big question. She deserves an honest answer, so I take my time formulating one.

"I worry about dying too soon, darling," I say. "And I am afraid of having a painful, drawn-out dying. Yes, I am." She nods. "But I'm not really afraid to be dead. Not really. I think that it's just my body that will die, and the other part of me, my soul part. will move on to a different kind of life."

"I think that, too," she says, sleepy now, snuggling in. "Well, I hope that." Me too, I think silently, as I kiss her hair, and we fall asleep together, warm and safe.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reading Notes: Narcopolis

As expected, it's taken me a little longer to knock over the next title on the Man Booker longlist; having managed the previous three in a week, Narcopolis took me just over a week by itself, and would've taken longer if I hadn't had two nights of insomnia and needed distraction.

From this, it's reasonable to surmise that it's a heavier, slower read than the charming frippery of Skios , the straight-arrow plotting of Swimming Home or the compelling Philida. I found this book to be a harder reading commitment than any of the preceding five; it lacked the lightness, the humour, the simple, easygoing plotting, or the sparkling strangeness, that carried me through all of the previous titles with relative ease. That's not to say I didn't like it as such, although, actually, I didn't, hugely - as I'll explain below. It's just an acknowledgement that I think I have now hit the Very Heavy and Serious End of this year's Booker field.

Narcopolis, by poet and journalist Jeet Thayil, is, essentially, a multi-faceted story of Bombay's drug subculture in the 1970s. Thayil himself spent a good portion of his life as an addict, and this personal context is evident in the familiar, intimate, almost loving way he describes the process of smoking opium, the effects it has on bodies and minds, and the strange life it engenders. This book also plays around with notions of gender identity, sex and self; one of the main characters (and in fact the only one with whom I felt any real connection) is a eunuch named Dimple, who spends her early life working in a hijra brothel, but eventually becomes a key dispenser of opium in Rashid's opium den.

Thayil is a talented writer, with a journalist's sharp observation and a poet's gift for description, and this book is extremely well crafted. The movement between fairly standard narrative prose styles and more disjointed, stream of consciousness writing is, I am certain, completely intentional and always appropriate to the state of mind he is trying to invoke. In interviews, Thayil has said that he aimed to avoid invoking typical "writing about India" cliches and move away from the soft-focus mysticism with which such novels are often imbued. In this, he has succeeded brilliantly. This might be a book set mostly in Bombay (with the exception of the moving interlude recounting the life of Mr Lee in Maoist China), with mostly Indian characters, but it is not remotely mystical or reminiscent of the better-known Indian genre novels. Let me put it this way - the scent that hangs over this book is the scent of opium and sweat, not spice, mangoes and incense.

(I ought to add here, for anyone reading these posts to get an idea of content / suitability - this one has a HUGE content warning on it, and I would definitely NOT give it to a younger reader. Graphic descriptions of drug use, sex and extreme violence abound. The book feels, intentionally I'm sure, dirty, gritty and dark; don't attempt it if this is not something you feel comfortable stomaching).

All of that said, and acknowledging the great talent that has produced this story, I found Narcopolis to be a deadening, depressing read. It's funny that it's the first book on the longlist that has left me feeling so flat, given that two of the previous titles feature suicides, one has a mass-murderer running theme and one includes extreme brutality and slavery. I think it's because I got no sense of hopefulness at all from this book, no tiny glimpse of a sense that there was any purpose to anything beyond paying for the next hit. I understand that this may be an accurate depiction of this life and that, for those living it, it's probably not as bleak as it seems. For me as a reader, though, I couldn't engage with it (except, to some extent, with the character of Dimple) and I didn't actually enjoy it. I was glad to finish it and I don't foresee reading it again soon.

Overall verdict for shortlist?
Narcopolis will be shortlisted, because it's such a writerly, depressing book, but if I were writing the shortlist, it wouldn't be.

(*I still reserve the right to change these votes after I read the last six books, in case they're either wonderful beyond belief or really weak :-)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Abigail the Story Bunny: Review and Giveaway

Stories are my 3 year old's grand obsession at the moment; it's hardly surprising, given how book-nerdy our entire family is. Apples, trees, and all that :-)

She loves to be read to, and she loves stories with a degree of interactivity. She's also been watching with growing irritation as a steady stream of parcels have arrived in the mail for 9 year old A (due to her birthday) and 7 year old E, who's been lucky enough to be sent several things recently for various purposes.

So when we were offered the opportunity to review Hallmark's interactive book toy, Abigail the Story Bunny, I said yes rather fast, as it featured a book, included a cuddly-looking bunny rabbit, and would come in a parcel! by the post! for C!

C's delight at receiving the parcel was only outstripped by her squeals of pleasure at the cute (and it is reeeeally cute) soft bunny, and her discovery that the storybook, Abigail and the Balance Beam, was about gymnastics, C's very own sport. The story is a pretty sweet one and certainly one C relates to; she's asked for it more than daily ever since we got it.

The basic concept of the Abigail package - of all the story buddy range, really - is that when you read the storybook that comes with the toy, the toy is programmed to contribute phrases and exclamations at particular narrative points. It mostly works like this, but, we have discovered to our amusement, not always.

This makes the story-reading experience rather excitingly random, as Abigail seems to struggle sometimes to understand Australian accents, and so remains silent when she is suppposed to speak, and chips in with observations unexpectedly at other times. My older girls have amused themselves to no end sitting in front of Abigail spouting random phrases to see which are similar enough to the key sentences in the book to provoke a response. ("Hey, it's an experiment in robotics!" protested the 9 year old when told her to knock it off :-)

This is not the first time we've had a talking toy, but I would say that it's probably the cutest and most useable such toy. C adores Abigail and her storybook and I think most preschoolers would too; it's just such good fun for the pre-reading crowd.

As well as being sent our own Abigail, we have been offered one to give away to a blog reader. If you're interested in winning one of these little cuties, just read the competition details below and give it a go!

If you'd like to win an Abigail, please leave a comment below telling me what your favourite preschool book is at the moment, and why. The most creative answer (as judged by me) will be the winner.

1. Competition only open to Australian residents.
2. Entries close at 5pm on Thursday 23 August. No late entries will be accepted.
3. The judge's decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into.
4. Winner will be announced on the blog on Friday 24 August. It is your responsibility to check back to see if you have won and email me at kathypllrd248 AT with your postal address details.
5. If the winner has not contacted me within three (3) days of the announcement, an alternative winner will be selected and announced.

Good luck!

Disclosure: I was provided with one Abigail the Story Bunny pack for review purposes by Communicado on behalf of Hallmark. No financial incentive was offered or accepted for this post, and all opinions expressed are entirely my own.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Love, actually (A poem)

she wears a fat apron, the relic of three pregnancies and rich living
his hair is thinning on top.
her breasts are headed south, impelled by time and gravity
his arm-hairs are turning grey.
her eyes are nested in radiating wrinkles, cut deeper with every short-sighted smile
his neck is reddened and lined with sun and years.

she pants a little when she runs, like an asthmatic pug
he snores loudly and joyously, night after night the booming carol
she needs stronger glasses, he takes Berocca every day
she falls asleep reading
he, listening to music made
by people who were not yet conceived when he was young.

he shouts at the dog, and worries about the mortgage.
she makes herself tired, working and householding, navigating the shifting seas of children.
he wishes for a fortune, while she
mostly wishes he would do the dishes.

middle age almost upon them
that least romantic of times (as the songs would have it),
one's cardigan and slipper years.

and yet.

talking to him eases her still, undoes the knots, brings her lightness
her touch, even now, is fire and comfort to him
back to back they face the world, arms athwart
joined by time, children, need, longing; that strange admixture
of congruence and choice, fate and will.

each holds the other's stories in their hands
the other's heart in their eyes.

(in love. actually.)

- Kathy, 14/8/12

Monday, August 13, 2012

Reading Notes: Swimming Home, Philida and Skios

I've now finished another three books on the Booker Prize longlist - surprising myself somewhat, I'll admit, given how busy I am. But nighttime reading is one of the things getting me through, and none of these books was a hard or effortful read... so here I am, 5 down, 7 to go, and it's only 13 August :-)

I thought about holding off one of these reviews until I had read a sixth, so I could do two posts with a pair of books in each, but the next one in my sights is Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis, which, on first blush, seems to be a bit heavier going than the ones I've read thus far. Given my time constraints, and that I much prefer to review books when they are fresh in my mind, I decided to do a triple-review instead of these three very different books.

Swimming Home, by British novellist Deborah Levy, is nothing whatsoever like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in theme, tone or storyline, but my reaction to it was extremely similar, for reasons I can't quite pinpoint. By this, I mean that I found both books to be easy to read, well-written, insightful and mostly enjoyable (despite the significant - and, now I come to think of it, parallel - dark undercurrents in both); but, I found neither book compelling, and I felt that both were reaching to express eternal truths that didn't quite communicate.

Levy's book, like Joyce's, starts with a fairly simply premise - an English family, father a poet, mother a journalist, holidaying abroad with their friends - but quickly becomes significantly stranger in its characters and plotlines, due, in part, to Levy's narrative choice to reflect a lot of the action through the very disturbed character of Kitty.

Levy displays a casual mastery of nuance and half-seen hints in this book; very little is stated baldly, and even when things are, you are always aware that there are buried layers that the characters are not discussing. The shifting relationships between the characters that I'd consider the main protagonists - poet Joe, journalist Isabel, their teenage daughter Nina, and the stranger-intruder, aspiring poet Kitty - are fascinatingly drawn. Levy uses minor characters to great effect, too, amplifying the half-spoken conflicts and dramas of the main story arc enormously.

The ending of this book irritated me, and, again, like with Joyce's novel, I think it is because it was meant to be a surprise, but wasn't. Everything in the last half of the text was leading (to my eye) to the conclusion, so I was neither shocked nor particularly perturbed by the ending. John Self, reviewing this book in The Guardian, wrote that "the reader closes the book both satisfied and unnerved", but I disagree with that assessment. I was neither satisfied nor unnerved by the close; more, I was disappointed, because I think more could have been done, and an opportunity was missed.

Michael Frayn's Skios is, simply and beautifully, a farce. When I say farce here, I do not mean "something stupid and risible", which is what people often mean today when they use that word. I mean it is a lovely, truly funny example of a rarely-successful kind of comedy writing, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.

For anyone familiar with Frayn's hilarious play, Noises Off, it will come as no surprise that this book is quite theatrical in feel and execution. I could imagine, with a few minor adaptations, staging this quite easily. Yes, you'd have to dispense with the philosophising about the nature of identity, but, to me, that is the least successful part of the book in any case. Where Skios rises magnificently to the occasion is in its almost Wodehouse-style scramblings of misunderstandings, sharp dialogue, fairly one-dimensional but dead accurate characters, and just extremely clever plotting that makes this a highly entertaining book on every level.

The basic plot device is a well-worn staple of farcical comedy - mistaken identity (in fact, traded identities). A series of events sees serial prankster Oliver Fox, on his way to a liaison with his barely-known lover Georgie, being mistaken for tired, staid academic Wilfred Owen, on *his* way to deliver an important lecture at a made-up cultural foundation based on the Greek island of Skios. Owen and Fox end up living each other's intended lives for over a day, as various other characters' imperatives drawn closer and closer; all of their timelines come together in a glorious bang (literally!) at the moment the lecture is due to be delivered.

This was such a fun book for me; nothing in it demanded I feel All the Sads, or recoil in disgust and horror from the cruel history of humanity, or meditate on the nature of life, or weep readerly tears for depressed, suicidal characters. After Swimming Home and Philida, it was pure light relief, skillfully executed, and I easily gulped it down in two sittings.

Philida is, of these three, clearly the best book (in my opinion, naturally). I started with a preconception in its favour, given how highly I regard Andre Brink as a writer and a humanist, and it more than delivered on my expectations.

Do you know Andre Brink? If not, I highly recommend you make the acquaintance of his canon, even though it is not at all an easy or happy journey. Brink is a white South African writer who writes about his country, its past, and its present, and he does not pull any punches or soften any truths. He has written about actual historical events (although fictionalised)and uses sparse scraps of information, in archives, in records, in stories, to begin his imagined journey into the worlds of the past and their voices. His work is beautiful, cruel, painful, honest, mystical, and it gets inside you, stays with you, for a long time after you put the book down.

Philida reprises a common motif in Brink's work - that of using tangled and complex relationships between individual white and black South Africans to both reflect on and underscore broader themes about the troubled foundation of the social structure as a whole. As in many (most?) of his books, a relationship between a black person and a white person is the progenitor of localised trouble, but also emblematic of shifting sands in the wider world.

Not all of Brink's key bonds are sexual - the central relationship in A Chain of Voices, for instance, is effectively quasi-fraternal, between the slave Galant and farmer-master Nicolaas - but it is in Philida, which starts with a complaint of ill-treatment lodged by Philida against her master's son and father of her children, Francois Brink. (In an oddly unsettling turn of fate, the Brink family in the story is a collateral branch of the author's own family).

Set in the last years of legal slavery in South Africa (the book culminates with the official end of slavery in 1833), this book is incredibly gripping from the first page. What I cannot but always love in Brink's work is the ways in which he humanises all his characters - there are no caricatures or cartoon villains here. Yet, even in giving them all struggles, pain and genuine softer emotions, he never shies away from explicit moral judgement of their actions and the rottenness of the power structure that enables them. We may not see individual white slave owners as monsters, but their actions are monstrous and unforgivable, and Brink never lets us forget it.

I won't spoil this book by giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that I gave up a night's sleep to read it from start to finish, and I ended that night feeling bruised but not sorry. It is very hard emotionally in places - the brutality may upset some readers severely - but it is one of those books that it's important to read, even if it hurts.

Overall verdict for shortlist?

Philida will be shortlisted, and thoroughly deserves to be.
Swimming Home won't be shortlisted unless the judges really, really like this kind of book, and I agree that it shouldn't be.
Skios is a joker in the pack for me - I really, really enjoyed it and I would probably shortlist it just for something different, but I don't think it'll actually make the cut.

(*I still reserve the right to change these votes after I read more books, in case the rest are either wonderful beyond belief or really weak :-)

Friday, August 10, 2012

On Facebook denialism

I don't have a Facebook page.

It's funny; these days, I feel like I should bracket that statement in some way. "Hi, my (internet) name is ZucchiniBikini. I am a Facebook denier." Confessing my lack of Facebookiness feels a bit odd, almost transgressive. I mean, everyone's on Facebook, right? My Mum is, my neighbour is, my kid's teachers are, my co-workers, friends, cousins, schoolmates from thirty years ago. Right at this very minute, admitting to not being on Facebook sounds almost scary, given how much is being made of the lack of online presence of the two mass-shooters (in the USA and Europe). Their lack of Facebook is being touted as evidence of disconnection, psychopathy, rather than a variant on the typical Western approach to life.

It's not that I'm a social media hater (says she, on her blog :-) I love Twitter deeply and I'm on it almost daily; I splash around in Pinterest and StumbleUpon from time to time; and I'm an avid blog reader and commenter. I used to run several Yahoo! groups, and if I was an iPhone user I'd be all over Instagram. I have a Google+ account (although it's so buggy I'm rarely ever there).

So why not the giant granddaddy of them all? Why don't I Facebook?

I used to. I had a Facebook page, under my real name (which is, indeed, Kathy, but with other bits in it as well) where I showcased pictures, commented on things, posted status updates that were every bit as futile as anyone else's. I liked it ... sort of. I definitely liked the connecting part, catching up with people I hadn't seen for a while, rebuilding old acquaintanceships that way.

Then, in 2010, I had a bit of a social media watershed. I decided to ditch Facebook altogether, split my blogging world into two blogs (this one public, my older blog, Zucchinis in Bikinis, private) and make Twitter my main SM channel going forward.

I did this for a whole bunch of reasons, some coherent, some instinctive. I actually wrote a post on Zucchinis in Bikinis about my reasons, couched as a Dear John letter to Facebook:

Well, here's the thing. It's not me, Facebook. It's you.

You are full of snakepits of misogyny, prejudice and general old-fashioned nastiness.

You are always and ever more irritatingly changing your layout and profile page views, and I like each new incarnation less than the one before it.

You are overrun with add-on games and apps, all of which hold less than zero interest for me and which fill up my timeline with Farmville and Mafia Wars shite that I could not care less about.

You are bad - worryingly bad - at privacy. I don't think you understand what it means or why it matters. You really struggle with boundaries, don't you?

In order to get any great value from you, I have to spend LOADS of time with you. I need to visit you daily or more often, I need to interact a lot, in order to feel any sense of the alleged community and connection that you think you're all about. This, dear, makes you, in a word, needy. I have no time for needy in my life right now, or possibly ever.

You, or rather your advertisers, are only interested in me as a potential consumer, so my data provides you with a rich (and free) source of market research that I have little or no way of even seeing, let alone controlling.

More than two years later, I've never regretted my decision, or felt any urgent pull back to the Book, despite an increasing chorus of voices wanting me to justify my absence. I think the reasons I advanced in 2010 are still valid - this week's snafu over a disgusting and offensive page that Facebook refused to take down is more evidence, if any were needed, that the snakepits are alive and well (and breeding).

I know that it makes me a bit weird, not having Facebook. I know it means I miss out on news of people I would like to keep up with. I know that I almost certainly lose blog traffic through it.

But on this point, right now, I'm standing firm. It's not for me, and I am really OK with that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


It's freezing cold today in Melbourne, with gusting rain, high chill winds, and a dark grey sky. Overnight, I woke several times to the wailing of the wind and the banging of undefined outside objects; I brought the shivering dog inside to sleep, checked many times on each of the children.

So it was that I was gazing at my firstborn girl's face at the exact 9-year anniversary of her birth (1:05am). I thought about how far we've come in that 9 years - the agony and the ecstasy, if you will. I thought about how different I am from the person who birthed this child, and how much parenting her, and her sisters after her, has changed me.

Happy 9th birthday, A, my love. You are a wonderful person, and I will never cease to be grateful for all the things you're teaching me on this journey, even the hard parts. I love you more than the whole world, and I always, always, will.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Reading Notes: New favourites and old in picture books

My 3 year old loves being read to, especially now that she's starting to make sense of the code that is words on a page. It occurred to me that I used to do a monthly wrap-up of what she was enjoying, book-wise, and I haven't done it for ever so long; maybe this is a good opportunity to look again at what's floating her boat, now she's 3 1/2.

She's really loving the works of Janet and Allen Ahlberg at the moment; The Jolly Postman and Peepo! are her particular favourites. The Ahlbergs are family favourites, really; A was obsessed with the Jolly Postman and Jolly Christmas Postman for years, while E still sits down with Each Peach Pear Plum sometimes to try and spot all the hidden details in the pictures. C, however, is a Peepo! girl all the way. She's so, so fascinated with the baby's-eye glimpse of family life it offers, while I, reading it to her, am enchanted with the glimpse of 1940s-English-city-life in pictures.

She's loving the new book in Chloe and Mick Inkpen's wonderful Zoe and Beans series, Zoe and Beans - Pants on the Moon. We got sent the first of these books, The Magic Hoop, last year to review, and it was an instant hit, so much so that I sought out and bought the Christmas story in the series, Zoe's Christmas List. C loves the goofiness of Beans the dog, the soft, watercolour-style illustration, and the gentle, funny plotting. She's very taken, in Pants on the Moon!, with the notion of floating up to the moon in pursuit of a runaway line full of pants; it tickles her, every time. It's a charming book to read aloud, and I'm not bored with it, even after multiple rotations, which should tell you something important about it :-)

It's not all good news, though. Much to my personal displeasure, she is going through a stage of obsessive delight in Babette Cole's Doctor Dog books. I find these books pretty gross, truth be told - funny, yes, informative, yes, but also more than a little nauseating, frankly. A Dose of Doctor Dog in particular is a book that I refuse point-blank to read at mealtimes; it puts me right off my food. However, C adores them, just as her sisters did at a similar age, so I try to stifle my inner sigh and read them with gusto.

She has adopted three personal favourite books, that are read a minimum of twice a day each, and which she will sit with by herself, moving her finger along the text and murmuring the well-known words to herself. They are David Melling's The Scallywags, Helen Cooper's Delicious! and Ragnhild Scammell's The Wish Cat.

I've written about our devotion to Helen Cooper more than once on this blog; suffice to say that this beautiful book is a happy re-reader for me as well as for C. The Scallywags, which is funny, mildly subversive and vibrantly illustrated, is another great storybook, and The Wish Cat is just lovely, sweet and heartfelt, with a simple, not-preachy message of love beyond appearances. C adores them all.

What are your preschoolers enjoying at the moment? Any new things I should check out for C?

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of Zoe and Beans: Pants on the Moon! for review purposes courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia. No financial payment was offered nor accepted for this post. All opinions expressed are purely my own.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reading Notes: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Communion Town

I have now read two of the twelve Booker Prize long list titles, Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Sam Thompson's Communion Town.

As it transpired, these were a good pair to start with - both by debut novellists, both excellent reads, entirely dissimilar in style, ostensible theme, and voice, but both, it seemed to me, reaching at communicating some kind of life truth, some kind of meaning-of-it-all. Perhaps all good literature does this, really, but I found the resonances in these two books much closer than a generalised sigh of existence. Both, in their own modes, had things to say about the gap between perception and reality, the essential isolation of the human mind, and the profundity of the hunger to connect, to know, to be more than oneself.

Joyce's book is one of the most gentle, meandering, yet incredibly well crafted and emotionally punchy stories in the "ordinary person living life of quiet desperation having life transforming awakening experience" genre. Harold Fry, the protagonist, is beautifully realised, as is his wife, Maureen. His decision to walk the length of England - in his yacht shoes - to bring hope to an old friend dying of cancer, is a deceptively simple plot device, but Joyce makes it work hard, mining the landscape, journeying narratology and unlikely-hero trope for all they're worth (and, at times, more - there's no doubt some of the symbolism is heavy handed in places).

Overall, I wouldn't describe this as a perfect book. I thought it lost its way a little in the middle section; the side plot regarding the hangers-on who form the survivor-like pilgrim posse around Harold after he attains fleeting fame seemed forced, disjointed, to me, as if it was making a different point entirely from the main thread of Harold's inner and outer journey. The "reveal" wasn't remotely a surprise to me (perhaps this is a function of having read entirely too many mystery novels in my life), so the catharsis that might have accompanied the shock-value of it wasn't there. I found several of the minor characters unconvincing and irritating in ways that I'm pretty sure they weren't intended to be.

That said, it is a very good book - the prose is lovely, the main characters are fully drawn, the description, while artful, is spare enough not to irk me (I hate hate HATE books that tell instead of showing), and the grand truths it communicates are well done and persuasive. It is a fairly "straight" narrative - it doesn't demand a lot of cognitive flipflopping or stepping through any looking-glasses. I liked it, a lot, and I'd recommend it to others without hesitation.

Now, Communion Town - that is a cat of another colour entirely. Self-described, in its subtitle, as "a city in ten chapters", this book is dazzlingly clever, achingly beautifully written, menacing, uplifting, tragic and bizarre. I found it spine-tinglingly good, and I know I'll read it many times over; it has depths I've only just started to plumb in one read through.

Each chapter / story is told from a different perspective and, moreover, in a different style; Thompson shows off a bit in some of them, really, displaying a virtuoso command of genres like thrillers, hardboiled noir, puzzle-detection, and (to my mind, anyway) speculative fantasy. The locus for all the stories, the heart-river into which all the streams feed, is the city, unnamed, imagined, dreamlike, fantastical; never fully unfolded, never fully understood, but glimpsed in half-light and shadows, by happy people, lovelorn people, shy and brash people, aliens, ghosts, lovers, killers, detectives, workers, shut-ins.

Communion Town is being marketed rather hopefully as a mainstream novel, probably because calling it what I think it is - essentially, a linked set of fantasy short stories - would be likely to decrease its marketability. In a way that's a shame, because there are many readers of speculative and fantasy fiction who might not come across this one and they are its core audience, to my mind. Let me put it this way - if you enjoy Neil Gaiman, I'd back that you'll really, really like this book. (NB: I'm not contending this book is Gaiman-esque, per se; just that the overall kaleidescopic, fractured, often dark, brilliance of it reminded me of Gaiman quite a bit).

That said, Communion Town isn't for everyone. It requires a jump through the real into the half-real, an acceptance of strangeness, that won't appeal to all readers. There are many people I'd not give this book to, knowing they'd dislike it quite a bit, either for its muffled savagery or its flitting around between narrators, themes and styles. I think it is a wonderful, incredible, first book, and I'm eager to see what Thompson comes up with next, but vanilla fiction it ain't and that's for sure.

Overall verdict for shortlist?
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will be shortlisted, even though, if I were voting, it wouldn't be.
Communion Town won't be shortlisted, even though it deserves to be.

(*I reserve the right to change these votes after I read more books, in case the rest are either wonderful beyond belief or really weak :-)

Sunday, August 5, 2012


I had an anxiety dream last night. Most such dreams for me tend to use thinly-veiled substitution (I often dream about going into an exam I haven't prepared for, or realising I have an essay due and it's not started). Breaking with tradition, this dream was a brutally straightforward pictorial representation of my barely-subconscious worries about my current work project.

I dreamed I was in a room with a bunch of the people I'm currently working for / with, and they were telling me how rubbish the documents I'd produced were, how they wanted to scrap them all and start again, and how much of a waste of money my services had been.

Obviously, the dream was a vastly, luridly, exaggerated version of what I worry about, even below the surface. I have enough connection to reality (and have had enough feedback already, mostly positive) to be aware that the work I'm producing is *not* all rubbish, and is heading in the right direction. I don't have any expectation of having all the documents rejected holus bolus, or of being excoriated in a public place, despite my unpleasant dream.

But I do have performance anxiety, oh yes I do, and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

We're 9 weeks into this project now, slightly more than halfway through the drafting process, and at the stage where everything is hard and it's all overwhelming and like running full pelt through molasses. All the low-hanging fruit - the easier, more straightforward documents - has been picked, and I'm now reaching very deep to deal with the difficult bits. Drafts are in varying stages of completion, and data is trickling, dribbling or pouring in (depending on the day and source).

The other thing is - and I knew this would happen - having spent a lot to time reading references and talking to people, I now know enough to be aware of the depth of my own ignorance with the subject matter of these documents. I feel very foolish, often, as clever, knowledgeable people gently and kindly correct my errors of assumption or extrapolation. I have to remind myself daily that I was not hired as a subject area expert, but as a writer - the core expertise I'm selling them is my ability to write coherent, engaging prose that addresses criteria in the most effective way.

I want to do this work well. Come October, and hand-over of the completed draft, I want the client to be satisfied with what's been achieved, and happy they brought me in to work on it. I want the second phase of the project, the editing / revising stage from October til December, to be a more relaxed one for all of us, because (I hope! I hope!) only minor revisions and expansions are required.

I think I can do it, but I worry I can't, and clearly, that worry's sunk deep into my brain. It makes me feel even more sympathetic to the Australian Olympians - the pressure inside one's own head can be so severe, can so easily block capacity and self-belief (and, thus, achievement). More than half the work of ... work ... takes place in the self-talk, for me, anyway.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Things I Know: Time passes

This week, I know that my babies are growing at the speed of light.

I know that the birth of a friend's daughter, which prompted me to sort through stored baby clothes, and the need to get items out of storage for my no-longer-little C, has made me equal parts melancholy and amazed at how far we've come.

I know that I am too busy, and that I'm pushing myself too hard at the moment.

I know that my persistent back and neck discomfort is a warning of a crescendo of pain to come. (I know that it sucks to have curvature of the spine, and poor posture, when you're working long hours at a desk).

I know that this winter has been too cold, too long, too wet and too fraught, and that I am longing for spring with an intensity that borders on derangement.

I know that short escapes from the pressure cooker of my work, household and community commitments, mostly achieved through practising piano, walking and playing with my children and dog, and reading in bed, are what's holding it together for me at the moment.

I know that when your about-to-be9-year-old requests a birthday cake featuring a ringtail possum, you'll be VERY glad you have a friend with mad cake decorating skillz.

I know that I have to find a way to power down this weekend so I can be fully in the moment for A's birthday celebrations (movies and sleepover Saturday, family dinner Sunday).

I know that it's astonishing that I'm not sick now, but that I will probably get sick in October, when the work project gears down to a much less strenuous pace.

I know that time is passing at the same rate it always does, but that it feels faster than it ought to right now.

I'm playing along with the Things I Know meme over at Dorothy's today. Check out the post there for lots of interesting things people know!