Sunday, September 30, 2012

Do more voices drown expert voices, and does it matter?

The chair of this year's Booker Prize judging panel, Peter Stothard, was reported in The Guardian this week as sounding a cautionary note regarding the impact of book bloggers on literary criticism. You can read the article to get the full argument and its context,but, in essence, Stothard is making the case that people who blog about books who are just regular people (producing, as he puts it rather snarkily, "a mass of unargued opinion") reduce the reach, influence, and ultimately traction of serious literary criticsm, as produced by, well, Serious Literary Critics.

It may not come as a major surprise to hear that I, as a card-carrying member of the unwashed masses who has the temerity to blog about books, don't agree with most of Stothard's argument. I think it's tired, old, and elitist. Pretending that the medium (online vs print) of publication, or the vehicle (Old Guard literary pages vs blogs and new media) is the gold standard for quality writing is, I think, highly disingenuous these days. Serious, intelligent, complex literary argument is found on blogs - not on every blog, granted, but I'd contend, not in every literary section either. It seems to me that what Stothard's arguing for is a canonisation of certain opinions / expertise; that those who have always been "authorities" continue to be accorded a special status, an automatic signal boost, simply because they are part of an existing tradition of literary criticism.

More, he seems to feel that those who write about books from outside the dominant tradition - and, often, in very different language - are an active threat to the cultural power and employability of the literary critic, and that this matters in some important way. In this area I both agree and disagree. I think he is quite right in asserting that the plethora of voices about books and literature makes literary critics' voices less privileged and less marketable, and that some publications may see a reduction in the influence of their book pages, and, perhaps as a result, less people will be paid to wrte literary criticism.

I disagree, though, that this is necessarily a bad thing, or that literature and literary debate will be the worse for it. I think democratising the process opens the door to a richer, deeper literary discussion than has ever been had by the limited number of literary critics who are "allowed" to have mainstream voices. Bloggers, being a far wider and more diverse pool than traditional literary critics, write about a wider array of books and genres, and with a far more differentiated range of style, background, depth and voice, than do literary critics. Bloggers are often iconoclastic in ways that literary critics aren't (I'd point out the number of high quality, influential book bloggers who were unafraid to label Will Self's shortlisted novel, Umbrella, as pretentious, unpleasant and ultimately unsuccessful - and could justify why - as opposed to the fairly anodyne praise offered by the mainstreams).

Some bloggers do, indeed, write what amounts to personal reflections on their experiences with a book, without much (or any) critical context to their analysis. Some write in emotive, un-nuanced language, and do not hesitate to shitcan work that doesn't appeal to them without trying to understand the work on its own merits. I would contend that those sorts of reviews have a value of their own, too - there are many readers who actually want the personal touch, the how-this-made-me-feel, and there is nothing at all wrong with providing this kind of review. That's the basis on which many a book purchasing decision is made, after all.

Some bloggers, though, engage in thoughtful, complex and very well informed literary criticism. They understand literary history and theory every bit as well as the people being paid to write up reviews in the main literary papers do. They provide analyses that are equal to, if not better than, anything you'd read in the print journals. Their work isn't worse because it's unpaid and uncredentialled, although, without question, that makes it more threatening to many in the establishment.

That's one of the great strengths of the Internet, at the end of the day - there are apples for those who want apples, and oranges for the citrus fanciers. If lighthearted reviews are what you want, you can find aplenty; if you're looking for serious critical debate, that's there too. One does not preclude or damage the other.

So, in short, I do not think book bloggers are a bad thing for quality literary debate overall. I concede they may be a very bad thing for the financial future of some individual literary critics, but perhaps not, if adaptation leads those people or publications to finding creative and inspiring ways to assert their uniqueness and value on a stage with more players.

For me, I am a personal blogger who often blogs about books. I refer to literary traditions sometimes, I understand the basics of narrative theory, and I write reviews that are perhaps a little more than "I liked / didn't like this." Deep literary criticism, however, it ain't, and I am contented that it should be so.

And in celebration of my right to have a voice about books - and as a little bit of a nose-thumb, too - I'm going to post a book review EVERY DAY this week. Three are new, two older; there's sci fi, YA and children's fiction in with "serious" books. I do not expect the fabric of Western literary tradition to crumble as a result :-)

Books to be reviewed will be:
Monday - Only Ever Always (Penni Russon)
Tuesday - The Garden of Evening Mists(Tan Twan Eng)
Wednesday - Robot trilogy (Isaac Asimov)
Thursday - NW (Zadie Smith)
Friday - Silver Brumby books (Elyne Mitchell)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

On hard work, and achievement, and aspirations, and failing

Lately I've heard a lot of people saying to their children - or their friends - or themselves - "If you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do or be anything you want."

That's a terrific, upbeat, life-affirming sentiment. I love its positivity, its energy, its emphasis on "can" rather than "can't".

So it pains me to admit that I don't fully believe in it.

Let me put it this way: if I were phrasing the statement, I would say something like, "Any kind of real achievement in life will involve hard work to attain."

It's a reversing of the premise, you see - I absolutely believe that hard work and commitment is a necessary ingredient for "success" in any area(be it writing, sport, parenting, science, art, accounting, gardening, or anything else), but I don't believe that, in and of itself, it's sufficient to ensure attainment.

People can work extremely hard, with great commitment, in a field without ever achieving the goals they set for themselves or the heights of that endeavour. Talent, luck, timing, personal factors, health, and the vagaries of life all have a part to play in how far one gets or is able to get. Genius might be 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration, but without that 1%, the work might be valuable, useful, worthy of satisfaction, but never quite reach the heights that are dreamed of.

Whenever I try to voice this, though, I'm usually told that I'm being negative and stifling ambition. I really don't mean to be, and to me, recognising that success (however you define it) is multi-factoral doesn't feel like an admission of defeat. I am a hard and committed worker in every project I take on; my drive and passion to do the best I am capable of isn't dimmed by my understanding that in some areas, MY best may not always be THE best. It feels like being kinder to myself, and others, to own that achievement is a tiered thing, and to be OK with that.

What I'd like my girls to know - and what I try to show them, in the approach I take to both my creative writing and my work - is that if you work hard, throw yourself into the things you do with your whole heart, and strive to keep always learning and improving, even the failures won't be so painful. Why? Because they won't be compounded with that debilitating shame that accosts you when you know you could have done better, you know you held back, and so you wonder what might have come if you'd put your back into it.

One of the speakers at the Emerging Writers Festival back in May (I think it was Christy Dena) said that the goal always should be to "Fail Often, Fail Better". I think that it my iterative approach to expertise and work. I fail, often; but each time I hope to fail a little better. And I work hard enough, and keep my mind open enough, to mostly do that.

None of this means I'll ever get to be a bestselling fiction author, or a top-flight business writer, or a renowned poet or blogger, or a model parent. But it does mean I'll be the best writer, parent and person that *I* am capable of being, and that's my definition of a life well lived.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A story, by a three year old

"Mummy, I will tell you something. It is a story."

"OK, honey..."

"Mummy, did you know, when I was a baby, I did die and be dead, but a fairy comed from heaven, and gave me presents and made me 'live again."

"Is that so, darling?"

A pause.

"No, I just did make it up," she says with perfect, matter of fact equanimity.

"Oh, I see..."

She laughs uproariously at my face.

"There are not really fairies in heaven, Mummy. They do really live in the garden, you know."

Because that is, clearly, the only implausibility in her story :-)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

School holidays, yum cha and eating swords

Today is the first day of the term 3 school holidays in Victoria. This is going to be a strange spring holidays for us - I'm working four of the five weekdays in each week, and the kids are going to be spending lots of time with grandparents, friends and Daddy. It is an inevitability, given the stage of work I'm at with my projects, but I am ambivalent about it nonetheless.

We got the holidays off to a lovely start today, though, with a family day out in the city - we met friends at Southgate to have Yum Cha at the Red Emperor. The Red Emperor offers gluten free yum cha, which is a massive treat for me, and overlooks the Yarra, which, in spring, is a feast for the eyes as well.

This was the kids' first encounter with the wonder that is Yum Cha, and they were all cautious and a bit dubious about whether they would like the food. My 9 year old is a decided non-fan of Chinese food generally (the child will not even eat fried rice!), so she in particular was concerned about whether she'd end up hungry.

Well, I'm delighted to report that the kids (and my friend's 8 year old, who was also encountering yum cha for the first time) did really well. The 7 and 3 year olds made short work of the spring rolls, as I suspected they would, and also ate pork buns, sausages in batter, and prawn crisps. They also both tried steamed dumplings - they weren't a massive success, but at least they tried. To omplete their meal, we ordered some steamed rice for them and they cleaned it up also.

My 9 year old was not enamoured of the springies but was surprised to find that she loved all the various buns / bread-wrapped delicacies, and managed two steamed dumplings with prawn fillings comfortably. Overall, she pronounced yum cha to be a MUCH better way of eating Chinese food than "from the takeaway shop".

However, the real triumph of yum cha for the kids was dessert. As the trays of fruit salad, jelly cubes, custard tarts, donuts, mooncakes and beautiful pastry swans with custard filling were unloaded, the four girls' eyes lit up with excitement. "This is excellent!" proclaimed E, my 7 year old, chomping through chocolate-laced jelly triangles, donuts and tarts with great good will. My 3 year old was entranced with jelly firm enough to eat with her fingers, while the 9 year old declared the custard swans "delicious".

As for me, I ate myself silly with steamed dumplings of all descriptions, drank a very large amount of Chinese tea, chatted to my friends, cuddled my girls, and had a fantastic time. It wasn't an especially cheap meal out ($135 for our family of five), but it was a treat, and well worth the indulgence for an annual outing.

On the way back to the car, we strolled along the bustling Southbank and looked at the river boats, watched street artists painting a Bacchanalia (extremely well executed it was, too), and stopped to watch an extremely flexible performer who started with acrobatic and contortionist tricks, but moved on to juggling fire sticks and then (oooo, errr) to sword swallowing. My 3 year old had gone for a walk across the bridge with her dad by this stage, but the 9 and 7 year olds (and I) were mesmerised.

The girls were a bit scared, but in that cannot-look-away sort of a fashion. The 9 year old wrapped her arms around her little sister, which was both very sweet and also almost resulted in an inadvertent throttling as the 9 year old reacted to the sword moving down the performer's trunk. (I'm slightly shuddering just remembering it; it was truly very freaky to see).

After applauding and rewarding the performance, we wended our way back to the car. I took the sleepy younger kids in to lie in my bed with me for an hour and chat quietly, and watch a few rounds of The Duck Song on my tablet, while my husband and the 9 year old went to visit my mother in law in hospital.

Right now, the kids are playing with the neighbour kids in the lounge, the kettle is boiling, the birds are cheeping, the sun is glinting through the trees, and for the first time in a long time, I have a decent grip on work and house, an equable mood, and a positive feeling about the period ahead. It may not last, but for today, I'll sure take it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dark grey

crying at the kitchen sink.

sullen tears, these
born sour and silent, of thwarted will and thousand-cut death
of trickling heart and pain-cramped head
of tasks half-done and tasks to do
of confusion and smallness and inadequacy
of irritation and swallowed rage
of reflected pain, absorbed through the screen

crying because

and because

and because

the trees gloom at the window, dripping the remains of yesterday's rain
the washing, limp, draggled, moves listlessly in the half breeze

and everything feels wrong, catastrophically awry, even though
(speaking objectively)
the earth has not shifted in its course

and there is no rainbow to see, no colour
to cut the flatness of the clouds

- Kathy, 19/9/12

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The things that fall away

Last week I wrote about how stress can be a factor in any decision one makes about work-life balance, particularly when children are involved, and even more particularly when the sporadic nature of the work means a sometimes dizzy seesaw between overload and the sound of crickets.

One thing that I didn't mention then, but should have, is that when a lot of paid work comes into the picture for a person who's previously been primarily a caregiver, there are often other costs outside the family unit itself to be met. By this I mean that at-home caregivers often do a lot of things in the community, school, world, that are largely invisible to others, but when those people are no longer available to do so much, suddenly it's apparent just how truly the quiet army of home-based workers contribute to the social economy that they live in.

Just to give you a sample: I started working heavily from the end of May, while another friend of mine, a longtime at-home parent, started a fairly intense job in March. A third friend is now studying fulltime for a teaching degree. Here is a brief and non-comprehensive list of the things we have had to scale back or drop now that we are working:

- One of us has had to resign from the school council, where her role was pivotal
- The other two of us, while still on council, have been sporadic in attendance and less able to perform committee work
- I have stopped helping with the school's Fresh Fruit Friday preparation
- Both of my friends have stopped serving in the canteen
- One of my friends used to be a volunteer patient visitor at the local hospital each week. She is determined to keep it up, but has had to drop to monthly visits.
- I used to help run the local playgroup, but have opted out of that now.
- All of us have reduced our NFP volunteering, which ranged from occasional to considerable
- I can no longer provide ad hoc childcare for friends in difficult situations
- All of us are visiting elderly relatives much less than we were, or would like to

I am not happy that these shifts have occurred. I don't want to be less engaged, less committed, on these fronts - but ultimately, there is only so much time in the week, and keeping enough focus on the work and my own family's needs is taking up all my resources at the moment. I guess it must just be chalked up as another item on the "Cost" side of the ledger when thinking about taking on paid work when you are the primary caregiver.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Things I Know

This week, I know that spring has well and truly sprung ... which means sunshine and perky flowers one day, and hailstorms and bruised flowers the next :-)

I know that everything is relative, and that when you've been spinning your wheels at breakneck pace on two work projects at once, suddenly having only one to think about for 10 days feels almost impossibly luxurious.

I know that I am much more short-tempered with my kids at the moment than I want to be, and that I have to address this properly soon. They don't deserve my crankiness, and it makes me unhappy to be this way with them.

I know that I'm excited that we are getting a brand new and hopefully effective air conditioning unit installed next week, to prepare for summer, which feels like a tangible reward for all my working (it's being paid for out of my earnings!)

I know that I am really, deeply tired, and that November will need to bring me a downshift in commitments - and, sad as I am to say it, no NaNoWriMo, as I just will not have the energy or headspace for it this year.

I know that I think about - worry for - some of my online friends every day, and that the connection I feel to them (and others) puts the lie to this idea that people don't make "real" bonds on the Internet.

And I know that this is just a few of the things I know.

More people know things over at Singular Insanity today.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stress and work - Not a zero sum game

Twenty-five minutes ago, I sent off a document to a client. This is a research / professional writing project I've been working on since the first week in June, and this complete draft for widespread review represents a large number of hours of work - a really large number of hours, truth be told. In that three and a half months, I've had one week (during the July school holidays) and a couple of 3-day weekends off the project, but I have, otherwise, worked at least one full day each weekend and sometimes both days, every Tuesday and Thursday (when my 3 year old is at creche), scattered hours across the three weekdays I have my little one with me, and two to four evenings a week (anywhere from 2 to 5 hours per go). I'm lucky in that most of the work has been from home, with weekly to fortnightly attendance at the client site for meetings; but, still, the work has to be done!

The whole thing got significantly more complicated two weeks ago, when I was offered and accepted another research / professional writing contract to run throughout September and October. This new contract is not quite as intimidating as the big project, in that I am not the only writer / researcher involved, and am not doing any of the planning / project management, just purely creating good text. However, it's still a major time commitment that I need to juggle with the ongoing demands of the first project (which is now in hiatus until the draft review meeting in a fortnight - thankfully! - but will resurge in late September).

It probably won't surprise you to learn, then, that I am somewhat stressed by the virtuoso-level juggling act I've been performing throughout the long, cold Melbourne winter. A predictable outflow of this busyness is that my house is very messy - catastrophically so, you might, with justice, allege. This also stresses me - I'm no neatnik, but outright squalor isn't my cup of tea either. I've been trying as hard as I can to prioritise the kids, my husband, and time as a family, and mostly I think I've succeeded, but there are no doubt times I've missed the boat on their needs as well over the past months, which activates my mother guilt, always lurking not far below the surface. As for a social life, most self-care activities, hobbies and so on: no, there is no time. (Apart from reading, my first and truest hobby, which continues always :-)

One of my friends said recently, "Oh, working is stressful. Not working is much better when you have kids; that way there's no stress."

I thought about what she said, but, even with the admitted overload I'm managing at the moment, I don't think I agree. In the year I was not working at all (2011), stress wasn't absent from my life, it was just different. Yes, my house was nice and clean, I didn't have childcare crises, I got to spend time writing poetry and fiction, and I slept a lot more :-) But I also overthought everything when it came to the kids, and clucked over them, which made them all more anxious than they are now. I worried about abstract things rather than concrete ones, which is actually harder to manage in some ways.

And, the elephant in the room - financially, me not earning was actually quite stressful for us. My husband makes a respectable upper-middle income, but we are, like most people, mortgagees, and we have three children, and no financial supports from family. We muddled along on his income until the unexpected things happened (which they always did!) and then much hand-wringing would ensue as we juggled credit cards and so on just to manage it. What we realised was that the part-time income I'd been earning from A's birth in 2003 until leaving that job in 2010 was pretty important to our ability to have a financially unstressed life. We are not big spenders and I realise we are super comfortable by many measures, but with me working, we are not worried about paying bills or term fees for the kids' activities; we aren't carrying nasty credit card balances around like deadweights; sudden catastrophes, like the car popping its head gasket, are annoying rather than devastating.

All in all, I guess what I'm saying is that every choice you make in this working-not working minefield when you have children carries consequences, and some of those consequences can be stressful in either direction. The challenge for me in 2012 will be to strike a middle road between not working at all and working myself half to death :-)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Reading Notes: Booker predictions

SO, I have read 11 of the 12 longlisted novels before the announcement of the shortlist tomorrow - PHEW. It's been a wonderful mind journey and I've found it to be a significant reliever of stress and source of enjoyment. I really wish I could've got The Garden of Evening Mists done as well, but ce sera sera. My predictions below don't factor in Tan Twan Eng's book, so that's important to bear in mind.

I completely loved 5 of these books (Philida, Communion Town, Bring Up the Bodies, The Lighthouse, and The Yips), and will read them again and again. I enjoyed another 3 (Skios, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Teleportation Accident), while not finding them stunning. Only 3 of the 11 were not my cup of tea, and, in fact, one of them I still see as a skilfull, mostly worthwhile book (Narcopolis ). There was only one I really disliked (Umbrella) and one I thought was significantly overdone (Swimming Home).

I have two sets of predictions here - one is my personal shortlist (the books I'd pick, if I was picking!) and one's the shortlist I think most likely to be announced tomorrow. I could be hilariously wrong, it wouldn't be the first time :-)

Communion Town
Bring Up the Bodies
The Yips
The Lighthouse
The Teleportation Accident

Bring Up the Bodies
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
The Yips
The Lighthouse

And ... the winner?

I'm torn here, between my three favourites, but if I were awarding the prize, I'd have to give it to Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, by a nose from my other two favourites,Philida and The Yips. It is such an achievement, that book, even more for the second in a trilogy.

In terms of what will actually win - one of Bring Up the Bodies, The Lighthouse, or, if the judges are determined to be contrary, maybe the incomprehensible Umbrella. The smart money would have to be on Mantel's book, I reckon.

Well, I got 4 out of 6 right on my predicted actual list :-) The shortlist is:
The Garden of Evening Mists
Swimming Home
Bring up the Bodies
The Lighthouse

They left off The Yips and Harold Fry in favour of The Garden of Evening Mists and (ugh) Swimming Home. Of course I haven't yet read Evening Mists, so that might be totally fair cop, I'll see soon!

For my personal choices, it's a lower hit rate - only Mantel and Moore's books. With the other four, well. Did not like Umbrella, thought Swimming Home was average, and admired Narcopolis but found it a bit depressing. Barring great revelations in reading Evening Mists, I'm still backing Bring Up the Bodies to win, but I wouldn't be unhappy if The Lighthouse took it either.

Reading Notes: The Teleportation Accident

The eleventh book on the longlist in my reading program was Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident. It's taken me over a week to read it, longer than several of the others, but this is not a comment on the readability of this text, it's just been a very hectic week. And in that week, this funny, clever, weird book has been a little gem of relaxation and fun for me.

The core premise of Beauman's book - if it could be said to have one - seems to me to be somewhere between "History is something that happens in the background while people are living their lives" and "Personal catastrophes, no matter how slight they appear to others, are always more painful and immediate than grand societal tragedies." Neither of these are novel propositions, but what Beauman has done here is rise to the challenge of expressing them via a pretty unlikeable main character and a really unappealing cast of suppotrting characters.

Egon Loeser (for which read Loser) is a German set designer in Berlin at the start of the novel, which opens in 1931. Most people, when they read that a book is set in 1930s Berlin, might assume that it is, perhaps, about the rise of the Third Reich, or that this is at least a critical part of its backdrop. This book, however, is not even tangentially about Adolf Hitler, Nazism and the horrors of genocide. It is about Loeser's obsession with, in this order: sex; himself; a seventeenth century set designer called Lavicini and his invention, The Teleporation Device; and a beautiful girl called Adele Hitler (no relation), who mostly interests him because she won't sleep with him.

The book follows Loeser as he follows Adele first to Paris, then to Los Angeles. Loeser is oblivious to any broader themes that might be playing out in his country, city or adopted residences; the scene where he casually joins in a book burning, relieving some of his frustration, and then strolls away, totally unconcerned with what's just happened, is almost sickeningly flat in its emotional timbre. Later, in Los Angeles, Loeser won't open letters from his Jewish friend in Berlin, who's documenting the rampant rise of anti-semitism, because he finds them boring. In New York years later, in a dreamlike sequence in which he's interrogated by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (Joe McCarthy's mob), he's uninterested in the Communist activities of his German-exile friends in LA, and not at all keen to save them. Yes, he is pretty contemptible, our chief protoganist.

But while he is venal, shallow and careless, he's not evil; Loeser is, to quote Doulgas Adams (appropriately, as this book verges on Adams-esque at times), "just this guy, you know?" He's a self concerned, unaware, emotionally backward, intelligent, pampered drifter. He doesn't mean to do ill but doesn't really care enough about anything to avoid it. In fact, Loeser only really cares about getting laid (which he doesn't manage at all for most of the 7 year period of the core novel, only breaking his drought at the very end), preferably by Adele, who he has come to see as his personal saviour in some weird kind of way.

What carries this book along is its humour (it's consistently funny, although not to a snort-tea-out-of-your-nose level), its wonderful cast of characters (not one of whom, with the possible exception of the millionaire eccentric Gorge, is even vaguely sympathetic) and its interweaving of subplots. The running gag of the Lavicini's teleportation device is managed slickly (I particularly delighted in Loeser's insistence, when asked to produce a Christmas play for the University, that his pet theme be worked in, resulting in a pageant called The Christmas Teleportation Accident). Any book that can make you accept a character who can't distinguish images of things from the things themselves, a serial kiling boffin, an impotent American con man in Paris, a terminally bored heiress, an author of hardboiled noir who looks like a furniture salesman and a stone cold Fifth Columnist composer as "just a bunch of people you might know" is doing something very, very right.

Overall, I liked this a lot. If the ending hadn't been so weak (it is a shocker of a final chapter), I'd even say I liked it enormously. If you're looking for something to relax with, I'd recommend it.

Overall verdict for the shortlist?
Yes, definitely.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Things I Believe

I know, I know ... Friday's meant to be Things I Know, not Things I Believe. But I feel like I don't know much except how foggily exhausted and stressed out I am (bor-ing), and so instead I thought I might put a few beliefs / positions out there. Just because I want to.


These are my beliefs. You do not have to agree with them, and you can argue with them all you want in comments, if you feel like it. You can tell me, point blank, that I'm wrong. I'm OK with that.

You cannot, however, call me or other commenters names. You cannot flame me or other people. You cannot impute value (or lack thereof) to me as a person because of anything on this list, or at least you can't do it in my comments.


Alright then. Here are 5 things I believe. I believe other stuff, too, but these'll do for now.

I believe human-made global warming is real, and a profound threat to the future of this planet. I accept the need to act urgently to mitigate it, and that this will cause short to medium term financial discomfort and dislocation. I think it's necessary anyway.

I believe that the only person who has the right to determine whether or not to continue a pregnancy is the woman experiencing it. I am utterly, unabashedly, and permanently pro-choice. Which, as I hope most people know, does not mean I am in love with abortion or that I would (necessarily) have ever had one myself. But I will never, never, never support any moves to take that choice away from the woman or constrain it.

I believe that Australia's refugee policies are inhumane, wrong-headed and ineffective. I think offshore detention of asylum seekers is cruel and cowardly, and, moreover, shows a mean-spiritedness that Australians shouldn't need to exhibit, living here so wealthy and safe as we do.

I believe that there is a life after this one.
My views on what it might comprise are hazy at best, and I am actually comfortable knowing that in this particular, my belief might be just plain misguided (like us all, I will discover for myself one day!); but believe it I do, quite profoundly.

I believe that the philosophy of "the right to bear arms" is a scourge on America, a real and present threat to the safety and stability of that society. I am an implacable disliker of John Howard in every area but this: gun control was the best and most profound legacy of his time in office, and one I supported wholeheartedly.

So there you go.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Springtime and blessings

The air is sweet with jasmine, and I am hanging washing on the line in the dark, because I haven't had a chance to do it in the daytime for 5 days, between work and family things. In the background, I can hear the hum of traffic of the freeway, and the click-clack of trains headed for the station. A warmish breeze is stirring the trees; the dog and the 3 year old are chasing each other through the starry-skied back garden, she laughing, he panting.

The house is a mess...

and I have more work to do than hours to do it...

and I have an overwhelming backlog of life stuff that hasn't been done and won't be done...

and I'm tired, and cold-ridden, and tempted to feel sorry for myself...

Until I realise that I'm not cold, outside, at 7pm.

It's spring!

Until I remember that all my children are healthy, and often happy, and love me.

I send thoughts to all the parents who are worried and fearful and suffering with their children tonight.

Until I reflect that all this work means a new, efficient air conditioner for summer, and paying off a longstanding debt mountain in full, and a holiday for next year.

It's so, so good to be not in financial straits for the first time in years.

Until I realise that a messy house is a lived-in house, the house of people busy living their lives.

After all, I don't want my epitaph to be "She had a really, really shiny sink!"

I'm pretty blessed, all in all. It is good to remember that.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

5 things ... I dream of doing someday

Amanda over at A Permanent Flux posts 5 things about any topic of her choosing every Sunday, and, as I am a big fan of open ended memes (lookin' at you, IBOT, Things I Know, Sunday Selections) I thought I might start playing along.

For my inaugural 5 things, I thought I'd dig into the aspirational / daydreaming side of me and drag out some long-term goals / desires that I hope to one day fulfill. I don't have a particular timeframe on these - it's not a by-40, by-50 proposition - and I'm cool with the knowledge that I may not achieve all of them. But it's nice to have dreams tucked away in your back pocket, as life happens to you.

1. Visit Antarctica
For a person who hates the cold, this is kind of an odd one, but I have always wanted to go on an Antarctic cruise. The visuals, the photos, the meeting of ice and sky, the Aurora Australis ... One day, one day.

2. Publish a novel
My earliest ambition was to be a writer, and I've never really left it behind. I am in fact a writer (of sorts) now, earning my income through business / professional writing, but I still hanker for a fiction publication, and I won't stop writing novels, short stories, and half-formed starts anytime soon.

3. Ride the Orient Express from end to end
Ever since reading Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, I have wanted to travel on this train, first class, all the way from Paris to Istanbul. At 2013 prices, that's set me back, oh, around $30,000 or so, but hey. I can dream, right?

4. Become proficient at a musical instrument (probably piano)
I learned piano for 3 years as a child, and have recently started lessons again with my 7 year old. I am getting there - sight-reading music is coming back to me, and I can pick out basic tunes (I'm a fiend on Blowin' in the Wind and Eight Days a Week, just ask my kids!) but I would really love to be better, to be able to play any piece of music after a few run-throughs, to feel it. This will take many more years of practice, as I well know.

5. Have a dedicated library room in my house
My friend (and former employer) J and I share this fantasy - a long, purpose-built library, with comfy reading spaces, floor to ceiling shelving, rolling library ladders and (preferably) a bay window at the end with a window seat. I picture myself, occasional table by my side, sipping tea with lemon and nibbling fudge, while reading old and new favourites, warm sunlight spilling through the window, the air just faintly smelling of paper and lavender. HEAVEN.

So there you go - that's 5 things I dream about. I hope I do at least some of them over the course of the next 40 years or so!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Reading Notes: The Lighthouse and The Yips

I've now read 10 of the longlist titles, and plan to start the 11th - Ned Beauman's The Teleportation Accident - tomorrow, if I get enough work done by then. This means that, barring catastrophe, I should have well and truly read the 12 longlist books before the announcement of the shortlist on 11 September. This is an unexpected but very pleasant circumstance.

Book 9 in my reading project turned out to be Nicola Barker's The Yips. Barker is a British novellist who's been Booker-nominated before - in 2007, for the novel Darkmans, which I haven't read but now intend to.

I've seen reviews and interviews where Barker is characterised as an eccentric writer, a disordered writer, or a mistress of Murray-esque sprawl. I don't think any of those evaluations are wrong, but what she also is - based on what she achieves in this book, anyway - is a kind of magician of patter, a genius of conversation and interaction. The plot might be (is, in fact) a bit scattered and amorphous, but the book is more than good enough to carry it, because it's not really based on plot but on characters, dialogue and, well, patter.

I am not, as a general rule, a big fan of books that are primarily character-based. I have an especial distaste for books in the "several or many zany / wacky / loveable rogue characters doing zany / wacky / loveable rogue things" mode. In some ways, therefore, it's surprising that I enjoyed The Yips as much as I did. (Here might be the right time to say that I did enjoy it, enormously; I think it's a wonderful book and it has rocketed to equal-second on my personal list of this year's contenders).

But even though The Yips is completely about the interplay of several characters who might fairly be described as a bit odd at least, this book just works. None of the characters, with the possible exception of Gene (and even there I have my doubts) are especially well rounded, but they are not caricatures or archetypes either; they are stunningly recognisable, over-vivid but not implausible, people. Messy reality at warp speed, perhaps.

The book seems like it might be going to be about Stuart Ransom, self-obsessed washed-up pro golfer (from whence the book gets its name - "the yips" being an affliction of golfers that makes them fail at putting, apparently), but quickly it's obvious that it's no more about him, particularly, than any of the other characters dealing with their own personal yips - from Esther, his heavily pregnant Jamaican manager, through cancer survivor and all-round good guy Gene; his Anglican cleric wife, Sheila, who's going through a crisis of faith; the Puckish troublemaker, Jen, whose core narrative purpose is to stir up everyone she comes into contact with; agoraphobic tattooist, Valentine; and, through her, her tragicomic mother "Frederique" (except not really ... you'd have to read it to understand). Even the more minor characters jump up and strut their stuff - I particularly liked rebel Muslim wife Aamilah, poor, neglected Toby, the scary Vicky, and the preternaturally elderly teenager Israel.

What actually happens in this book (a lot of which is nonsensical and some of which is extremely funny, such as the fight on the outdoor chessboard) matters much less than what the characters say, to each other and in their inner dialogues. It's a novel borne on a river of chatter, and what can I say except - it works.

The Lighthouse is by another one of the debut novellists on this year's list, Alison Moore. It's quite a little book - certainly by comparison with some of the others! - but in this case, short does not equate to slight, but, rather, to tight, sharp prose and a grip on her story that bodes well for this author's future.

One thing this year's Booker reading is certainly doing is driving home to me the essential validity behind the "only X number of basic stories in the world" idea. On reading The Lighthouse, I was struck immediately by its thematic similarity to Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, the first book I read on the longlist. Like Harold, Futh is a man deeply affected by (a) The Desertion of the Mother (obvious trope), (b) The Decline and Abuse of the Father (ditto) and Inability to Sustain Healthy Adult Relationships, Derived from (a) and (b). Futh is possibly even less functional a human being than Harold - after all, Harold does learn things through his rambling journey and some of those things are deployed to good effect in salvaging some relationship with his wife. Futh's journey, undertaken after his separation from his Angela, is less purposive, less reflective and less successful for him, but, ultimately, much more successful as a novel, in my mind.

Moore has a great touch with motifs and symbols - the silver perfume bottle lighthouse, which Futh carries as a reminder of his mother, is used to potent and repeated effect. With such a brief space to tell her story, Moore is very disciplined with her descriptions, plot devices and characters; at times it verges on the spare, but never to the book's detriment.

This isn't at all a happy or upbeat book, and the central character, Futh, is at once pathetic (in the old sense of that word - evoking pathos or pity - rather than the more modern sense of 'useless or worthy of derision') and not greatly sympathetic, in that I didn't feel a strong connection to him or a burning concern with his fate. The other characters are so sharply drawn - Ester, in particular - that they add to this grey clarity of effect, this sense that we should feel warmly to them (but we don't). It's quite a chilly book, in that sense; there's little in the way of colour and vigour in it.

That said, it's a beautifully written, extremely readable book, that shows a great deal of craft and control. I think it's a very good book, in fact; considerably better, for instance, than the longer, more rambling Harold Fry. I would like to go back and read it again when I have had time to let it settle a bit; I think it will repay re-readings, this one.

Overall verdict for shortlist?
Yep, I'll have both of these for the shortlist, and I think the judges will too.