Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Scene from a Park


one playing cricket, stumps unsteady in overgrown grass
one climbing the dinosaur bones of the yellow painted frame
one spinning to dizziness on the whirling roundabout -

on the hill, looking, the panic rises black and choking, but -

what's there to do? a parent must -


so with both hands firmly the snarling thing is grasped and she contends for balance
against the weight that would push her sideways into the earth and

a small body presses into her side, laughing
and it costs her, it costs her, but she smiles
and her voice is almost normal as she says
I liked your cartwheels! Can you do more?

and she tightens her mind against the hurricane and waits for the sick wave to recede
and breathes grass and eucalypt and sweat, forcing a slowing of the heart
by ferocious will and nothing else

and says
I think there's rain coming, loves,
we should go soon

as the storm moves past and drops her down, draggled,
on the soft green grass with three children

like she never even left at all.

- Kathy, 30/9/2014

How to be both

I am over at Global Comment today, reviewing Ali Smith's Booker-shortlisted How to be both. This is my fourth Booker shortlist review and my seventh from the longlist; you can see links to the others in the list below. I'll be getting a review of Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North up soon, and will try to get through and review the final shortlistee, Neel Mukherjee's The Lives of Others, before the prize is announced.

Come chat over at Global Comment if you want!

Other Man Booker reviews:
The Dog
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A random observation about character age and continuity

I get annoyed - really, really annoyed - with age-related inconsistency and implausibility in books. It annoys me more than any other continuity / suspension of disbelief error would do. (It doesn't annoy me as much as, say, homophobia, racism or bad writing, but on the gnat-bite scale of minor irritants, it ranks high).

By this I mean -

Character A is Character B and C's sibling. Character A is a woman young enough to have a small son, so let's say, what, mid-late 30s? Maybe early 40s? YET CHARACTERS B and C ARE WELL INTO THEIR SIXTIES.

Case in point: Digory's mother and Aunt Letty / Uncle Andrew in The Magician's Nephew.

Or this -

Within the same canon, characters of the same age are described variously as "young", "middle-aged", "elderly", "old", or "in the prime of life".

Agatha Christie, I'm looking at you (and especially the difference in how 40 year old men and 40 year old women are described).

Further, this -

Character A is the parent of Character B and C, but as everyone's age is given at different points in the plot, the application of simple mathematics reveals that Character A was a preternaturally advanced 9-year-old.

(This one pops up oftener than it should in the speculative fiction scene).

I can suspend my disbelief with series characters who don't age at a normal rate - I'm good with people hovering in their 40s or 50s for thirty elapsed book years, that's a step I am willing to take because it's an intentional suspension of natural law for the purposes of story. Laziness with getting age relationships right or possible irritates me, though, and I suspect it always will. It's one of the many reasons that in my own series, I have a file on every recurrent character which includes their birthdates. Call me anal, but my characters ain't ever going to have siblings old enough to be their parents accidentally - if I do that, it'll be on purpose :-)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Royal Melbourne Show

We took our kids to the Royal Melbourne Show today. This is the very first time they've been, although their aunt usually brings them each a showbag from her annual visits. My partner and I last went to the Show 14 years ago, well before our first child was born, and I remember enjoying it but finding it exhausting and a bit stressy with the press of crowds everywhere.

I have been hesistant to take them before now, with a combination of fear of extreme expenditure and distaste for the crowding (especially with a pram or pusher) holding me back. This year, though, our youngest is 5.5 and well able to keep up with the group on foot, so we thought, oh well - it's worth a try.

All three kids were very excited and enthused about going, and have spent a few days researching their desired showbags on the Show website. We had a slight glitch getting going this morning, with still-not-100% youngest declaring herself to be too sick to go, but she was persuaded by talk of baby animals, and off we went.

We ended up spending 5 hours at the Show all up, most of it remarkably harmoniously and enjoyably (not a given in an outing with three children, as anyone who has wrangled same would attest). We petted baby animals, watched the dog breed judging, perused the prize animal tent, watched a quite clever but (I have to say) borderline skeevy magic show, visited the food pavillions, and found time for my perennial favourite, the arts, crafts and cookery pavillion. (Check out that chicken cake! And how about the rainbow serpent? The bar is definitely raised now for birthday cakes in this house ...)

Of course, kids being kids, they also had a ride on a fairly low-key rollercoaster, and showbags were procured - 2 apiece. However, we did manage to steer them away from most of the carnie attractions, which are such a massive cash-suck. Fairy floss and gelato were adequate compensation for not being allowed to feed the clowns or throw darts at balloons :-)

Overall, I really enjoyed the day. The car parking was much better organised and less stressful than I remember it being, and there seemed to be a more manageable amount of people - we weren't crowded anywhere, indoors or outdoors, and didn't have to queue to do anything (including go to the loo!) Maybe that's because we went mid-week, whereas when we were young adults we always went Saturday? Or maybe Show numbers are down? I don't know, but it certainly made for a more pleasant family experience than I was necessarily expecting.

It was a very pricey day, no denying - but I bought the combined Show / Aquarium entry ticket, and that, combined with restricting the kids to two showbags total value $30 apiece, helped keep it within spec. We did drop over $300 today but we'll "save" over $100 when we take the kids to the Aquarium next, so overall, as a huge family day out in a school holidays that doesn't include going away anywhere, I can live with it. I think we'll probably make it a biennial event now - every second year seems like a fair proposition.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Man Booker Shortlist

I'm over at Global Comment today, considering the Man Booker shortlist. What did you think of it?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Reading Notes: J

This review is number 6 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge, and, as it transpires, no. 3 in the Shortlist Challenge. You can see links to the other reviews at the bottom of this post.

The Man Booker shortlist has now been announced, and it's as follows:
- To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent's Tail)
- J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
- The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
- How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

I'm planning to write it up for Global Comment, so I won't analyse it here. Suffice to say that it leaves me with only two to read to beat the prize announcement - Smith's and Mukherjee's books. I've started Smith's but so far am failing to be grabbed by it, and haven't felt like pushing on given my current subpar state of health (I have reverted, without the tiniest spark of guilt, to comfort reading, diving back into Bill Bryson, Golden Age detective fiction and Terry Pratchett, and pulling the covers over my literary head).

I did, however, finish reading Howard Jacobson's J over two weeks ago now, but it's taken a while for my feelings and thoughts about it to settle enough to attempt a review. Even with the passage of time, though, I'm not completely certain I have a handle on this one. Thus, if this review is a bit more tentative than is my wont, that's why!

Manifestly inaccurately described by its publishers as "a love story" (it is so, so not), is set in a near-future dystopia in which the two central characters, Kevern and Ailinn, occupy a very particular function in respect of the obstreperous society they are embedded within. The fact that they do in fact come to love each other is in no wise sweet, endearing or happy; indeed, it adds weight to the overall sourness of the conclusion. Indeed, nothing about this book is light or amusing or sweet; it's a real departure for Jacobson in this regard.

This is, to be blunt, a book about the aftermath of pogrom. More than that, it's a book that expounds fictionally Jacobson's central thesis that he expresses in essay form in When Will the Jews Be Forgiven the Holocaust? And that thesis amounts to this: Anti-Semitism is inherent, ingrained, in most societies, and Jewish people serve the psychological role of Other in a way that other Others (for want of a better term) do not. Therefore, pogroms are always and ever a risk.

J has been described by some reviewers as Orwellian in affect, and for once, I think the comparison has legs. There is a real ghost of 1984 running through this eerie, polemical text; the sense of warning, of big scary themes, and especially the surveilling and recording of divergence that runs underneath the action is highly reminiscent of that classic work. Jacobson's written style is more embellished than the very spare narrativity of Orwell, but the overall feel is very similar. This, to me, is a great strength of this book; although 1984 is not my favourite Orwell (that honour belongs to Animal Farm), I have always read it as an immensely powerful and important book.


I think most people's reaction to this book will be filtered by their level of comfort with polemic as fiction. By this I don't mean, do I, the reader, agree that all societies are anti-Semitic and that anti-Semitism is somehow different from all other forms of racial bias in important ways? Rather, what I mean is, do I, the reader, have the capacity to accept a novel that is essentially one long argument on its own terms, or is it just irritating? Actually the answer to both those questions will colour your reading of the book, truth be told.

In my case, the answer to the first question is: honestly, I don't know, but I am not any more persuaded of the veracity of it by the very hyperbolic style in this text than I was before I read it; and my answer to the second question is, not really. While I found the book gripping and generally stylistically accomplished, and I liked poor Ailinn a lot, overall, I thought it overreached itself and lost much of the power it could have had in trying to slam home its main point. This is something that Jacobson could've learned from Orwell, to be frank: less is more. Let the reader take the final step themselves, don't shove their head into the water trough and scream "DRINK!" in their ear.

I'm not surprised it's shortlisted, particularly, but I will be disappointed if it takes the prize over the much more complete achievements represented by both The Narrow Road to the Deep North and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (and possibly one or both of Smith and Mukherjee's books - time will tell.)

Other Man Booker reviews:
The Dog
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Friday, September 12, 2014

Shameless spruiking post

... but not for me, for my friend, the lovely Veronica Foale, whose online soap and body essentials shop went live today!

It's here: http://veronicafoaleessentials.com.au/

Every single thing in it is hand-made with love by Veronica and her family, and I defy you to not want to buy it ALL immediately upon viewing. Go, salivate, purchase. You'll be happy you did :-)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The things I think about

Sometimes I think I would be a lot happier if I didn't work outside the home at all, or at least worked a lot less than fulltime hours.

I think I'd be less stressed. The juggle would be easier. I could do my own cleaning and logistics the way I'd prefer, and I could do a lot more volunteering and community work. I could write more. I could READ more. I could give more quality time to the kids and my husband, and I would probably be a whole lot less exhausted.

I don't fool myself that life would be all rainbow kittens farting fairy floss in a vermillion sky - I'd still be a busy person, my life would still have stressors, I'd still have hell days from time to time, etc etc etc. The thing is, as it is now, it's not like I don't still have all those things and responsibilities and aspirations - I just have them PLUS 45-50 or so hours a week of paid employment to fit in.


The reality of our lives is that we're not independently wealthy, and we have three children to raise, and while I don't aim to put silver spoons in their mouths, I do very much want to make sure their educational and life needs are well covered. I want to be able to travel with my family. I want my husband and I to be able to look forward to a comfortable retirement in our mid-late 60s, not be forced to keep working til we drop (which, if genetics are any guide, is likely to happen in our latish 80s). I want to be able to give to a meaningful level to causes I believe in.

We could manage, and manage well, on less than two fulltime incomes; my partner works a 4 day week now, and this is how I also will be hoping to move in the coming couple of years. We couldn't forego a substantial contribution from each of us, though, without compromising on the goals I mentioned above, and without risking significant stress of a different kind (the fear of not having enough to cover the bills is always lurking, in those situations).

There has to be a Goldilocks spot somewhere. I think I was probably closest to it in the 2 years from 2006-2008, when I had two preschool-aged children and was working 20 hours a week, 1 day in the office, 1.5 days from home. I actively enjoyed my work-life seesaw for almost all of that time. I was working enough to be given interesting and meaty projects, but not so much that it consumed all my thoughts and family life. Of course, it didn't hurt that I was part of a highly functional team of great people, and had an awesome manager. I was earning enough to make life doable, but not at the expense of everything else that life is about.

These days, I have three children, all in school, and expenses are growing. 20 hours a week probably wouldn't cut it financially, and realistically I can accommodate more anyway because they are all away 6.5 hours every day. I feel like maybe 30 hours a week would be a useful target for me to aim at - either a 4-day week, or shortened days in a 5-day week. I think that might put just the amount of slack back into my schedule that I need to ease back on the constant overwhelm.

So these are the things I think about, when my stress levels are clawing the roof off my head and threatening to swallow me whole.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Everything is wrong (poem)

clouds press in and promise stinging rains
each corner of the world now bent, awry
the anchor of each day is little pains.

a life stretched tight across hard-pounding veins
and every small thing bloodies up the eye;
clouds press in and promise stinging rains.

the quality of mercy groans and strains
week by week, the well threatens to run dry;
the anchor of each day is little pains.

born free, oh yes, but everywhere in chains,
anxiety a blanket on the sky
clouds press in and promise stinging rains.

so hard to say, in full, what so constrains
and pegs the spirit that was wont to fly 
the anchor of each day is little pains.

the body hurts, and sadness freely reigns
in each last plaintive unlooked-for goodbye
clouds press in and promise stinging rains.
the anchor of each day is little pains.

- Kathy, 1/ 9/14