Thursday, July 30, 2015

Man Booker 2015: Longlist Challenge is afoot!

The longlist for this year's Man Booker prize was announced yesterday. It's a 13-book list, about which I will write at greater length at Global Comment in the next few days. The titles are:

Bill Clegg (US) - Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)           
Anne Enright (Ireland) - The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)
Marlon James (Jamaica) - A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)
Laila Lalami (US) - The Moor's Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
Tom McCarthy (UK) - Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) - The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Andrew O’Hagan (UK) - The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)
Marilynne Robinson (US) - Lila (Virago)           
Anuradha Roy (India) - Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
Sunjeev Sahota (UK) - The Year of the Runaways (Picador)
Anna Smaill (New Zealand) - The Chimes (Sceptre)
Anne Tyler (US) - A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara (US) - A Little Life (Picador)

I'm going to try to read as many as possible, and review them, before the 15 September shortlist announcement. I've already read Anne Tyler's book (review next week, but small spoiler - it's lovely). That leaves a round dozen to be getting on with, so it's a fair challenge!

As usual, I've divided the task in half, with the First Six being the books I would probably want to read anyway (so I'll start with them) and the Back Six being the ones with less immediate appeal that I might not get to. My First Six are:

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings
Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen
Anuradha Roy's Sleeping on Jupiter
Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways

Marilyne Robinson's Lila
Tom McCarthy's Satin Island 

The first four of these have been ordered from a bookshop using a handy voucher I had ready, so should arrive early next week. I'm kicking off, therefore, with Lila, which I have bought on Kindle and is therefore ready to start immediately. 

As  usual, my reviews will be divided between here and Global Comment, but I'll always link out to them wherever they are.

So with that ... let the games begin! 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reading Notes: Up the Faraway Tree again

When my two older daughters were quite young, we read a lot of picture books. And by "a lot", I mean "the sort of numbers that would set a librarian back on their heels" kind of numbers. Being read to was one of their favourite activities, which worked out super well because reading aloud was (and is) one of mine. It's great when a plan comes together!

By the time my eldest was 4, though, picture books were starting to pall a little. She wanted something a bit more sustained, in terms of story. We moved on to the classic extended picture books - The Velveteen Rabbit and co, as I dubbed them - but she wanted episodic storytelling. And for that, who is better than Enid Blyton?

Now, I have all the usual reservations about Blyton. Her stories are moralistic, prescriptive and frequently cruel. She's intolerant of difference, horribly sexist (it's always the boys in the lead) and very classist.

However, and this is important - my kids LOVED her fairyland canon (The Magic Faraway Tree, Wishing Chair and Tales of Fairyland books). They loved it deeply, sincerely and devotedly. Not ALL kids do, of course; the old-fashioned language and themes doesn't have universal appeal. But my two elder daughters were both, in their turn, utterly captivated by the Enchanted Wood and its denizens, and I must've read the three Faraway Tree books a dozen times over to each of them in the preschool and early school years. (Interestingly, while they also both took to the Famous Five books, only one of them converted this enjoyment into an appreciation of Blyton's other main ouevre, the school story series. My eldest never liked the school stories at all).

My youngest girl is now 6, and it has been a constant uneasy awareness of mine that because of how different our lives are now, I have spent less slow-molasses hours reading to and with her in her preschool and first school years than I did with the older two. (On my bad days, I use this as a stick to beat myself with, given that she is not as advanced a reader as the other two were at 6 - not that she's behind, she's just not a lot ahead either). One of the omissions, I realised with a shock recently, was that I had *never read* her an Enid Blyton story. Never!

At bedtime a few weeks back, therefore, I proposed to her that we try out a book called The Magic Faraway Tree.

"What's it about?" she asked cautiously.

"Fairies, magic, three children, a special tree," I said. "I think you'll like it..."

The 12 year old chimed in. "Oh, the Faraway Tree! C, you'll love it. It is really good!"

The 10 year old added, "Can we listen in, too?"

The 6 year old was sold, and we set off that very night on our journey up the faraway tree.

And she LOVES it. Truly, madly, deeply. As much, if not more, than her sisters did in their time. She laughs huge belly-laughs at the antics of the Saucepan Man; she is in love with gentle little Silky; she adores Moon-Face and Mr Watziname and Dame Washalot and all the others. For book dress-up day next week at school, she wants to go as Silky, so we are on the look-out for long golden hair facsimiles.

Every night, she curls up next to me in eager anticipation, waiting for the next installment. Every night she asks for "just one more chapter...!" Every night, she and I take joy together in this story and the feeling it brings.

I'm so very happy I've had a chance to go up the Faraway Tree one more time, hand in hand with a child of mine.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Reading Notes: Penric's Demon

One of my oldest friends introduced me to the amazing Lois McMaster Bujold a couple of years ago now - the year that Captain Vorpatril's Alliance was nominated for the Hugo, from memory. I have since read my way voraciously through her science fiction Vor canon, as well as her fantasy works.

Of all of these, although I recognise the greatness of Vor (who doesn't?), I have to say my heart belongs to the world of the Five Gods, heretofore delivered via only three too-brief novels (The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt).

I have written before about what an achievement and a delight these books are, especially in Bujold's complex, thoughtful and nuanced treatment of religion, faith and free will in a world where the gods are opaque but active, and where the survival of human souls, which are claimed by the gods at death, is more certain, although still not assured.

The characters in these books are, even by Bujold's considerable standards, exceptional - some of the deepest, best-rounded of all her people. (Well ... excepting Miles Vorkosigan, of course. But then, there is only one Miles). In particular, the Lady Ista, heroine of Paladin of Souls, is one of the best-developed women I have ever read - a 40-year-old widow who is given a full, rich plot arc, the complete range of human capacity and emotion, and a (somewhat) happy ending. It's sufficiently unusual in fantasy for women with adult children to be written as key actors, let alone objects of passion rather than merely affection, that this stood out to me. (Yes, I know there are such characters in Game of Thrones, but I don't read those, so bear with me. It is still unusual, anyway).

So it has always been something of a disappointment to me that the Five Gods canon was so brief. There were so many themes and areas of interest introduced that never had an adequate chance for development, and I've been hankering after more ever since I finished The Hallowed Hunt.

Penric's Demon, which is a perfectly balanced, wonderfully engaging, warm and gentle novella, has proved an eminently satisfactory sop to this particular hunger. (A sop, mind - it's not enough, more novels are required please Ms Bujold!)

In this short book, Bujold builds on an under-explored area in the three novels - sorcery, which in the Five Gods universe, means possession by a demon. This isn't nearly as horrific as it sounds; like everything in Bujold, it can be disturbing, off-key and dangerous, but the converse is that it can also be a source of not just power, but also regeneration, balance, and self-knowledge. Demons, the chaos-spirits belonging to the fifth god (the best of all the five, the Bastard), inhabit humans, but they don't possess them in the classical sense. Rather, they form a somewhat uneasy symbiosis with their human host - if the host understands how to control and use the demon, that is.

In previous Five God stories, the subject of demons has frequently arisen, but never from an intimate perspective. Penric, the protagonist of this tale, changes all that. A hapless minor lord on his way to a financially advantageous betrothal, Penric encounters a dying woman on the road; a woman, as luck would have it, who possesses a valuable, powerful demon. In her dying, she passes the demon on to Penric ... and this is the whole meat of the story.

Penric himself is an extremely likeable character; thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent, and kind. It is these qualities that give him the interest in, and the will to, seek to understand not just his demon's powers, but her essence. (The demon, who has previously inhabited 12 women in sequence, is most decidedly female). Pen learns more about what his demon is, and how she experiences the world, than all the learned divines and their esoteric knowledge. And it all begins when he bestows upon her a name - Desdemona.

This is a really warming, lovely story - entirely positive and upbeat in its affect, and that is not something often said about demon possession tales. It's probably not the ideal entry point into the Five Gods world - I think those who have read the novels will get much more out of it, and enjoy it more, than "cold" readers. Still, background or not, I think it would be hard not to be charmed by this gem of a novella.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Reading Notes: A God in Ruins

I have a review of A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson's companion piece to the wonderful Life After Life, up at Global Comment. See if you agree with my take!

Monday, July 20, 2015

We Were Completely Wrong About Pluto (A Sevenling)

Inspired by the images of Pluto that the New Horizons spaceship has been broadcasting back to earth.

Three things the wisest always swore:
The furthest out was dullest, least alive,
Ice-bound, inert, an impassive chunk of space debris.

Three things the wandering ship has shown:
An unfinished landscape; mountains, and valleys;
Volcanos rifting open to the void.

Perhaps proximity is not the only thing, after all?

- Kathy, 20/7/15

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Idea time: House of Sevenlings book

Well, I have been having ideas while being sick. Quite a few of them, in fact.

One of the better ones (I think!) is that I have a notion of putting together a slender volume of sevenling poetry, with an introductory text explaining the form and how it's done. I do have a few sevenlings myself to include, but ideally I would rather this wasn't All About Me - I'm envisaging it as a book about, and a homage to, the form. I think it might be a fun project, and maybe of interest to other poets and to teachers looking for poetry resources. If it worked really well, I might do a follow-up on villanelles and kyrielles, maybe.

I'm thinking in terms of doing it as both an ebook and a print-on-demand edition via Blurb. To get it to happen, I'll need:

- cover art
- 25-30 good sevenlings
- the introductory essay
- a wodge of time to edit, lay out, and make it happen

I'm lucky that I can afford to outlay a bit to get this happening, given that there is no upfront print cost to be met. I'll get in touch with a couple of clever designer types I know to organise a simple cover design, which I'll be able to pay for without drama.

What I'm wondering is, would it be better to offer contributors a flat fee to use their poems, or a percentage of sales? I am envisaging a pricepoint of $4 for the ebook and maybe $6 for the print version (with the POD fee, that's about $2.10 to publisher). If I went flat fee, I could afford to spend $50 per poem to buy up to 10 good poems. If it was a percentage, people would probably only see a few cents per sale, which could very well NEVER add up to $50.

So, the main things I am interested in, before I pursue this idea and register for GST and all that good (not good) stuff, are:

1. Which payment model do you think would be better?
2. Where would you look, if you were me, for contributors?
3. Is this a really dumb idea??

Have at it...

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Into the new world

This is the first week that it has really, properly sunk in that I am not working at my job anymore.

Most of the past three weeks have been enormously busy, so it already feels, in a lot of ways, like a lot of water has passed under the bridge since I bid my colleagues farewell on 25 June. However, because it was school holidays until Sunday and the kids have been with me, it felt like a holiday from work, rather than "my new life not employed in the office". I made no attempt to line up any freelancing in the school hols, and nor did any come my way, but this was right and appropriate and what I wanted and had planned for.

Two days ago, though, the kids went back to school. I did the morning routine and got them all delivered on time, then I came home, made a cup of tea, sat down and thought: Crap. What next?

Of course, I found things to do with my time - house-cleaning, novel-writing (I added 1500 words, which was very satisfactory), phone calls scheduling appointments and booking birthday parties, catching up on personal email. It wasn't that the 6.5 hours they were in school dragged; it was more than I felt like I should have been doing something else. (Something productive... whispered my Puritan work guilt brain).

Yesterday I was out for the entire school day, with medical appointments and tests, lunch with a friend, and a few errands. Surprisingly - or maybe not? - my general energy and mood was much better yesterday than on either Monday or today.

The big picture is I am not well again, with chest pain and extreme fatigue this time. Obviously a decrease in energy and get-up-and-go is to be expected, but it's curious to note how much worse I feel on the days when I am at home rather than out doing stuff. Partly, I'm sure, this is because I harness resources and overspend my daily spoons on "out" days, and then have to pay the piper on home days. I wonder if it's also, in part, that having structure, getting out of the house, and interacting with other humans helps me in many ways. Work, despite the ways in which it wasn't great for me, was terrific for providing daily routine and plentiful daily interactions. These aspects of it, I knew I would miss, and already this is proving true.

The problem is that I don't feel remotely well enough to start actively chasing work right now; the chest pain, which is likely muscular (but heart tests are being done just in case), is fairly constant and it wears me out, and I'm sleeping very poorly - chicken, egg, who knows? - which is no doubt a key factor in my fatigue. It's that old catch-22: having a project to work on would definitely help me, but putting the effort in to find or bid for a project is too much to contemplate. Really, what I'd *like* is for someone to ring or email me with a nice little 3-5 day job to be done over the next fortnight at home ... but if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride!

I am struggling a bit with incipient feelings of low self-worth because I am not currently contributing financially, even though I know this is premature given that I only stopped being paid, um, one week ago (when my outstanding leave entitlements were paid).  I still think I will find some work, and that I need to be both patient and persistent. Indeed, I spoke on the phone today to an ex-colleague, who left the organisation I have just left in October of last year. She hasn't worked since, but has just been contacted by an old employer to ask her to do some consultancy for them. This conversation gave me hope on a couple of levels - firstly because she may well need a subcontractor with my expertise, and secondly as evidence for the way opportunities can arise, even after the passage of quite a bit of time, if you are open to them.

More than that, though, I need to reset my internal metric of "what I am worth" to be less reliant on my financial contribution. Even if I do not earn a red cent all year, I still have the value I have, to my family and my community. Once my health is more stable, I can and will fill the gap with volunteering and more time with friends and family. I won't see this new world in grey; I'm going to paint it buttercup yellow in time for the spring.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Flare in a Sevenling (Poem)

The body signals ills both present and to come:
Humming in the surface skin, pain under each breast;
Legs that weaken, unresponsive, knifing-sharp.

Hard to disentangle, now deep in the valley, that which is mind-born:
The free-flooding fear, the flattening of the world;
The twisted, difficult relationship with sleep.

The road ahead promises nothing, not even an ending.

- Kathy, 11/7/15

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Justice (Poem)

Picking up on a theme I got interested in during January's month of poetry, this is another poem in my Maligned and Mistreated Women of the Bible series. This one is about Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, and eventual mother of his twin sons through a twisted series of events. Tamar wanted justice, and she got it, but played a very dangerous hand to get there.

My husband, Er (your eldest son, old man): Er was a man of beauty
such a man! his hair soft as the fleece on a kid, his eyes pools of stillness
in the night, our cries joining; our tent a haven for only joyous things
such gentleness could never live. And he did not.
My tent darkened forevermore the day I sent him to Yahweh,
My womb empty, and my cradle.

You gave me next Onan, your second son, as you were bound to do -
To make a child for Er, whose blood no longer stirred,
whose hands - such hands! - no longer animated me;
That son (Your son!) thought to cheat me
Lying to me while lying with me, his contemptuous heart
So small, hard as a stone, who would not give justice to a widow, a son to his brother -
The Lord your God is not mocked, old man.
Justice was served, and Onan followed beloved Er into the night.

I saw your face the day we buried him, the trouble in your eyes; I knew, then,
that you thought of me as at fault, for these lost children.
"Go back to your father's house", you said to me, "Go back and wait" -
Your baby, Shelah, a boy whose voice had yet to break, not ready to deliver me my due
He shall so deliver it, you promised. When he is full-grown.
Go back and wait, Tamar. Four years, five;
You shall have your son, Er's son, when time ripens Shelah to the marriage bed.

Oh, old man. I shall have my son. None of your deceptions will prevent it.
I shall bear Er a son of your line, whether you will or no.

Now I wait, in my harlot's tent, by the dusty roadside, where you will pass.
I have layered my veil carefully; in your frustration and lust, you will not know me;
Shelah is a man grown, and I, well, I am fading, and I am not waiting more.

I shall call to you as you pass, swaying my hips; you shall pledge payment to me, and
the tokens I will have of you will be my strength and my shield.
I shall close my eyes, old man, and think of my husband
and of the sons I shall bear him, as you groan and shudder
I shall let justice be my banner, and the Lord our God my witness

For you owed me a son, Judah, old Judah -
and Tamar is not gainsaid
let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

I shall not burn;
I shall bear sons, and Er my husband will have his rest

and you will know I have the right of it
you will declare it among the tribes of Israel

Old Lion of Judah, father / grandfather to my sons
my perfect sons.

- Kathy, 8/7/14

Friday, July 3, 2015

A little winter holiday in Marysville

We got back home yesterday from a small winter holiday. Unlike last year, when we fled the cold and headed to Port Douglas, this year we embraced the season and decided on a trip, instead, to the snow.

 We were only away from home 3 days, 2 nights, but it was a lovely break. Sometimes mini-breaks can be just as good as long holidays. Certainly, because the time away was so short and we cooked our own dinners / ate our regular breakfasts, I was pretty relaxed about spending some money on three nice lunches, snow entry / toboggan hire, and chocolate supplies at the Chocolaterie; I didn't feel like I needed to watch the pennies in the same way I do on longer trips.

Sharing our Marysville accommodation with family friends, who have two children whose ages perfectly align with my kids, we spent just one day (Wednesday) on Lake Mountain at the tobogganing and snow play zone, but it was a very full day indeed (to say we were all exhausted at the end would be an epic understatement). The kids had an absolute ball, though, and three out of the four adults enjoyed a few turns at tobogganing as well. (It's quite exhilarating!)

The Tuesday was spent slow-journeying to Marysville, with stop-off in Healesville for lunch and exploration, then settling into the house; the Thursday, the two families made an attempt to walk to Steavenson Falls (thwarted by rain) and stopped off in Healesville again, then lunched and shopped at the inimitable Yarra Valley Chocolaterie before parting ways around 2:30. Our family then meandered slowly home, stopping off in Yarra Glen and the Christmas Hills, before a 5:30 arrival back to base.

Overall, it was a lovely winter holiday. Yeah, we weren't away that long, but with Comic-Con the weekend prior, it's been a busy and varied school holidays for the kids. They're off to their grandparents for a 2-night sleepover on Sunday, so never a dull moment, and we've promised a trip to the movies next week to see Inside Out. As school holidays go, I don't feel anyone has anything of which to complain.

We've decided we'd really like to go back to Marysville in warmer weather for a long weekend - we saw virtually nothing of the town or surrounds this trip, partly because of focusing on snow, and partly because it was so cold. I have not been to Marysville since I was in my 20s, and my husband was last there on - yes, ON - Black Saturday. We'd like a better chance to see how the town has rebuilt since the fires, and to enjoy its many beauties. We'll try to schedule a Friday-Saturday night sometime in November, I think.

All in all, as three-day holidays go - this was a good 'un.