Thursday, November 23, 2017

Best and Worst Festive Day / Public Holidays

The best three public holidays / festive days of the year, in my opinion, are:

1. Halloween. I LOVE Halloween. I love the dressing up and the trick or treating and the way the kids get so into it. I love the "safe spookiness" and the decorations and the candy and the community spirit and the fun. It never feels stressy for me. I look forward to it every year.

2. Grand Final Eve. I am not in the slightest a football person and I detest Grand Final boozers and loud GF parties, BUT the advent of this new public holiday has given us the lovely gift of a long weekend at the end of the spring school holidays were we can go away as a family. In the first year of the holiday, we went to Bendigo and visited with friends; in year 2, we went to Ballarat and had Sovereign Hill largely to ourselves; and this year, we incorporated it into our Sydney trip. All good stuff!

3. Easter. There is something super fun about Easter when you have kids, and Easter lamb is the business. This is another holiday that never feels stressful for me.

The worst three public holidays / festive days of the year, for me, are:

1. New Year's Eve. NO CONTEST this is hands-down the pits. The bass thump of loud parties all around all night, people doing stupid shit in stupid ways, the animals getting agitated and terrified ... There is nothing I like about it. (Well, I don't mind fireworks - the legal ones anyway, the illegal ones make me super anxious about fire risks).

2. Australia Day. This one is especially yuk if located next to a weekend, but either the night before or the night of, it also spawns too many loud parties. I am also extremely uncomfortable with what it "celebrates".

3. Melbourne Cup Day. This is not because of noise exactly, but because I am increasingly disturbed and a bit disgusted at both the animal cruelty involved and the excess manifested by racegoers. Spring racing carnival is my least favourite time to be catching trains, especially near the end of a race day - I've had shoes vomited on not once but twice in my life, and both times were by pissed racegoers.

The other holidays / festive days I would bracket together as "mostly enjoyable, occasionally a bit stressful or else not remarkable": Christmas Day (which is usually good but can be a bit pressured); Boxing Day, Queens Birthday, Labour Day and ANZAC Day (all of which are fine, good even, but not especially notable, particularly now I am a freelancer and I don't get paid public holidays so I tend to treat them like any other day really).

So there you go. My Holiday Primer!

(This is post #23 in NaBloPoMo. 23 down, 7 to go!)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The delicate dance

I've been reflecting lately on where to draw the line in social justice conversations between shutting up and listening, and offering factual information that might be pertinent.

I fully accept that in most discussions, I am in a position of great relative privilege, and the discussion is neither about me nor for me. My opinions and feels on racism, homophobia and so on are not relevant or interesting. My role is to get out of the light, listen, reflect, and where appropriate, change my behaviour and outlook as a response. As a born argumentator, this has not necessarily been an easy lesson to learn, but it is very necessary one.

So my dilemma now is not about curtailing my own desire to add my views, or express my feelings. But I still struggle with holding back from offering facts / data where it seems relevant to the conversation - and, in particular, correcting obvious errors of fact which are leading to conclusions that might not be all that supportable.

Look, I get that facts are not neutral, and that the interspersion of some kinds of data can be a very hostile and undermining act. I get that it is not up to me to ride around the Internet arguing with everyone who's misreporting or misinterpreting data (or purveying fake news, for that matter). I get that a lot of the time, the facts are not the issue anyway.

But when you see someone basing their argument on an objectively false piece of data, what's the right thing to do? Do you try to engage with why their feelings about that thing may be so variant with the actual data? Do you accept that lived experiences aren't always reflected in hard numbers? Do you look at the argument as a detatched thing from its putative evidence base, and try to read it on its own merits? For me, it is hard to accept the validity of something that is based on false or misunderstood facts, even if I can see the logical or emotional scaffolding of it. That may well by my failing, but there is no use in pretending it isn't a real thing in how I read and respond.

I do not know the answer to this, but I am increasingly sure that whatever it is, it ISN'T "pipe up with stats and a link". It is just as inappropriate in a different way as making the conversation about my straight white lady feels or 'pinions. Sit down, shut up, and work through it in the privacy of my own head needs to be the watchword.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Tired and bored with myself

I am getting sick of this.

(This is post #21 in NaBloPoMo. 21 down, possibly 9 to go if I can be bothered)

Monday, November 20, 2017

The List

I am reaching PEAK LIST at the moment.

I am one of those people who doesn't necessarily function super well, or remember things, without a fairly detailed list to guide me. It is not a procedural document (I don't include instructions on how to do the things, or detail about them) - it's a mnemonic, but without it, things constantly slip through the cracks, and I find myself chronically underestimating how much I have left to do and how long it's going to take, and that's where the dread midnight working sessions come in. (Maaaaan, I hate those).

So I have made a pretty detailed list for the coming 7 days, and wow does it look horrific. My workload has edged above fulltime as projects enter critical stages and everyone tries to race the clock to beat end-of-year shutdowns (as my client base is universities and government, the summer lock-out is real and it causes immense pressure in November every. single. year.) Family commitments are high too, as is end of year stuff coming up. Never have I been gladder than today that I decided early on that this was not the year for me with NaNoWriMo - if THAT was on this list too, I would probably be in tears right now.

I am churning through my list - I made it three hours ago, and I do have some satisfying ticks already - but there is a long, long ways to go before I can take any rest or enjoy any reading / pop culture / creativity. As Frost puts it:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
(This is post 20 in NaBloPoMo. 20 down, 10 to go!)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Haiku for Sunday (Poem)

heat rises; sticky,
we hunch inside beyond the sun
summer is afoot.

(This is post #19 in NaBloPoMo. 19 down, 11 to go!)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Banana Tipping Point

 Every year in spring, there comes a week that I describe as the Banana Tipping Point. This is the first week where the heat, and more importantly humidity, gets too much for our fruit bowl bananas and they start to turn mushy long before they can be eaten.

I know we are at the banana tipping point when I can see 6+ brown spotty overripe bananas lurking below the apples and citrus, slowly but surely perfuming the air with the scent of almost-gone fruit. At this stage, the courses of action are really only two - throw them out, or bake them into something. (One of these choices must be made and implemented before fermentation, because that gets very mucky!)

So this morning, I was up first in my family and marched to the kitchen full of purpose to do something about Bananagate before the situation really slipped out of control.

I used up 5 overripe bananas and the rest of an almost empty tin of cocoa, 1.5 packets of gluten free SR flour and 2 cups of brown sugar, a hefty slug of vanilla, all my remaining eggs and a fair bit of milk, but at the end I have 24 good sized choc banana muffins, which have already provided treat breakfast and will do nicely for serving to guests and also for lunchbox snacks for the first half of next week. Being gluten free, thy won't be super edible after about Wednesday, but I am confident we can work our way through them before that!

I much prefer the baking solution rather than the chucking solution, if it is feasible to do it.

(This is post #18 in NaBloPoMo. 18 down, 12 to go!)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Poetry Day

Even this dark cloud coming can't shadow my lovely day doin' poetry for the book with my exceptional editor :-) We spent four hours eating sushi and reading poems aloud, playing with imagery, rearranging the order, and chewing over what works and what needs work.

It's exciting to work on this heart project for me. I can't spend too long dwelling on how my poems aren't clever or as worthy as other people's - they're not, but they are mine and I made them, and with the massaging they are getting now, I think they will end up being a coherent body of work that might give a few people some enjoyment.

This is why, really, I've never felt any pull to be part of the poetry scene in Melbourne (or Australia more generally). Exposure to other working poets has a crippling effect on my creativity and self-belief, rather than an empowering one. I love *reading* (or listening to recorded readings of) poems by established and emerging poets. I just don't want to actually meet them or have to talk to them about MY poems. My Imposter Syndrome takes care of that.

But working one-on-one with my editor is entirely different. It feels intensely engaging and great. I think we have a final set and a running order now, which is extremely exciting but also nerve-wracking!

Next step: follow up on design elements, learn how to do a proper layout, and write the introduction text / story for each poem. We're still on track for June 2018 launch, even factoring in my blackout zone between late March and early May (due to Japan trip). I think I will feel shy and embarrassed and a little bit thrilled to let this word baby lose on the world.

(This is post #17 in NaBloPoMo. 17 down, 13 to go!)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Pesky animals and sleep deprivation

This morning, I am grainy-eyed, nerve-trembly exhausted, and I feel a health crash lurking in the wings.

This is multi-factoral - we have some family stresses going on at the moment, plus I had a major medical appointment yesterday (went well, but the lead-up was anxious), plus the tension before the postal survey announcement, and the emotional release afterwards, took a toll.

However, a very key factor in my state of grumpy zombieness today is the extremely irritating behaviour of my cat.

With the warmer weather, Roxy (the cat) has taken to wanting to sleep outside in my covered courtyard adjacent to my bedroom. Fine, good, so far froody, right? EXCEPT. She also has a habit of deciding she wants to come inside for cuddles and "inside" water (somehow very superior to "outside" water) around 5am.

Until the last few days, she's mewed to get in, I've woken and let her in, she's had a drink, then curled up on the bed and we've both gone back to sleep. Not ideal, because it can often take me a long time to resettle when woken so far into my sleep, but borderline OK.

Her new pattern, though, is DOING MY HEAD IN.

Today, I awoke at 4:50am to her mewing. Got up, let her in, went to loo, back to bed. She had a drink from her water bowl then ... went back to door and mewed to go out again. I sighed, got up, let her out, back to bed.

Then three minutes later, she mewed to get back in again.

Rinse and repeat every 3-5 minutes for the next 45 MINUTES and I was a wet rag. Literally just as I would be starting to get sleepy, off she'd go again. I got super cross in the end and just left her in the courtyard and ignored her complaining. (I'm not a monster, she has a bed, a cathouse, food and water in the courtyard, and access to her preferred toileting zone near the front fence, so she didn't actually *need* anything).

She continued to grizzle for about 15 minutes before she finally gave up and (I assume) went back to her bed, but by then it was almost 6am and I was het up, not in a good state to sleep. I eventually did drop back off for a hectic 20-minute nap around 6:30 or so, but I am wrung out now and expect to fade severely later in the day, which is just what I do not have time to do with my current workload.

I am going to need to do something about this new behaviour. Sleep is a precarious blessing for me at the best of times, and a sooking cat is NOT going to be the reason that I do not get any and end up getting sick. I need to have a think about the best solutions to what is an increasingly troublesome problem.

(This is post #16 in NaBloPoMo. 16 down, 14 to go!)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

YES we said YES we will YES

Today the results were announced in Australia's postal survey on marriage equality.

I could opine for a long age about how unnecessary, expensive, cruel and gutless it was for the government to put us all (but especially LGBTIQA people) through this nonsense. I could rage about the terribleness of the very idea that we get a vote on the civil rights of other people. I could bang on about the duplicity and moral bankruptcy that has been displayed over and over by the No campaign throughout this painful, excruciating process.

But today, none of that is my focus. None of that is what matters most. What matters most is this:

WE. SAID. YES.

To marriage equality, to legal equality for everyone, to love rather than bigotry, to families and couples and joy.

We said YES.

There is much more to this story. Many more hard roads to walk. The legislation hasn't even changed yet, let alone the social changes that will be many more years in the building.

Today? Today it's just enough, to celebrate and say, YES we say yes we will yes.

(This is post #15 in NaBloPoMo. Halfway there!)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Pictures of me

Me, 44 years old
(This is post #14 in NaBloPoMo. 14 down, 16 to go!)

Monday, November 13, 2017

A snippet of NaNo

Today I thought I'd post an excerpt from my aborted NaNoWriMo verse novel, Concept of Self. I'm in two minds about whether I'll ever go back to it - I think the idea might be not up to the weight of novel or novella length, but there might be a couple of OK-ish long poems lurking in there.

So, without further ado ... Here is a little bit of Erika, Minder-Kinetic, fighting a fire (literally) on her space repair station. Gemina is her station AI.

Now that the Bowery gate is stabilised, I slacken my chokehold on it and cast my sense around,
feeling out the ships nearest by the damage point.

There is the Ancient of Days; she’s a nickel and iridium mining girl, big in the belly, short in the stern.
She’s in hospital for a life support upgrade, but that scar of burn on her gate-side curve
does not bode well for a quick recovery.
No active flames there though, so I push on to the Amal; she’s a lighter, nimbler bird
designed to thread the needle through the showers and pick up knocked-loose platinum.
Her size has been an advantage, here; the fire seems to have caught only her delicate front bow
leaving a lace tattoo that is nothing but surface-deep.

Then – ahhhh, yes. The Ashling Gray.

Tough iron-mining grunt ship – built like the workhorse she is.
This ship has hauled metal from the Belt for the past 15 years, month in, month out;
this ship, and her captain, have also hauled out at least a dozen wrecked boats
saving crews from months-long slow deaths marooned in the Belt.

This ship brought me from my home in Mars Prima, here to Station 203-Beta
five years ago and change, now.
When I needed to hide and be no more, she gave me unsentimental refuge
made a space for me in her blocky alloyed guts, and showed me a sky
with room for me in it.

And now. Now the Ashling Gray is burning.

I throw down a suppressant layer and straightaway the fire fights me,
squirming in my mindgrip like a birth-slick pup.
That this is ground zero for the fire is beyond any doubt.
There is some sort of accelerant at play, and I can’t immediately tell what.
I’d give anything in the moment for another Kinetic.
Gemina, omnipresent as she is, cannot sense, outside of her sensors
and the Mind-Nots are of no use here, not until the fire is dead.

Think, Erika. This tricksy dancer is bile-green,
the colour of tree-moss and dart-frogs, jewel-bright and witchlike.

What makes a fire burn green, and resist?

(This is post #13 in NaBloPoMo. 13 down, 17 to go!)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Sestina for the Ones Who Said (Poem)

This is a sestina based on the found poem idea, but with a twist to make it much harder for myself because - why not!

What I did was go to my six most visited websites (excluding social media and portals for services) and randomly select a line from what was on their front page, to form the first stanza. In order, these are:

The Guardian Australia
Ask A Manager
Captain Awkward
Gimlet Media
Girls Will Be Girls (Literary Journal)
Overland (Literary Journal)

(Yes, I am that boring OK).

So here we go ... I'm calling it A Sestina for the Ones Who Said. It's turned into a thing about the Thing, which I guess is not surprising, given the mood at the moment.

We are not very caring.
How clear are you being when you say no?
Everything is twice as hard and takes twice as long:
We go back to the time our divisions turned into war,
Not for male consumption -
I am still learning how to protect my own consent.

A twisted tangled mess where there should be consent
But to understand the depths of it requires caring:
To truly see a person, not a body for consumption.
To hear the ways in which the multitudinous No
is given: in shout or whisper; semaphore; portents of war.
The act measured in minutes, its shadow dragging long.

It feels this journey has been so long,
and so unfinished, while old men in power debate consent
and what it means. Pitching it like it is a culture war,
like the young, the vulnerable, the women are somehow wrong for caring:
like there is something mutable about the No
like resisting is revolution, an affront to consumption.

And everywhere, it's packaged for consumption:
Sex sells, and with it, the dark ideal of access; for so long
there has been permission to not hear the No.
Do we really own our own consent?
In the broken mirror, we see the shards of caring -
And power and the powerless in uneven war.

Some write polemics about a gender war,
Which is just deflection, packaged neat for angry male consumption.
The contempt that reeks for all that reflects caring:
The paradigm has held up for so long,
Regardless of the threadbare-thin consent,
We did not agree, but no-one heard the No.

The day is coming, when we'll shout the NO
and call out power and the running dogs of war
and start to learn the value of consent.
When the only thing we line up for consumption
is the food and drink we share, as days grow long
and the cruel will become weak, and all power vest in caring.

And although it hurts, we cannot turn from caring:
Power seems so firm, and yet its fall is long;
And hearts rebuild, and love usurps consumption.

- Kathy, 12/11/17

(This is NaBloPoMo post #12. 12 down, 18 to go!)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Spring (Finally!)


Critters and gardening and warm evenings and BBQ food and pasta salad made by the one kid of my three who's a reasonably keen cook.

The cat is unimpressed that her nice squishy outdoor bed of weeds has been removed, but she'll get over it. We gardened all morning and things look much more orderly now, then played Monopoly all afternoon (Team Me + 8 year old was victorious - go us!)

Not so bloody terrible, actually.

(This is post #11 in NaBloPoMo. 11 down, 19 to go!)









Friday, November 10, 2017

Flashback Friday

This is a photo post only, because the words have gone AWOL. It's a Pictures from My Life situation.

November 2003
November 2006

November 2009
November 2014
(This is post #10 in NaBloPoMo. 10 down, 20 to go!)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

An Everyday Madrigal (Poem)

My friend's cat's kittens are growing daily on the Internet,
There's a ginger trio, a tortoiseshell and a dark gray;
When things are bad, I like to watch them play.

My kitchen ceiling swarms with spring bugs and I fret:
Are they flying ants or termites? Either way
I look for pictures frantically on the Internet
And read grim pest control sites backlit in gray.

My own cat thinks she's master, not a pet,
She kneads me til I crack and push her away;
She will, no doubt, strategise to make me pay.
I waste time on the Internet -
The sun is bright outside, internal climate gray
The ropes draw tight and I wait out the day.

- Kathy, 9/11/17

(This is post #9 in NaBloPoMo. 9 down, 21 to go!)


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

On deciding to withdraw from NaNoWriMo

I made the decision today to officially withdraw from NaNoWriMo this year.

It wasn't necessarily an easy decision. NaNo has given me a lot of joy over the years, especially in the three years I've completed it (2010, 2011 and 2015). The community I have been part of has been wonderful. And I did - I thought - have an idea that would go the distance in verse form, as Theory of Mind did in 2015.

However, what actually happened was four days of enthusiasm, two days of fumbling about as my plot got lost after the first scene transition, and then a very very intense (but great) 2-day business trip, from which I am about to return home.

There has been neither time nor headspace to look at the novel while I have been away, and this has been a good thing. It's given me a chance to reflect on whether I think the story has enough oomph in it (no, I don't), on my work and family commitment level in November (extensive, to say the least), and my need to protect my health (last week's crash day was a good wake-up call there).

In the end, I concluded that rescuing this story was going to take much more time, sweat and angst than I am able to give it this month, and that pushing on would be simply another chore to add to my daily list, at a time when literally the last thing I need is new chores.

I feel good about recognising this early on, before the overload stress kicked too hard, and the 8000 words I have done will keep for a less frenetic time to see if they are worth salvaging, perhaps as a shorter piece or series of pieces.

Instead, my big creative goal for November and December is going to be to get my poetry collection through second edit and into first layout. I feel like that is really a better goal for me at this stage. I'm already committed to the poetry book, and I have the content there; I feel like it is both a more achievable, and more satisfying, way to direct my creative time.

Of course, I do intend to push on with daily November blogging too!

(This is post #8 in NaBloPoMo. 8 down, 22 to go!)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Glenelg


I am in Adelaide for work at the moment. After getting up at sparrow fart for my flight, having only had 5 hours broken sleep, and having 8 hours straight of meetings with terrific people who I had never met before, I am shattered.

I shall shortly try to get to sleep, which I never find too easy in a hotel but I think my fatigue will help me along tonight! I am post a nice warm scented bath and feeling very nicely thank you.

I did wander down to the beach front here in Glenelg a little earlier though and had a nice small walk and some stir fry veggies, so I have not entirely wasted my evening :-) Glenelg is awfully pretty - I don’t think I have ever been here before (or if I have, I don’t remember) but it's well worth a longer look sometime.

(This is post #7 in NaBloPoMo. 7 down, 23 to go!)

Monday, November 6, 2017

Four weeks in review, four weeks in view

This has been a packed 4 weeks. These are words I think are likely to lead off every recap and planning post for the foreseeable future, to be honest ... maybe til after we get home from our overseas trip next year, even. I guess it's better to be busy than bored!

Aside from all the other stuff, this four weeks will include our traditional annual Christmas Tree Up and Baking day. We usually try to do this on or before 1 December, but that dog won't hunt this year, as the 1st is a Friday and the weekend before (the last one in November) has no room at all. Doing it a day late will be OK - I am sure it will not be noticed by anyone but me, tbh!

This year, honestly, has wings...

FOUR WEEKS IN REVIEW (9 October - 5 November)
- 16 paid work days
- Kick-off on new interstate project
- Extracurriculars x 4: Gymnastics and swimming (8 year old); jujitsu (14 year old); ice skating (12 year old)
- Online Book Club (18 October): Exit West
- Halloween shenanigans! (Man this was fun :-)
- Stargate 20th anniversary convention (me and 14 year old)
- Anime convention (12 and 14 year olds with my husband and their friends)
- Commenced NaNoWriMo journey (on 1 November) - this will dominate writing goals in November overall
- Wrote 9 new poems
- Submit at least 2 poems to publications or competitions

FOUR WEEKS IN VIEW (6 November - 3 December)
- Interstate work trip (7-8 November)
- 16-18 paid work days across 4 projects
- Extracurriculars x 4: Gymnastics and swimming (8 year old); jujitsu (14 year old); ice skating (12 year old)
- Continue with NaNoWriMo and complete the 50,000 word target by 30 November
- Poetry book: Editing session #2 and layout commencement
- Online Book Club: Lincoln in the Bardo (15 November)
- My Dad's birthday celebrations
- Christmas planning and decorating

(This is post #6 in NaBloPoMo. 6 down, 24 to go!)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Return to the Gate

I took my eldest daughter to the Return to the Gate convention today, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Stargate SG-1, a show that she adores beyond measure and one that I enjoyed watching with her (although I am less of a devotee than she is!)

For my 14 year old and I, watching episodic SFF TV of shows that have already finished has been an important bonding experience for us over the past two years as she's growing up and in many ways growing away. We started with Stargate Atlantis, which she saw on Netflix and wanted to give a try, and ended up watching the whole five seasons of that show together over a few months. We then did Stargate SG-1, which she loved and is still her most devoted fandom overall, and now we've moved into the Trekverse, having done Voyager and being halfway through DS-9. (She, her father and I are also watching Discovery weekly, natch).

When I saw the advertisement for Return to the Gate, therefore, I did not hesitate to offer it as her big birthday present. I myself had never been to a single-fandom con before, so I did not know what to expect, but I knew she'd be thrilled - and she was.

I have to say - it was a much better experience than I was expecting. The con organisers had managed to get three of the four stars of the show (Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping and Michael Shanks), which certainly added to the lustre. Having a smaller event with much more talking and opportunity for interaction was really nice, and all five of the actors from the show who attended were friendly and social to people, which is not my universal experience at the big cons, I have to say.

My daughter and I paid a small fortune for a photo with the three stars - the photo is her Christmas present! - but I have to say I think it was actually worth it. The actors were very nice and the photo came out really well, and it'll be a memory that my girl will have forever. I'm not sure how many, if any, opportunities she'll have to see all of them together in the future (RDA is 67, after all - international trips may not be on his long-term agenda) so it was worth not missing this chance.

The panels were great. My daughter and I both enjoyed Amanda Tapping's the most, but RDA and Michael Shanks were very good too. Amanda's stories of life as a female director in an industry that is still pretty rankly sexist were fascinating. They are all charming, engaging speakers - I get that it's their jobs, but some actors do it way better than others, and these ones were super good.

Overall it was a really worthwhile day and hella less exhausting than a big nerdcon - I don't feel anything like as shattered as I do after a day at ComicCon. (Of course, being seated most of the day and not serving on a stall no doubt helped with that!)

Would I go to a similar fan event again? For a show I was really into, maybe I would, yeah. It's a much more mellow and detailed way to engage with a fandom than via the mania of a big show floor.

(This is post #5 in NaBloPoMo. 5 down, 25 to go!)

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Crash Day and Stranger Things 2

I had a crash day yesterday. Was the full monty too - shaking, cold chills, joint ill, gut pains, headache, tiredness so overwhelming it was hard to move. That sick buzziness in every nerve was back. Anxiety spike showed up to the party too, because: of course!

It took me by surprise in a way, although I had been feeling fatigue creeping up for the past fortnight (which has been just ridiculously busy and has featured some difficult stressors). I realised that crash days have become so rare now that my autoimmune cluster is better managed that I have almost forgotten preceisely how shithouse they really are.

But yesterday was a sharp reminder - I have chronic illnesses. They are mostly manageable and they are all relapsing-remitting in type, which means a lot of the time, I can live a perfectly regular life (if I am vigilant about my diet, of course). However, it also means my resilience to physical and emotional stressors is undeniably less than it would be for a person blessed with fewer mutations in their genome.

I think, looking back over the past month, that I have been burning the candle at both ends for too long really. My schedule would be a full and busy one for a completely healthy person, and much as I would like to be such a person, the plain reality is that I am not. Our Sydney trip was ace but pretty exhausting - so instead a resting on my time off, I just took on a different range of stressors (mostly physical but some mental for sure). And I came back from that trip into a maelstrom of work issues, a heavy workload, and family things to be navigated. I guess it is not surprising that my body called Uncle.

I seem to be a lot better today - still heavy-eyed and low energy, but my joints and nerves are settling and I do not have a headache. This in itself is a massive improvement - before my Hashimotos diagnosis and treatment, a crash like this, fuelled by low thyroxine levels, would've knocked me out for a week. Keeping up my thryoid meds means that when the other conditions flare, they don't get a rocket blast assist from a wonky thyroid, so I can pull up much much faster.

So yesterday, feeling pretty lousy, I was super grateful to be able to have a Netflix and chill day with my spouse. We watched the new ep of Star Trek Discovery. We ate sushi. We had some chatting time, especially about our Japan trip. I did my daily words on my NaNo novel. And we binged the last 6 eps of Stranger Things 2 across two sessions - one while the kids were at school, one at night once the youngest was abed.

I have to say this about Stranger Things 2 ... it was superb. Better than the first season and I loved the first one, so that's saying something. The acting is absolutely first class. The emotional affect is pitch perfect. The story is tight, beautifully paced and internally consistent. And the 80s vibe is just .... ahhhhhh. If this doesn't win all the things, I just don't know what to think anymore.

And without too much commentary, because I know lots of people haven't seen it yet and I don't want to spoil, I will leave you with these thoughts: Winona Ryder gives the performance of her career as Joyce. Sean Astin is absolutely adorable. Mad Max! The ship I always wanted finally sailed. 80s male hairstyles are still hilarious. And Eleven KICKS ALL THE ARSE.

(This is post #4 in NaBloPoMo. 4 down, 26 to go!)

Friday, November 3, 2017

A haiku for a down day

words tremble and fade
gone before the type can pin;
the muse is asleep.

(This is post #3 in NaBloPoMo. 3 down, 27 to go!)

Thursday, November 2, 2017

On writing NaNo with a group

I'm off and away on my NaNoWriMo journey - Concept of Self, my verse novel in progress, is a sequel to my 2015 NaNo novel, Theory of Mind, and so far, at 3640 words on day 2, it's tumbling along quite well.

This is the fifth time I'm attempting NaNo. I tried, and failed badly, in 2008 - my kids were just too young and I too pregnant and too tired. I tried again in 2010 and won with a middle-grade detective novel, to which I wrote a sequel the following year, 2011, and also won that year.

For various reasons, I wasn't free to give it a go in 2012-14, but I got back on the horse in 2015 and produced my favourite long-form piece I've ever written - Theory of Mind, my first verse novel. I re-read it recently and while it is an obviously unpolished piece of work, I still kind of like it. I enjoyed writing it immensely; it was one of the gifts I gave myself for coming out of a not-right-for-me work environment and being brave enough to strike out on my own in business.

I skipped NaNo last year, due to being busy with work, but I moped around all month pining for it; so, despite being even busier this year than last, here I am, doing the thing.

The most important difference, for me, this year from previous years is that I am in two Facebook groups of people I online-know (so not generic for-NaNo-only groups) to offer mutual support, cheerleading, and commiserations in the rougher moments. (Not that we've got to many yet but I am seasoned enough at this gig to know THEY ARE MOST CERTAINLY COMING).

These are all people I've spent enough time with, online or in some cases IRL, to feel really comfortable with. These are people whose own creativity enhances mine in sometimes unexpected ways.

And you know, it's really nice, to be able to post your word count to people who get what it means and validate you for it. It's really nice to high-five each other at plot breakthrough moments. It's really, REALLY nice to post daily snippets and have people say what they like about it (NaNo is not a time for critique - editing, which must certainly come, comes later).

Will it help to motivate me? Yes and no - my motivation is more intrinsic than extrinsic with writing, and I have, after all, smashed the word target three times before on my own. But will it help make this journey richer, more engaging, and just more fun? Undoubtedly. It already is.

I'm going to be stepping it up over the next four days, trying to get at least 3,000 ahead of the target before Tuesday (to account for activities on Tuesday and Wednesday that make it unlikely I'll get much or any words down on those days). I feel like my groups will have my back in helping to jolly me along to extra output, and that's a good way to feel, here at the start of what is always an exhausting but exhilarating race.

(This is post #2 in NaBloPoMo. 2 down, 28 to go!)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Remember, remember, the first of November ...

Halloween is done and dusted (was a bit quieter than previous years but still really fun - I love Halloween so much).

Which brings us to November - the month in which I am going to:

write a 50,000 word verse novel,

post here every day,

work on four big work projects  (including kicking off an interstate project, involving work travel) and,
hopefully, not collapse.

Here is a wee haiku to capture my feelings about that:

anticipation
is part terror, part delight
waterfalls of words

Onwards and upwards!

(This is post #1 in NaBloPoMo. 1 down, 29 to go!)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Spring Rain (Poem)

all night long it rained
big fat thrumming teardrops on the roof and the ground
like the heart of the sky was breaking
like heaven itself was grieving the wounds of the world
the deep cuts and the little ones

this morning the soil is rich-brown
there are puddles everywhere
the paths are washed clean,
the birds feast on surfacing worms
and droplets, like silvered mirrors, lace the roses

and sadness bears its fruit, as it always does -

from pain, growth.
from tears, beauty.
from grief, life.

- Kathy, 25/10/17


Monday, October 23, 2017

Welcome to the Word Factory

In one week's time, it will be November. In November I am going to:

- start a new big project for an interstate client
- push hard to finish two big existing work projects
- do NaNoWriMo - that's write a 50,000 word novel in a month
- post every day of the month on this blog
- probably, go a bit strange in the brainpan region

In November, I am not going to:
- do any seasonal preparation whatsoever
- cook anything new
- bake
- talk to anyone except my family, my clients and my NaNo buddies
- do anything social, houseworky or otherwise responsible

It's still going to be a very big stretch, and I am flexing my mental muscles in preparation already. I expect to be a very tired, very depleted woman on 1 December.

But I missed NaNo SO MUCH last year. I ached to be doing it. I don't want to let it go again just because things have suddenly got hot with work.

So onwards and upwards! Once more into the fray! I can (probably, possibly) do it! Anything is possible! And all that good stuff :-)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Gift (Poem)

This news story DEMANDED that a poem be created in its honour. I mean, the headline itself! "First-seen neutron star collision creates light, gravitational waves and gold". That's the poetry of the universe right there, isn't it?

The poem is another English Madrigal. "Keep practising until the form collapses in submission" is my motto :-)

GIFT


Two stars in helix, dancing to their death;
Miasma clouds of many kinds of light
The show unfolds, and look! Einstein was right.

Ripples in space-time for half a breath
as precious atoms, formed-unformed, take flight.
Through telescopes, we spy on our own death
writ large in starbursts, etched out in the light.

The sound you hear is breaking shibboleth:
a universe that cuts through all we write.
No earth-bound stories hold us down tonight.
The neutron suns that, somehow, in their death
gave to sentient primates, here, some light:
spoke their cosmic truth, and became right.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Book Thing

Saturday night bravery, because if I don't say it publicly it's too easy to back out:

I am bringing out a collection of poetry in 2018. It is not titled yet but it is a themed collection of poems about women from key iconic stories - from the Torah, from mythology, and from fairy-tales.
The poems are in a range of styles, from my favourite form (villanelle) to sestinas, pantoums, rondeaus, haiku, madrigals, stream of consciousness, and free verse.

Each poem is accompanied by a prose version of the story of the woman who it is inspired by. Some of the poems are fairly straight retellings of the story; some are reinterpreted or twisted in a range of ways. Sometimes the story is just the jumping-off point for the poem.

I'm self-publishing it and it will be available via a few online book-buying channels and (hopefully) to bricks-and-mortar retailers as well. It'll be a paperback and probably also an e-book. I have a lovely editor and a talented designer lined up to hopefully make it the best book it can be.

I am aiming for a June 2018 launch date and when we get closer to that time, I will put an invitation here for anyone who wants to come along to the party thing, which will include fuds that I make and perhaps a cake if I can talk someone into making one (I'll look forward to seeing all three of you, and my Mum, there! :-P)

This is all quite scary. My imposter syndrome is screaming in my ear constantly, telling me it's all garbage, but stuff it, I'm in my mid-40s - if I don't do this now, it's odds-on I never will. So I thought I would share this plan, to keep me honest and keep me going.

Here is one of the poems that will appear in the book, in case you are interested. This was previously published here and is inspired by the story of Scheherazade - the desperate bride who was the teller of the 1,001 Arabian Nights tales.

A Thousand Nights

Listen, king, and I will tell you a tale.

It starts in a city of saints high in the desert
where the morning light has such a clarity
and the pink hills all around glow with life

and then there is a boat that goes under the sea
nosing up to the shallows like a curious porpoise
inviting you to come beneath, and yet

the sky gallops like a wild mare, ribbons of white foam
chasing each other towards heaven

there is a woman in it, with eyes like muddy stars
a gaggle of geese in a field, and a treasure -
only time will tell what kind

I saw it when I slept, and the song the colours sang
tore my heart into pieces at my feet

Listen, king, and I will weave you a new palace
the filigree of dreams is finer than any lace

honey-golden with promise and the longing,
that aching longing,
that comes when you look to the west
or at the vast night sky, and the soul cries out -

Once upon a time in a land far, far away...

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Madrigal for Roses (Poem)

 My final go for now at an English madrigal - inspired by the inexplicable yet undeniable mood lift I always get, every year, when my roses bloom. 

I grew up with roses - my Dad had beautiful standard rose trees in both our front and back yards and tended them lovingly, and it was my job to water them in the warmer months. I always, always loved them and the way they smelled and the way they felt and the colours and the joyfulness of the exploding buds. 

When we moved into our current home, 13 years ago now, the very first thing I planted was the deep pink rose tree. (My partner's first planting choices, which has been equally successful, were our lemon tree and our front-doorway lavender). I planted in the white and gold roses some years later. I love them all with an irrationally deep love, and this poem sort of picks at why that might be.

A Madrigal for Roses

It must be spring, for now the roses come
Fibrous and silken, deep pink and gold and white:
pink for friends, white for love, and gold-delight.

Dense around, the air is filled with hum
of bees and flash of hunting birds in flight.
Soon enough, the rogue loose tendrils come,
creeping up the wall pale green and white.

A weed so beautiful it makes me dumb;
caught in reverie in lemon light,
life that whispers pleasure in the night.
Old blooms fade but new buds always come
And birth as well as death is dressed in white
And in all heaviness there is, still, delight.

- Kathy, 13/10/17






Monday, October 9, 2017

Four weeks in review, four weeks in view

This has been a very, very full 4 weeks, as I expected it would be, and a few surprises have cropped up in it too. The nicest surprise was getting close to locking in a big new work job for an interstate client - I'm quite stoked about that, and should know for sure next week if it's going to come to fruition. There were a few other littler things too - like discovering that I *can* actually write hard poetic forms I thought were out of reach for me (sestina, madrigal).

The trip to Sydney was jam-packed, but as I've already written about that, I won't belabour it here. This last week of the school holidays has been much more low-key and that's probably a good thing for all of our energy levels.

The four weeks coming up will be the first four weeks of the final term of the year, and also encompass big project commitments, Halloween, a couple of cons, and the start of NaNoWriMo. It is going to be extremely hectic, but we'll muddle through ... I think!

FOUR WEEKS IN REVIEW (11 September - 8 October)
- 12 days paid work (5 in week of 11 Sept, 3 in week of 18 Sept, 4 in week of 2 Oct)
- School sleepover for youngest
- Homelessness awareness sleep-out for elder two kids
- Leave for me (21 Sept - 1 Oct) and school holidays for kids (23 Sept - 8 Oct)
- Family holiday in Sydney (24 Sept - 1 Oct), incorporating the Sherlock exhibition and OzComicCon (*this was great)
- The Virgin Australia Epic Omnishambles Debacle (*this was not great)
- 2 weeks of extracurriculars: gymnastics, jujitsu, chess, skating
- Online Book Club (11 September): Jane Eyre (great discussion!)
- More work on Women of Story development
- Wrote 8 new poems, including trying two new forms
- Submitted a poem and a pitch to different publications

FOUR WEEKS IN VIEW (9 October - 5 November)
- Minimum 16 paid work days and could be higher (projects are running hot atm)
- Kick-off on new interstate project if it proceeds
- (Unconfirmed but probable) Interstate work trip
- Extracurriculars x 4: Gymnastics and swimming (8 year old); jujitsu (14 year old); ice skating (12 year old)
- Online Book Club (18 October): Exit West
- Halloween shenanigans of various kinds
- Stargate 20th anniversary convention (me and 14 year old) - 5 November
- Anime convention (12 and 14 year olds with friends) - 4 November
- Commence NaNoWriMo journey (on 1 November) - this will dominate writing goals in November overall
- Write at least 6 new poems
- Submit at least 2 poems to publications or competitions

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Madrigal for My Ageing Body (Poem)

Practicing is the only way to get better at most things, fiendish poetry forms not excepted. Here is my second take at the English madrigal form. 

A Madrigal for My Ageing Body

Everything now sends signals to the end:
loosened muscles, acquiescence of the bone
the mother passing, welcoming the crone.

The lines around the eyes become a friend;
every wound half-healed is there to own.
the time of being young is at an end;
the future sunset written in the bone.

New power comes with it - now one can bend
the light around you, hide in shadows grown.
no-one sees old women; all unknown
you watch, and see, the body make its end
while the birth of suns swims in your bone
and, made of stars, you welcome in the crone.

- Kathy, 8/10/17

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Madrigal for the Future, Supposing it Exists (Poem)

Time for a new poetry form challenge, as my last four poems have all been sestinas and I'm starting to get the hang of them now (so need to mix it up!) My sestinas, incidentally, have been Flood, Lovesong Sestina, one I haven't published here called Psyche on the Mountain, and Bronte Beach Sestina. Of them, I'm happiest with Lovesong Sestina, although I think the Psyche one will come along with a bit more work. (It's for my forthcoming Women of Story collection).

So this time I am going to try a Madrigal. These come in both the English and Italian varieties, but I am sticking to the pattern used in English. It's absolutely fiendish, but here it is:

Line 1: A
Line 2: B1
Line 3: B2

Line 4: a
Line 5: b
Line 6: A
Line 7: B1

Line 8: a
Line 9: b
Line 10: b
Line 11: A
Line 12: B1
Line 13: B2

The capitals represent words that have to repeated, whereas the lower-case letters represent a rhyme sound. So, effectively, you have only two "sounds" in the entire poem - your A and B sounds - and indeed only eight actual end words with all the repetitions ("A" and "B1" get used three times apiece, and "B2" gets used twice).

It's a very restrictive form and is meant to be written in iambic pentameter too, just for kicks. Probably the most well-known proponent of it in English is Chaucer, but I refuse to go for a Chaucerian effect here!

So ... here goes my attempt at a madrigal. I have gone slightly whimsical and futuristic in theme, because it seems pleasantly incongruous with such a traditional form.

A Madrigal for the Future, Supposing it Exists 

some live in the light of a doubled sun
and eat phosphorescent lover-fruit, starlight grown
so far and far the terrestrial seed was sown;

some live on the interstellar run
in fat-bellied ships and stations in the zone
and never walk beneath a native sun
and raise their children, floating, porous-grown

so strange, to think, that there was only one -
a first and natal, blue-skimmed chunk of stone
a birther mythos for them all to own
only dust, now, under that first sun
the used-up husk from which the pod was grown
a barren harvest reaped from what was sown.

- Kathy, 4/10/17


Monday, October 2, 2017

A Week in Sydney


We got back in the wee small hours of the morning from a week's holiday in Sydney. 

It was not the *plan* to get home in the vampire hours, but we got caught up in Virgin Australia's epic omnishambles yesterday, occasioned by a system failure on the part of their telco provider, Optus. 

There was blame and finger-pointing aplenty, but the bottom line for us was that instead of being home in
our house sipping tea at 7:30pm as we should've been, we staggered through the door, bagless (yep, they lost our luggage) at about 12:45am, and frankly we were lucky to even do that, as many people were left stranded until this morning.

So the less said about the journey back the better, but the Sydney trip itself was a very worthwhile one. I would not class it as either our best or most relaxing holiday ever (best is still Port Douglas in 2014, most relaxing would be a tie between our multiple Phillip Island and Warrnambool holidays over the years - PI and Warrnambool are such soothing, beloved places for us). 

It was, however, one of the most interesting and diverse, and certainly one of the most active, family holidays we've ever had - my Fitbit reported that I walked 100,000 steps in the 7 days we were there, which is certainly a personal best and I think objectively a good result!

We arrived in Sydney last Sunday evening (smooth journey up!) and headed to the AirBnB in Bexley that we had rented for the week to share with our family friends, who were also going up for part of the time. 

The accommodation was called "The TARDIS" (bigger on the inside etc), and although that might have been slightly over-egging the pudding, it's true that what appeared to be a modest single-fronted villa ended up sleeping 10 people without anyone having resort to the floor, so you can't fault that. Its true virtue, though, was its easy proximity to Kogorah station, which became our portal to the adventures that followed on every day we were in Sydney. It's a super convenient station for everything and we made extensive use of it all week.

So we ended up doing a lot of things.

On the Monday, we trained in to Circular Quay, walked along the harbour to the Opera House, then did the Opera House guided tour. 

In all my 44 years, which have included at least 15 trips to Sydney and maybe more, I have never set foot inside the Opera House, despite having seen it from the outside countless times. The one-hour guided tour was amazing - way better than we had expected. The kids were all fascinated, as was I. It was well worth the money and the time, and set us off on a good foot.

From the Opera House, we walked along the Harbour into the Rocks, and looked around the historic buildings and laneways. Ice cream may also have been involved! We returned to our accommodation in the early evening a little footsore but contented.

The Tuesday was back into the city - this time for the Observatory and a picnic lunch looking out over the city and the Bridge, and then to the Botanic Gardens to take a ride in the tourist mini-train and look at the landmarks. By the time we got back to Kogorah Station, my friend and her two kids had arrived from Melbourne and lo, there was much rejoicing (our five combined kids are very, very fond of each other!)

Three adults and five kids headed to Bondi Beach on the train and bus on Wednesday. After Bondi cafe milkshakes, we finagled the kids into doing part of the Eastern Beaches coastal walk, which was just magnificent. 

The day was warm but not unbearable for walking, although the shaded portions were welcome! We fetched up at Bronte Beach for cafe lunch and a two-hour swim / play at the beach, which all the kids thought was fantastic.

Thursday was the long-anticipated (for me, anyway) International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes at the Powerhouse Museum. Words cannot express how much I loved this exhibition. All five kids enjoyed doing the puzzles, but it was the collection of Sherlockania that pleased me the most. 

After the Powerhouse we had lunch in Chinatown and fielded the first semi-catastrophe of the holiday, where my youngest daughter's eye suddenly swelled up; it was off to the doctor then the optometrist to get her checked and sorted, a bit scary but all resolved in the end.

Thursday night the final two members of our temporary household arrived (in cars) from Melbourne, and there was merriment into the evening.

On Friday we caught the train to Darling Harbour and checked out that area, then walked to Circular Quay, where we parted company with our friends and headed back to Bexley to freshen up (our friends went on to catch a ferry to Watsons Bay and later have dinner in Darling Harbour). After showers, we headed to Newtown to meet up with some Sydney-based friends for dinner at a Thai restaurant. The food was magnificent and the company wonderful.

Saturday was taken up in its entirety by the core purpose for our "housemate" friends to be in Sydney at this time of year - the Sydney OzComicCon event. Our friends own a pop culture toys business and sell at all the major cons throughout the year. 

We all had a good, if tiring, day, at the show - my 14 year old in particular, who went off to panels, got a photo with a Doctor Who actress, and generally went nuts on the merchandise. My 12-year-old loves to organise things, so she was deputised to reorder the stock when customers disarranged it, a task she took very seriously. 

My partner and I helped with the serving on the stall and the wrangling of the two 8-year-olds, which hopefully freed our friends up a little. 

As always, the cosplay was the best part for me, as was finally meeting a longtime Internet friend in real life for the first time. We made a roast beef dinner to share that night, which was well received after a long day of retail!

Sunday was meant to be OzComicCon in the morning, airport in the afternoon, home for dinner, but ended up being OzComicCon in the morning, airport in the afternoon, stuff-up of gargantuan size and home 5 hours late ... not the flashest end to a holiday to be honest, but it is what it is, and it's important to not allow that to taint our memories of the trip as a whole. (Just of Virgin, who are now on my perpetual shitlist).

So, in the lessons learned category ... These are specific to us, and YMMV.

Don't fly if we can realistically drive or take a train, but if we do have to fly, do NOT do it in the evening after a heavily packed week. Too stressful for us overall if things go wrong when we are already exhausted, which they seem to do more and more often these days with air travel. (Obviously you have no choice for overseas).

Filling up every day is great, but tiring. Next time we have a highly active holiday, I'll take more care to either build in a downtime day for every three busy days, or else allow a buffer on returning home before we all have to be on our best game again. (In fact the kids do have such a buffer, still being on school hols, but partner and I are back to work). 

Our next jam-packed holiday will be Japan in April next year, and I'm already looking at our scheduling there to make sure I am building in some rest days.

Holidaying with another family with similar aged kids is wonderful. I know my kids enjoyed themselves even more for having their friends with them, and the opportunity to talk / spend time with / even share the cooking and child-wrangling with my own friend was lovely.

A week is not really long enough in Sydney when you are enthusiastic tourists. We did a lot of things, yes, but there were many more that we would've liked to have got to but didn't - from more coastal walks, to the ferries, the Zoo, Madame Tussaud's, the Queen Vic building, etc. 

I wanted to get out to Manly too but we just did not have time. In hindsight, I probably would've been better extending our trip to Wednesday or Thursday this week (of course, had I but known, if I had done so I would've avoided Virgin's SystemGate nonsense as well!)

Bottom line - it was a good week, I'm really glad we went, and we made some memories as a family and with our friends. It might take me another week to get my energy back now though!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Bronte Beach Sestina


Here, the spring is warm and full with blue-gold sun;
The sea stretches, white-tipped, to the line of sky.
Children dragooned into scenic walks plunge into the water,
finally unfettered, like slick otters dancing.
On the sand, toddlers dig and build,
and a sarong-clad woman's phone plays Hallelujah.

The afternoon wears on to Hallelujah
threading silvered notes against the sun.
The toddlers seem to know just what to build
Above, cumulus wavers in the powder sky
If you close your eyes you might see angels dancing
bemused by joy, before the salty water.

The purity of colour in the water
is enough to draw the Hallelujah.
At harbour's edge where tired men are dancing
doing yoga in the gentle sun.
Seagulls drop like aircraft from the sky
to knock away all that children build.

High above, the one percent will build
gold-plated aeries overlooking water.
Houses nestling down under the sky -
But no one owns the sweet-sung Hallelujah
or the scent of wind-borne saline in the sun;
No one gets to say who will be dancing.

In the surf, five children now are dancing,
dainty on their toes as the waves build.
The midday heat is fading from the sun
and they wince and laugh while in the stone cold water.
One of them sways in time with Hallelujah
telescoping in and out to the wide sky.

From the sand, a woman thinks of sky
and how the stars are always lover-dancing.
How the wave-boom sings a Hallelujah
and every mote is something that you build
every tiny thing is born of water
and lies, surfeited, drying in the sun.

And in a quiet place, the verses start to build
a quiet paeon to the three-shade water
toes in sand, and head tipped to the sun.

- Kathy, 27/09/17

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: Exit West and Lincoln in the Bardo (Man Booker 2017 #1 and #2)

This is my first review from the Man Booker shortlist for this year. I've done it as a double of two of the three books I've read from the six-book shortlist: Mohsin Hamad's Exit West and George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. I'm still ruminating on what I want to say about the other one I've read, which is Ali Smith's Autumn, but hoping to get a review of that one up soon too.

The remaining three books on the shortlist are:
4321 by Paul Auster
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I have downloaded 4321 but to be honest, I'm struggling to get into it - we'll see. I've started Elmet, and so far, so good. Last one after that is History of Wolves, if I get to it. 

Let me commence this double review with a series of accolades, so we are not in any confusion about three key prizelist questions from the start:

Are these good books? Oh my, yes. Yes, they are. They are both amazing books in very different ways.
Do they belong on the Man Booker shortlist? COMPLETELY.
Could one of them win? Absolutely, and in fact, I think one of them *should* win.

This year's Man Booker longlist was a mixed bag to my mind, but on a 50% read basis, I think the judges have got it very, very right with their shortlist. Not only is there not a dud on it (basing that on reviews for the ones I have yet to read), but I think the weaker books on the longlist have been dropped handily, leaving a gang of six that are really worthy to contend the prize.

There are three books by men and three by women; there's a Pakistani writer (Hamad), two Brits (Smith and Mozley), and three Americans (Saunders, Fridlund and Auster), which does mean that the dreaded domination of the USians has arrived, as I think we all knew it would eventually. There are two debutantes - Fridlund and Elmet - although if we're talking novels rather than simply published works, Saunders' book is also a debut, as he has until now been an accomplished short story writer, essayist and novella writer.

The bookie odds have Lincoln in the Bardo as the clear frontrunner at 2/1, with Exit West and Elmet equal second at 4/1. These odds reflect what I also (at this point) think is a likely and reasonable outcome; although my heart belongs to Exit West, I can fully appreciate the achievement that is Lincoln in the Bardo.

So ... to the books themselves.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange, strange book. Its central conceit is a relatively simple one - it's a journey into the fact, and consequences, of the death of Abraham Lincoln's third son (and favourite child), Willie, at the age of 11 in the early years of the Civil War.

However, straight historical fiction this ain't - in fact it isn't straight anything. It's one of the twistiest books I've read for a long while.

This is a book that takes place, largely, in the bardo - that Buddhism-based limbo-like place between life and death where souls are trapped who are too attached to the things of earth to move on to the next plane of existence. For this reason, although a small portion of the book takes place in the living world, the majority of the action, narration and emotion is conveyed by a startlingly vivid array of, effectively, tethered ghosts - the souls still lingering in the graveyard in which Willie is interred.

It is a great strength of this book that the half-light world of the bardo becomes so vivid and profound, making the briefer sequences in the living world seem pale and inconsequential by comparison. Partly, of course, this is because of the different narrative devices Saunders uses for each purpose, but partly it is because the bardo ghosts are just so human in their frailty, their stubbornness and their fears.

Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas, in particular, jump off the page; their ties to earth so painful and obviously misguided, their longings so intense, their fear (especially in the Reverend's case) so overwhelming. As they chatter the narrative along, passing the conversational ball back and forth with often disorienting speed, they emerge into the light as characters. Vollman, who so desperately wanted to be a husband to his young wife; Bevins, who could not live without his male lover who rejected him; and poor Reverend Thomas, whose own terrors provided him with a vista of hell that he clings in horror to the graveyard to avoid.

There are many other ghosts, with many other reasons for staying - justice denied, pain too profound to move past, hopes thwarted, love undischarged, loyalty too strong, guilt, shame, hubris, lack of self-awareness. There are the venal couple whose failure to recognise their abuse of their children binds them to the grave; the horrific plantation owner whose soul delights in torture; the voiceless former slave girl who was the victim of multiple rapes; the three bachelors who never found love and refuse to accept that, now, they never will. There is, importantly for the plot, a young girl, who overstayed because of her deep grief at a life not lived, and has now become a monster. Through her, Saunders is able to establish the central plot arc - the older ghosts' altruistic desire to save Willie from a miserable eternity stuck in the graveyard, turning monstrous; it's against nature for the young ones to stay, as the Reverend worriedly notes early on.

What Saunders manages to convey, ultimately, though, is that cleaving to the earth is a sickness that all these half-light people, who refuse to acknowledge their dead state, need to relinquish. The language that he creates to convey this is spot-on - coffins are "sick-boxes", the ghosts move around by "skim-walking", the process of going inside one another (or a living person, as they do with Lincoln when he comes to visit Willie's body) is described in strangely delicate yet visceral terms. When ghosts do eventually let go and move on, the phenomenon is described as "matterlightblooming", which is such a resonant and perfect neologism for this purpose.

Saunders uses a slightly maddening but also highly effective mash-up technique for when he is working in the "real" (living) world, interspersing quotations from actual historical accounts and texts with made-up faux-history as it suits his narrative purpose. The fact that he cites both the actual and created sources in exactly the same pseudo-scholarly way is slightly unsettling, perhaps more now than it would've been in a pre-alternative-facts world. To find out which of the sources are actual sources and which are Saunders' creations, you need to be either a) very familiar with Civil War historiography or b) willing to invest a lot of time in digging. My Masters degree is in American History, albeit not Civil War era, so I recognised some of the more well-known of these texts, but as for the rest - your guess is as good as mine as to which are real and which are fake.

At the end of the day, this book works in a way that, on outline, it really shouldn't. I can just imagine how wacky this sounded as an idea when Saunders was pitching it ... "OK, so it's going to be narrated by ghosts, and I think I'll open with a sequence about a fella who's stuck in the bardo with a gigantic hard-on he can't get rid of because he was killed *just* before he was about to have sex with his new wife ... and I think, you know what, that I might chuck in some creepy corpse-cuddling for one of America's most revered leaders ..." It sounds like a hot mess, frankly, and yet - it isn't at all. This book is engrossing, tender, intelligent and ultimately triumphantly hopeful, and I really, really highly recommend it to your attention,


Exit West, Mohsin Hamad's novel, is an entirely different kettle of fish in almost every possible way except maybe one - it also relies on one magic realist device to achieve its effect. (Well, actually, I don't know if supernatural themes count as magic realism, so maybe that's a tenuous linkage).

Hamad's book is, essentially, a story about refugees and the seeking, and hard finding, of refuge; about why people flee, how they are treated when they do, and how the world is shifting on its axis as borders become porous and the West reflexively restricts itself.

This is the story of Nadia and Saaed; friends, almost-lovers, who together must escape the worsening terror of their home and try to make a new life elsewhere. Their city is never named; it's one of the great tragedies of our world that it could be almost anywhere in the Middle East.

Nadia, who I loved sincerely, is a secular, modern, independent woman who wears traditional dress as a shield against harassment. Saaed is a gentle, sweet, observant, family-oriented man who wants a traditional life. Nadia has had previous partners; Saaed is entirely naiive. They love each other but are chronically incompatible in a life sense - but they have to flee, and their odds are better together.

The way that they leave their city, though, is an interesting device that Hamad uses to stunning effect throughout the text. Hamad posits the existence of magic doorways, portals to other places, which, if you are lucky enough to find them and be able to pay to use them, will transport you, through a dark and birth-like journey, to somewhere Not Here. The almost Narnia-like affect of the doors is counterpointed with the sharp dislocation they experience when they emerge - the disorientation, almost derealisation, that comes with being traumatically uprooted and plonked down somewhere utterly strange, somewhere fundamentally suspicious of them.

Frog-hopping through doors to Greece, London, and, eventually, California, Nadia and Saaed and their peers write the story of the modern diaspora on their changing bodies and changing minds. The book deals to an extent with xenophobia and racism, but it is much more focused on dislocation and the journey and work of building a new self and a new life. As the book ends, we reunite with old Nadia and Saaed, both safe, both having found their way to a profound kind of peacefulness, even joy - no longer together, but both free and full with the richness of lives well lived. For this reason, Exit West is ultimately a book about the potential for rebirth even in the most hopeless-seeming darkness, and the message carries without sickliness or superficiality.

I really connected with this book; Hamad's narrative voice engaged me early, and his plot, which he allows to develop organically (a risk, but one that I think pays off), winds its way towards denouement effortlessly. I found it a very satisfying read, and it's a book I'll certainly read again. Another one I would recommend without reservation!

Friday, September 15, 2017

A Cold Spring Sonnet

Time to try another set poetry form - one that I've never been very good at, but I think it's still worth a go. I'm going to try a traditional sonnet.

Sonnets are 14 line poems with 3 quatrains (4 line stanzas) followed by 1 couplet (2 line stanza). They use a rhyming scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. 

That rhyming pattern's not so very tricky, but what makes them hard (if you do them properly, anyway) is the iambic pentameter. Basically, iambic pentameter refers to the stress pattern in the lines, which give great sonnets their sing-song quality (and when it is mishandled, leaves the poem sounding deadened and clunky). The metre goes:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

(where DUM is the stress syllable, obviously!)

The five "feet" in each line is what gives rise to the pentameter part of the name ("pent" for "five").

Probably the best-known traditional sonnets are Shakespeare's or perhaps Donne's. The first four lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 illustrate the point:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

The feet in these lines flow smoothly and enhance the heartbeat rhythm of the poem, driving it forward.

So, without further ado, here is my attempt at a traditional sonnet ... Cold Spring Sonnet.

Here in the chill-fingered mainland's end,
the rain falls daily and the cold winds blow.
The birds that sing for love do not ascend,
but hide out in the bushes with their beaux.

Oh, roses bud, and wattle shows its face -
the grass is overgrown and seedpods fly.
But mammal blood finds only sour grace
caught in the sullen sulking of the sky.

The breath of winter trails still round our feet,
while northern cousins wake to pearly sun.
The island further south is getting sleet -
Folorn, we ache for warmth, and still find none.

September! Spring in nothing but the name:
Each year we hope, but each year just the same.

- Kathy, 15/09/2017