Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Science of the Yeti (Poem)

This is a poem I wrote some time ago and entered in a competition that had a theme of cold / snow. It did nothing in the comp, but I sort of like it, so here it is. I got the idea from a line in a newspaper article deriding "the science of the Yeti", by which the article meant the lack of scientific basis for the existence of the Yeti, but I wondered if it could mean something else. What if the Yeti existed, ancient, dignified, ossified, hidden and had their own science? What might it look like? I had a vision of prehistoric climate change denialism, writ large.

It is a cold science; ice-bound, quiet.
No glaciers melt, nor snows fail.

The literature admits of no hard-breathing carbon dragon
putting a teakettle under the bones of the soil.
The mountains remain, permafrosted, inscrutable;
This is evidence for the failure of the little cousins below to move anything material
(despite what they may think, in their lowland sinkholes).

It teaches:
the world is as it ever is, and never will be other
truth is what we experience today and can prove with touching
no deluge is coming to us, none, none to our mountains, none to our snows.

It is a cold science, whitened like old scat
It says to us: You need not change. The world will not.
The homo sapiens’ science is misled.
The floes will not shrink in the sea, nor the waters rise
There is no storm coming to Sagarmāthā
The little cousins need not change, nor need we:

It is a cryptic science, for a cryptid people
Making mysteries of the sillage of disaster in the air

The science of the Yeti tells us the world lies gently upon our backs;
It does not foretell the expulsion of our ancestors from their souls’ repose.

It is a cold science; frozen, ancient.

No species die, nor sentience falls.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Reading Notes: Elizabeth Strout's Amgash novels (My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible)

Elizabeth Strout's new novel, Anything is Possible, is a kind of sequel to Booker-nominated My Name is Lucy Barton. Both books, unsurprisingly for works by the accomplished Strout, have been critically acclaimed, and are already being touted as important additions to Strout's slim but culturally significant canon.

While reader reception of Lucy Barton was strong (and the book did find its way onto last year's Booker longlist, although disappointingly failed to shortlist), on the whole, Anything is Possible is exciting much greater reader devotion. I am interested in why that might be, so I thought a paired review of the two books could be revealing.

The first point to make is that when I say Anything is Possible is a "kind of" sequel, I do so intentionally. While Anything is Possible is set in the same, or overlapping, locations as Lucy Barton, and features many of the same characters (including Lucy herself), it is in many ways a parallel story rather than a sequel. Lucy Barton is an intimate first-person narrative of one woman's life, with reference to the environment that gave rise to her (both familial and cultural). Anything is Possible is a linked ensemble story that revolves around the community Lucy left behind and the actors in it, moving the focus in an intricate dance through several connected intimate third-person micro-tales. In this regard, Anything is Possible is more like Strout's biggest hit, Olive Kitteredge, in its overall affect - although it changes POV characters regularly, the overall sense of the larger story being told in the dust of daily life is very present.

One thing both books share, however, that is very interesting to me as both a reader and a writer, is a resonant and powerful treatment of class and white poverty in contemporary USA. Lucy Barton, the narrator and protagonist of the first book, is a successful writer living in New York City, but she is from desperately poor roots, growing up in Amgash, Illinois, itself a depressed community but where the Bartons stood out even there as next-level poor. Lucy phrases it thus:
While it is said that children accept their circumstances as normal, both Vicky and I understood that we were different. We were told on the playground by other children, 'Your family stinks,' and they'd run off pinching their noses with their fingers... (p 11)
Lucy's story is one of survival, transcendence and moving past the circumstances of her early life; told from her perspective, My Name is Lucy Barton is her journey to try to understand her parents, particularly her mother, and locate them, and her childhood, within the context of her high-achieving literary life, her marriage, and her own motherhood. Poverty, in My Name is Lucy Barton, is an albatross around the neck that poisons the well of everything else - relationships, sociality, attainment. Lucy digs her way free via her intelligence, imagination, and luck - a lot of luck.

There are ways in which I found Lucy Barton quite reminiscent of another recent (and wonderful) novel about contemporary  poverty in the US - Marilynne Robinson's Lila (the final book in the Gilead trilogy). Lila is also a desperately poor white woman eking out a borderline existence, albeit 30 years earlier than Lucy and her family, and in a more itinerant fashion. Both novels have something powerful to say about the impact of being breadline-poor in a society where those around you are, on the whole, not, and what impact that has on girls and women in particular.

I think it is important to note, however, that what books like Lila, My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, and even some of the works of writers like Anne Tyler, are picking up is the experience of being white and poor (in most cases, white, female and poor) in rural and regional USA. That class, and poverty, are very substantial vectors of lack of privilege, seems like an obvious thing to say - but none of these writers fall into the trap of universalising the experience, or erasing the magnitude of the extra challenges faced by POC in these same circumstances. They are writing, somewhat like Steinbeck before them, the story of the white underclass - and these are stories that should be told, but never reified as the whole picture, or the "true" story of American life. They are one kind of truth, yes. By themselves, they are very far short of the whole. This is not intended as a critique so much as a caveat, as I have read many a lyrical review claiming, especially for Anything is Possible, a kind of universalised applicability.

Lucy Barton is also, to a significant degree, about writing and the writer's life, and I wonder if this is where the reader connection may slip a little. There are some moments where I think Lucy, or more particularly her writing teacher Sarah Payne, becomes a bit of an author mouthpiece for Strout, and that can sit a bit awkwardly in the context of the story overall. Not that there are not some gems to arise from that as well, such as when Sarah tells Lucy: “We all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.” This seems extremely synced with Strout's own words in interview:
“You can’t write fiction and be careful. You just can’t... So many times students would say, ‘Well, I can’t write that, my boyfriend would break up with me.’ And I’d think ...” she sucks her teeth, “‘Well, OK, I’m sorry, I don’t really have much more to tell you.’ You have to do something that’s going to say something, and if you’re careful it’s just not going to work.” (Hermione Hoby, Elizabeth Strout Interview, The Guardian, 20 February 2016) 
By contrast, Anything is Possible, which takes up the tales of many of Lucy's contemporaries who stayed in or near Amgash, takes a much broader palette of lives and occupations (and preoccupations), and unfolds itself like the proverbial flower, following characters through the chain of connection to reveal their sad, damaged, hopeful, desperate, gentle hearts. Starting with Tommy Guptill, a minor character from Lucy Barton (he was Lucy's high school janitor), the stories of  the people of Amgash unfold, all connected back somehow to Lucy and her family, all unique, all full of private pains and public troubles. I think that it is both the variety of stories, and the intense skill with which the linkages are made, that sets this book a little above Lucy Barton; it really feels like lifting the lid on an anthill or a doll's house and seeing the secret made known.

Anything is Possible moves through the stories of janitor and former dairy farmer Tommy Guptill; Lucy's brother, the still-dirt-poor and so desperately damaged Pete Barton; high school counsellor, and one of the characters from Lucy Barton, Patty Niceley; Patty's sister, Linda Peterson-Cornell, and her revolting husband (Linda is indeed a case study in the proposition "there are worse things than being poor and look, here is one of them"); Charlie Macauley, who is not what he seems (but who of us is?); Mary Mumford, who left her husband in her seventies and went to Italy to marry an Italian man, and her sad youngest daughter, Angelina the teacher; Dottie, one of Lucy's even-poorer-than-we-were cousins, now running a bed and breakfast house; Elgin Appleby, whose secret was nothing but pain; and finally, most heart-rendingly, Dottie's brother and Lucy's cousin Abel Blaine, who has created himself as a successful, wealthy business owner from the most dire beginnings, but who never quite stops being uncomfortable with himself:
even while most of him thought what he had thought for years, I will not apologize for being rich, he did apologize, but to whom precisely he did not know. (p 250)
The stories of all these people - quite ordinary people in almost all respects - become extraordinary because of the deftness of Strout's touch in revealing the inner worlds and things unspoken that lie behind everyday, and at times quite odd, actions. The connections that bind them all, in some cases so slight as to be a mere thread, in other cases unexpectedly profound, bolster the sense that Strout is really writing a story here about the ways in which people form a community, the secrets they keep and those they can't, the impacts on the ones who stay, and the ones who walk away.

Taken overall, I think both of these books are, and deserve to be considered as, major contributions to contemporary American literature, and in particular, the literature of class in the post-war world. While I would agree that Anything is Possible is, on a stand-alone basis, the stronger of the two books, I think both books are greatly enriched by reading them both. Part of the depth of Anything is Possible comes from the resonances created by stories started but not finished in Lucy Barton; seeing characters through different eyes, with greater regard to their motivations, is intensely interesting, and adds complexity to both stories.

So far, Elizabeth Strout, a late-breaking writer (she was 43 when she published Amy and Isabelle, her first novel, after many years of rejections - *perhaps there is still hope* whispers my unrequited novelist's heart), has graced the world with just 6 novels, but two of those - Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible - have appeared within the past 2 years. I am hoping that this may mean she is on a roll. After these two books, anything she produces seems likely to be a treat for readers and meat for critics alike.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Melbourne Star

Today, as part of my middle kid's 12th birthday celebrations (*how did she get to be 12 but I digress*), we took our family and three of her friends on the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel.

It was somewhat challenging for me and my damn claustrophobia, but I DID IT and we ended up having a really good time. Me 1, Jerkbrain 0 - suck on THAT, anxiety!

Here are a few of the better photos we got, for your viewing enjoyment. It wasn't a cheap exercise for 8 of us, but it was fun to do once, and it certainly made the birthday girl's day.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Lunchtime dialogue with a cat

The scene: My desk. I have just brought my lunch over to eat while I work, as is my usual weekday wont.

The protagonists: Me and my beautiful and incorrigible 8 year old cat, Miss Roxy.

The dialogue (hers translated from the cat vernacular):

R: Smells so good what is

Me: It's spicy tuna sushi, Roxy. It's my lunch. It's not your lunch.

R: (Long sniff) Smells so good eat it

Me: No, it's mine.

R: (catly growl): Want

Me: No. You have trout in your bowl. Go eat that.

R: (shoots out paw) Just get little eat

Me: NO, Rox! Off my knee then!

R: (Evil Eye) Mean


R: Need better staff

(Stalks off in high dudgeon)

/ fin

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The week in review, the week in view: Week ended 14 May 2017

This was, on balance, definitely a better week than the last two.

I am still fighting off the remnants of my autumn cold, but I was less pulled down this week by it, just still sneezy and a bit stuffed up in the evenings. All things planned happened roughly the way they were supposed to, and by dint of working very hard on Monday and Tuesday, I was able to take a full day off on Wednesday and spend it hanging out with my husband, which was pretty excellent for both my mental and physical wellbeing.

I also spent some time this week looking into the medium-term professionally, and thinking about / talking to people about my next steps with my work. These have been interesting and fruitful conversations, and have assisted me greatly in clarifying what I want and what my options might be as I move towards the end of my current projects. I feel like broadening my client base (out of the niche I am currently working in) might be more possible than I had previously thought, and that's comforting.

Mother's Day today was, as always, exhausting, but it was very nice to see our families and spend some time together. We also celebrated my Mum's birthday and my middle daughter's family birthday, so it was a good day.

The week ahead will be focused mostly on the middle kid's birthday celebrations and on consolidating the gains of last week, I think. Hoping it is another positive one.

- 3.5 days billable work performed (Mon, Tues, Thurs pm, Fri): 1.5 days client sites
- Cat's vet appointment done: No more for a year now!
- Naplan testing: Middle and youngest
- Gymnastics (youngest) - Weds, jujitsu (eldest) - Fri, chess (middle) - Sat, ice skating (middle) - Sun
- Personal training
- Lunch with friend (Thurs)
- Mother's Day (today) - Extended family here for lunch
- Whole day off with husband - brunch, X-Files watching, conversation, tea :-)

- 3 days billable work booked (Mon, probably Tues & Weds pm, Thurs) - No client days!!
- Dedicated writing day: Friday (Aim is one short story and one poem)
- Gymnastics (youngest) - Weds, jujitsu (eldest) - Fri, chess (middle) - Sat, ice skating (middle) - Sun
- Personal training
- Cake-making of middle kid's ice skates birthday cake with friend's help (Sat)
- Birthday party for middle: 3 friends sleeping over Sat then ice skating, out to lunch, and on the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel on Sun