Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Werribee Mansion: A birthday treat in pictures







I took my eldest to the Mansion Hotel at Werribee Mansion for a night away on Friday, as her birthday treat.

I like to do this with the kids where I can - with three children, giving one on one attention is a challenge and sometimes taking time out with one child is the best way to build that relationship up. And quite honestly, at the moment, where I am working 6 long days a week, finding one on one time for *any* of them (or my partner) has been murderously difficult.

So a night and a morning away from the laptop, from the dishes, from my mountainous Inbox and the pile of papers on my desk, from the world at large, did us both a great deal of good.

By 1:30pm on Saturday we were at the local supermarket doing the week's groceries, but our 20 hours away from the everyday was a great refresher and a lovely opportunity to talk, connect and be together.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Shot (Poem)

- from the sky

- with hands in the air

- at play in the fields of a steel trap home town

- at school

- seeking food

- walking

- by soldiers

- by police

- by renegades and rebels

children
children
children

the good blood of the future spilled outrageously on the ground

because -

- they were in the way

- they were there

- they were symbols

- they were black

- they were little

- they were weapons to beat their people with

what

have

we

become

- Kathy, 16/8/14

Friday, August 15, 2014

Reading Notes: The Dog

This review is number 4 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge. You can see links to the other three reviews at the bottom of this post.

The Dog is in many ways quite an unusual novel, in that attempts that not inconsiderable feat of deploying an entire book as the internal monologue of a not very likeable lawyer who thinks and talks like ... a not a very likeable lawyer. Before reading it, I would've struggled to believe that any author, no matter how skilled, could make this kind of language interesting, accessible and enjoyable. It's to O'Neill's credit that he manages to make somewhat of a virtue of the careful, laboured and lengthy sentence structure, the legal terminology, and the self-protective outlook of X, the miserable protagonist.

With that said, this tale of a lawyer who flees New York after a nasty break-up with a long-term girlfriend, in order to take up a post as the Family Officer of a fabulously wealthy Lebanese family based in Dubai, is not completely successful.

There are some definite virtues of the book, though. It's a sharp and insightful glimpse into expatriate life in the Gulf States, and the culture of consumption that underlies it. X's post facto analysis of the inherent misery of his 9-year relationship with Jenn, and its terrible conclusion, is well-realised and feels authentic. X's many mental notes to his mercurial and arrogant employers, especially the unpleasant Sandro Batros, are excellently done. Perhaps I found them so because I TOO have composed many a mental slapdown to persons whose behaviours have given me grief. It is an honorable art, and greatly relieves the feelings :-)

However, all that said, I maintain that internal monologue texts with single narrator-protagonists are playing a difficult hand, and The Dog demonstrates very well the pitfalls of the device. By giving us a narrative entirely constructed around the subjectivity of X, O'Neill is taking the risk that X is engaging enough to hold us, and to me, at least, he just isn't. I didn't care about X or what happened to him (I did predict it, pretty nearly, but I just didn't care). Some of the philosophical points that I think O'Neill was trying to make were just lost on me because of this lack of an emotional set point to hang my hat on.

And the ending - what a bummer of an ending. Not bad, exactly, but bleak as any ending I've read on this Booker list or in any book for a goodly while. Again, this isn't inconsistent, but it certainly didn't help me feel that the book would be worth a second look.

I would be surprised to see this one shortlist (although we all know I've been hilariously wrong before...)

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Things I have to do, that I haven't done, in the past month

1. This year's tax
2. My eldest daughter's high school application
3. Organised an orthodontist to assess two eldests' teeth for probable braces
4. Procured health insurance
5. Had my next root canal procedure
6. Sorted my junk towers
7. Finished my holiday photobook
8. Cooked anything halfway respectable in over 2 weeks

Do I feel bad about these? Sometimes. Sporadically. In waves.

What have I done instead?

1. Worked x a lot
2. Parented x a REAL lot
3. Booked our next holiday
4. Read a LOT of books

Yeah, that's the way it goes, sometimes.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reading Notes: How to Be a Heroine

I'm over at The Shake today, waxing lyrical about an utterly charming book called How to Be a Heroine. Come chat over there if you like!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reading Notes: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour


This review is number 3 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge. You can see links to the other two reviews at the bottom of this post.

Joshua Ferris is an author I have not previously encountered, which, by all accounts, might be seen as a bit of a modern-lit omission.

I have learned that he's the author of an apparently acclaimed comic novel, Then We Came to the End, which is a first person plural look at contemporary workplaces.  It's widely alleged to be very funny and insightful, and I can only plead the year of its publication (2007, aka The Year I Had Two Non-Sleeping Children Under Two Years of Age) in mitigation for having missed it originally.

That said, if Ferris's comic voice is largely the same as the one he displays in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, maybe it's not such a tragedy.

Because, despite the fact that this book is being widely touted as a mixture of hilarity and deep meaning (that over-used phrase "tour de force" is being bandied recklessly), I don't think it is all that successful overall, and to my mind, it's not actually super funny, although it does have moments of being amusing.

Being a Booker nominee, you will be unsurprised to learn that To Rise Again addresses the Big Important Themes of Life and What It Means - this is almost a given for Booker listers, although they all bring their own lens to the question. The Wake snarls at life through its shadowtongue dissection of a conquest, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves pulls off the feat of digging very deep into the ethics of being human while remaining essentially gentle, while the two other longlisters I have read (reviews coming!) both squint at existentialism through the prism of art - visual art in the case of The Blazing World, and music in the case of Orfeo.

To Rise Again takes a very different angle by probing at the essential meaningless of life, and the problem of belief / unbelief in the face of the inescapable reality of death, much as one worries at a sore tooth - which is entirely appropriate given that the narrator and protagonist, Paul O'Rourke, is a dentist in New York. Paul's pretty fearful, dreary life is upended when someone starts to impersonate him online, setting up a fake website for his dental practice and using it, as well as a fake Twitter account, to proselytise on behalf of a made-up religion, Ulmism, whose people are allegedly the surviving descendants of the Amalekites, a tribe named (briefly) in the Old Testament that were thoroughly wiped out by the people of Israel as they took possession of the land.

The central tenet of Ulmism is doubt - that one must doubt or deny the existence of God in order to live a fulfilled life. In this, it's set up as as antithetical to all other religious traditions, monotheistic or otherwise, and brought into kissing-counsinship with atheism, but it's a bit more complex that that, as the book reveals.

There is a lot of stuff in this book too about Judaism and anti-Semitism, and what it may or may not be. Some of Ferris's thoughts here seem to me to be a bit muddly as well, although he does give Connie Plotz, Paul's Jewish ex-girlfriend and his current practice manager, one of the most decisive lines in the book when she says, "The only people who get to decide what is anti-Semitic are Jews." Nonetheless, he keeps worrying at it like a bad back molar that won't shut up, and it gets uncomfortable in places - maybe intentionally, but it sits awkwardly with the rest of the book.

The thing about this book is that it's not at all an uninteresting premise, Paul is a convincing central character, and the supporting cast is competently executed on the whole (there are a few cardboard props, but I'll forgive that in a book that is so unapologetically One Man's Story). Moreover, some of the humour, especially in the first half of the book, is astute; Paul's one-sided conversations with his devoutly Catholic dental hygienist, Betsy Convoy, are sharply observed and pretty funny, and his contrapuntal obsession with the Red Sox and inability to care about actual sport are also well constructed.

As is usual for me, I enjoyed the professional detail - despite being dentally phobic myself, the descriptions of dental procedures added a bit of ballast to the story that it desperately needed, especially in the weaker second half. There are some pinpoint insights scattered throughout (the observations on what makes a religion rather than a cult are pretty sharp, as are Paul's eventual realisations around the difference between meaninglessness and meaningful-but-finite).

Overall, though, it's not enough to save this book from falling under the weight of its own central confusion. Humour often - always? - is the other face of tragedy, so it's not the mixing of serious themes with the funny that does it; it's that Ferris doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind if he is trying to make a case for "living in the now" or "laughing in the face of death" or "the journey is the destination" or "everything is shit, kill yourself now" or any one of seven or eight variations. At various times he deploys all of these motifs and more, and the result is a plot that eats its own tail and loses its not inconsiderable verities in a morass of mixed-up philosophising and half-carried-off jokes.

Did I enjoy it? I did; it was a sometimes-amusing and relatively quick read, and certainly engaging enough to carry me along. Do I think it should shortlist? I completely do not.

Other Man Booker longlist reviews:
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Wake

Friday, August 8, 2014

11 (poem)

The door to the world lies open, child,
See the seas shining there?
Beyond lie mountains, valleys, wild
And sly things in their lair.

The things you will know and the things you will find
No one can truthfully say.
Your life is spun silk only you can wind
And make of it what you may.

What lies through the door is a venture most grand
A saga to write in the sky.
Most things will turn out not quite as you planned,
But when you think 'run' ... you might fly.

The door to the world lies open, love,
As you stand in the limen and wait
There won't be a signal, no crying flood-dove
To tell you to step into fate.

There isn't a compass, a book or a guide
All there is, now and always, is you
And nowhere in the whole teeming world, far and wide
Could there be a person more true.

The door to the world lies open, yes,
And walk through it you certainly will.
And I hope in the noise and the fight and the mess
You'll find a small space to be still.

- Kathy, 8/8/14

Monday, August 4, 2014

Reading Notes: The Wake

This review is number 2 in my Man Booker Longlist challenge for this year. You can see links to the other review at the bottom of this post.

songs yes here is songs from a land forheawan folded under by a great slege a folc harried beatan a world brocen apart. all is open lic a wound unhealan and grene

Here are some things that are very interesting about The Wake:
  1. It is published via crowdsourcing publisher Unbound, who the author, Paul Kingsnorth, selected because he didn't think a conventional publisher would touch it with a ten-foot barge pole. (Hint: He was right). This makes it the very first crowdsourced title ever to find its way onto the Man Booker longlist.
  2. Its author, Paul Kingsnorth, is a debut novellist but not a debut writer, with two well-regarded non-fics to his credit.
  3. This book is not written in English.
Wait a minute! I hear you say. Not written in English? But, by gosh, isn't that the only remaining actual rule of  the Man Booker? Sure, it doesn't matter where you live or were born anymore - welcome, Americans! - but it specifically says that books have to be written in English right there in the rules, doesn't it?

Well yes it does, and I will be honest - I think the inclusion of The Wake is a trifle dodgy on these grounds. Because The Wake is written in "shadowtongue", a composite language based on Old English but modernised juuuuuuust enough so that the readership isn't perforce limited to three Oxford Dons and a few Tolkien hobbyists with too much time on their hands. Kingsnorth declines to use, say, punctuation, modern grammar, or any letters that didn't form part of Anglo-Saxon language pre the Norman invasion. So that's no k, v, j or q, in case you were wondering. Fun times!

He also uses plenty of Old English words that don't even faintly resemble their modern equivalent - "fugol" for bird, for example, or "swamm" for mushroom. There are, of course, a fair smattering of words that are close enough that you can get there without the aid of Google - "wifman" is virtually the same as wife, it isn't a big stretch to render "deofyl" into "devil" or "beorn" into burn and so on. And the spelling variation, while frankly murderous at first, grows on the eye after a while, until "gif", "triewe", "cilde", "cepe", "fuccan" and their like start to seem quite natural and comprehensible. (That good Old English word, "cunt", needs no translation, of course - one of the few entirely unchanged inheritances that modern English retains from its Anglish roots).

This book is set in 1066 and the years immediately following, and tries to pull off an AngloSaxon view of the Norman Conquest and what it was like. The narrator / protagonist, Buccmaster of Holland (not actually Holland - it's the name for the fens), tells a blud-soaced (to keep in tune with the spelling theme), brutal tale of signs, portents, rape, pillage, mass murder, burnings, and defeats.

The fact that there is a plot (of sorts) is much less important than the feeling in this book, and much less engaging than the gradual unfolding of the proud, arrogant, and fundamentally unpleasant character of Buccmaster. What Kingsnorth pulls off, and I didn't actually think he would until fully halfway through, is conveying a vivid, living sense of a mind quite alien in sensibility to a modern person and also, within its own context, very disturbed and problematic.

The ending of the book should not come as a surprise to anyone - spoiler alert, the green men rebels do not drive the Normans back into the sea, and it doesn't end super well for them - but Kingsnorth doesn't rely on any sense of suspense to keep the reader with him, so that isn't a big deal. And I admire enormously the dedication and purity of purpose that must have driven Kingsnorth in writing this and researching it, and his insistence that historical novels could not purport to be authentic if written in modern language. In the beginning is the word, after all, and what we can express shapes what we can be. I am aligned to this concept and I did feel a rawness, a sense of a window opening, from this text that I haven't encountered often in fiction set this far back.

Kingsnorth's decisions: to make Buccmaster a substantial landowner, a secret-ish devotee of old Anglo-Saxon / Norse religion, and a right nasty bastard: are all, textually speaking, absolutely the right ones. Precisely because Buccmaster is a wife-beating, bullying, snobbish arsehole, he is able to point up in searing clarity the depth of the destruction and disaster that befalls the natives of England with the coming of the Conqueror.

Because he seems - well, once you have done the work to penetrate the language - so human in his pride, fear, longing, despair, fury, and confusion; because he does shitty things and treats other people terribly and gets fuddled and stumped and makes stupid decisions - because he is a man, not even a very good man, we can look through his eyes and see the magnitude of what has been done clearly. It seems to me that what Kingsnorth is saying is that you don't have to be a paragon or even a good person to not deserve this. You do not need to be an angel - you can even be a deofyl - you still do not deserve to be enslaved, to be brutalised, to become unfree.

That said, although I did find the book very powerful and I am glad I persisted to the end, it is not for everyone. The language is a significant impediment, and obscures meaning so much in the first third of the text that it is much more labour than pleasure to get through it. Yes, the eye and the brain do adjust, but I would not be surprised if this is too much of a commitment for many to make, and I wouldn't blame them if so.

Will it shortlist? Depends on how out-there the judges are prepared to go this year. I think no, but we'll see.

Other Man Booker longlist reviews:
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The hills on which you are prepared to die

I've been thinking much of late about the relationship between opinion, judgement, ethics, compromise, consensus and moral bankruptcy. These thinks have been thunk across several different vectors of my life - I am, after all, a worker, a parent, a volunteer and a citizen, all of which roles provide plentiful opportunities to discover and rediscover where boundaries might lie. It's fair to say that for me, the sticking point is rather like that famous definition of pornography - I might not be able to tell you in the abstract exactly what it is, but I sure know it when I see it.

By this I mean that while opinions will always differ, and mine will not and should not prevail in many cases, there is a line between accepting an unpalatable decision that is the will of the group or the authority figure, and acquiescing to decisions that violate your personal or professional ethics in some fundamental way. It's the difference between doing something that you think is inefficient or suboptimal (but still perfectly acceptable ethically) and doing something that you genuinely believe to be inappropriate, immoral or unprofessional simply because the group, or your leader, has willed it so.

I do not believe that a person is absolved of their personal ethical responsibility simply because a group decision contradicts it, especially when the consequences of taking a stand are not deadly, devastating or personally threatening (I acknowledge, of course, that this equation is a much harder one in conflict and wartime, or for people with severely limited options who are reliant on the job or activity for basic needs). I have always known that there are hills on which I am prepared to die - issues over which I would withdraw my participation altogether rather than be party to. There have been times when this has come at not inconsiderable personal and financial cost to me, but I really don't want to imagine a life in which I failed to make these stands and then had to live with the knowledge of what I had silently allowed to pass.

*It is important for me to state that nothing in this post directly relates to any current situations in my life, but rather is a theme that has played out several times over the past 25 years and that I expect will no doubt occur again, given the plenitude of my entanglements!

Friday, August 1, 2014

On the imagined life

wanting things you should not want is sinful
wasting time in idle fantasising
thinking thoughts with no object and no purpose

every minute spent woolgathering is a minute less for productive work
every second spent not fully present with your kin is a second you have cheated them
every small frivolity that has no greater point is a distraction

so says the weight of two hundred years of Puritan ancestors, as I
slide out from under

and unfocus my eyes in scattered dream

and defiantly want all the things I want, especially the things I should not
live potent and powerful inside my head, and
wander every bridle path that presents itself to my imagination

because there is no freedom, none,
no richness of being or light in the bewilderment of a dark universe
unless it is born inside
unless it is sparked to life there and nurtured
a small, gentle flame
a shout of I to the gathering night

I, the dreamer
who dreams my life
and so, brings it birth.

- Kathy, 1/8/14