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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Pointless-ish music thing that I saw and decided to do

I saw this somewhere about and I am deep into a thinky piece of work at the moment, which means listening to a LOT of music as I work (it helps me focus). So I thought, OK, why not.

The idea is to pick 1-3 songs that provide the soundtrack for each decade of your life so far. They don't have to be songs of that decade, or even songs that you liked at that time in your life (or now, I suppose). They don't have to be straightforward textual representations of what was going on in your life then, although they can be. They just are supposed to capture, I guess, your zeitgeist at each stage of your life. You are not supposed to explain or editorialise them in any way - just leave them on the page, so to speak, and let the story unfold itself.

(I really wish I could remember where I saw this, but it was during a middle-of-night insomnia distraction-via-Internet multi-rabbit-hole session, so I do not recall at all).

So anyway. In my cogitation break from my work ... The Soundtrack To My Life So Far.

My first decade of life: 1973 - 1983 (Birth to late primary school)

1. For Baby (John Denver)



2. Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole)


3. Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton)



Second decade: 1983 - 1993 (High school and undergrad uni)


1. Losing My Religion (REM)


2. Stupid Girl (Garbage)


3. Galileo (Indigo Girls)


Third decade: 1993 - 2003 (Masters, early career and marriage)

1. Lucy (Nick Cave)


2. No One (Alicia Keys)


3. Doubled Up (Heather Nova)


Fourth decade: 2003 - 2013 (Primarily, motherhood)

1. Thank You (Dido)


2. Rise Up (Andra Day)


3. Forever Young (Joan Baez version)


Fifth (current) decade: 2013 - now (Life!)

1. Redemption Song (Bob Marley)


2. Washing of the Water (Peter Gabriel)


3. Hallelujah (Choir Choir Choir and Rufus Wainwright version)



Sunday, September 10, 2017

Four weeks in review, four weeks in view

Well, that four weeks seems to have flown, but that's the nature of the beast these days.

Overall, it was a fairly good four weeks. Work remained moderate, although one of my projects was in quite an intense phase (and took probably 80% of the work time overall). Near the end of the period, I picked up a small job for a different client (completed in a couple of days) and also got confirmation and starting orders on a project that I wasn't sure was going to proceed, all of which was good news and means that things will be busier from here onwards for a while.

Spring has sprung in Melbourne - not that you'd know it necessarily, with the icy winds and frequent rain - and two of our household have copped both hayfever and a cold, so that hasn't been much fun. So far the other three of us are OK - fingers double crossed it stays that way!

The four weeks to come is equally busy, but incorporates both school holidays and our trip to Sydney, so it will be a different kind of busy (hopefully a fun kind). I am trying to keep up momentum with writing, which isn't always easy but I do my best. Meeting work and family needs in this next stretch is going to be a challenge, I think.


FOUR WEEKS IN REVIEW (14 August - 10 September)
- Attended the massive Equal Love Marriage Equality Rally in Melbourne on 26 August. One of the best and most important days of the year for us.
- Completed 13 days of paid work (3, 3, 4, 3)
- The usual extracurriculars each week, with some missed due to other commitments: 3 x gymnastics, 2 x jujitsu, 3 x chess, 3 x skating
- Online Book Club (16 August) discussing Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (verdict was we didn't like the book!)
- Cake making for 14 year old's Star Trek cake
- 14 year old's friends birthday party (dinner at a hotel)
- Hosted youngest kid's friend for her first-ever friend sleepover
- Passport applications complete and submitted WOOOO HOOOO
- Family Father's Day celebrations (a week late to accommodate travelling relos - today)
- Booking accommodation and further itinerary planning for Japan
- Finalised activity bookings for Sydney trip
- Poem published on Girls Will Be Girls
- Worked on Women of Story edits
- Wrote 12 new poems
- Submitted a poem to a poetry competition and pitched two poems for publication
- Family movie trip to see My Neighbour Totoro (we are all besotted with it)

FOUR WEEKS IN VIEW (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
- Leave for me (21 Sept - 1 Oct) and school holidays for kids (23 Sept - 8 Oct)
- Family holiday in Sydney, incorporating the Sherlock exhibition and OzComicCon
- 2 weeks of extracurriculars: gymnastics, jujitsu, chess, skating
- Online Book Club (11 September): Jane Eyre
- More work on Women of Story development
- Write minimum 6 new poems and 1 short story
- Submit minimum 3 pieces to competitions or publications

Friday, September 8, 2017

Lovesong Sestina (Poem)

Separately, neither one was anyone much.
One liked swimming, blue porcelain and Ceylon tea,
and worked in an office above a bakery.
The other, with an eye for beauty, sketched on Sunday,
and painted stranger's fingernails all through the week.
Both their hearts were gem-blue like the sea.

They met on a park bench by the sea.
It was a cold spring that year, and no-one much
had been about the esplanade all week.
It was natural enough, the decision to go in search of tea
Almost everywhere was closed, for Sunday,
until they found a tiny bakery.

The good scent of yeast and cinnamon from the bakery
drew them in as rain came from the sea.
The windows steamed in sticky comfort that Sunday.
They talked about nothing, or at least nothing much
of significance, as they drank their tea;
it felt like time expanded, an hour filled a week

Such a pity to have to work this week,
sighed the one who worked above the bakery.
I'd rather stay, with you, here, drinking tea -
Despite the cold and rainfall by the sea.
The artist said, With me? I can't bring much
to add to the shininess of Sunday -

Every day with you would be a Sunday
If I could, I'd be with you eight days a week -
said the swimmer, and the artist said not much
but reached a hand out, gently, in the bakery
Their fingers touching, joyous as the sea
as the lady from the kitchen poured their tea.

Eventually, they reached the limit of the tea
they could usefully drink; and wandered out into Sunday.
Dusk was sidling in, all shy-gold from the sea;
The artist said: Forget about the week -
I'll leave mine too, forgotten in the bakery
I don't know when I ever wanted this much

Then they kissed, and it was much too much
and at the same time, stardust, outside the bakery
and time folded open, and it was the first week.

- Kathy, 8/09/17

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Flood ( A Sestina)

This poem is my first attempt at a sestina. It's a really tricky form but I wanted to give it a go. I doubt I am going to become one of the great sestina poets (hello, Elizabeth Bishop, lookin' at you!) but it was a good discipline to try it.

The sestina form has seven stanzas (six with six lines and the final with three) with a very strict repeating rhyme pattern, represented as follows where each letter stands for the final word of the line.

1. ABCDEF
2. FAEBDC
3. CFDABE
4. ECBFAD
5. DEACFB
6. BDFECA
7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

In my poem, the repeated words are:

A = Sign
B = Ask
C = Hurricane
D = Water
E = Map
F = Flee

FLOOD

Some say floods in Texas are a sign;
Of what, it depends on who you ask.
Brought in fast and deep by a hurricane -
Looking from above, the earth is blanketed in water
Entire towns wiped off the survey map
Posits of recovery variable, for those that flee.

Everywhere, across the earth, they flee;
Bleeding borders, searching for a sign
of harbour in some quiet corner of the map.
Refuge seems so much and little now to ask
where injustice flows like living water
and silences are drowned in hurricane.

The future blows in harder than a hurricane;
the tech ascendant, nowhere now to flee
from the satellites that target over water.
Every spacedust signal is a sign:
Obscured by not knowing how to ask,
how to find the real within the cosmic map.

And yet, and yet, the heart resists a map:
Love and fear a double hurricane
of cone-tight, star-bright feeling; why even ask
why people are the way they are; why they flee
from that which brings them joy, and seek a sign
of truth in misery, of death under the water.

Once, it's said, a god drowned us in water;
Flicked out an enraged hand and cleaned the map.
Eventually a dove came as a sign -
In later days we ride the hurricane
Turn the stove up under the world's bones, and flee
from the questions no one dares to ask.

We get the times we get, and have to ask
what we bring with us to give; born of water,
still mammals in the marrow, even if we flee
the sillage of good earth in our gene map.
Sentience sometimes a hurricane -
All the world is wonder, each falling star a sign.

And the nights hold secrets, refusing us a sign;
No foreshadow of the last great hurricane.
Living never did come with a map.

- Kathy, 2/09/2017