Saturday, 19 January 2019

Book review: Two collections of Chinese poetry from American university presses

It’s extremely frustrating to have to give poor reviews to two collections of poetry at the same time, but there you have it. Stephen Owen’s ‘The Late Tang’ (from Harvard University, Asia Center) and ‘Chinese Poetry’ edited and translated by Wai-Lim Yip (from Duke University Press) are, each in their own specific ways, dismal books.

Owen’s collection gives you an introduction of such mesmerising complexity that you would have to be a Chinese literature scholar to make much sense of it. And Yip flatly declines to translate the poems at all, holding, as he does, that the syntax of Chinese is too different from that of Indo-European languages to make that task meaningful.

So you get nothing useful. All you want is to read a reliable narrative about Tang poetry and to be able to read what Chinese poets wrote, in a translation. Instead you get these two books which make the job of understanding so difficult as to be completely impossible.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Book review: China, A History, John Keay (2008)

In its early parts this book is fascinating for anyone interested in China but the story gets bogged down in details by about 200BC and stalls in a seemingly endless series of identical dynasties. Chinese leadership is founded on the justification that it could derive from history (heaven’s mandate), so history as a strategy of leadership is of long standing in China. It’s sort of like Shakespeare’s relationship with the Tudors, but for 2000 years instead of half a generation.

Each dynasty tried to corral the facts into making it seem ideal, so you get a continuous rewriting of the written record for two millennia. Imagine if the Romans had survived for that long and you get an idea of how tedious the written record might have been in the west.

In the central areas of settlement from about 3000BC there had been bronze casting technology, but mostly it was used to make luxury items for an elite (and used for burial purposes), rather than for useful purposes such as weapons or agricultural implements. From about 1500BC you have a standardised form of writing. This was used on early “documents”, which were the shoulder bones of oxen and the shells of turtles that had been put into fire to make them crack. The cracking was “read” by members of a priestly caste who then wrote down the meanings of the divinations on the substance thus treated, and this was then stored.

The act of reading the intentions of the gods from nature was embedded in the culture early, therefore, and this habit continued into later centuries in the poetry that was produced at different times. At one point in his review of the early centuries of the culture, Keay talks about diviners using sets of sticks that were thrown down to form patterns (sets of six, to form a hexagram). He goes on:
They also employ a technique typical of Chinese verse, and indeed literature and art as a whole, which engages the reader by juxtaposing, or correlating, naturalistic images with human concerns to delightfully subtle, if sometimes obscure, effect. The same associative technique appears in another near-contemporary (but non-divinatory) classic. This is ‘The Books of Songs’ (Shijing, also called ‘The Book of Odes’), on which Confucius [c 500BC] is supposed later to have worked. The first of the ‘Songs’ – mostly ritual hymns, heroic verses and pastoral odes – provides a standard example of the correlational technique. The mewed call of an osprey is juxtaposed with a marriage proposal to convey, through terse imagery, onomatopoeia and pun (all largely lost in translation) a heavy sense of sexual expectation.
Guan, guan cries the osprey
On the river’s isle.
Delicate is the young girl:
A fine match for the lord.
Keay goes on later:
Classics like the Shijing and Yiping reveal aspects of ritual practice and social life in early first-millennium BC China as well as the prevalence and development of literary culture.
These insights into the nature of Chinese culture are far more interesting than the endless struggle that constitutes the dreary succession of kings and princes and emperors to follow.

I wish that Keay had taken it upon himself to look in more detail the kinds of things that ordinary people were doing. For the most part, ordinary people are absent in the social and ritual life of the various states that would, eventually, be unified under the First Emperor in around 200BC. Under this ruler, weights and measures, language and administration were standardised over a larger area than ever before.

Keay does show how the divine realm combined with the ancestors of prominent people, and then with the rulers on the earth, so that the Chinese cosmogony is a kind of supra-real hierarchy that enabled rulers to monopolise power for themselves at the expense of the individual. Life, for ordinary people in these times, was cheap and harsh, with secular powers conscripting the very gods into the task of overawing the community and getting it to toil and fight for the benefit of an elite.

And the Maoists were not the first to use book-burning. Even the First Emperor burned books in order to consolidate his power. History, for the Chinese, is a constantly revised locus of struggle and debate where the powerful seek the mandate of heaven by making the facts suit them at the expense of their enemies and at the expense of the reputations of those who came before.

There was no earthly god in the form of Christ in China to give the people the hope of redemption in an afterlife. All was unremitting toil and labour to furnish resources for a few. Keay also notes that the distance between the ruler and the ruled in China was always greater than what existed between the ruler and the ruled in the west. Once you had passed the exams to allow you to enter the administration, your life and the lives of all your family, would change radically. You became a kind of living god. And so the story continues today.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Book review: Swing Time, Zadie Smith (2016)

This strange, ambitious novel kept me tapping the pages until about 42 percent of the way through, then I gave up, irritated by the version of reality I was being served. This is to a certain degree an autobiographical novel centring on an unnamed narrator, a young woman who grew up in a mixed-race household in London who ends up working for an Australian pop singer (Smith herself was interested in dance when she was young) but it has decided themes about women and minorities that go awry when the author takes her heroine to Africa.

Aimee, the singer who is the sponsor for the authorial “I”, comes across as entitled in many ways, and appears to be unaware of the struggles of women who are from ethnic minorities (such as the narrator and her friend Tracey). This is the “intersectional” feminism gambit at play. Her myopia is expressed in different ways in the early part of the novel in order to prime the reader for the failure in Africa. But the parts of the book that deal with the narrator’s childhood are richly imagined and powerful, and display Smith’s competence as a storyteller.

The quality of the prose is exceptional throughout, which makes it hard to know when some idea is coming from the author or if it is coming from nature in the form of one of her creations. Characterisation has this quality about it of making certain things seem inevitable when we come across them. An author uses characters to develop the plot and to build themes, and it is through them that most of the signification in the novel or story or poem is created. A character is a tool of the author but there is something about a character that predetermines outcomes. Making a character suddenly behave “out of character” can result in a sort of psychic jolt in the reader’s mind, and may disturb their experience of the book so strongly that they give up reading it. Getting the reader to sympathise with various characters, and to understand the relations between them in the novel, is central to authorial craft, and to a great degree determines the success or otherwise of a work of fiction.

For Smith in this novel the trick was to make Aimee appear to be lacking something essential. But I felt that Smith chose the wrong target for her scorn.

It’s one thing to be critical of the narrator’s parents, well-meaning intellectuals who try their best to raise their daughter in a loving household. It’s one thing to wonder about Tracey, the narrator’s best friend, who is good at dance (Smith’s narrator unfortunately has flat feet and never gets far in the art) and who comes from a broken home; her father spends a lot of time in prison. And it’s one thing to critique the cult of the individual as it is embodied for commercial reasons by products of the entertainment industry.

But to baldly criticise westerners who work to open schools in African countries, and in the process for good measure glorify the noble native sons while lambasting the sponsors, is to go a step too far for good taste to bear. It’s also not accurate in fact. I know of at least two schools that have been opened in Africa by an Australian philanthropist, and that have thrived with sponsorship from abroad, giving children in Uganda opportunities to succeed in their communities due to the advantages conveyed by education. Smith’s critical lens is focused on the wrong object. Further, it cannot be just the leaders in these countries that have failed to provide a good climate for the enterprise of their people; all the people in such countries are complicit in the corruption that exists there. Smith is misguided and well-meaning, but misguided nonetheless.

This book is a kind of deception of a type that is perpetrated on the world by educated exponents of minorities. It’s the standard progressive point of view embodied in a coherent story. Its narrative is slanted to make some people look good and others to look bad, and the accuracy of the reckoning is not rooted in reality but rather in the biases that exist in the alternative mainstream, which is populated by people who consider themselves to be beleaguered but who are in fact just average and who blame a “system” they believe they do not belong to, in order to improve their prospects. Much better books by women have been written in Australia but Smith has never heard of these authors.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Movie review: Vice, dir Adam McKay (2018)

Like most movies today this film is way too long at almost two-and-a-quarter hours and it was particularly bad in my case because I sat in a very cold theatre. Perhaps the cinema operators thought that turning up the aircon would give the movie an authentic American feel. Whatever the reason, when I got out of the building into the summer afternoon it was like entering an oven.

The casting was very good for this movie, with Christian Bale giving a strong performance as Dick Cheney, one that was matched by that of Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife Lynne. Sam Rockwell as George W Bush was masterful: the hooked nose must have been a prosthetic but the mouth and the way of talking was spot-on. The performance by Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld (Bush Jnr’s secretary of defense) was also strong.

It’s a Cinderella story at heart, showing how Cheney rose through the ranks in Washington starting out as an intern for Rumsfeld and how he made a career for himself in the administration of Reagan and then as the lower-house representative for Wyoming. His life was going very well at this point even though his daughter Mary had come out as gay. The director (who wrote the screenplay as well) runs a fake series of credits at this point to punctuate his drama (I’m not sure why people are using the word “comedy” to describe this film) but the scrolling names are interrupted when Cheney gets a call from someone on the Bush campaign asking if he will meet with the Texas governor. Which is where the fun really starts.

There are a number of “innovative” elements employed in this film to heighten the drama for the viewer and to maximise the impact of various scenes. The fake credits are one already mentioned. The scene where Cheney and Lynne are in bed and they start to recite lines from (what was presumably) ‘Macbeth’, Shakespeare’s 1606 play, are however a complete dud. The actors may just as well have been talking in Swahili for all the sense it made when they spoke the words they used.

There are other quirky things that the director does in an effort to keep the thing running smoothly and to keep people from getting up and walking out of the cinema. One is to have an omniscient narrator who enters the story at a late stage in an unexpected role. This is an interesting ploy by the director that serves to give the story an overarching structure and to lend it some gravitas, especially in consideration of what happens to the narrator in the late stages of the story. A related theme is the heart, which pops up periodically for Cheney as he survives one myocardial infarction after another. Death stalks the halls of power and the matter of Cheney’s conscience (where his “heart” lies) is probed with a quantity of critical aplomb that borders however on cynicism. But in aggregate this is a functional film that doesn’t offer a much in the way of suspense and that relies for emotional highs on the story of Mary, Cheney’s and Lynne’s gay daughter. What happens to Mary is the real story, in my view.

I admit that I was fully prepared to hate this film, mostly because on the day I saw it I had gone to the cinema intending to see something else and had mixed up the screening dates. I would love to hear what other people think of it, and I’m particularly interested to learn more about whether people think the story is historically accurate. This seems to me to be a point that is critical for anyone who wants to rate the movie. Is it a success on its own terms or is it just a mediocre grab for attention, something aimed at achieving nothing more than getting awards so that the director can secure more work in future?

The theme of violence is striking. It stems from such things as the reckless use of cars and guns and reaches into the use of the US military overseas. There is something about US culture that idealises excessive violence, and this film does a good job of rendering this aspect of the culture in different parts of the story in various ways. But I wasn’t entirely convinced by the film’s “liberal” directorial position, and felt it was probably a mistake to give so much influence over the final product to one person. On the other hand the film worked perfectly fine in a structural and thematic sense. It made its points well enough and it told the story it had to convey in an appropriate fashion. But great art it certainly ain’t. Should do well at the Academy Awards.

Before watching the movie I had a bowl of chicken pho at a shop down the street and a bottle of Young Henry’s pale ale from the cinema bar. I had arrived early in order to be on-time for the movie I had planned to see.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Overcast summer day after a storm

The day before Sydney had had a violent thunderstorm that rumbled across the city during the afternoon and early evening. The claps of thunder had appeared one after the other like train crashes or like peals sent out by kettle drums in some mad orchestra.

With a friend I drove to Watsons Bay and we parked on the hill and walked down to the esplanade. We popped into a restaurant near the beach and ordered food. I had a duck liver pate with grilled bread and my friend had tempura fried zucchini flowers. For the mains I had a seafood risotto (which was very diminutive; thank goodness I had the entre as well) and my friend had prawn linguini. At the next table were three young woman aged in their twenties. One of them, who was sitting, like me, with her back to the bay, was telling her friends about her semester at the national university in Canberra.

After lunch my friend and I went for a walk to Camp Cove and ascended the stairs to the harbourfront walk. The path was heavily trafficked with people from Japan, China, Sweden; people from everywhere in the world seemed to be there taking advantage of the mild weather and taking in the spectacular views across the harbour to the city skyline. We walked past the stairs leading down to Lady Bay Beach and negotiated the circular path at the point. On the way back my friend asked about Nielsen Park, which we could see in the distance, and we talked about it for a short while, then headed back to the car and drove over there.

I parked the car next to Nielsen Park and we walked to the promenade. We sat on a wooden bench near the end of the elevated beachside path. There were three big boats anchored outside the nets at the south end of the beach. One was a flat vessel for drinking and dancing and they had loud music playing from a powerful stereo system that could be heard from the beach. Another one was a large catamaran that appeared unoccupied until two kayakers turned up at the stern. The third boat was an elderly cruiser that had about 15 people on-board. They were singing to The Police ('Message in A Bottle' at one stage) and there were four teenagers on inflatable craft that had been launched from the boat playing in the water nearer the beach.

We got back in the car after looking for shells, rocks and pieces of worn glass at the tideline. We dropped by my place then I drove my friend home and dropped her off in the street. I turned the car around and came back along the street attempting to get to the main road but I saw her standing waving at the kerb, so I stopped. She asked if I wanted to go up to her flat to have dinner. There was a parking space nearby and I managed to park the car there and we went upstairs. She opened the front door to her unit and invited me in and then set about making dumplings for dinner. She steamed them in a special saucepan and made a salad. Then she warmed up some chicken she had leftover from an earlier meal and we sat down to eat. After dinner we went for a walk in the park near her house and then I got in the car and drove home. On the way back, on Sydney Park Road, there was a random breath-testing setup and the cops pulled me over to run a test.

The officer who came to my window asked to see my driver’s license and then got me to count up to 10 while breathing into a small device that he held in his hand. My heart was racing by this time and I felt a little panicked even though I had not had anything to drink for several hours. The reading came up negative and I went home and put on the clothes dryer to finish the laundry that I had started in the morning. The rolling drum sounded a bit like the sound of thunder, on repeat.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Exhibition review: Early Modernist paintings from the Hermitage (2019)

This Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition was well-patronised on the January day I went to see it. In fact there were a few too many patrons for comfort and I rushed through quickly. Most people will be familiar with the sorts of things on display so many will not need to go along, but for others it will be precisely the familiarity of the styles on show which constitute the drawcard. I picked out four of the works to talk about. These are just the ones that caught my eye.

Russians have been great consumers of European art for a long time. In many respects there was no substantive native art at all until the early 19th century at which time Pushkin came along and single-handedly created a Russian literature. Many novels from England and France and Germany were read in Russia during the period leading up to that great geopolitical disaster, the October Revolution, and so it is not surprising that the two Russian businessmen responsible for this stunning collection were so taken with what was happening in the west.

In fact, it was precisely a perceived deficit of modernity in Russia (emblematised by 1905’s military defeat to Japan) that led to the revolution, although after it took place it would have been inconceivable for a collection such as this one to be assembled. Once the old regime was gotten rid of, the Soviet Union became depressingly unambitious in its artistic tastes, preferring exactly the kinds of figurative work that people like Picasso and Derain were so intent on usurping. So it is richly ironic that Russia today, which is so desperate to reclaim the kind of greatness that it thinks the USSR embodied, is using this collection as a form of soft power in the service of its geopolitical aims.

But just in case anyone is tempted to feel superior thinking that we have gotten over the tendency to ignore what is strange and lovely, don’t be fooled by appearances. Just because we see the value, today, in the Fauves or in the Cubists, doesn’t mean we properly support the most innovative artists who live among us. In fact, the tendency to ignore what is good and original is as typical of the world today as it was in the first decade of the previous century. Nothing has changed. The bourgeoisie is still unimaginative and blind to real talent.

Andre Derain, ‘Mountain Road’ (1907)

This lovely painting contains so much that would become typical for the period: the bold, contrasting colours, the flat surface, the tendency toward abstraction. You can see in this single painting a lot of what became commonplace later in the century, and if you look back to a bit earlier in time you can see how Derain came to the conclusions that he reached in this work. The privileging of light and colour over mere form, and the movement away from representation as a justification for the work itself. Composition becomes more important than figuration in a painting like this, and these characteristics appear in all of the artworks in this collection.

Pablo Picasso, ‘Small House in A Garden’ (1908)

Once again, you see composition coming to the fore in this small picture, where the bright orange of the wall to the right of the canvas concentrates the energy in the painting into a small space. Most of the colours in this painting are muted and plain, so that the green of the tree in the background assumes a tonal significance that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve. The luminous wall of the house in the centre of the canvas has a strange quality as though it were emblematic of something otherworldly, something that would not have been possible to articulate without the abstraction that dominates this work.

Wassily Kandinsky, ‘View of Murnau: landscape with a green house’ (1908)

I’m not a big fan of Kandinsky personally but this small, beautiful work demonstrates the way that painters in the era were using colours in new ways, ways that represented a distinct break with tradition. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to be alive at the time looking at a painting like this, but it must have been intoxicating for some and disturbing for others. We can get some idea about how people living in those days thought about modern art from reading news stories written then.

Chaim Soutine, ‘Self-portrait’ (c 1920/21)

This wonderful work is a bit later in time compared to the others I have chosen. In fact it dates from a good 10 years later, after WWI had finished. But it strikes me as being so demonstrably relevant in relation to what came later, especially what emerged in the period after WWII with the Abstract Expressionists. You can see Soutine here working out how to capture the interior person in a rendering of his flesh. Echoes of Bacon appear. This is a work for the ages.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Book review: The Last Train, Michael Pronko (2017)

This engrossing procedural works well for most of its length but falls down at the end as the author tries to maintain a heightened sense of suspense beyond the limits that can be sustained by the reader’s credulity.

In its early stages there is plenty of believable drama as Hiroshi Shimizu and his police colleagues try to find the identity of the person who killed a foreigner (foreigners are known in Japan as “gaijin”, or “outsiders”) by throwing him in front of an express train at one of Tokyo’s many stations.

Shimizu is offered up as a sympathetic if unglamorous cop whose wife, an American, has just left the country, and him, to return to her home. The man, named Takamatsu, who ropes Shimizu into the case of the death of Steve Deveraux, who had worked for a property company, is also a bit odd and he brings on a number of other police to work on the case. There is an ex-sumo wrestler named Sakaguchi who lends some muscle to the force when it’s needed. There’s also a female cop named Akiko who likes coffee and who stays in the office doing research.

The case centres on property transactions in Tokyo and it involves the yakuza, who had abducted Deveraux’s killer, Michiko Suzuki, when she was younger and sexually exploited her for the purpose of making degrading pornography. Michiko’s father had run a small metalworking factory in Kawasaki in the post-war years but the business had gone bad. Michiko had taken to working as an escort and had used information garnered from her line of work to get involved in property speculation. The reason the mob took and interest in her was due to one of her schemes. Michiko had also trained in aikido and had given money to close family members to help them get established in the community.

The book therefore in its sweep takes in a number of themes that are familiar to anyone who knows Japan even partially. The switch from manufacturing to service industries, the gentrification of downmarket areas of the city to house office workers, the various speculative trends that have characterised business in recent decades, the perennial second-class status of women, the ambivalence that Japanese have about foreigners: all of it serves to provide Pronko, who says on his author page that he has lived in Japan for 20 years, with material for this tale of redemption and transformation. In what follows there are spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens in the story stop reading here.

When Takamatsu is injured in the course of performing his duties, the stakes for Hiroshi are raised but his will is undaunted. He visits Michiko’s accountant and also a photographer she had used in one of her ongoing schemes involving blackmail. She and the photographer would target businessmen and demand money from them to prevent them from sending photographs of their romantic trysts to their wives. All sorts of shadowy enterprise were used by Michiko in order to enable her to amass wealth, which she was in the process of transferring to a Swiss bank account preparatory to her leaving to go and live in Europe.

The penny drops well before the end of the book and it might have been possible to tighten the noose around Michiko without her unfortunate death in the final pages, but Pronko decided to have Sakaguchi and Hiroshi go running around Tokyo in pursuit of their quarry instead of getting the police to stake out the airport. The cops knew well in advance of the final chase scene when Michiko was due to board the aircraft that was to take her to Paris, and I cannot account for the author’s inability to stick to a script with some basis in sensible reality, instead of having Michiko assault Hiroshi on a station platform on the Yamanote Line, and then run into Meiji Jingu, the Shinto shrine in the centre of the city near Harajuku.

This might have been a very good novel but in the end it was just a better-than-average thriller. It would have been a much better book if there had been one less body to count. In any case, after all is said and done the characterisation of Michiko is really very good, although the parts of the book that are focalised through her do not reveal many of her thoughts. The parts of the book that are focalised through Hiroshi are full of stray thoughts and random impressions, so the way that the two main characters are handled is strikingly different. I hesitate to say that this is a shortcoming of the book, but it was certainly something that impressed itself on me. By making Hiroshi more complete as a character, the author establishes a hierarchy that the reader is forced to follow: this character is more important than that one.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Dream journal: Five

As usual, the date shown is the date the dream was captured. They have to be captured immediately otherwise they fade from memory.

27 December

In was at the office operated by Honeywell (where I worked in real life from 1989 to 1992) and I was moving my desk from one part of the company to another. The move meant I was going from a small unit to a part of the building that served the whole office. My position as desktop publisher was unchanged, but my role would now be expanded because I would be doing the work for more people. The computer equipment that I would be using would take up the space occupied by a number of regular-sized desks and I asked the person who was looking after the move if there would be enough room for all my equipment. She said there would be. My first job in the new role was already waiting for me; it was a large document that had to be entered into the database so that it could be published.

Then I was somewhere in SE Asia and I was inspecting ore samples that had been brought out of the ground by people from the Philippines. The ore was golden in colour and I had to give my opinion about it, and say whether it contained a lot of the metal the company wanted to mine. On one side of the sample there was a kind of national crest stamped in brown ink. I turned the small piece of ore over in my fingers but I didn’t have a clue about its metal content. People were waiting for my reply and there were a lot of dignitaries from different countries milling around waiting for an event to start.

29 December

I was helping an old friend to build a house. The formwork for the concrete was all in place and I was supervising the pour. Everything seemed to be going well until later, when the builder found that I hadn’t put the hardening agent into the concrete. The concrete had not set and so was still liquid. I was very upset by this development but my friend was livid, and told me that he would not do something for me that he had agreed to do. This was a terrible outcome from the situation, but I don’t remember now what he had promised me he would do.

30 December

At my work unit in Tokyo corporate management had decided to change the unit structure and I was sure that I would not be considered for the role of manager. I wondered if the new manager would be a colleague who had been hired before me. Then I learned that the unit would in future be run by a man who had worked at a company specialising in the production of words. He was an Australian but he had a Dutch name (I thought) that I didn’t know how to pronounce. I looked up a newspaper report about the posting and it turned out that he had managed a company that his daughter had set up in Tokyo. I made an entry in my mobile phone because it was late in the evening (around 10.30pm) and I had been looking for and failed to find someone to call. His face filled the screen of my contacts; the phone was an early digital one, one of the kinds that was used before smartphones became popular. I would put in his phone number on a later occasion, I mused to myself as I looked at his features.

3 January

I dreamed I was with the police working in an anti-terror squad. We had to monitor the activities of Muslims and we were stationed at a swimming pool. I had on a harness and was attached to a rope that allowed me to abseil down to the pool in case of an emergency. The people we were monitoring had come to the pool because lots of people used the facility, and we had to stop the plotters from carrying out their plans. There were lots of them and we had a busy time of it. I had a good relationship with my senior officer, who thought I was a valued member of the team.

Then the scene changed and I was walking up a four-storey unit block in Cabramatta with a female officer who had a Vietnamese background. She was taking me up to the top of the building so that I could jump off it. But I had never jumped off such a high place before, and when we got to the roof of the building I refused to jump. My senior officer was there too and he told me that he had never jumped off such a high place before, either. Then he jumped, with his guide rope attached to the scaffolding that was erected on the roof of the building. He zipped down to the ground and I looked down from the roof, filled with terror. Would I have to jump too? 

Monday, 7 January 2019

Book review: Beneath the Skin (2018)

This collection of essays by name authors is a British production and something about its twee superficiality made me reflect on how the Brits have degenerated in recent decades. It was like watching a particularly bad episode of ‘QI’ or any episode of ‘Would I Lie to You?’. Brits trying to be nasty (and funny) are tiresome, and in this book the attempts that have been taken to be serious turn out to be simply lame.

The only essay in this collection I finished was written by Abi Curtis and it was about the eye. I tried all the other ones but found that the tone was either too playful (trying hard to make a difficult subject palatable for a mainstream audience) or not rigorous enough. For example, the first essay, on the gut, by Naomi Alderman, made no mention of the process of digestion nor of the way that biosolids (the treated waste that cities produce) is reused in agriculture as a fertiliser. She just hadn’t done her homework.

An attempt to background our current knowledge by showing how the particular organ in question was viewed in ancient times (before the advent of modern medicine, which started in the early 17th century) was something of a trope for the writers of these pieces.

I certainly can’t see anything here of the depth and exhaustiveness that Kate Cole-Adams displayed in her wonderful book ‘Anaesthesia’ (which was published in 2017 and which I reviewed on this blog on 21 November last year), which is a keeper where this uneven book is most certainly disposable.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Book review: Severance, Ling Ma (2018)

This is a really disappointing book but I only got most of the way through the prologue before giving up. The author has given herself license to create a new social order in the wake of the kind of apocalyptic disaster that Americans find so entertaining. For people in the rest of the world, reality is more expressive of real human values. You can feel the identity politics winding up in the prologue to this book, and I wasn’t prepared to witness the fallout from the resulting explosion.

Reading the beginning of this book was kind of like watching a slow-motion video of the double fault of a famous tennis player. You see all the effort that goes into the serve but you know that it will just hit the net and drop aimlessly to the court’s surface.
There seems to be a pattern emerging of disappointing works by young, politically-progressive female authors using a future dystopia as a canvas against which to tease out their dissatisfactions with the contemporary world.

On 1 February of last year I reviewed ‘Dyschronia’ by Australian author Jennifer Mills, a book that was only partially successful in delivering a vision imbued by ideas about gender and class. On 10 August of the same year I reviewed ‘The Mere Wife’ by American author Maria Dahvana Headley that was also inspired by ideas connected to gender but that had a plot I found to be riddled with holes. In both books, the author uses an imagined world to render a reality that she feels strongly but that is animated by narrow political concerns, and that ultimately fails to convince the reader. The lack of universal relevance for the ideas the books retail in in the broader community makes them fail. You wonder who the intended audience is for such books, and whether perhaps there are not multiple audiences out there for contemporary fiction.

You can feel the calculus that such authors are running through their heads when they’re planning their novels. Will I get enough interested readers, people who share my particular, narrow view of the world, to subscribe to the ideas I am going to put forward? Authors of such books are too confident of the indulgence of their favourite reader, and not suspicious enough of their own biases. They fail to come up with plots and characters that can be enjoyed by the everyone. They are blinkered into a single lane on the track, but they haven’t prepared well enough for the long haul. Real writers see things that are universal and go for stories that are full of ideas that everyone can share, not just a select few.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Grocery shopping list for December 2018

4 December

Went shopping at the IGA. Bought a ling fillet, sea perch fillets, hot salami, pork sausages, goats' cheese, Cheddar cheese, broccolini, half a butternut pumpkin, carrots, broccoli, asparagus, a swede, zucchini, bread, crackers, snacks, milk.

They had salmon at the fresh fish counter and I asked if they had skinless fillets but the young woman serving me, who was slim and sounded French but could easily have been born in any European country, said that they did not. Fish with skin on it spits when fried in the pan with oil, so I prefer to get skinless. I asked for the biggest ling fillet they had and she moved around a number of them then gave me one I picked out. Then when she was selecting sea perch fillets to weigh she took time to ask me if the ones she had picked out suited me. I asked her if the smoked cod they sold had to be cooked before eating, and she said that it did. I put the information away for next time I went to that supermarket; I had never tried their smoked cod before.

At the checkout, I gave my backpack to the young woman at the register, who was short and had dark skin, and told her that everything went in it except for the bread. I gave her a single-use plastic bag that had been stored tied in a loose knot, to use for the bread. She hesitated with the box of crackers and I told her it could go in with the bread, so she put it aside. I popped the asparagus into a narrow side pocket in the backpack, and she also put the snacks in there after scanning them because the central section quickly filled up with bulky items like carrots (which were sold pre-packaged in a bag) and milk.

11 December

Went shopping at Coles. Bought locally-harvested barramundi fillets, salmon fillets, chicken thighs, a piece of Scotch fillet, Danish salami, Cheddar cheese, bread, two types of biscuits, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, parsnips.

I asked about getting a chicken for Christmas and the young woman with dark skin said that the store was closed on that day. But the older Anglo woman at the deli counter, who I have seen on many occasions before, told me that they will be open on Christmas Eve and that the chickens will be cooked and ready from about 8 o’clock in the morning. I said I would come in sometime in the morning.

14 December

Went shopping at the IGA. Bought a piece of smoked cod, tuna steaks, sea perch fillets, pork sausages advertised as “Italian”, shortcut bacon, water crackers, bread, snacks, biscuits, milk, a swede, broccolini, some green beans, asparagus, Multix “Greener” biodegradable sandwich bags, toothpaste, and a box of Pears soap.

While I was up the street I also bought some Christmas cards at the newsagent, and on the way home I stopped off at the pub and took some cash out of the ATM. The sandwich bags are to put the fish and sausages in before putting them away in the freezer. My routine when I get back from shopping is to bag up the fish fillets and sausages and freeze them. I usually take food out of the freezer on the day I am going to use it.

I had a look at the Choice magazine page on biodegradable plastic and it wasn’t very encouraging. There is a verification scheme that Australian manufacturers can use and plastic products that don’t have the mark of the Australasian Bioplastics Association haven’t been verified as biodegradable. Also, if you just put the bags in your garbage and throw it down the chute, there is not much benefit as the bags will just go into landfill and will not degrade. Degradable bags are designed to break down in a compost bin but I live in an apartment.

Most of the purchases fit in my rucksack this time, but as usual when buying bread I put it in a single-use plastic bag that I bring along with me in the rucksack’s front pocket. The water crackers and the soap went in with the bread because they are not heavy.

20 December

Went shopping at Coles. Bought salmon fillets, Hungarian salami, milk, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, a cauliflower, half a butternut pumpkin, and a bottle of laundry detergent. The rucksack when put on the self-serve checkout machine’s scales caused an error as usual and I had to call the sales clerk over to clear it, but this is of course routine. On the way home I stopped at the Olive Station sandwich shop near the light rail station and for lunch bought two toasted cheese-and-ham sandwiches and a bottle of lemon-flavoured iced tea.

24 December

Went down to the Fish Market to get some things and there were police as usual on Bank Street directing traffic. The carpark was chockers, with guards in yellow vests allowing pedestrians to get around safely. Inside the main building, there was a kind of restrained chaos. There were two media crews in orange hi-vis vests, including one from the ABC; I also saw Jono Coleman interviewing a man. All the retail staff at Peter's were Asian and I bought raw tiger prawns and scallops. Also went to the deli and bought smoked wagyu beef and some prepared artichoke hearts.

Then I went to the IGA and bought a punnet of strawberries, two bags of a salad mix containing baby spinach and rocket, coriander, red chillies, ginger, broccolini, a cooked chicken, some Danish salami, a block of Cheddar cheese and some goats' cheese.

30 December

Went shopping at Coles. Bought a blue grenadier fillet, and two of the fresh local barramundi fillets. Also bought kangaroo burgers, beef sausages, bread, milk, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, potatoes, asparagus, and zucchini.

The woman at the deli counter told me initially that the blue grenadier had to be eaten today. The label on the fish had the word "special” on it. But when she was prompted further it turned out that it was fine to freeze the fillet and use it later when I was ready. I always freeze my fish when I get home, and the blue grenadier fillets were much too big to eat in one sitting, so if I couldn’t freeze the thing there would be no point in buying one. I have had this type of fish from the supermarket before and it was very tasty in my recollection.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Book review: The Break, Katherena Vermette (2016)

I had to write this review twice to get the tone I needed and even then it was a toss-up whether to publish. The first version was too negative and I thought about who I wanted to read the review and about what I needed to say to express my opinion. I had to qualify my views in order to get them to fit a model that would be suitable for publication.

This novel chronicles the lives of people in Canada who use the words “first nations” to describe their ethnic heritage. In the first chapter you find a mother who has witnessed a crime near her house and who has called the police, who are rendered as two-dimensional actors who miss important emotional cues the mother produces, and who only end up looking obtuse. The second chapter is focalised through a teenager, a girl aged about 13, and I felt in her characterisation a similar lack of awareness of the commonalities that keep society together.

Fiction that is engaged in the political process often has this problem, in that it can fail to show what is shared by all people who live in the community. Authors who identify with minorities have deeply felt beliefs and want the mainstream to understand and possibly even subscribe to them, and people love fiction, they gravitate to it like moths to a flame, so fiction is the ideal vehicle to communicate complex ideas. But in some cases, cases like the book in question, the ideas that are being used by the author are not shared by the broader community, and this is where problems of interpretation occur.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The book I reviewed on the blog yesterday, Emily O’Grady’s ‘The Yellow House’ (from Australian publisher Allen and Unwin) is a good example of a politically-motivated book that succeeds in getting its message across. Part of the reason that this is true is that secondary characters in it are completely realised, and are not bent to conform to a narrow worldview.

In my youth we talked about fiction that was “engage” (which has the acute accent on the final vowel), a French term that means that the novel in question is animated by praxis, which is a word that describes the performance of theory in real life. We were all for engaged fiction when I was young but as I have grown older I realise that there are more important things to pursue than anything that can be circumscribed within the constraints of a narrow political view of the world. Things like love and beauty, youth and greed, envy and friendship are more necessary to articulate than concerns about racial discrimination or any other brand of identity politics. Art is eternal, politics vanishes in the flow of transitory things.

So this review is mainly negative but I feel that it is important for all people to have their views heard. So I wanted to be reasonable and to provide some tips on what I think is needed to write a novel that can both express the realities of life for people who belong to minorities, as well as to show what I feel is necessary for a novel to succeed in the trade market.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Book review: The Yellow House, Emily O’Grady (2018)

This impressive first novel by a young Australian is a coming-of-age story. It is more than episodic, and with a strong poetic vision offers a completely-realised world. The entire narrative is focalised through the character of a 10-year-old girl named Coralie everyone calls “Cub”. Cub’s twin, Wally, is a naughty boy in the book’s early stages but his character undergoes a gradual change as he gets older and starts to show a talent for making sculptures out of Plasticine. While Wally is a major force propelling the drama in the book’s early stages he is soon overshadowed by Cub’s elder brother Cassie and by Cassie’s friend Ian.

Cub doesn’t like Ian and resents his existence in Cassie’s close circle. Cub’s problems are compounded due to the fact that her grandfather, Les, had murdered a number of young women and had disposed of the bodies in a building in the paddock next to Cub’s house called the knackery. People in the town, including students at the public school Cub and Wally attend, never forgave Les for his depredations and they continue to blame the family, notably Cub’s parents.

Some respite from the toxic atmosphere that surrounds Cub and Wally is provided when Helena, a relative, comes to live in the yellow house that Les had inhabited, with her daughter Tilly. (Les was a house painter and Cub’s father is also a painter.) Cub wants Tilly to be her friend and to help her to manage life in the town she inhabits but Tilly is not enthusiastic. Tilly goes to a private school in the town, not the public school Cub and Wally go to. (It should be noted for the record that a large proportion of Australian secondary school students go to private schools, in the order of 34 percent of all students. Things are different in the UK and in the US, where only a small minority of students go to private schools. So attending a private school in Australia doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as it does in either of those two countries.)

It’s not clear why Helena and Tilly have moved to the town, but it might have something to do with changed familial circumstances. There is no mention in the book of Tilly’s father.

Cassie is at one stage in the story ejected from the family home because of his conduct. There is something that he and Ian are doing in the knackery. There is also some rumour about Cassie and a girl who was interfered with but eventually Cub’s parents allow Cassie to come home, although he won’t go back to school. He ends up working at a pub in the town. Cub is fiercely loyal to Cassie and deeply resents Ian, whom she blames for all the bad things that have happened to the family in recent times. Then Tilly goes missing and Cub makes a disturbing discovery in the paddock next to the family home.

The poetry in this novel is strongly animated by a demotic ordinariness that barely hides a vicious tendency in people. The way that people use alcohol to dampen the empty feeling they get from their working lives sits unpleasantly next to the way that Cub feels isolated by circumstances outside her control. This is not a kind novel and the small details that O’Grady uses to bring life to the drama are strongly realised and poignant.

A thousand small things combine to create a world where Cub is isolated by her age and by her gender and there is something about the whole that reminded me of Gothic fiction. Secrets are kept as a matter of course despite the fact that people know who to watch out for. It is never certain however in the end if Cassie or Ian, or both of them, are responsible for the sexual assaults on young girls in the town. Or someone else. In fact, there seems to be something about the town itself that makes you suspect every man.

When I was reading this book I imagined that the town where the story is set was Warwick, in the tablelands west of Brisbane. Brisbane is mentioned several times in the book and O’Grady grew up in regional Queensland. There was something about the house where Cub and Wally live, with the yellow house next door, that reminded me of the lonely houses on the New England Highway between Warwick and Cunninghams Gap, which is a pass through the mountains that cars and trucks use to get from the tablelands to the coastal plain where Brisbane is located.

As I said earlier, this is an impressive first novel one of the reasons for this is that the author manages to create credible characters and to avoid the tendency, that you find with a lot of politically engaged fiction, to reduce secondary characters to cardboard cutouts. The plenitude of the imagining involved here provides the strength that pulls the reader forward and lends the story its impact. 

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

People being kind to strangers on public transport over the holiday period

This is a meditation: a piece of nonfiction that has a unifying theme. This piece also has a secondary theme. Can you identify it? I started writing these pieces for the blog at the beginning of 2018.

On the day after Boxing Day I was on the way to meet some friends in Enmore for lunch. I caught the light rail. There was a young woman in the carriage who got on after me and sat down opposite me on a seat. She wore a short black dress and she had a large tattoo on her left forearm that was plainly visible. In her right hand she held two plastic bags that contained something that I assumed was food. The bags were resting on the floor of the carriage as she held them.

Next to me were a young Asian couple who had a baby in a stroller in front of them. The little girl was awake and very curious. The young woman opposite me was making faces to make the little girl smile and the child was very happy. As the train approached Central Station, the mother opened up a tote bag she was carrying and took out two folded plastic tote bags that she gave to the woman with the tattoo, who spoke and so I heard her accent. She had been born somewhere else and could have been from Spain or South America or Russia. As I got off the Asian woman was still talking with the young woman in the black dress, who had put her food in the new bags.

The next day I was on the way to Newtown for what turned out to be a terrible movie and I sat in the carriage near the doors after boarding a train at Central Station. A young Asian woman, who was probably aged about 25, got on the train with me and sat down opposite me. As she entered the carriage she gave me a look for an instant. She had bare feet and on her head she wore a black cap with multiple studs on the front. Both her hands were in black leather gloves. She wore a black dress with lace on the shoulders and chest.

On the same bench she was sitting on sat a man in his late 30s or early 40s. He was overweight and had a bag at his feet that contained a box with 'Star Wars' printed on it. "You have to wrap your present," she said to him. "It’s a present for me," he said, pointing at his chest with one of his hands. They started talking. "What’s the difference between ones for children and ones for adults," she asked, referring to the box of Star Wars branded gear he had in his bag. "Difficulty," he said. The conversation progressed and it ranged from Star Wars to science fiction, which they evidently both enjoyed watching. They talked until the woman got off the train at Newtown. "You have a lovely day," the man said enthusiastically as she stood up to leave the carriage. I also got off. She walked up the stairs from the platform ahead of me. Her ankles and the tops of her feet were clean.

Two days later I was coming home after having lunch in western Sydney and on the light rail when we arrived at a stop a little boy aged about six got on and came through the carriage looking hot and exhausted. He came to where I was sitting and the Asian man who had sat down in the aisle seat opposite me, and who was thin and probably aged in his late 20s, got up suddenly and picked up the boy and deposited him on his seat. “Say thank-you,” said the boy’s father. “Thank you,” said the boy in a small voice. He had a thin ponytail at the back of his head and most of his hair was cropped to about an inch in length. He sat there biting his cap with his legs deposited sideways in the seat.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Movie review: Aquaman, dir James Wan (2018)

This playful and imaginative movie has a strong environmental message but it is very long and complicated and relies a bit too heavily on CGI and other special effects. There are several important relationships involving Aquaman (Jason Momoa). One is with his mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), a queen of Atlantis, who conceives Arthur when she is living in the terrestrial world with his father, Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). She is reclaimed by Atlantis and is sent to the Trench where presumably she is devoured by the monsters that live there. Aquaman spends part of his life as a young man in the sea and part of it in the terrestrial world (nobles from Atlantis can live above water, the rest of its people cannot, and will die if exposed to the air). One day he is visited by a princess from the deep named Mera (Amber Heard) who asks him to come back to help to prevent King Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s half-brother, from taking command of all the people who live under the sea and leading an army against the people in the world above the surface. The relationship with Mera is the second important relationship he has in the movie. She is an ally.

Arthur eventually agrees and goes down with Mera to meet with Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who had trained Arthur when he had been a boy and who is now King Orm’s “vizier”. Vulko secretly gives Mera a canister that is meant to contain a message but the technology that will allow the message to be transmitted has been lost. Mera and Arthur escape from Atlantis and go in search of the machine that will allow them to learn the secrets of the device. They go to the Sahara and end up under the dunes in an abandoned city that existed in the region in the days before the desert took over from the sea. They use a machine that has gears and other contraptions, to discover the secret hidden in the canister then head off to Sicily. Here, Mera enjoys for the first time the pleasures of the world above the waves and they are confronted by Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and some soldiers from Atlantis.

Manta had come up against Arthur earlier, during the film’s opening sequence. Manta is a pirate and he had occupied a Russian sub looking for treasure. But his father is killed during the raid when Arthur, who the two are fighting, refuses to lift a torpedo off him. Manta never forgets the wrong done to him by Arthur and he accepts a commission given to him by King Orm to kill Arthur and Mera. This relationship with Manta is the third important relationship that Arthur has in the movie. He is an enemy.

Mera and Arthur defeat the attackers in a spectacular series of scenes and then Mera steals a fishing boat in order to get to two islands. But the boat enters a storm and then the monsters from the Trench attack them. Arthur grabs a flare and lights it and Mera and he dive down into the water, fleeing the swarms of creatures. They enter a swirling column of water and light that turns out to be a portal that takes them to a world they could never have dreamed of. Once there, they make some important discoveries but I won’t go into the details because it would spoil the story for people who have not seen the movie. I have revealed enough already. Suffice it to say that Arthur has to prove himself to be deserving in order to uncover a weapon that he can then use to defeat King Orm.

The relationship with King Orm is the fourth important relationship that Arthur has to handle in order to be successful. King Orm is of course an enemy. So Arthur has three key allies (four if you count Vulko) and two key enemies in this movie. This kind of complexity is part of what makes the movie a bit difficult to negotiate and you really have to concentrate at times in order to get all the details necessary to understand the story.

There is something in this Cinderella story that reminded me of the backstory to ‘Lord of the Rings’. The weapon Arthur must uncover in order to win the battle against King Orm is kind of like the One True Ring. But there is also something here of the original ‘Star Wars’ film, where Luke Skywalker was revealed as the possessor of innate talents that he would need to master in order to triumph.

The difficulties facing Arthur and the way he goes about overcoming them made me think of those two precedents. Which is not a bad thing, since both of those artworks (the original 1976 ‘Star Wars’ film and the 1937 novel ‘The Hobbitt’) have managed to hold water (excuse the pun) for a fair number of years. Despite the fact that they have been watched and read by millions of people, they still seem to offer individuals the kinds of stories that they want to be told about humanity. There is also something reminiscent of the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise in the character of Arthur, whom King Orm deprecatingly refers to as a “half-blood” because his father was from the terrestrial world. King Orm initially has success convincing the Atlanteans of his own, superior, claim to the throne compared to Arthur’s. The plebeian Arthur and his father in one scene are shown drinking beers in a bar (an American pub), and so the demotic feel of the kind of virtue that is on display in the movie is strongly emphasised.

This movie also has echoes of the 2009 James Cameron film ‘Avatar’ in that is has a very strong environmental message. Part of the reason that King Orm and his allies are angry with the people who live beyond the confines of the sea is because of the pollution and other depredations that people have burdened the oceans with for generations.

There’s also a metafictional aspect generally to films being made from comics, which at the time of their first flourishing were considered to be forms of demotic culture, and low-class. Even the paper they were printed on was cheap, and they were consumed then mostly thrown away immediately after reading. But an analogous trajectory belongs to the novel, which even in the late 18th century was considered to be pretty trashy and suitable only for the likes of impressionable young women. So the “rags-to-riches” theme in ‘Aquaman’ is apposite in this regard, in that it reminds us that what to one generation can appear to be rubbish turns out for later generations to be a concern for the mainstream.