Sunday, 17 February 2019

Book review: Pink Mountain on Locust Island, Jamie Marina Lau (2018)

I delayed posting this review for several days because I wanted to moderate my first reaction and because I felt a bit guilty by how negative the review had been at first. The delay allowed me to add some details in order to make the review, which I hope the author reads, as constructive as possible. One of the aspirations for any reviewer is that their comments will be taken to heart by the author in question, so that what they write next can be improved. This applies especially with reviews that are, in the main, negative.

I found this book deliberately hard but there was no real payoff for a careful reader. When it comes to talking about insights or poetry there is plenty of ancillary material that accompanies what development there is of character, as well as the rather embryonic traces of plotting, but I’m not sure that it is as strong as the author or her editors think it is.

The narrator is a teenage girl who lives with her father and she makes a friend named Santa Coy who is a guy (you guess) and they message each other on their computers. But the main character never fully emerges and so you are constantly trying to work out how you should feel about what happens in the text.

No framework is provided that would allow you to feel comfortable, worried, or otherwise (happy, fearful, unquiet, as the case may be) and so you skate along on the surface of the text without having a clue how things are looking like they’re going to turn out. It is very difficult in this kind of work to build suspense as there are no indicators at any given point telling you which way the story is heading. Is it developing in a way that will be conducive to the wellbeing of the main character? Is it going in a way that will turn out to be bad for her? What about her new friend, how is he developing? Is he sympathetic or is there a hidden danger that the narrator is hiding from the main character? Is her father a worry? How is he shaping up in the wider scheme of things?

You are even unsure in this novel about such things as major plot points. It might be that the main character gets a second-hand computer from Santa Coy but facts aren’t nailed down in the impressionistic sequence of scenes that are given to the reader and that are punctuated by the occasional segment of dialogue. The mise-en-scene is equally vague – you are in a nondescript city and the narrator and her father live in an apartment – and there is little in the story that can be used to orient you along socioeconomic lines or even culturally. The only thing that is heavy is the teen attitude but this is provided without the narrator being particularly strong on anything approximating wisdom that might help the reader to understand what it is in aid of.

The book was longlisted for the Stella Prize, which is an award given every year for female Australian authors, but it won’t win. The author did well just to get a mention. The book has furthermore been remarked on by various literary outlets. The problem that a book like this provides a reviewer is that it comes absolutely dripping in artistic ambition and the good intentions of its publisher, but I cannot in good faith recommend it to readers of this blog.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Book review: The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks (2015)

This memoir also contains a potted family history that stretches further back into a kind of ersatz history of sheep farming in the Lake District, which is located in the north of England. Very early on, Rebanks positions himself in contradistinction to William Wordsworth, the first-generation Romantic poet who made this part of the world famous in his writings, and especially in his poetry. I found it hard to see what problem Rebanks might have with what Wordsworth did especially considering the parallel trajectories the two men’s lives took. Both were born in the area and then went on to one of the UK’s old sandstone universities (Wordsworth to Cambridge, Rebanks to Oxford). Rebanks doesn’t see this kind of connection or, if he does see it, he doesn’t say anything about it.

Wordsworth’s descriptions of a farmer handling a sheep dog in the 1805 version of his autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude’ are possibly the first time that such a feat had even been attempted in any literary production in any country. I certainly cannot remember reading anything similar by anyone else that precedes that passage. Its existence is testament to Wordsworth’s deep and abiding connection to his native region, and his understanding of the people who, still today, inhabit it.

The niggling resentment that Rebanks feels about his famous predecessor (who he curiously calls a “dead white man”, borrowing a rhetorical trope from the language of the metropolitan progressives he elsewhere positions himself at odds with) seems to have been part of the author’s life from the days of his earliest memories. When he was 13 and still at school, Rebanks says he felt his teachers’ scorn for the farming life and admits that it is difficult for him to remember if he felt resentment at that time, but he certainly felt it when he decided to sit down and write his book. In fact resentment about perceptions that people who come from outside the local community have about farmers seems to be a kind of leitmotif in the work, stemming from its importance for the way that the author thinks about himself. Resentment as identity politics, if you like.

One thing that is remarkable at the outset is that Rebanks is often not as good at explaining things as he thinks he is, or as his editors and readers have told him he is. The economics of sheep farming is explained but a novice will still struggle to understand its intricacies having read the passages in question. You are on surer ground where he explains the art of making hay. So the quality of the work is patchy just as the author himself is a deeply flawed, and very human, character in his own production.

I’ve read another book by a farmer, ‘The Cow Book’ by John Connell, which came out in 2018 (it was reviewed on this blog on 8 September of that year). Connell, like Rebanks, puts much stock in the longevity of animal husbandry, in Connell’s case in a part of Ireland, and there is a narrow kind of cultural exceptionalism that creeps in in both works to muddy the waters with a certain kind of – you guessed it – resentment.

Farmers declaring the legitimacy of their industry based on how long their forefathers have been doing it seems like a perfectly natural reaction in the face of sometimes noisy and usually misguided attacks that metropolitan progressives periodically launch in the direction of people living in rural communities, but it’s not exactly endearing. Rebanks ended up being, in my mind, a prickly cove.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Labor tax policies that hit older people should be a source of shame

Let’s talk about inequality. I’ve been writing about inequality in various guises on this blog for a couple of years now, but the issue of taxing older people is probably the most disturbing because of the ways that parts of the community are becoming involved in it.

The poverty rate in Australia for people aged 66 and over is over 25 percent, which is the third worst result for any country in the OECD. Meanwhile, older women experiencing homelessness has grown 31 percent since 2011. "The number of older women accessing the private rental market increased by 45,000 in a five year period," according to a report by the National Older Women’s Housing and Homelessness Working Group led by the Mercy Foundation.

The economic outlook for older Australians is pretty bad already. But you then have the Labor Party planning to make matters worse for this sector of the population with four new tax proposals (franking credits, negative gearing, capital gains, family trusts) that will disproportionately affect the elderly.

What hope have older people got when both sides of politics target them for a good fleecing? Both major parties supported the inclusion of assets in calculations made by Centrelink to figure out nursing home fees. Older people generally have little income but significant assets, so this was a perfect way to tax them so that the burden on the broader community is less.

You hear people talking in public about these policies in a way that evidences a complete lack of understanding of the underlying realities that older people live with every day. Sometimes the people making these comments are journalists or politicians, not just random plebs with a personal axe to grind. These people should know better but you only ever hear one side. This post gives you the other side of the equation.

One claim has a journalist giving the example of a retiree with $2 million in assets paying no tax on income earned. As though that were a lot of money. With the Reserve Bank talking now about lowering interest rates to spur investment due to the sluggish housing market, many older people will be having a sinking feeling in their stomach, especially if they have their money tied up in term deposits with major banks. When the cash rate goes down, the interest you earn on this kind of investment also goes down, with many people preferring term deposits because they are a low-risk option.

So, that $2 million suddenly isn’t giving you $60,000 a year in interest earned. Suddenly there’s less money to use to pay for things like council rates, food, and transport. A couple that has retired with this kind of investment might own some Telstra and CBA shares as well, and if so they will be directly impacted by the franking credits tax changes proposed by Labor. As will people with even fewer assets than this.

Incomes for older people are always like this. If you have your money in higher-risk investments such as managed funds (where you buy units in funds the managers of which use your money to buy shares in publicly traded companies) or if you directly own shares, the markets will determine how much income you have in any given year. The common wisdom says that shares give you a nine-percent return year-on-year but this is an average where the extremes are widely separated. One year you might get a minus-15-percent return and one year you might get a one-percent return. And there’s no way to predict how markets will behave, they are notoriously difficult to predict over the short-, medium- or long-term.

Older people can’t win, it seems, in the current environment, where there is a tendency to see taxation and redistribution as an unalloyed good, regardless of how such a view affects the wellbeing of people who live on the margins of society, as older people do. The trend seems to be powerful and it is disheartening for people who have paid taxes all their lives, contributing to the health of the community in many ways by working and raising children.

What is to come next? Death duties were abolished in 1981, but the way things are going they'll probably be reintroduced by one party or the other in due course. Labor was the party that in a more rational age introduced superannuation for the benefit of older people, but now it seems they are turning against that part of the community in a witless cash grab designed merely to please the mob.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Book review: At the Edge of the Night, Friedo Lampe (2019)

This extraordinary work first appeared in German in 1933 but was suppressed by the Nazis. The original text wasn’t published in German in its complete form until 1999 and this translation follows that text. It gives us for the first time access to a rare and unusual example of Modernism that has fortunately survived time and politics to emerge, now, as a strange little gem of a novel. It has an odd structure like a collage and a large cast of characters and it examines themes such as propriety, capital, death, desire and what was in its day the forbidden realm of homosexual love.

The entire novel takes place in one night in September in a port city in the north of the country, possibly Hamburg, and the narrative dips into the lives of different people – a girl asleep in her bed dreaming; a man playing the flute by the window of the room he rents from a widow; a wrestler preparing to go on stage at a local entertainment venue, the Astoria; two men who are about to embark on the Adelaide, a steamship in the harbour, but who go out on the town for a few hours to kill time – so that it is focalised through different characters in what is almost a haphazard way.

What emerges is a work of great richness that embraces a whole society, even though the method that is used to achieve this outcome is unconventional. The closest analogues I can think of for the psychogeography that is set out in this novel are Fernando Pessoa’s luminous imaginings of Lisbon. In Lampe’s text, the heteronormative routine of a town awake after dark in an era before television and the internet leaves you breathless with expectation as to what will happen next. Despite the fragmentation of the narrative, discrete stories emerge to engage the reader.

What will happen to the announcer who dislikes the way the hypnotist at the Astoria treats his young son? What will happen to Hein Dieckmann, the gay wrestler who has just pummelled his adversary to within an inch of his life? What will happen to Bauer, who the two men travelling on the steamer know from earlier days and who is now a steward on-board working under a sadistic captain? What about Peter, the young man who goes with a prostitute but who cannot perform? What about the prostitute’s father, who is the keeper of the park where live the swans and the rats the sleeping girl dreams about?

What will happen next? In a story made up completely of disparate threads none of which is tethered to a conclusion, the idea of what is normal ends up seeping into the fabric of the story in such a way that it becomes all-pervasive. What is normal in Germany in 1933? What kind of society elected the Nazis to power?

Well, a society such as is described in this book. A society that tolerates the abuse of women and children but that idolises strongmen. A society where people restlessly seek the fulfilment of desires – for booze, fun, dancing, sex, fried sausages eaten in the park before going to bed – and where they fear death and are made to feel uneasy by art. Reading this book it is paradoxically all too easy to imagine the coming disaster even though what does eventually arrive seems to be unthinkable given the mild September night we experience in the fiction. Truly, this is work for the ages.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Intemperate language is normal on Twitter

At the end of January progressive columnist Clementine Ford was said to have “resigned”, and it was further (more accurately) reported that she would no longer, on her own initiative, write a column for Channel Nine, which owns the websites where her work had appeared. The spur to the move was censure from Nine’s management after she had in a tweet called Scott Morrison, the prime minister, a “fucking disgrace”. On Twitter, where her followers are legion and where she gets a lot of encouragement, Morrison is routinely called “scummo”, playing off his more widely-used moniker, “ScoMo”.

Anyone who uses Twitter, especially if they tune into the hashtag #auspol, which is an extremely popular channel reserved for Australian political commentary, will hardly have been surprised at the way the two worlds of Ford’s world – the staid office environment where her paymasters spent their time, and the free-wheeling, anarchic environment that is created by Twitter users – clashed in this case. It was a train-wreck waiting to happen. The problem of intemperate language on Twitter is one that is deeply entrenched. Even a cursory glance at what happens on the social media platform will provide ample evidence of the kind of language that got Ford into trouble, that dominates discussions there, and that makes conversations conducted there so unrewarding.

Just one recent example can suffice to illustrate my point. After appearing on the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ show on the morning of 10 February, Christopher Pyne was singled out for criticism by a mob of left-wing culture warriors on Twitter. Pyne was “a silly little shit”, he was “having one of his hissy fits again”, he was a “Sad Sad man”. Another commented:
What a disgraceful & appalling performance from @cpyne this morning on #Insiders !!
Hollering over the top of Barrie Cassidy whilst simultaneously avoiding answering the question is pathetic!
Another comment in the same vein:
I see with @cpyne's performance on @InsidersABC this morning, the Liberal strategy continues to be shouty-angry defiance while avoiding the substance of every question. Nailed it!
And another one (the theme of “shouting” was very prominent during the morning and early afternoon this survey took place):
a very shouty @cpyne just claimed on #insiders: • government has brought energy energy prices down — a lie • going to meet our paris commitments — a lie  rank desperation on display.
Rabid #Poodle Loud, hysterical, mad, many lies, too much stupid spin
AND it's Labor's fault
More attention given to “shouting” in this one:
Shouty Mcshouty McFixer shouts louder every time he lies
Some comments on Twitter even came close to sounding reasonable, such as this one:
Why bring these idiots on the show @InsidersABC if they won't even answer straight up questions. @barriecassidy try a different tact [sic] and stop the interview if they can't answer questions. Stop giving them a platform. @cpyne grow a spine and start answering the questions directly
That comment about Pyne’s performance in the interview, which had admittedly been characterised by a good deal of deft side-stepping and stubborn messaging, sparked another one on the same topic that depressingly reverted to form:
Agree. If they won’t give a straight answer cut them off at the knees. So sick of the utter bullshit that these arseholes get away with time and time again. CALL THEM OUT! I realise that involves growing a pair, but you can do it Bazza!
Here is another comment that almost sounded reasonable by comparison with what else had been appearing on Twitter:
Christopher Pyne on #Insiders this morning was a train wreck. Lies, lies and more lies with some obfuscation thrown in.
Another rational take on the rather feisty interview with Cassidy (but with a sting in the tail for the national broadcaster, just for good measure):
Then Cassidy fails to make the weasel Pyne answer the question ... ABC fail
Others were more than happy to stick to form by being obnoxious:
Imagine being stuck with @cpyne at your table at a function . Wow.! Freaking nightmare
Another one on a similar theme:
@cpyne on @InsidersABC this morning screeching and wetting himself as Cassidy called him out spruiking the rubbish he normally does. Spoilt brat!!!
And again:
You grubby little worm. Never take responsibility if there's a chance to blame it on the opposition 
that's the Liberal way isn't it Chris?
Even former journalist Mike Carlton, ready as usual to appeal to people’s worst instincts, joined the rush to censure Pyne with nasty remarks:
Demonstrating yet again that Poodles is either a fool or a liar...neither man is a registered doctor and therefore can’t sign anything.
This was in response to a tweet from Sydney Morning Herald journalist Eryk Bagshaw that went:
Christopher Pyne on medical transfers: "Two doctors in Australia, Bob Brown and Richard Di Natale, could sign a certificate saying they think they're suffering from mental health issues and they need to come to Australia. Cassidy: "But you know that's not true"
The occasional tweet stayed on-topic and was couched in reasonable tones:
Pyne doesn't answer valid questions- just keeps blurted "tough on border protection". Offshore incarceration and inadequate health care of refugees are breaches of human rights
And to demonstrate that the bad language comes from both sides of the political fence someone else commented: “Can’t that dickwadd Cassidy just retire FFS. Lefty tool.”

For those who don’t know about the proposed bill that is to be debated in Parliament in Canberra, there is a story here from the SMH that you can read to find out more. On the Tuesday following, the bill that was designed to allow doctors to order refugees needing medical care to be evacuated from Manus Island and Nauru was passed in the Parliament in dramatic scenes as the government lost control of the lower house for the first time since 1941.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Book review: Salt Water, Cathy McLennan (2016)

It’s really terribly sad that this brilliant memoir has not been more widely acknowledged for what it so evidently achieves. For my part, I came across the name purely by chance and had not seen it, for example, spoken of on TV. I think the mention I saw was on social media somewhere. And I couldn’t work out if the title was made up of one word or two so I went with my instincts.

Nonfiction is usually less loudly applauded than fiction, but the fictional aspects of this account of part of the life of a lawyer working for the Townsville and Districts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Corporation for Legal Aid Services are so dramatic and compelling that the book truly deserves to be broadly consumed so that everyone can better understand the kinds of things that are happening in remote communities. It’s easy to criticise TV personalities for being “racist” but when you come face to face in a book of this nature with the realities on the ground in such places you understand that comments made by Kerri-Anne Kennerley were well-founded in fact.

McLennan is now a magistrate and it is clear from reading this account that her feelings of responsibility toward the people living in the communities she worked for grew deep. When her partner, Michael, decides to relocate south to Brisbane for work (he is a journalist) she refuses to go with him and instead stays to help people she has grown to love and respect.

The cases McLennan takes on are often desperately sad. One of them has at its centre an 11-year-old girl named Olivia whose mother had abused alcohol during her pregnancy. The effects of that indulgence meant that Olivia never really grew properly and had the appearance at 11 of a five-year-old. And she compulsively steals things from people’s houses, which attracts the ire of the community. Her mother eventually promises to get off the grog but Olivia is confronted by a magistrate who requires her to live on Palm Island, where she is gang raped by men she has been sent by other girls to get drugs and alcohol from. In the end, Olivia’s mother gets the girl back to Townsville after a story is leaked to the local newspaper and the police refuse to arrest her for breaking her bail conditions.

This is a kind of victory but it’s an empty one because the damage had been done long before. Olivia’s father had beaten her mother and the poor woman relies on the state for support, although this is probably the least of her worries. Other cases engage McLennan just as intensely. There is the case that opens the book of four boys who are charged by the police with murder after they arrest them while they are driving the car of a man who had been beaten to death. This case is a thread that finds its way through the whole book and the court case held to decide the guilt or innocence of the boys comes right at the end of it.

McLennan when she first encounters the case of the four boys is a new employee just out of university but she matures into the role she has been given and in the end is forced to hand over the defence of the boys to others due to a conflict of interest. Several of the boys tell her the truth of what happened on the night in question and she must give the job of being their advocate to others. I won’t spoil the suspense for those who want to read this book, so you will have to buy it if you want to find out what happens to Malachi and his confederates. Because of professional privilege some details in this account have been changed, such as the names of some of the people.

The narrative apparatus employed to keep the reader interested in this book is pretty fair given that the author trained as a lawyer. Lawyers spend all their time working with words, so it is not entirely surprising to come across a member of the profession with a love of the apt phrase and the occasional bit of colour, someone who can give immediacy to situations that might, in other hands, have been too dry to make much sense of.

The secondary characters who work in McLennan’s office are just as well-drawn as are the clients whose cases make it into the book. McLennan does her level best to draw you into the story using the types of fictional techniques that make reading novels so enjoyable, although at times the mechanics of the work are somewhat exposed. In general, the author has done a proper job of writing a book that will be easy to read and engaging and she should be commended for the effort required to get everything down on paper after so much time had already passed.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Book review: Red Azalea, Anchee Min (1994)

For this memoir and for her other books the author uses her given name first and her family name last, in opposition to common Chinese practice. It would be an understatement to say that the events in this book are dramatic, but you have to start somewhere and with a work as compelling as this one you have to give credit where it’s due or else you can appear as if you have misunderstood the point of the exercise. On the other hand, every Chinese family has stories to tell of the bad years and there is no reason why Min’s story needs to be unduly celebrated. So the critic is, if you like, faced with something of a dilemma.

Min is a clever writer however and the task of ascribing talent is easily completed. Her story is told often in very short sentences that serve to heighten the suspense the reader feels at different points in the narrative. There is a breathless, urgent quality to the tale that makes it especially compelling.

The story takes the reader initially out of Shanghai, where Min was born into an average family. Her parents had several children and Min is sent to a collective farm named Red Fire Farm when she is a teenager. The story of how she survives on the farm take form around the character of Yan, who runs the operation, and the second-in-command, Lu, who wants more power and influence. Min and Yan become lovers but one day as she is in the fields, Min is questioned by some visiting dignitaries and she is given a place at a film academy, so she goes back to Shanghai to live.

Min is given the task of preparing for an important role: the lead of an opera titled ‘Red Azalea’ that has been commissioned by Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. One of the teachers takes a liking to another young woman, named Cheering Spear, who is also being considered for the role, and Min is outperformed at an audition. She is then given the job of set clerk (continuity) and secretly spends time smoking cigarettes in an empty room where she licks her wounds. There, one day, she is spoken to by a man who turns out to be the Supervisor, the man in charge of the production. They become friends and eventually Cheering Spear is replaced in the lead role by an exultant Min, who visits the Supervisor’s lavish residence in Beijing and is given the task of perfecting the lines she must speak in order to play it.

This gives you the bare outline of the plot, something that is quite unequal to conveying the nature of the work at hand. Min spends a lot of time talking about desire and about love and it is in the context of such feelings that her own feelings about her homeland must be interpreted. The long scene that takes place at her parent’s house, when Yan visits so that she can be alone with her lover, who runs a collective farm near Red Fire Farm, is gloriously rendered in all of its details so that you can understand the feelings that Min has for Yan in the light of her new relationship. In fact, the relationship with Yan lies at the core of the drama in so many ways.

One day, while she is still working at the academy, Min goes back to Red Fire Farm to visit Yan because she misses her. She knows that if anyone from the academy found out about her visit, she would be forced to explain herself and her situation might worsen. But she is compelled by loyalty to go back and see Yan in all the pathos of her reduced circumstances, reduced because of the circumstances that accompanied Min’s leaving the farm for the big city. But without such details the book would make no sense. In fact, there would be very little to say if Min and Yan had not been so close.

Min’s relationship with the enigmatic Supervisor also draws nourishment from Min’s relationship with Yan, and she tells him about it one night in a park where they are surrounded by other furtive Shanghai lovers trying to find some privacy in the strict moral environment the Party enforced on the people it governed.

The Party is a silent force at the core of the drama, and although Min must come to terms with it in many ways up to the point where she finally leaves the country to settle in the US, part of her remains to the end, to some degree, unsullied by the idiotic logic of the perverse calculus imposed on people in China at the time by Party policies and agendas and by the unworldly vagaries of Mao’s seemingly endless dicta. Under such conditions, people’s legitimate desires and aspirations were perverted and channelled into bizarre behaviour that on the face of it as expressed in this book has the appearance of a kind of psychopathy.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Dream journal: Six

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

13 January

I dreamt I was in Japan (where I lived in real life in the 1990s) and I had a large motorcycle like the Ducati I used to own in real life in the 1980s. I was inside a shopping centre and the owners had closed off a door I used to use to get to the carpark. I got on my motorcycle with Aizawa-san (a man I used to work with in real life) and we went off through the corridors of the place looking for the way out. We emerged on a street and went along, with Aizawa-san on the back, pillion, until we got to a traffic light, where I stopped the thing. We were at the front of the queue of cars, but then when the light turned green there was a cyclist in front of us. I had not seen him arrive. I had the “footbrake” on and the handbrake as well, but I could not unlock the footbrake until I let go of the handbrake. (A motorcycle does not have a footbrake in reality.) Eventually I worked out what to do and we set off, right behind the cyclist on his pushbike.

The two vehicles continued along until we came to a path and a river. There were two branches to the path: one leading left and the other leading right. There was no sign on either branch and I asked Aizawa-san to ask someone which path we should take but he refused, saying that I should ask myself instead. I asked someone which path we should take and it emerged that the baseball game the two of us were heading to would be held on the other side of the river, which meant that we should take the right-hand path.

I tried to see how this could be done. The water level of the river was not deep but there was a tree growing near the start of the right-hand branch, which would make it difficult to get the large, heavy motorcycle past so that we could use the path, so I decided to put the motorcycle into the river until we got past the tree, then lift it up onto the path. But after getting Aizawa-san to help me push the motorcycle through the water to the desired point, getting my shoes and trousers wet in the process, it became clear to me that it would be impossible to lift the heavy machine up the four feet or so of wall to get it back onto the path. I woke up then.

17 January

I was working at a firm and my manager was an old English teacher, Mr Aubrey. I had not been promoted and this had caused me some pain. But my manager clearly wanted me to be his right-hand man as he had organised a play to be performed and he had suggested a particular role for me to play. I was to write the number of the character, that was printed on a sheet containing all the characters’ names, onto a piece of paper then cut out the slip where the character’s name and number were written. But although I knew which character my manager wanted me to play, I read all of the character names and decided in the end on a different character to play. I still could not find the number that I was to put on the sheet of paper however. A lot of the characters were Chinese and I wondered what kind of play it would be.

Then I was walking with my manager around the building where different employees were relaxing after lunch. There were two women talking to one another in what I thought at first was Italian but I rather thought it was really just accented English.

25 January

This dream was dreamt on the day I got out of hospital, where I had gone to have a ventricular tachycardia diagnosed and corrected. I had an electrophysiology study and ablation done that was successful but the aftermath was very painful. I left the hospital in a cab on the day after the procedure, and went to bed early.

I was making stories in my dream that had to do with melons and pumpkins. I was trying to work out if the ones that were watered using irrigation or the ones that were watered merely from precipitation were bigger and better. It seemed important to know but I couldn’t get most of these stories going. The surgery aftereffects mean that I could only sleep on my back or on my left side. Sleeping on the right side was too painful. I worked on these stories one after another for hours and hours as I tossed in bed trying to get comfortable. And in the end I couldn’t answer the question I had asked. Were the melons better than the pumpkins?

28 January

This sequence came at the end of a longer dream that I have forgotten. I was in a river and I had to survive a succession of floods and droughts. The river would flood for a while and I would be almost submerged, I knew, then it would empty of water and I would be dry in the mud. I wondered how I would survive such treatment until, all of a sudden, the river I was in suddenly began to fill with water and I had to stay afloat. It was difficult to breathe but I managed. As I made may way along the waters, I felt eventually that the level of the waters was subsiding, and I realised that it was being taken away and that eventually I would be able to walk on the muddy riverbed.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Movie review: Glass, dir M Night Shyamalan (2019)

This ambitious, low-budget production relies heavily on dialogue to create drama and as far as it is a success it is a solid antidote to the more-common mediocre big-budget CGI extravaganzas that we tend to think about when superheroes are discussed. The plot is a bit complex but it hinges on what goes on inside a mental institution in Philadelphia where three men under the care of a single doctor named Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) are being treated because they think they are comic-book heroes.

Elijah Price (Samuel L Jackson) calls himself Mr Glass although for most of the movie he is mute, apparently bound up in a chemical straitjacket by antipsychotics. He is joined by David Dunn (Bruce Willis), a vigilante who uncovers the whereabouts of a group of schoolgirls who had been abducted by the Beast (James McAvoy). Staple is in charge of the treatment of all three of these men and all goes according to her plan until one night Price escapes from his cell and with the man who manifests the Beast (who has multiple personalities) gets out of the building. Dunn also escapes and there is a fight in the parking lot.

While the fight and its aftermath are conclusive, Price has the last laugh. Staple turns out to be an operative of a shadowy organisation that tasks itself with uncovering people who have unusual physical and mental powers, and eliminating them. But even when Staple thinks that the danger has been subdued, Price’s revenge emerges.

Apart from the major roles named there are some strong secondary characters. Spencer Treat Clark plays Dunn’s son Joseph, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey Cooke, a woman who had survived an earlier encounter with the Beast, and Charlayne Woodard plays Price’s mother. There are also two nursing staff who are given a fair amount of work to do: Pierce played by Luke Kirby and Daryl played by Adam David Thompson.

The institution is suitably creepy and Pierce is a suitably uncaring staff member, and the place does its job in the wider scheme of things. There is a message here about exceptional individuals and the way that they tend to be ignored by the mainstream, and if the movie can be seen to have any coherent idea it is that everyone is due respect for the things that they can do, even if what that is at first appears to be a little strange. So there is a redemptive theme that ties together all of the different threads in the movie (about childhood abuse and neglect, about compassion and the transformative power of love, and about the sanctity of the individual). So far so good.

A lot of the movie’s power stems from the acting of the three main players, and McEvoy has to be singled out for the creative way he interprets the different personalities he is tasked with conveying to the audience. I think however that he slightly overdoes the transitional phases that he uses to cut between the different characters he has to communicate. A little less growling and grunting would have been appreciated.

In true Hitchcock mode, the director makes an appearance in Dunn’s security products shop posing as a customer. You can see how he wants to be thought of, and the reliance in this movie on the things the characters say underscores the resemblance with the master of suspense in the 20th century.

There are some strong pieces of directing beyond the routine growling McEvoy treats the audience to. Near the end of the movie, when Cooke grasps with her hands the heavyset arm of the personality played by McAvoy, you sense something subtle taking place. The mere fact of physical contact in a way that is meant to convey kindness and empathy serves to communicate more than any number of words might do. Little highlights of cinematic excellence such as this remind you of the director’s skill, especially since the props used in the movie cost virtually nothing and there is minimal reliance on special effects.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Grocery shopping list for January 2019

This series started in January with the list of shopping for December. This is the second post in the series.

6 January

Went to the IGA and bought Spanish salami, milk, broccolini, zucchini, butternut pumpkin, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, mouthwash and snacks.

13 January

Went to Coles and bought a ling fillet, salmon fillets, Italian salami, milk, bread, Cheddar cheese, parsnips and swedes.

25 January

Went to the convenience store and bought a bottle of milk and a chocolate muffin.

30 January

Went to the IGA and bought milk, zucchini, broccoli, sea perch fillets, a ling fillet, margarine, and some snacks.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Book review: Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng (2014)

This ambitious crime thriller wants to stand in as a representative for a lot of narratives that exist in the contemporary public sphere, especially those to do with race, but a lack of credible secondary characters leaves you with an overly-tight calculus at the end of which lies like an accusation the death of the teenage Lydia Lee. Poetry intrudes from time to time but apart from a feeling of claustrophobia the main sensation you get reading this novel is a feeling of annoyance due to the stupidity of one or another of the main characters.

Ng is a competent craftsman and she puts in the work to create a believable superstructure, like a well-made parquet floor, to stage her drama on. The backstories of Marilyn and James Lee, Lydia’s parents, are conscripted into the calculus in a way that is designed to make the errors they commit understandable. Marilyn’s mother had raised her alone and Marilyn had wanted to be a doctor but she had met James Lee, a graduate of Harvard, and had married him and had had his children. James, for his part, is a second-generation American whose Chinese parents had migrated to the west coast before moving to the mid-west to take up jobs in a private secondary school. James had received an education as one of the perks of their jobs and had gone on to become a history professor.

Marilyn’s ambitions for her eldest daughter are strong but James just wants Lydia to be popular. The eldest child, Nath, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with the space program and is given a place at Harvard. Lydia tries to go off the rails and spends more time with Jack Wolff who lives across the road and Nath resents Jack and blames him for Lydia’s death. Nath refuses at first to tell the police his suspicions about Jack but eventually he winds up his courage and phones them.

At the core of the book sits an episode when Nath and Lydia were very small and Marilyn had left home without a word and moved to Toledo with a plan of going back to medical school. Eventually, she returns but Lydia promises herself that she’ll do whatever her mother asks to make sure she doesn’t go away again. It’s the kind of childish wish that has the ring of truth to it but in the end it is fatal. By the time Lydia realises the stupidity of her pledge it is too late.

I had no problem with the types of stories that James and Marilyn use in order to explain themselves to each other and to their children but the rigid arithmetic that drives the narrative demands a single outcome and it tends to dominate every aspect of the work in a faintly tyrannical manner, as though a girl’s death were a kind of benediction that might wash away all of society’s flaws and remedy like a blessing any authorial failings.

As a dramatic device, death, especially suicide, has a certain flavour of the divine about it. It can hardly be reasoned with, and in most cases evades any attempt to waylay it as it progresses like a curse to its final station at the centre of any story it animates. The divine as a plot device is far too old-fashioned nowadays to even feature as a wish in the mind of a contemporary author. In its place we have death in one of its guises, and suicide is the one that chills us the most deeply and that makes us most aware of our own weaknesses. Being pursued by a violent god through a forest was passe even 500 years ago. Nowadays, we have children reminding us of the fragility of life and of the importance of eternal virtues like love.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Book review: Servants of Man, Samuel J Hanna (2019)

This novella is a neat piece of science fiction set on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. The year is 3148 and Australia rules the solar system. Navy Lieutenant Tiffany Sparks, an android, and her captain Marisol, also an android, are lovers and visit the planet to meet with the local human leaders when a rebellion of androids seeking enfranchisement declares a revolution and overwhelms the navy crew in a gun battle. Marisol is killed and Tiffany must guide a bunch of loyalist androids from the town of Caabony across rivers and past the Galadriel Hills to refuge at Lothlorien Scientific Mission.

The pacing is very good and the plot is complex enough to make things interesting but the barriers that are put up are not so high as to strain credibility. I think the balance between heroism and luck is competently handled and in between the (mercifully) brief gun fights there is plenty of time to muse on such things as mortality and the nature of a good life well lived.

In telling its story this book makes enquiries about other things too, such as consciousness and conscience, and humans don’t come out of the drama looking very good. For the most part they are proud and lustful and less empathetic than the androids who have been designed to serve them. In many ways, the androids are the better, more noble creatures. The relationships that they form with one another are models for conduct in any culture and all of this intelligent dialogue on things that habitually animate speculative writers takes place in a strange environment that reminded me in its outlandish beauty of the Mars of old Ray Bradbury novels.

I’m not usually a big fan of science fiction but this smart, compassionate book held my interest for all of its length, which was not long as it turned out. In fact the ending felt premature, which is why I have labelled the work a novella. When the narrative ends you feel as though you have reached the end of a preamble to the main story.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Book review: Tentacle, Rita Indiana (2018)

This strange work of speculative fiction was first published in Spanish by its Dominican author in 2015. The translation is very good but the pace is very fast and you won’t grasp everything as it unfolds. The plot is complex and the politics are unashamedly progressive. The other thing to say at the outset is that it’s not long so you never feel oppressed even when the story takes one of its characteristic turns.

The story opens in a year (2037) in the future when the coral reefs have all died. Alcide is a low-rent female prostitute who is taken in by a man named Eric who occupies a place in the household of a soothsayer for the country’s president. With a friend, Alcide is responsible for Esther’s murder and gets away with a precious anemone that Esther keeps in a special receptacle in her luxurious home. Eric finds Alcide after she goes on the run and helps her to transition from a woman to a man, then Alcide is transported back in time to 1991 and becomes Giorgio Menicucci, who falls in love with a woman named Linda Goldman who inherits money from her rich father. They start operating a laboratory on a beach on the island dedicated to saving marine life. Meanwhile, a young artist named Argenis who is fired from his job giving tarot readings to customers over the phone is taken in by Giorgio. Argenis comes to live on Giorgio and Linda’s beach, Playa Bo but he starts having visions during which he is alive in the colonial period in the same part of the island. In that capacity, he makes a series of woodcuts that are printed on a press and are buried in a wooden trunk.

This crazy superstructure however only gives the merest hint of the kind of impressionistic writing the book is made out of. The themes of magic, destiny, racial violence, and environmental destruction coalesce to form an intricate and beautiful narrative full of unusual sentences that glow and quiver like some wonderous marine animal stuck on a rock down beneath the tide line. The poetic vision is extremely strong and, as a result, despite the odd switches that the story takes as it meanders to its quiet close, you are always alert to some new revelation as fresh and as unexpected as the sudden change in temperature you feel when you are snorkelling in a sheltered bay and then, there ahead of you, suspended in water as clear as ice, is a beaked parrot fish nibbling serenely at the coral like the living spirit of some ancient god.

Some might balk at the way that the author conscripts the reader’s sympathies for the inventions that she produces from her fertile imagination, especially the way that queer themes are allowed to become interlaced with other themes to do with the natural environment and with racial relations. I can understand how people who have such reservations when faced with this kind of narrative might feel that they are being forced to see things that lie very much outside their direct experience, but this is the thing with outsider literature: you have to try to imagine life in the other person’s shoes.

I have read or started to read a significant number of books in the past 18 months that were written with the same feelings in mind as are evidently animating this novel, works of speculative fiction by people who identify with one or another of the world’s minorities, and I have to say that this is by a long stretch the best of the bunch so far. With many works of speculative fiction that are written by people who feel themselves to exist outside the mainstream, the problem arises when the types of plot devices the author brings into play fail to convince the reader. You feel as though the author’s worldview is being used to try and shoehorn your imagination into a tight box where it cannot be free to roam. This is ultimately a failure of poetic vision. It is in this regard that the current book triumphs where so many others fail. The author in this case is supremely in control of her material and has produced something to wonder at, something that can give meaning to the lives of many, no matter where they might live.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Book review: Madonna of the Mountains, Elise Valmorbida (2018)

I literally couldn’t wait to get to the end of this historical melodrama. I had committed to the book by about 20 percent of the way through and then kept giving it the benefit of the doubt as I ploughed doggedly on through crisis after crisis toward the denouement.

The novel follows the life of Maria Vittoria, a woman from the mountains north of the Po River, who gets married to a veteran of WWI named Achille and who moves south to live in the town of Fosso, near Venice. The two run a shop and raise a family of two girls and three boys but their lives become complicated because of the rise of Fascism and then WWII.

Achille turns out to be abusive and he beats his wife until, one day when their eldest son Primo is 17, Primo fights his father out of rage. Achille is denounced for black marketeering and is sent to prison. Maria tries to get her cousin Duilio, a Fascist, to help her get Achille out of jail but he rekindles a childhood romance that had been unconsummated, and seduces her. Valmorbida seeks to have us believe that the sex Maria has with Duilio is better than the sex she has with her nasty husband, but the point is not hammered home with unnecessary force and gets overshadowed by subsequent events.

Eventually, the Americans invade and liberate the peninsula from the Nazis, and then the focus of the story turns to Amelia, the eldest daughter, and her own romance. This turns out to be the biggest challenge of Maria’s life up to this point, and in a way the relationship with Amelia defines how Maria ends up settling her accounts with the world.

There are several things to be said about Maria, who is no better then she should be but who is something of a hero in the author’s mind, especially considered from a feminist perspective. (At the end of the book there is even a series of recipes for the foods that are consumed at various times in the narrative.) Valmorbida is on strong ground when she describes the effects that domestic violence has on the whole family, not only on the wife. Compared to the beatings, the thugs of the extreme right and the rationing that results in the family having to survive on meals of lizards and snails are mild by comparison.

But the Christian homilies that serve as filling when Valmorbida is trying to convey ideas about Maria’s state of mind become a little tiresome at times, and you wonder if this solecism is intentional or not. Compared to the Molly Bloom chapter of ‘Ulysses’ these passages are not strong and more could possibly have been done to accurately convey Maria’s way of thinking to the reader.

There is something about the high-toned drama in ‘The Madonna of the Mountains’ that reminded me while reading it of one of the classic Italian operas of the 19th century. The same fraught emotional register, the same extremes of expression standing in for psychological insight, the same intense focus on reputation and “la bella figura” (making an impression on people) that strikes the observer as being typical of first-generation (and even second-generation) migrant culture in Australia.

I think that this is ultimately a successful novel but it teeters on the edge of celebrating pathos at the expense of true artistic revelation. The poetic vision at times seems a bit close to that of the bodice rippers that our mothers used to read. But then, again, Italian history in the 20th century is nothing if not dramatic, with its militarism, religious fervour, fear of change, and a sort of outlandish brio reserved for the trappings of modernity that runs like a thread through the nation’s culture from the time, in 1909, when Futurism was born. Nothing less than melodrama would have been appropriate to tell the story of a nation that went through so many violent switchbacks and changes of direction from the end of the 19th century when the place was finally, after approximately 1400 years of partition, reunited as a single political entity. 

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Book review: Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China (2013)

This collection of poetry by writers mainly born in the 1960s but with some born in the 1950s and others in the 1980s (one, a girl, was born in 2002) is of generally high quality.

The book’s introduction and the translations were made by Ouyang Yu, who has lived in Australia since 1991. None of the poems are precisely dated and for some poets the names of previous books are mentioned in the short preliminary text that accompanies the work of each.

There are 10 poems in the book by a woman, Lu Ye, one of whose poems is mentioned below, but this is the most work of one artist contained in the book. The orthography is not uniform, with some poems using a capital letter for the start of each line, and others not. All of the titles of the poems are capitalised in title case.

Bai Heilin’s (a man, born 1973) ‘A Fake Rattan Chair’ is strong and whimsical with a sudden and compelling final line. It examines such ideas as tradition and the modern manufacturing economy and interleaves the referents it uses with elements from the writer’s personal life.

Also strong is Ben Shao Ye’s (a man, born in the 1970s) ‘Lover’ and it uses a highly poetic register to create a set of referents that enable the poet to examine enduring and important themes about life, especially about the nature of the individual.

‘Warnings Against My Own Insomnia’ by Chu Chen (born 1969) is an interesting short poem in a traditional register that comments on mortality with humour and lightness. It is just eight lines long and contains worlds.

Geng Xiang’s (born 1958) ‘The Garment of Mafang’ is a lovely poem that contemplates the links between generations and the ties that bind Chinese people to the country they live in. It is a long poem, running to a whole page, and it tells a story that has a narrator.

Liang Yujing’s (a man, born 1982) ‘The Old Man’ is a fascinating poem that looks at the relationship between Chinese people and Chairman Mao. While Chinese people uniformly have negative feelings about the Japanese, due to events that took place in the 20th century, they still revere Mao, despite the fact that he brought more suffering to China than the Japanese ever did.

‘Taking a Nap’ by Lu Ye (a woman, born 1969) creates a domestic scene where a woman is lying in bed in the room next to the room where another person – possibly a lover, possibly a husband, it’s not clear – is also asleep. With a few deft strokes, Lu creates a small, intense reality that is peopled with individuals who have desires and who dream. And then, at the very end, with the flick of her brush, she involves the whole country. It is a very beautiful poem.

Qi Guo’s (born 1968) ‘The Last Day’ takes a quick look at the world through the eyes of a Chinese and then, in the final stanza, reduces it to a witticism. A very fine poem that has depth and humour in plentiful supply and that finds the universal in the act of travel, a very modern preoccupation for Chinese people.

As a general observation the collection shows a wide variety of types of writing with individual poets taking their head and producing work to their own standards and on subjects that they themselves have chosen. This is encouraging, and the resulting range of work displays different themes that are central to people in the country. Contemplative pieces rub shoulders familiarly with pieces that have overtly political content. There is no single type of poetry being produced in China today, but it is clear that the ecosystem is fecund and that the work being produced is responding to contemporary social and artistic concerns.

In terms of categories, the translator includes one poet born in Taiwan in this collection. Two other poets were born in mainland China and moved to Taiwan. One of these poets subsequently moved to Canada to live. The rest of the anthologised poets (as far as I can tell) were born on and still live on the mainland.

I’m not sure how others might go about finding a copy of this book to buy. I bought mine from the translator direct through Facebook, where he can be found (on the book he puts his given name first and his family name last, in the western style, unlike Chinese people do in general, but in Facebook he uses the traditional Chinese way of writing his name). Otherwise, a good bookstore might be able to order it in for you.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Book review: You Should Have Told Me We Have Nothing Left, Jessie Tu (2018)

This tiny book (12cm wide by 15cm high, 34 pages) containing poems that are largely about the domestic sphere of experience is of uneven quality. The title is clever because it sounds like something someone would say at the end of a relationship, but as soon as you hear it you understand why the other person had decided to call it a day. An alternative way to say the same thing would be to say nothing at all. Two of the poems in the book got my attention.

‘We make a tiny crease in the universe’ is written in the first person and it is focalised though the person of an author who writes novels. She is talking to a person who is presumably a man, and he plays an instrument in a band. Different sets of recounts of events alternate. One set is prefaced with “You sit me down and say …” and the other is prefaced with “I sit you down and say …” as though there were a conversation going on that takes a long time, possibly a period of years. The cognates used are domestic and ordinary but the way that the recounts alternate establishes the kind of dialogue that people use when they are talking about a relationship that has ended, and when accounts are being tallied of injustices and favours done by parties on both sides. It’s a neat little poem that goes on for two pages.

The second poem that appealed to me is titled ‘The hotel’ and it tells part of the story of a woman who has gone to a hotel to meet someone, presumably a lover, with a suitcase that is too heavy for her to easily carry. She gets to the building’s front door but the automatic mechanism operating the door does not open for her at first until she works out what she has to do to make it work. When she does it’s something of an epiphany, and this has resonances that filter through the rest of the lines. It’s a very good poem that has a single point of focus but that encapsulates within its purview a lot of backstory, using a few words.

Tu has a certain economy of style in her poetry but it doesn’t always work as well as it does in the two poems mentioned above. In other cases, the referents are so unclear as to prevent full comprehension. This kind of shorthand is unfortunately not just limited to Tu, other poets do the same sort of thing and it’s a shame. This kind of writing is part of modern poetry and you find the same problem even in well-known poets. I found it to be a problem with the poems of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winner, and I have come across the same failing in other books of poetry in recent years.

It is a failure of a particularly fundamental sort, as poetry by its very nature relies on apparently casual congruities for the creation of meaning. But you can’t afford to lose the reader. Subtle consonances and juxtapositions of referents set up vibrations of meaning in the best poems, but if there’s no comprehensible story and the poetry itself is just lacking you can end up with gibberish. It’s a very delicate thing indeed.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Book review: The Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng (2007)

I was severely hampered in my reading of this long novel by the fact that I had to go to hospital after reading about 15 percent of the whole. By the time I had gotten back home I had forgotten the details of the framing narrative that opens the book. I ended up reading about 17 percent of the book before giving up.

The novel has to do with a young boy named Philip Hutton whose mother had been Chinese and whose father is English. The family, which included three children by an earlier marriage, lives on the island of Penang in Malaysia. Before WWII but in the 1930s, a Japanese man named Endo comes to live on a small island that belongs to the family, the head of which runs a trading company. Endo-san is an adept practitioner of aikido and teaches young Philip the techniques but he is also evidently a kind of spy although Philip does not pick up on this fact. According to reports that I have read, Philip and Endo-san become romantically involved, although at the point where I gave up on the novel this plot device had not yet been deployed.

There is a bit too much reliance in this book on adjectives. I felt the language was sometimes unnecessarily flowery and ornate but at other times too plain to contain much art. The characterisation borders on cliché at times. There is one point where Philip admires Endo-san’s aristocratic bearing, which I thought was a bit hackneyed even given what happens later in the story. The notion that Japanese people are more refined than other people is hardly insightful, and is manifestly untrue, which you will understand if you spend any time actually living with Japanese people. There were stylistic echoes of Mishima in this novel which seemed to reinforce this kind of stereotyping.

Ideas about beauty and truth, about the relations between people, and about propriety here point to some sort of preference for an Asian aesthetic and moral grounding for the life Philip lives. There is the implication that Philip’s Malay upbringing, Japanese martial arts training, and Chinese heritage all converge at a single point inside the individual that is different in material ways from what a European would think and feel. A kind of Asian exceptionalism, if you will. I found these ideas suspect and found also that the art used by the author to build his case was a bit threadbare.

Then there’s the length. The scenes just go on and one endlessly, without much happening and without much insight into the minds of the secondary characters. Everything is filtered through Philip, who is, you start to feel, not entirely trustworthy as a narrator. But countervailing points of view are missing.

Finally there is the strange way that conversations are rendered, with inverted commas that are only stuck on at the beginning and at the end of sections of reported speech, rather than being repeated at the beginning of each separate paragraph in the segment. I couldn’t account for this odd type of orthography.

This is the author’s first novel. The second, published five years later, won the Man Asia Literary Prize.