Friday 27 February 2009

The San Francisco Chronicle costs twice as much to produce and deliver as customers are paying for it, reports the newspaper. Owner The Hearst Corporation wants staff cuts across the board to reduce overheads, or it will shut down the paper, which it purchased in 2000.

The staff report, which clearly aims to impress unions as much as inform readers, says "the loss of classified advertising to Craigslist and other online sites" combined with the global financial crisis to create very unfavourable conditions for the paper, which has been published since 1865.

In other bad news from Stateside, Novella Carpenter ponders the dwindling fortunes of book publishers, naming HarperCollins as especially hard hit by the slow economy. Carpenter had a particular reason to look into the case as her book is due out in mid year.

Staff at Random House "have been holding their breath, worrying about whether the axe will come down on them", a correspondent told her.

Carpenter meets Linda O'Connor, a Las Vegas stand-up comedienne who is self publishing her memoir, Bastard Husband: A Love Story. "The economy isn't going to stop me," she said. "People are going to pay $15 for my book -- that's not going to break anyone's bank."

Bucking the negative trend is a small New York publishing house, Europa Editions, which has turned "a loyal following" into a profit. The company only publishes books in translation and has had its first bestseller, Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which has sold 71,000 copies.

The novel "had been a sensation in France" and the company had already turned that success into positive returns by translating it into Italian for that country's market.

Europa Editions was founded by an Italian couple, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri. The publisher in New York is Kent Carroll, a veteran of Grove Press.

Thursday 26 February 2009

The inaugural "interdisciplinary and 'inter-formal'" Warwick prize has been awarded to Naomi Klein for The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007). The 50,000 pound prize was awarded to Klein amid a field of books that are not all non-fiction.

There is no other prize of its kind.

The theme of the inaugural prize was 'complexity'. The "extremely diverse" shortlist included a "study of the relationship between women and mental illness", a history of 20th-century music, an investigation into the murder of a bishop, Stuart A Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred, and a novel, Enrique Vila-Matas's novel Montano's Malady. The longlist included fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

Chair of judges China MiƩville remarked on common themes, despite the variety of formats involved: "It was very interesting to see how so many writers on the shortlist were thinking about political corruption and corporate greed."

In other prize news, the Australia-Asia Literary Prize has been suspended. The prize is launched by the Western Australia Labour government that lost office last year.

Arts Minister John Day said the total prize money, format and timing of the Australia-Asia Literary Prize ... was under review and expected to be finalised by the middle of this year.

David Malouf won the inaugural prize last year and "pending the review recommendations" it would be offered in 2010. There is speculation the government, which is now Liberal, will not offer the prize again, seeking budget savings.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Amos Oz' Don't Call It Night (1995) is almost a perfect novel but I wonder how much I'll remember in three months. I've read other Oz novels and although I'm convinced he's Nobel material, I cannot recall much about them.

Here, plot and characterisation work closely together. The book is written in short chapters from the alternating points of view of Theo and Noa, a couple living in a small town outside Tel Aviv in Israel. Theo's an older man, a retired planning bigwig. Noa's a teacher with a predilection for colourful skirts. They met in Argentina and it seems to be a relationship made in heaven. They're not married but share quiet moments of closeness and treat each other with kindness and consideration.

Until Immanuel dies. A student of Noa's, the strange, withdrawn boy especially liked his language teacher. When his father comes to the funeral, he makes Noa a proposition: to set up a shelter for drub addicts. Immanuel suicided when under the influence. Or so it seems.

And this is where the plot really kicks in, because despite the fact that Noa assembles some supporters among the townspeople, it was always going to be a hard sell to get civic authorities to agree to establish a half-way house for the drug affected. Things drag on. Theo tries to impose some order into Noa's system of filing but she tells him to back off. Time drags and nothing seems to get finished.

The many characters involved in the work in progress impose their own tax on our patience, although it's a small tax because Oz writes so well. Nevertheless, we are irritated that Noa, having come up against a brick wall, starts spending more and more time with a young girl who she has in class, called Tal.

Theo notices, too. Even though they've bought a building for the drug centre, it seems that the town's will is stronger than the idealism of the putative founders of this worthy institution. When the mayor, a friend of Theo's, puts up objections and when one of the core members starts to speak out against it, it seems as though the game's up.

But we're never sure. Perhaps it doesn't matter. In any case, we see a society affected by the same things that afflict other Western societies, but on a small, parochial scale. How Theo and Noa deal with this is more interesting than whether it comes off. And how they interact - the small kindnesses, the thoughts they have about one another - seems, to me, to be the most important element in the novel.

The grey dust of the desert threatens to conquer all but it is the way individuals deal with its encroaching menace that matters. Oz has written another great book, and reading this is well worth the trouble.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Harry Nicolaides’ pardon saw a welcoming party (see photos from ABC’s news coverage below) at Melbourne airport including father Socrates and other family members. Nicolaides served five and a half months of a three year sentence in a murderously dirty and inhuman Bangkok prison.

Socrates Nicolaides hugged his son on camera before the 41 year old broke down in tears as he remembered the horror of his time behind bars. He received anonymous postcards, letters, gifts of food and medicines while in jail and thanked the Australians who sent them. He noted the "quintessential, iconic language that only Australians can make".

Harry plans to return to Thailand and to write an account of his ordeal. "Do you plan to write a book now?" asked a journalist. "I certainly will," said Harry. "Truth is stranger than fiction."

The pardon was mooted a week ago following front page coverage in The Sydney Morning Herald.

The release comes four days after the announcement of a plan to forward a request for a pardon to the royal palace. King Bumiphol Adulyadej finalised the pardon in quick time.

On Facebook Voula Demosthenous distributed a message at 6pm from Harry’s brother Forde to those who had joined a support group. With the subject line ‘Harry Is Free!!!!!!!!’, Forde wrote that “The Nicolaides family is grateful to his Majesty the King for the decision he has made and to the relevant Thai authorities who dealt with the pardon application in an expeditious manner.”

Harry’s brother also thanked “everyone who has supported the family’s efforts” “and in assisting with encouraging the Australian government to take affirmative action to secure Harry’s release”.

In the SMH’s 4.15pm story today, Harry was reported thanking “the Australian people for their support and the media for helping to get him released”. At the airport Harry thanked the media who had been "dauntless and courageous" and had kept up the pressure on the government to get the release approved. "We have rare privileges in this country," he said.

Saturday 21 February 2009

A 'kaddish' is a mourning prayer and Imre Kertesz' Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1997) could be interpreted - since it's a dense and difficult novel and thus interpretation is necessary - as a mournful reminiscence by a rather staid and particular writer-cum-literary translator.

We first meet him as he walks in the forest. He is staying at a retreat and he bumps into a fellow resident. Asked whether he had any children, the narrator explodes with a violent negative. The 'no' becomes a leitmotif repeated, later, when he talks about his reaction to his wife's suggestion that they have children.

His wife is a doctor who had felt something intense after having read a book the writer published. She approaches him. They become lovers. They marry and live together. And he tells his wife about his childhood. In doing so, he touches on many elements of the novel we have already come across and one of them is the fate of the Jews.

Both the narrator and his wife (finally ex-wife) are Jewish, and Jewishness is central to the novel's point of most profound importance as a text.

But in describing his lack of faith in the world, in terms of children, the narrator shows himself to be of the same nature as the 'othering' carried out by Christians in the 1930s when the pogroms started. He shuts out the world and thus reiterates his freedom, so that he can remain individual and not get caught up in the travail of earthly existence at its most humiliating and shameful.

This is just a precis. The novel is frighteningly dense and beautiful. It contains references to Nietszche and other philosophers and it is clear that Kertesz is well equipped to confront his themes.

Framing and giving structure to the mass of detail about the fate of Jewishness is the issue of children. But there is another sense of movement apart from this. In the beginning we are presented with a slightly ridiculous figure, a man with not much wordly stamina, a man used to being alone and fighting private battles in his work.

This slightly ridiculous figure transforms itself, later in the book, into a figure of commanding intellect and insight. But at the very end, as he is confronted by the children he never had, the narrator becomes something else again. He becomes some kind of slinking monster that is best ignored.

It is a frightening and dramatic transformation, and demonstrates Kertesz' immense power as a storyteller. Because this is the point he is leading to, all the time. In this sense, the novel can be considered as a fairly strong symbol of affirmation: of life, of reproduction, of love.

Friday 20 February 2009

A thirsty Victorian koala gets a drink from a Country Fire Association volunteer. "I can't believe he's drinking all this water," says the fireo as the parched marsupial quenches its thirst from a bottle of water. The camera rolls. "Are you getting all this?" asks the guy. "Yeah," says his mate.

A friend posted this Associated Press video from YouTube, on Facebook. It's titled 'Raw Video: Sam the Koala Gets a Drink After Fire'. "You alright buddy, eh?" asks the dusty fireman as he approaches the equally dusty animal isolated amid blackened gum trees and in a total absence of underbrush.

"Come here buddy."

It's a very touching vignette of what happened on 9 February. We got to see the news videos coming out of the affected area only on Sunday afternoon. Then it was suddenly that we saw major adjustments made to news splash pages and the saturation TV coverage.

In a piece published in The Age newspaper today, Marieke Hardy criticises the extent and nature of the coverage we've been seeing. She regrets the manufactured nature of much of it and condemns TV stations for chasing stories so energetically that tragedy seems to be something put on for our benefit, rather than something we sympathise with because it happened to someone else.

But the video clip featured at the start of this blog post seems to go some way to quenching her smart. A bit of real life well lived. Ahhhhh!

Thursday 19 February 2009

Salam Pax back in Baghdad? After two years away from his native soil, the famed Baghdad blogger finds life is returning to normal. We've been aware of this for some time. It's been a while since we've seen TV vision of weddings being bombed, or crowded marketplaces.

The recent appearance of the blogger (The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 February) constitutes a signal that normality is within reach. But the pundits are silent. As Guantanamo returns to centre stage as a point of contention between the left intelligentsia and the US government, Baghdad's new-found peace is no longer deemed relevant. And it's a shame. Never let it be said that the US incursion had a beneficial effect!

Not that I'm an apologist for the incursion, far from it. Nevertheless, the decision to focus on organising a local constabulary and a local army seem, looking at the blogger's piece, to have been right on the money.

He used to carry two ID cards: one with a Sunni surname and one with a Shiite surname, in an effort to second-guess the men at roadblocks positioned around his native city. Now that a local army is manning these places, it's no longer necessary to fret in advance of stopping, trying to decide which ID to produce. Now all you need to do is remember not to talk on your mobile, since these devices can be used to trigger explosive devices.

Pax' bemusement and relief is palpable in the article published today. No more mass killings. Look! There's a family eating ice cream at 8pm! Amazing!

Two years of exile have turned the blogger who brought to us daily updates on a dire situation into an unwitting apologist for the US backed incursion: there's peace in them thar streets...

Wednesday 18 February 2009

There’s a call-out for trucking poetry, reports Steve Meacham in The Sydney Morning Herald (8 February).

The Red Room Company, a non-profit organisation based in Sydney, is running it. Founded by Johanna Featherstone, the company has its roots in 2001 with a radio program on 89.7fm, Eastside Radio, called Red Room Radio Show. The company was founded in 2003.

Featherstone reckons the cab is "the perfect place" to write poems. Truckies are “ignored, repudiated and misunderstood” according to the company's website. This is true especially when they tailgate at 100km per hour on a single-lane highway.

The road may go on for a while in this uncomfortable manner but there’s lots to see and truckies, for all their faults, are in the box seat when it comes to visiting the countryside. Every day they ply their trade and are presented with aspects of Australia most people see infrequently, if ever. Cloud shadowed hills, dried out pasturage, the sun breaking out from behind a clump of gum trees to show who’s boss despite your grip on the wheel of your rig as you hurtle along at speed.

Featherstone asked John Laws, the retired radio announcer - and a bit of a poet himself - to put out a call for truckies to volunteer their work for scrutiny and inclusion via a website,

To be included in the ‘logbook’ of poetry will be work by “a wandering wordsmith” named Mick O’Brien who features in Meacham‘s story (pic).

Featherstone got the idea for the collection at a highway truck stop. “How many poets are there within the trucking industry?” she asked herself.

"People have this image of truck drivers being large, rough and covered in tattoos," said Mr O'Brien, 41. "But most of us are ordinary blokes, and there's a lot of women driving trucks these days, too."

Dust Poems “is being created in partnership with Sydney Olympic Park Authority and coincides with the Royal Easter Show,” says the website.

Construction sites, carparks and hidden locations of Sydney Olympic Park will be transformed by installations that display the six poems in interactive ways. The public will be invited into these spaces by way of a route map that navigates a Truck Poem Search. The Search will contain toy trucks donated by the public, and poems logged at the Park by roaming visitors. You can help us construct the Search by donating toy trucks to deposit points at the Red Room and Sydney Olympic Park.

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Harry Nicolaides' pardon by the Thai King is pending some paperwork but at least it's in the pipeline. By the end of the week the pardon request can be presented to the Justice Minister and then to the Royal Palace.

Corrections department planning division officer Putthipong Natthajaruwit said "We are waiting for evidence from the court and we will make a petition to the minister and then send it to the King (Bhumipol Adulyadej)."

A human rights lawyer, Somchai Homlaor, said the department's recommendation was very important in that it would clear the way for the granting of a pardon.

Both stories from The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February. I blogged about the case earlier this month.

Political observers say Nicolaides, whose book sold fewer than 10 copies, became a pawn in Thailand's deeply divided political landscape.

Over recent years the conflict has pitted the populist former leader Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters against the urban middle class, who accuse the former prime minister of corruption and abuse of power.

The Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power in December, has pointed to deliberate steps to draw the monarchy into the country's political conflict.

Friday 13 February 2009

Mark Dapin's Strange Country (2008) includes a number of features written for Good Weekend magazine, a Saturday supplement with The Sydney Morning Herald. Subtitled 'Travels in a very different Australia' it's a gentle comic wander through the lives of some odd people and some normal people who do things that readers of the magazine might think are odd.

Dapin's background with a lad's magazine has stood him in good stead. Comedy is not an absolute quantity and must be balanced in the measurement of virtue against the things it singles out for censure, praise, or merely for acknowledgement. There's a normative essence Dapin writes to, and it's not too different from that of most people who live in Newtown, or would like to live in Newtown, or visit Newtown occasionally.

You can see the editors thinking, 'Let's get Mark to write about cane toads' or 'What if we ask Mark to write about crossing the desert on a learner's licence?'.

There's a strange homogeneity about the pieces here, which were written over the period of several years. The framing narrative about his son - why would an Englishman want to write about Australia unless he had a schmalzy reason to do so (his son is an Australian) - is also gentle and pleasurable.

But there's more to Dapin than the gentle sentiments implied or expressed. He's a very good feature writer. He looks for the comic angles when talking to people. (He might be a funny guy himself). He asks stupid questions and gets serious answers (which is funny in itself). He has excellent timing and he knows when to stop.

All of which makes reading the book a fun experience.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch is a lot of fun to read. Originally published, in Spanish as Rayuela, in 1963, it appeared in Great Britain in 1967. It's part of that period of experimentation that saw Gabriel Garcia Marquez bring out his early tours-de-force but it's a very different kind of novel from One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It's an experimental novel. There are two ways to read it. Either go straight through to page 349 or read in a prescribed order the chapters that include the 'expendable chapters' that continue to page 564. I chose the first. One chapter even has lines from two separate narratives interspersed with one another, an impossible situation that made me skip forward a chapter.

Most of the novel is straightforward in its delivery but the characters are not and the essence of the story is to do with Horatio Oliveira's search for a holistic way of life. In Paris, in the first half of the book, he is involved with a fey Paraguayan named La Maga. He is then forced - we believe - to leave France, whereupon he returns to Buenos Aires.

Here he hitches up with an old friend, Traveler, and his wife, Talita. He also seems to get back into synch with an old girlfriend, Gekrepten. Everything shifts back, in Argentina, from a bohemian Paris lifestyle to the cruder, more mundane realities of day-to-day existence. He's got to make a living, for a start, whereas in Paris he seemed to move from one airy contemplation to the next, not worrying about where the money for his next packet of Gauloises would come from.

It was not always smooth sailing, to be sure. But Oliveira (it's a Portuguese name) is driven by alternative views and expends his energies in ways that are overtly unconventional. The world view of the protagonist synchs nicely with the book's alternative bent so that we are saturated by a feeling of lightness that derives its value from seeing the world through different eyes.

Oliveira's unconventional ways mean that, once back home, he will come up against the realities of others. At 40-plus, he's no longer a young man. But the age is relevant too because it means that he has already developed decided attitudes. In fact he dosen't really care if he is in conflict with others. Indeed, he seems to welcome if not precipitate conflict.

There's a lot of scope for comedy in this recipe, and Cortazar, who wrote the story 'Blow-Up' which was the basis for Michaelangelo Antonioni's famous film, revels in comedic action. Unfortunately, you won't easily find any other books by this author in book shops, and will need to rely on alternative sources, such as online secondhand agglomerators.

When Oliveira's attempt to achieve a holistic experience of life fail hilariously in the final chapters, we're launched into a kind of Gonzo world where the main character sits in the most uneasy possible attitude in relation to those who surround him. It's refreshing to meet another exponent - independently developed - of Gonzo.

Julio Cortazar, the first Gonzo novelist? Perhaps. But Henry Miller is surely an inspiration.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled struck me, at an early stage in my reading, as a book the critics would have panned. The idea snuck into the nest I was building around the book and settled there, unannounced. By the time I got to about page 200, I had a chance to put it down and use the internet.

A Wikipedia-linked profile, published in 2005 at the time his most recent novel, Never Let Me Go, was published, confirmed it. The interloper was a pest, it was true. Because as soon as I’d had that thought another emerged: the book is magnificent.

The Unconsoled (1995) creeps up on you but the story is desperately interesting. I’m not sure where the idea of a musician as a messiah came from, but it’s sort of like feedback from a strange pop band’s lead guitar. The curious logic of the device subverts more formalistic speculation as to how Ryder’s abrupt changes in direction reflect on him or contribute to an evolving set of values by which the story can be judged. It’s not going to be easy, we’re resigned to admit. It’s going to be a stretch to make sense of this novel. But we’re not without pointers, and Ishiguro must be aware of these, especially considering his youthful involvement with music and writing musical lyrics.

We’re accustomed to reading critics who invoke Shelley’s old chestnut about poets being the unrecognised legislators of the world. Here, a musician is supposed to save a small city from decay. We’re not told what sort of crisis there is, but we’re exhorted to believe that the city is increasingly filled with unhappy campers.

But that’s just the superstructure. Around it Ishiguro builds a net of unexpected outcomes. Each conversation - and they tend to be long and intrusive exchanges between two people meeting in a hallway or a crowded movie theatre - seems to announce another odd twist, another possible outcome for us to handle. As the story progresses, these intrusions cause less anxiety, and we become used to seeing how things turn out alright in the end.

Nevertheless, each encounter seems to be about to lead to a satisfying thread, something we can latch onto as we strive to comprehend the extent and nature of the city’s malaise. But each one subverts the comfortable conclusion by introducing either a new plot twist or setting up unease due to a pending change in circumstances Ryder has no control over.

Nothing makes sense for long and we seesaw between the pleasure of making sense of the story’s threads and discomfort at the dawning knowledge that nothing will turn out as prescribed. The riffs are uncomfortable. They’re insinuating. They’re strident and evocative of the timbre and texture of life itself.

In this rather plodding but skilful manner, Ishiguro gives us a sounding board against which we can measure the depth of our own perceptions, both literary and contingent (that is, to do with life as we live it). There are also plenty of spaces that are 'like life' amid the surreal twists, and resting in these we latch onto other, more personal, elements of the story. We start to feel other things, unbidden.

If Nabokov is correct and the best literature pits not characters against one another, but the writer against the reader, then Ishiguro has written a great novel.

Little things get under our skin. It’s soon apparent that we’re in for a rough time. At one point early on, Ryder (the protagonist) is following a woman down a torturous path. He’s got a little boy with him. It transpires that the boy is his own, the woman his wife. His father-in-law is the hotel porter who met him in the very beginning, but toward the end of the story we learn that they‘d only just met recently.

But even before we know any of this, however, we realise that the woman is about to disappear and this fills us with a kind of despair.

Later he’ll get angry with her. But after they go into a cinema to watch a movie, he ends up leaving without her. He’ll catch up with her later, at the modern housing estate, but not before he meets up with the city’s outcast, a desperate man with an ambitious wife who intends to leave him. He has theories about music that the city rejects and, Ryder being the ultimate judge, that are doomed.

The things that happen are too odd. How much does Ryder know? How much do we know? How much SHOULD we know?

Ishiguro’s placing the story in an Eastern European city adds to a destabilising effect. It is masterful because we get a patina of strangeness that is nothing compared to the real strangeness the book produces in its twists and turns.

The language, too, is highly artificial but nevertheless doesn’t stray far from the normative discourse of the everyday. It’s slightly stilted but modulates easily as it inhabits the mouths of different characters. It is flexible without being weak, strong without being stiff. It’s just odd, like the story and like the book itself.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Elfriede Jelinek's novel Greed (2006) is a crime thriller but instead of merely a 'cast' of characters, Jelinek has added to the genre's regular mix a distinct 'complex' of narrative voices that are bound sometimes painfully together by her particular style of worldly pessimism. The country policeman is, from an early point, our villain. We are in no doubt about it. But it doesn't matter who did it.

It's not important who did it because Jelinek's mysterious method deftly introduces a totalising set of narratives that 'speak' to us about the murder of a young girl and the heartbreaking demise of the 'other woman'. We are not just faced with the voices of people. We see a grown buck spring in front of a moving car. We hear the story of the dead lake. We are also invited to listen to the other woman's thinking about her lonely life.

There's no starting point and no end. And just as this resembles life, the twining of disparate narratives around a solid (for fictional purposes) stalk - the story of greed perpetrated by one, evil man - also resembles life. It resembles the way you 'talk to' yourself as you walk down the street. The way different voices emerge at different times of the day.

It's this rush of narrative forces that makes the story so engrossing. Sure, we've got a greedy murderer on our hands, but we'll never understand why the young girl had to die too. Maybe he let slip to her some of his plans for the other woman who, in the end, gives him her house. Satisfying his thirst for real estate. Giving him what he wanted, in her death, because he was never happy with her in her life.

And she mourned his lost affection. Poor, unfortunate soul. But what about the girl?

We sift through images and threads of narrative searching for answers. One thing that comes back to us strongly is the sheer indifference of the world, the absence of a redeeming God, mankind's futile yearning for transcendence despite all the plausible apparatuses of worldly existence that throw themselves before us as we make our way through life. Buy this thing, make sure you purchase that. You might need it one day.

The other woman, who gave everything for the sake of her man, maybe selflessly, emerges as a hero because she tried to believe in a relationship above everything else that exists. She tried to make her link to another human being more important than her own life. If she succeeded then all the credit for the transformation from corpse to benefactor, from fallen woman to angel, belongs to her.

A consummation devoutely to be wished for? But at what cost. I guess you can't have your cake and eat it too.

Jenlinek's novel was originally published in 2000, in German and in Austria. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. This translation came out in 2006: a reward for other, better known books? Regardless, this is an astonishing novel that tries to approximate, in its telling of a terrible story, the texture of life itself. A difficult goal, but one which the author comes as close as possible to achieving.

Monday 9 February 2009

The documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is, like most movies today, too long at over two hours. But I felt good on a few occasions. It may have been the music. It may have been the twenty year old girls in the row behind who put their feet on the chair backs.

My bum had started to hurt toward the 90 minute mark, and I was forced to keep shifting in my seat. Fortunately, I was sitting in the front row, among the outcasts, and was, mercifully, alone.

But I probably enjoyed it because it’s intrinsically an interesting story. And Alex Gibney, the director, has filled in a lot of areas that I was ignorant of with interviews with Jann Wenner, so long Rolling Stone‘s editor, ex-president Jimmy Carter and ex-senator McGovern, among others.

There are a lot of holes still to fill in. There are a lot of books to read, and a lot of biographical information to wade through. Maybe on completion of these exercises in adoration (adulation) I’ll be in a better position to answer some of the questions that keep nagging.

I continued to feel good outside, in the bright sunshine. But I’ve still to get on top of what Hunter S. Thompson was really all about. The rock star treatment he met with after covering the Democratic campaign in 1972 bewilders me. His suicide (2005) bewilders me. His move to Gonzo journalism, too, bewilders me.

I’m not bewildered by his dumping a good woman, his first wife, because at that time there was a lot of pussy around. She mentions an ‘affair’ but the similarity between these scenes and the Hells Angels gang bang he chronicled earlier in his career is striking. But I am bewildered by the 22 guns - all loaded - he kept for entertainment purposes.

And I’m a little surprised by the infatuation with football. I mean, this is supposed to be a writer, for gosh sakes. What I do know for sure is that Thompson kept pushing, and doing it for a long time.

He pushed his body - clearly his constitution was too strong for his own health - as hard as he pushed the boundaries of journalism. His switch to Gonzo (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)) was a result of his involvement in the Berkeley subculture in the early 1960s.

The routine use of hallucinogenic drugs made it easy, if he was searching for an unusual angle, to move over the line separating the alcohol abuse of the regular American community from the habits of those who try something a little more physically gratifying. Maybe the combination of a hard scrabble childhood, an iron constitution and a desire for fame through writing means that Thompson was simply a one-off.

In future I’d like to see Keanu Reeves play Thompson. They both have that rapid-fire, deadpan delivery typical of American TV broadcasters.

Overall it’s a good documentary, although the lack of captions for some of the talking heads, after their first appearance, was disconcerting. We’re not all 60 year old Americans, after all.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Postmodernism is dead; now is the Age of Reinforcement

We are living in a new age, an age of Reinforcement: of beliefs, modes and methods, lifestyles, and enjoyment. The postmodern sneer - emblem of the age of the debunk - is no longer visible on our faces.

The ironic glance, the sudden feeling of self-consciousness - these are not so much of the past. But our dismay certainly is. We no longer demand absolute certitudes - Postmodernism showed us these were not available. But we don't care.

Self-consciousness is not going to rain on our parade. We've taken a leaf out of the books of the protesters of the 70s and we're proud to invest heavily in simulacra. In fact, they sustain us: they reinforce our lifestyle by enabling us to cope with uncertainty in a globalised world.

Uncertain because largely at peace. We are not brought together by the certainties provided by the end of a major conflict.

WWI was the first modern war. Still clinging to ideas of greatness, the people who fought and survived WWI were introduced to scientific methods never dreamed of and the carnage was horrendous. WWII merely underlined this fact, and introduced the utilitarian method of warfare: factory production as warfare.

But while the Edwardians were still wedded to Great Men notions of history, Modernism was forging ahead, bringing with it new certainties about the little things, the details of life, the 'reality' underlying much of what was taken for granted in everyday conversations.

If Modernism were merely a form of scientific Romanticism, Postmodernism saw the dawning of new awareness inasmuch as people around WWII lived, decidedly, in a manufactured world. Even their modes of warfare attested to this fact. If everything was a simulacrum of reality, if surprise gave way to ironic awareness, then we could only skim across the surface of this corrupt planet with its artificial constructs challenging us to find real substance, and try to anchor our beliefs in something more solid than an advertising hoarding.

Well, we've managed to do it. Postmodern concerns have not disappeared, but they've been pushed out of the limelight. No longer anxiety, but stubbornness. No longer irony, but determined attitudes fuel our onward thrust.

In the end there's still only one direction available to avail ourselves of. We've been drawn back and forth so many times that we've now decided we need to function as our own clock. We, ourselves, are responsible for making the mechanism tick. We wind ourselves up.

How do we keep going? Energy is still needed, and it's available if we seek it out. Many of us are given a set of constructs and objects that we cling to. Others make a new portfolio out of their lived experience. In any case, we are all trying to reinforce something, some set of values, some mode of living that allows us to achieve the aspirations we believe are necessary to attain happiness.

Naturally not all succeed. But we all try to reinforce our system, in any way we can. We buy clothes with labels on the inside again. We read mass-market paperbacks in a recognisable genre and are satisfied that the glances we attract on the train are no longer full of disdain, but curiosity. "What if I, too, were reading that book?" they ask now.

We are satisfied with the recognisable simulacra of life, and we continue to consume - as we always have - and produce - as we always have - because there's no turning back. There's no rest. There's only the prize.

Sport has never been so popular. The ultimate simulacrum, sport. The simulacrum of war, of conquest. It's the perfect analogy of the age we live in: the level playing field we think exists, the goals, the teams, the strategies, the tactics. All oriented toward one end: winning the game.

Life, then, is like practice, endless practice. We train while we consume, and read, and watch, and produce. We are the products of ourselves. In order to keep going, we MUST reinforce the superstructure of our lives, on a daily basis. Because we live in the age of Reinforcement. The age of striving after impossible goals in an impossible world.

The age of insoucience in the world of je m'en foutisme.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Harry Nicolaides' pardon may be forthcoming, according to his brother Forde. The poor man, who Sharon Bakar at Malaysia's Bibliobibuli blog wrote about on 20 January, is in a terrible state. Sleeping in a foot-wide area on the floor, walking in cat vomit and fish bones during the day, and watching his back when he's not being handed manuscripts by other inmates, Nicolaides deserves our pity.

Sharon says that the Australian consulate had done nothing for him. For sure I've heard little word about the case, which began on 31 August when the author was levaing Thailand by aeroplane. I've heard nothing from officials, including the Greens. It's appalling and it's time it stopped.

Seven copies of the book were sold, Nicolaides, who lives in the northern Thai town of Chiang Rai, tells us. He also tells us that he's becoming resigned to living in a place where deadly contagious diseases are commonplace. He says "other foreigners" tell him that "this, too, shall pass". It's a chilling quote in today's The Sydney Morning Herald, which placed a picture of Harry, finally, on its front page (click on pic to enlarge).

On 4 February 2009, the same paper published a story that told us "On Monday, the Bring Harry Home website ( was launched to raise the profile of the case." Politicians currently blabbing about the economic stimulus package should get their fingers out of their noses and start making phone calls. Surely, Mr Rudd, a call from you to Thailand's new president could make some sort of difference.

A 12 November AAP story tells us that "The federal government says it has made representations to the Thai authorities on behalf of an Australian man charged with criticising the country's royal family."

A video Sharon points to about Thai politicians misusing the same law that caused Harry to be incarcerated for alternative reasons has been removed by YouTube "due to terms of use violation". The Facebook site for Harry had, as of today, over 3100 members. Sharon notes that the passage in the book about the relations of the royal family was "just 103 words long". That's the length of a short news story.

The lese majeste law has been invoked, thinks the BBC, because the police and army are trying to "suppress what they fear is a rising tide of anti-monarchy sentiment". The king, Bumiphol Adulyadej, is frequently involved in politics. Recent unrest in Thailand caused a group of anti-Thakshin protesters to squat in the country's main airport. The government collapsed as a result.

But this is ridiculous. A 41 year old Australian writer who has lived in Thailand, peacefully, for years, has been charged with a medieval law in a medieval manner and is kept in medieval conditions for a self published (2005) novel. The ABC broke the story on 12 November in its 7.30 Report feature program.

Nicolaides is an unlikely criminal. He "taught English, wrote columns about expat life for an online magazine" (The Age, 22 November) and wrote books. "When he published Verisimilitude three years ago, Nicolaides took the precaution of sending his book to the National Library, the Thai Ministry of Culture, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Bureau of the Royal Household to check that its contents were acceptable. He received no response." The book was accepted in the National Library of Thailand.

Thai authorities issued a warrant for Nicolaides' arrest on March 17 2008. "The authorities are very concerned to keep the royal family out of politics, and to clamp down on any discussion which might reflect negatively on the royal family. There's a strong campaign to pursue lese majeste charges," says Dr Andrew Walker, an anthropologist at ANU's Asia-Pacific program.

Forde Nicolaides says the book "is in no way about the monarchy" (New Zealand Herald, 24 November). Nicholas Pearson in The Australian (1 December) says that "arrests for lese majeste are seen by the ruling elite as a means of harnessing populist support". "King Bhumibol Adulyadej himself has stated publicly that use of the charge lowers the status of the throne."

Nicolaides is in prison because of the way "in which he referred to the way an unamed Crown Prince treated one of his mistresses" (Canada NewsWire, 5 December). The Australian (6 December) suggests that, with the king ailing in his old age, Crown Prince Maha is enjoying "growing influence" and is thus responsible for Harry's detention. "Some have taken this unflattering depiction as a comment on Prince [Maha] Vajiralongkom," writes The Age (19 December).

Friday 6 February 2009

Janet Frame took words seriously and this was a pleasure for her. But it was also a cause of pain. And because she lived in a country where conformity was of paramount importance, people were always telling her what to do. As she took their words like sticks or stones, like solid objects that could bounce or smash through a person's frail composure, she was always a 'good girl'.

In her The Complete Autobiography (1990), starting in childhood with To the Is-Land (1982), Frame observes herself becoming estranged from her true self, and because she's a brilliant writer - metaphors and imagery from nature are foremost but she also uses a clear logic based on deep thought - we are swept along with her.

An Angel at My Table (1984) chronicles her later childhood, growing up. Then The Envoy from Mirror City (1985) takes us to the present where Frame, a famous writer living once more in her native land, escapes from the past and reenters the tunnel of forgiveness to revisit old ghosts and the places where they used to meet.

"We both knew that in a conformist society there are a surprising number of 'deciders' upon the lives and fate of others," Frame writes. "I was again surrounded by people who were planning my future." She wants to "escape from a country where ... a difference which was only myself ... had been looked on as evidence of abnormality".

Escape she does. She reclaims part of the ten years spent in mental institutions by gathering to herself, travelling (for a total of seven years) in Ibiza, a lover. She miscarries, moves to Andorra and walks in the snow. Back in London she goes back to the hospital. But this time it's of her own choosing.

Her father, a bully. Her mother, a compliant slave. Her two sisters dead by drowning (bad hearts). Her brother, an epileptic. It is visible, the cause of her afflication, in the moral overtone given to her brother Bruddie's illness by the pest of a father. "He can overcome it if he wants."

In the mental asylum in New Zealand she's whipped into shape, given electric shock therapy (each time a death) and isolated by an inhuman regime of abuse and neglect. She escapes having a life-altering brain operation - to make her 'normal' - by the discovery that a book that had been published containing her short stories had won a prestigious local literary prize.

London is not only a place of refuge (seven years!) but an essential element of her becoming a woman. Likewise Ibiza. But she returns to New Zealand to write, because being too far away from the places she inhabited in youth is detrimental, she feels, to her craft. In London she manifestly 'becomes' a writer.

The book is striking, the imagery and the threads - long sentences piling quoted bits on top of one another until they threaten to burst - of narrative, enthralling. We feel that she deserved more than New Zealand which, callow, shamefaced, reclaimed her as a writer who had 'made good' overseas. A more weighty accolade is not available and the country submits to accepting her 'as she is'.

It's a relief. The words that had wounded her as a girl become malleable, useable. She puts them down on the page. We read them. Applause.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

Natalie Tran (pic), a 22 year old YouTube poster, won't be coopted by capital to run endorsements, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. Serial tech journalist Asher Moses quotes Tran as saying "It [sponsorship money] is very tempting but it's not really what I'm looking for - I've spent a long time creating something and I don't want to give that up."

Which is refreshing. Why is this important to me? Tran is a lot more relevant, in terms of appeal, than this blog. Her YouTube channel, communitychannel, logged (at the time the story was written) "over 150,000" subscribers (155,000 plus after the story went online). Tran, says Moses, "publishes a new video every two to three days, each taking about four hours to make, including writing, filming, editing and uploading".

She works in retail on and off while studying digital media at the University of NSW, writes Moses. In homage to Nat's fame, YouTube became surprisingly nonfunctional shortly after the story went live on the SMH's website. The giant is dropped by a Sydney girl!

Nat's attitude to endorsement requests is important to me because I think there's no doubt that capital corrupts. Even LibraryThing does it. The Early Reviewer who wants to get a book requests a copy. And slightly lower down on the scale of heinous is the Member Giveaway service, where LT members who are writers solicit requests from other members for copies in exchange for (published, I think it goes without saying) reviews.

Like Early Reviewers, Member Giveaways are location specific. A small flag under the book's request link shows which country requesters are allowed to live in. The appeal of free publicity is thus entrenched, and its reach grows, like everything online, inexorably.

In a recent survey of Australian literature blogs, Perry Middlemiss of Matilda blog asked about 15 bloggers to talk about their experiences, and what they thought about blogging. In my first draft, I included a line saying "Ethical bloggers don't accept review copies". I said this because marketers for publishing companies are starting to infiltrate the scene. The kind of books, as a result, that get reviewed are frequently new releases.

And they're mostly not very interesting. Perry's blog is a case in point and I seldom read the reviews. Alternative Oz litblog Reading Matters also contains reviews copies of books recieved from publishers. It's a shame.

The blog owner wins back brownie points by regularly mooching books on BookMooch, which she reviews too. And she's got a weakness for Irish writers that is refreshing. But the main issue for me is that publishers are starting to decide the agenda, and bloggers who accept review copies of new releases are party to a confrontation between the new medium and an old, and tired, paradigm.

With publishing companies like Penguin getting on the bandwagon themselves (the Penguin Blog has run for almost two years, if my reckoning is correct) it's only a matter of time before we're all looking in the same direction. Other publishers are going to follow suit, I'm sure. Most, if not all, will be looking for bloggers to coopt.

Natalie is, for me therefore, like a breath of fresh air. She won't be corrupted by a corrupting system. Good for her. That's not all she's got going for her. She's extremely goodlooking, smart and serious, streetwise. It's a potent cocktail and it's a far cry from the goofy eye bloat of Matt Harding, the Australian who took his "viral" (and lame) dance around the world.

Natalie's not lame she's anything but.

She's not the first girl to make a splash on YouTube. About two years ago I used to watch two American teenagers goof around on video. I can't remember their names but I'll never forget the sensation of watching them fool around in their bedroom doing weird voices and faces. It brought home, to me, the type of scope we could expect from the new medium. Unfortunately there have been few successors. Nat's one.

Sunday 1 February 2009

Philip Robins is a lecturer at Oxford University and, from what I can gather online, the primary expert in the field of Jordanian politics. A article by Robins dated 2004 is the most recent appearance online but there is very little else about the man apart from book listings at retail sites.

A History of Jordan (2004) is a very good idea as a publishing venture. Jordan is a small, weak, authoritarian state that began life under the British mandate in the 1920s. Since then, there have been four kings, the most recent, Abdullah, coming to power in 1999. He was 37 years old. He seems to be popular overseas.

At home, the state is coercive and rigid, suppressing freedoms in the area of the press, especially. Abdullah thus continues a long tradition of cracking down on dissent using state organs.

Jordan has weathered a long time of troubles. Unlike in Syria, which was part of the French mandate, the Jordanian king has not seriously been opposed. But he is not comfortable with elected governments and can dismiss the incumbent cabinet at will. The upper house is appointed by the king. Political parties are barely tolerated.

Jordan is popular with America because it also distrusts Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation which emerged in Egypt in the 1950s during a period of increased politicisation after WWII. It was a time when many countries achieved independence from colonial overlords.

But Abdullah will not be tempted to tolerate too much partisanship. A stable economy is, apparently, his major goal. Press freedom and human rights will, as they do in China, have to wait. Jordan is not a democracy by our standards.

Robins is very good at writing but the book becomes hard to follow after about 1967, when the second Israeli war occurred. The problems faced by Jordan largely derive from the fact that it is surrounded on all sides by powerful neighbours. While once it got a large slice of its income from Saudi subsidies, nowadays they come from the US. Jordan, along with Israel and Egypt, is a major recipient of US aid.

An unsettled international environment causes disruptions at home, especially since Jordan's population includes a very substantial proportion of Palestinians. There are political and other social factions but the outside world sees almost nothing of their activities. The book is a good chance to see something of how they operate.

The other benefit of the book is that it gives flesh to the often confusing concerns of Middle Eastern politics. Covering the major part of the 20th century, Robins touches on all the main points of interest for a Western readership. The struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbours is, certainly, an important point of departure for anyone wishing to understand the dynamics of the Middle East today.

This book provides a sound starting point for the curious.