Thursday 31 January 2019

Polish commuters reading

Earlier this month I was with a friend in the CBD and we caught a cab from Central Station to Bridge Street, near the Quay. As usual, I talked with the driver. He was evidently (as Sydney cab drivers usually are) born overseas and we chatted about this and that. He said that most people these days are short tempered because they feel entitled. I agreed with his observation and the three of us talked about the things that people should feel grateful for, especially in a pluralist democracy.

As we got to the end of Elizabeth Street, toward our destination, he revealed that he was Polish. I asked him what was different between the two countries and he said that in Poland people on the street are always reading. I have a friend who lives in Poland and I told her about this and she sent me a photograph as confirmation of the truth of what the taxi driver said. This photo shows Warsaw commuters.

Wednesday 30 January 2019

KAK vs Yumi

Yumi: Let’s change the date.

KAK: I don’t think that’s really going to help change the lives of children in remote communities who are being sexually assaulted and kept away from school.

Yumi: That’s racist.

KAK: It’s not racist, it’s true. You’ve got thirteen-year-olds on the street in Darwin being spoken to by police at 9pm because they don’t want to stay at home with their parents.

Yumi: But that’s not what we were talking about.

KAK: It should be what we’re talking about.

Yumi: Don’t change the subject.

KAK: But what about the children? Who’s looking after them?

Yumi: We’re sick of being told what to do by white people. Change the date.

KAK: We’re sick of hearing stories about Aboriginal children missing out on education and a chance to live happy, productive lives.

Yumi: You have no right to tell us about our own culture.

KAK: So white people can’t talk about Aborigines?

Yumi: These are the sorts of things that racists always say.

KAK: I’m not a racist.

Left commentariat: KAK is just doing the usual thing: whataboutism. She’s a racist. Change the date.

Pauline Hanson: See? I told you …

The broader community: ...

[UPDATE 12.03pm, 5 October 2019:] The Sydney Morning Herald reported today, "the Australian Communications and Media Authority had completed its investigation and cleared Kennerley of any wrongdoing."

Tuesday 29 January 2019

On reviewing

On 28 January this year, 10 days after getting out of hospital, where I had gone with a heart complaint, I was idly listening to the ABC’s 'Backroads' program on the Coorong region in South Australia and Heather Hewett, the host, was talking about the new 'Storm Boy' movie which, like the original (which was based on a novel), is set there. Locals, Hewett was explaining, hope the new movie will raise the profile of the district so that it can better be protected.

This kind of attitude toward art is uncontroversial. Art, it is assumed, must have a practical, utilitarian function. It must be able to "do" something in society in order to fulfill its destiny. This view seems to be the main reason why so much modern art is so mediocre. Especially with movies, they have to have a "message" that justifies the time and money spent on them. I think this fails to respect what art is in reality. The transformative things that art can achieve are not so easily classified as the policy statements of political parties. And in fact when we look back at what worked in the past, it was the style, rather than the content, that was innovative in the movies and books that have lasted the distance.

When I review a movie or a book I don't really spend much talking about messages or signification. What I am more interested in is the art itself, which is the only thing that has any lasting value. The message is of course designed to be commented upon and covered in a review but the main part of the piece will be concerned not with what is being conveyed in the work but rather with how it is being conveyed.

I’ve written before about these things on the blog. On 3 August last year I wrote a review of a new book. My review contained the following exegesis. This little story exemplifies the thinking behind my understanding of what a work of art is.
The author Vladimir Nabokov said that art should never be made to be in the service of ideology, and given his background (his family were dispossessed of their land after the October Revolution and he ended up living in Germany in a community of emigres) that is not a surprising thing to hear from him. His brilliant 1938 novel ‘The Gift’ (which was finally translated into English in 1963) has a long chapter about a Russian writer, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who was said to have been Lenin’s favourite author. Needless to say, Nobokov ripped into [Chernyshevsky] with a vengeance for his use of literature to push an ideological line. The novel when it first appeared was so controversial in the community that this chapter of it was omitted in the publication the rest of it appeared in, even though the √©migr√© community was largely politically against the Soviets.
So it is clear that attempts to use art for utilitarian ends has a long pedigree. Even earlier, in the 19th century, after Jane Austen had made her great advances in the art of the novel, some parts of the community in the UK were dead-set keen to conscript novels for the purpose of “improving” the morals of young women. Once they found that young women wanted to read novels (and women had been, in the early days of the novel, the great novel readers par excellence), these busybodies wanted to tame the animal, to make it domesticated, and useful, so that it could perform what they saw as an essential function in society. Well, that worked didn’t it …

Every time you try to corral this particular stream between concrete banks so that it can be more efficiently used to help people with their industry, it is going to flood. You cannot tame this beast. Every time you try, some writer or painter or director will come along and rewrite the story of the art in order to inject originality and vigour back into it. Beauty is everybody’s wildlife. Studios and publishing houses that bring out formulaic rip-offs and sequels designed to capitalise on the success of an earlier production will find their expectations dashed as they fail to gain traction in the community. Then an outlier, someone separate from the pack, who has been working alone on something original, will arrive in cinemas or in bookshops and steal all the attention. Wild it is and always will be.

But the new cannot be so new that it confounds our understanding. A certain quantity of formula is always involved in art. Writers have favourite tropes that they deploy in an effort to advance the plot and keep people reading their book. To a certain degree the writer has to flatter the reader, give them things they will immediately understand in order to smuggle in the bits that are out-of-the-box strange, that they might never have seen before. With certain types of fiction, such formulaic plot devices become almost routine, as in genre fiction (spy thrillers, crime novels) where physical violence and death are ever-present elements in the narrative, lending it its unique texture and providing the author with opportunities to move the story forward in desirable ways.

I read a lot of genre fiction and I find some of it is better than others. Not all genre fiction is bad and not all literary fiction is good. Duds appear in both camps, and you have to pick out the good ‘uns and censor the bad ‘uns if you are to do your job. As a general rule however I prefer a literary novel to a genre offering because it will provide the author with more opportunities to display real insight and to use art to telling effect. And stories where very little happens are the very best of all. I love long, lazy sentences and narratives where not much happens but much is revealed about the world. In that sense, I am probably best described as a Modernist.

The thing about fiction that most engages people are the characters. Characterisation is the most basic structural element in a work of fiction, allowing the writer to bend the plot to follow a given trajectory in a way that appears to be “natural”. It is this naturalness that is so compelling for readers. If they feel that a character is acting “out of character” they might just put down the book and stop reading. So establishing a reliable cast of credible characters is the novelist’s first task, and this applies equally to movies. The same basic rules apply with both artforms, although the measures that writers and directors use to solve given problems will be specific to the medium. Both movies and novels use characters in the same way however.

A character is a useful thing for a writer. If you want your plot to go in a given direction, you can get a major character to do something that makes it seem inevitable. So the delineations of character are at the very base of the tree of meaning, in a novel or movie. If your character has a mental illness, they might one day while out walking go into a particular shop because they are afraid of someone they see on the street. Inside the shop, they might see another person who will become important to them for a completely different reason later on. So the plot advances on the back of character. The outlines of character are determinative of practically everything in a novel that has this basic quality of “naturalness”.

In what follows I am going to focus mainly on prose at the expense of cinema. The reason for this is that I want to talk about the particular ways that writers achieve the effects they use to make their stories. If I spent too much time also looking at cinema, things would become too complex. I am not going to talk about poetry at all in this piece, as in the main it uses a different kind of writing from the kind that is used in novels and short stories.

The first distinction I want to make is between literary fiction and genre fiction.

With the latter, language is mostly used in a different way than it is in the former. With genre fiction, because plot is more important than character or anything else, there is not a lot of the kinds of writing that I am going to talk about in what follows. The writer of genre fiction thinks that his or her job is to advance the plot at all times, so there is not much space given to slowing down the story in order to achieve poetic effects. This can have adverse effects, because it can lead to characters being rather thin and lacking in colour. As a result we might not put ourselves in their shoes, which can be bad for an author. But that is just a side concern at this stage. Literary fiction, on the other hand, often deviates from the plot in the narrative in order to embed different types of writing into it.

Both genre fiction and literary fiction play with time in order to construct the story. You get changes of scene and changes in focalisation in order to both hide and reveal parts of the story. (Focalisation is the use of characters to reveal the world inside the novel. A character that is used to focalise the narrative has his or her point of view revealed. You “see” the world through his or her eyes.) Changing focalisation and going forward or backward in time, or moving from one place to another, allow the writer to build suspense and to develop character, both of which are desirable for the reader. I’ve already talked a little about characters, but we also thrive as readers on the slow reveal of relevant details. It is what keeps us turning the pages. We want to “find out what happens next” (even though nothing in fact actually happens at all; it’s all artifice).

Especially in literary fiction, you also get to see the workings of the minds of the major characters. This can be done using different techniques but in general it allows you to actually “see” what the characters are thinking as they go about their business in the story. Novels have always been places where psychology has been examined and the techniques writers use to relay the thinking of their characters have changed over time. Back in the early part of the 18th century, before the revolution that led to the emergence of the modern novel, psychology was often developed through letters written by the major characters in novels. These types of novel were massively popular (again, especially with women) and what to us now seems a clunky device (how can you reveal your way of thinking in a series of letters written to a family member?) was lapped up with relish by a devoted readership.

Context can also be added by using poetic language to describe places where the action unfolds in a novel. If you think back to the great novels that came in the period immediately after the artistic revolution of the early-19th century, you find things like houses, city streets, country lanes, and other places are often used to create meaning by revealing things about the time and place in which the drama unfolds. This type of counterpoise to the main thread of the narrative can be very powerful, and in fact can encapsulate the majority of the poetry contained in a novel beyond the psychology of the major characters. Dickens and Gogol are of note in this regard.

This kind of context is important if the writer wants to create an understandable “world” in which to situate his or her narrative. Helping to orient the reader in space is a major element of the fictive process, as is the creation of an arc of time over which the drama is meant to unfold. Again, all of this is pure artifice. The only truth is the ideas that exist in the reader’s mind, which is in an eternal present. The creation of a simulacrum of space and time in a novel is merely meant to “do things to” the reader and so lead to the release of the chemicals that our brains thrive on. Everything is in the present of the reader’s mind but everything is compartmentalised along a timeline, in space, and in the various characters the write deploys in creating his or her fiction.

It’s a glorious con. The perfect lie. We empathise with characters because they mean something to us. We find our own ways of thinking reflected back to us and so we invest ourselves emotionally in the narrative. All these things are done in order to keep us turning the pages, to make us want to get to the end, in order to lure us, like some sort of outlandish trout, out of the depths and into the shallows where we can become hooked and so, confronted by the artist’s sublime power and ravished by our own helplessness, we become faithful readers. Slay me! Who needs God when you’ve got a good book?

Saturday 26 January 2019

Book review: Aztecs, Inga Clendinnen (1991)

This exhaustive history of the Mexica people of Central America attempts to come to grips with a society that has had a poor public profile for a long time. Ever since the appearance of the Spanish in the new world in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Aztecs has suffered from bad PR and a standard narrative that held that the common folk in this (at the time fairly recent) empire were kept in thrall by a distant and uncaring elite only concerned with its own survival. The stereotypical blood sacrifices play easily into misconceptions that have been spread in popular culture.

Clendinnen, who is dead now but who in memory is respected in Australian history circles, tries to go beyond the routine narratives to find the truth about those sacrifices and about the real relations that dominated the Mexica society and that gave meaning to the lives of the people who lived in it. I’d have to say that she is largely successful, and to note that if she is unsure of a theory (due to the lack of a primary source for example) she will disclose that she is extrapolating points from flimsy material.

The only criticism I would have is that she did not learn the Nahautl language spoken by the Mexica and by other peoples living in the area, before starting her study. She relies on translations from the Spanish and on translations into English of the existing sources in Nahautl.

Basically, Clendinnen finds in her study that the way that Mexica cosmogony was organised in relation to the political settlement of the society that held those beliefs meant that the whole population was intimately involved in ceremonies such as human sacrifices, and in regular feasting paid for by rich benefactors. The relationship between the common folk and the nobililty in Mexica society, and the consequent relationship between the ruler and the gods, meant that participation in regular rites such as these was unproblematic and engaged in with enthusiasm by all parties. There was no “coercion” of the kind that you might imagine must have existed in order to get people to behave in the ways that they evidently did, except for coercion of the men who were put up for sacrifice; captives in “war”. People were free actors who found their essential agency within a system of religion and of political power that rewarded all people in the community in different ways.

The capricious gods demanded sacrifice and the people, eager to help maintain Mexica dominance in the land, voluntarily performed their duties as warriors, priests, merchants, pleasure girls, or mothers. The gods provided for the people through maize, the staple crop, and this bounty had to be repaid in kind, with the blood of the enemy. The warrior class was the dominant class in this society as war was the way that this society worked to sustain its local dominance, and the Mexica eagerly participated in events in order to preserve the status quo that rewarded all in different ways. The gods had to be propitiated by the available means given to the people by tradition and the society that existed told itself stories that functioned to perpetuate itself at the top of the tree of kingdoms in its part of the world.

Clendinnen goes into a lot of detail about the lives and psychology of different types of people, including warriors and mothers, but I didn’t finish this book. Once it had made its main points I found the narrative to lack a strong core, although the language used is excellent and Clendinnen is the master of the apposite adjective. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the religions of Asian people and about human societies generally. This is a rewarding book that provides a rich harvest of good ideas and learned insights.

Friday 25 January 2019

Not quite at death’s door

The episode started on Saturday 19 January after I went to see ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ in Leichhardt. I had a long bout of heart palpitations while getting off the train and it kept going after I had walked up the five flights of stairs at the station. (I don’t use the lifts at the station unless compelled by circumstance as I got stuck in one of them in November 2017.)

The heart arrhythmia was still going after I got home so I called an ambulance. There were two paramedics in the vehicle when it arrived in the street, one of whom (a woman) was driving and one of whom (a man) was in the back doing tests on me. After asking what I did, he mentioned ‘Vice’ (which I reviewed here on 16 January) and said helpfully that “if your heart’s fucked, you’re fucked”. He mentioned that I ticked a lot of the boxes: the right age, overweight, living alone.

At the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital there were around twenty people to greet me in the resuscitation ward - the arrhythmia had stopped after the ambulance had arrived but had restarted as we were driving, but then had stopped again - and they all stood around watching the heart monitor to see what the signal would look like when it started again. A cardiologist came up and connected me to another electrocardiogram (ECG) machine and looked at the printouts the paramedics had made while we were in the ambulance. These he called “gold”. He was dark-skinned and looked like his ancestors were from the subcontinent and he said usually with this kind of condition you can take medication to control the heart but that they would keep me in the coronary care unit (CCU) for a while to monitor me.

They gave me a pill which stopped the ventricular tachycardia (VT), called Metoprolol. While I was having the bed changed on Sunday morning in the CCU I took a photo (below) of the connector that brings electrical signals from contacts (they call them “dots”) stuck to your torso to the ECG monitor in the room. Each connector is colour coded, with each colour clip having a designated location on your chest, shoulders and stomach. The monitor has different coloured lights that illuminate depending on the type of event. The orange light seemed to be the most common but there was also a blue one and a red one. The monitor also made sounds and was linked to a central monitor at the nurse’s station. Not all the alarms that happened on the ECG monitor in your room relate to you however. All of the ward’s patients’ hearts are monitored by all of its monitors (and also from a central monitor at the nurse’s station) so that staff can see if there are any significant alarms happening even if they are in someone else’s room.

They had me prepare early on Monday for an electrophysiology study, which is invasive, and an elderly man came at 6am and shaved my groin. Breakfast was a slice of bread just before that. Then I waited and later one of the young cardiologists asked me questions about a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan they wanted to do. Then another cardiologist came and told me the EP study would be done after the MRI scan, which was scheduled for Wednesday. But no-one told the nurses of the new plan, so when I buzzed to ask for something to drink the nurse stood there in the door with his hands on his hips and told me I was “nil by mouth”. He seemed quite shocked by the change of plan and went away to find that no paperwork had been made for it. Then he brought me juice and yoghurt. I learned something about information and power.

They had put cannulas in both of my arms when I presented to RPAH resusc on Saturday. The one in the left arm became painful and on Monday a nurse took it out and put on a bandage. The one in the right arm remained and it hurt too. I posted on Facebook that I would need anaesthetic soon, probably on Thursday, but that I didn’t see much need to keep it in just then. I asked a nurse if she could take it out but she didn’t want to do it. She said that for people with my condition they like to keep a cannula in “in case they need to give medication”. So protocol trumped comfort.

Being alone in a room in bed day after day you start to notice different things. I saw the ethnicities of the various staff (orderlies, nurses, registrars, specialists, paramedics, student doctors) and listened to their different ways of talking. From my room I heard men and women talking behind the curtain across my door and tried to imagine where they were born, and what level of education they had attained. I saw so many different people and hear their voices and it strikes me that there is no “typical” Australian. It is an entrepot, Sydney, and a world city.

One of the nurses, a woman named Kelly, told me that RPAH was looking into developing leadless contacts for the heart monitor. She said that a woman who had been a patient here was developing the technology. Kelly and I talked about how wifi had been developed by the CSIRO. Sometimes governments need to step in to make big changes.

I was reading the great Inga Clendinnen’s study of the Aztecs that a friend had bought me and I was reminded me of how reality can elude the grasp of the careless spectator. To understand the truth you have to follow where the facts take you, and stick to original sources where available. This is the scientific method as first expounded by Bacon in the early 17th century. If Clendinnen teaches us anything, I thought, it is to avoid familiar narratives as far as possible and to remain true to the evidence. Even Petrarch as far back as the 14th century shared a message about empiricism.

Every time that first cardiologist came to see me – usually it was in the mornings – I asked him about the prognosis. Even with the medication there were two episodes of atrial tachycardia (which is less serious than VT) on Monday morning but each was only about 10 beats long and they had captured a record of both. This cardiologist told me that VT does not shorten life. But one day when a different staffer came to do a 12-point ECG on me he said that VT was serious. So I was getting mixed messages.

I intrinsically trusted the senior cardiologist, however. His name turned out to be apposite, but I won't include it here, and one day he came to see me and asked me if it was ok to move me to the Mater Hospital to do the EP study. They would have an anaesthetist there, he said, and the equipment they used in their operating room is also more modern. I said it was ok, as I had private health insurance that would cover such a procedure at that kind of hospital, and he got me to sign another consent form. There are various forms to sign when you are in hospital. The admin person had already come around to ask if it was ok to bill my healthcare provider for the stay in the RPAH and I had agreed. Then a man in light-blue scrubs with a light-blue cloth cap in his head had come around to get my consent for the EP study. He told me about the risks (which included puncturing part of the heart and infection in the invasion points in the groin) and I had agreed to going ahead.

The anaesthetist’s receptionist called me and organised for me to pay the excess (the part of the cost above the covered amount) using my credit card, which was in my wallet as usual. She sent me an email which I responded to as instructed. Then I called her back to see if the email had arrived. My phone said it had gone but I wanted to check and I had plenty of time. She said that my email would have gone to a general practice email address, not her private one, so she could not currently check to find out.

On Wednesday morning I had no breakfast and did the MRI scan. The orderly who took me there was named John and he was about my age, if not older, and had very long, white hair and a thick, long beard. He didn’t wear glasses and had twinkly eyes. He was kind and joked with me as we made our way along the halls of the building. I wondered at the fact that I had learned so much about heart function in my few days in the institution, but had no idea where my ward was physically located inside it. The walls of one of the lifts we used during the trip had a pressed metal cladding that looked, John said, like the body of a Dalek. He asked the nurse, who was young and second generation Asian-Australian, if she knew ‘Dr Who’. She said she didn’t. 

I had worried about whether I would be able to tolerate the confined space of the MRI machine but it turned out to be ok. It was sort of hypnotic being in a narrow plastic sheath for 45 minutes following instructions on how to breathe from a recorded voice speaking in a sort of American accent. The device operator also talks to you through the headphones. The machine worked in short, noisy bursts each time I held my breath. The sounds were abstract and informal, as if they had come from some 20th-century 12-tone orchestral work. It was a bit like being in Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, ‘A Space Odyssey’. The feelings you get when you’re listening to the voice are complex and I can imagine how a prisoner would develop a relationship with his captor because of the need to follow orders. There was a grey, painted band down the length of the tube to help you orient yourself in space and at eye level there was a dark mark in the band shaped much like the Macquarie Bank logo. The operator told me the machines are expensive to buy.

I stayed in the CCU after the MRI scan but they were preparing to send me to the Mater. The transport was due to arrive at midday but eventually they came after 2pm. There was a young man and a young woman and they put me on a high gurney to take me downstairs to the vehicle. On the road, as we were sitting at the lights on Fig Street just before the entrance to the Western Distributor, the woman driving, my heart started to palpitate a bit. I told the crew and the man said that nothing was coming up on the ECG monitor but that they would stop when it was possible. We got onto the bridge and went up the Pacific Highway (still no place to stop) and the heart calmed down a bit so they just carried on to the Mater, which is just near Crows Nest. 

As soon as we arrived we went to my room in the ward and the anaesthetist (a woman who might have been of Indian heritage) came to ask me some questions. Then we moved to the operating room, where the senior cardiologist came up to me. We had a quick chat. I mentioned to him that his stopping the Metoprolol on Tuesday had turned out to be good timing because it would allow him to do the procedure when the heart would be labile. I said he was very clever and he smiled and went away. Then I met one of the team who would work on me who had the same surname as me. I asked him if he was second or third generation and he said he had been born in Brazil and had then had worked in South Africa. He had visited Mozambique (my paternal grandfather had grown up there when it was known as Portuguese East Africa) many times for business. When he walked away I could see he had a small, black yarmulke on the top of his head, held in place by tiny clips that were almost invisible.

Once in the operating room, a woman who was a bit older than me came and stood in front of me with her hands on the hospital gown, part of which rested on my thighs, to help me stay modest, she said. She introduced herself as one of the operating theatre staff and she was very kind, asking me if it was very boring staying in hospital. I wanted to say that a friend had bought me a good book but I couldn’t get the words out as emotion overwhelmed me. 

She just stood there with me until it was time for me to put my legs up on the table. The anaesthetist put some chemical in the cannula in my right arm and talked to me but I was soon out cold. When I awoke she told me that during the procedure I had kept asking where my glasses were; I had worn them into the theatre and they had taken them away from me before the procedure started and had put them aside. When we had been in my room I had mentioned to her Kate Cole-Adams’ wonderful book to her (titled ‘Anaesthesia’, which was reviewed here on 21 November last year) and had asked her if it is true that people sometimes wake up during procedures. 

She had said that practitioners don’t really know how anaesthesia works. Cole-Adams had said to me in a tweet that the book raises questions about consciousness. I find that what she wrote is true: people are frequently aware of what’s happening during operations but mostly don’t have any memory of it after it is over. After the procedure, which took three hours, was over, I was taken to the recovery ward where a nurse who had migrated from an Arabic country, and who wore a hijab, looked after me as I regained my senses completely. I was shivering at first. There was a stereo playing softly in the ward. One song was by the Eurythmics and one was by Madness, both 80s bands. When we got back to my room in the ward the nurse told me not to raise my feet. Before the procedure a male nurse, who was about my age and who was Asian, had put tight stockings on my lower legs with a hole where the toe section is located. Now, the recovery nurse pointed to my feet and energetically told me to keep my legs flat, but called me “darling”.

After a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich that night in my room in the ward the nurse, whose name was Jo and who had a Scots accent, gave me the wafers I take for my mental health underneath a crucifix above the door to my room. Just up the road was my accountant, I thought wryly, as I prepared to sleep. 

Then I had the most appalling stomach pain on Thursday and I posted about it at 4am. It felt like something was moving around inside me, I thought it might be gas, but the result was what felt like terrible cramps. I felt like Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) had done just before, in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film ‘Alien’, the creature emerges from his stomach, and on top of the pain I was desperately tired, having had two procedures that day. The nurse gave me two doses of emetic through the cannula (they had taken out the one in the right elbow and put in a new one on the back of the right hand) and two Panadols. The nausea waned slightly, although I did throw up a little a bit later, but the cramps remained. It felt like they were creeping up my body to my diaphragm. I think the nurse got a bit tired of answering my calls but the dry retching and the pain were unbearable. I wondered idly in my distress what childbirth was like for women.

But the EP study had been a success. When the senior cardiologist came to talk with me later in the morning he said that they had found a part of the heart that had been sending incorrect electrical signals to the organ and that they had ablated the area with a catheter and heat, to prevent the VT from happening again. The Metoprolol would continue indefinitely, however.

Later the same day I told the nurse, whose name was Sophie and who was Asian and also first generation, that I would stay in the ward but then after a while I told her that I wanted to go home and recover from the procedure there. She had given me two Panadeine Forte earlier in the day. Now she gave me other things, including medication to take for a few days, and also a card with an appointment date and time written on it when I could visit the senior cardiologist at his offices in Camperdown. She told me to go to my GP and get a referral to see the cardiologist. I told her I would do that.

I put on my pungent clothes and gathered all my belongings in their places – keys and wallet and phone in pockets, the rest in a bag they had given me at RPAH – and walked down to the hospital’s front desk. In a small office area behind it, I paid the excess with my credit card and signed some more forms, and called a cab using the phone that had been placed for that purpose on the front desk.

When he arrived I apologised to the driver about the smell and he said it was alright. I told him not to go fast, and he didn’t. In 15 minutes I was home. No more cannulas, no more ECG monitor with its endless contacts connected to your skin. No more pissing into a bottle and bathing with a small basin of water. No more injections and no more blood pressure tests. No more nurses to call when you want every small thing done. Now, all I need is time to get better. The procedure left me with sore insides. I have aches in strange places that make it impossible to lie down on my right side. Even lying down on the left side is hard. Mostly, on that first afternoon at home I just stayed in bed on my back and daydreamed and snoozed. The dreams I had that night were about melons and pumpkins and which was better, and about whether irrigation was better or if getting water just from precipitation was better. I kept trying to make the story work but it kept failing, as though the narrative was too weak.

The next morning I went out to buy milk and a chocolate muffin at the convenience store. The man who runs the store, who migrated from an Arabic-speaking country, called me “my friend” when I told him I had just come out of hospital and told me to stay well.

Thursday 24 January 2019

Movie review: Mary, Queen of Scots, dir Josie Rourke (2018)

I know it sounds sexist, but there’s something hysterical about ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, directed by theatre director Rourke. And Mary’s Scots accent is a fabrication: the young queen grew up in France. Surely they could have found a Frenchwoman to play the part (Saoirse Ronan’s French is stilted at best; she would have been coached for the scenes where she talks with her ladies-in-waiting).

But the vaunted clash of the cousins doesn’t quite come off, with Mary busy placating greedy nobles in Scotland and fighting off the slanders of the redoubtable John Knox (played with suitable vigour by David Tennant). If Elizabeth had William Cecil (a smooth Guy Pearce), Mary had no-one. And she also had to appease the redoubtable Lord Maitland (Ian Hart) and the former regent the Earl of Moray (James McArdle). Both men are played by actors of great emotional range; the scene where Moray breaks down in tears when Mary tells him her son is to be named after him is a stupendous piece of cinema acting, the camera capturing the man’s features crushed by feelings he had no words to express.

Mary flees to England seeking sanctuary after having alienated almost everyone around her at home. But while Elizabeth is shown to visibly age in the 18 years between when Mary came south and Mary’s death by the axe, Mary remains unchanged. She even has the same gentlewomen in her retinue when she steps onto the dais in front of the axeman.

And the clash of titans we were promised? It’s bound up in a few scenes that might or might not have an historical basis. Certainly Mary was headstrong and over-reliant on her own powers. But that would turn out to be a characteristic of most of the Stuarts. And the religious clash between the reformed churches and the Catholic Church would continue to plague British monarchs for generations. We forget, today, in the age of al Qaeda, that religion and identity politics were once at the very core of western civilisation. Better that we remember.

Saturday 19 January 2019

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

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

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

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

Friday 18 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 17 January 2019

Book review: Swing Time, Zadie Smith (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Movie review: Vice, dir Adam McKay (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 13 January 2019

Overcast summer day after a storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 12 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Andre Derain, ‘Mountain Road’ (1907)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 9 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 7 January 2019

Book review: Beneath the Skin (2018)

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

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

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

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

Sunday 6 January 2019

Book review: Severance, Ling Ma (2018)

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

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

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

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

Saturday 5 January 2019

Grocery shopping list for December 2018

4 December

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

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

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

11 December

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

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

14 December

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

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

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

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

20 December

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

24 December

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

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

30 December

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

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

Friday 4 January 2019

Book review: The Break, Katherena Vermette (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 3 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 2 January 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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