Friday, October 31, 2008

Book meme!

From Laura of Sills Bend.

What was the last book you bought?

A stack:

Val McDermid, A Darker Domain
Kathy Reichs, Devil Bones
Robert Drewe, The Rip
Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Française
Susan Wyndham, Life In His Hands: the true story of a neurosurgeon and a pianist
Robert Dessaix, Arabesques
Lauren Smith and Derek Fagerstrom, eds, Show Me How: 500 Things You Should Know

Name a book you have read MORE than once.

[LAURA:]Let's make that 'name a book you have read MORE than ten times'

The Once and Future King, My Brother Jack, King Lear, Persuasion, Middlemarch, The Tempest, Sense and Sensibility, A Passage to India, Howards End, Our Mutual Friend, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Villette, Little Women, Seven Little Australians, Gaudy Night, Voss, The Eye of the Storm, The Virgin in the Garden, Possession and all six volumes of The Lymond Chronicles.

Has a book ever fundamentally changed the way you see life? If yes, what was it?

Yes, several.

* The Once and Future King, as recommended by my first-year high school English teacher.

I knew less than nothing about the medieval period till I read that book. By the time I got to the end of it I understood that there was this great shadowy set of medieval narratives that was a cornerstone of contemporary Western culture -- and probably a whole lot of other equally significant stuff that I didn't know either. It was my first glimpse of how much I didn't know.

It also made me aware that there existed adults -- T.H. White being the first such adult I had encountered; they are very rare -- who could address children without either talking down to them or being incomprehensible, and doing that with no added sugar. This changed my life in the sense that I was determined to be one of those when I grew up.

* The Female Eunuch, which I read in 1971 when I was 18.

When I finished reading that book I was a fundamentally different person from the one I'd been three days earlier when I began it. Almost every single thing that has ever happened to me since (at least in the realm of the Important Three: love, money and work) has reinforced the change.

* Reading Patrick White, to whose work I was introduced by a precocious schoolmate in 1968 when she loaned me her copy of Riders in the Chariot, showed me that it was possible to write about life in Australia -- and to live in Australia -- at a level of intensity and complexity I would not have imagined possible.

* A.S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden showed me the same thing, except on an international scale, as did the three sequels.

The Byatt tetralogy, which I read from 1985 onwards, also showed me (a) what it meant to live an intense intellectual life without feeling self-conscious and limited about it, and (b) why I and every other woman I knew who was still studying had floundered so badly in trying to manage our personal and intellectual/pre-professional lives between the ages of 17 and 25: for women, the question of managing love, sex, marriage, babies, studying, work and ambition was and, it seems, still is an almost intractable problem to be solved. But I hadn't formulated it like that or realised the reason for the floundering (in spite of The Female Eunuch) until I read Byatt, and carried on much better equipped for the life I was living.

* Persuasion, Middlemarch and Anna Karenina, all of which I read in the same year and all of which reinforced the effects of The Female Eunuch.

How do you choose a book? e.g. by cover design and summary, recommendations or reviews?

Sometimes by review but not in the way you might expect. I tend to ignore the reviewer's evaluation but will go looking for a book that sounds interesting, even if the reviewer thought it was bad. In my own practice as a reviewer I try to concentrate on giving the reader as clear a picture of possible of what kind of book it is, rather than giving it points out of ten.

I'm more likely to buy a book by a writer whose work I already know and like than to invest in a new writer unless I've read a lot about the book beforehand, and more likely to buy a novel on the strength of a profile of the writer than on the judgement of a reviewer. I've never read any David Foster Wallace but will shortly go in quest of some on the strength of this fantastic article about him in Rolling Stone.

Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?

Fiction. But some nonfiction is wonderful, like certain writers' journals and letters, or my favourite Australian biographies: Nadia Wheatley's of Charmian Clift, Brian Matthews's of Louisa Lawson, David Marr's of Patrick White and Barry Hill's of T.E.H. Strehlow. I love the writing of M.F.K. Fisher, and some of the more imaginative and adventurous historians who can also really write, like Theodore Zeldin and Simon Schama. I loved Christopher Hitchens' writing so much that I went on reading it even after he went a bit mad. (He appears to be on the way back.)

What's more important in a novel - beautiful writing or a gripping plot?

I understand what this question is getting at, but I don't accept either its assumptions or its terms.

'Beautiful' in particular is not an adjective I would choose in thinking about the plot/style question. There's a wonderful moment in one of Alice Munro's short stories where the young heroine, desperate for sexual knowledge and experience, is being flashed at by an unsavoury older man; she is looking at his exposed penis, which is the first specimen she's seen, and observes that its cheerful ugliness seems to be 'some sort of guarantee of goodwill, the opposite of what beauty usually is.'

Most loved/memorable character?

Daniel Orton in Byatt's Potter tetralogy, because it's been my life's misfortune to acquire a profound understanding of chronically angry men -- I get Daniel. Philippa Somerville in Dorothy Dunnett's peerless Lymond Chronicles, plus Phelim O'LiamRoe from the second volume of same. Inman in Cold Mountain, the book not the film. Pierre Bezuhov in War and Peace, though that may have something to do with seeing Anthony Hopkins play him on TV at the age of 34 (Hopkins not Bezuhov). And Precious Ramotswe of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Which book or books can be found on your nightstand at the moment?

Val McDermid's latest, A Darker Domain, for pleasure, and for work an unpolished but weirdly gripping and vivid debut novel called The Reinvention of Ivy Brown by Roberta Taylor, the actor who plays Inspector Gina Gold in The Bill. The bedroom is eerily tidy.

What was the last book you read?

Alexander McCall Smith's latest Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Comfort of Saturdays. My God that man is prolific.

Have you ever given up on a book halfway in?

Yes, and I do so more often as I age and the time left to me in this life gets shorter and more uncertain and precious. I can't tell you what they were; if they had been memorable, I would have finished them.

Steve Jobs, visionary and hard-nosed realist in one

Here is my hero David Pogue in his New York Times 'Circuits' column this week, applauding the new MacBooks but also venting about the dropping of FireWire:

FireWire is how you connect tape camcorders to the Mac. This is the part that kills me.

I'm big into home movies. I've got 100 MiniDV tapes carefully stored--of my children growing up, of my TV appearances, of our trips and memorable moments. The video quality is amazing. And because they're digital, I sleep easy, knowing that I can make fresh copies of those tapes at any time, without any quality loss. For 15 years, I've intended, someday, to edit those tapes down into a series of cherished DVDs. Maybe when the kids get married.

But not if FireWire goes away. If that happens, my tapes will be stranded and uneditable. ... Last week, on the phone, I got a chance to vent my unhappiness to Steve Jobs himself. I told him about my long-held intention to edit down those 100 tapes, maybe when I'm retired.

I must admit, he gave me quite a wakeup call. He pointed out that in 10 years, there won't be any machines left that can play them.

(He also mentioned that, realistically, the only time people really edit their movies is just after they've shot them. And sure enough: I've been intending to edit my tapes for 15 years now; what makes me think I'll have time to do it in the next 15?)

See, this is why Steve Jobs is Steve Jobs and the rest of us aren't. He has a proper understanding of both human nature and the nature of the passage of time.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Word serendipity

My friend P, who reads this blog regularly, will often send me an email as a sort of reply to one of the posts, and this morning in response to the garden photos (see previous posts) sent me a gorgeous pic of their own garden, specifically of a rose bush in full, spectacular, climate-change bloom, a species called 'Crepuscule'.

Few will be strangers to the phenomenon of encountering a rare or wholly unfamiliar word in a striking way only to be regaled by the universe, over the next week or two, with dozens more instances of it, and so tonight while sitting on the sofa with a work novel I was unsurprised by the following, where the heroine Emily is discussing her reading tastes and habits:
... unfamiliar words could spring off a page and bounce into my consciousness with all the esprit of an energetic child. So it was that I was introduced to 'crepuscular' in Hunt the Slipper and carried it around with me, a blood-borne literature virus. Years later it leapt from The Virgin Suicides and announced that Trefusis, Eugenides and I were inexplicably bound by our shared intimacy with this arcane and delicious word.

I looked up from my book, out through the open back door, to see that it was indeed that time of the evening when all the flowers in the garden have disappeared except the white ones, which were still looming up at me out of the solidifying dark. Crepuscular.

Then I got curious and went after it, thinking that dictionaries on and offline might have more to tell, and found out something I hadn't known before: that it refers not just to twilit-ness in general but also more specifically to creatures that are active at dawn and/or dusk. The kangaroo is a crepuscular beast. Who'd have thought.

Just as well it's a Superfood

In a fit of idle curiosity, I counted the blueberries while I waited for the coffee to start bubbling up, and then I did the maths. They cost me 7.87 cents per blueberry, including the little shrivelledy one. And I'm going to eat them very very slowly.

He's my man, and I don't care how much it costs

This is Leonard Cohen in 1970, the year I was in what's now called Year 12: he was thirty-six and I was seventeen.

It was the year I first discovered him: I read Beautiful Losers, bought Songs From a Room and Leonard Cohen with saved-up pocket money, bought the sheet music and learned to play and sing fifteen or twenty of the songs:

(Question: when did she study for her exams? And does this explain the D for Matric Modern History, which still rankles all these decades later and which her entire undergraduate career was one long attempt to redeem?)

(Also, my mother made that round cushion, which was a kind of steely grey-blue velvet.)

Three years earlier my heart had been broken by my first-ever boyfriend, a beautiful Greek boy, who engendered a helpless lifelong passion for swarthiness in all its lovely forms.

Over the decades, Leonard and I drifted apart. And then one day a few years ago, my friend R played me this and I fell in love all over again.

R texted me today to say he's playing here on Australia Day and do I want to come with her. Hah. It's an outdoor concert at a winery down in the paradisal Southern Vales and he's being supported by Paul Kelly. On the other hand it's going to cost hundreds of dollars and it'll probably be 42 degrees. But I do not care.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The light in the garden

Very specific usage/spelling post

Here's something I've been seeing more and more often on the interwebs of late: people who have heard the Italian word segue, which is pronounced (approximately) 'SEG-way' and has been appropriated to English in much the same way as chic or Schadenfreude or joie de vivre, and have wrongly concluded that it's an English word and that's how you spell it. Clearly some bloggers and social networkers have seen 'segway' on other people's blogs and spelled it that way and so on and so virally forth.

A segue is a smooth transition. 'Segway' (TM) is the clever bilingual homophone used as the trade name for one of these.

Shock, horror, who'd have thought

Apparently, men think red is hawt.

Quelle breakthrough, no? Without the help of science and statistics, we would never have known. Think of the missed opportunities, the wrong choices, the sadly remembered teals and cerises and the hordes of women all over the world with their hands to their foreheads sighing Oh if only I'd known.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It has to make sense

Here as a result of this week's work-reading is a tip to all writers and would-be writers of fantasy, spec fic, utopias, dystopias and any other genre or sub-genre that involves creating an imaginary world: the internal logic of the workings of that imaginary world has got to make sense. Causes and effects need to be consistent, because a sequence of causes and effects is what adds up to a narrative, and if your causality is not logical then your whole storyline will fall into disarray and incomprehensibility.

An obvious example: the first question a lively child reader would ask whenever anything goes wrong in the Harry Potter books is 'Why don't they just fix it with magic?' J.K. Rowling goes to great lengths in various places to anticipate this question and answer it: because they're too young, because it's against the rules, because the castle is protected, because the other person is a more powerful witch and so on.

Fantasy is a very popular genre with students of Creative Writing and this question of internal logic in created worlds is where they most often come to grief: either in failing to think fully through the implications of whatever laws and circumstances pertain to their imaginary worlds, or in failing to communicate that logic clearly enough to the reader for their stories to make sense to anyone but themselves. I often get a strong sense, reading Creative Writing theses, that the student is very clear in his or her own mind as to what the rules of this imaginary universe are, but has failed to externalise and articulate them properly in the writing process.

I wonder what the Bronte Sisters would say. One of these days I shall wake them once more from their long sleep.

Patience is a virtue, my mother always said

Over two years ago, I went to the Royal Adelaide Show and bought, among other things, two beautiful and elaborate iris plants. At least the pictures said they were beautiful and elaborate; all I had was two rhizomes with some baby sword-shaped leaves, photos of what the flowers were supposed to look like, and some instructions about Seasol.

And from that day until about two or three weeks ago, they sat there in the ground, doing nussing. Ze Seasol, it did nussing. Ze watering, it did nussing. Every now and then they would sulkily lose a leaf and reluctantly grow a new one. They did not get bigger, they did not die, and they most certainly did not flower.

So this year winter melted into spring and the nearby Dutch irises grown from bulbs did what they usually do --

-- but again the fancy rhizomes did not follow their example.


Out I went into the garden one day earlier this month and something strange appeared to be happening:

A week or so later:

And yesterday ...

Sexiest flower in the universe.

Yes, I have a complaint

Two questions:

1) If one tries to ring Telstra to find out what, if any, one's options are for dealing with some idiot who wants to send a fax, has wrongly keyed one's own phone number into the machine and then walked away, so that my phone is now ringing every six minutes and emitting high-pitched noises at me when I pick up and I can't disconnect because my dad is sick and someone might be trying to call me, and, having rung Telstra, one gets redirected to some other number and routed through four, count 'em, four different voicebots only to be told that there is a long wait because they have 'more complaints than usual' (well, that'll be days then, won't it), is this all so that Sol Trujillo can get his $12 million a year?

2) Does anyone have any tips about producing one's voice in such a way as to maximise the chances of the voice recognition software actually understanding one when one says anything more complex than 'yes' or 'no'?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sometimes you just know

One of the eponymous characters in the second of this week's four work novels, Rudolph Delson's Maynard & Jennica -- Maynard, to be precise -- has just observed on page 54 that the expression 'prevailing wisdom' is an oxymoron. And there's my Pick of the Week right there.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Usage update: I thought as much

As I was pondering the usage rant a few posts back it suddenly occurred to me that 'step foot' for 'set foot' was almost certainly an example of the phenomenon recently christened the eggcorn.

If you follow that link and read up on the eggcorn, and then follow the link under the heading 'Examples' to the Eggcorn Database, you will find 'step foot' listed there. Not to mention a whole lot of other excellent stuff including 'hone in on' for 'home in on', which is one of the most common eggcorns about.

Monday, October 20, 2008

We should just pack up and move to the US so we can vote for him

Con gaz

I pinched this from Ampersand Duck who borrowed it from Boynton who got it from here.

Dedicated language usage whining post

Just because I haven't had one for a while.

A spy has recently heard and reported back two beauties:

'Do you want an internal line or an out-ternal line?'

(We had some fun with this one. The speech was out-temporaneous. Do you want outra cheese? That was an outcellent movie.)


'[.... if they do so-and-so], they will be shunned upon.' (Repeated several times in the course of the conversation.)

At first I thought the perpetrator was mixing up 'shunned' and 'frowned upon', but it's only just occurred to me as I was typing that that she may have been subliminally thinking of 'shat upon' as well.

Also, it reminds me of two that have crept into mainstream TV and radio newsreading over the last few years and that includes, alas, the ABC:

(1) 'A did such-and-such while B watched on.'

(2) 'X had never stepped foot there before.'

Now, B did not 'watch on'. B either 'looked on' or 'watched'. Nor did X 'step foot', which is a tautology; if you step, you do it, by definition, with your foot. X either 'set foot' or 'stepped'.

Thank you for your attention.


The current novel-for-work is a rather good historical-psychological semi-thriller by Alex Scarrow called October Skies, in which a couple of contemporary documentary-makers find themselves on the trail of a deluded breakaway Mormon sect (yes, they've broken away from the Mormon mainstream; I'll leave you to contemplate what sorts of people we're talking about here) led by the standard charismatic yet drug-addicted sociopath who does a lot of chattin' to Gahd. This group is heading west along the Oregon Trail in 1856, just a little too close to the onset of winter.

Scarrow telegraphs a few too many of his ideological punches, which is annoying when what you're reading is fiction and when in any event you could not agree with him more, but he certainly leaves us in no doubt of what he thinks about organised religion in general and, in particular, the tight grip that "faith" seems to have on much of contemporary America.

[UPDATE: I should have mentioned here that the whole plot turns out to revolve around those tablets containing the Direct Word of God that Joseph Smith claims to have found on a hillside. Because that fact is directly relevant to the following paragraph.]

So it was a tad spooky to go outside to look in the mailbox and find in it a single and clearly hand-delivered item: a CD in a clear plastic sleeve of the ten-a-penny supermarket kind and a rather nicely designed label with pastel Persian patterns, entitled 'The Noble Quran: The Creator's Message to Mankind'.

Now, I've already read the noble Quran so I am not in need of it on CD, especially not one labelled 'Free Gift' (as though there were any other kind of gift). But they want to be careful. Round here we've got two big Russian Orthodox churches and one Greek ditto, plus a high-octane Baptist stronghold, all within a few streets of each other, and they're all extremely active and well-attended. I can't really see the local Muslims, the local Eastern Orthodox and the local Baptists going at it hammer and tongs with gardening tools* in the middle of these quiet little old suburban streets, but you never know. If they do, and if you're looking for me, I'll be the one selling binoculars and red cordial.

AFTERTHOUGHT, 3.43 PM: You know, I can foresee several different kinds of not particularly distant future in which having written 'I've already read the noble Quran' on my own personal blog will be enough to get me into some very serious trouble. I really can. But I don't think I'll remove it quite yet. Goddess preserve me in the meantime.

*Or, indeed, hammers and tongs. Der.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Two puzzles

(If you know the answer to either or both of these and decide to say so in the comments, ploise expline the answers -- ta.)

What's the next letter in this sequence?


And what's this?

** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **

** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **
** / ** / ** / ** / **

Friday, October 17, 2008

Not with my vote you won't

So I go to the ABC website to see what's happened this afternoon and the first thing I read is speculation that some people apparently want SA Premier Mike Rann replaced as leader by Treasurer Kevin Foley.

It's not that I am a Rann enthusiast, though it's always nice to have an undeniably smart and tough bloke running the state, whatever his failings may be. It's more that Foley's public behaviour and demeanour, particularly in Parliament, has been consistently that of a bully and a boor. I can't see him leading any sort of group out of a paper bag; while clearly a Type A personality, he seems to me to be a fundamentally divisive one.

If they want to replace Rann with Education Minister and former Adelaide Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith then I am all for it. Hooray. But if they replace him with Foley, then I will be voting Green or Independent somewhere to the left of Labor at the 2010 state election.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


That's behind as in not out in front, not behind as in bum, the latter being even more depressing to contemplate than the list which I now put before you. I am behind with the admin in particular, and in general with the ongoing project that is Life.

I once read an article about the importance of prioritising in the daily pushing-back of life's chaos. It recommended writing a list of every single thing you needed or wanted to do and then prioritising them into categories A (must be done, and ASAP, preferably today), B (is very desirable and should be done soon), and C (every intention of getting round to it eventually). A typical such list looks like this:

clean out the cat litter -- A
learn Italian -- C
pay speeding fine -- B/A
finish the current work novel and start the next one -- A
get a haircut -- B
go back to Tuscany -- C
write to H -- B/A
new front fence -- C/B

Etc. In practice what happens is that you get all the As done plus a handful of the Bs but the Cs never even get a look-in. However, as you can see from the forward slashes, Cs sometimes become Bs, and Bs often increase in urgency until they become As. Which is why I have made another list.

As inspired by some comments over at Laura's place about how one would spend the prime ministerial dosh if one were so fortunate as to be either an oldie or a breeder (and I, like Laura and Amanda, am neither, being, like them, too young for the former category and, unlike them, too old for the latter: like both of those fine ladies I too am what Amanda calls a 'full-time tax-paying-not-eating working schmo'), here, in alphabetical order, is the list of people I really need and/or want to contact, visit and/or hire:

Bank manager
Beauty salon (special environmentally aware variety) (my feminist position on skincare, makeup, haircuts and so on is 'Assimilate and transcend'. Brought up in the 60s, what can you do)
Blood bank
Fence people
Gutter cleaner-outerers
Local council (hard rubbish section)
Pest eradication people
Plumbing supplies shop
Self-storage firm
TV antenna people
Tree surgeon
Yard-cleaning-up people

It's almost a meme, don't you think?

Some of these can wait a little longer, like the optician. Some of them can't, like the growing tree that is about to actually push the garage over. What I don't understand -- given that I can now afford at least some of these things -- is how I could have let that list get quite so long.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Won't somebody think of the children?

At the top of page 4 of yesterday's Adelaide Advertiser, there was a report, rhetorically framed in full-on tut-tut mode (the phrase 'shocking behaviour' was used and it was not a quotation), about sexually inflected behaviour among SA primary school students, with 42 reports of actual sexual assault.

Now, I agree that this is appalling, though anyone with any kind of clear memory knows that sexually motivated behaviour in the later years of primary school has been around forever and was often quite nasty, not least because in my day and earlier, you didn't talk about it, and if you had, you would not have been believed. Being a girl was, in that respect, almost as much jolly fun as being a woman. And as for British boys' schools ...

But this is not to the point. The point was political reporter Michael Owen's tone, which was dominated by that tabloid-journalism favourite, horrified righteous indignation, that we have all come to know and love so well.

Owen reported that SA Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith had ascribed the children's behaviour to the fact that 'today's students [are] increasingly exposed to inappropriate forms of media.'

The article had a big black headline:

Alarm over lewd students

At the top of Page 5, directly opposite, there was an item about the revamping of the high school science curriculum, for students in Year 10 or younger, to make it more "relevant". And the big black headline on this one?

Formula to sex up science


The cosmos taketh away and the cosmos giveth

Seen by chance as framed by the bathroom window, a flying lesson: ma, pa and the three little honey-eaters, using the sloping shed roof with the bottle-brushes all over it for take-off, landing and debriefing. Think flashes of white and yellow in and out of the red and green.

Which was worth at least half of the speeding fine.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A half-full glass in a toenail of a day*

I've spent most of today either sitting at the desk or rushing around like a mad rabbit to places like banks and post offices doing a big pile of mind-numbingly boring and in three cases quite expensive administrative tasks, several of which I ought never to have been asked or expected to do in the first place. When I asked the woman in the post office how much stamps were for a particular sized item, all I wanted to know was the answer. When I was going through the supermarket checkout, all I wanted was for big heavy items not to be dumped directly on top of small fragile ones. And when I checked the mailbox, there were two items in it, and one was my superannuation statement, informing me that over 9% of what used to be in that account had melted away like fairy floss on the tongue between the beginning of January and the end of June.

So the other item -- the speeding fine (and yes I did totally deserve it, thank you all for asking) for $202 -- seemed as nothing by comparison, and therefore setting fire to those ten $20 bills and watching them burn isn't going to be anywhere near as painful as it usually is. Hooray.

*I am aware that this is a mixed metaphor, but it is a much more original one than something the Prime Minister is reported to have said today: 'There are big bumps in the road ahead; it's not all going to be smooth sailing.'

We have always been at war with [insert name of country here]

Many people will have seen this footage on TV but I've not yet seen anyone blogging about it (probably because I tend to confine myself to the Ozblogosphere) and it seems worth making a note of. In a clip I saw last night of one of the Republican rallies where McCain was obliged to go into hosing-down mode against his own rabidly racist and moronic supporters, who were explicitly calling for Barack Obama to be murdered, one woman who had the microphone and was speaking directly to McCain, who appeared to be wandering around freely in the crowd answering questions, said of Obama 'And ... and ... he's an Arab!'

The split-second expression on McCain's face was indescribable. You have to wonder whether whether he can think much faster than he looks as if he can and was merely deciding how to play it, or whether his answer was actually based on a sincere belief. 'No,' he said, biting the bullet. 'No, no. He's ... a decent family man.'

Got that? The opposite of "Arab" = "decent family man".

AFTERTHOUGHT: In a way this is even worse, but has anyone else noticed that apart from a few true diehards (and I use the word advisedly), people seem to have been genuinely not noticing that Obama is, in fact, black? The race anxiety appears to have been displaced onto the evil Ay-rabs. My dad, who is 81 and has therefore seen a fair amount of recent world history played out (and spent most of 1944 and 1945 on a corvette in the Pacific), is barracking (sorry) for Obama but says he simply can't see America voting in a black president when it comes right down to it. But I'm getting the impression that in putting pressure on the running 'Ay-rab terrist' sore, the Republicans have -- quite accidentally, I'm sure -- taken the racist focus off its other obvious target.

Why people have cats

Monday, October 13, 2008

But his middle name is Hussein!

By this logic, I myself share the beliefs, professions and/or ethnicity of, or have otherwise sinister connections to, all of the following: Ben Lee, Brenda Lee, Bruce Lee, Harper Lee, Peggy Lee, Robert E. Lee, Sara Lee, Spike Lee, Rickie Lee Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, David Lee Roth, Lee Child, Lee Kernaghan and Lee Harvey Oswald.

So you'd better not vote for me.

How To Erase Women and Perpetuate the Dominant Culture

There's a good article about the death of Australian backpacker Britt Lapthorne in today's online Age by Rod Curtis in Dubrovnik. Curtis went and talked to a goodly assortment of the citizens of that city and asked them what they thought and how they felt about Lapthorne's death.

The central point around which the piece revolves, the plank on which the whole article is (very well and thoughtfully) built, is that local opinion is very clearly divided along gender lines.

Men -- mostly young men -- think Lapthorne got drunk, went for a swim and drowned.

Women -- all kinds of women -- think she was raped and murdered.

And what headline has the online minion at the Age seen fit to give this clear, thoughtful, well-argued piece of writing?

Locals blame it on the booze.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Immortality: a thought

Tennyson, who really was quite an extraordinary sort of chap as fellow devotees of A.S. Byatt will know, once wrote a poem about the myth of Aurora, Greek goddess of the dawn, and her lover and husband Tithonus, who was a mortal man until she went off to Zeus and asked him to grant Tithonus eternal life so the couple could stay together forever.

This, obligingly -- and obligingness was not Zeus's forte as a rule -- he did. But the catch, and there's always a catch in these myths, was that they forgot to ask for eternal youth for him while they were about it. So Tithonus got older and older, but could not die.

Tennyson's 'Tithonus', in which the helplessly ever-aging man is speaking, begins like this:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
the vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
and after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality
consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms
here at the quiet limit of the world,
a white-hair'd shadow, roaming like a dream
the ever-silent spaces of the East,
far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Tithonus is, in fact, the Undead. And what made me think of this poem is the gory vampire novel I have chosen to replace the unreadable Dean Koontz one (see previous post). For much is being made in this book, as well it might be when you are trying to fight them off, of the fact that vampires cannot die or be killed unless you utterly destroy their hearts.

And it occurs to me for the first time (although Ken Gelder probably had this idea in Chapter 1 if not the Introduction to his book on vampires) that they are the shadow side of that eternal life in quest of which humankind continues, usually to its detriment, to go. But lift that rock -- look under the Philosopher's Stone -- and what will crawl out from underneath it is something seven feet tall with shark's teeth that wants to rip your head off and drink your blood.

I assume therefore that one of the morals of the vampire story, as of so many stories, is 'Be careful what you wish for', and that it belongs to that powerful old family of narratives that show the horrible fate awaiting the Over-reacher, the mortal who dares to try to usurp the prerogatives of gods: Prometheus, Faust, Viktor Frankenstein, and all the dead bodies who litter the stage at the end of every Renaissance revenge tragedy.

None of this stuff belongs, however, in a 180-word newspaper review. Which is why I have a blog.

Good writing, bad writing

Some years ago I found myself being called upon to say what I thought good writing was. I ended up choosing a paragraph from near the beginning of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and doing a good old-fashioned close-reading number on it, saying exactly what I thought was good about it and why. I chose it because when I'd first read it, every little hair on the back of my neck stood up, and the body test is as good as any other when you're thinking about art (best seminar paper title I've ever seen: 'If It's Crap, Why Do I Cry?').

This also works in the other direction. Sometimes, not often but even once is too damned often in terms of the time it wastes, I find myself thirty or forty pages into one of my books for review, my 'work' books, when I am alerted by actual bodily sensations to the fact that I am not going to be able to go on.

Probably about half of the books I receive for review, maybe a bit more, would come into the category of popular fiction, 'popular' in the sense of 'not literary fiction' or 'genre fiction' or whatever. Some of the more high-minded of my friends wonder, I think, though they are rarely tactless enough to say so, how I can bear to read some of this stuff. They are the same mates who are sniffy about commercial television and I think the impulse is the same.

The answer is that I read and write and think about fiction for a living and have always done so. It is my profession. I think about it in a fundamentally different way from the people for whom literature is, precisely, not a part of their everyday lives but a magical escape or a well-earned reward or some other kind of special treat.

I love these people. They are the ones who turn up at writers' festivals and ask intelligent questions at question time, having -- unlike many of one's former students -- read the books, often with great intensity and love. They are the ones who belong to readers' groups and turn up at them faithfully and have boisterous discussions of the book at issue. They are terrific people, but I am not one of them; my relationship to fiction is far more mundane and workmanlike than theirs.

Now obviously the issues at stake here are fundamentally ideological, which I won't go into because the people who care about these ideas are already familiar with them and the people who don't care about them don't care about them. Let's just say that in the last nearly-two years of reading four novels a week minimum, I've read an awful lot of excellent genre fiction and quite a lot of crummy 'literary' fiction, what you might call 'art fiction' in the sense of 'art music', fiction in which the gap between the writer's obvious aspiration and her or his actual achievement has been wide enough for a whale to swim through, and I mean sideways.

Actually this fiction/music categorisation thingy is a parallel worth pursuing, though not now, because I've just wasted however long it took to read the first forty pages of the new Dean Koontz, whose writing has aspirations to literariness but is 'popular' in the sense that lots and lots of people read him, with a view to a review. Fortunately I get sent more books than there is space to review, so I get to make choices and I have just chosen to let the already obscenely rich Dean Koontz do without 180 of my own words because let's face it, he doesn't need them and it wouldn't make any difference to the people who like to read him, of whom there are many millions, and if readers want to vote with their wallets then that is absolutely their prerogative.

But I finally put down The Darkest Evening of the Year, knowing I would not pick it up again, when I got to this passage on page 40:

Here in the venereal aftermath, Harrow has no fear of any blade she might have buried in the bedding. If ever she tries to kill him, the attempt will be made between the motion and the act, at the ascending moment of her fulfilment.

It was at this point that I began to feel the way you do when you've eaten something you should have thrown out the day before, or possibly the day before that. You know how, when you've been poisoned, there's always that moment of realisation that there's something seriously wrong, and that quite soon it's going to get much worse? I think the blade at the ascending moment of her fulfilment was that moment.

I'm guessing the phrase 'between the motion and the act' is an allusion to T.S. Eliot (see Stanza V and no I don't know what it means either) -- Koontz at 63 is exactly the right age for Eliot to have been the dominant literary influence of his formative years, and one can only wish that Eliot had been a bit more of an influence, though perhaps in a different way -- but if anyone can tell me exactly what that phrase 'between the motion and the act' actually means in the context of a hypothetical pre-post-coital psychotic homicide, I will give her or him $10,000 and a free kitten.

At which point I turned for relief to a nice novel about vampires called 13 Bullets, and so far I have not been disappointed. The heroine-narrator appears to be some kind of cross between Kinsey Millhone and Buffy, and there's blood everywhere by page 2. If you're going to write popular fiction, do it properly.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

New books!

My immediate and, I like to think, logical response to the news that the global financial world was going to hell in a handbasket and I would very shortly be left without enough superannuation to buy me a can of baby food for my toothless gums, much less life tenure of a nice lavender-walled room in some erstwhile stately home, was to go into a bookshop and come out over $200 lighter, something I have not done for over twelve years.

Here is what I bought:

The new Val McDermid, A Darker Domain.
The new Kathy Reichs, Devil Bones.
The new Robert Drewe, The Rip: can it be true that short stories are making a comeback?
Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française, which I bought as a gift for a friend when it first came out but have not yet read myself.
Susan Wyndham's Life In His Hands, subtitled 'The true story of a neurosurgeon and a pianist', which I plan to read in tandem with Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, a gift from the friend to whom I gave Suite Française.
The new Robert Dessaix, Arabesques, which is the most beautiful Australian book I've seen since Gay Bilson's Plenty and possibly more beautiful even than that.

And, finally, a book of the kind I can't resist, called Show Me How: 500 Things You Should Know, which contains simple instructions, with illustrations, on how to do stuff.

Much of this stuff is things that I can in fact already do (wrap up an elegant bouquet, make guacamole, give myself a perfect manicure, rim a glass with sugar or salt, stop bleeding, find my perfect zodiac love match, swim backstroke) as well as many things I would never in a million years want to learn to do (tie a cherry stem in my mouth, flirt with emoticons, craft a plastic-bag throw rug, lasso a calf, fire-roast a tarantula or prepare Tibetan yak-butter tea).

But there are many more that I can't do and would dearly love to be able to: perform CPR, deliver a baby in a taxi, meditate for inner peace, combat jet lag, jump-start a car and dance a steamy tango.

It's much, much too late to have a memorable first kiss, and anyway, I did.

But here's the one, Item #298 of 500, that made me think I really had to buy this book: How to Clip a Cat's Claws. I only read the instructions when I got home. Step #1, and I kid you not, complete with illustration, reads 'Start with a relaxed cat.'


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wanted: good homes for Adelaide cat and kits

Commenter BS has taken me up on my offer to help find Adelaide volunteers to give any one or more of these three kittens and their mum a good home. The text won't fit at a readable size but all the information is below.

BS found them under the car in the driveway. Apparently this has happened to the BS household before so they already have seven cats and can't keep this lot.

The mother cat is domesticated and BS says she is only a baby herself, maybe a year old, and a beautiful cat, as the photo bears out.

There are three kittens, one male (Mr Smoochy -- tummyrub addict) and two female, one of whom has been dubbed the Fearless Trailblazer. They will be six weeks old come the weekend. They are weaned and litterbox trained. The BS household is willing to pay for desexing if that is any inducement.

If you're interested contact BS directly: neddles(at)gmail(dot)com

More pix here.

Catastrophising: we does it

Every once in a while something happens, like a trip or a nudge or a poke in the ribs from the universe, some sign with no benign intent, to remind you of some awful mistake you once made, some failure you could not redeem, some path you could have taken, some person you might have been happy with, some behavioural atrocity you now cannot believe you committed, some entirely different life you might have had, if only this or that had been a little different.

It can be the introductory bars of a song on your iPod, or a birthday card you come across while you're spring-cleaning. It can be a book title or a voice on the radio or the sight of once-beloved handwriting.

You know them. You've had them. They haunt you for days. How happy you are in your current life has utterly nothing to do with it; it is about the past and the irredeemability of the past.

Getting one of these little nudges from the universe is like doing the kind of injury you can do to a muscle or a joint that you hardly notice at the time and then find yourself barely able to walk for a week. A pinched nerve, a strained ligament, a bruise, a sprain: minor but disabling, unable to be ignored.

I've had four in the last 48 hours. A song I stumbled across online; a dedication in a book I almost didn't buy; a couple of pieces of news.

The Bloke would point out, and indeed did point out, that I am warm, and fed, and dry. Which just made me feel morally inferior as well as beaten up.

Blogger gets gong, friend not surprised

And not just any blogger but my dear friend Stephanie of Humanities Researcher, who feels that her blog played no small part in winning one of the Australian Learning and Teaching Council's 2008 Australian Awards for University Teaching, as announced in today's Australian HES.

It's not about the children

As we all knew it would, the new Bill Henson 'outrage' is being used as a stick to beat the Luvvies and a flag to wave in the culture wars. And voices of reason like those of Dr Leslie Cannold (hat tip to Mark Lawrence for this link) seem to have been largely lost amid the shouting.

When there is danger to children in the form of sexual damage, almost all of it comes -- as indeed with adult rape -- from people those children already know. Their uncles, their big brothers, their soccer coaches, their daddy's friends. But there are all sorts of reasons, most of them I'm sure subliminal, why everybody wants to leave those stinking waters unstirred. Much easier, as it has always been much easier, to blame the outsider, the stranger: to use him or her as a focus and target onto which to project your own half-conscious, half-understood fear and rage.

The fact that all sorts of commercial enterprises have been routinely using schools for years as a source for models and 'stars' is one that the outraged choose to ignore, as they ignored it when it was first pointed out in Australia a year or two ago that corporate paedophilia had been going on or years. No no, they cried, when photos of pouting, posing prepubescent girls half-dressed in brand-name clothing were pointed out to them, that's not suggestive, you've just got a dirty mind.

*Waits for other shoe to drop*


This mushroom cloud of self-righteous indignation speaks to parents everywhere in their concern for their children's welfare and safety, but the commentary itself isn't really about threats to children at all.

It's about getting stuck into the cultural left, and particularly about getting stuck into one of the cultural left's best spokespersons and scribes, David Marr (which for them is the equivalent of blowing up the post office or bombing the munitions factory), by banging on about how he's only trying to sell books. Presumably they think that if one has written a book then one should try to keep this fact as quiet as possible. Or perhaps they don't know that it is standard newspaper practice to publish extracts of forthcoming books of interest.

'I reject outright,' Text publisher Michael Heyward is quoted today as having said,
any suggestion that the controversy over Bill Henson's fully supervised and entirely proper school visit was cooked up to boost sales of David Marr's book ...

I approached David Marr to write this book so that readers could have a clear understanding of the issues around the closure of Bill Henson's show in May.

The renewed ill-informed and inflammatory commentary shows how important it is that people have access to clear debate about the real issues so they can work out what they think.

For what it's worth, my guess is that, knowing the right-wing commentators would immediately glomp onto the story of Henson in schools the minute the book did come out and blow it up into a storm of sensationalist, oversimplified misrepresentation and outrage, Marr may be trying to exercise a bit of pre-emptive damage control by getting in as quickly as possible and providing some non-sensationalist analysis and response to predictable fuss, like this article on Monday.

(I know David a bit, not well, but well enough to have an idea of what kind of bloke he is, and I'd just like to point out that one of the most highly respected senior journalists in the country, the man who co-authored Dark Victory and who wrote the best literary biography this country has ever produced, doesn't actually need to tout for book sales, and wouldn't even if he did. Besides, the people who are going to buy the book would have bought it anyway, and the people who weren't still won't.)

There's nothing new about philistines gleefully getting stuck into artists on the grounds that they are really just pornographers and degenerates, as any student of the history of any art in any country knows. But then, it's not the people who understand this conflict who are making the fuss.

Bill Henson makes art about the emotional and sexual turbulence of adolescence. So did Shakespeare, he whom the self-proclaimed enemies of the cultural left insist should be taught more in schools. Do they know what Romeo and Juliet is actually about? (You've got to wonder whether Kevin Rudd's ever read or seen a performance of this play, or, if he has, whether his response was 'This is revolting, you should just let kids be kids.')

Henson's highly regulated and monitored search in a school for suitable models, a practice we now know to be common, bears no resemblance to the big companies' use in advertising for profit of inappropriately sexualised prepubescent children. It bears no resemblance to the behaviour of, say, former SA magistrate Peter Liddy, who used his work as a surf lifesaving coach (oh the irony) to groom, molest, torment and rape little boys and wreck their lives. It bears no resemblance to what nice Uncles Darren and Hugo do to little Tay-lah and Charlotte whenever they get the chance.

But hey, that's business, sport and the family, innit. Sacred, every one. Not like those arty-farty wankers, who are, as everybody knows, fair game. And besides, look how they vote.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

Loud Denunciation of Sandra Bernhard, wherein recent vows are broken almost at once

Regular readers around the Ozblogosphere will have noticed a certain amount of concern trolling about how shocking it is that 'the feminists' (because as you know we are a mob, all the same, and immediately identifiable) have not Loudly Denounced Sandra Bernhard's reported remarks about Sarah Palin, as discussed here.

As a matter of fact I have seen Bernhard Loudly Denounced by a number of feminist bloggers and commenters, but a concern troll will never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Nonetheless, I feel the need to make the gesture. So here you go.

If she said what she is alleged to have said, and it seems that she probably did, in no matter what context, Bernhard was totally out of order. Her 'joke' was offensive and the charity was right to drop her.

Nothing about rape is funny.

Besides, if you're a comedian and Palin is your target, Tina Fey is the way to go. Because a dead straight impersonation is funnier than anything else you could possibly do.

So here you go, Sistahs, here's some handy proof to link to next time you see a complaint about what hypocrites feminists are for not Loudly Denouncing Sandra Bernhard, and crowing about how 'silent' we have all been. I, for one, hereby Loudly Denounce her.

Have I said it often enough yet? Will the bold be easy enough to read, do you think, or would big-print capitals in primary colours be better?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Blogiversary post

It's three years today since I first found Blogger and worked out what to do with it.

Perversely, I'm going to celebrate -- perhaps 'mark' would be a more accurate word -- this anniversary by mentioning what is for me the single biggest downside of blogging.

I'm what I think of as a sociable blogger, that is, one who reads and comments at lots of other people's blogs - there are at least 20 that I read regularly, and by regularly I mean often daily. A few of these blogs are written and run by small or large teams of bloggers and have large readerships and long, active comments threads. I spend a great deal more time reading other people's blogs than I do writing my own (and this in itself is, I think, a mistake).

Still, thanks to blogging I'm far better and more widely informed about current affairs and the debates around them than I have ever been before. Blogging has given me an astonishing education about what other people and their lives are like. Most of us gravitate to people like ourselves, reinforcing our belief that our own standards and values are the norm from which everything else is a deviation.

Blogging is a truly wonderful corrective to this. I get great satisfaction, pleasure and relief, for example, from seeing the state of other people's kitchen floors. I thought it was just me.

I have had far more contact with lots of different men, with mothers of young kids, with people a generation older and people a generation younger than me than I ever get in real life. From what I've seen, I have very, very high hopes of the people who are currently in their 20s. (Though I do worry in a maternal sort of way about how much they seem to drink. I put away a fair amount in my own 20s, often more out of absent-mindedness than anything else, and it was usually not a very good idea at all.)

But here's the downside. The nature of moral and ideological conviction being what it is, when you see someone expressing opinions you find repugnant then the natural impulse is to take them on. And thus it is that the blogger, or at least the social blogger, finds herself wasting hours and hours of her precious time in pointless engagement with people she would in real life cross the street, possibly the suburb and in some cases the entire country, to avoid.

Examples: those who appear to the blogger be mad or drunk or on drugs. Those who take delight in deceptive trolling, baiting and sock-puppeteering. Those who are unable to communicate without being aggressive, insulting and cruel. Those she finds ignorant, or vicious, or stupid. Those who are incapable of either producing or comprehending rational argument. Those who don't know the difference between opinion and analysis, or that between belief and fact. Those she would never engage with in real life in a million years, and whose opinions are, in her own view, worth less than a bucket of warm spit, which could at least be put on the garden.

For reasons I don't understand, I waste a lot of time reading the badly written effusions of these people. (Fellow bloggers, especially those who have ever smoked, gambled, drunk to excess, done drugs or had food issues, will know that time spent online is highly conducive to addictive behaviours and quickly leads to sitting up half the night like that little man in the XKCD cartoon.)

Like that little man, I waste a lot of time and emotional energy either in engaging with the awful stuff they write, in making the effort not to engage with it, or in dealing with the emotional effects of the hatred expressed by, in particular, a certain kind of man with a vicious, all-consuming and monomaniacal grudge against a certain kind of woman. Of which I'm.

Being hated does you harm. Especially when it comes from someone you've never even met.

One of the other really alarming effects this is having is that I can feel it gradually dumbing me down. One sure way to blunt the edge of your intellect is to use it hacking away at drongoes.

And I could be spending that time

-- listening to music
-- working
-- doing non-work reading
-- playing with the cats
-- gardening
-- calling/visiting/writing to beloveds
-- doing house and yard maintenance
-- sitting at the piano wrestling that Satie to the deck, damn it
-- sewing some cool cotton bumming-around retro-hippie dresses for summer
-- taking photographs
-- writing my novel
-- walking along the beach watching dogs and kids
-- singing

So that's my third blogiversary resolution. Put a time limit on blog activity, as though you were your own parent dealing with your own recalcitrant adolescent offspring. Refine the parameters. Engage only with the bloggers and commenters you like and admire. (I didn't say 'agree with', I said 'admire'.) Save your blogwriting energy for your own posts, not for enraged answers to nasty, stupid, aggressive, sexist, racist, masculine-supremacist and/or barking swine.

Blogging -- and by 'blogging' I mean reading and commenting as well as writing -- is a wonderful thing, and its powers should be used only for good. Today, here at Still Life With Cat, I resolve to lift my standards.

Friday, October 3, 2008

It's not what you said, it's the way that you said it

A question for people who know more about the US than I do, ie pretty much everyone on the planet. (Looking at you, T.)

Someone over at Larvatus Prodeo has just commented that he will not be watching the Palin/Biden debate because 'her accent makes Baby Jesus cry'. Now while this seemed partly a reference to Palin's regrettable religious convictions, he also obviously really meant it, and it recalled several other attack-doggy things I've heard said about Palin's accent.

This puzzles me a bit because to me she just sounds more or less generically American, like the cowboys of my TV childhood. (Perhaps that's exactly what the problem is.) Perhaps those Australians I've heard mocking her voice have been watching too much West Wing and automatically associate the way they all talk with the good guys, to which I can only reply that at least one can hear what Sarah Palin is actually saying.

Also a bit puzzlingly, to me, I've heard Palin's referred to as 'midwestern' in a way clearly intended as a nasty insult. I've read and seen enough to know that Americans mock and deride each other's regional accents very much in the way that Australians do only much more so and with, it has to be said, a nastier edge, and that (less like the way Australians do it) there seems to be a definite class-based (though it's disguised as something other than class) pecking order attached to this. The midwest and the deep south in particular seem to come in for a lot of bashing on the site of this accent/class/mysterious-third-category nexus, but then places as different as the Bronx and Minnesota seem get a lot of stick as well.

I'm guessing that in the case of the South and the Midwest this is partly just ideological animus rather than outright class hatred, much in the way that a bohemian denizen of deepest Fitzroy might mock the vowels of a well-heeled croc-huntin' Nationals-votin' Far North Queenslander, but in the US it seems to go deeper than that.

So here's my question: is Sarah Palin's accent really 'midwest', and if so is the term 'midwest' then not really a geographic indicator at all? (Alaska being, like, close enough to see Russia from one's house.) And does that classification, or something else, really identify her as a rube, and is that what this stuff about her accent is all about? It doesn't sound like that to me. It's a bit twangy, but as far as twang goes I would a million times rather listen to her than to a certain kind of New Yorker. Except, of course, for what she actually says.

I would welcome any enlightenment that anyone can provide.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My Nobel Prize faves: let me show you them

Here from Ladbroke's via Matilda, culled from the form guide as it stands tonight, is a list of the people I personally would like to see win this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, complete with their odds and their position on the ladder or whatever it is:

Joyce Carol Oates, 4th at 7/1

Les Murray, 8th at 10/1

Michael Ondaatje, 15th at 20/1 (I sat across the table from him at dinner once. Oh, girls. Oh my.)

Margaret Atwood, 22nd at 33/1

Alice Munro, 23rd at 40/1

Cormac McCarthy, 30th at 50/1 (though he is still a bit undercooked, for mine)

A.S. Byatt, 37th at 66/1 (shocking odds, but a truly great writer)

Bob Dylan, 60th at 150/1 (heh)

Carn Les, I say. If he can't win the Nobel Prize on the combined strength of 'The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle' and Translations From the Natural World alone, then the game's crook.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

But I'm fairly sure you couldn't achieve something this good on purpose

Regular readers of this blog will by now be aware that I am a devoted fan of Guy Rundle's daily reports back to on the progress of the US election campaign and today is no exception. But today there has also been a magnificent bonus. Either Guy was typing too fast, and/or the spell-checker did its evil thing, and/or someone at crikey missed it, and/or it is a genuine error on someone's part, but whatever it is it has cheered me up mightily. 'But man,' says Guy this afternoon,
the McCain/Palin thing is now officially in deep sh-t. The conservatives who have now come out against her include Charles Krauthammer (uber neocon), David Frum (Bush speechwriter), most of the National Review, and most recently George Will, a true conservative elder. But the death-blow went to middle-of-the-road, okay liberal, Fareed Zakharia, who pointed out that it was not that Palin couldn't answer very well in interviews, it was that "she clearly didn't understand the questions. This is a level of incompetence we have not seen before".

Indeed, and that all makes Thursday's VP debate just about the most important in history. If Palin can somehow hold her own and be effective, then it will be one of the most stunning turnarounds in history, and the whole anti-elitist thing will be retched up, like, a billion notches.

I think he meant 'ratcheted'.

Or maybe not.

On the subjective nature of literary criticism

You know that six days of intermittent yet shriek-making back spasm have really started to get to you when you read, in an innocuous piece of chick lit, a passing reference to the lyrics of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and it hits you with a blinding flash that that song is nothing more than the simple expression of a death wish.

Which reminds me of one of my all-time favourite jokes. A man's singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a seedy nightclub for a living and one night he simply forgets how the middle eight goes. He can remember the words -- 'Some day I'll wish upon a star / and wake up where the clouds are far / behiiiiiind meeeee' -- but the tune's gone right out of his head.

So he signals to the band leader to start again. All's well till he gets to the middle eight again, but nope, he still can't remember it.

This happens a couple more times until finally (it wasn't called the Depression for nothing) he thinks that if he can't even sing his signature song any more in this crummy gig in this dingy room then he might as well end it all, so he flings himself out of the nearest window.

And as he lies dying on the footpath, suddenly a beatific smile steals over his tragically smashed-up features. Because someone has called the ambulance, and in the distance he can hear it coming: 'Da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA ...'