Monday, February 23, 2009

In today's mail ...

... I received this flyer:

For some detailed and fascinating insights from the novelist's own mouth pen keyboard about some of the processes by which her novel has ended up on this flyer, go here.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop

From today's online Age:

"Peter Costello is one of the most distinguished Liberals to grace the Parliament in the party's existence," Senator Minchin said.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Everywhere you turn, there's another dishy man singing

One of the joys of a regular income is that one can afford to toddle along to various beautiful Adelaide venues whenever the mood takes one in order to see and hear quite remarkably lovely men doing what they do best. Last month it was the legendary Leonard and now it's these two. I've seen them both perform on stage before, David Hobson as a hilarious bumbly Nanki-Poo in The Mikado

(Hobson on right)

and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as a chilling Joseph de Rocher in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking.

But this is a simple, straight-up evening of duets from two beautiful dudes with gorgeous voices.

From the blurb:
Two of Australia’s singing superstars, tenor David Hobson and baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes will be touring Australia in March 2009 for Andrew McKinnon Presentations. These will be the most romantic nights of the year with much loved arias and songs from Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, even Australian folk songs!

Fresh from recording their first album together for ABC Classics (You’ll Never Walk Alone), these two dazzling singers are set to wow audiences with their beautiful arias and songs including operatic arias, folksongs, show tunes and, of course, the duet from The Pearl Fishers, voted the greatest opera moment of all time by ABC Classic FM listeners, as well as a few surprises thrown in. This exciting once in a lifetime concert features two of the hottest names around will be a highlight on any music lover’s concert schedule. Separately, these two stars have carved themselves indelibly into the echelons of Australian musical history. Together, and with Australia's leading accompanist Sharolyn Kimmorley, they will create a night of pure musical delight.

“What excites me most about this concert is the variety of repertoire. In the first half Teddy and I will be singing some of opera’s greatest moments and in the second half we bring things closer to home with some show tunes, folksongs and more contemporary works,” says David Hobson.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A question

On page 263 of John Grisham's new novel The Associate, which in most respects I'm enjoying for all the usual Grisham things, there appear the expressions 'second-tier' (referring to schools) and, two paragraphs later, 'C-list' (referring to Hollywood agents).

Can anyone who knows either Grisham or contemporary America (or, ideally, both) better than I do give me a clue as to whether there is any authorial irony at all attached to his use of these expressions? I'm damned if I can tell whether he shares his characters' unquestioning acceptance of these hierarchies as gospel or not. I'm hoping that the way the plot turns out will give me a clue.

Friday, February 13, 2009

And speaking of bottom-feeding scum-sucking swamp life ...

The big political group blog Larvatus Prodeo gently, habitually and rightly mocks the style of outraged righteous indignation adopted by many right-wing commentators by running a regular Condemnation (Or Loud Denunciation) Thread in which readers are invited to condemn whatever is annoying them this month.

Loud Denouncers of all stripes have been in overdrive this week, calling the Victorian arsonists mass murderers and terrorists, inventing ever newer and more grotesque punishments for them. This mindset has been fed by the commercial media, for whom an invasive, lingering close-up of some poor sod in tears passes for good reporting, and for whom the whipping-up of righteous indignation in the audience is their chief raison d'être.

At the risk of attracting abusive comments from people who think that if I'm mocking these attacks then I must somehow be defending the arsonists, and yes there are indeed many people whose string and clapper arrangements above the neck minds do work that way, allow me to loudly denounce the loud denouncers (and if any of my Wednesday editing workshop class is reading this, I trust you picked up the deliberate split infinitive there).

Unfortunately this kind of thing isn't the exclusive preserve of conservatives. I have been particularly saddened to hear the PM joining in this chorus; like SA's Premier Mike Rann, Rudd is given (witness his behaviour during the Bill Henson uproar) to making calculatedly populist pronouncements with the same aim as the commercial media: lead the chorus of righteous indignation in order to make the people feel that they are the virtuous and you are at their head.

This is particularly nauseating when politicians do it, because, like some journalists (though fewer and fewer, these days; are journalists getting dumber and dumber or am I just over-exposing myself to the Adelaide Advertiser, apparently AKA the Traumatiser?), they do in fact know better. They are Loudly Denouncing in a cold, calculating and insincere manner, in order to appease and control the populace by rhetorical stealth. I am sure that most politicians and most journalists know in their more reasonable moments that arson often proceeds from a very particular psychological state. Most of those who do it could be described as what my friend L. would call Not a Well Person.

This is not to excuse them, merely to say that the only way to reduce this kind of sociopathy is to understand and control it at the source. Which is where these people come in. Operation Nomad in South Australia has apparently drastically reduced the number of deliberately lit fires in this state over the last few years, and in the wake of last weekend's Victorian inferno, that state is initiating talks with SA Police to discuss setting up something similar in Victoria.


There are two other categories of people currently crawling out from under their icky rocks whom even I would Loudly Denounce without hesitation. Looters and charity scammers aren't even acting out psychological compulsions. They're just the utter bottom of the human barrel.


While I have nothing to add to the discussion of (a) whether or not Nick Xenophon has made a tactical blue in holding the whole country to ransom and (b) whether or not his proposal for throwing money at the Murray is a sound one, I would like to say that I am getting very sick of the way the situation is being discussed around the traps.

In particular I am very bloody annoyed by the ignorant rubbish about South Australia, including a usually highly respected political blogger using the word 'parochial' as a synonym for 'not from the Eastern states', something one more usually associates with Victorian football commentators. I am also gobsmacked by the number of bloggers and commenters who appear to think that the health of the Murray-Darling Basin doesn't affect anyone except South Australians.

Sounding off about it here is preferable to getting into it with the bully boys of the blogosphere, the mildest of whose responses would be something along the lines of 'Oh but you would say that, wouldn't you.' (One of these days when I'm feeling strong I'm going to write a long post about the tactics men use to argue with women online; the application of the word 'shrill' to any woman who disagrees with you about anything -- or talks at all, really -- is a particular favourite and that's only the tip of a very dirty and debris-studded iceberg. But I digress.)

The Prime Minister has been heard more than once to express the opinion (before he was elected, naturally) that South Australia was a waste of space, so if he pays any attention to Xenophon you can be sure it won't be for the benefit of South Australians, the vast majority of whom have until recent times loved and relied on the river.

But if successive federal governments of both stripes hadn't spent the last few decades ignoring the warnings and pandering to the blood-sucking bottom-feeding river-murdering Eastern States irrigators who have been draining the river dry upstream in order to grow climate-inappropriate cash crops like rice and cotton (and indulging in said pandering simply to secure strategic votes and to hell with the health of the biggest river system in the country), it would never have come to this in the first place. Xenophon is just a great big Greek chicken coming home to Canberra, after many years, to roost.

UPDATE: it's through (well, as good as) -- and Xenophon has secured some dosh for the river. Looks like a sensible win-win compromise to me -- independently of whether any of it is a good idea ...

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reading note: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

Alexander McCall Smith, who as I write this is just across town in the lovely old Capri Cinema charming the pants off a no doubt full house, packed to the gunwales with his Adelaide fans, is wont to produce paragraphs like the following in all kinds of contexts. But tonight it has sunk its pointy little teeth in deep.

Somewhere in this country ... that day, somebody had been given news that would end their little world. Somebody, some unknown person somewhere, was being told that somebody else was not coming back. And all that stood between that poor person and oneself was chance, and luck, and forces that we would never master nor understand. What if it was she who would be the recipient of such news this night? No, she could not think about that, she would not.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Like a box of chocolates

It's always been in the nature of the work I do that bags and parcels and packages of new books have been features of the landscape. The start of a school or university year; the publisher's rep knocking at the door of one's university office; the tidal waves of books for review that crashed into the tiny office of Australian Book Review on a daily basis in 1986-87 and no doubt still do in ever-increasing numbers; the fifty or a hundred books that have been submitted for some literary prize.

And, most recently, the postbags and boxes of them that get delivered by the same bemused Australia Post driver every other week or so since I began regular weekly reviewing for the Sydney Morning Herald, for I get almost twice as many as I end up reviewing, and there's a deep, wide and well-worn path from my house to the nearest Red Cross shop, where the ladies love me to bits, not least because I never take back the sturdy re-usable shopping bags into which I have packed the books, and it doesn't take much to imagine how useful to the staff of a second-hand store a steady supply of sturdy re-usable shopping bags might be.

So you'd think I'd have got even a little bit blasée about it, after all these years. But no. The door is knocked on, the cats take fright, I paddle up the passage and open the door and there's the Australia Post man clutching another bunch of bags of books. I feel my heartbeat accelerating. I drop whatever I'm doing and tear at the tough plastic; can't wait long enough to go get the scissors. And then I lift out the books, voluptuously, one by one.

Which is the routine I followed this morning, after hearing the Australia Post guy's by-now-recognisable rattly and bad-tempered *BAM BAM BAM* on the frame of the security screen door. And here's the third book I pulled out of the bag.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What we can do

We can go here. (Via Armagnac.)

In Victoria and don't have any money to spare? Give some blood, as that site suggests. If you've always thought about this but never quite done it, now would be a really excellent time to have a go.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The heat is making everyone a little slow

And this morning as the Weatherpixie climbs into her bikini for the God-knows-how-manyth time this year already, I have another look at that pile of books in the previous post. One title in particular catches my eye: I went on a determined footslogging trek through the wilds of Adelaide to find that James Orbinski book, An Imperfect Offering, after I heard Orbinski talking to Phillip Adams on Late Night Live.

He (Orbinksi not Adams) is a Research Scientist and Associate Professor of Family and Community Medicine and Political Science (say what?) at the University of Toronto. He lectures internationally on humanitarianism and global health; he is a past president of Médecins Sans Frontières. He has worked in the field in many countries in chaos and crisis, including Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan and Zaire. The full title of his book is An Imperfect Offering: Dispatches From the Medical Frontline.

With hymns of praise going up all over the blogosphere to Orbinski's fellow-Canadian Leonard Cohen and not least from me, you'd think I would have got it earlier. But no. I sat five rows from the stage and heard him sing this less than two weeks ago and still didn't make the connection.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Pile

And not a spine cracked among them except for the Gelder and Salzman book on contemporary Australian fiction, After the Celebration (five down from the top on the left-hand side), on which there'll be a post here soon. (Click on photo to embiggen if you want a better look at those spines.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Birthday hamper for ThirdCat

Renowned South Australian blogger, mother, novelist and standup comedian Adelaide From Adelaide, AKA ThirdCat, has gone to live in Abu Dhabi for a while and is having a significant birthday there, so I've made her a virtual hamper of South Australian treats. The photo at the end is of Fisherman's Jetty in Port Pirie; it's actually dawn, not sunset as the poem* suggests, but the effect is the same.

*'The Idea of Order at Key West' by Wallace Stevens

Best chox in the universe.

Langhorne Creek Lake Breeze Bernoota Shiraz. Observe medals.

Almond milk rock ...

... and mixed lollies with snakes.

... tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The act of reading: so much more than looking at the page

This is a post for Stephanie, scholar and medievalist extraordinaire, who probably knows these pictures.

Last week I read a horror novel by one F.G. Cottam, called Dark Echo, about a boat with a curse on it. Horror is so hard to do; readerly disbelief is so much harder to suspend, and can collapse into giggling at any moment. But Cottam is a sufficiently good and knowing writer for this not to happen. He is interested in direct manifestations of traditional evil: in a word, the Devil, or at the very least his emissaries, has haunted these last two books. I smiled at this idea right up until I remembered Rosemary's Baby; if it's a good enough story about the Devil it will still frighten you senseless, even if you mentally re-label him Basement Cat as you watch or read.

At the beginning of Dark Echo there's a prologue set in 1917 in Rouen, where French soldiers are guarding the cathedral. When they see American uniforms coming towards them out of a very strange mist or fog, the last thing they are expecting is to be attacked by these allies, but they are hypervigilant nonetheless:
The men had been hand-picked for their piety as well as their prowess in combat. They believed the thing they protected was worth the fighting and, if necessary, the dying for.

But you cannot turn a cathedral into a fortress, as Destain kept repeating afterwards in his grief and shock, as the gangrene slowly devoured him in his hospital bed. ...

The Americans came grinning through the mist. The defenders of Rouen cathedral and the sacred relic it housed smelled before they saw the Americans ... At their centre was a man taller than the rest and bare-headed. His white-blond hair picked him out ... He was a glimpse, a phantom. ... Of course I knew what he had come there for, Destain said.
The Prologue over, we are catapulted into present-day England, where the hero Martin's self-made millionaire father has bought a wrecked schooner called Dark Echo. Martin is very unhappy; he's just been down to the boatyard -- inexplicably dark and deserted -- where Dark Echo is being expensively refurbished, and he believes he's had a run-in with the violently malevolent ghost or presence of the boat's original owner Harry Spalding, an unnaturally tall, white-blond American playboy with a shady reputation, who committed suicide in 1929 at the age of 33. This may be the moment to mention that the stolen sacred relic is nothing less than the spear of Longinus, the Roman centurion guarding the Cross who took pity on the dying Christ and speared him through the side, and afterwards became a Christian. Harry Spalding wants it for ... well, never mind what Harry Spalding wants it for.

So anyway, Martin's asking his father why it has to be this boat of all boats, and his father replies with a story about his own deprived childhood, about his mother's struggle to bring him up by herself, and her gift of a set of encyclopedias found in a barrow outside a second-hand shop in 1963:
'There was an educator in the 1930s. A man named Arthur Mee ... Mee compiled a children's encyclopedia. By the time I encountered it, it was thirty years out of date. But its volumes were packed nevertheless for the child I was with exotic and spellbinding vistas of a world for which I was not just eager, but greedy.' ... He led me to the library where he took a key from a bureau drawer and opened a locked display case. Behind its carved oak and scrolled-glass doors I saw Arthur Mee's encyclopedias on their shelf, his name on their worn, blue cloth spines...

He reached for a volume, thumbed out a spine. Volume six, it was. He held the spine of the heavy book in the palm of his hand and it fell open. I took a step back and looked at the open pages.

And I saw a picture of Harry Spalding's schooner rounding a buoy in brilliant sunshine on sun-dappled water ... 'Dark Echo,' my father said. There was an inset picture on the page of text facing the full plate of the racing boat. It was a grinning Harry Spalding ... with a trophy in his grip and his blond hair a halo of gold...

'When I saw these pictures, Martin, I swore that I would own and sail this boat. And I do and I will. And nothing will stop me.'
Now this alone is enough to induce a bit of a shudder. Hubris meets the supernatural and defies it: it's like a variation on Macbeth and every bit as creepy. But what was more creepy was my own living room, in which I sat reading this novel. For it was very late, and beyond the rim of the reading lamp's light I knew what was sitting in the bookcase: my own father's set of the very same Arthur Mee encyclopedias, battered and well-read by him as a child in the 1930s by the light of a kerosene lamp on the farm.

I nearly didn't look. The fancy of being wound into this story at a meta-level for my own amusement was pleasantly scary but not quite pleasantly enough. Harry Spalding may well have been a real person and Dark Echo a real boat, and they might have been there in the book, and I was alone in the house and it was, as I have said, very late. I held out for about thirty seconds and then went to the bookcase, carefully took out Volume Six, and braced myself.

If there is a picture of a racing schooner in it, or one of Harry Spalding, then I have yet to find them. But, as with Martin's father, the heavy book fell open in my hand. And here is what it fell open at.

'This little gallery of pictures,' says the accompanying text, 'is from one of the oldest picture-stories of the Life of Jesus. They were drawn probably by English monks early in the fourteenth century. They are part of a manuscript which Robert de Lyle gave to his daughter Audere on November 25, 1339; we like to think it was a birthday present. The manuscript then passed to the nuns of Chicksand Priory, in Bedford, and afterwards came into the hands of the Earls of Arundel, from whom it passed to the British Museum.'

Captioning the above pictures it says 'Jesus in the manger and in the temple: the shepherds and the Wise Men: and the flight into Egypt.'

'This page shows the massacre of the innocents: the wedding feast at Cana: the raising of Lazarus: the entry into Jerusalem: the Last Supper: and the betrayal.'

'This page shows Jesus brought before King Herod: the mocking of Jesus after the arrest: Jesus before the high priest Caiaphas: the scourging of Jesus: and the burden of the cross on the road to Calvary.'

'This page shows the Resurrection: the women at the empty tomb: the meeting of Jesus with Mary Magdalene: and the breaking of bread at Emmaus.'

This week's reading

The blurb says this person has already published six books so you are expecting a degree of professionalism, a sign that here is someone whose medium is language and who will therefore have also read a lot, have learned from editors and publishers, have made an effort to understand how language works and to master the medium of his/her art and craft. But no.

It's a set of uncorrected proofs, but these are errors of ignorance, not typos. In less than 300 pages, we have

'sprung' for 'sprang'
'lent' for 'leant' or 'leaned'
'he gave it to Ermintrude and I' (for 'to Ermintrude and me')
'slither' for 'sliver' ('bamboo slithers' -- I think this one is a sort of eggcorn: some slivers are sort of slithery)
'vocal chords' for 'vocal cords' (so is this one: there's an association of meaning between voice and music)
'cohort' for 'companion' (singular -- the sense in which it's used here is, oh, say, 'this wine is a perfect cohort for this cheese')
'inferred' for 'implied'

With one exception, all these errors have been made more than once. Then the finished copy of the novel arrives in the next batch of books and I check to see how many of these clangers have been fixed: two. But there are lavish thanks to editors on the Acknowledgements page. And it's a big major well-known international publishing company.

Perhaps said company has survived by doing away with the services of competent editors. On the other hand, considering how little editors get paid, you'd think it would make no visible difference to the bottom line.

As with all these usage whining posts, the point is that people who use language for a living -- writers, journalists, radio and TV presenters -- have a responsibility to use it professionally. There's no difference between this and the bathroom tiler being eight centimetres out, the pro tennis player being fifteen kilos overweight, the surgeon being a tad hazy about the difference between livers and kidneys. This is not a whine about the language of the alleged person in the street, who often knows better in any case.

Besides, page 19 of the next book restores your faith:
Inside, the diner is meant to look like the 1950s, but it doesn't look anything like how I remember them. Somewhere along the line, people became convinced that the decade was all about sock hops, poodle skirts, rock and roll, shiny red T-birds, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis. It's funny how a whole decade gets reduced into a few seemingly random pictures. For me, that decade was about diapers and training wheels and miscarriages and trying to house and feed three people on $47 a week.
This is another set of uncorrected proofs. But somehow I just know that any errors in it will be typographical or otherwise mechanical; that the person responsible for this seamless marriage of style and content within a vividly realised character's narrative voice is not going to say slither or lent or inferred. This is someone who understands his craft and has worked to master it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

In Memoriam

Today is the tenth anniversary of my mother's death, which seems absurd; even this far down the track I am shocked by how vividly present she seems, as though her death were much less big a deal than we thought.

This is my favourite photo of her; judging by the length of her hair she can't be any older than seventeen, but her stance and expression and the way she's holding that unidentified child all suggest the confidence and maturity of a woman twice that age.

That wild hair is blazing dark-copper red, and she had it cut when she joined the WAAAF RAAF at eighteen in 1945. So if I'm right about the date of this photo, it's 1944 and she's already seen a Depression childhood, three years in the workforce and five years of world war. They grew up fast in those days.

UPDATE -- well well, I find she wasn't in the WAAAF at all -- she was a fully fledged Aircraftwoman in the RAAF. And you think you know them!