Monday, March 30, 2009

Housework Corner: Q&A

Q: How long does it take to get bored with the new iron?

A: About seven teatowels.

Life keeps on happening

Unfortunately, at the moment, very little of it is bloggable for one reason or another, and there's too much going on for there to be time to sit down and compose any kind of proper piece about books or writing or ideas.

Random impressions zoom by though, the most recent of which happened a minute ago when I noticed that the Blogger dashboard has a new tab: in addition to 'Posting', 'Settings' and 'Layout' we now also have 'Monetize'.

Now there are a number of things I'd like to monetize, if that word means what I think it does, and I foresee a future in which the blog may well be one of them, but, for the moment, no.

Other random things:
  • It really is true that work expands to fill the time available.
  • Coffee tastes better if you clip the lid of the tupperware thingy on properly.
  • The two exquisite lengths of silk that I bought in Bangkok in 1997 are probably never going to be made into garments that I would go outside in.
  • There is not enough space in this house for all the stuff I want to keep. (I knew this already.)
  • The funeral of a 90-year-old is a lot easier to go to than the funeral of a 54-year-old.
  • The lemon tree quite likes Dynamic Lifter. Who knew.
  • That iris is not, after all, dead.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Literary prizes revisited: a simple case of misidentification

Thanks to some up-to-the-minute Facebooking by Judith Ridge of Misrule, I have just seen the shortlist for the 2009 NSW Premier's Prize for Fiction, the Christina Stead Award. It consists of five of the six books I predicted, utterly wrongly, would make the shortlist of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, plus one extra: Helen Garner's The Spare Room, Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant, Julia Leigh's Disquiet, Joan London's The Good Parents, Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole and Tim Winton's Breath. The one I did not predict is the Julia Leigh; the one I was wrong about in the other direction was Murray Bail's The Pages.

I feel that at least a little of my shattered cred has been restored. They were the right books -- I merely backed them for the wrong prize. Hmf, details.

Monday, March 23, 2009

In which ThirdCat's book is launched

Finally at 2 am this yesterday morning I put this book down, about half-finished in one hit, and went to bed, but I didn't want to.

It's the story of two women, loosely and obliquely connected through family ties, and their complicated relationship with the South Australian town -- regional and industrial -- to which they are very attached, but which they fear may be making their children sick. It's a poet's novel, but it's also an activist's one.

Longtime readers of ThirdCat's blogs, especially the unique and wonderful 'blogopera' Adelaide Sprawls, will be familiar with her style and technique: restrained, almost minimalist, but with a turn of phrase and of observation that nails something you sort of already knew but would never have thought of putting quite like that.

They will be familiar, too, with her subject matter: the lives, circumstances and feelings of 'ordinary people' and all the stuff that seethes under the surface of their days and the physical objects and actions of daily life, the tea-making, the hair-washing and the car-fixing; the unresolved tensions, the suppressed exclamations, the half-understood feelings, the quality and complexity of emotional responses and transactions, the tiny fluctuations of feeling between people, the mysteries that reside in what is not said.

... she had not needed a card to know who the roses were from. But she didn't know what they meant.

Even going over the words they had said on the phone she couldn't work it out. They could mean sorry or I miss you or goodbye, because in the end she had pushed him to say, I will get over you, if that's what you make me do.

(Recycling disclosure: I have said some of this about Tracy's writing before, and it will look familiar to her if not to anyone else.) It's all there in Black Dust Dancing, though less concentrated and intense, making more room, as is proper in a novel, for the story and the setting.

So this afternoon at Sturt Street Primary School, icon and symbol of all that is best in the history of South Australian education and school to both of Tracy's boys, an assortment of family, friends and fans assembled to celebrate her achievement, buy her novel, and queue up to get her to sign it,

and then to see it officially launched by Adelaide's Sheridan Stewart, artist, comedian, radio presenter and MC of the comedy show Titters, which featured Tracy in her other life as a standup comedian and which was practically booked out for the duration of the Adelaide Fringe.

(Sheridan Stewart attended by Wakefield Press publisher Michael Bollen, behind whose left hip you can just see a bottle of the fabled Fox Creek Verdelho.)

Sheridan made a funny, warm speech but was upstaged by Tracy's boys, who came purposefully up to the bar behind her and fetched a cup of what was probably apple juice, but looked a lot like white wine, each, and melted back into the crowd, to its general appreciation. Tracy then made an excellent thank-you speech,

dividing the thankees into thoughtful categories instead of naming names, which is always a minefield.

Before and after the ceremonials I had a nice talk with the lovely Deborah from In A Strange Land and met her beautiful daughters.

Tracy and the boys and the mister have to fly back to Abu Dhabi tomorrow morning. I'm guessing she might try to have a bit of a nap on the plane.

Usage post #45,762: where do you draw the line?

Stephanie of Humanities Researcher, clearly homesick enough in Philadelphia to be reading the Age online, notes an expression she has never seen before.

Newly evolved usage, or sub-editorial bingle?

How not to stop other people having sex

There are some bloggy conversations being had at the moment containing jaw-droppingly stupid arguments in defence of the Pope and his transparently dishonest 'Condoms don't work' argument re the spread of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, obviously a rationalisation of the Vatican's true line that every sperm is sacred, all contraception is bad, and a woman's place is in the labour ward.

These people are arguing, also with transparent dishonesty (or jaw-dropping stupidity, take your pick) that 'abstinence' works better than condoms (well, der; who'd have thought?), and 'therefore' condom distribution ought to stop. On the subject of how such abstinence is to be enforced and by whom, they appear to have no views. On the question of whether (as they imply but do not openly state) condoms and abstinence are mutually exclusive, they are also strangely silent.

Now I am not anti-religious, not anti-Christian and not anti-Catholic -- three discrete and quite different things -- but I really, really hate wilful dishonesty and disingenuousness, especially when knowingly intended to deceive people over whom you already have power. It's bad enough when the Labor Party does it (*sob*), but this practice of it in the name of God is terrifying. These people vote. Presumably they are the same people whose incapacity to reason through even the simplest syllogism makes them think (or claim to think) that people who are pro-choice actually want to have abortions. They also think that arguing for liberal and pragmatic solutions must mean one is living an undisciplined sex life oneself and is 'therefore' fair game for personal insult and abuse, usually of the most egregiously sexist and misogynist kind.

Which part of 'Other people are going to have sex whether you like it or not, so as a society we need to find ways of at least mitigating at least some of the consequences' don't these people understand? Yes, of course abstinence works. It's preaching abstinence that doesn't work.

Anyone with any kind of classical liberal education knows that the connection between religious nutcasery and sexual repression, leading to truly terrifying beliefs and behaviours of the evangelical or crusading kind, is very close and very old. Abstinence has its own dangers. But every time I see someone speaking or acting out of that nexus I get kind of terrified about the amount power and influence they still have over the way the world is governed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Tossed in a blanket

These are eventful weeks in various ways, which is why no blogging. Too busy actually doing stuff. The calendar says that over the next two weeks I am to attend, in chronological order, a book launch, a funeral, a theatre premiere-and-after-party, and a wedding in Melbourne, all of these things involving celebration and/or reunion and/or mourning with people important to me. Whether my wardrobe can stand it remains to be seen.

Monday, March 16, 2009

If it's got a brick in its mouth, it must be a vampire

Only last night I was saying to a friend that vampire novels still seem to be hot (I cannot believe they've made a movie of Let the Right One In*) and I ought to try to make some money by writing one ... and behold, this morning someone turns up with an absolutely cracking story just begging to be used.

I'm thinking a marriage of genres. Vampire romance has been done, and so has vampire crime, which is practically a tautology, but has anyone written a vampire western yet?

All ideas gratefully received.

*Here's my review of it for the SMH in March 2007:

Let the Right One In
By John Ajvide Lindqvist
Text, 528 pp, $32.95

This is an energetic, noisy, highly imaginative novel that blends the most extreme kind of vampire-story schlock-horror with a complicated and triangulated love story, a profoundly gory sequence of murders, and some rather good domestic realism about life in suburban 1980s Stockholm.

A number of contemporary scholars and critics including Melbourne’s Ken Gelder have written in detail about the complex cultural meanings attached to vampires, and Lindqvist, while he seems to be mostly having fun with the idea, has clearly also thought carefully about the issues of blood, death, infection and starvation that sit at the heart of the vampire myth, to say nothing of close connection between vampirism and eroticism.

Vampires aren’t the most logical creatures in the world nor the most emotionally straightforward, which makes for a certain amount of confusion in a book where so much happens, especially considering the violence of most of it. The book is clever and well written, but some of it is sufficiently gruesome to give even a strong-stomached reader pause.

BELATED UPDATE: James at City of Tongues saw this more than a week before I did, which just goes to show that I should update my blogroll more often.

'Yes, but ...': how to tell if your blahs are serious blahs

That old chestnut 'Count your blessings' has saved me from the pits on a number of occasions over the years, as have 'This, too, will pass', 'Think of it as good life experience', 'Think of it scientifically', 'Worse things happen at sea', 'At least you don't have insomnia', 'Just get through the next fifteen minutes', 'Breathe in, breathe out' and, if all else fails, that immortal line from Northern Exposure: 'Suck it up, Fleischman.'

Usually, as is currently the case, the serious blahs are not about anything concrete but rather an accretion of small or non-immediate facts, foibles, f*ckups and fears. When I get the blahs, which doesn't actually happen all that often,'Count your blessings' usually works straight away, so you know your blahs are serious blahs if a little interior voice immediately pipes up after each blessing saying 'Yes, but...', so that your blessings list looks like this:

The lemon tree was not killed by the 47 degree heat and is thriving. Yes, but its roots are probably what's blocking next door's plumbing.

Obama won the election. Yes, but look at the state of the world.

You are ahead of schedule with your weekly deadline for once. Yes, but this incredibly depressing novel about the execution of a counterrevolutionary in provincial China in 1979 is going to slow me right down.

It's raining. Yes, but the gutters need cleaning out and I might end up with water running down the inside walls like I did in the winter of 2006.

Labor's in federally and in nearly all the states. Yes, but how can you tell?

Look at the cats. Yes, but ... um ...

It always works eventually.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Miles Franklin longlist: how wrong can you be?

Well. There goes my cred.

Utterly contrary to my predictions -- and my confidently nominated winner hasn't even made the longlist -- here is the actual longlist for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award:

Breath - Tim Winton
A Fraction Of The Whole - Steve Toltz
The Devil's Eye - Ian Townsend
Ice - Louis Nowra
Addition - Toni Jordan
Fugitive Blue - Clare Thomas
One Foot Wrong - Sofie Laguna
The Pages - Murray Bail
The Slap - Christos Tsiolkas
Wanting - Richard Flanagan

More in a bit.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's that time of year again

Over at Matilda, Perry Middlemiss has compiled a list of eligible and likely contenders for this year's Miles Franklin Literary Award. The longlist will be announced tomorrow. The shortlist is usually announced in late April and the winner some time in June.

Emboldened by past successes, I'm going to have another go and predict a longlist, a shortlist and a winner. Please note that these are not necessarily my picks -- I've read fewer than half of these books -- but rather my very early predictions based on what I know, think, feel or guess about the books, the writers, the judges, the prize and the general tenor of the times.

Naturally, I reserve the right to change my mind.

I think that there will be a longlist of between ten and twelve, chosen from among the following novels:

The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide
The Pages by Murray Bail
His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
The Biographer by Virginia Duigan
Wanting by Richard Flanagan
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville
Addition by Toni Jordan
The Good Parents by Joan London
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Breath by Tim Winton

I predict a shortlist of six:

The Pages
The Spare Room
The Lieutenant
The Good Parents
A Fraction of the Whole

(with the possible, but unlikely, substitution of The Slap for The Lieutenant

And a winner:

Joan London's The Good Parents

Pants on fire

The 'notifications' on Facebook, once a simple mechanism to let you know when some Friend or other had done something or other, now mostly consists of meta-Facebook self-promotion exhorting you to use some application or other, presumably so that more advertising will get more exposure.

Perhaps the most deceptive of these applications are the ones that lure you, including by the use of carefully designed weirdly-behaving links and the exploitation of people's unfamiliarity with the way Facebook works (not least because they keep changing the way it works), into trying to find out what your so-called Friends have been saying about you using those sinister applications designed for the very purpose of bringing out the worst and most malicious in the unwary who see no reason not to commit all manner of reckless remarks to cyberspace.

What these applications really do -- both the ones where you say what you 'really' think about your 'friends' and the ones where you find out what your 'friends' 'really' think about you -- is first to feed, and then to feed on, the naiveté, out-of-controlness, emotional insecurity, uncertainty and paranoia of the young, who are, of course, Facebook's main target. For Facebook is mainly a massive market research tool, hunting the baby dollar. Observe, for example, the 'notification' that has just popped up this morning:

Good friendships are based on honest opinions! Are you curious to know what your friends really think about you?

Good friendships based on honest opinions? Are they serious? In my by now rather extensive experience, good friendships rely on the occasional and loving suppression of honest opinions.

(Note also the heinous valorising of opinion as such -- which is perhaps the single most overrated commodity of our time -- that has taken over most of what used to be intellectual life and wrecked newspapers forever. The MSM ought not to be blaming The Internet for its own demise, but rather its own foolishness in having drunk the Opinion kool-aid. Facts, dudes. Analysis. All the good, disciplined, clear-eyed, neutrally-expressed, non-visceral things you used to do so well.)

But I digress. Am I curious to know what my friends really think about me? No I am not. I love and trust my friends, would never expect them to give me a perfect report card, and flatter myself that if anything about me is seriously annoying them then I will probably be able to tell. (Possibly not to do anything about it, mind. But certainly to tell.)

Look at the evilly paranoia-inducing vulnerability-creating-and-exploiting wording of that question, with that word 'really' implying that your friends 'really' think something quite different from what they're saying, that you are being lied to and betrayed, that your friends are not really your friends at all but rather acting on some cruel and horrid secret motivation in pretending to like you. We, Facebook, are your only true friends. Want to find out The Truth and stop being the pathetically deluded patsy that we know you really are? Why, just click on this handy link, and we'll take you straight to a site where you have to enter your mobile number to proceed and then you will never, ever be free of us or any of the people who are paying us all will be revealed.

One aspect of contemporary education that gives me real hope for future generations is the rise of media studies: kids are a million times more aware and critical of the media's manipulations, especially in advertising, than was the case a generation ago. I don't know whether the same kind of techniques for critical analysis are now being taught with respect to new media, but I hope they are. I'd like to think that the kids being targeted by Facebook have actually got its number.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The dying river

There's a good post and discussion thread here about the jockeying and jostling for states' rights to the waters of the Murray, an issue obscured beyond all clearing by the web of politics at all three levels and the many variations on the theme of short-term self-interest that have always determined the fate of the river.

Here it is at its mouth end: this is the northern reaches of the Coorong on December 27, 2008.

When I look at the photos of gangrenous toes on cigarette packets, my first thought is that I am looking at creeping death. That is what we have here.

Observe the salt and scum, the struggling vegetation, the colour of that ripple just beyond the shore. And imagine, if you will, the smell that hit me as I got out of the car to take this photo, a smell as of large and equal parts of three-day-old dead fish and freshly excreted human shit, left to ripen for an hour or two under the South Australian midsummer sun.

It was recently pointed out to me by someone involved in the Royal Commission of the mid-1990s that the proponent women, as they were called, in the Hindmarsh Island affair always maintained that if the Hindmarsh Island bridge were built, the river would die.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Road to Damascus moment

As of a moment ago, I am no longer sure whether I still believe in democracy.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Illustration, obfuscation

This post began life as a comment on this post over at Helen's Cast Iron Balcony, but once I'd violated the three-paragraph comment rule I decided to bring it over here. There are, at last sighting, no comments yet on Helen's post. My guess is that we're all too horrified to speak.

In brief, Helen links to two recent newspaper articles by conservative antifeminist Miranda Devine and shows the two really vile caricatures of women that were drawn to illustrate these articles. In her post, Helen asks among other things whether the writer has any influence in what the illustrator draws.

I've had two experiences of what might loosely be called the opposite. The first occurred in 1983 when I edited a book of Australian short stories that included far more than the (then) usual number of stories by women, as well as stories about cities and migrants, and focused, in the detailed introduction that I wrote, on the traditional idea of the 'Australian' as a white Anglo-Celtic bushman or Anzac being something we needed to move on from. I was then horrified to discover that the publisher had chosen, for the cover of this anthology, the Tom Roberts painting 'The Breakaway', which shows an apparently white Anglo-Celtic male on a horse chasing a sheep with a lot of native trees in the background.

When I brought this up with the publisher he literally did not understand my point (it was 1983) and just kept saying over and over 'But it's very Australian, and it will sell the book because it's an image that people will recognise.' If I'd been older and more experienced I would have tried harder to explain how his response was exactly the kind of thing I was talking about, and was trying, in terms of cultural stereotypes, to move beyond, but I still don't think I would have won. (I love that painting, which didn't help.)

Two years later I wrote a conference paper on media and other cultural representations of Lindy Chamberlain (who was still in jail at the time) that got picked up by one of the dailies for the weekend features and given to an artist to illustrate. I certainly had no say in the illustration and I assume this is the norm, at least with newspapers where there simply isn't time for such consultation.

The illustration, which I didn't see till the paper came out, exemplified all the sexist media habits and assumptions that I was attempting, in the article, to deconstruct and undermine. It was a head-and-shoulders caricature of Chamberlain looking bloated, ugly and malevolent, wearing a lurid orange tent-like dress patterned in ironic little hearts. It's possible that it was a kind of meta-comment, but frankly I doubt it.

Now I was, and remain, a fan of the artist in question as a usual thing, but this particular drawing was unfunny as a caricature, unsuccessful as a portrait, and -- most importantly -- wildly misleading as an illustration of the text that it was supposed to be derived from. To this day I don't know whether he and/or the dude from the publishing house were either just so impermeable to feminist ideas that they were incapable of processing what I was saying, or whether their responses constituted active (conscious or subconscious) resistance to what I was saying, attempts to use their images to undermine my words.

'Illustrate': to illuminate, clarify or shed light on, to add lustre. The drawings shown at Helen's post certainly illuminate and clarify Devine's meaning and line of argument in both cases. But sometimes illustration can, in defiance of its name, be used to obfuscate: to conceal, confuse, darken, cover up.