Wednesday, April 29, 2009


The part of my job that I routinely most enjoy is the piling-up and eventual ripping-open of bags of new books for review. Today, one of these is a large heavy book with a shiny cover in that hue of heavily-saturated candy pink that unmistakably signifies chick lit. On the back there's a partial plot summary about international travel and intrigue and murders and so on, and among the various blurb lines that follow, someone has said 'It's James Bond for girls.'

Tautology city.

James Bond. For girls.

Not safe for arachnophobes

Going out the back door late tonight to put some stuff away in the shed, I noticed that the pet patio spider into the remnants of whose web I blunder one morning out of two seemed to have called it a year, as they do around this time when April winds down and the nights close in and the cold snap snaps and the rain buckets down and floods the un-cleaned-out gutters. Again.

No sign of spider, nor yet of web.

Then I looked up.

You might be able to see one or two tiny white dots on the black background. They're stars.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I'm not sure 'serendipity' has quite the connotations we want

A friend and regular reader of this blog emailed me a couple of hours ago about that last post to say that he'd looked up singulars and plurals for 'remains' in Fowler's Modern English Usage, and reports that:
Fowler wonderfully says ‘plural names of diseases as mumps measles, glanders [pardon? Glanders??] can be treated as singular or plural’. But then remains are not a disease but the aftermath so not a lot of help.

I had a vague memory from a Robertson Davies novel that glanders was a disease horses get, and a vague notion that people could catch it, so, pausing only to read more news about a possible swine flu epidemic and start a mental shopping list of long-life groceries in case I have to stay inside for a month, I googled glanders (thereby acquiring my first-ever exposure to the verb 'to weaponize') to discover that both of these things are true, and furthermore that it is fatal, and that the word for a disease transmissible from animals to humans is zoonotic.


The modern, the postmodern and the possibly post-postmodern: two or three ways of looking at the truth

Perhaps you remember the story of Ariadne, who saved Theseus's bacon when he went into the labyrinth to search for the Minotaur. She stood outside with a ball of thread and handed him one end of it so he could find his way out again. It's essentially the same sort of story as the Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs. And I often wish, when I start chasing down something or other online, that I had a thread with a loving heart at the other end of it guiding me back to where I started, or had had the foresight to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the deep dark hypertext forest, one that would eventually take me back to the work I'm supposed to be doing.

What brought this on, I hear you cry. It's work, she said piteously; I have here for review a rather funny book called The Coronation, one in a series about a sort of Late Victorian Russian Sherlock Holmes called Fandorin, by Russian writer Boris Akunin. And when I sat down to start writing the review (always a challenging moment), I thought that since the coronation in question is that of Tsar Nicolas II, the last of the Romanovs, I'd better just Google the era first to get a firmer grasp on the Imperial family and its names and dates.

Younguns already look at me uncomprehendingly when I tell them not to trust Wikipedia to be necessarily telling them the truth, so it's only a matter of time before our understanding of what the truth is really does change -- at grassroots level, not just in the staffrooms of besieged Schools of Humanities -- forever. On the other hand, then Wikipedia tells me a story like this about discovering the truth:

Decades later his body was disinterred from the grave in the Cathedral of St.Peter and Paul in St. Petersburg so that a sample of DNA could be taken from the remains to see whether skeletal remains allegedly belonging to his older brother, the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, were legitimate or not. The DNA sample obtained from the remains was an exact match with those obtained from the remains of Nicholas II. Beyond the grave, George had once again proved to be of service to his brother. After the completion of DNA testing, the remains of Grand Duke George Alexandrovich was once again laid to rest not far from those of his older brother and family.

If the story is true, there's something peculiarly satisfying about the neatness of its ironies. Both Wikipedia and DNA testing are extremely recent inventions, both allegedly dedicated to the cause of truth albeit by different, perhaps even opposite, means. DNA testing is a product of modernity's narrative of science and progress, and so is the internet itself. But Wikipedia is a postmodern phenomenon, one whose essence is the idea of a challenge to authority, and in which constant change is the norm. Being brought the one by the other raises questions about both that take me a long way away from the book review I'm supposed to be writing. (Although I suppose the coronation of Nicolas II was the beginning of the end of pre-modern Russia and its ramifications for world history.)

And in the meantime, there's a curly question of grammar in that quotation. Is it 'his remains was' or 'his remains were'?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Three dates



See also here.


My dad, aged 8, with his parents. On the back of this little photograph my grandfather has written, in his forceful, beautiful capitals,


One can only imagine what is going through his mind under that Menziesesque hat. And I suppose a few trees would grow back in eighteen years, not to mention the grass.

If you click on the photo to enlarge it you'll see one word on the stone: HIER. Hier means, as you'd expect, 'here', as in 'He is not missing. He is here.' But it's also the French word for 'yesterday'.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Three colours: red

The forecast says that late tomorrow morning it will start to rain and won't stop for a week, so that's my Thursday morning taken care of: up on the ladder scooping the mixed organic muck of eons out of such gutters as I can reach without actually risking my life. Today was a perfect Adelaide autumn day: still and sunny, with high creamy-bluey slightly cloudy sky and the earth still so warm you wonder whether you should chuck in one more go of Dynamic Lifter for the hell of it before winter sets in.

But by the time the rain clears we will be on the cusp of May, the air and the earth a week colder, the days a week darker and more closed-in. So today was probably the last of those soft, bright autumn days for the year.

Still, there are compensations, like the colours of autumn as it moves into winter: the vine doing its annual flashy thing,

lamb shanks,

and happy rugged-up cats.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Day: an occasional series

Sometimes having a To Do list gets a bit irksome -- just one damn thing after another...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Miles Franklin and the Mystery of Talent, or, Don't Mention the War

Because I am supposed to be a grown-up, and because I made a promise, I'm not buying into the question of the literary stag night 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award all-male shortlist beyond offering the odd brief neutral fact in other people's comments threads, and observing here, because I really cannot help myself, that if what spokesjudge Morag Fraser says is true and the judges did not realise what they had done until their shortlist was already set in stone, then the gender-blindness we thought we had diagnosed and exposed by about 1985 is actually still as bad as it ever was, even at these upper levels of cultural and intellectual endeavour.

But otherwise the howling restraint is making my ears bleed, so here by way of self-distraction is a little material on a related question: not what makes a good book, but what makes a good writer, since they are frequently not the same thing. Being a good writer is a non-negotiable condition of producing a good book, but by no means guarantees it.

I've read three books since Tuesday. All of them have been the author's first book of fiction: An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, and John the Revelator by Peter Murphy. Here in that order is a sample from each, demonstrating that when somebody's a good writer it does actually leap off the page at you and grab you round the neck, and that writing talent lies as much in the quality of pre-verbal observation as it does in what ends up on the page.

Jennet loved her husband, she liked and she disliked him, and she hated him as well.

She thinks that merely by being forceful and independent she can make a decent life, but that just isn't true -- life is tended and weeded and watered, is created out of effort, and is made from other materials than oneself.

Rows of stalls and tables laden with cheap jewellery, gimcrack stuff, necklaces and rings and charms and amulets and stones. Caravans with signs in the windows advertising Tarot and palm and crystal-ball readings. I counted my money and went up the steps to one of the caravans and knocked on the open door. A woman in a baggy jumper and a pair of sweatpants was watching a portable television blaring some sort of game show. She turned the sound down and waved a hand at an armchair beside a flimsy table.
'Fiver for your palm, tenner for the cards,' she said.
I gave her a tenner. She donned a pair of glasses and took my hand and pulled my fingers apart and peered at the lines. Her head jerked up. She stared at my face.
'Out,' she said.
'Out.' She pushed the tenner across the table. 'And take your money with you.'
I stood and stammered, but she reached for the sweeping brush. I backed out the doorway and stumbled down the steps and into the night. The door slammed and the blinds came down. The funfair whirled around me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Clutter and the non-removal of clutter

Someone on Facebook this morning is lamenting the fact that every time he decides to have a big declutterfest at home, he ends up keeping about 95% of the stuff, and wondering why this is so.

As a veteran of many failed feng shui attempts, I can tell him the answer. It's because if you hadn't really wanted, liked or needed that novelty scratching post, bottle of cuticle remover, big warm lint-attracting coat, plastic tray that makes ice cubes shaped like the map of Australia, expensive pair of embroidery scissors, cheap reading lamp, decorative wicker basket, cute cat rug with paw prints on, horizontally striped tank top now three sizes too small for you that featured in a memorable day in 1986, pretty teapot you might use one day and combined clothes rail and shoe rack for the spare room which has no wardrobe, you wouldn't have bought them in the first place.

I find the remaining and successfully-discarded 5% tends to be things given to you by people who don't know you very well. Either that or broken.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Who knows how much of it is true, but I've just been perusing the Wikipedia article on pavlova, directed there by Deborah in a post at her blog In a Strange Land wherein she firmly claims the pav as the invention of her home country and who am I to argue. The true truth about pavlova is probably one of those things forever lost.

I was disappointed to see that while Wikipedia acknowledges that the dessert was invented in homage to Russian ballet legend Anna Pavlova,

who was touring Australia and New Zealand at the time, it doesn't mention the fact(oid?) that the white and foofy appearance of a pavlova was meant to imitate Pavlova's costume for her most famous dance, The Dying Swan.

But this is the best bit:
Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum in Wellington, celebrated its first birthday in February 1999 with the creation of the world's largest pavlova, named "Pavzilla", cut by the Prime Minister of New Zealand of the time, Jenny Shipley.

I'm not sayin' nuthin'.

Short memory dept

Mungo McCallum in today's Crikey:
Once again Malcolm Turnbull is appealing to Gough Whitlam for help.

Kevin Rudd’s proposal to broadband Australia is, he says, on the same scale as the wish-list of the great spendthrift, and we all know where that left Australia.

Well, we all know where it left Malcolm Turnbull; sailing through a free university course to a life of unimaginable opulence. You’d think he would be more grateful.

Monday, April 13, 2009

In which we encounter the thin end of the shoddy-carpentry wedge

One minute you're doing what you fondly imagined would be a half-hour cull of the underwear drawer and the next minute you're out in the garage, AKA the Heart of Darkess (the horror, the horror), distastefully removing festoons of ancient cobwebbery from your person while you scrabble about looking for the needle-nose pliers.

I fixed it, though. Not only that, but once I'd dumped the entire contents on the floor, pulled the drawer to bits, put it back together with better nails and straighter hammer strokes, picked up all the girlie stuff off the floor and sorted everything out, I found the black lace bra I've been looking for for months.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A find

I'd not heard of Maria Quinn before her first novel The Gene Thieves turned up chez moi for review, but I spent the first hour of this morning reading the first 50 pages of it while my coffee went cold and I've sure as hell heard of her now. Go check out that link, if you haven't already.

I usually read a little faster than that, but it's small print (= more words per page. You'd be amazed, if you ever get down to actually counting them, which most people have no reason to do, at the variation in number of words per page from book to book), and I needed to read some passages twice in order to make sure I fully understood what was going on.

In this job I read a lot of genre fiction and the awful truth is that I prefer some genres to others, with crime of the variety that Val McDermid's Tony Hill calls 'messy heads' a long way up the top of the list. If spec fic and fantasy come lower down, it's partly because you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. The facts that (a) with these genres the central idea is often valued way above fiction-writing skills, and (b) both genres have a large and hungry readership (read: 'market') means that a lot of what gets published in these genres is virtually unreadable to someone outside the fan base. And many novels in both these genres are reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's (now that's what I call a novelist) Frederica Potter and her reader's reports for the publisher in Babel Tower: 'It is a curiously vacant work, whose driving force appears paradoxically to be the desire to create and people an imaginary world.'

Many fans of fantasy and spec fic are understandably defensive about these tastes so I hope they are still with me thus far, because the corollary is that when novels in these genres are good, they're very very good and some of them are mind-bogglingly fabulous, in both senses of that word. (Please note that by 'good' in this instance I mean 'couldn't put it down and neither could most other people', so let's not get into dreary backlash quibbles about Harry Potter and so on.)

This particular futuristic novel rises above the pack partly because of the many long, fat, juicy, healthy roots it has in the fertile soil of the present. Much, indeed most, of the science and technology is already with us, as are many of the ethical concerns and the directions in which they seem to be going. There's a magnificent imagining of a not-too-distantly-future Sydney featuring among other things a 'vertical sky garden' that produces fruit and veg for self-sustainability, a taken-for-granted reliance on geothermal energy among other kinds, and this particularly fabulous idea:
Years before, over a million ceramic tiles were overlaid with transparent photovoltaic cells, painstakingly matched to the profile of the unique originals on the amazing pre-cast concrete 'sails' of the roof. Jørn Utzon's masterpiece now powered much of the city that worshipped it.

Memo to HarperCollinsPublishers: Maria Quinn has an excellent website (see above). Why is it not mentioned in the media release?

The drilling in the wall kept up, but no-one seemed to pay it any mind

Since 7 am yesterday, yes, Good Friday, the renovators have been at it next door, and by 'next door' I mean 'through the party wall of this maisonette/terrace'.

Today the drilling in the party wall itself has taken the place of something I presume was a jackhammer through, as distinct from in, said wall. I'm not sure whether it's better or worse, and anyway the point is moot.

And I can't even complain, because the neighbours (who warned me and apologised in advance, bless them) put up with quite as much from me, in the way of overflowing bougainvillea, tree-roots in the vexatious shared and ancient plumbing, and, I fear, some choice language from time to time across the back fence.

In the meantime, however, the noise has recalled that post title and with it a whole lovely memory that fell into my hand like a ripe peach from the tree of the past: early 1975 and we've just bought Blood on the Tracks and I'm in the living room with the folding doors and panelling in Third Avenue listening to it for the first time and halfway through 'Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts' I sit down on the cheap ethnic rug and burst into tears of happiness.

I do this, as I recall, because the storytelling, character-drawing Dylan I remember from his very earliest years seems, after several years of going what has looked to me a little disappointingly doolally, to be back in force and even better. Which brings in its train a whole slideshow of memories of listening to that album at various times and places and reinforces my sense, as strong now as it was oh my god almost *cough*35*cough* years ago, that Blood on the Tracks is actually the best album in the entire history of the world ever and that's including Blue and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.

All of which reconciles me no end to the bloody noise in the wall, without which none of these lovely memories would have come to the surface in the first place. And anyway, this too shall pass.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Baracknophobia: pace your rage

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Baracknophobia - Obey
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

You forget how awsum he is until you're actually watching him.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

To be had, and srown away

There's no time to look it up, for there are chocolate bunnies and assorted hot cross buns to be bought, Aged Ps to visit and yet more Australia Post bags of books to open and sort, but somewhere in one of Helen Garner's essays (I think) is a discussion of how important it is, when planning to write or make something, to have a plan -- but how easy it then becomes for you to be ensnared by the plan, and to be unable to see beyond it to different possibilities. She once had a Polish friend, said Garner, whose opinion of plan-making was as follows: 'A plan is to be had, and srown away.'

I think of this dictum often, and in many different situations. It has been of particular help to me in the cut and thrust of blog thread discussions, especially on big group blogs. For there are some regular commenters whom one knows by now to be a bit bonkers, and engaging in protracted debate with them is never a good idea.

Lately I have been trying harder and harder to avoid getting into it with certain of these people, even when they post comments into which one is truly desperate to sink one's teeth. What works in this situation is exactly the same technique as the letter or email that you write and do not send. Writing it is not only cathartic, but it forces you to articulate clearly what it is that you actually think, and sometimes it even turns out that it was that act of articulation -- rather than the fight itself -- that you were longing for.

And I've written three different blog comments this morning that I've then deleted without posting, either because I've resisted engaging unproductively with someone, or because I know that what I have to say will bring down dreadful abuse upon my head. But that's fine. They were comments to be had, and srown away.

Monday, April 6, 2009


Since the bride and Ampersand Duck between them have already provided lovely accounts, in one case lavishly illustrated, of Laura and Dorian's wedding on Saturday, I don't have much to add except to agree about the total gorgeousness of the entire affair. Highlights included a ceremony that combined a substantial amount of traditional wedding text with some carefully-chosen and beautifully-read Australian love poems by, if I remember rightly, Kevin Hart, Bruce Dawe and Lesbia Harford, plus C.P. Cavafy's classic 'Ithaka', in which a finely judged mixture of feeling, philosophy and Homer goes into the proposition that what matters most is not the arrival but the journey.

Poems were read and vows were taken to the accompaniment of a faint but symphonic soundtrack: the gentle crooning of the chooks, the distant popping of the pre-toast corks, and the occasional sniffling noises of the various female guests. The bride was radiant, the ceremony was a wonderful family affair, the garden looked gorgeous, the weather obliged, and the only real disappointment was the bridesmaids, who apparently spent most of the day underneath the house next door getting their collars, bows and faces covered in cobwebs and dust.

Once I'd decided to go to the wedding and had sent Laura my RSVP, I began to make arrangements to catch up with the various Melbourne friends I've stayed in regular touch with since I moved to Adelaide eleven years ago, and by the time I finally arrived at my Lygon Street hotel, I'd lined up three reunions around the wedding.

After a blindingly stressful day of cat-wrangling and ominous airport delays and announcements and closures and rumours of lightning-struck planes, Friday night once I'd finally arrived was homemade gourmet pizza with P and S and the kids, two of whom are now at high school and none of whom was born yet when, already old friends, their parents and I and two other friends spent a week in a villa in Tuscany in 1993. Now we sat round talking, eating and drinking in much the same spirit, except with P and S now happily surrounded by kids, cats and dogs. (Only one dog, actually, but he is so big he could make eight or nine Maltese terriers.)

Saturday night was dinner out with L, who heroically came to fetch me and then took me out for seriously good Italian food and some in-depth catching-up in matters of love and work. Sunday was lunch with J in an old Carlton haunt, after which we strolled up to Melbourne University's Ian Potter Gallery to see a wonderful exhibition of Louis Kahan's portraits of Australian, and particularly Melbourne, literati ('Let's go and look at the intelligentsia,' said J).

Many of these portraits were drawn to illustrate particular articles, poems and stories in Meanjin over several decades; both of us knew (or had known) a number of the people in the portraits and had read the work of most of the others, and I was reminded again that galleries and museums are a lot like computers in that what you get out of them depends heavily on what you put in; both of us had brought a lot of history with us to the gallery, possibly too much. (What with J a former editor, the exhibition's portraits of the two editors before her, the presence of the current editor at the wedding and a screening at the exhibition of a 1961 episode of Panorama exclusively dedicated to the magazine, it was a fairly Meanjin-themed visit altogether.)

We know ourselves by the tribes to which we belong, and I hadn't properly thought through the fact that on this weekend I would be rejoining several of mine. Still, I knew that the wedding would be a monster blogmeet and that I would catch up with bloggers of all kinds: some I'd known for years pre-blogging but mainly in professional capacities (Elsewhere, Sophie); others I'd met recently as a direct or indirect result of blogging (the Baron, and of course the bride herself); and yet others whom I'd never met at all, including two in particular whom I felt I knew very well but had never actually laid eyes on, namely the lovely Zoe and the equally lovely Ampersand Duck. If I'd been able to summon just a little more energy or will, I would have kicked on to the Standard Hotel after dinner on Friday night in order to experience the blogtribe even more extensively, and with hindsight I wish I had, but alas one is not as young as one was.

Stephanie of Humanities Researcher is the only person who is a member of all my non-Adelaide tribes (blogging, Aust lit, old-friends network), and Stephanie has thoughtlessly naffed off to Philadelphia. But there was still one point of overlap: the other S is one of the still-in-touch old Melbourne mates and, though not a blogger, is now a work colleague of Laura's and was at the wedding with her husband and their kids. They have had an extremely hairy time of it lately and the prospect of seeing them all safe and well was one of the factors that tipped the scales when I was thinking about making the trip. And for this weekend they were the hinge, for me, between one reality and another.

Mooching down Lygon Street late the next morning took me even further back, back to the first time I'd ever been on it, one day in the winter of 1980 -- my first year of living away from Adelaide, and Melbourne still a total mystery to me; Sydney was my 'other city' in early life -- when I'd travelled up from Geelong with a man to whom I was in thrall in every possible way, something that had never happened before and has never, I'm glad to say, happened since. So Melbourne-centric was he, so tightly wound and swaddled in the cocoon of his own reality at the expense of anyone else's, that he'd said to me 'I'll meet you in Tamani's' and I had desperately wandered up and down Lygon Street at least a dozen times before I thought to ask someone, and discovered that Tamani's had changed its name to Ti Amo (!) some time beforehand and he just assumed I'd know. (Nor was he apologetic afterwards. Yes yes, I know.)

And over that, layers and layers of other memories, all variously plotted along that spectrum whose bad end is the one where you want to curl up into a foetal ball in the gutter and die of shame. Ah dear me, almost thirty years of Lygon Street, as bittersweet to me as the best of its own imported gourmet wares, and a great deal older than most of them. It was a relief to spot J's familiar back in Readings, and to wander off with her to find some lunch and get each other back up to date on life's important developments since last we met. Why it should be a surprise to us here in our fifties that fate keeps on happening, and not just to us but to such of our parents as still survive, I really have no idea.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009