Monday, March 31, 2008

Computer says no

When I bought my strawberry iMac in 1999, the Bloke immediately christened it Pink Patty. When I replaced it with the white eMac in 2004, the new model seemed to me to be a boy (possibly because it wasn't pink), and was therefore inevitably christened Patrick White.

(Who was, of course, gay, or as he would have preferred to put it, homosexual -- which is often also signified by pinkness, though not pinkification, which is reserved for full girliness. How's that for a little gender identification construction problematisation clarification valorisation.)

Now Patrick White is one of the many computers dotted about the country who that think daylight saving finished over the weekend. So every time I look at the on-screen, erm, time, I have to add an hour.

Yes, of course I know how to fix this. But I have a sort of atavistic fear of contradicting and correcting any entity called Patrick White. The old poppet has been dead for over seventeen years now, but the idea of gainsaying him still makes one shake in one's shoes. So I might just leave it alone, and by next week the time will be correct again with no intervention from me. Patrick White is merely ahead of his time; 'twas ever thus.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

But those with biscuits should go straight ahead

Stephanie turned 50 today (well, yesterday, technically) so I don't want to say too much about what being one's 50s is like. It would be tactless. I have been in this challenging decade for *cough*several*cough* years now and the dispatches from the front are not exactly full of sweetness and light.

However, one of the more manageable aspects of being this age is that even if you started life with excellent vision, by now almost everyone has started to see the world less clearly. This, of course, has its up side. There are many things you're glad you can't see properly.

But I wear my driving glasses diligently, so I did get rather a shock today when, chugging slowly out along Port Road in the early afternoon and idly watching the footy traffic inching along in the left-hand lane as they all prepared to turn off onto the road that would take them to the stadium, I saw out of the corner of my fifty-something eye a blinking traffic sign that said


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Barbara Jefferis Award, continued; Aust Lit; the lives of animals; various other stuff

The Barbara Jefferis Award, discussed in the post before last in the context of a rave about Michelle de Kretser's The Lost Dog, was in the event won by poet Rhyll McMaster for her first novel Feather Man. Which is indeed a fine book, as I've said at some length already here, and which certainly addresses, directly and on a literal level, the empowerment of girls and women.


I don't know, maybe Michelle is one of those writers, like Elliot Perlman, whose work violently divides those who read it. (Perlman, whose very very long and very very detailed novel Seven Types of Ambiguity was treated to an absolute stinker of a review by Peter Craven of the kind Craven had hitherto reserved for Simon During's book about Patrick White, is regarded -- mainly on the strength of this novel -- by the French in particular not only as a very important Australian writer but as a very important writer, period. Other critical responses were dotted all along the spectrum between these two positions. Perlman's book has a dog in it, too; his name is Empson, which is one of the things that enraged Craven.)

Or maybe people think if there's an animal in the title it can't be a serious book. If so, this is sad, for there is a time-honoured and honourable tradition in Australian literature of writing about animals and putting them in your title. A quick trawl through the colourful history of the Australian short story yields the following by-no-means-exhaustive list of titles: 'The Dog', 'The Cow', 'The Bull Calf', 'The Jackass', 'The Dingo', 'The Donkey', 'The Ant-Lion', 'The Galah', 'The Pelican', 'The Seahawk', Tell Us About the Turkey, Jo', 'The White Turkey', 'The Grey Kangaroo', 'The Grey Horse', 'The Black Mare', 'Wild Red Horses', 'The Red Bullock', 'The Red 'Roo', 'The Rainbow Bird', 'The Powerful Owl', 'Singing Birds', 'The Woodpecker Toy Fact', 'The Three-Legged Bitch', 'The Loaded Dog', 'The New Australian Dog', 'Thylacine', 'Serpents', 'Snakes', 'A Snake Down Under', 'The Turtles' Graveyard', 'Goldfish', 'The Mullet', 'The Snoring Cod', 'Getting to the Pig', 'The Woman Who Wasn't Allowed to Keep Cats', 'My Bird', 'His Dog', 'Hawkins's Pigs', 'John Gilbert's Dog', and 'Nobody's Kelpie'.

Perhaps some people may think The Lost Dog "about" (and only about) a dog, and "therefore" can't be Art. Perhaps some people may have forgotten the extraordinary power of the animal symbolism in the work some of the 20th century's great writers -- Lawrence's foxes and horses, Woolf's spaniel, Hemingway's bulls and fish, Les Murray's magical animal poems, Coetzee's dogs and frogs and other critters of all kinds and the absolutely deadly serious life philosophy behind his representations of animals and our relations with them.

For we are lucky enough to have in Australia not just one but two truly great thinkers and writers who can elevate these matters to a place where no intelligent reader can ignore the dilemmas they represent even with respect to that most alien of creatures, the bat: Coetzee as a man who fearlessly follows a trail of logic with no failure of nerve and arrives at a radical point of understanding, Murray from a point of view profoundly spiritual, a conception of being and presence arrived at via Catholicism, observation and imagination all at once. Here is Coetzee's tough nut (an old bat, even) Elizabeth Costello, in full flight, on bats and being:

What is it like to be a bat? Before we can answer such a question, [philosopher Thomas] Nagel suggests, we need to be able to experience bat life through the sense modalities of a bat. But he is wrong; or at least he is sending us down a false trail. To be a living bat is to be full of being; being fully a bat is like being fully human, which is also to be full of being. Bat being in the first case, human being in the second, maybe; but those are secondary considerations. To be full of being is to live as a body-soul. One name for the experience of full being is joy.

Now if one were not aware that Les Murray had written 'Presence: Translations From the Natural World' some years earlier than this, his bat-poem would seem for all the world like a direct response, or amplification, of it, as though in conversation with Coetzee which for all I know he has been, in fact it seems very likely. I wish I'd been there.

Bats' Ultrasound

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-cleft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing.

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror.
Where they flutter at evening's a queer
tonal hunting zone above highest C.
Insect prey at the peak of our hearing
drone re to their detailing tee:

ah, eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?
O'er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array,
err, yaw, row wry -- aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

Cross-posted at Australian Literature Diary

Saturday mogblogging

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Carn Michelle

I see from the current Sydney PEN newsletter that Michelle de Kretser's novel The Lost Dog has been shortlisted for the inaugural Barbara Jefferis Award, and the winner will be announced tomorrow.

(This is the prize that caused such a fuss last year when first announced, mainly because it's for women writers only. [UPDATE: My bad, my very bad, for this is completely wrong: it is open to novelists of either or indeed any sex whose book represents women and girls in a positive light; see comments thread.] Oh noes! What about Teh Menz Liberation, huh? Huh? Etc.)

As you can see if you read the link, this is a very handsome prize. Quite apart from the $35,000, there is the warm glow of winning an award named in honour and memory of a woman who contributed so much for so long to Australian literature -- and associated also with her husband John Hinde, long-standing and much-loved ABC film critic, whose will provided for the establishment of the award in his wife's name.

Peace and all to the current Miles Franklin judges, some of whom are mates of mine, but it's a matter of absolute gobsmackedness to me that The Lost Dog didn't even make the longlist for the 2008 Miles F award. It fits the award's criteria (which de Kretser's previous novel, The Hamilton Case, did not), and it's one of the best Australian novels I've read not just over the last year but for a very long time. I've got nothing against the other books that made the Miles F longlist; I just think The Lost Dog is better than most if not all of them -- for all kinds of reasons, but mostly, I think, for its delicate balance of intellectual sophistication and genuine, intense, beautifully realised feeling. That, and the fact that by about three pages in you find yourself thinking 'Oh my, this book was written by a grown-up.'

This is the review of it that I wrote last year for the Sydney Morning Herald:

The Lost Dog
By Michelle de Kretser
Allen & Unwin, 364 pp, $35 (hb)

Tom Loxley is on a kind of rural retreat when his beloved dog goes missing in the bush. Over the course of the story his search for the dog is interspersed with episodes of back-story: the story of his early childhood in India, his cramped teenage years in Australia, his unlucky and thwarted parents, and most of all his strange, tender relationship with the mysterious Nelly Zhang.

Tom is an academic working on a book about Henry James; he has anchored his racially complicated heritage in English literature. This novel is haunted by James in all kinds of ways, not least by a preoccupation with the idea of haunting itself, as well by the idea of yearning. On the surface Tom’s yearning is for the lost dog, and for the beloved who refuses to become a lover, but these things are situational and remediable; what can’t be changed is Tom’s family history and geography, the complex fate of the post-colonial.

This book is so engaging and thought-provoking, and its subject matter so substantial, that the reader notices only in passing how funny it is. At one point Tom goes to ask the neighbour Corrigan to keep an eye out for the dog, whereupon the narrator produces a sentence worthy of Patrick White: ‘When the Australian desire to provide assistance meshed with the Australian dread of appearing unmanly, it produced the bluff menace that was Mick Corrigan’s default setting.’

Michelle de Kretser is one of those rare writers whose work balances substance with style. Her writing is very witty, but it also goes deep, informed at every point by a benign and far-reaching intelligence. She is still winning prizes for her 2003 novel The Hamilton Case and she is certain to win a few more for The Lost Dog. Publishers Allen and Unwin have shown their faith in her by publishing this novel as a beautifully-designed hardback.

But I only had a 320-word space and they're meant to be brief, lively, accessible shorts; if you want a good, serious, insightful, detailed critical response, go and have a read of James Ley's full-length review in the Age. (Whenever I hear someone say 'Oh but Peter Craven is the best critic in the country', I have a little smile to myself, because while there are things about Craven's writing (not his criticism, so much) that I do admire very much, it's quite obvious to me that the best critic in the country is in fact James Ley.)

And just as an added bonus, that beautiful cover and design are courtesy of the lovely and talented Ampersand Duck. What more could any reader possibly want? Here is A. Duck's fabulous post about working on this novel; give yourself time (a cup of coffee, say) to read and savour this lovely detailed post.

Cross-posted at Australian Literature Diary

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Of course it's not climate change ...

... it's just that the magical djinns holding up the giant tortoises holding up the whales holding up the elephants holding up the camels holding up the foxes holding up the penguins holding up the butterflies holding up Antarctica have gone for a toilet break. As any fool knows.

I don't know, some people are just too credulous for words.

Crybabies, too.

Extraordinary weather event in Adelaide: amazing scenes

There appears to be some sort of water falling out of the sky.

Comments policy update

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Consumer overconfidence

Woman On a Mission, it must be said, is not my usual mode; such drivenness as I am capable of usually lies elsewhere. But today I was in quest of the perfect wedding gift.

Because of reasons (as ThirdCat so fetchingly puts it), the prospective bride and groom are particularly difficult to shop for. But they entertain. They entertain a lot, and they do it in style.

After pondering this fact for while and making a few false starts, I suddenly knew exactly what I wanted and was almost sure where I could get it.

So I headed out to Adders' poshest shopping hub, Burnside Village (pronounced "Vee-yarzh", as in "Tar-zhay") and made for a shop I had walked past many times but never actually ventured inside before. I couldn't remember its name, but I'd always seen beautiful high-end table linen and decorative bedding in the window.

As I approached, hoping it hadn't disappeared since I last looked (the Irish Linen shop that used to be across the road certainly had, so this was do or die), I slowly made out the words on the sign outside 'QU*EN B*E LINEN'. This, reader, was more than I had dared to hope for. I felt like a leopard upwind of a lame antelope. I went in and approached the woman behind the counter.

'Can I help you?' she asked.

'I hope so,' I replied. 'I'm looking for a set of twelve good-quality ecru linen table napkins, preferably with a restrained amount of drawn threadwork or damasking or some other kind of traditional self-embroidery.'

The woman looked at me incredulously over her glasses, and didn't reply for a minute. Oh dear I thought, perhaps they don't come in sets of twelve. Perhaps she is insulted that I felt the need to stipulate 'good quality'. Perhaps she doesn't know what ecru means, though surely not. Perhaps I have mispronounced the word 'damasking', or indeed perhaps the word 'damask' doesn't really exist as a verb at all, much less in the gerundive mood. And actually this incredulity I see before me is starting to get a bit oppressive. I wonder what the problem is.

Finally the woman opened her mouth and spoke.

'Linen?' she said. 'You want linen?'

Friday, March 14, 2008

Attention Adelaideans: back to the olden days

I can't remember when it was that we actually got onto the power grid, down on the farm in the old days. I was probably still quite a little kid but I do have clear memories of the days before that when power came from the generator in the shed, and if something went wrong with the generator then it was back to kerosene lamps and candles. (And, if it was winter, open fires in the bedrooms and hot-water bottles in the beds, though I think we had those anyway.) Traditionally when the generator went cattywumpus we all sat round the kitchen table in the soft lamplight and played board games.

Given that the farmhouse was three miles from the township and a mile from the next farmhouse, we were a little island of light in a sea of darkness, unless of course there was a moon, or someone drove up the road past our gate and we watched as the headlights approached and then receded. My folks could usually tell who the driver was by the sound of the engine, the direction the car was travelling in, and the time of night. And I now know from experience that you internalise that kind of early security and carry it with you for the rest of your life.

What is it that has me musing on these bygone idylls? Why, the fact that Adelaide broke two more heat records over the last 24 hours, including Hottest March Night On Record (it didn't get below 30 degrees last night) and the power supply is being tested to its limits. There was a stressed-looking woman on the teeve tonight (though everyone in Adelaide is stressed-looking at the moment, so perhaps that's not relevant) from ETSA saying she thought that although the power supplies have held up amazingly so far, sooner or later all the aircon being left on all night -- few Adelaide houses are currently habitable without doing this -- was going to blow up something important and the power outages would start.

So I hope my fellow Adelaideans all know where the torches and the candles are and can find them in the dark when the lights go out. Last time I lost power here I set up five or six candles at different heights on the lounge-room table and sat there reading by candlelight. It was eerie and beautiful, with its interlocking circles of soft silver-gilt light, and most of all it was astonishingly peaceful and restful. I'm almost looking forward to a power cut so I can sit in the candlelight again, think of my late lamented Ma, and feel as though I'm pushing back the dark.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Is this family working?

Jane Nethercote in today's begs the Prime Minister to ditch his more ubiquitous catchphrases, including the most egregious one of all:

'As for "working families", we're not even going to attempt to tally how many times they've been wheeled out since the ALP took power. Suffice to say that the odd reference to "bludging loners" would be welcomed.'

Indeed. Or possibly 'dysfunctional families', as in 'This family isn't working.'

As I said at the time to my sceptical, erm, family, I was lukewarm last year about Rudd because as a feminist I mistrusted his Christianity and its likely effects, including this obsession with nuclear families to the exclusion of everybody else, and (as has reportedly come to pass) the trading-off of bits and pieces of policy for support with various "faith-based" lobby groups. But I've come around to him since he won he election and hit the ground running, and some of the footage and phtotos on Sorry Day in particular showed me a side of him I'd not suspected was there.

'Working families', on the other hand, have got to go. Rudd was being mocked, mercilessly and quite properly, for this and other catchphrases before he even won the election. Is he not listening, or is this mantra-like repetition something to do with staying on-message even after you've won, and even after it's been pointed out by a number of people that it was a particularly meaningless phrase to begin with? Every time I hear Rudd (or Gillard, whom I know knows better) say 'working families', I get a vivid mental picture of young Oscar being kept on 200 calories a day so he'll stay small enough to fit up the chimneys, while little Tay-lah, suspiciously red of mouth and black of eyelash, does the round of the dodgy photographers with Mummy.

As a six-days-a-week-of-merciless-slogging childless divorcee with one Aged Parent, one only slightly less aged step-parent, two sisters, two unofficial godchildren, two cats, three step-siblings and nine step-nieces and nephews, which while making for a full and interesting life probably doesn't really constitute a 'family' in the politically expedient definition of that word, I would like to express my irritation at being so constantly left out of the Prime Minister's rhetoric, as, presumably, of his consideration. I think it might be time for Kev to face the fact that solo living is coming very close to being the norm. If this trend continues, the majority of voters in future will not be in 'working families' at all, and if he keeps implying that they're all he's interested in and the rest of us can go to buggery, he might find sooner than he expected that the Lodge has a revolving door.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Oh. My. God.

What looked like serious cloud in the sky this afternoon turned out to be mostly smoke. Parts of the Adelaide Hills are on fire. Tomorrow it'll be 40 degrees with a northerly wind blowing. Temperatures near, at or over 40 are being forecast until next Wednesday, making a total of two and a half weeks of uninterrupted heatwave conditions.

Oh I know, this is Adelaide, yes. This is what we have, yes. There's a wonderful painting of the reading of the Proclamation of the Colony of South Australia on December 28th 1836, showing a lot of recognisable characters and a lot more unrecognisable ones gathered at the Old Gum Tree in North Glenelg for the historic occasion. They're dressed in full Victorian clobber and apparently it was 104 degrees Fahrenheit that day (not sure what that is in new money, probably more or less 40). But that was December. And I remember Ash Wednesday. But that was February.

I even remember the train journey when I moved to Victoria from South Australia, a night ride through the blazing Adelaide Hills with the bush on fire on both sides of us as we rushed through the darkness, with the cool change following just behind the train, and that was at the end of a two-week heatwave too, as I recall -- but that, too, was February. As it was the week the rainbow lorikeets fell dead from the sky into the back yard when it hit 42 three days in a row. As I said at the time, at least it meant there was something green on the ground.

But this is apocalyptic. We're almost into the third week in March. I'm dreading the crush in Haigh's when the temperature finally drops to 31, as it is forecast to do, two days before Good Friday, and I bet the Haigh's staff are, too. And it's hard to imagine what P and L are thinking as their outdoor wedding approaches. P is a doctor; it's entirely possible that he will have to interrupt his own wedding ceremony to leap into action when some overcome guest faints dead away.

As I lay prostrate and moaning in a darkened room over the weekend with an iced facewasher on my head, it did cross my mind to wonder how many deaths -- of, in particular, the very old, the very young and the very ill -- during this weather are partly or wholly heat-related. Especially when it goes on for two and a half weeks.

Not that the climate is changing, or anything alarmist like that.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Test

It's very, very hot in Adelaide. Everyone's plants are dying. Everyone's trees are dying. I've spent the weekend being what my friend Leonie calls Not a Well Person, suffering from what I think must have been a three-way collision of heat exhaustion, food poisoning and stress ... and we've got another week of this. No relief from the heat predicted till next weekend.

All of which means I'm grumpier than usual. So when I come across someone saying 'disinterested' (which means 'neutral', 'impartial', 'having no vested interest' or, as Fowler* says, 'free from personal bias') when they mean 'uninterested' (which means 'not interested', 'bored', 'un-engaged') -- when I see that in print, which is to say in a piece of writing that at least one editor has seen and passed, I remind myself of The Test.

I've read four novels a week for review (and often more than that, for pleasure or for other work) since Boxing Day 2007, which adds up to 240 novels since last summer. So I've had some serious recent practice at making quick general judgements about writing skills.

And 'disinterested'/'uninterested' is the ultimate pass/fail test. It means that not only does the writer not know the difference, but the publisher has employed an editor who doesn't know the difference either. And people who haven't yet arrived at this threshold of language skills should not be writing, or editing, books. Any novel in which this usage appears immediately goes on the B-list, and immediately makes me more suspicious of the writer; if s/he has committed to paper this very common and much-talked-about error solecism usage variant, what else can s/he not be trusted to get right?

I apologise in advance to the oft-generous folks at Language Log and all who sail in her for still caring about this at all, much less fighting a Quixotic rearguard action on it, if only as an unvoiced factor in my judgements about fiction. I'm with the also oft-generous Fowler (or possibly Gowers, who was responsible for the revised Second Edition), who in the entry on 'disinterested' reluctantly admits both usages but remarks wistfully at the end: 'A valuable differentiation is thus in need of rescue, if it is not too late.'

*As in Fowler's Modern English Usage. Tried to find a decent informative link and stumbled instead upon an online encyclopedia with an entry by one James Munson on the most recent edition of Fowler; much of said entry is taken up with a scornful rave about that dreaded scourge of our times, Rampant Feminism, and the linguistic Political Correctness that allegedly followed in its wake. All this is, of course, says Munson, "errant nonsense". He means "arrant".

Friday, March 07, 2008

Finally, he tells us how he really feels

As reported in today's online Age, John Howard has hit the conservative American speaking circuit in run-to-Mummy-howling mode, viciously trashing his successor. In case you ever entertained a sneaking suspicion that Howard couldn't possibly be as bad as we thought, here's how the Age reports his speech:

Among conservative Americans, Howard has found a new and sympathetic audience for culture wars.

Take this for a bit of uncompromising rhetoric: "Those who hold to conservative values continue to face a major ideological battle. The left liberal grip on educational institutions and large, though not all, sections of the media remains intense." And he's back to his old suspicions of global warming, which has "become a new battleground. The same intellectual bullying and moralising, used in other debates, now dominates what passes for serious dialogue on this issue".

There was praise of Ronald Reagan and "that other great warrior in our cause, Margaret Thatcher" who taught the importance of remaining "culturally assertive"; and a warning that "if the butter of common national values is spread too thinly it will disappear altogether".

He's even adopted the American idiom, with a reference to his government giving "faith-based groups direct involvement in policy making and execution".

Got that? That's the "great" Margaret Thatcher. That's "faith-based groups" given free rein to trample on the time-honoured doctrine of the separation of powers, something that is or ought to be one of the pillars of the modern state.

I can only echo what David Marr said about last November's election in his Meet the Author session at Adelaide Writers' Week on Wednesday: "I'm glad Howard didn't resign. I'm glad we were able to do it to him.'

And another thing: what's with the butter? If Howard plans to skim the cream of the speaking circuit he had better polish up his rhetorical skills; his butter metaphor makes no sense at all. What is the toast in this metaphor? What is the knife, and who is wielding it? For whose breakfast are we buttering this toast, and is there any Vegemite?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Can't blog ...

... over-committed, under-organised (well, not organised at all, really), under the gun, over the top, under the weather and over the limit.

And, as you can see, in an unacceptably whiny frame of mind. Waiter, a nice hot cup of STFU for Pav if you would be so kind.

Normal service will be restored shortly. I hope.