Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Life imitates art: notes on the week's reading

One of this week's four novels is Jincy Willett's The Writing Class, a book about a middle-aged woman who's written a few books and is making a precarious living doing various things including teaching Creative Writing. She has a blog*, and a malicious anonymous troll/stalker to go with it.

At this point I found myself peering out through the bathroom curtains, fearfully looking out for lurkers in the back yard. God knows I've had one or two of those before today, too, not to mention Creative Writing students who were (a) monumentally pissed off with me for not admiring them enough, and/or (b) clearly mad.

However, the heroine is afraid of the dark, which means she can't possibly be me. (Never underestimate the power of the general reader's desire to map real people, places and events neatly onto those in fiction, thereby demonstrating that they regard a novel as a kind of Rubik's Cube.) She has one dog that doesn't like her much, not two smoochy cats. She's American, which I am not, and her name, unlike mine, is Amy.

And it's just as well she is not me, because she has a much nastier psycho in her life even than her troll: one member of her (otherwise variously interesting, nice and/or talented) fiction-writing class is leaving horrid, ugly anonymous letters, notes, calls, drawings and other psychologically damaging calling-cards with all of his/her classmates, and with Amy, and two members of the group end up dead before their stalker and murderer is finally caught.

Like all those driven by malice, the murderer turns out to have a grudge that she/he is projecting onto individual members of the group: she/he can't get his/her own fiction published. This, she/he decides, is the fault of rivals and of the people who teach and encourage them. The final showdown contains a conversation that I will, if I ever teach a fiction-writing class again, make copies of and hand around in the introductory class:

'I've read your story,' said Amy, trying to remember its particulars. "The Good Woman".'
'You said it didn't work.'
'I said it needed revision. It was about an old woman obsessed by the immoral conduct of her neighbour.'
'And from that you surmise what? ...'
'That you're observant,' said Amy. 'That you've always been a watcher, which is a great asset for a writer. That at some point you started keeping score, which is not. ... You took your eye off the page, where it belonged, and trained it on all those s.o.b.s who didn't love what you'd written.' ...

'Why don't they publish me?' [Murderer's] voice cracked, [his/her] face was drained of colour, and for the first time Amy saw that [she/he] was unwell. ... 'They give two-book contracts to MFA whores** with their MFA sentences and their MFA networking and they give me sorry, thanks, try again. I'm better than them. You know it. I've got something to say. I have a mind.'
'Yes, but you don't know how to tell a story.'
[Murderer] looked at her with loathing.
'You can do scenes, and character, and you write a mean sentence ... and you've got good ideas, but you don't know what a story is. "The Good Woman" started out great and then just ended because it had to. It wasn't a story at all -- it was a polemic.'

* I have now in the course of my novel-reading job read at least four or five novels in which blogs feature prominently, usually as part of the plot. They may yet become as central and as useful a narrative device as letters were to fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries.*** The possibilities are endless.

** The US Master of Fine Arts in writing now seems to be the gold standard for formal qualifications in writing.

*** More free Creative Writing advice: The Writing Class is a bloody good novel, in its genre, and part of the reason for that is that Willett has made excellent use of the 'house-party' sub-genre of crime fiction (of which she has clearly read at least 20 or 30 examples), and of the newly emergent 'reading group' sub-genre ditto. I would also be willing to bet a great deal of money that she had read and learned from Dorothy L. Sayers' best Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night, which this book recalls without ever actually imitating.

The point: writing will always be enriched if it demonstrates some sense of where it fits overall in the history of literature. There are no decent writers who don't read. There's an utterly bizarre notion held by some writing students that they don't want to be 'influenced', as though their writing were some sort of virgin entity that must not be defiled. The truth is that if you don't read, then your writing will be, of necessity and even at its very best, a thin and intellectually impoverished re-invention of the wheel.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Il faut souffrir pour être belle

From here:

A woman who claims she copped more than an eyeful while trying on a skimpy Victoria's Secret undergarment is suing the lingerie giant, London's Daily Mail reported.

The woman has filed a suit in the Los Angeles Superior Court claiming she was trying on a Victoria's Secret "v-string" when a metal piece detached from the thong, hitting her in the eye.

Lawyers for Macrida Patterson, 52, argue the metallic ornament should have been fixed securely to the garment, citing a "design problem" for the incident.

Perhaps the gods of lingerie were trying to tell her something. 52 is too old for a thong. It just is. Even if your bum is pumped full of silicone, there are dignity issues.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Thumbs up

In the course of reading any novel there comes a moment when you decide whether it's a good book or not, and if you write book reviews for a living then this is a question of no little importance. If it's basically no good there may yet be many redeeming features, just as there may be some really terrible things about a fundamentally good book. But there's always a kind of tipping point where you decide one way or the other.

In the case of Joanne Fedler's Things Without a Name, this moment came on page 162 where the narrator Faith (who works as a legal counsellor at a feminist organisation called SISTAA, set up to help victims of sexual and/or domestic violence) discovers a p*rn mag in the desk-drawer of her neurotic friend and colleague Carol:

On page 48 'Wet Willow' has a cascade of glorious red hair. ... I appreciate that the reason she has handcuffs on and a rolling pin up her vagina is that she needs the money. People do things they'd probably prefer not to, all things being equal. You can go longer without dignity and self-esteem than three meals a day and somewhere to live ...

She could walk other people's pets. Or become a hair model. I shouldn't care one way or the other. Handcuffs and a rolling pin. I want to believe that no girl grows up with this in mind ...

The way I see it, Wet Willow comes home, plops her bag in the hallway, hangs her keys on the key rack and thinks, I hate my job. And not because she's never going to get promoted to broom handles. But for all I know, she wakes up in the morning and muses over her Weetbix and coffee, I love Thursdays. It's the rolling pin up the fanny day.

The one day of the year

Yesterday on local ABC radio there was a talkback discussion of annual 'days' for this and that -- Red Nose Day, International Women's Day, Fathers' Day -- and I got the feeling that a lot of people think we've now got a 'days' overload. One bloke in particular took against the whole concept of International Talk Like a Pirate Day with some violence; the mention of it by ABC dudes Matt'n'Dave (and they got the date completely wrong) was the first he'd heard of it, of course, but did that stop him having an opinion? Nobody in the part of the discussion I heard was anywhere near grasping the principle of viral internetty anarchy that lies behind it, although one sweet old bloke rang up with a riddle:

Q. Why are pirates pirates?

A. Because they arrrrrr.

(There is a LOLpirate in there somewhere, along the same lines as 'Interested cat is interested.')

Anyway, in this calendar of natural, cultural, UN-sanctioned and Intertubes-generated International Days of This and That that Matt'n'Dave and their own special breed of regular listeners had a fine old time deploring, my own absolute favourite is the Winter Solstice, which will keep happening long after personkind has disappeared from the face of the earth. I love the feel of the year turning and this side of the planet tilting back towards the sun.

This year it's tomorrow morning, Saturday June 21, at (in Adelaide) 9.29 am, as per this site.

If I were a poet, which alas I am not, I would squirrel away that beautiful and evocative phrase 'civil twilight' -- 'The time after sunset and before sunrise when the Sun is below the horizon but not more than 6° below it. During civil twilight, the sky is still quite bright and only the very brightest stars and satellites can be seen' -- for future use. In the meantime here's the recipe for solstice-celebrating mulled wine that I posted last year:

Take one (1) bottle of decent red, something not too bossy that will accommodate additions, and pour it into a saucepan over low heat. Shake the cinnamon jar over it a bit. Tip the honey over the pan and squeeze till you think that's enough. Chuck in six or seven cloves. Cardamom and lemon peel also work.

Heat gently, stirring. Don't let it boil, just get it nice and steamy. If you have an open fire and can therefore rustle up a red-hot poker, by all means use it to heat the wine.

Strain into pretty mugs.

Drink. (Civil twilight would be a good time to do this. The evening one, I mean.)


In the comments thread of the original post, the lovely and talented Zoe from Crazybrave, now also a born-again cookery blogger, suggests that any leftover mulled wine can be kept till the next time you are making a beef pie or stew, which indicates to me that she makes beef pies or stews a great deal more often than I do. Also, "leftover mulled wine" is a concept I can't quite get my head around. The Devil Drink has more power than that.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

And that was a whole afternoon of my life I'll never get back

Fortunately, either (a) I managed to fix it by accident myself while dolefully fiddling with the configuration settings, much as I once got my sister's apparently dead car started by experimentally jiggling the battery leads, or (b) the problem was at their end all along, something the tech support dude with the heavy accent and the even heavier cold kept assuring me wasn't the case. At least I think that's what he was saying. It could just as easily have been 'We have your cat: leave the money in used five-dollar bills under the lavender bush on the Old Port Canal Shopping Centre roundabout at 2 am or the pussy gets a one-way trip to the Great Big Litter Box in the Sky.' Hard to tell.

Just as well it came good though, because I started waiting for a callback from someone at Level 2 Support at 5.01 pm yesterday, and am still waiting. Presumably the intertubes fairies have told them it's all fixed.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Blowing the budget on books again: painting the lives of animals

Any Adelaidean will tell you that the Art Gallery Cafe is a pleasant place to meet your mates. It's convenient, and for out-of-towners it's easy to find. Unfortunately is has one massive disadvantage, which is that as you're leaving you have to walk past the bookshop, which also has high-end gifts and cards: silk wraps, Persian-rug mouse mats and drink coasters, wrapping paper in William Morris wallpaper designs and so and and so forth. It's a hard place to walk past.

And thus it was that I came home yesterday with this book.

This extravangantly gorgeous and interesting book covers only a century of British art, 1750-1850, but obviously there were massive changes in philosophical and religious thought about the nature of humanity and its separateness (or otherwise) from the animal world during that time and they were reflected in the work of visual artists. The title of Part 2 (of four) is '"The psychology of beasthood": from anthropocentrism to anthropomorphism'. Chapter 5 is titled '"Captive from mountain and forest": zoos and the imperial project'. That's the kind of book it is.

Here's a glimpse of Donald's style and approach:

Gainsborough's tender portrayal of his own two dogs, Tristram and Fox, brings them close to the eye, and the paw of one dog hangs over a stone ledge into 'our' space, in the manner of a Rembrandt portrait. In this intimate encounter, the sensory delights of soft ears, bright eyes and plumes of fur remind us of the dogs' purely physical nature and appeal. Yet the artist responds equally to the differing moods of the two animals: the sense of inner life and thought, and, with it, of transience and pathos. Installed over the mantelpiece of his London house, the painting was the memorial of an inevitably transient relationship, at the same time as it signalled Gainsborough's own sensibility and absence of pretension.

Monday, June 16, 2008

So you want to be a book editor?

If you want to be a book editor then one of your jobs will be fact-checking. This includes making sure the writer has not misspelled any proper names, including place names.

For example, 'sienna' is the clay pigment used in oil paints; the colour comes in two varieties, raw and burnt. It is not the name of the beautiful walled city in Tuscany where they make panforte and have the annual medieval horse race. That is called Siena. (NB neither of these is to be confused with senna, which is a naturally-occuring laxative.)

Similarly, the boot-shaped peninsula in South Australia is called Yorke Peninsula, not York Peninsular. 'Peninsular' is an adjective, meaning 'peninsula-like'. Cape York Peninsula, without an 'e', is the big pointy one in Queensland.

These errors should not have made it past a first read-through by the author, much less all the way through successive MS drafts and proofs re-read by the author and two different editors into a finished book and a Penguin book at that.

It is your particularly bad luck if they happen to be two of the book reviewer's favourite places on the entire planet. And I'm only on page 125 out of 450; who knows what sloppy horrors are yet to come.

Cross-posted at Australian Literature Diary.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jane Austen and the case of the tea and crumpets

'Do you miss teaching?' a friend asked the other day when I was reminiscing fondly about some tutorial-room occurrence or other, and the answer was a qualified No. But every now and then I see or hear something that makes me think 'If I were still teaching ...', and checking out the blog of the admirable and formidable 19th century scholar Ellen Moody this morning gave me one such moment.

If I were still teaching, and especially if I were still teaching the subject I always loved teaching most, 'Women and fiction in the 19th century', in which almost every student almost every year was highly motived, highly literate, enthusiastic and self-starting, I would use this post of Moody's to take advantage of the current enthusiasm for all things Jane Austen and introduce my students to the concepts of textual scholarship, practical semiotics, academic disagreement over facts and the interpretation of facts, the history of feminism, and the uses of literature in the study of social (and other) history and historiography.

Not even the ill-advisedly pejorative use of the word 'catty' would discourage me from using this post as a teaching tool. It's a dense discussion of scholarly detail and disagreement, but it's lavishly illustrated with some quite wonderful pictures to help you get your breath and keep up. And, like the great scholar she is, Moody provides a summary overview before going into detail:

A few days ago now I posted about the controversy among Austen scholars over Chapman’s 1923 scholarly textual editing of all Austen’s novels. The question as I understood it was, Are the differences between the original published texts and Chapman’s edited versions so frequent and pervasive to leave a different impression and change the meaning or feel of Austen’s texts significantly. ...

I’ve come to the conclusion there’s more than a debate over which copy text to use going on here; the conflict is also between different agendas which shape how the different groups want to understand Austen’s life, political outlook, the history of the biography, and conservative, kitsch or heritage-style Janeism. In brief, Kathryn Sutherland, Claudia Johnson, and others abjure a perceived picturesqueness & tea-and-crumpets quaint feel in the original Oxfords; they argue strongly against a complacent Janeism & patriarchal elitism, which they think Chapman’s edition helps sustain. They’re indignant at how he accepted the Austen family censorship and shaping of Austen’s life. By contrast, the individual editors of the Cambridge edition (which includes Deirdre LeFaye) and Janet Todd are comfortable with Chapman’s choices for basic text, his scholarly decisions (which they build upon, together with the over 80 years of scholarship since says Todd), and paternalistic conservative outlook (at least no one seems to mind it). ...

Have I ever said that my Austen books fill a 7-shelf 3 feet-across bookcase. I have it in my room. As I also keep my Trollope books in my room (in a similar filled bookcase), I have these beloved books near me. As a friend said, Close at hand, near to heart.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Don't mind the worms

My dad, now 81 and fit as a flea apart from his deteriorating hearing, snuck into the Navy in 1944 at 17 and trundled around the Pacific and the Indian Oceans and all the northern waters in between on the corvette HMAS Warrnambool for the best part of two years before he was demobbed in 1946, after which he went home and worked the family farm for 20 years. He was raised in and with an ethos of self-sufficiency that only someone brought up on a farm during the Depression could have so thoroughly internalised as still to have it the best part of a century later.

At my request he's written up some wartime memories for me as a few guest blog posts and they'll be up soon, but in the meantime he's developing his private theory that the solution to escalating food prices is to return to the days of the WW2 'Dig for Victory' campaign, and has asked me to find him whatever I can online about it.

So I Googled 'dig for victory' and this intriguing account is the first site that came up. All I could think of was the sketch in Beyond the Fringe about the imposition of rationing (in which the 'always out in the garden' tag line is a reference to the campaign): 'My woife came oot to me in the garden, her face ashen in hue. "Charrlie," she said to me, "rationin' has been imposed, and all that that entails." "Never you mind, my dear," I said to her, "you put on the kettle, and we'll have a noice steamin' cup o' hot water."'

What made me think of this was the astonishingly therapeutic hour I've just spent out in the garden at the end of a particularly traumatic work week, digging the leaf mould into the sandy soil and wishing my mum was still alive so she could show me how to prune the lemon tree.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why do we expect them to be nice as well?

I'm currently reading a very good novel (and by good I mean well-written, well-structured, powerful, convincing etc etc) by someone who appears to me, from her worldview generally, to be a somewhat unpleasant piece of work. With decades of going to writers' festivals and so on behind me, I don't find this particularly surprising. It would be a naive reader who expected good writers to be, necessarily, both Good and Nice People, or even just the one or the other. Look at Truman Capote. Look at Hemingway and Lawrence. Look at Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf.

*Carefully avoids naming anyone who's still alive*

And what's clear, even after reading only half the book, is that the author's au contraire type personality is exactly what has given her book its exceptional qualities. She has sharp unkind eyes, and a sharp unkind tongue.

Yet there's a powerful instinct to want someone whose gifts you admire to be an all-round admirable human being. As expectations go it is unrealistic and unreasonable, but it's there. I'm sure this novelist is as unlike swimmer Nick D'Arcy as it's possible to be in every conceivable way but reading this book has made me think of him (his second appeal against exclusion from the Olympic team was turned down yesterday), and in a way the principle is the same. He's an Olympic class swimmer and it's likely that the same qualities that got him into the team in the first place are those that have now got him into so much trouble.

This isn't by way of advocacy or defence. One does not smash other people's faces, and if one does then one needs to understand that this is not an okay thing to do. On points, I sort of weakly hope they don't let him back into the team. But at the same time all this stuff about him being a role model rings hollow, possibly because I'm a bit shocked at the way some parents seem to expect other people (usually teachers, poor sods) to provide their kids with moral training. That's called parenting. Nick D'Arcy shouldn't be expected to do it.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Audreys rock and rule


Last Friday night the Audreys played to a packed-out home-town Adelaide crowd in the late-Victorian wedding cake that is Her Majesty's Theatre. Your 'umble was very glad she was there to see it, in spite of the raised-by-hyenas couple behind us who chatted at normal volume all the way through the support act.

Said support was one J. Walker (jaywalker, geddit?) from Machine Translations who was in fact pretty good, especially since it was just him and his acoustic guitar (apart from the electric one he borrowed for the last few songs that kept going out of tune) and he played one song, the full and much longer original version of the main theme for East of Everything, 'A Most Peculiar Place', the TV version of which the band sings here and which as an acoustic solo was pretty damn close to awesome.

But it was the Audreys that people had come to see, and the Audreys were fabulous. They won their 2006 ARIA with their first album Between Last Night and Us in the category 'Best Blues & Roots Album' but that's an inadequate way of describing their style, which also has elements of jazz, alt country, pop and even, at a few electrifying (and electrified) moments, rock.

They seemed relaxed and happy to be at home in Adelaide and the band's lead singer and only woman Taasha Coates said hi to her mum in the audience and introduced drummer Toby Lang by way of reminiscence: 'Toby and I went to primary school together. That's how Adelaide we are.'

They played most of the tracks on their debut album (though not, to my disappointment, the seriously country 'Pale Dress') and all of the songs on the new album they are touring to promote, When the Flood Comes. As the title indicates and as almost every reviewer has noted, this second album is noticeably 'darker' in mood and tone: blighted urban landscapes, spoiled love, lots of drinking, lots of sex, and the apocalyptic scenarios both literal and figurative that are suggested by the album's title.

Shellshocked into writer's block by the magnitude of the success they earned with the first album, Coates and Goodall took the clever step of booking into New York's legendary Chelsea Hotel to get some songwriting done, and they clearly took inspiration from its atmosphere, its history and its ghosts.

The gorgeous, gifted Coates sang every song of the evening and didn't put a note, a breath or a black patent-leather high-heeled Mary-Jane-clad foot wrong all night. While her voice is mostly sweet and smoky, she can rustle up some effortless belter's volume and richness when required; when the band is up the country end of its repertoire she can shape a fine country-style timbre without descending to the nasal, but her voice morphs smoothly across to jazz-singer and down to soulful blues. She has a large vocal range and makes a feature of the register change up to head voice, that sort of golden-syrup-sounding blip you hear in early Joni Mitchell; Coates often does that on the one note, which is bloody difficult and sounds lovely.

To say that Coates sings, Goodall plays lead guitar, Lang plays drums, Michael Green plays violin and Lyndon Gray plays bass would be at once true and profoundly misleading. Everyone does a little bit of this and that and a little bit extra; a large part of the band's originality lies in its flexibility, willingness and fearlessness about coaxing a wide variety of sounds and noises out of a range of sometimes unorthodox instruments played in sometimes unorthodox ways, including getting distortion and feedback out of the sound equipment.

Coates, in the course of the evening, not only sang on every song but played keyboard, ukulele, harmonica, tambourine and this thing, which I'd never seen before. Goodall is a fiend on banjo as well as on his several different guitars, clearly a brilliant musician and an anchoring presence onstage, often a kind of conduit from Coates to the rest of the band. Green, every now and then, shifted from fiddle to lap steel, tipped his violin sideways and strummed or plucked it like a ukulele, or strolled over to the mic for some effortless, beautiful harmonies with Coates. At one point, everybody sang.

One of the songs on the first album, 'Banjo and Violin', is a sort of meta-commentary on their own musical style and they played a tighter and more alluring version of it even than this:

And in a number of songs, notably the amazing 'Songbird' which was probably the highlight of the night, they demonstrated further versatility by shifting around and playing several different things in the course of a single song. Coates introduced this song as 'My tribute to Nick Cave', eliciting a few polite interrogative noises from the audience, but the minute she walked across to the keyboard and accompanied herself on the opening bars, everyone began to get what she meant:

songbird with your bones of dust
your wiry notes, your cage of rust
sing your sweet sad song for us
sing for us

This musically complex song shows, again, how willing the band is to take risks: it goes through shifts of tempo, volume and even mode, so what begins as a quietly dramatic ballad morphs at one stage into a pulsing, rock-y instrumental break.

While the rich originality of their sound at maximum-complexity level is one of the reasons why it's hard to take your eyes off them, Coates' voice is in no actual need of any instrumental support or embroidery. One of the highlights of the evening was the first encore, when Coates and Goodall came back onstage alone: to the accompaniment of sharp, spare, percussive electric guitar, Coats sang a tragic version of Sonny Bono's 'Bang Bang' that had the whole theatre holding its breath. The only other cover of the evening was the band's beautiful slowed-down balladed-up version of INXS's 'Don't Change', which features on Between Last Night and Us.

Taasha Coates is a woman of many frocks:

On Friday night she wore a semi-fitted sleeveless sheath dress that came to just above the knee, a soft green about halfway between sage and emerald, the fabric something light and soft over a more opaque foundation. The general effect was part young 1920s vamp, part slinky mature-woman 1950s cheongsam or Mandarin dress, with rays of sparkly embroidery on the bodice that gave an effect of half late-1960s little hippie mirrors and half timeless Nashville rhinestones. Coates brings to her outfits the same wide-net eclecticism, off-centre originality and weird grace that the band brings to its extensive range of instrumentation.

As befits the only woman in a band whose name is a tribute to Audrey Hepburn, she is slender and graceful and a little bit fey, profoundly girly (and I mean that in a good way, for once) and a subtle performer of femininity, with short black hair that cuts across any suggestion of confection, stereotype or even mild parody of girliness. She has an extraordinary stage presence that is partly about her stylised poses and half-dance half-swoon gestures; her onstage movement sometimes suggests the reason why people refer to a certain kind of adolescent grace as 'coltish' but she uses her hands as skilfully as a Balinese dancer, to hypnotic effect. She looks young, vulnerable and sweet, so it's quite electrifying when the band takes off into songs like this:

don’t want to borrow your car
don’t want to meet your ma
don’t want to hold your hand
or have you come see my band
just lay me down

Can't help wondering what her mum thought.

(NB: The tour isn't over yet; if you live in WA or Tasmania there's still a chance to see them. Their official website is here and they're also on MySpace, where you can see the remaining tour dates and the video of 'Paradise City'.)

It rubs the lotion on its skin: Week 2

'Oh, and you might get a few flu-ey symptoms,' said the dermatologist casually, afterthought-wise, as I was on my way out the door. 'It's just the drug working on your immune system; don't worry about it.'

A few, she said. Don't worry, she said.

*Passes out*

Saturday, June 07, 2008

They don't make 'em like they used to

And speaking of people (as I was at the end of that last post) who may have got old and fat and drug-addled but can still perform like fiends and angels, have a listen to this:

(NB this was a concert in Japan in 1991 so the word 'still' is misleading up there, in a way -- though I gather they can still still do this.)

Meme time

Elsewhere has tagged me for a meme, and it is no more than Good Manners to respond, and besides, nearly everyone whose blog I like has done this meme by now. So here goes, especially since the post about the Audreys concert last night has blown out into a three-volume novel and I'm still nowhere near finished. (And if anyone's reading this who doesn't like personal posts and doesn't understand enough about the blogosphere to 'get' memes, for God's sake leave now and don't drop any steaming piles of personal abuse in the comments box about things you don't understand. Thank you.)

It's revealing of the psyche of whoever originally wrote this meme that so much of it seems to be about food. Ah, food: my favourite.

What was I doing 10 years ago?

Being enjoyably shellshocked in my first year of freedom after 18 years as an academic, my first year home in Adelaide thawing out after 18 years in Victoria, my first year of home ownership (bittersweet: nobody told me that houses eat money), and my first year of trying to scramble together enough of a portfolio of regular work to make a living as a freelance writer. Trying and failing to grow vegetables. Breaking in a new bloke. Spending a lot of time with my mother during what nobody knew would be the last year of her life.

Five snacks I enjoy in a perfect, non weight-gaining world:

1. Chocolate Paddle Pops.

2. Haigh's dark chocolate truffles.

3. Chocolate cake.

4. Gelati: a 3-flavour coppa involving coffee, baci and chocolate.

5. Chocolate.

Five snacks I enjoy in the real world:

6. Natural Confection dinosaurs and snakes.

7. Raw carrot sticks. (Really.)

8. Unsalted roasted almonds.

9. Mozzarella.

10. Macadamias. In this perfect world, not only does one not gain weight but one has unending supplies of cash ...

Five things I would do if I were a billionaire: (See what I did there?)

1. Give up working and write fiction.

2. Resolve my father's, sisters' and best mate's housing/mortgage issues.

3. Give vast sums to chosen charities, especially Médecins sans frontières, World Vision or similar, men's health centres and groups (anything dedicated to making blokes look after their health more carefully), and the RSPCA.

4. Buy a big house where we both could live* by the sea at Rapid Bay,

get a Border Collie and some chooks for it to round up, and take up snorkelling so I could watch the Leafy Sea Dragons

under the jetty.

5. Set up a fund for legal representation and other support for asylum seekers.

Five jobs that I have had:

1. Senior Lecturer in literature.

2. Restaurant dishwasher.

3. Research assistant to an economist.

4. Labourer (really).

5. Girly singer and keyboard player in an otherwise testosterone-addled band.

Three of my habits:

1. Not putting my seatbelt on until I'm out on the road.

2. Singing in the garden.

3. Creasing and mashing the more exciting pages of books.

Five places I have lived:

1. Toorak, Melbourne

2. Curramulka, SA

3. Hawthorn, Adelaide

4. Klagenfurt, Austria (if a five-week summer-school residency at the U of Klagenfurt counts).

5. In streets called Alpha Street, Princess Street, and First Avenue. I think this is a worry.

No tagging from me. As Ampersand Duck would say, follow your dreams.

* Listen hard for the muted piano intro at the beginning of this and see if you can hear who it is. Like I didn't just give you a dirty great big hint.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Of course you did, you saucy minx

Who would you say this was, offhand?

Time after time

In a comment on the last post but one, someone has lamented that she (I think it was a woman) can't organise her time better, a problem I am all too familiar with. If it hadn't made me feel like such a hypocrite, since I can manage only occasionally to follow this advice myself, I would have offered her two strategies for time management that I've learned, both from blokes, that do actually work.

1) With certain tasks you don't ever feel like doing -- housework, say -- a bloke I know, let's call him X, swears by what he calls 'fifteen-minute modules'. It's quite astonishing how much tidying up you can do in fifteen minutes, and a module as small as that means you can stop before you actually die of boredom.

2) Quantify the tasks, not by time but by units of work, and mix up the quantifications so it doesn't get boring. Another bloke I know, name of Y, is an academic. On a weekend day at home, he'll say to himself 'Right: this afternoon I'm going to mark five essays, and then I'll read two chapters of that Susan Faludi book, and then I'll prune the three rosebushes down the side fence and then I'll file one of those piles of administrative bumf over there and then I'll do two loads of washing.' He always finishes everything. In time.

If neither of these work, you might like to investigate the concept of Bergsonian duration. (If you can manage this, you'll probably find Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time no more than a little light reading as well; personally I gave up on page 6.) Thinking about what Deleuze, Bachelard, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty thought about Bergson lends a little dignity to cleaning the toilet, even when you know that's five minutes of your life you'll never get back.

(In reading that link about Bergson the most striking thing to me is the huge gap between the complexities of some people's thought and the humbling relentlessness of their physical lives, something that's always haunted me about Virginia Woolf. The passage that leaps out of that article at me isn't in any of the tortuously complex philosophical stuff but in the introductory biographical section: of Bergson's death in German-occupied France in 1941, the article says 'In any case, the Vichy Government offered Bergson exemptions from anti-Semitic regulations, but he refused. It is also rumored that he contracted the cold that killed him while waiting in line to register as a Jew.')

Thursday, June 05, 2008

How contemporary tertiary education works

More from the novel cited in the previous post, The Philosopher's Apprentice:

'May I buy you a beer?'

I gestured towards my pitcher of stout. 'I'm fixed for the evening. Here's a question for you, Dr Wilcox. Does this pitcher truly hold four beers, or merely hold four potential beers, each awaiting the reification that will occur upon being poured?'

Wilcox gave me a blank look. 'No wonder philosophers can't get funding.'

UPDATE: More academic doco-realism:

The one time I'd delivered a paper at a conference, 'The Geist in the Machine', a précis of my Master's thesis on Schelling, I didn't meet any minds of Edwina Sabacthani's calibre, but I was memorably seduced by a tenured Utilitarian from Princeton named Frédérique Wintrebert, who said she'd become aroused by my use of the word 'praxis'.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Warning to all (post)graduate student bloggers: THIS COULD BE YOU

At the beginning of James Morrow's novel The Philosopher's Apprentice, our hero and narrator Mason Ambrose, well on the way to completing his doctoral dissertation, is expressing dismay at the collapse of his supervisor Tracy, who has checked herself into a treatment centre for clinical depression and alcoholism.

(It does not occur to Mason that this might have something to do with her being his supervisor, but we who have supervised graduate theses have our own dark thoughts at this point.)

It is left to a 'glum Hegelian' to steer him through his final revisions, which, while depressing for Mason and no doubt also for the Hegelian, is as nothing to what happens next:

But for me the real catastrophe -- and I'm afraid this is how graduate students construct these matters -- was that the person selected to round out my committee was certain to cause me trouble. The nemesis in question was the celebrated postrationalist theologian Felix Pielmeister, newly arrived from Notre Dame.

There are certain co-ordinates on this planet, spatial and temporal, where one is well advised to avoid antagonising the locals. The Lower East Side of Manhattan at three o'clock in the morning, say, or the philosophy department of a major university any day of the week. I never found out how Felix Pielmeister came to visit my website ... I suppose he was slumming it one day, ordering his search engine to display all reviews of his newest book, an anti-Darwinist screed called The Algorithms of Immortality, and suddenly, voilà: the blistering review I'd composed to amuse myself during the gestation of my dissertation.

LOLduck morning

A minute ago I was sitting in the lounge room reading a novel about a charismatic Melbourne rabbi (as you do) when I began to hear a faint, weird, high-pitched noise, almost exactly halfway between a stutter and a croon.

Kids out in the street?

Feline intestinal disturbance?

Radio next door?

Nope, it was definitely coming from the chimney. Last time I heard a noise in the chimney it was a disoriented mouse, and the time before that it was swarming bees.

Went outside to have a look. Rushed back inside to get the camera.

It rubs the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose again

A superficial basal cell carcinoma is probably the most harmless cancer there is, insofar as the phrase 'harmless cancer' is not an oxymoron, but having had one on my left temple diagnosed a couple of weeks ago (on my birthday: bummer), I was pleased to be reminded by Larvatus Prodeo regular Robert Merkel of this deathless line from The Silence of the Lambs the day before I was due to begin a course of this stuff.

Cancer isn't exactly my area of expertise but this is the first time I've ever heard of any form of it being treatable with a cream, by the patient, at home, and without a scalpel. Let's hope for everyone's sake that this is the beginning of a trend.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

'What are you going to do, bleed on me?'

General online consensus this morning seems to be that Hillary Clinton has definitively lost the fight for the Democratic nomination.

Yes yes, there are all kinds of problems with Hillary. But it is still a bit sad-making, and you can't help wondering how long it will be before another woman gets a chance at the presidency. Come along, girls, back to the kitchen.

Not that she has formally withdrawn, of course; as ever, her demeanour is that of the Black Knight.