Monthly Archives: December 2017

Year’s end lists 2017

It’s been quite a year. As it comes to an end the Emerging Artist (now with an MFA) and I have drawn up our Best Of lists.

MOVIES
I saw 64 movies, including a number watched on YouTube such as Godard’s Le mépris and Eisenstein’s October, the EA slightly fewer. It was a year of wonderful movies, as well as a handful of crushing disappointments, but here’s what we managed to single out.

The Emerging Artist’s top five, with her comments:

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan 2016): I liked the slow, meditative build-up to the reveal and the ultimate resolution of the past that allowed the character to keep living.

The Salesman (Asghar Fahadi 2016): Tense, intense and brilliant. The visuals were wonderful, from the woman in shocking red against the grey of usual clothing to the tightness of action carried out in multiple stairwells.

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt 2016): Many friends didn’t take to this film, and we saw it at a disadvantage on a very small screen. Three interlocking stories each gave small moments of pleasure, especially the last.

A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof 2017): We saw this gripping Iranian film at the Sydney Film Festival. It has a universal theme of how to live a moral life when survival depends on going along with corruption. Deeply human, and also claustrophobically Kafkaesque.

Living/Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa 1952): What a delight this was. We saw it at the SFF. In three long sections the main character explores how to live well. Being a bureaucrat isn’t the answer.

… plus a bonus documentary for the EA

Nowhere to Hide (Zaradasht Ahmed 2016): A visceral look at northern Iraq through one man’s eyes, a paramedic trying to stay in his town as ISIS moves in.

My top five (chosen after the EA chose hers, avoiding duplicates):

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins 2016): Marvellous film, very slow. One of my companions said that it was like a behind the scenes look at The Wire. Three wonderful performances as the boy who becomes a man, perhaps especially Trevante Rhodes who shows the small frightened boy inside the streetwise drug lord.

Denial (Mick Jackson 2016): A very methodical film, written with great clarity by David Hare and featuring an excellent cast, this is a timely look at the importance of evidence-based thinking as opposed to adjusting the fact to accord with one’s political interests.

Silence (Martin Scorsese 2016): An old(ish) man’s deeply felt exploration of his Catholic heritage. Timely to be reminded of the intensities of Catholic belief when the institutional church’s failures around child sexual abuse are being exposed.

 I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck 2016): James Baldwin was brilliant, and this film does him justice. Favourite quote: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it has been faced.’

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve 2017): Is there a word that means ‘bombastic’ but has entirely positive connotations?  That’s the word I want to use about this movie. And as someone asked on Twitter, ‘What happened to Deckard’s dog?’

… and a favourite moment:

In Hope Road (Tom Zubrycki 2017), at one point in his arduous fundraising walk, Zachariah Machiek (one of the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan) strays onto private property and meets a couple of rough looking types who exude menace worthy of any Hollywood thriller.

Worst film of the year:

We both picked the same one, Sea Sorrow (Vanessa Redgrave 2017). Me: This started out as a fundraiser for unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, in which a number of big name actors did bits from Shakespeare and other turns. Vanessa Redgrave wanted to reach more people with her passionate message of compassion and worked it up into a film. Sadly it’s hardly a film at all. Emerging Artist: I’d have to agree. Though we did see a few really bad films, this one rated as it was so anticipated.

THEATRE

All but two of our theatre outings this year were to the Belvoir. It was a very good year – we only left at interval once. These are our picks:

Ghosts (Henrik Ibsen 1882): Eamon Flack’s director’s program note says this production isn’t set in 1881, but in a room that hasn’t changed since 1881. Like Tony Abbot’s mind. The sarcasm of that note is nowhere to be seen in the production, but it’s accurate anyhow. Pamela Rabe is brilliant in a very strong cast. The set refers to the detail of Ibsen while being quite spare. There’s a marvellous theatrical moment involving ash.

The Rover (Aphra Behn 1677): Aphra Behn was quite a playwright, and Eamon Flack and his physically diverse cast have a lot of fun and give a lot of joy in making it new. At the very end there were a couple of bars of Nino Rota’s film music, and we knew we were all on the same page.

Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Tommy Murphy 2017): Directed by David Berthold with Sarah Peirse and John Howard as the leads and set designed by Michael Hankin, this is a terrific play. I would have gone home happy at the end of the first act, but wasn’t disappointed by the rest. I went in thinking I knew the story and expecting to be mildly engaged, but I was bowled over.

BOOKS

Fiction:

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible: A lovely meditation on life and death and ageing. I read it in hospital after major surgery and it fitted my mood. I loved the interweaving of the characters and the story is excellent.

Michael Chabon, Moonglow: Telegraph Avenue is still my favourite Michael Chabon novel, and I loved this because it had many of the same qualities.

Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark: She’s a very quirky writer who takes the reader into weird places. This book possibly had too much Kafka in it but it was still a very enjoyable expedition.

My top three (linked to my blog posts about them):

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta 2016)
Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo 2017)

Non-Fiction

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: My favourite book for this year, it has all my favourite things in it: art, maps, an attempt to come to terms with the relationship between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. And it’s respectful of everybody.

Hannah Fink, Bronwyn Oliver: Strange Things: At present Bronwyn Oliver is my favourite Australian artist. This book gives insights into her work, her practice and the tragedy of her life. It looks at the dangers of the artist’s life, in particular the use of toxic materials, which contributed to her early death.

Susan Faludi, In the Dark Room: A wonderful interweaving of the history of Hungary, anti-semitism, male violence, trans politics and a daughter–father relationship. It’s got everything.

My top three (once again, apart from excellent AWW books listed yesterday; linked to my blog posts):

T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (©1969, Giramondo 2015)
Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)
James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life ( 2016)

Poetry
(I choose reluctantly, placing it behind most of the AWW poetry books):

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber 1997). I recommended this enthusiastically at our book swap club. Someone picked it and then rejected it because I’d failed to mention that it was …. poetry.

Comics

Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen and others, Descender Volumes 1–4 (Image Comics 2016, 2017), my blog posts here and here.
——-
Happy New Year, dear reader. May 2018 see #metoo bear marvellous fruit. May the world become less racist, more peaceful and more just. May all the detainees on Manus and Nauru find safety somewhere very soon.

AWW 2017 challenge completed

aww2017.jpg This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2017. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble (as it certainly will on a phone).

Seven poetry collections:

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Jennifer Maiden
Metronome

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Kathryn Lomer
Night writing

 

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Shevaun Cooley
Homing

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Aisyah Shah Idil
The Naming
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Emily Crocker
Girls and Buoyant

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Four novels, three of them e-books:

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No More Boats

Felicity Castagna
No More Boats

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Three memoirs:

waves turn

Cathy McLennan
Saltwater

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Maxine Beneba Clarke
The Hate Race

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Not a dud among them!

I’m signing up for the 2018 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 20 books by women and 46 by men.

Shocked at my own gender bias, I can massage the figures:

  • If I don’t count comics, the male-written books come down to 24, or 29 if I count each comics series as a single work
  • If I include journals, add 5 to the women’s score and 3 to the men’s (or 6 and 3 respectively if you count Southerly 76.3, jointly edited by Laetitia Nanquette & Ali Alizadeh)

So, with a bit of creating counting, I have read 26 books by women and 32 by men.

Overland 227 & 228

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 227 (Winter 2017)
—-, Overland 228 (Spring 2017)

overland227It’s not that I read Overland out of obligation, but I do feel guilty if I leave an issue sitting on my to-be-read pile for too long because – among other things – Overland offers left perspectives that aren’t all that easy to come by elsewhere in the Australian media. So here’s a slightly guilty blog post about the two most recent issues.

The star of the winter issue (No 227) is Evelyn Araluen. The journal kicks off with her article ‘Resisting the Institution: On Colonial Appropriation, which takes recent activism around statues commemorating colonial ‘heroes’ as a starting point, and develops into a (for me at least) powerful introduction to the field of decolonial theory (as opposed to postcolonial theory):

Decolonial theory provides the Indigenous subject with the tools to deconstruct and challenge colonial infiltrations into our worlds and minds, but decolonial practice within the academy is restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. In other words, it is safely contained within the classroom, in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions or creative-thinking asseignments. Outside of the university, I have given late-night workshops on decolonial theory to anywhere between two and 200 people, often squished together in a leaky tent.

Later in the journal her short story Muyum: A Transgression, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, is equally powerful and challenging.

There are the regular columnists, Giovanni Tiso (on owning and keeping books), Alison Croggon (on kindness as a political act), Tony Birch (on his family history, racism and the Australian constitution) and Mel Campbell (on where writers’ ideas come from –  ‘an idea is a promise, not a commodity’). There are solid articles on the gambling industry (by Dan Dixon), tiny presses that publish poetry in Australia (Kent MacCarter), GLBTQ+ politics in contemporary Singapore (Ng Yi-Sheng), Professor Richard Berry and scientific racism (Helen Macdonald), and how much social transformation we can really expect from technological advances under capitalism (Lizzie O’Shea). ‘Pregnant in Mexico’ by Tina Cartwright is a tiny memoir that feels as if it was carved, to good effect, from a longer piece.

There are two short stories in addition to Evelyn Araluen’s prizewinner. ‘Broken zippers‘ by George Haddad, which could serve as a grim companion piece to SBS’s Struggle Street, stands out for me.

There are fourteen pages of poetry. The two poems that spoke most strongly to me are ‘Crossing Galata, Istanbul‘ by John Upton, a tourist poem acutely aware of the limits of its touristic perspective (that’s a mangled quote from Adam Aitken), which captures the feel of Galata Bridge in Istanbul; and ‘The Apology Day breakfast‘ by Ali Cobby Eckermann, which is what it says on the lid, but with a deep, bitter-sweet twist.

The winter issue features the weird photomedia work of guest artist Yee I-Lann.

overland228Sadly, I hadn’t read all of the spring issue (No 228) before it mysteriously went missing on a trip to the supermarket. as a result my vote  for the outstanding items mightn’t be completely valid. But I recommend this edition for Eileen Chong’s poem ‘The Task’ and Olivier Jutel’s article ‘Paranoia and delusion‘.

The Task‘ (do read it at the link; it’s short) is at first blush a straightforward childhood memory of eating crabs, but it drew me in on a number of levels. First, a splendid moral complexity: the crabs have eyes, so we – and the remembered child – know they’re sentient, so there’s no minimising of what’s involved when they are killed and pulled apart, but at the same time there’s frank enjoyment of eating them. Then the opening – ‘We fished with lines, not nets’ – suggests a whole other, metaphorical reading: so by the time we reach the final couplet there’s a strong sense that we’re not talking about crabs any more, at least not only crabs, but something about Chong’s creative process as well:

I left the claws to the others,

preferring only what I could mine
through my own precise undoings

Olivier Jutel’s article is a formidable intervention into the general conversation about Donald Trump.

Domestically, he has mobilised, however chaotically, the most retrograde forces in American society, who experience through him a carnivalesque transgression in ‘Making America Great Again’ one tweet, post and triggered liberal at a time.

He had me at ‘carnivalesque’. The article goes on to rip into the ‘liberal’ media’s obsession with the Russia connection, seeing in it a revival of Cold War emotions, and argues that the Democratic Party is completely at a loss for an adequate political response to the Trump phenomenon, falling back on, among other things, ‘the libidinal deadlock of politics as comedy’. I can’t claim to have followed the whole argument (Jutel is a PhD candidate who quotes Lacan), but if you feel the need of a gust of fresh air amidst the abundant Trump-based sarcasm and despair, this could be the article for you.

Again the regular columnists are worth reading: On coal by Tony Birch (who quotes Murrawah Johnson, spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou community, ‘We’ve seen the end of the world and we’ve decided not to accept it’); On experimentalism by Mel Campbell; On confusing reason and authority by Alison Croggon. Giovanni Tiso has a full-blown article, ‘Dynamite for the people‘, a lively piece on the European anarchists of the late 19th century, and how they differ from 21st century terrorists.

There are, as always, solid articles: Jessica Whyte on the politics of human rights; Mark Riboldi on virtual reality in fact and fiction; Roqayah Chamseddine on conspiracy theorists, those that are nutty and those that turn out to be right. I lost my copy before I got to Michael Brull on Saudi Arabia and Qatar or Chris di Pasquale on religious freedom under the Soviets: they’re up on line or soon will be, but I have trouble with sustained reading from a screen, so I’m sadly giving them a miss.

I did read the winners of the VU Short Story Prize: the winner, Breeding Season  by Amanda Niehaus, and first runner-up, Wharekaho Beach, 1944 by Allan Drew are both excellent. I missed the discussion between Jennifer Mills and Peter Carey about his short story ‘Crabs’, first published in Overland an amazing 45 years ago. It’s a nice idea for an institution like Overland to revisit past glories – I hope there are more interviews like this in the pipeline.

 

Andrew McDonald’s Night Music

Andrew McDonald, Night Music (Arcadia 2017)

nightmusic

As I was ruminating on Andrew McDonald’s Night Music, I kept thinking of Chaucer’s phrase ‘the life so short, the craft so long to learn’ the opening of The Parlement of Foules:

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye, that alwey slit so yerne

Chaucer is talking about love, but I’m not alone in thinking they apply at least as well to art, specifically to poetry.

Andrew McDonald has quietly persisted with the craft for decades. Night Music is his third book in 40 years. His first, Absence in Strange Countries, was part of UQP’s Paperback Poets series in the 1970s, the series that launched David Malouf as a poet. His second, The One True History, appeared in 1984 (and can now be bought for more that £50 from Amazon). Though his poetic voice hasn’t been completely still since then – poems have appeared in journals and end-of-year anthologies – it’s been a long time between books.

So it’s fitting that the opening poem ‘These words’, can be read as marking a kind of re-entry, moving from a tentative impersonality to a moment of relief and the possibility of a meeting of minds:

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There’s a strong sense of place in what follows. The inner-western Sydney suburb of Leichhardt features in early poems, notably ‘Ode: Marketown’, which is dedicated to JF, il miglior guida and John-Forbes-ishly yokes images of tatty urban life to erudite allusions:

It’s shaping up as a day for reading cornflakes
packets in the supermarket considered as prolegomenon
to a proper reading of the Purgatorio.

Later, there are places visited – in rural New South Wales, North Queensland, Scotland,  Ireland, the Lake District (I think), an unnamed tropical beach. As an old Innisfail boy, I love ‘In the Rainforest’, one of the longest poems in the book, in which the Daintree National Park takes on metaphorical power:

The trees assemble themselves in their lack of rows or thought,
higgledy-piggledy, overgrown with creepers and vines and palms,
undergrown with mantras of the unnamed, the undiscovered, the unsuspected –
yet all this vast hubbub has, somewhere or other, to stop:
at the sea, at the incision of a road, at the counter-text
of pasture or cane or tea or some other human blankness,
so that the voice of the forest must finally cut short
its ancient murmurings and chatterings, its breath steam up
the pane of some other idea, until it simply ceases.

There are domestic moments. I’m a sucker for a poem about men and babies (see Francis Webb’s ‘Five Days Old‘ (at the link you need to scroll down a bit for the poem) or Galway Kinnell’s ‘After making love we hear footsteps‘). There are two here: ‘Night’, in which the speaker worries that his baby son will stop breathing:

I lean over him long, feeling the small warmth
that rises with his milky breath,
the smell if not the sound of life.

and ‘Cradle Coda’, which reads as written decades later. Here is the whole poem:

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It’s just a couple of weeks before my own first grandchild is due, so this poem strikes a chord. And I seem to have come back to Chaucer: ‘the lyf so short.’

There’s lots more than this in the book, much to enjoy. A fourth book is on the horizon. I’m glad.

My copy is a gift of the author, who has commented on this blog occasionally but whom I don’t think I’ve met in person.

The Book Group and James Rebanks’ Shepherd’s Life

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life (Penguin 2016)

shepherd.jpegBefore the meeting: A number of the chaps in the group (me included) had been charmed by James Rebanks when they heard him on Australian radio earlier this year. Plus his book is short, always desirable for the Book Group and especially so at this time of year. So this is what we read.

The book is part memoir, part family history, part advocacy for a way of life and a community of people. The early pages frame the conversation neatly: Rebanks tells of teachers who urged him and his fellow students to study hard if they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives on their family’s tiny farms in the inhospitable fells of England’s Lake District, of a teacher who waxed lyrical about the beauty of that same region from the point of view of Romantic poets and those who followed after them, but seemed to regard her students as incapable of understanding such elevated thoughts:

I wanted to tell that teacher that she had it all wrong – tell her that she didn’t really know this place or its people at all. These thoughts took years to become clear, but in a rough childish form I think they were there from the start. I also knew in a crude way that if books define places, then writing books was important, but that we needed books by us and about us. But in that assembly in 1987 I was dumb and thirteen, so I just made a farting noise on my hand. Everyone laughed. She finished and left the stage fuming.

James Rebanks is no longer dumb and thirteen, and though this book rises from the same impulse as that farting noise, I’d be surprised if, when that teacher reads it, she fumes even the tiniest bit. Millions of people visit the Lake District each year for its beauty and simply don’t see that it is a workplace, or have any sense of the accumulated knowledge and connection to country of the people who work there. To them, in a very real sense, Rebanks and his community are invisible. The book doesn’t reprimand or reproach the visitors for their narrow vision. It sets out to show them – I should say us, even though I haven’t been there –  what we have failed to see, and it succeeds brilliantly.

There’s a lot about sheep, about sheep dogs, about grandfathers, fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, about lambing and tupping and death, about fine ewes and tups (a word I’ve previously only known in the rhyme ‘Thomas a Tattamus took two tees / to tie two tups to two tall trees’), about the qualities of different breeds and the way the seasons run the life of the farms. There’s Wordsworth (not as unaware of the farmers as young Rebanks thought) and Beatrix Potter (not as the cranky child-hater I’d read about elsewhere). And there’s a lot about a way of life that is perhaps more than a thousand years old and has survived the depredations of capitalism more or less intact.

In some editions the book is subtitled ‘Modern dispatches from an ancient landscape’. I think that’s a mistake, because its whole purpose is to claim the land back from the idea of it as ‘landscape’, as something to be looked at. It moves in the direction of what I (dimly) understand of the Aboriginal idea of Country – and it’s no surprise that one section is introduced with a quote from Oodgeroo Noonuccal: ‘Let no one say the past is dead. / The past is all around us and within.’

I’ve sometimes thought that I should start a blog post about a book by mentioning how it connects with other recent reading. This would have been a good one to start with: the scene described in this book when the radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl disaster appears is not as intense as those in Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, but it’s definitely in the same peasant universe. The account of the obsessive value that some shepherds place on particular breeds of sheep and the agony caused by government slaughter to prevent the spread of disease is gripping in its own right, but also makes an excellent footnote to Grímur Hákonarson’s great movie, Rams.

I expect the book will resonate with anyone who spent their childhood on a farm, whether they dealt with sheep or not. I’m a thoroughly citified seventy-year-old, but the boy who helped decapitate a stillborn calf and pull it out of its mother, while his father held the mother’s head and crooned reassurance to her – that boy came alive again as I read this book.

After the meeting: It was our end of  year meeting in a restaurant, so conversation was fragmented and only about the book for a comparatively brief time. A show of hands indicated we were unanimous in liking the book. One chap felt it was too long (I don’t agree) and repetitive (yes, but I didn’t mind), poorly edited (hmm, I did notice one or two things), but he didn’t want to put it down: it turned out that like me he was brought up on a farm and had no attraction to the work or the way of life, and his father ran sheep, so in a way the book spoke very directly to him.

There was of course some controversy, but it was about the New South Wales government’s intention of pulling down a sports facility that’s less than 20 years old, and about the media treatment of the latest wave of sexual harassment scandals. There was good news from the group member who has been dealing with aggressive prostate cancer, we had a Kris Kringle or used books, and parted wishing each other good things for the end of the year.