The link below is to an article that looks at illustrations in books.
One of the things you get asked most when people find out that you’re a poet is whether you can recommend something that could be read at an upcoming wedding, or if you know something that might be suitable for a funeral. For most people, these occasions – as well as their schooldays – are the only times they encounter poetry.
That feeds into this sense that poetry is something formal, something which might stand to attention in the corner of the room, that it’s something to be studied or something to “solve” rather than something to be lounged with on the sofa. Of course, this needn’t be true.
We’ve seen over the past couple of months how important poetry can be to people. It’s forming a response in advertisements and marketing campaigns, it’s becoming a regular part of the public’s honouring of frontline heroes and, for people who write poetry more often, it’s becoming a way to create a living historical document of these unprecedented times – this latter point was the aim of the new Write where we are Now project, spearheaded by poet Carol Ann Duffy and Manchester Metropolitan University.
In years to come, alongside medical records and political reporting, historians and classes of schoolchildren will look to art and poetry to find out what life was like on a day-to-day basis – what things seemed important, what things worried people, how the world looked and felt and was experienced. Write where we are Now will, hopefully, be one such resource, with poets from all over the world contributing new work directly about the Coronavirus pandemic or about the personal situations they find themselves in right now.
So the crisis has perhaps brought poetry – with its ability to make the abstract more concrete, its ability to distil and clarify, its ability to reflect the surreal and strange world we now find ourselves in – back to the fore.
Many of you might be thinking now is the time to try and get to grips with poetry, maybe for the first time. A novel might feel too taxing, watching another film just involves staring at another screen for longer, but a poem can offer a brief window into a different world, or simply help to sustain you in this one.
How to enjoy poetry
If you’re nervous around poetry or are scared it might not be for you, I wanted to offer up some tips.
1. You don’t have to like it
Poetry is often taught in very strange ways: you’re given a poem and told that it’s good – and that if you don’t think it’s good then you haven’t understood it, and you should read it again until you have, and then you’ll like it. This is nonsense. There are poets and poems for every taste. If you don’t like something, fine. Move on. Find another poet. Anthologies are great for this, and a good place to start with your poetry journey.
2. Read it aloud
Poetry lives on the air and not on the page, read it aloud to yourself as you walk around the house, you’ll get a better understanding of it, you’ll feel the rhythms of the language move you in different ways – even if you’re not quite sure what’s going on.
3. Don’t try and solve it
This is something else that goes back to our educational encounters with poetry – poems are not riddles that need solving. Some poems will speak to you very plainly. Some poems will simply move you through their language. Some poems will baffle you but, like an intriguing stranger, you’ll want to step closer to them. Poems aren’t a problem to be wrestled with – mostly poems are showing you one small thing as a way of talking about something bigger. Poems aren’t a broken pane of glass that you need to painstakingly reassemble. They’re a window, asking you to look out, trying to show you something.
4. Write your own
The best way to understand poetry is to write your own. The way you speak, the street you live on, the life you’ve lived, is as worthy of poetry as anything else. Once you begin to explore your own writing, you’ll be able to read and understand other people’s poems much better.
I would say this as a poet, but poetry is going to be even more central to how we rebuild after this current crisis. Poetry, especially the teaching of how we might write it, has this wonderful ability to create a new language, to imagine new ways of seeing things, to help people to articulate what it is that they’ve just been through. The way we move forward, as a community, as a society and, in fact, as a civilisation, is to push language to new frontiers, to use language to memorialise, reimagine and rebuild, but also to remember that poetry can be an escape, something to be enjoyed, something to cherish.
With that in mind here is a poem I wrote for Write where we are Now.
The link below is to an article that claims to be a complete guide to book annotation (which is an overreach I would suggest).
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I think it’s fair to say that each year the selected novels on the Miles Franklin shortlist manifest the zeitgeist, reflecting on some of the issues that are troubling society.
This year they take on and inflect some signature themes: racial/cultural relationships; human engagement with the natural world; and, threading through each novel, the problem of mourning – for lost loves, for the ruins of the past, for uncertain futures, for a hurt planet.
A Sand Archive
Gregory Day’s A Sand Archive starts with an introduction to engineer and dreamer FB, and his “cheaply printed” volume, The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties.
It is an introduction full of evocative images, and FB’s quaint and archaic self-presentation against a backdrop of shadows, sand and heath lets readers know with whom they will be travelling during the course of this novel. It establishes the voice of the novel, one marked by a lyrical flow, combining something not explicitly lyrical (Dune Stabilisation; Engineering Difficulties) with a poetic tone, and with a philosophical treatise on sand.
FB is studying “the ontology of dunes”, and discovering the uncertainty of a world built on sand. The narrator, like FB, is a polymath, and like FB is sequestered in regional Victoria. Thanks to the magic of publications and imaginations, both are able to range widely through history and cultures.
But FB has been knocked about by life: by his hopeless love for French activist Mathilde, his thwarted desire to arrest the degradation of south Victoria’s sand dunes, and the loneliness (and satisfactions) of the life he builds. This is a tender novel, and one in which sand becomes a metaphor for story, for the human heart, for how to keep living through “the absurdity of human endeavours”.
Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills’ latest novel, to some extent fits the clifi genre, but its brilliant exposition of time and its instabilities is perhaps the stronger driving force in this narrative.
Sam, the central character, suffers from migraines that come with the dubious gift of knowing the future. For Sam, who is thus captured by dyschronia, the future is not necessarily future. She lives in a jumble of tenses, and though her mother tries to instruct her in linearity – “Time’s like a road, see?” – she never escapes the “dys” of “chronos”.
For her, time is like Einstein’s river, one that flows randomly, separates, folds back on itself. The novel also offers a scathing interrogation of economic “development”. The local environment and the lives of the people living in Clapstone are ruined in the interests of corporate greed. The asphalt plant on which the town was established has closed, leaving behind a poisoned town and a wrecked environment.
Sam has lost herself, aware that her knowledge of the future will change nothing, that “the whole weak joke of order is unravelling”. But there is still a touch of hope in all this, a lovely contrast between the hopelessness of the situation and the irrepressibility of the locals, who determinedly ignore the end of their world. And, at the end, “laughter comes unbidden, like a gas bubbling up through water”.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs begins in the quasi-prison environment of Punchbowl Boys High, and all the violence and crassness of a community of sex segregated adolescents, boys whose present and probable future involves being derided and excluded. This makes it sound grim, but in fact it is often a very funny novel.
The narrator, Bani Adam, is a misfit at school and outside, and his performances and protestations of himself as intellectual, sophisticated, open-minded yet still devout, make for humour, albeit of a poignant, plaintive kind.
Bani also delivers an education in Muslim faith and its complexities; and illuminates the effect of a brutalising culture through an insider’s eye on the politics of being Muslim in an unwelcoming Australian context. Still, I found the unrelenting racism, the constant lateral violence, the easy homophobia and the sexualised representation of girls and women not sufficiently outweighed by the wit and literary skill that mark this novel. “That’s the problem at Punchbowl Boys”, says Bani, “even if you win, you lose”.
The Death of Noah Glass
In The Death of Noah Glass, Gail Jones takes on a topic she has often explored: the creative world, one in which the eponymous Noah and his son Martin attempt to reconcile image and text, creativity and identity. It splendidly maps the world of art while offering beautiful portraits of mourning. Martin and his sister Evie have lost both parents now, and the impact of those deaths sets up a tremor that runs through the narrative.
Evie remembers “searching the rooms of their cold house” for her mother, “listening to her own breathing, the barest rhythm, in case stillness might summon her mother back”. And with their father’s sudden death being followed by the news of his possible involvement in art theft, there is “the wider mystery of things”, the impossibility of dealing with this slur on his reputation “when he was still inside them and not yet resting in peace”.
How the dead remain inside us; how memory and its regrets keep banging away at us (Noah in particular has much to regret); how the patterns of the world and of society shape and contain us; how parenthood, family, and sensory being allow us to live: these reappear throughout the novel, animating its characters.
Too Much Lip
Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip takes us to regional Australia, introducing readers to an Aboriginal family living on country, and tracing the threads of settler violence that continue to harm the current generation. The story starts in 1943, with now-patriarch Owen Addison being brutalised so that: “When Owen died … there were seven decades of agony caged in him”.
Kerry Salter is returning home to see Owen, her damaged dying Pop, and she literally blasts into town, the “skinniest dark girl on a shiny new Softail, heart attack city, truesgod”, startling the “whitenormalsavages” at the corner store.
She is witty, sharp, tricky, compassionate, but like her siblings suffers intergenerational trauma, which emerges as pretty appalling sibling abuse, and inevitable tragedy. Her uncle manages to divert the worst possible ending to the story, telling her armed and desperate brother: “Terrible things happened in his [Owen’s] life … Some of that pain had to go somewhere. There’s no shame to you in it, my nephew. It wasn’t your fault.”
While the themes of the novel are tragic and often deeply disturbing, the tone and register point to courage, perseverance, and a powerful refutation of the violence of colonisation and the lies of history.
A Stolen Season
A Stolen Season, Rodney Hall’s first novel in over a decade, also takes on trauma, tracing its effects on the lives of the characters who people its pages. Adam Griffiths served in Gulf War 2, and due to what may have been “friendly fire” was reduced to little more than bones and burnt skin.
Now he has been returned from the dead, “a monstrosity”, and his previously estranged wife, Bridget, faces the dilemma of whether to remain with this shell of a man who functions only as a sort of android, or leave him to the uncertain compassion of government services: “There’s nothing to stop her walking out. Except the freedom to do so. This is what makes the possibility impossible.” Their story is interleaved with two others: that of Marianna Gluck, who like Adam was effectively dead, and then restored to a life of PTSD, paranoia, and flight; and the obscenely and pointlessly wealthy John Philip, whose vignette exposes the vapidity of the art market, celebrity culture, and elitism.
For each story line, an overwhelming issue is existential certainty; each character must realise that they are, after all, alive, and must therefore confront an ethical problem. This profoundly empathetic novel is finely attuned to sorrow and all its siblings – regret, pain, anguish, dust, despair. It offers glimmers of hope here and there, but no concrete answers.
In fact, each novel in this list is profoundly empathetic, and deeply attuned to contemporary Australia. While they look directly at crisis and suffering, they avoid hopelessness, using lyrical imagery, humour, and the consolations of art or family as tools against despair; and they suggest more intelligent, more compassionate ways to be human in the 21st century.
The winner of the Miles Franklin will be announced on Tuesday July 30.
The link below is to an article that is a guide to fiction and nonfiction book genres.
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The link below is to an article that serves as a guide to the world of the Divergent series (by Veronica Roth).
The link below is to an article that takes a look at ebook conversion.
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It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
As novel-openers go, they don’t come much better than this one in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. See how the unexpected “striking thirteen” runs powerfully into the beginnings of characterisation and world-building in just two arresting sentences.
Orwell knew that words could both grip the attention and change the mind. He wrote the book as the Cold War was becoming entrenched, and it was meant as an explicit warning on the nature of state power at that time.
The book still sells by the thousands, and is read by students who are compelled to do so. But it can be read voluntarily and profitably, and it can tell us a lot about contemporary politics and power, from Donald Trump to Facebook.
A world of ‘doublespeak’
Nineteen Eighty-Four became an instant classic when published in 1949. People could see in it a world that could easily become a reality. The memory of Nazi dictatorship was still fresh, the Soviet Union had erected the Iron Curtain, and the USA had the atomic bomb.
The novel’s setting is a dystopian Britain, which has become a part of Oceania, a region in perpetual war with the other super-regions of Eurasia and Eastasia. Oppression, surveillance and control are facts of life in a society ruled by the Party and its four Ministries of Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love.
It is a world of “doublespeak” where things are the opposite of what they appear; there is no truth, only lies – only war and only privation.
What does ‘Orwellian’ mean, anyway?
One of Orwell’s innovations is to introduce us to a new political lexicon, a “Newspeak” where he shows how words can be used and abused as a form of power. Words like “Thoughtcrime”, where it is illegal to have thoughts that are in opposition to the Party; or “unperson”, meaning someone who has been executed by the Party (e.g. for Thoughtcrime) will have all record of his or her existence erased.
Not only do we use many of these words today, but the manipulative function that Orwell described is still intact. For example, when Kellyanne Conway, advisor to US president Donald Trump, stated in 2017 that the Administration has its own “alternative facts”, she was indulging in “doublethink”: an attempted psychological control of reality through words.
Nineteen Eighty-Four became an Amazon bestseller following the election of Trump and the airing of this interview.
Within the corridors of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, though, there’s a tiny flickering of real love that develops between protagonist Winston and co-worker Julia. They share unlawful thoughts about other possible ways of living and thinking, based upon vague and unreliable memories of a time before world wars and Big Brother and the Party.
But through its immense powers of surveillance and the efforts of the Thought Police, Big Brother knows everything, and soon the lovers are suspects. Winston is arrested and brought before O’Brien, the novel’s antagonist and a Party heavyweight who is openly cynical about the power structure of society. For him power is a zero-sum equation: if you don’t use it to keep others down, they will use it similarly against you.
There is much drama, suspense and even horror in Orwell’s book. He wrote about what he saw around him, but filtered it with an acute sensitivity to the innate fragility of civilisation. In 1943, when the plot-lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four were probably gestating in his head, Orwell wrote:
Either power politics must yield to common decency, or the world must go spiralling down into a nightmare into which we can already catch some dim glimpses.
1984 goes digital
These days, a lot of power politics circulates online. Orwell, who worked for the BBC during the war, was sensitive to the power of communications. What he calls the “telescreen” is essentially a surveillance device that “received and transmitted simultaneously”.
He writes of the device that “any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover […] he could be seen as well as heard”. Remind you of anything? Alexa or Siri and their ilk may be fads, but the technology now exists; and so then does a new kind of power.
Such power is contingent and shifting and does not always reside with governments.
Donald Trump wields a new digital power through Twitter and Facebook and can “speak to his base” whenever he’s angry, bored or overcome by impulse. But through ownership of new digital technologies, new actors – data corporations – have acquired old powers. These are the powers to manipulate, surveil, and influence millions of people through access to their data.
And their power in turn can be leeched by hackers, state-sponsored or independent. The complexity of political power today means we need to be more attuned to its changing forms, to more effectively strategise and resist.
Orwell’s “common decency” reference may now sound rather quaint. But its very absence in social media is a problem.
The algorithms that Twitter, Facebook and Google insert into our communications act essentially as “manipulation engines” that can cause division, favour extreme views, and set groups of people against each other.
Divide-and-rule is not their intention – getting you online in order to sell your data to advertisers is – but that is the effect, and democratic politics is the worse for it.
Understanding the nature of political power is even more important today than when Orwell wrote. Oppression and manipulation were “simpler” and more brutal then; today, social control and its sources are more opaque.
Orwell’s imperishable value as a writer is that he provides a template on the character of political power that tells us that we cannot be complacent, cannot leave it to government to fix, and cannot leave it to fate and hope for the best.
Things did not turn out so well for Winston Smith. Pushed to the limit by torture and brainwashing, he betrays Julia. And in his abject state he convinces himself, finally, of the rightness of the Party: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
The story ends there. But for Orwell the writer and activist, the struggle for Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love was only beginning.
Today, Nineteen Eighty-Four comes across not as a warning that the actual world of Winston and Julia and O’Brien is in danger of becoming reality. Rather, its true value is that it teaches us that power and tyranny are made possible through the use of words and how they are mediated.
If we understand power in this way, especially in our digital world, then unlike Winston, we will have a better chance to fight it.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at various modes of transport – planes, trains, ships, etc, and their place in books.
Young people – how they think and feel, how institutions (families, schools, clinics, courts) fail them – are a recurring theme in the books shortlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.
These six surprising books – four novels, a memoir and a collection of essays – cover subject matter as diverse as grief, loss, history, childhood, and Indigenous resistance. They make risky aesthetic choices. Some feature dazzling experiments with language, structure and form. Despite, or, more likely, because of this, they also have a tight grip on reality.
They are searing and often searching; intent on excavating the “present’s beating heart”. They share an attitude that is daring, sometimes darkly funny, always serious and thoroughly unsentimental. These books are difficult to sum up or pin down. Here is our critical guide to them.
Little Gods, Jenny Ackland
Olive May Lovelock is blessed with the sunny kind of optimism that is typical of an Australian childhood, set against the broad flats of the Mallee. She saves a joey, and tames a raven named Grace. She checks the warm wombs of roadkill for babies. Olive wears an old pair of binoculars around her neck to “see things better”, but life proves deceptive.
There are secrets here. A mother who rarely hugs or pays attention to her daughter, an unmarried sister whose baby is taken away at birth, an uncle who loses his pregnant wife in a car accident.
When Olive finds out she had a baby sister who died – a secret that “everyone knows”, as the local school bully tells her, but nobody is allowed to tell – she is determined to find out what happened. Olive pieces together the answers out of fragments of her own memory, and those of the children around her. But memories are deceptive, “[they] get you where they want you, not the other way around”. The answers prove dark in a way that is breathless, soul-crushing and peculiarly Australian.
The Bridge, Enza Gandolfo
In October 1970, Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge – a “nation building project” that ought to have been a symbol of the brave, bold modern city – collapsed in Australia’s worst industrial accident, leaving 35 workers dead.
The opening pages of Gandolfo’s book conjure the physical terror of that moment, “[…] the men were falling, falling off, falling through the air”, she writes, “bashed by the flying debris; their arms reached for the sides of the girder, for something, but there was nothing”.
In Gandolfo’s imagining, the Westgate Bridge becomes the site of another horror 40 years later. Jo and her best friend, Ashleigh, a granddaughter of one of the Westgate survivors, are on the verge of finishing high school, flush with the future, when their lives are shattered by a car crash – senseless, alcohol-fuelled.
This novel, set among migrant communities in Yarraville in Melbourne’s west, explores how accidents of this magnitude not only waste the lives of those who die, but continue to haunt the living, who must struggle for a lifetime with the weight of trauma. This is a book about guilt, ambiguity and moral culpability. It searches amid half-made lives, misguided dreams and murky realities, asking stern questions about responsibility and remorse.
Pink Mountain on Locus Island, Jamie Marina Lau
Lau’s debut novel is a head trip of a book, filled with the shards of broken sentences. Written in short chapters, it embraces a contemporary reality that veers wildly between boredom and violence, mediated through retro technologies, including grainy VHS videos, and YouTube tutorials. It is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what is believable – whether there is, as Lau writes, any difference between “a false-alarm scream and a death-scream”.
But the book is always emotionally true to the chaotic inner life of its young protagonist, 15-year old Monk, whose world hovers between childhood and adulthood, English and Cantonese, familial neglect and a desperate desire to be noticed.
At one stage, Monk’s father asks, “Would you look away if somebody was forcing you to look at their emotions?” Lau doesn’t give us the chance. She makes sure we look, straight-on.
Monk’s mother is absent in Shanghai, her artist father is addicted to Xanax and alcohol, and she is infatuated with a “messiah” figure named Santa Coy, who ignites all their lives – pulling Monk into a dangerous world of drugs, pushers and parties. Lau’s book captures the voice of its teenage protagonist and a new kind of transcultural millennial life in the digital age.
The Erratics, Vicki Laveau-Harvie
Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s memoir tells the story of an estranged daughter’s journey home, when she is summoned to care for a mother with a fractured hip. Vicki’s mother suffers from some kind of undiagnosed mental illness, which has caused her to isolate herself and her husband from the world on their rural property, set in an eerie landscape in a remote region of Alberta, Canada. Vicki’s father suffers from dementia, and Vicki and her sister are convinced their mother has been slowly starving him to death.
Vicki’s mother is clearly unwell, and probably has been for their entire lives. She also possesses extraordinary powers of persuasion, convincing doctors, nurses and, at times, her own ailing husband that she has no daughters, or only one daughter who is dead, or only two daughters who have both disappeared.
Says Vicki: “I have a vision of my mother’s influence making its way through my father’s mind, filling the tiny spaces left by the rounded contours of his brain, solidifying around the synapses until not even his thoughts are his own.”
There are hints here of childhood trauma – reasons for leaving, reasons for not caring, or even trying to care. Vicki’s sister has long ago changed her name because “hearing her childhood name cast her back into the black chasms of before”.
The prose style is numb, clinically distant. It is sometimes difficult to empathise with the detached narrator and the care she cannot – or will not – show. But this is a startling memoir of family damage. We can only guess, “where there is nothing, there must have been pain”.
Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
Kerry Salter enters the pages of Too Much Lip on a stolen Harley Davidson Softail, “a dozen blue eyeballs popping fair outta their moogle heads at the sight of her”, with Kerry – “blackfella du jour” – barely resisting the “urge to elevate both middle fingers as she rode past”.
She has come to say goodbye to her grandfather, Pop Owen, and to say hello to a mother who spends way too much time “on the turps”. This is a book about colonial violence, contemporary state-sponsored violence, diffuse racism, and their relationship to domestic violence, searing child abuse, family dysfunction and intergenerational trauma.
Kerry and her siblings cope in different ways, mostly thorough crime, alcohol and “too much lip”. But when the local mayor, a shady real estate agent whose grandfather terrorised Indigenous people, wants to build a prison on land that has spiritual, cultural and personal significance to Kerry’s family, they pull together and fight to save their river. Resistance for the Salters is less about the Native Title Act, and more about missing sister Donna’s commercial know-how.
Lucashenko’s book is shot through with defiance and anger; present day thefts are offset by the memory of historical ones. Hers is a darkly funny, searingly violent world, in which there are no easy fixes – only hard, complicated truths.
Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin
To say that Maria Tumarkin’s essay collection scrutinises our ideas about “History” and the past is inadequate. This book rips into our pieties, interrogates our easy platitudes, and forces us to see the world – words, things, people, feelings – in new ways. History is exactly the right subject for Tumarkin, because there is no easy forgetting in the world she describes, just as there is seemingly no limit to “how much sorrow and pain about the world a person can carry inside”.
Each essay in the collection takes an axiom about history and tests it against our gritty present day realities. In “History Repeats Itself”, Vanya, a community lawyer, helps young people on a collision course with the criminal justice system “who live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks”. In “Those Who Forget the Past Are Condemned to Re – ”, a child flees a stepfather’s violence only to be returned to a house of blood and broken teeth.
Her essay “Time Heals All Wounds” is a harrowing examination of teenage suicide. One boy writes in a suicide note: “Please do not assume you know why. Even I’m not completely sure.”
Facing all this would not be possible without Tumarkin’s sonorous wisdom; her capacity to turn things, words, people, sentences over on the page to see what they’re made of. Lucid and grave; this book is a revelation.
The winner of the 2019 Stella prize will be announced in Melbourne on April 9.