Monthly Archives: June 2015

Fish and chip wrapping….today

fishandchips

I have had a long love affair with the newspaper.  I love padding out in my dressing gown to find it somewhere in the garden; I swear at the plastic wrap because it’s taking too long to get into it; I love getting lost in it and looking up and thinking “Ye Gods- is THAT the time?”

But if there’s one thing that’s going to push me over the edge into digital newspapers it’s reading two-day old news in ‘todays’ newspaper.  Jonathan Holmes on Media Watch some time back mentioned that because the Age sold its printing works in Tullamarine, the newspaper is now printed regionally, going to press at about 4.00 p.m. of the previous day.

To make matters worse, most of the articles in ‘today’s’ newspaper have been published online the previous day.  As a result, I flip through the paper thinking ‘read it, read it, read it’.

But the thing that really annoys me is that their stories are obviously written days earlier.  Take this paragraph in Friday‘s paper:

ADRIAN BAYLEY TO APPEAL

Adrian Bayley, the man who raped and murdered Jill Meagher is expect to appeal his convictions and sentence for raping two women before he attacked the ABC staffer in 2012.

Bayley’s barrister, Saul Holt QC is expected to hold formal appeal documents with the Supreme Court on Thursday.

I can only assume, then, that this article was written on Wednesday.  I noticed some time ago that the Age started naming the day of the week instead of saying ‘today’ or ‘tomorrow’.  I assumed that it was to be more specific in an online environment, but when articles don’t appear for two days in the newspaper, it suggests that their definition of ‘news’ is no longer time-bound.

Then there’s the sloppy editing. I think that I could find five mistakes in every edition of the newspaper.  It wasn’t like that previously.

I suspect that all of this is intentional on the Age’s part to force people to read the newspaper online.   I don’t really like the Age’s app. I find myself swiping just to get onto the next story without reading the story that’s already there on my screen; I can’t remember anything I’ve read later, and I don’t have a sense of having finished the paper. Besides, sticky Vegemite fingers are not good for swiping screens.

Print-based media companies complain about the demands of the 24 hour newscycle,  and I acknowledge that it’s certainly changed the whole environment. But then they offer you news that’s well and truly fish and chip wrapping and you have to wonder how hard they’re trying.

‘Melbourne’ by Sophie Cunningham

cunningham

2011, 272 p.

This book is one of a series published by New South where an established author  is given an open brief to write a ‘travel book where no-one leaves home’  of about 50,000 – 60,000 words about their own town.   There are nine in the series: Peter Timms (Hobart); Matthew Condon (Brisbane); Delia Falconer (Sydney), David Whish-Wilson (Perth); Kerryn Goldsworthy (Adelaide); Paul Daley (Canberra), Eleanor Hogan (Alice Springs);Tess Lea (Darwin) – and this one, Sophie Cunningham’s ‘Melbourne’.

As the commissioning editor Phillipa McGuiness said:

the inspiration for this series was literary, not some pointy-headed urge to make a grand statement about Australia’s cities….While people may read local histories, or dispassionate general histories about where they live, we rarely get the chance to read about our own cities in a way that resonates with our own experience and resurrects memories….So I wanted to ask some of our best novelists and writers to write non-fiction about the cities they lived in – or have adopted – in a way that would evoke intense sense memories for people who are familiar with them and give those who aren’t a sense of what it’s like to live in Brisbane or Adelaide or wherever.

In this book, Sophie Cunningham uses the seasonal year as her organizing structure, starting off with summer and moving through the seasons until finishing up with summer again.  Of course- in a city that is obsessed with weather- too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet- and famously has “four seasons in one day”, what other device could you use?  In particular, she uses the year 2009-2010, reflecting no doubt the date of commission, but that year was also a particularly memorable one for weather.  The summer of 2009 saw three days of excruciating heat (I wrote about it at the time, here) that culminated in the Black Saturday bushfires (that I also wrote about here) that razed Marysville and Kinglake.  I think that the fact that I can so easily link to four posts in this blog (and there are more than I could have linked) demonstrates how deeply these events are gouged into the consciousness of a Melburnian.

Cunningham’s book is consciously literary. Not only is she a writer and likely to bring a writer’s consciousness to the task, but the book was written in the wake of her resignation from Meanjin, a literary journal deeply embedded in Melbourne’s cultural identity.  She may have left Meanjin under contested circumstances, but her frequent citations of articles from Meanjin commissioned and published under her editorship suggest a continued identification with – and even a lingering sense of grief over- Meanjin.

For readers who are familiar with the city being discussed, there’s an internal comparison at work – “Would I have written the book this way??” Cunningham’s take is very much based on the inner suburbs of Melbourne, and a much younger perspective than I could bring.  She is gay, without children, and part of a literary milieu that as a mere reader, I can only observe from outside the window.  I think that if I were writing it, I’d be harking back to an older liberalism (all those Victorian worthies who in their way were quite radical), more architecture and possibly more politics.  I think I’d have to roam outside into the suburbs beyond the inner city, because I see Melbourne very much as a suburban city too.

The book is only small and beautifully produced- it fits well in your hands. It is by turns personal, historical, anecdotal and observational.  I did have a frisson of dissatisfaction near the end which seemed to have too many Melba-esque (pun!) farewells.  It was probably more the sense of rounding-off too many times, rather than the ending itself: in fact, I could have happily read another fifty pages more.

An interesting concept, and a really enjoyable read.

My rating: 8.5

Read because: It was on the library shelf

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww-badge-2015-200x300I’ve read this as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

‘The Invisible History of the Human Race’ by Christine Kenneally

kenneally

2014, 320 p & notes, Black Inc

The DNA Gods play a highly visible form of roulette with my family. Twenty-nine years ago I sat in a genetic counsellor’s office and had the statistic 11 to one batted around.  Eleven to one? That’s not too bad I thought….  Thirty years later my son sat in a genetic counsellor’s office, asking the same question but the answer he received was different: depressingly so.  How could that be? I wondered.  In many ways this book by Christine Kenneally explains why.  Our understanding of DNA has exploded since about 2000, with phenomena we have thought of as being cultural or idiosyncratic increasingly being exposed as being genetic in origin.  At the same time, there has been an explosion of interest in family history, turbo-charged by the Internet.  This book explores the inter-twining of these two forces.

Herein are studies from psychology, economics, history, and genetics, anecdotes and data from business, science, and the lives of many fascinating individuals.  They all exemplify in some way what gets passed down over the generations, and they all provide insights that resonate with one another.  As I hope to demonstrate by the end of the book, the concept of ancestry can bring genetics and history together fruitfully; perhaps ancestry will lead us to a place where we can make use of these different kinds of data in a more unified way. (p ix)

I’m not a science-y person at all.  The Introduction made me wonder if this book was going to be too science-heavy for me, but it actually started off with history, then prehistory, before moving onto DNA. Even the more science-y chapters started off with a human anecdote which tethered the content in the everyday before moving into more theoretical waters.

Early chapters explore the phenomenon of family history in the Internet age, its enormous popularity and yet its marginal status in relation to ‘academic’ history.  Family history also has its dark past:  eugenics has a sharp edge; the Third Reich deployed genealogy amongst its adherents to demonstrate their Aryan purity, and the Lebensborn clinics ensured that SS soldiers fathered more Aryan children.  Other regimes have silenced ancestry: we have the Stolen Generation and the brutalized children of orphanages whose identity has been stripped from them;  the Chinese government turned on the reverence for ancestors during the Cultural Revolution and insisted that centuries-old records be destroyed.  There’s an unsettling edge emerging with the hoovering-up of government and church archives into internet-based companies like Ancestry.com and the extensive databases owned by the Mormons who have their own religious imperative to posthumously baptize family members so that they can enter into eternal life.   The prospect of Anne Frank being posthumously claimed and baptised I find downright offensive.

The crossover of commercial genealogical companies into genetic analysis is also unsettling, and it leads Keneally into her exploration of genetic technology. Companies like Family Tree DNA, 23andMe and AncestryDNA.com offer a selection of DNA tests and genealogical connections to the general public.  The banks of genomes held (owned?) by such companies become, in effect, crowdfunded and immensely valuable privatized libraries.  It is no surprise that much of this activity is based in Salt Lake City, the base of the Mormon Church where James LeVoy Sorenson, the wealthiest man in Utah and one of the richest men in the world sought out the possibility of analyzing the DNA of every individual in Norway to find his ancestors who were hidden from the documentary record.  The academic from Brigham Young University that he approached deflected Sorenson from the Norway proposal by a different plan whereby they would analyze the genome of 200 individuals from each of 500 different populations around the world. That collection of 100,000 genomes would form a microcosm of the human race, and would yield information about four generations of family history for each person.  In effect, “they would use science to personalize history”. (p 205)  First they started in Utah, then went to Africa, Asia, Kyrgyszstan on their quest to acquire more than 100,000 samples from all over the world.  DNA analysis can reveal the sweeps of migration across the globe over time, thereby interweaving the individual and personal with the large pulse of mankind over millennia:

In the same way that looking back into our immediate family’s past may change how we think about time and history and our place in it, so too does taking on the idea of our more distant ancestry.  Once upon a time, history was living memory plus all the increasingly fuzzy spans of time that came before it.  Now we may use written records and the artifacts and fossils that came before records.  Using all of these sources of information with DNA teaches us simultaneously about human history, the forces of evolution, and ourselves. Ancestry brings together history and science without any artificial seams between them.  It explains our immediate family in the context of the human family and vice versa. (p 262)

DNA analysis can ruthlessly strip away family story and patchy documentation, leaving the human individual to cope intellectually and emotionally with the overturning of what had appeared certainties.   There had been claims about Thomas Jefferson fathering six children with Sally Hemings, but DNA scotched the alternative scenario of the involvement of Jefferson’s nephew that had been offered by those wishing to protect Jefferson’s reputation.  But the Woodson family, who also had a powerful oral history tradition linking them to the Jefferson and Heming family were devastated to learn that the connection was not there.  One family was vindicated by DNA; another family felt stripped naked by it.

Christine Kenneally is a journalist who has written for the New Yorker, The Monthly and New Scientist, and it is her contribution to  this latter publication that encapsulates the flavour of this wide-ranging book.  My husband subscribes to New Scientist, and each week there is a deluge of new studies  that often disrupt older knowledge across the whole spectrum of disciplines.  There are footnotes to this book but they are not marked in the text at all (I didn’t find them until after I’d finished it) and many of them are very recent publications. Indeed, many of the examples in this book may already be negated or made redundant by new studies.

I feel completely at sea in assessing this book- it ranges so far and so idiosyncratically that I wonder if anyone could be as familiar with the material as she is.  In her treatment of things that I do know about (the Founders and Survivors project, for example) her narrative is sound, if somewhat simplified and compressed to support the argument that she is making.  I can only assume that her treatment of other material is likewise.

This is a big book about big data and its effect on knowledge, from the broad sweep of history right down to the micro-level of genes and cells. It engages and teases with ideas, without swamping the reader.  Occasionally I wondered if I was losing the thread, but then she’d give an anecdote or example that brought me back again.  The fact that it may already be outdated in places is a perfect illustration of the paradox that she is illustrating: that the very new can shed light on the very old.

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘Water for Elephants’ by Sara Gruen

gruen

2007, 350 p.

To run off with the circus is a common escapist trope, and this book too is sheer escapism. Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary science student at Harvard University in the 1930s.  His world falls apart with the death of his parents in an accident and  what had appeared to him to be financial security  unravels quickly in the wake of their deaths. Stunned by the rapid change in his life he suffers, in effect, a nervous breakdown during his exams, walks out and- yep, joins the circus.

The circus is a little self-contained world with its own castes and hierarchies. It is owned by Uncle Al, a ruthless, avaricious entrepreneur who cannabilizes other circuses that fall on hard times during the Depression, picking the best of their artists and animals to join to his circus.  One of the animals is Rosie, an apparently intransigent elephant and she, like the other animals in the circus, comes under his care.  The equestrian director, August, is cruel to both the animals and to his wife Marlena but, as with many cruel people, can be charming and obsequious as well.  And, as you might expect, Jacob and Marlena fall in love.

The story has two alternating narrative threads.  Ninety-three year old Jacob is now a widower in a nursing home, frustrated by the infantalizing and brusque treatment he is receiving.  He’s a difficult but alert  [im]patient and Gruen has written this part well.  Sometimes when there’s a double narrative like this, I find myself inwardly groaning when it switches to the thread I’m less keen on, but this didn’t happen in this book.  The circus section is obviously well-researched (and only occasionally a little too obviously well-researched) both in terms of the times and circus lore.  Our edition was liberally sprinkled with archive photos which can be seen here.

There’s also a YouTube video advertising another book that has interesting images too.

Water for Elephants is a light read; it was on the best-seller list for ages; it was turned into a film starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon,  and I gather from all the plot summaries online, must be set on school reading lists.  The goodies are good; the baddies are bad and the ending is nicely tied up.

My rating: 8/10 for a very light read

Sourced from : CAE Book Group for the Book Group Ladies a.k.a. ‘The Ladies Who Say Oooh’

A day at Trades Hall

I’ve been at Trades Hall in Melbourne today, attending the Australian Fabians public forum “Progressive Reform Ideas for Labor’s 2015 National Conference”. There’s an article about Penny Wong’s opening address here (I’m not sure that I totally agree with her- I’m very, very wary of TPP, the influence of US corporations on the ‘agreement’, and the secrecy with which it is being drawn up).

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Very good speakers. The first session dealt with Economics and Inequality with two MPs  Claire O’Neil and Andrew Leigh MPs, John Daley from the Grattan Institute (hmmm) and Peter Malinauskas from the SDA (another even longer hmmm over their sell-out of casual retail workers in their latest enterprise agreement with the big supermarkets.)  A very tasty lunch catered by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, then a session on Social Democracy. Andrew Scott, who wrote Northern Lights (which I shall review when I’ve read it) spoke about social democracy in Scandinavian countries; Nick Dyrenfurth was controversial about the future of the ALP, Senator Jenny McAllister (outgoing President of the ALP)  gave one of the best thumbnail sketches of social democracy that I’ve ever heard  and Luke Hilakari (Secretary of Trades Hall Council) gave a spirited and rousing presentation about unions and election campaigns. A quick afternoon tea, then the final session on Refugee Policy with Robert Manne, Serina McDuff from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, and Brad Chilcott from Welcome to Australia.  Oh what a fraught, toxic policy problem it all is.

Brad Chilcott (Welcome to Australia), Serina McDuff (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre) and Robert Manne (La Trobe University)

Brad Chilcott (Welcome to Australia), Serina McDuff (Asylum Seekers Resource Centre) and Robert Manne (La Trobe University)

Anyway, the other highlight of the day for me was the opportunity to have a poke around Trades Hall.  It’s a grand building on the corner of Lygon Streets and Victoria Streets, consciously constructed as a “Worker’s Parliament”  to respond to Parliament House not far away.  Wikipedia says that it’s the oldest trade union building in the world, and it’s certainly Australia’s oldest.  The first Trades Hall building was constructed on the northern end of the site in 1859, just three years after the successful Eight Hour Day campaign of 1856.  It was a modest timber structure with a galvanized-iron roof, with the distinction of being the first building in the world to be constructed specifically for trade union business. This original structure was removed around 1917 to make way for extensions to the current building.

The current Trades Hall was constructed in ten stages between 1875 and 1925.  There’s a picture of Trades Hall from the early 20th century which really emphasizes its dominance here.

In the foyer there are beautifully painted frescoes marking the appointment of various union members to different philanthropic bodies (e.g. Eye and Ear Hospital, Children’s Hospital, Homeopathic Hospital ) on the Anniversary of The Eight Hour Day.  I suspect that it was the fiftieth anniversary.  The foyer was restored a number of years ago, but it’s starting to look a little faded.

As you go up the well-worn granite stairs, there’s an honour board commemorating the men who worked on the Eight Hour Day campaign, led by stonemasons working on Melbourne University in 1856.

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Upstairs there are the Old Council Room and the New Council Room.  The Old Council room is in very poor condition but scheduled for restoration when funds are available.  You can almost hear the shouting voices and smell the clouds of tobacco smoke.

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The ‘New’ Council Rooms need about fifty years to become worthy of preservation. At the moment, they’re just tacky.  Give it time.

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There are interesting little snippets of earlier days and old bitternesses still scattered around the place.

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They’re raising money for the restoration appeal here.

‘A Short History of Richard Kline’ by Amanda Lohrey

richardklein

 2015, 259 p.

The blurb on the back of this book describes it as “a pilgrim’s progress for the here and now”.  I can see the likenesses: Pilgrim’s Progress has Christian, its everyman character not unlike the eponymous Richard Kline in this book; Christian and Richard are both on a spiritual journey and quite frankly, just as with Bunyan’s book,  not everyone is going to want to go along the path with Richard Kline either.

Richard Kline starts his memoir by explaining that he is recording” a strange event that intervened in my life at the age of forty-two”. He is Australian and married with a young son. He has grown up and the computer industry has grown up alongside him, providing him with an affluent enough lifestyle to travel, eat out and go to conferences.  He is healthy. Yet

…I confess that for most of my life I was bored. It’s an unattractive word, boredom, and I flinch from it now, but for a long time it was the only word I could summon to describe my condition. Today I would say that for much of my life I suffered from an apprehension of lack, but one that I found difficult to put into words.  In essence it consisted of a feeling that nothing was ever quite right; something was always missing. How many of us have been dismayed by that feeling? And ashamed of it at those very moments when we ought to feel happy? We ask ourselves: what is the flaw in our being that gives rise to this discontent? (p. 3)

Peggy Lee once sang “Is that all there is?” and this book is almost that song put into prose. He’s a dessicated man, and no wonder he never cried. He is aware that he’s not feeling what other people do, and he feels cheated by that.  He turns to antidepressants in a desultory fashion, he dabbles in psychotherapy and holistic therapy. He takes up a free program in stress management offered through his work where he’s given a mantra and begins meditation. It is only when he stumbles into the Chatswood Community Centre on a Saturday morning that he encounters a Hindu saint and spiritual teacher from Tamil Nadu, Sri Mata, that he starts to thaw and to see reverence and meaning in the world around him.  He retains his scepticism and his empiricism, but he’s also confronted by what he has experienced from meeting Sri Mata.

Am I uncomfortable with this? Yes, and no.  I am myself a Unitarian Universalist, (you’ll find me there on the webpage!) a spiritual tradition that is firmly based on the idea of lifelong searching. Therefore,  I’m open to exploring meaning- but I’m not sure that there really is ‘truth’. I liked this distinction between ‘belief’ and ‘faith’:

Belief is clinging to a set of doctrines, usually based on what someone else has said. Faith is opening the mind, without preconceptions, to whatever comes along. Faith is a plunge into the unknown. Faith is what underpins any science that’s not dogmatic. Faith accepts that we cannot know everything and can control only a little. We surrender our need for certainty (p. 210)

But I found myself squirming at this confessional genre, which  evoked for me memories of ‘witnessing’ in my born-again Christian past. It’s all there- the elation; the waves of emotion; the backsliding; the doubts. The book itself is quite simply written with short sentences. The chapters alternate between first and third person, taking the reader into Richard’s interiority then moving back to a more observational, externalized perspective. Lohrey kept me reading quite happily enough for 3/4 of the book.

At one stage the Richard character wondered if only men felt the way he did, and I wondered that too. The book is a nuanced exploration of  middle-class, white, westernized, educated masculinity, and I gaze at some of the men that I know well and wonder if they, too, are like Richard.  I think they might be.

Was he ever going to extricate himself from this quicksand of self-absorption and pique that he might be ‘missing out’? Was his wife going to leave him? Would the book take a very dark turn?  The last 1/4  is where the thread broke for me. In meeting Martin Coleby, his spiritual guide,  all of a sudden the book turned into Sophies World – a didactic text draped with characters who were merely devices. It seemed, in the end,  such a me-centred quest. I closed the book, disappointed. I really don’t know what to think about it.  It’s a brave thing, to write about meaning, emptiness, searching- or maybe that’s the easy part-  the really brave thing is to write about the answer without smugness and to take your reader along with you.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers has written a thoughtful review that I encourage you to read.  There’s another review by Deborah Stone at ArtsHub too

My rating: 7

Read because: Lisa’s review and because I’m interested in Amanda Lohrey’s work

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

aww-badge-2015-200x300I have read this as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918’

If you have another sixty-three minutes to fill in (after seeing the School Days exhibition), there’s another interesting free feature on show until 26 July 2015 down at ACMI in Fed Square.   It’s called War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1910 and it aims to replicate the experience of cinema-goers during World War I.  Presented on a continuous loop, it is a chronological collection of snippets of advertisements, newsreels, shorts and both Australian and international films  that screened at the neighbourhood cinema in suburbs and small towns throughout Australia during WWI.  There are links to some of the film clips shown on the NFSA blog.

It’s very dark in the cinema, so you need to grope your way to the folding chairs- it’s a pity that they couldn’t source some authentic cinema chairs that have that distinct ‘cinema-y’ smell and solidity.  However, there’s a satisfying undercurrent of whispers and comments that helps provide a frisson of authenticity. The loop starts from 1914 with a notice to ladies to remove their hats (the early 20th century version of asking you to turn off your mobile, I suppose) and a rather embarrassed rendition of God Save the King (the same treatment as Advance Australia Fair today).

The majority of film clips come from 1915 and 1916 with a smattering of advertisements, many rough animations, for a “Warner’s Rustproof Corset”, “Hoadley’s Barrackville Cocoa”  and “Indasia Soap” (an interesting advertising concept given the White Australia Policy being promoted at the time).

There are several newsreels showing the Front, extracts from which we’ve seen many times.  There’s a power, however, in seeing them in a more extended form and learning that, for example, a frequently used series of images showed British soldiers, just half an hour before battle.  I wonder if people went, hoping to catch a glimpse of ‘their’ boy? Did the families of those men mown down less than an hour later see this film? Oh, the tragedy.  Again and again, there’s the silent gaze of the troops into the camera, men watching it, us watching them.  In what ended up being an unintentionally WWI-heavy day, we left the ACMI to head up to Cinema Nova to watch Testament of Youth, and there was that same steady gaze replicated for a twenty-first century movie.

The cinema was used by the government as a medium by which it could broadcast (literally) its own message, and so there are government-sponsored films and propaganda advertisements. Slides that divide the years depicted explain that cinema audiences responded with increasing cynicism and even hostility to the more heavy-handed government propaganda.  There’s a segment (silent of course) of Billy Hughes addressing an unseen crowd supporting the ‘Yes’ vote in the first referendum, with quotations from his speech interspersed between the visual clips of him speaking.

It’s on until 26th July 2015.