Friday, December 31, 2010

The Colour of Magic

The Colour of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The only reason I tried to read this book again is because I am on holiday, and need something to break up the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This was the only English book I could find, and as much as I have hated Terry Pratchett before, I figured that it couldn't possibly be as terrible as my memory would have me believe.


Reading Terry Pratchett is the literary equivalent of watching sketch comedies inspired by the local political figures of another country, a decade on. I imagine that you'd like if you had watched it back then, and had a chuckle. Now, however, it seems dated and un-funny. There are a few little quips that made me smirk, but they couldn't keep me going beyond about 2/3 of the book. I hate it.

I love fantasy. Swords, horses, mana, flaxen locks, spells and chosen children are not a problem for me. I'm happy to read pulpy trash, particularly on holiday. One would think that I'm the kind of person that ought to love the the kind of person that ought to love the Discworld series. I'm just not. Three or so chances are enough; this is one of the very few books that is too painful to finish than to leave hanging.

View all my reviews

Historical Fiction reading challenge

I think I can be Daring and Curious and read 5 historical fiction books in 2011. I'm kind of curious as to whether The Seven Pillars of Wisdom would qualify as 'historical fiction' actually. I suspect it might spark the kind of debate that I haven't got the patience to engage in. Regardless,
at this rate Lawrence is going to accompany me well into 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dispatches, 2.

The globe is dying and this is the kind of artificial twilight that your parents warned you would ruin your eyes. I'm trying to read but it's Terry Pratchett who can't even hold my attention when the option is to pay full attention to the paper thin walls and the argument that they are barely containing.
For the first time, we are forcing ourselves to get up with the alarm not because I've decided that we should, but because we'll otherwise miss our train. It is 1, maybe 2 degrees outside and there have been no stirrings from the corridor since my own midnight pee.
I can't decide why Osaka was such a foul letdown. It was no less gloomy and grey than any of the other cities we have visited, though perhaps lacked the redeeming feature that each other seemed to have. Nagasaki is set at the foot of what would be ominous mountaints, were they not circuited by tiny winding streets and ancient temples. Hiroshima was friendly and open, with little old ladies at home and at one in the station. Osaka was somehow more tired and depressed, except for the cat cafe that we accidentally found in America-Mura. 18 cats, cake and an hourly rate.

Inside an alley, off a street next to a ghetto soviet style playground compound, left at the two stones, lies the warm little nest of Roujiya Guesthouse.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Blindness, José Saramago

Blindness (Vintage Classics)Blindness by José Saramago
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am always a book person and never a movie person, but I saw Blindness before I read it. Due to my previous scarring experiences with Latin American literature, and oft-cited comparisons between Saramago and Garcia Marquez, I have shied away from Saramago's novels before. The movie, and the fact that Saramago is Portuguese and has been recommended by friends many times before, made me start this one. The movie is absolutely brilliant, and one of the only movies I have seen which had parts that I was physically unable to watch. One scene in particular is etched in the back of my head; I'm sure that anybody who has either read or seen Blindness will be able to guess which one.


A man goes blind while driving his car, and is helped home by another man (who later also falls blind). When she arrives home, the first man's wife takes him to an ophthalmologist. These three people, along with the people in the waiting room, the doctor and his wife, are the central cast of characters. All but the doctor's wife fall blind at some point in the following days.

Unsure of the nature of the illness, how is transmitted and how it should be dealt with, the government moves all blind people into one part of an old asylum, and separately quarantines those that have come into contact with them. The asylum is ferociously guarded by armed security, which becomes progressively brutal as the government's interest in the blind's welfare diminishes. There is no medical or other assistance provided to the inmates, beyond food packages delivered each day, which the blind must ration out themselves. The asylum descends into a filthy and chaotic hell, where nobody is set to monitor, assist or oversee the complicated and dangerous existence that the inmates must live.

The doctor's wife is the only person able to see, but fearful of what may happen if others realise, keeps this secret. She is a gentle and warm character, whose voice provides much insight into the conditions in the asylum. She quietly and thanklessly provides some semblance of dignity and order for people who are none the wiser, and functions as a beacon of hope in this story of horror and dysfunction.

The book charts this state of systemic breakdown and apparently abandonment by authorities, where there are no witnesses to peoples' actions and abuses, and where leaders appoint themselves and others fall into line. The setting of Blindness is never identified, and could be anywhere, just as the characters remain nameless, and could be anybody. Part of Blindness's power lies in the way it examines humanity, and the way we degenerate into brute animalism at what seems like the first opportunity. It is graphic in some parts, often haunting, and extremely moreish. Looking back, I'm not sure exactly how much time elapses during the book, but it doesn't seem like more than a few weeks.

Much of the dialogue is difficult to read and follow. People interrupt each other, and thus the flow of paragraphs and thoughts. This disjointed and enforced slowness perhaps mirrors the clumsy, disorganised way that the blind move, jostling up against each other.

Some parts of the book are truly hideous, which makes them no less 'true' or imaginable. Do read it. I wish I had read the book before seeing the movie (obviously, I suppose) as knowing the ending really dampened the suspense that would otherwise have been delightfully unbearable.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 20, 2010

Dispatches from Japan, 1.

In which we visit Japan, armed only with the word 'arigato'. It's amazing how far a sheepish, guilty smile, a nod and a few arigatos can get you. From Tokyo, to Fukuoka, to Nagasaki so far.

Made up of seemingly discrete neighbourhoods, from their cultural identities and the divisions of every map, guidebook and conversation about the place, Tokyo is unfathomable without a subway directory. In my head it is a huge series of sub-cities that would take a lifetime to come to grips with. In reality, each subway station is so huge that the exit-to-exit distance is often longer than that between stations. Navigating them, when destinations are completely unknowable until you can at least see daylight, would probably be exciting for somebody less anxious and crowd-averse than me. It is difficult to understand the city's layout, and the way it fits together, when travelling takes place primarily underground.

I come to terms with a place by walking around in it. Tokyo is not geared toward this. While an extremely walkable city, being pedestrian friendly and clearly nightmarish for car traffic, people seem to avoid walking as much as possible, and take the subway instead. Even when the next station is 200m away. While trying to find a different terminal in Tokyo station, we accidentally walked to the next one along, Otemashi. Had we known, we would never have taken the subway this one stop, but there is no way of knowing.


There is a twittering sound on replay at the train station, which serves to remind us that there are no birds outside. No birds, animals or nature of any kind, apart from the sashimi which has not yet made the transition from flesh to food.

Everything functions so perfectly, without being automated or artificial. Things work, and when they don't, somebody steps in and fixes it. A woman and her little daughter, perhaps 3 years old, stopped to help us when our tickets wouldn't let us through the train barriers. A gruff looking older man saw us interrogating our map, turning it around, me getting angry, and asked if we needed help. A woman in a souvenir store left it, walking us to the escalator we needed. People are never as frustrated with our fumbling as I am, myself.


Everything is perfectly packaged in far more packaging and plastic than could ever be justified, and cutesy. A bag for your rice ball? A bag for your shoes? Dancing cartoon tabby cats plastered down the side of the Shinkansen which was empty, apart from us a handful of stern and silent businessmen.

We visited the Nagasaki Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum this morning. I had no idea that almost one third of the population of Nagasaki were killed, and another third seriously injured. I don't think I would have known that an atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki if I hadn't been a nerdy, precocious teenager. I never learned about World War II at school, and our World War I history was limited to writing imaginary letters home from a soldier called Roly, and something about how butter was scarce. This is one of the reasons that I love travelling. No war, famine, travesty or event is understandable once you've visited the museum. But testimonials, images and museums can make you feel something, and remind you how little you know of the world.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A selection of dogs from 2010

Of the 169 photos that I just transferred from my phone to my computer, probably 94% are of dogs, 1% are of cats, 2% are of food, and 3% are of signs/street art. That encompasses 2010 nicely.

My little Mimi.
Toby, who belongs to a guy I work with. I used to babysit him, until his owner and I had an office altercation. He sat on my desk shaking with rage like a spoilt toddler, then gave me a boost bar to apologise. It's a long and ridiculous story that ended in me having less than the amount of respect for him that is required to work productively with somebody, and him no longer acknowledging me at work. I haven't seen Toby for few months now.

Gretel, the most food motivated dog I have ever met, with her dual paunch bags and 'feed me love me' eyes.

Slinky, the first cat to ever make me realise why people like cats. She matches my entire wardrobe with her grey undercoat, black sheen and olive eyes. Also, she has never bitten me and pronounces 'meow' perfectly.

Quizzical Mim, looking like the senior dog that she now is. 9 years old, until she gets to the park and may as well be 4 months old.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

American Rust

American RustAmerican Rust by Philipp Meyer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

American Rust is one of the most disappointing books I’ve read this year. I carried it around many a bookshop, changing my mind about buying it at the last minute, keeping it in the back of mind as something I’d save up.

I’ve read glowing reviews of the ‘Meyer is the new Steinbeck’ type (though any “xxx is the new/this generation’s xxx” type statement makes me cringe). I wanted to read the dark, heartwrenching thriller set in a dying rural town, that I had read about. He is not, and it was not. American Rust struck me as a book by somebody who considers that everyone has a novel inside them, but doesn’t actually read.

It has a glowing review by Colm Toibin on the cover, which is somewhat irksomely returned with similarly glowing thanks on the acknowledgements page. I have read The Road and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and disliked them both for what seems to me as a labouriously but poorly executed kind of writing, rather than a style in itself. American Rust falls into this same category, for me.

Isaac is the shy bookish kid from high school, and Poe is his friend the athlete, who has a thing for Isaac’s sister. A few years after high school, Isaac never went away to college like everybody expected and stayed home to look after his father. Poe never followed through on any of the athletic scholarships and lives with his mother in a trailer, in and out of trouble. They live in Buell, a small town in Pennylvania that was once centred around a steel mill. Isaac and Poe are involved in a murder, and much of the book is focussed on whether Isaac will be found responsible or whether Poe will accept responsibility.

Each chapter is from the point of view of one of the characters, which are either trains of thought or bland recitations of and then I did this, and then I did that, to push the plot along. Cheap and lazy characterisation: show, don’t tell! Rather than providing real insight into the makeup or of a character, this served to hollow them. They are jumpy, hard to read, and peppered with strings of what I’m sure were meant to be gems of insight and profundity, but read as contrived. There are a lot of run on sentences that are at best unnecessary, and a lack of grammar which is painstaking to read and serves no real purpose. When done well, this can convey a sense of urgency and encourage a reader to read in a certain rhythm – here, there was neither structure nor need.

I failed to feel anything toward Pennsylvania, with the death of the American dream, small and dying town kind of ‘themes’ seeming more of a setting for the sake of it than anything else. The motivations of the characters were unclear or unbelievable, because the characters were never really developed. I feel as though they’re very real in Meyer’s head, but something was lost in the translation to text, and life was never fully breathed into them. I was unable to identify with any characters, or care about them at all, even at the very end.

The pace and timing seemed wrong, with little time elapsing between Isaac when we meet him, and the baby-vagrant Isaac that he somehow turns into, some days later. It feels like we’re playing into his runaway fantasy, but I could never work out whether I was meant to take him seriously, or look down my nose at him. Poe, Harris the cop, and Isaac’s sister, Lee, are little more than caricatures.

Structurally, the book has been divided into six books, with chapters that shorten as the book progresses. This is distracting, but thankfully allowed me to speed through the last 30 or so pages. If it weren’t for my pathological necessity to finish every book I start, I would have put it down halfway through. Less, if I’d decided not to soldier on, convinced that it would turn or start to pull me in at some point.

That said, it does have a nice cover..

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bobby Chiu at Imaginism Studios.


I now have a secure job until mid-2012, a payrise, annual leave while I'm in Japan and five nights until we leave.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book came from the library with a post-it note on the inside cover: "This book is brilliant". I couldn't decide whether that was cute or annoying until I actually started reading, and now I completely understand what would push someone to resort to a post-it note. This book is brilliant!

David Mitchell is my new favourite. I have been trying to dissect the gushy love I have for this book but it comes out as a list of clinical words and concepts reminiscent of Mrs Chamberlain in my high school english lit class. Character building! Place setting! Literary devices! Things that put people off reading, and things that aren't necessarily apparent unless they're done particularly poorly, or perfectly. And in that case, they're often invisible.

Not so with The Thousand Autumns. It has the pace and plot of a thriller and the kind of robust and humanly flawed characters that are more real than the host of people you brush past in everyday life. There are the kind of parallel plot lines that can be dangerous for someone with a memory as pitiful as mine, but they are so luscious, and each as interesting as the other, that it works. Every time a chapter ended, I'd grit my teeth with a 'no, fuck you!' and then turn the page and 'ohhhh, yeah! argh!'.

It evokes the mindset of both 'the West' and Japan as Japan was grudgingly opening its doors to trade in the late 1700s, and Holland and England were combing the globe for more trade partners to wrangle with. Both sides with their racism and lack of comprehension of the strange and foreign values of the other. And, the individuals cutting through it, connecting with each other on a human level.


The Thousand Autumns is set in Japan at the turn of the 19th century, on the trading post of Dejima, Nagasaki. Jacob de Zoet is a clerk with the Dutch East India company, and the book charts his dealings and relations during his time there. The characters are perfect, with their simmering tension and backstabbing, history and motives.

It is set among politics of the relations between the Dutch traders stationed in Dejima, the Japanese interpreters and people with whom they came into contact. It's humorous without being funny, and very fun to read.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The long way home

There is an incident near Johnston St, and we must all get off the tram. An overly made up fat woman huffs at the inconvenience and hauls her self up to waddle toward the door. I walk toward the incident, thinking about counsellors and roadkill, reiterating to myself that it's not morbid curiosity but a geographic necessity to follow this road in this direction. I map escape routes and decide to walk the last 4km home because I've got nothing more pressing to do and my psychologist spent the duration of our relationship telling me to stop and smell the roses.

A baby birds with translucent skin and a suede little beaklet lies in the middle of the footpath, a trail of ants winds around it, devouring cell by cell and disappearing under the fence. I can't walk past, and cross the road. A cat is dozing and I call it over, but it rolls and lazily bats a paw toward its face. I am patient, and it comes over in its own sweet time. Dogs aren't like this, but the only evidence of dogs on this street are the ball throwing implements in the garden next door. The cat has freckles on its eye rims and a thoughtlessly positioned blotch that runs from its nose to its left eye. It sees something invisible and shies away, wherein I lose my patience and meander on.


Housemate number two is playing through playlists for her party tonight and they're giving me the kind of tingles that only 90s pop can. She's dancing with the beautiful lanky foal that leaves her waiting for hours and turns up with cupcakes just as she's finished taking off her tear-ruined make up. All these songs are for girls by girls and I wonder whether that ache is ever going to go away. Cider is flowing today and all the bags of chips are already open.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Julian Assange rape saga

"American politicians might use their time more productively working out how a 23-year-old army private had access to so much confidential material and was able to copy it and hand it over to WikiLeaks."
From Malcolm Turnbull's article in The Age this morning. A very good point that I hadn't considered. But as an aside:
"Certainly there are some, not only in the Australian's legal team, who argue that a rape accusation based on the details of the allegations in the public domain – some of them placed there by the women themselves – would be highly unlikely to come to court in this country. "
From The Guardian. They would be highly unlikely to come to court in this country, too. But I don't know how to think about the issue. How rape has become an issue in the Julian Assange thing, and what it means more broadly.

On one hand, rape claims must be taken seriously regardless of the celebrity status or lack thereof, of the accused. On the other hand, the accusations toward Julian Assange reek of that exact sentiment being abused for political gain. While taking seriously charges laid against somebody of public import could serve to normalise rape trials and highlight (or, more to the point, ensure that) nobody is above the law. In reality, it appears that the opposite happens; claims against those in the public eye are trivialised and the women vilified for lying, and seeking fame, attention and money. For being attention seeking whores, and how dare they! And then there are the people available to come out and publicly defend the character of the accused, and their charity work, contribution to society, the arts, public life, and/or whatever else. Which all too often ends in a denigration of the character and reputation of the women.

It is disgusting that a rape claim is being used to bring Julian Assange into custody, to muddy his character and by extension, his organisation and actions. If that is what is happening, and it seems like it is. Which ever way it falls, it feels like a great big conspiracy. Rape is a revolting, horrific crime. To use charges of rape makes it difficult for anybody to challenge the timing and the way that they have been brought about. To do so can imply or be made to look as though they are holding somebody in the public eye above the charge of rape. It shifts attention away from the other thing going on here, which is desperately scrubbing around to find a charge that could be levelled against Assange. Rape is one sure to turn the tide of public opinion against the man.

The other side of the conspiracy is that rape claims are being used in this scenario that looks like a set up, but that we can’t really outwardly conceive of like a set up. Who is the winner in this situation? Not the women who have allegedly been raped, and not Assange. It’s pitting pawns against each other and skirting issues like freedom of information, and information in the age of the internet. Perhaps various authorities that have bought themselves some time?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

We went to Daimaru on the weekend, where she bought couverture mice and fingered clothes by Australian designers that I wonder what happened to. She taught me to drink coffee without sugar and that two is safer than one. We went to Hudsons on Elizabeth St and sat in the sweltering upstairs area drinking caramel and hazelnut lattes, making up band names and fake gothic poetry.

The map of that place is etched in my head, with the places we were too young to visit, for girls older than us. The shops we went to, monitoring the metal section and which CDs had been bought during the week. Wondering who bought them, and where we could find them. Him.

I needed her then, and despite the distance between me and everybody else in those years, it was the closest I’ve ever been to another girl. I wished I was her, with her taste and sensibility. Orange was her favourite colour and all her things were her, to a tee. Psychology and dreams, basketball, and the way her dad liked Rush. I didn’t have a favourite colour or style or thing that I did. I did my homework and gritted my teeth a lot, waiting for high school to be over so everything could be less intolerable.

Choosing things required a thorough self-interrogation. What would that mean, and what would that say about me? It wasn’t that I didn’t know who I was. It was that I wasn’t part of anything, close to or sheltered by anyone. It was an uphill battle and a desperate need to build a shell that meant I didn’t have to nail my colours to a mast. You can’t straddle social groups without a breezy self ease that I used to think I would discover one day.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On dogs and other things

I know about things like high speed rail and the cycle of prison and homelessness. I know what it’s like to wish they would just kill themself and put us all out of our misery, because at least grieving has a process and is easier than watching and waiting. I know little pieces of big things and at work I’m a shell, alternately awkward and on-fire witty, pumping out swathes of documents and doing what I’m told. I wonder what it’s like to feel engaged at work. I am fascinated by the subjects that I work around, like I am fascinated by most topics, but this place doesn’t let me care. I think about who I am outside of work, and it’s nothing, either. I am a reader and a worrier. I read, and anxiously flit between obligations trying to eat enough vegetables.

I have spent the last three weekends with my little dog by my side, returning her on Sunday night, when she moves seamlessly from baby to alpha, and the top of the couch. It’s interesting, being a some time dog owner. There’s something missing, not living with a dog, and something so lovely about being followed into the toilet and having visited three parks before 10am on Sunday morning.

This Sunday, she was set upon by a cat being chased by a toddler. It hissed at the child and in a blind instant was upon Mimi, twice her size and weight, clawing and screaming. She screeched and cried and I saw a flash of dead dog, but wrenched her away with only a few smears of blood on my arms. Hers. She was shocked and shaking and I was hating cats again, when the owners ran out and asked what the hell was going on. Your cat attacked my dog. Oh, she does that.
We carried on to Methven park where a group were gathered around a bunch of small dogs, and a tiny apricot teacup poodle on an old woman’s shoulder. Owners of small dogs are sure to have sympathy for small dogs being attacked by large cats. Instant friends.

These are my people, but I’m not really one of them. Dogs have been such a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. My grandpa, Pat, healing ‘little beasties’ with splints for mice and nests for baby birds. Picking Lady up after she’d been hit by a car on Belmont Avenue, when I was so scared and overwhelmed that I couldn’t get close enough to even determine whether it was a log or Lady. It was Lady, and she was still so young. She had gone outside through a hole in the kitchen cupboard which was her dog hole at her house, but just another part of the building site that was ours, at the time. So unfair. And Camille next door’s dog, Carole the German Short Haired Pointer, running around the streets every day, unconfined and scared. I hated them because they wouldn’t even have known if she had been killed, and she was so scared that I could never even get close enough to make her safe. And Lady’s first visit was her last.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I overcame my fear of the Birkenstock shop in Centre Arcade today, and ventured through the lunchtime city rush to finally, actually, buy some of these:

They look relatively bike friendly, for the bike about town kind of trip, and I'm coming to terms with lots of things that have always seemed to belong in the domain of Things I Couldn't Pull Off. Not sure how these shoes ever fit into that category, but I often confront weird high school truths that have prevented me from doing/watching/listening to various things.

Unfortunately, not not unpredictably, I'm somewhere between a size 34 and 35. The 35 was far too big, and of course, the 34 is in the kids' section. And the ones I want aren't made for kids. That at least makes shoes a justifiable thing to buy in Japan, where my minuscule feet will be catered to.

In other news, D and I went to Veggie Kitchen tonight, which has a lovely vegetarian menu that isn't comprised of dishes using mock meat or meat substitutes. It's hard to find truly vegetarian Chinese food, which isn't extremely plain and/or mock, so this is one to remember. The hot pot had some sort of deep fried tofu thing on top, which looked kind of like deep fried tofu sushi without rice, and was amazing.

Everything is made on site, including their tofu and soy milk, and everything looked and felt home made. Which is a good thing, especially since I'm sure that all the dumplings I've ever had (bar those made myself) have come from the same supplier, regardless of where I've had them. They're yum, but they're the same, and not house made.