Friday, November 11, 2005

Look to the Right

I’ve been tweaking with this blog’s template again, refining the lists of my current television and blog viewing, and adding a new section ‘Reading Order’, which catalogues the last five books I have read in chronological order, beginning with the most recent. I am not at all savvy with html, so adding a new list to the template was a bit of an achievement for me. I was mystified when Banana Yoshimoto’s name was included as part of the link to her book’s title for no apparent reason. The inconsistency in the appearance of the list messed with my need for perfection. I allowed myself a one-woman Mexican wave when I discovered the problem and was able to fix it.

Drug of a Nation

I’ve edited the ‘Cathode Ray’ list to reflect what I watch, which are those programs currently screening on free-to-air television in Australia. There is no Pay TV or College Network goldmine for me. And since my Internet account is dial-up and provided by the University where I teach, there are no download diamonds either, legal or otherwise. Given the self-imposed limits of the television list, I’ve contemplated creating another list: one of programs past. But then I anticipate that things will start to get muddled as I consider whether I should only include those programs that I have been watching recently on video or DVD, which would make the list fairly static, or if I should just create a Top 5, which would require that I impose some sort of hierarchical measure on the programs I like, and I always find it impossible to choose only one favourite of anything. The quandary persists.

The only addition to ‘Cathode Ray’ is Speaking In Tongues. This week the first episode of this twelve-part series began on SBS. It’s another effort by John Safran, who brought SBS viewers John Safran’s Musical Jamboree and John Safran vs. God. Speaking In Tongues has a great premise: Safran and a Catholic priest will discuss the news of the week from a spiritual perspective. Well, that’s possibly what Father Bob is going to do, but with Safran as his co-host there is an expectation of a somewhat more irreverent approach. Undoubtedly Safran will consider the events under discussion with his usual chutzpah, unafraid of provoking charges of blasphemy. Already, Safran’s suggestions to Father Bob that he should try to be less grumpy for future episodes and perhaps give up his smart car for one more befitting a humble Catholic priest, gesture to the frank and hilarious exchanges to come. In response to Safran’s advice, the priest told his colleagues, who might have been watching, to sell the car because John didn’t like him driving mental health patients to hospital in air-conditioned comfort.

I have met John Safran. The occasion was one of the four National Young Writers’ Festivals I attended in Newcastle over the course of my Master’s. Safran is a friend of Jason, the writer behind the zine Mavis Mackenzie, which was about the adventures, loves and letter writing campaigns of an elderly woman. Jason was one of the handful of zine publishers I encountered who was receptive to the work I was doing in my thesis. He had completed a Master’s in his field (something to do with hearing aids), which I think goes some way to explaining his sympathy for my postgraduate enterprise. Anyway, since I spent time at the festival with Jason, I also spent time with Mr Safran. There are two memorable occasions worth relating here.

The first is the game of Chinese Checkers we played at the backpackers we were all staying at. There aren’t too many backpacker’s establishments that can be as grand as the YHA at Newcastle. It’s a mansion, high on a hill, and a two-minute walk to the beach. It has a common area that can only be described as a gentleman’s lounge; it’s lushly carpeted, has high ceilings, polished wooden furniture and pool tables, as well as a selection of board games. I, along with some fellow postgrads I’d had to work hard to convince to come to Newcastle, an artist friend who had self-published some of his drawings, and Jason and John, spent the wee hours, while everyone else was out dancing, playing Chinese Checkers. John was very distressed that his pieces weren’t moving as quickly across the board as he hoped. I have this mental image of him standing up to get a better view of the board, with his hands clasped on either side of his head, lamenting ‘Oh no! Oh no!’ He finished last.

The second occasion worth recounting will probably be a more surprising view of John Safran than the larrikin you’re used to. Jason, John and I were sitting in the festival club waiting for a panel to start. One of the organisers, who I knew quite well (for a couple of years there, I was an eternal blatherer on the e-group established to workshop ideas for panels), approached our table and asked if he could borrow my festival program to loan to the chair of the panel. I agreed. After the panel was over, I wanted my program back, because it had all sorts of relevant scribbles through it that would inform my thesis. I noticed that it had been left on the panel table that was still lit with bright spotlights. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by stumbling on the stage in full view of everyone, so I asked the organiser if he would mind retrieving it. He did, but then practically threw it at me before delivering some stinging summation of my person that I can barely remember, I was so shocked. I do recall he just kept going at it while I sat there, completely mortified. I wondered how long it would be until the verbal assault ended, when John interrupted the organiser and effectively told him to shut up because I’d done him a favour, and was it really necessary to treat me in that fashion? After the organiser left the vicinity, I was on the verge of bursting into tears, so announced that I was leaving. In response, John and Jason seemed genuinely perturbed that I might go, so in order to recollect myself I offered to buy them a beer, which again, seemed to genuinely delight them: free beer! Then we all went off in search of food and I was teased about being a vegetarian. So, that was the time I learned that John Safran is a kind and genuine person.

Tom and Michelle

Readers with a keen eye will have already noticed the addition of two more links to the ‘WeBlog’ list. I’ve had yet another debate with myself over what should be included on this list. I’m trying to create a unique list, one that doesn’t replicate the links that are on the other blogs I read. Mostly this is about trying to find my own niche in this blogging endeavour, but it is also a space consideration that arises from a personal aesthetic preference; I like a neat index page that doesn’t require a lot of scrolling, thus a series of short lists is preferable. I regularly use the links on the blogs that I read, especially those from Sorrow, as a gateway to other blogs. I can foresee a day when the degrees of separation between other blogs and my own might be difficult to keep a track of, but for now it’s manageable.

In what might be construed as contrary to the reasoning presented in the previous paragraph, I included a link on the WeBlog list to Tom’s blog after I followed a link from Tseen’s site. This isn’t the contradiction it seems at first. I followed the link to Tom’s site because I already knew the writer’s work—and loved it—through his zine Sweet Valley Zine, which I came across as part of my Master’s research. Each issue is finely crafted, and if it’s possible for writing to be at once minimalist and irreverent, then that is the best summation I can offer (I’d also add ‘post-modern’ in the non-pejorative sense). I also briefly met the blog’s author during the time I was doing my Master’s both online, because I ordered Sweet Valley, and then in person at the National Young Writers’ Festival. I attended a reading at that event, then on another day we chatted after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance.

That I’ve met Michelle is also the reason for including a link to her blog, Not Like That. I also wanted a Brisbane blogger on the list. Michelle is a post-graduate and tutor at the University where I currently teach and where I will be doing my PhD. She is finishing her Master’s in creative writing and will go on to do her doctorate as well. It’s a case of being in the computer room at the same time, and conversation and coffee ensuing. Michelle mentioned her blog to me around the time I was considering starting this one. She said it was a good time to start reading her blog, because there were a lot dramatic posts as she recounted the arguments she was having with her mother about her decision to travel to Canada to marry her partner, Heather.

The Reader

Until now, you may have thought that all I do in my copious spare time is watch television. You’re not far off the mark. If I’m not watching a direct broadcast, it’s something I’ve recorded the previous night, or a DVD of a television series (Buffy, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos). But I have also been known to read a book before going to sleep or before getting out of bed in the morning; and since I have so much time at the moment to wander into Borders and be seduced by all those smooth covers I’ve lately been going through an intense reading phase.

5. I bought The Black Album along with another of Hanif Kureishi’s novels, Gabriel’s Gift, the day after the London bombings. There were several of Kureishi’s titles on sale, reduced by fifty per cent, so of course I took the opportunity to get two for the price of one. I picked The Black Album, one of Kureishi’s earlier works in light of the events of the previous day. It’s about a young Muslim man, Shahid, who is studying in London at the time the fatwa was placed on Salman Rushdie. Shahid lives next door to Riaz, a man for whom people queue in the hallways to consult about their problems with their families and officialdom. Shahid is drawn into his neighbour’s world, defined by the master narrative of Islam, but is also encountering new ideas through his secular studies, which invite him to critique the certainties of his faith, in particular some of its more extreme manifestations.

4. Paul Auster is one of my favourite writers. I have been wanting to wax lyrical about him for a while, and soon I will do him the justice he deserves in a dedicated post. One day I want to trace the recurring character names across his works, because in addition to the layers of storytelling in his individual works (The Book of Illusions is just about the most astonishing book I have ever read on that level), there is something happening across his whole body of work that I want to work out. For example, in The Brooklyn Follies the main character’s name is Nathan Glass, which is clearly a reference to ‘City of Glass’ that was one of The New York Trilogy, and the character in The Brooklyn Follies, whom we first know as the ‘beautiful, perfect mother’ (bpm) has the same surname as one of the artists who adapted ‘City of Glass’ into a graphic novel, David Mazzucchelli.

3. Banana Yoshimoto is a recent discovery. Do you ever get the feeling, just by looking at a book, that you will like it? I’ve heard people praise another of her works, Kitchen. Perhaps it is that tenuous link, in combination with another, the cover of Hard Boiled/Hard Luck is vaguely reminiscent of A Quiet Life by Kenzaburo Oë, that prompted my purchase. That probably sounds quite a superficial way to choose what to read, but it paid off. Yoshimoto’s writing is deceptively simple but sparks off hours and hours of contemplation.

2. You will have read the excerpt from Non-Fiction that I scanned and posted to the blog. It’s a series of observational essays that Chuck Palahniuk wrote between books. It has made me want to read more of his work. His reflections on writing were in my mind when I wrote the ‘Sweet Jesus!’ post. There, I tried to relate the situation without judgement, so you could draw your own conclusions, even though I'm heartbroken that I haven’t been able to see my niece lately.

1. I’m just over a third of the way through Oh, Play That Thing by Roddy Doyle. He is another writer with whose work I am completely enamoured. There is a scene in Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, where Paddy shakes his father’s hand and declares that he is very well thank you, that demonstrates everything that is good about restraint in writing. On the pleasures of understatement, I also think of the final scenes of Ken Loach’s filmed version of Barry Hines’s novel Kes. Oh, Play That Thing is musical not only in its subject matter but in the rhythms of its writing. Doyle is cognisant of the legacy of his countryman, James Joyce, which is apparent even in the type setting of Doyle’s novels. After reading Yoshimoto and Palahniuk, I had to shift gears to enter the rhythm of Play, but I’ve settled in nicely now and I’m recalling the first novel in the trilogy (of which Play is the second) about Henry Smart, former associate of Irish leader, Michael Collins.

So much for not scrolling, hey?

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