Do you get the feeling that the US might have another president before too long? Surely, a medical team will show up at the White House with a syringe and a straight jacket any moment now? I guess the compulsive tweeting allows us to see what’s happening, but OY VEY! It’s all so surreal and weird.
I’ve been thinking for a while now that all political candidates should be psych evaluated to make sure they’re not a narcissistic psychopath. Clearly, You Know Who would not have passed that test. National Day of Patriotic Devotion (to MEEEE). Crikey! Where will it all end?
So, being a hopeless geek swot, I’ve started reading up on the theory and philosophy of human rights, which is one of the units I’ve signed up for. Hello, Plato, Kant, Marx, et al. I can’t seem to get away from those DWM philosophers, but I suppose it’s a good thing that I encountered some of them as an undergrad and know what to expect. Reading Kant again. *sigh*
I’m trying out a new digital note-taking “workflow”, which does save me time, but I’m not sure I’ll stick with it. I worry about “what if” there’s a laptop/iPad glitch that causes my notes to vanish? There’s something reassuring about having hand-written notes on index cards, and summaries and outlines in paper notebooks. Copy and paste is quicker and easier though, and reference material mostly comes in digital form these days.
The more I read about the ins and outs of human rights, the more complex it all becomes. I need to try to avoid over-thinking my studies this year, because I can get really bogged down in minutiae if I’m not careful. I have a tendency to want to read everything on a particular topic, and I end up feeling overwhelmed. I’m going to try to be more efficient with my study time this year. [Note to Self: good luck with that!]
I hope you’re not feeling too despondent about the state of the world. I’ve been listening to some NPR political podcasts, and it’s kind of reassuring to hear that some of the media are determined to hold the US government to account, or at least try to. I think it might get worse before it gets better, but in the long run, I think there are more intelligent and decent people in the world than there are self-serving ignoramuses, so I think we’ll be okay. I think we need to be vigilant, though, and to stick up for what we believe in, even if that means stepping on toes and upsetting people who are resistant to facts. People really don’t like it when you burst their bubble of “faux truth”. I’m constantly surprised at just how ill-informed some people really are, and the obviously false things they believe.
Well. What a tumultuous year it has been. Australian elections, Brexit, US elections, and the deaths of so many beloved cultural icons. The refugee crisis arising from the wars and political instability stemming from the dislocation and disenfranchisement caused by European colonisation, all those years ago. The state of the world is karma in action, if you ask me. Then there are the climate change worries, the resurgence of nationalism, fascism, and social conservatism, and the everyday violence, cruelty and stupidity so many humans choose to engage in. On a personal level, 2016 zoomed by in a flash, because I’ve been juggling so many hats and trying to keep all the plates spinning on their sticks. No wonder that this year has probably been my second-worst reading year ever, and that’s saying something! Of course, I did do a lot of reading every day, for research and other purposes, but reading in my leisure time just went right out the window this year.
I did start quite a few books, but by the end of most days I couldn’t stay awake long enough to read more than a couple of pages. Not only was I tired, but I lacked motivation and focus, and it was much easier to veg out and watch a DVD instead. I ended up watching quite a few Nordic crime series, and cosy whodunnit shows, such as Father Brown and Grantchester, and not-so-cosy series, such as Vera, Happy Valley, and George Gently. I watched all the costume dramas I could get my hands on, including all the Austen adaptations, yet again. However, I’m afraid I couldn’t get into the new Poldark, because I thought the acting was very ordinary and Ross is too pretty to take seriously. Also, I couldn’t watch Outlander, because it was just too banal and stupid. I still haven’t watched War and Peace, either. I can’t quite bring myself to do it, even though I’ll probably like it when/if I get around to it.
And so, on to the five books I enjoyed the most this year:
5: Zero K, Don DeLillo.
I didn’t love DeLillo’s latest novel, but it does get my vote for sentimental favourite. I think it’s great that he’s still writing in his old age, and that he’s still concerned about issues to do with how we live, and how technology is shaping our experience of life. There were so many quotable passages in the book, and although I think the narrative was a little disjointed and the characters not particularly well-drawn, there was still much for me to enjoy. One of my big concerns in life, which DeLillo writes about in Zero K, is the way in which so many people are ‘performing’ and ‘curating’ their lives via devices connected to the internet, rather than living in the REAL WORLD. How will life and death be defined in the future? Will future generations end up living in virtual reality? I’d much rather be out there in nature than in here staring at a screen. It might be time to pack up and head for the hills!
4: Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, Jack Kerouac.
Jack Kerouac took his writerly vocation very seriously, although urban legend would have it that he sat down and dashed off his novels, just like that. Actually, as these extracts from his journals show, he agonised over his writing, and wrote and rewrote, and rewrote some more. He spent years and years practising and honing his craft. Sadly, when finally he had popular success with On the Road, he didn’t know how to deal with fame, or the expectations of his readers who couldn’t see the wild man of his early novels in the somewhat raddled, middle-aged conservative Kerouac had become by the time he was well-known. Anyway, as a fairly major Kerouac fan, I enjoyed reading his journals and seeing what he was like when he was young. I liked getting a glimpse of the things he thought and worried about. I was impressed with his dedication to reading and writing – he was a big Dostoevsky fan, and he greatly admired Proust, which is fairly obvious seeing as how Kerouac’s own sequence of novels were very much based on the literary foundation constructed by Proust in his In Search of Lost Time cycle.
3: Dying: A Memoir, Cory Taylor.
Cory Taylor wrote this book not long before she died from cancer, and it is a beautiful and unsentimental reflection of her memories, thoughts and feelings, not only about her own imminent death, but about her childhood and family, and the relationships, joys and sorrows she experienced throughout her life. The memoir is not only about dying well, but also about about living well. I heard Taylor being interviewed on the radio a few times when the book was first published, and she sounded so prepared for death, even though she had massive regrets about leaving her children and husband behind. In her writing, Taylor is totally clear-sighted about what will happen to her, and she is courageous and brave about facing the reality of dying, even though she was angry that we don’t have voluntary euthanasia rights in Australia, so she couldn’t choose when to end her own life. It seemed to me that the book was really written for her loved ones, so that they could take comfort and strength from her, even after she was gone. She seems to me to have been that sort of person, always thinking of others even as she faced up to her own mortality, and wanting to ease the way for others. I liked the book a lot, especially the way Taylor stayed true to her atheistic beliefs, and I admire the way she was so practical and matter-of-fact about what was happening to her.
2: A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
I loved this historical novel for all sorts of reasons. Not only is it beautifully written, and also clever, witty, elegant, and sometimes delightfully farcical, but I fell in love with the protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov – Member of the Jockey Club and Master of the Hunt. He is such a quintessential Russian aristocratic gentleman, and he might have stepped out of the pages of a Tolstoy novel or a Chekhov story. Despite losing everything in the war between the Bolsheviks and the Imperialists, Rostov maintains his integrity and dignity as a representative of his class and all the positive values they held dear. For him, kindness and decency matter, and he is determined never to let the Reds get the better of him, no matter what the provocation. Towles deals with a very sombre subject – the chaotic aftermath of the Russian civil war and the bureaucratic nightmare of the Soviet era – but he maintains a light touch throughout. Frequently, I found myself reading between the lines, as I situated the events in the narrative within the wider context of Russian history. This is not a realist novel, but it is historically accurate, and the execution of the narrative reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s line, ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant’. I think Towles’ novel has something of the zeitgeist Bulgakov created in The Master and Margarita – it’s a fable, a fairy tale, a fantasy, but it’s also deadly serious.
1: A Country Road, A Tree, Jo Baker.
After feeling decidedly underwhelmed by Baker’s Longbourn, I approached A Country Road with caution. I really didn’t like what she did with the Bennet family, so I was a bit concerned about what she might do with Samuel Beckett. I needn’t have worried though, because Baker’s portrayal of Beckett’s war years in France is clever and imaginative, while at the same time being soundly based on the facts as we know them from his journals and letters. The Beckett I encountered in Baker’s narrative is pretty much how I imagine him to have been. I don’t like biographical fiction very much, as a rule, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how ‘alive’ Beckett seemed to be in this novel. The title of the book is taken from the first stage direction in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and A Country Road contains many such winks and nods to his writing, and to his writing style. I loved everything about this book, and it was definitely my best read of the year.
I don’t have any reading plans for 2017. I have a feeling that it’s going to be another year of not-so-nice surprises. Who knows what will happen when Trump and his bunch of crony capitalists get their hands on the levers of power? Will the UK actually leave the EU? What will happen in the elections in France and the Netherlands? Will Trump tweet something that really upsets the Chinese? And will Australia’s government last the year, given that the hard-right faction is calling the shots and its members have been emboldened by Trump’s victory and they’re behaving more outlandishly than usual. How will we tree-hugging green lefties counteract the racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, nationalism, authoritarianism, and all the other isms and phobias the fascists-in-waiting are allowing to crawl out of their collective consciousness? I expect I’ll feel just as appalled and bewildered in 2017, and I’ll probably find it as hard to concentrate on reading anything I don’t absolutely have to, because that would feel like fiddling while Rome burns. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but it really does feel as though the world is caught in a moment, and it’s time to stand up for what I believe in, or run the risk of finding myself living in the 1950s, or much worse. If anyone knows of any books about how to use social media as part of a political strategy, please let me know. I’m totally clueless when it comes to social media, but I think I need to educate myself about its intricacies.
Good luck with your reading in 2017. Good luck in general! I think we might need all the luck we can get. 🙂
There are so many things to worry about, if you’re so inclined. I started watching Midnight Sun and was a bit fascinated with Lapland’s landscape, seeing as how it’s utterly different to where I live. So, I googled and found this. Mining is threatening to eat up northen Europe’s last wilderness. Oh. And it seems that Australian mining companies are heavily involved in mining exploration of the area. OH!
I checked out New Matilda and saw this article by John Pilger. Apparently, America is gearing up big-time for a possible war with China, maybe a nuclear war. Oh. So, that’s why so many US Marines are now stationed in Darwin, and why a Chinese company has a 99 year lease on the port in Darwin. Australia is probably hedging its bets, a bit each way, in order to keep in good with our biggest trading partner (China) and our [supposed] military protector (USA). Oy Vey.
And, the huge Adani coal mine has got the green light to go ahead in Queensland: “The mine will consist of six open-cut pits and up to five underground mines, and will supply Indian power plants with enough coal to generate electricity for up to 100 million people. The controversial project involves dredging 1.1 million cubic metres of spoil near the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which will then be disposed of on land.” ABC
The Australian government looks set to provide a $1 billion loan to Adani for a railway line to service the new mining operation. Of course it will, even though the project will be an environmental disaster. Many banks, both local and international, have refused to fund the project because it poses such a risk to the Great Barrier Reef, but the government is so desperate to get Queensland voters onside for the upcoming state elections, that they’d probably sell their grandmothers if they thought it would gain them a seat or two. *sigh*
I’ve been thinking a lot about hyperreality, and wondering whether we really are living in a post-reality world these days. It seems that it might be an actual thing for many people, but I don’t think I’m quite as sucked into the vortex. It seems to me that some people are treating Donald Trump’s election as a “reality show” that they’re part of, where there’s lying and chicanery and demagoguery, but no actual harm will come to them because “Trump” is somehow “virtual” and not actually “real”. I think that maybe some people invest so much of their time and emotion in social media, and the internet in general, that it’s just part of their actual life, and they don’t (or can’t) separate the “real” from the virtual: they really do exist in a hybrid world that isn’t “real life”. I’m surprised at the reactions I get when I suggest that people lock their smart phone away for a week and don’t go near it. They can’t imagine doing it, and feel a sense of panic at the idea of being “cut off from the world”.
I’m also thinking about the supposed “post-truth” era we live in now. Political double-speak and weasel words weren’t enough; now we live in an era where lies are the new black and there are no such things as “facts”. I find this bizarre and scary. I don’t think we should let people bamboozle us with words, which is what they’re trying to do.
And as for people who insist on their right to express their opinion, I often have “discussions” on this very topic. It usually goes something like this: Yes, but personal opinion is based on belief, and people believe in all sorts of things that aren’t real or true. Point me to the facts that corroborate your beliefs; show me the evidence to back up the validity of your opinion. I accept that there is no universal truth, but there are discoverable facts and there is testable evidence. You can believe whatever you want, and you can hold whatever opinion you choose, but unless you can argue for your opinion and demonstrate that it’s based on verifiable facts, then I’m not obligated to take your beliefs seriously, and I’m not obliged to listen to you. Oh, yes. I can be very charming when I want to be.
I didn’t actually intend to write any of this. I was going to post about a film I watched the other day, Lila Says. I did like it, but it was jam-packed with stereotypical tropes and it was kind of voyeuristic and I felt a bit weird watching it. Also, I was going to write about a book I’ve just finished reading, A Gentleman in Moscow, which I absolutely adore. The narrative is charming, highly allusive, slightly satirical, poignant, elegantly written, historically accurate, and gives a big nod to literature by the Russian Greats. There’s also a fantasy element to the narrative that makes it resemble a fairytale at times, but the philosophical underpinnings of the book are profound. The images conjured in my mind reminded me of The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its interplay of light and dark, and its combination of humour and seriousness. A Gentleman is just a very clever and wonderful novel that gives us memorable characters and exposes us to a slice of history seen from a White Russian’s point of view. The chaos and turmoil of the Russian Revolution and the resultant civil war, and the cruel and deadly inanities of the Soviet regime are glimpsed through the eyes of the scion of a well-connected Russian aristocratic family, but mostly we get to see the resilience and courage of a man who once had all the freedom money and privilege could buy, but who now must employ his wit and imagination in order to survive the ordeal of incarceration in the Metropol hotel. Count Alexander Rostov – Member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – always knows the right thing to do and say in any situation. He is educated, cultured, sophisticated, and knows wine. He is good with children, horses, dogs, and women; he can shoot straight and waltz divinely, and he refuses to concede to the Bolshevik rabble who stole his life and sentenced him to lonely exile in his own country. For those familiar with Russian history and literature, this is sure to be an absolute delight of a novel: it’s beautifully written and cleverly crafted and I think it’s my favourite read of the year.
This is a photograph of George Christensen MP, an elected member of Australia’s federal government. He will be featuring in an article published this week in one of the weekend newspapers, and this photograph accompanies the story, apparently.
I don’t even know…
Let’s deconstruct the picture a tiny bit, shall we?
Blue singlet = obsolete but quintessential symbol of the Australian working class man, however, Mr Christensen is a member of one of the most elite groups in the country.
Tattoo = symbol of his (oft-professed) strongly-held Orthodox Christian faith, except the Bible commands, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:28 KJV.
Whip = symbol of his role as the National party whip in parliament, but a whip coiled over the shoulder of white male who subscribes to far-right ideology has so many connotations to do with power and privilege, nationalism and imperialism, that it makes my head hurt just thinking about it.
Why is this in any way an appropriate photograph to accompany a story about a politician with aspirations to become a cabinet minister? He has expressed anti-Muslim views over a long period of time and is an advocate for immigration discrimination. Does this sound in any way familiar? (Hint: Donald J. Trump.) Clearly, this photograph is pitched to appeal to working class white men, the Australians who are feeling increasingly displaced and dispossessed in ‘their own country’. New technologies are doing them out of jobs, identity politics questions their assumed superiority, and laws are holding them to account for their misogyny, racism and sexism. A tiny diminution in their status has left many straight white men feeling angry and vindictive, and politicians such as George Christensen know exactly which buttons to push in order to unleash their rage.
And isn’t this just the way the mainstream media rolls these days? In Australia, the ‘colourful’ politicians, the ones who spout racist ideology, who divide opinion, who relentlessly self-promote, who have a recognisable ‘brand’, get all the headlines and all the coverage. Those politicians quietly doing the job they were elected to perform are totally ignored. Politics has become a ‘celebrity’ sideshow, a quasi Reality TV Show, where electors get to vote the ‘contestants’ onto the ‘island’ and vote them off again three years later. Except, while the contestants are busily jostling for media coverage and spouting their headline-grabbing ‘memorable quotes’ and tweeting their stupidity and ignorance for everyone to see, there is no leadership, no one at the helm of the government capable of guiding us through the shoals of piranhas and steering a safe path through the hatred and vitriol and ‘post-truth’ bullshit that seems to be the main cultural currency these days.
Right now, political discourse in Australia is bizarre and surreal and completely disappointing. And, if one day we wake up and find that George Christensen is our new Prime Minister, we will only have ourselves to blame, because we are complicit in this whole mess. We watch the TV shows and read the clickbait news stories and clack away on our keyboards, but what do we actually do to try to turn the tide that’s making us drift, slowly at first, and then faster and faster and inexorably into a political maelstrom that we can’t even begin to imagine.
In our complacency, we think that our established way of life will endure, of course it will. We choose not to see what is before our eyes, staring us in the face, with his coiled whip over his shoulder and a smug expression on his face.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
From ‘The Second Coming’, Yeats, 1919.