Thursday, April 13, 2017

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling: Not quite a review


I've finally finished this. Although it took me a long time, it was surprisingly easy to read. Bear in mind that it was published in 1749, and I expected to have more difficulty with the English. A few words were oddly (and variously) spelt, but otherwise the language was almost entirely modern. Only a few odd words and phrases failed to yield their meaning within the context. 

Of course, the book is written in a style which most modern readers would not particularly like. The author frequently addresses the reader directly, imposing himself upon the narrative, offering opinions and engaging in lengthy digressions from the central narrative. The novel is divided into several books, each of which is subdivided into chapters. The first chapter of each book is presented as a kind of prologue which, rather than progressing the plot, usually involves some kind of philosophical/ethical discourse.

The plot is complex, peppered with larger than life characters and improbable scenarios, with elements that we would recognise as farce. It is, however, of a somewhat more literary character than much of the farce that appears on the stage, particularly in the English theatrical tradition. It is, at times, hilariously funny, occasionally moving, and always insightful. Despite the fashions and styles of the times, the characters and situations are not so very far removed from what we might witness today.

Although many modern readers would struggle with the style in which this novel is written, it is perhaps worth pointing out that what we today consider to be the 'proper' form of the novel is itself but a passing fad. 

I would not presume to give a book which is still being read 268 years after its initial publication a star rating.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The New Normal

Last year was a fascinating year in many respects, especially politically around the world. I haven’t commented about much of it. Plenty of others have done that. To be honest, I’m not sure what any of it means, or what the long term consequences might be.

I am aware, though, that human beings have an incredible (and not always helpful) capacity to adapt. It does not take long for us to ‘get used’ to things, to accept things as the new ‘normal’. This can take truly extreme forms. People can ‘get used’ to living in prisons or detention camps; or living under constant bombardment. This adaptability is useful in one sense: it is necessary for survival, at least in the short term. In the longer term, though, it means that we cease to fight. That’s understandable. Fighting is exhausting.

This, of course, is what oppressive regimes (whether they be oppressive governments, oppressive government agencies, or oppressive private corporations) depend on: that we will tire of the fight; that we will not, in fact, be able to maintain our rage.

And few of us can, for any length of time. Life goes on. It all becomes ‘normal’, all too quickly.

I’m feeling some of this tiredness myself. Apart from anything else, the ‘enemy’ is difficult to pin down. There are conservative and reactionary forces pummelling us from every direction. Unfortunately, they distract us from what are probably the most important issues facing us today.

The most important issue facing us is climate change, but it remains difficult to convince people of that. It is very difficult to maintain this fight because, to be honest, I think the battle is already largely lost. Even if we were to stop introducing CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere today, mean global temperatures would now likely continue to increase for decades; and that does not even take into account any critical cascade events that may be precipitated. There is next to no chance of keeping the increase below 2 °C. The consequences of this are unimaginable. And perhaps that is the problem. It does not seem real to us. It will be real enough to our children and grandchildren.

Unfortunately, we will probably get used to this too.

Anything we do now is probably far too little, far too late. This will no doubt be the next argument of the forces that oppose action again climate change: it’s too late to do much, so why bother doing anything?

But I won’t buy that. Everything we can do, we must do.

Let’s do our best to maintain the fight, to maintain our rage. Let’s not get used to the new ‘normal’.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review: 'Defenestration' by Matthew W McFarland

Almost four years ago now I reviewed a collection of short stories by Matthew W McFarland entitled Fifty/Fifty and Other Stories. Among those stories was what is now (more or less) the opening chapter of this novella. It was also called ‘Defenestration’, and I gave it 4.5 stars. The question is, does this novella measure up to its namesake?

The short answer is: almost. There was a simplicity and elegance to the prose of the short story which made it a pleasure to read. For the most part, that quality of writing is maintained here. The events of the short story remained largely unexplained. The reader simply experiences the defenestration [for those unfamiliar with the term, it is the act of being thrown from a window] from the first person point of view of the defenestratee (a word I have probably just invented). The absence of a context or explanation for this event is no shortcoming at all for this short, elegant piece.

This novella provides the background, context and sequel to this event.

The plot emerges slowly from the narrative as characters are introduced and stories told. I was very impressed with the way the different streams of the narrative and the characters they featured were gradually woven together into a very pleasing tapestry. I would urge those who prefer stories with a faster pace and more action to exercise patience here. It is not a long book, and if you put in the effort and spare the time I hope you will appreciate the skill of the weave and the elegance of the prose.

As interesting as the plot is, as much as anything this is a series of character studies of a number of mildly to extremely dysfunctional people living in present-day Belfast. Each of the characters is well drawn, although it did take me a little while to sort among the different female characters. Melanie is as delightfully twisted a character as I have encountered anywhere.

The central male character, Adam, who is ostensibly the narrator of this tale, is lacking in detail until well past the middle of the book. We know nothing about him: his age, family relationships or profession. Large sections of the book are virtually a third person narrative and, although we are aware that Adam is the narrator, he is not really present in the story at those times. I remained somewhat confused about his age. At one point, reference is made to his ‘old age’, yet he elsewhere appears as a potentially suitable match for one of the young women in the story.

The author uses a clever device to enable the narrator to relate events at which he is not (ostensibly) present—I don’t want to give away the plot by being more specific. However, this device breaks down in at least one scene towards the end of the story where it can no longer operate. It involves a prison visit of which the narrator cannot be a witness.

The only other misgiving I have about this novella is that the author has a tendency at times to slip into a somewhat didactic and self-conscious philosophical/social commentary. This was a little too direct and obvious for my taste.

A sharper eye for editing would have picked up a few obvious errors here and there.

McFarland is an excellent writer, with a facility both for writing elegant prose and weaving together a good story. I hope to hear more from him in the future.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: 'Tzippy the Thief' by Patricia Striar Rohner



Tzippy is the story of a vain, self-indulgent, superficial, pampered and narcissistic 80-year-old woman, at the head of a dysfunctional family. She lives in Florida with her live-in, African-American maid. In her latter years, she is in a relationship with Stan, a long-time friend of the family, and especially of her late husband.

This is a well-written and well-edited story. The prose is crisp and concise. Scenes are created vividly, but with a minimum of excess. At times the writing has an almost journalistic feel. Even during Tzippy’s periods of introspection the author refrains from hyperbole and excess. Nevertheless, Tzippy’s feelings, thoughts and worldview are perfectly apparent to the reader. Only in Chapter 18 did I feel that the writing faltered a little, becoming somewhat stilted and hurried.

In the course of the narrative, various of her children—Shari, Bruce and Naomi—and their spouses and partners come on stage, but the main thread concerns Tzippy’s relationship with her younger daughter, Shari, forty-something and an alcoholic. In her younger days—and perhaps still—Shari suffered from anorexia-bulimia. It becomes Tzippy’s late-life crusade to do what she can to heal this relationship and repair some of the harm she has done to the daughter.

Tzippy also has to face two other issues in her life. She is addicted to benzodiazepines, although she does not at first acknowledge this. The author walks a fine line here, and some readers might think that she overplays the irony as Tzippy reflects upon her daughter’s excessive alcohol consumption, while at the same time popping another pill.

The other issue Tzippy has to deal with is her proneness to theft. She is caught on this occasion and has to deal with the humiliation. At the same time her maid of many years—Angie—is caught stealing money from Tzippy. Again, the irony may be a little overplayed; but, again, it is a fine Iine.

The narrative is related exclusively from the intimate, third-person point of view of Tzippy. She is very much centre stage. This lends her an almost celebrity status: she is very much the star of her life, and of the scenes that play out. This is true even when she seems to be focused on the well-being of others. No matter how much she tries to reach out to others, somehow the story is always still about her. There is a tension here, because it is clear that at times Tzippy really does want to be less selfish and less self-centred; yet, somehow, she is never far from the centre of the narrative, or from her own concerns.

The other characters are mostly well drawn. Shari, the younger daughter, is interesting and complex. Even at her most down and out there is an attractive vulnerability to her. The reader also suspects that she knows very well how to use this to her advantage. She has learned manipulation from a master manipulator. The characterisation of the maid, Angie—an overweight African-American woman with a love for caftans—flirts with caricature, but perhaps just avoids it. Tzippy’s love interest, Stan, seems rather shallow and ineffectual, although I think the author’s intention is to present him as practical, down to earth and balanced. Perhaps he is, but against the bright colours of the other characters, he seems somewhat pale and insipid.

But Tzippy is the centre here. I confess that I found it difficult to like her, as is perhaps evidenced by the opening sentence of this review. I found it difficult to take seriously the problems of this pampered and privileged woman. Nor am I sure whether the author wants us to like her. I did have some sympathy for her. She clearly recognises her own superficiality and selfishness. But I couldn’t help feeling that even this was part of her ‘game’, this need to ‘make things right’ and live a deeper, more satisfying life. I can only echo the words of the judge before whom Tzippy appears following her theft: ‘Mrs. Bryer, go home and stop this nonsense.’ 


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Political Mandate (or not)

There has been a lot of talk recently in Australia (with a federal election on the way) about the meaning of a political mandate. When a party is elected into power, does that mean it has a mandate, a right, to put into place all the policies which it took with it into the election?

The answer is NO, and the reasons are quite simple.

When I go to the polling booth I have to make a choice between parties which have proposed a whole raft of policies. Some of those policies I will agree with; some I will not. This is true on both sides of politics. If I decide (for example) that Party A’s economic agenda is, on balance, slightly better than that of Party B’s, and I decide to vote for them on that basis, that does not mean that I support all their other policies. I might not agree, for instance, with their policy on the environment or towards asylum seekers. Just because I decide to vote for a party on the basis of one or a few issues this does not mean that I do, or am obliged to, support all their policies. Nor do I believe it gives them an automatic right to implement those policies.

Democracy does not begin at 8 am and end at 6 pm on polling day. Democracy requires that I and every one of us continues to advocate for the things that are important to us. It also demands that the government of the day be perpetually answerable to the people, and not just on one day every three years or so.

Just because I voted for YOU does not mean that I believe in everything you stand for; and I will continue to speak loudly and irritatingly about those things I think you have wrong.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

ANZAC Day

My overseas readers may not know what ANZAC Day is. It has to do with the Gallipoli landing during the First World War. It is a very big day in Australia, and seemingly becoming bigger every year.

It is almost sacrilegious and possibly even considered treasonous to say anything that might be regarded as a criticism of this day. Few in Australia regard Christmas or Easter celebrations with anything approaching religious reverence. ANZAC Day is the only holiday in the Australian calendar that attracts this kind of reverence, from the religious and non-religious alike.

I write the next paragraph with some hesitation, because I suspect many in Australia might find its fairly mild wording offensive. Here goes:

‘Today (25 April) marks the anniversary of the attempt, during the First World War, by the allied forces, including Australia, to invade that well-known enemy of Australia, Turkey. The attempt was ill-conceived and disastrous. Unsurprisingly, the Turks vigorously (and successfully) defended their territory. In Australia we commemorate this event as ANZAC Day. I’m not sure how they commemorate it in Turkey.’

Whatever is going on around ANZAC Day in Australia is a little strange and perhaps also a little frightening. Whatever it is, ANZAC Day is not simply a day when we commemorate and honour those whose lives have been lost in war. We have Remembrance Day—or perhaps you know it as ‘Armistice Day’: November 11—to do that. At least that marks the end of the First World War: a suitable time, one would think, to remember the cost of war. ANZAC Day commemorates an attempt to invade another country for strategic purposes: to control the Dardanelles, a strait providing a sea route to the Russian Empire. It is, of course, tragic that so many people lost their lives in that pointless exercise. The Turks who lost their lives during that campaign (does anyone know how many?) were defending their territory. The Australians who tragically died were not defending Australia—despite the propaganda that surrounds ANZAC Day. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the dictum that attack is the best form of defence: easily used to justify any form of aggression.

I am all in favour of remembering the horrors of war, and commemorating the tragic and often pointless loss of life. Remembrance Day is a perfect time to do that. I am less comfortable with the mythology that continues to build around the commemoration of ANZAC Day. I in no way want to belittle the price men paid at Gallipoli—allied troops and Turks alike. But it is a stretch to claim that the Australians (at least) gave their lives in defence of Australia. It’s sad but true—and no fault of theirs—that they gave their lives in a much less worthy cause.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

'Naturalistic' Dialogue

We writers often try to write dialogue in what we regard as a naturalistic style, but this can be fraught with difficulties. The result may not be what we intended.

We know that the spoken word is very different from the written word. We rarely speak in nice, complete, neat, grammatically correct sentences. Our speech stops and starts; words slide together; we leave the beginnings and endings off words; we pronounce words in particular ways; we change direction in mid sentence. It is the ‘words slide together; we leave the beginnings and endings off words; we pronounce words in particular ways’ that causes the difficulties.

The problem with depicting a character as speaking in a particular accent is that we all have accents, although we seldom realise it of ourselves. If we choose to represent the speech of (say) our Scottish or Irish characters in a particular way, why don’t we do so for all the other characters? The result is usually somewhat clich├ęd, and some of the characters verge on becoming caricatures. If we wish to represent a character as being less well educated—for example by dropping Hs or leaving the ends off words—we are being unfair to them, because we probably also do that ourselves!

Consider this sentence: ‘Are you going to eat that or not?’ Now say it out loud. How many of you said ‘you’ and ‘going to’? I imagine most of us (brilliantly well educated or not) said something like: ‘Are y’ gonna eat that or not?’ I suggest that when we write a sentence of dialogue, we can assume that the reader will ‘hear’ the latter (or something like it) without our having to spell it out. When it is spelled out it can become difficult to read (and downright annoying). It is also incredibly difficult to maintain such patterns consistently. If I write: ‘Whad’re y’ havin’ f’ dinna’, am I going to do this every time the character speaks? When I as an editor come across something like this, should I be going through and removing the Gs off the end of all this character’s words, because I can guarantee there will be plenty of them. It is as much a nightmare trying to edit this into some kind of consistency as it is to write it consistently in the first place.

Then there is the question of how you actually represent these sounds. Short of using formal phonetic notation, it is very difficult to properly represent pronunciation. Consider this sentence which I came across recently: ‘I do luv a good soup.’ Why ‘luv’ rather than ‘love’? How am I meant to pronounce it? Is the vowel sound the same as in ‘put’ or ‘cup’? These are different sounds in my particular accent. The vowel sound in ‘cup’ (for me) is identical to that in ‘love’. On the other hand, ‘put’ is a different sound from ‘putt’ (which, for me, is like ‘love’ and ‘cup’). So ‘luv’ is unhelpful. How I hear it will depend on where I come from, which is the same for ‘love’ in any case, so why bother spelling it differently? My mother, for instance, in her Birmingham accent, will say ‘love’ as if the vowel is the same as in ‘put’ rather than ‘putt’, but as far as she is concerned she is saying ‘love’ as it is meant to be said, and who am I to tell her otherwise?

Note that an accent is different from dialect. A dialect uses different words, rather than just pronouncing the same word differently. If you can use authentic dialect (and not just what outsiders often wrongly consider to be authentic dialect) that is great.

I always think that a better way to alert the reader to a particular speech pattern is to point it out in the narrative: ‘I struggled to understand his strong Scouse accent’ (for example). ‘Fred always misplaced his Hs when he was speaking.’ Then you don’t have to write it all the time. The reader will hear it. If the reader doesn’t know what a Scouse accent (Liverpool) sounds like, nothing you write on the page will help!

I would never say never write out these ‘naturalistic’ passages of dialogue. On occasion it might be helpful if you want to create a particular effect. But if you do, do so sparingly and with great care. Ask yourself: Will this sound to the reader the way I want it to sound? To some it will; to others it won’t.