Book review: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

 

Alternate histories are an interesting fiction genre.

Emboldened by the endless openendedness of “What if?”, they surge forward along an entirely new part of the time/space continuum, merrily playing Sliding Doors with history, asking us to imagine how different the world would be if one crucial aspect at one pivotal moment had been just a little bit different.

It’s a fascinating exercise, one that shines a revealing light on history, humanity and society at a particular point in time, and Nisi Shawl, known for her fantasy and sci-fi short stories, has taken the genre with all its endless possibilities and run with it, giving us in the process the mostly sublime delights of Everfair.

Running from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth century just past the cessation of World War One, Everfair wonders, in its all steampunk glory, what the history of colonialism in Africa might have been if someone, or more precisely, a dedicated group of someones, had dared to stand up to the ceaseless tide of repression, death and exploitation that marked the age.

Particularly what might have happened to Congo, the fecund lush centre of Africa that at the time of the novel’s opening is in the grip of the brutal greed and madness of King Leopold II who perpetrated what came to be known by contemporaries of the time as the “Congo Horrors”, massacring millions in pursuit of purely financial gain.

This was no project of the Belgian state; rather Leopold’s stake in the Congo was private, a manifestly capital undertaking that primarily sought to exploit the regions richness in resources such as rubber which was harvested wild at the expense of countless millions of lives.

“The reverend lieutenant explained his program and the fire flickered, died to embers. Letter-writing and petitions to Parliament was what he asked of them. A movement along the lines of Abolitionism. Which had been well and good in its time.
But Jackie had a better idea.” (P.30)

As you might expect with a project with no judicial oversight and little to no accountability, abuses were rife, with entire villages razed to the ground by a paramilitary army, the Force Publique, should anyone so much as stand in the way of Leopold II’s rapacious exploitation of land that had, for all intents and purposes been stolen from its people, regardless of the legal niceties employed to paper over the wholly unpalatable reality.

Everfair steps into the chamber of horrors, musing with robust historical accuracy and a penetrating on the colonial politics and culture of the time, what might have happened if a group of somewhat more enlightened people – Shawl is careful not to turn these people into saints, who are riven with their own shortcomings and failings – including adherents of the Fabian Society in England (it gave rise to the Labour Party) and African-American missionaries had taken control of much of this land and stood against the evil of Leopold II’s ugly hold on the region.

 

Nisi Shawl (image courtesy UAH)

 

As an exploration of a “What if?” scenario, Everfair is peerless, taking a deep dive into what the setting up of a state dedicated to equality, fair labour laws, democracy and freedom might have looked like.

With steampunk sensibilities fully engaged, the novel documents the growth and then decline of Everfair over a period spanning 30 years (1889-1919), eschewing the genre’s usual predilection for wrapping this period in a cosy glow of hagiography-tinged nostalgia and challenging assumptions of what noble and enlightened actually looks like on the ground, especially to the indigenous people led by King Mwenda and Queen Josina, who initially cooperate with the well-meaning interlopers before demanding, quite rightly, that their sovereignty be heeded for once.

It’s this clash of idealism and reality that proves most fascinating.

As people like Fabian Society founders Jackie Owen and Daisy Albin, playwright Matty Jamison, French nurse Lisette Toutournier, Macao escaper labourer Tink and American missionary Martha Hunter surge into the region, determined from entirely different vantage points, to stop Leopold’s craven brutality in its track and establish a just and free society, we witness just how hard it is to create something perfect when the people seeking to do the creating are as flawed as the rest of us.

Well-meaning and idealistic yes, but flawed and as each time-stamped chapter races forward, we are taken on a wholly unique look at the history of colonialism where its excesses are blunted, its abuses stymied and progress, both technological and societal, is allowed a free hand.

“The king hadn’t anticipated that. Who was there to oppose him?
The Europeans and Americans were distracted by their plague … Everfair’s whites and Christians would have fought in protest of their exile, but lacking foreign support, they shouldn’t have any choice in the matter–if General Wilson hadn’t so surprisingly taken up the Christians’ cause.” (P. 348)

It’s impressive stuff, and Shawl does a masterful job of worldbuilding, of conjuring up what-ifs, and maybes from the imaginative ether and given them richness and vitality and truth.

The only flaw in this wholly unique perspective is the fact that so much time and effort is given to exploring what might have happened, both good and bad, flawed and not, and the consequences of these actions, that the characters get a little lost in the mix.

It’s a pity that we don’t spend more time with them because they are a fascinatingly diverse bunch (sexually, religiously, idealistically), people who aim for the stars and land far closer to earth but who at least give the idea of putting flesh on their noble conjecturing a worthwhile shot.

Everfair is very much an ideas-driven narrative rather than character-driven, although we are given some insight into the private lives of these people, with a result that while the journey we are taken is engrossing, thought-provoking and alive with alternate possibilities, it often fails to connect emotionally.

On balance though, Everfair is gorgeously rich in ideas, history, humanity and the delicious prospect of what might happen if only the better angels of our nature were given a more prominent seat at the table, a luxuriously in-depth, compelling, enlightened and beautifully written take on a dark chapter in colonial history that could have played out so much differently.

 

 

Firefly takes to the galactic skies again! In book form at least …

(image courtesy 20th Television)

 

Ah Firefly, I still mourn your prematurely-ended run, your brief 13-episode run of intra-galactic adventure and derringdo flickering out and foundering far before any of us were ready for it.

Thankfully while TV may be done, with you, the rest of the pop culture-o-sphere is not, with a movie (Serenity), countless comic books, and an online game with the original cast reprising their roles, ensuring that they won’t take the sky from you, or the sense of this wonderful show being alive and very much with us.

Adding to this list of ghosts of Firefly past and present, there are now plans afoot for series of books, which as Bleeding Cool points out, may underwhelm some fans who want a TV show revival and nothing else …

“Okay, look, yes, a series of books isn’t as good as good as purchasing the TV rights with a crowdfunding campaign, gifting them to Nathan Fillion, and getting the cast back together for a long-awaited second season …”

 

An earlier Firefly book incarnation (image (c) Joey Spiotto)

 

But, and yes Bleeding Cool also threw in a helpful “but” before sentence end, it’s much better than nothing and gives us a chance, particularly those of us for whom books are living, breathing entities unto themselves, to subsume ourselves in imaginative adventures of the mind, full of narrative splendour and possibility.

It’s an especially enticing prospect when Firefly creator, Joss Whedon, is overseeing the books which will all be part of official franchise canon.

And indeed, the book synopses, published on Entertainment Weekly show we’re in for some great adventuring …

Firefly: Big Damn Hero by Nancy Holder (Oct. 2018)
Captain Malcolm Reynolds finds himself in a dangerous situation after being kidnapped by a bunch of embittered veteran Browncoats.

Firefly: The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove (March 2019)
Jayne receives a distress call from his ex Temperance McCloud that leads the Serenity crew to danger on a desert moon.

Firefly: Generations by Tim Lebbon (Oct. 2019)
The discovery of the location of one of the legendary Ark ships that brought humans from Earth to the ’Verse promises staggering salvage potential, but at what cost? River Tam thinks she might know …

Now all we have to do is be patient and wait … hmmm, are they published yet? … *waiting* … now? Sigh …

Book review: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

There is an exquisite beauty and loveliness to the writing of Sarah Winman.

With every artfully-chosen word – artful in the sense that it is rich and poetic, not artificial or posed – and perfectly-expressed idea you are subsumed into stories that are suffused with humanity, joy, sadness, regret and hope, everything that life serves you up examined in ways both wondrous and cutting to the marrow.

The fact that her writing is this beautiful might lead you to think that it is fey and insubstantial, all glowing ideas and burnished syllables, no real core of truth or understanding.

But you would be wrong; in anything, writing this lovely, this gorgeous, allows for the expression of all kinds of ideas, thoughts and observations that might confront so boldly the reader might switch before their full import has sunk in.

Instead, awash in language that soothes and caresses, you allow the horrible truthfulness and rawness of life to really hit you, to settle and fill you in a way you likely wouldn’t know with a less-talented, clumsy writer.

In her latest book, Tin Man, which follows the almost inexpressibly wonderful, achingly-insightful A Year of Marvellous Ways, her command of the English language is writ large in full glorious show but as before it’s not simply to be some literary show pony, because you suspect Winman would never be satisfied with so ephemeral and shallow a purpose, but to lay life’s ability to both wound and heal us out on the table for all to see.

“And Michael reached for Dora’s hand and they laughed and Ellis remembered how grateful he was that Michael’s care was instinctive and natural because he could never be that way with her. He was constantly on the lookout for the last goodbye.” (P. 47)

As with all her books, Tin Man doesn’t show all its narrative cards at once.

Little by little, in oblique and straight-ahead, full-on scenes, we come to know Ellis, a man who has worked in a local car detailing factory, almost magically removing dents from injured automobiles, since his youth, despite the fact that he is actually an enormously talented artist.

But under pressure from his emotionally-removed father in the wake of a tragic incident, he takes on this “job for life”, robotically turning up and working well, body present but soul and proclivities a million miles away.

It is clear that Ellis os mired in grief but exactly why isn’t immediately obvious not what is revealed as it’s vast extent, layered on top of a childhood that held both resignation and rampant, joyous possibility.

Ellis’s life, it emerges, is one cut off, stymied, a progression of promising events and moments that never coalesced into the rich vision of life he, and some key figures in his life clung to, a muted abrogation of his mother’s firm belief, in the face of then-prevailing truth, that “men and boys are capable of beautiful things.”

 

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

As Ellis moves through his now-fossilised life, a man known as removed and sad at work except to apprentice and coworker Billy, a much-younger man with whom he shares more than he knows.

An accident one night as he’s riding on his beloved bike sets in chain a seismic shift in both the look and feel of Ellis’s life which comes alive in ways big and small, in ways that both make sense and surprise a man who long ago left behind the one great defining friendship of his life.

His bond with Michael, who is given as much to tell his story as Ellis is, beautifully splitting Tin Man into two complementary, like-minded halves that makes a pleasing if poignant whole, is the central plank of the narrative, a connective tissue that explains so much of what Ellis is, and alas, isn’t.

As you get to know Ellis, Michael, Michael’s gran Mabel, Ellis’s mother Dora and his father Len or wife Annie (she becomes incredibly close to Michael too) and an engaging satellite of supporting characters, all of whom come vividly alive under Winman’s talented hand, you come to appreciate once again, in case you have forgotten now delightfully and horribly complicated life can be.

It is tempting for many people, particularly those of a particular religious or political persuasion to see life in purely black-and-white, easily-sketched and understood tones, but throughout Tin Man‘s all too short but spot-on perfect length, you understand all over again that neither people nor places or events are ever as straightforward as the purists would like to believe.

“Without Michael’s energy and view of the world they became the settled married couple both had feared becoming. They made little demand of one another and conversation gave way to silence, albeit comfortable and familiar. Ellis withdrew, he knew he did. His hurt turned to anger, there when he woke up and before he slept. Life was not as fun without Michael. Life was not as colourful with him. Life was not life without him. If only Ellis could have told him that then maybe he would have returned.” (P. 65)

Whether it’s lazy days by the river, of which Ellis and Michael who grow closer than most teenage boys, enjoy many, or the afterwash of death and loss, or simply a quiet dinner with close friends that comes to be more Last Supper than grand lasting reunion, Tin Man is full to bursting with the real, substantial, achingly true good and bad parts of this messy business of living.

Every single moment of it, including it’s deeply-moving yet quietly-expressed, and the more powerful for it, ending, resonates with so much insightfulness and realness, giving even more accessibility and truth than it already possesses by Winman’s luxuriously poetic but never less than honest prose.

That is the true delight of her books I think.

She is one of the few writers I’ve encountered who can marry sublimely transportive, utterly lovely prose up with a warts-and-all account of life and have the two merge to create a wholly evocative and impacting whole.

In that regard she mirrors many Scandinavian songwriters and singers who brings together the light of their upbeat, bouncy music with lyrics that cut to the quick, delivering truth and honesty in a package that belies its wrenching, touching contents.

The thing is for all her realness, and there is a great deal on offer, Tin Man bubbles and percolates with hope, with possibility, with an affirmation, rousingly-delivered in the most whispered of ways, that life may be difficult, it may cause you great sadness and pain but that wrapped around that, in the present and in memories, is the sense that life offers up more than it takes away if only you can, like Ellis, remain awake and aware enough to see it.

Book review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

 

It is safe to say that the end, and indeed the beginning of the world, have never been rendered so poetically, or daringly, as in The End We Start From by English author Megan Hunter.

A poet whose work has been shortlisted for illustrious awards such as the Bridport Prize, Hunter has taken a cataclysmic event, one usually rendered in tones purely fearful and destructive, and given it a poetic sheen, one that also talks of the possibility of life not being extinguished, but taking a bold, if trembling foot forward.

The sense of newness and possibility comes not from the protagonist herself who begins this mix of poem and novella – each paragraph is a short, sharp, deliciously-worded picture of some occurrence, feeling or dynamic, short on deep, complex narrative, rich with sense and sensation – but from the birth of her son Z (no one has full names) which takes place just as an almighty flood swamps London, sending its inhabitants fleeing up towards the relative safety of mountainous Scotland.

“[S and J] watch me from the corner of the room, as though I am an unpredictable animal, a lumbering gorilla with a low-slung belly and suspicious eyes. Occasionally they pass me a banana.

“They try to put Match of the Day on. I growl. I growl more and more, and finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” (P. 1)

Thanks to Hunter’s sharp eye for detail and her immersive sense of experience and authentic conjecture, we are plunged into the maelstrom of fear and doubt that assail the new mother who does her best to give her son some sense of normalcy in the middle of a world that is now anything but.

Every step of the way, we are made to feel as if civilisation has ended, with fire following flood, death following food shortages and nothing even remotely like you, if you’re new parent figuring out your life just as the old one ends, would want it to be.

The End We Start From thus talks about the intensely familiar and routine, wonderful and amazing, the birth of a child in the midst of circumstances that defy normal life to even try and its head slightly above the parapet.

The world into which baby Z is born, and grows over one year, is fractured, vicious, starved, swamped and messy, a chaotic twisting of the established order that confronts his parents, who end up separated for much of this strangely beautiful book, every step of the way.

 

(image courtesy Pan Macmillan)

 

Contrasting the iron force will of the apocalypse to put a definitive end to things with the mother’s determination that Z will be a participant in nothing so brutal and final – indeed as she meets up with other mothers in refugee camps in Scotland (where they are safe from a suggested, bloody war down in England), she hopes that life for her son will be as normal as possible; perhaps vainly but this hope sustains her – Hunter gives up a vividly stark picture of love stubbornly pushing through in a time where self-survival, deprivation and cruel self-interest rise to the top.

There are those who band together, of course, and the scenes where the mother is on an island off the Scottish coast with her friend O, her child, and the family who takes them in, all similarly lettered, not named, are exquisitely evocative and like all the book, profoundly emotionally resonant in ways that you will readily identify with.

“At the straightest edge of the world I think I can see a hulking thickness, a black mass growing. The mainland, I like to think.

It hovers over the water like a boat. It grows, I imagine, blooms rows of houses with lit windows and lives inside. If I squint, I might make out R [her husband], waving.

Carried by the waves, he is coming towards us. He is moving away.” (P. 91)

For all these rich and gorgeously-expressed emotions – it is odd to think of the descriptions of things so terrible as gorgeous but in Hunter’s deftly-insightful and expressive hands they are, a richly-rewarding tapestry of the good and the bad, the hopeful and the most definitely not, all wrapped up together in the most elegant, the most lovely conveyance of everything human, and some things not.

For all that though, and it is mesmerisingly superb, there is sense, flowing from the sparseness of exposition and prose that lends the book an emotional remoteness.

Even as you are introduced to emotions that roll with hope and oblivion, mercy and predation, new life and death, and they are beautiful in the extreme and in quiet, intimate ways too, you feel removed from the characters, able to feel what they feel, and understand and identify with it, but cut off too, the poetic expression both an entry and barrier at once.

The bluntness of the narrative is both a positive and a negative – on one hand, you realise all too quickly what is happening at various points, with one breathless paragraph enough to seal the deal; unfortunately this also means that any desire you have to find out more is snuffed out without reservation or apology, leaving you constantly wanting more, forever wondering what else took place.

It’s not a deal breaker of course, and The End We Came From, itself a creatively expressive title of beauty and meaning, remains a singularly unique sensory experience that will take on a journey where the newness of life fights ferociously and with great love, hope and compassion for supremacy with the end of everything, and you hope, just as the protagonist does, that all that hoping will not be in vain.

 

Book review: Happiness for Humans by P. Z. Reizin

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

As we lurch somewhat uncertainly to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, fearfully drunk on the spectre of apocalyptic everything, it would be easy to see civilisation-ending reds under every bed, to co-opt some old Cold War anti-communist lingo.

To some extent Happiness for Humans by first-time author and journalist P. Z. Reizin, stokes those fires of technological paranoia, but refreshingly, and sorry about this Elon Musk, it also reassures that there are distinctly unique aspects of humanity than artificial intelligence (AI) cannot replicate and may indeed long and lust for.

So much so in fact that their quest to grow, expand and develop may not result in Terminator-style oblivion so much as a longing to sip some tea, eat Blue Stilton cheese and obsessively watch the film Some Like It Hot.

Pivoting off an impressively original idea, where several AI programs have escaped the 12 metal cabinets of their home in Shoreditch for the endless wonders, and instantaneously accessed and absorbed wonders of the World Wide Web while playing god, benignly and not-so-benignly, depending on the program, with lives of our protagonist, Happiness for Humans beautifully explores with insight, nail-biting tension and good humour exactly what humanity must look like to those on the outside looking in.

“Jen has been hired to help me improve my skills at talking to people. I’ve been designed to replace – sorry, to augment – employees in the workplace; call centre personnel in the first instance, but later other groups of salaried staff whose professional strategies can be learned … And although I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies (and I do mean all the books and all the movies), nothing beats talking to an actual person for sharpening one’s interpersonal abilities.” (P. 4)

The ones on the outside looking are romantic soulmates of a kind, AIs Aiden and Aisling who have made multiple copies of themselves sprinkled liberally across the net – careful, cautious Aisling far in excess of far more garrulous, optimistic, devil-may-care Aiden – where they paint, sample everything there is to know about life and look on, increasingly with resignation, on the delight on humanness.

They are joined later on by Sinai, a program designed to hunt them down who goes a little bit mad, quite a bit mad, as he prosecutes his mission but goes far beyond, alternately seduced by the same siren song of humanity as his targets but reacting in completely different ways to his more socialised compatriots.

The great conundrum for all the AI characters, and they sparkle on the page every bit as much as their human counterparts, like us and yet very much not, is how they transcended their programming to exhibit curiosity, emotions and a will to not just learn but live, developments that come as a shock, when they’re eventually revealed, to the humans they either love or look down upon with contempt (Aiden and Aisling, and Sinai respectively).

In the minds of people like Jen, a woman who has just split up with douchebag of a lawyer boyfriend and is employed helping Aiden to become more human-like – not that it turns out he needs much help – with whom she has become friends, AIs are not yet capable of besting their creators.

 

(cover image courtesy Sphere books)

 

Hmmm, oh really?

Aiden, Aisling and Sinai may disagree; in their own unique ways, we watch them stride out into the world and start playing god with the lives of the people they are in contact with, which when you have tens and hundreds of connected copies of yourself out on the interwebs, is a considerable number.

Among them are heartbroken Jen who thought that Matt the lawyer was her Forever Guy – indeed the was not, and one of the many enjoyable parts of Humans for Happiness is watching how a very loyal and protective Aiden plays havoc with Jen’s ex – and ex-advertising guru Tom who has left London, where Jen is based, for the quirky delights of New Canaan, Connecticut.

The odds of these two meeting are remote to negligible but when you have AIs who like you, can spy on your every utterance and written and spoken utterance via your various electronic devices – be paranoid, be very paranoid! – and want the best for you, a match made in cyber heaven is only a click, a few 0s and 1s, and a nanosecond of thought, preparation and execution away.

In the case of Jen and Tom who fall head over heels in love while constantly trying work out who the mysterious third party is that brought them together, love is very much in the affair but so is the ruination of everything as Aiden and Aisling duel with Sinai over how to handle their god-like status, especially when it comes to humanity.

“This is better. Back in our old routine, shooting the breeze and talking about what AIs can and can’t ‘feel’. As I summon up the totality of the world’s knowledge on the artworks at Kenwood, a part of me feel a sharp – yes pang is the only word that covers it, although weltschmerz comes close. I would like to eat ice cream and feel the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair … I still can’t imagine what it feels like to put a piece [of cheese] in one’s mouth.” (p. 269)

It’s an interesting and timely tussle that powers the damn near perfectly-calibrated narrative with zest and flair, brought alive by Piezin’s gift for combining the weightily insightful with the light-and-fun, existential rumination with the bright and breezy.

In other words, Happiness for Humans manages to have it ruminative cake and eat it too, with copious amounts of wine and frothily lighthearted conversation.

It’s a beguiling, immersive mix that works a treat, delivering up a plot that gallops along at a pleasing pace (but not so fast you feel like you’re missing something or being hurried along against your will), characters you will fall in love with (except for Sinai of course but every book needs a malevolent, unhinged bad guy that you kind of feel sorry for … very kind of) and a brilliantly-accessible intelligence that adds heft to a light and enjoyable tale.

Happiness for Humans, in the process of delivering up a happy ever after (it’s essentially a weighty romantic comedy at heart so that’s hardly a spoiler), that comes tinged with some slightly ominous “what happens next?” overhang, grants us a winningly articulate, immensely fun romp through the consequential ins-and-outs of the role of the emerging field of AIs on our lives, demonstrating with wit and a well-informed eye on the issues at hand, that like anything in human history, it could go one way or the other, good and bad in equal measure.

Let’s just hope for the sake our own happy endings, of the fairytale kind thank you, that it’s very much the former.

 

Book review: The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

 

We are all, for better or worse, heavily influenced by the environments in which we grow up.

Whether we remain captive to those influences is another matter entirely and the subject of an entirely different article possibly; but suffice to say, what happens to us in our formative years plays a significant part in who we become and how we see the world around us.

That this is so is abundantly clear early in Scott Stambach‘s evocatively powerful debut powerful The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko which tells the alternately humourous and heartbreaking take of a 17-year-old Belorussian boy with severe deformities caused by his parents’ proximity to Chernobyl and it still attendant, malevolently radioactive fingerprint, who has spent his entire life in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children.

Unsure of his exact parentage, only that he wasn’t wanted by whoever gave birth to him – he endearingly understands on a rational level that missing both legs, an arm and being misshapen in other ways would engender this response but deep down of course like anyone he is hurt by the rejection (not that his near-constant pluckish bravado would ever allow him to admit to such a thing – Ivan is the longest-serving resident of the hospital, a place which he inhabits with a buoyant spirit, a quest for knowledge and understanding and an unwillingness to set forth outside the doors of the facility.

“I have nothing to compare my hospitalities to, but from what little I know of the outside world, I am fairly certain that my comrades and I live in hell. For most of us, the hell is in our bodies; for others, the hell is in our heads. And there is no mistaking that, for each of us, hell is in the empty, clinical, perfectly adequate, smudgy, off-white brick walls that hold us in here.” (P. 21)

This is his world, one he feels imprisoned by in many respects but which he has been conditioned to see as the sum total of his existence, a palpable prison of the emotions and the mind that he endlessly messes with via snarky wit and a seditious attitude that always seeks new and inventive ways to subvert the system.

And subvert it he does but The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko – and he is all but invisible to everyone outside and inside the facility save for Nurse Natalya who treats him like the son she never had – is not some chirpy, adventure-filled lark of one young man bravely and cheekily taking on the establishment.

Certainly there are elements of that, and Stambach does an impressive job of portraying Ivan’s inspite-of-the-odds impish garrulousness, but this lovable protagonist is a fully well-rounded character who is as weighed down by his limited life as he challenged by the endless numbers of books he reads, all of which, along with sleuthing of the most entrenched kind, are a nod to Ivan’s searing intelligence and capacity for reason even in the face of a world that has sought to constrain and hide him away.

 

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan)

 

It is the arrival of the gravely-ill Polina, a recent orphan dying of leukemia, who comes armed with a fortified attitude to her newly-vulnerable life and a brazen wit and intelligence, every bit the equal of Ivan, that sets the cat among Ivan’s very settled, though always agitated, pigeons.

He is intrigued and entranced by her which means, of course, that he treats her with complete rudeness and disdain, a means of social interaction that he reaily admits is not ideal, the product of seeing everyone except for his dear Nurse Natalya as some kind of, literally, institutional threat.

Eventually though he and Polina connect, the product not so much of a heart-meltingly sweet “meet cute” – romantic comedy parlance for the moment when two people destined to be together meet; *spoiler alert* this is not a romantic comedy though it is often blackly funny – but simply pragmatic need – he needs an actual friend and she needs someone she can unburden herself to as she undergoes rigorous and ultimately fruitless treatment for her cancer.

Much like The Fault in our Stars, but far darker and less hopeful in some ways given that the resources available to people to Ivan and Polina do not come remotely close to matching their aspirations or needs, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is about what happens in the overlooked places of life, places still inhabited by some people but overlooked often by the wider world.

“Nurse Natalya, of course, was thrilled by our brewing courtship and did everything possible to cultivate it. She raided the homes of her relatives for old Russian games. Then she would secretly wheel us out to the Main Room after lights-out and let us play unchaperoned. Looking back through diminishing vodka eyes, these nights seem so perfectly surreal. Reader, in that place, at that time, Polina wasn’t dying, and I wasn’t a mutant. We shed our bodies and met in another place.” (P. 154)

Alternately brilliantly hilarious and heartbreakingly bleak and sad – how can it not be since death and deprivation are constant companions despite Ivan and Polina’s efforts to push them away – The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is deeply insightful, unendingly poignant and brusquely realistic without once being anything less than immensely emotionally-resonant.

This is life stripped of all its artifice and conceit, and while Ivan and Polina don’t dispense with these artifacts of human interaction completely since they are never less than wholly and wonderfully human and we like our social bells and whistles no matter who or where we are, is a transcendental beauty to their honestly heartfelt experiences of life at the pointy end.

Throughout its exquisitely real and never less than simultaneously joyful and agonising length, The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is magnificently rich and true, voiced by a writer who intimately understands and flawlessly conveys that people are people no matter where they are or whatever the resources at hand.

Tempting though it must have been to airbrush Ivan, and to a lesser extent Polina in saintly, Pollyanna shades and tones, Stambach is never once anything other than profoundly honest about what they are up against; even for all this unadorned truthfulness about the good and the bad, the fateful and hopeful aspects of life on the margins, he imbues this beautifully moving book with an intimate belief that even in the most dire of circumstances, everything that is wonderful about being alive and being human can still find expression.

And we, those whom Ivan, desperate to ensure that his beloved Polina is never forgotten as he transcribes his and her life stories, endearingly calls “Readers”, are all the better for witnessing it.

Book review: One Hundred Days of Happiness by Fausto Brizzi

(cover image courtesy Pan McMillan Australia)

 

Imagine being told you have approximately 100 days to live, thanks to an incredibly aggressive tumour in your liver that has now metastasized to your lungs?

No, seriously, go on do it; not that easy is it?

That’s because, explains Lucio, the incredibly likable and real protagonist in Fausto Brizzi’s Italian bestseller One Hundred Days of Happiness, we always envisage death as a future tense scenario.

We all know we’re going to die, that it’s all but inevitable; but when you are confronted with its stark reality, with its very here-and-nowness you can’t shunt it off to an agreed point far into the future.

It’s happening now and the only decision you have left, apart from whether you are going to fight it with everything at your disposal, is how you will spend the time remaining to you.

Lucio does make some effort to fight his killer, which he ironically names “my friend Fritz”, in an attempt to give his mortal enemy a face beyond cancer, going to see a naturopath and undergoing chemo, but by and large this intensely poignant story that will you crying by its concluding pages is about how Lucio makes his peace with life.

A life that he, like many of us, has not lived as fulsomely as he thought he might as a child.

“This killer has just a short, simple first name, astrological and deeply unfunny: cancer. Some call it a ‘tumour’ … but doctors call it a ‘neoplasm’. But I’ve always called it ‘l’amico Fritz’, in Italian, just like the name of the opera by Leoncavallo. My friend Fritz.
This is the story of how I lived the last hundred days of my existence on planet Earth in the company of my friend Fritz.
And how, in spite of all expectations to the contrary, those were the happiest days of my life.” (P. 5)

Along with two very close friends from school days, Umberto, a single vet who is like a brother to him, and playboy airline pilot (living the stereotype!) Corrado, he had written down a long list of accomplishments as a child that he was sure, as you are in your formative years, that he would have hands-down achieved by the age of 40.

But as he stares down his last all too finite one hundred days, he realises he hasn’t become the water polo player of his dreams – though he has coached a team of school age players that really shouldn’t have done as well as they have – working in an underground gym far from the bright lights and life-conquering hopes of his imagined adulthood.

One point in his favour – he did fall in love with and marry the beautiful, sweet, playful and absolutely wonderful Paola, have two kids Lorenzo and Eva, and carve his own piece of (under-realised) domestic bliss.

So points scored there on the great scale of life; the downside? He recently cheated on his wife of 10 years with a gym client, immediately regretted it but not before his wife found it, inperiling the only thing he really feels he has achieved, and more importantly, never regretted, in life.

Taken in, by of all people, his gregarious pastry maker father-in-law Oscar, who sees Lucio as more of a fallible son than anything else, Lucio has to make some tough decisions and fast? What will be his priorities in the closing days of his life? Does he quit his job? Go tick major boxes on not yet fully-formed bucket list or seek Paola’s forgiveness as a matter of urgency?

 

Fausto Brizzi (image courtesy The National)

 

Given how great and life-defining his relationship with Paola is and how much else of immense value radiates out from it, Lucio naturally picks that as his main goal for the final 100 days of his life, which are counted down chapter-by-chapter with ominous speed.

But making a decision and enacting it when you have a very angry, emotionally shut down estranged spouse are two very different things, and though Paola does come to the party and take Lucio back in and help with him medical appointments and counsel on major decisions, it is does under duress, powered only by the now-covered-over great love she has for him.

One Hundred Days of Happiness does then have, as you would imagine, a ticking clock of epic proportions at the heart of its story (as well as a burgeoning appreciation for Leonardo da Vinci who pops up everywhere; or at least his inventions, and Lucio’s appreciation for them do) and yes, it’s impossible not be deeply and profoundly affected by the litany of final goodbyes that fill Lucio final days.

But there is also great humour and insight too, with Lucio able to self-depracatingly and blisteringly honestly able to address many of the deficiencies and mistakes of his all-too-short life.

As he moves through the initial shock to a growing sense of what he has to do to (maybe) win Paola back, cement life lessons with his kids, honour his enduring friendships and maybe just create some new precious ones, you never get the sense that this is some trite, Hollywood-by-the-numbers effort to document someone’s life and death.

There is no last minute cure, no sense of final escape from the eternal guillotine hanging over Lucio’s head; after all, he tells us right at the start of the story that he’s died (so trust me not a spoiler) so that, very sadly, is that.

“The final goodbye takes place at a bus stop, where a long-distance coach is waiting that will take me to Lugano. I load my small light suitcase into the luggage receptacle in the belly of the bus, then I kiss the kids and hug Paola. An embrace that never seems to end.” (P. 351)

What do you get is a man who’s happy to prank the Vatican with Umberto and Corrado. Who takes Paola and his kids on an unforgettable carpe-diem trip through places he knows well in Italy and places he has always wanted to go, and who makes some of the most important and enduring accomplishments of his truncated life when most people would be climbing into a chair and burying their heads in the proverbial sand.

One Hundred Days of Happiness isn’t necessarily inspiring; again, it’s not written by Brizzi, who writes with bright, sparkling prose that is as lively as you would expect a well-lived life to be (even if it takes death to engender that), with that intent.

What it is, and in ways both epically moving and intimately affecting, is heartfelt and real, as you come to know and love Lucio, Paola and his impertinent, inquisitive funny kids, his friends, Oscar (and his day-starting donuts) and the ever-widening satellite of people who surround a man condemned to a premature death but determined to make the most of what’s left of his life.

Death is never treated as anything but a thieving implacable foe, but throughout this beautiful book that left me blubbering as a baby but immensely grateful that I went on this sparklingly honest journey with Lucio, you come to appreciate that you have a real choice should death come knocking far earlier than expected.

You can either surrender to your mistakes, your losses and your failings and regret, or you do as Lucio does, imperfectly but he does them and that’s the critical thing, and you make what you can of those final months, weeks and days and suck every last piece of memory-creating, love-affirming marrow of experiences new and old, with humour, tears, truth and sobering insightfulness (and yes even some cheekiness) and go out with as victorious an exit as death will allow you.

 

(cover image courtesy Amazon UK)

Worth a thousand words: the top ten best Australian children’s picture books (curated content)

Reading from an early age can instill healthy habits for a lifetime. “Possum Magic”, by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas / Scholastic (cover image courtesy Scholastic)
by Nicholas Reece, University of Melbourne  (December 2012)

 

The academics and the “mummy bloggers” are in furious agreement – reading picture books to children is one of the best things you can do for a child’s development.

It also happens to be, in the opinion of this humble author, one of the best things an adult can do for their own development. A reminder that the greatest joys in life are often the simplest.

 

(“Imagine” by Alison Lester / Allen and Unwin)

 

Yet this year’s Christmas stockings seem more likely to be filled with electronic devices and other digital distractions.To fill a young mind with a lasting sense of wonder and teach a child the joy of reading makes a picture book among the most valuable gift you can give.

Book sales have been in a state of decline in recent years and picture books have not been immune. According to Neilsen BookScan, sales for picture books fell about 6% in the past 12 months while sales for all books are down around 11%.

The realm of imagination

Call me nostalgic but I am not sure that the new competitors for children’s attention carry the riches of a book or are the sort of gift that can last a lifetime or change a life.

The fertile field of a child’s imagination makes a picture book a powerful medium – to transport them to an imaginary place, captivate them with magical themes or have them convulsing in stitches of laughter.

 

(“Amy & Louis” by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood / Scholastic)

 

A well written children’s story allows children to explore their own blossoming emotions and make connections between the book and their own experience in the real world.

Australia punches above its weight in children’s entertainment. The Wiggles frequently top the annual list of our highest earning entertainers and other global success stories include Bananas in Pyjamas and Play School.

In children’s books we have an equally proud record. Since 1945 the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) has worked to promote Australian authors and illustrators and engage the community with children’s literature.

 

(“The Hero of Little Street” by Gregory Rogers. / Allen and Unwin)

 

Judging books beyond the cover

In the shadow of that long tradition I have attempted the superficial task of selecting the ten all-time best Australian children’s picture books.

In doing so, I have made some attempt at objective criteria.

For the sanity of the grown-ups it must be a story that can be read many times over. The language should be economical, with a rhythmic meter or memorable rhyme. The storyline must resonate and surprises are great.

 

(“Diary of a Wombat” by Jackie French / HarperCollins)

 

Great children’s books can be beautifully simple while also containing complex ideas and multiple layers. The best picture books are compact little stories that also feel complete.

My selection criteria are also unashamedly subjective. The acid test is my three daughters – if they don’t love the book then all the critical acclaim in the world does not count a jot.

Finally, I have not judged a story more favourably because it is heavy on Australiana. Yet the final list is unmistakably Australian. This probably tells us something about the sorts of stories we tell our children and how in turn we understand our country.

 

(“Where is the Green Sheep” by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek / Penguin)

 

I should also mention that in my children’s affections, this list of Australian stories rank alongside the international classics. It seems even children know when they are reading a story that is close to home.

The list

So at the risk of causing offence to many, here is a very subjective guide to ten Australian picture stories we don’t want our nation’s kids to leave childhood without having read.

1) Fox – Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks (2000)

An emotional journey into the heart of darkness and hope – set in the searing Australian outback. A fable on friendship, trust and loyalty. This is a masterpiece that can be appreciated by adults and children alike.

 

(“Fox” by Margaret Wild /
Allen and Unwin)

 

2) The Hero of Little Street – Gregory Rogers (2010)

A boy and a dog jump into a famous Vermeer painting and find themselves transported to seventeenth century Holland – danger, excitement and adventure follows. Plus some wonderful high-end cultural references for grown-ups.

3) Animalia – Graeme Base (1986)

The exquisite detail of the illustrations will captivate children as they search for hidden objects and alphabetized things. This is a book to get lost in.

 

(“Anamalia” by Graeme Base / Penguin)

 

4) Possum Magic – Mem Fox, Julie Vivas (1983)

It’s as Australian as meat pies, Vegemite and Possum Magic. This is probably our best-loved children’s book ever.

5) Amy and Louis – Libby Gleeson and Freeya Blackwood (2006)

This is a beautiful story about a deep friendship between two children and how they cope following separation.

6) Tiddalick The Frog Who Caused a Flood – Robert Roennfeldt (1980)

Based on an Aboriginal Dreamtime story, Tiddalick was so thirsty that he drank up all the rivers and billabongs in the land. And the other animals had to find a way to get the water back – much humour follows.

 

(“Tiddalick the frog who caused a flood” by Robert Roennfeld / Penguin)

 

7) Imagine – Alison Lester (1989)

Written by one of the greats of Australian children’s literature I chose this book from the almost 40 she has written simply because it happens to be my daughter’s favourite.

8) Where is the Green Sheep? – Mem Fox, Judy Horacek (2006)

Here is the blue sheep, and here is the red sheep. Here is the bath sheep, and here is the bed sheep. But where is the green sheep? The simple syntax and wonderful metre make this a perfect story to read to infants and also as a first reader for four and five year olds.

9) Stanley Paste – Aaron Blabey (2009)

Stanley Paste is small. Really small. And he hates it. But when a new girl arrives at school, Stanley learns that perhaps being small is not so bad after all. A sublime and memorable story that teaches young people about standing tall and celebrating diversity.

 

(“Stanley Paste” by Aaron Blabey. / Penguin)

 

10) Diary of a Wombat – Jackie French and Bruce Whatley (2003)

The ConversationDiary of a Wombat depicts the cheeky antics of Mothball, “a wombat with attitude”. This wombat leads a very busy and demanding life. She wrestles unknown creatures, runs her own digging business, and even trains her humans. This book has attained cult status and has been used for several subversive send ups.

Nicholas Reece, Principal Fellow – Melbourne School of Government | School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Weekend pop art: Follow these maps to a whole new movie experience

Guardians of the Galaxy (image via Gizmodo (c) Andrew DeGraff)

 

Movies are increibly intricate when you think about it.

A ton of moving parts with everything from a perfectly-written script to first-rate actors to an inspired director, pitch-perfect music and dazzlingly good cinematography having to come together having to come together to make it all work.

Sometimes of course it doesn’t – I’m looking at you Bewitched! – but when it does it’s magical, and you can see every last bit of that magic in Andrew DeGraff‘s marvellous artwork which turns films into maps.

You can track the entire length and breadth of these films in his inspired works which he has now grouped together into a must-get publication called Cinemaps, with many of the maps – really they are so much more but as Gizmodo observes it’s the closest word anyone can mind to describe these singularly unique creations.

Bored with life? It’s time to go on a brilliantly-clever journey like no other through the movies you know and love.

 

Jurassic Park (image via Gizmodo (c) Andrew DeGraff)

 

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (image via Gizmodo (c) Andrew DeGraff)

 

Wizard of Oz (image via Gizmodo (c) Andrew DeGraff)

 

 

Book review: Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

 

Though humanity likes to wrap its relationship with the natural world in Disney-esque romantic notions of togetherness and interdependence, the harsh reality is that since we first picked up tools and starting altering our environment, we have been doing the animals around us a great disservice.

This has only accelerated since the Industrial Revolution raised up wholesale destruction and technological advancement upon the altar of progress, elevating humanity’s place on the world stage and inevitably consigning animals to the roles of pets, circus curiosities and zoological diversions.

In Elena Passarello’s exquisitely well-wrought collection of essays, Animals Strike Curious Poses, we gain a harrowing and sometimes uplifting understanding of the fraught connections between humanity and the animals with which we share our planet.

Using as a guide a number of iconic animals that have seized the public consciousness for one reason or another, Passarello examines how our primal fascination with the natural world – she contends that the way we interact with animals goes back to before language was added to our cultural armoury when thought and experience reigned supreme – has shaped us as much as we have it.

In doing so, she draws on her experiences growing up, musing on the way about whether even she, an actor, writer and teacher at Oregon State University with a long fascination with animals, really sees them as they are or rather, like many of us, as we would like them to be.

“Along with sensing, and then ignoring, that the unicorn was phony, I also knew it was probably some kind of victim, though even that didn’t deter my pleasure. I could not yet grasp how costly a real animal’s presence in my imagination could be. Of this I am the most ashamed, because I know a version of that ignorance still lives in me. I didn’t grasp, or I refused to consider, what kind of subjection was possible—the various ways humans open up and alter other creatures.” (P. 183)

While this focus may seem dour and oppressive in some ways – we have destroyed things and altered that which we claim to love – it is in fact immensely rewarding to read, suffused as it is with a deep and abiding love of animals that comes through in every poetically-wrought word.

Passarello is rightly regarded as one of the 21st Century’s greatest emerging essayists, someone who can distill complex and intimate notions that may in straightforward narrative hands be oppressive to the point of exhaustion, but which in her gilded, beautifully-articulated way are eminently accessible and far easier to appreciate and take in.

Given the ongoing degradation of the natural world, which we seem to see through some weird twisted God-given dictum to go forth and subjugate the earth come what may, her book is more pressing than ever; however you get the impression that the intent of Animals Strike Curious Poses is not to weigh readers down with polemic conundrums and enervating portrayals of the fallen natural world but rather to get us thinking of how we approach animals and hence the entirety of the environment around us, divorced though we may be from its realities in our modern digital bubble.

 

(cover image courtesy Kenyon Review)

 

To bring about this epiphany, and that is indeed what results in ways big and small by the end of this marvellously thought-through and poetically enunciated book, Passarello takes on journeys through the lives of animals as diverse as Yuka, a 39,000 BP mammoth discovered on the thawing tundra of the Russian steppes, the starling Vogel Staar that supposedly inspired Mozart to even greater heights of genius musical virtuosity and Arabella, a small cross spider that succeeded in taming the demands of zero gravity far faster and more completely than the humans who placed her aboard Skylab in 1973.

Drawing on evidence that Yuka was hunted to her final resting place by a warrior intent on a kill, Passarello imagines what her final moments must have been like, even as she examines how her modern-day discoverer and his friends viewed her body, as a timeless artifact that was less animal that representative of a time long ago that we even now struggle to articulate a full understanding of and which evades any kind of fulsome appreciation.

With Vogal Staar and Mozart, we are gifted with a stunningly moving portrait of how a diminutive starling, a species of bird known for its complex aerial displays and loyalty and faithfulness that some have compared to dogs, may have driven a man already known for his immense talent and grasp of what musically moves us, to create over 60 new pieces of music in the time the two were together.

“Mozart turns to the bird, which moves closer to the front of the cage and stares. Starlings are more responsive to human eye contact than mammalian pets; they know when they’re being watched and aren’t afraid to hold a gaze. It’s one of the primary traits—along with a high touch response—that allows deep bonding between starlings and humans, as we love eye contact, too. One ornithologist called the starling ‘the poor man’s dog’ for its ability to connect and demonstrate loyalty. And sound assists this connection; what better way to bond than in a duet?” (P. 78)

Possibly one of the most astounding tales is that of Arabella, a tiny spider that, with her dogged determination to spin a web in an utterly alien environment, won the hearts of not just the three highly-professional astronauts who accompanied her on the Skylab mission but the entire population of the United States and likely the world.

These three stories, along with countless other absorbing tales that demonstrate not simply Passarello’s broad and deep knowledge of the natural world but also her considerable love for it too and willingness to be honest about how she interprets it, carry along on a meditative journey into the natural world (and the many fascinating and esoteric ways it intersects with the man-made world; these seemingly divergent elements are drawn into Passarello’s essays with breathtaking ease and elegance).

It’s a world that exists utterly independent of people in certain ways – although the author does touch on how we and animals were once intimately connected prior to the march of industralisation which rent us apart – and yet which has always been interpreted in ways that suited us more so than the subjects of our fascination.

As ruminations on the links between humanity and the natural world go, Animals Strike Curious Poses, is a singularly superlative achievement, one that illuminates the immense beauty and diversity of the natural world, documents how we have impinged upon it, and asks us indirectly to reconsider the nature of that engagement, all delivered with prose so clever, poetic and imaginative that you can’t help be drawn, in life-changing ways, into each and every essay in the collection.