A few lists

I’m off tonight to other climes, colder places with snow and ice. Back in a month.

I haven’t prepared any lists – it is list season. But here are a few thoughts, off the top of my head. I find this works best, especially for books because the ones that are really good stick with you. And that’s what we want, don’t we? Not some list that I’ve carried around, where you might think oh, she’s just saying that.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten things and people. Apologies. Have to go and pack. Haven’t proofread. Just scrawling onto the screen. Happy Christmas, New Year and everything else. Bring on 2018. 2017 has been – despite the following list – pretty sucky. Am ready to leave it behind.

 

CATEGORY | BOOKS, WRITING, LITERARY STUFF

BIGGEST PLEASURES

  • starting the Bad Diaries Salon and having people – readers and listeners – love it SO MUCH (more below, including photos)
  • meeting new writing friends on twitter and in real life
  • receiving two residencies for next year: beautiful Bundanon and Varuna
  • being ‘in talks’ with a literary agent at Curtis Brown, Australia’s biggest lit agency
  • chairing at Perth Writers Festival, earlier this year (was it really this year? Unbelievable) – two sessions. Got to catch up with my awesome wild salty friend Sarah Drummond (whose dark beautiful book THE SOUND has been listed in the IMPAC Prize.)
  • meeting Amanda Curtin in Perth. She is so so lovely. She gave me macarons and a fan to keep cool at the PWF. Did I say how lovely she is? She is the most lovely.
  • being on panel at Williamstown Literary Festival – what a great festival. Make sure you go next year. What a vibe. I’m finding the smaller festivals are just fantastic. But on that, am of course interested to see what Marieke Hardy does with MWF in 2018.
  • appearing at Writers under the Influence at Buck Mulligan’s whiskey bar in Melbourne and reading – among other things – my KYD piece on unrequited love and Lake Eyre
  • getting a writing studio. I have only been there once. Give me a chance.

 

BIGGEST MOST INTERESTING MOMENTS

  • seeing Peter Carey talk at Word for Word in Gee-Town, as organiser Maryanne calls it. Fantastic festival. A bit under the radar but that will change. Also the gnocchi of my LIFE was discovered in the library cafe. I KNOW!
  • seeing not just George Saunders spreading his light and empathy at Northcote Town Hall in winter I think it was, but also Anne Enright, on the same night. My brain was filled and over-flowing after that one, I tell you.
  • meeting Jane Smiley, buying her a cider and telling her about my horse-riding accident at 7 yo

 

BIGGEST FUNNY MOMENT

  • sitting next to Nathan Hill of The Nix fame on a bus and thinking he was Liam Pieper of The Feel-Good Hit of the Year and The Toymaker fame. Making us both embarrassed. Then telling Liam about it later and him laughing. Then telling Nathan I’d told Liam about it and him laughing. Then it turning in on itself and becoming a kind of surreal circular ongoing joke.
  • I’m sure there were other funny moments – probably even funnier. In fact watching Tracy Farr read at the Perth Bad Diaries #REGRETS was super hilarious, as was Laurie Steed‘s reading and Annabel Smith‘s. (Annabel is a natural performer and, just quietly, she and Tracy are amazing karaoke singers too. Just WOW.) (Also, another whisper: Annabel has finished her next project so waiting to hear on what’s next with that.)

 

BIGGEST COINCIDENCE (of my life) (so far)

  • meeting Jane Smiley’s friend David Francis at the bar (see above story) in Perth and him listening to me tell my horse-riding accident story and the slow-dawning realisation on his part that I was talking about his parents’ place, and then I drove down there a few months later to re-visit the scene of the crime, met his dad, went to the house where my mum had taken me afterwards to look at my leg. She saw the hole and took me to the doctor who sewed it up, twelve stitches.

 

BIGGEST RELIEFS

  • acquitting my Creative Vic grant
  • seeing my cover for LITTLE GODS coming soon to a bookstore near you (soon = next April)
  • ‘passing’ my second structural edit. The first one I failed (as a teacher I know this).
  • that I pushed for my book to be published next year not this. Note bene: Flano (everyone writes ‘Flanno’ but surely it’s a single N?), de K, Garner, Carroll, Laguna, Rawson, Patric, Wright, Miller, and all the others. In 2018? Just me, Timbo and Mr Robert Lukins. Oh and Stephanie Bishop, and SA Jones, and and… no year is an empty year, but pretty sure 2018 won’t have 14 big names or whatever it is. There might be a little bit of oxygen for us emergers.

 

CATEGORY | TV

It’s been a bad year for TV and reading. It has something to do with me being busy and with screens and distraction. Am working on a solution because I really don’t like it. But some TV I’ve watched has been really really good.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT in TV

  • The Handmaid’s Tale

 

OTHER DISAPPOINTMENTS in TV

  • GLOW
  • second season of Top of the Lake. It was like they lost an episode

 

OTHER 

 

BOOKS

It’s telling that books are right down here. Below television. Fractured reading best describes the situation. Many started and put down. I tried to stop my knee-jerk book-buying habit, thinking I needed to buy and read all local fiction, all buzzed fiction, everything that people were talking about on twitter. I decided to let things settle. Get some from the library (I did that and returned all pretty much unread). I think it’s because I have been feeling saturated by fiction for a few years now. When I want to read and immerse I go to non-fiction. Also it’s because I’m writing fiction, so there’s something about letting other people’s words and concerns in. These are the books I read, finished with no struggle, and loved:

Bernadette Brennan’s marvellous A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work. I read this slowly. Not just because I wanted to make it last but also because it was so fascinating and insightful I wanted to re-read Garner’s works as they appeared in this book.

Dorothy Porter – The Monkey’s Mask. It was a re-read for ‘book group’. Read it as easily as the first time.

Emma Viskic’s wonderful Resurrection Bay. Great stuff.

Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck. Weird – but not as weird as previous Wrong Turn – and beautiful. I love weird and beautiful. They are a fabulous combination. (This book also gave me intense cover envy. Like INTENSE.)

Joan Didion’s Marching Towards Bethlehem. Don’t need to say anything, just ‘Didion’. Read this after watching the terrific doco made on her by Griffin Dunne – remember him? ’80s movies? The Center Will Not Hold.

I read some Roxanne Gay. I read Lindy West’s Shrill. I read Clem Ford’s Fight Like a Girl. I read Rachel Cusk’s Outline (finally, took about 4 goes) and Transit (one go). Adore her NF, not so sure about her fiction. Read – I think this year – Edward St Aubyn’s Never Mind. Maybe it was last year. Really liked. Really tough and sad.

But the thing that most staggered me, this year, in my reading was just a slip of a short story – 35 pages. Brokeback Mountain. No I hadn’t read it. Yes, I’d seen the movie, several times. But this story. WOW. It made me know more why anti-novelist Ryan O’Neill is always going on about stories. Everything in that story is magnificent. Everything from the movie is in there. It is extraordinary. I am not converted though. I still like long and the immersion of novels. But I’m struggling to read them so maybe it is the key. Short. Concise. Novellas (novellae?) BUT publishers don’t want to publish a novella. Not the main-streamers anyway.

 

CATEGORY | SITUATIONAL READING

I like to read books that are relevant to my travel. I read Metamorphosis in one sitting (lying) in a bathtub in Prague. So for this trip I’m taking THE BOOK OF DIRT by Bram Presser (met him last week, he was a reader at Bad Diaries #SPIN and he was exactly as I’d imagined. Big, loud, frenetic, funny, warm, smart.) I am expecting the airport bookshop has copies. Also I’m taking Maria Tumarkin’s OTHERLAND: A Journey with my daughter. Because I’ll be travelling with my daughter and we are going to Russia, it all makes perfect sense. I love Maria’s writing, and her thinking, and was interested to see recently someone (memory fails) is publishing a book on her next year?

Am also taking Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov plays to read while away. Will be taking notes – for a future project – and trying trying trying to shed the frenetic psychological spaces of the year and the full-on exhaustion. But looking forward to 2018.

I’ve run out of time, so no space for food lists, weather lists, walking lists (went on some terrific historical walks) or newly found passion lists – mudlarking for one.

 

BAD DIARIES SALON 1 #MISTAKES Willows & Wine West Melbourne

mistakes

L to R: Imbi Neeme, JA, Jane Rawson, Rosalie Ham and Cassandra Austin

 

BAD DIARIES SALON 2 #TRIPS Cam’s Kiosk, Abbotsford Convent Melbourne

L to R: Jennifer Down, Rose Mulready, Marlee Jane Ward, Jock Serong, Rochelle Siemienowicz

 

BAD DIARIES SALON 3 #REGRETS 399 Bar, Perth

regrets

L to R: Laurie Steed, Tracy Farr, Brooke Davis, Annabel Smith, JA

 

BAD DIARIES SALON 4 #SPIN The Night Heron, Footscray Melbourne

spin

L to R: Patrick Allington, Jo Case, Bram Presser, Alice Robinson and Jane Rawson

spin2

L to R: Jo Case, Alice Robinson, Jane Rawson, Bram Presser and Patrick Allington

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So. Prague a little ahead of schedule

Had planned and mostly booked a Christmas trip to Prague and Russia when I got a call from my daughter – on exchange at Charles University in Prague – that she had broken her ankle. (This is very much a precis of what was actually a super dramatic and distressing phone call from her on the street in the middle of the night. I looked up ambulance number and she rang and I stayed on the line during the ambulance ride to hospital, the examination by doctors, and her being admitted. Most of that night stayed on the line, the phone open using Whatsapp. She had surgery the next day, and again, afterwards, once she was back in her room, we kept the line open, like some long-distance baby monitor. I tried to stay calm and worked on my book edits in Melbourne while listening to my twenty-one year old breathing and moving as she slept thousands of kilometres away in Prague.)

This all happened on the Fri night/early Sat morning of the weekend before last. By Wednesday morning I knew I had to come, so I booked a ticket and got on the plane that night. Arrived Thursday lunch time and went to hotel, dropped bags, then to the hospital. Discharge was more like a prison break it has to be said, and the hospital more Cuckoo’s Nest than The Alfred.

She is giving herself daily injections for DVT – OH BRAVE CHILD OF MINE – and I have managed a few walks in this beautiful city. We aren’t sure of the plan, seeing doctor tomorrow, but I suspect the choices will be limited or shaped by medical and insurance imperatives.

We have been pretty holed in up the hotel. But we have watched Stranger Things Season 2. I am about to finish The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – so brilliant and I have lots of other books I brought with me as well. I watched the new (and only?) Joan Didion documentary made by her nephew Griffin Dunne (remember him from the ’80s?) – it’s on Netflix and FASCINATING.

I got my copy edits off to the publisher, thank goodness. They were kind enough to give me a little extra time. My business partner is amazing and she and other educators are covering my classes while I’m gone for two weeks. On my return I am doing a weekend workshop with Tim Ferguson on ‘writing comedy’ – my friend writer Sarah Drummond did the workshop with him, and said it was fab. So I feel excited to do that. And then there is the Word for Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong, also upcoming. I’ll be down there staying in Geelong for two nights, and have a bunch of tickets to a bunch of events. Looking forward to that very much.

But really, I don’t know about anyone else, but 2017 has been a year of extremes for me and mine. Talk about highs and lows. Here are some photos from Prague:

Willy Lit Fest 2017

 

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It was a good couple of days.

Saturday I saw Leah Kaminsky, Rachael Guy and Andy Jackson talking poetry, the body, chronic illness and disability. It was interesting and moving. All smart people with brilliant things to say, and all gorgeous readers of their own – and other – work.

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Then it was my session, The Age of Experience, chaired by Jane Rawson and also featuring Christy Collins and Paul Dalgarno. We talked about how it’s possible to write while old – no, really. We talked about how being an older debut writer is not so bad, in fact it can be really positive and maybe even better/easier? It was a great session with a good audience who asked questions, especially a certain Mr Kakmi.

I don’t have a pic but here we are afterwards, the best one is with my eyes closed. So be it!

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I look like I’m just so pleased but a bit tired.

Sunday I was in at the festival early to catch Dmetri Kakmi talking to Richard Cornish about his Year Without Meat (book and actual year). I laughed and I cried and this is the truth. It was a confronting chat about where the meat we eat comes from and whether it’s ethical (answer: probably not). Richard Cornish has a blog here and I’m looking forward to exploring it. I eat meat, I love meat, but I don’t want to eat meat in a way that perpetuates the terrible conditions and killing practices of most commercial meat producers.

kakmi_cornish

After that session I had about half an hour break before starting my two-hour The Editing Hat workshop. It was booked out quite quickly and there were 20 participants, which made it more like a lecture. I had a whiteboard. I had my notes. And I had keen listeners, ranging in age from a Year 9 schoolgirl (so 14, 15 at a pinch) who had already completed 30,000 words of her fantasy novel, to two delightful older sisters. Everyone was interested in writing something – whether for publication or not – and therefore wanting to learn about the editing process, how things work, how it sits within a publishing ‘flow-chart’ and lots of other things. When to stop, when is it too much? When to show to someone else. Who should that someone else be?

The time flew, and everyone seemed happy.

So. Today I had a quiet day with my own manuscript, continuing my structural edit. This Thursday I’ll spend my first day in my new writing studio, which I organised last week. So lucky and feel very happy. It doesn’t have wifi which is a huge attraction.

 

And that’s about it.

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How beautiful have the skies been lately? I remember the skies this time last year, they are stunning.

 

#6Degrees from ROOM to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

It’s time for #6 Degrees. Anyone can play, it’s fun and easy. And fascinating to see how people’s brains work at making connections. No rules, according to Kate at BAMFAB who runs the show.

As well as linking the books to each other by content or theme, I also want to make another connection – they all have a dwelling that is significant to the story.

The starter book this month is Room, the claustrophobic novel from Emma Donoghue. A woman and her son are in peril, and living in a small space, unable to leave. (Garden shed)

This is similar to the protagonist of Robyn Cadwallader’s first novel The Anchoress, except this woman consents to being locked into her small cave-like stone prison. It’s only once she’s there that we – and she – learns of a threat circling. (Cell)

Caves are very important in Clan of the Cave Bear series by Jean M. Aul. Stones are also significant – both in slingshots and amulets worn around the neck – and bears are important too, as one of the most powerful totems a clan and individual can have. (Caves)

There is a bear in Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The mother goes to the cow in its pen, to take it inside during a blizzard (my memory is shaky – I haven’t read it for so many years) and maybe it’s also night, but she pushes the cow and then realises it’s a bear. It’s one of the favourite family stories for Laura and her sisters. In a later book one of those sisters goes blind from scarlet fever. (Log cabin)

In Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, one of the sisters dies of scarlet fever. I confess I’ve never read Little Women but have seen the film and remember it as a bit simpering? The story of the March women has never been a reference for me but I like the idea of the father being away at war, and someone writing a novel about his experience (Geraldine Brooks, was it?) (Okay, this one is just a house)

In Cold Mountain (Charles Frazier) someone goes away to war and some of the most touching moments in that sentimental book/film are of Inman, the carpenter-deserter as he tries to make his way back to Ada, his love. (There is a scene of a house being raised, barn-style?)

Another story/film with Mountain in the title is Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Anyone who does not love this story has a cold stone heart and I cannot be friends with them. I must read the actual short story one day. (Tent)

A plan, a plan

squid hat

I love this hat which I saw on twitter or somewhere else recently. It’s an octopus hat, right? Not a squid hat…

I have been working on an idea to try to have this blog updated more frequently. My blogging history (started in 2005 with looooong posts with few readers) means that I have the tendency to write too-long posts. Until now, I’ve thought the optimum post length was around 700-800 words, under a thousand, definitely. Which is why it’s a surprise to know such a figure is outdated. This is what I just found:

That 1,400-1,750 was the sweet spot for 2016.

What?

Oh, but that’s for SEOs. What about for human readers?

I always feel disappointed when blog posts and articles are too short, and overwhelmed when they are too long. If I have the time, and the article/essay/post is really interesting, I love a long read but it seems that the elusive sweet spot is something much shorter.

For this website/blog/whatever it is, how do I find a more balanced output, where I generate unique fresh content that isn’t boring (like this particular post is starting to feel right now), isn’t onerous, and I can keep producing. I don’t always want to be talking about my writing, or my cat. I used to have never-ending topics to blog about (maybe it was the anonymity that was liberating. Hmmmm.) But there is still a fascinating wealth of things to write about, I just need to hit on the right balance. I feel once a week is best and most realistic for me.

But as I potter around with these concepts, here are some people doing good things with their blogs/websites:

Australian authors Jane Rawson and Annabel Smith have started a series – aimed at writers but of probable interest to readers as well – about the pleasures and perils of publishing. Here is the first one What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Book Blurbs.

WA author, and NZ resident Tracy Farr recently launched her second novel The Hope Fault, and while I’ve yet to read it, I read an intriguing review that only made me even keener to read. I love the idea of hidden surprises in novels, intellectual underpinnings that spin quietly underneath the narrative engine.

The Hope Fault – Telescopic Time

And here is a post from Tracy’s website about the recent launch.

Anyway, happy Sunday, here are some more links that I’ve collected across the top of my browser:

Uncle Nev’s Trail Rides. Yes. Considering a seasonal ride, so four times a year. How nice would that be?

A reddit thread on about elephants and music at a sanctuary in Thailand. 

Using ginger in tea to help with congestion and inflammation. My sinuses are an ongoing issue.

The family recently went to an American-style BBQ restaurant in Fitzroy (bluebonnet) and the other night I was looking for a different place to try. Haven’t been (yet) but this looks good.

“The new true-crime podcast from the “Serial” creators is a Faulkner-esque Southern Gothic novel”. Most of these words trigger intense interest in me. The problem is I just am not a podcast listener. I should be, I should be walking and listening but my walking time is either filled with conversation (with my daughter) or thinking time. But podcasts are the best thing I don’t have in my life, that I wish I did. I did listen to Serial though, somehow I managed it and maybe I’ll manage this too: S-town.

An interesting discussion of Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North in the Sydney Review of Books (from 2013), including this passage:

That is, elements of popular romance and adventure fiction impinge on the central subject of the novel.  In the long line of fictional representations of this material, The Narrow Road to the Deep North has more in common with Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice (1950) than with David Malouf’s The Great World (1990) with its slow-paced examination of small lives.

It’s worth re-reading in light of Flanagan’s upcoming novel, due in October this year.

2016 Wrap Up.

Books

I feel I’ve read very little this year. I am always reading something, or several things, so it’s not as if I’m reading less, but because I didn’t keep a list, and because there weren’t that many books that I loved, it feels sparse when I cast my mind back over the year.

  1. My Year of Reading India. On one hand it was a failure as I only read a handful of titles, and started a few but didn’t finish. On the other hand, it was a mega-success because I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I think I will claim it a success for that reason, and also because now I have a lot more titles on my shelves that I didn’t before. Maybe without putting pressure on myself I will get to more.
  2. I don’t have a favourite read for the year, and can’t turn my mind to trying to pick one, or even a top 5 or 10. Here are some titles I really liked: Leap by Myfanwy Jones; The Sound by Sarah Drummond; The Windy Season by Sam Carmody; The Feel-Good Hit of the Year by Liam Pieper (so so funny); Nutshell by Ian McEwan; Swimming Home and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. In addition to Midnight’s Children, which I ended up loving and think is a masterpiece. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting but these are the ones that come to mind.
  3. Biggest reading disappointment for the year was EASILY Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall. And it should have been fantastic as it is the part of his life when he ‘becomes a writer’ but it was dull and tedious and boring. Other people will say all the books are dull and tedious and boring, but I have been held in his tight grip for Books 1 through 4. And then 5, uh oh, ummm. But I will read 6, oh yes I will.
  4. My first book for Reading India was A God of Small Things and I liked it (but straight after I began the Rushdie, and thought hers a paler version of something similar) but I am happy to read she has her second novel coming out next year… A God of was her debut, and released in 1997, so that’s a gap of 20 years.

 

Television

  1. The TV mini-series of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda was amazing and great. I loved it a lot.
  2. Game of Thrones, naturally, we were all over it. I even dressed up as Cersei for the final episode and if I say so myself, looked pretty damn good. Here I/she am/is:

jensei

2. Other shows that we enjoyed: Stranger Things (nostalgic, pacey, original/familiar); The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (funny, boundary-pushing, poignant); Broad City (fantastic female characterisation, and different). GIRLS, yes I like it, no I don’t care that you don’t. One show I did not enjoy and stopped watching after first episode of new season: Walking Dead. We are now watching Westworld but my daughter is in Japan so I have to wait until she is back. I like it. Again, I’m sure I’ve missed some but…

 

Radio

I was on live radio twice this year, at the ABC, for my day job (the teaching). The first was with David Astle chatting about sex education and parents answering the tricky questions from their kids; the second was a couple of weeks later with Clare Bowditch.

with david astle 774 ABC

 

Film

Imagine tumble-weeds rolling through a cinema. I can only remember one movie and that was last week: Rogue One. I have plans though for Paterson, Arrival and maybe La La Land. And seeing Rogue One again next week because: blended family.

 

Blogs

The blogs I’ve most visited and enjoyed (and maybe commented on, although that has been sparse) are: Lisa Hill’s ANZLitLovers (I did an author appearance there earlier this year: Meet an Aussie Author) and Kate’s Books Are My Favourite and Best. They are disciplined and consistent, fantastic ambassadors in bringing the goodness to our screens. I also pop into a couple of other blogs, including Sarah Drummond’s lovely lovely one, where sometimes you get a slice of delicious prose that may or may not be part of a work in progress. And the photos – divine. (See The Wine-Dark Sea).

 

Animals

We got a kitten in July, just when the Tour de France was starting. His name is Alan, he was a rescue baby, abandoned or found at about two weeks old. Here are before and after (current) pics. We LOVE HIM SO MUCH.

 

Writing news

It was a good year, even though not much actual writing happened.

  1. I signed a publishing contract just before Christmas for my second novel. So that is exciting and a relief because: second novel syndrome (even though it’s my first ms, so I kind of avoided the problem of writing something after the first one was released, and published second ms first. How canny, lol, I had no choice in it).
  2. I received a grant from Creative Victoria, to help me develop a manuscript I’m working on. This is what I’m calling the circus novel, or more accurately the circus/abortion novel.
  3. I got a booking to be on a panel at a writers festival next year, and then when I’d given up on a pitch to another – much larger – festival, received word that I will be chairing two events there. This is almost the most exciting writing bit from this year.
  4. I made a 2016 best reads list! The lovely Charlotte read about The Secret Son on Lisa’s blog, got a copy, reviewed it and put it on her list here… I was pleased, it’s so hard to get on these damn lists. (Charlotte’s original review here and her 2016 list here.)

 

Finally, the biggest surprise of 2016? My favourite experience not just of the year but maybe ever? The thing that awakened me to something new and wondrous and deeply thrilling? Me seeing Wagner’s The Ring Cycle in Melbourne in November. I have a friend, he writes opera reviews for the Herald-Sun and tweets about it as Opera Chaser and blogs here. He has been an opera chaser for 30 years but has only started writing about it in a formal sense for the last two or so years. He has taken me to a couple of productions, offered to take me to more, but I’ve declined, saying ‘sorry, it’s really not my thing, it’s a wasted ticket, take someone who appreciates it.’ So yes, I was a hypocrite when he was over for dinner on a Saturday night and asked if I’d be interested in seeing at least the opening opera Das Rheingold two nights later, on the Monday night. YES I would, I said. (The Ring Cycle has been on my list of things to do before, well, you know, ever since my mother saw it three years ago, here in Melbourne. Ever since I went to a talk with her, as part of the Wheeler Centre program, and heard Peter Rose talking about seeing Siegfried in Germany somewhere, and the stamina required of the singers, who ‘staggered around the stage’, swigging water from plastic bottles in the heat. It’s details like this that make me sit up, also hearing that ‘it’s as much an epic feat of endurance for the audience as the performers’. I am intrigued by obsession, and love listening to people talk about their obsessions. I learn about human nature, about the extraordinary in the ordinary.) So I went on the Monday night, and was lucky enough to go on the Wednesday (for Die Walküre), the Friday (Siegfried) and the Monday (Götterdämmerung). By the time it was all finished, and I was sitting stunned and grateful outside the Arts Centre, with my viking helmet on, taking a selfie, feeling changed and other-worldly because I had been converted, something big had passed through me. I’d sat in an audience, for four nights, enthralled. At times my jaw had dropped open, and I mean that literally. I would become aware of my open mouth and close it, then realise a few minutes later it had fallen again. It was visually spectacular, of course, but the music. THIS is why I didn’t like opera before. It wasn’t Wagner. It was an extraordinary experience and I feel lucky lucky lucky. It was a production where the performers transported you; where the sets delighted (the steps up to Valhalla; the little house with snow; the helical ramp for the Gods). The conductor refused to take a bow on any of the nights, and instead repeatedly applauded his orchestra, and on the last night got them up on stage for the standing ovation. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be on a stage for such a thing. Just magnificent. I bought a box set of the CDs and have been playing them every time I’m in the car. The music, incredibly, is familiar, after only one viewing of the Cycle. It’s as if it entered my body that one time, Wagner’s repeated motifs taking up residence inside of me. My only wish now is to be able to take my daughter – who IS an opera fan – to the next production. I hope they do the same one just once more, so we can go. Hopefully in three years. And with my mum too. What a dream!

So that was my 2016. Elsewhere I would indulge in the other matters that have rocked us, the deaths, the politics. I’ve decided though that part of psychological survival, for me, is to try to see the positives and keep the negatives in their place, keep them at the front of the back of the mind, while the beauty and art and achievements and privileges are kept closer to the heart, in gratitude.

Next year, from April I will have something new on the blog, a series you could say, about books and reading, and how it will shape up I’m not sure but stay tuned for news on that.

Happy 2017, and stay safe and well.

Ian McEwan’s NUTSHELL

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Of course I forgot to post this yesterday as part of my fourth in a very short series. And now it’s going to be a slapdash job cause I’m in the middle of writerly work, so here goes:

The premise is outrageous. The narrator is a near-term foetus with a devilish penchant for good quality red wine and the ability to overhear – and fulsomely imagine – his mother and her dealings ‘on the outside’. Here is the blurb:

Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She’s still in the marital home – a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse – but John’s not here. Instead, she’s with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy’s womb.

The epigraph is, naturally, from Hamlet (Hamlet’s mother was Gertude and his uncle, Claudius. His father is unnamed in the play, he is called either Ghost or King Hamlet, but John is as good a name as any.)

Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams — Shakespeare’s Hamlet

And in keeping his narrator inside something like a nutshell (actually closer to an upside-down pear in size and shape, Mr McEwan, but that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well) McEwan has created a stage of infinite space because the foetus’s understanding of the outside world, his supposings and imaginings are terrifically sophisticated and will push the limits of believability for some/many/most readers.

I liked it, but again wanted something ‘more’ at the end. What is this saying about me? On page 33 I stuck a post-it note on the page with a hopeful prediction but it didn’t happen.

Here is the opening paragraph and it manages to capture your attention immediately:

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and all night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes,and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

SO much here to talk about. This is the opening and it lets you know what you are in for. This is the voice, it’s so authoritative, and this is who you will be with for the rest of the novel. This paragraph tells us the narrator has a sense of humour (‘who I’m in, what I’m in for’) but also an irony (at first the mention of nostalgia by a baby not yet born and a ‘careless youth’makes you think ‘oh hilarious but sad and innocent’ but then you think a little more: Oh! No. This is very knowing, and the words are made more clever. The resentment of the foetus being bound by his mother’s body is amusing – surely the mother will be feeling the same about the resident within. And finally the pillow talk, a plot, and the reader – if she has accepted the words before, if she trusts the author enough to be carried – will read on with excitement.

It’s a brilliantly clever and well-executed book. I haven’t loved all McEwan’s books that I’ve read (and I haven’t read all of his works), but for me, this worked very well.

You can find proper reviews here:

The Guardian called it ‘an elegiac masterpiece’

The Washington Post on McEwan’s ‘preposterously weird little novel’