Wednesday, January 29, 2014


I read somewhere recently that the latest trend in business political correctness requires that employees be referred to as ‘associates’, and that stores refer to customers as ‘guests’. By the time I post this, of course, this might have all changed again.

Now, I am the first to acknowledge the power of words. Words can change the world. Sticks and stones can only break my bones, but words can really hurt me. There is merit in being careful about our choice of words. But really: Associates? Guests? Would I be right to suspect that I was being patronised (if not conned) by such language?

‘Associates’ at least has some kind of loose applicability. These (my bosses) are, indeed, people with whom I loosely associate. But am I supposed to believe that the use of such a term will actually do away with the inequalities in power and wealth that exist between employers and employees? It doesn’t really matter whether I think such inequalities are bad, good or morally neutral. They will continue to exist whether I am called an employee or an associate. To call me an associate is surely an attempt to disguise this fact.

And as for ‘guest’… I’m your guest? A cup of tea would be nice. Do you have any Tim Tams? What’s for dessert? I’m not your guest. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. I don’t even like you. I actually don’t want your cups of tea. If you can’t provide the product I’m looking for, I want nothing to do with you. You’re a store; I’m a customer.

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Review: A Fox in a Monsoon, by Tricia McMahon

This is the first in a proposed series by the author, but is a stand alone story. It tells of Katarina Thomas, from a ‘conventional’ (and ‘conventionally dysfunctional’) family in Toronto. She spends some time in prison on charges of fraud, and there meets some women from the ‘other side’ of life. When she comes of out prison, disillusioned with life and with her family, and in financial difficulties, she decides to go it alone as a high class, anything-goes call girl, under the name of Callista Fox.

Although marketed as erotica, this book is much more than that. The sex is present and vividly portrayed, but it is not overdone to the point where the reader is bored with blow by blow (no pun intended) descriptions. The book is more about the world in which the protagonist now finds herself, the characters she meets and the social and philosophical underpinnings of sex work in contemporary Canadian society. It is, above all, about Katerina/Callista as she comes to grips with who she is, particularly in relation to her ‘normal’ family. There are strong sex scenes, strong language and depictions of drug use in this book, and it is definitely for the adult reader. Nevertheless, I never felt that the author was just trying to get the reader off, as seems to be the case with so much erotica.

Callista, who is the narrator, is a strong character, quite believable and complex, as are most of the other women presented in the book. Although avoiding caricature, the depiction of the men remains more external than internal. Individual episodes within this novel are very well written: the prison scenes, a miscarriage scene, some of the sex scenes, to name just a few. The overarching story, though, is a little unsatisfying. There are ‘present’ sequences, flashbacks to the past, dream sequences and journal entries. The result of all this was to fragment the story. The timeline became confusing. The temporal relationships between the different sequences were often unclear. In fact, the timeline seemed to me to be entirely wrong, particularly when ‘real time’ events were related to the journal entries. I think the book would have benefited from some further structural editing. The final scenes between Callista and one of her clients during a visit to Paris were entirely unconvincing to me. Callista’s reactions seemed out of proportion and out of character, given all she had endured up to this point. There were times throughout the story when I thought the author was following Callista down the path towards psychosis; I thought for a while that she had finally become psychotic, with paranoid delusions, in Paris. This was apparently not the author’s intention. As a result I found these closing chapters disappointing and unsatisfactory.

In addition to what I perceived as problems with the timeline, there were other technical problems with the book. There were hundreds and hundreds of typographical and grammatical errors in the text. The author used the wrong word on many occasions (for example, ‘descent’ for ‘decent’; ‘immanent’ for ‘imminent’; ‘calliper’ for ‘calibre’). Sometimes I could not work out what she meant (for example, ‘torminously’). She used many other words inappropriately or in an inappropriate context. Some phrases left me scratching my head.

There are strong scenes in the book, some excellent characterisations, and even some good use of language. The dialogue is good and realistic, including some of the ‘accents’ that are used. However, it is in need of some serious editing, at the level of both the structure and the detail. It reads, at best, as a second, and possibly a first, draft. I can see that the author has real strengths and real promise, as does this book. However, in its present state, there is only just enough merit to lift this book to three stars.  

Monday, January 20, 2014

Obama: Lizard King or Beelzebub?

Apparently, 4% of people in the USA believe that lizard people in disguise are running the country, and that Barack Obama is the Lizard King. At least according to a survey reported by the UK’s International Business Times ( But that can’t be right, because Obama is actually the devil or the anti-Christ (13%). There is quite a YouTube campaign out there ‘proving’ that Obama is the anti-Christ. There is one video which takes great delight in demonstrating that he is Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, by showing us press conferences during which Obama brushes away flies; and even shows us an image of Obama with a fly on his forehead. So the case is absolutely conclusive. Clearly he is not the Lizard King; if he were, he would be eating those flies. Those who claim he is the Lizard King rather than Beelzebub are clearly misguided, if not evil themselves.

There is one particularly useful video that shows quite clearly that Obama wants people to serve Satan. I think it is a video of Obama accepting the Democratic nomination. During that speech he says, ‘Let me express…’ He pauses, then says again, ‘Let me express…’ Apparently, when you play this backwards, Obama is saying ‘Serve Satan’. Isn’t that amazing! He says it twice for emphasis. I would like to thank whoever put up this particular video, because without his help I would never have known that I had to serve Satan. The message would have been lost. I’m sure Satan is very grateful too that this person has helped to spread his message.

On a slightly more serious note. How many hours of Obama’s speeches did this person have to listen to, backwards, before he found this particular message? I’m so grateful that he didn’t waste his time trying to alleviate poverty, bring care to the sick, and freedom to the oppressed, like that guy, what was his name? Oh yeah, Jesus.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review: 'Alligator Stew: Tales from Delbert, Arkansas', by CD Mitchell

Reviewing anthologies is often difficult because they bring together writings with diverse themes and styles, even if they are by the same author. The great thing about this anthology is that the eleven stories it contains are organically linked in several ways. First, they are linked by an event which is on the horizon (fore or aft) of each story, namely the earthquake which had been predicted to occur on the New Madrid Fault, on December 3, 1990. The prediction was made by one Iben Browning, who had (we are told) accurately predicted the last big quake on the San Andreas Fault, and the eruption of Mount St Helens. The second link is the town of Delbert, Arkansas, which lies on the fault, and in and around which all the stories take place. The third, and in many ways the most important, link is the cast of characters. Many of the characters appear in several stories, and a character with a walk-on-role in one story may be the main character in another. These last two factors in particular link these stories together in a very satisfactory way.

The great overall strength of the collection is the characterisation. Many of the stories read as character studies, and the characters are beautifully drawn. They are realistic, diverse and believable. It felt good to meet again later a character who appeared in an earlier story, even if the character was not a particularly ‘nice’ person. The realism of the characterisations means that polarities such as ‘good guy/bad guy’ are transcended here. These are real people, warts and all. The nuances of the style of speech of these characters are extremely well done, without excess and without creating caricatures and stereotypes. This is quite an achievement.

In a more general sense, this is a good character study of a town and its people.

The overall writing style was good without being exceptional. While the descriptions of people’s outer and inner lives are good, more could have been done to draw the surroundings for the reader. I would not have objected to the occasional use of imagery and simile. The pace could have been more varied.

I felt that some of the stories were not quite strong enough in themselves. They may have worked well as chapters in a novel, but not as standalone pieces. This was particularly true of ‘The Sheriff of Jester County’, ‘Perception >Reality’ and ‘Flying Lessons’. Although I quite enjoyed the gentle style of some of the stories (for example, ‘Karen’, ‘Ferdinand C. Posey’), the humour of others (especially ‘Goat and Dumplins’) and the violent edge of some (‘Alligator Stew’, ‘The Sheriff of Jester County’), many lacked a clear beginning, middle and end. ‘Flying Lessons’, in particular, did not seem to have a clean ending, which is unfortunate, since it is the final piece. I would have ended the collection with ‘Ferdinand C. Posey’ instead. It would have been nice if some stories had had a sting in the tail. Consider, for example, ‘The Sheriff of Jester County’. As a story I think it would have worked better if what happened to the Sheriff’s daughter had been held back until much closer to the end. I would have liked to have been surprised occasionally. Although I would need to reread the stories and take more detailed notes to be sure, I had the feeling that some of the timelines between the stories were not quite consistent. I had this impression particularly (but not exclusively) with ‘Poverty Line’. I also felt that some of the attempts to link the characters in the different stories were a little contrived.

Although the idea of linking the stories via the earthquake prediction was good, in the end I found this aspect disappointing. In many, if not most, of the stories, this event is only mentioned in passing. It is not really the central theme of any of the stories. It is no more than a date from which to hang them. I would have expected at least one story to have the theme of the earthquake at its centre. Because of this, this linking theme seems contrived. Mention of the earthquake could be excised from many, if not most, of the stories without affecting them at all. I would be less concerned about this if the ‘Introduction’ had not made it seem as though this prediction was the central theme of these stories. It wasn’t.

As always with a collection of stories, it is difficult to give a rating. My favourite here was ‘Ferdinand C. Posey’. My least favourite was ‘Poverty Line’. I would rate individual stories from 3 to 4.5 stars. Overall, definite pluses go to the author for the interweaving of the stories via character and place, and the study of the town of Delbert itself. Overall I would give the collection 3.5 stars, but it is worth rounding up to 4 for those classification systems that don’t permit half stars.

[Note: I was provided with a final draft in MS Word of this book in exchange for an honest review.]


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Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Burden of Proof

Something I have learned over the years is not to get into an argument with a fundamentalist Christian. What kind of argument can one have with someone who says: ‘Of course God exists. The Bible says so’; or ‘If God doesn’t exist, who wrote the Bible?’ I could have more useful conversations with my dog or goldfish (if I had either) than with a fundamentalist Christian. Actually, I could have more useful conversations with my imaginary goldfish. A little harsh? Hmmm… No, not really.

Those who believe in God (and not just those of a fundamentalist persuasion) apparently see the burden of proof as lying with those who don’t believe. ‘Prove God doesn’t exist!’ I don’t have to; any more than I have to prove that fairies don’t exist. After all, I'm not the one claiming there is some kind of superior being out there, who created the world and me, who tells me how I should be living my life, and to whom I owe allegiance and worship. (There are Oprah and Dr Phil [and maybe Justin Bieber], of course, but I digress.) The burden of proof is clearly with those who hold such a belief.

I don’t think those who believe in God even begin to understand the magnitude of the task before them. Let’s be clear. Even if it could be demonstrated that there was a being who created the world and me, it would take much more than this fact alone before I would give my allegiance and worship to such a being. Or to accept that such a being cared about me, or had the right to tell me how to live my life. Proving that God existed would be only one small step. Proving that God existed would not demonstrate that the Bible or Qur’an or any other sacred text had anything useful to say about him, her or it. Let alone that he, she or it wrote it. Demonstrating the existence of God would not prove that Jesus or Mohammed or any particular prophet or religious leader had anything of importance to say about God. It would not prove that any (let alone every) word uttered by them or written in any religious text was true. Even proving that every word of the Bible was true would still not induce me to worship God. You would have much more work to do after that, believers!

I don’t believe in God, but the question is scarcely of more than academic interest to me anyway. If God exists, so what?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The right to BE gay

Determining whether a particular, complex set of human behaviours is genetically or socially determined is a very difficult matter. In all likelihood, all human behaviour is the result of a complex interaction between genetic/biological and social factors. I put ‘genetic/biological’, rather than simply genetic, because it is likely that behaviour is influenced by biological factors other than particular genes.

The debate over whether sexual orientation is genetically determined is politically and emotionally charged, and research into it is unlikely to be entirely ‘objective’. Many of those of a religious persuasion who are opposed to homosexuality would like it to be demonstrated that a homosexual lifestyle is a matter of choice rather than genetically determined. Of course, in a sense they will always be correct: it will always be possible (but not necessarily desirable) for someone with a homosexual orientation to choose celibacy. Many within the homosexual community would prefer it to be demonstrated that a homosexual orientation has a genetic basis, as this would strengthen equal rights arguments.

My personal opinion is that it is unlikely that the debate over the genetic origin of sexual orientation will ever be fully resolved and that, in fact, as with all human behaviour, the situation is far more complicated than an either/or option. I also think it likely that there is an entire spectrum of sexual orientation and that few people are 100% gay or 100% straight.

Many of those who are in favour of gay rights seem to prefer the ‘genetic’ over the ‘choice’ model for sexual orientation. They seem to think that by showing that sexual orientation has a genetic or biological origin they have lifted it out of the moral sphere. I have even heard gay people say things like: ‘I can’t help it; I was born that way.’ I find this kind of thinking odd, and a little disturbing. Are they implying that if it were a choice, it would be immoral? Is the only argument against those who consider homosexual behaviour to be immoral to remove it from the realm of moral choice by claiming that it is innate? Is that not, at some level, to concede the argument?

Surely the correct argument against those who claim that homosexual behaviour is immoral is to argue that it is moral, rather than that it is amoral. Even if there is some genetic influence on sexual orientation, I think it unlikely that choice can be entirely eliminated, even if it is only the choice to express that behaviour. Why not stand proud and say: ‘I choose to live this way’; and perhaps even: ‘I choose to be this way, and there is nothing wrong with that choice. It is not an amoral choice. It is an equally valid moral choice.’ Then we can begin a dialogue, not only about the need for people who are gay to have the same rights as those who are not, but about the right to be gay.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Violence and alcohol: Who would have thought?

As much as we might like to pretend that it is not the case, men are violent. It’s in our nature. Fortunately, nature does not always have the final word on the matter. For the most part, at least in our personal interactions, we manage to keep our violent tendencies on a leash. We are able to restrict ourselves to verbal warfare and other kinds of one-up-man-ship. We provide ourselves with various sporting and competitive outlets. Or the occasional war. All socially acceptable ways of channelling our violence, it seems.

Unfortunately, there are at least two things that undermine our capacity to control our violence; and these usually go together. They are: alcohol and the tribe. Alcohol removes our inhibitions (there’s a startling revelation for you). Not surprisingly, then, when you grease a verbal confrontation between two men with a little alcohol, physical violence will almost always follow.

Although some violence is private, much of it is public and serves a social role. Men, like most animals, seek to establish a strong position within the tribe and to gain the fear and respect of other members of the tribe. Violence within the tribe serves to establish the hierarchy. Violence between two men from different tribes not only serves to establish a hierarchy of tribes, but also to build up a man’s prestige and status within his own tribe. It is not surprising, then, that when groups of people (tribes) are out drinking on a Friday or Saturday night violence frequently erupts between the men. Can any of us actually, genuinely, be surprised by this? Disapproving, yes. But surprised? Caught unawares? Surely not. Given the mixture of men, alcohol and tribalism it would be astonishing if violence were not to erupt.

There appears to be an increase in this kind of violence across Australia at the moment. Whether this is actually the case, or whether the apparent increase reflects a change in the policing and reporting of such events, is difficult to say. Either way, there is clearly a problem here. The social restraints which are normally operative break down in such situations. Alcohol is clearly an issue. Perhaps we will never change this, though, until the same television program that, before the commercial break is expressing its ‘sincere’ concern about such events, following the commercial break is showing images of people ‘having fun’ at New Years events, and of sporting teams ‘having fun’ while celebrating a victory. It’s not much use bemoaning such violence if, in the next breath, we are bragging about how pissed we were the other night. Because, despite all our protestations, getting pissed still seems to be a cool, ‘fun’ thing to do.

Australian society is experiencing something of a dissociative episode at the moment concerning this issue. On the one hand, we are rightly appalled by the violence that is occurring; on the other hand, we cannot yet shake the idea that to have fun means to get pissed. We continue to extol the virtues of drunkenness and show not only tolerance, but even fondness, for the drunken larrikin. Yet that same larrikin will be punching someone in a moment, and we will all be ‘surprised’ and appalled. In the next breath, though, I will be called a wowser for pointing out the problem. ‘They’re only having fun,’ I will be told.

In the end, I am quite happy to have finally found my role in life, that of an old, grumpy, antisocial killjoy.