Friday, February 28, 2014

You can never be too careful

At this point I would like to refer to that smelly waste material that large bovines excrete from their bowels. Because, like so many truisms, this one simply isn’t true. It is abundantly self-evident that taking too much care can have very negative consequences.

It’s very dangerous to be in a vehicle on the road. I would be much safer if I never placed my backside in a car or any other form of motorized transport. However, the inconveniences and difficulties that would arise in my life (and the lives of those around me) were I to follow this path would far outweigh the risks I take by being on the road. We make the less careful (but more sensible) choice almost every day of our lives.

Eating is very dangerous. Anything I eat may poison me (accidentally or through the malice of others) or choke me. I never know for certain that the food I am about to eat is entirely free of contamination. However, if I choose never to eat again, I could possibly be accused of being ‘too careful’. Until I no longer have any need of food at all.

These are clearly trivial examples. They do demonstrate, however, that we can, indeed, be too careful. The point is that there are forces everywhere urging us to err (too far) on the side of caution.

Billion dollar industries are built out of making us fearful. Insurance is a perfect example. We are educated and indoctrinated to be terrified of all the unforeseen events that could overtake us. Fear makes us take out that unnecessary extended and more comprehensive warrantee. We put up signs everywhere warning of dangers… and protecting us from the vague and insubstantial fear that we might be sued if something goes wrong and we didn’t have a sign in place.

Governments, the military, and security services thrive on our fears and insecurities. This is a form of terror-ism. ‘Better to be safe than sorry’ is their other motto. No. Sometimes it’s better to be sorry. We expend too much energy and resources on preventing ‘bad things’ from happening… and have little left in the tank when they continue to happen anyway, despite our efforts. ‘Prevention is better than cure’ is another ally. Yes, sometimes it is. But sometimes the steps taken to prevent something of low likelihood from happening are far more burdensome and restrictive in the long term than the ‘something’ we are seeking to prevent.

None of these sayings is absolutely and invariably true in all circumstances. Nevertheless, they can be used in the name of protecting me from any number of nebulous threats. They can be used to sell me all kinds of unwanted goods and services.

The other side of ‘being careful’ is the delusional belief we maintain that we can make the world safe. No matter how much care we take, accidents will continue to happen; unexpected calamities will still strike. From this point of view we can never be careful enough, that’s true. We can never be so careful that we will exclude the possibility of anything bad and unforeseen from occurring. Someone will always be able to appeal to the fear that resides in that crack between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’.

I refuse to live in the sphere of fear within which insurance companies, governments and other agencies seek to envelope me. I will take some care. I will take sensible and necessary precautions (as determined by me). I will, for instance, continue to look both ways when I cross the road, and make every effort to avoid putting bleach in my tea rather than milk. I will, however, be very careful not to be too careful.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

We've come a long way... Not!

It never ceases to amaze me how self-deluded Australian society can be. This is a society in which racism, sexism and homophobia is rampant; but which vehemently denies that this is the case. We like to pretend to ourselves that we are a modern, liberal, morally advanced society. We are not. And this leads to some very peculiar contradictions.

Take this one example. This year, the fifteenth Brisbane Queer Film Festival is being held. For that we will no doubt pat ourselves on the back. See how wonderfully open-minded and forward thinking we are?

Then this happens. One of the billboards to advertise the festival carried this image:

Brisbane Lifestyle Committee (whatever the hell that is) Chair, Krista Adams, said that the Brisbane Council requested a stop on this billboard. ‘We are mindful of the community’s views and believe that one of the three posters may be seen by many as too confronting,’ she said (Courier Mail online, Feb 21, 2014 12.03 pm). One person commented on my Facebook page that she didn’t think it was appropriate for children to see it. Incidentally, she wasn’t Australian.

Would anyone think this was too explicit or too confronting if it were an image of a man and woman? Of course not! So what is the difference? The difference is that many Australians remain uncomfortable with demonstrations of affection between men (at least). We are far from accepting this, except in carefully controlled and delimited arenas, such as gay parades and gay film festivals. As a nation we are supposed to be seriously considering the introduction of same sex marriage. How can we do that when two men kissing is considered confronting? When, for some reason (what reason, one wonders) it is considered inappropriate for children to witness outward manifestations of affection between men?

Drop the pretense, Australia. As a society we are nowhere near as open and liberal as we like to believe.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

An Overdue Political Rant

I’m afraid I can’t hold back this political rant any longer. Readers from overseas may not get much out of it. Although perhaps you are having a similar experience in your own country? I have a feeling Canadians might be going through something similar at the moment. If you believe you have an arrogant, heartless, retrograde government that would like nothing more than to bring back the good ole fifties, read on.

I can’t remember when Australia ever had such an arrogant, supercilious, self-righteous bunch of people in charge of the country. Paul Keating (former prime minister) was an arrogant bugger, but at least he was funny and intelligent with it. Peter Costello (former treasurer) was high up there in the arrogance stakes. Fortunately he never made it to PM. But in this government! What a team! Just look at them! Scott Morrison (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection), Julie Bishop (Minister for Foreign Affairs), Christopher Pyne (Minister for Education), Greg Hunt (Minister for the Environment), George Brandis (Attorney General)… Are there more you would like to add? Can we do no better than this?

Interestingly, compared to this sorry collection, Tony Abbott (Prime Minister) and Joe Hockey (Treasurer) seem almost human and almost reasonable. Perhaps that is Abbott’s strategy. Having these clowns in his cabinet makes him look almost good. But then, he did appoint them (or so he would have us believe). I do wonder how much in control of these people he actually is. Nevertheless, they make our climate-change denying, homophobic, misogynistic Prime Minister appear almost competent in comparison. And Joe seems to ‘mean well’.

Then there is poor Malcolm Turnbull (Minister for Communications) standing more or less on the sidelines, looking slightly bemused by it all. If he had been leader, even I might have been tempted to vote for the Liberal-National Party coalition. And we have Barnaby Joyce (Minister for Agriculture) battling against his own government, for the most part. I may not agree with his political ideology, but at least he seems to want to do something worthwhile—and he also has a sense of humour. And, finally, there is poor Ian MacFarlane (Minister for Industry)… Industry? What industry?

I blame the Labor Party for this. I don’t think many people in this country really wanted to see these people in power. However, the Labor Party pulled off such an astonishing feat of very public self-destruction during its last term in office that people rightly chose not to vote for it. Who to vote for then? Well, perhaps Abbott and his team might not be too bad. They couldn’t be worse, surely? Well, I think now we are beginning to find out.

And now we have the Opposition, sitting there in Parliament, directionless, weak, not knowing which way to turn. Bill Shorten (Opposition Leader) looks clueless and idea-less, with nothing more than a few hackneyed clichés and tired tactics to fall back on.

How did we get here? Well, Kevin?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Emotional Gravity

Someone says to you, ‘I really, really loved your book.’ Someone else says to you, ‘I liked you book, but…’

Which of these comments is likely to have the most impact on you? Which will you take to bed with you and replay over and over again in your mind?

I will take this one step further. You receive, over several days or even weeks, hundreds of emails praising your book. Then, on the nth day, you receive one email from a reader who didn’t enjoy the book. Which, for you, weighs greatest in your mind, the hundreds of positive emails or the one critical email?

We would all like to say that we can easily brush aside the negative email. It’s just one opinion among many, right? It’s not possible to please everyone. Perhaps I can learn from the person who didn’t like the book. Yet despite this self-talk, I am willing to wager that the single negative email will drag you down much further than the hundreds of positive emails were able to raise you up. I suspect that the world of our emotions is governed by a law of gravity similar to, if not stronger than, the law of gravity that operates in the physical realm. It is against this natural and pervasive downward force that all praise has to operate. It takes work to lift us up; but none to drag us back down again. Carrying this analogy further, it takes constant praise (force) to maintain us at a given height, and without that praise (force) we fall.

I don’t think I am alone in having this experience. I suspect many of us would like to deny that it is true of us. Perhaps after time we can become hardened or immune to the things that impact negatively upon us. I’m not sure I am at that point yet. I envy those who possess seemingly indestructible self-esteem. At the same time, I don’t actually believe in its reality. They are just better actors than I am. Nevertheless, perhaps if I act the role long enough it will eventually become my reality.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Review: Fight, by Brent Coffey

Many books that I review end up receiving a star rating in the vicinity of three. These books are not terrible, but they are not particularly remarkable either. It’s not surprising that most books fall into this region of the spectrum. As a reviewer, this leaves me room to move when I am presented with a book that stands out from the crowd. Fight, by Brent Coffey, is one of those. Here is a writer who knows how to set a scene, who knows how to build suspense, who knows how to give out tantalising hints to the reader; and who knows how to surprise the reader.

Fight tells the story of Gabe Adelaide, the adopted son of a Boston Mafia boss; of Bruce Hudson, the District Attorney who tried and failed to prosecute him; of August, the little boy who witnessed his parents’ death, and whom Hudson and his wife want to adopt. Around these characters is woven a fascinating story of intrigue, plots, deceit and misunderstanding. The main characters in this story are complex, many-layered, flawed and utterly believable. As much as this is a mafia-style thriller, it is also an exploration of how life’s events shape character. It is a story of loss and redemption. Within the story the characters carry their burdens, but learn surprising lessons from life. In presenting some (but by no means all) of the minor characters (particularly the ‘bad guys’) Coffey occasional falls back on stereotypes. But this is not at all true of the main characters or many of the other minor characters. They behave and think in ways that are entirely believable.

I had a few quibbles with some of the minor plot points in the story, which were unconvincing. However these were never central to the plot, and could easily have been addressed. For example, it was not believable that the men who were sent at one point to kill Gabe would decide to report to their father, a powerful mafia boss, that they had been successful when they were not. He would (and did) quickly learn the truth. This was not at all important to the plot and I wondered why the author felt it necessary to include it. In a second example, the way one character was dispatched relied upon some questionable chemistry. There were a few other similar issues. I also wondered why the author had chosen the name ‘Adelaide’ for the main mafia family, when they were clearly intended to have Italian roots. This incongruity bothered me a little, and seemed completely unnecessary. The choice of St Knox for the name of the hospital also struck me as odd. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a St Knox. Knox is a name associated with Scottish Calvinism and is unlikely to be used for an ostensibly Catholic hospital. Attention to some of these details would have added at least half a star to my rating.

There were also a few grammatical issues and typographical errors, which seemed to increase in frequency as the story progressed, but which never became a major concern.

For the faint-hearted I should mention that there is some graphic violence and strong language to be found here. None of it, in my opinion, was excessive or gratuitous.

This was a book that I really enjoyed reading. There is plenty of action and suspense for those who like that kind of thing. However, there is also a depth to the story and characterisation, and a quality to the writing, that does not often accompany it.

Four stars from me.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Limits of Tolerance

The concept of tolerance has always bothered me a little. First of all, it sounds a little condescending: I don’t like your behaviour, but I will tolerate it. By saying that we tolerate something we are, at the same time, making it clear that we disapprove of it. The nuances of language aside, there are other issues that we should consider.

First, we need to recognize that ‘tolerance’ is a fairly recent, western, and probably middle class idea. Yet we assume that the concept is a universal value. Or have attempted to elevate it to such a position. It is almost inevitable and certainly understandable that those who adhere to a particular value argue that it is universal. It is all but implied in the concept of ‘value’. Yet historically and culturally there are many belief systems that do not enshrine tolerance as a value, or even consider it desirable. Even if that were not the case, it is certainly possible to conceive of a system of belief in which it were. Let’s consider a hypothetical religious belief system in which a group of people believe themselves to be the recipients of a divine revelation demanding that all people worship the sun. Worship of the sun is the only way to achieve salvation. As long as any one living person does not worship the sun, all souls are in jeopardy. Anyone who does not worship the sun is seen as an enemy of the sun, forfeiting not only their own salvation, but threatening also the salvation of sun-worshippers. Tolerance within such a system of belief is unthinkable. Tolerance, under such a system, would be a sin.

It is a very modern, western, middle class notion that all religions will preach love, peace and tolerance. Many have not. Many do not. This is a corollary of our equally modern, western, middle class notion that ‘all religions are the same’. They are not. They never have been.

Even if we genuinely do believe that tolerance is a universal value, we cannot expect others to automatically share that belief.

The other issue with tolerance is: Tolerance of what? Another way of asking this is: Are there limits to tolerance? Whether we consciously acknowledge this or not, it seems clear that there are behaviours and belief systems that even the most tolerant among us do not feel any obligation to tolerate. I could choose any number of issues here. For example, there may be those who believe that it is required of them by their sun-god to destroy non-believers, even if it means destroying themselves in the process. In this way, they may believe, they obtain special favour in the eyes of their deity. It is no use those outside this belief system arguing that this is contrary to some other aspect of this religious system. That may be true. But those who believe it, nevertheless believe it. Most of us, perhaps, would argue that such behaviour should not be tolerated. Should the belief system that leads to such behaviour be tolerated? That is a more difficult question. There are many, many, many more examples where a belief system results in behaviour and practices that we, in the west, will not (perhaps justifiably) tolerate.

A proposed limitation on the concept of tolerance is the balancing concept of ‘harm’. The argument is that we should tolerate any behaviour that does not bring harm (to others? to oneself?). This sounds alright, as far as it goes, but questions inevitably arise. What constitutes harm? What degree of harm is required before it becomes intolerable?  Is all harm harmful in the long term? Spanking may be considered harmful for a child in the short term, at least. But there will be those who would argue that it is only slightly harmful in the short term but enormously beneficial in the long term. Our sun worshippers may believe that women can only be saved by serving as slaves to their husbands. This may be considered harmful to women by outsiders, but to insiders, including the women themselves, this may be regarded as eternally beneficial. It is a slippery slope to argue that the women themselves only believe this because they have been culturally indoctrinated. This may be true; but this argument can be made of any belief. There is something very arrogant about the outsider telling the insider that they don’t really believe something.

The concept of tolerance is not as straightforward as we might at first believe. It most certainly does not stand for ‘anything goes’. Nor does it relieve us of the responsibility of making ethical judgements in each case that confronts us. We may get some of those judgements right; we may get many wrong. Unfortunately, there are no easy short cuts in ethics. The concept of tolerance certainly does not provide one.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The ‘leftist, greenie’ ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

I think it would be amusing, if it wasn’t dangerous, for critics of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to accuse the staff of the ABC of all being leftist leaning greenies.

For those who are not aware of it, the ABC is a tax payer funded media organization, with fingers in the television, radio and other electronic media pies. I emphasise that it is not a government funded agency, but a tax payer funded agency. It is not there to serve as the propaganda arm of the government. We are told that it has a ‘special responsibility’ to be objective and balanced in its reporting. These words are usually resurrected when the ABC is critical of the government of the day. Bias is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

I have no way of knowing how individual employees of the ABC vote. Unless there’s something they’re not telling us, neither do those who accuse the ABC of a left wing bias. Just as an aside, it amuses (and saddens) me, that ‘greenie’ has become a pejorative term. We should all be greenies, if we care at all about this planet on which we live. There is no excuse for not being a greenie given the challenges we face. And it has never been clear to me why being green should always be seen to be aligned with the left of politics. Can't someone believe in the power of market forces, in small government and in individual liberty (things which seem to be regarded as values of the right wing) but at the same time believe in caring for the environment? If a right wing person cannot do that, there is clearly something wrong with their ideological position.

While the individual employees of the ABC may vote any which way, it is still possible that there is a leftwing bias within the culture of the organization. But I would say this: Given that almost every other media outlet in the country has demonstrated a consistent right wing bias; given that even the left wing of politics in this country shifted to the right some decades ago… Given those things, a person or organization does not have to stray far to the left to exhibit an apparent counter bias. It is possible to be accused of being ‘left wing’ today merely because one is not quite as far to the right as the mainstream appears to be. Furthermore, given the blatant right wing bias of most other media, any left wing bias in the ABC has to be seen as a good thing, as a counterbalance against an entrenched bias.

Finally the ABC has no ‘special responsibility’ to ‘show support for the home team’. It has no responsibility to cut the government or any of its arms any slack. I will be as ‘unpatriotic’ as I want to be, and so, I hope, will the ABC, if I see this government (or this country, insofar as countries can act) behaving immorally, unethically, unjustly, irresponsibly or undemocratically.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The right to bear…what?

People of the United States of America. As someone who is not one of those (a person of the USA, that is), I nevertheless feel it incumbent upon me to warn you that your rights under the Second Amendment may, even now, be being violated by your state and federal governments.

It has come to my attention that in many states items such as brass knuckles, throwing stars, and switchblades may actually be completely illegal! In many states you can’t carry your sword. Be careful, because you may not be allowed to carry your crossbow or even your conventional bow and arrow around in public. You may want to leave your expandable baton or nunchucks at home, depending where you live.

I’m amazed that the gun lobby hasn’t sought to extend its remit to defend your rights to carry these weapons. It couldn’t be, could it…? No, surely not. It couldn’t be that the powers behind the gun lobby are actually more interested in protecting their right to sell guns, than your right to bear arms?

I urge you, people of America, to take to the streets in defence of your constitutional right to carry your blackjack, your crossbow and your switchblade.

Of course, I can see the other side of the argument. These weapons are, after all, dangerous. Someone might get hurt. Now, wait a minute…

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Which foot wears the book snobbery shoe?

I was just reading a blog post that made the point that you should never apologise for what you read. People read whatever they enjoy, whatever entertains. There is no need to feel guilty about it. Although I haven’t come across any stuff that interests me lately, I enjoy reading science fiction and fantasy. I will be dipping my toe into A Game of Thrones soon. But it is true that some people look down on Dan Brown and other popular writers (and on SFF).

What I actually find, though, is that a reverse snobbery predominates. People look at you sideways if you say you prefer to read something that might be called ‘literature’; and even more so if you aspire to write it. It is regarded as pretentious if you are concerned with form and language, rather than just a story. Some people care about the words they put on the page, or the words they read there, as much as they care about ‘plot’, ‘action’ and ‘conflict’. I feel the need to defend this point of view somewhat, because it this type of writing that is being excluded from the market, not the Dan Browns of this world. There will always be Dan Browns, but will there ever be another Tolstoy, or DH Lawrence or Steinbeck?

I have no problem with reading as a form of entertainment, any more than I object to a movie that seeks only to entertain (and make money, of course). However, I feel that we are gradually losing sight of writing as a form of art. At the very least, it is pushed to the distant margins, much as cinema as a form of art, and music as a form of art are marginalised. I feel that I must apologise because I am not writing thrillers, or young adult paranormal, or romance, or erotica.

So the snobbery works both ways. Yet it is not the Dan Browns who are struggling to gain an audience these days. People need little encouragement to read Dan Brown or John Grisham. They need a great deal more encouragement to read Peter Carey or Hilary Mantel. Much of the great literature of the past would not see the light of day if it were written today, and I don’t mean just because of a change in writing styles over the last 100 – 150 years. I suspect that much of the great literature of today is not gaining the readership it deserves, either. There is almost a tendency to sneer at a book that wins the Man Booker Prize.

I read ‘literature’, but I also read SFF. (I also read many other genres for professional reasons.) What I hope is that people who love to read thrillers don’t only read thrillers. Step out of your comfort zone. Go and buy a Man Booker Prize winner. It will be a different experience, but not necessarily any less satisfying.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Review: Heart of Eternity, by N Jay

Heart of Eternity is an unusual book in several ways. It is difficult to place it within a particular genre. It has elements of romance, and elements of what might loosely be termed ‘paranormal’. I use this term only very loosely. The paranormal element consists of a spiritual battle that takes place between and within the two main protagonists, Naida and Jay. Forces of light and dark confront each other. My understanding is that these are not to be seen as actual entities, but as manifestations or representations of the light and dark sides of their personalities. Or, perhaps, as manifestations or representations of the ‘divine’ powers underlying reality. This book, therefore, contains elements that might be called ‘spiritual’. I commend the attempt to deal with such issues within a fictional context.

Naida is a young woman suffering from cancer. Jay is a ‘bad boy’, whose life has become dark following certain events in his life. The other main character is Naida’s uncle Zachriel, who is a spiritual healer. Naida seeks out his help, in a town in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales; and there she also meets and falls in love with Jay. What ensues is the story of Naida’s attempts to heal herself and Jay.

One of the difficulties I had with this book was that I struggled to see these people as ‘real’. Too often they seemed to be no more than vehicles used by the author to express a deeper point. I never really felt that I came to know them as people. This was particularly true of Naida. What, for instance, does Naida do for a living? Was she in any kind of relationship when she became ill? She seems to have no history. Despite the fact that we were taken, at times, very deeply into her inner life, I felt that I knew nothing about her. I knew slightly more about Jay’s life. We are at least told early on that he is a professional rock climber. We understand that he has been through some kind of traumatic relationship.

At times the lengthy descriptions of the characters’ inner lives became quite tedious. Sometimes less is more. There are other less direct and more subtle ways of expressing this inner life, without always having to spell it out explicitly for the reader. I also think that a little more action in the external world would have made the story more interesting. We at least see Jay actually doing some things early in the book. But the external world is eventually almost completely subsumed beneath the internal world. As far as the actual love story between Jay and Naida is concerned (the ‘inner’ battle aside), it seemed somewhat clichéd: ‘good’ girl attracted to ‘bad’ boy.

The book is written in a fairly wordy and flowery style which some readers will find off-putting. While I am prepared to accept that some of the language may be deliberately poetic, sometimes it is simply poorly expressed: the English is not quite right. Consider phrases such as these:
  •           I will remain bended...
  •          ...that had protruded her stomach...
  •          ...recklessly lingered out...

I appreciate poetry, metaphor and the creative use of language, but I am not convinced that many of these rather odd phrases were intended that way. English is probably not the author’s first language, and she could use some help with getting the idiom correct.

I would have enjoyed this book more if the ‘inner’ story—the battle between good and evil—were more deeply embedded in day to day life, and within a stronger external story. I would have appreciated the spiritual aspect more if more attention had been paid to flesh and blood. Having said that, I admire the author’s intention to explore this kind of spirituality within the format of a novel, even though I don’t share the author’s worldview. I just think it would have worked better with more ‘novel’ and less exposition. This issue and the language problems aside, I am inclined to give this book three stars.

[Note: I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review]

Saturday, February 1, 2014

What's in a name?

I confess to being a little caught out, sometimes, by the name changes that occur to countries and cities around the world. Age and habit probably have something to do with this. For example, even though I’m happy to speak of Beijing and Mumbai, the old names (Peking and Bombay for those freshly out of nappies) are still there inside my head, peaking (no pun intended) over my shoulder; and I may, occasionally, slip up.

I have no problem if a country wants to tell me what to call it. It’s their country, after all. They should know what it’s called. Some of the older names are simply poor attempts at transliteration and pronunciation. They should be corrected. Other name changes have a deeper significance, with historical and political connotations. Again, I think we should respect the wishes of people regarding their choice of name for their own country.

One of the difficulties is the lack of consistency here. I’m happy to call ‘Bombay’ ‘Mumbai’ and ‘Calcutta’ ‘Kolkata’, but is India really called ‘India’? Or should we be calling it ‘Bharat Ganrajya’? Why is it all right for the English speaking world to refer to Deutschland as ‘Germany’, or Österreich as ‘Austria’? How come the French get to call England ‘Angleterre’? Clearly some countries have as many names as there are languages. Why do some names matter and others don’t?

Recently it has become apparent that the Australian Government has reverted to calling the country of Myanmar by the colonial name of ‘Burma’. 

[See this blog post by Australian journalist, Michael Sainsbury:] 

Many will probably consider any objection to this as an excess of ‘political correctness’. But apparently there are strong historical and cultural reasons for the people of Myanmar to prefer this name, not least of which is probably to shake off their colonial past. Is it not polite (without having to be ‘politically correct’) to respect this? Perhaps the Prime Minister should be explaining to the people of Myanmar (and to us) why this change has been made. It wouldn’t be surprising if the people of Myanmar were to perceive this change as a typical example of western, colonial arrogance.

In the meantime, I would suggest to the people and government of Myanmar (and perhaps of other surrounding nations) that they revert to calling Australia ‘New Holland’.