Oracle Night by Paul Auster

OracleNight
I’ll start by saying this is the first Paul Auster novel I have read, although he has a large body of work. I was attracted by the enigmatic title, and by the first page of the novel. You’ve heard all that advice about hooking them from the first paragraph – Auster does it so well it looks easy.

Oracle Night is a deceptively simple story. Sidney Orr, a New York writer, has suffered a near-fatal illness, and is slowly recovering. He walks into a stationery shop called the Paper Palace,  run by the strange Mr Chang, and buys a blue notebook from Portugal.
This very simple act sets in motion a chain of events that leads to the question every writer, sooner or later, asks his or herself: why does everything I write come true?

Oracle Night is a writer’s novel – it is about a man writing a book about a man reading a book, to put it in the shortest possible terms. Orr uses the blue notebook to begin composing a story based on Dashiell Hammett’s `Flitcraftian episode’ from the Maltese Falcon, Flitcraft being a man who decided to walk away from his humdrum life after nearly being clipped by a falling beam from a construction site.

Orr’s protagonist Nick Bowen is an editor, reading a manuscript called Oracle Night by one Sylvia Maxwell. While out walking one night, he escapes death by inches when a piece of masonry plunges into the street. Like Flitcraft, he has an epiphany and sets off for Kansas City. Orr is using the Flitcraftian episode as a springboard for a new novel. As Orr writes compulsively in his blue notebook, fiction and reality begin to intertwine, and tragedy becomes inevitable.

Auster’s writing is extraordinary. While I found Sidney Orr to be a somewhat weak, unattractive character, I couldn’t stop reading. Orr breaks every rule in and out of the book – he eschews chapter headings, so the novel reads more like a long short story, he switches viewpoints and tenses willy-nilly, he writes long sentences with loads of commas, and he even adds numbers into the text for back of book notes, for Heaven’s sake.

Yet it all works, in this ghost story without ghosts. Orr is haunted by the past, and by his characters, and most of all by the feeling that the world has become a dangerous and unpredictable place.. Meanwhile, Orr’s wife Grace is acting oddly, his writer friend John Trause has a blood clot in his leg, and Trause’s son Jacob is heading for Hell in a hand basket.

It is truly fascinating to see how Orr develops his Flitcraft story, to watch briefly sketched characters come to life – and within this story again, is another story, the true Oracle Night, the story of a psychic called Lemuel Flagg. As for that question that every writer asks sooner or later – he wisely ends it on an uplifting note, or none of us would ever write another word.

Make Art, Not War

Federal Election time in Australia. Meh. We don’t even have a reality TV moron to spice things up – we just have politicians. The real problem is that the two major parties are starting to look worryingly like each other as well. I’m sick of the pathetic knee-jerk slogans – stop the boats, back to basics : the latter always used in educational matters, as if any of these idiots even know what the basics are. Not since Whitlam have the arts even been regarded as fundamental in education. As soon as the conseravtives took over, waving slates and chalk and chanting “back to basics!” the arts have been shoved in a corner, becoming more and more the refugees of Australian culture, thrown  scraps and set adrift in leaky boats. Yet those in the arts retain their grip on our senses, with music, books, art, films and other brave sttempts to remind who we truly are. Imagine what they could do in a society that realises how lucky it is to have them?

But this election year, there is a small glimmer of hope. It’s cslled The Arts Party and it wants your vote to triple funding for the arts and make Big Corp pay up to chnnel more money into our cultural renaissence. It even has a poet in residence composing haiku.

Want one million votes

For the balance of power

Wear an Arts T-Shirt

OK, it sounds more like an ad than poetry but all artists have a sense of  humour that can’t be kept down. And that’s what we need. More art, more humour, more music, more books, more films – more encouragment and a better environment for Australians who want to make art, not war.

You’ll find the Arts Party here I hope they get their million votes, and more, because that is one way to tell these politicians that It’s Time.

 

200th Birthday of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney

IMG_2447

This year the grand old dame of Sydney, the Royal Botanic Gardens, celebrates her 200th birthday. Spent the day there recently with Jack and Lucia and had a fabulous time. The gardens always manage to look good, and there were some cool new things to see.

IMG_2449

One thing that never changes is the view – just glorious, in spite of the loud house music emnating from one of the boats. Couldn’t they have picked something decent?

 

IMG_2477

The Wollemi Pine has grown into a mgnificent specimen, straight out of Jurassic Park. Discovered in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales in 1994, the wollemi dates back 116 million years – a living fossil. It’s quite awe inspiring to gaze on something that existed with dinosaurs. Now I know how Dr Alan Grant felt!

IMG_2492

The Cactus Garden is quite specyacular but the most terrifying exhibits (possibly not even intended) were these guys, dripping off almost every plant.

IMG_2489

Something new, and stunning, is Wurrungwuri, a pair of sculptures by Chris Booth, This one is made from 16,000 white pebbles that look like eggs stacked together. The sculptures are intended to encouraged habitation by wild flora and fauna. This one has habitation for bats.

IMG_2518

Happy birthday! Who knows what will be discovered and created in another 100 years.

A Place in the Country

While staying in Sydney with Jack Perry and my daughter Chi, of the rock band A Girl’s a Gun, I accompanied them to a gig at Laguna in the Hunter Valley – well, just outide it, as this small hamlet is known as the Gateway to the Hunter Valley. Our destination was the Great Northern Trading Post, an eclectic assemblage of amazing old buildings and antiques where good food, good wine and good music are the order of the day. But the first thing you notice is the view…

IMG_2569

 

And after that, the Mad Max wildlife…

IMG_2565

When they are not rocking the Sydney music scene with their band, Jack and Chi play gigs like this as a duo where their repertoire of blues, soul, jazz and rock suits the ambience.

IMG_2560

While they played and sang, I wandered about and found some things just begging to be photographed – like this overgrown whatsit that reminded me of the krynoid from Doctor Who. In fact it concealed a far more mundane secret. It’s the public toilet.

IMG_2541

The room where Jack and Chi played had wonderful views from this airy little balcony, where I caught them relaxing between sets.

IMG_2563

It was the most atmospheric, peaceful room, full of glorious little vignettes like this desk…

IMG_2546

…and this window….

IMG_2549

These ‘Kraken’ bottles seem to be quite a feature of the GNTP. They remind me of Captain Jack Sparrow, but that’s water, not rum.

IMG_2576

I loved this antique (vintage?) pram sitting in state on its pedestal, just one of the quirky little vignettes dotted about the place – honestly, it’s just like a box of story prompts.

IMG_2574

Mismatched windows and panes of glass like boiled lollies – everything offered itself as a work of art. In every way, a most enchanting day.

Learm more about the Great Northern Trading Post here.

 

The Connectedness of All Things

IMG_2553

When I listened to A Girl’s A Gun (my daught Lucia and her partner Jack) perform Me and Bobby Mcgee recently, it was bittersweet – a song I’ve always loved, done so well, in a beautiful setting, but one that always reminds of the people I lost along the way. It’s a Traveller’s song, from the busted flat and looking for a ride, to the giving of all your tomorrows for just one yesterday in some place with someone long gone.

But then, as is sometimes the way with these things, a whole lot of other things started coming together – I watched Man on Wire with Jack and Lucia, the film of Phillipe Petit’s walk on a wire strung between the Twin Towers in 1974, and I heard the melody La Strada playing in my head. Petit reminded me of the romantic young aerialists  I met as a young girl travelling with the circus – especially one of the Renz troupe who joined us briefly in Spain. His reputation as a daredevil had proceeded him, and we gathered to watch the fabled opening of his act, when he walked up one of the long guy wires that anchored his high wire to the ground. It was superb, something we had never seen before, and the music of La Strada swelled all around us. My friend told me the music was from a Fellini film of the same name – “You must see it,” she said. “It’s about us, circus people, travelling people – it made me cry.” So did I, when I saw it.

The strongman, played by Anthony Quinn, cries too at the end, when he realises he has let slip away the greatest treasure of his life, like the singer of Me and Bobby Mcgee. In the coincidental way of things, I then came across an interview with Kris Kristopherson, explaining how he came to write the song. He wrote the song about a woman called Bobby who sang the blues, and he said that he thought of La Strada when he was writing it, and how the strongman ends up “howling at the stars on the beach’ girl he let slip away. Later, of course, Janis Joplin recorded it and any connection with La Strada faded away. But it became a classic song that meant so much to Travellers like me.

All of these little threads came together in a six degrees kind of way, weaving everything into the fabric of my life, and telling me the story of how none of the people we have loved are really lost, they remain in our hearts and in the music of our memories forever. Everything is connected.

My Poetry Rules: Reality Shows for Artlovers

studioWhy are reality shows always about cooking and building? Why not a reality show for writers? Challenge the contestants to come up with a poem or first chapter and have it critiqued by the other contestants and two professionals. Not a Frenchman in a badly fitting suit or a paleo addict who’s been painted a shimmery shade of bronze, but a publisher and a working full time writer who will try not to look bored/horrified while listening to the contestant’s musings.

Instead of a menu of inedible food, have a menu of indigestible poetry – a limerick or a haiku for the entrée, a ballad or saga for mains and a sonnet or villanelle for dessert. And why stop at poets and novelists? Let artists create a menu of pastels, oil portraits and watercolours; musicians can present a light ballad, a rousing anthem and a sweet love song; crafters can fashion pot holders, quilts and soft cushions – it could go on and on.

instead of instant restaurants the contestants could create instant galleries in their own homes and stress over a broken conte crayon or a squished tube of paint. Poets could sob over their iambic pentameters and novelists could have meltdowns because they can’t spell pneumatic (is that right?) You could have the usual suspects for contestants – the snotty Melbournites looking down on the other plebs; the eager to please puppies hoping for a pat on the head and a Schmackos; the wild outbackers piling up installations made of hay bales and rusty old tractors; the ‘villains’ rating everyone else’s art as passé so they can climb further up the leaderboard – oh, come on, it would be so much more fun

 

C.S. Lewis, a reminiscence

Pauline Baynes
Pauline Baynes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A long time ago, I listened to a serial on the radio called The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I had no idea who had written it, or anything about it, except that it was the loveliest story I had ever heard. A few years later, I came across the Puffin paperback edition with the beautiful Pauline Baynes cover of Susan, Lucy and Aslan, and I bought it – more out of curiosity than anything. I had only ever heard the radio play. What would the book be like?

That book started a literary adventure that took me to so many places, to Narnia and beyond, to Mars and Venus (Malacandra and Perelandra) in Lewis’ space trilogy, to Heaven itself (which Lewis describes as being so sharp and real that it would hurt our poor mortal feet to try and walk on the grass). I devoured every book by C.S. Lewis I could get my hands on. I haunted bookshops and libraries, looking for that magical name. It made no difference to me that he was a Christian writer, and I did not consider myself a Christian (although I had been baptised a Roman Catholic as a baby). He was simply a wonderful writer, full of humanity, humor and literary skills that excelled anything I had already encountered. The clarity and beauty of his writing, and the humanity of his philosophy, captivated me.

I shared Narnia with my children and read them a chapter a night from the books, and later they did the same with their own children. Lewis spanned the universe, and the imagination, and he spans the generations as well. He made me want to be a writer.

He was born on November 29, 1898, more than a Century ago. Now he is in that place he envisaged in his books – at least I hope he is. Such a Heaven deserves to exist, and C.S. Lewis deserves to be in Aslan’s Country.

 

The Man Who Would Be Jack the Ripper

The "From Hell" Letter postmarked 15...
The “From Hell” Letter postmarked 15 October 1888 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no shortage of books purporting to have been ‘discovered’ in a secret hiding place, rather than written by a contemporary author. It’s a popular conceit in the literary world, and sometimes it succeeds for a while. But The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper has a twist. The manuscript, it is claimed, was found among the possessions of a real person, the late S.G. Hulme-Beaman, who created Toytown and Larry the Lamb.

 According to the preface, Hulme-Beaman’s niece, Mrs. Jean Caldwell, called Alan Hicken, of the Montacute TV, Radio and Toy Museum in Somerset, and asked him if he would like a collection of memorabilia belonging to her uncle. As Larry the Lamb was a popular radio character for children, Hicken enthusiastically accepted. Among the items, he found an unpublished manuscript, The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper.

 The author of the ms. claimed to be one James Carnac, the son of a doctor who was briefly a medical student in his turn, and who, in the book, claimed to be the man who killed and dismembered several women in London’s Whitehall district in the 1880s. Part One of the book is about Carnac’s early life, while Part Two covers the period of the murders. Part Three appears to be Carnac’s last years before his death.

 After reading the manuscript and becoming convinced it was genuine, Hicken passed it on to crime historian and ‘ripperologist’ Paul Begg. His lengthy analysis also appears in the book, as well as a prologue by him, in which he states that, at the very least, this manuscript can’t be viewed as legal evidence, as it is not signed by witnesses.

I’m not convinced it is anything but a piece of fiction. It was likely written by Hulme-Beaman himself, who like J.K. Rowling, probably just wanted to do something different after writing for children. So the only question is – is it any good? And the answer to that is no. If you are looking for shock and horror, there are any number of books that will give you blood curdling descriptions of the crimes. This one won’t. It is claimed the manuscript was ‘edited’ by the executor of Hulme-Beaman’s will, which is very handy if you don’t want to into detail that might be proved wrong. As well, it is badly written, and here the author falls back on that old excuse that goes something like “I’m a serial killer, not a writer.” Ho hum.

Then there is the fact that James Carnac never existed at the time and place he mentions in the manuscript, nor is there any record of his parents, his landladies or anyone else connected to him (except the victims). Possibly he changed all the names – but why would he, if this is a confession only meant to be read after his death?

 So, on this occasion, the ‘discovery’ might actually be real, but what was discovered is still clearly a work of fiction. If you want to make the world think someone long dead wrote your manuscript, you are going to have to a hell of a lot more convincing than this.

9780552165396

The book is available at Book Depository. My thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

A Moment of Clarity

Writers experience many Aha! moments. Aha! That’s how this story ends. Aha! She’s in love with him, that’s why she hates him. Aha! A paying market!!!! (Lots of exclamation marks for that one, it’s so rare.)

But my most recent Aha! moment had nothing to do with the story I was working on last night. It started that way – Aha! I know what’s wrong with this story. So in  spite of the fact I had my granddaughter Lyta chattering in my ear, relating for me the entire script of her favourite My Little Pony movie, I got stuck into it on my laptop, and gave the story what it lacked – emotion.

Lyta paused in her narration, looked at the words appearing on the screen, and said, “are you an author?”

My fingers hovered in the air. All my working life I had described myself as a writer, a simple humble wordsmith chipping away. I had even worked as a journalist and was happy to claim that title, but even then it was just a job. Mostly my writing had been regarded as a little hobby of mine.  J.K. Rowling was an author. Miss Read was an author. Fame and the ability to live off your writing (in Rowling’s case, with bells on) seemed to be a necessary component.

I looked at the dreamy eyed girl who was so much like me a very long time ago, making up stories, drawing and colouring, happily lost in her own world. One day, I thought, it’s going to mean a lot to her that she knew a real author, and that it was her grandma.

“Yes, I am,” I said. She nodded happily and went back to her narration.

I’ve mentioned before that I am in the third year of a five year plan, without even knowing exactly what it is I want to have achieved at the end of it. Maybe nothing at all – maybe just a better understanding of who I am and what I want to do with the third age of my life. Naturally after decades of writing, being a sometime journalist, and frequently getting disheartened and wondering if there just might be something else I can do, the idea of giving it all up has frequently surfaced. What have I ever really gained from writing? What have I ever given the world as a writer? Just a bunch more words, a lot more wasted trees and occasionally a memorable phrase or two that has been lost and forgotten in the sheer avalanche of words that pours out every year.

But – I’m an author.  My son’s an author, my daughter Lucia is a poet and a singer.  Lyta said, when I asked her, that she wants to be an author some day. It’s a family calling, it’s genetic, it’s in the DNA. and who knows where it will pop up and what it will reveal.

 

A Year in Spain

So I was looking for blog posts with this title and WordPress couldn’t find one, but suggested I write my own. As good a prompt as I have ever seen, because I have been thinking about my year in Spain lately.

What brought it to mind was watching Madagascar 3 with the kids. Hollywood rarely ‘gets’ the circus. Movies about the circus come up with all sorts of head scratching inaccuracies, that I get to crow about to my grandchildren because I grew up in the circus, but this time the laugh was on me. They got it all right, it was just packed with nostalgia for me, especially where they put up the circus tent in the Colosseum. During my year in Spain, we were at Barcelona Monumental Bullring, which is so enormous the six pole circus tent fitted right in.

bullring circus barcelona

In those days my father took the photos.He rightfully believed no one would believe a huge circus tent could be fitted into a Spanish bullring. Some bullrings were small enough for just the circus ring, but in something as big as this, there was no point.

overlooking avila

Dad took this picture as we were heading for Avila – it lay below, overshadowed by mountains, on a rocky, barren tabletop near the Adaja river, the walled city in this mountainous and barren wilderness such an amazing sight. That’s our mobile home, a converted Leyland bus, which hated every moment of its year in Spain, heating up and boiling over constantly. Hence the chance to take a snap or two.

americasno scrapboom 1962

This is a scrapbook page from 1961 – the year I was in Spain. I was only 16, fascinated by everything, and the polyglot of nations in which I found myself – German, Italian, French, Tunisian, Swiss, and so many more – it was wonderful! This was circus, this was the travelling life – we came from everywhere, yet we were all one,we were all circus. Madagascar 3 got that right too.

I realised, that in the world I belonged, there were no borders, no ghettos, and no room or place for racism, bigotry or prejudice. You could never judge anyone on their abilities or worth as a human being that way. One of the most talented circus artists I met in Spain had suffered polio in his youth, and still walked with a limp on a crippled leg. He was an inspired clown, a marvellous acrobat and a man who never, not in a million years, would have described himself as someone with a disability. What disability? He could do anything. He was circus.

emy goty canamon

That’s him on the far left – Canamon.

Yeah I know – I should write about my year in Spain. I really should.