Oracle Night by Paul Auster

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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

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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.

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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?

 

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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!

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

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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.

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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…

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And after that, the Mad Max wildlife…

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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.

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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.

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

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

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…and this window….

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

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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.

 

Halloween countdown: The Trees

The Trees

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The trees are driving me crazy. Can’t anyone else see what they are up to? They are colluding, whispering together. Getting closer, I could walk between these two a week ago. Now they block my path, like threatening sentinels.

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Even in the city they creep up, they invade, they terrorise humans going about their business. What do you think these two are up to?

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At night I fear them most of all. They gather around my house, rustling and muttering, shaking their branches and leaves in the moonlight. What do they want? Why are they becoming so bold and intrusive?

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At night the ghost gums come haunting, creeping through the darkness toward the house, drawing close to each other in conspiratorial silence, yet I can hear them whispering to each other, rustling and creaking, and watching us.

I think they are angry. I think they want us to know that they have had enough of us. I think they want to cut us down as we have been cutting them down, to uproot our houses and our lives and reclaim the land from us. I think they hate us because of this…

Note: The idea of this is to use the photos I’ve taken of random objects that have ‘faces’ embedded or have a spooky or weirdly human quality, as prompts for Halloween prose and poetry. Feel free to copy the images and use them as prompts for your own stories. Leave me a link so I can see the results 🙂

What I am watching on TV

After a long period of disinterest in seemingly endless reality shows, ‘come on down!’ game shows and morning news and current affairs disguised as high volume infomercials, I am actually watching TV again. That doesn’t mean the DVD player has fallen into to disuse, as there isn’t anything good on e very night, but HBO have certainly encouraged others to lift their game. I still have to watch Game of Thrones and Carnivale on DVD, as I refuse to have Foxtel, but these days there is enough on Free To Air to make watching it a pleasure again.

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Three fine specimens of Victorian manhood right here

Ripper Street: Absolutely top of the list. For one thing, it has Bronn from Game of Thrones, otherwise known as actor Jerome Flynn, playing a pugilistic cop in Whitechapel, scene of the Ripper murders. I always have a fondness for bareknuckle boxers – my great grandfather Charlie Mitchell who fought John L Sullivan for the world title twice. Flynn’s acting style has me completely won over, and he fits as perfectly into the post-Ripper milieu of Whitechapel as he did into Westeros.

Flynn also seems to be adept as establishing good rapport with other actors. As with Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones, Flynn has established a comfortable rapport with star Matthew McFadyen (no relation to Braveheart’s handsome Angus) and Adam Rothberg (who also does a nice line in sardonic humour). Watching these three work together is half the pleasure of Ripper St, enjoying the beautifully crafted reconstruction of filthy Victorian London is the other half.

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This guy is awesome – that’s all

Vikings: I love Vikings in history and have been a fan of Gabriel Byrne since Hello Again, for goodness sake – but it is the production values of this Canadian-Irish saga and the performance of Australian Travis Fimmel that keeps bringing me back. Crikey, is that really the guy fro m the Calvin Klein bill boards? That’s a whole world away from this. He plays the mythic hero Ragnor who pillaged and plundered his way across the seas to Britain, Ireland and France, the bloodthirsty barbarian who sacked monasteries and ploughed his way through peaceful settlements looking for riches. I am desperately hoping this is not just ‘the role Fimmel was born to play’, because I want to see what else he can do with his Heath Ledgerish cheek and charm and wayward but confident acting skills.

If there is still a chance that Vikings were misunderstood philanthropists who carried bunches of flowers when they arrived in their dragon-headed boats, there’s no mention of it here. They are barbarians, arriving swords in hand to slice up unarmed monks and take their gold. But for all this simple bloodlust, and the venal greed of the Earl (Gabriel Byrne), Ragnor is no comic book, Americanised Viking. At times he is even adorable, a loving dad, sexy husband and all the rest. This complex character is beautifully realised by Fimmel, and he has a good supporting cast behind him. Katheryn Winnick as Ragnor’s wife Lagertha is especially good. It is good, also, to see the origin of Tolkien’s  ‘shield maiden’.

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What’s with the kid and the dog?

The Dome: Yeah, I’m watching, but The Stand it ain’t. It does have some good characters, and an interesting premise, but mainly it’s a good laugh. The plot holes and misconceptions about women and childbirth are so male (what are you thinking, Stephen? Women do not stop to have a chat with the midwife halfway through the last stage of childbirth, so the midwife can say “you can start pushing again now” – contractions don’t work that way – just ask the missus) and so amusing it is impossible not to watch. Of course the great thing is that every blunder can be explained away as something the Dome did. Perfect plot device really. I must remember that one. TV is so educational even in its dumbest moments. But I honestly think it may have jumped the shark with the last episode. A blonde from Big Jim’s and Barbie’s past turns up and it turns out they are both working for her. Really? Just when I thought we’d never hear mention of the reporter’s dead hubby again. And Junior’s a good guy after all, just misunderstood. There is a way out of the Dome, writers – it’s called a remote control.

It saddens me to note that I’m not watching any Australian productions like Offspring and A Place to Call Home, but there is just nothing that matches up to Ripper St or Vikings – it is all bland soaps about relationships where people break up, make up, get pregnant, and die (not necessarily in that order). A Place to Call Home was the biggest disappointment of all, full of clichés and hammy acting. I tuned out mentally in the opening scenes on the liner, when they reversed the genders in the Titanic ‘Rose jumping off the ship’ scene. After that it was pure Mills and Boon.

Actor Spotlight: Ko Shibasaki

Ko Shibasaki is one of those actors you will see often in Japanese movies, but but you could be forgiven for not noticing it at first. The woman has a chameleon quality that blends into the role, the movie and the director’s vision. In a word, she is superb.

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This is how many fans in the west first encountered her, as sexy, deadly Mitsuko in Battle Royale.  Tokyo born Yukie Yamamura started her acting and singing career at 14, changing her name to that of her favourite manga character. It was Battle Royale that propelled her to starring roles on TV and in movies.

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In Chugashin Ari (One Missed Call) she played Yumi, whose friend Natsumi dies after receiving a mysterious voice message of herself screaming in terror in two days’ time. She was paired with the brilliant actor Shinichi Tsutsumi for the first time as the detective who helps her get to the bottom of the mystery.

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In Maison de Himiko, Ko played Saori, a girl estranged from her father, who ends up at a nursing home for gay men when she goes with her father’s lover, Haruhiko, to see him before he dies. Haruhiko is played by Shinobi’s Jo Odagiri. A touching and beautiful story of the struggle to accept and be accepted for your differences, and one of Ko and Joe’s best performances.

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In Shinji Higuchi‘s Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) she was somewhat overshadowed by the dazzling CGI, but still managed to stand out as rescue worker Reiko, who helps care for a child orphaned by the disaster (Mayuko Fukuda from L Change the World) and falls tenderly in love with submersible pilot Toshio (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi). They provide the sense of humanity underlying the big splashy special effects.

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She looks magnificent in the period drama Dororo, where she plays the title role of a girl raised as a boy, an artful thief who joins with demon hunter Hyakkimaru to retrieve parts of his body that will make him human again.

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In Maiko Haaan!!! she plays Fujiko, who is dumped by her boyfriend for a glamorous geisha. She starts training as a maiko (apprentice geisha) to win him back. I haven’t been able to get a copy of this movie to review it, but it’s billed as a ‘screwball comedy’.

Shaolin Girl looks great. She plays Rin, trained in kung fu, who ends up  coaching a university lacrosse team.  You can see the trailer here.

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In The Devotion of Suspect X, one of my favourite movies, it is Shinichi Tsutsumi who steals every scene he is in, as the obsessive but devoted math teacher who manages to stay one step ahead of detective Shunpei Kusanagi (Ko Shibasaki) and physicist and scientific consultant Yukawa (Masaharu Fukuyama).

Ko Shibasaki is next due to appear in Keanu Reeves’ 47 Ronin and can also be seen in Ooku and Shokudo Katatsumuri (Rinco’s Restaurant) both released in 2010.

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.

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