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.

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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.

 

The Connectedness of All Things

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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

 

The Reality of TV These Days

On the one hand, I can’t believe this is TV season Prime Time in Australia – on the other hand, it’s all too stultifyingly obvious. Reality shows, stretching as far as the schedule can go – weight losers, cooking losers, building losers in hard hats and neon vests – all bursting into tears and having tantrums at the least excuse.

One look at The Biggest Loser (what a perfect name for this show) told it all. The hulking trio of Rambo, Xena and the other guy strode into the fattest town in Australia assuring us that they were going to make it shape up. I thought they were going to do a Jamie – open a gym, drag the population down to the park for push ups and improve eating habits by teaching the denizens how to cook. But no, only the chosen ones would get the opportunity to be snarled at by Rambo, yelled at by Xena, and handed tissues by the other guy.

The usual bunch of self loathing fat people sobbed and self immolated their way through the auditions, while Rambo et al deliberated which ones needed to lose weight most. How’s this for a radical idea? All of them! Get them all out there running in circles in the park!

A first glance at My Kitchen Rules (which I have to admit I have watched before – I did love those two bitchy gays in Season 3) but I’m over lame-assed dishes, sob stories, ‘my dream’ and sniping Disney villains now. Watching someone try to slow boil duck in a baking dish full of oil (I think its called a confit) was utterly disgusting. I think it’s safe to say I have moved on.

But I don’t mind if other viewers love these shows and want to see them return. Fine. I’ll watch something else. Except that there is nothing else. What’s this deal with putting them on every night? What’s wrong with once a week? Maybe twice for recaps? But EVERY night?

Last year I would have chuckled and said ‘SBS to the rescue.’ Not only better cooking shows, but better TV all round. Until I moved into an area that doesn’t get the SBS signal. At. All. Luckily, I have also recently upgraded to a new laptop – one that streams SBS on Demand like a boss, not like my old laptop, which didn’t. So instead of people dropping their ingredients on the floor and sobbing in Manu’s arms (is there nothing these women won’t do to inhale his Frenchness?), I have been watching a couple of shows that have restored my faith in the better nature of TV programers.

In Archeology: A Secret History, Dr Richard Miles traces back to the first archeological explorations – and surprisingly, that’s not that far back. Ancients, after all, made the stuff we dig for and like today, didn’t think it was ever going to be worth that much (Barbie collectables, anyone?) and later societies just saw it there every day and didn’t think about it much. I was tickled to learn that the first true archeologist was the Emperor Constantine’s old mum, Queen Helena, whom he sent off to the Holy Land in search of relics that proved the existence of Christ after he shook the scattered pieces of the new religion into order. Nothing like slamming the stable door shut after you’ve let the horse loose on the populace.

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Dr Richard Miles – I love the way he loves archeology

In her 80s, Helena was a game old girl, toppling a temple in her quest, and bringing back a nail from the cross, a robe (not the Turin Shroud) and bits of wooden crosses. Irrefutable proof, now on display at the Cathedral of Trier, in Germany. They even made a solid gold container encrusted with jewels to  house the nail- imagine that, a rusty nail as long as a man’s hand given a solid gold container.

None of it proves that it had anything to do with Christ (unless there is a good sample of his DNA still to be found) but it is still astonishing to see an actual nail – the sheer heft and size of it – and imagining it being hammered through a man’s hands or feet. Dr Miles was pretty exited to be holding it, and well he might – real relic or not, it is an amazing link with the past. Good on ya, Helena.

HISTORY OF ANCIENT BRITAIN

Neil Oliver, part rock star, part archeologist

In A History of Ancient Britain, another windswept and interesting archeologist takes the viewer back to the dawn of humanity and a Britain that was still part of the frozen tundra of the ice age. Neil Oliver has the rugged persona of a true Celt and looks a bit like Gabriel Byrne. The camera loves him a bit too much, but in between rugged close ups, there is a lot of fascinating information – such as the ancient Paleolithic tribe that made Nutella (by grinding hazelnuts to a paste to take on long journeys) and a huge tsunami that finally freed Britain from the mainland. Riveting stuff, can’t wait to see the rest. Both shows are also availble on BBC4 as well.

This is probably how I will be watching TV until the reality shows end. SBS On Demand has Iron Chef, as well. Bargain!

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I love this man!