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BOOK LOVE: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Set some time in the future, the main character, Offred, has been designated a Handmaid, and her function is to endure mating rituals in order to bear a child for the couple she belongs too.  The Gilead society is cruel and swift to exact punishment on those who disobey its rules. But Offred remembers a life before this, where she had a husband and daughter. Unable to forget the freedom she has known, she makes dangerous choices, and is slowly drawn towards disaster.

This book is right at the top of my all-time favourites, and just writing about it makes me want to go and find it again. I haven’t read it for years, but I can still hear those names called out in the darkness at the end of the first chapter, the brave reassertion of identity under a monstrously repressive regime. Atwood’s writing is mesmerising, and the dystopian world that she has built, where women have no rights and have become classified according to their purpose in relation to men, is both terrifying and heartbreaking. I could contemplate many of the sentences in this book for hours. I was so disappointed when I saw the film – but I think it’s just because there’s no way to translate Atwood’s writing, you need to read this story in its purest form.

 

 

 

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Perth Writers Festival #4: Words I’ll remember

‘The book is too perfect to disappear. Bookstores are fading, but there are also bookstores surviving.’ Annie Proulx

‘Living in a flat in the city it is almost impossible to have a sense of connection to place’ Tim Flannery

‘a still–Volcano–Life’ Lyndall Gordon quoting Emily Dickinson

‘the frontiers of consciousness, where words fail, but meaning still exists’ Lyndall Gordon quoting T.S. Eliot in his essay ‘The Music of Poetry’ (1941)

‘We don’t need more intelligence, we need more empathy.’ Tim Flannery

‘Depression is the refusal to mourn.’ Dorothy Rowe

‘We have a brief period of historical co-existence [between the book and the e-book] that is almost over as we speak.’ Geordie Williamson

‘Books are how I learned to manage solitude.’ Lev Grossman

‘Gaelle learns she doesn’t have to accept the gifts that have been bequeathed to her, but the worst thing is to remain silent. “Sometimes the stories that have to be told are the hidden ones.”’ Natasha Lester, talking about her book, What is Left Over, After

‘There’s a paradoxical unity of past, present and future. They are all ghosts. The present is always abandoning us.’ Jon Bauer

‘Give oneself permission not to know where something is going, and try to find the strength in that.’ Gail Jones on writing

‘If the past is where the pain is, visiting the past is also where the healing is… healing is the hand I want to hold to walk boldly into the future.’ Jon Bauer

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Perth Writers Festival #2: The death of print?

On Sunday morning I attended a Perth Writers Festival session discussing the future of printed books in this world of rapid, almost rabid, technological change. I was completely engrossed listening to the panel of Geordie Williamson (chief literary critic of the Australian), James Bradley (novelist), Lev Grossman (novelist) and Angela Meyer (writer, Literary Minded blog) as they contributed a wealth of suggestions and observations. There were a few differences of opinion, but one thing was for certain: change is already upon us, whether we are prepared for it or not.

I came away feeling reasonably positive. James Bradley noted that, as happened with the music industry, the restructuring of the book industry would engender a new wave of creativity. Lev Grossman suggested that the new technologies need not mean the death of the old ones, but rather the advent of something ‘more complex and interesting’. And Angela Meyer proposed that the bookstores who prevail will be the ones who create a culture around themselves, such as the Readings chain in Melbourne (which I’m excited to be visiting for the first time next week). Geordie Williamson observed that we may end up seeing a more diverse industry, akin to the way things operated before conglomerate consolidation.

One question raised was whether the enhanced e-book is a good or bad thing – or indeed if it is possible to authentically translate all books into standard or enhanced e-formats.  I loved Lev Grossman’s statement that ‘just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should’ (something that sprang to mind again as I looked longingly at the scones in my local cafe this morning). Geordie Williamson’s related comment, that in our excitement we may begin to see technology as a virtue in itself instead of a tool, also rang bells with me – because my fiction books are written with the aim that I want you to lose yourself in them. I don’t want you to pause to click on words to find out their meaning unless you absolutely have to. I don’t want your e-reader battery life to run out just before the final chapter. I don’t want you to accidentally press the wrong button and find yourself reading a random page. I guess in some ways my novels (and, heaven forbid, me?!) are a little bit old school, so I’m happy I am writing at a time when I can see them in print.

I got home that night and saw on Twitter that the publishers of the Oxford dictionary have conceded there is no point in publishing the printed version any more. From now on it will be online only. I thought of my enormous dictionary in the study, which I frequently don’t bother to haul out, since I can look up a word much faster on the internet. And yet… to flick through page after page of minuscule text and find random words you never knew existed … to be able to feel the English language as a weight in your hands… The loss may not be registered by future generations, but at that moment I began to feel it.

However, on the panel, James Bradley told us that Socrates apparently deplored the coming of the written text as he said we’d no longer have to remember things. It’s a reminder that many fears prove unfounded, and that change, loss and adaptation are part and parcel of life. So while I may get nostalgic for the vanishing worlds of this wonderful business, I’m also looking ahead with optimism and excitement at what may come next, and enjoying being part of it all.

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All eyes on Africa this week

breaching whale

Every year my family goes out onto the Indian Ocean to watch the whales travelling down the WA coast on their annual migration. Sometimes we’re lucky and a whale comes to investigate the boat, or flings itself joyfully out of the water nearby. I am one of those whose life has been deeply affected by the contact I’ve had with these magnificent creatures – ever since I had the privilege of scuba diving at close quarters with a minke whale ten years ago on the Great Barrier Reef. So this week I’ll be watching events in Morocco, as the IWC meets to discuss whaling. The strides forward that many people around the world have campaigned tirelessly for are now threatened, with deals for the resumption of commercial whaling on the table. I firmly believe that whaling has no place in a progressive future for the world, and I hope that compassion and conservation rather than commerce win the day. 

On a lighter note, I’m also avidly watching the World Cup, and with my dual loyalties hoping that both the Socceroos and England can make it through the group stage. They’re certainly making us sweat…!