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Book recommendations needed: Australian literature

September 17, 2017 36 comments

Hello everyone,

As the title of my post suggests it, I would like to compile a list of 15-20 Australian books to read in the coming eighteen months. I know I can check out Lisa’s blog (ANZ LitLovers) or Sue’s (Whispering Gums) or Kim’s (Reading Matters) but I don’t know how to narrow down all the Australian books I could find there to a 15-20 books list.

So I need help. I’m open to literary fiction and crime fiction but I’m not good with essays and non-fiction in general. I have already read books by Max Barry, Stephen Orr, Julienne Van Loon, S.A. Jones, Madeleine St John and Toni Jordan.

I’ve read The Magic Pudding, which proved to be a complicated read for a foreigner. I tried to read That Dead Man Dance by Kim Scott but I had to abandon it because it was too difficult to read in the original and it’s not available in French. However, Benang: From the Heart and True Country have been translated into French. Is one of those a must read?

I also know that I should read Tim Winton, but which one?

Clearly, I need help!

So please, leave book recommendations in the comments below.

Thanks!

Emma

Datsunland by Stephen Orr

August 13, 2017 13 comments

Datsunland by Stephen Orr (2017) Not available in French.

I loved The Hands by Stephen Orr so much that when Wakefield Press requested reviewers for Orr’s new collection of short stories, I asked for an advanced copy of Datsunland. And to be honest, it’s hard to write about it. Usually, when I write a billet about a collection of short-stories, I try to find common points between stories but here, I have a hard time finding them, so I’m going to write a billet that sounds like a six-degree-of-separation post, each story leading me to the other. It’ll make you see the variety of the stories.

The stories are set in different countries at different times from the beginning of the 20th century to nowadays. Several involve religious characters and they’re all on a scale going from weird to unbalanced. The Keeping of Miss Mary is about Brother Philipp, a teacher at Lindisfarne College who takes care of Miss Mary in his home. So far so good. Except that Miss Mary has been on a wheelchair since a car accident when she was twelve and nobody knows that she lives with Brother Philipp. He sees her as a challenge since she stopped believing in God after her accident but he’s also attracted to her and he enjoys the companionship, even if it seems one sided. It’s the sad story of a loving man whose religion condemned him to celibacy and who would have loved to have his own family. He found another path to have it and comply with his faith.

The Syphilis Museum is about Bill a fervent Catholic who loves his town, his religion. He first started to save his dying town, Reeves. When a shop closed, Bill bought the premises and founded a museum. This is how the Museum of Pestilence, the Museum of Famine, the Museum of War and the Museum of Syphilis. Getting older and lacking time, he decided to concentrate on the Syphilis Museum and how awful the illness is and how abstinence is the best prevention method. Then Mrs Bly arrives, challenges his speech, pushes him until we discover why it’s such a sensitive topic for her.

Akdak Ghost is about Preacher Fletcher who wants to shoot a video to increase the number of his parishioners. He wants people to find Jesus but the more the filming goes on, the more the reader see that Preacher Fletcher is not as sane as a pastor should be.

And then there’s religion as a political tool, in The Confirmation. It’s a story set in Northern Ireland in 1976. A man is coming home from work to son’s Confirmation ceremony when the bus he’s on is ambushed by IRA combatants.

At least two stories portray human cruelty to other and these stayed with me. The Adult World Opera features six-years old Jay, a very lonely child who’s abused by his mother’s boyfriend. It’s always hard for me to read about child abuse of any kind and it was particularly difficult. A Descriptive List of the Birds Native to Shearwater, Australia is a different kind of cruelty. Mark and Susan are on a field trip in Shearwater to visit a dwarf town. A literal dwarf town where little persons run an open-air museum. Susan is terribly ill-a-ease while Mark enjoys himself under the false pretense of compassion. Susan discovers a side of her husband that she never suspected:

But now, now she suspected she’d misread him completely. Compassion, or a forensic fascination? A desire to pin every man onto a foam backing board, watch him wriggle, die, and dry out, write a label that said, ‘Can man’, ‘Aborigine’, ‘Dwarf’. To close the box and forget, knowing he’d made some attempt to understand, but really just to observe, to know, to control.

This is not the only one showing how spouses can be estranged. In Guarding the Pageant, Sam left his safe job to chase his dream and be a writer. His wife never expected this and their marriage went south. The story tells us what happened to his dream. How much do you know your spouse? What should you sacrifice, your dreams or your current life? In The Barmerva Drive-in, Trevor chose to go after his dream and restore an old drive-in.

Three stories have themes that reminded me of The Hands. The Shot-put mentions the episode of the cowards’ lists that the Australian government published after WWI. They were lists of deserters and what a shame it was to have your son on the list. The Shack is the story of an old man, dying from lung disease and who wonders what will happen to his mentally handicapped son after he’s gone. The Photographer’s Son is set in a rural area and Adrian is told some of the family’s secrets.

Life in the outback is the main topic of Dr Singh’s Despair, the story of an Indian doctor who traveled from India to take a medical position in the Australian outback. Dr Sevanand Singh is not prepared for what’s ahead of him. Nobody’s at the airport to welcome him, his accommodation is not exactly ready. Mark, a local guy tries to make him understand the local way-of -life.

And with these few words Mark Ash knew that Sevanand was not the one. He could already guess how long he’d last – four, five, maybe six months. ‘Listen, Dr Singh, Sevanand,’ he said, ‘up here you gotta take things as they come. It’s bush time. You know? Outback time. Like the black fellas. Doesn’t bother them if it takes six months to change a tyre. A year, ten years, so what? Get what I mean?’ Sevanand tried to smile. ‘And people enjoy their sex?’ Ash slapped his knee and laughed. ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s how you wanna be.’ ‘Flexible?’ ‘That’s one way, eh?’ And he broke up laughing. ‘Beer?’ ‘Plenty of beer.’ ‘And humour?’ Ash stopped. ‘That, my friend, is the most important thing of all.’ ‘So, I wait for my room? In the meantime?’ And smiled. ‘A few nights’ kip? I’ve got the perfect place.’

Dr Singh is used to more respect and this is not what he signed up for. Will he be able to adapt?

Datsunland is the longest and probably the best story of the collection. Charlie Price is 14, a student at Lindisfarne College when William Dutton is hired as a music teacher. Charlie has lost his mom to cancer, William never made it as a rock star. Somewhere, they’ll find common ground thanks to rock and blues and become friends, beyond the age difference. William is an adult Charlie feels comfortable with, probably because he’s not settled. He’s still chasing his adolescent dream of being in a band and making a living with music. He doesn’t have a wife and children. William recognizes Charlie’s talent but also his pain. But in a traditional small town, teacher and student can’t be friends. Like in The Hands, Stephen Orr has a knack for being in a young boy’s head and Charlie sounds real. And it raises a valid question: are we so focused on risks of child molestation that we can’t imagine that a child might find a mentor in a teacher and that sometimes, it’s important to have another adult figure in your life than the ones in your family?

I enjoyed Orr’s collection of short stories very much. Some stories were poignant and several were dark, much darker than I expected. Of course, for me, there’s also the exoticism of Australia. Outdoor pageants for Christmas because it’s summer time. Odd words like kranksies and ute. The wilderness of the outback. Some remnant of British culture with Lindisfarne College.

You can find other reviews on Lisa’s blog, one for the whole collection and one for the main story, Datsunland.

Many thanks to Wakefield Press for sending me an ARC of Datsunland. Sorry it took me so long to write this billet.

PS: Sorry French readers, this is not available in French.

The Hands: an Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr

April 8, 2016 36 comments

The Hands: an Australian Pastoral by Stephen Orr. (2015) Not available in French (yet)

My billet about Stephen Orr’s excellent novel, The Hands is long overdue. I should start with a summary of the plot but Stephen Orr sums it up better than me:

Bundeena was marginal country. It could carry cattle, sparsely. To Trevor, this was where Australia became desert, where man—following the east-west railway, before it seriously set its sights on the Nullarbor—had given up on agriculture. Most men, at least. Except for them: sixth-generation Beef Shorthorn producers who’d wrestled with the land for 130 years. This was country that hadn’t asked for farmers but had got them anyway. On the southern edge, the railway line, and to the north, nothing. They had neighbours to the east and west, but they might as well have been living in New Zealand.

Orr_HandsA perfect quote. We’re in Bundeena, Australia, with the Wilkies, an extended family who lives on a farm. Murray and his sister Fay. The next generation, Trevor and his wife Carelyn and Chris, Fay’s disabled son. And the next, Aiden and Harry, Trevor and Carelyn’s children. As you can guess from the quote, they raise cattle in a very isolated farm.

It’s becoming harder and harder to make a living off the farm. The region has been experiencing several years of severe drought. No water means no grass, which means no water and no food for the cattle, which means no fat cattle to sell and less money. Add to it the decrease of the price on the meat commodity market and you see that the Wilkies’ situation is grim.

But it’s a family business, the place where the family settled after emigrating from another country. They’d rather bleed on this land than go somewhere else. Trevor is not a fool. He’s well-aware of their predicament and torn about what to do:

Trevor Wilkie was at a dead-end. He could feel every gram, every tonne of the farm collapsing on top of him. Every steer, every cow, every calf. Every person: Murray, wheezing, distantly; Fay, clutching her perch; Aiden, who was still a long way from finding his path. And Harry, unsure what to think about anything. It was always going to come to this, he thought.

The Hands is also a remarkable novel about the difficulties to be a farmer. The Wilkies’ problems are set in Australia but in France too, it’s complicated to live from the land. It’s hard work and the market prices are so low that the farmers barely scrape by. In our Western world, we give more money to the people who take care of our money than to the ones who produce our food. What does it say about us and our values?

The Hands also gives an idea of life on a farm in the Australian outback. Orr describes perfectly the landscape:

Trevor studied the long, grey strip in front of them. He followed it half-way to the horizon before it was consumed by haze. By then it was blood red, pulsing and shifting across the desert. He could tell it was alive, held in place by nothing more than a million distance markers. There was saltbush and bluebush and dead shrubs that looked the same as the living ones; a rest-stop with a single bin, but nothing else, as if this too was some forgotten skeleton.

The farm is so isolated that it’s 600 kilometres away from the closest city. For a French, 600 kilometres is quite a distance. I live in Lyon. Within 600 kilometres, I’m still in France if I go West but North or East, I can be in Switzerland, in Italy, in Belgium or in Germany. It’s very difficult to imagine 600 kilometres of nothingness or to think that you can own a farm where you can be three hours from home and still be on your property. The Hands gives a vivid picture of all this and of the life in autarky it implies. I knew about the School of the Air.  And yes, it’s a famous Australian icon. Harry can’t believe his school is as famous as the Sydney Opera but it is. I wasn’t surprised about it but the novel shows how hard it is on the children. They have a corner in the house that is the “school corner”. They’re supposed to be in school when they’re in this corner but it is still a challenge to concentrate and it’s harder to make a link between what they learn and their daily life. And then, there’s health. In the following quote, Fay is ill and Trevor is on the phone with a nurse or a doctor:

Trevor found a pad and pen and asked, ‘What number’s that?’ ‘Sixty-two.’ ‘Sixty-two, three times a day, for seven days?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, thanks.’ He hung up. Carelyn already had the medical kit out. She was sorting the ointments, dressings and plastic vials full of dozens of types of pills; checking the bold numerals designed to make sure no one gave the wrong medication. She found the pills: 62. ‘Right.’

They have a kit of medicine and the first step is self-medication with the help of an online physician. And then, in case of emergency, they have The Flying Doctors: ‘A heart attack,’ someone said. ‘The Flying Doctor’s gonna land on the road.’

And there’s the deadly climate. The heat is unbearable and murderous. People can get lost in the desert and die without crossing anyone’s path and get help.

But The Hands is more than a statement about life on a remote farm in a harsh climate. It is also a wonderful literary novel about a complicated and flawed family. Murray acts like a patriarch but he doesn’t have the personality that should go along with such a role. He carries the traditions and the painful past of the family around his neck like a dead albatross. He’s pigheaded and in his mind, there was no other career choice possible for Trevor than taking over the farm. And in Murray’s head, his grand-sons will continue the story. The problem is that Murray is toxic and dictatorial. He plays on guilt, he’s selfish and just plain mean. Aiden, who’s seventeen at that point, can see his flaws:

Aiden studied his grandfather’s arms, his neck, his grey sideburns, and thought, Yes, it’s all someone else’s fault, isn’t it? The word was with Murray and Murray was the word. Not for the first time, he could feel himself starting to hate his grandfather. There wasn’t much love or compassion in him. He was a sort of farmer shell, a hollow man full of regrets and knowledge and skills he couldn’t use any more, except as a sort of walking opinion that no one wanted to hear.

Sometimes, I wanted to strangle Murray for the path of destruction left by his actions and his biting words. He crushes Trevor’s self-confidence. He’s not helpful on the farm. He’s mean with his disabled nephew. He’s set in his ways and would rather crush his family than change his mind. The life in autarky exacerbates the relationships between the family members. Nobody has a place to breathe out and interact with other people. They are on each other’s backs all the time. The children grow up with no friends. The adults can’t go out and socialise. The elders don’t have contacts with people from their generation. It’s stifling. They can only find sometime alone in the nature surrounding the farm.

I’ve always wondered how it felt to grow up and feel obliged to take over the family business, to work with your parents, be it on a farm or in business. Do you manage to come out of your skin and have a work relationship and leave the parent-child one behind for a couple of hours? How do you not feel trapped by family expectations? In her excellent review, Lisa explores the relationships between men in rural areas. It is a fascinating and decerning way of analysing The Hands.

For French readers, sorry but The Hands is not available in French. Yet. But now it is listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. I hope Stephen Orr will win this prize because then there’s a better chance that this book gets translated.

And last but not least, I send a big thank you to Lisa for recommending The Hands to me when I asked about books set in Perth. Whispering Gums also reviewed it here, with a bonus post here.

31/10/2016: Here’s another review by Kim at Reading Matters

PS: Somewhere in the book it’s written: ‘In France they’re drinking at twelve,’ she said. ‘In France, children do what their parents tell them.’ Just to be sure that it’s clear for everyone, I want to set things straight: it’s a character speaking and it’s not true. Twelve-year-olds don’t drink in France.

Harmless by Julienne Van Loon

December 5, 2015 22 comments

Harmless by Julienne Van Loon (2013)

Van_Loon_HarmlessHarmless is the second Australian book I’ve read with the sole purpose of discovering Perth before our guest from this city arrives. (See here for the first book). I’m afraid I still don’t know much about Perth, so now I’ll wait for her arrival next week. That said, I’m still glad I’ve read Harmless by Julienne Van Loon.

The book opens with old Rattuwat and young Amanda walking in the bush by a scorching heat. Their car broke down and they have an appointment at the local prison where Amanda’s father, Dave, is serving a prison sentence. Amanda is only eight and she thinks she remembers the way to the prison but will she get there on time? Rattuwat is an old man, he’s Thai and has come to Australia to bury his daughter Sua. He barely speaks English and he’s following Amanda reluctantly.

How did Amanda and Rattuwat end up walking together like this? Actually, Sua and Dave were living together and she was taking care of his children while he was locked away. Now Rattuwat is in Australia, his son-in-law is in prison and there’s no one to watch Amanda.

The tone of the novella is set and it’s leaded with tension. Will they make it on time for the appointment at the prison? Will they find their way? In parallel to the day’s events, we see Dave waiting for them in prison, we follow Amanda’s thoughts and discover her short life and Rattuwat’s thoughts unveil Sua’s life in Thailand.

Different continent, different climate but the book the closest to Harmless is Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi. Same bleakness, same unbearable hopelessness. They show characters pinned to the ground by circumstances and too weak or too isolated to stand up and climb out of their hole. The mother in Beside the Sea and Dave here are in a desperate need of a support system and there’s no one. Both novellas are difficult to read because they show children whose fate is inexorable. And the reader wonders: what are the social services doing?

Amanda is the result of a one-night-stand and her mother doesn’t want her. She literally dropped Amanda on Dave’s lap at a party and left. What a start in life for a child! Dave, who never knew about the pregnancy, took the baby home and started to raise her. Dave was a petty criminal and a drug user, he tried to be a good father but kept taking wrong turns. His years with Sua were an oasis in his life. After Sua’s death, there’s no one to take care of Amanda and he’s sick with worry for her and full of regrets for ending up in prison. Will Amanda’s mother accept to take care of her until he’s free?

Rattuwat reflects on Sua’s life and her past in Thailand comes to light. She was a victim of the sex trade and her coming to Australia with an Australian man is not very clean. Rattuwat can’t help thinking he failed her as a father and now she’s gone.

In Harmless, two men assess their parenting skills. Both have regrets because their actions will cause their daughter great harm. We often see books with crappy fathers but they never seem to notice how bad they are. Dave and Rattuwat have this in common, in addition to their love for Sua.

As a reader and as a mother, I was only preoccupied by Amanda’s future. I kept wondering about her chances to have a happy life with such a start and I kept thinking about all the real Amandas in our societies.

Thanks to Lisa for recommending this novella. Her review can be found here.

 

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A. Jones

November 22, 2015 13 comments

 

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A. Jones 2014 Not available in French.

Jones_IsabelleOur family volunteered to welcome an Australian teenage girl in our home for five weeks. She’ll stay with us, go to school with our daughter and will be here to live a French life for a while. She’s from Perth, so I asked Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers to recommend books set in Western Australia. See, I have a very good reason for buying and reading something out of the #TBR20 list. 🙂 (Still 3 to go, btw). This is how I ended up reading Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A. Jones, a novel I enjoyed very much even if I still have no clue about what Perth looks like.

Ever since The Incident happened two years ago, Isabelle is more surviving than living. She has a dead-end job in statistics and she can’t find any interest in it. Her boss Jack keeps up the appearances about her performance and hides that she’s doing useless reports. Juliette is only hanging on by a thread.

The book opens with her journey in Perth’s public transports and her observation of other people, commuting to work like her. I was hooked right away by Jones’s style:

It is a Monday morning and the train is thick with lassitude. Wherever you look heads loll onto shoulders and eyes are glazed.

Thick with lassitude is really what you can see in the eyes of commuters sometimes. This journey shows us an Isabelle very permeable to the atmosphere around her, to people’s mood.

Isabelle lives in a condo and is a frequent user of the pool of her complex building. She loves swimming and racing against her best friend Evan. I need to say this to explain the book cover unless it is a subtle reference to Virginia Woolf’s drowning. (To me, it’s just another cover being a liability for the novel it advertises.) Isabelle befriends an elderly neighbour, Mrs Graham, who suffers from arthritis but still makes jokes about it. (‘How’s the arthritis today?’ ‘I’m thinking of giving it a name. Hitler maybe. Or Pol Pot.’) Juliette feels that Mrs Graham is very lonely and on impulse, she invites her to a party she’s throwing on the rooftop of the complex for Australia Day.

Only Isabelle had no actual plan to throw a party. Not willing to disappoint Mrs Graham whose eyes lit up at the idea to be invited somewhere, Isabelle feels obliged to organize that party now. Evan comes to her rescue and this project helps her move forward from The Incident and its downfall. Meanwhile in the office, a new attraction grows between Isabelle and her married and much older boss Jack. (The attraction between Isabelle and Jack is stirring like a bear waking from a long, hard winter.)

As we follow Isabelle in her daily life, we learn more about The Incident and more importantly about The Black Place.

There is just her, Isabelle, and The Black Place. The effort of holding herself rigid folds in on itself, like a tremor at maximum velocity. Pins and needles prick her hands and feet. Pain radiates from her blue-turning heart. Involuntarily, her grasping lungs buckle and suck at the air. The Black Place glides under Isabelle’s skin and displaces her. Isabelle is no longer Isabelle. She is a container of despair, a repository of every free-floating grief seeking a home. The panic is as foul as it is inexplicable. It is the panic of the diver breaking the surface and turning, turning, turning to find water at every horizon, the boat gone. Of the woman who wakes in the dark to the shadow of the intruder on the bedroom wall. Isabelle’s mind slips to blades, laceration, knives. Sharp edges that can part skin and leach the bilge until the world grows dim. The idea of blue steel against her skin seems suddenly, achingly beautiful. Isabelle makes a fist and views the underside of her wrist dispassionately. The veins are deep, just a faint blue tracery under her porcelain skin. The moment of contact with the blade would be climactic. Benedictory.

This Black Place has been Isabelle’s cross since her teenage years. She wants to remain in control and tries her best to fight it, to put herself away from temptations and risks to be swallowed by it. Evan is her safe place, her rock and her crutch.

It reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan because it focuses on a character who has to live with a mental illness. Grace and Isabelle both have to tame something that prevent them to have a “normal” life, whatever that means. Isabelle of the Moon and Stars shows how much energy this illness takes from Isabelle and also what it inflicts on Evan who’s close to her. He helped her after The Incident and he bears the scars from it. The Dark Place, that I picture like the dementors in Harry Potter, something that sucks the life out of you, affects Isabelle but also the people who love her. It’s part of her and she needs to live with it. But what about the others? Do they have to live with it or should they run away to protect themselves?

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is an atmospheric novel, well-served by Jones’s excellent prose. She balances serious descriptions of Isabelle’s mental issues with a good sense of humour. See here, when Isabelle arrives to work and a new motivation program is implemented by management:

Overnight the office has been festooned with new corporate regalia. P3 – I Believe! blares a poster with a photograph of a wildly smiling Carol Anne giving the thumbs-up. P3 paraphernalia litters Isabelle’s desk – a sticker (P3, PYou, PMe), a box of pencils emblazoned with Performance with a star for the ‘a’ and a new name tag (I am Isabelle and I am P3). When Isabelle turns on her computer a message bleeps at her encouraging her to ‘like’ P3 on Facebook.

I strongly discourage anybody to try to implement that kind of stuff in France for employees would roll their eyes, laugh and throw the goodies away. Anyway.

I didn’t want to tell too much about the plot because it would spoil another reader’s pleasure. Although The Dark Place is a central part of the book, to the point of being a sort of ghost character, it’s not a depressing book. I rooted for Isabelle and hoped she could find a way to dompt this beast and muzzle it. Lisa’s review can be read here, but beware it gives more information about the plot than my billet does.

Machine Man by Max Barry

June 1, 2015 18 comments

Machine Man by Max Barry (2011) Not available in French.

Barry_machine_manOur Book club decided to read Machine Man by Max Barry for this month of May. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but we had five public holidays in May which was good for escapades on long weekends but terrible for work since things kept piling up in our absence. I’m under the impression I jumped from April to June in one breath. Anyway.

Machine Man is a science-fiction / dystopian novel, put it in the box you prefer. Scientist Charles Neumann works for an innovative company, Better Future. He’s a pure scientist who believes in science as long as it’s not psychology, anthropology, etc. His specialty is mechanical engineering. He manages a lab in charge of finding new inventions that managers and marketing people sell or not. He’s not much of a manager and his social skills are almost inexistent. He’s never had a girlfriend; he’s not interested in socializing and he’s not really open to anything but science.

One day, he has an accident at work and his leg must be amputated. He wakes up in the hospital to face his new him. He has a rather detached attitude to the problem.

Presumably if I disconnected the saline drip, I would deflate to a husk. I was a junior high physics problem. If Charles Neumann is a human being with volume 80 liters, oozing bodily fluid at the rate of 0.5 liters per minute, how often must we replace his 400-milliliter saline bags? I felt I should have been more sophisticated than that.

That’s Charlie Neumann in a nutshell. Descartes would have been his kindred spirit: he thinks of the body as a machine. And Charlie loves machines. He loves the idea of improving machines. When he meets Lola, who works at the hospital as a prosthetist, he’s underwhelmed by the prosthesis she can show him. He’s entitled to the best as Better Future is so afraid to have a trial that they are willing to pay for everything. Charlie resumes work and decides to improve his prosthesis. He creates new legs, ones designed for performance and not to look normal. His leg is ugly but functional and in his opinion, much better than his former biological leg. And then he thinks that it’s a disadvantage to have a poor biological leg and a great mechanical leg. Since same causes produce the same effects, he reproduces the circumstances of his first accident to have his other leg removed.

That’s when Better Future steps up their game. They realise the potential of money in these improved body parts. They give Charlie and his team carte blanche to create products to enhance the human body.

Follows a high-paced story with lots of twists and turns about inventing new parts, testing them before selling them and opening a brand new market of scientifically enhanced body parts. Charlie and his team are like children in a candy store. They have access to all the spare parts and materials they want. They’re free to invent whatever they want without being bothered by ethics at all since their boss’s opinion is:

Don’t pass moral judgment because cause produced effect. We’re biological machines. We have chemically driven urges. You inject a nun with a particular chemical cocktail, she’s going to start swinging punches. It’s a fact.

With that kind of attitude, you can excuse everything. Just as I was reading Machine Man, I listened to a radio program about Transhumanism and the ethical questions raised by new technological possibilities for our bodies. It’s not a theory I’m familiar with but it was interesting to hear about it right when I was reading Barry.

And this is where Machine Man is flawed. It’s a novel with a fantastic potential. It could be to Descartes’s vision of the body as a machine what Candide is to Leibnitz. A philosophical tale, funny but deep. Machine Man raises fascinating questions. Do we develop these technologies enhancing the human body? Do we provide them only to disabled people to improve their everyday life or do we consider that anybody should decide what to do with their body and if they want to cut their leg to have a mechanical one, who are we to intervene? Who’s in charge of the related ethical challenges? Rabelais said Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme. (Science without conscience will ruin the soul)

Where does Machine Man stand in that respect? The answer is Nowhere, unfortunately.

I have already read three books by Max Barry: Company, a hilarious and yet spot-on novel about corporate crap, Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel where brands have taken all the power in the world and Syrup, a fast-paced novel about a marketing genius who invented a new soda. All three managed to combine a high speed, page-turning plot with deep thoughts about the corporate and marketing worlds. I loved the three so I was looking forward to reading Machine Man.

I was so frustrated by it. It lacked depth, stayed on the surface of things. It’s still a fun read but I wanted more. I expected more from Max Barry. I wanted some thoughts about how Better Future captures science for its own profit. I wanted more thoughts about the ethical debate related to what Charlie was doing. I also thought he was too much of a caricature. Nerdy, low social skills, wary of psychology…scientists are more than that.

For another take on Machine Man, read Guy’s post here.

PS: If you work in the corporate world, have a good laugh and read Company.

The three puddin’ musketeers

January 26, 2014 16 comments

The Magic Pudding (1918) by Norman Lindsay (1879-1969)

We swear to stand united, Three puddin’-owners bold.

Lindsay_Magic_PuddingLisa chose The Magic Pudding as my Humbook gift for Christmas and receiving a book starring a pudding is kind of spot on for Christmas, isn’t it? She hoped I could read it along with my daughter but alas, no French translation was found. So it’s just me writing about it now.

The Magic Pudding is a traditional Australian children book, featuring Sam Swanoff, Bill Barnacle, Bunyip Bluegum and a Magic Pudding named Albert. He’s a steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy who regenerates himself when eaten. So basically, the pudding-owners can’t starve. The story starts when Bunyip Bluegum decides to leave his home to see the world. Along the road, he meets and befriends with Sam and Bill and they decide to travel together. Their magic pudding is much wanted by Pudding Thieves incarnated by a possum and a wombat. The story is mostly about rescuing the pudding from being stolen. The plot is simple enough to appeal to children and an undercurrent of irony lets adults understand that there’s more to it than the apparent story.

When I discovered Lisa’s pick for me, I thought, “Children lit? Piece of cake!” (Or in this case “Slice of pudding!”) How wrong I was. Firstly, I forgot (again) that Australia is far away and that there are many things about the environment that I don’t know about. So I ended up reading on the kindle and with a tablet in front of me set on Google image where I’d look for pictures of wombats, barnacles, bandicoots, bunyips, kookaburra, flying-foxes, possums and wart-hogs. Secondly, I forgot that Australian English is like Canadian French: same language but lots of different words. The definitions of words in the kindle dictionary would often start with “Early 17th century”, which brought the comparison with Canadian French. (Nincompoop, galore). And of course, there’s slang. Fortunately, Lisa came to my rescue and sent me a link to a website for Australian slang.  In addition, there are Hergé-esque insults like ‘Of all the swivel-eyed, up-jumped, cross-grained, sons of a cock-eyed tinker,’ which are probably very funny with their Captain Haddock style but were lost on me. Plus, there are distorted words like in this sentence

‘You ain’t poisoned, Albert,’ said Bill. ‘That was only a mere ruse de guerre, as they say in the noosepapers.’

I could guess this one but I still wonder how many of them I missed. The text is also full of songs and has a folk-song musical style like here:

Out sprang Bill and Sam and set about the puddin’-thieves like a pair of windmills, giving them such a clip-clap clouting and a flip-flap flouting, that what with being punched and pounded, and clipped and clapped, they had only enough breath left to give two shrieks of despair while scrambling back into Watkin Wombat’s Summer Residence, and banging the door behind them.

I read slowly, trying to hear the musicality in my head.

And last but not least, I forgot how much children literature can be rooted in the quotidian. The book keeps telling about this steak-and-kidney pudding with gravy and I don’t even know what it tastes like. Initially, I thought pudding was a dessert. The mention of steak-and-kidney in a dessert didn’t bother me, after all, English cuisine has the reputation to be weird and I knew about the ingredients of mincemeat. Then, they mentioned the gravy and everything I had imagined about this pudding crumbled.

Reading The Magic Pudding was an unexpected challenge. It made me think again about how hard it is to know about another country without growing up there. Reading this children book reminded me of all the tiny cultural details that build a country and hold a society together. It was also confusing because I guessed that Norman Lindsay was sending messages to the adults through the apparently innocent adventures of the Pudding Owners against the Pudding Thieves. Bunyip Bluegum speaks like an English aristocrat and Sam and Bill came on a ship but speak like sailors –or English criminals deported to Australia? I wonder if they represent the ruling class and the first settlers in Australia. The Pudding Thieves are a wombat and a possum, typically Australian fauna. Do they represent the natives? I couldn’t help wondering about a metaphorical pudding. Wealth in the form of everlasting food is kept by the pudding owners while the others are condemned to try to steal their share…

Even if it’s been a challenging read, thanks Lisa for choosing this book and for answering my questions while I was reading. I feel a bit frustrated because I know that I didn’t understand everything but I’m glad I had the opportunity to read about this classic of Australian literature for children.

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