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Wendy has no hesitation in saying that the highlight of her career so far is winning a gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. There are, however, two tales within this amazing story. The first is the fairy tale of the young woman who rides her pony club horse at the Olympics and wins a gold medal. The second is the tale of Wendy breaking her leg nine weeks out from the Olympic Games. Thanks to grit, determination, and a metal plate and several screws keeping her leg together she still rode at the Olympic Games and won the gold medal. Put the two tales together and you have a story worthy of an Oscar.

One thing that struck me after I came to Australia was how much pride the country takes in its deserving athletes. Partly this made an impression on me, because growing up I was not aware of much of a sports culture in my country. Yes everyone I knew was mad about soccer, but these were English clubs they were supporting. Also the money simply was not available for proper sporting facilities for hopeful Olympians. Saying that though, I did grow up in the same town as Michelle Smith, Rathcool. I even caught the same bus to school as equestrian Cian O’Connor.

So often it appears as if the spectacle of sporting events, seemingly always occuring in some stadium in a foreign land, causes us to forget that these are ordinary people, from ordinary places, which was why I enjoyed the personal perspectives offered by An Eventful Life: Life Stories of Eventing Champions.

In her opening foreward publisher Debbie Higgs asserts that [this] is not just a book for fans of equestrian sports – it is a book for anyone interested in how people with extraordinary talent and perseverance can become Olympic champions. This for me is the real heart of the book. Too often the careers of sportsmen are forced into a global historical narrative. This book instead concentrates on the personal.

Alison Duthie presents a series of journalistic profiles of several Australian Olympians. A welcome addition to the selection of sportspeople is young up-and-comer Emma Scott. The book’s appendix lists an impressive selection of appearances by Scott on the equestrian circuit since 2007. The other professional horse-riders who partake of eventing have already experienced a whole series of highs and lows across the world. Emma Scott’s story has not yet truly begun.

The book’s subjects are Megan Jones, Sonja Johnson, Shane Rose, Wendy Schaeffer and Stuart Tinney. Collectively they can hold claim to an incredible assortment of medals and prizes. We learn how each of them first came to the sport, often with the generous help of family members and friends, as well as the experiences they shared with the horses that carried them to victory. One of the book’s strengths is that the relationship between horse and rider is emphasised through the testimonies of these athletes. They speak of them as animal friends, or even colleagues of a kind, but never dismissively as ‘beasts’.

The level of dedication and determination required by the sport can also bring a dangerous cost with it. The quote I chose to open this piece gives an example of the extraordinary lengths Wendy Schaeffer was willing to go to in order to attend the Olympics despite serious injury. Shane Rose had to undergo major reconstructive surgery after he was struck in the face by a horse. While escaping injury himself, Stuart Tinney’s horse Jeepster leaped into the crowd of onlookers at Badminton in 1999. That all of these athletes would continue on despite the harships and occasional mishaps of a life in professional sports shows just how dedicated they are to equestrianism. Many have even become trainers of the next generation themselves.

Writer Alison Duthie herself trained in the sport and her familiarity helps convey the personal stories told here with an added degree of insight. There is even a wonderful collection of photographs included at the end of each chapter, illustrating the careers of these men and women. The tone of the book is both warm and enthusiastic, enough to encourage the interest of anyone, regardless of their interest in the field.

Well told, insightful and fascinating. A genuine treat.

With thanks to Palmer Higgs Publishing.

Suddenly I realized something: in spirit, I was very much like my father. By inclination I was not a true perma-bear, but I was nonetheless a bear. Or perhaps I was a vulture; that’s a slightly different breed, but much the same, one of God’s creatures that can smell death when it’s in the air.

One truism that drives me up the wall, is the oft-repeated claim that no one saw the GFC coming. No one knew that it was a bubble. No one could foresee that unregulated banking and trading of bonds could go wrong.

What absolute bunkum. My favourite story is Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the London School of Economics in November 2008, when she demanded to know how the crash could have happened? A panel of economists responded with a letter that admitted many had seen the crisis on the horizon, but they had been ignored.

A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers by the company‘s vice president Lawrence G. McDonald and Patrick Robinson offers an inside perspective of the events that led to this global firm’s Chapter 11 filing. Lehman’s is another phantom of the GFC, whose collapse much like that of Enron and Worldcom, represented very visible signs of the tenuousness of the market.

McDonald discusses his own life before Lehman’s at length. A product of a broken home, his dad was himself a successful businessman who chose golf over his wife and five children. McDonald credits his own success to an aptitude for hard graft, determination and having not been inculcated by the Ivy League business school mentality. At one point he favorably quotes similar sentiments from Michael Douglas’ character in Wall Street.

The book also discusses the dotcom bubble which preceded the turn of the century. McDonald was one of the founders of ConvertBond.com, which purported to represent the future of business trading – entirely online, with a far more accurate, up to the minute assessments of bonds. He claims his partner Steve Seefeld had a greater understanding of computer programming than anyone in the United States, with the exception of Bill Gates. The two were young turks on the business scene, intimidating the established business experts with their new-fangled approach to trading and aided in their promotional blitz by the recruiting of reporter Kate Bohner.

McDonald eventually made his way to Lehman’s after ConvertBond.com was bought out by Morgan Stanley. He takes the opportunity to discuss the Enron scandal briefly, before discussing the regime at his new firm, identifying CEO Richard S. Fuld as an ivory tower figure, supported by a patsy Chief Operating Officer Joseph M. Gregory. Their blinkered perspective, as well as the signing of a repeal of Glass-Steagall by President Clinton, combined to end the reign of Lehman’s on Wall Street.

The subtitle The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers should be understood as a very literal description of the book. Readers expecting an objective assessment of the economic crash should look elsewhere. This topic needs a Rajiv Chandrasekaran to give a proper account of what happened. Instead of addressing the realities of the GFC for ordinary people, McDonald indulges in long-form autobiography. The brief asides on the extent of the crash feel insincere. There is also an overreliance on military metaphors, perhaps a holdover from co-writer Patrick Robinson’s naval fiction.

What emerges from this account is an unintended vision of a Wall Street enclave of self-mythologizing traders, which explains how the scope of greed revealed became so staggering. It occured to me that what precipitated the Global Financial Crisis should not be referred to as ‘white-collar crime’, despite the embezzling, fraud and theft. ‘Crime’, presumes the possibility of being caught.

This is a dull, long-winded and disappointing reflection on one of the most devastating events in economic history.

In a couple of hours I am off to Armageddon in Sydney’s Olympic Park. Nerd nivana. Will I ask John Rhys Davies to say ‘bad dates‘? Will I convince Lance Henriksen to do the knife trick from Aliens? Will I manage to stop myself from geeking out when I meet Gail Simone for the first time?

All of these things are doubtful.

So for today’s review I have chosen a comic book – but given the day that is in it, with Armageddon no doubt featuring plenty of promotions of upcoming superhero comics, movies, toys, it occured to me that if I must review a ‘graphic novel’, I see no reason why I should restrict myself to the caped brigade. Comics are a medium just like any other, a method of story-telling that combines text and image.

Why on earth are there so many comics are people punching one another really hard?

While Gene Luen Yang does introduce several fantastical elements into this tale of growing up Asian American, at its heart it is a story about a kid not able to fit in, who chooses to reject and hide from his culture in order to become more ‘normal’.

However, to get back to magic and fantasy, our story begins with a summary of the traditional Chinese myth, Journey to the West. The minor god Monkey wants to join the other deities in Heaven at a lavish banquet, but is rejected because he is just a monkey. In a rage the little god attacks and defeats his social betters. Over the years he becomes even more capricious, inventing new titles for himself and daring to antagonise the Almighty, Tze-Yo-Tzuh. For his hubris, Monkey is punished and buried beneath a mountain.

Jin Wang’s mother told him the tale of Monkey. To him though it is just another story from China, another thing that sets him apart. Bullied by the other children at school, he is desperate to be accepted, even tolerating the ‘friendship’, of a boy who physically abuses him. One day another student, Wei Chen Sun, arrives from Taiwan. Jin seizes his chance to finally become the bullier, raise himself up through the social pyramid by belittling another student. Instead, he finds himself becoming Wei’s best friend. Now if only he could work up the confidence to ask the beautiful and blond Amelia Harris out on a date.

A third story thread mixes the realism of Jin’s adolescent angst and the fantastical excesses of Monkey’s tale, involving an all-American boy named Danny, who is embarrassed when his distant cousin, Chin-Kee, arrives to visit. Followed everywhere by his cousin, who spouts stereotypical racist dialogue, can grow in size and insists on drawing attention to Danny’s relationship with him in a humiliating fashion, any hope he has of being popular quickly vanishes.

Chin-Kee is a monstrous manifestation of the contempt Jin sees directed to him by the other children at his school. As the three stories continue we discover how they are inter-related, how Monkey, Jin and Danny are in fact all connected.

When I was a kid growing up in Co. Dublin, I was obsessed with the Japanese show Monkey Magic which shares the same mythological source material as this book. Emmet at age five just saw it as an entertaining program and used to swing from the bicycle railings outside of school singing the theme song. So I am familiar, albeit in a distant fashion, with some of the fantastical elements Yang employs in American Born Chinese. I also, however, grew up an outsider, bullied in school, not able to fit in and reading this book brought all of that back to me.

I love how Yang links these autobiographical elements of growing up in America with the more supernatural and religious aspects of the story, representing an overall metaphor for the cultural differences thrown up before a young Chinese boy. The story is also wickedly funny, quite sweet at times and well paced.

This is an excellent book, well told by a confident and imaginative story-teller. Fantastic.

Right, now I’m off to geek it up.

We were flying in a strange part of the sky,’ said Handsome, ‘and we thought we’d hit a meteorite shower, ship spinning like a windsock in a gale. I took a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree shot of the ship, and I saw that what we were flying through was a bookstorm – encyclopedias, dictionaries, a Uniform Edition of the Romantic poets, the complete works of Shakespeare.’

‘Yeah, I heard of him,’ said Pink, nodding.

It has been a number of years and I am still fuming about Margaret Atwood‘s little rant: “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Yes it was years ago. Yes she has been backpedalling ever since and why should I even care?

Really though it comes down to marketability. Science fiction is a publishing ghetto. Literature that dabbles in ‘speculative’ fancies is far more respectable and ensures the authors still get invited to the important parties.

To my mind this is the definition of pretentiousness. A rather literal kind of pretension, but it asserts the dominance of one genre of literature over another.

The Stone Gods opens in a immoral far-future dystopia. Humanity has exhausted their home planet, known as Orbus. The atmosphere is filled with deadly dust-storms. Civilization is completely broken down, with different ideological enclaves controlling their own territories across the globe. The Eastern Caliphate is consumed by religious fundamentalism; the SinoMosco Pact is an extrapolation of the most corrupt form of communism; and finally the Central Power has realized the deepest desires of free market capitalism, with state government replaced by a hierarchy of corporate institutes.

Billie Crusoe is a scientist trapped in a thankless and soul-destroying media job, covering the discovery of a new planet that represents a possible hopeful future for the human race. Completely disenchanted with humanity, Billie can see that if the wealthy elite transfer themselves to this ‘Planet Blue’, history will simply repeat itself. Once the native species of dinosaurs are artificially wiped out, conversion will begin. Injustice against the lower classes will be repeated; the wealthy will sink into even more immoral depravity; and when the planet itself is stripped of all vegetation, humans will simply find another planetary body to infect.

While covering the story Billie meets the robo-sapiens Spike, an emotionless gynoid who is more than capable of reading human emotion. After Billie is forced to return to Planet Blue with a new crew, composed of scientists and a lucky celebrity, she falls in love with Spike.

However, as Captain Handsome reminds them, history has a habit of repeating itself. The book is split into four sections that reveal that these events are being recycled through a form of eternal recurrence. At times Billie becomes Billy, a sailor on Easter island, or a near-future scientist who encounters an account of the destruction of Orbus, titled The Stone Gods.

I mentioned Margaret Atwood above, because like her work, this book treats of a ‘speculative fiction’, scenario that smacks of science fiction tropes, but evidently wishes to be counted among more refined literary fellows. References to Samuel Beckett, including his ‘begin again‘, absurdist nihilism abound. Spike is threatened with being recycled to avoid her falling into the hands of rebel forces. Her knowledge and experience of the Planet Blue is intended to be extracted from her, but as the overall story hints, minds undergo a form of evolution ensuring that they are not simply limited stacks of data. Spike ultimately survives, even as Billie will be reborn, or simply return to life over and over again.

Yet this book apes science fiction, while at the same time pretending to philosophical profundity. A swing and a miss I am afraid, one that leaves the text perilously suspended between two stools. In fact at times it resembles bad sf!

Where the book excels, however, is its shocking description of a futuristic dystopia obsessed with sexual depravity. Genuinely unsettling and disturbing, these early passages of The Stone Gods vibrate with anger towards the sexual domination of women by men. There are also moments of surreal humour, such as Spike’s disembodied head performing cunnilingus. The book swings between extremes of righteous anger, attempted profundities and comical humour.

I could not help but be reminded of David Mitchell’s superior novel, Cloud Atlas, which introduces similar themes to greater effect. A disappointment.

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

This is one of the most famous opening lines of any story, not that I imagine had he lived to see it, its fame would provide any comfort to that master of shame and self-loathing Franz Kafka.

I always think of that line from Annie Hall “sex with you is a kafkaesque experience.[...] I mean that as a compliment”. Once featured as a punchline by that *other* king of neurosis, you knew the author had made it. Is it not appropriate that Kafka, so cleverly excising themes of personal failure enjoys a degree of celebrity that is entirely post-humous? What I enjoy most about his writing is the sly hints of a humour peeking through the quotidien miseries of his characters.

I previously had read The Castle, a book which filled me with a life-long fear of bureaucracy, only for me to become a bureaucrat; and Lettre au Père which gives some insight into Kafka’s relationship with his father, his resentment of authority expressed in his stories. Metamorphosis is another classic texts that for one reason or another I have avoided for years. Perhaps because of a fear of overfamiliarity. The story even featured in The Producers, one of my favourite films, as an off-hand joke.

This collection features a number of Kafka’s stories, many unpublished in his lifetime. In The Penal Colony is a ready example of the writer’s horror at the domination horror, with an ending that is pure grand guignol. The Aeroplanes At Brescia feels like an odd combination of a Proustian social situation drama and the advancing machine age, represented in literary terms by the Ballardian emphasis on the sensuality of objects. Proust, Ballard and Kafka – all writers whose legacy is so fixated on singular thematic concerns that their names have become descriptive terms.

Metamorphosis itself is exemplary of Kafka’s concerns. Gregor Samsa within moments of waking from his ‘troubled dreams‘ immediately begins to fret about his job prospects, the petty difficulties that fill his life and his responsibility to his family. As the chief earner for his elderly parents and young sister, a delicate seventeen-year-old who enjoys playing the violin and attending parties. Gregor, it is clear, is carrying his own family, surrendering up his earnings to them.

When he fails to emerge from his locked bedroom, his family’s anxiety grows. They demand he have his breakfast and take the early train to work. Gregor is a travelling salesman whose livelihood depends on commission. Then, disaster of disasters, the chief clerk of his firm arrives. With his parents now panicking, Gregor attempts to assure them that he is fine, but his voice is transformed into a series of bestial squeaks. When he finally emerges his boss flees in terror. Gregor is incapable of recognizing his own monstrosity, his attempts to calm the horrified members of his family and the clerk resemble a threatening advance.

What follows is a slow and painful descent into absolute helplessness. Gregor becomes completely dependent on their family, with all signs of his previous humanity completely vanished. Kafka brilliantly evokes a crippling sense of guilt on the part of his protagonist. His loss of power creates a vacuum in the family which his father quickly fills. This reversal of fortunes has a oddly quirky sense of humour about it. The contemporary sense of casual absurdism in science fiction no doubt owes a large debt to Kafka.

I was quite taken with the deliberate parlaying of unconscious desires and resentment in the author’s sentences. In total what emerges is a brilliantly structured fable of repression given full vent by some incomprehensible twist of fate.

The moment when you realise you’ve drifted away from the safe shore is terrifying and truly liberating in its brutal extreme. It suddenly hits you: you’re on a motorbike with every single thing you own in boxes on the back, and you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night or where you’re going to eat or where you’re going to get fuel. You don’t know who you’re going to call if you break down; every kilometre you cover takes you one stroke deeper into the unknown.

Yeah so I read a new book every day – and have done for the last two hundred and forty-eight days – but this guy has got me beat. “Oh Emmet, you fool”, I hear you say, “Nathan Millward rode a decommissioned Australia Post bike from Sydney to England and you sit on trains and read books. Of course what he did is far more impressive.”

Shut up.

This is a fascinating story about a young man and his own encounter with the Australian Department of Immigration – who in the face of the fast approaching elapse of his work visa was convinced to travel across the outback, sail to East Timor and from there motor along across Asia, the Russian steppe and Europe. Happily I see from his website that he’s back in Sydney. In fact he’ll be signing copies of his book in Dymocks, on George’s Street tomorrow at 6pm.

I would love to get my copy autographed, but erm, this is actually a library book. ‘cough’.

Our hero Nathan was actually encouraged in his mad scheme by his Canadian girlfriend Mandy. Perhaps she made the suggestion because she thought it fit his free-wheeling nature, after all he had returned to Australia after his first stay purely in order to be with her (once again, I can relate). Switching the lady in his life from his girlfriend to ‘Dorothy’ the second-hand 105cc Honda Postie bike, Nathan sets off – but not before a random encounter with then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who bemusedly signed his helmet.

On his long, difficult road Nathan meets many like-minded adventurers and kind souls who help him along the way. He also has intimidating encounters with corrupt border guards, suffers bouts of paranoia from anti-malarial medication, witnesses extremes of human poverty and manages to wander into more than one site of civil conflict.

The other journey faced by Nathan is his strained relationship with Mandy. One of the book’s real strengths is its honest expression of emotional vulnerability, as well as its discretion – Nathan is at pains to point out that his girlfriend’s real name is not Mandy. It is a really affecting portrayal of a couple separated by circumstances beyond their control. With his trusty laptop allowing him to maintain email contact with a growing number of friends back home and around the world, Nathan’s story begins to gain more traction with the Australian media. A book deal with ABC manages to land exactly when he requires some additional funding on his mad tour of the globe.

When I started reading this I quickly found myself becoming fascinated with this riveting tale. So much so I even got it into my head to include some snarky remarks in my review about how The Long Way Round mounted a similar expedition with security and a camera crew in tow. To Millward’s credit he respectfully acknowledges the efforts made by McGregor and Boorman, revealing himself to be quite a magnanimous soul.

He is also a very entertaining guide on this sometime dangerous, sometime beautifully described trek through incredible landscapes. One aspect of the book I really enjoyed is how so many other people helped Millward on his journey. Joe from One Ten Motorcycles, the man who sold him Dorothy aka Dot, proved to be especially helpful, keeping in touch with his customer on his unusual quest, passing on advice whenever the Honda ran into trouble, even sending him spare parts via the post.

I even found myself becoming a bit weepy when I came to the last stretch of the book. This must be one of those clichéd ‘emotional journeys’, they talk so much about on book review shows. I also love how Millward refers to Dorothy and himself as ‘we’, which is both sweet and a poignant reminder of just how alone he was at times on the road.

A wonderful story, filled with thrilling adventure, thought-provoking observations and a welcome depiction of human kindness.

It was a little square of card, some strange design, a beautiful, intricate thing of multicoloured swirling lines. It was, Deeba had realized, some mad version of a London travelcard. It said it was good for zones one to six, buses and trains, all across the city.

On the dotted line across its centre was carefully printed: ZANNA MOON SHWAZZY.

I have a weird love/hate relationship with the writing of China Miéville. The first time I read Perdido Street Station I was enjoying a fruitful encounter with the work of M. John Harrison (check out his blog here). Miéville was a poor imitation of the latter to my mind and suffered by the comparison.

Skip forward another five years and I finally re-read Perdido Street Station. And I loved it. The more I learn about Miéville the more I like him. Here was a fantasy/sf writer (he tends to be lumped in among the ‘new weird‘) who liked to explore socialist themes in a fictional setting. Also the bloke is astonishingly charismatic in person.

So I have been converted to the cause.

Un Lun Dun begins in a seemingly conventional manner. Two friends Zanna and Deeba begin to notice various strange phenomenon, seemingly targeted at the former teenage girl. Animals pause and bow to her, strangers approach them in café and address Zanna as ‘the Shwazzy‘, and finally a noxious black smog seems to be stalking her.

When the two girls accidentally cross over to an alternate London – UnLondon – they find a weird world similar to their own and yet filled with unusual creatures such as ‘unbrellas’, wraiths, stink-junkies, bookaneers, flying buses and binjas. The rejected flotsam and jetsam of London find a new home here and often come alive.

The people of UnLondon worship Zanna as a prophesied saviour who will rescue them from the malevolent entity known as the Smog. When the city is attacked by the creature’s minions, Zanna is knocked unconscious and Deeba is sent back with her to ‘their world’. The prophesies have been proven false, the Shwazzy has failed and while the UnLondoners assure Deeba that they have a back-up plan in the event of prophecy not going to plan, she cannot help but feel there is something wrong.

When she returns home she discovers no one has even missed her. Zanna has no memory of their journey and Deeba’s talk of evil smog and talking books of prophecy sound like the babblings of a crazy person. So after going to all that effort to escape back home, Deeba decides to return to UnLondon. She may not have been chosen by fate, but she knows what to do. It is time to clean up UnLondon.

This is a fantastic, delirious, dark-edge transplantation of Oz to the landscape of the Thames.  Miéville conjures up amazing creatures that fit neatly into this incredible world of his invention – including carnivorous giraffes, roaming ‘unbrellas’, and ‘smombies’. An added treat is Miéville’s own illustrations, including ghostly afterimages of street-lamps from earlier eras, the aforementioned giraffes and of course, my personal favourites, the binja:

I love those guys.

This is a great book for children, with quite possibly the most kick-ass ending I have ever read. Fast-paced, funny and very imaginative, it is an adorable book. I really wish I had not read it in a single day. I want to spend a week reading it. In fact, I’ll say it here, any parent who reads this to their child is possibly the coolest mum or dad ever.

Great fun.

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