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He gestured to the fireplace, over which hung a large framed photograph of the billionaire Da Vinci Code author, signed personally to Jean-Noël. “Look at that chin – it is the chin of a genius.” He ran his finger down the cleft of his own and mourned its inadequacy. “Mind you, I thought Digital Fortress was a piece of shit.”

Way back in 2008, when folks asked me why I intended to move to Australia, I would mention an assortment of reasons, such as the good food, sturdy economy, availability of jobs – but also another factor which caused some consternation. Namely Australian television. I am not talking about Neighbours, or Home and Away, but panel shows such as Spicks and Specks, a very funny programme that’s half music trivia quiz, half mad-cap variety hour (half hour!).

It was the good humoured content that surprised me. I grew up with Irish sarcasm and cutting British wit. Satire is the currency of my home’s entertainment, with a fair dollop of black comedy and schadenfreude. Australia seemed to me to have embraced an entirely different comedic ethos, fair dinkum banter and harmless absurdism.

Which was how I first discovered Shaun Micallef. His delivery of lines, whether it be as a comedic player, or host of the show Talking About Your Generation, seems initially quite poised, until you realize he’s speaking utter nonsense. When I discovered he had written a novel, I had to investigate what genteel gonzoism he had served up this time.

So what is the book about? Well our omniscient narrator is attempting to tell us the story of Alexander Pruitt, murdered in 2005, only to be reborn in Cromwellite Britain in 1657. Which, through a series of plot contrivances involving time travel and the etymology of the word ‘twig’, it turns out is the period most suitable to him.

Of course as history itself is warped by the events described, our trusty narrator might not even get to finish the book we are reading, or sell the rights to Hollywood, with the maniacal Tom Cruise playing him in an eventual movie. So we have two races to the finish line here, Alexander Pruitt desperately seeking out the meaning of his existence, while torn between two periods in history (as well as a brief cameo in a third); and our narrator hoping to sell out as quickly as possible before his intellectual property is unwritten.

Throw in some Masonic conspiracies, a nice hefty dig or two at Dan Brown’s expense, badgers and Blade Runner, and we have ourselves a novel. Oh and just to top it off the secret identity of Jack the Ripper is also revealed.

If this book were to suffer the indignity of a high concept, I would describe it as P. G. Wodehouse meets Philip K. Dick. It is fitting that the head of Philip K. Dick has reappeared as an A.I. oracle. Perhaps someone should ask it what it thinks of Micallef’s novel. It is manic, absurdist fare, that doesn’t take itself seriously for even an iota of a second. Conspiracies are revealed to be vapid plots without rhyme, or reason. History itself is a mutable, simultaneous projection without purpose. And Tom Cruise is a very scary individual.

The narrator’s Hollywood adventure feels like a random digression, but by that point you have become used to the editorial spats asterisked at the bottom of pages, as well as parenthetical asides to the reader, assuring them that it will all make sense in the end. I laughed out loud when Cruise himself begins to interrogate the narrator as to his peculiar ‘omniscience’, over the proceedings of the plot. It’s a brilliant moment.

If I go any further I fear this review will collapse into a puddle of sycophantic loquaciousness. Needless to say, I quite liked it.

[...] it is not only the world’s fastest growing medium, but also the fastest growing area of global expertise in how to entertain, retain and connect twenty-first-century consumers. If the future is looking more and more like a game, it’s partly because the science of satisfaction has never before been so precise, so powerful, or so profitable. Where play goes, the world will follow.

As you perhaps may have gathered, I spent most of my childhood reading books. This was not due to choice on my part. I have never owned a gaming console. In fact I did not even really start to experiment with computer games until Massively Multiplayer Online titles really began to take off.

Of course I quickly learned what other MMO players know quite well – you go online to fight goblins and monsters you can kiss your social life goodbye. What is interesting is to observe just how mainstream this behaviour actually is. As today’s author Tom Chatfield points out in Fun Inc. there is not a world of difference between online gaming and social network sites such as Facebook. In fact, users of Mark Zuckerberg’s private nation spend an awful lot of time – notably during work hours – playing game applications on the site. Yet these people are not regarded with the same measure of contempt as the proverbial gamer ‘man-child‘ is.

Chatfield’s account gives a history of computer gaming, from its early development in 1962 as an experimental programming model in M.I.T. through to the evolution of the text-based games that led to genre defining titles such as Ultima and then onward through the console wars between Nintendo and Sega, which made clear just how much money could be earned from this evolving entertainment medium. Which was advanced to even more dizzying heights by the entry of Sony Entertainment, with their own console the PlayStation. Gaming is now a billion dollar industry, even threatening the box office clout of big budget Hollywood movies, with the console now poised to become the central entertainment hub of the family home.

Three heavily critical quotes of three very different mediums are presented to the reader at the beginning of Fun Inc.’s fifth chapter. The first is taken from Plato’s Phaedrus and describes Socrates’ disapproval of the written word. The second is taken from Georges Duhamel‘s book Scenes from the Life of the Future, insisting on the corruptive influence of film. Finally we come to a lambasting of gaming as an activity in itself, with London’s Mayor Boris Johnson stepping up to the plate, denouncing gamers as follows:

They become like blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious. [It] teaches them nothing. It stimulates no ratiocination, discovery or feat of memory.

Of course the fear of the new is nothing, um, new. What Chatfield is describing here is a fatal inability to recognize the pervasiveness of gaming. The teenage boy is the typical symbolic game player and yet many professionals, male and female, indulge in virtual worlds after work. One fascinating anecdote has a corporate position interviewee be scolded by a executive for not mentioning on his C.V. that he ran a guild in World of Warcraft. It showed team-building skills and managerial potential. However, there remain scare stories of gaming inspiring acts of real world violence. Chatfield treats of the media furore, as well as the many psychological studies of the effect of games.

There is even an unfortunate quote from Roger Scruton, taken from a 2008 article for The Times “Can Virtual Life Take Over From Real Life?“, where he rails against the ephemeral nature of virtual relationships, be they online communication or in-game narratives. I wonder has he since played Dragon Age?

In the second half of this book, Chatfield’s analysis really takes off. There are some very revealing discussions of online gaming profits, gold farming, Europe’s Pirate Party, as well as spotlighting the work of literate game writers/creators such as Rhianna Pratchett and Jason Rohrer – his game Passage sounds like a genuinely affecting, as well as intentionally morbid, game.

Unfortunately having read Greg Lastowka’s Virtual Justice recently, much of the material here was already familiar to me. In fact the early chapters resembled a superficial a potted history of the game industry. Once again there is discussion of Qui Chengwei, as well as the World of Warcraftblood plague‘.

Then again I read PC PowerPlay a very stimulating games magazine. So hit and miss fare overall.

“Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?” asked Anne wide-eyed.

“No.”

“Oh!” Anne drew a long breath. “Oh, Miss – Marilla, how much you miss!”

Let the Australian-Canadian cultural exchange begin!

Oh, I am sorry. I am speaking out of turn. Let me explain.

Last month my blogger colleague Stacey over at the excellent Word of Mouse Books proposed that we each review literature from our respective countries of residence. She announced the two titles that I was to review and I in turn sent her a copy of Foley Russel and that Poor Girl by Rebecca Bloomer, as well as the lovely Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs.

So today I am reviewing the first of the two books that Stacey posted from Canada for my reading pleasure. I strongly urge you folks to check out her blog and add it to your roll if you have a site of your own.

An elderly brother and sister, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, manage the farm at Green Gables, hidden from the road that runs through the village of Avonlea behind a line of trees. The years are beginning to take their toll on the quietly spoken Matthew, so the decision is made to adopt a child old enough to work the land, but young enough to be raised with the values of the Cuthberts. However, when Matthew returns to Green Gables he is accompanied not by a strapping young lad ready to be put to work in the fields, but a talkative and precocious girl named Anne Shirley.

Despite the mix-up Matthew stubbornly insists that they keep the girl, recognizing in her a kindred spirit despite the one of them speaking not a word most days and the other barely stopping to breath between sentences. Anne’s sweet natured curiosity about the world takes a little longer to charm the sterner Cuthbert Marilla.

Anne’s innocence is combined dangerously with a quick wit. She notices the contradictions in people’s behaviour, the hypocrisies of small town worthies. Unschooled in conventions, she speaks out in such way that Marilla is initially mortified by this seemingly hell-bent red-haired orphan. Slowly, but surely though, she learns to appreciate her young ward’s perspective on the world and even begins to catch herself smiling when Anne points out the local reverend seems uninterested in his own sermons, or that the school-master enjoys mocking his students more than teaching them.

I’m so glad we live in a world where there are Octobers.

Such statements may make one suspicious that this character is little more than a Pollyanna, but I quickly came to love Anne myself. Her desperation to stay at Green Gables, when the Cuthberts are debating whether they should send her back to the children’s asylum; her wild enthusiasm for nature and books; and the easy friendships she makes courtesy of the infectious joy she displays in everything she does.

Three primary relationships define Anne’s life. Her mentoring under the increasingly affectionate gaze of Marilla; her passionate friendship with Diana Barry (whom she refers to as her ‘bosom friend’); and finally there is her intense rivalry with Gilbert Blythe, who earns her eternal enmity (or at least until they graduate) by insulting her on her first day at school. I love Anne’s habit of conversing in long monologues, much to the bewilderment of her friends and neighbours. I love how the overall tone of the book is one of wry goodness.

This is an unforgettable Canadian classic. Fantastically enjoyable.

The boat was so small that we were jammed into every crevice, corner and spare patch of deck. It was almost impossible to get downstairs into the hold, which was heaving with sweating bodies and the suffocating stench of old fish. Forty people had transformed this tiny fishing boat into a living, seething mass of human desperation floating in the English Sea.

I find myself wandering through Town Hall’s shopping area in Sydney each morning thinking fondly about how this is my home. It is not my home though. My status is still uncertain. There is no guarantee I will be granted residency in Australia. It is confusing sometimes, as having lived here already for a year this place feels like home to me. I am caught between two worlds, two different cultures – and despite people speaking English here, living in Australia is a very different experience from being in Ireland. I am an immigrant, it sneaks up on me every now and then, but despite the inconvenience of not being able to work, I enjoy a very comfortable life.

When I think about the experiences of refugees who come here to escape from war, persecution and impoverishment, I realize just how lucky I am. In the recent Australian election the term ‘boat people’, was bandied about like an unfeeling political football. For the experiences of so many refugees to be reduced to a pithy sound bite, this struck me as extremely unfair. Which is why I was very interested to read Anh Do’s story. Here we have a much loved Australian celebrity, who is a comedian, actor, screenwriter and unstoppable centre of charisma, and just also happens to be one of these much discussed ‘boat people’.

Anh Do was born in 1977 in Vietnam. His parents decided to risk the many dangers of travelling out of the country on a simple fishing boat to escape to Australia. Anh Do’s family survived pursuit from Communist soldiers, storms, marauding pirates and starvation, eventually arriving at a safe harbor and from there on to Sydney.

Anh attributes their survival to a welcome combination of incredible luck and his father’s quick wit. At one point following a boarding of the boat by pirates, the starving refugees were stripped naked, robbed, assaulted and in a final humiliation, their engine was stolen. Thankfully Anh’s father Tam replaced a missing rubber band on a second broken engine with a strip from the bottom of a shoe. The boat roared into life.

The family’s life in Sydney was free of the oppression they had fled from, but they were instead crippled by poverty. Thanks to the goodwill of charities and generous neighbours the refugee Vietnamese family managed to make a start of life in Australia, with Tam and his wife worked to support their growing family of three children. Eventually other members of the family made the trek from Vietnam, with the Do household often hosting more than one family, including other refugees who simply needed a place to stay until they had the means to move on. Anh attributes this to his mother’s enduring desire to help others, an aspect of her training as a nun. Troubled times were ahead for the family though, with Tam, having become more and more reliant on alcohol, eventually leaving his young family. With the household income suddenly halved, Anh took it on himself to help his mum make ends meet, excelling in his studies in the hope of one day getting a decent job to help buy her a proper house, so that she might never want again.

Who knew becoming a standup comedian could be so profitable?

Anh’s story is not a sentimental rags to riches story. It is sincere in its treating of inspiring themes such as the importance of family and the capacity of the individual to excel. The book opens with Anh finally tracking down his father Tam in Melbourne to confront him years after he walked out. It ends with him now the father of a family of his own, a professional film-maker along with his brother Khoa and an ardent supporter of local charities in the Sydney area that help disadvantaged youths.

He’s also a very funny bloke. This book is filled with moments just as likely to make you laugh out loud as cry. The Deal or No Deal appearance was my personally favourite sequence.

An amazing story.

As the car disappeared down the road, old Granny Frinda lay crumpled on the red dirt calling for her grand-daughters and cursing the people responsible for their abduction. In their grief the women asked why their children should be taken from them. Their anguished cries echoed across the flats, carried by the wind. But no one listened to them, no one heard them.

My copy of this book is actually titled Rabbit-Proof Fence and features a photo from the Philip Noyce film of the same name as a cover illustration. I have never seen the film as I felt the material would upset me too much. The thought of families being torn apart is very distressing. It also bothers me that many Australian colonials would have been Irish and we too would have been subject to racial/cultural oppression, only to repeat the racist measures towards the Aborigine people of Australia. All in the name of progress of course.

Nugi Garimara opens her story with a quick study of the history of European colonization of Australia. The displacement of Aboriginal tribes continues the further inland white settlements move, with the cattle trails used by drovers also commandeering watering holes in the outback itself, ever shrinking possible locations for habitation. What inevitably followed was the introduction of slave labour and as a consequence of that, the emergence of half-caste children, referred to as muda-muda. This was blamed on the promiscuity of Aborigine women, with a blind eye being turned to their exploitation at the hands of the whites occupying what had been their land.

The story begins in 1931 with three muda-muda girls from Jigalong in Western Australia being chosen for re-education as a result of their half-caste birth. This was justified as a policy designed to protect children of mixed parentage. Often muda-muda were bullied by other native children for their lighter skin. Daisy, Molly and Grace were cousins who had come to think of one another as sisters, having bonded over their outsider status. The Australian government policy was to obtain children and train them to be employed in white households as servants. This was regarded as a form of rescue, for the belief was that children of mixed-race parentage were in fact more intelligent than native Aborigines and would therefore make better workers.

Molly, the eldest girl, Grace and Daisy were taken by a man named Constable Riggs to the Moore River settlement, hundreds of kilometers south of Jigalong. They travelled by car and by boat, far out of territory known to the three girls. When they arrived at Moore River they were forbidden from speaking in their native language and instructed in English. At the settlement they are befriended by another girl Martha Jones, who tries to help them adjust to their new surroundings. She warns them of the danger of trying to escape, as the authorities employ ‘black trackers’, to return girls who run away, who are then locked up and fed only bread and water. Some of the girls who had been captured were even shaved bald and patrolled around inside the building, so the other Aborigine girls could see what happened to those who ran.

Despite the danger, Molly tells her sisters to save what food they can and then one morning leads them out of the settlement and into the countryside. Using what hunting skills they have the girls live off the land at first, until they decide to visit houses along the way to beg for food. This gives them an opportunity to spread misinformation, informing the whites they meet that they are travelling to different destinations, as their movements are being reported back to the police with every sighting. Molly’s plan is a simple one. Make for the rabbit-proof fence that runs all the way north to Jigalong and try to avoid big towns that may have police officers looking for them.

This incredible true story is all the more effecting for the simple and direct manner in which it is told. Ironically it was thanks to Molly’s white father, who first told her about the rabbit-proof fence, that she was inspired to flee the re-education camp at Moore River. Garimara writes with unfeigned emotion, something I am not used to in historical books.

It is a very sad story. I have nothing more to say.

When I looked I saw a gray mess hung up in brambles. The moonlight was shining across the water and falling on a face, or what had been a face, but was more like a jack-o’-lantern now, swollen and round with dark sockets for eyes. There was a wad of hair on its head, like a chunk of dark lamb’s wool, and the body was swollen and twisted and without clothes. A woman.

Reading this book was interesting, as it is an extended version of a previously published short story by Joe R. Lansdale titled Mad Dog Summer.  As such this is a murder mystery for which I already know the outcome. Of course this is Lansdale, so I simply could not keep away.

Our story begins with Harry Crane, now an old man in a retirement home, reminiscing about his childhood in East Texas back in 1933. Jacob his father was the local barber and constable for the area. His mother May Lynn was a strikingly beautiful woman who chose to marry a man whose views against the segregation of blacks and whites guaranteed a difficult life for her. Then one evening Harry and his sister Tom discover a body tied to a tree with barbed wire.

Lansdale excels at this exposure of childhood innocence to the violence of the adult world. Harry cannot understand why only his father cares about the dead woman. Slowly he learns that for the worthies of the town, such as Old Man Nation, the only good black is a dead black. Racism infects every level of the community and Harry’s father can barely hold back the tide. Soon the local Ku Klux Klan are agitating for a lynching and Doc Stephenson refuses to even help with an autopsy.

While the search for the killer continues, Harry dreams at night of the terrifying figure known as the Goat Man. He thinks he saw the half-goat creature in the forest that evening after he found the body, standing in the middle of the path behind him staring at the Crane children. Harry is convinced that the mythical Goat Man is the killer, but no one believes that it even exists.

Revisiting this story Lansdale introduces new characters and broadens the characters of the Crane parents. He excels at describing the wounded nobility of figures such as Constable Crane, trying to do the right thing while fighting against the tide of intolerance that persists in his community. An added dimension is given to his relationship with his wife with the introduction of Red, a former rival for her attentions. Lansdale also includes the character of Harry’s grandmother, who takes an interest in the murder case.

New scenes such as the autopsy of Jelda May Sykes help to broaden the themes of the novel, with Jacob being forced to travel to a neighbouring town to consult with a black doctor as Doc Stephenson refuses to treat the body for fear of upsetting the local whites. It is a credit to Lansdale’s abilities as a writer that even during a sequence describing the carving up of a corpse he manages to rise a chuckle, when Doc Tinn explains to the astonished Jacob the properties of the clitoris. It is this reliance on gallows humour that I appreciate most in Lansdale’s writing, combined with a matter-of-fact view on morality.

Knowing the identity of the murderer allowed me to concentrate on the language and imagery of the novel. Lansdale is a master of quick dialogue and captures the innocent perspective of a child perfectly. Recommended for fans of a decent murder mystery.

It is so important (perhaps the most important of all the Ten Precepts of the pukka sahib) not to entangle oneself in ‘native’ quarrels. With Indians there must be no loyalty, no real friendship. Affection, even love – yes Englishmen do often love Indians – native officers, forest rangers, hunters, clerks, servants. Sepoys will weep like children when their colonel retires. Even intimacy is allowable, at the right moments. But alliance, partisanship, never! Even to know the rights and wrongs of a ‘native’ quarrel is a loss of prestige.

The introduction to this novel describes the desperate attempts by publishers to shield themselves from legal action if too close attention was paid to Orwell’s story. Unlike Animal Farm, or 1984, there was no way to pass the book off as a parable with a political subtext. Always a pragmatic man, Orwell cheerfully signed off on amendments to the text, although this led to lithographic errors that enraged him. The story features a newspaper named the Burmese Patriot. For the American edition, the author proposed it be renamed the Burmese Sinn Feiner. This speaks to the bloody-minded humour of Orwell, eagerly employing truth as a bludgeon.

The story begins with the corrupt bureaucrat U Po Kyin, a sub-divisional Magistrate of the Burmese town of Kyauktada. He has climbed up the rungs of power through deceit and a willingness to destroy the reputations of his rivals. His conniving nature is such that he is known to take bribes from both parties in a legal dispute and then resolve the matter on the facts presented. This incongruously has led to him becoming known for a curious kind of impartiality. U Po Kyin has decided the only obstacle to further advancement is his superior, the British Empire loving Dr Veraswami. The doctor is well-known and has almost become an equal to the Europeans who run the businesses in the town. Immediately the rival for the doctor’s social status begins spreading rumours and lies designed to bring the good man low.

Meanwhile the European Club of Anglo-Indian ex-patriates is thrown into dismay when their chair Mr McGregor announces that they are to vote on the matter of inviting a ‘native’, to join their select group. The most vocal opponent to the proposal is Mr. Ellis, a hateful bigot who is thrown into apoplexy at the mere thought of racial equality. Flory, a more impartial member, keeps his council, but is known by the others to be a friend to Dr. Veraswami and is accused by Ellis of being a traitor to the British Empire. Flory is also warned by his ‘native friend’, that U Po Kyin will conspire against him if he becomes too great a threat. Prepared to leave well enough alone, the self-pitying timber merchant takes no direct action, until the arrival of Elizabeth Lackersteen, a niece of one of the club members. Delighted by her apparent education and experience of the Parisian bohemian scene, Flory tries to introduce her to the sights and sounds of Kyauktada, hoping to enchant her enough that she will agree to be his wife. Much as he wishes to be free of the society of ‘pukka sahibs’, though, the broad-minded Englishman is unprepared for the danger waiting for him. Hoping to live equally in two worlds, he finds himself abandoned by both.

Anthony Burgess once proposed that Orwell’s vision of Big Brother and Ingsoc was originally meant to occur closer to the date of publication in 1949. By setting the action in the far off future of nineteen eighty four, the threat posed was lessened. In Burmese Days the threat is very much close to the heart of the British Empire.

This is a condemnation of their behavior towards the indigenous peoples of occupied lands. Flory and the doomed Dr Veraswami engage in a recurring debate as to the nature of the British regime. Flory describes it as theft conducted on a massive scale. The blinkered Veraswami assures his British friend that everything good in Burma has come from their conquerors. Both men criticize their homelands in favour of the other. Both are outsiders, belonging nowhere.

There is a blackly comic tone to the proceedings (Flory rescues Elizabeth from a docile buffalo; Orwell includes a scathing description of her bohemian past in Paris), but also a sense of anger given full force. The muted tragedy of the last sentence of the book leaves the reader feeling hollow and cold. Visceral and brilliant.

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