City to country: Musings on moving house

It’s been a couple of months since I last posted on this blog. The main reason is that we moved house (packing up is a bitch).

We’ve relocated from the bland northern suburbs of Melbourne to the pretty country town of Gisborne in the Macedon Ranges, between Sunbury and Woodend (for those who know them) and on the way to the gold rush towns of Castlemaine, Bendigo and Ballarat.

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So we have made the proverbial “tree change” swapping the conveniences, but also the congestion of suburbia, for the quieter life and fresh air of the pastoral countryside.

Gisborne, it’s quiet, pretty, country town of about 12,000 people, with lovely tree-line streets, nestled in a green valley – an hour’s commute from the centre of Melbourne.

According to Wikipedia, it is named after Henry Fyshe Gisborne the first Commissioner of the district and began life as a merino sheep grazing station. There is still plenty of farming about: sheep, cows, alpacas and horses, olive groves and vineyards.

Probably the most famous thing nearby is Hanging Rock – for those of you who have read the book ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock‘ (the mysterious novel by Joan Lindsay) or seen the spooky movie, directed by Peter Weir (Witness).

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Hanging Rock in Woodend

Unfortunately we don’t have the funds yet for a grand country estate or even a rural block – we’re renting on a subdivided block – but we’re surrounded by tall trees and mountains and on a clear night the pitch black sky is peppered with an astonishing display of flickering stars.

Also, a two-minute drive in the car and you’re winding your way through a sweeping vista of valleys and green and gold mountains: it’s food for the city-wearied spirit.

On my daily train ride into work the farms and fields fly by and beyond them the undulating hillsides, stone cottages, grand Victorian homesteads, before we re-enter the sprawling ‘McMansions’ of suburbia.

It is good to be “disconnected”.

The last time we moved house was four years ago – swapping one Melbourne suburb for another.

Goodbye to stuff

Over that time we naturally accumulated a lot more things, but as we packed up our house, it did strike me – as we deposited hundreds of CDs, DVDs and books at our local charity shops – how technology had embedded itself even further into our lives.

Armed with a Netflix account, a Kindle and an iPod and/or Smartphone, who needs to hold onto these things?

Just about anything you want to watch or listen to these days can be found, streamed or stored on a device or online. I can’t remember the last time I bought a DVD (I think it was a season of Nurse Jackie or Inspector Morse) or a CD from a shop.

I still like buying actual books (there’s something nice and tactile about holding a book in your hands) but it’s hard to beat the almost instant delivery to your Kindle and the cheaper prices.

I should also remark that over the four years we lived in our Niddrie suburban house, our two local video stores – a Blockbuster and a Video Ezy – closed down (I blogged about this in: In memorium: the suburban video store).

In the end, we only kept a small selection of books, CD and DVDs mostly for sentimental reasons or because we will use or watch them again. Also, to ensure we had something to put on our bookshelf – its still aesthetically pleasing and homely to have a lounge filled with books.

The other physical thing we have less now of is printed out photographs.

I spent a nostalgic Sunday afternoon going through my old photo albums, pulling out only a selection of photos dating back to my early childhood and encompassing my Bar Mitzvah, numerous overseas trips, four years of London life, my year in Brisbane and six years in Sydney. It was a nostalgic and sentimental afternoon: many faces I had long forgotten, or have lost touch with.

In the end a huge stack of bulky photo albums was reduced to a shoe box of photos and a small stack of CDs.

Everything else, especially the record of the last decade or so of my life, is stored on the computer in endless digital files

More recently, I took the prudent step of backing everything up in the digital “Cloud”.

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The Lost Son of Philomena Lee

philomena_xlgThe story of Irish woman Philomena Lee’s search to find the long lost son she was forced to give up for American adoption in the 1950s was made into a moving 2013 Oscar-nominated movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena and Steve Coogan as the journalist, Martin Sixsmith.

I loved the movie (it made me cry) and was intrigued to read Sixsmith’s 2009 book upon which it was based, which I just happened to find on display at our local library one Saturday morning.

I was not disappointed. It is a great piece of journalism and imagination, with Sixsmith piecing the sad story together and retelling it through his conversations with Philomena and all those in America who knew her son, Anthony.

Another good reason to read it, even if you have seen the film, is that it has an entirely different focus.

The movie told the story of Philomena’s search for her lost son. The book, which was orignally called “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee” is devoted to telling the story of the life of Philomena’s son, Anthony Lee, or as he became known in the US, Michael Hess.

His story begins, when aged just three he gets on a plane bound for Chicago and then St Louis with his ‘sister’ Mary (a young girl in the convent the Hess family adopted at the same time) for a new life in America.

He leaves behind a heartbroken Philomena, whose story Sixsmith (somewhat frustratingly) does not return to until the last 30 pages of the book. By that time almost 50 years have passed since she watched Anthony be driven away from the unwed mothers and babies home at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea near Dublin.

Philomena yelled ‘Antony! Look up here! and Margaret (Mary’s mum) banged on the window. But the noise of the engine seemed to blot out their voices and neither child responded. As the car pulled away, Philomena wailed, ‘No! No! Not my baby. Don’t let them take my baby. And at that precise moment Anthony twisted in his seat and climbed up to peer through the rear windscreen.

That was in 1955.

The book begins in 2004 when Martin Sixsmith meets Philomena Lee through a mutual friend. The previous Christmas she had broken down and finally told her grown-up children they had a brother living in America.

Having agreed to help her find her son, Sixsmith plunges the reader back into repressive Ireland of the 1950s and the silence and servitude of Sean Ross Abbey, where Philomena gives birth miracously to Anthony, who is a breech baby.

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Michael Hess, chief counsel to the Republican National Committee

We spend nearly four years with Philomena in the cold-hearted confines of the abbey, where she is forced by the nuns to sign away her motherly rights to her son, and where she must work long hours in the intense heat of the laundry awaiting the day when he will be ripped from her, without notice.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Hess family (whose story Sixsmith also tells in great detail) had only planned to adopt Mary, but because Anthony is her protector and because he is such an affectionate child, they decide to adopt him as well.

Sixsmith goes into great detail describing the cruel forced adoption system that existed in Ireland in the 1950s, where the government, under the complete control of the Catholic Church, allowed up to 60,000 illegitimate children to be ripped from their young mothers against their will, and given to American familes in exchange for hefty donations.

Then over the next 300-odd pages Sixsmith combines his talent as an investigative journalist with the imagination of a master novelist to tell the story of how Irish adoptee Anthony Lee became handsome Washington lawyer and powerbroker Michael Anthony Hess, who by his mid-thirties had risen to be chief counsel of the Republican National Committee, one of the most powerful legal positions in the country, who hobnobbed with the political elite including the Reagans and the Bushes (Look him up, he has his own Wikipedia page).

Through Sixsmith’s book, we learn that Michael Hess, despite his professional success, could never come to terms with the idea that he had been abandoned by his mother (the truth, that she was forced to give him up against her will was kept from him by his adopted family and by the nuns of Sean Ross Abbey).

Despite years of counselling, he suffered what I imagine is the classic abandoned child’s dilemma of believing he never deserved the success, love and happiness that came his way because even his own mother had not wanted to keep him.

Amid the trials and tribulations of his young adult life, Michael Hess decides to visit Ireland in 1977 in the hope of finding out who his mother was and possibly even meeting her. But after what turned out to be a fruitless and frustrating visit, Sixsmith writes that Michael Hess turned to “hopelessness and self-loathing”.

Now all the setbacks and rebuffs seemed to him the result of his own inadequacy: the orphan’s rootless insecurity, his sense of not belonging, left him feeling adrift, helplessly tossed by life’s tempests.

The story of Michael Hess – as told by Sixsmith – is of epic highs and sinking lows. Sixsmith paints a picture of a man who was both brilliant, funny, charming, warm and tender, but who could come spectacularly off the rails and descend into heavy drinking and promiscuity. By day he was involved in shaping the crucial redistricting laws that would change the course of political power in the future, but by night he often cruising gay bars for casual sex.

Sadly for Michael Hess, his bouts of wild sex with strange men would prove his downfall; coinciding with emergence of the AIDS epidemic in America and the reluctance of the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan to do anything to address what was then considered a gay man’s disease.

In another ironic twist, Michael Hess’s quest for acceptance and success in America led him to serve a political party, which, delayed the start of medical research, which might have saved his life.

While the book proved controversial (aspects of it have been discounted by those close to Michael Hess) if you take it at face value its a wonderful retelling and re-imagining of Michael Hess’s life by Martin Sixsmith, and a fitting tribute to the son that Philomena Lee so tragically never got to see again.

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Philomena Lee

However, it seems an injustice that so few pages of the book were devoted to Philomena’s story, a formidable and brave woman.

I suspect this is partly due to the fact that she lived a mostly unremarkable life after she left the abbey – marriage, children, domesticity – especially in comparison to the amazing life her son Anthony lived in America.

In that sense it is pleasing to think that a Hollywood movie has shined the spotlight so brightly on her again, and it seems, turned her into an important figurehead for all the women in Ireland, who had their children ripped from them so cruelly.

And while Philomena Lee was horribly robbed of the chance to know her son as the brilliant man he became because of a merciless system, there must be some comfort for her in his life coming alive so vividly in the pages of Sixsmith’s enthralling book.

 

 

Reasons to watch ’13 Reason Why’

13 reasons whyLike many people, I watched the Netflix teen suicide drama ‘13 Reasons Why’.

For those who have not seen it, its the story about attractive high school student Hannah Baker who decides to kill herself after series of horrendous personal events convinces her that her life is not worth living.

But before she kills herself, Hannah makes a series of audio tapes detailing all the reasons for her forthcoming suicide and, implicating all the people in her life that drove her there.

The series has garnered a huge amount of controversy and outrage – mostly from parents and teachers – because of its subject matter and graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide, as well as two brutal and graphic rape scenes.

Among the claims made often about the show is that it is a virtual manual for how to top yourself and that it depicts suicide as some kind of triumphant payback.

Television critics though have hailed the show as groundbreaking and one of the best shows yet to come from the Netflix production stable.

But the uproar has seen the TV series banned in some schools in the US and Canada, the book upon which the movie is based also banned, while some schools have banned kids from talking about it with their classmates (as if that is ever going to work).

In Australia, there has also been criticism of the show from mostly older people, including Daily Telegraph write Louise Roberts who thought it was a missed opportunity and should have been a show called ’13 Reasons Why Not’ where Hannah Baker chooses not to die.

“The series feeds kids a one-dimensional view: kindness can fix anyone but there was no kindness for Baker so she “got her own back” from ­­beyond the grave,” Roberts wrote.

Another critic, MammaMia’s Jessie Stephens called it at best “misguided and naive, and at worst, dangerous and irresponsible” with these types of angry responses repeated by others.

Frankly, its all a little bit ridiculous. It reminds me of those conservative people who claim listening to Rock ‘n Roll would warp young minds in the 1950s and 1960s or that violent movies inspired people to commit horrendous acts. Or that watching pornography turned you into a sexual pervert.

If anything, all the adult outrage is only going to encourage more teens to want to watch the show  – and I think they should.

Why?

Well firstly, it’s a show that honestly examines life from the point of view of a modern teenager. Bullying via social media. Drug and alcohol use. Sexual promiscuity. Abusive parents. Homosexuality. And yes suicidal thoughts and depression. If anything watching 13 Reasons Why should be compulsory viewing at high schools and then used as a way to start conversations and explore these difficult, but crucial topics.

“All that drama and craziness we went through during high school seems a lot less important now, but watching 13 Reasons Why, I’m reminded of how enormous every little problem seemed at the time,” wrote Erik Kain, a contributor to Forbes.com

Secondly, 13 Reasons Why does not, in my opinion glorify suicide in any way. In fact, the graphic nature of Hannah’s demise in the final episode is so awful – and so final – it acts more as a deterrent to someone contemplating something so drastic.  Personally, I cannot imagine how anyone could watch that horrible scene and be inspired to copy it. 

Thirdly, the show does not resort to one-dimensional charactors that you might find in other lightweight shows that deal with teenagers (a prime example being the over the top Netflix show Riverdale, based on the Archie comics). The main characters in 13 Reasons Why are complex, emotional people, trying to fathom their identities and make sense of the adult world. Take for instance the sage-like Tony Padilla, the Latino guy in his leather jacket and red Ford Mustang who despite the faux machismo is actually gay.

“In Tony, I saw a familiar struggle to reconcile gayness, machismo, and the Catholicism that is so prevalent in our culture,” wrote writer John Paul Brammer in TeenVogue.

Tony I would suggest is a strong role model. He is insightful, intelligent, kind and nurturing. He is also comfortable with his sexuality. He offers compassion in the often cruel and callous lives of emerging adults.

A fourth good reason to watch 13 Reasons Why is its depiction of adults as flawed and fallible human beings. Adults make mistakes.  They don’t understand young people or misinterpret their behaviour. They miss all the seemingly obvious signs. One of the most unfuriating characters in the show is the school counsellor Kevin Porter, a man completely out of his depth who when Hannah Baker comes to him for help, can’t seem to stop being distracted by his mobile phone.

Fifthly, it is compelling, brilliant television. Difficult to watch at times for sure but also with some sublime and beautiful moments amid all the angst. It’s also superbly acted by its young cast of future Hollywood stars. 13 Reasons Why embraces and explores big themes like friendship, trust, betrayal, and importantly, forgiveness of oneself for mistakes we make in life.

We need more shows that depict life from the point of view of the teenage mind. Growing up is complex, painful and bewildering. 

The power of radio: a review of “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-see All the Light We Cannot See is a historical novel by American author Anthony Doerr that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Doerr, who lives in Boise, Idaho, tells the story of the coming of age of two children in the build up to and later outbreak of the Second World War in Western Europe.

There is the story of beautiful blind French girl Marie-Laure Leblanc who lives with her doting father in an apartment in Paris and loves reading, especially the adventure stories of Jules Verne.

Alongside her tale, Doerr narrates the story of  German boy Werner Pfenning, who grows up in an orphanage with his sister Jutta in a harsh coal mining town.

The war breaks out and Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris and the Nazis to live with her charismatic aunt Madame Manec and her reclusive uncle Etienne in their tall, narrow house in Saint-Malo, a walled French maritime town on the English Channel.

Over in Germany, Werner, a sensitive and kind boy, becomes old enough to be sent to work down the mines – a job which killed his father – but is saved from this fate by his ability to fix radios.

After skilfully repairing the radio of a Nazi commander’s girlfriend, Werner is selected to attend the elite Nazi academy, The National Political Institute of Education, where he receives formal training in electronics and helps create a gadget to locate enemy radio transmissions, but where he is also exposed to cruel Nazi ideology about the ‘master race’ and witnesses first hand its brutal methods.

Marie-Laure meanwhile must cope with the disappearance of her beloved father, who never returns from a trip to Paris, and learn to use the wooden model of Saint-Malo that he crafted for her, to help her navigate the streets of the walled town.

As the war heads towards it destructive conclusion and the Nazis invade Saint-Malo the two young characters are drawn closer and closer through the power of radio:  Werner, still only a teenager, has been drafted into the army, where his job as part of a truck unit that rumbles through the decimated countryside is to use the electronic device he helped design, to detect the locations of enemy radio transmissions (and eliminate the perpetrators); at the same time Marie-Laure collects bread from the local bakery with coded message for the French resistance baked into the loaves, that her uncle then reads out through a secret radio broadcast from the top floor attic of their home.

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Anthony Doerr

In an interview Anthony Doerr gave on Idaho Public Television he revealed that the title of the book, All the Light We Cannot See, referred to the invisible electro-magnetic waves that powered radio broadcasts during the Second World War and that today power things like mobile phones. (I thought it might refer the ability of a blind girl, to see the world vividly through her imagination).

Doerr says the idea to put radio at the heart of his story came to him about 10 years ago when he was on a train pulling into Penn Station in New York and a guy was getting more and more angry because his phone call kept dropping out.

“How did we get to the point that we took this technology for granted? …All this invisible light that carries messages. I felt we had forgotten what a magical thing that was,” he said.

In Europe during the war it was radio which had this magical power to connect people who were thousands of miles apart and which played a crucial role in the outcome of the war.

“When I was thinking about strategies for writing this book, all I knew was that I wanted to have a blind girl reading a book (Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) over the radio to a boy,” Doerr says.

On a trip to France, he visited the beautiful town of Saint-Malo and says he was amazed to discover it had been practically flattened by American bombs and then restored almost brick by brick.

“I knew somehow the boy would be trapped and needing this radio transmission as some kind of life line,” Doerr said in the same interview.

He spent 10 painstaking years writing and crafting the complex book and was rewarded with it winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming a huge commercial success.

While it is a brilliant story with many memorable characters and a powerful message about bravery and human decency in the face of terrible circumstances , I was a little disappointed with Doerr’s decision to write it in short chapters that not only move back and forwards between the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner , but also move back and forwards in time, between 1934 and the end of the war.

I found it created a disjointed rhythm and was sometimes confusing, requiring that I page back to see what period of time he was were referring to understand where I was in the sequence of events.

Also, at more than 500 pages, I felt it was unnessarily long and could have been even more powerful as a shorter book. While sometimes Doerr’s verbosity is warranted – he loves delving into how things work, the history of a minor event or character and delivering incredibly detailed descriptions – at times it feels overdone and rambling.

But, then again I am someone who likes the pared-down writing style of Hemingway, Orwell, Bukowski and Carver so maybe that’s just me. Others readers may love luxuriating in all the detail: after all it is an epic tail stretched out over a vast canvas, indeed it has major Hollywood film written all over it.

As a follow-up, if you have not yet read it yet, I suggest Australian writer Anna Funder’s All That I am, also set during the Second World War, about a group of German refugees who flee to London to escape the Nazis.

 

 

Anthony Weiner: the greatest New York mayor that never was

weiner documentaryThere’s a brilliant documentary floating about called ‘Weiner’ about the disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner, who gained worldwide notoriety when it was revealed that he was a serial sexter who had sent a woman a picture of his bulging crotch.

The scandal, which forced his resignation as a New York congressman, reignited during his audacious 2013 campaign to be the Democratic nominees for New York mayor, when another woman came forward to reveal she too had been sexting with Weiner. The news ended his chances of becoming mayor at a time when he had, incredibly, won back the support of much of the New York public, and was leading the race.

Like a fly on the wall the viewer is taken right inside the ‘Weiner For Mayor’ campaign with the charismatic showman politician, surrounded by his chaotic, but enthusiastic entourage of campaign managers and media advisors, spreading the word about his plans to make New York a better place.

Also prominent in the documentary is his high-profile, well-connected glamorous wife Huma Abedin, a close confident of Hillary Clinton and who stood by her husband through all his very public indiscretions.

The documentary begins with an old video of an enraged Anthony Weiner shaking his fists and going nuclear on the floor of the House of Representatives, shaming his Republican opponents for not voting in favour of a bill to provide funds to those who fell ill after rushing to assist victims of 9/11.

It’s a powerful video, one that I had not seen before (like most people I only knew of him through those lurid, comic images of his crotch that made headlines around the world) showing Weiner at his best, a passionate politician with real conviction.

It’s an image that’s reinforced throughout the documentary as we see Weiner dancing and jamming at various ethnic rallies, waving a huge rainbow flag at a gay rights parade and trying to explain some of his ideas in the face of repeated questions about his texting indiscretions. “Does anyone have any questions about my campaign?” is a question he frequently asks to the gallery of reporters.

There’s also a moment in the film where we see Weiner in his New York apartment, packing away all the toys left on the floor by his young son, a kind of universal act that any father, including myself could relate to.

And I so I found myself really liking Anthony Weiner, despite what I knew  about him even when the fresh texting scandal broke, throwing everything into chaos and delivering a shattering blow to his wife, his campaign team and the many New Yorkans who had given hime a second chance.

I think it was the election of Donald Trump – a man who without a touch of self-awareness had called Weiner a ‘wackjob pervert‘ – as US president that made me like the skinny New Yorker.

After all Trump was a man alleged to have committed many sexual indiscretions and whom was famously caught on tape telling a TV host that it was a good idea to grab women by “the pussy”, not to mention all the women who have come forward claiming to be harrassed by now leader of the free world.

The difference between the two men – both brash New Yorkans –  was starkly brought into focus by a scene in the film where Weiner, riding home after another long day on the campaign trail, reads an article written about him in the New Yorker magazine:

“Anthony Weiner is a remarkable candidate…as the protagonist of this tale he did not commit adultery, he did not break up a marriage, his own or anyone else’s, he didn’t employ the services of a prostitute, he did not stalk, he did not misuse public funds, he did  not grope or talk dirty to subordinates in any way, he did not have any physical or inappropriate physical contact with any person, his sexting partners have never been in the same room at the same time.”

There is undoubtedly a lot of truth in this observation and as Weiner reads it aloud, you realise he knows it too.

Had the second sexting scandal not broken during his campaign, it is entirely possible Anthony Weiner could now be the mayor of New York. Instead, he ended up finishing a pitiful last in the election race with just a few percent of the vote.

weiner and wife

At the very end of the documentary, we find Weiner sitting in a chair, alone, facing the camera with a perplexed expression on his expressive face.

He seems like a neurotic character from a Woody Allen film trying to understand the workings of his own mind. Why did he do the things he did? Not even he seems to know.

In the end Anthony Weiner’s demise – though at his own hand – seemed a comic-tragedy of almost mythical proportions. Had he managed to keep his bizarre urges in check, who knows how high he could have soared in the political sphere?

And in light of the rise of President Trump and all his obvious character flaws, did it really matter?

But then my view darkened of Anthony Weiner when it emerged that he continued to sext even after the ruination of his political career, and worse, when a lurid picture surfaced of Weiner with his midriff and crotch shown on camera, with his infant son sleeping beside him.

Had the documentary, which was screened last year, included that footage, a much more disturbing image of Weiner would have remained in my mind.

The Devil visits Moscow: reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

master-and-margaritaOn the lookout for something bold and exciting to read, I browsed through my well-thumbed copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and came across The Master and Margarita by the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov.

Published almost 30 years after the author’s death in 1936 and having circulated underground for many years during the dark days of Stalin’s Soviet Union totalitarianism, its described as “one of the finest achievements in 20th century Russian fiction” and “pulsating with mischievous energy and invention”.

It’s also highly influential with its fantastical story of the devil and his otherworldly cohorts descending on Moscow of the 1930s providing the template for the magic realism of authors like Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon, songs like “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, Franz Ferdinand’s “Love & Destroy” and Pearl Jame’s “Pilate” and inspiring countless theatrical plays, TV movies, films, graphic novels, artworks and radio plays.

I found it to be fully deserving of its reputation: it’s a devastatingly brilliant book, highly original, way ahead of its time, very dark and very funny. In film terms think Witches of Eastwick mixed up with a dash of Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder and The Exorcist and you would have a good approximation of the mood and feel of the book.

I was entranced from the very first scene, set one Wednesday summer evening in every day Moscow where we meet the mysterious and dapperly dressed foreigner, Professor Woland, who appears to materialise out of thin air at Patriarch Ponds.

“Just then the sultry air coagulated and wove itself into the shape of a man – a transparent man of the strangest appearance. The man was seven feet tall but narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin with a face made for derision.”

Woland, who is the devil, gets into conversation with two poets, Ivan and Berlioz arguing with them that God does exist. Egged on by the revolted and indignant Berlioz to demonstrate his magical powers, Woland predicts that Berlioz will die soon by having his “head cut off”. To the astonishment of Ivan, this event occurs a short while later, when Berlioz on leaving the park is decapitated after slipping and falling under a tram with his head seen “bobbing down the street”.

master-3This combination of cunningness and gentlemanly charm pervades the whole novel as Woland and his companions – the grotesque valet Koroviev; an enormous talking black cat called Behemoth (one of the best creations in fiction in my view), fanged hitman Azazello and an assortment of witches and other demons wreak all manner of chaos on Moscow’s disbelieving middle-classes.

Profesor Woland, with his Hannibal Lector-like manner, and his devilish companions all have incredible supernatural powers. They can bend the will of all those they encounter, turn paper into money and back again, and they have great fun playing on the greed and vanity of the middle classes – to the delight of the reader!

One of my favourite scene in the book – replicated in art – takes places at the Variety Theatre, where Woland has “convinced” the theatre management to sign him on for a series of acts of black magic.

Things turn decidedly ghoulish when it is suggested to Koroviev, the host of the show, that they cut off the head of Bengalsky, the master of ceremonies for “sticking his nose in everywhere without being asked”.

“Cut of his head? That’s an idea! Behemoth!,” he shouted at the cat. “Do your stuff! Eins, zwei, drei!”.

Then the most incredible thing happened. The cat’s fur stood on end and it uttered a harrowing ‘miaaow’. It crouched, then leaped like a panther straight for Bengalsky’s chest and from there to his head…with a wild screech it twisted the head clean off the neck in two turns.

master-and-margarita-catThe horror is ratcheted up a notch as Bengalsky’s head is picked up and showed to the audience.  “Fetch a doctor” the head moans. After promising to stop talking “so much rubbish” the head is plopped back on its shoulders as if it had never been parted.

The compere was weeping, snatching at something in the air and mumbling: “Give me back my head, my head…”

This is just a taste of the horror and magic of the book: a later fantastical scene involves the beautiful Margherita, who attends a sumptuous Satanic ball that could easily have been a scene out of The Great Gatsby:

Fountains played between the walls of floors and champagne bubbled in three ornamental basins, the first of which was a translucent violet in colour, the second ruby, the third crystal…negroes in scarlet turbans were busy with silver scoops…in a gap in a wall a man bounced up and down on a stage in a red swallow-tailed coat conducting an unbearably loud jazz band.

Here Margarita, who longs to be re-united with her Master, witnesses damned souls climb through an immense fireplace with a pitch black mouth and transform  themselves  back into the living:.

Then there was a crash from below in the enormous fireplace and out of it sprang a gallows with a half-decaying corpse bouncing on its arm. The corpse jerked itself lose from  the rope, fell to the ground and stood up as a dark handsome man in tailcoat and lacquered pumps. A small rotting coffin then slithered out of the fireplace, its lid flew off and another corpse jumped out.

In between there are floating ghouls, witches that swoop through the air on brooms and events that can only be explained by the darkest magic.

The greedy are duly punished – and deserving of it – while he devil of course is by far the most charming (and likeable) character of all.

The end of reading: Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

zoo-time-coverZoo Time is another very funny, novel by Howard Jacobson, the writer of the Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question (read my review here) and The Making of Henry (reviewed here)

It’s the story of Guy Abelman, a once successful satirical writer, whose last book, Who Gives a Monkey? was loosely based on his relationship with a chimpanzee-masturbating zoologist at Chester Zoo.

Since then, he hasn’t written a bestseller in years. His books are out of print (available as ‘print on demand’ his new publisher tells him) and worst of all, making their way into the second-hand section of charity book stores.

Indeed this is where we first meet the middle-aged Jewish satirist: outside an Oxfam bookstore in the Cotswolds where he has just stolen a copy of his novel and been apprehended by the police.

Asked why he stole it, Abelman replies that he did not steal it but “released it”.

“The book as prestigious object and source of wisdom is dying,” he tells the constable.

Resuscitation is probably futile, but the last rites can at least be given with dignity. It matters where and with whom we end our days. Officer

In the Cotswolds to speak – or rather be heckled – at another writer’s festival (“The only character I identified with in your book is the one who died,” retorts one reader) Abelman believes the book is all but, dead, because no one reads books anymore, certainly not the clever literary stuff which once won him minor awards.

To confirm this depressing state of affairs, his old publisher, the terminally depressed Merton has just committed suicide, his final words being “Mmm” while his agent, Francis, does not even bother to restock his office bookcase with his old novels when Guy comes to visit.

The party’s over [Francis] wanted me to know. The age of sparing a writer’s feelings was past

To top it all off, Abelman desires to bed his sixty-something mother-in-law, Poppy while his frustrated wife, Vanessa wants him out the house so she can finally finish her own novel.

So badly has Guy run out of ideas, that the best he can do is tell Francis about his idea for a new novel: a plot based around his unrequited passion for Poppy.

If he’s sounding a bit like a neurotic, over-sexed Jewish character dreamt up by Woody Allen or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David – albeit a very British one – that’s probably a fair assessment.  And if you delight in that type of Freudian black humour and cynicism you will enjoy reading Zoo Time.

If not, I would suggest giving it a wide berth.

Indeed we spend the entire novel inside the head of the sentimental, lamenting and self-important  Guy, who when he is not railing against the loss of his own cherished self-worth (even the Soho hobos are writing novels), is indulging in fantasies about where, when and how to seduce his mother-in-law.

For Australian fans of Howard Jacobson, who spent three years lecturing at the University of Sydney, there is the added pleasure of numerous trips Down Under,  as Guy interrogates the collapse of his literary career.

Reminiscing about a trip to a writer’s festival in Adelaide (where a fat Nobel prize-winning Dutch author who wrote “slim novellas’ got a standing ovation despite not uttering a word on stage) Guy remembers his brief affair with Philippa,  a young Kiwi lecturer and teacher of ‘Unglush Lut” who performed oral sex on him among the vines of the Barossa Valley.

“You novelists tell the story of the human heart,” Philippa said. You see what no one else can see.” She was holding my pruck as she was saying this.

He also recalls a West Australian outback road trip, where he travelled with his wife and mother-in-law from Perth to the tourist town of Broome, stopping on the way for them to swim with the dolphins at Monkey Mia and where he thinks about an alternative career as a stand-up comedian, he’s opening line being: “Take my mother-in-law – I just have.”

It’s a darkly funny book. Guy is a pompous, snobbish, egotistical ass, but I liked him a lot, not just because of his cynical, very Jewish view of the world, but because of his lament against the decline of book reading in the age of smartphones, ipads, Facebook and Twitter.

You only have to sit on a train and see how many people have their heads buried in their mobile phones compared with the few who are actually reading a book to understand the truth behind the black comedy.

Interviewed about the book, Jacobson said it was primarily a book about reading, not literary failure.

“We don’t read well anymore. It’s a bit risky, because you’re insulting your own readers. But you hope they will feel they are exempted from that general charge,” he said.

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Howard Jacobson

This charge is best personified in the character of Sandy Ferber, the new head of Guy’s publisher who tells him at their first meeting that there is a “historic opportunity to “rescue reading from the word” by creating ” a thousand story apps for the mobile phone market”

Bus-stop reading he called it. Unbooks that could be started and finished while phone users were waiting to call them back, or for the traffic lights to change, or for the waiter to arrive with the bill. In short, to plug those small social hiatuses of life on the run.