Archive for March, 2008

again with the bukes

I don’t know why I even make these promises when I can’t keep them. Pathetic gestures in the direction of follow-through:

  • I have always greatly admired Robert Hughes for his awesome and world-shaking The Fatal Shore. Sundry folks will attest that it is the book I recommend to anyone who is curious about Australia; besides, you know you’re doing something right when Patrick O’Brien thanks you in the acknowledgements to The Nutmeg of Consolation. But Hughes wrote Shore when he was about twelve, so my adoration was greatly mixed with terror and humility. Things I Didn’t Know is the book that makes me get over that, like Hughes very much and wish I could buy him a bottle of excellent red. A recommendation from Grant, who is seldom wrong about these things.

    Things is very touching on the dilemma of Australianness; you stay or leave, and both options are awkward and involve loss.

  • I read The Human Stain after having several conversations about passing, and here’s a concept I lack the sociological skillzors to be able to unpack. You have to realize that while Australia has race politics of its own, and even its own lamentable history of slave trading, it’s all very different from the African American experience so I’m coming at this stuff pretty raw. I’m not sure Roth helped much. While I greatly admire both his techniques and what he is trying to pull off, I don’t like him much as a writer.

    Stain does a lot of things I find impressive. It brings multiple voices to life and gives them all internal consistency and dignity. But they are all given these monologues that go on for pages and pages and there’s something about, I’m ashamed to say it but it’s the diction, that rings false to me. They all say plausible things but they all sound like a celebrated establishment novelist while they’re saying them. (Larry’s Party, another recommendation from Grant, has something of the same artificial, po-faced inner voice. Where’s the irreverence? Where are the jokes?)

    Bound to be more my fault than Roth’s. Stain did have one very striking effect on me: I read Flash For Freedom! shortly after it; it’s the Flash book about slaving. The stuff about the crossing is well-researched and accurate and didn’t upset me too badly except, you know, in its substance, but when Flashy starts mucking about with a woman trying to escape up the Underground Railroad it made me physically ill, and I had to skim ahead to make sure she escaped. I always start Flashy books loving him for his, yes, irreverence and wit, and loathing him at the end for being, well, Flashy.

  • Shadow Unit is what the plain people of fandom like to call cracktastic: that is, a completely addictive treat, with chewy well-realized characters and thoroughly angstig, wholly-believable jeopardy. It’s a sort of made-up fandom that skips the boring TV series part and cuts straight to the brilliant stuff people make up about it on the Net. It’s gotten me hooked on a fictional Livejournal, for the love of ponies. Mad props to evil genii Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, Sarah Monette and Will Shetterly.

Okay, I guess that wasn’t as half-hearted as I thought it was going to be. No more promises though, I’ll just come out and SAY that Connie Willis and Sarah Caudwell are now on my all-time top ten list, and that I am very very annoyed with Sarah Caudwell for dying young. I guess I get to read the rest of her books in heaven, too.

claire gets all monologuey

A cosmology, in the car on the way home:

“In the first fifty years of life, robbers discovered a kind of dust, which was smoke dust. And they put it into playgrounds so it would get in childrens’ eyes and noses and mouths and penises and baginas. Robbers are not very nice! But they were sorry! Because the smoke dust got in THEIR eyes and noses and mouths and penises and baginas! That is what happened in the first fifty years. I know the story.”

Homeschooling Julia:

“What colour is this? No, this is green. What colour is this? No, this is blue. Now then, Julia, here is a toothbrush. Can you say semicircle? Good! Can you say diamond? Very good! All right. My Book of Easy Mazes. And this is where we’re up to today. Aww, your hands are so cute.”

also known as zwoo

In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order, but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown.

Julia has been having very vivid and disturbing night terrors, usually only once a week or so but last night over and over again. She thrashes and kicks and cries “No no no no no,” and though her eyes are half-open she can’t really see and isn’t really awake and can’t be consoled. It’s horrible. And loud. And by the time she’d had her fifth night terror early this morning – and then gone on to do a huge poo and wake up quite happily and settle down on the sofa for a Dora marathon – her father and I were as ringwraiths, mere hollowed-out shadows of our former vibrant selves.

Which seems as good a time as any to mention how utterly I love her. She’s well into her two-year-old explosion in theory of mind, and has developed a massive crush on her Spanish teacher Susy. She is also greatly attached to her bear Bess and likes to gesture with her to make a point. She likes it when I get pedicures:

“Want see prilly toes!”

She calls Bebe “Killy” and showers her with affection. That vicious little cat’s eyes go wide:

“How DARE you…” And then she half-closes her eyes and starts to purr.

Jules gives the best hugs, solar plexus to solar plexus, her entire body glommed onto you like a starfish. If you won’t get down to her eye level to receive one of these in the approved fashion, she’ll improvise by glomming onto your legs.

She is a point source of happiness.

This morning I asked her: “Are you my Julia?”

“No,” she said. “I MY Julia.”

The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!

(What does it say about my misspent youth that I can accurately date that clip based on Pigsy’s prosthetics?)

the lantern waste


Originally uploaded by Ro’smom

introducing armistead

We got Claire’s school assignment! We didn’t get our first two choices, the adorable schools that are within walking distance.

We got our third choice. It’s a short bus ride away. It has a great campus, with all the kinder and first grade classrooms opening off a library, and an organic garden out the back. The principal is a woman about our age, totally kickass (and parenthetically, hawt!) Claire got into Spanish immersion but there’s also a Chinese bilingual stream and English general education, so the school is a veritable crazy quilt of cultures. The kids all do Carnavale and Chinese New Year.

It’s so ridiculously charming and San Franciscan that I have taken to calling it Armistead Maupin Elementary.

Because this is me here, and I am incapable of doing anything in a gracious and straightforward manner, I have had moments of eating my heart out over my first choice school, especially as two of Claire’s close friends got into it. And yesterday, ambivalently, I dropped off an application to get on the waitlist for that school.

Ambivalently, because Armistead Maupin is actually a better school in several respects. There’s that library! And the test scores are higher, not that I care about test scores, which usually just measure white middle-classness, but Maupin is the very opposite of a white middle-class school so high test scores mean it is doing something surprisingly right. And as Jeremy points out, there are significant advantages to having school friends and then other friends who do not go to the same school as you. For example, you have more friends.

What’s more, we were lucky to get ANY of our choices: about a fifth of families went zero for seven in the first round. My first and second choice schools both saw triple-digit growth in demand this year, and demand for Maupin itself was up double digits. (I never think about my second choice school, oddly enough, which suggests that it should have been my third choice.) (In fact our little cohort was ridiculously lucky. All four families got fourth choice or better, and we all got Spanish immersion. Holidays in Sayulita, anyone?)

It’s not very likely that we’ll get into our first choice school off the waitlist. I’m actually pretty okay with this now, as I get more and more attached to the thought of Claire attending Maupin. The surprising thing about this is that a few years ago, my first choice school was underenrolled, meaning if you made it your first choice you were bound to get in.

In other words, demand is going up, and this is because more parents are applying to public schools, and this is because the schools themselves are getting better. Which means? That crazy terrifying Diversity Lottery, the one that makes it impossible for us Type A moms to control exactly where our precious darlings will go to kindergarten, is doing precisely what it was intended to do: mixing things up, challenging everyone to improve all the schools, and helping give all the kids in San Francisco a better education.

None of which is any comfort to the families who went zero for seven. My heart goes out to them, and I wish them every bit of luck in Round Two. And to the parents who have yet to go through the whole messy process, I say what wise parents from (the awesome, the essential) PPS kept saying to me: Yeah, it sucks and is labour-intensive and stressful and startlingly painful. But we ended up with a great school where our kids can thrive.

For an incredibly funny and reassuring perspective on the whole mess, go read Sandra Tsing Loh.

in place of content

Passages from Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World that made me want to scrawl in the margin of the library book the words “IT’S SO TRUE!” (but I did not):

“He cared (though not crucially) about the opinion of his colleagues and acquaintances, and would send out a stream of self-castigation in order, he hoped, to nip their condemnation in the bud. His intention was to arrive at his own condemnation fast and first. It was a kind of exculpation. No one condemned him; no one paid much attention. My father had, as far as I could see, no friends.”

(Oh and Dad, that’s true of me, not you.)

“I had dreamt of Gothic arches and the worn flagstones of old libraries – where such a grand yearning came from, I hardly knew. Unaccountably, my heart was set on Smith or Vassar or Bryn Mawr; I imagined afternoon teas, and white gloves, and burning lips (mine, perhaps) murmuring out of a book. But that was all wistfulness – there was no money for such romantic hopes…”

(Me again…)

“My suitcases held only the sparest handful of the books I valued, since it had always been my habit – privately I felt it to be an ecstasy – to enter, as into a mysterious vault, any public library. I was drawn to books that had been read before, novels that girls like myself … had cradled and cherished. In my mind – I suppose in my isolation – I seized on all those previous readers, and everyone who would read after me – as phantom companions and secret friends.”

(Aaand me.)


We’re off to spend Easter in a cabin in the Sierras. Thrift Town had two snow suits left: one a perfect fit for Claire, the other a perfect fit for Jules.

it’s not my thyroid

And my blood sugar and cholesterol panels were beautiful too. It’s just life.

Ach well. I am feeling better, and was especially tickled that my endocrinologist is only half a mile away. Getting a blood test at UCSF would have been a massive time-suck, instead of which I just dropped in on the way to work and looked at St Lukes’ beautiful Moreton Bay fig to distract myself while the needle went in. Big fig!

And now it’s time for bed.

but before we get to that

…let’s look at some of the predictions the Monterey Institute made five years ago, for what they called even then this “Imprudent and Unnecessary War”:

  • Al-Qa’ida conducts terrorist attacks to coincide with war
  • U.S. viewed as causing high casualties among Iraqi civilians
  • Inadequate U.S. and international support for reconstruction of Iraq
  • U.S. must occupy Iraq for years to maintain stable and pro-U.S. regime
  • North Korea exploits U.S. and UNSC focus on Iraq to build nuclear arsenal
  • Enduring outrage among Arab and Muslim populations broadens social base for terrorism against Americans
  • High U.S. military casualties in urban fighting

Seven for seven. Whee.

still here

…or more accurately back from Manhattan, where I did a spit-take over Spitzer and saw the market exeunt, pursued by Bear.

Much to report, in particular: Ozick, Hughes, Roth, Don’t touch that dial.

some reviews – #7, blink

The scariest, funniest, most heartbreaking, most romantic Doctor Who episode ever.

R: I swear sometimes I think that cat moves when I close my eyes.

J: Don’t be silly.

R: No, look, bite marks!

some reviews – #6, sfpl mission branch

Our beloved Bernal branch of the San Francisco Public Library has closed for renovation, so I redirected my hold requests to the Mission branch. It’s half a block from BART, and it’s open till 9pm every weeknight.

I dropped by on my way home from work this evening, picked my books off the open shelves, checked myself out and caught the next bus home. The whole process could not possibly be any cooler or more convenient. Hurrah!

some reviews – #5, tetsuya’s

Dear Tetsuya Wakuda,

Re: the a la carte menu served at your restaurant on February 19th 2008 (my birthday), including (but not limited to) smoked ocean trout with avruga caviar, leek & crab custard, confit of Petuna Tasmanian ocean trout with daikon and fennel (I don’t even like daikon and fennel, except yours,) grilled fillet of barramundi, twice-cooked spatchcock and oh my god the Wagyu beef with lime and wasabi:

Marry me.

There was also that Sydney rock oyster with rice wine vinaigrette. Tell me the truth, do you feed your oysters on butter?

And the blood orange sorbet.

My God.

With inexpressible respect and admiration, I remain, yours sincerely,

some reviews – #4, absolute sandman

Dear Robert Smith,

I don’t normally write to celebrities; I’m not big with the fangirl, unless the object of fandom is a friend or friend-of-friend who writes excellent SF or fantasy and has a LiveJournal. It’s nothing personal – quite the opposite: I soured on corporate rock after waking up from a bad infatuation with an Irish rock quartet I won’t name here, out of pocket for five albums I haven’t listened to voluntarily in fifteen years and with a nasty taste in my mouth. And that was years before I covered the Napster trial and got to know the record labels and their business practices better than anyone ever should. These days I listen to lots of mashups and nerdcore. I hope you understand.

My point is, I got the shiny new Sandman collection from Jeremy for my birthday, and it’s hard to write an interesting review of something that everyone else already read ages ago, and loved, and told me that I would love. I mean, what: Newsflash! Sandman genuinely terrific! Major influence on all the other graphic novels I love! Stop the frickin’ presses. No.

So I got thinking instead about how Morpheus reminds me of you, dancin’ around in those early Cure videos, Lovecats and Why Can’t I Be You (the sideways lips! So funny and wicked) and my favourite, Just Like Heaven. You with your spiky black hair and eyeliner and white high tops. How iconic you were! And how well those old songs have aged, how well they evoke those confused and crazy and complicated years. And I remembered the story about you, and realized that would make a way better blog post than Yet Another Sandman Endorsement, Yawn.

I bet you don’t even remember that particular concert in Sydney, Australia, sometime in the late eighties or early nineties, I don’t even remember exactly when. You came out of the stage door and signed programs for everyone, and at the end there were three young Australian men left, and you. You chatted for a while – it must have been close to midnight – and then you said “Wanna go for a drink?” Now THEY were diehard fans. They’d loved you and dressed like you since they were twelve. You blew them away.

That would have been kind enough – beers and a couple of hours chewing the fat with these guys. They were nobody really, just fans; no one would have blamed you if you’d shrugged them off. But when the bar on Oxford Street closed, you said “Hey, I have keys to a studio near here – wanna come listen to me lay down some tracks?” Could they have jumped at the offer any more eagerly? When the sun rose they were still there listening to you noodling around on your guitar.

Two of those guys were friends of mine, and the third is my big brother Al. He’s a fantastic brother and I love him to the moon and back, and he’s never in his life had one quarter of the luck he deserved. I wish I could say that night changed his luck for ever. It didn’t. But it was an incontrovertible good thing, a shining adventure, something he can still look back on and grin. Thank you for that. It was extraordinarily decent of you.

I was going to say that under the circumstances I could make an exception for you, and sign myself your undying fangirl in spite of the whole unfortunate corporate rock thing. And then I realized I don’t even have to do that. I already outlined the personal acquaintance exemption above, and so I can go ahead and be the undying fangirl of your great songs and human kindness, because you are, after all, a friend of my brother’s.

Lots of love,

some reviews – #3, the regeneration trilogy

When my brilliant and beloved mother-in-law discovered to her astonishment that I hadn’t already read Pat Barker’s WW1 novels, she promptly gave me all three for my birthday. I started reading them on the flight back from Australia and about three sentences in, made myself slow down so that the experience of reading these books for the first time would last longer. That’s exactly how to-my-taste they are.

Light from the window behind Rivers’s desk fell directly on to Sassoon’s face. Pale skin, purple shadows under the eye. Apart from that, no obvious signs of nervous disorder. No twitches, jerks, blinks, no repeated ducking to avoid a long-exploded shell. His hands, doing complicated things with cup, saucer, plate, sandwiches, cake, sugar tongs and spoon, were perfectly steady. Rivers raised his own cup to his lips and smiled. One of the nice things about serving an afternoon tea to newly arrived patients was that it made so many neurological tests redundant.

Note that I didn’t particularly remember this passage, and when I went back to Regeneration to find something to quote, I just flipped over a page or two before I found this. And now look how much work this paragraph is doing. It sets two scenes – not only the cozy tea-time, but also the hell from which Sassoon has recently arrived. It begins to stage what will be an immensely complicated and morally charged relationship between Sassoon and his doctor, and in doing so it indicates the extent to which Rivers is already unusual, preferring informal exchanges with his patients to tests that reinforce the hierarchical distance between tester and subject. Rivers is exceptionally humane – he is, we’ll discover, a very good anthropologist as well as a psychoanalyst. And Sassoon is, in fact, a deathless poet. The power distance between doctor and patient is unusually small; and it’s only going to get smaller.

And if that reference to sugar tongs is not a deliberate evocation of Wilde, I will eat my hat.

Cecily. [Sweetly.] Sugar?

Gwendolen. [Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

I could have picked any paragraph. They’re all that good. And the prose is all that translucent: simple, beautiful declarative sentences, layered each on the next until you are no longer reading but hovering over Rivers’s shoulder, watching. And Barker respects the intelligence of her characters, and gives them room to breathe and think.

There’s a lot of thematic overlap between this trilogy and my last two reviews, as it happens. (Well, it’s not exactly startling, since I make several fairly strict demands of narrative and can’t be bothered with it otherwise. Anyway.) Regeneration tackles madness – Sassoon isn’t, as it happens. Book two, The Eye in the Door, examines sex and class and will make you grieve for its innocent monster. The last book in the series, The Ghost Road, looks into the face of death, and it includes some of Barker’s finest use of the source materials, Rivers’s books on the societies of the Solomon Islands. (The heat and singing reminded me of Ten Canoes.) I keep going back to Google Books to read the originals and try to figure it out. That was awesome. How did she make that work? How can I do that?

some reviews – #2, ten canoes

The first major feature film in an Aboriginal language, ever. Ten men canoeing on the Arafura swamps retell an ancient story of love and betrayal. Gorgeously shot, irreverent and funny as all hell, dark, beautiful, heartbreaking. If you’re wondering why the apology was such a big deal or if you are even remotely interested in Australia or people or culture or contact, this is a must-see.

some reviews – #1, summer heights high

The 2007 Australian comedy series Summer Heights High features its creator Chris Lilley as three characters: as an appalling private school girl spending a term at a public school; as the school’s acting head of drama, in a role that cleverly skewers Lilley’s own; and, most affectingly, as an illiterate FOB (fresh off the boat) Tongan boy in year eight.

What seems like a crass gimmick as I’m describing it to you (and is just that in something like Little Britain) turns out to have powerful dramatic implications. Lilley seems as convinced as I am that nothing in Australia is not about class (and its co-conspirators, race and gender.) By playing multiple roles, he cuts to the heart of all three issues. How are we shaped by class, by race and by gender? Well, what if you put exactly the same person into three entirely different situations?

That makes the series sound dreadfully po-faced, which it isn’t: Lilley effectively mines the considerable comedic veins from privileged bitch Ja’mie and effete wanker Mr G. And his little dog too. Both caricatures are keenly observed – Ja’mie’s habit of brushing her shiny hair away from her face with the back of her hand, for example, or Mr G’s elaborate self-delusion and barely repressed viciousness. I totally had him for a drama teacher.

All of which serves to underline the tragedy implicit in the situation of Jonah, the year eight boy whose unfocused rebellion and aggression test his teachers’ character and mettle – and in all cases but one, expose their lack of either. And while Ja’mie goes on and up, doubtless to study law at Sydney and marry the heir to a retail empire, and Mr G ends up back where he started, Jonah’s trajectory points relentlessly down. While Australian society keeps rationing its limited opportunities on the basis of anything other than merit, the show points out, nothing’s ever going to change.