Thursday, 28 July 2016

Booker Longlist 2016

On 27 July 2016 the Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced. Thirteen titles are on the longlist from authors around the globe.

First of all, I am absolutely gutted that Charlotte Wood's The Natural Way of Things didn't make the list. It was wishful thinking on my part that this important book which created such a splash in Australia would ripple across the oceans all the way to the UK.

The big hoopla this year is that JM Coetzee is in the running and if he succeeds it will be a record breaking third time for this author. As South African Coetzee now makes Australia home, we can proudly claim him as one of our own. So this is some solace for Wood's snub. I am a fan of Coetzee and have particularly admired his Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians.

Other familiar faces include Debra Levy, Elizabeth Strout and AL Kennedy. Debut novelists listed are David Means, Wyl Menmuir, Ottessa Moshfegh and Virginia Reeves. Great to see gender balance in the nominations.  There are a few books that I thought would have made the cut but didn't: Booker favourite Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time; Annie Proulx's Barkskins and Don DeLillo for Zero K.

I have not read any of the longlist yet, but there are two that I am most curious about. The North Water by Ian McGuire is a story about a crew on a whaling ship in the 1850s. Despite being a dedicated landlubber, I have always enjoyed books with a nautical theme.  I have heard great things about the McGuire's evocative writing, so I look forward to reading this. Update July 2017: read review.

The other one that really appeals is His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. The author was researching his family history in Inverness and came across an ancestor who had committed triple murder. While awaiting trial, he documented his life, and the author has used these diaries as the basis for this novel. I am intrigued. Update October 2016: read review.

Here is the longlist:
  • The Sellout - Paul Beatty (US)
  • The Schooldays of Jesus - JM Coetzee (Australia)
  • Serious Sweet - AL Kennedy (UK)
  • Hot Milk - Deborah Levy (UK)
  • His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK)
  • The North Water - Ian McGuire (UK)
  • Hystopia - David Means (US)
  • The Many - Wyl Menmuir (UK)
  • Eileen - Ottessa Moshfegh (US)
  • Work Like Any Other - Virginia Reeves (US)
  • My Name is Lucy Barton - Elizabeth Strout (US)
  • All That Man Is - David Szalay (Canada/UK)
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien (Canada)

The six book shortlist will be announced on 13 September, with the winner announced on 25 October 2016.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

War and Peace

The latest Quarterly Essay (QE62) Firing Line - Australia's Path to War (2016) is focussed on war: how does Australia decide to go to war, where might the next conflict arise, and how prepared (or not) our nation is for any armed conflict.

Australia is far from hot zones, but close to conflict. China is terraforming in the seas to our North, the US has troops stationed on our continent, and our country has been quick to follow our allies into conflict with little public debate. The effects of global conflict are very real for Australia and informs our policy on refugees, defence, anti-terrorism, border security and the like.

The Chilcot Report has just been released, damning Britain's Blair government for entering the Iraq War without exhausting diplomatic options, and then engaging in war without effective support, planing or post-conflict strategy. This report has seen Australian PM John Howard defending his legacy and a renewed focus on how we make decisions to go to war.

In this thought provoking essay, author James Brown, former Army Officer and now lecturer at the University of Sydney, explores on Australia's readiness for war. He rattles off statistics and strategies about available troops and equipment and concludes that we are not ready for any sort of prolonged engagement. Further, we are making decisions without thinking through the consequences (e.g. leasing Darwin port to China) and becoming increasingly isolationist.

Brown also explores the way in which decisions to engage in conflict are made by an increasingly small circle of players. Brown encourages all Australians to consider what are we willing to fight for, who should make decisions for us, and to be more alert to what is happening in our region.

This was a timely, compelling Quarterly Essay, well worth a read. Also included is correspondence related to the last Quarterly Essay, George Megalogenis' Balancing Act (QE61).

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Drama Queen

This week I had the pleasure of seeing two wonderful plays at two different Sydney theatres.

The Literati (Griffin Theatre Company) 
On Monday I went to the Griffin Theatre in Kings Cross to see The Literati, an adaptation of Moliere's Les Femmes Savantes. The adaptation by Justin Fleming, is hysterically funny and gives a contemporary Australian spin to the play. Performed in a tiny theatre with a revolving stage, the five actors take on multiple roles and deliver their lines in rhyming verse.

The story centres on a wealthy dysfunctional family in Paris. The ill-matched parents have raised two daughters who could not be more different. Erudite Amanda (Kate Mulvany) is very much like her academic mother Philomena (Caroline Brazier) while simple Juliet (Miranda Tapsell) has a simliar world view as her hen-pecked father Christopher (Jamie Oxenbould).

Juliet is keen to marry Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould) and live a domestic life, while Amanda views marriage as unnecessary and believes Clinton is actually in love with her. Philomena is keen to marry Juliet to upcoming poet Tristan Tosser (Gareth Davies) in the hopes that he will give her younger daughter some smarts and credibility.

The performances were extraordinary by everyone. I particularly enjoyed Mulvany's physical comedy, and Oxenbould's management of two characters in an incredible scene where he played two parts at the same time. Tapsell's turn as the dismissed maid Martina was also brilliant. The last time I laughed so hard at the theatre was seeing The Present at Sydney Theatre Company in 2015. I thoroughly enjoyed myself at this play and am pleased to have found the Griffin.

All My Sons (Sydney Theatre Company)
On Tuesday night I went to the Roslyn Packer Theatre to see the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons.

This story also involves a dysfunctional family, this time in the American midwest in 1946. Joe and Kate Keller (John Howard and Robyn Nevin) have two sons - Chris (Chris Ryan) returned from the war to work in his father's manufacturing business, while Larry is still missing in action and presumed dead by everyone except Kate.

Chris invites Annie (Eryn Jean Norvill) to visit which is the catalyst for the story. Annie was their next door neighbour, and daughter of Joe's business partner. More importantly to Kate, is that Annie was Larry's girl. But in the years since Annie moved away and Larry's plan went down, a bond has formed via correspondence between Chris and Annie and they plan to get married.

Along the way we learn that the Annie's father and Joe were put on trial for selling cracked cylinder heads to the US Air Force which resulted in the deaths of dozens of pilots. Annie's father was convicted, but Joe escaped - causing tensions on the family and in the neighbourhood. Tensions boil and spill over, causing Kate to confront what happened to Larry, and for all the Kellers to confront Joe's involvement in the aircraft scandal.

This was a remarkable production, uniformly well acted, and to the high standard one expects from the Sydney Theatre Company. Robyn Nevin in particular was brilliant. In the last few plays I have seen her in she only had minor roles (like the Fool in King Lear), so to see her in the lead in such a complex and nuanced role was a real treat.

Kip Williams is a talented director, bringing his innovative staging to the fore as he did with STC's Macbeth in 2014. My only quibble was that some of the actors were hard to hear in parts. But that did not detract from the evening.

At the end of each play, after taking their bows, one actor stood forward and spoke to the audience about arts funding. In May 2016 the Australian Government cut funding for small and medium arts companies, a devastating blow for our culture. The Griffin Theatre will be hit by these cuts, and the actors at STC reminded us that many of them got their start in small performance spaces. The "I Stand With The Arts" campaign is calling on government to restore the $72 million in funding the Coalition government has cut from the arts - a timely reminder during the last week of the election campaign. I stand with the arts!