Sunday, 28 July 2019

Respect for Acting

After a busy day at work, there is nothing I love more than escaping with a good book. I read everywhere - on the bus, waiting for my train, before bed - even if it is just a couple of pages. The past few weeks have been hectic, with my work requiring great concentration and intensity, so the books I am currently reading did not provide the escape I need. Looking for a light and breezy read, a colleague recommended Michael Caine's newest book, and I am glad I took her advice.

Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life (2018) is the 85 year old actor's latest memoir. It is not a traditional bio, chronologically detailing his trials and triumphs - he has written plenty of memoirs like that before such as What's it All About (1992) and The Elephant to Hollywood (2010). Rather, in this book he imparts wisdom from his sixty year career.

In some respects, the advice he gives is what you would expect from a professional - be on time, be prepared, take opportunities to learn, get enough sleep, make the most of any difficulty. But the way he gives this advice, sharing his own failings and learning from his mistakes, is delightful. He name-drops so many celebrities - including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, Lawrence Olivier, Sean Connery, Elton John, David Bowie, John Houston, Leonardo De Caprio, Sandra Bullock, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger - and tells stories of his blockbuster films and quiet achievements. He is also self depreciating and has a great sense of humour about the many dud films he has done over the course of his career.

Parts of the book that were repetitive, but I think that was due to the chapter structure and his need to draw several lessons from one experience. My main quibble is that Caine glossed over certain things which were missed opportunities to share more life lessons. For example, he spoke about his alcohol addiction in a really simplistic way.

Before reading this book I was not really a Michael Caine fan per se. I have not seen many of his older films - the ones which made him a star - and know him more from his later supporting and character roles. But I became a fan, especially once I started listening to the audio version, and could hear him tell the story in his delightful cockney accent. His narration really brought the stories to life and he came across as a thoroughly decent, refreshingly humble, professional.  While written as advice for young actors, he applies his lessons to other careers as well and I was able to take away some positive lessons.

Friday, 26 July 2019

The Booker Prize Longlist 2019

This week the Longlist was announced for the 2019 Booker prize. The thirteen titles nominated include authors from Britain, Canada, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Nigeria, Turkey and Ireland - a shift from the past few years where American authors dominated since the eligibility rules changed in 2014 to expand beyond the Commonwealth.

I have only read one of these books (Braithwaite) but I am eagerly awaiting the publication of another (Atwood). What I love about the Longlist is that it introduces me to many books I do not know. From last year's Longlist I discovered the incredible graphic novel Sabrina by Nick Drasno, Belinda Bauer's page-turning Snap and was inspired to attend sessions at the Sydney Writer's Festival with Daisy Johnson (Everything Under) and Rachel Kushner (The Mars Room).

Let's take a look at the books that make up the longlist:

Margaret Atwood - The Testaments (Canada)
It is no secret that The Handmaid's Tale is one of my favourite novels. When Atwood announced she was returning to Gilead to resume the story 15 years after the last one ended, I cleared my schedule for September to read it upon its' release. Very little is known about the plot at this stage, but I am sure this will be magnificent. Atwood, a six time nominee, previously won the booker in 2000 for The Blind Assassin.

Kevin Barry - Night Boat to Tangier (Ireland)
Two ageing Irish drug smugglers, Charlie and Maurice, are waiting in Algeciras, Spain for a boat from Tangier. One has an estranged daughter, Dilly, who has been traveling in Spain and North Africa for the past three years, and they aim to find her. Darkly comic, this novel is described by judges as 'a work of crime fiction not quite like any other'.

Oyinkan Braithwaite - My Sister, the Serial Killer (Nigeria)
Ayoola has a habit of getting rid of her boyfriends and calling on her sister Korede to assist in the clean up. Korede knows she should report Ayoola, but the family ties are strong. However, Korede is conflicted once Ayoola starts dating someone Korede is interested in. Braithwaite hails from Nigeria and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2016. This novel, the only debut on the Booker longlist, was shortlisted for the Women's Prize. I really enjoyed reading it (see review), after meeting the author at the Sydney Writers' Festival this year.

Lucy Ellmann - Ducks, Newburyport (USA/UK)
So, this is a bit different. This novel is over 1000 pages long and made up of eight long sentences, as a stream-of-consciousness narrative in the form of a monologue by an Ohio homemaker. The review in the Guardian described it as Anne Tyler writing as Gertrude Stein. While I am intrigued, I fear the lack of paragraph breaks and full justification would drive me crazy. Perhaps I will take a peak at the library and see if the book and I connect.

Bernardine Evaristo - Girl, Woman, Other (UK)
This novel features interconnected stories about a group of twelve black women in Britain. Each chapters centre on an individual character, but layers overlapping connections to the others, both strong and weak ties. Race, class and gender are explored while addressing contemporary issues like immigration, sexuality, transgender, relationships and more. 

John Lanchester - The Wall (UK)
I love dystopian novels so I am intrigued by the idea of this story. Set in a near-future Britain, climate change has altered the country. The coastline has been 'protected' by a 10,000 km concrete seawall, patrolled to stop migrants from arriving. Conscription is in effect for young people to serve two years as 'Defenders' on the wall. Lanchester is the bestselling author of The Debt to Pleasure and Capital.

Deborah Levy - The Man Who Saw Everything (UK)
Levy has previously been nominated for the Booker for Hot Milk (2016) and Swimming Home (2012) so she comes to this prize as a favourite. In this novel, Saul Adler is a historian who is hit by a car on Abbey Road in an incident which changes the trajectory of his life. But nothing is as it seems... the book is told in two parts - in the first the accident takes place in 1988, in the second it is 2016 and an older Saul is involved. 

Valeria Luiselli - Lost Children Archive (Mexico-Italy)
This is the author's first book written in English. It involves a young, blended family from New York, heads south to Arizona on a road trip. Meanwhile, a group of Mexican children trying to cross the border into the USA, encountering the American immigration policies determined to keep people out. Luiselli was longlisted for the 2019 Women's Prize.

Chigozie Obioma - An Orchestra of Minorities (Nigeria)
Loosley based on The Odyssey, Nigerian poultry farmer Chinonso falls in love with Ndali. She hails from a wealthy family who objects to their relationship due to his low status. The story is narrated by Chinonso's chi or spirit and the characters often switch between English and Igbo. This is a story about love, sacrifice, and resilience. The author was a finalist for the 2015 Booker prize for his debut novel The Fishermen

Max Porter - Lanny (UK)
Set in a village sixty miles from London, a family moves into town. Robert commutes to London for work, while his wife is an actress and aspiring writer. Their son Lanny roams the woods around the village and encounters Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient spirit. When Lanny disappears, the prejudices of the townsfolk come to the surface. Porter is the author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Salman Rushdie - Quichotte (UK)
Inspired by the Miguel de Cervantes classic Don Quixote, this story features an ageing salesman Quichotte who spends much of his time on the road, staying on motels and watching TV. He becomes obsessed with a TV star and drives across America to meet her, with his imaginary son Sancho. 
Rushdie previously won the Booker in 1981 for Midnight's Children
Elif Shafak - 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Turkey)
Leila is dying, her bashed and broken body has been dumped in a rubbish bin. As her brain shuts down, memories of her past surface, particularly those of five close friends who influenced her life. The story, set in Istanbul, covers broad themes like politics, prostitution, family, friendship, and the treatment of minorities.

Jeannette Winterson - Frankissstein (UK)
In this reimagination of Mary Shelley's classic, a transgender doctor has fallen in love with a professor in Brexit Britain. The professor is interested in the opportunities presented by artificial intelligence and technology enhanced humans. I am a big fan of Winterson as she is an intelligent author with a talent for daring ideas.  My review of her memoir is available here.

Of all these titles, the ones I am most interested in are Atwood (of course), Lanchester and Winterson. I was a bit surprised that Ali Smith was not nominated for Spring and I am so disappointed that Tayari Jones was not recognised for her brilliant An American Marriage. At this stage, my bet is on Atwood for the win.

The Shortlist will be announced on 3 September 2019, with the Winner revealed on 14 October 2019.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

The Swindon Sleuth

Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (2003) was a best seller and award winner at the time of publication. Ten years later it became an award winning play. It has been recommended to me countless times by many people and is on dozens of must-read lists. But for some reason, I never got around to reading it until now.

Fifteen year old Christopher Boone lives with his dad and Toby, his pet rat, in Swindon, England. They have a predictable, peaceful life together. Then one night the neighbour's dog is found dead and everything changes. Christopher decides to investigate despite his father telling him to mind his own business. In doing so, more mysteries are revealed and Christopher's life is inalterably upended.

What makes this novel unique is the narrative voice. Christopher has an unstated condition, possibly Asperger's syndrome, which manifests in a brilliant mathematical mind and a photographic memory, as well as a difficulty understanding other people's emotions and a distaste for anything yellow or brown. His innocence and naivety make him vulnerable and he finds it difficult to navigate his way through the world. He is often misunderstood by adults he encounters who think he is 'taking the piss' or a simpleton.

I found this book remarkable - at turns funny and emotionally poignant. I particularly enjoyed how Haddon got inside Christopher's mind and documented his thoughts in a notebook, which ranged from his love of The Hounds of the Baskervilles, prime numbers and the Monty Hall problem, to his thoughts about his family. The mystery part was rather predictable, but Christopher's dogged investigation made it enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Risky Business

After having read Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House late last year, I swore I would not read another book about the failings of the President. In fact, I have tried to distance myself from all things Trump - unsubscribing to podcasts and avoiding other books that explore his terrible reign. I find Trump so odious, distasteful and ignorant, that my blood boils each time I hear him speak or his name mentioned. As such, I was surprised to find myself reading another book about the Trump Presidency while on holidays last month.

Michael Lewis' The Fifth Risk (2018) contains little of Trump himself, but instead focuses on the transition period between the Obama and Trump administrations. It is a fascinating portrait of how government works and the important role that the bureaucracy plays in all aspects of American lives. The book celebrates public servants, toiling away in anonymity on essential services and wicked challenges. It is also a reminder of how important it is for citizens to understand how their government works.

Lewis interviews John MacWilliams, employed in the Obama years as a senior advisor to the Secretary of the Department of Energy. MacWilliams declares that the top five risks facing America are: nuclear weapon accidents (known as "Broken Arrows"); North Korea; and nuclear Iran; cyberterrorism in the electricity grid; and, project management. 

The fifth risk sounds ill fitting with those that came before, but as Lewis' book unfolds it is absolutely correct. As he explores the transition in three key government departments - Agriculture, Commerce and Energy -  Lewis sees the failure of project management first hand. The incoming government is so partisan, so driven by a narrow agenda, and so ignorant as to the role these departments play, that they cut budgets for essential programs, make poor appointments to top jobs and ignore the advice of experts. 

Long term problems (like what to do with nuclear waste) are ignored, as the new administration sought short term solutions. They cut budgets to key agencies - for example, not understanding that the Department of Agriculture plays a crucial role in regulating food safety and the provision of food stamps for the poor. 

I was fascinated by the depiction of the National Weather Service, which has used advanced data collection, science and technology to improve weather predictions, thereby saving lives. The whole point of the service is to provide free, accurate advice to the public so citizens make informed decisions.  Trump then appoints Barry Myers, the CEO and owner of AccuWeather, a commercial weather service that has profited from the free data of the National Weather Service, to be the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with disastrous results. For a brief summary of this issue, see former NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco's opinion piece in the New York Times on Myers nomination. 

The Fifth Risk is a quick and compelling read, providing insight into the important role of government agencies and the need for comprehensive project management in all areas of business. 

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Miles Franklin Award Shortlist 2019

The Miles Franklin Award is the most prestigious literary award in Australia, with a cash prize of $60,000 and the opportunity to join the ranks of past winners including Frank Morehouse, Tim Winton, David Malouf, Peter Carey, Sofie Laguna and Anna Funder.

The 2019 Shortlist was announced this week and it includes some familiar faces along with those less well known.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad - The Lebs
A coming-of-age novel about a teenage boy, Bani Adam growing up in Western Sydney in the post 9/11 days. This novel won the NSW Premier's Literary Awards - Multicultural NSW Award 2019. Bani and his friends at  Punchbowl Boys High School are navigating their way in the world as young Muslims.

Gregory Day - A Sand Archive
The narrator is a young writer who finds a strange manual called 'The Great Ocean Road: Dune Stabilisation and Other Engineering Difficulties' by FB Herschell. As the writer explores this manual, he discovers that Herschell composes poetry about sand in between the lines of his archive. The novel takes the reader back to France in the 1960s.

Rodney Hall - A Stolen Season
This novel explores the lives of three, seemingly unrelated people. One is an injured Iraq war veteran returning home. Another is a woman who was betrayed in marriage. Finally, there is a man who receives a bequest. Rodney Hall previously won this award for Just Relations (1982) and The Grisly Wife (1994). 

Gail Jones - The Death of Noah Glass
Noah Glass is an art historian who is found dead in his swimming pool after a trip to Italy. While his children grieve, they discover he is the suspect for a theft of a sculpture from a Palermo museum. Jones' novel was longlisted for the Stella Prize this year. 

Melissa Lucashenko - Too Much Lip
When her Pop is dying, Kerry Slater steals a Harley and heads south to see him. This novel was shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize with judges praising it as 'a fearless, searing and unvarnished portrait of generational trauma cit through with acerbic humour'. Lucashenko was longlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2014 for Mullumbimby.

Jennifer Mills - Dyschronia
When the sea disappears one morning from a small coastal town, one woman believes that she has foreseen this event. Sam's frequent migraines give her glimpses of the future. Mills' dystopian novel focuses on the perils of climate change.

To be honest, I am not sure how I feel about the shortlist as none of these titles particularly excite me. When the longlist was released in May, I thought for sure that Trent Dalton would win with his acclaimed Boy Swallows Universe. Now that he is out, I am hoping that Melissa Lucashenko takes home the prize. Of all the shortlisted novels, Too Much Lip is the only one I care to read, and I admire Lucashenko's work.

The winner will be revealed on 30 July.