Thursday, February 28, 2008

Random things

OK, here's a deviation from my usual posts.

I've been tagged (a first for me in blogland) by Bec to offer up seven random things about myself.
For those playing along, here are the rules:
1. Link to your tagger and post these rules on your blog.2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog, some random, some weird.3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blogs.4. Let them know they are tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

Clearly, I have not been venturing far enough into the blogging world, as I only have one blog to tag for my turn. I'll try and do better in future!

My random things….

1. I'm learning Italian.
I'm working my way through a "Learn Italian in your car" series. So far, I've learned how to ask directions to the airport and train station, and to tell someone the shower is broken: La doccia e rotte. Interestingly, that last word is pronounced "roota", which makes me wonder if it was that word, used by Italian immigrants, which led to the great Australian saying that something is "rooted".

2. Russell Crowe caught me helping myself to his afternoon tea.
This was a few years back (pre Oscar nominations), when he was doing the press rounds for Virtuosity. I was waiting in the hotel room for my 15 minutes of one-on-one interview time. Unfortunately, I'd been left alone with a table full of food, and, when he didn't emerge after about 20 minutes, decided he wouldn't notice if I helped myself to one of his tasty snacks. Naturally, he walked in while I was stuffing my face with a pikelet. The funny thing was, he came in wearing jeans, a flannelette shirt and a three-day growth, and looked uncannily like one of my brothers. And that was why - despite knowing his reputation for not liking journos at the best of times - I cracked up laughing at my predicament instead of grovelling at his feet for forgiveness. To his credit, he graciously ignored my faux pax and gave a surprisingly relaxed interview.

3. After nearly 20 decades of city living, I still feel a connection to the land.
As urbanised as I've become, I have these occasional pangs of longing for the Flinders Ranges… wheat dust in the air at the end of a hot summer day, flocks of noisy white cockatoos screeching in gum trees, dry riverbeds running after winter rains, overcast afternoons where the stillness makes everything feel closer…

4. AC/DC riffs still make me smile. So does the sound of chunky V8 in any Ford or Holden pre 1980. Something about my misspent youth…

5. I once jammed a lit cigarette inside my right nostril.
I was covering a three-day leg of a much longer camel trek through the Northern Territory and South Australia. On the last morning, with a large hang-over, I've gone to open a car door while dangling a cigarette from the corner of my mouth. The door was locked, my hand flew up at a rapid rate, catching the edge of the cigarette and jamming it up my nose. I did such a good job, the burning end welded itself to the inside of my nostril, leaving me swearing and slapping myself like an insane Polish folk dancer.

(Not learning my lesson, a few years later I set a stack of newspapers on fire on the backseat of my car with a cigarette butt, in peak hour traffic in the Brisbane CBD. That incident ended with me throwing burning papers out onto the road and stomping on them, to the sounds of blaring horns and cheering. I've been a non smoker for more than a decade now, and have had far fewer incidents involving burning flesh).

6. I wish my friend Anna was still alive to see my husband and I travelling together. I wish Anna was still alive for so many reasons, but she would especially love to see my previously non-adventurous husband becoming a seasoned traveller in Australia, and planning an overseas trip - something she knew would mean the world to me.

7. I have an amazing circle of friends who have the endless capacity to inspire me. Friends who challenge my spiritual, political and philosophical views; friends who are creative and inventive; friends who work with marginalised communities in Middle Eastern countries; friends who appreciate the simplicity of life and the power of human connections; friends with big hearts and amazing intellects. My world would be a much paler place without them.

My tag:
The Simplest Game

(For regular readers who don't have a blog, feel free to post your seven random things here!)

Friday, February 22, 2008

When great stories lead to research projects

I love the experience of reading a story that sparks my curiosity and drives me to find out more about the world in which I live.

After reading Steve Berry's The Templar Legacy last year, I busied myself learning more about the Gnostic and apocryphal early Christian writings.

About a decade ago, Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth set me on a journey to learn more about medieval British history, and Francine Rivers' The Mark of the Lion series sparked an obsession with ancient history (which led to university study and a still unpublished work of historical fiction).

A powerful narrative has a way of opening up the world that non-fiction books can never achieve.

It's one thing to read in history books about the dates, major events and philosophies that shape our thinking.

It's quite another to read about them through the eyes of well-written, empathetic characters. The key is the narrative. It must be authentic. It must be engaging. Shallow characters, wooden dialogue, and melodramatic plots just don't cut it.

I've just read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It had an impact on me on at least two levels.
First and foremost, it was beautifully written human drama.

From Hosseini's website:
Taking us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the present, The Kite Runner is the story of the friendship between two boys growing up in Kabul. Raised in the same household and sharing the same wet nurse, Amir and Hassan nonetheless grow up in different worlds: Amir is the son of a prominent and wealthy man, while Hassan, the son of Amir's father's servant, is a Hazara, member of a shunned ethnic minority.

Their intertwined lives, and their fates, reflect the eventual tragedy of the world around them. When the Soviets invade and Amir and his father flee the country for a new life in California, Amir thinks that he has escaped his past. And yet he cannot leave the memory of Hassan behind him.

The Kite Runner is a novel about friendship, betrayal, and the price of loyalty. It is about the bonds between fathers and sons, and the power of their lies.

Secondly, it gave faces and voices to the Afghan people, and heightened my desire to better understand the recent history of that war-torn country.

The real drama is the redemptive journey of Amir, but in taking that journey, the reader gets a glimpse of the impact on Afghanistan after more than three decades of almost continuous conflict: the Soviets against the mujahedin; civil war after the Russian defeat; oppression under Taliban rule, and, almost as a post script, the new era of violence following the events of September 11.

A few years' back I read The Swallows of Kabul, by Yasmina Khadra, which was possibly the bleakest book I've ever read. It captured the horror of life under the Taliban, but it certainly didn't leave me hungry to learn more.

I've been periodically working my way through British war correspondent Robert Fisk's massive tome The great war for civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East, which chronicles the West's relationship with the Arab world, and it's role in the region's ever-shifting geopolitics.

Fisk's opening chapters focus on Afghanistan, starting with the rise of the mujahedin against the Soviet invaders. The book is based on his first-hand experiences in the Middle East, which give it a considerable edge over purely theoretical books. But it wasn't until I read The Kite Runner (written by an Afghani), that the significance of the events he documents hit home; the impact was emotional, not just intellectual.

Hosseini creates a powerful narrative unhindered by sentimentality and populated with complex and deeply flawed characters. It's the human story that stays with the reader (and yes, I'm keen to see the film adaptation), but the backdrop is just as compelling.
And again, I find myself reaching for Fisk, wanting to understand more.

I'm interested to learn about other stories (books, films, whatever) that have had similar impacts.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A confession...

This is a blog about great stories, right? And great stories come in all kinds of formats, right?. So, with that in mind, I'm coming out of the closet to make a confession: I'm comic book fan.

Granted, it's only a select collection of titles feeding my obsession at this point in time, but it's an obsession nonetheless.

It's fair to say I'm probably not your typical comic fan (does such a thing still exist?). I doubt I'd like every comic I pick up, just as I don't like every book I read or every TV show I watch. But I've discovered comics are goldmine of great stories, and clever storytelling: a medium that offers something different again from film, television, books and theatre.

This new interest inadvertently came about as a result of my other closet obsession: stories written by Joss Whedon.

Whedon (for the uninitiated) is the creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly, three of the best written, best character-driven and most misunderstood shows to air on television. So many reasons to love this guy's work: the use of metaphor, cleverly crafted story arcs, original mythologies, witty dialogue - but I digress…

When all three shows disappeared from screens in Australia within about 18 months of each other, I assumed my enjoyment of the Whedon-verse was over. Until I stumbled upon a reference to a pending new Buffy comic series titled Season Eight, written by Joss and picking up where the onscreen Season Seven finale finished. That was last year, and I'm a little sheepish to admit just how excited I was by this news. (Turns out Buffy comics have been around for a while, Whedon just wasn't involved with them).

Having not read a comic since my older brothers bought The Phantom in the 70s, I had no idea how to get my hands on one (and felt ridiculously conspicuous, at my age, going into a newsagent to ask about a Buffy comic). Anyway, good old Google delivered me the answer: Impact Comics in Canberra. Not only did Mal (owner and now my chief comic advisor), know about Buffy, Season Eight, he was taking pre-orders and could send me each new copy every month.

I was hooked on the new format instantly. What was there not to like, with outstanding continuity of characters and plot, stunning artwork, and the promise of a new issue each month (11 issues in, and it's fair to say the format suits Whedon's style even better than the small screen).

I then discovered Whedon had created a three-part comic series bridging the story between Firefly (which was cancelled before the season was finished) and Serenity (the feature film made to give fans some closure). So that was added to my next month's Buffy order

By this point Mal twigged I was a Whedon fan and suggested I might like to try Runaways, a sleeper hit from Marvel comics that Whedon was about to start writing for. Of course, I didn’t want to start in the middle of the story, and had to get the rest of the series, so I knew what was going on.

I loved the series pretty much by the end of Issue 1: a group of teenagers in LA discover their parents are really super villains, and set out to thwart their plans for world domination. In the process, they discover they have powers and skills of their own, and decide to try and do good to undo their parents' evil. With their hormones, hang-ups and guilt trips, they have as many failures as triumphs, and are at odds with pretty much every other superhero in the Marvel universe.

After seven trade paperbacks (collections of past series), I'm now finally up the latest series, written by Wheond and it hasn't disappointed.

And now there's Angel: After the Fall, again written by Whedon, and picking up where the TV series ended. It's much darker than the Buffy series (hard not to be when LA has now literally gone to hell), and the 'old school' style graphics have a completely different look and feel to Buffy and Runaways.

It took to the second issue to hit its stride, but is definitely taking the characters in interesting - and unexpected - directions.

Comics bring the added dimension of sensational artwork. The covers are usually stunning, and I'm fast becoming a manga art fan. And, of course, with the only restriction being imagination (as opposed to special effects budgets), storytellers can do so much more in this medium, making it perfect for fantasy narratives.

Now, I have to go because I think my next delivery is due from Impact Comics ...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A taste for crime

I've never really considered myself a great fan of the crime genre. And maybe I'm still not. But I'm definitely a fan of Australian crime writer Peter Temple.

Temple has been writing tightly-crafted crime novels since 1995, stunning critics, winning fans, and bagging four Ned Kelly Awards (more than any other writer) and a Vogel Award, among others.

I discovered him recently when I read his latest release, The Broken Shore (another recommendation from the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club), which could just as easily sit on the literary fiction shelf.

The story features Joe Cashin, a former homicide detective, still recovering from severe injuries incurred in a botched Melbourne stake-out. Sent home to run the small police station in Port Monro on the Victorian coast, he expects a quiet life.

Then rich Charles Bourgoyne, the local benefactor, is bashed and everything seems to point to three boys from the nearby Aboriginal community. Cashin is unconvinced and as tragedy unfolds relentlessly into tragedy, he finds himself holding onto something that might be better let go.

Temple's grasp of voice and place is mesmerising, his characters are Australian without being stereotypical, and he creates pervasive, slow building suspense.

It turns out these are Temple's trademarks. While on holidays, I also read Dead Point, part of Temple's series featuring world weary lawyer Jack Irish. I devoured this novel even quick than the other. I particularly liked that the narrative is first person, and Jack is a complex character whose morality is clear, even if the company he keeps is often murky.

Temple's writing has its own rhythm to it. His humour is dry, his violence graphic, and his physical descriptions wryly amusing.

The basis of his novels are crimes that eventually will be solved, or resolved, one way or another, but what you find yourself more interested in are his characters, the choices they make, and the seedy worlds they often inhabit, or must venture into.
As the Sun Herald said, Temple is not just one of Australia's best crime novelists, "he's one of our best novelists full stop.

Anyone else a fan?