Philobiblon: April 2005

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Lessons from Manly aquarium

It is a bit down-at-the-heel these days, having probably lost out to the flash new one at Darling Harbour, but still an excellent place to take an eight-year-old and a five-year-old.

(That's Manly, Sydney, Australia, should there be any confusion.)

* Stingrays look like they are smiling when viewed from underneath. (e.g. See here.)

* Port Jackson sharks - a gloriously ugly little species - lay amazing egg cases that look and feel like pine cones. This website told me further that: "The egg case is soft when laid by the female. She uses her mouth to wedge the spiraled egg case into a rock crevice where it hardens, and from where one young shark emerges after ten to twelve months."

Further, they are capable of pushing their bodies out of the water to half their length and moving sideways while doing so, possibly so they can see if there's a rockpool on the other side of this one.

* Anenomes can't sting humans because our skins are too thick. The fish that live in a symbiotic relationship with them are universally known as "Nemos" to children. (The ubiquity of Disney.)

* Sea hares are misnamed. They really look, and feel, like slugs (very slimy).

* When a small boy accidentally walks into the ladies' loo, he will be so embarrassed that he will immediately lock himself into a cubicle in the gents, forcing his female carer to go in there to get him out, and consequently hugely embarrass a couple of teenage boys who then walk in. Unisex loos would solve lots of problems.

It was an interesting day.

Friday, April 29, 2005

No Friday femmes fatales this week


Life is a little chaotic at present due to a temporary housing crisis. I want to buy a flat; I have the money to buy the flat; it was all arranged, as was my builder to help put in the necessary new bathroom and kitchen.

But now the owner is not responding to calls from his agent or his solicitor. It is a mystery, and a very irritating one!

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I'm on the plane

... or at least I was, now being back in England, at least in body, and scrambling for a house move on Tuesday. (And the new place isn't final yet.)

But I did find the perfect plane book: Ursula le Guin's Changing Planes: Armchair Travel for the Mind.

It is really a collection of short stories, broadly in the style of The Left Hand of Darkness, one of my all-time favourite reads, tied together by a delightful conceit:

"It was Sita Dulip of Cincinnati who ... discovered the interplanar technique most of us now used.
Her connecting flight from Chicago to Denver had been delayed by some unspeakable, or at any rate untold, malfunction of the airplane. It was listed as departing at 1:10, two hours late. At 1:55, it was listed as departing at 3:00. It was then taken off the departures list...
The airport bookstores did not sell books, only bestsellers, which Sita Dulip cannot read without risking a severe systemic reaction.
She had been sitting for over an hour on a blue plastic chair with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor in a row of people sitting in blue plastic chairs with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor in a row of people sitting on blue plastic chairs with metal tubes for legs bolted to the floor when (as she later said), 'It came to me.'
She had discovered that, by a mere kind of twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than to describe, she could go anywhere - be anywhere - because she was already between planes. [Original itals, p. 3, Orion, London, 2004]
(Don't you just love that daring use of repetition, entirely typical of Le Guin in its originality of form.)

My favourite "plane" was Asonu, where the people "once past early childhood ... speak very rarely to anyone, under any circumstances. They do not write; and unlike mutes, or monks under vows of silence, they do not use any signs or other devices in place of speaking." Given all of the junk conversations that inevitably assault your ears during travel (I had the misfortune to get a pair of incredibly fat young honeymooners beside me on the Sydney-Singapore leg, whose conversation was positively sickening) that had an obvious attraction.

In a typical dry aside, - the narrator, who often takes a sociological/ anthropological approach - says that the Asonu are peaceful. "No hostile relations between groups are apparent, and in fact no observer has reported seeing adult Asonu fight or quarrel. Arguments are clearly out of the question." (p. 21)

Many of the other stories take a similar approach, one of course that has a long history, of imagining societies much like our own, except for one significant factor - they might even be labelled "thought experiments".

There's the Finthian plane, where "dreams are not private property", with everyone - and every animal - within a certain radius sharing their REM sleep experiences; the society of the Ansarac, which involves two entirely different lifestyles linked by regular migration; and the Nna Mmoy, with its untranslatable language: "Each syllable is a word, but a word with no fixed, specific meaning, only a range of possible significances determined by the syllables that come before, after or near it."

Other stories are obviously allegorical, including that of Mahigul, where an utterly pointless war between two cities eventually creates a massive tourist attraction; and the utterly commercialised Great Joy Corporation destinations, including Christmas Island, where it is always Christmas Eve and "the prices are really just as low as Wal-Mart, and a much better selection", and "Fourth Island", which features a "reenactment of the Flag Raising on Iwo Jima to the Rockets; Red Glare Four-Hour Fireworks Display every night" (p. 124).

Finally the operating corporation was tracked down, banned, and the resorts "now operated by the islanders themselves as a cooperative venture". The narrator says: "This makes sense, in that the modest subsistence economy of the region was completely destroyed ... and cannot be restored overnight ... On the other hand, it boggles the mind a bit. Especially Fourth Island. An orgiastic monument of American sentimental nationalism operated entirely by people who know nothing about the United States except that they were ruthlessly used by Americans for years? Well, I suppose it is not wholly improbable even on this plane. Exploitation can cut two ways." (p. 129)

There's a serious political, philosophical side to this book, but unlike say Asimov, Le Guin is also a delightful, witty writer. I often laughed out loud, which upset the honeymooners by interrupting their cooing. I didn't mind, but you might want to read it in private instead, if you don't want to be a Le Guin-style character.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 6

Where are all the female bloggers?" HERE, in my weekly "top ten." Why "femmes fatales"? Because these are killer posts, selected for great ideas and great writing, general interest, and variety.

First and most importantly I have to point to Uncommon Misconceptions must-read testimony about her decision to have a late abortion.

Who are we and why are we here? Tennessee Guerilla Women reflects on those questions, starting with the answer "a citizen of Earth", while Patricia Lee Sharpe, on Whirled View, is suffering "a crisis of confidence, a kind of identity crisis, which doesn’t seem to be shared by enough Americans to make a difference".

Dr Pat, on Blogcritics, has been making an imaginative journey into a psychiatric hospital, while the star blogger Feministe recounts a week in her life away from the keyboard.

If all of that leaves you feeling exhausted and depressed, sorry.

To cheer up you might want to check out some Friday lamb blogging on What Do I Know or Elayne Riggs, who for a change has a "good neighbour" story, or check into My Boyfriend is a Twat's stream of consciousness that includes handing over her debit card - with code - to her daughter.

Or follow The Sheila Variations in deciding what movies you'd like to live in - do I feel a meme coming on?

Then Jill on Third Wave Agenda finds a commentator who is sure equal pay is related a university cross-dressing competition - those misogynists sure do lack a sense of humour.

If you missed last week's edition, it is here.


Please: In the next week if you read, or write, a post by a woman blogger and think "that deserves a wider audience" (particularly someone who doesn't yet get many hits), send me an email (natalieben at gmail dot com) or drop a comment here.

Disclaimer: the views here might not reflect my own. I'm trying to choose from as wide a range of female bloggers as possible.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The life of Mary Mahoney

I mentioned I'd been reading The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson, the pen-name of Ethel, described in the blurb as "recognised as one of the greatest novels in the English language".

I think that is not an unfair description, yet I'd never previously heard of it, the text having never featured on any school curricula that I know of. The length of the work - originally published in three volumes - more than 800 dense-packed pages in my Angus and Robertson 1983 edition - undoubtedly tells against it, but it is eminently readable, finely observed, and surprisingly feminist.

Although the story, put simply, is the account of the life of the title character, its central figure is really his wife Mary. He is a bright but wayward figure - irresponsible, reckless and unsettled - while she is the one that holds both the text and their fictional lives together. Her female friends and relations are also more real than the male, and acutely aware of the restrictions of their gender.

"Mary had a glimpse into depths that were closed to her menkind. Just to be married! It meant that solace of woman who was getting on in years - the plain gold band on the ring finger. It meant no longer being shut out from the great Society of Matrons; no longer needing to look the other way were certain subjects alluded to; or pretending not to notice the nods and winks, the silently mouthed words that went on behind your back. It was all very well when you were young; when your very youth and innocence made up for it: as you grew older, it turned to a downright mortification - like that of going in to dinner after the bride of 18." (p.445)

Tilly: "A figure for all the soft sawder that's talked about marriage. The long and the short of it is, marriage is sent to try us women, and for nothin' on earth besides." (p. 685)

That might sum up Mary's life. As the novel finishes she, having been one of Australia's ladies of society, is reduced to being a postmistress in an outback town, slaving to maintain her gentility, and particularly that of her children, against all odds.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Net nuggests No 7

* The Oxford DNB tells me that an Australian woman, Florrie Forde [Flora May Augustus Flanagan} was the music hall performer who made 'It's a long way to Tipperary’ THE song for British troops.
"Forde was one of the few women to launch her own touring revue company, Flo and Co. (which included Chesney Allen), and for thirty-six summers she performed on the Isle of Man ... Her likeness appears on the sign of the Bull and Bush, Hampstead, which also boasts a Florrie Forde bar." (Have to try that one out.)

* More power to the web: Southeast Asia in the Ming Reign Chronicles (14th-17th Centuries): An English-language translation of Ming shi-lu references to Southeast Asia.

* I buy organic food whenever I can chiefly because I think it is a form of farming that ought to be encouraged, but this rather good wrap-up suggests there are also genuine health benefits. (This link may only work for a few days.)

* American history is not my territory, but an email pointed me to this interesting site about Los Adaes, "the capital of the Province of Texas for 41 years. Los Adaes was a place of rare cooperation among the Spanish, the French, and the Caddo Indians".

* She was the "the Mao Tse-tung of Women's Liberation", but what happened to Kate Millett?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The women who succeeded in early Australia

Early Australian history is usually told as a male-dominated story, and it is remarkable how often this is a story of male failure - Burke and Wills et al. The women who do appear are usually painted in lurid colours as prostitutes and slatterns, or as the odd lonely, isolated "lady", having a thoroughly miserable time of it.

Yet I've just read a collection of (mostly) success stories in which women undertake amazing feats and complete them with aplomb.

Just imagine the journey of Annie Caldwell, an Irishwoman who arrived in Adelaide as a free settler with her husband Matthew in 1841 with almost nothing. They both laboured to earn enough to take a lease on a small farm at Gumeracha, near Adelaide, but the land was poor and the rainfall scant. Matthew died in 1856, leaving Annie pregnant with their eighth child.

She decided to move to NSW in 1864, selling "everything except five horses, some cattle, Lassie the dog and a tilted wagon - similar to covered wagons in America".

They took eight weeks to cover the 900km trek to Albury and they took up land near Holbrook (one of my old stamping grounds, where to my knowledge there is no memorial to her - although there should be!), where they selected a block in her oldest son's name.

One of the children said: "How hard we all did work! Mother seemed able to turn her hand to any sort of man's work after her ten years as sole manageress." The farm did well and Annie died aged 69, surrounded by her family. (p. 15-17)

This book is A Wealth of Women: Australian Women's Lives from 1788 to the Present, by Alison Alexander, which takes a fascinating, anecdotal approach to the topic, drawing heavily on the "History Search" by the Office of the Status of Women of 2000, which collected oral histories and much of the work of family historians.

The latter, it seems to me, is a much underutilised resource. No doubt it has its technical limits - but many family stories - particularly women's stories - are now being recorded that should not be lost again.

The success that many female convicts made of life in Australia is an element that comes out again and again. Little has been written on this until recently, since this was until the 1980s regarded as a "stain" rather than the badge of honour that it is today. There's for example Mary Smallshaw, a Welsh silk throwster transported for theft in 1818. She married first the clerk of the Tasmanian magistrate's court, then, after bearing him a daughter, the magistrate himself, and her descendants were "respectable society". (p. 6)

Although there were ladies made thoroughly miserable by the conditions. I particularly liked the one horrified at having to drink out of handless cups, and by the lack of visiting cards -- if you visited someone who was out a piece of chalk was left near the door so you could record your presence on it!

And others were trapped with feckless males. The tale of Matilda Wallace, whose husband moved them from Mt Gambier (South Australia) to Mount Murchison, where he tried in a desultory why to open a shop, to Queensland, then spent the next decade roaming those areas, seldom more than six months in one spot. Two babies died young, and when her fifth was due she went to "civilisation" in Menindee - still the back of beyond.

It is story that reminds me of the mammoth tome I have just finished, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by (Henry Handel) Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 5

"Where are all the female bloggers?" HERE, in my weekly "top ten." Why "femmes fatales"? Because these are killer posts, selected for great ideas and great writing, general interest, and variety.

I'm a blogger but not a geek, so I can't work out how to point you to a specific post by the astonishing Miss W Todd, but if you follow this link and go exploring you won't regret it. (Particularly look under "Libre" on April 4 for "Ceci n'est pa une pape".)

The Goddess, meanwhile, sums up the state of the universe in one giant post, from the job of Pope to the unfairness of rich people always winning on Ebay. Meanwhile, Cheryl Rofer on Whirled view sums up the state of her garden with considerably more knowledge than most of us can manage.

Who moved my truth finds that people who believe in a "Higher Power" are curiously unable to believe in their own, while Blondesense is musing that a childhood image of Jesus holding a lamb doesn't seem to square with the behaviour she sees from religious people today.

Kirsten on "re:invention" explains why when she says "I quit" on a bad day, she doesn't mean it, while Jory de Jardins considers how she was socialised to do the "berrypicking" work, even when qualified for serious big game hunting.

A term for working mothers that flourished under the Nazis is still extant today, and seems to go a long way towards explaining Germany's very low birthrate, Emma Pearse writes on Women's enews, while Sisters Talk asks if the facts of DNA might do something to tackle racism in America.

And finally, Surfette, among others, announces the BlogHer conference in July.

If you missed last week's edition, it is here.


Please: In the next week if you read, or write, a post by a woman blogger and think "that deserves a wider audience" (particularly someone who doesn't yet get many hits), send me an email (natalieben at gmail dot com) or drop a comment here.

Disclaimer: the views here might not reflect my own. I'm trying to choose from as wide a range of female bloggers as possible.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Frozen TV

Back in Australia after 10 years away, I'm struck by how there seem to be no new male television news personalities. One of the first things I saw was George Negus presenting SBS's Dateline, then there's Andrew Denton doing celebrity interviews. There are so many tributes (or not) to the arts of the plastic surgeon and the wigmaker.

Of course all the women have changed - anyone visibly over 40 and on TV being strictly forbidden.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Australia's religious right

I posted last week on my current reading on Australian politics, Marion Maddox's God Under Howard.

Overall I thought it a powerful, and scary, analysis, if suffering from some of the inevitable faults of an academic book completed very soon after the events that it describes.

She brings from other fields some interesting analytical tools, including the sociology of religion thesis that as a society becomes more secular, non-religious people are happy to think that religion is a useful implement for controlling others weaker than themselves (p.188).

Sometimes she seems to be arguing that "a religious fundamentalist tail is wagging a secular rightwing dog" (p. 73), and other times that a conservative social policy is an essential requirement for free market economics (when her analysis approaches that of Thomas Frank's of America), and I don't think that is ever resolved, but then there is probably an element of leadership on both sides.

She is also very clear on the right-wing view of "equality", "as reinvented by the neo-conservative think tanks of the closing decades of the 20th century ... wants everyone treated identically, regardless of where they start. Any extra help to some groups, however disadvantaged, amounts to 'special privileges', which breeds 'resentment' among those who do not qualify." (p. 111)

She is echoing American commentators on the way that the American Right (with Australia's close behind) uses extreme language to address its extremist constituency, then half-hearted apologies and back-downs later (as per Bush's "crusade" against Islam) to satisfy the mainstream.

Her final chapter -- understandably sketchy since these extremists are unlikely to fully reveal their apparent approach -- is truly frightening. She quotes an Australian Republican Movement delegate to the constitutional convention, Karin Sowada, as saying: "Keeping God in out Constitution is ultimately an expression of the fact that those who govern us are accountable for their actions to someone other than themselves." (p. 301) The delegate then noted there was "no particular support" for democracy in the Bible.

Overall, this book left me wondering if Australia (and America) are not fast approaching what might be described as "the Algeria problem" - having a significant (if not yet dominant) group of religious extremists who while using the instruments of democracy refuse to accept any obligation to maintain them.

More reviews: here and here, and a transcript of a Radio National programme on it.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Net nuggets No 6

* The woman who planned to kidnap the governor of Pennsylvania for ransom, Ann Carson, sounds fascinating, but apparently her ghost writer, Mary Carr, is even more worthy of note.

* On the joys of dealing with a legend, Saul Bellow's editor.

* A search tool for Project Gutenberg texts. I haven't fully checked it out yet, but it looks potentially brilliant.

* London's abandoned Tube stations. Why? Why not?

* Almost a reason to visit New York: Before Victoria: Extraordinary Women of the British Romantic Era.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 4

"Where are all the female bloggers?" HERE, in my weekly "top ten." Why "femmes fatales"? Because these are killer posts, selected for great ideas and great writing, general interest, and variety.

Lab Kat finds that living in a red state can seriously raise your blood pressure, as she hears how some of her workmates believe a traumatic late miscarriage must be an "Act of God".

Notes from an exile, written by a Kiwi living in Canada, considers what the Waco siege reveals about America, and in particular American machismo, while Thoughts of an average woman reports how the American right extends its tentacles, assuming that those who felt for the plight of Terri Schiavo's parents must also be anti-abortion, etc.

Saint Faron is visiting Agra, and pondering the sad decline of India since the days of Akbar, while Vixgirl, sounding remarkably like Sei Shonagon, ponders everyday pleasures and pains.

Rachie on Living for disco has also been going cultural, finding that networking across the language barrier does have its difficult moments. What's new, pussycat is, however, remembering a small town, where the social highlight is "bumping into" someone in Woolies.

More fearful social interactions are explored by Purple Tigress on Blogcritics, as she tells how a friend struggled with the fear induced by a stalker, and Chez miscarriage ponders why a "Regular Arsehole" might be a better choice than a "Stealth Arsehole", while Volsunga muses how a small slice of cheese can be a measure of loneliness.

If you missed last week's edition, it is here.


Please: In the next week if you read, or write, a post by a woman blogger and think "that deserves a wider audience" (particularly someone who doesn't yet get many hits), send me an email (natalieben at gmail dot com) or drop a comment here.

Disclaimer: the views here might not reflect my own. I'm trying to choose from as wide a range of female bloggers as possible.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Australia's 'religious' prime minister

Watching the SBS news last night (this is Australia's second, 'multicultural' public service broadcaster, although sadly it now has adverts) I was astonished to learn that the Prime Minister, John Howard, who is now on his fourth term of turning Australia back to the 1950s (since March 1996), was yesterday visiting an Aboriginal community for only the THIRD time ever.

It fitted nicely with my current reading, Marion Maddox's God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics. She argues that while his extreme views on social policy have commonly been attributed to his "Methodism", despite the fact that he has been an official Anglican for decades, this is in fact used as a smokescreen for pure political cynicism. She notes that the Methodist church, which no longer exists, being part of the generally very liberal Uniting Church, was anyway much more catholic (yes a lower-case C)and liberal than is generally imagined, with as much concern about the societal damage of capitalism as of permissiveness.

More (hopefully) tomorrow.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Australian humour

There are not many things about Australia that I miss, but I do sometimes hanker for the local irreverent, dry humour. So I enjoyed reading The Australian newspaper this morning with a piece on the British royal wedding. It had small pictures of Charles with Diana, then with Camilla, with captions that read "first wife", "next wife" ... implying there might be more.

In the "best" bookshop in Castle Hill, Dymocks, which isn't saying a lot (one length of serious non-fiction, one of 'literary fiction', loosely defined), I was somewhat surprised to find six hard-back copies of Cherie Booth's book, The Goldfish Bowl: Married to the Prime Minister 1955-1997, only $59.95 for the signed copy. (The only option on offer.)

Now I'm not a member of the Be Nasty to Cherie Blair Club: I think that like so many women in prominent positions she'll cop heaps of criticism no matter what she does, but these kinds of stunts - if they are here they must be everywhere - don't do anything for her image.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Femmes fatales No 3

"Where are all the female bloggers?" HERE, in my weekly "top ten". Why "femmes fatales"? Because these are killer posts, selected for great ideas and great writing, general interest and variety.

* Trish Wilson, posting on XX, assembles a formidable array of statistics to tackle that old slur about single mothers "causing" child delinquency.

* Two takes on the Schiavo case: Frogs and Ravens finds there is a "relentlessly infantilizing"" of the body of Terri Schiavo that is typical of the tactics "Culture of Life" campaigners. It reflects, she argues, an attachment to an idealised infant and child, rather than the actual difficult, messy, self-conscious reality of human life. Brutal Women takes a look at it from a different angle, relating it to the pressure to martyr yourself "for Christian America and the MTV beauty machine".

* Completing the political roundup, Body and soul explores the lengths to which evil can go in the creativity of rendition, an old word acquiring a whole new range of meanings.

* Scribbling woman reviews a novel about "a time of looming war and terrorism" - that's the late 18th century - and finds that while there's plenty to be critical about, it s worth persevering with the character's "evocative opacity".

* Who's a big cheese? Jane Peppler, posting on Blogcritics, explores America's enthusiastic venture into giantism in honour of Thomas Jefferson.

* Purse lips square jaw just missed out on participating on a seminar on IT and ethics, but looks at the ways the issue is being explored, stressing that the two words don't operate in different worlds.

* Vitriolica webbs' ite ponders the apparent sourness of the world just now, with a little help from the wisdom of Aesop.

* Living in Egypt, one of the most interesting blogs on my roll, relishes the healing power of women, and along the way introduces some living fascinating lives.

* Blogs often seem to be about anger, but I find some of the most poignant to be about grief.
Seedlings & Sprouts tells how she found a symbolic way to record the loss of her brother.

If you missed last week's edition, it is here.


Please: In the next week if you read, or write, a post by a woman blogger and think "that deserves a wider audience" (particularly someone who doesn't yet get many hits), send me an email (natalieben at gmail dot com) or drop a comment here.

Disclaimer: the views here might not reflect my own. I'm trying to choose from as wide a range of female bloggers as possible.

Friday, April 01, 2005

So.... The Da Vinci Code

Well I've read The Da Vinci Code and it seems like a bog-standard airport novel thriller with the addition of a couple of days of library research and occasional reference to a Lonely Planet Europe guide or similar. Presumably it got a fair bit of promotion when it came out, but why it has developed into a phenomenon is utterly beyond me.

Posting may be non-existent for the next few days since Castle Towers shopping centre, in the far north-western suburbs of Sydney, despite having more opportunities for consumer frenzy than you would think possible, has only one public internet machine. I guess you are supposed to buy a computer instead.