Thursday, 13 December 2012

My Best Books of 2012

This turns out to be ten of my favourite books for this year but keeping it down to ten was difficult!  By "favourite",  I think I mean ones that are most memorable and ones that please me to have now read.  Some were hard reads while others were entertainment.

I've tried to rank the books in order of favouritism, which is no easy task.  Bill Gammage's book has a head start because it's a physical book, with sixty pages of colour plates - when I saw them I had to buy it.  Except for Coorinna, which I bought in a second-hand bookstore, the others are all ebooks, some of which I've edited (eg from PDF files) to make them ebook readable, a new hobby of mine.

Anyway, here goes:-

1.  Bill Gammage:  The Biggest Estate on Earth (2012)

Subtitle: How Aborigines Made Australia.  The result of ten years of research and field studies, this book explores the concept (and proves!) that when whites came in 1788 they were confronted by a "managed landscape" (they saw parks!), mosaics of cleared land maintained over thousands of years by the locals.  In 1788, there was no such thing as "wilderness"!  This books vastly extends our knowledge of pre-1788 Australia and I love it.

2.  Ken Kesey:  Sometimes a Great Notion  (1964) 

A worthy  successor to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Tells the story of a family of loggers in Oregon who attempt to defy the union to get their logs downriver to the mill.  Narrated by several of the characters, sometimes more than one at once!  A good writer!

3. Jared Diamond:  Guns, Germs and Steel  (1997)

This book won the Pulitzer prize.  Diamond explores the reasons that human societies developed the way they did  and why for example, Spaniards conquered the Aztecs rather than the other way round.  He shows that the reasons are due to geographical advantages enjoyed by Eurasians, nothing to do with genes.  I was very impressed by his arguments.

4. Kate Grenville  The Secret River (2005)

The theme of villain transported to the convict colony and his/her subsequent life has been done to death, yet this book explores in a new way the dispossession of Aborigines as white settlers attempted to make a go of the new life.  I liked the descriptions of life on the water for a seaman, both in England and Australia.  The gamut of attitudes to the native inhabitants of Australia is also well-explored and reminds me of Thea Astley.

5. Erle Wilson:  Coorinna  (1953)

I read this book when I was at school, but having no memory of the story, it was great to read it again (and find it in the fantastic bookshop in Fish Creek!).  As in some of Jack London's best-known work, Wilson anthropomorphizes an animal, in this case a Tasmanian tiger, and dramatises its life from birth to death.  The author is completely familiar with the Tasmanian bush, describing the flora and fauna in loving detail, as well as life before cars and tourists.

6. Patrick White:  The Hanging Garden  (2012)
This is really the start of a novel that was never completed.  It explores the relationship between two refugees, a girl and boy during World War Two, temporarily given sanctuary in a Sydney harbour property with a wild garden.  It has familiar White themes such as the girl's Greek background.  There is no significant plot but the characters are beautifully drawn and revealed.  It is a joy to find the surprises in White's prose which can take the mind in completely new directions.


7. Michael Shermer:  The Believing Brain  (2011)

Shermer is the president of the American Skeptics and  a psychologist and science historian (as well as an accomplished long-distance cyclist!).  He has studied why people believe "strange" things and has brought some of his previous writing together in The Believing Brain  as well as introducing the neuro-science involved in how people arrive at beliefs.  He shows how evolution has shaped the way we  seek patterns in all our dealings and then ascribe meaning to those patterns in order to make sense of the world.  A good read but spoilt a bit by lots of sidetracking.

8. Marcus Clarke:  Australian Tales of the Bush  (1896)

After he arrived from England Clarke became a writer for the Melbourne Argus in 1867, aged 21, but he tired of the urban life and went to live on a property north of Stawell.  He was a failure as a jackeroo but successful in sending stories of the bush life back to Melbourne for publication.  This is a collection of those stories, giving great insight into the rural, small-town life, and full of movement and colour.  Stories range from "Pretty Dick" in which a child is lost and perishes in the bush, to "How the Circus came to Bullocktown". A great reflection on Clarke's formative years.

9. John Grisham: A Painted House  (2001)

Grisham's novel is set on an eighty-acre cotton farm during the 1952 season of cotton picking and told by a narrator who was seven at the time of the novel.  The characters are the family who run the farm, a group of Mexicans hired to pick cotton, and a group of "hill people" who come down from the Ozarks each year for the picking.  The descriptions are masterly, detailing the oppressive summer weather, the backbreaking work in the rows of cotton, piling on the old truck to go into town on the weekend.  A good yarn that obviously reflects Grisham's childhood.

10. Charles Darwin:  The Autobiography of Charles Darwin  (1887)

This text was written by Darwin for his wife and children, and was edited and published after his death by Darwin's son.  It mainly describes his childhood, education and early influences.  He spent time at Edinburgh University from the age of sixteen and then Cambridge when it was determined he would not be a doctor but rather a clergyman, meant to study the classics.  His early influences were the scientific men and societies at these establishments, and his love of collecting, in particular, beetles.  Darwin suggests that he was not an innovator or original thinker but relied on methodical and painstaking hard work in conducting analysis of his collections.
Now that I've completed this post, I realise there are another dozen books that could have made the list, but ain't that the way?

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

My Best Music of 2012

   Here's my favourite new (for me) albums for 2012.  It doesn't necessarily reflect what I'm most listening to because I always love to listen to old favourites- new is not always best.  However it shows what I've been enthusiastic about in the last twelve months.  There are notable albums I've got this year that didn't make the cut, from new classical guitarists like MiloÅ¡ Karadaglić to old jazz icons like clarinettist Johnny Dodds or bluesmen like Jerry "Boogie" McCain who died this year.

   The WOMAD festival in Adelaide in March had a lot of influence.  I did some research, downloaded music off the internet and knew what I wanted to see when we got there.  Generally, I wasn't disappointed and there were some great surprises!

   Anyway, here's ten albums that I'm happy to listen to any day of the week, in no particular order:- 

1.  Glenn Gould -  Goldberg Variations (1955)
The 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations made the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould instantly famous.  His 1981 re-recording (a year before he died) is also of interest but doesn't have the daring of the original.  This record goes for 38 minutes; the 1981 version when he was older and wiser goes for 55 minutes ( I love them both).

2.  Nana Mouskouri - Athina (1984). 
I loved her TV shows when accompanied by the Athenians with their harmonies and Greek musicianship featuring guitar and bouzouki.  However, her recordings were commercial crap until I discovered this album which reflects her roots and the Greek musicianship.  Folk songs such as "Yalo Yalo" make the album.

3.  Diabate and Sissoko - New Ancient Strings (1997) 
The Malian fathers of Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko recorded Ancient Strings in 1970, so this is a tribute by the kora player Diabate and his accompanist.  I think I got this album from Ian in NSW - thanks, it's very laid back.

4.  Jinja Safari - Locked by Land (2012). 
They were supposed to bring out a new album this year but this is a compilation of the EPs (which I had) and some bonus tracks.  Anyway, we saw them live at Womadelaide - teenage magnets with an electric performance, and great musicians.

5.  Dobet Gnahore - Home Made (2012). 
I bought an album (Djekpa La You) of this African performer after seeing her live at Womadelaide but was disappointed by the overproduction compared to the tracks I'd previously collected off the internet.  These had only her voice and guitar accompanied by female backing vocals and percussion.  I compiled the seven tracks into this "album".

6.  Shivkumar Sharma And Hariprasad Chaurasia -Rasdhara (1999).  We were very impressed and privileged to see Shivkumar Sharma at Womadelaide playing his satoor (like the hammered dulcimer).
I found this record where he is accompanied by the famed flute player - it's a great combination!  These two played together in 1967 (Call of the Valley) but this shows their experience.

7.  Anda Union - The Wind Horse (2011).  I bought this album after watching the Mongolian acoustic group's set twice (or was it three times?) at Womadelaide.  The combination of throat singing, stringed instruments and pure exuberance was exhilarating to say the least.  They effortlessly captured the rhythm and feel of horses in the Mongolian landscape.

8.  Nick Drake - Pink Moon (1972).  I also have his first album Five Leaves Left (1969) but the 1972 effort shows better songwriting and features only voice and guitar which is more poignant.  I'd never heard of Drake until recently but think this is me in the bedroom (so do others apparently!).

9.  Le Trio Joubran - Asfar (2011).  I already had their 2005 album Randana but after seeing them at Womadelaide got this and love the simple subtlety.  My initial thought at their concert was that they were doing "party tricks" for the westerners but this is probably too harsh.  It's hard to fault the record.

10. Keith Jarrett - The Koln Concert (1975).  I'm amazed to find that I've only this year discovered the best-selling solo jazz album ever and the best-selling piano album.  For this I thank ABC Classic FM who played a track earlier in the year.  I particularly love the first track which runs for 26 minutes and draws the listener into the whole experience.  I'll leave it to others to conjecture whether he made it up as he went along (just kidding)!
I resisted the temptation to include more than 10 albums!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Christmas Letter 2012

    This is a bit like our annual report card - sent with Christmas cards to most of the people to whom we send Christmas cards - published here for posterity (?). 

   Greetings and best wishes for the Christmas season!  We hope you are enjoying your celebrations and will have a wonderful year in 2013.

   In the era of Twitter and Facebook, the concept of a letter printed on ordinary paper and posted with a stamp is all a bit "last year", but I intend to persevere in a spirit of "making contact by any means is better than none at all"!

   The year was mostly taken up with visits to hospital for treatment.  In mid-year, the treatment became ineffective (some cancer cells mutate and resist the drugs) and I switched to a clinical trial which required weekly visits to the Frankston Private Hospital for a fortnightly infusion of a whole cocktail of drugs for about five hours and a shorter treatment in the off-week.  That has now finished after twelve weeks, the PICC line is removed and no infuser bottles to bring home (and sleep with!).  Bliss!  As part of the trial, I'm still on weekly maintenance treatment for as long as it is effective.  Side effects have been manageable except that numb tingly fingers and feet have been with me since I had oxaliplatin in the first half of last year - I'm still waiting for it to go away and let me lead a more normal life.

   One project we got out of the way this year was to get all our old 8mm films converted to DVD.  A bloke down at Tyabb did them for us and he did a great job.  It was fun to see again the old movies of family life when I was single, and ones of our kids when they were little.  I've also scanned all of our slide collection and put them onto USB memory sticks that can be plugged straight into the TV for viewing.  At present I'm in the process of scanning all the photos in our photo albums for the same purpose.  While it's nice to thumb the pages of an album, it's also great to see them as a slide show on the TV.  An added incentive was that many photos needed to be removed from albums that were deteriorating badly and put into new ones.

   Doortje and I have done our bit to keep the arts and entertainment industry afloat.  During the year we've been to WOMAD in Adelaide as well as music festivals at Frankston, Mordialloc and the Aboriginal arts festival at Federation Square in Melbourne.  For the latter we stayed in a motel in Southbank near the river and enjoyed three days of such performers as Dan Sultan and Archie Roach as well as great restaurant meals and generally living it up.

   In March we went to Womadelaide.  We drove over and stayed a week in a motel close to the Botanic Park venue.  Staying in the same motel were Alan and Kim from Darwin,  Peter and June from Tweed Heads and for part of the time, Jan and Ebony from Port Pirie.  We spent an evening before the festival with John and Sue, so it was a real family affair and we had a great time.  We were able to walk into the CBD for meals, as well as to the festival, although I had my bike for the latter, riding being easier on my feet than walking.  We saw some great performers - some favourites were Jinja Safari, Dirty Three, Tinariwen, Anda Union, Dobet Gnahore and the Pigram Brothers, but there were heaps!

   In June, we even went to the opera in downtown Frankston.  We saw Bizet's Carmen at the Arts Centre and enjoyed it very much.  The orchestra was only a dozen or so and complemented the voices of the Melbourne Opera very well.

   We made several trips during the year to a variety of interesting places.  Early in the year we stayed a few nights at Jill Redwood's b&b cottage at Goongerah.  We had booked to go there in 2010 but didn't make it when ill-health intervened.  Then Helmy and Perran asked us to join them there so we did.  Goongerah is a very secluded, peaceful place amongst the mountains and forest on the Brodribb River.


   During the winter we stayed in a holiday house on the side of the hill at Walkerville with spectacular views of Waratah Bay and Wilson's Promontory.  The weather wasn't great but we had a fire and were able to get out for walks occasionally.  Just to sit and look at the view (and parrots!) was wonderful.  We had a similar experience at Metung when Perran's parents, Rob and Anna, left their house empty and invited us to use it.  The house is set in the bush on Box's Creek which runs into Bancroft Bay at Metung.  It's a beautiful house - a feature is the breakfast nook which was perfect for sitting in the winter sun.

   Another trip we did between treatments was to spend five nights at Tooleybuc in NSW.  What's at Tooleybuc?  Nothing, really!  It simply had the property of being not far from Swan Hill, where I tried to book on what was a long weekend with the annual race meeting being a feature.  "Not even the locals like to spend five nights in a row in Tooleybuc!"  It has a sporting club and hotel (we had two evening meals in each and could walk to both), about 250 people, and a bridge across the Murray.  We enjoyed relaxing and exploring in every direction.  Except for the first afternoon, we gave Swan Hill a miss!

   The kids are all doing well.  Daniel continues to make trips to China with his work.  Monika's mother and step-father, Gunhild and Kjell, were here from Sweden at the beginning of the year and we spent a bit of time with them.  Monika's daughter, Wendy, was married in September - the weather was beaut, which is surprising!  Wendy and Jakob seem very happy and make a great couple.  William came home from Sweden in time for the wedding after being in Africa and Europe for about eighteen months.  Ronja, now fourteen and in her second year of high school, changed schools at the beginning of the year and is now going to Frankston High, which has an excellent reputation, and she is very happy with the change.

   Helmy and Perran and the boys have been in Denmark since July.  Perran has six months sabbatical leave and is doing some research at the university in Odense.  Harvey is going to school and Theo to pre-school but language has been a bit of a problem.  Helmy has been doing some laboratory work at the uni.  They all got bikes when they arrived there and have no car.  The most recent photos show the first snow of the season.  We're looking forward to them being home in January.

   Jac and Pat's kids are growing up too fast.  Mason is now thirteen and Sullivan is five, with the girls in between - Amelia nine and Nara seven.  In September, all six of them flew to Europe for a holiday in Paris and to visit the Odense relatives.  We took them to the airport and after hanging around for a while, Sully asked "Mum, are we in Paris now?"  Anyway, they had a great time, not least going up the Eiffel tower.  Mason started high school this year and is an enthusiastic cricketer, while Millie is into basketball.  I think Jac's cakemaking and decorating has taken a back seat to crochet which she is keen on.  We celebrated her fortieth birthday in May (I wrote a song which the grandkids all performed).

   Since Helm's family went to Denmark we've started using Skype to keep in contact.  Doortje loves it!  Harvey and Theo are able to show us their latest Lego models and school stuff.  We should have started long ago with Andrew and Sarah in Alice Springs because we don't see them often.

   Andrew and Sarah, apart from their bush trips to Aboriginal communities in Pitjantjatjara country, have recently been busy rehearsing their two-person show in preparation for the Darwin season of three shows which they performed a couple of weeks ago.  Those we know who went, including Alan and Kim, say it was very successful, and Andrew and Sarah were happy with the effort they put in.  They've also been to remote communities in the Top End, including Maningrida in November.

   Enough!  You can find more detail and photos on my Flickr site and blog page:

lots of love,
(and generally signed by Doortje and, possibly, Rob)