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Marlon and cat

At the vet’s recently, because Cat the Ripper has had a stroke, his back-end’s gone skew-whiff, he’s old so apparently these things can be expected, I saw on the counter a brochure from an animal-health company.  ‘Is your dog missing out on playtime?’ it asked.  Of course there was an accompanying picture: a white pooch, its head softly resting on the carpet and eyes looking glumly into the distance (impersonating a writer perhaps), an abandoned chew-toy on the other side.  ‘They could be suffering from osteoarthritis,’ was the answer provided.

Being a writer, and a pedant, which is a dangerous combination, I noticed that clunky they.  In my old-fashioned opinion, a singular dog cannot be a they.  So as I waited with Cat the Ripper in his carry-box for us to be called into the consultation room, I silently rearranged the sentence: ‘He or she could be suffering from osteoarthritis.’  Still clunky, plus the sentence should be more precise.  ‘Osteoarthritis could be the cause.’  But we need that suffering word; at least the animal-health company does.  It forces us to relate to and empathise with the four-legged members of the family.  We need to know they might be in pain, or uncomfortable, or just plain unhappy.  Then we can act.

Artists, writers especially, are besotted with the idea of suffering.  They (and I’m using that they to hypocritically distance myself from the others of my ilk, or ink) explore it, try to resolve it; some even wallow in it, creatively, or personally, or both.  Thankfully we (ah now I’m back amongst the fold!) have the ability to analyse and order and communicate.  We use words to make sense of it all; sometimes we can make it all go way.  Think of a novel and its heart will be suffering.  Gillian Mears’ extraordinary but distressing Foal’s Bread (2011) is an example.  So is Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886).  Even amongst the articles of this newspaper, every story, the sports ones too, and the latest weather report, there is that thing: suffering, or the potential for it.

Needless to say, dogs aren’t that interested in this philosophical stuff – they just be – and Cat the Ripper has other things on his mind.  So we have vets to act as our intermediaries, and we have animal-health companies with their questionable grammar.  In the end, everything hinges on language, doesn’t it.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 December 2012.)

In the past on Under the counter I’ve compiled a brief list of the best books of the year, according to no one but old muggins here.  In 2012, however, my reading has been much more scattered, partly by design and partly by circumstance, so that I’m less up-to-date than I’d like to be.  Thankfully that hasn’t meant that I’ve not been moved by books and the experience of reading.  What follows is a list of six books I’ve read this year that have ended up meaning a lot to me.  What’s a good reading experience?  One where I’ve been utterly convinced by the words on the page, so much so that I’ve believed that they are true, the people are real, and the predicaments they are in dangerous, that important information has been conveyed, that in the end it has all just meant so much.  In short, my life would be poorer if I’d not experienced these books.  So let’s get the party started.

The UnfortunatesThe Unfortunates by BS Johnson (Picador, 1999).  This was a gift from He Who Can Sniff Out A Good Present At A Thousand Paces, and it intrigued me from the moment I undid the wrapping.  First published in 1969, this is an unbound book where, apart from the first and last chapters, it is meant to be read in random order; Johnson believed that it provided the ‘solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness’ better than ‘the imposed order of the book’.  The story itself is about a newspaper report who is sent to an unnamed UK city to cover a football game but is forced to remember a friend who died a rather horrible death from cancer.  Needless to say, this isn’t the cheeriest of reads, but despite the experimental format it packs an emotional wallop.  The book’s melancholy, if not tragedy, is underscored by the fact that Johnson, plagued by family trouble and a lack of critical success, killed himself in 1973 aged forty.  Thankfully The Unfortunates, which many consider one of the great examples of Sixties experimentalism, was republished in 1999.

Foal's BreadFoal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  I was hugely moved by this novel.  Even though I know next to nothing about its subject matter – the strange world of country horse-jumping championships – I found myself engrossed in the people of the book, their hardship and tenacity, the tragedies that strike (and strike they do, in more ways than one), but the great love-story that ties it all together.  To be sure, it’s a grim book.  However, the prose, which others have described as ‘knotty’, which is most apt, is so superbly composed that it’s hard not to be affected by this incredible work.  Foal’s Bread won the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction, and deservedly so.

Invisible ThreadThe Invisible Thread, edited by Irma Gold (Halstead Press, 2012).  It’s a little odd – and self-serving – to list a book that I am in, but it’s worthwhile rising above that, because this is one almighty collection (and in this company I’m a very minor player).  Amongst its pages, the book celebrates one hundred years of words from those who’ve had a connection with the Australian Capital Territory.  There are names such as CEW Bean, Judith Wright, Roger McDonald, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clarke, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Miles Franklin, and Omar Musa.  Iceland has a population of about 300,000 people but has a reputation for producing some of the most influential contemporary musicians of recent times.  The ACT’s population is only marginally higher – might it be that with The Invisible Thread this region may soon be credited with having an impact Australia’s literary culture?

Jasper JonesJasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, 2009).  This novel is three years old now but I didn’t read it until very recently.  It’s scored an enormous range of accolades, including being short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2010.  The Monthly described it as being an ‘Australian To Kill A Mockingbird’, and, surprisingly enough, the hyperbole isn’t that far off the mark.  The narrative, which is essentially one of two boys growing up in small-town Western Australia, is simple, the prose engaging and accessible, and there’s humour and heart.  Jasper Jones may not be Australia’s very best novel from recent times, but it’s certainly one of the most readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable.

Spirit of ProgressSpirit of Progress by Steven Carroll (Fourth Estate, 2011).  Let me make it clear from the outset: I love this man’s writing.  Carroll puts word down on the page with such precision, so that even though little happens across the arc of the novel you’re swept away by the sheer artistry.  Amazingly, despite this lack of plot, I really couldn’t put this book down.  Carroll clearly knows his history – Spirit of Progress focuses on the years immediately after the end of World War Two – and he brings it so alive that the reading lingers for months after the turning of the final page.  I adored The Time We Have Taken, which won the Miles Franklin in 2008, and adored what is essentially that book’s prequel.

Midnight EmpireMidnight Empire by Andrew Croome (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  Generally speaking I’m not much of a reader of espionage thrillers, but Andrew Croome’s follow-up to his The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award-winning Document Z is not only a page-turner but a finely crafted and thought-provoking warning-shot across the bow.  There’s no doubt that drone warfare is the military tool of the very near future, and Croome examines it with considerable insight and lucidity.  Much of the action in Midnight Empire happens on computer screens; that he is able to bring alive the drama and horror and tragedy is quite miraculous.  This is a book that should be placed under thousands and thousands of Australian Christmas trees, and widely read and discussed.

Seasons greetings.  Whatever that means.

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