24 May 2012

Genetic Cause For An Addiction to Fiction?

I've long thought that I have an addiction to fiction. Between reading lots of prose fiction and writing a little, watching drama & comedy films and TV, day-dreaming as much as I can, and having long, involved stories in my sleep-time dreams, I spend a large proportion of my life absorbed in tales that I or someone else has made up.

Personally, I think that's a good thing. There are lots of respectable ways of saying this - it's part of human nature to want to tell and hear stories; reading or watching fiction about other people's lives helps us develop understanding and compassion; we can learn a lot, educate ourselves, by reading well-researched fiction... I agree with all of those, as well as thinking that, for me at least, losing myself in a good story is an addictive behaviour. It soothes me, cheers me, distracts me; I get edgy if I can't do it most days; when I'm doing it, I lose my sense of time and often my awareness of what's going on around me, or even in my own body - fatigue, thirst, needing to go to the loo - everything fades away except the fictional world, if it's really gripping. Good thing I have cats, then, as they are very effective at bringing me back to the real world with their demands for food, attention, action.

Not surprisingly, I own quite a few books (rough estimate, somewhere around 1500 - 2000) in many genres and for all ages, as well as a lesser but still goodly number of film & TV DVDs (about 500 +/-). Probably my books are about 85% fiction, 15% non-fiction. Very few of my DVDs are documentaries (although those docos are fab - Simon Schama's A History of Britain, George Gittoes' Soundtrack to War, series of Who Do You Think You Are?).

So I'm surprised that six out of the thirteen books I bought at/just before the recent Sydney Writers' Festival, by authors who I planned to hear speaking or ones who I was enthused by after hearing them, were non-fiction. Most of those, though, are memoirs or biographies, so I guess I'm sticking with stories about people, even if some of those stories are about scientific learning as much as about the individuals involved.

I've been hugely enjoying novellist Hilary Mantel's memoir, Giving up the Ghost, while also finding her experiences as a young child very moving, particularly her puzzlement at how and why school does what it does to children - very reminiscent of my own bewilderment as a four year old. At least I had my dad, who told my teacher that if his daughter wanted to read instead of watching TV with the other children, she should be able to, even if she wasn't supposed to have learnt yet. Hilary didn't get into trouble for being an early reader - she found Dick and Jane too boring to be enthused about - but her spontaneous creativity when reciting rote lessons angered the teacher, who asked what was obviously a trick question, "Do you want me to hit you with this ruler?".

But because I wanted to start reading all the books, all at once, soon after starting Giving up the Ghost I leapt into another memoir, by Russian Jewish journalist Masha Gessen.

Masha Gessen's memoir Blood Matters is chock full of information garnered from Gessen's interviews and personal experiences with geneticists, oncologists, genetic counsellors, economists (she consulted a professor of economics about using economic theory to help her decision-making about having prophylactic surgery to prevent breast and/or ovarian cancer), genealogists, DNA analysts, match-makers, rabbis, historians... She is impelled to learn about genetic medicine and inheritable diseases, and breast & ovarian cancer, their treatments and survival rates, when she tests positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation.

Along the way, she hears about the genetic evidence that present-day Jewish men who identify as Cohanim (belonging to the priestly caste of Cohens, descended from Aaron, brother of Moses) do carry a particular Y-chromosome gene that apparently originated with one man whose Y-DNA haplotype shows he lived in the Middle East around 2650 years ago, give or take a few hundred years. She has a harrowing conversation with the sole survivor of a Nazi-run "home" for disabled children (reading the description of what the doctors did to the children at the Spiegelgrund nearly made me throw up). And she meets Miriam, mother of Yehuda, who has a system of hand-written file-cards recording prospective brides for her son; considerations include personality, religiousness, appearance, family occupation, inheritable illnesses.

Some of the stories, whether of people with Huntington's disease (in a chapter justifiably called The Cruellest Disease), or women who have lost all their female relatives over 20 to cancer, are heart-breaking, but I'm still reading, partly because it is fascinating and eye-opening, and also because I haven't yet reached the chapter where Masha decides what she will do - whether to have either or both operations, and what else instead, or as well.

On a much lighter note, I'd like to know if there is a genetic cause of my addiction to reading stories. My father was adopted by a loving, hard-working family who didn't read books. (Later, when I was a teenager, my ever-generous Nana would offer me a "book" to read, meaning Woman's Day or another magazine.) Once he was in a position to buy books, and stay up late reading them, my dad did both, sometimes to excess. In adulthood, he met his birth mother, who turned out to also have a staying-up-late-reading habit. My sister and I had little chance of avoiding this inheritance, if it does have a genetic origin, as our mother too was an inveterate book-buyer and would often be caught up in a good story and lose all sense of time while reading.

My darling ma, reading, with cats

22 May 2012

What Shall I Wear?

After so long not needing to think much about what I'm going to wear today (and certainly not thinking about what I'll wear in a week or a month's time), I've recently found myself planning what to wear to the Sydney Writers' Festival, and for my graduation next week, then a science fiction convention in early June, and SupaNova in mid June.

In the last few years I have had a very low income (due to little or no work, while recovering from a major illness), and also been putting on weight, so my old clothes mostly don't fit any more, and I haven't bought many new ones (except for geeky t-shirts, which I am addicted to, and buy when they are on special).

The SWF was relatively easy - cool weather meant jeans, usually with leggings underneath for warmth, then a writerly t-shirt over a long-sleeved garment (skivvy or long-sleeved t-shirt), and a jacket for the colder mornings and evenings. The t-shirts I wore to the Festival had: a design of books putting on their jackets (some with fur trim); a quote from TV writer Joss Whedon; a depiction of Mary Shelley writing, sheets of paper flying in the air around her, and her Creature looming behind her; the Bronte sisters at a picnic, with Charlotte and Emily giggling over the brooding heroes in a magazine called 'Byronic', while Anne glowers disapprovingly.

On the first day of the Festival I lost a favourite jacket, which was comfortable, loose enough to still fit and to go over several layers, a lovely combination of shades of brown, I'd had it for over 30 years, and it was given to me by my mum, who died last year. sad to lose it, but at least it was a garment, not a person (one of my darling cats was missing for four days not long ago, which certainly puts a jacket into perspective, even a favourite one).

I bought some nice clothes at an op shop/thrift shop to wear to my graduation (Certificate IV in Training and Assessment), but am not sure now if they'll be suited to the weather - the seven day forecast so far is indicating probable showers and a maximum of 17^C, colder than I was expecting. And I'll probably be walking some distance to/from public transport at either end of the trip between home and venue. Will have to think more about that further...

For the science fiction convention in June, again I'll need warm clothes for travelling between where I'll be staying with friends and the convention venue - winter in Melbourne will definitely be chilly. And layers that I can take off when I get to the venue will be good; since the Con is being held at a 4 star hotel I assume it'll be nice and warm indoors. The theme of this Con is craft, in the sense of hand-made artifacts, artisan work, wearables, etc, so I'll try to wear geeky/spec fic t-shirts that also relate to crafts, and/or wear some hand-made jewellery or textile art. Not sure if I'll have the energy to go to the Maskobalo (for which, surprisingly, a mask is not de rigeur), but if I do, I'll wear a costume. My first thought, assisted by my sister, was to wear a Halloween costume bee outfit that I bought on special at CorsetsAU, augmented with home-made findings, and say I was a Vespiform, as seen in the Doctor Who episode with Agatha Christie. Then I actually looked at the theme for this year's ball, and discovered it is Under Sea, so now I'm thinking of going (if I do) as a selkie, in her human form, inspired by Margo Lanagan's recent novel Sea Hearts (published in the US as The Brides of Rollrock Island).

In their human form, the selkies wear the everyday attire of Rollrock Island, which seems to be early 20th century Scottish peasant's dress. So I'll find something to simulate that, plus I need to find some seaweed that I can knit a sea-blanket from. Not sure where to source that in Sydney - sheets of nori would be easy to find, but I need strands - any suggestions?

I've not yet done cosplay for the two SupaNova events that I've been to, sticking with my usual geeky or cat-related t-shirts. If I get there this year (it's the weekend after Continuum 8/Craftonomicon, so I might still be resting and recovering), I'm thinking of dressing up, and if I've put together a sea-wife's costume, that'd be a good option. Or the bee/Vespiform, which I could do there instead of at the Con. Or, I could go as a Hogwarts student, with my baby Welsh Red Dragon, Nerys. For that I'd need a school uniform, and a Hogwarts tie - preferably in Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff colours.

21 May 2012

Troubled Girls Seduced by Logic

Day Two of the Festival (for me) started early and finished late. I got to the venue half an hour early and went straight to the queue for Girl Trouble, the first talk I was attending, partly because I wanted to get into the actual room before it filled up, instead of watching/listening from the Viewing Lounge, and because I was meeting up with three of my lovely writing buddies: Monique McDonell and Angella Whitton (pictured with me above) and Pamela Cook (who I sadly didn't get a pic of cos she arrived just as we started filing into the room).

The writers speaking about women's fiction in the Girl Trouble panel were: Toni Jordan, author of Addition, a tragi-comic romance about a woman with OCD, and Fall Girl, a rom-com in which the lovers are caught up in a tangled web of lies; and Kathy Lette, author of many popular novels, from Puberty Blues, co-written with Gabrielle Carey in the 1970s when they were in their teens, through Foetal Attraction, Mad Cows, and How to Kill Your Husband, to her latest novel, The Boy Who Fell to Earth, about a woman and her autistic son. They spoke with author and radio & television presenter, Gretel Killeen.

It was a vibrant, funny session, with much good-humoured banter between the panellists, and lots of laughter in the room (the audience was almost all female, and I'd guess the average age was late 40s/early 50s). One comment I saw on twitter was that it seemed "very 20 years ago", and it did seem to me that many of Kathy Lette's very funny, polished one-liners were the flip-side of old-fashioned sexist "take my mother-in-law" stand-up jokes. there was some serious discussion of Toni's and Kathy's novels, and of the state of women's fiction generally, as well as the jokes from Kathy, my favourites of which were: "Women are each other's human Wonderbras, uplifting, supporting and bringing each other together" and (regarding the expectation that women should rip out or shave off all body hair) "I like my pubic hair; it's like a little pet in my pants".

Several days and many discussions later, I'm relying on my live tweets for the points that struck me most at the time.

Toni Jordan: the merging of the writer's mind and each reader's mind creates a new book with each reading.

Gretel Killeen: rom-coms have been with us since Shakespeare wrote Beatrice and Benedick.

Toni Jordan on writing erotic scenes: you know it's working if you find it arousing yourself

In response to a question about Stephenie Meyer's novel Twilight, Toni said bad books can be "gateway books", introducing non-readers to the joy of fiction and leading them to better books. And while avid readers may find The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, and other similar best-sellers to be cliched in their language, characters and plots, to people who don't read much fiction, it's all new.

After a coffee/hot chocolate with Monique, Angella and Pam, I dashed off to hear science writers Dava Sobel and Robyn Arianrhod talking with Ashley Hay about their latest non-fiction books, A More Perfect Heaven (Sobel) and Seduced by Logic (Arianrhod), in a panel called That Vision Thing. As Ashley Hay said, imagination and creativity underpin scientific research and discovery, and Sobel and Arianrhod each bring their scientist's combination of creative imagination and desire for verifiable facts to their stories of Nicholas Copernicus and his revolutionary understanding of Earth's place in the cosmos, and of Émilie du Châtelet in 18th century France and Mary Somerville in 19th century Scotland, who learnt Newtonian mathematics and physics and popularised Isaac Newton's theories.

My intention to Not Buy Books was washed away by the wonderful details Robyn described of Émilie's and Mary's lives: their struggles to learn and share knowledge, their triumphs, their families and friends. So I now have autographed copies of Dava Sobel's The Planets and Robyn Arianrhod's Seduced by Logic (oh! I guess I was seduced by the story of two women who were seduced by logic), and had a nice chat with Robyn about Mary Somerville, and Somerville College, Oxford, which was named after Mary, and was where my mum studied.

some random tidbits from the talk:

as a chld, Mary Somerville saw whales and dolphins swimming in the Firth of Forth

Mary's father was an admiral in the Royal Navy. when he returned home from a long absence and found Mary had taught herself Newtonian mathematics he forbade her to study any more as it was well known, by medical professionals and the general public, that women's brains were too fragile to withstand intellectual study and Mary might "end up in a straitjacket".

French playwright Voltaire, who was Émilie du Châtelet's lover, was a huge fan of Newton and tried to replicate his experiments

as lovers of knowledge discovered more about the world they had to develop the language to describe it in detail. imagine explaining an experiment to test the properties of heat and light at a time & place - 18th century France - where many people would simply use the word "fire" to describe both light and heat.

Robyn had a love of mathematics and science, particularly physics, while in school, but struggled against the expectation, still strong in the mid-late 20th century, that girls & women weren't suited to studying science or maths. when she did succeed in starting a university degree in science, she was disenchanted by both the academic approach and the connections between science and weapons, science and pollution.
she left uni, left the city, and lived "off the grid", but was drawn back by her love of physics and maths to studying Einstein's Theory of General Relativity in her bush home, by candlelight.

I was planning to include the third talk I went to that day in this blog post, but it's late, I'm tired, and the talk was dense, rich, intense, and way too much to post about right now - so I'll do that tomorrow.

17 May 2012

Lost & Found, Seen & Heard

let's see if I can write a blog post after a full, eventful day and actually post it tonight, not run out of steam, or flaff around adding pictures, or looking up references instead of just saying what I think (and maybe adding references later).

I got to the two talks I'd planned to attend today at Sydney Writers' Festival, and afterwards went to Kinokuniya to comb through the sale tables. Everything took a little longer than I expected - except for walking from home to Ashfield station. I was worried about running late, so walked very briskly, and got there in plenty of time to creak slowly up the stairs from street to concourse, buy my ticket, and descend carefully down the stairs from concourse to platform. (I was having a good knee day, but still need to be careful, cos of cartilage damage from many previous knee injuries, and weak muscles/loose ligaments that could let my kneecap/s dislocate again. exercise is good! particularly if it strengthens my medial quadriceps)

The playground in the park down the hill from Fort Street and up the hill from Hickson Road

On my way from Circular Quay to Hickson Road I saw a woman peering uncertainly at the lanes and streets of The Rocks and at her phone, so I asked if she was looking for the writers' festival - turned out she was, so I showed her the steep cobbled laneway down to the park across the road (and up another steep road) from the venue.

Being in the vicinity of Sydney Theatre and Sydney Dance performance spaces and rehearsal studios meant there were lots of actors and dancers around, so I enjoyed a bit of star-spotting, as well as looking for friends and acquaintances. Saw actress Sacha Horler striding past, talking on her mobile; said a "hello" in passing to friend (and former landlord) writer & editor Jonathan Shaw, who was dashing off to a talk; saw actor Dan Wyllie strolling by, chatting to friend; and stopped and said a brief hello to composer & musician Charlie Chan.

The queues for most of the talks at the SWF were massive - a wonderful turnout - and the first talk I went to, Dr Anita Heiss talking about her memoir Am I Black Enough For You?, was at capacity before I even joined the queue outside Wharf 4/5 (admittedly that was only 15 minutes before the start time). so I posted on Facebook about it being 'sold out' (it was free, no bookings) and toddled over to the Viewing Lounge in Wharf 2/3, a big barn of a place with deck chairs set out facing a large screen on which one sold out talk in each timeslot could be shown. the deck chairs were all full too by the time I got there, but I made myself comfy on the floor in a vantage point from where I could see the screen, and the audio was nice and clear, and the conversation between Anne Summers and Anita - about identity, Australian culture, Aboriginality and family - was so lovely, interesting, funny, and moving that I felt just as present as if I'd been in the room with them (but somewhere up the back - the video feed showed us a wide shot with Anne and Anita as small figures seen over the audience).

I did some tweeting and FB posting during the talk, and realised that my train/bus ticket wasn't in my jeans pocket any more - it must've fallen out when I first pulled my phone out to post about the talk being full, the other side of Wharf 4/5. I didn't want to spend the time then going back to look for it, cos there wasn't much time before the next talk, and that might well be full by the time I reached that queue if I didn't get a wriggle on.

but I wanted to see Anita, have her autograph my copy of Am I Black Enough For You? (which I was halfway through, and greatly enjoying & learning lots from) so I scooted over to where the wonderful indie bookshop Gleebooks had set up for the duration, with books by all the writers appearing at the Festival. While in the autographs queue I got chatting with the woman in front of me, who hadn't read any of Anita's books, and was a bit doubtful about reading chick lit, so I enthused to this woman about the Mr Right books and the Dreaming books, and the way Anita combines social/political awareness with humour, relationships, and aspects of life that most women could relate to, and she ended up buying Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming - yay!
and I did get to give Anita a hug - two hugs, in fact - one for her, and one for Kerry Reed-Gilbert, who was one of the deadly writers who Anita would be joining at a Sydney Writers' Festival event in Wollongong tonight.

somewhere in there I bought Thai-riffic by Oliver Phommavan, who will be part of On Western Sydney, which I'm going to on (checks calendar) Saturday, and Flyaway by Lucy Christopher, who will be talking about Her Dark Materials on Sunday. Doubt that I'll manage to read all of both of them, but you never know...

Then I nipped back to Wharf 4/5 to join the queue for Not Funny, Strange, with authors Chris Flynn (A Tiger in Eden), P.A. O’Reilly (The Fine Colour of Rust) and Charlotte Wood (Animal People) talking to Angela Meyer about using wry humour. Guess what? It was already full. So back to the Viewing Lounge, where this time I scored a deck chair. the panel conversation, and the extracts read by the authors, were funny, and did make us laugh.

Then I left the Festival to catch a bus to another marvellous bookshop, Kinokuniya, which had a sale - not store-wide, but including wide range of non-fiction, and fiction from various genres, in formats including prose novels, graphic novels and picture books. On the way out of the Festival I retraced my steps and lo & behold, there was my train/bus ticket, lying where it had fallen from my pocket, unnoticed by the hundreds of people who'd walked past. Yay!
I'd been so restrained at the Festival (but then again, I am going back a few more times and will most likely visit the Gleebooks shop again); not so restrained at Kinokuniya - but such bargains! Fifteen books for about $85. W00T!
I've long had the habit of gloating over my purchases, whether books, clothes, DVDs, or other nifty finds, by spreading them out over furniture or on the floor so I can revel in their wonderfulness. in recent years, I've also taken a photo to post on Facebook, twitter, and/or my blog.

Before going to Kinokuniya I'd fortified myself with a meal of hot chips, and it was as I was leaving the cafe where I'd eaten that I realised I didn't have my jacket with me. Even though it is a lovely jacket, and one that I've had since the late 1970s (it doesn't do up across my middle now, but I'd reached my adult height by the age of 10, so it still fits in other ways), I didn't go back to the cafe to look for it, as I wasn't sure when I'd last had it - on the bus? at the Festival? So tomorrow I'll be checking with Lost Property at the Festival and at the cafe, and ringing the bus depot to see if anyone has handed it in. Dear jacket, I hope to see you again soon.

So that was Day One of the Festival for me (it actually started several days ago, with events in the Blue Mountains that I'd thought about going to, but hearing it had snowed in the mountains on the weekend put a damper on my enthusiasm for that idea).

Lost two things, recovered one (so far); heard some great talks; hugged some lovely friends; bought some books...

Tomorrow I hope to meet up with a few more friends, hear some more talks, maybe buy another book or two (only from Gleebooks, though - no more extra bookshops!), and hopefully retrieve my jacket.