Christmas in Photos

Merry Christmas to everyone who’s still celebrating in their part of the world. It’s just tipped over into Boxing Day here and everything’s starting to wind down. Christmas seems to come faster every year, then it’s over before you know it.

We just had a quiet day this year; opened our presents in the afternoon and had a salad, with some berries for dessert. We live a fair distance from most of our family and Christmas isn’t such a big deal for us anymore. If my health improves I’d like to volunteer somewhere next year. I think that would be a great way to spend Christmas and spread some cheer.

That’s one thing that has really stood out for me this year. With the economy it’s been a difficult Christmas for many people but generally they’ve still been in good spirits. I’ve seen people saying Merry Christmas to strangers, shoppers wearing Santa hats, bus drivers decorating their buses in tinsel. It’s really brought people together this year.

Sydney comes alive during Christmas and I’ve been taking a lot of photographs to capture the festive season. I thought I’d share some of them, to show what our Christmas is really like. Some of the displays have been fantastic this year. And our tree came out pretty well too.

Wherever you are in the world, Merry Christmas. I hope you’ve had a wonderful day and have a peaceful rest of the year.

Christmas Tree (2009)

Christmas StockingsSilver Christmas StarGlass HouseSanta & Pink StarSanta & Pink BaublesSanta Kangaroos

White Butterfly (2)Bart & HomerGreen BaublesSnowman & Purple OrnamentTurqoise StarReindeer & Glass Teardrop

Aussie ChristmasRed BaublesFelt RudolphMagi & AngelChristmas Table DisplayReindeer & Glass Ornaments

We went for a bejewelled theme for our tree this year, with white tinges throughout. We’ve had some of the ornaments for almost twenty years now. My favourite decoration is the glass reindeer; it sparkles when light shines on it.

This was the first year where I fixed the tinsel and lights. I feel like I’ve grown up! The cord was so tangled though that it took almost an hour to undo. Bah humbug indeed.

Christmas Dinner (side)

Rudolph & PresentsChristmas DinnerChristmas MeatsBerry HeavenGold Coins & CashewsChristmas Salad

Potatoes & CarrotsGrape JuiceChristmas SnacksReady to EatChristmas CherriesChristmas Cake

It’s usually too hot for a roast so our Christmas dinner was a salad, with an assortment of berries and Christmas cake for dessert. Much less fuss and just as delicious.

The berries were my favourite part. They’re usually expensive, so we only get them once or twice a year. The blackberries were particularly nice and sweet.

Cheeky Elves

David Jones, Elizabeth St, SydneyDavid Jones NativityNativity (Three Wise Men)Nativity (manger)Nativity (animals)Holly & the Ivy

Holly & the Ivy (rabbits)Holly & the Ivy (moles)Joy to the WorldJoy to the World (animals)Joy to the World (Santa & sleigh)Joy to the World (angels)

Large Nativity SceneGood King WenceslasGood King Wenceslas (penguin)Little Drummer Boy (peasants)Little Drummer Boy (mice)Little Drummer Boy

These are from the Christmas window displays at David Jones in Sydney. They’re scenes from favourite Christmas carols and they were spectacular this year. They’d rival almost anything in New York.

I love the photo with the two elves. They were so excited that they kept bumping into people! I guess that’s what Christmas is all about.

Festive Pagewood

Santa & RudolphRandwick HouseFestive RandwickRandwick ChristmasRandwick DecorationsRandwick Santa

Festive MatravilleMatraville ChristmasMatraville Christmas (2)Matraville HouseMatraville House (2)Randwick Town Hall, Christmas

These are some of the houses around our area that have been decorated for the holidays. Outdoor decorations still aren’t that common over here but it’s exciting when you see them.

I can’t help but wonder what their power bills and carbon footprint must be like but I love the Santa sign. Very cute.

More photos are available on Flickr, if you’re interested. Enjoy. 😉

Aussie Jingle Bells

It’s hard to believe it’s almost Christmas again, isn’t it? It doesn’t seem like that long ago since we were wrapping gifts and singing Christmas songs last year. 2009’s gone by so quickly. Or maybe I’m just getting older.

I enjoy Christmas but for different reasons than I used to. I’m not religious anymore but I still enjoy the spirit of the season and the message of peace and good will. It’s the little things about Christmas I enjoy most; seeing the lights and decorations in the city, spending time with family and friends. That’s what Christmas is about to me.

To help get into the Christmas spirit this year I thought I’d post a fun Christmas song, like I did last year. This is my take on Jingle Bells, one of my favourite Christmas songs. I rewrote it to reflect a typical hot Aussie Christmas. It turned out quite well in the end.

In researching it I actually learnt a lot about the song. Apparently Jingle Bells was actually written in 1857 for Thanksgiving, not Christmas. Which makes sense when you think about it as modern Christmas celebrations didn’t start until later. Also there are actually four verses to Jingle Bells, which I didn’t know; you rarely hear the last two.

In any case, I hope you enjoy it. And have a wonderful festive season. 😉

Aussie Jingle Bells

Dashing through the house
In an old shirt and one shoe
Running late again
And you need the loo
Front door starts to ring
As the guests arrive
Bringing lots of gifts and pressies
Up the front drive

Oh jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way
Your family’s gathered round you
On a warm Christmas day (hey!)
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Santa says g’day
Oh what fun it is to spend
Christmas the Aussie way

Now the pressies are unwrapped
We’re sitting by the tree
Lights are all turned on
Looks pretty as can be
We talk about old friends
And have a glass of wine
While the kids play with their toys
Out in the sunshine

Oh jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way
Your family’s gathered round you
On a warm Christmas day (hey!)
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Santa says g’day
Oh what fun it is to spend
Christmas the Aussie way

Soon it’s two o’clock
We’re by the barbeque
Eating snags and prawns
And drinking beer too
Grandma’s made the cake
It’s a little dry
We try to eat it with one hand
While we’re busy swatting flies

Oh jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way
Your family’s gathered round you
On a warm Christmas day (hey!)
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Santa says g’day
Oh what fun it is to spend
Christmas the Aussie way

The light is getting dim
It’s almost time to go
We take a family snap
Under the mistletoe
The kids are fast asleep
We’re singing Christmas songs
Don’t you wish Christmas day
Could last all summer long!

Oh jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way
Your family’s gathered round you
On a warm Christmas day (hey!)
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Santa says g’day
Oh what fun it is to spend
Christmas the Aussie way

Oh what fun it is to spend
Christmas the Aussie way!

Songs of the 00s

Have you seen this video? It was recorded in 2005 at New York University’s annual talent competition, Ultraviolet Live. It’s sung by a young woman called Stefani Germanotta. Or, as she’s now known, Lady Gaga.

Hard to recognise her, isn’t it? It’s a good performance, notably without any of the histrionics she’s become known for. She just sings and it’s the first time I’ve been able to hear her voice before, without the autotuning or other effects.

I’m not a big fan of Gaga or of mainstream pop but some of her songs are catchy. This Gaga, though, I like. If you compare it to her latest single, Bad Romance, it’s hard to believe it’s the same singer.

Watching it, it makes me wonder if the only way artists can become successful these days is through these constructs… if music is so much about personality and persona and controversy now that a good voice just isn’t enough.

I think Gaga is a good representation of music in the 00s. Music has changed so much in the last 10 years. Like Gaga it’s become a mix of styles, autotuned, over-sexed and notable as much for controversy as talent. But there’s been a lot of good music that has continued to push the boundaries as well.

I listen to a lot of music, particularly while I’m writing, and it’s been interesting watching how music has evolved through the decade. There’s really been no one theme to the 00s; it’s been a mix of styles – hip hop, R&B, chillout, dance – and I think that reflects how our attitude towards music and the industry has changed as well.

For me, and I imagine many people, the iPod has become synonymous with the 00s. It’s changed the way we listen to music. But the biggest impact on the industry this decade has been online. Illegal downloads have taken a huge chunk out of the industry and when you consider the influence of sites like YouTube and MySpace as well, you can see how much of an impact the net has had on the 00s.

Personally I think it’s been an interesting decade for music but not a particularly good one. As the decade’s gone by a lot of music has become sterile and repetitive and my taste in music has shifted more towards alternative artists these days. Perhaps I’ve just grown up. But there’s still been a lot of good music in the 00s as well. Protest songs, dance music, and just good pop that gets in your head without your even realising it.

As my last post looked back at my favourite books of the 00s, I thought it’d be fun to list my favourite songs of the 00s as well. To give a bit of a sense of my musical tastes and what I’ve been listening to while I write. So this is a list of my top 30 songs from the 00s, with links to their videos as well.

I hope you enjoy it. Let me know which ones you like (or hate). What are your favourite songs of the 00s?

  • 30) Thank You (2001)
    Dido

    A beautiful song with Dido’s gentle voice. Was everywhere in 2001.
  • 29) Straight Lines (2007)
    Silverchair

    Silverchair’s return after a four year hiatus. Alternative rock at its best.
  • 28) Anyone Else But You (2001)
    The Moldy Peaches

    Best known from the film Juno. Deceptively simple and catchy.
  • 27) Young Folks (2006)
    Peter Bjorn And John

    A charming song with dreamlike tones. It’s become an anthem for Gen Y.
  • 26) Don’t Stop the Music (2007)
    Rihanna

    Rihanna’s transition from pop to dance. Catchy with a great beat.
  • 25) Dear Mr. President (2006)
    P!nk

    A letter to George Bush. One of the best protest songs of the 00s.
  • 24) Cry Me a River (2002)
    Justin Timberlake

    Catchy R&B/pop as Timberlake responds to his split with Britney Spears.
  • 23) It’s My Life (2000)
    Bon Jovi

    A lively, affirming rock song. One of the great anthems of the 00s.
  • 22) The Rising (2002)
    Bruce Springsteen

    Powerful reflection on 9/11. One of Springsteen’s greatest songs.
  • 21) My People (2007)
    The Presets

    An angry electropunk/synthpop hybrid, with an incredible clip.

  • 20) Hey Ya! (2003)
    Outkast

    A rousing mix of funk and hip hop, with one of the best clips of the 00s.
  • 19) Fallin’ (2001)
    Alicia Keys

    An R&B/soul powerhouse with a brilliant vocal. Dominated the charts.
  • 18) One More Time (2000)
    Daft Punk

    One of the first innovative uses of autotune. Very catchy.
  • 17) Idioteque (2000)
    Radiohead

    One of Radiohead’s greatest and most experimental songs.
  • 16) The Blower’s Daughter (2004)
    Damien Rice

    Haunting ballad with an incredible refrain. Featured in the film Closer.
  • 15) Falling Slowly (2006)
    Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová

    A beautiful love song written for the film Once. Won an Oscar in 2008.
  • 14) Steer (2007)
    Missy Higgins

    A bubbly, effervescent pop song. Catchy and infectious.
  • 12) Gather to the Chapel (2007)
    Liam Finn

    Beautiful song about saying goodbye. Inspired by Paul Hester.
  • 11) Beautiful Day (2000)
    U2

    One of U2’s most anthemic rock songs. Perfect for the new millennium.

  • 10) Where Is the Love? (2003)
    The Black Eyed Peas

    Angry anti-war anthem. The Black Eyed Peas’ breakthrough single.
  • 9) On a Night like This (2000)
    Kylie Minogue

    A seductive pop song that came to represent the Sydney Olympics.
  • 8) Explain (2006)
    Sarah Blasko

    Haunting ballad set to Blasko’s raspy voice, with a beautiful clip.
  • 7) How Far We’ve Come (2007)
    Matchbox Twenty

    Rousing anthem for global warming with a catchy chorus.
  • 6) Seven Nation Army (2003)
    The White Stripes

    One of the best rock songs of the 00s, with an incredible riff and clip.
  • 5) The Scientist (2002)
    Coldplay

    A beautiful piano ballad, driven by Chris Martin’s gentle falsetto.
  • 2) 1234 (2007)
    Feist

    Brilliantly simple, catchy pop song that became the face of the iPod.
  • 1) Crazy (2006)
    Gnarls Barkley

    Refreshing mix of R&B and soul. Sounded like nothing else this decade.

Books of the 00s

It’s hard to believe it’s almost the end of another decade, isn’t it? The 00s have gone by so quickly and so much has happened in the last ten years. From tsunamis to bushfires; Afghanistan to Iraq; 9/11 to Katrina; the millennium to the GFC. I was still in high school in 1999. It feels like a lifetime ago.

As we’re coming to the end of the year I thought it’d be interesting to look back on the 00s as a whole. Particularly the fiction that has defined the decade.

For me the success of Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight will be the enduring memory of this decade. In an age of iPods and YouTube, to see so many people reading again – on buses and trains, in parks and on beaches – has been remarkable. The publishing industry hasn’t seen their success before and it’s already changing the way books are being published and marketed.

Overall I think it’s been a good decade for literature. As you’d expect much of the tone of the decade’s writing has been influenced by 9/11 and there’s been some excellent fiction published, particularly by new and emerging authors. The quality of international fiction has also been excellent. My only disappointment has been with the overall quality of Australian fiction and the bleak direction of mainstream SF, which is becoming dark and depressing.

One of my favourite blogs, The Millions, recently published a list of the best fiction of the 00s. It’s a good list and I thought I’d do my own to mark the end of the decade. This is a list of my favourite books of the 00s, the novels which have had the most impact on me and my writing.

Let me know which you’ve read. Do you have a favourite book of the 00s?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

The Road (2006)
Cormac McCarthy

Few novels have affected me as much as reading The Road. It’s a devastating novel, stark and confronting, and is so intense that at times it’s difficult to read. But it’s also a beautiful, poignant novel, about a father and son struggling to survive, characters that come to life even though you don’t know their names. McCarthy’s prose is restrained and hauntingly beautiful. A magnificent novel; one of the best I’ve ever read.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005)
Stieg Larsson

Larsson’s novel is a remarkable début. It’s an unorthodox thriller that centres on the 36 year disappearance of Harriet Vanger, the grand-niece of former industrialist Henrik Vanger, but soon becomes a story about the family itself and their secrets and corruption. Larsson’s characters are unforgettable and Lisbeth is one of the most memorable female protagonists in years. Larsson died before he became known outside Sweden, leaving this and two sequels as his legacy.

American Gods (2001)
Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of my favourite writers and American Gods is an unusual mix of fantasy, reality, myth and Americana that somehow all works. Gaiman’s prose is vivid, bringing to life a twisted version of our world where the gods of old and new religions are preparing for war, and its subtext on the changing nature of religion and the place of technology in modern society is fascinating. It’s also darkly funny and scary.

Magic for Beginners (2005)
Kelly Link
Short fiction has continued a sad decline in the 00s but Kelly Link is a master of the form. Magic for Beginners collects nice stories which mix fantasy with everyday life, the mundane with the majestic. Her stories are unpredictable and dreamlike, none more so than The Faery Handbag, where an entire town takes refuge inside a forgotten handbag. Her prose is evocative yet simple and her stories haunt you long after you’ve finished them.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)
Mark Haddon

Haddon’s début is an unusual novel. On the surface it’s an unorthodox mystery about Christopher, a teenager who finds the body of his neighbour’s poodle and decides to try and find the killer, but it’s really a careful examination of autism. Haddon’s depiction of Christopher is remarkable; Haddon gives us subtle insights into Christopher’s world, making him sympathetic & likeable, but without ever feeling exploitative. It’s original, funny and compelling.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
Michael Chabon
There’s something unsettling about Chabon’s novel. Its style is a throwback to the detective stories of Chandler and Hammett, set in a world where a community of Jewish refugees settled in Alaska after World War II and the State of Israel collapsed. Chabon uses the novel to turn the conflict with Israel and Palestine on its head, asking what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. It’s a brilliant novel; Chabon’s alternate history seems eerily plausible.

Cloud Atlas (2004)
David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas is less of a novel than a series of connected themes. It’s told across six stories that span centuries and different genres but each story is incomplete; the second half of each story is revealed in later chapters and it’s not until the end that you realise how they all come together. Each chapter is a mirror image of another and following the plot is almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It’s unusual and beautifully crafted.

Life of Pi (2001)
Yann Martel

Martel’s novel is something of a surreal fable. Pi, a sixteen year old boy from India, the son of a zookeeper, becomes shipwrecked on a voyage to Canada. Finding himself stranded on a lifeboat with a 450-pound tiger, Pi has to use all of his knowledge and imagination to survive. Martel writes effortlessly and despite the unlikely premise, it’s really a clever allegory for the meaning of faith and storytelling in the modern world. An engaging and charming novel.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)
Susanna Clarke

Clarke’s début is one of those unusual works in fantasy that is both superbly written and entirely original. Set in an alternate version of 19th century England where magic has all but left the country except for two magicians, its style feels like a pastiche of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, gothic and darkly beautiful. At its heart it’s as much a story about friendship, obsession and Englishness as magic. It’s a wonderful novel that took Clarke ten years to write.

Orpheus Lost (2007)
Janette Turner Hospital

Orpheus Lost is a sad love story inspired by the Orpheus myth. When a series of terrorist attacks strike Boston, Leela is interrogated and told that her lover Mishka may be a terrorist, leading her to try and find the truth and rescue him from the secret prisons and torture chambers of the modern underworld. Hospital focuses on the nature of terrorism and paranoia in the post-9/11 world, but the story is as much about the redemptive power of music; her descriptions of Mishka playing the violin and oud are breathtaking.

Spin (2005)
Robert Charles Wilson

Wilson is one of my favourite SF writers and at its heart Spin is about isolation: when a mysterious event causes a shield to appear around the Earth, humanity is cut off from the universe and reacts with a mixture of fear, panic and awe. Wilson’s prose lingers in your mind and Spin also acts as an allegory for 9/11, an event that changed the world in a moment, but never loses focus of its characters. It’s a remarkable novel; for me the best SF novel of the decade.

Restless (2006)
William Boyd

Restless is a brilliant, subtle novel. On the surface it’s a thriller about Eva Delectorskaya, a half-Russian emigrant who is recruited into the British SIS after her brother’s murder, but it’s really an examination of paranoia and how a lie can take over your life. Boyd writes vividly and his story is as much about nationality and the relationship between Eva (Sally) and her daughter, as Ruth slowly begins to learn the truth about her mother for the first time.

The Corrections (2001)
Jonathan Franzen

Franzen is a master of character portraits and The Corrections is a fascinating study of a seemingly ordinary family. The novel follows the Lamberts as they gather for one last Christmas together, but soon their carefully orchestrated lives begin to unravel around them. It’s a very American novel and a sharp commentary on greed, capitalism and the nature of parenting and family. It’s also eerie how its themes foreshadowed the post-9/11 world. Magnificent.

Never Let Me Go (2005)
Kazuo Ishiguro

At its heart Never Let Me Go is about the preciousness of life. The story is told by Kathy, a carer who looks back on her early life at Hailsham, a boarding school in Britain. The children of Hailsham are special; clones created to provide donor organs for transplants. As Kathy matures into a woman, she slowly begins to accept her sad fate. Ishiguro’s prose is beautifully subtle and Never Let Me Go is a sad, haunting novel that stays with you long after you’ve finished it.

Veniss Underground (2003)
Jeff VanderMeer

Veniss Underground is an unusual hybrid of SF and fantasy. Told in three parts, the main story focuses on Shadrach, who descends into the underground levels of Veniss in search of his love Nicola, travelling through a bizarre cyborg hell. The novel echoes Orpheus and Dante but VanderMeer uses his version of hell to highlight the dangers of human reliance on technology and the pursuit of perfection. It’s an excellent novel, filled with bizarre, dreamlike imagery.

Family Trees

Šternberk Family Tree

Photo: Šternberk Family Tree, from Šternberk Castle

Do you ever think about your family tree? About where you come from? I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot recently. The idea of learning more about my family line is something that has always interested me and I’ve often found myself looking at genealogy websites, wondering if, out of all those people, one of them might be a distant relative.

I suppose my interest is partially about accepting my own mortality. Life is such a fragile thing; we’re born, we live, we die. There’s nothing particularly special about me as a person but that I am here, alive today is part of a remarkable chain of events that stretches back through time. But why me? Why not someone else? If the lives of my parents, grandparents, ancestors had been just a little different, that chain would have been broken and I wouldn’t be here. I guess in trying to understand more about them, I hope that I may understand more about who I am as well.

Several members of my father’s family have done some research into our family tree and I’m hoping to see it soon. I’ve been thinking about trying to extend it if I can, so that it includes the family on my mother’s side as well. I thought I’d start with censuses and hopefully my research skills will come in handy.

One person I have been particularly interested in learning more about is my great great grandfather on my father’s side. His name was Isaac Levinsohn; he was born in Kovno, Russia (now Kaunas in Lithuania) in 1855 and had a remarkable life. He wrote several memoirs and religious books, one of which, his memoir of his early years and conversion to Christianity, my family recently had restored. I’ve spent the last few weeks reading and thinking about it.

I’ll probably write a longer, more detailed post about it at some stage as it’s a fascinating story and I’d like to read his other books as well, but to be honest I didn’t have the reaction to reading it that I thought I would. With the exception of myself as an atheist, most of my family is very religious and have admired Isaac for many years. I do as well but so often I’ve heard (particularly from my father) how wonderful and uplifting Isaac’s story is. Reading it, I found it very sad and lonely.

Basically Isaac’s memoir is the story of how he converted to Christianity. As a child Isaac’s family were pious Jews and Isaac felt immense pressure from his father to become a rabbi. For years Isaac studied and tried to follow his family’s wishes but from a young age, he developed an intense fear of death. He was terrified of the idea that when he died, he would be judged unworthy before God. And so when he was sixteen Isaac left Russia and his family despite their protests, trying to find peace and a way to be saved.

Isaac travelled through Germany, experiencing fierce anti-Semitism, and several times became so lonely and disheartened that he nearly committed suicide. Finally he settled in England in 1871. He spoke no English and had few possessions when he arrived. Eventually he befriended a converted Jew who helped Isaac and introduced him to Reverend Stern, who had a profound influence on him. Over time Isaac began to convert to Christianity and his family disowned him. With nothing left Isaac dedicated himself to Christianity, becoming a preacher and a member of Charles Spurgeon’s congregation, preaching to other Jews and converting them, often on their deathbeds.

Isaac’s story is remarkable but I didn’t find it to be quite as uplifting as the rest of my family. I fully admit that may be because I am an atheist and also because I haven’t read his other books yet, but I’d like to think I can look beyond that. Reading it, I just felt very sorry for Isaac. He wrote it in later life and much of what he remembered was filtered by his beliefs, so his perspective on Judaism and what he felt as a Jew feels somewhat tainted. In his memoir Isaac often writes of his darkest moments hopefully as they prepared him for his conversion, but at the time that couldn’t possibly have been what he felt as he was terribly conflicted. I didn’t feel like I got a genuine picture of what that time was really like for him or what he was feeling.

To be honest reading it, Isaac seemed like a scared young man, a boy terrified of death and of failing his father. He was also severely depressed, anti-social and suicidal (most likely due to bipolar) and losing his family broke his heart. That he found peace and later reconciled with some of his family and did so much good is wonderful, but in the end I found much of his story to be very sad.

But I am glad I read it. It is a remarkable story and Isaac’s leaving Russia for England is one of the major events in my family’s history. If he hadn’t left Russia, I wouldn’t be alive today. Who knows what might have happened to the family line if he had stayed? They might well have perished in the Pale of Settlement – or worse, in Auschwitz or some other terrible place. Perhaps descendents of his extended family did die there; I don’t know. That’s one reason I’d like to know more about our family tree and read Isaac’s other books, to find out more about what happened to them.

I think if I had the chance I would have liked to have met Isaac. He was an interesting man and I’m sure hearing him tell his story would have made it even more compelling. As his great great grandson, there’s a lot I’d like to ask him.

There are other people in my family I’d like to know more about as well. My grandfather on my father’s side (Isaac’s grandson) died before I was born; my father talks about him sometimes and thinks I would have got on well with him, but I don’t know as much about him as I would like to. He was my grandmother’s second husband, after her first husband whom she loved very much died. I often wonder what their lives would have been like if he had not died. Would they still be married now? Perhaps in some alternate reality they are… a reality where my father and I never existed.

I know little about my mother’s side of the family as well, except that historically it is a large Irish family which has settled in various countries. It’s something I’m looking forward to talking to my mother and grandfather about, particularly when I try to trace it back further. My uncle (my mother’s brother) and his partner recently had another child as well, my third cousin. So it looks like that side of the family tree is continuing to grow.

I don’t know whether I’ll add to it. Obviously I’m young and it’s possible I’ll start a family one day but for some reason I’ve always thought that my part of our family line will end with me. The last Levinson. I don’t plan to get married or have children; if I meet someone, great, but it’s not something I’m looking for. I don’t want my genes to live forever; I don’t believe in achieving immortality, except perhaps through writing.

I think that’s one of the reasons I am so interested in our family tree, though. Because in a way it is immortality, following that one seed as it stretches back through time. It reminds me of just how remarkable life is, that despite all the odds, we’ve all lived on this planet, if only for a short time. I think the least I can do is to try and remember.

If I find anything more about my family tree, I’ll let you know. I’m looking forward to seeing what my family has found out so far… and hopefully adding some details of my own.

What about you? Have you ever tried to trace your family tree? Found out anything that surprised you? I’d love to find out.

Update: After posting this yesterday I’ve heard from a couple of relatives we didn’t know about. Looks like there are at least five relatives we didn’t know about. Very excited, particularly as it’s happened so quickly. Hopefully we’ll be able to swap stories.

The Elephant Graveyard

elephant skeleton

Image: Elephant Skeleton ~ Mike Richardson

When I close my eyes
I dream of deepest Africa
The Motherland
Our ancestral home
Where the orange sun rises
Over the plantation lands
And the hot winds blow
Across the Serengeti plains

Deep in the wilderness
Vultures hover over an elephant graveyard
Swooping to pick at the flesh
Of all that remains
Their bones lie everywhere
Scattered and broken
Discarded by thieves in their search
For precious ivory

What happened to them I do not know
Perhaps it was starvation
Or disease
Or the lust and greed of man
But if you look closely
Sometimes you can still see them
And hear their mighty trumpets
Echoing through the night

Away in the city
Amongst the towers and smog
An elephant calf sits
In a concrete cage
The last of its kind
It sits and stares at the world
And remembers a time
When it was free

Licenced under a Creative Commons Licence

You can also listen to the poem below or at AudioBoo


Originally I started writing this poem for Blog Action Day but due to my health, I wasn’t able to finish it in time. So I’m posting it now instead.

It was inspired by a dream I had where I was standing in a pit, surrounded by the bones of hundreds of animals. It was extremely vivid; I kept thinking about the dream for days afterwards and thought about using it in a short story before deciding on a poem instead.

Over the last decade the threat of extinction has increased dramatically for many species, particularly for elephants in Africa. It’s largely due to poaching but also partially due to climate change; as droughts have worsened and their habitats have continued to be lost due to conditions and human encroachment, more elephants have had to search for food and water in new areas, where they often starve to death or are more easily targeted by poachers.

Some elephant populations have decreased by as much as two thirds in recent years and it’s thought that African elephants could be extinct by 2020. Whether people believe in the science of climate change or not, it’s clear that many species are becoming increasingly threatened on multiple fronts and if we do nothing, we could lose them forever.

That was what I wanted to represent in my poem. I wanted to leave the reader to decide what caused the extinction itself; I was more interested in showing what we have to lose. I hope you liked the poem. – CJ.

Red Sun Rising

Sydney Harbour Bridge, blanketed by red haze

The Sydney Harbour Bridge, blanketed by a red haze (photo: Ian Sanderson)

Sydneysiders woke to a strange sight early this morning. A massive dust storm had swept across the state, blanketing Sydney in a plume of dust that stretched for over 600km. It turned the sky an eerie orange-red and I’ve never seen anything like it. It felt like we had been transported to Mars.

The colour came from the red soil and dust of the outback, which had been whipped up and carried inland by fierce gale force winds; it’s estimated the dust plume travelled over 1500 kilometres to reach Sydney. Scientists are saying it might be the worst dust storm in NSW’s history, which I can believe. The pollution in Sydney was awful all day and you couldn’t breathe easily, even after the haze had started to lift.

I was still awake when the dust storm hit. It was incredible; the wind howled and the entire sky seemed to go blood-red in minutes, so much so that I couldn’t see more than 20 metres down the street. The last time I can remember anything like it was after the Black Saturday bushfires, when the sky reflected the fire and there was an overwhelming smell of ash. But even those skies didn’t compare to this; this was like stepping onto another world.

With the UN climate conference beginning in New York, some green groups have suggested that it’s more evidence of global warming. I’m not so sure. Usually I’d be the first person to agree but nature doesn’t need a reason to be wonderful or terrible; I think sometimes these kind of freak occurrences just happen and we shouldn’t ascribe everything to global warming without evidence. I found it very beautiful, despite the chaos it caused.

Unfortunately I didn’t think to take any photos; I didn’t realise how widespread it was at the time. But there are some incredible photos on Flickr and I thought I’d post some of them to give an idea of what it was like. There’s still a dusty smell in the air and the winds are still strong even now, 18 hours later.

I doubt I’ll see anything like it again in my lifetime. Unless I go to Mars.

Under the Bridge

Another view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, from beneath, the eerie light reflecting off the harbour. The bridge just seems to fade away and you can barely see the other side. (photo: Ian Sanderson)

Opera House

Here the Sydney Opera House has all but disappeared, with the dust at its peak in the early morning. Ferry services were cancelled until the haze cleared. (photo: NSW Maritime)

Oxford Street

Sydney’s Oxford Street seems transformed, the sidewalks almost deserted. The sepia tones remind me of a scene from the early years of photography. (photo: Cowboy Dave)

Sydney Towerluna-park

Two of Sydney’s iconic landmarks, Sydney Tower and Luna Park, swallowed by the dust storm. Luna Park was closed due to the dust, winds and poor visibility. (photos: Cowboy Dave and Tolomea)

St Marys Cathedral

St Mary’s Cathedral, lit up a brilliant shade of pink-red. You can see where some of the dust has settled on the grass as well. (photo: JezKerwin)

QVB

Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building, in the heart of the CBD, as the haze has started to lift. Looks like many people found masks or are using tissues to cover their mouths. (photo: Dr. Snafu)

Sydenham Station

Sydenham station is one of the major railway links in Sydney. The station was blanketed by the red dust and trains were late or cancelled for much of the morning. (photo: MOles)

Sydney CBDDarling Harbour

The Sydney CBD and Darling Harbour; the streets are almost completely deserted on the left, while on the right it’s more like Baghdad than Sydney. (photos: Malcolm Tredinnick and Original Nomad)

Bondi Beach Park

Bondi Beach Park in the early hours of the morning. You can’t see it here but some people still took an early morning swim, despite the pollution and low visibility. (photo: sebr)

Traffic-Button

A traffic button at a pedestrian crossing, showing the accumulation of dust. It covered most vehicles as well. You wonder how much work it will be, cleaning up tomorrow. (photo: Malcolm Treddinick)

The Temple of Learning

reading

Do you have a favourite past-time? Something you love to do at the end of the day to unwind? Perhaps you’re a movie buff or enjoy exercising at the gym. For me it’s reading. I don’t think there’s anything better than curling up with a good book at the end of a long day to unwind.

Some of my earliest memories are of books, of my parents reading to me while I lay in bed and looked at the pictures. I often think that without those experiences I wouldn’t be who I am today. Reading is such a large part of a writer’s life; if you don’t take the time to read, you can’t develop the skills to write. But reading has never felt like a chore to me, largely because all of those stories when I was younger made me dream of my own.

If someone had told me when I was first learning to read that I’d become a writer later, though, I’m not sure I would have believed them; at the time I probably wanted to be a palaeontologist as Jurassic Park had just come out. At that stage I found reading difficult. I loved books but like many children – boys in particular – my literacy skills developed late and it frustrated me.

Generally the average age a child learns to read is 6; some learn earlier, others a little later. I was 7  & a ½ when I could finally read and write competently. Perhaps that’s not unusual for some children but it was extremely frustrating for me; my teachers said that I’d pick it up on the way, but the curriculum – at least 18 years ago – made few allowances for those who didn’t develop as quickly or were ill. Subsequently I kept falling behind.

Finally my parents, who’d gone against their instincts on my teachers’ advice, taught me themselves. They bought a range of reading aids to teach me phonics and they read with me, particularly my mother, for hours every night; I can still remember the Bangers & Mash series, about two mischievous chimpanzees who kept getting themselves into all kinds of trouble. They made learning fun!

Before long I had moved on to the Berenstain Bears series and Dr Seuss, particularly The Butter Battle Book. Soon I was analysing and sounding out difficult words on my own, associating words with different meanings, and my reading speed improved greatly. I devoured everything, hungry to learn, and within a month I’d leapt ahead and was reading books my parents had read to me like Matilda, The BFG and finally Narnia by myself.

My writing skills improved at the same time; my spelling was awful but my grammar and punctuation had come a long way. And before long I decided to write my first story. It was a Batman story, probably inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman film which I saw on TV. I didn’t like the ending, so I changed it; I killed Batman – so even then I had a thing for macabre endings.

Within six months I was reading and writing at an advanced level. I’d moved past most of the children in my class and within three years I was comfortably reading Dickens and Conan Doyle, which showed how far I’d been held back. I was writing poetry and short stories regularly and English became my best subject. I’d turned my weakness into my strength; that’s something I’m still proud of today.

That’s why literacy is so important to me, not just as a writer but as a person; I know how frustrating it is to feel like you’re being left behind, and the joy when all those hours of hard work finally pay off.

It saddens me when I hear of the falling literacy standards in Australia, of a growing gap between boys and girls in English and language skills. Officially Australia has a 99.0% rate of adult literacy, one of the highest in the world, but that doesn’t take into account the widening gap between genders, nor the differences in various socio-economic and cultural groups, nor the retention rate for school students (particularly among older boys, whish is rising). Many people are aware of these problems but we hear few solutions, other than the government’s “education revolution” which no one understands.

The situation with Indigenous literacy is becoming even more serious. It’s believed that by the age of 15 more than a third of Indigenous students don’t have adequate literacy skills and are disadvantaged, while in remote areas it is even worse, with only 15% of year 7 students achieving the benchmark in literacy tests. Coupled with high unemployment and mortality rates among many Indigenous communities, it’s a serious problem and something no one should consider acceptable. Yet for the most part the same policies continue to be implemented, only now under the intervention.

Likewise the fact that there are 776 million adults in the world lacking basic literacy skills (66% of them women) and 75 million children out of school is a statistic I find staggering. Surely in a modern society those kind of figures are unacceptable? Surely we can do more to help? Of course we do what we can, giving money to governments and helping to build schools and libraries, providing new equipment… but sometimes I wonder if even a fraction of the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went towards addressing illiteracy and poverty instead, would the world be any different?

I suppose I just wish that we’d be a little more responsible, that instead of giving money to corrupt regimes we’d give it directly to the agencies that are trying to help. If we made a serious dent in illiteracy and poverty in the world, it would help us as well. One of the biggest factors in poverty, terrorism and AIDS is a lack of education. The only responsible way out of poverty is to learn, to educate yourself and learn not to make the same mistakes again. If that education begins early, with literacy and other skills, then children can learn and see ways of improving their lives and they’re less likely to fall under the influence of extremism.

That’s why I like the work many of the smaller organisations and charities are doing around the world. Working at grass roots level they can have more success and make a difference in peoples’ lives. Projects like Books for Cameroon, which is aiming to establish a library in 25 schools and help 20,000 students, or the 100 Mothers Literacy Program which funds a basic literacy program for mothers in Afghanistan. These kind of projects provide a greater level of transparency and average people can support them, trying to help in their own way.

Overall, though, I think if we’re to improve literacy standards we have to change our approach. Days like this International Literacy Day help to raise awareness but it’s by building new schools and libraries and training teachers in new methods that we might succeed overall, methods that make learning fun again. We need to move away from whole language methods, towards systematic phonics. Most importantly we need to take a larger role in our children’s education as parents and role models and help them; if we read to and teach our children, they’ll want to learn.

I don’t know if I will be a father one day but I know if a child asks me for help to read or write, I’ll always try to help them. I know what it was like to struggle with reading and it’s never too early to teach a child to read, to love books – if you do then you’ll give them skills for life.

The rest will take care of itself.

“The library is the temple of learning, and learning has
liberated more people than all the wars in history.”
~ Carl Rowan

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Image Credit: Reading Books At Home ~ hortongroup

September Reading List

Water for Elephantsborn_standing_upcurse_of_chalionvalentines_castleend_of_timerestless

These are some of the books I plan to read over the next month. I like buying most of my books second-hand if I can and I’ve had a lucky run on eBay during the last few weeks; all of the auctions I’ve bid on I’ve won and I even found a couple of hardcovers I’d been trying to find all year.

The two books I’m looking forward to reading most are Water for Elephants and Restless; I’ve heard good things about both Gruen and Boyd but haven’t read them before. I’ve also had Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time since last year and haven’t read it yet; Bear is one of my favourite authors and this seems like a return to his best science fiction.

I probably won’t be able to read all of them due to my health but if I can read two or three in the month, I’ll be happy. I’ll post some reviews when I’ve finished them as well.

I wonder what you’re reading at the moment?

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen

First Impressions: Unusual and beautiful. A dark, romantic story set primarily in a circus during the Great Depression; Rosie is a beautiful, sympathetic character as real as any of the human performers. Excellent so far.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
Steve Martin

First Impressions: Steve Martin’s memoir. Martin is one of my favourite comedians and a gifted writer. Should be a fascinating, insightful and funny look at his life and inspirations.

The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold

First Impressions: The first in Bujold’s Chalion series. Bujold is one author I’m not that familiar with, although she’s well respected in SF and fantasy. I thought I’d try this before her Vorkosigan novels.

Lord Valentine’s Castle
Robert Silverberg

First Impressions: Silverberg is one of my favourite authors and this is supposed to be among his best novels. In tone it feels a little like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I’ll be interested to see if I like it as much as The Book of Skulls, my favourite of Silverberg’s.

City at the End of Time
Greg Bear

First Impressions: Bear’s latest and his return to hard science fiction. Bear is one of the few highly literate writers in SF and so far this looks very good, although I’m not sure I understand the concept yet. But that’s not unusual with Bear. I’ll read it next.

Restless
William Boyd

First Impressions: I know almost nothing about Boyd, although this is actually his ninth novel. He strikes me a little like John le Carré and Graham Greene, at least in tone. Looks excellent; an absorbing historical spy novel.

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Just a quick note as well: next Tuesday is International Literacy Day and bloggers are being asked to write a post to highlight the falling standards of literacy in the world. It’s estimated that one in five adults around the world is illiterate, with more than 65% being women, and more than 75 million children are out of school.

As a writer literacy is very important to me, particularly indigenous literacy in Australia, and this is something I would have done even if it wasn’t being organised. If you’d like to take part as well, you can sign up here.