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In 28 hours my plane will be taking off from Perth International Airport and launching my friend Chris and I into a realm of adventure – a realm also known as the PLANET EARTH! To be regaled with exciting tales of frustrating third-world transport, visa hassles and dodgy Asian street food, bookmark Grub Street’s sister blog,

GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD

I’ll still be using Grub Street for book reviews and other assorted miscellany, so don’t delete it! PLEASE DON’T

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000) 637 p.

Winner of the 2000 Booker Prize (automatically the most prestigious), The Blind Assassin is “an extraordinary and compelling story… set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth century history,” if you consider a generic romance to be extraordinary and compelling, and the twentieth century to be the twenty-year span between the world wars. The novel is a narrated by Iris Chase, an elderly woman in the late 1990’s who is writing about her experiences growing up in the 20’s and 30’s, particularly her relationship with her sister – whom, we learn early in the book, committed suicide a week after WWII ended.

I wrote in my review of The Year of The Flood that I don’t think Margaret Atwood is capable of writing a bad book, and that holds true; I was never bored or frustrated with The Blind Assassin, but never particularly engaged by it either. Iris’ modern-day observations about the world around her are about as interesting as you’d expect an old woman’s grumbling to be. Her recollections of the past, which comprise the bulk of the novel, are far more interesting – but, as I said above, never amazingly so. The story-within-a-story told to her by an anonymous lover, the pulp fantasy story of the blind assassin, is also interesting despite being an obvious allegorical diversion. Fortunately, throughout the book, Atwood’s word-to-word quality of prose never drops below the level of “quite good” and is often considerably higher.

As always with Atwood, this is a book about feminism, and about the relationship men have with women. As with The Year of the Flood and The Handmaid’s Tale – and perhaps all of Atwood’s work, even a book like Oryx & Crake, which features damaged but fundamentally goodhearted and well-intentioned men – this relationship is one of control. Iris is controlled at first by her father, and then by her husband in a loveless arranged marriage. She has very little control over her own fate, socially or legally, until she manages to seize some in the final chapters. Even then it is a pyrrhic victory. Iris’ life, a realistic portrayal of how women lived until the last forty or fifty years, reminds one of what it was like to be a child, with no autonomy or independence.

And yet, for all this noble feminism, The Blind Assassin is fundamentally a romance no different from a Mills & Boone paperback. A dark, handsome young revolutionary comes into the sisters’ lives. They both become besotted with him. One becomes his lover, swept off her feet, hopelessly in love despite his fugitive status, his cynical attitude, his radical political views. He’s the dashing stranger your father forbids you to see, hard drinker and hard smoker, well-read and just a little wild… ooh, if only someone could tame him!

The contradiction at the heart of The Blind Assassin is either some kind of profound statement about love, or evidence that even the most uptight feminists still secretly want a handsome young man to cradle them in his burly arms and make passionate love to them. Perhaps, once you take away the style and the literary merit and the ability to string a sentence together, Margaret Atwood and Stephanie Meyers aren’t so different after all!

The Blind Assassin at The Book Depository

There were plotters, there was no doubt about it. Some had been ordinary people who’d had enough. Some were young people with no money who objected to the fact that the world was run by old people who were rich. Some were in it to get girls. And some had been idiots as mad as Swing, with a view of the world just as rigid and unreal, who were on the side of what they called “the people.” Vimes had spent his life on the streets, and had met decent men and fools and people who’d steal a penny from a blind beggar and people who performed silent miracles or desperate crimes every day behind the grubby windows of little houses, but he’d never met The People.

People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.

– From “Night Watch,” by Terry Pratchett

1. The military’s decision to immediately “light ’em up” when the men in question are anything but hostile. (Just because the ROE mean you can engage doesn’t mean you should engage).

2. The Apache gunman hoping that the mortally wounded man crawling along the road in agonising pain will reach for a weapon, so he can open fire again.

3. The military’s decision to open fire upon a van the pulls up and tries to medevac the wounded men.

4. The Apache crew’s hoo-rah fuck ’em up exaltation of their own cowardly actions, even after discovering there were children in the van.

5. The U.S. military’s decision, upon realising they had fucked up royal, to forego launching a clear and open investigation in favour of covering it all up.

6. The harassment of Wikileaks by U.S. intelligence agencies in the lead-up to the release of the video, including the detention and interrogation of a teenage project volunteer.

7. The apathetic attitude towards this video displayed by most major media organisations, who would prefer to devote headlines to Tiger Woods’ return to golf.

So, as you can see, this video is abhorrent on almost every imaginable level. Props to the Marines on the ground who hustled the wounded kids to safety, however – a timely reminder that not every member of the American war apparatus is a dehumanised killing machine like our friends hovering safely in the Apache. Wikileaks editing was also quite biased; the facts speak for themselves, and the pre-video montage of the deceased journalists was unnecessary, as was sticking the word “eventually” into the sentence describing the Marines evacuating the wounded children; their tone of voice is quite urgent, and they run across the road while holding the kids in their arms, so it’s anything but “eventual.”

On the whole, though, this video neatly encapsulates everything wrong with the American political and military status quo. Removing soldiers from the consequences of their actions by having them peer through lens a thousand metres away as though it’s a video game? Check. Covering up your transgressions rather than coming clean about them and working to ensure they don’t happen again? Check. Waging an illegal and unjust war that leads you into murky ROE territory? Check. Assuming that terrorists attack the US simply because they hate freedom, and that there are a finite number of them that can be killed, and that incidents like this don’t serve to create even more terrorists? Check!

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) 647 p.

Midnight’s Children was written by Salman Rushdie (more famous for The Satanic Verses and subsequent fatwa) in 1981. It won that year’s Booker Prize, and subsequently won both “Best of the Booker” awards in 1993 and 2008. As such it can safely be considered one of the greatest English-language novels ever written.

I couldn’t stand it. An absolute drag to read, an immensely frustrating writing style, and the worst case of a wasted idea I’ve seen since Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series (although I wouldn’t compare them any further than that; Rushdie may not be to my tastes, but he knows how to write, whereas Farmer had trouble stringing a sentence together).

Midnight’s Children is a blend of historical fiction and magical realism, following the life of Saleem Sinai, a Muslim child born in Bombay at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – the exact moment that the nation of India came into being. This coincidence of birth grants Saleem, and 1000 other children born between the hour of midnight and one o’clock, with various supernatural powers. One can teleport through mirrors, one can see through time, one can change his size, one can fly, one is a werewolf, one is a magician, and so on. Saleem himself, the eldest of the children, can read minds and communicate telepathically, and so he sets himself the task of uniting the children into what he calls the “Midnight’s Children Conference,” to discuss their purpose and destiny, and determine what to do with their powers.

I’ve never been a fan of superhero stories, but I found this to be unconventional enough to be an awesome idea, partly because it was in India rather than the USA, and partly because their powers were allegorically linked to the existence of the nation itself. I was quite disappointed, then, to find that less than two or three chapters are devoted to Midnight’s Children, and other than Saleem, only two other Children are remotely close to being major characters. The vast majority of the book is typical literary fiction: growing up, falling in love, a backdrop of great events, weddings, deaths, family, epiphanies, blah blah blah, all wrapped up in Rushdie’s tiresome writing style, which is particularly thick and impenetrable, every sentence dripping with awareness of its presence in a piece of literature.

Towards the end of the book, during India’s Emergency, most of Midnight’s Children are rounded up and imprisoned by the despotic Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, and surgically robbed of their superpowers and their ability to reproduce. Rushdie’s argument is that Indira was filled with a lust for power bordering on godhood, and sought to eliminate the only people who were actually close to godhood, threatening her own ambitions. This would have been more tragic, and made a lot more sense, if Midnight’s Children had actually featured in their own novel beyond a couple of chapters, and had actually been a significant political or social force in India. Which they weren’t. At all.

Such a waste! Such a fantastic idea, so irresponsibly squandered! 1001 children with superpowers, growing up alongside India, with conflicting powers and beliefs and agendas – forming factions, some fighting each other and some working together, some offering their services to the state and others trying to bring it down, splinter cells, defections to Pakistan, villains and heroes, betrayals, friendships, rivalries! The classic superhero story, set in the fascinating nation of India, flowing from the pen of a gifted master of literature! Now that would have been a novel!

Instead we get pages and pages about the backstory of Saleem’s grandparents, and his schoolboy experiences, and his mother’s affair, and dozens of other banal and boring plot threads. And all the while I’m plodding along with that carrot of speculative fiction dangling in front of my face, just out of reach, Salman Rushdie sitting on my back coaxing me along, faithful old donkey, what a delicious carrot it looks, come on now, nearly there, and all of a sudden it’s the end of the book and Rushdie snatches the carrot and flings it into the distance, never to be seen again. Not cool.

I had my Mastercard debit card details stolen yesterday, with somebody spending nearly $400 at a small electrical company in Sydney. That made me quite angry. I rang my bank on my lunch break and had them cancel my card, but they say they can’t challenge the transaction (which is still in authorisation mode) until it actually goes through. So I’m not sure what the purpose of having an authorisation mode is. It’s still sitting there in transit, and I probably won’t be able to do anything about it until after the Easter long weekend.

Everyone assures me that the bank will compensate me for any stolen money, but I don’t have a lot of faith in Bankwest, and it pisses me off regardless. I only ever use this Mastercard for buying things online or overseas, and I’ve used it twice in the last month. One was to buy plane tickets, which cleared on the 17th. The other was to buy World Nomads travel insurance, which I only did last week, and which cleared on the 31st. The fraud also occurred on the 31st, and took place in Sydney, where World Nomads is based. It’s not hard to connect the dots. Either they have a very unsafe connection or an employee with sticky fingers. They haven’t responded to my email about it, either.

Even if the bank reimburses me, it still pisses me off. We think about credit fraud as being bad in a vague, abstract kind of way, but when it actually happens to you it simultaneously makes you realise just how insecure modern finance is and just how much of a cunt an identity thief is. I was open to a career in ASIO or the Federal Police already, but now I’m definitely considering joining the fraud division of the AFP so I can spend my working days bringing down fuckheads who steal other people’s hard-earned money without even the courtesy of doing it in person. And as the years go by and I climb the career ladder, I’ll use the resources at my disposal to hunt down the guy who stole my $400 in 2010. And when I find him I’ll kill him. Real slow like.

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