Tuesday, 16 May 2017

I need a hero

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Wonder Woman is an important feminist icon, and this book explores her creation by William Moulton Marston and her subsequent effect on modern culture. Marston used scraps of his own experiences to shape the character he wrote about in comics. While at Harvard he experimented with machines that might tell truth from lies, conducting experiments wherein he hooked people up to a machine which tested their blood pressure while answering questions. In this respect he invented the lie detector, which has a remarkable resemblance to Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.

His personal life was also to colour his invention of the Wonder Woman character. He married Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, a strong feminist, and they had two children together. Meanwhile, Marston also conducted a relationship with Olive Byrne, who lived with Marston and Holloway in a ménage a trois and bore him two children. Their living arrangements were unconventional, but they seemed to work for them all.

Marston believed in the power of love, and he was desperate for a platform from which to spread his views. “Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, that man has. And as they develop as much ability for worldly success as they have already the ability for love, they will clearly come to rule business and the Nation and the world.”

Marston claimed that his basic idea was for women to be “fighting male dominance, cruelty, savagery and war-making with love control backed by force.” This dominance was represented by chains, which proved one of Marston’s major hurdles, as there were complaints that the excessive bondage in Wonder Woman led to inappropriate behaviour and attracted the ‘wrong sort of audience’.

The comics were most definitely aimed at children. “By 1939, almost every kid in the United States was reading comic books. A form of writing that hadn’t existed just a few years earlier seemed to have taken over the country.” If there is one thing lacking in this book it is the author’s inability to explain the phenomenon whereby comics began to appeal to adults. Marston himself wanted them to be taken seriously by more than just children, and he desperately wanted academic acclaim.

Wonder Woman was also accused of racism, with the villains being German, Japanese or Mexican, speaking in dialect and with hook-noses. But what all villains in Wonder Woman share is their opposition to woman’s equality. Wonder Woman fights Nazis and boys bullying girls at school; she makes sure that milk is safe to drink for American children; she battles the unscrupulous textile industry to install equal and fair wages for women workers; she tackles jealous and controlling husbands who chain their wives to the sink and will not let them go to work or even leave the house. Gloria Steinem reflects, “Looking back now at these Wonder Woman stories from the 40s, I am amazed by the strength of the feminist message.”

The first issue of Wonder Woman contained a four-page centrefold feature called ‘Wonder Women of History’ to “celebrate the lives of heroic women and explain the importance of women’s history”. The scripts featured “scientists, writers, politicians, social workers, doctors, nurses, athletes and adventurers”. Sadly, attitudes which were progressive in the 1920 became quite reactionary in the 1950s. The Wonder Woman of History pull-out was replaced with a series about weddings called ‘Marriage a la Mode’.

Like everything else, Wonder Woman changed in the 1950s to reflect the prevalent attitudes. Although Wonder Woman was created by Marston, drawn by Harry G Peter, edited by Sheldon Mayer, and published by Charlie Gaines, she was owned by Sensation and latterly DC Comics. Gardner Fox also wrote Wonder Woman stories, and he had a very different perspective on a Woman’s Place. Thus, while in 1942 Wonder Woman joined ‘The Justice Society of America’ (by popular vote from readers of Sensation Comics) and was the only female in the society, she was relegated to making tea and taking minutes under Fox.

Wonder Woman’s character was revised in the American TV show of the 1970s, but she had lost much of her socio-political heft.  As the women’s movement floundered in the late 1970s and 1980s, and splintered into factions from which it still suffers, Wonder Woman suffered right along with it. She was a woman of her time, and maybe the time is right for a revival.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Advent Beers 2016 - Merry Christmas, indeed!

Once something has been done a couple of years in a row, that makes it a tradition, right? Well, in that case, Him Outdoors and I worked on our 'traditional' Christmas gift to each other - our advent beer calendar. He buys the evens and I buy the odd ones, as it were, and then we wrap them in festive tissue paper and stick gift cards in the guise of number on them. We share each one and take notes on its merit or otherwise. As follows:

In the beginning...

1. Sail and Anchor IPA (5.5%) Rich and malty American IPA – enhancing the strong hop bitterness 4/5

2. Prickly Moses Bluberry Hefeweizen (4.6%) –Blueberries are front and centre in this fruit beer with a touch of wheat beer’s trademark banana bubblegum on the finish 4.5/5

3. Bitburger (4.8%) – Crisp, dry German Pilsner – not my favourite style but a good example 3.5/5

4. Robe Town Sour Fest (4%) – Love the sour leathery notes of this one 4.5/5

5. Hook Norton 12 Days of Christmas (5.5%) – Dark brown spiced English strong ale with burnt caramel notes and nutty overtones 4.25/5


6. Exit Saison (6.2%) - Refreshing, clean, yeasty flavour with a crisp bitter finish - funky, and very tasty. 4.25/5

7.  Gavroche (8.5%) – Fruity with toffee caramel malt; very pleasant version of a Biere de Garde. Like a saison with a strong malt profile 4.25/5

8.  Schlenkerla Eiche Dopplebock (8%) – Smokin’! 4.25/5

9. Durham White Stout (7.2%) – A really tasty strong beer recreated from the days when ‘stout’ meant strong rather than dark – delicious spicy hop aromas and flavours 4/5

10. Samuel Smith India Ale (5%) – Earthy nutty hops work so well in this fantastic English-style IPA with a touch of caramel coming through the malt – superbly subtle 4.5/5

11. Mad River Jamaica Red Ale (6.5%) – Crisp malts and spicy hops; really tasty 4.25/5

12. Innis & Gunn Original (6.6%) – Rich, warm and golden wooded goodness 4.25/5

13. Liberty Brewing Co Uprising (5.7%) – Decent beer – pretty hoppy for a pale ale – have we just shifted the hop posts? 3.75/5

14. Temple Rye Hard (6.3%) – A little bit of a tang but not too much – also slightly grainy as I’ve come to expect from rye, but still very passable. Yippee Kye Ay Mofos 3.25/5

15. Stone Dog Braggot 1+1+1 (12%) - Smells like a fruit beer - strong honey flavour with a hint of blackberry, and a bitter hop finish. Good elements; not sure they work together though. 3.5/5

16. Pikes Sparkling Ale (5.2%) – Malty and orangey – quite tasty actually 3.25/5

17. Renaissance The Woodsman Belgian Milk Stout (6.6%) – creamy milk texture with coffee bitterness. Intense, full flavour. I’m not really getting the Belgian yeast though. 3.75/5

18. Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin (7%) – Delicious grapefruit characteristics; sharp and zesty with a mellow malt profile to give substance, depth and balance 4.5/5

19. Nøgne Ø/Bridge Road India Saison (7.5%) – A bit too bitter, which detracts from the fruity zest of the saison – the yeast doesn’t feel well integrated 2.75/5

20. Birra Del Borgo ReAle (6.4%) – Tasty and malty with distinct earthy bitter hops 4/5

21.  Sierra Nevada Narwhal (10.2%) – Smooth, rich, slight roast bitterness and strong alcohol warmth 4.5/5

22. Chimay White (8%) – Golden caramel goodness – full mouthfeel with nicely balanced flavours. Those Belgians certainly know how to make triples! 4.5/5

23. 8 Wired Rendition (7.5%) – Barnyard, leathery, damp straw funk. Fantastically clean and a little bit tart but not sour. Barrel-aging brilliance. 4.75/5

24. Brewdog Hoppy Christmas (7.2%) – American IPA – orangey citrus hop with grassy, grainy taste – not altogether pleasant 3.25/5

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

To every thing there is a season

Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson
(Hachette) Pp. 292

Mr Wigg is a widow who potters about his orchard, preserving fruit, listening to cricket, mourning his wife, telling stories to and cooking with his grandchildren, and watching as his new neighbours plant vines on the old farm land. The tagline is, “A novel that celebrates the small things in life”, and there is a gentle feel to the prose as it follows the seasons with planting, pruning, harvesting and preserving. This is deceptive, however, as there are spectres looming at the edges of progress and destruction; Vietnam and family rifts; ageing and loss.

Mr Wigg sees his fruit trees as personalities and imagines that they talk to each other with personalities and petty jealousies. The orchard encapsulates all his memories and aspirations. Inga Simpson writes of the different fruit like a poetic greengrocer, but always in Mr Wigg’s words, conjuring them and their stories from the air and the soil. Who knew that the provenance of these common fruits would be interesting? It is, because Mr Wigg remains in awe of the fruits he grows, engaging the reader with his ruminating non-didactic style.

Fruit isn’t always sweet, and neither, for all its bucolic images of collecting eggs, pruning fruit trees and chopping wood, is farming. Mr Wigg’s son frequently visits him to remind him of the things he can no longer do with his Parkinson’s and forgetfulness. Mr Wigg used to help the blacksmith and now has his tools; making things in his shed with the honest labour of the land. He invents a fruit-drying machine, but when he attempts to build one from his sketches, he has an accident with the bench saw. He fights against modernisation because he enjoys the old ways; why should he use time-saving devices when he doesn’t know what to do with his extra time?

His attitudes are also archaic, and it is his inherent sexism which caused a family schism. It never occurred to him to interest his daughter in the running of the farm; always assuming his son would take over. When he gives the farm to his son and nothing to his daughter, she is understandably upset, and lawyers become involved.

His late wife dominates his thoughts, as one would expect. Their relationship was full of love but not without irritation. He captures the momentous (such as family conflict and illness) along with the mundane: “His wife had buttoned his shirt cuffs for him even before the Parkinson’s came on. His dress shirts, in particular, had such tiny buttonholes.” He initially struggles with the pointlessness of existence without her, but he comes to realise that, “Life had a way of going on whether you were interested or not, and then you found yourself taking pleasure in a few small things, and a few more.”

Future generations provide continuity, and his happiest moments are with his grandchildren, cooking and telling stories. “Not everything that is new is better”; but not everything that is new is bad, either.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Friday Five (Seven Actually): Recent Theatre Excursions

I have seen a fair bit of theatre recently but have not had time to write full reviews, so here are some edited highlights:

Pip Utton as Winston Churchill
  1. Churchill & Maggie by Pip Utton, produced by Imagination Workshop and Street Contemporary Drama at Street 2 - Pip Utton performs solo shows on consecutive nights, portraying political giants Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. He weaves anecdotes, musings and facts into his 70-minute monologue on Churchill, a colossus of his time: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." During his embodiment of That Woman he invites questions from the audience, while achieving the voice, mannerisms and dismissive tone so successfully it made my skin crawl. His enthusiasm is boundless and his knowledge equally indefatigable.  
  2. Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott, produced by Canberra Repertory Society at Theatre 3 - Jordan Best directs this classic thriller with attention to detail on a meticulous set (designed by Michael Sparks) as a blind woman (Jenna Roberts as Susie) comes under threat from unscrupulous criminals looking for drugs they believe are stashed in her apartment. The tension was lacking from previous productions I've seen perhaps because I knew the story so well, perhaps because Roberts never displayed any vulnerability or uncertainty, or perhaps because the villains were neither as charming or as threatening as they might have been.
  3. Cold Light adapted by Alana Valentine based on the novel Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse produced by Street Contemporary Drama at The Street - Trying to personalise politics in the most bureaucratic town in Australia is tricky. Sonia Todd plays Edith Campbell Barry, a (fictional - although many people are deceived) woman who tries to make her mark in international relations. It packs a great deal of history into a lengthy piece with multiple threads and tangents. The ensemble cast perform multiple roles with varying degrees of aplomb, but almost mimicing the projection of Canberra's street design, there is a feeling that we are being driven around in circles and getting lost in cul-de-sacs.

  4. The Age of Bones

  5. The Age of Bones produced by Satu Bulan, Teater Satu, Performing Lines and Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres at Gorman Arts Centre - A mixture of Indonesian shadow puppetry, music, digital projections and contemporary satire tells the story of Ikan, an Indonesian boy who goes fishing one day and fails to return. He is imprisoned 'down under' in an oceanic world where he is befriended, pursued and judged by fantastical creatures (bubble-headed deep sea divers, a shark and an octopus). We are clearly meant to draw parallels with the plight of Indonesian boys incarcerated in adult jails throughout Australia for their involvement in human trafficking. While this is an original and commendable approach, certain technical aspects (such as the English surtitles failing to coincide with the spoken words) hamper the production, while the attempt to appeal to all ages (childlike repetitive motions alongside hard-hitting issues of abuse) means the production overall fails to connect with any particular audience.
  6. Chicago produced by Canberra Philharmonic Society at Erindale Theatre - Interesting staging and directorial choices (by Jim McMullen) highlight different aspects of the play to usual - including the fact that the characters really are all horrifically unpleasant. Vanessa de Jager and Kelly Roberts as Roxie and Velma are both excellent in isolation but their dancing duets remain individual; Shell Tully has a great voice but no depth as Mama Morton; Will Huang presents a lawyer who seems merely slightly smarmy rather than truly repulsive; and Miss Mary Sunshine (Ben WIlson) is utterly peripheral. Most of the songs are still good (although Class was especially disappointing) but other facets, such as the sloppy follow spots, are mediocre. Curious staging makes us question whether we are in a gaol at all, as the protagonists pop out to the lawyer's office in their underwear. The fact that there are far too many people unnecessarily on stage literally jumping through hoops spoils what should be tight choreography, and the hanging scene is hugely underwhelming. The menace and terror of being locked up and possibly awaiting the death sentence is entirely absent: it's more like a circus in which everyone gets to run around and show off how good they look in a corset. 
  7. Trelawny of the Wells by Arthur Wing Pinero produced by Canberra Repertory Society at Theatre 3 - Tony Turner directs a spirited cast in this touching and amusing late-nineteenth-century drama. The revolving set (designed by Ian Croker) allows for all the scenes to be played in the balance of affectation and naturalism which was becoming popular at the time and which is crucial to the play's ethos. Deliberately bombastic performances from the flamboyant characters such as Sir William Gower (Jerry Hearn), Mrs Mossop (Elaine Noon) and  Avonia Bunn (Jess Waterhouse) provide a delightful counterpoint to the more subtle sentimentality of Rose Trelawny (Alessandra Kron) and Tom Wrench (Robert de Fries). Slapstick extremes are tempered with emotional speeches, and the entire effect is a beautiful piece about acting and performance. 
  8. Richard III by William Shakespeare, produced by Bell Shakespeare at the Playhouse (Canberra Theatre Centre) - Bell Shakespeare have taken the history out of the history play and turned it into a tragedy, in which the lead performer (Kate Mulvany as RIII) hams it up deliciously as Tricky Dicky, and the rest of the cast frolic about in a drawing room, like one of those frightful parties where you don't really like the host. As the actors do not leave the stage, there is no difference between intimate and group scenes, leading to a lack of tension and confusion as to the identity of many of the characters. The political is no longer important; it's all about the personal. This is the modern world, where I fear we have lost more than we have gained.
Kate Mulvany as Richard III

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fishing for Compliments

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
(Bantam Press)
Pp. 251

This book was published shortly before Carrie Fisher died, which gives much of it added poignancy. It is mainly about her experience filming Star Wars; her youth and her inability to deal with unanticipated fame; her affair with Harrison Ford; her reaction to the conventions; and her irritation at being expected to still look the same now as she did then. The book is not particularly well-written, but it is honest and candid – the inclusion of her diaries and poetry written during the filming of Star Wars is a brave move – and ultimately very readable.

No one was prepared for the reception that Star Wars would receive. Her life was changed forever by the film refused to remain on screen. She was defined by one character with whom she has a love/hate relationship. “I had never been Princess Leia before and now I would be her forever. I would never not be Princess Leia. I had no idea how profoundly true that was and how long forever was.”

She writes with attempted nonchalance and sangfroid and is candid about her own drug addiction. Her style is deliberately self-effacing and jocular in tone, and although she presents her thoughts as raw and elemental, she has clearly polished the words into something she imagines is witty. There are a few insights into the behind-the-scenes goings-on during filming (such as the fact that due to her grimacing each time she fired the laser gun, she had to take shooting lessons from the man who prepared Robert De Niro for his role in Taxi Driver), but film geeks will probably know all of these already.

Her renowned advocacy for gender equality is evident and she had crippling anxiety about her looks, relating that she got the part in Star Wars on the proviso that she would lose ten pounds. But she also confesses she enjoyed the one-sided nature of the film, and to loving the male attention that came from being “the only girl in an all-boy fantasy.”

The main thing to emerge from this book, however, is her affair with Harrison Ford. She mockingly refers to their relationship as ‘Carrison’ and, although it comprises over half of the book, she pretends to dismiss it; forty years afterwards, she still tries to downplay it, which conversely gives it excessive importance. Obviously, this is one-sided account, but Harrison Ford doesn’t present very favourably. He seems like a predator from the first time he takes her home drunk from a cast and crew party. She was young and naïve, and he was careless of her sensitivities and her desperate neediness. She fixated on him like a smitten teenager.

He doesn’t talk to her, make her happy or feel good about herself, and he exacerbates her insecurities and anxiety. It seems that he is cold towards her, but perhaps that is just his nature? She records in her diary, “I act like someone in a bomb shelter trying to raise everyone’s spirits.” While it is brave to include the diaries and gauche poems, they are excruciatingly painful to read. Every teenage girl has written self-indulgent nonsense like this, but not always about Harrison Ford. One could argue that she knew the situation – he was married – but she tries to manipulate the reader into feeling sympathy for her.

She concludes with her feelings towards the fans at Star Wars conventions, and it is clear that she is not comfortable with the entire charade. It’s fair to say that Carrie Fisher’s relationship with Princess Leia and Star Wars in general, is both complex and unresolved, which is distressing as it will now forever remain that way.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Politics and Parenthood

Dad Joke written and performed by Mark Swivel
The Street, 21-23 April

Describing himself as something between a storyteller and a stand-up comic, Mark Swivel commands the small stage of The Street 2. His premise is that he has to deliver a speech on the event of his son's 21st birthday and he is a little nervous. They have a perfectly fine relationship (about as good as a father can have with his son who lives on the other side of the world), but he claims to be struggling with the fine line between proud dad and aged embarrassment. He asks the audience to help as he runs through his rough draft, and he is so personable and charming that we all comply with his request.

Of course this is all a ruse, designed for Swivel to show off his intelligence, humour, range of subjects, and even a pretty decent singing voice. His renditions of Russian folk songs - "we have no idea what the words mean, but they sound good" - segue seamlessly into musings of political icons both Australian and British - "Anyone remember David Cameron?" He regales us with tales of his own upbringing in the days before one had to engage with one's children, and during which his dad used to drop cryptic one-liners when he came in from removing leaves from the pool "like a wistful gondolier". His reminisces are touching and remarkably poignant, especially when he talks about dealing with a parent toward the end of their life. 

There are many different styles of parenting these days: snow-plough; free-range; helicopter; attachment; cotton wool; combine-harvester... okay, I admit I made that last one up. Although the first recorded use of the word in this sense comes from the 1660s, the word 'parent' was not widely recognised as a verb until recently. It stopped being a thing one just was, and became a thing one had to do, and at which one could be judged. And boy, how we love to judge! There is so much expectation and pressure involved that the whole business (and it is increasingly a business - isn't everything?) becomes quite stressful. One of the best ways to deal with pressure and stress is to laugh at it, and ourselves, and Swivel does that expertly.

At the end of the evening we have learned a lot about Mark Swivel and his family. He cleverly polishes the poignant memories and anecdotes, mining them for the humour without discarding the essence. But this is more than just personal, or political, or even social (and there is a social justice warrior lying very close to the surface). It is an engaging evening such as you might have with your mates down the pub as they confide their hopes and fears to you. I haven't got kids; I didn't grow up in Australia and I haven't had to bury my parents (although even thinking about it brings a lump to my throat), but I was fully engaged throughout the hour-long "slightly inebriated TED talk". Mark Swivel's riffing on parenthood and politics crosses continents and generations - it's a great night out and highly recommended.