Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson: A Brief Book Review

Hmmm. I was a bit underwhelmed by this book that I was told was a classic of post-cyberpunk. It was the first of Stephenson’s books I’d read – he’d been recommended to me by a couple of people in my book club as a master of his genre.

I should declare I’m more a lover of literary fiction than genre fiction, but I like to think I’m open-minded to good writing, whatever its form. There’s no doubt the author has a a vivid and rich imagination, and his ability to predict the online virtual future way back in 1993 when he wrote this is pretty impressive, but I found reading the book a bit of a struggle to be honest. The biggest problem was I couldn’t really get myself worked up to care about the two-dimensional cartoon-like characters.

Having said that, the author’s exploration in this book of the origins of language in the ancient Sumerian and Babylonian civilisations, and how he neatly ties that up with the binary machine code that underlies all computers, including, in this account, the brain, was fascinating.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lovers of Philosophy

My interview with Heidegger’s son

By far the most memorable experience I have had whilst conducting research for Lovers of Philosophy has been meeting Hermann Heidegger, the 93-year-old son of Martin Heidegger.

IMG_2766

My hotel in Freiburg

IMG_2859

Freiburg

Martin Heidegger, one of the seven philosophers whose love life I explore in my book Lovers of Philosophy, was one of the most influential and controversial philosophers of the twentieth century.

IMG_2786

The Freiburg Münster Cathedral

My meeting with Heidegger’s elderly son came about totally by accident. I say that, but one thing I have noticed is that ever since I have followed my dreams in researching and writing this book, strange coincidences keep favouring me.

IMG_2857

The Black Forest

This is how the meeting occurred…

In January 2013, I went to the inaugural meeting of a discussion group in my home town of Brisbane for psychiatrists interested in philosophy. When I arrived, there was only one other person there. I introduced myself and it turned out this gentleman was German. I told him I was writing about the love lives of seven European philosophers, including four Germans – Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. His response at that point staggered me.

He said, ‘My mother knows Heidegger’s son.’

IMG_2769

A Freiburg Street

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it. I had been reading about Heidegger’s life for the last three years – about his philosophy that anticipated existentialism, about his controversial joining of the Nazi Party during the war. And about his extramarital love affair with his Jewish philosophy student Hannah Arendt, who went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most articulate critics of  totalitarianism.

‘Did you say your mother knows Heidegger’s son?’ I said, still incredulous.

The psychiatrist explained that he was from Freiburg, where the Heideggers lived. And yes, he thought his mother might be able to arrange an introduction.

Two months later I was on a twenty-seven-hour flight from Brisbane to Frankfurt. From there I caught the train south to Freiburg, where I checked into a quaint but very welcoming hotel. I explained to the very friendly reception staff that I only wanted to speak German for the week I was there. They good-naturedly agreed to grant my request, even though my very limited vocabulary and mangled grammar must have grated on them. I also mentioned that I was in town to visit Heidegger’s son, and they knew immediately of which family I was speaking. The receptionist even knew where the Heideggers lived.

Freiburg turned out to be an incredibly picturesque university town, its cobblestone streets teeming with students, bicycles and bookshops. The towering gothic spire of the town’s central cathedral, known as the Münster, dominated the modest skyline of the town, which itself was nestled at the very edge of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). Before leaving Brisbane, I had booked a German language teacher to meet with me every day in Freiburg to improve my rudimentary acquaintance with the local language. I had also booked an interpreter for the upcoming interview with the great philosopher’s son.

When the day for the interview came, I put on my suit and caught a taxi to the Heideggers’ home, a small and modest but welcoming cottage on the outskirts of Freiburg. There were quite a few green farm fields scattered here and there around the sparsely developed settlement known as Attental, in which they lived. There was a thick layer of grey fog in the air that day, and everything felt a little surreal as the taxi pulled up outside the address I had been given. But the interpreter Katherina and I were immediately put at ease by the warm reception granted to us by the spritely 93-year-old who greeted us. Hermann Heidegger introduced himself, his wife Jutta and his son Arnulf.

In Hermann Heidegger’s modest lounge-room I got to hear about his childhood memories. Memories of his father insisting on quiet whilst he worked away at his desk. Memories of attending a Hitler rally when he was only twelve years old. This was on the 29th July, 1932, when Hitler addressed a crowd of 50,000 people in Freiburg’s local football stadium. Hermann’s mother, Elfride, had dressed him and his brother Jörg up in their best slacks, white shirt and tie before taking them to the rally. Hermann explained to me that his father, Martin, didn’t attend the rally because, unlike his mother, he wasn’t that interested in politics. He preferred to work on his philosophy.

Hermann also shared with me his memories of how, after the Nazis had taken power, his father got caught up in the stressful to-and-fro of politics regarding the local university’s administration. It was then that Martin Heidegger took an action that would see him come under heavy criticism for decades to come – he joined the Nazi Party.

In that lounge-room I also saw Heidegger’s 93-year-old son going soft in the face, as if he were a child again, as he recalled some of the more tender and personal memories from his childhood days.  Memories such as boating down the Rhineland’s famous rivers with his father. And playing in the snow with his brother outside Die Hütte, the forest hut that the family regularly retreated to during their holidays.

I heard about Heidegger’s friendship with the philosopher Edmund Husserl, who was Jewish and therefore excluded from Freiburg University by the Nazis at the time that Heidegger was Rector (or Dean). Hermann showed me a letter that his mother  wrote to Husserl’s wife, Malvine, on the 29th April, 1933, expressing sympathy and concern about how the war was affecting them. Despite their political differences, the two families were still on friendly terms, at least according to the account Hermann Heidegger provided to me on that day.

I feel very privileged to have been able to conduct this interview, extracts of which I plan to include in my upcoming book Lovers of Philosophy.

3 Comments

Filed under Lovers of Philosophy, Philosophers, Travel

Lovers of Philosophy accepted into 2015 HARDCOPY program

HARDCOPY+tag_CMYK_workingI’ve just heard some wonderful news. I am one of 30 lucky writers to be selected into the HARDCOPY professional development program for Australian writers.

As a result I will soon be getting some precious feedback on my Lovers of Philosophy project from the HARDCOPY selection panel, which includes Australian nonfiction authors Paul Daley, Dr Jen Webb, Dr Frank Bongiorno and Biff Ward.

But that’s not all! Along with the other winners I will be heading to Canberra later this month for a three-day project/manuscript development intensive masterclass with professional freelance editor Nadine Davidoff.

In September, I’ll be invited back to the nation’s capital for ‘Intro2industry’, a three-day seminar on all facets of the publishing industry.

Ten of the 30 applicants will proceed in November to Round 2 of the program, which involves one-on-one consultations with publishers.

I’m very grateful for this wonderful opportunity to further develop my manuscript and writing skills. And of course, I can’t wait to meet the other emerging writers and hear about their projects. I’ve already found one of my fellow winners on the blogosphere – Michelle Scott Tucker.

Thank you to the ACT Writers Centre who run the HARDCOPY program. My thanks also to The ACT Government and the Australia Council who support this program.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lovers of Philosophy

First public reading of Lovers of Philosophy

It’s my pleasure to announce that on Saturday the 7th February I’ll be doing my first public reading from my work-in-progress Lovers of Philosophy.

This will be at a free salon event hosted by the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC). Thank you Aimeé Lindorf and all the crew at QWC for supporting emerging writers such as myself, and giving us an opportunity to share our work.

There will also be a reading by poet and short fiction writer Carmen Leigh Keates, and a Q&A with special author guest fiction writer Inga Simpson. The afternoon, set in The Fox Hotel in South Brisbane, will be topped off with a musical set by O’ Little Sister.

If you’re in Briz Vegas on that day and are able to come along, I’d love to meet you. All writers and readers welcome!

Details are as below:

What: Whispers is a reading salon hosted by QWC throughout Queensland.

Date and time: 3:00–6:00pm on Saturday 7 February 2015.

Venue: The Fox Hotel, 73 Melbourne Street, South Brisbane.

Transport and parking information is available on the SLQ website.

Price: Free.

Full details: On the Facebook event page, https://www.facebook.com/events/602930773140737/.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lovers of Philosophy, Writing

The Sorbonne – Simone de Beauvoir’s university

IMG_1967The last stop of my visit to Paris exploring the old haunts of the French philosophers is the Sorbonne. A beautiful and ancient large sandstone building, it dominates the Latin Quarter’s bustling urban terrain of cafés, bookshops and boutiques.

My daughter Alex and I first spot it while riding northwards towards the Seine on the wide arterial of St Michel Boulevard, along with Paris’s other peak hour traffic of motor scooters, bicycles, Citroens, Peugeots and pedestrians. We gasp at the sight of it rising up to our right, its majestic features brought into spectacular contrast by the rays of the setting sun.

Simone de Beauvoir was a student at this venerable institution in 1929 when she met Jean-Paul Sartre. It was here that she studied for and passed the agrégation, the highly competitive national examinations in philosophy. Passing this entitled her to lifelong tenure teaching philosophy in France’s high schools. By 1943, however, she had managed to lose this privilege in scandalous circumstances when a parent complained she and her partner Jean-Paul Sartre had both seduced their teenage daughter while she was Beauvoir’s student. Beauvoir and Sartre had got away with such behaviour previously with other students, but on this occasion it led to Beauvoir having her teaching licence permanently revoked. This sanction didn’t have much of a negative impact on Beauvoir’s life, however, as by this time she had had developed a considerable reputation as a writer and as Jean-Paul Sartre’s celebrity partner and co-spokesperson for the new philosophy of existentialism.

The Sorbonne, founded in the mid-12th century, was one of the very first universities to be established in Europe, and has been a centre of intellectual activity in Paris ever since.

More recently, the Sorbonne was the central stage for the notorious uprisings that brought Paris to a standstill in May 1968. These protests, which began with students occupying the Sorbonne’s buildings in response to government policies about university administration, spread like wildfire amongst other students, teachers and workers throughout France culminating in a general strike of a staggering ten million workers. Throughout the weeks of civil disorder that took France to the brink of collapse, the Sorbonne became a battleground for bitter hand-to-hand fighting between students and riot police. Makeshift barricades of furniture, cars and street debris were erected by the Left Bank’s protesting students just as they had been in the French Revolution two hundred years earlier. For several days, the whole country held its breath, fearful of a another revolution, until eventually a very rattled President de Gaulle accepted the resignation of his Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and called for a general election, finally diffusing the mutinous mood in the streets.

Today, my hopes of exploring the interior of this venerable institution are frustrated by a uniformed security officer guarding the entrance. So I resign myself to taking in the view from the outside as a steady stream of students and teachers come in and out. In front of the building, the Place de la Sorbonne — a large busy square open to the public — is abuzz with young students milling among its sidewalk cafés and bookshops.IMG_1959 A sign that says Libraire Philosophie announces a bookshop devoted solely to philosophical texts, a sight I have seen more than once on this trip to Paris but never in my home country of Australia. The bookstore appears to be connected with the university, as it has a poster announcing the Sorbonne’s philosophical courses and the associated recommended reading. The philosophy of Sartre and his philosophical predecessor Martin Heidegger feature heavily. Phenomenology and existentialism still appear to be fashionable in this part of town.

As I bask in the beauty of this glorious building and its changing colours in the fading sunset, it occurs to me that all the places in which Sartre and Beauvoir studied, wrote, dined, drank, conversed and made love during their years as Paris’s favourite intellectuals are within walking distance of this square. They were even buried only a stroll away in the Cimetière Montparnasse.

In front of the aforementioned bookshop, I catch sight of two young lovers deep in an embrace.IMG_1956 I imagine that Sartre and Beauvoir would have sometimes met in this exact place during the heady early days of their lifelong love affair.

I grab my camera, thinking the scene before me might just be a perfect cover for the book I have recently finished writing – Lovers of Philosophy – about the love lives of Sartre and other influential European thinkers.

I wonder, as I capture these two paramours on film outside the philosophy bookshop, could they be a Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir of the future?

Leave a comment

Filed under Lovers of Philosophy, Philosophers, Travel

Why are adverbs considered to be evil?

Great advice below from K.M.Weiland (with a little bit of help from Mark Twain) about how the best writing shows rather than tells by avoiding adverbs (and adjectives)

Answer by K.M. Weiland:

Amongst writers, one of the ever-quotable Mark Twain’s most quoted witticisms is the succinct bit of advice (which could just as easily have referred to adverbs) found in Pudd’nhead Wilson: “As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.”

Ah, modifiers! What writer hasn’t had a joyous fling or two with that most seductive of all parts of speech? In an effort to convey the brilliance and vividness of our prose, we hand out modifiers like candy at a Fourth of July parade. After all, it’s imperative that the reader understand that the barn in question is big, red, and rundown. That the kid on the playground is fighting wildly and ferociously. That the ship’s white canvas sails are billowing in the wind. That’s all need-to-know information, right?

Well, maybe. No one will argue that modifiers clarify mental images. At least, that’s the message we absorbed during all those grade school years of diagramming sentence after sentence chocked full of adjectives and adverbs. What we probably didn’t learn from all those years of diagramming is that modifiers are the sign of a lazy writer. Modifiers break the cardinal rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell.

In the three sentences mentioned above, never once did I show you what the barn looked like, or the kid who was fighting, or the ship’s sails. With the help of my modifiers, you probably got the general idea, but how much more vivid would those sentences have been had I taken the time to show you? What if I had allowed you to see the dust swirling in the shadows of the barn, the pigeons roosting in the patches of sunlight that spill through the holes in the roof? What if you had seen the kid on the playground smacking his fists into someone’s face, blood splattering from his opponent’s nose? What if the wind had whipped the ship’s sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow?

See the difference? By deleting my modifiers, I was forced to dig deeper for specific nouns (pigeons, fists, nose, froth, prow) and vibrant verbs (swirling, roosting, spill, smacking, splattering, whipped, bursting, churning). These are words the reader can sink his teeth into. Suddenly, we can hear the flutter and coo of the pigeons in the rafters, we can feel the warmth of blood against our skin, we can smell the salt and seaweed of an ocean voyage.

But does this mean that the modifier is dead? Should we avoid them completely? Of course not. Modifiers, like all parts of speech, serve their purpose. Another quote from Twain:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” ( Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880)

Adjectives and adverbs exist in the English language for the sole purpose of refining it. We cannot show the reader every detail, both due to time and space constraints and the simple fact that some things—such as colors—are impossible to show on the written page without a bit of telling. When added to an already strong scene, modifiers can boost the description into precision and vibrancy.

Take, for instance, one of our example sentences. The new description of the ship doesn’t indicate that the sails are white canvas. I didn’t include those details because most readers will assume this to be the case unless told differently. But what if my ship belonged to the Dread Pirate Roberts who always lofted black sails when he went into battle? Suddenly, we have a vital detail that could only be conveyed with a modifier:

The wind whipped the ship’s ash-black sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow.

Notice that this sentence conveys everything the original version did (and more), yet it contains only one modifier.

Even when modifiers are necessary, economy is vital. It’s ridiculously easy to get carried away with modifiers. When we write phrases about “the remarkably, incandescently, breathtakingly gorgeous woman,” we not only smother our reader in repetition, we also drown out the already strong modifier “gorgeous.”
So, in short, while we probably need not go to Mark Twain’s suggested extreme of extermination, our writing can only be better for a careful pruning of adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers do their job best when used sparingly.

Why are adverbs considered to be evil?

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

16 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Beginner Novelist

Some great tips below from Jackie Lea Sommers for anyone considering writing a novel or long work of narrative nonfiction. If you want to comment go to jackieleasommers.com or click on Jackie’s link. Thanks Jackie.

JACKIE LEA SOMMERS

16 things1. This journey is probably going to take longer than you think.
In fact, you might bust your butt on something that never sees the light of day.  It’s okay.  You become a better writer by writing.  I had to write a novel to prove I could write a novel before I could write a good novel, if you follow me.

2. Write because you love it, not because you want to be published.
You might never have your work published.  If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter.  (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Write every day …
Establish a writing routine, even if some days you only get ten minutes to write.

4. … but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.
I’m still learning this.  GRACE.

5. If…

View original post 854 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing