Thursday, April 3, 2014

"...sprightly and stimulating..."

Peter Parker has reviewed Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies for The Spectator, calling the book "sprightly and stimulating".

In 'Brains with green fingers', Parker gives a deft and clear summary of the book's ideas, and singles out my favourite chapter (Woolf) for particular praise:
The best chapters concern George Orwell and Leonard Woolf, who didn’t just mooch about in gardens but really got their hands dirty. The tubercular Orwell more or less gardened himself to death on Jura, not only because he believed in self-sufficiency as a moral good, but because the hard graft it required was a metaphor for his life’s work as a writer and thinker: ‘He did not want to escape from reality; he wanted to dwell in facts, however painful’. Horticulture ‘is first and foremost a realist’s enterprise’ and therefore reflected Orwell’s literary method. The similarly austere Woolf had learned in Burma how easily untamed nature could swarm destructively over everything, and this provided a metaphor for a world in which meaningless chaos and rational order did constant battle. 
The garden [at Rodmell] was his personal struggle with a conflicted but beloved cosmos. It would not last, and neither would he. But it was worth holding onto, for precisely the reason books were worth reading and writing: a clearer, saner, more honest life. 
Think about that next time you have to do some weeding.
(Image: Cuba Gallery)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Highway to burnout

This weekend I also have a short essay in the NRC Handelsblad, one of the Netherlands' daily newspapers. 

In 'De snelweg naar burnout' ('Highway to burnout') I discuss modern work in an era of globalisation, and the price paid for 'flexibility'.

The essay's translated into Dutch, and behind a paywall, but here's a sample in English:
[F]ree time is seen as a threat to profit, just as the impression of idleness threatens careers. Employers once complained about absenteeism, but ‘presenteeism’ is now making headlines: employees turning up even when ill, exhausted or amidst family crises. In short, and like all resources, workers are available. Why? Because being seen speaks of loyalty and productivity – it suggests that we cannot be discarded.
If workers cannot be supervised in cubicles or behind glass, they can be managed and monitored electronically: phone, SMS, email, chat, Skype, Twitter and Facebook. Alongside coercion or nudges from management, employees can also come to need the constant stimulation of digital media. Psychologists describe the "variable interval reinforcement schedule" of gambling: random rewards trigger compulsive behaviour. 
A similar pathology arises with the internet: we become habituated by its unyielding but unpredictable stimuli. Scientist Jaan Panksepp also writes about the ‘seeking’ state-of-mind. We get a kick, not out of the finding, but out of the looking: clicking from one website to another, refreshing Twitter or email, scrolling Facebook for hours. There is nothing wrong with seeking, but it can become a craving for the next needful novelty. 
Because of this, many employees spend their working day plugged in, but cannot turn off at home or on holiday. One report by American company Good Technology found that eighty percent of Americans surveyed were doing “almost another full day of work” every week in electronic overtime. Australians, while selling a "relaxed and comfortable" persona, recently put in two billion hours of unpaid labour in a year. (With one in three browsing the internet on the toilet.) Statistics Netherlands reports “burnout” – the opposite of engagement with work – amongst one in eight employees. 
Burnout is not solely to do with overwork or technology – it can also occur with conflicting values, lack of autonomy and resources, and poor work relationships. But constant availability can weaken engagement, and steal time for reflection on professional values, vocational freedom or good company. When we are always on the clock, we lose our power to think and do otherwise. The result can be chronic: anxiety, insomnia, exhaustion and illness -- to say nothing of mildewed friendships and frayed families.
(Photo: Marja Pronk)

Book launch: My Nanna is a Ninja

Ninja author and ninja daughter
Today we tripped off to North Carlton, to The Little Bookroom, Australia's oldest children's bookshop. It was the launch of My Nanna is a Ninja, my first picture book.

We had a ball.

Nikos becomes a robot
There was a face painter, doing marvellous work with kids and grown-ups. (Including yours truly.) There were dragons, robots, ninja faces and ninja noses.

We had a fancy dress competition, which was won by an impossibly cute pumpkin named Margot.

Invisible enemies
I explained why I wrote the book (because nannas and ninjas are cool and worth celebrating), and then demonstrated my ninja skills against an invisible and sneaky enemy.

"But my nanna is a..."
And then I read My Nanna is a Ninja, with the kids yelling 'NINJA!' at all the right spots.

To cap off, I signed a heap of books -- and then signed another heap for The Little Bookshop. (So do drop in if you're after a special gift.)

More fun than tabi boots filled with bananas.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Voltaire's Vine: 'tremendous vistas of thought'

The Daily Telegraph (UK) had a review of Voltaire's Vine and Other Philosophies over the weekend.

In a generous review, Iona McLaren criticises my brief "bumptious" language and occasional "alliterative sprees" (I'm aghast at accusations of alliteration), but overall welcomes the book's "tremendous vistas of thought." A sample:
Voltaire’s Vine, by drawing plausible connections between authors who are rarely compared, cuts a fresh cross-section through literary history. This is, in itself, a great pleasure. Moreover, Young’s generous background detail would make most of these essays an engaging (if idiosyncratic) general introduction to their subjects; in this regard, the chapters on Nikos Kazantzakis and Leonard Woolf (Virginia’s widower) merit particular praise. 
Young’s navigation of the denser philosophy is deft and often enlivened by quotation, for which he has an anthologist’s eye. It is a joy to read, for instance, Cyril Connolly on Orwell: “he could not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry”. The Rousseau chapter is particularly readable in this respect, with Isiah Berlin praising him as “the greatest militant lowbrow of history”, while his disgruntled patroness Madame d’Epinay had called him “a moral dwarf on stilts”.
(Photo: Stowe House, Phillip Halling/Wikipedia)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The power of Eeyore: laughter and absurdity

Eeyore, by Ernest Shephard, from my mother's copy of The House at Pooh Corner, 1945
I've a piece with The Saturday Age today, 'Pain becomes before a punchline'. I'm talking about the power of laughter to cope with an incomprehensible world. A sample:
What's wonderful about the Christopher Robin stories is their gentle recognition that we're all victims, existentially speaking. The universe is a ludicrous thing, and we're thrown into it without ever being asked. Some respond with giddy eagerness (Tigger), some with curious horror (Piglet), and some with melancholy (Eeyore) - but anyone watching simply has to laugh. 
This is one of the triumphs of kids' books in general: a bonding in incomprehensibility. Sitting laughing at Pooh's honeylust, Mr Small's powerlessness, Sam-I-Am's culinary mania, or Ferdinand's delicate nose, we take a moment to respond to life's absurdity - and we do it together. 
In other words, laughter reveals that we already have a world in common, and feel similarly about it. And if we don't (yet) feel it, we can suggest it: humour is an opportunity to teach kids how to respond to life. Each spontaneous guffaw and giggle is a recognition of ''a world that is endlessly incomprehensible, always baffling'', writes philosopher Ted Cohen in Jokes, ''a world that is beyond us and yet our world''.
I've just been told (see below) that Ted Cohen, whom I quote in the piece, died on 14th March. You can read more about his life and work here. Vale.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Lobster dreams: on language, poetry and Langoustine

I've a short review with Meanjin today: 'On language, poetry and Langoustine'. I'm discussing George Szirtes' intriguing Twitter-born poems, collected in the short book Langoustine, published by Miel. A sample:
By telling you the protagonists are a crab (a doctor) and a lobster, Langoustine, I’m saying very little about the world the author affords. It’s a series of absurd, suggestive and often very funny aphorisms, which sometimes become part of a story—and sometimes suggest some surreal idea or mood. 
‘When the doctor woke his mouth was full of water,’ writes Szirtes. ‘The trouble with sleeping was that you woke to the sea as if the sea were real.’ The physician crab is in the sea—he’s a crab. But he is also in a poem. And his sleep seems to take him out of his world, the poem. Perhaps his dreams are real?
One point of the poem, and Szirtes’ aphorisms in general, is that these paint-by-numbers visions of truth and falsity are dubious. For all their fantastic, fable-like atmosphere, these poems evoke much of the half-lit bafflement of life. They are, in other words, true to our ambiguities and contradictions (assuming we’ve the courage to admit them). 
Another line: ‘There was only so much hard-bitten dialogue the doctor could stand. Inwardly he began a villanelle about silk and oranges.’ This is a crab, but a melancholic, sensitive one. Dry and curt in conversation, he composes gentle ballads to himself. A parable about masculinity? A warning about literary narcissism? Just a funny picture of a complicated crustacean? I’ve no idea, but Szirtes invites curiosity, and makes the words matter.
(Illustration: Warwick Noble, from The Water Babies)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

More Ninja Reviews

After those last reviews for My Nanna is a Ninja, a few more have come in:
"Author and illustrator team, Damon Young and Peter Carnavas are one of those combinations that work. Together, they have fashioned a laugh-out-loud picture book that captures the very essence of Nanna-Dom without once pigeon-holing our ideas of the beloved grandmother." - Boomerang Books
"This story is so imaginative, and very funny. My daughter found it completely hilarious that this nanna has a tendency to sneak around in black doing undeniably stealthy and brave things." - Mumabytes, 'Books We Dig' 
"This is a colourful, lively picture book celebrating the special bond children have with their nannas.  A great story to read aloud with its rhymes and rhythms, it describes the unique antics of the child’s own Ninja nanna, dressed in her black outfit and doing the cool things Ninjas do. 
Carnavas’s illustrations burst with colour and movement, and feature cute details about each of the four nannas described such as their pets, which although are not mentioned in the text, add a level of humour and intrigue that a child will have lots of fun following. 
This is the first picture book by Young. Let’s hope it’s not his last." - Buzz Words
Alongside a reading for four hundred kids at Nikos and Sophia's school assembly, I also did storytime at Readings Books Carlton, which was excellent fun. (One of the kids yelled out: "That's a lantern fish!")

(Image: mosaic courtesy Mumabytes; illustrations by Peter Carnavas)

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Philosophy in the (Dutch) Garden

Following up from those last reviews...

Philosophy in the Garden is soon out in the Netherlands and Dutch-speaking Belgium, with the slightly new title of Filosoferen in de Tuin, or Philosophising in the Garden.

The first review's in, from the Belgian newspaper De Morgen. I've posted it here for its design as much as for its content (of which I only have a vague idea -- but I'm told it's positive).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sweating and somersaults: some recent reviews

2014 has been busy. 

Alongside the "full catastrophe" of family and writing (and getting ready for next month's Europe trip), I've two books out at once: How to Think About Exercise and My Nanna is a Ninja.


Here are some recent reviews for each:

How to Think About Exercise
"A new book has a different message that might nudge reluctant exercisers into moving more. In How to Think about Exercise, Australian philosopher and writer Damon Young argues that exercise isn't just a workout for heart, muscle and bone, but also a way to help the mind and the spirit thrive." - The Sydney Morning Herald
"In pithy, accessible prose, Young offers up a new mantra for intelligent exercise -- not 'just do it' but 'just become it'." - The Age
My Nanna is a Ninja
"Nannas are soft, cosy creatures who bake biscuits and drink tea, aren't they? Not in this book, which takes its cues from martial arts action figures. Far from sitting sedately in her armchair, the sprightly nanna here busts some serious moves (alongside her cat, also disguised). Celebrating difference in simple rhymes, it's a funny look at challenging stereotypes." - The Age/Sydney Morning Herald 
" well as the laugh-out-loud humour that explodes from every page, this is also a very clever reminder that grandparents come in all shapes and sizes, and that each 'version' has something special to offer." - Kids' Book Review
"This is a tale full of the love of life, despite how you look or act, despite what others do and expect of you. The love and companionship between a child and his grandmother is all that matters, not what they wear or do." - Readplus  
I also have a short story in Angela Meyer's collection The Great Unknown. I've noted a couple of nice reviews here.