Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My 2012 reading year

I read many books by female authors this year – more than I did books by male authors – without even realising. Which is great. Because if you’ve been following literary conversations in Australia or around the world over the past year or so, you’ll know that there has been much debate and action around the fact that women remain underrepresented in the publishing industry: books by women writers are reviewed less frequently than those by men, and the reviewers themselves are more likely to be male, for example (see Sophie Cunningham’s great article about the whole ordeal here).

Two of the best books penned by women I read during 2012 were Blue Nights by Joan Didion and I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley. Both had been recommended to me by a number of sources, and I finally got my hands on them after the Melbourne International Writers Festival. Reading Blue Nights was a revelation: how have I lived – particularly as a non-fiction writer – without having read Didion’s work before? I felt like I’d found some kind of soul-mate, or at least, felt as though my desire to become a writer had been replaced with a desire to become Didion herself. Sharp prose, but easy and honest prose: she writes so simply, as if all the words just fell out of her brain onto the page in perfect order. The dumbest of asses could read her work and come away with the most profound understandings of how people and the world work: not because she isn't incredibly complex, but she's so articulate. I even became jealous reading other writers’ glowing reviews of her – I wanted her writing to be mine!

Reading Crosley was also inspiring. Her book of essays about life in New York City was so hilarious I had to stop reading it in publicly, because it made me snort and cry with laughter at once. The best thing about it was it was written by a girl about my age who I could relate to. Her stories are the kind that get told at a dinner party and have the whole group in stitches. But she’s clever, too – all the hilarity is interspersed with reflection on her Jewish suburban upbringing and a whole bunch of other stuff, like friendships, family, work, etc.

Joan Didion: who wouldn't want to be her?
On another note, there were tonnes of books I started this year and didn’t finish, not because I wanted to, but because I got distracted by other books. Some of the half-reads are things like Americana (Don de Lillo), Rock Springs (Richard Ford) and Oblivion (David Foster Wallace). The only two books I actually chose not to finish were Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking – not because I wasn’t desperate to read it but because I couldn’t stomach description after detailed description of her husband’s death (not that it was violent at all – but even descriptions of blood tests make me queasy). The other was Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel because I got too grossed out when the main guy was covered in seeping and bleeding scabs after filling his bed with tacks and glass shards and then sleeping in it.

But some other of my reading highlights this year were:
  • Ransom (David Malouf) – assumed it would be lame because Malouf was on the high school reading list and I used to think everything on the school reading list was silly. Except for the fact I now love heaps of books on school reading lists. In any case, this was great! Initially I thought the declarative and intentionally “mythic” style (ie it reads like an epic poem, kinda – quite sombre, as if everything were laden with meaning) would make it hard to relate to characters. But it didn’t! It made it even easier to engage with them!
  • Shadowboxing (Tony Birch) – so good, mostly because I know the setting so well and it was fascinating (and heart-breaking) to get a picture of what Collingwood and Fitzroy were like 50 years ago. Incredible use of short stories to build a full picture.
  • Super Sad True Love Story (Gary Shteyngart) – crazy futuristic NY fall-of-America type novel, but what an imagination this author has! Such a detailed world. Worth it just to find out what “onionskins” are (I’ll spoil it: they’re transparent jeans). To be honest, it is another east-coast American man writing about a medium-life masculine crisis…but he does a very good job of it. It’s kind of the like final chapter of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad on steroids.
Before the end of 2012, I hope to finish Slaughter House 5 (Kurt Vonnegut) and Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) and maybe The Golden Mean (Annabel Lyon). And then there’s a whole new year of reading ahead!!!! Merry Xmas punx!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Reading JK...

My amazo BF gave me a Kindle for my birthday and I immediately downloaded JK Rowling's new novel. This worked out for me because a) it was cheaper than buying a hard copy and b) you can't tell how long it is in electronic form (normally I can't be bothered reading books over 400 pages...this one was about 500).

But it didn't feel like 500 pages. The Casual Vacancy was very easy to read, with the same ambling, evenly toned and often comic writing style as the Harry Potter books; its characters that were clearly illustrated in terms of appearance and personality; and its storyline (that sounds boring to the untrained ear) was extremely gripping.

JK's newbie is set in Pagford, a small English town, which is thrown into turmoil when Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town council dies very suddenly. While his friends and family grieve,
the town council goes to war. Barry's death has left a 'casual vacancy' on the council, and his supporters want someone like Barry in his place, who will lobby to keep the Fields (the local housing estate) within the district boundaries and to keep Bellchapel (the local addiction clinic) open; other councilors, like the detestable, morbidly obese, and mayor-like town pillar Howard Mollison, want to co-opt anti-Fielders to the team to protect their precious, hard-working, historic, snobby and largely white Pagford. 

It's a dark novel, which exposes the horror under the veneer of a tidy small town - domestic abuse, lies, prejudice, racism, bullying, the trials of mental illness, bullying, suicide, swindling, etc - as well as the horror of life in the housing estate, like heroine addiction, poverty, illness, rape, etc.

JK creates the town dynamic exceptionally well: there are about 14 main characters, and we know all about whom they like and hate, their insecurities, their jobs, their home lives, their family relationships, their goals in life. Most of them are quite complex - Howard's wife Shirley is as horrible as her husband, but her bitterness is understandable considering her circumstance; teenager Fats Wall is the meanest, most selfish and frustrating character I've read about in years, but it's clear by the end why he acts the way he does.

There were passages that were difficult to read: many of the male characters were selfish, arrogant, violent, or self-obsessed to some degree, and Gavin's treatment of his girlfriend Kay (whom he can't stand, but whom he is too weak to actually leave) is painful and awkward to get through, as are Simon Price's constant bouts of angers and the consequent beatings of his children and wife. I should note that most of the female characters were majorly flawed too. The most likable characters were Andrew Price (Simon's son), his school girl crush Gaia and her friend Sukhvinder, who formed solid friendships with each other based on truth and respect.

While totally un-put-downable, The Casual Vacancy seemed overwrought in its determination to reveal the true of grit of English life. By using every possible negative social problem in the UK as a major plot point, JK detracts from the seriousness of these problems. The resolution of Krystal and her brother Robbie's story seemed particularly strained. Also, JK sometimes over-explains her own plot, as if the audience won't understand what she's talking about. Which is ludicrous, because her writing style is otherwise quite clear, and the overwriting actually made me feel patronised.

What JK does best, though, is create people and describe their motivations not only clearly, but in ways that are relatable. I identified with every single character at some point during the book - many of which times made me very uncomfortable - but mostly just made me look forward to her work, post-HP. Kudos.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Language, Art and the Golden Mean

Since most of my life revolves around writing, I am constantly thinking about how language communicates and/produces meaning...the paradoxical nature of language, with both its limitations and infinity...how to articulate ideas in the best possible way for different audiences and impact... This focus on words has always meant that as soon as I arrive at an art exhibition, my immediate desire is to read the catalogue essay before I even view the work so I can articulate in words what the visual works may be trying to evoke. My struggle has always been to view an art work and let it "speak" in a non-linguistic way; to derive some sort of meaning purely from the visual, without relying on a written context for understanding, and without feeling desperate to write about the work, so that I might make sense of it through theorising it.

Last Friday night, my friend Flyck and I went to the Kaleidoscope gallery in Geelong to attend Laura Alice's debut exhibition opening, "The Golden Mean." I've written about Laura's street art before at Killings, so it was great to see some of her work in a different context: her pieces consisted of large-ish ink and watercolour paintings, some smaller illustrations, paste-ups, sharpie drawings on old wood and an animation sequence projected onto the gallery wall- lot of animals and trees.

As Flyck and I walked around the space, munching on the delicious home-made bread, chutney, dukkah, cheese and salts that Laura and her sister had made that afternoon (and drinking the chai tea made by Laura's husband Jono) I felt that for the first time, I was able to enjoy artwork without itching for an essay or a blurb to provide me an interpretation. 

Here's what I loved about Laura's work: her colour palette kind of reminded me of a soft sunset - teals, greyish greens, pale pinks and oranges, greys and yellows...her use of sharpie ink on old wood was so earthy, and her pictures quite child-like - not in the sense they weren't technically incredible (they were) but in the way she gave faces to the objects... There were sleeping moons and mountains...a tree snuggling down comfortably, wrapped in its own roots like a blanket...bears and rabbits with the universe behind them...the pictures were at once full of joy, but also something else - definitely not sadness or darkness - but almost otherworldly, presenting an understanding of the profundity of the world, the enormity of the universe...I don't want to write too much because I'm practising just being affected by the images, but those were my lasting impressions.

It was Flyck, though, who got me to this place (she has an amazing mind, and this crazy ability to think through complex things really deeply and articulate her whole thought process in really profound and relatable ways). For example: Flyck noticed that almost all the pieces contain "roundness" in some way - whether it was the roundness of child's face, or the roundness of the moon, both of which featured prominently - and began to describe earnestly how this portrayed a sense of innocence, or fullness, simply through the suggestion of roundness...Flyck explained how she wasn't really an "angular" person and so was particularly attracted to Laura's work.

Flyck's observation was simple, but it really blew me away - I was so excited about art impacting my friend without a written context that it helped me appreciate Laura's work even more that I already do, and made me excited about the fact that I could become better at absorbing this impact myself.

Once I can afford some of Laura's work, I definitely plan on buying at least one (if not many)!

The exhibition is open till 20th July, at Kaleidoscope Gallery (Courthouse), Cnr Gheringhap and Little Malop Streets, Geelong so if you get a chance you should definitely drop by.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Tri-Review, part three: "Unbearable Lightness" by Portia de Rossi

When I told friends I was reading Portia de Rossi's autobiography, they all laughed at me. Partly, because its title is almost the same as Milan Kundera's masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being; but mostly, because autobiographies written by young film and TV stars are usually badly written and fairly uninteresting. And really, I too expected Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain to be the regular Hollywood-esque hyperbole churned out by most celebs (which, lets face it, I love). 

However, Portia's book defied everyone's expectations. Rather than the typical trajectory of birth to stardom that many actresses' stories take, Unbearable Lightness is a beautifully written and thoroughly harrowing account of Portia's struggle with anorexia during the early years of her television career.

The story begins with Portia waking up in bed one morning, and obsessively counting the calories she ate the day before:
Yesterday I got out of bed and walked directly to the treadmill and walked at 7.0 for 60 minutes for a total of negative 600 calories. I ate 60 calories of oatmeal with Splenda and butter and black coffee with one vanilla-flavored tablet. I didn't eat anything at work. And at lunch I walked on the treadmill for an hour. Shit, I had only walked. 
This quotation reflects the style, tone and content of the rest of the book. Told in the first person, Portia tells her story as if it is actually happening. Though often interspersed with  more self-reflective sections, she usually lets the story tell itself. When Portia is down to about 37kg (yes, there are pictures included so you can see proof of her skeletal frame) she is clearly off the planet - but she doesn't tell us this explicitly. Instead, she explains how she hides her journal from her psychologist so the shrink won't see how she's written "YOU ARE NOTHING!" all over it; she describes how running for hours and hours a day (and not eating anything) made her body so sore she couldn't even stand; how she felt triumph when the ache in her joints after jumping in a warm bath was so great she could forget about hunger and food.

The book is such a great insight into the mind of a person with an eating disorder, or any form of mental illness. Portia's story shows how eating disorders really are an illness, and demonstrates the complete irrationality of the anorexic mindset (which, of course, the sufferer doesn't recognise as irrationality at all).  I reckon this would be a great book for family member and friends of those suffering from anorexia or bulimia. Not only would it help them get inside their loved one's head, but it could help them understand why much of their own help or intervention might not be that affective.

I probably wouldn't recommend Unbearable Lightness to anyone still in the midst of dealing with an eating disorder - the story is so raw and detailed, and Portia's writing so relatable and powerful, that it could potentially exacerbate a problem.

Portia's eating disorder and subsequent breakdown are also both related to her sexuality, and the pressure she felt to keep "being gay" a secret. Unbearable Lightness is also her "coming out" story, to an extent, and describes how her deep friendship (and later, marriage) with Ellen de Generes helped her form an understanding of true, inner beauty, as well as an understanding of a healthy body.

Portia's honesty about her deepest struggles was gut-wrenching, but also encouraged me to face my own struggles head-on...I know that sounds cliched and way too sentimental, but it's true! So read it! Read it now!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Tri-Review, part two: "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick de Witt

       Here is the second part of my new "read and review" tactic, designed to slow down my book-buying habit. I bought this book recently after being sucked in by an ad in the pages of the Granta journal.  

        "If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick de Witt's bloody, darkly funny western The Sisters Brothers,” said The Los Angeles Times. It was this comment (as well as the cool cover) - which made me read de Witt's book. Unfortunately, it also meant I entered the novel with entirely inappropriate expectations. I soon realised that The Sisters Brothers resembles McCarthy in so far as it is set in the American West, has a few violent episodes and explores different relationships between American men. But while de Witt’s style is “declarative” in the of vein of many (most?) male American writers, it certainly doesn’t approach the linguistic acrobatics achieved by McCarthy in all or any of his works. That said, The Sisters Brothers does have other strengths in its own right - it's just taken me a few weeks to realise them.

        I actually found that the voice of Eli Sisters, narrator of The Sisters Brothers, echoed Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968) more than it did any of McCarthy’s characters. This similarity alone suggests that de Witt's novel is dryly humorous – and it is. The Sisters Brothers is the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hired hitmen: Eli is the ostensible "good guy," frequently racked with guilt about the murders he has committed, and longing to be a better man; Charlie is the brutal killer, who cares only about alcohol and fast horses. They are chasing a man named Hermann Kermit Warm across the 19th century American West, and yet of course, the goldrush interferes in their activities, and they end cautiously befriending Warm after he reveals his a trick to making millions from gold panning. The humour occurs in the way the brothers speak to each other, and some of the situations they find themselves in - which revolve around killing other bad guys, stealing horses, crushing on women, panning gold with Warm, etc.

        Mostly, though, the de Witt is at his funniest - and most moving - when he is at his most insightful. The novel is loaded with incredible moments of self-awareness and understanding on the part of Eli Sisters. It's through these moments that de Witt's incredible knack for articulating the ways in which human motivations and desires actually work is revealed. Most heart-breaking, perhaps, is when Eli admits to himself how much he loves and desires validation from his brother, whilst at the same time realising that Charlie will never actually love him as deeply or self-sacrifically as he desires. This realisation is particularly important, because it is due to Eli's love for his brother that Eli has stayed in the killing business so long: he could not bear to see his brother shot dead, so he sticks around to protect Charlie, even though he hates the lifestyle. It's heartwarming to go through this journey of emotional discovery with Eli, and learn with him how valuable it is to one's own sense of identity to treat people - and oneself - with honesty.

Like many a Western, the narrative trajectory of The Sisters Brothers is predictable, in the sense that it has an ending in which everything you want as a reader comes true. Eli achieves redemption through his choice to abandon a life of killing in favour of a reunion with his long-lost mother and, presumably, a more “moral” lifestyle. Charlie, the more brutal of the pair, gets his come-uppance in the form of an injury (his shooting-arm is amputated). Eli doesn’t even have to choose probity over his brother, as his Charlie's physical injury leaves him totally in the care of his brother. Eli has his cake and gets to eat it! Yay for warm and fuzzy endings and family reunions!

But the happy main character did not result in a happy reader - for me, at least. I was actually quite disappointed that it was so easy to see what was coming. In fact, the ending was so expected that I wondered if I were missing something (especially since the novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year, which suggests that at least some important people thought it merit-worthy). It crossed my mind that perhaps de Witt’s story arc was no cliché at all, but actually a parody of the similarly easy endings of the Western dime novels from the early 1900s. And then I wondered if de Witt’s western was a subversion of contemporary darker Western novels (such as McCarthy’s) which had already subverted the early Westerns! A subversion of subversion! Occurring in a way that was invisible to me! And then I thought: I am thinking myself in circles. It may not be Cormac McCarthy, but De Witt’s novel is a fun, clever read, knotted with a few golden insights about male bonding and desire. And that’s it. And that’s a great thing.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Tri-review, part one: "The God Of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

For the past few months I’ve been on a book-buying spree. I justified it by telling myself that I’m supporting writers, independent Australian booksellers and the global publishing industry in a feat of three-birds-with-one-stone consumerist acrobatics. Of course, the person I wasn’t supporting was myself, who quickly ran out of money. Furthermore, the ol’ pile o' Books I Haven’t Read But Look Good On My Bookshelf is increasing exponentially, simply because I can’t read as fast as I can shop.  So I’m on a book-buying-ban at the moment, and now that I’ve announced it publicly you can remind me of all the writers I should actually be supporting by reading their books and reviewing them, rather than just looking at their pretty covers. As part of this cold turkey escapade, I have briefly jotted down my thoughts on three of the books I finished in the last couple of weeks, to ensure that said reviewing actually takes place - and I'll post them over the next three days!

As I read the The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy, my impression of Roy was that she has complete mastery over the English language. Even though her descriptions are long and lavish, not a word is out of place. Check out the lush, vivid description in the book’s opening paragraph:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
Roy is Indian, so English is not, presumably, her first language. However, her position outside that of “native-speaker” gives her power. It’s as though she stands apart from the language, considers its traditional limits and boundaries – and ignores them. When Roy wants a new word, she simply makes one up, and the result is almost always more succinct than it perhaps would have been, had she described in “correct” English. "Dustgreen" is used in the quotation above, and “dullthudding” is the word she uses to describe the particular sound of Ayemenem rain on the roof of the Ipe family home. Much of the book is told from the perspective of the children, Estha and Rahel, and the language that inhabits their dialogue reflects the way Indian children might collide with the strangeness of English. Ousa is the Bar Nowl, who lives in the factory on their property. When Estha replies in the affirmative to a question, he says “Exackly.” “Boot” is Rahel’s favourite English word because of the way it sounds as it comes out of her mouth. The God of Small Things is a tough read in places, content-wise – it’s the story of a family whose members are all embittered against each other, of caste prejudice, of death, mourning and grief. But it’s also the story of a brother and sister who, due their closeness, manage to make it through some very traumatic moments and its linguistic style made it a joy to read. It won the 1997 Man Booker Prize – and deservedly so.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Million Dollar Tegan

Wana know the best way to get back into the habit of blogging? Get together with your ex-boyfriend and take him to see a comedian you haven't heard of! The ex-bf (now current) and I chose Tegan Higginbotham at the Melbourne Internash Comedy festival last month cos she was young and a girl (but not in a weird way...we just wanted to support up-and-coming female comedians...promise) and she was FUNNY – in the sense that we laughed a LOT. Tears were induced, abdominal muscles were engaged – I think I even snorted. I was also inspired to write a review immediately! (I didn't, though, obviously - but am making up for that lost time now).

Her show, “Million Dollar Tegan,” was an hour-long recount of her foray into boxing and her first televised fight (it didn’t end with her cracking her neck on a stool a la Hilary Swank, but she did make a joke about how, before she saw Million Dollar Baby and had only heard a summary of the film, she originally hoped said killer-stool might have been a giant Poo Monster). Jokes and anecdotes ranged in content from interesting details about the boxing industry (the smell of boxing gloves, the way not to punch, the way fights are scored) to by-products of Tegan's training, such as the close friendships she made with the other female boxers, the nicknaming culture at the gym (hers was "Spastic") and the crush she developed on her mentor.

Tegan bustin' moves
The narrative arc frequently veered into non-boxing territory, revealing stories about Higginbotham's messy ex-housemates, her dad’s model spaceships, getting fired from her day job, eating chocolate and the excitement of going to the tip. Somehow, these tangents segued convincingly back into the boxing story and provided a layered picture of Higginbotham that meant the climax of her show – fighting her first fight, and experiencing all the emotions that went along with it – was that much more powerful. Structuring her show around a narrative made it particularly easy to stay engaged and allowed her to build certain jokes throughout the gig, as opposed to relying on one-liners. Her timing was impeccable. Several times since the show, I have laughed out loud when particular lines come to mind - especially a recurring joke about meeting Dipper. Her one Bible joke was cute and funny - and, impressively, very well-informed!

Unlike many young comedians, Higginbotham's onstage presence was easy and unfazed. She spoke with familiarity to the late-comers, laughed at herself when she mucked up a joke (which made the line even funnier) and continued with gags about her boxing coach even though he was in the front row. Her candour and openness made it feel as though she was speaking to the audience like friends, and admirably, she spoke with a humility that didn’t rely on total self-deprecation or self-abasement (which I find a bit tiring after a while). 

This attitude allowed her to create some extremely moving moments. I may have welled up when she described how she got punched in the face – hard - by her opponent (and friend) during her first real fight. She described how confusing it was to be punched in the face – hard – and be bleeding and unable to see properly and have no-one ask her if she was ok (and instead having people cheer her on). The only consolation she had during this moment was to see her mother crying in the crowd. Though she quickly reverted back to funniness, these snippets of insight gave her show a surprising amount depth and richness.

Do I sound like I'm raving too much about this show? Possibly. As you know, anything done successfully by a young woman makes me stupidly happy, so this show had my happiness off the charts. BUT - the rest of crowd was laughing as much (if not more) than I was. Go and see Tegan Higginbotham at her next show, for shizzle.

In other news, I wrote a piece on women and gender and stand-up comedy for the Kill Your Darlings blog - read here!

PeEsE oWt bAyBz - xOxOx

Monday, October 17, 2011

I'm back!

Hey! I'm back in Australia and it's the same temperature as Scotland! What is with that? Now that my mental health has almost re-stablised since finishing my Masters and leaving Edinburgh, I hopefully will have more time to watch TV and hence update this blog.

In the meantime, the lovely peeps at Kill Your Darlings have published my review of TV series Treme (it's made by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, who made The Wire) on their blog so read that badboy HERE.

Here's a picture of John Goodman from Treme, who possibly plays the most awesome English Professor ever characterised in a TV show.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011



After dealing with my severe post traumatic stress disorder which involved lots of crying and wine and sleeping and Buffy, I've pretty much been acting like this (just substitute Tom Jones for Taylor Swift, and I'm not even joking)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Evidence that I actually am in Scotland

Check out yours truly on the cover of the Edinburgh Uni undergrad prospectus even though I am a postgrad! I got 20 quid for this so who's complaining.

here's the link.

If you look carefully you'll see I'm reading a business finance textbook in Chinese. Whoever said a literature degree didn't teach practical skills!