Archive for July, 2009

July 30, 2009

Not at Angus & Robertson. Apart from the classic design of the Perfect Penguin editions, the main selling point of these books is the $10 price. The retailers clearly bang their heads together to sell these: Borders has a 3 for $20 special; university bookshops remind you that you can get a discount on them, making them even cheaper; some of the remainders shops have them for as little as $5 or $6. But this is the first time I’ve seen anyone up the RRP. Interesting, in light of historian Babette Smith’s complaint about A&R’s huge mark-ups of her books.

Rather naughty!

Sooooo, another book about old men having sex with young girls. Another solipsistic paedophile. How awkward. Beauty and Sadness opens with Oki Toshio, a writer now in his fifties, taking a trip to listen to the Kyoto bells. This trip is a wishful stab at the past; the bells are a metaphor for Ueno Otoko, a painter fifteen years younger than Oki. Oki muses on his memories of the relationship between then fifteen-year-old Otoko and thirty-year-old Oki, which ended in a miscarriage and an attempted suicide on the young girl’s part.

Beauty and Sadness — that name is pretty incredible; now you don’t need to read any other books, ever — is a slimmer tome than Lolita, and though it has the same learned elder opportunist, the same precocious, pleading, sexualised child, Kawabata’s Oki is less self-reflexive than Humbert squared. Or rather, Kawabata’s characters are less able to be expressive; they are more restrained. Although their emotions insist on alarming closeness to the surface, each finds a way to sublimate the sharp and the tender: Oki diverts all his energies into successful novels (the Japanese public was enthralled and offended by the publication of his A Girl of Sixteen…WTF, guys!); Oki’s wife, Fumiko, submerges herself in the task of typing up Oki’s manuscripts (What. The. F.); Otoko, now a famous artist, has taken her teenaged protegée, Keiko, as a lover (WTF!!!!!!!!.); and Keiko has taken it upon herself to revenge her mentor’s long-suffered trauma.

There is something in this disconnect between the characters’ fine artistic sensibilities — sensibilities which can pick out the outlines of plovers on kimono fabric, describe a painting’s diversion from traditional styles, appreciate delicate details in natural settings — and their dereliction of emotional awareness. Oki, with his inability to tame his taste for young girls, is an almost comical, singularly self-regarding vehicle for Kawabata’s exploration of memory. In one instance, he considers the food Otoko has gifted him, discerning in ‘some small, perfectly formed rice balls’ the depths of ‘a woman’s emotions’.

Just as the characters sublimate their disturbances into other channels, so do they elect to focus to a heightened extent on nature’s accoutrements; extended meditations on the beauty of stone outcrops and sparkling waters calm the minds of reader and characters alike, and the chapters all take their names from the external settings of the various incidents: ‘The Lake’, ‘The Lotus in the Flames’.

Though Beauty and Sadness climbs to a dramatic finish whose events reverberate for all involved, it is hard for the attention not to catch time and again on the difference between Kawabata’s depiction of Oki and the female characters. Oki’s pathetic inability to draw himself away from the lures of young flesh is illustrated in detail, but it is not decried in situ as the actions of the female characters are. Keiko’s obsession with revenge is ‘violent’, ‘conceited’; meanwhile, Otoko, at the time of her miscarriage, ‘being young, suffered no ill effects’. I thought that was a bit rough. Oki’s character, being impervious to the criticism of himself and others, is a poor candidate for moral redemption or learning, even when those lessons are learned at the expense of those closest to him. As such, the impressions of beauty and sadness derived from this book are only fractured and fleeting, the confusion of echoes in a hall of mirrors.

July 27, 2009

The should-be-chuffed-with-themselves folks at The Lifted Brow kindly sent me a copy of Issue 5 to review on SYN. But five minutes is not enough, really, to discuss such an ambitious publication. I’m actually quite embarrassed because I think my review consisted purely of positive, undescriptive adjectives. But that’s the me + radio equation for you. So onward we go.

The Lifted Brow is a strange chimera of a publication. I hesitate to call it a magazine or a book, being in shape more like a book, and in internal presentation/submission selection more like a literary magazine. Not that it matters either way, but I will probably vacillate between the two terms. Its contents are diverse, though not as uncategorisable as the publication itself: on the Brow‘s pages you can find ample examples of non-fiction, fiction and poetry, and for bonus points there’s a play and an attached CD containing a 77-minute long ‘epic rhyming sci-fi audio drama’. I must admit I haven’t listened to it in its entirety. I can’t remember the last time I sat down for 77 minutes, or even 20 minutes, though, so that’s my bad.

The writing is the usual literary magazine mix — not everything will appeal to everyone. While I thought all the material was of a high standard, generally, the most helpful taxonomy for me is the divide between ‘what if’ writing and ‘it is’ writing. What I mean by this is, respectively, writing that comes from an interesting place of curious conjecture but doesn’t quite manage to shake off its excogitated feel; and writing that seamlessly transports me from my own inner life to another already-existing awareness of emotion and event. Literary fiction is difficult to execute, and this isn’t a blanket criticism of the former: not everyone feels the same about style as I do. But when the gentle flutter of my usual literary magazine reading attention settles down intently, I know I’ve found ‘it is’ writing.

For me, there were two shining examples of ‘it is’ fiction writing in the Brow. Chris Currie’s ‘In the Oldest Way’, about a man who has escaped to Ireland to nurse heartbreak, was consummate writing: tense, fragile, perfectly measured. It proves the benefits of practice — Currie wrote a short story every day on his website Furious Horses. Bryce Wolfgang Joiner has two pieces in the magazine, the first of which is an unsettling, unsettled Full-Metal-Jacket style detailing the transition of soldiers to the psychiatric ward. But his second, ‘Chainsaw’, a first-person narrative in a kind of working-class Australian argot, stuck in my throat. Use of vernacular in stories is contentious (see Zora Neale Hurston) but it’s consistent and assured here. ‘Chainsaw’ proposes the violent velocity amounting from the equation of resentment plus misimagination. Further, Joiner invests people on either side of the deforestation controversy with so much humanity that morality looms in the background like a plateau throughout the whole.

There’s some international content, too. Tao Lin and Ellen Kennedy, representing the banal post-nihilist fiction crew, have poetry and a short story in here, lyrical examples of a niche genre I am particularly fond of. The non-fiction is fantastic: I read an article by Tim O’Neil about comics. Really, I did, and I liked it. There’s also a maths column about knots, which I didn’t understand at all. But it comes with a piece of string — cute!

The Brow‘s mindful capacity to stimulate is pretty wonderful. I think it does the literary landscape a favour, picking and choosing as it does premier examples of work by emerging writers from Australia and beyond. Blending the local stuff with international material didn’t bother me at all, because it’s all very good, and if you can increase the market for Australian writing by increasing potential sales areas, you should. Subscribe, submit or buy at The Lifted Brow.

July 24, 2009

There’s a Choice poll on the parallel importation of books — laughably rhetorical, even for someone who agrees with the most potent statements — but it’s worth a click.

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July 23, 2009

Lady bands (via). In the face of the Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time (that’s maximal capitalisation of scornful satire), Maddie and I have decided to play all lady music on Textual Fantasies on Saturday. How was last week’s show, you ask? Oh, pretty RAD. Someone wrote a haiku about me. Dan Giovanonni and Lally Katz are rad too. (Go see AVIARY and check out the Apocalypse Bear Trilogy in October.) This week, the show’s about publishing. The behind-the-scenes people. The elegantly learned of the literary world. Ryan Paine, mensch-about-town, and Jess Crouch, editor-out-of-town, will be chatting to us. Plus, we’ll be looking at the new issue of The Lifted Brow. A clue: it’s amazing.

You may notice there hasn’t been a book review this week. It’s not that I haven’t been reading — I have. It’s that I haven’t had time to sit down and pen happy reading thoughts. Last week, however, I did find the time to meet with the literary internet peeps of Melbourne. Plied with red wine courtesy of Michael Williams and, who am I kidding, my own permissive personality, we had what an aunty would call ‘a nice time’.

We were chatting about the new Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas — I think it needs a new name, too long to type! If I had to name a fantasy Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas guest, I would pick Miranda July. She has lots of ideas. And I love her. For the website, I’d also like to see a comprehensive literary events guide, like most cities’ street presses have for music events. Went to see a session at the State of Design festival about book design, and I’d love to see programming take that path less travelled, too. Can you imagine a session where the publishers at Text discussed the cover of The Death of Bunny Munro? And the more accessible and non-hierarchical, the better.

MWF program is out.

July 23, 2009

Almost had a heart attack when I saw this display stand. Grug books by Ted Prior were my favourite books when I was in Prep. In fact, they were everyone’s favourite books, and there was always a fight for Grug.
For those of you not in the know, Grug is a pyramidal critter who
began his life as the top of a Burrawang tree (Macrozamia communis), but looks more like a Grass tree (Xanthorrhoea). Resembling a small, striped haystack with a face, he is fascinated by the world around him and solves everyday problems creatively and without fuss. When dancing instructions are too difficult to understand, Grug invents his own dance and calls it “The Grug”.
(Ganked from Wikipedia, of course. There’s something about the lyricism of that resource you just can’t beat.)

The books are $5 each and feature Grug’s adventures, his Grug lookalike letterbox and his friend Cara the snake. I had a flick through a few of the books the other day and my favourite was Grug Goes Shopping. Grug visits Cara’s shop, and she gives everyone free bush gum with purchase. In order to push things into Grug’s cart, she slides her slippery body up and down the stacks of food. Love it.

Any other favourite childhood books out there?

I feel extraordinarily guilty that all I have been doing during this Productivity Commission mess is clicking my tongue at the tv and posting links. But the truth is that I don’t feel I can make arguments better than the people who have already made them. So, some more:

Excellent, accessible, ‘layman’s’ breakdown of the consequences of abolishing parallel importation restrictions (PIRs) here. (via).

Tim Coronel’s aggregation of news links pertaining to the PIRs here.

Mark Rubbo of Readings on why we should not support abolition of the PIRs. Uh, because Australian publishing is awesome, dummy!