Archive for April, 2010

Now we’re really digging into the archives. I actually read The Shadow of the Sun over a year ago, in preparation for my holiday to north-east Africa.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a great deal of anxiety about reading into any subject you know very little about. Having only read a sprinkling of African literature – Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri – I confess I was overwhelmed by my unfamiliarity with that continent’s history and writers. For this reason, my travelling companions and I bought up big, books-wise, before we left – the first Popular Penguins series was a goldmine, furnishing Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, Redmond Hanlon’s Congo Journey and Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun.

Kapuscinski was a well-respected Polish journalist who travelled to Africa whenever he could over a period of forty years, speaking to local people and recording their stories. He’s written nine books that are available in English, and plenty of others besides. Given that I was so keen to disembarrass myself of my ignorance, Africa-wise, it’s somewhat poetic that the author I selected to assist me through my bewilderness, was recently accused of fabricating some of his stories. That controversy certainly stirs up some questions of truth and fiction, and whether the latter can ever be employed in the service of the former. Read Neal Ascherson on Kapuscinski’s literary reportage here.

So, Kapuscinski. To begin, he states that

this is … not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say “Africa.” In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.

… which is wonderful, because a land mass housing over a billion people and 53 different countries defies any kind of easy understanding. As promised, Kapuscinski writes about people – the people he meets, the dictators he sees from afar, the desert drivers, the United Nations High Commissioner for refugee affairs. However, despite his protesting, his stories about one person, one family or one village are almost always points that expand to gradually encompass a much bigger panorama: the failure of transport in Ghana, or the structure of an Ashanti tribe.

Of course, it is always easy to start with the self. An image that sticks in my mind to this day: Kapuscinski lying abed with malaria, trembling with repugnance and cold and exhaustion, with the local villagers calmly pressing a wooden chest on top of him. ‘The only thing that really helps is if someone covers you. But not simply throws a blanket or quilt over you … You dream of being pulverized. You desperately long for a steamroller to pass over you.’

He is also equally attentive to broad-scale events that affect the fortunes of a nation. ‘The Anatomy of a Coup d’État’ is a collection of notes Kapuscinski kept while in Lagos in 1966. Ahmadu Bello, the leader of Northern Nigeria, is felled by a bullet in the middle of the night; rebel troops attack the palace of the prime minister of Western Nigeria; in the other three cities, a small army continues to take over the de facto power, until on Saturday ‘Lagos awakes, knowing nothing about anything.’

Though it is certainly made up of various and varied tales, reading The Shadow of the Sun is not really a project of simply absorbing multiple stories. To read Kapuscinski is to be invested in a dream that a Westerner can begin to understand the inhabitants, history and politics of a vast land she knows nothing about. This dream is made possible because of Kapuscinski’s lucid and unpretentious writing, his vivid imagery and his empathy. And the dream is kept alive by the number of books he wrote – next on my list is The Emperor, which is about the downfall of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie I.

April 19, 2010

Let’s talk about my Too Early Introduction To Tim Winton. When I was a wee tacker with no friends and a constant seat at the library, my parents and teachers often encouraged me to expand my readerly repertoire. As a result, I had a lot of incoming recommendations – one teacher recommended that I read Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, though I must have felt that the rural lives of Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene (really??) weren’t quite up to my standards, as I’ve never read it.

Whether I took to the recommended book or not was pretty unpredictable. My favourite read was Jane Eyre, and it remains so to this day, despite its being an exemplar of the Possibly Crazy White Oppressor’s Simultaneous Despoliation of the Dignity Of Females From Conquered Races And The Lower Classes genre. But when I tried reading Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet on the shelves at home, I was so displeased with what it offered that I didn’t finish it.

So, however unfair it may be to Mr Winton, I’ve kind of nursed ill feeling towards him since then – more than half my life. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for Cloudstreet then, and I’m certainly not opposed to trying again in future. Occasionally, I have considered a dip into the Winton oeuvre, but every time I thought about it, I’d think of reasons not to go ahead. For example, not so long ago, a couple of my friends attempted to read Cloudstreet, and found it incredibly hard to get through. Nevertheless, I’m not one to ever say never, so I read Breath when I was on holiday in Sri Lanka.

Although it seems that I am gratuitously mentioning my tropical sojourn every time I draw digital breath, I feel like the setting of the ‘I Finally Give Tim Winton Another Go’ melodrama was important. It’s not that I’m so literal as to think a beachside location is integral to appreciating Breath. But interspersing my reading stints with the occasional surrender to tiny but powerful waves, on a shoreline tremendous with whiteness, lent another dimension to my experience of Breath’s grace and power.

Breath opens with Bruce Pike roaring up the road with another paramedic to a house where a seventeen-year-old kid has died of asphyxiation. Jodie, Bruce’s colleague, assumes that the teenager has committed suicide. Bruce knows better; he may be ‘arrogant, aloof, sexist, bad communicator, gung-ho’, but he knows what young Aaron’s motivations were, just like they his own. Once, Bruce – Pikelet – was a kid from Sawyer, ‘a town of millers and loggers and dairy farmers’. But then he chanced to follow his mate, Loonie, clinging gamely one day to the tie-rail of a flatbed truck, and he saw the ocean.

Pikelet’s first glimpse of the surf and its inhabitants haunts him: ‘How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant’. Pursuing the surf swallows up his time, and his fledgling adult identity: to follow the surf is to defy his father, who is petrified of the open water. Pikelet and Loonie get their start with a motley group of surfers, before they succeed to the mentorship of Sando, a ‘huge, bearded, coiled-up presence’, whose ability in the surf is unparalleled in their small acquaintance. Before long Pikelet and Loonie are striving to the heights that Sando sets them, and competing against each other for his regard and the wildest wave.

What blew me away was the sheer physicality of Winton’s ocean. I’ve never felt more terrified and awed and seduced by a description as I have when reading Winton’s Old Smoky, the wave that baptises the boys as local surfing mavericks, and the Nautilus, a notorious wave that taunts Pikelet and Loonie with its unpredictability and danger. Breath parses the surf in straightforward poetry, from Old Smoky’s immense ’sound of sheetmetal shearing itself to pieces’ to the gentler water’s ‘cauls of fizz and light’, which accompany the surfer who’s taken on the impossible and won. I’ve never seen surf like that, but I’m pretty sure I will always be able to call to my mind’s eye the spectacle of thousands of cubic metres’ worth of spine-snapping water curving in a wall towards a person, tiny on a board of fibreglass and foam.

In some ways, the novel’s structure is but a viable vehicle for the absolute, unbiddable presence of the water. Something that I read about Tim Winton and Breath, long before I ever read the book, is James Ley’s comment that ‘Winton is a high symbolist working in a realist mode’. I came across this quote at Kerryn Goldsworthy’s blog, and it stayed with me for two years. Ley’s comment deeply affected the way I read the book. Aspects of the novel feel like they are in service of the novel’s focal symbol, the breath, including Pikelet’s sexual relationship with Sando’s wife, Eva, who herself seems merely perfunctory at times.

Nevertheless, what a way to shirk any indifference I felt about a writer many consider Australia’s finest. Good to meet you again, Tim.

It’s, as always, a throat-unhitching pleasure to pop past Rhys Tranter’s A Piece of Monologue, where I lately spied this excerpt from Don Delillo’s Mao II:

He walked among the bookstore shelves, hearing Muzak in the air. There were rows of handsome covers, prosperous and assured. He felt an excitement, hefting a new book, fitting hand over sleek spine, seeing lines of type jitter past his thumb as he let the pages fall. He was a young man, shrewd in his fervors, who knew there were books he wanted to read and others he absolutely had to own, the ones that gesture in special ways, that have a rareness or daring, a charge of heat that stains the air around them. … He went to the section on modern classics and found Bill Gray’s to lean novels in their latest trade editions, a matched pair banded in austere numbers and rusts. He liked to check the shelves for Bill.

But, as soon as I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to read that’, I realised there was no way I could do it – for the next month or so, anyway. I’ve been reading books to prepare for the Emerging Writers Festival’s 15 Minutes of Fame event, which will see me launching 16 books in four nights (May 24–27). I’ve so far read a controversial book about blog writing, a historical YA book about my city, an incredible travel story … and I’m nowhere near done yet. Such is my excellent life.

It’s interesting how I gauge my own identity with reference to what I’m reading. On the one hand, as demonstrated by Jacinda Woodhead’s fun (but exhausting) Meanland post, ‘You are not reading enough’, there’s a certain amount of cultural cachet to being able to say ‘I read all of this … but it’s still not enough’. On the other hand, when I’m primarily choosing what to read within the contexts of external organisation (say, a festival or a book club), my ability to discern elements of taste and preference in my reading attenuates. When was the last time I chose something to read, and took the liberty to read it?

I can actually answer that question; it’s not merely a rhetorical musing. I recently ordered Maddy Phelan’s Ladybeard from Susy Pow’s Bird in the Hand zine distro, a wonderful personal zine about Phelan’s decision to stop removing her facial hair. And at 14 pages, it was no incursion on my ‘professional’ reading time.

However, Motoko Rich’s New York Times article on how we use book covers (and other visual flags of what cultural items we prefer) as identification markers made me think about what messages I was sending out when reading books for professional (as opposed to strictly leisure) purposes. I definitely started looking over my shoulder when I was reading Clinton Caward’s Love Machine, not because I was embarrassed about reading it, but worried that its clever barcode placement would encourage more interest in my reading material from strangers. (I can be shy.)

But that’s okay, because I think I identify not as someone based on one particular book I’m reading, but as someone who generally enjoys and champions ‘rows of handsome covers, prosperous and assured’ and books ‘that gesture in special ways, that have a rareness or daring, a charge of heat that stains the air around them’ – even if that heat is produced in bodies responding to a silhouette of a naked lady on a pink book cover. In the Mao II excerpt, Delillo was no doubt being scathing about the lustful lures of bookshops, and our willingness as consumers of culture to be seduced by their wares. But it nevertheless reminded me of my willingness to be seduced – prescribed reading or not, I’m an open-armed receiver.

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April 12, 2010

When I read Indignation over the summer, I really enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t have read it unless my boyfriend hadn’t been given it by an Icelandic friend he’d met in Tanzania and if I hadn’t been on holiday in paradisiac Sri Lanka, which was satisfying my hunger for hammocks and beers so generously that all I could do was read the books I’d brought and then everyone else’s. Despite appearances, I’m not trying to flaunt my bourgie lifestyle – only point out how improbable and extreme were the circumstances of reading only my second ever Roth tome. Whatever, you like holidays too.

My first Philip Roth experience was with Goodbye, Columbus. I know a lot of people who love that book, but I wasn’t struck by any gigantic lightning bolts by any means. I’m a bit puzzled now, looking at the Wikipedia summary (yes, okay, whatever, I am lazy), about why I don’t remember Goodbye, Columbus more fondly. Some of those later stories sound pretty interesting. But, with reference to the first, titular, story, I can pretty easily explain why I’ve been so reluctant to dive into the Roth oeuvre since then. I guess I don’t really care about classism if the concerns are expressed predominantly within the context of wanting to screw a lady whom society deems inappropriate for you. So, that story kind of stuck in my head, but not in a good way.

A little while back, I expressed my reluctance to choose another Roth to read – mostly because I perceived that his oeuvre was uneven – at Lydia Kiesling’s blog (she now writes for The Millions), to which she replied: ‘Norman Mailer and Philip Roth both belong to my American Post-War Masculine Bermuda Triangle of Doom.’ Which also stuck in my head. How am I supposed to pick a safe harbour in a Triangle of Doom?

But I read this ‘Pulling a Roth’ post in the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies the other week, and it refers to comments Roth made in his Paris Review interview:

It’s all one book you write anyway. At night you dream six dreams. But are they six dreams? One dream prefigures or anticipates the next, or somehow concludes what hasn’t yet even been fully dreamed. Then comes the next dream, the corrective of the dream before—the alternative dream, the antidote dream—enlarging upon it, or laughing at it, or contradicting it, or trying just to get the dream dreamed right. You can go on trying all night long.

…the effects of which are basically ‘I’ve been writing the same novel…28 times.’

I thought again of Indignation, though many months have passed since I read it, and despite the similarities between it and ‘Goodbye, Columbus’, I remembered it with a small glow. (Of course, I was also recalling with warmth my rope bed swinging between coconut palms.) I think half of our holidaying companions read Indignation during those weeks, and we all really liked it.

Indignation is the first-person story of Marcus Messner, the son of a butcher and his wife. Marcus is a pretty good kid who gets excellent grades at school and helps out at the shop but is nevertheless being slowly alienated by his father’s increasingly pathological worrying. So he jumps ship to a small liberal arts college called Winesburg, where he is subjected to all the usual outsider traumas: frat boys shouting ‘Hey, Jew! Over here!’ and a roommate who has an almost demonic lack of regard for him.

But Winesburg is also, of course, the stage for Markie’s big love story, ‘the beauticious Olivia’. And here again the nauseating lusty affection for what a disgruntled Tim Rutten, writing in the LA Times, called ‘the requisite inappropriate shiksa’. I’ve heard a lot about Roth’s uncomfortably one-dimensional, gazed-upon women. But Indignation’s ridiculous affair worked for me, for a few reasons. One: sure, Olivia is mentally ill and is given short shrift as a character. But Messner’s obsessive fantasising is so feckless that it’s horribly sad to witness, especially in conjunction with his other foibles. I realise that if you’d read more than one other of Roth’s 28 books, Messner’s hopeless, useless, obsessive erotic thrall (that’s Rutten again, paraphrased) wouldn’t just be Chinese Water Torture drop #2, but something progressively worse than that. But Messner is an emotional infant, and his love for Olivia makes that clear.

Second, Messner’s über pathetic romance-stimulated body and thoughts are exploding against the backdrop of the Korean War, which is in its second year. Messner, the butcher’s son, is all too aware of what carnage is like: ‘I grew up with blood and grease and knife sharpeners and slicing machines and amputated fingers or missing parts of fingers on the hands of my three uncles as well as my father—and I never got used to it and I never liked it.’ His academic strivings are an attempt to put a gulf between himself and the violent visceral promise of war, and similarly, Messner’s self-imposed sexual deadline becomes more urgent in the threat of being drafted: ‘I was determined to have intercourse before I died.’

{Don’t read the next paragraph if you object to details that are arguably spoiler material.}

Christopher Hitchens was pretty scathing about this whole tra-la: ‘The ordinariness of the prose here (“trammels holding sway” and all that) is matched by the familiarity of the Eros/Thanatos dialectic.’ But for my part, I was relieved to see Roth’s sexual foregrounding anchored by some pathos in Indignation; though Messner is a terribly weird and self-indulgent unit, his defiance of school norms and his bleating anxiety are just sympathetic enough. This makes the novel’s framing conceit (revealed partway through the book) an effective one – Messner’s in hospital, deeply injured, and is narrating the events of his short life under morphine’s potent sway.

I do find it, in theory, an infuriating proposition that any author might consider each novel an improved iteration of the successive ones. However, late Roth in my case was a far more rewarding experience than early Roth. Indignation puts Roth’s usual ingredients together to create an effective novel; he even manages to make masturbation kind of poignant. Did I just say that? Hmmmm.

Hello. So, the APA internships are open for 2010. You can now download all the information you need to apply at the APA website:

From the horse’s mouth:

The APA Publishing Internship Program assists publishers in filling a growing need for the strategic placement of quality candidates into a variety of challenging positions within publishing houses. This is a wonderful opportunity for publishers to engage talented and qualified publishing graduates, and to attract the best and brightest into training for key positions within their companies. It provides an incentive to attract the kind of talent the industry needs and will contribute to the long-term development of a highly skilled publishing sector. It places interns in challenging and constructive environments to enhance their skills and employment potential.

After a highly competitive application process, four publishing companies have been selected for the Australian Publishers Association Internship Program 2010:

Fremantle Press, Perth - Editorial Intern
Magabala Books, Broome - Publishing Intern (OPEN SOON for application, details will be listed below and sent to the internship mailing list as soon as they are available)
Macmillan Education Australia, Melbourne - Publishing Editorial Intern, Digital Publishing, Secondary Publishing
Pier 9 Books (an imprint of Murdoch Books), Sydney - Publishing Intern, Pier 9 Books, Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction

The last time I read a book that made me cry, well, I never said I wanted to read a book that would make me cry, did I, what I said was I wanted to read a book about a place where everyone can hear what other people think and so you never have time alone, everyone knows everything about you, and you can hear what animals think (and what dogs have to say isn’t very interesting, they want to poo and eat all the time).

I guess in some ways, what I wanted was what I got, cuz The Knife of Never Letting Go is about a place called Prentisstown where there aren’t any women, the whole populashun is made up of men, and they can all hear each other’s thoughts in a loud jangly Noise that crawls across the book’s pages in funny fonts that I’d try to show you if I knew how. There are only 147 people in Prentisstown and they’re all waiting for some reason for young Todd Hewitt, the last of the kids, to become a man.

Cuz there’s a secret hiding, even in the Noise of the town, that Todd knows is dangerous cuz one day Ben and Cillian, the only family he knows, tell him to get out of Prentisstown and Todd’s shocked, he hadn’t even known there was anywhere else but Prentisstown in the world, and so off he goes with his dog Manchee (‘Poo, Todd. Poo. Poo’).

But being able to hear other people’s thoughts is just a type of power, and we all know that where there’s power there’s someone who wants all of it, so before long the people of Prentisstown are searching for him, searching through all of a world we find out is just a new version of the one we know, and there’s preshus few places to hide when people know what your thoughts sounds like, have heard them every day of your life since you were born.

I love this book. I love the way the writer uses the Noise to show the best and worst parts of everybody, from the keening love of a child whose Noise just says daddy daddy daddy to the clamour of the Noise of hundreds of men drowning in sorrow and regret and confushun and remorse, and best of all I love the heartbreaking and thoughtless loyalty of Manchee and I love the way secrets become so powerfully difficult in Noise and yet The Knife of Never Letting Go is about hope, it’s about how tho’ we as individuals and as humanity have made mistakes how it’s worth every terrible fight to fix them.

And then there’s the cliffhanger, which is something else.

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Just a little bonus Easter post. As you may or may not know (“have had rubbed insufferably into your face”), last year I did an internship with Oxford University Press. It was one of the four Australian Publishers Association internships partly funded by CAL. These internships are numerous as my hangover brainwaves, and much more useful. The six-month, high-level publishing placements are incredibly competitive, but if you’re interested in publishing, they’re without peer as practical training for the industry.

The 2010 publishers who will be offering the internships are: Fremantle Press, Perth — Editorial Intern; Magabala Books, Broome — Publishing Intern; Macmillan Education Australia, Melbourne — Publishing Editorial Intern, Digital Publishing, Secondary Publishing; Murdoch Books, Sydney — Publishing Intern, Pier 9 Books, Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction. The geographical spread is much wider than it has been in previous years, which is great. The previous publishers involved have tended to be concentrated in Melbourne.

Detailed information about the program will appear on the APA website in the near future, but if you’re interested in these internships, you can read my interviews with some of the other 2009 interns here. It might seem like I harp on about this program a lot, but for me it was an incomparable leg up into an industry I thought I’d have to do postgraduate study to get into (not so soon after a six-year undergraduate stint, thanks). They’re also extremely competitive, so get cracking on your application. And in terms of what happens after the internships? I’m not promising anything, but the 2010 interns who have completed their internship (one internship began a bit later than the others) all now have continuing employment with their placement publisher.