Archive for 2012

December 10, 2012

Argh, okay, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading and I have to return a whole bunch of books to the library so I’m going to bite the bullet and just do quick notes on the following:

The Richmond Conspiracy / Andrew Grimes

My friend Shalini at Text recommended this to me as I was on a crime kick. I found this historical police procedural a bit slow to warm up, but Detective Inspector Maclaine is a solid Melbourne variant of the middle-aged crime-solver whose life is falling apart. Loved the local postwar detail woven through this story, which sees Maclaine try to find out who murdered an unpopular, high-profile businessman.

Five Parts Dead / Tim Pegler*

Tim and I were both speakers at an education event recently, so I was keen to read this YA ghost story. Tim’s journo background is very apparent in this lovely book about Dan, a survivor of a horrific car crash that killed his best friends. On a family trip to a lighthouse, Dan deals with his own spectres and discovers others, spurring him on to seek justice for a long forgotten cold case. The past-and-present twin stories, and the way they see Dan ease back into close relationships, are moving. Also, each chapter’s title is taken from  flag signals, which provide a cool counterpoint and chillingly evoke the isolation of life on a remote island.

Stanley and Sophie / Kate Jennings

Kate Jennings is an absolute firecracker, a hard-nosed speechwriter and thinker – which makes this tale of falling in love with two Border Terriers all the more emotionally interesting and, ultimately, affecting. After Jennings’ husband passed away, the New York–based writer adopted two dogs, Stanley and Sophie, despite originally being ‘one of those who thought not only that a dog should have a job but also that keeping them in apartments and always on a leash was close to criminal’. Fascinating insight into the absurd politics of dog-crazy New York, with a middle section that takes place in Pantai Berawa, Bali, where endangered and wild animals are kept as pets.

Holding the Man / Timothy Conigrave

Seems inappropriate to quickly blurb this very important and readable book. Desperately wanted to read this after reading Ben Law’s Wheeler Centre essay about it. Timothy Conigrave recounts his sexual awakening and complicated, life-long love affair with long-lashed captain of the football team, John Caleo. Incredibly sad and confronting personal account of growing up gay in Melbourne in the second half of the twentieth century, and living with HIV. Yes, it’s rough around the edges, but it hardly matters. Conigrave passed away not long after completing the book. Vital.

The Convent / Maureen McCarthy*

One of my favourite books growing up was McCarthy’s Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life. I loved her late teens finding their way into adulthood, and complex webs of human relationships. The Convent is another work strong on these counts: Peach, an adopted and much loved teen, struggles to forget an ex-boyfriend, look after her younger sister and support her dynamic best friends. But it’s not just Peach’s story that gets an airing; the narratives of her mother (Cecilia, a nun), grandmother (Ellen, an ‘abandoned’ child) and great-grandmother (Sadie, independent and heartbreakingly hard done by) are also interwoven throughout. I didn’t completely buy Peach’s angst over her lost love, but I absolutely did buy all of the book-version-of-the-Bechdel-test-passing female conversations and relationships here, especially within the tryingly constrained repression of Cecilia’s convent experiences. Bonus Melbourne points for representing Abbotsford Convent’s fascinating past.

Angel Creek / Sally Rippin

Sally was one of the other writing residents at Melbourne Zoo with me, so I thought I would read one of her gazillion books! I picked up Angel Creek, a lovely book for younger readers about a girl called Jelly who has moved to a house that backs onto Merri Creek. Understandably, she’s not very happy about having moved halfway across the city, and her cousins (who are around for Christmas) are annoying her a lot. But then she finds an angel in the creek. I love Sally’s writing. It’s super lucid and very compassionate. And this is no fluffy baby angel with cherubic features and a harp. Jelly’s angel turns out to be complicated and very strange.

The Lover / Marguerite Duras

This is one of those books I think I have four copies of because I always buy it when I see it in an op shop, as a reminder to read it. This time I actually ended up reading it, so I suppose I can stop buying it now. A teenager breaks the rules of polite expat society in Vietnam when she accepts an older Chinese man as her lover; she discovers sexual power and social exile, and navigates her family’s madness.

Given this kerfuffle, I hate to think what would happen now if someone published a book about a 15-year-old girl with a 27-year-old man (although maybe nothing, see below). I think I should have read this book earlier in my life, because some of the cinematic images here I am sure would have set me on certain aesthetic tracks; for example, wearing gold lamé shoes paired with jaunty fedoras, giant diamonds. Maybe I’m just romanticising my younger self. Certainly I love the feeling that the narrator is romanticising her younger self in recalling the affair. The Lover is written in a dream-like way, floating between the present and the past. Fascinating article about Duras’ many versions of this (semi-autobiographical) story here. Vanessa Blakeslee’s Paris Review Daily piece looks back on The Lover in the way I think I would if I’d read the novel earlier.

Monsieur / Emma Becker

I didn’t think about this at the time but of course the only way to follow The Lover was to read another autobiographical novel about significant sexual relationships by a French ingenue. Perhaps my snobby, cynical way of engaging with the 50 Shades zeitgeist without actually reading EL James’ trilogy. Monsieur is breathless, diary-esque. French teenager Ellie is obsessed by Lolita and erotic novel La mécanique des femmes (The Mechanics of Women) by Louis Calaferte. She’s read through de Sade, Mandiargues and Pauline Réage, and has had older lovers before – none of whom is really satisfactory, nor shares her passion for erotic literature. When she hears that a 45-year-old friend of her uncle’s is also interested in these works, she contacts him. He’s very interested.Sex ensues.

It’s a very straightforward and explicit tale of an affair, but I liked the literary context – the sense that the affair, and the book, follows a long tradition of French erotic literature. Which is not to say that I think this book is extremely literary. The writing is fine, though some readers will find Ellie’s angsty writings about her passions and about Monsieur wearying. The dialogue often leaves much to be desired in terms of subtlety or even interest, but I do like the way this illustrates the uncomfortable way this relationship, er, straddles fantasy and reality. Unlike Duras’ narrator, Becker’s is very much in the moment, ostensibly frustrated by the relationship’s lack of narrative cohesion or finality, but lacking the emotional wherewithal to recognise other causes for her misery.

Actually, I also want to note that I read this on Google Play, and I found it very annoying. The highlight function was very finicky and unresponsive. It basically worked how it was supposed to about once. Maybe I have Homer fingers, but I don’t think so. I have so many notes where I have just typed ‘highlighting so buggy’ instead of being able to highlight significant sentences like ‘In his cot, their child breathes softly, like a satisfied little bear.’

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November 22, 2012

For the Meanjin Tournament of Books – this year classic Australian short stories face off against one another – I read Elizabeth Jolley’s ‘Five Acre Virgin’ and Sonya Hartnett’s ‘Any Dog’. Find out which story came out on top here.

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November 15, 2012

This is my way of inviting you to the Wheeler Centre on Wednesday 21 November for A Night at the Zoo. (Note that the event is not actually being held at the zoo – I know, it’s sad right.) Tickets are free but you should book at the WC website. Cate Kennedy, Sally Rippin, Judy Horacek and I will be chatting about being Melbourne Zoo writing fellows, and the upcoming Face/Off sequel, which stars me and a zebra.

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I’ve just read two of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels in one week (the result of some hasty decisions in my first go at borrowing e-books from my local library) so forgive the smell of whisky and all of the horse talk.

I jumped on the Jack Irish wagon a couple of months ago, taking Bad Debts on holiday with me, and it turned out to be perfectly suited to holiday reading. Not because the book’s light and fluffy, but because being on holiday meant I had long stretches of potential reading time that would be uninterrupted by trivial things such as a full-time job and eating. Once I had my hands on two more of these bad boys, trying to fit these novels in around a daily 7.5-hour commitment seemed like the closest thing to torture that the bookish middle classes might ever know. I began to regard going to work as an day-long impediment to my progress. They are read-while-you-brush-your-teeth kind of books (I’ve only just cleaned the toothpaste off my iPad). I almost got hit by a tram while reading them – it’s that kind of thing.

I liked these books much more than I liked Truth and The Broken Shore, and I liked those books a lot. This like has a lot to do with the bar-setting Jack Irish, probably the best thriller protagonist I have ever come across. Jack (or so I like to call him) is the son of a Fitzroy footballer; an ex-criminal lawyer with a honed palate, an interest in the horses and a logic-defying attachment to his Studebaker Lark. These days, Jack is a suburban solicitor, having lost the taste for criminal law after an ex-client shot and killed his wife. Yet a strong sense of story and justice remain entwined in him, such that he finds it difficult not to follow slightly unravelled threads.

Bad Debts opens with Jack traipsing around after a non-compliant debtor. It’s only his sometimes-job cleaning up various non-legal bits and pieces, so it’s irritating to say the least when the subject pulls a gun on him – or to be more specific, at his wedding tackle. Complain as you will about laconic Australian men in fiction, but Jack’s thoughts on this turn of events are wonderful and typical: ‘I looked at the pistol with concern. It had a distinctly Albanian cast to it. These things go off for motives of their own.’ How much more satisfying can you get than that, I ask you. He’s the proverbial cucumber under pressure, making little jokes and understating the situation by a factor of about seventy. Yet underneath this he’s arranging his way out of the mess, and the resolution surprises you as much as the hapless joe who ends up locked up in his own house (the logistics of this are beyond me, but I am confident that he would be able to pull it off).

To surmount the distinct disadvantage to likeability that being a lawyer usually proves, Jack Irish needs to be a superlatively sympathetic customer, and it’s almost ridiculous how good a character he is. Jack knows a lot of obscure shit. At one stage, he describes a woman’s face thus: ‘her mouth a perfect Ctesiphon curve of disgust.’ Believe me, I googled this and I still have no idea what he meant; yet I have no doubt he meant something very germane and specific. Okay, I’m basically in love with a fictional character. What of it? Temple is a genius at character; even the people who pop up for one or two pages are vividly drawn. These portraits comprise scalp-pricklingly good physical sketches (‘Harry’s wife was in her forties, sexy in a bush-hospital nurse way’) and a way with dialogue that seems to come from a lifelong interest in how people speak.

Key to the greatness of these books is Temple’s ability to convey a lot of information very efficiently, without exposition assuming the all-too-familiar form of drudgery. I would be hard pressed to find a sentence in any of these books that does not simultaneously deliver character and plot. This is a blessing, because all of Temple’s books that I have read are concerned with the tricky dealings of systemic corruption and rotted states. His almost-fixation on the malign impenetrability of corporate webs made up of shell companies with names like Hexiod Holdings and MassiBild warrants the exponential build-up of personages and circumstances that characterises these books, and he handles them well: it’s dizzying but graspable. That these three books deal with issues – bribery, sexual misdemeanour, police corruption – that still glare at us from broadsheets today makes them as resonant now as they would have been when they were published ten to fifteen years ago.

Those who have read these or seen the ABC’s adaptations of the first two books would know how much Melbourne features in them. Jack’s wide networks take him all over the joint, and his intimate connections with places and people give me pure and great joy as a local. I am astounded how often the ‘X city is a character in the novel’ point is still trotted out in book reviews, but it’s hard not to think along those lines here, as we’re not exactly talking postcard snapshots of Flinders Street Station. There’s this, as an example: ‘The Law Department at Melbourne University looks the way universities should. It has courtyards and cloisters and ivy. I loitered downstairs, near where a girl had set fire to herself during the Vietnam War. Nobody paid any attention to me.’ History, power, how it brings to bear on the individual (or doesn’t): that’s how Jack Irish thinks.

Bad Debts is the strongest of the bunch for me, because it gave me the first-time surprise and delight of discovering the complexity and drama in this man’s life. The book’s horseracing side-story (it seems crass to call it a subplot because it’s so integral to one’s understanding of Jack’s character) involving ex-jockey Harry Strang and his right-hand man Cam astounded and absorbed me, even though I have zero interest in the subject. (The racing strand continues, and is welcome, in the other two books, but it’s freshest in the first.) The pacing is perfect. The scale of the drama grows at a breathtaking rate. Jack makes tables and dazzles us with his cabinet-maker’s vocabulary. He drains bottle after bottle of wine that sounds vintage to this millennial reader’s ear. Just glorious.

In Black Tide, again Jack starts out at the small time, trying to collect favours from a small-time crim, but soon enough he finds he’s just at the start of a pretty big factual climb. This, the second of the books, is also pacy and enthralling but I missed Linda Hillier, Jack’s sparring/de facto investigative partner from Bad Debts. And in White Dog, where the scion of an old Melbourne family requests Jack defend her against a seemingly watertight murder charge, the power of the formula is once more slightly diluted – though it could be because I read the two books back to back and have for the moment surfeited upon a proliferation of names and political conspiracies. Still, they’re all damned good reads, and I’ll be saving the third one for my next holiday.

September 10, 2012

Thanks to the Wheeler Centre and Zoos Victoria, I’m going to be a writer in residence at the Melbourne Zoo throughout September and October, with Cate Kennedy, Sally Rippin and Judy Horacek. It’s an incredible opportunity, and to prepare, I’ve been watching videos like this:

Yo. I have reviews of Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted and Anna Funder’s All That I Am up at the Wheeler Centre’s VPLA page. Both great books, though someone at the Wheeler Centre must think of me as a very, er, all or nothing person.

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Mindy Kaling has made me the happiest woman in the world four times this year.

First: Her ‘new’ blog, The Concerns of Mindy Kaling, is a reboot of her old blog, Things I’ve Bought that I Love, which is one of my favourite fashion blogs of all time. It looks like it has stalled a little, which is devastating, as it includes lines like ‘My ideal style of dressing is 80’s aerobics coach meets Maasai tribeswoman’. I mean, yes. Her style skews really pretty and feminine, which is not my thing at all, but she is so enthusiastic it’s just a joy to read regardless.

Okay, I need to include an example from her old blog, because it’s just too good. Describing sour cherry lollies: ‘When the concept of Sour met Sweet, it was like when Paul McCartney met John Lennon. Then when Sour and Sweet met Chewy, it was like they ran into Mick Jagger at the post office and had one long jam session. When Sour and Sweet and Chewy met Cherry, it was like the cops came to break up the jam session and the sheriff was Michael Jackson in 1981 and he like moonwalked all over the place.’ AAAAAAHHHHH I love her.

Second: The trailer for her new TV show, The Mindy Project, is fun and I like fun things. Through her I live my fantasy of being an Asian girl who becomes a writer, who gets to play a doctor.

Third: She said yes when I asked her to marry me. Okay, just kidding for that one, but the offer’s open, Kaling.

Fourth: Her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me (and Other Concerns) is super fun. You might already have read her piece in The New Yorker, which is hilarious and good examples of the LOLs to be found within.

If you search this blog for ‘you guys’, you will see how much I have ganked Kaling’s blog style. She is airy, cheery, honest and self-deprecating, with a crazy dash of wit. What I love about Kaling is that she isn’t super snarky or out-of-control crude (not that I don’t love those things, we’ve all seen me after a couple of wines), but she seems pretty effortlessly ‘on’. I love it. Plus, she’s a successful television writer and performer and a woman of colour (I picked that phrase up from a friend who studied at a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, sorry), for which I love her if only on principle.

Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me is a bunch of personal-ish musings about Kaling’s childhood, friendships and career. ‘Don’t Peak in High School’ features a charming commentary on John Cougar Mellencamp’s classic song ‘Jack and Diane’. It’s all fun and scoldy:

I guess I find “Jack and Diane” a little disgusting…I wish there was a song called “Nguyen and Ari,” a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run, and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at Princeton Review. They help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses, and then, after months of studying, and mountains of flashcards, they kiss chastely upon hearing the news that they both got into their top college choices.

Oh, it’s so good.

In the title piece, Kaling discusses Mavis Lehrman, her ‘secret friend’ in high school. Mavis was a comedy nerd with ‘short, dark, slicked-back hair like Don Johnson in Miami Vice‘, and very different from Kaling’s school friends, who had bracelets and emboridered socks that said ‘JLMP’ (the first letter of each of their names). It’s an honest, short meditation on friendship, and made me feel warm inside. Kaling writes like she is talking to you: very warmly and openly. At the end of these pieces, I wanted to keep talking: ‘Oh, what happened to Mavis? Did she contact you after the book came out? Did you contact her?’

Since Kaling is so successful, it’s fascinating to read pieces like ‘Failing at Everything in the Greatest City on Earth’, in which she describes her early adventures in New York City. The beginning is awesome: ‘Not to sound braggy or anything, but I kind of killed it in college.’ She attributes this to her attending a small school in New Hampshire; ‘If I had gone to NYU, right now I’d be the funniest paralegal in a law firm in Boston.’ It’s refreshing to read an account of an early career that includes not-quite-making-it sections, including a stint at Late Night with Conan O’Brien (‘was famously one of the worst interns the program had ever seen’) and a bad spec script for Will & Grace (‘so over-the-top offensively gay that it actually reads like a propaganda sketch to incite antigay sentiment’).

Anyhow, I could easily write an essay-by-essay review of this book because revisiting it for this blog post is fun and I can see the rest of my evening devolving into a deep relationship with this book and my laptop and Olympics replays, but really you should just read this book if you like the sound of it. It’s ace. I want to be best friends with Mindy Kaling (I would settle for ninety-fourth best friend, seriously), even if she did once punch her best friend in the nose (it was for a play).

***

I read this book in the Kindle app on my iPad. The Kindle app is my favourite way to read books on the iPad so far. Its best features are notes and highlights, and an inbuilt dictionary – and all work even if you’re not connected to the internet. Until I can do this in Booki.sh, Kindle will probably remain my favourite app for reading.

That’s not to say that it’s perfect. I think it’s a really generic-looking reading interface. Many people have commented that all books look the same in Kindle, and I agree that this is offputting. Book design is really important in differentiating types of content, and specific books from each other, and Kindle books are uniformly ugly. This is okay when flipping through trashy, quick reads, but it’s not really the best way to read literary fiction. Also, I had a real issue with footnotes. These are turned into hyperlinks, which work fine when clicking through to the footnote itself, but these work remarkably inconsistently when clicking back to the footnote callout in the text. Sometimes clicking back to the callout works, but other times it takes you to a page that’s not the one you want, which is disorienting.

I also really dislike the ‘Memorable Quotes’ feature. I turned it off as soon as I started reading in this app. I don’t care if everyone liked that one line in this book about Amy Poehler. Sure, I love Amy Poehler too, but come on. And I would actually prefer not to know that every single person who reads Pride and Prejudice underlines the opening line. (Really? Really? Why? Are you just overjoyed that you recognised it? Is it some kind of mantra you brandish against the fear of ending up husbandless? What?) Similarly, the ‘Super-Short Synopses’, drawn from Shelfari, risk making people who read them stupider; for Kaling’s book, the synopsis is ‘Mindy Kaling writes about her weight, how she got to where she is, and what every man needs to appear attractive.’ I mean, if this is your take-away message from this book, there is something not right.