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Hello! I’m doing a couple of things you might be interested in. If you want to learn more about freelance writing or want to share your nostalgic love of cult film The Craft, scroll down.
Freelance Writing for Print and Online (Writers Victoria)
Wednesdays, 6.30–8.30pm, 10–31 July
Are you keen to become a freelance writer, but not sure how to get started? In Freelance Writing for Print and Online, you will learn how to write reviews and articles, blog posts, opinion pieces and essays for print and online. Edit your writing, explore publication opportunities, develop pitches, build a writer’s toolkit and promote yourself and your work. In this course, you’ll craft editor-ready pitches and have the opportunity to prepare a publishable piece.
Taught by me!
Book online now using the fast, secure TryBooking service.
On July 4 1996, a little movie called The Craft was released in Australia, cementing witchy bonding and black rags as staples of Gen Y teen life.
We’ve asked some of our favourite Melbourne writers to wax nostalgic on the film that made us all obsessed with black lipstick, floating above the ground and walking in groups of four. Our guests will be:
Rebecca Harkins-Cross (film editor, The Big Issue; theatre critic, The Age)
Ronnie Scott (contributor, The Believer, Meanjin, the Australian, ABC Radio National, and Lucky Peach; founder of The Lifted Brow, a freeform arts, culture, fiction magazine)
Bethanie Blanchard (freelance writer and critic; literary blogger for Crikey with Liticism)
Zora Sanders (Editor, Meanjin)
Join as we talk spells, teenage friendships, questionable fashion choices, hysteria and Neve Campbell. COSTUMES ENCOURAGED.
Hosted by Stephanie Van Schilt and Estelle Tang.
Thursday July 25
7-9pm (Kitchen open 6-10)
cnr Smith St & Alexandra Pde
$8 online pre-sale / $10 on the door
I have been quite annoying lately, telling everyone little factoids I picked up from this book. Did you know alcohol is a carcinogen? Did you know the recommended average number of standard drinks you should have per day is two? And no more than four in any one sitting? I’m great company. But I was very impressed by this book: it’s Age journalist Jill Stark’s account of a year spent sober, after one toxic hangover too many. And it wasn’t just hangovers she was suffering; the panic attacks and memory gaps Stark experienced were increasing in their frequency and severity. So she decided it was time for three months off the booze, an experiment that morphed into the full year’s experience.
Stark is articulate and curious, which is to be expected from a journalist – a journalist, no less, whose expertise is, ironically, reporting on Australia’s booze-soaked culture. This book is readable and interesting, with Stark’s personal journey making the necessary facts and figures digestible, but it’s also savvy publishing. At a time when Australians are drinking a lot, and starting early in their lives, this book ticks the feature-writer’s ‘interesting to everyone’ box. When discussing High Sobriety with friends, I’d mention the trouble Stark had fending off well-meaning friends’ insistence that she have a drink at celebrations, or the discomfort others would have around her when they were drinking, and everyone would nod in recognition. Though abstaining from alcohol for a year is a social and psychological feat that many wouldn’t consider possible in their own lives, the Australian cultural bias towards drinking would be recognisable for most. How you take a bottle of wine to dinner, without fail. How you have a beer after knocking off work any night of the week. How you have a glass of champers when a friend turns 29. A friend’s book launch. A bad fight with your brother. How anything, and everything, is an excuse to have a glass or four.
The book is split into chapters reflecting each month of Stark’s sober year, but each chapter also takes a different focus, whether it’s the similarities between the drinking cultures of Scotland and Australia (Stark is Scottish), the medical issues facing heavy drinkers, Stark’s search for love while sober, and the interesting role of drinking in the blokey world of journalism (for one thing, Stark describes a drinking game called ‘ottering’ that is enough to keep you off the sauce for a while). The honest and well-researched account makes it easy – even imperative – for a reader to consider her own drinking life.
For example, here’s an account of my drinking in the week after I finished reading High Sobriety.
Sunday: Share a longneck of alcoholic ginger beer that I bought a food and wine expo the week before. Though my share’s less than a standard drink, I have it before dinner and, before long, my head is spinning. I am writing, and when I look over my work the next day, it seems I temporarily forgot how to use full stops or, indeed, any punctuation at all.
Monday: It’s a public holiday, but no drinking. I’m determined not to have had a drink every day of the long weekend.
Tuesday: A board meeting. It’s going to be my final one, so I have one-and-a-half glasses of wine. Usually I’d have two, but – High Sobriety. It’s hard not to keep going, but I am proud of my restraint. It’s the first time I’ve put a hand over my glass in a long while. But then I end up having dinner with a friend who’s also on the board, instead of the bachelorette dinner at home I’d planned. Dinner is a friend’s birthday celebration, so I have another glass of wine.
Wednesday: I catch up with a writer I know. I am having dinner with my boyfriend’s boss and his family later, so I intend not to drink anything. But she offers to buy me a drink and I hesitate, unsure whether she will accept my refusal. Instead, I go to the bar and buy myself a vodka with soda water. At dinner, I have two glasses of very delicious Shiraz. I don’t intend to have any more than that, but when there is a glass and a half left in each of the two bottles remaining on the table at the end of the night, Sam’s boss asks me if I can ‘help out’ so the wine won’t go to waste. I say yes – another half glass.
Thursday: A glass of red at a pub with colleagues. Our plans to have Korean for dinner are set aside when we realise trivia’s on in the next room (and it’s raining). Two more bottles of wine are purchased, but I only have one more glass.
Friday: No more fucking drinking, thanks. My housemate offers me some pinot noir, but I say no, a halo appearing above my head. My only evening plans are to go to the gym and read my book. I don’t go to the gym. I succeed in reading about forty pages of my book, but not before pouring myself a half nip of Lagavulin. I don’t drink it, though – I fall asleep at 8:30pm.
Saturday: Movie night at our house. I plan to have no more than one mixed drink and one beer. We’re watching The BIg Lebowski so my housemate is making White Russians. I ask for a tiny one – I don’t like milk – and he obliges. I have a couple of sips and leave it – it’s gross. The dude doesn’t abide. I have one beer during the movie.
According to the new national guidelines for alcohol consumption, I’ve probably had just on the recommended amount throughout the week, and I don’t think I’ve had more than four standard drinks in any sitting. I’ve had two alcohol-free days, also recommended, but only because a) I really thought about it and wanted to achieve it, and b) I fell asleep. The thing that surprises me about this little journal is how much I had to advert to my alcohol consumption to get anywhere close to adhering to the guidelines. Although this is probably a more social week than most, I know I could easily have had three or four more drinks on top of what I did have.
High Sobriety is a book so thought-provoking that it may well do for drinking what Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals did for eating meat. (Lots of people I know have already said they don’t want to read it for that reason.) I’m not yet going booze free, and I doubt I ever will, but it’s good to know that I’m armed with the knowledge to drink as healthfully as I can.
Bonus points: Also good is Steph Van Schilt’s review of the book at Liticism.
I have been getting right into the library over the past couple of months. We might be moving house in a while so I’ve been trying not to accumulate more books for the moment. Honestly, I think my boyfriend might break up with me if I buy any more before we move. Plus, have you been to the library lately? As my friend Maddie would say, you can get like THIRTY BOOKS FOR FREE. I am a pro at using the library. I get some good stuff there. It is a truly amazing institution.
So I’ll just briefly chat about the titles I have to return soon.
The Diving Pool / Yoko Ogawa
If you’re anything like me, you feel a little heartsick when looking at the spines of your Murakami and Yoshimoto books, remembering how much you loved contemporary Japanese literature and then read so much that you kind of had a brain hernia in response and now get hives whenever looking at book covers that feature brushstroke fonts on white backgrounds. It’s evident to me that I have avoided reading new Japanese writing for this not very good reason, which is totally dumb because The Diving Pool is really good. It comprises three stories that all exhibit Ogawa’s deceptively understated prose, which often gently depicts strange, repellent but morally opaque acts. In ‘The Diving Pool’, the only biological daughter of serial orphan-adopting parents hurries to the pool the same day each week to watch her foster brother, Jun, diving. This hidden obsession is a rare bright spot in her life: she thinks that her blood relationship with her parents ‘disfigures’ her family, and her relationship with its members is by turns callous and derisory.
‘Pregnancy Diary’ tracks the changing moods and diet of a pregnant woman through the eyes of her sister, who makes grapefruit jam to assuage her cravings. But this seeming act of sisterly affection takes on a grotesque malevolence through repetition. A disturbingly slanted take on familial care and the venerated ideal of a gravid woman.
The final story, ‘Dormitory’, sees a young woman revisit the dormitory where she lived while at university. Food is an integral part of each of Ogawa’s stories. This woman takes small cakes and other gifts to the dormitory’s caretaker as a way of showing respect and care, but also as an excuse to be there – or perhaps to excuse her being there, as her visits become more numerous. But food also rots and harbours malignancies; it decays, as do bodies and buildings. This book is more powerful for not pathologising the harms it describes; for its quiet, polite voices that utter terror.
A Single Man / Christopher Isherwood
I have to confess that the 1960s are not my strongest decade. I don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge about the historical context or adjacent literature to make the most of anything I read from that time. But I still enjoyed reading A Single Man, set over the course of one day in the life of George Falconer, an British expat teaching literature in Los Angeles. In some ways it’s a regular day; George wakes up, talks to his friend Charley, thinks about his neighbours, drives over the bridge and to work. But it’s also a day defined by a loss that George has recently suffered – that of his partner, Jim. Moving not only as an intimate portrait of a man psychologically reconstructing himself in response to his surroundings, but also in its frank treatment of aging and sexuality, this novella deals in gear-changes, masks and behaviours. Enjoyable, too, are the academic-novel scenes, in which colleagues bicker and gossip about each others’ wives. And much is changing in LA: a diversifying body of students represent a newish type of America, while Charley reminisces – in a plummy RP that leaps off the page into the ear – about the old country.
Gone Girl / Gillian Flynn
AAAARRRRGGGHHHHHHHHH. Okay, so I shot myself in the foot with this one. For some reason I’d got it into my head that this was a super literary thriller. I’d read about it all over the place and everyone was raving about it, so I thought I was reading a very different book than what I was. When it finally dawned on me that Gone Girl is essentially a grown-up Christopher Pike-ish type thing, I was already sore from having my ear chewed off by two of the most irritating narrators I have encountered in a long time. So please don’t take this as an unbiased opinion.
You probably already know enough about Gone Girl‘s plot or premise, so I don’t need to go into that too much. Perfect wife Amy Dunne goes missing on her and husband Nick’s fifth wedding anniversary, yada. They alternate chapters as narrators. There’s a big twist. Yes, it’s an extremely tight thriller, quite astonishing. I marvel at the structure of this book, and my imagination is not capable of coming up with this kind of story (though there are some stretch-the-imagination bits). I’m actually afraid of Gillian Flynn now. Don’t cross that lady. But I think the horrors here are almost purely structural – or even theoretical – rather than emotional. I felt absolutely nothing when I reached the huge twist (okay, that’s a lie – my attention had been flagging, and it whipped back into place once I reached the twist). And I think many readers would be able to guess what the twist is (though not the specifics, which are mindboggling) – there are enough clues. But Amy Dunne’s voice is so cloying (I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I understand that there’s of course a good reason for this) and Nick’s so lackadaisical that I really couldn’t have cared less what happened to either of them. Plus, he’s the kind of narrator (an ex-writer!!!) who feels the need to tell you all this stuff he knows about grammar and story structure. Cue zombie-style rolling of my eyeballs. Nothing makes me more annoyed. ARGHGH, etc.
When I got to what Peter Craven called a ‘sick-making’ ending in The Age, I was pretty unmoved. I felt more upset in Grade 4 when my frenemy stole my story about a fruit bowl, copied it and handed it in as her own. Okay, that’s a pretty dog act, but still. In conclusion: I admired this thriller. It is surprising and fairly well paced. I read it expecting it to be something else, so that’s just my bad. But I was disappointed and pretty annoyed. Kind of reminded me of Double Indemnity (amazing movie, okay, just wait) in that the suspense kept me going, but the emotional side of the character development was lacking, which made for little emotional punch. (Though Double Indemnity has much better dialogue. Uhhh, I regret bringing this up.) And that’s a genre thing, and that’s okay. Just letting you know how my experience was.
The Lover’s Dictionary / David Levithan
Oh my god, it’s like someone gave me a shot of vodka. I feel so much more calm thinking of this book. This is seriously like a pear and Sauternes sorbet after a main course of rotted monkey brains in terms how comfortable I feel. Ahhhhhh. Okay, here is a book that has heart as well as a creative structure. I’ll just be quick now. The Lover’s Dictionary takes the form of a dictionary: words like ‘caveat’ and ‘flux’ are presented, not with definitions, but memories and wonderings that make up a love story. It’s non-linear, so each ‘definition’ is like a piece of a puzzle that the reader puts together over the course of the book. This concept might be too cutesy for some, but Levithan’s pared-back prose ensures the end result isn’t too saccharine. A nice idea, well executed.
The first thing I read this year was Meanjin. I’ve been tweeting at Sarah Stokely’s fun curated rotation project @WeMelbourne this week, and essentially livetweeting reading the journal (photo above from New Year’s Day) so I thought I’d reproduce some of my thoughts here. What? Stop screwing up your nose. I’m lazy and I had three gins, two wines and a beer last night. OKAY FINE I’ll include some new, not-ever-tweeted thoughts below as well, geez.
Also, disclaimer: I personally know some of the people I write about below, so I’m not claiming to be impartial about their work. However, I don’t think any of their shit smells sweet, know what I’m saying? But it’s up to you what to think about my judgments below. I’ll use first names if I know them, and full or last names if I don’t.
This is about Chad’s great essay ‘The Bartender and the Archive’, which details the historical meanderings of cocktail recipes and the current trend of authenticity and recreating ‘traditional’ versions of spirits. Chad is a very descriptively dense writer (in a good way), which makes for delicious reading. Lots of interesting research here. Get me to some violet liqueur now.
Refers to Sam’s story, ‘I Should Be So Lucky’. So I didn’t think I would like this as much as I did. I thought the intro paragraph, which frames the story as the writings of an intern at an online magazine, was hokey. But the tone throughout the rest is perfect for this story, which imagines the discovery of a ‘luck’ gene that makes its bearers much more fortunate than the suckers who don’t have it. Playfully critiquing the media’s/readership’s enthusiasm for biological causation, and our obsession with ‘fairness’, the story is really fun to read.
I’d already read Ronnie’s personal essay online and loved it, but the second time around I loved it even more. We open on Ronnie in a Hungarian spray-tan salon, solemnly going through with what might have started as ‘a gag thing, but inside the plastic half-shell the laws of humour don’t apply’. Ronnie and some travel companions follow the roads from Budapest to Croatia, where they stay at a huge house on a rocky beach. This is a lovely and bittersweet piece about the postdoctoral mutation of the ‘spring break’ tradition; the transitional stage where the next stop is potentially nowhere or close to it. Not at all about the usual suspects hope and contemplation, but rather just being where you are – in this instance, on a beach with rocks in Krk. Worth two reads for sure.
@WeMelbourne Also loved reading about admirable ‘rule of law advocate’ Debbie Mortimer.
I also know Debbie, but not Lorin Clarke, who wrote ‘Debbie Mortimer and the Forensic Fight’, a profile of the long-time barrister, who has acted in well-known cases including the recent High Court decision dealing with the ‘Malaysia people swap’ deal. Debbie’s a fascinating person with strong ideals regarding the rule of law and human decency, and I loved seeing a woman being profiled for her vital, challenging work, rather than who she’s married to or what she owns.
And so end the tweets that I hath tweeted on the subject of Meanjin. But there are a couple of other things I wanted to mention. Even before I knew Margo Lanagan’s ‘Titty Anne and the Very, Very Hairy Man’ was a Little Red Riding Hood refix, I was totally enchanted. I love her writing so much. I read both Sea Hearts and Tender Morsels last year, and they’re both sublime. She does sex and hunger and youth so very well. The rest of the fiction I found a bit blah, although Wayne Macauley does his usual, effective five-finger death punch at the end of ‘Keilor Cranium’. Also really loved Lyndal Walker’s paean to young adult freedom and share housing, ‘Share Houses’.
Finally, aptly, any Twitter/literature consumers out there are recommended to read Sam Twyford-Moore’s ‘Twitter>The Novel? @tejucole>Teju Cole?’ It’s one of my favourite essays I’ve read about Twitter, as well as a really interesting short history of Teju Cole’s body of work, literarywise and Twitterwise. The other thing I love about this essay is the insight it gives into Sam’s own use of Twitter as a writer’s research tool; he tweets messages to himself about things he wants to follow up.
Something else I tweeted about literary journals today was how incredibly important a role they play in discovering and nurturing new writing talent. I recently found the first issue of Stop Drop and Roll and leafed through it, and there were so many writers in there whom I now consider must-reads, including Elmo Keep, Martin McKenzie-Murray and Rebecca Giggs. I don’t usually play the part of literary journal tragic; I consider their value to be totally apparent, but I know that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, I’m glad to have some nice evidence for the position that they’re undeniably an important part of the literary ecosystem.
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.’
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.
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.