I pretty much always finish books – like, always. Even if I don’t buy the characters or if there’s something structurally awry or other significant issue X, Y or Z. I’m a completer-finisher, what can I say. (Obviously, when I’m reading a book for work – say I’m reviewing it or interviewing its author – I always finish it.) But it’s been a really long time since I didn’t finish a book I was reading for leisure. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time that happened.
This seems to put me in the minority: a lot of people I talk to generally put a book down and either forget about it or don’t pick it up again for whatever reason. Possibly I’m good at picking books I know I’ll like and avoiding books I know won’t suit me, and/or I’m bloody-minded enough to forge on with something I’m not really into just so I can understand why it didn’t work for me. I tend to think it’s more the former, because I rarely feel like I would be better off not finishing a book than I would be finishing it.
Buuuuuuut I recently read three books that I really didn’t want to finish. I felt a bit bad about it but I knew from what non-finishers said that I was feeling the same way they did when they put a boring/bad/not right for them/not right for them at that time book down (and never pick it up again). And I think it had a lot to do with style. I read fairly broadly, across a range of genres, so I am open to a lot of things: clichéd storylines, experimental writing styles, a bit of pretension here and there, irksome authorial quirks. As long as a book has something I’m invested in, be it one character or story arc or whatever, I’m generally in for the long haul.
Here’s how I know I didn’t want to finish them. Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeee wwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnntttttt bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy sooooooooooooooooooooooooo slooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwlllllllllllllllllllllyyyyyyyyyy (and time can do so much).
I did actually finish one of the books. It was White by Marie Darrieussecq, she of the Google-by-necessity surname. I’d been really wanting to check out her work for a while and when I was trawling the library for books about far-flung places, a novella based in Antarctica seemed like just the thing. I think you’d have to do a fair bit to make a book about Antarctica boring, but I struggled to finish this book. Really struggled, like at the end I just wanted to push the book violently away from me.
As I said, this was mostly because of the prose. The premise is interesting: two people running from secrets in their respective lives decide to join a working team on the French base in Antarctica. Edmée is French, and as the only woman in the team, who is also charge of expensive, limited communications with the rest of the world, she piques the interest of the others. Peter is in charge of keeping everyone warm, the weight of which responsibility is one of the most convincing personal tensions in the book. The plain facts in this book are actually fascinating. Two images from White have stayed with me: a bottle of champagne exploding in the fat cook’s hands as he leaves the plane and finally steps foot in Antarctica; and Antarctica’s five suns. These scientific and experiential details are based on Darrieussecq’s husband’s real-life stint in Antarctica, and are totally interesting.
It’s in every single review, and on the back cover blurb, so it’s no spoiler to say that Edmée and Peter end up having an affair. In the build-up to this, Darrieussecq allows Edmée and Peter to consider their pasts, including present and past partners, but the affair is scarcely affecting – apart from the logistical issues it raises in a small, isolated Antarctic camp – because these portraits are so sketchy. Many critics praised Darrieussecq’s evocation of isolation in White, but I am not sure that isolation is a powerful narrative pressure if the characters it acts on are so thinly sketched. One interesting, but still frustrating, element, is that the narrators are the ghosts of those who have died in Antarctica. Their voice is not quite funny, and not quite serious, playing havoc with the assumption that their deaths were noble – or even the convention for choric narrators to be simply elegant or angelic. Again, though, the variation and inconsistency in the voice gets a bit frustrating.
Above all, though, it was the image-heavy prose that made me stabby. It’s just not my favourite style, especially juxtaposed with the theme of isolation and barren images of Antarctica. To give you a taste, here’s a section that Michael Worton excerpted in his (very positive) Guardian review:
The colour of the leaves of crumpled skin fluctuates, beige/purple; curtains, hangings, shutters. If he leans more heavily on her thigh, the leaves open, one tautens, the other wrinkles up a little more, and their pearly pink interior is revealed to be almost blue there where, like a highly polished slide, the vagina begins.
It’s not my thing at all, and the whole book is like this: little, shardy, decorative sentences/sentence fragments. So when I finished the book (only about 110 pages or so) I felt like I had run a marathon. Still, even though I wasn’t keen on this book, I’m still interested in reading her other books, including her new one and the first novel, Pig Tales, which is a Metamorphosis-style tale of a woman’s transformation into porcine being.
The next book I didn’t want to finish – and didn’t – was also French: David Foenkinos‘s The Erotic Potential of My Wife. I’m going to be brief about this one, because I don’t think it’s as interesting as White. On the back cover blurb, there’s a quote from a French magazine that claims Foenkinos is France’s Philip Roth. Honestly, if I were Philip Roth, I would find this epithet so amusingly inapt that I would frame it and put it on my wall. (I don’t know, maybe he’s more of a throw-into-the-fireplace kind of guy.)
This book’s hero is Hector, the survivor of a suicide attempt and a recovering collector. Hector’s psychological profile is more like a couple of dots on a piece of paper; this book is not a serious look at mental illness. Not that it’s supposed to be; it’s billed as a comic novel. But it’s not even funny, containing laboured jokes that almost seem to come with a belated clash of cymbals as you turn the page. It’s the kind of book that might work as a kind of cutesy Amélie-style film, with lots of visual gags and colour, but the writing doesn’t hold up. I think I got about 50 pages through.
Finally, a book I only got about 10 pages through. Super disappointing in this case, because I’d bought it when it came out and was desperately awaiting a gap in my reading so I could get cracking. However, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and I are just never going to be friends. It’s like when you meet a rad person at a party but you don’t quite hit it off? And then you later reflect that it was probably for the best? It’s like that. Lawson’s ‘mostly true memoir’ is written in a hugely over-the-top style (which is probably what bagged her the book contract). Lots of italics and avowals and rambling digressions, peppered with wit and references to eighties fashion. I can’t speak too much to the content, because obviously I didn’t read much of it, but Lawson talks charmingly about her childhood in a very small West Texas town. Though she seems like a very cool person, Lawson’s storytelling style lacks panache. Some of the tales she tells are undoubtedly funny, but she overdoes the humour to the extent that I thought the actual situation was probably much funnier. As I told a friend, Lawson makes things less funny than they probably are, as opposed to someone like David Sedaris, who makes mundane things seem hilarious.
Not a weird internet plea for friendship, but just a note to let you know that I’ll be doing a couple of things you might be interested in:
Look, Mum, I’m on the Internet! Online Writing and Editing with Estelle Tang
Sunday 3 March 2013
As more readers are going online for news, opinion and entertainment, writers need to adapt to the unique challenges and opportunities posed by the internet. In this course, you will learn how to pitch, write and edit pieces for online publication.
We’ll discuss writing networks, what editors expect, whether it’s ever worth writing for free, and what you might be paid for online writing. In this course, we’ll also explore the various types of publication opportunities – from personal blogs to professional writing for organisations – and how to read as a writer. Importantly in the crowded online space, learn how to promote yourself and your work. At the end of this workshop you will be equipped with the tools and the confidence to pitch your work and get it published online.
The School of Life is opening a pop-up shop in Melbourne during February and March. Check out the rad program here. I’m delighted to say that I’ll be The School of Life’s Melbourne Bibliotherapist — book in a time with me here to explore your relationship with books and new literary directions.
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.’
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.
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.