Posts Tagged ‘2010’

January 17, 2011

Things I liked about Freedom:

Excellent dialogue. Often, the big difference between a good book and a great book is the utility and credibility of the dialogue. In a serviceable book, dialogue often reads as mere plot-mover. Franzen’s dialogue does not. For example, this fits-and-starts conversation between Patty Berglund and her good-doer lawyer father Ray after Ray finds out Patty has been raped by the son of the Berglunds’ ‘political friends’ the Posts:

‘Yes, but better to, uh. Life’s not always fair, Pattycakes. Mr. Post said he thought Ethan might be willing to apologize for not being more gentlemanly, but. Well. Would you like that?’
‘I didn’t think so.’
‘Coach Nagel says I should go to the police.’
‘Coach Nagel should stick to her dribbling,’ her dad said.
‘Softball,’ Patty said. ‘It’s softball season now.’

I would say that, aside from being really quite moving, this snippet contains a fair whack of character (habits, interests, concerns – spoken and unspoken), elucidates the relationship between the speakers and absent characters, tells us a bit about the social milieu, and has a great rhythm to it – as well as being an efficient bit of plot assistance.

Casual mastery of activity-specific vocabulary. A lot of my favourite writers do this well, but Franzen does it at a level that straddles the divide between immense comfort/familiarity, and ostentatiousness. Hence, Patty’s skill in basketball grows: ‘Augmenting her reliable perimeter shooting was a growing taste for driving to the basket.’ Nice.

Getting some kind of insight into what it must be like to hang out with Jonathan Franzen. So a lot of great fiction writers have strong powers of imagination, but a lot of great writers also have acute observation and recording skills. Plenty of the scenes and characters in this book are shored up with the kind of detail that can only come from obsessive observation. However. Observing people in a public place is one thing – it’s quite easy to do without bothering anyone, but Freedom deals closely with a family and domestic settings. Where does he get that detail from?

It’s hard not to start imagining what it must be like to be friends with him. Imagine being like ‘Oh, hey Jonathan, come bake some cookies at my house with me and my kids,’ and Franzen is thinking ‘What a great opportunity to observe domestic minutiae’. When he comes over and you are happily mixing dough, You are thinking ‘God I love baking with maple syrup’, and Franzen is surreptitiously taking notes: ‘X is labouring to mold cookie dough into geometrically perfect spheres, taking such pains that the butter liquefies and makes the dough glisten darkly. She makes eleven balls for every one of the child’s. When the cookies come out of the oven X never fails to ask the child’s permission to eat the one “truly outstanding” cookie.’

That is, assuming you know Jonathan Franzen, which I am assuming you don’t. Anyway, just some advice, put yourself on guard in case of friendship with Franzen.

Reading about middle class people and being allowed to laugh at them because they are highly caricatured, even though analogues for most of the behaviour in this book would probably be easily found among my acquaintance. I think that one speaks for itself. The combination of detail and absurdity made me think irresistibly of actor/screenwriter Chris Lilley, whose faux documentaries hold up funhouse mirrors to many faces of Australian society. Hue and outcry! Well, wipe down your vanity.

Deep, wide, sprawling and comprehensive portrait of complex people. I honestly don’t remember the last time I read a large novel featuring characters of such detail and depth. Obviously, I need to read more widely and in more volume, but with Freedom I went spelunking joyfully into the histories and externals and laterals of this family. A lot of people have said that they found these characters unsavoury or unsympathetic, which I find difficult to believe as a person impatient with my own seemingly endless fallibility.

A reminder me that I can love novels. A consequence not to be underestimated.

Things I didn’t like about Freedom:


Structural maliciousness. The best way I can think to put this particular criticism is taken from the book itself. A description of Joey Berglund’s perception of the ‘higher-order bad luck’ that seems to be haunting him goes as follows: ‘The culprit was something deeper, something not political, something structurally malicious, like the bump in a sidewalk that trips you and lands you on your face when you’re out innocently walking.’

I like the term ‘structurally malicious’, actually, its corporate poetry echoing the young Republican’s disregard for personal responsibility. But it is an apt descriptor for the much criticised death that occurs about two-thirds through the book, and what follows. I’ve heard other people describe their reaction to this as ‘Franzen really hates his characters’, but my response was more to decide that Franzen privileges structure and neatness above all else. The death was so out of left field that you could practically hear the machinery grinding against the strain of being taken in such an unnatural direction. And how nuclear and paradigmatic an ending! A friend of mine describes the book’s denouement as ‘cursory’ – I thought of it as the gift-wrapper’s final tamping down of the ribbon bow: here you go, a novel.

But the most confounding part is that to some extent I liked the ending and thought it suited, with its inevitable sadder-wiser ending and cheeringly redemptive flourishes, and it challenged what I thought I wanted from a novel. I like clear moral paths and consequences in young adult books (there’s a proclivity I don’t much want to explore without the aid of a mental health professional), but in literary fiction I like something a bit fuzzier (or something), don’t I? Why did I respond with such relief to such a surpriseless conclusion? I have no good answer yet, partly stemming from the fact that I am not sure how else I would have wanted the book to end.

I know most people are starting to look forward now, but I stumbled across an amusing video at bright stupid confetti the other morning, and I thought it might be quite fun to do a Culture Mulcher-style reflection on 2010′s sonic bounty.

The Boredoms at Melbourne International Arts Festival

The video I mention above was this video of the Boredoms’ famed 77 Boadrum performance. In Brooklyn, on the 7/7/07, 77 drummers gathered together at the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park to form a giant drum salute. There are a lot of videos of the performance, but none of the videos available on YouTube really capture the bracing effect of several people thrashing out some tattoo in unison. I like this video for the interview they do with an attendee at the beginning: ‘I like drums. I like the number 777.’

The Boredoms came to Melbourne as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival to perform a Boadrum 10. Ten drummers was plenty overwhelming and mesmerising. I could see how it was possible to want to join a cult. Highlights included one member of the Boredoms being transported to the stage on a huge litter, banging at his kit with all abandon. See some photos here.


I started listening to Radiolab at the suggestion of my friends Jessie and Jon. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich present science documentaries with rich sound design, and are the teachers I always wish I’d had. Favourite recent stories include one about how Tasmanian devils were dying from tumors that were genetically identical (and, gross, described as being crumbly, ‘like feta cheese’) and another about how mining and geese led to life in an acidic lake. You can reach quite far into the archives at the website.

Nicki Minaj’s verse in Kanye West’s ‘Monster’

I’m still conflicted about Nicki Minaj. (Sorry, Anna.) I don’t know how to feel about her Eliza Doolittle accent and her wilful/flat conflation of Japanese and Thai peoples (‘When I was a Geisha he was a Samurai / Somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai’). WE DON’T ALL LOOK THE SAME. But her verse in Kanye West’s song ‘Monster’ blows me away. The first time I listened to it I had to reach for my asthma puffer. See it here, from 3:36 onwards.

Though let’s not talk about how tiresome I find the ‘Monster’ video, with all the dead-girl imagery. Even Minaj’s appearance has her teetering between mounting and decapitating a hooded woman, who turns out to be herself. Sucks to be a lady in the land of hiphop.

The Dirty Projectors at Golden Plains

It was raining, but I did not care. People who like The Dirty Projectors have been described as ‘people who like way too many toppings on their pizza’, and I used to agree until I think some weird chemical reaction occurred in my brain whereby I now love them. Couldn’t find a video of the performance, but here’s ‘Stillness is the Move’. Incredible song, but not the most exciting video, unless you like wolves, and guitarists rotating on a hillside.

Have One on Me, Joanna Newsom

Yes, I’m a fey lover of little birdies. This three-part album hit me in some good places, and the standout for me was the title song, which follows the adventures of Lola Montez, famed dancer and lover of many men. Montez’s story brings her from England to India, Germany, Switzerland, the United States and Australia during the goldrush, where she performed her ‘Spider Dance’, ‘raising her skirts so high that the audience could see she wore no underclothing at all‘. Newsom’s lyrics jump from third person to first, from myth to recount, and the song’s mix of tenderness and supplication furnish an affecting portrait of a maddening and maddened lover. There’s nothing quite like the way Newsom builds up to the ironic title line:

Meanwhile, I will raise my own glass

to how you made me fast and expendable;

and I will drink to your excellent health,

and your cruelty.

Will you have one on me?

Das Racist

I’m not including any specific album or song here, because I’m coming from a slightly impersonal angle with Das Racist. My friends have been pretty into this ‘conscious’/'deconstructionalist’ hiphop group this past year, making them pretty much inescapable for poor old me. But I find them pretty fascinating. So far, all their albums (Das Racist call them ‘mixtapes’) have been available for free, and they’re known for combining often comedic lyrics with music that both emulates and progresses the hiphop genre.

‘Rainbow in the Dark’, from Shut up, Dude contains plenty of pop-culture riffs and upfront subversions of the mainstream rap genre: ‘Das Racist is the new cool g-rap / Peep us at the Grammys, we’d like to thank gchat’. It’s thoughtful, and catchy.

Funny: Victor Vasquez, one of Das Racist’s members, challenged New Yorker cartoonist Farley Katz to a cartoon-off after he blogged about the Das Racist song ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell‘ (a semi-dadaist call-and-response pal-investigators tune about two men who can’t find each other in a combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell restaurant). The Katz post that sparked the cartoon-off is actually pretty hilarious, but the resulting cartoons don’t leave anyone in doubt of who won the day.

December 31, 2010

Here is a list of the books and journals I’ve read this year, in vaguely chronological order:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo / Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Played with Fire / Stieg Larsson
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest / Stieg Larsson
Readings and Writings: Forty Years in Books / ed. Jason Cotter and Michael Williams
Dead until Dark / Charlaine Harris
Living Dead in Dallas / Charlaine Harris
Kill Your Darlings Issue 1
Pippi Longstocking / Astrid Lindgren
Under Stones / Bob Franklin
Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking / Malcolm Gladwell
I Will Surprise My Friend / Mo Willems
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus / Mo Willems
When You Reach Me / Rebecca Stead
The Knife of Never Letting Go / Patrick Ness
The Theory of Light and Matter / Andrew Porter
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders / Daniyal Mueenuddin
Will Grayson, Will Grayson / John Green and David Levithan
The Road / Cormac McCarthy
Kill Your Darlings Issue 2
Known Unknowns / Emmett Stinson
Miscellaneous Voices / ed. Karen Andrews
Kissing Frogs / Andee Jones
Possum Tale / Lucienne Noontil
Exposure / Joel Magarey
My Pilgrim’s Heart / Stephanie Dale
The Nine Flaws of Affection / Peter Farrar
Ondine / Ebony McKenna
Offset Journal
Thirty Something and Over It / Kasey Edwards
Palimpsest / Kathryn Koromilas
Crackpot / Fiona Trembath
Love Machine / Clinton Caward
In Lonnie’s Shadow / Chrissie Michaels
Putting Pen to Paper / Caroline Webber
harvest magazine issue 5
This is Shyness / Leanne Hall
The Family Law / Benjamin Law
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ / Philip Pullman
Speak to Me / Sarah Hopkins
Growing up Asian in Australia / ed. Alice Pung
Unpolished Gem / Alice Pung
Little Paradise / Gabrielle Wang
The Wildkin’s Curse / Kate Forsyth
The Brain that Changes Itself / Norman Doidge
Tokyo Vice / Jake Adelstein
The Byron Journals / Daniel Ducrou
Lunatic in My Head / Anjum Hasan
Torpedo 5 / ed. Chris Flynn
How a Moth Becomes a Boat / Josephine Rowe
Kill Your Darlings Issue 3
Sleepers Almanac 6 / ed. Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn
Light Boxes / Shane Jones
Having Cried Wolf / Gretchen Shirm
Tamara Drewe / Posy Simmonds
Catching Fire / Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay / Suzanne Collins
The Dead Fish Museum / Charles D’Ambrosio
The Dirt / Mötley Crüe with Neil Strauss
Once upon a Time in the North / Philip Pullman
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis / Lydia Davis
India Dark / Kirsty Murray
The Beautiful and Damned / F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Penguin Book of the Ocean / ed. James Bradley
Beloved / Toni Morrison
Freedom / Jonathan Franzen
The Easter Parade / Richard Yates
A Curse Dark as Gold / Elizabeth C. Bunce
Half a Life / Darin Strauss
Into the Woods / Anna Krien
Land’s Edge / Tim Winton

Persuasion / Jane Austen
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows / JK Rowling)

For a total of 72 73 books, two of them re-reads. Which is by no means a boast; three of the books listed above are children’s books, sixteen of them are young adult books, and there’s a sprinkling of page-turners in there for good measure. I did not post about about all these books, but if you click on the ’2010′ tab to the right, you can find out which ones I did write about. Pop over to Killings, too, for interviews and reviews with some of these authors.

The main thing that strikes me about this list is how many new titles it contains. That’s not a surprise: this year I’ve done some book reviews and author interviews (although this list doesn’t count books I’ve edited or proofread), which means I’ve read many more new books than I usually would. Forty-two of the 72 73 books here had a work output, such as an interview or a review, which means that my reading this year was predominantly governed by new publishing.

The other thing that strikes me about this list is the absences: no poetry, and few journals apart from Kill Your Darlings. That’s mostly because this list doesn’t include partially read books; if I did add those, I would be obliged to mention the excellent Torpedo 4, for example, which is a tribute to Richard Brautigan, some issues of Overland, Meanjin and McSweeney’s, and The Lifted Brow 6. On the poetry side, I’m troubled not to have had more time with the Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, which is infinitely more fun than it sounds, and Nathan Curnow’s The Ghost Poetry Project. There are no magazines on this list, either, so thanks to The New Yorker for being my constant breakfast companion.

Further, there are plenty of books I didn’t get a crack at this year, which I will verily attempt to rectify in the early parts of 2011. (Read: Lloyd Jones’ Hand Me Down World, Sloane Crosley’s essay collections, John Cheever’s short stories, Black Inc.’s end-of-year collections, Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook, Lili Wilkinson’s Pink, etc. ad infinitum.)

On the one hand, these lists seem to do nothing but instil in me a sense of panic, as they’re a reminder not only of what I’ve read but of what I haven’t. Yet, on the other hand, it’s a great way to look back on a year of outstanding books, including many I’ve not been able to post about here. I loved John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and the larger-than-life, heart-of-gold character Tiny Cooper, who warrants any hyphenated clichés I attach to his name. Anna Krien’s excellent Into the Woods is alone responsible for my resolution to read more non-fiction next year, and Tim Winton’s Land’s Edge, recently re-released, cemented him in my mind as Australia’s best communicator of our oceans’ crashing surfaces and mesmeric depths.

Happy new year to you – and here’s to a giant ol’ 2011.

I think I should rename this blog – 12 BOOKS. One book a month. That seems to be the going rate right now. Not exactly a bargain. Sorry guys!

I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned for the Kill Your Darlings Culture Club podcast. I was joined by Lorelei Vashti, who writes a weekly column in The Age‘s Green Guide (which used to be my bible in the days of Seaquest DSV) and Anna Krien, author of Into the Woods (one of my favourite books this year). I quite like podcasts, and I hope you like this one. Good company for any drives to the beach you might be taking this Christmas, any holiday baking times, leisurely walks in the park, and also good as a precursor to a nap.

This is the third Fitzgerald book I’ve read, which hardly makes me an expert – I think there are five novels, eight short story collections, some essays, some letters…a veritable font of words. I certainly think that anyone with an interest in Fitzgerald would enjoy reading this – it’s so uneven as to be intimate, and many of his famous themes get a wringing out here. As expected, Fitzgerald writes beautifully about his lovers and society, but there are a couple of surprises here, particularly in form.

Not sure if I will get in another post before Christmas. If not, happy holidays! And if you’re still present hunting, Kill Your Darlings has a nifty $50 subscription, which comes with a free book (your pick of a rather good bunch: Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2, Black Inc.’s Best Australian Essays or Andrew Mueller’s Rock and Hard Places).

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November 30, 2010

Just a little peep from me: a review of Kirsty Murray’s India Dark on Radio National’s The Book Show.

Also, something a bit novel. If you’d like to read a book with me, and hear me discuss it with some special guests (very special guests!), get cracking on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. I’ll be reading it for the Kill Your Darlings Culture Club podcast. Believe me, you want to read this book. It was Fitzgerald’s sophomore book, and it actually features a scene in which one of the characters refers to his first, extremely successful, novel, This Side of Paradise. It’s just like staring into a tortured soul. Seriously. The podcast airs on Tuesday December 14. Get thee ready!

I was talking to a friend the other day about how it seems to be baby season, how we have swiftly and surely reached the age where our family, friends and colleagues generate offspring without any scandal – indeed, it is expected. In response to this influx of infants, I found myself saying, ‘I don’t want to have a baby, but I don’t want not to have had a baby.’ And then I mentally slapped myself across the wrist, for I had just paraphrased Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories I had been reading. (Not that I had done very much paraphrasing – many of Davis’s stories are renowned for their brevity.) But the ease with which the words left my mouth signalled to me just the genius of Davis’s plain rendering of people’s interiors. Instead of padding stories out, she trains her storytelling on dilemmas in an intimate, immediate way.

Not all of the situations Davis depicts are as straightforward as the one I parroted, though – time and time again her narrators painstakingly work through problems that seem a little left of the centre show; or they are at the beginning of their workings-out, taking an exploratory path that unearths only a proliferation of other avenues. The collection is remarkably assured right throughout its bulk – over 700 pages, almost 200 stories, the work of more than ten years. It’s a beautiful tome, as well, which  you can slot in right next to Lorrie Moore’s collected stories, if your library is arranged by Pantone colour.

My review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis appears in this month’s Australian Literary Review, the first under the editorship of Luke Slattery. It comes with today’s edition of The Australian. You can see the contents list and the editorial here, or purchase online access to the day’s edition here. Enjoy!

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A little while back, one of the senior publishing editors at work, Karen, mentioned she was seriously enjoying the Mötley Crüe memoir. ‘No you’re not,’ said I, unbelievingly. Silly me! Trust me, the pain of having to use two totally redundant umlauts in the title of this post was but a minor slight in comparison to the great good entertainment I received from this book. From the opening chapter by Nikki Sixx (bass), in which he stabs himself in the arm and tells the police that his mother did it, The Dirt is a fount of rock ‘n’ roll stories from which I was seriously happy to drink.

In fact, I made everyone else drink from it too. I became a Crüe-only Conversationalist. Here are some scenes from a real-life dinner party:

Friend of Estelle [FoE] #1: …which is why I’m moving to New York.

[Brief lull]

Estelle: So, I was reading this book about Mötley Crüe, you know, the band. It’s so hilarious. I can’t stop reading it. There’s this amazing story in it where Vince, the singer, has a crush on this Playboy Playmate, and they hang out for a bit but then he has to go to Hawaii for some reason. Anyway, he’s on a jetski in a lagoon with another woman – I think she’s topless – and all of a sudden Vince sees the Playmate on the beach, and she looks pretty mad, so he elbows the topless woman INTO THE WATER. Seriously. How hilarious is that?

[The conversation continues.]

FoE #2: …so fantastic about the work she’s been doing for them.

[Brief lull.]

Estelle: SO. I don’t really want to go on about it, but this Mötley Crüe book is really amazing. It’s so gross. Have you ever seen that show about the Osbournes? Well, Ozzy Osbourne is crazy, right. SO CRAZY. I think he took acid every day for a year, just to see what it would be like. Brain is totally addled. So anyway, he was hanging out with Nikki Sixx – you know, the bass player – or maybe it was Vince, the singer? Anyway, they were off their heads on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol at a hotel, and Ozzy needs to pee. So he drops his pants and does a wee right in the middle of the hotel grounds. And then, he gets down on his hands and knees and STARTS DRINKING HIS OWN URINE. In long strokes with his tongue, like a cat.

FoE #3: Oh my god.

Estelle: I KNOW. So. then, Ozzy says, ‘Your turn, Nikki.’ And Nikki is freaking out – Ozzy is his idol, right. And Ozzy wants him to drink his own pee. What can he do but do it? So Nikki takes his pants off and does a wee, and he’s preparing himself, he can’t shame himself in front of Ozzy Osbourne, and then … Ozzy gets down on his hands and knees and drinks NIKKI’S wee.

FoEs #1 to 3: OH MY GOD, that’s disgusting.

Estelle (beaming): I KNOW!


All this despite never having heard any of their songs, ever. You get the idea. If neither of those stories floated your boat, you won’t like this book. It’s also super readable, especially the first half, in which you’re driven by the pure emotion of WTF. The book lags a little towards the end, but the writing’s good throughout, which I’m guessing is mostly thanks to Neil Strauss. (If you think I’m being unfair to the members of the band, consider these lyrics, given at the end of the book: ‘You’re so fake / You’re a dirty little bastard / Fake, you’re always so plastered.’) Strauss, no matter what I think of his pick-up society antics, is a good writer and music journalist, and in The Dirt each of the four members of the band has a distinct voice and story.

Next up? Tommyland.

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