Posts Tagged ‘2010s’

I heard about this book when Shannon originally signed her seven-book deal (!!), and it was all over the publishing news. The fantasy nerd in me got very excited, and now the first book has landed. This was the book I took on the plane to New York with me; I was convinced it would be perfect plane reading.

I was half right. The premise is intriguing; Paige Mahoney is a dreamwalker, a mental ‘hacker of sorts’ who can read the ‘dreamscapes’ of non-clairvoyants – here called amaurotics. She lives in the London of 2067, which is governed by an anti-clairvoyant institution called Scion. Scion seeks and captures clairvoyants – or ‘voyants’ – like Paige just as a police force does criminals, and puts them to work against other voyants, or disappears them. Ironically, the only way Paige can feel like she belongs in this oppressive society is as part of London’s underground voyant crime syndicate. By day, she tells her Scion-employed father she works at an oxygen bar, but after hours she surveils voyants in her precinct for a crime lord. Soon, though, she discovers that Scion is just one layer of a deeper, more nefarious plan.

Broadly speaking, this book is structurally sound. There is plenty of tension and action to keep the reader turning the pages, and some sympathetic characters to root for along the way. The narrative retains integrity even though not far into the book Paige’s circumstances, and her understanding of the world around her, changes dramatically. I know this has irritated some readers, but in principle I had no issue with this; it is rather a dizzying turn of events that gives you the tight-chested ‘what on earth is she going to do?’ feeling.

But my main issue with this book is that it felt undercooked. The finer details of the world-building, in particular, needed more attention. For example, Shannon has created an extremely granular and complex taxonomy of voyants, given as a family-tree-style chart at the beginning of the book. It’s an overwhelming introduction, so it’s puzzling that many of these divisions are inconsequential, story-wise. In fact – and I admit I was reading this in holiday mode, so I may have just missed it – there are some terms that I can’t even remember being used. (I also realise this is a seven-book series, so there’s an argument for including everything, but I’m not sure it works here.)

This may seem like a minor quibble but, on the flipside, weirdly, there’s some vagueness around what Paige’s dreamwalker abilities are. To some extent, there are plot reasons for this, but if a protagonist’s powers are so desirable and fascinating to everyone around her that she forms a kind of centrifugal plot force, as Paige does in The Bone Season, they should be as plain as could be for the reader. Similarly, two races that are introduced later in the book could have been handled more confidently; their clairvoyant qualities are not that well elucidated, and this makes the ending feel rushed and sloppy.

All this is not to be discouraging or horrid. I’m really talking about finessing and general tightening rather than integral problems. I did, though, feel that there were enough elements requiring polishing or rethinking that I came out of the reading experience a bit confused and not quite satisfied. Yet the pacing and action kept me going. So for the purposes of being distracted on a long trip, The Bone Season worked. I didn’t even write any notes as I was having a nice old time with it. But reading a book that isn’t quite ready for publication really makes it clear what kind of genius writers like Tolkien and Martin have (or perhaps reflects the time they’ve spent with their manuscripts, or the time allowed by a less pressure-cooker publishing process): absolute control over and knowledge of their worlds; and the understanding of what parts of it the reader needs to know about, and when.

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September 12, 2013

Hi there! What’s been happening?

Me? I moved to New York this week.

Also, I wrote:

+ a review of Alissa Nutting’s Tampa 

+ a review of Chris Womersley’s Cairo

+ a little essay about ‘Lolita’s children’

and interviewed Tavi Gevinson at the Melbourne Writers Festival (also available on iView for Australians).

I’m going to be doing some more reading though. I’ll knock it OUT OF THE PARK like a BIG READING BATTER (IS THAT WHAT THEY CALL THEM SPORTSPERSONS??)

I’ll also be appearing at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October. And starting my own poodle-grooming business. (One of these is a lie.)

Speak soon,

Estelle

 

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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’ve recently finished researching and writing an essay about the zoo, based on the Wheeler Centre/Melbourne Zoo writing fellowship I did at the end of last year. This ended a huge stint of reading mostly zoo-related fiction and non-fiction, and all of a sudden I was at liberty to read whatever I wanted. So obviously I read a book about animals. New habits die hard, or something. Anyhow, I picked this up because obviously Sedaris is fun, and I needed something fun and light. The last book I read for research was a long novel that was far out of my comfort zone (i.e. I hated it), so I wanted just to ease back into leisure reading.

Anyway, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk isn’t really about animals. Sedaris, the great observer and self-analyser, doesn’t totally abstain from his great human-centred talents here. This is an Aesop-like collection of tales, updated for the modern reader. Like Aesop’s, Sedaris’ animal characters illustrate very human foibles. Readers who are dissatisfied with their hairdresser might recognise many irritating traits in ‘The Cat and the Baboon’, in which the baboon, grooming a snooty cat, gossips and hedges and changes her mind. Here, though, Sedaris also satirises some pretty modern personality quirks. In ‘The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig’, the pig, a museum curator, is not troubled by the parrot journalist’s defamatory remarks about his ‘Vietnamese’ heritage, but rather is anxious about being called ‘potbellied’ when, really, he thinks himself rather slim.

The illustrations are by Ian Falconer, who is the author and illustrator of Olivia (!!), so the illos are wonderful, natch. (Apart from the horribly gory one for ‘The Sick Rat and the Healthy Rat’, which reminded me way too much of George Saunders’ short story ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ for comfort.) A variety of adorable, nasty, catty or lively animal portraits accompany each story.

I could take or leave a couple of the first stories, which are piquant but lack the heart that make ‘The Cow and the Turkey’ and ‘The Grieving Owl’ the very best and most moving in the book. The owl story is also the funniest, and made me LOL about four times. I had already heard ‘The Cow and the Turkey’ on This American Life, but the tale about barnyard animals who decide to play Secret Santa still affected me. The owl in ‘The Grieving Owl’ is a autodidact who lets his prey go if they can teach him something about the world, leading him to form an unlikely friendship with a gerbil and a hippo who lives in the zoo. (Anal leeches also make an appearance, I’ll warn you.) Who knew anthropomorphised cross-species friendships could be so heart-warming? David Sedaris, that’s who.

Great for those who are interested in a different slant on the meaning life. To show you what I mean, from ‘The Grieving Owl’: “To live in a damp crowded asshole and sing – if these guys don’t know the secret to living, I don’t know who does.”

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, it’s so good.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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