Posts Tagged ‘2012’

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.

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.

August 3, 2012

I picked Heat by Bill Buford for the Kill Your Darlings Editors’ Picks. An excellent read for lovers of food and antics.

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Guys, this is a Cancer Book.

First up, I do not like to read Cancer Books. I do not like to read Horrific Car Accident Books. I do not like to read Conceived to Provide a Bone Marrow Transplant for Her Sister Books. Blurbs like the one currently gracing the hero area of Jodi Picoult’s homepage:

Edward Warren, twenty-four, has been living in Thailand for six years, a prodigal son who left his family after an irreparable fight with his father, Luke. But he gets a frantic phone call: His dad lies comatose, gravely injured in the same accident that has also injured his younger sister Cara.

… I do not like. Before you get huffy with me, I have enough experience of family members having cancer for you not to be able to get shitty with me because you think I’m being insensitive. (It’s fine to dislike my general surliness, though.)

Obviously, it’s not about the cancer. My aversion to Sickness Books is something different that I think a lot of people can probably identify with. A friend of mine was recently watching some Disney movie or something that made her cry, and her mother asked her ‘Why would you watch something that makes you cry?’ I can understand that lack of comprehension about others’ culture-consumption choices. But for some reason, I like watching movies that make me cry. (I also like real-life, self-made situations that will make me cry, such as the present moment, in which I am downing the dregs of a double shot of Talisker while listening to the Dario Marianelli soundtrack to Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. P.S. I pre-schedule these blog posts, just so you know I don’t routinely drink spirits before 11 am.) But I don’t enjoy or seek out books that seem guaranteed to elicit the Tears of Estelle. For some reason, I just can’t stand it. I feel so manipulated and sad and alone when I read those kinds of books.

However, John Green co-wrote one of my favourite YA books of the last few years, Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He is just excellent at writing teenagers’ voices that feel authentic, and with a lot of unforced, totally natural-sounding humour. His characters are super memorable and delightful. It is only with this kind of writing prowess that you can convince me to read your Sadness Book That Is Also Ubiquitously Advertised By Urban Poster (I never promised you that I was not a snob). You possibly also know of John Green, either from being one of his 1.2 million+ Twitter followers or seeing his Vlogbrothers videos or whatever.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is a 16-year-old with thyroid cancer. It affects her lungs, so she needs an oxygen tank at all times, and she’s at time painfully aware that she has ‘fat chipmunked cheeks’ from treatment. But she’s intelligent and hyper-engaged: she talks casually about psychologist Abraham Maslow and her favourite author Peter Van Houten. (Also, she agrees with me that ‘cancer books suck’, so there.) At the suggestion of her doctor, she begins attending a support group for children with cancer, held in the middle of a church, or ‘Christ’s sacred heart and whatever’. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t a Traditional Cancer Book. As the members of the group each share their feelings, Hazel explains, ‘Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five…so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlive four of these bastards.’

That’s Hazel’s voice: matter-of-fact and whip-smart. I fell in love with her immediately. Someone else does too; Augustus Waters is a dude with a ‘low, smoky, and dead sexy’ voice, who shows up to support group. He’s got a touch of the too-verboses, but he’s hot and has an eye for Hazel, so he’s okay in our book. Augustus and Hazel build a friendship edged with the knowledge that one of them is unlikely to live very long. As Hazel puts it, they’re ‘learning to live with one foot in the grave’.

This book is amazing for so many reasons. The ones I want to list don’t even sound that amazing, but they just are. For one thing, Hazel’s parents are both present and loving, palpably devoted to their daughter while also being their own people (think of all the YA books you love where one or both parents are absent, or awful, or stupidly daffy, or…). Hazel’s dad: ‘Really…I wouldn’t bullshit you about this. If you were more trouble than you’re worth, we’d just toss you out on the streets.’ For another, while love interest Augustus is very charming, he’s not the most interesting person in the book; nor is there a sense that Hazel wouldn’t be who she is without him.

The book’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves’. (Note: Even this one line makes me tear up now. Like Lev Grossman, I’ll cop to crying over this book. Like, copious weeping in public kind of crying. Like telling a co-worker on the tram to ‘Please just go away, I’m just crying right now’ crying. My friend’s mum would not be impressed.) In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Green explained that his experience as a chaplain to children with life-threatening diseases drove him to write this book. Green said, ‘I found myself really unfulfilled by the answers that are traditionally offered to questions of why some people suffer and why others suffer so little’. The Fault in Our Stars is a tectonically moving, humbling result of that experience, and as good a reason to overcome snitty book prejudices as any.

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That poor old steeplechase horse.

Please note I resisted the urge to call this post ‘Bring Up the Motherf***ing Bodies, Bitch’ (though said urge was merely displaced by the urge to put it in a prefatory explanatory note).

Just did a speedy little review for Readings of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. People often ask me if they should read Wolf Hall, and I always say ‘Yes, you should, really’. It’s incredible – Mantel is capable of the most comprehensive and vivid characterisation, and creates action stations out of what we often think of as dead Year 8–level History. Bring Up the Bodies is almost as good; nothing can really match the breathtaking confidence and inventiveness of the first Cromwell novel, but its successor is a worthy one. Review reposted below.

P.S. Very relieved to have a copy with the incredible British cover, rather than the insipid US cover. The whole point of this book is that it creates new portraits and ways of seeing these historical characters, duh.

***

There’s a story in the historical character of Thomas Cromwell, or several. But one only needs to read the Wikipedia version, eyes glazing over with boredom, to grasp what a significant achievement Hilary Mantel has wrought with her gripping, complex Cromwell novels: first Wolf Hall, and now its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies.

Of course, we know what history has to say about Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who made his way into the service of Henry VIII. Wolf Hall, however, was a hugely successful exercise in garnering sympathy for a man whom history has often painted as a villain.

Bring Up the Bodies begins where Wolf Hall left off. It is the summer of 1535. Henry VIII has not long been married to Anne Boleyn, but his gaze has already strayed to quiet, unassuming Jane Seymour; he wishes to have his marriage to Anne annulled. Anne, changeable and increasingly wary, is plotting, threatening Cromwell’s life and also England’s tenuous peace – for the royals are losing standing with the nobility and the English public, and there are others who want to rule.

It is a delight to return to Mantel’s Cromwell, whose quick mind and giant intellect are wonderfully framed by the novel’s present-tense narration. As Secretary to the king, Cromwell is hardworking and incisively strategic, but he can also estimate a man’s wealth by looking at his clothing and he’s good with his fists. His assessments of others are always sharp and illuminating: through his eyes we see a childlike and increasingly deluded Henry, and multiple dissolute courtiers who trade insults and secrets.

There are no tedious attempts to recreate the language of the era: instead, the fresh, direct prose Mantel used to such effect in Wolf Hall again carries the action here. Dialogue is pointed and often surprisingly funny, and its content is always the basis for some new stratagem (‘I am not a man with whom you can have inconsequential conversations,’ says Cromwell at one point). Thanks to this masterful treatment of language, the characters are so vital it seems their actions could alter history, that the march towards Cromwell’s fall from Henry’s favour (to be chronicled by Mantel in a future novel) could possibly be diverted by these versions of themselves.

Despite the short timeframe covered in the novel – just nine months – Bring Up the Bodies does drag in its middle section. And although she is never opaque about Cromwell’s more brutal decisions and actions, Mantel’s overtly sympathetic portrayal of her subject occasionally feels overstretched, particularly when set against his extreme political pragmatism.

Still, this is likely to be one of the most accomplished novels you read this year. Mantel has said of writing these books: ‘I felt such a burst of energy being lent to me by the character.’ Like Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is patently enlivened by the author’s passion for Cromwell. As a result, he will be remembered not only as one of the great political figures of England’s history, but also one of the great fictional characters of this decade.

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