Posts Tagged ‘american’

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.

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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Steve Hely is a very funny and nice man who writes for The Office. I met and interviewed him last year at MWF, and he showed great gentlemanship in not pointedly walking away from me when I later that day proceeded to tell him an extremely inchoate and not narratively satisfying story from my drunken past, all while I was firmly entrenched in my drunken present.

All this is to say that I still have a good opinion of him, even though the main character in his book, How I Became A Famous Novelist:

  • is offered $15,000 for his first novel. I feel that This Is Not Realistic
  • is in a scene where his friend in the publishing industry says, ‘And blogs! Jesus! Blogs! If I hear the word blog one more time I’m gonna put my neck on the subway tracks.’ (For one thing, that would not be hygienic.)
  • thinks, at one point, ‘Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth. They are sniveling, revolting creatures who feed their own appetites for bile by gnawing apart other people’s work. They are human garbage. They all deserve to be struck down by awful diseases described in the most obscure dermatology journals.’ (Come on, man.)
  • thinks, at one point, ‘Worst of all, Polly’s wedding would be filled with Australians.’ (Fair enough.)

Screw you too, Steve!

Still! The pros for this book include:

  • a scene featuring Vincent D’Onofrio (this one’s for you, Elmo Keep)
  • the line ‘He looked like an elf who’s gone through a bad divorce.’
  • something called Nepalese Nut Soda, the hilarity of which I can never quite explain.
  • a press release for a (sadly) fictional book called How to Stop Being a Ho … and Why
  • excellent satire on the world of literary fiction.
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Laura Miller’s New Yorker piece on George R. R. Martin and his fans (who are legion) was great, and left me dying to read Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I like fantasy, I like complexity, I like HBO tv shows: done deal, right? I borrowed the first two books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings from my friend James, who has read them several times since childhood (Game of Thrones was written fifteen years ago).

By way of brief description, the books describe the power struggles of various high-born families in the Seven Kingdoms, and take their plot and setting cues from something approximating English medieval history (I think Martin has said that the plot is loosely based on the War of the Roses). They are huge books – both volumes run to over 700 pages – giving other sprawling fantasy worlds reason to reconsider their level of commitment.

Game of Thrones is a much easier sell than Clash of Kings: it is laden with surprises and ends with a fist-pumper of a scene. Clash of Kings suffers from the lugubriousness of an already expansive universe that Martin only continues to complicate, edge outwards and fill in, introducing more and more characters, locations and intrigues. Of course, that’s no problem in itself, but I found the second volume a bit tedious in places, and while I occasionally skipped over pages of description in the first book, I skimmed whole sections of Clash of Kings without regret. So while it was no great difficulty to continue on to the second book after the first, I’m in no hurry to go on to the third any time soon. (Dana Jennings’ NYT review of the fifth book in the famously long-incomplete series has swayed me slightly.)

Obviously, a lot happens in the 1500+ pages I read. (If anyone is giving out prizes for understatement of the year, I’ll take one.) But a few general areas of note. (Note that because there are so many significant plot changes, there’ll inevitably be SPOILERS. And note that I’m in no way trying to convert non-fantasy readers to these books. If the words ‘meat and mead’ anger you, you shouldn’t read this at all – click here now.)

I Sex and women

When an early description of a family’s bloodline contains the words ‘for centuries they had wed brother to sister’, you know you’re in for a hard-to-defend-to-your-friends kind of read. And no bloody joke. In Game of Thrones alone, you get twincest and a very closely written scene between an adult man and a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s enough to make you realise how grateful you are for age-of-consent laws.

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