Posts Tagged ‘australian’

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 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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I did not hesitate at all to buy the latest issue of Meanjin. Three main reasons:

  • the cover, which features art by David Lancashire (which I hated at first, but then I realised it was bold, striking, and really different for a literary journal)
  • Gillian Mears’ essay on how her new novel, Foal’s Bread, came to be
  • Tom Cho’s looong story How can we reconcile the existence of suffering with the premise of a good and almighty God?

and three sub-reasons:

  • the usual reasons you buy literary journals: to be surprised and pleased by new discoveries, to enjoy genres that aren’t on high enough rotation in your reading spread (that means you, poetry), to support new and emerging writers, to be informed
  • other content that should not feel like it is being slighted in the least by appearing as a ‘sub-reason’, obviously that taxonomy was a mistake (I just love Tom Cho), including memoir by Melanie Joosten; a short ‘Perspectives’ piece by funnywoman Jess McGuire; poetry by Emily Bitto, who has written a couple of great pieces for Killings; a poem by Joe Dolce (yes, that Joe Dolce!); and a great collection of drawings by Oslo Davis completed during a residency at the State Library of Victoria
  • a picture of Gillian Mears standing up on the back of a horse.

I ripped right through this issue – except for the first piece, Ewan Morrison’s ‘Why Y Matters: Mapping the Coming Consumption Patterns of Generation Y’, which I originally thought was actually a journalistic enquiry into the coming consumption patterns of Generation Y but turned out to be a satirical essay about the coming consumption patterns of Generation Y. I feel like this has been done before, and I’d actually love to make a bazillion dollars from my fellow Gen Yers, so I felt a bit unsatisfied after reading this.

The two stars here were, of course, the Mears and Cho pieces. This issue of Meanjin was basically a big old entree for my main meal of Mears’ Foal’s Bread, which I read straight afterwards. I challenge you to read her essay, ‘Old Copmanhurst‘, and not want to dive headlong into the novel immediately. The essay begins:

Much exclamation occurs when people realise Foal’s Bread is my first novel in sixteen years. Sixteen years ago I was about to turn thirty-one. From this distance that seems inconceivably young and I was inconceivably bewildered that only horses understood that something horrible had begun to happen in my legs and feet.

My first encounter with Mears was ‘Fairy Death‘, in Heat 24. In that essay, Mears described her experience being photographed by Vincent Long for his ‘Red Balloon Project‘. Having had multiple sclerosis for 15 years by that stage, Mears wrote candidly and beautifully about bodies, sex and memory. Since reading that piece, I’ve had an almost superstitious approach to her writing; I kept an eye out for shorter pieces, but though I’d never read any of her books before, I didn’t want to start from the beginning. I knew the next one would be the one I’d read.

‘Old Copmanhurst’ is another characteristically straight-talking essay that charts the trajectory of Foal’s Bread, from its guilty inception (the idea of the novel needed to be concealed from Mears’ sister Yvonne, who had also writen a novel manuscript involving high-jump horses) to its sprinting eventual birth years later. Again, Mears writes lucidly about memory, the body and her love for horses – a real treat.

As for Tom’s story, I’m not sure I can do it justice. Much of what I enjoy about his fiction is the dry, unfussy approach to dizzily difficult subjects. (His delivery is also sometimes wonderfully bone dry.) Here, he writes about robots in the year 2240 trying to understand the nature and existence of suffering. It’s a great first offering in the ‘Meanjin Papers’ series, which showcases one longer piece per edition.

I have never held much truck with the notion that making content free online (as Meanjin does) will necessarily cannibalise sales of a print product. (Well, we’ll see once I finally get a smartphone.) But the relevant question there is whether the consumer finds value in having spent the coin on said content in any particular format, and I certainly did: there is no question that this is a fine specimen of a print journal – wonderfully curated, beautifully designed and a special kind of immersive experience.

I’ve only read five short story collections this year so far. It’s been a big-book year; I’ve schlepped my way through two Game of Thrones books, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, an advance copy of Isobelle Carmody’s The Sending (!!!) and am currently engaging in the bicep tussle that is Don Quixote. And I also suspect I have a little bit of short-story fatigue. Reading bad short fiction is exhausting in a way that needs no explanation, and reading good short fiction can be draining too. I always need a bit of a temporal or psychological break between even each short story in any one collection, whether single-authored or multi-authored: if the writer is doing their job right, you need some time to absorb and then recalibrate for the new world each story brings.

But I had no hesitations in buying Wayne Macauley’s Other Stories ahead of his MWF session (which I didn’t end up attending in the end). This 2010 collection has been much lauded, and I’m impatient to read his new novel The Cook, which I think is spectacularly well-timed: the collective fever-dream of MasterChef is beginning to fade slightly, but notifications from every publishing corner, including the meteoric rise and power of food blogs and the success of McSweeney’s Lucky Peach point to the middle-class obsession with food and kitchens being a stayer.

To return to Other Stories. It’s a collection that should breed excitement in short fiction aficionados. Macauley’s fiction is clean, the tales made almost ridiculously accessible by his use of simple prose. In some stories, chummy, confessional first-person establishes character with the naturalism, attention to vernacular and easy representation of foible that made Cervantes’ Sancho Panza the most memorable simpleton in literary history.

In ‘A Short Report from Happy Valley’, the (unnamed) narrator, a pathologist, is dashing off an epistle to a colleague about ‘strange goings-on’ he recently observed (‘My invoice will follow shortly, by the way’). The serene people of Happy Valley display a tendency towards sleep; one man has been asleep for thirty years, waking only for meal-times or other necessaries, while others ‘hover precariously between sleep and wakefulness’. The business-like diagnostician can’t put his finger on the cause, but while possible theories range from the pathogenic to the philosophical, he’s laissez-faire about the odd phenomenon: ‘Leave them alone! Let them rest in peace!’ – his mind’s already on his next case, a sick cow in Brisbane.

Macaulay does this oblique and unperturbed chronicling of curiosities very well. ‘One Night’ contains the simplest and most charming form of this signature; the vignette describes the summer night when ‘Michael Ebeling, the panel beater’ took his mattress down into the street and was gradually joined by all his Boxstead Court neighbours. And when Macaulay refracts these anomalies through his satiric filter, which he does often, the result tickles the fancy while disturbing the civic sense. ‘Bohemians’ seems like a fun example, at first; an agent assures a client that he can lease some ‘bohemians in their purely decorative role’ so as to create some character and ambience in a community. But the bohemians, so prized for their louche inertia, can’t afford to live in the area, where ratepayers have ‘bought up all the bohemians’ houses and taken over the bohemians’ cafés’.

If this seems like a slightly dated complaint (vale affordable North Fitzroy, Brunswick and Northcote living), note too that the collection comprises stories that have been written over almost twenty years. But when Macaulay aims his sights at the prickly end of the rectitude scale in ‘The Farmer’s New Machine’, the lengths to which a farmer is prepared to go to attain bucolic bliss are chilling because very little about the story – the proud farmer, the advances in industry – places it far outside of contemporary experience.

It’s not only groups that become bewildered, slipping into interstices that protect them from the onslaught of increasing complications. One of the collection’s best, and longest, stories, ‘The Bridge’, tells of a lone soldier who attempts to maintain his loyalty while defending a post that has been cut off from all communication. In ‘So Who’s the Wrecker Then?’, the Premier – ‘a man with a wicked sense of humour and a great flair for the dramatic’ decides during an appearance at a building site in outer suburbia to use his new-found bulldozer skills to chase dignitaries and photographers around ‘like sheep’.

With his restraint and talent for observation, Macauley clads what might usually be thought of as dystopian themes in the familiarity of realist garb, and this lends real frisson to his work. He has also written two earlier novels, which I haven’t read, but what with the sharp execution and imaginative premises, Other Stories is an excellent way to introduce yourself to Macauley’s gimlet pen.

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Thanks to Favel Parrett for making me actually start weeping uncontrollably on public transport.

Another week, another upbraiding from a friend for only posting links to external content. Too bad!

Here’s my podcast interview with Meg Mundell, whose novel Black Glass envisions a future Melbourne where people without official documentation are forced to the fringes of society. At the same time, it’s a tale of two sisters’ search for each other in a city increasingly moulded by opportunistic shysters and government spin doctors.

Meg has been published widely in Australian newspapers, journals and magazines, including The Age, The Monthly, Meanjin, The Best Australian Stories 2010, The Sleepers Almanac, harvest and The Big Issue. Have a listen.