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Sam van Zweden

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A Month of Reading

It’s been a big month, though not so much for reading.

I’ve started my final semester of uni (completing my Bachelor of Arts – Creative Writing), and gotten my teeth sunk into my major project, which is a memoir. I’ve been contacted by the wonderful people at Giramondo, who very kindly sent me a book to review. And I’ve been accepted as an Emerging Blogger for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, later in August.

So the reading has been a bit slower than usual. Also, all my books are all packed up in green bags, in preparation for moving house on Saturday. Tip to book-lovers: green bags are perfect to move books. They’re strong, they’re re-usable (unlike boxes, which you spend months trying to get rid of afterwards) and they fit most paperback books two-across.

The two books I did read this month were fantastic.

Ruth Fields’ Run, Fat B!tch, Run is a no-nonsense guide for people who want to start running, which is what I’ve recently done. Fields’ secret weapon is The Grit Doctor, who (with a heavy pinch of salt, this isn’t a sexist or self-hating book!) whips your arse until you’re hot. This guide is great for those who need a bit of extra motivation, and it’s genuinely hilarious. I laughed all the way through it, and when I finished, I got up and went for a run.

Charlotte Wood’s Love and Hunger blew me away. As a writer, and someone who has a really strong connection with food (both my brother and father are chefs), this book really moved me. Love and Hunger is a strange memoir/recipe book – Wood tells stories about food, about what food does and can do. She tells stories about food’s potential to heal and strengthen relationships, food’s emotional meaning and its connection to our self-identity. At the end of each chapter, Wood shares recipes that are relevant to that chapter. Strangely, the pairing of these stories and recipes made me far more hungry and motivated to cook than any photo-heavy gastro-porn that’s available at the moment. There are no pictures in this book, just the stories and Wood’s ability to write a recipe well work better than any fancy photography ever could. Food is not just sustenance, and in this beautiful book, Charlotte Wood well and truly teases out all this idea has to offer.

What did you read this month?

Books Bought:
A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
Wildwood, by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis
Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, by Chris Colfer

Reading Copies:
My Hundred Lovers, by Susan Johnson
The Memory of Salt, by Alice Melike Ulgezer (thanks, Giramondo!)

Gifted:
Whores for Gloria, by William T Volmann

Books Read:
Run, Fat B!tch, Run, by Ruth Field
Love and Hunger, by Charlotte Wood

Currently Reading:
Our Father Who Wasn’t There, by David Carlin

It’s Not Romance, It’s Erotica. Awful Erotica.

I’ve recently been struck by the realization that Fifty Shades of Grey might actually be the thing that saves book-stores – for the time being, anyhow. I know this is a pretty big thing to say, but I actually kind of mean it. Looking at the figures just for Dymocks book stores, approximately 12,000 more units have been sold while Fifty Shades tops the charts than when anything else topped the charts in a comparable week last year. I’m baffled by the sudden frenzy of non-readers seeking out these books, and I’ve been meaning to post about my thoughts on this for some time… After reading Helen Razer’s immensely enjoyable “Product Review”, I decided I’d better sit down and write my thoughts.

It’s really weird to watch this all happening. For the last two or three weeks, just about every second item I sell has been a Fifty Shades book. It’s now officially the fastest-selling paperback book in history, surpassing Harry Potter and Twilight, even this year’s earlier boom of The Hunger Games. It’s most weird because of the kinds of customers buying the book, its genre, and the feedback I’ve been getting from those customers.

Case in point #1:
Have you read it? Is it any good?”
I started to – but I had to stop. I got up to page three, before I started thinking that if I continued reading I’d have to try even harder not to be scornful of customers who enjoy these books. I can go with bad writing – I gobbled up the first two Twilight books and quite enjoyed them, despite all the “topaz eyes” and the way that everyone in Forks “lopes” everywhere. The pages kept turning, the action kept me going, the pacing was good. What I did read of Fifty Shades felt so mechanical that I just had to stop.

So no, Customer. I have not read Fifty Shades. “It’s just not for me, but it’s incredibly popular!” Aaaand smile, don’t frown, don’t judge, just sell the thing. It’s what’s keeping you in a job.

Case in point #2:
“What’s it about? I don’t even know, I just know everyone’s reading it!”
This is said at the check-out, when they’re buying the book. I don’t think I’ve ever, in my life, bought a book that I know nothing about.

Case in point #3:
Customer: “Do you have that… Hundred something… Everyone’s talking about it?”
Me: “Fifty Shades of Grey? The erotica?”
At the word ‘erotica’, customer gets flustered and embarrassed.
Yeah, it’s erotica. On the back of the book, the spot that we put price stickers over, it says “erotica/romance”. The general readership that buys the book seems far more comfortable with the word “romance”. But flicking through the book (as I’ve done many times), you’ll find a lot of passages about penetration, and the “rules” of BDSM. I have no problem with erotica. In fact, I quite enjoy reading erotica. The Bride Stripped Bare was really enjoyable, because it was well-written, plus it was brave: a second-person narrative based around the parallel stories of an old women’s guide to being a good wife, and a woman negotiating her own married life. I like the secrecy and indulgence of erotica – it’s fun.

What baffles me the most about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is that “erotica” a’la some Mills & Boon etc is generally frowned-upon by the same people who are so enthusiastic about Fifty Shades. The flustered ladies who can’t stomach the word “erotica” and who ask for a bag before leaving the store are pretty representative of the readership of this wildly popular trilogy. It appears to me that the key to the books’ success lies in the fact that someone (WHO?!) said that this particular erotica is acceptable. Or that this particular erotica is not erotica at all. Women en masse are indulging the secret fun that I love about erotica, because someone made it acceptable in this case.

There’s a lot of questions about what happens going forward.

Question 1 – Is this self-contained? Will the customers who came into the store to buy Fifty Shades re-discover the enjoyment of reading and keep coming back for other books? Many of these books are being bought by themselves, but some customers buy other things. Last weekend there were many couples – she with Fifty Shades and he with Fev. More than a few told me that they’re not generally readers. Can booksellers hold any real hope that these people will realise the enriching experience that reading can be, and return when they finish these books? While Fifty Shades has boosted sales a lot during its time at the top of the charts, can we look forward to higher sales after the series loses its top-10 status?

Question 2 – Will there be many more books like these? If this smartly-marketed erotica is permissible, is there perhaps a whole genre of permissible erotica on its way? A co-worker and I discussed this question recently. I worried that if there is a whole genre of this kind coming, then would the quality of the writing improve at all? She laughed, asking if I would read these books if they were high literature.

And Yes, I probably would.

I’m not a total literature snob. I enjoyed Hunger Games, I’m okay with the fact that there is often a reason that things become as successful as these books have been. I’m curious to find out what that thing is. In the case of Fifty Shades though, whatever it is doesn’t lay in the first few pages, and I couldn’t bring myself to read further. The rabid need that people have to read this book is beyond me. I don’t understand.

A Month of Reading

It’s the first of yet another month! I haven’t had much of a chance to read this month, to be honest. With my internship, part-time job and the end-of-semester assessments for uni, I’ve only had one day off a week, and reading’s suffered a bit for that.

Anyway, here’s my reads. What did you read in May?

A MONTH OF READING: May 2012

Books Bought:
Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, by Greil Marcus
Run, Fat Bitch, Run, by Ruth Field

eBooks:
The Obituarist, by Patrick O’Duffy

Gifted:
The Abbotsford Mysteries, by Patricia Sykes

Borrowed:
The Summer Without Men, by Siri Hustvedt

Books Read:
The Lover, Marguerite Duras
The Amazing Adventures of Diet Girl, by Shauna Reid

Currently Reading:
The Confidence Gap, by Russ Harris
Wabi Sabi Love, by Arielle Ford
The Summer Without Men, by Siri Hustvedt

Review: The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

I decided to review these books as a whole series, rather than individually. There’s problems inherent to doing the review this way (spoilers and hints, so I’ll try to be a bit veiled about it all), but I felt it was important to give a comprehensive review of the series overall. This is for two reasons – the first being that the series attracts many younger readers (I’ve seen kids as young as eleven buy the series) and there’s so much I think it’s important for these kids’ parents to know about what their kids are reading. The other, simpler reason is that these books can be inhaled in the space of a few days each (for me, a slow adult reader) and their moreish qualities mean you’re unlikely to just read one. You’ll finish the series, whether you like it or not.

The first book, The Hunger Games introduces us to our heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives in a world ruled by a dictatorship (headed by President Snow in The Capitol), which has split the realm into twelve districts. Each district specializes in providing a good or service to The Capitol and its wealthy population, while the citizens of each district struggle to live. As a yearly reminder of the districts’ dependence on The Capitol there exists “The Hunger Games”. A boy and a girl from every district are thrown together in a huge arena (it could be a desert, a jungle, anything) and forced to kill one another. The last person standing wins the right to live, and a comfortable standard of living for themselves and their family.

Something about the books really reminded me of the Tomorrow When The War Began series – possibly something about young people and survival; really basic instincts mixed with all that comes with being a teenager. I think my enjoyment of the books came from whatever in me enjoyed the Tomorrow… books.

The murder thing is pretty full-on. Katniss is a reluctant participant in The Hunger Games, offering herself up only to spare her younger sister. So not only is there murder, but it’s less malicious than it is “kill-or-be-killed”. The deaths of “tributes” (district children involved in the games) are described in detail, and the gruesome nature of the deaths and the situations created by the gamemakers to torture the tributes is like something out of a nightmare. It’s really good reading, don’t get me wrong. I loved it, in an awful way. But eleven year-olds reading this kind of thing? Heavy.

Both Katniss and her district partner, Peeta, express their desire to stop being a piece in The Capitol’s games. Throughout the series this plants the seeds of a revolution, earning them very dangerous enemies in some camps and friends in others.

The second book (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) sends Katniss and Peeta back to the arena, and the shift in the tributes’ attitudes to killing one another make for some really interesting, often touching, reading. Of the three books, though, I felt like this second book was the least enjoyable. It was still good, but things certainly picked up again in book three.

Book three (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) is based entirely on the final show-down between The Capitol and the districts. This book was really quite troubling for me, with themes touching on murder, refugees, the loss of everything that accompanies war, sexual slavery, genetic modification, trauma… The list goes on.

The Hunger Games series is really tricky – it’s not an adults’ series, it’s not aimed at a regular adult fiction-reading audience. But it’s definitely not something for kids on that bridge between children’s older readers and young adult novels. I can’t stress enough the importance of the maturity warning on the third book. If you’ve got kids below, say, fifteen that are reading this book – read it first.

Interestingly, like a other successful YA book series, The Hunger Games has been released with multiple covers. While they haven’t been expressly marketed as “children’s” and “adults'” covers, one is definitely more acceptable for adults to be seen reading. A strange phenomenon, that…

Okay, the political stuff aside…

Like so many great addictive novels (arguably, every novel, but we’ll not get into that now), there’s a love triangle at the centre of the books. Katniss goes into the arena with Peeta, who makes it his business to keep her alive. Back home awaits Gale, her best friend and possible love interest. While reading this a friend asked me if I was “on Team Peeta or Team Gale?” – and I realized it’s the same love triangle we’ve seen in other grossly popular YA novels, eg Harry Potter (Hermione/Harry/Ron) and Twilight (Bella/Jacob/Edward). That’s not to detract from it at all – it’s great reading, and you’ll find yourself emotionally invested in both the boys, torn as to which Katniss should choose. And with the film coming out on the 23rd of March, the addition of some pretty attractive (is that ok? Are they too young to be attractive?) actors as Peeta and Gale, the Team Peeta/Team Gale question will get even harder to answer.

I did find the wrap-up of the series a bit lacking. In a way, Collins has depicted the effects of trauma really well, leaving Katniss scarred both physically and emotionally. However, it also feels like there’s a bit of a need for a “happy” ending after all the horrors of the books, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the ways a few situations were wrapped up. Actually, throughout the books a few things really displeased me as a reader, such as who died and how they went. My emotional reaction to deaths did prove one thing though – I’d become really invested in what happened to those characters. Perhaps Collins is trying to balance this bad (almost too real) stuff by giving readers some happy closure, but after all the shock and trauma it just doesn’t ring true. But really… A unsatisfying final few chapters after three whole books of Awesome isn’t too bad.

Just a quick note: don’t discount these as disposable crap because of their popularity. I have a habit of doing this, and I’m making a concerted effort to not be a book snob. The Hunger Games seems to be the next big thing post-Twilight, and there’s a reason for that. They’re good.

A Month of Reading

With the extra day in February this year (a leap year), I’d convinced myself I’d have the upper hand and be able to read an extra book this year… Perhaps a whole book is a bit ambitious, but I am about a hundred pages ahead of where I’d be without the 29th of February. So thanks, Leap Year.

It’s been hard, but I have managed to stop myself from buying new books constantly. I’ve still “bought” a lot of books, but my book-buying budget’s reasonable now. I bought a book I want to review for the uni magazine (the new Daniel Handler – aka Lemony Snickett), as well as a weight-loss book. I bought books I need for school, and was quite impressed that the total cost of this semester’s texts came to a grand $39. Anything else that came in was a reading copy, a gift, or a used book.

The lovely director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Lisa Dempster, is leaving Melbourne at the end of the year. In preparation, she’s selling all her books. They’re cheap, in good nick, and there’s still quite a list up there. I picked up five books from Lisa for $20; three books I’ve been looking for cheap copies of for a while, plus two random grabs. Not only will you be buying good cheap books, you’ll be helping Lisa downscale and get some cash together for whatever adventure she takes on next. (If you’re not familiar with Lisa’s adventures, try here or here).

One last note on what’s come in: I started a book-sharing group, and it’s been pretty well-received. I made a Facebook group of my friends that I know like reading and have a lot of books like I do. Whenever we come across a book we don’t feel the need to hang onto any more, we post it to the group for another book-lover to adopt. The books in the “gifted” section this month came from that group. If you’re in a similar position to me and my friends (toooooo many books! But we all still want more…), I’d recommend giving something like this a try.

What have you read this month?

Books Bought:
Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler
Lose Weight Fast, by Susie Burrell
The Amazing Adventures of Diet Girl, by Shauna Reid
Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts
A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipul
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Marching Powder, by Rusty Young
Trojan Women and Hippolytus, by Euripedes
The Psychology of Love, by Sigmund Freud
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
Symposium and Phaedrus, by Plato

Reading Copies:
The New Republic, by Lionel Shriver
Mateship With Birds, by Carrie Tiffany
Running Dogs, by Ruby J Murray

Gifted:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Look At Me, by Jennifer Egan

Borrowed:
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
All Of Us: The Collected Poems, Raymond Carver
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Books Read:
Flying With Paper Wings, by Sandy Jeffs
Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Currently Reading:
Killing, by Jeff Sparrow
The Confidence Gap, by Russ Harris

Review: Flying With Paper Wings, by Sandy Jeffs

Sandy Jeffs’ autobiography, Flying With Paper Wings: Reflections on living with madness is an enlightening memoir and exploration of the experience of schizophrenia. Sandy Jeffs takes readers through her diagnosis and early experiences, through hospitalizations, and her later life negotiations with her identity as schizophrenic.

There are many misery memoirs out there on the subject of mental illness, and I can’t say they interest me too much. There’s dangerous territory there, where the writer can wallow in their own interior mess, and with a subject like mental illness that’s not constructive at all when it comes to communicating exactly what the experience is.

Sandy Jeffs’ account of her illness makes no attempts at speaking for everyone with the same or similar diagnoses, but her representations of what goes on in her head during an episode are fascinating. This includes whole pages of her interior monologue. These don’t take over the book though, and more interesting are Jeffs’ meditations on the very real political issues she faced, as well as philosophical considerations of the mind/body divide and the ways in which trauma and obsession manifest themselves in psychosis.

While Jeffs underlines the individuality of her experience, she also raises some larger issues which are in need of some serious attention. The end of the book looks at the ways that care for psychiatric patients has changed over the years, and the gaping holes that still exist in the mental health system.

A family member of mine suffers from a mental illness which has much in common with schizophrenia, and in reading this book it’s a bit impossible for me to make a judgement separate from that experience. But that’s probably the best endorsement I could possibly give it – I felt like this book helped me understand a bit more. In this book, Sandy Jeffs gives a strong voice to people who are misunderstood and often ignored. She makes some meaningful steps toward bridging a very big gap.

The To-Be-Read Grab-Bag

I have a teeny tiny moleskine I use to write down all the book recommendations I receive and mean to follow up. I usually just write down the name and the author, very very rarely the reason it’s been recommended. With the amount of recommendations I receive, it’s pretty hard sometimes to remember why I’m chasing up a certain book.

Today I dipped into the To-Be-Read list for my next read, and picked up the copy of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City that I’ve had sitting here for a few weeks, intending to start.

I opened the book, and to my delight it’s written in second person! (Rare, and even more rarely well-done.)

The opening line:

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”

Are you hooked already? I am. And I’m so delighted that I’d forgotten why it was recommended – such a fantastic surprise to start reading and discover such brilliant prose and an original focalization. Thanks, whoever recommended this one.

Swoon…

This morning I woke up to an email from my Step-mum containing a link to Flavourwire’s post about “The World’s Most Beautiful Bookstores”. And I’m now wondering if it’s reasonable to go on a round-the-world tour just to visit all these stores. They’re so damn lovely!

The Chinese kids’ store looks so magical – how could a child not get excited about reading in such a place?! And the Livraria Da Vila front doors! I didn’t even realise I was looking at doors until I read the description…

My usual writing breaks involve making toast or doing dishes… Today, though, you might find me suspending books from my ceiling or installing a revolving hinge and sticking books to my front door.

I was sad to notice that there are no entires for Australian book stores… What are your favourite book stores in Australia? I know there’s a great place in Sassafras, outdoors in a little alleyway with a courtyard, though I can’t seem to find it anywhere online… Floor-to-ceiling books are a pretty prominent feature of the stores that I love (like this or this), as well as a great selection of course, but I can’t bring to mind any Australian (specifically, Victorian) stores that are really exciting in terms of design: I’m specifically talking bookstores here, so LaTrobe Reading Room notwithstanding.  Have I not been searching far and wide enough for my books? Let me in on your secrets, blogosphere! Where da sexy bookz at?

Review: After the Snow, by S.D Crockett

Check out that cover artwork. It’s pretty nice, huh? Unfortunately I’ve been seeing an alternative cover floating around that’s nowhere near as pretty, but here’s hoping that we get this pretty thing in Australia.

After the Snow by S.D Crockett is a work of young adult fiction, set in an ice-age some time in the not too distant future. The main character, Willo, is left alone in the mountains when his parents are forced out of their family home, and the book follows Willo’s search for his parents and his growth from a boy to an insightful young man.

The story is told in first person from Willo’s point of view. Willo’s voice is really distinctive – his vocabulary is limited (think Jack from Room), and his worldview is very particular to his rural life as a “straggler”. He’s a skilled hunter and craftsman, and a brave young man. Willo has a lot of peculiarities that make him utterly endearing and relatable character. For example, Willo has saved a dog’s skull and fashioned it into a hat. When he wears this hat he is influenced by “the spirit of the dog”, and this spirit guides him throughout the book.

This kind of imagination on Crockett’s part is really refreshing. While I’m not an expert on YA fiction by any stretch of the imagination, I think my lack of general enthusiasm for the genre comes from the tendency for YA authors to sell their audience short: having a young audience does not mean you need to dumb down your narrative or emotional content. Crockett shows faith in her readers by presenting them with Willo’s difficult voice, and his complex emotional journey. This respect for the audience’s maturity and insight is the crux of what’s so exciting about this novel for me. It also makes the novel really enjoyable not only for young adults, but for readers of all ages.

The other lovely thing about this book is the language. It’s a strange and brilliant feat to make less language seem more. Despite Willo’s limited and peculiar voice, Crockett makes it fresh with language that jumps off the page with its poetry. There was a lot of stopping to write lovely bits in my notebook as I read.

I’m looking forward to the release of this one so I can spruik it to everyone. Starting here. The book’s due out mid-February, which is almost upon us, so keep an eye out.

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