Sam van Zweden




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.

39 down… 962 to go!

It’s really, really hard not to spend all my money on books. Working in a book store means I’m now eyeing off categories I normally wouldn’t even go to, and “trying to broaden my product knowledge” is just as good an excuse as any… In two and a half weeks I’ve bought four books. It sounds pretty controlled, but if I did that all the time I would be both poor and swamped, so from now on I’m resolving to buy things only when I have saved up the cash by putting it aside from my living and debt-paying-off expenses.

One of the many books I’m stopping myself from buying is the very cool 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It’s exactly what the title suggests. In a great act of genius and self-control, I looked up the list online instead of spending the $50-odd on the book that will probably sit around for a fair while.

I’ve read 39 out of the recommended 1001. I was discussing today how much more achievable the other books in the same series are. …Songs to Hear Before You Die is pretty easy, at the average three minutes per track. …Movies to See and Albums to Listen To, likewise, at about two hours, three maximum. As a pretty slow reader, it’s going to take me a lifetime to finish that list. Or, by Estelle Tang’s calculations, about a third of a lifetime. Having said that, I’ve saved the list to my computer, and I’m going to work on crossing off a bunch more of those books in future. Many of them are on my shelf waiting to be read… So I guess we’ll see if that “39” goes up any further toward the end of the year.

If you can be bothered going through the list – how many have you read?

Reading As A Priority

In his essay, Why Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa talks about how it’s a bit disgusting that reading is regarded as an indulgent pass-time. Literature is important, says Llosa, not just as a means of escape or relaxation (though these are still some of the many great functions of reading), but as a tool which promotes an engaged and lively society. And for writers, reading is especially important – how can we expect to be great writers if we aren’t also great readers?

As at the start of every year, there’s been a lot of goal-setting happening over the last few days. My online writing group has seen everyone’s goals updated, and one person’s goals in particular really interested me. It involved adding more structure to their writing day – something I’m always trying to do. I was inspired by the fact that a full writing day for them involved three hours of reading and four hours of writing on any given day. This struck me as similar to the “Writer’s Diet” (which I saw attributed to John Birmingham, but now can’t find anywhere) – this involved four hours’ reading and four hours’ writing daily. Ambitious, yes, but a totally worthy goal. I’m not saying that to be a good writer you need to read for x hours, and write for x hours, or you’re falling short. I’m just saying that for me, and for a lot of people I know, these kind of goals usually result in tangible improvements in our work.

So part of my writing goal this year is to make reading a priority again. Toward the end of 2012 it became something I did in spare time, on public transport or lunch breaks, or to unwind before bed. While all these things are still optional and will probably still be good reading time for me, I’m making reading an important part of my writing day.

Having read about 60 pages this morning in two hours (slow reader, yes), 100+ Books seems more achievable than ever, my “to be read” pile is cowering in terror, and I will be the most informed writer I can possibly be. Without understanding writing from both perspectives (reader and writer), I can hardly expect to get any better.

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

I’m great at making resolutions. Not New Years’ Resolutions, I just make them all the time. I’ll exercise more, I’ll be up at a certain time, I’ll do a writing exercise every day, I’ll read a hundred books a year… I’m really great at breaking the resolutions that I set for myself.

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin makes lots of resolutions for herself, and what I like about the book is Rubin’s systematic approach to making herself follow through on her promises.

The basic premise of the book is that Rubin makes a mission of studying happiness, and spends a year making systematic resolutions that will supposedly make her happier. Following Benjamin Franklin’s idea of perfecting himself by focusing on various virtues, Rubin focuses on a different facet of her happiness every month.

It sounds trite, but I found this book inspirational. There was a lot of stuff that Rubin tries that I took on board. I found myself energized by how specific her resolutions are, and in putting some of them into practice for myself I’d have to say that I think specific, accountable resolutions are the key. Rubin doesn’t just decide to focus on lifting her energy in January of her happiness project; she breaks this focus on “vitality” down into achievable, concrete ideas: “go to sleep earlier”, “exercise better”, “toss, restore, organize”, “tackle a nagging task”, and “act more energetic”. She does this for a different virtue, every month for a year.

By breaking down her aims into these little specific ideas, Rubin has instilled in me a weird kind of tendency to think in mantras. By the end of the book, she recognizes that she does this herself. I’ve started trying to employ the resolution to “act more energetic” – and whenever I find myself tempted to be lazy, that phrase pops into my head. “Act more energetic!” – truisms are helpful.

While I found this book on the “memoir” shelf in the book store, it would probably fit just as well under “self-help”. It’s a funny little book though: Gretchen Rubin’s just an average woman. Before starting her happiness project, she’s pretty happy – she simply decides that her happiness is important, and that she should know what it’s all about, especially in preparation for the possibility of bad times in the future. So it’s not any kind of misery memoir of overcoming the odds and finding happiness. Gretchen Rubin’s not depressed, she’s not hard done by, she’s not even very unhappy. She’s utterly regular. I liked that about the book.

I wasn’t so sure about the way the book treads the line of being overly positive. I know that sounds ridiculous, reading a book about happiness and being unsure about how positive it is, but perhaps because of the utter normalcy of Rubin’s life, I sometimes felt like the obstacles she overcame weren’t very convincing as genuine obstacles. But I guess that’s how life is. Sometimes achieving something isn’t very dramatic, but the fact that you get there in the end is important.

There’s a terrifying endorsement on the back of the book: “An enlightening, laugh aloud read” – from Christian Science Monitor. Don’t let that scare you off. The book isn’t trite, and it isn’t hardcore self-help. It’s a regular lady’s story about figuring out who she is, and what makes her happy. Rubin’s overly-organized approach to that task really appealed to me, and I’d have to say I picked up a lot of good ideas from this book. We spend so much of our lives trying to be “happy” – Gretchen Rubin recognized her own happiness as a priority, and wrote a really enjoyable book about it.

Going Off the Path

I’m reading Gretchen Rubin’s memoir, The Happiness Project. A more thorough review of this book is on the way, but pertinent to this post is the fact that The Happiness Project has inspired me to “go off the path” – and there’s much to be said for it. Making time to do something unplanned is important; it’s energizing.

I’m currently house-sitting for my Dad while he’s on holidays. It’s out in the suburbs – this is unusual for me, I’m usually within a few kilometers of the city. So the stay itself is a bit off the path, but I can’t say that I find the suburbs particularly invigorating. To combat suburban malaise, I’ve been exploring the shops within walking distance of his house. This effort paid off – I found the best stocked Vinnies (op-shop) in existence.

In the last three weeks, from this one op-shop I have bought the following:

  • The first five Lemony Snicket books, $2 each
  • Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris, $4
  • Unless, by Carol Shields, $3
  • Eragon, by Christopher Paolini, $3
  • Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, $1

Now, I’m pretty happy with those purchases. For $21, I have bought 9 books, and they’re all books I’m pretty excited to get reading.

And, just now, a bonus surprise: I open Obernewtyn and see that it belonged to a “Felicity” – I like books with old owners’ names in them. I turn to the title page… It’s signed. “To Felicity, Isobelle Carmody.” For one dollar, I have picked up a signed copy of Obernewtyn. It has a crazy-ass retro cover, too. Just a dollar. Kicks the butt of the Popular Penguin for $9.95. Unsigned. Plain cover.

This is the edition I bought. Did I mention it's signed? Accidental signed-book buy!

I’m feeling generous, and I’m giving you two messages here. 1) Make some time to go off the path. Without meaning to be overly cosmic or romantic, it pays off. 2) Get ye to a suburban op-shop! They’re the best for used books, super cheap.

Cherry Ripe

I picked up my copy of Cherry Ripe at the closing-down sale of City Basement Books, when they left Elizabeth Street. I got it for only $1. For this reason, it’s sat on my shelf for quite a while, and I’ve felt no pressing need to read it quickly in order to get my money’s worth. And having been written quite some years ago (1985), I didn’t feel the need to read the book or else fall behind in my reading. So now, about a year after I bought the book, I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.

The story is of three generations of women in Tasmania, mixing the real and fantastical in a way that makes the line blur – pure Carmel Bird.

I’m a big fan of Bird’s short fiction, “Automatic Teller” being one of my all-time favourite short story collections by a single author. I’ve only read one of her novels (she’s written about ten), Red Shoes. I loved Red Shoes for its amazingly rich narrative, a really intricate combination of wonderful story-telling and some really great research into myths and traditions.

While I’ve read it later, Cherry Ripe was a precursor to Red Shoes, and it certainly has that same feeling of being incredibly well-researched, and a strange mash-up of realism and magic. Like the hugely entertaining glossary in Red Shoes, Cherry Ripe is also a kind of vehicle for magical stories which sit outside the main story itself, and these stories are delivered through Aunt Agnes. She hands stories down to subsequent generations, telling of girls flying off cliffs from grief, and girls who drink vinegar until their blood runs dry. Having said that, even the action in the main story is quite fantastical – a girl eats a daffodil to show her love for a nun, and the Sacred Heart and a Fairy Queen commentate on the lives of the women.

The book is heavy with knowledge and iconography – much of it to do with tradition, femininity and religion. As a writer, I struggle to even begin to think about what the research for this novel would have looked like.

The book is a quick read, with large print. The chronology jumps around, and the reader never becomes bored with where the book is going, because the logic of the book doesn’t act in a forward-moving motion, it jumps around all over the place, linking the experience of one generation of the women with that of another, and jumping backward when reminded of another image or scene.

Though descriptions are dense (“Pearly just cred louder, big long tears, confetti runny rainbow teardrop tears”), they are also economical in a way, with every word working hard for its place on the page. Carmel Bird is a veteran of the art for a reason – she has such tight control over her words.
I regret that it took me a year to read this, and had I known it was going to be so enjoyable, I would have paid more than a dollar for it.

A Month of Reading: October

October just flew by. Assessments started, and swallowed my life, and then it was over. On the 31st of October, when I normally would have posted my “Month of Reading” meme, I got my tonsils out. That’s done a bit of life-swallowing also, and I’ve only just realised that I forgot to put this up! So. Sorry for that.

What did you read in October? (This isn’t rhetorical, folks. I always look for book suggestions!)

Books Bought:
Undertow: An anthology of creative writing by RMIT students 2011

The Quiet Room, by Lori Schiller & Amanda Bennett
The Funny Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields

Borrowed from friends:
You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead, by Marieke Hardy

Books Read:
Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
Disgrace, by J.M Coetzee
The Quiet Room, by Lori Schiller & Amanda Bennett
You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead, by Marieke Hardy
The Enchanted Wood, by Enid Blyton
The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields

Currently Reading:
Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton
The Little Red Writing Book, by Mark Tredinnick
Eating Animals, by Johnathan Safran Foer

The Best Art Feels Like Playing

“DAWN: Oh, I dunno, Nadine. Sometimes that’s good. I like his work, it’s fun. The best art can feel just like playing…”

In Death of a Ladies’ Man, Alan Bissett has written a novel that feels just like playing. I enjoyed this novel so much, though, because that’s not all it feels like. It’s so easy for those post-modern, tricksy texts to be fun, and that’s all. But Death of a Ladies’ Man is also serious, and relevant, and familiar, and well-written.

The novel is about ladies’ man Charlie Bain: divorced teacher with a promiscuous sex obsession. The characters are real and rounded, with Charlie always acting in ways that are true and honest, even when you squirm and wish he wouldn’t.

The prose sparkles – multiple times while reading I needed to grab my notebook to write down phrases that caught me offguard:

Close up on her eyelashes: like the skinny, regal legs of synchronised swimmers.

All Charlie saw was the bruise. Bruise! it said. Bruuuuuuise. Like a comic-book ghoul.

Alan Bissett has shown bravery with his form, with the novel presenting as something of a pastiche of film scripts, catalogues, first, second and third person narratives, shifting points of view and time. The thing I enjoyed most was that this playfulness of form perfectly matched the content. Experiments with fragmented typography match the drug, alcohol and sex experiments Charlie engages in, and his increasingly fragmented state of mind.

Even the difficulty of shifting narrative points of view is admirable: somehow Bissett manages to tell past episodes in second person present tense, and present episodes in past tense third person, mixed up with some first person interior stuff toward the end. This sounds impossible and mashed-up and wanky, but it really works.

Mostly, I laughed. This last week I’ve been sick in bed, having had my tonsils out, and Alan Bissett has kept me from going insane. It’s not a feel-good novel, far from it, but it’s got a definite dark hilarity to it, and despite its touching on some truly heavy stuff, it all still feels like playing.

A Month of Reading

It’s been a bit quiet this month; I’ve only finished two books. That’s not to say that I haven’t been reading, it’s just that I’ve got a billion things on the go at the moment. AND it’s that joyous time of the uni semester where everything’s due. So my Month of Reading list is perhaps a little less impressive than usual. But hey. These things happen.

What have you been reading?


Books Bought:
Our Deathbeds Will Be Thirsty, by Shane Koyczan
Voiceworks ‘V’

Visitations, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Won due to (amazingly) winning the KYD Trivia Night (again):
Her Father’s Daughter, by Alice Pung
Known Unknowns, by Emmett Stinson
Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene

Books Read:
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Adverbs, by Daniel Handler

Currently Reading:
Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton
The Little Red Writing Book, by Mark Tredinnick
Eating Animals, by Johnathan Safran Foer
Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
Disgrace, by J.M Coetzee

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