Sam van Zweden



book review

Review: The Summer Without Men, by Siri Hustvedt

Having been cheated on, poet Mia retreats first to “temporary psychosis”, and then to the small town of Bonden. This is where her mother lives in a retirement home, and where Mia comes to know and love the small community’s members.

The characters we meet in Bonden are fully-formed, convincing people who live lives outside the pages of the novel. The doubled-over Abigail, whose “secret amusements” buoy Mia’s spirit. The group of seven young poetesses that Mia teaches to express themselves, and eventually to understand one other. Lola and Flora, mother and daughter under the tyrannous rule of husband/father (and Mia’s next-door neighbour) Pete. The connections that Mia makes with these people during her stay in Bonden are what holds this book together, but they’re not all the book is.

Siri Hustvedt is clearly a well-educated woman with a very active and working brain. She casts a wide net with her protagonist’s musings, from Neitzsche and Husserl, to the male/female divide and the nature of memory. Mia’s ponderings are of a specific sort, and it’s clear that Hustvedt has given thought to her protagonist’s concerns, thinking about Mia’s life experiences and where she is currently in her life, and how this would affect the things she particularly relates to. Indeed, Mia’s thoughts aren’t just from the point of view of a poet, but from a poet who is married to a neuroscientist and mother to a now-grown young woman.

Quite intellectually challenging ideas are presented accessibly, but also appropriately. At no stage do the characters become mouthpieces for Siri Hustvedt to show off her smarts, nor do said smarts stick out from the narrative as inappropriate – the characters and the theory stuff always work hand-in-hand, commenting on one another, strengthening each other’s credibility and aliveness.

The emotional content of the book sings just as much as the intellectual – the two are not mutually exclusive and they wind together in the prettiest way. In particular, Mia’s thoughts on her time in a psychiatric ward are considered and insightful.

Siri Hustvedt’s prose is beautiful. When I read passages I particularly enjoy in a book, I tend to write them down. I started doing this in The Summer Without Men, but a few pages in I realized that if I kept this up, I would just end up transcribing the entire novel into my notebook, so I might as well just sit down and enjoy the damn thing for what it is. It is beautiful.

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Diet Girl, by Shauna Reid

The Amazing Adventures of Diet Girl is exactly what it sounds like. Shauna Reid finds herself standing under a pair of size 26 cottontails and thinks, “Shit. They don’t get any bigger than 26.” This is where her adventures begin.

This is Shauna’s wake-up call, and this is when she decides to hit Weight Watchers. The day she starts to make changes, she also starts a blog, and The Amazing Adventures… is an edited collection of her blog posts.

Shauna’s writing is hilarious. This book works so well because while weight loss stories aren’t exactly thin on the ground, Shauna Reid gives a very familiar subject a very, very funny angle. She recalls her weight loss ups and downs with huge lashings of hyperbole and self-deprecating humour. The self-deprecating humour gets a little stale in the book’s final chapters – Shauna learns to love herself, but cannot seem to stop undermining herself in the name of a laugh. However, Shauna’s relationship with perspective provides both the hilarity and the gravity that the book needs to stay on the rails. For example, “The Vampire Method”. Shauna can see herself through an outsider’s eyes, but doesn’t let that stop her from achieving her goals. And so she starts exercising in the dark (either very early or very late) so that nobody can ever see her doing it. On the flip-side of this insight is her absolute blindness to how her beloved feels in return to her feelings, or her belief that revealing her former weight to new acquaintances will change their relationship.

Shauna’s weight-loss journey is inspirational, because it’s so realistic. She has hiccups along the way. She quits Weight Watchers, she gets a membership at a Fancy Gym and stops going for a while. She tucks into a giant jar of Nutella that she finds in her boyfriend’s pantry – and gets through all of it. It takes Shauna six years to lose enough weight to feel happy and comfortable in herself. Life’s not linear (or very rarely) in that “forward-march!” way, and the honesty of Shauna’s story is what makes this book enjoyable.

In fact, if you head to Shauna’s blog and read a more recent entry, you’ll find that her story’s still going, and still in a not-entirely-“forward-march!” way. She’s put some weight back on, and she’s now really trying to figure out how to live a well-balanced life, whether that means her “goal weight”, or a bit higher than what the BMI would have her believe. (Before anyone comments – yes, the BMI is crap.)

Honesty in memoir can end in one of two things – an overly gushy confessional, or a strong piece of work. Shauna’s book belongs in the latter category.

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.


The last few weeks have contained more questions than I’ve had to ask in quite a while.

I’ve found myself a spot reviewing books for RMIT’s magazine “Catalyst”, which is incredibly exciting. It’s a really well-produced glossy thing, with an incredibly patient and helpful editor. The last few weeks have seen me drafting and re-drafting before submitting, then re-drafting and re-editing, re-working, re-submitting. My final submission was something I’m proud of. It was a hard task to review a whole collection in just 500 words, but I feel like I gave it a pretty good shot, and produced something I’ll be proud to see in print.

Writing reviews for print is new to me. As was raised in a comment on my last post, reviews for my blog are quite a bit different – they can be almost throw-away, conversational pieces full of half-baked impressions. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy with this difference, and want to move LGWABP toward a more permanent style of reviewing.

All this aside, the whole process of writing a review for print, to be put before an editor, made me realise how much I don’t know. I’ve sent out copious emails to various people in the last few weeks.

“Do I put ‘ed’, or ‘edited by’?”
“What’s conventional to include at the top of a review?”
“Invert the paragraph? What does that mean?”
“What’s a word for overly comprehensive, in a negative way?” (This question did get a pretty fantastic reply in the form of a metaphor about an obsessive lepidopterist whose rampant cataloging robs his obsession of beauty… Unfortunately that didn’t make it into the review, but by far the best answer possible to such a question. Thanks, Tully!)
“Can I have a random subjective paragraph in here?”
“How academic does this need to be?”
“Do I italicise the title, or put it in inverted commas?”

Even though I’ve been reviewing books for ages now, both for TV and for my blog, there’s so much I still need help with.

Somehow this gets me excited – I’m actively seeking out things I don’t really know how to do. Forcing myself out of my comfort zone. Getting stuff done.

I’ve got a similar project coming up – I’m writing an article about a new local not-for-profit organisation, which I’ve never done before, nor anything like it… But I know I’ve got plenty of people to ask when I run into questions, and that I’ll be learning and expanding my skill set. Wish me luck!


A question to the floor: this new gig with Catalyst means that more than ever I’m keen on keeping abreast of new-release books, preferably before they’re released. So my current question is, how do I do that? Do I just need to keep tabs on publishers’ websites, or is there somewhere that brings all publishers together and talks about future releases from everywhere?


The BAS review will appear in RMIT’s Catalyst, which comes out on the 14th of February.

Reviewing: The Problem of the Accidental Steal

I’ve recently finished reading “The Best Australian Stories 2010”. I’m reviewing it for publication, so I have pages and pages full of notes. I feel awkward scribbling in the margins of reviewing books, though it does sound like a more effective strategy. There’s something about defacing books I own that I just can’t come to terms with.

I plan on sitting down tomorrow, when everything’s had a few days to percolate, and making sense of those notes. In the mean time though, many other people who bought the book recently are finishing it too. I exchanged impressions with Alec Patric yesterday, which I found helpful in expressing some of my ideas about the stories. I talked to another friend last night about what I’d expected from certain authors in the collection and what I hope for them in future. Talking to people helps me get my ideas straight before I start writing.

However, I feel a little hesitant to read printed reviews. I have ideas about what I liked and didn’t, and suspicions as to why, but overall I’m still a baby reviewer and at times I feel like I don’t have the literary knowledge to say things with conviction in case someone tells me I’m wrong.

This morning in my Google Reader feed appeared Claire Zorn’s review of the collection on the Overland website.

The uncertainty of my own authority mentioned above means that I’m torn as to whether or not I should read this review. Overland – that’s got some heft. Good writing, authoritative voices, established opinions.

I have two options. I can ignore the review until I’ve written my own, insuring that my ideas are all mine. Or I can read the review and risk an “accidental steal”.

You know the ones. You’re reading a lot of Jane Austen, and somehow her language starts showing up in your own writing. You’re listening to a lot of hip-hop and you accidentally end a sentence with “yo”. It’s not done on purpose, but things influence you. The external worms its way in. Especially really good things – it’s natural.

I see connecting themes in the collection, and I think I’ve nutted out stylistic approaches, strengths of the stories. I have a half-baked review in my head. Claire’s review is sitting in my Google Reader feed, but I can’t decide whether I should read it yet or not, lest my review echoes hers too much.

I wonder if you’ll be able to tell from my own review whether I decided to read it or not?

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