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Sam van Zweden

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book

Some writing up online

I’ve had a few pieces published in the last few months.

After my Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre, an extract of my work-in-progress was published. During the fellowship, I was working on my nonfiction work, Eating with my Mouth Open. This is a collection of lyric essays which consider our complex relationships with food, family and memory. I read this extract at a public reading at The Moat. I’m thrilled it’s up online, and have found all the feedback on the piece so encouraging. In the long journey of writing a book, it’s these kind of milestones that keep me going.

More recently, I wrote a piece for ArtsHub about how important it is that we make an effort in creative communities to normalise the idea of doing less. While I recognise that not everyone is in a position to make this decision, it’s one that I’ve found has helped me immensely. By cutting down my workload, I’ve opened up space in my brain for good work to be done. I’m happier overall when I put restrictions on my creative output. It seems backwards, I know. I also interviewed some amazing creative babes (Jessica Alice, Estelle Tang and Sophie Allan) for this, and they were articulate and insightful.

The most eye-opening thing about writing this piece was the response I received after it was published. A whole bunch of people – some I know well, others I don’t – got in touch to tell me how overwhelmed they often feel, and how much they feel like their creative lives are unsustainable. Mostly these people contacted me privately, and every one of them is someone I admire for their work ethic. This really underscores the fact that there’s a problem – we’re all overwhelmed, and we all feel like it’s taboo to say that we’re overwhelmed. I don’t have an answer for all this, apart from suggesting that we talk about it.

Please, please. Take care of yourself.

xx

Review: Wheat Belly

ImageI generally make a habit of not reviewing self-help, motivation, health or diet type books, lest I draw attention to my hideous addiction to the idea of bettering myself. But after reading a friend’s blog post admitting that she’s addicted too, it’s occurred to me that this could be a pretty common addiction. And the much-talked-about Wheat Belly annoyed me significantly enough that I feel like I should really speak up about this one. So. Here we go.

Most lasting thought after finishing: Fuck you, William Davis, MD. Seriously. I want my week of reading-hours back.

The basic premise of the book is that modern wheat is nothing like the wheat that we were eating 10,000 years ago. Modern wheat has been genetically modified and cross-whatevered to the extent that it effects human health, and only recently are we seeing the outcome of this.

I’m down with what Davis argues for the most part. It makes sense that human health issues take a while to crop up, and I’ve got a few friends who’ve gone wheat-free with fantastic results for their health and wellbeing.

However – so many unsubstantiated claims! So much emphasis on weight-loss, when the really interesting stuff is in the science and social aspects, which only really come in in the epilogue! Davis lost me entirely in the middle of this book, where he threw about a heap of jargon without defining it. There are plenty of footnotes, so the work looks well-researched, but when you read what he’s actually saying, there’s an awful lot of stating what a study found, and then stretching it quite a bit to fit his own argument. WTF, Davis. C’mon.

And the sucker punch – Davis has written a whole book about wheat, followed by a ‘solutions’ chapter that advocates a very low/no-carb diet, which eliminates an awful lot of not-at-all-wheaty stuff. I feel like I was tricked into a corner. “Quit wheat,” he says. “It’ll be good for you,” he says. “Alright,” I think, “Maybe I should do more research, maybe I should think about this, I can relate to a lot of what’s in this book!”. Then he turns around and says, “Actually, quit wheat, plus everything else, just eat cucumbers.”

Okay, so that’s hyperbolic, and unfair on Davis. The diet that he promotes is still quite varied, but it is very restrictive, and involves a lot of stuff that hasn’t really been argued throughout the book. It’s a bit of a jump from the 200-odd pages he’s spent advocating wheat elimination.

I just feel like the interesting bits of Wheat Belly could easily have been used in a much punchier way to make, say, a shorter, better, less fanatical book.

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.

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.

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