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Sam van Zweden

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Review: Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down

In the moments before a plane takes off there’s a pause, where it sits at the end of the runway. This is my favourite part of any flight. It’s better than the clouds or the glimpses of ocean or city below. That runway pause is a deep breath full of hope and heartbreak, where you learn a lot about yourself and your fellow travellers. It’s the moment before the impossible thing happens. Jennifer Down’s second book, Pulse Points, inhabits a similar space. Many of its stories live in the moments before epiphany or cataclysm – the telling moments. With a knack for the old advice to enter a scene late and leave it early, what’s offered in this collection are flashes of incredible truth which suggest that the most important moments in life aren’t necessarily the loud ones.

Pulse Points coverAs demonstrated in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, Down explores expressions of grief with great skill. In Pulse Points, grief shows up again and again, but it never quite looks the same in any given story. ‘Vox Clamantis’ sees Johnny grieving his dying mother as he races to her bedside from across the country, ‘with the pain in his lungs, bellowing out smoke from the grief’. ‘Aokigahara’ frames a sister’s grief after her brother’s suicide as some liquid thing, ‘rising in weak spasms’, making itself known in dreams of ‘flooded fields … water-damaged crops’. Every story in Pulse Points contains this creeping sense of loss in some way – in facing death; in separating from an old sense of self either by choice or force; in surviving. Continue reading “Review: Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down”

The Inaugural Stella Prize

Last night the inaugural Stella Prize for women’s writing was awarded to Carrie Tiffany, for her novel Mateship With Birds.

ImageThe prize awards $50,000 to recognize fantastic writing by Australian women. The name of the prize comes from one of the most celebrated Australian women writers of all time – Miles Franklin. As mentioned at last night’s ceremony, the prize gives Miles Franklin back her name – Franklin felt the need to publish under a man’s name in order for her writing to be successful. What a long way we’ve come, to now be recognizing women’s writing, and awarding such a bucket load of cash in order to give them the time and space they need to create their work. 

Carrie Tiffany graciously returned $10,000 of the prize money to the Stella Prize to be divided amongst the other shortlisted authors: Courtney Collins, Michelle de Kretser, Lisa Jacobson, Cate Kennedy, and Margo Lanagan. As she made the gesture, she talked about how money equals time for writers. Tiffany’s generosity and goodwill are a representation of the good feeling, positivity, and realistic nature of the whole Stella ethos.

I missed the awards ceremony, but followed along on Twitter via the #stellaprize hashtag. The Stella team, as well as all the writers, readers, booksellers, festival people, and groupies in attendance did a fabulous job of making those of us at home feel like we were actually there. Quotes from speakers, selfies and group photos, virtual drinks with other proxy attendees… Even from the comfort of a tram and my desk at home, it was a fun night.

Mateship with Birds‘ winning status has pushed it further up the reading pile, along with Zadie Smith’s NW, which is shortlisted for the UK’s “Women’s Prize for Fiction” (formerly the Orange Prize). In the middle of awards season as we are, there’s no shortage of things to read, but the hours in a day are sadly lacking.

Review: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

mr penumbraMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore lives up to its name: it is run by Mr Penumbra, it is open 24-hours, and it does sell some books… But Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is also much more than the name on its front window, in unassuming yellow Gerritszoon font, suggests. New employee Clay Jannon quickly discovers that there is much more to this bookstore than first meets the eye.

Penumbra himself is a kindly old gent, if somewhat eccentric and puzzling, but his bookstore is almost everything but an ordinary bookstore. At the front of the store is a minimal selection of books for sale. The real business of this bookstore, however, lies in the ‘Wayback List’ – shelves which stretch all the way to a very high ceiling, and right to the back of the store. Rolling stack ladders (you know, the ones that appear in Libraries that Dreams Are Made Of) help clerks climb to fetch weird and wonderful books for Penumbra’s strange patrons. These books operate on a library system, and their readers never say much about what they’re reading. Clay – despite being warned to never open these books – has his curiosity roused when he takes a peek. Cracking into one of these books starts his journey to solve the puzzle which starts in Penumbra’s shelves filled with encoded books, and stretches right around the world, and as far back as the Fifteenth Century.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was published earlier this year, and is the first work of novel-length from digital jack-of-all-trades, Robin Sloan. Starting as a 6000-word digital-only short story, Penumbra might be seen as one of the more imaginative works lately to have started life in a digital form.

The premise of the book is quite literary – in the opening chapters all I could think of was Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, with Penumbra’s seemingly infinite shelves of infinite books. The encoded books at first struck me as perhaps a take on Borges’ books, which contain every permutation possible from our own alphabet, and every other existing alphabet, and alphabets that don’t event exist in our world. The chance of finding sense in these books is what keeps men reading… Sloan’s bookstore in Penumbra at first led me along thinking that perhaps he’d used the same premise as the basis for his own story. As I started reading, I took note after note of how I was reminded of Borges’ Babel. “p.37 – “many have devoted their lives to it -> Borges again”. “p.29 – description of what’s inside books sounds just like Borges’ infinite library books”.

From this unshakable similarity (in my mind, at least) came my main issue with Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I came into the book unsure of what kind of basis I was judging this work on: so much of the opening of the book reminded me so heavily of Borges that I was ready to judge on these terms – highly literary, postmodern and tricksy. I soon realized, though, that this wasn’t what Sloan was doing, and found myself shifting my expectations. The premise of this book is literary insofar as it’s based in a bookshop, and it considers the interplay of on-the-page text and digitization… That’s about it. The premise is literary, but the writing is not. Once I’d found this stable ground, I was in for quite a ride. Of course, this qualm isn’t anything to do with Sloan – it’s my own baggage that I bring into the text, and it was something quickly overcome when I figured out where I was with the book.

What ensued then was some strange cross between the glorious pacing of The Da Vinci Code (Brown’s is an awful book, but has very moreish pacing) and the bookish revelry of Jasper Fforde or Richard Braughtigan. The pacing is rewarding, and makes you want to keep reading. Short chapters cause that “just one more…” problem, meaning you tear through the book in two or three days, sleepless and hungry. Things fit together in the way of detective fiction, where happy coincidences flagged at the beginning of the novel line up cleanly by the end, and around every corner is an answer.

Overall, this book is funny, fast, and a great fun romp. It’s not exactly challenging, but does contain a huge amount of commentary on the interplay between hard-copy and digital texts, a part of the book which has had plenty of discussion in other reviews. Sloan’s conjecture seems to be that both hard-copy and digital hold their areas of expertise and charm, and that neither necessarily needs to put the other out of business in order to be successful or appreciated fully.

Lighter than I expected, but no less awesome for it. Do give it a go!

Review: Street To Street, by Brian Castro

Brian Castro’s latest work, Street to Street, is based on the life of Australian poet, Christopher Brennan. No, not quite – it’s more about the life of Brennan’s biographer, Brendan Costa, and the ways that this man’s life paralleled with Brennan’s.

At the start of the book, Brennan and Costa don’t have heaps in common – they’re Australian men with academic flair. Throughout the story, however, Costa’s obsession with Brennan’s life pulls the two men’s stories together. Or is it the similarities between their stories that fuel Costa’s obsession?

Through Costa’s failures and increasing frustration with the institutional rigidity of academia, Costa and Brennan come to play out quite similar lives. While Brennan’s life is separated from Costa’s by some eighty years, Costa feels such an affinity with the older man that he sets his mind (consciously or unconsciously, or perhaps by chance) to immitating Brennan’s life. His eventual mirroring of the man’s life – his failures and dysfunctions, an intentional nose-dive – is something of a homage to a fiercely creative man. Is immitation the best way to honour people we admire? For Costa, yes.

There’s some lovely Borgesian stuff in Street to Street, where Costa’s single-minded immitation of Brennan reminded me of Borges’ Don Quixote story. In it, an author tries to recreate Don Quixote by living his life exactly as Cervantes had lived. Both this and Brian Castro here are asking: is greatness conditional? If we can recreate the right conditions, then is greatness a given, or is it more individual than that?

Street to Street seems to carry some judgement within it, reflecting pretty harshly on academia and creativity in general. Brian Castro does a beautiful job of considering the self-destructive impulses of creative people, but seems to take these as a given. Perhaps they are. The book also heavily criticizes institutions such as universities, and notions like “Australian literature”. Brennan and Costa seem representative of all creative types, where any ambition within their field really translates to an ambition to fail.

There’s so much happening in this slender volume, that it seems to prove impossible to write a very coherent review, or do the enormity of Castro’s mission with this work justice – but I have done my best. To really get your head around it, you’ll need to give it a look-in yourself. Just keep in mind, this one really requires an open and receptive reader. If that’s you, then this book will pay off.

As mentioned, Street to Street is a small book, and one that’s not afraid to call itself a novella. While it’s being suggested that digital reading primes the market for renewed interest in novellas, it’s really nice to see Giramondo doing their bit to continue the form in print. In true Giramondo style, the physical thing is a joy to hold, and a rewarding challenge to read.

A Month of Reading

NOVEMBER! How the hell did we get here so quickly?! If you’re anything like me, you’ll be feeling a bit panicky and freaked out that the year just whooshed by like that.

The last month has been a pretty active reading month, even though (or perhaps because) it’s been insanely busy. I finished my BA, handing in a 10,000 word manuscript and a 3,000 word exegesis. There’s so much stuff I’ve been putting off reading until those final assessments were in, so in the weeks since finishing I’ve been a bit of a reading machine.

The night that all the final pieces went in was also the night that some of my favourite people in the world celebrated their fantastic achievements writing for, editing, proofing, designing, forewording, etc etc, the RMIT Creative Writing Anthology, Little Spines. It’s super-professional looking, full of amazing, inspiring writing, and it’s available at Readings and the RMIT bookshop.

Along with all this, I was lucky enough to proofread for Karen Andrews’ new book, Crying In The Car, which launches early December. It’s a great collection of Karen’s essays, blog posts and pieces of fiction and poetry. I loved it, so be sure to pick up a copy when it’s out in December.

Books Bought:
Both Flesh and Not, by David Foster Wallace
Little Spines, RMIT Creative Writing Anthology

Reading Copies:
Street to Street, by Brian Castro

Borrowed:
Tell It Slant, by Brenda Miller
The Writer’s Idea Book, by Jack Heffron
The Lost Woman, by Sydney Smith
Are You My Mother? By Alison Bechdel

Books Read:
Crying in the Car, by Karen Andrews
The Missing Ink, by Philip Hensher
The Lost Woman, by Sydney Smith
Are You My Mother? By Alison Bechdel

Currently Reading:
Tell It Slant, by Brenda Miller
Little Spines, RMIT Creative Writing Anthology

The Memory of Salt Review

Alice Melike Ulgezer’s debut novel, The Memory of Salt, is organic, human, and above all, authentic.

The story is about Ali and her Turkish father (Baba/Ahmet) and Australian mother (Mac). Baba’s life is ruled by mental illness and religion. Mac’s life is ruled by Baba. The narrative isn’t chronological, as we follow Ali’s process from confusion and anger, to understanding and forgiveness. As the narrative shifts about in time, so do those emotions. Life isn’t chronological or one-way like a book, and the structure of The Memory of Salt highlights this beautifully.

When I say that the book is authentic, I say this from a place of knowing practically nothing of Istanbul. Ulgezer really beautifully paints the Middle East as a place of mysticism and tradition, and she has done it so well that whenever I think of that part of the world, I will now think of Ulgezer’s version. (I had a similar reaction to the Bali in Ruby J. Murray’s Running Dogs. Melbourne’s got some damn talented women!)

While I knew next to nothing of the Middle East before this book, I know a fair bit about mental illnesses and the strange (not all bad) things it can do to a family. The relationships that exist between Ali, Baba and Mac are spot-on. They’re truthful and they contain all the anger and unlikely generosity that’s required in that kind of situation. Baba is an infuriating character, but as we shift about in time, learning about the beginning of Baba and Mac’s relationship, its demise, Ali’s childhood and eventual return to Istanbul, we come to love him despite his worse qualities. We aren’t just told that Baba is charming – we are actively charmed.

Ulgezer’s prose is a very particular kind of writing. To be honest, it took me a while to get into it – at first it seemed flowery, and intentionally alienating in the way it’s peppered with foreign words, often without translations. However, once I’d gotten into the rhythm of the writing, it became part of what makes the work so distinctive. And by the end of the text, I’d pick up a few words of Turkish. It’s similar to the kind of gear-shift your brain does to read Jane Austen. At first all the clauses are confusing and seem verbose, but when you’re in gear you get entirely sucked into that world, and it’s great fun.

The book’s layout is organic, with no chapters and only page breaks indicating a shift in time or place. For the story, this works well, totally immersing the reader in the world of the novel. However, for the reader who reads fitfully like me, this can be disruptive. There’s no clean place to put the book down, and it really requires a few long sittings to be read properly. Don’t let this stop you, because it’s a rewarding read (in terms of ripping your freakin’ heart out, in the best way possible), but it does do best when you’ve got the time and space to dedicate to it.

Just a side-note on the physical book: it’s beautiful. As with all books from Giramondo (publishing company), the production values are really high. It’s a little wider than a regular format, the type is well-spaced on the page, and there are perfect margins to stop you from cracking the spine. The fact that it feels so good to hold means it’s easy to not put it down.

As a reader, you need to invest a lot in The Memory of Salt, getting into the rhythm of the prose, spending long periods of time with the text. This pays off though – Ulgezer’s knack with both place and human relationships is well worth the effort.

**A note added later: I just read a Q&A on Readings’ website with Alice Melike Ulgezer, and she talks about how Ali’s gender is never revealed. Isn’t that strange, how I took Ali to be female? Is this because I am female? How did I not notice this? Gosh.

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.

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.

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

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