Sam van Zweden




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

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

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.

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.

A Month of Reading

The first month of the new year, and I feel like I’m off to a good start. I’m just about on track to beat my personal best of 53 books in a year. I’m sure that extra day in February this year will make all the difference, too.

A major perk of my new job is reading copies – pre-release ones. A review of After the Snow is on its way, folks…

I’ve been thinking about my reading habits again, in terms of how what I read breaks down. So far it’s all been fiction – though I’m reading some non-fiction currently. Two new releases. Two Australian books. Two women, two men. Out of four books read thus far, I think I’m pretty comfortable with that being representative of my reading habits… As the year goes on I would like to keep the fiction:non-fiction ratio roughly equal though…

What did you read this month?
Books Bought:
The Confidence Gap, by Russ Harris
Household Wisdom, by Shannon Lush & Jennifer Fleming
Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
Women’s Stuff, by Kaz Cooke
No Excuses Cookbook, by Michelle Bridges

Reading Copies:

After the Snow, by S.D Crockett

Books Read:
Rocks in the Belly, by Jon Bauer
What The Family Needed, by Steven Amsterdam
Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody
After the Snow, by S.D Crockett

Currently Reading:
Killing, by Jeff Sparrow
The Confidence Gap, by Russ Harris
Flying With Paper Wings, by Sandy Jeffs

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?

Just Can’t Do It

Sorry, fantasy fanatics. I just can’t do it.

I try, but I don’t find fantasy enjoyable. I just finished Obernewtyn, and all I could think about was how awful and expository the prose was, and how frustrated I was about having to learn the rules of the world. I was literally in pain when I got to the end of the book. The best I could say for it was that “It’s full of imagination!”

…Which is great, and if that’s what you enjoy, that’s great. Power to you. I just can’t do it.

Review: Rocks In The Belly

Rocks in the Belly, by Jon Bauer
Scribe, 2010
ISBN: 9781921844539
RRP:  $24.95

I’m a slow reader, but I ripped through Rocks in the Belly. It’s the kind of book you think about even when you’re not reading it. This novel is impressive in so many ways.

The story is about a child whose mother fosters boys. She bonds with one boy in particular, pushing her biological child  to the point where he can’t deal with the prospect of having his mother love a foster child more than himself, and he acts out. The novel explores the moral and emotional aspects of that situation, and the fall out of the 8 year-old boy’s actions.

The structure of the novel is unique – it’s told in two different voices. That’s not particularly new – authors have been playing with multiple points of view for yonks. What I found interesting, though, was that the two voices are of the same character. We hear of the childhood trauma in present tense from the focalization of the eight year-old boy, while alternating chapters are from that same boy as a twenty-eight year-old returning to his childhood home to care for his terminally ill mother. While I’ve read plenty of books that use different voices, I’ve never read any books that use two different voices from the same person at different stages in their life. Bauer has executed it really skillfully, tying these two voices together convincingly through distinctive sentence structures, in-jokes and personal tics.

There’s a lot of grey area in this book, and not in a purposely vague way. The main character (who remains nameless throughout the whole novel – mechanically, surely, pretty impressive) has this huge internal conflict, constantly trying to redeem himself from being a “bad” person. All characters in this novel engage in some pretty morally ambiguous actions, and one of the main themes of the book seems to be to examine that question – what do you have to do to be a “bad” person, and then what does it take to undo that? Indeed, can any of your actions make you a “bad” person, or are we all a little bit bad anyway?

The language Bauer uses is truly beautiful. At no point did I check out and skip over chunks of description (as we all do when we don’t care) – I didn’t want to miss a thing. The language is so gripping, and so fresh, that I was hooked from the prologue, where we are offered the haunting insight that the main character’s childhood haunts him “in much the same way my fists haunt my hands”. This kind of rich language is laced right throughout the novel, and it never upstages the action. The two are perfectly balanced, so that unless you’re reading like a writer who’s consciously looking for these things, you don’t even notice what’s happening other than the book being is really great.

It’s not often that I give anything 5-stars on my Goodreads account, but this got it. It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself this emotionally invested in a piece of fiction, while also being really switched on to the language and its masterful execution. Jon Bauer’s Rocks In the Belly is a new favourite.

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 Room Without a Soul?

(Source: bookshelfporn)

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” – Marcus T. Cicero  (106-43 B.C.)

We have a technological freak-out every time something new comes along. The latest technology to whip us into this frenzy is eReaders, such as the Kindle, Kobo or Sony branded tablet things you will have seen around. There are countless discussions about whether this is the end of books and print publications – but I refuse to get caught up in all the hype. Film was not the end of theatre, DVDs were not the end of cinemas, and eReaders will not be the end of the printed word. Hell, there was even an uproar when writing itself was first introduced – what would happen to rich oral cultures if it was all written down, with only the literate upper classes able to enjoy these cultural products? Then, later, the printing press – though, surely, its part in the Reformation of the church is perhaps evidence that some new technologies can provoke drastic change. But is change such a bad thing?

Let’s just be clear about exactly what devices I’m talking about when I say ‘eReaders’. eReaders are single-purpose devices designed for storage and reading of digital books. They use a non-reflective screen made of ‘e-ink’ – a kind of carbon (like they use for actual print) which shifts about the screen to create something remarkably close to the text you’d see in a traditionally printed book. Regular computer screens tire out our eyes because backlight is being pushed through the liquid crystal display (LCD) to create a picture, and this flickers – only slightly, imperceptible to the naked eye, but after long periods in front of a screen, our eyes get tired. Single-purpose eReaders are not backlit, so there’s none of this flickering. The reading experience, then, isn’t like reading off a screen so much as a page. However, despite the similarities to traditional books, it can’t be denied that when you’re reading off an eReader, you’re holding a screen in your hands, not a book.

I’m not resistant to the change that eReaders seem to be bringing with them. Screens are now such a huge part of our lives that moving books to screens is only the next logical step. And they have a whole slew of practicalities that I approve of. Having said that, for every perk of eReaders, there seems to be a down side, leaving me altogether undecided about buying them, and feeling a little overly romantic about physical books.



28th of September 2011.

‘Time to retire your Optus tablet?’ reads the message I receive on Twitter from a friend.

Due to printing costs, I’ve adopted a poor substitute for a real eReader – a backlit tablet sponsored by Optus to double as a phone. The device is a tablet, a phone, supports apps, eReading software, has a camera on it – it does almost everything, but it does it all quite poorly. The thing freezes and jumps often, and sometimes just blacks out altogether. It is about the same size as an eReader, and it carries PDF documents. This cuts down on the printing I need to do, justifying the $150 I paid for the device. Never mind the backlight and the eye strain, it quickly saves me money. It does the job alright – but if I had the money, I’d still prefer a proper eReading device.

My friend has included a link with his message, which takes me to a Wired article about the Amazon launch of the new series of their eReader, the Kindle.  Amazon – those champions of the digital revolution, and inventors of popular eReader, the Kindle. They’ve brought online shopping to the point where much of the population is comfortable doing it, creating a demand for the service. The demand springs from just how easy they have made the experience – and this follows for their eReaders, too. On a Kindle device, a book can be downloaded in about a minute. When you make your first purchase on Amazon, they save your credit card details, so that in future you need only click “purchase” for the whole sales transaction to go through instantly. This is an obvious money-swallower for avid readers, but it’s just so easy! You can even download “sample chapters” from ebooks to see if you’ll enjoy them – similar to reading the first few pages before making your purchase at a book store. With books available instantly for only a fraction of the price (you’d pay around $30 for a physical book, but only about $18 digital), it’s hard to say no. The main thing that has stopped me up to this point has been the cost of the device itself.

The cost of the device is a barrier for many who haven’t adopted the technology. The first-generation Kindles cost $400 – that’s a lot of money to think about spending on anything. The price has dropped over the last few years, and the latest release of Kindles has seen the most dramatic price drop yet. The launch on September 28th saw four different versions of the device, all with different capabilities and price ranges. The basic model in the lowest price bracket is selling for just $79. This trumps my $150 for a dodgy substitute. The gap between the digital haves and have-nots is quickly shrinking.


Judging people by their reading habits has long been a reliable litmus test for almost anyone I come across – from strangers on public transport to my first visit to a friend’s house.

Annie Proulx said, “Books speak even when they stand unopened on a shelf. If you would know a man or woman, look at their books, not their software.”

I believe this. If I see someone I don’t know reading Dan Brown on the tram I can immediately discard this person as vapid. Likewise, if I see someone reading maths humour – a genre I didn’t know existed until I saw Alan Brough reading some on the 19 tram – I can reasonably safely assume they’re witty and clever.

I also believe in reading bad writing in order to better know my enemies. I can’t effectively hate Dan Brown if I haven’t read any. In this case though, I don’t take it with me on public transport lest someone like myself misunderstand what’s happening. There needs to be some kind of way to tell the people around you, “I’m reading Twilight, yes, but I’m reading it ironically”. One friend of mine admits to covering shameful book covers in brown paper to avoid any judgements like mine. Once I’ve finished reading whatever awful trash it is, it is then exiled to the Siberia of my bookshelf, set apart or shoved back until I can send it off to the op-shop.

Perving on friends’ bookshelves is a great secret indulgence. They leave the room and I scuttle across to their shelves, quickly noting how things are arranged, if at all. The ratio of classics to modern texts. The overwhelming presence of one author over others. One genre over others. Whether spines are cracked, pages dog-eared. For readers wishing for greater insight into my own character: Fiction A-Z by author then title, reference books next to my desk, poetry and plays are upstairs on a separate shelf with single-author collections, anthologies and literary journals. Non-fiction has a separate shelf also. Some dog-eared, some spines cracked. Siberia is a green bag.

eReaders take away all the glorious judgements I so love making. That guy in the back corner of the tram looking at a screen? I have no indicator of what he’s reading. It could be erotica, it could be Dan Brown, it could be Twilight. I have no way of knowing. And a friend’s book shelf? What book shelf? There’s just one device containing all 200 of their books, and I can’t see any of them, let alone their condition or method of organization – those factors don’t exist at all. When a man’s books become his software, is there any way of really knowing him?


I’m house sitting for my father while he’s away for a month. This is great – I can spend that time catching up on reading and writing, I’ll be in my element.

While packing my bag, I put in two books that I’m half way through. Then I look at the books I’ve bought but haven’t had a chance to read – there’s about fifty of them. I have too many to choose from, and I have to pack ten in order to have three I’ll actually feel like reading. My reading moods change, and I can’t tell in advance what mood I’ll be in when the time comes to start the next book. So in go the ten books, plus the two half-finished ones. Getting this suitcase to my father’s house is a mission, and I end up taking two suitcases: one for books, the other for clothes.

I imagine this predicament doesn’t exist for those with eReaders. They don’t even need to plan what they’ll take with them – they can decide what to read when they finish whatever they’re on now, and then they can download it from anywhere with an internet connection.


Op-shopping for books is the literary equivalent of channel surfing on TV. I’m out of new material, or have plenty of new material but I’m not in the mood for any of it. Op-shops are both romantic and unpredictable.

When I walk in I can smell moth balls and death, reference books and dust. Someone’s Grandma’s china is for sale at 50c a piece, women who own lots of cats are looking through the nightgowns for something lovely, and punks try on anything ill-fitting and plaid for their next purchase. The book shelves groan under the weight of un-pillaged treasures.

Sure, op-shops are reliable for cheap classics and popular books studied in high school. They’re also great for obscure religious texts. But what I love the most is the wealth of independently published fiction that few Nora Roberts-reading housewives have heard of, or the really early work of authors who have since become best-sellers. I don’t have to order anything in as I would at a book shop, because I don’t know what I’m looking for until I get there. Often these expeditions are fruitless, but some of the best and strangest books in my collection come from op-shops. For example, Dick for a Day, in which Melbourne women writers fantasize about what they’d do if they had a penis for a day.

The element of the random is what I love. The thrill of the hunt. You can’t search for that on your eReader.


It’s transportable, it’s getting cheaper, and in some ways it’s cheaper than buying physical books. It’s practical and it’s easy. But is this move to digital really one I want to make? Curling up with a screen isn’t like the romance that comes with curling up with a good book. I can’t dog-ear an eReader without doing anything bad to the electrical stuff inside it.

I can’t get many of the small press publications I so love on eReaders. Only some literary journals and newspapers are available for eReaders, and even then only certain platforms. Even if I embrace the digital shift, I have no fear that it will fully replace my love of the printed word on paper.

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