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Sam van Zweden

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Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

SPOILERS: In this review, I discuss things that aren’t revealed until almost the end of the book. Consider yourself warned.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about young people’s fiction, and whether we have a responsibility to police what’s being read. And if we do, who does that responsibility fall to? I know I get a lot of hits from people searching for reviews of The Hunger Games, and I suspect they’re coming from parents who want to be engaging with what their kids are reading. So I guess part of the responsibility is with parents, and part is with book bloggers and media, who are looked to as authorities on these kind of things. This might not be the case, but I felt the need to blog as soon as I’d finished Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Having recently been adapted for filmThe Perks of Being a Wallflower occupies two places in the Dymock’s Top 10 for this week. One place for the original edition, and one for the film-tie-in cover with Emma Watson and whatshisname and whatshisname.

wallflowerThe novel’s main character is Charlie – a misfit freshman, whose quiet demeanour and uncommon attentiveness to the world makes it difficult for him to find friends. Charlie thinks he’s settling in for a miserable, lonely high school experience until he meets Patrick and Sam. They help Charlie “participate”, bringing him out of his shell. Charlie has the doubts and fears and shocks and surprises that all teenagers do, with sex and drugs and family and literature. He’s a smart kid, and his outlook is switched on – hence, the “Wallflower”. He “sees things and understands”.

The novel is told through letters to an unknown recipient (“Dear Friend,” writes Charlie). Charlie likes a good digression, and this works well to help us learn about his life. Throughout his letters, he talks about his Aunt Helen, who died in a car crash. Up until almost the very end of the novel, we see Aunt Helen as tragic figure; a fallen comrade, a lost confidant much like Charlie’s best friend Michael who committed suicide the year before. At the end of the novel, however, we learn that Charlie was sexually abused by his Aunt Helen. Through a hospital stay and eventual recovery, we are told that this trauma is what has held Charlie back, and caused his awkwardness and pain.

I was perfectly happy with Aunt Helen as a sad, absent, friendly figure. By introducing the element of abuse (and in such a seemingly sudden way), I feel like Chbosky severely undermines Charlie’s natural teenage struggle.

Adolescence is a tough time for everyone. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’re probably also a person who looked to fictional characters for comfort during your teenage years. I know I did. Looking for AlibrandiThe Catcher in the RyeGuitar Highway Rose. Those characters had a shit time of it, and they got me. They reassured me that a difficult time in your teens is pretty universal.

I still look to fiction for comfort at times now. Often, people with mundane stories are those I find the most comforting. (See Girls character Hannah Horvath as current mundane-story-comfort-crush). Instead of feeling less than worthy of my feelings, people like Holden Caulfield and Josie Alibrandi made me feel like there was some hope. The disappointment of Stephen Chbosky’s book is that it seems to do the compulsory teenage discomfort so well, but then puts it down to something dysfunctional.

In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Chbosky seems to glorify and prioritise serious trauma as a worthy source for that universal pain, and no amount of pithy (and thoroughly wonderful) lines about bad times and feeling infinite can undo this overriding message for me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower lost me when it detracted from my struggle, and the struggle of every young person I’ve ever known.

In opposition to Charlie are the friends he finds through Patrick and Sam. While Patrick battles with the world’s reaction to his homosexuality, his troubles seem to be explained away by a cafeteria fight and a little too much booze – these are presented less as problems for Patrick than they are problems for Charlie. Nobody in Charlie’s world seems to have the right to be thoroughly messed up, unless they’ve got some terrible traumatic experience to back it up. If they don’t, then their troubles are fleeting and absolutely surmountable.

We all have the right to being a hideous mess at times. We all have the right to a painful and shitty adolescence. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t my place to weigh in on what I think young people should be reading. But being a teenager is hard for everyone, and I would rather see stories that validate that  for young people.

Keeping A Promise

I promised myself that this year would be the year of saying “Yes” to opportunities, even if it means (especially if it means) pushing myself. 

Today’s trip to the library was on a mission. A friend is starting a book club, which will focus on Asian books in translation, starting with Kyung-Sook Shin’s book below.

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This is an area I’ve never read in, and I’ve never been part of a book club. Both are things I’d like to do, so even though it’s daunting, and a bit of a stretch out of my comfort zone, I have said, “Yes”. 

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.

The Numbers Game

libraryWelcome to 2013! A new year always prompts reflection and resolutions, and I’m no different to the majority of people.

What was 2012 for me? 2012 started with a new job at a bookstore. I landed a role as an Associate Producer with the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I ran my first event, with support from some of the most amazing people ever. I wrote 10,000 words in a day. I started making guest posts on other blogs. I started reviewing for The Big Issue and Readings Monthly. I got 10,000 words into a memoir. I blogged for Melbourne Writers Festival. I graduated. I went to an internationally famed conference

In 2012, I read 44 books. One of my favourite posts each year is the one where I get to look over my “100+ Books Challenge” from the previous year. And this is it! I like this post so much because I don’t consciously think about the numbers, genres, etc of what I’m reading while I’m reading it – I so rarely get to choose what I read, it’s often dictated by research or work. So it’s also interesting to think about what I’m being sent for review, given the talk about women’s books and reviewing.

So, the breakdown:

I read less books in 2012 than I did in the previous two years – only by a smidge, but still. I blame it on uni. This year is my year – it’s my year to say “yes” to every opportunity that I can, and to spend more spare time reading. One of my new year resolutions is to maintain a good reading and writing routine. 2013 is going to be big.

In 2012, I read 23 books by women, and 21 books by men. While I pledged my participation in the much-talked-about Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, I didn’t really consciously chase it – I mean to this year. 11 of my 23 women-writer books were by Australian women. With all the attention that the AWW Challenge has gotten from the media, I think it’s safe to say that the challenge has done good things to raise the awareness of reading habits and women’s work in Australia.

17 books were by Australian authors. I like to know what’s going on in the Australian writing scene, to know what my peers are creating, and to know how I can support Australian writers in my job, by helping to sell more books by Australian authors. Having said that, you’d think I’d have read more Australian works. Minus the Ancient Greek, I’m pretty sure everything else I read was from America… I know it’s big, and has a big population, but it does seem a bit out-of-whack.

I reviewed 15 of the books that I read in 2012. This was mainly due to time constraints (again – uni), so hopefully 2013 will have more blue links on my “Reading” page.

17 nonfiction.
21 fiction.
3 plays or screenplays.
2 poetry.
5 collections – short story, essays, both single-authored and many authors… Given what I write, I need to be reading a whole lot more of this kind of work, especially nonfiction essay collections.

Like I said above, sometimes I don’t really consider my reading habits until I can take a step backward and consider the numbers, like I have here. Thinking about this breakdown, I’m going to focus on a few things in the next year of reading… I will aim to read more Australian work, more women writers, and more collections.

Bring it on, 2013!

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!

How Do I Choose Books?

Today when I went to the library, I was approached by a training librarian who asked some questions about how I choose my books.

It’s a pretty simple question, yes, but it’s also hard to answer, and it made me stop and think. Poor librarian, I’m sure she was after a simple answer! I think what I gave her was something along the lines of, “I look at displays to see things I wouldn’t otherwise consider, for anything eye-catching, but otherwise I keep a list of books I want to read and I work my way down the list”. She asked a follow-up question about whether I find authors I like and spend extended time reading more of their work. My answer, sadly, is that often I don’t have time to do this. I do a lot of reading toward my writing, whether means research for articles or the blog, or reading works like my own WIP to get a sense of context or some inspiration – not to mention assigned reading for uni. Now that I’ve finished uni classes until 2014, though, I probably will have a lot more time to do things like getting properly obsessed with one author and spending weeks in their back-catalogue.

All this has me thinking about the extended answer to the librarian’s question – how do I choose my books?

There are two main sources: work and word-of-mouth.

Work:
This source is made up of books I’m sent by publishers or publications for review. I always dreamed of having a Meyer-esque Tower of Hope, and my desk is slowly starting to develop one. Of course, now that I’ve got one, it’s impossible to reach the bottom of. These books usually take priority, depending on whether there’s a deadline (magazines) or not (blog). 

The Mini-Moleskine:
I have a teeny tiny Moleskine that fits in the front pocket of my bag. It’s the size of my palm. And it contains a list of all the books I have been recommended by a friend (or at least, the ones I intend on chasing up), or read an interesting review of, or not understood a reference to and felt silly so need to read in order to increase my literary nous, or … so many things lead to a book ending up in my little notebook. I stole this idea off Veronica Sullivan, when I saw her scribbling away in a baby notebook at the library. This system ensures that I don’t miss anything. And it feels so good to cross a title off the list!

It’s also a great grab-bag of surprises – the list currently contains about 150 books I still haven’t read, and by the time I get around to crossing the title off I may have forgotten why I wrote it down in the first place, just that I knew I wanted to read it. This makes a lot of the titles a really pleasant surprise.

It also decreases reading anxiety. It reduces the hugeness of all I haven’t read to a finite list of things I need to chase up – like a never-ending “To Do”. Yeah, it’s old-school to do it in a book, but I like it. It’s a handy habit. No, I’ll never reach the end. But I’ll always be adding things and crossing things off. I’m never stuck for what to pick up from the library – just open up the book and pick one!

And then there are the other sources:

Necessity:
The last source of my reading material comes from necessity. Today’s library trip was to look for gift ideas for Christmas: recipes. Of course, I ended up with two accidental books, because there’s always the Can’t Say No category. I saw Julie and Julia just staring at me from the shelf, and I couldn’t leave it there. I need some indulgent holiday reading!

So those are my sources for reading material. How do you decide what to read next?

A Month of Reading

1st of December means the first day of summer. The last month of the year. 24 days until Christmas. 30 days until New Years Eve.

Here’s what I read in November. What did you read?
Books Bought:
Marionette, by Jessica L Wilkinson
Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A life of David Foster Wallace, by D.T Max
Lucky Peach Issue 3

Reading Copies:
January First, by Michael Schofield
Bloodhouse, by Darcy Dugan Michael Tatlow
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Books Read:
Little Spines, RMIT Creative Writing Anthology
Street to Street, by Brian Castro
Six Weeks to OMG, by Venice Fulton
Both Flesh and Not, by David Foster Wallace

Currently Reading:
Timepieces, by Drusilla Modjeska

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

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