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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”

Review: A New Tense, by Jo Day

A New Tense
Image source: JoNoMercyPress

A New Tense (by Jo Day) is a fast-paced novel exploring grief, friendship, and the unavoidable distance created by time – between friends, between loved ones, between places and understandings of self.

After the death of her friend Pete, Laurie moves to Berlin. Life there seems great. Laurie’s in a band, and spends time taking photos and making zines. She’s keeping busy – with massive oceans between her and her grief over Pete’s death, everything is stable. This is all upturned when Laurie learns that her estranged mother has died – she returns to Melbourne for the funeral, staying with her best friend Jones and his family. Jones is acting distant, and Laurie has increasing trouble facing her renewed grief over Pete’s death, with his absence newly apparent in this familiar setting. Through a series of well-placed flashbacks, we learn the circumstances of their relationship and Pete’s death. Laurie must learn to navigate life at home without Pete in it, and learn that each grief expresses itself in new and surprising ways.

Continue reading “Review: A New Tense, by Jo Day”

Review: Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland

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In Art and Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking, David Bayles & Ted Orland ask of artists, ‘Why do so many who start, quit?’, pitching their enquiry at visual artists, but also at writers, actors –  anyone whose creative pursuits might cause them any doubt.

Pinpointing fear as the main reason we stand in our own way as artists, the first half of this book is pretty useful. Drawing on the documented experience of a broad range of artists throughout history (creating something of a ‘suggested reading’ mountain), the first half of the book provides insight into the idea that all the things you fear, and which can stop you from making art, are necessary. Your self-doubt, your anxiety, your fear of unoriginality, your particular world-view: all essential. Artistic fear takes many different forms, but at its root, it’s all fear.

These ideas are not groundbreaking, but it is nice to have it all researched and put together in one place – it’s kind of like a series of Brain Pickings articles on artistic process, plus some real talk, bound between covers.

The second half of the book tries to put these fears into the context of the world, and identify real-world barriers (i.e., external things that, unlike your fear, aren’t necessary or so easily harnessed for good) to your artmaking. Unfortunately this half of the book reads more like a list of vendettas: Bayles & Orland aren’t very keen on academia, or critics. Where the first half of the book winds up to kick some ass, what follows doesn’t satisfactorily deliver on that promise. Instead, it gives the impression that Bayles and Orland don’t have much to offer by way of solutions. It’s disappointing that the book didn’t narrow its scope to recognition and acknowledgement of the fears tied up in artmaking, because in my reading, that would have been enough.

The last chapter brings the book full-circle and this left me feeling energised; it’s a call-to-arms and insistence that only you can make your art, even if you’re fearful.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the ways that Bayles and Orland call bullshit on ‘the struggle’, without denying its existence altogether. As the authors observe, ‘We live in a world where the ready-made observations about artmaking are typically useless, frequently fatalistic’. They don’t romanticise the difficulties of artmaking, and the fears that they tackle are approached pragmatically, as real, solid blocks to artistic career success.

Overall, not mind-blowing, but worth a look, even if you only skim-read the second half and check back in to the final chapter.

Review: On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take

manyshapes
On the Many Shapes Bodies Will Take is a new poetry collection from award-winning writer, poet, editor and long-time blogger (and friend, full disclosure) Karen Andrews. The collection explores, with brevity and precision, the many phases our bodies move through, and the ways our bodies respond to their places in the world. The poems explore themes that have emerged in Andrews’ mixed collection ‘Crying in the Car’ and through her long-running blog, such as grief, motherhood, intimate relationship dynamics and body image.

Andrews’ language is direct and chosen with obvious care. The poems are short, only occasionally running over a page in length. With a strong narrative thread, and a linear progression through the poet’s life, this collection should appeal to poetry lovers as well as those simply looking for a considered meditation on the body’s impact on and in the world.

What emerges through the collection is a retrospective look at the body’s fallibility and vulnerability, but also its strengths and power. A body is never one thing, never static, and never final. Andrews’ collection explores these permutations with tenderness and skill.

Review: Shibboleth, ed. Laurie Steed

shibbolethIn Jo Riccioni’s short story, ‘Shibboleth’, ex-lovers visit the Tate Modern to see Doris Salcedo’s installation, ‘Shibboleth’. The story’s protagonist feels ‘a primal shock, the life-sized rupture of it in all that civilised space’. The story runs for a short 12 pages, but gestures far more widely than those confines without feeling too ambitious. A shared past is cobbled together from snippets. The dialogue glows with the warmth and idiosyncrasy of talk between familiar people. This is the story that won the 2016 Margaret River Short Story Competition, and the story which provides the title for a new book from Margaret River Press, compiling outstanding entries from that competition.

I know little-to-nothing about what happens in the writing world of Western Australia, and I’m both apologetic for and embarrassed by this. I suspect it’s unconscious urban south-eastern literary snobbery at work. But WA accounts for such a large portion of our country, it’s silly not to make a priority of knowing what’s happening there – such as the good work done at Margaret River Press. This collection features writers from Australia and New Zealand, but also (importantly) new and exciting voices from WA, including the winner of the Southwest Prize, awarded to a writer from south western WA (this year, Phil Sparrow’s story ‘Theo’).

The vast majority of writers in this collection are female. The experience level of the writers included varies greatly, ranging from a first publication, through to the winner of this year’s VPLA for an unpublished manuscript, and others with major awards and big-name publications under their belts. Casting an eye over the author bios at the back of the book, it looks like this collection could, in years to come, be a bit of an early who’s-who in the world of Australian fiction.

Salcedo’s art work, alluded to in Shibboleth’s cover art, is a huge installation. It’s a fissure in the gallery floor, the kind of damage done by a massive earthquake, only this is man-made. It’s a stunning image that stands at the centre of the award-winning story, but it also provides a wonderful unifying motif for all the stories in the collection.

Again and again, these stories riff on that gap – for better or worse. Maybe it pulls people apart. Maybe it’s something to be overcome. The crack’s still there though. These stories acknowledge the existence of the gaps, and all our attempts and failures to bridge them. In ‘Shibboleth’ it’s what comes between the central characters, and its protagonist scoffs at the tactless metaphor. Throughout the collection, these chasms also exist between carers and patients (’It Used to be a Boyd’, ‘Flight’, ‘Theo’), and between who we are and who we’d rather be (’Teacher’ and ‘Fork in the Path’). It’s the space between the limits of human behaviour – the awful, as in ‘Fork in the Path’ and ‘Composition’, and the redeeming, as in ‘Teacher’ and ‘Flight’. Between the familiar and the strange; exploring the rub of strange places and new experiences, or the moments where the the repetition of the same-old reaches breaking point. Sometimes it’s literal, where physical structures separate us, like animal enclosures (‘Thirsty’) and wards (‘Theo’). Or perhaps it’s the space either side of death (‘Flight’ and ‘A House’) or grief (’Before they had Teeth’, ‘The Sea also Waits’). Again and again, the stories in Shibboleth act as meditations on what brings us together and what sets us apart. It looks at the tears – large and small – that appear in the fabric of the things that make us human. The faults and cracks. And the tiny, skipped rhythms of everyday life.

The Southwest Prize winning entry, ‘Theo’ (Phil Sparrow) is about the ease with which we can slip away from being able to care for ourselves. It talks of those complacent to this reality as ‘They who thought they were safe’. Shibboleth, as a whole, cumulates as a study in the faults in that safety. At any moment things could change; these stories are pivotal moments.

The collection is at its best when the stories act as a catalogue of things that the form does so well: tiny moments of unease, glittering language, and stunning central images (such as Shibboleth, or the baby trees at Tana Toraja).

I didn’t love all the stories in this collection – with 24 stories in there, that was always unlikely. But the ones that got me really got me. ‘Le Farfalle’ and ‘Before they had Teeth’ both left me wanting more. My favourite story, ‘It Used to be a Boyd’ is about a mock wedding that happens every week in a nursing home, because ‘everyone loves a wedding’. The aged care worker at its centre, and the resident with whom she connects, felt very real.

There’s a paradox in really good short stories where they manage to feel bigger than they actually are, for their gesturing beyond the bounds of their page length. At their longest, the stories in Shibboleth run for 12 pages. At their shortest, just four. They’re very ‘just-one-more’ish, and fit easily into commutes or before-bed reads.

In just a few sittings, Shibboleth took me around the world, into lives I’d never heard of. It introduced me to characters both sympathetic and not, and to writers I can’t wait to hear more from (Magdalena McGuire and Cassie Hamer, I’m looking at you!). It pivoted gracefully around the chasm introduced in Jo Riccioni’s title story, and made me consider the turning points and breaks in my own life.

Entries for next year’s Margaret River Short Story Competition are open, with Ellen van Neerven editing. If this year’s shortlist is anything to go by, the competition will be fierce.

Review: Letter to a Future Lover, by Ander Monson

Monson_LTAFL

 

Books take up more space in my apartment than my body does. My books pack three large shelves in two rooms, and tower over my desk. A linear reading of the books I own might tell you something about my life.

Idea (not my own): A new shelving system where books are organised by when I acquired them, not genre or alphabetical order – Blyton, Alcott, Montgomery, Astrid Lindgren, John Marsden, Brigid Lowry…

Idea: Shelving according to a book’s importance in my life – starting in much the same way – with Blyton, Alcott, and Montgomery – and later moving on to Josephine Rowe, Shane Koyczan, Nick Flynn, Bronte (C), David Shields, Sandy Jeffs, Maggie Nelson…

While my books take up more space in my apartment than my actual body does, the books kind of are my body. More important than the placement of my books is what I leave in them – proof of my existence remains in the books that I have read in a similar way that scars on my body mark time, growth and narrative. Books are proxy bodies – and inherited books are other people’s bodies. When I pick up a book from the Little Library at Melbourne Central, half of what I’m hoping for is evidence of the existence of another. An echo of a mind, a body, a being moved by a book’s contents. I used to go to book sales held in an old garage in North Melbourne. The books sold were second-hand, and all had things squirrelled away inside them. I think they were forgotten or discarded on transport: books as temporary friends and lovers. Found inside these books I bought: The instruction tag off an electric blanket. Flight tickets. A birthday card. Less extraordinary: a date of purchase scrawled on the title page. Name, address. Underlined passages, pencilled stars, torn or folded pages.

Discovering someone else’s left-behind evidence in a book is intimate, despite what otherwise looks like distance.

This is what made Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover such a delight to read. The book’s subtitle is Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, which provides almost as much information as you need in order to frame your reading of the book (though, perhaps not). In it, Monson catalogues his experiences of travelling through all manner of places that might be considered ‘libraries’ – the Biosphere library, a prison library, unmarked and unadvertised university libraries, personal collections, his wife’s notebook, and others – and inspects a broad range of things left behind by previous readers. The physicality of books and their homes is the focus of this work, and it questions the ways we interact with these ideas as readers.

I brought previous readings of Monson’s other work to this one – his usual preoccupations with the digital, the weirdness of American consumption, decline and obsession all show up again in this one. What seems unique to this, though, is the level of personal detail which Monson is willing to divulge. He faces his mother’s death, the decline of his home town and his relationship with is child head-on, if necessarily briefly. Seemingly giving himself over to the intimacy which this book-as-body relationship entails, we’re given glimpses into some much heftier emotional content than in his previous work – at least, that which I’m familiar with. At the same time, there’s a great deal of restraint here. Each essay, accompanied by a piece of the detritus mentioned in the book’s subtitle (the visual elements of this text are exciting, delightful), only runs a page or two in length, and winds associatively rather than exhaustively. Like any such lyric work, we accumulate a sense of imperfect understanding by the end of the book, rather than an argument won. Even the most personally revealing emotional content in Letter to a Future Lover amounts only to a glimpse – as, I suppose, does the marginalia encountered in any book. What the book provides, then, is marginalia to the marginalia. An extra level of remove which somehow says more about the artifacts inspected than if the writer were to address each article straightly.

Like Monson and the defacers, lovers, and lost voices he collects here, I have no problem marking my books (NB: My books. My own. Never anyone else’s). I dog-ear my books. I leave pencil-marks in my books. I leave crumbs between pages, and pages ruffle with moisture where I’ve spilled water or coffee. I don’t despair at these markings in the same way that I don’t despair at a new freckle after yet another bout of sunburn has peeled. Deterioration is proof of life.

How much do I remember of books I’ve underlined and annotated? High school texts left an imprint for just this reason. Also, possibly, because I was young and impressionable, but I think the marking helped. The marking echoed and burrowed homes in my body. Left elbow: here lives Gatsby’s green light. Right elbow: Nora’s macaroons. My body parts move, hinged on much-loved and internalised imagery. Underlining slows reading down, for the brief period of pencil-to-page.

And so, bolstered by the beauty, poetry and kinship of Monson’s book, I’ll continue to meet texts I enjoy head-on. In like terms, I’ll keep talking back to the analogue, inserting myself where I feel the need. I’ll keep treating books as the bodies they are.

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.

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: 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!

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