Book no. 4 of 2015: The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl

Books

My older sister told me about Shauna Reid in about 2000, I think. At the time, Shauna was running the now-rebranded blog, What’s New, Pussycat? which was/is a hilarious personal blog. At the time I picked up, she was just preparing to move to Scotland with her sister.

Unbeknownst to me (and all other readers), Shauna was also the author of another popular blog, The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl. The blog was a personal journey through what it’s like to lose half your body weight (literally). I remember when Shauna revealed herself as the author, I was excited for her when she announced her book deal, but somehow I found myself preferring WNPC? to Dietgirl and so it wasn’t until recently that I borrowed the book from Mary (aforementioned older sister).

The book reminded me of what first attracted me to Shauna: she is funny and not in a way I find much online anymore. She’s not about the short, sharp one-liner take downs, she knows how to tell a story about giant underpants in a way that will make laugh laugh heartily and want to squeeze her.

Unlike a lot of personal bloggers I’ve followed, years later I still want to be her friend.

Additionally, through her blog, I discovered another, I, Asshole, created by the amazing SJ Alexander, who I’ve had the great pleasure of sharing a drink or two with.

This book, it turns out, came to me at the exact right time in my life. It’s not a diet book, it’s a memoir about what it’s like to gain and then need to lose significant amounts of weight and while it won’t feel like it at the beginning and might take some getting used to in the middle, life goes on around weight loss.

Adventures are there to be had and new things are there to be loved.

I’m hanging onto this copy, to turn to throughout this year.

4/5

Book no. 3 of 2015: The Kindness of Women

Books

The Kindness of Women is a sequel to Empire of the Sun. Set in the ’60s and ’70s, it revisits Jim as an adult, grappling with the trauma of Shanghai which he has never been able to find closure from and which manifests itself in an almost innocent obsession with sudden and often violent death.

Again, the simplicity of the writing is what makes it so powerful, and quite often touching. Older Jim is much more gentle, a kind, dependable father and friend.

The uncertainty of the ’60s swirls around him, world events including the assassination of Kennedy are touched upon, but the events which shake Jim happen much closer to home. He is attracted to people with a loose grip on life, he is often a spectator to the insanity and danger that envelops them.

The Kindness of Women isn’t as tightly edited as Empire of the Sun, but a slight looseness suits the tone and themes, as the plot almost dreamily traverses a period of dramatic change in cultural and social norms.

4/5

Book no. 2 of 2015: Empire of the Sun

Books

Empire of the Sun was a book I’d seen a thousand times before on my mum’s bookshelves. She owns a rather arresting hardback version, a stark white and red cover.

When I lived at home, the premise didn’t much interest me, although at some stage I realised it was written by the same author as the infamous Crash, which piqued my curiosity a little.

I think I was discussing the plot of The Narrow Road to the Deep North with Mum and my disappointment in the quality of writing when she offered to lend me what she thought was a much superior book written about the same era.

Much has been said about Empire of the Sun, it is now firmly entrenched in popular culture, there has been a film, there is a band of the same name, so I don’t want to rehash discussion which is readily and more eloquently available elsewhere.

Briefly, it is a fictionalised autobiography of J.G. Ballard’s time spent in Japanese internment in Shanghai as a child. It is a war book, but not as they so often are, a story told by those fighting.

Empire of the Sun is a story about how war stops time for ordinary people, how brusquely everyday life ceases, how societal norms collapse, how people become complacent and compliant in order to survive and how they come to feel safe in captivity and begin to build microcosms of the lives they led on the outside.

The writing is stunning in its simplicity. The young Jim is a perfect protagonist. Because he is a child you can forgive him his selfishness and small cruelties, his naïvety allows him to infiltrate parts of the human psyche in a way that would seen devious or distasteful in an older character. For the reader, it means slowly becoming aware that you empathise with some of the things he does, some of the things he thinks and that in in times of tragedy there is sometimes no space for grace and martyrdom.

5/5

Book no. 1 of 2015: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Books

Because most of my Facebook statuses are about being a flailing idiot, they rarely stir any debate; however, over the weekend I gave the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North a one star rating and people either loved the rating, or the book, there didn’t seem to be any middle ground.

I’ve given books a one star rating a few times (on my Goodreads account, we’re not talking New York Times here) for a few reasons: blatant sexism (Hello, Bill Simmons!), dubious ethics surrounding the portrayal of real people (Dave Eggers, come on now!) and because there was just very little in the plot, characters or language that appealed to me and that is where I sit with a few books, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and now The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

I’ve had a few days to think about what was so unappealing about the book to me.

It felt like a raft of good ideas, lashed together very loosely without much thought given to whether some of them were dragging the raft down. In other words, it felt like a very early draft.

I’ve since read some press around the book’s release, that the drama of the plot is meant to revolve around a single day’s events and I actually had to stop and think, which day? The most often described is the meeting between Dorrigo and Amy, an intense moment in a bookshop that paled for me as soon as Flanagan began to explore the character of Amy further.

The moment in question is obviously meant to be the tragedy of Darky Gardiner, a passage in the book that is actually quite intense, but like much of the plot, Flanagan ruins it by beating his reader over the head with obvious symbolism, perhaps missing the irony himself that Darky Gardiner literally drowns in shit.

Amy is a red flower, Amy is passion, flowers are often symbolic of female genitalia, we get it Flanagan! Dorrigo is wildly attracted to Amy.

So was Dorrigo in love with Amy, or did he just lust after her? It’s never particularly clear.

By far the weakest moments in the book belong to those written from the point of view of the Japanese captors. Flanagan never really gets a handle on them, and as such, they wildly careen through the novel, probably best left in the depression of the jungle rather than followed haphazardly into old age.

In the last hundred pages, a literal bushfire symbolises Dorrigo’s destructive reawakening and several completely unconvincing coincidences turn the emotive passages about Darky Gardiner into a farce.

The whole plot could be tighter, moments of tragedy could be left unaltered by surprise discoveries and Flanagan could trust his readers to understand the unspoken meaning in much of the work.

Perhaps unfairly, I am following it up with a classic based in the same era, Empire of the Sun.

1/5

Especially For Fox

BooksFox Woods asked me to write about my favourite books. It was hard to decide what to make of ‘favourite’ so I picked the books that I think have most guided me as a reader.

Little House in the Big WoodsLaura Ingalls Wilder

This was the very first book I ever loved. My mum read the entire series to us many times as children, and I can distinctly remember being a little blonde thing, clad in pyjamas sitting on the edge of the bed while she read them to us.

The Ingalls became so vivid and familiar they were almost like a second family. Looking back on it, I think I felt such a strong tie to them in part because they moved so often and so did we, they were displaced children just like we were and their family went through hardships together, just like we did.

I really believe the magic of getting lost in Laura’s books is why I still read now.

Tomorrow When The War BeganJohn Marsden

Again, I loved the whole series and they were always released in October, so  I got a new one for my birthday each year.

I liked that it was set in the country, something I was familiar with.

John Marsden has an uncanny ability to write characters that aren’t pretentious or jarring to a young audience. It never felt like an adult writing and the plot never seemed far-fetched.

Mum still has my copies but I’m too scared to re-read them and break the spell.

Hells Angels – Hunter S. Thompson

I am lucky enough to have a mother who was more than happy to indulge in my appetite for books and when I was about 13, she lent me Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, the plot of which, even as a Thompsonphile, I have never found that interesting.

However, Hunter is an honest, raw talent and there was enough magic in it to make me want to read more, so she lent me Hells Angels, a gonzo trip into the lives of outlaw bikers and why their existence shook the American psyche.

I’ve never looked back and read everything of his I could get my hands on.

Forget the drugs and guns and infamy, he can construct a sentence that will strike you through your heart.

 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

I read this book for the HSC, as part of a utopia/dystopia unit. I think it was the first time I realised I took feminism for granted, and how easy it would be to lose the rights women had gained.

This book shaped my life for the next five or six years, as I ended up using it as a starting point for my Honours thesis at uni.

I still get chills when I read it, because the mechanics of control in the novel are so basic, yet effective.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation, A True Story of Death, Grief and the Law – Helen Garner

Helen Garner wrote this account of the death of Joe Cinque when her own life was falling apart and I think this perhaps loaned itself to the tone of utter senselessness she uses to describe the crime that led to his death.

I read an except of the book before it was published, as I sat in my car outside Bunnings, before my shift started and spent the rest of the day in a daze. It’s true crime, but it’s poignant, sad and terribly shocking.

I think it has stuck with me because the signs of the danger Joe was in were so apparent to those around him, and no-one could prevent his death because they were overwhelmed by the personality of the woman who killed him.

Between Mexico and Poland – Lily Brett

Lily has written three memoirs, Between Mexico and Poland was the first I read and a book I come back to almost yearly.

It barely touches on her career, in fact, her work as a writer is described almost as being a happy accident.

Instead, through her kalidescope of neuroses, she tells of her parents surviving the Nazi camps in Poland; the way Mexico’s frantic bursts of energy envelop her; how she can’t stop going back to Poland to try and make sense of her parents pain.

It’s a surprisingly funny and tender memoir.

Experience – Martin Amis

Another memoir I read religiously, despite having no real interest in Amis’s fiction, I love Experience because it gives insight into the education and lives of a generation of British writers in an atmosphere that doesn’t exist anymore.

It is a tale that is very much warts-and-all; is even-handed and loving.

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

This book broke me.

It took me months to finish it, as I fumbled my way through the footnotes of the footnotes of the footnotes and the themes which were both nightmarish and devastating.

It’s not a perfect book, DFW himself admits as much, but it’s brave and strange and an absolute challenge to read.

I’ve never had a book contain images that have remained with me so long after finishing it. Every time I see a white van, I still think ‘Les Assassins en Fauteuils Roulants!’ and I haven’t picked up the book in over two years.

I am planning on re-reading it this year.

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

I love this book so much. I struggle with Russian to English translations because up until I read this book, they all seemed stilted and cold, anything captivating seemed to be lost in translation.

This is a satire about the Soviet Union, in which the Devil visits Moscow, in the company of a human-sized cat and a rather hideous cast of characters.

It’s very funny, and hard not to love each and every one of the evil protagonists.

The Secret History

Books

When I was a kid, there were two bookstores in town: Angus & Robertson and an independent bookstore which from memory carried a smaller line of books because it also housed an ABC shop.

I have three strong memories of the Angus & Robertson store, which fronted the main street and was an unofficial thoroughfare to the Woolworths car park.

The first is that they stocked Madonna’s Sex book when it first came out, and they displayed several copies of it in its shiny foil wrapper on a display table out the front.

My friend, C and I were obsessed with the idea of getting hold of a copy, mostly I think because we were obsessive pop music fans and the pull of something marketed as being illicit was strong, even for primary schoolers.

We could never figure out a way to get hold of a copy, even her liberal-minded mother wouldn’t have bought it for us and even if she had agreed, there was no was we could have saved the $100 it cost.

My second memory was that C and I used to buy The Baby-sitters Club VHS there. Technically we didn’t buy them, we put them on her mother’s account, a concept I was unfamiliar with so I was always slightly nervous at the prospect, though I don’t remember her mother ever having issue with the occasional $15 charges that must’ve shown up on her account every now and then.

My last memory is when I was much older, I think I might have actually moved out of home and was just back to visit and I was desperate for something to read.

The store had small section marked ‘Literature’ and some of the titles seemed to imply, ‘literature’ meant ‘books that are better than the average airport novel’ so I assumed all of them were critically acclaimed, and bought a copy of The Bride Stripped Bare, which I hadn’t heard of.

Bride Stripped Bare was, and remains one of the most insipid books I’ve ever read and is the sole reason I have never bought a book for myself on a whim again.

All of this became relevant recently when some friends were discussing Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I’d never read it, and had actively avoided it, though I couldn’t remember why. When Tartt’s third novel was published last year it seemed I couldn’t avoid the discussion any longer, and was assured time and time again that it was good.

Suddenly I remembered: The Secret History stood alongside The Bride Stripped Bare in Angus & Robertson’s literature section and I had picked between them and made a very bad choice.

I started reading The Secret History a few nights ago and it’s fantastic, and I want to savour it and finish it all at the same time: it’s a book I’m going to wish I could discover for the first time again and again.