Tuesday, November 24, 2009

steven d levitt & stephen j dubner, freakonomics

Okay, so I’m a bit behind the times on this one, what with its sequel, Superfreakonomics out now in your friendly neighbourhood bookstore. I’d been thinking about reading Freakonomics for years, and kept putting it off. I don’t read a huge amount of non-fiction—in fact, I can only remember reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (science), Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down (sob-inducing cultural hardship), D T Max’s The Family That Couldn’t Sleep (science), Xinran’s The Good Women of China and China Witness (sob-inducing cultural hardship), and Atul Gawande’s Complications (science). See a theme? Generally, however, I’m a fiction kinda girl. I’ve attempted many more non-fiction books but can rarely get past the fact that there won’t be dinosaurs or unicorns or far-fetched plot twists. Even with something as tempting as the cover of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin, I couldn’t get more than about fifty pages in. Seriously, have you seen it? How upsettingly attractive was the youthful Stalin? How did someone so dashing become such a complete [insert word here, I can only think of swears]?


Ahem. Anyway, Steven D Levitt (economist) and Stephen J Dubner (writer), who I will now just call The Steves, teamed up to write this successful book about the stranger aspects of economics back in 2005, and it became a bestseller. It always seemed strange that a book on economics would be so popular, but then, if we could all pick such things that first person wouldn’t have rejected J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series and be thwacking themselves repeatedly on the head now in regret. It turns out that it’s popular for good reason: it’s entertaining, and fascinating, and all backed up by footnotes to help you in all the ridiculous arguments that you’ll find yourself getting into. For example, did you know the one thing that caused crime to decrease in the US in the 1990s? Some suggestions have been a bigger police presence (part of it), tougher gun control laws, etc. But the one defining reason that people never really talk about is that decades earlier, in 1973, abortion was legalised.

It’s an uncomfortable idea, isn’t it? The Steves don’t offer their opinion on whether one cancels the other or what have you, but they’re willing to give you the facts as they see them. It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-life or pro-choice, these are statistics. And you can work from there yourself.

I’ve always enjoyed statistics, though have been told by numerous stressed uni friends that I don’t want to be studying them any time soon. I don’t have a great memory, so I’m never accused of spouting false statistics. Mostly I just use disclaimers: “I heard something like that there was maybe some percentage of teachers that cheat on behalf of their students, or something.” Now, I’m tempted to carry Freakonomics around with me so I can say forcefully, “Did you know that five percent of teachers will cheat on behalf of their students for benefits? DISGUSTING.” Because it’s stuff like this that you’ll want to tell everyone. Chapter headings are fascinating: “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?”, “What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?” (cheating, those punks), “How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?” (hint: it’s not the uniforms.) There’s a chapter on the effect your child’s name will have, and as a professed lover of name drama, I very much enjoyed this. What happens if you name one son Loser and the other Winner? (Someone has done this. Hey, don’t look so surprised.) Is a unique name better? What if you spell it “Uneek”, “Uneque”, or “Uneqqee”? (These are also all real names.) There’s also a list of what the cool names will probably be in 2015, and imagine my surprise when Fiona was on that list—I haven’t met a Fiona younger than me yet, and assumed that once I’d been named the world reached the pinnacle of awesome Fionas and gave up. Unfortunately the name I’d always favoured for my future (well-behaved, truly delightful) daughter was on the list too, so that’s the chapter I will be pretending isn’t backed up by any facts.
If you’re interested in the quirks of life, of what really matters in parenting (you’ll be surprised, and probably bummed), of how race matters, this is a great read that feels like it is without bias and very honest. I’ll probably try and procure myself a copy of Superfreakonomics sooner rather than later, because my only complaint with its forebear is that it was too damn short, and its authors were so good that I didn’t have the opportunity to use the phrase “The Steves” more.

Friday, November 20, 2009

jeff kinney, dog days #4 diary of a wimpy kid

If you’re not a tween, the parent of a tween, or a person who sells to/teaches/otherwise interacts with tweens, then you may have missed the global frenzy that is the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Dog Days is the fourth (or fourth-and-a-half) book in the series, which has stayed on the New York Times Bestseller List for 41 weeks as of the start of this month. And frankly, I’m not surprised.

I picked up book one at the start of this year, wondering what all the fuss is about. The books are the diaries of seventh grader Greg Heffley, and are told through both the written word and a heavy amount of simple illustration. (The cover of the book gives you a fair indication.) Greg has an embarrassing mother, a father who wants him to man up, a little brother who is unfairly doted upon and a big brother who never gets in trouble for tormenting Greg. So far so clich├ęd, right? Well, yes and no. Greg suffers from being completely deluded about his own intelligence and sex appeal, and spends most of the books chasing girls and trying to make it rich while playing as many video games as possible. Somehow, he’s freaking hilarious. I sped through book one, followed it with the next two and then the Do-It-Yourself book, which had lots of spaces to fill out your own diary, draw your own pictures, think up practical jokes, and so on. It was also a third new material, and just as funny as the rest of the books. Also, they’ve all been un-Americanned, so to speak, and Mom is now Mum, and so on.

Greg’s best friend is the dopey Rowley, who is coerced by Greg (who is basically a bully) into participating in his schemes. In this book, Greg decides to make it rich by starting a gardening company and sends out fliers with their heads photoshopped onto muscular bodies. When they are hired, they are horrified to find out that they need to supply their own lawnmower and other necessities, but badger the poor client into stopping by Greg’s nan’s house to borrow her mower. When finally let loose on the woman’s yard, Greg mows away, leaving big grassy patches where her dog has pooped. As Greg says, “The VIP Lawn Service has a very strict policy when it comes to dog poop, which is that we won’t go anywhere near it.” She refuses to pay and he is aghast. So clearly this isn’t the most mature of all reads, but it’s not trying to be. It’s just funny and trashy in a market of kid’s books which, to be honest, is leaning towards the serious and depressing more than anything lately. Reading something stupid can be relaxing and fun, and for a lot of kids, normal. Siblings who tell you that if you eat watermelon the seeds will grow them in your belly. (Cue picture of Greg turning up to school in a maternity dress with a belly distended by melon.) A mother who starts a “Reading-Is-Fun-Club” but bans all his neighbourhood friends’ books (“Xtreme Pop-Up Sharks”, “Ultimate Video Game Cheats”, “Green Wasp”) for important literature (“Anne of Green Gables”, “Little Women”) and is surprised when everyone quits after the first meeting. A father who gets an admission from his own dad during a visit to his retirement home that his childhood dog, Nutty, did not “run away to a butterfly farm” as he was originally told. (Cue picture of dog in butterfly farm.)

Greg watches a grown-up horror film and spends the rest of the book expecting to be attacked by a muddy detached hand. Greg and Rowley have a falling out. Greg flirts with a lifeguard at the pool. All that goes on isn’t particularly wacky, but Greg’s honesty and interpretations make everything a hoot. When his mother makes him read “Charlotte’s Web” for the Reading-Is-Fun-Club, he observes, “Just from looking at the cover, I guarantee either the girl or the pig doesn’t make it to the end of the book.” The amusing reality of life is really the book’s greatest appeal; finding the funny in the banal. Not that your ten-plus readership gives a toss about those kinds of statements; they’re just waiting for gags like Greg’s mum signing him up for modelling as a youth, and the one place his picture ends up—on the cover of the book “Your Child and Constipation”.

The movie version’s out next April, starring Steve Zahn, Chloe Moretz (from 500 Days of Summer) and Zachary Gordon as Greg. And I’ll be there, front row, big bucket of popcorn, waiting to snort flat Coke out of my nose. Don’t let the fact it’s a kid’s book turn you off. Just read the damn thing. With enough effort, you too can be wimpy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

when the rain stops falling

This play is, alas, our second-last for the Melbourne Theatre Company 2009 season, and we’re trying to figure out a way to get our paws on a 2010 subscription. It was also the third play out of nine that I’ve blubbered in, the other two being Grace and August Osage County.

When the Rain Stops Falling is a story of echoes. It begins in 2039, with a lonesome father finding an astonishing gift from the sky while out buying lunch to have with his estranged son. From there, it travels back and forth in time and place: from London in 1959, to the Coorong in 1988, Adelaide in 2019 (or thereabouts), and again to 2039 Alice Springs. It winds around Henry Law and his wife Elizabeth, struggling with their newborn son Gabriel in the fifties and sixties, and what impacts and echoes their life choices have on the generations that follow. The gradual reveal of who the characters are in each place we see means that I can’t really say much more here without ruining the gentle flow of the narration. I spent a lot of the play trying to figure out who was who—similarly named characters throwing me off completely—and worried I would be still confused at the end. However, by the final act, a neat circle finally closed, I had a clear picture of who was who, what was what, and of the fact that despite remembering mints I had not put any tissues in my handbag. I have read reviews for this that explain exactly who everyone is, but I personally enjoyed nutting it out myself, even if being obscure wasn’t the intent of Andrew Bovell, the writer of this (and the brilliant movie Lantana.) So, unless described otherwise, the following people are discussed using their real names so I don’t give anything away.

The actors were wonderful, from Anna Lise Phillips’ Ostrayan beauty dealing with the loss of all those closest to her, to Neil Pigot’s double act over the years as a father with much to be sorry for. Paul Blackwell, in suburban Adelaide with the ailing Kris McQuade, let out an anguished wail that started off feeling awkward and ended (you know, seconds later) with me in floods of tears over all that had led him to it. When Elizabeth Law, played by Michaela Cantwell, needs to scream but cannot, you feel it anyway. And handsome young man-about-the-stage and much-maligned son Yalin Ozucelik is quite the dish. Family matriarch Carmel Johnson, playing the older Elizabeth Law, is heartwrenching when upset, but I have since discovered she played Bubby’s eventual lover in the terrifying Bad Boy Bubby and therefore I have seen her in the nude. Awkward.

Chris found the younger Elizabeth’s English accent to be occasionally wanting, but I’m not good at picking up on such things. I suffered a little from feeling stupid about not knowing who was who, even if that was the point, and I thought some of the costumes weren’t really dated properly—the young couple in 1988 looking pretty much like a young couple now, and not one of those current retro young couples who thinks that the 80s should have a comeback when it clearly should not. And fair enough, I can’t claim to know if we’ll be wearing similar clothes in 2039, but I’m hoping fashion will be similar to the style of The Jetsons.

All in all, it was a beautiful play. It ran without interval, which I’m always pleased with, and we had fantastic seats thanks to the endlessly friendly MTC box office personnel who changed our tickets when I had to work. While I’m sorry for being unable to discuss too deeply what the play is about, I had completely forgotten the premise by the time we saw it (having originally booked it in January) and I found it to be fascinating viewing regardless, and yet another reason for us to bankrupt ourselves with a subscription. Really, I’d have preferred it to be terrible for that reason alone.

Friday, November 13, 2009

jaclyn moriarty, dreaming of amelia

I often like to think that there will be one glorious time in my life when I have won the Dublin IMPAC Literary award (around $170,000), the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction ($10,000 and a shiny gold medal), and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children’s writing ($800,000). At that point, I can realise my dreams of a) becoming a full-time writer and b) buying a life-size Wall-E robot. Anyway, to that end—and because I enjoy it—I try to read a lot of different genres. It also means that at work I can bluff my way through questions in every section of the store, though there are some (ie philosophy, theology, personal development) in which I remain stupid.

I plan on winning the Lindgren prize with a series of powerful books for young adults that tackle all the emotions and hardship of high school and life on the cusp of adulthood. I’m not quite sure how this will happen, as despite graduating only ten years ago I’ve pretty much forgotten everything that happened back then apart from having crushes on everything that moved and working in the school canteen so I could stuff my face full of candy for free. Still, readings books by authors like Jaclyn Moriarty are a good help in reminding me what the hell went on during those six long years.

Since her first book, 2000’s Feeling Sorry for Celia, Moriarty has been writing books set near Sydney and centred around two high schools, public school Brookfield (hooligans! ruffians!) and co-ed private school Ashbury (snobs! nouveau riche!) She has also written I Have a Bed Made of Buttermilk Pancakes for adults, and rewrote that for younger readers as The Spellbook of Listen Taylor, which I have not read as I had demolished Buttermilk shortly before. Her characters often overlap, mostly with best pals Emily, Cassie and Lydia, who have starred in Finding Cassie Crazy, had bit parts in The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie (otherwise known to me as The Betrayal of Fiona, because the character of Bindy was far too annoying to want to read about for 300 pages), and star again in Dreaming of Amelia. Now the three are in year twelve, and like the other books about these schools, the entire novel is written through notes, blog entries, letters, committee meeting notes, and English essays on gothic fiction. For this year has seen the arrival of two scholarship students, Amelia and Riley, who are so new and enticing and gothic-swoon-worthy that they the whole class goes aflutter. Along with these students, year twelve also sees the arrival of a ghost in the classrooms.

...or does it (etc)?

Excitable puppy-like Emily is convinced there is a ghost haunting the school. Lydia finds herself abandoned by her parents during the hardest year of her life as they leave for Tuscany to reinvigorate their marriage. Fellow student Toby becomes obsessed with black holes and the arrival of Irish convicts in ye olde Sydney. Amelia and Riley slowly come out of the shadows to reveal themselves, but only what they want everyone—and each other—to see. To be quite honest, the whole thing drags on far too long. This book is about twice as long as Feeling Sorry for Celia, which is a fantastic book and one I’ve read a couple of times. I won’t be reading Amelia again and feel it could have been condensed greatly, despite the fact we never even hear from Cassie, who stays quietly in the corner apparently having no problems at all. Switching chapters between characters is something I usually enjoy, but when something exciting is happening and you are suddenly stopped and changed to another, duller character, I found it much more frustrating than usual.

Jaclyn Moriarty has a great sense of humour and I found myself smiling like a goof quite often. The characters are all appealing, if samey at times. Dramatic Emily and her overuse of exclamation marks is enjoyable in small doses, but when it carries over to other, unrelated characters it feels quite fake. Constance Milligan, elderly busybody and Associate Chair of the Ashbury Alumni Association, adopts the same hysterical squealings, as does the ghost in Lydia’s English essay.

As the year flies by, so to do the student’s essays (surely so off-topic, meandering and bizarre that they would all fail?) and the ghost does stranger and more mystifying things. Unlike Moriarty’s past books, which all end on enjoyable bad guy comeuppance, this tale requires a leap of faith that I just wasn’t willing to take. This, regarding the parallel tale of an Irish convict named Tom, told through Toby’s English essay, is interesting stuff but felt to me quite artificial and put there only to show Moriarty’s knowledge of convict history in the neighbourhood these books are set in.

It wasn’t a horrible book by any means, and still a lot of fun, but it was too long. Don’t let this review put you off Jaclyn Moriarty as an author—Feeling Sorry for Celia and Finding Cassie Crazy are fantastic books, worthy of rereading and getting you into the heart of high school, albeit a sometimes sugar-coated version regarding how students treat each other. I’ll still be reading whatever she puts out next—and I’ll be hoping to see cameo appearances from all these characters again, happy in their post-HSC futures. And hopefully with more sex.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

sons and daughters, this gift

This, Sons and Daughters’ second album following EP Love the Cup and first full album The Repulsion Box, was a slow burner in this house. We bought this early last year, when we were buying a whole lot more music than now. The two of us together in a music store were pretty much unstoppable: “Which should I buy? X or Y?” “Aw, but I wanted to buy Z.” “You buy Z, then.” “No, you buy X or Y.” “How about we buy both Z and X or Y?” “Okay, which one?” “Well, we’re already getting two albums, let’s get three.” “Should we? Oh, okay. And hey, did you see W over here?” etc. etc.

We became big fans of Sons and Daughters after seeing a video for their song “Johnny Cash” on Rage late one Saturday years ago. They were played virtually to death, such fans we were of the way their Scottish accents made the songs somehow better. Some of the songs were gritty, they were all fantastic up loud, felt a bit dark and gloomy yet fun. Altogether a rollicking good time was had on our thousands of car trips whilst playing their albums, paying special attention to songs like “Rama Lama”, “Taste the Last Girl” and “Dance Me In”.

This Gift was purchased a year ago, listened to about once, then lost in the pile of other albums we bought that day and dismissed as too different by Chris (and not really paid attention to by me, who was probably distracted by something shiny in a corner.) Then, this weekend, while heading to the city for a date with dumplings and crepes, Chris said, “Oh, let’s give this another go in the car, huh?”

And hey ho, I adored it. I’ve listened to the other albums so often I thought I’d probably be a bit disinterested in more of the same type of thickly sung tunes, but instead this feels a bit more upbeat, more rockabilly, and with more hooks that put me in an unexpectedly fantastic mood for the car trip, especially as we found parking pretty much straight away and for free. But I digress.

“Darling” is my favourite track, being listened on repeat by me at the moment, a peppy track that is very danceable, should I ever actually dance (insert hysterical laughter here.) I think there’s something I really enjoy when lines like “twisting in twisting out the knife” are sung in a way that has you picturing the vocalist dressed in a happy blue dress skipping about the place. “Iodine” has another lovely guitar line, a bit slower and perhaps a bit suited to walking quietly home together after, well, I was going to say a movie, but with a name like “Iodine” possibly home from poisoning someone. Perhaps instead I should just stop spamming you with my mental imagery. Ahem.

The album is not so different from the others, after listening to it more. Female vocalist Adele Bethel has more airtime than the usual 50/50 split between her and Scott Paterson, which perhaps changes the tone, but not a lot. The rockin’ “House in my Head” is a fast-paced, car-drivin’ type of track more in tune with their relentless other albums. The first track, “Gilt Complex”, is also similar, in that occasionally during the chorus you can feel like you’re being shouted at. “Split Lips” is lovely but makes me feel sad. The rest are all consistently great, but I’ll spare you my emotional rollercoaster rides, it’s enough that I have to hear myself think them.
At the risk of sounding shallow, I also find them an aesthetically pleasing band:
I will smooch ALL of them.
We are trying to save money at the moment, so finding these little neglected gems in our cd collection is keeping me going during this time of music-buying abstinence. It’s possible that I’m rose-coloured about it because it feels like our first new cd in years. It’s probably about nine or ten days, in reality, but the last one was not counted because of many reasons, i.e. “It’s on sale!”; “But we HAVE to own this one because we have this all of this band’s others”; “It’s the Where The Wild Things Are Soundtrack, come on”, etc. etc.

Monday, November 9, 2009

paranormal activity

For some ridiculous reason, these past few weeks I have found myself looking scary stories up online, hiring horror movies and being held in thrall by Chris’s enormous memory for urban legends. I’m fairly pragmatic about these kinds of things; I don’t believe in ghosts, or demons, or monsters, or possession, though the jury’s still out on aliens. (I don’t believe we’ve encountered them yet, but it’s a big universe out there and it feels a bit egocentric to assume we’re the only living things around.) Despite my disbelief, I’m a fairly easy person to instil terror in and I’m always up for an opportunity to scare myself stupid, even though it is usually followed by regret and nightmares.

Suffice it to say that when we were offered the chance to see the movie Paranormal Activity I said a big fat terrified yes. This decade’s Blair Witch Project, the whole thing was made for about four dollars twenty and has grossed a ridiculously large amount of money already, and hasn’t even been released beyond preview screenings in Australia yet.

Micah and Katie are a young couple living in a big house, disgustingly in love with each other. University student Katie has a problem, however: ever since she was young, she has been haunted by something. It follows her wherever she goes, and gives her occasional reprieves. Now, however, this haunting has returned. Micah, her no-nonsense and slightly disbelieving partner, acquires a video camera so he can record these haunting for posterity. The whole movie is then told through this video camera as the pair drag it around with them through happy and frightening times. It builds up a nice little montage of sunshiny moments between the couple; Micah follows Katie around with the camera wanting to record how pretty she is, the two laugh and splash about in their backyard pool. Micah sets the camera up at night angled towards the bed and the hallway. The night passes harmlessly until you hear it—a thump here, a creak there. Whispers in the night. Shadows in the hall.

I’m not going to say too much here, as I am delirious with anger when scares are ruined for me. You’ll spend a lot of the movie looking around and waiting for things to move, and if anyone sitting next to you coughs during a night scene you’ll jump four feet and be grateful you brought a change of trousers. A scene with a Ouija board brings about as much creepiness as you would predict, if not more. The movie does a good job of not dealing you many false scares—expecting a monster behind you that turns out to be the other person, and so on—and keeps most of your fear in the anticipation of what is about to happen. The hauntings progressively become scarier, the couple more tense, as Katie pleads for help and Micah vows to protect her himself. His arrogance can be a pain during the movie—honestly, the first time you threaten the haunter with violence and things go wrong should probably also be the last—along with one thing that often annoys me during movies, which is when people live in houses that seem much bigger than they could afford. Sure, a one-bedroom apartment would make the movie much more cramped, but how many one-income couples do you know live in two-storey mansions with convertibles, swimming pools and a television the size of my lounge room? (Perhaps this is just on my mind at the moment because we are looking to buy a little bit and I am upset that we personally can’t afford anything to live in anything bigger than a shoebox in someone’s cupboard.) Micah claims to be a day trader, sure, but I don’t know anything about day trading, and therefore am correct in my assumptions.

Micah also apparently knows all about audio, as demonstrated in a scene where he is listening to a late night whisper on his computer: “This isn’t any language I’ve ever heard!” Bleurgh. Still, despite a couple of corny moments mostly supplied by Micah’s attitude problem, you do feel a lot for this cute young pair and the terrible sleep patterns they must be experiencing. It’s a creepy movie, no doubt about it, and better than many more expensive horror films I’ve seen. I hear tell there are three different endings being shown, and just hearing about the others gave me chills.

I am also happy to report that despite seeing this at ten o’clock at night in an apartment overlooking a dark city alley, then driving home and making our way through the dark side streets near our home and into the flat where the cat is available all night to knock things over unexpectedly at two in the morning, I didn’t have any nightmares. I can’t guarantee the same for you.

Friday, November 6, 2009

lisa dempster, neon pilgrim

I have to confess here that I have ulterior motives for reading this book. I’ve never been a big reader of travel literature, mostly because it makes me bitter that I am not there with them. I’ve read some, like Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French, which I enjoyed (despite wanting the author to break up with her French boyfriend who seemed like a pain), and Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan, which should be called Wrong About Thinking This Was Interesting Enough To Be Published. Otherwise, it just upsets me, thinking of all these people with their abilities to a) save enough to travel, b) deal with unexpected circumstances, c) learn life lessons and d) not get murdered. Full disclosure: I have been to Japan myself for three weeks and had an absolute blast, and I did bang on about it in my blog and to anyone who walked near me even years afterwards, but not enough happened to write an entire book about. Unless you all want to read about all the different vending machine locations we found Dr Pepper in, or how many arcade games we played while waiting for the torrential rain to stop.

Back to my motivation: Lisa Dempster, the author of Neon Pilgrim, is a friend of a friend of a friend, and she is closely involved with independent publishers. So through local-author karma, interest in helping out a pal (of a pal of a pal), and the fact I’d actually been to the country she was talking about, I thought I’d break my anti-travel-lit stance and read it.

Lisa travels to Japan in need of a change of health and harmony, to take on the henro michi, a 1200 hike through southern Japan and to the 88 temples that a ninth century Buddhist monk and all-round awesome dude named Kobo Daishi traipsed back in the day. Determined to get all the pilgrimage has to offer, Lisa goes on foot and nojuku—which basically means sleeping rough. Instead of staying in the hotels, ryokans and the like, she intends to sleep at temples or wherever she can find. At the first temple, stocked up with all of the accruements of a pilgrim: white vest, incense, name slips, and the staff (an embodiment of the Daishi himself), she begins.

It’s a vivid journey, and she doesn’t spare us any of its beauty or horror. The heat is oppressive, the landscape glorious, the blisters numerous and the mochi tasty. We learn how to thread blisters and how many times you could throw up in one day from hiking alone; we learn how wonderful the top of a mountain can feel and the astonishing generosity of the people. That affected me more than anything, the amount of everyday Japanese people willing to give settai, gifts to pilgrims without any expectation of return. People offer Lisa rides and food, drinks and advice, anything they can. They drive by and pass a cucumber through the window, wave and take off. It’s incredible, and completely unlike anything I could imagine happening here. The people Lisa meets along the hike, as well, are a varied and fascinating bunch; veterans who spend their time looping the circuit and have almost too much advice to offer, gaijin (foreigners) like Lisa, young attractive Japanese men whose casual confidence makes me—ahem, Lisa—weak at the knees.

Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go as planned for Lisa. It’s a tough hike, and it wears her down, and leaves her alone with her thoughts. Her physical endurance is amazing, along with her bravery in sleeping alone on benches and in temples, even though she does occasionally find herself in need of proper accommodation to gather her thoughts and health. Not that I’m not in awe of what she did, as you wouldn’t find me hiking a) alone, b) with nowt but a sleeping mat as a bed, or c) at all. She fears bears and boars and her own capabilities, and what made me enjoy the book was how honest it is. She doesn’t fake enlightenment when it doesn’t happen, but she admits to her cynical self feeling astonished at how spiritual some places made her feel. We are there when her feet hurt and the stars shine brightly, when she makes good decisions or bad ones, when she refuses assistance or accepts it. And we are there, with her, at the end. Except not physically, obviously. Some people travel the henro michi by helicopter, and that sounds just dandy to me.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

leanne shapton, important artifacts...

Surely the award winner for longest fiction title of 2009, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelery, Saturday, 14 February 2009, New York is one of those books that are exactly what it says on the box. It’s a graphic novel, but not really; it’s a novel, but with very few words.

Imagine if you kept everything from when you were a couple; imagine at the end, that you decided to put it all up for auction. What would be the little ridiculous objects that defined your relationship together? (Our house is so full of scraps of nonsense that any auctioneer would come into here and resign immediately from the enormity of the task at hand.) How would it begin?

In my own life, it would probably start with the wrapper for a block of chocolate I’d bought in year eight. I ran around the school yard giving pieces to all of my friends. (I have long held the theory that if you share your junk food then the karma outweighs any ill health.) Sitting next to my friend Ben was a boy called Chris, who said, “Can I have a piece?” I looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t even know you,” then ran off with my chocolate. It was a rocky start, but about five years later, after we graduated high school, we tried a different beginning with slightly less shouting. It was much more successful.

Lenore and Harold’s relationship begins with a creased invitation to a Halloween party, then photographs of the two meeting for the first time, looking at each other under a string of skull lights. Then, a folded napkin with Lenore’s email address written on it. Author Leanne Shapton doesn’t scrimp on detail: dimensions and prices are included, and if you want the napkin for your own, it is 5 x 5 in and will set you back $15—20.

This is life whittled down to its most important parts. Unused movie tickets to see Annie Hall. An appreciative Lenore sends Harold the letters from a Scrabble board spelling THANK YOU, followed by the rest of the game the next day. Theatre playbills with notes scribbled in the margins. Used books, second-hand clothes, sunglasses, tea towels. It seems ridiculous, but you can see the progression of their relationship within these arbitrary items: a Tiffany key ring engraved with an L and holding a copy of Harold’s apartment key; dog salt-and-pepper shakers given to Lenore by Harold’s mother.

Printouts of emails give you deeper glances into their relationship, and that is where you can see the cracks: Harold apologising again for being late for an event, or not turning up; Lenore upset and unable to deal with Harold going away for work all the time. I realised early on—and this is an entirely personal opinion here—that I was on Lenore’s side, that Harold did a lot of the things that would frustrate me to no end. There are of course people who might feel that Lenore was in the wrong, but I always felt for her, and occasionally wanted to buy the set of Beatles thimbles (Ringo for Lenore and John for Harold) just so I could smash the Lennon one for therapeutic ends. Still, the lovely things that Harold leaves for Lenore—an engraved cake server when she receives her food journalism promotion, notes on how to improve his relationship taken during a visit to his psychologist—show that he does care for her.

It is an entirely original way to tell a love story, and a fascinating one. It made me appreciate my hoarder tendencies a bit more (Lot 1190, small saucepan, 6in diameter, some scorch marks. Used mainly by Chris to make popcorn for Fiona when she asks nicely.) It is an amazing accomplishment by Shapton, who must have dedicated an enormous amount of time to finding the right balance between necessary items that push the story and the everyday things to make the story incredibly real. Which reminds me, it’s about time to go on iTunes and download all the songs the couple kept sending to each other as mix tapes, because they sounded pretty cool. I think we could have all been pals.

due December 09

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

alex miller, lovesong

Lovesong is just about as sad as you’d expect a book called Lovesong to be. Set mostly in a Tunisian cafe in Paris called Chez Dom, and partially in modern-day Carlton, it tells the story of Tunisian Sabiha and Australian John, who meet in Chez Dom one day and instantly see their futures in each other. What actually happens is reality, and that is what the basis of this lovely story is.

One of the strangest things about this tale is that by the end, not much had essentially happened. I could spoiler this book up for you in a single sentence. And you’d be angry, and rightfully so, as despite the slow burn of this story, I still relished it. I initially wasn’t that thrilled by the concept, because the idea of reading another love story set in Paris made me feel a tad queasy. Yes, part of this may have to do with the fact I haven’t been to Europe and I may be bitter that Melbourne isn’t the City of Love (just the City of Gangsters, Wearing Too Much Black and Stealing All of the Country’s Sporting Events.) But I thought I’d have a go at it anyway, and I’m glad I took the time.

There’s something about Miller’s writing that I find comforting, something warm I can lose myself in. He gives you enough detail to put you in the place he describes, but not too much to detract from what is going on. Food tastes wonderful and the weather is biting or warm. There are good books out there that are difficult to read; this is not one of them.

An issue I have with many books (and films, and so on) is the leap of faith you’re required to take when at first you are shown a relationship at its beautiful, blossoming beginning, where all the hope in the world is in their raised blood pressure and shy smiles—and then plunged into the same relationship twenty years later, with everything stagnant and a deep undercurrent of sadness. The author can tell you repeatedly through the musings of their characters that the love they have is still strong and the relationship important, but it sometimes doesn’t ring true, and that did occasionally happen in Lovesong. When Sabiha and John meet at Sabiha’s aunt Houria’s cafe, everything is wonderful; a few pages later they are much older, running Chez Dom themselves, and prone to long silences and thoughtful narration. It’s a painful relationship to watch, and I’m not denying that this is the reality of relationships: that they can plateau. But without properly starting their relationship, despite venturing into it again two years after their meeting, I felt that there were some issues—Sabiha was so narrow-minded about her needs, they had so little in common, and disagreed over where in the world to live—that their relationship wasn’t always convincing enough to me.

I still read this whole book and looked forward to my lunch breaks so I could continue; the soft characters were fascinating to read about and I wanted to know how it ended. It is a tragedy and a happy ending; it is everything, and that is what life is.

Running alongside John and Sabiha’s story is the one of modern-day retired writer Ken, languishing in his Carlton flat and wondering about the family who have just moved from France to open a pastry shop next door to him. When he befriends them, he can’t help but listen to their love story and want to write it down, while his own adult daughter tentatively starts her own love story in Ken’s flat. Writing about writers can put me on edge, unless you’re Stephen King and prone to making them die in ingenious splatty ways, but Ken’s presence is light enough not to overcrowd the plot.

Alex Miller is a dahling of the awards circle, and you’re bound to see this in the Miles Franklin shortlist, so I’ll advise you to read it now so come awards time you can say, “Lovesong? Oh, that old thing? Yes, I suppose it was quite good, wasn’t it,” and inspect your nails, sighing. It’s what I’ll be doing.