Thursday, October 28, 2010


So it occurred to me that even though I prattle on here on a vaguely regular basis, there are actually more things that I read, watch and hear that I don’t write up into a smartassy 1000-word essay. Sometimes it’s because they’re older things and you all know about them (“just watched some movie called The Blues Brothers and turns out it’s pretty cool”) or because I go to write a blog post and end up staring vacantly at the screen unable to process my feelings towards whatever I’ve read (“The newest The most recent The author of AUGH I HATE BOOKS”). But I feel I could write about them in less than 140 characters, and this will also give me the opportunity to spread some salacious bookstore gossip, and tweet about exciting things like the weather as well. (“Melbourne has erratic weather? Who knew?”)

So if you would like to, please follow me at readwatchtweet (someone had already nicked readwatchlisten, dammit) as if I get some followers I might actually tweet some stuff, unlike my last Twitter account which has had two tweets in the past nine months, both about male nudity in the media. (I maintain it’s important, but I should try and have some other opinions too.)

Nails alas not mine, but found here. I also promise there won’t be as many brackets on Twitter, mostly because they have character limits. (Bah.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

carrie fisher, wishful drinking

So, for some people, Carrie Fisher is known only as one thing: Princess Leia from Star Wars. Now, don’t be embarrassed: I only also knew her as the batshit ex-fiancée from The Blues Brothers and the author of a book (Surrender the Pink) I once bought second-hand because the first paragraph was so great but forgot to actually read and then sold at a market stall last month (stupid past self.) Luckily for those of us with little knowledge of Fisher’s wider work (script doctor, actress-in-other-flicks, screenwriter, mother, comedian, Pez dispenser) she knows this all too well and doesn’t mind catering to those of us with a narrow view of the most famous woman to ever be chained half-naked to a giant earthworm. In her one-woman stage show, Wishful Drinking, she tells the audience everything they wanted to know—and, of course, much more than they wanted to know, too. Seriously, when she said the word “pussy” I felt the collective blush of the entire audience.

Carrie Fisher is funny. Hilarious. Hysterical. She has an excellent turn of phrase, she quips like it’s an Olympic sport, and charmed the pants off everyone in the Athenaeum Theatre. And, after she opens the show singing on the stage (set like a comfortable living room dotted with R2D2 plush toys, photographs, quirky decorations and a giant projector screen) she flings glitter all over the audience and then declares we’re going back to 1956, when she was born to two of Hollywood’s sweethearts: singer Eddie Fisher (who passed away just a month ago, and was renowned for “Oh My Papa”, or, in her own favourite lyrical mashup, “Oh My Faux Pas”) and actress Debbie Reynolds (on her mother’s beauty: “She looked like a Christmas morning.”) To explain the dramatic tentacles of Hollywood relationships after her parents’ divorce, a blackboard drops from the ceiling with a complicated bunch of pictures that try to decipher if Carrie’s own daughter, Billie, is in any way related to her new flame, who happens to be Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson. Eddie Fisher did marry Ms. Taylor, briefly, but after much laughter and pointing at the board with a stick, she establishes that they are related only “by scandal!” Hollywood really is just as deliciously trashy as you’d imagine, and though it must have hurt Carrie and her brother Todd as children to watch the train wrecks that were marriage after marriage of their parents, she does now find it all funny and made it seem like the height of farce for her audience.

There is so much more to Carrie than her parents’ scandals and even more than Star Wars (gasp, I know!) She talks about celebrity, how her likeness is owned by one George Lucas, her relationships, and, of course, her bipolar diagnosis and addictions. She didn’t shy away from any topics, and her discussion of her mental state was frank and admirable, and her explanation of what bipolar is for her led to quite a moving time in the show as everyone went utterly quiet and was swept up in her heartbreaking description towards the end of the show, including how electroconvulsive therapy affects her memory.

And what memories she has, and she will floor you with her perspective and devastating one-liners. Her marriage to Paul Simon (who, when I was four, wrote the first song I ever loved, “You Can Call Me Al”) started off with them feeling like they were the only two people who understood each other but at the end, “things were getting worse faster than we could lower our standards.” That relationship was followed by one with Bryan Lourd, with whom she had her daughter “[who was] dragged out of me like I was a burning building”, and who also accused her of turning him gay due to her use of codeine. Then there was her clothes in Star Wars—on donning the white dress for the set, George told her she couldn’t wear a bra. When Carrie asked why, George replied: “There’s no underwear in space.” And her parents, from her widow-stealing father to her mother, who suggested Carrie carry Debbie’s new husband’s baby so that it would have “great eyes”. All this, interjected with political jokes and constant references to her mental state—it’s really a completely wonderful show. Carrie is charming, devastating, and honest, and if you’re in her line of sight, you might get dragged on stage, kissed on the cheek, and made to hit on the cement life-sized sex doll of Princess Leia. (And before you ask, no, I wasn’t, we were seated upstairs.)

In summary: Exceeds Expectations—we scored some very lucky free passes and I hadn’t really known what to expect, but it was a blast. There’s an intermission, so you’ll have the opportunity to go and cash in some shares to afford a bottle of water and a packet of potato chips if you need half-time sustenance.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

isbells, s/t

There was a time when I thought of of folk music as the favourite only of hippies and horribly optimistic people, and scowled and listened to the tough hardcore music I loved, like Crowded House. Now, I pat my past self on the head patronisingly for thinking like that, and admit bravely that most of the new music I’ve bought has been folk. It puts me in this lovely springtime mood, thinking of long drives to the beach and sepia-toned picnics in the park (full disclosure: I’ve had maybe one park-based picnic in the past six years.) I love folk. The Fleet Foxes and their ethics and beards almost completely took over my life. Iron and Wine as well. (Stick a beard on a man and give him a guitar and watch me swoon. Alas Chris prefers to be clean-shaven, though he does happily bash about on his guitar making up songs about how the cat smells terrible or how we stay up late writing songs about staying up late when we should be getting a sensible night’s sleep.)

One of my lovely co-workers pushed me in the direction of Isbells, saying that they were going to be the new work favourite. (Past favourites, played until we were sick of them, include: The Morning Benders, Broken Bells, Mountain Man, Laura Marling.) And you know what, they are. Just as tender and beautiful as Fleet Foxes, and similar in a way, it’s an album that takes a few voices, two guitars, and creates something that lights up your house and reminds you, like folk does best, of all the little things in life that are so important. A lot of folk seems to put me in this strange clucky mood, all its talk of family life—Feist’s Mushaboom being an example that always gets me sighing—and this album is no different, like with track Maybe’s lines:

I don’t know who you are/you don’t know who I am/maybe you will be mine/and we’ll have a beautiful child/a house and a dog and travel a lot/but the moment’s gone so maybe not

Couple that with a wistful tune and I get all misty-eyed in regards to children. Sometimes I think that if it wasn’t for sappy family songs like Animal Collective’s My Girls I wouldn’t even want to have kids and would continue to be happy living my self-involved life of vanilla cake and ten-hour stretches on the couch reading nonsense on the internet, single-handedly saving the world from overpopulation.

Isbells’ self-titled album is a gorgeous little collection of tunes both melancholy and upbeat, moving and fun. I say “little” because it’s currently at the lovely EP-type price of $14.95, though at ten tracks and forty minutes long it outruns (and outmusics) a lot of other albums I’ve paid more for.

Because I always find something to complain about, I’ll say two things here: that it is quite similar to other folksy music out there, and that these lyrics from first song As Long As It Takes would have been heard by my past self and mocked roundly:

What have you done/To the earth we all love/where do we go from here/who’s responsible/look at the mirror on the wall/what do I tell my child/its future’s gone for life


In summary: Meets Expectations, which, because I share many musical tastes with the person who recommended the album to me, were high.

Monday, October 18, 2010

steve holden, somebody to love

On paper, Somebody to Love was My Kind of Book. I love reading about relationships and reality, about the everyday, but with something a little different to lift it. I loved The Lonely Polygamist because it was about relationships—one man and his four wives, which, of course, is a normal life for some people. And Somebody to Love was about a transsexual mortician in Tasmania; as I’m quietly a bit morbid, the mortician aspect appealed to me, as did the fact that I’d be reading about sex and gender issues that a lot of us could stand to know more about. And when I got my hands on a copy, I swooned at the cover: it’s a beautiful-looking book.

Our heroine, the mortician, is in her family’s funeral home, preparing three bodies for burial: the Esterhazen girl, the Kremmer boy, and Mr Phillips, a man who entrances her even in death. As she readies these cadavers for their final rest, she reflects on the life she’s led. From the family that taught her the trade to her journey to changing her body to reflect how she is, every cut and touch of makeup is the product of the years before her.

It really is an exercise in language. And like James Joyce’s similarly verbose Ulysses, it’s not really my bag. It’s a bit hypocritical for me to say so when the fiction I write is just as tangential and plotless as they come, which means I count a lot on my use of language, but I am possibly biased and clearly see myself as some kind of Fabulous Exception to the Rule. The mortician thinks in the kind of distinguished language that, if conversing in real life, would immediately put me on edge and feel I was being condescended to. One does not use the word “I” if “one” can be used to refer to oneself instead; indeed, the word indeed turns up at the start of a sentence so often I considered getting out a highlighter and counting, except I was worried my highlighter would run out of neon. Sure, the main character doesn’t have to be someone immediately likeable to be an interesting person to follow
—like in A Confederacy of Duncesbut in this case, I found it far too frustrating. She is an unreliable narrator—seemingly paranoid of other people’s reactions to her, but without supplying enough information to know if she has a basis for it or not. Like so:

‘I see,’ she said, turning quickly, her eyes glinting, I believe, with malice. Mrs K, it is a known fact, is a vicious woman, sudden to anger, ready to wound, and in that moment she meant, undoubtedly, ‘I have your measure, I will punish you for this.’

(I do, however, feel I have met a kindred spirit in someone who like the comma as much as I do.)

In some cases, things were not explained enough; other subjects were banged on about repeatedly. It’s also something I wouldn’t recommend for anyone with a prudish constitution (necrophilia by page two—a new record!) and if you’ve recently experienced a bereavement, the graphic explanations will not make you feel better, though the care that the mortician puts into it is at least mildly comforting.

It is, in an understated but visceral way, one of the most violent and dark books I have read. Beauty is stripped to dark, and everyone within the book’s pages has their secrets—the funeral industry included. Some of the violence will happen with such smoothness, clouded by gorgeous words, that you will barely notice it happening. It has some beautiful moments of realised horror, delicately atmospheric and engaging. Every word, item and action is in its place. Some turns of phrase struck me as a bit odd, like the following:

There is, at the top end of the cemetery, a fence of trees laced with a passionfruit vine. It was a most welcome place to shelter on account of the warm afternoon, curtained by the fringe of fruit that hung grimly like testicles, hard and green, against the sunburned iron heat.

Now I understand her own male genitals were a source of concern for her, but testicles are not hard and green. If so, see your doctor. Just some advice from your friendly neighbourhood bookseller.

Frankly, the elegant language made it a difficult undertaking, and I had to reread sentences to try and understand what was happening; sometimes I just gave up and moved on. The plot jumped back and forth in time and often I had no idea where I was or at what point in the chronology of the story. It was kind of like when you’re stuck on a train next to the window, surrounded by a stack of third-year uni students who are loudly retelling the story of the Nihilist Party they threw on the weekend
and trying their best to impress each other with their Word-of-the-Day-Calendar knowledge, but are all slightly too drunk to remember the order of events clearly.

There are a lot of books out there that have given me a similar reaction that have gone on to win ridiculously well-paying prizes and the accolades of millions. I’m the first to admit that just because I didn’t like something it doesn’t mean it’s not worthy, or that it won’t make your Top Ten Desert Island Reads. But this is not in mine.

In summary: Below Expectations. The past two books I’ve read by Tasmanian authors have been linguistically challenging for me (the other being Anna Dusk’s Inhuman) and I am now wary of crossing Bass Strait in case all the signs are in fancytalk or covered in werewolf blood.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Remember how you always secretly thought about how cool it would be if you could get a Ryan Reynolds in a box? How you could keep him in the cupboard and bring him out for, uh, special occasions? Well, think again. It turns out that Ryan Reynolds in a box is not sexy and mischievous at all, but in fact wrong and dirty and kind of depressing. And I know this for a fact because I have seen Buried.

Buried is a movie about a man in a coffin. The entire movie is set in this coffin. It’s like when that movie Phone Booth came out, and everyone wondered if it was possible to sustain a whole film with just Colin Firth in a phone booth, but then they showed things happening outside and there was a cast of hundreds around his phone booth, including Radha Mitchell and Katie Holmes. In Buried, it’s a man in a coffin, buried underground. It is reminiscent of the scene in Kill Bill 2 where Uma Thurman is buried underground, except if you didn’t have any training by a frustrating Pai Mei and were therefore just stuck in a box without the ability to beat your way out of it with your mighty Uma Thurman knuckles. In Buried, you will not see any other faces. And, for a not insignificant amount of time as the movie starts, there’s no light, just some breathing. It got to the point where someone in the audience sighed dramatically and said, “Well, that was a good movie” and we all laughed and looked around awkwardly waiting for something to happen. Which, after a few sharp intakes of breath and the fumbling for a lighter, it does, and then things start to get interesting.

It takes a while for things to get clear, for both us and for Ryan Reynolds’ Paul Conroy. Why is he in a box in the ground? Who put him there? Where in the world is he? Can he be helped? While Ryan Reynolds is alarmingly attractive, is he interesting enough to hold an entire movie with few props and not much in the way of movement? I will only answer the last question for you, because spoilers are for jerks. Yes, he is, and the movie is good. But it’s not excellent. Because dramatic tension, great acting and the realism of the situation doesn’t stop one thing: watching someone in a box for two hours is still kind of boring. Because if something else isn’t immediately happening, there’s nothing new to look at. Just the box. And Ryan Reynolds.

But things do happen to Paul Conroy. We do hear him talk, and panic, all of his reactions completely realistic and covering all bases that a panicked person in a box would do. He does get a certain visitor, one that caused the poor man in the row behind me (who had been doing some manly swearing while the previews were on) to start moaning in horror to the point where I worried he would be sick on my hair. It is also a politically interesting film, though a little bit of a downer on that front. The things that can happen in a coffin in two hours are pretty high in number, depending on what you have in there with you. The movie relies entirely on this very small set—we don’t have any convenient visual flashbacks to Conroy’s past. The cinematography—which feels like an enormous word for what was done here—is amazing, considering the small area the film was made in. It’s a very claustrophobic feeling, and the camera will look through holes in the dirt or the wood towards him occasionally, but you are always very aware of the restrictions and frankly, being able to make such a small scope of film as interesting as it was is an incredible feat.

I found with Buried that I actually enjoyed it more once it was over than I actually did at the time. I occasionally got bored with it, and cranky at the complete and utter morons Paul deals with at a couple of key moments. It got to a point where I wondered why every human being was such a stupid jerk and what was achieved by making everyone so awful, apart from to make me feel even more depressed than I already was. Once I was removed from the cinematic experience, I could think about the movie and appreciate it; but in all honesty, at the time, I found it a bit tedious. The post-cinematic experience is much better.

Disregarding the fact I know nothing about what it’s really like to be buried, I had one small gripe with what he could hear at one point, and what he was unable to hear at a vital point at the end, which should have been obvious. I don’t want to say much more than that, but it’s a small bit of continuity in a film that otherwise felt very honest. I am also full of doubt that he couldn’t escape; after all, Buffy the Vampire Slayer dug herself out of a grave, and vampires themselves do it all the time. Surely it can’t be that hard.

In summary: Meets Expectations, which were: Ryan Reynolds in a box.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

anh do, the happiest refugee

The world is full of great people. Sometimes when I watch the news I forget that, and when I’ve had a bad day with customers at work I think that everyone is out to be a bully. And then sometimes you meet someone like Anh Do, and they beam at you, shake your hand with enthusiasm and it’s all you can do not to hug them just because they’re ace. And then sometimes they write books, and their general good cheer falls off the pages and into your lap, and that’s why The Happiest Refugee is a great book and everyone should own it.

You may recognise Anh Do, Australian comedian extraordinai
re, either from his standup or from stints on shows like Thank God You’re Here. He’s always there with a smile and ready to make you laugh. It’s basically impossible to keep a straight face around this man. With the release of his autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, he will make you laugh—but I found it wasn’t the continually hysterical book I was expecting. Not because Anh isn’t funny—he is—but because his life hasn’t necessarily always been the most wonderful.

At age two and a half, Anh travelled from Vietnam as a refugee with much of his extended family in an overcrowded boat. They were attacked by pirates—twice—and barely survived the trip that left them in Malaysia. When they were eventually sent to Australia, life remained difficult as Anh’s parents struggled with limited resources in every way but one—family. The strength of The Happiest Refugee for me lay in the fact that Anh’s story is such a universal and inspirational one, where determination and love was how this boy who almost died in the sea became so completely awesome.

Anh has this wonderful casual writing style that kind of makes you feel like you’re having a chat with a pal rather than reading a book. Without trying to sound insulting, it’s a simple and straightforward read, but that is also part of what makes it so entertaining. It’s relaxed and friendly. You probably by now get the hint that it’s cruisy and I liked it. Moving on.

There’s a lot to be heartbroken about in here. When Anh’s aunt is almost taken, naked and horrified, by the pirates. When his uncle’s dead body is found by the water in Vietnam. When his parents, such a strong and loving influence, split apart as his father leaves, and his mother has to struggle to raise her family on her own. When he finall
y is able to contact his father again, years later, only to find he is seriously unwell.

But within all this is such hope and wonder, and Anh’s family so wonderful and supportive, that it’s the kind of book that makes you want to go out and have a thousand kids because they’ll all end up as great as Anh and his siblings. Right? Right. Even his father, not a great example all the time, has his own heroism: saving his wife’s brothers from a concentration camp by borrowing a communist officer’s uniform and boldly walking into the camp and declaring that he needed to take those two men with him. It’s a moving story, and knowing the horrors of the life he led gives some insight into how Anh
’s father may have reached a point of anguish where he thought there was nothing to do but leave. The sacrifices that Anhs parents make for their families is truly something to behold.

One thing I loved about this was just how familiar the existence of the family was once they hit Australian shores. There was embarrassment—Anh’s brother Khoa had been given lovely lacy girl’s clothes by St Vincent de Paul’s kindly nuns—and there was the everyday life they led. From watching MacGyver, to keeping budgies (we had an aviary in our backyard), to wearing knockoff runners to school (I had a kid crawl under the table and yell out to the class that I was wearing Traxx shoes from Target instead of th
e pump-up Nikes everyone else was), it was great to just read about the early life of what was really many Australian kids and be reminded of my own. As an adult, Anh was a fantastic entrepreneur, coming up with countless fantastic moneymaking ideas, not least the idea of studying law. And just as he was applying for numerous, well-paying, fabulously corporate jobs, he had a better idea: to become a comedian. And thus we have Anh today, making us laugh on television and writing great books. But I’m sure he would have been a great lawyer. I can tell because I have proof that he is a very smart man.

Takes one to know one, I guess.

In summary: Exceeds Expectations. I’m going to recommend the hell out of this for Christmas presents, because it’s a hard book not to like.

Monday, October 4, 2010

john ajvide lindqvist, harbour

I like to be spooked. I’m really pretty cynical in reality—I’m an atheist, I’m not spiritual, and I don’t believe in ghosts. (The jury’s still out on aliens, but I don’t think they’re here, anyway.) But damn if I can’t leave all those feelings at the door when I’m watching a movie or reading a book, and scare myself silly waiting for monsters to jump out of my closet. I find demons and hauntings much more chilling than serial killers, maybe because I can properly disconnect from reality with them. I can happily squeal and turn the lights on halfway through movies and put books down and back slowly away from them. And so on. Which is why I like John Ajvide Lindqvist, who has so far written about vampires (Let the Right One In), zombies (Handling the Undead) and, now, with recent release Harbour, the chilling, supernatural power of the Swedish sea.

A young family—Anders, Cecilia and their daughter Maja—are on the Swedish island of Domarö for a winter holiday. They ski across the icebound snow to the lighthouse island of Gåvasten for a picnic. Thinking their daughter is safe with nothing but snow surrounding them, they let her out of their sight. And that is the last anyone sees of her.

Two years later, Anders returns to the island, bringing with him an alcohol addiction and, after the breakdown of his relationship, almost no hope. It is then that he realises some questions were never answered about Maja’s disappearance, and that other questions were never asked in the first place. And that perhaps the beautiful summer vacation island of Domarö is hiding an awful secret that threads through the community’s past and out into the sea itself.

Like just about everyone who saw it, I adored the Swedish film version of Let the Right One In, and it led me to read Lindqvist’s last novel, Handling the Undead. Harbour is a much better book. It follows the same desperation felt by an adult who loses a child that Handling had, where amongst other family stories a grandfather was desperate to hold onto the child who had just come back from the dead, but who was not in any way well (because he was, well, dead and underground for some time). But with Harbour, the isolation of the book’s setting was a great improvement. Instead of covering the lives of many and the dead people they are heartbroken to let go of, Harbour stays with Anders’ family and their inescapable history on Domarö.

Harbour is a haunting story, the kind that delivers genuine chills, immersion in the characters’ lives, and possibly a slight fear of the ocean. Seriously, don’t read this at the beach, unless you want to never go swimming again. (Team it with Jaws to really ruin your holiday.) The narrative dips into the past, a device that can sometimes make me angry that the plot is being deliberately forestalled, and ruin a novel’s flow but, in Harbour, it just pulls the reader deeper into the story and creates a full background for everything that happens.

And it is an exciting, unflinching, evocative story of how isolation can change the game plan. Like Stephen King on a good day, Lindqvist taps into the surreal but not to the point of the ridiculous; just enough to test your nerves. And win.

In summary: Above Expectations (because I didn’t really like Handling the Undead, even though I desperately wanted to.)