Stuff I’ve been reading this week

We don’t have quite the room in our print magazine for reviews that we’d like, and I am rather lacklustre when it comes to regular blogging…so I’m going to try and write a weekly post about the books I am getting into. Needless to say these aren’t reviews proper, just the scattered associations of an idle reader. Jeff got me thinking with his post about Australian landscape in literature and music. I can’t be near a surf beach in Sydney without thinking of Puberty Blues, and can’t lie on the concrete in a glaring summer day without thinking of Garner’s Monkey Grip. But both of these are essentially forms of nostalgia for the never-experienced for me, published so many years ago, typifying aspects of the end of the seventies and eighties. These days I wouldn’t be surprised in Tsiolkas has got Preston/Thornbury inked with his imprint. Desultory Brisbane living will always belong to Andrew McGahan’s Praise for me, whereas the apocalpytic and utopian far North Queensland belongs to Janette Turner-Hospital. Crime writes the city well – think of Peter Corris & Sydney, Peter Temple or Shane Maloney and Melbourne.

Music that writes our cities? Cruel Sea? Tex, Don & Charlie? The Whitlams? Dirty Three? Still and all, the main medium through which which we experience America has to be through film and TV…when I was last in New York, I couldn’t shake a constant feel of being in a doppelgangered/doubled city.

Anyway, here’s the list of what I’ve been reading, or trying to read. Will Elliott’s Dark Places also captures the tedium and repetition of Brisbane share-house life and bongs rather well…although there’s a powerful, confronting unsaid in this deadpan, unassuming, sans artifice account of the author’s experience of schizophrenia. The author wrote a successful genre/horror novel that won a bundle of literary awards when he was in his twenties but has struggled with mental illness his adult life, after what was initially assumed to be a drug-induced pychosis saw him battling hidden forces via instructions and threats from the television.

When writers write about mental illness, you somehow expect them to find a way of creating the insane world for you, and perhaps also to elucidate, through form and narrative, the questions that such experience prompts. Perhaps I had thought I would see breakdown ensconsed in wonderful little metaphors, or the existential dilemma around illness itself laid out in a raft of elegant questions from the artist. I’m glad I didn’t get that. This is another kind of book: plain, matter of fact, unadorned, unpretentious, and because of all this, disarmingly affecting. For the first third of the book, you could be forgiven for feeling as if you’d slipped into a grunge novel, as the narrator smokes way too much pot, fights with the boys he shares with, thinks about girls, and gets addicted to computer war games. But there’s something incredibly touching about his determination  to write — as a broke, medicated guy living in a tiny flat, he saves his coins for stamps to enter competitions with – and this is a lovely book.

I also loved We Need to Talk about Kevin (finally got around to reading it, thanks to all seven-hundred of you who told me I must!), one of the best in unreliable narrators and scathing humour, alongside Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. Janet Malcom’s Freud in the Archives is an addictively cool account of some of the debates between orthodox psychoanalysts and deviant non-believers over control of the archive of many of Mr F’s never-made-public letters and documents, many of whom are remarkably bizarre and manipulative. I’ve finally also picked up Moazzam Begg’s account of Guantanamo, some Jay MacInerny stories, and Atmospheric Disturbances; the latter’s disappointing me so far, but I’m only a couple of chapters in.

Kalinda Ashton

Kalinda Ashton is the author of The Danger Game (Sleepers, 2009).

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