Listening: I always listen to Lana Del Rey with a fascination tinged by nausea: the world rendered in her albums is always one of essential compromise. Every joy is coupled with despair. Everything sweet is also rotten. Honeymoon languishes in these contradictions, blinking slowly at you under heavily mascaraed eyes. It’s sparse, slow and addictive.
Watching: My tastes in television have degenerated somewhat. After binge-watching the entire season of UnREAL over two days while I had the flu a couple of months ago, I became addicted to The Bachelor, which was in the final couple of weeks of its 19th season by the time I came on board. UnREAL, written by Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (who used to work on the US version of The Bachelor) and Buffy writer and producer Marti Noxon, follows the supposedly feminist producer Rachel Goldberg on Bachelor-style dating show Everlasting as she manages and manipulates the show’s contestants to bring out the most dramatic conflicts and the worst humiliations. One would think that with such a black, bitter soul, UnREAL would turn you off ever watching a reality show again. In fact, it has the perverse effect of making them all the more fascinating.
Reading: Rebecca Traiser’s ‘The game is rigged: Why sex that’s consensual can still be bad. And why we’re not talking about it.– an insightful, thought-provoking analysis of the limits of liberal feminism on discourse around sex.
Reading: Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame trilogy series – God’s War, Infidel and Rapture – gripped me from the first paragraph, in which our heroine sells her womb and then loses everything betting on a boxing match. Nyxnissa is a rogue government assassin turned bounty hunter on a planet devastated by hundreds of years of religious war. Here men are bred as war fodder, women monopolise political power and the major source of power is biotech powered by insects. Hurley is an awesome and original world builder, generating her strange reality with economy and energy. Her vivid characters move through a desolate, ultraviolent world, but there’s a fascinating subtext of argument about religion, belief, morality and gender. Noir fantasy at its best.
Watching: Despite some criticism from reviewers, Charlie’s Country, starring David Gulpilil is, in my view, if not a song to the reality for many Indigenous men (especially those from the north of our nation) then certainly an ode. Gentle but piercingly sad, dignified but monstrously shameful, Charlie’s Country is a reminder of the crevice colonialism has placed Australia’s Indigenous population in. The issues it depicts might be represented in a rather obvious manner but it will, like one solid harmonious but haunting note, slowly tear you apart if you have any knowledge or conscience about the invasion of Australia’s first people’s country. A reflective piece in more ways than one.
Reading: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, the first of a series of six instalments Knausgaard has written about his life, has received so many accolades it’s difficult and surprising to say that I have some mixed feelings about it. Undoubtedly, it is extremely well written, superbly accessible, and the philosophical pondering smattered through the text, of which there could have been more, is well placed. My reservations came (despite my effort to keep them at bay) from an overall disquiet about the privileged position from which the text was drawn – the description of parenting particularly reinforced this.
There was also the question as to how the book would have been received if it had been penned by a woman. The voice inside me doubted the work would have been received so well. Another uneasy thread (one I managed to put aside but never quite forgot) was Knausgaard’s assertion that he knew nothing about drug use despite his own struggle with alcohol and, indeed, the need to stop drinking because of the way it made him behave – aggressively. In fact the entire second half of the book deals with his father’s death due to alcoholism.
It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I wouldn’t have finished it if that had been the case. But it is to say that I was surprised at what I felt was ‘othering’, and it would be remiss of me to talk about this great work without alerting you to my experience of reading it.
I loved Susan Johnson’s The Broken Book, and have actually already written about it on my blog. This book was a fully formed, wise and beautiful – although at times painful – look at life. Johnson has been bold in filling out the imagined life of Charmian Clift, rendering an internal consciousness with touches of the real and swathes of the invented. I learnt something about art and love and parenting. There is exceptional writing about female sexuality contained in the pages, and a striking evocation of the flawed but beautiful, bright woman that was Clift. This book, which I recommend, does more than fill out a picture of Clift, it gives her flesh, as the rather dated and posed photographs which I’ve seen of her, do not. This fictional biography is really a great book.
Reading: Glen Sean Coulthard’s Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. The politics of recognition promises more than it delivers, and Coulthard exposes the liberal sham for what it is. Recognition – which is always taken as reconciliation, too – is no substitute for alternative politics based on Indigenous self-recognition.
Watching: On October 7 2007, the New Zealand Police invaded an Indigenous community. Armed police searched school buses, old women were detained on the side of the road and Indigenous activists were arrested and charged under the Terrorism Suppression Act. The terrorism charges failed. The Price of Peace tells the story of the most grievous act of aggression against Indigenous people in New Zealand in the last half century.
Reading: Okay, I haven’t actually read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear but I have been subjected to an extract (in the latest volume of Kill Your Darlings) and to various articles and Facebook posts quoting Ms Gilbert and her pearls of wisdom, appearing in my news feed from people who I thought knew better. I avoided Eat, Pray, Love – both book and movie – and haven’t felt the poorer for it. But it’s been hard to have similar blinders when it comes to this supposed guide to how to live life ‘creatively’. It’s everywhere and it’s everything I hate about self-help books: pithy anecdotes about Gilbert’s childhood fears and her amazing ability to turn herself around (and become rich off her writing in the meantime), accompanied by trite advice about us all needing to be creative, although what exactly that term means to Gilbert is unclear. Frankly, I wonder why there isn’t more encouragement of being practical or methodical. Can the world really support everyone going off on a ‘road trip’ with creativity? Do we all have ‘extraordinary treasures’ hidden inside us? I doubt it. I have no fear Gilbert will actually read this panning as she’s proudly declared her method of never reading her critics and my determination not to buy her book won’t stop many others from being sucked into this overly publicised tripe.
Listening: I flew to Los Angeles a couple of days ago and found Perth-based psychodelic rockers Pond’s new album, Man It Feels Like Space Again on the in-flight entertainment album list. I then belatedly realised the song ‘Crane’ includes lines about a plane crashing to Earth. So that was a bad choice. Still, the album is some eclectic fuzzy goodness. Like a triangulation of The Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, and Tame Impala.
Playing: Japanese indie developer Moppin released their game Downwell on iOS and Steam last week. It is the best game to grace by phone since Desert Golfing. A simple game about a boy falling down a well with gunboots, its slick and polished and tight. One of the greatest games I’ve played this year.
Reading: Craig Owens wrote the terrific ‘The Quest for Shadow of the Colossus’ Last Big Secret’ back in 2013, but Eurogamer recently republished it to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Shadow of the Colossus‘s release. It tells a wonderful story of a dedicated group of people excavating everything they can from a classic game. A blended story of both the virtual exploration of a magical world and the actual exploration of a material artefact. One of my favourite pieces of games journalism.
Reading: It is now a month old (which is like a lifetime on the internet), but I strongly recommend reading Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s LARB essay, ‘The Program Era and the Mainly White Room’. It is a fascinating and provocative article on race, gender and writing programs.
My research involves writing biographical poetry about a nineteenth-century Spiritualist, abolitionist, women’s rights activist and scientific lecturer, so I’ve also been reading historical poetry and fiction about the same period: Natasha Trethewey’s excellent Native Guard, Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body and Jame’s McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Incidentally, Trethewey and Benét both won Pulitzer’s for those poetry books, albeit 78 years apart – it’s interesting to see the way they reflect the poetic styles of their respective periods.
Watching: It’s autumn (fall) in the US, which means television is back. If you write YA, I recommend just about anything from the CW network, which has successfully managed to make a show for almost every genre, from musical (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), to supernatural (Supernatural), to superhero (The Flash) – and all melodramatic!
Reading: Kate Richards’s Madness: A Memoir has been out for a couple of years now and I’ve recently been rereading it. It was a groundbreaking book on publication for its depiction of madness from the inside, and for giving voice to the suffering of many. Less dwelled on was Richards’ masterful writing. The delicacy and skill with which she renders the slow shift between sanity and madness is extraordinary. She spares neither herself nor the reader, using language that is exact, restrained and original but which never strays from serving the story it tells, at no stage descending into mawkish sentiment, flowery lyricism or overwrought melodrama. A magnificent achievement.
There is nothing showy about NR Kleinfield’s New York Times essay, ‘The Lonely Death of George Bell’. It describes in exact detail the death of a lonely man in Brooklyn, and the aftermath of the discovery of his body as investigators trace his past in search of friends and relatives. Kleinfield locates turning points in his life that might have led to his isolation and interviews people who once knew him. His respect for the humanity of the individual whose life he is teasing out prevents any suggestion of prurience or salaciousness, and the cumulative effect is a sort of delicate profundity, the whole of it washed with tenderness and pity for the lonely being it describes. I couldn’t stop thinking of it.
Helen Mackreath’s ‘Refugee or Migrant’, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, is a wonderful piece on the rebranding of refugees as illegal immigrants in Europe – a horribly familiar discourse. A really fascinating part of this is the way the subjects of the piece feel about the terms used to describe them – ‘the ambiguous junction of classifications’, as Mackreath terms it. As one says: ‘In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.” We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants”.’ Mackreath shows us the people behind the discourse: ‘Their hospitality is lavish, proffering coffee to visitors. The nephew plays lovingly with his young sister. The older men discuss the politics of the camp, and Syria. They play on their phones.’ It’s lovely.
The quarterly women’s magazine Womankind came across my radar recently. Completely free of advertisements (and celeb gossip), its themed issues cover a broad range of subjects – including art, architecture, and writing – with interesting takes on standards such as fashion and cooking. In the latest Italian-themed issue, Antonia Case looks at 1503, the photographic series of Swiss-Italian artist Christian Tagliavini, in which his subjects are dressed in handcrafted paper and cardboard renaissance ‘clothes’. Amazing stuff. Also, there’s a lovely piece by Charlotte Wood on Italy and life and food. It made me feel like cooking a big bowl of her caccio e pepe.
Seeing: This is not a cool admission, but I went on a family expedition to see The Lion King at the Regent Theatre, somewhat under sufferance, and absolutely loved it. I completely forgot all concerns about racist subtext and gender norms and my general aversion to musicals. The inventiveness of the staging, costuming and puppetry is gorgeous, and sitting up in the stalls surrounded by a cross section of Melbourne (really, the range of people amazed me; it was like going to the football) I felt connected to centuries, millennia of theatre-going.
Reading: Been on a bit of a Verso books binge ever since their £1 sale. I’d especially recommend two significant (though harrowing) non-fiction accounts of violence, political terror and the consequences for people’s lives: Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War and Óscar Martínez’s The Beast. Though not for £1, I also picked up the newly released Trans: A Memoir, Juliet Jacques’s intimate narrative of what it’s like to live as a trans woman in Britain today.
Watching: While I haven’t had a chance to watch the first episodes of their new seasons yet, I am so happy that Please Like Me and Jane the Virgin are back – two shows filled with characters usually erased from mainstream popular culture. Mandatory viewing, in my opinion.
Reading: I’m reading a lot about weeds. The Australian continent is flooded with exotic weeds and where I live their presence is insistent, powerful and speaks to the ways the land has been degraded and how it tries to repair itself. I’m also trying to get my head around doppelganger themes in literature, the brutality of the fighting in the bocages after the D-Day landing and reading the new and sensible journal Salvage, as well as Tim Low’s Where Song Began on the genesis of Australian birds, who it turns out are the ancestors of birds across the globe and, compared to other avian fauna, unspeakably weird. I received in the mail the Kickstarter-funded story-cards The Family Arcana and I’ve discovered the poet HD’s beautiful account of her analysis with Sigmund Freud in Vienna, in the years 1933–34 (while the city was being festively showered from the air with gilded paper swastikas and paper strips on which were written ‘Hitler gives work’, ‘Hitler gives bread’ and swastikas were chalked on the wall around Freud’s door) just as I also encountered the work of the psychoanalysts Maria Torok and Nicholas Abraham who write brilliantly about the secrets we all carry, the tombs we can become, and why men try to enslave women and bequeath them male guilt.
Listening: To disconnect from work when I drive home, I’ve made a four-song playlist, which if cranked up as loud as my ears can bear effectively atomises the anxieties of the day. With thanks to the Who, Luigi Boccherini, Joe Hisaishi and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.
Our friends at Monash University Publishing have given us this excellent excerpt from The Hanged Man and the Body Thief by Alex Roginsky. The Hanged Man is a history of AS Hamilton, a lecturer who travelled the Australian colonies teaching phrenology, and Aboriginal labourer Jim Jones, whose skull Hamilton stole. It’s also a fascinating account of attempts by Museum Victoria researchers to repatriate Jones’s remains 150 years on.
20 July 1860
It was seven o’clock and darkness had long settled on Maitland by the time William House made his way to the inn of Mr Finch to respond to a request that he call upon one of the guests.
Upon his arrival, the man who had summoned him quickly materialised, a figure familiar not only to House, sexton of St Peter’s Church of England cemetery in East Maitland, but also to other townspeople. The phrenologist Archibald Sillars Hamilton, known professionally as ‘AS’, had been lecturing throughout the region for some four months, using skulls and casts of heads to illustrate his craft of reading moral and intellectual characters from anatomy.
Now, he took House out to the inn’s verandah, and asked him if he recalled the double execution of Jim Crow and John Jones, and could he say whereabouts in the graveyard the two men might be buried.
Overland readers can purchase Alex Roginsky’s The Hanged Man and the Body Thief at a discounted rate of 30%. To take advantage of the offer, simply visit the ecart checkout and enter this ‘discount voucher code’: S-OVERLAND_30%.