Reading: I’ve just moved the vast majority of my books into storage for what is essentially a summer of couch-surfing, but I did manage to get through Carol/The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and the third Rowling/Galbraith novel Career of Evil before the tape closed on those boxes. If you haven’t yet read Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay on pandering, let me recommend it to you now, supplemented by this rejoinder by Marlon James.
Watching: I saw Suffragette at the cinema recently. There’s been a lot of negative backlash about this film (and many, many think-pieces have been written about it and, in particular, aspects of its marketing campaign). All of that aside, though, I found it a competent and moving piece of mainstream cinema to sit through on a Thursday night.
I’ve also just started watching the first season of Jessica Jones on Netflix. Two episodes in, and while it’s hardly out of left field, it’s as gripping as all the reviews have said it is: a noir-style super-antihero series that’s tense and creepy as hell.
Listening: As a loyal believer in the album, I tend to download them in full by artists I’m interested in, even if there’s only one or two songs I like, and leave them playing on rotation while I write or lose myself on the interwebs; some albums grow, some die fast. I’ve been listening to mostly Australian albums of late, including these: It’s You by Gold Class, Havens Dumb by Augie March, Eternal Return by Sarah Blasko, Positions by Gang of Youths, the excellently titled Leisure Panic by Dan Kelly, Blue Planet Eyes by friends The Preatures, In a Restless House by City Calm Down, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett, and Delivery by little-known, now London-based, Hero Fisher. Great year for Australian music; my favourite record has been Currents by Tame Impala.
Reading: Having finished my doctorate six weeks ago, I’ve been weaning myself off a death-drive diet of Derrida, Freud, Lacan, Kristeva, Benjamin, Badiou, and others, by actually reading books for pleasure. Novels have become a novelty again. Georges Simenon is probably best known for his detective Maigret series, but I like his darker, stand-alone psychological thrillers. Account Unsettled is about a highly-intelligent, ugly mathematics student from Poland, Elie, who lives somewhat reclusively in a Belgium boarding house with an old lady and her daughter (who he secretly loves). His fragile sanity is quickly eroded when handsome new student boarder, Michel, enters the novel and wants to make friends. Another novel I’m reading is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in preparation for when I see Sydney Theatre Company’s production in December. I usually have a handful of poetry books on the go, too. At present: After Naptime by Chris Edwards; Jam Sticky Vision by Luke Beesley; Dirty Words by Natalie Harkin; Missing Up by Pam Brown. And almost every day at the moment I read a wonderful, out-of-print A-B-C picture book to my baby daughter, Evie — Martin Leman’s Comic and Curious Cats, words by Angela Carter. Leaves T. S. Eliot’s cats for dead:
I love my cats with a B and C
Because they are Beautiful and Capricious
Beatific if Clamorous
Brisk yet Calm
Their names are Basil and Clarissa
They live in Brandon Creek
And they eat Begonias and Carnations
To my Bewildered Consternation
Watching: Peaky Blinders. Rather than binge-watch another TV series, I’ve slipped back into an oddly satisfying weekly wait for each new episode (aired on the ABC) of this bleakly-lit, stylised, violent, post-WWI gang serial based in Birmingham. I’ve never really appreciated Cillian Murphy until I started watching him as the dangerous, beautiful, gaunt yet unshakable Tommy Shelby, leader of the Shelby gang. Sam Neill’s weird version of a Northern Irish accent leaves a little to be desired, even as it enhances the cartoonish aspect of his evil cop character. Soundtrack is rife with Nick Cave.
Reading: I’ve just finished Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, hard science fiction at its idea-driven best. An infectiously imaginative book, it blends classic detective/action tropes with clever illustrations of physics and an ecological conscience, and is replete with deeply considered references to the histories of science and of China. I was struck by the translator’s postscript, in which translator Ken Liu describes his intentions thus: “The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.” The effort adds another layer of richness to this rewarding novel.
I’ve also read three books about women and suffering recently: Charlotte Wood’s new novel, The Natural Way of Things, is the feminist outback gothic dystopia someone in Australia had to write; finding it in the dry landscape of contemporary literary realism was something of a relief. Fiona Wright’s stunning essay collection, Small Acts of Disappearance, is a ruthless and transcendent work on the problem of hunger, and deserves at least as much attention as the third book in my list, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. While Jamison’s prose is a pleasure to read, I was irritated by her tendency to universalise her perspective, which seems to be a mistake white feminists can’t stop making. The final, structurally perfect essay on (straight) women and woundedness is magnificent, but it made me feel something of an outsider. All three of these books have made me think a great deal about feminism’s approach to the suffering and survival of women, and whether the unacknowledged essentialism that shadows it can ever be resolved by our present ways of thinking.
Reading: The Story of the Lost Child, the last book of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle. It’s been a joy to finally read the four books this year, almost without interruption. I have mixed it up most recently with the stories of Nikolai Gogol, which is one of those books I find myself re-reading once a decade. There’s so much pleasure to find in the folds.
Playing: The classic 1980s game Dungeon Master, via Skype with a childhood friend, and The Beginner’s Guide, as part of my teenage son’s ongoing attempts to educate me into what is current. It’s a nice contrast: one is a classic RPG, which would unfold predictably even if we hadn’t played it back then. The other is a narrative game which is also a meditation on what the art form has become. Both are structured like mysteries or quests. Both are tremendously enjoyable.
Reading: The past few weeks, I’ve been in poetry’s thrall, and there are two recent collections I think everyone should read.
In one slender volume, Natalie Harkin’s Dirty Words summarises the grotesque weight of colonialism and the might contained in the language and logic of Indigenous rights. It’s relentless and contemporary, quoting so many wretched politicians, a number of whom fell on their own swords this year. The footnotes throughout stitched the poems together, showing the interconnectedness of policies and horrors. The standout poems for me were ‘Domestic’ – like a punch in the oesophagus – and ‘Resistance’, about all the women who shaped Harkin and her country.
The second collection was only launched last month – Chloe Wilson’s Not Fox Nor Axe, which is sensational, rich and dense. It’s a collection that interrogates the legacies of European history and enlightenment, and is populated by their ghosts – France’s bloody history, spiritualism, Christianity, Caravaggio, Emily Dickinson, Tchaikovsky etc. The collection traces the construction of identity, hierarchy, power, art and inheritance. There are so many good poems here: ‘Observable phenomena’, ‘Cloak and daguerreotype’, ‘Double Exposure’, ‘Experimenta lucifera’ – not to mention all the savage grimness of our past and present captured in ‘Blackbirds en masse’. It’s a collection that simultaneously makes you want to scrutinise the world more closely, while also allowing you to feel a vital part of that world.
In fiction, I caught up on the Seizure novellas, all of which I’d recommend. I particularly liked Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde, which was strange and secretive and gender/genre-bending, too. I like fiction that makes time and identity fluid.
Watching: Watch Please Like Me. The episode about medical abortion, ‘Pancakes with Faces’, is a remarkable piece of television.
Playing: I’ve been snowed under with grant applications and games on my iPhone have been saving my sanity. If you’re in need of a quietening one – and who isn’t at this time of year – may I suggest KAMI, the paper-folding game?