Watching: Representations of trans women onscreen are, as I have said on Overland before, almost entirely complete bullshit. So it is amazing to come across a text that is for trans women, by trans women. Her Story is a web series that explores the lives and loves of transgender and queer women in Los Angeles that is created, written, directed and acted primarily by transgender women, including a number of trans women of colour.
In doing so, it achieves a number of firsts that I’m aware of: the trans Bechdel, where two trans women actually talk to each other onscreen; two cute romances (one queer and one straight) where trans women are depicted as desirable and not fetishised or third-gendered; and two representations of trans women with actual jobs. The character of Paige, a Black trans woman of colour who works as a lawyer representing LGBT people, is particularly groundbreaking, a far cry from the criminal Sophia in Orange is the New Black.
But to list all of the ways that Her Story is innovative is to overlook that this is primarily a romantic comedy, and it works in the same way as any good romantic comedy: smart, funny, sweet, moving. If you’re as tired of tropey representations of trans women as I am, Her Story will come as a breath of fresh air. Forget the pantomime shows of The Danish Girl or Transparent, this is the real deal.
Reading: This summer, among other things, I read:
- The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (rather ironic given how hot it was) and fell in love with it;
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which I liked but couldn’t quite lose myself in;
- Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg meh; and
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, KonMari cult leader, which has absolutely changed my life. I sent sixteen garbage bags of clothes alone to the op shop.
Watching: My housemate and I have just started watching Occupied (Okkupert in Norwegian), a Norwegian political thriller about an EU-backed Russian occupation of Norway following an environmentalist government coming to power and turning off the North Sea oil pipelines. Based on an idea by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo, its premiere was said to tap into fears of Russian aggression in Scandinavia and cold war stereotypes, and likely inflame them. I can’t speak to its politics yet, having only watched the first episode, but it was tense and well acted, and I’m quite looking forward to the next episode.
Reading: The Argonauts. The author, Maggie Nelson, has spent time living in San Francisco, which meant this book had been much recommended to me – she’s considered to be a local. I saw her speak at a conference and was duly impressed. When I finally got to this slight but powerful essay and meditation on, among other things, the queering of the family I felt a great sense of relief. To both be challenged on a complicated subject but also felt known. Nelson has a capacity to address daily concerns about life, society and self in a way that is highly theorised and articulate but also refreshingly straightforward.
Watching: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. A brilliant, chronically single woman moves from New York to Covina, a nowhere town in Southern California, because she has a crush on an ex-boyfriend. That makes you really not want to watch the show, right? Rachel Bloom’s genius – she’s the creator and star – is that she makes this feminist, a comedy, AND A MUSICAL. Country & Western, Rap – there is no genre of song she doesn’t turn on its head, at the same time as flipping, or at least messing with, the corny love triangle at this story’s heart.
Reading: Jürgen Osterhammel’s history of the nineteenth century, The Transformation of the World. What can you say about this breath-taking kaleidoscope of narrative (and meta-narrative) history? It’s almost as impressive and various as the century it dissects.
The Transformation of the World attempts at once a synthesis and a critique – you might even say an exegesis – of contemporary historical scholarship on this most vital and arresting of periods. ‘The histories that interest me,’ Osterhammel writes, ‘do not involve a linear, ‘and then came such and such’ narrative spread over a hundred or more years; rather they consist of transitions and transformations.’
By training, Osterhammel is a specialist in Chinese history, but he clearly knows a thing or too about the burgeoning field of ‘macro-history’. His command of the historical literature is staggering. Each chapter reads like a self-contained essay, often of startling originality, on topics such as ‘energy and industry’ and ‘imperial systems and nation-states’. His turn of thought is inquisitive but also rigorous, and his approach to various topics is by turns surprising and provocative. Beginning his chapter on economic history, for instance, Osterhammel is confident enough to approach the industrial revolution by writing, in a teasing tone, that ‘it may be appropriate to place an essay on industry and energy at the beginning of the third part of this book’ (p. 637). The chapter is a crystalline masterpiece of historical writing. ‘It is time to decenter the Industrial Revolution,’ he quips. My response: hey, why not?
Osterhammel’s method is syncretic and panoramic. His chapter on cities, for instance, harks back to the classic work of Asa Briggs, while his chapter on the frontier wars that everywhere pressured and subjugated Indigenous peoples in the period is a masterpiece of historical scholarship and mordant style. While one reviewer has criticised ’a drastic mismatch between the immensity of scale and the modesty of argument’, for mine it is precisely his humility and polyglot historical philosophy that makes this such an enjoyable book.
Osterhammel concludes with another surprise: a rather optimistic perspective of the century’s achievements. Ideas, resources and people became more mobile than perhaps any time in world history since the break-up of the western Roman Empire – not always for the good, certainly, but dynamic and transformative nonetheless. Despite the century’s atrocities, it was also an epoch in which liberal tenets of equality and liberation made great strides, culminating in the miraculous year of 1863 when serfdom was abolished in Russia, and slavery emancipated in the Union-controlled United States. The century produced a global capitalist system and vast empires that spanned the globe. But it also incubated new ideologies of dissident ideas: socialism and anarchism, Jacksonian democracy and liberal constitutionalism. In the case of socialism, this ideological movement created an entirely new sort of state.
Finally, Osterhammel decides, the nineteenth century was a time of emancipation, which survived an era of rapacious colonialism and imperialism to flourish in unexpected places, particularly in Africa and Asia. Gazed at across the smoking ruins of Europe in 1918, ‘the world of yesterday’ described by Zweig seemed to have vanished forever. But the seeds of the social flora of the later twentieth century – Osterhammel names liberalism, pacifism, trade unionism and democratic socialism – had demonstrably been sown in the nineteenth.
Listening: nonkeen, The Gamble. German keyboardist and composer Nils Frahm reunites with his childhood trio nonkeen to release a lo-fi mashup of instrumental jazz/electronica. Nods to Keith Jarrett, Steve Reich and the kraut rock era are submerged in a gorgeous fuzzy wash of sound. The Can-meets-RJD2 track ‘Ceramic People’ is a highlight.
Listening: The recent Björk album Vulnicura reminds me of one of my favourite Björk albums, Vespertine. Vulnerable, sad, cerebral and overtly feminine (with its yonic cover art), Vulnicura is also a breakup album — as emotionally direct anything Björk has written with lines such as ‘Who is open chested / And who has coagulated?’ and ‘Did I love you too much?’ It lead me to revisit her earlier album Homogenic, whose first three tracks still make me tingle, their moody, twitchy verses overturned by epiphanic choruses. Locally, I’ve fallen for Methyl Ethel, a three-piece alternative band out of WA, whose great track ‘Twilight Driving’ I heard on the radio. Their album, Oh Inhuman Spectacle, is fantastic and haunting at times. In the song ‘Rogues’, the singer evokes the otherworldly feeling of an Australian heatwave in how he sings the lines, ‘It’s forty degrees outside in the sun / Forty-three …’, the ‘three’ raised and wavering the way a mirage in the distance shimmers.
Reading: On a flight to and from Perth I read Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, a psychological crime novel (also made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock) about two men who meet on a train, architect Guy Haines and goofy yet charming psychopath Charlie Bruno. Bruno suggests that because they both have someone in their lives they can’t stand (for Guy it’s his wife who he’s separated from, and for Bruno it’s his father) they should swap murders and that way get away with it. The further the narrative unfolded, the deeper I was drawn. Highsmith’s similes are always surprising, and she has a particularly disturbing ability to narrate the thoughts and motivations of men, whether the men are disturbed or not.
Notable poetry: Crankhandle by Alan Loney (from Cordite’s new series of contemporary poetry books and winner of this year’s VIC Premier’s Literary Award) is a slight but beautifully balanced collection of ‘Notes’ turned into poetry. Loney’s ongoing poetic observations of how we perceive are worth comparing to Martin Harrison’s oeuvre. Both their poetries are keenly interested in how language can communicate the nature of perception. Put crudely, Harrison’s poetry uses predominantly longer philosophical narratives to explore perception whereas Loney’s uses fragments and abstractions.
Watching: Sarah Lund and Saga Norén! (Scandinavian crime buffs will know what I’m talking about.) Also watched Carol, a film adaptation of the aforementioned Patricia Highsmith’s only non-crime/deathy novel (and which she wrote under a pseudonym): what a beautiful film.
Listening: Handed out like musical after-dinner mints to each attendee at the end of his recent short-notice ‘Piano & a Microphone’ shows, the bonus copy of Prince’s new album Hit n Run Phase Two has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been my ear-candy of choice this past week. It’s not quite up there with the cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You’ he performed live, but it’s certainly enough to sustain the buzz of one of the most extraordinary music events I’m likely to ever witness.
Reading: It was going to take a lot to distract me from Clarice Lispector’s Collected Stories, but news of Umberto Eco’s death did it. My first instinct was to return – once again – to Foucault’s Pendulum, a book that I am finding increasingly closer to non-fiction the more exposure I have to the inner workings of the book publishing industry. But alas, his more recent The Infinity of Lists (2009) has won out, perhaps the perfect balance of Eco’s sharpness, wit and generosity of spirit.
Watching: In preparation for Melbourne Cinémathèque’s upcoming Barbara Stanwyck season, I’ve found myself wading back through some of her lesser-known titles that stand just outside of the well-curated selection of her best work that will appear on ACMI’s big screen. Of these, Sam Fuller’s 1957 film Forty Guns is worth a mention, if only for Stanwyck’s outstanding response to one character’s observation that she looks upset: without missing a beat, Stanwyck retorts ‘I was born upset!’
Reading: Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work is one of those rare books which can change the world. It calls for the broader left to recapture the future through imagining a society beyond wage labour. Srnicek and Williams argue with clarity and force that we should struggle not for full employment but full unemployment. Shorter working hours, higher pay, a universal basic income and full automation form the core of this agenda. If you want to see a left which wins new rights then read this book.
Watching: Definitely not ads on broadcast television. At the beginning of 2016 I subscribed to Netflix and I haven’t watched any commercial network since. Jessica Jones, Orange is the New Black, Making a Murderer, and the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt surpass anything on offer from the commercial networks.
Watching the unfolding of an economic model for mainstream cultural production that doesn’t rely on the regular interruption of advertisements is a fun time.
Listening: 3CR’s Karl Fitzgerald on the Renegade Economists has been plugging away for seven years on sharing the naturally rising value of the earth among the wider community.
In his program, Karl breaks down the complexities of negative gearing, land taxes and developers squatting on vacant land to highlight how the 1% are waging a hidden war on the rest of us. Check it out at 5.30pm on Wednesdays or listen to the podcast.
Reading: In the best tradition of my being late to everything, I’ve embarked on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, primarily on the grounds I need another 2,000-page novel after finishing Elena Ferrante. I opted for the Italian translation, and since I read Italian books on my Kindle (to save on the time and cost of shipping), the length of the weightless novel seems even more indeterminate. I’m the equivalent of 300 pages in and it hasn’t really got going yet. In other words, it’s great.
And in books with pictures: don’t expect a critical perspective from Kate Evans’ graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Red Rosa. The book is almost devotional. But also, Evans’ artwork is stunning and her research into the writings of Luxemburg – personal as well as theoretical – is of value in itself.
Watching: More lateness, although it’s only showing here in cinemas now as part of the French film festival, but do get hold of Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea if you can. Filmed in Rosarno, Italy, and set in the lead-up to the 2010 riots, it tells the story of two Burkinabe friends who cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life. It’s an admirably unsentimental portrait, helped immeasurably by the strength of the actors and especially its protagonist, an immigrant met by Carpignano after the riots whose life story closely matches his character’s. I say late, but of course this kind of film will remain timely for quite some time.
Reading: I’ve been making my way through this year’s Stella longlist, which is a superb list of recommendations in itself, so would like to use this space to recommend a 2014 New Inquiry essay I recently found. ‘Don’t Look Now’ re-examines the reactions and actions of witnesses to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese – a horrific attack that gave birth to the ‘bystander effect’ theory (that is, that in crowds, no individual feels the responsibility to take action). Turns out that nearly all of those accounts about the night and the witnesses, related by the New York Times and others since, were wrong. But it’s the ways in which they were wrong that matter.
Watching: Phoenix. I heard someone say they didn’t think the film very realistic, and I suppose that when you describe it as being about a woman who was shot in the face and left for dead in Auschwitz, who is saved by her friend, gets plastic surgery and so looks different, and then meets her husband and pretends to be someone else because he fails to recognise her, it possibly does.
But this is an exquisite and searing film, on every level, and is ultimately about, I think, the different ways people deal with the guilt of surviving. Coupled with Gail Jones’ A Guide to Berlin, which I read the same week, I was left mired in the feeling that the history of Germany, and Berlin in particular, begins at the Second World War.
Playing: Fantastic and fantastical, Don’t Starve Together is a maze of science, magic, survivalism and strange monsters, where insanity and starvation hover on the horizon. The best part is that you can play it communally, so you survive and travel to other worlds, or starve, together.
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