A small selection of books and magazines I’m (mostly not) reading.

The Poetry of List-Making

This post is in response to a Wordpress prompt, which I think, to my shame, is more than a week old now, on List-making. The link is above – clicking the link will take you to all the posts written in response to this prompt.

Poetry is beyond me if I’m going to get this post published today, so – look, behold! A non-poetic list of the books piled up on my bedside table, for all the world as if I’m reading them, and then, another list, providing a bit more information about where they sit on the scale of being read or not being read, or something in-between.

List 1: Books on my bedside table

  1. In Fact – The Best of Creative Non Fiction – Edited by Lee Gutkind
  2. Olive Kitteridge,  by Elizabeth Strout
  3. An Intimate History of Humanity, by Theodore Zeldin
  4. The Memoir Book, by Patti Miller
  5. Raising Girls, by Gisela Preuschoff
  6. Wassily Kandinsky – Concerning The Spiritual In Art, translated and with an introduction by M.T.H Sadler
  7. The Artist’s Way (A Course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self) – Julia Cameron
  8. 2 different copies of The Monthly, an Australian magazine focussing on “Politics, Society and Culture”
  9. 1 copy of Believer, an American literary magazine
  10. 1 copy of The Canary Press, an Australian “story” magazine

Books on bedside table

 

List 2:  Notes on the books on my bedside table:

      1. In Fact – Time spent on the bedside table: about 4 weeks so far. I just started reading this about a week ago. The essay that made the greatest impression on me so far is the first one, Three Spheres by Lauren Slater, a piece about a psychologist who finds herself treating a bi-polar bulimic woman in the very same unit where she had been treated for the same disorders a decade earlier.
      2. Olive Kitteridge has been there only about a month. It was given to me by my partner (who constantly finds and buys cheap books at Op Shops/Thrift Stores) so went straight onto the bedside table. It’s a novel, and winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize, so must be worth reading, right?
      3. Half read, has been there about 3 months. I was ploughing through An Intimate History of Humanity and enjoying it’s unusual, and, yes, intimate, take on history, with chapters entitled How some people have acquired an immunity to loneliness, and Why there has been more progress in cooking than in sex, but then came to a grinding halt, suddenly felt bored, and decided to read some fiction, so that’s what I’ve done over the past few weeks. Planning to go back and read the rest…sometime soon.
      4. Time on the bedside table: a couple of years. It’s there for guidance: I read bits and pieces of The Memoir Book intermittently when I need inspiration for writing, as it contains some good ideas for writing exercises. Have never read through the entire book from start to end.
      5. Raising Girls has been next to my bedside table, possibly since my daughter was in primary school. She is now in year 11 and I have yet to open it. At this stage, my modified plan is to wait until she is 21, and then read it to find out just how much I got wrong.
      6. I love Kandinsky’s paintings – but then again, there are a lot of paintings I like. My interest in Kandinsky is no stronger than my interest in any other artist of his era. Nevertheless, about 3 years ago, completely unprompted, a work colleague brought this book in to work to lend to me. I have to admit, I have not made much headway with it. It sat there for about a year before I opened it. At that point, I gave it a try, and got about as far as the end of the introduction. It’s kind of awkward now to give it back and say that I haven’t read it, so it continues to sit on my bedside table. We stare at each other sometimes, that book and I, but then I pick up something else.
      7. The Artist’s Way is another book that my partner found in an Op Shop and brought home for me, sometime within the last year. He obviously thought, very sweetly, that it would be inspiring for me, so I put it on my bedside table. I have not opened it yet.
      8. 2 old copies of The Monthly were purchased for about $1 each in an Op Shop, probably 5 months ago. I picked one out because I mistakenly thought it had a portrait (the written variety) of our previous prime minister Julia Gillard in it. My interest in that was mainly because I needed to write a portrait of someone, as part of a writing course I was doing online, and I thought it would be useful to read an example. But the article turned out to be a general one about sexism in politics in the time that Gillard was prime minister – not what I was after. The other copy was their Summer issue, with a long list of authors on the cover, so I bought it on the assumption that it would include lots of short pieces of writing to read and learn from. So far I have not opened it.
      9. About 2 years ago, my partner gave me a subscription to The Believer magazine for my birthday, knowing my interest in reading essays and pieces of non-fiction writing, or perhaps mainly because Nick Hornby writes the music criticism and we both enjoy Hornby’s fiction. There seemed to be some kind of stuff-up with the subscription though, so it took about a year before the issues actually started arriving. This must have been the final issue, which probably only arrived early this year. I’ve read most of it but perhaps didn’t finish it. It includes a short story by Miranda July, a contemporary artist who dabbles in all sorts of media, including films, and writing short stories. I’ve enjoyed any of her writing that I’ve read so far. I found some articles in Believer were a bit too dry and intellectual for my (very average) tastes/abilities, and there are a lot of interviews with people I’ve never heard of (eg in this issue, Michael Schur, Ronald Cotton, Jerry Stahl, Megan Rapinoe) so of course, that has the effect of making me feel as if I’m not the culturally aware (and American) intellectual they are writing for. Has probably been there about 6 months.
      10. The year before that, my partner gave me a subscription to The Canary Press for my birthday. It was  a risk on his part, because the magazine only publishes fiction, and my interest in writing lies more in non-fiction.  I read fiction, although not normally in magazines, where I mostly look for non-fiction articles. Still, as it was a gift, tentatively, I gave it a go. Well, to my surprise, I fell instantly in love with this magazine. It’s the best literary magazine I’ve ever found, largely because the editors have such a sense of humour about their endeavour – which is definitely NOT to say that all the writing they publish is humorous, nor that the magazine should not be taken seriously.  I loved it so much that the following year when my copies of Believer were steadfastly failing to arrive, I found myself thinking back fondly to the days when I had a subscription to The Canary Press. Eventually, I just took out another subscription myself. (It was surprisingly well priced!) The stories constantly surprise me with their creativity and are unlike anything I’d ever think to write, yet if I aspired to writing fictional stories, I could do worse than aspire to write something suitable for this magazine. Each issue usually includes one piece by a well-established writer, such as Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proux, which I re-read in a previous issue with great pleasure, having completely forgotten that it was a short story, mis-remembering it as a full-blown novel. I think I finished reading the issue that’s on the bedside table, so I’m not sure how long it’s been there, or why it is still there, either. I put it down to laziness. Or fondness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Television, Man.

Not many CVs include it under Hobbies, but a popular pastime these days – amongst people over 30 with nothing better to do, anyway – is to binge-watch entire series of television shows all in one sitting.

Way back in the prehistoric era – that is, when I was in primary school – we’d have to wait with bated breath, from 9pm Sunday night right through to the next Sunday night at 8pm, to find out if Laura and Mary Ingalls would finally get a cute puppy to guard their little house on the prairie from ferocious wolves and bears. Oh, the anticipation! (Others apparently had to wait a whole summer to find out who shot JR, but we were never allowed to watch television shows with Adult themes so we were spared that agony.)

Whole decades later, not much had changed in this regard, or not in Australia anyway. Right through the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s, viewers without Foxtel (by the 2000s, this was possibly just me) were still kept on the edge of their seats, waiting a full week for the next episode of NYPD Blue, or CSI Miami, or sometimes even a show that wasn’t an American police drama, such as The X-files. Sometimes the show wasn’t even American, believe it or not, in fact, I never watched any of the shows mentioned above, but I did sometimes turn to SBS and watch Austrian police drama, Inspector Rex.

Things only changed recently in this regard, in Australia, at least, with the arrival of streaming services over the internet (I hope I’ve got that terminology right. If you have a complaint about incorrect terminology  please send it to the PO Box address at the top of the page, allowing up to 4 weeks for Australia Post to deliver, but only if you live in the next street. If you are further away than that, we recommend carrier pigeon, which is cheaper and more reliable.) Of course, everyone with an internet connection – basically anyone except my parents, who still enjoy sitting back to watch an episode of Ma and Pa Kettle on VHS – has access to streaming services like Netflix™ or Stan.™

Ma_and_Pa_Kettle

Ma and Pa Kettle, still going strong in the Ma and Pa Blathering household.

Pic: dvdclassicscorner.com

Released from the shackles of free-to-air TV, no longer do we have to wait a whole week to find out what disastrous conniving Frank Underwood will come up with next. In fact, there’s nothing but but sheer self-discipline to stop us from succumbing and watching through a whole series of our favourite show all in one sitting, so completely absorbed that we even forget it’s bin night, only remembering with a shock the next morning, when we are woken by the clank of the garbage truck, realising in that same moment that we’ve missed the garbage collection, and, what’s more, that binge-watching TV is destroying our lives and the lives of those around us, who now have to put up with an overflowing rubbish bin for a whole week.

Overflowing_bins_1672021c

After a few weeks of binge-watching TV those bins can get out of hand.

Pic: The Telegraph

The only hitch for me in this delightful new model of leisure-time activity is that I seem to have trouble fully succumbing. I’m still bothered by a niggling need to be doing something. Of course, in this context, I use the term something fairly loosely. Since something pretty much means anything that is not nothing, then I guess I could blow my nose and that would suffice, but I am driven by the need to something that feels just slightly more useful, or productive, or meaningful, than nose-blowing. Only slightly, mind you.

Even reading a novel fits my category of something that’s more productive than watching TV, since reading a literary book these days feels as virtuous as engaging in any other equally quaint and archaic pursuit might do. In terms of how virtuous I feel about doing it, I may as well have with baked my own bread from wheat that I’ve grown and harvested in my tiny inner-suburban backyard, or sewn my own clothes, from fabric that I’ve previously woven on the loom I keep in the attic. All the above activities involve using technology that is slowly dying out, to achieve an outcome that – some would argue – can be achieved through much more efficient means.

If a book doesn’t feature a celebrity chef, celebrity sportsperson, or celebrity celebrity on the cover, or promise to supply you with the tools to change your life, then reading it seems to be an activity that is looked on with bemusement by most people. This vocal majority cannot fathom why we bother, when there are so many games available to download from the App Store, feeds to follow on social media, and shows to stream on Netflix. Plus, the Olympics are on, or so I’ve heard.

But I digress.

Because of this annoying compulsion to be productive, my absolute threshold for bingeing on television shows is 3 episodes in a row of House of Cards, after which time I feel compelled by forces beyond my control, to go and do that useful something. Up I rise, from the couch, and off I self-righteously trot, probably straight to my laptop, where it’s likely that, although intending to write a witty post on my blog, I’ll spend the next 45 minutes idly scrolling through social media posts, or trying to locate someone I haven’t seen since 1976 (not actually with any intention of contacting them, you understand, more out of curiosity to see if they still have any hair).

After a good part of the next hour has been lost for ever, I’ll be overcome with guilt at all the time I’ve wasted, and scramble to do some hurried edits on a half-written post that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – most likely, deleting a comma and then, with a flourish, inserting a dash instead – before packing up and going to bed, with a sense of satisfaction at another day put to good use.

But, as regular readers (hi Mum!)* will know, I do binge occasionally, only, it’s usually on music. In fact, this very blog is to blame. Yes, that’s right, as far as blogs go, it may look as though butter wouldn’t melt in it’s mouth*, but it’s been the cause of more than a few musical binges before, during, or after I’ve mentioned some music while writing a post. Maybe I used a lyric as a title to a post – next thing you know, I’ve listened to an entire back catalogue four times while writing the post, and had a particular song stuck in my head for about three weeks until I can’t bear to catch myself humming it yet again.

But, my friends, those musical binges will have to be a tale for another post. Today’s post, which has been slowly written over a week, including sessions where I probably did do little more than delete some commas and insert some dashes – hopefully with outstanding results – was really about the major conflict experienced in modern life: being torn between indulgently binge-watching our way through a whole TV series, whilst also experiencing an annoying urge to be creative and/or productive.

The moral of today’s tale is, quite clearly: those who binge-watch too much TV will end up with a row of overflowing smelly garbage bins, and those who are all smarmy about how they don’t watch much TV at all, are probably lying; or just have really bad memories – and, furthermore, likely to be the sort of person who drastically overuses the dash.

 

*

*I’ve never understood what butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth really means, or rather, I get that it means that someone looks innocent when they are not, but I don’t understand how the analogy of butter melting in someone’s mouth came to be used to convey that concept. If you know the history to how this became a common turn of phrase, please write to the PO Box at the top of the page, or if you don’t trust Australia Post not to return your mail by accident, then please write your answer in the comments section. All correct answers will receive an honourable mention in next month’s newsletter.

*Observant readers will have picked up that my mother does not have internet at home, so for her to be reading my blog regularly, it would need to be available as an animated version transferred onto VHS tape. That in itself is a fantastical option, and if you add in the need to post them to her via Australia Post, you will realise that whenever I refer to my mother reading my blog I am cracking a halarious inside joke, which never fails to be amusing to at least one of the persons writing this blog.

 

Fade To Grey

I have a lot of admiration, and more than a little envy, for bloggers who are able to write a post every day, every other day, or even every week. I’ve successfully managed to make my life so busy at this particular point in time, that I can’t seem to write a post more than about once a fortnight, sometimes longer. I love the creative exercise of writing, and I spend a lot of time in the back of my mind while doing other things, imagining that if I had more time, I’d be writing.

But would I?

Sometimes I think I’m fooling myself. When I’m really flat out, juggling my two part-time jobs in non-profit arts organisations (that frequently require more time put into them than one full time job would), driving my daughter to appointments and extra-curricular activities, cooking, cleaning, spending time on weekends catching up on work, or making long overdue trips to see family, etc, I tell myself if only. If only I wasn’t doing this, I’d be sitting at my laptop writing.

But one evening recently I gave myself the night off from checking and replying to emails for the little theatre company I work for, and thought I’d write a post. I got out my laptop, sat myself in front of it, and recalled a list of possible topics that I had developed in the back of my mind. Suddenly, now that I had allowed myself time to write, it was apparent that all my ideas were only half-formed and had no substance. Just like the haze floating on the stage at the start of a theatre show, when I tried to pin them down, they faded away, revealing that there was no substance to them in the first place. I felt a definite lack of inspiration and couldn’t even muster up the energy to try.

I suppose this is called “Writer’s Block”, although I feel a bit of a fraud using that term, since I never refer to myself as a Writer, with a capital W, as if it’s my main occupation. Occasionally I’ll admit to the fact that I write – I allow myself to describe the activity, to claim writing as a verb that I do, but I don’t use the noun, or claim that it’s something that I am. Much as I don’t claim the title of Singer, although I do admit to singing, in the shower, in the kitchen, and in the car.

Thinking further about Writer’s Block though, it occurs to me that it’s possible to suffer from Athlete’s Foot without being an athlete, so I’ll accept that Writer’s Block is a term for a condition that anyone, even a lame, one-post-every-few-weeks blogger can suffer from. If only a tube of Canesten(TM) could swiftly clear it up!

If only it had the power to clear up the symptoms of writer's block.

Time someone invented a cream to free the brain from the symptoms of writer’s block. Directions: Before bedtime, drink one large glass of red wine, and rub an entire tube of cream directly onto the skull for maximum un-blocking action.

Perhaps right now, I need to take some time to work on my ideas. That is a frustrating realisation, when it’s taken me 3 weeks just to find time to write – I don’t want to have to delay publishing a post even longer, I want instant results!

As a blogger, I’m aware there’s a need to post on my blog as often as possible – that’s one of the ways to keep your followers engaged, right? My followers, even the imaginary ones, must be tired of the Test Pattern replacing real programs. I can see them all – stretched on the couch, yawning, scratching themselves and clicking the remote control to see what else is on.

Blogging is great for developing skills in writing about 800 – 1000 words pretty spontaneously, tidying them up a bit, and publishing – and hopefully producing a comprehensible and interesting piece of writing on most occasions. I’m not suggesting that I’ve produced any earth-shatteringly good writing using this method. I don’t expect the New York Times will text me this afternoon to see if I’m available to write a weekly column. But I like to think my – mostly spontaneous – posts, on which I’ve usually spent 2-3 hours at the most, have been adequate. But, as a blogger, the impetus to post as frequently as possible sometimes conflicts with the desire to change pace a little bit, and write something that is considered and researched, rather than just spontaneously writing whatever comes into my head and pressing the Publish button.

While I mull over what to write about next, and perhaps even try to plan how I’ll write it this time, I am undertaking at least one course of action that is recommended by most writers, and that is – reading. When I can snatch some time – usually at breakfast – I’ve been reading posts by other bloggers, articles and essays that I discover when someone tweets a link, and, not least, I’ve been reading real, actual books.

In fact I think it is all the reading I’ve been doing, across such a variety of media and topics, that is to blame for why my head was full of vaguely formed, half-thought-out ideas. Reading is definitely what stimulates a lot of my ideas, but perhaps, like Virginia Woolf, I should carefully plan my reading too.

Of course, back in the first half of the 20th century it was pretty easy for Woolf to plan her daily reading. It’s much harder in 2013, when my Twitter feed is full of links to articles and essays on topics ranging from music to feminism to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

After all, there are only so many links I can “favourite” to come back to later, before my list of favourites is so long that it’s just another never-ending feed of ideas that only serves to make me feel that I don’t have time to concentrate on any one idea properly.

Maybe I will try to select from the plethora of possible topics that bombard my mind every day and focus on just one of them. Hopefully when I next post, some of those half-formed ideas will have been slapped into shape.

Read about it

For some reason, I suddenly have a desire to start keeping a record of the books I’m reading.

What has prompted this desire, I cannot say. Do I think I’m so famous and well regarded in literary circles that the world is clamouring to know what I’ve been reading? Um…….no. I am not even deluded enough to think that my friends, family or casual aquaintances are interested in viewing a list of the books I’ve read/am reading. I’m pretty certain it could be of no interest to strangers who land on this blog. Hell, let’s face it, even my imaginary readers, as supportive as those lovely people are, have no reason to be interested in a list of books that I have read, since they would be unable to read them anyway.

So why do I suddenly have this urge to record a list of  the books I’ve read?

Perhaps it’s a desire to enrich my own writing with better recall of what I’ve read. Perhaps I want to see what is revealed about myself through the list of books that I have lately chosen to read. Perhaps it’s just another ploy to create a diversion, in an effort to avoid thinking about my brother’s death last September.

But if I was to be completely honest,  I would have to admit that I’m thinking about writing down the books I’ve read since my brother died. Again, I’m not really sure why.

Maybe I want to check to see if I’ve been reading books that seem appropriate to someone who is grieving. Or, conversely, maybe I want to see if I’ve managed to read books that have nothing to do with sadness and people dying. Perhaps I want to see if I’ve read a well rounded balance of both. I don’t know.

Anyway, it seemed like material for a  post. I am not going to write reviews of each book, as that would make this post far too long.

Here they are, in kind of backwards chronological order, starting with most recently read, as best as I can recall:

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. I wrote a post about this book, which you can read here.

Surrender, by Sonya Hartnett. I have started to sometimes delve into the world of books written for teenagers and/or young adults, because I have an almost-teenager who is a prolific reader, and it’s nice to know what she is reading. It’s also good to discover quality books for this  demographic that adults can also enjoy. Some, such as this story, are complex enough to suggest that the only reason it’s classed as “kids” literature is because the main characters are teenagers. Surrender is about a boy who is dying, so yes, I did choose to read it for that reason as well. It turned out to be a dark, psychological tale with a slightly surreal feeling to it, about two boys – or is it? In the end, I was never quite sure whether there was two boys, or whether they were the alter egos, or dying imaginings, of one person. Worth a read.

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Well known American writer and journalist Joan Didion’s memoir about her life in the year after her husband died. Yes, I deliberately chose to read it for that reason, and in fact, I had read it once already, probably only about a year earlier.  So I knew what I was in for, and of course I had a different, more moving experience reading it the second time. This time I cried, not just out of sympathy, but out of recognition, for example when Didion describes her obsession with  calculating  how many hours he’d had left to live when some trivial incident happened.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon. Outside of actually reading books to my daughter, this one was my first foray into reading a “kid’s” book to myself, and I would encourage any adult to read it. I can’t say too much about the topic of death in this case without giving out plot spoilers, but I’ll just say that I did not expect it to have anything to do with death, and that it was an enjoyable, moving and rewarding read.

A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I’d read some short stories by Egan many years ago that I really liked. This novel is like a collage of stories, where each chapter jumps in time periods and locations, and where characters who feature in one chapter are secondary characters in someone else’s life in later chapters, but the entire effect is of their lives all being connected across generations and locations. I did not necessarily expect any thematic links to death when  choosing to read this, but, inevitably in a book which ranges across a period of about 40 years in the lives of at least about 20 characters, someone does die. Highly recommended if you like this kind of thing. I do.

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