Wrestling with cold turkey – a book addict at Writers’ Week

IMG_3666 (1)I’ve been pretty blog-lax lately and while the list of books I need to write about is lengthening, I’ve realized that I’ve yet to post about how I’m coping with breaking my book-buying addiction.

To be blunt – it hasn’t been a walk in the park. Buying books (new or second-hand) used to be an intrinsic part of my week. It’s taken time and effort to counteract the reflex to buy whatever titles spark my interest. Books are so easily justified. They’re good for you. Only a die-hard anti-intellectual could possibly mount an argument against reading (and they’d be ill-advised to test their theories near me or any of my friends).

Which brings me to Adelaide Writers’ Week. I love it. It’s a highlight of my year. Seeing authors I admire in the flesh. Discovering new writers and their books. Listening to them talk about their art, ideas and process. Sometimes getting to meet them (but mostly avoiding this knowing that my default conversational setting when faced with someone I admire is gush – ugh, it’s making me cringe just thinking about it).

Anyway, as much as I love Writers’ Week, there’s a downside. I find it socially exhausting and financially draining.  It’s hard to go anywhere in Adelaide without tripping over someone you know.  At Writers’ Week, you can amplify this phenomenon by an order of magnitude. Local writers at Writers’ Week are like fleas on dogs. Lovely, friendly fleas but the point is the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden is infested, so you can guarantee that every moment not spent listening to a session will be spent chatting, nodding, waving or having lunch, drinks or dinner with other writers, poets or literary folk. Social exhaustion generally hits by Day Three and by the end of the week I can be found rocking on the couch in the foetal position.

Then there’s dealing with the vortex of the book tent. Or not dealing with it. Normally, I just let myself fall prey to its magnetism.  I listen to a writer. They peak my interest. I buy their book. Simple. Each night I stagger home laden like a mule with bags of books.

Not this year. This year I had a commitment not to buy any books. What was I to do? Not buying books at Writers’ Week was like promising myself not to breathe.

Clearly, I needed a plan. The answer presented itself the moment I called the problem by its true name –  addiction. How do you change your behaviour to avoid the temptation of addiction? Just like drugs, smoking or alcohol – avoid the triggers.IMG_3660

Well, crap. That’s very easily said but how to do it without depriving myself of the whole festival? I still wanted to attend the sessions and glean as much inspiration and motivation from the speakers as possible. One of my closest friends was chairing two sessions, so just staying home was out of the question.

Trigger avoidance coupled with strict time and energy management. That’s what it boiled down to in the end.

Before the week kicked off, I got out my program and highlighter pen and set to work.

Ojectives? Avoid the book tent and social exhaustion. In past years, I’ve often given myself social down time by enjoying periods of extended browsing in the book tent.  So, limiting social exhaustion would be a key element in avoiding the book tent. Drinking with friends also had a secondary consequence in that it eroded my resolve, so avoiding the bar would also be a primary goal.

The plan?

  1. Attend only 3-4 sessions a day (a morning or an afternoon).
  2. Bring my own food and drink.
  3. Ride my bike (to make sure I didn’t stay out at night or drink too much with friends – I’m an extremely wobbly rider when drunk).
  4. DO NOT ENTER THE BOOK TENT.

The result?

Success. Every day of Writers’ Week attended and not one book purchased. (However, I did add a considerable number of entries to my list of “books resisted”.)

Ok. Complete honesty.  I did enter the book tent at one point on the first day – but I did it with a friend and we went in with the sole purpose of finding and admiring her beautiful book (Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson) as it sat proudly in two stacks on the table among all the Adelaide Writers’ Week titles. I can only hope that sometime in the future I see my own book/books sitting there. One day.

Time management and trigger avoidance, people. That’s how you get through Writers’ Week with money in your pocket, no hangovers and enough energy to function as an adequate human for the rest of Mad March in Adelaide. It is possible. A little sad, but possible all the same.

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How to write

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I’m not a big fan of self-help books. My in-laws used to sell Amway and had a shelf groaning under the weight of books touting every conceivable method self-improvement, from how to make people like you to the swiftest ways to make millions. (Unsurprisingly, they still seem like the same very likeable people they were prior to reading and not noticeably any wealthier.)  IMG_3640

This is where I out myself as a hypocrite since I have a similar shelf in my writing studio packed with books on how to write. How to write fiction, how to write poetry, guides to narrative style and how to read like a writer. There’s even the quite hilariously titled How to make a living as a poet.

If I’ve learned anything from this shelf of literature on how to write, it’s that if you want to learn the craft there are various ways you can approach it.  These methods are not mutually exclusive, in fact I would recommend all of them both individually and in concert. Lucky for you, lovely reader, my recent reading has included examples of all these various approaches. (Whether or not I successfully apply what I’ve learned from these books to my work is another question.)IMG_3647

Dear Writer… revisited by Carmel Bird

This is a brilliant example of a nuts and bolts “how to write” guide by one of Australia’s most gifted and experienced writers. Structured as a series of letters from a mentor to an inexperienced writer, this book is packed with sage and shrewd advice on both the art and craft of literary fiction.

Bird takes on the fictional persona of writing mentor Virginia O’Day and each chapter is a letter to her student, offering advice on the writing and rewriting of a short story.  In each letter a new aspect of craft is addressed, such as point of view, narration, beginnings and endings, use of adverbs and adjectives, the role of imagination and attuning your ear to the rhythm of prose.  As the relationship between the mentor and student progresses and the student’s writing improves, the advice expands to encompass the writing life –  how to deal with writer’s block, keeping notebooks, dedication and time management and, finally, how to seek publication.

This book is a beautiful distillation of all Bird has learned from a life dedicated to writing.  It is a beginner’s guide but has much to offer those already well down the path. It is affirming and encouraging while simultaneously insisting on excellence.

This is a brilliant example of the most recognisable variety of “how to write” literature. The next kind is a little less obvious.IMG_3646

The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood

I’m a huge fan of The Paris Review, which is a literary journal published in New York. One of the things I love most about this publication is the series of interviews with writers. Each issue has an extended interview with a writer (poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, you name it) and they talk at length and great depth about art, craft and the writing life.

The Writer’s Room is everything I love about The Paris Review interview series but instead of interviewing internationally recognisable literary names, this book focusses on the big names of Australia’s literary scene.  Charlotte Wood, who is a brilliant novelist (please, please read The Natural Way of Things) has interviewed Tegan Bennet Daylight, Joan London, Malcom Knox, Christos Tsiolkas, Kim Scott and Margo Lanagan – just to name a few – and the result is completely addictive. I got to the end of this book and it left me ravenous for more and seriously wanting to plead with Charlotte to launch a serial Paris Review (Australian edition).

If you are a reader, these conversations are fascinating, insightful and engaging. If you are a writer, they are gold.  Everything you’ve ever wanted to ask a writer is here and the answers are both generous and frank.  Wood is an exceptional interviewer. It’s clear that she puts the writers completely at ease and the fact that she is one of them means that these are conversations between equals. To read this book is to eavesdrop on professionals talking about everything from putting words into sentences to navigating publishing and the literary life. It’s like a private literary festival happening in your lounge room while you sit on your couch with a dog and a gin and tonic.  Bliss.IMG_3645

Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson

We’ve covered orthodox guides on “how to write” and books that give insight into the lives and processes of successful writers but the third kind of book that I would recommend if you want to learn how to write is the kind that contains superb content and technique.

It’s no secret that I am one of those opinionated folks who thinks it’s impossible to become a writer if you don’t read. I just don’t understand it. Flat out do not get it. If you don’t read books then why on earth would you want to write one?  And how would you know the first thing about how to do it successfully? Readers know.

Readers are intimately acquainted with what makes a good book, what makes a sentence sing and keeps people turning pages, still awake at three in the morning because sleep is impossible without knowing what happens next. They might not be able to replicate it at first if they sat down and tried to write a vampire romance or a police procedural – every skill takes practice – but they do know good writing when they encounter it.

This is why I’m including Barking Dogs on this list of “how to write” books – because I passionately believe reading excellent books to be an essential part of being a writer. If you read books with a writer’s eye you learn just as much, if not more, than you would reading a straight up and down “how to write” text-book.

Barking Dogs is a novel in stories by one of Australia’s most gifted and accomplished short story writers. Each of the stories in this book stands alone as a short story and works as a chapter in a compelling novel about a regional town being slowly and painfully transformed into suburbia.  The novel is set in the town of Mount Barker in South Australia and the stories are slow burners – you’ll be turning them over and over in your mind for days afterward.

The stories are captivating but how they are written – the language, the rhythm and the space and weight given to each sentence – is just as significant. Read “Here we lie” for the dark, slow burn, “The five truths of manhood” for breath-taking use of language and ingenious structure and “Something special, something rare” for a textbook-worthy example of how a great writer uses insight and empathy to create totally convincing characters.DSC_2757

This is the kind of book that is much, much more than just a pleasure to read. In the right hands, Barking Dogs is also a primer on writing technique and the art of the short story.

So there you have it – my two cent’s worth on how to learn to be a better writer. Try some “how to write” books.  Find inspiration by reading about the lives and processes of other writers. And finally, read great books and while you are doing this, try to keep an eye on technique. It’s hard. Good books sweep you away. But if you try to read with the secondary objective of analysing the writer’s method you’ll hopefully glean some ideas on how to apply their techniques to your own practice.

Richard III

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I’ve been doing quite a bit of arts reviewing lately – poetry, film, theatre – and while I love being an arts consumer, being a critic can be more time consuming than you’d think.  If I’m reviewing something that is based on a literary work (a novel, play, poetry collection – whatever) then there’s no question that reading the book is an essential part of being an informed critic. Even reviewing a film requires serious research. I want to be well-informed and relatively knowledgeable about the director’s back catalogue and other films in the genre. Context, people! Nothing is created in a vacuum. (Physicists please don’t take me to task – I’m just being flippant.)

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All this has meant that my creative work has been on the back-burner while the Adelaide Festival and Fringe are in town. It’s not called Mad March for nothing (and the madness actually starts in February but now I just sound pedantic.) Anyway, I submitted my last film review a week ago and breathed a sigh of relief. The only shows on my horizon were for pleasure rather than business.

Then my editor emailed me to say her reviewer for Richard III couldn’t do it – did I want the gig? Did I want this gig? Ha! This is Richard III performed by Schaubühne Berlin under the artistic direction of Thomas Ostermeier – one of the most famous theatre companies in the world.

richard3-1So out came my old copy of the play and I settled myself down to reread it.  There is so much to love about Shakespeare. Aside from revelling in the gorgeous language and his insight into human nature, I just love the feeling it arouses in me – the acute pleasure of holding an old copy in my hands and reading not just Shakespeare’s lines but all the previous owners’ underlinings and marginalia.

So last night Andrew and I wandered around Adelaide’s Victoria Square Night Market before taking our seats in Her Majesty’s Theatre for Schaubühne Berlin’s production of Richard III. If you want to read my review for InDaily you can find it here. If you can’t be arsed, suffice it to say that the show was brilliant. Even Andrew, who’s not a die-hard Shakespeare fan and had not read the play, was transfixed. Lars Eidinger’s portrayal of Shakespeare’s most malevolent hero was unsettlingly captivating. While the original text was streamlined for this production, the cuts were artfully done and none of the power or meaning was lost.

This is one aspect of why arts reviewing is such a wonderful occupation – being given the opportunity to witness and appreciate the world’s finest artists interpret and reinvigorate the classics is a gift. And thank you to whichever deity is responsible for books and libraries that I already owned a copy of Richard III. No fudging or frantic book-search required. The Year of No New Books continues with another classic text dusted off for one more day in the sun.

(If you are in Adelaide, this production of Richard III is playing until March 9 and I highly recommend you get your tickets now!)

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Rereading Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting, Porno & their film and stage adaptations

t2-1One of the objectives behind the Year of No New Books was to encourage me to reread books that I’ve loved (or at least highly respected) in the past. I’d recently become quite an advocate for the rereading of books after discovering that a second reading, particularly if it happened soon after the initial one, deeply enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the text.

Back when I worked as a bookseller, I’d been one of the organisers of my local bookshop’s bookclub. Customers would pay a small fee and come along to the monthly gathering where we would nestle in comfy armchairs in front of the open fire at our local pub and, with a glass of wine in hand, we’d discuss the book. To ensure a lively debate, I’d always make sure I was well prepared and would thoroughly research the book in question – reading reviews and author interviews, taking extensive notes on themes, character development, historical context – you know the drill.

A significant part of my process was reading the book twice. Until I made this an intrinsic part of my preparation I had no idea how plot-focused I was as a reader.  On my first reading I’d usually be so obsessed with what was happening and trying to second-guess what was about to happen that appreciation of all the other aspects of the book would fade into the background. It wasn’t until I reread a book that I’d be freed from my preoccupation with plot and could really concentrate on all the other aspects of the author’s skill. Although I’d appreciate these underlying features on some level during the initial reading, I’d not be analysing them with the attention or depth I’d give them on my second pass at the book.

Anyway, that was a long-winded way of explaining my consideration of rereading as an act of profound engagement with a book.

t1-1My first reread of a much-loved novel for the year was Trainspotting. It wouldn’t have been my first choice but I was asked to review Trainspotting Live, a stage production showing at the Adelaide Fringe, so I thought I’d better reread the novel then re-watch the film in preparation for reviewing the performance. I’d forgotten how much I loved the language. Reading phonetic Scots is like a reading foreign language in which I’m only semi-literate. It’s such slow going! It truly feels like an act of translation. But I loved what it did to my reading. I lingered over sentences until I heard the flow of their speech in my mind. This is the way I should read all the time – giving every line close attention, treating the sentences like valued individuals. It was a revelation.

I’d also forgotten how much the novel differed from the film in structure and point of view. The novel comprises short powerful stories all told from the perspective of various characters. The main four (Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie) all have multiple stories but minor characters are also given a voice. The stores told by the female and HIV positive characters I found to be especially powerful.

The film was a jolt of nostalgia. It’s a classic and I’ll never forget the shock of seeing it on the big screen back in the mid-nineties. The music! For me, it was one of the defining pieces of cinema of my youth.

trainspotting-live-adelaide-fringe-1200x675So, I saw the stage production and submitted my review (if you want to read my piece, here it is). Then, because I was clearly all over Irvine Welsh’s early work, my editor offered me the chance to review the film sequel T2 – Trainspotting. The problem was I’d lost my copy of Porno (the book on which the sequel is based) and of course, being the Year of No New Books, I couldn’t just pop out and buy a new copy.

I tried the local library. Their copy was lost in transit somewhere between Quorn and Stirling. I put out a call on facebook. No joy. I tried the University Library, the State Library – my friend even put a hold on a copy down in Port Adelaide. It seemed every publically available copy was currently being read by a member of said public. In desperation I tried second-hand bookshops whose profits go to charity. Oxfam, Lions Club, The Hutt. No dice. Eventually, with two days left before the film opened I sent my poor husband into Dymock’s to buy a copy so I could claim that I didn’t purchase it. It would be “a gift”. Despite my ridiculous and dodgy navigation of my self-imposed rule there was no other way to look at it. I had failed. Andrew claimed that I could lodge an appeal on the grounds of employment – as part of my work I needed to read a copy and thus could justify it since all other efforts to acquire a copy had proved unsuccessful.

All I can say in my defense is that my review (click here) was more thorough for the indirect breaking of my vow.  And while neither Porno (now republished as T2 Trainspotting) nor its film adaptation are the equal of their brilliant originals, the sequels are both worth your time (once, but perhaps not a rereading).

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Deserving Death – Katherine Howell

I want to be upfront in saying that I don’t commonly read much crime fiction.  When I do, it’s usually a sign that I’m depressed. It’s just one of those inexplicable things; I only reach for crime fiction when I’m in a very dark place and want to do nothing more than curl up on the couch and avoid the world.

This book is an exception because I read it for research. I’m currently writing a short story collection based on paramedics and I heard that Australian crime writer, Katherine Howell, writes crime fiction that puts her fifteen-year career as a paramedic to very good use.

Deserving Death is the seventh of eight books that follow the career of Ella Marconi, a detective based in Sydney, Australia. What makes these books interesting to me is that apparently the storylines all feature paramedics as victims, suspects, witnesses or characters that pursue their own independent investigations. So, in the interest of my own work, I decided to read them to see how Howell weaves her paramedic experience into the writing of crime fiction.  My Mum is a crime fiction aficionado and loaned this copy to me last weekend.

img_3580-1In a nutshell, two paramedics are murdered in swift succession and Detective Ella Marconi is tasked with determining if this is coincidence or the work of a serial killer.  The second victim’s close friend and paramedic colleague, Carly Martens, is immediately suspicious of both the victim’s police officer ex-boyfriend and Carly’s own ambulance partner. She impulsively embarks on an investigation that puts her own life in danger.

I was impressed. Deserving Death is solid and engaging crime fiction. The paramedic characters were completely believable and I appreciated the substantial representation of female paramedics and the plot prominence of a lesbian couple dealing with the issue of coming out to a less than open-minded family.

My one quibble was with the interjection of the killer’s point-of-view at various points throughout the narrative. It was unnecessary, didn’t enhance the suspense and seemed to be included just to salt the plot with a few extra clues. Considering the number of female characters, it only served to immediately eliminate a significant proportion of the suspect pool since it revealed the killer as male. Before you type out an angry comment about me giving away too much, this can hardly be called a spoiler since the killer’s POV is first introduced on pg. 78.

Anyway, as I was reading it purely for the paramedic content I thought it was a valuable enough resource to justify asking Mum to chase down the other seven books. She only buys crime novels in second-hand bookshops and book exchanges so I don’t feel guilty – she’ll definitely read them first.

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k – Sarah Knight

Warning – the following post contains frequent and joyful use of expletives.

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I was given this book for Christmas by a wonderful friend who is well aware of my history of giving too many fucks about too many things, especially things over which I have little control.  To be honest, self-help is probably my least favourite genre, but this book has made me think I need to reassess my prejudices.

As someone constantly up to my neck in fuck deficit, giving far more than I can possibly supply, I found The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck to be as helpful as it is hilarious. Ok, that sentence was a bit ambiguous, so in case you were wondering, the book scores high marks in both categories.

Most of us are aware that the number of fucks we give can have a detrimental impact on our quality of life.  The brilliance of this book is that it gives practical advice on how to assess your current level and areas of fuck-giving, then guides you in establishing a fuck budget and how to eliminate surplus fucks without tipping over into being an arsehole.

The key seems to be ceasing to give a fuck about what other people think. Once you have freed yourself from the shackles of being universally likeable (an impossibility) you can reassess your priorities and then find polite ways of removing things, people and obligations from your life that you are unwilling to spend your precious fucks on. Prioritise that which brings you joy and minimise all that annoys. It’s riotously liberating. This book is brimming with seriously useful advice delivered in a way that will have you snorting aloud and possibly in public if you are reading it on the bus.

As a result, I’m well on the way out of fuckruptcy, newly dedicated to only giving fucks to things that truly matter to me and armed with techniques that will hopefully prevent me from becoming an arsehole in the process. Hilariously transformative stuff.

P.S. A note to my lovely friend, Mike Hopkins – the reason I missed your poetry reading today was not due to you being in any way non-fuckworthy.  My hairdressing appointment ran incredibly late. I promise this is the stone-cold truth and I was not being an arsehole despite how incredibly vacuous this excuse sounds. I am truly sorry.

Wild Gestures – Lucy Durneen

img_3576-1Wild Gestures was my first invocation of the “book launch exemption” for this year of no new books.  Book launches are far more than the celebration of a new book’s journey into the world. As an author, launches and signings are events where you have the opportunity to talk about the book to prospective readers and as a result they are often where you sell the most copies.

Despite the sales boost, book launches are usually catered events and unless you are a VERY important writer you can guarantee that the publishing house will not be paying for the wine and canapes. In the vast majority of cases, the writer will be footing the bill. So, if I go to a book launch and drink the wine, then I buy the book and say lovely, congratulatory things to the writer when they sign it for me, knowing that they may have spent more on the event than they will recoup in sales. Drink the wine = buy the book. Book launch etiquette 101.

I am so glad I drank that sauvignon blanc because Wild Gestures is a seriously good collection of short stories.

While each of the stories is a stand-alone piece and can be read independently, I think that the stories work brilliantly as a collection. All the pieces share a certain dark vision and psychological depth. They are slow burners; stories that you will be thinking over long after you’ve put them down.  These are tales peopled with characters whose yearning for love, meaning or control is deeply embedded and translated to the reader in a visceral way.

At the launch, Lucy spoke about hearing a master of the short story, Robert Olen Butler, speak at a conference in Vienna about how crucial “manifest yearning” is to the success of any piece of short fiction.  She has taken this to heart. Yearning in myriad guises permeates each of these stories.

These narratives are intense and captivating but so is the writing style. It’s easy to see that Durneen is also a poet; her imagery, concision and depth unmask her.  Despite the dark tones, Durneen is playful when it comes to using various points of view and tenses, but the most enthralling aspect for me was her mastery of suspense. As a reader, she grips you within the first few paragraphs then keeps you hanging, drip feeding until the final lines where there is always a resolution tainted with a lingering sense of mystery. These stories are far more than simple narratives; they are psychological encounters with exceptionally well-crafted characters.

Wild Gestures is a brilliantly written collection that taught me a great deal about both the art and the craft of the short story.

David Lipsky – Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog-front for the last couple of weeks. You probably assumed I succumbed to an addiction to Westworld or the latest Scando Noir series. Nope. Well, actually yes to the Westworld addiction, but I generally try not to let my tv habit supplant my reading one.

The problem has been that my recent reading has all been work-related. Freelance writing work comes in all shapes and sizes. My latest assignments have been assessing a Master’s thesis and reviewing a book of poetry. Both involved significant reading of the works themselves and related research material. Both jobs also supplied the materials, so my commitment to not buying books remains unbroken. (However, I did attend a book launch last week for Lucy Durneen’s short story collection Wild Gestures and had two glasses of wine, therefore satisfying the exemption criteria. I bought the book. SO satisfying. I haven’t finished reading it yet, so that post is still to come.)

img_3569-1A book I did recently finish reading (for pleasure) was Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky’s account of spending five days on the road with the author at the end of his book tour promoting Infinite Jest back in 1996.

I must admit to reading this as a result of loving the James Ponsoldt film The End of the Tour, which was based on Lipsky’s book. My fascination with both the book and the film is an expression of a character trait of which I’m not especially proud.  I happen to be enthralled by books about the writers’ lives. Biographies, diaries, autobiographies: I’ll read them all. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, it gets worse. When it comes to the lives of writer’s whom I really admire, I kick it up a notch. Addictive personality. You get the picture. Then, there’s the final level. If the writer I love happens to have had issues with mental health and taken their own life, then I will obsessively hunt down every word they wrote in their lifetime and every book, article or film made about them. I’m not proud of it. Clearly, I’m besotted with the archetype of the writer as “tormented artistic genius.”

David Foster Wallace definitely falls into this final category. Infinite Jest is a modern masterpiece. To say the man was brilliant is a glaring understatement. I even went a little weak at the knees reading his teaching and syllabus notes in The David Foster Wallace Reader. If you weren’t already aware, Wallace committed suicide at the age of 46 after unsuccessfully trying to wean himself off anti-depressants. So it should not surprise you to learn that I had a minor (ok, major) tantrum last year when I discovered that “limited release” meant that The End of the Tour would not be screened in Adelaide.  the-end-of-the-tour-2015-01

Lipsky’s 2010 book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, was part of my December Book Binge and understandably meant treating myself to another viewing of The End of the Tour. Since I saw the film the day it was released online in 2015 (but before reading the book), I’ll give a quick overview of the film, as it informed and influenced my reading of Lipsky’s work.

The End of the Tour is set over the course of five days in 1996, just after the publication of Infinite Jest; a novel that generated an enormous amount of literary hype. Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is a reporter for Rolling Stone who is assigned to accompany Wallace (played by Jason Segel) on the final days of the book tour. Lipsky meets Wallace and his dogs at Wallace’s house in Bloomington, Illinois, and travels with him (but without the dogs) on the publicity circuit. The film follows the gradual development of a friendship between the two as they engage in long and, at times, intensely philosophical discussions about life, literature, the literary world and fame. From these conversations, portraits of both Wallace and Lipsky are developed and the viewer is granted some insight into Wallace’s worldview and the distinctive pressures of sudden literary fame.

It is extremely interesting to come to the book after the film. The book is unique in that it’s structured as a transcript of the conversations Lipsky recorded while travelling with Wallace.  The text is extremely disjointed and non-linear.  The film does an incredible job of reassembling these rambling conversations into a linear narrative that manages to preserve much of the exact wording of the dialogue and the integrity of Wallace’s perspective and opinions. If I had read the book first, I would’ve doubted the plausibility of constructing a feature film using these transcripts.

That said, I relished the book. Both the style and the content worked to make me feel as if I was sitting in the backseat of the car, listening to them talk, almost able to smell the cigarette smoke and the juice from Wallace’s chewing tobacco. Ok, now I’ve made it sound gross. But if, like me, you’re a fan of the way Wallace’s mind worked, then you’ll love this re-acquaintance with the flow and substance of his thoughts. This is the beauty of Lipsky’s choice of straight transcription. Now that Wallace has gone and we will never receive the gift of another David Foster Wallace book, we’re let back into his head one last time. Drink it in. I suspect you’ll come to love the smell of the backseat.

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Jonathan Galassi – Muse

muse-1-1This book has been sitting unappreciated on my shelves since 2015 and I’m sorry to say that now I’ve read it, Muse remains largely unappreciated. I had high hopes. The plot sounded as if it would push my buttons: poetry, publishing and the literary history of the twentieth century. It wasn’t awful; it just failed to live up to my possibly/probably inflated expectations.

A brief plot synopsis without spoilers – Paul Dukach, a bookseller turned editor for a small but prestigious New York publishing house, is obsessed with the writing and life of poet Ida Perkins. Although Dukach works for the arch-rival of Perkins’ publisher, he dreams of luring his favourite writer onto his list. With patience, the story eventually gathers some momentum. Dukach stumbles over a literary mystery in the form of coded notebooks written by Perkins’ former husband. A mystery of sorts ensues. Who was the muse of Perkins’ last manuscript?

It’s at this point that I should mention that the author, Paul Galassi, is the president of the esteemed publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This goes some way to explain why this novel reads like a gossipy history of the golden era of New York publishing. Galassi has invented the poet at the heart of the story, Ida Perkins, but woven her into 20th century literary history.

The story, particularly the first half, is overflowing with insider references. Fictional literary figures (who are barely disguised real authors) and a roll call of legendary writers  rub shoulders with flimsily fictionalised publishers to create a shadow history of the publishing world of the last century. It is amusing at first, although I was aware that many allusions were flying over my head, but I felt that the story was given secondary priority to the literary puzzle. Who is who? Who is invented? If you are not a player in literary New York, I fear the cleverness may be as lost on you as it was on me. I had to do a quite a bit of research before uncovering that the novel’s two feuding publishers, Homer Stern of Purcell & Stern and Sterling Wainwright of Impetus Editions, were fictionalised versions of Roger Straus of FSG and James Laughlin of New Directions.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s clear that literature is Galassi’s life-blood. I did enjoy his insider perspective and vivid recreation of this idiosyncratic world. But what I relished most was his creation of the poet Ida Perkins and her insertion into the Galassi’s fictionalised Western literary canon. I absolutely loved the idea that a female poet could become the most esteemed literary figure of the 20th and early 21st century, her poetry collections outselling all other genres and garnering a royal flush of major literary prizes and honours. May life imitate art!

In other news, while dropping off some dry-cleaning in Stirling today (oh, the unrelenting glamour) I managed to resist popping into the Book Shed. The Book Shed is a hidden treasure, a beautifully curated charity bookshop tucked at the back of the car park behind the main stretch of shopping precinct in Stirling. Usually I can’t go in without leaving with an armload of ludicrously cheap classics, literary fiction and poetry. Avoiding it took quite an expenditure of inner mettle. *Sigh* It’s only Day 5.

 

Mary Oliver – Upstream

oliver-1This book was one of the first titles bought in the Great December Book Binge. Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets and there was absolutely no way I would have been able to wait until 2018 before buying this book. Don’t even say the word library. This is Mary Oliver. Not only must I own this, I must own it in hardback. I even made a tiny ritual of fixing a bookplate to the flyleaf and inscribing it with my name, using a stamp given to me by my aunt on my sixteenth birthday.

Yesterday, the act of reading this book also became a little ritualistic. Mary Oliver’s poetry and essays are all inspired by her fascination with the natural world and her work is characterised by close observation, keen insight and ecological understanding, all packaged in deceptively straightforward language. For Oliver, the practice of paying close attention to nature is an act of devotion. So it felt right that the reading of this book took place outdoors, lying on a daybed with way too many cushions, the light streaming down through the vine leaves, my dog and cat snoozing against my legs.

oliver-2Upstream is a book of selected essays and in my fan-girl devotion to Oliver’s poetry I’d come across several of these pieces in previous collections. Her books such as Blue Iris, Winter Hours, Owls and Other Fantasies and Blue Pastures are all poetry collections studded with the occasional essay, so I found Upstream to be a treat in that it was an uninterrupted indulgence in her skill as an essayist.

From the title essay I was in heaven. All the wisdom and empathy for other species that make her poetry so immediately recognisable was right there from the first page. In my opinion, Oliver’s way of looking at the world and recognition of the intrinsic value of the non-human is crucial in the face of the ecological crises we’ve set in motion. But she’s gentle – there’s no table thumping or finger wagging. She takes her readers with her out into the fields and woods of New England and invites us to look. In seeing through her eyes, we’re feeling her wonder, thinking with her insight. It’s all perfectly clear and reasonable. She’s a writer who manages to make being profound look deceptively easy.

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“Upstream” and “Staying Alive” are classic Oliver fare, imprecations to see and let ourselves be lost in wonder at the life that goes on at all scales around us. “Of Power and Time” explores the importance of solitude to the creative life. “Sister Turtle” is a beautiful meditation on the moral dilemma of valuing non-human life yet needing to eat, with food consumption’s unavoidable attachment to suffering. The third section collects a series of Oliver’s biographical essays on the life and work of Emerson, Poe, Whitman and Wordsworth. Section Four recounts episodes from Oliver’s life where she spent significant time observing and thinking about individual creatures who shared her living space: a household spider, an injured bird, a dog that adopted her. Section Five is an ode to the town, people and landscape that housed her and her partner for decades; Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Despite my deep appreciation for the content of these essays I can’t escape the feeling that what I loved most about reading this book was hearing her voice. Yes, her voice is clear and consistent across all her writing – I believe I would recognise a Mary Oliver sentence anywhere. But to read her essays, one passing through my mind after the other, was to hear her speak to me again in a long, delightful flow. Not a conversation, of course, but as if I was sitting with her by the fire and she was rambling away to me over a glass of whiskey or a hot cup of tea. For me, Upstream was an intimate and sustained connection with the mind of a writer for whom I have nothing but admiration and respect.

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