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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Jhumpa Lahiri – Unaccustomed Earth

img_3513-2This feels a little like cheating since I started this book in the death throes of 2016. In my defence, I’ve had this short story collection on my shelves for a while and finished it ten hours into 2017. So I’m making the call: it counts. In fact, I didn’t even buy it in the first place. It came to me in a box of short story collections that I won in a writing contest, which must count as the best prize ever (aside from a giant novelty cheque). So with that in mind, I definitely think it’s an appropriate start to the Year of No New Books.

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favourite writers and the reason this book languished unread for so long on my shelves is that I thought I’d already read it. I remember confidently exclaiming to a friend that I’d read everything Lahiri’s ever written after finishing the English translation of her book of essays In Other Words.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I picked up Lahiri’s first short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. I consider this book to be one of the best short story collections ever written. At this point I should mention that in addition to naming 2017 as the year I kick my book buying addiction, it is also meant to be the year I finish the first draft of my own short story collection. Clearly, I’m an idiot with pretensions to being an overachiever. Anyway, this explains my desire to reread The Interpreter of Maladies – I wanted to discover the secret to the perfect short story so I could steal it for my own work. But as so often happens when confronted with brilliant literature, I was swept away and completely forgot my analytical objectives. Before I knew it, I had finished the book and all I could recall was my pleasure in Lahiri’s insight and beautifully composed sentences and my awe at the way in which she constructs completely believable characters that so perfectly illustrate the difficulties and anxieties of the Indian immigrant experience in America. Damn it.

Which brings me to Unaccustomed Earth. This was meant to be Learning From Lahiri: Take 2. I realised only a few pages into the title story that I’d been deceiving myself. I was reading this collection for the first time.

These stories are all classic Lahiri in that they explore similar themes to her previous short stories and novels but the point of difference is that these build upon and extend her previous work. The Namesake, The Lowland and The Interpreter of Maladies focussed primarily on the experience of first generation immigrants of Bengali heritage as they adapt to the customs of their new home. Lahiri’s characters struggle with culture shock, trying to reconcile the cultural expectations and values of their Indian heritage with the reality of living in America.

The characters populating the eight stories of Unaccustomed Earth are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Rather than struggling to reconcile Indian and Bengali culture with American values and lifestyles, these characters have been born in the US and are pretty much assimilated to Western life. These characters face different struggles, primarily the need break free from parental expectations that are still mired in what to them seem to be restrictive and conventional Indian custom.  American individualism clashes with Indian community values and responsibilities within the microcosm of the extended Indian-American family.

These stories are all long form and Lahiri uses this extended format to cover broader timeframes, exploring the above themes over decades in her characters’ lives. It’s addictive writing. We are drawn into these families, empathising with them as siblings, parents and grandparents move across the world, marry, have children, divorce, remarry, die. Lahiri writes beautifully, using language that is simple and direct yet carries a huge emotional load. While I loved the stories of the first section, the three linked stories of part two had me utterly at their mercy. Lahiri is not known for providing her readers with Hollywood-style resolutions, and I love her for that, but I was totally unprepared for the power with which she drew these stories to a close. The final two pages. I can’t say more than that without issuing a spoiler alert. All I can say is – read this book. Even if you think you don’t like short stories then read this book for the last two pages. They just might convert you.

The last fix

Shit is about to get real. No more browsing in bookshops. No more late night online book shopping.  From tomorrow, it will be just my bookshelves and me for a whole year.

Today I had plans to meet three old school friends for our traditional end of year catch-up. It had been my intention to practice for the Year of No Book Buying by driving down to Norwood Parade and walking right past Dillon’s Bookshop. I even visualised it the previous night before falling asleep; there I was in my mind’s eye, striding right by without even glancing at the book-laden tables outside the shop.

Now, I have to come clean. Over the last month, with the new year drawing inexorably closer, I’ve been in a book buying frenzy. Like a junkie working their way through their stash before entering rehab, I have been hitting The Book Depository hard. So many amazing titles are released just before Christmas! How am I meant to wait a whole year before reading the latest from Siri Hustvedt, Zadie Smith and Olivia Laing? Come on. I’m not superhuman.

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It was the last morning of 2016. I drove to the café. I was early. That was a mistake. Rather than choose a table, pull out my book and wait for my friends, I turned on my heel and marched straight into Dillons. I needed one last fix.

Ten minutes later I was having coffee with Sarah, Nicola and Kesta and we had one of those wonderful sessions where it feels as though no time has passed despite not seeing each other for a year. Tim Winton’s The Boy Behind the Curtain was nestled in my handbag.