March 2012 archive

Review: Animal People by Charlotte Wood


As an animal person, it’s hard to really understand those who are not animal people. Stephen, who is most decidedly not an animal person, has the opposite dilemma. “He was not an animal person in the same way he was not a musical person, or an intellectual person,” Charlotte Wood writes. “Not to be musical or intellectual was unremarkable and provoked no suspicion. But not to be an animal person somehow meant he wasn’t fully human.”

This sense of being not quite human, not quite grown up, not quite living properly, saturates the whole novel, which stretches over the expanse of a single day in Stephen’s life. It’s a fairly ordinary day, but long, sweltering, exhausting.  Stephen drifts through his normal routine, mindlessly working at the zoo kiosk with the same complacency as always. The familiarity of it – talking to his mother on the phone about a new TV she wants to buy, having to endure a tedious team-building activity at work – makes time lag, and the more disturbing events that punctuate the day slowly build up a feeling of weariness and defeat, growing like the residue of grime and sweat on his skin. (more…)

Feminism and being multiple

One of the oddest things I find about “being a feminist” is the amount of difficulty and debate such a label tends to conjure up. There are thousands of variations, but three key problems seem to always rear their spiky heads:

1. Many women are reluctant to identify as feminists, even though if you ask them their thoughts on specific issues they’ll respond with feminist ideas. There’s a certain ugliness associated with the label that a lot of us grow up learning to be wary of. Take this Maxim “cure a feminist” feature as exhibit A. This article from Mama Mia a few days ago also captures some of the frustrations of this situation.

2.Some feminists believe there should be a core set of bullet-points that a person must subscribe to in order to call themselves feminists. A lot of us do this even subconsciously, because it’s hard to understand how someone who agrees with us on one point could offend us so much on another. We question whether Cosmopolitan should be allowed to call itself feminist, whether Melinda Tankard Reist should be allowed to call herself a feminist.

3. The flipside of the point above is that many women feel like they’re not allowed to be part of the discussion, because they don’t meet the criteria they believe has been set out.

My thoughts keep going back to something Julia Kristeva wrote about in Women’s Time. Okay, I know it might be a bit naff or maybe just pretentious to reference Kristeva, but listen for a minute: in Women’s Time, she makes a case for a new generation of feminism (where ‘generation’ refers not necessarily to a period in linear time, but rather a signifying mental, emotional and intellectual space) that focuses on the multiplicity of individual experience. That means not only accepting that everyone will have different views and ideas, but that within each person exist myriad possible identifications, some of which might seem contradictory.


Review: One Foot Wrong by Sofie Laguna


Dark, unsettling but told through brilliantly lyrical language, One Foot Wrong is a story of coming of age in a nightmarish domestic world. This is the first adult novel from Melbourne children’s writer Sofie Laguna, and with its deftly crafted balance between macabre detail and beautifully constructed prose, it certainly earned its place on the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist and Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlist.

The story is told through the eyes of Hester, a young girl growing up in unusually bleak circumstances. The opening pages lull the reader into a deceptively gentle world, filled with charming, childlike imagery brought to life through Hester’s vivid imagination, The naïve, innocent meandering of her thoughts at first appears like any normal childlike way of seeing the world. She describes, for example, falling asleep with her cat with a kind of delicate joy:

Cat was there and together we’d wait for the bird dream. Cat’s bird dream was hiding in the long grass, a fast chase and a jump. In my bird dream everything was white without walls. Bird sang and flew and so did I.

But it only takes a few pages to discover that there’s not much that’s joyful childlike about this story. Slowly, the layers start to be unpeeled, and we realise that this child has lived her whole life confined to her home. “Outside was forbidden,” Hester has learned. “It was dangerous because it had no walls or roof telling you where to stop.” (more…)

“This night is sparkling”: Taylor Swift in Melbourne

Taylor Swift Speak Now tour, Rod Laver Arena 14 March 2012

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this before, but I love Taylor Swift. It’s all true – I’m a big romantic dork, and I like to play Sparks Fly at full volume and dance around by myself, and lie on the couch brooding to You’re Not Sorry, and sing Mean in my head whenever I feel pissed off at someone.

Taylor Swift is the girl I want to be in a lot of ways. I admire her gutsiness and her passion, and the way she manages to be so nice and lovely and genuine all the time. I like how dramatically she throws herself into love, and how honestly she tells her stories, and how she’s just quietly a tiny little bit of a bitch – but in a classy and hilarious way.

Whatever else you think of her, the girl can put on a show, and seeing her last week at Rod Laver Arena was pretty magical. She appeared in a shimmer of gold, singing Sparks Fly in a spangly flapper dress that glittered gorgeously in the light. With her incredibly pale skin and delicate frame, Taylor Swift always kind of looks like a tiny china doll, but she has a vivacious energy that just fills the whole stage. She just sparkles – even when she’s sharing the space with ballerinas, staircases, gazebos, trees, snowflakes wedding dresses, balconies, arched bridges and fireworks. (more…)

Letting introverts be introverts


Noun 1. Unavailability hut by Gartnerfuglen architecture studio… the perfect place to recharge in solitude

Being an introvert has always kind of seemed like something that you’re supposed to overcome. Enjoying solitude is often seen as being anti-social, or just weird and lonely. Wanting to work by yourself instead of in a group makes you a bit of a jerk. And being comfortable with silence often leaves people thinking you’re being a bitch.

Sure, there are always one or two people who will be intrigued by the quiet girl in the corner, but on the whole, if you’re the kind of person who often feels more comfortable listening than speaking, who sometimes prefers reading to going out, who likes to take a few moments to think before they speak, you’ll often be overlooked. You’ll be noticed less, you’ll get fewer opportunities, and people will ask you what you think less often. Sometimes good things do come to those who wait quietly, but mostly it’s the people who talk the most and the loudest who are rewarded.

We know that these two types of people exist, introverts and extroverts, but we like to give things a hierarchy, and at the moment our culture really values being social and outgoing and charismatic. Being able to talk is the best skill you can have. Schools and workplaces are designed largely for extroverts, centred around group work and rewarding the best speakers. And that’s great for people who are naturally like that, who feel most stimulated by what’s around them, who thrive on talking to people. But forcing introverts to be like that when it’s not the way they’re going to be their most creative, brilliant and productive is a detriment to everyone.   (more…)

Review: The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner


There’s something I particularly love about the form of the novella. When a story is compressed into such as short space, every sentence and every word feels more precious, more meaningful, more demanding of your attention somehow. The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner is a pretty excellent example of the depth and complexity that can be achieved in this form, with carefully selected details and tight, expressive language beautifully arranged in a collage of 1980s family life in Melbourne.

This is a brief whisper of a story about two families whose lives become entangled after the chance reunion of Dexter and Elizabeth, who lived together “almost as sister and brother” for five years as uni students.  Now, Dexter lives a safe, comfortable life with his wife Athena and two sons, one of whom is severely disabled. When Elizabeth, her feckless lover Philip and her teenage sister Vicki – with their different and challenging ways of viewing the world – all become entangled in their lives, their various relationships are tested and unravelled.

We could choose almost any character as the heart of the story, but Athena is possibly one of the most intriguing, and relatable. We are introduced to Athena and Dexter with a sweet, idealised image: “she loved him. They loved each other.” But their relationship is already strained before Elizabeth and her entourage come along – they are just the trigger for Athena to act on feelings she has been suppressing. The safety of routine is suffocating her, holding her back from her desire to be someone else in a life more exciting, more reckless, more spontaneous than hers. Dexter adores her, but he also idealises her and it’s smothering. He is a kind man, but he sees the world in a very simple, contented way, and is oblivious that other people might see it differently.


What I read: February

Religion for Atheists Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

I think the most important thing to note first off is that you don’t necessarily have to identify as an atheist to get something out of this book. Alain de Botton is the staunchest of atheists- so much so that he refuses to even enter into the discussion of whether a god exists, but rather starts his argument from the assumption that all the more mystical aspects of religion are complete nonsense, then moves on to look at how else religions might be useful in helping us to live a better life. He argues for religion as a buffet, where you can choose which parts you want to put on your plate. It’s so simple, but it just might be the healthiest way of approaching things – and above all, it’s an argument for tolerance that should be heard.

The book can get a bit repetitive, and I think it would be more useful and engaging if it was focused more on what a person can do internally to work with these ideas, rather than a fanciful blueprint for larger, unlikely societal changes, but the central questions it engages with are relevant to everyone. In the end, it’s all about how you can live a better life and be a better person; how to develop your ethical framework and stay devoted to your beliefs, and how to patchwork these ideas together in a way that makes sense to you.


Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides


(Cross-posted at 3008Docklands)

Jeffrey Eugenides had a tough task ahead of him with The Marriage Plot. After the brilliant success of the chilling, dream-like The Virgin Suicides and the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic Middlesex, his long-anticipated follow-up was always either going to be received in one of two ways: rapturously praised as yet another work of genius, or dismissed as a complete disappointment.

The Marriage Plot takes on much simpler, more ordinary subject matter than his previous two novels. Set in the1980s, the story centres around three Brown graduates- brilliant, well-read and entirely clueless about how to live.  Starting on graduation day, the novel slips back a few years to fill in some of the blanks of their overlapping stories, then follows them through their first year out of college as they play at adulthood, fumbling their way through “the real world” of love, marriage, academicism and religion.   (more…)