Heat and Light

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You may have noticed that maintaining this blog is a thing which sometimes I rock at, and sometimes I fail at. It should come as no surprise that I find it difficult to carve out time to reflect and to write – even to read, really – while traipsing around Europe.

Heat and Light was the second book I read for ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, two weeks ago now (!). I managed somehow to cram it into a singe weekend, in between saying goodbye to England and hello to Holland, sitting on my great-aunts’ couch on a cloudy day, reading about sparkling sunshine and a possible future and people having to live with terrible truths.

Heat and Light is separated into three parts: Heat introduces a family, one by one, sharing their experiences and the way they fit into the world. I was struck by my own colourblindness: I could not forget that these characters were indigenous, and it occurred to me that if these characters’ identities hadn’t been as clearly defined as they were, I would have assumed they were white, and slipped into the stories without so much as a peep. As it was, I struggled to connect my comfortable, solidly-middle-class white-girl world with the world that van Neerven’s characters had to live in; to connect with the fact that these experiences were occurring, are occurring, just outside my periphery.

Water shows a possible future; one where a Prime Minister has been elected whose platform is the plight of the Indigenous population, but who herself is so removed from the problem that building an island to ship them off to seems like the perfect solution. Also in this future are strange, humanoid creatures springing from the islands that ring the Top End, with faces and voices and who are literally connected to the ground that they spring from. Van Neerven explores the mutability of sexuality when her protagonist falls in love with one of these creatures; Larapinta is delicate and feminine, but they are not female, do not have gender the way humans perceive it. Yet the protagonist falls in love with them, is attracted to them, anyway. I want to be flippant and say something about van Neerven taking pansexuality to a whole new level, but this love story is too tender to be treated so.

Light is the last section of the book; where perhaps Heat showed where its characters were coming from, Light shows where they are going; where they have the potential to go. Each story in Light is a moment hanging suspended in time; from here, the characters each have choices to make, futures which could be opening for them if they only turned in that direction. At the risk of sounding flowery, each moment in Light was like a pearl on a string, glinting in the sunlight, full of endless potential.

That’s the thing I love about short stories. Each of them is more than its parts, making you aware of the before and after, the unwritten, in a much more visceral way than anything longer ever does. Heat and Light is a beautiful book, and I’d easily recommend it is foy love short stories, Australian fiction, or simply a good read.

Blood

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The point of reading widely – of reading at all, really, but especially of reading widely – is to engage in as many experiences different to your own as possible. It’s why I joined the Queer Book Club this week, why I continue to read books from as many different countries and time periods as possible. But I never really properly appreciated the true value of wide reading until I participated in ANZ LitLovers’ 2015 Indigenous Literature Week.

I elected to read Tony Birch’s Blood, a novel I’d had on my bookcase since about 2012; and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, a collection of short stories that I hadn’t managed to get to for July’s Queer Book Club. I’m only a little way into Heat and Light, but I’m going to call it now and say that both of these books were wonderful, and so challenging in ways I’d never anticipated.

Blood is about Jesse and Rachel, and their life on and off the road with their mum Gwen, who can’t seem to keep a boyfriend or a job, but who for all her terrible decision-making skills loves her kids too much to be away from them. It’s about Jesse trying to find his place in a world where he’s only ever a visitor, and toying with the terrible choice between being free of his mum and leaving his little sister behind.

The book opens with Jesse in police custody, his custody officer trying to convince him to tell her what has happened. What follows is an account of his life, the decisions he’d made and the decisions Gwen has made that led their little misfit family to the point where the book begins. When I finished the book I actually had to go back and re-read the prologue a few times, just to be sure that I understood the way the books event’s progressed chronologically, because what actually happened was nothing like what I imagined had happened.

Jesse’s voice is brilliant, clear and eloquent but not overly sophisticated for the twelve-year-old he’s supposed to be. He describes places and situations in a way that rings true, and having driven around Australia a bit I had no trouble picturing the roadsides and landscapes they passed through. Jesse is also just rude enough to his sister and to Gwen that you never feel like he’s unreliable as a narrator – but I had the idea that if the book were to continue, the lies might just start to pour out.

I’m not sure whether it was because it’s a road trip novel, and that’s pretty much the way I’ve experienced Australia myself, but I really related to Blood on a level that surprised me. I could see the drying paddocks and small sleepy towns as they rolled past Gwen’s little car, imagine the sort of dilapidated houses the little family would stay in as the sorts of houses you see alone on the outskirts of a town. On some levels Blood talked about the Australia that I know, the one that I’ve experienced myself.

On the other hand, there are parts of Jesse’s experience that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. After all, the driving he did with Gwen and Rachel wasn’t a holiday, it was their whole life. Every time he was introduced to an adult that he came to trust, Gwen sent them away, looking for greener pastures. His father, a character who we never actually meet (for reasons that become apparent as Gwen moves from boyfriend to boyfriend without ever looking back), was an Aborigine, a fact which is only brought up a couple of times but which clearly affects the relationships he’s able to build with the people he meets.

Because it’s only mentioned once or twice, Jesse’s heritage is a subtle thing, but it made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which I view society – the way I automatically cast every character I meet as white, usually with dark hair, and with emphasis on each event and action which demonstrates their intelligence – in other words, a reflection of the way I see myself. I was struck recently by a post I saw on the internet which stated that there is no truly open casting for film roles – if a character’s heritage isn’t explicitly stated, it’s assumed to be white, and so casting is only opened to white characters. It’s assumed that for a character to be something other than white – Aboriginal, Indian, Native American, Ethiopian – there needs to be a reason, something central to the story. The default character is white, and as much as I was disgusted by that idea when I read that post, that’s also how I read characters myself.

And that’s why I try to participate in things like ANZ LitLover’s Indigenous Literature Week – these events challenge the way we read, encouraging us to read better, more openly, with more consciousness of the way we see the world and all the characters in it.

How to be Both

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So the cool thing about this book is that it’s told in two parts. Well, actually, that’s not the cool thing – the cool thing is that two versions of How to be Both were published simultaneously, one version with one protagonist’s story first and the other swapped around.  It was pretty much left to chance how each reader would experience the book.

How to be Both is about George, a tomboyish teenage girl desperately trying to reconnect with her recently deceased mother through remembering a trip they took to Italy to see the works of the painter. It’s also about Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, his life and works, and this strange boy who piques his curiosity by viewing and reviewing one of his portraits.

My thoughts on this book are twofold, because I read it in two parts. I got George’s story first, and as much as I enjoyed Smith’s writing and the story she was telling, it was really hard to get into. I think this was for two reasons: Firstly, I was in the midst of a really tough time, so I had trouble suspending my reality for long enough to really get comfortable in George’s head; Secondly, George was also going through a tough time, and it was really hard to relate to a character who was pretty much wandering around in a haze of grief, trying like crazy to make sense of a world that no longer had her mum in it.

George is constantly questioning the value of witness: one of the scenes that really stuck with me was how she stumbled across a pornographic film in which the girl didn’t appear to be having a good time, and so she swore to watch it every day in order to witness the girl’s suffering. On the other hand, her mum was paranoid that she was being watched, and George has inherited that paranoia.

One of the ways George tries to keep her mum’s memory alive is by travelling often to London to view del Cossa’s portrait of St Vincent Ferrer, remembering their trip to Italy to view the frescoes in the Hall of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia. It is through this that we see the connection between George and del Cossa: while George is viewing the painting, Francesco is viewing her. So we meet Francesco del Cossa, and learn about his life while he learns about George’s.

How to be Both spends much of its time drawing attention to the way we gender others. This is a thing we do constantly, without even thinking about it: breasts, girl. Long hair, most likely a girl. Hairy legs, boy. Short hair, most likely a boy. Francesco del Cossa, in this story, was born a girl, but such was her talent with colour and form that her parents disguised her as a boy to send her off to an apprenticeship; he spends the rest of his life identifying as male, and history identifies him as male as well. George is a girl, but her short hair and tomboyish clothes cause the artist to gender her as a boy, and so we only really know that she’s a girl because, for me anyway, I already had half a book telling me that she is.

I often say to people when I’m telling them about this book that I’d have enjoyed it more if I had read the artist’s story first, as he’s connected to the girl through her artwork, and there are elements of her story that bleed through. Chronologically, I think my story was in order, but I would have quite enjoyed reading about the artist and this queer boy he was haunting, then picking up and seeing what motivated George’s actions, rather than the other way around.

As I’m writing this though, it occurs to me – if this was a standard book; if this book had been printed in one version and one version only – there’s no way it would have occurred to me that I would have enjoyed the story the other way around. The sheer possibility that I may have, though – that it was mere chance that led me to read the story in the order it was presented – that’s making me really think about what it was that made this book tick, and whether or not I might have related to it better in a different circumstance.

A Mother’s Disgrace

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I have this thing that memoirs should be about people with interesting lives. No; I think that the best memoirs are about people with interesting lives. I can’t decide if this one fits the bill. Robert Dessaix has had a fairly humdrum life, but out of that humdrum life has come a plethora of interesting ideas, and he seems to know it. His memoir, A Mother’s Disgrace, isn’t driven by his loving suburban upbringing or his years studying Russian in Moscow or even his reconnection, late in life, with the birth mother who gave him up as a baby. No, Dessaix’s memoir is driven by the thoughts and ideas that surround and connect these events, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

So he doesn’t detail the everyday existence of his happy nuclear family and their frankly ordinary lives. No, he talks about his father’s love of language, the way he’d sit on the porch with a pitcher of lemonade and a French-English dictionary, something he did for his whole life because he never quite grasped it. Then he talks about how his father’s love of language, love of words, led to his own close examination of language and syntax, the way that in creating his own private language (as children often do), Dessaix began from an early age to inspect words from all possible angles, to discover that even though they use the same words, the meaning construed in “I love you” and “I love pizza” are completely different, and entirely built on context – both syntactical and cultural.

The topics Dessaix covers in A Mother’s Disgrace are many and varied – smuggling Western culture into sixties Russia; the burgeoning Sydney gay scene of the seventies; inherited versus learned characteristics (after realising that he carried himself the same way that his half-brother, whom he’d never met, did), and much more. I can’t say it’s much as a memoir, but as a collection of thoughtful essays on a wide range of topics, inspired by the events of his life – it’s en excellent read, and worth a try if you’re the kind of shower thinker who’s ever wondered if you’d have turned out different if <insert differing circumstance here>.

Queer Book Club

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At the beginning of this year, I went to this year’s Queer Book Salon, put on by Readings as part of Midsumma in January.

It was excellent. I heard about an author who writes historical romances, ensuring that the lesbians who were always there got their turn in the spotlight. I heard about the plethora of gay men who are well known for their writings, and considered the idea that being gay does affect your writing – even if you’re not writing romance stories.

Which, when I think about it, is kind of obvious. I mean, of course the fundamentals of who you are and who you love affect your writing. My writing is as affected by the fact that I’m straight but confused as it is by the fact that I’m white and a woman and grew up Catholic.

I was so struck by this that I decided to join Readings’ Queer Book Club this year; once a month, for ten months, we’d get together and read books by and about queer people, and discuss them in an open environment. I loved this idea of getting to know the culture I felt I was being thrust into, of experiencing more of the issues and feelings and ideas that queer people have.

Reading that sentence, you might feel a bit uncomfortable. Like I’m treating queer people like I might treat French culture, or Arabic, or Jewish. Foreign and worth studying, for their differences as well as their sameness. Well guess what – I realised that as well.

We were discussing Holding the Man, Tim Conigan’s memoir of love and AIDS, and I was struck by this feeling that I was being a total voyeur. Sure, I had good intentions – how could I be a good partner to a queer person if I didn’t understand what they were facing? But that’s not how it ended up. It ended up with me retreating even further into my heterosexuality, knowing that in this situation, I could be an ally, but I would always be Other.

I’ve only been back once since that session – too afraid to say what I think, lest it be wrong or offensive. I feel like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, invading safe spaces for my own voyeuristic pleasure. I don’t even really read the books anymore – it’s taking me longer to be able to pick them up, to shake off this unease and remind myself that it’s just a book and your intentions are honorable. Now that I have the idea in my head, though – all I can think is the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

So far, I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read as part of my queer book club. They’re all great stories about interesting people, trailblazing and honest and just great writers and characters. Self-consciousness aside, being in this book club has enabled me to read more widely than I have before, given me a vehicle for motivation, great recommendations, and encouraged me to challenge my reading in a way that I might not have otherwise had the energy to this year. So yeah, it’s been a great seven months, and I’m looking forward to the last three.

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What I really wanted to say with this post was that you may notice a new queer book club tag floating around. I think it’s important to branch out in one’s reading, to pick up books you might not have otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t have picked up any of the tagged books without the prompting of the book club. So if you’re looking for something a little different, but essentially the same, click on the queer book club tag and see how you go from there.

TBR: Books I’ve Bought in 2015

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At the beginning of the year, I made a handful of reading resolutions, and I thought take some time now, as I’m getting back into blogging, to check up on them and see how I’m going (hint: it’s not good).

One of those resolutions was to read every book that I bought. So far, I’m hitting about 50% – 9 read, 10 unread. Personally, I’m actually pretty impressed with that result. I’ve been making a point of only buying one or two books at a time, and only when I actually intend to read them. So far, so good. Problem is, I never read as fast as I think I’m going to, and sometimes I skip books on my TBR just to keep things trucking along.

So here’s a list of the books that I’ve bought so far this year; the ones that I’ve read, and the ones that I haven’t yet.

The Letters of Napoleon to Josephine

I bought this one at a secondhand bookstore in Clunes, during the Clunes Booktown Book Festival. I originally planned to read it chronologically, cover to cover – but my faourite thing to do is to pick it up and read a random letter or two when I’m feeling the need for a little love in my life.

Romantic Poets (The Viking Portable Library)
Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda

I like poetry. I like seeing poetry books on my shelves, I like flicking through them and reading the odd poem here or there – but I’m not a die-hard poetry fan. Last year, when I organised my bookshelves into read and unread, all my poetry books went on the read shelf. Reading them is an ongoing process, and I doubt I’ll ever be finished with it.

Throne of Glass, by Sarah J Maas

Keep an eye out for a review of this one. It’s kinda fantastic, and just like the fantasy novels I used to read as a teenager – political drama, a kickass young woman at the centre, castles and swordfights and morally ambivalent monarchs. Ugh. So good.

Real Man Adventures

This was a Queer Book Club book (more on that later). It remains unread, as I couldn’t make that month’s meeting and had too much else on to read the book anyway. I do look forward to reading it though; it sounds really good, properly satirical and judging of the way we construct masculinity in our culture.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

I tried and I tried, and I really wanted to like Dave Eggers, but I just couldn’t manage AHWOSG. For sure, it was beautiful, and heartbreaking in that it was layered and realistic and very twenty-something. The narcissism, the ambition, the too-cool-for-school factor were all there. Maybe I don’t like my writing that candid, still being in my twenties myself; or maybe I just didn’t connect with the characters as much as I hoped I would. Either way, I got a little over halfway before I had to put this down. It’s still sitting on my bookcase, pouting at me.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Another Queer Book Club book. I really liked this one, once I had it finished. Keep an eye out for my review.

Bad Behaviour by Rebecca Starford

I loved this book. Check out my review here.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Another collection of short stories to pick up and put down at random. I really wanted to read this one the whole way through – I love Gaiman’s writing, and his short stories never seem to be hit-or-miss the way his novels are. That month, however, was not a good reading month for me. I read two or three of the stories, and now it waits patiently on my bookcase for me to read the rest.

Werewolves and Shapeshifters, edited by John Skipp

I’m a bit of a sucker for werewolf stories, so when I saw this on the $10 table at the Clunes Booktown Book Festival I couldn’t resist. In my defence, the collection includes short stories by Neil Gaiman, George RR Martin, Chuck Palahnuik, Charlaine Harris, and Angela Carter – and they’re just the writers on the cover! I have to admit though, this one stays firmly in the unread category.

The Luck Uglies, by Paul Durham

Another $10 impulse buy, this time from Big W when I was in there looking for The Scorch Trials. Explores the idea that the so-called ‘dregs’ of society – the crooks, the homeless, and so on – aren’t as useless as they seem. Still unread.

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven

July’s Queer Book Club book is another collection of short stories. I didn’t manage to read them – too many assignments! – but I’m looking forward to it. I’m planning to review it when I’m done.

Orlando, by Virginia Woolf

I now have less than a week to read Orlando for this month’s book club meeting. I love Virginia Woolf, but her stories require an absolute commitment. Fingers crossed I’ve read enough to follow the discussion next Wednesday!

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Another one that I had to put down, but this one reluctantly. I love the story and am hopelessly obsessed with the characters’ lives, but I think it just wasn’t the right time. I’m planning on bringing it overseas with me, so hopefully I can make some headway on the flight.

A Mother’s Disgrace by Robert Dessaix

Another Queer Book Club book, and another which I missed out on discussing – damn evening classes! Keep a look out for my review next week.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This was one of the first books I read this year, and I can remember reading it with almost total clarity. Reclining on my bed under the window, the Christmas tree in my peripheral vision… I loved the book. Check out my review.

Madeleine by Helen Trinca

I started reading this one last year, after reading a review of it over at Whispering Gums. I’d never heard of Madeleine St John before I read the review, but Sue writes about the book so well, and makes it sound like such a worthy read, that I couldn’t help but run out to the library and borrow it. Of course, I only got about halfway through before I had to return it, so when I saw the book in the Readings tent at the Clunes Booktown Book Festival, I thought now’s my chance to buy it without guilt. I still haven’t managed to finish it.

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

I’ve heard over and over that this is a great read, and I had such success with Throne of Glass that I figured it was worth giving another gushed-over YA fantasy novel a try. Still unread, but this is in the list of books to come to Europe with me.

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

I’m been interested in Salman Rushdie ever since I studied Satanic Verses at uni. I actually haven’t got around to reading any of his other works, though, so I figured that the best way to start was to start filling my shelves. This one is still unread, but the sheer size of it makes me think it might be best saved for the summer holidays, when I can just sit and read and not have to worry about moving for hours.

Bad Behaviour

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Reading Bad Behaviour was like reading Looking for Alibrandi for the first time. Here was a book that was about an Australian teenager, going to school in a system that I recognised, experiencing an adolescence that was actually somewhat like my own.

Bad Behaviour is Rebecca Starford’s memoir of her time in the abovementioned year-long separation from the world. You know how high school is like real life in a microcosm? Well this Year 10 program seems to be high school in a microcosm. It seemed like Starford was stuck on a year-long camp with her entire year level, and let me tell you, a week out in the bush hiking and bonding with my peers was plenty long enough for me.

Everything about this book rang true to my experience of secondary school. I lived in the country, so the warped gum trees and dry grasses and bitter, foggy cold of winter mornings was all so familiar to me, it was like actually being back in Year 9. As I was reading – particularly the first few chapters, where Starford introduces the school and the landscape and the girls – I was thinking, yes. This is what school was actually like for me. After years of reading as much YA as I could get my hands on, finally I’d found a book written by someone who was like me, who’d had my experiences. None of this casual-clothes-wearing, A-Level-fretting business that goes on in English and American YA novels. Bad Behaviour was a book that I actually connected with.

The book starts explosively, with the kind of prank that actually made my stomach drop with secondhand fear. From there it’s mostly chronological, and Starford doesn’t shy away from the nastier and more confusing aspects of adolescence – getting bullied by the popular girls, doing out-of-character things to get your peers to like you, worrying about being called a baby just because you were a little homesick.

In Bad Behaviour, Starford looks at that one defining year of her adolescence – and let’s face it, Year 9 is a pretty defining year in most peoples’ lives – and how it affected the rest of her life. How her willingness to compromise her principles and side with the bullies, to check herself and get bullied in return; how her attempts to reach out to her mother, tempered by long silences from both ends; all added up to shape the woman she became.

It’s an interesting thought. When I was in Year 9, I wanted to be a lawyer. I was terrified that I’d never get a boyfriend. I spent hours upon hours reading the same books alone in my room. Now, I’m in law school. I’ve been in a relationship for ten years. And I blog about books, because I still spend hours upon hours reading alone in my room.

Bad Behaviour rang true for me because it’s set in my world. It discusses the very true fact that fourteen is when we start becoming who we are, and how the experiences we have at that age shape the adults we become.