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.

Comic book Mondays: Winter Soldier #9

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I’ve been trying to write about Winter Soldier for more than a year – not because I didn’t love the comic, but because I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. My discovery of this comic is wrapped up in a lot of extra stuff – there was going to be a whole cute narrative about my partner’s any my tenth anniversary trip to Tasmania, wandering around Launceston and stumbling upon a cute little pop culture store with boxes and boxes of unsorted comic back issues that hadn’t sold yet. We stood there for hours, going through those boxes, and at the end of it I had two Winter Soldier editions, #9 and #10, and a whole new understanding of the joy it is to be a comic book nerd.

Before Winter Soldier, I’d never read any of Ed Brubaker’s comics. I know he’s a giant in the industry, and he written volumes upon volumes of our favourite musclebound heroes, including Captain AmericaDaredevil, and Uncanny X-Men. But I hadn’t (still haven’t) gotten around to reading any of his, so it was great to discover a well-known writer for the first time.

Winter Soldier ticks all the boxes – tortured hero, conspiracy, old enemies, mind control, great fight scenes (courtesy of Mike Lang). It also has the Winter Soldier fighting for, with, and against the Black Widow, who is another great character who I can’t wait to get to know.

It helps that there’s a romance element to it as well – Winter Soldier suggests that the Widow and the Soldier were lovers when they both worked for the Red Room, and that Bucky is trying to get that back. I love romance stories like that, so…

Also, that fight? The one pictured above? Where the Winter Soldier is fully suited and the Black Widow is only wearing a tutu? Amazing.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Winter Soldier – like I said, I’ve been trying to write about it for a year – but I can still remember how the whole time I was reading it I was grinning. I think that’s a pretty solid recommendation, don’t you?

What, like it’s hard?

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If anyone asks, I usually say that my favourite movie is one of the Marvel franchise – maybe The Avengers, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Or Love Actually, if I’m feeling Christmassy. Or Aladdin, if I’m in a Disney mood. Point is, I have a lot of favourite movies. But if you were to ask me which movie had actually affected me the most? Hands down, Legally Blonde.

Legally Blonde came out when I was eleven years old, too old to want to follow my parents blindly into teaching (though a part of me still believes that I’ll end up in front of a classroom, because teaching’s in my blood), but too young to really know what else I should be pinning my hopes and dreams on. Enter Elle Woods, cute, sassy, smart as hell, and unwilling to let anyone dictate to her what she can and can’t do. From the moment I saw that movie, with it’s dark wood panelling and heavy books and strong moral code – no, you can’t break the bonds of sisterhood! – I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer, and I spent the rest of my adolescence secure in the knowledge that that was what I was going to do.

Now finally, after a couple of roadblocks and a major detour, I’m finally studying law. And honestly? It feels like I’m doing what I was meant to do. All that reading, wading through dense cases and history and pages and pages of legislation, comparing judgements and writing case notes – this is it. This is my calling.

I’ve never cycled back to a dream the way I have with this one, and I’m so glad I did. It’s like when I got my tattoo – the idea existed in the abstract for a long time, so that by the time it materialised in the real world, it was absolutely the right thing to do. It’s made me surer than ever that even if you miss a chance the first time it comes around, if the idea of it keeps bugging you, you have to get out there and create a new chance, and get where you really want to be.

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.

Unhinged

In not-quite two weeks, I’m headed off to Europe for a month. Four weeks, five countries, six or seven cities – I’m so excited. With all this free time I’ve been having, I’ve had plenty of time to plan, to pack, to dream about what I’m going to see and what I’m going to write about.

I love this part of the holiday – the part where you’re planning and dreaming and it’s all excitement and booking flights. It’s a time of hope, almost like the lead-up to Christmas, where everything is joy and anticipation.

It’s terrifying as well, though. I’m in a time of my life where I suddenly have no job, no partner, no money. I have this holiday to look forward to, but after that, it’s just… empty. I have to take a break from my studies because my holiday falls right at a crucial time in trimester. I’ve been putting off properly searching for jobs because I’m not sure it’s worth trying if I’m going away for a month, but the upshot of that is that not only do I have very little to do with my days now, but I also have nothing to fill my days when I get back.

I’ve learned that I’m only a motivated worker when I have someone else enforcing a deadline over my head; isn’t that a terrible feeling. I can’t motivate myself at all, no matter what strategies I try. I called this post Unhinged because that’s how I feel. Unhinged. Adrift. Aimless.

Oh, I have plans for sure. Heaps of things I want to do, pieces I want to write, holiday research I want to do. Plans upon ideas upon inspirations. But how to implement them? Of course, now, when I’m in the midst of writing, it all seems so straightforward. When I’m in the midst of planning it all seems so easy: get up at a reasonable time (early, even!), go for a run, write for a few hours, maybe hit up the library or my favourite coffee shop if I need a change of scenery – but then when my alarm goes off I blink myself awake reluctantly, pull out my phone and wander my way through blogs and AO3 and Tumblr for a few hours, get up somewhere around midday, put off my run because I want to eat breakfast first – you get the picture. And it’s not even that it’s hard – it’s just that I have no pressing motivation, no one to notice if I’m not at my desk, made up and ready to work, at 9am.

I’d make a terrible freelancer. I have no self-discipline.

This blog was always a way to change all that – to cultivate a little self-discipline in my writing, to be writing and creating regularly, to give myself the freedom to write about the things that I love so that I have the motivation to write about the things that I have to – had to – for work. So here I am again, after an embarrassingly long hiatus, to write and create and research and, hopefully, to inject a little structure into my days.

In a little less than two weeks, I’ll be in England. In the meantime, I’ll be posting a little about where I’m going, how I’m planning my trip, what I’m going to pack, and how I’ll put together my outfits while I’m away. Your regularly scheduled programming of Comic Book Mondays, book reviews, and other cultural ponderings will be airing as well.

It’s good to be back.

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.