Monday, January 4, 2021

This Fluid Thrill Book Awards: the best things I read in 2020

You can find similar lists for 201920182017, (...), 2014201320122011, & 2010.

The rules are, as ever, that I'm choosing the books I liked best from what I read in the calendar year, not solely from those released in that year. 

Though my reading does tend to skew towards more recent releases...


For 2019 I set myself reading targets, focussed on increasing the diversity of my reading, and tracked my progress. At the end of the year I set myself the target of reading 70 books in 2020 (which I promptly forgot about, but came pretty close with 66), and left it at that. I wanted to see how diverse my reading would be with a more laissez faire approach.

And the results were... interesting.

Only 6/66 books were in translation, with 3 of those being from French (Flaubert, Camus, Houllebecq).

Only 27/66 books (41%) were by male authors, which is probably my best ever result in terms of reading female and gender diverse writers (last year male authors = 52% of reading).

I didn't do so well in reading non-white writers, with only 12/66 (18%), which is pretty damn poor (2019 = 25%).

And books by nationality tells a similar story:


As per usual, fiction dominated other forms, and audiobooks far outstripped physical books, but I've started reading poetry collections as e-books from my local library and it's really great, hence this surge of poetry & e-books relative to previous years.



Okay, enough quantification, time for some... ur... qualification.

My top ten reads of 2020



1. Winter by Ali Smith / 
Spring by Ali Smith / Summer by Ali Smith

I'm cheating already! 

I wish I'd had time to re-read Autumn (it was in my top 10 in 2017) before the year was up and have something intelligent to say about the quartet as a whole, but here's what I said in November:
Holy shit, Ali Smith. I am in awe of you. 
...
My favourite out of all four was Spring. Somehow blends The Sixth Sense and No Friend But the Mountains, and spends a lot of time on Katherine Mansfield and Rilke. It works.



2. Weather by Jenny Offill

Loved it. Leaves all the guff of novels on the cutting room floor (explaining who folks are and how they fit together) and just gives us the fluff of daily life.


3. How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

This is a book I'm already finding multiple reasons to recommend to people. It's not about withdrawal from society at all, but a refusal to play on the field as it's defined by the online materialists.

There's a lot of depth to Odell's arguments, and I enjoyed the fact so much of it is grounded in the (visual) art world. And nature. And history. 

So good.



4. Convenience Store Woman by Sakata Murata

Somehow I didn't include this in any of my consumption diaries, so I can't say for certain which month I read this (or quote from a more contemporaneous reaction), but I definitely read it and LOVED it.

A great mixture of weird and banal, sinister and sweet. Looking forward to reading her next book, Earthlings, in the coming months!



5. Lost Connections by Johann Hari

I have had this on my Audible wishlist since it came out in 2018 but, despite depression marching ever closer over that time, I kept putting it off...

I only finished Lost Connections today so I haven't fully processed everything. There weren't many surprises. Materialism is bad. Big pharma is bad. Contact with nature and other humans is good. But Hari stitches it all together so clearly, weaving in his own experiences with depression and anti-depressants. One refrain through the book is why some people can see the off-ramp but never take it - like Joe, the paint-mixer whose mindless job is sucking his will to live and dreams of becoming a fishing guide in Florida but never does anything about it. 

It's what I'm asking myself now. I'm working too much at the expense of everything else because, why? Because I have a mortgage and just a few more years of killing myself to live will be worth it? By which time my kids will have been boiled slowly in this stressed atmosphere, used to being fed and ferried by us but little else. 

Something has to change... 
After writing this, I started applying for different jobs in Wellington, then got very excited about a job in Dunedin and now we're moving back down there at the end of this month!

Right now it feels like there's so much to do and so much to still fall into place (like, uh, somewhere to live), but the big driver is still to have a better lifestyle as a family.



6. Lanny by Max Porter

Porter has a subversive streak, evident both in how he puts a page together and use of narrative... For the longest time, the 'disappeared boy' arc felt fresh and new. That it doesn't hold that line to the very end is a bit disappointing, but it's still fantastic overall.
(The passing of time meant the positives remain vivid while the slight disappointment had been forgotten.)


7. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Very good. Does aging so well. The stories without Olive do a pretty good job of holding their own.

8. Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

O'Farrell rises to the challenge of writing about Shakespeare's life without making it Shakespearean in scope or language but still making art. I really loved this. Agnes takes a while to emerge as the heart of the story, and overtake the eponymous child, but it's masterfully done. Stephanie Merritt's review in The Guardian covers the main strengths. Just so good. Top ten book of the year with a rocket.


9. Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident by Bruce Pascoe 

I felt pleasantly flayed by this one. Like, it should be no surprise that Australia's colonial history actively overwrote a lot of what the indigenous people had going on pre-contact. So much cognitive bias going on then and now. 


And....

Because I'm not done cheating, I'll let two different novels, both "genre" fiction, share the final slot...


10= The Martian by Andy Weir

... I got sucked in quick and finished it in a couple of days.

I'm a sucker for hard sci-fi. This doesn't have the scope of something like Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. We're only a couple of decades in the future and every piece of technology described conceivably exists now. But Weir makes it thrilling and epic, while also keeping a sense of the quotidian, both on the surface of Mars and back in Houston.

Two thumbs up!

10= The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen

I really liked this. A YA novel, which is basically an adult novel with permission to have a plot and be a bit emo, that asks what if the X-Men were real, but instead of becoming superheroes they went to therapy?

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

This Fluid Thrill's Best Music of 2020

You can find a playlist at the bottom of this post and previous editions here: 2019, 2018 albums and songs,  2017 albums and songs20162015201420132012.

According to my Spotify Wrapped I listened to 25,636 minutes of music by 2,150 artists, 699 of them were new (as far as Spotify would know) in 2020, which seems like a lot. But 2020 was also the year that my kids really got into music and thus all our road trip playlists were dominated by their music. The top 5 songs listened to on my Spotify account were by Dua Lipa (2), Demi Lovato, The Weeknd and Aldous Harding (an artist both generations agree on).

Reflecting on what my top albums of the year have been, I feel as if I didn’t scratch the surface of what came out in 2020 as much as I have in previous years. So you’ll see a lot of names that have featured in previous years, or albums on lots of other best of 2020 lists. Which I guess is fine. This also explains why my little blurbs after each album sound apologetic.

From next year, I’m thinking of having a rolling 2-year “best of” for music and books. So at the end of 2021, I’d list my favourite albums that came out in either 2020 or 2021, and in 2022 I’d list my faves from 2021 and 2022, so the 2021 albums get two chances and the ones I missed before the end of 2021 still get a chance. It’d also be interesting to see what stays and what drops off, and how much recency bias comes into play.

But for now…



Best Albums of 2020

(in the order in which they made it onto my "I think this might be one of the best albums of the year playlist...)


The Big Moon – Walking Like We Do

This one came out in January, which feels like eight years ago. A notch poppier than their 2017 debut (Love in the 4th Dimension), which I loved, and being immersed in so much pop this year I’m totaly fine with that.

The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers

The singles ‘I’m not getting excited’ and ‘Dying to believe’ had me hyped before the album dropped and I was a little underwhelmed with the remainder on my first few listens, but it definitely grew on me. Great live, too.

Protomartyr – Ultimate Success Today

This is the kind of album where my 2 year rolling list idea may be insightful. I really enjoy listening to this album, but it hasn’t stuck with me the same way Relatives in Descent (my fave from 2017) did.

Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

I feel like the algorithms have really been pushing Bridgers at me, but they needed try so hard. She’s great. I like this album. I feel a bit like that kid in Hype (documentary about Grunge-era Seattle) with cotton swabs up his nose complaining that everyone now likes the bands he liked when there were 20 people at their shows, but that’s the way it often goes.

Lo Tom – LP2

An album featuring David Bazan is becoming a tradition in these awards. Just as good as LP1 – but doesn’t quite compare to the last Pedro the Lion record, which felt way more personal.

Mac Miller – Circles


Leaving aside all that can be written about post-humous albums and the rap to muted indie aesthetic, I just enjoy listening to this album.

Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia

2020 really was Dua Lipa’s year. She just kept dropping hit after hit. Don’t Start Now, Break My Heart, Physical, Levitating – the family all sings along in the car. She walks the line between hackneyed and fresh, as all good pop must, and mostly succeeds.

Margaret Glaspy – Devotion

I must have listened to this five times and I still feel I haven’t spent enough time with this album… Which is a compliment!

Bill Fay – Countless Branches


I love Bill Fay. This album sent me back on a big BF kick. Countless Branches is up there with his other albums. So it’s a “yes” from me!

Soccer Mommy – Color Theory


I was a big fan of their song, “Your Dog” off their 2018 album. Color Theory doesn’t have a track that stands out as much as that one, but it hangs together to well as an album and a vibe.


BEST SONGS

Best new song - Black Licorice by Peach Pit

This award usually recognises one of two types of songs. Hideously catchy songs with nonsense syllables or a great song from a band I suspect I really like but haven’t spent enough time with their latest album for it to appear in my top 10.

Black Licorice falls into the latter category, which is not to downplay it’s catchiness. It’s just to foreshadow that Peach Pit’s You and Your Friends might appear in my rolling top 10 (maybe it should be 20?) next year.

Special mention - Ice Age by Alasdair Roberts


Best old song I heard for the first time - Oh I Wept by Free

Heard it on Watchmen. Shazamed it. So good.


Best old song I’d heard before but really appreciated properly for the first time in 2020 - Shake Some Action by Flamin’ Groovies

Proto-everything that’s good about music in the last 40 years.


December consumption diary

MUSIC

 


BOOKS

 

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (non-fiction, audiobook) – sadly, this book didn’t change much since it’s 2014 publication date, and the hurdle keeps getting higher with every year of inaction (even a year such as the one we’ve had with far fewer airline emissions…). I might have to do something about it…

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (non-fiction, audiobook) – this one came out in 2015 and felt at times like it could have been 50 years ago, and at others 5 minutes. Like, if you asked 100 people when that person was destroyed online for tweeting about hoping she doesn’t get AIDs in Africa, some would say early 2020 and others 2010.

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride (novel, audiobook) – very good but is perhaps missing the X-factor to be super memorable??

Venetia by Georgette Heyer (novel, audiobook) – I see the appeal of slipping into a Heyer book. This one, written in 1958 and set in 1818, is interesting for what it tries to present in a Regency-era story that contemporary stories omitted, with the added interest of considering what further gaps the last 62 years may have highlighted.

 


Poetry (all as e-books)

 

Far-Flung by Rhian Gallagher

 

How to Live by Helen Rickerby

 

AUP New Poets 6 by Ben Kemp, Vanessa Crofskey, Chris Stewart

 

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean by Sugar Magnolia Wilson

 

 

FILM & TV

 

Bunch of questionable content to fill the silly season food coma downtime, such as:


Ava

Hacksaw Ridge

The Invisible Man

Underwater

Call of the Wild

Lucy

Taskmaster UK Seasons 2-5

Monday, November 30, 2020

October & November consumption diary

MUSIC - OCTOBER

I went to a concert! My first for 2020!! Up yours COVID-19.

The Beths @ San Fran.

It was on a Sunday and it was totally worth going out on a school night for.

Pity that Big Thief, who were supposed to be in here May, then got shunted to March 2021, have just been canned for good. C'mon vaccines, I want to see American bands!

BOOKS

Okay, so on the face of it I read 18 books in the last two months. But there's a lot of asterisks.


* One was a manuscript I was assessing for a Masters in Creative Writing student, so I won't say anything about it here.


** Three were poetry books, read as e-books on my phone, which always feels like cheating:

  • AUP New Poets 7 by Rhys Feeney, Ria Masae, Claudia Jardin (poetry, e-book, NZ)
  • Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy (poetry, e-book, NZ)
  • How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young (poetry, e-book, NZ)


*** Speaking of phone reading: do these two count?

  • How to Talk to Trump Supporters by Shea Serrano (non-fiction, e-book)
  • 20020: The Future of Football by Jon Bois (fiction, online)


**** I got paid to review a book for Newsroom, which is a bit too much like work. It was: 

  • City at the Centre: A History of Palmerston North - edited by Margaret Tennant, Geoff Watson and Kerry Taylor (non-fiction, NZ)

Got a lot of feedback on this one - all of it positive. Easily the most  feedback I've received for a review, ever. If only reviewing books was a little more lucrative (and all review venues allowed reviewers the space to actually dig in to the topic). Like, I got paid $200 for this review, which meant $150 after tax, which is still three time more than I got from my last review (Drongo for Landfall Review online), but when you factor in the time it took to read the book (10-12 hours) and craft the review (4-5), you're looking at $10 (or fewer) an hour, which is below minimum wage. So reviewing will remain something I'll do if I can fit it in around other things, because those other things pay the mortgage or are my own follies.


***** And then I churned through the last 3/4 of Ali Smith's quartet of short novels/meaty novellas

  • Spring by Ali Smith (novel, audiobook)
  • Winter by Ali Smith (novel, audiobook)
  • Summer by Ali Smith (novel, audiobook)

About which I will share some thoughts...

Ready?

Okay...

Holy shit, Ali Smith. I am in awe of you. 

I'm going to re-read Autumn before the year is out and maybe one day I'll say something intelligent about the whole quartet. But for now, some dumbass bullet points:

  • I read Spring before Winter because that's how the holds worked out on Libby. 
  • My favourite out of all four was Spring. Somehow blends The Sixth Sense and No Friend But the Mountains, and spends a lot of time on Katherine Mansfield and Rilke. It works.
  • Summer was hyper-current - dealing with the first wave of European lockdowns in 2020 (up until June, I think) - and I guess this would have been what it was like reading the others when they just came out (I remember reading Autumn on the heels of the Brexit vote was kinda thrilling).
  • But it felt like the some of the thesis established by Autumn and Winter had to be jettisoned as world events intruded. 
  • Also, Summer suffered from having too many recurring characters from earlier books. It could feel the circle closing when I just wanted the work to continue on and on, finding new lives to inhabit and refract current crises through. 
  • Smith's Ekphrastic Mode (writing about art) is so good.


****** One was only half a book, but the audiobook is split into two books (both 13+ hours, which is longer than any other book this month so I damn well deserve to count it as a whole book, especially as I have Part 2 now and I've got the first two weeks of December to finish it...

  • A Place of Greater Safety (part 1) by Hilary Mantel (novel, audiobook)


******* Well, for the rest, there's no disqualifying factors, unless you count listening to them as an audiobook rather than reading with your eyeballs... which I DO NOT. I just really got into this asterisk thing. Here's a sprinkling of thoughts on the rest:

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky (novel, audiobook)

Gogol does it way, way better. But it was kinda nice to see Fyodor not overtly fretting about Free Will or The Nature of Evil.

A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson (non-fiction, audiobook)

I've been looking at bumblebees closely since reading this. And the sections on how NZ got its bumblebees and attempts to re-introduce them to the UK were interesting. But I can't forgive the pun in the title, and the Personal Journey bits at the beginning felt tacked on at the instruction of an editor rather than true to the rest of the book. Does a bumblebee expert really need to have a profound childhood experience for us to care about their expertise?

Rewild Yourself by Simon Barnes (non-fiction, audiobook)

Maybe I've reached my fill of white people connecting with nature lit. Not very enlightening. Not funny. Moving on...

Difficult Women: a History of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis (non-fiction, audiobook)

For some reason I thought it was going to be focussing on 11 women rather than 11 themes... The themes, or "fights" were the predictable sort and thus I never really escaped the pitfalls of once-over-lightly "general history". But that's on me.

They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie (novel, audiobook)

So I haven't read a lot of Agatha Christie. This one was like a cross between Charles Dickens and John Le Carre. Like, a Le Carre plot peopled by Dickensian do-gooders. Which was fun, I have to say.

The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen (novel, audiobook)

I really liked this. A YA novel, which is basically an adult novel with permission to have a plot and be a bit emo, that asks what if the X-Men were real, but instead of becoming superheroes they went to therapy?

No I haven't heard the podcast this was based on (The Bright Sessions). Yes, I've ordered Book 2... 

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay (fiction, audiobook)

I can't decide if this book about a pandemic started when a disease jumped from another species to human beings suffered or benefited from the weird coincidence of 2020 having A LOT of that going on for reals.

In McKay's book, the disease is more interesting than COVID-19, in that it allows humans to understand the chemical and other physical signals sent by animals as a kind of speech. But is the book more interesting that the human dramas still unfolding... Come back to me when the calendar ticks over.


FILM & TV (aka a lot a light fluff)

  • Match Fit - Season 1
  • Taskmaster NZ - Season 1
  • Taskmaster UK - Season 1
  • Grand Designs NZ - 2020 season
  • Tunnel (Korean) - Season 1
  • Operation Christmas Drop
  • The Next Three Days
  • High Score: Season 1
  • Aunty Donna's Fun House - Season 1
  • Song Exploder - Season 1
  • Tenet
  • The Forty-Year-Old Version
  • Bad Neighbors
  • A Star is Born (1976)
  • The Old Man and the Gun
  • The Gentlemen
  • Borat 2


MUSIC - NOVEMBER (aka a bit of a Bill Fay binge)

Thursday, October 8, 2020

September Consumption Diary

MUSIC

BOOKS

The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle (novel, audiobook)

Much-hyped local success story - and I can see why. It has all the components of a compelling page-turner (and the equivalent when it inevitably translates to the screen), ranging from the dog-eared ("girl" in the title) and done-before (twins) to just twisted enough to feel new (the extended sequence at sea). I devoured it, and enjoyed the cascade of twists in the books final pages, but I couldn't help feeling I'd read or seen the book's twin before. 


In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare (novel, audiobook)

Cults. I love 'em. The zanier the better. Pomare based his Black Marsh cult on the real life Aussie cult, The Family. Both The Family and the fictional version are notable for being fronted by a female. Aside from that, there's not much else unique about them, and zaniness is in short supply. Grimness, though, is available by the bucket-load, which suits the thriller genre better, I suppose.

This is the third of Pomare's novels I've listened to (insert comment from the green-eyed monster about how prolific he is), each of them relying heavily on female narrators. In the Clearing chiefly relies on two narrators, a girl in the cult and a yoga-teaching solo mother living in a rural community. 

For the first half of the novel I did not enjoy for the simple fact the narration felt manufactured. I think I muttered aloud, "This is bullshit" on at least one occasion. The mother narrator does the old drip-feed technique with every last aspect of her current circumstances, to the point she says very little of consequence for long stretches. Lots of names are mentioned - Wayne, Henrick, Aspen - with no immediate explanation. She's only telling her story like this to build tension, but it's a fake kind of tension. Stringing out the backstory shouldn't be the engine that drives a story forward. 

When the twist at the midpoint is revealed, which includes the relationship between the two narrations - not just who they are, but when they are - a lot of the narrative gymnastics can be dropped and the story  finally achieves its own forward momentum. There are more twists. I got sucked in. So in the end it was fine. I can see why everything was the way it was - I just get triggered by heavy-handed narrative techniques.


The Quick and the Dead by Cynric Temple-Camp
 (non-fiction, audiobook)

I've read Temple-Camp's first book, The Scene of the Crime, in fits and starts since I met him at a book event in Palmerston North. Both that book and this one recount various cases from his career as a pathologist (and before that, a doctor in the military) in New Zealand, South Africa and Zimbabwe (when it was still Rhodesia). 

The Quick and the Dead doesn't shy away from the gross side of his field. Parasites, coprophagia, more parasites... I'm pretty squeamish - I can't watch surgery shows on TV - but Temple-Camp is so interested in everything that his curiosity is contagious. 

A kindly, eminently curious provincial pathologist -- now there's a character ripe for a crime novel!


A Peculiar Peril by Jeff VanderMeer (novel, audiobook)

This fat, YA fantasy-farce just wasn't my cup of tea. The fantasy elements reminded me of The Absolute Book and Ian Tregillis' Bitter Seeds - two reading experiences that contained a lot of "I can't actually picture what's going on here" and moments verging on boredom. Then there was the kind of humour at play, which seems to operate in the interstitial clauses in VanderMeer's wordy sentences. It felt forced and unfunny and clogged the plot.


Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (novel audiobook)

I didn't want to seem a snob about YA so I chose this book next. It was okay. But I totally get the glorification of suicide angle that many have levelled at the book and, especially, the show (which I haven't seen). And on that basis, I'd say it's best to avoid it.


Beach Read by Emily Henry (novel, audiobook)

In my search for a pleasurable genre experience, I turned to Henry's book. How could a novel called Beach Read not embrace its genreness?! And it delivered. 

The graphic novelist Dylan Horrocks asked on Twitter last year (I think) where are all the romances written for men (or at least with male POV characters)? Henry's book features two writers, a female writer of romance (and our POV character) and a brooding male writer of literary fiction who references Jonathan Franzen at least twice, but there's a bit of David Foster Wallace in their, too. Henry does a good job of not resorting to kneecapping the lit-bros in order to raise up what might otherwise be called chick lit. It's a both/and argument rather than an either/or.

And it did get me interested in the challenge of writing male romance. It'd need a snappy name for the genre though. Dick lit? Nope. Bromance? Means something else already.

...


Summerwater by Sarah Moss (novel, audiobook)

Ghost Wall promised so much but ended so quickly I felt short changed, so I thought I'd give Moss another go. 

Summerwater is a story collection masquerading as a novel set at a bunch of holiday cabins beside a remote Scottish loch. There's a lot of rain. There are hints of something ominous. But again, the payoff just isn't there.

There are elements I really like. The contemporary-ness. The inside-a-range-of-people's-heads-ness. But after this I started reading more Ali Smith (Winter and Spring) and Smith does both of these things so much better. There's more bite. There's more bile. The politics and the integration of other art is richer. And the promise of the premise is followed through on.


Film & TV

Jojo Rabbit

My Octopus Teacher

Enola Holmes

Project Power

The Duchess

Rose Matafeo: Horndog

Sunday, August 30, 2020

August consumption diary

MUSIC


BOOKS

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny OdellDark Emu cover artPaul Takes the Form of A Mortal Girl by Andrea LawlorIn Watermelon Sugar: Richard Brautigan: 9781504759571: Amazon.com: BooksLucy-Anne Holmes, Don't hold my head down: in search of some brilliant  fucking | Peace NewsScrublands cover artEven Dogs in the Wild - Ian Rankin

I read seven books this month. Scratch that: I listened to seven audiobooks. 

I listened to/read five books total across June and July. And six across April and May. 

Some of this burst of activity is down to really enjoying most of them, and them being quite varied. (Perhaps the Rankin ranked lowest because it came too close on the heels of another crime novel (Scrublands)?)

I got some new over-ear, sound-cancelling bluetooth headphones, too, which meant I could mow lawns etc without losing any comprehension. (I can recommend the Anker A20's for anyone looking for a great pair around the $100 mark.)

I think I pottered more in the garden, too, thanks to a very mild August. 

Good books, good weather, better moods. They all feed into each other.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (non-fiction, audiobook)

This is a book I'm already finding multiple reasons to recommend to people. It's not about withdrawal from society at all, but a refusal to play on the field as it's defined by the online materialists.

There's a lot of depth to Odell's arguments, and I enjoyed the fact so much of it is grounded in the (visual) art world. And nature. And history. 

So good.

Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident by Bruce Pascoe (non-fiction, audiobook)

Speaking of history, I felt pleasantly flayed by this one. Like, it should be no surprise that Australia's colonial history actively overwrote a lot of what the indigenous people had going on pre-contact. So much cognitive bias going on then and now. 

I did a bit of Googling about the book and Pascoe and quickly fell down an Andrew Bolt-size hole. When people try and attack genealogy or blood quantum (and those people who have websites with banners at the top that read, "No living person, black or white, is responsible for what other black and white people did generations ago") it's clear they're resorting to a cynical playbook. Much like Odell suggests, the best thing to do is set off that particular field of play and interact with real people.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor (novel, audiobook)

I'm a sucker for stories that bury a character's superpower and once it's revealed, stick to the original genre.

In this case, Paul is a shapeshifter. He can make his boy bits into girl bits. His sexual orientation is a fluid as his gender and he spend quite a bit of time being in a lesbian relationship. There's elements of myth and fairy tale woven in. As well as being a kind of bildungsroman. Nothing much feels resolved by the end, except we're nowhere like where we were when we started.

Incredible.

In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan (novel, audiobook)

Okay, so maybe the fact my kids like Harry Styles bought me here. And now I have that song stuck in my head again.

But Brautigan was doing something really interesting in the Sixties. I can see a thread that runs through into George Saunders. The flatness of tone. The way language is rotated 90 degrees.

I think I'll have to read Trout Fishing in America, now.

Don't Hold My Head Down: In Search of Some Brilliant Fucking by Lucy-Anne Holmes (non-fiction, audiobook)

What to expect from a sex book by the author of three Rom Com novels and founded the No More Page 3 campaign? A blend of tell-all memoir, Bridget Jones-y gags and Fourth Wave Feminism? Why, that's right. Holmes manages to hold these elements together and delivers an entertaining and enlightening book.

Scrublands by Chris Hammer (novel, audiobook)

The reporter as detective isn't exactly new. Nor is setting a crime novel in the parched Australian hinterland. But Hammer (and ex-journo himself) does a bloody good fist of things in his first novel.

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin (novel, audiobook)

As I said, I didn't feel the 20th Rebus novel as much as some of the other books I read this month. I hadn't read any from this series since I lived in Scotland 12 years ago, so I thought that was enough time. Maybe I'm just not a series guy? Or maybe semi-retired Rebus and nearly-clocked-out Fox and the ever dependable DS Clarke just weren't a compelling enough team to get behind?

MOVIES & TV

Ultimate Beastmaster - Season 3 (Aus version) - turns out this is perfect family viewing with a 7 year old gymnast and a 5 year old who loves pratfalls. Now to watch the earlier seasons and tolerate the American commentators.

The Big Lebowski - I thought I was re-watching this but I must have only ever seen it in parts. And some parts that felt familiar were actually because Fargo the TV show cut and paste them.

Three Identical Strangers

A Star is Born

Manhattan Murder Mystery

Quiz - 3 part miniseries

Love on the Spectrum - Season 1

Connected - Season 1

John Was Trying to Contact Aliens

Trolls: World Tour

Friday, July 31, 2020

June & July Consumption Diary

MUSIC: JUNE


BOOKS

Lost Connections Audiobook | Johann Hari | Audible.com.au

Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression - and the unexpected solutions by Johann Hari (non-fiction, audiobook)

I have had this on my Audible wishlist since it came out in 2018 but, despite depression marching ever closer over that time, I kept putting it off. Replace "despite" with "because", perhaps. But I read quite a lot of books in a similar vein, glorified, intellectual self-help during that time: How to Change Your Mind (psychedelics), The Coddling of the American Mind (the culture has some things backwards), The Way Home (living off grid), The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read ("they fuck you up..."), The Happiness Hypothesis... Even something like The Uninhabitable Earth is about depression in one sense (like, how can you not feel down when you think about mass extinctions, desertification and on and on?).

I only finished Lost Connections today so I haven't fully processed everything. There weren't many surprises. Materialism is bad. Big pharma is bad. Contact with nature and other humans is good. But Hari stitches it all together so clearly, weaving in his own experiences with depression and anti-depressants. One refrain through the book is why some people can see the off-ramp but never take it - like Joe, the paint-mixer whose mindless job is sucking his will to live and dreams of becoming a fishing guide in Florida but never does anything about it. 

It's what I'm asking myself now. I'm working too much at the expense of everything else because, why? Because I have a mortgage and just a few more years of killing myself to live will be worth it? By which time my kids will have been boiled slowly in this stressed atmosphere, used to being fed and ferried by us but little else. 

Something has to change. 

In the past I've retreated into a writing project to combat this dread of wasting my life away at the wrong things. Right now, it feels like writing another book is another wrong thing.

But there may be a way to combine the two: the big change and writing about it.

Maybe the change won't be that big. Just a series of small corrections that add up to a better life. Cooking more. Brewing and distilling more (I made by second batch of amazake this afternoon -- through making excess cider & whiskey and sharing it around, I'm starting to understand how fulfilling it can be to provision others). More time in the bush. Doing more for other people. Being in groups more. 

There's no shortage of better ways of going about this. It's just a matter of choosing a couple of those things making the time for them.

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell (novel, audiobook)

O'Farrell rises to the challenge of writing about Shakespeare's life without making it Shakespearean in scope or language but still making art. I really loved this. Agnes takes a while to emerge as the heart of the story, and overtake the eponymous child, but it's masterfully done. Stephanie Merritt's review in The Guardian covers the main strengths. Just so good. Top ten book of the year with a rocket.


The Martian (Weir novel) - Wikipedia

The Martian by Andy Weir (novel, audiobook)

I'd seen the movie staring Matt Damon and remembered the gist (astronaut is left on Mars and needs to survive long enough to be rescued), but I don't remember having any strong feelings about the film (or any Matt Damon film, since Good Will Hunting, for that matter). I only started listening to the audiobook because a) it was the free download on Audible last month and b) Jessica Brody used it as the example of a Dude With A Problem plot in the book I had just read (see below), so I figured let's give it half an hour and see how it worked as a novel.

And I got sucked in quick and finished it in a couple of days.

I'm a sucker for hard sci-fi. This doesn't have the scope of something like Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. We're only a couple of decades in the future and every piece of technology described conceivably exists now. But Weir makes it thrilling and epic, while also keeping a sense of the quotidian, both on the surface of Mars and back in Houston.

Two thumbs up!


Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You ...

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody (non-fiction, audiobook)

A different kind of self-help book. 

In my teens and twenties I read quite a lot of academic dissections of "plot" (or "plots") and a couple of "how to write a book" books. Brody's is definitely in the latter camp, but it is a descendant of Artistotle's Poetics and I really enjoyed it. 

I don't think there's any shame in a writer of any stripe, or at any stage, reading a book like this. I think more writers of literary fiction should be reminded of what makes a good story.

The thing I was most interested in was middles (avoiding flabby ones), and the answer is (predictably) to fix the middle you need to fix the beginning, but also be clear where this is going. I enjoy confounding reader's expectations too much. It makes writing a novel really hard. Good thing I've retired.

The Plague Audiobook by Albert Camus - 9781440780981 | Rakuten ...

The Plague by Albert Camus (novel, audiobook)

I put this on hold before lockdown and it became available once things started returning to normal. Still eerie to read with other parts of the world much more impacted. It's a wonder we weren't wiped out by something already, eh?

FILM & TV

Um, err, what have I been watching? I'm going to list the things I can remember from ones that were rewarding/enriching to those that were not... but I'll leave you to guess where the line from good to bad is.

Bluey
Three Identical Strangers
Love Birds
Booksmart*
Yesterday
Time Freak
Hannah Gadsby: Douglas
Hamilton
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
Ad Astra
Money Heist: Part 1

MUSIC: JULY