Saturday, May 1, 2021

April Consumption Diary

MUSIC

INTERLUDE

I started writing a short story yesterday. I took my laptop to a different building at lunchtime and wrote for 30 minutes surrounded by studying students. It felt good.

Now I woke up at 6am on a Saturday to continue working on it, but instead I'm doing this consumption diary.

Baby steps.

BOOKS


A Short History of the World According to Sheep by Sally Coulthard (non-fiction, audiobook)

I view these topic-specific history books are as a kind of palatte cleanser between books. A way to reset and may learn a thing or two in the process, or see things in a different way. This was okay in that respect. The second half is very Anglocentric. Oh well.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (non-fiction, audiobook)

Written during the first half of Trump's first term, when the spectre of a second was very real (as was impeachment or implosion before the election). Pretty spot on in it's diagnosis of the authoritarian traits of Trump and a reminder, as Biden pushes through some pretty good policies on things like climate change, that we are no longer on the darkest timeline.

Two Stories by Sally Rooney (short stories, audiobook)

Should I count this as a while book? Probably not. But I have a 20+ hour Kim Stanley Robinson novel queued up for next month so I will, so there.

The first story was so good. The second less arresting. Hard to judge without another six or so stories to bounce off.

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet (novel, audiobook)

I will always love Millet for the jolt her novel Oh! Pure and Radiant Heart gave me when I was letting my dream of writing seriously slip away as a twenty-something living in soulless Brisbane.

A Children's Bible takes just as bold risks, but is completely different. It'd be interesting to read this after Parable of the Sower, rather than before. I think I would have enjoyed this take on climate-induced partial apocalypse even more.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion (essays, audiobook)

A collection of previously uncollected essays, reviews and columns from across 5 decades of Didion's writing. Didn't feel bitsy. I enjoyed it.

Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (short stories, audiobook)

Wow. This book is exciting. It starts out with short stories in a recognisable, North American mold. It felt a little like a first nation's Jesus' Son - and then the stories lean more into Nishnaabeg modes and language. Another bad comparison: it felt like the bait and switch in David Vann's Legend of a Suicide where the death (the dyer?) in the second half is unexpected and makes you re-evaluate everything. This time, it's like: where those first stories good on their own terms or were they bait to lure me in.

Lots to mull over. Lots to learn from.

A Complicated Love Story Set in Space by Shaun David Hutchinson (novel, audiobook)

YA romance notable for two things:

1. How absolutely unremarkable  it is within the world of the novel that the romance is between two male sixteen year olds. Literally unremarkable: no one bats an eyelid that person A is gay, or person B is gay, or that A and B would be a couple. It's cheering that there's these representations out there and that LGBT youths might experience total acceptance from the get go - in some spheres / at some point in the future.

2. How badly this thing falls apart in the second half. It felt a bit like taking the set up from an early season of the Simpsons and resolving it with in the many of recent seasons (or Rick and Morty). 

Oh well.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (novel, audiobook)

If this is Science Fiction or Fantasy, then they need to build a bigger church, because a bunch of stuff written by dudes that manages to avoid the SFF label definitely deserves it. From the The Road to anything by Michael Crichton, and even Lawrence Wright's The End of October.

But who cares for labels, anyway?

I really enjoyed Parable of the Sower and am looking forward to reading the follow-up, Parable of the Talents. I did feel frequently wrong-footed by where I thought the novel would go and where it went. Again, approaching this from an SFF perspective is partly to blame.

And it's hella prophetic. See: How Democracies Die, et al.

FILM & TV

The Gulf - Season 1

Cremerie - Season 1

Last Chance U: Basketball - Season 1

Defending the Guilty - Season 1

Shtisel - Season 1

Juliet, Naked

Instant Family

Bad Neighbours (yes, that's 3 Rose Byrne movies in a month)

The Merger

Love and Monsters

Sisters

The Blue Max

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Feb & March 2021 Consumption Diary

MUSIC - FEBRUARY

BOOKS


The End of October by Lawrence Wright (novel, audiobook)

Foresaw an influence pandemic and the disintegration of life as it was known in the US. Unfortunately, assumed this would play out the same way everywhere and the US would save the day. A good piece of speculation - and kind of absorbing - but on reflection: not a very good novel (later characters in particular are 2-dimensional).

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (novel, audiobook)

Ferrante through and through. Very good. How does it compare to the Neapolitan Quartet? Similar pretence of extreme self-divulgence from first person narrator. Same world. Less expansive, obviously (hard to compare a standalone novel to a quadrilogy). 

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan (novel, audiobook)

I'm beginning to think I'm just not on the Richard Flanagan wavelength.

Reality & other stories by John Lanchester (short stories, audiobook)

A classic case of stories being fine in isolation, but when piled on top of each other in a collection the strengths get drowned out by the weaknesses. Like Black Mirror without the edge. Like Steven Millhauser without the imagination. A very normcore kind of twist-in-the-tale short story, rinsed and repeated.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (novel, audiobook)

Not gonna lie, this felt long. Starting when Shuggie is on his own as a teen and then flashing back to when he's an infant and then staying in this flashback for 95% of the book is probably one factor. By then last 20% I was invested, and I think overall it's a good book. An instant classic, though? I'm not sure it brings anything new to the table, besides its fully realised characters.

Silver by Chris Hammer (novel, audiobook)

There's an event near the midpoint of this thriller, the sequel to Scrublands, that ratchets up the death toll. It felt exhilarating at the time. "Oho, the stakes are through the roof!" But each aspect of this event are unpicked relatively quickly and simply so that the narrative can return to the much less interesting, but precipitating death that occurred in its first pages. So: structural issues, but not definitely not "red stickered". Two books in and you can count me as a Hammer fan.

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor (novel, audiobook)

Fabular in mode, mildly futuristic in setting. Suffers from the classic fable flaws of a lack of depth and the clash of science/tech and magic.

How to Pack for the End of the World by Michelle Falkoff (novel, audiobook)

Good YA. Love the title. Enjoyed the book. But the title could lead you to expect some bad shit to go down on a global scale. Not here. Bad stuff = worrying about all the ways apocalypse might happen and standard high school hijinks. 

A Short History of Russia by Mark Galeotti (non-fiction, audiobook)

Too short. Lesson learnt.

The Secret Life of Mr Roos by Hakan Neeser (novel, audiobook)

Weird. Structure again. This is the 3rd inspector Barbarotti novel, but the inspector doesn't show up until halfway through the novel, when he's introduced to the case we've spent 200 pages with from the two suspects' perspective. Hard to establish or maintain much tension like that. But interesting to see someone try!

Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith (essays, audiobook)

I really liked Smith's essay collection, Feel Free, but this one felt rattled off, responding directly to events in the first half of 2020. I'm interested in the tension between the ever-moving news cycle and how a book (with all the inertia the publishing industry applies) can interact with this. Six Intimations felt stuck in the middle. Too late to be contemporaneous, too insubstantial to be enlightening. 

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan (novel, audiobook)

A mixed bag. Promising premise: a couple's daughter goes missing for five years and then returns. Ryan steers head-on into Irish racism but gets the speed wobbles. Failure of nerve, imagination or research? Dunno. 


FILM & TV

Taskmaster UK - Seasons 6, 7 & 10

Solar Opposites - Season 1

Made You Look: A True Story about Fake Art

Big Trouble in Little China

Shazam

Rushmore

The Darjeeling Limited

Taken 1

Taken 2

The Watch

Moxie - impossible to not compare unfavourably with Book Smart... one of it's flaws is the way it uses 1990s Riot Grrl / zine culture as the inspiration for a 2020s teen's feminist awakening, rather than something organic from contemporary culture (the seams really start to show when the film tries to be meaningfully intersectional inside of a bloated-feeling but still inadequate 1:50 runtime)... BUT it does mean - in isolation - it has a killer soundtrack. TopLady isnt on Spotify (so not on one of the playlists here) but check out Green Light Red Light from 2015 on Bandcamp!


MUSIC - MARCH


Thursday, February 4, 2021

January 2021 Consumption Diary

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

So we live in Dunedin again. The Burns Effect is real.

I start my new job (Net Carbon Zero Programme Manager at the University of Otago) after the long weekend (9 Feb). It's gonna be great.


MUSIC

BOOKS

Turns out moving to a different island is great for your reading/audiobook listening. Lots of cleaning, lots of gardening, lots of books churned through.



Autumn by Ali Smith (novel, 2016, UK, audiobook)

Promised I’d re-read this after finishing the other three books in the seasonal quartet in 2020… Still great. My altar to Ali Smith is progressing well.

New Waves by Kevin Nguyen (novel, 2020, US, audiobook) 

Strong debut novel that deals with gender, race and privilege through a fairly straight-forward narrative set in New York’s start-up scene.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (novel, 2020 [translation], Japan, audiobook) 

Never warmed to this one. These things happen.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata (novel, 2020 [translation], Japan, audiobook)

A gem. I loved it from the first sentence. I worried for a bit that it was going to swerve too much into the territory of Convenience Store Woman, but it remained enough of it’s own thing to be a triumph!

Sisters by Daisy Johnson (novel, 2020, UK, audiobook) 

A short novel that trades almost completely on an atmosphere of dread. Felt like I’ve been told this story before.

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (short stories, 2020, US, audiobook)

I’d never heard of Danielle Evans but the title intrigued me and I was really impressed with these short stories (one of which is billed as a novella, but it’s just a long story IMO).

Whatever It Takes by Paul Cleave (novel, 2019, NZ, audiobook) 

I enjoyed this. Starts off at a rollicking pace and pays off in the right places.

Rules of Prey by John Sandford (novel, 1989, US, audiobook) 

Ugh, it’s official: I never want to read/watch/listen to anything that includes extended sections from the perspective of the killer ever again. That shit can fuck right off.

A Neon Darkness by Lauren Shippen (novel, 2020, US, audiobook) 

The second Bright Sessions novel. This one is set well before the time period covered in the podcast (which I haven’t listened to), but ironically I think it needed that prior investment in the Damien character to fully hit its straps.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July (novel, 201X, US, audiobook) 

Did it go on too long, or maybe just take a little long getting there? Maybe the endorphins from the drastic brain re-wiring enacted by the first couple of chapters wore off by the two-thirds mark? Still v. good.

Bluffworld by Patrick Evans (novel, 2021, NZ, physical book)

I’ve reviewed this for The Listener... should hit shelves in early March. Here's the cover, which didn't fit in the collage...

FILM & TV

Turns out moving to a different island significantly reduces your screentime. Hurrah! The only thing I can recall is: I May Destroy You - Season 1.

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?