My World Through Stories

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An imagined world

Montreal, Canada

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
Peter Pan, J.M. Barry

I studied part of my literature major in a fall semester at McGill University. We arrived in the summer, after a month travelling west coast USA, and the musical city was intoxicating, ringing with Quebecois French, wild celebrations, strange experiences and layers of history. I had four lit subjects, each requiring a text a week. My book/play/poetry collection was too heavy to ship home so I sold most of it to a Canadian friend one snowy night before Christmas. He gave me his personal copy of Meditations in return, to this day one of my most treasured literary items. Of all the wonderful texts I read throughout the shockingly beautiful fall several stand out to me, but for some reason none more so than the original Peter Pan, which I studied along with Romeo & Juliet and My Own Private Idaho for a comparative essay on boy gang culture.

 

Calgary, Canada

Beauty Tips From Moose Jaw, Will Ferguson

Obtained from a hostel bookshelf in Calgary on a solitary trip to the Canadian Rockies, one of many expeditions out from Montreal. I read this at the start of my Canadian residency and the quirky anecdotes and bizarre historic detail established in me a new respect for the cultural diversity of the great maple-leaf nation.

 

Paris Eurail Trip

The English Assassin, Daniel Silva

Purchased in a second-hand bookshop in Montmartre for three euro it was one of few English-language books on offer and elicited a patronising smirk from the bearded shop-guy. Not my usual fare, it turned out to be a fantastic scenic parallel to our trans-European journey. And the heroine was a violinist convalescing in Portugal.

 

Sola Voce European Tour

An Equal Music, Vikram Seth

The tomb of Monteverdi is in Basilica di Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice

The tomb of Monteverdi is in Basilica di Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice

One of my all-time favourite books, as much for the time of life in which I discovered it as for the story itself. I bought a second copy from a bookshop in Montreal and reread this during a tour of Europe with a chamber choir from the University of Queensland. Violin was my major degree study so I felt an intimate connection with the protagonist and the way music, both craft and passion, was an inseparable part of his identity. His string quartet performed in Vienna and Venice and our choir toured to these places and more, the pieces we sang becoming a soundtrack to our incredible experiences just as the music Michael plays parallels his doomed love affair. The writing is astonishingly beautiful and full of melancholic depth and I’ve never read another author who has such a nuanced understanding of the intricacies of Art music practise and the lesser-performed masterpieces of the Western canon.

 

Oahu, USA

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

On my second trip to Hawaii I had just finished Kerouac’s famously meandering roman á clef. Though it had little connection to Oahu it nevertheless leant a deeper magnificence to the Pacific sunsets.

 

Penang & Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

On Stranger Tides, Tim Powers

I have a thing for pirates and so does Malaysia, whose history is drenched in nautical mishaps and adventure. A perfect book for resort poolsides, a Singapore sling in one hand and a view of the Straits of Malacca before you.

 

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy

Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy

Siena, Italy

Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, Frances Mayes

As part of an extensive overseas trip we spent a week in a villa in the Sienese countryside. It was as exquisite as it sounds, made all the more so by Mayes’s portraits of Tuscan life and epicurean recommendations. Thanks to her we discovered an antiques fair at the top of Arezzo hill and the pure delight of fava beans with pecorino fresco and local sangiovese.

 

Paris, France

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

Having read The Sun Also Rises for my lit studies, invoking an endless love of Hemingway, it comes as no surprise that one of the greatest moments of my life was purchasing A Moveable Feast from Shakespeare & Company before walking in the rain along Rue Mouffetard.

 

Vernazza, Italy

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

I found this book while revisiting a little apartment in Vernazza, Italy, on the last leg of a world trip. This was before it became a hyper-marketed movie so I had no idea what to expect. I’m still not sure what to make of it, but the novel reads a bit like a travel narrative touching on various parts of the globe and traversing huge spans of time. For me it evoked a similar feeling to travelling around the world, that anchorless, ageless sensation. The musical tale of Robert Frobisher was a special gem for me, as was the seafarer’s bookending narrative.

 

New York City, USA

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jnr, & E.B. White

On my third trip to NYC my husband and I spent one week in the East Village and another in Green Point, Brooklyn. Every minute was perfect, and littered with literary memories. The shelves of our East Village apartment were full of contemporary sociology books, and I spent a glorious morning in the JP Morgan Library & Museum, and an equally glorious afternoon wandering the hallowed halls of the Public Library. Not to mention McNally Jackson in Soho, the Met rare book collection and the gorgeous bookshop attached to the MoMA. I bought Auster’s trilogy in the gift shop of the Whitney Museum and reading it later was amazed at the true New York-ness of his hyper-realistic style. Another grand life-moment was purchasing the latest edition of Strunk & White’s style bible from The Strand.

 

Pool deck of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Georgetown, Malaysia

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

It’s fair to say Penang has stolen my heart, in a manner on par with New York City and Rome, due in no small part to its 20th century literary heritage. It’s one of few places in South East Asia that bring together many extreme historic influences because of its unique geographic location: sitting at the heart of the shipping lanes that bore the lifeblood of world culture for more than 3000 years. Penang counts in its history an ancient Austronesian settlement, a Persian dynasty, the oldest Sultanate in the world, a port for the Dutch East India Company, a British colonial fortress, Chinese opium wars, and Japanese occupation in WW2. Greene’s book is set in Vietnam but finds its place alongside many authors of that era who were fascinated by the South China Seas, such as Anthony Burgess, Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and Noel Coward. I read this book with my mother on the pool deck of the Eastern & Oriental where Maugham himself penned several novels.

Elise Janes

Summer Reading List

Cringe Top Pick

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

IMG_9313A post-apocalyptic novel about the power of art to keep the ‘human’ in ‘humanity’, and also “friendship, memory, love, celebrity, our obsession with objects, oppressive dinner parties, comic books, and knife-throwing.” In the aftermath of a global epidemic a group of traveling Shakespearean actors bring theatre to isolated pockets of habitation. It’s a beautifully written spec fic novel dealing with issues of character, relationship, ethics and power that are more important in these times than ever before. I’m hoping that along with J by Howard Jacobsen we’re seeing the dawn of a new age of adult literary dystopias.

 

Highly Recommended

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

IMG_9315“If a serious book really catches on, it may be less important that its strictly literary quality is not as great as one might have hoped and more important that it’s touched a nerve.” So says literary editor Leon Wieseltier of the great opinion divide on Tartt’s latest Pulitzer prize-winner. Whatever the verdict, Donna Tartt only comes round once every decade so make the most of her while she’s here.

 

Perfidia – James Ellroy

IMG_9314“I wanted to give people crime fiction on an epic, transcendental scale.” Summer reading wouldn’t be complete without something to darken your doorstep like a good old crime noir. Ellroy’s first LA Quartet was a genre-definer, and the new ‘prequel’ series looks to be even better.

 

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

IMG_9316“Be Whoever You Are.” Those not familiar with the brilliance of Parks & Recreation will not fully grasp how qualified Poehler is to bring us this wisdom in her kind-of-memoir. Don’t tell the Paris Review but SNL has delivered to the world some great minds through the medium of comedic tomfoolery, and Ms Poehler is no exception.

 

Further suggestions

Readings’s Guide: http://www.readings.com.au/summer-reading-guidelines

SLQ’s Summer Reading Club (for children): http://www.summerreadingclub.org.au

Top Ten Christmas Movie Themes

If you need an alternative to “Jingle Bells” for your seasonal playlist this year, the following Christmas movie themes will more than suffice.

Pushing beyond vocal soundtracks the movies on this list are notable for their incredible orchestral themes and underscoring, though some do have quality soundtracks (double win) and also happen to be great movies. Really, this is an all-round great list for your festive entertainment needs.

Home Alone

  1. Home Alone (1990) – John Williams

There’s no particular order here but it wouldn’t be right unless “Home Alone” had the top spot. Remember the old days when kid’s movies had live actors? Just one of the many reasons this movie is an eternal classic. Another is John Williams. No one writes a melody quite like him and you’ll be humming “Somewhere in My Memory” for days. The overture opens with a foreshadowing of Williams’s “Harry Potter” in playful jingle bells and creepy Christmas-mystery chromaticism, and then expands magically into that simple but perfect melody, the quintessence of Christmas movie magic. Add a children’s choir and melt-in-your-mouth strings and the effect is complete. Home Alone 2 revisits the same melodic material, and some claim it’s even better than the original.

  1. Love Actually (2003) – Craig Armstrong

The first and best (and most English) of ensemble movies, “Love Actually” is a proven hit. Managing to be equal parts festive, funny and romantic the movie gets away with the cheese by being just the right amount of self-deprecating and then nailing the emotional climaxes. Bill Nighy’s “Christmas is All Around You” is a highlight, but the true magic happens in the scoring. You’ll never forget the revelatory moment when Juliet watches Mark’s video to that simple, heartbreaking piano motif. The Portuguese Love Theme is another gem, delicate yet triumphant, but the penultimate scene with Sam running through the airport toward his New York love would be nothing without Armstrong’s immaculate scoring. He wields strings, French horns and timpani in a grand, festive crescendo and if you aren’t struck with goosebumps for those few minutes than there’s something wrong with you.

  1. The Holiday (2006) – Hans Zimmer

A more predictable festive romance, “The Holiday” is still a well-produced story with some surprisingly fun details, the best of which is Eli Wallach. Hans Zimmer wisely opts for a lightly textured score, steering away from grandiose orchestral romanticism that could have cheapened the fairy-floss story. Where Williams is master of the melody, Zimmer specializes in layered motifs, making clever use of piano, electric guitar and drum kit alongside strings and minimal woodwind. The oscillating string movement of the central theme is stirringly uplifting while also cleverly evoking the wildness and mystery of the Santa Ana winds. Zimmer also does a great job of blending with Frou Frou’s spacious soundtrack items. The emotional climax of the story, the Cry, is an appropriately triumphant moment without pushing too far into cheese territory.

  1. The Polar Express (2004) – Alan Silvestri

Criticised by some for being too dark and ghostly (have people not seen A Christmas Carol?) “The Polar Express” is a quirky magical journey and a welcome alternative to the bubbly children’s comedies usual of the genre. Alan Silvestri is no stranger to Christmas movies and his bouncy music-hall tunes and expansive orchestral landscaping mark one of the highlights of his composing credits. Try not to focus on the nasal twangs of Tom Hanks half-singing the title song, and listen instead to the musical genius beneath. The opening refrain of the main theme is epic, mysterious and appropriately skin-tingling, complete with wordless choir and wind-chime glissandos. Silvestri contrasts the grand orchestral moments with sections of shimmering strings and panpipe, evoking the glistening moonlit landscape. The songs are also clever, fun and catchy, especially “Hot Chocolate” and “Polar Express”.

  1. Miracle on 34th St (1994) – Bruce Broughton

Even with credits like “Silverado” and “Tombstone” to his name, Bruce Broughton is strangely no longer a household name in movie composition. Though he continues to write for the screen to this day, “Miracle on 34th St” marks one of his last well-known scores. Opening with the famous Christmas-bell herald that forms the musical leitmotif of the movie, Broughton segues seamlessly into the Miracle theme demonstrating a deft hand at the powerful evocation of Christmas joy (he also composed for “All I Want for Christmas” in 1991). He creates a delicate atmosphere with light strings, brass, and, of course, Christmas bells. You may notice the ‘evil’ theme sounds strangely similar to parts of “The Lion King”, composed by Hans Zimmer in the same year. The truly amazing moment, however, comes with his use of a cappella children’s choir, building a powerful, sacred moment from a wordless medieval melody.

NOTE: Though the movie is enjoyable, and stars David Attenborough, do yourself a favour and unearth the 1947 version instead.

NightmareBeforeChristmas985

  1. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Danny Elfman

Tim Burton and Danny Elfman go way back, a unique artistic partnership that has given us such flawlessly deranged movies as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Corpse Bride”. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is no exception, and it’s dark silliness forms a fun counterpoint to the whimsical romantic comedies on offer. The Overture demonstrates the artistic variety of Elfman’s scoring, opening with a Star Wars-esque expansiveness which soon breaks into a zany galloping dance and then into melodic hints of the great songs to come, “This Is Halloween” and “Jack’s Lament”. With bells and other metallic percussion used liberally throughout, contrasted frequently with heavy lower brass and woodwind, Elfman masterfully blends chromatic eeriness, dreamlike delicacy, and heavy black drama into an active score. Listen attentively and you’ll soon realize that the music is as vital to the story as the brilliant animation, never once letting up for the entire movie.

  1. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – James Horner

A fitting contrast to Elfman’s lively, detailed scoring, James Horner specializes more in full orchestral sweeps and unobtrusively fluid themes. Famous for his work on “Titanic”, “Avatar” and “Braveheart”, it’s clear that subtle grandeur most defines his style. Employing full, slow-moving string layers with delicate woodwind and piano solos (you’ll notice how much he loves the oboe), and the requisite Christmas bells, he creates a suitably glistening carpet of sound to mirror the snowy beauty of Whoville. It’s rather clear his talent doesn’t lie in comic songs (eg, “Happy Who-lidays”) so fortunately most of The Grinch is orchestral and Horner more than makes up for it in moments like Memories of a Green Christmas.

  1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) – Vince Guaraldi Trio

The sophisticated comic awareness of “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schultz is perfectly depicted in the musical choice for this animated Snoopy short. The link between childhood innocence and timeless wisdom is brought to life in laid-back jazz meanderings from the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Improvising on some well-known Christmas favourites, such as “Christmas Time is Here” and “O Tannenbaum”, the Trio also add brilliance to the simple beauty of character scenes like Ice Skating. The full soundtrack makes for excellent Christmas cocktail-party music, and would be equally useful for a romantic eggnog-by-the-fire evening.

  1. Joyeux Noel (2005) – Phillippe Rombi

The power of a single voice was the inspiration behind “Joyeux Noel”, and it fittingly forms the genesis of the most powerful Christmas movie moment ever. Though not a festive song, the simple, rustic melody of “I’m Dreaming of Home” evolves powerfully from a wordless hum into a fully orchestrated work under the brilliant hand of Phillippe Rombi, with echoes of Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”. A truly exceptional musical experience on its own, the movie itself is another level altogether. The titular scene, complete with bagpipes, a Scottish men’s chorus and an a cappella rendition of “Stille Nacht”, will have you in goosebumps from the outset if not in a complete teary mess. If you’ve lost some Christmas spirit over the years, this movie should be the first on your list.

Joyeux Noel

  1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Jerry Goldsmith

It’s not the most Christmassy narrative on the list but it’s a perfect antidote to glimmering holiday cheer if it all becomes a little to much. The soundtrack itself is brilliant, with upbeat jazz-age standards mixed among festive favourites, but the movie gets its lone-wolf noir atmosphere from the haunting solo trumpet brilliantly woven through the score by Goldsmith. He also plays a clever hand blending grand orchestral sweeps with edgy jazz drum fills. Understated but extremely clever, Goldsmith’s score plays a huge role in the movie’s success as one of the most highly rated films of all time. Ok, yeah, and Kevin Spacey might also have something to do with that. 

Special mentions

Definitely worth a watch for its full-length orchestrated score that brings the innocent animation to life, but most notable for it’s ethereal child solo: Walking in the Air.

Silvestri blends echoes of every famous carol into a surprisingly original score. Perfect for clever instrumental reinventions of your favourite carols.

This one is more famous for the songs but that’s only because almost all of them have since become Christmas standards, particularly “White Christmas”, made famous by Bing Crosby in “Holiday Inn” long before the movie of the same title was made ten years later. Berlin is also responsible for bringing us “Happy Holiday”. If that’s not enough, just watch it for Fred Astaire and Bing himself. Swoon.

Finally…

If you need some more Art music ways to enjoy Christmas, find a live performance of “The Messiah” or “The Nutcracker” that you can witness in the flesh. You won’t regret it. If none are accessible in your local area, try these exceptional versions on YouTube:

‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn – Review (no spoilers)

The Book

Gone_Girl_(Flynn_novel)

These days it’s rare to find a novel that can truly surprise readers. We’re all too busy and too opinionated to be messed around by sneaky genre-bending narratives. Authors are encouraged to satisfy reader expectations and dance to the tune of stylistic conceits, in ‘literary’ works as much as in ‘commercial’ fiction. While Gone Girl sits firmly in the crime/psychological thriller category, the explosive success of the novel has much more to do with how well Gillian Flynn bends the rules than with how well she follows them.

The novel has far more reality than we usually expect from our crime fiction, and a bit too much character exploration for our ‘genre’ comfort-zones. Predictably, this means people either love it or hate it, and vehemently so, which is indicative of both the quality of writing and the intensely disturbing plot. One thing is guaranteed, though: the novel will surprise you.

Premise:
Amy Dunne goes missing under suspicious circumstances on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary and her husband Nick is caught in the headlights of the ensuing media frenzy. It unravels from there in alternate POV threads: the husband in present tense, and the wife’s diary entries leading up to the fateful day.

Surprise 1: Narrative
With twists coming in unexpected ways and at blindsiding intervals throughout the narrative, it’s very difficult to talk about the book without ruining it completely. Audiences love a good sting but this is one novel where you really will be guessing at the numerous red herrings (wondering if they even are red herrings) right up to each reveal, and sometimes beyond. And even if you do guess right, Flynn finds another way to slap you in the face.

Surprise 2: Characterisation
Flynn masterfully creates two distinct and intricate voices in Nick and Amy. Her painstakingly thorough character portraits feature some of the most insightful portrayals of human nature you can read. You find yourself squirming at the blatant honesty of these two flawed and complex people and you will think (more than once) they are repulsive; they are just like me. Add to that a well-pitched supporting cast, with some surprises of their own, and you realize you are dealing with an expert in emotional intelligence.

Surprise 3: Style
Overlaying all the narrative details and character complexity, Flynn weaves a beautiful and immensely readable style. She manages to circumvent all normal adjectival use by endlessly inventing new and brilliant ways to describe people, things, events and emotional reactions. Even though she kind of breaks Strunk & White’s Rule #17, you forgive her for the hyphenated adverbs because they are so darn clever.

One technical downfall that bears noting is that the structure seems a little out of balance. The first half of the book crescendos at a measured and excruciating pace and the following sections feel rushed in comparison. Pushing reader patience at 470 pages, Flynn could have paced with greater care.

Surprise 4: Themes
Binding all these elements together and making the novel truly uncomfortable to read is the stark interrogation of marriage and relationships in the 21st century, and therein lies the issue most people have with the story. Flynn has applied her twisted realism to the portrayal of all relationships in the book, but the interaction between Nick and Amy, with their fragile in-jokes, dangerous misunderstandings, and niggling frustrations, will make you question the tumultuous undertow of even the very best marriage. Highly disconcerting.

So, despite it’s brilliance I have to be honest and admit I didn’t actually enjoy reading the novel. It reads like witnessing a tragic disaster in slow motion, and if you’re angling for a nice generic who-dunnit, this is not your biscuit. The thematic surprises have pissed off more than one reviewer, proving that messing with our expectations is not always a popular angle. Though, considering the enormous hype borne of this controversy, one might be forgiven for suspecting that’s exactly what Flynn was going for. It doesn’t change the fact that I read the whole thing and would encourage you to do the same.

The Movie

Gone-Girl-Ben-Affleck-Rosamund-Pike-Entertainment-Weekly-cover

Apparently Gillian Flynn did what all Hollywood executives fear: demand to write her own screenplay. While many have lauded her screenwriting talent I suspect it’s largely on account of the brilliance of the story rather than the particular quality of the dialogue, detail, and pacing. Flynn did write the story and deserves to be commended for it, but I think a writing partnership would have drilled out those minor niggles that a lot of amateur movie reviewers are latching onto, such as the shortened-timeline issues (different in the book), perceived ‘holes’ in the narrative (there are none, they just aren’t well explained in the movie), and misrepresentation of certain character motives (again, more explicit in the book). She did well to pack all the relevant plot points into a two-hour movie, but those small inconsistencies were distracting and would have been ironed out by a fresh writing eye.

Nevertheless it is an impressive, entertaining, and affecting standalone movie. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) seems to specialise in mystery narratives with a twist. He was an ideal choice to direct a character-focused, deliberately paced thriller, and as expected his work is clever and visually beautiful. Under another hand the movie could well have been ruined through over-dramatisation or visual monotony. Yet his style can be distracting, as is the case with any unique director, and you find him at times being a little too clever for his own good.

Ben Affleck is slowly crawling back into public favour with his recent acting and directing credits and he is perfectly cast as Nick Dunne, more or less described (physically) as a guy whose face you’d want to punch (you could say Affleck was born for the role). While his coiled reserve was highly effective, I was disappointed he didn’t do more with the emotional fallout, particularly in the second half of the movie.

Rosamund Pike I’ve found generally underwhelming but she’s pleasantly surprising as Amy Dunne. Considering the other casting options (only Chastain could have brought the same wide-eyed distance) she was the obvious choice. Her portrayal is excellent, restrained and effective: just the right amount of everything. Can’t say more without spoilers.

The supporting roles were impressive, particularly Kim Dickens (Boney), Patrick Fugit (Gilpin) and Tyler Perry (Bolt). Sadly Amy’s parents were cast to emotional stereotypes, and Neil Patrick Harris, though perfect as Desi, could’ve tried harder. My one real bone was Margo. Many reviewers liked her but I don’t think she was the right fit. As I read the novel I kept picturing Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter as the confused but devoted sister. I suppose after her brilliant portrayal of Debra Morgan no other screen sister will impress me.

I won’t discuss the ending here but will explore the themes in the follow-up essay. I will say that people either love the movie for its clever plot or dislike it for the themes and implications. And both views are justified.

My final take on the movie, despite its obvious strengths and weaknesses, is that the director tried too hard to make it cool. It felt a bit like clever mumblecore with a plot. Literally there were moments when I couldn’t understand the dialogue because of the bad sound mastering, but jokes aside everything felt a little underdone. The performances were just a bit too unemotional; the editing just a bit too sharp and clever; the score just a little too smug and creepy. Ten years ago we reveled in the indie revolution of understated grit and moping characters, but for a movie like this it just feels contrived. Across the board, now, the subtlety for subtlety’s sake is getting tiresome.

It’s a brilliant story and worth a view, but not as perfect as all the hype would lead you to believe. The high scores it’s garnered are a result of the shock value of the plot, which is warranted, but after that wears off the movie loses a star or two under objective reflection.

Elise Janes

The Rejectee’s Guide to Recovery

Despite the tact with which a rejecter will attempt to frame their delicate response, we all know it comes down to one simple fact: they don’t like your work. Maybe you’re not what they’re looking for right now, or the timing is wrong, or you’re simply not up to scratch, but the underlying point is that if they loved it, they’d take it, and they haven’t, so they don’t.

Rejection sucks because no matter what anyone says, it is personal.

So why not accept it? Take a moment for some well-deserved self-pity and emotional wallowing with the aid of a few practical tools. I give you the best five things to read, watch and listen to in the post-rejection wasteland:

Read

  1. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

The thinly veiled autobiography of writerly disillusionment offers a number of good tips for the emotionally wasted: drink absinthe in Paris, fish in the Pyrenees, drink wine in Pamplona, argue with friends, watch a bloody spectacle, run with the bulls. It’s also a nice melancholy reflection on desiring something eternally out of reach.

  • ALSO: Anything by Hemingway or Fitzgerald will have a close effect.
  1. The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto “Che” Guevara

A startlingly beautiful memoir of the fateful nine months a 23-year-old Guevara spent travelling South America. Between the gorgeous landscape and fascinating anecdotes, get worked up about social injustice and indigenous poverty. Let loose your vicarious desire to join a revolution and make this damn unfair world a better place.

  • ALSO: On the Road, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Less Than Zero and other romans à clef will serve a similar purpose.
  1. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Not only is Heathcliff the best literary creation ever, you can also shelve your murderous impulses and let him take your vengeful fantasies to the extreme. Themes of obsession, possession, revenge and passionate, destructive love will make you feel righteously justified, and the gothic atmosphere will add depth to your moodiness.

  • ALSO: Jane Eyre and Rebecca for hauntings of the past; The Count of Monte Cristo for elaborately plotted revenge.
  1. The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Read, with growing unease, the story of Balram Halwai’s gradual corruption as he sheds his family background to transcend poverty in a heavily caste-riven society. The message is clear and discomforting, confirming your suspicions that the only way to get ahead is to cut a few corners/throats.

  • ALSO: For atmosphere: English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee. For classic rags-to-riches: Vanity Fair and Great Expectations.
  1. Carrie – Stephen King

Whether or not you’re a fan of the King, sometimes a good horror story is just necessary. He can also weave a damn good yarn and surprisingly three-dimensional characters into the gore and strangeness. A bullied adolescent girl getting hers back is satisfying on so many levels, no matter who you are.

  • ALSO: Other violent revenge tales such as True Grit, Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, and of course Hamlet.

Watch

  1. Empire Records (1995)

Many 90s movies showcased the quirkiness of youth and the value (or futility) of standing up to The Man. None with such colourful aplomb as Empire Records. The characters are zany, the music fantastic, the dialogue hilarious, and the embrace-your-inner-crazy-and-refuse-to-sell-out message is charmingly encouraging. It gets better with each watch.

  1. The Big Sleep (1946)

Raymond Chandler wrote crime novels that didn’t always make sense but we forgave him because he created Philip Marlowe and invented noir. Read the book as well but the 1946 movie, with Humphrey Bogart, is a standalone classic. Be encouraged by frequent double-crossings, the latent atmosphere of disillusionment and the general shittiness of people.

  1. Django Unchained (2012)

Eccentric characters, tangled plot, memorable dialogue, and unnecessary amounts of blood. Must be Tarantino. His deft mood-changes from slapstick comedy to nail-biting rage somehow pinpoint both the endearing and horrific qualities of human nature with great authenticity. No one does revenge quite like him.

  1. On the Waterfront (1954)

Corruption narratives are so cathartic when you’ve been screwed over. Nominated for 12 Oscars, the cast and crew read like a who’s who of golden-era greats. Your fists will clench at the fate of Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy, particularly the moment he delivers that line: I coulda been a contender! And you will think: me too, buddy. Me too.

  1. Magnolia (1999) & Crash (2004)

Both movies feature brilliantly interwoven storylines with star-spangled ensemble casts delivering pivotal performances. Dark themes abound but situations manage to resolve with surprising optimism, and without too much Hollywood contrivance. Magnolia is the less crowd-pleasing of the two, and it also has Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Listen

  1. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

In this seminal album the band manage to sum up all the melancholic love, confusion and frustrated desire of every generation alive. It goes without saying that “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “Wonderwall” should be the first on your playlist.

  1. The Darkness – Permission to Land

The best album for air-guitaring and hair-swinging to come out of the noughties. Catchy falsetto lyrics give everyone permission to sing out of tune at the top of their lungs. “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” is one of the most satisfying experiences in the universe.

  1. Ben Folds – Whatever and Ever Amen

The epitome of Ben Fold’s early work: revel in his angsty, anti-adolescent rage and insecurity with “One Angry Dwarf”, “The Battle of Who Could Care Less” and the superbly appropriate “Song for the Dumped”.

  1. Colin Hay – Going Somewhere

Leaving Men at Work far behind, his solo acoustic stuff is where Hay’s talent really shines. We have Zach Braff to thank for bringing him back into the light on Scrubs. Do not miss “Beautiful World”, an acoustic cover of “Overkill”, or “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin”.

  1. Rock of Ages Soundtrack – Various

Yeah it’s a compilation but there’s something about cheesy 80s rock that just feels so good when you’re pissed off. This collection features the full range from “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”.

So after enjoying the vicarious fulfillment of your emotional frustrations, take a moment to reflect. All of this incredible art came from people who felt just as shitty as you at some point in their lives. And if they can make the proverbial lemonade out of rejection’s lemons, then why can’t you?

Elise Janes

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‘An Untamed State’ by Roxane Gay – Review

cover_untamed_stateAt first, I didn’t want to review An Untamed State, the debut novel by Roxane Gay, because I found it highly disturbing. And yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The novel begins when Mireille, a Haitian-American woman from a privileged family, travels to Haiti and is kidnapped. Her father refuses to pay her ransom, knowing that this could herald the destruction of the fortune he’s taken a lifetime to accumulate. In retaliation, her captors — men from poorer backgrounds — lock her in a small room, torment her and repeatedly rape her. Mireille forces herself to remain strong until she is finally released. She then faces the challenge of re-learning to live her old life and coming to terms with her experience.

One of the most distressing aspects of this novel is reading the details of the violence perpetrated against Mireille. This is in contrast to an essay Gay wrote about her own experience being gang-raped, in which she simply states: ‘They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger.’ In An Untamed State, Gay doesn’t spare the reader the horrific details of Mireille’s experience in captivity — the knives, the gang-rape, the cruel manipulation of her hope. Reviewers have questioned whether this detailed depiction of violence is necessary, with some suggesting it forces readers to become complicit in the brutality. Yet in my opinion readers need to understand what Mireille has gone through if they are to comprehend the strength it takes to rebuild her life. This is the focus of the second half of the novel, told largely through Mireille’s perspective as she begins the gradual journey from a ‘no one’ who is ‘already dead’, back to a mother and a wife and a daughter who can find ways of living with her past.

The novel also pushes readers to consider the extreme inequalities between rich and poor, both in Haiti and in the world as a whole. Mireille’s family live in a mansion, separated from the Haitian poor by thick walls. Her kidnappers, by contrast, live in slums where garbage covers the streets and it’s unsafe for women to walk alone. The book does not allow the kidnappers’ poverty to excuse their sadistic behaviour, yet the conversations between Mireille and her kidnappers do highlight the vastly different opportunities available to them. One of them ‘buys’ her from the other kidnappers so they will leave her for him. He tells her he watches rich women from a distance, with their elegant clothes and perfumes. ‘It’s like the shit of this place doesn’t touch you.’

For me, this book was confronting in part because I’ve been one of those ‘rich women’, working in highly disadvantaged countries including Haiti, living behind big walls and paying other people to cook my meals. I’ve read a lot of books about countries beset by extreme inequality, and few have marked me quite as much as this one. The gripping narrative, believable characters and unflinching depiction of difficult issues make this an unsettling novel, but also one that is insightful, powerful and highly relevant to the world today.

Four stars   

An Untamed State is published by Grove Atlantic.

Penny Jones

‘Boy21’ by Matthew Quick — Review

Boy21 imageI have a complex relationship with the books I read. They’re never consumed in an anechoic chamber, devoid of light and sound; where time and the world stop and it’s just me and the words the page. The reading of a book happens within the moments of a day, hard-fought to find, where I open up both the book and myself so we can come together. I’m looking for meaning. I’m looking for insight. I’m looking for connection. With the characters and story, with the writer, and also with myself. Why aim for objectivity? I just don’t get it.

BOY21 – Matthew Quick

YA?

Yes.

Young adult?

You better believe it.

Why?

I knew you’d ask that. The cover got me first. Then I read the blurb on the back and actually laughed out loud. In a book store. With people around me. So I bought the book.

Why not read Silver Linings Playbook first? I mean, that’s a serious book.

You know that for a fact do you?

Well, I haven’t read it yet, but it was made into a movie that won Oscars.

You’ve read it?

No. But I have seen the movie.

Says it all really.

So why bother? I mean, YA. Sheesh.

Yeah, so it’s not a perfect book. I did have some issues around Finley McManus – the protagonist – his backstory and how it informs his life at the time of the story.

So —

Hold on. Despite my questions, it never held me up. I never had to put the book down and give serious thought to the choices the author made in character and story development. I was able to suspend belief for the two days it took me to read this book. And you know what?

What?

I’m all the better for of it. It’s a thoughtful story of two unlikely friends both coping in their own ways with deep trauma. Finley manages by being a master of compartmentalisation and a man of few words. Everything in his life is squared off into neat little boxes which he can keep the lid on: the death of his mother; his grandfather whose legs are missing; and, his girlfriend who’s only his girlfriend when it’s not basketball season. And then there’s BOY21, Russell Allen. A high school All-American basketball star who’s moved to Bellmont following the murder of his parents. Though when Russ arrives in Bellmont, he’s not Russ, but BOY21, an alien sent from outer space to conduct research into how earthlings experience emotions.

It was basketball and aliens that got you, wasn’t it?

Completely. I empathised deeply with how Finley and Russ/BOY21 buried their heads in the sand so as not to deal with the harsh hand life had dealt them. And through the story, how, together, their struggles intertwine as their fortunes vary.

I bet, being YA, the writer had to pull a lot of punches?

It’s not as visceral as what I’m used to. In the absence of the deep, penetrating gaze literary fiction promises, there was space for me to appreciate the type of reader who comes to this book. One that might be looking to it as a refuge or a guiding light.

So a happy ending that ties everything nicely together?

Yes and no. An ending that satisfied and left me smiling. Even a sniffle of two as I choked up. But open enough to hint at both the hope and uncertainty of the future. Sometimes power is at its greatest when it’s restrained and wielded with consideration and compassion.

But YA, bro?

Get over yourself. Your cynicism says more about you than me.

 Ken Ward   

BOY21 by Matthew Quick is published by Little, Brown Books (2012)

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas — Review

BarracudaBarracuda is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and Loaded.

Danny Kelly, known as Barracuda, wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school, where he overcomes bullying through his drive to become ‘the strongest, the fastest, the best’. He sacrifices everything to his Olympic goals, but he doesn’t make it as a swimmer, and commits a violent crime out of anger and humiliation. As an adult, he has to overcome the shame of his past and create a life in which he can respect himself.

Barracuda simultaneously tells the story of the young, ambitious Danny, and the same character after he has ‘failed’. Tsiolkas tells a well-paced and engrossing story, populated with compelling characters — above all its flawed protagonist. The book offers reflections on a number of issues without descending into wankery or preaching.

The novel considers class issues in Australia through the clash between working-class Danny and his privileged schoolmates who make fun of his hairdresser mother. Several characters challenge the myth of an egalitarian Australia, but it is ultimately Danny’s experience at school — wearing the uniform he can’t afford to outgrow, intimidated by his classmates’ designer houses — that the book makes its most persuasive argument.

Danny’s character is also a vehicle to explore the idea of ambition. When Danny doesn’t make it as an Olympian, he realises there is only a ‘hole’ where he used to be. Gradually, he attempts to re-create himself as a decent person, who supports his family, earns his living and atones for his past. The book forces readers to consider whether our society pushes us to be great at the expense of being good.

Barracuda also offers a gorgeous meditation on the body — Danny’s fit, young body flying through the water, then losing control of itself as he faces failure and shame. It compares the sculpted bodies of Danny’s privileged schoolmates to the ‘slovenly’, ‘pear-shaped’ bodies of his family. Gradually, Danny comes to an understanding that class itself is expressed through the body.

Tsiolkas offers an insightful reflection on contemporary Australia, in an engaging novel which is possibly his best so far.

Four stars

Penny Jones