Why reading and writing is the road to happiness...

This blog started years ago as a place to muse on the life projects keeping me entertained. It is no surprise then that it has morphed into a blog about my reading as that has been my lifelong project. Here I review lots of different types of books, with an added focus on Australian women writers. Hope you enjoy - feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Saturday 3 January 2015

For The Eyes and the Ears

I’ve been doing so much more than reading books lately that I thought it would be a good opportunity to recommend some of the fantastic things that have consumed my time.


I run a lot and used to listen to music, but podcasts have taken over as my running soundtrack now. These are the podcasts that I regularly follow:
Serial. Of course. If you haven’t heard about Serial by now, you’ve been in witness protection. The Guardian has had an article about the hugely successful podcast just about every day for three months, and the discussion boards on sites such as reddit have kept suspense and excitement alive for much of the podcast's duration. I tuned in live, on recommendation, at about the third episode mark of the twelve weekly episodes and felt like a drug dealer hooking new people onto it, recommending it casually in conversation to people I knew were armchair detectives. They’d ring me a few days later with their theories, their bewilderment at the lack of conclusive evidence in Adnan Syed’s trial, and their despair that the podcast was only twelve episodes long. For mine, the final episode was much more satisfying than I had expected it to be, and while journalist Sarah Koenig had her detractors, I thought she and her team at This American Life did a magnificent job of story-telling, if not investigative journalism.
Reply All. Another one recommended by friends, this new series has half hour episodes exploring pockets of the internet that are odd, strange, fascinating. The team look at phenomenon such as the Instagram style app where doctors from around the world upload gruesome injury or disease pics and comment with a knowledgeable eye, or more often comically commentary to raise a laugh among their colleagues; investigating life after the Internet for one of the front runners in living life online, Jenny from Jennycam, who now has no social media presence at all; and tracking people’s lives from the financial records they expose when using an app that exchanges small finance between flatmates, friends etc. My favourite so far was episode six where the producers followed the story of a man who was incorrectly identified on Twitter as the brother of a woman allegedly going out with one of the One Direction singers: man, those One Direction fans are committed. A really interesting podcast.
Chat 10 Looks 3. A half hour podcast of ABC journalist and writers, Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales, as they discuss what they are reading, what they are watching and what they are cooking. I find these two presenters so warm, witty and intelligent, and it was a bonus that they discussed many of the books and television that I consumed this year, so it was really entertaining to hear their views. This podcast is a lot of fun in that they go on tangents all the time such is the closeness of their friendship, the breadth of their cultural knowledge, and the looseness of their presenting style. Hope they continue on in 2015.
NPR: Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’ve been listening to this American podcast for ages now so I’ve gained an appreciation for the in jokes from the presenters, all of whom have a great rapport. These three permanent presenters and their fourth rotating guest each week all work for various sectors of NPR and specialise in music, film, television, books, and comics: their collective knowledge of popular culture is amazingly comprehensive, and the presenters are mostly in their 30s and 40s so they reference decades of work, such as they did a few weeks ago by evaluating Denzal Washington’s entire career, or analyzing the development of Disney female characters across the decades. The presenters are also really funny and their enthusiasm for the themed subjects each week is infectious. Once you can get past the Americanisms and accents you’ll be hooked, and then you’ll always know what the next hot tv show from America is so you can wait impatiently for Netflix to arrive…
Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I listen to a few writing podcasts, notably the Australian Writing Centre’s So You Want To Be A Writer, which is fantastic. I enjoy the literary journal Kill Your Darling podcast as well, for its hour long eclectic mix of interviews, readings and reviews. The focus is a mix of local content and international writers; the interviewers have a gentle manner and really zone in on the craft as opposed to analysis of marketing and creating a platform. I recommend this one to writers and readers alike.


BORGEN-SEASON-3-3DVD-NewI’ve been a bit quiet on the television front lately: I watched True Detective but only patchily, after it lost my attention mid way through. I’ve just finished following a British reality show last month, which was declared by my husband as the most tedious concept for a show ever imagined. On the Lifestyle channel, The Big Allotment Challenge followed eight or so pairs of amateur gardeners as they developed allotments side by side in the grounds of a manor house: they had to compete in weekly tasks of growing, arranging, and making in the form of best in show produce, best floral arrangement and best produce in a chutney, preserve etc. I’m a keen but frustrated gardener, and as someone who can barely get a bean to sprout in the Australian climate, I’m in awe of people who can grow three identical straight string beans in the gloomy English climate. Okay, this is a twee concept and watching ordinary looking people in overalls fret over whether their sunflowers will stand up straight in their topiary display may be like pulling teeth for most people, but I loved it anyway.
Acclaimed Danish political drama Borgen is a whole other ball game, and I’m almost through mainlining Season One. This 2013 show had been on my radar and when I decided at Christmas time to get back into series watching, I thought of this straight away. I loved The West Wing, and while this doesn’t have the five hundred words a minute Sorkin style, it’s still an utterly compelling, intelligent and insightful drama. I would expect nothing but sophistication from the Danes anyway. I think Borgen’s success is its perfect balance of plot, with the right amount of time given to the workplace drama, and the domestic drama of the characters. The lead character of Birgitte Nyborg, the Danish PM, is a dream role for a woman, so nuanced and interesting. I’m completely gripped.


No films lately, I’m honestly the worst with seeing films. I can’t be bothered sitting through the standard three hour film these days: I must have the attention span of a gnat. Either that or the film industry is churning out such rubbish that I never feel compelled to drag myself to a cinema to partake in any of it. I did go see the Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo film Begin Again a few months ago: this romantic drama examines the indie music industry, and was made by Once director Jim Carney. I thought it was a completely charming film, with fantastic music and a realistic romantic plotline. Ruffalo’s performances are all in the facial expressions: he always inhabits a character. And I always enjoy Knightley’s work. I’ve noticed on a few ‘2014 lists’ that this film was mentioned a few times as an underrated piece. I’d agree.
There is something I might feel compelled to shell out popcorn bucks for this month: The Imitation Game. Of course, I adore Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch but more seriously, I think the true story behind this bio pic looks fascinating.


One of my micro-fiction pieces was read in December at a performance night held by Spineless Wonders, publishers of Flashing The Square, in which my piece Addicted was published mid-year. The night is to be a regular gig, called Little Fictions at Knox Street Bar in Chippendale, Sydney. It was a fabulous night - funny, riveting and a convivial atmosphere. The bar is tiny, so dozens of people squeezed into the little antechamber of the converted terrace house, and while patrons drank beer and ate the lovely food from the kitchen, actors and writers read their own work or works of selected writers. Particular stand outs for me were Dael Allison’s poem On The Wrong Side and Jon Steiner’s satiric Poioumenon. And of course it was thrilling to have actress Eleni Schumacher read my piece. For a couple of bucks to enter (with which you receive a ticket for the fabulous wheel of fortune game at interval) you can’t get better cultural value for a Monday night in Sydney.

 Next time I’ll look at all the great literary journals I’ve been reading. Until then, back to Borgen…

Thursday 1 January 2015

Book Review: 'Yes Please' by Amy Poehler (No 22: Memoir)

Yes Please

The ‘sassy female celebrity advice memoir’ has been a popular genre for a while, and I’m sure has played some role in inspiring many a young woman to follow her dreams. Amy Poehler’s 2014 release ‘Yes Please’ follows hot on the heels of her comic partner Tina Fey’s similar collection of life stories ‘Bossy Pants’: both books are made up of random biographical pieces, anecdotes about forging a career in comedy and television, and self deprecating analysis by way of advising women on how to navigate the vagaries of modern dating, marriage and parenting. Poehler is one of my favourite comedians, and her voice in this collection shines through: that perky, bright as a button cheeriness covering an acidic undertone that reminds you at the end of every sentence that she is as sharp as a whip, and is calling bullshit on life. In fact, several of her anecdotes on how she has managed her career are revealing in how powerful a person she really is under that petite blonde fa├žade: she seems very much like the person she imitated so famously on Saturday Night Live, another blonde powerhouse, Hillary Clinton.
I’d hate to narrow this memoir’s audience down to fans but I did think at the end of it that a good knowledge of Poehler’s most successful shows ‘Parks And Recreation’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ would be beneficial since large parts of the book are devoted to her time on them. However, for the reader who is unfamiliar with her work, the collection also has much to enjoy in Poehler’s ruminations on childhood friendships, university life, parenting, divorce and pursuing a career in the arts. Aside from conventional passages on matters, Poehler uses satire to explore issues with haikus on plastic surgery, ‘If you plump your lips – The words that come out of them – Sound ridiculous’, and imaginary self help books on divorce:
‘Divorce: The Ways Not to Catch It! Divorce is contagious! Haven’t you heard? It’s like cancer but worse because no one really feels that bad for you. This book will teach you how to discuss your divorce with your currently married friends. Some married couples get freaked out when you talk about your divorce and like to tell you how they aren’t going to get one. Usually they point to their hard work through therapy, they’re fear of being alone, or their total acceptance of a dead marriage devoid of sex and love. This book will help you not strangle them when they both stand  in front of you and talk about how great their relationship continues to be.’
She also dispenses a practical list of sex advice for young women: ‘6. Get better at dirty talk. Act like a boss lady ordering at a deli. “I want the ham on rye and make sure you toast it!” If your guy is bad at dirty talk tell him to shut up. He might like that. If you don’t like dirty talk, don’t worry about it. It’s pretty hot if done well but it may not be up your alley. Also, try not to stick things up your alley.’
If you like lots of name dropping and insights into Hollywood life in your memoirs, ‘Yes Please’ also provides and I found the sections on how Poehler and her fellow comedy nominees at the Emmy’s contacted each other every year fun to read: ‘We decided that this year Martha and I, along with our fellow nominees should do something similar, but add a beauty pageant element. I emailed my fellow nominees for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Laura Linney, Edie Falco, and Melissa McCarthy, and they were all in of course. I knew my girl Tina was down to clown, because she herself was breast feeding at the time, and as history has shown, this is when a butch is most likely to go OFF.’
‘Yes Please’ is a charming, honest and wry look at what it means to be an experienced woman in 2014; not quite old enough to dispense Maya Angelou style wisdom, but jaded enough to let young women know the pitfalls of life. I think there is no better person to dispense that advice sarcastically than the talented Amy Poehler. We really can’t be told enough times not to take ourselves, and life, too seriously.

Sunday 14 December 2014

The 2014 Australian Womens Writing Challenge Wrap Up

It’s that time of year to wrap up the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge and I’m pleased to say I made a better effort this year than the measly three books I reviewed last year! And what a great year for reading it has been. Here’s the list of the 26 Australian female writers I reviewed:

     Just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth
     Letter to George Clooney by Debra Adelaide
Banana Girl by Michele Lee
Like A House On Fire by Cate Kennedy
Beams Falling by P.M Newton
A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn
The Women in Black by Madeleine St John
The Mistake by Wendy James
The Poet’s Wife by Mandy Sayer
All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Tiddas by Anita Heiss
The Jade Widow by Deborah O’Brien
The Tea Chest by Josephine Moon
Girl Defective by Simmone Howell
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
Have You Seen Simone? by Virginia Peters
Wildlife by Fiona Wood
In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower
Wild Things by Brigid Delaney
Game Day by Miriam Sved
Vertigo by Amanda Lohrey
This House of Grief by Helen Garner
Return to Coolami by Eleanor Dark
Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists by Jane Rawson
Hades by Candice Fox

   Firstly, all twenty six were a pleasure to read and a testimony to the talent in this country. The breakdown of genres:

YA – 3
Crime Fiction – 3
True Crime – 2
Memoir – 2
Novella – 1
Classic – 3
Contemporary Fiction / Thriller – 9
Short Story - 3

I chose these books spurned by a wide range of reasons thus proving I’m quite haphazard in my book selection: some were from sight at the library or book shop, some from prize winning, some from hearing them reviewed on podcasts, many from reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald, some because the authors spoke at my local library, and yes, some from being mentioned on Twitter (so social media works!). I have to say, the few articles and blog posts last year where people claimed to find it difficult to read a good selection of Australia female writers were quite bizarre: I think there are far too many to choose from and you could spend all year reading quality fiction and non-fiction from the large pool of talented female authors. I’ll be returning to read more from these authors as well, particularly the thriller and crime writers.

So my most memorable five? Firstly, Letter to George Clooney by Debra Adelaide, a wonderful collection of short stories, all of them thought provoking and entertaining. Secondly, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld which won the Miles Franklin Award over the ‘favourite’ Flanagan. I had read both before the award was announced and wasn’t surprised: I was quite affected by Wyld’s writing and found it to be an assured debut novel. Simmone Howell’s YA novel Girl Defective was charming; I thought it had beautifully drawn characters and a lovely narrative voice. Helen Garner's This House of Grief was number four because she’s brilliant, always. And lastly, Brigid Delaney’s Wild Things which had me thinking about the characters for days afterwards.

Looking forward to another great year of reading in the 2015 Challenge. Many thanks to those who tirelessly coordinate the website and run the social media - your work is appreciated.

*This is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014