Reading regrets: on realising one has read more Tom Clancy than Charles Dickens

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It pained me to think of all  those years when I simply devoured whatever fell into my hands, whatever struck my fancy at the local library or on my parents’ bookshelf: best sellers from the 1930s and 1940s, the names on the spines long forgotten; the comedic writers beloved by my father; and all those Agatha Christie and Stephen King novels, all that pulp. There had been good stuff, too, much of it by accident rather than design: Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, whose collected works I’d read in both Lamb précis and true form, the Brontës, Chekhov, and contemporary writers pulled from the “New Releases” shelf at the library, purely because I liked the titles or the covers. But when I thought about all the hours I’d spent lying on my bed or my parents’ couch or our lawn or in the backs of cars on family vacations, all those hours that could have allowed me the collected works of Dickens, into which I’d barely delved, or Trollope, or Dostoyevsky. Or Proust. The list went on and on, all that I hadn’t read, all that I didn’t know.
– Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year, p. 112.

This passage resonated with me, because I sometimes feel exactly the same, particularly when I’m confronted with all the great writers I haven’t read. Continue reading

Remembering the Collie Saints: reflections of the 1996 Under 16s Most Improved

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The captain of the Collie football team was in court last week, escaping jail after been convicted of kneeing an opposing player in the face during a game. I grew up in Collie, a coal-mining town fifty kilometres inland from Bunbury, two hundred kilometres south of Perth. I played football for a year, too, and going through a packing box which has sat in our spare room for two years, I recently found my trophy for Most Improved, Collie Saints under sixteens in 1996.

That year of football was a culmination of my three years at the high-school. It was a rough school, where fists ruled, and kids were brutal to each other. I took up playing football after years of hockey because we’d done football in phys-ed class in year nine, and everyone was amazed that I was one of the better players, at least against boys who mostly didn’t play. The ones who did play were inviting me to join their team; it was half a joke, because I was a nerd, and so very skinny. A second reason: I wanted to be consistent. I watched football on television with my dad and brother every weekend, and I collected football cards. It seemed inconsistent to not play.

There were two teams, the Collie Saints and the Mines Rovers, and you had to choose. The rivalry was not just friendly; it was more defining than religion or ethnicity. I chose the Saints, because I liked St Kilda. In the clubroom, there was a picture of an aerial mark from the sixties, with a caption, “The closest a Collie Saint will ever get to heaven,” disturbing for an earnest Baptist.

I wasn’t prepared for the violence of the game, the constant, bruising physicality of it. It was a test, and I endured, but not easily. The first game on a Friday night was a derby against the hated Mines Rovers Eagles. We had a full team that week, bulked up by five or six good athletes who came just for the derby. I was in the front pocket, and panicked the one time the ball came to me, kicking it out of bounds. The rest of the season, I was moved to the back pocket, usually finding myself pitted against solid behemoths on the other team. I was reasonably effective, with only one or two goals scored by my opponents in the whole year. Once when we were losing badly, one of the dads at half-time pointed at me and said, “Look at this kid – fuck-all skills but there he is trying his guts out. Can’t you at least do that?” I nearly cried; it was a harsh compliment.

Our team didn’t do well; that first derby match was one of the few we won, as our undermanned team played in the mud of country town ovals each week against stronger, better teams. There was a strong sense of camaraderie, though; we were warriors together.

At the end of the year, our family moved to Bunbury. I trained a few times with the South Bunbury team the next year, and coming home with bruises, exhausted by all the running, I asked myself why I was doing it, and I realised I didn’t know. I quit football, not just the playing, but the watching. In the years since, I’ve developed an allergy to the dominance of football in Western Australian culture.

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Some time after I left, the two struggling Collie football clubs merged, and became one very strong club, the Collie Eagles, winning premiership after premiership in the league. Perhaps in having to swallow old rivalries, a new peace exists in the town and in the school.

I haven’t been back to Collie much. My childhood has this extra layer of distance from me, having grown up in a place I no longer have ties to, even though it lies just up the hill from where my parents still live. It seems a strange place for me to have grown up.

My favourite albums of 2014

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I’ve been finding almost all my music on Radio National’s Inside Sleeve. I assumed my taste was quite broad, and then a reviewer compared the two most different albums I bought all year as being in the same family (those by Lily & Madeline and Luluc). To rework an old joke about country and western, these days I like all three kinds of music – indie folk, new folk, and folk pop. As long as it’s a woman singing, by the look of it. This photograph shows Luluc, who released the widely-acclaimed Passenger this year, playing to an audience of thirty in the Rosemount. I liked being on such intimate terms with them, but they deserve better!

1. Laura Jean – Laura Jean

Melbourne’s Laura Jean is very droll and confessional, and likes to sing about kelpies. Her songs are poems. “First Love Song” and “Don’t Marry the One You Love” should be hits.

Days can be filled so easily / With small tasks and pottering / People ask me what I do / I guess now I look after you.

2. Luluc – Passenger

Luluc are a duo also from Melbourne. Their music has a smooth, melancholy beauty.

Your words fall down like water/ Spilling off the page

3. Soko – I Thought I was an Alien

Soko is French; her music is quirky but also earnestly beautiful, as she pleads and denounces her lovers in her husky little-girl voice.

Today was your birthday / And I didn’t dare to call / But I thought about you all day / Even at midnight I wanted to call /
To be honored to be the first one to send you my love / And wish you / Happy hippie birthday

4. Alela Diane – About Farewell

Diane is a US singer-songwriter, with a country tinge which is under control in this break-up album. I bought it in July, and it has the winter chill in it.

Some things are best if kept in darkness
Only true before the dawn
Ghost ships, silent, deathly sting
Before the canon storm

5. Kathryn Williams – Crown Electric

Williams is a British singer-songwriter who Spotify recommended because I liked Holly Throsby, which is a good comparison. It’s an album ranging across moods and themes, often finding transcendence in the everyday.

Come and go faces in the crowd
Like one big wave crashing into town

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I bought Tiny Ruins’ Brightly Painted One just in the last week of the year and it will be bound to make next year’s list, as I like it very much.

The Imitation Game

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The sort of film I like: an intelligent historical drama. The Imitation Game tries to do a lot in telling the whole of Alan Turing’s life – the focus being on his time at Bletchley Park during World War Two, leading the team which would break the German Enigma code, but also narrating his awakening to his homosexuality as a misfit boy genius at boarding school, and his prosecution for indecency in the 1950s, contributing to his suicide in 1954. The film works well, capturing the difficulties of a misunderstood genius and the terrible days of WW2 for Britain as the Nazis bore down on them and the code-crackers felt the weight of the nation on them.

I’d just finished watching lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a WW1 drama, the brilliant BBC mini-series Parade’s End, where he plays a different misunderstood genius. Imitation Game suffers by comparison; it is not the sequel-in-spirit I might have hoped for. It is a far less subtle and intelligent film, with less complexity of character. Parade’s End plays each scene perfectly, not needing to bring things to a crisis each time to achieve true drama. It’s unfair to mark Imitation Game down by comparison, but inevitably I do, as the Turing code-breaking machine is saved at the very last minute, and the small canvas requires all sorts of shortcuts. Keira Knightley plays the second lead, Joan Clarke, superbly. She almost never appears in anything less than a very good film, and this is no exception. (Although I will never watch King Arthur or Domino.) If this film tries to achieve too much in two hours, who can fault that?

Across the genres: a slow reader’s favourite books in 2014

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Some book bloggers complain how they only managed to read seventy books this year, rather than their usual one hundred. I read thirty-nine, which is still more than I have managed the last few years. I’m the tortoise of book bloggers.

Most of my reading has been related to biography and/or Katharine Susannah Prichard (the subject of my PhD), and it’s harder to judge these books which I have to read in a somewhat task-orientated way. But I had such a delightful year of books. It brings me pleasure remembering the highlights.

  1. Perth / David Whish-Wilson – A portrait of the city. The best work of creative non-fiction I’ve read, a blend of memoir, history, biography, and landscape writing. My review.
  2. Wild Oats of Han / Katharine Susannah Prichard – I’ve read eleven books by Prichard this year, and they fit together as a body of work. But let me pick this one out as probably her most under-rated work, a delightful evocation of childhood as free-spirited Han comes to grips with the world. It’s the most distinct of her books, and it possibly suffered from being marketed as a children’s book, when it is not really. My review.
  3. What Happened to Sophie Wilder? / Christopher Beha – A contemporary American classic, a dark Graham Greene-ish novel about writing and faith. My review
  4. The Narrow Road to the Deep North / Richard Flanagan
    - Had to see what the Man Booker judges were so impressed by; I was impressed too. My review.
  5. Lila / Marilynne Robinson – A worthy companion novel to the other two set in Gilead. It is wise and hopeful while aware of the hardness of life in telling of one woman’s redemption. My review.
  6. Christina Stead: A Biography / Hazel Rowley – I hope to write a biography with some of the brilliance of this one, to balance historical and psychological insight with beautiful writing. My review.
  7. Unearthed / Tracy Ryan - Reading through these poems a second time, I was struck afresh by their power. My review.
  8. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks / Rebecca Skloot
    - A non-fiction biographical quest, so superbly written. My review.
  9. The Invisible Woman / Claire Tomalin – unearthing the hidden story of Dickens’ mistress, Nelly Ternan. Claire Tomalin is my favourite biographer.
  10. Moving Among Strangers / Gabrielle Carey
    - I couldn’t put down this memoir in which Carey writes to family friend Randolph Stow just before he dies and uncovers lost stories of her family. My review.

Honourable mentions: A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists / Jane Briony Rawson (my review); Reading by Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life / Brenda Walker; Secret River / Kate Grenville.

My favourite TV series of 2014

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It was the year of long-form drama for me and Nicole. To watch a story unfold an hour at a time, night after night – such a bigger canvas than a feature film, and an after-work addiction.

1. The Returned (series 1) – I have never seen anything like this French supernatural drama. To watch it is to be trapped inside a beautifully eerie dream, as the dead begin to return to a village.

2. True Detective (series 1) – An existential crime series about two detectives on the trail of a southern gothic murderer across decades. Really, the crimes are secondary – this is about the meaning of life, as Rusty philosophises to Marty and an unlikely friendship develops.

3. Parade’s End (mini-series) – A dense and super-intelligent adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novels, following a man of integrity through World War One, at war with a scheming wife and torn by his desire for a young suffragette. It is incredible.

4. House of Cards (series 1 and 2) - An excellent adaptation to the American context, with fascinating characters and enthralling political intrigue. I wrote about it here.

5. Fargo (series 1)Fargo the TV series is better than the film. It is dark and funny and suspenseful, and Billy Bob Thornton’s character could be the most interesting killer I’ve seen on television.

Honourable mentions – Rectify (series 1); The Fall (series 1); and Boardwalk Empire (series 1).

What was your favourite?