Tag Archives: books

Things of 2020

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IMG_20200404_092312679_BURST001I am ticking all the expected boxes of my thirties: marriage, house, kids, minor existential crisis. I earn more money than ever before, more than I ever imagined I could be earning, and through a time of increasingly precarious employment at that, and I can confirm that shooting past the median wage does not in itself bring happiness. But I am content most of the time, rarely low for longer than a few days.

Our amazing house needs work. A lot of work. So many people come to help us but still it overwhelms. Meanwhile, my brain fills up with writing ideas waiting for the time to be put down. The kids are growing up so fast. My wife and I do our best to make time to look at one another. In lieu of close friendship, I read books. And I try to stop sometimes to take notice of the world around me. Check out all my privilege, for God’s sake.

Like no other year I can remember, 2020 defies easy summary. It was all so new. I got so accustomed to it being 2020, with all the twisty connotations that number came to represent, that I couldn’t believe it would ever be 2021. And yet, here we are, spinning along the same unfamiliar trajectory. Anyhow, here are 5000 words trying to make sense of what I saw, felt, heard, did.

Health

IMG_20200406_103709SARS-CoV-2 spiked its proteins into all of us in some way or another this year. I am one of the lucky billions not to come into contact with it and develop COVID-19, largely because I live in an island nation that took an elimination strategy in fighting the pandemic. Meanwhile, millions died around the world, and as I write this in the days between Christmas and New Year, much of the world’s humans are still not safe to go out.

My most repeated phrase about COVID-19 has been ‘we’re only five minutes into this thing’. With the vaccine rollout commencing in other countries — mostly for rich and important people — I might now admit we are a couple of hours in, albeit with a concerned finger pointed at the new, more infectious mutations and steepling case number rises in certain countries. Say we are all vaccinated or otherwise immune, though, and the spectre of COVID-19 recedes into the past. Do we carry on just like we used to? Arguably the real triumph of New Zealand’s COVID-19 response was the resultant flattening of influenza infections by 99.8%, meaning 500-odd people didn’t die who in any other year would have. So why are sick people still coming to work, sniffling and sneezing and unmasked?

The answer, usually, is they feel like they have to. Their workplace doesn’t have extensive sick leave, or doesn’t allow them to work from home. More broadly, paid work is what our society is oriented around, and the inability to carry it out is a personal failing, not a social failing. So people keep showing up when the obvious choice should be to stay at home. You’d need a lot of resilience and financial backing to fight and change this.

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In the middle of the year, I went to the dentist and had a wisdom tooth removed. For a month afterwards, I kept remembering the dull feeling of the machine grinding through numbed tissue and bone to cut it out – especially the sounds, a sharp, whirring ‘screee’ and the gurgle of my blood and saliva being suctioned away. I’d never undergone a procedure like this and was surprised at how it could simultaneously be less taxing than expected and also indelibly violent. That ‘screee’ is my sound of 2020.

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IMG_20200405_132619It seemed you couldn’t move in this fragmented year without hitting another message about breathing, grounding, centering, practising mindfulness. You’ve got to look after yourself. It’s okay to look after yourself. Everyone was saying it, from the Prime Minister to my favourite podcast hosts. I was saying it myself, writing comms after comms reminding fellow staff this is not normal and we understand how you feel and here are some tips to help you through these unprecedented times. It began to feel hollow after a while. But the alternative, ignoring the struggle, would be worse. In the meantime, I continued to ignore all the advice, doomscrolling first thing and jamming headphones into my ears at every opportunity.

In June or so, I saw a helpful infographic about the places we hold tension in our bodies. My unconscious mind turned it into a how-to guide: in addition to neck, shoulders, and jaw (got those sorted already, thanks) I tensed my abdomen and held air in my lungs, forcing it back out with my eyes darting and unfocused, taking in anything except what was in front of me. I downloaded an app that had a little animation to help you breathe deeply, and halfway through the first minute, I was surprised to feel my eyes welling up, as though this app had unlocked some complex emotion that had been trapped all year.

It seemed to be a year of struggling to breathe for most people I know. And no one I know got COVID. Looking back, it may have been a year of seeing exactly how poorly we were taking care of ourselves, so that we can learn and try new ways. A year of genuine mental health awareness. More likely, that’s just me having my own epiphany, and you all have been there or have it to come.

About two months ago, having spent the entire year and probably the ten before that responding to ‘how are you?’ with ‘I’m all right’ or ‘I’m okay’ or ‘Not bad’, I started saying ‘Good’, regardless of the mess of home and work tasks clouding my head. Because it is true on many levels. I am here, and my body is able, and my mind is bursting with ideas, and I go home each to day to people I love. By saying ‘Good’, I am making a conscious effort to iron out the petty doubts and worries of the day or week. I am reminding myself that my life can be summed up with the most basic positive. ‘Good’ is an affirmation.

Politics

We have been coasting in the era of capital for long enough. Or struggling, more likely. Day to day, week to week, month to month, trying to make it all add up, trying to stay above water. The ruthless few get all the cream and most of the milk, too. The investor class gets their imaginary money in carefully structured bank accounts to work for it while they retreat to the beach in sunglasses. A privileged few scramble their way onto the property ladder and watch their asset grow in imaginary value (hi!), finally safe from the churning wheel of rent and inspections. The Earth slowly burns in an ash cloud of rainforests and boiling seas.

This awful moment brings it all home. We’ve known where the inequity rests, and the various pandemic responses show the value of collective effort and inclusivity in opportunity. We might just have the social and political capital to finally do something about it at the highest level.

So what did we do? What blueprint did our leaders offer, what vision did our democracy of three-year terms lap up with gusto?

Books

IMG_20201020_123057360A book is a beautiful thing. It’s full of promise before reading, and also pleasant to hold, which it will always be. After reading — if it was any good — simply looking at it brings words, characters, and ideas flooding back. In your mind’s eye, it now represents all it contains. And it retains the promise of hours of possible reading, or re-reading. It doesn’t matter if it’s your book or someone else’s, or if it was borrowed from a library. The book has all the same potential.

I spent quite a few spare moments in early 2020 flitting from one charity shop to another buying piles of secondhand books, especially those on my 2020 reading list. Five-years-ago me would’ve been confused: why gather so many of these objects when you could get almost all of them from the library or the internet? Even current me is a bit confused, for the same reason. But I live in a big house now, with a set of bookshelves just for me, and I want to fill them. I want to look at the spines and sense that potential. I do however resolve in 2021 to focus my buying in books I know and love, lest I end another year with another pile of books I’m never going to read. I have enough of those in my annual reading lists (here’s 2021, if you’re interested).

Here, in reading order, are some books I particularly admired in 2020.

HUNGER by Knut Hamsun (1890)
DEAD PEOPLE I HAVE KNOWN by Shayne Carter (2019)
NVK by Temple Drake (pseudonym for Rupert Thomson) (2020)
FIERCE BAD RABBITS by Clare Pollard (2019)
HOWARDS END by E. M. Forster (1910)
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C. S. Lewis (1950)
ON WRITING by Stephen King (2000)
NOTHING TO SEE by Pip Adam (2020)
THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS by N. K. Jemisin (2010)
RUFUS MARIGOLD by Ross Murray (2019)
HELLO MUM by Bernadine Evaristo (2010)
USE OF WEAPONS by Iain M. Banks (1990)
MOSHI MOSHI by Banana Yoshimoto (2010)
BEN, IN THE WORLD by Doris Lessing (2000)
UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber (2000)
PRODIGAL SUMMER by Barbara Kingsolver (2000)
SURFACE DETAIL by Iain M. Banks (2010)
THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE by Kim Stanley Robinson (2020)
OWLY: THE WAY HOME by Andy Runton (2004)
FIRST CONTACT by Soni Somarajan (2020)
CHINAMAN by Shehan Karunatilaka (2010) (re-read)
AKISSI: TALES OF MISCHIEF by Marguerite Abouet & Mathieu Sapin (2014)

My favourite of these was THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE. I’m still so taken with it, and I’ve noticed a cult of fellow readers spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook. Those that love it REALLY love it. So here’s my review, initially posted on Goodreads and shared in my monthly email newsletter. I hope one or two of you track it down and read it.

THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE
by Kim Stanley Robinson, 2020
 Let’s see if I can do this. The effects of escalating carbon emissions will lead to human catastrophes of extraordinary scale – heat waves, inundations – and when the representatives of affected countries turn up angry to international symposiums and throw their numbers of dead on the table, the world will take notice – but it won’t take action until there is mass financial disobedience, the simple refusal to pay trillions of imaginary dollars owed, at which time the entire financial system will collapse and be reborn under the auspices of central banks trading in currency backed by carbon sequestration. They will only be following the money, true, and money will still rule everything, but the money will now have a sound moral and ethical underpinning. In the meantime, those who hang on to the old ways and power structures — the shipping and airline industries, for example — will be hit by violent acts of highly organised eco-terrorism on a mass scale, some carried out by dark wings of international organisations, whose commitment to a lasting greater good will accept a few million dead if it gets the point across; this in addition to targeted assassinations of the most obscene polluters and pursuers of inequality. Socialism will finally overthrow capitalism in this way, ushering in public ownership of all the basics — home, food, water, job, energy — and a comfortable minimum standard of living mandated through democracy across much of the world. All this but all that carbon has still been burnt, the glaciers are still melting, so some very expensive geological interventions will be necessary: drones to recover the Arctic with sea ice, pumps to draw water up from underneath glaciers and spray it on top so it freezes again, dye sprayed in oceans and over land to reflect more solar rays back into orbit so the sea doesn’t boil so soon. Then there’s the ever-multiplying eco interest groups reforesting and creating larger habitat corridors and generally giving more of the planet back to non-anthropocentric ecosystems, leading to government-backed schemes to buy whole towns out and move their populations to the suburbs and let fauna wander their deserted streets unbothered. A more equitable society is the result, and a more equitable planet, in which humans might endure for longer than they otherwise would have.

So. I found this book utterly compelling, to the point that I need to find some sceptical reviews (edit: found one here) to pick holes in Robinson’s science, which is explained in frequent short chapters and seems sound. These crash courses are so frequent as to comprise about half the book; reading it is like going on a curated Wikipedia tour on climate change economics. There is plot dropped in, often revolving around the titular Ministry and its head but also darting in and out of dozens of other communities across the planet — refugee camps especially — and it is propulsive enough. But it’s the way Robinson constructs his utopia in asides that drew me in so thoroughly. I’ve never read anything like it.

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Sayip Shock book jacket front and back coverI also published a book in 2020. It’s called ‘Sayip Shock: Three Years in Kerala’. You can buy the ebook for $0.00 or more at Smashwords, or get the Kindle version or physical book on Amazon. Credit to Athul Chathukutty for the amazing cover design and to Tara Dench for the back cover blurb.

Music

As in 2019, I fixated on one album early on and hardly listened to anything else. And as in 2019, it was an album from 2019: ‘Perfumed Earth’ by Purple Pilgrims. They were the third-billed act of three at a big Arts Festival concert I attended the weekend before lockdown, where Weyes Blood (fav artist of the year before) had second billing (you what!) and Aldous Harding was the main act (I left early).

I’d never heard of Purple Pilgrims before. The levels were wrong, the bass drowned them out, they veered occasionally into ethereal floaty pop cliché (billowing tunics and yogic movements), but I’d heard enough to try them in the headphones — and then in the car, and while I was cooking, and while I was washing the dishes. It’s one of those albums with no dud track; I’m Not Saying doesn’t fit with the others so well, but it’s still a really good pop song. Big synths, beautiful and slightly off-kilter guitar and vocal harmonies, killer lyrics that hint at true love and darkness. Ancestors Watching was my most-played track of 2020 (ignoring all the hits from the musicals mentioned in the Movies section below).

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Aaron Tokona died in June. I spent two weeks listening to Let It Go and Calling On on repeat. Like thousands of other Kiwis, I imagine, screaming “like I’m suffocating” at the climax as they finished off the dishes.

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It was a great year for new music, according to Vulture and Wisconsin Public Radio. I surfaced from under my Purple Pilgrims-shaped rock in about November and blasted through a number of acclaimed releases. Dua Lipa, Perfume Genius, Phoebe Bridgers, BC Camplight, Ariana Grande, Moses Sumney, Rina Sawayama, Fiona Apple, Four Tet, Ital Tek, Laura Marling, Yves Tumor, Beatrice Dillon. Each album tried a couple of times, then left alone. I liked most of these, could’ve loved some of these, but not now.

A few new albums somehow got through to me. EOB’s Earth was catchier and deeper than I initially realised. TENGGER’s Nomad gave me the sense of a pleasant bush walk, with harmonious synths over trickling streams. HAIM’s Women In Music Pt. III brought my favourite new chart pop in years, although it is very much a summer sound, despite the often cynical and self-flagellating lyrics, so it took me until December to actually get into it.

Then there was The Soft Pink Truth’s ‘Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?’, named for a Bible verse in which Paul the Apostle is fed up with everyone carrying on as they always have in comfort that their Lord will forgive them. Drew Daniel wanted “to make something that felt socially extended and affirming”, and there are several ecstatic moments that make me feel warm inside. But I hear a rough, hard edge through it all; the shimmering bells of ‘Go’, the horn blasts of ‘Sinning’, the major chord call and minor chord response of ‘That’. Not that any of this matters in isolation. It’s the cumulative effect of the album that gives these moments their power, especially in the context of #2020, where some other power is behind the wheel and you’re not sure where you’re headed. Thankfully, ‘Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase?’ has a happy ending. I go straight back to the start and go through it all again.

Finally, Ashish Seth’s Firstborn saw the light. It was finished in 2015 and shelved due to the artist’s lack of confidence in the material, then released in 2020 for free, with little fanfare. It gave me many hours of listening pleasure and is layered enough that I’m still noticing new things months later. It’s particularly good to write to. I’ll post my interview with Ashish soon.

A playlist of songs by the artists discussed:

I’m trying something different with music in 2021, following the release calendar more closely and updating a playlist with my favourites each week. Here’s that playlist. Follow along with me?

Movies

IMG_20200408_103859902It’s all online now. I went to the cinema once in 2020 (PARASITE). Our household subscribes to five different film and TV streaming services:

  • Netflix
  • DisneyPlus
  • SKY Go
  • Kanopy
  • Beamafilm

I have never before had immediate access to so many films I want to watch. I try to make sense of them by dutifully adding preferred titles to my watch list, rather than letting the algorithm decide for me, and I pile up 50-odd titles on each service. Of them, I’ve only comprehensively combed SKY Go for content that interests me; each of the others could have dozens or hundreds more films I might enjoy.

Maybe I should give in and follow the algorithm. I’ve spent far more time researching and adding to my watch lists than I have watching the titles on them. I don’t have a lot of time to myself, true, but when I go, and I open up one of the lists, I’m immediately paralysed by indecision. Invariably, I close the tab and go back to my book.

The nadir of this behaviour was SHOPLIFTERS. Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of my favourite directors, one whose films I make a point of seeing. SHOPLIFTERS appeared on the SKY Go one day in 2020 and I thought, yes! Finally!! I get to see this modern classic, Palme d’Or winner, the film that finally brought Kore-eda to wider recognition! I’ll put it on the watch list.

It disappeared off the platform three weeks later. I had not watched it.

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Not that I didn’t watch a lot of movies in 2020. I just watched the same ones, over and over. In March, my wife instituted Movie Night on Tuesdays, which quickly expanded to Saturdays as well during lockdown. The four of us took turns choosing what to watch, and because my children were two years old, we watched the following films several times:

  • HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL
  • THE CAT RETURNS
  • COOL RUNNINGS
  • HAMILTON
  • FROZEN
  • MOANA
  • THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE-THE-POOH
  • Any of the Julia Donaldson shorts

And I am not complaining. I am in fact incredibly proud of my children for taking to THE CAT RETURNS and COOL RUNNINGS, which are slower-paced than most modern fare (in fact, they seem to respond better to more sedate viewing than flashy, heavily edited films). I’m not even complaining about HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, whose catchy and knowing songs have become central to our household’s shared set of references (see above). Varsity-age me would’ve been appalled I’d gotten into HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. To be honest, so would last-year me. But here we are. Never been a better time to let the sunshine in.

And then there’s HAMILTON, which we all took to so quickly. The kids know the words to most of the first act. It’s still our default car music. HAMILTON is an imperfect masterwork, harmed by its absences but gloriously elevated by pretty much everything that’s there. It works on a number of levels for every second of two and a half hours, with great tunes delivered by incredible vocal performers. I didn’t see how a musical about the founding fathers could be anything but cringeworthy — then I watched it, these people of colour claiming the problematic past for themselves, and I got it.

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These are the new-to-NZ films and TV series I saw:

PARASITE (good, but enormously overrated)
UNCUT GEMS (Safdies with another bleak, high-tension gift)
DEVS (formally superb, some interesting ideas wasted on a dumb plot)
THE GOOD PLACE: Season 4 (blasted through the entire show in a couple of months, a great initial gimmick built on and sustained to make the defining sitcom of the era)
ONWARD (lesser Pixar but still very enjoyable, and another difficult landing superbly stuck)
HAMILTON (still an obsession several months later)
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (stunning, with two moments of spine-tingling movie magic)

There’s one other film I saw for the first time in 2020 I’d like to mention specifically, and that’s FIRST REFORMED. It’s as bold and brilliant as all the reviews at the time suggested, and dovetails nicely with my favourite book of the year above. Whether or not he gives up in the end, the economy with which director Schrader and star Hawke drag so many of our current social and economic demons to the surface is — as Rev Toller says at the moment of his awakening — exhilarating. In case you’re not getting it, we absolutely must do something about the many ways in which we are destroying our planet. FIRST REFORMED asks: what would you do? How far would you go? And could it ever be enough?

Sport

My favourite sporting moment of the year was when Jürgen Klopp, manager of my beloved Liverpool, who won the league at a canter for the first time in decades, conversed with some fans as he entered the stadium.

Traditionally, sports fans have mythical power, especially in football. They’re the reason for it all, the ever-loyal brotherhood (because they are mostly men). Their deification has graduated from sporting custom to the strategic plan — because to alienate them would surely be economic suicide (although the board at Manchester United have made a fine fist of running a football club with only the shareholders in mind). It’s normal, therefore, for coaches and players to show willingness to engage with fans as they enter the stadium; to give them a quick high five as they run down the tunnel, for example.

In mid-March, a week or two before the Premier League was suspended indefinitely, and a couple of weeks before New Zealand’s level 4 lockdown commenced, Klopp was having none of it. As he strode out with his players, he looked up at the faces of the fans stretching their arms out, hoping for brief physical contact with their heroes — including the wunderbar German manager who had delivered the team’s greatest success since the 80s. He did not indulge them. Instead, he bellowed, “Put your hands away, you fucking idiots!”

And that’s why Liverpool won the league. Klopp wasn’t there to muck around. Every detail would be analysed, every drop of effort expended to the most efficient purpose. And when tradition stood in the way, Klopp shoved it aside. None of his players contracted COVID-19 until after the season was over.

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During lockdown, I completed 100 keepy-uppies for the first time in my life. I’d break off from the relentless stream of work a few times a day and do two or three attempts, usually getting to about 40, before bounding back inside to the juggling of Word documents. Eventually I got to 80 keepy-uppies, then 90 keepy-uppies, then 100 keepy-uppies. No one was around to see me do it.

I reflected on the wonder of practice; how you can improve a skill simply by repeating it. And I reflected on talent, and ambition; also during lockdown, a friend who plays proper football at club level achieved the ‘around-the-world’ trick, clockwise and anticlockwise. I had as much interest in following suit as I did in perfecting ball tricks when I was in high school, which is zero. My natural talents are to pick the right pass and shoot accurately from distance, not to showboat, and I am content to ply my trade in lunchtime indoor five-a-side every few weeks.

That’s a far cry from the lofty sporting ambitions of my childhood, when I imagined myself a dual international in rugby and cricket. But I’m satisfied I’ve found my level.

Travel

IMG_20200406_084120Ha ha ha. Well. We managed our usual summer holiday in February, to Hawke’s Bay, during which I got sick and we argued a lot. There were some great moments too: descending the grand staircase in an old convent/school we stayed at for a night in Featherston, days on the beach in Waimārama, and particularly our visit to Splash Planet, which begat a long and pretentious blog post.

You move around the world and colour in the parts you see. You flood your senses and your mind and try, sometimes desperately, to commit them to your memory. But you can never hold onto them as they were, because your memory is fallible and the world’s constant physical change is undeniable.

There were also two joyous weekends at holiday houses in Foxton Beach. And an expensive night in Auckland during which I ate one of the best (certainly the most expensive) meals of my life. We in New Zealand were lucky to be able to do all this without fear. I wonder when we’ll be able to rock up to Tokyo or Paris again.

People

IMG_20200726_161331352Tara is everything to me. She’s my love, my rock, my inspiration; a source of frustration; my comfort at the wordless end of an exhausting day; my partner in the biggest work of our lives; my favourite cook; my cheerleader; the one who will stare daggers at me or look away in disgust, the one who will look at me with pure openness the way anyone would long to be looked at. I will ignore her sometimes in favour of my phone; other times I follow her around the house like a silly little dog. Long-term intimacy has brought almost everything out of us and I would say we love each other more than ever, even with all the worst parts of ourselves left in. We may never sand those rough edges off. Life is probably more interesting with them.

Whenever anyone asks me how the kids are, I try to talk about the things they are doing, rather than ascribe personality traits that may change next week. But they are getting to the point where the things they do are their personalities, in a way. June builds towers out of anything, but especially blocks, and is quite happy to spend two hours in her room each afternoon stacking Duplo on her desk until she can’t reach any higher. Nora wants to be around people as much of the time as possible, and if she can’t be around people, she’ll hold birthday parties for her toys. Both are generally quite shy but increasingly surprise us by introducing themselves to a shopkeeper with confidence. Both want a lolly, right now. They started kindergarten in 2020 and can now use a potty and a toilet; guess which was the bigger milestone in our view. I ignore them sometimes in favour of my phone, too — sometimes you have to if you want them to get to sleep, or to discover the world in their own way — but as much as possible, I try to be with who they are today.

If and when Tara’s parents move in with us, and if we have another child, the times of our little unit of four will come to an end. I’d miss it, of course, but changes like these would bring at least as many gains. Ask me again a year after it happens.

We had the usual visits from far-flung family generous enough to make it to us because we can’t afford to make it to them right now. My dad and stepmother from Auckland, my brother/sister-in-law/niblings from Dunedin. We spent time occasionally with family who live locally, and I always came away thinking ‘we should do that more often’; same goes for the few friends we saw sporadically. But it was a year of focusing on the family unit, especially during those two months or so between March and May. In the worst times, we felt horribly isolated. In the best times, our days seemed crammed full of joy and wonder. I can’t do any of it justice.

During lockdown, I would stop work through the middle hours of the day — approx 1130-1400 — to play with the kids, have family lunch, and put one of my children down for an early afternoon nap. She’d stretch out in my lap, on her back looking up at me, and smile as I rocked her from side to side with my legs, humming songs from MOANA and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and FROZEN. The smile would fade, the long blinks would eventually begin, then she would fall asleep. I can easily imagine looking back at the end of my life and thinking, that was as good as it got.

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Things of 2016

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I’ve never understood the need to ceremoniously dismiss a calendar year from sight. Every December you hear the same, from so many people: this year was shit and it can fuck off. Bring on next year. Bad things happen, and people grasp at the opportunity to sweep them aside, but I considered myself above raging against an arbitrary construct wholly unrelated to the actual sources of one’s bitterness. I thought myself level-headed when it came to apportioning my annual misgivings. And then came 2016.

There was a failed overseas adventure that ended in frustration and debt. There was an assault, one that I sort of saw coming but was no less upsetting for it in the aftermath. There was a shocking death in the family, and the grief and support that followed. These three shunts spun me around and brought unfamiliar feelings to the surface. There is a thrill in learning from new experiences, for sure, and I have learned a lot: about what is really important to me, what I want to do with my time, how I respond to trauma, and how capable I am of carrying others. But the negative effects of these events linger, regardless of what they have taught me.

I am being deliberately vague here. At this early stage, I can’t articulate all of the lessons and wounds and how I have changed, other than that I know want to have kids as soon as possible. A phrase I’ve returned to again and again in the last couple of years, both in relation to my own life and to global current events, is ‘the more you know, the more you don’t know’; perhaps this is how I sweep the bad things aside.

Then there were all the jolts in the obituary pages. David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Prince. Anton Yelchin. Muhammad Ali. Leonard Cohen. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. Et cetera.

And, in June and November, the United Kingdom and the United States of America voted to turn the tide away from global citizenship and toward isolationism. They washed their hands of the various crises on their doorsteps and further afield in favour of looking out for number one — but with no clear or functional plan even to improve their own lot.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. It never is. I got a new job — after some months of trying — and so did Tara. We moved into a new flat two minutes’ walk from a Sunday fruit and veg market. I was in better touch with my parents than I have been years. Nothing was easy, but it could all have been a lot harder.

Still, as 2016 disappears over the horizon, I find myself filled with trepidation for the year to come. 2017 promises at least one great boon: I will get married. Pretty much everything else is up in the air, both at home and in the global sphere. Eighteen months ago, Tara and I upended our lives in the hope of improving them out of sight. It could be another eighteen before we manage to settle back down to Earth.

Sports & Leisure

 

There was a lot more watching than doing this year. No tramping. No indoor football. A few hikes. A few jogs, the longest stretching to an easy eight kilometres. A couple of hits at the beach with a cricket bat. I attended a full Australia vs New Zealand cricket Test and watched us get absolutely hammered. There was also the World Twenty20, which started so well and ended in disappointment. There was EURO 2016, which promised a surprise champion and delivered the worst surprise champion possible: Portugal, every neutral’s least favourite team.

The one thing I did more than any other year was swim in rivers. Around these parts, rivers are very cold in summer and icy cold in winter, and believe me, there is nothing quite like the rush of endorphins you get from immersing yourself in cold water. Back in July, at the end of the Five Mile Track south of the Wainuiomata, I swam in the Orongorongo River and it was so cold that I found myself literally unable to think after about ten seconds in the water. Survival instinct kicked in and I hauled myself back to the riverbank. There is video of this — I’m not going to show you — but I appear to have aged ten years between hitting the water and emerging from it.

Music

The solemn mood and darkly glorious lyrics made Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want It Darker’ my song of 2016. As a species, we did in fact seem to want it darker.

As a valedictory statement, You Want It Darker (the album) was as complete as they come, rich with memorable tunes and words to sum up Cohen’s life and the times in which he left us. I group it with David Bowie’s Blackstar, which was followed, two days later, by the artist’s death, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, so pregnant with the aftershocks of Cave’s son plummeting from a cliff on the South Coast of England. Mortality hung heavy over this year, and in confronting death head on, these three great musicians bestowed dark gifts.

The Field brought out a new record, The Follower, and I eventually fought past its repetitiveness — normally so comforting — to find the beauty within. He is a genius. Radiohead are geniuses, too: A Moon Shaped Pool was perhaps the most cohesive album they’ve ever done, but it was also their saddest, with Thom Yorke’s previously bitter voice stepping over into resignation.

Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was a tight country masterpiece accessible even to the likes of me. Two easily digestible pop albums, Kaytranada’s 99.9% and Francis and the Lights’ Farewell, Starlite!, got me tapping my feet under the desk at work and dancing around the house. And Solange’s A Seat at the Table spoke brightly and angrily for black women in America, linking the past to the dire present but still finding joy in one’s skin. (I didn’t hear Lemonade but it sounds like Solange’s superstar older sister tackled similarly weighty issues in 2016.)

My biggest new discovery of the year was Angel Olsen, whose My Woman showcased an artist reaching the peak of her considerable powers. It isn’t just that she’s good; she knows she’s good, and if you are lucky enough to see her perform in the flesh, you get the feeling she could destroy or exalt any of you with a single look. With the backing of her outstanding, blue-suited band, Olsen delivered one of the best gigs I’ve seen.

But if there was one single musical highlight I had to pick out, it would be from WOMAD, where, after walking Cathy back to the motel at about 10pm, I bounded back down the hill to the sound of Calexico filling the valley with the sweet, wistful strains of ‘Falling from the Sky’. I was alone, but I was dashing toward the light, where I would be enveloped once more in the pleasure of performance — a performance that was everything I hoped it would be and more, but still not as special as the exquisite promise of being able to hear it before I could yet see it. It was like nostalgia in real time.

Film

Film posters of 2016 Film posters of 2016

Film holds less and less importance in my life with each passing year, which is to say that where film was once my brightest, fiercest passion, it is now an essential but occasional diversion from the everyday lists of tasks. In 2016, I managed to see about 40 films I hadn’t seen before, and a solid handful of new releases that impressed me. Here we go:

45 YEARS felt like a lesson in how not to go about my impending marriage, and its haunting final shot is worth all the attention it has received. THE BIG SHORT came from nowhere and demanded my attention and admiration by being terrifically entertaining and desperately depressing. Micro-budget Wellington pic CHRONESTHESIA offered a high-concept vehicle for well-written and performed character interactions, and was one of the more enjoyable films of 2016. I relished the brutal thrills of GREEN ROOM, roared at the Warriors reference in HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, and jigged about in my seat at SING STREET, which did teenagers the service of presenting them as real people with real problems. SPOTLIGHT was a work of outstanding focus and importance, much like the work of the reporters it chronicled; in particular, Liev Schreiber’s performance as editor Marty Baron was perfect, laden with power and prestige but never showy. No film of 2016 was sadder than TONI ERDMANN, which was billed as a comedy and made me laugh (a lot) but not without horrible cringing at the deep cracks in its characters’ lives. And YOUR NAME allowed me to bask in the distinctly Japanese state of natsukashii, which is some untranslatable combination of cherishing and yearning.

films-of-2016-3

Now, you may not believe this, and I still have doubts myself, but I think ZOOTOPIA was my favourite film of 2016. I remember blundering around Queensgate Mall one day back in February or whatever and seeing a poster for another stupid computer-animated film in which animals walk on their hind legs and crack wise. Then I went and saw it, and I found it to be funny, touching, well-plotted, visually spectacular, and thematically rich. Its subplots of political puppetry and migration/segregation seem almost prophetic in hindsight. I can’t wait to see it again.

Books

 

The only new book I read in 2016 was Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays by Ashleigh Young. Ashleigh is a friend but she also happens to be one of the best writers in New Zealand today, although I would say that. It’s been wonderful to see more people discover her writing, which broaches difficult subjects in a way that is gentle and curious but doesn’t flinch from the hard bits. She makes no excuse for the fact that she is still figuring all this stuff out, too.

Of the 45 other books I read over the 12 months, Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville and (in particular) Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen were a joy to after so many years of keeping meaning to getting around to reading Dylan Horrocks. Even more satisfying: I neared completion of Rupert Thomson’s oeuvre, knocking off Death of a Murderer, Katherine Carlyle, and This Party’s Got to Stop. Only The Five Gates of Hell remains unread. Thomson is my favourite author, an unclassifiable literary force whose work exists in a slightly off-kilter universe, both familiar and disorienting in the details. His talent for pithy description is pretty much unrivalled. I find myself often re-reading a sentence, looking up from the book to reflect on it, then carrying on.

From a Thomson profile a few years ago: “I do build quite a lot into the words and I’m often trying to slow the reader down”. 2016 was the year I started setting myself reading targets and greedily racing through pages with one eye on the tally, but Rupert Thomson’s writing is a reminder that the pleasures of reading are more numerous than just the numbers.

Politics

https://www.instagram.com/p/BHy6Iqojm1c

 

After the 2014 New Zealand general election, in which the Greens and Labour got smashed by a surging, John Key-led National, I attempted to mitigate my shock by engaging the other side. I wrote a Facebook post inviting National voters to message me with their reasons for voting that way. The aim was to understand their perspective, whether I agreed with it or not, because the election had acutely demonstrated that I lived in an ideological bubble divorced from the concerns of the majority. The only response came in person, a friend, who was happy to elucidate his vote over beers. ‘Lack of a credible alternative’ was the key phrase he used. It was hard to argue with that, regardless of the whole Dirty Politics palaver.

After Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump, I decided I needed to go deeper down the conservative route. There was a whole world of media out there that I never gave a second thought because I didn’t believe it could offer genuine facts or considered opinion. Clearly, a lot of people found that appealing in 2016, so if I wanted to understand their side better, I had to engage more directly. I watched some panel discussions on Fox News, which were invariably confusing and boring, laden as they were with impenetrable policy speak, although at least people listened to one another. I read through the top stories on Breitbart, which included a heartfelt endorsement of Trump by prominent Dutch racist Geert Wilders. And I subscribed to The Weekly Standard Podcast, on which white, middle-class men put the boot into ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ and performed backflips to find the silver linings in Trump’s repurposing of the Republican Party as his own plaything.

This broadening of heard opinions has changed my thinking somewhat. I appreciate the messages Trump voters were sold, and I understand why they voted that way, if they believed what he was saying. And even if they didn’t believe him, their desperation (in many, if not all, cases) seemed a reasonable catalyst to vote for change. The folks that actually produce the hogwash they read, though — the titles listed above, but also the cynical opportunists parlaying credulity into clicks and cash — deserve fiery contempt. I mentally pick holes in their arguments as I listen/read, throwing in the occasional profanity, and hope for some cataclysm to jolt them out of their plush comfort zone.

All this turned John Key’s resignation into a bit of an anticlimax. After eight years of complaining about the guy, I’m almost going to miss him. But we have an election coming in New Zealand in 2017, with more potential for change, and for shit-throwing from all sides. National will do what it’s been doing for years — steady hand on the tiller, can’t trust the other mob — and they will probably win again, but not without some mad interference from your Dotcoms and Morgans and whoever else decides they’ve got what it takes to be the Kiwi Trump.

All I hope is that more people vote than last time. A lower vote count helps no one.

Tech

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Millennium Falcon pancake

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still get angry at things. The hinges on my pleasing little Medion laptop gave way in a minor tantrum back in July; poor bugger didn’t deserve it. If I spend any time in the kitchen at all, I am best avoided as there is a likelihood of swearing and thumping on the bench. Funny, because I love cooking. And people think I’m so calm.

The other tech note is that my social media use declined further in 2016. I remember a time when I craved likes and retweets to the extent that they effectively sustained my continued existence. Nowadays, I post whatever I feel like whenever I feel like and am thrilled if even one person interacts with it. I live in a warm cocoon of my own nonsense.

Travel

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In the queue for free hours at the Prado.

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Tara and I cut our European sojourn dramatically short at the six-month mark, hurrying back to New Zealand as our finances reached into the red just in time to avoid a student loan repayment. It was devastating to give up on the dream of living and working abroad, but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we had done it before and we had tried to do it together, and this obviously wasn’t the time. We had felt a pull back to NZ ever since we left, anyway. There’s so much to love about being here.

Best new travel discovery of 2016 was Castlepoint. More specifically, the $120-a-night bach ten minutes up the coast in Sandy Bay, with its big lawn, ocean views, and soothing quiet. I can’t wait to go there again.

People

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Christmas is better in the Hutt.

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2016 was the year Tara and I were engaged, all 366 days of it. We took two steps forward and one step back, over and over, in pretty much every aspect of our lives — except in our relationship. Together, we took on the enormous logistical challenge of planning a wedding, moved back to NZ, changed both of our careers, moved house, felt the earth shake, and grieved, but we kept talking and listening and hugging and have come out the other end with as strong a bond as ever. This time next year, we’ll be married. (Gosh, in a little over a month we’ll be married. Getting exciting now.)

Otherwise, apart from regular Skypes and lunch dates with my parents, and board game sessions with Tara’s family, I was more absent from the lives of those I care about it than I would prefer. Part of this is just drawing inward during a rough year. Part of it is the continued renegotiation of friendships as my live-in relationship takes precedence. Part of it is the cult of busyness, convincing myself I’m unable to go and meet people because I have too much on.

These are all excuses. I intend to be a better friend in 2017. If you’re reading this and thinking the same, let’s go for a beer sometime.

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Filed under 'Best Of' Lists, Biography, Books, Film, New Zealand, Politics, Sport

Opening My Eyes Further: Graphic Novels, Comics, and Me

Upon Ed’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels lately – or comics, I’m not sure which. They’ve all been non-fiction, so are they still graphic novels? I’m gonna go with graphic novels because of their long-form nature – when I see the word ‘comic’, I think first of strips in the newspaper, like Peanuts and Garfield.

They’ve been quite a revelation, these graphic novels. My reading hasn’t just been changed by the addition of this bright new medium; it’s been broadened and given new life. I hope you’ll bear with me while I cast my eye back a little to illustrate how this new enthusiasm fits into the context of my life.

L-R: Sad, Unfunny

It’s funny that I should associate Peanuts and Garfield with the newspaper, because when I was a kid, I borrowed and read all the Peanuts and Garfield books in Tokoroa Public Library several times over. I never read them in the newspaper. I even bought a few cheap Peanuts collections with my allowance, books that are now long gone. (I never bought any Garfield, and I’m glad now that I didn’t because reading Garfield as an adult has been one of the most jarring revisitations to childhood I’ve had. Like, did I really used to laugh at this?)

More than Peanuts and Garfield, I read Tintin and Asterix. I think Tintin was my first exposure to comics. On about my seventh or eighth birthday, a compendium of the three Tintin books – Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and The Blue Lotus – was given to me by parents, and I was soon reading each of the stories over and over. I already loved reading, and read voraciously, but Tintin allowed me to escape into a world I could literally see, not just imagine.

The following year, I was given another compendium containing The Calculus Affair, The Red Sea Sharks, and Tintin in Tibet. I remember being moved by Tintin’s relationship with Chang, the Chinese boy he saves from the river in The Blue Lotus, and their tearful reunion in Tintin in Tibet. Because I read them all so many times – possibly into the hundreds – I can also a remember a number of specific images, like Haddock’s curled-up beard when Calculus lights his microfilms on Haddock’s pipe, or the final ‘shot’ of Tintin in Tibet, in which the yeti looks longingly across the plain at the departing travellers.

Tintin in Tibet | Tintin au Tibet | Yeti | Himalayas

Tintin is like a series of shots, a storyboard for a film. I still haven’t seen anyone convey movement in a static image as well as Hergé could. The stories are often as full of plot holes as the dumbest Hollywood blockbusters, but the drawings themselves are so memorable. Pretty good cast of characters, too.

As a kid, when talking with friends, I was adamant that Tintin was not a ‘comic’ but a ‘cartoon’, which to me implied its status as serious art. There began my prejudice against comics in general, or what I narrowmindedly thought of as comics.

Asterix, meanwhile, has followed me into adult life more than anything else I read in childhood. I liked Asterix in those days but preferred the fast-paced action and earnestness of the Tintin books. When I read through the entire Asterix series as an adult, however, I marvelled constantly at all the wordplay that had flown way over my head years before. What’s more, all this wordplay was developed twice – once in French by Goscinny, and again in English by those translation wizards Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. I’ve never read the French editions of Asterix but someday, if my French ever gets good enough, I’d love to do so.

Obelix speeds up the works | Asterix in SwitzerlandI do remember the images of Asterix well, too, especially Uderzo’s broadly demonstrative facial expressions. The bit where the major-domo tastes Asterix and Obelix’s stew in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath ALWAYS cracks me up, as does the bit in Asterix in Switzerland where Obelix tries to ‘speed up the works, by Toutatis’ and immediately gets wasted drunk. No doubt there are others out there who can recall it in an instant too.

After going through Asterix again – this was about five years ago – I didn’t seek out any more comics. The term ‘graphic novel’, which came up with relative frequency in conversation with various friends and family members, was still off-putting to me: it conjured visions of dark sci-fi drawings with lots of blood and exclamation marks. No real reason for that, of course. It was my way of closing my mind off to them, perhaps so I could keep the world a little more manageable. It’s bad enough thinking of all the films you want to someday see, let alone all the books you want to read.

I also saw the film version of Watchmen and hated it. After hearing so much about the supposed genius of the graphic novel, the terribleness of the film seemed to validate my preconceptions.

120 Days of Simon | Simon GardenforsThen, a few months ago, Ed got The 120 Days of Simon out from the library. It was really quite vacuous: a man I would hate in real life travels around Sweden having lots of sex and taking lots of drugs, then tells his story through cartoonish illustrations and unexceptional (though relatable) dialogue. To my surprise, I raced through it in an hour, thoroughly entertained. I guess I’m as voyeuristic as the next guy.

Afterwards, the sense of satisfaction at reading a 400-plus-page book in such a short space of time was something I hadn’t felt before. It was a minor epiphany: graphic novels are a way of reading many books without using up all my waking hours! I decided to seek out more.

Next, Ed recommended the work of Guy Delisle, a Canadian animator who has written graphic novel travelogues about his time in various unusual locations around the world. I started with Shenzhen, which was very good, and then went on to Pyongyang, which was not as good but fascinating just for the fact that it was about the everyday life of a foreigner in North Korea.

Shenzhen | Guy Delisle | Comics | Graphic Novel from China

When I look back on reading those two Delisle books, I can’t remember many of the images. My brain is wired for language, it seems, so I focused on the dialogue and narration much more than the pictures. Not surprisingly, the drawings I remember most clearly are the ones that were unaccompanied by English words, such as a hilarious scene in which a Chinese man gets into a lift with Delisle and bellows into his ringing phone before realising he hasn’t pressed the button to answer it. I wonder if this means my brain can only properly process one form of input at a time, in this case either pictures or words. I’ll bet it’s possible to train your brain to do both.

Delisle has done quite a bit more than those two books, including some well-reviewed work on Burma and Jerusalem, but I wanted to get into some classics of the genre first. A little research brought two titles quickly to the surface: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman. Persepolis is the story of the artist – an Iranian woman – growing up in her post-revolution homeland, while Maus is the story of the artist’s father surviving the Holocaust in Poland and Germany. Both are widely hailed as exceptional works of art in any genre – Maus won a Pulitzer – and as essential reading for any graphic novel enthusiast.

I decided to start with Persepolis because I’ve been very interested in Iran lately. I want to get a broader picture of Iran than what we get from most news reports, which show virtually nothing beyond a tyrannical government and a faceless, obedient proletariat. Persepolis was perfect because Satrapi was a woman (i.e. not a man with a beard) from a well-off but somewhat dissident family, which couldn’t be much further from the fundamentalist Islamists I had previously pictured when I thought of Iran.

Persepolis | Marjane Satrapi

It was a brilliant memoir, full of internal conflict as Satrapi wrestled with her love for a homeland that felt less and less like home. She illustrated the dynamics in her family clearly, and with admirable and honest empathy for all the times she drove her parents crazy. She also didn’t shy away from her passionate views on human rights, the veil, censorship – the kinds of things that artists in Iran have been jailed for. I was entertained by her sense of humour and enlightened by her bitter insights. Persepolis enriched me as a person. It also got me the email address of a PhD architecture candidate from Iran, who was handing out questionnaires in Civic Square one afternoon and saw me reading it. A golden coincidence.

As it was with Delisle, I don’t remember many of Satrapi’s images. Most of the time I would skim across the top of each frame, where the majority of the dialogue and narration was placed, and more or less ignore the illustrations. Perhaps the skill of taking both text and images in at once will develop with experience – or perhaps it’s just that those details you missed can be revealed on subsequent readings, just like with any other book.

The Complete Maus cover | Art Speigelman | Maus CD-ROM

Then came Maus, which is the reason for writing all this. Maus is purely extraordinary. Schindler’s List used to be the work of art I would immediately think of when moved to consider the Holocaust for one reason or another; henceforth, it shall be Maus. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The central character is compelling. He’s racist, cantankerous, and miserly, as well as being chivalrous, resourceful, and very intelligent. He speaks in a grammatically imperfect English – “one of the boys what we were in the attic together, talked over to the guard” – which builds up a distinctive voice in your head as you read it. He loves and loses almost everything.
  • Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from the most horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. He illustrates so many ways to die in just the level of detail that you won’t be put off reading any further but won’t forget any of it, either.
  • With Maus, I DID remember a lot of the images afterwards. In fact, I’d seen some of them before: in a third form social studies exam, more than half of my life ago, we were asked to read a page from Maus and then answer questions about it. (I had no idea what it was at the time, of course.) When I came to that page in the book, I recognised it immediately. I think this is a testament to Spiegelman’s straightforward approach to detail in his drawings, which aims to tell the story without too many lines getting in the way. He also employs the simple visual metaphor of drawing each race as a different animal – Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, Germans as cats – to help embed those images.
  • The story is fundamentally about one man’s experience, but that narrower focus allows for a richness in detail that broader works wouldn’t have time for. In sticking to his dad’s story in this way, Spiegelman ends up speaking directly to people’s individual experience of the Holocaust, which is much easier to relate to than a history lesson. The fact that his dad’s life intersected with so many others helps, too, as they move in and out of the narrative. You get a sense of the staggering numbers of lives involved – on all sides.

On the back cover of this edition of Maus, there was a quote from the Washington Post: “impossible to describe accurately, and impossible to achieve in any medium but comics”. The latter part seems very true to me: it’s a perfect marriage of illustration and language, both of which are essential to the way the story is told. The narration allows you into the characters’ heads so you can see the illustrations on the page from their perspective as well as your own. And because it’s a printed page, rather than a moving image on a screen for example, you can linger on a particularly compelling image for as long as you wish.

Maus | Reality vs Comics | Art Spiegelman

As for the ‘impossible to describe accurately’ part, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but I think the point is that it’s considerably more valuable to read Maus in its entirety than it is to skim over its Wikipedia page. It was, for me, an incredibly moving and inspiring experience, and I cried a little as I read the last page. It’s good to know I’m not so caught up in my own scattered thoughts that I can’t be moved to tears any more.

I notice that something common to all the graphic novels I’ve read so far is that they are memoirs, so maybe my enthusiasm is just as much for the confessional nature of memoir writing as it is for the fact that they’re in illustrated form. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that I’ve long felt a deeper affinity with film than with words on the page, and I hardly watch films nowadays compared to the amount I read, and the graphic novel is a happy middle ground between the two that I find doubly satisfying. Maybe graphic novels remind me of the exhilaration I once felt reading Tintin, how I could blast through a book and be entertained for half an hour – a kind of Freudian link to some of the most purely content moments of my childhood.

Or, maybe I’ve just lucked into beginning the genre with its most broadly appealing work. Whatever the case, graphic novels – comics – cartoons – whatever – are a legitimate art form and I am thrilled to have finally discovered them.

As mentioned before, graphic novels are not eating into any of my other reading. They’ve simply added more time and more discernment to my reading habits. I’ve learned that my brain can switch from one printed story to another, just as it can switch from longform journalism article to another, or from one music album to another, or from one internal monologue to another. What graphic novels are eating into is my time spent watching Youtube videos and liking things on Facebook, and I’m not complaining about that.

Marjane Satrapi on Facebook

Next will be the work of Joe Sacco, who was once featured in The Caravan and has been widely acclaimed for graphic novels about turmoil-stricken places like Palestine and Bosnia. After that, maybe I’ll try and break down another the wall to another consciously overlooked writing genre. Poetry, probably.

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In praise of Roger Ebert

'Life Itself' by Roger Ebert, on release this week

“But now it’s getting late, which means he has his own work to do. Chaz heads off to bed. Millie, for the moment, hasn’t been seized by night terrors, and the brownstone is quiet and nearly dark. Just the lamp is lit beside his chair. He leans back. He streams Radio Caroline — the formerly pirate radio station — and he begins to write. Everything fades out but the words. They appear quickly. Perfect sentences, artful sentences, illuminating sentences come out of him at a ridiculous, enviable pace, his fingers sometimes struggling to keep up.”
-‘Roger Ebert: The Essential Man’, by Chris Jones, Esquire, March 2010

Roger Ebert, more than anyone else, is the reason why I wanted to be a writer. I think most of us have an initial reference point from whence our passions arose, like a car enthusiast’s formative obsession with the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible or a young swimmer watching Michael Phelps sweep eight golds at the Olympics. I write because I have always written, since I was a small child, but I take my inspiration from Ebert above all others. His writing is honest, principled, informative and articulate, always entertaining, never boring.

When I first started this blog on Blogspot back in 2004, it was to practise writing film reviews, and I said in the first entry (since deleted, time wasn’t kind to those words) that I hoped I would one day be Ebert. I hadn’t actually been reading him for very long at that point – maybe a year or so at most – but he’d already become the standard to which I aspired, for reasons I’ll attempt to put into words further down the page. It was my plan to write reviews of most of the films I saw in an effort to get better at watching them, but my bigger hope was that I would at least become a better writer, if not a successful one.

Over time I’ve written less and less about film, and taken on a wide range of other writing influences. To my great surprise, it is India that has given me the inspiration, impetus and support to be a bit more successful as a writer, and not film. However, I’ve continued to read Ebert – who in fact has also written less and less about film, proportionally at least. In addition to the weekly film reviews he’s been filing regularly for over 40 years, and the other writing he’s compiled in the form of interviews, features and books, Ebert now has a blog, too. He writes on many subjects besides film, most of them aspects of his colourful life Every entry is a joy to savour. The blog was the main reason behind his winning the 2010 Webby Award for Person of the Year – not only for the quality of the blog entries he posts but also for the quality and depth in the comments he receives, which are sometimes even more fascinating than the entries themselves.

The definition of a good writer is elusive, and likely subjective. The standard of one’s readers, like the myriad folks who comment on Ebert’s blog, might be a pretty good one. But a definition that appeals to me is this: a good writer articulates thoughts in ways the reader might not have arrived at on their own. Even if they are thoughts with which the reader strongly disagrees, the writing itself can still be compelling in the hands of a vivid wordsmith. Take, for example, Arundhati Roy’s work in recent years, which can be as misguided as it is literary. On the other hand, saying what a lot of people are thinking can be even harder; one has to work the words on the page into a form that somehow impacts on a reader who agrees with them before he or she even reads them.

With Ebert, whether I completely disagree with him, completely agree or am ambivalent (I usually agree), there is always something new to discover in his words. Perhaps some film fact I never knew, or the name of a new actor to watch; most often, it is the sentences themselves that offer the greatest delight. They frequently surprise me, flicking a ‘how did he do that?’ switch in my head.

I find Ebert’s words returning to me at unexpected moments as a way of articulating what I see before me, or to offer something of value to a conversation with someone else. Ebert’s words are often so tightly formed that they sometimes seem to have always existed, like he plucked them from the sky and set them before me. And his words become part of me even as I read them.

After decades of getting those words in small chunks (though nowadays, with his blog and Twitter and Facebook etc, those chunks arrive more frequently), now we have Roger Ebert’s memoir ‘Life Itself’. Thousands upon thousands of those words, all arriving at once, and I am certain they will be just as much a joy. Thank you, Mr Ebert, for being such an inspiration.

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Book Review: ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ by Sharell Cook

'Henna for the Broken-Hearted' by Sharell Cook, 2011 (Pan Macmillan)

One of my first Inside the Bloggers Studio interviewees was Sharell Cook of ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Sharell and her husband in Mumbai and even more lucky to count them both as friends.

It’s as a friend that I write this post full of pride for Sharell, because she is finally a published author. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ hit the shelves in Australia a week or so ago, and it’s great to see Sharell’s straightforwardly elegant prose gracing the pages of a real live book, not just on the computer screen. And while I’ll refer to her in the first person throughout this review (we are on first name terms, after all), I won’t be biased. Well, not too biased. I hope.

The book is closely tied to the blog Sharell has written for the past few years. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ tells her story of making an unexpected transition from Australia to India, finding love and a chief purpose in life – writing – along the way. It all sounds very ‘Eat Pray Love’, especially with a title like ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’, but this book is much better written, more informative and more resonant than Elizabeth Gilbert’s me-me-me-memoir. The title even makes sense once you read the introduction, linking the slow reveal of henna designs as they are painted to the unfurling of meaning in one’s own life.

The book follows Sharell through heartbreak in Australia, volunteer work in Kolkata, falling in love with an Indian man and – after some eye-opening experiences in the beach town of Varkala and Himalayan village Manali – eventually settling in Mumbai as an Indian housewife. If you’ve been following Sharell’s blog for a long time, a lot of this will sound quite familiar, but the facts are presented in ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ in a longer and more cohesive form. Rather than coming across as a series of connected vignettes, the book actually feels a book, as in a single story that we follow from the first page to the last.

However, an interesting sense I get from the book is that rather than having a traditional ‘ending’, ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ gives a clear sense that Sharell’s life went on beyond the confines of its pages. We’re dropped into Sharell’s life for a few years, privy to a period of incredible upheaval, but we know that the end is not actually The End. Sharell makes no claim to understand everything about India, married life, or even about herself, and we can feel that the learning continues after the last page. I, for one, will be clamouring for a sequel.

What ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ really offers, though, is an honest new voice. I’ve always found Sharell to write on just about any subject with fundamental truth and honesty, but without compromising on elegance. I think that’s what sets the book apart from most transitional stories. There are no attempts to trick the reader by writing floridly around a point; instead, Sharell tells it exactly like it happened, warts and all, and she does so in a way that illuminates the deeper truths behind her experiences – truths many of us will be able to relate to. In her honesty, Sharell transcends simply narrating her own experience and speaks to all of us.

Probably the strongest section of the book is when Sharell is slowly getting to grips with Kolkata and falling in love with her husband-to-be. Their courtship is incredibly sweet and romantic, a real-life fairytale, but tempered with the reality of Sharell’s freshly broken heart and the more immediate challenge of dealing with daily life in India. She gives a good sense of what it feels like to drop yourself in such a foreign environment, and what the adaptation process is like. It’s slow, and there’s no single ‘eureka’ moment of understanding. If you put your mind to it, though, there are many small understandings along the way, each adding to a slowly growing knowledge and understanding of one’s surroundings. This is what happens to Sharell the longer she spends in India, and it’s what happened to me too.

On the other hand, I do have a criticism: the book is too short. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m pandering, but there were often moments where I wanted more detail about a particular event, like some of her experiences in Varkala and Manali. Still, the book is about a transformative process over a number of years, not so much the small details. Cramming those years into 300 pages without losing all sense of perspective is an admirable feat, and anyway, there are plenty of small details to flesh out the story and make it more real.

I recommend ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’. It certainly isn’t for everyone, particularly folks who have no interest in India or in alternative healing therapies (which also feature at certain points of the book). However, those with an interest in transitional stories, cross-cultural experiences and the essence of true love – and figuring what that means – will find it fascinating.

Congratulations, Sharell. Here’s to many more!

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Film Review: ‘Never Let Me Go’ (2010)

IMDb / Ebert / Hoberman
Starring Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan
Written by Alex Garland
Based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Directed by Mark Romanek


Rating: C (Careful)

Book-to-film adaptations are always a challenge. They’re a challenge for filmmakers trying to translate the feel of the written word for the screen, and they’re a challenge for audiences already enraptured with the book to accept with open minds.

Here’s a case in point. I love Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I read it in 2007, a couple of months into my stay in Japan, and it completely blew me away. It was a brilliant idea, crafted into a grand and brilliant story, and written in an endearing matter-of-fact style through the voice of a devastatingly sweet and immature narrator. For all its superficial coldness, the depth of feeling and heart contained in its simple language gave rise to such massive potential for an emotional response, and that response would take you down as many rabbit holes as you let it. I felt like I understood people, and our potential as humans, better after reading this novel.

Of course it was always going to be made into a film. How could it not? All of the elements were there: a high-concept idea, a love triangle, Oscar-baiting pathos and (most importantly) a recognisable and well-established brand name. Surely the film would write itself?

Well, it didn’t. In Alex Garland, he of novels The Beach and Tesseract as well as the script for Danny Boyle’s beautifully misguided Sunshine, the production pulled in a very savvy and thoughtful writer – and I’m sorry to say that he went the wrong route. That matter-of-fact prose I mentioned earlier could never directly manifest on the screen, but Garland, bless him, tries his damnedest. What came across as innocence in the book translates to coldness and a kind of dull, grey superficiality on the screen.

As a result, some very well-intentioned and capable performers flounder before our eyes. Save Mulligan’s near-constant sad, tilted smirk and Knightley’s frequently insane toothy grin, all three are surprisingly affecting. Or at least they would be if they weren’t lumbered with overly direct dialogue, a pace that never flows, and some of the most ridiculous wigs and outfits this side of Mamma Mia! Mulligan in particular is becoming one of the most enigmatic presences on cinema screens, with her pixie face concealing a gravelly, Shakespearean voice. But her Kathy isn’t the limited childlike wonder of the book.

To be fair, any sort of comparison with Ishiguro’s prose is unreasonable. I can only think of a few films which have affected me so deeply. Still, I’m a firm believer that the best book-to-film adaptations leave the feeling of the book behind and concentrate on telling a story on screen well – even if it’s a story that differs considerably from that of the book, if only in the telling. Examples: Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement; Anderson’s There Will Be Blood; Pawlikowski’s My Summer Of Love. Romanek’s proved himself to be quite a talent with his earlier One Hour Photo, but he and Garland would’ve done themselves a favour by watching those three films as a kind of Adaptations 101.

I am, of course, biased, and would love to hear from anyone who hasn’t read the book. A follower on Twitter, @PapushiSun, hasn’t: “I haven’t watched another film that made me so angry in a long time. People don’t behave like that, I kept thinking.” It didn’t stir the same frustration in me, but I have to agree that the motivation for much of the characters’ behaviour was unclear, or – worse – when it was revealed, I just didn’t really care.

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The Land of Open Expression

Over in the central Palace Hall, there seemed to be more of a calm that befitted such a princely and tradition-filled room. I remained there for the rest of the weekend as part of an extraordinarily varied audience. There were: distinguished local retirees with a passion for language; twentysomething Malayali men asking me for my mobile number within minutes of meeting; young tourists in summer dresses and sunglasses; local professionals, well groomed and dressed; adolescent children sitting unusually still; fellow resident foreigners of all backgrounds; and many of the authors themselves, catching another speaker’s session.

…read more at The NRI…

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Writing a NOVEL now, wahey

I just realised that I self-promoted my National Novel Writing Month all over Facebook, Twitter and the NaNoWriMo forums, but didn’t make it obvious on my own site… so in case you didn’t know about it, and are interested in how my NOVEL is progressing – with all the searing insights gleaned thus far – click on ‘NANOWRIMO’ in the buttons at the top of the page.

If you can’t be bothered scrolling all the way up to the top of the page, or are sneakily reading this via Google Reader or similar, click here.

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Not just anybody

My day job involves a lot of sitting at a computer, wearing headphones and performing monotonous tasks. In fact, it involves nothing but these things.

When I just can’t take it any more, I like to go for a quick walk to Technomall’s small bookstore. There, I can awaken a few different areas of my brain as I process the new books that interest me, relish the prose of good writers and laugh inwardly at the cheap tack by the crap ones (until I feel guilty, because while I might think ill of these writers, it’s a certainty that someone out there who reads this will mock me mercilessly for it).

Usually I stick to the fiction section, with its stock of prizewinners and the cream of Indian literature in English. Today, however, I stumbled upon a section I’ve always avoided in bookshops: the self-help (or ‘personality development’) section. I mean, I read David Cain because he is actually kind of inspiring and not force-fed down your throat, but I’ve never felt a need to consume chicken soup for the soul, or to read one guy tell all about the differences between rich dads and poor dads like it’s some big secret. Speaking of which, I’ve sure as hell never been interested in The Secret.

But there are so many of these books.

I looked closer at the bookcase, but became steadily more uncomfortable as I contemplated this particular book’s title.

One minute had been enough. Those monotonous tasks weren’t so bad after all. I returned to the office, inspired back to work in a new and unsettling way.

(For the record, Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ gives value and meaning to this entire genre. Have you been inspired or helped to see things in a different way by a self-help book?)

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