Author Archive: Alex

It Might Get Loud

I’m assured it’s not too weird to have a favourite documentary, but it does still feel a bit strange to admit that I have one – and that I’ve watched it more times than I can count. I’m not sure why that seems weird; I guess I don’t know that many people who count non-fiction things as ‘favourite’.

Unknown.jpegI love music history and I love music documentaries. Led Zepellin are my favourite band. I’m a fan of (early-mid) U2, and I quite like The White Stripes. And I love rock music. So Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White in one place talking about the electric guitar, occasionally teaching each other their songs, and each going on a journey with the documentary maker about their journey to being guitar players… I mean, I was always going to love this documentary.

The moment when Jimmy Page starts playing Whole Lotta Love and Edge and White just stare at him in raptures is everything.

They play Seven Nation Army together. And In My Time of Dying. And, although it’s a deleted scene (WHY), Kashmir.

I really enjoy the background pieces for all three, although I believe very little of what Jack White says (it’s fun to watch but I take it all with a liberal fist of salt). The idea of Page playing muzak and simply revolting from sessional music, and Edge’s horror of the Irish troubles leading to Sunday Bloody Sunday; their sheer delight in music and each other and their drive to keep playing and discovering; it’s all magnificent. I could have had a bit more of them together comparing notes, but I guess I can’t have everything.

Sleep it off Lady

Once upon a time I was an undergrad Arts student. I was going to study English and History. One of my first semester English classes was Modern Literature. I had no idea ‘modern’ was a critical term rather than just a temporal one; I had never done any literary theory or real critique. I discovered that I loved Orlando (Virginia Woolf) and could barely keep my eyes open for Dubliners (James Joyce); I was captivated by Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) and finally watched Apocalypse Now as a result. And I read Good Morning, Midnight and I don’t even really remember the story but I remember being absolutely bowled over by Jean Rhys. I later read Wide Sargasso Sea (because I kinda do love Jane Eyre) and was astonished all over again.

Unknown.jpegSome years later I supported The Second Shelf in their Kickstarter, and as part of my reward I got a first edition of Sleep it Off Lady, a collection of Rhys’ short stories. This was a pretty great result for me, since I had let her fall off my radar, and now I could re-discover this writer that A. Alvarez in 1974 called “quite simply the best living English novelist”.

In some ways I don’t really know how to talk about this collection. They are, by and large, realist fiction – and most are more along the vignette line, rather than having fully developed narratives. But all of them comment on some aspect of life, or relationships, or social interactions. And none of them have superfluous words and none of them are sentimental and all of them left me thinking about what life is like.

“Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers” is set on a Caribbean island, where Rhys grew up; from the perspective of a young girl we get a view on how the Europeans might view another European who doesn’t really match their idea of how a European man should act.

“Goodby Marcus, Goodbye Rose” is also set on a Caribbean island, again told from the perspective of a young girl… whose innocence and expectations of an ordinary life are basically removed when an old man grabs her breast.

Some of the vignettes are reflections on being a young woman in the pre- and inter-war years in Britain, or Paris. And several are haunting reflections on getting old, as a woman, and how people might view you, and how you might view yourself.

This is a really short collection and all of the stories are short, too. They pack an immense punch and they will definitely be re-read.

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka

Unknown.jpegWell I’m only about six years behind on this.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that I don’t much care for Australian history. Except for the women’s suffrage bit. There are lots of reasons for this and some of them are the same ones everyone else trots out and some of them are idiosyncratic (I really like my history to be properly old, and I like the textual/ architectural etc remains, which is problematic for Indigenous history).

Anyway. I loved You Daughters of Freedom and back when we were still able to congregate with others (ah, the good old days), I went to hear Clare Wright speak about it. I took my copy of Daughters to get signed… and then while I was there I thought I should get this, and also get it signed (which meant lining up a second time which she thought was very funny). This is partly because I was feeling a bit giddy-fan-girl, and partly because she described it as her ‘democracy trilogy’ – the third to be about the Yirrkala bark petitions, I believe, which I will absolutely be buying and reading. I also figured that while I’m fairly indifferent towards the whole Eureka myth and the way it figures in Australian history, I could trust that Wright wouldn’t give me a rah-rah-tattoo-the-Southern-Cross-on-your-chest story.

Wright does a marvellous job of peopling the gold rush fields of Ballarat with real people – men and women and children, from many different places around the world. This is the real key to her work. She points out just how masculine the story has been, and the take-away myths that have grown up around it; and then she debunks those myths by not only pointing out that women were there, but by pointing up how significant the contribution of women was.

Women as publicans. Women holding gold licences. Women running shops. Women running the newspaper, and writing copy for it. Women running a theatre. Women holding together their families. Women being expected by the government to make the place more civilised. The lack of Chinese women being used as an excuse to be racist shits. Women giving birth (including in the middle of the storming of the Stockade!) and women dying. Women as reasons for men to try and make more money, to look after the families – and to stop the woman from being the one supporting the family. Lady Hotham being appealed to, to intervene with her husband, the ruler of the colony. They were there. And important. And ultimately shoved back into old gender roles, for the most part, when the gold fields got more mechanised and Ballarat organised itself as more of a regular town and when the franchise got extended to more men, but no women.

One of the things I liked about Daughters is that it recognised that Indigenous women were excluded from the achievements of 1902 (although Ruby Hamad has words to say about how this is discussed and to what extent, in White Tears Brown Scars). The Wathaurung people appear occasionally in this story: reminders that they had been finding gold in the area for centuries, and that some of them engaged in commerce and relationships with Europeans, and so on; but overall not that much. It seems that Wright had to do immense digging (heh) in the archives to find the information about the white women that she uses in the book; that there would be far less archival information about Indigenous people and their interactions with each other or Europeans doesn’t surprise me at all. Sadly. Could Wright have done better? Maybe. Would it have made the project even bigger? Absolutely. Was it the point of the book? No. If someone hasn’t tried to do a really in-depth look at the Indigenous experience of the Victorian goldfields, that should absolutely happen.

I have a much greater appreciation for what life was like on the goldfields (pretty shit), the political situation with both Hotham back in Melbourne and the local authorities (also pretty shit, for a variety of reasons), and some of what led the miners to actually create what we know as “the Eureka Stockade” (pretty haphazard, not really intended to be a Great Last Stand Bastion), and of course the place of women in all of this. The entire situation really does deserve a place in discussions about the development of Australia as a democracy, as a social liberal experiment, and in how Australia developed its identity (exclusion of the Chinese, other variations on racism, how people spoke of themselves in relation to Britain, etc etc). Which is something I never thought I would say.

(My enthusiasm has one caveat. There’s this weird bit where she talks about women’s menstrual cycles synchronising, and something something hormones affecting a situation, and… it’s just odd. It doesn’t fit with the rest of her style, and the synchronising almost certainly isn’t true, and… yeh. I was a bit thrown.)

Even if you think you don’t like Australian history – if you like history, and the reclaiming of forgotten groups, this is definitely one to read.

Rosewater

Unknown.jpegI am … honestly not sure what the point of this novel was.

Overall I liked it. Mostly. I thought it was an interesting way of thinking about reactions of first (or is it?) contact with aliens and the repercussions of that. But once I got to the end, I realised that it felt a bit more like a prologue to a novel, because narrative-wise really very little actually happened, except in the past, as told through flashbacks. And it didn’t feel like that – the past – was the point, which means… I’m not entirely sure what the point was.

Rosewater is in the name of a township that has grown up around an alien dome that plonked itself down in Nigeria in the mid-21st century. Kaaro lives there and works using his psychic skills to stop other psychics from pilfering knowledge from other people (I think?). The flashbacks are mostly about Kaaro’s life, weaving around his experiences and how his life has intersected with the coming of the alien dome. He’s not always been an upstanding member of the community, to put it mildly, but / and he’s also worked for a shady part of the government, using his ‘sensitivity’ in interrogations and the like. Kaaro is not a particularly nice person; in fact, especially early on he is actively unpleasant. And while he does grow up a bit, he never gets to be the sort of person I’d like to spend time with – and even his unpleasantness isn’t particularly interesting. In fact I didn’t really care for or about him at all.

The other characters around Kaaro are minimally developed. His boss from the government is pretty 2D – hard-nosed, no humour, doesn’t respond to his suggestive comments; the love interest is at least a bit mysterious and has some active agency of her own; most of the others are flash-in-the-pan, barely fleshed out ciphers. Even the renegade that pops in and out of Kaaro’s past (almost literally) has basically no back-story.

I got to the end of the book a bit confused that this could be the start of a series (a trilogy, I believe). On the one hand, as I said this all feels like it should be the build-up for something epic. On the other hand, the conclusion left me feeling like there was no epic to come. Clearly in an alien contact story there’s always something that can happen, good or bad, but I wasn’t left grasping for the rest of the story.

Maybe it was just me, and this book just wasn’t for me. I can cope with that.

We Wuz Pushed

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Basically if you’re interested in Joanna Russ’ work, or you’re interested in the way fiction, in particular, can be involved in radical truth-telling, you need to get this book. It’s from Aqueduct Press.

I am a big Joanna Russ fan, so I’m intrigued by everything that does any work deconstructing her work. Mandelo takes as her project the idea that Russ’ entire oeuvre is concerned with radical truth-telling – that art should bring not only pleasure but truth, and not only deconstruct myth but also present new realities. She goes through all of Russ’ science fiction novels, pointing out the truths that are present there and how Russ uses that fiction to suggest new ways of being. I especially liked how Mandelo presented her own journey to understand And Chaos Died – which I haven’t read – and how context can radically change how we understand an author’s intent. I also really, really appreciated how Mandelo addressed the very tricky subject of Russ’ transphobia in The Female Man, and stresses that being able to adjust our understanding of truth should be part of the truth-telling process. And the fact that Russ did, indeed, change her perspective (on trans women and other issues) makes me respect her the more, and gives me something to aim for.

Mandelo also addresses some of Russ’ non-fiction, particularly How to Suppress Women’s Writing and To Write Like a Woman, where the truth-telling is perhaps more obvious in some ways. Overall Mandelo presents Russ’ body of work as a series of writings deeply concerned with the multiple ways in which truth can be told or distorted and what we as a society must do about that. It kinda makes me a bit uncomfortable when I know that I do often go for escapist literature… and I’m not sure how much Russ would approve of that… but perhaps if I can do it with my eyes open she wouldn’t despair too much?

Cuisine and Empire

Was there ever a book more up my alley than this? (Well yes but allow me my extravagance.) I came across this book courtesy of Gastropod, one of my very favourite podcasts: looking at food ‘through the lens of science and history’.

images.jpegRachel Laudan takes the idea that we ‘are the animals that cook’ (p1) and looks at how cuisine – how we cook – has travelled and been shaped. She makes a very interesting point that I’d never really thought about: just adopting a particular food doesn’t mean you’ve adopted a particular cuisine, or in anyway integrated a part of a culture. Cooking is the key bit and cooking has always been hedged about with culture and taboo and expectations and so on. She also deliberately looks at the idea of ’empire’ as hegemonic political units can do a lot to spread, enforce, and encourage the adoption of cuisine through a whole range of methods. The point of the book therefore is not to consider regional differences but to look at broad similarities in the way that food is treated, and how those similarities came to be.

There are chapters on the development of grain-based cuisines, and what that meant for cooking in general. She looks at Buddhism and its spread and influence, at Islam and Christianity, and how their morals and philosophies and taboos influenced the way food worked. How shifts from Catholicism to Protestantism in parts of Europe changed things, as well as how industry and increasing globalisation changed modern cuisines.

I love that Europe is not entirely the centre here; that the Mongols and the Islamic empires have a significant impact (on Mexico, via Spain, for example). I am intrigued to think about how political and moral questions have shaped some of the ways that I, and my food culture, think and perceive food. I’m also fascinated by how early decisions, sometimes made consciously and sometimes not, have continuing impacts on the way the world acts.

Honestly, grasses have a lot of responsibility in the development of world cultures.

This book was a lot of fun – well, it was a bit of work, because it’s not always a straightforward narrative. But that was usually fun too. It has made me think about why we do things the way we do, and the cascade of consequences through history. It’s so easy to think of the way we make food as just… passive, somehow; unconnected to politics or anything else. Actually, that’s probably only possible for me because I am a part of the ruling elite, so I don’t need to think about the consequences of my food choices – and I live in a place and time where choosing to eat outside of my particular food culture is totally acceptable. So I am privileged. But I am still constrained, too, by the things I have been taught. And this book helps me think about some of those things.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

images.jpegThings I have not read: Sherlock Holmes stories.

Things I only read occasionally: mystery or crime novels.

Things I have read a lot in the last three months: Laurie R King’s Mary Russell series. Ten books and several short stories, in fact.

This is all because of a friend who suggested the series to me while I was travelling (also the Amelia Peabody series). I decided I needed something a bit light, and I thought it would be interested to give it a go… and all of a sudden I’d read two novels and a novella. And it went from there.

Mary Russell is 15 in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; orphaned and living with a nasty aunt in Sussex. She literally runs into an older man out looking at bees, and he turns out to be a now-retired Sherlock Holmes. She demonstrates a surprisingly keen mind, he is intrigued, she ends up being his apprentice, they have adventures, and so the series sustains itself.

Russell is an heiress, so there’s no money issues (at least once she inherits); she’s Jewish; she’s very bright, obviously – and gets a degree in theology; and she is, clearly, a match for Holmes in terms of personalities. I can’t speak to how well Holmes is portrayed, but there are amusing references to his being annoyed at Conan Doyle, and the way Watson wrote their adventures up.

To some extent I guess you could call this extended fan fiction. Especially when you have Peter Whimsy turn up briefly, and then Kim (Rudyard Kipling’s Kim), and Dashiel Hammett, and for all I know other characters that I didn’t recognise. But… who cares?

Overall the stories are well-written; they’re definitely page-turners. Sometimes the crimes are dreadful, sometimes they’re on the more intimate side; sometimes Russell and Holmes are personally involved, sometimes they get dragged in. The stories start in 1915, and I’m up to 1924 (where I’m going to pause for a long time, I think; I’ve about done my dash for now), so there’s discussion of blue-stockings and women under 30 not yet having the vote, and King keeps the misogyny and some of the racism that would have been par for the course at the time – which does get a bit uncomfortable at times, it must be said, and I’m sad she felt it necessary.

Overall these are entertaining stories that aren’t too demanding. Perfect for right now, as far as I’m concerned.

Elysium

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I bought this book ages ago, I think because it was on the Tiptree Award (now Otherwise Award) honours list. And then I didn’t read it for ages because I thought it was horror – which makes no sense because why would I have bought it in the first place if I thought it was horror? At any rate, I finally decided it was time to read it, and Wow. What an astonishing, wonderful, weird, and very clever book.

It starts relatively easily, with Adrianne and Antoine, a couple whose lives are drifting apart. Nothing particularly odd – except Adrianne sees an elk, in the city; and there’s a brief interlude of computer code that makes no sense. But then the story continues… And then all of a sudden it’s Adrian and Antoine, and Antoine is ill, and Adrian is caring for him but life is so hard.

And then it’s Antoinette and Adrianne. And you can see why the Tiptree committee thought this was a worthy book to include on their list, as the characters slip in and out of genders and relationships and sexualities and the story evolves around them.

Sometimes the pair are lovers; sometimes they are biological family. Sometimes they have a strong relationship, sometimes things are fracturing. And as the narrative develops, the world in which they live gets stranger – not as time goes on but as their story takes place in different worlds; sometimes subtly different, sometimes spectacularly so (sometimes there’s a variation on a plague, so at the moment some readers may wish to avoid). And always the relationship between the two is significant: sometimes it actively influences events in the wider world, sometimes the focus is intensely personal. And always there are the computer-code breaks that hint at restoring or losing data, or resetting systems, and it’s really not clear what’s going on but clearly all is not as it should be (in case you didn’t guess that when there was an elk in the middle of a busy city).

This novel is lyrical and intense and passionately human. I’m so glad I finally got to read it. And then I read the afterword and I was floored all over again because of course that’s where it was coming from.

Jolie Oldman #1

Unknown.jpegGone in 60 Seconds – 2000

Character name: Sway

Style: tough, a bit rough

Mannerisms: nothing memorable 

Look: kinda working class? Blonde dreads. Tattoos. Very blue eyes

How the film promotes her: Jolie is second in the credits, after Nicholas Cage; the promo poster shows her (and her, uh, assets) prominently. 

In the narrative: The first sight we have of Jolie is in the credits, in a photo frame.

The first real sight is under a car. First her legs, as she comes out from under the car under a trolley. Lips are prominent; blonde dreads are very obvious because despite working as a mechanic she hasn’t tied her back (!?). She dismisses Cage, her ex, completely; she initially refuses to participate in the boost.

Eventually, she turns up on a motorcycle in leathers, spectacularly, and says “I’m here for Kip”. Apparently Sway didn’t need to participate in the preparation for the car boosting. Probably because she actually has two jobs and therefore the chance, and necessity, to keep looking like she’s not a criminal. Unlike everyone else. Also, then the writers would have had to write script for her, which might have strained their abilities; she’s the only girl in the crew, what a surprise. She is at least presented as competent and skilled; also happy to fall into the “one of the boys” thing (“always was a sucker for a redhead”). If this were today, or it were a more edgy film, I’d suggest she’s meant to be bi – pretty sure that’s not the case in this sort of mainstream film from 2000.

Apparently she’s still heartbroken that Memphis left her. They eventually ride off into the sunset together; all it took was stealing some cars together and some barely-innuendo car talk. 

Age difference with love interest: Eleven years (Cage older). 

Other thoughts on the film:

J: Man this intro feels dated.

A: I love the music. (Meanwhile I can’t stand the brother. Delroy Lindo, though!! And a lot of the other secondaries, too. WHAT A YOUNG ECCELSTON.) 

J: I have a love/hate relationship with Nicholas… but he’s really quite good in this.

Reflection: 

J: Perhaps this was the wrong first film… Jolie isn’t very prominent. 

A: Pretty sure it’s better than Hackers; this way we get to see her move from very secondary to headline.  

 

Jolie Oldman

We’ve done a James Bond viewing (one movie a fortnight, for a year. It was quite a thing.)

We’ve done Great Scott! – watching Tony and Ridley Scott films. (Turns out, epics are not really for us.)

We realised we hadn’t had a viewing project for a while, and decided this was a good time to start one. We’d been thinking of following an actor, and decided Gary Oldman would be awesome – we both love several of his films. And then I pointed that we’ve focussed entirely on dudes. So we thought about what not-dudes would be interesting, and we decided Angelina Jolie fit the bill.

Thus: Jolie Oldman.

I have to admit, though, it doesn’t feel like a time for much experimentation. So we’re largely watching films we’ve seen before. We’ll watch them in chronological order, and it will be interesting to see the development and changes over time. But it won’t be a whole lot of new stuff. And we’re fine with that.

Angelina Jolie: 

Gone in 60 Seconds
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (new for J)
Mr & Mr Smith
Wanted (new for us)
Salt
The Tourist

Gary Oldman

JFK (new for us)
The Fifth Element
Air Force One
Harry Potter – Order of the Phoenix
The Dark Knight
The Book of Eli
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Come along for the ride!