Perth fiction: not just surviving but thriving

Anything could carry disease: a handshake, a coin, a kiss. At least coins and tokens could be boiled.

The first details I heard of Survival, the debut novella of my one-time journalistic colleague Rachel Watts, acted like the most tantalising kind of teaser movie trailer.

First, it was sci-fi, set in a flooded city. Flooded cities are my jam. I’ve always been captivated by the idea of rowing from roof to roof. Grim real-world cyclones and hurricanes aside, I just freaking love it.

Second, it was young adult sci-fi! I’ve always believed YA fiction vitally important. The tone and the quality must be perfect if you’re going to get through to a teenager. A good young adult book means an exceptional book, period. Some of the most formative books of my entire life, those I regularly revisit, are young adult. Lockie Leonard. The Great Gatenby. John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and Ellie Chronicles. Too many to mention, and others whose titles I’ve long forgotten but whose memories I remember vividly.

So when my advance copy arrived I turned to Survival with anticipation and found only more killer elements.

Post-apocalyptic? Check. Natural disasters? Check. Giant squid? Be still, my beating heart. If there is one sci-fi trope I love above all else it is a kraken. John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes is one of my favourites.

The story is set in a post-climate change world. Governments and economies have collapsed. The Scylla Corporation, the world’s only remaining multinational, rules with an iron fist. Cities are flooded, though people continue to live in them as best they can.

In one such city live two young women. One, a bartender, is living day to day, hand to mouth, grieving the mysterious disappearance of her activist sister.

The other is a number-cruncher who lives in the secure Scylla complex, whose ordered world crumbles the day she finds evidence of something horrifying in Corporation medical research data.

The two, though vastly different, meet by chance and find themselves aligned in their pursuit of the truth.

The book feels a little Children of Men, a little Resident Evil, even a little like the final book in Mervyn Peake’s incredible Gormenghast trilogy, the book of the castle sinking into a rising river.

Watts has done her research. Her flooded world is fully and powerfully imagined: the poverty of half-submerged suburbs, the economies that struggle to adapt and stay afloat, and the shining beacon of a ruling corporation that overlooks it all with chilling indifference.

The pictures appear in your mind fully formed: disease-ridden coins, dropped in jars of bleach at market stalls. The filth that rises in the streets when unbearable humidity condenses into torrential rains. The food seller’s daughter with both feet amputated after an infection. The fishermen who trade in squid that has become the most plentiful resource in a warped ocean ecosystem. The silent presence of a rumoured giant squid, that bears witness to a clandestine meeting in a stadium that the new world has transformed into a giant fishbowl.

In a state in which our own new tricked-out stadium has just opened, in a country in which action on climate change is at stalemate, this dystopian vision is particularly chilling.

I loved the idea of this book from the start because it had so many of the best hallmarks of a genre I love. But there is no hint of the formulaic here. Watts’ streetscapes are completely original and her voice, steely and edgy, is her own.

This debut indicates a promising new voice in Western Australian fiction and happily she’s not short of ideas: the bonus content is four of the author’s previously published stories, gems that indicate a fertile imagination. So: watch this space.

Watts’ novella is available from tomorrow at Crow Books and other select stockists.

And if Perth fiction is your jam, check out some more new releases: The Sisters’ Song by Louise Allan, if you like family sagas and Australian historical fiction; Dustfall by Michelle Johnston if you like your literature with a side of medical thriller; and You Belong Here by Laurie Steed, a beautiful piece of contemporary literary fiction. All in stores now.

 

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The 10 books you must read in 2018

My records show I read 52 books during the second half of 2017 as Stu and I travelled the USA and Canada. That’s two books a week – not bad, considering what else we packed into 26 weeks. I’ve picked the top handful, the books that changed or moved me the most, to make this reading list for 2018, should you choose to accept it. It starts in March, given I got to this post rather later than I planned!

March: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

Read in San Francisco.

Not so much a novel as popular philosophy novelised, a story examining modern love – not something natural, but something that occurs now, as it always has, within a particular social context. Alain de Botton has noticed that after the old “how’d you meet?” chestnut, no one ever seems to want to know what happened next – after the marriage. He talks about boredom, compromise, fighting, cheating. Childcare, and eventually parent care. The erosion of ideals of passion, perfection, grand romance. And then – what remains. He explores all the evidence that a lover can’t be everything, perform every function and fulfil our every need – and yet how we still expect them to be. This is a conversation society must have – indeed is always having, almost unconsciously and circuitously. De Botton gives it meaning and usefulness via a beguiling and very readable parable. Should be required reading for all adults.

April: The Ellie Chronicles, John Marsden

Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

Read in Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

The follow-up trilogy to John Marsden’s groundbreaking Tomorrow series, these books are riveting. I know I have now listed a trilogy as one book, but hey, they’re short. Together they make up one large book and they’re smarter than plenty of so-called adult novels. As well as satisfying the hunger to find out what happened to Ellie and her friends, they’ll remind you how blunt and delicate and evocative and honest John Marsden’s writing is. I’m so grateful this wonderful man gives us what we so badly need: our own country on the page. You can practically smell the eucalyptus wafting up from the page, yet above all these are stories of people: their loves and losses, grief and courage, the weird bonds that remain when everything else in a life changes beyond recognition.

May: The L.A. Quartet series, James Ellroy

Read in a poky room in LA.

I’m cheating again. This is actually four books. Four big, gloriously fat, difficult books. I had already read The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. While away I completed The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. James Ellroy is known for his razor-sharp prose, hard and dense and staggering. It’s unlike any other author’s writing, ever, and you can’t really say you know crime literature or even American literature without knowing Ellroy. Be careful, though – this is the most violent stuff I’ve ever read (or seen onscreen, for that matter). It’s not for the fainthearted. It requires time and commitment and focus. It’s worth every minute. And I recognise that realistically you’re only going to finish the first one in May. That’s OK. Just make a start.

 

 

June: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Echo Park, LA - a good place for reading

Read in Echo Park, L.A.

For fans of clever, classic sci-fi. So clever I confess to skim-reading some parts I just couldn’t understand (Stephenson is actually a scientist). But above all it’s a rip-roaring story. Nell is a smart but disadvantaged child in a supremely uncaring dystopia. She gets one chance to break free from her origins when she comes into possession of a stolen “book”, the world’s most precious technological creation: a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. What she learns inside will change history as much as it changes her. This book is top-shelf. There’s a reason Neal Stephenson is as rare as hen’s teeth in secondhand bookstores. He is the real deal.

July: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

New Orleans

Read in New Orleans.

Modern literature from one of the world’s best. A family saga, an examination of modern Judaism, a visionary contemplation of the fragile peace between fraught nations, a deeply intimate look inside a crumbling marriage. A funny, sad, page-turning read, the kind you can’t put down even when your eyes get sore and you’re afraid to find out what happens. Do it for book club. Give it to anyone. Sink your teeth in. A solid bet.

August: All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Our first AirBnB, in Bangor, Maine

Read here in Bangor, Maine.

I seemed to read a lot of books about marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly given the opportunity to navel-gaze for six months in tiny rooms with the love of my life. The other emerging theme turned out, to my surprise, to be war and Judaism. Synchronicity perhaps, as we looked at so many museums of world history, with the Holocaust staining it all like red paint thrown across a canvas. In this vein I also read the older but still incredible The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and the Victor E Frankl classic Man’s Search for Meaning. This book, All the Light we Cannot See, won the 2014 Pulitzer after taking the author ten years. I understood why it took so long. The quality and quantity of detail, its careful arrangement, the love and work that went into these parallel stories of a young blind French girl and a young German boy soldier in WWII glimmers from every page. An absorbing, original, readable, beautiful book to bring you to your knees.

September: The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

Read throughout the east coast and finished somewhere around here, North Carolina.

Still flying off the shelves after 26 years in print. It’s a workbook above all else, an inspiring, amusing and practical book on loosening the pent-up creative artist inside every human – that artist most of us lock up sometime after childhood, and before adulthood. This is perhaps one of the most illuminating books I have ever read. It’s changed the way I see the world, the way I interpret every event. It ensured I not only left NYC having completed my manuscript edit, but that I spent the final few months of our trip churning out the manuscript of a second novel. And it ensured I spent all the intervening time jotting notes for the third. If you’ve ever buried a secret love of drawing, writing, painting, performing, or silently felt longing to write a screenplay or movie or play or just MAKE something, and that little ache just always stays in your heart… read this.

October: Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel

Read by the window in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

You’ve had your Alain de Botton primer and you’re ready for Lesson 2. For anyone interested in marriage, fidelity, sex and passion, healthy relationships and just the art and science of human communication, both are required reading. Esther Perel is a rock-star in the field. She has been interviewed on the Tim Ferriss Show and recommended by Dan Savage of the Savage Lovecast. A holistic, fascinating and vitally refreshing look at the poetry, politics and power of sex and the role it plays in modern relationships, it really changed my perspective. Our subsequent discussions on the topics it introduced deepened our understanding of each other and of society, and without doubt strengthened the foundations of our marriage.

 

 

November: On Writing, Stephen King 

Read on NYC subways. Lots of them.

I owe this writer so much for his inspiration and practical advice, as well as the hours of sheer pleasure of devouring everything he’s ever written. He has taught me not only that writing can be fun but that it should be fun. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can make money. No, you don’t have to be a tortured soul or a starving artist or an alcoholic or suicidal or a drug addict to make good art. This, like all his books, is just a bloody good read. Part memoir, part deconstruction of process and part solid advice, it’s a must-read for all fans. In fact Gerald Winters, owner of the King bookstore in Bangor, Maine, told me the vast majority of King fans, writers or not, name this their favourite of all his works.

December: Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

 

Read near Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, upstate NY

Don’t hold the title against her. The publisher probably made her do it. Tara Brach, also featured on the Tim Ferriss Show, is an American meditation teacher. Don’t hold that against her either. Hell, just swallow all your judgy superior thoughts and excuses about why you don’t meditate for a minute, all right? This book is wise and powerful and compassionate. It’s a thoughtful examination of the role suffering plays in human lives. It offers an – dare I say it? –  enlightened understanding of the experience of being a thinking, feeling, loving, living, feeling, hurting person. It addresses that gap you feel deep inside yourself, the one that usually makes you go and get another glass of wine or handful of crisps rather than thinking about what’s bothering you. Reading this book made me do that thinking and it reverberates through my consciousness daily.

 

OK, now it’s December, you don’t have time for any more reading. Go do your Christmas shopping.

Em and Stu do America part 16: Legendary Los Angeles

Reading time: 10 minutes 

Downtown LA, aka DTLA

Downtown LA, aka DTLA

“Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Everybody comes here; this is Hollywood, land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don’t; but keep on dreamin.”

-Pretty Woman                                                                           

I know LA only through media; the sublime (Billy Wilder’s noir classic Sunset Boulevard, David Lynch’s haunting Mulholland Drive) to the ridiculous (genius 90s hit Clueless). I’m a devoted follower of James Ellroy, who wrote the searing LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz) and the LA memoir My Dark Places. There’s wild variation in these pictures, but I wanted to see it all. Even the grimiest depictions sound glamorous: Mulholland Drive. Hollywood Boulevard. Sunset Boulevard. Rodeo Drive. Santa Monica. The Valley. Venice Beach.

Iconic Santa Monica beach.

Santa Monica beach.

We allowed three weeks here to end our trip, wanting the chance to relax and explore these mythical places at leisure after barrelling down the west coast. After successive shocks to the system from snowy Washington, icy Vancouver, watery Oregon and foggy San Francisco, we cautiously got our thongs/flip-flops back out, ready to enjoy that famous California sunshine.

But you know what? We arrived tired. Too tired to give LA the same energy we threw at New York. And LA is a lot less user-friendly. It’s a massive, sprawling city. Yes, there are many cool neighbourhoods, but many dead, dirty, scary zones between, full of men who have a scary habit of lurching within inches of me when they see me, as though the zombie apocalypse actually happened while I was sleeping and I they can smell my tasty brain.

Venice Beach

Venice beach.

The parking and driving was terrifying here, so we returned our car to Enterprise and opted for public transport and walking instead. But even for committed walkers and train-catching cheapskates like ourselves, LA is HARD to get around without a car. The public transport system is perfectly fine, but the distances are just huge.

Thanks to all these factors, our LA story is partly about what we didn’t do. We didn’t drive to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree National Park. We didn’t tour Warner Bros or Universal. We didn’t do Harry Potter World Round Two. We didn’t go to Channel Islands National Park. We didn’t do Hollywood Behind the Scenes. We didn’t do a self-guided Clueless filming locations tour.

Outside TCL Chinese Theatre. Heaps of fun to look at all the stars' signatures!

Outside TCL Chinese Theatre. Heaps of fun to look at all the stars’ signatures!

We did do SOME stuff. The Walk of Fame and TCL Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Museum. We went and saw Tim Ferriss interview Terry Crews (star of Brooklyn Nine-Nine) live on stage – a major highlight for us both, since Stu is a big Terry Crews fan. We walked the Santa Monica Pier and then walked along the sand to Venice Beach. We hiked to the Hollywood sign.

We ate. Corn cheese (you heard me) and Korean BBQ in Koreatown. American treats we normally avoid: pancakes with bacon, fancy PBJs and grilled cheese sandwiches at Grand Central Market. Tacos Tumbras a Tomas and Salvadorean pupusas from Sarita’s (the setting of the first date in La La Land), also at the market. For our last night we have booked the Pacific Dining Car, as immortalised in Ellroy novels and in the movie Training Day.

An awesome moment. Just me, the open air and the smog.

An awesome moment. Just me, the open air and the smog.

And we lazed. We hid from our somewhat scary and ill-chosen neighbourhood and went on a cinematic tour. I know it sounds terrible, watching movies about LA instead of being out in it. But I swear it provoked thought. Hear me out.

We watched or re-watched Sunset Boulevard, CluelessSpeed, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, LA Story, Afternoon Delight, Training Day and, of course, Volcano, set in the streets not a 10-minute walk from where we were staying, near MacArthur Park on the edge of downtown LA.

I did find one nice spot walking distance from our place: Echo Park.

Echo Park.

It felt surreal seeing a tidal wave of lava pouring over streets we have walked now for weeks, in our local train station. I thought, people who live in LA see their homes in celluloid all the time. This is normal for them, to see their lives and landscapes, their train stations, their cafes, all represented, countless “what if” scenarios played out. I can’t help but feel there’s both advantage and disadvantage that a city can be this self-reflective.

Classic LA: beauty, with parking.

The field of racial and “whiteness” studies says that for a race to be routinely represented in mainstream art forms gives that race a kind of validation, an acknowledgement of its existence within the culture, and by association gives it power.

Transpose that idea to not a race but a city identity like “Angelinos”. They sure are getting represented, validated, afforded power in a global context by the sheer amount of representations getting pumped out into the world. So when does this become something not just empowering but navel-gazing, something that shuts them off from seeing the rest of the world and just permits them to continue their lives unchallenged by different ways of living and seeing? I thought NYC was an insular culture; surely this is too. It calls to mind recent social commentary that Facebook has an unhealthy way of feeding us all stories it knows we will like and agree with, thereby leaving our minds fat and lethargic. Is it healthy, in other words, for LA to get fed so much pure LA?

Santa Monica

Santa Monica

And is it healthy for the rest of us to get fed so much LA? Are we deficient of home nutrients? I watched these movies as a kid thinking “this is what a city looks like,” not questioning that city, its reality, its demographics, its very physical being.

It’s only now that I can see it’s a real place. Not only a blank canvas for a movie but the weirdest, most intense, most unbalanced city I have ever seen. It’s so far apart from my home, despite the thin veneer of sameness of all Western civilisation, that I feel like it’s really another planet. And yet I have I have grown up on their cultural products, not my own.

That feels a little odd to realise, and a little sad. That Perth, such a beautiful place, with an ancient Aboriginal history as well as a much shorter European history, doesn’t get represented to the world. We let Tim Winton do our heavy lifting, and I fucking love Tim Winton, but we can’t just leave it all to him.

Hehehehe.

Hehehehe.

I know we have more good writers. I know we have good independent films and many excellent musicians. Perth is bursting with creative people. But there’s no denying that Perth bleeds artists to other cities and countries where their voices are heard more easily. Sometimes people, including me, forget to encourage these voices with cold hard cash.

We pay for stories from all over the world, for meals out, for coffees, but begrudge money for local movies and festivals and music. It’s a luxury to have this access to cultural products from elsewhere, but it’s maybe a loss, too, of connection with our own place. They might not be the same brand of sexy as LA stories, but they’re ours, and I have promised myself to think a bit harder about how I spend my entertainment dollar.

A beautiful scene, apart from the rotten brown haze :/

There’s more to LA than movies, by the way. There is a vibrant food and wine scene and exciting cultural diversity and some progressive recycling and renewable energy programs. It’s just as well – I have never seen anywhere dirtier, including NYC, and while I have read pollution has loosened its grip on LA in recent decades I was horrified at the great stripe of smog we saw blanketing the horizon as we looked towards the city from Burbank Peak.

It’s a lot to get your head around, and my thoughts are increasingly drawn to home. Wonderful coffee. Starlight. Supermarkets that make sense. Farmers’ markets that make even more sense. Toenail polish. Coloured clothes. Beer and wine and water coming in real glassware. Clean, safe, quiet streets. The Swan River. Within minutes of leaving the house, beautiful, unfenced, pristine parks everywhere you turn. Grass gently yellowing in dry December heat. Parks with gas barbecues cooking, not shrimp, but simple, classic Aussie beef snaggers. See you soon, Perth!

StuMobservations: LA

  • Gus’s drive-in has the best BBQ bacon cheeseburger in all the land.
  • $20 all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ is a cook your own adventure of epic proportions.
  • Who knew: When Max Factor originally introduced makeup to the common (ie non actress) woman, wearing it represented liberation for women and they protested to be allowed to wear it.
  • Squirrel + avocado diet = gigantic squirrel.
  • Terry Crews has a remarkable message about going for what we desire most.
  • Driving in LA is scarier than driving in the snow.
  • Why have I not tried Ramen before?
  • A hike to the Hollywood sign means you can see the back of some of the letters.
  • I wanted to steal Milla’s red dress from Resident Evil #prollyworththejailtime.
  • I saw the shoes and wand that Harry, Ron and Hermione used to imprint cement then I saw the imprints in the cement.

Wooooooooooooooo

 What we’re reading
Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor E Frankl; The Course of Love, Alain de Botton; Mr Mercedes, Stephen King

 

Em and Stu do America part 3: Stephen King’s Maine

Let me explain why we love Stephen King, commonly misrepresented as a horror writer. The true horror of King is not terrible and frightening things happening, but that they are happening to people he has made you care for.

I recently read The Shining and could not get through a subsequent re-watch of the famous Kubrick adaptation because it casually disregarded all I’d read, wide-eyed, transfixed, begging inwardly throughout that salvation might be granted to the family I’d somehow grown to love.

Stephen King’s dope fence ironwork a blacksmith made ‘forspecial’. He doesn’t lock his gates!

Pet Sematary, better known as a schlocky horror movie, was a book whose true horror was its confronting examination of a parent confronting that most inconceivable of griefs, the loss of a child. With that inexorable tumble of mishap that seems to precipitate all literary tragedies, it illuminated parental terrors that were, at the time of writing, almost taboo in fiction.

The ghouls and gore are just a bonus, and he’s a master of those too, but this is how King really drags you under: emotional truth.

So why go to Bangor, where King lives and works? The first thing you need to understand is that King’s locations, characters and motifs inhabit multiple works – the more you read, the more it becomes a bit of a treasure hunt as you build a mental map of the King universe and plot the connections between the books. “Derry”, a fictional town based on Bangor, is the centre of that universe.

The section of a Bangor cemetery where Pet Sematary was filmed. I chose the spookiest pic but this is actually a very beautiful ‘garden cemetery’, where King used to go to walk, reflect… and get ideas for character names. It’s unusual in having these hillside graves, no longer common practice.

Pet Sematary contains a reference to an affectionate doglike raccoon domesticated by his Derry ‘owners’. About eight years later, this re-emerges as the ‘billy bumbler’ Oy in Wastelands.

Father Donald Callahan is a Derry resident who fights the head vampire in 1975’s Salem’s Lot. Callahan reappears in 2003’s Wolves of the Calla, a story in which he must go back in time. He briefly considers, while he is at it, attempting to avert the Kennedy assassination, but fears the butterfly effect.

This idea formed the plot of King’s 2011 novel 11.22.63, recently adapted as a miniseries.

A fictionalised version of Bangor, including King’s house, also appears in the Dark Tower 6, Song of Susannah; Randall Flagg, named for a kitchen store in Bangor, appears as villain under various guises in numerous King novels.

The inspiration for the infamous Randall Flagg. Not so scary when you see the origin!

There are websites that go through all of the hundreds of connections exhaustively, but before I get carried away… our pilgrimage was not just to gawk like dorks at King’s awesome house or tick sightings of the famous locations off a list, but to appreciate the beauty of small-town Maine that King has described over our entire lifetimes with such a wealth of affectionate detail that the moment we stepped into town we already felt we had been there, ‘once upon a dream.’

Our guide at SK Tours, also named Stu, put us to shame, though. Not only had he seemingly read just about all of King’s 60-odd books but as a smallish town (around the size of Bunbury) everyone is connected through numerous community, personal and professional ties. So Stu knows King, knows his family, knows his friends, as well as knowing the works and films, and the history of the development of King’s career right back to the time he was an impoverished, unpublished wannabe. He wove the stories of King’s early struggles and setbacks, slowly building the suspense of the various stories he told in an expertly paced drive through town that lasted for about 3.5 hours and left us hanging on every word.

This local FM station was going under. So King bought it and turned it into a rock’n’roll station.

We knew, perhaps, about the locations in town that key scenes were based on, but we didn’t know about how much King’s love for his town has shaped what he and wife Tabitha King have done through their charitable foundation. We’re talking a beautiful new children’s wing for the local hospital, perhaps 90 new kids’ playgrounds, a public pool with super low entrance fees, countless sizeable donations to local not-for-profits and a baseball field for children. Tabitha King led a fundraising campaign for the previously crumbling library that unexpectedly raised millions, which the Kings then gamely matched – their only condition being the extension and restorations had to include a vastly improved children’s wing.

Stu and I later visited this library and found it massive and beautiful, with a huge and delightful children’s wing. Putting Perth to shame, the library is open until 8pm nightly in winter and 7pm in summer, and its book circulation outstrips that of Boston’s despite Boston being a city nearly 50 times larger!

Only a tiny portion of a gorgeous and enormous kids’ wing, full of books and comfy nooks.

Needless to say, all this warmed the cockles of our hearts and fanned admiration into something closer to adoration.

I’ll add here that the couple has not insisted any of these buildings be called “The King Pool” or “King Library” or King Baseball Field”, etc. Instead, they had the pool and field named for local children who died from illness, whose families the Kings knew. The local city hall has had to content itself with subtle plaques at each location thanking the Kings for their donations.

Yep, he built the kids a stadium.

I should also mention the fantastic King-focused bookstore in town, Gerald Winters & Son, which has “ordinary” editions of King and other books but is also stuffed full of carefully chosen collectors’ items, first and other rare editions of King’s works. It’s definitely a labour of love and is a must-visit for anyone going to Bangor.

Our whole week in Maine was a lesson in why the Kings love this town so. It’s small and beautiful, and has no creepy Pleasantville vibe like Jeffersonville but has the nostalgic country town vibe in spades. Kids rode around everywhere on their bikes, calling to mind E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Now and Then and Stranger Things. We were a little disappointed not to have stumbled over any corpses, Stand By Me-style.

There were fewer American flags here, a welcome respite. But nobody skimped on that other must-have, hanging baskets full of flowers. Almost every cute wooden porch was festooned with them and surrounded by a full cottage garden. The Americans seem unparalleled in embracing the cottage garden. As an Australian, used to spindly trees, frizzled lawns and grey-green natives, I can’t get enough of it. And every patch not filled with flowers sports a leafy big maple full of squirrels that cavort saucily before bemused housecats. I stalked them faithfully but the money shot continues to elude.

I’ll get you yet, squirrel.

Even the derelict population seemed less confronting than in Chicago or even Perth. Rather than overwhelming numbers of people begging on street corners we saw little evidence of social disadvantage, though I don’t doubt it exists. We only saw one guy actually begging with a sign. It read “Why lie? Need beer.”

The other beggar, who we referred to as our friendly neighbourhood homeless guy, asked us to buy him beers on the first night. After we refused, he didn’t try again though we walked past him at least once a day to or from town, but just gave us a kind of morose greeting.

A completely typical Bangor garden.

The last time we saw him was as we walked home from a dinner out. I remarked to Stu as we walked that I liked Bangor because it was so pretty, but not overly neat or perfect it still had personality.

It was right then that friendly neighbourhood homeless guy appeared and did a perfectly timed little spew on the pavement right in front of us. He performed this with the brevity of a cat abruptly yakking its dinner up on the rug.

We managed to hold in our giggles until we were past the poor fellow, who looked philosophical rather than embarrassed.

Bangor Pride.

Overall, we loved Bangor, its sense of community that came out not just in Stu the tour guide’s tales of the town but in the big crowd that turned out for the local high school’s rhythm and blues band show outside the library one mild Wednesday night (see video below), and in the huge crowd that turned out for the town Pride Parade on the morning we left.

It’s lucky King’s got the place licked, or I’d be pulling up stumps and carting Stu off permanently.

Stumobservations part 3: Maine

  • Average WiFi and acceptable Netflix = 3 out of 5 happy StuMos watching Archer.
  • People spending the night in train stations naturally huddle in groups seeking sanctuary. (We spent 1am to 7am in Boston between our overnight train and three subsequent buses totalling 26 hours of continuous travel).
  • Racing matching suitcases is a fun pastime.
  • Lobster is expensive.
  • Stephen King’s life story is fascinating. Lesson: If your wife doesn’t like the neighbours, just buy their house.
  • SQUIRRELS!
  • Three sets of earbuds plus a set of headphones is a bit excessive. (Donated bulky headphones to Airbnb).
  • Take notes because you will not remember later.
  • A flat white is called a latte… but still not what I wanted.
  • Dollar stores are a good source of junk food.
  • My idea of consumable fries and others understanding of what constitutes acceptable fries differs greatly.
  • Bare minimum, pack a spray jacket.
  • My name is pronounced Stoo now. May as well embrace it (still cringed even as I write this).

The lesson being, ask what the “MP” is before you buy the tiny weeny lobster roll. Thank goodness we were sharing it.

What we’re reading
Em: Mistress Pat, L.M. Montgomery – in preparation for Canada and all of the Anne of Green Gables madness. Still going on Walden, Artist’s Way, My Salinger Year.
StuMo: finished Em’s novel draft! Apparently did not hate it. Will be incorporating his suggestions next month in New York. Now closing in on the end of The Red Queen.

What we’re listening to
Audiobooks: Lee Child’s Worth Dying For; Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn, narrated super well by the author (thanks Charlie!) 
Music: Miles Davis, John Coltrane… and Native American Dance Trance. Yes. That’s what it is called. Also, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack was a key player in our six-hour drive from Bangor to Prince Edward Island, Canada.

What we’re watching
The Handmaid’s Tale – an Atwood adaptation seems appropriate for Canada. Just finished, and absolutely loved it.

 

How Tim Winton got my mojo back, and other stories.

They all hurled sticks for galumphine mutts, their sun-fucked faces shining with adoration.

Tim Winton, Eyrie

The 2017 state election campaign was one of the most gruelling periods of my working life.

It wasn’t all because of the self-imposed workload; equally to blame was the nature of the work.

Without really intending to, I had become what felt like the sole statewide reporter questioning the Roe 8 project, simply because for every story I wrote, more swarmed from the woodwork with questions demanding answers. The more I looked in vain for those answers, the dodgier the whole project looked.

I wrote countless reports on the protests, the machine lock-ons, the clashes with police. I wrote The Idiot’s Guide to Roe 8, and covered the Senate inquiry into the unnecessary slaughter of animals caused by the haste with which the works were being rushed through pre-election. After the release of more than 350 pages of documents when Alannah MacTiernan’s Freedom of Information application was finally approved after the government spent years fighting it, I hunkered down with the documents and finally produced one of the most demanding stories of my working life, Figures fudged in Roe 8 rush job.

Roe 8 was by no means the only environmental issue I covered in the months preceding the election. I covered the Beach not Bitumen campaign against the Esplanade extension through Bush Forever land in Scarborough and Trigg and the No Houses in Wetlands campaign against the bulldozing of Carter’s Lot in Bayswater – including another trawl through Freedom of Information documents showing the approvals for the development had been based on incomplete paperwork.

I covered the establishment of marine parks scientists were calling “paper parks” because of the lack of inclusion of any sanctuary zones for marine life. I covered the race to the bottom that was the evolution of WA’s hunt-to-kill ‘serious threat’ shark policy. I covered the new Biodiversity ‘Conservation’ Act passing into law, complete with a clause allowing an environment minister to approve the extinction of any species should ‘progress’ require it.

Hot on the heels of this charming piece of legislation came the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Authority’s knockback on grounds the mine would cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species. Things that look like prawns, and aren’t cute, but whose role in purifying our underground aquifers could be significant – things that should be studied further, not destroyed by humans drunk on their own power.

As the election drew near I was going to write an opinion piece drawing all this together, but by then I was just too damn exhausted. (Note, it’s now May that I’m writing this). The only thing that kept me going was the emails that poured in from readers after every story, saying thank you, and pointing me to the next. Still, it was disheartening. I was starting to think it was just too hard to keep caring. Those emails from LinkedIn offering cushy jobs in PR, toeing the company line, were starting to look very attractive.

Especially since more emails were coming in from people asking me to investigate more stories, more stories I would never, even if there were twelve of me, have enough time to get to.

In fact, I just looked at my Evernote and found this. A blurt, jotted then forgotten on February 21.

I am utterly competent, hard, brisk but compassionate and capable. 
I am petrified 
The emails keep coming. 
Fifty-plus a day. 
I worry when i am there, 
more when i am not  
The people continue to reply
I try to leap out of the loop
But i cant stop checking
Clicking
Pecking
At these emails that just keep coming. 

Enter Tim Winton

It was in this frame of mind I picked up Eyrie. I was innocent of its subject matter, having seen it in a bookshop and remembered that I had been planning to read it since its 2014 release. I thought, now is the moment – I was headed to Rotto for the weekend for a wedding and planned serious down time.

Eyrie starts with a jangling hangover and a weird wet patch on the carpet for Tom Keely, divorced by his wife and disgraced in the public eye after an event in his previous professional life as an environmental campaign spokesman left him unemployed. The mining companies would love to have him come to the dark side in their PR departments, but he’s not yet having a bar of it.

Instead, he staggers from blind drunk to blinding daylight, trying to work out how to pay the bills now his old career has locked him out for good. He is “doubly bound, trapped like a bug in a jar – addled, livid, dizzy, butting his head and turning circles”, high up in his ‘eyrie’ – atop a bleak block of flats in Fremantle inhabited by people down on their luck.

The block, in real life, is one nicknamed the ‘suicide flats’, generally regarded as a colossal town planning mistake in Freo.

Into this block of flats, and the mess that is Keely’s life, returns a distant childhood friend, bringing a hefty set of her own problems and a vague but highly uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Keely.

Whenever I mention Tim Winton, one of my most beloved authors, inevitably someone tells me they still have a Cloudstreet hangover after being made to study it in school. I never understood this, but I never had to read it for school. I just read it because that’s the kind of nerd kid I was.

Whether or not they have a point, I say to them – get over it! You are missing out. This book is raw, angry and humbling in its brilliance.

It casts a merciless glare on to the murky underbelly of environmental politics and activism in WA, and their uneasy coexistence with the all-powerful mining industry.

It brings Fremantle and Perth into sharp relief, cities painfully under-represented in our national literature. Ours is a culture dangerously lacking in self-reflection and as Winton shines his pitiless light on Keely, he shines it on us all.

Here’s a glimpse of Freo’s cappuccino strip through the eyes of Keely:

It’s hard to look at but harder to look away, like squeezing a zit under a fluorescent bulb.

The writing makes you realise how long Winton has been honing his craft. It’s as though every year and every book that has passed has made him more devastatingly effective

He doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s stripped down to diamond hardness.

Back to work

The emails have piled up over my long weekend. But this time, a different email lies buried among them.

Would I like to interview Tim Winton pre-election on gas fracking?

You’ve got to be kidding me. I am spent. There is a week to go until I can drop this gargantuan election effort. I am behind. I still have more stories to write than I can poke a stick at. I have researched every bloody environmental issue under the sun in the lead up to this election. Except bloody gas fracking. I have only the vaguest idea of what it even is. I thought, bless me, there was one thing I was going to let slide.

Of course, I make time. I do some hasty cramming. He’s my hero.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because they will disappoint you. But this is not always true. Winton talks like he writes. He is funny and self-deprecating and wise and full of memorable idioms. He tells me it’s normal to get discouraged when you campaign on environmental issues. He riffs on power and politics and defeat in WA with the authority of someone who knows all the dirtiest secrets. I’m entranced.

He talks for 40 minutes. I try not to interrupt in case he remembers his time is valuable.

I summon energy, pull together research and write another pre-election environmental story. The result got more than 10,000 readers – testament to Winton’s star power.

There has now been a change in government. Polling said Roe 8 was a factor in the decisions of about 20 per cent of voters – a significant influencer.

The new government has helped buy back Carter’s Wetland, stopped the Esplanade extension through the dunes, and has said that while the Yeelirrie mine approval still stands, it will not approve further uranium mines. Its true stance on gas fracking remains to be seen.

My trust in governments, like everyone else’s, runs sadly low. But the election coverage was, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Eyrie? Even more so.

 

Movie version of Jasper Jones is off with a bang

Jasper Jones - Photograph by David Dare Parker

Jasper Jones – Photograph by David Dare Parker

It’s been eight years since Fremantle author Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones hit the shelves and was devoured with equal adoration by both critics and the public.

If he’s been a little quiet since, I hear it’s because Silvey has spent the intervening years crafting and honing that remarkable novel into a tight, twisty hour-and-45-minute screenplay.

Read more at WAtoday.

Performance-enhancing book: Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans

the-tim-ferriss-show-podcast

Tim Ferriss and trusty steed Laura keep me inspired and happy through each and every commute. 

Just as with fiction I tend to fall down the rabbit hole, I get excited when I find a good resource covering one of my more “real” areas of obsession.

I find a new font of inspiration and information and sort of suck them dry like a vampire, until I have consumed everything they have to say and grown stronger. Hmm, perhaps more of a parasite.
Unflattering self-depictions aside, recent examples include the financial freedom blog of Mr Money Mustache (nearly 500 posts, worked through gluttonously and chronologically) and the 100-odd hours of The Minimalists’ podcasts so far released.
Eventually, I find, I absorb the message. I’m converted. I get it. I know the Minimalists’ stories and catchphrases so well I listen to them more like a soothing old bedtime story now than a source of excitement. I’ve done the projectsjoined the cult.
But a slightly different case is the Tim Ferriss Show,  the podcast in which optimisation junkie Ferriss conducts long-form interviews with the world’s top performers across myriad fields, deconstructing their habits and back-stories in an effort to find out what habits lead to success.
Ferriss is also author of business classic The Four-Hour Workweek, health hacker bible The Four-Hour Body and learning-method deconstruction The Four-Hour Chef. He is so adored it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s more star-struck, him or his famous guests.
(Imagine my delight, incidentally, when finally my nerd prayers were answered this week and Ferriss bowed to fan pressure to interview Mr Money Mustache in the latest episode).
This show never gets old and never runs out. You never learn it all. It’s the personal development equivalent of a gold mine that runs to the other side of the earth. You could never hope to read all the books recommended, follow up all the little side routes and innovations you hear about. I’ve read two of the books, bits of the others and listened to more than 200 hours of interviews and yet feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I have the books on Kindle, but am planning to buck my own minimalist trends and buy them in hard copy to keep for more easy and frequent referencing. And throughout the interviews, there are certainly common themes, but there is far more variation than there is repetition, and the recurrences are, in themselves, fascinating.

This was the reasoning behind the book, an attempt by Ferriss to capture and distill the best of all his interviews thus far, and draw the connections between them. I approached it with greedy anticipation, having bought it for myself as a Christmas present (though I had to get it on Kindle, the city bookstores having sold out).

It’s a diamond-hard read without an ounce of fat, and includes plenty of new material and insight into Ferriss’ personal struggles. But a word of warning: don’t bother if you’re not seriously into personal challenges and life-hacking. Otherwise it will quickly overwhelm. Even a medium-level devotee such as I found many of the concepts covered (it is divided into sections Healthy, Wealthy and Wise) too advanced for me, at least in terms of finance, exercise, diet and biomedical science. But even if you skim over parts, that, he says, is the way he intends the book to be read. More like a buffet than a three-course meal (my words, not his).
And it’s endlessly stimulating. I love knowing there is always more out there to learn, about people, the capacity of an individual mind and body to reach extreme performance. It’s humorous and fast-paced, and at 700-odd pages, you can skim the parts you’re not up for yet without feeling like you’re not getting bang for your buck.
Cool features include a comprehensive reading list from each interviewee, and a cartooned spirit animal for each based on how they imagine themselves. My advice is get it in hard copy, devour it for fun, then go back and drill down.
Happy nerding!