Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Minimalism, Margaret Atwood and crazy mothers

 

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‘Books must pass from person to person in order to stay alive’ – Margaret Atwood (Photo: Dominic Ronzo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Pirsig’s Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

is not for the faint-hearted but complex, ambitious, moving and outstandingly original. Still groundbreaking decades after its publication, yes it actually has motorcycle maintenance in it and no that does not make it boring. It’s an impressive narrative device that both illuminates and speeds along this mind-opening mystery/travel memoir/work of modern philosophy.

Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing

is actually a rounded-out version of a series of lectures Atwood gave on this subject, this is a must for anyone interested in Atwood, Canadian writing, or writing in general. Gives a rare and witty insight into the early life of one of the world’s most beloved writers, while musing deeply on the nature of books and the poor saps who write them. Packed to the gills with quotes – worth it alone just as a collection of quotes on writing. A fast, beautiful, inspiring and entertaining read. I got mine at Boffins. Was previously titled Negotiations with the Dead.

Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

I know, I am the last person in the universe to read everything and I should really just give up on back catalogues and read new stuff, especially since Winterson recently released a new work, a ‘cover’ of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. But I’m working my way slowly through the Winterson canon, one of the only bulk collections to survive the Curing of a Bibliomaniac. The most amazing thing was that I didn’t know until I’d heard this podcast interview with Winterson that the reason her books are crazy and awesome and unreal and Biblical in epic proportions, peopled with fantastically grotesque matriarchs, was because that was actually what her childhood was. And right down to the exorcisms, this book tells the story of her childhood and unbelievably crazy mother. If you’re a fan it’s required reading (and the podcast required listening). If you’re not, get out of my face.

Minimalism?

As you know, I’m always up for a new challenge and these books have just been given to my excellent friend Jess, who has just returned home bookless and footloose after time abroad, and who I thought of as I read every one of these recently. They’re right up her alley but the gifting was also part of the 30-Day Minimalism Challenge I’ve just embarked on with my brother and sister-in-law, to the general bemusement of everyone else, especially the poor Ministry, who guards like a dragon the few possessions he’s got left after I blitzed through his life leaving destruction and empty rooms in my wake.

Because I don’t know when to stop, I’m also doing Dry July with my awesomely supportive family. Donate to me (and thereby to support Solaris cancer support service in WA) here. Thank you! It’s a damned good cause.

 

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 22: The Meaning of Friendship (Mark Vernon, 2010)

Books left: 4. Weeks left: 7 (breathe in, breathe out. Undo metaphysical belt of brain.)

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, and at least with a nectarine you know what you're getting.

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, but at least with a nectarine you know what you’re getting.

Wow, found a book with an author’s name starting with V, and that if nothing else is testament to the necessity of this project.

I see its pretty jacket and sail in, blithely unaware of the small note I later discover in the blurb that the book is a revised version of one previously titled The Philosophy of Friendship.

Consider your warning unheeded, sirs!

 

 

Vernon’s book is an examination of the rules and functions of friendship in contemporary society, with chapters on subjects such as friendships at work, the possibility of being ‘just friends’ and not lovers, friending online, friendship as it relates to politics, and friendship as a spiritual experience. He peppers his text with examples from both real life and pop culture, and simultaneously links it to the works of philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Foucault, Kant and Aquinas.

He paints a portrait of the ancient world that shows clearly how civilisation once valued friendship, though official structures, language patterns and customs, in ways it now does not; and calls for us to reconsider, as he has retitled his book, the meaning of friendship.

Why is it that modern society has no public means of recognising the bonds formed between friends, a fact that is in stark contrast to the family, which is celebrated as the very basis of community? Surely friendship plays a vital part in that too … it is not just that friendship is not recognised in society, whereas family is, but that the particularity of friendship can often be regarded as a threat to the unconditional love that is supposed to reign within the family too. Why else do individuals somehow feel they must renegotiate a long-term friendship when their friend gets married? Or, to put it another way: is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife – ‘forsaking all others,’ as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.

This is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. For all Kant may wish it, and ethical discourse may ignore it, friendship will not cease. Aristotle’s intuition is right: it has to do with self-love, and it is certainly partial, but it is also undoubtedly necessary for a happy life. Moreover, if friendship is rising back up the agenda of people’s personal commitments, as marriage reforms and other institutions of belonging become less reliable, then an ethical discourse that takes friendship seriously is needed, not least to provide some structure for people who want to make the most of it. Friendship will always be full of ambiguities. We’ve established that by now. But that does not mean it is not possible to think through them and welcome friendship as a key, if complicated, facet of life – which, after all, is only complicated itself.

As Vernon outlines, friendship has been a topic largely ignored by most philosophers. Many of the philosophers he references in depth here are a product of those ancient times in which friendship was valued more highly. This means his book is not only justified as an unprecedented study but that he has also been able to have a jolly good stab at assembling the gist of it all in one book of modest length. For a philosophy fan it will no doubt be a valued addition to the library as its subject matter, as well as the approach through a modern lens, is unique.

Note I say philosophy fans and not people like me, with gnat-like attention spans.

I consider myself a charming blend of literary snob and member of the unwashed masses. I like books with corpses or explosions or humour or if they are Serious Literary Fiction I like them to have stunningly beautiful prose. I am reluctant with documentaries, nonfiction or even things that smell of them, such as satire, to the point I even hesitated on the very funny New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows because I thought it might be too realistic for Sunday entertainment. But I do enjoy the nonfiction I end up consuming from time to time – recent examples being tiny house movement documentary Tiny and Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought. Point is, surely I can’t be alone in finding both ancient history and philosophy a hard slog, and now I’m no longer a pretentious 20-year-old who carries around a Nietzsche tome she is unable to finish, I can admit it.

By the middle of Vernon’s book my interest has flatlined and I fight my way to the final chapters rather grimly, cursing not Vernon or his subject matter but the book’s clever marketing that has led me to buy it in the first place (PRETTY COLOURS). It’s not difficult as such, thanks to Vernon’s engaging style, but I must say I don’t plan to pass it on to anyone I know unless they have a burning interest in the subject.

Having said that, the last do raise some intensely interesting topics, exploring far-reaching and fascinating histories of gender and same-sex relationship issues, and this has cheered me up a little by the time I embark heroically upon the conclusion. Here, Vernon has somehow travelled through time and space and seen my boredom and secret wishes for a fluffy self-help book, because his final chapter, Friendship Beyond Self-Help, draws to the heart of why he has written a book of philosophy.

Perhaps the key to a fulfilled life is not to be self-centred but other-centred, to lose yourself in order to find it. That’s a common religious sentiment, and it’s one attested to by the experience of friendship too. Aristotle has a particularly powerful account of it, when he talks of the friend being another self, the person in whom you not only see yourself reflected but in who you discover yourself. There is no being human on a desert island, any more than there are such things as solitary ants. The good life is the attempt to live for others in life. As Iris Murdoch has it, love is ‘the painful realisation that something other than myself exists.’
This perhaps partly explains why there is no end to self-help books. They are condemned to struggle with this conundrum – they solution they offer – attend to yourself – is actually part of the problem.

Consider me chastised!

Keep or Kill? I’m not going to re-read it, so unless someone of a more academic bent than me wants it, it’s going on the No Pile. 

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 17: The Wife Drought – Why Women Need Lives and Men Need Wives (Annabel Crabb, 2014)

Books left: 9. Weeks left: 14 (it’s when the first number gets higher than the second that we’ll really need to start worrying. Until then, so far so good). 

the wife droughtNow, I know we’re up to Q, but I didn’t have any Q authors so thought I’d substitute this as it was a Christmas present from the Matriarch and I could actually review a contemporary, relevant title.

Just to shock you all.

I have been a hopeless Annabel Crabb fan-girl ever since I discovered her work while knee-deep in my journalism postgrad. The seasoned political columnist and host of ABC show Kitchen Cabinet is the only writer I know who can so successfully pair politics and humour, so when I heard The Wife Drought was coming out, I swallowed my characteristic queasiness about non-fiction and wrote it down on my wishlist.

I think Leigh Sales puts it rather well in this interview she did with Crabb:

LS Between your television show, newspaper columns, radio appearances, and raising your three children, you’ve now written a book, The Wife Drought. When are you going to get off your lazy bum and actually do something with your life?

My excitement to hear about Crabb’s nutso productivity was nothing to the excitement that built after I started the book. Finally someone was putting numbers and facts to my own beliefs and anxieties on the subject of women and work, and by some miracle, doing so amusingly. Central to the book is an investigation of the social construct of a ‘wife’ as not necessarily a man or a woman, but any partner who draws back on work responsibilities in order to run the couple’s household and/or family and enable the other partner to work. Crabb argues that any professional man or woman in possession of a ‘wife’ has a powerful economic and social asset backing their career. It just so happens that it’s usually the men who get wives, and women don’t get this luxury.

Crabb manages to both talk about the reasons for this without simplifying them into the two baskets she says explanations usually fall into – ‘women are hopeless’ and ‘men are awful’ –  and, moreover, says the end result is that it’s not just women who are missing out.

The book faced some criticism after its release for not adding much in the way of solutions to the debate surrounding this subject, criticism any book on this subject would probably face. But I would argue it rounds out the discussion in an unprecedented way by not only focusing on what women are losing out on, but on what men are losing out on too. Crabb illuminates a subject rarely spoken of – the barriers, both official and unspoken, that prevent men from adjusting their lives to take part more fully in family and home life. It turns out that men who would like to adjust their working lives after they have children are less likely to ask – and if they do, they’re less likely to be told it’s OK.

Crabb sets her solid base of compelling social research in the context of the unique perspective her life as a political journalist has afforded her – the revelations about some of the country’s most high-powered men and women and how they approach work-life balance, or lack thereof, are fascinating. Topping off this powerful mix are wry and frequently hilarious observations from Crabb, a mother of three in a dual-income household. Together, this combination of historical context, modern insight and personal experience makes the book a slam-dunk portrait of what the ‘wife drought’ is – and why we need to talk about it.

By writing this Crabb has cemented her place in my heart as the Terry Pratchett of Australian politics and society. I have an almost pathological fear of non-fiction (despite hoarding an entire bookcase full of the stuff) but I speed through this in days and, believe it or not, giggle out loud for much of it.

I feel I have hardly done justice to the level of insight in this book and cannot overestimate its importance. Women should read it, but men should read it too – and what’s more, they’ll like it.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac

So. I know it’s been six months, but I can explain.

The Ministry and I got married.

Turns out getting married is really, really, really time-consuming and turns you into a crazy banshee unable to form coherent thoughts, let alone write them down.

But it also turns out that being married, especially to someone as awesome as the Ministry, is really, really, really great and spending a year becoming a banshee is totally worth it.

Anyway, back to the blog! I promise I won’t leave you again. Probably. And to celebrate (plus give my new carefree life meaning) I have decided to embark on an Ambitious Project. Think Julie and Julia, but books instead of cooks, huhuhuhuhuh.

Many lit-fic. Much sci-fi.

Many literary fiction. Much sci-fi novels.

 

Many a year ago I worked at a well-known secondhand bookshop in Perth (more about that never) and there was such a stream of delicious, quirky literature streaming under my nose, and all so stupidly cheap, that I quickly amassed a novels collection of epic proportions.

Multiple children's and young adult classics. Major crime.

Multiple children’s and young adult classics. Major crime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oops. How did those get there.

Oops. How did those get there.

 

 

After that, I worked at a specialist non-fiction and technical bookshop, another Perth institution, and despite being someone who only rarely reads non-fiction, I now also have a fabulous collection of non-fiction too.

 

 

 

 

Result: moving house (think I have moved 4 times since then in about 10 years, jeez, talking in decades makes me feel old) became something of a challenge, with me turning into a creature that looks like one big cardboard box with staggering legs for the duration of each move.

So when the Ministry and I bought and moved into Shell Cottage, nearly a year ago (we like to pile stressful life events All On Top of Each Other) I was quite ruthless and got rid of a lot of books so as to avoid the staggering, and also Shell Cottage is very small, though lovely, obviously.

So now instead of a knee-replacement causing, eye-popping, sky-fallingly excessive book collection, it’s just a bit excessive (pictured). The problem is, I now can’t ever justify buying any more books ever again because there is Simply No Where To Put Them because All the Wheres Are Already Stacked with Books. And that’s no way to live.

Plus I have never had time to read all of them, despite what my Best Efforts (stupid Real Job) so despite my careful honing, re-prioritising and general optimization into the coolest collection ever, sadly, I have still only read perhaps two-thirds of my prized babies.

I was going to tell you that I was going to read them all in a year, but then worked out that even if I read a book a week, it would still take five years (and that’s just counting the novels).

So I’m going for a slightly less insane project – I’m going to read an alphabet’s worth. One year, 26 letters in the alphabet, one book from every author in the alphabet – e.g. one Margaret Atwood, one Clive Barker, one Italo Calvino, etc.

And I will try – I swear it – to get rid of the ones that I don’t, er, really need to keep.

Not sure what I will do with the slightly less awesome books, perhaps leave them on benches at bus stops to Edify the Masses. Because they will still be GOOD books, as my taste is impeccable, obviously.

So please join me as I make a little space, be the best read person in the universe, and Edify the Masses.

It’s win-win!

First post coming soon…

Turbo Blog

  • The Sending: The Obernewtyn Chronicles, Book 6 (Isobelle Carmody, 2011)

I might have to read this again from the beginning before the last and final book in the Obernewtyn series comes out. I just dont think I can wait long enough for my appetite for this series to be sated. I think I got the first book in the series nearly 20 years ago, and it speaks volumes about the quality of the writing and the plots that I enjoy it as much, if not more, now.
Of course the books have gotten bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and could now double as weapons, or crook-stoppers, as the Ministry calls them.
I confidently predict that even those who don’t get into fantasy would love this epic post-apocalyptic series.

  •  Gabriel Iglesias’ Stand-Up Revolution (Astor Theatre, October 14, 2012)

Phwoar. This guy is not the world’s most You-Tubed comedian for nothing. If you do nothing else today, Google Fluffy and be prepared to laugh your ass off.
This show was more like a rock concert than a stand-up gig – Fluffy’s support acts were awesome, and then the main act, the lovably obese Latino himself, ran nearly an hour over. He ended up talking until his on-stage “reminder” clock ran out at 99 minutes, at which point he giggled and happily pulled its plug out.
Then, and only then, did he stop with the brand-new material and obligingly do all the fans’ most beloved routines, which they deafeningly requested then nearly sang along with everypunchline.
It was a powerful, positive, bizarrely touching event to be a part of, and I laughed until I nearly passed out.

  • Dark Shadow (2012)

Tim Burton’s latest (I think) offering would surely be a deep disappointment to any fan of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas. Noticeably lacking the dark, disturbing quality of his earlier work (even his relatively recent work, like Willy Wonka), the movie is stylish but shallow.
It’s not stylish enough to be watchable purely as eye candy, and it’s too shallow to be enjoyed even as B-grade fluff. Johnny Depp is peculiarly lacklustre, and even his visual gags about being an ancient vampire struggling to understand a modern-day society are barely enough to raise a snicker.
The villain is so two-dimensional and lazily thought-out she is ridiculous, without any feelings or motivations except a deeply irrational desire to be loved despite being a murderous witch.
Only bother watching this if you are so hungover you can’t get off the couch and change it to something else.

The Dig Tree (Sarah Murgatroyd, 2000)

This is the book I’ve been intending to read ever since it was recommended to me by DOELD after I read, and raved about, The Supply Party by Martin Edmonds (see post below).

Where that book was about a particular, largely forgotten part of the famously ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, this is basically the ultimate history of the entire thing.

A sadder, stranger tale it would be difficult to come across.

Sarah Murgatroyd has a peculiar sympathy for the peculiar character of Burke, a man so spectacularly unsuited to the role of outback explorer – as she details – it is hard to believe she speaks the truth.

But she does, and the book’s precise detail and fat bibliography attest to Murgatroyd’s painstaking and extensive research.

Despite this, it has the nail-biting, absorbing qualities of a suspense novel, once you are firmly into it.

It is a testament to her humanity and obvious affinity with the tale that she manages to humanise the – frankly, horrible-sounding – Robert O’Hara Burke.

I was as profoundly affected by this book as I was by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a revolutionary kind of journalism, and Peter Carey’s historiographic metafiction (sorry, university moment) True History of the Kelly Gang.

The latter is a novel, but one rooted in fact and with its style drawn directly from Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter.

It is worth noting such similarities between these works, all incredibly memorable, disturbing and suberbly crafted, and between the feelings they have the power to create in the reader.

I needed a good hour staring quietly into space after turning the final page.

I will be entreating everybody I know to try this book. Stick with it and you will soon be unable to tear yourself away.

My only regret is that I didn’t read it the first time I was told to.

The Supply Party (Martin Edmond, 2009)

Part biography, history and travel narrative yet surpassing all in sum, Martin Edmond’s story of the Burke and Wills expedition is told through the life and death of its scientist, naturalist, collector and artist, Ludwig Becker.

Reflective and atmospheric, Edmonds’ descriptive work fleshes out the human side of Becker and the expedition and teases out the tragedy at the heart of what I previously thought of as a rather dry story, told to death.

Snippets, anecdotes and quotes taken from Becker’s notes illuminate the atmosphere and humanity (both good and bad) Edmonds picked from the story’s bones. Edmond makes Becker real and immediate, so much so that by the end I really don’t want to hear the rest; for it’s not a particularly happy story.

Nevertheless I am compelled to go on.

Now it has taken a place in my mental collection of haunting representations and stories: alongside Sidney Nolan and Peter Carey’s Ned Kelly; Capote’s In Cold Blood; and Joan Lindsay and Perer Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Past and present blend as the narrative alternates between Burke & Wills’ expedition and that of the author following, albeit much more safely, in their footsteps years later.

The land he is seeing draws the author’s thoughts repeatedly back into the story of the doomed expedition, and one of Edmond’s major achievements is to give you a sense of not only what the land looks like today and how it looked 150 years ago, but 50 000 years ago before he, Ludwig, Burke or Wills ever walked upon it.

A finely worked sense of ominous inevitability grows in the reader as we hear the now-familiar details of the party’s demise.

Discord grows between the dwindling numbers of men in the party. Gradually, and necessarily, they discard the camels, trackers, people, other supplies and hundreds of litres of rum which were catalogued with such pride at the journey’s beginning.

Becker is eventually required not for his artistic services but for the extra pair of hands that may make the difference between life and death. He is forced to leave behind the careful records, the tasks and equipment that constituted both his life’s work and his purpose for being on the expedition.

Edmonds draws a vivid, heartbreaking picture of Becker: ill, injured, bullied by the sadistic Burke and forced to make his observations and artworks at night. His love of his work, and unshaking commitment to it, is fully realised as we are shown the completeness of his exhaustion yet his absolute determination to continue with his mission as long as he is able to pick up a pencil.

The uniqueness of this book is its marriage of the human story with art history; Edmonds clearly has a deep respect for Becker’s artwork. I was as affected as he by the uniqueness of the work, which Edmond describes as in the tradition of miniaturing and portraiture – mixing scientific precision and detail, yet illuminating its subjects with whimsical, the fantastic and the grotesque.

In this crucial aspect the book is let down by its publication in trade paperback with a few measly reproductions in the centre, so small that the reader is forced to read the words and use the pictures as a sort of imaginative aid to help fill in details and colours described and vitally important to the story thematically, yet invisible in the versions shown.

I would love the opportunity to buy this in a coffee-table, hardcover format, with full-page glossy reproductions and more illustrations taken from Becker’s notes, already so painstakingly sourced by Edmond.

As Edmond’s background to this process recounts, he says to the librarians who want to know why he wants to access Becker’s jealously guarded sketchbook and poorly lit paintings that there is no substitute for seeing the originals. And why block access to art the public doesn’t know or care about anyway?

Therefore, it is a shame the scale and pathos of these rare reproductions weren’t given justice, though I recognise the market for such a book would be almost negligible.

To give the art community access to a book that rests firmly in the Australian history section would achieve Edmond’s goal far better – to give Becker his rightful place and recognition in art as well as history. As it is, the book is forced to be less than it was originally capable of, much like Becker at the close of his journey.

Yet this cannot undermine the subtle, scholarly elegance with which Edmond has written his elegy; it will certainly remain in my consciousness, as will Edmond himself.