The Blurred Line Between Life and Story

Radiance
Catherynne M. Valente
Hachette
March 2016

Radiance_smHeadline news 1858: Conrad Wernyhora and Carlotta Xanthea launch a rocket, by cannon, into space. By cannon! Can you imagine anything more majestic, more magnificent, more momentously transcendent, than space travel via cannon? The world of Radiance is not the world we know, bound by practical concepts of physics and fusion, but the fantasy of a world we wish could have been. It takes Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and asks, “What if?” We step back in time, mid-1800s, when the technology of modernity started to bloom. A few tweaks, a snip here, a mod there, and we step forward again.

Behold, the moving image!, but now Hollywood has colonised the moon, and the planets and remaining satellites wave the national flags of pre-WW1 powers. An enforcement of patent law means that colour film and sound have never caught on, and a vaudevillian aesthetic permeates the cultural form. To say that Radiance is set in a sumptuous, theatrical solar system of luscious impossibilities is to put it lightly. Continue reading

Space Zombies!

Illuminae
The Illuminae Files_01
Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Allen & Unwin
October 2015
$19.95

Illuminae_smIlluminae is a visual wonder piece of science fiction narration. It straddles the undefined landscape between novel and graphic novel in a way that is almost cinematic in its execution. Rather than a story told in a series of words, what we have are words presented as in a dossier; “found” documents (e.g., chat room logs, mission reports, narrated surveillance footage) that show the bloody unfolding of one corporation’s ruthless attack on another. We’ve stumbled upon someone’s dirty little (well-documented) secret, the kind of dirty secret that the most cynical of us assume that all corporations must have, and we can only hold our breathe as the carnage accelerates, and ask, “Will they get away with it?”

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Social Fabric of New York

Humans of New York: Stories
Brandon Stanton
Macmillan Australia
October 2015

HONYStories_smIf there’s one thing that Humans of New York: Stories makes clear, it’s that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. And while, yes, this is something that each of us knows, on an intellectual level, applies to every one of us, it can nevertheless cause a quiet unraveling in the confidence of self to read snippets of people’s stories, their everyman journey, and witness the illusion of gravitational pull they perceive of their own life. Because, once you see it, laid out on the page, you then become increasingly aware of the illusion that exists within your own perception, and gravity begins to loosen, and you begin to drift.

To go one step further, Humans of New York: Stories is, perhaps unintentionally, a fascinating glimpse into the construction of self that we all experience throughout our life. Continue reading

One Sheep, Two Sheep…zzz

Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad
Richard Stephens
Hachette Australia
July 2015

BlackSheep_smUnfortunately, Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad is a book entirely deserving of the shadowy mist of obscurity. It’s hard to think of another popular science book so disorganised. Richard Stephens is so enamoured to show us the hidden benefits of being bad, that he writes a book filled with flawed research, unsupported conclusions, referencing that wouldn’t get through a first year lab report, and dumbed down explanations of scientific concepts (“This is what we call replication”). No doubt he’s a man who can sell himself; it’s just a shame he seemingly can’t deliver. Being bad? ‘Bad’ has more than one meaning, and Richard Stephens may not have achieved the sort of bad he wanted to.

On the surface, Black Sheep pulls us in with the promise of vice justified. There’s a certain cool factor associated with bad behaviour; it embodies defiant rule breaking in opposition to social norms that try to constrain and define us. By being bad we signpost our independence. After all, don’t we know that those who break the rules are ultimately the ones who change the world? There’s something seductive about the idea; that small, everyday bad behaviour is simply a precursor to wider participation in the great waves of social, organisational and technological change. Continue reading

We Built This City

Creating Cities
Marcus Westbury
Niche Press
September 2015

creatingCitiesRenew Newcastle is one of those ideas that hits you in the face like a wet fish; you didn’t see it coming and now you’re suddenly quite alert. It’s the simplicity of the idea that is so striking; if your city is full of empty spaces then fill those spaces with art. Creating Cities takes us through the formation of an idea that rallied against the assumption that city planning was a top-down process, and showed that community and a bit of unconventional thinking could achieve what years of strategic planning could not.

In the early 2000s, the once-industrial city of Newcastle was facing high unemployment and streets of empty storefronts. Through a quirk of property valuation, it was better for owners to keep storefronts empty than to rent below market rate. The presumed solution to Newcastle’s revitalization was to invest and develop in large-scale projects. But somehow, they never seemed to get approved. And that’s when a small group of arts managers became restless. Continue reading

Get Your Motor Runnin’

On The Move: A Life
Oliver Sacks
Picador
May 2015

OnTheMove_smThe way other people see us isn’t necessarily the way we see ourselves. This was my first impression of Oliver Sacks, eminent neurologist, when seeing the cover of his memoir On The Move. Rather than providing a photo of himself as a distinguished older gentleman at the end of a distinguished neurological career, what we get instead is Sacks, virile, young, muscular, and leather-clad, astride a motorcycle. This is the Oliver Sacks that he wants us to remember, the inner Sacks that perhaps people had began to forget but he never had. There’s a fondness for the adventure of youth before the pages even open, and I found myself needing to recalibrate to the idea that perhaps this wasn’t the story of dogged academic pursuit after all.

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Red as Blood, White as Clay

The Singing Bones
Shaun Tan
Allen & Unwin Children
September 2015

SingingBones_247x189_CVR.inddThe release of a new book by Shaun Tan should be accompanied by a day of national celebration. If the state of Victoria can celebrate a horse race, then it’s not too much to ask that the country as a whole take a day to wave a coloured flag for artistry and wonder. Parades would be necessary, full of papier-mâché creatures. Confetti of reds and oranges and yellows would rain from the skies as if Autumn had come all at once. There would be songs with no words, and random kindnesses between strangers. And at the end of the day, we’d sit around a giant fire and watch as stories unfolded in the shadow of the flames.

Shaun Tan can craft a story in a way that you didn’t know you needed until the manifest form of it was resting in your hand, a tangible thing that seemed to emerge straight out of the ether of endless myth rather than shaped by mortal hands. His stories are small stories (The Red Tree, The Lost Thing), and yet they speak directly to the core of human loneliness and connection. We are individuals standing in a world that is both beautiful and menacing, a shared space and yet so full of distance and emptiness. If you’ve ever felt lost in the world, chances are that Shaun Tan could help you see that being lost is something we all share, and actually there’s radiance in not knowing where you’re going. Continue reading

Social Justice with Vegetables

GREEN VALENTINE
Lili Wilkinson
Allen & Unwin, RRP $16.99
August 2015

GreenValentine_sm

Green Valentine is a beam of sunshine through the dark cloud of cynicism. Let’s face it; fiction these days, and in particular young adult fiction, can be pretty bleak. There’s The Hunger Games, where a totalitarian region maintains order through fear by forcing children to slaughter each other. The Harry Potter series, known for its quirky humour, also straddles dark territory with beloved characters dying during the terror of war. These are poignant stories which allow the reader to ride waves of emotion; fear, anger, sadness; and feel just that little bit more alive, to exist wholly in the moment. But when the worlds we read are always dark they can shape our perception until, perhaps, we then see only darkness in our own world.

So in the landscape of distrust that real life is becoming, perhaps we owe it to ourselves to find stories that celebrate the joy and excitement of life, to surround ourselves by inspiration rather than despair. Which brings us back to Green Valentine. Lili Wilkinson has written an unapologetically optimistic story of finding love, learning acceptance and changing the world, one strawberry at a time, and it’s like a warm shower after a week’s worth of camping in the rain. It could possibly even be the sweetest story ever written. Continue reading

Reflections on Audience Outreach: MWF

MWF-pink_smIt seems like the most sensible thing in the world; if you want to know what audiences want, then give them a voice. That’s exactly what the Melbourne Writers Festival is doing with a series of tools for audience engagement, ranging from arms-length suggestions via a new digital submission box, to the highly interactive Audience Advocate Committee, meeting once a month to discuss possible programming opportunities. What’s so surprising about the whole thing is just how unusual it is for a festival to invite audiences in for such active engagement. Continue reading

Picks for MWF: Louise Angrilli

MWF-pink_smPart of me feels that the Melbourne Writers Festival should take place around a giant fire where we can warm our hands and listen to stories, while shadows dance all around. The festival is a warm place in the middle of winter after all.

We’re one week away from the start of the festival so I thought I’d take this as an opportunity to review my must-see sessions. Predictably, this is a biased list of events that reflects my tastes and proclivities. Feel free to make your suggestions in the comments below.

Eat the Sky: Cross-Cultural Collaborations
Saturday 22 August, 4pm
The Wheeler Centre, Performance Space
Free

We all live in our own self-contained filter bubbles. That’s the way of community most of the time; we connect with others like ourselves. I’m not sure I even know anybody who didn’t vote Greens! But how much of our world view is limited by these bubbles? How hard do we make it for ourselves to understand someone else’s point of view when it contradicts with our own?

Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean is an anthology released earlier in the year, pairing Indian and Australian writers and visual storytellers. Two of the collaborators, Annie Zaldi and Mandy Ord will talk about the process of working together, and time spent across cultures. Continue reading

Granny Against the World

MyGrandmotherSends_smMY GRANDMOTHER SENDS HER REGARDS AND APOLOGISES
Fredrik Backman, translated by Henning Koch
Sceptre, June 2015, RRP $29.99

It can be hard to be different in a world where conformity is the nature of the game. Society has rules, and those rules must be followed. A little bit different might be cute, but a lot different can be dangerous, and “dangerous” people often find themselves kicked and punched and ridiculed as others try to force them into a hole that has no space for them.

That’s why those of us who are different need a granny like Elsa’s granny. Continue reading

Joy and Colour, Oh My!

ADoubleShotOfHappiness_smA DOUBLE SHOT OF HAPPINESS
Judy Sharp
Allen & Unwin, June 2015, RRP $32.99

One could imagine Judy Sharp, small and grey-haired, lifting the heavy steel of a car, straining and breaking muscles and bones in order for her children to be pulled free. Motherly love is an extraordinary thing. After all, lifting a car is a small act when compared to battling the prevailing wisdom of the 1980s; that severely autistic children would never love, never communicate, and never have relationships. When door after door seemed to be closing for her son, Tim, to have a normal life, Judy Sharp forced new doors to open. Continue reading

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