Thursday 29 December 2011

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone is having a great time at the end of 2011. Thanks to all those who have read Excelsior since it was launched only four months ago. It has been great fun to do and there will be much more to come in 2012.

Meanwhile enjoy this tour of some of the world’s most inspiring bookstores. As it says, these stores will make you re-think your kindle, if you do indeed have one – I certainly don’t!

Have a great 2012 everyone!

Friday 23 December 2011

You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead – Marieke Hardy (2011)

During the chapter entitled – ‘Down the Hatch,’ Marieke Hardy asks where are all the female writers who write like Charles Bukowski? After reading You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead I have to conclude that Hardy herself is attempting to inspire a female Bukowski writers movement single handedly. Hardy has filled her memoir with frank admissions of living an unconventional and drunken life in the public eye and all the complications and adventures that come with it. Oh, and it’s also poignant, funny, insightful and clever - Bukowski would have been proud.

For those of you who have no idea who Marieke Hardy is, and there’d be at least some of you, think journalist, broadcaster, confessional blogger , child actor (see 1.46 minutes into this abomination), writer of screenplays  and a regular panel member of the ABC First Tuesday Book Club. Hardy is only in her mid 30’s, so why a memoir now? When I first heard about this book that’s exactly what I thought, in a rather cynical fashion I have to confess. Mind you the fact that she is a total literate babe and that I’m one of those viewers of First Tuesday Book Club who aren’t just in it for the panel’s viewpoints about their latest read – she looks great with a flower behind her ear and she knows it. I didn’t need much more enticement to give her book a go.

The title of this book is apt. Hardy herself and her writing style can irritate people, but ultimately her charm makes her easy to warm to. The book is entertaining in a guilty kind of way. It’s like a well-written car crash - you can’t look away and you kind of feel bad that you don’t. Hardy reveals details about her life that most people would keep as deep dark secrets. There’s the small matter of attending a swingers night out of curiosity. The ensuing tale is cringe-worthy and wildly entertaining and I’m glad she didn’t leave it out. Hardy also didn’t leave out her obsession with prostitutes, which influences her adventures with one particular boyfriend with bad-boy qualities.

Before you start to think that this book is just about drinking and weird sex, Hardy brings some balance to proceedings with a chapter about a close friend’s battle with cancer. There are also chapters about a Young Talent Time obsession and an examination of what it’s like to be a twenty something with a clique of friends, which is aptly titled ‘The Bubble’. There’s also a hilarious chapter devoted to Hardy’s Bob Ellis fandom and how they end up meeting. In some ways though, Ellis ends up upstaging Hardy. Throughout the memoir a nice touch comes in the form of a right of reply at the end of some chapters, offering a significant player in proceedings a chance to respond. What could be seen as an indulgence works well and brings balance to the outrageousness. However, Bob Ellis’s reply is even more outrageous than what had preceded it, and as if she knows this we hear nothing more from Hardy and the book ends with an afterward from one of her significant ex-boyfriends.

There is something fascinating going on here. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead is more than just another memoir. I believe that this book directly reflects the influence of online culture with Facebook, Live Journal and blogs that allow people to live their lives in the public eye without a thought to privacy. Revelations simply emerge online, into the light, blinking and wondering what all the fuss is about. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead is partly a product of this culture, and it is in some way an extension of Marieke Hardy’s own blog that is sadly on a hiatus at the moment. A book of this sort may be beyond the pale for some people. Hardy has certainly left herself open to judgment from both male and female readers. Personally I think that she is a brave trailblazer, especially considering that Hardy often paints herself in an unflattering light.

They’ll be more memoirs written in this style by people other than rock stars (they are a natural at this game) and in the ensuing years there’ll be no avoiding them. Of course there are precedents, with Julian Cope’s memoir Head On (1994) being a great example of an individual letting it all hang out. Head On is perhaps the greatest book about the music industry ever published. But I digress, safe to say that this book represents a refreshing approach to the memoir and I admire Hardy for her audacity.

In that previously mentioned chapter, ‘Down the Hatch,’ a judgmental viewer sends Hardy a Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet and warms her to stop drinking to excess and that it’s obvious that she is out of control due to her demeanour on the First Tuesday Book Club. I’m going to suggest no such thing. Keep living your drunken and adventurous life Marieke, and above all continue to write about it. Marieke, you can be my female Bukowski anytime. 

And now for a female point of view from guest reviewer Elizabeth....

For fear of sounding like a sycophant, I must say Marieke Hardy’s first book affected me profoundly. Her prose is clear and honest, and she shares touching and laugh-out-loud funny stories of love, sex, boozing, loss and laughter. Hardy has guts. She shares her truth boldly and unpretentiously, seemingly unafraid to expose her fantasies and insecurities. This is a book that shines due to its sheer ‘humanness’ – she’s delightfully imperfect and the reader can relate to her self-doubt and laugh along with her self-deprecating humour. She cleverly draws the reader in with her conspiratorial style, which is like a wink and a whisper of “just between you and me…

It’s not Hardy’s style that affected me so deeply. Her book made me feel less alone in the world. I promise I won’t gush with snot-smeared gratitude like an addict in a self-help meeting, but I felt a rare feeling after finishing it. It felt like it was written for me (and all those who love libraries and long afternoons of intoxication). Most popular offerings for women entreat us to swoon helplessly under the power of dashing vampires or yet another contemporary version of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy. With all the popular ‘chick lit’ written these days, there’s little written about the interior life of the modern woman that explores beyond our romantic yearnings.

I loved this book, as Hardy had the courage to write about herself – her past, her hopes, ideas and preferences. The focus of the book is not her romantic relationships, though they are discussed. In the first chapter, she shares her adventures with prostitutes and three-ways – hardly conventional romance! It was refreshing to read her portrayal of female desire, which I’m pleased to report, displayed a complete absence of swooning!

Hardy asks questions I have asked myself – where are the female Bukowskis? Why won’t I pick up my clothes and put them away? How do I behave around children when I don’t have a maternal bone in my body? To me, having been a precocious ‘weird girl’ who’s grown up to enjoy all of life’s pleasures, Marieke’s bold admissions encouraged me to not only accept myself, but to revel in my tendency to be a lush and fabulous individual.

I literally squealed with glee while reading, as Marieke lived my 1980’s Aussie childhood dream – appearing in The Henderson Kids as a child star, and going on to act in, and eventually write, Neighbours. She was even clumsily kissed by one of the Young Talent Time kids! In terms of Australian popular culture, there’s plenty to enjoy in this book.

The stories Hardy shares are no less than hilarious. A word of warning – this is not a book to read on the train. Unless you don’t mind subjecting other passengers to your unladylike snorts of laughter as you read about the day writer, Bob Ellis met his canine namesake.

You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead is most definitely worth the read – for the humour, the honesty, the humanness. These are the adventures of a woman unafraid of adventure, doing what many of us have dreamed but wouldn’t dare attempt.
Perhaps best of all, Hardy reminds us there are stories in all of us worth sharing - if we honor truth, beauty and love. Although she slums the depths at times, this is a memoir and a woman with real class.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Crow Books (Victoria Park, Perth)

When you visit Crow Books you are immediately struck by its great layout, with its beautiful wooden shelves, ornamental rugs, funky posters and stylish leather couch. The ambience is just right, and so it should be as it is owned and managed by the same guy who set up and managed Planet Books. About a year and a half ago he left Planet and created the only independent bookstore in the Victoria Park/eastern suburbs area of Perth. Crow Books sits in the hub of the Victoria Park shopping precinct (900 Albany Hwy to be precise), an area filled with restaurants, cafes, curio shops and stores selling colourful gourmet stuff in fancy jars.

As soon as I entered the shop and found the fiction section I immediately spied a dozen books I could have easily given a good home. I ended up buying three books, but it could have easily been more. This is a shop where you will find the books you have always wanted to read and unknown books that will entice you with their weird allure. Of course there is something for everyone – a cult section, poetry (with some beautiful special editions), art, new releases, lowbrow, classics, music, philosophy, cooking and pretty much any subject your overwhelmed brain can think of.

Crow Books has extremely friendly opening hours, retailing seven days a week from mid morning till 9 -10pm or so (check the website for specific days), which is great going for a relatively small independent bookstore. They encourage extended browsing to a hip soundtrack (they were playing TV On The Radio while I was there). Crow Books would be great fun to visit at night after a meal at a nearby restaurant, which is just the right time to revel in the atmosphere of rows of books and weird animal posters containing strange aphorisms. Oh, and there’s a somewhat macabre crow overseeing proceedings as well.

Why not visit and a support a bookstore that’s pulling all the right moves? Crow Books will prosper because it understands what book lovers want and they are willing to give it to them at a decent price. They'll also give you a 10% discount if you have a RTR FM subscribers card – don’t leave home without it.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

A Man of Parts – David Lodge (2011)

A Man of Parts is a biographical novel. A much maligned blend of fact and fictional possibility that historians have generally criticized for leaving readers with a false idea of history. Fair enough, but if you start reading with an understanding that it’s not meant to be a reliable historical text then I believe that all should be fine. Lodge has undertaken a huge amount of research for A Man of Parts, consulting works written by H.G.Wells himself, including Experiment in Autobiography (1934), correspondence and also biographies of the principle characters and scholarly essays. This gives the reader some confidence in the case of H.G.Wells and his life-long appetite for the joys and resultant dysfunctions of ‘free love.’ Oh yes, and his writing.

Before reading this book I knew nothing about the life of H.G.Wells and I still haven’t read any of his novels. I guess I’m like many people who know of Wells because of his enduring impact on western culture via his early influential science fiction novels The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds. (1898). The 1960 movie adaptation of The Time Machine is one of those classic Sunday afternoon films of childhood that I watched on more than one occasion. I was also exposed to Wells via the million seller concept album Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978) Narrated by Richard Burton, it was disturbing stuff for a nine year old in the relatively innocent days of the late 70’s.

So, what of Wells and his sexual/romantic escapades? You’ll need some endurance, something like Wells had, in order to read this 559-page depiction of Wells’s life. Once you get through his early life then it’s onto the serious stuff of his adherence to the notions of ‘free love’. Sex before marriage, multiple partners and open relationships, all of which flew in the hypertensive face of Victorian and Edwardian morals. Wells’s amorous adventures may upset some readers though, but personally I believe it is a mistake to judge the past, in this case anyway, from the vantage point of more than a century into the future. Wells’s gift for scientific prediction is also, in some ways, reflected in his prescient private life. Wells and his lifestyle would have been right at home in modern permissive western society.

There is, of course, the small matter of Wells’s literary career. In-between relationships with the likes of Rebecca West and Edith Nesbit’s daughter, Rosamund Bland, and literally dozens of other women, you do get insights into his thinking and the many prescient ideas that ended up in his books. He had a prolific career, with more than 100 books published in his lifetime - with essays, science fiction, social realism, a best selling short history of the world (and you thought that Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything was an original idea?) and nearly everything in-between. A Man of Parts is, however, balanced in favour of his predilection for what he referred to as “recreation.” The amount of young woman that treated him like a literary rock star and threw themselves at his well-shod feet certainly helped his cause.

Heady stuff you would think, but the problem with A Man of Parts is that it has a tendency to become tedious. The narrative thrust lies in what Wells did next, who he was sleeping with, where he traveled to and how he dealt with the many problems associated with his radical lifestyle. There are also his dealings with the Fabian Society, through which he attempted to actualize his socialist ideals. These sections suffer from a distinct lack of colour. The letters scattered throughout the text become almost unbearable to read due to the era’s prose style being unbelievably florid. There is some experimentation at hand with Lodge having Wells looking inward and questioning himself with one voice and answering with another, as if he is interviewing himself. Although clumsy at first I eventually warmed to this technique and it helped that it was not overused, mainly appearing in the first section and towards the end. Lastly, Lodge’s writing style borders on the banal, although somehow he gets away with it. Perhaps he wanted the story of H.G.Wells life to speak for itself.

A Man of Parts polarized my book club members – a few detested it, whilst the others were either under-whelmed or enjoyed it but with reservations. I fall into the latter category. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book and it hasn’t made me want to read other Lodge novels, although a few people I know who enjoy his writing have told me that this is not a good representation of his prose. What it has done is made me want to go back to the source and, as a science fiction fan, read the early works of H.G.Wells (I don’t think I’ll be reading his later work - The Bulpington of Blup though).

One endearing memory that will stay with me concerning this book is that during one of the book club sessions somehow all the men sat together on one side of the table and all the women gathered together on the other side, seemingly ready for a debate regarding Wells and his ‘legitimized’ philandering. As it turned out most of women did not judge him too harshly, preferring instead to talk about what an interesting man H.G.Wells was. I tend to agree and as Lodge defines at the onset of the novel, Wells was a man of parts: Def – 1. Personal abilities or talents. 2. Short for private parts.