Reading for pleasure

The last week of my overseas trip and the week to come (in Fremantle for my best friend’s wedding) were and are my final weeks of leave from Uni, so I was keen to sneak in some ‘pleasure reading’, which basically means that I don’t take notes. Nonetheless I wanted to share with you some of the books I’ve enjoyed and am enjoying.

On the flight over to the US, on Halloween, I devoured the second novel in Tara Moss’ Pandora English series, The Spider Goddess, which I’d been saving up for just that purpose. I’m going to grab a copy of the third book, The Skeleton Key, very soon (the first is The Blood Countess). The series is about Pandora English, an aspiring writer who moves in with her great aunt (who looks unnaturally young) in the hidden New York suburb of Spektor. Pandora is discovering not only that there is a secret (and often sinister) world behind things, but that she has some special talents of her own. The series is ridiculously fun, especially if you, like me, are a fan of that dark aesthetic (think Hammer Horror films, or Tim Burton). The books are also partly satirical of the fashion world, while maintaining a genuine interest in style, or glamour. If you’ve read interviews with Moss, or her blog and tweets, you’ll know that for a long time she’s loved the macabre, and that she has a crush on Bela Lugosi. These books are born of genuine interests. I’m a fan.

On the flight over I also began Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, because, as mentioned, I was giving a paper on her previous novel Eat the Document, and because I’d been meaning to read it since it came out. I finished it in New York, and am still thinking about it. It’s crazy that she’s not more lauded, more well known. Even in the US I did not meet one person who had heard of her, and I talked to a lot of bookish people. Her books so keenly reflect aspects of Western contemporary life (though that is too broad a description) that perhaps they’ll only be properly appreciated once the present is past. In Stone Arabia, there is a brother and sister; he’s a musician and an obsessive chronicler, she cries over the news and spends hours googling symptoms. Again, I’m going to point to James Bradley’s review, as he’s done a great job of summing up the novel.

I began Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World on the flight home and already it is getting inside of me, as his other books have. I don’t know how he imbues his sentences with such weight. It’s difficult to describe what this book is about. It’s about people. At the beginning, there are two families shaped by loss. The two boys, Jonathan and Bobby, come together, and grow, and the reader also follows the point of view of Alice, Jonathan’s mother, and Clare (but I’m not up to her yet). Last year I wrote quite a long post about Michael Cunningham, after he’d been in Australia. You can read that here.

Finally, in Brooklyn at PowerHouse Books I picked up a copy of New York Stories (Everyman’s Pocket Classics), and I’ve read about half. Highlights have been Truman Capote’s ‘Master Misery’, John Cheever’s ‘O City of Broken Dreams’ and Shirley Jackson’s ‘A Pillar of Salt’ (a great story about how a big city can overwhelm and ultimately disable you). Most of the stories so far have been along the lines of broken dreams, and a city that draws you in with bright lights but then gets you down or takes advantage of you. The stories are set in the New York of Mad Men and back much further. There are some contemporary ones to come. I’m hooked on them. Though I had such a great experience of the city I’m sure for many it still is a place of broken dreams. Aren’t all big cities? So much promise, but so many people. So expensive.

I learnt a new word while reading this collection. Many of the characters, the down-and-out ones, ate at Automats. I said to Gerard, ‘what is that? Do they still exist?’ We looked it up and it seems that an Automat was a fast-food restaurant which basically consisted of vending machines. Patrons put in a coin and pulled out their wax-wrapped food. The kitchen was on the premises. Here’s a great description (and image) of the Automat. I’m not sure why but the Automat has captured my imagination. Perhaps it could be the setting for a story of my own…

Reflection, Pleasure and Inevitability – a film review of Evening and Venus

Evening (directed by Lajos Koltia, screenplay by Susan Minot and Michael Cunningham) and Venus (directed by Roger Michell, screenplay by Hanif Kureishi) were released on DVD in Australia in January 2008.
When you are in your final years, is there any point in regret? You have made choices in regards to love, lifestyle and friendship, you have betrayed or been wronged, and coincidences sometimes ended in the decline or death of others. The complex interrelations of human beings, as parents, siblings, friends, rivals and lovers and the tragedy of misdirected love are themes explored in both Venus and Evening.
While Venus focuses on the present philandering of a hedonistic old man, Evening delves into the past. Ann (Vanessa Redgrave) is on her death bed, feverishly muttering names from her past. This is a past well before the memories of her daughters Nina and Constance (Toni Collette and Natasha Richardson) whose potent recollections are of their mother leaving for gigs at dank nightclubs and bars. Nina becomes fixated by her mother’s mention of a ‘lost love’ Harris, and the parallels she sees in her own life. It inspires a fear of giving herself to someone who is not ‘the one’.
The sequences in the past begin as an innocent cinematic rainbow. A wealthy friend’s wedding, where Ann attempts to persuade the bride to go after true love. There is also the friend’s brother, her college chum, who is a poetic figure, speaking poignant truths that are tragically stung by the scent of alcohol. The sequences with Harris, the ‘lost love’ are less spectacular. While Clare Danes is vibrant, sparks fail to ignite the screen. There are also unnecessary fantasy sequences in the present, tied in with the reminiscent fever accompanying Ann’s sickness. They merely detract from the tone of the film. There are some poignant lines which are more than likely penned by Michael Cunningham, the brilliant novelist (The Hours, Specimen Days, A Home at the End of the World) who co-wrote the screenplay. One such is the dying woman’s ‘I thought there’d be so many chances’, reflecting on the hope of youth. And Meryl Streep’s stellar cameo as the best friend grown up, says this to her daughter: ‘We are mysterious creatures aren’t we? And at the end, so much of it turns out not to matter.’
The film mainly aims at realism, with small pockets of magic. It attempts a recognition of magic moments in life, but that we must also accept the flip-side in order to appreciate them. The film recognises that there is no such thing as a mistake, that we must accept the fallibilities of being human, and simply do the best we can. Be grateful, just like Lester Burnham.
Venus follows some of the same principles but is generally a funnier, warmer film. Maurice (Peter O’Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips) are best mates in London, both aged actors. Ian is an attention-seeking old softie who becomes very frustrated when his niece comes to stay with him and will not cook his fish. Maurice, an intelligent, worldly, outspoken old perv steps in to show the young (often drunk) woman around. There is some discomfort throughout the relationship. Although Maurice is impotent, he delights in feminine beauty. He tries to teach Jessie, whom he titles ‘Venus’ (Jodie Whittaker) about sensuality through art. Both end up taking from each other selfishly, fulfilling their own confused needs. Maurice is a shameless hedonist, smoker, drinker and pleasure-seeker. Jessie is a headstrong young woman who has been burnt, and finds herself at an in-between.

There are some truly genuine moments – a prostate exam, old friends going over the obituaries, the history sensed between Maurice and his ex-wife, and Maurice’s delight at beauty in both the flesh and natural things like the seaside. There are laugh-out-loud moments as well when the old friends humour each other with witty barbs and sarcasm associated with the inevitability of getting old. The film shows an old man who is still capable of making mistakes, still capable of recovering from them, who displays both the joy and repercussions of living your remaining days as an absurd man, free and honest, unbowing to rules and structures. Peter O’Toole is flawed, human and deeply memorable in the role.

The two films are both recommended viewing for a contemplative night at home. You’ll have a bit of a cry, a bit of a think about inevitability, but you’ll also feel optimistic. You don’t lose who you are through aging, these films say, you simply become a richer layer-cake of characteristics, idiosyncrasies, desires, and perhaps a few regrets that you will reflect on, and perhaps educate others about. Most of all, if you have friends, and great memories, you will be fine.