Fighting with a monkey

For the past week I’ve been in an ongoing fight with a monkey. It’s not clear who’s winning.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt author
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

The specific monkey I’m fighting with is Mailchimp, because – surprise! – I’m planning to send out the best author emails you’ve ever received.

Q: Ashley, I already read your website, why would I sign up for your email news?
A: Because you can’t get enough of me? I am very loveable. Actually, aside from the fact that my emails will feature different (and even more exciting!) content, you should sign up because I’ll be doing monthly giveaways of excellent books. You definitely want to get in on that.

Q: How often will you email me?
A: Every hour, on the hour. Or maybe monthly.

Q: Wow, you’ve convinced me! Where do I sign up?
A: If I were winning my ongoing battle with Mailchimp, I’d say you could sign up right here, in this form that I’ve beautifully embedded right into my website. But that monkey knows kung fu or something. So instead, you’ll have to sign up at this link.

Q: What if the monkey ultimately destroys you in battle?
A: I have sworn that, once dead, I will not haunt anyone who’s signed up to my email list. That’s a little added bonus.

 

2018: The reading year in review

One of the few positives of putting most of my life on hiatus due to illness is that I’ve actually had more time for reading.

I’ve always loved reading. I used to walk home from school with an open book, looking up only before crossing the street, and even then only if I wasn’t at a really good part.

When my chronic fatigue was at its worst in 2017, I wasn’t able to read. I’d start a sentence, and by the time I finished, I’d forgotten how it began. I’d re-read the same sentence over and over, but my brain was too tired to both decipher the writing and hold onto the meaning.

I still have days where I’m too tired to read, but they’re becoming less frequent. And because I have spent so much time home on the couch, I actually read more this year. Comparing the past six years indicates how much time I spent at home by the number of books I’ve read.
2013: 20 books
2014: 23 books
2015: 26 books
2016: 21 books
2017: 32 books (gradually becoming ill)
2018: 50 books (ill all year)

It turns out the secret to reading a lot is being chronically ill (maybe that is Reading in Winter’s secret? Or maybe she’s one of those healthy people who just don’t sleep, which is basically a superpower).

2018 reading breakdown
50% nonfiction
64% Australian authors
57% women authors
24% debut authors, of which 22% (11 books) were debut Australian women authors
6% zombie fiction

Australian women authors 2018
Debut Australian women authors published in 2018

2018 reading highlights

Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin (NF)
Having left a successful career in Canberra, Martin is both excited and nervous to spend three years in Poland accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting. Her narrative traces her efforts to learn the Polish language and the unwritten rules of Polish life, as well as the challenges of making meaningful friendships and helping her marriage survive the long, grey winters. Her writing is personable, peppered with gentle humour and introspection.*

Traumata by Meera Atkinson (NF)
Traumata is a sense-making project, or rather the summary of Atkinson’s lifelong effort at sense-making. Interspersing research into trauma, memory and psychology with explorations of her personal traumata – the plural of trauma – she presents an incisive case study of trauma’s effects, how it can compound at an individual level, and how it operates in society. (First published in The Australian)

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett (NF)
Everett spent 30 years in the Brazilian jungle, living among the Pirahã tribe. His book recounts his experiences in the jungle, and his efforts to translate the language of this still-isolated tribe. Through his cultural immersion, his life and religious views change dramatically, as does his understanding of foundational concepts of linguistics, and more profoundly, how and if people from diverse cultural contexts can truly understand one another. Inevitably he learns far more from the Pirahãs than they take from him. The prologue frames his experiences by describing the morning an entire village of Pirahãs woke early to observe a visiting spirit on the beach. They insist the spirit is as present before them as Everett is. ‘Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently,’ Everett writes. ‘I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.’*

Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (NF)
Msimang grew up in exile from South Africa, the daughter of a freedom fighter and follower of Nelson Mandela. Her eloquent memoir of home, belonging and race politics traces her childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her university years in America, and her return to a South Africa that is free but not just. (First published in The Big Issue)

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (NF)
Lee’s experiences, both professionally and personally, make clear the human fallibility and biases of the justice system, and how it is stacked against women. Women and children are often victims of crime in their own homes, and the perpetrators are people they know. But juries are unlikely to believe any woman who isn’t the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who appears chaste, is not on birth control, and is preferably attacked by a shady-looking stranger in public, not an average-looking bloke she happens to know, even casually. And if a complainant is inconsistent in her reports, if she becomes too emotional, she is less believable, even though these are normal responses to trauma. Read the full review here.

Being Shot by Gail Bell (NF) 
Blending memoir with journalism, Bell examines her own experiences, alongside those of a number of other shooting victims, to consider both the physical and psychological aftermath. She also interviews recreational gun owners, war veterans, and police and RSPCA officers who use weapons in their work. In an effort to understand the appeal of guns, she considers their 500-year history and current prevalence in pop culture. Read the full review here.

How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland (NF)
Roland was a psychologist who developed post-traumatic stress after working with violent offenders in the prison system, as well as traumatised patients. This and other stressors, including financial ruin and the breakdown of his marriage, likely played a role in the stroke that reduced his cognitive capabilities. His gentle narrative explores both the devastating effects of his conditions and the steps he took toward wellbeing, including mindfulness meditation. Having suffered frustrating cognitive limitations myself since the onset of my illness, I appreciated Roland’s direct, clear descriptions of his cognitive symptoms. He separates these into three categories: the general confusion of fog brain; rubber brain, the inability to take things in; and sore brain, the physical hurt that cognitive strain would cause, even for a task as simple as making lunch for his children.*

The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver (NF)
Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise. Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. Read the full review here.

Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp
Under the umbrella of contemporary women’s fiction, this novel is part of the emotional thriller genre. Set in Sydney, it centres around two mothers and the realities of IVF and postpartum psychosis. With a quickly paced plot and blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, it’s an engaging read.

*These blurbs were first published at On Writing, from Writing NSW

 

The best news yet

Way back in July, I was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. I’m immensely pleased to share that my novella was selected as one of the award finalists and is now an e-book! It has a new title and a snazzy cover.

A thriller set in 1980s Sydney and drawn from true events, including a series of international terrorist attacks, My Name is Revenge is the story of a young man seeking justice.

My Name is Revenge fiction by Ashley Kalagian Blunt, writer
My Name is Revenge is available from Booktopia and Amazon, as well as iBooks and wherever ebooks are sold.

You might like to read it, particularly if you like thrillers, new insights into 20th-century history, or fiction set in Australia. It’s a novella, which means it’s short as. Plus there’s an essay at the end that delves into the story’s historical context. And I heard you saying just the other day how much you love essays!

You might like to tell your friends about it, since word of mouth is still one of the main ways people find out about new books. You could send them the link right now.

If you read it, you might like to leave a review on Booktopia or Amazon, since the number of reviews a book receives is a key factor in its success on these platforms, thanks to the magic of algorithms. Plus you’d totally be my hero.

 

Pose with my grave and skeleton

NewSouth City Series travel books

Before visiting Melbourne in September, I read Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. It’s one of the City Series from NewSouth, ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’. I’ve spent several years working my way around Australia while reading my way through this series. Melbourne has been my favourite yet.

Melbourne travel book in Melbourne Laneway
Look how almost perfectly I lined up this shot, thanks to the help of a very patient tour guide.

There’s a moment in the book where Cunningham is learning letterpress at a workshop downtown while listening to AFL (Aussie-style rugby) on the radio and taking soup breaks to stay warm. ‘I realised,’ she writes, ‘that I felt about as Melbourne as it’s possible to feel. It was a good sensation, one akin to (but colder than) waking up and taking an early morning dip at Bondi Beach and consequently feeling very Sydney.

This is my favourite description of both Melbourne and Sydney.

Travel to the Nicholas Building Melbourne AustraliaThe letterpress workshop took place in the Nicholas Building. I was keen to visit it because of Cunningham’s description of the three ‘lift operators’ that work the building’s elevators. ‘Joan has been spending her days in the lift for thirty-five years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in a lift like that? It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Melbourne was published in 2011. Sometime since then, the lift operators have vanished. There were no newspaper clippings or photos, and I had to push the lift buttons myself.

Still, I was already inside and decided to wander around the Nicholas Building, which had the vibe of a curious relic. I was immediately rewarded with this sign on a seventh-floor door: The Royal Over-Seas League in Melbourne, Australia

What is the Royal Over-Seas League? I’ve entertained myself by tossing around possibilities for days, and I’ve come to hope they’re the Avengers of the Commonwealth, like the Justice League but British, knighted by the Queen maybe – and I had stumbled on their Australian headquarters!

I was also rewarded when I reached the top floor. Travelling in Melbourne Australia, discovering graffiti

Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem: Graffiti in Melbourne Australia

So now I know what I’ll carve on my tombstone. I’m even toying with the idea of having my skeleton put on a pole, like one you’d find in a science lab, and positioned beside my tombstone, perhaps holding a sign inviting photos. Could be a real tourism opportunity for whatever lucky city I’m buried in!

Being sick, I wasn’t able to do a lot in Melbourne. In my wanderings through the Nicholas Building, I went through the wrong door, got trapped in the stairwell, and had to walk down several flights to exit on the ground floor. The exertion of walking down stairs made me nauseous. And when stairs make you nauseous, that’s when you know it’s time to return to your hotel and go to bed at 4:17 pm.

Still, it was a treat to wander along different streets, sit in different cafes, and catch up with some the many friends who’ve moved to Melbourne. The theme of this catching up was definitely Let Me Tell You About How My Body Has Turned On Me, but that’s fine. I’d much rather people ask about my crazy illness than pretend everything is normal. And I’m slowly slowly slowly (like a sloth through tar) getting better, so I feel optimistic. I know I’ll eventually visit Brisbane and Adelaide and even Alice Springs, and read those books. Who knows what unexpected wonders I’ll stumble upon. ~

PS. The tour guide who helped me out was Local Guide to Melbourne. Highly recommended!

 

A poetry review poem

Review poem of Billy Collins Aimless Love

I’ll confess I don’t read much poetry.
I’m far more likely to recommend Australian non-fiction
or the latest John Sandford thriller, like Buried Prey.

But then I saw Billy Collins on a talk show,
reading from Aimless Love,
and fell for his great playfulness and depth.

Still, it took me two years to buy the book—
so much lost time! What a waste.

Collins reflects the world I know back to me,
its solemnity and humour, the inescapable crush of history,
framing it with remarkable precision:

‘But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.’

I can’t help taking the book to bed,
to sleep with under my pillow
or snuggled against my chest, like a stuffed bear.

And now I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life
asking strangers, ‘But have you read Billy Collins?’
and stuffing handwritten copies of his poems in their pockets.

 

First published by NSW Writers’ Centre