But have you tried eating mummified flesh?

One of the recovery strategies the doctors gave me for chronic fatigue was tracking my step count as a proxy for the amount of physical activity I can do in a day. “It’s not exact,” one of the doctors said. “You could spend a day on a stool painting a wall, and obviously your steps wouldn’t reflect that.”

I haven’t painted any walls since I got sick. But I have tracked my steps every day since January 2018.
Chronic fatigue syndrome 2019 step count recovery strategy

The first half of the chart shows a clear upward trend. The second half gets messier. There’s a lot more up and down. Some days are great. I broke a new post-illness step count record in September. I just never know when I wake up if it will be a good day or a flu-y, brain-fogged struggle.

I have high and low energy (the ‘boom and bust’ characteristic of chronic fatigue) on a day-to-day level, but I also now seem to have it on a macro level. I’ll have six terrible weeks, and then four pretty good weeks. So depending on when you talk to me, I might say that I’m feeling despondent about how ill I still am, or excited about how much better I’m getting. Both are accurate.

What I am feeling genuinely great about is that I’m alive and ill in Australia in the 2000s, and not in, say, Europe in the 1400s, when the cure-all craze was mummified human flesh.

Medieval Europeans believed that ground up human mummy could be consumed or even applied directly to wounds to cure everything from nausea to epilepsy. It grew so popular that Egypt began to run short of mummies, and entrepreneurs in Europe started taking bodies from cemeteries to create their own mumia.

This completely ineffectual health fad went on for hundreds of years, and I can just imagine, if I’d lived in Europe back then, how many well-intentioned people would have gotten in touch with me to ask if I’d tried treating my chronic fatigue with mumia.

And the thing is, I definitely would have tried it.

 

The latest great reads

A while ago, I started a list of great reads. I’m adding new books as I discover them, as well as books I read years ago and loved.

The list reveals that I’m an eclectic reader, flitting between fiction and non-fiction, literary works and lighter stories. I read different genres for different reasons. I don’t hold all books to the same standard. I might recommend one book because it’s incredibly entertaining, another because the writing is sublime, and another for the fascinating perspectives it explores.

Here are the latest additions.

Author Tamim Ansary cover
I read this book the first time for a clearer sense of world history and today’s geopolitics. But it’s one of the rare books I re-read, and that’s because of Ansary’s wonderful writing, his skill at weaving small details into the broad scope of historical events. At one point, he describes a cannon built for the Ottoman army that could fire a 1200-pound granite stone a mile. The cannon was so inaccurate, it missed the entire city it was aimed at, but this, Ansary notes, was beside the point. (Ansary himself reads the audio version, which really picks up on the humour in his anecdotes.)

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Author Toni Jordan cover

I brought this on writing retreat in rural NSW this year, which was a mistake. I kept telling myself “just one more chapter,” until I eventually had to finish the book so I could get back to work.

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Author Vicki Laveau-Harvie

Rarely do I manage to read prize-winning books in the year that they win their prizes; I’m always a little behind the curve. But I’m so glad I read The Erratics a few months after Laveau-Harvie won the Stella Prize, and attended a talk she gave. A fellow Canadian, she is as direct and wry in person as in her writing.

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Author Walter Mason cover

Anyone who talks to me for five minutes knows I’m a huge fan of Walter Mason. His books are wonderful, and he gives excellent talks on a variety of topics. Walter is one of those rare speakers who can take any topic and make it whimsical and entertaining.

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Author Tara Westover

After hearing many people recommend it, what made me seek this book out was Emily Maguire’s reference to it during the fabulous speech she made at my book launch. The connection she made resonated even more after reading Westover’s story.

 

Looking to buy mermaids in Melbourne?

Screen Shot 2019-09-22 at 12.00.05 pm.png
Walking through the Melbourne CBD, I passed a shopfront that had a plastic (I assume) skeleton posed inside one of the glass doors. The skeleton peered out, with its hand on the handle, like it was about to stroll onto the street.

The shop billed itself as a purveyor of “scientific curiosities”. I went in and turned to the first glass display case, a tall one beside the door. The guy working there appeared from another room and asked how I was going. I was saying the word “fine” as I looked at the glass case.

“Fine” isn’t a long word, but my voice caught in the middle of it, and it came out with a strangled upward inflection. Right as I was speaking, I caught sight of a spherical glass container, the size of a softball, that contained a preserved puppy corpse.

The puppy looked like a bulldog, or maybe a bull terrier, white fur with black patches. Its eyes were closed, and it was curled foetally, to fit the sphere. The liquid it floated in was clear, not cloudy the way formaldehyde normally is. (Maybe the formaldehyde – and the puppy – were fresh.)

The dude asked me if there was anything he could help me with.

“I’m just looking. Unless you have anything particularly interesting?” I was giving the guy an open invitation to show me his favourite oddities.

“No, things are just how they look.”

“Right, yeah, I just caught sight of the puppy. Is it … just for aesthetics?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Like, there’s no scientific purpose?”

“Nope, it’s just a puppy corpse.” He paused before adding, “Stillborn.”

The puppy ball cost $495.

The shop is Wunderkammer, and their tagline is “chamber of wonders.” They offer an explanatory pamphlet that notes, “The word ‘wunderkammer’ translates as ‘wonder-chamber’. The term is German, although collections of curiosities have existed in Italy since as early as the 16th century. These were the first museums and housed both the familiar museum fare such as natural specimens, coins and minerals, as well as more aberrant and miraculous objects, such as religious reliquaries, double apples, ‘mermaids’ and the like.”

I regret not asking if they had any mermaids in stock.

Some things Wunderkammer did have in stock during my visit:
– a mummified fox and rabbit in a shadow box
– preserved crocodile feet
– a Singapore ball (a type of mace in which the spikes retract)
– a taxidermied porcupine
– a dissected frog, its organs neatly labelled, under glass
– a ‘Breast Believer’ pump in its original cardboard box (I couldn’t figure out what this was, even after several minutes of googling)
– a Hamilton bone drill
– a taxidermied bat impaled on a metal pole, wings spread wide, mouth open as if screaming (probably because of the pole shoved up its butt)

The last time I was in Melbourne, I stumbled upon the secret headquarters of the Royal Over-Seas League, and discovered the perfect epitaph. I didn’t think a second Melbourne visit could beat that. But Wunderkammer decidedly did.

Then I discovered that Melbourne’s fire truck sirens sound like they’re shooting lasers. Pew pew pew! 

We also visited the Melbourne Zoo, and in talking about it with friends later, learned of two separate incidences of people (men) breaking into the zoo’s lion enclosure.

In 1989, an adult karate student broke into the den in the middle of the night in an attempt to test his martial arts skills by fighting the lions. Zoo officials found what was left of him the next morning.

Then in 2004, a man broke into the lion enclosure during the zoo’s opening hours. The crowd watched him pull a Bible from his bag, hold it over his head, and invite them to join him and pat the lions.

When an Age reporter later enquired about how much danger the man had been in, a zoo spokesperson gave the best official response: “They are large male lions and there are four of them, so I’m sure you can work that out for yourself.”

And finally, my absolute favourite thing on this trip: a barista with the image of an evergreen air freshener tattooed on her forearm.

 

If a snake wants you, he’ll get you

One of my absolute favourite books this year has been John Cann’s The Last Snake Man. I wrote about it for the Newtown Review of Books, describing how it charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century, through the life of Cann and his father, George.

George didn’t start the La Perouse Snake Show, but he did make it a Sydney institution. His sons eventually took over the weekly show, and even since they’ve retired, the snake show still runs every Sunday at 1:30pm in the city’s south east.   La Perouse Snake Show Sydney Australia
There’s nothing brilliant in the writing of The Last Snake Man. It reads like a bloke chatting with you over beers. At times, it can be a bit self-indulgent, and occasionally reveals slightly outdated prejudices (though Cann was more progressive than many of his generation). Put all that aside though, and this is an fantastically entertaining piece of Australiana.

Take this anecdote from George’s days as a snakey: ‘It wasn’t enough to be able to work with snakes, he also had to work the crowd, especially when snake shows attracted more than their fair share of drunks.

‘On one occasion a foul-mouthed blowhard was loudly pouring scorn on the dangers from snakebites, so Pop waited till he was distracted and clamped a harmless blue-tongue lizard on his hand. The drunk started screaming and flailing around, much to the entertainment of the assembled crowd. ‘

Another great anecdote I couldn’t pack into my review: ‘In the old days, some snakeys had tiger and black snakes that had calmed down so much they could put them around their necks or put their heads in their mouths, albeit with great care. Those tricks, which would never be done now, were performed by at least three of the early showmen I knew of – and one of them was my pop … until a black snake bit him on the tongue. His mouth swelled badly and Mum had to feed him soup or water through a straw for days.’

As you’d expect, Cann is full of quippy snake advice, such as this gem: ‘Some snake handlers think they’re too smart for snakes – they’re the ones who usually find out the hard way that if a snake wants you, he’ll get you.’

But perhaps my very favouritest quote is from Cann’s introduction: ‘I hope you enjoy this trip through a rich and varied life. Maybe once you start to read it, it’ll be you who says “he got me!”‘

The La Perouse Snake Show, ‘the longest continuous running snake show in the world’, is now run by volunteers from the herpetological society. When I attended the show, a child sat on the fence, dangling her legs into the space where a live eastern brown snake (the species that kills more people than any other in Australia) slithered freely. The juxtaposition of a deadly snake and a family at ease remains one of the most Australian sights I’ve had the pleasure to witness.

I highly recommend both the book and the show.

 

Surviving small talk with hairdressers

April 26 [journal excerpts]
Sydney
When I finally decided that the broken, miserable tangle past my shoulders needed to go, I made an appointment with a new hairdresser. He’d been recommended as someone who knew how to deal with thick hair. I loved my long hair – pulling it up in a bun, braiding it – but it was exhausting to look after. So I made a special trip to Surry Hills.

1. The salon was very bright and the music loud. One staff person greeted me. Another brought me a cup of tea. A third, a scrawny guy with bleached hair circa 1999 washed my hair. When he towelled it off, he stuck his fingertips in my ears. They were inside a towel, but still.

2. The hairdresser had the shoulders and arms of a weightlifter and the beer belly of a devoted drinker. He was probably late fifties, with salt and pepper hair, a black v-neck t-shirt, jeans and a single silver earring. He cut me off every time I talked, so I stopped talking. The only time he listened was when he asked what type of cut I wanted. He described the sort of thick, wavy hair I happen to have as “one of the evils of the world” and I thought, he gets it.

3. Am I terrible at small talk? Or just terrible at small talk with hairdressers? If you love hair styling enough to devote your career to it, chances are you and I have very little in common to start with.

4. He cut me off even when I tried to tell him that he came highly recommended. It was like our dialogue was on separate soundtracks playing out of sync.

5. He was hesitant about the cut I wanted. “It’s a dramatic cut,” he kept repeating. Finally I managed to convince him I’d had it quite short before. “Some women are fine to get a dramatic cut. Others, you cut their hair a millimeter and they’re devastated. Your achilles heel is very thick.” (Yes, and so is my hair.)

6. “My housemate a while ago was a guy from Canada. He said he was from the US, from New York, I guessed he was ashamed to be from somewhere so cold. One time I asked him if he wanted a margarita. He gave me a funny look and said, ‘We don’t really know each other that well.’
“I asked him what he thought I’d said.
“‘Do you want to marry me?’
“I said ‘No, a margarita.’ He was laughing so hard he fell to the floor.”

7. He stepped away for a moment, and one of the many staff came over to sweep up the piles of discarded hair. When he came back, he said to her, “Oh no, you’ve ruined it.”
“I was just sweeping it into a pile,” she said, confused.
“I was going to Instagram it, but that’s fine, next time.”
“I could put it back, spread it out.”
“No, it was all about letting nature take its course, being organic.”
“Well, I could –”
“No, it’s fine.”
He wasn’t rude exactly, but he wasn’t friendly either.

8. The cut cost $145, and to maintain it, he said I’d have to get it trimmed every 12 weeks. I said I’d see him in a year.
Not out loud, of course. In my head.

2019 update: My new hairdresser has two dogs that hang out in his salon and sometimes I can pat them, and it turns out that’s all I’ve ever wanted from a hairdresser.

 

I am curious about your tattoos

Noosa beach, Australia

August 9 [journal excerpts]
Noosa, QLD

Shopkeeper referring to a whale-watching cruise: “The water out that way becomes chuck city.”
The same shopkeeper: “The best way to leave Noosa with a million dollars is to come with ten.”

August 10
The most Aussie sight: two teenage boys on the pavement, three surfboards between them. One rode a bike, a surfboard under his arm; the other pushed along on a skateboard, struggling with two surfboards at once.

August 11
On Noosa’s main beach: an older woman, maybe 60, with a single dreadlock starting at the base of her skull and hanging down past her knees. It swung as she walked, like a tail.

August 12
Tattoos spotted today:
1. a tiger face, full colour, the size of my entire hand, with a knife sunk between the eyes, the handle sticking out, on a man’s shin (he may has well have tattooed the words ‘creepy as’)
2. three slash marks with dripping blood, almost like the Zorro symbol, on a man’s chest
3. the word ‘serious’ in a cutesy font, not quite cursive, surrounded by little hearts, on a young man’s inner arm. Was he in love with someone named serious? The word wasn’t capitalised. Did he love being serious? Or did he take love seriously? Our burger order arrived, so I didn’t have to talk myself into asking him.

August 14
Waiting for burgers again, a skinny pale guy with shoulder-length hair came in. He had a tattoo that started at his wrist, and in huge cursive letters, ran toward his elbow, reading “Death before dis—”. I couldn’t read the rest, but he was running out of space, unless the third word wrapped right over his elbow. It might have been “Death before dishonour”, but he really didn’t have enough space, so I assume it read “Death before dishes”.

He also has a bunch of roses on his shin, and a cartoon cat face with a knife through the crown of its head, the blade coming out its mouth. What is it with dudes and tattoos of stabbed cat heads? Is it a secret code signalling membership in some sort of club? Obviously not one that actually stabs cats, that would be too obvious. So perhaps it’s men who refuse to do the dishes, and have sought solidarity in this via symbolic tattoos. When they spot each other on the street, they raise their eyebrows and exchange a slight nod of encouragement, maybe even tap two fingers against the centre of their chest if they do so slyly.

I can’t see any other potential explanation.

 

First Time Feels

Two months ago I started the first draft of a new novel, and I’m 16,000 words in. So at that rate it will take me … I don’t know, eight years to finish? But there’s been lots keeping me busy. Here’s a roundup of the latest news.

1. I had a fantastic interview about My Name Is Revenge with author Pamela Cook on the writing podcast she co-hosts with Kel Butler, Writes4Women, and you can listen here.

2. Armenia was the ‘journeys to come’ destination in this guest traveller post I wrote for Catriona Rowntree.

3. My latest book review, on JP Pomare’s Call Me Evie, is out now. This psychological thriller is captivatingly taut, with evocative settings and characters that thrash through their lives with an almost painful authenticity.

4. My monthly enewsletter comes out tomorrow, with a chance to win a copy of Toni Jordan’s new novel The Fragments! There’s still time to sign up.*

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5. I’m appearing on a writing panel with some fantastic Australian authors. If you’re an emerging writer in Sydney, this panel is for you!

First Time Feels with the First Time Podcast
Friday 20 September, 6pm
Gleebooks, Glebe
Co-hosts of The First Time Podcast, Kate Mildenhall (Skylarking) and Katherine Collette (The Helpline) talk debut publication with authors John Purcell (The Girl on the Page), Cassie Hamer (After the Party) and Ashley Kalagian Blunt (My Name Is Revenge).
Come along to a live recording of this popular writing podcast, and stay for a wine and a catch up with other writing folk.

 

*So many people have asked me about this: no, that is not my dog. It’s a stock image dog. He really wants to you to sign up to my newsletter. That’s the whole story.

Thefting by finding

Sedaris Diaries vol 1When I was 14, my aunt gave me a purple journal with Garfield on the cover (the cat, not the president). This indicates how cool I was at 14. Having barely any friends gave me heaps of time to write in my journal. I’ve kept up that habit for more than two decades.

I sometimes wonder what will happen to the diaries when I die. I doubt someone will go back and read them. They’re incredibly boring. When I mentioned this online, author Annabel Smith described her own diaries as ‘right on the boring/excruciating boundary’. I thought that was the perfect description.

I’m a huge fan of American essayist David Sedaris, whose work is hilarious and illuminating. When he came out with Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One in 2017, however, I thought ‘this feels like too much. Do I really need to read this guy’s diary excerpts?’

I was pretty certain the answer was no. But then I got sick for years and Theft by Finding came out in audiobook, and I was desperate for entertainment I could consume while lying down with my eyes closed. I was surprised to discover I loved Theft by Finding. It’s become one of my all-time favourite books. Sedaris weaves in his own story, and it’s actually quite interesting (from working odd jobs straight out of high school in his home state of Carolina to art school in Chicago to huge success as an author in New York). But what really made his diaries was his observations about the world around him. It seemed like a technique worth developing in my own diaries.

To be clear, I think Sedaris’ diary excerpts are brilliant and fascinating and reflect the sociopolitical issues of their times. Whereas mine are mostly things I found entertaining. I started posting a few excerpts. My journals still feature lots of boring/excruciating bits, but thanks to Sedaris, I think there’s a few good bits too.

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May 14, 2018
Recently I was complaining about houses and dogs having people names like Gerald. Today, a friend mentioned that she’d met someone at work whose name is B’rit. ‘With the apostrophe,’ she said. That’s a bit strange, I replied. ‘My sister went to high school with a girl named Haloumi Sparkles,’ she added. I didn’t get a chance to ask if Sparkles was her middle name or her surname, because someone else cut in.
‘A girl from my high school named her kids Tiger and Sabre.’
A third woman among us topped even that. ‘My dad is a pediatrician and he has a set of twins as patients,’ she said. ‘One is called Bladeinjail, because his dad is in jail for stabbing someone. The other is called Captain Dangles.’

May 29, 2018
There’s a huge billboard advertising a space for lease, near my office. It features an image of a cat with a third eye photoshopped into the centre of its forehead. The cat is giant, the size of a car, and its three eyes stare down at you, as if trying to hypnotise you into leasing the building.  I have been looking for a large commercial and/or office space…

June 1, 2018
Saw a man wearing one red sock and one blue sock. Society is really falling to pieces, with our reliance on fossil fuels, the election of Trump, and now this.

 

Book club discussion guide

Zorats Karer, Armenian Stonehenge
A literary thriller novella 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. A collection of essays blending memoir, history and journalism accompany the novella. You can download a PDF copy of this book club discussion guide.

1. Had you heard of the Armenian genocide before My Name Is Revenge? If so, how did you learn about it?

2. How does Vrezh’s life in 1980s Sydney contrast with his interior world?

3. Vrezh acts as though he has absorbed his grandfather’s memories as his own. Do you believe it’s possible to have ‘memories’ of events that happened to others?

4. How do you understand the relationship between Vrezh and Armen? How does their father’s behaviour impact them?

5. Can you empathise with Vrezh’s motivations for taking part in an assassination? How do his school experiences in Australia influence him?

6. Do Vrezh’s motivations differ from Armen’s? If yes, how?

7. ‘I couldn’t condone or even empathise with their methods. And yet I understood their motives intimately’ (75). Have you ever empathised with the motives behind an act of violence? Did this surprise you?

8. ‘If there had ever been justice, it was a fluke, an aberration’ (52). Do you believe justice is possible after an event like the Armenian genocide? If so, how?

9. What does My Name Is Revenge reveal about the past and its impact on the present and the future?

10. Vrezh ‘wonders about the Aboriginal people who might have once lived in the NSW countryside. But he lacks the empathic imagination to connect their history to his own’ (77-8). Why do you think Vrezh struggles to imagine the history of others?
Ashley Kalagian Blunt plus book cover of My Name Is Revenge
11. Norman Naimark argues that genocides never happen in isolation, but are part of an historical continuum. After reading ‘The Crime of Crimes’, do you agree?

12. ‘I’ve studied and written about genocide for nearly a decade. My husband finds this interest morbid’ (101). After reading My Name Is Revenge, why do think Kalagian Blunt pursued this topic for so many years?

13. ‘In my hostel, they told me I am the first Turk to stay there. I’ve heard this everywhere!’ (128). How did the actions of Başak, the Turkish woman who Kalagian Blunt meets in Armenia, make you feel? Would you risk arrest for your convictions?

14. Has this book made you think differently about how we, as a society, remember and understand historical events?

15. My Name Is Revenge includes photos taken by the author. Many of these photos highlight aspects of Armenia today. What do you believe is the intention of these photos?