Getting into complicated relationships, part 2

This post is part two of a list of books that I’ve come to think of as my favourites, most of which I read years ago. As these titles in particular reveal though, my relationship with them is complicated.

Findley

5. Pilgrim by Timothy Findley
Findley is one of Canada’s great contemporary authors. I have a vague memory of one of my bookshop colleagues recommending him to me. I do know that once I’d read one of his novels, I tracked down all his other books. I think they were too mature for me, in that they referenced aspects of history, literature and psychology that I was unfamiliar with. I struggled with them, and in hindsight I’m not sure why I persisted. Maybe because Findley convinced me that writing could be beautiful and powerful and mysterious. Pilgrim tells the story of an immortal man who, tired of living, comes under the treatment of Carl Jung; I found this juxtaposition of historical personalities and magical realism captivating.

~

Maugham6. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
I’ll confess I haven’t read Maugham in years. I enjoyed his storytelling skills and ability to craft scenes and sentences, and went through a phase of reading many of his novels and short stories. This one has stuck with me. I think Of Human Bondage managed to convince me that despite all its challenges, life would be okay. But I think I also appreciated Maugham because, as a young and wildly under-educated person, I felt like I could grasp his writing (though in hindsight, this was only at a surface level). The novel follows a nine-year-old boy into adulthood, exploring the turns of fate he experiences, particularly in his efforts to establish himself in a career and a relationship. It’s considered Maugham’s masterpiece, although he never found critical success, despite his huge commercial popularity. His career in part was a commentary on the various ways of living an artistic life, as this New Yorker essay explores. But I had no context for Maugham’s life or his larger themes when I discovered him. I read what I liked, and what I thought I should read, as if in the cold, empty vacuum of space.

~

funder7. Stasiland by Anna Funder
Living in Germany, Australian author Anna Funder interviewed former members of East Germany’s Stasi (secret police) and anti-Stasi organisations, and wove together stories of those lived experiences and their ongoing legacy. When I was writing early drafts of my book about Armenia, many people recommended Stasiland to me, and so I read it in the context of someone learning how to write. The people Funder meets and the stories she shares are fascinating. Her writing is equally powerful, in the way she positions herself in the story, the way she captures the feeling of a moment. I copied passages of the book by hand into a notebook to figure out how she fit her words and sentences together. My experience of reading it, in the context of the teaching myself to improve my own writing, was different than it would have been had I read it back in my contextless vacuum.

This is partly what I find so fascinating about books, that each reading experience is so personal, that we bring ourselves to the text, not in a holistic sense, but at a specific moment in time in our lives, and that shapes our reading of it.

My new book, How to Be Australian, is out on 1 June! You can pre-order it now from your local bookshop or any ebook retailer (outside Aus/NZ, Book Depository might be your only choice). Pre-ordering makes a difference – those orders help convince other stores to stock the book on its release.

Wishing you happy (if complicated) reading,
Ashley
xo

 

Getting into complicated relationships

Recently, author Walter Mason asked me to share the covers of seven books on social media. The rules were no explanations, no reviews, just covers.

This drove me nuts. I love explanations. I love reviews!

So I’m reprising my seven books here. I chose these books because I consider them among my favourites, though the reasons for that are complicated. Most of them I read years ago, and only now, looking back, does it strike me that they’re almost entirely written by men.

This list is my usual eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, almost entirely contemporary. Are the books among your favourites as wide-ranging? Or do you stick to certain genres?

Sedaris1. Calypso by David Sedaris

Sedaris is an American humorist, and I’m using Calypso as a stand-in for all his books, most of which are essay collections. I love them all. Calypso is his most recent, and most focused, centred around his family’s time at his vacation home, the Sea Section. There, he makes “one tiny, vexing realization: it’s impossible to take a vacation from yourself.” I came to Calypso familiar with Sedaris, his family and their quirks. Maybe this isn’t the book to start with. I’ll also confess I’ve never actually read any of his books. I’ve let him read them all to me in audiobook form, and he is as engaging a narrator as he is a writer. Not all of his essays land for me, but the ones that do haunt me, both for their comedy and for their gutting insights.

~

Ansary cover2. Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

Born in Afghanistan, Ansary is a lifelong history scholar who wrote high school history textbooks in America. Here he crafts the story of Islam, from its origins through today, into a highly enjoyable read. His prose is lively and conversational, his insights valuable, and his love of history contagious. When people ask about my favourite book, this is the one I emphatically recommend. For someone like me who learned practically nothing about the Middle East growing up, Ansary provides invaluable context for understanding the world today. In his introduction, he notes that Destiny Disrupted is neither a textbook nor a thesis: “It’s more like what I’d tell you if we met in a coffeehouse and you said ‘What’s all this about a parallel world history?’”

~

Coupland

3.  Marshall McLuhan by Douglas Coupland

Coupland has been an acclaimed novelist since the publication of his first novel, Generation X, in 1991. In this biography of fellow Canadian and media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Coupland charts McLuhan’s rise to celebrity, subsequent fall from fame, and recent “comeback.” The publication of Understanding Media in 1964, which contains his famous McLuhanism “the medium is the message”, turned McLuhan into “the Super-Marshall of the 1960s”. At the height of his celebrity, he was “everywhere. He was hip and cool … Young people loved him. Talk shows were incomplete without him. … [He sailed on] Greek cruises with millionaires … and [earned] up to $25,000 for corporate speeches and seminars.” Coupland’s perspective as an artist focussed on the way technology changes culture enables him to provide insight into the relevance of McLuhan’s thinking today.

~

Eggers4. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Through high school and university, I worked in a secondhand bookshop. Instead of discovering and reading the new and latest bestselling authors, I read whatever came through our shop and struck my fancy. The title of Eggers’s debut work must have caught my attention. I’d never heard of him or the book, which meant I didn’t know it was a memoir of both his parents dying, of Eggers in his twenties raising his eight-year-old brother. I was also in my early twenties. It was the first time I was captivated by narrative voice as much as any aspect of the story, by the power of the narrator’s language to manipulate the reader through the reading experience.

This post became very long. I will share books 5 through 7 in the next one.

 

Conversations with Friends

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends showed up as a surprise in the post. A friend sent it to me.

Sally Rooney has won multiple literary awards. I’d read her second book, Normal People, earlier in the year, when everyone was talking about it. And while I recognised the writing as brilliant (and so crisp and well wrought, Rooney doesn’t even bother with quotation marks), I didn’t enjoy the book. I don’t enjoy stories about relationships, about love and affairs and divorce and grief. My favourite books generally have at least one murder in them, and no-one gets murdered in Conversations with Friends. Not to spoil it too much, but no-one even contemplates hiring an assassin.

The whole time I was reading it, I wondered what had made my friend choose this book, from the millions of books out there. Even though this book was very much not my kind of book, at the same time it was so well-written it was hard not to find things to appreciate on every page, turns of phrase and insights into the human condition. The main character has embarked on a writing career, and later on is diagnosed with a chronic illness. Many of Rooney’s observations rang true for me. I’ve listed some of my favourites here.

“I had started reading long interviews with famous writers and noticing how unlike them I was.” (Does every aspiring writer do this?)

“I feel like shit lately, she said … You think you’re the kind of person who can deal with something and then it happens and you realise you can’t.”

“Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life, basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.” (This seems especially true this year.)

“After that I put some cold water on my face and dried it, the same face I have always had, the one I would have until I died.”

“I wanted things for myself because I thought they existed.”

“I felt as if I’d glimpsed the possibility of an alternative life, the possibility of accumulating income just by writing and talking and taking an interest in things. By the time my story was accepted for publication, I even felt like I’d entered that world myself, like I’d folded my old life up behind me and put it away. I was ashamed at the idea that Bobbi might come into the sandwich shop and see for herself how deluded I had been.”

“I had the sense that something in my life had ended, my image of myself as a whole or normal person maybe. I realized my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.”

“Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.”

Those last two quotes seem to sit inside me. Nothing makes my suffering useful, and often my life feels like filling time until I get well. I talk all the time about the things I will do when I’m well – running and hiking and dancing, working a normal eight-hour day. Sometimes I see people out for a run and I become so sad and resentful.

I hope the things you are waiting for happen for you. And in the meantime, I hope your friends post you books.
xo
Ashley

 

Podcasts to see you through

As you know, giant sea monsters have attacked our cities. While it’s not clear how many people they’re eating, it is clear that the safest thing to do is stay inside.  Ashley Kalagian Blunt with Eggpicnic artWhile you’re inside for the foreseeable future, you might as well listen to some high quality podcasts.

Lately I’ve been trying lots of new podcasts, and finding it harder and harder to get hooked into something. So you know if I’m recommending these, they must be excellent – assuming, of course, that you share my preference for true crime, comedy, and the bizarre.

  1. Women & Crime
    My latest favourite, this ongoing series hosted by the criminologists behind Direct Appeal (which I shared in my previous podcast round up). Each episode is a standalone story focussed on women “who have been victims of crime, those who have committed crimes, and those who are involved in the criminal justice system through their work.” One episode traces the story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, two teenages from New Zealand who committed a murder; one of the killers went on to become the bestselling crime novelist Anne Perry.
  2. Free to a Good Home
    There are so many great podcasts that offer incredible learning opportunities. Unfortunately a lot of the time, my brain isn’t well enough to learn, either because of my chronic fatigue (poor concentration is one of my cognitive symptoms) or, more recently, because of the world falling apart. So instead I listen to sheer nonsense. High quality nonsense can be calming, and there’s no higher quality nonsense than Free to a Good Home. Sydney comedians Ben Jenkins and Michael Hing, along with a revolving door of guests, read bizarre classified ads and speculate about the circumstances that led to their posting. A sample of one of my favourite ads: “Get paid to kick a guy in the balls!” Like I said, the best kind of nonsense.
  3. How Did This Get Made?
    American actors Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael discuss some of the worst movies ever made, from so-bad-they’re-good movies, like Space Jam and Chopping Mall, to the purely unwatchable. You don’t need to know the movies, though watching the trailer enriches the listening experience. Once again, this is pure meaningless nonsense, which means I can put it on, relax, tune out, and fall asleep. I particularly enjoy the show’s sense of ritual, from the way the live shows open, to the reading of five-star Amazon reviews for each film at the end.
  4. Dragon Friends
    More nonsense: a Dungeons & Dragon comedy podcast. I have no interest in D&D, and heard about this podcast and the Sydney-based live show for years without trying it. But after I listened to all 108 episodes of Free to a Good Home, I thought, ‘You know what would make my life better? More Ben Jenkins and Michael Hing.’ Who happen to be on the cast of Dragon Friends. The story is continuous from season one, with the first and fifth seasons being my favourites. In an alternate reality, where I’m healthy and able to apply my brain more productively, I’m not sure I would have ever listened to this. But as a distraction from the current reality, it’s perfect.
  5. This Is Actually Happening
    While the episodes can be hit and miss, the concept and format of this show is fascinating. With no introduction or commentary from a host, the anonymous guest of each episode describes a personal experience, such as surviving a murder attempt, or having a friend die on a hiking trip, or having a mental breakdown.
  6. Hunting Warhead
    This six-part series traces the investigation of organised child abuse on the dark web, and how law enforcement agencies from around the world are meeting the challenges of tracking criminals without borders.
  7. The Knowledge Project
    When I am well enough to learn, absorb and reflect on new ideas, I enjoy the Knowledge’s Projects longform interviews with experts in a variety of areas of human knowledge. “Through conversations, we are able to learn from others, reflect on ourselves, and better navigate a conscious life.”
  8. Detective Trapp
    This miniseries centres on the lone female detective on Anaheim’s homicide squad, Julia Trapp, and one of her biggest cases: “When a young woman’s body is found at a trash-sorting plant, Trapp learns the murder may be linked to the disappearance of three other women in nearby Santa Ana.” Trapp is well-deserving of this in-depth profile of her life and work.

And if you miss me, you can always listen to this recent episode of The Bookshelf, in which I chat about American author Kiley Ried’s new novel Such a Fun Age.

Take care, wonderful people.
xo

*Bird art by Eggpicnic

Life: Cancelled

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt with rainbow bookshelvesI’ve been really sick.

It’s not COVID, just a bad stretch of my normal chronic fatigue.

Usually I try to find the humour in things. I use humour to cope with life. But over the past few years, life seems to be working hard to beat the humour out of me.

I started doing stand-up comedy in 2015, and was doing it regularly in 2016, just figuring it out. When I told people this, they often said, ‘That’s so brave.’ For me it wasn’t brave. It was raw fun. Even when no-one laughed – and there was definitely at least one occasion where I spoke for five minutes to a stone-silent audience – I had a good time.

Then one day I found myself dreading going to stand-up. It felt like too much effort to get myself out in the evening, to memorise a new bit. So I didn’t go. At the time I thought I’d abruptly lost interest in this thing that I had really loved. Looking back, this is when my chronic fatigue symptoms really started to ramp up. Stand-up was the first thing the illness took from me.

A friend texted on Friday. ‘You have been an expert at social distancing for a few years now — any tips to share? How are things down under other than a TP shortage?’

And I tried to think of something funny. But I couldn’t.

‘Look, honestly, the only tip I’ve got is to understand how much grief is part of it,’ I wrote. ‘If it’s just two weeks, maybe not so much. But if you’re forced to stay home and miss things that you’ve looked forward to, miss time with friends who you might not have much time left with, miss events that you may have spent months planning, grief will be part of it. Naming it helps.’

For the past four weeks, I’ve been feeling too unwell to function, falling behind, then getting just well enough to almost catch up before I fall behind again. I’ve slipped back to where I was about a year ago, health-wise.

Meanwhile, the world has become as unpredictable as my health. Everything seems precarious. Is there any point planning future events? On the rare occasion I’m well enough to go out with my friends, it safe to do so? Should I barricade myself behind a metre-thick wall of toilet paper?

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. For people like my husband, it’s COVID-19. For me, it’s COVID-19 to power of three years of CFS. For you, maybe it’s worse.

I sort of want to give up. Just go to bed, pull my nine-kilogram blanket over my head and stay there until I’m well, until society stabilises. I’m worn out.

Stay well, wonderful people.
xo

 

The Lost Hours Project

This is my fourth year with chronic fatigue syndrome. I’m so much better than I was, and I’m still so far away from reliably good health.

Because CFS is an invisible illness, and because I sometimes post pictures of myself out doing things, it’s understandably hard to reconcile how sick I still am with the public image I create.
Person with invisible illness sleeping
I understand this – it’s hard even for me sometimes. This week I had five very good days in a row, and caught myself thinking, for the ten-millionth time, ‘if I feel this good now, how could I go back to feeling sick? This must be the end of it.’

On Friday I made a list of things I wanted to get done this weekend. It wasn’t an overly ambitious list, just the usual getting priorities organised. It did include a few important things, like working on the copy edit for my new book. I was also hoping to write a fresh interesting post for y’all.

By noon on Saturday, my body was not having any of it. I spent the rest of the weekend curled underneath my weighted blanket. I have no idea how this week will go.

This year I decided to track how many hours I lose each month to illness, as a way of sharing the reality of chronic fatigue syndrome, and also as a way of (hopefully) showing my erratic but gradual improvement between now and December.

I’m doing this now in part because the number of hours will be tolerable to calculate. In the past they would have been too depressing.

In January I lost 89 hours. If you assume the average healthy adult should have 16 waking hours per day, then in January a healthy person should have had 496 waking hours. I lost nearly 20 per cent of the month, and that’s doing really well compared to previous years.

In other words, I lost 1 in every 5 days and I can still call that ‘doing really well’.

The numbers help, because even the photo can’t convey the reality. It doesn’t show the achy, flu-like symptoms, the cognitive struggle, the hours leading up to this moment that I’m still calling ‘productive’ even though I was struggling to hold myself upright, to think straight.

You can follow the lost hours project via Instagram. Whatever else is happening for you, I wish you good health. 

Ashley
xo

Museum of Modern Gravel

Years ago, Steve and I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. Among the works in the modern art exhibition wing was a conical pile of small grey stones, about three feet high. Steve rolled his eyes.

‘It doesn’t speak to you?’ I asked.

‘It’s gravel,’ he said, his voice full of disgust. ‘I can see it in my driveway.’

Now whenever I’m at a museum and see any pile of rocks, I send Steve a picture, so he knows he’s missing out.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt poses with rocksNational Gallery of Victoria, 2018, artist unknown

Xu Zhen installation Calm
Xu Zhen’s ‘Calm’

When I visited White Rabbit Gallery recently, I went with a friend. I was delighted to see a large pile of rubble spread across one floor, and even more delighted when I noticed the pile gently rising and falling, as though it were breathing.

My friend flitted among the exhibitions like a hummingbird. ‘I don’t like modern art,’ she said. ‘These artists do stupid things.’

On the second level, a museum volunteer stopped us. ‘I need to warn you that one of the exhibits here is very graphic, so you may want to avoid it,’ she said, gesturing to the space behind her. ‘The rest of the floor is fine.’

I went straight to the work she’d pointed out. My friend followed a little slower. It was a series of photographs and a video featuring the artist He Yunchang.

He had asked his friends to vote on whether he should have an incision cut from his knee up to his collar bone without anesthetic. They voted yes, by a narrow majority (some abstained).

The series of photos showed Yunchang naked, undergoing the procedure, his friends in the room. He did this, he said, to represent the suffering of the people under the Chinese government, titling the work ‘One Metre of Democracy’.

‘It’s stupid to have yourself cut open while your friends watch, to take pictures of your wound bleeding,’ I said. ‘But if you do it to make others think about something important, I think that’s interesting, at the very least.’

Even a pile of non-breathing gravel is interesting, I think, even if it doesn’t directly symbolise injustice or ruthless self-interest or the corrupting forces of capitalism.

Though if I were a visual artist, I’d be more inclined to create works like Shen Shaomin’s  ‘Laboratory – Three-Headed, Six-Armed Superman’.
Shen Shaomin, Laboratory Three-Headed, Six-Armed Superman
Shaomin envisions a future in which animals will take the place of humans, ‘and the world will be dominated by strange or mutated life-forms.’

I might not have three heads, but some days it feels like the world is dominated by strange and mutated life-forms already, and for some reason we keep voting them into office.

 

2020 resolutions I might actually stick to

Last year I shared a bunch of resolutions I intended to utterly fail at – and that felt great. Failure is a part of trying, and dealing with chronic fatigue makes me that much more likely to fail, since my daily health is so unpredictable. Acknowledging that I’d probably fail at most goals I set in 2019 was actually very encouraging.

Then I skulked off and secretly set some actual goals anyway. And those went pretty well, especially as the year wore on. Every few months, I regain a little more of my cognitive and physical capacity. Some people think that chronic fatigue is permanent, but when I was diagnosed, the doctors told me that most people recover. ‘On average it takes 3 to 5 years,’ they said. ‘Though it can take 10.’

I’m in my fourth year.

At the start of 2020, I made a list of goals for the year. I could have shared them on Jan 1, but I decided to test drive them before fully committing. Four weeks into the new decade, I think these are the keepers. David Sedaris book signing
For Reals 2020 Resolutions & Goals

  1. Have a first draft of the new novel by December 31.
    I’m 40,000 words into a zero draft.
  2. Gradually increase my micro swims to tiny swims. #chronicillnessrecovery
  3. Jump in the pool without hesitation. 
    This will save me upwards of 15 minutes each time I swim. (And I’m already nailing this.)
  4. Read more books.
    Because my daily cognitive energy still has a hard limit, I’ve been prioritising writing over reading. This year I want to increase my reading time, and add to my list of great reads.
  5. Develop my active listening skills. 
    Which means focussing on what others are really saying to me in conversations, rather than just waiting for them to finish talking so I can share my thoughts. Sheila Heen discusses this in-depth on the Knowledge Project.
  6. Ask better questions.

Author David Sedaris recommends this in his masterclass. (I took the course, and then had the opportunity to meet him when he came to Sydney in January.) Candice Fox also mentions it in her Better Reading interview, describing herself as nosy. (She also describes how she came to interview a serial killer, so I feel like she’s someone with useful advice.)

Sedaris decided he’s no longer engaging in small talk, and instead starts conversations with questions like ‘Have you ever eaten horse?’ just to see where things go. I’m not willing (ie. not brave enough) to give up small talk entirely, and the introverted part of me would prefer to go through life never having to talk to strangers at all.

But then I realised it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing resolution. I decided to try asking two or three ‘better questions’ each week.

I asked the fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades,  a type of lemon that taste exactly like lemonade. (I’m going to follow this up in fall, when they’re in season.)

I asked a hairdresser about other jobs she’s worked, and she told me far more than I ever wanted to know about gum disease, thanks to her previous experience in dental office reception.

I asked a Pet-O cashier about people with strange pets, and she ended up telling me all about her bearded dragon, which she hand-feeds.

I’m excited to see what I’ll discover by asking questions this year, and also how the rest of my resolutions progress.

Wishing you all best for your 2020 goals!
xx

 

The new book, out this year!

I can finally share some exciting news with you. My second book will be out this June from Affirm Press. It’s called How to Be Australian, and it’s a memoir of moving from Canada.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, author
In a lot of ways, the book is a love letter to Australia, this charming, vast, baffling country that has been my home for almost a decade now.

When my husband and I moved here, we thought it would be like Canada, but hot. Australia is completely unique, and I dedicated myself to learning about it, to travelling widely and to the ongoing journey of discovery that is being Australian. It’s a memoir of anxiety and becoming an adult and struggling with marriage, but mostly it’s a book about loving Australia.

This summer’s fires have been devastating across the country. It’s heartbreaking. To offer a tiny bit of help, I’m taking part in Authors for Fireys, which means you can get:

  • YOUR NAME in the acknowledgements of How to Be Australian, plus one of the very first signed copies
  • and a signed copy of My Name Is Revenge

To get in on this, you need to go to Twitter and post your bid in response to the original tweet here: