2016 has been an uncommonly awful year, luckily it’s in its final death throes. As we listen to its final hideous gasps and groans, perhaps it’s time to think about how we got to this terrible, stupid place. I would argue that the two underlying concepts that brought us here are lack of education and lack of empathy. You know what you can do to address that? Read more books. Tell your friends to read more books. On that note, I thought I’d write up some of the standout books I read this year; the good, the bad and the weird.
Here’s part one: THE GOOD.
This was the first book I read this year, penned by MacArthur genius grant winner Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s a thoughtful, rich and intelligent exploration of America’s long and troubled struggle with racial injustice. Told in the form of a letter to his son, Between the World and Me is beautiful, tragic and hugely important. I found so much of what he described to be unfortunately paralleled here in Australia with the racial injustice towards our indigenous people. Fun fact: Coates now writes Black Panther comics.
HOW TO SET A FIRE AND WHY
I saw Jesse Ball speak at Avid reader earlier this year and found him supernaturally strange and fascinating. This novel, his latest, is brilliant and insightful. The narrator’s voice and observations are vivid and revealing, alternating from hilariously sardonic to bleak and philosophical. After I read this I picked up everything else he’d written, the man is a stone cold genius.
THIS ISLAND WILL SINK
I was excited to see Lifted Brow publishing release their first novel, and this one did not disappoint. We read this for my book club and I absolutely loved it. It was strange and confusing in all the best ways. I’m thrilled to see more intelligent, complex genre fiction coming out of Australia. MORE OF THIS PLEASE.
Speaking of intelligent genre fiction…I am a sucker for books set in Brisbane, and this one was a real gem. I managed to win a free copy (even though I get a lot of books for free these days, it never stops being exciting) and loved this story set in a strange, supernatural version of Brisbane. Part detective noir, part supernatural thriller, wholly entertaining. Looking forward to the sequel.
I first heard Bryan Stevenson speak on one of my favourite podcasts, Criminal. I found him hypnotic. This book is not just a study of the legal system in America, but a complex exploration of the concepts of justice, morality and redemption. The line ‘each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done’ stuck with me so much I wrote a short story inspired by it (should be out next year, hopefully). Like Coates, Stevenson is also a MacArthur genius grant recipient. His TED talk is here.
One of Brisbane’s best loved writers has recently turned his attention to novellas. The first two in the Wisdom Tree series, Gotham and Venice, were both great but this is by far my favourite. Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between a writer and a gigantic footballer turned professor, I loved the way this story felt both magical and utterly grounded in reality in the same time.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN
I first became interested in this book when I read it had topped the most censored books in American libraries list. This book was banned primarily because it contained drug references, swearing and references to masturbation. This content was judged to be inappropriate for its target audience; teenage boys. Of course, if you’ve ever spoken to or been a teenage boy, you’ll know that drugs, swearing and masturbation are completely foreign concepts to them. In any case, this book is incredible, Alexie is also a poet and this shows in his writing which is in turns coarse and lyrical. One of the few books I’ve read that really captures that strange, bewildering era of adolescence, and in important insight into the numerous injustices and difficulties endured by Native Americans.
ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY
I found Anders’ work through her work for i09, which used to be a pretty great website but these days is pretty average. Nevertheless, I read this whilst drinking cheap beer on a rooftop in Seville, and I would definitely make that a ‘serving suggestion’ for this and every other book ever written. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but the humour was great and I loved the authenticity of the relationships between the characters. It referenced and toyed with a bunch of classic sci-fi/fantasy tropes and it had fantastic dialogue. If this isn’t made into a movie then Hollywood should die in a fire. (To be fair, Hollywood really should die in a fire.)
THE MIND’S EYE
It was bittersweet reading this book so soon after Sacks’ death. I heard a friend describe him as ‘my favourite mind’ and I think that sums it up perfectly. There are precious few writers who can describe complex medical concepts in a manner that is so fascinating and captivating. Also, I learned in this book that Oliver Sacks had face blindness, which I always thought was a ridiculous thing that Arrested Development invented but turns out to be real. The world is a strange and stupid place.
THE BRICKS THAT BUILT THE HOUSES
I loved the way this book examined everyday people in difficult circumstances in such real, palpable detail. Tempest charts each character back to their parents and their childhoods, something which I really think more authors should do, and brings us to their current, damaged states. Probably the best ‘this is the way things are right now and it’s terrible but we could fix it if we stopped being such jerks all the time’ novel I’ve read this year. I realise that’s not a genre, but it bloody well should be. Her album Everybody Down tells the same story in a more hip-hop format. It’s very good, but her most recent offering Let Them Eat Chaos is THE BEST.
I’ll be back next week* with part two: The Bad and the Weird.
PS If you want to add my books to your list, you can grab them here. Killing Adonis is on sale for just TEN BUCKS HOLY WHAT?!?
PPS People always say to me: “How do you read 100 books a year? That’s IMPOSSIBLE!” It’s really not. Here’s a few tips.
*or later if I have a lot of laundry/editing.
Like most rational people, I have a firm policy of telling Xmas to SHUT UP until December. Now that it actually is December, let’s talk about shiny happy things!
I’m having my inaugural happy Xmas/Hanukkah/thankgod2016isnearlydead sale! My last novel, Killing Adonis, is now available for just TEN cashmoneydollarbucks! That’s even less than a bar of Jesus Soap.
Killing Adonis is about to have its North American release, and it recently picked up a Kirkus Star (one of my top five favourite stars, right behind Sirius A and Sirius B). In exchange for 10 measly dollars (please do not send dollars infected with measles) I will throw a copy at you, signed and inscribed however you like.
You can also grab any of my other books. If you don’t love them, I will refund your purchase!* What could be better than a book for Xmas? Well, a robot dinosaur I guess. Or a time machine. Maybe some sort of mystical gauntlet. But apart from that basically nothing.
HAPPY XMAS OR WHATEVER HOLIDAY THING YOU DO OR DON’T BELIEVE IN!
*All refunds attract a processing charge of $50 per book.
Very excited to finally share my talk from TEDxSouthBank! Big thanks to Anna Cooke, Rozina Suliman, Imaginary Theatre and QAGOMA for letting me use their images and discuss their wonderful creations. I had a lot of fun doing this, the first couple of minutes are me performing a spoken word piece about the experience of attending TEDx, the rest is a brief talk about the importance of art, particularly for children. Hope you enjoy it, feel free to share it around!
Working in the arts, you have to expect the odd negative review and the conventional wisdom is to just ignore them. However, I honestly never expected that anyone would ever care enough about my work to call for a boycott, and I DEFINITELY did not think that anyone would ever be demented enough to call for a boycott and write a 1300+ word essay based purely on the TITLE! Oh, what a world of wonders we live in! Here’s my review of Gerald Keaney’s utterly sincere and yet unintentionally hilarious boycott call to arms.
1 ““Poetry is dead!” It’s an edgy and intriguing title for a poetry event on 9th December 2015, part of the Brisbane Powerhouse’s end of year Wonderland Festival.
Your essay begins with getting the date wrong. GREAT START!
2 While the pair’s subject matter is up to them…
Implies that the subject matter of an independently produced performance would, for some insane reason, be up to someone else (you, presumably?) This is deranged enough to be hilarious. Please continue!
3 If everyone is a poet, there are no more poets.
In our incredibly brief online interaction I saw you use this line three times, so you’re obviously very proud of it. Poetry is currently a niche art form, so this is hardly a concern. Furthermore, one of the reasons why it is so sparsely practised is because people are put off by the kind of elitist gatekeeping you’re espousing here. Imagine if you told every ten year old who picked up a guitar: “You’d BETTER have a comprehensive understanding of 19th century flamenco music!”
4 Donellan also claimed his “poetry is dead” byline referred to old fashioned poetry. “In with the new, out with the old!” he declares…
You’ve taken a (wildly exaggerated and inaccurate) paraphrasing and presented it as a quote. I seem to recall Jonah Lehrer doing something similar. Things didn’t work out too well for him, did they?
5 Nevertheless Donellan’s endeavour could have easily been saved. He could have been a little more enthusiastic about discussion afterwards… Along with poetry, he obviously thinks public discussion has died, and it is time for the public to sit back like good passive little consumers of art.
I said I was happy to talk after the show – repeatedly – but that we could not host a Q & A afterwards because we had to pack down the stage for the show which began 15 minutes after ours finished. You really don’t seem to have a very firm grasp of either time or basic social protocol. You aren’t an only child who was raised by some sort of humourless disgraced Slavic royalty in a barn with only your rancorous patriarch and pet woodlouse for company by any chance?
6 Even without seeing their show I can only conclude that it is a mistake for Donellan and Wilmett to use the title “Poetry is dead.”
Easily my favourite part. Basically the equivalent of picking up a copy of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and saying: “I fucking HATE rye, I’m not reading this shit!”
7 They are left displaying only a faux cleverness, and the way the pair has used the slogan Poetry is dead gives entirely the wrong message about poetry itself. For that reason my advice is boycott.
First of all, are you familiar with the concept of irony? Seeing as the only thing you seem to be interested in is your own opinions, would you prefer that we called our act Gerald Keaney and the Gerald Keaneys? Because unfortunately that name is already taken by some deranged narcissist. In any case, even if you think it’s a terrible title, calling for a boycott is definitely overkill. What next, call for a ban on poetry readings in a library ? Oh wait, I see you already did that.
8 YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW. I realise I mentioned this already, but I felt it was such an important point that it was worth repeating.
In conclusion: if this is a mislabeled piece of fiction written from the perspective of a character who is a petty, ageing punk who indulges in writing petulant rants and dressing them up as rambling, incoherent academic critique then congratulations, you’ve nailed it!
However, if this is actually a sincere essay, it gets a solid F+. The ‘+’ is awarded on the off-chance that you really are an only child who was raised in a barn with only your rancorous patriarch and pet woodlouse for company. Perhaps next time you could try typing with both hands?
I’m tremendously excited to be have worked on The Theory of Everything as a part of the Brisbane Festival. The director, Thomas Quirk, produced one of my all time favourite theatrical works, The Raven, which was an interactive performance piece about Edgar Allen Poe. It also starred one of my best friends, the supernaturally brilliant actor Erica Field. It’s an honour to be working with Thom on this show, alongside other amazing theatre folk like Yvette Turnbull and Marcel Dorney. When I was in my early twenties, I had a massive band crush on his group Flamingo Crash, so it’s rewarding and bizarre to be collaborating with him on this project.
For this show I was asked to write a bunch of loosely connected vignettes on subjects including physics, philosophy, love, death, elf magic and tentacle porn. Brisbane Festival shows always sell quickly, Friday night is already sold out and Wednesday is nearly gone as well so if you want to come along you should clickety click here. There are also tons of other amazing shows and some great multi-ticket deals. Check it out!
Look, I’m old school about these things. I know I could go to comic book conventions and try and ‘network’ and all that jazz but it just feels awkward and unnatural. I’d rather spend my time eating all the delicious buffet food that the actors take for granted and try to explain to security guards that yes, actually, I am supposed to be in the VIP area and no I’m not a Moby lookalike.
Wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah. I NEED AN ARTIST. Not an ‘I made a sculpture out of my hair and threw it at my laptop as a protest against data retention‘ artist, an artist who draws things. Specifically comic shaped things. The story in need of the aforementioned art skills is called the Eternal, and it charts the adventures of O aka Orion/Ophelia/Omid/Orchid/Olof and a few other aliases as they travel alongside a Goddess who has lost memory of her divinity, the two of them used as pawns played by various cosmic forces.
It will be a sweeping fantasy epic beginning in 18th century India and ending in modern day Japan with a cast featuring gods, assassins, thieves, devils and poets (the worst of the whole bunch). It is influenced by graphic novels like The Maxx, Saga, The Unwritten, The Invisibles, Sandman and movies like The Fall, Inglorious Basterds and Snowpiercer. I want it to be philosophical and poetic but also action packed and laden with snappy dialogue.
This is going to be a grand undertaking that will roll out over a few years. I’ve written plays, novels, poems and a whole bunch of other stuff but this is my first time tackling the comic book format. I’d love to work with someone who is also based in Brisbane but then again the internet is a wonderful thing.
My original artist, the incredible Tony Gilfoyle, has had to pull out of the project due to various personal reasons but will be staying on to consult and perhaps help out with later instalments. The sketches displayed here are all his, and ideally I’d love to work with someone who has a similar(ish) style. If you’re interested, you can email me at jmdonellan [AT] gmail [DOT] com and we can throw ideas at each other. Please only hit me up if you are really serious about taking on a large, longterm project and you are a supercool person who is invariably friendly and fun even in stressful situations and you love puns and always gets stuff in by deadline and possibly play drums so we can jam out between sessions to unwind and if you have a helicopter of some sort that would definitely be taken into consideration.*
THANK YOU AND HAVE A NICE WHATEVER TIME IT IS WHEN YOU ARE READING THIS.
PS Re: payment, I’d most likely be looking to split royalties and enter into this as a partnership but I’m open to discussion.
*I am aware that no person this great exists, but it is literally my job to live in a world of fiction.
I’m very excited to announce that the wonderful Microplane has remixed one of the songs from last year’s Poetry is Dead EP. I had the pleasure of meeting Fancisco aka Microplane in Porto a couple of years ago. I was already hopelessly in love with Portugal and visiting this city, home of one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores and the birthplace of port wine, only deepened my adoration.
Microplane’s new EP is based on the idea that ‘planet Earth is becoming a huge “waiting room”. We are spending more and more time seated on chairs, downloading stuff in our mobile devices to help spend time and smiling to touch screens…’ which fit perfectly with the track Mike and I put together for our Cycle One EP. We’re very excited to have it reincarnated here. Plus having my voice transformed so I sound like a philosophical supervillain is pretty great. Also, having one of our songs released on an Italian label by a Portuguese musician makes me feel muito exotico.
If you want to check out the original recording you can get it from Poetry is Dead’s bandcamp page.
PPPS Black flamingo.
SHUT UP! Sound familiar? If you work in the arts or do anything vaguely interesting with your life, you’ve probably had this phrase or variously profane iterations hurled at you more often than you’d like. We’ve all heard the stories of people who move next to bars and complain about the noise (if you can’t figure out that bars make noise, then disturbance to your serenity is most likely the least of your problems). But what about the smaller operations? Indie theatre companies, folk musicians and other dregs of society?
Last year we hosted an intimate theatre performance at our house that had an audience of 25 people and featured three actors talking for around an hour with no amplified music or sound of any kind. It was basically a dinner party with only three of the guests doing all the talking. Our show ran for a grand total of five nights.
The neighbours across the street were furious. The noise, they claimed, was unreasonable. On the night of our second last performance, they decided to protest the disturbance of the peace by blasting triple M at an insane volume. I went over to talk it out and endured several minutes of screaming about the fact that we were making too much noise. I considered raising the delicate concept of irony but decided to pick my battles. I assured our neighbour that we only had one remaining show and then he could go back to his life of staring rancorously at passersby for the rest of his days.
Then our other neighbours – who hadn’t screamed at us but had also told us in no uncertain terms that they thought that the show had been ‘too noisy’ – started renovations. And when I say renovations, I mean they tore away one side of their house and built three new rooms. This went on for around four months, usually starting around 6am (earlier than the legally allowed commencement). When the renovations were finally complete, we all breathed a sigh of relief…until their new baby arrived the following week. Have you met a babyperson before? They can be quite adorable, it’s true, but they also come equipped with advanced sonic weaponry that grants them the ability to obliterate the eardrums of everything within a 300m radius and also disrupt the sonar capabilities of any bats or dolphins in the same timezone.
There are many people (like me) for whom making a reasonable amount of noise is part of their livelihood. When you tell them to shut up you may as well be walking into a restaurant and telling the proprietors to stop producing so many cooking-related scents. Obviously, people don’t have the right to crank up Skrillex at 2am because that’s just fucking unreasonable (and also displays terrible taste in music). But if your neighbours are rehearsing for (or performing) a show, try and show the same consideration that they show you when your goddamn baby screams at three in the morning. Now I know what you’re going to say, you don’t HAVE to work in the arts. Well, that’s true, but only in the sense that you don’t HAVE to have children or renovate your house. Take a moment to think how you’d feel if someone knocked on your door and said “Look, I’m trying to watch Australia’s Biggest Loser Idol’s Kitchen Rules and your child is really fucking loud. You really shouldn’t have ever procreated. Is there any way that you take your screaming progeny back to the babyfactory so I can hear who they vote as this week’s best emotional meltdown dancer?”
Quiet for it’s own sake isn’t always a good sign in any case. If you’ve seen any action movie ever you’ll know what follows the line “It’s quiet….too quiet…” is usually a large amount of bloodletting and/or explosives. Societies that are too quiet on the whole usually have something very creepy or oppressive going on, as shown in this very informative documentary:
If you really want to live in a world where you hear nothing but the sounds of your favourite reality TV show or talkback host I have a solution for you: noise-cancelling headphones. A decent pair will set you back around the same price as one of the many massages you’d probably require on a weekly basis if you spent your entire life being stressed out and complaining about your fellow humans discourteously producing decibel levels greater than a bunch of Buddhist monks on a vipassana retreat.
One simple purchase will allow you to enjoy all of the infomercials and hate-crime inciting current affairs programs you want without the outside world disturbing you. Hell, with these things on there could be a zombie apocalypse raging outside and you wouldn’t notice because you’d be so engrossed watching one of the many zombie apocalypse TV shows currently on offer.