It wouldn’t be a proper blog without tardiness, failed promises, broken commitments, tautologies, and just generally going AWOL without explanation.
Here’s some stocking filler (it’s already Christmas at Coles):
It wouldn’t be a proper blog without tardiness, failed promises, broken commitments, tautologies, and just generally going AWOL without explanation.
Here’s some stocking filler (it’s already Christmas at Coles):
How satisfying is it when you get to the end of a book? Good or bad, it doesn’t matter – that finiteness gives you a satisfying sense of accomplishment. The extent of your efforts is tangible: the length of the page count, the weight of the tome in your hands. You can file it away in your bookcase, on that shelf for all the other books you’ve devoured. (Underneath the shelf for books you’ve yet to read, but above the shelf for the books who still have bookmarks wedged up their dusty fannies, whom you are desperately trying to forget.) Perhaps yet the most exciting part of finishing a book is the thrill of thinking about what to start reading next.
The Internet, on the other hand, is seemingly infinite. Short of joining an ascetic monkhood ensconced in some remote tropical hills, you will never, ever be done with it. (Even when you die, a cyber imprint of yourself, however small or obscure, will no doubt continue.) Opening your browser is like being Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. No wonder that rabbit was always late – too many distractions down there.
I’m not one of those Internet-fearing catastrophists, no. I’m awed by its palatial garden of promises – even if it doesn’t always deliver the roses. Even if Nicholas Carr says it’s emptying my brain out. And so these and many other reasons are why the love I have for the Internet is a cautious one. Kind of like the love one might have for one’s parents if they’d been a bit lax in their child-rearing skills. Necessary, but not always pleasant or fruitful. Wary, but unshakable.
I get quite dreamy when I think about its utopian possibilities, and more than a little bit worried when I think about all the bad directions in which things could go.
The next few posts here at The Cultured Animal will explore some of those big possibilities – utopian and dystopian, idealistic and practical – that our cybersphere presents us.
I know this doesn’t really count as a post. Sorry, I’m incognito. My pet ferret has borrowed the swivel chair, and this is what he has to say to you:*
1. HELP, HELP! I THINK I’M FALLING INTO THE INTERNET!
2. Do electric ferrets eat Astroturf?
3. You might find the answer here.
*If my pet ferret had really taken up residence on the swivel chair, it’s curious that he should be presently writing about himself in third person. Well, greater minds have failed. Let’s not discount the strange and populist power of rodents just yet. Look at Mr Rabbit. (Sorry, Abbott.)
It seems to be that in popular music these days, if you are a female singer your style will fall into one of two categories. The first is the kind made famous by the likes of Beyoncé and Fergie, and mimicked by hopefuls on Idol and the X-Factor. The wavering, see-how-many-notes-you-can-fit-into-one-second type of singing which dominates the top forty charts. I think Christina Aguilera does a pretty fine job of it.
The second category is something quite different: populated by artists such as Joanna Newsom, CocoRosie and Sarah Blasko, this style of singing is sometimes barely singing at all. While the previous category might be easily dismissed as mechanically skilled but lacking in originality, if you employ this latter category you need not be a skilled soprano. All you have to do is shape your vowels into strange, affected and overly cutesy shapes, which make you sound a little bit like you’ve regressed into your grade two, “Mum-I-wanna-be-a-famous-singer” days.
Now, I’m all for the power-to-the-people punk ethos of “Anyone can play guitar and start a band”, but that dictum can only ever go so far. People who don’t like punk will tell you something along the lines that it’s an anti-musical pile of rubble produced by untalented, obnoxious wastrels. Their opposition will argue that this view completely misses the political point, and fails to appreciate punk’s momentous innovativeness and continuing importance and influence on music to the present day. In other words, you can get away with being unskilled at your instruments (vocal cords included) if the sum of what you’re doing is breathtaking and groundbreaking. Case point: everybody knows Bob Dylan can’t sing.*
I don’t think this fashion for overly affected singing contributes anything innovative to our musical landscape. A particular affectation does not constitute a movement. (Or does it? As far as I know there isn’t a name for this trend, yet it could fall into cultural theories of cuteness.) If anything it is merely emblematic that many artists prefer to rehash what’s hip rather than develop their own meaningful style. But then, that’s no revelation.
Though this style has gone viral among “indie” bands and artists who write their own music, the very habit of defaulting into the mould of everyone else isn’t really so much better in terms of originality than, for example, Britney rehashing (or rather, just hashing) “I Love Rock’n'roll“. And apart from anything, to me – and I’m probably pissing off a helluva lot of Regina Spektor fans here – it just grates.
I was privileged enough to see Canadian band Imaginary Cities this week at Melbourne’s fabulous 3RRR FM. They were tight, and showed key signs of a Serious Hipster Pop Band: some great vocal harmonies (that’s all the rage at the mo, dude – think Fleet Foxes, Akron/Family, Grizzly Bear, insert other indie band here), some cute keys, a lot of major chords and, yes, that unmistakable affectation to the vocal style. Only, that soft singing style usually goes with soft music, and somehow it didn’t all quite gel.
It’s unfortunate, because Singer Marti Sarbit, 25, has got a pretty damn good voice, and when she’s not busy trying to fit into that quaint little style, she’s reminiscent of gutsy singers like Beth Ditto, or dear Amy Winehouse (R.I.P.). Why hide behind affectation when you’ve got a decent voice on your shoulders?
I felt somehow let down by the experience, and that Sarbit was doing not only herself a disservice as a singer, but her band as well (a bunch of young men with glasses and nose rings, all power chords and loud snares). Not only does a cute, quaint lead vocal fail to carry a loud band, it reeks of submission. The band is busy making as much noise as they can, and you still wanna play the cute little girly?
It kind of reminded me of this:
Yes, that’s the woman who said, “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.”
In contrast, I was rapt when I discovered the inspirational Anna Calvi this week. Something like a cross between Siouxsie and P.J. Harvey, Calvi’s songs are straight from the heart. They’re moody, expressive, and evoke a touch of the gothic (and she’s damn good on that guitar, too).
Speaking to NME, Calvi revealed her love for singers like Edith Piaf and Nina Simone, “because they give so much in their singing and they’re so emotional, and that’s quite rare to find.” She says this “surrendering” oneself to music “seems like it’s almost gone out of fashion, but I personally really love it.” This is exactly the kind of ethos the music scene needs right now.
Calvi describes herself as a “quiet person”, but on stage transforms into a kind of all-powerful uber-femme. Though she has a large vocal range, she says she prefers to sing low because “I like the power.” In context, the demure, self-contained London girl seems all the more endearing, her musical vision all the more poignant and pure.
Anna Calvi. Official Cultured Animal Hero of the Week.
So girls, there are lessons to be learned: you are not second class citizens, so sing like you bloody well mean it.
I choose neither top forty cardboard cut-out A, nor faux-alternative cardboard cut-out B. I choose Neko Case‘s powerful vocals over Eilen Jewell‘s lazy, just-got-out-of-bed drawl. I will listen to Linda Ronstadt ballads on repeat but can’t stand Snorah Jones. Joan As Policewoman over J-Lo. Any day.
But hey. When it boils down to it, it’s probably all just a matter of taste.
Autobiography/memoir is the most self-indulgent form of writing. It’s so self-indulgent that, if you met someone who crapped on about themselves that much in conversation, you probably wouldn’t like them very much. You’d probably tell them to go screw themselves, because that’s clearly what they’d prefer to be doing with their time.
And yet, most good memoirs are good because we end up warming to the author. Whether they’re famous or just really want to tell you about the weird shit they had to endure whilst growing up, a good memoirist must be endearing to the reader – else they’ll surely have an epic literary fail on their hands.
Reading a good memoir should be like making a new friend. Although it’s obviously one-sided – chances are the author hasn’t met you, and probably never will – reading about someone’s life and times should give you the same kind of warm, fuzzy feeling you get when a friend confides in you. You know, “Gee, I feel so special I was the person you chose to tell about your secret fetish for double denim. I’m definitely coming to your birthday party.” That kind of thing.
Patti Smith’s Just Kids did this. I found myself thinking about her randomly whilst walking down the street, as if she were an old friend and I might give her a call later so we could listen to Lou Reed and talk about boys over a bottle of wine. (I think there was also a lot of denim. Leather, too.) When Patti was heartbroken, so was I. When she was giddy with wonderment, and eventually success, I was awed, proud, and felt like the world was doing all the right things: fortune was shining its golden light upon me.
A good memoir creates empathy. Patti made me fall in love with her – and, along with her, Robert.
Of course, the opposite can also happen whilst tackling a memoir, and you find, rather than having imagined conversations with your new BFF for a week or two, you’ve instead had to put up with a slightly unpleasant person nattering away in your head and perhaps spoiling your lunch breaks.
If for whatever reason you don’t warm to the author, how then do you give the book a fair trial? Are your views unfavourable to the work because it’s simply bad, or because you don’t think you’d be particularly fast friends with its author if you happened to meet them during, say, year eleven at Sandringham College?
Yet you could argue that if an author fails to make you like them, the work fails too, because a memoir that doesn’t induce empathy in its reader has probably missed the point. Autobiographers pull back the curtains on their lives and invite others to watch; the compulsion to write about themselves is born from desires that just about every human being harbours: to be known and understood, acknowledged and appreciated. But if the reader doesn’t much like the author, why should they fulfill those desires and read on?
A good memoirist doesn’t have to be a good person. But the writing must compel. Any ordinary Dick or Jane’s suburban existence can be made into something awesome if the writing’s up to the job. And if the writing doesn’t compel, the life has got to. Think Chopper Read. If you check out his website, you’ll see he’s no stickler for grammar (I’d better be careful what I say – he’s no longer doing time at “Bluestone College”). But the popularity of his books indicates that reading first-hand about the life of a killer strikes a fascination, if morbid, in many people. (Cue the current controversy over David Hicks’ biography being nominated for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.)
Failing all of the above, if your writing doesn’t make the reader love your pants or the life they walked in, try writing about something else instead, and just chuck in a few personal bits here and there. Kind of like a watered-down version of yourself (let’s face it, it’s less risky).
How To Be a Woman is the second book from British TV presenter Caitlin Moran (she wrote a novel when she was still a teenager, wowsers), whom I’d never heard of. I saw the cover of her book and thought she looked a like a cross between a girl I used to know from a place called Bogan Gap and somebody who belongs in the Addams family, and decided this was reason enough to buy it.
While How To Be a Woman is memoirish in that it’s full of (enjoyable) personal anecdotes, it’s about something other than just Moran – Feminism. It’s also riotously funny. Rolling around in fits of laughter is not the usual response to the F-word, so good on her and her furry minge, I say.
(And actually, now that I think about it, Patti’s book was never meant to be about her, but about Robert.)
Another funny lady with a funny memoir is local comedienne Denise Scott. All That Happened at Number 26 is mostly about her family, as opposed to herself. (Although, if you want to get technical, she’s part of the family.) The overall effect is that Scott comes across as the generous, loving, motherly type she most probably is, more concerned with those around her than with herself, her career and whatever else tends to be up the top of one’s list of preoccupations.
Oh, and I love a woman who can laugh at herself. More please.
So, I suppose the moral of the story is, if you’re not enjoying a memoir, put it down and pick up something else, and save yourself the personal anguish. There are too many good books out there to waste your time enduring ones that strike the wrong chord, and probably enough fraught relationships in your own life already. But if you must persevere, because you are neurotic about finishing books, say, or because you are tasked with reviewing it, then best of luck to you and your skills in the New Friends department.
Your Animal hereby pledges to post more regularly. Let’s say, fortnightly … give or take a day. Or two. Because let’s face it, if you’re that neurotic about punctuality then your expectations are probably too high. In fact, you are probably the sort of person who gets angry at that same friend who’s always late to meet you. Even though you know they’re going to be late. Aren’t you?
Well dear, your friend isn’t about to put on her punctuality pants anytime soon, so perhaps it’s time to take yours off, and take a leaf out of The Idler, or McSweeney’s (neither publication is particularly good at keeping to schedule) instead. You can even use the leaf to cover your naked crotch, just like Adam and Eve.
As a very famous person once said, “the times they are a-changin.”
We are in an age of rapid technological change, most of which is not worth bothering to keep up with, because you can’t, not really. The book is a form of technology that has been with us for centuries, and many have compared this age of digital media as having a similar force of impact on reading, thinking and society in general as that following the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, which facilitated the beginnings of mass proliferation of the book. Today, the ubiquity of the Internet means the ways in which we consume books is changing – not just in terms of how and where we buy them, but in what form.
One of the most tense panels at this year’s ABA conference featured competing representatives from the budding eBooks industry marketing their wares. Meanwhile, one of the most compelling speakers was Mark Higginson of Nielsen, whose audience pounced on his wealth of statistical information about consumers’ online book-buying patterns. The flurry of tweeting activity during the presentation indicated a hunger for tangible information in an industry faced with an uncertain future.
It’s certainly not just a matter of choosing between a hardback or paperback any more.
But if we’re hungry for new information about customers, they’re equally curious. Unfortunately, some very uninformed comments and queries are frequently thrown at the good people who stand behind bookshop counters. Plenty of it is well-meaning and borne from a desire to correct any ignorance. Some of it is downright rude, to the point where one’s very purpose in life is undermined. (Sort of like when my musically challenged friend bags out my favourite bands, not understanding that, as a musician, it kinda hurts my feelings.)
We understand that as representatives of the industry we are generally better versed in decoding what the hell is going on for the general public. But when faced with the same handful of recurrent questions, such as “What do you think about Borders closing?”, or “Did you know I can get this cheaper online?”, day after day, how does one quell the spirit of Bernard Black, who lurks dangerously close to the surface of one’s amiable front? How, indeed, to maintain one’s excellent customer service skills as well as one’s dignity (and sanity)?
The thing is, we might look smart (especially when wearing our horn-rimmed glasses), but as The Papa of Independent Bookselling and Publishing Henry Rosenbloom said: “While there’s no clear way forward, we’ve come to the conclusion that we know as little about it as anyone else.”
Well, if we can’t give a definitive answer to all that complicated stuff, we can at least try to deal with the yucky ‘feelings’ part of it.
In her keynote address to the conference, Becky Anderson (President of the American Bookseller’s Association, 5th generation heir to Anderson’s Bookshop, and general champion of independent and community-focused business) read to us a beautiful statement on behalf of Anderson’s, summarising their thoughts and feelings on the collapse of Borders and the state of the industry. She insisted that “first and foremost, we are not celebrating … the loss of so many jobs”, and maintained again and again her mantra: “we [independent bookshops] are still here.” Barwon Booksellers, an absolute treasure trove of second-hand books in Geelong, Victoria, sent out a heartfelt letter to its subscribers expressing similar sentiments.
It’s a good idea, and one which I urge all booksellers to follow. Either that or leave yourselves open to continued onslaughts of misinformed flak, to which you’ll be forced to respond personally each time until you sound like a broken 78. (Which would be ironic, because they’re obsolete.) You can frame your letter in Christmas lights and stick it on the shop door, so as to spare your beloved customers the embarrassment of asking any awkward questions from the get-go.
But let’s emphasise the beloved part. It may be a good idea to, er, bookend your eloquently crafted message with something along the lines of: Dear customers. WE LOVE YOU. We love you because you love us, and your custom is the reason we’re still here. We’re still here, because you’re still here. Thank you for choosing to buy all your Christmas presents here. We hope you’re not disappointed we don’t also sell turkeys, but did you notice that Borders was kind of turning into a homewares store towards the end? One day it’s turkeys, the next – no more books! By the way – did we mention how much we love you?
And so on, and so forth.
Booksellers and customers alike, please feel free to share below your thoughts on any of these matters. Perhaps you’ve done something similar to Anderson’s or Barwon Booksellers. Maybe you’ve experienced a Bernard moment. I hope you at least got a laugh out of it, or a glass of wine.
Stay tuned for Pip Lincolne’s Guide to Online Social Deportment 101. We do like hands-on ladies.
Ciao for now xx
Today and tomorrow, along with our wild friend Kate from Bean There Read That, The Cultured Animal will be busy drinking terrible coffee, initiating itself into the glories of Twitter, and doing a lot of listening and talking. Maybe even at the same time.
That’s right, folks – it’s time for the annual Australian Booksellers Association conference. And what fascinating times the book industry is living in!
Bookish people have a lot of ideas, let me tell you. Your Animal will be mulling them over and regurgitating them with the usual treatment over the course of the conference, and no doubt for some time afterwards too. So please do stay tuned.
Two interrelated and recurring ideas worth mentioning so far are:
1. Australia’s Minister for Small Business Nick Sherry’s recent faux pas predicting bookshops will no longer exist in five years is clearly still a sore point for many of the conference speakers, who have hit back at this ludicrous presumption with their eminent wit and knowledge of evidence to the contrary.
2. Physical communities appear just as important as physical books for booksellers in the digital age. The idea that online retailing is killing bookshops is far from the whole story – a story which, in any case, is only really just beginning. Or, as keynote speaker Becky Anderson of the American Booksellers’ Association and Anderson’s Bookshop put it, ‘This whole thing with eBooks is still to me the Wild West. Who knows where the dust is gonna settle.’
In the meantime, everyone should get themselves acquainted with The Indigenous Literacy Foundation and some of the fabulous work they are doing in communities (including publishing Grug in the Karrawa language). And don’t forget to pop National Indigenous Literacy Day Septemebr 7th 2011 in your diary. We heart.
It is with great aplomb that your esteemed Animal can announce: I have now entered the world of smart phones. Having once thought my trusty Nokia E71 was classified as thus, I am now proved but a fool. That archaic device, as it turns out, actually suffered from severe learning difficulties and, due to not receiving the requisite nurturing (read: frequently dropping it on its head), it has now come to a tragic end. (Or has it? Oh stop, the suspense is killing you.)
Upgrading one’s phone feels a little bit like plunging down the rabbit hole into a strange and unfamiliar landscape where things don’t quite work the way they used to. It’s two years since I changed my phone, and in that time a lot has happened. There’s a lot of catching up to do.
I missed a shift at work and blamed it on the fact that my new phone’s calendar app is surprisingly shit in comparison to my old Nokia’s simple-but-precise inbuilt planner, which I’d been using in one incarnation or another for about five years across three different models. I can’t even type properly with this new bloody touch-screen predictive text bizzo. Where’s the tactility? How can I hit the right button with my clumsy fat thumb if there’s no button to feel in the first place? Grrrr. I’m barely old enough to have children, and already they should be head-hunting me for the next season of Grumpy Old Women. (Except for the bit where I’m not famous.) (Yet.)
Suffice to say, the week has been a bit stressful.
Now, if I were the sort of person who upgraded my gadgetry every time a new gimmick came on the market, this anxiety-ridden technological learning curve would no doubt have been blunted somewhat. Yet it’s not all bad. Actually, it’s kind of refreshing to be privy to a digital time lag, if you will. Not too dissimilar to a mild slap in the face, or a stiff drink after a harrowing day of navigating cubicles and paperwork. It’s a little reminder of just how fast technology develops, and how much we take it for granted.
Usually whatever digital device I already own does a sufficient job at word processing, making phone calls, scheduling appointments or playing downloaded episodes of Party Down, as to remove any need to replace it until it starts to give up on life altogether. And, as somebody who never reads technology news or reviews, I don’t have a clue what I’m missing out on in failing to upgrade regularly. Unless, of course, the device in question becomes so socially prevalent (cue, iPhone) that the hipster in me instinctively shuns it anyway by way of its mainstream popularity.
And yet still I struggle with this idea of throwing out a perfectly good phone/MP3 player/tablet thingy simply due to an unhealthy, insatiable, market-driven hunger for new features. (Quite obviously this reveals me as some kind of a freak in my generational bracket.)
There are strong environmental/anti-consumerist arguments against buying the latest, flashiest, smartest, geekiest new piece of technology as soon as it comes on the market. On the other hand, there are also strong health arguments for the regular upgrading of one’s digital assets (I refer you to previous section).
The answer to all this, dear techno-freaks, is to simply be more mindful of what you use and disown. Are you guilty of hoarding perfectly working (but technologically inferior) phones in a bottom drawer, like little dormant melanomas festering amongst undeveloped rolls of film and gimmicky, once-used kitchen appliances? Sure, it’s no bad thing to have a back-up phone for when your current one mysteriously goes missing during a drunken bender (cue more technological stress – did you know that a mobile phone is actually connected to your cardiovascular system and that if it’s not within ten metres’ reach you will quickly begin to die?), but if you’ve got more mobile appendages than two, perhaps consider giving a new lease of life to your dormant digital device. (You know, like donating your second kidney to a distant cousin afflicted with poor health.)
What better way to assuage your environmental guilt than to recycle your phone? In Australia, the official phone recycling program is called MobileMuster (‘muster’ sounds a little bit Grandpa, but obviously they do not have a marketing budget akin to Apple’s, because Australians do not like paying taxes). They run a joint Landcare Australia initiative to raise money for regenerating our coastline. All you have to do is print this pre-paid label and send in your crappy old phone by post – plenty easier than enduring a bush rave followed by a marathon tree-planting binge the morning after. Or, you could just take your old phone to a phone shop. Or Officeworks. Whatever. Just do it before September 30th, or you’ll have to do the hungover tree-planting marathon instead.
Well, that settles the environmental dilemma somewhat; as for the stress issue, my advice is this: don’t go changing the brand of a thing that is integral to the functioning of your everday life, unless you absolutely must, for whatever your own neurotic reasons. I’m not talking phone companies (they are all out to screw us equally) – I’m talking the make of phone.
Every time my Mum buys a new Toyota**, it feels a bit different to handle, yet strangely familiar, like New Dad as opposed to Old Dad. There’s a leap, but there’s continuity too, in simply upgrading to the next model by the same brand, allowing us to ease into the next phase of digital development.
Course, if the car is shit, change the brand.
*A bit like the trauma after a car accident. Because technology is developing at really high speed. And if you speed a lot you will probably, um, crash.
**I hate to bring my mother into it, but this Animal has only bought one car in its lifetime***, and is therefore not a particularly useful subject here for illustrative purposes.
***Owned two. Wrote both of them off. (Cars are very bad for the environment and should all be destroyed.)