I started reading the Inhabitat blog eight or nine years ago, maybe. Not long after I’d started writing fiction after a long spell in the trenches of other writing work. I stopped reading back in 2013, because Habitat publishes a lot of content and there simply wasn’t time to read it while working a part-time day-job. That space was taken up by blogs about time management and productivity and how to internet better.
I don’t work a part-time day-job anymore, and as as peeps who follow my twitter feed may have noticed, I’ve picked up the Inhabitat habit again. Their brief to sit at the intersections of architecture, design, and the environment is like crack if you’re interested in how the future may look, and they’ll occasionally bust out truly mind-blowing shit like plans these South Korean plans to build skyscrapers inside of Giant Sequoia’s to keep them from falling over.
But as impressive as that particular idea is, it’s stuff like the tin-shed renovations that actually appeal to me. My comfort reading, this week, is Aaron Bestky’s Architecture Matters where the dean of the Frank Wright School of Architecture traces how architecture interacts with our daily life and why it matters. One of the thing he notes, early on, is architectural design’s tendency to be noticeable when it’s also monumental. It’s a discipline built around going big or going home.
What’s noticeable in smaller places – homes, bars, restaurants, stores – is the province of designers, people who come into a functional shell and transform the interior while the architecture recedes into the background.
The spaces we move through every day shape us in ways we barely think about, simply because we pay more attention to the stuff that’s packed inside them.
My copy of Caitlin Kiernan’s latest short story collection arrived in the mail last week. It’s a beautiful book full of beautiful, terrible stories in the old-school definition of terrible, meaning they are causing or likely to cause terror. The kind of stories that make Kant’s description of the sublime comprehensible, which is more than Kant manages to do when he writes on the subject.
There are very few writers who are on my yes-I-will-by-everything-you-release list. Even fewer on the list where I will buy everything in fancy, beautifully produced hardcovers and special editions. Basically, there is one name on that list, and it’s largely because Caitlin Kiernan is the best short-story writer working today, doing things with language and story that most writers can barely dream of doing.
Over the weekend I dropped three hundred bucks to pick up a Dell Inspiron that was on sale at my local JB HiFi. I’d been edging around the idea of getting a small netbook capable of running OneNote while I’m gaming for a few weeks, and I seriously thought that would be all I used it for – a small computer that weighted less than a hardcover, tucked into my gaming bag alongside the dice and session notes.
Not good for writing, I figured. 4 meg of ram. Ten inch screen. Itty bitty keyboard. Who in hell is going to use that for writing work?
Then I proceeded to take the damn thing everywhere for three straight days, because it’s about the same weight as packing a hardcover Moleskin into my bag. And the keyboard is surprisingly functional, after the first few attempts at typing on it. And because the Inspiron will actually handle Scrivener better than my desktop, which means I’ve got a computer on me that is actually usable while sitting at bus stops or train stations.
It would be wrong to say that I pitched a PhD topic about series just so I’d have a legitimate reason to read Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard books and call it work, but I do not know that it would be 100% inaccurate.
It was cold as an Eskimo’s ass in an igloo outhouse, but it was clear and bright and the East Texas woods were dark and soothing. The pines, cold or not, held their green, except for the occasional streaks of rust-coloured needles, and the oaks, though leafless, were thick and intertwining, like the bones of some unknown species stacked into an elaborate art arrangement
Joe Lansdale, The Two-Bear Mambo.
It’s one thing to learn the big, macro-structures of narrative that will allow you to tell a decent story – and make no mistake, Lansdale’s got that shit down. But the thing that impresses me, over and over, is his control on the micro level, putting together an evocative image that’s rich in voice and strategically using contrast to generate powerful effect. Whether its the move from the colloquial metaphor to modern art, the personification of the trees (cold or not) that lends them a stronger presence in the scene, or the speed with which we go from leafless trees to thick and intertwining, the man has his shit together when it comes to writing a paragraph.
For the first time in a long time, Fridays are a day where I’m primarily writing and researching. Here are some things that have been on my mind this week.
Angela Slatter launched a Patreon this morning. It’s full of shiny options for supporting her career and getting cool things in return. You know what to do.
Cat Rambo is doing a re-read of a whole bunch of Doc Savage novels and making notes about her thoughts as she goes along. The first of them covers Doc Savage: Quest of Qui, and I’m largely flagging this here for my friend Chris who is my designated person-I-talk-to-when-I-talk-about-pulps.
I saw Leonard Cohen live a few years back. The concert was the same week my father had his heart attack, and I was meant to be going with my dad and my sister. Instead, my father was hospitalised and being prepared for surgery, and my sister stayed with my mum. I was encouraged to go Cohen anyway, find friends who could make use of the spare tickets.
I did. We ate Indian food. Leonard Cohen wore a suit on stage, and he performed with the kind of serenity and poise you’ve got no choice but to envy. I was not in good shape before my dad’s heart attack, and things were considerably worse after it happened.
Seeing Leonard Cohen was the only time that month it felt anything close to okay.
Now it’s been three weeks since Cohen died and I’m seated on the balcony of my parent’s apartment, listening to my dad watch the cricket inside. It’s thirty-something goddamn degrees and Brisbane is hot and sweaty and still, and there’s a magpie on the far end of the balcony warbling with very little regard for nearby humans.
I’ve been hitting Democracy on YouTube, day after day, for three weeks now. I don’t think I’m anywhere close to being done with that song yet.
I came across Cohen as a poet long before I heard his music. I found a copy of his Selected Poems in a second-hand bookstores, one of the few single author collections among a poetry section populated by old anthologies and schoolbooks. It was $10.95, hardcover, and I was doing an honours thesis in poetics. I bought the book, took it home, and disappeared inside the words.
The music came after that, but Cohen remained a poet in my head. He made more sense that way, with the poise and the suits and the gravity and the humour. He remained one of the few poets I loved at twenty whose work I still love two decades later.
I made a t-shirt using lines from Beautiful Losers. The poem, not the novel, although you can see the echoes between them if you look real closely:
So you’re the kind of vegetarian
that only eats roses
Is that what you meant
with your Beautiful Losers?
I learned that if you leave sheets of paper with those lines around the apartment, and you’re not there to provide context when your girlfriend comes home, there will be the kind of freak-out that’s indicative of how things will eventually go very, very wrong.
I’ve spent the weekend reading through a months’ worth of blog posts in my RSS feed. I am processing November backwards: Cohen dies, and then I hit the aftermath of the US elections. This results in me hitting Youtube and firing up Democracy again.
Except the version of Democracy that lives in my head isn’t the song, which makes it incredibly hard to listen to the version where it’s treated as such. The version that lives in my head strips away almost everything except the words, delivered in Cohen’s dry tones:
I have thoughts about the state of the world right now, but this is hardly news. I’ve had thoughts about the state of the world for the last twenty years, and most of them boiled down to fucking hell, people, be better than this.
When I look at the state of the world, the directions that we’re heading in, I can’t muster anything akin to Leonard Cohen’s serenity. And I sure as hell won’t look anywhere near as good in a suit.
But I come back to Cohen, again and again, as a reminder of what art can do in the right hands. It can be beautiful, and it can be cool, and it can be terrifying. It can be a weapon and it can be a tool for change and it can be the salve that makes things okay.
Do it right and it can be all of those things in the same song, or story, or poem.
It took me two days to read Dan Charnas Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organise Your Work, Life, and Mind. It would have taken less time, but I had a busy weekend, which meant I was largely carving out blocks of time to read through the book as fast as possible. I was two-thirds done when I raved about it in the Sunday Circle. I am now finished.
And, upon finishing, I scrolled back to the start of the ebook and started reading it from the start. It’s that kind of book.
I love me a good book about productivity. I devour them like popcorn, especially when they’ve got odd little hooks. Charnas’ approach is all hook. He looks at the way people learn to be chefs, the system and the mindset that’s instilled in them in order to keep a busy kitchen functional. He extrapolates out from that, talking about mise-en-place as a philosophy and approach to life. He’s an incredible storyteller with a pool of interesting subjects, so it makes for an entertaining read.
It’s also an incredibly interesting philosophy, right up until Charnas tries to formalise it into a productivity system in the final chapters.The system, if you’re the kind of person who has read Getting Things Done, comes off as a little derivative and naff. It plays to the conceit a little too strongly for my tastes, and it’s just…weaker….than the rest of the book.
But the bits before that? Wonderful. Incredibly useful. I’d gotten my money’s worth by the second or third chapter, because I am the kind of person who hacks together productivity systems and looks for points of refinement. I run my life on a shambling Frankenstein’s monster of GTD, Accidental Creative, and Bullet Journal, cherry picking the best bits of those systems and leaving out the stuff that didn’t work. And I was hacking bits of mise-en-place real fast, especially when it came time to do some big tasks on tight deadlines.
Time I would have wasted on flail has been replaced by time spent building systems, timelines, and lists of tools I have available (and those I need to acquire).
Three quarters of this book is recommended reading. Highly recommended, The kind of thing I’m going to ramble about to my friends who are all about productivity systems, and a tool for having more interesting conversations with some friends who are former chefs gone into management.
The final quarter of the book? Skim it, unless you’re desperately in need of a system and are drowning in your workload.
You’ll already have the bulk of what you need by the time you hit that point.
I went to see Suicide Squad last night. Not because I had any real hopes of it being a good movie, but because it’s a comic book film and I will end up seeing all comic book films eventually. Even the Zack Snyder one’s, which ’cause me actual pain to watch. I will watch them, when it costs me nothing, and then I will hate myself.
Suicide Squad did not cause pain. Mostly because it’s an incredibly tedious couple of hours, by virtue of someone taking all the core beats of six different stories and throwing them in the air, then figuring “eh, good enough,” when the pages are re-assembled.
Suicide Squad is what happens if you try to make the Magnificent Seven and do the assembling the team sequence, then throw out oh, by the way, these guys are meant to be saving a Mexican village. It’s the film that happens when you kick of Die Hard with Hans Gruber taking over Nakatomi Towers, then go oh, yeah, there’s a cop trying to reconnect with his wife or something before launching into the second act.
Suicide Squad is a self-contained story, in that the conflict that drives the story is largely happening ’cause the protagonist is an idiot with insufficient reason to be one (and, despite the film’s attempts to re-frame Will Smith’s Deadshot as the protagonist, there is no way in hell that it’s anyone but Amanda Waller).
Weirdly, it would be a very easy story to fix. I’m almost certain there’s a director’s cut of this film somewhere that has things in the correct order, before the studio laid down the mandate for funnier and make sure there’s a pop song playing every six fucking seconds.
You start with the scene in the briefing room, where Waller demonstrates the need for a black-ops superhuman team. You do the scene where people express their concerns, and Waller talks about who she wants. You introduce the team, one by one, and show us their issues. How they’ll fail to work together, because they’re bad guys, and how they’ll eventually bond and do the family-dynamic thing that is currently missing (and, yet, remains central to the finale).
Basically, you cut the film like someone whose actually seen The Dirty Dozen and paid attention to what made it worked. I am 100% sure the scriptwriter and director have, because there are the bones of that movie submerged beneath the mess, but they weren’t able to enact it.
And the result is a mess. A *tedious* mess, punctuated with moments of greatness from the actors. Will Smith is a surprisingly good Deadshot and makes a lot of out very little. Margot Robbie is a solid Harley Quinn. I can totally get behind Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang. Viola Davis does okay as Amanda Waller, but she suffers from the same problem all Batman actors suffer from: just as no-one is going to compare with Kevin Conroy’s portrayal of Batman in Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League cartoons, no-one is going to be Amanda Waller like CCH Pounder was Amanda Waller.
Honestly, the best reason to see this film is in an object lesson in writing: spending the two hours trying to figure out how things went wrong, and what you’d need to do to fix it, is probably the most educational thing I’ve done in years.
Love and Friendship looks like a Jane Austen film, when you first glance in its direction. This is largely because it’s based on Lady Susan, Austen’s epistolary novella that you’ve probably only read if you’re a hardcore Austen reader or someone who picked up a volume with a title like “The Complete Works of Jane Austen” that took it’s remit rather seriously.
And because you walk into it thinking its an Austen film, and you know exactly what you’re going to get, Love and Friendship is all kinds of fucking glorious as it starts to fuck with those expectations. It’s incredibly funny without devolving into parody; incredibly engaging, without actually having a sympathetic character; incredibly slippery, in that there are machinations at work throughout the film and you’re never entirely sure of a character’s motivations.
It is a two-hour love-letter to the fact that Austen is incredibly funny, when you read her works, and the film takes it as a personal mission to remind you of that. It is good natured and pitch-perfect and…look, it has Kate Beckinsale in the lead, and she is phenomenal. I spent the whole movie basically going, wait, how did you end up here after Van Helsing? How are you this good? Why the fuck are you following this role with another goddamn Underworld?
And i now want director Whit Stillman to be given the rights to all Georgette Heyer novels, so he can adapt them in this style and just take over the world.
Yes, I am gushing. This movie? God damn I loved this movie. I sat there making heart-eyes at it for two straight hours, then spent the car ride home laughing hysterically every time my passenger repeated a line of dialogue. It is a matter of considerable surprise we did not crash into things.
From While Not Writing A Book, in Helen Garner’s essay collection Everywhere I Look:
At the health farm, fasting. I must be hallucinating: when I walk past a pile of folded towels I see them as a huge club sandwich. I present myself for reiki treatment. The woman announces that she is going to massage my aura. I submit with a sigh. I don’t have any trouble at all believing that people have auras: you only need to have seen a dying and then a dead body to know this. But I wanted my massage to be about my gross earthly body.
I do not know how many ways I can recommend this book, but I’m putting this quote here so I can add one more to the list.