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7 1/2 – Christos Tsiolkas

7 1/2 - Christos Tsiolkas - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Ready to feel bad about how little you achieved during quarantine? Christos Tsiolkas committed to writing 800 words a day, and the result is 7 1/2. It’s “a novel about beauty”, or – more accurately – a novel about a novelist on retreat, trying to write a novel about beauty. My friends at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review, and it came highly recommended, with blurbs from Helen Garner and Charlotte Wood.

I’m quite skeptical of writers writing about writers, and I must say Tsiolkas’s latest hasn’t done much to change my mind. He goes the full Martin Amis with his main character: a mid-50s gay Greek writer named Christos Tsiolkas who is “tired” of writing about politics and religion and sex, and hates how often he checks his phone.

I perked up a bit in the sections where the Christos character was writing a novel about a retired porn star, but most of the novel was Christos being amazed by nature, bemoaning technology, and sniffing armpits (seriously, the guy is obsessed with sweat, I could’ve made a drinking game out of it).

I really wanted to be generous in my reading, and Tsiolkas is undeniably a talented writer, but 7 1/2 at its heart is one long lament about The Modern World. It’s more masterfully written than a forwarded chain email that’s been scanned by Norton Anti-Virus, but the vibe is the same.

Damascus – Christos Tsiolkas

Damascus - Christos Tsiolkas - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I loved Christos Tsiolkas’s 2008 novel The Slap (so much so that I named it one of my must-read books by Aussie authors). Still, I knew just looking at the blurb of Damascus that it was going to be very different: “a work of immense power and epic scope, taking as its subject nothing less than the events surrounding the birth and establishment of the Christian church”. Allen & Unwin sent me a copy for review, and I was happy to take a giant leap out of my comfort zone.

I’m a big ol’ heathen, so I didn’t have a lot of religious context for what was happening. To me, it almost read like a historic dystopia. But I think that made it all the better, for me to appreciate the poetic language and visceral imagery and raw emotion that Tsiolkas used to depict this world.

What I’m saying is you don’t need to be a Christian, or familiar with the historical aspects of Christianity, to read Damascus (and it might actually be better if you aren’t).

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides tends more towards writing short fiction than he does full-length novels… but damn, when he turns it on, he really turns it on. Middlesex is his 2002 novel inspired by the 19th-century diary of a French convent student who was intersex. He worked for nine years, writing and re-writing, until he managed to weave together a story that was both epic and introspective.

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Middlesex begins with Cal, aged 41, looking back on “this rollercoaster ride of a gene through time”. Ostensibly styled as Cal’s memoir, the first half-or-so of the book is more of a family saga, the internal logic being that tracing the Stephanides family tree is essential to understanding the unique circumstances and coincidences that gave rise to Cal’s genetic 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.

See, Middlesex is also a gender novel: Cal is intersex. They were assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB, in today’s parlance), due to their ambiguous-appearing genitals and the negligence of the family doctor’s examination. As such, they were raised as a girl. However, they have testes, and their secondary sex characteristics that emerge during puberty are typically male.

That’s the big ticket item, the reason most people come to Middlesex – but it’s a shame, because there’s a lot more to this story than Cal’s gender identity.

To take it all the way back to the beginning (as Cal does): their grandparents were, ahem, cut from the same branch of the family tree. Yes, they were brother and sister before they were husband and wife, before Game Of Thrones made it cool. They were displaced during the early 20th century conflict between Greeks and Turks, and managed – by the skin of their teeth – to emigrate to the United States. So, it’s an immigrant story, about ethnic identity and the American Dream, as much as it’s anything else.

The family saga is like Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets The Slap-era Christos Tsiolkas. Eugenides, through Cal, paints an incredibly detailed portrait of three generations (from conception to death) against the backdrop of major historical events, including the 1967 Detroit Riot and Watergate. Of course, this requires some funky twists and turns in Cal’s narration. Eugenides allows his protagonist unrealistic insight into other characters’ thoughts, a kind of omniscient-first-person at times, but somehow he makes it flow very naturally (think Melville’s narration by Ishmael in Moby Dick).

And, an important side note: in addition to being preternaturally insightful, Cal is FUNNY. Like, no one calls Middlesex a comedy, but I literally lol’d several times. It’s not all doom and gloom!

I suppose I can’t ignore the sex and gender themes of Middlesex forever. So, deep breath, here we go…

First off, no, Eugenides is not intersex himself. He drew a lot of details for Middlesex (particularly around Greek American families and geography) from his real life, but not the gender bit. As he explains it:

Because the story is so far from my own experience, I had to use a lot of details from my own life to ground it in reality, to make it believable for me and then hopefully for the reader, as well. So I would use my own physical appearance. I would use details from my grandparents’ life, the streets they lived on, the kinds of places they lived. And all this made it real for me because it was a tall order to write such a story.

Jeffrey Eugenides (On Middlesex)

Of course, adopting the voice of an intersex character for a novel is a controversial choice by today’s standards, but at least Eugenides took it seriously. It wasn’t a gimmick to sell books: Cal’s voice and identity are central to the story. Eugenides spent years researching intersex biology and politics. Learning about 5-alpha-reductase deficiency actually changed the shape and scope of the story (initially, Eugenides had envisaged Middlesex as a short fictional autobiography, but learning that this condition primarily arises in isolated inbred populations led him to explore the epic history of Cal’s family).

Also controversial is the language Cal (slash Eugenides) uses throughout the novel. By the end, Cal explicitly rejects the essentialism underlying “traditional” definitions of sex and gender – Cal is neither “really” a boy, nor “really” a girl, regardless of clothing or the assumptions of others – but Eugenides uses he/him pronouns to describe the character. I’ve chosen not to in this review, because it simply didn’t feel accurate or natural based on the days I’ve spent with Cal while reading Middlesex. I suspect, if the novel were written and published today, they would be using gender neutral pronouns.

Then, there’s the language Cal uses to describe their identity. They shift between using “intersex” (when talking in the abstract, regarding activism and so forth) and the now-objectionable “hermaphrodite”. Eugenides has been asked directly why he used this term, and I thought his justification was pretty sound: it’s used by Cal in the context of their identification and engagement with Hermaphroditus, among other characters of Greek mythology and history. “When speaking about real people, I should—and I do my best to—use the term ‘intersex’,” he said. He also pointed to the journal Hermaphrodites With Attitude (published by the Intersex Society of North America) as an example of the reclaiming of the word by intersex people, akin to the reclaiming of the word “queer”.

Nevertheless, even though the language is a bit outdated (twenty years is a long time in LGBTIQ+ politics and science!), there’s a ring of authenticity in Eugenides’ portrayal, and a sensibility that I think transcends nomenclature. He has been largely praised by queer and intersex reviewers for his sensitive and insightful depiction of an intersex character, which is more than most cis-het men could ever hope for. The exception would be the handful of reviewers and scholars who have criticised Eugenides for supposedly “erasing lesbian identities” (as Cal only openly explores their attraction to women once they begin presenting as a man). I think that’s a bit rich, to be honest; Middlesex is already a huge sweeping epic, and adding an extra hundred pages for Cal to explore lesbianism would have felt like inauthentic overkill.

But I circle back to my original point: Middlesex is much more than a gender novel. Adam Begley described it as “a hybrid form, epic crossed with history, romance, comedy, tragedy” in his review for the New York Observer, and that’s spot on. It’s a big book, in length, depth, and breadth, and yet it’s compelling and thoroughly readable. If you’ve held off reading Middlesex, feeling skeptical or intimidated, you really shouldn’t wait any longer.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Middlesex:

  • “When the incestuous couple really started tucking into each other, I finally googled the author’s motivation in having incest as a major plot element, and it turns out he threw that in there just because he needed to explain the main character’s intersex condition. Ugh. C’mon Eugenides. There are a lot of other ways you could have peeled that banana.” – Julia
  • “This is a horrible and dull book. Rotten in every way. It starts with a really stupid and misleading line. “I was born on an incredibly smogless day in Detroit”. There is NEVER any smog in Detroit. The rest of the book is just as bad. There should be a stack of these books about 1/2 of a mile high for the author to jump off of.” – Michael
  • “Seriously? Incest stories about the protagonist’s grandmother is what makes good reading these days? No thanks.” – maranda green harris

Australia Day – Melanie Cheng

One of my favourite bits of book trivia is that Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, was actually a country doctor. Believe it or not, back in those days, writing actually paid better than doctoring, so detective stories were his side-hustle. It’s kind of the other way around for Melanie Cheng, but still, she is both a general practitioner, and now – after publication of her debut short story collection, Australia Day, in 2017 – a writer.

Australia Day - Melanie Cheng - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Balancing medicine and manuscript wasn’t easy for Cheng. This collection was written over a period of nine years, and finally published after she won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2016. Australia Day contains 14 stories, each depicting some aspect of the life of a “typical” Australian. Of course, there’s no such thing; her protagonists range from the very young to the very old, the wealthy to the working class, the vaguely Christian to the devout Muslim… so, no points for deducing that she was Making A Point(TM).

Australians don’t share a single background or cultural identity, nor do their experiences of Australian life necessarily match up. And yet, the characters in Australia Day undoubtedly “belong” together. They all desire the comfort of home, and yet they all feel some variety of displacement. That seems to be the defining characteristic of the typical Australian, by this collection’s definition.

An important note on the title, for overseas Keeper Upperers who might not understand the subtext: Australia Day is our “official” national public holiday, 26 January, supposedly commemorating the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships in 1788. Setting the many historical quibbles with that date aside, it has become a really contentious subject in contemporary Australia given that the arrival of the British marked the beginning of a period of horrific destruction and violence for the First Nations people of this continent. While some Australians are having barbecues, and others are having citizenship ceremonies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their allies are mourning. It has become a rallying point for resistance against the ongoing colonial occupation of this land.

So, to call a short story collection Australia Day, particularly one that doesn’t always necessarily paint Australia and Australians in a great light… well, it’s a bold choice.

To really underline the point, the first and last stories of the collection – the bookends, as it were – are both set on Australia Day. The first is about a young medical student, an immigrant from Hong Kong, bravely facing a hailstorm of microaggressions at an Australia Day barbecue. The last is about an elderly woman, Mrs Chan, whose grandson’s birthday happens to fall on the same date.

Some of the stories, like ‘Macca’, clearly draw upon Cheng’s experience as a doctor. I’d imagine that line of work has given her intimate access to private lives across the spectrum of our community, which gives her a deep well from which she can draw characters who are complex and complete. That said, at times, I got the impression that Cheng was simply trying to show off how much of the world she’d seen and how open her eyes were to different life experiences. To my mind, the best of her stories were the deceptively banal slice-of-life ones, as opposed to the white-guilt-marrying-into-money-and-honeymooning-in-the-Maldives ones.

Plot-wise, the stories generally focus on the structural inequalities that Australians battle every day. In that sense, it’s a lot like Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, or (to use an overseas example) Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. Cheng has written about people and their problems (as opposed to problems personified), and in so doing, made their struggles tangible without the telling of them coming across as moralistic or patronising.

All of Cheng’s characters are seeking something elusive, at times ineffable, and there are few happy endings. Some of the stories – ‘Ticket Holder Number 5’ in particular – offer the clang of revelation that I look for in short stories. Others fell a bit… well, short. Still others were perhaps ahead of their time; ‘Big Problems’ struck me as a precursor to novels like Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age. So, as with any short story collection (with maybe a notable exception or two), I’d say that this one is hit and miss. Some are great, some are okay, and each reader will probably have their own opinion as to which is which.

8 Great Book Podcasts For Book Lovers

Well, after my memory lapse earlier this week (where I couldn’t remember which of the book podcasts I listen to recommended a great book to me), I got to thinking: why not just shout out a whole bunch of great book podcasts all at once? I’m a podcast junkie (in fact, that’s why I almost never get around to listening to audiobooks, no time!), and given my general area of interest, most of my favourite podcasts are bookish in nature. So, here’s a round up of all the best podcasts for book lovers…

8 Great Book Podcasts for Book Lovers - Text Overlaid on Image of Headphones - Keeping Up With The Penguins

One Great Book

One Great Book - Podcast Logo

Most people know Anne Bogel best for her What Should I Read Next? bookish matchmaking podcast, or her long-running Modern Mrs Darcy blog (both are fabulous, by the way!). But her newest book podcast is actually my favourite: One Great Book. In it, she digs through her reading archives and dusts off the hidden gems, those back-list books you might have missed while you were reading. These are short, bite-sized episodes, perfect to squeeze in when you’re after a reading recommendation but you don’t have a lot of time.

Best book recommendation: There have been a few (and more coming every season!), but I never would have picked up Rules Of Civility by Amor Towles without Anne’s recommendation.

Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sydney Writers' Festival - Podcast Logo

I’m an annual volunteer at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, so maybe I’m biased, but this has to be one of the best podcasts for book lovers who can’t always make it to large-scale inner-city literary events in person (I mean, no one can this year, but you get my drift). Volunteering means I can’t always attend events I’d like to see myself, but I go home happy, knowing that in a few weeks or months a recording of the session will be uploaded to the podcast feed. I swear, it’s just like being there! (Except better, because you can save your favourites to listen to over and over again, and rewind if you miss something.) I’m so grateful that the SWF crew goes to so much effort to provide such high-quality recordings – for free!

Best book recommendations: Definitely too many to list, but the first one that comes to mind is Her Body And Other Parties, which I picked up after listening to Carmen Maria Machado’s Curiosity Lecture on Law & Order: SVU.

Harry Potter And The Sacred Text

Harry Potter And The Sacred Text - Podcast Logo

Harry Potter And The Sacred Text is a great book podcast, but maybe not in the way that you’re expecting. As the title suggests, Vanessa and Casper are reading their way through the Harry Potter books chronologically (one chapter per episode), treating them as a sacred text. This means drawing life lessons, inspiration, hard truths, and new insights from the Harry Potter stories – the way we would religious texts, or other sacred writings. This book podcast has had more impact on my non-bookish life than any other, and it’s a must-listen if you’re searching for something on which you can meditate for a while.

Best book recommendation: Well, given the premise, it’s pretty obvious… but I’ve got to say, I’ve got a whole new appreciation for Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, having heard Vanessa’s read of Professor Umbridge.


Annotated - Podcast Logo

Annotated is produced by the experts at Book Riot, so you know they know their stuff! This one is more of an in-depth look at book history and phenomena: The Babysitter’s Club, for example, or the crisis that caused the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature to be completely cancelled. No matter what the subject of any given episode, I always pick up fascinating trivia! All of the Book Riot book podcasts are great, but this one is the cream of the crop in my opinion.

Best book recommendation: again, not strictly a recommendation, but their episode on the publication history of Ulysses by James Joyce was super-helpful when I was putting together my own review!

Talking Words

Talking Words - Podcast Logo

Another potential bias alert: I was lucky enough to study with the host of Talking Words at university, and Better Read Than Dead (the bookshop that has taken the leap into producing book podcasts) is one of my favourite local haunts. That said, Olivia has managed to secure an ongoing series of interviews with truly fascinating authors right across the spectrum – memoirists, activists, award-winning fiction writers, and more. I love hearing them delve into the nitty-gritty of their subjects and the writing process.

Best book recommendation: hands down Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save The World!

Chat 10 Looks 3

Chat 10 Looks 3 - Podcast Logo

Alright, we’re briefly veering away from strictly-bookish territory. I can’t honestly call Chat 10 Looks 3 one of the best book podcasts… BUT it is definitely one of the best podcasts for book lovers! Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb talk about everything under the sun – music, movies, podcasts, cooking – but their book recommendations are the reason I tune in. Seriously, they’ve never recommended me a dud, not one! And while I subscribe for the book chat, I definitely hang around for the banter; nothing cheers me up more than hearing Crabb and Sales calling one another out on “smug bundts” (the Chatters out there understand).

Best book recommendation: Technically, they talked about She Said after I’d already read (and lovedlovedloved) it, so I’m going to go with Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodessa-Akner. But seriously, whatever they recommend is pretty much guaranteed to be a winner for me.

The To-Read List

I’m almost a little embarrassed about how much I love The To-Read List. I’m worried Bailey, Toby, and Andrew are going to think I’m lovingly-online-stalking them (I’m not, I swear… much). And it’s not just that I totally relate to the goal of the show (to read all of the 125 144 153 unread books on Bailey’s bookshelves). It’s the quirky episode titles, the trivia games, the dubstep remix of the show’s theme song for mini-episodes, the attempts to get Bailey’s husband to read the final installment of the Harry Potter series… Every time I listen, it’s like a wonderful little reminder of the joy of reading and the delight of talking about books with friends and family. This is the My Dad Wrote A Porno of book podcasts.

Best book recommendation: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – I was always hesitant, but I figured if Bailey could get through it in two weeks and take from it as much as she did, I could too!

The Garret

The Garret - Podcast Logo

Let’s be honest: most readers (if not all) harbour a secret desire to write their own books. Right? That’s where The Garret shines among podcasts for book lovers. To quote the show’s subtitle, it’s “interviews by writers, for writers”. Name any of the greats of Australian literature – Charlotte Wood, Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Lucashenko – and you can be sure they’ve sat down with Astrid Edwards and shared incredibly personal and illuminating stories about their writing and their lives. The Garret is always fascinating, always inspiring, and a true pillar of the Aussie literary landscape.

Best book recommendation: The Garret is where I discovered J.P. Pomare, and I was so struck by his interview that I ran out and bought Call Me Evie right away!

Know of any more great book podcasts? Got your own list of podcasts for book lovers? Drop your suggestions in the comments below! (And, a friendly reminder: always rate, review, and subscribe to book podcasts you love – it really does help them out!)

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