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The pages turn on

My hard heart — Helen Garner

This book of short fiction is another of my Library discoveries: I’ve heard Helen Garner’s name a lot — she’s pretty big in Australian literature — so I grabbed this book of short fiction to gain a taste of her work. It’s pretty awesome; the stories focus on the dynamics between people in short episodes. Some of the stories are longer and more involved, and others are only a page or two. She uses different styles of voice and flow, all convincingly. Garner’s writing is really sparse, not a word wasted, but there is so much conveyed, the priorities and attitudes that make up a person’s whole personality are immediately real. Their lives, with all the pain, tedium, joy and humour that make up normal lives, feel clear and believable. The actions and dialogue of the characters are similarly thoughtful and perfectly paced, and the settings are flawless. The precision of Garner’s writing is awesome; this book was a very good introduction to her voice.

(Oooh, and I found some more: some of her articles for The Monthly. Fantastic stuff.)

The White Album— Joan Didion

A random book! I grabbed this one off the sorting shelves at the library because…well, because I had a bunch of others and her blurb looked interesting. And damn if it wasn’t interesting! The White Album is a collection of essays by US journo Joan Didion, reflecting on a few different aspects of American culture at the close of the 60s. As someone who doesn’t have any experience with US culture in the 60s (apart from general cultural understanding and references to it in the Simpsons), it was eye-opening to read about it from the perspective of someone watching its close. Didion’s disillusionment with the way the ideals of the 60s played out is worth chewing over. The emotive power behind the push for revolution that fascinated a lot of people in the 60s seems betrayed or washed over by the influence of media, adopted by many as a social trend rather than a true commitment to change. The essays in The White Album pull apart social meaning as embodied in US institutions like Hollywood, Ronald Reagan’s house, and assorted major social/political figures from the 60s and 70s, and I loved it. Not due to schadenfreude (WHERE ARE YOUR GODS NOW?) but because as you strip away false icons, you create room to find true ones. Didion looks at icons of powerful personal significance to her — unexpected ones like the Hoover Dam and an orchid breeder in Malibu — and from there finds meaning and relevance in a period of cultural chaos. This is the most potent thing the book gave me, I think: a challenge to accepted cultural elements that are supposed to be embraced, the freedom to express disappointment or regret when those cultural elements don’t deliver on their promises, and an example of finding meaning and truth outside those elements.

In Defence of Food — Michael Pollan
I heard an interview with Michael Pollan in 2008 where he discussed the opening line to In Defence of Food and the principles by which to eat that he reaches over the course of the book. The opening line “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”, when discussed in a bit more detail, was seriously eye-opening for me and triggered a way of thinking and perceiving the standard Western food culture. Over the following years, I changed a lot. I already thought of myself as a healthy eater, but as read more — food and cooking blogs especially — I realised how many little fibs I’d bought into in my food purchases. Gradually, most of the processed stuff we bought disappeared from our pantry, as M and I got better at making our own stuff. I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s first book, which examined the way food gets to our tables — looking at agriculture, abbatoirs, hunting, growing, etc. It was awesome and really set the path of growth for the way I now look at food. So it was a bit of a surprise to remember that I never got around to reading In Defence of Food until now. It was fantastic. I spent a bit of time nodding in agreement — “Ah yes, Michael, well put. I would have said the same myself.” — but nipped that in the bud. It’s short, arresting and well-written. It’s divided into three parts: the first is an explanation and history of nutritionism and a discussion of the problems that have emerged as a result. The second is a history of the Western diet (changes in agriculture and industrialised food processing, for example) and how our diet got to the state it’s in. The third is the “now what” bit: an explanation of how to break free of a lot of the problems inherent in our food culture and how to find out what to eat. It’s a fantastic book: it’s clear, short, gripping, interesting, logical, and enthusiastic. While I admit it matched the way I feel about food and eating already, so I’m a bit biased: I loved it. It’s exciting and positive and liberating.

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