Thursday, December 18, 2014

Melbourne: Art, Conversation, and the Limits of Google & Yelp

If the first thing that struck me about Cairns was the birds, the first thing that struck me about Melbourne was the buildings. Melbourne is old enough to have a mix of modern and classic architecture, but there was something uniquely exciting about the newer stuff that surrounded us. And Melbourne is a street art city. We were staying near the university, with its art school, so our concentration was probably slightly skewed, but just about everywhere else there were murals and graffiti art. This gave the entire city a kind of pulse or a sense of energy or propulsion. I honestly don't know what kind of art is happening in Melbourne now, but the overtness and publicness of it in their streetscapes made me feel as if the city must be a hotbed of creativity.
Our Victoria Market Lunch

We spent time at the Queen Victoria Market, which was a massive semi-enclosed market that sold basically everything (though we didn't stray too far from the sections selling food) and was the only place in our travels we found that had a coffee shop that made cold brew iced coffee. (Which they served in shot glass portions), the botanical gardens (which Riss would've slept in if given the options. Pictures below.) and the museum (because we always spend time in the museum). The museum was good, though not one that really stood out in the world of museums, but the botanical garden was a real highlight.
Melbourne Skyline from our hostel

As I mentioned in my post about travel, to me, there is something exciting in the simple act of seeing something I have never seen before and a massive botanical garden in the a different hemisphere is guaranteed to be filled with things I've never seen before, even if I, personally, don't have the botanical knowledge to truly appreciate the difference and diversity. Even if I couldn't tell how this type of parsley was different from the type in my fridge, just knowing it was, and that I will likely never see it again, was thrilling. Perhaps the starkest example of that personal and global fragility was the section of the garden dedicated to endangered species. Every plant in that section was threatened, like the Great Barrier Reef, with extinction by climate change, human development and/or invasive species. Humans are a very strange species, often capable of preserving a scrap of something in a zoo or museum because of its importance to us and the world, while we destroy it everywhere else.

As much fun as we had eating and drinking and looking, the three highlights of our Melbourne trip were of a slightly different nature. In chronological order:

Martin Day!
View from Mount Dandenong
Martin is engaged to one of the booksellers at PSB and he lives in Melbourne, so we were able to connect with him for a day of driving around the South Yarra Valley. The South Yarra is something like the Napa Valley in California, a concentration of vineyards and their attendant industries, which I assume involves quite a lot of cheese and cracker making. There were also a good number of brewpubs so were able to sample the wares of man of brewers and vineyards. We even bought a case of wine to send home (which, at time of writing has been returned to sender by someone in Los Angeles for reasons we are having a very difficult time ascertaining), met Martin's parents (who grew up in Poland, before fleeing Communist oppression to South Africa, before pursuing economic opportunity in Australia, and probably have one hell of a life story) and had a pretty solid burger for dinner. But as with so much about, well, life, I guess, it is difficult, if not impossible for me to communicate the most important part of Martin day. Starting when he picked us up, and through a quick snack and drink at the coffee shop and restaurant where he works all the way through till when he dropped us of, was one long, relatively uninterrupted, sprawling, brilliant conversation.

How to Get Drunk in Melbourne
Now THIS is kimchi
Not that we set out to spend our entire time in Melbourne intoxicated, but we did want to try a fair amount of local beer. However, even with the reputation for alcoholic excess Australia has, on our budget, actually getting drunk was fairly difficult. Pints were all at least $8.50 USD and given that it was variety were going for, we usually opted for “pots” which were half pints (I think) at about $5-6 USD. That adds up pretty quickly. And then one night we made our way to a cool looking little place not far from our hostel that turned out to be a Korean restaurant. The food was amazing, including the house made kimchi and the other appetizers we had. But they also served a range of delicious and very potent plum wines and a massive two-person cocktail not unlike a scorpion bowl. Riss and I hadn't really planned on staying in any one place that night, but that's where we ended our night. They also were playing a mix of American music from the 90s, which was weird, but in the perfect kind of way weird can be weird, that paired well with drinking a beverage we couldn't pronounce while eating damn near a pound of kimchi.

The Inadequacy of Google & Yelp
Tasting flight from James Squire
You've caught on about the whole looking for craft beer thing? Well, we searched on Google and Yelp and used the craft beer app Untapped looking for bars that served a lot of local craft beers and the results of those searches were disappointing. What we tended to find were bars with one or two craft beers on tap. As we learned when talking to a brewer, part of this problem was that Australia is still about fifteen years (his words) behind the states in terms of craft brewing and there are some costs and regulations that are constricting the market, but, a bigger part of the problem, as you'll see, is that Google, Yelp, and Untapped rely on metadata and can only work with what metadata they're given. Often, especially in terms of small, local, businesses and attractions, the internet doesn't know enough about them to tell would be customers. However, people often do have that data.

At Moon Dog Brewery
The brewer for James Squire (pretty much Australia's Sam Adams) gave us directs to a place called Moon Dog Brewery, which was near the end of a somewhat sketchy street in an old mechanic's shop, with a pizza food truck parked outside. This (THIS!) was what we were looking for. Given the atmosphere and the d├ęcor it could've been a friends garage, if that friend happened to also sell awarding beer. We ended up chatting with one of the bartenders there (Pat) and he told us Forester's Hall was the next place we should hit. Not only that but he gave us a note to give to one of the bartenders there that said to put two particular pots of beer he wanted us to try on his tab. (When we handed the note over, the bartender at Forester's said, “This is totally something Pat would do.”) We had more good beer and more good food. If this had been any other night in our trip, we would've followed bartender suggestion to bartender suggestion until some exhausted and elated versions of ourselves stumbled back to our hostel, but, as this was our last night in Melbourne and we had to get up at like 5 in the morning to catch our flight to Christchurch we went home after that.

The Biggest Surprise on Our Trip
So weird
I bought shoes. Seriously. How weird is that? And they weren't like, shoes with books in them or something. Florsheim is one of the few brands that makes shoes that fit my, essentially square hobbit feet. There was a Florsheim store near our hotel. They were having a sale. Throw in the exchange rate and, in a shocking turn of events, Josh Cook bought shoes on vacation.

The Botanical Gardens

South Yarra Valley, Street Food, & Other Melbourne Pictures



Monday, December 15, 2014

Vacation Reading, Honeymoon Part 3

It will come as a shock to roughly 0% of you that I spent a lot of thought on what to bring with me to read and how to bring it. For airport-to-lodgings convenience, we decided to use our hiking backpacks and pack relatively lightly, both for travel weight and to leave room for the books we were going to buy while traveling. Luckily, I had recently purchased one of those fancy little touch screen computers that can also make phone calls and I already had a Kobo account, so I planned to do most of my reading on my phone. Then I had to choose what to read.

This was actually a fairly difficult decision, as I had to have options that were likely to fit with the brain space I would have when I got the chance to read. I had to aim for a middle space between the difficult challenging work that I enjoy and my preferred version of fluff, because, most likely, I wouldn't be up for scholarship, but I would still have enough energy to care about plot structure and sentence quality.

So, since I would be going to New Zealand I chose The Luminaries, a big Booker Prize winning novel rich in history and characters (I'd actually describe it as a museum of humanity as much as it is a novel.) and because it was associated in Edelweiss with a certain other book relevant to my interests, I also chose Inherent Vice. All told, I'd have to say I chose wisely. Both books have enough substance to keep my brain engaged, but not so much required difficulty (though both could stand up to more scrutiny than I gave them) that I couldn't handle them on the plane or after a full day of doing stuff.

And overall I didn't mind reading on my phone. It would never be my exclusive choice (more on that later) but it had its advantages. My favorite of those advantages is that it is very easy to sneak a couple minutes of reading here and there with the phone that is always in your pocket. I didn't get much of a chance to just sit and read for an hour or more (and I did miss that) but I was able to piece together a fair amount of reading time through stray moments here and there.

But, I couldn't bear the thought of my reading dependent upon battery life. I think this is one of those ideas that will distinguish people; either the thought of that dwindling battery with no other reading option sounds like an inconvenience you could deal with or the very thought of it is kindling the fires of a minor panic attack. So I needed a book that wasn't too heavy, both in intellectual and physical weight, and since I had a bunch of books in my queue already, something that I didn't need to finish. I considered a number of poetry collections before I ultimately went with Approximate Man & Other Writings by Tristan Tzara. The reason this particular collection rose to the top is because, well, I think about Dada a lot, and I sometimes fancifully wonder how different twentieth and twenty-first century literature would be, especially postmodernism and its various shades and incarnations, if Dada, with its willingness to embrace silliness, had subsumed Surrealism rather than the other way around, and so having Approximate Man handy would not only ease my reading anxiety, but contribute to one of “Josh's Grand Theories,” as well.

Oh and I bought the British Penguin Classic edition of The High Window The High Window by Raymond Chandler, because, goddamnit, I saw a shelf with all those orange covers, and goddamnit, I absolutely had to buy one.

And, of course, we also had to be buy books as well, specifically books that are not readily available in the U.S. (Which is actually, moderately difficult to do.) How were we able to choose books from a selection we were totally unfamiliar with, composed almost entirely of authors we had never heard of? It's actually a very sophisticated system, but I think I can break it down in such a way that you'll be able to apply it in your own travels. Here it is:
1. Ask the booksellers what to buy and then buy what they tell you to buy.

So, here's what they told us to buy.

The Naturalist by Thom Conroy 
Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne
Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley by Danyl McLaughlan
Civilization: Twenty Places On the Edge of the World by Steve Braunias
I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier Tales by Lawrence Patchett

One final word about our the reading and book buying on our trip. Books are really, really expensive in Australia and New Zealand. There's freight, there's tax, there's the exchange rate. Add that all up and a TRADE PAPERBACK, ends up as $27.09 in U.S. dollars. So please, please, please, given that the library provides access to free books, given that Project Gutenburg provides free books, given that the cost of books has not kept place with inflation, and given that there are places in the world where books cost vastly more than they do here, can we stop saying books are too expensive? Yes, in light of the wage stagnation that has dragged down the American economy for nearly forty years now (Thanks Reagan!) the new book you want might represent a greater percentage of your disposable income than you would prefer, but the solution to that is not whining about indie bookstores and then giving your money to a tax-dodging, union busting, money-losing, digitized warehouse, it's fighting to raise the minimum wage.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Venom, Bats and Getting our Footing in Cairns, Honeymoon Part 2

The classiest 11m crocodile bar I've ever seen.
It took us a day or two to put it into words, but at some point on our second day in Cairns, we realized what Cairns reminded us of. Originally a gold boom town, it eventually became a gateway port for the western interior, and is now something of a resort town as it is one of the ports with close access to the Great Barrier Reef. Though it's been over a century, Cairns hasn't quite shaken the atmosphere of a boom town, and it certainly hasn't shaken its “rustic” character. Touristy. Chintzy. A little rednecky. I say this with all due respect and affection. Cairns reminded us of Old Orchard Beach.

It's Australia. Even the signs are venomous.
But that was later. The first thing I noticed was the sound of birds. Such a cacophony of bird song so suddenly when the automatic airport door shushed open, and all of it unfamiliar. There was a lot that was familiar about Australia and New Zealand but this was such a sharp, sudden, moment of foreignness that it stuck with me throughout the trip. It told me, even more than the high heat and low humidity, that I was somewhere new.
Yes. This is a shrine.

Our first scheduled event was a trip to “Kuranda: The Rainforest Village,” on a historic railroad. We figured after 30 hours of travel a day composed mostly of sitting on a train was a solid plan. It was a relaxing, interesting and beautiful train ride. (See pictures.) And Kuranda itself? Well, sticking with our analogy, Kuranda was very much The Pier. Plenty of souvenirs. Galleries of local artists. A dinosaur “museum.” A boat tour to see crocodiles. The two big attractions at Kuranda for us were the rainforest walk (see pictures) and The Venom Museum, which was just as sideshowy, just as chintzy, just as touristy as everything else in Kuranda, but had snakes and spiders so obviously it was awesome. Perhaps the highlight of the tour was when SOMEONE you know asked a question that made the herpetologist say, “Are you a biologist?” (IT WAS RISSA!) and we learned that a genetic lineage leading back to a rodent-like mammal means some snake venom kills us but not our dogs.

That snake is climbing that branch & into your nightmares.
But the main reason we went to Cairns was because of a chance to snorkel along The Great Barrier Reef. For me, there was a moment when the talking part of my brain pretty much shut down and turned all of it's blood and oxygen over to the looking part of my brain. (The talking part of my brain rarely gives up its blood and oxygen.) In the square feet I could see below me, lived more ecological diversity than exists in Somerville. Everything was new. Everything was strange. Everything was different. Everything was an animal. And everything was fragile. Not just in the climate change sense, though certainly in the climate change sense, but also in the personal sense; this was a fleeting experience for me, one that I am unlikely to repeat. You want to absorb everything, but, really, the brain doesn't work that way and it is easy to be spend so much mental effort (and battery life) trying to preserve your experience, you have nothing left to feel the emotions of the experience. So, obviously, we took a helicopter back. (See Pictures) (Oh, quick tip. You have to go to an actual pharmacy to get Dramamine in Australia.)

Maybe I should've subtitled this post: Nightmare fuel
Cairns was, by far, the least “Josh and Rissa” of the cities we visited, but we had some good meals there (more on Asian food later), some good experiences, and got our footing in a foreign hemisphere. Oh. And on our last day, after breakfast, we saw this awesome tree, filled with awesome bats. It made one of us particularly happy.

Weird Travel Experience 2: There is no drip coffee in Oceania. Everything that is “coffee” is prepared by an espresso machine. Which really isn't a problem. Once I figured out that a “long black” is the closest thing to a “fuel for my day jolt of caffeine” I was good to go. Of course, not every “long black” was the same. Some were like Americanos. Some were like long shots. Some were like double-shots. So, one orders a drink, one receives it, one likes it or doesn't, and one moves on in the experience. Except for the coffee I got from the Hudsons in the Auckland Airport. That tasted like cigarettes and shame. And an “iced coffee” is, obviously a coffee with ice cream in it.

Kuranda Railway Pictures (Click to embiggen.)

The intrepid traveler still too jet-lagged to notice I'm taking a picture of her.

The outskirts of Cairns

Train painted to depict an aboriginal dream song.
One of those "vistas" one hears so much about.
This waterfall once drowned out all the speeches prepared for a bridge dedication ceremony making for a much better party.
View to the ocean.
This is also a waterfall, though farther away &, apparently, worth stopping the train for.

Rainforest Walk Pictures

Pretty sure this will kill you.  
Play "Find the animal before it kills you."
This is a kookaburra eating a cheeto & it will kill you.

Great Barrier Reef Pictures

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Amtrak Should Sponsor Book Tours (Like Mine!)

Social media has connected readers into communities in ways that were once impossible. Anybody, anywhere can tweet/blog/comment/post with their favorite writers or with other readers who share their tastes and passions. (I'm sure we'll get to civil debate at some point. Yep. Any day now.) This ability to connect gives us the opportunity to have a national, even global, literary culture while supporting a network of thousands of subcultures, specialties, and niches. We experience our shared humanity and our defining individuality. But for all that the internet can connect us, I don't think online connections can completely replace face-to-face interaction. We (most of us anyway) still have bodies at the end of our brains.

To me, at least, there is something irreplaceable about shaking an author's hand, or that moment when the signed book—with an inscription you can't wait to read but you put the book away without reading it because you also want to enjoy the anticipation—is handed back, or being a part of an audience for an amazing performance. There is something inspiring about discussing an experience with a total stranger as you leave a book store. Things happen when the chaos of an audience is mixed with the chaos of a writer in front of a microphone. But for the most part, the economics of publishing aren't conducive to extensive author tours. Travel and lodging costs are just too high. Especially in relation to the few dollars of profit of each potential sale. Simply put, the profit margins are too thin and the financial risk too great for most authors to travel extensively. Unless you're lucky enough to live in a major city or relatively near NYC or Boston (where, for a whole host of socio-economic reasons, many writers live), or you happen to live in one of the few cities that have become literary landmarks, you're very unlikely to meet your favorite author in person. And you're even less likely to see a debut author from a small press at the beginning of her career. Unfortunately, despite our connected society, “and I was there moments,” are still too far away for too many of us.

Since I moved to the Boston area, Amtrak's Downeaster has been my mode of travel when I go back to Maine. It's comfortable and affordable. I can read and write. I can get a snack or a beer. There's usually wifi. It's great. So I was really excited to see the establishment of the Amtrak Residency. To me anyway, the connection between trains and writing is natural. If the application period had come at a time when I wasn't editing a novel and planning a wedding, (Life hack: If at all possible, don't edit a novel and plan a wedding at the same time.) I absolutely would have applied. The residency really is a win/win for everyone involved; writers get a creative atmosphere to work in and the chance to travel and Amtrak gets goodwill from the literary community and the publicity from media coverage, essentially for free. But there is potential for more. The potential for Amtrak to become the vehicle of American literary culture.

Amtrak should sponsor author tours, especially authors that are less likely to tour, such as debut or mid-list authors from relatively small publishers. (You may know someone who fits that description. OK, you do and it's me!) With the exception of sold-out trains (which I have only seen one or two of in all the years I've taken the train) it would cost Amtrak pretty much nothing to contribute to an unparalleled literary culture. Just fill a seat no one was sitting in with an author on her way to a reading. Sure, there's only so much this would do. There would still be more readings in big cities and near the centers of publishing and a lot of people will still have to drive substantial distances to see their favorite authors, and there would still be financial risks for the publishers even with travel cost removed, but Amtrak tour sponsorship would still be a boon for authors, publishers, bookstores, and readers. And if, in exchange, Amtrak asks for an article in Arrive or posts on their blog or a Twitter Q&A or even to be named as sponsors by the author at the events themselves, well, I for one would see that as a fair exchange. And again, Amtrak could do all this good essentially at no cost to themselves.

Today's telecommunications creates a world vastly more connected than we ever could have imagined even fifteen years ago. But we still have bodies. We still seek meaning from information that can only be gleaned in person. So we turn to the great connector of the 19th century, to bridge some of the gaps left by our internet connected world. And it wouldn't cost Amtrak a penny. If Amtrak is looking for an author to start with, I'd gladly volunteer.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Notes from a Fiction Workshop Panel

I try to say “yes” whenever I'm invited to present or lead a panel or workshop, for purely selfish reasons. Putting together a presentation on anything; frontline bookselling, running a website, social media, fiction writing, forces me to formalize whatever it is I think I know about a topic. Preparing to teach someone else about something makes me question my assumptions and explore my habits, digging beyond the “I do this because it works,” attitude of meeting daily tasks, to find the reason why something works. Sometimes I find out that I have absolutely no idea why I do something the way I do. Sometimes (probably too often) I actually discover a way to improve the thing I'm supposed to be teaching other people how to do. If the logistics can work, I will almost always take the opportunity to participate in a workshop.

So when fellow PSB bookseller Mackenzie Lee (look for her YA gothic/steampunk re-examining of Frankenstein next Fall) asked me to be on a panel for the fiction-writing workshop she is teaching, I said “yes.” I was lucky enough to participate in a great writing discussion with Mackenzie's students, Camille DeAngelis, MarcyKate Connolly and Annie Cardi. (Might as well throw in a link to my book while I'm at it, which is available for preorder.) Along with answering questions about queries and covers (man, it is so easy to dream), we had a great discussion about writing. Here are some of the ideas that stuck with me from that conversation. I will attribute them as best I can, but I didn't record who said what in my notes so all attribution will be a guess.

It All Counts (Pretty sure this one was mine)
Writing happens in your brain and so everything you do, read, see, feel, eat, etc that goes into your brain, goes into your writing. More directly, everything you write, whether you publish it or not, goes into your writing brain. Even everything you delete, since it is part of an act of writing in your writing brain, contributes to the growth and development of your brain. So it all counts. Every single word you write, in any context, for any reason, and with any permanence or lack of permanence counts. Even the awful stuff. Even the terrible stuff. Even the stuff you realize upon reflection contributes to an ism you find repugnant. Even the embarrassing stuff, the personal stuff, the spiteful stuff, the boring stuff. If your goal is to write, every act of writing is valuable. (Which is different, so very different, from saying you should publish everything you write.) It all counts.

You Need Distance (I think we all said this at some point)
Perhaps the biggest barrier in improving a draft is the fact that you know what you're trying to do. Because you know what this scene is supposed to feel like or what reaction this character is supposed to engender in your reader, you tend to see those feelings and reactions whether they exist or not, in the exact same way that your brain will automatically fill in a word missing from a sentence. I think if it were possible to do a complete “previous draft memory wipe” every author would jump at the chance to attack their work with a virgin perspective. But even though that's impossible, you can create some distance, whether it's setting aside a draft for a few days (as I tend to) or six months.

Curious About Your Own Project
At some point, someone other than me (MarcyKate perhaps) used a phrase something like “being curious about my own project.” I love this idea. Writing axioms are interesting animals; they can be useful guidelines in what is essentially an impossible project but, if not critically examined they can hinder as much as they help, become crutches that limit exploration and blind you to opportunity. “Write what you know,” might be the most conflicted. To me, if you don't learn something through your writing process that you didn't know beforehand, how can you be confident a reader will learn anything she didn't know? (Obviously, nonfiction where you are writing about a specific topic which the average reader would likely not be familiar with is different.) For me, at least, part of the entire point of writing is to discover something through the process. But (and here's where the complexity of writerly axioms comes in) you still need a base to draw from, you need direct experiences and information to contribute to the verisimilitude of whatever it is you are trying to represent. You need, at a fundamental level, to know what you're talking about. (Which, in my mind means, “live an intellectually and emotionally interesting life so you have interesting stuff to write about.”) Writing out of curiosity is a wonderful image of the process, but it shouldn't be confused with writing out of ignorance.

You Know When it's Finished When You Don't Know What to Do Anymore
One of the impossible questions of writing that was asked at the workshop is “When do you know something is finished,” and my favorite answer (I think this was Annie) was, you know you are finished when you don't know what to do anymore. No work is ever finished. No work is every perfect. Though you might end up “satisfied” with something you've written, you'll never be Satisfied with anything you've written. But, at some point, after you've gotten feedback, after you've rewritten several times, after you've worked sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word through it, if you want to be a writer and not just someone who writes, you have to let it go. One way to know it's time to let it go: when you have no idea what else to do to it. You're staring at a draft, you've done everything else, and you just can't think of anything else to do. Then, it's finished.

To be honest, I'm not sure the art of writing can be taught and even though the craft of writing can be taught, I'm not sure it can be taught in such a way as to compensate if the art is absent in the writer. And I think that's a good thing. Art is important, in no small part, because it is mysterious, because some people can create it for some reason and other people can't for some reason, and that, despite (or because of) that mystery, art is able to communicate meaning and significance in unique and vital ways. But that doesn't mean I think there is no value in writing education. There's nothing about the craft of writing that prevents someone from acquiring that craft without any intention of being an artist or creating art. Obviously, I have something of a bias, but I believe the process of writing inherently creates an act of critical, emotional, and empathetic exploration of whatever it is you are writing about. Essentially, you can't help but have a more thorough and nuanced understanding of something you write about and our world seems to be a little short of of thorough and nuanced understanding.