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Best of Melbourne

I went to Melbourne for five days recently. I’ve been to Melbourne a few times before and always enjoy it. It’s the type of city that’s fun to visit, but also has a feeling of liveability. There’s some places I love to visit, but I can’t envisage myself living there, or I don’t think living there would be all that great.

Funnily enough, while I still think that, this time that I visited Melbourne, while I still think it would be a fantastic city to live in, I can’t see myself living there right now. I thought that maybe on this trip I would feel that I’d ‘found my place in the world’, but I think my place must be a bit further a field at the moment. I’m definitely keeping Melbourne on my futures list, though.

Anyway, in no particular order, here’s some things I enjoyed when I was there and think you should check out if you get the chance.

Degraves Espresso. I can’t speak about the food at this cafe, as I just went for a pre-breakfast coffee (we got breakfast free at our hotel and I was being cheap), but the coffee was definitely good. So good that when I finished my first soy latte, I felt compelled to order another. Sitting there sipping your coffee and people-watching is one of those quintessentially Melbourne experiences, I think.

Retrostar Vintage. There’s a lot of good vintage shopping in Melbourne, but I found a lot of it quite expensive compared to K Rd prices in Auckland and it wasn’t that much better to warrant the prices. Retrostar definitely has a lot of stuff to choose from and it’s prices are pretty good. It’s a large warehouse-style building that has a huge amount of stock that’s worth a rummage through. I found a fabulous 1960s champagne lace-overlay dress for A$65.

Circa Vintage. I actually didn’t buy anything here, but I think it’s worth the trip out to Fitzroy. It has a small selection of clothes, but all well selected. This is somewhere if you’re lucky, and if you have the budget, you could pick up something truly special. And the shop itself just has a nice 1940s kind of vibe to it, old-fashioned music playing and the shop girl dressed in vintage attire while ironing some new acquisitions.

Little Cupcakes. This is in Degraves St (so goes perfectly with a coffee from Degraves Espresso). I had a mini mocha cupcake and my mum had a lamington cupcake. Both were devine. There are numerous other flavours, and you can get mini or regular-size versions. If I lived in Melbourne, this would be a weekly treat. Mmm.

AIX Cafe Crepierie Salon. This is in Centre Place, which is another little iconic piece of Melbourne. Surrounded by the tables and graffiti and shops and people walking past, this is tucked away, a little hole-in-the-wall kind of place. I went there in the afternoon after the lunch rush so I could get a table (there’s only about three), but it’s well worth finding the time. I had a sticky date crepe with caramel sauce and double cream. It’s as rich as it sounds, and was amazing for about three-quarters of it before I fell into a food-induced coma. There’s a large variety of options for those not as brave or stupid as I. The berries with yoghurt and rosewater sounded nice to me for next time. And there’s also a lot of savoury ones as well. Good value, delicious and filling.

Scarlette & Sly. This is also in Centre Place. It may be best to come here before eating a large crepe, as trying on clothes with a full stomach is never much fun, and I’m sure you’ll want to try something on. From what I understand, this shop stocks local Melbourne designers. I bought a great navy blazer here, something I’d been looking for for a long time, but hadn’t managed to find the right combination of relaxed and tailored, smart and casual. It was half price as well, so only $75, but it’s original price of $150 was pretty reasonable, I thought, for a well-made classic piece. It’s chain store prices, but not everyone is going to have it.

Finally, I didn’t get to do this, but I guess you have to leave something for next time – Rooftop Cinema at the top of Curtin House. And Cookie Bar & Restaurant downstairs is meant to have excellent cocktails, so I’m told.

And just because this is a Melbourne-themed post, this is one of my favourite blogs at the moment, Lady Melbourne.

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The blue river of truth: How Fiction Works

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That’s right, people, I can do a book review, because I finally finished a book!

I bought How Fiction Works by James Wood from Shakespeare & Co Booksellers on Broadway in New York City. My friend Kate and I stumbled upon it when going for a walk around the Village one night, and ended up spending ages there just looking at the amazing array of books.  It’s one of the best bookshops I’ve been to.

I love bookshops. They’re my happy place. Which is seems slightly absurd now, considering how little I read and the anxiety that causes me, but I find them such a calming place. When I was stressed out doing my masters thesis, the two places that I knew would bring me peace and calm was either making my then boyfriend drive me to the pet store so I could go and look at the puppies – they always made me forget my worries – or otherwise going to the University Bookshop. I could just wander around it for hours, looking at books, enjoying the quiet. Bookshops just feel like knowledge in a bottle. It’s all just sitting there waiting for you to drink it in.

There’s just something beautiful and familiar about a bookshop for me, and I’ve realized that I gravitate towards them when I travel. Thinking about my trip to New York and surrounds, we ended up in bookshops a lot – we ate dinner at a bookshop twice in Washington DC, we had coffee and cake at a bookshop in Boston each night we were there, we had coffee and cake in another bookshop in Georgetown. (It seems like there’s often eating involved with the books). And I can vividly remember spending a long time in a bookshop in Kota Kinabalu in Borneo when I was there. I’m heading to Blenheim this weekend and if it weren’t for the fact that I’m arriving after lunchtime on Saturday, and therefore outside of opening hours in Blenheim, I would head along to my favourite little bookshop there, just to wander amongst the books and see what they’re displaying and promoting as their recommended books of the moment.

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James Wood is widely considered to be one of, if not the best book critic of his generation. He currently writes for The New Yorker, and before that wrote for The New Republic. He is also a professor of English at Harvard University, so his credentials for explaining how fiction works are impeccable.

I really enjoyed how this book was set out. I’d read in some reviews that it made the argument of the book weaker, but to me it was one of the book’s strengths. It’s set out in large chapters, but within those there are shorter sections, and some of them are incredibly short, as in half a page. No doubt it’s because of my increasingly miniscule attention span that I enjoyed this set-up. It was like the book was cut into bite-size pieces. It was particularly helpful for a book of this nature, for while it’s certainly written for a popular audience, it is still quite literary and academic in nature, so with these short sections, you don’t get bogged down in terminology.

What I will take away from this book is not so much that I now know ‘how fiction works’ – although I do know more about the basic elements that go into fiction writing, styles of narrative etc – but the unadulterated joy that Wood takes in close reading.  This book made me excited to read again. It made me want to go back and reread some novelists that I love, like Zadie Smith or Michael Ondaatje, for their ability to just completely encapsulate the nature of a person in a few sentences or to describe the world in language so beautiful that it makes you look at it the mundane wonder.

There are some authors that just seem to have the ability to so perfectly explain something you have felt or someone you know or some characteristic of life.  Wood explains it thus “And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.” (244)

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It’s that ability of fiction to make one sympathise with others, to understand their motivations and to see the world through different eyes that Wood posits is one the art form’s major strengths. He rages against the ‘contagion of moral niceness’ that sees readers and reviewers complain about being expected to identify with unsavoury characters, arguing that the very nature of literature encourages readers to move beyond their own experience and that this is a “moral and sympathetic education of its own kind”.

On the cover of the book, a Time reviewer is quoted saying ‘The pleasure of the book lies in watching Wood read.” That pleasure and enthusiasm Wood feels (he’s a liberal user of the exclamation mark) is infectious and it made me excited to read again, to revel in the beauty of language and to cherish that knowledge we gain from seeing ourselves and our world reflected in that blue river of truth.

 

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Top 5 Records

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Here are five songs that I’m finding inspiration from at the moment.

Gotye – Heart’s a Mess

Gotye’s an Australian musician who made his music at home in his bedroom while working as a librarian, which makes me like him even more.

Delta Spirit – People C’mon

This song makes me feel like I should be in a dark bar drinking dark spirits. It’s rousing and uplifting, but also gritty.

Turin Brakes – Dark on Fire

I love the music video for this. The children give it such an eerie, otherworldly sense which really matches the lyrics.

A Fine Frenzy – Electric Twist

Something a bit more upbeat. This has such a summery feel to it, and I like how it’s such a departure from her usual piano-driven ballads.

Thievery Corporation – The Forgotten People

An instrumental song. I heard this on True Blood and just had to find out who it was by. The beat is just so sexy.

And finally, if you haven’t seen Shakira’s video for Did It Again, you should. The song’s all right, but the choreography of Shakira and dancer Daniel ‘Cloud’ Campos dancing on a bed is pretty incredible. I want to be able to move like that in my next life.

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All I Have to Offer You (is me)

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I went to see the film Samson & Delilah a few weekends ago. It’s a film that has received really good reviews, which always makes for slightly complicated viewing for me in that it raises expectations.

I wasn’t blown away by it at the time, but the film has really stayed with me, and it has made me think about the world around me in a slightly different way, which to me is the mark of a great film.

Samson & Delilah offers a window into the world of two Aboriginal teenagers living on a small reservation-type settlement in the middle of the Australian desert.

The film itself is unusual in that there is very little dialogue; the two main characters remaining virtually silent through most of the film.

It’s remarkable that first-time writer/director Warwick Thornton had the bravery to write a film which is so sparse in its use of language.

Thornton is himself an Aboriginal of the settlements, and he was basically illiterate when he decided to write the script of Samson & Delilah. I imagine that there could be a temptation to overwrite the story so that he felt more secure it would be understood in a particular way, but by leaving a lot of the film in silence, there is more space for the viewer to make their own interpretation of events, a space where the viewer has to participate, and Thornton creates a film that’s more challenging because of that. There’s no rhetoric or commentary to agree or disagree with. There are no easy answers.

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In the film, Warwick’s brother, Scott, plays the old transient Gonzo. In an interview with Thompson on National Radio, he discusses how he wrote the role specifically for his brother, who has lived rough and been under the influence of alcohol for most of his life.  After three rehabs and nine months, Scott was finally ready for the role. But after filming finished, he went bush and back to the bottle.

Through various events, Samson and Delilah end up living rough under a bridge in Alice Springs. One particularly heartbreaking scene which struck close to my heart was when Delilah walks through the streets of Alice while people sip their lattes at the café, turning their heads and avoiding eye-contact with the homeless girl.

I thought of this yesterday when walking home from work. As I walked my usual route down Victoria St, I noticed that the homeless people who are usually scattered around the sidewalk were not there. But when I got down to Queen St, I saw the homeless man who is often on Victoria St, an extremely large man with a bushy grey bread. I want to say that he wears sunglasses, but I don’t know if I’ve willfully imagined that because I don’t look at his eyes.

I never know quite what to do or how to respond to the homeless in Auckland. I think part of me feels that we have a benefit system in NZ, so there’s not actually any need for people to live on the streets. So it can become easy to think that they’re there by something resembling choice.

But then I imagine the benefit system in Australia is similar to the one here, and so while there was no need for Samson and Delilah to end up on the streets, that’s just the way it worked out, and I don’t think you could say it’s their fault, or their ‘choice’.  And if the character of Gonzo is meant to represent the life Samson is headed for, and in turn there’s little difference between Gonzo and the homeless man on Queen St, then that does make me feel differently about his ‘choice’ to live on the streets.

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I don’t like the idea of giving money to people living on the streets, because I imagine a lot of people are living that life because of various addictions, and there’s no way to tell what that money will be spent on, so I lean towards the idea of giving food, and yet I can’t imagine the big man is lacking food. He’s been living on the streets for at least a year as far as I can remember and has not gotten visibly smaller.

I remember my cousin, who is a schoolteacher, telling me how a teenager at the Wellington train station begging for money approached her. But instead of simply giving him some loose change or ignoring him, she asked him why he wasn’t at school and talked to him and gave him contact details of people who could hopefully help him get out of that situation.

I guess maybe the best I could offer is conversation or even a smile, a look, a hello, rather than looking away, as I always seem to find myself doing now. Maybe I’ll be too gutless to start a conversation, but at least if I offer a smile, I’ll be offering something.

http://www.samsonanddelilah.com.au/

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