More like this

Alice Cottrell, Publisher

This month I’ve been racing through the archives of the brilliant Slate podcast Decoder Ring. In each episode host Willa Paskin takes a cultural question, object, or habit, examines its history, then tries to figure out its cultural significance. The topics are diverse – from gender reveal parties to cancel culture in the 1860s – and the deep-dives are all totally fascinating. My favourite episode so far has got to be ‘Sad Jennifer Aniston’, which deconstructs 90s tabloid culture and its treatment of women.

I started reading graphic novels last year and I haven’t stopped in 2020. A few recent favourites include The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden and Saving Grace by Grace Wilson.

Alan Vaarwerk, Editor

I can’t stop thinking about Netflix’s documentary series Cheer, following a troupe of teenage cheerleaders at a Texas college. Even as I am baffled and a little unsettled by the sport itself – high-performance gymnastics combined with a vaguely cultish display of American jingoism – I’m enthralled and charmed by the diverse cast of teenagers for whom cheerleading is a community, a purpose and a lifeline from a life of hardship.

Beyond the road-to-victory storyline, the series prompts questions about what it means to be the best and stay the best – the true-believer coaches and staff are both supportive and relentless in their pushing these literal children beyond the limits of human movement and endurance. There’s an air of melancholy to the simultaneous camaraderie and fierce competitiveness of team selections, and the fact that it will all vanish the minute they graduate – a combination that, as fickle and problematic as it is, has me rooting for them regardless, and hoping they’ll be okay on the other side.

It’s also prompted some great cultural commentary and reflection – here are a few of my favourites.

Elizabeth Flux, ‘Grave Concerns’

I’ve been hooked on the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries TV series ever since it was described to me as ‘Miss Marple but in Australia and sexy’. Crime, 1920s costumes, the opportunity to yell ‘that’s Trades Hall!’ whenever it features as the set. What’s not to like? So, it seems a bit odd that it took me until this month (when, coincidentally, the first Miss Fisher movie is set to come out) to finally dig into the book series that the television show is based on.

Cocaine Blues is the first in the 20 book series by author Kerry Greenwood. It introduces readers to Phryne Fisher – the fiercely independent and fabulously wealthy lady-detective-in-the-making as she’s thrown into a complex and dangerous mystery involving Turkish baths, communists, and a mysterious drug baron called ‘the king of snow’. It’s a camp adventure that balances light and dark, and highlights issues of sexism and classism that are sadly still as relevant as they were in the 1920s.

Alex Creece, ‘Finding Old Beginnings, at the End’

I like to double-fist (and triple-fist) books to stay engaged with multiple genres at once. I’ve recently finished reading Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word (edited by David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu), which is an excellent poetry collection to savour over time. With a multitude of poets and poetic styles, it showcases an intersection of bold voices from this region. It contains a little something for everyone – accessible to poetry lovers and novices alike. As the contributors to Solid Air are performance poets, this also added a unique layer to my reading. I imagined how the works might sound aloud in the authors’ distinct voices, and considered what I was missing (and perhaps gaining) by reading them on the page.

In the fiction genre, I’ve just started reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, which is – so far – gorgeous! I’m in awe of any book that somehow makes it possible to fall even deeper in love with literature. And on the side, I’m (once again) skimming through Alison Bechdel’s collection of comics, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. Classic!

Ellen Wengert, ‘Automate Me: Losing my Job to a Robot’

I’ve found it hard this month to read as much as I usually like to, because I’ve just started my first teaching job and am getting used to the longer work days and my first ever driving commute. I thought the forty-minute drive to the outer suburbs and back each day would be a good opportunity to get through some of the podcasts people are always recommending me, but instead I’ve been ​almost physically unable to stop listening to Purple Mountains’ self-titled album, which came out last year. I’ve listened to it more times than I can count but am still finding new allusions and turns of phrase that I somehow missed before. It’s an ostensibly bleak album overall, particularly in light of David Berman’s death, but I’m also often struck by its moments of assurance and hope. Berman (best known for Silver Jews) was really without  rival – every one of his lines is brilliant and funny as hell.

When I have had time, I’ve been dipping back into some of the very funny stories in The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff. I’ve read it in its entirety more times than I can count too (it’s only 139 pages), but as with Purple Mountains, I’m still finding new things – new allusions and turns of phrase, and even whole new punchlines – to appreciate.

Brooke Maddison, ‘How Changing My “Ethnic” Surname Changed Me’

I was lucky enough to start the year in India at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The festival is much like India itself: diverse (with​ sessions in over 27 languages), inspirational, expansive, challenging and chaotic. Highlights included a rousing queer panel (You Will Be Safe Here) with an all-too-brief musical singalong and Elizabeth Gilbert’s headline-grabbing call for a dialogue on female sexuality that is rooted in desire. 

Due to the limitations of travelling I had to curb my usual festival book buying frenzy. I started reading Lemn Sissay’s memoir My Name is Why on the plane home. Sissay’s is a remarkable story – taken from his Ethiopian mother by British authorities, sent to live with a white foster family, spending most of his teens in institutionalised care. There’s no doubt that he has a story to tell, but Sissay has woven this story together with poetry and notes from his adoption files in order to create a new kind of narrative that explores family, language, Britishness and the idea of home.