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Reading/listening/watching

Since I'm unemployed and a layabout, I've been reading, watching, listening a lot more. It's not really of a piece with anything else I've used this letter for, but I never made any promises, so here's some half-baked reviewing which maybe I will repeat. (Although I am starting a job in eight days!)

I read Incendiary, by Chris Cleave, a not-very-long book that it's hard to say anything about without spoiling. It's fantastically compelling in an oddly uncomplicated way: seventy pages of gripping set piece, and after that no artifice, just the momentum of the opening and a steady unfolding of what it promises.

Very different to Lisa Ko's The Leavers, which knows exactly what it's about but takes its time. I've been thinking a lotabout culture and nationality, recently, so I was never going to feel anything but love for this, a story about Polly, an illegal immigrant from China in New York, and her son, trying to be American or Chinese or anything intermediate he can. If anything it suffers from being too well-crafted. Its strands are scattered across oceans and decades, and they're drawn together so impeccably and patiently that when the weave is complete and the story, for the last forty pages, has nowhere to go but forward, it suddenly starts to feel shallow and cursory. Which is a shame, because the book is so stuffed with such perfectly drawn characters and lovely scenes that it's frustrating to finish it unsatisfied. Still: read the book.

And maybe it's just that I don't like endings, because I also left the cinema after Call Me By Your Name mildly annoyed, even though the more I think about it the more I think it was almost flawless. The irritation came from a second-to-last scene that tried to imbue the film's conclusion with a sadness that I just couldn't see in it. The story is about a teenage boy's summer tryst in northern Italy with a cocky American graduate student, and of course they do not end up together - because how could they - and it's an exceptional rendering of a heady first relationship. It's filled with drama and emotion and discovery, and then it ends, and the end feels desperate to the people in it but isn't, really, because it's just the chaos of that first time. Possibly it works better in the book the film is based on, which is narrated from teenage Elio's point of view, but here we are on the outside being asked to take this childish heartbreak as seriously as he does. And I couldn't! So I was annoyed.

I do not feel bad about giving away the plot, since it's quite telegraphed and since the brilliance of the film is elsewhere: in the comical, excruciating contrast of the American guest and his European surrounds; the way it captures the heart of a long bourgeois summer, its cast of irrelevant, entertaining visitors and roster of pointless leisures; the way it manages to make you feel all the warmth and awkwardness of testing the waters even for an affair you know perfectly well is preordained. It's beautifully shot and acted. Cut the boring paternal monologue at the end, don't market yourself as a tragedy, and it'd be perfect.

Other things: The Refugees, short stories from last year which are really closer to single-scene plays than anything else. Twin Peaks, which I think I'm being played for a fool by, and will probably have more thoughts about, some time. Pretty for an Aboriginal, a Buzzfeed podcast which has probably taught me (in a very offhand and casual way) more about modern Indigenous life in Australia than anything else. Of course that's partly because the list of anythings-else is very small, but that's just another reason to listen. Maybe my favourite is the sixth episode, with Shari Sebbens, talking about accents and code-switching - one of my pet fascinations (Manglish!) - but really they are all very good.

This is not really new, but if you haven't listened to The Messenger, do it. It's the story of Aziz, an asylum seeker detained on Manus Island. All year it's been giving a devastatingly raw insight into what Australia's refugee policy has become, and over the last couple of weeks it's a live record of what the government is inflicting on these people. (For no reason.)