Unbearable and uplifting: The illogical pleasure of reading A Little Life By Hanya Yanagihara

hanya-yanagihara-a-little-lifeIt must say something about the impact Hanya Yanagihara’s novel “A Little Life” has on its readers, that random strangers came up to me, while I was reading it, to offer their praise.

“You should persevere with it, it’s an amazing book,” said one bloke as he got off the train, when I was only about fifty pages in.

Then, a few weeks later: “It’s so good. I’ve only got 20 minutes left to read on my Kindle and I don’t want it to end,” enthused a mother with two children as our train pulled into Melbourne.

After finishing it myself, and being equally affected by its power, I perused the internet for reviews and comments.

Quickly I realised  those random strangers and I were not alone.

Almost anyone who has read Yanagihara’s 720 page epic, about four close male friends – one of whom is a survivor of horrific sexual abuse – making their way in  New York after college has been similarly jolted.

Jon Michaud’s review in the New Yorker gave a succinct summary of its principal effect: “Yanagihara’s novel can drive you mad, consume you and take over your life.”

“I will genuinely never recover from reading A Little Life,” wrote another fan on Twitter.

When I finished reading A Little Life, I felt that sense of nostalgia, sadness and loss that comes with experiencing all great works of art be it a book, movie or piece of music.

It was as if I had been taken on an exhilarating ride – one of pain and suffering, but also of great joy and love – and then it had all come to an end and the characters had exited the stage, leave me and my world view irrevocably altered.

To summarise briefly the plot , four close college friends Jude St Francis, JB, Willem and Malcolm find themselves living in New York and trying to make their way as lawyer, artist, actor and architect respectively. All are bright and brilliant in their own way.

The book chronicles their steps up the professional ladder, the shifting dynamics of their friendship, their on and off romantic relationships, their shifting social circles and the changes they undergo from unsure twenty something’s to fifty-year-old successful men. All set against the backdrop of a modern, but timeless New York.

While this may hardly sound like the plot for a the “Great American Novel” what sets the book apart is Yanagihara’s ability to get inside the head of someone who has survived appalling sexual abuse in their childhood and how they learn to cope with its scars as adults.

This she does through the devastating brilliant character of Jude St Francis, whose childhood as an orphan raised by monks is so unimaginable cruel and painful that it is something of a miracle he survived at all.

Not only that but Jude suffers from a chronic pain and debilitating back spasms – due to an automobile attack he endured aged 15 – that leave him writhing on the floor in agony.

But he has learnt to cope, both with the sense of shame he feels about the past, the memories of these events which haunt him and his pain. This coping mechanism is to cut himself with razors, behaviour which shocks his friends and family, but which he is unable to stop even as he runs out of space on his arms, and finds himself cutting through “tough, webby scar tissue”.

Despite his tragic upbringing (which Yanagihara reveals in long flashbacks) Jude does more than just survive, he becomes a success.

Blessed with a brilliant legal and mathematical mind, he ends up becoming a top litigator at a major Manhattan corporate law firm even as his physical pain worsens and the mental scars refuse to heal.

Whilst those closest to him – his best friend and later lover Willem and his adopted parents Harold and Julia – try to heal his deep emotional wounds, and his faithful doctor Andy, treats his weeping sores, failing legs and other bodily injuries, it is only Jude himself  who can keep the demons and ghosts of his past a bay, or give in and let them consume him.

And this almost biblical journey of Jude’s-  into and out of the light – is what drives the narrative of Yanagihara’s opus, and gives it is remarkable power.

Ultimately, the message of Yanagihara’s devastating book, I think, is our inability to escape the events that shaped us as children, but also that we can as adults transcend those events, even if those moments remain fleeting.

Freshlyworded online bites: Five hand-picked yarns to enjoy this week

media bitesJanuary 15 edition (inaugural edition)

The internet is a vast, limitless place and very distracting.The worst thing you can do is waste your time reading drivel like this or this

Every week freshlyworded.com scours the internet for five worthy reads and shares them with you, completely free of charge.

The only criteria are that they be interesting/startling/enlightening (or preferably all three), that I have read them myself, that they are not behind a pay wall and that they can be enjoyed in the time it takes to drink a good cappuccino (sometimes quite slowly).

This week’s five are:

1. A Craigslist ‘Missed Connection’ Lure (New York Times)
“It all felt so sweet, strange and surreal. And impossibly romantic.”

– Finding ‘true love’ on Craiglist isn’t as easy as you think by Rosemary Counter (@RosemaryCounter).

2. Reconciling faith with political power (The Age)
“Others, including myself, are puzzled that the most Catholic Coalition Cabinet in Australia’s history can be so cruel in slashing our aid program – the lowest  in our history.”

– Being Christian at home does not mean being kind in public office writes Tim Costello. (@TimCostello)

3. Laughing at the Establishment in Thailand ( Time Magazine)
“The Bangkok Post dubbed Winyu Wongsurawat’s frenetic style ‘Jon Stewart on crack,'”.

– How a satirist is taking on Thailand’s military junta via a hugely popular YouTube show by Charlie Campbell. (@CharlieCamp6ell)

4. Selma’ Distorts History by Airbrushing Out Jewish Contributions to Civil Rights (The Jewish Daily Forward)
“The black-Jewish relationship is complex, with many changes over time, but the historical record is clear.”

– A new film about the 1965 Civil Rights processes omits the role played by Jewish leaders writes Leida Snow. (@LeidaSnow)

5. RJ Mitte: ‘Nothing I do will ever compare with Breaking Bad’ (The Guardian)
“When Mitte read the character summary for Walt Jr seven years ago, it came as a welcome shock. “The breakdown pretty much described me,” he says, still slightly amazed by his luck. “Dark hair, big eyebrows, cerebral palsy … I was like, ‘I have this covered.’”.

– RJ Mitte, the actor who played Walt Jr in Breaking Bad talks about his acting and how he overcame his disability by Homa Khaleeli. (@homakhaleeli)

If you have a worthy yarn, send a link to freshlyworded@gmail.com and I will review for possible inclusion.

All the news that’s fit (and not fit) to print: new buzzwords in journalism

read all about it“It’s not change. It’s a f*cking revolution,” said a media analyst in the brilliant New York Times documentary Page One.

He was referring of course to how the online world has ripped up the traditional business model of newspapers replacing highly profitable print advertising and classifieds ads (the so-called “rivers of gold”) with cheap, interactive and intuitive online offerings.

Fairfax journalist Pam Williams did a brilliant job telling this story in her book “Killing Fairfax” – reviewed here – but is by no means the whole story.

The wheels of change continue to spin and at an even faster rate.

Two of the hottest and most provocative concepts becoming entrenched in the new age of publishing are “native advertising” and “corporate journalism”.

‘Native advertising’ – where paid-for, sponsored or branded content is produced and published on news sites to have the look and feel of a genuine article  – was the focus of a recent episode of the ABC’s Media Watch 

“Corporate journalism” – content produced by an in-house editorial team focusing on issues that matter to the corporation and its stakeholders – was in the spotlight following the launch of ANZ Bank’s new website BlueNotes in April, billed as “the first corporate digital publication for news, opinion and insight of its type in the Asia-Pacific region”.

The launch of BlueNotes sparked healthy debate on Twitter kicked off by Australian Financial Review columnist Christopher Joye who wrote that the ANZ site was likely to be “part bank brand-building, marketing and spin, opening up a new channel through which to project ANZ’s voice; and part bona-fide research and insight that will be of value to ANZ’s constituencies”.

What BlueNotes was unlikely to be, Joye wrote, was independent journalism of the sort produced by Fairfax and other traditional independent media. Nor would it be an “intellectual free-for-all that interrogates issues and disseminates opinion on topics germane to ANZ’s customers, but which can also conflict with ANZ’s profit motive”.

I tweeted Joye’s article and said that I agreed with him that BlueNotes is “not really journalism” to which former AFR senior journalist Andrew Cornell, the managing editor of BlueNotes, responded that it then begged the question: “What really is journalism?” and…was it restricted to “no-for-profits?” (A cheeky remark surely alluding to the fact that once-powerful media empires can’t seem to make a buck out of journalism anymore).

Cornell is a firm believer that corporate journalism – of the kind produced by his team – is the future of business journalism. It was a remark he repeated often in his last few weeks at the AFR.

twitter conversation1Amanda Gome, a former colleague of mine at Private Media and Fairfax, and now head of strategic content & digital media at ANZ, tweeted that BlueNotes was “new journalism” or “corporate publishing” – (and in another tweet, that it was definitely not native advertising).

twitter conversation2

Paul Edwards head of corporate communications at ANZ said if the site “started doing ads” then it would “fail”. Rather, he said, it aims to “engage thought leaders not sell stuff”.

twitter conversation3

On reflection, I agree with Christopher Joye that there is merit in what ANZ is doing with BlueNotes.

The views of its experienced executives, economists and commentators while slanted towards the bank’s view of the world,  are insightful and important (though I would argue they are better served as part of a balanced article in the mainstream media drawing on the views of others as well).

Only time will tell how many people find value in its offering, but it should find a niche among the myriad of online news and commentary sites finding an audience in Australia ranging from academic sites like The Conversation to mummy blogger uber-site Mamamia.

In its defence, corporate journalism like BlueNotes does not attempt to hide the fact that is an ANZ-produced publication, focusing on issues that are of important to the bank, its shareholders and clients.

But native advertising is less honest, muddying the waters between news and commercial interests and breaking down the traditional editorial division between church (editorial) and state (advertising).

Farhad Manjoo, a journalist with the Washington Post wrote of the deceptive quality of native ads that while they “usually carry a tag identifying them as ‘sponsored,’ they appear alongside and share the look and feel of the search results, tweets, status updates, blog posts and other content that you don’t immediately suspect of containing paid messages”.

He makes the point that there is a place for native advertising provided that it is clearly branded as sponsored content (he mentioned a story paid for by Toyota about 20 coolest hybrid animals to promote its hybrid cars that ran on BuzzFeed as a good example) but is sceptical of how this will play out over time.


The Buzz Feed ad/content created for Toyota

Native ads he says, “create incentives for misbehavior by advertisers, publishers and services like Facebook—and, over the long run, the incentive structure is sure to translate into looser disclosure standards and generally trickier content”.

The agenda of BlueNotes on the other hand is all in the name – unless of course you’re looking for a Miles Davis record.

The Guardian Australia: you won’t find it @ www.theguardian.com.au

For the four-and-a-half years I lived in London, The Guardian was the newspaper to read for quality investigative journalism as well as for its famous spelling mistake howlers.

the guardian

Writing for Accountancy Age magazine in Soho, I’d read the business sections of The Guardian, alongside the other broadsheets (the Financial Times, The Independent and Daily Telegraph) for possible story ideas in the morning and then, like everyone else, would seek out The Sun and The Mirror in the afternoon for the salacious gossip, page 3 girls and Premier League football stories.

Lately there has been extensive coverage of the launch of a digital Australian edition of The Guardian (announced in January) with news of top Fairfax journalists like David Marr and Lenore Taylor jumping on board with the site to be edited by The Guardian’s deputy editor Katharine Viner.

A colleague of mine at Private Media, Oliver Milman, will be joining the Guardian Australia as a Melbourne-based environment reporter alongside other new signings of journalistic talent announced this week.

They’ve already leased offices for journalists and other staff in Surry Hills, Sydney, so it’s clearly a serious venture for a publication, which is the fourth biggest newspaper website in the world with a monthly audience of 30.8 million users behind Mail Online (45.3m monthly readers), the NY Times‘s (44.8m) and USA Today (34.6m) according to National Readership Surveys September 2012 figures.

So, eager to find out more, I searched for ‘The Guardian Australia‘ on Google.

The first result was this page (below), with picture of a koala bear and a billabong and a host of stories, videos and commentary about Australian issues:

guardian australia

This, I know, is not the new Guardian Australia edition, but the long-running Australia page of The Guardian UK with the giveaway being The Guardian store offers in pounds while the Guardian jobs section are all British roles:

guardian jobs

So I clicked on the third link  on my Google search –  www.theguardian.com.au which sounded like the most likely address for the new digital Guardian Australia edition.

google search

And bingo, I came across a  newspaper website full of Australian stories with a masthead in similar font to that used by The Guardian.

guardian fairfax

So was this The Guardian Australia edition?

Clearly not, since it says its owned by Fairfax.

When I clicked on the “About Us” page, the confusion abated. It reads: “The Guardian provides the latest news from the Swan Hill region, northern Victoria and NSW Riverina.”

This is another Guardian Australia – a regional newspaper dating back to 1888.

Perhaps its only coincidence the fonts are so similar, but it surely must have caught the attention of those in corridors of power at Fairfax, and not just because they’ve got the URL, but also the Facebook address: www.facebook.com/GuardianAU.

As luck would have it, Twitter suggested I follow Lenore Taylor, the recently appointed political editor of The Guardian Australia edition and so I did and duly asked her what form the new publication would take:

lenore tayler

“Frontage” – is a new term I’d never heard before, but I assumed it meant something on The Guardian‘s front page, so that’s where I went.

After a little bit of a look around, I came across this button at the top of the website, which allows you to choose between the UK and Guardian US version:

us version

So presumably, at some point when it all goes live, there will be an extra item added to this menu bar with the word “Australia” and when you click on it there will be an Australian version, similar in format to the current American edition:

guardian US

Website address issues aside, it’s going to be interesting to see how The Guardian performs in Australia.

As someone pointed out  to me, it’s going to go from being a UK publication writing about Australia for British readers to one written by Australians for Australian readers, with a UK editor.

This it has done somewhat successfully with its US edition, which now has around 8 million viewers a month.

But it’s been a bumpy ride for The Guardian US, which first launched in 2007 as  GuardianAmerica.com, then folded back into the UK edition in 2009, with staff laid off, before launching its US edition (or ‘frontage’ to use Lenore Taylor’s term) in September last year, also accessible via the URL: http://www.guardiannews.com.

While no doubt the journalism produced  by The Guardian Australia will be of the highest calibre, it will face challenges from a host of established left-wing publications like Crikey.com.au, The Global Mail (founded no less than by BRW Rich Lister Graeme Wood, the primary investor in The Guardian Australia), the ABC’s online presence and Fairfax’s own stable of publications, to name just a few.

Which means making money from The Guardian Australia will be an even bigger challenge.

The Guardian Media group has been the exact opposite of a cash cow of late  reporting huge losses in recent years (£75 million loss in the  12 months to August 2012) as it tries to transition its business model to one that taps into its huge online audience, a difficult task that neither Fairfax nor News Limited nor any media organisation have yet fully realised.

And it has another challenge.

As Crikey writer Guy Rundle pointed out, The Guardian has a reputation for being the worst of the UK newspapers when it comes to writing stores with an anti-Australia slant.

It’s reporting on the Ashes and British Lions tours later this year will be fascinating to say the least – if you can find the website!