The presence present

Trying to be more in the moment with life and writing

I’m trying to cultivate a new habit. My usual tendency is to spend way too much time thinking about the past and the future. Thoughts about the past keep me circling round regrets and pre-occupation with the future makes me feel like I’m still ‘waiting’ for life to happen. Both of these, of course, neglect what’s going on right now in the present and I didn’t realise how exhausting all this mental time travel was until I started to suspend it.

There are plenty of traditions and modalities that talk about the benefits of being present, so I’ve decided to give it a go. The results thus far are interesting. When you intentionally stick with what you’re doing, it gets done a lot faster and with more ease. I know, nothing surprising there. Just like so many of life’s learnings, it’s as simple and as difficult as that.

In the morning, I set some intentions around presence by writing down a few sentences of how I’ll be doing it and why I want to do it. Then I check in at regular intervals during the day to see where my mind’s at – rarely in the present, it turns out. It’d be great to find that I was in the moment more but being reminded that I’m not is enough to cut the loop of whatever mental re-run I’m on.

I’ve mainly been doing it with work and general life admin but I’m wondering how it would affect my writing. I’m sorry to say that I’m not often writing in the present. You get those golden streaks of pure flow but especially before I start writing, I think a lot about the end product and whether it will be published and read, where and who by. Then I think about past pieces and what did and didn’t work.

I’m constantly scrolling backwards and forwards and deciding the future of a piece based on past experiences. It must weigh words down when they arrive with such hopes and expectation, when you want them to achieve something big before they’re even born. I wonder what it would be like to write without that? Does it read as something different when it’s freed from all that chatter and of course, is it easier to write when it’s just you and it in the moment?

I also wonder would it add more depth to my writing. The idea of tuning in to the senses is a common suggestion for finding more of a connection with the present moment, so if I’m more open to the tactile or visual or aural, would that have a flow on effect with my writing?

I’m interested in how it works for others. Maybe this is how everyone else is already writing, firmly in their now. If so, is this just how it works for you or did you cultivate a process to get you there? Or does all that past and future rumination freeze you and stop you from starting anything?

I’m going to keep trying to offer the present of presence to my words. I want to see if it’s as good for them as it is for my to-do list.

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Comparison the joy thief

Comparing yourself to others isn’t helpful but it is human.

Last week I found out that I was unsuccessful in four story submissions that I’d made for publications and competitions. I didn’t find out through the usual ‘unfortunately, this time your piece wasn’t chosen’ email, instead it was by reading declarations on Twitter from the writers who were successful.

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. There they went, one by one, the little bubbles of hope and possibility I have when I’m still waiting to hear back on a few submissions. Next came a slow deflating sigh and then disappointment.

For me, the disappointment usually starts me questioning and the questioning usually leads to comparing. How many stories have they had published? How many competitions have they won? Do they have an agent? Have they had published a book? How many followers do they have?

There will always be room for comparison, even when books are published, an agent is secured and followers are plentiful you can compare prize nominations, festival invitations, sales into foreign territories, options for films or bodies of work. It doesn’t matter what you have, someone else will always seem to have more.

Comparison is indeed a joy thief. Comparing yourself or your work to someone else isn’t helpful but it is human. With that in mind, I’ve gathered together some quotes and I’m hoping that reading them will help to still the spiral for when I next slip into the comparison vortex.

“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Comparison is the death of joy.” Mark Twain

“Don’t compare your life to others. There’s no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time.” Unknown

“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it, it just blooms.” Zen Shin  

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You cannot envy the branch
That grows bigger
From the same seed,
And you cannot
Blame it on the sun’s direction.
But you still compare us….”
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun (2010)

“Comparison is the most poisonous element in the human heart because it destroys ingenuity and it robs peace and joy.”
Euginia Herlihy

“Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason and Compare,” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable. ” Brenda Ueland

“There is really no use in comparing yourself to others. There will always be someone ahead and someone behind, and there will be dozens (if not hundreds) of different scales and gradients to be behind and ahead on.
To be number one is never final. It is and always will be a momentary, fleeting instant. But to be a growing version of yourself? That, you can be. You can be that every single day.” Vironika Tugaleva

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Exposure and security

The paradox of the writing process

I woke up last Wednesday night to go to the toilet and found our front door wide open. Panic and confusion froze me for a minute but the real shock was the immediate feeling of exposure.

We have a front gate that is usually shut, a screen door that is closed and a front door that is locked after them. Each one of these things isn’t much; vertical pickets, metal and some mozzie mesh, wood with a glass inlay. They are thin and breakable but their presence has always felt like protection enough. Standing in the middle of the night with the cold air coming in, I certainly felt vulnerable without them closed.

We have a street light directly out the front and it lit up the hall like a runway. Whoever it was followed the light to my handbag and car keys. They took both, left the doors open and drove away in our car.

So, I’ve been reflecting on exposure and security and what the things are in our life that make us feel safe and whether they really are the refuge that we think they are. It was quite the digression but this leads me, of course, to writing.

For a lot of us, writing is a refuge. It’s a safe place and a haven. Does it feel like this because of our familiarity with it? Is it because we control it or because we’re expelling words onto a page and putting them there for their own safe-keeping?

Secure things are usually known and familiar. They offer us comfort and reassurance. There is also the idea that security allows self-assurance which is a cosy concept to be tucked up with. And so, we come to the tangled paradox of writing because often it doesn’t feel like that at all.

Writing can be uncomfortable and unnerving and sending our words out into the world is surely a kind of exposure. You give a glimpse of what is within and open yourself up to other people’s reactions. Then there’s the self-doubt and the cyclical swing between pride and embarrassment.

But we still write.

Writing offers us exposure and security at the same time and perhaps that’s where the challenge and the thrill of it lies, in trying to find a balance between the push and pull of it.

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The bedside bookstack – May 2021

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens, Corsair, 2018

Long slow exhale of breath.

Now I understand the bestseller status, the brilliant reviews and the fact that it’s under the Popular 2 weeks borrowing category at my local library. This book is absolute immersion into another time and place. Place specifically.

The natural world is all the family and comfort that Kya knows. She lives in an isolated shack on marshland in North Carolina. Slowly abandoned by her mother, siblings and father, she digs mussels and smokes fish to get by. And with all the other lonely hours of the day she observes the life of the marsh; birds, shells, insects, waterways.

How’s this for an opening paragraph?

Swamp water is still and dark, having swallowed the light in its muddy throat. Even night crawlers are diurnal in this lair. There are sounds, of course, but compared to the march, the swamp is quiet because decomposition is cellular work. Life decays and reeks and returns to the rotted duff; a poignant wallow of death begetting life.

In the next paragraph, two local boys discover the body of the town’s young hero footballer. There’s a lot of gossip and Kya is named as a suspect.

I loved, loved, loved this book. Delia Owens is a zoologist so her knowledge of the environment she’s writing about is as detailed as it is poetic.

This was her debut novel which she published when she was 70. There is hope for us all!

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Granta 2015

Imagine Helen Garner’s diaries with their conversational snippets except more specifically about motherhood, mental (un)health and a marriage going south. Then intersperse it with quotes from Rilke and some philosophers, stories of past space quests and odd bits of trivia.

That is the Dept. of Speculation. Easy to read but very hard to explain. If you need continuous linear narrative, maybe not your thing. But if you like to fill in some the gaps, and don’t mind moving on from vignette to vignette, then you’ll enjoy this.

Smokehouse by Melissa Manning, UQP, 2021

Confession – my current work-in-progress is a collection of interconnected short stories, so it’s no surprise that I’m a big fan of…. interconnected short stories. I love the progression and span you get but also the gaps that you can fill in as a reader (see Jenny Offill above). I also love that what’s background in one story can be the focus in the next.

I think this book is divine. It starts with Nora who’s just made a sea/treechange with her husband and two young daughters. They’ve bought a block in a small town south of Hobart and they’re going to build a mud brick house. But the dream is dissolving and so is her marriage. By the end of this collection relationships have come and gone, children have grown up, friendships have developed and health has failed. We know who runs the shop and works at the local school, which neighbours who talk to each other and who is nursing their own quiet grief.

Tassie also offers its own extremities to these narratives, in temperature and location. By the end of it, you’ll feel like a local too.

And if you need to hear more, check out Cass Moriarty’s review.

This Taste for Silence by Amanda O’Callaghan, UQP, 2019

Another collection of short stories. I’ve always got one or two on the go. You’re in such good hands with Amanda O’Callaghan. Just like a good actor doesn’t make you think they are acting, a good writer makes you feel like the stories aren’t ‘written’. These stories feel like you’re reading about lives that just happen to be written down.

You’re in Queensland, then Brooklyn, then London or Adelaide. There’s a mix of flash fiction and longer pieces, so you’re in and then out again, wondering what might come next.

The love that remains by Susan Francis, Allen & Unwin, 2020

Susan Francis’ memoir is testament to the fact that we never know the narrative of our life until we live it. She thinks she is defined by the fact that she’s adopted and doesn’t fit in anywhere but in her 50s, Susan meets Wayne. It’s a spectacular love story that neither of them expected. They get married and decide to sell up and move to Europe for a loved-up year of travel and life at their own pace.

It looks like this is going to be the new story about love and sex and identity and travel. But life is never so linear and neat.

This generous and beautiful book follows some of the biggest questions we ask about our ourselves. Who am I? Who is the person I love? Where do I belong? What is a good life?

Klara and the sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, 2021

The world here feels similar to his Never Let Me Go – a near future where some people have been genetically modified but not everyone. Klara is an AF (artificial friend). She wants to understand everything about the world and humans.

When human behaviour is observed and analysed by an outsider, you wonder how we think all this shit that we do is actually normal. And how is it that we don’t misunderstand each other more than we do?

Although the initial chapters move monotonously, perhaps as they would for Klara when she’s waiting in a shop for someone to buy her, it’s always a subtle journey with Ishiguro. He’s asking ethical and moral questions about machines and humans. What is it to be human? Is there something limitless inside us that can never be replicated or are we finite and knowable?

The truth about her by Jacqueline Maley, 4th Estate, 2021

This is a fresh one. It only launched mid-May and the ink on my signed-copy has barely dried. I’m a big fan of Jacqui’s column for SMH and the Age and am happy to be happy about her debut novel now too.

Suzy’s husband has left without a forwarding address. She’s holding down a fulltime journalism job, looking after her 4-year-old daughter and sleeping with two different guys. Things really start to unravel though, when a wellness influencer who she exposed, commits suicide.

I like it when characters have jobs, worry about money and still have to pick nits out of pre-school hair while their world is crumbling around them. This will keep you turning the pages and gunning for Suzy to win a trick.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin, Ace (Penguin), 2010

Genry Ai has been sent as an Envoy by the Ekumen of Known Worlds, to study the Gethenians on Winter and ask them to join the Ekumen. On the planet Winter there is no gender. The Gethenians can become male or female during their mating cycle.

This book, written in 1969, wasn’t what I expected. I was thinking it would be a more obvious quest and hero’s journey. But the first half of the book is mostly politics, alliances and old lore to make more sense of the world of Winter and its inhabitants.

The second half of the book is a journey with Genry and an exiled advisor, Estraven. The relentlessness of ice, snow and cold conditions is the foe they fight and the journey is that of two beings who are alien to each other but develop a bond and understanding.

It was a slow burn for me. The real accomplishment here is the creation of another world complete with its own calendar, language, customs and history. It’s as rich as any Tolkien kingdom. But if you need character-based action and tension, you’ll be looking for it in a snowstorm.

Silas Marner by George Eliot, 1999, Signet Classics

You’ve got to be match-fit to read a classic or have the patience to give it time and let it be what it is rather than what you’re used to – more on that in my Reading the Classics post.

It feels like visiting somewhere with a rusty knowledge of the language. Everything is familiar but not immediately decipherable but then with a little more exposure it clicks and you’re off.

Silas Marner is an isolated weaver who is robbed, takes in an orphan and finds a reason to live. What you’re reading about is people being people. In this case, people are greedy and proud and lie because they think it’s for the greater good. The love and care of a child makes the world new and the loss of one is felt forever. It’s love and loyalty and families, just like it is now.

And now that I’ve got the classic cogs spinning again, I think I might try one of the Russians.

The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty, UQP,

An old man and a young boy form an unlikely friendship. They bond over chickens, chess and a need for company.

At 72, the narrator feels like he’s just going through the motions, something that has shaped most of his life. But it’s never too late for life to have meaning and what are we without human connection?

This story is about family and the inheritance of trauma. What happens when you have a family or long for one shapes the life we live and the people we become.

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Reading the classics

Why it’s good to mix it up with a classic every now and again

My literary diet is mostly contemporary fiction. Last week, I finished George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It kept getting pushed to the bottom of my bedside bookstack. I would look at it, think it seemed like too much ‘work’ and pick up something else from the pile.

Classics aren’t usually an easy read. They come from another age and bring the language of that time with them. That’s part of the reason they don’t feel easy but also why it’s good to give them a go now and again (that and the quiet hope that when I read Chekhov my own writing will improve through osmosis).

The way that they navigate around a sentence is different to how we do it now. The meaning is in there somewhere, it’s just not immediately clear. There’s a formality and inversion that can make it feel like you’re reading another language. After a few chapters though, it starts to feel normal and you’ve just given your brain some excellent training.

It’s also a great exercise in extending your attention span. They move slower than modern narratives do. There’s a lot of detail, exposition and they tell rather than show (gasp!). And really, what’s the rush? I confess, I skim more in a classic than I do in a modern book but once I’m into it, I don’t mind the digressions and departures that eventually get you to the action.

And I’m a voyeur, so I love being transported not just into someone else’s life but into another age. I love the historical placing and social insight you get when you’re reading from the past. Some of it makes you furious, and very happy that you live where and when you do, but what surprises me even more, is how a lot of it could be written now.

We’re thinking about the same things now that they did back then. The biggies are all there; love, loss, power, loyalty, betrayal, pride, jealousy, families, wealth.

In Silas Marner the loss of a child is no less for the infant mortality rates and there’s always someone looking for a way to get money for nothing. In Balzac’s Cousin Bette, they’re all talking about how expensive real estate is in Paris, worrying about their reputations and spending money that they don’t have.

And the Russians with their ability to paint the politics of an empire and an era against the internal struggles within families are surely the origin template for the ‘great American’ novels that have followed.

Life hasn’t changed so much. We as humans haven’t changed so much and I find that equal parts crazy and comforting.

When I say classics, I don’t think I’ve read anything earlier than Shakespeare. So now I want to know, the Greeks, the Romans, did they look for acknowledgement from parents? Did they take heartbreak as badly as we do? Feel inadequate against their peers?

Where do you suggest I start if I want to read an ancient classic?

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Library love

I’m head over heels for my local library app.

I’m in love.

With the Newcastle libraries app.

I have severe mentionitis and thought the best way to channel my obsession is to write about it and spread the word and the love at the same time.

You need to know that I’m a reluctant app downloader. I don’t have a lot of memory spare, way too much of it’s taken up with videos of the kids. I’m also not big on granting the access that so many apps want. But this is different because it’s an app that’s useful and I use it every day, and, that’s the point of an app, right?

This one is miraculous. I can scan it over a book barcode and it’ll tell me if the library has it. I can do all my reserves and renewals on it (and I’m putting a reserve on something most days). I can see where I am in the queue and change my destination library. I can also link my family members’ accounts to mine so that I can reserve and renew for them as well.

I can browse the calendar for events and book tickets. I can top up credit and send printing jobs. There are staff reviews, reading lists, book club tips and resources and recommendations for children’s reading. Get this – you can even get a curated list of suggested reading from your own personal librarian??!! I know, right!!!??

Then there’s all the stuff I don’t but could do; all the family history and local archives. I’m a tactile gal who likes hard copy in her hands, so I don’t even touch the e-library Wunderkammer. But if I did, I’d have access to audiobooks, ebooks, digital magazines, newspapers, films and music.

Oh, did I mention courses and training? Probably not, because I’m far too busy transferring books from my TBR list to my library reserves. And while we’re at it, thank you Acquisitions for having most of the titles I’m after.

Is there anything this app doesn’t do? Nothing that I need it to. That’s for sure.

Newcastle library I love you. Newcastle library app, you too!

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The bedside bookstack – April 2021

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

Lucky ticket by Joey Bui, Text Publishing, 2019

This collection of short stories was one of my favourite picks of the month. I was totally absorbed by the stories and binged on them more than I usually do with an anthology. I often go in and out of anthologies reading a few at a time in between novels. This collection however, made me want to move on to the next one and then the next..

The stories move from Vietnam to Australia to America to Abu Dhabi where we meet Vietnamese locals, migrants and expats as well as a Pakistani-American professional and a Zanzabari guest worker.

Bui writes in first and third person and skips from the distant past to a familiar present. One of my favourites was Mekong Love. Set in a more traditional Vietnam, it proves that lasting love can start in many different ways.

Both ways is the only way I want it by Maile Meloy, Text Publishing 2009

Thanks to @zbradley’s tweet about how long it had taken her to discover Maile Meloy. I wouldn’t have found my way to her either and what a loss that would’ve been.

There are 11 stories in this collection and they’re all achingly beautiful. I use that word deliberately. She’s doing something and I don’t know how she’s doing it. I go into a story as one person and come out slightly changed. I had to sit for a moment after some of these and just savour that feeling before jumping straight into the next one. I also had to reread paragraphs and flip back a page or two to see if I could trace her tricks and trap what it was she did to write such a good story. That in itself is the magic, I guess.

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed, Tinder Press, 2017

God bless Kinokuniya bookshop in Sydney which had a booklet printed around the time of the March for Justice about kickass women’s reads. This was on that list.

If you’re not into island-bound traditions of women forced into submission and condoned abuses of power by the patriarchy, then this may not be for you. However, for every state of slavery there is a seed of revolution and the girls of this island are starting to question just why everything has to be the way it always has been.

Kept on the island by fear of the Wastelands on the horizon, girls adhere first to their father’s will and then their husbands. This is like a Handmaid’s Tale for pre-teens. Sometimes, when adults write kids, the voice is too laboured, but these girls are nothing but themselves and I never doubted their narrations.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, Granta, 2020

Whoa. This one is unlike anything I’ve ever read. “Out of this world” was one of the cover quotes and it’s right on because Natsuki and her cousin believe they are from another planet. They don’t understand the rules adults make for them and earthlings are confusing.

Kids trying to makes sense of adult behaviour and rules isn’t easy. They internalise who adults say they are and make leaps of deduction in doing so. Feeling like aliens because they don’t conform is a fair-enough link for children to make. As adults, life is no less confusing as they grapple with taboos and their place in the world.

The legacy of abuse and societal expectation make for a totally original but pretty heart-breaking read. It’s uncomfortable reading and won’t be for everyone because taboo is taboo and examining them from another angle doesn’t make them any less uncomfortable.

Sayaka Murata is best known for her book Convenience Store Woman which I haven’t read yet.

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell, University of Queensland Press, 2019

How was this book not on every pandemic reading list last year? This is the plague book that came out a year before COVID and its epidemiologic jargon became part of the vernacular.

The worst scenario of a pandemic future is already playing out in this book. The UK is a disaster zone and pandemic hotspot. There are no jobs, no supplies or stability and the death rate is constantly climbing. To get away, people are willing to take a ship to Australia where they are essentially indentured labour but unlikely to get sick.

On board are Billie, a Scottish singer who has experience of the death wards in Glasgow, Cleary, a deaf boy whose mum wants to give them a chance at a better future and Tom, a teacher from a wealthy family who now has no money to his name.

Three weeks into the journey a crewman is found murdered and people start getting sick. There are rumours and dissent and no way off the boat.

This book is a great read and a timely reminder that not every harbour offers safe haven and that it isn’t a crime to seek a better life.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall, Black Inc. Books, 2016

Set in the 1880s on an isolated cape in Australia, this book is about best friends Kate and Harriet. Their fathers are lighthouse keepers and the girls live with their families and workers in a small settlement. Things change for them when a fisherman arrives.

This book is a great read for elemental coastlines, intense female friendships, burgeoning desire, envy and the jumble of growing up.  

There is a foreshadowing from the very first page and as Kate continues her narration, she tells of regret and final moments and times before and after everything changes. As a reader you should get to enjoy all that anticipation and tension, so I’ll say no more.

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey, Text Publishing, 2020

Erica’s son has been given a life-sentence. Locked in her guilt and grief she moves to a small coastal cottage to be closer to his prison. She is a woman alone and doesn’t want company but she does want to build a labyrinth in her backyard and to do that, she needs people.

I liked the pace of this book, the wash of days into each other and the gradual revealing and healing of Erica. I also happened to walk the labyrinth at Cenntenial Park in Sydney a few weeks ago, and now understand the meditative appeal of Erica’s project more.

One of my pet peeves in novels is the description of dreams. This book had way too many. But, all good, I just skimmed forward until we got back to the narrative.

Family Life by Akhil Sharma, Faber, 2014

Ajay moves from India to America with his parents and older brother. It’s the 70s and the Indian community in New York is small. A few months after their arrival, Birju, the older brother has a swimming accident that leaves him with brain damage. He is bedbound, unable to communicate and in need of constant care.

Family Life changes to accommodate this. First, he’s in a nursing home and Ajay and his mum live close while his dad commutes. Later they move to New Jersey and bring Birju home for his care.

For a long time, Ajay feels like life is happening around but not to him. There are family friends who think they can heal Birju, the women who think his mum is a saint and the fact that his dad is drunk all the time. But time passes and as nothing changes with Birju, things slowly do for Ajay and his parents.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

Still in the pile. Still haven’t started it yet. Next month I say.

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). Anything over 500 pages seems to sink further down the book stack for sheer stability of the pile.

Billed as a generational family saga about Koreans in Japan, I missed the hype of this book when it came out but put it on my wish list after listening to this interview with Min Jin Lee on Conversations.

Sounds like once I get stuck in, I won’t be coming up for air for a while.

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When in doubt…nature.

Nearly two months into the season, it’s undeniably Autumn. I’ve taken my cue from the tiles being too cold to walk on without socks and I think I may have had my last ocean swim for a while.

The turn of the season still feels fresh. It’s cosy to make soup, wind a scarf around my neck and snuggle between flannelette sheets at night. The tell-tale signs of the season in nature are also gorgeous to witness and a good reset for me personally.

I’ve been distracted lately which leads to a chaotic scatter-gun approach to whatever I’m working on. I’m hurried and impatient with a lot of picking-up and putting-down and not much getting-finished.

But these crisp Autumn days offer some friendly reminders. Nature is good like that. Cyclical. Eternal. Unhurried. Beautiful and so much bigger than us and our immediate quotidian concerns.

Of course, being in nature helps. Everything. Always. It makes me slow down and be subject to wonder again. But if you can’t get a hit of the real natural world then reading about it is a good enough second.

Here are some of my go-to writers for a nature intervention.

Jonathon Driori – his book, Around the World in 80 Trees, would be my desert island pick, the one and only book I would have in the world if I could have no other. He shares his vast arboreal knowledge with intellect and wit and the illustrations by Lucille Clerc are stunning! This book is my antidote to planet woe because nature doing her incredible thing is never going to be a downer. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and am so excited that it now has a companion in the recently released Around the world in 80 plants.

Mary Oliver – feels like she spent most of her life wandering in wonder and capturing nature with eloquence and reverence. Reading her poetry always slows time for me, as I mentioned in a previous Mary Oliver blog, and puts our place in the world back into perspective.

Helen Macdonald – as a poet, historian and falconer she created something completely unique in her book H is for Hawk. It’s another read that restores my faith in everything. It’s about grief and goshawks, about nature and being human and where any and all of those overlap. She has a new book Vesper Flights, which I’m told is just as good but haven’t got to yet.

Reading these writers, I soar to great heights, sink beneath the surface and see what’s around me anew. Clifftops, coastlines and deep roots make me feel the restorative power of nature that people have been writing about for centuries.

I’m sorry to say that I don’ have any local Australian titles or writers to offer, not because they don’t exist but because I just haven’t read much Australian nature writing yet….and I’m looking forward to some suggestions so I can right this wrong.

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Games you shouldn’t play

A few tips for your next game of ‘How old were they when they published their first book?

Before we start, a disclaimer. There is a small chance that playing How old were they when they published their first book? will make you feel better but a much bigger chance that it’ll make you feel worse. The older you get, the worse the odds are. Young players have a much higher likelihood of coming out satisfied.

Tip – Even young players might want to avoid the Romantic poets who have both early publication and death.

Here are a few authors you may want to try for a more reassuring outcome of how old they were when their first books were published:

Elizabeth Strout –42 years old

Marcel Proust – 43 years old

Julia Donaldson – 45 years old

J. R. R. Tolkien – 45 years old

Raymond Chandler – 51 years old

Daniel Defoe – 59 years old

Laura Ingalls Wilder – 65 years old

I usually only play this when I shouldn’t, when I’m already at a low ebb about where I’m at with my writing and publication possibilities. And of course, it usually makes me feel worse, which means I start avoiding the type of books I normally like to read because otherwise I’ll just do the maths and feel shitty again.

This week, I played a few rounds and got so disheartened that most of my reading pile became off-limits. When that happens, I usually head to the classics. They seem too out of my world for a direct comparison. I picked up Silas Marner and yet somehow, I found some things to envy in George Eliot’s literary trajectory.

My solution was to get out of fiction altogether. I headed over to Jonathon Driori’s Around the World in 80 trees where there is always solace and beauty to be found no matter how low my spirits.

Here are the rules but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Step 1

Read a book that you like written by an author who is a similar match to your own demographic (age, gender, genre….).

Step 2

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when the author was born.

Step 3

Read the bio/blurb to find out what their first book was.

Step 4

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when their first book was published.

Step 5

Head to Wikipedia for the above information if you can’t find it in the book.

Step 6

Do a detailed Google search to find any information that is not in the book or Wikipedia.

Step 7

Do some simple maths.

year of first book publication – year born = age that first book was published

Step 8

Compare their age to your age and react accordingly.

Final note – This game isn’t exclusive to writers. You can play by changing the author for any person in your chosen field and by changing a book to any achievement that you’re aiming for.

Have you got any more later-life debut authors that I can add to my list of reassurance?

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The bedside bookstack – March 2021

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this month.

It’s been a bit of a restless and sleepless month. I abandoned three books and I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of my state of mind or a decision to try and stick to my idea that life is too short to read books that just aren’t doing it for you.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Granta, 2018

Silvie’s father is an Ancient Briton enthusiast. He’s brought her and her Mum along on an Iron Age re-enactment with a university professor and his students. She’s named after an ancient Briton goddess and has been walking the moors and learning about her forebears since she was a little girl.

She knows the dark history and shadows of the area too, the ritual sacrifice and the bodies offered up by the bog.

And there are shadows in her own family, power and control and violence that blend with the history they are simulating.

This is a simple tale, very well told.

This slim little volume will linger.

Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery, UQP, 2018

It’s no secret from all my rescue reading lists that I’m a big short story fan. I read them and write them and I love how the form can compress or expand a life on the page.

That’s exactly what Laura Elvery has done in her debut collection. She has taken ordinary lives and held them up for us in all their heartbreak and glory. In her hands, with her words, they’re illuminated and made into something special. A great read and if you enjoy this, check out her collection Ordinary Matter which came out last year.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage, 2010

This beautiful book is about maths and memory. The housekeeper is our narrator. She goes to work for the professor who is on an 80-minute memory loop. He keeps notes attached to his suit so that he can recognise people in his life and the parts of his day. Her son comes to the house after school and together, the three of them form a special relationship despite the cycle of time and memory. Another simple story, well told and another one that has stayed with me.

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham, Vintage, 2020

This is a great read about the migrant experience, the inheritance of loss and Cabramatta in the 90s.

Sonny lives life on the sideline. She tries to keep the peace at home where she lives with her volatile mum, her dad, grandma and brother. At high school, she and her best friend sit on the edges where their talk is all theory but not much practice. When Vinnie, an old childhood friend, gets out of juvie, Sonny starts to wonder how she can live both her internal and external lives.

Vivian Pham started this as part of a novella workshop with the Sydney Story Factory. I love their programs and have volunteered with them for years, so reading it was an extra special treat. And who better to write about teen desire and dislocation than someone who isn’t yet 20? Here’s a little taste:

“Why has his history always felt so fucking mythical? Vince felt an absurd and meaningless pain. It was like digging a grave and having nothing to bury.”

what are you going through by Sigrid Nunez, Virago 2020

This is what’s referred to as an ‘interior’ novel. My interpretation is that it feels like a conversational essay with a bit of narrative moving it along. In this case it came as a belated surprise that that was fine by me.

For more details see my post about reading this book, my first Sigrid Nunez, and how I nearly didn’t finish it.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, Penguin, 2018

So, now I’m confused, because this is the Sigrid Nunez book which was the bestseller. It’s written before what are you going through but I read it after and for me it wasn’t the better book.

The narrator is a writer (I’m not a big fan of writer-narrators) whose best friend has just committed suicide. The narrator inherits the friend’s dog and together they grieve for owner and friend.

The rest of the book reads, as above, like a relaxed essay with some narrative on the side. This time it looks at animals, humans, the state of modern literature and grief. There are always interesting authors, books and movies being referenced. She’s great for adding to your scribble list of things to look-up-later.

As a reader, my patience was with the asides and digressions but not with the friend who is being mourned. Here he is again, the American-novelist-professor-womaniser. Why is he always getting so much air play in novels? Why is no one calling him out? In this case, the cultural tide is turning against his behaviour, but not the narrator (it’s up to us to decide if she was in love with him or not). Just like when I read Meg Worlitzer’s The Wife, my annoyance at how much these guys get away with and the fact that they’re still getting so much air-play, is what stays with me.

Before the Coffee gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Picador 2019

I totally judged this book by its cover. A big pink Staff Pick sticker under Japanese Bestseller was what made me pick it up.

It’s set in a small basement café in Tokyo where you can go back in time. There are 5 rules; you have to sit in a certain seat, you can only stay in that seat, you can only meet someone else who has been in that café before, meeting won’t change the present and most importantly, you have to come back before the coffee gets cold.

There’s a lot of repetition with each new customer who wants to go back in time which snagged the narrative for me. I got two thirds through and realised I just wasn’t invested. It’s a subtle book that wasn’t right for me this time round.

The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe, Penguin, 2009

Another book with a big Staff Pick sticker. The word iconic and classic are also mentioned in the blurb and I haven’t read any Robert Drewe for ages. I liked the early short stories of the Lang family but I put it down before the end.

The male protagonists had an emotional distance that kept me at bay. They were at their best with their observations as a father or failure as a husband.

It was also hard to read the story written from the point of view of a rapist. Reading it in the current climate (or any climate really), it felt like a voice was being given to the wrong side of the story.

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan, Picador, 2016

After miscarrying their first baby, Heather and Dave leave the city. Dave gets a job at the local school but Heather is sinking. She’s drowning in the loss of her child and the memories of her mother who she is also gone.

This is well written but with my restlessness and sleeplessness, I just couldn’t stay the course with Heather’s heavy grief and depression. I left her early on to tend to my own mental health.

The Book of Joe by Jonathon Tropper, Delacorte Press, 2004

Joe hasn’t been back to his hometown for 17 years. He did however write a bestseller about it that annoyed almost everyone. When he returns after his father has a stroke, the welcome is about how you’d expect it to be.

The sentences aren’t sublime and it trots around small-town-story territory (high school loves, sibling rivalry, fractured father/son relationships) but it’s very readable!

This reads like a Netflix teen movie and if anyone’s seen my streaming history, you’d know I’m pretty partial to those.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

Still in the pile. Still haven’t started it yet. Next month I say.

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). Anything over 500 pages seems to sink further down the book stack for sheer stability of the pile.

Billed as a generational family saga about Koreans in Japan, I missed the hype of this book when it came out but put it on my wish list after listening to this interview with Min Jin Lee on Conversations.

Sounds like once I get stuck in, I won’t be coming up for air for a while.

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