blog

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.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

On reading Sigrid Nunez for the first time

Her novel what are you going through wasn’t what I was expecting…and that’s a good thing.

I’ve never read Sigrid Nunez before. Apparently, she was mostly a writer’s writer before her book The Friend won the American National Book Award and became a New York Times bestseller.

I’ve started with her the wrong way around because I’ve just finished what are you going through which is a loose sequel to The Friend. The narrator is a writer. I’m not usually a fan of the writer-as-narrator set up. It’s always felt a bit lazy to me. Really? A writer? Again? There are so many other jobs a main character could be and realistically, as a writer, they probably need to have a couple of those other jobs anyway.

This writer has a friend who is dying of cancer. The friend wants to end her life and asks the narrator to be there. She won’t know when it’s going to happen and she’ll pretend she didn’t know it was going to happen but her friend wants her there to make sure that everything afterwards happens like it should.

I’ve mentioned before that my dad died from cancer. He was sick for over 20 months and even though it was all a long time ago, I’m not always in the mood to read a cancer book or watch a cancer movie. But the way Nunez meanders through a plot, it doesn’t read like a cancer book. It’s something more way organic and indefinable.

It’s been a month of books I didn’t finish and I’m going to be honest and say that I nearly put this one down. Who’s this about? and Where’s this going? and We haven’t even met the friend who’s going to die yet! were some of my thoughts.

But Nunez doesn’t do plots directly from A to B and I was glad I eventually settled into the digressions because if you can hold off on the need for immediate and constant narrative movement, then you’re rewarded with the simple generosity of knowledge.

She makes a little bread-crumb trail for the curious, sharing everything from movies (Jesus, you know sounds like nothing I’ve ever watched before) to books and quotes (who knew that there was a Henry James letter out there on grief?).

And so her characters pootle on. They talk about people they used to know and situations they were in. In conversational asides, Nunez conjures dynamics and dilemmas so rich that they could easily be their own book. I used to worry about there being a finite number of good ideas, but she throws them in so casually and frequently that running out of material is obviously not something on her radar.

This LA Times article is a great read because she talks about her writing process which puts the discursive nature of her narrative in context. She also admits her detours and byways method of writing a story isn’t something publishers had a lot of patience with (they are described as ‘slim interior novels’) until she became a bestseller.

This book was nearly not the right book at the right time for me but now I have The Friend sitting on my bookstack and another backlist to add to my ever-expanding book list.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

This is meant to be fun too, you know?

In life and writing, don’t forget to have fun.

I went to the Newcastle Show on the weekend. All was as it should be; the smell of battered savs, the scream of kids on rides and fairground organ music cranking in the background.

When we were in the rides section, I realised it was too long since I’d been on the chain carousel. I have memories of repeated rides on it at Australia’s Wonderland, legs out and arms out, soaring above the whole amusement park and feeling like I was flying.

I got a ticket. Not because one of the kids wanted a ride but because I suddenly couldn’t wait another day to feel like that again.

It was exactly as much fun as I remembered. I blew kisses to my husband and kids, who waved from below. I took in the bird’s eye view and kicked my legs out. They were the only steady thing as the rest of the world spun around me.

Just as the ride slowed down for us to get off, the attendant asked if we wanted another spin. Hell yeah! Double fun. Fun begetting fun.

Fun feels good. Silly feels good. Light feels good. There are plenty of fridge magnets that warn about life being too serious to take seriously.

But in life and in writing, I think fun gets overlooked. We seem to think that our work benefits from struggle and toil and that fun is frivolous and something extra rather than integral.

The tortured artist has a lot to answer for there.

My suggestion is that when you feel like you’re struggling with your writing, not in a challenge-to-be-figured-out way but in a misery-and-despair way, then it’s time to step away and find the fun again. Where do you find lightness, in life and in writing?

Follow the fun in both and I think it’ll bring you back to a better place.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

The bedside bookstack – February 2021

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

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott, Text Publishing, 2020

Loved this one. Just gobbled it up.

The word ‘fable’ gets used a lot to describe this book and for good reason. It’s not entirely here and not entirely now and not completely possible in our world but it’s still very familiar. The landscape especially is a mash-up of Tasmanian wilderness and the European continent.

Ren lives in a remote mountain area. She keeps to herself and has so far avoided the new martial law of the land. That changes when soldiers come looking for the Rain Heron. Most people think it’s just a story but Ren knows that it isn’t.

The narrative is divided between the past and present for Ren, the Army Captain looking for the Rain Heron and a medic in her team.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, 4th Estate, 2020

Exactly as the title suggests, this one covers the best and worst of what life and our closest relationships have to offer.

Martha is our narrator. Her highs are high and her lows are totally debilitating. She knows there is something more to it but everyone around her says that’s just the way she is. This is a story about families, sisters, marriage and mental health.

Martha is funny and irritating and will keep you reading way past bedtime.  

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin, Brow Books 2018

I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time reader. I read all the short stories or essays in a collection in a row. But I had to put this collection down and let a little light in between the essays. They’re not comfortable reads – suicide, poverty, the failings of the justice system….

But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be read. It’s a privilege to accompany Maria Tumarkin’s intellect and curiosity. She is a beautiful writer but isn’t writing about beautiful things in this book.

The Nowhere Child by Christian White, Affirm Press, 2018

It’s no surprise that Christian White was a scriptwriter before he was an author. This mystery unfolds in a very filmic way and is an easy read page-turner. The measure of a whodunnit is whether you’re interested enough to know and it’s clever enough to keep you guessing. Ticks on both fronts for this one.

Two-year-old Sammy Went disappears from her home in Kentucky. 30 years later, a man turns up in suburban Melbourne to tell Kim Leamy that he thinks she’s that girl. All the right rules have been followed in this one to set up a crime, a handful of possible suspects and then let it ride.

The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey, Allen & Unwin, 2020

This is a book about besties and PTSD.

After surviving a car accident, Caitlin thinks that she’s going to die. All the time and in countless different ways. A fair chunk of normal life is out of bounds because of her anxieties.

Caitlin tries to keep a lid on the narratives that play out internally and this means distancing herself from her best friend and family. She goes to group sessions with other people who are also convinced they’re going to die. None of them are sure it’s doing any good but misery loves company.

Did I mention that it’s also a love story? What can I say – I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

We Were Never Friends by Margaret Bearman, Brio Books, 2020

Lotti Coates has just moved to Canberra and is trying to navigate new friendships and puberty outside of the shadow of her famous artist father.

I loved how domestic this story was. The mum is always arriving home with the youngest child after day care pick-up and dinners always need to be made.

Unfortunately, the artist father was so annoying to me that instead of following on with the plotline I was a chapter back, still fuming about how arrogant and selfish he was. I was, perhaps disproportionately, distracted by how much air-play we give to selfish men who are apparently ‘genius’ and can therefore absent themselves from any childminding, meal preparations and other domestic necessities.

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, Chatto and Windus, 2020

Anne Tyler has 22 novels behind her (I know, right!!!!) and plenty of people who say she is a genius but this book just wasn’t for me. I gave it a good 45 pages and then left it.

There is a type of story where your main character is pretty boring and regimented person. Their daily routine is described in detail, which is also pretty boring and then eventually (the hope is) something happens or they meet someone that changes their life and their ways.

I just couldn’t wait around long enough for that to happen.

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.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Re-reading old teen favourites

Are they the perfect comfort read or does it destroy the memory?

When I was 12 and looking for something to read, there wasn’t a lot on offer. YA didn’t have the bountiful and varied offerings it does today.

There were some standards; Bridge to Terabithia, the Chocolate War, and of course Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books. There was also a publishing imprint called Teen Tracks. That’s where I discovered Louise Lawrence.

Louise Lawrence wrote science-fantasy that teleported me to another galaxy, exactly where I wanted to be. The Warriors of Taan, The Earth Witch, Moonwind and Children of the Dust were my favourites. Most of the books disappeared over the years but I still have a copy of The Earth Witch and I want to read it.

But I’m nervous.

I’m worried that it can’t possibly live up to my memory of it. I’m not sure if it’s possible to re-read a book without comparing it or judging it against your memory and ideas of it. And do I really want to interfere with that?

There is the possibility of rediscovering an old love and finding something that is timeless in the text, something that spoke to the past me and still resonates today.

But there’s also the chance that it doesn’t work as an adult read. I’m worried about the literary version of going back to a place and finding that, now that I’m big, it doesn’t match with my memory of it at all.

It’s different to re-reading a favourite adult book. There are so many more of them and I was already mostly me when I read them.

Adolescence is such a unique time. Our ideas about it are often still a bit fragile and I’m worried about tampering with my formative escapism and heroes. Is it better to leave past influences alone?

Writer and blogger Rahnia Collins got me thinking about this. She knows her YA and is often revisiting her old favourites. For her, they seem to be like trackies and a cup of tea, pure comfort.

Which sounds lovely.

So with the optimism and potential of a comfort read, I think I’m going to give the re-read a go.

Are there any of your old favourites which fell from the pedestal after a re-read or some which still move you today?

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The Promise of the Premise

What are you promising readers at the start of a story?

Opening pages are like a contract that you make with your readers – here are the people you’ll follow, here is the pace we’re likely to take and this is the tone I’ll be taking. If the reader is up for it, they keep reading and reading. That’s their part of the contract.

Your part is an agreement to give them a story that matches what you offered at the start of the story. You don’t need to mirror the opening or give them the ending they anticipated but I now think that you do at least owe them a sense of balance.

I say ‘now’ because to be honest it’s something I haven’t been in the habit of doing. I haven’t thus far been much of a plotter when it comes to writing fiction, so when I start writing something new, I don’t think about what I’m offering the reader. I can’t because I don’t even know where I’m going yet.

Recent feedback on some of my short stories has made me think about this private pact between the reader and writer. I was writing endings because I liked the image that they left but my readers wondered why after following a certain character for most of the story I would end on another one instead. For someone who believed in promises, I didn’t realise how casually I’d been breaking them.

I think in novel length manuscripts I’m more aware of who is owed the air-play. In short stories if there is a roving POV, I’m not always sure that I divvy up the limelight quite right. It doesn’t have to be about character though. The question is whether you’ve honoured your set up.

I find beginnings and endings tough to write. They can be awkward and clunky and feel like they have a lot riding on them. However, editing and rewriting them becomes less unwieldy when you think about the promise of your premise. There’s a nice circular feeling to it.

If your initial offering doesn’t match anymore then it gives you the chance to think about what and where your real story is and how you could change your opening so that it honours what the story has become.

A promise is a promise after all.

 If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The bedside bookstack – Summer 2021

What I’m reading and what was gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this summer.

I moved over Christmas and so it wasn’t a massive book stack this summer. Most of my to-be-reads were still boxed up and after all the unpacking it took me a while to get back into a reading habit.  But here’s what was on the book stack.

The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall, Simon & Schuster, 2020

In an unspecified but uncomfortably familiar future, Australia is a surveillance state with the climactic woe of current predictions.

Mim is quietly panicked. Her husband has gone missing in an offshore mining project and the contact she’s getting from the’ Department’ and underground journalists flag that she’s not being told everything about it.

There is also geopolitical instability and this oppressive loss of control for both Mim and the average citizen permeates the narrative.

But amidst geopolitical and climatic extremes people are still people. Mim looks to what she can do by protecting her children and trying to find her husband. Motherhood still sits with its complexities, old lust dies hard (if it actually dies) and family loyalty is tested.

This was a real page turner.

Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery, University of Queensland Press, 2020

This anthology of short stories by Australian writer Laura Elvery is inspired by the women who have won the Nobel Prize for scientific research. With only twenty female wins (two of them to Marie Curie) and what feels like not a lot of historical fanfare, it seems right to give them another nod.

The women and their discoveries are the starting point, so the stories take you across distance and time. Occasionally, a former winner is reimagined as a younger or older self (Marie Curie on tour with her daughters, Rosalyn Yalow on the eve of the Prize ceremony in Stockhom) but mostly it’s the discoveries and how they have changed lives in big and small ways – something we all participate in with scientific discovery whether we consider it or not.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakamo, Picador, 2020

This wasn’t an easy read, or perhaps I mean a ‘comfortable’ read. Set in modern Japan, it follows a mother, daughter and aunt. These women don’t have many options. The past actions of other people in their life, usually men, mean they are working hard to survive.  

There’s a cataloguing of small details – meals eaten, actions done, that snagged the narrative for me but certainly added to the oppressive and repetitive sense of their days.

It’s offered as a novel but feels more like two novellas (the notes say it’s the extended version of a novella). The second part of the book offers more hope and liberation for the aunt that comes from financial freedom. Her struggle changes to a moral and philosophical one regarding donor sperm and IVF parenthood in Japan.

The Burning Island by Jock Serong, Text Publishing, 2020

This was a real page-turner for me. I’ve never read anything else by Jock Serong but will definitely track down his other titles. I also don’t read a lot of historical fiction crime thrillers – if that’s what this could be defined as.

This story is set in early colonial Australia on a sea voyage from Sydney down to the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait.

A group of disparate characters are onboard; a naval lieutenant disgraced by his drunkenness, convict brothers bound by blood loyalty, the quiet Captain who navigates ever onwards, and the doctor scientist, whose charisma and curiosity pique the tedium for our narrator, Eliza.

A sense of doom pervades the narration from the isolation, the atrocities, and the landscape. It’s a great tale of revenge, grief, loyalty, lust and betrayal. But don’t fear all that heaviness because Jock Serong can turn the body of a drowned man to poetry as silver fish empty from the water in his mouth.

Our Shadows by Gail Jones, Text Publishing, 2020

In her characteristic poetic prose, Gail Jones writes the strata of time and families. There is the Irish immigrant who finds the gold nugget that Kalgoorlie is founded on, the grandfather miner who carries the damage and grief of a world war and a dead daughter, and the orphan granddaughters who split under the weight of their shared past.

The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Harper Perennial, 2009

Surprised, and a little disappointed, that I didn’t get any new books for Christmas, I had to read what was in the garage sale pile at my brother’s house. We moved houses and cities over Christmas and my books were still boxed up well into January.

I think this book was pretty big when it came out. It was also early on in the complete-sentence-as-book-title trend. It’s satirical and clever in its summaries of history and politics which I wasn’t expecting but there was also a touch of the slapstick to it that was just  a bit much for me – kind of a ‘caper’ journey where the old man meets a string of unlikely allies through a series of unlikely adventures.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). I haven’t started it yet. 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.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Are you a goal getter?

With a fresh new year, it’s time to put pen to paper…..and do a little planning.

I’ve always liked the fresh start of a new year. First, I write a letter to the year that was. I reflect and say goodbye. Then, I write a letter to the new year to say hi and have a little chat about my hopes and ideas for the next 12 months.

My 2020 diary (A5, week to a double-page, hard cover, Kikki-k) now has me hooked on setting some goals too. I liked the questions it asked at the beginning of the year. They were an extension of the reflections in my letters and not all of them were about goals. It had regular check-ins and prompts. Then it got granular and asked what I needed to do in the next thirty days to get things moving. It asked about actions and priorities and kept asking about them all year. Actually, it asked every month and week and all that asking kept me on track.

There were no trick questions. It was always the same thing again and again re-checking what my goals were, what the priorities within them were and what actions I needed to do to get there.

So, I nibbled away rather than taking bite-sized chunks and found out that it’s much easier to keep an appetite that way. I also don’t give as much procrastination push-back to small tasks. Once I got some momentum going, I found that actually doing the things you’ve been meaning to do is very satisfying and kinda addictive.

There’s oodles of stuff out there about goals and goal setting. There’s a whole industry devoted to it but the simplicity of a regular written reflection was enough for me.

In a pandemic year, I managed to move cities with my young family and finish writing an anthology of short stories. One needed logistics and planning, the other, discipline. Both needed the stamina of ‘the long game’ and I may not have been as match-fit for that if I hadn’t been constantly checking in on them as ‘goals’.

The lesson I could’ve done with learning a decade ago is that it’s possible to think about something you want, consistently do small actions towards making it so and then have it actually happen.

I know. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Subscription conniptions

It’s time to reassess the prescription when the anxiety of all your unread subscriptions overtakes the pleasure of actually reading them.

I’m way over-subscribed. There are so many great magazines, journals and newspapers whose writing I love and who need readers and subscribers. But for the past few years, and this year in particular, they’ve just piled up next to my bed. They don’t get mentioned in my monthly bedside bookstacks, because they don’t get read.

There’s a novel, whose title I can’t remember, about the editor of an English-language newspaper on the continent. My recall of exact plot details is as uncertain as my memory of the title (but that’s for another post and apparently something that Helen Garner and I have in common) but I think the owner of the paper is dead. His widow is still alive and here’s the part I do remember; she has a copy of every issue stacked up in her house and is slowly working her way through and reading them.

She’s years behind but just keeps ploughing on through them. It’s the only part of the book which has stayed with me, because sometimes I feel like that. My pile is more varied but the slog of ever getting through it, once it’s so big, just feels like a chore and obligation.

I have an early association about newspapers which still shadows how I treat these subscriptions. I seem to think that you have to read everything. Yes, that’s every article in order of the pages, regardless of whether it engages you or not. No one told me I had to do it like that but I was definitely shocked when I found out that most people were skipping around the pages based on what interested them.

This year all I wanted was fiction. I think my news capacity was filled with COVID-19 updates and all the ensuing fallout.

I’ve subscribed to the Monthly for around 20 years because I think it’s got some of Australia’s best journalism in it. After this year’s issues slowly stacked higher, I finally went through them two weeks ago. And the only way to get through the backlog is to pick and choose what you read. It still feels like a novel concept. I stopped my previous subscriptions to The Saturday Paper and Harpers after a couple of years because I hadn’t caught onto the skip and select method yet.

I got a gift subscription to Audrey Daybook (now Mindful Puzzles). It has the most gorgeous graphics and a mix of articles and puzzles but until my time has more realistic slots for a cup of tea and some time out, I won’t be renewing it.

I also have a subscription to Australian Book Review and Island because I think at any time, a writer should support at least one of the publications they submit to. I usually share my literary journal subscriptions around and over the years have had subscriptions to Westerly, the Lifted Brow, Overland, Meanjin, the Griffith Review and Granta. All of these are great journals with some great writing that are worth checking out, but my rule now is, one at a time.

I still love a subscription arriving in the mail. I love the flick of the pages and the tease of a front cover. I also think it’s important to support writing, especially in local publications. But the anxiety I get as my unread pile grows and the sense of obligation I then associate with getting through it, doesn’t make a lot of sense. It also hasn’t been a year of financial bounty.

So, I’m going to keep it simple for next year and stick to two subscriptions; one newsy and one creative. And if one of them is quarterly rather than monthly and I remember that it’s OK to skip or skim, then I won’t get buried in the backlog.

…..and if anyone knows the name of the novel I can’t remember, please let me know.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The bedside bookstack – November 2020

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

Sisters by Daisy Johnson, Jonathon Cape 2020

By some random literary luck, I picked up three novels this month that could be loosely described as modern gothic. This one definitely felt like it was a firm fit for the genre. It was as compelling as it was unsettling and at times it felt like I was caught in the pages of a Henry James novel.

July and September are sisters. They’re a slim 9 months apart but their connection is more like twins. After an undisclosed event at school, their mother moves them away to a remote house owned by her ex-husband’s sister. The house has history for all of them but there is a sense of things closing in metaphorically rather than the freedom and release of being remote.

September, the older sister, has a ravenous love and control over July. And the mother, in her own fog of grief and depression fears September as a version of the violent husband who fathered her.

I read it a bit franticly, trying to keep up with the action and get to the final reveal. I read so fast that I was sure I was missing something important and wasn’t quite putting all the pieces together but I didn’t want to slow down and in the end it all comes out.

A warning that it’s always raining – everyone is always wet and muddy and cold. There’s a lot of stumbling around in the dark and I longed for some warm waterproof clothes and a few sunny days to dry everything out. Not very gothic of me, I know.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, Vintage 2020

I think this book would have to be in my top five for 2020. I just loved it. It’s the second of my accidental gothic novels this month with parallel narratives about three women all linked by family, location and a haunting. The bristling and elemental Scottish coastline is very much a character too.

Violence and aggression against women is a common thread through these narratives from the extremes of stabbed bodies to the attrition of emotional manipulation and insistence.

There is the idea that these women aren’t to be trusted and so they doubt themselves when really, it’s the men in their lives who should be viewed suspiciously.

They’re often frozen by their own doubts about what’s going on and revert to the shamefully familiar thought -‘I shouldn’t make a big deal about it.”

This was a real ‘wow’ read for me.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, Scribner 2020

Kim Jiyoung is the Korean every-woman. She’s named for the most popular girl’s name in that year. She is a normal girl with a normal family who follows the ‘normal’ path. Normal starts to unravel for her after having a baby when she briefly takes on the persona of other women in her life.

This book reads like a diary or catalogue. It lists, in a very understated way, the norms of Jiyoung’s life as a woman, especially a young one.

The preferential treatment of male siblings, classmates and colleagues made my blood boil. And the endemic misogyny in workplaces was a sobering reminder that things have only changed very recently and the fact that I tutted with recognition when I read it makes me wonder how much has actually changed.

Thank god this book was written and that a million copies have been bought breaking the code of ‘keeping quiet like a good girl’.

Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper, Hamish Hamilton, 2020

I stayed up late last night to finish this one. It was a real page turner for me and should replace ‘The Beach’ as the definitive backpacker book. I liked the premise of an Australian expat in India who scams tourists in a beach town who then gets himself in too deep. Worlds collide when he runs into an American woman looking for a spiritual experience and a way to move on with her life.  

Anyone who has done any travel, especially backpacking, through south-east Asia, will love the familiarity of it all. Overnight trains, touts and tea stalls, seekers and surfers are all brought to life in a familiar but sometimes uncomfortable light.

I didn’t know how or where this one was going to end – which is a great thing and I recommend it as a perfect summer read.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings, Picado, 2020

This was the last of my accidental gothic trio of books this month and is by the very talented Kathleen Jennings whose gorgeous and other-worldly cut-paper silhouettes deserve their own mention.

But I digress…Bettina lives in the quiet rural town of Runagate with her mum. Her brothers and father have disappeared and there are rumours about strange creatures that have been sighted nearby.

I have to confess, I was very tired when I read this and was kind of unmoored from the start. I was never clear on when and where we were exactly and what was going on. It was described as part folk tale, part mystery, so there’s an intention for the reader to be unsettled and uncertain. They sure were for me.

The love of a good woman by Alice Munro, Vintage 1998

I picked this up at a garage sale and I love finds like this because they seem to arrive so serendipitously. I’d just been thinking I needed another Alice Munro on my shelf. I only have Dear Life thus far.

Haven’t read a word of it yet but am always happy for the bedside bookstack to have a few anthologies when I’m between books or just want a little slice of something. I’m sure I’ll get some in over the summer break.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, Vermilion 2016

This tome of a thing is sitting at the bottom of my bookstack. Not at all the kind of book I usually get, I bought it because of the eloquent recommendation that Katherine Colette gave it on the First Time Podcast.

The subtitle is: the tactics, routine and habits of billionaires, icons and world-class performers. So, there’s obviously going to be some interesting stuff in there but how and when to find it?

I already have another couple of writing/business books sitting around unread. The problem is that I do most of my reading at night and this is a ‘work’ book, so when am I going to choose that over the pleasure of a narrative?

Being realistic, it’s only going to get opened if I put it in as part of my working day.

If you enjoyed reading this and want blog updates, subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.