blog

The bedside bookstack – August 2020

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

Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore, Text, 2020

Full Disclosure, Cath Moore is my cousin and I’m so proud of her and her debut YA novel. It’s a magical-realist road trip and the ideas and themes sprawl the dusty distance that Dylan, the main character, has to travel. Identity and race, grief and loss, and family and connection are all part of her journey.

Moving words by someone who has experienced her own variations on these ideas. If you don’t trust me to be objective, have a look at what Kill Your Darlings, The Saturday Paper, and the Big Issue have to say.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Picador, 2014

Phwoar!!!!! What a read!! How do you mix a post pandemic civilisation storyline with tabloid lives and Shakespeare? And, how had I never heard anything about this book in the middle of a pandemic?

Current situation aside, this is a great book about how everything can change and some things stay exactly the same when humans are involved. Now I need to check her back-catalogue and see what else I’ve been missing.

The Details – On love, death and reading by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Scribner, 2020

And that’s exactly what the beautiful book of essays is about. She’s writing as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a reader and a writer and she’s so generous with us in what she shares whether it’s her mother’s last days, her love of Helen Garner or George Saunders (I bought the book below after reading her essay on him) or childbirth-related vaginal issues.

Her eloquence and intelligence are such a pleasure to read. There was no snacking on these essays. I devoured them in two nights.

Pastoralia by George Sanders, Bloomsbury, 2000

There’s certainly nothing I can say about George Saunders that hasn’t been said better in Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay The worst that could happen.

Read Saunders for social realism in a parallel universe where people work fulltime as exhibits in a theme park, bodies come back from the dead and managerial-speak is a scary new vernacular. His stories seem to bring together the worst of the 20th and 21st Centuries in the best way. He’s clever, creative and always surprising.

Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills, Picador 2018

This is another story that takes our world and tilts what we know to be true. The sea recedes from a small coastal town and one of the residents has visions which have included an occurrence like this.

Jennifer Mills comes highly recommended and I haven’t read anything by her before but my copy of this one is pretty big and to be honest I probably should’ve started with her short story collection The Rest is Weight. I just need to get my hands on it.

The Dickens Boy by Thomas Keneally, Vintage Books, 2020

Charles Dickens had 10 children. He sent two of his sons to Australia to become gentleman farmers. Who knew? I didn’t but obviously Thomas Keneally knew something about it.

This book is about the youngest son, Plorn. He feels the fame and achievements of his father in stark contrast to his own inability to pass any exam or ‘apply himself’. His secret is that he’s never read one of his father’s books. 

Plorn tries to make something of himself in Australia, outside of his father’s shadow, but the colony is almost as obsessed with Dickens as the Mother Country and even boundary riders in solitary huts quote his father from books he pretends to know. 

A great read on its own but even better for the salient facts I learned about Dickens without having to read a biography.

Upstream by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2016

Who doesn’t need Mary Oliver and her words by their side at the moment?

This one’s still on my pile from the June bookstack and the July bookstack and will likely remain there into the future. There are some books that stay on the stack not because they’ve been forgotten and are a ‘should’, but because their presence is a reassurance.

Upstream is a book of essays rather than her usual poetry and they are perfect to dip in and out of. Her poetic reflections always slow things down to a pace we’re probably meant to be moving at anyway.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Penguin Books, 2004 (written sometime AD 121 – 180)

This has been sitting at the bottom of the pile for a long time now. Even though I feel like I could and should be someone who reads Roman philosophy, it hasn’t happened thus far when I’m tired and have an o-so-finite reading window before I fall asleep.

I recently came across a Brain Pickings piece on Zadie Smith’s new essays which were inspired by her encounters with Meditations. Is this a sign? Will knowing that Zadie made it through this book spur/shame me into action? We shall see.

What to read and why by Francine Prose, Harper Perennial, 2018

Still haven’t read it, though my intentions from last month are the same:

When I read Francine Prose’s Reading like a writer, I fell even more in love with reading and writing. I walked away with a new list of recommended writers that I can’t believe I’d lived without, including Grace Paley and the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant.

I haven’t started this yet, but I’m hoping for the same sublime experience.

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

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

20th Century female short story writers you should read

Rescue Reading for troubled times Part 3

My Rescue Reading series is suggested short reads for people who want the bliss and escapism of words but can’t concentrate on anything beyond a few pages.

Rescue Reading Part 2 was 10 female Australian short story writers you should read.

Part 3 is a list of 20th Century female short stories writers. Some of them are pioneers of the form. All of them are interesting to read and if we read them enough, we might replace the tendency to think of the big-names of the genre as male.

Mavis Gallant – Collected Stories

Mavis Gallant is a Canadian writer. I went all in and have a giant doorstopper of collected works that I slowly worked through over a year. She spans such varied eras and landscapes but really settles in with post-war Europe.

My brief sentences don’t do her range and sympathies any justice, so I’ll let the eloquence of Francine Prose do the talking. “There’s a light voice on the surface that you can very easily slip beneath, and it’s so deep and where she’s going is so profound.”

Zora Neale Hurston – Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick

Zora Neale Hurston wrote from the 1920s. She was the only African American student at a New York university and during that time became part of the Harlem Renaissance. 8 of the stories here are ‘lost’ from that time.

She also worked as an anthropologist and the story is that she packed a pistol together with her notepads, so she sounds as feisty and no-nonsense as her female characters who take on race and relationships and try to even their odds. Some of the stories are written in a vernacular that adds a cadence to their narrative.

Lucia Berlin – A Manual for Cleaning Women

She’s a new addition to the canon of female short story writers. She wrote for years, but this collection, which was published a couple of years ago, has brought her to a wider audience. I’m one of those grateful recent readers.

Read. This. Collection. She has a vast range and is bold with style and brave with content. Could definitely be categorised as ‘before her time’ writing, among many other things, about single parenthood, addiction and the taboo of female desire and seduction.

Elizabeth Bowen – Collected Stories

I have a brick of a book that is her collected stories. They can feel almost genteel to read (she was born in Ireland and lived in England) but then you get to one like The Working Party where a hostess desperately tries to hide the dead body of one of her staff because it’s finally her turn to have the local ladies over for tea.

She liked to peek under the lid of all that etiquette and respectability. A lot of her stories are set in London during the Second World War.

Grace Paley – Collected Stories

Grace Paley is another feisty one. She was a writer, teacher and activist and that intensity and passion is there in her stories. She’s at home with the ordinary lives, loves and losses of the common people. Her stories span the 1950s to the 1980s, definitely interesting for the modern reader considering the eras of social change.

This is a current constant in my bedside bookstack and I work through it slowly one story at a time. Check out my earlier bookstack post for some of my favourite quotes.

Alice Munro

Does she sneak in as a 20th Century writer? She crosses into the 21st Century but I think she’s been so influential on the form that I’m including her on this list. She won a Nobel for her short stories for crying out loud!

What can I say about Alice Munro that hasn’t been said before? She’s been at it for years, charting our small lives in just-enough words. We skate along with the narrative of her economical prose and there it is all along, what lies beneath.

Lithub has put together a list of 25 of her stories that you can read online.

Katherine Mansfield – In a German Pension

Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealand writer and another one who straddles two centuries (this time 19th and 20th) – even more reason to include her because she was writing as a woman and across topics that weren’t usual for the time. Her writing has also influenced what we think of a modern short story, so take that Hemingway.

Her stories and characters sometimes feel like psychological studies where characters are so tightly wound that the smallest vibration will set everything off. Some people feel her stories read a bit cool or stilted. I think it’s always interesting to see what people have been doing with the form over time. In a German Pension is a good place to start, but probably has a lighter touch than her later work.

Dorothy Parker – Collected Stories

Dorothy Parker is famous for her wit and wisecracks. She was a staff writer at The New Yorker and no one was safe in her reviews and essays.

Her stories are clever but where a one-liner is a quick hit, these carry bruises and have a sadder tone. For all the new freedoms of the age, women were still at the mercy of the men around them; for money, acknowledgement, access to power. If you’re looking for a light read, don’t start here. This is an honest take on mental health in the jazz era.

Shirley Jackson – The Lottery and Other Stories

I’ll fess up that I haven’t read any of her collections. I’ve read her novels and I’ve read her still-gives-me-goosebumps short story The Lottery. It’s her most famous story and I won’t say much for fear of spoiling it.

Shirley Jackson is way ahead of her time. Everything should be normal in her stories but it’s all just a bit off. She leaves an eerie and haunted residue on her pages that is part unnerving and part thrilling. Read The Lottery at the very least. You can read it or hear A.M. Homes reading it for the New Yorker.

Do you love your 20th Century shorts? Let me know any other suggestions you have for collections by 20th Century female short story writers.

I’ll be posting more suggested anthologies and collections for short reading over the next few weeks. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen and Facebook or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

10 female Australian short story writers you should read

Rescue reading for troubled times Part 2

Last week’s post was all about rescue reading, my suggestions for short reading to keep you in a world of words when your concentration is shot and you’re too distracted to stick around for long. Here are my Rescue Reading suggestions for female Australian short story writers that would be perfect for this.

Josephine Rowe – Here until August

Beautiful stories scattered across the globe. It’s an art to be able to furnish your characters and narrative so fully while using such spare prose. She places you as firmly in Western Australia as she does in a Montreal winter. A collection that will definitely take you away if you need to not be here right now.

Melanie Cheng – Australia Day

All these doctors who also write (Vincent Lam, Chekov, Peter Goldsworthy), how do they do it? Melanie Cheng is one of them as well.

These stories capture that rare cross-section of Australia in its more realistic diversity. A place where everyone is trying to find how and where they can belong. More recently, not a short story but well worth a read, she’s written an essay on her experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic as a doctor for the Guardian.

Cate Kennedy – Dark Roots & Like a House on Fire

For a while in the noughties Cate Kennedy was constantly referred to as Australia’s ‘Queen of Short Stories’. She’s been off the radar in recent years and is writing poetry now instead. But when you go back to her two collections, you’ll realise that human dynamics are timeless in her hands.

Listen to her on Conversations with Richard Fidler. It’s a great interview about the time she and her family spent living and working in Vanuatu. If you’re time-poor though, skip right to the end and listen to her reading one of her poems. The Midas touch with all forms it seems.

Julie Koh – Portable Curiosities

These stories are the wild love-child of satire and surrealism. As a taster, in the story Sight, our narrator, China Doll, has regular conversations with the enigmatic Tattoo Man. China Doll has a third eye located in her stomach (her sister used to have one on her left shoulder). Her mum arranges for it to be surgically removed but not before China Doll has a chance to meet the brother who never came home from hospital…in lizard form.

Emily Paull – Well-behaved women

This collection is perfect if you want to dip into a little nostalgia for adolescence and its sense of longing or feel the heat of endless summers, fractured friendships and family ties both tight and loose. A good read for sand between your toes in the middle of winter.

Alice Bishop – A Constant Hum

This collection of stories is written in the aftermath of the Victorian Black Saturday fires of 2009. So, this is what happens when big news moves from the front page. People live with it, the loss of it, the trauma of it and the seedlings of hope that sometimes still grow. Stories from one paragraph to many pages to suit your current abilities of concentration.

Maxine Beneba Clarke – Foreign Soil

This debut collection won quite a few literary prizes back in 2015. It was definitely a win for readers who got to hear from voices and read about lives that don’t always make their way onto the shelves from Sudanese migrants to asylum seekers and Chinese students. She was a performance poet first and the rhythm and cadence of language and speech is also something that’s noticeable in these voices.

Tegan Bennet Daylight – 6 Bedrooms

I love a good collection of inter-linked short stories like Tim Winton’s The Turning or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge books. This isn’t a whole collection of linked stories but there are enough for you to chart the lives of a few characters. This is another collection to go to for coming-of-age first times and the longing, humiliation and triumph of youth.

She writes beautifully and if you’re more in the mood for non-fiction, The Details, her recently released book of essays, is another excellent option to dip in and out of.

Margo Lanagan – Singing My sister Down and Other stories

Margo Lanagan has that Margaret Atwood sense of disquiet to her stories where frightening things happen in a world that is similar but not-quite ours. The title story Singing my sister down has stayed with me like no other story since Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

I get goose bumps just reading the first line. We all went down to the tar-pit, with mats to spread our weight. Read it. I think it might be one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

Fiona McFarlane – The High Places

Fiona MacFarlane is best known for her novel The night guest but for me, this book of shorts was a much better read. There’s something very classic in the style of these stories that made them feel more like a 20th Century read, and I mean that in a good way. The subjects suit the style.

You can also read her story Demolition from the May 2020 New Yorker.

Do you love your Australian shorts? Let me know any other suggestions you have for collections by female Australian short story writers.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting more suggested anthologies and collections for short reading. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Rescue reading for troubled times

Suggested reading for when you can’t concentrate on anything.

Who can read a book right now? It’s so hard to concentrate on anything or get anything done. It’s hard to scan beyond restrictions and stats of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, a daily loop with minor variations.

And reading, which used to be a joy, seems like hard work for a concentration span which has been whittled by anxiety and circumstance. Also, hard work for tired eyes that stare at screens too many hours a day.

But there is still comfort, solace and reassurance to be found in the written word. There’s a quietness there for your mind to melt into that you won’t get from streaming a series or trawling a feed. There’s food for your soul.

So here are my reading rescue suggestions. Firstly, I’m suggesting paper as something tactile and familiar and to delineate it from the screens of our working days. Secondly, I’m suggesting short forms. The idea is to replenish those ravaged inner reserves any way we can.

Short stories

The right short story can take you away and deliver you back, (perhaps even slightly changed) in the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. Feel the satisfaction of starting and finishing something. Feel the relief of genuine distraction and the space to make your own connection with what’s on the page. I’ll be posting a series of suggested anthologies to read over the next weeks.

Poetry

Something else which can be enjoyed in short bursts and picked up and put down again for intervals. Don’t make it hard for yourself. Pick up what you have on the shelf, what you know from studying at school, or something that’s been recommended.

An old favourite

Take a favourite book from your shelf, one that feels like a best friend and is therefore no effort at all, despite the time between sittings. Read it at whatever pace you want because you know what’s coming anyway. Abandon without any hard feelings. Sometimes it’s just nice to re-connect with familiar words.

Old diaries and letters

Pick out an entry/letterl at random. You probably won’t remember anything that’s mentioned. You may be impressed by your turn of phrase or kind of mortified. If you’re like me, you’ll often be left feeling sad about the passing of time and for your former self without knowing exactly why. But look at that, half an hour just passed and you were somewhere else altogether.

Collections

Collections of letters, diaries or essays are all great for their pick-up and put-downability. They also offer diversity in subjects and styles, so you get the feeling of reading widely even though it’s all from the same source.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be posting suggested anthologies and collections for short reading. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The bedside book stack – July 2020

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

Actress by Anne Enright, Jonathon Cape, 2020

I’ll confess straight up that I come to Anne Enright books thinking she can’t do much wrong. Nothing written by her will ever stay on my pile for long and Actress, her most recent book, was no different.

Actress is narrated by Norah, the daughter of fictional Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell. It covers public and private lives, the bond between a mother and daughter and secrets so heavy they tug loose the knots of mental health.

Here’s Norah in the opening pages trying to recall for us what it was like to have a famous mother, something she’s been asked her whole life:

What can I say? When she ate toast and marmalade, she was like anyone else eating toast and marmalade, though the line between lip and skin, whatever that is called, is very precise, even when you are not seeing it on a cinema screen, twelve feet long.

Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh, University of Queensland Press, 2016

Julie Koh’s debut full-length short story anthology is a wild world of satire re-imagined. My favourite story so far, Sight, gives a good idea of what to expect. Our narrator, China Doll, has regular conversations with the enigmatic Tattoo Man. China Doll has a third eye located in her stomach (her sister used to have one on her left shoulder). Her mum arranges for it to be surgically removed but not before China Doll has a chance to meet the brother who never came home from hospital…in lizard form.

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay, Scribe, 2020

This is a book about a pandemic, written before COVID-19 and released on its cusp. You decide if reading a pandemic book during a pandemic is a good idea or not. If not, get it for later because Zoo Flu and the chaos that comes with it makes a great story.

Victims who catch Zoo Flu understand the language of animals. First, they can hear mammals, then birds, fish and insects. When the voices become unstoppable people either try to kill them or commune with them.

Laura Jean McKay has really done her research, to make something so extreme and unthinkable feel this believable.

Flames by Robbie Arnott, Text Publishing, 2018

If you read my previous post about how this book offers something for readers and even more for writers, you’d know that Flames was a bit of a WOW read for me.

It’s bold and unpredictable and capable of the leaps it makes from magic realism to epistolary form on to straight narrative and then back again. Somehow it all works, even when a water rat and fire are given their own chapters to narrate.

You’ll find more details about the premise and story in my previous post.

The List by Patricia Forde, Affirm Press, 2018

A dystopian YA read. In the City of Ark, everyone must speak List, the language of 500 controlled (and apparently harmless enough) words. As an apprentice wordsmith, Letta’s job allows her to read and record all words that existed. But she and the Wordsmith are asked to shorten the list even more.

This is an interesting look at language, censorship, global warming and the power of words to do the best and worst of our bidding.

Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne, Text Publishing, 2020

Another debut but this time only published at the beginning of this year. Laura Mc Phee-Browne’s Cherry Beach is set in Toronto, Canada.

It’s supposed to be the usual rite-of-passage gap year but childhood friends Hetty and Ness have a history, dependence and love (partially unrequited on one side) that isn’t so straightforward. The new environment is initially liberation for Hetty and loneliness for Ness but as that changes so does their friendship.

Upstream by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2016

This one’s still on my pile from the June bookstack and will likely remain there into the future. There are some books that stay there not because they’ve been forgotten and are a ‘should’ but because their presence is a reassurance.

Upstream is a book of essays rather than her usual poetry and they are perfect to dip in and out of. Her poetic reflections always slow things down to a pace we’re probably meant to be moving at anyway.

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007

Another one from the June bookstack. As I mentioned there, I read these stories on a slow drip feed, in-between novels and whatever else I have on the go, so that she’ll be with me for the long haul.

She’s so ballsy and vocal. It’s always a pleasure her pick up.

What to read and why by Francine Prose, Harper Perennial, 2018

Still haven’t read it, though my intentions from last month are the same:

When I read Francine Prose’s Reading like a writer, I fell even more in love with reading and writing. I walked away with a new list of recommended writers that I can’t believe I’d lived without, including Grace Paley and the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant.

I haven’t started this yet, but I’m hoping for the same sublime experience.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Penguin Books, 2004 (written sometime AD 121 – 180)

This has moved from the penultimate bottom of my pile to the very bottom (I took out Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor after giving it another go and just not feeling it).

Even though I feel like I could and should be someone who reads Roman philosophy, it doesn’t look like it’ll happen when I’m tired and have an o-so-finite reading window before I fall asleep.

Still, I live in hope and it’s doing no one any harm sitting quietly at the bottom of the pile. For someone who has read it, and inspired me to buy it, check out Maria Popova’s beautiful piece in brainpickings.

What you can learn as a writer from Robbie Arnott’s Flames

This bold and unpredictable debut novel is worth reading once as a reader and again as a writer.

Flames is the debut novel of Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott. The quote on my cover, from Richard Flanagan, declares it a ‘strange and joyous marvel’. He isn’t wrong.

Readers can get caught up in the language and leaps of magic realism that take you from the brine and obsession of a tuna fisherman to an anthropomorphised ember. Writers can watch and wonder how he does it.

In the early pages, it’s declared that women from the McAllister family sometimes come back after death. Half landscape and half person their re-arrival always ends in flames.

This sets in motion the flight and pursuit which sustains the novel. Levi McAllister wants to make a coffin for his sister, so she won’t have a chance to re-incarnate and can rest in peace. His sister Charlotte sees this as a good reason to leave.

With each chapter, everything shifts; the point of view (POV), tense, text type and even genre. As a reader you can move through the magic of this and as a writer, take your time to enjoy what he’s up to and how boldly he does it.

He moves from the crime/detective narrative of a private investigator, to the diary entries of a mad ranger, to the narrative of a water rat, the magic realism of his main character and the pure poetry that is fire’s own monologue.

If you’re scared of writing a novel, and think it’s too big to take on, maybe try slicing it up. These chapters could be separated and stand independently as short stories but turn into something unique when presented together.

Who knows if it was pure experimentation or something much more deliberate on his behalf? Strategic or not, the result is so interesting and strange. There’s plenty in there to inspire mixing things up a little in your own writing and seeing where it takes you.

Has anyone actually read the story of Peter Rabbit?

The enduring popularity of this children’s classic is a mystery to me.

Over a hundred years after Beatrix Potter wrote the story in 1902, Peter Rabbit is still bouncing around. Yes, he of the bibs, booties, baptism bowls and cutlery sets. He has a TV series and a movie, possibly two by now. According to peterrabbit.com, four Beatrix Potter books are sold every minute. For all the ubiquity though, I haven’t found many people who know the Peter plot.

You can probably find it on your bookshelf and definitely in the library but allow me… Peter’s Mum tells him and his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, that they can play in the forest but definitely not Mr Macgregor’s garden. This is off-limits because Peter’s dad was caught there and baked into a pie. However, it’s full of carrots and radishes, so Peter leaves his sisters picking blackberries and heads off to the garden. He gorges himself on lettuce and radishes and has to eat some parsley to ease the ache of his gluttony.

Mr Macgregor sees him and there’s a bit of a chase. Peter loses his shoes and gets tangled in a net because of his buttons. He hides in a half-full watering can and the farmer gives up the chase. Peter jumps around a bit looking for a way out of the garden, sees a cat, then sees the gate and makes a dash for it out of there.

He heads home where his sisters, who did what their mother asked and gathered berries in the forest, get to eat bread, milk and blackberries for supper. Peter on the other hand doesn’t feel great and gets put to bed with a few teaspoons of chamomile. The End. Exactly. An odd little story. Maybe even a little low key for such a big hit. Reading it makes me realise how conditioned I am to the narrative of my time. My arc expectations are more rigid than I thought.

I am all for Beatrix Potter. A female author and illustrator in a time when that was as unusual as it was difficult. I’m just surprised at how such a plain little story became so popular and has turned into merchandise machine that it is today. I’m wondering if there’s a story underneath, like the DeBeers campaign for diamond rings. Is there a tale of a limited-edition christening set that put Peter on the shelves as competition for the Royal Doulton Bunnykins?

If you’ve read a few of the Beatrix Potter stories, then you’ll know that Peter Rabbit is only remarkable in the fact that it somehow became a hit. Have you read The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse?

Timmy Willie, a country mouse, accidentally falls into a hamper which is delivered to the city. When it arrives he gets out and freaks out. It’s noisy and busy and he gets chased by a cat. He runs into a hole in the wall where he meets Johnny Town-Mouse who is entertaining eight other gentleman mice.

The food doesn’t agree with Timmy Willie and neither does the lifestyle. He gets thin and sad and wants to go home and Johnny Town-Mouse says he could’ve gone home in the hamper last week. Timmy Willie hops in the next hamper and is happy to get back home. Nearly a year later Johnny Town-Mouse turns up for a visit. He doesn’t like it much and goes home the next day. The End.

Or perhaps you’re wondering what happens in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? Well, funny you should ask. The squirrels need to get across to the island where there are nuts to collect. Old Brown, the owl, lives on the island and the squirrels need his permission to be there. They arrive on the island and give him three dead mice.  At the same time Nutkin, a young squirrel, goes in front of Old Brown and does a dance and sings a cheeky song. Old Brown closes his eyes and goes to sleep while the squirrels start gathering nuts.

The next day they offer him a ‘fine fat vole’. This time Nutkin sings and dances and pokes Old Brown with a nettle. Old Brown picks up the vole and closes the door in Nutkin’s face. All the other squirrels go and gather nuts while Nutkin plays marbles on Old Brown’s porch. I know, totally provocative. This kid is jeopardising the winter stores of his species.

The next day they bring honey and Nutkin gets in old Brown’s face with another song. Old Brown eats all the honey and ignores Nutkin. Meanwhile the other squirrels go off collecting again and this time Nutkin mooches around on a rock playing skittles with pine cones.

On the final day, the squirrels bring an egg. This time Nutkin sings a song and then jumps onto Old Brown’s head! Ridiculous. If Old Brown isn’t going to do something about this him, then I will. Suddenly Nutkin is in Old Brown’s pocket. Old Brown picks him up by the tail but Nutkin ‘pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two’??!!!

He escapes and spends the rest of his days up a tree, stamping his feet and shouting ‘Cuck-cuck-cuck-curr-r-r-cuck-k-k!’.

So, there you go. You really can’t pick a hit. 

How heavy is a half-read book?

Abandoning a book before the end wasn’t something I could always do.

For a long time, I read books I didn’t enjoy, slogging it out right until the end. I’ve since discovered that my time is finite – and there really are too many wonderful books still to be read on my bedside bookstack. So, just like I started eating watermelon pips because life was too short, I also decided it was OK to put a book down without finishing it.

I have a reverence for books and a love for authors that made me think sticking it out was offering some kind of loyalty or respect. There was also an ego element of unfinished business or a weakness of my part. As James Colley said in his article for the Guardian, “When a book is finished it becomes a trophy. When it’s left half-finished it becomes an albatross.”

I’m embarrassed to say that when reading some classics, I used to hang on just because I thought it was important to have read certain authors. I’m going to say it quietly, because I’m an Australian and it seems unpatriotic, but I think it was Patrick White who broke me. I tried The Aunts Story. I tried Voss. I just couldn’t do them. I’m happy to take recommendations if anyone has better books of his to start with, but there are too many other books that I love reading for me to sit through the penance of a ‘should’ book anymore.

I’ve also given Ulysses a go. Twice. I’m in good company. Goodreads did a survey of “the most initiated but unfinished book of all time” and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 came in at the top. People also jumped ship on Ulysses and Moby Dick.

I’ve never been a skipper or a skimmer. My sister used to flick through and read the endings of books, which still kind of shocks me. My husband is quite happy to skim through for gist. But I’m all in on my books. Otherwise, I’d wonder what I was missing at sentence and word level. It’s about more than gist and a good-ending for me. I like to roll around in the muck of it, the syntax and semantics.

I still feel some guilt when I desert a book. And I give them more pages and time than I should. My fomo (fear of missing out) and pride keep me turning pages much longer than any interest in the actual story does. I wonder if maybe I’m going to miss something amazing 10 pages from the end.

It could be the Middlemarch syndrome. I hated it for the first 400 pages and then something clicked and I was so glad I’d stayed on. It can take time to get into the rhythm of a book and just because it’s difficult, it doesn’t mean it should be ditched. But there’s also no need to turn something enjoyable into a chore. Life is definitely too short to create more chores!

Marginalia

Notes from the edge of the page

To me, books aren’t sacred as physical objects. Don’t let that stop you from lending me one. I’m a careful borrower. I think they should be treated properly and have a few things to say when my kids casually step on them. But as an owner, I’m happy to fold corners, attach page-markers, highlight paragraphs and scrawl in the margins.

I like my books loved and lived in. Marginalia isn’t just an ‘I was here’ marker but proof of meaning and connection to a text.

It wasn’t always like this. I used to think margin comments were only legitimate as study notes in high school texts. I kept my other book pages clean and crisp. But after school finished, I missed the frantic margin scratches even though they were sometimes crammed in so tight you couldn’t even read them.

In the early tentative days, I only used a pencil. I wrote my comments and thoughts nervously, like someone was looking over my shoulder and tutting in my ear. But I grew bolder and pen is, of course, much easier to read.

Marginalia is often discussed in terms of the annotations and notes that were made on medieval manuscripts. These were intended as suggestions for future editions. Margins used to be wide specifically for the purpose of making notes. Edgar Allen Poe, a fan of generous margin dimensions, is quoted as saying in 1844, “I have always been solicitous of an ample margin; this is not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling in suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.”

Mark Twain must have had similar ideas as a lot of his marginalia still exists. He’s said to have written ‘cat could do better literature than this’ in the margin of one novel and Entropy has an image of the quip he inserted on the title page of Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men about it being translated ‘into rotten English’ from Greek.

The margin commentary isn’t for everyone. I lent a friend my high school copy of Wuthering Heights when she needed it for her book club but she gave it back a few days later saying that she couldn’t read it because of all the notes. Fair enough. They are distracting.

I can get just as caught up re-reading my own markings as someone else’s. It’s a little glimpse into a private moment from the past. Sometimes I can’t imagine why I marked certain sentences over others. Other times, I thank my former self for leading me straight back to the treasure.

Reading one friend’s book, I felt like I was seeing more than I should. A comment about heartache was underlined. In the margin she’d written That’s how it feels again and again! The second ‘again’ left an indent on the next three pages.

I know I’m not alone in the enjoyment and fascination with marginalia. For those with a penchant to read more there is the New Yorker’s take on marginalia, the Guardian’s article on Marlene Dietrich’s margin calls, the Atlantic’s list of medieval manuscript monk quotes and Entropy’s photos.

The bedside book stack – June 2020

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on my bedside book stack this month.

Well-behaved women by Emily Paull, Margaret River Press, 2019

I’ve just finished reading this debut short story collection by Perth writer Emily Paull. I loved the heat in these pages, the feeling of sand between my toes, the nostalgia and longing of adolescence and the family ties both close and distant. Always refreshing to have strong female characters in all their varied glory.

A constant hum by Alice Bishop, Text Publishing, 2019

Another debut short story collection by a female Australian writer. This collection focuses on the fallout after the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria – especially prescient given the summer we just had.

There are brief flash fiction pieces against longer stories. A great read and a sobering reminder of life continuing, though forever altered, long after the fires leave the front pages.

You think it, I’ll say it by Curtis Sittenfeld, Doubleday books, 2018

Another collection of short stories. I’ve only read Curtis Sittenfeld’s novels and it’s always fun to see an author write in another form. What was even more interesting, given the recent release of her novel Rodham, was reading the Hilary Clinton short story. I’m wondering if that story was the starting point for what eventually became Rodham. It’s quite nice to chart a narrative trajectory.

Upstream by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2016

Anyone who read my post about the late poet Mary Oliver will know how much I love and respect her writing. There is usually one of her books permanently on my pile. They’re perfect to just dip in and out of. But this is a book of essays rather than poetry.

True to her loves, there is a focus on the natural world, also on writers, her past and of course poetry. These reflections, just like her poetry, slow down the world around you until it’s only her words that exist.

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007

Grace Paley is an American writer who I only recently discovered, via the recommendations of Francine Prose (who appears below in my pile). She was a writer, activist and teacher and you can feel her passion and intent crackle through these stories.

A lot of these stories were written in the 70s and 80s and as a woman reading in the 21st Century there’s a marvel at how things have changed….and stayed the same.

I read these on a slow drip feed, in-between novels and whatever else I have on the go, so that she’ll be with me for the long haul.

My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.   

An interest in life, Grace Paley

She sure knows how to start a story!

The Business of being a writer by Jane Friedman, The University of Chicago Press, 2018

I’m subscribed to Jane’s Electric Speed newsletter which is full of excellent advice and links for writers. This book had lots of great reviews and she is a practical lady with years of experience in publishing and writing (in the US). She presents the book as a reality check for those wanting to make writing their living, not in a mean way, but suggesting what you could do to make it sustainable.

I confess, I haven’t got past the introduction cos I’m just not feeling it at bedtime. It’s a ‘work’ book for me. I think it’ll be a good public transport or lunch break book. And even in the introduction I got out the highlighter and made some annotations.

What to read and why by Francine Prose, Harper Perennial, 2018

When I read Francine Prose’s Reading like a writer, I fell even more in love with reading and writing. I walked away with a new list of recommended writers that I can’t believe I’d lived without, including Grace Paley and the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant.

I haven’t started this yet, but I’m hoping for the same sublime experience.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Penguin Books, 2004 (written sometime AD 121 – 180)

Every now and then I think it’s time to grow up and give an ancient classic a go. I haven’t yet, but Maria Popova wrote a beautiful piece on this in brainpickings and I ordered it instantly. Sorry to say it’s a thin little thing and has been sitting forlornly at the penultimate bottom of my pile. Roman philosophy, no matter how beautiful in reflection, feels too heavy for me at the moment.

The memoirs of a survivor by Doris Lessing, Picador, 1974

I love a bit of Doris Lessing but I just didn’t feel it when I started reading this one. It’s supposed to be amazing, which always makes me soldier on a bit longer and give it more of a go. The bookmark shows I got to page 38 but I couldn’t tell you anything about it. Looks like I either have to start again or pull the plug.