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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Do books belong out in the world or on your bookshelf?

For something that is really just printed words on paper, we have some very strong feelings and ideas about our books as possessions. Seeing a full bookshelf calms me and holding a book is always a comfort. But my passion in their power also means that I think they need to be read, so I’m happy to lend out my books.

A book is meant to be read, hopefully by as many people as possible. I love it when someone asks me if I have anything good to read. I have a look on my shelves and pick out what I think is the right pick for them at the time.

I’d like to get the book back eventually but it’s a bit of an honesty system (I am lending to family and friends after all) and not every book comes back to the shelf.

There are a few books which I keep lending out and then rebuying. One is Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole and the other is Elizabeth Gilbert’s celebration of creativity, Big Magic. Which reminds me, I don’t have a copy of either of them at the moment. Short story anthologies are something else I’m always lending out too.

Some people use Ex Libris bookplates in the front of their books but anecdotally, they don’t guarantee that a book will ever return.

I always know if someone else’s book is on my shelves though. I’m very aware of possessions that aren’t mine. For me, a borrowed book feels a bit like an unpaid debt until it’s been returned.

Books have sentimental value and financial value. Some are out of print and can’t be replaced. Others I just want on my shelves but any copy will do. My general hope is that I remember both that they’re gone and who they went to. And when it doesn’t work out that way, when I have an inkling that I used to own a book which is no longer there, there is a consolation in thinking of it making its way in the world onto other bookshelves and into other hands.

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The bedside bookstack – October 2020

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

Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe, University of Queensland Press, 2020

Set in the Australian gold fields, this story is told by Chinese gold miners, Mei Ying and her brother Lai as well as Merri, the Irish housekeeper of a local prostitute.

Everyone is holding secrets, Ying is disguised as a boy, her brother chats with his dead fiancé and Merri has been forced to leave home and give up her child because she’s unmarried.

There’s sweat and dirt and hunger. These characters are here because of other people’s choices. Ying finds liberation in her ability to work and wander freely. Merri’s social standing is equal to her employer’s. But they’re both still women in a man’s world.

There’s debt and decency at stake and as their lives overlap and run parallel, even friendship and connection isn’t enough to dilute the separation of white miners, Chinese miners and local Indigenous people.

Act of Grace by Anna Krien, Black Inc., 2019

In the early parts of reading this book I would put it down and think, why bother trying to write when other people just do it so much better?

I know Anna Krien from her non-fiction. She’s thorough and eloquent and her recent piece The screens that ate school in The Monthly, had me in tears. As I said, the writing in this is sometimes so beautiful it feels like it’s about as good as writing can get.

There are multiple narrative strands that link the lives of a war veteran and his son, an Iraqi refugee and a young girl trying to square her identity and the fate of her father. They didn’t ultimately tie together for me, but why stop reading when the writing is so good?

The Shadow Year by Hannah Richell, Hachette, 2013

This started as a slow burn for me and I nearly left it a few pages in. But I was curious enough about some of the set up to keep reading and I’m glad I did. There’s an element of Lord of the Flies to it with five recent uni graduates trying to live off the land for a year in a rundown cottage in the remote Peak District.

When the sister of one of them arrives, the dynamic shifts and in close proximity sex, jealousy and power plays change everything.

There’s a parallel narration in the present day which was necessary for the plot reveals but I skipped through some of those parts. My fascination was with the blinkered love, sibling rivalry and desperation and how it can make us protect perpetrators and cast out victims.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, 1989

This was a tricky read for me. I read it because it won a Booker many moons ago and I’ve loved reading other Ishiguro books.

For those who don’t know the premise or haven’t watched the movie (Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins) it’s basically a butler, Stevens, from a once distinguished household narrating his younger years through the memory of a housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

Theirs is a close working relationship and for Stevens there is no separation between work and life.

This is what I struggled with, the loyalty to a boss and a position at the expense of his personal life. I know it’s making comments about pride, reserve, controlled emotions and the expectations of the hired help but that’s what made it hard to read for me. Anyone else need more emotion in a main character to keep on going?

Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper, Hamish Hamilton, 2020

This one just joined the pile yesterday, borrowed from a friend. I like the premise of an Australian expat in India who scams tourists in a beach town then getting 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.  

Haven’t started it yet but apparently the ending is quite ‘shocking’, so obviously I want to know what and why. That’ll probably move it to the top of the pile.

Letters of note: Mothers compiled by Shaun Usher, Canongate, 2020

Published letters satisfy the inner stickybeak in me who wants to know what everyone else is and has been saying in private. I’m not sure about letter collections and if the writers have authorised their publication or how letters come to be sold in the public sphere. Probably something to look into if I want a clear conscience about reading someone’s else’s mail.

These look good to pick up every now and again but haven’t made a start just yet.

What we talk about when we talk about love by Raymond Carver, Vintage, 2009

It’s never a bad time to read some Raymond Carver. Five-page average length and clean prose mean you can fit at least one story in before bed, even if you’re tired.

How can you compress whole lives within a few pages? That’s why we keep reading, to see where and how the magic is done.

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The bedside bookstack – September 2020

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

Educated by Tara Westover, Penguin, 2018

I couldn’t put this book down. It was me at the height of my voyeurism, gob-smacked at a glimpse into lives I can’t even imagine living. And that’s what books are for right, to take us somewhere else completely and allow us exposure into other pockets and corners of the world?

This is a memoir about growing up with a radical survivalist father, a violent brother and no formal education. It made me furious about these men who hold their family to ransom with their ideology and convictions and the social system that allows them to have that hold and sway over the people they love.

I’m so glad she wrote this so I could read it. But I always wonder about these translators, what is the cost in the end? She constantly weighs up the cost of splitting from her family which is huge enough but to then make that story public and for it to become a bestseller, I worry about the personal fall out.

Richard Fidler has a great chat with her on this Conversations episode.

In the Time of Foxes by Jo Lennan, Scribner, 2020

It wouldn’t be a bookstack without an anthology of short stories. These stories move from London to Wollongong to Moscow and even Mars. They follow people who are close but growing apart and strangers whose lives overlap even if it’s only for short time.

And always there’s the fox loosely linking one story to the next – as a painting on a wall, a personal characteristic or a real live animal digging up a backyard.

The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde, Scribner, 2019

This is the first climate fiction book I’ve read and I didn’t even know that’s what it was when I borrowed it. What to say about this genre? It’s important but uncomfortable to read because the facts aren’t good and the future scenarios are even worse. I hate to admit but after reading the news and working all day, eternal drought and water shortage are a tough bedtime read.

However, once I got into it, I found that that characters and the story distracted me from the doom of their surroundings.

This is two concurrent stories, one in 2017 and the other in 2041. The present follows Norwegian activist Signe as she takes part in her final protest which is both personal and environmental. She sails on her boat – the same boat that David and his daughter find in 2041 as they search for family and a future in a dry landscape where anyone who is left is searching for the same things too.

I’m thinking of ending things by Iain Reid, Text Publishing, 2016

I don’t usually read books that are scary but I read a good review of this one and also saw that Charlie Kaufman had made a version of it for Netflix. It’s the insanely tense story of an unnamed narrator and her boyfriend, Jake, as they go to visit his parents in a remote rural town.

In between the chapters there is dialogue from locals alluding to a gruesome crime. The build up is creepy and everything is just a bit off. The visit to the parent’s farm is weird and then they get caught in a snowstorm on the way home.

I didn’t finish reading it. I do most of my reading at night and I got genuinely spooked. I did skip to the end though…in the daytime and I was confused. Reviewers of the Netflix series said a similar thing.

I’ll leave you to read it in full, piece it together and get back to me.

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, the July bookstack, the August 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)

Will I ever read this book? 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 can’t quite give up on it yet though. I feel like there’s something in there for me, if I could just stay awake.

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

Still haven’t read it, though my intentions from last month and the months before 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.

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10 Essay Collections for Can’t-Concentrate Readers

Rescue Reading for Troubled Times Part 5

This week’s rescue reading is suggested essay collections. Don’t worry, none of them will feel like homework. I’ve cast a wide net and there’s something for everyone with travel writers, food writers, ground-breakers, satirists, novelists and quiet observers.

If this doesn’t sound right for you try last week’s Men’s Mixed Bag of Male Short Story Writers, 10 female Australian short story writers you should read or 20th Century female short story writers.

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

And that’s exactly what this 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 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. This one was also on my August bedside bookstack.

True Stories by Helen Garner, Text Publishing, 1996

This collection gathers together pieces she has written from over 25 years. The subject matter jumps from giving birth to visiting a morgue, to a school dance. But it doesn’t really matter what she writes about, it all turns to gold in her hands. I think this is her true gift, the ability to find moments we all recognise and hold them still for long enough to take in the complete picture.

She’s a joy to read and these pieces are short and thus perfect for rescue reading. I also love the inscription in my second-hand copy of this book: Christina, surround yourself with good friends, good music and good books!! Love Julie.

Her collection Everywhere I Look would be another good rescue reading recommendation.

The New Journalism edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson, Picador, 1975

This collection is for anyone interested in how the essays and non-fiction we read today came to be such a varied bunch. New journalism was a step in the direction of creative non-fiction, using literary techniques to capture real events. There’s an extract from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as well as seminal pieces by Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Bloomsbury, 2000

It doesn’t matter how you feel about his food shows, the late Anthony Bourdain could write. These essays are a great read – pacy and perfect if you’re looking for something speedy but satisfying.

This book was like the New Journalism moment for food writing. Here was a chef-written page turner about sex, drugs and haute cuisine. He was unconventional and an insider and I’m glad I now know not to order the seafood special on a Sunday.

The Global Soul by Pico Iyer, Bloomsbury, 2000

I’m a big Pico Iyer fan. He’s my favourite travel writer. I think he has such gentle, generous and intelligent observations of the world and his restlessness and desire to seek out corners of the world is very satisfying for one’s own global curiosity.

This collection is subtitled jetlag, shopping malls and the search for home. It’s an accurate one-liner for what you’ll get in this collection.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, Abacus, 2000

Actually, I could just as easily list any of his other collections. These are perfect if you’re looking for something lighter. They’re ridiculous, funny and short.

David Sedaris is a humourist who works his comic magic on ordinary moments. His observations and wit will be a welcome relief from the pandemic plod.

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, Faber, 2016

I’ve been dipping in and out of these pieces and get something completely different every time. Politics, photography, travel, history and literature are just some of the topics Teju Cole covers.

So far, I’ve gone from Kenyan coastal folklore to the poetry of Derek Walcott, portrait photography and drones. His curiosity and knowledge blend seemingly disparate ideas so that you’re never quite sure where he’ll lead you until you’re there.

This is the story of a happy marriage by Ann Patchett, Bloomsbury, 2013

It seems Ann Patchett can write non-fiction with just as much talent and flair as she does her fiction. This collection is definitely one for writers and readers who like to get the personal behind-the-scenes tour of a writer’s ideas and life. There are essays on how she wrote her first novel, book tours, opening an independent book shop and her obsession with opera which led to her novel Bel Canto.

Columbus’ Blindness and Other Essays edited by Cassandra Pybus, University of Queensland Press, 1994

This collection was my introduction to essays as a form to be read and enjoyed. As a writer, this was my first taste of essays beyond the high school classroom.

The titular essay has stayed with me all these years. It is written by that master of sentence-level perfection; Delia Falconer. It lays a period of unexplained illness that Christopher Columbus had on the return of his second journey against her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Both are treated with her usual eloquence and it just blew my mind that such beauty was possible in an essay.

Best Australian Essays, Black Inc, 1998 – 2018

Obviously, a collection that has already curated the best of a bunch over a year should be added to the rescue reading list. The variety of topic, style and tone will keep things interesting and the choice of twenty years’ worth of back catalogue means you’ll always be covering new ground.

Some of these may be out of print or hard to find. You can find the closest library copy of a book, anywhere in the world, through world cat.

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Men’s mixed bag – 5 male short story writers to read

Rescue Reading for troubled times Part 4

A lot of us are feeling distracted and unable to concentrate at the moment. My Rescue Reading series has lists of suggested short works and collections. Previous posts have included 10 female Australian short story writers you should read and 20th Century female short story writers. This week it’s a mixed bag of male short story writers.

Of course, most people would start with Chandler or Cheever. But I’m going to start with Chekhov. 

Anton Chekhov – Lady with a Lap Dog and Other Stories, 1885-1899

Let’s start the list with a classic. What can you say about Chekhov? Doctor, writer, master observer. His characters feel as real now in their hopes, jealousies and betrayals as they were when he wrote them over a hundred years ago.

His ability to create comedy and tragedy within the same space is just one of the reasons his stories are worth reading. Apparently, after reading one of these stories, Gorky wrote to him that his own work seemed ‘coarse and written not with a pen but with a log.’ So, we’re all in agreement that he’s great at what he does!

Read, re-read and then read anything Francine Prose has to say about him in Reading like a writer and read them all again.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap – Sightseeing, Atlantic Books, 2004

It’s more than elephants, tourists and the sex industry. Some of these stories answer questions you may have had about what Thai locals think of the tourist influx to their islands and mainland. Others are universal in their subject but specific to Thailand in their setting. There’s a lot here about family and the bonds that bind them, both antagonistic and loving. Brothers growing apart, a father begrudgingly accepting his son’s help and a mother and son on holiday are just a few.

Junot Diaz – Drown, Faber and Faber 1996

These stories sling you straight into the jostle and vibe of Dominican communities from urban New Jersey to Santo Domingo barrios. They’re about family and friendship, love and territory, growing up and moving on.

Nothing flat or spare here. It’s all noise and colour and life. I promise that even the most distracted reader will be helpless to the pull of perpetual motion at work in these tales.

James Joyce – Dubliners, 1914

I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post that I attempted to read Ulysses and put it down in defeat. I’ve avoided Joyce since then. No need. This collection of short stories needs no more attention or concentration than any other on this list. It allows you a glimpse into what all the Joyce fuss is about. A few easy words and he’s created a character complete with their inadequacies.

There’s a lot about money and hardly anything about religion or politics. Make sure you’re warm when you read it, because it’s often wet and cold and no one has any money.

George Saunders – Pastoralia, Bloomsbury, 2000

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 the 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.

Some of these may be out of print or hard to find. You can find the closest library copy of a book, anywhere in the world (I know, amazing right?), through world cat.

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

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