The bedside bookstack – April 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan, Faber, 2020

I’m still turning this one over. Whenever I walk past and see the cover, I think about the rich journey I went on when reading it, how it’s left a residue behind and that I’d like to read it again, soon. And probably again after that.

I haven’t read a lot of books by male authors recently and certainly none that capture male friendship the way this one does. Tully and James grow up in a small Scottish town. In 1986 they make a legendary trip to Manchester with some friends to see their music idols. This is the soundtrack to all of their lives in some ways and where it all started.

Years later, Tully is terminally ill and mortality asks a lot of friendships. This book just didn’t skip a beat for me. Everything he wrote about, politics, relationships, family dynamics and the feel of an era just got it all right. A beautiful and poignant book about life, death, friendship and music.

Learning Curves, Griffith Review 75, 2022

There’s always so much to soak up in a Griffith Review. If you’re not familiar, it’s a quarterly journal with some of Australia’s best writing, Each issue has essays, memoir, fiction, poetry and reportage based around a different theme.

This one is about education in Australia. Anyone who has taught, is teaching or gives a rats about education will probably burn with fury over some of these pieces, find comfort in others as well as insight into the unknown.

You can’t go wrong in the hands of Tegan Bennett Daylight, Gabbie Stroud and Cath Keenan, who are just some of the great contributors in this issue. The question is, how do you get this into the hands of the people who really should be reading it? The people making and changing and remaking our education policies?

Oppositions – Selected Essays by Mary Gaitskill, Serpents Tail 2021

After reading The Mare back in February, I went on a Mary Gaitskill rampage and reserved everything the library had from her. It didn’t work out how I hoped with her acclaimed short story collection but these essays balanced it out.

The pieces are collected from the last 30 years and are arranged in three sections; Living, Watching & Listening and Reading. She covers the bible, affairs, a trip to St Petersburg, date rape, Chekhov and plenty in between. Particularly interesting for me were ‘Learning to Ride’ which was about learning to ride horses and also about how she got the idea to write The Mare and ‘It Would Not be Wonderful to Meet a Megalosaurus’ an essay on Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which if you read on, seemed quite timely.

Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill, Penguin Random House, 1988

As mentioned above after reading The Mare back in February, I wanted to find more Mary Gaitskill. Bad Behaviour is a collection of short stories set in 1980s New York and was a bit of a sensation at the time. There’s sex and relationships and beautiful writing but it was all too mean for me to finish. I couldn’t read another story about how cruel we can be to each other. Things are enough as they are. I need a little more redemption and hope on my pages at the mo.

Little fires everywhere by Celeste Ng, Abacus, 2017

Mia and Pearl move around a lot. When they arrive in Shaker Heights, Mia promises her daughter that this time they’ll stay. Thinking it’s long term, Pearl relaxes and makes friends with the Robertson family.

This ‘perfect’ family is living her dream life with a big house, four kids and ‘regular’ parents. As Pearl gets closer to the kids, Mia gets a job as their housekeeper and each of them finds out there are secrets in this family too. At the same time, a local court case about the custody of an abandoned baby splits everyone’s loyalties and Mrs Robertson uncovers why Mia never stays in one place for long.

As I was reading it, I could see how well it would work on film and then found out Reese Witherspoon made it into a series (streaming in Prime now if you’re in Australia). This ticks along just nicely. Pack it for your weekend away, maybe not your commute (unless it’s long distance) because the putting down might be annoying.

Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld, Penguin Random House, 2020

If you’re not familiar with the premise of this book, it’s an imagining of what might have happened if Hilary Rodham had not accepted Bill Clinton’s marriage proposal.

This was the first of the two books I put down this month. Not sure if that says something about the month I was having or the books I chose. Curtis Sittenfeld is great at her job. No questions there. Just go and check out Prep or You think it, I’ll say it but with Rodham her talents and the story weren’t a match for my desire to not read about politics in my spare time.

For anyone not in Australia, we’re currently in the run-up to an election and before that we were in the run-up to the announcement of an election, so at night, for the 30 odd minutes I can keep my eyes open, I can’t be reading about candidates and campaign trails. I just can’t.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Penguin Classics 1996

A month ago, I decided it was time to embark on a personal Dickens education. I’ve only ever read one of his books, A Tale of Two Cities back in high school. I asked people on Twitter where I should start and the general consensus was Great Expectations andthen Bleak House.

So here I am, reading and hoping to learn a little something from the Master. He certainly does a good opening and set up, with Pip’s voice already so clear within 2 paragraphs.

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Reading Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’

On the road with a poodle and a writer

I’m in awe of John Steinbeck as a writer. East of Eden is one of my favourite novels and Journal of a Novel is such a generous gift, exposing his process and doubts. So, it was interesting to read him as himself in Travels with Charley, not as a narrator or a writer immersed in fiction project.

It’s 1960 and Steinbeck feels like it’s been too long since he’s travelled and been with ’the people’. He feels like the success of his career has created a distance between him and them, so he kits out a truck as a motorhome (which he calls Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse) and takes his poodle Charley with him on a road trip around the country. Travels with Charley are the recollections of that trip.

It’s Steinbeck, so his meditations are eloquent and intelligent but he’s also growing older and things have changed. It’s a different America to his youth. Like most generations, he wishes things were more the way he remembers them. He finds a sameness he wasn’t expecting in accents and interiors and food.

What I wasn’t expecting and didn’t like was his romanticism towards some aspects of masculinity and his bemoaning the disappearance of the hard drinking, brawling man. There’s an aggression and machismo to Steinbeck that I wouldn’t have guessed from reading his fiction. It’s always interesting (and sometimes disappointing) when the writer you read is revealed and you don’t love everything about them.

On his trip, he meets men. Apart from the odd roadside waitress, the strangers who cameo in these pages are men he’s met by the side of the road or in towns. Women just can’t do that. I remember, more than 15 years ago, backpacking around South East Asia and getting furious about the boys we’d meet. They’d be on their own or in pairs, riding motorbikes through the golden triangle, narrating their remote encounters and adventures. And they just didn’t get it when we said that it couldn’t be like that for us, that we couldn’t just jump on bikes and ride through the dusk or accept invitations back to strange men’s houses. 

But his language, as ever, takes you in and his meditations follow. He contemplates the racial tension he sees in the south, the politics of the Cold War and the rise of consumerism. The book is as much a narration of his journey through the nation as it is him philosophising on various topics, for example, ideas about the impossibility of objectivity and how the America he sees and interprets with the same cities and stops is completely different to someone else, or even to himself at a different time of day.

“Our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

He mentioned that he doesn’t take notes as he goes. He lets it all sit for a year and then writes it down. I don’t know how he can write with such detail and richness about something which happened at least a year or more in the past. I would forget the details, the conversations, the finer parts of such a big journey.

Some of my favourite parts were the ‘uh-huh, that’s how it is for me as well’ moments.

How an intensely bad night can just disappear without a trace:

The sun was up when I awakened and the world was remade and shining. There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days and as an opal changes its colours and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.”

How he too has books that he’s never going to read:

“I laid in a hundred and fifty pounds of those books one hasn’t got around to reading – and of course those are the books one isn’t ever going to get around to reading.”

As a Steinbeck fan, I was happy just to hear his voice again, even though I didn’t like everything he had to say.

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The Bedside Bookstack – March 2022

What’s teetering on the bookstack this month.

The Keepers by Al Campbell, UQP 2022

Jay is a full-time carer to her two high needs teenage sons who are in the bureaucratic and medical too-hard basket. She has a husband who lives upstairs but not in their life and an aged mother whose loveless legacy, she’s trying to undo.

This book is clever, funny and full of heart. It shows us at our best and absolute worst. Just read it. Read it. Read it.

the namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2003

Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli leave Calcutta for America. They name their first child Gogol, after the famous Russian writer. He is a favourite of Ashoke’s father and the book saves Ashoke’s own life in a train accident.

This is a beautiful story of family, belonging and identity. We follow the Gangulis for 40 years and witness as each of them feels the push and pull of being in one place with influences and expectations from somewhere else.

Travels with Charley in search of America by John Steinbeck, Heinemann, 1962

It’s 1960 and John Steinbeck feels like he’s lost touch with his country and the people in it. Kitting out a truck as a mobile home, he takes a road trip around the country with his poodle Charley. By this time, he’s a well-known author, so this trip is a chance to be anonymous and move at his own pace. As he goes, he mediates on modern America, what is familiar to him, what’s been lost and what he doesn’t understand.

It’s Steinbeck. It’s always going to be well written and a pleasure to read but it was interesting to read him as a person and not a narrator and find that there’s a romanticising of ‘old’ masculinity (drinkin’ and brawlin’) that doesn’t sit well with me at all.

It was a good read though and gave me plenty to think about.

The Breaking by Irma Gold, Midnight Sun, 2021

Hannah is away from home for the first time. She’s backpacking in Thailand and loving the thrill of freedom. She meets Deven in her hostel and joins her to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary. But Deven needs to do more for the animals and wherever she goes, Hannah will follow.

This book offered the same nostalgia and familiarity for backpacking through Asia as Love & Virtue did for being at uni. She recreates the intense bond you can have with strangers when travelling and the familiarity you can find in a foreign culture. There is also the murky territory of trying to ‘save’ a situation you don’t fully understand and thinking you’re a ‘traveller’ when really, we’re all tourists because we’re not from there.

The Furies by Mandy Beaumont, Hachette, 2022

There is anger, silence, violence and fury in this book from women past and present who were told they didn’t belong, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, who were feared and misunderstood, told to keep quiet, stay still and taught to feel shame.

Cynthia inherits this legacy like so many girls before her. It comes with loss and isolation but when she hears the muffled voices of wronged women rise around her, it gives her strength that she didn’t know she had.

Night boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry, Canongate, 2019

Maurice and Charlie are ageing Irish gangsters. They pace the Algeciras Port waiting for the Night Boat from Tangier to come in. They hold posters of Dilly Hearne, Maurice’s daughter and ask if anyone has seen her. They haven’t seen her in 3 years and there are whispers that she’s expected tonight.

Kevin Barry is a master! Just let yourself go and the poetry of his prose will catch you. The narrative is almost a hallucination as Maurice and Charlie recall their past in Spain, Ireland and Morocco and the love and loss of Dilly’s mum Cynthia, for both men.

The language is sublime and there’s something Brechtian in Maurice and Charlie’s restless wait and recollections as if Dilly is their Godot who may never show.

All Hands By Megan McGrath, Spineless Wonders 2019

This collection is a wee A5 pocket size. It was put out as part for Spineless Wonders’ 10th Anniversary and I’m always a lover of lovers of short fiction.

This is a coastal collection. Salt water and a briney breeze infuses the stories. The water offers redemption, distraction, protection, temptation and always familiarity. These characters wash in and out leaving and returning like the tide. The stories aren’t linked but I read it all in one sitting because of that familiar ocean thread that pulls through all of them and now I feel like I have traces of salt, crusted on my skin.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, Text, 2019

 I’ve only just started this one and actually thought I was reading one of his short story collections, which come highly recommended. I have no idea where it’s going but that’s a good thing, I think. The back cover certainly declares his ‘New York Times best-seller’ status.

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The bedside bookstack – February 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this February.

Once there were wolves by Charlotte McConaghy, Hamish Hamilton, 2021

Inti Flynn is the lead biologist on a rewilding project introducing wolves back in to the Scottish Highlands and the locals aren’t happy about it. She’s trying not to get too attached to the wolves, or people, but she has a condition that makes it impossible. She feels the sensations that she sees in others.

I couldn’t put this book down. The wild landscapes and animals endangered by our own wild sense of how we should live offer a climate narrative without the didactic overtones that are often hard to avoid with such an urgent topic. I think the secret is sublime language for landscape and the natural world and a cracking story that keeps you guessing.

On a technical and grammatical note, this is a great example of a narrative which has a lot of backstory that have been effortlessly incorporated. She’s made it so clear – use present simple tense for the main narration and then past simple tense for any flashbacks. What a way to simplify something that can get really clunky when you have a past simple narration and start getting into past perfect territory.

Devotion by Hannah Kent, Picador 2022

Hanne and her family are from a small Prussian village. They aren’t welcome to practice their Old Lutheran religion anymore and so they and other families put their hope in moving to the colony of South Australia.

Hanne lives for the outdoors and can hear the song in animals and plants. She feels different to the other girls her age and spends most of her time alone or with her twin brother. When Thea and her family move to the village, Hanne finds someone who understands her and a love she only understands with distance.

You’re always in good historical hands with Hannah Kent. Her research is watertight but never obscures the story. This is a tale of love, migration, settlement and environment. There is something sacred and hallowed to the language which fits the elegy of the narrative.

Beautiful world, where are you by Sally Rooney, faber, 2021

I had to give this one at least 50 pages before I warmed into it. One of my pet peeves is the writer as narrator. My complaint is, really? A writer? How many writers are even just writers? It just feels a bit lazy and hard to believe. In this, not only is one of the main characters a writer but a ridiculously successful one. Not so hard to believe given that it’s Sally Rooney who is writing. Then I thought, oh no, is this another famous person telling us how hard it is to be rich and famous?

The answer is yes. But it’s OK. It actually works, because after an opening with crazily wooden and forensic detailing of people’s location and movements, things get moving and we’re back in Rooney’s best territory, relationships where people move slowly forwards and backwards again in and out of each other’s orbits. There is a lot of musing on the state of politics, the environment and culture, a feeling of demise but amidst the big picture her characters admit, “Maybe we’re just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing.”

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, Serpent’s Tail, 2015

Ginger, in her 40s and childless, wants to know if she should foster a child. Through a summer program, she and her husband host Velvet, a young city girl, at their house. There are stables next door and Velvet gets riding lessons and forms a special bond with a feisty mare that she calls Fiery Girl.

There are interesting questions here about motivation and if we’re doing things for the right reasons. Ginger needs Velvet to feel like a mother. Velvet needs Ginger to access her horse.

There are also interesting questions about what we decide we mean to people or animals. Can Velvet understand Fiery Girl because she understands being broken? What can Ginger give Velvet when she already has a mother?

Finally, how has Mary Gaitskill, in her sixties, written this? It has all the energy and preoccupation of teenage desire and all the uncertainty of a midlife stock take.

Love & Virtue by Diana Reid, Ultimo Press, 2021

Michaela gets a scholarship to a college at Sydney University. She’s from Canberra and didn’t go to private school, so she sits outside the usual demographic but is befriended by the charismatic Eve.

Eve likes pushing against her surroundings, Michaela just wants to fit in but they’re both cynics who love to intellectually spar. Michaela is still navigating who she’s going to be in a new independent landscape and there’s a rivalry that ticks in the background of their intense relationship but it’s only after revelations regarding a drunken.

This is a clever book and a great read about the personal and the political, power, consent, entitlement and institutional culture. Reading it, I had as much nostalgia for uni days and staying out all night as I had cringe for being a young woman at that age and seeing how little has changed for them in terms of power dynamics.

When things are alive they hum by Hannah Bent, Ultimo Press, 2021

Marlowe and Harper are sisters. Harper was born with a congenital heart disease and needs a heart and lung transplant but she isn’t allowed on a transplant list because she has Downs Syndrome.

Marlowe is studying in London but goes back to Hong Kong when she hears how sick her sister is. Marlowe has been more like a mum since their own mother died when they were young. She’s so focussed on fixing the situation that she doesn’t listen to what Harper actually wants or consider the ethics of trying to save her by any means possible.

Hang him when he is not there by Nicholas John Turner, Zerogram Press, 2021

This doesn’t call itself a collection and it’s numbered like chapters but some of the cover comments say it is short stories. I’m only three chapters in. It’s definitely not linear narrative and the coming together of threads certainly hasn’t happened yet. Thus, I’m not sure how to describe it. Intellectual, philosophical, experimental? Pretty dense for a bedtime read. Maybe more for a morning commute, when you’re fresh.

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The bedside bookstack – January 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this January.

no one is talking about this by Patricia Lockwood, Bloomsbury Circus, 2021

Hear ye! Hear ye!

That’s me ringing the bell in the town square while I hold up this book for the villagers to see.

Behold something new!!

Patricia Lockwood (of Priestdaddy fame) has created something completely unique in this book. Equal parts profound and profane it slips from satire into something heartbreakingly earnest.

The narrator is increasingly living her life through ‘the portal’. She went viral asking “Can a dog be twins?” and appears around the world discussing everything portal-related. Our online lives squirm under the scrutiny and she’s writing in a connected/disconnected stream-of-consciousness that mirrors the online rabbit holes you can fall down.

The second half of the book changes tack, with the sickness of the narrator’s niece. Life is lived offline and measured out in hospital halls and hushed tones instead. This book is quite a ride, very clever and something I’m still thinking about.

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor, Daunt Books Originals, 2021

I have a particular weakness for collections of linked short stories but these tales get my love for more than their connection and continuation of a narrative. He is a master of the form.

Oh, he’s just done that has he? He’s just perfectly captured intimate moments of vulnerability or repeated habits of pain or the cruel spar between hurt partners? Why, yes. Yes, he has and he’s done it seamlessly across gender and race and sexuality.

The cruel machismo between brothers, friends and lovers sometimes scared me because it was hard to disbelieve in its perfect delivery. And I ached at the sense of acceptance and exile these characters felt from themselves and the people who were supposed to love them.

Signs and Wonders by Delia Falconer,Scribner, 2021

The sub-heading on the cover of this book of essays is perfect – Dispatches from a time of beauty and loss.

I’ve loved Delia Falconer ever since my first year of university when we studied her essay Colombus’ Blindness. Look it up if you can. It’s more than 20 years old now, but even back then, her writing mixed poetic eloquence with intelligent observation and meticulous research.

I’ve only just started reading the essays in Signs and Wonders but thus far they have that same beauty and elegance combined with a curiosity that stretches from literature to archaeology, geology, ornithology and beyond.

And if you think these are a gorgeous (and yes, sobering) read, then try her exquisite fiction The service of the clouds and The lost thoughts of soldiers.

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout, Viking, 2021

Have you ever read Elizabeth Strout? She’s built a career writing beautifully about ordinary people in vignettes or interlinked short stories that combine to form much more than the sum of their parts. Writers are warned against this – both the short stories and the quiet lives. They’re told no one will publish or read them.

I have to admit that I’m only talking about Oh William!, My name is Lucy Barton, Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again.  I haven’t read her other books but what I love about these two sets is that they’re also interlinked (and you know I love em’ linked). She writes the literary version of a spin-off series.

But I digress. Oh William! comes after My name is Lucy Barton. William is Lucy Barton’s ex-husband and as usual, the recollection of someone else’s life always tells us more about the character reminiscing than they’d like to think.

The Last Woman in the World by Inga Simpson, Hachette, 2021

Rachel is a glass artist who has chosen isolation. She lives remote and off the grid, just the way she likes it. Outside world necessities are only delivered through her sister Monique or friend Mia. The same week that Mia doesn’t turn up, a young woman and her sick baby arrive on Rachel’s doorstep with news of a shadowy menace.

They are a charged presence that feed on fear and have killed off the population. First it was only happening far away but now they are here and Rachel needs to leave her sanctuary to find her sister get help for the woman and baby.

Perhaps we can only process climate destruction as a story but the burning fires, vast destruction and consumptive lifestyles of this novel are real. A prescient read about art, the environment, pandemics and our internal fears.

The Safe Place by Anna Downes, Affirm Press, 2020

Emily is an aspiring actor but her auditions aren’t leading to any work and she’s just been fired from her temp job. When she’s offered an au-pair-ish role by her ex-boss on a coastal property in France, it seems like the life line she needs.

The days are sunny, the landscape is gorgeous and the work is satisfying but some things feel a bit off. The husband is absent and cagey, the wife is friendly but unpredictable and the silent daughter’s unspecific health issues just don’t add up. This is the perfect summer page-turner.

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny, 4th Estate, 2021

Jane is in love with Duncan and Duncan is ‘with’ Jane but in the extra decade and a half he has on her, he was also ‘with’ most of Boyne City.

Having Duncan in your life also means you have his ex-wife Aggie and his co-worker Jimmy. One night, an accident changes everything and the disparate sum of these people equals a new kind of family.

Written with her usual talent for getting human interaction just right, this doesn’t play for laughs as much as her earlier book Standard Deviation (which I love, love, loved) but the wit is still there and I think this one has more heart.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley, Granta, 2017

After reading and love, love loving Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, I rushed to read something else by her. At first, I thought I’d picked up the same book. Here was the same bully of a father, the narcissistic mother, the narrator, Neve, trying to distance herself from a traumatic childhood in Northern England. But in place of a supportive and stable long-term partner for our narrator there is a totally toxic and abusive husband. His emotional and verbal blows are relentless and it’s lucky Riley writes short novels because it would be difficult to read much more of Neve absorbing and accommodating his tirades.

the family next door by Sally Hepworth, Pan Macmillan, 2018

This was a slow burn for me. Initially, the set-up of three neighbouring mums with their own secret felt a bit too staged but as other characters were added, the narrative found its way. There’s a lot about the tiredness and chaos of having young kids. I can certainly attest to the truth of it but this is just a warning, in case that’s not what you feel like picking up in your down time.

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2021

Marco Carrera is ‘the Hummingbird’. He is an ophthalmologist in Florence. This is the story of his life as told through letters, phone conversations with therapists, emails, conversations and good old-fashioned prose narrative.

There are a lot of accolades on the cover of this one, so my expectations were sky high. Alas, as a reader, it wasn’t for me. I gave it a good go but the lists, digressions and detail about mid-century furniture and Italian architecture in the 70s weren’t for me. I wonder what it would’ve read like in the original Italian and if it lost anything in translation.

As a writer though, it was an interesting example of non-linear narrative using multiple forms.

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The bedside bookstack – December 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this December.

When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi, The Bodley Head London, 2016

As I waited in hospital recently, I was told an oncologist joke – that one of the risk factors for getting cancer is being a nice person. In this case, Dr Paul Kalanithi wasn’t just nice. He was at the top of his field as a neurosurgeon, the recipient of awards, a favourite among colleagues and patients. At 36 he was diagnosed with cancer. At 37 he died.

Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death.

This is the irony or more the tragedy of Paul Kalanithi’s illness. He was a seeker from the outset, using literature and philosophy to answer some of life’s biggest questions for himself, even as a young student. His search led him to pursue neurosurgery and the process and responsibility of his position was something he was always aware of.

Doctors in highly charged fields meet patients at inflected moments, the most authentic moments where life and identity were under threat; their duty included learning what made that particular patient’s life worth living and planning to save those things if possible – or to allow the peace of death if not.

This memoir is a gift. It’s a reflection on life and death and living with death. It’s one I’ve tagged and underlined, will read over and push into people’s hands I think.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley, Granta, 2021

I don’t know what she’s done or how she has done it but this book is close to perfect.

As a reader, I hated putting it down and finished it in two sittings. As a writer, I’m trying to analyse what it was that had such an effect on me. It’s more vignettes than linear plotline. The prose isn’t elevated or attempting any high-wire tricks but there is something close to perfection in it. I was so emotionally drawn in by the characters from the first paragraph and that was all she needed to do. The interactions are of a strained mother-daughter relationship as well as memories of a father and awkward contact with a sister.

A question of craft is to ask what your characters internal and external motivations are. Someone needs to not get what they want to move things along. No one is getting what they want from life or from their family relationships in this book. They’ve all apparently given up but still keep meeting and going through the motions and this is where the meat is. People being people.

One of the reads of the year. It’s under my skin and chasing around and around and around. And when it all settles, I think I’ll have to pick it up again.

Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom, Fourth estate, 2021

Another fraught mother-daughter relationship, except this time you can’t console yourself that it’s fiction. It’s hard to believe that such a beautifully written memoir could be about such traumatic things.

How to sum up the damage and volatility of Michelle Tom’s early family life? A violent father, a manipulative and narcissistic mother, and three children left to absorb the trauma and impact of all those years.

Split with the narration of childhood, there is the adult experience of the Christchurch earthquake(s) and the fissures that opened up for her own family. I loved this and found it fascinating. I just wish she didn’t have to live through such trauma to write such a stunning book.

Repentance by Alison Gibbs, Scribe, 2021

It’s 1976 and as the rest of the country slows down for the Christmas holidays things are charged and accelerating in Repentance. Usually, a small cattle and timber community, the town has new residents. Old farms are being turned into Hippie communes and the newcomers are worried about the fate of the rainforest nearby.

Joanne Parmenter’s mum has just died of cancer. Her dad is a big man around town. He’s pro logging and anti the new hippie arrivals living up in the hills. Joanne’s sister works at the sawmill but Joanne goes to school with Melanie whose Mum is helping to organise protests. On both sides of a fight there are people with families, histories and loyalties that dictate their direction.

The heat, the beauty of the rainforest and the hum of insects beat throughout this story.

and all around the metallic screaming of cicadas, a tremulous curtain of sound rising and dissolving through the trees.

The Rabbits by Sophie Overett, Penguin Vintage, 2021

This book set in the middle of a sticky Queensland summer felt like the right thing to be reading during a mini heatwave. You can feel the sweaty limbs and relentless heat, although, to be honest, that’s the least of the Rabbit’s problems. When 16-year-old Charlie Rabbit goes missing, the dysfunction that the family has been getting along with gets blown sky-high. Older sister, Olive Rabbit is fuming, younger brother Charlie Rabbit is lost and mum Delia, whose own sister went missing as a teenager, is caught in a present which seems a lot like her past.

When things took a magic realism turn a third of the way through, it felt a bit bumpy and I wasn’t sure it would work, but I was so invested in the Rabbits that I had to keep going. I’m glad I did because, it worked when it was absorbed into the rest of the story.

Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down, Text Publishing, 2021

Before I’d read any of them, I used to get Jennifer’s mixed up – Jennifer Down, Jennifer Mills, Jennifer Egan. This is my first Jennifer Down and I’ve only just started it but she’s distinct now. I’ve already sobbed at the early trauma of Maggie’s life. But Maggie isn’t Maggie anymore. She’s put time and distance between herself and that identity. I need to keep on reading to know the whys and whens and you better believe that I will.

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The bedside bookstack – November 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this November.

The Magician by Colm Toibin, Simon & Schuster, 2021

Ah Colm, it just all turns to gold in his hands, doesn’t it? This one’s a biggie, epic in proportions (a real door-stopper) but also in the dimensions it covers. Writing about Thomas Mann’s life he manages to cover culture, history and politics at a macro level, while getting down to the fine detail of relationships, parenthood, families, repressed sexuality, writing and a creative life.

This book spans world wars, years in exile and pivotal moments in 20th Century history and yet often, I was stuck on the space and time he had to write. I was so distracted by his bookshelves and study, rebuilt in about four different houses, and by the way that children and visitors were shooed from his door and shushed, so he could write in peace. I wrote some thoughts about this and his right to write in my previous blog.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, 4th Estate, 2017

How do we not all know who Katherine Heiny is? Why aren’t we all reading her for book club and recommending her to each other? I only found out about this book by reading a column in the Gleebooks newsletter. Always trust a bookseller, right?

Audra, who is the narrator’s second wife, is one of the best characters I’ve ever read. She’s an unfiltered extrovert with a good heart. The narrative is almost an aside to her stream-of-consciousness interactions with anyone and everyone she comes into contact with. This could be overplayed to get laughs. But it isn’t.

Read it. Read it. Read it.

I already have her latest book, Early morning riser on order.

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller, UQP, 2020

Stacey and Laney are twins. Laney’s the tear-away who sneaks out at night while Stacey is doing her homework. One night Laney doesn’t come home and Stacey’s dreams tell her that she’s in trouble.

There are things the Elders won’t tell Stacey and places no one is supposed to visit. Her mob isn’t supposed to talk to the Millers either but old May Miller knows what she’s been dreaming about without being told. This is a great YA read about culture, family and race.

Good Indian daughter by Ruhi Lee, Affirm Press, 2021

When Ruhi Lee finds out she’s pregnant with a girl, she freaks out. She thought she had the rest of her life to resolve issues around family, identity and her role as a ‘good Indian daughter’ but with a daughter on the way, she realises it’s time to resolve past traumas if she wants to break the cycle of gendered expectations.

This memoir is an honest journey into the difficult territory of loyalty, love and damage within the immediate family. Family is such a fundamental part of her life that her relationship with her parents is worth fighting for but redesigning the dynamics meets a lot of resistance.

Other people’s houses by Kelli Hawkins, Harper Collins, 2021

Kate is still grieving the death of her 5-year-old son. 10 years have passed. She’s taken up drinking and visiting open houses in expensive suburbs. When she visits the Harding House, she becomes obsessed with both the family and the residence.

I spent a lot of this book thinking ‘No Kate! That’s not a good idea. Please stop snooping!’. I get nervous about people being in places they shouldn’t be. I really wanted her to just stay at home and watch some TV but if she did, then we wouldn’t have a psychological thriller on our hands, would we?

Poly by Paul Dalgarno, Ventura Press, 2020

Chris hasn’t had sex with his wife for a loooong time. His solution is for their marriage to be polyamorous. The hope is that by having sex with other guys, she’ll want to sleep with him again. The reality is two people not being honest with each other and drawing other people into their vortex.  

Between his new girlfriend and his home life, seems more exhausting than erotic. He’s constantly telling his kids how much he loves them and himself that they’re the most important thing in the world to him. On their behalf, I was waiting for him to show it by making them a priority and stop palming off looking after them to everyone else.

Nancy Business by R.W.R McDonald, Allen& Unwin, 2021

I haven’t finished this one yet, but anyone who has missed Tippy and the gang, need not worry. They’re back together again trying to solve mysteries they’ve been told to stay away from. This time it’s an explosion at the local Town Hall.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, this is the sequel to The Nancys. 11-year-old Tippy Chan is a Nancy Drew fan. She lives in regional New Zealand and solves crime in her local town with the help of her uncle and his boyfriend. Good fun had by all, especially if you are or were a Nancy Drew fan.

For a Little While (new and selected stories) by Rick Bass, Pushkin Press, 2017

My husband found this on a list of recommended nature writing. As an Australian reader, it’s almost embarrassing that the American landscape evoked in this collection, is as familiar to me as an Australian one. It feels reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, in the space and pace. The stories I’ve read so far are full of mountains, flat lands, cattle, small rural towns and the quiet lives therein.

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The bedside bookstack – October 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this October.

Old Goriot by Honore De Balzac, Penguin Classic, 1951

This old Penguin classic has an inscription in looping copperplate on the inside cover; For Bunty, On a Special day, Love from Verna 14.2.75

I started reading this and was loving the greasy old boarding house and its residents but then our local library started to allow Click and Collect reserves and alas poor Balzac didn’t stand a chance. However, once I’ve finished gorging myself on my new library loans, I hope to get back to the gang at Rue Neuve-Saint-Marcel. I’ve been enjoying reading classics so much during lockdown that I think I’ll aim for one a month, thus not completely desert my unread bookshelf books.

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So, Ecco, 2021

I’ll admit, I only read this because of an obituary I read about the author and the hype of its posthumous release. He was American Cambodian, gay and only 28 when he died. His identity and youth inform all of the stories in this collection. They’re about migrant parents, kids sick of hearing about the genocide, growing up in the wrong end of town, escaping but needing your ‘Cambo’ identity and distilling how a queer lifestyle might sit with all of that.

The cover quotes describe it as ‘raw’. The stories definitely crackle and fizz with a restless energy and disdain and of course you wonder, if he hadn’t died, what could’ve come next?

From where you fell by Susan Johnson, Allen & Unwin 2021

Chris and Pamela live on opposite sides of the globe and start a correspondence because of an incorrect email address. I was sceptical about how a whole novel could carry the email structure but I’d never read Susan Johnson before. Actually, the epistolatory format works perfectly because you get the drama of people’s lives delivered via their own analytical take on it. Then you get the other person’s opinion of how it stands and, in this case, Chris doesn’t hold back in telling it how it is.

They joking refer to themselves and Socrates and Plato and their philosophical dialogue on life, love, grief, divorce, being and a parent and being a child got me right in the heart. It and they are going to be with me for a while. 

New Animal by Ella Baxter, Allen & Unwin 2021

Amelia works at her family’s mortuary but when her mum dies suddenly, she can’t be there anymore. She flees to the father she barely grew up with and starts back at the beginning to make sense of how it can all end.

When I started reading this my heart sank a little and I thought it would be another story of a damaged young woman using sex as a punishment. Reader, it is not. There’s definitely sex as distraction, destruction and denial but there is also grief and love and life and an attempt to sit with mortality in the middle of it all. If you’re looking for the obliteration and visceral sucker punch that is unexpected loss, you will find a very real version of it here.

Hold your fire by Chloe Wilson, Scribner, 2021

You know I love my short story collections and this is another one that feels more solid and established somehow, than a debut. Maybe it’s that we move seamlessly from weapons engineers, to divers and entrepreneurs, perfumers and wellness gurus. Each one is a natural fit for the story and each story is a perfect offering of that world, with no trace of the research needed to render it so realistically.

The stories are all first-person and there’s a chill to the tone, of our darker instincts at play, so my suggestion is to read these on slow release, dipping in and out rather than back-to-back.

Luster by Raven Leilani, Picador, 2020

Where to start and what to say about this one? It’s about race, sex and power in modern America and it’s brutal. Edie, whose name is only used maybe twice in the whole book, is alone. Her mum and dad are both dead and no one’s been in her corner for years. Nothing is comfortable or a given in her life and as a reader, you’re never comfortable either. She starts a relationship with an older, married white guy, and you can feel the train wreck coming.

As a narrator, Edie is whip-smart, honest and doesn’t skimp on any of the details, no matter how compromising or abject.

The cover quotes say it’s a funny book. It’s clever and Edie is funny but I initially found it a tough read. I nearly left it a few times. Sex as self-punishment is too heartbreaking for lockdown reading.

But Raven Leilani is so good at what she does and I’m glad I stayed with it though, because the second half covered the more interesting territory for me, her relationship with her lover’s wife and adopted Black daughter. Worth sticking around because this time you have no idea where it’s headed.

If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”

You had me at hello by Mhairi McFarlane, Avon, 2021

This is a tale of Mr Right at the wrong time. Rachel and Rhys were best mates back at uni when she had a boyfriend. Ten years later, they meet by chance. He’s married and she’s just broken off her engagement. There’s unfinished business but the reality of their situation gets in the way…again.

You know what you’re going to get with Mhairi McFarlane; a likeable and funny protagonist who underrates the possibility of things working out for them, good friends, plenty of booze, and just enough complicators to keep things moving at a nice clip. She writes realist romcoms that are a pleasure to read and if you like this one, give Last Night a go.

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, Heinemann London, 1991

You know when you’re supposed to love a book but after reading it, you’re still a little mystified about why. I always feel like I’m at fault, having missed the depths or point perhaps. That’s me and this book. People rave about it. I only know it exists because of an essay which described it as a revelatory reading experience.

The quote on the back ends with ‘reading time four hours, remembering time, as for its author; the rest of one’s life.’ Not for this reader.

This is an OK read. It’s a first-person reminiscence of time spent in a Swiss boarding school and the intense but fleeting friendships that were formed. It’s well written. It takes you into the internal and psychological preoccupations of adolescence but I didn’t experience the epiphany of other readers.

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The bedside bookstack – September 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this September.

Are you Somebody by Nuala O’Faolain, New Island, 1996

This memoir was explosive when it came out in Ireland in the 90s. She’s adamant that her story as one of nine children with an alcoholic mother and a charismatic but absent and philandering father is nothing unique. It blew the lid off unspoken trauma, misogyny, alcoholism, neglect and poverty.

I couldn’t read it without thinking of my father’s Irish Catholic family. What part of this inheritance was theirs and what could they shuck off when they migrated to Australia?

I never knew she existed and now I need to read her novels and essays too. If you don’t have time for the book, in this interview with Canadian radio she covers most of it. If you need more or want the postscript, this is the last interview she gave. Trigger warning, she is dying of late-stage cancer and grappling with the end of her life and is not shying away from the intensity of either.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Penguin, 1997

I read this 20 years ago and couldn’t remember the details but the evocation of darkness and turmoil stayed. If you don’t know the premise, it’s clever. This is the story of Rochester’s mad woman-in-the-attic wife from Jane Eyre. Set in the Windward Islands of Jamaica, Antoinette is Creole. She has inherited her mother’s beauty, reputation for madness and enough money to get Rochester, a second-born son, as a husband. The mood is post-colonial Caribbean gothic where the sensuality of both climate and landscape always has an edge and uncertainty to it.

I read introductions and end notes with more interest these days than I did when I was 20 and the general conclusion is that Jean Rhys was ahead of her time. Her understanding of mental health certainly was, not as something that simply is but as behaviour that comes from trauma, isolation, provocation and lack of support.

I’ve always been a bit suspect of the Heathcliffs, Rochesters and Darcys. It’s too convenient that they get to hurt people repeatedly and then claim passion as their defence. After reading this, Rochester definitely comes in as more a-hole than brooding.

Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, Penguin Classics, 1964

I eventually got to this book fifteen years after buying it because we’re in lockdown, the libraries are all closed and I’m actually reading my unread books. The pages are yellow, the font is crazy small and when I saw that it was a novel in verse, I nearly put it back on the shelf. Just seemed like too much hard work but it was an absolute delight.

I’m in awe that a translation can fit the intended rhyme and meter but what I really loved was how a place and age so foreign to me felt familiar because as humans, not much has changed. We’re still pining and snubbing, still loving and losing. My copy is now full with marginalia and post-its and I feel an Onegin essay brewing. I guess it’s a love story but with the infatuation only one side, can you call it that? I didn’t like Onegin, the man, at all.  You’re not supposed to I guess, as a Byronic hero. He was cold, arrogant and entitled and not even Ralph Fiennes in the movie version could change that for me.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 2019

There is a distinct world that you enter in a Ferrante novel. You’re placed very specifically not just in Naples but a neighbourhood. Characters are products of family and environment and your narrator’s internal world also becomes yours. Every decision, emotion and reaction is recorded and analysed. The process of living, in this case being a female teenager is dealt with forensically. 

In the Neapolitan novels (her four-book bestselling series), the preoccupations are political and intellectual. In this book they’re more theological and moral as our narrator tries to understand the difference between what the adults in her life have taught and told her and how they are actually behaving. If you know that you like Ferrante, then definitely read this. If not, give it a go and see if she’s your style.

Bark by Lorrie Moore, Faber & Faber, 2014

She is as good as everyone says she is. Her short stories read like a fully furnished room. They’re so complete. But readers a warning, the first three stories have a pretty bleak tone going on with regards to marriage, dating and middle-age life. She’s a great writer and I usually devour my anthologies like a novel but I was reluctant to head back into another bedsit and read about characters who didn’t really like each other or people in general. Glad I did though, because they aren’t all like that.

Seventeen poisoned Englishmen by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Penguin 2005 (first published 1968)

This pocket Penguin has three short stories. They’re pre 100 Years of Solitude and an interesting read because they have none of his signature magic realism style and inclusions. Reading them felt a bit like watching a comedian do a serious role. It gives you a glimpse of the range of their skills.

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, Penguin Classics, 1962

This slim little volume has been sitting gathering dust on the shelf for years. It’s a green Penguin Classic with severely yellowed pages and a fraying spine. I’ve never read any Zola and if you don’t get to it during lockdown, will you ever?

If you have the idea that Classics are a hard read, which I sometimes do as you may recall from this blog, then you’ll be surprised by Therese Raquin. It’s an easy read but I won’t do it again. Therese Raquin is a young woman who is married to her sickly cousin. Her desire and will have lain dormant. When she gets a lover, everything that was subjugated is awakened. The lovers are consumed by their lust and are desperate for a way to be together. They kill her husband off, pretty early on, bide their time and then marry according to the plan they always had. But now their guilt consumes them, like their passion once did and so the rest of the book is about this inner-torment and how it translates into their physical and emotional abuse of each other – a massive trigger warning about the relentless domestic violence.

I was expecting the detailed human insight of a Chekhov or a Tolstoy but these characters are closer to caricatures. However, Zola was writing to a particular audience at a particular time and as he says in the Introduction to the second edition about Therese and Laurant “I have chosen people completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will, drawn to each action of their lives by the inexorable laws of their physical nature. They are human animals, nothing more…”

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks, Orbit, 1994

My husband reads a lot of science fiction and is a big Iain Banks fan. I thought it was time to get out of my usual genres and picked this one off the shelf. Talk about a ‘hard’ read. There’s a clever story buried in here but I didn’t have the patience to find it.

There are three narrators, most people have nine lives and one of the main characters is an ant. All intriguing in their own way but what I just couldn’t slog through was the phonetic narration that popped up every third chapter:

Lookth moar like a albino cro, akchooly. Well I cant thtand awound hea ol day chattin with u…..

On and on and on. Not for me.

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The surprising advantage of a library-less lockdown

Cutting off my usual supply of books isn’t all bad.

You may remember I love, like really love, my local library (I fangirl all about it in this post). So life without a library is one of lockdowns biggest blows. There are plenty of e-books and online offerings but really, does anyone want to spend more time on a computer? Not me. I want the old-school tactile sensation of a book in my hand.

Isn’t it lucky then, that I have shelves full of books? Even better, I have shelves full of books which I haven’t been reading because at any given time I have about 20 items on reserve at the library and another 10 or so out on loan. Of course, I should buy books, and I do, but I’m not in the position to support my habit just now. I also hope that lending rights payments and me talking about what I’m reading goes some way to balancing out that I didn’t buy a book.

The library app was more realistic about lockdown than I was. I thought I could go on and reserve as usual and just pick it all up when things reopened but there is no longer a reserve function. There’s no such thing as a due date anymore either, so at least the 20 or so kids’ books we have out will be with us for the duration.

Once I reached the bottom of my library pile, I moved onto the dusty bedroom floor pile. Reader, the bottom of it was old subscription magazine issues, book catalogues and some crossword collections. Take them away, actually read the books in the pile and I reached the bottom! I know?! I’ve moved onto an actual bookshelf now of dusty volumes I picked up over the years and always intended to read and now I’m actually reading them. Just finished my first Zola (not so fussed to be honest) and am about to give Pushkin a go. I didn’t realise Eugene Onegin was a novel in verse, not sure if I’m up for it but if I don’t read it now when my supply of books has been cut off, will I ever?

In a little post-script, I just got an email from Newcastle library today with details about their Library2U service – fill in a form and they’ll curate a selection of 5 things to read, listen to and watch, which they’ll deliver to your door the next day. For free. I didn’t know it was possible for me to love them even more than I already do. But it is!

If you enjoyed reading this and are curious what other dusty tomes come off the shelf look out for my monthly Bedside Bookstack post next week or subscribe to my monthly newsletter by entering you email below.

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