The bedside bookstack – May 2021

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

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens, Corsair, 2018

Long slow exhale of breath.

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

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

How’s this for an opening paragraph?

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

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

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

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

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, Granta 2015

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

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

Smokehouse by Melissa Manning, UQP, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klara and the sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silas Marner by George Eliot, 1999, Signet Classics

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

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

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

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

The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty, UQP,

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

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

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

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Reading the classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Library love

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

I’m in love.

With the Newcastle libraries app.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bedside bookstack – April 2021

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

Lucky ticket by Joey Bui, Text Publishing, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed, Tinder Press, 2017

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

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

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

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, Granta, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall, Black Inc. Books, 2016

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

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

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

The Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey, Text Publishing, 2020

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

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

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

Family Life by Akhil Sharma, Faber, 2014

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

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

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

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

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

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

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

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

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The bedside bookstack – March 2021

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

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

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Granta, 2018

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

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

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

This is a simple tale, very well told.

This slim little volume will linger.

Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery, UQP, 2018

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

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

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

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

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham, Vintage, 2020

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

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

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

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

what are you going through by Sigrid Nunez, Virago 2020

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

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

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, Penguin, 2018

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

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

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

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

Before the Coffee gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Picador 2019

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

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

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

The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe, Penguin, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

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

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

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

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

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On reading Sigrid Nunez for the first time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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