The bedside bookstack – Summer 2022/2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this summer.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, Hachette, 2022

Florence. 1560s. Powerful political family. Lucrezia de Medici. Heard of her? Interested? It doesn’t matter because it’s Maggie O’Farrell who’s writing and she can turn any subject into something sublime. This story of marriage, duty, independence and betrayal is just as good as you imagine something by the author of Hamnet to be.

French Braid by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, 2022

There are 23 books listed on the inside cover under By the same author and I haven’t read any of them, so I have no knowledge of Anne Tyler’s usual style and content but French Braid is my kinda read.

It starts with Serena Garrett and her boyfriend on the way home from a visit to introduce her to his parents. Each chapter tells the story of a different member of the Garrett family forwards and backwards in time so I read it more as a collection of linked short stories than a novel. It doesn’t matter what you call it, novel or collection, family dynamics are its heart. The loyalties, misunderstandings and distance within and across generations are always going to make interesting literature and that’s just what they do in this book. I loved it.

Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor, Pan Macmillan, 2022

On a hot December afternoon, 12-year-old Esther Bianchi disappears. She waves goodbye to her best friend on their usual walk home from school but never makes it home. Five days later her buried body is found.

Durton is a small country town where everyone knows just enough about everyone else but not enough to know what happened to Esther. 

Getting kids right in fiction is a challenge. Regardless of whether you choose first or third person, it’s hard to get the voice right without it sounding forced – the literary equivalent of adult actors who’ve just put their hair in pig tails and pulled their socks up to their knees. Hayley Scrivenor has done it though. She’s created a book which is as much coming-of-age as it is crime and in another clever coup she adds in chapters narrated by ‘we’. They are the children of Durton. As a collective they narrate and observe like a Greek chorus and create the kind of poetry I wasn’t expecting in a book about the disappearance of a schoolgirl. People who read in this genre will already have this on their radar but those who ‘don’t usually read crime’ should really give it a go.

Heatwave by Victor Jestin, Scribner 2021

(Trigger warning – suicide)

Oscar is dead because I watched him die and did nothing. This is how Leo begins his narration. He is 17 years-old, an outsider and it’s the last day of his summer holiday at a beachside camping ground.

This novella comes in at 100 pages and covers 48 hours in Leo’s life. The prose is unadorned, almost a fact file of impulsiveness, confusion, isolation, longing, anger and indecision. There’s nothing left to be sentimental about for adolescence after this compulsive read.

The Colony by Audrey Magee, Faber, 2022

It’s the late seventies andtwo outsiders spend summer on an isolated island off the coast of Ireland. Mr Lloyd is an English artist, there to paint the cliffs and reclaim his reputation. Mr Masson is a French linguist, recording the slow changes in the Irish language spoken by four generations of the same island family.

Their presence unsettles some of the islanders and opens opportunities for others. The summer passes, punctuated by the increasing death toll from ‘the Troubles’. The disappearance of language and culture and the ongoing effects of colonisation have never had such beautiful prose.

The Lovers by Yumna Kassab, Ultimo Press, 2022

Jamila and Amir are lovers. They come from different worlds and although they can’t see a future together, they still dream of it. This story sits in the in-between like their own dusk to dawn existence. It’s part fable, part dream sequence, part local hearsay and stories. They aren’t attached to a specific place or time and as characters they are more archetype/myth than individual. When you think of ‘lovers’, despite the height of their passion and desire, you’re always waiting for the end and so Jamila and Amir narrate themselves onward and we hope for something better for them. 

Happy go Lucky by David Sedaris, Little Brown, 2022

This was perfect post-Christmas reading. If you don’t know David Sedaris, he writes short very readable essays on his personal life. Though his partner and profession feature, his family are the stars of the show. I think there were 6 Sedaris siblings in total. One sister committed suicide, his mother has died and his dad is dying, so this collection has his musings on COVID, death, father-child relationships, book tours and groceries. He’s getting older, like everyone, and facing mortality, so no surprise that this is the least flippant book of his that I’ve read.

Warning- if you’re under rental or mortgage stress, maybe bypass this one as everyone seems to have multiple properties, some bought just so that noisy neighbours can’t move in to the flat above them.

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary, Quercus, 2022

I know I’m always on about this but really, why don’t they turn books like this into rom-coms?

Siobhan, Miranda and Jane are all stood up on Valentine’s Day. One at breakfast, one at lunch and the other at dinner. Very soon we realise that it’s the same man who stood them all up but he plays very different roles in each one of their lives. This is a fun tangle which is cleverly revealed. Definitely a great summer/beach/holiday read but you will want to know how everything works out, so allow for an afternoon or evening of being anti-social.

Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hutchinson Heinemannn, 2022

Now that you’ve finished watching summer tennis, you can read about it instead. If you’re even slightly interested in tennis, you’ll love the detail of what it takes to get to the top. Carrie Soto holds the record for the greatest number of Grand Slams won by a female tennis player. Six years after she retired it looks like another player will break that record. Not used to losing, she stages a comeback to retain her record. To do so, she re-engages her father as her coach after splitting with him a long time ago.

Carrie isn’t very popular. Her ambition is seen as ruthlessness and she doesn’t have time to make friends with opponents. This is an interesting look at father -daughter relationships, professional sport, strong women and ambition. Great holiday read.

Moon tiger by Penelope Lively, Penguin, 1987

As Claudia Hampton lies dying, she is visited by the significant people in her life; Gordon – the brother she was too close to, Jasper -father of her child, a love and habit of many years, Sylvia – her suffering sister-in-law and Lisa – her distant daughter. Their visits bring back memories and she constructs a history of her life.

She’s not a very likeable character but she has loved and lost and it’s her recollections about Cairo during the second world war that are the real power in this book. This was an interesting read because it was a slow-burn and moved through such different phases, relative to her life. I don’t use this word often for books but it was a ‘satisfying’ read and incidentally, won the 1987 Booker Prize.

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti, Harville Secker, 2022

I gave it 30 pages. I don’t like to abandon a book but if it’s not doing it for you, then why the impulse to slog on? Probably because I feel like the deficit is mine when I don’t enjoy or ’get’ a book that comes laden with praise. Well, the satire or philosophising or whatever it was that happening in these pages just didn’t do it for me. Next.

To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin, 1933

I have a fat volume of Elizabeth Bowen’s collected short stories and I love it. This was my first go at one of her novels and I’d have to say, it’s been difficult. I’m out of practice with early 20th Century prose.

Set in 1920s London, the book follows young widow Cecilia and her sister-in-law Emmeline. Emmeline is independent and sparky but Cecilia is more mercurial and colder. There’s love interests, family obligations, societal expectations and some flitting around both the countryside and the continent. It demanded more concentration than I had before Christmas but I’m giving it another go now.

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The bedside bookstack – November 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

The Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, Picador 2022

Ewin St. John St. Andrew, eighteen years old, hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic by steamship.

Now that’s how you start a story!

This book moves in time from 1912 to 2020 then on to 2203 and back again and again. There is time travel, a night city moon colony and a pandemic that mirrors our own but not in this century. And because it’s Emily St John Mandel, it all works. Her gift is that it’s all so familiar to life as we know but just a bit off.

What do you save if you have the chance? What do you go back and change? What really matters in a life? All questions we asked ourselves as life-as-we-knew-it was suspended.

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman, headline review, 2011

Still Life is one of my favourite reads of this year. I still think about those characters and so it was interesting to go back and read Sarah Winman’s first book. She still circles a lot of the same territory, as we all do in our writing. She has families being cobbled together by time, proximity and affection rather than just blood. She has lost years between people who mean something to each other at significant moments in their life. She has multiple generations living together and there is always just so much heart.

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley, Scribe, 2018

This is a feminist retelling of Beowulf by an author who has also translated it. I don’t know the original story, so I can’t judge it comparatively but it is more than enough on its own. The story of monsters is age-old, of warriors and war and what is lost because of them. In this tale, living in the suburbs isn’t enough to keep you safe from any of it. And as each side tells their story, there’s also the eternal question of who is the real monster. This is a fierce and fiery read, an epic match for an age-old myth.

Pair your reading with this episode of the Between the Covers podcast, an interview with Maria Dahvana Headley on Feminist translations and classical retellings.

Severance by Ling Ma, Text, 2018

This is the ultimate pandemic fiction written just before the pandemic. What’s uncanny for something which happened before COVID, is how similarly things play out…..until they don’t. Lucky for us, we still get to be surprised and horrified by an end of days scenario.

Candace has just broken up with her boyfriend and is great at a job that she doesn’t really love. This has a nice dual narrative about life leading up to the pandemic and then life when she joins a few remaining survivors as they travel to safely start a new life at ‘the facility’.

The first few chapters have a little too much detail about paper stock and outsourced book production in China (Candace’s job) but stick with it if you’re a post-society plot fan.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Vintage, 2002 (1940)

Well, this is tougher going than my last jaunt with Graham Greene. I read Travels with my Aunt last month and it was a light tale that criss-crossed Britain and the continent. This is set in Mexico. A British dentist has somehow been stuck in a backwater village for 15 years or so. All the priests have been executed or disappeared. There is just the ‘whiskey priest’ who visits those who are brave enough to still believe and hide him.

I haven’t finished it yet. I have to admit, when I pick it up, I always fish around on the bookstack to see if there’s something else to read instead. Definitely stuck with it so far because it’s a classic but not sure I’ll go the distance.

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The bedside bookstack – October 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month

Loop Tracks by Sue Orr, Upswell 2021

In 1978 it’s illegal to have an abortion in New Zealand but there’s a clandestine network that will get you to Sydney if you need one. Charlie’s story starts on the tarmac of Auckland airport but ends during COVID in Wellington. Charlie is a great character, aware of her flaws, like most of us are but still in the habit of them. She’s part scratchy, part self-deprecating but definitely good fun.

This book is a brilliant examination of family, loyalty and connection. What is protection and what is stifling, how do you let go and trust that the world will be kind to those that you love and how do you reconcile not loving someone that you’re supposed to? There’s grandmotherhood that looks more like motherhood and motherhood that was skipped.

It was also interesting to read about COVID when it was so recently lived. It already seems like a fiction.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart, Picador, 2022

I was warned that Douglas Stuart’s first book Shuggie Bain was not a happy read. I write about this, his second book with a trigger warning for….everything. Mungo lives in the Glasgow tenements. He’s protestant, dreamy and gentle and slowly realising that he’s gay. His older brother is a gang leader, his alcoholic mum has been missing for three weeks and his older sister is having an affair with her teacher.

And then he meets James who is Catholic, keeps pigeons and likes him back. But the toxic masculinity and sectarian turf wars don’t approve and Mungo is sent away by his mum with two men who are supposed to show him how to be a man.

The betrayals and vulnerability here are heart breaking but Douglas Stuart has written a great book. 

Strange Flowers by Donal Ryan, Penguin, 2020

This is my first Donal Ryan and I’m lining up for more. He writes character and place with such understated poetry.

Moll Gladney disappears one morning from her home in rural Ireland. Her parents Kitty and Paddy live on with the heaviness of her loss. Five years later she arrives back. She’s run away from her husband Alexander and baby son, Joshua.

A week later, Alexander finds her and he and Joshua move in with the Gladney’s. It isn’t easy for Alex. His Jamaican heritage and dark skin make him stand out in a place where outsiders are already suspect. This is a quiet contemplative story of the three generations who live in the Gladney cottage. They each have a part in this beautiful narrative about family, place and belonging.

My Heart is a Little Wild Thing by Nigel Featherstone, Ultimo, 2022

Patrick has been looking after his mother for most of his adult life but she’s prickly and difficult and one day he snaps. He throws a clock at her and then flees the scene. He goes to Jimenbuen, a property in the Monaro (Southern NSW) where he and his family used to holiday. When he’s there he meets Lewis.

Patrick has lived a solitary life and has loved men but only from afar. This book, which has wild country as its own character, was a reminder that it’s never too late to mean something to someone or to change the way you’re living.

Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene, Vintage Classics, 1969

Henry Pulling is a retired Bank Manager. He’s always lived a routine and quiet bachelor life but at his mother’s funeral he meets his Aunt Augusta. This woman is everything he doesn’t expect in a 70-year-old. She has a lover, is loose around legalities and still has enough energy to travel the world. She also offers him alternative histories of his parents, one where his mother is not actually his birth mother.

I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary fiction lately and there was something quite nice about sitting with a 20th Century British voice. It’s a different pace when people are taking trains and boats and sending telegrams and it’s always nice to slow down every now and then.

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hutchinson, 2021

Nina Riva is the mother to her siblings Jay, Hud and Kit, ever since their own mother died. Every year, she holds an end-of-summer party in her Malibu pad. It’s known to be wild but this year is the one that will be remembered for her two brothers fighting, the reappearance of their estranged but famous father, as well as her unfaithful husband and the possibility of another sibling.

It’s endless summer in these pages and the waves hold this family together. I’d say it’s just right as a beach read, although I could’ve done with a little less prose on how lean and toned the women are but, it is Malibu after all.

Red Dirt Talking by Jacqueline Wright, Fremantle Press, 2012

8-year-old Kuj goes missing from Ransom in remote Western Australia. There is plenty of speculation about what happened but not much hard evidence. While Maggot, the local rubbish collector hears everyone’s theories in the present, Annie a city postgrad student is arriving and finding her feet out on country before Kuj goes missing. I’m still reading, so I write this without knowing what happens to her.

Disappearance aside, this is daily life in a remote community – the relationships and racism, the culture, climate and land. I’ve lived in the tropics and when I read about the build-up to the wet, omg, I was there all over again…

“…the air’s pissed off down south, mosquitoes whine in your ear all night and the atmosphere’s cocked and loaded with ninety-nine percent humidity. On the few occasions the wind does crank up it brings more mozzies than relief into town.”

Bone Memories by Sally Piper, UQP, 2022

Billie’s daughter Jessie was murdered. Her grandson Daniel, who was a toddler, witnessed it. He has no memory of the day or his mother but Billie feeds him the latter hoping for the former. She tends the tree under which it happened and feels her daughter through the land.

Angus lost his wife but it’s 16 years since the murder and he’s remarried and has a daughter too. They’ve outgrown the house that he and Jessie originally bought and it’s time to move on. But in the Granny flat out the back, Billie rails against it.

Territory is all over this book from the physical environment and scene-of-the-crime to blended families and blood-ties. It also asks interesting questions about whether holding onto the past is really honouring it and who it benefits if you can’t move on.

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone by Felicity McLean, 4th Estate, 2019

Tikka Molloy goes back home to visit her sick sister. Once there, she can’t stop thinking about the events, 20 years ago that led to the disappearance of the three Van Apfel sisters. The Van Apfels were neighbours and friends but there was enough going on in these girls’ home life to make them want to run away. On reflection, Tikka wonders what happened to the Van Apfel girls and if she could have done anything different.

It isn’t easy to have an adult narrating events from when they were 11 and sometimes it felt undecided who was steering this narrative, the adult or the 11 year old.

Blue Hour by Sarah Schmidt, Hachette, 2022

Kitty is looking for escape. She is a nurse in an army town and before the war, she meets George Turner. Years later, she meets him again, convalescing in one of her wards. He isn’t the same man but they’re still drawn together and marry when she gets pregnant.

Their daughter Eleanor has grown up with the model of her parents’ loveless marriage. George has PTSD, Kitty feels trapped and now Eleanor is in a relationship that cycles through power and abuse.  

I couldn’t finish this. Why do I always pick up these ones when I’m sick in bed and the walls are already closing in on me? Oh, and the rain. The relentless grey wet days. That and the layers of trauma were all a bit much.

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The bedside bookstack – August 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Hamish Hamilton, 2018

I was very sad last month when I finished Song of Achilles and Circe. So I googled ‘What should I read after Song of Achilles and Circe?’ and enough people have been there before me and kindly created lists and suggestions. Thus, I found Pat Barker in Ancient Greece rather than World War II where she usually is.

This is written from the POV of Briseis, Achilles slave girl. She’s a different Briseis to the one in Song of Achilles which is also what I’m enjoying about reading the same stories written by different people. If you can get past the absolute subjugation of women and the fact that they are possessed and repossessed multiple times, then you can enjoy the story at least being told by them and staying with them even when Achilles or Agamemnon leave the room. I choose to hear the voice which would otherwise be a cameo in these myths (another reason why Circe was sooo good.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, Canongate Books, 2005

This slim volume is part of a series called The Myths in which international authors rewrite ancient myths. In comparison to Circe, Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls, this felt fleeting. Penelope is mortal for starters and a lot of her life is waiting but what I enjoyed about it, like the others, is the taking of an event which is barely a footnote in Odysseus’ story and fleshing it out. When Odysseus returns to Ithaca after 20 years, there are suitors who have been competing for Penelope as a wife. They are all killed, so are 12 slave girls who were associated with them.

Odysseus is a warrior. His story is synonymous with slaying. He kills, a lot, creatures and humans and as the body count goes higher you do dissociate from the fact that he’s ended a life. This book addresses the silent slaves and gives them the voice of a Greek chorus, so that his past actions can finally talk back to him.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2020

Piranesi lives in ‘the House’, a world of halls and statues, hundreds of them. He charts the tides and rain and details what he finds on his explorations. He is the only human apart from the Other, who he meets every week.

This book was a slow burn and I didn’t know what I was reading for a while. The hype didn’t help – Women’s Prize for Fiction Winner and the 2nd book from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. If you’re after something a little different, speculative but quiet and contained, then give this a go. It’s a unique world that she’s created.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Vintage, 1956

I’m paused here for a moment because it’s James Baldwin, so you’re in good hands, better than good. Maybe he’s too good at what he does because I found this book quite difficult and uncomfortable to read.

On the first page we’re told that Giovanni is in prison and will be killed tomorrow, so it’s no secret that what comes next will be a train wreck, eventually. David is an American in Paris. He has spent a lot of energy insisting that it’s only women he loves, even when he has an affair and moves in with Giovanni. This is the 1950s. How can two men have a life together? The squalor they live in seeps into David’s repression, his ideas of filth and shame about his true self. And then his fiancé returns. No happy endings here folks.

The Sorrow Stone by Kari Gislason, UQP, 2022

Viking Iceland circa the 10th Century. Disa is on the run with her son for a crime she has committed. But these are Viking times and crimes are usually are product of earlier crimes – feuds, betrayals, power grabs and honour killings to avenge these.

As she flees to the fjords we learn about what she has lost, both homeland and family, and what led her to this moment. This is a retelling of one of the most famous Icelandic sagas. You’d think that all my recent time with the Ancient Greeks would have prepared me for violence and death but the Vikings are brutal.

My Hundred lovers by Susan Johnson, Allen & Unwin, 2012

This is a life recalled in one hundred chapters through a body’s memory of desire, lust and love. Sometimes erotic. Sometimes abject. Sometimes simply the warm memory of an everyday sensation.

As the narrator remembers encounters in her teens and twenties I was reminded of books like Raven Leilani’s Luster, Ella Baxter’s New Animal and Sally Rooney’s Normal People where young women use their body and sex not for joy but more as an act of punishment. So, more a female thing than a millennial one. I think we can all cringe and relate more than we’d like to.

But the relief of recounting a hundred lovers is that our narrator grows older and wiser.

Some of these vignettes are pure poetry and as a writer and fan of short fiction, I enjoyed how they could each rest individually or stand together as a whole.

The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover, BlackInc., 2017

This novel about George Orwell was a fascinating read bringing together the very particular politics of a time (from the Spanish Civil War to post WW11 Britain), the process of writing and ideas, the personal life of a famous writer and the experiences and influences that combined to create Animal Farm and 1984.

I knew so little of Orwell as a person and had no idea about his tuberculosis, that he fought in the Spanish Civil War and the struggle he had to make a living and write. But what really interested me was his creative life and process. It was a bit like reading Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel and witnessing the forensic assembly of a story being created, what stays, what goes and where it all came from. Probably best followed by a re-read of 1984 to really get the most out of it.

Believe in me by Lucy Neave, UQP, 2021

Bethany tries to make sense of the present by putting together her mother Sarah’s past. Sarah was raped by a pastor, disowned by her family and sent to have her baby on the other side of the world. Once there, her and Bethany move around, always looking for somewhere safe enough to call home.

As soon as she can, Bethany leaves her mum but what are you really leaving when you don’t know where home is. This is a sobering read about the inheritance of trauma, questions of identity and gender and the distance that silence and secrets create within families.

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The bedside bookstack – July 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month

Still Life by Sarah Winman, Random House, 2021

I’m going to say it, I think this is a masterpiece. Book of the year, decade, maybe the Century thus far? Art is supposed to move you and I’ll feel the tremors of this book for a long time.

Still Life spans 30 years and moves from London to occupied Italy and France and then back to liberated Florence. During the war, young English soldier Ulysses Temper crosses paths with ageing art historian Evelyn Skinner. It sets off a chain of events that echo through the decades and change both of their lives. At its heart (and this book has just sooo much heart) it’s about love, art, war, family, Florence, food and Forster (E. M. that is).

I’m not doing it any justice. You’ll laugh and cry within a page. Just read it, read it, read it! But not too fast. These characters will stay with you. Savour and enjoy because saying goodbye to people that you love is never easy.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury, 2011

I’ve never read the Odyssey, always intended to but it seemed like hard work. I also get very confused very quickly about all the players both mortal and immortal and apparently I’m not the only one, so Madeline Miller, Classics Professor, has taken the story of Achilles and written this gorgeous version for us in the modern world.

And somehow, I can keep track of the Kings and Goddesses with their eternal feuds and grudges. She fills in the background details seamlessly, not as speech-bubble asides but as an organic part of the narrative.

It’s a tale as old as time, love, war, pride, prophecy. We’re so used to happy endings that the chaos of the gods is sometimes hard to take but we love and lose within these pages as the prophecy always said we would.

Could. Not. Put. Down. Loved it. So glad that I read this 10 years after it came out, it meant I could move straight on to her next book Circe.  

Circe by Madeline Miller, Bloomsbury, 2018

Other attempts to read Greek mythology feel like a listing of lineage and I can’t hold the connections together but Madeline Miller slows it right down and sticks to the story of one player. Thus, all the other knowns, the heroes and immortals wash in and out and you can follow the links and legacies, the unions and betrayals. And for all the gods and their caprice, there is a timelessness to the themes, ideas of home, loyalty, inheritance, purpose, power, pride. It seems the gods share more with us than they think.

I loved that she brought a female goddess to the centre of the story and made the heroes and gods orbit around her journey for a change. Exile, motherhood, power and purpose, family, home, love, sacrifice. Circe lives it all in her eternity. She’s a fascinating character and it’s a pleasure to share her exile with her. And I guess now I just have to wait and hope that Madeline Miller will have something else out soon.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Bloomsbury Circus, 2019

Such a great book! How did she do it? Kiley Reid gives us race relations in contemporary America with the moral ambiguity ratchetted up because race sits at the centre of it all, explosive and undiscussed.

Emira is twenty-something and drifting. She has multiple part-time jobs, one of which is babysitting for a wealthy white family. Things aren’t the same after she’s accused of kidnapping the child that she’s looking after.

This book is whip-smart and has no easy answers. There are parts that are a slow train wreck. You’ll laugh and cringe and have plenty to think about. It’s also not easy to have small children as narratives characters but the relationship between Emira and 3 year-old Briar is just so well done.

Are you my mother? By Alison Bechdel, Jonathon Cape, 2012

You may know the Bechdel test for film and tv? Or not, you can look it up on the link. Anyway, this is that Bechdel. This is the graphic-novel memoir about her relationship with her mother that came out when she was writing a memoir about her father and is really an access all-areas pass to her trying to figure out with her psychoanalyst and some help from Virginia Woolf, Donald Winnicott and Freud, among others, what the relationship is that she has with her. This is dark, visceral and about as honest as it gets. They’re both so fascinating and yet their dance is the familiar one of an unfulfilled parent who was constrained in her own way by society and her family who then can’t give their child what they need. And something about it in the graphic novel format lays it all the more bare. Humans, we’re fascinating, aren’t we?

People from my Neighbourhood by Hiromi Kawakami, Granta, 2020

This is a slim collection of linked short stories from one of Japan’s most popular contemporary novelists. She’s known for her offbeat literary fiction which I wasn’t aware of because I haven’t read her before. I’d agree. If you like your tales short and quirky with a touch of magic realism, then these are for you.

I love linked collections. I like the time-lapse of people and a place over the years. This starts as an old post-war neighbourhood not far from Tokyo.  It’s subject to the usual gentrification that comes with proximity to a big metro city. I like how the ghosts of some of these characters remain (both figuratively and literally) despite all the change.

Machines like me by Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, 2019

He likes a moral clusterf*#k, doesn’t he, ol’ Ian McEwan? And AI presents plenty of moral and ethical dilemnas that I’ve enjoyed watching in movies like Zoe and ExMachina. This book is an interesting set up with a love-triangle and questions of truth, justice and human unpredictability, contradictions and hypocrisy.

Charlie buys a new model AI called Adam. Adam falls in love with Miranda, Charlie’s girlfriend. Miranda’s lies have put someone in prison but she had her reasons. How does machine learning that is sentient interpret bad things done for a good reason? People doing wrong things for noble reasons and doing the right things for the wrong reasons is interesting territory and that’s where this book as it its best but I did a bit of skimming and skipping in this one. There was a lot of philosophising and background on AI and computer engineering that just took me too far from the narrative.

The Best of me by David Sedaris, Little, Brown, 2020

I love David Sedaris, so was very smug about settling into this tome of a collection. But then I skipped the first piece, the second, the third, read the fourth, skipped another three, read the next one…

I’m not a big skipper but I realised, I usually read his non-fiction. This collection has a lot of fiction that just didn’t hit the right note for me.

I think David Sedaris is at his best when he’s writing about himself and his family, so maybe go for one of his non-fiction collections instead – apart from Squirrel seeks Chipmunk of course, which is fiction and a whole lot of fun.

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The bedside bookstack – May & June 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

The House of Youssef by Yumna Kassab, Giramondo, 2019

This is a collection of short stories, some much shorter than others. We’re in and then out of these lives catching parents, friends, a bridal couple, neighbours and relatives in a slice of their lives.

In the middle section, we are introduced to the Youssef family and we stay with them longer. A whole series of stories follow the daughter Mayada, brother Abdullah, mother Sumaya and father Najeeb. We watch the family slowly dissolve until there is no one left.

Next, I’m heading on to her novel Australiana which is described as ‘thematically connected vignettes’. Right up my alley. And she has another novel coming out at the end of the year, The Lovers. Can’t wait.

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, Scribner, 1997

The crazy thing is that this was Elizabeth Strout’s first published book which means she’s only got better since then.

Amy and Isabelle are a tight mother-daughter duo but the hot summer that Amy is 15 their proximity and co-dependence becomes unbearable. The POV hovers between them and then, as with all of Elizabeth Strout’s book it flits around like a butterfly, landing briefly on colleagues, neighbours and people in their town.

Life is enough for Elizabeth Strout. No need for plot twists or cliff-hangers. The intimate and complex dynamics that people share with each other is more than enough for her. Like Helen Garner elevates the quotidian in her non-fiction, Elizabeth Strout does the same with fiction.

The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie, HarperCollins, 2022

This Australian crime debut won the 2020 Banjo Prize and was great COVID isolation reading. Every time I read crime, I think ‘thanks for thinking all of this us for me!’. The detail in the clues and timelines, alibis and relationships and how it all has to fit together seem like a lot of work to me, so I’m glad there are people who do it and do it well.

Detective Sergeant Kate Miles is one week off maternity leave but a recent armed hold-up and an informal review of a closed case make the handover a busy one. I loved the Northern Rivers setting, the inclusion of a home life and this no-nonsense Detective.

Found, Wanting by Natasha Sholl, Ultimo Press, 2022

I do comms for a cardiovascular research organisation and Sudden Cardiac Death is a research priority. We hear the stories but I’ve never read 275 pages of what is left in its wake. This is a book about grieving a young and sudden death. It’s heavy and messy and as relentless as loss. But it’s also honest and generous and full of life. Not easy all-ironed-out-now-cos-the-requisite-time-has-passed life but unpredictable, not always solvable but still sometimes wonderful life. 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins 2021

I’m a big Louise Erdrich fan but I think this landed on the pile at the wrong time for me (during COVID).

Tookie has turned her life around. While she was in jail, she read everything she could find and now that she’s out, she works in a local bookstore specialising in Indigenous writing. She’s Potawatomi. When Flora, one of their customers, dies and starts to haunt the shop, Tookie thinks that by reading Flora’s last book, she’ll be able to see the ghost off.

This book is a series of vignettes with customers and staff. Should be just my thing but I didn’t reach for it and in the end, I stopped trying.

Friends & Dark Shapes by Kavita Bedford, Text Publishing, 2021

This book is about youth and grief, together in the case of our narrator. She’s in her share house and at parties and turning up to multiple jobs but she’s skating over the surface of it all. Her dad has just died and her mum has returned to India and she is free floating though it all having clever conversations and going to the right places but clearly lost and looking for something more to anchor her.

A warning if you’re not a fan of Sydney – the city plays a lead role in this one.

Hovering by Rhett Davis, Hachette, 2022

Alice Wren is an artist and activist on the run from herself amongst other things. Her sister Lydia is doing everything apparently right but lives for her hours in an arboreal virtual world where she creates and sustains plants. Her son George has taken a political vow of silence. They live in the city of Fraser where the streets and landmarks change position overnight.

Original, yes. Genre-bending, yes. Unsettling, oh my god yes. Sooo, if you’re already feeling wobbly because of interest rate hikes and unaffordable petrol and lettuce, then leave this one until things feel more stable. The ground is literally and continuously shifting beneath their feet.

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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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