The bedside bookstack – September 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this September.

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

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

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

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

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Penguin, 1997

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

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

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

Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, Penguin Classics, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

Bark by Lorrie Moore, Faber & Faber, 2014

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

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

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

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola, Penguin Classics, 1962

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

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

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

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks, Orbit, 1994

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

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

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

On and on and on. Not for me.

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The surprising advantage of a library-less lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reading about reading because I’m not reading

When the thought of reading feels like work

Lockdown is slowly leeching my ability to do things I used to love. Reading is at the top of that list. Intellectually I know that reading is the best way to settle my mind, wind down before going to sleep and escape these eternal four walls. However, at the end of a day of home-schooling, work and pre-schooler wrangling the thought of reading sometimes feels like more work.

So I started reading about reading as a way back to books. My hero Maria Popova, she of Brain Pickings brilliance, published A Velocity of Being – Letters to a young reader with Claudia Zoe Bedrick. It’s a gorgeous tribute to the delights of reading. The entries are from 121 writers, poets, scientists, philosophers, musicians. They write a letter to young readers and accompanying each letter is a graphic from different artists.

The letters are as much (perhaps even more so) for adults as they are for children. They talk about the power of the page for escape and growth and adventure, for a chance to see ourselves and others. They recall early encounters with books and how books have shaped their ideas and lives.

Stoking the fire, Mary Oliver says in her letter; “Words on the page are not a puzzle but a door to many worlds. To write is to delight, to read is to plant the seed of endless excitement.”

When I was really too tired to even read a letter, I just flicked through and looked at the pictures. Each one is by a different artist, so the styles vary but there is a book on almost every page. I’ve realised, as someone who loves books, that even looking at images of books makes me happy.

I love looking at the picture of a girl hidden and lost in a book by my cousin, the very talented printmaker Miriam Cullen and one of my favourite things on Twitter is the anticipation of what new magic the brilliant artist Caroline Magerl has created and posted. Her pictures are brimming with books and a real balm for this book lover.

And after a few nights of reading A velocity of being, I started reading books again. It was impossible not to.

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The bedside bookstack – August 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this August.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, 2020

This divine book is a new favourite for me. The premise is the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet but the offering is way beyond that. It’s also about his wife and parents, his other children and extended family. This is a story about the plague, loyalty, parents and children, old lore and knowledge.

As a reader you are fully immersed. To be honest, I didn’t want to come up for air. As a writer, I was looking for clues. How is she doing this? How is she spinning this story into such a wonder? It’s one of the few present tense narrations that never felt affected. The POV was always a perfect match for the character at hand. Shakespeare actually has the least air play of everyone and in this story, that’s as it should be. This one will be a re-read for me and a re-re-read no doubt. I want an in on the alchemy at play.

After you’d gone by Maggie O’Farrell, Review 2001

I picked this straight up after finishing Hamnet and it was interesting to go from her first novel to her most recent. In between there was 20 years and another eight or so books.

She was already doing interesting things in this book, confident and assured enough to toggle back and forth in time and also from first-person to third-person without the awkwardness you might expect.

This is Alice Raikes’ story but it is also that of her mother and grandmother. One day Alice steps out into traffic. She is left in a coma and it’s uncertain whether it was intention or accident. The story circles back to where it all began and we see how the tangled threads of family history can still trip us up years later. Maggie O’Farrell is sooo good at her job.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

This has been sitting on the bookstack since I started the bookstack. It’s a total tome at over 500 pages and whenever I looked at it, I thought ‘too hard’. But if you don’t read a book like that in lockdown then you never will.

And it isn’t too hard at all. It was completely absorbing and exactly what I didn’t know it needed. It’s an epic that follows four generations of a Korean family in Japan from 1932 to 1989. By the end of it, you know them all so intimately. You’ve seen people scrimp and survive and you’ve seen babies grow up and have their own babies. The family offers such rich detail and dynamics but alongside that is the history and context of Korea and Japan. For Koreans in Japan, language, culture, status and identity remain a negotiation for every generation. 

Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane, Harper Collins, 2021

I’d never heard of Scottish writer Mhairi (pronounced Vah-Ree) McFarlane before but am happy to know she’s got a good-sized back catalogue cos I just devoured this book (lying in bed after my 2nd Pfizer vaccine).

Eve, Susie, Justin and Ed have been friends since high school. A sudden accident changes everything and brings old secrets and deep loss with it. Whip-smart, of the times and somehow able to orchestrate grief and a good humour without diminishing either. One of those books where I often found myself thinking, ‘Yes! Yes, that’s exactly how it is!’.

I demand that it be turned into a smart British rom-com immediately!

Car Crash by Lech Blaine, Black Inc., 2021

When Lech Blaine was 17, he survived a car crash that killed three of his friends. This memoir is about grief and depression and the toxic masculinity that disallows young men to feel them. There has always been such honesty and eloquence to his journalism and he brings this to his memoir as well.

 Before the crash he was a product of his own expectations of what sort of man he should be; I was totally beholden to a holy trinity of influences: Christianity, masculinity and capitalism.

Masculinity still hasn’t evolved as this year’s string of revelations from parliamentarians to school boys has shown. Put this on some reading lists, make it a high school text and we can hope that maybe it might.

The Spill by Imbi Neeme, Penguin, 2020

Sisters Nicole and Samantha aren’t exactly what you’d call close. Their family split a long time ago with Nicole and their Mum, Tina, on one side and Samantha, their father and whoever his current wife is on the other. No one wants it to be this way or stays civil long enough for it to be any different.

When their mum dies from liver failure, it’s finally time for the sisters to get answers from each other and the past. Spanning the decades and a fair stretch of Western Australia’s coastline this one is also good as a home grown read. Sometimes you just need to read about a climate that’s familiar and places you recognise. 

Lucky’s by Alex Pippos, Picador 2020

This is a sprawling family saga that crosses continents and generations. During what he thinks were his best years, Lucky owned a franchise of cafes all over Australia. They were usually run by Greeks, like Lucky, but the décor and menu were intentionally American. But times change, families split up and as an old man, Lucky wants to get back some of what he’s lost over the years.

At the same time Emily comes to Sydney chasing the ghost of her father and a commission for the New Yorker. She thinks that Lucky has answers for her and he hopes that her interest could be a final chance to change his luck. Like Pachinko, this is another one where you’re with the family long enough to see babies have babies and witness how the migrant dream changes with the next generation.

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The eternal waiting room of lockdown

Take away the future and it’s hard to stay ‘present’.

We’ve been in lockdown for a few weeks now. I understand the necessity. It’s not as long as Sydney or as many times as Melbourne but what most of the country, nay world, has realised by now is that any lockdown is lockdown enough.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the idea of presence and my attempt to stop mentally scrolling backwards and forwards in time. Now I realise that to do that you need the neat bookending of both a past and future.

But time has slipped from its moorings. Lockdown, the eternal waiting room, has scrambled our sense of the future and, as I’m now realising, it’s hard to be in the present without a future.  

Waiting isn’t uncommon territory for a writer. We’re well aware of how uncomfortable it is to wait on submissions, feedback and querying. Waiting is its own kind of agony. It’s a protracted presence but one that isn’t really fixed on the moment. It has its sight set on some point in the future, when things will change or you’ll finally have your answer. With lockdown though, that future is on hold.

It feels like I’m caught in a Beckett loop except it isn’t Godot I’m waiting for. My eternal waiting is for the host to let me into the meeting, for the vaccine supply to arrive, for the daily reveal of dire digits in the press conference or for my daughter to actually start writing a sentence using her spelling words.

Some people are writing away and having a mini-renaissance with time and perspective. I’m frozen. Everything has come to a confused halt as I continue to wait.

My lockdown is stagnant in many ways but not still. Alas, not for me the baking of sourdough or learning of a new language. Between home-schooling, work and domestics, I don’t have much left in the tank, time or energy wise. I’m not reading much. I’m writing even less and I’m always at my worst when that happens.

Two characters in a Tom Stoppard play discuss the future. One says, ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ The other replies, ‘Tomorrow, in my experience is usually the same day’ and I’d have to agree.

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The bedside bookstack – Winter 2021

What I’m reading on the bedside bookstack this June and July.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Dialogue Books 2020

This one is definitely in my Top 5 books of the year so far! It’s got that Tolstoy feeling of being a ‘big’ book where the personal and political play out over decades. The big is also for race, identity, family, belonging, secrets and the inheritance of trauma that ripples through generations.

Stella and Desiree Vignes grow up with their mother in tiny Louisiana town of Mallard where everyone is the lightest shade of brown. One night, they leave together for New Orleans. A few years later Desiree wakes up to find that Stella has left her.

The narrative is divided between Desiree, Stella and their daughters Jude and Kennedy whose lives overlap but can never quite make the family whole again.

All the murmuring bones by Angela Slatter, Titan Books, 2021

Make sure you’re warm when read this one, it’s an elemental tale where wind howls and waves crash and the forces of nature have magic in them.

Long ago the O’Malleys made a pact with the Mer. Each generation they would give a child in return for calm passage and safe seas. Miren O’Malley decides it’s time to end this promise forged in blood and saltwater but there are those who want the days of old power and prosperity to return.

This is the stuff of old legends and magic, selkies and ruskaly and saltwater creatures with all the good stuff – greed, betrayal, love, loyalty.

I absolutely loved it!     

Some said the O’Malleys had too much saltwater in their veins….

The Believer by Sarah Krasnostein, Text, 2021

When a (mainly) fiction reader loves a non-fiction book, then you know it’s good. And it is. If you’ve read The Trauma Cleaner then that will come as no surprise and if you haven’t, then you should.

Sarah Krasnostein is meticulous in her detail and eloquent in her telling. She manages empathy and curiosity, generosity and honesty.

The thread the publisher promotes is that this book is about the power of belief. I’m not so sure there are neat parallels between the people in this book but it doesn’t matter to me because they are so fascinating.

There are people grappling with death, with religion, with the paranormal and with life turning out totally differently to how they had planned. All written with her casual blend of whip-smart analysis and poetic observation. In this book truth in definitely stranger than fiction.

“I believe we are united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that separate us.”

The Nancys by R. W. R McDonald, Allen & Unwin, 2019

I didn’t know what I was reading when I first picked this up. Massive Nancy Drew fan Tippy Chan is our 11-year-old narrator whose dad has died in a car crash. She lives in regional New Zealand and is minded by her glamourous hairdresser uncle and his fashion designer boyfriend while her mum is on holidays. When her school teacher is murdered, the three of them form the Nancys to solve who did it.

This book is about death and grief but also family and community. It’s a fun read (note – must enjoy an adult sense of humour) and now I understand why everyone is so pumped about the recent launch of the sequel, Nancy Business. I only wish I’d read some Nancy Drew when I was younger to pick up the full vibe of what they were riffing off.

The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), Darf Publishers, 2010

This is narrated by 90-year-old Taki who has been a maid for most of her life. She works for the Hirai family and is close to the Mistress Tokiko. This is part saga, part history and part love story as Taki writes down her memories of the years from 1930 until after World War II.

It’s interesting, as an Australian, to read about domestic, city and cultural life in pre-war and wartime Japan.

I hope that history is different now but we didn’t spend a lot of time on the ‘enemy’ as individuals when I was at school. This is a story of the little people and how life goes on in its own way even when a country is at war.

The Rest is Weight by Jennifer Mills, UQP, 2011

This is Jennifer Mills’ only collection of short stories. They play out around the globe from Central Australia to China and Russia. There’s a residue of dust and distance in these stories. And when you put the book down, you’re left with that feeling of someone being in the room a moment ago.

Singing my sister down and other stories by Margo Lanagan, Allen & Unwin, 2017

The titular story is one my Top 3 short stories. Ever. I read it years ago and it has stayed with me and partially haunted me ever since. Lanagan uses our world and associations and then tilts everything just a little off. She is subtle and nuanced and a master at atmosphere. For me, Singing my Sister down has that same (brilliant) casual terror as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

The man who saw everything by Deborah Levy, Hamish Hamilton2019

I’ve never read a Deborah Levy before but I see a lot of love for her work. To be honest, I took a while to warm up to this one. Reading as a reader, I often just want a straight narrative. Reading as a writer it was more interesting. Pick this one up if you’re looking for layers that circle back and around, over the same territory.

It’s late 1988 and Saul Adler is run over by a car as he crosses Abbey Road. He’s about to head off to East Berlin but not before his girlfriend dumps him. What follows is his time in East Berlin where he meets Walter and his Beatles-fan sister, Luna.

We soon realise that Saul is an unreliable narrator. He recollections are a mash-up of past and present events as he lies in a hospital bed many years later. This is how we learn about the life he has lived, before and after his trip to Berlin.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Viking, 2020

The first page of this book was such a cracker. I was right there with Gifty as she introduced her depressed and bed-bound mother. There again with her when she’s with an aunt in Ghana who is trying to show that the crazy of a man in the market is not the same as her mother.

Her family’s migration from Ghana to America is not the American dream and as an adult Gifty is shaped by the absence of her father, the death of her brother and her mother’s depression.

She goes on to study neuroscience and does research with mice around reward and addiction. There’s a lot about her research and also a lot of bible quotes from her years as a child in the Pentecostal church. Both of these are important elements of the story, the study as a way to grieve her brother and religion as a way to connect with her mother, but they slowed down and diverted from the narrative so much that I didn’t end up finishing this one. This was a good book at the wrong time for me.

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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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