The bedside bookstack – Summer 2021

What I’m reading and what was gathering dust on the bedside bookstack this summer.

I moved over Christmas and so it wasn’t a massive book stack this summer. Most of my to-be-reads were still boxed up and after all the unpacking it took me a while to get back into a reading habit.  But here’s what was on the book stack.

The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall, Simon & Schuster, 2020

In an unspecified but uncomfortably familiar future, Australia is a surveillance state with the climactic woe of current predictions.

Mim is quietly panicked. Her husband has gone missing in an offshore mining project and the contact she’s getting from the’ Department’ and underground journalists flag that she’s not being told everything about it.

There is also geopolitical instability and this oppressive loss of control for both Mim and the average citizen permeates the narrative.

But amidst geopolitical and climatic extremes people are still people. Mim looks to what she can do by protecting her children and trying to find her husband. Motherhood still sits with its complexities, old lust dies hard (if it actually dies) and family loyalty is tested.

This was a real page turner.

Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery, University of Queensland Press, 2020

This anthology of short stories by Australian writer Laura Elvery is inspired by the women who have won the Nobel Prize for scientific research. With only twenty female wins (two of them to Marie Curie) and what feels like not a lot of historical fanfare, it seems right to give them another nod.

The women and their discoveries are the starting point, so the stories take you across distance and time. Occasionally, a former winner is reimagined as a younger or older self (Marie Curie on tour with her daughters, Rosalyn Yalow on the eve of the Prize ceremony in Stockhom) but mostly it’s the discoveries and how they have changed lives in big and small ways – something we all participate in with scientific discovery whether we consider it or not.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakamo, Picador, 2020

This wasn’t an easy read, or perhaps I mean a ‘comfortable’ read. Set in modern Japan, it follows a mother, daughter and aunt. These women don’t have many options. The past actions of other people in their life, usually men, mean they are working hard to survive.  

There’s a cataloguing of small details – meals eaten, actions done, that snagged the narrative for me but certainly added to the oppressive and repetitive sense of their days.

It’s offered as a novel but feels more like two novellas (the notes say it’s the extended version of a novella). The second part of the book offers more hope and liberation for the aunt that comes from financial freedom. Her struggle changes to a moral and philosophical one regarding donor sperm and IVF parenthood in Japan.

The Burning Island by Jock Serong, Text Publishing, 2020

This was a real page-turner for me. I’ve never read anything else by Jock Serong but will definitely track down his other titles. I also don’t read a lot of historical fiction crime thrillers – if that’s what this could be defined as.

This story is set in early colonial Australia on a sea voyage from Sydney down to the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait.

A group of disparate characters are onboard; a naval lieutenant disgraced by his drunkenness, convict brothers bound by blood loyalty, the quiet Captain who navigates ever onwards, and the doctor scientist, whose charisma and curiosity pique the tedium for our narrator, Eliza.

A sense of doom pervades the narration from the isolation, the atrocities, and the landscape. It’s a great tale of revenge, grief, loyalty, lust and betrayal. But don’t fear all that heaviness because Jock Serong can turn the body of a drowned man to poetry as silver fish empty from the water in his mouth.

Our Shadows by Gail Jones, Text Publishing, 2020

In her characteristic poetic prose, Gail Jones writes the strata of time and families. There is the Irish immigrant who finds the gold nugget that Kalgoorlie is founded on, the grandfather miner who carries the damage and grief of a world war and a dead daughter, and the orphan granddaughters who split under the weight of their shared past.

The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Harper Perennial, 2009

Surprised, and a little disappointed, that I didn’t get any new books for Christmas, I had to read what was in the garage sale pile at my brother’s house. We moved houses and cities over Christmas and my books were still boxed up well into January.

I think this book was pretty big when it came out. It was also early on in the complete-sentence-as-book-title trend. It’s satirical and clever in its summaries of history and politics which I wasn’t expecting but there was also a touch of the slapstick to it that was just  a bit much for me – kind of a ‘caper’ journey where the old man meets a string of unlikely allies through a series of unlikely adventures.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

This tome was my only Christmas book (and it actually arrived in January). I haven’t started it yet. Anything over 500 pages seems to sink further down the book stack for sheer stability of the pile.

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

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

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The bedside bookstack – September 2020

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

Educated by Tara Westover, Penguin, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upstream by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2016

Who doesn’t need Mary Oliver and her words by their side at the moment?

This one’s still on my pile from the June bookstack, the July bookstack, the August bookstack and will likely remain there into the future. There are some books that stay on the stack not because they’ve been forgotten and are a ‘should’, but because their presence is a reassurance.

Upstream is a book of essays rather than her usual poetry and they are perfect to dip in and out of. Her poetic reflections always slow things down to a pace we’re probably meant to be moving at anyway.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Penguin Books, 2004 (written sometime AD 121 – 180)

Will I ever read this book? This has been sitting at the bottom of the pile for a long time now. Even though I feel like I could and should be someone who reads Roman philosophy, it hasn’t happened thus far when I’m tired and have an o-so-finite reading window before I fall asleep.

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

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

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

When I read Francine Prose’s Reading like a writer, I fell even more in love with reading and writing. I walked away with a new list of recommended writers that I can’t believe I’d lived without, including Grace Paley and the Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant.

I haven’t started this yet, but I’m hoping for the same sublime experience.

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The Secrets Submerged in Single-Author Short Story Collections

Sometimes it’s the writer who is revealed rather than their characters when you read short stories in succession.

I’m a big fan of short stories, reading and writing them. My bedside bookstack and rescue reading posts are testament to that.

There are plenty of reasons I love short stories, but one of the unexpected outcomes of reading lots of them is suddenly realising that you now know a lot more about the author than perhaps they thought they were telling you.

Writers tend to circle around similar ideas and questions in their body of work. When you read a novel, it isn’t so obvious because it might be years until you read another book by the same author. But when you read short stories side-by-side, and especially if you read a ‘collected works’ which covers a lifetime of writing, you start to see the same things recurring again and again; adolescent insecurity that lasts into adulthood, a longing for mothers to be more maternal, fathers who are unreliable, people who try and create their family outside of their bloodline. These are a few I’ve picked up on in recent readings.  

Initially, it felt a bit underhand, like seeing someone undressed through a crack in the door. But writers write to make sense of things as well as to be seen. That’s where the fear and the vulnerability is.

I like seeing into other people’s lives. I’d like to find a nicer word than nosy, so it doesn’t feel so intrusive. Inquisitive perhaps? I’m endlessly curious about what motivates people, what’s formed them and causes them to act and see the world the way that they do. I’d be just as happy to find out if they told me directly but people aren’t always forthcoming about their internal worlds or even so reflective. So, I love it when they reveal themselves and what they’re trying to work out through the stories they write.

I’m in good company here. In a recent episode of The First Time Podcast, short story writer Laura Elvery (Ordinary Matter) talks about liking single-author collections for this reason. She also mentions American short story writer Laura van den Berg who says that she likes it when reading short stories feels like roaming around a house where there’s a new discovery about the author with every story.

As someone who’s currently working on a collection of short stories, I wonder exactly what it is that I’ll be revealing to readers.

Is this something you’ve noticed when you read collections?

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