The bedside bookstack – November 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this November.

The Magician by Colm Toibin, Simon & Schuster, 2021

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

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

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, 4th Estate, 2017

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

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

Read it. Read it. Read it.

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

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller, UQP, 2020

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

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

Good Indian daughter by Ruhi Lee, Affirm Press, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Poly by Paul Dalgarno, Ventura Press, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bedside bookstack – October 2021

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this October.

Old Goriot by Honore De Balzac, Penguin Classic, 1951

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

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

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So, Ecco, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

New Animal by Ella Baxter, Allen & Unwin 2021

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

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

Hold your fire by Chloe Wilson, Scribner, 2021

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

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

Luster by Raven Leilani, Picador, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bedside bookstack – 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 – 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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When in doubt…nature.

Nearly two months into the season, it’s undeniably Autumn. I’ve taken my cue from the tiles being too cold to walk on without socks and I think I may have had my last ocean swim for a while.

The turn of the season still feels fresh. It’s cosy to make soup, wind a scarf around my neck and snuggle between flannelette sheets at night. The tell-tale signs of the season in nature are also gorgeous to witness and a good reset for me personally.

I’ve been distracted lately which leads to a chaotic scatter-gun approach to whatever I’m working on. I’m hurried and impatient with a lot of picking-up and putting-down and not much getting-finished.

But these crisp Autumn days offer some friendly reminders. Nature is good like that. Cyclical. Eternal. Unhurried. Beautiful and so much bigger than us and our immediate quotidian concerns.

Of course, being in nature helps. Everything. Always. It makes me slow down and be subject to wonder again. But if you can’t get a hit of the real natural world then reading about it is a good enough second.

Here are some of my go-to writers for a nature intervention.

Jonathon Driori – his book, Around the World in 80 Trees, would be my desert island pick, the one and only book I would have in the world if I could have no other. He shares his vast arboreal knowledge with intellect and wit and the illustrations by Lucille Clerc are stunning! This book is my antidote to planet woe because nature doing her incredible thing is never going to be a downer. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and am so excited that it now has a companion in the recently released Around the world in 80 plants.

Mary Oliver – feels like she spent most of her life wandering in wonder and capturing nature with eloquence and reverence. Reading her poetry always slows time for me, as I mentioned in a previous Mary Oliver blog, and puts our place in the world back into perspective.

Helen Macdonald – as a poet, historian and falconer she created something completely unique in her book H is for Hawk. It’s another read that restores my faith in everything. It’s about grief and goshawks, about nature and being human and where any and all of those overlap. She has a new book Vesper Flights, which I’m told is just as good but haven’t got to yet.

Reading these writers, I soar to great heights, sink beneath the surface and see what’s around me anew. Clifftops, coastlines and deep roots make me feel the restorative power of nature that people have been writing about for centuries.

I’m sorry to say that I don’ have any local Australian titles or writers to offer, not because they don’t exist but because I just haven’t read much Australian nature writing yet….and I’m looking forward to some suggestions so I can right this wrong.

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The bedside bookstack – March 2021

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

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

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, Granta, 2018

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

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

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

This is a simple tale, very well told.

This slim little volume will linger.

Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery, UQP, 2018

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

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

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

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

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham, Vintage, 2020

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

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

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

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

what are you going through by Sigrid Nunez, Virago 2020

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

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

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, Penguin, 2018

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

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

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

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

Before the Coffee gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Picador 2019

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

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

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

The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe, Penguin, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Head of Zeus, 2017

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

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

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

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

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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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