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 bedside bookstack – August 2020

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

Metal Fish, Falling Snow by Cath Moore, Text, 2020

Full Disclosure, Cath Moore is my cousin and I’m so proud of her and her debut YA novel. It’s a magical-realist road trip and the ideas and themes sprawl the dusty distance that Dylan, the main character, has to travel. Identity and race, grief and loss, and family and connection are all part of her journey.

Moving words by someone who has experienced her own variations on these ideas. If you don’t trust me to be objective, have a look at what Kill Your Darlings, The Saturday Paper, and the Big Issue have to say.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Picador, 2014

Phwoar!!!!! What a read!! How do you mix a post pandemic civilisation storyline with tabloid lives and Shakespeare? And, how had I never heard anything about this book in the middle of a pandemic?

Current situation aside, this is a great book about how everything can change and some things stay exactly the same when humans are involved. Now I need to check her back-catalogue and see what else I’ve been missing.

The Details – On love, death and reading by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Scribner, 2020

And that’s exactly what the beautiful book of essays is about. She’s writing as a woman, a mother, a daughter, a reader and a writer and she’s so generous with us in what she shares whether it’s her mother’s last days, her love of Helen Garner or George Saunders (I bought the book below after reading her essay on him) or childbirth-related vaginal issues.

Her eloquence and intelligence are such a pleasure to read. There was no snacking on these essays. I devoured them in two nights.

Pastoralia by George Sanders, Bloomsbury, 2000

There’s certainly nothing I can say about George Saunders that hasn’t been said better in Tegan Bennett Daylight’s essay The worst that could happen.

Read Saunders for social realism in a parallel universe where people work fulltime as exhibits in a theme park, bodies come back from the dead and managerial-speak is a scary new vernacular. His stories seem to bring together the worst of the 20th and 21st Centuries in the best way. He’s clever, creative and always surprising.

Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills, Picador 2018

This is another story that takes our world and tilts what we know to be true. The sea recedes from a small coastal town and one of the residents has visions which have included an occurrence like this.

Jennifer Mills comes highly recommended and I haven’t read anything by her before but my copy of this one is pretty big and to be honest I probably should’ve started with her short story collection The Rest is Weight. I just need to get my hands on it.

The Dickens Boy by Thomas Keneally, Vintage Books, 2020

Charles Dickens had 10 children. He sent two of his sons to Australia to become gentleman farmers. Who knew? I didn’t but obviously Thomas Keneally knew something about it.

This book is about the youngest son, Plorn. He feels the fame and achievements of his father in stark contrast to his own inability to pass any exam or ‘apply himself’. His secret is that he’s never read one of his father’s books. 

Plorn tries to make something of himself in Australia, outside of his father’s shadow, but the colony is almost as obsessed with Dickens as the Mother Country and even boundary riders in solitary huts quote his father from books he pretends to know. 

A great read on its own but even better for the salient facts I learned about Dickens without having to read a biography.

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 and the July 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)

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 recently came across a Brain Pickings piece on Zadie Smith’s new essays which were inspired by her encounters with Meditations. Is this a sign? Will knowing that Zadie made it through this book spur/shame me into action? We shall see.

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

Still haven’t read it, though my intentions from last month 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 bedside book stack – July 2020

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

Actress by Anne Enright, Jonathon Cape, 2020

I’ll confess straight up that I come to Anne Enright books thinking she can’t do much wrong. Nothing written by her will ever stay on my pile for long and Actress, her most recent book, was no different.

Actress is narrated by Norah, the daughter of fictional Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell. It covers public and private lives, the bond between a mother and daughter and secrets so heavy they tug loose the knots of mental health.

Here’s Norah in the opening pages trying to recall for us what it was like to have a famous mother, something she’s been asked her whole life:

What can I say? When she ate toast and marmalade, she was like anyone else eating toast and marmalade, though the line between lip and skin, whatever that is called, is very precise, even when you are not seeing it on a cinema screen, twelve feet long.

Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh, University of Queensland Press, 2016

Julie Koh’s debut full-length short story anthology is a wild world of satire re-imagined. My favourite story so far, Sight, gives a good idea of what to expect. Our narrator, China Doll, has regular conversations with the enigmatic Tattoo Man. China Doll has a third eye located in her stomach (her sister used to have one on her left shoulder). Her mum arranges for it to be surgically removed but not before China Doll has a chance to meet the brother who never came home from hospital…in lizard form.

The Animals in that Country by Laura Jean McKay, Scribe, 2020

This is a book about a pandemic, written before COVID-19 and released on its cusp. You decide if reading a pandemic book during a pandemic is a good idea or not. If not, get it for later because Zoo Flu and the chaos that comes with it makes a great story.

Victims who catch Zoo Flu understand the language of animals. First, they can hear mammals, then birds, fish and insects. When the voices become unstoppable people either try to kill them or commune with them.

Laura Jean McKay has really done her research, to make something so extreme and unthinkable feel this believable.

Flames by Robbie Arnott, Text Publishing, 2018

If you read my previous post about how this book offers something for readers and even more for writers, you’d know that Flames was a bit of a WOW read for me.

It’s bold and unpredictable and capable of the leaps it makes from magic realism to epistolary form on to straight narrative and then back again. Somehow it all works, even when a water rat and fire are given their own chapters to narrate.

You’ll find more details about the premise and story in my previous post.

The List by Patricia Forde, Affirm Press, 2018

A dystopian YA read. In the City of Ark, everyone must speak List, the language of 500 controlled (and apparently harmless enough) words. As an apprentice wordsmith, Letta’s job allows her to read and record all words that existed. But she and the Wordsmith are asked to shorten the list even more.

This is an interesting look at language, censorship, global warming and the power of words to do the best and worst of our bidding.

Cherry Beach by Laura McPhee-Browne, Text Publishing, 2020

Another debut but this time only published at the beginning of this year. Laura Mc Phee-Browne’s Cherry Beach is set in Toronto, Canada.

It’s supposed to be the usual rite-of-passage gap year but childhood friends Hetty and Ness have a history, dependence and love (partially unrequited on one side) that isn’t so straightforward. The new environment is initially liberation for Hetty and loneliness for Ness but as that changes so does their friendship.

Upstream by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2016

This one’s still on my pile from the June bookstack and will likely remain there into the future. There are some books that stay there 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.

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007

Another one from the June bookstack. As I mentioned there, I read these stories on a slow drip feed, in-between novels and whatever else I have on the go, so that she’ll be with me for the long haul.

She’s so ballsy and vocal. It’s always a pleasure her pick up.

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

Still haven’t read it, though my intentions from last month 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.

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

This has moved from the penultimate bottom of my pile to the very bottom (I took out Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor after giving it another go and just not feeling it).

Even though I feel like I could and should be someone who reads Roman philosophy, it doesn’t look like it’ll happen when I’m tired and have an o-so-finite reading window before I fall asleep.

Still, I live in hope and it’s doing no one any harm sitting quietly at the bottom of the pile. For someone who has read it, and inspired me to buy it, check out Maria Popova’s beautiful piece in brainpickings.

The bedside book stack – June 2020

What I’m reading and what’s gathering dust on my bedside book stack this month.

Well-behaved women by Emily Paull, Margaret River Press, 2019

I’ve just finished reading this debut short story collection by Perth writer Emily Paull. I loved the heat in these pages, the feeling of sand between my toes, the nostalgia and longing of adolescence and the family ties both close and distant. Always refreshing to have strong female characters in all their varied glory.

A constant hum by Alice Bishop, Text Publishing, 2019

Another debut short story collection by a female Australian writer. This collection focuses on the fallout after the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria – especially prescient given the summer we just had.

There are brief flash fiction pieces against longer stories. A great read and a sobering reminder of life continuing, though forever altered, long after the fires leave the front pages.

You think it, I’ll say it by Curtis Sittenfeld, Doubleday books, 2018

Another collection of short stories. I’ve only read Curtis Sittenfeld’s novels and it’s always fun to see an author write in another form. What was even more interesting, given the recent release of her novel Rodham, was reading the Hilary Clinton short story. I’m wondering if that story was the starting point for what eventually became Rodham. It’s quite nice to chart a narrative trajectory.

Upstream by Mary Oliver, Penguin Press, 2016

Anyone who read my post about the late poet Mary Oliver will know how much I love and respect her writing. There is usually one of her books permanently on my pile. They’re perfect to just dip in and out of. But this is a book of essays rather than poetry.

True to her loves, there is a focus on the natural world, also on writers, her past and of course poetry. These reflections, just like her poetry, slow down the world around you until it’s only her words that exist.

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007

Grace Paley is an American writer who I only recently discovered, via the recommendations of Francine Prose (who appears below in my pile). She was a writer, activist and teacher and you can feel her passion and intent crackle through these stories.

A lot of these stories were written in the 70s and 80s and as a woman reading in the 21st Century there’s a marvel at how things have changed….and stayed the same.

I read these on a slow drip feed, in-between novels and whatever else I have on the go, so that she’ll be with me for the long haul.

My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.   

An interest in life, Grace Paley

She sure knows how to start a story!

The Business of being a writer by Jane Friedman, The University of Chicago Press, 2018

I’m subscribed to Jane’s Electric Speed newsletter which is full of excellent advice and links for writers. This book had lots of great reviews and she is a practical lady with years of experience in publishing and writing (in the US). She presents the book as a reality check for those wanting to make writing their living, not in a mean way, but suggesting what you could do to make it sustainable.

I confess, I haven’t got past the introduction cos I’m just not feeling it at bedtime. It’s a ‘work’ book for me. I think it’ll be a good public transport or lunch break book. And even in the introduction I got out the highlighter and made some annotations.

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

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.

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

Every now and then I think it’s time to grow up and give an ancient classic a go. I haven’t yet, but Maria Popova wrote a beautiful piece on this in brainpickings and I ordered it instantly. Sorry to say it’s a thin little thing and has been sitting forlornly at the penultimate bottom of my pile. Roman philosophy, no matter how beautiful in reflection, feels too heavy for me at the moment.

The memoirs of a survivor by Doris Lessing, Picador, 1974

I love a bit of Doris Lessing but I just didn’t feel it when I started reading this one. It’s supposed to be amazing, which always makes me soldier on a bit longer and give it more of a go. The bookmark shows I got to page 38 but I couldn’t tell you anything about it. Looks like I either have to start again or pull the plug.