The bedside bookstack – February 2021

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

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott, Text Publishing, 2020

Loved this one. Just gobbled it up.

The word ‘fable’ gets used a lot to describe this book and for good reason. It’s not entirely here and not entirely now and not completely possible in our world but it’s still very familiar. The landscape especially is a mash-up of Tasmanian wilderness and the European continent.

Ren lives in a remote mountain area. She keeps to herself and has so far avoided the new martial law of the land. That changes when soldiers come looking for the Rain Heron. Most people think it’s just a story but Ren knows that it isn’t.

The narrative is divided between the past and present for Ren, the Army Captain looking for the Rain Heron and a medic in her team.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, 4th Estate, 2020

Exactly as the title suggests, this one covers the best and worst of what life and our closest relationships have to offer.

Martha is our narrator. Her highs are high and her lows are totally debilitating. She knows there is something more to it but everyone around her says that’s just the way she is. This is a story about families, sisters, marriage and mental health.

Martha is funny and irritating and will keep you reading way past bedtime.  

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin, Brow Books 2018

I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time reader. I read all the short stories or essays in a collection in a row. But I had to put this collection down and let a little light in between the essays. They’re not comfortable reads – suicide, poverty, the failings of the justice system….

But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be read. It’s a privilege to accompany Maria Tumarkin’s intellect and curiosity. She is a beautiful writer but isn’t writing about beautiful things in this book.

The Nowhere Child by Christian White, Affirm Press, 2018

It’s no surprise that Christian White was a scriptwriter before he was an author. This mystery unfolds in a very filmic way and is an easy read page-turner. The measure of a whodunnit is whether you’re interested enough to know and it’s clever enough to keep you guessing. Ticks on both fronts for this one.

Two-year-old Sammy Went disappears from her home in Kentucky. 30 years later, a man turns up in suburban Melbourne to tell Kim Leamy that he thinks she’s that girl. All the right rules have been followed in this one to set up a crime, a handful of possible suspects and then let it ride.

The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey, Allen & Unwin, 2020

This is a book about besties and PTSD.

After surviving a car accident, Caitlin thinks that she’s going to die. All the time and in countless different ways. A fair chunk of normal life is out of bounds because of her anxieties.

Caitlin tries to keep a lid on the narratives that play out internally and this means distancing herself from her best friend and family. She goes to group sessions with other people who are also convinced they’re going to die. None of them are sure it’s doing any good but misery loves company.

Did I mention that it’s also a love story? What can I say – I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

We Were Never Friends by Margaret Bearman, Brio Books, 2020

Lotti Coates has just moved to Canberra and is trying to navigate new friendships and puberty outside of the shadow of her famous artist father.

I loved how domestic this story was. The mum is always arriving home with the youngest child after day care pick-up and dinners always need to be made.

Unfortunately, the artist father was so annoying to me that instead of following on with the plotline I was a chapter back, still fuming about how arrogant and selfish he was. I was, perhaps disproportionately, distracted by how much air-play we give to selfish men who are apparently ‘genius’ and can therefore absent themselves from any childminding, meal preparations and other domestic necessities.

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler, Chatto and Windus, 2020

Anne Tyler has 22 novels behind her (I know, right!!!!) and plenty of people who say she is a genius but this book just wasn’t for me. I gave it a good 45 pages and then left it.

There is a type of story where your main character is pretty boring and regimented person. Their daily routine is described in detail, which is also pretty boring and then eventually (the hope is) something happens or they meet someone that changes their life and their ways.

I just couldn’t wait around long enough for that to happen.

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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Do books belong out in the world or on your bookshelf?

For something that is really just printed words on paper, we have some very strong feelings and ideas about our books as possessions. Seeing a full bookshelf calms me and holding a book is always a comfort. But my passion in their power also means that I think they need to be read, so I’m happy to lend out my books.

A book is meant to be read, hopefully by as many people as possible. I love it when someone asks me if I have anything good to read. I have a look on my shelves and pick out what I think is the right pick for them at the time.

I’d like to get the book back eventually but it’s a bit of an honesty system (I am lending to family and friends after all) and not every book comes back to the shelf.

There are a few books which I keep lending out and then rebuying. One is Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole and the other is Elizabeth Gilbert’s celebration of creativity, Big Magic. Which reminds me, I don’t have a copy of either of them at the moment. Short story anthologies are something else I’m always lending out too.

Some people use Ex Libris bookplates in the front of their books but anecdotally, they don’t guarantee that a book will ever return.

I always know if someone else’s book is on my shelves though. I’m very aware of possessions that aren’t mine. For me, a borrowed book feels a bit like an unpaid debt until it’s been returned.

Books have sentimental value and financial value. Some are out of print and can’t be replaced. Others I just want on my shelves but any copy will do. My general hope is that I remember both that they’re gone and who they went to. And when it doesn’t work out that way, when I have an inkling that I used to own a book which is no longer there, there is a consolation in thinking of it making its way in the world onto other bookshelves and into other hands.

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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.

Bookshelf bliss

A shelf full of books will always be a comfort and delight.

I recently watched a movie and at different times a son and a father moved into new places and had to find things to put on their empty shelves. Empty shelves? The idea just doesn’t compute.

I don’t think our place will ever have enough shelf space. We have books lying horizontal across vertical rows. I think there are one or two shelves which even have double rows. I know, not fair at all to the inside titles who never get to see the light of the lounge room. There are book piles by our bedsides and piles that have collected where children left them.

I know people love their negative space but for me the joy of a bookshelf is to see it full. There is something so comforting about a full bookshelf in all its proud coloured glory. I love walking past houses where people don’t shut their curtains, especially at dusk. I’m a bit nosy anyway but seeing into rooms with a bookshelf at capacity is just a delight.

I read an article by a writer who had dumped all her books in favour of a digital library. She wrote of how bereft she then felt, looking around and suddenly being a person without books. Marie Kondo copped it when she said people shouldn’t have more than 30 books. I think it got taken out of context. Her philosophy is about keeping what you love and she’s obviously not that big on books. I’m happy to thin the ranks and pass on what doesn’t mean anything to me anymore but the physical presence of books on a shelf is what sparks joy for me.

I am also prone to bookshelf envy. But it’s a light envy, because really, it’s love. Pinterest sends me the most dazzling shots of bookshelves and I love reading library features with their angled shots of tiered shelves. My friend recently had bookshelves built into her study, two wonderful stacks that reach the ceiling. Bliss. Her sister has a reading room. I wasn’t sure they even existed outside Austen novels. Swoon.

Even drawings of bookshelves will do. Julia Donaldson’s wonderful picture book The Detective Dog follows the mystery of some stolen school books. There’s a page near the end when the book thief is introduced to the local library. We’ve read it hundreds of times and I still love turning the page for the big reveal – a double page covered in bookshelves.

Thousands of books from the floor to the ceiling. The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.

The Detective Dog, Julia Donaldson

That’s exactly how it feels.