The bedside bookstack – September 2022

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this month.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, Vintage, 1979

Holy heck what are these stories and how have I never read Angela Carter before? High gothic, these stories are fairy tales without any of the froth or frosting. She takes familiar tales (Bluebeard, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots) as her starting point and then continues with the sex and violence which she believes was originally implied but omitted because of the young audience. This was a specific project, so I’m curious to read what else she has written and see if this is the exception or norm for her.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, Bloomsbury Circus, 2022

Cushla lives in the divided Belfast of the 1970s. She’s a Catholic school teacher but works in her family’s pub in a protestant area. Bombs, checkpoints, an army presence and divided communities are part of her daily life. When she starts having an affair with protestant barrister Michael Agnew, her life and loyalties are split even further.

This was a brilliant read with family, love and politics playing equal starring roles.

The Lessons by John Purcell, Fourth Estate, 2022

It was particularly hard to turn the light off at night or call time on my lunch break when I was reading this one. Starting in the sixties this beautiful book is about sexuality, class, creativity, power and the tangle people make of love.

Full disclosure, I know John from chats on Twitter. His literary knowledge is vast and astute. I love hearing what he’s reading and getting his suggestions. There are nods here to Hardy, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Dickens and he did it so well that he also conquered one of my pet peeves – main characters who are writers. Here it didn’t feel lazy or like a chance to show-off. I loved the literary references and inclusions.

If you’re interested in structure, this it’s a great example of how to do multiple POVs (across time). He has chapters narrated by his main characters Jane, Daisy, Simon and Harry and it doesn’t feel cluttered or make you dizzy as you move from one to the next.

Will now have to get my hands on his first book, The Girl on the Page.

The Employees A workplace novel of the 22nd Century by Olga Ravn, Lolli Editions, 2020

A lot of rave reviews for this one. It was called experimental but I think it’s just scifi that’s being read by a non speculative-fiction audience. The first few pages just throw you right in there with no context. Apparently, I like more orientation from my narrative because I nearly abandoned ship. I’m glad I read on though, because the transcripts and testimonies from the staff aboard the six-thousand ship were quite beautiful despite the sometimes shocking and tragic events they narrated.

The six-thousand ship is crewed by humans and humanoids. After ’objects’ from the planet New Discovery are brought on the ship, things begin to change. The narrative is a series of interviews with employees about their emotional reactions to the objects and the new longings they have for their old planet. Their statements are a reflection on ideas of work, productivity, purpose, connection, memory and meaning.

Cold enough for snow by Jessica Au, Giramondo, 2022

I took a while to settle into the style of this book where all details are catalogued and it’s intensely internal with memories and thoughts. But after a while, it starts to feel meditative. Everything occurs at the same level whether it’s big or small.

A young woman travels through Japan with her mother. The distance between them is unsettling. I wanted it fixed, bridged by their time together. But that intimacy doesn’t match with everything that’s been revealed about both of them and probably says more about my desire for a mother-daughter relationship happy ending.

Fun House – A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, First Mariner Books, 2006

This graphic novel is the precursor to Alison Bechdel’s Are you my mother? Here, she’s looking at her father, their relationship, her discovery that he was gay and his suicide when she was in her early 20s.

In this graphic novel memoir, she openly likens the the events of her father’s life to written narratives perhaps trying to sift through the fictions herself.  He is an English teacher who loves books and her mum is an actress, so there is an element of life playing out fictitiously. Sometimes it feels like you shouldn’t be reading this. It’s so personal and private…but also fascinating.

Beach Read by Emily Henry, Penguin, 2020

January believes in romance and writes women’s fiction. Gus is a cynic with a literary bestseller behind him. These old college classmates wind up living next to each other and set up a challenge to swap genres and hopefully change their current broke and bookless states.

Again, another book with my ol’ pet peeve, the main character as a writer set up. But it works here. There may have been be a few similes on steroids but there was also a fun story which did a very clever take on popular versus literary fiction, more often played out as ‘women’s fiction versus literary fiction’. How are there such ordinary rom-coms around when there are books like this just waiting to be turned into a script? Movie please someone!

In Moonland by Miles Allinson, Scribe, 2021

Joe’s dad drove his car into a tram stop. Joe wants to understand why and thinks that tracing his ashram days in India, in the 70s, might be the key.

This book takes you backwards and forwards in time through Joe, his dad and daughter. These soul-searching journeys sometimes snag me. People are trying to make sense of the past but ignore their family who need them in the present. So the story moves on but I’m I still back thinking about the women who look after the kids while all the soul-searching happens.

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The bedside bookstack – November 2020

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

Sisters by Daisy Johnson, Jonathon Cape 2020

By some random literary luck, I picked up three novels this month that could be loosely described as modern gothic. This one definitely felt like it was a firm fit for the genre. It was as compelling as it was unsettling and at times it felt like I was caught in the pages of a Henry James novel.

July and September are sisters. They’re a slim 9 months apart but their connection is more like twins. After an undisclosed event at school, their mother moves them away to a remote house owned by her ex-husband’s sister. The house has history for all of them but there is a sense of things closing in metaphorically rather than the freedom and release of being remote.

September, the older sister, has a ravenous love and control over July. And the mother, in her own fog of grief and depression fears September as a version of the violent husband who fathered her.

I read it a bit franticly, trying to keep up with the action and get to the final reveal. I read so fast that I was sure I was missing something important and wasn’t quite putting all the pieces together but I didn’t want to slow down and in the end it all comes out.

A warning that it’s always raining – everyone is always wet and muddy and cold. There’s a lot of stumbling around in the dark and I longed for some warm waterproof clothes and a few sunny days to dry everything out. Not very gothic of me, I know.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, Vintage 2020

I think this book would have to be in my top five for 2020. I just loved it. It’s the second of my accidental gothic novels this month with parallel narratives about three women all linked by family, location and a haunting. The bristling and elemental Scottish coastline is very much a character too.

Violence and aggression against women is a common thread through these narratives from the extremes of stabbed bodies to the attrition of emotional manipulation and insistence.

There is the idea that these women aren’t to be trusted and so they doubt themselves when really, it’s the men in their lives who should be viewed suspiciously.

They’re often frozen by their own doubts about what’s going on and revert to the shamefully familiar thought -‘I shouldn’t make a big deal about it.”

This was a real ‘wow’ read for me.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo, Scribner 2020

Kim Jiyoung is the Korean every-woman. She’s named for the most popular girl’s name in that year. She is a normal girl with a normal family who follows the ‘normal’ path. Normal starts to unravel for her after having a baby when she briefly takes on the persona of other women in her life.

This book reads like a diary or catalogue. It lists, in a very understated way, the norms of Jiyoung’s life as a woman, especially a young one.

The preferential treatment of male siblings, classmates and colleagues made my blood boil. And the endemic misogyny in workplaces was a sobering reminder that things have only changed very recently and the fact that I tutted with recognition when I read it makes me wonder how much has actually changed.

Thank god this book was written and that a million copies have been bought breaking the code of ‘keeping quiet like a good girl’.

Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper, Hamish Hamilton, 2020

I stayed up late last night to finish this one. It was a real page turner for me and should replace ‘The Beach’ as the definitive backpacker book. I liked the premise of an Australian expat in India who scams tourists in a beach town who then gets himself in too deep. Worlds collide when he runs into an American woman looking for a spiritual experience and a way to move on with her life.  

Anyone who has done any travel, especially backpacking, through south-east Asia, will love the familiarity of it all. Overnight trains, touts and tea stalls, seekers and surfers are all brought to life in a familiar but sometimes uncomfortable light.

I didn’t know how or where this one was going to end – which is a great thing and I recommend it as a perfect summer read.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings, Picado, 2020

This was the last of my accidental gothic trio of books this month and is by the very talented Kathleen Jennings whose gorgeous and other-worldly cut-paper silhouettes deserve their own mention.

But I digress…Bettina lives in the quiet rural town of Runagate with her mum. Her brothers and father have disappeared and there are rumours about strange creatures that have been sighted nearby.

I have to confess, I was very tired when I read this and was kind of unmoored from the start. I was never clear on when and where we were exactly and what was going on. It was described as part folk tale, part mystery, so there’s an intention for the reader to be unsettled and uncertain. They sure were for me.

The love of a good woman by Alice Munro, Vintage 1998

I picked this up at a garage sale and I love finds like this because they seem to arrive so serendipitously. I’d just been thinking I needed another Alice Munro on my shelf. I only have Dear Life thus far.

Haven’t read a word of it yet but am always happy for the bedside bookstack to have a few anthologies when I’m between books or just want a little slice of something. I’m sure I’ll get some in over the summer break.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, Vermilion 2016

This tome of a thing is sitting at the bottom of my bookstack. Not at all the kind of book I usually get, I bought it because of the eloquent recommendation that Katherine Colette gave it on the First Time Podcast.

The subtitle is: the tactics, routine and habits of billionaires, icons and world-class performers. So, there’s obviously going to be some interesting stuff in there but how and when to find it?

I already have another couple of writing/business books sitting around unread. The problem is that I do most of my reading at night and this is a ‘work’ book, so when am I going to choose that over the pleasure of a narrative?

Being realistic, it’s only going to get opened if I put it in as part of my working day.

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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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Men’s mixed bag – 5 male short story writers to read

Rescue Reading for troubled times Part 4

A lot of us are feeling distracted and unable to concentrate at the moment. My Rescue Reading series has lists of suggested short works and collections. Previous posts have included 10 female Australian short story writers you should read and 20th Century female short story writers. This week it’s a mixed bag of male short story writers.

Of course, most people would start with Chandler or Cheever. But I’m going to start with Chekhov. 

Anton Chekhov – Lady with a Lap Dog and Other Stories, 1885-1899

Let’s start the list with a classic. What can you say about Chekhov? Doctor, writer, master observer. His characters feel as real now in their hopes, jealousies and betrayals as they were when he wrote them over a hundred years ago.

His ability to create comedy and tragedy within the same space is just one of the reasons his stories are worth reading. Apparently, after reading one of these stories, Gorky wrote to him that his own work seemed ‘coarse and written not with a pen but with a log.’ So, we’re all in agreement that he’s great at what he does!

Read, re-read and then read anything Francine Prose has to say about him in Reading like a writer and read them all again.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap – Sightseeing, Atlantic Books, 2004

It’s more than elephants, tourists and the sex industry. Some of these stories answer questions you may have had about what Thai locals think of the tourist influx to their islands and mainland. Others are universal in their subject but specific to Thailand in their setting. There’s a lot here about family and the bonds that bind them, both antagonistic and loving. Brothers growing apart, a father begrudgingly accepting his son’s help and a mother and son on holiday are just a few.

Junot Diaz – Drown, Faber and Faber 1996

These stories sling you straight into the jostle and vibe of Dominican communities from urban New Jersey to Santo Domingo barrios. They’re about family and friendship, love and territory, growing up and moving on.

Nothing flat or spare here. It’s all noise and colour and life. I promise that even the most distracted reader will be helpless to the pull of perpetual motion at work in these tales.

James Joyce – Dubliners, 1914

I’ve already mentioned in an earlier post that I attempted to read Ulysses and put it down in defeat. I’ve avoided Joyce since then. No need. This collection of short stories needs no more attention or concentration than any other on this list. It allows you a glimpse into what all the Joyce fuss is about. A few easy words and he’s created a character complete with their inadequacies.

There’s a lot about money and hardly anything about religion or politics. Make sure you’re warm when you read it, because it’s often wet and cold and no one has any money.

George Saunders – Pastoralia, Bloomsbury, 2000

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 the 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.

Some of these may be out of print or hard to find. You can find the closest library copy of a book, anywhere in the world (I know, amazing right?), through world cat.

I’ll be posting more suggested anthologies and collections for short reading. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen and Facebook or subscribe to my newsletter below for blog updates.  

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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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20th Century female short story writers you should read

Rescue Reading for troubled times Part 3

My Rescue Reading series is suggested short reads for people who want the bliss and escapism of words but can’t concentrate on anything beyond a few pages.

Rescue Reading Part 2 was 10 female Australian short story writers you should read.

Part 3 is a list of 20th Century female short stories writers. Some of them are pioneers of the form. All of them are interesting to read and if we read them enough, we might replace the tendency to think of the big-names of the genre as male.

Mavis Gallant – Collected Stories

Mavis Gallant is a Canadian writer. I went all in and have a giant doorstopper of collected works that I slowly worked through over a year. She spans such varied eras and landscapes but really settles in with post-war Europe.

My brief sentences don’t do her range and sympathies any justice, so I’ll let the eloquence of Francine Prose do the talking. “There’s a light voice on the surface that you can very easily slip beneath, and it’s so deep and where she’s going is so profound.”

Zora Neale Hurston – Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick

Zora Neale Hurston wrote from the 1920s. She was the only African American student at a New York university and during that time became part of the Harlem Renaissance. 8 of the stories here are ‘lost’ from that time.

She also worked as an anthropologist and the story is that she packed a pistol together with her notepads, so she sounds as feisty and no-nonsense as her female characters who take on race and relationships and try to even their odds. Some of the stories are written in a vernacular that adds a cadence to their narrative.

Lucia Berlin – A Manual for Cleaning Women

She’s a new addition to the canon of female short story writers. She wrote for years, but this collection, which was published a couple of years ago, has brought her to a wider audience. I’m one of those grateful recent readers.

Read. This. Collection. She has a vast range and is bold with style and brave with content. Could definitely be categorised as ‘before her time’ writing, among many other things, about single parenthood, addiction and the taboo of female desire and seduction.

Elizabeth Bowen – Collected Stories

I have a brick of a book that is her collected stories. They can feel almost genteel to read (she was born in Ireland and lived in England) but then you get to one like The Working Party where a hostess desperately tries to hide the dead body of one of her staff because it’s finally her turn to have the local ladies over for tea.

She liked to peek under the lid of all that etiquette and respectability. A lot of her stories are set in London during the Second World War.

Grace Paley – Collected Stories

Grace Paley is another feisty one. She was a writer, teacher and activist and that intensity and passion is there in her stories. She’s at home with the ordinary lives, loves and losses of the common people. Her stories span the 1950s to the 1980s, definitely interesting for the modern reader considering the eras of social change.

This is a current constant in my bedside bookstack and I work through it slowly one story at a time. Check out my earlier bookstack post for some of my favourite quotes.

Alice Munro

Does she sneak in as a 20th Century writer? She crosses into the 21st Century but I think she’s been so influential on the form that I’m including her on this list. She won a Nobel for her short stories for crying out loud!

What can I say about Alice Munro that hasn’t been said before? She’s been at it for years, charting our small lives in just-enough words. We skate along with the narrative of her economical prose and there it is all along, what lies beneath.

Lithub has put together a list of 25 of her stories that you can read online.

Katherine Mansfield – In a German Pension

Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealand writer and another one who straddles two centuries (this time 19th and 20th) – even more reason to include her because she was writing as a woman and across topics that weren’t usual for the time. Her writing has also influenced what we think of a modern short story, so take that Hemingway.

Her stories and characters sometimes feel like psychological studies where characters are so tightly wound that the smallest vibration will set everything off. Some people feel her stories read a bit cool or stilted. I think it’s always interesting to see what people have been doing with the form over time. In a German Pension is a good place to start, but probably has a lighter touch than her later work.

Dorothy Parker – Collected Stories

Dorothy Parker is famous for her wit and wisecracks. She was a staff writer at The New Yorker and no one was safe in her reviews and essays.

Her stories are clever but where a one-liner is a quick hit, these carry bruises and have a sadder tone. For all the new freedoms of the age, women were still at the mercy of the men around them; for money, acknowledgement, access to power. If you’re looking for a light read, don’t start here. This is an honest take on mental health in the jazz era.

Shirley Jackson – The Lottery and Other Stories

I’ll fess up that I haven’t read any of her collections. I’ve read her novels and I’ve read her still-gives-me-goosebumps short story The Lottery. It’s her most famous story and I won’t say much for fear of spoiling it.

Shirley Jackson is way ahead of her time. Everything should be normal in her stories but it’s all just a bit off. She leaves an eerie and haunted residue on her pages that is part unnerving and part thrilling. Read The Lottery at the very least. You can read it or hear A.M. Homes reading it for the New Yorker.

Do you love your 20th Century shorts? Let me know any other suggestions you have for collections by 20th Century female short story writers.

I’ll be posting more suggested anthologies and collections for short reading over the next few weeks. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen and Facebook or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

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Has anyone actually read the story of Peter Rabbit?

The enduring popularity of this children’s classic is a mystery to me.

Over a hundred years after Beatrix Potter wrote the story in 1902, Peter Rabbit is still bouncing around. Yes, he of the bibs, booties, baptism bowls and cutlery sets. He has a TV series and a movie, possibly two by now. According to, four Beatrix Potter books are sold every minute. For all the ubiquity though, I haven’t found many people who know the Peter plot.

You can probably find it on your bookshelf and definitely in the library but allow me… Peter’s Mum tells him and his sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, that they can play in the forest but definitely not Mr Macgregor’s garden. This is off-limits because Peter’s dad was caught there and baked into a pie. However, it’s full of carrots and radishes, so Peter leaves his sisters picking blackberries and heads off to the garden. He gorges himself on lettuce and radishes and has to eat some parsley to ease the ache of his gluttony.

Mr Macgregor sees him and there’s a bit of a chase. Peter loses his shoes and gets tangled in a net because of his buttons. He hides in a half-full watering can and the farmer gives up the chase. Peter jumps around a bit looking for a way out of the garden, sees a cat, then sees the gate and makes a dash for it out of there.

He heads home where his sisters, who did what their mother asked and gathered berries in the forest, get to eat bread, milk and blackberries for supper. Peter on the other hand doesn’t feel great and gets put to bed with a few teaspoons of chamomile. The End. Exactly. An odd little story. Maybe even a little low key for such a big hit. Reading it makes me realise how conditioned I am to the narrative of my time. My arc expectations are more rigid than I thought.

I am all for Beatrix Potter. A female author and illustrator in a time when that was as unusual as it was difficult. I’m just surprised at how such a plain little story became so popular and has turned into merchandise machine that it is today. I’m wondering if there’s a story underneath, like the DeBeers campaign for diamond rings. Is there a tale of a limited-edition christening set that put Peter on the shelves as competition for the Royal Doulton Bunnykins?

If you’ve read a few of the Beatrix Potter stories, then you’ll know that Peter Rabbit is only remarkable in the fact that it somehow became a hit. Have you read The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse?

Timmy Willie, a country mouse, accidentally falls into a hamper which is delivered to the city. When it arrives he gets out and freaks out. It’s noisy and busy and he gets chased by a cat. He runs into a hole in the wall where he meets Johnny Town-Mouse who is entertaining eight other gentleman mice.

The food doesn’t agree with Timmy Willie and neither does the lifestyle. He gets thin and sad and wants to go home and Johnny Town-Mouse says he could’ve gone home in the hamper last week. Timmy Willie hops in the next hamper and is happy to get back home. Nearly a year later Johnny Town-Mouse turns up for a visit. He doesn’t like it much and goes home the next day. The End.

Or perhaps you’re wondering what happens in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? Well, funny you should ask. The squirrels need to get across to the island where there are nuts to collect. Old Brown, the owl, lives on the island and the squirrels need his permission to be there. They arrive on the island and give him three dead mice.  At the same time Nutkin, a young squirrel, goes in front of Old Brown and does a dance and sings a cheeky song. Old Brown closes his eyes and goes to sleep while the squirrels start gathering nuts.

The next day they offer him a ‘fine fat vole’. This time Nutkin sings and dances and pokes Old Brown with a nettle. Old Brown picks up the vole and closes the door in Nutkin’s face. All the other squirrels go and gather nuts while Nutkin plays marbles on Old Brown’s porch. I know, totally provocative. This kid is jeopardising the winter stores of his species.

The next day they bring honey and Nutkin gets in old Brown’s face with another song. Old Brown eats all the honey and ignores Nutkin. Meanwhile the other squirrels go off collecting again and this time Nutkin mooches around on a rock playing skittles with pine cones.

On the final day, the squirrels bring an egg. This time Nutkin sings a song and then jumps onto Old Brown’s head! Ridiculous. If Old Brown isn’t going to do something about this him, then I will. Suddenly Nutkin is in Old Brown’s pocket. Old Brown picks him up by the tail but Nutkin ‘pulled so very hard that his tail broke in two’??!!!

He escapes and spends the rest of his days up a tree, stamping his feet and shouting ‘Cuck-cuck-cuck-curr-r-r-cuck-k-k!’.

So, there you go. You really can’t pick a hit. 

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.