What We’re Reading: March

Annie
All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells

This punchy science fiction novel is superbly well written and a thought-provoking look at both humanity and artificial intelligence. Narrated by a taciturn, self-aware AI creature, the self-dubbed ‘Murderbot’ has been deployed as a security robot for a team of scientists attempting to ascertain whether a new planet is suitable for commercial activity. When a rival mission ceases communication on the other side of the planet, the team take Murderbot to investigate. A story of corporate espionage and greed plays out as our aloof protagonist has to decide how much of itself to reveal to its human charges.  

Charmaine
A Universe Of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved

I have just finished reading Australian author Miriam Sved’s new book (available in April), A Universe Of Sufficient Size. This wonderful story moves between 1938 pre-war Hungary where 5 brilliant young, Jewish mathematics students have been expelled from University just prior to the devastation that is about to to be wrought, and 2007 in Sydney where one of these (Ildiko) now lives following her escape. One of the five, Pali Kalmar (a character loosely based on the great mathematician Paul Erdos), is visiting Sydney on a lecture tour and the 2 are about to meet for the first time in 70 years. Long buried secrets are revealed. This incredible story is loosely based on the true story of Sved’s grandparents.  I highly recommend that you read this book, it is excellent storytelling about brave and talented people. 

Kate
Transit by Rachel Cusk

I’m currently reading the second book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy. As in the first book, the narrator is a blurry character who mostly reflects other people’s lives. We rarely get much insight into who she is. In the first book she is running a writing workshop in Athens and we learn about the personal lives and struggles of the people she meets. In Transit, Cusk offers a little more insight into the character, Faye, yet we still learn about her mostly through the questions she asks other people.

In this book the character moves back to London with her two sons. She goes about buying a house and is advised by a friend to value location over building quality. She buys a dilapidated apartment in a block above a grumpy and menacing couple. She goes about making the apartment livable and settling back into London life. She has conversations with the homesick Polish builders and friends from former London days. She also runs into her ex-partner who still lives in the house they shared together many years earlier. These books are satisfyingly curious. Through the stable yet vague character of Faye, characters reveal details about their personal lives, desires and fears. Faye attempts to transform herself and her life but through brilliant insights and comic moments, struggles to meet the expectations she’s set up. 

Writers’ Week Reflections

What a wonderful Writers’ Week we had this year. We were gifted stimulating conversation and eventually some beautiful weather. The topics presented to us this year were challenging and fresh and were often the kind that needed some time to reflect on. We each made it to a few sessions and wanted to share our thoughts with you after some time to ruminate. We’re still stocking the Writers’ Week books so if you missed out on a title, we’re happy to help you find it.

Annie

As I have done for the past few years, I took a glorious week off to work at Writers’ Week as a driver. It means that I get to meet many of the authors and have hugely interesting conversations on the way to and from the airport, but don’t get to see many sessions in their entirety. The car air-conditioning was certainly welcome on some of those hot days though!

Communicating Complexity with Rose George and Carl Zimmer

One of the sessions I did get to was Rose George & Carl Zimmer talking about complexity. They are both science journalists and reflected on the current state of affairs in reporting complex issues in this world of post-truth, truthiness and fake news.

Both George and Zimmer lamented the rise of unregulated platforms like YouTube that can spread misinformation – for example, the millions of videos that support the idea that the Earth is flat. Neither author had a simple answer about how to change this dire situation, but agreed that journalists and the media must continue to provide clear, concise and engaging summaries of scientific and other complex information, as well as educating the public about how to evaluate truth in media. They also urged writers and communicators in specialized fields not to remain in isolation.

I have since read Rose George’s book Deep Sea and Foreign Going, which documents her time spent on an enormous container ship as she investigated how 90% of the things we use in everyday life are transported around the world. I think this is a great example of how to blend scientific reporting (on the marine environment, in this case) with the economic and political realities that seafarers face today.

We That Are Young with Preti Taneja

Another session I was lucky to catch was Preti Taneja talking about her debut novel We That Are Young. It is a modern-day King Lear, transposed (or translated, as Taneja put it) onto contemporary India through the voices of five young characters. Themes of division, identity, loyalty and family are immediate links between Shakespeare’s text and this novel, but Taneja has also taken much of the language of the original and adapted it into her setting. The resulting pastiche sounds incredibly rich, poetic and powerful. I am yet to read the novel but am fascinated by the blend of old and new that, from the passages read during the session, seems at once fresh and familiar.

Kate

Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre with Aunty Sue Blacklock and Lyndall Ryan

I’m embarrassed to say I’d never learned about the massacre Myall Creek before I came across this book in the lead up to Writers’ Week. If I had heard of it, I hadn’t learned about the scale and horrific details. In 1838 twenty-eight unarmed Indigenous Australians were brutally killed by eleven British colonists. Lyndall Ryan is an academic and historian and began the huge project of mapping the colonial frontier massacres in Australia. The Massacre Map details and approximates locations of massacres and provides sources of corroborating evidence. The map is an important step in acknowledging the extensive violence used against indigenous people in Australia’s history.

Her most recent book details the massacre at Myall Creek. This massacre was unusual in that eleven of the twelve assassins were arrested and brought to trial. Out of these eleven, seven were hanged. Lyndall was joined at the Writers’ Week conversation by Aunty Sue Blacklock, whose ancestors were murdered in the massacre. She spoke of her family history and the significance of growing up with this painful story. Aunty Sue was the leader of a committee who recently finished a memorial at Myall Creek. The conversation centred around the details of the trial and why it was one of the rare cases where the perpetrators were convicted but also the importance of remembering and acknowledging the extent of the violence that Australia’s First People experienced and ways toward reconciliation today. One of the most powerful moments of the conversation was when Aunty Sue said that in finishing the memorial she could feel her ancestors being set free. 

Too Much Lip with Melissa Lucashenko

This is one of the most energetic Writers’ Week conversations I’ve been to. Melissa Lucashenko is a Bundjalung writer and a born storyteller. It was a joy listening to her speak about her most recent book, Too Much Lip.

She started the session by reading a scene from an early chapter where Kerry, the main character, watches four waark (crows) eating roadkill before tearing off on her motorbike to visit her family after years of separation to say goodbye to her dying pop. Hearing Lucashenko’s voice and sound of the Bundjalung language gave the book such guts that I wanted her to keep reading. She spoke about wanting to convey the complexities and violence in the Salter family while keeping her characters nuanced. I was interested in hearing her speak of the importance that her characters have humour and moments of pleasure in order to paint a realistic but whole image of Indigenous characters, one that included sexiness and playfulness. I was already enjoying the book when I went to the session but afterwards I raced off to finish it.

Charmaine

Red Birds with Mohammed Hanif

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Writers’ Week and heard plenty of good discussion and got inspired to read some new authors.

I went to hear Mohamad Hanif talk about his life as a journalist and author on Sunday afternoon, and I liked his relaxed, easy and humorous style whilst at the same time he was talking about very serious issues in Pakistan. He talked about how long years of dictatorship and censorship has led to finding ways of speaking out by making fun of them.

Hanif is an author who uses satire to highlight these problems and in his most recent book — a dark comedy about human ugliness — Red Birds, he critiques US Foreign Policy, war and America’s role in the destruction of the Middle East. The book is set in a refugee camp and has 3 narrators — an American pilot who survives his plane crashing and ironically ends up in the camp that he was supposed to bomb, Momo who is a young  boy who has become a refugee businessman who finds and rescues the pilot and a Philosophical dog called Mutt. In this story Hanif asks some big questions. How can we have safe sheltered lives when half the world is getting bombed? What role have we had in ruining their homeland? Where do our lives and theirs co-exist? And do we have base urges for conflict/war?

What We’re Reading: February

Annie 
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. 

Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a little gem. It follows an academic as she mourns the loss of a dear friend and colleague, but her grief is complicated by the inheritance of his very large dog. As she forms a close bond with Apollo, the Great Dane, the narrator debates ideas around animal-human relationships, art, writing and philosophy. It is sharply written, witty and wry and will ring true to anyone who has lost someone close to them.


I’ve also recently had the chance to catch up on a hit from last year, Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, in which Haruki Murakami meets Elmore Leonard in a small town coming-of-age story. Dalton’s writing is “full florist”, enabling him to create beautifully deep characters in an unexpectedly dark mid-80s Queensland. Magic realist elements mix well alongside a good old fashioned Aussie yarn, with a cracking crime story at its heart.

Charmaine
Political Correctness Gone Mad?

Political Correctness Gone Mad? is ultimately a gripping little book, even though the title suggests otherwise. The ‘Munk Debates’ in Canada have led to a few of these, each a summary of a public debate that draws live audiences of several thousand, and millions more on Canadian and US public broadcasters. The books consist of individual conversations between the moderator and the speakers beforehand, the debate itself, then individual conversations afterwards. This fleshes out the contributions of the speakers, before during and after the theatre of the debate itself. The four speakers, Stephen Fry, Michelle Goldberg, Michael Eric Dyson and Jordan Peterson, each bring strong and very different perspectives to the topic, and any reader is likely to find their views wobbling a little as the debate progresses. The exact topic is ‘What you call political correctness I call progress.’

Kate
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

I’ve been reeling ever since I finished this beautiful biography by Audre Lorde, self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’. This is Lorde’s coming-of-age story — and what a life she had! She paints a picture of what it was like growing up black in 1950s Harlem. Her insight into the social and political climate of the time is so interesting and hers is a perspective I haven’t learned about before. Lorde’s mother was strict and her parents tried to protect her from racism by pretending it didn’t exist, leading to some confusing childhood lessons. She was a strong-headed child and determined to find her own way in the world. She writes poetically about discovering her sexuality and talent as a writer. Her approach to life is unique and refreshing. While she has fun with her misfit group of friends who support one another to be the women they want to be, she works at libraries, hospitals and factories, always becoming more herself and never giving in to societal pressures. The stories of her exclusion from work spaces and public life show the terrible structural racism of that time, which continues today. Her beautiful honesty about the women she loved was heartbreaking and exciting in its tenderness. I was totally wrapped up in her life and energy and didn’t want her to leave.

What We’re Reading: January

Annie 
The Fragments by Toni Jordan and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton 

My guilty pleasure reads are twisty crime novels, in the vein of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, and this month I’ve read two books that are as literary as they are criminal. 

The Fragments jumps between 1980s Brisbane and 1930s New York as Caddie, a bookseller, seeks to find out the truth of a literary mystery that has gone unsolved for 50 years. There’s all the elements of a good thriller: a lost manuscript, a mysterious fire and untrustworthy characters aplenty. But this is also a beautifully evoked portrait of Brisbane in the Bjelke-Petersen era, a time of corruption and corporate greed. A fabulous read for lovers of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos.

The winner of this year’s Costa award for debut fiction is The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and it is well-deserving of the praise being heaped upon it. It is a body-swapping, time travelling murder mystery in which our protagonist has eight days to solve a murder – waking up in a different body to watch the same day play out and try to unravel the secrets of Blackheath Hall. It’s a truly mind bending feat of plotting, but the likable narrator carries you through the twists and turns with aplomb. Fans of Cloud Atlas and Inception will love trying to figure out how this story ends (or begins … or ends? My head is still reeling).

Charmaine
The Odyssey by Emily Wilson

Last year I read a couple of novels that retold stories from the classics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Circe by Madeline Miller, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood and The Silence Of The Girls by Pat Barker. These were all magnificent and inspired me to read The Odyssey (for the first time). This was a timely choice as the first English translation by a woman was published in late 2017.

Emily Wilson is professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The translation is written in iambic pentameter verse in language that is highly readable. Odysseus’s story of war, travel, power, wealth, shipwrecks and magic is incredible, but I found the story of his wife Penelope intriguing, along with the Gods and Goddesses who add to the magic, drama and beauty of this epic story. If like me, you have not read this classic, I highly recommend Emily Wilson’s translation.

Kate
Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I saw Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a Q&A about free speech a few years ago. I intended to follow up and read her book but like many of these moments I forgot about it until recently. After reading Malala Yousafzai’s biography I wanted to continue reading about women working for the rights of women in Muslim countries and finally got around to seeking out Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel. What I found was an entirely different approach to Malala. Her story of resilience and strength is remarkable. Hirsi Ali shares stories about her youth in Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia – including some shocking moments of abuse. She writes about her escape from an arranged marriage to the Netherlands, where she fights for her freedom and voice. She gets in to university and begins working in politics, fighting for the rights of women in Islamic countries. 

In the context of her experiences, her opinions and politics are understandable – however, in the context of current attitudes toward Islam, her ideas are challenging. I raced through this book to find out what happens next in her harsh history. She writes clearly and from a passionate and personal perspective, which I greatly empathised with. Since finishing the book, I’ve been researching her ideas and the criticism surrounding her work and have discovered some interesting arguments on either side about such vocal criticism of Islam. I would also highly recommend the Q&A I was referring to. For those interested, there is also a critical review of Infidel by Lorraine Ali  where she writes “Hirsi Ali is more a hero among Islamophobes than Islamic women”. This review clarified some doubts I had about Hirsi Ali’s persuasive voice, however I still think this is important reading for a broad perspective on these ideas. 

Jess
Australian Dreamscapes by Claire Takacs

This book is a real treat both for garden lovers and lovers of nature and landscape photography. Claire artfully combines both aspects here with a series of intimate portraits of many wonderful Australian gardens and the gardeners and land owners who care for them. This book features gardens from all over the country, some coastal, some inland, some arid and all spectacular in their own way. Her interviews with the people who have created these fabulous landscapes add an extra dimension to the breathtaking photographs which you can happily lose yourself in during a quiet hour. For those with green thumbs the book also contains a handy photographic glossary of featured plants so that you can start creating your own dreamscapes asap.

Book Club Recommendations for 2019

For those lucky enough to be in a book club, we’ve got twelve recommendations that might have gone under the radar for your next year’s worth of reads.

FICTION
Happiness – Aminatta Forna
A novel of coincidental meetings and the unseen side of London
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
Charming historical fiction that paints a picture of Russia after the fall of the Czar
The Death of Noah Glass – Gail Jones
A beautiful and lyrical novel about grief and love, with a compelling mystery at its heart
Circe – Madeline Miller
This feminist retelling of The Odyssey pays homage to the original while breathing new life into the ancient myth
Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
A sprawling family story over several generations of a Korean Japanese migrant family
Normal People – Sally Rooney
Two young people orbit each other in this intimate and beautiful novel about class and power
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
A young married couple is ripped apart by injustice – will they find their way back together?

NON-FICTION
Eggshell Skull – Bri Lee
A gripping look at the justice system for victims of sexual abuse, from both sides of the courtroom
The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein
The biography of an incredible woman, working with society’s most vulnerable
Amateur – Thomas Page McBee
Page McBee analyses the complicated relationship between men and violence as he trains to fight in an amateur boxing match
Built – Roma Agrawal
Humans have sought to build higher and higher throughout history, but what advances have we had to make along the way to satiate our need for height?
The Feather Thief – Kirk Wallace Johnson
The invaluable theft of bird specimens from the British Natural History Museum is examined in compelling detail

What We’re Reading: December

Annie
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and Still Lives by Maria Hummel.

I’ve just read a couple of smart, edgy crime thrillers that don’t quite fit the mould but succeed nonetheless.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is a dark, inventive and blackly funny take on what it means to have a mass murderer in the family. Korede, a Nigerian nurse, is forever cleaning up her sister’s mess, but lately, that has extended to an unfortunate spate of dead boyfriends. When Ayoola’s attentions turn to the attractive doctor at Korede’s workplace, her loyalties will be split and her morals challenged. This is a novel take on the serial killer and explores deep-set family tensions with all the punchiness and zest of a Shane Black film.

Still Lives, by Maria Hummel, uncovers the seedy underside of the art world when an artist fails to arrive at her own opening. The new show happens to be about famous murder victims, as the artist paints herself into each scenario. But is this just another stunt, or something more sinister? A young gallery worker begins to dig deeper, at once entranced and repelled by the artist’s subjects and life. Hummel has previously written historical fiction and this is her first foray into crime, so it may displease some fans of the genre, but I loved the complex and gendered picture she painted (pun not intended, I promise) of the art market and women’s fascination with violent crime.

Robin
Just Add Glitter by Angela DiTerlizzi, illustrated by Samantha Cotterill and Little Brothers & Little Sisters by Monica Arnaldo.


This month I’d like to recommend two lovely new picture books. Just Add Glitter has exploded onto the shelves, bursting with energy and guaranteed to delight any child (or adult) with a penchant for all things spangled and sparkly. Angela DiTerlizzi’s exuberant rhyming text follows a little girl who receives a mysterious package of glitter in the mail, and proceeds to joyfully bedazzle everything in sight. But can there ever be such a thing as TOO MUCH GLITTER? We shall see! Samantha Cotterill’s unique illustrations combine line drawing, 3D collage, photography – and LOTS of glitter – to create a playful wonderland of shimmering splendour. This is a perfect book to read aloud and enjoy together.

Much more down-to-earth, but no less charming, is Little Brothers & Little Sisters by Monica Arnaldo. Her understated text and detailed, animated illustrations combine to catalogue the frustrations and joys of sibling life. This is a warm and well-observed picture book to snuggle up and share.

Charmaine
Becoming by Michelle Obama

I devoured Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, in a week. I am an admirer of hers and this book confirmed my thoughts that here is a woman who is passionate about using her influence to improve the lives of children globally. The book is an easy and insightful read into her life — from very ordinary beginnings through to an extraordinary life as First Lady. Throughout the book she remains grounded, with a few reminders from her mother without whom she could not have done her job. This is a great holiday read and the perfect present for your loved ones.

Kate
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

I have heard all about Malala Yousafzai in the media and watched videos of her speaking, but reading her biography offers intimate insight into her incredible, and terrible, experiences. Reading about her picturesque childhood in the Swat Valley in Pakistan gives a new perspective on the sudden terror imposed by the Taliban. Her bravery is unbelievable as she stands up for girls right to go to school, writing of her experiences at such a young age for the BBC and having her life threatened when she was shot by the Taliban when she was just 15. While many expected she would die, it is astounding to hear about how she instead became a Messenger of Peace for the UN and the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She writes with clarity and with a charged but humble voice, sharing personal stories that are a pleasure, and privilege, to read. I am in awe of Malala’s strength and integrity and her book is a reminder of the potential people have to create change in the world.

Jess
The Mystery of Three Quarters: The new Hercule Poirot mystery by Sophie Hannah

From the outset of this story you are hooked simply because the within the opening few pages such odd things happen. You follow Hercule’s trail through the eyes of his friend and fellow detective Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard as Catchpool and Poirot try to work out what is actually happening. Hercule has been falsely accused of accusing three other people that they committed a murder – a murder which nobody seems to be sure ever actually took place! As the detectives dive deeper into the lives of Poirot’s accusers it becomes clear that every one of them have secrets to hide, but do those secrets include something so dark as murder? I thoroughly enjoyed following this story through its twists and turns. Engaging, intriguing and easy to read, choose this book if you love a good mystery and love the at times laugh out loud eccentricities of the one and only Hercule Poirot.

What We’re Reading: November

Annie
Wundersmith by Jessica Townsend and The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius.

In Wundersmith, we return to the world of Nevermoor with our intrepid hero, Morrigan Crow, as she begins her first year at the magical academy, WunSoc. But everything is not as it seems and Mog’s loyalty and bravery will be tested. I think this second instalment in the instant classic series is even better than the first – without the need to introduce the world, Townsend has more time to develop her characters and plot. I giggled with delight at her magical inventions, shivered with fear at the action sequences and am so excited to urge this upon readers young and old. 

The Murderer’s Ape was released before Christmas last year in hardback, but I’ve just gotten around to reading the new paperback edition. Full of gorgeous illustrations, this is a noir crime thriller set in early 20th century Portugal and India. Sally Jones is a sensitive and intelligent ship’s mechanic, who also happens to be a gorilla. When her captain is wrongly arrested for murder, she sets out to try to clear his name. A fun romp for anyone aged 10 and up.

Robyn
The Afterwards by A.F. Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett

The Afterwards is a compelling, thoughtful and dark new illustrated novel, for confident young readers. Dealing with loss and grief, with an inventive vision for the afterlife, A.F. Harrold’s story is ambitious and imaginative. Emily Gravett’s illustrations are the perfect accompaniment: very gloomy, but in a friendly way. Fair warning: this book is deeply sad, and sometimes genuinely scary. But it’s also exciting and original, and has an immense amount of heart. Those eager readers from 8 to 12 years of age who can handle heavier themes will find plenty to enjoy, and to think about.

Charmaine
Not reading by e-reader

This is a comment about how I am reading, not what I have read. I downloaded Anna Burn’s Milkman (this years Man Booker winner) while I was travelling on my bicycle recently. But I didn’t read it – I found I did less reading on this holiday because I didn’t have actual books with me. So I started reading it last week and whilst I am loving the style of writing and the content, I have now decided to get a hard copy and read it. I wonder what your experiences are with e-reading because I really don’t like it. For me when I read, I am looking for an experience of relaxed luxury and immersion and I just can’t get this on an e-reader. When I hold a book, smell the book, turn the pages, see the words on paper, admire the cover – all in my comfy chair or in bed in the evening – I am having a special experience. One that I relish daily and look forward to. I would be very interested to hear your experiences of reading. Next month I will tell you what I thought of Milkman.

Kate
Milkman by Anna Burns

I’m luxuriating in Anna Burns incredible experimental form in Milkman. Set in the Troubles in Ireland in the 1970s, Milkman unfolds in an unnamed town where the narrator is strategically fighting off creepy advancements from a much older man. I’m learning a lot about Irish history and the social climate of this period of time. The narrator is a smart, witty eighteen year old who offers nuanced insight into insidious social control and surveillance. This is a book about a particular time but the pervasive control of women is something still so relevant. I’m loving the writing and empathise so deeply with the narrator. I am yet to finish it and am waiting on the edge of my seat to find out what happens to such a memorable character.

Mostly Books turns 41!

On Thursday, November 8, we threw ourselves a birthday party to commemorate 41 years of business. We were joined by more than 70 loyal customers, trade representatives and past and present staff to share a toast to independent bookselling. Surviving for over 40 years in any industry is an achievement and we are proud to remain Adelaide’s oldest independent bookshop. Thank you to all those who attended, as well as the maker of our beautiful cake Mim Gollan of Four Seeds – it was the star of the show!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local author and long-time customer, Carol Lefevre, was kind enough to say a few words to mark the occasion and we have included the full text of her speech below.

Carol Lefevre’s birthday speech

In a time when things can change in a flash, it is wonderful to think that Mostly Books has endured in our midst for forty-one years, and this through one of the most volatile periods in the history of publishing and book selling.

The business was founded in 1977 by Jacqueline Cookes, and bought by the current owner, Charmaine Power, in 2008, the same year I moved to Unley.

But that year, as well as Mostly Books, there was a book shop in Unley Shopping Centre. And later there was a second hand bookshop on the corner of Arthur Street and Unley Road. Going further back, when I returned to live in Adelaide at the start of 2005 there were many more books shops in the city – Borders, Angus and Robertson, Mary Martin’s in Rundle Street. You probably know of others.

Slowly but surely, with the rise of the internet, eBooks, and massive online stores like Amazon, these lovely stores closed their doors. Technology can do this, promise to lead us towards the light, and we are swept along. But at some point we look back, and that’s when we see that familiar lights have gone out, that the places we knew have gone dark. For a while it seemed inevitable that we would lose all our book shops, and I remember feeling very gloomy for the future of paper books around that time.

There is a quote I often return to by the English writer and critic G.K. Chesterton.

The way to love anything is to realise that it might be lost.

While I have never needed to be reminded to love books, that quote does make me think about the things that gradually slip away – because we’re busy, we’re tired, we’re stressed – and a little while ago I started to make a list of the things that have vanished in my own life time, everything from milk bottles and milkmen, to dip pens, blotters, cursive handwriting, typewriters, vinyl records, steam trains, outside bathrooms and dunnys (no real loss, you might say). But the suburban delis that were once on so many street corners – I really miss those. Then, one and two cent coins, dollar notes, petrol stations where someone pumps the petrol and checks under the bonnet, reel to reel tape recorders, cassette tapes, sixpences, bonfire night, with skyrockets and sparklers, slide evenings, department stores with lift attendants who recite the contents of each floor, and so much more.

And then there is the endangered list – public telephone boxes, suburban letterboxes, handwritten letters, possibly even the entire postal system, including stationery and beautiful stamps, postmen, and the joy of finding a personal letter in the letterbox.

I read recently a list of endangered, or at least fast-declining professions, and these included things like photographic processors, and travel agents. Libraries, too have been struggling in many places.

Buddhist philosophy teaches that the way to face change and impermanence is by developing non-attachment. But while I have successfully achieved detachment towards milk bottles and vinyl records, and even to the extraordinary sight of an ice-man sprinting up the drive to deliver a block of ice for our old wooden cooling chest (and that was a very long time ago) I will struggle long to relinquish the joy of receiving a handwritten letter, or of being able to browse in a real bookshop.

For like letters, books put us into an intimate conversation with the writer, and this conversation can extend across time and space, so that I can pick up the diaries of Virginia Woolf and hear her speak to me, as sharp, as engaging, as fully alive, as the morning or evening  she sat down to write.

Just as the whole of a letter is greater than the words on paper, a book is more than the sum of its materials, and carries a meaning that springs from the heart of the writer. Once you accept that books are a special way of speaking, the next thing to consider is what will be lost if they should ever entirely disappear.

I remember a night when there was a great storm here in Adelaide and the trees in the street thrashed wildly until, inevitably, the electricity went off. With all the usual distractions suddenly unavailable, we lit candles and gathered together in one room, and we read aloud to pass the time. The children still remember what a great night it was, and for a long time afterwards I considered organising simulated blackouts, so that we could do it all over again.

Bookshops have always been a particular source of hope and inspiration for writers. Sometimes I pop in to Mostly Books to see what’s fresh off the press, to check on what other writers have been beavering away at while I have been busy with my own work. Sometimes I come to order a book, at other times I am hoping to stumble across something I haven’t heard of yet but that I will read and absolutely love. If I am struggling with my own writing I sometimes need to come in and visualise where my own book will be shelved when it’s finished, and this sends me back to my work with greater determination and purpose.

A long time ago now, I moved to an island that only one book shop, and I didn’t discover this until I had arrived. It was small, not very well stocked, and situated at the opposite end of the island to where I lived, so each visit required an expedition.

The island’s libraries weren’t well stocked either, and for a long time I suffered for a lack of books. Eventually, a branch of the book chain Ottakers opened: two floors of books and a coffee shop! I wept for joy the first time I went in!  I was a beginning writer then, and in my lunch hours I would walk to Ottakers to work my way along a shelf reading all the first lines, all the first paragraphs, or all the first pages. I bought many books there, but I also used the shop a bit like a library, and the staff never complained. Because that’s another thing about book shops – the people who are drawn to work in them are usually extra special human beings.

And so it is with Mostly Books, and I’m incredibly happy to be still sourcing my books here ten years after first crossing the threshold. My own books have been on the shelves. My latest book The Happiness Glass is on the New Releases table now, which is a special joy.  I hope Mostly Books continues to flourish, and I know that it will, as long as we readers continue to choose and read real paper books sold to us by really lovely, knowledgeable book sellers.

So Happy Birthday Mostly Books! And thank you.

What We’re Reading: October

Annie
The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright and In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

I’ve been reading a couple of books that examine the idea of home and the role that the spaces that we inhabit play in our lives.

Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole is a series of essays that continues on, loosely, from her 2015 collection Small Acts of Disappearance. She has been struggling with mental ill health and disordered eating for many years, but this book posits that struggle more structurally. Issues of housing, inconsistent or unreliable work, racism and other tensions of contemporary Australia contribute to her feelings of dissociation and dislocation. Wright is a poet and academic, and these voices shine through, but the book as a whole is a triumph of cultural commentary and vulnerable memoir.

Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance is a Pulitzer-nominated historical novel set in mid-1800s America. The main character, Håkan, emigrates from Sweden with his brother but they almost immediately become separated. He decides to walk across America to find his lost sibling in New York, meeting many strange characters along the way. The book is atmospheric and unnerving, with the unfamiliar landscape and language dominating all of Håkan’s observances.

Charmaine
Unsheltered
 by Barbara Kingsolver

 I have just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Unsheltered, due for release this week – I read it in 3 days – fabulous writing, a wonderful cast of characters and a range of relevant issues. Basically the chapters alternate between a house and those it shelters in the 19th century, and a house and its occupants on the same land in the 21st century. In both cases the house is crumbling and unlikely to continue to provide shelter for its inhabitants. Of course this a metaphor for events in the lives of those who dwell within. Thatcher Greenwood, his young wife, her sister and his mother-in-law all live in the house during Charles Darwin’s time. Thatcher is a teacher of science, a believer in the theory of evolution but finds it difficult to hold his position in a school where the Christian principal insists on interfering with his teaching.

Here Kingsolver bases her story around a real person – Mary Treat who was a Naturalist and who had correspondence with Charles Darwin. Thatcher finds a friend in this passionate nature studier and as his house and relationship is collapsing, he and Mary find strength in their friendship. The concerns of those living in the house in current times include broader political issues of the American economy – loss of jobs, the rise of Trump (although his name is not mentioned), impacts on mental health (there has been a suicide in the family), caring for older parents and maintaining a roof over the family’s head. At the centre of this story are Willa and Iano Tavoularis, their 2 adult children, a baby without a mother and Iano’s sick and dependent father. This all makes for such a wonderful read, the dual narrative works well and the resolution for each and every character is realistic and satisfying.
Kate
Outline by Rachel Cusk and The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc

I’ve recently read the first book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. The first book offers musings on human nature through ten chapters, each one a different conversation. The narrator is a writer from London who is running a workshop in Athens. We don’t learn much about her except from her observations of other people. Through their conversations people divulge concerns about their partners, careers, children and thoughts on art. This is a quiet book and there is something curiously satisfying about these beautifully observed little snippets of people’s lives. Heidi Julavits in The New York Times wrote reading ‘Outline’ mimics the sensation of being underwater, of being separated from other people by a substance denser than air. 

I’m also part way through another quiet book by a French author I’ve never heard of before, Violette Leduc. Written in 1965, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is a portrait of a lonely woman in Paris. The character is in her 60’s and lives in a little attic in Paris. She counts her coffee beans every morning and wanders the city, alone and hungry, observing the people around her with a curious playfulness. One day she wakes with the desire to taste an orange but when she goes searching in rubbish bins for one, it is not an orange she finds but a discarded fox fur scarf. This discovery is a salvation and propels her further into her imaginative life. This book is only ninety or so pages but I’ve been reading it for almost a week, marvelling at the characters observations and moments of joy in an otherwise bleak existence.

What We’re Reading: September

Annie
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott and Unthinkable by Helen Thomson

This month I’ve read two books about science and the brain’s influence on our actions and perception of the world.

Give Me Your Hand is a taut, atmospheric thriller set in a lab which is studying PMDD (an extreme form of PMS). Kit, the only female grad student in the lab, is set reeling after a dark stranger from her past joins the team. This is an intelligent, well-written book that examines politics in science while keeping you on the edge of your seat.

In Unthinkable, Helen Thomson travels the world to meet some of the people behind the unusual brains she has read about for so long in scientific journals. She talks to them about what it’s like to live with their different perceptions and experiences – which to them are the only normal they’ve ever known. A great mix of scientific research and compassionate journalism, Thomson takes us inside the heads of nine fascinating people.

Robin
Blue Horses; A Thousand Mornings; and Felicity
 by Mary Oliver

I had never heard of the American poet Mary Oliver until Blue Horses, a slim volume of her work, arrived at our shop. The very first poem that I read took my breath away. Oliver’s poems are direct and vulnerable, casually profound, like chatting with an old friend who just “gets it”. One moment, you’re lazily shooting the breeze, trading gossip and jokes. The next, your friend says something that hits you in the chest with its warmth and insight, and the spinning cogs of your mind pause to let the precious words land. Perhaps you feel tender and exposed, with an ache that is both pain and joy at once. Two more volumes of Oliver’s poetry – A Thousand Mornings and Felicity – have since arrived in the shop and similarly bowled me over. I imagine I’ll be evangelically quoting and recommending her work for years to come.

Jess
The Animal Kingdom by Randal Ford

This is a book to pore over selfishly and unapologetically, with no regard for time whatsoever! I know it’s said that you should never judge a book by its cover… but for this book I make an exception. Schika the beautiful tigress whose portrait features on the front cover is only the beginning of the wondrous and breathtakingly beautiful photographs to be found within its pages. Each image is so exquisite in its detail that you could lose yourself in it happily for days (definitely not an exaggeration). The care and love that has been taken to put together this collection is evident on every page. There is also a fantastic section at the end of the book where you can read more about each animal themselves and get to know a little of their story, as well as the artist Randal Ford’s recollections of the sitting. If you are at all an animal lover, a nature lover or simply someone who enjoys the art of photography itself, then do your eyes a favour and ask us for this book.