Category Archives: Reviews

What We’re Reading: July

Annie
A Song Only I Can Hear by Barry Jonsberg

I seem to have been reading lots of middle grade books lately, and by far the best has been Barry Jonsberg’s A Song Only I Can Hear. It’s the story of Rob, who has fallen in love for the first time and is trying to find out what he can do about it – short of actually talking to her or asking her out, of course. When he starts receiving anonymous text messages, he has to decide whether to take up the challenges within. I laughed all the way through this book, and was openly weeping (on a plane, no less!) by the end. This is the perfect book for anyone who enjoyed Wonder, whether you’re young or not.

Charmaine
Less by Sean Greer

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year was Less by Andrew Sean Greer. The central character, Arthur Less, is an author of some success and when he gets the news that a past love is to be married he decides he can’t possibly attend and leaves town. He accepts every invite, mostly to obscure literary events. And so he embarks on a mid-life coming of age trip. This book is laugh out loud funny, Arthur Less is a hapless but ultimately likeable person. But this is actually a beautiful love story – thoroughly enjoyable, great writing.

Kate
Nochita by Dia Felix

This is one of those books that I’ve had on my shelf for a few years and came upon it at exactly the right time. Nochita is the intelligent and free-thinking child of a successful new-age guru with a cult following. Nochita observes this adult world with witty skepticism but her outlook on life draws on her mother’s teachings. Nochita’s life takes a tragic turn and she has no other choice but to live with her father and his partner where she is unwanted and forced to sleep in a shed. More tragedy follows, which Nochita takes in her stride. She then tackles life on her own in the best way she can with a fierce independence and endearing strength and kindness. This is a coming-of-age story as Nochita drifts through life, looking after her self and others as she lives in squats, experiments with drugs, makes connections with unlikely people and discovers her sexuality. Written in very short chapters, this is a joy to read. Nochita is a unique and charming character and I’ve loved learning from her musings and resilience.

Robin
Sweet Adversity by Sheryl Gwyther

Sweet Adversity is a rollicking middle-grade historical adventure, hot off the presses from Brisbane author Sheryl Gwyther. The daughter of travelling actors, Adversity herself (known as Addie) is a sparklingly likable character: gutsy and generous,sensitive yet determined, with the voice of an angel and a mischievous cockatiel for her best friend. Gwyther weaves a rich tale of daring escape through country Australia in the Great Depression, and is not afraid to give middle-grade readers snatches of Shakespeare, and other evocative and well-chosen vocabulary-boosters. I loved this book and will be recommending it for eager young readers from 7 – 11 years old.

What We’re Reading: June

Annie
Built by Roma Agrawal and Happiness by Aminatta Forna

I have read two books this month that have made me think about big cities and specifically London.

Roma Agrawal, one of the engineers behind The Shard, has written a book called Built. Engineering-lite for the complete novice, Agrawal takes complex concepts and reduces them to simple analogies (often involving rubber bands). Her love of built structures shines through, showing human history in a different light. The tone is humorous and includes just enough personal anecdotes to give a sense of the author. I learnt a lot and am examining buildings around me now for their structural qualities.

The other book, by Aminatta Forna, gave me an insight into the social and natural environment of contemporary Britain. Happiness is a sprawling, humbling tale of people who find themselves in London over the same two week period, each of whom manages to heal the others in ways they may never know. These people form the best kind of community even though (or perhaps because) none of them are what Leave voters might consider ‘Brits’. They show resilience, fortitude, grace and, above all else, love towards their fellow creatures. It was a pure joy to read, like a contemporary, multicultural Mrs Dalloway.

Jess
The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod

I’ve recently been taking a look through The Miracle Morning: The 6 Habits That Will Transform Your Life Before 8AM by Hal Elrod in which he outlines six habits which, when completed daily (preferably in the morning) can help you to achieve more productivity and motivation during the rest of your day, resulting in a greater capacity to achieve goals in all areas of your life. Although I’m definitely not a morning person, on the days where I’ve managed to take time out for myself and follow his program I did notice an improvement in mental clarity.

This book is a good instruction manual for helping yourself to find a way to take back that vital time, which so many of us are missing out on these days, where we can simply be alone with ourselves in our own head. Hal reminds us that looking inwards instead of outwards at times can be more effective at helping us to see where we need to go.

Charmaine
Kudos by Rachel Cusk

I have just finished reading Kudos, the final book in Rachel Cusk’s fictional trilogy. Beginning with Outline and then Transit I have found Cusk’s writing a very different way to write fiction and I urge you all to read her. Basically, the central character Faye is an author who is travelling to book festivals or to teach in Europe. As she travels, she has extraordinary conversations with those she meets — on the plane, at the cafe, at events. Each conversation reveals deeply provocative insights into family, culture, politics from philosophical and moral/ethical perspectives. Keep post-it notes nearby because you will want to note the many incredible insights that you will want to think about and discuss with others. I wanted to re-read each book as soon as I finished.

Kate
Afterglow by Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles is a genius! They (Myles’ preferred pronoun) started as a poet and performance artist in New York City and is now a professor in San Diego and is referred to as a “queer feminist literary icon”. I first started reading Myles’ poetry, then fiction and more recently, their essays. Their work gets to the core of feeling through an almost crude honesty that captures experience in a way that I haven’t come across in such a unique way before. This is a memoir about their relationship with their dog, Rosie, who is experimentally referred to as god. This might be a memoir about an owner/dog relationship, but is also a work of auto-fiction that creates a category of its own. It begins as an elegy for a lost pet but moves into a restless philosophical investigation into love, life, death, the Buddhist concept of the bardo. From foam to plaid to alcoholism, Rosie links Myles’ subjects together.

What We’re Reading: May

Annie
A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

Funny, inventive and reflective, A Line Made by Walking is the story of a young artist’s gradual return to the world following a period of mental ill-health. Managing to combine a book about art, fragility and hope with the changing of the seasons, Baume uses language like a finely tuned instrument.

I’ve also been at Sydney Writers’ Festival this week, and have seen fascinating conversations with people such as Eliza Robertson (Demi-Gods), Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) and Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach). It is always incredible to me how articulate, intelligent and considered writers at the height of their powers can be. And of course I’ve come home with several additions to my to read pile!

Robin
All’s Faire in Middle School – Victoria Jamieson

I was a huge fan of Victoria Jamieson’s debut graphic novel Roller Girl, so when my friend told me that Jamieson’s second book was even better, I was skeptical to say the least. How could any book that wasn’t about roller skating possibly measure up!? But All’s Faire in Middle School delivers even more comedy, complexity and warmth than its predecessor – not to mention substantially more medieval insults. Imogene, a funny and spirited girl raised in the tight-knit, eccentric Renaissance Faire community, decides to leave home-schooling behind and attend public school for the first time… but gets more than she’s bargained for, with schoolyard dramas as fierce and forbidding as any dragon. An excellent read for older kids, light-hearted teens, or anyone who enjoys great graphic novels, All’s Faire is a sort of tween-aged Mean Girls … with sword-fighting.

Charmaine
Circe by Madeline Miller

This week I have been utterly captivated by Madeline Miller’s new book, Circe. This is a contemporary re-telling of the Odyssey with Circe as the central character. And if, like me you have not read the Odyssey, Circe was the first witch in Western literature. She is an extraordinary woman; banished from her family to a remote and hostile island, Circe uses her powers with plants to turn visiting, predatory sailors into pigs and to protect herself and eventually her son from other Gods and mortals. Miller’s writing is sumptuous, dangerous and sometimes terrifying. She creates a world that is visceral, powerful, captivating and compelling. I have cherished every minute I have spent there.

So now I must read the Odyssey! In 2017 Emily Wilson completed the first translation by a woman – yesterday I ordered myself a copy.

Kate
The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy (Hot Milk and Swimming Home) is one of my favourite authors, so when her new book came out, I dropped everything else to read it. The Cost of Living is the second book in a three-part autobiographical series, following on from Things I Don’t Want to Know. Levy recalls the part of her life where everything seems to fall apart. As she tries to find a new way to live, she faces the pressures of social convention, the complexity of mother daughter relationships and the expectations of women. She thinks beautifully about her compulsion to write and tackles her experiences with compassionate honesty and humour. It was such a joy to read this little book that I know it won’t be long before I pick it up again.

What We’re Reading: April

Annie
The Miniaturist  by Jessie Burton and The Hoarder by Jess Kidd

I’ve just finished two books about creepy houses full of mysteries and sadness. The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, is set in Amsterdam in the 17th century and follows a country girl as she settles into life with her new husband. Largely absent from their house (and her bed), Nella must strive to form relationships with his controlling sister and their two unusually outspoken servants. When she is gifted a miniature replica of their house, she seeks to express herself through the objects with which she fills it, but quickly finds that someone is keeping a close eye on the family.

The Hoarder is a contemporary novel by Jess Kidd, but is also preoccupied with the secrets that old houses can hold. Maud is a care worker who has been sent to look after the Irish giant (and titular hoarder) Cathal Flood. Populated with spirits, saints and a whole lot of cats, Maud soon finds that the house hides the key to the untimely demise of at least one woman. Cheered on by an agoraphobic trans-woman, she starts to investigate, all the while being plagued by reminders of a disappearance in her own past. It is delightfully Irish and a rollicking tale of murder and family secrets.

Robin
Sal by Mick Kitson

Mick Kitson’s debut novel Sal had me hooked from the first page, with a story just as punchy and direct as its title. Resourceful, brave and literally pitted against the elements, teenage Sal is both a survivor and an outlaw, whose fierce and protective love for her younger sister has jettisoned them both out of a life of abuse and neglect – and into the altogether different dangers of the Scottish mountain wilderness. A compact constellation of just four characters – all female – Sal is such a warm, nuanced and resonant story about women that it had me checking and double-checking that it was really written by a man. A propulsive and very moving read.

Charmaine
Bark by Lorrie Moore

I went looking for some excellent writing that would nourish my longing to be provoked into deep thought about what constitutes good writing and at the same time provides subtle, fresh and maybe even humorous insights into our lives and our interactions with each other. I found Lorrie Moore’s 2014 Bark, on my shelves. I don’t recall reading it back then, so I began this treasure of eight short stories. The stories are about the unpredictable connections that people make and are often darkly amusing. But I had made the right choice, after each story I came away with that wonderful, satisfying joy that excellent writing can bring.

Kate
Hunger by Roxane Gay

Hunger is Roxane Gay’s memoir about being fat (her favoured word). It is difficult to read, as I imagine it must have been for her to write. The form seems to reflect her repetitive inner dialogue and anxieties about constantly attempting to take up less space.Hunger is an attempt to consider the complexities of fat, as a larger issue than a physical problem that can be dieted away. Gay considers the argument that fat is a feminist issue and sometimes feels as if she should be a campaigner for fat-positivity but is honest about how she really feels and urges us to rethink what fatness can mean.

The difficulty of reading the book does not lie in her descriptions of living in a body that is viewed as problematic but recollections of her childhood trauma that instigated her attempts to turn her body into a safe fortress to protect and hide herself from others. She tells the story of her childhood, adolescence and emergence into adulthood as she restlessly travels between cities, jobs and relationships trying to make sense of her experiences and accept herself as she is. Although it is a challenging read at times, it is also a pleasure, with her charismatic humour and admirable spirit: “I am stronger than I am broken”.

What We’re Reading: March

Annie
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of stories Her Body and Other Parties considers all the ways women’s bodies are used and abused in our society. It is absurd, scary, sexy and even, at times, darkly funny. The stories play with form and subvert familiar tropes, making the collection feel very contemporary and a bit risky. I’ve also been reading two books that chime with Machado’s book: Hunger by Roxane Gay and Apple and Knife by Intan Paramaditha. Both have a huge preoccupation with the body, and Paramaditha’s story collection also injects feminism into familiar fairy tales. All three women seem to be expressing their desire to be seen as more than their bodies, to escape from the capitalist and all-consuming corporeal world.

Robin
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

This month I’ve had the pleasure of returning to Philip Pullman’s much-loved alternate Britain of daemons, Dust and existential daring. The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage is a prequel, of sorts, to His Dark Materials – and like that trilogy, it revolves around a curious and independent-minded child, who becomes embroiled in decidedly grown-up clashes of faith, science, power and morality. La Belle Sauvage‘s Malcolm, however, is a far more careful and sensitive protagonist than the raucously half-wild Lyra of His Dark Materials, and this gives the book a more restrained quality – all subtlety and intrigue, keen observation and mounting menace. It’s a must-read for fans of the first series, and sure to win over many more.

Jess
RHS Genealogy for Gardeners by Simon Maughan

At the moment I’ve been looking through the Royal Horticultural Society’s book RHS Genealogy for Gardeners: Plant Families Explained and Explored. It’s a fascinating book with beautiful painted illustrations which traces the history and diversity of flora right back to its early origins. Imagine an animal encyclopaedia but for plants and you’ll be on the right track. You can discover where different plant families originate geographically, what their fruits and leaves look like, whether they have any interesting/useful properties and what the current state of their wild populations are in their natural habitats. I’ve found it very enjoyable to pick and a browse through with a cup of tea in hand, it always results in fresh garden inspiration running through my head!

Kate
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood is an American writer and poet who, for financial reasons, moves back into her family home with her partner. Her father is a priest and her mother is a complex character who is very religious, erratic and worried about the dangers of the world. Lockwood recounts moments from her childhood and her relationship to her parents now through loud-out-loud funny recollections. So far the humour has been a dominant part of the memoir but she has also touched on some serious topics such as abuse of power in the church. I hope and think more serious moments are approaching as she gets deeper into her family’s psyche but for now I am cherishing her talent to be so funny and empathetic.

Charmaine
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Well the author that had me running to the Writers’ Week bookshop was Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. The Fact Of A Body is compelling and difficult reading. Two stories are told – the one about the murder of a little boy about 20 years prior, that the author was asked to research as a young law intern. The second about her own childhood secrets that unexpectedly emerged during her research. Her interview was astoundingly honest and left us all deeply thoughtful and sure that we had just heard some difficult truths that are rarely spoken publicly. I spoke to several people afterwards, all similarly off to get a copy.

What We’re Reading February

Annie
Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills


My Writers’ Week picks are Rachel Khong, Patricia Lockwood and Sarah Sentilles. I’ve also just finished reading Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia, which is a meditation on climate change, the media and the effect of boom and bust economics on small towns. Clapstone is a failed mining town, whose fortunes are reversed for a short time with the arrival of Big Asphalt. However, a young girl in the town foresees a dire future for the town, and when her premonitions start to come true, the townspeople don’t know whether to brand her as a witch or seek her help. Poetic and sweeping, Mills shines a stark light on Australia’s abusive relationship with the land we live on.

Charmaine
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I cannot wait to see Kamila Shamsie next month at Adelaide Writers’ Week. Her latest book Home Fire, longlisted for the Man Booker in 2017, is in my top 5 reads in the past year. It is a gripping story of 3 siblings in contemporary London, who are Muslim and whose father was a terrorist but was killed en route to Guantanamo. What happens when his son is convinced to avenge his father’s death, a daughter falls in love with the son of the British Home Secretary (also Muslim) and the other daughter takes off to follow her dream to study in America? The story is powerful and devastating with an ending I am still getting my breath back from. We had the best book club discussion ever about this one.

Ben
Lost Connections by Johann Hari

Swiss-British writer and journalist Johann Hari’s first book, Chasing the Scream, was a revelation, offering what were, for me, mind-changing new insights into the failed war on drugs. His second book, Lost Connections, is an exploration of depression and anxiety (which Hari himself suffers from) and questions the prevailing view that these conditions are solely the result of chemical imbalances in the brain. Instead, Hari argues through vigorous research that psychological and social factors matter just as much, if not more than, biological ones. Moreover, it’s Hari’s (evidence-based) view that the idea that depression and anxiety are individualised problems is wrong. Instead, he argues, society is to a large extent responsible for making us feel mentally unwell, for example by disconnecting us from nature, from meaningful work, and from each other.

While Hari acknowledges that antidepressants have their place, he believes profit-driven pharmaceutical companies have distorted our understanding of mental illness by framing it as an individual problem and one that can be fixed with pills alone. Hari speaks from a place of experience but it is his careful analysis and synthesis of the relevant studies that makes his arguments so convincing and refreshing. As just one example, I had not before considered the positive effect a universal basic income (UBI) might have on mental health, which various trials and studies referenced by Hari have suggested. This is an important book for anyone who, like me, has experienced depression and anxiety, but I think there are lessons in it for everyone who wants to improve their mental wellbeing and the society we share.

Jess
The Gamekeeper by Portia Simpson

At the moment I’m reading The Gamekeeper by Portia Simpson. Portia is a young Scottish woman who, in the early 2000s became Scotland’s first fully accredited female gamekeeper. Her memoir immerses the reader into a real-life world where passionate and dedicated people live their lives connected to nature in a way that few others still do today. She shares with us the beautiful, the confronting, the humorous and the sometimes harsh and tragic realities of an outdoor life. Her experiences remind us that the people who choose to live their lives in wild places and with wild things are some of the last guardians standing watch over what remains of our planet’s wilderness.

Kate
Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin

I read this small book in one sitting. It’s a strange and eerie novel about a mother who is on holiday somewhere in Argentina with her young daughter. From the beginning we are aware something has gone wrong as she lies dying in hospital recounting her story to a young boy. Through this conversation, she recalls the events that led to this moment and uncovers her foreshadowed doom. An ambiguous and thrilling read that plays out somewhere between a critique of genetically modified soy crops, folk superstition and the anxiety of motherhood and protecting children from imagined threats. I was left with many questions so I am very keen to listen to the author at Writers’ Week.

Remember it’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird

The book’s original cover (source: npr.org)

I’ve had a long relationship with To Kill A Mockingbird. I first came across it when I was maybe 10, when I watched the film adaptation. My parents introduced me to a lot of incredible movies when I was that sort of age – another notable screening being Rear Window (!) – but I don’t think I really understood anything about them. Consequently, I also don’t really have any recollection about my first brush with Harper Lee’s novel, other than I think I kind of appreciated it as far as my brain at that stage had the capability to allow, and that I thought Scout was cool, even though she had a funny name.

Then, when I was 12 and halfway through Year 8, I had to read the novel for English class – or rather, I chose it from a list of novels that we were supposed to analyse, podcast-style, as our token group assignment for the semester. I’d decided, upon my impending teenagehood, that it was time that I become better read, in order to signify just how incredibly Grown Up I was to the outside world, Mockingbird being the only classic option on the reading list for the assignment – and, I thought, the movie was pretty good, so read it I did. And… I hated it, with a vehement, irrational passion. I thought it was slow, that it contained too much information that I – in all my wisdom – deemed irrelevant to the narrative, that the characterisation was implausible, that it didn’t really seem to have a proper climax. Why do people like this, I thought – how can they read this and not see how incredibly flawed and ridiculous it is? I’ve never read a more overrated book in my life! I don’t think I even managed to finish it. But then, I found myself a few months ago plucking my parents’ copy out of their bookshelf and deciding to reappraise it. And this time… I loved it, with the same passion which highlighted my hatred a few years prior.

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck in the novel’s film adaptation, 1962 (source: The Daily Beast)

The main thing I changed my mind about was the book’s voice, something that previously had really irked me. At first, it bypassed my preteen brain entirely that the novel was narrated by an older Scout, this misunderstanding spawning much of my disdain. I had been a progenitor of some Scout-level moments of precociousness throughout my own childhood – I believe here is the point at which I should recall how I excitedly asked my Reception teacher on my first day of school what we would be required to complete for homework that night – but even I had difficulty finding the scenario of an eight-year-old child using words like ‘condescension’ in everyday conversation plausible, also unable to believe that it could’ve been narrated from adulthood due to Scout’s fairly simplistic descriptions of many of the novel’s events. But then, perhaps I was still too young myself to realise that of course Scout was narrating her memories from an older perspective, but that she tells them just as she remembers them – with the naivety and altered context with which she experienced them in childhood. There’s a kind of poetic mystery to the presentation of her memories without the proper, adult context we readers are so eager to have shown to us, her retrospective realisation of such details all to be discovered and deciphered in the subtext. It, too, was kind of beautiful how subtly Lee used this lack of context, the way the deeper messages are intertwined within what was not written, to represent one’s coming of age – how you begin to realise deeper truths and become more open-minded as you gain more years to your name, and how these changes are often so subtle that you don’t even notice them until you think back. This evokes the kind of foggy, innocent joy we often feel towards our childhoods – and yet, it also challenges our ideas about nostalgia in a spectacularly confronting manner by using this innocence to narrate a selection of the book’s most horrifying sequences. I particularly loved this about the novel, especially as a teenager who is simultaneously excited yet terrified by her impending entry into the adult world, and it’s understandable that a younger me simply could not yet appreciate this.

Author Harper Lee in 1961 (source: Getty Images)

I further adored the novel’s usage of the small town setting. Lee adeptly utilises such a backdrop both to develop a focused ensemble of intertwined, endearingly bizarre characters, and to further juxtapose the comforts of the setting’s quirky nature with the mindless prejudice and evil such concentrated isolation can breed – the contrast afforded by the latter handled in an incredibly skillful, realist manner, reflecting the often contradictory complexities of our day-to-day lives. This has long been a fiction cliche, but I now unashamedly fall for it every time, the version of me who recently reread the book having since become avidly in love with Gilmore Girls (of course, a much more positive portrait – although Mockingbird is also incredibly optimistic in tone for a lot of its narrative!) and Twin Peaks – things that a younger me just hadn’t yet had time to discover!

Of course, the book is not without its flaws, the greatest of these being its datedness. The frequent usage of then-socially acceptable racial slurs by even its “good” (for want of a less simplistic term) characters make the modern reader cringe, particularly when juxtaposed with the fact that the exploration of the effects of racism and prejudice on society is perhaps the book’s thesis statement. However, although this aspect of the book remains unacceptable by our standards, so much of its thematic content and general sentiments on the vileness of racism and those who follow it, the acceptance that everyone should feel toward their fellow human beings, still ring true in an age that will be defined in future history textbooks by its widened cultural divide, and the horrifying uprisings of bigotry and violence that have stemmed from this. The book’s sentiments were so beautiful in both their angry passion and their undying, almost heartrendingly naive optimism, and the contrasting of this with incredibly horrifying – in that such things could ever be thought of as happening at all, and in that they still continue to occur, to some degree, close to ninety years from the book’s setting – events, such as the trial’s verdict and the fate of Tom Robinson, makes for affecting, relevant reading. This appreciation of its social sentiments  is something that thankfully has been a constant between both my readings.

A mockingbird, Lee’s symbol of innocence (source: Ryan Hagerty/The National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

It’s kind of funny, because in the end, I feel like one of the greatest messages I took from To Kill A Mockingbird is that of the slow, almost unnoticeable crawl that is one’s coming of age – and perhaps, my relationship with the book carries this too. Twelve year old me couldn’t appreciate the narrative because she didn’t know enough about art, about the world, she hadn’t grown up enough herself to see the potency of its craft and its message-making – and yet I am not sure I have discovered everything about it either. I feel that if I were to reread it again in a few years’ time, renewed experiences and wisdom would ensure that I would yet again take away different ideas. It’s cool how things change, right?

What We’re Reading: January

Annie
The Choke by Sofie Laguna

A punch in the guts that deals expertly with issues of poverty, class and male violence. We see 70s Australia through the eyes of 10 year old Justine, whose voice is exquisitely and heartbreakingly rendered as she tries to navigate the unforgiving adult world around her. The rare glimpses of joy were what affected me the most, puncturing the bleak landscape like drops of rain, only to retreat again. A powerful and moving novel.

Charmaine
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien and Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

So since I returned from my year in Bali, life has been so busy. First with working in the shop leading up to Xmas and then catching up with friends and family. So I haven’t had a great month for reading. But I am reading 2 wonderful books at the moment.

I saw Madeleine Thien at Ubud Literary Festival last year and simply loved her, her words are spoken poetry and so thoughtful and gentle. Her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing is beautifully written and looks at modern China and the consequences of Mao’s tyranny on one family.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang is also looking at the far reaching consequences of Mao’s regime, this time a collection of seven interconnected stories about a group of people who arrive in New York in the 1990’s, to a life of extreme hardship and poverty. Jenny’s writing is unsettling and bold, like nothing I have experienced before. Read this book and then go and hear Jenny Zhang at Adelaide Writer’s Week.

Jess
The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Kranostein

At the moment I’m part way through reading The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Kranostein. Sarah explores the past, present and future of Sandra Pankhurst in a powerful, intimate and human way, opening a window for the reader into the good, the bad and the ugly moments that all fuse together to make up a life. Not only do I feel like I am learning about Sandra, I am learning Sandra’s clients and their families, Sandra’s own family and also about Sarah the author as well. The book is fascinating, heartbreaking and surprisingly humorous at times, but overall it feels like it’s an exploration and meditation on the way that all lives are touched and then forever changed by incidents of trauma.

Ben
A Plea for the Animals by Matthieu Ricard

At the moment I’m reading A Plea for the Animals by Matthieu Ricard. Ricard is a monk and molecular geneticist, and this is his first book on animals. I’m only partway through, but it’s already obvious Ricard is a skilled writer who has done his homework, drawing extensively on the worlds of both science and philosophy in crafting an argument for treating all living beings with greater compassion. I’m looking forward to his discussion of industrial farming, animal experimentation, and the possibilities of rights for animals.

Kate
Winter by Ali Smith

I’ve just finished Winter by Ali Smith, the second book in her Seasonal quartet which began last year with Autumn. With her trademark wit and brevity, Ali Smith tells a story of a complicated family at Christmas. As she moves between past and present and the personal narratives of her characters, Smith meditates on Dickens, Shakespeare and the artist Barbara Hepworth. Given that the quartet is being written so quickly she is also documenting recent global events and seems to be questioning the work and impact of political protest. Like in many of her books, it is a stranger’s imposition that assists the characters to communicate.

Lonely Onlies

BOOK: Only (Caroline Baum)

RATING: Two stars

Having rewatched it virtually every night on loop for the better part of two years, you would be correct in assuming that one of my favourite TV shows is Gilmore Girls. This is for a variety of reasons – the perfect melding of comedy and emotion, the small-town quirkiness, the fact that it seems like it has taken various plot points directly out of my life at times – but among the main ones is its portrayal of the only child. As an only child myself, it is refreshing to find media representation of our kind that doesn’t reduce us to the stereotype of the spoilt, maladjusted loner.  In fact, the two titular characters (plus the vast majority of the rest of the cast) are only children themselves, and that this is barely even mentioned – letting them are allowed to develop into complex and unique characters of their own accord! So when I began reading Caroline Baum’s Only, I went into it expecting a reflection on the Only Life as nuanced and complex as that of Gilmore Girls. Boy, was I wrong.

Firstly, I should probably tell you what Only is about. Author Caroline Baum recounts her life in relation to her parents and her “only-ness” in a manner that, for the first half of the book at least, is told in a manner that so heavily and unconsciously relies on stereotypes that have followed onlies for millennia that you are forced to cringe at her lack of self-awareness. However, there is some heart-breakingly sad material toward the second half of the novel that partially compensates for this – but more on this later.

I found the first half of the book, discussing the ins-and-outs of her incredibly privileged and spoilt London childhood, extraordinarily tiresome and cringeworthy. This perhaps sounds a little blunt, but there are only so many times you can read someone casually and somewhat ungratefully describe the hundreds of designer clothing pieces they owned before their tenth birthday when you’ve been trying to convince people that “only child” doesn’t equate to “spoilt brat” since you were five. Baum not only does nothing to shrug off this stereotype – she so nonchalantly recounts the virtues of her beyond-privileged childhood throughout this section that one has to assume that she is in fact so privileged that she doesn’t even realise that this is the case, and she comes off as all the more frustratingly entitled for it. My favourite example: there is one part in the book where she discusses the maid from her childhood home and how, as a kid, she thought it was awfully funny to unplug said maid’s vacuum cleaner and tie her apron strings to the doorknob while she wasn’t looking – and then expressed genuine confusion when she later mentioned that, despite several letter-writing attempts from her mother, the maid refused to talk to her family after she retired! Although she does, at one point, refer to her childhood-self as an “unappreciative, ungrateful, obnoxious snob”, she does so in an equally obnoxious, self-piteous manner seemingly only to elicit sympathy from the reader – her refusal to take responsibility for this behaviour, so unironically and presented to us without self-awareness, is just as repulsive as the behaviour itself.

Baum also blames a lot of her adult problems on her only child status; she claims that “three barely felt like a family”, that all it did was lay on her an incredible social awkwardness, an unquenchable loneliness, and the impossible task of being a “Good Daughter” on her; while never considering that, perhaps, the extravagant European holidays, the designer clothing, the London mansion, and the private school education (all of which she repeatedly takes for granted throughout the narrative) would have been harder if her parents had to support another sibling. And while I appreciate that this attitude stems from the period in which she grew up, where only children were seen as grossly impaired by some, I find her assumption that we are all unhappy with our apparently-identical experiences preposterous and insulting – I, for one, have found my only child experience beautiful and rewarding, and I would hate to imagine it any other way. Imagine someone saying that all people with two siblings are the same! However, she does make some valid suggestions about how society views us onlies almost like a freak show – I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement whenever she made mention of the invasive questions about our personal lives that non-onlies somehow feel are appropriate to ask, an experience that most of us know all too well!

Aside from the content matter, though, the book is also not particularly well written. Baum has a serious case of purple prose, utilising so many adjectives, colloquialisms, and similes that reading her memoir might as well be the first in a series of Where’s Wally spin-offs called Where’s The Noun – in fact, some of the phrases she uses are almost verbatim quotes from the examples that my English teachers have used when telling us about the negative effect of purple prose in the first place. And on the subject of similes, let me just leave this beauty for your consideration: “Like a child who has just discovered masturbation, I simply could not leave [writing] alone.” Well, um…

However, while I have spent the better part of three paragraphs disparaging her book, it is undeniable that Baum’s work also carries extreme emotional resonance. Even within its dreaded first half, there are gutwrenching diamonds among the rough; I felt incredible, genuine sadness for the young Baum when she recounted her inner conflict surrounding her otherwise-loving father’s punishment methods, of how the dysfunctionality of her parents’ lives was unfairly placed upon her shoulders, and when she failed to gain acceptance to Oxford (which she’d dreamt of attending her entire life). This was increased further within two parts that are easily the best-written and most profound of the whole book – the two chapters in which Baum discusses her parents’ tragic childhoods (her father one of the few of his family to survive the Holocaust, her mother’s mother dead in a murder-suicide after suffering years of domestic violence by the time she was five), and the shorter, second half of the book where the reader sees Baum’s intelligent, funny father painfully disintegrate into dementia. Genuine, devastating emotion is conveyed within these areas, and the reader is forced to go along with it – it is so saddening that I, for one, almost felt a relief when her father passes away at the end of the book, as his suffering felt so horrible. These sections are probably the explanation behind Baum’s entitled, blame-deflecting attitude – and while I still find it insufferable and mostly inexcusable, the pity and empathy I felt for her counteracted this a little bit.

And while I did indeed largely dislike the book, I would still encourage anyone interested to go read it. I am aware that my antagonistic perception toward her portrayal of her experiences is hugely coloured by my own upbringing, and that my impatience toward her writing style is probably exaggerated by the high standards that Joan Didion has set for every book I’ve read post-Slouching Towards Bethlehem – perhaps you are not affected by these factors, and you might give it four stars! I would also be lying if I said I didn’t find parts of the book genuinely moving and enjoyable. In fact, while most people say that reading a book you dislike is a waste of your time, I would go so far to say that it is this book that proves this wrong – it has generated so many interesting and exciting discussions and thoughts about writing, family, and the human condition over these past few months, and it has taught me all sorts of lessons about opinions and subjectivity! I urge you to go buy a copy yourselves, and make up your own mind …

Dreaming of the Golden Dream: on Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’

So over this past year, I’ve begun to attempt to become as well-read in the “cult classic” canon as possible, which I’ve also semi-documented on here too. So far, the series includes my previous post on On The Road, plus this one on Slouching Towards Bethlehem  – future ones will include A Clockwork Orange, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, Carol and The Man Who Fell To Earth, all of which I’ve recently read, plus probably One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, The Great Gatsby and Nineteen Eighty-Four, all of which currently sit in assorted places around my house, ready for when algebra revision won’t eat up all my reading time … Enjoy!

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The book’s original cover

There are some books which are destined to entirely engross and change the course of your life. These books are perhaps the most beautiful, the most eloquent, the most thoughtful thing you’ve ever laid your eyes across, and you know – almost as immediately as you dive into the first chapter – that it will force you to spend the rest of your life rereading it on endless loop and quoting its every word to everyone you meet. I have been lucky enough to have been blessed with a couple of books of this ilk within my life. Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of these. Perhaps it is the greatest of them all.

“I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

(from ‘On Keeping a Notebook’)

Bethlehem first appeared on the shelves of bookshops and bedrooms alike in 1968. Consisting of a collection of essays and prose that Didion had penned for various publications throughout the 1960s, the book was her first nonfiction work. It is divided into three sections, with around six or seven essays in each: “Life Styles in the Golden Land,” which is themed on California and society, “Personals,” which is themed around Didion’s own musings and life, and “Seven Places of The Mind,” which focuses on various places around America that affected Didion’s life. Didion writes about an assortment of subjects: on being young, self-respect, the hippie movement, Joan Baez and her Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Hawaii, New York, communism, her family, the “American dream”, the effect of “Las Vegas marriages” on society, the juxtaposition of outsiders’ perceptions of California as a “paradise” and of a then-topical, somewhat horrific murder case that had recently occurred in San Bernardino … Perhaps the manner in which each of these subjects contrasts the other makes it, to someone who has never read the book, seem incoherent and directionless – yet this could not be further from the truth. It is held together by the atmosphere that Didion cultivates with her extraordinarily insightful and eloquent writing style – an atmosphere that refracts the sunny glamour of California at the time and turns it into the haziest, darkest, craziest, most chaotic, and yet most alluring, most fascinating and most beautiful thing that one can ever lay their eyes upon. It is unbelievably articulate, and yet it is not void of the emotion that is so often missing from some writers of a similar intellect. Even if the book’s subjects were not as interesting as they also happen to be, it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that I – and a myriad of other readers – would probably still hold the book in relatively high regard on the quality of her writing style alone.

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Didion in San Francisco in 1967, while writing the book’s title piece – a think piece on the realities of the hippie movement.

And Didion’s essays – both her choice of subjects, and her insights – are just that, too; beautiful, alluringly dark, insightful, thoughtful and fascinating in the greatest sense of the word. She writes passionately and emotively, and yet aloofly, in that effortlessly and mysteriously cool manner that always appeared to be at its most potent in the more sophisticated corners of America throughout the ‘60s and ’70s. Her writings within the book show her to be of the best order of ‘opinionated’ – someone whose thoughts are educated and well-considered, but nonetheless definite and strong – and yet, she never appears to truly take sides on her subjects; instead, she often opts to present her insights as balanced yet captivatingly unique images within each essay, gently nudging the reader to a conclusion of their own.  She curates a fascinating array of contrasting subjects – each gifted with thoughtful metaphors on the workings of American society and the human condition – like a delightfully bizarre contemporary art gallery in the basement underneath a back alley, somewhere. It forces you to think – about humanity, society, culture, our emotions, everything – more than maybe you ever have before. Although it has now become a cliche to say that calling someone a ‘genius’ is a cliche, I feel that, if there were ever any authors deserving of the term, Didion would undoubtedly be well among them – and it is her wisdom imparted within her writing that cements this. 

“One of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before.”

(from ‘Goodbye To All That’)

The few occasions where she removes herself from this formula – most notably in the “Personals” section of Bethlehem – make for equally thrilling reading, as well. The almost confessional, thoughtful and diary-like style she uses for these – musings on subjects like rejection, and self-respect, and creativity – predate the advent of the blogosphere by over thirty years, and yet she still manages to considerably better the greater internet-based purveyors of the style. There is little more in this world that makes you think as hard, and make you want to yell, “Yes! I relate!” over and over again to your bedroom walls, and want to carefully write out each essay on little cards to hand out to everyone you pass on the street, than these. It is the kind of writing that you love as obsessively as a music fan might love their favourite band – the kind that sums humanity up so insightfully and beautifully that you feel that not sharing it with as many people as possible would be a disservice to the homo sapiens species.

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The book’s ‘On Self Respect’, as it was originally published in Vogue in 1961

And yet, these several hundred words I’ve tried to use to explain my love of Bethlehem do not even seem to come close to explaining the sheer exhilaration that is reading the book – how Didion’s musings will utterly enthrall and fascinate you, and make you meditate on the world, like no other book probably will; how reading it drags you into the brand of glamorous Californian cool that she practically created, and how it is only one step short of making you run to your computer to book a one-way ticket to Sacramento; how it, unlike so many books both before and since, is unapologetically feminine in both subject and writing style, and how incredible it is to read this as a young woman. Perhaps only Didion’s own words themselves can do this.

“Our favourite people and our favourite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted.”

(from ‘7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38’)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of the most incredible things I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Go buy yourself a copy. It will change your life. 

(And a gold star to everyone who realised that my insertion of quotes between the paragraphs is a reference to the structure of one of the book’s essays, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’!)

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The queen of glamorous, Californian cool!