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 Unshelteredby 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.
And so we’re already over halfway through this year! I’m not sure I like how quickly it seems to be going by. However, despite this busyness, I’ve still managed to find some time to discover some incredible reads. Here are my favourites so far!
The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
I’ve spent too much time trying to put my love for The Secret History into words. A clique of wealthy, eccentric Classics students murder one of their own — on the first page. The rest of the novel is narrated by an outsider who finds himself caught up in the group’s sticky and disturbing web, spending the narrative unfurling their remaining secrets and coping with his complicity. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The tale is intoxicating in its alluring mystery, but the narrator’s rambling monologues are laden with sarcasm, wit, and hilariously quirky and cringe-inducing anecdotes — every one of its pages is a giddy, playful delight to read. It’s written with this old-fashioned English whimsy (one of the characters is called Bunny!), and yet there is profanity, fluorescent leotards, and cocaine peppered throughout, a contrast that submerges the story in layers of beguilingly murky unknowability. Its characters are beautifully deep and real despite how one-dimensional and unlikable they could be — in spite of the legions of horrible things each commits, I found my heart aching with empathy and love for almost all of them by the novel’s end. It is this depth and the attachment it inspires that heightens the reader’s stakes in the events they all endure, the sadness they suffer, and the joy they sometimes stumble across, and ensures that its reading is an intensely emotionally fulfilling experience. And I haven’t even mentioned how evenly and interestingly the plot is spread out, and how it barrels along to the climax to end all climaxes, how practically delicious its aesthetics and imagery is, and just how interesting and enjoyable its structure and mysteries are! It is as delectably and immediately satisfying as bingeing a season of your favourite TV show, and with plenty of emotional grounding that will stay with you for a long, long time after.
A Visit From The Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
A Visit From The Goon Squad is pretty much perfect. Its character-driven short stories are evocative of Lydia Davis’s, written with a beautiful attention to minute detail and a concise, minimalist approach to prose. Then, it connects all these tales in a variety of intensely moving and human manners and centres them on music, showing how the deep, inarticulable power of a good song can underscore our stories and connect us across time and space. The way in which various characters affect and appear in the lives of others across different chapters is exquisite in its everyday poignancy — its commentary on the importance and potential of human connection, and of how tiny a part of the world each of us really is, is beautiful. The references to the coolest of musicians, and how their art’s energies mirror and affect the larger life experiences of the characters, will resonate with anyone who has felt their heart soar and flutter while listening to their favourite song or dancing at their favourite band’s show. The book is written interestingly as well — one chapter is written solely using Powerpoint slides, and another in a kind of futuristic slang, elements which may sound gimmicky at first but which aid in selling the incredible strength of the character’s humanity and love. I really like how small some of the moments the book focuses on are, too, and how they manage to be funny and devastating and inconsequential and life-changing all at once — how evocative of real life it all feels. It will make you want to cry, and then make a beeline trip to your nearest record shop!
White Noise (Don DeLillo)
White Noise appears mundane at first. It’s about a middle-aged college professor called Jack, who lives in suburbia, goes grocery shopping, looks after his family, and who harbours the classic existential fears of death and unfulfilled purpose, for almost the entirety of its 350-or-so pages. However, the emotional response it evokes is anything but mundane. Don DeLillo masterfully applies black humour (fourteen-year-old Heinrich is the funniest parody of the pretentious, nihilistic teenager this side of Holden Caulfield!), powerful slow-burn plotting, noir-ish double personalities and unanswered mysteries, and austere prose in the most terrifying and incredible of ways. The novel’s prickly Midwestern setting, its use of technological and futuristic motifs that petrify in the realness of their constant surveillance and loneliness, and how the instant familiarity of the characters and their suburban sprawl viciously attacks the audience’s deepest-held fears and desires, buries itself deep under your skin and inspires the most visceral feelings of beautiful, mesmerising dread and anxiety short of a David Lynch movie. It will transfix you so much that you won’t even notice that it’s made you tremble with terror and admiration until you’ve shut the back cover.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 – howcan 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.
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.
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 evilsuch 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.
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?
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.