an awkward comeback + some books i’ve loved this year

IMG_4664I actually Googled “how to start blogging again after a long absence” to try and find a non-awkward way to approach writing this post (and, with any luck, the next few posts) but the only real piece of advice I found was not along the lines of “duh, don’t leave your blog dormant for months and years on end”. Harsh, Google. True though.

While I work out where – and how – to begin blogging again, I’ve been thinking about some of the books I’ve read so far this year. We’re over halfway through 2016, which is frankly ridiculous. But that’s okay, because I’ve read some seriously good books.

I hope you don’t mind me sharing them with you.

I’m starting with Yvette Walker’s criminally underrated Letters to the End of Love. I read it at the start of this year and since then I’ve been quietly devastated that I wasn’t smart enough to pick this up when it was first released back in 2013. I utterly adored this intense, elegant epistolary novel about three relationships; each taking place across different time periods, different countries and different sexualities. I’m already looking forward to reading it again – although I’m not sure how I’ll keep my place, as I’ve already folded over every second corner to mark a favourite quote or passage.

Another book I wish I’d read when it first came out? Arms Race by Nic Low. How would you classify these twelve unexpected short stories? Science fiction? Humour? Perhaps a little of both. One thing’s for sure – this is a really strong collection. In the months since reading Arms Race, I still find myself thinking about Low’s stories all the time. They keep coming back to me like the echoes of dreams. They’re bizarre and beautiful and I loved every one of them.

Another book to which I arrived later than usual was Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. How can a novel be so surreal and real both at the same time? And so, so good? Really, everything about this stunning novel has already been written. I have nothing new to add, other than my admiration.

I did, somehow, manage to find something to say about Helen Garner’s masterful collection of essays, Everywhere I Look. I reviewed it for Newtown Review of Books, and it’s left me itching to read more of Garner’s fiction and non-fiction. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

I have a bit of a thing for Geoff Dyer. I read Out of Sheer Rage last year and dogeared it to within an inch of its life. Which is why I picked up White Sands, Dyer’s new collection of essays on place and art and crisis. There are moments in White Sands when Dyer is at his infuriating best – he’s obtuse and wrapped up in his own obsessions, but the thread of vulnerability that runs through the collection draws the reader towards a touching, sincere final act.

I started this post with a book I should have read years ago, so it seems fitting to finish it with a series of books that are very much here-and-now – Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree collection. It’s a series of five novellas. I’ve read Gotham and Venice, the first two in the series, and I’m just about to begin the third. It’s not just the episodic nature of this series that has me hooked – it’s the way Earls captures his characters so perfectly. I’m looking forward to finding out where Earls is going to take me next.

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I’d better sign off here, before I start rambling about every book I’ve read so far this year. Sitting on my to-read pile right now? Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year by Liam Pieper (how could I resist that title?) and A S Patric’s Las Vegas for Vegans, because I was transfixed by Black Rock White City. There’s also Shibboleth and other stories, this year’s Margaret River Short Story collection anthology, edited by the brilliant Laurie Steed.

I’ve realised recently what a privilege it is to have access to books. Three cheers for libraries. I’m lucky to have plenty of reading in my future.

Talking of the future, I’m hoping to start blogging more often. I’ve really missed writing posts like this one. It’s just a matter of throwing words at the screen and hoping some of them stay there…and make sense.

books as ballast – thirty-six books i’m yet to read

At the Emerging Writers’ Festival a few years ago, artist Emily Stewart gave many of her favourite books away to strangers as a piece of performance art she called Dear Reader.

It’s a project that fills me with a mixture of fascination and horror. In her essay about giving up her books, Stewart describes feeling dragged down by the weight of her ever-expanding book collection:

I am a passionate reader. I’ve completed an Honours degree in literature, managed a bookshop, and trained as an editor. That is, I’ve had three terrific, tax-deductible reasons to indulge my book-buying habit. But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the weight of books that surrounds me. I’ve started to wonder about the specific function of books as cultural objects. What is their psychic measure? What do they act as receptacles for?

I feel the weight of my book collection too. Except in an entirely different way. Let me explain. No – let Zadie Smith explain. Because, as is so often the case, Zadie says it so much better than I ever could:

Was anyone ever genuinely attached to anything? She had no idea. It was either only Zora who experienced this odd impersonality or it was everybody, and they were all play-acting, as she was. She presumed that this was the revelation college would bring her, at some point. In the meantime, waiting like this, waiting to be come upon by real people, she felt herself to be light, existentially light, and nervously rumbled through possible topics of conversation, a ragbag of weighty ideas she carried around in her brain to lend herself the appearance of substance. Even on this short trip to the bohemian end of Wellington – a journey that, having been traversed by car, offered no opportunity whatsoever for reading – she had brought along, in her knapsack, three novels and a short tract by De Beauvoir on ambiguity – so much ballast to stop her floating away, up and over the flood, into the night sky.

– Zadie Smith, On Beauty

I often wonder about the books in Zora’s backpack. Were they old favourites with dog-eared pages and scribbled notes in the margins? Or were they books she hadn’t yet read, carried in her bag like talismans?

sunsetI’ve been thinking a lot about my to-read shelves lately. I remember a favourite tutor at University once joking that her dying words would be something along the lines of “Are you fucking kidding me? I can’t die yet – I still have reading to do!”

I feel exactly the same way. Like Zora, I’ve always felt that books – in particular, the ones I’m yet to read – are the weight that anchors me to the earth. They keep me here, keep me going, keep me wondering what’s next.

So, in no particular order, here are thirty-six random books from my to-read pile. Some I already own and are sitting on my shelves, others I’m yet to acquire, and others still are scribbled down on a list at the back of my diary or in the Notes app on my phone.

Georges Perec, Life, a User’s Manual

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth

Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs

Emily Maguire, Fishing for Tigers

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Simone de Beauvoir, The Mandarins

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

Charlotte Wood, The Children (that’s when and if I ever get over Animal People)

James Joyce, Dubliners

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

George Eliot, Silas Marner

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle

Octavia Butler, Kindred

Rajesh Parameswaran, I Am An Executioner

Jane Austen, Persuasion

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (this one’s on the list out of sheer curiosity)

Emile Zola, Germinal

Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree (how have I not already read this?)

Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt

Jessica Anderson, The Commandant

J D Salinger, Nine Stories

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Sjon, The Blue Fox

Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You

J G Ballard, Crash

G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man (the only Zadie Smith novel I haven’t read)

Jon MacGregor, Even the Dogs

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

What’s with the number thirty-six? It’s because today’s my thirty-sixth birthday. And I’m not  quite ready to be thirty-six just yet…

In the face of what’s shaping up to be a potentially difficult year, this list is a reminder of the many literary discoveries I’m yet to make. And it’s a list that leaves me itching to drop everything and get reading…

Bur first? Cake.

Then books.

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(Feel free to let me know what you think of my To Read list, by the way. What should I read first? What shouldn’t I bother reading at all? What’s missing? What’s on your To Read shelf?)

wet feet and a head filled with ideas ~ things I took away with me from the sydney writers’ festival

swflogoIt’s been just over a week since the Sydney Writers’ Festival. My feet have stopped aching, my boots have finally dried out and the post-festival buzz has regrettably worn off.

The few notes I took are mostly illegible, and my iPhone photos are all blurry, but regardless, I left the Writers’ Festival with a head absolutely filled with ideas. It’s only now that I’m beginning to unpack all the thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind and put them into words.

Other things I’ve taken away from the Sydney Writers’ Festival include a sense of the staggering amount of work in front of me, as well as a reading list that might take me years to plough my way through.

As well as (ahem) a bit of a crush on Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Here are just a few of my many Sydney Writers’ Festival highlights…

The Uncommon Reader

Stopping by to see Christina Stead's Writers' Walk plaque on the way to Walsh Way
Stopping by to see Christina Stead’s Writers’ Walk plaque on the way to Walsh Way

Is there anything more heart-swelling than listening to other bookish people talk about the books they love?

Critics Jane Gleeson-White, Geordie Williamson and James Wood spoke with moderator Tegan Bennett Daylight about the books that changed their lives and how they found their way to literature.

I was especially taken by the way Geordie Williamson described the experience of growing up in a dusty country town, and literature filled him with the notion of escape. Jane Gleeson-White read from her favourite book, The Great Gatsby, while struggling not to cry.

There was a real sense of the emotion behind reading; the way a good book makes you feel, which I found totally refreshing. Like James Wood, I felt frustrated in university literature tutorials and longed to stand up and yell “This is bloody good!”.

But for me, what really made this panel stand out Tegan Bennett Daylight’s point that literature fills the reader with the longing to respond, and that need to “write back to books” is the driving force behind not just criticism, but writing in general. It was a theme that, for me, underlined the entire festival.

You can listen to The Uncommon Reader for yourself here, or go and read John Boland’s brilliant summary over at Musings of a Literary Dilettante.

Daniel Morden’s The Empty Hand

I’d heard so many good things about Daniel Morden’s performance at the Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Address that I made sure I went and to see The Empty Hand.

Just the tiniest hint of blue sky...
Just the tiniest hint of blue sky…

It’s difficult to describe Morden’s performance, so instead, I’ll just say that for one hour, Daniel Morden had an entire room under his spell. There were no whispered conversations amongst the audience, no checking of mobile phones and no gazing out the window. He was utterly compelling – and it wasn’t just his words, it was also the way he moved fluidly from one position to the next. He seemed to pronounce every word as if it were written in italics.

One recurring theme of The Empty Hand was the space between our world and the fairy realm and the consequences of crossing the boundaries between the two worlds. Once he’d finished speaking, Morden took a deep bow as we applauded at length. And as the audience stood to make our way out of the room, he stepped forward into the audience and made his way out of the room with us. He crossed the space from performer to become one of us. Just like that.

I wish I’d had the chance to see him again at the Festival.

A Prize of One’s Own

I first heard Carrie Tiffany speak about her brilliant novel, Mateship with Birds at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival.

It’s odd how much things can change in a year. Mateship has gone on to take out the Stella Prize, as well as the Christina Stead Prize…and the Miles Franklin could well be next. Here’s hoping…

Stella Prize chair, Aviva Tuffield, spoke with Carrie Tiffany, as well as Stella Prize judge and actor, Claudia Karvan, and author and co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Kate Mosse about why a prize for women’s writing is necessary, the bridgejudging process – and what it feels like to actually win the Stella Prize.

There were so many fascinating insights into the creation of both prizes, one with a two-decade history and other only in its first year.

One anecdote in particular has stayed with me. After winning the Stella Prize, a Melbourne newspaper ran a story about Carrie Tiffany with a headline that read along the lines of “Mitcham Mum Wins Book Award”. We all laughed ironically. Tiffany said this was the moment that, for her, cemented the need for the Stella Prize.

I don’t usually get books signed. This is because I don’t cope well with situations in which I have to speak to people I admire. I invariably make an idiot of myself.

However, sometimes, the temptation to meet and exchange a few words with an author I really appreciate outweighs the fear of looking stupid.

After the panel, I lined up and asked Carrie Tiffany to sign my battered copy of Mateship with Birds. But I did that thing where I started to talk (“I just wanted to let you know how much I loved your book and did I tell you I really loved your book and I mean it was reallyreally good“) and I couldn’t stop talking and I’m sure I must have sounded like a complete lunatic.

So while I have no idea what I actually said, I met Carrie Tiffany, and she was charming! This was not only a highlight of my Writers’ Festival, but my reading life.

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Karl Ove Knausgaard

As Knausgaard read for us a passage from the second volume of his six volume autobiographical novel, My Struggle, he shifted his weight constantly from one foot to the other, unable to remain still. It reminded me of way a boxer ducks and weaves between punches. He seemed to me both defensive and vulnerable at the same time.

Admittedly, I went to see Karl Ove Knausgaard out of sheer curiosity. I haven’t read either of the first two volumes of My Struggle yet, but I’d read an interview somewhere that left me intrigued.

In discussion with Steven Gale, Knausgaard spoke about what happens when you begin to sit down and write about your life without reservation. His “autobiographical novel” has more going for it than just a provocative title – it’s written in six volumes (only the first two are available in English at present) and has been compared to both Proust and reality television. Knausgaard’s books lay every detail of his family life bare. His life, and the people in it, suddenly became a Nordic obsession.

I was completely entranced by the way Knausgaard described his dedication to art. He sees art as an unstoppable force – greater than the law, greater even than the individual artist. Art obliterates the artist.

I heard a lot of people discussing him around the Festival that day, using words like “selfish” and “banal”. I think he’s truly admirable.

Waiting for The Fun Stuff. A long-distance relationship.
Waiting for The Fun Stuff. A long-distance relationship.

The Fun Stuff

Okay, I’ll admit it, I think I pretty much followed James Wood around the Sydney Writers’ Festival and heard him speak at every possible opportunity. But as a wannabe critic, can you really blame me?

In discussion with Susan Wyndham, Wood spoke in detail about growing up in a very strict, religious family and his growing obsession with books other than the Bible – and Keith Moon, drummer from The Who.

Then, something unexpected. Using a pair of borrowed tambourines, a table, a glass and a plastic container, Wood gave a demonstration of finger drumming to a captivated audience. The fun stuff indeed.

Love and Laughter

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on my blog yet, but I adored Graeme Simsion’s debut The Rosie Project, so I was very interested in hearing him talk. I know The Rosie Project has been touted as an overnight success; written in four weeks, so it was fascinating to hear Simsion describe the years of hard work that went into writing and rewriting his incredible novel.

Even the chairs were smiling
Even the chairs were smiling

The first incarnation of The Rosie Project was a drama, and had the decidedly unfunny title THE FACE OF GOD. I type it in all-caps because that’s exactly how Simsion pronounced the words, cupping his hands around his microphone. I repeat: THE FACE. OF. GOD.

Excellent news for fans of Rosie and Don – Simsion mentioned that he’s planning not one, but two sequels to The Rosie Project. And with a little luck, we’ll be seeing The Rosie Project on the big screen soon, with Sony recently optioning the rights to the film. Fingers crossed…

William McInnes was also hilarious. In his Blue Heelers days, he’d write crazed fan letters to his fellow cast members out of sheer boredom. Whenever he was asked a question about his book, The Laughing Clowns, he’d do his best to avoid actually talking about it, instead telling long, riotously funny stories.

Definitely the most fun I’ve had at a writers’ festival.

5 x 15

5 x 15 was something special – the Sydney debut of a storytelling event that’s been wildly successful overseas. Normally, anything that brings to mind primary school multiplication tables scares the living shit out of me, but unlike maths, 5 x 15 is really simple: five people speak for fifteen minutes, with no notes and no script to save them.

Scottish writer and poet Jackie Kay was first, with a series of charming, witty and poignant tales about the kindness and conversation of taxi drivers she’s experienced over the world. For instance, when she mentioned to a Glasgow taxi driver that she was adopted, he took her to the orphanage where she spent her first months of life. Another taxi driver drove her to the airport when she went to Nigeria to meet her biological father, then picked her up from the airport when she returned, having been rejected. I adored Jackie Kay and now want to read everything she’s ever written. Immediately.

Following Jackie was Australia’s own Amelia Lester. When I tell people stories from my work, their eyes tend to glaze over. I bet that never happens to Amelia Lester. As a fact checker for The New Yorker, it was her job to make sure every piece of information that goes to print is verified. Even if it means having to call George Clooney yourself. I wonder if Amelia needs an assistant…

Tim Levinson, more commonly known as Urthboy, was next, and spoke brilliantly about coming to terms with the awkwardness of growing up as a cricket-playing white kid in the Blue Mountains, obsessed with hip-hop and rap – a culture far removed from his own.

Then the amazing Kate Mosse, co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, took to the stage to talk about the adventure stories she shared with her father as a little girl. Stories where women were treated with disdain, or as token love interest…or completely missing altogether. Kate made it her mission to write adventure stories about girls, to show her father that girls could be heroes too – and he couldn’t have been prouder.

The final speaker was physicist, cosmologist and Trekkie, Lawrence Krauss who showed us How Star Trek Saved the World.

Being a bit of a Trekkie myself, I got a little bit annoyed when Lawrence said a few rather mean things about Captain Janeway. While she’s not my favourite Star Trek captain, I think Lawrence Krauss owes her an apology…

janeway or no wayOh, and as for how Star Trek saved the world, well, it’s kind of a complicated story. It starts with Captain Kirk in his underwear and ends with President Obama. Here’s a little sample.

5 x 15 was my last event at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and really, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying conclusion.

A few other Sydney Writers’ Festival highlights…

  • Being in the same small room as Deborah Levy, Cate Kennedy and Anita Desai as they discussed short stories with Tegan Bennett Daylight. Just being there to hear them felt like such a privilege.
  • The people in the queue ahead of me at one event getting Courtney Collins’ The Burial mixed up with Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites.
  • Realising that I will never, ever be anywhere near as interesting as Ramona Koval.
  • Shivering in the Viewing Lounge as the rain poured down outside. I’d spent too long at the session before and had missed out on the chance to see booksellers John Purcell (from Booktopia, also bestselling author!), Morgan Smith (from Gleebooks) and Barbara Horgan (from Shearer’s Books) chatting with author Walter Mason about their favourite books, as well as the changing face of the book industry. It was a fascinating session – I wish I’d been able to make it in person rather than on the screen. They definitely convinced me to add a few titles to my already out-of-control To Read list. Damn booksellers, making me broke…
  • Random, odd conversations with strangers about reincarnation, selfish bloggers and much more.
  • Squelching around in waterlogged boots all day, while trying to avoid poking strangers in the eye with my umbrella. Hoping that no one can notice I smell like a wet dog.
  • Kate Mosse’s shoes. Amazing.
  • Walking back to Circular Quay last Saturday through the Vivid Festival crowds and listening to stoners talking openly about the kind of drugs they want to try in the same way I’d discuss my To Read list

Before VividBut of the many things I loved about this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, my favourite would have to be the many, many conversations I shared with friends. Three years ago, when I’d only just started writing about books and attended my very first festival, I didn’t know anyone. This year, there were so many friendly faces. I had the pleasure of making a few new friends, too.

To everyone I ran into at the Writers’ Festival, thank you for making this Festival such an amazing experience. I hope I don’t have to wait until next year’s Writers’ Festival to see you all again.

Next year’s Festival? Yes, I’m already counting down.

Congratulations to everyone who made the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year such a success!

to all the bookshops i’ve loved before ~ national bookshop day 2012

I remember the first time I stepped into a Borders store.

I grew up in a little country town in Victoria with absolutely nowhere to buy books. When I first stumbled into Borders South Yarra and was presented with shelves and shelves of books…I didn’t quite know where to begin browsing. Libraries excluded, I’d never seen that many books in the one place. It was my idea of paradise.

More than ten years later, and an entire state away, I visited Borders for the last time. My local Borders was a few suburbs away from me, near the train station. I’d often visit on my way home from work on Thursday nights, or on weekends.

The last time I went to Borders, it wasn’t so much the books that I noticed, but the people looking at them. The place was packed with families. I sat, leafing through a collection of Zadie Smith essays, while metres away, a boy of around eight was sitting on the floor, entranced by a brightly-coloured graphic novel. A teenage girl browsed the sci-fi section nearby, her long, straight black hair falling over her eyes as she plucked a Scott Westerfeld novel from the shelves and read the blurb.

Children and their parents were everywhere that day – and I found myself wondering where all those kids would go to just sit and read books when the store closed. There’s one other book store in the same mall, but it doesn’t compare.

I bought the Zadie Smith book, said thank you to the lovely staff working that day, and I left. In the weeks that followed, the remaining books became even cheaper and everything that wasn’t bolted down was being sold – but I didn’t return. The thought of seeing a bookstore like that kept me away.

I live in Sydney’s outer western suburbs. It’s a densely-populated, economically-disadvantaged area. There’s a McDonald’s on every corner, but not one bookshop. You can buy books from the newsagent; from Big W or Target, but that’s about it.

We desperately need a good bookshop out here. Not one of those depressing discount concrete-floor outlets that sell poor quality books for kids and remaindered novels. I’m talking about a decent bookshop, where children can sit and read while their parents have a coffee. Where teens can move awkwardly around each other in front of the acres of black-spined young adult books. Where people of all ages and backgrounds and descriptions can begin their love affair with words.

The library out here has a great selection of books, and I often see kids walking proudly through the mall with stacks of books in their arms to take home…but still, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having books of your own. As a child, I had a mental catalogue of all the books we owned. They were special to me. I could take them from the shelf and read them whenever I liked.

Yesterday was Australia’s second annual National Bookshop Day. We drove to the inner western suburbs to visit one of my favourite bookstores – Shearer’s Books on Norton Street, Leichhardt. It was an awful, windy day outside, but inside it was lovely. The staff were all dressed up as characters from children’s novels and the place was filled with the sound of people reading aloud, children talking, conversations flowing. It made me smile, to see such a busy bookshop. When I went to leave, there were still people pouring in through the door with windswept, bedraggled hair.

Eventually, I bought four books, then we wandered down the road for an amazing lunch at a nearby café I’ve never visited. We drove quietly, thoughtfully back home to our bookshop-deprived suburb.

My National Bookshop Day purchases!

Though I’ve lived in Sydney for years, I don’t consider myself a native yet. I’m still exploring this city; getting a feel for it. I’m still discovering the best places to buy books, to eat, to sit and talk with friends.

After a disastrous day at work, you’ll find me smiling amongst the shelves of Gleebooks in Glebe. They’re open late on weeknights – perfect for those nights I feel like taking the long, long way home. There’s just something about their tall, tightly-packed shelves that I love.

Berkelouw Books in Norton Street is another of my favourites. The only reason I didn’t visit them yesterday for National Bookshop Day was because I’d already blown my entire book budget at Shearer’s. Oops.

Back in Melbourne, I was rather smitten with Readings in Carlton. I secretly harboured dreams of working there. I think I even handed my resume to the poor person behind the desk when I was a student. Also, there was a sci-fi and fantasy specialist bookstore near Melbourne Central called – I think – Slow Glass Books that I could happily have moved into, if they’d have let me.

Also, it has to be said – even though this post is a love letter of sorts to the physical bookstore, Booktopia is my favourite place to buy books online. While I complain about the lack of a local bookstore in my suburb, at least I can get in the car or on a train and find myself wandering amongst the shelves within an hour. Not everyone’s as lucky – and for those people, Booktopia is the perfect local bookstore.

Unlike other gargantuan online bookshops, Booktopia is an independent, Australian-owned bookseller. They do a lot to help Australian readers and writers – and me! Booktopia has been instrumental in helping me track down some of the strange books I’ve read for Book to the Future, as well as deciding what to read in the first place. John’s Twitter recommendations are always spot on.

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I’m saying all this not as a matter of consumerism, but because I genuinely love books and bookshops, and I think they’re an integral part of the community. This isn’t about owning things. You can give your books to friends when you’ve finished with them. Donate them to the library. Leave them on a park bench and let someone else pick them up. Whatever makes you happy.

But if you don’t support your local bookshop, you run the risk losing it. It’s really that simple.