six tales of two cities

A lot has changed over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d try to explain it all with six short pieces…

moving

New house

pink flowers
The flowering tree in our little courtyard

We’ve been living here for less than two weeks and everything still feels giddy. There’s a small tree in our courtyard that has burst into pink blossoms in the past week as if in enthusiastic welcome. We’re right in the middle of a group of attached townhouses, and we’re slowly getting used to the sounds of our neighbours moving about their homes – the way their muted voices drift through our open windows on warm evenings.

Everything might be new, but the top stair still creaks reassuringly when we come upstairs at night, just like the last place we lived.

I’m slowly cataloguing the thousands of little noises that come along with this new place; still finding places for all my Sydney things and my Sydney memories.

Soon, when we both get new jobs and begin to forge new routines, this will stop feeling like a holiday – but I’m secretly hoping that this transitory moment lingers as long as possible.

train window
Sunset, as seen through the door of a Sydney train

Train announcement, Upfield line, 9.30pm, 11/3/2015

“Our next stop is Melbourne Zoo. The zookeeper’s just radioed through to let me know that a few of the lions have just escaped. They’re all out looking for them, but if you’re in the area, please take care…”

It was a practical joke intended for a group of primary school kids on a nocturnal excursion to the zoo. Someone in my carriage audibly groaned, but it amused me.

 

No place like (nearly) home

It’s not such a big deal, moving to Melbourne. I’m originally from Melbourne.

Our temporary dinner table. One diner at a time, please.
Our temporary dinner table. One diner at a time, please.

(Actually, that’s technically not true. I grew up in a small country town an hour out of the city. But Melbourne has always felt like home to me.)

Moving back wasn’t a snap decision, although the way everything came together so quickly makes me feel like it was. It was something we’d been talking about for years. In the last months of 2014, the decision was made – and now, here I am, a thousand kilometres south of the city in which I spent the past eleven years, feeling a little like what Dorothy must have felt when she landed in Oz.

At least Dorothy got to take her house with her.

We sold a lot of our furniture to make the move cheaper. Including my giant bookshelf. Now all my books are piled up against the walls again, the way they were when I started this blog. It feels like things have come full circle.

Piles of books against the walls, again
Piles of books against the walls, again

My struggle (with nostalgia)

We spent a week and a bit in my hometown, staying with my parents while we were looking for somewhere to live. I packed a ridiculous number of books for the time we spent away, but I only ended up reading one – A Death in the Family, the first book in Knausgaard’s My Struggle series.

Sunset in Blacktown, just down the road from our old place
Sunset in Blacktown, just down the road from our old place

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia (in literature, but also in myself) a lot lately. Knausgaard’s relentlessly introspective look at his childhood and impossibly awkward teenage years brought back floods of memories of my own.

There’s really no better place to read Knausgaard than in the home in which you grew up. The combination of words and place set my memory whirring.

To tell the truth, I’m a little bit in love. If I didn’t have an embarrassingly large pile of books on my desk waiting to be reviewed, I’d have already started the next book in the series. Maybe soon.

#thanksdad

While staying with my parents, my Dad asked me about hashtags, so I tried to explain and ended up handing over my phone and showing him Twitter.

“But what’s Twitter actually for?” he asked me.

“Well, you send out a message using fewer than 140 characters and people who follow you on Twitter can read it and respond” I responded.

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Um – because you want to tell people about something you’ve done, or a thought you’ve had – or talk about a book you’ve enjoyed. Other people follow your tweets and see all the things you talk about”

“How many people follow your tweets?”

I told him.

“What? Why?

My phone is full of pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. I lived in Sydney for eleven years and I had to take a picture every time I went past.
My phone is full of pictures of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. I lived in Sydney for eleven years and I had to take a picture every time I went past.

Things I’m sad to leave behind (or: yes, even more nostalgia)

The Blue Mountains in the distance through my study window

Flowering Jacaranda trees (or perhaps specifically the one outside my former workplace?)

The jacaranda tree outside my old workplace
Jacarandas in bloom

Reading on the train to work

Dressing up to go to the Opera House

Our favourite Chinese restaurant

Going to Gleebooks after a long day at work

Wednesday night expeditions to the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Glen, my Big Issue guy

A burger with the lot from the milk bar near my work for lunch on Fridays

My glasses fogging up instantly as I walked down the stairs into Town Hall station into a wall of humidity

People-watching in Newtown

Predictable weather

Saying hello to Christina Stead every time I’d walk past her plaque at Circular Quay

The 343 through Redfern, even though it never ran on time

Getting to know my fellow commuters over the years without ever exchanging a word

Old wallpaper preserved behind clear perspex on the walls of the New South Wales Writers’ Centre

Lewisham, the home of Sydney’s friendliest cats (and people)

(Talking of people, there are far too many of you to name individually, but you know who you are)

Driving to our favourite beach for the day

Getting lost in The Rocks (and thinking of Playing Beattie Bow every single time)

Hot chocolate from Central station on the way to work in winter

The many places I never managed to find time to explore

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It’s sad to be gone. It’s good to be back. Things are happening all at once. I’m unpacking boxes. I’m looking for a new job for the first time in nine years. I’m making plans. I’m writing.

I’m still working out what happens next.

another year over, a new one just begun

War is Over was my favourite Christmas song as a child. Maybe it still is. I heard it on the radio while I was on the bus to work a few days before Christmas and I might have become a little teary.

The lyrics always confused me. Why, I remember asking my grade two teacher, did the man in the song say a new year had “just begun” when the song says that it’s Christmas?

My teacher had no answer for me. I mentally filed War is Over along with all the other vaguely ridiculous Christmas songs – like the one about “dashing through the snow” I remember singing at a sweltering end of year school assembly, the heat of the asphalt radiating through the soles of my school shoes.

I dread those “Oh, where has the year gone?” conversations that I’m often dragged into around the beginning of December. There’s something about that empty kind of chit-chat that I can’t stand. That, and it makes the feeling of time being dragged away from me worse.

But right at the heart of things, I think that’s what John Lennon was on about in those first few lines of War is Over – the way a year can seemingly whiz by in a flash, leaving you to begin again just as you were finding your way through a year that feels like it’s only “just begun”. Leaving you to ask yourself…so, what have I done?

For me, the answer is always the same: not enough. I’m hoping that at the end of 2015, I’ll have more to show for myself.

Before the New Year runs away from me, there’s some unfinished business I wanted to take care of first. In no particular order, here are five of the books I enjoyed the most in 2014.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

The highlight of my reading year was discovering Tove Jansson.

After my beautiful grandma passed away in the final weeks of 2013 – after the funeral, after the strangest Christmas ever – I found myself in the first days of 2014 standing in front of my bookshelf, looking for solace. The calm cerulean blue spine of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book appealed to me, and I started reading.

The Summer Book is a series of scenes that take place on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland, inhabited only during the summer by one family – a grandmother and Sophia, her granddaughter. There’s also Sophia’s father, an artist, but he plays little part in the plot. In the opening moments of The Summer Book, we learn that Sophia’s mother has recently died. With the link between generations missing, Sophia and her grandmother begin to explore the island they share, as well as the gap left by Sophia’s absent mother.

On the second page, Sophia asks her grandmother:

“When are you going to die?” the child asked.

And Grandmother answered. “Soon. But that is not the least concern of yours.”

“Why?” her grandchild asked.

She didn’t answer.

There was something about seeing that exchange, the directness of it there on the page, that knocked the air from me. I remembered asking my own grandmother the same question when I was very young.

As Sophia’s life is beginning, her grandmother’s life is coming to an end. Over the course of The Summer Book, we watch as Sophia’s grandmother becomes weak, sick, forgetful. And Sophia has no idea it’s happening, because that’s what it’s like to be young.

Beautiful and devastating, The Summer Book is a contradiction; direct and oblique at the same time. It was the first book I read this year, and remains my favourite – a life-changing experience that came along right when I needed it the most.

Also in 2014, I read Jansson’s short story collections Art in Nature, Fair Play and A Winter Book (in the winter, of course). I also read her novel, The True Deceiver and reviewed Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, a biography published last year to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Jansson’s birth. I could make up a top five for the year featuring only Jansson’s books, but I’m restricting myself to just one book per author. The Summer Book will always be special. It was the book that sparked a literary love affair.

Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut

arcticsummercoverOn the subject of literary love affairs, as a devoted fan of E M Forster, when I first heard about Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer – a fictional look at Forster’s life during the writing of A Passage to India, the last of his masterpieces – I knew I had to read it.

I was always going to have strong feeling about this novel. Arctic Summer didn’t disappoint. From the very beginning, Galgut’s inelegant, introspective Morgan Forster won me over completely. Arctic Summer is an understated, quiet book that left me flailing and defeated in its wake.

Arctic Summer might not be for everyone (last year’s Man Booker judges, for instance – Galgut didn’t even make the Booker longlist) but this novel is definitely for me. You can read my review over at Newtown Review of Books if you like.

The Swimming-Pool Library – Alan Hollinghurst

Talking of the Man Booker prize, I mightn’t have read this year’s winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but at least did I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty this year which won the Booker Prize back in 2004. It seems I have ten years to catch up.

I read Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library and The Line of Beauty in quick succession early last year and utterly lost myself in Hollinghurst’s immersive prose. I enjoyed both novels, but because I have to choose just one book per author, I’m putting Hollinghurst’s debut on this list.

The deliberately archaic register of The Swimming-Pool Library immediately had me feeling as if I was reading something set in another alternative existence – which, in a way, I guess I was. Hollinghurst’s characters inhabit a risky world of double meanings, codes and glances; a world where every action speaks of a hidden desire. It’s irresistibly dark and inviting, and I was drawn under its spell.

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

Every time one of those “best opening sentences of all time” articles makes its way around literary Twitter, I can’t stop myself from rolling my eyes. I hate the way these articles reduce books to just a few words, when a book is about so much more than that.

the-woman-upstairsThat said, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs has one of the best opening pages I’ve ever read. As far as I’m concerned, any novel that opens with the sentence “How angry am I?” and rounds off its first page with the words “FUCK YOU ALL” gets my vote.

Messud takes this initial momentum, this anger, and carries it over 301 furious pages. It’s the literary equivalent of a raised middle finger and from the very first page, I was swept up, tumbled over and over like being caught by a wave.

But as triumphantly, deliciously angry as the novel is, there’s a lingering sadness at work in The Woman Upstairs. It’s this element of frailty that binds this novel together and adds yet another dimension to this story of a vulnerable woman betrayed by art and by life.

Messud’s novel is twisted and seething and incandescently brilliant – and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

Ruth, an elderly woman, wakes in the early hours of morning to the unmistakable sounds of a tiger moving about her house. The next day, the tiger has gone and Frida arrives, sent by the government to look after Ruth.

I really admire The Night Guest – possibly because this is the kind of book I’d love to have written myself. The psychological tug of war that takes place between the two women; the way we watch, helplessly as Ruth’s memory slowly begins to unravel and retreat from her; even the beach setting, the way the sand dunes begin to invade Ruth’s home – all of the elements that make up this novel come together in such a perfect way that I was left in awe.

The Night Guest is close to flawless. If you haven’t already picked it up, add it to your list.

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Anyone who knows me will know by now that I can’t possibly write a list of five books without naming a heap of honourable mentions, so here are another a few other books that I loved this year…don’t tempt me to keep going, or I’ll just list everything I read…

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

trumpetWhen the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive.

Millie’s husband, famous jazz musician, Joss Moody has died, leaving a scandal in his wake. Distraught and grieving, Millie retreats to the holiday house she and Joss shared in Scotland to hide from the paparazzi while she begins to deal with her husband’s loss. Meanwhile, the son she and her husband adopted is processing his grief in a different way.

If you don’t already know what Trumpet is about, it’s best to keep it that way. Don’t read reviews. Don’t read the blurb. Just read this book.

Trumpet is a love story like no other – though doubtless there are many more love stories like it, just waiting to be told.

Cracking the Spine

Each of the short stories in this collection from Spineless Wonders is accompanied by an essay by the author. Some authors explain the story – how it came to be, how it was written, the thought process behind it – while other authors take am entirely different approach. In Cracking the Spine, fiction and non-fiction blend with fascinating results. I’ve got a half-written review of this sitting on my computer’s desktop – I’ll get to finishing it soon.

The Neighbour – Julie Proudfoot

Will I ever forget this chilling novella? I sincerely doubt it. More on The Neighbour soon – it’s another review-in-progress.

Captives – Angela Meyer

These tiny little stories have been carefully pared down to the barest of bones, but they’re still incredibly effective. I reviewed Captives for Newtown Review of Books and I’m quietly crossing my fingers that Meyer has Captives part two in progress, because I’m eager for more.

And because I really can’t resist adding even more names to this already lengthy list, I also really enjoyed Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders (which I also reviewed) and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light.

pinkclocksmaller

I’m only one week into the New Year and already my schedule’s looking excitingly, terrifyingly crowded. I worked through Christmas and the New Year, so I’ll be taking some time off soon. I’m hoping to catch up on a few of the titles I’ve been eager to read for a long time, like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, Ali Smith’s How to be Both and Lorelei Vashti’s Dress, Memory, which has been sitting patiently next to my bed for the longest time. I’d also like to read more current science fiction, so if you’ve got any recommendations, let me know.

Then, of course, I’ve got a heap of excellent books to review. There’s also the small matter of rethinking my blog’s focus and working out what I really want to do with this space in the year ahead. So, you know, no pressure at all…

Welcome to 2015. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

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.

booksIII

(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?)

2014 – boel westin ~ tove jansson life, art, words

tove-jansson-life-art-wordsLet’s start with a confession: I’m thirty-five, and this year, I read my first Moomin book.

2014 is shaping up as the year I discovered Tove Jansson, novelist and creator of the Moomin family.

I started writing something last night about reading Jansson’s The Summer Book for the first time. I only intended to write a few short paragraphs to introduce my latest review.

The thing is, once I’d started writing, I found myself unable to stop. The short piece I sat down to write is turning into a long, tangled thing. And I like it. It feels good. Hopefully, when I return to my half-finished piece soon, that thread is still there, waiting for me to pick up where I left off.

In the meantime, I have a new review to share. I’m over at Newtown Review of Books today, writing about Tove Jansson Life, Art, Words, a biography of Jansson written by Boel Westin. It’s been published in English for the first time this year to celebrate the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth.

Not only is Life, Art, Words a highly-detailed look into the life of a fascinating, talented artist, the book itself is also rather lovely as a physical artefact. It’s a giant hardcover that would be rather imposing if it weren’t a sunny shade of bright yellow underneath the dustjacket, shown above. Inside, Life, Art, Words is filled with images of Jansson’s cartoons, photos of Jansson and her family and friends, extracts from her letters and more. There’s a surprise waiting on every page.

Moominvalley

Talking of surprises, on Tuesday, the shortlist for this year’s Best Australian Blogs competition was announced…and I’m thrilled to announce that Book to the Future made it to the finals! In fact, so did a whole heap of other great blogs. Here’s a full list of all the finalists.

I’m a huge believer in the Australian literary blogging community. On the right hand side of my homepage, there’s a long list of blogs, literary websites, journals and more. While you’re in a clicky kind of mood, make sure you open up a few of these links. Take a look around, leave a comment or two, add them to your bookmarks. It’s like a literary lucky dip.

I’ll be updating this list with some new blogs I’ve discovered recently over the next few days.

If you’re new to Book to the Future – hello! I hope you like it here.

(Oh, and thanks for visiting!)

– Michelle