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.

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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.

book to the future bookmarks 11 – the spring cleaning edition

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No, I can’t really believe it’s been close to two months since I last wrote anything either, but that’s how it goes.

Things are, of course, still piling up around me – the garden needs weeding, the house needs cleaning, books need reading and words need writing, but I’m getting there, one task at a time. Which is the only way to approach these things, really.

After a short, unintentional winter hibernation, I’m back, and it’s spring and I’m feeling better for the much-needed rest. I’ve even given Book to the Future a bit of a facelift. I hope you like it!

I know it’s not much of a Book to the Future Bookmarks post without a heap of links, but in the spirit of spring cleaning, I deleted my unread bookmarks. All five hundred and seventy two of them.

So, I’ll leave you with one link only this time around. But I promise, it’s a good’un.

Image source
Zadie Smith. Image source here.

Very slowly a pair of profoundly blue eyes rose to meet Miss Adele’s own green contacts. The blue was unexpected, like the inner markings of some otherwise unremarkable butterfly, and the black lashes were wet and long and trembling. His voice, too, was the opposite of his wife’s, slow and deliberate, as if each word had been weighed against eternity before being chosen for use.

“You are speaking to me?”

“Yes, I’m speaking to you. I’m talking about customer service. Customer service. Ever hear of it? I am your customer. And I don’t appreciate being treated like something you picked up on your shoe!”

The husband sighed and rubbed at his left eye.

“I don’t understand – I say something to you? My wife, she says something to you?”

Miss Adele shifted her weight to her other hip and very briefly considered a retreat. It did sometimes happen, after all – she knew from experience – that is, when you spent a good amount of time alone – it did sometimes come to pass – when trying to decipher the signals of others – that sometimes you mistook–

Zadie Smith’s latest short story, Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets, has been shortlisted for the BBC’s National Short Story Award. It’s also, of course, amazing. It’s published in full right here. Make sure you put aside some time to read it – it’s a treat.

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I might not have been writing, but I’ve been reading constantly over the last couple of months. Last week, I finished Cracking the Spine, a collection of short stories accompanied by essays written by their authors, and I’ll be writing a review soon. I’m also slowly making my way through The Big Issue’s annual Fiction Edition, as well as catching up with my Review of Australian Fiction subscription (one of the smartest things I’ve done this year was subscribe to RAF). And, as if that’s not enough short stories, Australian Love Stories is right near the top my pile of books to read. I’ve been swimming in short stories, and I couldn’t be happier.

There are novels on my pile of books to review soon, too – like, for instance, Jessie Cole’s Deeper Water. Cole is the kind of writer who makes me forget I’m actually meant to be a reviewer; she pulls you into her world everything else just sort of falls away. But the novel you can expect to see reviewed next on Book to the Future…isn’t actually a novel at all. It’s a novella – Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour. I won’t say too much about The Neighbour. I’m saving it up for my review.

Anyway, this is all just a long, roundabout way of saying that life can be overwhelming, but stories, long and short, are the best way of escaping from it all.

I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but it’s good to be back.

(One other thing: I’ve just added a heap of new blogs to my Required Reading list over in my sidebar. If you’re looking for links, that’s the ideal place to start!)

past, present and future with walter mason

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cambodiaEvery two weeks on Book to the Future, I have a feature I call Past, Present and Future. Its a special post in which I invite I admire – an author, a blogger, a reader – to share with me a little bit about the book they’ve just finished reading, the book they’re reading right now and the book they’re planning to read next. In other words – past, present and future. 

This fortnight’s fellow time traveller is blogger and writer, Walter Mason. He’s the author of two travel books, Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia – not to mention a completely fascinating person. You’ll see what I mean. Here’s what Walter’s been reading…


Past

Many people don’t realise that I am completing a doctoral dissertation on the history of
self-help writing in Australia. I have to say this to disguise the fact that I am actually an addicted reader of self-help books, and have been ever since my father gave me a copy Enchantmentof The Magic of Thinking Big when I was sixteen. I had already indulged in the self-help habit before that, however. I’d picked up and read Dr. Wayne Dyer’s 70s self-help classic Your Erroneous Zones, having mistaken it for a naughty book. Two chapters in I was disappointed and delighted all at the same time.

The book I have just finished is Guy Kawasaki’s Enchantment. Kawasaki was once the face of Apple computing, striding the global stage as the world’s first ever “Chief Evangelist” for a corporate entity, thereby setting the stage for an avalanche of “Brand Ambassadors” and “Chief Motivating Officers.” Enchantment is his manifesto for becoming a thought leader through the use of charm, friendliness and mutual self-support. It is an excellent book, and it encouraged me to redouble my own efforts on that front. I think charm is something of a lost art, and certainly one that sophisticated sourpusses like to make fun of. Kawasaki’s book promises that it is still the most certain way to success, however, and I think he’s probably right. I dream of starting a chain of charm schools – God knows the world needs them.

Present

homage to panI am fascinated by Australia’s occult history. People imagine that Australians have always been cynical and conservative, but in fact we have had warlocks, Buddhists, Spiritualists and Theosophists here since the earliest days. One of the most intriguing and outrageous of these fringe characters was Rosaleen Norton, the Witch of Kings Cross. At the moment I am reading Homage to Pan: The Life, Art and Sex-Magic of Rosaleen Norton by Nevill Drury. It’s great fun and oh how I ache to be a wizard in Kings Cross in the 1950s! Nevill Drury was the foremost historian of alternative religion and spirituality in Australia, and he was someone I worked closely with for a couple of years. He passed away last year, and this is the last book he produced. It’s got everything: sex, drugs, poetry, Lucifer and art. And every word is true!

Future

crackingConstantly anxious and terrified that I am an impostor, I always look for ways to improve. This goes for writing, life management, relationships and shirt-folding. I stalk YouTube slavishly for “life hacks.” So I almost can’t keep away from the next book on my pile: Cracking the Spine: Ten short Australian stories and how they were written. It’s been put together by Bronwyn Mehan and Julie Chevalier at Spineless Wonders, and is a collection of short stories, each story followed by an essay by its author detailing how they wrote the story. It’s a fascinating idea, and just the kind of thing I love. I always want to know what makes other writers tick, and I am also on the lookout for any guaranteed shortcuts to genius.


Walter Mason is a writer, blogger and creative writing teacher currently completing his doctoral thesis on the history of self-help books in Australia.

His first book, Destination Saigon was named one of the ten best travel books of 2010 by the Sydney Morning Herald. Walter’s latest book, Destination Cambodia, was released in 2013. Walter runs the Universal Heart Book Club with Stephanie Dowrick, an online video book club that concentrates on matters of the spirit. You can find out more about Walter and his activities at www.waltermason.com or on Twitter @walterm. You can also join his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/waltermasonauthor.


Coincidentally, Cracking the Spine is next on my pile of books to read too. And I had no idea about warlocks and wizards in Kings Cross, but now I’m itching to know more. Thanks Walter!