past, present and future with graeme simsion

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the rosie effect

Past, Present and Future is a (mostly) fortnightly series of posts in which a very special guest comes time travelling with me.

The idea is surprisingly simple – every second Monday, I ask someone bookish to spill the beans on the book they’ve just read, what they’re reading right now and what they’re planning to read next.

This fortnight’s guest is none other than Graeme Simsion, author of the wildly successful (not to mention incredibly enjoyable) smash hit The Rosie Project, and its much-anticipated sequel, The Rosie Effect – which I just so happen to be reading right now!

Curious? Of course you are! I know I am! Here’s what Graeme’s been reading…

greenclocksmaller

When I took a comedy class with Doug Anthony All Stars legend Tim Ferguson a few years ago, he warned us, ‘You may never laugh again.’ There is a general truth here: once you know how the trick is done, it loses its power. And artists look at others’ work with a professional eye.

Reading has not been the same for me since I became a novelist and, and, particularly, an editor of my own and others’ work. I’m constantly examining the craft. What techniques is Ms Tartt using to hold my attention? Why the sudden change of point of view, Mr Larssen? Are all those colons and semicolons a deliberate stylistic choice, Ms Mantel?

For relaxation, as distinct from education, I’m more inclined to pick up non-fiction, or fiction that’s a long way from what I’m trying to write myself. My kids gave me a copy of The Annotated Alice (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with notes by mathematician Martin Gardner) for my birthday, and it filled both criteria.

But, as it happens, my last book was a novel. So…

 

Past

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

The cover of my edition has a bet each way: “One of the best twists in years – Stylist magazine” and “Shortlisted for The Man Bookcompletely beside ourselveser Prize 2014”. Maybe that confused positioning is why it has apparently disappointed many readers, who have given it a rating of 3.5 stars on the Australian Amazon site. Perhaps they were expecting a thriller (which it isn’t) or a more literary style of writing.

But it’s a five star book as far as I’m concerned. Effortless, clean writing, a distinct and sassy voice (it’s in first person) and a highly original premise that provides a base for an emotional journey, reflections on the human condition and liberal doses of comedy. A family makes a big, and in hindsight, disastrous, decision and does its best to manage the consequences. It was a situation I was familiar with from non-fiction. Beside Ourselves brings a different –and arguably more pertinent—perspective.

I can’t write much more about the plot without revealing the twist (many of the reviews contain the relevant spoiler, so read them later). That said, I had been made aware of it before I started reading, and, beyond missing out on one ‘whoa’ moment in many hours of reading, I didn’t feel my reading experience was compromised. Of all the books I’ve read this year, it’s the one I’d most like to have written.

Twists… They’re a vital part of plots in certain genres, but a big twist does not a story make, at least not for me, and the author needs to be careful not to break faith with the reader by being seen to withhold information that should have come out in the normal course of narration. Beside Ourselves’ twist breaks this rule – in spades – but it happens early and we are given a good reason for the deception. I bought it, but not everyone will.

The outstanding “twist-based” success of recent years has been Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and, again, the twist has pulled attention from what a good thriller – and intelligent study of narcissism – this book actually is. In fact, I’d argue that the mid-way twist denies us the possibility of empathising with the Amy character, and that the book is weaker for it. I’d have killed that darling – but it’s hard to argue with that grip it’s got on the number one spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

 

Present

the-assassination-of-margaret-thatcherI can’t write as much – or as reflectively – about what I’m reading now. It takes time to absorb a book, and sometimes years to understand its impact. I read Albert Camus’ The Plague when I was fifteen, and still reflect on it. But when I was briefly addicted to Robert Ludlum thrillers, I’d have been hard pressed to recall the plots a week later.

I’m a parallel processor. The stack of books beside my bed is embarrassing (in height, not content). I’m dipping into Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher but tonight I’ll resume reading How Plays Work by David Edgar. It’s one of several ‘craft’ books beside the bed, including two on comedy writing and one on screenplay.

I’ve always been interested in the theory, the foundations of what I’m doing. That’s not to dismiss the value of intuition or the unexplained moment of inspiration but I want to save my limited creative resources for when they’re needed. The more I can do consciously, purposefully and in a way I can understand myself, the better. And it gives me a language to discuss what I’m doing, and to coach others.

 

Future

once-upon-a-time-the-lives-of-bob-dylanNext on my list is a manuscript I’ve been asked to read. In the last year I’ve done this for my partner (Anne Buist) and a member of my writers’ group (Tania Chandler). Their novels, respectively Medea’s Curse (Text) and Grunge (Scribe) will be published next year. Reviewing manuscripts constructively is a big job, and I only do it for people I know well (or owe a favour!). I suspect this sort of work is what’s made me such a picky reader, but, truth to tell, it’s good for my own writing.

After that, I’ll probably pick up Ian Bell’s two-volume Lives of Bob Dylan. I’m a Dylan aficionado (falling short of Dylan tragic, I hope), and recently selected his album “Live 1966: The ‘Albert Hall’ Concert” as a favourite work of art to discuss on Radio National’s Masterpiece programme.

As a baby boomer, it’s hardly original to have Dylan as my creative hero, but he provides a model for reinvention and for continuing to do fine work as he ages (I’m talking about the song-writing and recordings – I won’t argue about the concerts!). And every time I prepare to do another bookshop talk, I remind myself that he’s getting up on stage every night at 72.


 

Thanks for stopping by to take part in Past, Present and Future, Graeme!

What do you think of Graeme’s choices? Are you a fan of novels (or short stories, for that matter) with plot twists? And how out of control is the stack of unread books beside your bed? Seriously, if mine collapsed on me during the night, I might not survive… (but what a way to go!)

the books of 2012 ~ part one

christmasbooksThere’s no point dancing around the truth. 2012 hasn’t been my most productive year.

Every other year I’ve been writing Book to the Future, I’ve written a list of my favourite novels for the year. But this year, I haven’t read anywhere near the number of books I normally read…and I’ve reviewed even fewer. Complete disaster.

After spending an embarrassing few days wailing, I took to my keyboard and started frantically writing emails.

I emailed some of my favourite bloggers, I emailed people I admire; people I enjoy following on Twitter. I even found the temerity to email a few of my favourite Australian writers.

I asked them if they could take a moment to write a few words about their favourite two (or more!) books for the year. Not necessarily books that have been released this year, but books they’ve read this year and enjoyed.

In the days following my email frenzy, my inbox began to fill with their insightful, intelligent responses. Every email has made me smile.

Here, presented in no particular order, are my guests’ selections…

My first guest is Elizabeth Lhuede. 2012 has been a busy year for Elizabeth. Her brainchild, the Australian Women Writers Challenge, has been a roaring success. Just the other week, the challenge was named in a list by Daily Life as one of the twenty greatest moments for women this year. You can join me in signing up for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge right here.

Hornung_DogBoyB-FINALI’m assuming someone else will choose Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts, a magical, provocative story that has had loads of attention. So I’ll go instead for Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy because it, like Sea Hearts, challenges what it means to be human. Despite winning the Fiction category of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2010, it wasn’t in stock at my local bookshop when I went hunting for it. It moved me both emotionally and intellectually more than any other book I’ve read this year. You can read my long, personal response to Dog Boy here.

The other book I’d mention, one I haven’t reviewed, is Western Australian poet Jacqueline Stewart’s One Bite of the Cherry. It’s a cheeky selection as Jacqui is known to me via an email group I belong to, and this is her self-published memoir. It’s about her life in Bangkok in the late 50s and early 60s as an army wife with a young family. Jacqui, now in her eighties, submitted the memoir to several publishers and had it rejected. The story is beautifully written, evoking the time, place and culture of a pre-tourist era in Thailand with a poet’s eye and ear. Apart from its literary merit and emotional range, the story provides a valuable piece of a much larger mosaic, a history from a domestic, woman’s point of view of Australia’s involvement in Asia in the mid-twentieth-century. It’s a tale that, without self-publishing, could have been lost forever, and deserves a wider audience.

Next, here’s Anna Maguire from Digireado. I might be a bit of a digital dunce, but Anna is the expert on all things digital. She blogs about digital publishing and her first book, Crowdfund It! has just been published – digitally, of course.

I made the decision this year to only read books by Australian women writers and it has been an absolute pleasure. I’ve also been reading by recommendation, which has taken me to writers and genres I may not have discovered on my own. I found that this fell by the wayside when I got busy near the launch of my own book, so I plan to continue my reading of Australian women writers into 2013.

whenwehavewingsMy absolute favourites? So hard to pick but I’m choosing these ones:

When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett because I saw her book not just read it and was totally immersed.

All That I Am by Anna Funder because I would read at night, turn out the light and hear the boots on the stairs and feel what the characters were living through.

The Mistake by Wendy James because I love her writing, her thought process in taking what seems a familiar story and turning it around and I will always read her books.

Am I Black Enough for You by Anita Heiss because I needed to understand more and I find it has opened my eyes in ways that were needed – and she’s a bit of a personal hero as well.

Angela Meyer is a literary superhero. She blogs at LiteraryMinded, she interviews authors for her own literary show, A Drink With…, she writes short stories and, most importantly, whenever she writes a positive review, I sit up and pay attention – and my To Be Read pile gains an extra storey…

richardmahonyThe two books that stand out for me in my 2012 reading are The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson, and The Forrests by Emily Perkins. Mahony is an absolutely massive book, so perhaps wouldn’t be many people’s first choice on the shelf. When I read it I decided to put other books aside (I normally have a few on the go). It was completely absorbing. I found myself thinking: this is what a novel is and can be. If you don’t mind, I’m going to quote my own blog post on the book:

Mahony is such a fulfilling read mainly due to the character of Richard Mahony and his self-induced tribulations, and the intimate details of his marriage to Polly (later known as Mary). But it is also due to the historical aspects: Mahony provides complete immersion in the experience of the past, through the eyes of just a few characters. It’s also an incredibly compassionate novel. I only read afterwards that the character of Mahony was partly inspired by Richardson’s father, and that just broke my heart all over again.

I reviewed The Forrests by Emily Perkins for Bookseller+Publisher early in 2012. I was theforrestsblown away by Perkins’ insightful prose and the way she created a whole, beautifully complex life, between the front and back cover. I was lucky enough to meet Perkins at two festivals this year, and I also read her wonderful Novel About My Wife, which, tonally, is very different to The Forrests. I think she must be one of the best writers working today. I’ll quote from my review:

The Forrests is partly about survival, not just how we survive the often difficult and tragic events in our lives, but how we survive each other: our parents, our lovers, our children. It’s also about how we survive ourselves; how we deal with remnants of the past that remain with us, and how we deal with new fears that crop up and change us.

Both of these books provided a rich and stimulating reading experience, which is so pleasurable to me and is really what I look for.

Louise Bassett is a philosopher, a writer – and a mum. Over at Stella Orbit’s Blog, she documents her unique perspective on parenthood, life, love and all the things in between.

In spite of what I thought about being time-poor, I did manage to read a fair number of books this year. Two bouts of sickness brought the unexpected bonus of uninterrupted reading time.

The standouts for me this year are Foal’s Bread, Gillian Mears, and Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner. They could not be set further apart but I love them equally ferociously.

Foal’s Bread is a tour de force for Mears. It is full of beautiful writing; a classically-told foalsbreadAustralian story. The imagery is vivid enough to make you believe you are sitting by the side of the show ring smelling the horses and sawdust and sweat. This book is a story of love and loss, but also of hope. Noah Childs is a stunning character rendered with a piercing clarity. From the moment at the river when fourteen-year-old Noah, without too much ceremony, farewells her premature infant until she realises her own child is better than her, she is striving to get out of herself. Noah throughout the book is tormented that she has an underlying tenderness that her toughness will not overwhelm, not matter how hard she tries. The impossible sadness takes a while to absorb, but you must if you are to witness the denouement. I have struggled for seven months with the review I want to write, and I still haven’t written it. Foal’s Bread is the book I have recommended this year, time and time again.

crossingtosafetyMy other favorite is Crossing to Safety. This book was featured on First Tuesday Book Club by guest Charlotte Wood. Her description clearly made an impression on a number of people, for a while it was sold out everywhere – not a copy was to be had in Australia for love nor money. It was worth waiting for a copy to arrive. This is a wonderful American novel, interestingly, to me at least,  set around the same time as Foal’s Bread. The story of two couples set during the Depression, Crossing to Safety spans decades of the lives of the four characters. Again, this is a book about love and loyalty, of jealousy and making do with what you have. This is the novel that convinced me to seriously fill the gaps in my reading of Twentieth Century American literature. The writing is as good as a writer at the end of his writing career and life should be.

I also want to give an honourable mention to John Foulcher and his new book of poems The Sunset Assumption. This is a wonderful book of poems published by a new poetry imprint, Pitt Street Poetry that launched in 2011. This is a special book for me, as the poet is a friend. Nevertheless it is brilliant. These poems were written during a sabbatical trip to Paris, and are full of the stuff of life, told by a poet who knows what really matters.

Alice Grundy is editor-in-chief of Seizure magazine, a bi-annual journal showcasing everything that’s new and brilliant in the world of Australian writing. Seizure’s latest Music edition is out now – if it’s not already sitting on your coffee table (or wrapped up under your Christmas tree, ready to give to someone with impeccable taste) go and take a look.

thisishowyouloseherNarrowing a year’s worth of reading to two titles means I’m going to have to cushion my picks in some context. My first choice is because it was one of the most pleasurable reads I had during the year. This Is How You Lose Her is Junot Diaz’s latest collection of short stories and his mastery of patois, of showing the difficulty in simply making it from one day to another as a conscious being and his impeccable portrayal of teenagers is on par with The Brief and Mysterious Life of Oscar Wao. If only Diaz could spend less time teaching and more time writing, we wouldn’t need to wait so long between books.

The Man Who Loved Children is my second pick, even though I haven’t yet finished it. I was encouraged to plug some gaps in my reading, in part by the campaigns run by the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge and the Stella Prize, and the handsome Miegunyah Press reissues of Christina Stead caught my eye – as did the strapline about an introduction from Jonathan Franzen. Funny without being glib themanwholovedchildrenand emotionally affecting without getting sappy, The Man Who Loved Children is proving an excellent rounding out to a year and Stead has certainly exceeded my expectations. Sam’s neologisms and his thoroughly complicated relationships with his wife and children along Louisa’s artfully rendered childhood and Henny’s end-of-tether mothering make this feel timeless, despite being first published in 1940.

And if you’ll permit me a small cheat, some of my other notables for this year include: Foal’s Bread, Gillian Mears; A History of Books, Gerald Murnane; The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach and Open City, Teju Cole.

I was fortunate enough to hear the fascinating Walter Mason speak at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre Emerging Writers’ Festival Roadshow earlier this year. His first book, Destination Saigon, was named one of the best travel books of 2010 by the Sydney Morning Herald. Walter’s next book, Destination Cambodia will be published by Allen and Unwin some time in 2013. You can take a look at some of Walter’s other favourite books for the year here.

chelseachelseabangbangThere are two books that I loved in 2012 and it excites me to put them together because they couldn’t be more different. The first is Chelsea Handler’s trash-tastic Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang. Handler is very funny and very naughty, and her annual books, collections of Sedaris-esque amusing anecdotes from her past and present, have become so successful that her editors are obviously just letting her put whatever she wants into them. This produces a quite surreal collection of funny stories, psycho-sexual musings and plain meandering stream-of-consciousness stories about beach holidays. And they’re all wonderful!

The second book that took my breath away is a quiet and mystical collection of new poems by young Australian poet Lachlan Brown. Limited Cities is published by Giramondo, that hyper-literary house that probably wouldn’t even answer Chelsea Handler’s emails. Brown’s poems are exquisite in their meditative mood, and I was surprised and fascinated by some explicitly religious content, particularly in series written for Advent and for Lent. I think he is a poet to watch, as he manages to combine a great depth of feeling and content with a crisp ear for accessible language.

My final guest for today is Kylie Ladd. The author of After the Fall and Last Summer (Highly Commended in the prestigious Christina Stead Award for Fiction), Kylie’s third novel, Into My Arms, is set to hit the shelves mid 2013. I can’t wait – I’m planning on camping overnight outside the nearest bookshop in order to be one of the first to get my hands on a copy!

I was going to say Foal’s Bread – but when I checked my diary I actually read that in December 2010. Drats!

Bring Up The BodiesBringUpTheBodies – Mantel. A rare case of the sequel outdoing the original- and the original was good enough to win a Booker too. Amazing prose, iron control over her story, and gripping-my-seat tension, even though everyone knows how the Anne Boleyn story ended up. Honestly, just an incredible, beautiful, luminous book.  The last page alone is a master class in writing. The winner by miles.

Salvage the Bones – Ward. Earthy, raw, in-your-face story of Esch, a black teenager living in grinding poverty in Mississippi discovering she is pregnant as Hurricane Katrina appears on the radar. Again, the tension in this novel as the storm moves closer and Esch has to make some hard choices is outstanding. Not relaxing reading, but very rewarding.

Honourable mention to The Song Of Achilles – Miller. Fabulous re-telling of the story of Achilles, as told by his dear companion (and here lover) Patroclus. Lyrically and movingly told, and much more accessible than The Iliad. Particularly enjoyable if you picture Brad Pitt as Achilles (cf. the movie Troy) throughout.

Make sure you return tomorrow for the second and final part of the Books of 2012, with selections from many more special guests – as well as my picks for the year. See you then!