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 #7 – the music edition

bookmarksiiiAfter a bit of a break, it’s finally time to return to Book to the Future Bookmarks – the fortnightly megapost in which I share some (hopefully) interesting links I’ve had squirrelled away in my bookmarks folder. I also ramble on a little about the books I’ve been reading lately, what I’m up to – that kind of thing.

I hope you’ve got those vocal cords all warmed up and ready, because for the seventh edition Book to the Future Bookmarks, I’ve collected a heap of links that have something to do with music. I’ll tell you why at the end of the post…

With Eurovision just around the corner, let’s get started with a little ABBA! I dare you not to sing along…

So what if it’s a little old – I think this article listing the top 25 karaoke songs of all time is still pretty accurate. And it has the word “official” in the headline, so it must be authoritative. Number one on the list is above. Take a look at the rest of the list here.

Have you ever wondered what ABBA’s costumes have to do with tax evasion? Because I know I have. Here’s the answer.

Australian rapper, Iggy Azalea, wasn’t particularly pleased when a music mag printed a negative review of her album after featuring an interview with her and her picture on the cover. This article by Bernard Zuel, courtesy of Charlotte Wood (who has recently returned to Twitter!) manages to make a heap of brilliant points that apply not only to music writing, but to criticism in general. Just like this article from a few months ago discussing the giant stink The Jezabels kicked up after their second album received a heap of negative reviews. It contains this particularly insightful line:

If you don’t want people to comment on what you’re doing, do it without letting anyone know.

That applies to making music, doing plays, cooking food, masturbating: literally everything.

There’s a guy in England who had his stereo confiscated by police for playing Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On over and over again. Which is totally fair enough, I say. Lock that mother up and throw away the key. That link’s courtesy of Bothersome Words via Twitter, and – be warned – contains a YouTube link to Celine Dion performing My Heart Will Go On. Shudder.

Turns out that Katy Perry is actually little-known Archie Comics character, Katy Keene, the Fashion Queen. Also, talking of rip-offs, Let It Go, from Disney’s Frozen, was apparently inspired by Prince. It’s so cute how they’re trying to pretend it’s not the same song as Wicked’s Defying Gravity (there are some YouTube mashups, but sadly, they’re all performed by singers with voices even more irritatingly nasal than Idina Menzel).

“There’s no other time in history like right now”. The grandmother of punk, Patti Smith, dishes out advice to young artists that will make you feel like you can do ANYTHING…and yes, I know I’m thirty-something, but it’s still applicable, damnit.

Coldplay's Chris Martin, rehearsing
Coldplay’s Chris Martin, rehearsing

As if libraries worldwide haven’t suffered enough from budget cuts, Kindles and the like, Coldplay are promoting their new album by hiding lyric sheets in the pages of books in libraries all over the world.

Coldplay songs actually have lyrics? Who’d have known…? I suspect they’re written in crayon with half the letters backwards

(Apologies, Coldplay fans. I can’t help myself…)

And finally, on the subject of lyrics, how would it feel to own the original lyrics to Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone? They lyrics are hand-written, with drafts and scribbles in the margin…and they’ll set you back a million pounds when they’re auctioned off later this year. Which strikes me as somewhat contrary to the spirit of the original song – but anyway, sing it, Bob…

What I’m reading…

The reason why this fortnight’s Book to the Future Bookmarks are all about music? Because over the Easter break, I read two fantastic books – and they’re both about music. And love.

I saw Scottish poet and novelist, Jackie Kay, very briefly at last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival and kind of fell in love. It’s taken me this long to get around to reading Trumpet, her first novel, published in 1998.

Joss Moody, famous jazz trumpet player, has died, and his wife, Millie, is leaving the city for the couple’s cabintrumpet hideaway in Scotland. She’s trying to escape the paparazzi gathered outside her door, eager for her to speak about the scandal surrounding her husband’s death. In the freezing Scottish silence, Millie plays her husband’s old records for the first time in years, and begins to work through her grief.

Meanwhile, Colman Moody, the adult son of Millie and Joss, is coping with his father’s death in his own way. Or, rather, failing to cope. His relationship with his father has always been difficult, and when he’s approached by a journalist to sell the story of his father’s scandal, he quickly accepts.

That’s all I’ll tell you about Trumpet. Don’t look up this book online. Don’t even read the blurb. Just open the book to the first page and begin reading. It’s a book about devotion and redemption, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Here’s a little piece about the power of music:

The music is in his blood. His cells. But the odd bit is that down at the bottom, the blood doesn’t matter after all. None of the particulars count for much. True, they are instrumental in getting him down therein the first place, but after that, they become incidental. All his self collapses – his idiosyncrasies, his personality, his ego […] even, finally, his memory. All of it falls away like layers of skin unwrapping. He unwraps himself with his trumpet. Down at the bottom, face to face with the fact that he is nobody. […] The horn ruthlessly strips him bare till he ends up with no body, no past, nothing.

I didn’t intentionally set out to read two books about music in a row, but somehow, I did. Hermann Hesse’s Gertrude is a tale of doomed love – and music. Kuhn, a sensitive young gertiecomposer and violinist, is badly injured as a teenager, trying to impress a girl with an act of bravado. His leg never fully recovers.

Later, Kuhn befriends egotistical opera singer, Muoth, who helps establish Kuhn’s musical career. Gradually, Kuhn comes to realise that the troubled singer has a crippling problem of his own.

When Kuhn meets Gertrude, a beautiful young soprano, he falls in love with her immediately. The two work together on Kuhn’s first opera and though Kuhn never tells her how he feels about her, it seems that Gertrude not only understands, but feels the same way. Everything’s going smoothly…until Kuhn makes the mistake of introducing his beloved Gertrude to Muoth.

Hesse’s writing is always sharp, but in Gertrude, he’s particularly luminous. Here’s a little taste, also on the subject of music:

In the depths of my soul, where my mother could not penetrate, there was sweet music. Whether or not I should now have any luck with the violin, I could again hear the world resound as if it were a work of art and I knew that outside music there was no salvation for me. […] It was not, as I had said to my mother, the thought of my violin that made me happy, but the intense desire to make music, to create. I again often felt the clear vibrations of a rarefied atmosphere, the concentration of ideas, as I had previously in my best hours, and I also felt that the misfortune of a crippled leg was of little importance beside it.

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Other non-musical things I recommend you read? There’s been a really popular article about the 25 articles every writer should read floating around Facebook and Twitter lately, but I like this response from Alison Croggon much better.

Also, this week’s Verity La made me happy and sad at the same time. Hashtag YOLO.

Look, I’m sure I’m forgetting heaps of important bookish stuff I wanted to mention, but it’ll all have to wait. That’s all the time I’ve got for this fortnight. Next Monday, I’ll have another edition of Past, Present and Future online for you to read. In case you missed it, you can take a peek at the first ever Past, Present and Future post, starring special guest Kirsten Krauth right here.

Thanks for reading!