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 #9

bookmarksiii

bookmarksimageoneAfter a bit of a break, Book to the Future Bookmarks is back, baby.

In case you’re new around these parts (welcome!) here’s the deal: every second week, I post a list of literary links that have caught my attention and found their way into my Bookmarks folder over the past fortnight.

Because I’m already late with this post, and I’ve got heaps of other stuff I’m eager to write…and, to tell the truth, I’m yet to read half the things I’ve added to my Bookmarks lately, I’ve chosen just five links to share. I hope you like them!

Let’s start this edition of Bookmarks off with…a nuclear explosion? What?

Here, in the living room of a peaceful house in the suburbs, a typical family sits quietly. Dad reads the evening paper, unaware that disaster is about to strike. Mom cleans the dinner dishes, oblivious to the fact that in a few seconds their world will be reduced to a whirlwind of splinters and atomized debris. The children are in their rooms, doing their homework, little knowing that only a few moments of life are left to them, that they will never have to worry about homework again. The mightiest force ever created by man is about to be unleashed on them and there is nothing on earth they can do about it…

Five…four…three…two…one…

A second later, there was a flash of white and the unnamed family were enveloped in a surge of power that tore their tiny frames to pieces, bending them curiously out of shape before separating bodies from heads, arms from torsos, legs from abdomens. The solid-looking house simply crumpled into thin shreds of pulp and instantly ignited into [a] raveling avalanche of flame. A wind-tunnel effect then whisked the body parts and wreckage of furniture and plaster into a horrible whirling mass that was sucked into the tortured atmosphere.

(emphasis mine, I’m assuming this quotation has been mistyped)

This is, believe it or not, the opening passage of the official novelisation of the film, Back to the Future. It was written in 1985 by a George Gipe – who died in 1986 after being stung by a bee. No, really. The Back to the Future novelisation was published to coincide with the film’s release and based on the film’s screenplay…but an early version of the screenplay that bears little relation to the actual movie. The result: hilariously bad.

That’s all according to this Tumblr, which takes us page by bizarre page through Back to the Future, the book. The blog might be two years old now, but it’s well worth a look.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: this amazing Brain Pickings article popped up in my Twitter feed recently. It’s a selection of illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as imagined by a number of different artists from around the world – including some wonderfully detailed designs by (my beloved) Tove Jansson!

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(According to Jansson’s biography, which I read and reviewed earlier this year, Tolkien fans at the time weren’t at all happy with the way Tove concentrated on the novel’s scenery rather than Tolkien’s characters. Hmph.)

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary (!) of Robin Klein’s Hating Alison Ashley, and over at the Wheeler Centre website, author Andrew McDonald has posted a lovely tribute to this Australian classic.

(And, as a side note, while I said I’d only include five links, here’s a bonus link – back in 2012, Kill Your Darlings ran a YA Championship. I really enjoyed these essays on Australian young adult literature. If you missed it back in 2012, it’s definitely worth taking a look)

Public domain image, borrowed from Wikipedia
Public domain image, borrowed from Wikipedia

“You saw a tractor once. You didn’t like it.” Here’s how to tell if you’re in a Thomas Hardy novel – just in case you’ve ever wondered – because I know I have. As much as I love Hardy, I realise I wouldn’t last a second in one of his books. I don’t even have a favourite cow.

Finally, here’s an opportunity I find particularly interesting. I really enjoyed if:book’s N00bz series of online essays (Elizabeth Lhuede’s essay on the Australian Women Writers Challenge was a particular highlight for me) so I was delighted to find out that they’ve published the series in ebook format. Even better news: when the print version of the book is released later this year, it’ll be with an extra chapter containing tweets and blog post extracts written by emerging Australian writers. There’s more information over on the if:book website, as well as here, at Editia.

That’s it for Bookmarks for this fortnight. What’s next? Actually, I’m not quite sure. I’m working on a heap of things at once. You’ll know what’s next when you see it.

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

book to the future bookmarks #4 – the body edition

bookmarksiiiA huge thank you to everyone who’s been reading my fortnightly Book to the Future Bookmarks series! Here’s post four…which I’m going to call The Body Edition. All of today’s links are somehow associated with the body.

Be warned: it’s going to get a little bit…uncomfortable.

Courtesy of Jenny Ackland via Twitter, this photorealistic human flesh typeface is pretty much the creepiest thing ever. Here’s a sample… *shudder*

rIt’s the mole in the middle that I find particularly disturbing…

Dolls give me the creeping heebie jeebies. While you might think these artworks made from dismembered dolls (link courtesy of Rose Powell, once again via Twitter) are lovely, this is pretty much what my idea of what hell must look like. The horror!

But, at the same time, I can’t look away…

freya-4Already this year, I’ve had to spend more time than I’d necessarily like in the dentist’s chair, so I found this post on Angela Savage’s blog about how different cultures perceive the alignment and colouring of teeth really interesting.

Talking of cultural taboos, here’s the always-brilliant Mel Campbell, writing in Junkee late last year about dirty underwear.

Photographer Ji Yeo’s images of South Korean women recovering from plastic surgery – often surgery intended to make the patient appear more Western – are quietly disturbing.

Good news: the words cunting, cuntish, cunted and cunty have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary…or should it be the called the cuntionary now? I’m confused. Anyway, I can’t wait to play “cuntish” in my next game of Scrabble. If it’s in the dictionary, I can use it, right?

However, of everything I’ve read online this week, this is my favourite discovery. I look forward to reading Verity La every Saturday morning, and this week’s piece; Stomp, a work of short fiction by Melbourne writer, Libbie Chellew, caught me by surprise. Here are the first few sentences:

I wish I didn’t have a hole. It seems extreme, I know. But I can’t seem to get the idea out of my head. Life would be easier without a hole. There’d be less anxiety.

Stomp is confronting. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unforgettable…I read it on Saturday morning and I’ve been thinking about it since. Make sure you click here to take a look (but before you do, a content warning: if you’re not comfortable reading about sexual assault, you might want to skip reading this.)

You should definitely bookmark Verity La while you’re there. They’re consistently impressive.

On Book to the Future lately…

Just in case you missed it, I reviewed Wendy James’ The Lost Girls for Newtown Review of Books last week.

What I’m Reading…

With the Stella Prize shortlist due to be announced this Thursday, I’ve finally read one of the longlisted novels!

nightguestFiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest begins with Ruth, a 75-year-old widow, listening to the sound of a tiger moving around her living room as she lies in bed, terrified and fascinated. The next day, Frida arrives, a helper sent by the government to help Ruth around the house.

I don’t want to tell you too much about The Night Guest – partially because I don’t want to spoil the plot, but also because I really enjoyed this novel and I think there’s a particular kind of magic about the way it works; a deliberate vagueness that’s best left undisturbed. If you’re curious, you should read Kylie Mason’s excellent review over at Newtown Review of Books.

Art_in_Nature

Last week, I finished reading Art in Nature; a stunning collection of short stories by Tove Jansson. So many of these stories are simply perfect. They’re all so quiet and restrained, but, at the same time, manage to say everything they need to say.

Today, I read Jansson’s Fair Play in one sitting. It’s a series of vignettes about two artists who live at separate ends of an apartment building, and the constant push and pull of their relationship and their art.

(In case you’re wondering what I’m up to, I’ll be reading a new biography of Tove Jansson very soon, and I want to get to know more about her work before I read about her life. More on that later…)

I’ve also been reading Ulysses! Okay, not Ulysses in book format, but in tweets. @UlyssesReader is publishing the entire text of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one tweet at a time. It makes for some odd moments:

I’m finding that following @UlyssesReader is making the prospect of finally reading Ulysses – a task I’m considering later this year – a little bit less intimidating. Just a little.