If you’re free next Sunday, head on down to Margaret River!
Yesterday, our playgroup at Hyde Park was rained out, so I decided to take my three year-old little guy to Beaufort Street Books. I was on the hunt for Susan Midalia’s collection of short stories, An Unknown Sky. We parked on a side street and waited; the rain was coming down in torrents. I could see that the deluge wasn’t going to abate any time soon, so I told Lewis to climb on my back; we were going to make a run for it. We tore along the street, splashing, laughing as the rain pooled in our shoes. He yelled, “Giddy up!’ and cracked his whip and it was one of those moments, those rare moments, when you feel like you’re right in the middle of life; you’re living and you know what it’s all about. Good short stories are like that; in one moment, or many, something is elucidated; something unknown or unseen or forgotten, becomes perceptible again.
We arrived at the bookstore dripping and the lovely bookseller welcomed us inside, raindrops on our eyelashes, feet all a-squelch. I found the book quickly, and the woman at the cash register nodded with approval.
‘Susan Midalia is a beautiful writer,’ she said, before handing my boy a green jelly baby and waving us goodbye.
Lolly in mouth, splashing all the way, Lewis was an image of childhood pleasure as we headed through the drizzle to the car. I tucked my brown paper package beneath my jumper, as yet unaware of the treasure held there.
I babysat my friend’s three boys in the afternoon, so I didn’t get a chance to look at the book again until 7:30pm when the house grew silent. My boys were asleep and I felt nothing but relief. Oh, the joy of being alone after a long day in the company of children!
I was so very moved by Susan’s stories. There were goose bumps involved. After reading The boy with no ears and An Unknown Sky, I was compelled to go and take a look at my two sleeping boys. They have a bunk bed but they always end up intertwined on the bottom mattress. I watched them sleep: their baby-soft features stilled, their bodies wrapped up in each other. I kissed them. I sniffed their shampoo-sweet hair, with the knowledge that one day, they will be gone. Those little bodies will grow and they’ll be out in the world; this will be nothing but a dulcet memory.
When my eldest clambered into bed with me in the night, I didn’t shoo him away; I held him and gave thanks for the moment: my boy, nearly eight years old, head nestled at my neck.
Midalia’s stories gave me a new lens through which to look at my life. Such is the power of fiction. There is kindness at every turn in this collection; I particularly loved the forgiving portrayal of a vulnerable and desperate mother in The boy with no ears. There is a sentimentality that never feels gratuitous; Midalia teases at the heart strings with subtlety. Her prose is beautiful, every sentence carrying the perfect weight. I’ll certainly have to savour the last of these short stories.
I’m still reading Hurakami’s 1Q84 and I’m well and truly down the rabbit hole with no idea where I’m headed. I began the audio-book on my trip down to Margaret River; since then, I’ve traversed many kilometres and many moons: there are two worlds and two narratives in this tome of a novel. I’m disoriented; I’m even dreaming about this book. I find myself thinking of our main protagonists, Tengo, Fuka-Eri and Aomame at strange moments, and I’m keen to return to them.
The thing is, I’m mesmerised, but I have a strong sense that there will be no great pay-off at the end of this book. I’m very invested in the characters and I think I’ll miss them when they’re gone, so I’m okay with that. I’ll take great characters and narrative pacing over a good conclusion any day.
One of my favourite TV series is LOST. I thought the storytelling was superb; the characterisation just about perfect. But the ending was forced, and it left plenty of invested viewers disgruntled. I didn’t care, and I’ll defend that show until the end of days.
What do you think? Are you bothered when a narrative fails on a plot level but leaves you wistful for the friends you’ve made along the way?
Last weekend, I had a timely break from ‘real life’. I packed a small bag of clothes and a laptop and drove south. The journey was surreal; I was listening to an audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, and the landscape kept changing; from sterile housing estates to parched bush and finally, forests filled with a great glut of lilies. In the first chapter of 1Q84, one of the characters says:
‘…you’re about to do something out of the ordinary… and after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before.’
This passage resonated with me; I could already feel my reality shifting, and, indeed, I have come home with a different perspective. I feel lighter, and fuller, all at once.
I really enjoyed being in the company of literary greatness: Amanda Curtin, Susan Midalia, Dawn Barker, Deborah Burrows and Lynne Leonhardt. I’d like to send out a big public thank-you to Caroline Wood, our lovely host . I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to access the collective wisdom of such experienced authors. There was plenty of laughter too!
I just re-read a short from Knitting and other stories: ‘That Summer at Manly’ by John Jenkins. It’s the latest free short story download from Margaret River Press and it’s worth…well, much more than a couple of mouse-clicks! It’s cold today and these phrases sent me to my happy place:
“… the sunlight is filling me up, and buzzing…”
“ The air was full of fish and chips…”
“The hiss of air-conditioning threw a cool lifeline as I carefully removed my togs and collapsed into flames—flames which had once been the crisp, white sheets of my bed.”
‘That Summer at Manly’ is an evocative piece that makes me wistful for salt and sunshine. The narrative structure shifts like the ocean; we feel the gentle pull of memory, an undertow of nostalgia. This is a story of hot Australian summers, youthful escapades and neatly escaped disaster; it’s familiar territory, part of the shared cultural identity of anyone who’s spent time on the coast. I found it comforting, particularly as summer edges near. It stirs up childhood memories of beach holidays and surfing camps; of sandy feet and the scent of suncream.
Everywhere I look, I see evidence that winter is falling away and I am glad. And I am looking closely, because I am trying to slow down and take a deep breath today.
I enjoy the shift in seasons because the jasmine scented air signifies that spring will come again; that some things never change. I have been restless, and yesterday, I was reminded of a comforting passage that I read when life is moving too fast; when everything feels a bit scattered.
This is an excerpt from Michael Leunig’s The Curly Pyjama Letters:
In response to your question, “What is worth doing and what is worth having?”, I would like to say simply this: it is worth doing nothing and having a rest; in spite of all the difficulty it may cause, you must rest Vasco- otherwise you will become RESTLESS!
I believe the world is sick with exhaustion and dying of restlessness. While it is true that periods of weariness help the spirit to grow, the prolonged, ongoing state of fatigue to which our world seems to be rapidly adapting is ultimately soul destroying as well as earth destroying. The ecology of evil flourishes and love cannot take root in this sad situation. Tiredness is one of our strongest, most noble and instructive feelings. It is an important aspect of our CONSCIENCE and must be heeded or else we will not survive. When you are tired you must have that feeling and you must act upon it sensibly- you MUST rest like the trees and animals do.
Yet tiredness has become a matter of shame! This is a dangerous development. Tiredness has become the most suppressed feeling in the world. Everywhere we see people overcoming their exhaustion and pushing on with intensity-cultivating the great mass mania which all around is making life so hard and ugly- so cruel and meaningless- so utterly graceless- and being congratulated for overcoming it and pushing it deep down inside themselves as if it were a virtue to do this. And of course, Vasco, you know what happens when such strong and natural feelings are denied- they turn into the most powerful and bitter poisons with dreadful consequences. We live in a world of these consequences and then wonder why we are so unhappy.
So, I gently urge you Vasco, do as we do in Curly Flat- learn to curl up and rest- feel your noble tiredness- learn about it and make a generous place for it in your life and enjoyment will surely follow. I repeat: it’s worth doing nothing and having a rest.
Mr. Curly xxx
I love the notion of ‘noble tiredness’ and I am honouring it today. Shortly after reading this piece, my son asked me to come and look at something in the garden:
The image spoke to me: slow down. And I was reminded that the easiest pleasures are the ones found in nature…
I’m trying to harness my children’s natural state of wonder; the way they find joy; the way they perpetually marvel. There’s so much to marvel at…
And summer will come soon.
I hope my ‘sister-wives’ don’t mind that I’ve gone public with their images. When I think of summer, it’s all about lazy days spent at this beach with these beautiful friends.
I had a Twitter conversation with Adele Chapman and Dawn Barker last night about the pleasure/pain principle in relation to reading fiction. I’ve started Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, and I feel perpetually cold, a constant sense of dread. And I wonder, why do we, as readers, do it to ourselves? Adele and I decided that we can enjoy the prose without enjoying the content. And even when a novel or short story is full of despair, most authors try to drop in a bit of ‘sweet’ to offset the sour. I felt this way when I read Elemental by Amanda Curtin. The ‘sweet’ parts acted like a palate cleanser, giving the reader the wherewithal to endure the next onslaught of suffering.
I bought Dawn’s novel, Fractured, at the Margaret River Festival and it’s been sitting in my ‘to-read’ pile for a long time. I can’t deny that I approach this one with caution. I know what it is about, and the subject matter scares me. I still haven’t read We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, because I’m a scaredy cat. It’s about finding the right time. I’m going to brace myself and read Dawn’s novel next.
It sounds silly right? I wrote a story about postnatal depression, and yet I’m anxious about reading Fractured. I suppose, for me, Solomon’s Baby is less about the experience of postnatal depression, and more about the notion of culpability. I’m particularly fascinated by the various inferences made by some readers of my story; people come to a text with such different attitudes! Within this current cultural milieu, we have some big ideas and expectations about mothering; the 24/7 media cycle feeds us endless messages about parenting, and it’s a rare woman who does not experience mother guilt or self-doubt or anxiety on some level. I’m most interested in the reader’s position: just how culpable are my characters? How often do we unnecessarily apportion blame? I look at the BATTLEGROUNDS that are parenting websites and I’m stunned by the defensive missiles and incredible level of judgement. Seriously, even the language surrounding parenting choices feels like warmongering: ‘militant breastfeeders’, ‘nipple nazis’, ‘helicopter parents’ and the like. Fortunately, I never experienced severe postnatal depression, but most women I know have struggled with early motherhood to some degree, and this kind of crazy rhetoric doesn’t help anyone!
So, if you’re feeling brave, and have some chocolate and tissues on hand, head on over to Margaret River Press and read Solomon’s Baby.
Annabel Smith tagged me in this questionnaire that’s doing the rounds on the net.
Book Q&A Rules
1. Post these rules
2. Post a photo of your favourite book cover
3. Answer the questions below
4. Tag a few people to answer them too
5. Go to their blog/twitter and tell them you’ve tagged them
6. Make sure you tell the person who tagged you that you’ve taken part!
I want to preface this post by saying: I’m hopeless at this kind of thing. My partner and I used to lay in bed and contemplate our Top Five Lists (thanks High Fidelity by Nick Hornby). It’s never been an easy task for me, thanks in part to my perceived seriousness of the matter AND my dodgy memory. Choosing favourites is like choosing words; one must do so carefully.
As you can see, I’ve taken some liberties with the number of texts I’ve listed. And, DISCLAIMER: tomorrow I might feel differently. Here goes…
I’m a sucker for the relatively new Random House Vintage Classics covers; these stylized, rather graphic illustrations are right up my alley. I actually went way over budget in a silent auction at the Highgate Primary School quiz night last year when I saw this:
It’s easy to justify this kind of purchase of course: I was helping a local school; creating a beautiful library for my children…but I’ll never forget the death stares I received from the other luckless bidders…
They look beautiful all lined up too.
Okay, on with the show…
What are you reading right now?
Nineteen Seventysomething by Barry Divola
Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?
Probably Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. There’s been a lot of hype and my grandmother says it’s great. I trust her judgement.
What five books have you always wanted to read but haven’t got round to?
- We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver : Annabel mentioned this one too. I’ve made an active decision to avoid this book. I have two young sons and occasional anxiety issues. It’s not for me, at this time in my life.
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Just a girl by Kirsten Krauth
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
What magazines do you have in your bathroom/ lounge right now?
I’m a cheapskate; I only have cast-offs from friends. I have a stack of ‘Real Living’ mags next to my bed. I really only enjoy the delicious, guilty pleasure that is reading trashy mags whilst at the doctor’s surgery or hairdresser. I tend to feel a bit dirty, a bit corrupted afterwards. Frankie is a sweet magazine but some of the articles make me laugh out loud (have you ever wondered which backyard weeds are most nutritious? How many ways can you upcycle a pillowcase? Are you a kind-spirited hipster?). At least it ain’t mean-spirited like so many mags out there. Some lovely friends have bought me a subscription to ABR for me for my birthday, so soon I’ll have some high-brow material to keep in the toot.
What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?
I tend to stop reading after the second or third chapter if it’s no good, so I don’t think I can answer this one. Actually, I lie, I read Confessions of a Shopaholic in its entirety. I read the first few pages of Fifty Shades of Grey.
What book seemed really popular but you didn’t like?
The Outsiders by S.E Hilton. It was part of the secondary English syllabus circa 1996. Not my bag.
What’s the one book you always recommend to just about everyone?
On Love by Alain de Botton. It’s such an insightful rumination on romantic love and relationships.
What are your three favourite poems?
I must say, I don’t read much poetry these days, though I did when I was younger. I just grabbed some of my old Wordsworth/Blake/Keats/Marvell/Rosetti/Browning from my bookshelf to refresh my memory but it’s been such a long time and none of the ones I liked back then really speak to me now. I’ve just finished ‘Letters to a young Poet’ by Rilke, so I’ll try to read some of his work. I’m also going to make it my mission to read some contemporary poetry- all recommendations welcome.
Where do you usually get your books?
I get books from the library, then, when I’ve ascertained that they’re worthy, I buy them and they get to come and live with me. I try to buy them from Crow Books, in the hope that I’ll help to keep a local bookstore alive. I also pick up lots of treasures at the local swap meet.
When you were little, did you have any particular reading habits?
I was addicted to:
Enid Blyton (I loved ‘The Naughtiest Girl in the School’ the most!), Judy Blume, Paul Jennings, Virginia Andrews, The Nancy Drew books, Trixie Belden, The Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley High, The Narnia Chronicles, Roald Dahl.
What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was too good to put down?
Where’d you go Bernadette by Maria Semple. I read it in one sitting during a flight to Hong Kong.
Have you ever “faked” reading a book?
Hmmm…I read The Hobbit but then ‘fake-read’ the rest of the Lord of the Rings books.
I read Ulysses but skipped massive parts. Did the same with The Brothers Karamazov and Don Quixote. Of course, I read essays to fill in the gaps! I think this style allows me to convince myself that I have, in fact, read a book. *Master of Self-Delusion*
Have you ever bought a book just because you liked the cover?
Kid’s books and Non-Fiction books, yes. Novels, no.
What was your favourite book when you were a child?
As a small child, The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton.
Early teens, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer
Later teens, The Secret History by Donna Tartt
What book changed your life?
The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton, not because it was insanely good writing (though, it is reasonably good), but because it made me begin to think that I might be able to write a novel. I love her plot pacing; the slow reveals.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: another one that made me think about my own writing and the structural possibilities.
What is your favourite passage from a book?
I’m not sure that this is my ‘favourite’, but the writing is beautiful.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
Who are your top five favourite authors?
What book has no one heard about but should read?
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
When I read The Slap, I was reminded of this book. A satire about 30-something parents in the burbs.
Nude Men by Amanda Fillipacchi
What books are you an ‘evangelist’ for?
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. How an author moved me to tears by writing a chapter in Powerpoint, I’ll never know.
The Handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood
What are your favourite books by a first time author?
Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
Nude Men by Amanda Fillipacchi
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
What is left over, After by Natasha Lester
What is your favourite classic book?
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The prose….oh my.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf- this is one of those novels where I had moments of intense clarity about life- ask me to tell you what they were, and I won’t be able to…but I loved it at the time.
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Five other notable mentions?
Gilgamesh by Joan London
The Secret River/The Lieutenant/Sarah Thornhill etc by Kate Grenville
Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Transgressions by Sarah Dunant
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Elemental by Amanda Curtin
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Moon Palace by Paul Auster
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
Immortality by Milan Kundera
The Submission by Amy Waldman
Your turn: You don’t have to be tagged to take part in the meme. You can respond in the comments or on your own blog – just share the link in the comments – I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot is a story about self-actualization. Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are on the cusp of adulthood and embroiled in a love triangle; self-actualization is definitely a long way off for our three protagonists. The novel documents the proverbial ‘journey’ of the individual and acknowledges the cultural shift that has happened in the Western world since the last century: marriage no longer signifies the expression of a person’s full capacity. Thank goodness.
I’m not going to write a proper review today, but I will say this: don’t be put off by the prose in the first chapter; some of it is a bit over the top with superfluous adjectives and adverbs aplenty. It’s a good book; as awkward and pretentious as many of us were in our late teens, but ever-evolving and increasingly complicated in the latter parts. I liked it; I was familiar with its ‘people’, and I always enjoy books that hit close to home.
I’m not writing a lengthy post, because I’m feeling a bit depleted by my children. I am a creature of habit, and during the school holidays I tend to feel a bit ‘at sea’. I’ve been feeling this way for the last week; unsettled; a little bit out of sorts. I’ve been writing infrequently and indulging in way too many sugary treats. I’ve been torpid and irate with the kids. My darling poppets grew accustomed to the Lotto life whilst holidaying in Hong Kong and they’ve come home rather tetchy and spoilt. So I’ve had to practise a bit of ‘tough love’ to restore my usually (mostly!) delightful boys. It’s been exhausting.
A dear friend of mine, Jen, has provided some relief in the form of a tiny book; a book of consolation. It is about ‘surviving as a sensitive observer in a harsh world’. These are letters from German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, to his young acolyte and would-be writer, Franz Xaver Kappus. Ever humble and unwaveringly kind, Rilke writes of the experiences particular to artists; the inevitable disappointments and heady joys.
This week, I do not have the wherewithal to write a decent review, but I’d like to share a passage from Letters to a Young Poet, where Rilke tries to respond critically to his young admirer’s poetry:
With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings. Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.
Such is the nature of writing: we writers seek to express the inexpressible; we choose our words with the utmost care, and it can grow to be a tiresome thing, an extremely difficult thing, when the body and soul are weary. I have a feeling that this book will be a good tonic.
The theme for The Carmel Bird Award is ‘the twilight zone’ and I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone and writing a new short story. I’m having so much fun with what I hope is a Charlie Kaufman-esque kind of tale!