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Reading recs

21 December 2018

I’m not ready to give you my 2018 reading wrap-up yet. After all, there are still 10 reading days left! But I am going to give you the last three of my Books of the Month from my subscribers newsletter, plus a bonus book.

I usually try and make connections between my picks, but it’s difficult to find any threads this time. Except for the fact that three of these books are from America, which is unusual for me, although Americanah is perhaps more a Nigerian book.

If you’re looking for last minute Christmas gifts any of these would be perfect. Frankly, I’d love it if men across Australia woke to find their stockings stuffed with Men Explain Things to Me.

October: Americanah is the most brilliant exploration of race, racism and identity of any novel that I have read, while simultaneously following the tender love story of Ifemelu and Obinze. Adichie effortlessly shifts backwards and forwards in time, and across three continents (Nigeria, America and England). Her prose gets under your skin; she is without doubt a master storyteller. I’ve previously read her Half of a Yellow Sun, but now I’m off to find her debut, Purple Hibiscus, and her short fiction collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. I recommend that you do too!

November: Miles Franklin-winning Extinctions, by Josephine Wilson, is a novel about many things: adoption, Australia’s Stolen Generations, parenting, family, drugs, loss, aging, death and the purpose of living. Frederick Lothian — a retired professor, engineer and widower — has entered a retirement village, and begun involuntarily reflecting on past actions, in particular the treatment of his wife and children. In the village he meets tough, no-nonsense Jan who is dealing with her own problems, and is not shy about forcing Fred to face his past. A finely wrought novel that is sometimes darkly humorous, often tragic, always moving.

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December: Women will obviously read Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (warning: it will make you mad), but I hope all the men out there will too. Because even good men don’t seem to have a nuanced understanding of what it is like to move through the world as a woman. Here’s just one shocking statistic for you: ‘Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.’ To be clear, that’s combined. Please read it. That is all.

Bonus book: Lincoln in the Bardo was my book club’s final novel of the year and I’d been wanting to read it for ages. It’s a startling work and seems to have polarised opinion, with readers either loving or hating it. Groundbreaking books often do that. And it is certainly like nothing I’ve ever read before, a reinvention of the form. It took me about 20 pages to get into it and adjust to the shape of the work, but once I did I couldn’t put it down. It’s set in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln’s son has been buried, and the events take place over a single night. Zadie Smith describes it as ‘a masterpiece’. I concur.

Over to you now. What recent reads would you recommend?

Public reading: More please!

7 November 2018

Since phones have taken over it seems to me that people are reading less in public spaces. My children and I flout this at every opportunity. On a trip to the shops all three of them can often be seen trailing behind me, book in hand. (No one has met with calamity yet.) If I know I’ll be wasting time in queues, I’ll stuff my current novel into my bag before I leave home. But then as I stand in a line of people bent over their phones, I often feel almost mournful. Perhaps those either side of me are reading ebooks, but their scrolling fingers suggest otherwise. And I wonder, are we losing the art of reading? Are people reading less? Are we so spending so much time on social media that we are no longer taking time for deep reading?

A 2016 Nielsen report puts average media consumption (social media, TV, radio and all electronic devices) at 10 hours a day. How is there time for anything else? And in 2016, a National Endowment for the Arts survey found that only 43 per cent of American adults had read ‘a work of literature’ for pleasure in the previous year. That stat depresses the hell out of me. More than half the country hadn’t read even one book in a whole year. That’s 163 million people who didn’t pick up a book for pleasure.

Anecdotally, the word from my children about their classmates’ lack of interest in recreational reading doesn’t paint a rosier picture. Last week Miss 15 reported that her English class complained volubly about a Roald Dahl short story they were asked to read. It was too long, they all said. Miss 15 rolled her eyes as she recounted this. It was 10 pages. Continue Reading…

An airport ottoman made for reading.

It worries me, this state of affairs. Not just because I’m a writer and editor, but because we need to be growing imaginative thinkers. Reading gives us space and time for reflection. Books are places where ideas germinate, where empathy is built, where questions are asked, and popular narratives are interrogated. In other words, with all the challenges our world is facing right now, we need books more than ever.

So won’t you join me in bringing books into the public arena at every opportunity? Read wherever you find yourself, be it in a queue or on a bus or waiting for a plane. Let’s stop scrolling and instead cram books into every corner of our lives. I’ll wager we’ll all be the better for it.

And maybe, just maybe, we’ll encourage someone else in that queue/bus/airport lounge to put down their phone, and pick up a book.

Canberra Writers Festival

26 August 2018

The third Canberra Writers Festival has just wrapped, and this year I found more to love on the program than in previous years. In fact I wish I’d been able to split myself in two for several timeslots. If you’re after rundowns on lots of the sessions, head over to the Whispering Gums blog, but I thought I’d just highlight a few of my favourite events here.

First up though, I was on a Canberra Writers Festival preview event with journalist Sam Vincent, moderated by the Conservation Council’s Larry O’Loughlin. We spoke about animals in literature, and the power of words to change the world. Interestingly, this theme was echoed throughout the festival in many different ways. But in this session I naturally spoke about the animal rights issues involving elephants in Asia, which relates to my next book. I could talk about the complexity of these issues for days, but in truth I don’t recall the conversation in enough detail to recount it here (events are always a bit of a blur afterwards). I do remember that it was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation with some thoughtful and intelligent questions posed by the audience. Can’t ask for more than that.

Larry O’Loughlin, me, Sam Vincent

But on to other sessions. The Prime Minister’s Literary Award Recipients session was moderated by the wonderful Sue Whiting, a children’s author and editor (formerly my editor at Walker Books) and one of the judges for the PMLAs. Her panel consisted of a diverse range of writers — children’s author Wendy Orr, historian Peter Cochrane and poet Anthony Lawrence — and yet she managed to make this a cohesive and interesting session. Ryan O’Neill was also billed as part of the panel, and I was looking forward to hearing him speak, but sadly he was unable to attend due to a death in the family.

It’s impossible to cover everything in this discussion so I’m going to touch on a couple of points that most interested me. The PMLAs are the richest Australian literary prize, with each author taking away $80,000 tax-free. The financial benefits for writers — most of whom are unable to live off royalties — are obvious, but Wendy recounted how the prize meant so much more to her.

Despite spending her whole adult life in Australia and writing all her books here, she has always been referred to as a Canadian author. She has repeatedly been told that she cannot say that Nim’s Island was the first Australian book to be made into a Hollywood film, because she’s ‘not Australian’. Naturally she found this deeply hurtful, but the PMLAs changed all that. ‘I can say I’m an Australian author now, and my books are Australian books.’ Bravo!

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Sue Whiting, Anthony Lawrence, Wendy Orr, Peter Cochrane

A question from the audience raised the contentious issue that the PMLAs are the only Australian award where a politician can overrule the decision of the judging panel. The Prime Minister has intervened on three occasions and in two of those cases the prize was shared between the judge’s choice and the PM’s choice. In 2014, Tony Abbott’s overruling of Steven Carroll’s A World of Other People to jointly award Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North backfired on him spectacularly when Richard used the platform to criticise the government’s policy on refugees.

But on one occasion the judges’ choice, Frank Bongiorno’s The Sex Lives of Australians, was ‘completely red carded’ by Kevin Rudd and replaced with his choice of Ross McMullin’s Farewell, Dear People. Peter Cochrane spoke passionately about the need to change the award’s terms and conditions which allow the PM to undermine the judges at will. ‘It brings the award into ill repute,’ he said. ‘It’s feudal. If you’ve got an expert judging panel its finding should be final.’

But I want to give the last word to Wendy on the positive impact of the awards. ‘They get people talking about poetry and children’s literature and history which people don’t normally talk about.’ And that is definitely a good thing.

In a completely different vein was Majok Tulba’s conversation with Michael Fitzgerald about his most recent book, When Elephants Fight, which follows the bestselling Beneath the Darkening Sky. It tells the story of Juba who is forced to flee South Sudan’s civil war, hiking 700 kilometres through a jungle full of lions, scorpions and snakes to a refugee camp where life is a catalogue of horrors.

Both books are ‘seventy per cent autobiographical’ but Majok chose to write fiction because it ‘was safer’. ‘Everything that is happening [in South Sudan] they don’t want the world to know. And they hate people who talk about it,’ he explained. ‘So to say, ‘I know this guy and he has done A, B, C’ — that would have given me a lot of problems.’ But with fiction ‘they don’t worry. They say, ‘It is not about us.’’

Michael Fitzgerald and Majok Tulba

Beneath the Darkening Sky was a difficult book to read. I kept imagining my own young boys being taken from me, handed a MK47 and ordered to kill people. It is difficult to comprehend. But Majok said that ‘what happened in real life is more horrifying than a horror movie. I had to leave the most horrific parts out … to make it digestible for the reader.’ He added that writing the books helped release him from his most terrifying memories. ‘They are trapped on paper. So it helped. It helped a lot.’

I’m sure When Elephants Fight will be an equally challenging read, but I’m up for the challenge. And despite his ordeals Majok was always sustained by hope. ‘Someone who gives up hope will never survive,’ he said. ‘When you give up, your life is over.’

When Majok eventually arrived in Australia in 2001 he experienced extreme disorientation. ‘I felt like I landed in a world that was out of this world. Everything was terrifying. Everyone looked the same.’ Growing up in South Sudan he had assumed everywhere in the world was in a constant state of war. ‘We’d seen movies like Rambo and Commando and we thought there was fighting everywhere. And when I came to Australia I realised that was not the case. And how people could live in harmony despite political differences.’ As ridiculous as the whole recent leadership spill has been, Majok put it in perspective. ‘If Canberra was South Sudan right now there would be tanks rolling in the streets.’

From Africa back to Australia, Saturday night saw a packed theatre at the National Library for An Evening with First Nations Australia Writers. It opened with four writers reading four poems each, with Ellen van Neervan the standout for me. This was followed by a panel with three of Australia’s greatest writers: Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko and Kim Scott. The conversation had such depth and was so multilayered that I’m at a loss as to how to summarise it in any meaningful way. It felt as if it was built upon the weight of so many years of conversations, and it was a privilege to be in the room.

Cathy Craigie, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Kim Scott

I will, however, relate the response to a question from the audience about how to be a good white ally. Kim suggested that it was important to ‘listen’ and Melissa said to ask yourself the question, ‘How will this benefit the local [Aboriginal] community?’ If it doesn’t, ‘think again’.

During the session Melissa also made a statement that really resonated with me, and I want to conclude with it. She said, ‘It is the job of any writer to pay attention. Tell the truth. Write towards power.’

Reading recs

5 July 2018

In a new quarterly series, I’m sharing the books that have stood out for me each month (featured in my subscribers’ newsletter), with a bonus fourth book. I usually read a couple of novels a week, and some months I’ve read so many good books that choosing just one is almost an impossibility.

I can’t find any particular connections this time, except that they all come from different parts of the world. I predominantly read Australian writers, but this selection includes a South African (Brink), an Australian (Winton — duh!), an English–Pakistani novellist (Shamsie), and an English–Irish novellist (Kidd). Two men, two women, and four novels that cross four continents. So, here we go!

April: Thanks to a recent post by Lisa Hill, I discovered South African writer André Brink (I am slightly embarrassed that I haven’t read him before). He was twice shortlisted for the Booker and during his lifetime actively opposed apartheid. I’m now reading his memoir, A Fork in the Road, but I first came to The Blue Door. It is a philosophical novella about the different potential lives that we might lead. The prose is beautiful and I gulped this little book down in one sitting. I’m now working my way through Brink’s back catalogue.

 

May: I resisted making The Shepherd’s Hut my pick because I read several good books this month, and Winton hardly needs the publicity. But in the end I just couldn’t go past it. It is very, very good. I’ve always loved Winton’s prose but his endings are usually hit and miss. This one, however, hits, making it a pleasure from start to finish. The story is told through Jaxie Claxton’s distinct voice — raw, colloquial and yet also poetic. It is a brutal and visceral story of survival, and of love. At the age of just 38, Winton was named a national living treasure; this novel reminds us why.

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June: Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire won the Women’s Prize for Fiction just as I was one-third of the way through it. Great timing, or what? Home Fire is billed as a modern reworking of Antigone, which I read decades ago and barely remember. In fact as I went on I was glad of this, because I didn’t want to be constantly comparing it to another work. Having finished it, I’d love to revisit Antigone, and then Home Fire, and see how different an experience it is. All of that aside, this is a work of brilliance. It completely shook me up and turned me inside out. I may have sworn at the ending, and then just sat there, stunned. I have told you nothing of the plot but let me say this: you must read this book.

Bonus book: I’ve long been fascinated by hoarding, which is what drew me to this book, but it turns out that The Hoarder is about so much more. Described as a ‘lyrical gothic detective saga’, it had me absolutely transfixed. My local library only had it as an audiobook and in the end I was glad of this—the narrator, Aoife McMahon, was wonderful. I couldn’t wait to get in my car and listen to the next instalment. The story centres on Maud Drennan who has taken on the care of a mercurial and violent elderly hoarder, Cathal Flood. She begins to uncover unsettling clues to his past, as the tension builds to the book’s final terrifying conclusion. I bloody loved this book. Even the minor characters are complex and nuanced—with Maud’s landlady and friend, Renata, a particular favourite. The book resists categorisation, traversing a number of genres, and I’ve now ordered Kidd’s previous book (her debut, Himself). Highly recommended!

Now it’s your turn. What recent reads would you recommend?

 

Reading recs

18 April 2018

Every month in my newsletter* I highlight a book that has stood out for me, and it’s been interesting reflecting on which stories have stuck with me. I thought I’d start a quarterly post collecting them here, but I’m adding a bonus book which I have recently finished and need to rave about! Interestingly, all four of these books made me cry. I’m not commonly moved to tears when reading, so this is surely a sign that these characters worked their way into my very marrow. All four books also have titles beginning with ‘The’, though what that might mean I have no idea!

January: Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth is an extraordinary achievement. It’s the story of a young boy named William whose father dies in a farming accident. With his mother, he comes to live on an enormous and crumbling property with his elderly uncle. Set against the political landscape of the Mabo judgement and land rights, The White Earth explores the nature of ownership and connection, and the ways in which the past is inextricably bound up with the present. It’s beautifully written and structured, and not surprisingly won the Miles Franklin Award in 2004.

February: The Midnight Zoo is a fable-like story that centres on two Rom boys and their baby sister whose extended family has been wiped out in a massacre. Amidst the devastation they stumble upon a forgotten zoo where the animals speak. I have always loathed zoos, and I would defy anyone to visit one after reading this poignant novel. Sonya Hartnett knows how to craft a beautiful sentence, and I often found myself pausing and rereading the prose in this short novel. One for both adults and younger readers. It is startling, magical, brilliant.

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March: This biography of Sandra Pankhurst is not for those after a light read. In addition to her work as a trauma cleaner, Sandra’s personal life is a catalogue of traumas. It is remarkable how much she has endured; I found the details of her childhood particularly heartbreaking. Her life would make a compelling story told any which way, but it is Krasnostein’s elegant prose and genuine love for Pankhurst that make The Trauma Cleaner sing. Not surprisingly it is being shortlisted everywhere, and recently won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.

Bonus: I fell hard for Sofie Laguna’s last novel for adults, The Eye of the Sheep (2014), which I recommended to everyone that year. So I approached The Choke with some trepidation. Both are told in first person through the eyes of a child. Could Laguna pull it off a second time? Could I love another Laguna book as much as The Eye of the Sheep? Well, she did, and I did. We follow Justine, who is neglected by the adults around her, and is forced to navigate the dangerous and perplexing world that she finds herself in. It’s an absolute heart-stealer of a book.

So now it’s your turn. Tell me your latest reading rec. What book have you fallen hard for?

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