I haven’t been doing much reading lately and have a giant stack of books from the library that I keep renewing on an endless loop, simultaneously celebrating and lamenting the fact that no-one else wants to read them; as well as a few I’ve bought and not quite got round to. These are the ones I’m most desperate to read:
The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
I recently subscribed to the Granta podcast and have been listening to a series of interviews with the writers they selected as their ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. I had never heard of Steven Hall, or his book but his interview really piqued my interest.
Letters to the End of Love by Yvette Walker
I like to read local writing and this has received lots of positive reviews; plus it has a beautiful cover.
Certainty by Madeleine Thien
The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott
I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but it looks like a bit of a genre bender and that interests me a lot.
Benediction by Kent Haruf
I’ve been wanting to read a book by Haruf for ages and happened to spy this one at the library.
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates
I loved Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Middle Age and want to read more of her books; this is one I picked up at the opp shop a while ago and haven’t got to yet.
The Invisible Circus by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan is one of my favourite novelists of recent years but I haven’t yet got round to reading her debut.
Willpower by Baumeister & Tierney
I rarely read non-fiction but I’m hoping this book will hold the key to my ongoing struggle with eating too much chocolate and struggling to maintain an exercise routine even though I know it’s good for me in every way.
How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman
Have you heard of that documentary called The Smartest Guys in the Room? John Freeman is one of them! I was on a panel with him at the Perth Writers’ Festival and he was incredibly perceptive and insightful in his discussions about literature. These essays based on interviews with writers are beautifully crafted and I love to know what makes writers tick.
I am trying to read more Australian short fiction for a project I have in the pipeline – watch this space for more details, as they arise!
Your turn: Have you read any of these? What’s at the top of your reading pile?
…In which I invite someone bookish to tell us about one of their all-time favourite works of fiction, and why it’s so special to them. This Friday Fave comes from book marketing guru Kiri Falls:
Once, I was asked what I’d put on a list of my top ten books. I still remember that moment because I froze; I felt swamped by the sheer number of authors and books that existed, avalanched, dumped by the wave of literature. Despite being a bookworm from when I was old enough to hold a board book the right way up, I was still too young to have accrued the reading hours and the life experience necessary to be able to sort the chaff from the grain.
Now, years later, I am asked to contribute a Friday Fave to this most esteemed blog. Instantly I know which book I will choose. Like a gold nugget left in the pan after everything else has washed away, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is worth its weight in – well, gold.
Although it wouldn’t weigh much. A slim volume (I guess you’d call it a novella) The Uncommon Reader is a triumph of brevity.
The story opens with the Queen (yes, that’s our Queen, Lizzie, monarch of the Commonwealth) stumbling across a travelling library at the back of Buckingham Palace, while chasing her errant corgies. A young, gingery kitchen hand called Norman is an unlikely royal adviser, but as the reader whose recommendations guide the Queen’s reading habits, he is soon brought palace-side and promoted. But as the Queen devotes more and more time to reading, there are rumbles of discontent among her staff and puzzlement from the public and dignitaries alike. Where suitably polite conversation previously sufficed, she now quizzes the French foreign minister on Genet. Where the opening of a swimming pool or planting of a tree previously displayed her pleasantly dutiful attitude, she now asks Joe Bloggs what he is reading or quotes Philip Larkin, before returning as quickly as possible to her own book stashed behind the cushions in the royal motor.
She’d got quite good at reading and waving, the trick being to keep the book below the level of the window and to keep focused on it and not on the crowds. The duke didn’t like it one bit, of course, but goodness it helped.
As the story progresses, reading, we begin to see, is not simply a pastime. Being a reader is about exercising the muscle of the mind. Being a reader changes one’s perceptions of the world and of people.
What this exceptional piece of writing manages to do is combine an amusing and witty story with a deeply serious and intelligent message. The Queen (a wonderfully drawn character) and the joys and challenges she inevitably finds in the pursuit of reading map a familiar journey. The very same feeling that stopped me in my tracks all those years ago, is perfectly captured.
The sheer endlessness of books outfaced her and she had no idea how to go on; there was no system to her reading, with one book leading to another…With time came discrimination, but…nobody told her what to read and what not.
I’ve read The Uncommon Reader three times – as somebody who almost never reads a book twice, this is some kind of feat for which I give Alan Bennett credit – and I know I’ll read it again every year or two. The sheer delight I get from it doesn’t diminish.
Should I ever be asked what my favourite book is, I certainly wouldn’t have an answer (who could?) but The Uncommon Reader would be high on a top ten list.
Kiri Falls began her career in publishing with a lifelong love of reading books, followed by gaining an Arts degree from UWA during which she wrote her thesis on short stories in their publishing contexts, and later taking up an internship at Fremantle Press after being awarded an Australia Council OYEA Emerging Arts Professional grant. She is currently the Sales & Marketing Coordinator at UWA Publishing.
The Big Picture: A Novel in a Year
My writing day lasts a little under 6 hours, between dropping my son off at school in the morning and picking him up in the afternoon. It’s a short working day but I’m not complaining: I consider myself very lucky not to have to work at things other than writing at the moment, thanks to my Creative Australia Fellowship.
My working day includes time for marketing (organising events, blogging, and other social media), applying for grants and submitting to agents and journals, as well as dull but necessary tasks such as tax and invoicing. Currently, I am coordinating the creation of an interactive app to accompany my third novel, The Ark. After all this, I have perhaps two hours a day left to work on my new novel, Ciudad. In that two hours I aim to write 500 words. (There are occasionally days when I write more and plenty of days when I write less but it is generally a fairly realistic target for me).
There is always at least one day a week where something else comes up: I might speak at a library, meet with my app programmer or help out in my son’s classroom or the school canteen, So I usually manage to write around 2000 words a week. It doesn’t sound like much, but if I can sustain it, I should be able to write an entire novel in one year - which would be four times as fast as I wrote my first two novels.
Still, I find that the two hour mark is just when my creative juices are beginning to flow. I have to stop, exactly at the moment when I begin to pick up speed.That’s why the residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA was so appealing to me: 8 hours a day with nothing to do but write.
A Piece of the Puzzle: 30,000 Words in 4 Weeks
I told others I was aiming to write 1000 words a day on my residency. At double my usual output, this is nothing to be sniffed at, but during my PeNoWriWe retreat in December, I wrote almost 200 words a day and deep down I knew I would be disappointed with myself if I didn’t come close to that benchmark.
The first two days the residency felt like a burden. I felt bored by my own work, uncertain of how to proceed. I edged around it, trying to find a way in. I walked down to the local deli to sample their chocolate selection and up the hill behind the residence to take in the view of the ocean.
Magic Mushrooms and Human Sacrifice: 2600 Words in 1 Day
I started my third day with some intensive research. I’ve heard writers say research slows them down but for me, it often feels like the opposite. I spent a couple of hours researching two specific things (human sacrifice by drowning and psilocybin, if you really want to know), making notes. And then a scene just poured out of me. I wrote 2650 words that day, which is probably a record for me, and then the next day I wrote a further 2200.
At the end of my first (4 day) week I had written 7395 words, which is well over my official target, and pretty close to my PeNoWriWe benchmark. I hope this week will be as productive.
The first time I see The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? I am working at the Australian Film Commission and the book is sitting on a cabinet above a colleague’s desk. It is there for months. I ask her about it and she says, ‘I have to read it for uni.’ I don’t know if she ever gets through it. It is the size of a brick. But whenever I walk past, I am intrigued by the cover: a surreal long corridor with doors going off it, dismembered legs sticking out, a man with a gun, and a moon-face with four eyes peering at me. The elements are strange and don’t seem to fit together. The title, too, is mysterious. I wonder about the wind-up bird. What is its story? I ask my friend if I can borrow it …
I am commuting to Sydney from Springwood in the Blue Mountains. It is a two-hour trip each way. The only positive is that I get to read (and take notes on other passengers for my fiction). Murakami’s style is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The cover represents him well. The protagonist Toru Okada is soft, passive, elusive; he lets the narrative wash over him and buffet him like the wind. As a reader, I never know where I am heading or when I will wake up. The boundaries between reality and dreams are blurred. A cat disappears. Then his wife leaves too. A young girl helps trace her. There are no answers.
The book lulls me into its gentle rhythms and then embarks on one of the most harrowing descriptions of war I’ve encountered; I now know how to skin a man alive. When reading this section on Japanese involvement in World War 2 on the train, I put the book down many times, and feel like assuming the brace position; Murakami is sensational at horror.
Murakami’s work is messy, riotous, funny, strange and genre bending. He never ties up loose ends. After reading Wind-Up I bought all his other books immediately. There is no other writer like him. How many writers can you say that about? His nonfiction on the Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, Underground, is brilliant too.
But in fiction his lyrical and structural inventiveness is joyous and disturbing. I love this book so much I couldn’t help but work it into my own fiction. In just_a_girl, Layla, my 14-year-old, has a number of encounters with Tadashi, a Japanese-Australian man, on the train — and guess what he’s reading.
Kirsten Krauth is a freelance writer and editor. Her first novel just_a_girl has recently been released by UWA Publishing, and she blogs at Wild Colonial Girl. She also edits the NSW Writers’ Centre magazine, Newswrite.
I haven’t read a whole lot this month and what I have read has been largely underwhelming.
Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia was compelling and I admired the writing but nothing about it really stayed with me. As a huge fan of Jim Kokoris’ The Rich Part of Life, and his follow-up Sister North, I was pretty disappointed by his third offering, The Pursuit of Other Interests, which felt trite and cliched, compared to the fresh voices and stories in his earlier works.
Anna North’s dystopian novel America Pacifica dealt with some interesting themes but didn’t fully engage me. The best novel I read this month was Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons, but even that didn’t excite me as much as his last two offerings, The Privileges, and Palladio, though the writing was faultless.
Your turn: Has your month in reading been better than mine? Have you read anything truly sensational?
1. Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway (1961)
I know this book finds its way onto a lot of my lists but I make no apologies for that because I think it is a masterpiece. Set during a couple’s extended Mediterranean honeymoon, in an era before the Mediterranean was ruined by tourism, it makes me yearn to return to Spain, where I half-believe I lived in a past life!
2. A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion (1977)
An American woman comes to the derelict Central American nation of Boca Grande hoping to be reunited with her fugitive daughter. An unsettling story of dissolution and emptiness, told in Didion’s characteristic astonishing prose.
3. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro (1995)
My favourite of Ishiguro’s novels, in which a renowned musician visits an unnamed Central European city to give the most important performance of his life but finds himself waylaid by a series of Kafkaesque distractions.
4. Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing (1998)
An epic adventure featuring a brother and sister with a mysterious past, travelling across a future version of Africa, seeking a place to call home.
5. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
It would not be an exaggeration to say that when I first read this novel, it blew my tiny mind. The story of a young Jewish-American who travels to the Ukraine in the hope of finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis is told in fresh, playful and heartbreaking prose.
6. Between Mexico and Poland by Lily Brett (2002)
Though I enjoy Brett’s novels, I think her essays are where she really hits her straps. Humour and tragedy are close companions in this collection which describes her travels in Mexico and Poland, as well as her life at home in New York.
7. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (2003)
I am always mistrustful of books that ‘everyone’ is reading, because, in my snobbish way, I suspect anything very popular probably isn’t very good. So I resisted this book for ages, and then fell in love with it. For the 3 people left on Planet Earth who haven’t read it, it is the story of the passionate love affair between an artist and a librarian, who travels extensively, not through space, but through time.
8. The Keep by Jennifer Egan (2006)
Though it is not quite in the same league as my beloved A Visit from the Goon Squad, there is much to like about this gothic psychological thriller set in a medieval castle in Eastern Europe.
9. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)
Mitchell loves Madeleine. Alas, Madeleine falls for the charismatic but mentally unstable Leonard, driving Mitchell to India, looking for meaning, a section of the book which is apparently autobiographical, according to this interview John Freeman did with Eugenides.
10. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (2012)
Bernadette: wife, mother and retired architect, increasingly estranged from her life in Seattle, absconds to Antarctica. Warm, funny and surprisingly moving, this is an easy and very worthwhile read.
Your turn: Have you read any of these? What are your favourite novels featuring travel?
I had flown in from Perth to attend The 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival. I wasn’t on the programme that particular year, and, truth be told, was not sure why I’d come. I spoke the previous year on being a professional writer; now here I was being a professional slacker instead.
They had invited graphic novelists to work in The Atrium at Federation Square as part of the festival’s Don’t Feed the Artists installation, a high-definition camera set up to chart their every sketch, projected up onto a huge screen. Having spent the day watching worlds created with my friend Andy, the two of us reclined in matching beach chairs, I ventured across to the bookstore. I perused the shelf looking for something special…something different.
Mirranda Burton’s Hiddenis that book. It’s a graphic memoir about her time as an art teacher for the intellectually disabled. Her writing is tight, the artwork simple, yet captivating, and through it all, Burton celebrates what reviewer Adam Ford described as “the unique and universal in everyday life”.
The humanity, compassion and love radiates from every panel of Burton’s work. As a piece of art, it’s both beautiful and inspiring. I’m convinced Hidden could keep you warm on a cold night, cheer you up when feeling sad, and give you hope when all is hopeless.
I wish I’d gone to the Hidden launch at MWF 2011, but me being me, I missed the boat. As it was, she made my festival. Mirranda never set foot into my world and yet it feels like she was there, seeing what I saw, taking it all in alongside me. Together but alone, we thought about what it means to love, be loved, and stay human.
If I ever meet her, I’ll give her a big hug, unless she’s not a hugger, in which case I’ll just say, “Hey, I’m Laurie, it’s great to finally meet you,” and politely shake her hand.
I love this book more than muffins, cakes and most types of biscuits. Read it and you will too.
Laurie Steed is a writer, reviewer, editor, and freelance journalist. His writing has been published in The Age, Meanjin, Westerly, the Sleepers Almanac, and The Big Issue. He lives in Perth, Western Australia. You can read an interview with Laurie here, or check out his website for more information.
Your turn: Have you come across Mirranda Burton’s work? It is new to me, and the graphic novel is not a form I’m normally attracted to, but this definitely looks appealing to me. What about you?