Friday, 17 April 2020

Ghost Wall

I listened to Ghost Wall in January (January 2019! Seems I forgot to post this). I was spellbound. When I finished I couldn't settle on another audiobook to start after it, so I just listened to it again straight away. That was partly the story, but also the wonderful audiobook narration by Christine Hewitt. I loved her Northern English voice so much. It was one of the audiobooks where you sit in car parks after you've arrived somewhere just to keep listening.

The opening words are arresting. 

They bring her out. Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light. The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones - not the last stones- bruise her bare feet. She stumbles. They hold her up. No need to be rough, everyone knows what is coming. From deep inside her body, from the cord in her spine and the wide blood-ways under the ribs, from the emptiness of her womb and the rising of her chest, she shakes. A body in fear. 
"No need to be rough, everyone knows what is coming." I don't! I don't know what is coming, but I sure want to now... The first page or so sets an incredible scene, and then there is an abrupt change of pace, and I was initially confused by this change, thinking that I'd missed something. And so I started the audio again, but I hadn't missed anything. 

Fifteen year old Silvie and her parents have joined a university excursion in Northumberland in the recent past. The Berlin Wall has recently fallen. Silvie's father is obsessed with Iron Age Britain, and the excursion is an exercise in 'experiential archeology', a reality tv type experience of living as people would have done some 2,000 years ago. Silvie's father is not an academic though, he's a working man, a bus driver, and the Iron Age is his hobby, and he's dragging his family along with him on his annual leave. Because of his passion for it his wife and daughter have become experts in the Iron Age too. 

The group must are wearing scratchy gather their own food, and it falls to Silvie's mother to prepare food for everyone- the Professor, the three university students, and her own family.

I didn't see quite a few of the themes as strongly as many English readers, people I follow on booktube. But certainly Sarah Moss was talking about Brexit and migration and very modern issues in her ancient story. 

Ghost Wall is such a tight compact little book. It is rather tense at times. There is a lot to think about. I have some minor quibbles with the very end of Ghost Wall, but that wasn't enough to diminish my joy in this fascinating tale. 

Sarah Moss on her blog, On Prehistorical Fictions

CBC Interview with Sarah Moss

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Convenience Store Woman

For some reason I've been very drawn to books by Japanese and Korean writers of late. Particularly to books by women writers. I've bought quite a few of them of course, but hadn't got to reading any of them yet. Most of them are tantalisingly short and with my attention span and concentration all but shot by the disaster movie that is 2020 I was looking for a nice short comforting read, and I was hopeful that Convenience Store Woman would fit the bill. I think it mostly did.

Keiko Furukura is 36 years old, she somewhat accidentally started working at a convenience store in Tokyo when she was 18 years old, and she's never left the security that she found there. 
The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me - a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world in that light-filled box. 
Keiko has always been unusual. Particularly literal as a child, she becomes quite a loner as she grows up. As a young uni student she finds a part time job at a Smile Mart. 
At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I'd become a part in the machine of society. I've been reborn, I thought. That day, I actually became a normal cog in society. 
Keiko is comforted by the routines and rhythms of the store. The store training, the uniform, the scripted phrases and preferred facial expressions, all make her more comfortable. "It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech." 
For breakfast I eat convenience store bread, for lunch I eat convenience store rice balls with something from the hot-food cabinet, and after work I'm often so tired I just buy something from the store and take it home for dinner. I drink about half the bottle of water while I'm at work, then put it in my eco bag and take it home with me to finish at night. When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I'm as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine. 
I've long held a similar notion, but about the culinary highlights of my life, not the slapdash lunches I eat at work. I like to think that at least a few carbon atoms that I ate for lunch at the Ritz in Paris in 1998 are still rattling about inside me somewhere. The carbon that made up those truffles on the pasta or the Golden Wine of the Jura that I had for lunch that day are still locked away in my cells. I'm sure they are. Better that than thinking the remnants of some chicken nuggets that I scoffed in a car one day are still there. 

I did like how Keiko (Ms Furukura really to me) refers to the many store managers she has seen come and go in numerical order. Currently Manager #8 is in charge. I didn't enjoy the change to the narrative when a new employee Shiraha arrives later in the book. 

On the whole though I did enjoy this quirky tale about an unusual woman. And now not only do I want to read more Japanese and Korean books, I want to go to a Tokyo convenience store on a hot summer day, and have some rice balls (onigiri) or spicy cod roe pasta, and a cold drink, and wonder about the staff working there, and what their life is like.

Convenience Store Woman is the first of Sayaka Murata's ten books to be translated into English.  Translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

The Weekend

Holiday reading is always fun to think about. So much expectation, of the holiday itself of course, and what you'll read while on holiday - always massively over calculated. I'm coming to the growing realisation that I rarely get more than one book read while I'm away, no matter the length of the holiday. I tend to do more holidaying than reading. Even so I always pack at least four books, knowing that I will buy many more while away. For quite some time I was planning that I would read Trent Dalton's Boy Swallows Universe while I was in Tasmania in January (ah, interstate travel in a group, so last year). He's got a new book coming out in a few months, and I haven't read his first one yet. I hate that.

Somewhat out of the blue Trent got pipped at the post by a more recent book Charlotte Wood's The Weekend. No particular reason. I did consider some Tasmanian books - Heather Rose's Bruny, Robbie Arnott's Flames, and also some themed books, notably Alice Bishop's A Constant Hum as Australia continued to burn, and I knew I would see bushfires from my plane seat.

But I'd been intrigued by The Weekend since I'd first heard about it. A tale of three close friends, now in their 70s, coming together to clear out the holiday house of their fourth friend who had died earlier in the year. Increasingly I love stories about older adults. 

I really enjoyed getting to know Jude, Wendy, Adele and their absent friend Sylvie. I've recently taken to travelling with three friends, there was the shock of recognition at times, and prophecy. Hopefully decades away for us though. 
Adele and Wendy and Jude did not fit properly anymore, without Sylvie. They had been four, it was symmetrical. When they went on holidays they shared two hotel rooms, two beds in each. There were four places at the table, two on each side. Now there was an awful, unnatural gap. 
I enjoyed the stories of how the four of them met, their friendship over time, and the various hurdles that life throws our way. 
This was something nobody talked about: how death could make you petty. And how you had to find a new arrangement among your friends, shuffling around the gap of the lost one, all of you suddenly mystified by how to be with one another. 
I've read two  Charlotte Wood novels now. I read The Natural Way of Things (see my review) back in 2016. The Weekend was certainly a less discomforting read, more suburban. But Charlotte Wood still has her eyes keenly focused on our culture and societal changes.
Everybody hated old people now; it was acceptable, encouraged even, because of your paid-off mortgage and your free education and your ruination of the plant. And Wendy agreed. She loathed nostalgia, the past bored her. More than anything, she despised self-pity. And they had been lucky, and wasteful. They had failed to protect the future. But, on the other hand, she and Lance had had nothing when they were young. Nothing! The Claires of the world seemed to forget that, with all their trips to Europe, their coffee machines and air conditioners and three bathrooms in every house. And anyway, lots of people, lots of women - Wendy felt a satisfying feminist righteousness rising - didn't have paid-off mortgages, had no super. 

Young people, Australians, now spoke with American accents, pronouncing their r's at the end of words and saying afterr, the a like in apple. Why was this? The Western world had blurred itself into one jellied cultural mass. Her students last time she had lectured - years ago, when they still wanted her - knew the names of suburbs in San Francisco or Seattle better than the names of towns of Western Victoria. It was strange. For almost all of Wendy's life the only things Australians knew about America were the words 'New York' or 'LA' or 'Niagara Falls', but now her friends' grandchildren were buying brownstones and running businesses in Brooklyn as if this was the most normal thing in the world. Neighbourhood, they said. Bed-Study. Prospect Heights. 
I really loved the first two thirds or so, but didn't enjoy it as much after two new, and not particularly likeable, characters were introduced later on in the book. I do wonder about the title of The Weekend, as it isn't set over a weekend. It's set at Christmas. 
Christmas was supposed to mean renewal. It meant the beginning of things not the end. 
Which I found a nice accident for my January holiday read. It was also set somewhere north of Sydney, which is where I grew up, it's all a bit vague in the book, a fictional location, but I was perpetually looking for clues as to where it was "really" set. As always reading this book has only increased my TBR, as I'm keen to read more Charlotte Wood. I've read two of her six novels now, four to go!

Charlotte Wood interviewed on RN The Book Show, where she refers to The Weekend as a "cautionary self portrait", and that the creative impulse of curiosity about the ageing process.

Friday, 10 January 2020

The Household Guide to Dying

It wasn't my intention to start this book a few months ago. I didn't think it would be a good idea given that my week was going to include the funeral of an old friend. But then I hopped in my car for a road trip to discover that I had forgotten to download the other audiobook that I was actually planning to listen to. What to do? What to do? I had to listen to something... so I started this one, albeit somewhat cautiously. Planning to bail and just listen to music if I had to. 

Only to have the first chapter be all about dying in spring. Oh dear. This was flying rather close to reality. 

It didn't get more cruel than this: the season of expectation, of hope, of growth; the season of the future, when there was none at all. 
But there were enough difference to let me continue. Our first person narrator of The Household Guide to Dying is Delia Bennet. A woman in her late thirties, with a husband and two young children, Delia is dying of metastatic breast cancer. Depressing enough when you're feeling a bit fragile. 

Delia is a copyeditor, proofreader and writer and  has had an "accidental" career as an author to various Household Guides. The Household Guide to Home Maintenance. The Household Guide to the Kitchen. The Household Guide to the Laundry. A veritable modern day Mrs Beeton (who is reference multiple times in the book). Now Delia wants to write The Household Guide to Dying.

Always a devoted reader, I found myself surprisingly ahead when I commenced the arts degree. I finished under time to discover I was brilliantly unqualified for anything. 
The Household Guide to Dying is filled with literary references, whether discussing dying mothers
How cruel, how unfair, how totally unsporting, how unlike the stout mothers of public life, the mothers of fiction. You could never imagine Mrs Gandhi or Mrs Micawber or Mrs Thatcher or Mrs Weasley dying before their time and leaving their children unmothered. The prime minister's wife - any prime ministers wife - Nicole Kidman's mother, Mrs Jellyby, Angelina Jolie, the Queen, Lady Jane Franklin, Mrs George Bush Senior and Junior .... they would never have died young and left motherless children. They might have been doubtful, dominating or dysfunctional - all Dickens's mothers were- but they stayed around. Even Lady Dedlock hung in there. Jane Austen's Mrs Bennet would never have left five young daughters weeping over a coffin. 
or dying readers. There is a whole chapter on what to read when you're actually, actively dying. 

Even before I realised I'd be leaving this world prematurely, I had fantasised over what I would be reading at the point of death. 
How practicalities interfered.
Middlemarch was far too heavy. Witty, yes. Ardent, doubtless. But just too damn heavy.... Lolita was too clever. Pride and Prejudice was suddenly all so brittle... Madame Bovary far too sly... Then I realised, when I started rejecting books that I knew were perfect works of literature, that it was not them, and not the authors. It was me, the reader. The reader in me was unwinding, spooling backwards. The reader who was me was now no longer. 
But it's more than a book about illness and dying, it's also mediation on the lives of modern women and mothers.

Thirty years later, it was different. We women of the early twenty-first century knew we were poised somewhere between domestic freedom and servitude. The home was ripe for reinvention. Event he theorists were claiming it. Angels were out, they'd been expelled years back. Now you could be a goddess, a beautiful producer of lavish meals in magnificent kitchen temples. Or a domestic whore, audaciously serving store-bought risottos and oversized oysters and leaving the cleaning to others. Goddess or whore, both were acceptable. 
The burden of choice, one of the late twentieth century's most insidious was lifted. 
One of the literary references really spoke to me. The Metaphysical Poets was not a book I knew. Despite the fact that this was published in 1965 and I could well have been tortured with it in high school.  I've never recovered from my lifelong loathing of poetry caused by misadventures in high school English.  Of course a few days later on a spontaneous visit to the Newcastle Lifeline Book Fair the universe threw up a copy of this classic into my path. I couldn't help but buy it... among a few other things. 
It was if one person in the world had decided that school-kids should eternally read Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, Herodotus's Histories, The Catcher in the Rye, and something called The Metaphysical Poets.
Of those I only had to suffer through Histories

There was a lot of beautiful writing about the mundane, the every day.  About back yards, lawns and chook sheds. 

I entered the shed. Despite the dust, the earthy pungency of the chicken manure, the remains of bones and shell and everything else they unearthed in their endless, resales scratching for vermicular treats, the shed and the run was a pleasant place. It offered tender moments that couldn't be found anywhere else. The angled poles of light capturing swirls of golden dust. The feathers rising and settling on the ground. The clucking that sounded equally contented and distressed. The air of expectancy that emanated from every hen, no matter how silly. The pure optimism that kept her laying an egg day after day, when day after day that egg was taken away. 
My day job often interferes with my enjoyment of medical scenes or procedures. There is a rather preposterous medical situation later in the book, and it was so egregious that for me it was like the rest of the book was suddenly a bit out of focus ( even though I was listening to it). Although when Delia goes to observe an autopsy it was clear that Debra Adelaide had been in Glebe Coroner's Court, and I had more than a tingle of recognition. 

Overall my sad week in September was actually a good week to listen to The Household Guide to Dying. Some of it resonated very strongly, and much of it has stayed with me months later. I have more Debra Adelaide on my TBR, I'm looking forward to getting to it. 

I loved Heather Bolton's narration of the audiobook. She had me in from the start. 

Read in 2019, blogged in 2020.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

The Yellow House

I haven't had a big reading year it must be said. And I haven't been blogging about those few books that I have read. Although most of what I've actually read has been audiobooks I do believe. I will have to tally up the proportion when I do my end of the year post. 

The Yellow House was another audiobook for me. Despite it winning The Vogel Award last year I first heard of The Yellow House when I saw Emily O'Grady speak at a panel at Newcastle Writers Festival earlier this year. I was intrigued by this book so came home with an autographed copy, which I then didn't actually read. Opening up my copy now I see that my lovely friend ANZLitlovers is blurbed! How fabulous. 

Newcastle Writers Festival was way back in April, so when I approached The Yellow House in December I had pretty much forgotten what it was about. The Yellow House has a child narrator, not something that every one likes. I usually do, but I was a bit frustrated by our 10 year old narrator here at times. 

Ten year old Cub (Coralie) is a twin. She lives with her twin brother Wally, who sounds as obnoxious as a ten year old boy can be, her older brother Cassie (Cassius) and her parents on a property some way out of town.

Our house sat at the edge of the paddock, down a dirt road off the side of the highway. There were no other houses close by, except for the yellow house over the fence. A weatherboard, almost identical to ours except for the colour: the same rickety verandah that looked out over the hilly paddock and the inky mountains on the other side of the highway, the dirt crawl space that rustled like tinsel if you gave the nesting cockies a fright.

Cub's family are on the outskirts of town in more ways than one. Her maternal grandfather Les committed a series of terrible crimes before she was born, and her family is still paying the price for his actions more than a decade after he died. They are shunned socially, her father and brother find it hard to get work. The twins have never really been able to make any friends at school. 

Then Cub's aunt Helena and cousin Tilly come to live in the yellow house next door, her brother Cassie makes a new friend Ian, and things begin to change. Cub's parents have taken great pains to keep her and Wally in the dark about their grandfather's crimes. That bit took quite a bit of suspension of belief for me. I really don't think that you could survive five or six years at school and have not one kid (or teacher) say something about the nationally famous crimes of your grandfather. Or that some kid would find that really the twins were just kids despite the warnings of their parents and befriend them, at least in the school yard. 

Cub was not the overly precocious child narrator, indeed she was quite in the dark about most things, she was a pestery questioning kid though. But she couldn't know some things I really wanted to know. Why did her aunt Helena move to the yellow house? It's suggested along the way, actually I think Helena's perspective would have been really interesting. 

Most of the action of the story takes place on the family property or at the local public school were the twins attend school. Cub's world is quite small so the story is quite small really. The twins spend most of their time at home, especially over the long summer holiday when a lot of the book is set. Like all country kids they roam about the paddock and the dam, but they have always steered clear of the knackery that was involved in their grandfathers crimes. 

While reading I didn't get a good feeling for when the book was set. Perhaps I missed obvious statements, but sometimes it felt like it could have been set anytime from the 1950s onwards. No-one had laptops or internet, but there were cars, microwaves and it became more obviously recent past. 

I didn't particularly like the very end of the book. I wanted something else, more perhaps. 

I know I'll be gravely disappointed (pun almost intended) but whenever I come across a ghost drop (Cub's favourite lolly) I'm going to have to have one. I'd never heard of them before. Perhaps they're a Queensland thing?

Read in 2019, blogged in 2020. Yes I'm trying to catch up a bit, clear the backlog.