Monday 10 August 2020

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

What a delight this quirky little Danish novel is! I came across Dorthe Nors in the first story I read from Found in Translation last week. I had decided to read the 20 short stories written by women in this collection for Women in Translation Month #WITMonth. And I was very quickly off to an auspicious start with Dorthe Nors' She Frequented Cemeteries (from the short story collection Karate Chop).

I enjoyed the writing and translation of She Frequented Cemeteries so much that I searched for anything  by Dorthe Nors on Audible. And there I found Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. A few days later I was downloading it. And what an utter delight it is!

Sonja is 40 something. She lives alone in Copenhagen, and works as a translator of Stieg Larsson style Swedish crime fiction novels, violent tomes with many murdered women strewn about the Swedish countryside. Sonja grew up on a Danish farm among the rye fields in remote Jutland. She has vivid childhood memories of playing in the rye fields, and the calls of the Whooper Swans are evocative. She reminded me somewhat of Eleanor Oliphant with less vodka and less childhood trauma. Sonja is afflicted with BPPV as is her mother. It was fascinating to see this condition used in a story. 

There are a small cast of supporting characters, Sonja's two driving instructors at her driving school where a lot of the action of the book happens, Ellen, Sonja's New Age masseuse, and her friend Molly who is a psychologist and overshares about her patients. 
and Molly proceeds to talk about her clients. Sonja's certain that that's forbidden but noone's very concerned about oaths of confidentiality anymore. The private has become so trivial and pawed over anyway, and who cares? So she sits there and watches Molly expand on someone else's catastrophe.
Sonja has become estranged from her family, and she mulls over them and her rural origins. She writes cards and letters to them that she will never post.
The place you come from is a place you can never return to.
There is much humour to be had in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, something that is not always easy to achieve in translated fiction. Or in any fiction to be fair. A large part of this must come down to the considerable skill and wonderful translation by Misha Hoekstra (@mishap). The last chapter and especially  the very last few pages/minutes of the book confused me somewhat. I went back and listened to the last chapter to see if I had missed something, but I don't think I did. This was a mere quibble really and not enough to staunch my joy at finding this wonderful book, and an intriguing new author. One that I hope will become a firm favourite. I ordered all her books today! I can only imagine that I'll love them all. 

Denmark is rather high on my travel wish list. Not that I know all that much about it really. Princess Mary. Hygge. Hans Chrisitian Andersen. No-one is travelling internationally in 2020, and I can't imagine I'll be travelling anywhere like Europe before 2022 and yet I was able to spend a delightful few days driving around Copenhagen with Sonja.

I really enjoyed Kate Rawson's delightful narration. Although it feels a bit odd when she slips into rural British accents for the rural Danish characters. Her pronunciation of many Danish place names and words seems very good to my uneducated ear. I always enjoy it when the narrators can seamlessly pronounce the meaningful words of the text. 

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal has many echoes of She Frequented Cemeteries, both female characters like to spend time in the lonely, quiet parts of cemeteries as they hide away from friends, family and the modern world.

Dorthe Nors writes fiction in Danish, and essays in English!
Dorthe has given us her Top 5 reasons to go to Denmark

Friday 31 July 2020

An Isolated Incident

I've been meaning to read An Isolated Incident for at least three years. I saw Emily Maguire speak at Newcastle Writers Festival back in 2017. Remember when Writers Festivals were a thing? It makes me all nostalgic. I had a copy somewhere I bought back in 2017, but fear it has disappeared somewhere. Recently I found the audiobook on my  BorrowBox. A few days ago, I started listening, and then, four days later I was done. 

An Isolated Incident kicks off grabbing our attention from the very start. A young policeman is knocking on a door to tell a woman that the body of her sister has been found. 

It was the new cop who came to the door, the young fella who'd only been on the job a couple of months. I thought that was a bit rough, sending a boy like him to do a job like that. Later I found out that he was sent because he'd gone to pieces at the scene. That's what we all call it now: the scene. 
Chris is a local barmaid, working at one of the four pubs in Strathdee, a small town in South West New South Wales. She is perhaps a bit rough around the edges, but she loved her younger sister very much. They had a difficult mother, and a difficult childhood for various reasons, and they've been very close as adults. Bella's murder hits Chris and the small town hard. Much of the book is told in first person narration by Chris.

The other narrative voice is May, a journalist who has come to town to cover "the story". To me An Isolated Incident was then somehow like a female version of Chris Hammer's Scrublands- which was also an audiobook for me, and another NWF connection! (see my review) Female author, female journalist. Female victim. An Isolated Incident is of course the earlier of the two books, but a similar story with a damaged journalist coming to a small town. Of course this perspective from the outside fills out the story a lot, and gives a broader perspective on the town and it's inhabitants. The articles that May writes for her online newspaper are included too. 

I always enjoy a multiple point of view but the dual narrative was sometimes confusing, as changes in narrator are unannounced on the audiobook, which is an ongoing audio problem. Just a short pause between sections is all we ask. Too much? Seems to be. The print book has obvious spaces, give us pauses on the audio. 

An Isolated Incident asks us not to see Bella's murder as an Isolated Incident, but to see how it sits within the history and context of violence against women. 

This had nothing to do with what happened to Bella and what happened to Bella had nothing to do with Tegan Miller and none of it had to do with the rich Sydney housewife left out to rot in the street which had nothing to do with the Nigerian girls stolen as sex slaves or the Indian woman eviscerated on a bus or the man grabbing women off the streets in Brunswick. 
It also explores family, female friendship, marriage, infinidelity, our culture of alcohol. It is sexy and provocative in a way that is rather unusual for a murder mystery. 

I've been listening to quite a bit of crime fiction over the past year since I listened to Scrublands really. I'm just about  half way through Nicci French's Frieda Klein series, and loving it. 

The narration by Katherine Littrell (what a surname!) is masterful. She is astonishing actually. She is a trained actor- which really shines through, and does work in multiple accents  and dialects- Australian, New Zealand, American and British! Wow. Sadly most of the titles she narrates are not my cup of tea, but I'll be searching out more of her work. 

An Isolated Incident was Shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize

Thursday 23 July 2020

Heartstopper Vol 1-3

I'm sick this week. Not super sick. In pre-COVID times I would have gone to work and struggled on, But in these times of modern plague no-one wants to see you, no-one wants you at work coughing and spluttering and spreading viral particles, so I've been at home since Friday, seven days and counting so far. I have the rest of the week off for plans that no longer exist so I thought I'd try and knock over 7 books this week. A big ask for me any week. But what better excuse to finally get to Heartstopper?

I've been aware of Heartstopper for some time, but wasn't aware of the genesis and birth of these books. Nick and Charlie the two main characters of Heartstopper were first side characters in Alice Oseman's first novel, Solitaire, which is the story of Charlie's older sister Tori. I haven't read Solitaire, and it's certainly not necessary. Heartstopper stands alone. Nick and Charlie were born when Alice Oseman herself was in high school, and came to life firstly as a web cartoon  in 2016 on Tumblr and Tapas (never even heard of that one), and then helped over the school fence by Patreon and Kickstarter in 2018, becoming a major success and have since been commercially published. 

Charlie Spring is 14 and in Year 10 at Truham Grammar School for Boys. He is the only openly gay boy at school having been outed the year before, he is in a secret relationship with Ben at the start of the book, but feeling used, and not happy about it when he is assigned to sit next to Nick Nelson in roll call. Charlie is the small, quiet, musical nerdy type while Nick is a rugby player in Year 11. 

Volume 1 tells the story of Charlie and Nick becoming friends and even rugby teammates rather than names on a roll. Volume 2 is the story of their deepening relationship, and my favourite volume. While in Volume 3 there is a school trip to Paris. 

Heartstopper is a lovely tale of nervous early days starting a new relationship, true at any age but especially for teenagers as depicted here. Insecurity, anxiety, self-esteem are issues for pretty much everyone, and regardless of the genders of the people involved. Charlie was bullied badly the year before when he was outed and this is a theme that carries through all the volumes. Identity, self-acceptance and kindness are also very well done.

I hope Heartstopper is widely available in libraries and particularly school libraries in Australia and around the world. 

Volume 3 take a school trip to Paris. Which must be it's own kind of hell. They hit all the tourist hot spots. Monmartre. The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre. Shakespeare and Co. Yes, I was going - tick, tick, tick. Been to all of those. Even graphic novel drawings of Paris make my heart beat a little bit faster. And let me sneak in a post for Paris in July, from which I have been sadly rather absent this year. 

Haven't we all been there?

There's great use of social media and texting as befits a modern book about teenagers. 

Heartstopper had a few major surprises for me. Alice Oseman is English and Heartstopper is set in an English high school. I'd presumed it was American. Not sure why.

So English, how could there have been any doubt?

At the end of the first volume there is a mix tape made by Charlie for Nick! Alice Oseman herself has put this list on Spotify. I listened to it while reading Volumes 2 and 3. I impressed myself by recognising the second song. Then realised it was Fleetwood Mac... the only other song I recognised was The Beatles. My teenager did much eye rolling. 

I was hoping for further mix tapes in Volume 2 and 3, but no such luck. 

Volume 4 is coming early in 2021 I believe, I'll be there. 

Tuesday 9 June 2020

The 100 Best Books of the 21st Century

This list from the Guardian caught my attention back in September, but I've been so slack about the place here, that it's only now that it caught my attention again this week, that I'm getting around to finishing off this post. 

It's a worthy list. I'd be very happy with myself to read all of these, even some more of these books. 

100. I Feel Bad About My Neck - Nora Ephron 2006

99. Broken Glass - Alain Mabanckou 2005, translated by Helen Stevenson 2009

98. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson 2005, translated by Steven T Murray 2008

97. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J.K. Rowling 2000

96. A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara 2015

95. Chronicles: Volume One - Bob Dylan 2004

94. The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell 2000

93. Darkmans - Nicola Barker 2007

92. The Siege - Helen Dunmore 2001

91. Light - M. John Harrison 2002

90. Visitation - Jenny Erpenbeck 2008, translated by Susan Bernofsky 2010

89. Bad Blood - Lorna Sage 2000

88. Noughts & Crosses - Malorie Blackman 2001

87. Priestdaddy - Patricia Lockwood 2017

86. Adults in the Room - Yanis Varoufakis 2017

85. The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins 2006

84. The Cost of Living - Deborah Levy 2018

83. Tell Me How It Ends - Valeria Luiselli 2016, translated by Luiselli with Lizzie Davis 2017

82. Coraline - Neil Gaiman 2002

81. Harvest - Jim Crace 2013

80. Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang 2002

79. The Spirit Level - Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett 2009

78. The Fifth Season - N.K. Jemisin 2015

77. Signs Preceding the End of the World - Yuri Herrera 2009, translated by Lisa Dillman 2015

76. Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman 2011

75. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead - Olga Tokarczuk 2009, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones 2018

74. Days Without End - Sebastian Barry 2016

73. Nothing to Envy - Barbara Demick 2009

72. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism - Shoshana Zuboff 2019

71. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth - Chris Ware 2000

70. Notes on a Scandal - Zoë Heller 2003

69. The Infatuations - Javier Marías 2011, translated by Margaret July Costa 2013

68. The Constant Gardener - John Le Carré 2001

67. The Silence of the Girls - Pat Barker 2018

66. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics - Carlo Rovelli 2014

65. Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn 2012

64. On Writing - Stephen King 2000

63. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot 2010

62. Mother's Milk - Edward St Aubyn 2006

61. This House of Grief - Helen Garner 2014

60. Dart - Alice Oswald 2002

59. The Beauty of the Husband - Anne Carson 2002

58. Postwar - Tony Judt 2005

57. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon 2000

56. Underland - Robert Macfarlane 2019

55. The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michel Pollan 2006

54. Women & Power - Mary Beard 2017

53. True History of the Kelly Gang - Peter Carey 2000

52. Small Island - Andrea Levy 2004

51. Brooklyn - Colm Tóibín 2009

50. Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood 2003

49. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal - Jeanette Winterson 2011

48. Night Watch - Terry Pratchett 2002

47. Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi 2000-2003, translated by Mattias Ripa 2003-2004

46. Human Chain - Seamus Heaney 2010

45. Levels of Life - Julian Barnes 2013

44. Hope in the Dark - Rebecca Solnit 2004

43. Citizen: An American Lyric - Claudia Rankine 2014

42. Moneyball - Michael Lewis 2010

41. Atonement - Ian McEwan 2001

40. The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion 2005

39. White Teeth - Zadie Smith 2000

38. The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst 2004

37. The Green Road - Anne Enright 2015

36. Experience - Martin Amis 2000

35. The Hare with Amber Eyes - Edmund de Waal 2010

34. Outline - Rachel Cusk 2014

33. Fun Home - Alison Bechdel 2006

32. The Emperor of All Maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee 2010

31. The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson 2015

30. The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead 2016

29. A Death in the Family - Karl Ove Knausgaard 2009, translated by Don Bartlett 2012

28. Rapture - Carol Ann Duffy 2005

27. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - Alice Munro 2001

26. Capital in the Twenty First Century - Thomas Piketty 2013, translated by Arthur Goldhammer 2014

25. Normal People - Sally Rooney 2018

24. A Visit from The Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan 2011 (see my review)

23. The Noonday Demon - Andrew Solomon 2001

22. Tenth of December - George Saunders 2013

21. Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari 2011, translated by Harari with John Purcell and Haim Watzman 2014

20. Life After Life - Kate Atkinson 2013 (see my review)

19. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon 2003

18. The Shock Doctrine - Naomi Klein 2007

17. The Road - Cormac McCarthy 2006 (see my review)

16. The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen 2001

15. The Sixth Extinction - Elizabeth Kolbert 2014

14. Fingersmith - Sarah Waters 2002

13. Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich 2001

12. The Plot Against America - Philip Roth 2001

11. My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante 2011, translated by Ann Goldstein 2012

10. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 2006

9. Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell 2004

8. Autumn - Ali Smith 2016

7. Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates 2015

6. The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman 2000

5. Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald 2001, translated by Anthea Bell 2001

4. Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro 2005

3. Secondhand Time - Svetlana Alexievich 2013, translated by Bela Shayevich 2016

2. Gilead - Marilynne Robinson 2004

1. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel 2009

Damn, I'm really going to have to read Wolf Hall sometime. It's so daunting though. 

I'm impressed! I've read 19/100

Not great by most standards, but pretty good for me. 

I've finished two of these books (Normal People, Autumn) in the last month or so and I finished a Top Ten title this week! Ali Smith's Autumn. I don't think it would make my Top Ten, but I'm glad to have read it. 

I've started 4 of these books but not finished them (for various reasons). I need to crack on. Many of them are already in the house.

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.