Archive for the ‘great reads’ Category

Novels for summer reading

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Let’s be honest – I don’t blog anymore (and anyway my students tell me blogging is ‘passe’), but this year I’ll be putting up notes about interesting books or articles I’ve read.

Right now, I’m reading in preparation for chairing some sessions at the Perth Writers Festival in February – and loving it!

I expected to enjoy Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and I did. It is so well written; I found it enthralling. Jo Baker’s Longbourn is another a terrific historical novel, based around the servants in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Again, wonderfully written with stunning prose and a great story.

Next off the pile – some non-fiction.

Happy new year!

Grief and ballooning: on Barnes’ Levels of Life

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

I first became a fan of Julian Barnes when I read Flaubert’s Parrot back in 1984. His latest book has a touch of Francophilia, and there’s a parrot mentioned once, but otherwise, it’s a long way from the playful, meta-fiction of his early novels. Levels of Life is a hybrid book: part fiction, part mini-biography and part memoir. The first section, ‘The Sin of Height’, tells the stories of the some of the early balloonists, including their attempts to take photographs from the air. The second section, ‘On the Level’, elaborates a fictional love affair between balloonist Fred Burnaby and actress Sarah Bernhardt. The final part is ‘The Loss of Depth’, where Barnes plummets to earth and autobiography.

The first two parts, while nicely written and enjoyable to read, are really just providing an extended metaphor and ballast (pun intended) for the third part, which might best be described as a grief memoir. Here is the driving force for the book, the need to write about and, presumably, share the experience of losing Pat, his beloved wife of 30 years, to a sudden illness.

This is a grief memoir more in the pattern of CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed than in the style of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (to take two of the most well-known and excellent examples of such books). It is philosophical and abstract, almost impersonal in its telling. Not that Barnes avoids revealing aspects of himself and his life – quite the reverse – but he seems to do so to explore grief and how it works rather than to create empathy with the reader or show us the details of his daily life. He describes the way friends stop talking about Pat and instead suggest he starts taking holidays and how that affects him. He discusses his thoughts of suicide, why he now values opera (all that drama and pain), how he has managed to get through the past four years. This section of the book is honest and illuminating and its references to the balloon metaphor give it variety and lighter moments. Mercifully, there is no advice on grief-work, no suggestions that there is a map for grieving, only one man’s reflections on ‘the universe doing its stuff’.

A final touching moment is seeing the inside back flap of the book jacket with the author’s photo and biography and, then, just below that, his wife’s photo and biography. It is as if Pat Kavanagh were ghost-writing the book with Barnes, a spectral co-author of his grief book, as she had been a partner in his life.

child lessons

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

My review of the wonderful Welcome to Your New Life by Anna Goldsworthy (author of Piano Lessons) can be found in this month’s edition of the Australian Book Review. It’s a lovely book, worth reading.

My summer reading

Saturday, January 5th, 2013

What bliss it is to sit down in front of a fan in the middle of the day in Perth and read a book purely for pleasure, not for reasons of research or teaching, but just for my own delight!

I started this year with The Devil’s Cave by Martin Walker, the latest Bruno, Chief of Police story set in the Perigord. Of course, I had to drink wine and eat lots of soft cheese and pate at the same time, as food is so much a part of this book!

Now I am half way into The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt, a fascinating memoir that is also about neuroscience, psychology and even philosophy. I’m reading it after reading her essay collection Living, Thinking, Looking, which I also found absorbing. As I read, I keep marking especially intriguing passages. I used to feel a bit guilty about writing in books, but now (if I own the book), I find it liberating to do this. If I go back to re-read a book and see my own marks or comments, I’m often amused to see how the same or different things catch my eye at different times.

The next book on my January reading pile is Theories of Memory: A Reader edited by Rossington and Whitehead, which a dear friend gave me for christmas – what an inspired choice!

And of course, I must recommend The Best Australian Essays 2012 edited by Ramona Koval, not just because one of my essays is there, but also because there are a lot of very good essays in this book, including Gillian Mears’ essay about writing the wonderful novel Foal’s Bread.

Happy New (reading) Year!

Writing and ethics

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

I’m delighted to have an article in the latest Westerly magazine, which focuses on Writing and Ethics. My article ‘The Air that Falls’ is an exploration of writing about family, drawing on my own experiences and analysing Aftermath, a memoir by Rachel Cusk. Some of the press coverage of Aftermath was savage and this was one reason I wanted to write about the book. If she can write and publish a book about a marriage breakdown, can she really love her children? asked reviewers.

Also in this issue of Westerly are non-fiction pieces by Kim Scott, Alice Pung, Frank Moorhouse, Benjamin Law and Rozanna Lilley, as well as lots of new poetry and some great fiction. Here is how Moorhouse starts his essay:

“I tell new writers that the literary writer has three ever-ongoing negotiations in their life by which they gain the privilege of a literary vocation, that is, the privilege to write what one wants to write, in a way he or she wishes to write, and to spend most of one’s time doing it at one’s own pace.”

The first negotiation he speaks of is the negotiation with one’s family and friends – essentially a negotiation about resources and ethics. This, he says, is the most difficult negotiation. And this, I suspect, is why this volume (57:2) of Westerly will interest so many writers and readers.

One perfect symbol

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

When I worked in book publishing in London in the late 1980s, there was much discussion about how the (then) new technology of electronic typesetting would kill off the printed book within a few years. Well, it didn’t happen then. Publishers, writers and readers have had about 30 years in which to prepare ourselves for the possible death of the printed book.

I’m still not prepared, though. I love the physical object of the p-book. And so do lots of others.

I was interested to read writer and book collector Julian Barnes in The Guardian Weekly saying that he thinks the p-book will survive, albeit it in altered form. The day after reading that, I read ‘Touch of Class’ by Robert Collins in The Weekend Australian Magazine, where he describes some wonderful ‘books’ that you can read on your iPad, like Eliot’s The Waste Land and Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, complete with sound recordings, vision of the original manuscripts, glossaries, extra information like photos, videos and scholarly articles. They sound pretty good. I will probably buy the Eliot one day, though I won’t be tossing out my scruffy old self-annotated copy of his Selected Poems.

I love what Barnes said about reading near the end of his Guardian article: ‘When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life; you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.’

The deep life

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

I read a lot, probably too much.

I should read less and do more of the practical things of life, like cleaning the house, getting some exercise and weeding the garden. I know I need practise with practical activities because the other day it took me 30 minutes to take the beeping smoke detector off the ceiling to change its battery and then another 30 minutes to fail to get it back up there. Tears and swear words later, my friend arrived and sorted it immediately – the problem was all to do with a little red tab that had to be tucked under the battery. How is it that some people can see that sort of thing straightaway and I can’t?

No amount of great literature is ever going to teach me how to be comfortable up a ladder fiddling around with batteries and buttons and little red things. I know this. I know I can’t rely on my friends to help me out every time either. You only get good at things through practice, so the smoke detector should be a warning to me – get practical.

Yes, I said to myself, but first since I’ve just made a coffee I’ll sit down for a quick read before I tackle the garden weeds. An hour later, I was still engrossed in The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel set in the 80s, partly about a girl who reads too much!

What excuse is there for people like me? I don’t know, except I also came across this sentence by Mary Jane Moffat: “Literature is one of the few resources we have in modern times for living the deep life and not being simply spectators of our own experience.”

This is so true: the more I read, the more I understand myself and others. This is worth something, surely.


Friday, July 27th, 2012

This, from Margaret Atwood: “Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” (From her book Negotiating with the Dead.)

Isn’t this true? When you begin working on an essay or a story or a poem, something is obscured, but you don’t necessarily know what. There can be an emptiness – a void, the sense of something unknown or unspoken, something felt but not fully expressed yet. And you work with it, around it, towards it. You dive down into the darkness, and find – or rather create – a pattern, a way of shedding light.

And if you go down there and come up with nothing, well, you just do it all again the next day, and the next … Diving and writing, writing and diving.

Western Australian of the Year

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Great news that my colleague at Curtin University, Professor of Writing Kim Scott, has been named inaugural Western Australian of the Year. Kim, of course, is a multi-award winning author. His latest book is That Deadman Dance. But the novel of his that transformed my own thinking about Noongar people was Benang.

Kim is also very active in Indigenous communities, particularly around language recovery. His work on the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories project is fantastic. I had the opportunity to read Mamang, a story about a man and a singing whale – it’s a lovely book.

It’s a real pleasure to have Kim in our School at Curtin; I think he may be the first Indigenous full Professorial appointment at Curtin. Roll on diversity! At work he is modest and friendly – which might be rare for someone who is so successful.

International Women’s Day

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

In honour of International Women’s Day, here are a few of my favourite memoirs by women, books I come back to read again and again.

Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska – a wonderful ‘fictional memoir’ about her mother, beautifully written and multi-layered.

Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer by Nancy Mairs – a set of essays exploring writing, feminism and disability, written in the distinctive voice of all Mairs’ work.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard – a wise exploration of the life of a writer by a supremely talented stylist.

Stasiland by Anna Funder – perhaps not really a memoir, but an extraordinary book of creative non-fiction exposing the often untold stories of the East German secret service before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

International Women’s Day and my own first book launch have also made me think about the value of having other women writers as friends and mentors.  Luckily, I can honestly and wholeheartedly recommend the books of two colleagues who have been great mentors to me.

Beneath the Bloodwood Tree by Julienne van Loon – a dark and engrossing story about love, loss and secrets.

Last Chance Café by Liz Byrski – an engaging novel about women, ageing, consumerism and relationships.

Happy International Women’s Day!