I’ve recently moved house, but thankfully this hasn’t compromised my reading on the train time. As term 2 gets underway, I thought it timely to update you on my commuter reading habits this year. (You can read about the stuff I was reading last semester here).
Goodbye, Perfect – Sara Barnard
I felt very invested in the action of this YA novel. Narrated by Eden, whose usually “perfect” best friend has run off with the hipster music teacher, the old “trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped” tension was developed in a way that rang disturbingly true. Eden was a lovely nuanced character too, in foster care with a family who carved out a symbolic piece of garden for her to work and dealing with her own own feelings of imperfection.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Who doesn’t love Austen? I’m looking forward to teaching this next term.
I am Thunder – Muhammad Khan
This is not my favourite recent YA novel, but I was drawn along by the tension and themes that feel important in understanding Islamic points of view. The main character struggles with controlling parents and, as a result, gets swept up into a world of extremism. The characters don’t quite feel real at times, with some clunky teenage dialogue, but the action progresses at a good pace and the choices and conflicts for the main character are important to consider.
Persepolis (books 1&2) – Marjane Satrapi
I enjoyed teaching this last term. Satrapi’s Graphic Memoir is another often neglected worldview – the effects of the Iranian Revolution on the population and, in particular, how these event shaped a childhood. Satrapi doesn’t portray herself as a perfect character, but she’s hugely likeable and struggles with all the normal teenage issues on top of bigger issues, such as faith, war, political beliefs and loss of family members. So many excellent scenes and the visuals are charmingly simple and affecting.
Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari
I’m now currently reading Harari’s Sapiens, which is the back story in some ways to this. Homo Deus looks at where homo sapiens have come from and where we are potentially going, in a world where things like Google know more about us than we know ourselves; where we strive for immortality; where we’re creating artificial intelligence beyond our own abilities. Harari makes connections between topics that you never see coming, but are so convincing when they’re drawn together. This was an intense reading experience, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it and almost every conversation I had at this time seemed to be able to link to an idea from the book.
Take Three Girls – Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell & Fiona Wood
Three YA authors each create a character who’s figuring themselves out and developing a relationship with the others. It’s not uncommon these days for YA novels to flick point of view every chapter and sometimes this feels pointless, especially if the voices are not particularly distinct or add interest to the story. But this works really well as the authors have their own voice and style for their characters and they interact beautifully. The book looks at some important ideas and the girls are drawn together initially by a “Wellness” class – a clever device for allowing them to be cynical and then accepting of self-care and relationship lessons.
The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton
I read this straight after hearing Tim Winton introduce his character and talk about toxic masculinity. I’ve loved Winton’s work for ages, and hearing him talk is so moving, as he’s a powerful blend of humble, intelligent, heart-felt and funny. The Shepherd’s Hut follows Jaxie Clackton as he attempts to cross the saltlands of Western Australia, escaping the home that has nothing left for him. He’s a deeply troubled boy, but I felt incredibly warm towards him and hoped only for his safety. The voice is authentic and consuming and the landscape – so often a character of its own in Winton’s work – stark and uncompromising.
Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit
Solnit has become my go-to on US political commentary recently, but it was also useful reading her essays on the back of Winton’s talk, as she reiterates the problem of the patriarchy, reminding me that these ideas and facts need to be voiced by everyone, before change can happen. She’s scathing and funny, but hits you with the reality of a society where it’s all too common to silence women.
The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood
This had been on my “to read” list for a while and I’ve been wanting to read more Australian writers since moving here. This might not have been a good place to start! I was engrossed entirely and compelled to finish to ensure everyone ended up okay, but it was a rather harrowing read with very little sense of hope. The detached almost dreamlike narrative was appropriate for the characters who, given their circumstances, were trying to escape mentally and physically, but felt a bit too removed at times. As with Winton’s work, the Australian landscape is characterised as a harsh and unforgiving factor to be endured or overcome. Don’t let me stray too far into the outback, okay?
Windfall – Jennifer E. Smith
I read this as much needed fluffy light relief and it did the trick. It’s very much a teen love story, which I’m not usually a fan of, but there are some beautiful moments and incredibly well-written dialogue. I admire an ability to capture authentic teen voices and show the rapport and easy connection between characters with clever banter. Teenager wins the lottery, but realises love is the real prize in life. Aww.
I stand for the woman whose feet
strain at the straps of her shoes
stare daggers at the snorer
slumped in priority seats.
The 7.17 chorus tells
of a recent Greek wedding
her brother’s? The audience invested as
festivities fill the carriage from a phone.
Jason’s woken early, texts a busy day ahead
we’ll be promised an ending
as long as we plan the next beginning.
His paged namesake remains oblivious.
Medea’s children smile at her
and she breaks down again.
I give her one more station
to change her mind.
When I got my new job at the end of June, the hour’s commute was initially daunting to small-town me. I talked about moving to Richmond, I investigated cycle paths (and therefore a new bicycle), I accepted rides from kindly colleagues, but ultimately the silent hour each morning on a train with a book won me over. Here’s what I’ve been reading en route to work:
Cargo – Jessica Au
Set in the 90s and beautifully, gently written, Cargo tells the story of Gillian, Frankie and Jacob one summer by the sea. This is a coming-of-age novel in dreamy long sentences and alternating points of view (something I can either love or hate in a novel). Jessica Au is a Melbourne writer and Cargo, her first novel, was highly commended in the 2012 Kathleen Mitchell Award for a writer under 30. http://www.jessicaau.com
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
I had been meaning to read this for a while. Obviously it’s a classic, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so post-modern in its telling (self-conscious narrator, leaps in time and perspective, historical fact mixed with absurdist fiction) and funny in that dark and quirky Vonnegut way. Not your average war story and probably hugely therapeutic to have written.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green and David Levithan
Somehow I have a class of Year 8s who are convinced I’m in love with John Green. It’s not even an English class! I guess I haven’t convincingly argued to the contrary, because seriously… he is wonderful. This book is so charming and funny and important. Written in alternating chapters by two outstanding young adult authors, the voices of the two Will Graysons are distinct and believable. It made me teary at times and the sweetness and bravery between the two boys who fall in love is pretty inspiring.
The Ties That Bind – Melbourne Social Writers’ Group
I’ve been so lucky to be part of two very active and supportive writing groups, both of which put together an anthology this year – no mean feat! The Ties That Bind is the second anthology from the Melbourne Social Writers’ Group and includes a range of work from writers at all stages of their craft. https://www.facebook.com/MelbWriters/
Wild Surmise – Dorothy Porter
This is an amazing work. A verse novel in different voices, following the characters, Alex, Daniel and Phoebe. It has a marriage breakdown, astrobiology, space travel, poignant poetic references, explorations of sexuality, death, love. The verse style is almost operatic and allows the tone to shift from light-hearted to heartfelt to heart-breaking, page by page.
The Transmigration of Bodies / Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera
Two novellas from a Mexican writer, I confess I’d never heard of before. I found this a bit of a stretch for me and out of my usual realm of poetic stories about human interaction. It had a fable-like quality with the main character called The Redeemer on a journey to restore peace. It’s hard to put my finger on the actual style of this, but I’m always happy to be challenged thusly!
Funny Girl – Nick Hornby
Shout out to Nick Hornby in the title of this post, by the way (‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’ is a phrase that belongs to him http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/stuff-ive-been-reading/ ). I enjoyed the lightness of this novel, which is both about and in the style of a 1960s sitcom. The main character is a determined young woman with a robust sense of humour. This is the kind of book most people probably read on the train – pure entertainment, leaving one with enough brain power to function effectively at one’s destination.
In the Dark Spaces – Cally Black and Because Everything is Right, but Everything is Wrong- Erin Donohue
Another slightly-out-of-my-comfort-zone book, In the Dark Spaces is YA sci-fi, while Erin Donohue’s debut novel is a poetic, gentle treatment of mental illness. You can read my full review of both of these here at The Sapling.
Midnight’s Children –Salman Rushdie
I’m supervising a student who is writing an essay on the narrative voice of this novel. It’s so complex and clever and in talking to my student I have a deep appreciation for the way Rushdie has combined so many styles and techniques to create a character who creates a world. Describing the first 30 years of India’s Independence by personifying it through Saleem, born at the exact moment of independence, the world seems to revolve around his every move. Every sentence is packed full and perhaps takes a little more concentration than standing on the train at 7am allows.
How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb
I’m a big Webb fan, as in Mitchell and Webb, as in Peep Show, as in Jez. This is Robert Webb’s memoir, interspersed with reflections on masculinity. Webb’s trademark humour is present throughout, but particularly in describing awkward interactions and encounters. Typically too, he is quick to acknowledge his privilege and careful not to come across as too complainy. An important read in this era of calling men out on their behaviour – I recommend this interview as a taster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4A4KHm3brJE&t=16s
A New Beginning – Women Who Write, Melbourne
The first anthology from the second writing group I feel so lucky to be part of! Another lovely collection and so much work has gone into making sure it’s a polished and cohesive range of writing, on the theme a new beginning. Women Who Write is a non-profit supportive group for women in Melbourne. They hold regular meet-ups and currently have over 600 members https://www.facebook.com/groups/wwwmelb/
That summer I was reading A brief history of seven killings, a weighty hardback issued from the library. Too heavy to lug out to parks or café courtyards, it anchored me into my new home. I lounged on the daybed and when people asked aloud what I’d been doing, the book’s title drew out my kiwi accent almost as thick as the tome itself. A reminder of the recency of my migration.
An odd choice of book, perhaps, but held in place by it I felt the sun pass through the house and, when I needed a break from the intensity, I walked to the supermarket in my new neighbourhood; each day a little taller, feeling more present. Roses bent their heads over picket fences and I learnt to recognise those worth stopping to breathe with. I took in the street names, smiled at locals, became one.
I’ve been insisting on the non-autobiographical nature of my novel for ages, but now I think I might actually be turning into my character. It’s okay though, she’s pretty cool. Yesterday I bought a second-hand Epiphone Les Paul Standard in sparkly blue and cream and although Paige in Lonesome When You Go is actually a bass player, there are substantial rumours circulating that there’s a sequel in the works in which she makes the switch to lead.
I’ve even found myself being ever-so-slightly more assertive, refusing to put up with histrionics in the staff room and flicking the hair from my eyes pointedly to signal the end of a conversation.
And of course I’ve been a long time plagiariser of Blood on the Tracks lyrics.
Perhaps this is proof that my fiction writing is just one step ahead of my real life desires, or perhaps life really is imitating art. It does happen. People look to literature – as readers and writers – for a better understanding of the world and themselves. I’ve always learnt something about myself through my own writing and, in lieu of safe, trustworthy and compassionate adults to talk to, people – especially young people – often look for emotional support by reading fiction.
I don’t think this means authors bear the burden of providing therapy or a safe and perfect world in their novels to which people can escape. Nor need they ensure their characters are ideal and consistently positive role models, but we do have a responsibility to keep in mind if we truly believe in what we do as writers. Otherwise what’s the point?
When I’m not writing or buying sweet axes, I’m a teacher. I have been for years. It’s given me a broad view of the world and an understanding that not everyone has the benefit of feeling safe all the time.
Sometimes I get to teach analysis of great literature, introduce students to writers and concepts that will hopefully stay with them as they take on the adult world. Often I get the pleasure of encouraging a young person to write something they never knew they were able to write. Other times I just read them books that help put feelings into words, their own emotional vocabularies so limited.
Always I stress the importance of language to our sense of self and well-being, and one day, maybe, I’ll even tell them about my secret life as a teenage rock star; how life is just an imitation of art imitating life.