22.1.20

Fangirl

I was excited to read Fangirl. I was definitely a fangirl in the making, but a solitary one. I wrote a version of what would now be called fanfic, though the term didn't exist when I was writing it, and I never shared what I wrote with anyone. In Rainbow Rowell's book, Cath writes fanfic about 'Simon Snow' (a thinly disguised Harry Potter figure, though I believe Rowell went on to write some actual Simon Snow novels -- how meta is that!). My own preferred universes were Doctor Who, Blake's 7, and All Creatures Great and Small; somehow I managed to create a mash-up universe that could contain all these worlds in a more or less coherent narrative!

However, Fangirl isn't really about fandom as such. As one Goodreads reviewer pointed out, what's missing from this story is the community of fandom -- something I never really experienced. That being said, I  could relate to Cath's painful social insecurity, her avoidance of interaction with her fellow students, taking refuge (and delicious delight) in the world of Simon Snow, partly in her own head, partly constructed by Gemma Leslie. Even Cath recognises that her immersion in Simon Snow's world is an addiction.

Meanwhile Cath's twin, Wren, has broken away from their previously shared obsession with Simon and his vampire nemesis, Baz, and has taken the path that I took myself when I started uni (college) -- boys and alcohol. I deliberately went cold turkey on my own private universe, one of the most painful decisions I've ever made. Wren goes off the rails, and is reined in my her concerned father (this never happened to me, though I went way further off the rails than Wren does).

In the end, I was left slightly unsatisfied by Fangirl. Cath never resolves her issues with her absent mother, and she has a sweet, perfect boyfriend and a new best friend delivered into her lap by fate (college room-mate plus room-mate's ex). She never really engages with the implications of burying herself in Simon Snow's world, though by the end of the book she is beginning to write about other things, which is evolution of a kind, I guess.

I was left feeling that there is a more interesting book to be written about fandom, about living inside your own imagination, its costs and treasures. Hm, maybe I might have to write it myself...

20.1.20

Young Dark Emu

Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu has been a bit of a slow burn since it was first published in 2014, but it's causing a fuss now among right-wing commentators, which is surely a sign that he's onto something. Something threatening to the status quo, something which makes the powerful people of this country uncomfortable.

In recent weeks there have been vicious attacks on the subject matter of Dark Emu, with claims that Pascoe has exaggerated or even fabricated the evidence he found through painstaking research into primary sources (there is a whole website dedicated to contradicting Dark Emu). More nastily, a campaign has begun which questions Bruce Pascoe's own Aboriginality and presumably, his right to even discuss this history -- not that a lack of Aboriginal heritage ever stops his right-wing critics from propounding their theories about Australian history.

In my view, anyone who pisses off Andrew Bolt must be doing something right, and I'm thrilled that the ABC is making a documentary series based on the book. For too long, the observations of the earliest colonial explorers have been ignored: their own eyewitness accounts of sophisticated Aboriginal land management, sowing and harvesting of crops, food storage, the building of permanent dwellings and aquaculture systems.

Young Dark Emu takes the substance of the original book and distils it down to the essentials, still including quotes from original sources and some great illustrations. It's aimed at young readers, but it's also a handy, short version of Bruce Pascoe's argument for people who can't be bothered reading a full length book. Maybe Andrew Bolt could take a look?

NB For an excellent précis of Dark Emu, please go to Verity Sparks.

13.1.20

Yellow Notebook

I would honestly read Helen Garner's shopping lists if she made them into a book, so naturally I gobbled up Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. The most exciting part of that title is Volume 1!! How many more juicy volumes can we expect, I wonder?

I kept a faithful diary all through my uni years but it gradually dropped away as I a) grew happier and b) had kids. Part of the thrill of reading Garner's diaries for this period was that during the mid-80s we were living in overlapping worlds: walking the same inner Melbourne streets, shopping at the same bookshops, even going to the same nightclubs (occasionally). It's hard to tell but perhaps we even lived near each other, or passed each other in the street.

It's weird reading someone else's diary, even when it's been carefully edited like this. Her closest associates are disguised but little snippets of celebrity-spotting peep through (she meets a young Noah Taylor in a nightclub). There are flashes of subjects that will later become central to her writing -- violent crime, spirituality, and of course the abiding interest in personal relationships. Garner's second marriage broke down during this period, and she had other relationships.

As usual, her writing sparkles, and it's hard to read her self-berating laments, when she sees herself as untalented, plain, unlovable. It's the stuff of most diaries, mine anyway, and in a way it's reassuring that even the most brilliant of people can be so besieged with self-doubt. Reading this book was like grazing on delicious appetisers -- not a solid meal, but nourishing all the same.

11.1.20

A Single Stone

I've been meaning to read Meg McKinley's A Single Stone for a long time. It won heaps of prizes -- the PM's Literary Award, an Aurealis Award, Queensland Literary award, and was shortlisted for even more.

This is the kind of fantasy novel I really like, and it's pitched at the same level that my books always seem to end up at: somewhere between YA and middle grade, upper primary/lower secondary sort of level. It won the PM's award for Young Adult Fiction, but I don't think it's quite full-blooded YA. Not that I'm complaining (I seem to be off YA lately).

The world-building in this book is very accomplished. Generations ago, a remnant population was trapped by a landslide inside a valley, and believing that the rest of their society was destroyed, they've lived in the valley ever since. They depend for heat and energy on burning a stone called mica, which can only be obtained by creeping deep into the fissures of the mountain. This responsibility falls on young girls, but as the supply of readily available mica is used up, the Mothers need girls who are smaller and thinner and more flexible every year. Jena is the leader of the line, but when she begins to question the assumptions of her small world, she might bring everything tumbling down.

A Single Stone reminded me a little of Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan, with its subterranean young girls and buried secrets, and the isolated valley ruled by women inevitably reminded me of Calwyn's home, Antaris, in my own The Singer of All Songs. I'm not a fan of caves and the idea of being trapped inside rock gives me the heebie jeebies, so I'm not sure that the world of A Single Stone is one I'd particularly want to live in myself! But it makes a cracking idea for a fantasy.

8.1.20

The Overstory

I borrowed Richard Power's Booker Prize short-listed doorstop, The Overstory, because someone on Facebook said it provoked more discussion in her book group than any other novel this year. It's a mighty fat book, the kind of thick adult novel that has made me quail in recent years. But I took a deep breath and dived in.

The Overstory is about trees. It follows nine characters whose stories intersect and overlap, nine people whose lives have all at some point revolved around trees. As I read I couldn't help marvelling at the incredible piece of engineering that is a tree: a elegant machine for converting carbon to oxygen, knitting together earth and air, communicating mysteriously with its fellows, providing shelter and food for countless other organisms, animals, insects and birds, infinitely adaptable, patiently extending roots and twigs, growing imperceptibly out and upward, too slowly for us to notice.

Some of the characters in The Overstory become environmental activists. Apparently this part of the book is based on real-life campaigns in the Pacific North-West of the US. They risk their lives to save the ancient trees. There are also artists, a computer game developer, a lawyer, an engineer who becomes a therapist, a scientist, who all see the trees from slightly different angles.

I've always been more of a tree person than a sea person. My family home is in the foothills of the Dandenongs, and its windows gaze out at a tree-blanketed slope. Even now as I sit in my inner-suburban living-room, I'm looking out at the dozen or so trees in our backyard and the swaying screen of leaves that soars high above the local rooftops.

Today, as I hear the clamour for more clear-felling to protect human property from bushfires, my heart sinks. Surely, if anything can save us from our doom, it will be the trees? One couple in The Overstory decide to let their garden go wild. All they have to do is... nothing. And inexorably, nature takes over. That gave me hope.

3.1.20

Reading Roundup 2019

I'm so far behind on my book responses, I almost forgot that it was time for the annual reading roundup. In 2019 I read 92 books -- slightly more than last year.

Kids' books: 39
Adult: 53
This is about the same proportion as last year, and most of my memorable reads were in the adult category. Towards the end of the year I had a Noel Streatfeild comfort binge. Actually there are a lot of books on my shelves begging for a re-read: Alan Garner, Lucy Boston, E Nesbit, more Streatfeilds. Hm, I can feel a nostalgic 2020 coming on!


Female authors: 63
Male authors: 26
Mixed authorship: 3
Practically all the fiction I read this year was by women. I discovered Mary Wesley, Jane Harper and Tana French, and caught up with some Kate Atkinson titles I hadn't read before. Should I make an effort to read more books by men?

... Nah, I don't think so.

Fiction: 63
Non-fiction: 29
I read heaps of fiction at the start of this year, but non-fiction made a bit of a comeback towards the end. Exactly the same proportion of women authors as fiction titles, weirdly. It's just a coincidence.

Secondhand books: 40 (down 5)
Borrowed from library: 24 (up 13)
Bought new (includes gifts): 14 (up 5)
Borrowed from friends: 9 (up 5)
Re-read: 4 (down 9)
Kindle: 2 (down 5)
The library had a resurgence this year, though I still bought (and read) mostly secondhand. I managed to make a dent in my immense to-be-read stash, and I'm (mostly) resisting the temptation to load up at Brotherhood Books. Particularly later in the year, I have rediscovered the amazing resource that is the local library and I've been going crazy reserving far more books than I can read!
BTW, e-books are so over.


Australian: 39
UK: 30
US: 18
New Zealand: 1
Ireland: 3
India: 1
Wow, I did not expect that -- Australian books are comfortably in the majority this year. I didn't consciously seek out local books, but I'm happy that it's turned out that way. Little bit of an Irish blip happening, too! As I was tallying up the totals, I realised that I'd read a lot of books by Australian women this year. So hooray to that.

Notable books in 2019
Johann Hari's Lost Connections made me see depression and anxiety in a new way, as a social problem as much as an individual one.
Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk reinforced my disillusionment with western society. There has to be a better way. Humans are not designed to live like this, no wonder we are all so miserable. Plus, we are destroying our home.
On a similar theme, Richard Power's The Overstory is a big fat novel, the kind I thought I couldn't be arsed reading any more. But it was an absorbing account of the relationship between people and trees. God, trees are amazing.

In other fiction, I was impressed by Sally Rooney's Conversations With Friends. I can't wait to see what she does next. Eva Hornung's haunting Dog Boy stayed with me long after I'd finished reading. I was thrilled to discover the murder mysteries of Tana French and local author Jane Harper.

Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do was a harrowing exploration of domestic abuse and masculinity.

And finally, Jane Sullivan's Storytime was pure pleasure. Thank God for books.

Domestic Soldiers

Domestic Soldiers is another book created out of the raw material of the Mass-Observation project. I've read a few of these now and they are never less than interesting; however, Domestic Soldiers is one of the less successful offerings.

Mass-Observation was a British social research study which ran from the 1930s to 1961, when it was discontinued. About 500 volunteers kept diaries, replied to questionnaires, and recorded the opinions and behaviour of their fellow citizens. The archive formed by this mass of material is a treasure trove for historians.

Domestic Soldiers is loosely focused on the feelings, thoughts and experiences of six 'ordinary' women in wartime. Spread all over the country, their experience of war was hugely variable. One was a sheltered middle-class wife who grumbled at the inconvenience of rationing and incompetent servants; another suffered the full brunt of the Blitz. One sought emotional relief in flirting with service-men; another was painfully loyal to her repressed, controlling husband, but found a new lease of life and confidence in running a canteen and the local Red Cross shop.

Ultimately, I wanted more of the diaries and fewer general descriptions of what was going on in the war at the time. This is actually not a bad potted history of WWII, if that's what you're after, but the sheer amount of war reportage ended up squeezing out the women's words, which was a shame. One of this book's subjects, Nella Last, was a prolific MO correspondent and she has a couple of books of her own: Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace. I've read the latter and found it riveting. There were glimpses of Nella in Domestic Soldiers but I would have liked more.

1.1.20

Sand Talk (again)

The first day of a new year, the start of a new decade, and yet things feel sober, even frightening. The country is on fire; the planet is burning.

Re-reading Sand Talk confirmed for me: we are not meant to be living like this. 'Western civilisation' is built on a mirage, a concept of constant growth and expansion which is literally unsustainable. The things we have decided are important, the standards by which we measure success and survival (profit, consumption, economic growth), are killing us, and the precious, fragile world we live on. What would happen if we re-framed our ideas of what matters, to prioritise custodianship over exploitation, enough over more, connection over domination?

I don't know if it's even possible. Perhaps we are racing unstoppably toward our doom, the way so many past civilisations have collapsed, mutated, vanished. But there are small things I can do. They might just be gestures, flailing my arms before I topple into the maw of the apocalypse, but I'm going to do them anyway. Eating less meat. Trying to walk instead of drive everywhere. Buying less crap. We've installed a massive solar array on our roof; we might buy a battery next. We'll try to take care of the wild birds and creatures that live in our garden. I'll try to stay hopeful, try to look for ways to make things better, not worse.

Happy 2020, everyone. And if anyone wants to borrow Sand Talk, I'll lend it to you.