It’s been a while since I’ve written about reading, but I’ve been devouring books over the last few months. On sick days and in bed on cooling nights I’ve curled up with so many different pages, from crime novels to young adult to non-fiction. I haven’t kept track of every book, but I did jot down notes about many of them in a journal I keep for books and films. Here are some of the highlights from my summer/autumn reading pile.
In January I read The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, a biography of Sandra Pankhurst published by Text. I loved the way the chapters in this book alternate between Sandra’s life story and detailed descriptions of the houses (and the people) she cleans for. Beautifully written, almost a love letter from Sarah to Sandra, the author reflects on her own battles and points out how easily she (or any of us) could end up living the way Sandra’s clients do.
In February I sped through The Dry and Force of Nature, both excellent Aussie crime thrillers by Jane Harper. I also rediscovered The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, a novel I found in a second-hand book shop in Yarrawonga last year. A quirky, epic story that moves – Forrest Gump-like – through history. Told in an omniscient style, I felt a little distant from the characters at times. But it was still an enjoyable and very different read.
For book club I re-read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, a short story written in 1948 that remains relevant (and popular in high school literature courses) today. Over coffee and cake we talked about the idea of tradition, and why we are afraid to give up rituals that have become outdated and sometimes harmful. Is this the danger of nostalgia? Holding on for holding ons sake?
In March – as the weather started to turn and I spent more time wearing hoodies and seeking out sun – I worked my way through A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Epic in every sense of the word, this wasn’t always an easy read. Some novels feel more like a ride – a literary experience – than a narrative, and this certainly fits that description. Much more character than plot driven, Seven Killings presents an enormous cast of wonderfully created voices, moving through history and politics in an often stream of consciousness style. From Kingston in the 70’s to New York in the 90’s, I was caught up in this world for a good month of autumn.
In April I went on a YA and middle-grade binge, starting with The Extremely Weird Thing That Happened in Huggabie Falls by Adam Cece, winner of the 2017 Text Prize. I loved the imaginative randomness of this book, the anything-is-possible vibe. I also really liked the way the author’s voice frequently ‘intrudes’ upon the story.
Next I read the beautiful Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray. This was such a lovely read – imaginative and quirky in a totally different way. And somehow gentle. I particularly liked the descriptions of the bush, the animals, and the herb potions.
In the space of a day I read Bonesland by Brendan Lawley, a YA novel shortlisted for last year’s Text Prize. Gritty and great, totally captivating in its angst. A really good insight into modern teen life in rural Victoria.
And then there was Bob, a magical little middle-grade story by Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass about an American/Aussie girl and a not-zombie-wrong-chicken. Weird and mysterious and hilarious and beautiful, I was constantly reading lines out loud. An ending I did not expect. One of those books that makes you want to give it to everyone but at the same time keep it secretly to yourself. So wonderful.
Towards the end of April I read two – very different – holocaust books back to back. The first was The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, a novel I’d heard people talk about for years but had never had the chance to read. It was worth the wait – amazingly different from anything else I’ve ever come across about the Second World War. Compelling and full of descriptions that are just odd enough to feel completely real. I loved Death as the narrator, the journal illustrations, the range of characters. A book I could read again.
The second was The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, a recent release by a New Zealand/Australian author based on the true story of Lale, a holocaust survivor. After The Book Thief, this felt much more traditional in terms of narrative style. It is a love story, and a very moving account of strength, bravery and – when it comes down to it – a great amount of luck.
It’s May already, and I’ve just finished two books of non-fiction. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo reads like a novel but is actually a documentation of a community living in the slums by Mumbai’s airport. The author lived there for an extended period, too, in an effort to get to know the people and the politics of poverty. It’s quite astounding to realise that the thoughts and inner workings of characters are not the result of poetic license or author interpretation, but are in fact based on extensive interviews with real people. It’s a pretty bleak account – people sorting garbage for a living, suicide by rat poison, a disabled woman who sets herself on fire – but it is also a revealing insight into the hierarchies of slum life.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is also largely about poverty, this time in Ohio in the United States. The author grew up in extremely difficult circumstances, but somehow – as an adult – he managed to escape them, to break the cycle. His book is an attempt to understand both what it is that traps people in poverty, and what allows them to get out. This was a really interesting read, an insight into a world I previously knew very little about, and perhaps a (partial) explanation for the current state of the States, and the influence of Trump.
It’s been a weird and wonderful mix of reading, from houses full of rubbish to the Appalachian mountains. I feel very lucky to have access to so many different worlds in this way, to be able to leave behind my own thinking and enter someone else’s, for a while. I’ve still got a fairly tall pile of unread books waiting for me on top of the bookshelf. I can’t wait to see what winter brings.