Our June reads include How to Be Second Best by Jessica Dettmann, I Can’t Remember the Title but the Cover is Blue by Elias Greig, Praise by Andrew McGahan, Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Senior Program Officer
Emma’s husband Troy loves her. He insists that he loves her, even when he calls their newborn by the wrong name, and Emma discovers his affair with his Pilates instructor. Living in neighbouring Sydney suburbs, Emma and the Pilates nymph, Helen, have both given birth to baby girls within weeks of each other. Caught out amid the exhaustion of sneaking out to look after a second newborn, Troy confesses to Emma, insists that he really loves her, and then leaves her to marry Helen.
Fans of Jessica Dettmann’s parenting blog, Life With Gusto, will recognise her affectionate, dry humour in her debut novel. How to Be Second Best is a romantic comedy, but with much of the romance replaced by scenes of parenting. Light hearted and playful on the surface, this is a skilful novel about loss, resilience and the parental struggle to do the best for one’s children. How to Be Second Best combines Liane Moriarty’s family-centric suburban drama with the comedy of Sophie Kinsella, building from Emma’s sudden status as a single mum to a warm, rich ending. Read my full review for the Newtown Review of Books.
Jane McCredie, CEO
In I Can’t Remember the Title but the Cover is Blue, Elias Greig presents a wonderful series of vignettes from his years as a bookseller on Sydney’s leafy North Shore. The book had its origins in social media posts about interactions with customers written by Greig, as he puts it, to help preserve his sanity.
Any retail worker, he writes, knows that customers can be “kind, thoughtful, funny, and full of pathos – but also irrational, demanding, intrusive, abusive, over-disclosive, and brain-scramblingly, mind-bendingly strange”. When Greig made the transition from selling shoes to selling books, he expected to find himself in a more decorous world. Instead, the general absurdities of retail work seemed to be heightened: “to listen to customers in a bookshop is to hear the Zeitgeist come roaring out like the Devil at an exorcism,” he writes. From the customers who expect free day care or internet research, to those who share intimate details of their lives, this book paints a funny, moving and often deeply weird picture of our times.
Sarah Mott, Project & Communications Officer
It feels like we live in an age of generations pitted against one-another – baby boomers vs millennials, millennials vs iGeneration, all fuelled by the affirmations of our social media bubbles and echoed by the extreme binary nature of the recent election. It’s hard, as a millennial, to imagine that any demographic before us was so maligned for existing in the society created by the generation before us, but of course this happens every time, and it feels like this every time. Praise is a reminder of this. Andrew McGahan’s first novel is a crude, grungy ode to Gen X hopelessness that resonates with anyone who remembers the nihilistic philosophy in which we all dabbled in our early 20s.
Set in Brisbane in the 1990s during the recession, the book centres around Gordon Buchanan and his spiral into apathetic listlessness fuelled by drugs and the dole. McGahan manages to place us perfectly in Buchanan’s narcissistic sensibility – all parental figures are hazy 2-dimensional characters that we never really engage with, merely the annoying cause of the recession, laws and lack of jobs to navigate – the present is a lazy forward lumber for drugs, sex and the next meal. I’m still halfway through the book, and by the looks of it, this will be a downward spiral with no finger-wagging morality lesson in sight. To me, this book feels more relevant than ever as we are driven further into economical and environmental uncertainty by out-of-touch leaders that represent the generation preceding us, there is always a hint of temptation – like Praise’s Gordon Buchanan – to resign to failure and apathy. But the reminder that this book represents, that each generation has felt this and each generation has struggled out the other side, is some kind of comfort.
Claire Thompson, Communications Intern
I’m currently in the middle of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe and enjoying it immensely. It did take me a little while to get into because I was not familiar with the choppiness of Dalton’s writing style – often switching from present to past through flashbacks with no introduction. However now I am familiar with it and feel like I know who all the characters are, I am really enjoying the book. Told from the perspective of Eli, we hear the tales of a boy growing up in Brisbane in the 1980’s – all the familiar struggles of becoming a teenager and figuring out what it takes to be a good person, while being raised by a drug dealer Mum and stepfather and an ex-criminal babysitter. Boy Swallows Universe explores the big question of whether good and evil is really black and white by making criminals the main characters, familiarising the reader with them so we feel empathy, and it becomes difficult to draw a line between what is truly evil, and what is just something someone had to do to protect their family or survive.
Dalton writes unique metaphors which create an authentic voice for Eli such as: “Nothing connects a city quite like South-East Asian heroin. This glorious month of Saturdays with the Jindalee pool shut for renovations find Lyle, Teddy, August and me crisscrossing the city of Brisbane between every cultural minority, every gang, every obscure subculture my sprawling and hot city nurses in its sweaty bosom.”
I always love books set in Australia because the references are more familiar, and the way Dalton captures Brisbane in the 1980s is so vibrant you can imagine it. I am both eager and nervous for what’s to come next for Eli, but if it’s anything like what has happened so far, I am in for something incredible.
Grace Joseph, Program Intern
I’ve just finished re-reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, well known for being one of the first true crime novels. In Cold Blood is a fact-based story, detailing the events leading up to and following the Clutter family murder in 1959 Kansas. Readers get to know the two murderers, Dick and Perry, as they plan, carry out, and attempt to escape from their crime, travelling across the United States but, ultimately, getting caught and executed. Despite the fact that the men killed not one, not two but four people, we grow somewhat fond of them, or at the very least recognise the events in their life that led them to murder. This may be because Capote himself was deeply invested in Dick and Perry’s stories– to write In Cold Blood, he spent six years studying the case and interviewing the men, comparing their stories to those of the authorities in order to discover the ‘truth’ (if there is such a thing). That being said, In Cold Blood has been shrouded in controversy since publication, with many people asserting that Capote re-angled or invented events in order to suit his story.
In Cold Blood is fascinating for many reasons, one of which is obviously Capote’s process and the events themselves. Another is that although the book was published in 1966, it reads as a much more modern novel, and has that un-put-downable quality that I so rarely experience in older works. If you’re a fan of true crime podcasts and want to see a master at work, I can’t recommend In Cold Blood enough.
Sherry Landow, Membership and Development Officer
This month I read the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, The Complete Maus. Created by Art Spiegelman (artist of The New Yorker fame), this novel is based on recordings between Art and his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. As Vladek retells his story to Art, readers are taken back in time to see his life in Poland. We witness the slow political changes start to escalate, the love story develop between Vladek and Art’s mother, and trace their attempts to survive in an increasingly dangerous place. Framing the story is Vladek and Art’s strained father-son relationship, complicated by intergenerational trauma, survivor’s guilt, and loss of loved ones. The Complete Maus is a captivating, horrific, beautiful and important story.