We’ve been reading a little bit of everything lately, and travelling the world through books, from Armenia to America and revolutionary Russia. Here’s what the staff at the Centre have been reading and plan to read this August.
After spending most of last month reading Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, an account of his experiences in Auschwitz, I decided to go for some lighter books in July. I foolishly started with If I Stay by Gayle Forman. This popular YA novel is utterly depressing, but I was hooked and whipped through it in a day. Next I read one of the Poirot mysteries by Agatha Christie (After the Funeral), which taught me that it was wise to abandon my childhood dreams of becoming a detective.
My favourite book of the month was Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens. It’s a hefty novel that interweaves the story of Rapunzel with that of the woman who originally wrote the tale. Being a fan of both historical fiction and fairy tales, I completely loved it and powered through those 500 pages as quickly as I could. Lastly, in these past few days I’ve been reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The prose is so beautiful that the number of pages I’ve marked with Post-it flags is starting to get out of hand. I’m only a hundred pages in, but hope to finish it before the end of the month.
I read Louise Erdrich’s most recent book LaRose. LaRose opens with the accidental shooting of a young boy by Landreaux Iron. The young boy is his nephew and his own son’s best friend. In reparation, and honouring custom, Landreaux and his wife offer their own son to the grieving family. The book follows the pain and damage, and attempts to find peace after such a loss. As with all Erdrich’s writing this is a fine book. Erdrich is a Ojibwe (Native American) writer of many brilliant and beautiful books which have received numerous awards. I also highly recommend her two previous books The Plague of Doves and The Round House and her early works Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. Another Native American author to check out is Leslie Marmon Silko.
I haven’t strictly been reading this but I highly recommend the Bowraville Murders podcasts. Dan Box investigates the unsolved murders of three Aboriginal children in Bowraville over five months, all from the same street in 1990. He has been writing about this crime and the families’ search for justice for years now. This podcast draws on his extensive research and connections to the community. This is an important story, powerfuly written and now very well presented via podcast.
I’ve been researching the Armenian genocide for the past seven years, and am now enjoying three novels by Australian authors who deal with the subject in historical fiction. These are Katerina Cosgrove’s Bone Ash Sky, Joan London’s Gilgamesh, and Marcella Polain’s The Edge of the World. I read Cosgrove when her book first came out a few years ago, and was amazed by the way she weaves narratives between the genocide of World War I and the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s, handling weighty history with poignancy and nuance. Joan London won me over with her compelling narrative of a young Australian woman who sets out to find her true love in Soviet Armenia on the eve of World War II. And Polain is, like myself, a descendant of genocide survivors, who feels the ‘stubborn murmur‘ of the genocide’s trauma in her body compelling her to write her story. These are meaningful and skilful contributions to the memory of this significant but largely forgotten piece of world history.
Skinjob by Bruce McCabe is a smart, fast-paced thriller set in a near-future America. The “skinjobs” of the title are hyper-real sex dolls that are hard to distinguish from living, breathing women (or children). When one of the “dollhouses” housing them is bombed, the resulting investigation finds itself inquiring into the activities of political powerbrokers and the country’s largest and wealthiest Christian organisation. McCabe has written a gripping, humane book, deftly skewering various hypocrisies along the way.
In the lead-up to our Honouring Australian Writers event, this month I read The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson. Published in 1910, this classic Australian coming of age story is set in Victoria in the 1890s. It begins when protagonist Laura Rambotham, previously home-schooled, is sent to an elite boarding school at the age of twelve. In clashing with other students and teachers, Laura becomes aware of her place in society and of the restrictions placed on her due to her class and gender. For the first time in her life, she learns to be ashamed of her lower-middle class upbringing, and struggles to raise her position amongst her peers while keeping her integrity. Like other female bildungsroman (Hating Alison Ashley, Looking for Alibrandi) this story is a timeless reflection on the complexities growing up as a female in Australia.
I have just finished reading East of Eden By John Steinbeck and I can safely say it has immediately become one of my all-time favourites. Capturing the essence of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the novel spans the lives of several generations of two families, the Trask’s and the Hamilton’s, and their subsequent dealings with each other, but also their relationship to a changing American landscape from the late 1800’s up to the First World War. At its heart, East of Eden is a story of identity, acceptance and forgiveness and an exploration of love in its many forms. This was my first foray into Steinbeck, but it will certainly not be the last.
Susie Ferré, Program Intern
I am currently reading Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport. I’ve always had a fascination with the Romanov dynasty, and it may have begun when I watched the Disney film Anastasia as a child. However, learning of the Russian revolution as a teenager and the Romanov families tragic deaths only enhanced my fascination. Rappaport presents a different perspective in Four Sisters, without focusing too much on the historical turmoil or impending revolution, she takes you inside the everyday lives of this family and the relationships between the sisters and outsiders (usually their guards and soldiers). She includes diary entries and letters that portray a simplistic, domestic bliss that the Romanov girls yearned for. It appears they were unconcerned with their royal status and were most fulfilled while they nursed wounded soldiers in a military hospital during World War 1. During this stint they were able to meet, talk and develop relationships with soldiers without the weight of their royal titles. I’m only about halfway through, and learning of the details of their exile to Siberia is heartbreaking. Although I know how the story will end, Rappaport does a great job of immersing the reader into the lives of the Romanov sisters, and provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the fascinating relationships between the Tsar, Tsarina, Tsarevich, Rasputin and Grand Duchesses.