As the year is drawing to a close, we’re leaving you with some great titles to have a look at over your Christmas break.
I finally caught up with Ferrante fever, devouring all four of the Neapolitan novels in a month. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes them so appealing and I think it’s largely the apparent authenticity of the voice, that the author herself seems so embedded in the story and the “neighbourhood”. There’s something disorienting about that, given we don’t actually know who the author is, where she comes from, or even if she is actually female. Some journalists have demonstrated an unseemly desire to answer those questions by unmasking the anonymous author, but personally I’d prefer to hang on to the mystery.
I’ve been greatly enjoying David Hunt’s True Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia Volume 2, which follows on from the death of Governor Macquarie, the cliffhanger ending of Hunt’s 2013 bestseller, Girt. True Girt opens with the colonisation of Tasmania and traces the fate of Australia through the birth of Melbourne and other state capitals, and ends with the execution of Ned Kelly. It perfectly blends detailed research with a tongue-in-cheek tone. Unflinching in its acknowledgment of the brutalities suffered by Aboriginal communities, True Girt simultaneously points out the ludicrous circumstances surrounding much of Australian history, often with dark humour. Hunt needs to hurry up and write volume 3 so we can find out what happens next.
Following up from reading another of her books a few months ago, the first thing I picked up in November was Kate Forsyth’s The Beast’s Garden. It’s a retelling of the Grimm’s Beauty and The Beast set in Nazi Germany — as I can’t pass up any World War II story, this immediately caught my attention. Most of the characters, with the exception of the few protagonists and their families, were based on real historical figures, so the book felt real in a way a purely fictional account wouldn’t. It also made the deaths of characters I had grown to love even more distressing. Somehow, despite the setting, I had managed to convince myself that they would all survive until the end. It was a story full of great loss but, at the same time, great resilience in the face of evil.
I have recently finished The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I wasn’t sure if I’d like this book much as I’d heard it was about an eating disorder, but it’s so much more than that. Told in three parts it chronicles the unravelling of Yeong-hye after she decides to stop eating meat, through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister. It’s not so much about equating vegetarianism with eating disorders, but the tension between traditional and contemporary institutions and the desire for self-actualisation. Through the brief glimpses of Yeong-hye’s perspective in the opening section, the artistic fixation of her brother in law, and the eerie setting and temporal shifts of the final chapter the book has a dreamlike quality without sacrificing narrative momentum. Some scenes were beautiful and some deeply traumatic, but I found myself completely absorbed throughout.
Julia Tsalis, Program Manager
This is Anna Spargo Ryan’s debut novel and it is beautiful. At its core are grief and the effect of loss, immediate and long-term. Dave and Heather have moved to a big rambling house outside of Melbourne. The house was chosen when they were expecting their first child but at eight months the baby stopped growing. The book deals with the aftermath of this great loss.
As Heather tries to cope with this in a house surrounded by luscious gardens that was meant to welcome their new family she reflects on her own childhood and the trauma she suffered due to her mother’s mental illness. Spargo Ryan’s poetical use of language captures the feelings of unreality and uncertainty experienced during mental illness and the lasting effects of trauma.
All the podcasts I listen to are non-fiction so I was very interested to hear about Gimlet Media’s new fiction podcast Homecoming, a psychological thriller starring Katherine Keener, David Schwimmer, and Amy Sedaris.
The best part is that it’s created by Eli Horowitz. Horowitz is one of the most interesting people experimenting with publishing. He’s inventive and has a passion for what books can offer when not constrained by form. He was managing editor at McSweeneys, and went on to co-create The Silent History, one of the first literary apps that really worked and is well written. He also wrote The Pickle Index, a novel that is available as an app and a beautifully illustrated hardcopy edition. You can check all this out at http://www.elihorowitz.net/
Now he has brought that inventiveness to podcasting. Homecoming, in addition to using high profile actors, brings sophisticated sound design, excellent writing and a willingness to play with form. The story unfolds via overheard conversations, counseling sessions, and phone calls in public places often over the background noise of an airport or restaurant.
I’ve listened to the first two episodes and its brilliant. I recommend subscribing.
Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth
I was blown away when I read Patchett’s novel Bel Canto and have anticipated her books ever since. While I was not so impressed with State of Wonder, I thought her collection of essays This is the Story of a Happy Marriage was a remarkable collection of beautiful and thoughtful writing. I approached Commonwealth hesitantly as the reviews I’d read were mixed. It’s the story of two families, and in particular the children, who are joined together by the infidelity and eventual marriage of two of their parents. From the christening party where the couple-to-be first meet to the dying days of the adult family members, it traces the impact of this betrayal and the joining and mingling of the two families. I think it masterfully captures the complex reactions, divided loyalties and new bonds that flow from the restructuring of family connections. Families have always been messy and in many forms, but Patchett captures the delicate and sometimes tenuous connections between those who are related by marriage, by birth, and by choice.
It took precisely three pages for me to decide that The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón would turn out to be one of my favourite books (or at least earn a spot in the high ranks). In fact, I can pinpoint the exact line I decided this: “Every book, every volume … has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.” Who wouldn’t fall for a novel with sentences such as these? Ruiz Zafón captures the imagination of any literature lover in this part noir, part romance historical fiction adventure. Set in Barcelona, the novel opens in the 1940s when the young protagonist Daniel is bestowed with a book that he promises to protect throughout his life. This moment changes the course of Daniel’s life, as he begins to uncurl the mysteries and scandal surrounding the book’s origins. I couldn’t recommend it enough.