Each month the NSW Writers’ Centre staff share what we’ve been reading. This month we’ve been inspired by authors who appeared at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, with Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide and Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities. We’ve read Australian works including Heather Rose’s Museum of Modern Love, Kate Cole-Adams’ Anaesthesia, and Cory Taylor’s Dying: a memoir. We’ve read some poetry in Billy Collin’s collection, Aimless Love, and in anticipation of the first novel in 20 years by Man Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy, we’ve read her novel that won the prize in 1997, The God of Small Things.
Inspired partly by her own fear of surrendering to the moonless night of anaesthesia, Melbourne journalist Kate Cole-Adams has spent more than a decade investigating the practice she calls ‘the most brilliant and baffling gift of modern medicine’. The resulting book, Anaesthesia, is not just an account of medical research, but a poetic exploration of the mysteries of the human mind. Although we know (more or less) that anaesthesia works, we don’t really know how or even exactly what it does. In trying to grasp this slippery subject, Cole-Adams is forced to ask big questions about memory, awareness and the nature of consciousness itself.
I recently finished Ivan Coyote’s memoir Tomboy Survival Guide, which I picked up at the Sydney Writers’ festival after seeing Ivan on a couple of panels. It is evident Ivan is foremost a performer, which isn’t to say this isn’t a wonderful collection of writing, just that the stories came most to life for me when they were reading them aloud. In Tomboy Survival Guide, Ivan deals with the complexities of growing up queer and trans in a small town in the Yukon with vulnerability and care. In some ways the tomboy packaging was a little jarring to me, because the writing itself is so excellent at capturing the nuance of human experience. There is something fiercely gentle about the way Ivan approaches themself, their family and the world, which made for a really comforting reading experience.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Program Officer
But then I saw Billy Collins on a talk show,
reading from Aimless Love,
and fell for his great playfulness and depth.
Still, it took me two years to buy the book—
so much lost time! What a waste.
Collins reflects the world I know back to me,
its solemnity and humour, the inescapable crush of history,
framing it with remarkable precision:
‘But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.’
I can’t help taking the book to bed,
to sleep with under my pillow
or snuggled against my chest, like a stuffed bear.
And now I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life
asking strangers, ‘But have you read Billy Collins?’
and stuffing handwritten copies of his poems in their pockets.
Julia Tsalis, Program Manager
I am so grateful to Heather Rose for writing this book. I am grateful to her for giving me the experience of Marina Abramovic’s performance work ‘The Artist is Present’ where she sat for 75 days in the Museum of Modern Art and invited people to sit silently opposite her. And I am grateful to her for writing this beautiful love letter to art and its power to transform.
In the novel, in which Abramovic appears as a character, Rose provides a context for Ambramovic’s work and why it is significant. In doing this she also manages to uncover what it is about performance art that is powerful, which is an accomplishment given it’s an artform that is easily dismissed.
The book weaves together the stories of people viewing the exhibition and the effect it has on them. Rose captures those fleeting intangible moments between people that are seemingly insignificant but can be so profound. Through these stories we can access the power of Abramovic’s work, and art in general, to move people, to transform.
In The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose captures the fleeting and impermanent power of ‘The Artist is Present’ in a form that is ostensibly the opposite of that expression: a book – permanent, unchanging. This complex and beautiful jewel of a book is the work of a curator, a philosopher, and a very fine writer.
I resisted reading this book. That’s not surprising given that it is about death and dying, and I’m not a big reader of non-fiction to begin with. The author, Cory Taylor, an author, wife, and mother, wrote the book as she was in the final stages of terminal cancer, and died before it was published. I was surprised by how engaging the book was. It’s not a light book, how could it be, but neither is it depressing or bleak. As much as it is about what it is to face the end of your life, it is about what makes a full, well-lived, complete life.
Sherry Landow, Membership and Development Officer
I’m currently reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Set in India, the novel tells the shared story of the Kochamma family, focusing on twins Esthappen and Rahel. It’s easy to see why this novel won the Booker Prize in 1997. Steeped in startlingly beautiful prose, Roy explores heavy issues such as violence, childhood trauma, class and race with a poetic lyricism (’She was thirty-one. Not young, not old, but a viable die-able age.’). Its disjointed narrative structure with frequent jumps in time can catch the reader off-guard, reiterating the nature of trauma and ongoing relevance of the past. This, paired with the changes in perspective, offer a fuller picture of the specific challenges facing men, women and children bound by a caste system.
The God of Small Things has made me eager to read Arundhati Roy’s new book, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which was just released this month (her first novel in 20 years).
Since hearing from Julie Koh at the Centre’s Sydney Writers’ Festival event, Forest for the Trees, I’ve read her collection of short stories, Portable Curiosities. I am impressed by Julie’s decision to give up her career in law to be a writer, by her commitment to achieving ‘intellectual freedom’ above all else, and even more so by her writing. The collection of stories offers a sharp and humorous social commentary, which rings all too true with my experience of modern Sydney life. I just had to give one of the stories, ‘Civility Place’, to a friend of mine because of its striking resemblance to his life before he quit his job with a major consultancy, and my own enjoyment of the Sydney food scene is captured perceptively – and eerily – in ‘Cream Reaper’. I can’t wait to read more of Julie’s work as she develops as a writer, and as she treads the path on her way to intellectual freedom.
At the Sydney Writers’ Festival I attended a panel on historical fiction, and ended up buying both the panelists’ books. The Toymaker by Liam Pieper interweaves the story of Adam Kulakov, owner of a toy company, with that of his grandfather Arkady who was interned at Auschwitz.
Adam is immensely and immediately unlikeable. The more difficult character to wrestle with was Arkady – in the present day narrative he is kind and funny, striking up a sweet friendship with Adam’s wife, yet he only survived Auschwitz by cooperating with heinous medical experiments on children. He is wracked with guilt over his past and desperate to keep it secret from his family.
Pieper’s masterful narrative kept me reading despite hating the main character – usually a deal-breaker for me! He explores the uncomfortable truth of what humans would do to survive, amplified by a shocking revelation at the end of the book.
Compiled by Eliza Auld