Each month the NSW Writers’ Centre staff share what we’ve been reading. On our bookshelves this month are James Best’s father-and-son travelogue of Africa, Sam’s Best Shot; John Sandford’s crime series Prey (on audiobook); Mark Tredinnick’s how-to on writing well, The Little Red Writing Book; David Nicholl’s acclaimed One Day; and Tom Cho’s absurd short stories, Look Who’s Morphing.
James Best’s Sam’s Best Shot is an account of the six months the Sydney GP spent travelling through Africa with his 14-year-old autistic son, Sam. Best and his wife, science writer Benison O’Reilly, came up with the plan for the trip based on research suggesting neuroplasticity might be increased during puberty. They figured this was the time to see if deliberately disrupting Sam’s routines and repeatedly putting him in unpredictable situations might help him to develop his social skills. Part memoir, part travelogue, part case study, this is a really engaging read that’s often very funny. It’s hard to forget the scene where Sam tries to get his dad to do a Hitler impersonation on a bus full of German tourists.
For six years I worked in a secondhand bookshop, and would sometimes spend full days in the storeroom, amid thousands of books. While I was too hard-working to actually hole away and spend my shift secretly reading, I often listened to books on CD while I organised shelves. This is how I fell in love with audiobooks. The form is gaining more attention as Audible and other services make audiobooks more readily available. Still, I’m surprised there aren’t more reviews of the audio versions of books, which add another artistic layer to the literary experience. For instance, I’m a big fan of John Sandford’s crime thriller series, Prey, which now has 28 installments (Certain Prey and Mortal Prey best among them). I know almost the entire series, though I’ve never read one on paper. Most of the audio versions are narrated by Richard Ferrone, and his distinctive voices bring the characters to life for me as much as Sandford’s crisp writing. A book I would not recommend in audio version, however, is Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. The book itself has an interesting near-future dystopian premise (the ‘waterless flood’ that takes place is a virus that quickly wipes out most of humanity) and three suitable voice actors were chosen for the novel’s three narrators. But the producers got carried away in deciding to record full musical versions of the hymns Atwood included between sections. I found the music so irritating, I skipped past it every time. This probably detracted from the story and Atwood’s larger themes – but I couldn’t bear to have the aggravating tunes stuck in my head.
I sit down to write the book. Nothing happens.
With the first line of The Little Red Writing Book, Mark Tredinnick proves he gets it. I picked this book up looking for inspiration to get back into writing more regularly, and so far it’s delivered. By the end of the first chapter I already was itching to put pen to page. Mark has incredible insight into the power and wonder of words. He encourages readers not to settle for boring and doesn’t stray there himself. While I haven’t sat down to do all the writing exercises scattered throughout the book, I feel it will be immensely useful in the future.
And for anyone who’s interested, we sell it on our website!
How much can change in the life of a person in a year? Twenty years? And what about the intertwining lives of two people?
I have lost count of the times I have read One Day – it is still so far my all-time favourite novel. David Nicholls leads his readers through the course of a relationship that spans across twenty years, between the larger-than-life, carpe-diem Dexter Mayhew and the tranquil, bookish Emma Morley. Each chapter resembles a shared-diary entry with the date always being July 15th – St Swithin’s Day, starts with a quote from classic literature works as some epiphany of turning points, and is narrated from the points of view of both protagonists. Set against a dynamic, vibrant social-cultural background of Britain during different time periods, embodied by the author’s signature witty tone, all the gains and loss, all the -crises – quarter-life, mid-life, “later-life”, and all the hopeful intimacy and heartbreaking fallouts guarantee that no matter what stage of life you are at, you will by all means resonate with the two very, very human characters.
A stranger recommended me Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing and I promptly forgot about it until some days later when I was jotting down a shopping list on my iPhone notes app and found an entry corresponding with the book title. So I bought it. I’m happy I did because Tom Cho is a really funny writer. Look Who’s Morphing is a collection of short stories which appropriate pop culture references (e.g. Dr Phil, The Sound of Music) and melds them into absurd unrealities where characters shapeshift. For example, the human narrator transforms into a rampaging Godzilla in one story. Another story talks about how Elvis Presley was actually born Asian; the white one is an impersonator. Rejecting schemes of culturally fixed identity, Cho draws instead on narratives of migrant displacement and queer eroticism. He speaks to the fluidity of those types of experiences, perhaps to dream of new utopian becomings for diasporic subjectivities. Highly recommend this witty collection.