An Avalanche of Books!

My life has been inundated with books. Books for uni, books for pleasure, books for ideas, books to read because they ‘should’ be read, books to make, books for escapism, books for procrastination. It’s absolute bliss!

I’ve always been a big reader, but in the past two weeks I’ve achieved levels of reading almost unparalled in my experience. In fact, the only other time I’ve read this much was the year I quit work in my mid-30s to ‘write my novel’ and then promptly spent six months not writing it, but instead reading voraciously anything I could lay my hands on. I concluded at that time that I wanted to learn, not write, and took myself off to uni to do my Masters in Public Policy which launched me on a happy eighteen-year career in international development.

Again it is a departure from the world of work and the commencement of a Masters that has triggered my reading frenzy but this time I’m actually compelled, required and enforced to read in sweeping swathes well beyond my usual literary menu.

First cab off the rank (after polishing off Madame Bovary) was Julia Baird’s wonderful Phosphorescence, my copy of which was signed by the author at Writers’ Week (as previously reported). This was a uni mission. My task, was to write a Readers’ Report on the book, imagining that the manuscript had arrived unsolicited at my publishing house and I was writing a recommendation review for the powers that be on whether or not they should publish it. For a chronic optimist like me, this luminous book was pure pleasure from start to finish. I strongly recommended publication in my report – my first formal assessment submission for this Masters.

Feel-good fuzzies 🙂

Then I started in on George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, mandatory reading for the Postmodern Literary Techniques segment of my Theory and Creative Writing subject. Let me tell you, that in my normal life I’d rather chew my way through 5 kg of bran than read a book like this. Showered with prizes, acclaimed by every literary pundit on the planet and noted for its radical innovations of literary form (which I generally translate as meaning that it’s totally incomprehensible and written by someone mesmerised by their own brilliance) I was prepared to throw it down in disgust after five pages. Which I did.

Genius or gobbledygook?

I then embarked on an extended and highly dedicated path of procrastination and avoidance in which I reached for anything readable that might delay the moment when I would have to turn back to the Bardo. First to hand, on the grandchildren’s bookshelf at my friend Rachel’s house was this little gem:

Outrageous!

Would you believe I had never, ever read any of the Famous Five books as a kid? Reams of other children’s books, inlcuding other Enid Blyton titles, but never the Famous Five. I laughed myself into stitches! This book was a wonderful adventure romp, but also the most singularly politically incorrect text I’ve come across in decades. It made my Saturday morning. That Saturday just got better and better and culminated in a teeny, tiny book-making marathon. Rachel is the immodestly-proud owner of a palatial Edwardian dolls’ house and there are terrifyng numbers of empty bookshelves in the gent’s library. Three and a half hours later we had managed to produce 62 incey books, enough to fill just one shelf. Who knew you could have so much fun with scissors, balsa wood, textas and glue?

Book binding!

Staying at my mum’s place, there was no shortage of emergency reading material at hand. In fact, she had just procured the latest adventure of Venetian detective Commissario Guido Brunetti, by the fabulous Donna Leon. Picking up one of Donna’s books makes me smack my lips in anticipation, wriggle my hips down into a comfy cushion and let out a sigh of absolute bliss. Mum and I discovered that we both read these books as slowly as possible in order to prolong the pleasure they inevitably provide.

30th investigation of Comissario Brunetti

While not on my uni reading lists, Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) routinely appears on lists of ‘the 100/1000 books you must read before you die’ and I never have. So when I unearthed Malinche in mum’s bookshelf I thought why not? Mystical, lyrical and moving, this account of Conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Aztec interpreter Malinalli was unputdownable.

Evocative

My final discursion was another offering from Rachel, a short text book on writing micro stories. I was on a mission to produce micro-fiction of my own for Narrative Writing last week, so I felt spending my Sunday whizzing through this one was a good investment. And it was too! Who knew you could pack so much brilliance into 100 words? Take this example, entitled ‘Faithful’, from Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology – I laughed so much I fell of my chair at the punchline.

Finally, I was forced to return to the Bardo. And to my very great surprise once I’d pushed my way to about page 20 I found I was getting into it. By the end, I had to admit that good old George really was a bit of a clever clogs. Lincoln in the Bardo, brilliant as it is, is still not the type of book I would read for pleasure, but it is just the type of book that I hoped this Masters would compell me to explore.

So, what’s next on the reading list? Well, the haul I brought away from Writers’ Week (below) is mighty tempting, but beyond Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe (another uni read) these pleasures will need to be deferred. The weekly reading requirements for this course are pretty stupendous and I reckon I’ll probably be limited to the essentials until my mid-year break.

Forbiden Fruit

The exception will be a bunch of books (thanks again Rachel and Mum!) which in various ways provide background reading for a couple of nascent writing ideas that I’m percolating. Happily, as well as analysing realism, post-modernism, poetics, and other esoteric branches of authorship, my Masters requires me to deliver substantial chunks of creative writing. Watch this space …

Inspo

Hating Hemingway, Loving the Julias

Well, I’m a week into my Masters of Creative Writing, and one thing I can say with absolute conviction is that it is definitely delivering in the challenging and mind-stimulating departments. I have been well and truly pushed out of my comfort zone with the Week 1 readings which, as well as addressing some interesting fundamentals of book editing, have included Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Aristotle’s Potetics and a short story by Ernest Hemingway called Hills Like White Elephants.

Sophocles and Aristotle don’t really make my socks roll up and down, but you have to be impressed by the fact that they hold academic and narrative theory currency more than two millenia after they were written. But Hemingway?

I’m going to make a risky confession here. I hate Hemingway. For many in the literary world this is the rankest aspostasy, though disparaging Heminway isn’t quite the crime it was a couple of decades ago now that more revisionist attention has been paid to his less-than-PC personal behaviours.

Not so cool, Mr Hemingway …

But here’s the thing – I just don’t like his style. Pundits rave about his simplicty and directness, the pared-back beauty of his unadorned prose, the unimpeded dialogue, blah, blah, blah … Happily, I’m not quite alone in my subversive views. Blogger Rich Siegel says it all for me when describing his experience of reading Hemingway.

“All impenetrable. All boring. All overrated, as far as I’m concerned. Call me a lightweight. But if I want a healthy dose of obfuscation that requires tedious reading and re-reading, there are plenty of planning briefs I can get my hands on.” Yep.

I have also been catapaulted into a re-read of a great classic, Madame Bovary, a copy of which I just happened to have on my bookshelves. What were those 60s cover designers thinking?

Classic cover!

My mission is to consider Flaubert’s master work from a realist perspective, presenting my findings to our Theory and Ceative Writing class on Tuesday (and subsequently producing a 3000 word analytical essay). Watch this space to find out how I handle my first tussle with literary theory in several decades …

It’s been wonderful to immerse myself in student world and I’ve had heaps of nerdy fun setting up notebooks, pens (colour coded of course), email files and archive folders for each of my subjects. For me, studying – whether or not the subject matter is my particular cup of tea – is pure, unadulterated pleasure.

Also eminently pleasureable is meeting writers I admire, and currently being in Adelaide, I’ve been able to sneak in a few hours at Adelaide Writers’ Week, Australia’s largest, longest-running and most prestigious literary festival. I’ve been a regular attendee in the past, but this year there has been the added spice of finding several of the authors from my Masters reading list on the programme so I bustled off with signing copies in hand.

Not on the Masters syllabus, but certainly not to be missed was former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, discussing her second book (co-written with newly appointed WTO head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala). Women and Leadership.

Signing groupies – me and Rachel in action

Julia’s pithy retelling of women’s stories from the frontlines of global political leadership was both fascinating and compelling and I can’t wait to find time to dig into this enticing book. My friend Rachel and I were a bit like starry-eyed groupies as we lined up to meet the great woman.

I also had the chance to hear from Maggie O’Farrell, author of a moving reimagining of the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, Pip Williams who has delighted readers with her feminist telling of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Dictionary of Lost Words, and another former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who was spruiking his autobiography, A Bigger Picture.

But my favourite session was with broadcaster, adacemic and very cool woman Julia Baird, who’s book Phosphorescence has sold more than 150,000 copies since it launched at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic in March last year. I love, love, LOVE this book! It’s full of the kind of hope and possibility and optimism in the face of darkness in our world that I hope to be able to capture and convey in my own writing.

Luminous …

I’ve chosen Posphoresence for an assignment in my Professional Editing Course where I will be writing a ‘reader’s report’ on the book, assessing it as though it was an unsolicited manuscript just landed in the letterbox of a prospective publisher. Needless to say, I will be strongly recommending publishing! At the signing, I disclosed to Julia that her book was the subject of Masters students’ deliberations and she was both amused and, I think chuffed. Funny, articulate, humble and insightful – what an author! I’d love to add her to the panel session with Kate Mosse in that future writing festival at which I’m hoping to appear …

Fabulous Julia Biard