Reading (and dreaming) highlights of 2019

On stage with Sue Lawrence and Jenny Brown at Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019

Every year I get on here at this time of year and say: ‘Holy shit, it’s been a big year…’ I’m a bit bored of it, but, well, in 2019 my novel A Superior Spectre was published in the UK and was shortlisted for a bunch of awards, and I went over to the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I also won a writing competition in the UK, the Mslexia Novella Award, and the novella was promptly published! Joan Smokes is out now. I also wrote and published two short stories, in Kill Your Darlings and the War of the Worlds: Battleground Australia anthology.

I had another enormous year at work, and put many good books out into the world, and then I left my job… Nothing personal, just seemed a good time to go freelance, as I was craving more balance between my writing and editing worlds.

On the personal front, an illness in the family has been hard, sad and taxing, and has meant a lot of travel back and forth between Coffs Harbour and Melbourne. But I am privileged to be able to do this, and to be close to my family. And then the fires… The fires were close to Mum and Dad’s at the start of the season, but all is okay in their town at the moment. One day I will write the story of the weekend we evacuated, when Dad had just gotten out of hospital, and my hometown was smothered with orange smoke. How my dad’s brothers came to visit. How my partner’s plane couldn’t land. It was like a month of experiences and emotion packed into a few days. And the palpable  sense we were not alone; that the fear and sadness and strangeness and grief was in that smoky air. That it continues to be, as Australia burns. Any words I write about this, for now, seem inadequate. But I want to find a way.

In 2019, I read 41 books (approx. – I always forget to write some down). There was a lot of comfort reading in there, I think. There was a lot of failing to read friend’s books and books I ‘should’ read. For every couple of books finished there’s one sitting in the house with a bookmark in it, still. I read many at once and sometimes don’t pick them back up. I have good intentions…

In 2019, I also recorded my dreams. It’s been a fascinating exercise, to see recurring themes and imagery. And how hilariously symbolic they can be. Dreams of abundance and colour behind glass, dreams of rivers and tunnels, dreams where I have to go on stage and perform. Dreams of snakes, dreams of fire (strangely, just a few weeks before the fires).

These are my favourites of the books I read:

Normal People – Sally Rooney

About a long-term evolving friendship/relationship between two people – how they affect each other’s life decisions, how they hurt and misinterpret one another, and a lingering connection and depth of feeling. Such an easy book to read, both enjoyable and able to pull on the heart, the gut, and stir up one’s own history – lust, love, regret, longing. Damn good book.

A forest in Sweden. Something to do with work. Spotted while waiting at the bar (through glass): a large tree (oak?) laid with Christmas decorations. Lines of people going in/coming out? Young.

Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant – Kathi Diamant

An extremely satisfying biography. Of a passionate woman who kept memories of Kafka alive, and fought hard for the Yiddish theatre. An actress, writer, mother, independent spirit, fighter. The book is a moving read for any Kafka fan, revealing a different side of him – his last, happy, period. Their love was short but profound, and is portrayed also as having an element of the spiritual, eternal. Dora loved him and missed him for the rest of her life. The book is perfectly paced, provides relevant historical detail, and fleshes out personal moments beautifully so you are right there in Prague, in Berlin (when Kafka writes letters to a child who has lost her doll, invents a whole life for the doll to explain its absence), the Soviet Union, London. Each chapter opens with a Kafka quote, carefully chosen. I loved this book. I’ve loved Kafka a long time and this books captured so much of what gets under my skin about him and his work.

In a bedroom. Plain, black white grey. A dog walks past the door and then a person in a robe. Escape out into giant house. Long stairwell balcony. Red and gold. Hiding in or going through a library. Shelves packed. Dark. Some cut strips/blocks of painting with powerful language. We are being looked for throughout.

The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy

Just spectacular. She has become one of my all-time favourite authors. She speaks to me: mind, heart, body. With her nonfiction she manages to mysteriously draw together somewhat disjointed events and ideas to create a cohesive and meaningful whole (that remains partly mysterious – but essential). This book is about events in her life where she parts from one way of living and enters another. There are moments of such precious warmth, and they are observed without surprise (which produced in me a kind of wonder). It feels a privilege to join her. The book also reminded me of both what I have, and what I want. (As a woman, writer, person.) Powerful.

Filling in for someone in a counter job in a department store. Worn-out people come in, a woman asking if I’ve seen a packet of chips, a woman going onto the men’s toilets. I want this job anyway, I want a change. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Otessa Moshfegh

Gobbled over two days while isolated in a quiet hotel room at the English seaside. The portrayal of the desire (and act) of personal obliteration without suicide, getting close to a living death. As a fire, a cleanse. Or simply a detachment. And it was funny. It affected me deeply in what it scratched at in me. It was maybe how being swept up in a romantic fantasy might affect someone else. (I often gravitate in my own writing towards escape, obliteration of self, quiet.) And it was a page-turner, which is admirable considering it’s about a woman sleeping for a year.

Wake up with a perception of physical beauty.

Hive – A.J. Betts

A terrific YA spec fic set in a contained world feat. a curious young beekeeper, Hayley, who begins to find evidence that there could be something more to, and beyond, their current existence.

And I look out and see, huge, glorious, a killer whale breaking the surface of the water. Beautiful, playful, seemingly happy and showing off. ‘Here I am!’ I cannot believe I am seeing an orca in the wild, my life’s dream! I run from the restaurant to try to get a better look. But there are slight obstacles. Inflatables, soggy insubstantial cliffs. People.

I Will Teach You to Be Rich – Ramit Sethi

Now slowly crawling out of the debt-hole of my twenties, I decided to learn more about money and start to make more considered decisions (and try to get out of living paycheque to paycheque). I chose this book to listen to because I’d heard it was young and down to earth (not technical, not preachy – hey you can still have avocado toast). And it was really good! Ramit is like a fun, smart friend and I got a lot out of his advice, particularly around creating automated payments to sub-accounts. There’s a lot that still feels unachievable BUT it feels really good to start educating myself, becoming more active and aware, and hopefully change the path (not to ‘rich’ necessarily, but to ‘not constantly stressed about money’).

Big house. Some party. All these dogs but I call out for Mallory and I’m not sure where she went. Sad and distressed. Other dogs get on the end of the bed. Another woman comes in and says this is her bed. Oh, I say, I was told I could have this one.

Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn

A twisted crime novel. Gruesome and gripping. Loved its ambiguous morals. Really enjoyed!

Floating in a large underground cave/chamber. Dark water, yellow-brown roof, walls. ‘Don’t split up!’ I say to the companions going far ahead into two split chambers. I fear we are very lost.

Swimming to Cambodia – Spalding Gray

The book is a record of a monologue by actor Spalding Gray about his time spent in Thailand and Cambodia around the filming of The Killing Fields. It’s a great piece of art – a digressive essay that captures the political in the personal (fear, curiosity, searching, wonder, bafflement), and has a gentle sense of humour. Gray was among the pioneers of this type of ‘confessional’ theatre and it’s interesting to read this when we’re now so familiar with meandering personal essays. It still stands up as innovative, insightful, entertaining.

Jared Harris sitting across the table. It’s a meeting. For him to play Jeff? I’m overwhelmed. I didn’t realise he would be here.
Me: would you like a drink?
Him: a blunt soda (doesn’t look me in the eye, crosses his arms across his chest)
Me, flustered: I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.
Him: *sighs* it has a cinnamon stick in it.
Me: …
He bursts into laughter. His face breaks into a friendly smile.
Him: I’m sorry, you should have seen your face. I was pretending to be a demanding actor.

Shell – Kristina Olsson

An affecting book of great depth, beauty, and a quiet power. I feel very grateful for books like this, and writers like Kris Olsson, who encourage a more rigorous examination, and questioning, of one’s environment, history, country, emotional make-up. But gently, with afterimages of light, glass, water, and facial expressions of love, acceptance or overcoming.

Someone shows me how to hack into a female academic’s computer (they use the login to watch movies, powerful feminist movies). There are feminist talks happening but long performances beforehand that are boring, like fashion parades on stilts etc. The computer shows me how do manipulate a carrot into an artwork. I try to hide it from the big truck turning around on the street.

The Glad Shout – Alice Robinson

All-too-plausible near-future fiction, set in a super-storm addled Aus. Reader becomes deeply invested in the emotional and psychological world of Isobel – her memories, her complexities, her making. It’s intelligent, devastating fiction.

The Red Scrolls of Magic – Cassandra Clare and Wesley Chu

To my great shame, I got addicted to the Shadowhunters TV show and then the best couple in the show had THEIR OWN BOOK?! Magnus and Alec – warlock and Shadowhunter. I read this one on my phone – a pleasure snatched in moments during an overwhelmingly stressful time.

Fields of 3D printers. We are running away but I’m so tempted to step into the scanner (at edge of field) and print my head.

The Black Tides of Heaven – JY Yang (novella)

Loved this! Beautifully written fantasy with a compelling core relationship between separated, magical twins. Despite its tiny length, the book jumps decades and encompasses strong emotion, subtle (just enough) interesting world detail, and interesting aspects of gender and sexuality. Multi strands of longing, over distances and time. And colourful, in that I could picture everything brightly on my eyelids.

Coming in at the back of a packed lecture hall (modern, carpeted, plastic seats). Someone talking to me about powers, like we are people in Shadowhunters. I squish into a seat halfway down, can just see the interviewer from side-eye. He’s taking forever to get to a point. I’m nervous because I’m up soon. But Jane Rawson will be first.

Imperfect – Lee Kofman

Lee looks at society through the lens of the ‘imperfect’, people whose body surface, as she describes it, deviates from the norm. Part-memoir and part cultural and social text, including interviews with people with dwarfism, albinism, with larger bodies, with burn scars and more (and also deliberate body modifications). An easy, intelligent read, that is relevant to everyone as it makes you think about how you gaze and are gazed at, and how this gaze is constructed. I liked how Lee remained emotive, too, not clinical, and also very open and curious and empathetic, never going for the easy answer. The book is an exploration in which you are invited to join.

I find the building (basement) where the hidden thing is. There’s a body (old woman) and beneath it the secret. Like a Robocop under glass. Or like Mel Gibson in that Forever Young movie. A woman enters the above room purporting to be part of our team but I realise she’s the antagonist. Big fight. In fleeing, levels of clean shiny elevators (going down). Someone is shredded in one.

Down to the Sea – Sue Lawrence

I completely gobbled up this gothic mystery set in a rambling Scottish manor. Its new owners, a couple, are planning to turn it into a high-end retirement/old folks’ home, but there’s a spooky old pram that keeps showing up and an intense, interfering neighbour, who gives nothing away about herself. We alternately get sections of parallel story from 1898, when the place was a ‘poorhouse’, and learn about a young fisherlassie-turned-maid, Jessie. Jessie has been sent to work at the poorhouse because her mother believes she is cursed. I really loved this book! The suspense is held well and the main character in the 1980s sections is quietly kind and patient. You want the best for her and for Jessie, in the past. The book has an effective cosy, gothic feel. I was wanting to get back to it when I was away from it.

My Name is Monster – Katie Hale

Quiet post-apocalyptic tale of one woman survivor who finds another. Their contrasts create the tension. Their bodies in space and silence was so compelling to me. Debut novel by a poet, and it has rhythm and words that open you out and out.

I was on stage with three people, and it was very dark, and we had to do improv. One at a time. We were all playing an old man.

A Glass Eye – Miren Agur Meabe (trans. by Amaia Gabantxo)

Woman processing the end of a relationship, processing all love lost, processing loss in general. She has one eye, and she brings in this loss, and the glass eye, as a very self-aware metaphor. Written in first person but with aspects fictionalised. Footnotes are added to draft-like passages (but they are retained for their rawness?). I am so drawn to books like this now. I write so often about people running away and dealing with loss.

Exploded View – Carrie Tiffany

Just exquisite. So emotive. Not a word wasted.

Multi-coloured small post-it notes decorating a chess board (as pieces).

Here Until August – Josephine Rowe

Masterful, resonant stories with perfect endings. I cried and I gasped aloud. They are beautiful. Some have lingered long. Mostly ‘The Once-Drowned Man’. (Is a piece of me kept in that cab, with the lessons not learned?) Others: ‘Post-Structuralism for Beginners’ (the videotape, the mirror house, ‘we keep it from ourselves’ [Jung]). ‘A Small Cleared Space’: the solitude sought after loss. In the collection, moments of small in large, large in small. Unending transit (time passing) and how to be in (emphasis on either be or in) the movement, as it won’t end. It may only accelerate.

Dead Man Switch – Tara Moss

A rich historical mystery with a memorable, kick-arse character. So immersive and entertaining. 1940s Sydney, beautiful noir homage. I loved getting to know Billie Walker and I’m excited for the next one in the series.

Walking through the hallway of a fromagerie/patisserie overloaded with goodies. [Redacted] doesn’t look like himself but is a portly, dark-haired middle-aged gent. He meanly tells me he can see the yellow line of make-up on my neck and has been able to for months.

Semicolon – Cecelia Watson

A lively exploration of one of the best punctuation marks in existence. Its history (and historical impact) and broader considerations about language, grammar, rules and their relation to systems of power. Loved the tone of the book, and it was very informative. Enjoyed the range of examples, from Irvine Welsh to Henry James to Martin Luther King Jr.

A huge hall-like room with framed pictures all over the roof. Elvis, black-and-white family pictures – just coating it. Sitting on a ledge somewhere, in front of me, a beach shack with ‘60s font on the sign. Had we time travelled? The men beside us looked like the Beach Boys. We had to hide our mobile phones. I had to not refer to the sign as retro. Cavernous but populated spaces. With culture: books, photos, music. A happy dream.

The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey

Published in 1951. A Scotland Yard Detective in his hospital bed, bored by the range of books on his bedside (hilariously described in detail), becomes obsessed by the face of Richard III. With the aid of a young American scholar, the beau of his theatre actress friend, he begins to look deeper into who Richard III was. Was he the murderer and tyrant everyone around him immediately remembers him to be? It ultimately becomes a murder mystery, as Grant and Carradine find gaping holes in historical accounts, and seek the unreported facts. It’s exciting, intelligent and pacy, a puzzle the reader helps to put together. The entire setting is the hospital room and most of the novel is in dialogue, and yet you cannot put it down. There are wonderful revelations about history as story, and also deep considerations about human behaviour (historical and present). I had this feeling when I was reading it that they truly ‘don’t make them like they used to’, but then I remembered the whole opening and the satire on the contemporary books by his bedside and grinned at Tey’s cleverness. Hokeyness has always existed alongside smart and considered narrative. That’s the whole point. And it’s funny and tragic all at the same time.

Wishing you a safe, peaceful, creative and prosperous 2020. x

4 thoughts on “Reading (and dreaming) highlights of 2019

  1. I can relate to “There was a lot of failing to read friend’s books and books I ‘should’ read. For every couple of books finished there’s one sitting in the house with a bookmark in it, still.” And, I feel badly because I forgot to mention A superior spectre in my reading highlights post – how did I miss that? I think because I read it so early in the year. I also didn’t mention Axiomatic, so you are in good company! Seriously though, I did enjoy it immensely and followed its and your progress with interest. I wish you all the best in 2020. (What a time you had with your family. Melbourne to Coffs is not an easy trip to make.)

  2. I’m so glad that’s relatable! And oh, don’t worry! Thanks very much, I really am so pleased you enjoyed it. I wish you all the best in 2020 as well. Re Melb to Coffs: at least Tiger has some direct flights. Warmest wishes x

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