What We’ve Been Reading for the last few months 0 Comments

What We’ve Been Reading for the last few months


Having just finished my Honours thesis a month ago, I’ve been reading to cleanse my mind of all the literary criticism that has been clogging it up this past year. Most of my month has been taken up by Stefan Spjut’s Stallo. This hideously creepy thriller tells a sinister tale of the supernatural creatures lurking in Sweden’s woodlands. While horrifying, it’s also addictive — the five-hundred-plus pages fly by in no time.

I’ve also been getting my claws into some great poetry. Krissy Kneen’s stunning collection of poetry, Eating My Grandmother. This is a hypnotic and emotionally candid book, and demonstrates what an impressive writer Kneen is. I’ve also been making my way through Amber Dawn’s Where the Words End and My Body Begins, which I picked up exclusively because of its gorgeous cover. However, it’s just as beautiful inside. Dawn’s verse is rapid and incredibly vivid, and gives a detailed insight into mental illness and the emotional turmoil it has the potential to cause.

I have just begun My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I have lost count of the number of times this series has been recommended to me this year. I’m only a little under a quarter of the way though, but I can already feel the Ferrante fever taking hold.



I recently bought Chloe Wilson’s new collection of poetry, Not Fox Nor Axe. Though I’m only ten or eleven poems in, I’m impressed by Wilson’s ability to fold critical inquiry into her tightly compressed lines. ‘The possibilities/multiply like fleas,’ she writes, in a phrase that seem to express her poetics well: ‘Touch me/not, or: let me go, or: stop.’

I also read two books by Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. Malcolm is well known for her critical studies of other critical studies, and the subjects of her many books range from the vexed biographical status of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (The Silent Woman) to the ethics of journalism itself (The Journalist and the Murderer). Both The Impossible Profession and Two Lives, though minor works in Malcolm’s corpus, present sharply delineated, acute studies of, in the former case, the attendant ethical problems of clinical psychoanalysis, and in the latter, the seamy underbelly of Gertrude Stein scholarship, as well as the larger problems concerning the interpretation of Stein’s work and her life with Alice B. Toklas.

I also read Joshua Ferris’s most recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, about Paul O’Rourke, a disaffected New York dentist whose life is disturbed when his identity is impersonated on the internet by a person claiming him for an obscure religion known as the Ulms. It’s a witty and genuinely moving book, and remains so right until the end, which is all the more impressive when you arrive there and realise that the novel has been little more than a shaggy dog story. Or, in O’Rourke’s words: ‘Everything was always something, but something—and here was the rub—could never be everything.’



This month, apart from the latest Voiceworks, I read Fiona Wright’s book Small Acts of Disappearance. Wright is a poet from New South Wales who has been published in journals including Overland and The Lifted Brow; this is her first book of nonfiction. The ten essays contained in it all pertain to her ten-year struggle with anorexia. Each essay is a clear and thoughtful mediation on a different facet of her experience with the disease, including diagnosis, acceptance and recovery, as well as explorations of the physical effects of starvation, and insightful criticism of depictions of anorexia in literature. Wright’s prose is measured and unpretentious; she describes her initial puzzlement and denial of her diagnosis by often reiterating that, at the time, she ‘didn’t think she was like them’, referring to the stereotype of sufferers of eating disorders as simply body dysmorphic, vain or traumatised. Her essays are eye-opening because these initial opinions echoed my own ignorance about eating disorders; chronologically, they then go on to break down our (and her own) preconceptions of the disease. These preconceptions are unpicked piece by piece until only the facts remain, magnified by the lens of Wright’s personal experience. Eating disorders are awful, generally unexplainable afflictions, and Wright’s excellent writing works as a way of gaining some kind of insight into the disease, for both reader and author.



As a non-fiction writer and editor I think it goes without saying that most of what I consume these days is more focused on publications, essays or articles rather than books. And there are so many popping up now that give me lots of hope for the future of print. Novembre pushes the boundaries in terms of its visual and written content and feels very “now.”

Plaything mag was founded on sex positivity but knows where to hit the right spots in terms of being critical and questioning how our culture shapes sex, sexuality and gender. Feud has an interesting format and effortlessly churns out great writing and diverse narratives. Publications are an accessible and immediate way of disseminating visual and written ideas – it’s comforting to know that there are so many good ones being produced.



I was absolutely stoked to receive Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light in my post box. Published last year, and shortlisted in the Stella Prize this year, I’d heard great things from brains I respect – and I wasn’t disappointed. It can take me quite a while to get through a book – constantly picking up and putting down reading in the middle of life’s chaos – and I have a particular soft spot for collections of stories because there are more points at which you can re-enter the narrative without losing its thread. Van Neerven’s prose flows effortlessly and unwinds like a ball of yarn, trailing links between stories that are filled with the heat of bodies touching and the light of an uncertain future. The elements of speculative fiction in this book drew me in because they come from a perspective that looks at nature and interconnectedness as potentially more interesting clues to our future than capitalism and technology. This is also a really sexy book – there are these women who are powerful and sexual and intelligent and flawed and you get to brush up against them and catch a glimpse of what it might be like to live in their skin. My copy is dog-eared and severely coffee stained and well loved. I can’t wait to read Van Neerven’s next book.



References to Virginia Woolf thrill me. A few days ago I snapped up an ancient paperback in an op shop, purely because of a Woolf reference. I love texts that nod to other texts, allowing me to trace the writer’s influences through time. It was thus predetermined that Kate Bolick’s recent release ‘Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own’ would catch my eye from the other side of the bookshop. It was love at first sight. When I opened the book to an epigraph from Woolf’s 1931 essay ‘Professions for Women’, the union was sealed. ‘Spinster’ is both a cultural criticism on the institution of marriage, as well as one woman’s personal investigation into the lives of her five literary ‘awakeners’ in an effort to understand her own life.

Bolick’s relation to her ‘awakeners’ resonated with me instantly. I feel it strongly with my own literary and historical heroes (Sylvia Plath, Virgnia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, Joan of Arc), but it’s something I haven’t really heard anyone else vocalize. It goes beyond enjoying or relating to their work, and falls into feeling as though their lives almost reflect yours. Bolick’s awakeners (Mauve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna St Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman) didn’t all share the spinster status, but they did have in common the disposition of fiery, independent writer, which is what Bolick is so intrigued by. How did these women manage to be (mostly) self-supporting and single in a culture that (until recently) made it very difficult for a woman to do so?

Since leaving an early engagement a year ago, I’ve been reexamining my personal feelings about marriage, and conventional relationships in general. The questions Bolick raises and the criticisms she makes on the prevailing idea of marriage prompted me to frequently look into space and breathe out a hissing noise of agreement between my teeth. Bolick also examines her own relationships in the twenty-first century, and how they have been affected by the cultural pressure to marry. She coins a term ‘the spinster wish’; not necessarily a desire to never marry, but more a desire for solitude, independence and self-sufficiency. This kind of prolonged solitude is vital for the profession of a writer (according to Bolick, and many writers will agree), and I recognized this wish in my own decisions concerning relationships throughout my life. That’s partially why I loved this book so much; how it made my own life make more sense to me.



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