What We’ve Been Reading -February/March

Nina:

At a friend’s recommendation, I’ve been looking at Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, which combines data from a year-long sociological study with Ansari’s tongue-in-cheek comedic tone. Actually I’ve found it super intriguing, because beyond the lavish references to Ansari’s eating habits, he really gets in and asks some questions that I’m sure a lot of us are thinking about. Two of my favourite topics in the book have centred on our changing idea of romance, and how increased use of technology has changed our courting habits. Ansari’s use of analogy (he includes some of his stand-up experiences) presents the study’s results casually, and it makes for a well thought out investigation that is both engrossing and informative. Like, who knew that in France, Tinder hasn’t really taken hold as much, because the love habits of the French have been Tinder-esque for a long time?

The other book I’ve been reading is Fiona Benson’s Bright Travellers, which won both the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection in 2015. Bright Travellers, with its intense focus on natural, desolate imagery and motherly love, opens us up to the highs and lows of the cycle of life. Benson grabbed my attention and held it tightly from the very first word with this one. I’ve found myself going back to the poems time and time again, because each image is so crisp, and her words so deliberately paced. The meeting of the domestic and the wild is clearest in her description of trapped animals, with images that are simultaneously sharp and fluid. She writes, “I keep going back to that bird, snagged/by a halter or skein of fibre” and “[W]ater-light falls/down the shore wall and small birds glean in the mud.” Her stories are told through an exploration of life and death, all framed in this incredibly vivid tone that makes it seem as if the reader were standing right beside the author at many pivotal moments. This book is one I take with me wherever I go.

 

Shu-Ling:

I’ve just wrapped up book reviewing for BMA Magazine with Fiona McFarlane’s short story collection The High Places. I didn’t know what to make of the opaque endings at first but McFarlane’s decision to not to spell everything out grew on me. Life is inexplicable. Malacologist Bill Birch’s decision to free Mabel, the colossal squid in ‘Good News for Modern Man’ – ‘There must be some things in the world that no one sees and no one knows’ – that mystery, is at the heart her beautifully restrained writing. Carefully wrought yet never contrived, The High Places is a series of contemporary fables filled with hidden layers of meaning, revealed only to those with the patience to pick over clues missed on a first reading. It was a reminder to give what I read (and write!) my full attention.

I recently finished Just Kids, Patti Smith’s moving elegy to lover / friend / artist / muse Robert Mapplethorpe. Two kids in 1970s New York, working out who they are. Oh, the people they knew (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs), the places they lived (Hotel Chelsea). Brilliant. I’m part-way through Smith’s second memoir M Train, drifting in and out of dreams and memories.

I’m also currently reading Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine. Like Smith, Albertine was also a trailblazer in the then almost-exclusively male music scene. Fierce, ambitious and not afraid to forge their own path, I’m constantly inspired by the women I read about as well as those in my life. Carrie Brownstein’s recent conversation with Myf Warhurst at The Wheeler Centre has Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl next on my reading list.

 

Myles:

Working in bookselling I tend to spend the period after Christmas trying to detox from new release overload. As a result I impulse/panic bought a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint from a rival bookstore whilst not entirely sober on Valentine’s Day, and have since been devouring it covertly whilst trying to avoid advertising myself as ‘that’ kind of guy who reads Philip Roth. Hilarious, horrifying and an electrifying antidote to the staid, aggressively polished contemporary literature I’ve found myself bogged down in lately, its neurotic monologue remains a masterclass in making the personal political. I couldn’t help but feel an illicit thrill at the fact that, had the book been assigned in any of my university classes, the resultant conversation would inevitably have revolved more around the ‘problematic’ (read: abhorrent) Portnoy than the peerlessly manic prose style of his creator.

I’ve also been reading The Beautiful Struggle, the 2009 memoir of Ta-Nehisi Coates which has been rereleased off the back of his National Book Award win. Though the bulk of the conversation surrounding Coates pertains to his deserved position as one of the most prolific and important voices in the American race discourse, his unique abilities as a prose stylist are best displayed in this vital and thrillingly immediate story of his perilous adolescence and his relationship with his titanic father.

Lastly, I’ve been revisiting the work of Lydia Davis with her precise and unsettling The Collected Stories. The book is possibly the best highbrow toilet read with over seven hundred pages of impeccable short fiction, each one a distinctive and compellingly ambiguous slice of life realised with surgical precision.

 

Lily:

Over the last few months I’ve really taken to reading more about death and grief. I have so many book suggestions. But two of my favourite picks are Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Debra Adelaide’s The Household Guide to Dying.

H is for Hawk is an incredible work of non-fiction. I have learned so much reading this book. Macdonald explores the grief of her father’s unexpected death, through a story about an incredible and rare obsession: falconry. Despite having had no prior interest in falconry, Macdonald captivated me with her knowledge in a way that meant I, too, become obsessed with goshawks. At the same time, and not necessarily explicitly, I found Macdonald’s story epitomised what raw grief looks like, and the many forms it can take. 

The Household Guide to Dying challenges the ways we (don’t) talk about death. Narrated by a woman who is dying from cancer Adelaide’s narrative unapologetically explores the realities of death in a darkly comic way. It’s a very powerful story. And an important one, too. It’s heartbreaking, but because of the way the conversation about death is framed, I don’t think it’s sad. The process of reading this book was an incredible experience that, for me, mirrored the stages of grief. It was hard to accept at times that the narrator I’d fallen in love with was definitely going to die on the last page and with the last word I would read. I even put the book down for a little while, when I was too upset to go on, just to let Delia Bennet live that little bit longer.

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