From the uncategorisable Grimmish, to a newly translated Simone de Beauvoir novel, to a satire involving exploding rabbits: here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.
April is reading…
Three brilliant Australian fiction books
I’m on a roll right now with Australian fiction and it started with The Diplomat by Chris Womersley. The book opens in 1991 with wannabe artist and withdrawing heroin addict Edward Degraves’ return from London after his girlfriend’s overdose. If this sounds bleak well, it’s also a compulsive page-turner and, in the end, strangely hopeful. It’s about the experience of grief, addiction and regret and surviving the world sober. It’s also a love story of sorts. I found it quite moving.
Next was Michael Winker’s unclassifiable book Grimmish, shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award. I can’t remember when I last read an Australian book so experimental and strange – it’s both fiction and non-fiction and it doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. It’s about an Italian-American boxer who toured Australia in 1908 and 1909, but it’s not really about boxing: it’s more about endurance, mental illness and pain. And wow, can Winkler write about pain. It’s so visceral that at times I had to pause while reading and take a breath. It was originally self-published but found a publisher after receiving some knockout reviews (see what I did there?). A brutal but sometimes funny book, featuring a talking goat! If it sounds weird that’s because it is but it’s weird in a wonderful way.
I managed to get an early reading copy of This Devastating Fever by writer and editor Sophie Cunningham, due out next month. It’s another highly original novel which moves between time and place, connecting the writer Leonard Woolf to a contemporary Australian writer called Alice. I’ve only just started, so I don’t feel I can say too much, but so far so very good. Keep an eye out for it and for the event we’re doing with Sophie on 7 September.
Bron is reading…
A detective book, a book about female friendship, and Nigel Featherstone’s latest
Having been in a bit of a brain fog recently, I’ve been enjoying novellas and shorter stories.
The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir was written in 1954 but only published and translated into English in the last couple of years. It is the story of an intense friendship between two young girls named Sylvie and Andrée, who clearly stand in for de Beauvoir and her own childhood friend, Zaza, who died just a few days before she turned 22.
In the book’s introduction, Deborah Levy reminds us that ‘childhood is the beginning of everything we experience most deeply.’ For de Beauvoir, this intense friendship with Zaza was the cornerstone of her life, and something she returned to in her writing again and again. Elegantly translated by by Lauren Elkin, De Beauvoir captures the uneven emotional experience that both girls went through with their friendship painfully and beautifully, to create a haunting, memorable and moving story.
My Heart is a Little Wild Thing by Nigel Featherstone is a gorgeous, tender morsel of a story. its protagonist, Patrick, is a man in his 50s only just coming to terms with his sexuality, his relationship with his ageing mother and his sense of belonging. Despite a thrilling, dramatic first sentence, Patrick’s story is far gentler and more indelible than we first think – full of childhood memories and stunning scenes of the Monaro district of NSW. My Heart is a Little Wild Thing is a story about the small acts of bravery and love we incorporate into our everyday lives.
I also had a lovely time dipping into the world of Georges Simenon’s Maigret books. These are my comfort reads whenever the weather turns cold and miserable. If you haven’t been introduced yet, the detective, Maigret is the star of the show, and each crime is all about following him around 1950s Paris as he thinks and ponders and muses his way towards a resolution. He also manages to enjoy lots of local food and wine while he’s solving the crime. My latest binge included Maigret Goes to School and Maigret and the Minister. For those of you who prefer your crime without all those forensic details and gory descriptions, then Maigret may be for you too.
Kate is reading…
A truly wild, floppy-eared satire
Isn’t it wonderful when you put your trust in someone for a book recommendation, and the return on that trust is so much more than you expected?
Such was the case when a publishing industry book editor recommended to me Bunny by Mona Awad. I hadn’t heard of it before, and might have missed it entirely in my reading life if she hadn’t suggested it. Set in a prestigious and progressive university, in a creepy town with urban myth rumours of decapitation and unnerving dissonances, we encounter through the socially awkward character of Samantha the ‘Bunnies’ – a clique of intimidating, sickly sweet, cooing English Lit classmates, who each refer to each other by the pet name ‘Bunny’. Although she throws up in her mouth a little at their performative female cuteness, at the same time Sam irrationally yearns to be accepted by them. Being a Bunny, however, comes with some very strange expectations and rituals. Here’s where the novel takes a bizarre, hallucinogenic and deliciously surreal turn, involving exploding woodland creatures, deeply wrong Frankenstein beaus, and a kind of literary occult exploration that Awad deploys to mock academia’s obsession with ‘the body as text, and the text as body‘. It’s an easy, intellectually intoxicating and darkly funny read about class privilege, envy, the absurdities and obscenities of highbrow learning, the cult-like nature of a certain type of female friendship, and the weird enclaves that emerge on campus. And some other things I’m still figuring out.
Next up: Bon and Lesley by Shaun Prescott (the guy who wrote The Town), the next issue of Giramondo’s HEAT magazine, and (ahead of our event with its author in September), the novel This Devastating Fever – described by Books+Publishing as ’deeply humane, full of humour, and delightfully gossipy about the sex lives of the Bloomsbury Group.’ Intriguing.