Dear Author: A letter to Helen Garner

Dear Ms Garner,

I write this knowing that, given the overwhelming confluence of content on the internet, you will likely never read it. That’s the great paradox of this thing we call the information age, don’t you think? Despite the freedom of information online, so much remains largely invisible. Or visible, but lost. Perhaps that is a metaphor for our times. Nevertheless, I have no influence here. And so I remain.

Many years ago, when I was just a quiet, quietly ambitious journalism student, I picked up Joe Cinque’s Consolation, like so many others. I read it at a time when I was conflicted about my journalism studies. I felt like we were being taught to create the story, not seek it. We were being taught to invent the drama, not observe it. It was a formula, and to get great marks, we had to follow it. I needed a role model and I hadn’t found it in any of my lecturers, tutors or the books they prescribed.

Joe Cinque’s Consolation made me realise there was a different way of looking at journalism. That it could tell the whole story, from the beginning. You made me realise it’s possible to portray the emotions of the subjects involved, purely through the gentleness of the writing. Through considered concern for the characters. Where the writer is a soft presence. But present. So different to my lecturers’ mantra to lay out the facts with cold clarity. Make sure everything’s in the first paragraph, because readers won’t be bothered to commit beyond that. Time is precious.

Time is precious. And I recently committed a little of it to reading your new book. Everywhere I Look. The collection of stories, many of which have already been published, together form a beautiful snapshot of this world we live in. I was filled with envy when you wrote of Mrs Dunkley, your stern fifth grade teacher. When I went to school, anything more than the definitions of a noun, verb and adjective was considered superfluous to my early education.

I laughed a little at Red Dog’s Mutiny (I imagine the incident wasn’t funny at all though!), and at Tim Winton’s stout, “Thanks mate” to the priest’s offering. My eyes welled at your anecdotes about your grandson, penned with such love. But it is those beautifully crafted in-between moments that brought me the greatest joy. Have you thought about Twitter? Because your ability to craft a 140-character sentence would put many to shame.

You write:

A dark sky, striped low down with bands of translucent pearly grey and the faintest, driest yellow. Bare plane tree branches disposed against it, as in a painting.

And:

Peter Porter on The Book Show: ‘The purpose of form is to prevent you from putting down on the paper the first thing that comes into your head.’

So I apologise because that is entirely what I have done here, with my limited knowledge of form. I won’t pretend to do your writing justice. However, I am so glad that I spent a little of my time reading your book. Not one second I spent reading it was wasted.

I never did end up a journalist, but you were and still are a role model to me and to many others. You write on subjects we struggle to comprehend, on the complexity of the human condition. You do it with grace. With care and careful consideration. So thank you.

Amanda.

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On Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright

I first found this book on Kate Forsyth’s blog on a list of books that she was reading. Wait. Have Jody and I mentioned our teensy obsession with Kate Forsyth? It’s true. But I’m sure we can discuss our mutual love of all things KF later. Now is not the time.

Small Acts of Disappearance was there, listed among other fascinating reads and I knew straight away I had to read it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through it because the subject matter is quite heavy, but I wanted to. For many months since it has sat on my TBR shelf, a thin volume lost between other heftier reads (I haven’t missed the irony in that, don’t worry).

Then it was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and I thought, do it now. Just read it. But when I picked it up the raw emotion of the writing got to me:

We feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful space within the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible. It is a drive to disappear that can only ever succeed in making us more prominent, more visible because it makes us as different and offensive on the outside as we often feel we are at heart.

And I put it down, unfinished. The seed was planted though, and I went back to it with trepidation weeks later, certain this time I needed to finish it. And I did. But not without finding myself getting teary on public transport at the beauty of the writing, at the honesty of it all.

Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright is a series of essays detailing her battle with an eating disorder. Wright’s intelligent prose and her fascination with her own disorder ensure the essays are well-researched and entirely engaging. It is so easy for these books to fall into the “how-to” manual (as she mentions herself), but this is very different. It’s the depth of her self-awareness that grips you:

Eating disorder patients are, almost without exception, hypersensitive to the opinions of others, punishingly judgemental of themselves, and easily wounded because of the fragility of their sense of self. So gentleness itself, arguably, is therapeutic, because it’s something that we never grant ourselves. At criticism, cruelty and violence, however, we’re old hands.

My book is littered with folded down page corners (sacrilege I know, but that’s how I roll), all pages that have struck a note, made me skip a breath with the delicacy of Wright’s writing and that slight flare of self-recognition I’m sure so many women will have. Or indeed anyone really who has looked into the mirror and felt themselves unsatisfactory, or worse, inconsequential. But Wright’s book draws a picture that goes so much deeper than this, into food as a control mechanism in a world where it is is entirely possible to always feel out of control.

I’m glad I made it through because it’s one of those rare books that makes you reluctant to pick up another for fear of losing something of it. Still, the reading must go on and I know Small Acts will linger with me for a long time.

I’m disappointed Wright’s book didn’t win the Stella Prize, just as I know Jody is disappointed that Hope Farm by Peggy Frew didn’t either.  But we’re both proud there are so many wonderful female writers in this country and happy that we have an excuse to read so many of them (not that we really need an excuse)!

 Amanda x

On long weekend reads and optimism

We’re just at the start of a long weekend here in Australia and, as always, the most important thing to have sorted for such an event is our TBR pile. We’ve been scouring the bookshops for weeks to get ready for four days off work and some serious reading time (you need to be optimistic about these things!).

We always have many, many, books lined up for these mini-breaks because we just don’t know what we will be in the mood for. Do you find this? It’s like going to the supermarket the day before they close for public holidays. You have to stock up just to make sure that you have plenty to pick from! That could just be us though…we’re probably a bit odd. But maybe you feel the same? It’s always nice to feel we’re among friends.

So, we know we won’t get through all of these, but this is what we’ve got ready to go this long weekend:

Jody

The Midnight Watch – David Dyer: When I found out this book was about the Titanic, I  wanted to read it straight away. I know we all know what happened to the Titanic, but I have never read about about it (or watched the movie) so I am really looking forward to this one.

Wild Light – Robyn Mundy: I picked this one up simply because it is a new book by an Australian author and I love to support as many Australian authors as I can.

The Light on the Water – Olga Lorenzo: I can’t actually remember where I came across this book all I knew is that after reading the blurb I really wanted to read it.

The Edge of Lost – Kristina McMorris: I loved the cover on this one! Then I read the recommendation on the front cover and I was even more intrigued.

The Life of Elves – Muriel Barbery: This one is by the same author who wrote ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ which I haven’t read but I know was very popular. So I decided to pick it up and give it a go.

 Amanda

The Mitford Girls – Mary S. Lovell: I’ve been listening to ‘Chat 10, Looks 3’ with Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales and they recommend this book. It’s a little outside my comfort zone, but I’m ready to give it a try!

Small Acts of Disappearance – Fiona Wright: Essays on hunger which sound fascinating, albeit a bit confronting. One from the Stella Prize Short List, although I first saw it on Kate Forsyth’s blog and have been meaning to dip into it for ages!

The Lyre Thief – Jennifer Fallon: My wonderful mum bought this one for me from her local bookshop, and I’m always keen for a new fantasy series. Hopefully it’s as good as it sounds.

The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante: I enjoyed My Brilliant Friend and I’ve heard the second title title in the series is even better so fingers crossed.

Emperor of the Eight Islands – Lian Hearn: I actually never read Hearn’s well-known Tales of the Otori series, but I have loved her other fiction titles so I picked this one up out of curiosity. Maybe I will love it so much I will have to go back and read the others!

What do you have on your TBR pile at the moment? Any recommendations?

 Jody & Amanda x