For as long as I can remember, my reading material has formed a kind of orbit around me. Every time I read a new sentence, particularly when the book is good, and it’s good surprisingly often, it feels like a re-negotiation of the world. My reading matter tends to be multi-genred and multi-modal. I like to surround myself with different types of texts, so it would be normally an audiobook on the way to work, some poetry on the bedside table, and a novel or two by the sofa. I will immerse myself in both poetry and fiction most evenings or over the course of a very relaxing weekend if I’m lucky. Reading is so pleasurable for me that I will often sneak read, that is, slip into another room and steal a few moments into a story that is playing on my mind, or read while waiting for a family member to get ready to go out, while onions are frying, or in the gap between appointments. Different books read together or consecutively seem to inform one another, the characters connecting dots in my brain. It may be that my choices are related to the issues that concern me at the moment or it may be that the work itself focuses my attention in a way that causes me to see the world in different ways.
Re-reading is a particular pleasure, not least because it’s usually stimulated by encouragement, which means there’s a bonus opportunity to share the joy through post-reading discussion. I’ve just finished re-reading the whole of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (aka Lilith’s Brood) after my son convinced me one reading wasn’t enough. He was right. NASA just named the Martian landing site of the Perseverance rover ‘Octavia E. Butler Landing’, a well-deserved honour for this prescient, multi–award winning writer whose themes of global warming; human hierarchies and aggression; prejudice; and the healing, regenerative nature of connection between humans and the natural world remain increasingly relevant to a modern reader. They’re also engaging stories, with a fully realised universe and fascinating aliens that do not rely on tropes or physical attributes to draw the reader in. Butler’s alternative future is both appealing and repulsive in equal measures, and the prose is rich and sensuous, equating human and alien beauty in a way that remains compelling throughout the series:
The smell-taste-feel of Jesusa, the rhythm of her heartbeat, the rush of her blood, the texture of her flesh, the easy, right, life-sustaining working of her organs, her cells, the smallest organelles within her cells—all this was a vast, infinitely absorbing complexity. (Imago, 183)
I have to drive about an hour a day, which is found ‘reading’ time. Listening to a book is just as pleasurable to me as reading it on a page. With audiobooks I’ll often choose based on a title I’ve heard about on one of the excellent festival podcasts like Newcastle, Sydney, or Melbourne Writers Festival, or it might be a book that’s already on my towering bedside stack in hard copy form. I’ve been wanting to read Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island for a long time. This was a particularly good book to listen to because narrator Abbe Holmes did a terrific job with protagonist Kitty Hawke’s accent, described beautifully in the book. Kitty is a unique and compelling character, and the book so engaging I often extended my car time to listen longer. Kitty, who lives on a remote, slowly sinking island with a pet wolf dog named Girl, and her ‘makings’ or sculptures, is brought out of her isolation when a group of familiar-looking visitors arrive from the mainland. Treloar’s dystopia is all too real, with more than a hint of allegory as it explores the impact of the climate emergency and its attendant scarcity, the way we treat refugees, and the healing power of the creative process and love. The writing is exquisite, whether describing a dramatic encounter with vigilantes or a tender moment between owner and dog:
I say, ‘Girl, Girl,’ and she comes to me like a myth, her coat sleeked smooth, her tail back out. She is a line, a ripple through the long grass, and butterflies and hoppers rise in her wake, lifting the spume and catching the light. She passes by me with a rush of wind and her sweet wolf scent, leading the way to anything. (5)
Two books which I’ve recently read for the Newcastle Writers Festival Stories to You series include the new translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley, and Love Objects by Emily Maguire. My first reading of Beowulf was many years ago at university and I was, to be honest, underwhelmed. Headley’s version is electric. While remaining as true as possible to the original, the book is ‘juicy’: full of murder, mayhem and blokey fun. But Headley also recasts the work, forcing us to look at the story in the context of colonisation, privilege, and oppression. Grendel is no less a monster, but the story is empathetic to Grendel and his mother’s plight, and has been rendered entirely relevant to a modern reader. Emily Maguire’s Love Objects is a beautifully written and fast-paced book full of the complexity of families, mental illness, and endemic sexism. As with Headley’s Beowulf, Maguire’s monsters are not one-dimensional, nor are they without pathos. Like Grendel, these all too human monsters are trapped in their societal roles, encouraged to be villains in a world that systematically profits from both their aggression and their victims’ pain.
I always have a few poetry books on the go. Poetry is rarely time bound. You can dive in, read a poem, think about it, come back to it, and allow it to become part of the fabric of experience. One of the poetry books I’m reading in that slow, steady way at the moment is Chris Mansell’s Foxline, published by Flying Island Press. I heard Mansell read from this collection recently at a combined book launch, and her reading grabbed me immediately. There is something both complex and essential in the way the work inhabits the two archetypal characters: fox and hunter, animating them with humanity, anger, fear and swapping roles so that neither is simple, neither is innocent and neither is guilty, though the feminised fox comes off the better, with her beauty and righteous anger:
…when do you admit
this vulpine thing walking on quiet
paws in your spine a hypodermic
rage when do you admit to that (“WHEN”)
Mansell animates the fox, who becomes a spokesperson for all foxes but also for women and nature. The hunter becomes humanity, or men, or white men. At the same time the fox and the hunter are just themselves, leaving us with the vivid image of a fully laden foxline, with all of its death and beauty.
Finally, I’ve been reading One Hundred Letters Home, Adam Aitken’s 2016 memoir published by Vagabond Press, which Aitken sent me himself. The book is full of snapshot images, poems, letters, clippings, quotations from other works and invented segments. It’s obvious when you read One Hundred Letters Home that Aitken is a poet. Not only does every word count, but the work embodies and incorporates a sense of multiplicity: the process of writing is not a process of discovery but one of creation. Memory in this instance is negotiated in the gaps between nostalgia and artefact:
I know that one day I won’t be lifting the plastic cellophane that holds the photographs in place, or shuffling the phonographs in a search for a chronology that is impossible to pin down. I re-catalogue them, and re-invent a family I hardly know. (41)
I say finally, but of course none of these readings are final, nor is this a definitive list of what I’m reading now. Every day some new text comes into my horizon. I might encourage someone else to read one or more of these books. I get requests for recommendations and give them frequently. I might reach for one of these books when they seem most apt to describe an experience, provide solace to a needy friend, or enhance something else I might be reading by adding additional context. Each engagement is different. There will be other books against which these readings will become a reference point, informing and changing both the initial reading and the new text. Each book seems to grow me a little, to add an invisible layer—peopled spaces, experiences, and situations—all of which feel oddly protective, warming me in ways I can’t explain. When I close the last page, I put the books back on the shelf, lovingly, in a space where they fit. Such abundance.
Magdalena Ball runs Compulsive Reader. Her latest book is Unreliable Narratives (2019, Girls on Key Press). A new poetry collection titled Density of Compact Bone is forthcoming from Ginninderra Press.