Did you ever have to do that thing at school, in biology, where you went down to some previously overlooked dribble of water just beyond out-of-bounds to scoop up a sample of pond into tiny glass beacons whose contents soon revealed themselves to be complex, alive and varied, often pathogenic (Faecal coliform *snicker*)? I raise this memory because it offers a good, overwrought metaphor for what a scoop of my reading brain would give up these days, vestibule that it is for the various interconnected ponds of reading that I must wade into for my writing, my book editing, my pleasure, sometimes my folly. Under the microscope, my grey matter for this past month reveals:
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado, Profile Books, UK
This National Book Award–shortlisted short story collection from American author and essayist Machado is electric, disturbing, funny and brimming with sharp lyricism. Each story is infused with a magic realism rendered so confidently that the shock of the uncanny it delivers leaves one with a kind of mind-whiplash. A stand-out for me was ‘Especially Heinous—272 Views of Law & Order: SVU’, a brilliant undoing of the murdered-anonymous-girl-as-entertainment trope through an experimental form that grows darker and darker with every scene.
The Idiot, Elif Batumen, Vintage, UK
Oh, Selin! (or should I say, Elif, having now also begun to read The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Batumen’s part-memoir that seems to reveal Selin to be extensively Elif). I wanted to stay with this Women’s Prize–shortlisted book forever, so hilariously droll and painfully clever dear Selin is, as she moves incrementally along a year of college life in which linguistics, literature and her ever-passive pursuit of Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician, tangle up in a most profound and comic way.
‘The next afternoon in the library, I picked up Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Atom” and started to read. There were words I didn’t know, but I didn’t slow down. I just guessed the meaning and kept going, and I saw then that Ivan was right: it was exciting not to understand.’
The Idiot is a book about the possibility of meaning that rises from gaps, in language, in human connection. It paints life as somehow both hopeful and doomed; reliant, in a way, on the frisson of misunderstanding.
Less, Andrew Sean Greer, Little, Brown Book Group, UK
Carrying on my penchant for characters who fall prey to mistranslation, I downloaded to my Kindle this Pulitzer prize–winning story of mid-list, mid-life-crisis-beset author Arthur Less. I polished it off on a round-trip from Melbourne to Sydney. Like Selin of The Idiot, Arthur Less is existentially adrift; but unlike Selin he does not make anything cerebral of the matter, rather loping off on a global trip of slap-stick literary opportunities to avoid the pain of lost love. The pleasure of Greer’s winding but always astute sentences and the hilarity of Arthur Less’s blissful lack of awareness—‘With god’s happiness I accept the pedestal of power,’ he writes back to a job offer from a German university that, like Less himself, holds a false apprehension of his German fluency—were enough for me to love this story of ageing, love, and missed opportunity.
Imperfect, Lee Kofman (forthcoming) 2019, Affirm Press
Sometimes my work affords me the pleasure of reading advance copies of manuscripts, and the chance to feel that strange agitation and self-congratulation that overcomes one when you discover something great that others are yet to get their paws on. I should declare that Kofman is a friend, but that in no way behoves me to love her work, much as I absolutely honestly hated the home-made cheese my husband recently made (I awarded it zero stars on a non-existent review forum for his imaginary restaurant).
Imperfect is yet another intellectually vivid, emotionally honest hybrid work from Kofman, whose first memoir The Dangerous Bride (MUP) approached a similar form in drawing on her personal story to tease out the possibility of living non-monogamously. Imperfect turns to the question of what it means to live with a body that bears perceptible difference to ‘the norm’, exploring ideas of self-inflicted body modification, the meaning of bodily concealment, and the place that the imperfect body takes in society. Kofman’s research is brought to vivid life through interviewees, as well as through her own history of extensive bodily scarring, the result of two traumatic childhood events. I adore Kofman’s writing, and her willingness to traverse that cross-over into cultural and literary theory that you see in writers like Eula Biss or Leslie Jamison. Look out for this one!
401 short stories submitted for the forthcoming Big Issue Fiction Edition
Last year, my short story ‘Poison Roots’ was featured, and this year I was invited to co-judge this annual collection of emerging and established short fiction with Big Issue Books Editor Thuy On. It’s a valuable experience as a writer to participate in a selection process like this; it provides irrefutable proof of the various forces at play in publication and rejection, and the fine line betwixt. Certainly, there is unquestionably bad writing to be found everywhere, but there is also outstanding writing that doesn’t make the cut because: it needs slightly more work than another one selected; it doesn’t fit the brief; there is another story already about a parrot in the shortlist and yours is less resolved. Interestingly, sometimes perplexingly, the following themes abounded: Cats, birds, utes, coffee, writers, suicide, murder, prison, ocker blokes. Thuy and I whittled 401 down to a shortlist … stay tuned!
‘The Great High School Impostor’ Daniel Riley, GQ magazine, May 1, 2018
Impostor stories are compelling. What would it be like to slip into a different life undetected? Possibly thrilling, probably lonely. Mostly, though, these stories always involve either some level of psychopathy or a degree of personal desperation so deeply tragic that enjoyment doesn’t come into the equation much for the protagonist. In these stories there is almost always a layer of subterfuge involving other aiders and abetters that tips things from Freaky Friday fantasy into ambiguous moral territory that the reader must puzzle their way out of. This account of Ukrainian man Artur Samarin and his stint as an American college kid offers all those tantalising and, ultimately, tragic mystery components.
I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, Dr Seuss, HarperCollins, UK
My kids regularly request this as reading material, and each time I read it I become more and more convinced that Dr Seuss was not only a genius but a profound synthesiser of the human experience. In this Seussian romp, a poor, put-upon something-or-other (what are Seuss’s creatures when they are not birds or elephants? some hybrid human-pompom?) tormented by an irritating squall of aggressors, sets off for the utopia of Solla Sollew—where they never have troubles, at least very few—along the way encountering so many disturbances and hurdles (a camel with the gleeks, battles against the lion-like Perilous Poozers of Pompelmoose Pass, storms, cancelled buses, backward birds) that he nearly gives up. Once in Solla Sollew, he discovers the great moral imperative of this set-piece: that we can never escape all our troubles but must instead face them. Each time I read it, I laugh. Oh, how I laugh.
Nicola Redhouse is a Melbourne-based writer and book editor. Her debut nonfiction title Unlike the Heart: a story of brain and mind will be out in March 2019 through the University of Queensland Press.