A week of reading began when I lined my duffel bag with books for a trip to Byron Bay.
I carried Tim Low’s Where Song Began: Australian Birds and How They Changed The World under my arm as I walked the main street of Byron. The fiction bias I had in my younger reading life has shattered, and I find myself hungry for nonfiction, particularly science.
When I sat down with it at the organics café, the fella sitting next to me was attracted to the cover of the book (a palm cockatoo). He started telling me about the black cockatoos on his property, lotta noise, but good noise and the cockatoos up north that could crack a coconut. It wouldn’t be the first conversation I had with a stranger while holding this book. Most people have a bird story for you.
I also found the book good for pub trivia during a drink with my uncle. Did you know the wandering albatross may go years without touching land?
When I got home to Brisbane I pulled all the books out of my bag and took Samuel Wagan Watson’s Love Poems and Other Threats to my Monday night training, I read most of the book on the bus there then wrapped it up in a notebook and put it in the compartment of my football backpack least grassy and muddy, next to my water bottle.
My fellow Mununjali writer Watson’s early collections—the urban beauty, political punch and rock sensibility—were a pretty big influence on me as a younger reader and this new collection rears the same excitement. From the poem, ‘Road Fire’, about driving on country and seeing a red-belly on the road; I easily forget/how venom is always ahead.
I got home from footy, opened my bag and saw my drink had leaked. The book hadn’t been completely protected. I put it on the heater and tried different ways of holding the book, before giving up and putting it on the clothes rack outside, hoping for the best. The next day I flicked through, still seeing the water dents at the bottom of every page. I pushed the book under other books, hoping the pressure will pop those bubbles, and when I open it again, a new line will grab me.
That same morning I read an unsettling chapter in How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King on ‘animal suicide’ and the explosive first pages of David Vann’s Goat Mountain (by this time I’ve noticed a pretty strong animal trend).
A friend emailed me a strange poem with the note, Hope it doesn’t make you hungry. It was ‘Counterman’ by Paul Violi. Deli-counter dialogue—the order of a sandwich. Surprisingly wonderful, as is Violi’s story about writing the poem.
Later that week, coming home from a day editing and emailing at the desk, text is the enemy; I wasn’t even up for messaging. I went upstairs, lay down, and played the latest New Yorker Fiction Podcast. The monthly podcast indulges my addiction to being read to. The last thing I had read to me was the Rick Bass story ‘The Canoeists’— and by the end of it I was drugged. What was your favourite line? My reader asked. I don’t know…The part about the fireflies smeared all over the canoe. No actually, when she said she felt part-human, part other-animal.
The podcast features a writer reading another writer’s short story from The New Yorker archive. This month Tim Parks was reading Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s ‘Sweet Dreams’, translated from the German. I didn’t listen too hard at the start. I brushed my teeth, straightened up my wardrobe, and then the story seemed to really start. I was hooked on this young couple who have just moved in together and all their particular domesticity.
I made a note to read more of the author. Also in my to-read pile, the new Dave Eggers, the new Favel Parrett, and Damon Galgut’s backlist. Next week.
Ellen van Neerven is a Brisbane-based writer. She is the 2013 winner of the David Unaipon Award. Her first book, Heat and Light (UQP, 2014), will be published in September.