I do a lot of reviewing, mostly fiction, and I’ve just finished judging 150ish books for a non-fiction award. I also get to read a fair amount of unpublished writing. I’m pleased, then, to have the chance here to write about reading that I’m choosing to do for pure fun or interest, even if I don’t get to do as much of that as I’d like. Mind you, the distinction I’m making between recreational and compulsory reading is, to some extent, a false one: it’s not as if I hate what I read for ‘work’ (not always, anyway). This year, for example, I got to review Marion May Campbell’s brilliant short novel konkretion (UWA Publishing) and Tracy Farr’s terrific debut novel The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt (Fremantle Press). And lots more. Still, my work-related reading places a heavy emphasis on the ‘here and now’ rather on diving into the ocean of older works.
I met Jeanine Leane at the National Library of Australia’s ‘Writing the Australian Landscape’ a couple of months ago. Her collection of short stories, Purple Threads (UQP), won the David Unaipon Award for an unpublished manuscript by an Indigenous author (an award with such a fine track record: whoever responsible for choosing the winners over the years has done so adroitly). In spare, unforced, matter-of-fact prose, Leane tells the story of Sunny, a girl who lives with her nan and aunties. In the title story, Sunny complains that the kids at school won’t play with her because ‘Your aunties are black witches’. The women offer calm but purposeful responses—‘Never mind, babe’, ‘I wanted to be a witch when I was young’, and they tell her stories—which further provokes Sunny’s rage. She wants action. She wants to be different.
As a longer-term project—very long-term, if my current pace is anything to go by—I’m working my way through David Malouf’s books, not in any particular order. Often that’s a case of re-reading but at the moment I’m reading some of his poetry for the first time. I don’t read a lot of poetry—not none, but not heaps. Malouf’s poems seem so familiar (themes, ideas, language) and yet very different—and so delicate (but not fragile). But I’m on shaky ground for the moment, still feeling my way into them. In the meantime, in my Maloufathon I haven’t—so far, at least—read anything to disturb my pre-existing personal favourites: the novelThe Great World and the short story collection Every Move You Make, both Random House. But, then, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find that I agree with myself.
I’ve been slowly working my way through Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: The Best of Joe Bageant (Scribe)—an essay every few weeks. Bageant, who died in 2011, wrote biting and very funny essays about the white underclass in the United States. Take the 2005 essay ‘Drink, Pray, Fight, Fuck’, which begins ‘You might not meet them among your circle of friends, but there are millions of Americans who fiercely believe we should nuke North Korea and Iran, seize the Middle East’s oil, and replace the US Constitution with the Christian Bible.’ Or this, from ‘Revenge of the Mutt People’: ‘My point here is that, by an early age, we rural and small-town mutt people seem to have a special capacity for cruelty—compared say, to damned-near every other imaginable group of Americans. For instance, as a child, did you ever put a firecracker up a toad’s ass and light it? George Bush and I have that in common.’ Bageant’s observations are provocative—but beyond the colour and noise he has important things to say about the United States. Although their politics are different, Bageant often reminds me of P.J. O’Rourke.
I have always done a lot of re-reading of my favourite books. But I tend to read a chapter or two, or even short random passages, rather than the whole book. I’m currently doing that with Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions (Faber & Faber), in which the character of David Zimmer, a grief-stricken mess, becomes obsessed with the films—and then the person—of a reclusive silent comedian called Hector Mann. I think this is by far Auster’s best novel, overshadowing quite a few of his more uneven books (enjoyable though I find them). With some of those books, it seems almost as if he gets a little bored of the manuscript and sets it free. But The Book of Illusions is as complete (and completed) a story as it is complex and beautiful.
One of the advantages of reading for pleasure is the freedom to abandon books that I’m not really connecting with. I have a somewhat flexible thirty-page rule: if it hasn’t got me interested enough by then, I move on. It happened most recently with David Shields and Shane Salerno’s sort-of biography of J.D. Salinger (the ‘official’ book linked to the documentary). Finding it stolid and messy, I read my thirty-ish pages and then flicked through the rest. Amongst other problems, the authors seem too focused on wanting to tell readers how different and new their findings are compared to everything previously written and said about Salinger (which might be true). It’s also partial to big claims: on page one Shields and Salerno suggest that ‘Salinger’s slim oeuvre—four brief books—has a cultural weight and penetration nearly unmatched in modern literature.’ Salinger is a fine and important writer, but…‘nearly unmatched’?
When I can’t sleep, my fall backs are the Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister diaries (they’re not nearly as good as the television series but they’re still funny…and disturbingly relevant) and Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler: the story of the Hitler Diaries, a book I might, if pushed, be able to recite. Avoid the wonky television series based on the book, even though it stars Jonathan Pryce and Alexei Sayle (not to mention Barry Humphries as Rupert Murdoch).
Patrick Allington’s novel Figurehead (Black Inc. 2009) was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. His short fiction has appeared in Meanjin, Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, Southerly, The Melbourne Review and in anthologies. His non-fiction and critical writings appear widely in newspapers, magazines and journals. @PatrAllington