Our tiny house is full of books. One wall of the hallway is lined with classics, plays and my great-grandfather’s dusty, old leather-bound books; along the other side are children’s books. The shelf next to my desk is filled with reference, writing and editing books. Favourites and newer titles live in the dining and lounge rooms. Then there’s a small, high shelf for special books, like my signed, first edition, hardback Richard Flanagan novels. We also have library books scattered around, and I’m always receiving overdue fines because I’m not very good at returning them.
I have three To Be Read piles on the table next to my spot on the couch. The first pile is a precarious tower of books that are ‘helping’ me write my novel in progress—lots of non-fiction and memoirs dealing with mental health and schizophrenia, and, for reasons not entirely clear to me, older books and poetry by authors including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and Lewis Carroll. The second pile contains titles I’ve chosen for enjoyment—on the top are Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, Hope Farm by Peggy Frew and Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood. And the third pile is of books I’ve been lucky enough to receive as gifts from writer friends and publishers.
When I was young I never gave up on a book. I do now—if it’s not working for me I won’t persevere to the end. I’m busy, I have three children, and there’s never enough time to read all the books I would like to. I read at basketball training, at netball training, at swimming lessons, and most nights I fall asleep with a book on the couch.
I was an avid, though not discerning, reader as a child. All books were precious to me. They came from the Scholastic book club (so exciting filling in those order forms!) and the second-hand shop, and I would alphabetise them on my shelf. My mother read fat blockbusters and my father didn’t read at all. On the other hand, my great-grandfather was a bibliophile. I have no idea why his books were stored in the boarded-up shed at the back of my grandparents’ house. I remember trying to peek through the boards of that mysterious place, trying to catch a glimpse of those magical books (which eventually found their way to my hallway). The only books inside my grandparents’ house were Nana’s Mills & Boons, which—due to lack of choice—I devoured as a nine or ten year old during after-school times. There are still gaps in my reading, which I worry I’ll never fill—that I’ll never reach the bottoms of my ever-growing To Be Read piles and get onto Ulysses and Crime and Punishment. At least they’re in my hallway.
I tend to read mostly Australian authors these days. Titles I’ve enjoyed recently are Leap by Myfanwy Jones, The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood and Murder in Mt Martha by Janice Simpson. I’m currently captivated by an enchanting memoir called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. It’s about a seriously ill, bedridden woman who becomes intrigued by the snail living in a pot plant beside her bed. The author has woven a gentle meditation on companionship, nature and resilience with surprisingly fascinating facts about snails.
One newish little book (it’s a novella) that blew me away was Formaldehyde by Melbourne author Jane Rawson. Magic realism is probably too old-fashioned a term to apply to such a modern story, which I think defies labelling. It crosses genres as well as times from 2000 to 2023 with its clever structure.
Formaldehyde kicks off with what appears to be a Kafkaesque bureaucratic bungle at the Identity Office, which is hilariously similar to Centrelink. The story covers love, loss, severed limbs and impossible pregnancies. Surprising, shocking, heartwarming, heartbreaking, insightful, absurd… just wonderful. So original. And so well-written—clean, sharp and witty.
I want to see you. I want to see you so bad. Like acid reflux, this constant aching in my solar plexus from the wanting of you. Like swallowing a corn chip the wrong way down, but to the power of five; like my trachea has been stuffed with hessian.
And every single day, without fail, he would look out the doors when the elevator stopped at the third floor, glance up the corridor, just in case. And when she wasn’t there, which was every time, he would paste a memory of her over whatever was happening in front of his eyes, stick her to the scene like fuzzy-felt.
Formaldehyde made me think at the same time of The Lost Thing (Shaun Tan’s picture book) and The Picture of Dorian Gray! It delighted, surprised and inspired me as both a reader and writer. It’s definitely going on my TBRR (to be re-read) shelf.
Tania Chandler is the author of Dead in the Water, out now through Scribe Publications.