Good Reading & Listening List #2

Claire Messud Portrait SessionHere are the best books and articles I’ve come across lately. They’re not all new; they are all interesting. If you’d read something you’d recommend, let me know. It’s good to spread the word with likeminded folk.


The Woman Upstairs (2013), Claire Messud

I lack the words to explain how much I admire this woman. I was fortunate to meet her once for a drink in Sydney. I spent our first minutes together in need of Dutch courage yet frightened my shaky hands would fail me if I picked up the glass in front of me. I spoke quickly, she responded in a measured way, as one would if dealing with a skittish horse. She’s smart, well read, elegant and compassionate and that shines through in her writing and in person.

The Woman Upstairs is a terrific novel – the characters are interesting, complicated and convincing. I wanted to know how things were going to work out for them. Even knowing that (I read the book the week it came out and recently reread it), it’s enthralling. How’s this for an opening: ‘How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.’ But, of course, we do.

There was a curious conversation that wound around this novel after an interviewer claimed the protagonist, Nora, was not a person with whom one would want to be friends. Messud replied: ‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”’ That should have been the end of the discussion. The question was stupid and deserved slap-down dismissal. But it started a discussion about whether readers need to ‘like’ characters in novels. The pat answers to that question don’t warrant repeating. 

But…I mention it only because the issue threatened to overshadow the book. The Woman Upstairs doesn’t read as an exercise in making a point about difficult women. It’s an intriguing story that starts when Nora is feeling angry. During our time with her she also feels happy, inspired, sad, and betrayed. This is a fascinating and surprising novel.   

How Should a Person Be? (2012), Sheila Heti

The cover of my hardback copy makes it look as though the title is How Should a Person Be Shelia Heti. And that is the question she deals with in this curious book. How can you be who you are, whoever that is. But mostly, how can the author be Sheila Heti.

I love this book for its honesty, self-deprecation, and innocence. Not innocence as in ingenue but as in trusting the world with embarrassing information. Heti doesn’t (seem) to try to make herself look good – she’s open about her awkwardness, troubled friendships, her complicated thoughts about celebrity and identity, art and beauty, morality. She uses the words ‘phoney baloney’. She overthinks everything, overtalks everything. It’s great.

Heti’s an intelligent writer and there’s a large amount of craft in this book. She knows when to rein in the twee in favour of bluntness, and when the reader will tire of a line of thinking. She writes in such a relaxed, intimate way you feel as though she’s speaking directly to you, friend to friend, about a few things she’s been wrestling with. It’s enjoyable, never hard work.

David Haglund, writing for the New York Times, described the book as ‘part literary novel, part self-help manual’ which is a better way of describing it than I’ve offered, so go with that.

just_a_girl (2013), Kirsten Krauth

There are many things to love about this novel, and many things that are disturbing.

The story is told by three people: Layla, who’s 14, her mother Margot, who’s leaning on God and medication to cope after her husband left, and Tadashi, a man Layla sees on her train commutes. With no disrespect to the other characters, Layla most fully captured my interest and concern. The other two are adults – they have heavy sadnesses but they’ll get through them.

Layla, however, is troubling. I swear if I had a teenage daughter this book would’ve had me waking in a sweat each night. (I have two sons, and perhaps I’m kidding myself that the modern world doesn’t touch them in a similar way.) Layla has an utterly false sense of being in control of her life and sexuality. She watches porn with her gormless boyfriend, posts sexual videos of herself, meets strangers online and then – dear Lord, girl, have you not listened to a word your teachers have said?! – in real life. She has no concept of her mortality or vulnerability, and is more powerless than she realises – which, I suppose, could be said of much of a generation. The sense of one’s own importance that comes courtesy of the internet (along with the unexamined respect for bravado, irony, and conformity disguised as its opposite) is worth nothing when you step away from the screen. When Layla’s boss gropes her she is shattered, shocked at how quickly control is flicked out of her hands. I worry for her, and her friends.

The author has an impressive command of language. Each character has a rhythm about their speech, their own idiosyncrasies, and they ring so true. You can hear the edgy drawn-out desperation in Margot, the confidence/confusion/hurt in Layla, the resignation in Tadashi.

I have no idea if this book falls into the YA category, and as a reader rather than a marketer I don’t really care. I read Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, The Outsiders and others when I came upon them, not bothering if I was a similar age to the characters, and devoured grim Russian fiction in my early teens (who knows why). Publishers seem to now foist books upon young readers that only speak to that exact moment they’re at in life, which is hugely limiting. And terribly literal. A good story is a good story, and just_a_girl is a very good story, whatever age you are.




A Man in Love (published in Norwegian 2009, in English 2013), Karl Ove Knausgaard

It’s beside the point, but Knausgaard is the only man whose work makes me want to read Proust. Not that he suggest his readers do so, but because he is so often compared with him. And that’s the only good (not fey or pretentious) reason I’ve heard to tackle In Search of Lost Time.

Rachel Cusk writes in The Guardian: ‘The reattachment of events, through language, to the framework of time is the ambition of the Proustian and the psychotherapeutic process alike. Struggle is, of course, intrinsic to that process, and likewise it would be hard to understand Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work without accepting My Struggle as the plain statement it is.’ I have no idea what she means, and I think the only way I’ll ever know is by reading Proust. 

I bought the first of Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiography at the insistence of a friend then let it gather dust for a few months, convinced that a weighty, self-indulgent series by someone I’d never heard of, titled My Struggle, Volume 1: A Death in the Family could only be hard work. So wrong.

I was possessed by his story from the first pages, his way of telling his story, the absolute ordinariness of his faraway exotic everyman life. I wanted his voice in my head all day. I wanted to go to Norway. (And it’s cold there and I don’t like the cold.)

As soon as I finished Volume 1, I bought Volume 2. The second book is set in Sweden and titled A Man in Love, and you’ve never seen a more solemn and unhappy man than on the cover of this book. I read it as though I’d been starved of books all my life. I can’t do more to recommend it than urge you to open Volume 1 and start reading.

I’d also recommend this December 2013 interview with Knausgaard in the Paris Review.

Prisoner X (2014), Rafael Epstein

You don’t have to live in Melbourne to understand this story, but should you live here Prisoner X will positively vibrate for you. This story filled our city’s broadsheet for weeks, was on local radio and talked about, everywhere, a lot. Because the prisoner in question, Ben Zygier, grew up in Melbourne’s south and, somehow, wound up working as a Mossad spy and was imprisoned for revealing details of a secret operation targeting Iran. In 2010, when Zygier was 34, he was found dead in a maximum-security prison in Ayalon, Israel, in a cell they claimed was ‘suicide-proof’. There were no witnesses.

Epstein is a respected radio presenter and Walkley Award-winning journalist/foreign correspondent with many years’ experience, so he knows how to get what he needs (to a point: many people in Australia and Israel refused to speak to him) and how to spin a yarn. Also, he knew Ben Zygier when they were both young.

It’s a small and specific book, but it does a great job of exploring the question of how a Jewish boy from suburban Melbourne got himself into such an awful situation. And why he ended up dead.

Epstein wrote about why the case is important in this article for The Guardian.

The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962 (2000), Sylvia Plath

Either you like her or you don’t. I do. And this is as close as a reader can get to hearing Plath speak about her struggles with writing, her longings, her adoration of her husband and their difficulty making ends meet and keeping the faith that they would both be published and find their audience without having to sell their souls, their daily routines, how hopelessly impossible it was for her to write and teach at the same time, how she wrestled with emotional highs and lows and very dark thoughts, and still maintained a poetic outlook.

If you find Plath’s writing here melodramatic, repetitive or gloomy, bear in mind this wasn’t meant for us. We’re lucky to have a glimpse at this famous writer’s private thoughts. She wrote these entries for herself.

If you’re a writer you’ll find her journals illuminating because Plath talks candidly about her unproductive patches, dealing with rejection, and her persistent fear that she will never produce work of genuine worth. She’s incredibly hard on herself, even as she’s writing poetry and prose that is now acclaimed. And even though these were her personal musings, not worked-over prose, she had such a gift with words that all it’s beautiful to read.

An excerpt from the earlier years: ‘It was pouring rain. In the car he put his arm around me, his head against mine, and we watched the streetlights coming at us, blurred and fluid in the watery dark. As we ran up the walk in the rain, as he came in and had a drink of water, as he kissed me goodnight, I knew that something in me wanted him, for what I’m not sure: He drinks, he smokes, he’s Catholic, he runs around with one girl after another, and yet… I wanted him. “I don’t have to tell you it’s been nice,” I said at the door. “It’s been marvelous,” he smiled. “I’ll call you. Take care.” And he was gone. So the rain comes down hard outside my room, and like Eddie Cohen, I say, “… fifteen thousand years – of what? We’re still nothing but animals.”‘

Gwinganna: From Garden to Gourmet

If you’re feeling sluggish, tired and grey, and don’t have a disease of some kind, you probably need to look at four things.

Fluids – more water, less coffee, less alcohol, and no sugary drinks. None.

Sleep – go to bed earlier, get up earlier. More about sleep below.

Exercise – more exercise with weights, more cardio, more yoga/pilates/walking, less sitting.

Food – eat clean, which means eating food that’s not too messed with, sauced up or otherwise adulterated (raw fruit, fresh vegetables, good meat, good seafood, full-fat dairy if you eat dairy, more nuts and seeds, organic everything). Cut out as much sugar as you can, and that’s hard because it’s in everything, so you need to read labels. Cut out white flour. Cut out the processed stuff that comes in multiple wrappings of plastic and cardboard.

Then, open this book for recipes. The meals are easy to make, clean and as wholesome as an apple pie without sugar or a crust. The book is published by a health retreat in Queensland, where they serve this food to their guests. So the meal suggestions come from a very earnest place that wants you to be healthy – they have your best interests at heart. And if you eat this food often enough, and sleep, move and drink more wisely you will – no gimmick – feel better.




The Fall (Dangerous Minds, 2 April 2014)

The article is fine enough, but it’s Mick Middle’s 26-minute video interview with Mark E. Smith that I’d point you to. Watch the whole thing because Smith is so smart and creative, wide-minded, laconic and frank that I wished the film were twice as long. An amazing man, an amazing band, both with a splayed-hand reach into culture of which most people are unaware.

Insomnia and Me, Chuck Palahniuk (Guardian, 19 April 2014)

Everything I know about sleep, I’ve shared here. But I’ve never written about how well the words and ideas come when I’m exhausted. I don’t understand it, but on the days after I’ve tossed and turned and despaired and left bed with only a few hours sleep, my foggy head pulls up an uncharacteristically large volume of words. Viewed a few days later I see they’re flawed but the flaws are minor – spelling, punctuation, a missed preposition – while the gist is sound. I didn’t realise other brains did this too, though of course what one brain does another will do…

Novelist Palahniuk writes: ‘A writer or painter must be knocked back by shock or suffering that stuns his or her rational mind and allows access to inspiration, whether that bold idea comes from some deeply buried detail of psychology or some external daemon muse. Fasting works. Rejection, too. Insomnia works wonderfully.’

Having said that, he admits there’s a tipping point. Too little sleep can destroy one’s physical and mental health. So he tries – like we all do – various ways of getting to sleep. For me, melatonin works. For Palahniuk, Ambien. And this, something I’ve not heard before: ‘Another method that works is to feel cold, or imagine feeling a chill. I’ll imagine that I’m buried in snow, hence the ice caves in Fight Club. Other insomniacs I know open windows mid-winter or drink iced water before going to bed. In bed, as my body warms, I drift off.’

Also fascinating is Danielle Elliot’s article in The Atlantic (23 April 2014): The Doctor Who Coaches Athletes on Sleep

Poor Black People Don’t Work? Lessons of a Former Dope Dealer (Salon, 23 April 2014)

Rich people often say they’ve ‘earned’ or ‘deserve’ their wealth, that they ‘worked hard’ to get where they are/what they have. Which is ridiculous. Loads of people work hard and have next to nothing. And everyone deserves enough money to have a decent standard of living. The defensiveness – like all defensiveness – is telling. Deep down, they probably know there’s a truth in the criticism that they work no harder and are no more deserving than many poor people.

Here’s an article that explains, in words so well chosen, that poor people work hard but in ways that are illegal, disdained, often dangerous. That they often have to work in fields like drug-dealing, prostitution and odd jobs for cash, because that’s the work they can access, having been shouldered out of other, whiter, ‘legitimate’ ways of earning money. D. Watkins says: ‘there are so many hardworking people like us who are forced to create our own industries as a direct result of being isolated by society.’

An excerpt: ‘The fact is that I can travel through east Baltimore or any urban inner city (BLACK) neighborhood for under 10 minutes and introduce you to the hardest-working Americans in our country. I know a guy that guts houses for $50 a day, a rack of uncertified tax preparers, too many single moms with triple jobs, some freelance freelancers, infinite party promoters, squeegee kids, basement caterers, back-alley auto mechanics, dudes of all ages selling bottled water and a collection of Mr. Fix Its, all living in a two-block radius. We are all American dream chasing, all trying to start our own business, all working our asses off. Legal or illegal, the inner cities of America are our nation’s hotbed of side hustles.’

It’s a truth that applies across the world – in the poorer parts of Asia, Australia, Europe and Africa. And as the Midnight Oil song has it, ‘the rich get richer, the poor get the picture.’


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