You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

One of my counselling lecturers said something that has stuck with me – “When someone is telling you a story, always listen for the rub.” I knew exactly what he meant. It’s the bit where things don’t quite add up, where someone suddenly reveals more than you expect or conversely, less than you expect. Or the bit where someone reveals a little guilt or anxiety or anger or shame. There’s always a giveaway – the story is told with a ‘but’ or an ‘although’ – however, you have to listen for it.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, is a collection of short stories, each with their own rub. The stories are about ordinary relationships and situations – a woman runs into a high school frenemy; a volunteer at a women’s refuge takes a disliking to a new, overly enthusiastic colleague; a lonely college student is befriended by a charismatic classmate; a single mother tries to combine work and parenting. Continue reading

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The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

I finished Michelle de Kretser’s latest novel, The Life to Come, on my way to last week’s Stella Prize announcement. It was appropriate to be reading de Kretser’s beautifully crafted words as I flew to Sydney, and even more fitting that I was there for the announcement of a literary prize – the book is set in Sydney (with snatches in Paris and Sri Lanka) and orbits around Pippa, a writer who longs for success.

The Life to Come is structured around various people at different stages in Pippa’s life, creating loosely linked stories from their individual perspectives. Some of these people are peripheral and others know Pippa well – from her university flatmate and a Parisian friend, to her elderly neighbour and a woman ‘adopted’ by her charismatic mother-in-law, Eva – it’s through their eyes that we see Pippa’s life progress. Structurally it’s interesting, and de Kretser provides lots of detail along the way to link the stories.

Continue reading

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe is a short, grim story about an Indonesian girl, Mina, whose life changes when her father sends her to work for a Dutch merchant.

And what will she wear? What is the town like? Who will she work with? She asks herself these questions, a tremor of excitement finally mingling with the dread in her stomach, making her feel pleasantly sick like when she eats too much sirsak, the sweetness of the custard apple curdling in her stomach. Continue reading

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar is set in Iran in the period immediately after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Using magic realism and classical Persian tales, Azar tells the story of a family deeply affected by the post-revolutionary chaos and brutality.

Things I understand and appreciate about The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree:

01. That it is a stunning example of using folklore to tell a modern story. Continue reading

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

In his latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan has taken three very different characters – Farouk, whose country has been torn apart by war; Lampy, a broken-hearted boy from Ireland; and elderly John, whose past sins are haunting him – and created something special.

The novel is structured simply – a short, stand-alone story for each character and a fourth concluding story that brings the three characters together. The danger of drawing a number of disparate stories together is that the overall result can seem contrived. Somehow, Ryan has avoided this – nothing in From a Low and Quiet Sea feels forced or out-of-place. The connections between each story, once revealed, are surprising but also make perfect sense. And the best bit? I didn’t see any of it coming. Quite a feat. Continue reading

The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner

A conversation overheard in 1975…

Richard Yates: I usually write about men but I’m thinking I’ll do something about a miserable woman…

Anita Brookner: Well Dick, one knows that there’s plenty of material when it comes to miserable women.

RY: And so many tempting themes around misery…

AB (laughing): Misery loves company!

RY: Loneliness, bitterness, regret, jealousy…

AB: Yes, the truly miserable woman has it all. Continue reading

The Green Bell by Paula Keogh

Sometimes when I’m reading a book I find that a particular element of the story resonates very deeply. It’s usually an element that isn’t the main theme of the story and therefore catches me off-guard.

Such was the case with Paula Keogh’s memoir, The Green Bell. It’s essentially a story about Keogh’s experience in a psychiatric unit of the Canberra Hospital in the 1970s. The events leading up to her admission (notably the death of a very close friend), what happens when she is there (she meets and falls in love with poet, Michael Dransfield who is being treated for drug addiction), and her life after hospital is the guts of Keogh’s story.

There’s no way out after all. I turn around and make my way back to M Ward. I’m worthless, pared down to nothing. I’ve come to the very end of possibility. Continue reading

Queen Lucia & Miss Mapp by E. F. Benson

Should you ever need a lesson in passive-aggressiveness and/or the art of one-upmanship, look no further than the Queen Lucia series by E. F. Benson.

There are six books in the series, all of which are Georgian satires, focused on the everyday affairs of the upper-middle-class residents of the fictional villages of Tilling and Riseholme. I read the first two books, Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp.

There are similarities between the books. In both, there is no single plot – instead, the comings-and-goings of people to town; the politics of bridge parties and evening suppers; the providence of recipes; the importance of where one has had a new tea gown made; and a multitude of other minor occurrences drive the story.

The hours of the morning between breakfast and lunch were the time which the inhabitants of Riseholme chiefly devoted to spying on each other. Continue reading