What I’ve Been Reading

How can we be a quarter of the way through 2022 already? Is it the multitude of terrible things happening throughout the world that is causing me this difficulty with time perception? I have at least been reading a bit more this year, both for education and escape. Here are my favourites so far.

'Unfollow' by Megan Phelps-RoperUnfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper was an inspiring memoir by a young woman who escaped a notoriously homophobic, misogynist, anti-Semitic, anti-everything cult founded by her grandfather. From the age of five, Megan was an obedient and devoted Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) member, holding up ‘God Hates Fags’ signs outside the funerals of American soldiers, picketing outside her own school and college, then running the church’s social media campaign. It isn’t surprising that she followed the church’s beliefs, because nearly everyone in her large extended family was a member of WBC. What is surprising is how she managed to leave WBC at the age of 26, cutting herself off from the family she still loves, to become an activist and educator dedicated to combatting extremist beliefs.

There were two things that helped her leave. Firstly, WBC, unlike other American cults, allowed its children to be educated in the public school system and encouraged them to go to college, where Megan was often socially isolated, but was at least exposed to other beliefs and learned some critical thinking skills. WBC members were also encouraged to use social media to get publicity for the church’s bigoted preaching. Megan writes of her “profound gratitude to Twitter … Instead of booting me from its platform for ‘hate speech’, as many had demanded, it had put me in conversation with people and ideas that effectively challenged beliefs that had been hammered into me since I was a child.” In fact, she ends up meeting and eventually marrying a man who had spent years debating against her on Twitter. She despairs of the “division of the world into Us and Them” in the Trump era and points out that in the age of the internet, “we cannot reasonably expect to halt the spread of an idea, whether good or bad … the answer to bad ideas is to publicly reason against them, to advocate for and propagate better ones”. Megan comes across as a thoughtful, ethical person who, despite her traumatic upbringing, has a lot of compassion and empathy, and she argues convincingly against #NoDebate and Cancel Culture.

'The Edible Balcony' by Indira NaidooI also liked The Edible Balcony by Indira Naidoo, a guide to growing fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables for those of us who don’t have backyard gardens. Indira managed to produce 70kg of produce in her first year of balcony gardening and this is a good beginner’s guide, with great photos and illustrations, handy tips and some delicious-looking recipes. It must be noted that although Indira claims her Sydney balcony is “small”, it is 20 square metres (about five times the size of my own balcony), and is north-facing, with its own water supply and a building concierge who looks after her plants when she’s away. She also has the advantages of farming friends who provide her with fresh manure, a vertical garden system supplied for free because she’s a celebrity, and access to ABC TV’s gardening gurus. Still, this book provided me with inspiration as I was re-establishing my own balcony garden, following last year’s building reconstruction works. Here are some before and after pictures of my balcony:

Before: my balcony in April 2021
BEFORE: My balcony in April 2021 as reconstruction started and the scaffolding went up
After: My balcony in January 2022
AFTER: My balcony in January 2022. I’m growing mint, rosemary, parsley, marjoram, lavender, lemon thyme, spring onions, two types of chives, three types of lettuce and two types of basil.

The Edible Balcony provided valuable food for thought. For example, I’d always considered tomatoes to be too difficult to grow on a balcony, but Indira successfully grew tomato varieties in pots, so that could be a project for me next summer. Conversely, I now think a little lemon tree might be a bit too ambitious for me, after reading about all the pest problems Indira had. Still, her remedy for powdery mildew (diluted milk sprayed on leaves) worked a treat on my afflicted mint plant, so thanks, Indira!

'Sugar Town Queens' by Malla NunnIn fiction, I enjoyed Sugar Town Queens, the latest YA novel from Malla Nunn. This is a fast-paced story about a mixed-race girl growing up in poverty in a Durban township. Amandla’s mother is white and her father is missing; they live in a one-room tin shack but her mother regularly comes home with wads of cash; and her mother has strange delusions and gaps in her memory. Amandla, with the help of her friends Lil Bit and Goodness, discovers the truth about her mother’s wealthy family and tragic past. The romance seems shoe-horned in and the conclusion is unrealistically upbeat and Cinderella-ish, but I really liked the depiction of strong relationships between the girls and women in the story, with schoolfriends, neighbours and grandmother working together for truth and justice. (I think When the Ground is Hard is a much better book, though.)

'Cat Problems' by Jory JohnFinally, Cat Problems by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith, is a charming and funny picture book about the very difficult life of a household cat who has many problems, all of which he complains about loudly. He has to deal with a sunbeam that moves; a noisy vacuum cleaner; dry cat food instead of wet; and another cat that persists in sitting “in my spot … in my other spot … now you’re in my THIRD spot.” A squirrel outside the window explains how difficult life is for wild animals outside but Cat is unimpressed (“How can I eat this very talkative squirrel?”) Then he stalks off to complain about the paucity of sunbeams at night. The fuzzy illustrations and mimimalist backgrounds are very appealing. Recommended for anyone who’s ever lived with a cat.

My Favourite Books of 2021

I usually post about my favourite books of the year by Christmas Eve, but this week, I was somewhat distracted due to a) the hospital where I work going into Red Alert and having to evacuate our floor to make room for extra COVID beds, just after we’d finally moved back to our usual offices, at a time when most staff had gone on much-needed holidays or were in COVID isolation, why did I agree to work this week WHY, and then b) being identified as a COVID contact, developing symptoms and going into isolation on Christmas Eve.

This was a fitting end to a year in which my state experienced catastrophic floods, an earthquake, a mouse plague, our Premier resigning due to a corruption scandal, and of course, there was that ongoing pandemic with lots of exciting new viral variants. Also, the apartment building where I live needed urgent repairs that included demolishing and rebuilding all the balconies, so I’ve been living in a dark, noisy, dust-filled construction site for the past eight months.

Remember this time last year, when we were all looking forward to 2021?

At least I read some good new books. My favourite novels for adults were The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng. I also found Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody informative and helpful (although alas, I did not make much writing progress this year, see above). My favourite books for children and teenagers included When the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn, The Cricket Term by Antonia Forest and Maddie in the Middle by Julia Lawrinson. I may have read some other good books this year. I can’t remember. I can’t even recall my phone number at the moment.

Fortunately, I have a pile of library books to keep me entertained during my COVID isolation period:

Library books Christmas 2021

I hope you’ve had a good reading year, despite all the challenges that 2021 has brought us, and that you’re having a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

‘The Friend: A Novel’ by Sigrid Nunez

My local library has re-opened after many months of COVID lockdown and the first book I borrowed was Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award-winning The Friend. This was despite my resolution to avoid books about writers, but in my defence, I thought this was going to be a heart-warming story about a dog. I mean, look at the cover!

'The Friend' by Sigrid Nunez

It’s actually a thoughtful meditation on death, grief, writing and literature, narrated by an unnamed author who inherits her friend’s Great Dane after the friend, who is also an author and a teacher of writing, commits suicide. The narrator is not a dog person and lives in a tiny New York apartment that forbids dogs. The plot, such as it is, concerns whether the grieving dog will come to accept and love his new owner, whether the narrator will get evicted from her rent-controlled apartment due to the illegal dog, and whether “anything bad will happen to the dog”.

Note: Nothing bad happens to the dog. Mostly, this is about loss and literature, with a lot of quotes from Important Literary Figures, including Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, Baudelaire, Rilke and a bunch of French writers I’d never heard of. The narrator and her friend have many opinions about writing (that is, the sort of Serious Literary Writing done by people who live in New York, teach at Princeton and get fellowships to write in Berlin, much like Sigrid Nunez). Often this is about how things were much better in the Old Days. For example,

“The rise of self-publishing was a catastrophe, you said. It was the death of literature. Which meant the death of culture. And Garrison Keillor was right, you said: When everyone’s a writer, no one is.
[…]
None of this was as new as it might sound. ‘To write and have something published is less and less something special. Why not me, too? everyone asks.’
Wrote French critic Sainte-Beuve.
In 1839.”

The dead writer friend also had problems with modern readers treating books as objects to be “rated for consumer satisfaction”, required to affirm what the readers already felt and thought, with even his literature students appearing “never to judge a book on how well it fulfilled the author’s intentions but solely on whether it was the kind of book that they liked”. There are musings on the cancel culture promoted by his students:

“how self-righteous they’ve become, how intolerant they are of any weakness or flaw in a writer’s character. And I’m not talking about blatant racism or misogyny. I’m talking about any tiny sign of insensitivity or bias, any proof of psychological trouble, neurosis, narcissism, obsessiveness, bad habits—any eccentricity.
[…]
A novelist, like any good citizen, has to conform, and the idea that a person could write exactly what they wanted regardless of anyone else’s opinion was unthinkable to them. Of course literature can’t do its job in a culture like that.”

“To become a professional writer in our society you have to be privileged to begin with, and the feeling is that privileged people shouldn’t be writing anymore — not unless they can find a way not to write about themselves […] It’s kind of a double-bind, though, isn’t it. The privileged shouldn’t write about themselves, because that furthers the agenda of the imperialist white patriarchy. But they also shouldn’t write about other groups, because that would be cultural appropriation.”

There’s an argument between two writers about the ethics of writing about a friend’s trauma, which I just happened to read during the Bad Art Friend kerfuffle. Another friend stops writing after discovering Buddhism and she explains why:

“You had to have ambition, serious ambition, and if you wanted to do really good work you had to be driven. You had to want to surpass what others had done. You had to believe that what you were doing was incredibly serious and important.[…] And even though writing isn’t supposed to be a competition, I could see that most of the time writers believed that it was.
Also, it seemed like money was in the front of everyone’s mind. I didn’t get that. Who on earth becomes a writer for the money?”

This book will probably most appeal to those who have some interest in the world of writing, but others may find it interesting for its exploration of grief and death. I found this book really engrossing and clever — and often, unexpectedly, amusing. There’s a good interview with the author here.

My Favourite Books of 2020

I didn’t read many new books this year. This was a year of re-reading old favourites from my bookshelves, partly because I was craving familiar, comforting reads, but mostly because my beloved local library was closed for most of the year. I did acquire Clara, which allowed me to read ebooks, but I’ve decided I prefer paper books, given a choice.

Favourite Novels for Adults

'Ghost Wall' by Sarah MossI began the year engrossed in Tana French’s The Wych Elm, an inventive thriller about privilege and identity. I also enjoyed The Secret Place, by the same author, a cleverly constructed murder mystery set in a posh Dublin boarding school, and I liked Anne Tyler’s new novel, Redhead by the Side of the Road, a typically compassionate and thoughtful depiction of a flawed man. However, the most memorable fiction I read this year was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, a tense, affecting novella about men using their dubious versions of history to strengthen their hold on power.

Favourite Non-Fiction

I liked The Crown: Political Scandal, Personal Struggle and the Years That Defined Elizabeth II, 1956-1977 by Robert Lacey, about the actual history behind the TV series, even though I gave up on watching The Crown after the first series. I didn’t seem to read many non-fiction books this year, which is unusual for me. I think it was due to the lack of access to my library, but also because I was reading so much depressing pandemic-related non-fiction online.

Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

'Liar and Spy' by Rebecca SteadI enjoyed Kate Constable’s new middle-grade novel, The January Stars, as well as an older novel of hers, Winter of Grace, about a contemplative teenage girl who explores spirituality and religion in a way that isn’t often seen in Australian Young Adult literature. I also liked Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, about a middle-grade boy who bravely faces up to unpleasant reality and devises a clever plan to defeat some school bullies. As always, I enjoyed her depiction of children’s lives in Brooklyn – I have no idea how accurate it is, but she makes New York seem so appealing. I was also entertained (and often confused) by Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, which is full of plot twists and surprises. I’m not sure it is truly a children’s book and it lacks the warmth of Howl’s Moving Castle, but it was very clever and intriguing. 'Dragonfly Song' by Wendy OrrHowever, my favourite children’s read was, unexpectedly, a novel told partly in verse about a girl living in a Bronze Age Mediterranean culture ruled by superstition. Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr was an engrossing story about a lifestyle completely unfamiliar to me, told in simple but descriptive language. It has deservedly won a number of literary awards and there’s a good interview with the author about the book here.

Favourite Read That Was Not A Book

When life felt really dismal this year, I escaped to Hedgehog Moss Farm, a small farm in the south of France, owned by a young woman who works as a translator and lives with her Eeyore-ish donkey Pirlouit; her llamas, well-behaved Pampelune and escape-artist Pampérigouste; some photogenic cats and chickens; and a gentle giant guard dog called Pandolf. She describes interactions with her animals and her neighbours in such a droll manner that each blog post is a delight. There are beautiful photos and videos of rural life, interspersed with artwork and literary quotes. Her writing style reminds me a little of Gerald Durrell – if she ever decides to write a book, I would happily buy it.

I don’t know what I’m reading these holidays, but I am planning a chapter-by-chapter discussion of Antonia Forest’s The Cricket Term, with the first post up this week (probably). I hope all you Memoranda readers manage to have a relaxing, enjoyable holiday season, after a year we’d all like to forget, and that 2021 brings better news for the world.

Memoranda Turns Ten

Ten years ago today, I started this blog with a post about how I learned to hate poetry. Three hundred and twenty-one posts and about two hundred thousand words later, here I am, still blogging, although far less frequently than at the start.

Here’s a selection of Memoranda posts from the past decade.

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

First, ten discussions about children’s books, in no particular order:

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay

Autumn Term by Antonia Forest

The Years of Grace and Growing Up Gracefully by Noel Streatfeild

Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

End of Term by Antonia Forest

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

And ten discussions about favourite novels and novelists:

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Anne Tyler And Her Novels

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

The Mapp and Lucia Novels by E. F. Benson

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

What I’ve Been Reading: Muriel Spark

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead by Paula Byrne

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Grove

Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford and Meet the Mitfords

The lost art of letter writing

Here are ten posts about writing:

How To Write a Novel, about writing advice

Same Book, But Different, on editing books for different countries

Book Banned, Author Bemused – my book got banned in the US!

Five Ways in Which Writing a Novel is Like Making a Quilt

Writing About Place

The Creative Vision Versus the Marketing Department

Goatbusters, or How The Writerly Mind Works

The ‘Aha!’ Moment and Three Things That Didn’t Happen In The Montmaray Journals

Adventures in Self-Publishing

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice For Writers

William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon difficule (The Difficult Lesson)

And ten rants about book-related topics:

Just a Girls’ Book, followed by Just A Girls’ Book, Redux and Girls and Boys and Books, Yet Again

That Gay YA Thing

Some Thoughts On Reading

Looking for a Good, Clean Book

I Hate Your Characters, So Your Book Stinks

Regarding Internet Piracy

ARCs

A Public Service Announcement: Smoking Is Bad For You

Here’s to another ten years of Memoranda. Hopefully I’ll be blogging a bit more from now on, because I’ve just deleted my Twitter account.