What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

February 2014

 - Monday, February 03, 2014
James: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel—A sublimely crafted memoir from the artist behind Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel draws on her varied talents as artist and story-teller to dissect the problematic nature of her relationship with her mother. Using the psychological writings of thinkers such as Alice Miller and Donald Winnicott as a guide, she manages to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the nature of her ‘true self’. It’s such a pleasure to feel confided in like this; the author manages to be self aware without navel gazing and infuses her journey with honesty and humour. I’m adding this book to my arsenal of graphic literature that I can hold up to anyone who doesn't believe the art form is a powerful medium.

Scott: The French television series The Returned is a stylish and genuinely creepy thriller set in a remote Alpine village below a vast dam. When the dam mysteriously begins to drain, its private operators begin a desperate (and secret) search to find the cause while in the town below a series of murders take place, which look increasingly like the work of a serial killer from the past. And when a number of former residents believed to have died in an accident seven years earlier inexplicably start returning to the village terrified locals are forced to confront long held secrets with deadly present day consequences. Region 2 Import $49.95 Highly recommended.

Morgan: In Ruth Ozecki’s A Tale for the Time Being, a novelist called Ruth finds a diary washed up on the shores of her Canadian island, wrapped safely in a Hello Kitty lunch box. The diary is written by 16 year old Japanese girl Nao, and tells of the terrible bullying she receives at school, having come back to Japan after her father loses his job in Silicon Valley. Nao’s father is suicidal, as is she, but wisdom comes in the form of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun who was once an early feminist writer. This book is hard to précis, covering, as well as the above, kamikaze pilots, Zen Buddhism, environmental issues brought about by the Japanese tsunami, quantum mechanics and the concept of ‘time’, plus the role of the writer and the role of autobiography. This is a wonderful book, full of insight and mystery. HSC English teachers should note—this novel fits perfectly into the new syllabus. NB. I was lucky enough to read an early proof of Siri Hustvedt’s new novel The Blazing World. Brilliant! More of that in the March gleaner.

Judy: At an impressionable age Dorrigo Evan’s mother told him 'The world is…. It just is, boy'. Perhaps it was this philosophy—or lack of it—that allowed Dorrigo to take the role of essential hero for the men on the Burma Railroad. When all is cruelty and madness, bedrock acceptance may be the thing you most need to keep yourself and others alive. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is also the title of Basho’s haiku in translation from the Japanese. The fact that Richard Flanagan has chosen this name for his novel indicates some of the complexity he manages to synchronise. The more I think about what I have read, the more the background and foreground images and conversations move in and out—reverberate—to reveal yet more depth and further understanding of a passage of history that is painful to contemplate. This is a marvellous book.

Louise: Sculptor's Daugher: A Childhood Memoir by Tove Jansson.This collection of short stories creates a childhood memoir that is both odd and engrossing. Startling in its detailed recall, but clearly based in the reality of Jansson’s bohemian family, this is more like an autobiographical document of life in Scandinavia in the early 20th century.
Tove Jansson’s mother was a Swedish designer, and her Finnish father was a sculptor, hence the title. Growing up in a household where Art was life, and life was Art, imbued the author with the sensitive resilience that informs all her work. The author’s memories of both her own inner life, and the daily life of this artistic household, are extremely vivid, capturing the fleeting emotions of the child, as all the events are told from her own point of view, and perspective as a small child.
There are 19 stories in the book, and fascinating (but badly misnumbered) black and white photographs, including one of an early drawing of Tove’s. Amongst the stories, Christmas is the best Christmas story I have ever read, and The Stone is a completely thrilling account of a child bringing a large rock home. The artistic practices of both her parents are completely fascinating, but so are the small domestic details of their lives. Clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in this family, and the author who created some of the best children’s books of all time, obviously learned her craft at her parents’ collective knee.