Things That Helped: book review

Jessica Friedmann’s book, Things That Helped, deftly threads essay, memoir and critical theory through the despair of Friedmann’s post-natal depression to weave an impressive debut. 

Friedmann reflects on her experience of motherhood with the benefit of distance, both geographic and temporal. She now lives and writes in Canberra, anchored in an inland city far removed from Melbourne’s Maribyrnong river where she fantasised about drowning herself. The cool, calm river a siren calling her from her misery towards annihilation.

While Friedmann’s focus is her post-natal depression, her essays radiate out across art, feminism, music, the environment, marriage and race. It is an enthralling journey through her expansive knowledge and sharp mind. This isn’t a 10-step recovery narrative. It is a 12-chapter chipping away at the edifice of depression, each chapter offering a thing that helped.

Emily Laidlaw and Kara Nicholson both place Friedmann’s book alongside Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance as stablemates in genre. I found Nelson’s dense critical theory a hard slog. In contrast, Friedmann wears her theory delicately. It never weighs her writing down. Like Wright in her exploration of anorexia, Friedmann deconstructs her mental health struggle honestly in all of its complicated mess. Neither Wright nor Friedmann offer easy answers, instead they raise difficult questions about being a woman. 

They simultaneously hold up a mirror to themselves and to society, laying bare the imperfections of both.

It is a revelation to watch the recent emergence of women’s writing on mental health from Australian writers such as Friedmann, Wright and Anna Spargo-Ryan. Their important narratives open up room for discussion and better understanding of the experiences of the many women wrestling mental health challenges. This kind of writing can save people.

Dying a memoir: book review 


‘The accident of birth is just that. And so is everything that happens afterwards, or so it seems to me.’ 
I can’t imagine feeling anything but sheer terror at the prospect of dying from a terminal illness, when your brief flicker of life faces extinguishment. Conversely, in this short but powerful book, Dying: a memoir, Cory Taylor faces death with sadness, sometimes anger, but mainly resolve and a deep appreciation of all her life has been, both the ups and downs. Taylor laments the absence of discussion about death in our culture and the lack of choice for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity. She ponders death through the lens of an atheist and questions how she might view it differently with religion as a frame of reference. For the most part, the book is a gentle meander down the paths of memory and I had to remind myself at times that Taylor was dying. This is a beautiful book and is as much about living well as it is about dying well. Perhaps our vain attempts at self-preservation by wandering about in denial about our own mortality robs us of the chance to live better lives.

The Museum of Modern Love: book review

What is art? It is a question as inexplicable as asking what is life? But in The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose asks both questions. The lens for examining these questions is a fictionalised account of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, a 75-day performance art piece staged in New York’s MoMA. In the novel we meet a cast of characters intersecting with Abramovic’s performance, all at a cross-roads in their lives. This is a clever, well-executed novel and beautifully written. Rose weaves the intertwined lives and narratives of major and minor characters convincingly, though I did wonder if the novel could have worked better if it had been written from fewer perspectives. I wanted something more from the voice of the ghost, but then this wasn’t meant to be a ghost story. This novel ponders the artistic life and ultimately Rose is making a statement, which is that making art is an act of courage. There is something of a manifesto in this novel. I think Rose is saying that we live one life and she is challenging us to live it singularly, to create art. And she has done that with this novel.

From the Wreck: book review


Genre-bending, ambitious, wild and magical. I loved this novel. In From the Wreck Rawson challenges the boundaries of historical fiction with a shape-shifting alien character. She takes us on a journey from dusty and dry 19th century Adelaide, drags us down into the deepest oceans, flings us out past the stars and into space and then reels us back to earth again. This tale of loneliness, trauma and grief is equal measures tender, dark and playful. This novel is original and deeply human. Rawson is masterful at stretching plausibility just enough, balancing a tricky line of believably that never tips too far over the edge and without ever becoming tricksy. I’m not sure if I would use the label scifi, fantasy or magical realism for the novel. It did remind me a little of Jeanette Winterson in books like The Passion, but then I also thought it was completely unique.

Wimmera: book review


A proof copy of a Mark Brandi’s debut novel, Wimmera, landed on my desk a few ago. What a gorgeous cover. If you like a bit of Australian rural noir, check it out. It’s out in June through Hachette.

Here’s my review from Goodreads:

There seems to be a recent surge of excellent Australian debut novels. Wimmera by Mark Brandi is no exception. This coming of age/murder mystery fusion is set in Stawell, a country town in the Wimmera region of Victoria. The Grampians loom large as a backdrop to the relationship of Ben and Fab. We follow them as they tread their path from young boys yabbying in the local dam, discovering their sexuality and negotiating life at home and school onto an adolescence marked by an experience that will haunt their troubled adulthood. From the outset of the novel we know there is a brutal discovery waiting to unfold but this sits lurking quietly behind the scenes, never dominating the narrative. It is not your typical whodunnit, the story instead centering around the relationship of the boys. I enjoyed the nostalgic thread of pop culture references and the playful vernacular language in Brandi’s novel. This is a ripping yarn, quietly menacing, and neatly resolved. I’m looking forward to Brandi’s next novel. This one will appeal to fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry.

Author in conversation: Kirsty Murray


I spoke to author Kirsty Murray about her award-winning YA novel, India Dark, at M Pavillion on 2 December 2016.

In our conversation, Kirsty shares the scandalous story of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, 29 Australian child performers that worked the Empire circuit from Melbourne to India in 1909, on which her novel India Dark is based. 

We also talk about India, colonialism, writing and Kirsty’s involvement in projects such as Bookwallah

The recording includes a short reading from India dark and Q&A with the audience. 

Listen to our conversation here.

ALIA Information Online 2017

I didn’t hear a single presentation pondering the future of libraries at the ALIA Information Online conference this year. What a relief! The profession seems to finally be stepping out with confidence and just getting on with things.

There were a few years there where everyone was anxious about the future relevance of the library. Perhaps that was a natural reaction to, dare I say the word, disruption. We took a good look at ourselves, had a shake up and now we are moving ahead.

I tweeted my takeaways themes from the conference. 

The stand-out theme for me was prototyping and experimenting, having a minimal viable product, and being quick to market. This theme came up in a number of talks including Paula Bray’s keynote.

Slide from Paula Bray’s keynote

Perhaps the newly embraced confidence of the profession means we are finally willing to let go of perfection, loosen up and experiment more.

Copies of the papers and presentations I co-presented are up on the conference site. The New UX at State Library Victoria gives the inside story on our in progress major redevelopment project. Around the world in not-quite-80 libraries looks at major trends in library spaces across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Check out the conference program for the latest thinking and interesting projects in the Australian library sector.

No Novel is an Island: Digital Writers Festival


How can libraries, writers, readers and publishers evolve together through online writing communities? In late 2016, I was part of an online panel discussing this question at the Digital Writers Festival. The event is available to watch online. The audio is a bit dodgy to begin with but it improves, I promise!

Here’s the blurb from the festival website:

‘Writing no longer needs to be a solitary occupation. The digital age has allowed writer’s groups and communities to spring forth across time(zones) and space. Society, friends and family can be part of the process, in fact online communities can grow audience, expand craft, and build a publishing career. Just like the writer, libraries are evolving too. But how can libraries, writers and publishing evolve together? This panel discusses untraditional collections, the value of audience, and innovation within independent publishing.’

I hope you enjoy the chat. We did.

An Isolated Incident: review

Although in style Emily Maguire’s novel, An Isolated Incident might fit into the psychological thriller genre neatly alongside Jane Harper’s The Dry, I think that is a short sell for this complex novel. Maguire’s book grapples with a broad range of social and cultural issues including misogyny, violence against women and the portrayal of women in the media. It is more akin in substance to Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things if I was searching for a contemporary stable mate.

When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the truck-stop town of Strathdee, half way between Sydney and Melbourne, she leaves behind her sister, Chris. The novel is party told in the first person from Chris’s perspective. Chris is one of the most compelling and finely drawn characters I have met in a novel for some time. Maguire completely nails her voice. I loved her vernacular and sassy turns of phrase. We discover that Chris is equally tough and scared, independent and needy, street-wise and shielded. Her sister’s death sends her into a spiral of grief as she grasps onto the threads of her life, not knowing who to trust. I was hooked by Chris immediately. I was propelled along on her narrative at the speed of the road trains thundering along the highway into Strathdee.

The balance of the novel is told in the third person from the perspective of May, a journalist from Sydney who arrives in Strathdee to cover Bella’s murder story and to escape her miserable love life. At first I found the shift in perspective from Chris to May jarring, but came to appreciate the relief of stepping off the juggernaut of Chris and her terrifying crash through life. May is a secondary character, and honestly it would be difficult to compete with Chris, who was such a perfectly realised protagonist. May’s character did serve to expand the plot and gave Maguire the opportunity to explore some themes that otherwise would not have had breath in the novel.

What makes this novel captivating and unique is Maguire’s choice not to shine all of the focus on discovering the perpetrator of the crime. This thread runs quietly in the background. However, the main focus is squarely on the aftermath of Bella’s death and how it affects her loved-ones and her community, and how the murder fits into a broader social context. At its core this novel asks questions about how women are treated in their personal relationships and by society. There is anger in these pages.

I read this novel in two sittings and I adored it.

This review is part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

What I learned in 2016

GLAM Blog Club has thrown out the challenge of reflecting on what we learned in 2016. Where to start? It was a huge year.

I certainly learned a lot about building projects, change management and philanthropy as we continued our $88m, 5-year building redevelopment at the library. I have co-authored a paper to present at ALIA Online on this project if you would like to hear the behind-the-scenes story on that.

The most important lesson I have learned from the project is that even monumental and seemingly insurmountable challenges can be solved simply by taking one step at a time, by having faith and confidence in yourself, and by asking for help when you need it. I also learned that the best ideas are found within the organisation, you just need the right ways to help them emerge. On the flip side, there are times when for all the best intentions, the skills or knowledge are not available to be tapped within the organisation. Finding the right external expert can kick-start an idea and give it momentum.

So many magical and astonishing moments happen at the library every year, choosing highlights (and their lessons) is tricky. One event sticks with me as fertile ground for learning. In 2016, the library was the hub for Melbourne Music Week. I will be honest, it is not easy for a 160-year-old library to transform itself into a music venue. Not everything went to plan, but it was phenomenal. The punters loved it, the crowds were huge, the media coverage was positive. The lesson? Big, brave ideas are worth pursuing, go in knowing it won’t be perfect, work through the issues, and keep smiling.

Queen’s Hall, State Library Victoria, Melbourne Music Week

In 2016, I was fortunate to visit public and academic libraries in Canada and New Zealand. I learned about the library systems in both countries and brought/stole some great ideas home with me. Canada inspired me with ideas around making/creating/innovation spaces and services. New Zealand is streets ahead of Australia in indigenous collections, services and programs. Also in New Zealand, I visited the construction site for the new Christchurch Central Library. It was fascinating to learn about planning a new central library from scratch in a city that has been without a central library for over 5 years, since the earthquake. I was particularly interested in the thinking behind designing jobs and an organisational structure starting from a blank page.

I have traveled for work and visited many libraries in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand over the past few years. To share some of what I have learned I have teamed up with an American colleague who has also visited many libraries around the world. We will present on this at the ALIA Online conference this year. The most important lesson for me? Libraries in Australia, and particularly in Victoria, compare positively to other libraries. I believe we have some of the world’s best libraries right here.

During 2016 I spoke at the Digital Writers Festival and Remix Sydney on panels, did a keynote at Pivot Summit in Geelong (with a smoke machine!) and PauseFest, chaired a panel (outdoors, freezing Melbourne night) and hosted an author conversation at M Pavilion, and was a guest speaker at Vancouver Public Library, Auckland Public Library and the University of Auckland, as well as speaking at a whole range of State Library events. What did I learn from these? Public speaking used to be my arch nemesis. Now, I rarely feel nervous before public speaking and actually enjoy it. It is one of those fears you have to face and just keep practicing. The way I think about it – it’s a privilege to have a voice and to be heard. Many people do not have a voice. Use it wisely.

Staying warm under our blankies at M Pavilion

On the personal side of things, I had three goals for 2016: read more, exercise more and write more. The main barrier to each of these goals was time. With a full-time job and two young kids, all of these activities fall down low on the priority list. So, the challenge was to somehow find more time.

Here is how I did it. I gave up watching television, I limited my time on social media, I started waking up an hour earlier (5.30) and I stopped working every evening after the kids went to bed. I learned that I could carve out quite a bit of extra time to focus on my goals, even when I did not stick to my guns all the time. Some mornings I slept later, I occasionally watched trashy tv or disappeared time on social media, and sometimes it was inevitable that I had to work at night.

Besides lack of time, the other barrier was permission. I learned that it is important to give myself the permission to spend more time doing the things I love. As a parent, this can feel like an indulgence. I learned to block out the little voice on my shoulder whispering about guilt into my ear.

So, how did I go on my goals?

Read more: I signed up to Goodreads to track my reading and set myself a goal of 100 books in the 2016 Reading Challenge. I got through 43 books, not quite my target, but many more books than the previous year. Here are the books I read. I also wrote a couple of posts on my blog about some of my favourite reads. I had a wonderful reading year and relished my time spent with my head in a book.

Exercise more: by going to the gym before work and on weekends, I averaged 5-6 gym sessions a week. Some weeks it was less or not at all, but mostly I stuck to my routine. I also improved my diet. On the positive side, I lost 6 kilos and got much fitter. On the down side, none of my clothes fit me anymore (ok, not so bad, it gave me an excuse to buy new clothes).

Write more: this one was trickier. I kicked off the year with a positive start by doing Catherine Deveny’s Gunna’s Writing Course. But I did not stick to my plan to write a little every day, and then I just didn’t write at all. I partly resurrected my goal towards the end of the year by doing National Novel Writing Month aka NaNoWriMo. I knew I would not make the 50,000 word target because of other commitments, but I decided to give it a crack anyway. I got to 30,000 words – not a bad effort for my first go. I have also been writing more on my blog.

The one final lesson I learned both from my professional and personal experiences in 2016 is that sometimes to get where you want to go, you have to be willing to push through the pain barrier. Whether it is a spin class, a piece of writing, a challenging project, or public speaking, it pays to persevere. Take one step at a time and be strong.

What does 2017 bring? I will write about that in my next GLAM Blog Club post…