Meanjin: what I’m reading

I wrote a ‘What I’m reading’ column for Meanjin this week, reflecting on some fiction and non fiction books that explore the topic of loneliness. 

Just a warning: it’s a little bleak. Here’s a link to the piece.

Books featured are:

From The Wreck by Jane Rawson

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Future Sex by Emily Witt

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The Wanderers: book review


The word ‘planet’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘wanderer’. Greek astronomers thought the planets were inexplicable celestial bodies wandering through space against a background of fixed-point stars. Their movements did not conform to the astronomers’ mathematical predictions. Equations could not describe them. They were unknowable.In Meg Howrey’s novel, a crew of world-class astronauts — Helen, Yoshi and Sergei — is on a simulated training mission in the Utah desert. Prime Space, a private aerospace exploration company, is preparing them for the first crewed mission to Mars. The elite, hand-picked crew are the wanderers, gazed upon from afar by Mission Control, the public and their families.

The astronauts are highly experienced, having served on previous missions and on board the International Space Station. And while their careers are mostly spent in training, it is the seduction of space travel that motivates them. The moment of leaving the Earth behind is their calling, their addiction:

Microgravity is the heroin, the God, the unrequited love, of astronauts. Nothing feels as good or does more damage.

Helen Kane is one of NASA’s finest, a recently retired astronaut and a choice pick for the Prime Space Eidolon mission. At 53 years old, this is her last shot at space travel. Should the crew be successful in this mission, they will journey to Mars and become the first humans to visit the red planet. For Helen it would be the pinnacle of an already decorated space career:

It is not anyone’s fault, or responsibility, that the best of her exists in space, that she knows she’s at the height of her powers, that if she doesn’t go back up, then she has run out of road before she has run out of breath. And how many years left on Earth for her? Consigned to a lesser version of herself on a planet that had also seen better days. Cast out from heaven into a melting Eden.

Joining Helen is Sergei, a Russian cosmonaut recently divorced from his wife, and Yoshi, a married but childless Japanese astronaut. Prime Space has selected this crew for their individual skills and strengths, as well as their compatibility as a team. During their 17 months in the Utah desert the simulation puts Helen, Yoshi and Sergei through their paces to determine if they are resilient enough to send on a real mission to Mars. Life on a Mars mission, even a simulated one, is full of challenges. The crew face compromises around their personal space, exercise, food and hygiene. The astronauts are being prepared and tested:

Who are these people that can withstand such a trip, the danger, the risk, the isolation, the pressure? What can these people teach us?

Aside from the physical constraints they are bound by, the crew also endures the extended psychological and emotional toll of being away from their families and from Earth. An infinite loneliness stretches out across this novel. Howrey asks if we are alone in the universe. In a space novel, you might expect that question to focus on the possibilities for carbon-based life on another planet. But it is a deeper question that concerns Howrey. In the vast, winding space of the human condition, are our connections to each other elliptical?

While the novel is marketed as science fiction, it is science-lite, and is more comfortably characterised as literary fiction. This is no space blockbuster. It is an introspective, character-driven novel. At the heart of the book lie not aliens and spacecraft, but Howrey’s exploration of the relationships of the crew to each other as well as their relationship to their families. There is a great distance between the crew and their family members, exacerbated by their months away in the training program. Howrey explores this distance and juxtaposes the restraint and control of the Mars simulation against the chaos happening in the lives of the families back on Earth.

The astronauts are heroes; feted and celebrated pioneers who overshadow their family members. Helen, Yoshi and Sergei’s relatives languish in their glittering wake, struggling to define their own identities. Yoshi’s wife Madoka is experimenting with assuming different personas. Sergei’s teenage son, Dmitri, lies and deceives while coming to terms with his homosexuality. Helen’s daughter Mireille takes on chameleon-like turns by acting in video games. They are each simulating their lives on Earth, while the crew simulates their lives on Mars/Utah.

Helen speculates that one of the reasons she has been chosen as the sole female member of the crew is because her age puts her beyond sexual desirability. She assumes a maternal role and acts as a barometer for the moods of Yoshi and Sergei. Helen watches for signals of disquiet. She reads the subtext that hangs heavy in the manufactured air between them:

They are all in extreme close-up; one notices the appearance of a new eyebrow hair. And yet they must communicate as if they are not noticing this. They must protect themselves, from Prime, from one another, from whatever parts of themselves they are grasping in the dark.

Helen’s role as mother figure juxtaposes her actual maternal relationship with her daughter Mireille (Meeps). The relationship between Helen and Mireille is Howrey’s central study. Helen loves space travel and she loves her daughter and this conflict pulls at her:

I wanted to go to space more than I wanted to be your mother. That’s true. If you had ever been to space, you’d understand. It’s not true. They are different things. Nothing is comparable to another thing.

In many ways, Helen’s choices are not that different from the choices any mother makes between her children and other competing priorities, but her work means many months away and the lingering shadow of death:

Awareness of imminent possible death is not without beneficial properties. Risk of annihilation can be a key ingredient, like baking soda. A teaspoon or so is sufficient to make all the other components rise up in glory, but without it? No cake. For some, the edge of death is the only place to find love of life.

The environment is fabricated and governed by rules, precision and machines. Mission Control watches over and records every aspect of the astronauts’ lives, listens in on their conversations, simulates disasters and analyses their reactions. The crew are all engineers because things will break and need to be fixed. Helen, Sergei and Yoshi are all studies in emotional restraint; personalities that are controlled and clinical. Howrey’s economy of language is as restrained as the astronauts’ emotions. But an undertow of anxiety pulls at them and paranoia lurks quietly in the background. For it is not only machinery that can break, but also people. 

Throughout the novel Howrey builds the expectation that the astronauts will crack, and delicately anchors their relationship to reality. They are vulnerable and she dares them to drift:

There is too much time, too much space. They must remember their names, their countries, their languages, their sexes, their bodies. They must remember where they are, where they came from, where they are going.

Howrey challenges us to question what is real and what is unreal, and whether the distinction matters. There is a deep lament within these pages: for love, for Earth and for the great distances between us, best summed up by Helen:

Helen has a flash, a memory, of holding her infant daughter against her bare chest, of Meeps’s skin, which she once knew so well.  It is appalling to think of the distance between her body and her daughter’s body. And how they will never know each other’s bodies again. Helen is filled with an animal urge to feel her daughter’s skin again, and for her daughter to touch her as if she is a thing that is known, as if she is a body that is loved.

Perhaps like the planets, we are all essentially unknowable. In this subtle and finely measured novel, Howrey casts us into the infinite reaches of the universe to ponder our aloneness.

Meg Howrey The Wanderers Simon and Schuster 2017 PB 384pp $32.99

This review was originally published in Newtown Review of Books.

The Hate Race


With a population of close to 2 million, Greater Western Sydney is a key influencer of election outcomes, yet the voices of people living there are rarely represented in Australian literature. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, is the voice of growing up black in the white suburbs of western Sydney in the 1980’s. As Beneba Clarke states on her Twitter profile ‘I try to write beautifully, about ugly things’. Her story is dark but her voice sings with West Indian lyricism.

In her memoir, Beneba Clarke relates episodes of cruel bullying and racism directed at her throughout her school years. These range from name-calling, nasty notes, and exclusion to physical abuse. Perhaps more disturbing are the tales of inadvertent racism delivered obliviously by children and adults. They are not meaning to be cruel but their racism is ingrained and seeps out through their pores.

Beneba Clarke is resolute. She learns to direct her anger from these experiences into being better than her tormentors. I’m sure others who have had similar experiences have instead directed their anger inwards and carried this burden through their lives.

The memoir is not all bleak. There are moments of real joy and humour shining through the cracks, lighting Beneba Clarke’s path.

I also grew up in western Sydney, a few years ahead of Maxine. It was not a place that embraced difference, despite the growing multicultural diversity of its population. Neither was it a place that celebrated academic achievement or ambition. Given that context, it would be simple to dismiss Beneba Clarke’s bullying experience as typical of schoolyards of the time and place. Certainly, that’s what her teachers do. She is an easy target because of the colour of her skin. But racism doesn’t stop at the school gates, it is insidious and stretches into every experience of her childhood, and reaches beyond childhood into her adult life in suburban Melbourne.

I escaped the western suburbs of Sydney as soon as I had the chance. I have not returned for over 20 years. It is a mythical place to me now, a dreamscape. Beneba Clarke’s memoir brought that dreamscape back into focus for me, flickering memories of the ugly things I experienced. It also reminded me that as a white girl, I got off lightly.

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

The books I loved in 2016 published in other years

I shared my favourite newly released books of 2016 in an earlier post. This year, I also read some crackers published in other years. I had a little excursion into Canadian Literature thanks to a visit to Canadian public libraries and the excellent recommendations of their librarians. I also met a super helpful sales assistant at the John Fleuvog store in Gastown, Vancouver. You have to love a city where you can get good shoes and great CanLit recommendations in one place.

As a result, three of the six books I have chosen are by Canadian authors. Two others are memoir, and one is an Australian crime fiction classic.


A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews

I adored A Complicated Kindness. This CanLit classic came up as a recommendation from everyone I asked in Canadian libraries, as well as being a winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. It is a coming of age story set in a cloistered Mennonite community in the US. Funny, dark and heart-breaking. Do yourself a favour and read this one.


February, Lisa Moore

Another CanLit recommendation, February, is a story of grief and loss set on the Newfoundland coast in the wake of a catastrophe. Playing with time and switching between the present day and flashbacks, chronology in this novel is less important than the emotional trajectory. It is beautiful and poetic. 


Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese

I asked for some First Nations CanLit recommendations and Indian Horse was suggested by several people. This story of cultural alienation, separation from traditional land, and the reality of life as a First Nations aspiring hockey player is full of sorrow and hope. Beautifully set against the the Canadian wilderness, it draws on myth and magic. A great introduction to First Nations literature.


Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I read Wild while travelling through Canada. Some of my journey took me close to the Pacific Crest Trail where Strayed heals her grief through an onerous and sometimes joyful thousand-mile solo trek. I spotted the mountain tops of the Cascades as I traveled by train through British Columbia. Seeing the landscape while reading the novel made me appreciate the scale of the task she had set herself without any training or support. I enjoyed Strayed’s humour and self-deprecating writing. A great travel read.


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of my all-time favourite writers. I don’t love all of her books equally. I have my favourite children, so to speak, but this one is an absolute stand-out. This memoir is the auto-biographical version of her novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and is the story of her growing up in a strictly religious family with a domineering and clearly mad mother. It is the story of her searching for her biological mother. Most importantly, it is the story of her finding a way to love herself and others. Every sentence in this book is perfect and devastating. The best memoir I have read? Possibly.


The Broken Shore, Peter Temple

2016, the year I finally got around to reading The Broken Shore. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction so I can’t claim much knowledge about the genre beyond a dedicated love of Raymond Chandler, however, I think I can say this would have to be the quintessential Australian crime fiction novel. I loved the men of few words, the Australian landscapes, both rural and urban, and Temple’s writing style. There’s even a scene in the State Library Victoria! I have Jane Harper’s The Dry on my summer reading list so I can expand my adventures into Australian crime writing.

My favourite books of 2014

I love a ‘best of’ list and the debate it generates, so here are my favourite books of 2014. Looking over the list, it is almost exclusively Australian authors. That wasn’t intentional but is testament to how many great books were published by local authors this year.

This House of Grief

This House of Grief by Helen Garner: Garner is a master of words and of tackling complex subjects. I loved how Garner took us into the courtroom to experience the awful tedium and the drama of this shocking tragedy. I felt that I was in safe hands as Garner led me through the moral dilemma of this story. Her personal reflections brought real humanity where all else was wretched.

singing

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: A dark, compelling book that I read mostly in one sitting. It burrowed into my mind and disturbed me for weeks afterwards. The only book I felt okay with knocking Richard Flanagan out of the winner’s seat for the Miles Franklin.

narrow

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: The first book I read in 2014 over the summer break and what a way to kick off a year of reading. To use a cliche, a masterpiece, but really it is. I have been a long-time fan of Flanagan. This is the grand novel he had to eventually write. Overlooked for the Miles Franklin in favour of the wonderful Evie Wyld, but ran away with the Man Booker prize.

burial

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent: An obsession turned debut novel that became a run away success. I loved the spare prose and the evocation of life in Iceland in the nineteenth century. I’m looking forward to seeing where Hannah Kent goes next.

night

When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett: A beautiful, poetic novel with a large boat and Antarctica drawn as sharply as the human characters. It made me want to head off on an Antarctic adventure. A novel with a perfectly executed ending – a feat I really admire.

cullen

Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen: A small book that packed a big punch. In contrast to the typical grand sweeping biographies, Jensen drew out his protagonist through focused vignettes. A heady dive into the world of a talented but troubled man. I hope Jensen writes more biography.

malouf

Earth Hour by David Malouf: We should all read more poetry, especially by local writers. Still going strong at 80, Malouf has produced another wonderful book of poetry.

spine

Cracking the Spine: ten short Australian stories and how they were written edited by Julie Chevalier and Bronwyn Mehan: I picked up this book after reading a review in The Australian. As the title suggests, it is a collection of ten short stories. Each story has an accompanying essay that gives insight into the writing process. A lovely little book for fans of the short story form.

If you are looking for other ‘best of’ lists for 2014 books, check out the State Library of Victoria’s Summer Read, 50 Great Reads by Australian Women in 2014 and The Best Fiction Books of 2014 from Readings, Australian writers pick the best books of 2014 from the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age, The Best Fiction of 2014 from the Guardian, and Brainpickings 2014 selections.

What were your favourite books of 2014?

The terrain and emotion of the written word

book

I recently read three pieces that coalesce around shared themes of the physicality and emotion of reading and writing. The first was Mal Booth’s (@malbooth) posts on his blog FromMelbin. These posts are digital photos of his handwritten journal entries. Mal reflects on his appreciation of handwriting as an expressive art, the emotion of committing writing to paper, and what handwriting can convey to the reader. I was scrolling through Twitter posts at the tram stop when I happened upon Mal’s blog entry. The tram arrived. I would otherwise have put my phone in my pocket and forgotten about the blog posts. It was Mal’s decision to post them as handwritten entries that caused me to return to them once I was settled in my seat on the tram. It was like receiving a handwritten letter. It felt personal. I wanted to linger. It reminded me of the pen pals I corresponded with as a young teenager. I was always so excited to open letters from the other side of the world. Each author with their own distinctive handwriting, writing style and tales to tell.

The second piece I read was a Meanjin blog post by Bethanie Blanchard (@beth_blanchard). In this post, she describes a favourite tumblr of hers, Together, as always. It is ‘a collection of images of the dedications and inscriptions on inside covers’ of books given as gifts. She describes the reading of these inscriptions as a voyeuristic pleasure. She writes also about the inscriptions on her own books. They are markers of her life’s journey. The inscriptions prompt memories of the givers. They personalise the books. Like in Mal’s blog entries, the handwriting conveys emotion. I reminisced on the books given to me by friends and lovers, holding their inscriptions, containing their secret messages.

The third piece was an article in Scientific American which examines how technology changes the way we read and how reading on the screen affects our comprehension of the text. The article evokes the tactile experience of reading on paper. Reading on paper engages the senses and creates a topography. According to the article, we recognise words on paper like a mental map of terrain, much like we do with physical landscapes, our cities, our houses, a walking trail, a mountain incline.  We experience the thickness and smell of paper, the sound of turning pages, the weight of the book, the placement of text on the relative space of a page. This textual landscape orients us and helps us navigate.

This piece draws an interesting distinction between reading on paper and on screen. The experience of reading on paper is more emotional. The suggestion is that this aids our comprehension of the text. The reading experience helps integrate our understanding.

Re-reading the three pieces together builds an appreciation of the different ways we engage with the written word, whether in handwriting, or otherwise in print. We lose some of this by reading on the screen.

It made me reflect on why I have resisted reading ebooks. I am not technology-averse, quite the opposite. As the Scientific American article points out, ebooks and other screen formats are a poor simulation of the aesthetic of paper books, so why bother trying to replicate the experience? The challenge for publishers and content creators is to seize the opportunities for the new reading possibilities and experiences offered by these technologies.

Given the poor simulation of paper, it seems inevitable that there will be a shift away from text-based content for reading on the screen in favour of visual formats such as video. This infographic predicts the volume of video in 2015.

I am excited by the possibilities promised by digital content and new ways of reading on the screen. Meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed my trip into nostalgia for handwritten letters and journals, book inscriptions and dog-eared paper books marked with my reading journeys.

Creating serendipity in the digital world

We’ve all enjoyed browsing the web or the shelves of a library, and stumbling upon an unexpected writer or subject. This type of serendipity is a happy accident, as are many of life’s most memorable experiences. How does serendipity play out as libraries move into the digital landscape, and are we losing serendipity on the web?

A recent article explores whether personalisation of the web will ultimately destroy discovery. As the content we see is personalised through the use of cookies and algorithms we begin to lose the opportunity to discover interesting but unrelated content. I balk at the idea of the web being tamed and already feel sentimental for the days of the wild digital frontier. On the flipside, I’m as time poor as the next person, and can see the benefits of being directed towards content similar to that which I’ve explored and enjoyed before. I’d much rather be directed to this content through content curation than computed algorithms.

And what of digital library collections? Can you arrange a digital library to replicate the experience of browsing the shelves? Another recent article looks at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco where the physical collection is arranged on geographic principles to simulate the experience of the library ‘as a map’. The library’s founders discuss the complementary nature of analog and digital library collections. They explain how the two formats can dovetail together to enhance the browsing and discovery experience.

These two articles raise interesting ideas about serendipity in the digital world from quite different perspectives. Let’s hope we never lose the chance to have happy accidents.