What to read this month

From Maaza Mengiste’s elegant excavation of the role of women during the Second
Italo-Ethiopian War to Bryan Washington’s tender novel about love, grief, family and responsibility, Michaela McGuire and Gene Smith share the books they’ve read this month.

Michaela, Artistic Director

One Day I’ll Remember This, Helen Garner

The second volume of Helen Garner’s diaries begins in 1987 when she embarks on an affair with a prominent married novelist (identified as V) and ends in 1995 amidst the aftermath of the publication of The First Stone. It’s a tumultuous period in Garner’s life, as she realises her full powers as a writer and a woman who we shouldn’t mess with.

The author spares nothing in her deadly aim, not writers’ festivals: ‘The writers’ festival. It’s like being barbequed.’; and not British male writers who appear at writers’ festivals: ‘Adelaide Writers’ Week. Hearing certain British writers speak, I realise how scandalously little I have ever thought about my own work.’

Never intended for publication, there is such pleasure in reading Garner’s private and unfiltered observations. The most ordinary anecdotes are often unexpectedly, brutally humorous: ‘Night falls. In my small borrowed suburban flat with its shelves of uninteresting paperbacks (Leon Uris) I finish reading the Bellow and begin to cook a chop.’ Her first entry in France begins simply: ‘Terrible Paris.’

Garner’s writing life obsesses and fulfils her, and she meticulously documents her daily struggles, triumphs and shifting opinions of her work. There’s a casual first reference to the Master of Ormond College that will stop the heart of any long-term Garner fan: ‘I wrote the guy a letter. Hope I won’t regret it.’

Garner’s uneasy relationship with V dominates most of this volume, and though her most vulnerable moments are excruciating to read, this relationship seems to be the making of her. When she runs into a couple who are friends with V at an art gallery and confirms their affair, she writes, ‘“Yes”, I say, feeling relaxed, smooth, and rather dangerous… I feel so calm and powerful that I know I can deal with anything she says or does. Put a foot wrong, my good woman, and I will splatter you all over the map.’

You can’t help but give her a cheer.

Memorial, Bryan Washington

Characterised by the author as a ‘gay slacker dramedy’ and ‘queer traumedy’ Memorial is a quiet, intimate, wise and lovely novel about love, distance, grief, family and responsibility set between Osaka and Washington’s native Houston. Benson, a Black daycare teacher, and Mike, a Japanese American chef, have been dating for a while, and things are fine, but not great. Neither of them are really sure. Mike abruptly leaves for Japan after learning his estranged father is dying in Osaka, which is superbly bad timing for Benson, as Mike’s mother Mitsuko has just arrived in Houston, and is now his unlikely room-mate, antagonist and ally.

The novel splits in two at this point and is written from the alternate perspectives of Mike and Benson. By creating this physical distance between the lovers, Washington fills his novel with silences, between Mike and Benson, Benson and Mitsuko, Mitsuko and Mike, Mike and his father. Misunderstandings, comedy, grief, anger, frustration and love fill these silences. In the absence of words, the emotions are often conveyed on the page by beautiful, lavish descriptions of food, and the awkwardness of the two pairs who are cooking it. In Osaka, Mike helps his father run his izakaya, cooking okonomiyaki, steaming rice and pouring beers, while learning to know who his father is again. Back in Houston, Mitsuko teaches the Benson the basics, including seafood curry, udon, natto, abura-age, and how to break eggs with one hand. Food is a powerful love language, and Washington conveys that better than any novelist I’ve yet to encounter.

Gene, Associate Director

Exhalation, Ted Chiang

What if the world was, as creationists assert, only a few thousand years old? What if it was possible to communicate with versions of yourself in parallel universes? What if it was an immutable fact that free will does not exist? And what if you could relive all your memories, from the day of your birth to this morning’s breakfast, as video footage? These ‘what if … ’ questions form the premise of some of Ted Chiang’s short stories in his latest inventive collection, Exhalation. Treating these and other big questions with stout thoughtfulness and logic, Chiang succeeds—as he did in his lauded 2002 collection, Stories of Your Life and Others—in creating worlds which don’t seem so far removed from reality, despite being the furthest things from it. This is a remarkable book brimming with messages and speculations, which are sure to stay with readers well beyond the pages.

The Shadow King, Maaza Mengiste

The cover of Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King is peppered with praise from the likes of Marlon James, Andrew Sean Greer, and Salman Rushdie, describing the historical fiction novel set in 1930s Ethiopia as ‘beautiful and devastating’, ‘elegant and haunted’, and ‘compulsively readable’, respectively. These are apt descriptions. Mengiste’s majestic prose and imaginative storytelling (some chapters are simply descriptions of photographs) lead a variety of characters through the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, pitting them against each other and the horrors of colonisation and combat. The pervading heaviness—it is a wartime novel, after all—is counterbalanced by fortitude and introspection. Each character grapples with questions of shifting personal and national identities while fighting to stay not only alive, but human. Highly recommend.

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