During these tumultuous times, the weight of uncertainty feels heavy. Here’s what we’re reading to find solace in the months ahead.
I’d like to offer a few non-virus-related recommendations to anyone who has news fatigue and needs a laugh, a smile or a moment of light relief.
Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston is a pacey romantic page-turner about the First Son of the United States (FSOTUS) falling in love with an English prince. This book is so full of joy and so uncynical given its setting, I read it with a smile on my face. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang is a fun, sexy read about a woman with autism and her quest for a partner. I devoured this book in a single sitting.
I am currently reading Actress by Anne Enright, and it is my favourite book this year so far. It is exquisite and painful and examines the complex relationships between mothers and daughters and the nature of fame. I can’t stop reading it, but also want to slow down and savour Anne Enright’s gorgeous prose.
Gene, Associate Director
What to read in the time of coronavirus? I could re-read some favourites, like Richard Peck’s
A Long Way From Chicago — a book I read at least once a year because it reminds me of growing up. Or Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, which I adored for the same reason. And then there is Katharine Kerr, whose dense fantasy worlds teenage-me escaped into whenever home proved to be too much. So, to answer my own question, it’s stories about home and community that seem particularly pertinent to the time we find ourselves in.
I probably won’t re-read my favourites, though. I’m part-way through far too many other books that speak to the themes of ‘home’ and ‘community’, like Richard Powers’ Overstory. This 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning epic follows the lives of multiple characters trying — against remarkable and intense odds — to save the world by saving its forests. The Origin of Me by Bernard Gallate is a forthcoming Australian debut that is brimming with quirk and heart, and being about a quarter of the way through I’m hooked on Gallate’s pithy style of writing. His protagonist, fifteen-year-old Lincoln Locke, has experienced upheaval at home that is compounded by some unusual personal developments, and I feel Gallate is taking me on a peculiar and inventive journey that I can’t wait to resolve.
The final book I’ve been meandering my way through is Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared. This beautiful and sometimes harrowing novel follows a number of characters — two of them the same character but at different times in their life — attempting to reckon with their pasts. It is a story of survival and the permeable nature of truth and memory set against the backdrop of Japanese-occupied Singapore during the Second World War.
Sonia, Program Manager
I’ve started Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, which feels especially pertinent in this time of social distancing when we’re all glued to our technological devices for the purposes of connection, information and solidarity while simultaneously being told to capitalise on this supposed free time by engaging in acts of productivity. The need to resist the attention economy, and the capitalist imperative to derive economic return on our time, feels more urgent than ever. I’m only on page 15 or something, but this particular line really struck a chord with me: ‘Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalise on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them.’
For purposes of escapism, however, I’ve turned to fiction. I’ve read a spate of Australian fiction that I’ve really enjoyed — namely The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham, a deeply affecting coming-of-age story revolving around teenager Sonny in Sydney’s southwestern suburbs, and Fauna by Donna Mazza, a suspenseful psychological thriller that revolves around ceding control of one’s body to the state, the machinery of birth, and the conflation of mother and child. I read this a while ago, but it’s such a page-turner I can’t not recommend it, particularly for times like these when you yearn to be transported into another world — Anna Downes’ crime thriller The Safe Place. I read purely to be enthralled, and all of these books do just that. I am, at the same time, also finding it hard to concentrate on reading for large stretches of time so when I’m not reading or napping or doing the dishes (so many dishes), I’m watching Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist on Stan or going on long walks around the block.
Alexia, Marketing & Partnerships Manager
If your mind is a little all over the place at the moment, like mine, I recommend exploring works of Australian short-fiction, poetry and comics. Take sanctuary there. Keep reading.
I am in the middle of Here Until August: Stories by Josephine Rowe. Rowe’s exquisite collection, shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize (to be announced Tuesday 14 April), fills my imagination with fascinating and unique characters and places. Every sentence is perfect.
I’m a huge fan of Rachel Ang and received her beautiful book Swimsuit as a gift last month, and I can’t wait to re-enter her world. Journeying from the local pool to the ocean, I’ve added A Kinder Sea by poet and critic Felicity Plunkett to the mix. In her own words, which I love, Plunkett says:
‘It is a book of unspoken hopes, un-mourned losses, of mute and unprayable prayers and letters never sent. [Poet] Paul Celan said poems make their way to their readers like letters in bottles, making their way to shore, or, at best, to heartland. I hope these poems find heartland in readers, and that my explorations of courage, connection, resilience and craft resonate with them.’
Next, Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today. Curated by Gomeroi poet and academic Alison Whittaker, this anthology features a powerful line-up of First Nations poets, including Evelyn Araluen; Tony Birch; Claire G. Coleman; and Ali Cobby Eckermann — as well as brilliant essays by leading Aboriginal writers and thinkers (Bruce Pascoe, a personal favourite, being one of them). I’m also revisiting films by the late, great Agnès Varda and writing poetry for fun.
Jessica, Festival Administrator
I have to admit something: up until this moment in time, I had not seen any of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I have now consumed more than I’m willing to publicly admit, and while I am enjoying it, I find myself leaning into books to alleviate some of the uncomfortable moments in Buffy.
Georgina Young’s Loner is fulfilling my want for new adult stories, for not-ya-stories-but-not-adult-stories, for stories about that weird transition period in your life, additionally without moody vampires (your only tasks is to hunt vampires, Buffy pal, what part of the memo did you misread to think that meant date them).
Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales is giving me a less-painful coming-out narrative and is stopping me from going back to university to write another thesis in queer theory and television (RIP Tara). I’m also slowly reading and digesting Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot is pushing me to confront my feminism to make sure it’s not White and is actually intersectional (RIP Kendra and what could have been an amazing character).
A re-read of The Long Way To a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is reminding me that we have to get through this, because the future contains human-lizard hybrids and space exploration, and I, for one, am not missing out on meeting a human-lizard hybrid (most human-lizard hybrids in Buffy are Not Good ™.
Patrick Allington’s Rise And Shine is fulfilling my long-standing itch for speculative fiction (without giving me vampires or demons or immediate apocalypses). And finally, I’m waiting on my pre-order of Rita Therese’s Come: A Memoir to arrive, mainly since I’ve been waiting to read it since seeing Therese at the 2019 festival (no Buffy link, just excitement).
Winnie, Development Coordinator
A devout practitioner of pessimism, I relented to harbour hope about our future with Holly Jean Buck’s illuminating book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration. The book was recommended to help me combat my eco-anxiety during the bushfires and has exceeded my expectations. Allegedly the best book (based on Goodreads ratings) to explain and evaluate geoengineering — a technology emerging recently as an alternative to reverse carbon emission — this nonfiction shines with a happy marriage of storytelling and well-researched science. The first chapter roped in my attention with a ‘choose your own adventure’ gamebook style. Set in my selected future of an imminent apocalypse, I was converted as I came to see the inevitable use of geoengineering and how a pathway for planet regeneration can be opened if we use the technology properly. If you believe in arts being the co-pilot to good science, this book is for you. The mix of storytelling and science will not dumb you down but will flex your brain muscles by asking you to imagine the future through the lens of environmental science, social justice and our basic survival.
Fiction-wise, I have acquired Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and Sally Rooney’s Normal People from my last encounter with known humans — Jessica lent me those when I brought my computer to her home for a VPN set-up. The Eyre Affair is a wacky, delightful sci-fi about the kidnap of literary characters; Normal People — I consider it my initiation to join the MWF family as everyone in the office has read it, and absolutely loved it.
Nadia, Copywriter & Content Producer
I’ve just finished reading The Bear by Andrew Krivak, which is part coming-of-age story, part extinction pastoral. It’s a gentle, fable-like story that moves through seasons and landscapes in vivid detail, which is exactly what I needed in these strange days of self-isolation. I think I’ll be turning to a lot of nature-focused books over the coming weeks spent indoors: Watership Down by Richard Adams (a forever favourite), anything by Gerald Durrell, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. Robert Macfarlane is leading a Twitter book club on that last one, so track down a copy — I bought mine from The Paperback Bookshop — and join in.
I’ll also be spending time with some new releases by Australian authors, especially those who’ve had events and tours cancelled due to the pandemic. Liam Pieper’s Sweetness and Light, a tropical gothic set across the Indian subcontinent, might be just the kind of escapist jaunt the world needs right now. I’m also keen to check out Madeleine Watts’ The Inland Sea and Laura McPhee-Browne’s Cherry Beach.
Lastly, I’ll be indulging in my love of queer or queer-adjacent fiction from the past. I recently read Rosemary Manning’s austere boarding school romance The Chinese Garden (first published in 1962) and found it so utterly compelling that it sent me on a quest to find other obscure and out-of-print titles. Thanks to the magic of second-hand bookshops, I’ve recently acquired Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting (1971), Antonia White’s Frost in May (1933), and Beverley Farmer’s Alone (1980), and plan to devour them all.
Has something piqued your interest? Browse the Readings online store at readings.com.au.