Category Archives: books

A few of my favourite things…

read-all-the-books-meme

For a few years I kept lists of books. This was more than just for pure bragging rights (although have you seen how many books I read in 2012? What a nerd burger!) it was also useful for remembering books, and it helped for recommendations.

If you’re a reader (weird breed of folk with clearly too much free time) you’ll be hit many times with the question, “What is your favourite book?”

It’s a hard one, and can you choose just one? Do you have one type of favourite food? Do you have one favourite song you listen to on repeat? Do you have a film that you’d happy to watch non-stop on a long haul flight?

Like food, songs and films what is deemed favourite depends on how we are feeling. There’s certain books I will be more drawn to then others. While I’m all for sexual liberation (if you dig whips and belly-wine, well, good for you) but thinking about 50 shades makes me 50 shades of nauseated. And not because erotic novels don’t have their place in the world. But moving on…

So if a good person asks me what my favourite book is, it might be easier to break it down to these categories:

Favourite books for a laugh

  • Fall Girl by Toni Jordan (and Addition too).
  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibson
  • Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Favourite books for out of this world escapism

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • Tithe by Holly Black
  • Jennifer Government by Max Barry
  • Shadow of the wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Favourite books by Australian authors

  • Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy
  • Animal People by Charlotte Wood
  • The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
  • Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
  • Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

Favourite “it’s a classic” books

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Favourite Non-fiction books

  • Tracks by Robyn Davidson
  • The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
  • Rewire your brain by John B. Arden
  • Alice on the line by Doris Blackwell
  • Mindless Eating by Brain Wansink
  • Edie by Jean Stein
  • The Reality Slap by Russ Harriss

Favourite Higher-brow (probably has a sticker on the front for prestigious award) books

Favourite Genre-bending books (think literary meets sci-fi)

Favourite horror/thriller

But there’s so many more…

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The Good Life by Hugh Mackay

 

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No one can promise you that a life lived for others will bring you a deep sense of satisfaction, but it’s certain that nothing else will.

I was about to return this book to the library when I realised I wasn’t quite ready to part with it. It was a nagging kind of feeling, like eating a late night kebab. It made me feel uneasy to just put it in the slot and walk away. Why? The Good Life is a book that you read and talk about because being about life (and death) it is bound to hit nerves with all of its readers. It hit many nerves in me. Good and bad.

‘What makes a life worth living?’ The front of the book asks you.

If you’re looking for answers this book won’t tell you what to do exactly, Hugh MacKay will however tell you what doesn’t give you a good life, in fact most of the book is what he calls ‘Seven False Leads.’ We can rule out Certainty, The Future, Intelligence, Finding Yourself, Power, Wealth, Status and Fame, The Simple Life, The Meaning of Life. Although there’s actually more than seven.

Having a good life isn’t about a good time according to Mackay, it’s about doing good things for other people. Basically we need to take society back to that simple lesson we were first taught in preschool: Treat others how we’d like to be treated. Rather than asking Who am I? We should be asking: Who needs me? As our worth is based on many connections we have with other people. And having a good life isn’t even about feeling happy all the time. As Mackay points out Aristotle’s original pursuit of happiness was to live in pursuit of the good, not for one’s own hedonistic needs.

It sounds fairly simple, but being on your best behaviour is actually pretty tough. How can we be better people? Listen to people when they talk, try to be a forgiving person, be generous, help when you can. All these traits are perhaps what we aspire to, and expect others to have but they are not always our first response. The book uses mostly fictional examples of people struggling to live their good life. It’s a nice touch but the Mackay does come off as a bit arrogant as he does not interlace his own life and problems in the book. Perhaps Mackay did not want to include personal details but it is hard to relate to the writer making such a bold moralistic statement of how we should live without knowing anything about him as a person.

I did enjoy reading this book at first, but it does not touch on anything new, Alain de Botton has trodden down this moralistic path and honestly, he does in a much humble and intelligent fashion. It did make me think about our society’s ‘Utopian Complex’ where everything is in aim of a better, ideal life and how my mind is trained into thinking ahead and a ‘Ok once I’ve done this I’ll be happy.’

There is no a-hah moment where life will suddenly make sense. This is it – although a large part of me still doesn’t want to believe it.

 

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Monday Guest Post by Kelly Theobald

The book that helps me justify my life

By Kelly Theobald

It has a scuffed, faded green hardcover, thick, yellowing pages and a crackly spine. It may be old and second hand but it’s the best and worst damn birthday present anyone has ever given me.

When I turned 21, my best friend was in the UK, living the adventurous life of an exchange student. When she sent me the first edition (yes, very first, extra-special edition!) of Peter and Wendy by J.M Barrie, she knew I’d read it immediately.

Printed in 1911, it tells the familiar tale of Peter, the boy who never grows up, and Wendy, the young girl that he takes to ‘Neverland’.  I won’t go on – we all know the story, I’m sure. If you don’t, you grew up far too fast. But that’s just it – I, like Peter, can’t grow up. It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

At some point in my life I have wanted to be all of the following: Professional dancer, journalist, novelist, politician’s speech writer, historian, teacher, truck driver, rally driver, professional cricket player, personal trainer, travel agent, marine biologist, PR person for the United Nations and hot-shot lawyer. And these weren’t just passing phases – these were serious ‘what do I need to study to do that’ commitments.

I’m now 25 and still have no idea what I want to do when I grow up, despite having completed a uni degree. However, since first reading my magical, extra-special first edition of Peter and Wendy, I’ve been toying with the idea of never growing up – that way I don’t have to chose a career. I’d much rather have grand adventures in Neverland with Peter, fighting pirates and the like. If he can do it – why can’t I? Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a considerable lack of pirates outside the pages of Peter and Wendy.

Despite that, I think it’s perfectly OK to never grow up. I don’t need a career! Pffft, that’s just what teachers, parents and uni lecturers think everyone needs. Really, all anyone needs is some sort of cash-earning ability (as mundane, clichéd and grown-up as that is, it is rather difficult to avoid…) and a sense of adventure. A pair of hiking boots and a passport is also very handy.

However, no matter where in the world I’m waitressing, retail selling or bartending, I can’t avoid thinking that perhaps I’d be happier if I dedicated my life to a meaningful, satisfying job. I just don’t know what that ‘job’ could be. It’s certainly not what I studied at uni – not every day of every week, anyway.

While I look for it though, I’ll regularly read Peter and Wendy because it’s only while I’m immersed in the musty pages that I can ignore the fact that I’m failing at being a grown-up. While Peter’s example suggests that this is OK, I really hope that someone out there can tell me what it is I want to be when I grow up, before I’m grown up!

 

Kelly Theobald is currently a, um, ‘writer’? who has spent the past year-and-a-half floating around outback Australia in a Volkswagen, published a children’s picture book and is about to move to Bangladesh for a bit of a change. You can send her career suggestions via twitter @KellyTheobald.

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Crying over Fiction

Last night I cried. Snot dribbled on my pillow and my heart heaved, I was a bit of a mess really. I wasn’t crying because of a death in the family or something serious, in fact it was a work of fiction that strummed my heart strings. I blinked away the tears and forced myself to read the last chapters of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

Even as I’m typing this out now I feel a bit teary. And it makes me wonder, how fantastic is this author that a fictional story affects people in this way? John Green made me laugh and cry. How many authors can do that?

I never used to be such a fictional cry-baby. All through my teenage years I was a tough cookie. Yeah I liked The Notebook alright but why would I cry? I laughed at my friend when she cried at the movies while watching P.S I Love You, I found it soppy and lame. I felt sad when Dumbledore died but I wasn’t that emotionally invested in the wizard. I couldn’t even cry at the end of the Anne Frank movie, and that wasn’t fiction, that was pretty damn sad.

Then something happened to me. Hormones, life, age. Without the teenage shield of angst and Simple Plan albums my hard shell eroded and I became like this walking gooey centre. At twenty years old Marley and Me made me a blubbering mess. The Packed to the Rafters episode where Melissa died in the car accident I cried for a solid three minutes hoping my old housemate would not walk in and see me in a moment of vulnerability. Heck, even the WorkSafe ads made me tear up.  What if the Dad didn’t make it home, who will play basketball with the boy then?!

But these were movies, ads, TV shows. They have the ability to use visual and musical aids to make a moment more dramatic, tragic and linger on. But a novel, all they have is words to create this affect which is why I was amazed at The Fault in Our Stars, it is one of very few books that have made me cry.

It is the first John Green book I have read so I don’t know if all the other books are just as heart-breaking but beautifully written. Mostly I was impressed by the characterisation, the love and the humour, despite the awful situation of terminal cancer.

“Because you are beautiful. I enjoy looking at beautiful people, and I decided a while ago not to deny myself the simpler pleasures of existence.”

What book have made you teary?

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Monday Guest Post by Ana Stanojevi

The book that amazed and disturbed me

– in a way that perhaps calls for a psychoanalysis

By Ana Stanojevi

The Notebook. There is a movie with this title that’s as far away emotionally from the book of the same title as it can get. There’s no real reason I’m mentioning the movie, other than that it just popped into my mind, and I thought: “I hope people won’t disregard the book thinking it’s some lame romantic tear-jerker.”

So: The Notebook by Hungarian writer Agota Kristof. I can’t think of a book that’s as small as this one (in size and number of pages) and as burdensome. Its simplistic, stripped-of-any-emotion, almost mechanical style still echoes in my mind, invoking images of two strangest boys I ever encountered in life or on page.

The boys are brothers, twins. Their dad is simply absent – no explanation, and their sweet mother (the way gentle mothers with tender voices are sweet to little innocent children) brings them to their grandmother (their father’s mother) who is a witch incarnated. She is rough, tough, ugly, scary, dirty, smelly, etc. The mother has no choice; World War II is raving on and she can hardly feed herself. The old woman lives in the country and at least has food.

So the boys, age 5, start growing up in the cruelest sense of the word.

I don’t want to spoil the book for future readers. I won’t tell what’s happening next, but I can only say that the boys’ everyday life and what they make of it, turns out to be the most horrifying account I’ve read in the past 5 years, without even one graphic, horrifying scene.

The book made me:

  1. Wonder what humans are made of
  2. Wonder to what extent we can control our lives
  3. Wonder how much of our brain are we using
  4. Question morality, good and evil

Most importantly, the book showed me that I have no clear grasp of what’s right and wrong. Usually when I read a book, I’m pretty clear about my feelings towards the characters in the story. But after I finished reading The Notebook I couldn’t wait for my mom, dad, boyfriend and friends to read it so that I could discuss these boys with them.

I wanted answers, and this book is so removed from judging, answering and clarifying that I could only hope to get somewhere through conversation with other readers. The only thing this book shows is the depths of hell in a seemingly normal everyday life, and you can’t even say who the Devil is.

Maybe some of you will wonder how I can be fascinated with such a harsh book, and the only answer I can give is: “Just read it…”

I’m dying to give away the story, but I’ll be strong and keep quiet now, to let you be surprised.

Ana Stanojevic is a writer who studied creative writing (if you can ever really LEARN it) at Syracuse University, New York. She has a book of stories published in her native Serbian language, and she just started writing her blog, Waiting For Nobel.

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Monday Guest Post by Shannon Donovan

The book that encouraged my imagination

By Shannon Donovan

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland actually wasn’t read to me yet as a child its existence seemed constantly known to me. We always had a copy in the house and I remember looking at the black and white illustrations and thinking them truly beautiful, which was a first for my young self as I didn’t usually have much patience for pictures without colour.

As I grew older I began watching film adaptions of the story and being intrigued at the strangeness of the story and the queer way in which the characters spoke and conducted themselves. I connected and fell in love with the story from then on. We have a copy in my home with both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there, its been there for as long as I can recall.

It has a lovely hard-cover and after poring over the illustrations repeatedly  I began trying to decipher the words as I was only in the very beginning stages of my learning to read.  Eventually after putting it down for a few months then picking it up again, I was able to read my beautiful story to myself. I was enraptured by this story that I felt perfectly connected to. When I was younger, I was significantly disconnected from reality some of the time and liked to imagine incredible or beautiful things that weren’t necessarily there.

So when I read this story I felt as though my way of thinking and wonderment at the curious was understood by another and was glorified in the written word. This connection and sense of security in the written word is an important signifier in what encouraged my adoration of reading and writing. I want nothing more than to be able to connect to a person through my writing the way Lewis Carroll did with me.

Having recently re-read the story, I was thrilled to find it as strikingly lovely as I’d remembered it.  A particular favourite character of mine being the Mad Hatter (to who I can reasonably give much credit to my current obsession with tea) who was as endearing and curious as I’d always thought him to be. I felt contented that my childhood friends of Wonderland were and always will be, with me.

      Shannon Donovan  is a 20 year old who loves to write and paint.  She is a tea obsessive and lover all things imaginative. Shannon blogs here.

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Oh! Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Prepare to journey to the countryside of Sussex, where a weird family called the Starkadders inhabit a farm outside of the town of Howling. Pack your decent clothes and plenty of proper literature (especially The Higher Common Sense handbook ) which will be your lifeline in staying educated and rational when surrounded by such primitive folk. Beware of lusty men named Seth. Avoid the writer Mr Mybug (The Mybug) whose continuous phallic references are obviously evidence of a Freudian-complex. Finally, be strong and do not give into Aunt Ada Doom’s demands – even if she did see ‘something nasty in the woodshed.’

Written in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm is a comical novel like no other. Although it has been adapted for screen, radio and television it is the original novel which resonates as a classic. From the opening page readers are immersed in Gibbons’s style of witty one-liners and range of oddball characters. Cold Comfort Farm was inspired by the public obsession of rural novels published in the late 1920’s, which was often full of clichéd and absurd characters.

Gibbons worked as a journalist for the London Evening Standard and often was assigned to review these popular rural books. The most notable were books written by Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith. It was from the sheer frustration of reading these novels about the quaint English countryside that Gibbons took her sharp wit and wrote her first novel Cold Comfort Farm. Upon publication it was criticised and shunned by rural-book lovers as ‘that wicked parody.’

The satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm follows the story of nineteen year old Flora Poste, a proper and well-educated girl. The death of Flora’s parents leave Flora inheriting ‘from her father a strong will and from her mother a slender ankle,’ but very little fortune. Not wanting to work and preferring to live an easy life Flora contacts relatives seeking out a spare room. Despite being accepted by many relatives, it is the strange letter from her distant cousin Judith Starkadder from a farm called ‘Cold Comfort’ that sees Flora travelling to the outskirts of Sussex.

One of the surprising things about this novel is the large number of characters in the narrative, which can often result in a confusing and complicated plot. Yet Gibbons is gifted in creating interesting, three-dimensional characters that fit perfectly into the story. There is Aunt Ada Doom, the nut-case who won’t leave her room but controls the entire family. Flora’s cousin Judith, a depressed and miserable woman married to the Brethren preacher Amos. Their children are Seth, a prime specimen of manhood, Reuben, a jealous and suspicious character, and Elfine, a free spirit with no grace or marriage prospects. There’s also the very funny old farm-hand Adam, who cleans the dishes with twigs. Although the characters are influenced by rural novels Gibbons removes the clichés and creates characters with believable human desires and aspirations.

In some ways Flora plays the role of the fairy godmother when she arrives at the farm, but with more of a scheming mind. She uses her talent of rationality to arrange marriages, organise career opportunities and create prosperity on the farm. But although Flora may appear to be a good Samaritan everything she does is also beneficial to herself. She is headstrong and controlled – attributes that a reader will respect, especially if they are fond of Jane Austen.

Interestingly, Flora Poste’s character is thought to be loosely based on Gibbons, who like Flora, was well-educated and often involved in resolving family problems with a distant and composed manner. From the age of eleven Gibbons became aware of the manipulative power of family members, who could enjoy inflicting misery on others. By creating the character Aunt Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm Gibbons hoped to convey individuals who used childhood trauma and history as a way to control an entire family.

Cold Comfort Farm is extremely funny but it is also poetic and beautifully written. It shows off Gibbons’s talent as not just a writer of satire but also a poet who frequently submitted to T.S Eliot’s Criterion. It is a novel in which sentences can be marvelled over, in which description of the scenery is so rich and crisp that the farm Cold Comfort is far from an imagined place:

‘Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns.’

 

         Cold Comfort Farm is a novel of contradictions. It is literature that doesn’t take itself seriously yet remains confident in style and tone. It is a novel where the characters are wacky and hilarious yet believable. Like all good classics it is hard to pin-point what it is that makes it a class of its own. But one thing is for sure, it will need to be read numerous times to be completely savoured.

Update since writing this review: I enjoyed this book so much I have bought my own copy to re-read!

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