Five more great reads for your TBR pile

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I loved this debut novel from US author Kiley Reid. Her writing explores race and class in America in an engaging, distinctive voice. The protagonist, Emira, and the young girl she babysits, are the kind of endearing, vibrant characters that have stayed with me. You can hear me discuss the novel on The Bookshelf podcast from Radio National.

Fiction | debut

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War came out in 2021, and like always, Gladwell narrates the audiobook splendidly. This is a book for anyone who enjoys deep dives into how history shapes the world we know today. Gladwell pulls together many tangents to explore how the US Airforce developed its strategy in WWII, culminating in the bombing of Tokyo on 10 March 1945. I’ve read all of Gladwell’s books and I’d include this among my favourites.

“I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up everyday life and just zero on on one thing – the thing that fits the contours of their imagination.”

“I also don’t think we get progress or innovation or joy or beauty without obsessives.”

“Transactive memory … is the observation that we don’t just store information in our minds or in specific places. We store memories and understanding in the minds of the people we love. … Little bits of ourselves reside in other people’s minds.”

Non-fiction

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo

South Korean author Cho Nam-joo’s short, punchy novel at times reads like non-fiction, especially because of the occasional footnotes drawn from news articles, government sources and academic papers. The story follows the life of the fictional Kim Jiyoung, opening in her 30s, when she’s started slipping into the personas of other women. The circumstances of her life, and in particular the restrictions she faces as a woman in a hierarchical and patriarchal culture, are all too real, however. Jiyoung is a woman of the modern era, but as Cho notes, ‘The world has changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and custom had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.’

Fiction | debut

Denizen by James McKenzie Watson

A new Australian talent for fans of David Vann and Cormac McCarthy, James McKenzie Watson started his literary career by winning the Penguin Literary Prize in 2021. And yes I’m biased because he’s my podcast co-host and very good friend, but this bullet-train of a novel is already getting fantastic reviews. Set on a remote property in western NSW, drawn from where James himself grew up, the story unravels the disastrous consequences of the main character’s chaotic childhood.

Fiction | Australian debut

Cover of A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris, featuring an elephant balancing on a ball

A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris

The second volume of David Sedaris’s diaries covers 2003 to 2020. Achieving career success at the end of volume one hasn’t left him anywhere to go, except all around the world to meet his fans and shop for human skeletons (as a gift), and to upgrade from first class to a private jet (but only a hired one). When a fellow grocery shopper suggests how he can save money on brussels sprouts, Sedaris replies, ‘That’s okay. I’m rich.’ What drives Snackery is a melancholy truth. Despite immense wealth and success – the American Academy of Arts and Letters invited him into its exclusive fold in 2019 – Sedaris is stuck being himself. Teens whack him in the head as they pass on their bikes and he’s too cowardly to shout at them. A pool lifeguard’s scolding makes him want to cry. And despite talking to fans and strangers around the world, he lacks confidence: ‘I just can’t for the life of me figure out what to say to people.’

Non-fiction

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I’ve compiled my ever-growing list of great reads here.

An onlooker at the Carnival of Snackery

‘When is the last time an actual human interaction made you laugh more than
a meme did?’
– Samantha Irby

If I hadn’t been immersed in the Sedarian worldview, I probably wouldn’t have made the offhand joke about ghosts to the ferry attendant. I definitely wouldn’t have caught that his intention, when he asked me about my beliefs regarding first ghosts, then angels, was to propound his own theories on the latter. And that would have meant not learning about how his personal angel recently saved him $18 at the car wash.

The Sedarian worldview is Jack Gilbert’s ‘A Brief for the Defense’, except the poor women laughing together at the fountain ‘between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future’ transform into a man encountering a rodent with a Cheeto in its mouth at Times Square. Somebody in the village is still very sick, and people are still dying in the Syrian civil war. We can’t weep all the time, so thank goodness for mice and ‘crumbled ham dummy’ and the pancake restaurant on Cox Road in Gastonia, North Carolina, that answers the phone with ‘IHOP on Cox!’

In the Sedarian worldview, everyone has the potential to share absurd and shocking revelations, if only we’re willing to listen and ask questions. Those questions can’t be how are you, how was your flight, how’s your day. Forget tedious small talk and jump straight in with ‘What’s your take on sausage?’

Everyone also has the potential to be an inconsiderate chatterbox holding up the queue at the airport Starbucks when you’re rushing to catch a connecting flight. And those people are never sharing their take on sausage, but droning on uselessly. Be compelling or get out of the way.

A Carnival of Snackery is the second volume of David Sedaris’s diaries, covering 2003 to 2020. Volume one begins in 1977, its 20-year-old author penniless and scrabbling for work in his North Carolina hometown, a man with artistic ambitions but only vague plans to realise them. It takes him years to get to art school in Chicago, then to scrounge enough cash to move to New York. By the end, he’s published to wide acclaim, winning major awards, and buying property in France. As a narrative arc, it doesn’t leave anywhere for him to go in volume two, except all around the world to meet his fans and shop for human skeletons (as a gift), and to upgrade from first class to a private jet (but only a hired one). When a fellow grocery shopper suggests how he can save money on brussels sprouts, Sedaris replies, ‘That’s okay. I’m rich.’

This could be off-putting to those who haven’t read the ‘David Copperfield Sedaris’ installment or his essays on growing up gay in the American South. Juxtaposed with the jet-setting, however, is his hobby of picking up roadside trash attired like a homeless man. That, and his love for his readers, his willingness to stay at book signings until midnight to ensure he engages with everyone. Billy Collins says writing is about the love of strangers, and this is at the core of Sedaris’s work.

What drives Snackery is a melancholy truth. Despite immense wealth and success – the American Academy of Arts and Letters invited him into its exclusive fold in 2019 – Sedaris is stuck being himself. Teens whack him in the head as they pass on their bikes and he’s too cowardly to shout at them. A pool lifeguard’s scolding makes him want to cry. And despite talking to fans and strangers around the world, he lacks confidence: ‘I just can’t for the life of me figure out what to say to people.’ His youngest sister grapples with mental illness and commits suicide. His cantankerous father disapproves of him and crows about Trump. There’s blood in his urine, so a doctor sticks a camera up his penis. Life comes for you, even when you’re number one on the bestseller lists.

If starved, a humpback cricket will chew off its own legs, even though they don’t regenerate. ‘So it eats its legs, and, unable to escape danger, it promptly gets eaten itself.’ Which, Sedaris comments, seems like something he would do. What propels Snackery beyond cleverly crafted introspection and observation is all those conversations with readers and strangers. We get to contemplate the world from Sedaris’s experience and theirs. He tells a friend about someone who, back in the day, chose to defecate into his hand rather than end a call on a corded phone, and she responds, ‘Haven’t you ever shit in your hand?’ This would be the end of it for most authors, but Sedaris uses his book signing to conduct a survey on the matter, leaving us in terror of ever shaking hands again.

But then. After a hearing impaired cashier charges him 10 pence for a bag he doesn’t want, he riffs, ‘When we tell the disabled they can do anything they want in this world, don’t we mean … something, well, that can be accomplished at home?’ It’s the kind of ableist comment that would get him cancelled on social media, if he used it. And I get it, I get jokes, the humour sits in the disparity between the triviality of being charged a tiny sum for an unwanted item and the sweeping generalisation that millions of individuals should stay out of abled-bodied people’s way. Being disabled myself, it jars. Maybe that’s quibbling.

Commenting on the term Latinx, Sedaris says he’s not in favour of rebranding, conceptually. If he doesn’t want be called queer, fine, noted. This comes from the volume’s closing passage, which builds to a joke about forgiving historical figures for being a product of their time and suggests, instead, replacing statues in order to give someone new the chance ‘to scowl down at some godforsaken traffic circle’, someone like Sedaris himself. This is genuinely funny, and the Latinx commentary isn’t needed to get there. That said, Sedaris isn’t railing against the term, just pointing out that he doesn’t understand the need for it, possibly because he ‘turned old’ – 64 – and is feeling the change in his lack of understanding.

In blood spatter analysis, forensic experts look for voids, places where one would expect to see blood but none is present. Likewise in edited diaries, the question is omnipresent – if you put this in, what did you leave out? Along with approximately 300 mentions of mice, Sedaris excised many of the offensive jokes he collects, lamenting our current culture of touchiness. Still, none of the jokes included in Snackery are about gay men. Most are of the misogynist ha-ha-my-wife-is-terrible variety, though occasionally husbands get bashed for a laugh as well. These aren’t Sedaris’s jokes, but ones shared with him. I’d rather read about a mouse with a Cheeto.

Gay men come up a lot of course, often when Sedaris comments on the news. They’re targeted in shootings, attacked with boiling water, conflated with paedophiles. When Sedaris and his partner discuss their experiences of sexual assault, he reveals he was raped three times, by different men. ‘Rape is not a word I use lightly, though at the time I wouldn’t have used it at all – didn’t know I had the right to.’ It’s a poignant moment, and still he manages humour, noting that at the time, going to the police would have been ‘like complaining about the blisters the axe brought on while you were chopping up the statue of Christ’.

Maybe it’s like that with humour. Share enough jokes and you’re bound to offend someone, especially these days. Like all those statues, Sedaris is a product of a time that is slipping into history. All the while, he encourages us to be more curious about the people around us, to open ourselves up to each other even though it’s awkward and we’ll probably misstep and encounter people who dislike us or are arbitrarily cruel.

Babies are still starving someplace, but elsewhere there’s a woman who will tell us about her volunteer work with monkeys, if only we’re willing to ask.

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Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Interested in developing your creative non-fiction skills? Join me for a six-week online course, accessible from anywhere in the world. Full details here >>

2020 resolutions I might actually stick to

Last year I shared a bunch of resolutions I intended to utterly fail at – and that felt great. Failure is a part of trying, and dealing with chronic fatigue makes me that much more likely to fail, since my daily health is so unpredictable. Acknowledging that I’d probably fail at most goals I set in 2019 was actually very encouraging.

Then I skulked off and secretly set some actual goals anyway. And those went pretty well, especially as the year wore on. Every few months, I regain a little more of my cognitive and physical capacity. Some people think that chronic fatigue is permanent, but when I was diagnosed, the doctors told me that most people recover. ‘On average it takes 3 to 5 years,’ they said. ‘Though it can take 10.’

I’m in my fourth year.

At the start of 2020, I made a list of goals for the year. I could have shared them on Jan 1, but I decided to test drive them before fully committing. Four weeks into the new decade, I think these are the keepers. David Sedaris book signing
For Reals 2020 Resolutions & Goals

  1. Have a first draft of the new novel by December 31.
    I’m 40,000 words into a zero draft.
  2. Gradually increase my micro swims to tiny swims. #chronicillnessrecovery
  3. Jump in the pool without hesitation. 
    This will save me upwards of 15 minutes each time I swim. (And I’m already nailing this.)
  4. Read more books.
    Because my daily cognitive energy still has a hard limit, I’ve been prioritising writing over reading. This year I want to increase my reading time, and add to my list of great reads.
  5. Develop my active listening skills. 
    Which means focussing on what others are really saying to me in conversations, rather than just waiting for them to finish talking so I can share my thoughts. Sheila Heen discusses this in-depth on the Knowledge Project.
  6. Ask better questions.

Author David Sedaris recommends this in his masterclass. (I took the course, and then had the opportunity to meet him when he came to Sydney in January.) Candice Fox also mentions it in her Better Reading interview, describing herself as nosy. (She also describes how she came to interview a serial killer, so I feel like she’s someone with useful advice.)

Sedaris decided he’s no longer engaging in small talk, and instead starts conversations with questions like ‘Have you ever eaten horse?’ just to see where things go. I’m not willing (ie. not brave enough) to give up small talk entirely, and the introverted part of me would prefer to go through life never having to talk to strangers at all.

But then I realised it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing resolution. I decided to try asking two or three ‘better questions’ each week.

I asked the fruit store cashier about the strangest fruit they stock, and she got all excited telling me about lemonades,  a type of lemon that taste exactly like lemonade. (I’m going to follow this up in fall, when they’re in season.)

I asked a hairdresser about other jobs she’s worked, and she told me far more than I ever wanted to know about gum disease, thanks to her previous experience in dental office reception.

I asked a Pet-O cashier about people with strange pets, and she ended up telling me all about her bearded dragon, which she hand-feeds.

I’m excited to see what I’ll discover by asking questions this year, and also how the rest of my resolutions progress.

Wishing you all best for your 2020 goals!
xx