What we’re reading: January

Each month the NSW Writers’ Centre staff share what we’ve been reading. On our bookshelves this month are Kate Atkinson’s whirlwind of a novel, Life After Life, 4 3 2 1 by Paul Aster, Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and language in the Amazonian jungle, Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection Her Body and Other Parties and Otto Fredrich’s book on the Golden Age of Hollywood, City of Nets. 

Jane McCredie, Executive Director

I recently caught up with Kate Atkinson’s clever, intricate novel, Life After Life. The book opens with its central character, Ursula Todd, assassinating Hitler in 1930, but that’s hardly the end of the story. The novel explores the different paths one human life can take, the disasters that may or may not be averted, the apparently small decisions with momentous consequences. During the course of the story, Ursula dies many times (it surely can’t be a coincidence that her surname is so similar to the German word for dead: “tot”). She perishes at birth, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, the doctor prevented from attending by a snowstorm. The novel resets: this time the doctor gets there in time to save the baby. Ursula goes on to have a fatal fall from the roof, to drown on a family holiday, to succumb to the 1918 influenza pandemic, to die in the London Blitz, and to die again in the ruins of post-war Berlin. Each time, she is resurrected to live yet another alternative ending. I found this a moving exploration of the randomness of life and a masterful reflection on the way a novelist determines the fate of her characters.

Sherry Landow, Membership & Development Officer

I’m currently reading 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. The story begins with one single grounding moment: the birth of Archibald Isaac Ferguson in 1947. After his birth, Ferguson’s life immediately splits into four, and there is no longer a single narrative in the novel. The reader experiences these parallel lives in stages, starting with four different versions of Ferguson’s childhood, then four different versions of his adolescence, and so on. Sometimes, this can be dizzying, as one tries to remember which version of Ferguson they are reading (it is Ferguson 3 or 4 that has X life experience?). Mostly, though, it’s fascinating to trace the similarities and differences between the various Fergusons, and to see how different social and political experiences can change the trajectory of a person’s life. At a whopping 866 pages, Auster’s 4 3 2 1 is an ambitious and extraordinary novel.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Program Officer

For ages I’ve been excited to read Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and language in the Amazonian jungle. I learned about Everett from Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech. Though Wolfe’s book has been criticised for inaccuracies in its critique of Darwin and Chomsky, it regardless provides a fascinating introduction to Everett’s 30 years in the Brazilian jungle, living among the Pirahã tribe. Originally a missionary from California, Everett is now a professor of linguistics. Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes recounts his experiences in the jungle, and his efforts to translate the language of this still-isolated tribe. Through his cultural immersion, his life and religious views change dramatically, as does his understanding of foundational concepts of linguistics, and more profoundly, how and if people from diverse cultural contexts can truly understand one another. Inevitably he learns far more from the Pirahãs than they take from him. The prologue frames his experiences by describing an entire village of Pirahãs waking early to observe a visiting spirit on the beach. They insist the spirit is as present before them as Everett is. ‘Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently. I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.’

 

Ren Arcamone, Program Officer

I just finished Her Body and Other Parties, the debut short story collection from Carmen Maria Machado. Machado’s stories flit between realism, science fiction and the gothic, and they’re as much in conversation with pop culture as they are with literary fiction. One story charts the relationship of a woman with a mysterious ribbon tied around her neck; another explores the unsettling and unreal adventures of Detective Benson from Law & Order: SVU, as told through a series of invented episode synopses. These stories – all the stories in the collection – had me recommending the book to anyone and everyone who would listen. It’s not just that this collection bends the conventions of genre, or that Machado experiments with form and structure in funny and interesting way. What really gets me is the depth and authenticity of feeling throughout. Each story has a living, beating heart. Trust me: read it.

Catherine Bouris, Program Intern 

I’m currently reading City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s by Otto Freidrich. It’s considered the book on Hollywood’s golden age, and it’s a fascinating (and lengthy) read, full of stories about classic silver screen stars, as well as the writers, producers, and union heavyweights who worked behind the scenes to churn out hundreds of movies despite the world war looming at their doorstep. It dives into things like the (now-dismantled) studio system and the ongoing censorship efforts of the US government with great ease and clarity, placing these explanations alongside anecdotes and stories that have since become urban legends, like the story of either Peter Lorre or Raoul Walsh convincing undertakers to let them ‘borrow’ John Barrymore’s corpse so they could have it waiting to greet Errol Flynn when he arrived home, or the story of Rita Hayworth’s transformation from Margarita Carmen Cansino to the star of Gilda. With World War II as the backdrop, Friedrich paints an extremely detailed picture of everything that took place behind the scenes in 1940s Hollywood.

 

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