Reading like your sanity depends upon it

We at Overland don’t only take pleasure in deleting commas and rearranging words; we are also ardent readers. Things we have been reading lately include:

Rjurik Davidson

TrotskyLast week I finished Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, which brilliantly documents the French Revolution from the point of view (mainly) of Desmoulins, Robespierre and Danton.

Currently I’m reading Deborah Biancotti’s Book of Endings, a collection of stories by the under-recognised Australian speculative fiction author.

In the future I plan to read Robert Service’s Trotsky, a biography which is critical of the Russian revolutionary and has itself come under some criticism.

John Marnell

The PossessedLast week, after a very strong recommendation from some Overland colleagues, I read The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman. A delightful blend of travelogue, literary criticism and memoir, the book recounts Batuman’s experiences as a postgraduate comparative literature student and her ever-increasing fascination with Russian literature. The book is thoroughly entertaining and at times quite hilarious, and it is rather impressive that Batuman has managed to create such an engaging narrative around some ostensibly unappealing topics (academic conferences, PhD research, trying to decipher Old Uzbek poetry).

Currently I’m reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Really the story of Stein’s life, the book details her friendships with many of the avant-garde painters and writers living in Paris at the start of last century. Stein’s acerbic remarks and witty observations are highly enjoyable, however the book would really benefit from a severe copy edit (Stein appears to detest commas, which occasionally disrupts the book’s flow).

Patti SmithIn the future, I plan to read Just Kids by Patti Smith. I love both Patti and Robert Mapplethorpe so am really looking forward to reading about their early friendship. These kinds of books can easily become self-indulgent or fall into the trap of overly romanticising the past, however I have faith that Patti’s poetic sensibilities will ensure that it’s a good read.

Jeff Sparrow

KrakenLast week, I finished Kraken, the new China Mieville novel. It’s a typically intelligent book but one that’s much more self-consciously genre than The City and the City. In a recent interview, Mieville spoke about re-connecting with the SF fans worried he’d become too literary: “Kraken says, ‘I’m still China from the block.'”

One-dimensional womanCurrently, I’m reading Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, one of those books where you read certain passages and silently shout, ‘Hell yeah!’. For instance, Power writes: ‘We must sadly come to terms with the fact that we live in a world in which enjoyment has been profoundly circumscribed. Don’t be misled: The imperative to “Enjoy!” is omnipresent, but pleasure and happiness are almost entirely absent. We can have as many vibrators as we like, and drink as much booze as we can physically tolerate, but anything else outside the echo chamber of money-possessions-pleasure is strictly verboten.’

In the future, I plan to read (or rather re-read) Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, to test an idea I have. At least, that’s the plan. But it’s not impossible that I’ll be distracted by the new Naomi Novik novel Tongues of Serpents (Napoleonic war, dragons: what’s not to like?).

Jacinda Woodhead

DidionLast week I read Slouching towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays by Joan Didion, first published in 1968. She writes, by way of introduction, ‘My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their interests. And it always does. That is the one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.’ Needless to say, I have fallen in love with Joan Didion.

Currently I’m reading another collection of essays, Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt. I recently rediscovered Benjamin after reading ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction,’ which I found startlingly relevant. I started today with his essay ‘Unpacking my library: a talk about book collecting’: ‘You have all heard of people for whom the loss of their books has turned them into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals.’

FanonIn the future, I plan to read all day every day because I am falling behind (yet again!). I shall start with A Dying Colonialism, about Algerian war and colonial oppression by Frantz Fanon, move on to anything Roberto Bolano (because all I hear is talk of him) and then Clarice Lispector. I am also hunting short story collections so am open to suggestions.

Over to you.

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  1. Love this. Thanks editorial team. Can’t wait to read ‘The Possessed’, have been looking for ‘Kraken’ and will be interested to hear how Jeff’s idea tests out on reread of ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

    I’m reading ‘IOU: why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay’ by John Lanchester on the GFC, full of breathtaking stats, and its polar opposite, the absolutely fascinating ‘Storymen’ by Hannah Rachel Bell about the ‘eerie’ similarity between the worldviews of indigenous lawman David Mowaljarlai and Tim Winton.

  2. Reliving the Rudd years by reading Annabel Crabb’s Rise of the Ruddbot and Catherine Deveny’s Say When. Two interesting, episodic collections by witty and observant women. Plus two short fiction anthologies. One recent American – Robin Black’s If I loved you, I would tell you this. The other less recent and Australian – Elizabeth Jolley’s Fellow Passengers. Both funny, bleak and perceptive.

  3. I am also reading The Place of Greater Safety, but I’ve been reading it FOREVER. I’ve less than a hundred pages to go. I think Hilary Mantel is brilliant but this book’s vast scope requires a higher degree of concentration than I’ve managed to give it thus far.

    I tool a break from it recently and read The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky. I was in northern Spain at the time and really appreciated the strong sense of place evoked by Kurlansky through factual history and
    story telling. Plugged many gaps in my knowledge of the Basques as well.

    And I’d love to read Kids too!

  4. Am still laughing at the thought of Mr Marnell looking disapprovingly at Gertrude Stein’s commas! Normally, he saves that sad shake of the head for my grammar.
    Oh, and that Service biography is vile, too.

  5. I love that Joan Didion quote – I think there’s a lot to be said for that idea, and the notion that as an interviewer, there’s a fine balance to be struck in presenting as (and being) intelligent enough to be respected and worth their time and to have an intelligent conversation, and letting the person you’re speaking to feel comfortable, forget themselves with you, so they might reveal more than they expected to. Jon Ronson (Men Who Stare At Goats) makes that same point – that because he’s small and nerdy and asks seemingly dumb or audacious questions, his subjects underestimate him, with fascinating results. Thanks for reminding me of that thought!

    I’m reading DBC Pierre’s new novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, and quite honestly not loving. Re-reading Patrick Holland’s Mary Smokes Boys, an absolutely beautiful and haunting new novel set in a country town on the fringes of Brisbane. And about to read The Possessed – looking forward to it.

  6. Great idea.

    Just finished Dennis Lehane’s novel “A Drink Before the War”. Lehane being one of several American crime novelists who collaborated with David Simon on The Wire. Don’t get me started.

    I’m now reading the late David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays “Consider the Lobster” – hilarious, alarming, unimaginable. In tandem is Jim Crace’s novel “The Devil’s Larder”, Hari Kunzru’s mini collection of short stories “Noise” and the recent but one issue of Granta, themed “Sex”.

    Jack, if you haven’t read Wallace’s short story collection “Oblivion”, I recommend it.

    Can we mention tele-obsessions? Mad Men series two.
    Betsy is so sad that she just threw up in the new Cadillac and Don’s just his usual fucked up self, but hell those people can smoke.

    ReCaptcha: “sate association”

    Burroughs would have loved it.

  7. China Mieville????!!! Jesus…

    Just finished or still reading re-reading: (and all essential of course IMHO)

    Black Skin, White Masks – Frantz Fanon
    Theatres of the Mind – Joyce McDougall
    Beast and Man – Mary Midgely
    Transmetropolitan 1-10 – Ennis and Robertson
    The honey-ant men’s love song – Dixon and Duwell
    Why Arendt matters – Elisabeth Young-Bruehl
    The other side of the frontier – Henry Reynolds
    The politics of Dispossession – Edward Said
    Railway Ribaldry – W. Heath Robinson
    and a lot of journal articles on the psychology of violence.
    ….and so on and so forth.

    1. Is this the only Fanon you’ve read? I only learned of him during the burqa panic, which is why I wanted to read Dying colonialism.

      My recaptcha: the crowbar

      1. No, I started reading Fanon (Wretched of the earth) when I
        was 18.
        China Mieville is one of the lamest, most 2-dimensional over-hyped writers there is. I remember him being promoted as a second Mervyn Peake. He’s no more Mervyn Peake than I’m Pele. Oh well, scratch an intellectual and there’s always a nerd trying to get out I always say. For a reading list that’s titled ‘reading like your sanity depends on it’ it reads so far more like ‘reading as though your comfy sunday morning lie-in depends on it.”
        I should also add to my list Edward Said’s regular columns in Al-Ahram, that he was writing up until he died. Wonderful to get them in my inbox. That’s when I really started to love the internet.

        1. I don’t think we should confuse reading with political activity, or privilege it above other forms of culture (or certain kinds of education).

          I chose this title and post. It’s a chance for people to share what they’re reading so other people can discover the obscure and the nerdy and the well-known and the not so well-known. One person’s trash is another person’s sanity, so they say. And for me, reading in bed on a Sunday morning does sometimes keep me sane.

          I actually don’t see the difference between ‘Sunday’ reading and other kinds of reading.

        2. I think quoting a comparison of Mervyn Peake to cut down me old China is a bit of Straw Man.

          Journalist / reviewers always love to make outrageous comparisons like comparing Clive Barker to HP Lovecraft or any number of modern fantasy authors to Tolkien. It makes me wonder whether they read the books and if so what were they thinking?

        3. “For a reading list that’s titled ‘reading like your sanity depends on it’ it reads so far more like ‘reading as though your comfy sunday morning lie-in depends on it.”

          La-de-da, Stephen.With a reading list like yours I can see why Sunday lie-ins are an object of mockery. Definitely a garret list yours. Ha ha. I mean that in a nice way.

          1. On behalf of all the 12 year old boys I know (not that I’m equating all readers of China with pre-teen boys), China Mieville’s ‘Un Lun Dun’ rocks.

            I see nothing particularly comfy about the books everyone here’s reading, Stephen. For sanity I often read something as scandalously Sunday morning as poetry, recently I’m loving the comfy old Siegfried Sassoon:

            ‘You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
            Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
            Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
            The hell where youth and laughter go.’

  8. May I just add, The Possessed is ridiculously good.

    And thankyou Boris. I actually have Oblivion sitting here but have not yet tackled it.

    I also read a lot of children’s and young adult literature. I recently reread (this feels as though it’s a confession) Winnie-the-Pooh and House at Pooh Corner. The characterisation, the language, the humour, and the civility – unmatched.

    As an aside, I recently learned that Milne and PG Wodehouse had a long-running feud because Wodehouse [accidentally] collaborated in occupied France – which Milne deemed treasonous. Wodehouse retaliated by parodying Christopher Robin and declaring that Milne couldn’t help but be ‘jealous of all other writers … But I loved his stuff.’

    What is with our reCaptcha: ‘personality barroom’ (which most authors would be envious of I imagine).

    1. reCapthca: ‘surfeited what’
      Like a reply in a DeLillo dialogue.

      Wallace saw too much, possessed of an unreasonable acuity and the stories in Oblivion reflect this, so dip in.

      His essays are wonderful too as your erudite self probably knows. For those who haven’t read it ‘Consider the Lobster’ is a piece he did for Gourmet magazine (2004). He covered the Maine Lobster Festival in excruciating, deeply funny detail. A consumption fest at the centre of which were thousands of boiling lobtsters clawing at the lids of pots. He manages to write a confronting moral treatise in a foodie magazine, with considerable leeway granted by his editor.

  9. In the middle of Dumas’ ‘The count of Monte Cristo’-ridiculous good fun.
    Also, Jacinda, if you’re interested I’d recommend Bolano’s book of poetry ‘The romantic dogs’ if someone else hasn’t already done so.

  10. Let’s not make reading lists into some kind of competition, shall we!
    I wouldn’t have compared mieville to peake. They’re very different writers. Mieville might not be everyone’s cup of tea but IMO he’s a really exciting and consistently interesting writer, who has pushed the boundaries of political SF.
    Btw, there’s a very strange article in today’s guardian about Christos Tsiolkas

  11. Thanks for mentioning the Guardian piece on ‘The Slap’ Jeff, just found it (under booker

    Why strange? I thought it expressed pretty well the novel’s divisiveness. I’ve spoken on panels about editing since its publication and if anyone discovers I worked on it the whole focus turns to ‘The Slap’. One woman told me she hated it and every character in it so much that she threw it in the bin when she finished it. I thought it was the perfect comment: she hated it to bits. But she read it to the end. It’s un-put-downable. And I think fact it raises such passionate responses in readers, for good or bad, is why it’s been such a smash hit.

    1. Hi Jane,
      I guess it just seemed strange that the British press doesn’t seem to get his politics. Even in the context of discussions of the book’s divisiveness, there’s no acknowledgment that CT is a serious political writer.

  12. Winnie Mandela – Mother of a Nation
    Nancy Harrison (1985)

    The Dead Fish Museum
    Charles D’Ambrosio

    Not much, which is unusual. No piles by the bedside (I tidied them away). A lack, no doubt, reflected by the current state of my sanity, which isn’t promising.

    I got up early and spent my Sunday morning writing. Does that make me GOOD?

    Many of these titles are alluring. I’m such a babe in the politico-literary woods. I feel like I’ve read NOTHING.

    But I have read Pooh – and maybe that’s all that matters.

    Great post, thanks Jacinda and everyone.

  13. jacinda, illuminations is great. Benjamins essays as are a whole are tremondous. One way street is good too. I always wonder what and where his writing would have went if he hadn’t of committed suicide. He was so close to escaping France but then I guess that was the problem that lead to his suicide.

    jeff, Kraken is more self-consciously genre. sounds good but perhaps not the China of old. to me the appeal of Mieville was whilst being genre he bridge the gap to people who might never read genre. maybe the shift back will bring people into the sci-fi genre who’d never go there before.

    as for my reading. just finished Emergency Sex and other Desperate Measures, a good and interesting and importantly critical read about working for the UN during the 90’s and early 00’s. The descriptions of the mass graves in Sarajevo and Rwanda are horrorific.

    reading at the moment Garden, by Brian Castro. A rare collector librarian tries to uncover the story of two missing people from a plane crash in the Dandenongs in the late 30’s. So far the prose is crisp and the images flitter well as Castro later works do. It’s not Shangai Dancing but its got me intrigued and that’s always good.

    about to start Singing the Coast by Margaret Somerville and Tony Perkins to review here. Heading up to Garma festival tmrw, which involves a 24 hr trip on the train to Darwin. Plan and reading about the Northern Coast of NSW whilst passing through the desert at night

  14. I have a very bad habbit or reading a lot of things at a time and only finishing maybe half of what I start.

    Recently I’ve completed ‘Your Inner Fish: the amzin discovery of our 375 million-year ancestor’ by Neil Shubin, ‘The Candy Machine: how cocaine took over the world’by Tom Feiling, ‘Doctoring the Mind’ by Richard P Bentall,’It Don’t Worry Me: Nasville, Star Wars, Jaws and beyond’ by Ryan Gilb and ‘No Country for Old Men’ by Cormac McCarthy. I’ve almost completed ‘The Brain that Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge and ‘The Pagan Christ’ by Tom Harpur. I’m also halfway through ‘Primo Levi’s Universe’ by Sam Magavern and have started Roberto Bolano’s ‘2666’. There’s some others I’ve picked up but given they look like being on he unfinished list…

    I read Mieville’s ‘City and the City’ and while I wasn’t blown away by it, I’ve certainly go no regrets either.

  15. What a treasure trove! I’m going to print this post and do a little scrounging around for some of the titles. As for me, well, last week I read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, which I’ve had in my shelves for ages and sank myself into. This week I’m reading Trouble: Selected Writings 1970 – 2010, Kate Jennings and next week, well, since my eyes are bigger than my stomach, I’ve got a few to choose from and there’s Tony Birch’s, Shadow Boxing which might balance things up.

  16. Holy moley

    … all I have to offer (and relevant time for) is a young adult’s book called ‘The Word Spy’ by Ursula Dubosarsky (2008), Penguin Australia.

    She writes:

    “Comma, colon: period (full stop).

    All three of these types of punctuation were given their Greek names by a friendly librarian names Aristophanes, who lived by the Byzantium in the 2nd century BC. They were marks on the page, each message to the reader.

    Comma, meant short pause.
    Comma is Greek for ‘cutting off’.

    Colon: meant medium-sized pause.
    Colon is Greek for ‘limb’ or a verse of a poem.

    Period. meant a long pause – that is a full stop. Period is Greek for ‘road going around’.\

    I hope this list of books is saved, so I can come back to it when I get to retirement in 35 years.

    I can’t wait…. maybe I’ll win lotto and sit in the library all day??!!

  17. That Trotsky biography’s an odd choice. All of Robert Service’s other books have been hopelessly propagandistic, and Trosky happens to have been the subject of a biography that ranks with Ellmann’s Joyce and Painter’s Proust and Lee’s Woolf. I can only assume Rjurik is such an ardent trot that having read and re-read Deutscher’s 3 volume biography, he has an insatiable desire for more words, any words, on the General.

    1. Well, I can’t speak for Rjurik but the Deutscher biography of Trotsky (BTW, ‘The General’ = Engels, not LT) is (IMO) politically problematic and historically out of date. Service is a plonker but he did have access to archives that no-one else had seen. In any case, don’t people read all kinds of books, for all kinds of reasons? Surely one doesn’t only read books with which one agrees? And when did reading become so competitive?

  18. Well um, Trotsky is a pretty interesting subject and yes, I’ve read the Deutcher Trilogy. I suspect that you (Jeff) and I might disagree about its political shortcomings. In any case, I planned to read Service in the hope that he might have included new primary material – “information” I wasn’t aware of. In any case, for those interested in a Trotskyist reply to Service, there’s one here:

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