It is unfortunately all too easy to make reading a low priority. Our phones chirp with messages, work calls us late into the night, and streaming services seem like a faster way to relax. We have the best intentions when we buy or borrow books, but life tends to get in the way.
The current lockdown is an ideal time to start reading again. Whether you see reading as an act of self-preservation or you love the idea of finally working through your book piles, there is an altruistic aspect of reading books during the coronavirus crisis: supporting local writers. The writers of the books reviewed below have had book launches and events disrupted in the wake of the pandemic. These cancellations can have an enormous effect on writers, both financially and mentally. So benefit yourself and Australian writers by ordering these books.
In this electric collection of personal essays, Savage leads readers through a range of subjects – from class and gender in academia and the literary establishment to her experience of sexual assault as a teenager – while playing with form throughout. There is so much to admire in Savage’s literary style: in The Museum of Rape, for instance, Savage curates and exhibits fragments of writing about assault, including a section about a man on the internet who catalogues false claims. Unwed Teen Mum Mary is framed around a questionnaire Savage fills out to be considered for the role of taste-testing new snacks at 7-Eleven.
Savage deftly shifts between stylistic devices, narrative voices and time, and the result is breathtaking. Snippets of emails, questions to Siri, explicit videos feature; one essay is printed in two columns – on the left, a piece Savage originally wrote for a zine, her critical commentary on the right. The book will draw in even the most distracted and stressed reader needing to shut out the news. The collection, for all its differences in tone, content and structure, comes together beautifully.
Fire country: How Indigenous fire management could help save Australia
Hardie Grant Travel
Steffensen, an Indigenous fire practitioner and land management expert, advocates for a radical change to Australia’s climate and environment policies: to draw on Indigenous expertise and traditional knowledge of fire management. To do this, he argues that we need to build the capacity of Indigenous communities to get involved in fire management, and bring together Indigenous practitioners from all states in order to consolidate their leadership. “You have to know how to read the country and learn the knowledge before you can light a fire,” he writes.
Mentored by elders who wanted children to learn the language and get back onto country, Steffensen offers insights into the differences between western hazard reduction and Indigenous fire management. His frustration and sadness is palpable, particularly in his depiction of elders constrained from acting on their traditional knowledge on their own country. The book, offering clear and incisive solutions to the climate crisis, needs to be read by all Australians.
The Salt Madonna
Noske was lucky enough to scrape in Perth and Melbourne launches for this spine-chilling debut novel not long before literary events were cancelled across the country. In it, Noske takes us to Chesil, a fictional but all too believable Australian island, to which protagonist Hannah Mulvey has returned to care for her dying mother after leaving as a teenager. In crisp and delicious prose, she tells the story of a community rocked by change, particularly as many men on the island are losing their jobs, and the corresponding loss and violence. Hannah starts teaching at the school on the island, where one of her students goes missing. Noske expertly weaves together the stories of Chesil’s inhabitants, aching with loss and regret, and the results are unsettling and gripping. This accomplished novel is a must-read.
Scott’s debut novel is the summer we didn’t get to have. The unnamed protagonist gently guides us around Melbourne’s inner north, from swimming pools, gyms, and queer nightlife, to rental properties that feel all too familiar in their decrepitude. The story, which takes place over a number of weeks, follows the protagonist’s relationship with his friend and housemate Dan, whose own relationship with boyfriend Lachlan is at the stage of trawling the streets of Fitzroy to check out real estate. The narration is warm and funny and offers intimate insights into the protagonist and his feelings about PrEP, the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, sex, drugs and friendship. It’s a beautiful, engaging and relatable read.
Sweetness and Light
Pieper’s second novel is set in India, where Connor, an Australian expat, scams tourists. Many of his victims are “EPLs” – western women who have read Eat Pray Love and have travelled to India in search of a better understanding of life. When one of his scams turns fatal, Connor’s gangster boss visits him in a dank holding cell and makes him an offer: deliver a package in exchange for freedom. On his way to Chennai to deliver the package, he meets Sasha from New York, a woman who could have easily been one of his EPLs a few days earlier. We learn both characters’ backstories and build empathy for them before Pieper throws in some visceral and painful twists. It’s a gripping novel, and Pieper is masterful at not just avoiding the tropes of the “westerner in India” genre but actively subverting them throughout.
Other books and events to watch out for
Book clubs are flourishing online, and some book launches have moved online too. Check your independent booksellers for details. There are a few hashtags to keep the moment alive for Australian writers at this time, including #AussieApril, #coughupforafreelancer and #CoronavirusReadingStack.
Other books that have either just been released or are coming out in the next few weeks include: Thuy On’s Turbulence and David Stavanger’s Case Notes (both UWA Publishing), Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in that Country (Scribe), Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena, Bram Presser’s The Book of Dirt (Text), Tanya Vavilova’s We Are Speaking in Code and Erin Hortle’s The Octopus and I (Allen & Unwin).
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