Author: Guest blogger
Anita Barraud, Walkley winner. Producer, The Book Show ABC Radio National
This has been a year for catching up on some, but not nearly enough, of the current fiction. Until I started on The Book Show in April this year I lived mainly in the non-fiction world apart from the occasional thriller (I like Jesse Kellerman particularly Brutal Art about outsider art) or revisting my best loved classics read as a young teen and therefore all the more imbedded (there was an amazing librarian at my school) such as Flann O’Brien’s wonderful The Third Policeman, The Fall by Camus, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass – sometimes poetry – WB Yeats is a favourite as well as modern poets like Charles Simic and sometimes reading well loved children’s stories to young friends. Dido Twite is one of my favourite girl characters from Joan Aitken and her Wolves Chronicles. I tried reading The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to a seven year old boy recently but he wriggled too much so I had to resort to the old faithful – Roald Dahl. Her language is old fashioned but for me that’s the charm.
But in my new role as a producer on The Book Show, I’ve come across some good contemporary reads. I really enjoyed Paul Harding’s The Tinker. It’s a small book less than 200 pages but meaty. It was the surprise award for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. When I was reading it I was humming with its rhythm- sometimes I would re-read a page just for its lilt. The plot sounds simple and even derivative – it’s set in New England across a couple of generations with a Maine clock repairer George Washington Howard looking on his life in the past and present as he counts down to his death. And there are further reflections from his father, the tinker Howard Crosby, as well as other characters’ thoughts and philosophies and even comments on those. I even accepted the idea of the clock ticking down George Washington’s dying minutes… It came as no surprise to read that his mentor was Marilynne Robinson.
I also enjoyed rereading To Kill a Mockingbird as part of my research and I read Dickens’ Hard Times, The Crucible by Arthur Miller and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River to help a daughter through her VCE English studies – we had some lively discussions about The Secret River particularly. It was a pleasure reading the short stories War Dances by Sherman Alexie – although some stories moved me more than others. When he is at his best he has a light touch that can suddenly reveals a powerful truth or a different perspective. A daughter is watching her mother sorting denim; the mother, a Spokane Indian buys up old jeans from op shops to make beautiful quilts. ‘There’s a lot of asses in that quilt’, says the daughter.
I enjoyed another book Chef by Jaspreet Singh about an Indian chef who travels to Kashmiri to cook a wedding feast but also to see the place where his famous father died. Actually there’s a scene that echoed the Tin Drum in a way – when Oscar hides under the seven skirts in the potato field… a young Sikh boy (the chef’s father) escaping during Partition hides under an Indian Muslim woman’s layers of sari and burka. It’s a delicious scene – she’s eating a mango and tapping her foot…
I gloried in Saraban by Greg and Lucy Malouf – not just a gorgeously presented Persian cook book but travelogue and history book too. I also thought Somalian English writer Nadifa Mohammed’s debut novel Black Mamba Boy about her father during the second world war was very good and I discovered the strange and disturbing world of Shirley Jackson too. I really revelled in an English translation of Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass a racy inventive story around the characters in a pub in the Republic of Congo. I enjoyed the ride. I was intrigued by Filipino Miguel Syjuco’s Illustrado and Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Educatio, a chilling fiction that reads like a documentary about the criminal underworld in Russia.
Over the summer I’m hoping to catch up on other recent literary works David Mitchell’s Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom are on my list as are others but I might indulge in a thriller or two too…I also want to catch up on contemporary debates on literary fiction – it’s a long time since university days so perhaps I’ll dip into a few journals over summer.