Wonderful Feels Like This – Sara Lovestam

Thanks to Allen and Unwin for a copy of this adorable story. Wonderful Feels Like This is a story of an unlikely friendship between a bullied fourteen year old, Steffi, who is learning bass guitar and an old man living in a nursing home, Alvar, who was once a jazz musician. The two bond over Povel Ramel, a Swedish musician and slowly their friendship evolves as Alvar tells his story of being a jazz musician in Stockholm during the war and Steffi tries to navigate the perilous waters of being a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in.

 

I loved Alvar and his stories of the war, how he courted the lovely Anita, how he rose to become a noted jazz musician and how it all seemingly fell apart. His story was a fascinating one and one very different to many that feature during WWII with the scandinavian city seeing minimal conflict. Steffi was a great role model or younger readers. The way she handles herself with persistent and vicious bullying is commendable. Her unfaltering knowledge in who she is and what is important to her is a great lesson and if only we all had the wisdom to rise above. I very much enjoyed her perspective and found myself wishing her only the best.

 

I did find some of the transitions from the past to the present a little jarring and awkward, perhaps a by product of being translated? Either way, it was still a pleasant read and did not disrupt the flow of the story. I would have liked a little more from the novel. A little more depth to the characters, a little more connection, a little more believability. As much as I loved Steffi she seemed a little too mature, a little too sure of herself for such a young character. This novel touches on several important themes, bullying the strongest, but the novel only skated the surface and I feel think novel could pack a little more punch if it has delved a little deeper.

 

Overall, this was a feel-good and heart-warming story that I would most definitely recommend. There are some great concepts and beautiful characters within the pages that young musicians and bullying victims might particularly connect with. Wonderful Feels Like This was a charming novel, which I give three music notes, an important part of Steffi and Alvar’s friendship.

 

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Mortality: A study.

What would you do faced with the knowledge of your own mortality? Death is something we all think about and come into contact with sooner or later, it is something we cannot escape. It is final. It is a mystery. It is something that is met with both fascination and reluctance. Sometimes it strikes like lightning, out of nowhere and over in an instant. Sometimes it creeps up slowly, leaving us time to ponder it, try to understand it, prepare for it. Some may see this as a blessing, a time to put your affairs in order, tick off the bucket list, spend quality time with friends and family. Some may see it as a curse, a ticking time bomb, the sword of Damocles hanging over our head. Either way it is something that has been explored in fiction, ever since words were put to paper or stories told from mouths.

 

Over the years I have come across memoirs written by those with the wolves at their door, the axe on the back of their necks. Ordinary people (or in my opinion, extraordinary) who have received knowledge of their impending mortality. Each and every one of these memoirs have stuck with me long after I closed the covers having read (and wept into) the pages. These tales I count up there in the most influential and memorable books I have encountered in my life. Why are these books worth picking up? What can we learn from people entering the twilight of their lives? Well I’m hear to share just a few with you that I have read and loved and to ask for any recommendations you have to share too.

 

These perspectives can teach you what is truly important in life. Is it career? Is it family? Is it friends? Travel? Possessions? Can it be a mix of it all? The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch was the first of these memoirs that I picked up, a good five or so years ago. Randy worked as a lecturer at a university and had a wife and young family when he was diagnosed with cancer. His book is based on a lecture he gave prior to his death, what last words of wisdom would you impart on the world given the opportunity? Devastatingly this opportunity went from hypothetical to reality. While you may weep, lost in the pages, Randy details so many important life lessons from the big ones about chasing your life dreams to the smaller ones like minding your manners and not underestimating a thank you note. This truly is a guide you can live your life by and despite it coming about in such a tragic way, there is so much we can all take and apply in our lives while we have the chance. I would recommend this to anyone and have bought multiple copies to hand out to those who I think would appreciate it.

 

When Breath Becomes Air has a very different story and perspective to share. The author, Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who is diagnosed with lung cancer in his late 30s shares his journey with cancer. From the physician saving peoples lives, his role abruptly shifts to that of the patient. He is faced with the decision of how to spend his limited time. “The truth that you lived one day at a time didn’t help. What was I supposed to do with that one day?”. Did he have two years? Did he have ten? Should he continue with his medical career, or write a book as he always assumed he would? What about children? They were in the future. What that future still there? His thoughts are beautiful, poignant and had a profound affect on me. Having a colleague in an all too similar situation as Kalinithi when I first read this book I gained a lot of perspective in this memoir, and then found myself turning to it for comfort when my colleague succumbed to finitude also.

 

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor is the most recent of these books that I have read and yet it stands apart from the previous two by miles. This could be that Taylor is in her early sixties, has lived a relatively full life and her children are grown. This memoir stands apart because of the stoicism in Taylor’s words. She has accepted death and discusses important issues such as voluntary euthanasia and why she stands for it. Her opinions are intelligent and well-formed. A fascinating read for anyone who wants a little insight into someone who would have considered this had she the opportunity. Taylor’s words are the most beautiful, the most poetic. An absolute joy to read. Being the only writer by trade her clear affinity for the written word adds something more to this book. Another that is well worth the time.

 

What makes each of these books so special is that each of these incredible people have something to teach us, wisdom to impart. Something that makes their life meaningful, something we can take and use in our own to make sure that we seize our day and live our life to the fullest while we still have it. These books are an experience not to be discounted. Now, over to you, any further recommendations for my lovely readers? Read any of the ones I have mentioned? Let me know what you think.

 

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Where The Trees Were – Inga Simpson

Sometimes you just know you are going to fall in love with a book. After hearing Simpson talk about this novel at Adelaide Writers Week I rushed over to buy my own copy. I have an affinity for the Australian book and the descriptions of the scenery had me entranced from just the small excerpt read by Simpson. Where The Trees Were follows the story of Jay across two time points. As children playing on her farm in the 80s Jay and her friends come across an amazing discovery of a group of carved trees. They know these trees are something special and decide to keep them a secret to protect them. Later we meet Jay as an adult, working at a museum still seeking to protect these precious artefacts.

 

One element of this novel I found particularly striking was the lack of physical descriptions that Simpson gives. Rather than providing the reader with a car picture of what her characters look like, the reader is left to create their own images of Jay and her friends. I find this highly unusual, yet a very under-rated technique. Physical traits are only described or mentioned when they had relevance to the story she was weaving, for example Kieran’s physical size was used to explain his dominance and Ian’s heritage was only mentioned as it became necessary in the plot. This is quite important as it makes the statement that heritage, physical features etc. don’t change the character and the reader has no problem creating their own image with out these pieces o information.

 

I highly enjoyed the format of the two time points, past and present, spliced together throughout the novel. This coupled with the short chapters kept the pace of the novel moving, keeping the reader constantly engaged. In fact, I read this novel in one day as I just could not put it down. In fact I already look forward to acquainting myself with more of her work in the future. The characters were another highlight. Jay is a great narrator, honest, innocent and relatable. The reader is able to put themselves in her shoes as she navigates both the past and present. Friendship is an important theme within the novel and in particular the ever-changing nature of childhood relationships that grow into adult lives are expired with Jay and her circle of friends.

 

This book also got me thinking about just how much Aboriginal heritage and identity has suffered at the hands of those governing Australia, both past and present. While very familiar with the Mabo case from high school legal studies, I had never even considered the destruction that would have occurred. Scared land-holders just trying to protect their property would have done the unthinkable to protect their families and homes but at the expense of our indigenous culture and identity. So many important artefacts destroyed it is quite devastating to think about. It also highlights the fact that our government is yet to acknowledge the true custodians of this land in the Constitution. Something that still needs to be fixed, something that is the least we can do.

 

Overall this is an exquisite example of Australian fiction. A book that captivated me and spoke to my soul. How glad I am that I had the opportunity to hear Simpson speak and open me up to this experience. Where The Trees Were is a true gem of a novel and I suggest you go out and get yourself a copy. I give this novel five glasses of wine that Jay so enjoys, something I can relate to myself.

 

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Pachinko – Min Jin Lee

I received a copy of this as part of my Sensei Subscription with Books on the Rail (guaranteed great read each month). I was so excited to receive Pachinko after seeing it all over #bookstagram, plus I have always been fascinated with the complexities of Japanese culture. I started reading this book on much lunch break at work and showed it to my Japanese colleague who explained to me what pachinko was, basically a cross between pokies and pinball machines. The popular Japanese style of gambling. This novel starts in Korea in 1910 with Hoonie, a young man with a cleft-lip and a club foot and his marriage to Yangjin. The story follows the birth of their daughter, Sunja and her eventual marriage to a Christian minister. The young couple move to start a new life in Japan and face many hardships in their foreign surroundings. The rest of the novel follows their life and the life of their descendants for four generations. Weaving a cross-generational narrative of life in Japan as a Korean immigrant.

 

I found this book incredibly easy to get into. I had imagined it might have taken a good few chapters to get my head into this foreign land, cultures I didn’t know a lot about. Instead I found the prose easy to follow, much too easy to be absorbed into. Despite it takin me a week to finish, I picked it up as often as I could and found myself disappointed when I had to set it back down. The style of writing sucked me right into this time and place immersing myself in a fascinating culture. Lee manages the transitions from character to character seamlessly and I loved the constant changes in perspective, gaining a personal insight into each of the characters and how they thought.

 

In fact a highlight of this novel was each of the characters. Across the four generations there are many characters we have the opportunity to meet and I found each one of them unique and engaging. In fact there was not one perspective that I did not enjoy or take something from. There were many twists and turns that I did not expect at times and the character’s actions kept me on my toes. Even characters you had followed for most of the novel could turn around and show a different aspect of their personality that you had not seen before. Sunja was a definite highlight, she came such a long way over the novel that you couldn’t help but love her. Mozasu was another favourite of mine. His easy manner and underrated intelligence was alluring.

 

There were many strong themes within this novel that give the reader much to think about. The idea that women are born to suffer is one in particular. The women of this novel, in particular the earlier ones, accepted their misfortune and difficulties within their lives. These events are shrugged off as part of the suffering that all women endure. Such a different perspective from today’s society. There is much to be done for equality for women but realistically we are so lucky to be living in a world where we have much more opportunity. I am constantly fascinated with the idea of suicide as a means to protect your honour. This has been within Japanese culture back to the samurai days and the idea that people may still practice it astounds me. To do this you would need such conviction, be so sure that these actions are the only way forward. I can barely comprehend this and yet this novel explains how these situation can come about. This book also shows that racism is evident in every culture. This books explains the type of racism that the Koreans had to endure while living in Japan, displaced from their homeland. The fact that people who were living in Japan as the second or third generation from a Korean background still had to have an identity card, a different passport is harsh, yet not so different from other countries in the world where racism is still rife. It is sad to think just how predisposed humans are to segregate those are different.

 

This novel left me with much to think about and found it’s way under my skin only pages in. I would highly recommend picking up Pachinko. This novel has a fascinating insight into a culture very different to my own and I thoroughly enjoyed the different perspective. Well worth a read and definitely worth the hype I give Pachinko four bowls of white rice, something so plain to us yet so special back in those days.

 

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Wine & Words Wednesday 19/04/17

Easter has just ended for another year. A weekend of family, friend, drinks and too much food. Time for a detox? Definitely not. Another Wednesday, another bottle of wine. This week embarrassingly enough I have already drained the bottle I wanted to discuss. Proof that it is a great drop? Most definitely. What wine am I discussing tonight? Let’s head to McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide to a local favourite Alpha Box & Dice. Alpha Box & Dice as their description suggests they are a boutique winery slowly making their way through the alphabet of unique and tasty wines. Each wine is named after a letter, a different letter every time with a correspondingly unique label. In fact a highlight of these wines are the beautiful labels capturing the essence of what is bottled inside. Their cellar door is eclectic and welcoming. If you ever head this way, this cellar door is a must-visit. One I stop at each time and walk away with more wine than I need (although, you always need more wine). Today’s post is brought to you by the letter ‘T’. Alpha Box & Dice’s 2011 Tarot contains mostly grenache, plus some shiraz and tempranillo. I’m going to borrow from their online tasting notes with this one because I could not describe this wine as eloquently as they have. This bottle “feels like a favourite pair on jeans, sounds like Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know and smells like toffee apples and gingerbread”. If this description doesn’t tempt you then what is wrong with you?

 

What book could I pair with this mysterious wine? Well, when I think of tarot readers I can’t go past The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Captivating and distinctive, this is a charming read that I stumbled across in a book store, drawn in by the cover. Quickly it became a fast favourite of mine. To quote the cover:

The circus drives without warning.

No announcements precede it…

It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

I’m not giving you anymore, trust that this is a stirring read full of mystery, intrigue and some unforgettable characters. Keen an eye out for Isobel, the mentioned tarot reader. A complex character who I always felt was a little hard done by, but some things cannot be denied. Intrigued yet? Good, now go get yourself the bottle and book. Sit down one quiet autumn night and let yourself be transported to another time and place, the night the circus rolls to town. Have the opportunity to visit the cellar door? Well, grab your book one crisp afternoon and travel down to McLaren Vale. Grab yourself  bottle (or three) to take home and glass to drink there. Indulge in one of their delicious platters and takes some time for yourself and meet the tarot reader herself within this intricate plot. You will not be disappointed.

 

Oh, and the beauty of their gorgeous bottles is you can reuse the empties as candle holders. I most certainly did not steal this idea from their cellar door either *shifty eyes*.

 

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The Stella Prize 2017

I learnt something this week. Two of the most notable literary prizes in Australia are the Miles Franklin Award, celebrating literary meriting novels that depict phases of Australian life, and the Stella Prize for exemplary literary works by Australian women. What I did know was that both these awards are celebrating the same person. Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was a writer who supported the development of a uniquely Australian voice and endowed her estate to establishing the Miles Franklin Award. Disheartened by the underrepresentation of women in the Miles Franklin Award, the Stella Prize was founded celebrating our many amazing Australian women and their novels. The 2017 winner of the Stella Prize will be announced tomorrow and as requested I’m here to discuss my thoughts on this years shortlist.

 

To be completely honest, I have only read five of the six shortlisted novels. Two I had already read or was currently reading when the shortlist was announced and the other three all stood out to me when I perused the longlist. Poum and Alexandre did not particularly capture my interest so I chose not to read it. That said it is in the company of some exceptional novels so I’m sure it more than holds it own and is amazing piece of work. Of course I may have to retract my decision should it win.

 

I learned to stay quiet. I learned the nobody much cared. I learned that it was probably my fault anyway and that what they were doing was perfectly okay. This is how it alters us. This is how we change.

I read The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke in one sitting. This memoir made me laugh. This memoir made my cry tears of rage. This memoir blew my mind. The casual and institutionalised racism that Clarke grew up with was uncomfortable to read but is something that each and everyone of us as Australians needs to experience if only to understand. To stop asking someone where they are from because clearly they don’t *look* Australian, to lose our prejudices and the mentality that “these people should go back to where they came from” and even to reconsider the hypocrisy of our nation who took this country by force and still are yet to officially recognise the true custodians of Australia and still have not learnt to share. And Clarke does all this with clarity and at times humour in a way we can all empathise with.

 

Not that he forced me. Not saying that at all. You know how it is though, sometimes easier to let a man do his thing than go through the trouble of explaining why not, of kicking him out, of having a big scene. So, yeah.

This is just one of the many passages in An Isolated Incident, by Emily Maguire, where she completely hits the nail on the head. Where she perfectly captures the contradictions that are what it means to be a woman in society. The feeling that you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. These important messages and themes are wrapped in the guise of a psychological thriller of the murder of a young woman in a small country town. It is very clear from this novel that Maguire is passionate about women’s rights and violence towards women. On top of that she perfectly captures the voice of a small town bartender, tough as nails and who likes her men rough around the edges. Another fast-paced read.

 

When you’re dying, even your unhappiest memories can induce a sort of fondness, as if delight is not confined to the good times, but is woven through your days like a skein of gold thread.

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor was not what I expected. Taylor who, as the title suggests, is dying of cancer but this memoir is not steeped in misery, you likely will not shed a tear at the bittersweet story of a beautiful life coming to an end. This memoir is devoid of sentimentality with Taylor showing off the brilliance of her mind. There are so many pearls of wisdom that I could have shared a number passages to demonstrate some of what Taylor can teach you. Instead I urge you to read this memoir yourself if only to experience the exemplary prose that shows a life long affinity for the written word. Taylor also broaches the controversial idea of voluntary euthanasia that I highly recommend everyone reads before taking a negative stance on this issue.

 

 Perhaps we have to stay ignorant of our blessings. Perhaps we can only carry our good fortune with us if we don’t know we are doing it – otherwise we would be overwhelmed by anxiety at the possibility of loss.

L’heure entre chien et loup. The moments after sunset as the sky darkens and blurs the vision, making it difficult to distinguish between wolf and dog, friend and foe. This clever and haunting title perfectly captures the essence of this novel. Blain takes ordinary characters in the throes of daily life, the beauty and the tragedy, and makes it something extraordinary. This was the kind of book that I could not stop thinking about, even once I finished reading it. I went for a walk not long after finishing it and found myself ruminating on the characters and their actions. Sadly this is Blain’s last novel but I find myself craving more of her work. She has a knack for perfectly capturing the essence of each character she writes and this novel had me hook line and sinker from the opening chapters to the dying pages and left me feeling melancholic with a few stray tears falling down.

 

Jane wondered how many times she had looked into Karl’s eyes for more than a few seconds. In twenty-eight years of married life, what was the sum total of eye contact they had ever made? What might they have seen in each other, if they’d really looked?

My first thought about the Museum of Modern Love was that it was a nice change of tone. Each of the other books on this list are sad, melancholic and while this one does have some sadness, it is not the focus of the plot and does not drive the story. The story is a unique concept based in fact around artist Marina Abramovic and her performance The Artist is Present. The characters Rose creates are endearing, vivid and memorable, a highlight of the novel. This book is a slow burn that quietly blew my mind and grew in retrospect. A fascinating story that provokes deeper thought.

 

I would not at all be surprised or disappointed if any one of these five novels took out the prize tomorrow. They are each unique and tackle some important themes. In my opinion this is a particularly strong shortlist of novels and we should be proud of the talent we are cultivating here in Australia. My prediction is that Between a Wolf and a Dog by the late Georgia Blain will take it out. This novel is an exemplary piece of fiction. The characters are vivid and memorable, her descriptions of the mundane snippets of life are astute and demonstrate such a crystal clear understanding of human nature, both the good and the bad. I do have to say, my sentimental favourite does go to the Hate Race. Clarke has a strong, clear voice that is impossible to not respond to and I was lucky enough to witness her quiet charisma when she spoke at Adelaide Writers Week and her memoir was unforgettable. Best of luck to each of these amazing authors, sadly two of which are no longer with us, and I am already excited for next years list.

 

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The Museum of Modern Love -Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love was a great change of pace for me. This book was a little lighter, a little more playful than some of my more recent reads. It does however contain a fascinating concept that drew me in form the very beginning. This book follows the performance by artist Marina Abramovic called The Artist is Present and some of the people drawn in by this stunning and fascinating performance, most closely Arky, a film composer who is unwillingly separated from his wife and struggling to continue with life. This novel has been nominated for the Stella Prize and certainly lives up to the hype attached.

 

The performance of Marina involves her, the artist, sitting without movement in a wooden chair, six days a week, seven and a half hours a day for three months. There she sits making eye contact with whom ever chooses to take the chair opposite her for as long as they can stand. This topic fascinates me in large part due to the changing nature of society where by these days we tend to avoid eye contact. Think to sitting on the train, walking down the street people more and more avert their eyes from each other as they pass by, hiding behind their headphone and mobile devices.  The idea of extended eye contact, particularly with a stranger, is intimidating and uncomfortably personable. Just imagine how draining and emotional it would be to do so with person after person. In fact, I would recommend looking up clips from this performance on YouTube. I found myself with tears in my eyes from the raw emotion of it.

 

It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that Marina and The Artist is Present was based in truth and that this actually look place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Rose  demonstrates a strong knowledge and understanding of Marina and gives the reader a comprehensive history of her performances. Slipping this information into the plot so naturally that it doesn’t feel forced or rote. This novel is devoid of pretentiousness, a talent considering the plot revolves around performance art and a controversial artist. Marina’s work is stunning, fascinating and provides a true insight into a number of fascinating themes that occur within human nature. Rose does this in a way that is accessible to a reader with no background in art or art history.

 

The characters in this novel are superb. From the beginning I had a special love for Jane, even more so by the end of the story when we learn how her story concludes. Aspects of this character resonate with me as I see parts of myself in her. Her easy open manner. Jane is friendly, steadfast and unashamedly herself. Healayas was another highlight, she is very much the cool, confident goddess that all women aspire to be. Intelligent, charismatic and holding her own in a field dominant with men. her character stuck in my mind. Arky, the focus of the novel was fascinating. I enjoyed his journey across the novel as you watch his character develop as he slowly opens up, learning and gaining enlightenment. The reader cheers as he finally has his moment with Marina. I love that there are flashes of reality in other characters of the book, Brittika and her final actions, the man who sat for Marina twenty-one times and children sitting on the floor mimicking the actions of the artist.

 

I can see how the true performance attracted such numbers and attention and touches the lives of so many. There is a certainly vulnerability in this extended eye contact and you can only imagine the emotional toll it took on the artist, let along the physical consequences. Rose captures the feeling of what it is to sit for Marina and describes how it can manifest in different people in an eloquent and exquisite manner. Despite how intense the performance was and how difficult the lives are for the characters in it, Rose manages a certain lightness, a playfulness in the tone of the novel and instead it grows in retrospect after you finish reading. A great concept that provokes deeper thought The Museum of Modern Love quietly and stealthily blew my mind. I give this book five of Arky’s piano keys.

 

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