Rebecca Starford, Publishing Director
I normally consume a lot of news and current affairs during my week of podcast listens, but I’ve been hankering for more escapism as the pandemic continues. I’ve been loving Phoebe Reads a Mystery by Phoebe Judge, host of Criminal, and owner of perhaps the most soothing voice in podcasting. She’s been reading a chapter a day of classic crime and detective novels since COVID took off, and the list includes Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I discovered Voice of the Iceberg recently from Radio New Zealand, a dreamy short series on an artist’s trip to Antarctica and the surprising richness and variety of the soundscape recorded on their boat trip south. My latest audiobook is Stephen Fry’s wonderful Mythos, which he narrates with theatrical delight, and for streaming we tore through the new installment of the Dirty John series on Netflix about Betty Broderick, starring Amanda Peet. It’s a troubling, bizarre and transfixing real-life case from the early 1980s. Soundtrack and costumes are incredible.
Alice Cottrell, Publisher
I really enjoyed ‘Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?’ by Katy Waldman in the New Yorker, a great piece of cultural criticism that delves into capitalism, detachment and politics in contemporary fiction. It articulates everything I find frustrating about Sally Rooney’s novels and Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan but haven’t been able to put words to.
I also loved A Fantastic Woman (SBS On Demand), a beautiful Chilean film about Marina, a young woman whose older partner dies suddenly one evening. Instead of being able to mourn her lover, Marina is treated with suspicion by his family. Daniela Vega is wonderful in the lead role.
And it would be remiss of me not to recommend that everyone pick up a copy of New Australian Fiction 2020, KYD’s second print anthology of short fiction, published this week!
Ellen Cregan, First Book Club host
Having hit the lowest possible point of lockdown, I have started rewatching my favourite detective procedurals. First up is Jonathan Creek (Binge), which I’ve already burnt through three series of. This show began in the late 90s, so there are a few gimmicky storylines and jokes that would never make it through a writers’ room in 2020, but despite these few era-specific blips, the show is so satisfying to watch. The basic premise of is: a laterally thinking genius who lives in a windmill (yes) and designs stage magic tricks teams up with a saucy and relentless investigative journalist to solve seemingly impossible crimes. Lots of locked-door murders and seemingly supernatural happenings, all undone by Jonathan’s intensely logical brain. Caroline Quentin as Maddie is true, late ‘90s feminist perfection: she will impersonate literally anyone to follow a lead, and as an added bonus has all of the hairdos that my mum had around the time the show was being made. And don’t even get me started on the highly entertaining sexual tension between the two leads. If you’re looking for a lighthearted murder mystery with an Agatha Christie-esque reveal at the end of each episode, this show is for you!
Alan Vaarwerk, Editor
As we see in the first days of spring in lockdown, I made the most of a few days off recently by sitting on my sunny front porch and finishing some books I’d started before COVID turned my brain to mush. One such book is Ronnie Scott’s The Adversary (Hamish Hamilton, read our review)—I read the first half of the novel back in March, and its languid poolside summer setting made me lament the summer bushfire-choked Melbourne never got to have. Reading it now I’m simply jealous of the fact that Scott’s characters are able to go outside. The novel’s humour is absolutely bone-dry, which takes a little warming up to, but once you’re on board it’s a delight to read.
I also really enjoyed Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (W&N, read our review), which follows Ava, an early-20s Irish expat teaching English in Hong Kong. Dolan weaves in some playful but pointed critique of English as a colonial language, and the politics of ‘correct’ usage in international settings—both Hong Kong and Ireland. I would have liked more to be made of the Hong Kong setting, but Ava’s lack of engagement with her surroundings makes sense in terms of her early-20s self-absorption. I’m intrigued but slightly nervous about reading the essay Alice recommended above—I think it’s a fair critique but it might retrospectively sour my enjoyment of the novel!
It’s also been a while since I’ve found a new podcast, and I’m really enjoying the new weekly series from The Cut, in which host Avery Trufelman (formerly of 99% Invisible and Nice Try!) discusses a range of issues both directly and tangentially related to the magazine’s content. My favourite recent episode unpacks the ecofascist sentiments behind the ‘Nature is healing, we are the virus’ meme, and how the white supremacist ideal of ‘nature’ as ‘pure’ and ‘untouched’ actively erases Indigenous peoples.
Justina Ashman, Editorial Assistant
This month I’ve been tackling the to-read pile that sits piled next to my bed and has grown so large that I worry nightly that it will fall and crush me in my sleep. Grim, but also, what a way to go. I recently finished Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (Magabala Books) and found it fascinating and eye-opening. Pascoe writes so sensitively and evocatively about Australia’s Indigenous history and challenges readers to constantly question and interrogate widely taught white settler narratives that are mired in bias.
I’m a similar history kick, I’ve been listening to the back catalogue of Melbourne-based queer history podcast, Queer as Fact. Their episodes are thoroughly researched while still being told in an accessible and conversational way and they are incredibly varied in location, time period and subject. One of my favourite aspects of the podcast is how they approach the issue of queer identity in different social, cultural and historical contexts with a lot of depth and nuance. In addition to retelling stories from history, they ask questions of how contemporary queer people interact with that history, how we engage with it and what we bring to our discussions of the past.
Caitlin McGregor, ‘Companion Planting’
Liminal released their third digital series of art and writing last week! It’s called Interiors, and the pieces published so far are 100 per cent bangers. Knowing Liminal and looking at the line-up of artists involved, the ones still to be released will also be bangers. I keep returning to Lighthouser’s song ‘Dressed for Winter’, which I find eerily comforting and which captures the strange, introverted experience of waiting out this pandemic indoors. The collection opens with Jennifer Nguyen’s poetic essay ‘dream (10 hours) but it’s raining inside’, an actual dream (in all the ways). It’s a masterclass in lyricism, and blends the everyday with the eerie and uncanny (‘Despite living in ordinary times, you will continue to dream about ordinary things’) in a way that has stayed with me for days.
I hunted down Ilan Pappe’s Ten Myths About Israel (Verso) following Sara M. Saleh’s announcement on Twitter that despite having hundreds of high-profile signatures from Australian artists and academics, no mainstream Australian news outlet would print or cover this open letter condemning Israel’s plan to annex the occupied Palestinian West Bank. I realised I didn’t have anywhere near a good enough understanding of what lay behind the phenomenon of ‘PEP’—or being ‘progressive except for Palestine’—and certainly still don’t, but this book was a really useful and thorough place to start learning.
I seem to always be reading something by Annie Dillard! Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is filled with Dillard’s trademark attention to detail, philosophical trains of thought, and mastery of and respect for the sentence as a mini-form. It’s especially powerful to read at the moment, as Dillard focuses on her natural surroundings and hardly comes into contact with any people throughout the course of the whole book, which mirrors my current experience of being in lockdown.
Will I ever tire of telling people they should watch Sarah & Duck (ABC iView)? Probably not. I swear it’s the most calming television show ever made, which I think boils down to how it’s odd, quiet and gentle all at once. Whenever I hear its opening song, a whole lot of tension instantly leaves my body. Quack.
I’m also listening to Solange’s ‘Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work’ because it’s timeless—and because, thankfully, it fails to live up to its title.
Becca Rothfeld’s review of Sally Rooney’s books (‘Normal Novels’) is a masterclass in assured critique.
Finally, I’m looking forward to Claudia Rankine’s Just Us (Penguin). Citizen was great—the Serena Williams chapter is the kind of improbably sustained set-piece writers long for. Just Us may not be out yet, but there are some books you begin reading before you’ve had the chance to crack the spine. They take up lodgings in your mental space; say they’ll stay the night and end up spending the month. They speak to you in advance. Although, in the case of Just Us, I feel like it’s yelling.
Melinda Soós, ‘The Hidden Cost of the Night Shift’
Confined, frustrated, no end in sight—so I’m thrilled that my pre-COVID op-shop finds gave me a needed reality check.
Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my Mother earnestly and vividly recounts her astonishing family history from Orthodox Judaism to revolutionary struggles, from outwitting the Nazis as partisans to surviving the Soviets—and then history malignantly repeats itself.
Livia Bitton-Jackson’s raw I Have Lived a Thousand Years, written through the eyes of her thirteen-year-old self, plunges the reader into the horrors of Auschwitz and Plaszow where she became a robot ‘animated by the hysterics of survival.’ Her disarming candour forces one to consider: what right have we to strip others of their autonomy, identity and integrity?
The extraordinary tenacity of human courage, determination to defy death, mother-daughter relationships and the capacity to love and trust shine in both memoirs—as does the need to tell and remember. Being tested indeed reveals your ‘tough stuff’, as Rubin put it.
For laughs, there’s always Late Night with Seth Meyers to put this crazy world to rights.