Sam van Zweden




Reading in May 2020

May has been the calm before the storm. After what felt like endless weeks of slow time, the clock has suddenly started moving at double-triple-quadruple speed. The object of everyone’s anxiety has shifted from what it means to be alone to what it means to be together, and the world outside of all of our bubbles has been making itself known in the most urgent of ways.

It’s been a good month of reading – three fantastic reads, and lots of hours with my head in books. I’ve turned toward long works more often that short ones – is my attention span returning? Who knows.

Here are some thoughts on the things I read this month.

I don’t read zombie novels. But I am living through a pandemic, and this zombie novel is different. Is it? Maybe I’ve given zombie novels a bad wrap.

Melanie is living at an army base in the middle of nowhere in England, sheltering from ‘hungries’ – zombies, whose spread has taken over the world to such an extent that humans live in small enclaves, behind protective fences and walls. Melanie’s routine is reliable: each morning music plays, her teachers march past the cell where she sleeps, and the day begins. Two soldiers execute their morning routine: one holds a gun on Melanie while the other straps her into a wheelchair, then she’s taken to the classroom, where things are better. In the classroom she learns about populations and spring flowers and Greek mythology. Her favourite is Pandora. Best of all, the teaching is sometimes done by Miss Justineau, who’s beautiful and clever, and when she speaks to Melanie it seems like everything is good and perfect.

Melanie’s an intelligent kid – she notices when kids go missing from the classroom. She picks up staff members’ first names, what they’re reprimanded for, and the inconsistencies in their stories. When Melanie and a band of grown-ups are forced off the base, she unleashes all the secrets and terrible things, just like Pandora.

I don’t have a lot of zombie stories to compare this to, but the logic of the disease in this one makes sense to me. It’s based on a real fungal disease that spreads among ants in a particularly horrific way; taking over their bodies and eventually shooting like a tree from their head to spread spores. Perhaps it’s the hypervigilant awareness of contagion that we’re living with right now that makes me feel that this is such a convincing conceit, but I was 100% sold on it and the precise level of horror it brought.

The morning after finishing this book I see three kids and two teachers at a nearby school playing ‘Mother May I?’ on the playground.

“Mother may I… walk like a zombie?”

“No, you may not!”

YOUR OWN KIND OF GIRL by Clare Bowditch
I listened to this as an audiobook – it’s the first whole book I’ve listened to with a fancy new Audible subscription. This one was a great place to start – fantastic production, Clare’s voice is wonderful for storytelling. It includes sung passages, and Bowditch impersonates her mum’s Dutch accent surprisingly well, and there’s an utterly delightful section right at the end where they talk about appeltaart (Dutch apple tart). The book itself is about body image, creative life, and mental health. I so appreciate someone with this kind of platform talking about these issues, normalising the struggle. This is both accessible and beautiful, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

FATHOMS by Rebecca Giggs
Did you know that whalebone and whale bone are two different things? Or that in the 18th century whale products were akin to modern plastic in their wide-ranging uses? Not just candles, soap, and corsets – the ones I brought easily to mind before reading FATHOMS – but in spectacle frames, umbrellas and fishing rods. This is just one of the deeply fascinating topics covered in Fathoms. The book’s broken up into discrete essays looking at topics including whale as a source of resources in the human world; whales as metaphors; the sonic landscape of the oceans as whales experience them; and Japanese whaling. These essays revolve around a central experience: on a beach in Perth, author Rebecca Giggs watches the spectacle and tragedy of a stranded whale’s death. Each essay in this collection returns in its own way to that central experience, but isn’t tethered or forced to speak to it. This gentle through-line allows for a wide-ranging meditation on the interplay between whales and humans, but also – and importantly – what whales might experience and face in their own right, completely aside from being a metaphor, an example, or a charismatic exception. Packed full of poetry and flawlessly executed research, this wonderfully balanced deep dive (heh) provided such a perfect distraction from… all this.

Review: Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down

In the moments before a plane takes off there’s a pause, where it sits at the end of the runway. This is my favourite part of any flight. It’s better than the clouds or the glimpses of ocean or city below. That runway pause is a deep breath full of hope and heartbreak, where you learn a lot about yourself and your fellow travellers. It’s the moment before the impossible thing happens. Jennifer Down’s second book, Pulse Points, inhabits a similar space. Many of its stories live in the moments before epiphany or cataclysm – the telling moments. With a knack for the old advice to enter a scene late and leave it early, what’s offered in this collection are flashes of incredible truth which suggest that the most important moments in life aren’t necessarily the loud ones.

Pulse Points coverAs demonstrated in her debut novel, Our Magic Hour, Down explores expressions of grief with great skill. In Pulse Points, grief shows up again and again, but it never quite looks the same in any given story. ‘Vox Clamantis’ sees Johnny grieving his dying mother as he races to her bedside from across the country, ‘with the pain in his lungs, bellowing out smoke from the grief’. ‘Aokigahara’ frames a sister’s grief after her brother’s suicide as some liquid thing, ‘rising in weak spasms’, making itself known in dreams of ‘flooded fields … water-damaged crops’. Every story in Pulse Points contains this creeping sense of loss in some way – in facing death; in separating from an old sense of self either by choice or force; in surviving. Continue reading “Review: Pulse Points, by Jennifer Down”

FW_Small acts

Three lit journals in time for Christmas

In the two-and-a-bit weeks since my return from travelling, I’ve felt more inclined towards people than I have in quite a while. There’s something about going out into the world and realising that there are indeed places where you know nobody at all. It’s a bit of a treat – even in the city now anonymity isn’t something I get to enjoy often. Returning also makes you more thankful for those bright, shining stars you have back home on your return. And so coming back to open arms and vibrant community has been soothing. It’s been at once calmly familiar and energising.

Seeing so much of good people has meant also seeing much of their fantastic work – I’ve been to a few launches and received a very welcome parcel in the mail. I’d like to call your attention to three magazines whose latest issues have been released in the last fortnight, and which will no doubt make fantastic Christmas presents: The Lifted Brow, Voiceworks and Funny Ha Ha.

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I can’t review these at this point – I’ve read a few pieces from each, but haven’t read any of them cover-to-cover yet. What I am sure of is that each of these publications are incredibly hard-working, generous and represent some of the very best in Australian writing. I’m particularly excited about Funny Ha Ha, which has gotten chubby in the space between issues 2 and 3. It’s made by Rebecca Varcoe, who’s also recently been on a City of Literature travel fund trip. On that trip, she talked to some very, very clever comedy writers and those transcripts are part of Funny Ha Ha issue 3, along with writing from other hilarious people.

The Lifted Brow‘s latest is ‘The Art Issue’, and it looks suitably gorgeous. Today the Brow also announced their entrance into the world of book publishing, kicking off with Briohny Doyle’s debut novel. The hugest of congratulations to both TLB and Briohny!

This new venture for TLB is exciting – with their growing reputation (and proven track record) as a publisher of challenging and important nonfiction, I’m hoping to see a strong nonfiction list from them in future, in addition to this debut novel. While they’re only aiming to publish a few books each year, I have no doubt that those titles will be chosen with great care, and will fill a gap in the market, as the journal does already.

Voiceworks #102 is themed ‘Defiance’, in honour of the brilliant and dearly missed Kat Muscat. The launch of this issue also saw the launch of the Kat Muscat Fellowship; a developmental fellowship for female-identifying writers and editors, which hopes to honour “Kat’s legacy and further [develop] the future of defiant and empathic young Australian women.” Applications for the fellowship are open until January 11.

The three journals pictured above are all beautifully produced and well thought-out, not just as things that house great writing, but also as lovely objects. Go get one for yourself,  and go put one in someone’s Christmas stocking (or holiday receptacle of choice).

Spots of time

Poets talk about ‘spots of time,’ but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.

— Norman Maclean, quoted in Judith Kitchen’s ‘Grounding the Lyric Essay’.

5 Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time

As a bookseller, I love it when people elect to take my recommendations of any of the following books. I love it because every time I pick up that book, I remember the electric feeling I got the first time I read it. I also remember how these books somehow changed things. All of these books are 5/5-star books for me. Today I pay homage to books that I wish I could pick up and read for the first time again. Each of these books changed my perspective on what is permitted on a page; they are all written beautifully; they all signalled a change in how I thought.


1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The most common reason people wish they could read a book for the first time again is the plot twists. This is why everyone wishes they could read Fight Club again, and un-learn the secret about Tyler Durden. The Secret History is a brilliant campus novel involving all sorts of suspense and intrigue. A group of students welcome a new fellow to the fold, but all is not as it seems. The group accidentally murder a man (this is in the first line, so, you know – not really a spoiler) and the after-effects of that act touch each of them differently. I wish I could read this for the first time again because I wish I couldn’t see the plot twists coming. In fact, it’s written so grippingly that I believe that if I had time to get through this tome again I’d still be surprised by how it all pans out.


2. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning” – that’s the first line of Bright Lights Big City.
This is the first book that I read written successfully in second person – a perspective which changes the “I” of the story into “you”. When it’s done wrong, this style can feel clunky or accusatory. When it’s done right… it’s Bright Lights, Big City. The surprising writing style makes this book a delight to sink in to.

House of leaves

3. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

I was asked the other day what book had scared me the most. I’m not really a reader of scary books, as I deal badly with horror. Horror films see my covering my eyes or blocking my ears. My over-active imagination means that whatever horror I see or read stays with me, disrupting my sleep or the way I move around the house or in darkened spaces. House of Leaves appealed to me for its interesting use of space on the page – multiple storylines run on the same page, and Danielewski does a great job of mimicking the feeling of the content by playing with page space. The story is about a house whose internal dimensions are larger that its external dimensions – which, when you think about it, is impossible. The house’s inhabitants find a way in to the extra space, and decide to explore it. As they do, the space expands. This book is a ‘documentation’ of what they find. And it’s absolutely terrifying. I’m not sure whether this one is necessarily to be read for the first time; perhaps just one I’d really like to re-read. And one I want everyone else in the world to read so we can all compare notes of how scared we got.

reality hunger

4. Reality Hunger by David Shields

This book changed things for me. Its topic is collage and nonfiction. Shields questions all the regular Post-Modern concerns: who owns a story, what is originality, what makes something ‘real’? He examines the line between fiction and nonfiction, shooting at this target in a million different ways. The really nifty thing about this is that Shields loves collage, and has made this book entirely out of unattributed quotes from other people. Some words are his, most belong to other people. But it’s the new way of putting all these thoughts together that means that Shields says something new. As I read this book, I felt a bursting open of some kind of gate within my framework of thinking. It re-routed my thinking, in a way that encouraged playfulness toward new ideas.


5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Another book that changed how I thought things worked – AHWOSG is a book that straddles fiction and nonfiction. It uses a tonne of what Eggers calls “scaffolding” (footnotes and breaking of the fourth wall). Where I thought fiction had to be written in a detached style, and utterly removed from life, Eggers here has turned his life into a novel. A memoir with all the relevant playfulness and elaborations that are permitted in a novel.


What books do you wish you could read for the first time again?

The Numbers Game

libraryWelcome to 2013! A new year always prompts reflection and resolutions, and I’m no different to the majority of people.

What was 2012 for me? 2012 started with a new job at a bookstore. I landed a role as an Associate Producer with the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I ran my first event, with support from some of the most amazing people ever. I wrote 10,000 words in a day. I started making guest posts on other blogs. I started reviewing for The Big Issue and Readings Monthly. I got 10,000 words into a memoir. I blogged for Melbourne Writers Festival. I graduated. I went to an internationally famed conference

In 2012, I read 44 books. One of my favourite posts each year is the one where I get to look over my “100+ Books Challenge” from the previous year. And this is it! I like this post so much because I don’t consciously think about the numbers, genres, etc of what I’m reading while I’m reading it – I so rarely get to choose what I read, it’s often dictated by research or work. So it’s also interesting to think about what I’m being sent for review, given the talk about women’s books and reviewing.

So, the breakdown:

I read less books in 2012 than I did in the previous two years – only by a smidge, but still. I blame it on uni. This year is my year – it’s my year to say “yes” to every opportunity that I can, and to spend more spare time reading. One of my new year resolutions is to maintain a good reading and writing routine. 2013 is going to be big.

In 2012, I read 23 books by women, and 21 books by men. While I pledged my participation in the much-talked-about Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, I didn’t really consciously chase it – I mean to this year. 11 of my 23 women-writer books were by Australian women. With all the attention that the AWW Challenge has gotten from the media, I think it’s safe to say that the challenge has done good things to raise the awareness of reading habits and women’s work in Australia.

17 books were by Australian authors. I like to know what’s going on in the Australian writing scene, to know what my peers are creating, and to know how I can support Australian writers in my job, by helping to sell more books by Australian authors. Having said that, you’d think I’d have read more Australian works. Minus the Ancient Greek, I’m pretty sure everything else I read was from America… I know it’s big, and has a big population, but it does seem a bit out-of-whack.

I reviewed 15 of the books that I read in 2012. This was mainly due to time constraints (again – uni), so hopefully 2013 will have more blue links on my “Reading” page.

17 nonfiction.
21 fiction.
3 plays or screenplays.
2 poetry.
5 collections – short story, essays, both single-authored and many authors… Given what I write, I need to be reading a whole lot more of this kind of work, especially nonfiction essay collections.

Like I said above, sometimes I don’t really consider my reading habits until I can take a step backward and consider the numbers, like I have here. Thinking about this breakdown, I’m going to focus on a few things in the next year of reading… I will aim to read more Australian work, more women writers, and more collections.

Bring it on, 2013!

Review: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

mr penumbraMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore lives up to its name: it is run by Mr Penumbra, it is open 24-hours, and it does sell some books… But Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is also much more than the name on its front window, in unassuming yellow Gerritszoon font, suggests. New employee Clay Jannon quickly discovers that there is much more to this bookstore than first meets the eye.

Penumbra himself is a kindly old gent, if somewhat eccentric and puzzling, but his bookstore is almost everything but an ordinary bookstore. At the front of the store is a minimal selection of books for sale. The real business of this bookstore, however, lies in the ‘Wayback List’ – shelves which stretch all the way to a very high ceiling, and right to the back of the store. Rolling stack ladders (you know, the ones that appear in Libraries that Dreams Are Made Of) help clerks climb to fetch weird and wonderful books for Penumbra’s strange patrons. These books operate on a library system, and their readers never say much about what they’re reading. Clay – despite being warned to never open these books – has his curiosity roused when he takes a peek. Cracking into one of these books starts his journey to solve the puzzle which starts in Penumbra’s shelves filled with encoded books, and stretches right around the world, and as far back as the Fifteenth Century.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was published earlier this year, and is the first work of novel-length from digital jack-of-all-trades, Robin Sloan. Starting as a 6000-word digital-only short story, Penumbra might be seen as one of the more imaginative works lately to have started life in a digital form.

The premise of the book is quite literary – in the opening chapters all I could think of was Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, with Penumbra’s seemingly infinite shelves of infinite books. The encoded books at first struck me as perhaps a take on Borges’ books, which contain every permutation possible from our own alphabet, and every other existing alphabet, and alphabets that don’t event exist in our world. The chance of finding sense in these books is what keeps men reading… Sloan’s bookstore in Penumbra at first led me along thinking that perhaps he’d used the same premise as the basis for his own story. As I started reading, I took note after note of how I was reminded of Borges’ Babel. “p.37 – “many have devoted their lives to it -> Borges again”. “p.29 – description of what’s inside books sounds just like Borges’ infinite library books”.

From this unshakable similarity (in my mind, at least) came my main issue with Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I came into the book unsure of what kind of basis I was judging this work on: so much of the opening of the book reminded me so heavily of Borges that I was ready to judge on these terms – highly literary, postmodern and tricksy. I soon realized, though, that this wasn’t what Sloan was doing, and found myself shifting my expectations. The premise of this book is literary insofar as it’s based in a bookshop, and it considers the interplay of on-the-page text and digitization… That’s about it. The premise is literary, but the writing is not. Once I’d found this stable ground, I was in for quite a ride. Of course, this qualm isn’t anything to do with Sloan – it’s my own baggage that I bring into the text, and it was something quickly overcome when I figured out where I was with the book.

What ensued then was some strange cross between the glorious pacing of The Da Vinci Code (Brown’s is an awful book, but has very moreish pacing) and the bookish revelry of Jasper Fforde or Richard Braughtigan. The pacing is rewarding, and makes you want to keep reading. Short chapters cause that “just one more…” problem, meaning you tear through the book in two or three days, sleepless and hungry. Things fit together in the way of detective fiction, where happy coincidences flagged at the beginning of the novel line up cleanly by the end, and around every corner is an answer.

Overall, this book is funny, fast, and a great fun romp. It’s not exactly challenging, but does contain a huge amount of commentary on the interplay between hard-copy and digital texts, a part of the book which has had plenty of discussion in other reviews. Sloan’s conjecture seems to be that both hard-copy and digital hold their areas of expertise and charm, and that neither necessarily needs to put the other out of business in order to be successful or appreciated fully.

Lighter than I expected, but no less awesome for it. Do give it a go!

Teaser Tuesday

It’s late in the day, sure, but technically still Tuesday! I’ve been busy all day at work, then baking biscotti – for the record, biscotti is hard, and you’d do best to allow yourself a screw-up batch before you bake the proper ones you plan on eating/giving. My first batch flopped, but these ones are sufficiently delicious. The 2nd last tray is just about to come out of the oven, and then I will be curling up and trying to finish the below book. I’m loving it.

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

mr penumbra

“So I guess you could say Neel owes me a few favours, except that so many favours have passed between us now that they are no longer distinguishable as individual acts, just a bright haze of loyalty. Our friendship is a nebula.”

– from Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (p14).

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