the list on saturday

 Lighthouse3I love a dinner party scene. It’s an author’s chance to get the whole cast together and have them interact. The characters perform their social graces with various amounts of charm and hypocrisy. Then, as the night wears on and the drinking increases, relations deteriorate. People get nasty, say rude things and attack each other with cutlery.

Today’s List: My Favourite Dinner Party Scenes in Fiction:

1. To The Lighthouse, Virgina Woolf

Hosts: The Ramsays

Guests: William Bankes, Lily Briscoe, Charles Tansley, Augustus Carmichael, Minta Doyle, Paul Rayley

Menu: Soup, Boeuf en Daube.

Highlights: Mrs Ramsay wears “her golden haze”; the Boeuf en Daube is a “perfect triumph”.

2. American Pastoral, Philip Roth

Hosts: Seymour “Swede” Levov and Dawn Levov

Guests: Bill and Jesse Orcutt, Shiela and Shelly Salzman, Marcia and Barry Umanoff, the senior Levovs.

Menu: Cold cucumber soup, steak, red onion, shucked corn, beefsteak tomatoes, baguettes, strawberry-rhubarb pie, Burgundy wine, lots of Scotch.

Highlights: Seymour Levov learns his wife is having an affair with their architect (“why, beneath the florid expanse of Hawaiian shirt, were his hips and buttocks moving like that?”); Jessie Orcutt stabs Seymour’s father with a fork.

3. There But For The, Ali Smith

Hosts: Gen and Eric (GenEric) Lee

Guests: Hugo and Caroline, Richard and Hannah, Miles Garth and Mark Palmer, Terence, Bernice and Brooke Bayoude.

Menu: Lamb tagine and couscous (omelette and couscous for Miles), brûlée, wine.

Highlights: Terence knows a great deal about musicals; Richard calls Terence a “fucking pansy”; Miles goes upstairs “between main course and the sweet”, locks himself in one of the bedrooms and stays there for months.

benny makes best australian stories



In a victory for small-town science fiction nerds everywhere, my story Benny Wins Powerball has been chosen for inclusion in this year’s Best Australian Stories. Go Benny! (I should clarify that he’s the small-town science fiction nerd, not me, although I am reading Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War at the moment and kind of getting into it.) The Sydney Morning Herald has kind words to say about Benny and the collection, which is edited by Sonya Hartnett. Having now read the lot I especially recommend Sarah Holland-Batt’s So Far North, Sean Rabin’s I Can Hear the Ice Singing, Kate Simonian’s Scott, Meredei Ortega’s David Davis at Coldpigeon Dot Com, and the hilarious (in a disturbing but brilliant way) Yia Yia on Papou by Zoe Norton Lodge.


first line friday

My father brought home a radio. “It’s got a sender and a receiver,” he said. “Now you can talk to people other than yourselves.” He fit the earphones over my head. And the first news I heard was that my friend Pelly Bay had drowned. Pelly had fallen through the ice while riding his unicycle. That was April 1959.

The Northern Lights, Howard Norman, 1987

I’ve been meaning to include The Northern Lights in FLF for ages because it has a cracker of an opening and has been one of my favourite reads of this year. It is the first novel of American writer, Howard Norman, and is about fourteen-year-old Noah Krainik growing up in the frozen wilderness of northern Manitoba and later in Toronto. This Recording calls it “the best book ever to take place in Toronto.” An attractive claim, although I’d best check my Margaret Atwood back catalogue before seconding that one.

Norman said that he wanted to create a melancholic atmosphere in the novel and so wrote the whole thing while listening to “Bach’s Unaccompanied Pieces for Cello” on loop and reading the novella, A Fool’s Life, by Ryunosuke, over and over. I reckon it did the trick:

I had tried to concentrate on the landscape – the wetlands, the spruce – but as we heard the muffled whine of Savoie’s plane, I felt a tightening inside. Hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched, I drew into myself. We saw the plan lower from a cloudbank, tilting, rebalancing, setting down, then leaving a widening rift of water as it circled back on Piwese Lake. About fifty yards from shore, Savoie anchored. He then rowed a pontoon to the rocks. “I am ready when you are,” he said.

I looked at Sam and Hettie. “Okay – goodbye,” I said. Hettie checked the rope securing my suitcase, adjusting it to no useful purpose except to show her affection for me. She turned away, took a few steps, stopped, and looked at the house. Sam, placing an arm around my shoulder but not looking at me, said, “yes, goodbye Noah. You’re doing the right thing. You thought hard, worked your options down to one – your family. And that takes courage.”

“I don’t feel courageous,” I said.

“No matter,” he said. “You’re acting as such.”

Sam pulled me close and said, “Don’t forget. We’re your second home.” He then joined Hettie, and they walked toward the house, not looking back.

small wonder

I found out on Thursday that a very short story of mine, William Shatner Vows to Save the Great Basin Pocket Mouse, will be published in a forthcoming publication of poetry and micro-fiction after winning me  a runner-up prize in a recent Spineless Wonders comp. The comp was judged by the excellent poet joanne burns (and I’m not just saying that because she chose my story – she is truly excellent!). If you want to know more about joanne’s work here’s a good place to start. You can find details of the Small Wonder journal I’ll be in here. Who is William Shatner? Glad you asked. And as for the Great Basin Pocket Mouse

first line friday

I came home on the last train. Opposite me sat a couple of London Transport maintenance men, one small, fifty, decrepit, the other a severely handsome black of about thirty-five. Heavy canvas bags were tilted against their boots, their overalls open above their vests in the stale heat of the Underground. They were about to start work! I looked at them with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives, of how their occupation depended on our travel, but could only be pursued, I saw it now, when we were not travelling.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Swimming-Pool Library, 1988

Ever since Hollinghurst’s most recent novel was long-listed for the Man Booker, I’ve been thinking about revisiting The Swimming-Pool Library. Not many books succeed for me in portraying London as a place I might actually want to live, but this one does: it helps, I suppose, that between shags the young protagonist, Will Beckwith, lives a highly-cultured life of privilege amidst impossibly beautiful people and buildings.

Like Will’s desiring gaze, Hollinghurst’s prose lingers on every sight and sound. The effect is both heady and languorous. This is a book best read on a warm mid-holiday afternoon, on the steps of the shallow end.

first line friday

In 1954, the summer before I entered third grade, my grandmother mistook Andrew Imhof for a girl. I’d accompanied my grandmother to the grocery store—that morning, while reading a novel that mentioned hearts of palm, she’d been seized by a desire to have some herself and had taken me along on the walk to town—and it was in the canned-goods section that we encountered Andrew, who was with his mother. Not being of the same generation, Andrew’s mother and my grandmother weren’t friends, but they knew each other the way people in Riley, Wisconsin, did. Andrew’s mother was the one who approached us, setting her hand against her chest and saying to my grandmother, “Mrs. Lindgren, it’s Florence Imhof. How are you?”

Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife, 2008

When I heard that American Wife, which tells the story of Alice Blackwell, wife of the President of the United States, was a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush, I was keen to read the novel: not because I have ever been particularly interested in Laura Bush, but because I was interested in why a young liberal novelist like Sittenfeld was interested. I had read both Sittenfeld’s previous novels, Prep and Man of My Dreams, and enjoyed them – Prep in particular. Teen romance is one thing, but political biography? And Laura Bush? Was this going too far?

In explaining her decision to write American Wife, Sittenfeld said in Q&A with Time magazine:

Soon after George W. Bush was elected I read a few articles about Laura Bush that made her seem different from what I would have expected. I learned that she’s a big reader, and that she would invite people who had political opinions different from her husband’s to events at the governor’s mansion and then events at the White House. And then I read a biography of her in 2004 by Ann Gerhart called The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush. That reinforced the sense I had that she had led a really complex and interesting life.

If Sittenfeld’s novel is anything to go by, Laura Bush’s life has been complex, interesting and even tragic in parts: for example, the former First Lady was responsible for the death of a class mate when she was seventeen. This human interest angle and Sittenfeld’s polished prose together make the book a fascinating and satisfying read.