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The best kind of problem.

I looked up collective nouns for books and discovered that “library” and “pile” seemed to be the most common ones. That kind of surprised me: I thought when I was saying “pile” I was being casually vivid and descriptive — “oh, I have a pile of books waiting by the toilet” — but no: it seems I was actually being correct and appropriate and not nearly as colourful as I had thought. Now I need to find another collective noun that will simulataneously convey my witty mind and vast volume of books awaiting reading. Bums. I have a lot of books waiting to be read. Way more books, exciting and delicious, than I have time — not a bad problem to have.

Moving on: I have been guzzling books lately, some really awesome ones. Wanna hear?

Poppy – Drusilla Modjeska

On the back cover of Poppy, if you go looking for the tags, it says “Biography” and “Fiction”: it’s a memoir about her mother’s life, mental unravelling and reconstruction, questing and death, all slightly fictionalised but not completely. This fascinates me. It asked me a lot of questions about how we know people. We construct people we love through our interactions with them, which means that all the children of a person have a different person as their parent. Perhaps, to share that parent through a book means to present the essential elements in such a way that the reader can construct their own understanding of that person — which doesn’t have to be the same understanding that the writer has of that person. The book talks about some other pretty potent stuff, too: the role of women in relation to those who depend on them (in the context of a traditional husband/children arena, specifically) — what gets given away in service to those who are loved? What are the beloved taking without realising? Can love be completely given without compromising so much of the self that it is nearly negated?

There’s a lot of loss in this book: it opens with Poppy’s birth with her dead twin, a figure that reappears sporadically while examining her life. There’s loss of marriages, lovers, life, mental stability, assumptions — people are changed and broken down and rebuilt (in other words, normal life) and all of this circles around Poppy.

I first read this book in 2001, when I was in my first year of uni, and I think I lacked the life experience to make sense of a lot of the themes in it: I found in interesting and moving, but reading it now has been a very different experience. Still a good book, it challenged me to think a lot about the way lives weave together; relationships, sacrifice, and how we give to and take from those we love.

Red Shoes – Carmel Bird

While I was hanging around the Australian women writers section of the library, hunting for Poppy, I took a wrong turn at Albequerque and found a shelf full of Carmel Bird, a writer of whom I had never heard. Intriguing! I grabbed Red Shoes because it was the most eye-catching in both design and blurb content.  It’s a book about the life of Petra Penfold-Knight, leader of a cult whose followers must all wear read shoes.  The story covers Petra’s life, from the grim circumstances surrounding her birth, through her childhood and young womanhood, to her rise as a cult leader. The cult is a terrifying place, through Petra’s work.

And a damn good read it is, too: it’s told by Petra’s guardian angel, which is a motif that carries the risk of being hackneyed or trite, especially if the writer chooses to use the angel as a moralising figure, but Bird completely avoids that trap and uses the angel as an omniscient narrator with personality. The agnel’s narrative is clever, clear and funny, but also describes some extremely grim and gothic matters, and those two elements work brilliantly togther.  It’s a really, really good read.

One of my favourite things about this book is its Footnotes: the last third — about a hundred pages, in the edition I read — is explanations of ballets, artistic works, historical figures and motifs in pyshcology or mythology that feed back into the book. There are footnotes to “Red Shoes”, “Cinderella”, “Catherine de Medici”, “mandala”, “reflexology” and so on. I loved this. You read through the narrative and, when prompted, you can go and read this background/supporting stuff in the footnotes and they’re like extra threads that you weave into the story. I thought it was totally cool; an awesome way of layering the motifs and meaning of the book. Loved it. I’m really looking forward to getting some more of Carmel Bird’s stuff when I take this one back to the library.

The Love-Artist – Jane Alison

Holy freaking cow, what a great book. So: Ovid, the justly celebrated Roman poet famed for his erotic poems Amores (The Loves) and Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), is being toasted all over Rome; but overhead, there’s a little moralistic grumbling from Augustus, the rigid, censorial emperor. To let Rome cool off a little, to have a break following the release of his Metamorphoses and to seek inspiration for his next work, Ovid takes a break to the Black Sea, where he meets Xenia, a witch, a medicine-woman and a seer. They fall in love and he brings her back to Rome. The novel covers from the release of the Metamorphoses to Ovid’s exile: his ambitions, Xenia’s visions, the culture of Rome and the politics at play are all clear and simply shown — Alison hasn’t used a cast of millions, but creates Rome with fantastic succinctness — and the way relationship between Ovid and Xenia grows and swells and changes is gripping. Plus there’s some awesome sex, witchcraft, poetry, jealousy, prophecy, intrigue: the works. I love this book. It’s fast, sensually vivid, and exciting, and really well written. Nice one, Jane!

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