5 fast reviews: Anne Enright, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Yukio Mishima, Bruce Pascoe & Tara June Winch

Sometimes I can’t quite review books as fast as I can read them. I am now working from home (thanks to the coronavirus lockdown), which means there’s little separation from working and home life, and when I finally turn off the computer I’m too exhausted to do much other than flop in front of the TV to watch Netflix or ABC iView or some other streaming service. I really can’t summon up any extra energy to pen a book review.

In the interest of keeping you all informed about what I’ve been reading, here are five books I’ve read in recent months, which I know I will never get around to reviewing in full. This is a pretty eclectic list but a good demonstration of my reading tastes and interests.

As per usual, the books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘Actress’  by Anne Enright
Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 264 pages; 2020.

I am an Anne Enright fan. I was so looking forward to this novel that I bought it on the day of release in Australia and spent a weekend reading it at home on my balcony.

It’s about an aged Irish actress, the fictional theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Norah, but it’s less about acting (though that is a major theme) and more about the ties that bind mothers and daughters, and what it is like to live in the shadow of a famous parent. (The cover, by the way, is a nice reflection of the story: it’s Carrie Fisher as a child watching her mother Debbie Reynolds on the stage.)

But for all its beautiful language and its rich characterisation and the authentic insights into human relationships, I came away from this novel thinking, So what?  It’s full of dark truths and hidden secrets (but is nicely balanced with a touch of subtle comedy), and I loved the way it chartered Katherine’s career from Hollywood to London’s West End and then her slide into obscurity, but there was just something missing that meant I struggled to fully engage or care about the people depicted…

‘Daisy Jones and The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Fiction – paperback; Arrow Books; 401 pages; 2020.

I bought this novel to read on a longish four-hour flight from Darwin to Perth last month (just days before the WA borders were closed) and I absolutely loved it.

It’s very much in the vein of a music “documentary”, structured around a series of interviews with members of a (fictional) band that was big in the 1970s. It mainly centres around Daisy Jones, an ingénue singer-songwriter, who joins The Six, and helps propel the group to worldwide fame.

It charts the group’s rise in popularity and recalls the legendary tours, the chart-topping songs and the volatile recording sessions, and provides startling insights into the personal lives of the main players, including their drug addictions and their relationships outside of the music industry. It’s very much a story about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and the enormous pressures fame exerts on those whose creativity is the basis of their success.

Fans of Fleetwood Mac (whom the band is supposedly modelled on) will find a lot to love here. It’s hard not to see Daisy as Stevie Nicks and The Six’s narcissistic leader Billy Dunne as Lindsey Buckingham. This is a fun read but has a sad ending…

(For a similar sort of novel, I can also highly recommend Joseph O’Connor’s much-underrated and deliciously entertaining The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.)

‘Star’ by Yukio Mishima
Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 87 pages; 2019. 

Published as part of the Penguin Modern series of novellas and short stories, Star is a story about fame. First published in 1961 not long after the author himself acted in a film, it focuses on a movie star and eligible young bachelor called Rikio. A heartthrob growing more famous by the day, wherever he goes he is greeted by screaming fans. This feeds Rikio’s narcissism and his arrogance, and much of the story focuses on his quest to remain relevant so that the fame does not disappear.

But 24-year-old Rikio has a secret. He has a lover, Kayo, an unattractive older woman — “She looked at least forty but was barely even thirty. Her two front teeth were silver, and she wore her hair in a messy bun” — who is, in fact, his assistant. She does his hair and makeup, and because his good looks are so central to his success, she is his constant companion.

The novella examines the artifice of celebrity. It demonstrates how difficult it can be to live a life that is not your own and the stresses you must endure to be unfaithful to your true self. I wouldn’t say rush out and read it, but I found it kept me entertained over the course of a couple of lunch times.

‘Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe
Non-fiction – paperback; Magabala Books; 278 pages; 2014.

There won’t be many Australians who haven’t heard of this legendary non-fiction book which debunks the long-held belief that Australian Aboriginals were nomadic and did not build houses or practise agriculture.

Pascoe painstakingly excavates evidence from the papers and letters of the first white settlers and explorers to show that pre-colonial Aboriginals did, indeed, do those things — and more. He finds written evidence that they built dams, farmed wild plants for food, constructed settlements and fashioned landscapes to suit their ends. They even had their own system of government. And he explains why it suited colonialists to suppress that evidence, to maintain the myth that Aboriginals were simply hunter-gatherers, a myth that remains to this day.

Dark Emu is a truly eye-opening book. I loved Pascoe’s simple prose, his well thought out arguments and his plea for better understanding between black and white Australians so that we can move forward together. If the book has a single message it is this: white Australians have an amazing opportunity to learn from 60,000 years of sustainable custodianship of this land and all it contains — but they have to acknowledge it first.

‘Swallow the Air’ by Tara June Winch
Fiction – hardcover; University of Queensland Press; 216 pages; 2006.

First published in 2006 but reissued in 2018 (in a really lovely small-format hardcover), this is a gripping account of a young Aboriginal girl whose single mother dies, leaving her (and her older brother) in the care of an auntie. When Auntie’s fondness for drink and men who throw their fists around gets too much May strikes out on her own. 

Told in a series of self-contained short chapters and vignettes (a bit like short stories), the narrative charts May’s ups and downs, the heartbreak she contends with, the crappy jobs she works, and the people — good, bad and indifferent — that she meets along the way as she comes to term with her past and seeks out her own indigenous culture. The redemptive ending, when she returns to her childhood home as a proud Wiradjuri woman, makes this beautiful, heartfelt book such a powerful one. Written in lush language, it contains so many evocative descriptions of people, places and experiences that it’s the kind of book you want to savour rather than rush through.

Oh, and did I mention it’s won a million awards?

I read ‘Actress’ as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, an annual initiative to read books from Ireland. You can find out more about that on Cathy’s blog 746 Books.

I read ‘Star’ as part of Dolce Bellezza’s #JapaneseLitChallenge13. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March, here. This is also my 11th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle last November for £1.99, not realising it was basically a short story.

I read ‘Swallow the Air’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It is my 6th book for #AWW2020.

20 thoughts on “5 fast reviews: Anne Enright, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Yukio Mishima, Bruce Pascoe & Tara June Winch

  1. Your ‘fast’ reviews are great, Kim, so no apologies please!
    I’ve read two of them (Dark Emu and Swallow the Air, and agree entirely with your opinion.
    And I’m grateful for your opinion about the Enright, because I’m a fan too but I hesitated over buying this one and now I think I’ll leave it till the library opens again.
    Which *wink* leaves room on the credit card for more Australian purchases! (How good it feels to know that my incorrigible book buying is in a worthy cause!!)

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    • Thanks, Lisa. Yes, I don’t feel remotely guilty about buying books at the moment because it’s a way of supporting the industry.

      I was disappointed with the Enright for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Really amazing prose and great characters etc but maybe the story just wasn’t compelling enough. Perhaps it might just have made an excellent short story 🤔

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  2. You and I went in opposite directions at the same time, and now here I am, outside Darwin, in isolation while you managed to avoid it. I didn’t plan very well and I don’t have as many books with me as I’ll need before I get home again, but I do have Dark Emu which I should get to in about a week, and which I referenced when I wrote about the Budj Bim eel traps last year.

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    • Our timing has been incredibly lucky throughout this whole crisis. T flew here on 6th after 12-hour delay and reroute through Singapore. You can check your flights online to see if anyone on board has been diagnosed with covid-19. The same flights (with reroute) on 5th & 7th have had lots of covid patients, but the one on 6th was covid free 🤷🏻‍♀️🍀

      I was supposed to fly to the UK yesterday for Easter and to visit T, but instead he’s here with me in lockdown after he chose not to get on one of the last Qantas flights to London at end of March. We both figured if he didn’t have coronavirus before he got on a 17 hour flight he’d probably have it when he got off. Plus, who wants to be in the UK right now…it looks pretty grim from afar.

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      • I’m glad he’s here, I hadn’t been game to ask. Lou was doing the same, checking his flight for infections, but all clear, and he’s the last person I had contact with and that was 18 days ago, but anyway my 14 days NT isolation finishes tonight, to my great relief. T might be sick of the 4 walls by the 30th! I had a whole park to myself to walk in, I’m the motel’s only customer.

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        • T is very much an indoors person so don’t think he’s too fussed. He is working remotely so I do the day shift and he does the night shift 😅

          Hope you have safe return to WA

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  3. I’m more than happy with fast reviews, Kim. Disappointed about the Enright, though. You’re far from the first blogger to find it thin. Daisy Jones sounds like just the thing to cheer us up right now depsite that sad ending.

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  4. I felt very similarly about the Enright, and also struggled to explain why it didn’t work, as she’s such an accomplished writer. I adored Daisy Jones!

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    • Yes, I’m struggling to articulate why the Enright didn’t work for me. I came away from it feeling flat, when I often come away from books feeling satisfied or shocked or reflective or (occasionally) relieved. I adored Daisy Jones too… not a perfect novel but an enjoyable one.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been having trouble getting round to reviewing, too, while still reading. I have always worked from home but am working a lot at the moment, so similarly disinclined to crouch in front of the PC! Swallow the Air sounds amazing: I wonder if I can get it over here.

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  6. I’m looking forward to Actress. Enjoyed Daisy Jones (perhaps not quite as much as others but thought the structure was clever).
    I have The Yield on my ‘to be reviewed’ list – need to do it before Tuesday’s Stella announcement!

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    • Hope you enjoy Actress. I enjoyed the process of reading it but came away from it feeling flat. But hey-ho… maybe it just wasn’t the book for me. I’m yet to read The Yield and doubt I’ll get around to reading it before the Stella announcement but I have a funny feeling it might just win..,

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Short Stories – April and May 2020 Round Up | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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