The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon, 2003)


This book has been sitting beside my bed for at least two years, a recommendation from a bookclub member. A few people have mentioned the book to me – I think it’s almost a classic – and finally today I read it. It’s a short book with simple language, so is a very quick read. It  reveals life from teenager Christopher’s point of view, as he initially tries to discover who killed a neighbour’s dog, and later as he deals with greater challenges closer to home. Christopher has autism, and as lively as the story rolls on, it’s really the insight into his perception of detail and events around him that is captivating. It’s interesting to imagine the world through his mind, and a good exercise in empathy.

I’d recommend this to anyone who wants a quick and easy read, that is simultaneously intriguing and thought provoking. I’d recommend it also to teachers of students with autism, just as a reminder of different ways of seeing the world.


Reckoning (Magda Szubanski, 2015)


Well, this book obviously I could not stop reading, all 374 pages of it. I kept waking during the night and reading more, and spent the morning giving non-committal, monosyllabic responses to my children’s questions of ‘What can we do? What can we eat? Can we go somewhere?’ Finally they went to a friend’s house and I was left to finish the book in peace.

This is such a massive story, so marvellously and masterfully told. Layer after layer of her life is revealed and scrutinised and returned to later from a deeper perspective or with greater detail. Reading it I felt I was watching a performance – a play with an imposing orchestral soundtrack, and an unknown, potentially tragic end. Central to the story is her father’s experience as a teenage assassin in Warsaw during World War II. The book is ultimately a quest to understand his experiences, and through this to come to some kind of self-acceptance for herself. The other central narrative weaving through the book is her coming to terms with her homosexuality. Magda is such a widely popular person, that it is hard to believe she is also a classic self-saboteur. She has had so much angst and depression sitting just beneath every success. Towards the end she marvels at the confidence of the young LGBQTI organisation that she is now patron of, and throughout the book it is so hard to keep in mind the very real reasons her own journey was so difficult.

It is absolutely some of the best writing I have ever encountered. I often found myself at the end of a long sentence going back to re-read it, savouring each phrase and absorbing the complexity of the ideas and connections between them. I only remember doing that for Patrick White and David Malouf before. This particular volume was one of the things I brought home from my Mum’s house after she died. I imagine someone had given it to her, and I’m certain that if she’d been able to read it before she succumbed to brain tumours she would have absolutely loved this book – both the story and the storytelling. I recommend it to everyone!

The Phoenix Years: Art, resistance and the making of modern China (Madeleine O’Dea, 2016)

25/12/2016 – 1/1/2017

On the cover of this book Tom Keneally warns: ‘Let no one speak of China who has not read The Phoenix Years.’ I talk a lot about China, as a Chinese language teacher and as someone deeply interested in China. So this book caught my eye in the bookshop and I bought it immediately. I’ve read it across the lost week that spans Christmas and New Year, when I’ve had the time and tendency to think back on my time in China. Although it’s been about 20 years since I read Geremie Barme’s book New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices (1992), I suspect there is some commonality, although Madeleine’s book spans the 1970s to the present.

Madeleine tells of her experiences in China, primarily in Beijing as a journalist since the 1980s. She looks at politics and social issues, but all wound around the story of the development of contemporary art in China, told mostly through her experiences and conversations with a range of Chinese artists across decades. She describes the swelling activism through the 1980s, the trauma of June 4 1989, and the ‘waves’ of art movements in China – the peaks of momentous work and troughs of government crackdowns.

The book is thorough and pacy. I wonder if people with no China experience would be able to follow everything, but maybe I’m wrong. I really enjoyed being reacquainted with the goings on of Chinese politics since the Cultural Revolution – something I studied in detail in the 1990s. Some of the artists I know of, others I recognise their work, and others are new to me. What I mostly enjoyed were her descriptions of details and places. In parts I felt like she was describing my experiences, my observations of change and detail and landscape and people as I travelled all over China between 1996-2003. However her descriptions of government crackdowns and control in Xinjiang, particularly the old city of Kashgar, have broken my heart. I don’t want to believe that is all gone. I spent wonderful weeks there in 1998, and have always planned to head back one day. (I do tend to say this about many places in China that I’ve as yet never returned to, but with Kashgar I mean it!) The colours, the dust, the smells and tastes, the architecture, the open landscape and the freedom to roam for adventures. Is it really gone? Is it worth the loss?

I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in contemporary Chinese art, and also for those who want to understand the detailed historical context for Tiananmen Square in 1989. For a different perspective of Kashgar, another book I loved is A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar (Suzanne Joinson, 2012).