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From Tony Birch to Douglas Stuart, the world's best writers reveal the books that they re-read

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 27/08/2021 By Hannah Reich for the Big Weekend of Books
Writers reach for certain books time and time again, whether for comfort or inspiration (ABC Arts: Michelle Pereira) © Provided by ABC NEWS Writers reach for certain books time and time again, whether for comfort or inspiration (ABC Arts: Michelle Pereira)

Between war, the pandemic and climate emergency, the world is wild and uncertain at the moment. But in trying times, returning to a beloved book can provide a moment of distraction and reprieve.

Re-treading the well-worn steps of Pemberley or Hogwarts can feel like going home and being embraced by dear old friends, before being sat down in front of a wood fire, wrapped in a soft blanket and handed a large mug of hot chocolate.

But writers re-read all sorts of books, from classics to modern Australian poetry, for all sorts of reasons beyond pure comfort.

We asked some of the award-winning authors who are appearing at RN's Big Weekend of Books this weekend to share their re-reads of choice.

Colm Tóibín: Ulysses by James Joyce

The Irish writer Colm Tóibín (Brooklyn; The Master) re-reads James Joyce's Ulysses every year as he teaches the book to undergraduates at Columbia University.

The 1922 novel follows protagonist Leopold Bloom and numerous other characters over one day in 1904 (June 16, now celebrated as Bloomsday).

"[With each re-read] it gets better and funnier and more exciting, [and] chapters that I found difficult, I now have disentangled," Tóibín says.

For those daunted by the lengthy modernist tome (considered one of the best English language novels and one of the hardest to read), Tóibín recommends Ulysses Unbound by Terence Killeen, a researcher at the James Joyce Centre.

"[Killeen's book] really is a clear path through the book [Ulysses] … it realises what the problems are and attempts not to solve them, but to actually open a space where you might solve them for yourself."

Tony Birch: Island: The Collected Stories by Alistair MacLeod

Tony Birch, the award-winning Australian novelist (The White Girl) and acclaimed short story writer (his latest collection is Dark as Last Night) annually re-reads Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod's 1989 collection Island.

Like most of MacLeod's work, these stories are set on Cape Breton Island on the east coast of Canada, and are about the relationship between fishing communities and the sea, as well as the migration of Gaelic people from the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century.

"They are, in some ways, quite literary stories, but they are also very beautiful stories that I sometimes refer to as my 'comfort read'," says Birch.

"I return to Alistair MacLeod short stories because … this is what good writing produces for readers.

"And this is why I'm a writer — because I want to produce the best stories I can, that hopefully my readers will enjoy and hopefully maybe also return to again and again."

Lisa Taddeo: Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg

American author Lisa Taddeo wrote one of the biggest books of 2019: a non-fiction exploration of female desire titled Three Women.

Taddeo's latest book is Animals, a novel about female rage but also,, about "mummy issues".

Every year, Taddeo reads Little Virtues, Italian author Natalia Ginzburg's 1962 book of essays about motherhood, writing, war and loss.

"I would almost recommend it over What to Expect When You're Expecting or almost any other baby book if you are about to become a parent," says Taddeo.

"There's something about it that is such a bloody truth to parenting — to both being a parent and being someone's child.

"And I think it just holds the meaning to life."

Christos Tsiolkas: Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Award-winning Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas (Barracuda; The Slap) regularly returns to Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar.

The French writer's 1951 novel is framed as a long letter from Roman Emperor Hadrian to his eventual successor, Marcus Aurelius.

"It was a transformative novel when I first read it many, many years ago," says Tsiolkas.

"What I loved about it was her [Yourcenar's] ability within the space of a few sentences to make … [it feel like] suddenly I was no longer in Melbourne in the late 90s, I was in the third century of the ancient world.

"I think it's a masterclass in how to tell a story and how to inhabit a character that is separated from us by millennia, by a whole different consciousness, and to find the humanity that links us … and I will read it till the end of time."

Douglas Stuart: As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

The Scottish-American writer — whose heartbreaking semi-autobiographical debut novel Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker Prize — has read Maria McCann's 2001 historical novel As Meat Loves Salt at least seven times.

"It's a fleshy, brutal epic that reads a little bit like a [Théodore] Géricault painting," says Stuart.

Set in the 17th century, the book follows Jacob Cullen, a disgraced servant who seeks redemption as a soldier in the English Civil War. While in service he falls in love with a fellow soldier, with disastrous consequences.

"This is actually my pure pleasure read. It's a little bit like my Wuthering Heights in that it's a big, sort of romantic, historical book, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's also an incredibly immersive historical read."

Evelyn Araluen: Comfort Food by Ellen van Neerven

Writer and editor Evelyn Araluen, whose debut poetry collection Dropbear has won her critical acclaim this year, often re-reads Ellen van Neerven's 2016 collection Comfort Food — which she describes as "a really glorious collection of poetry".

"It was one of those first collections that I ever read that combined a really beautiful poetic rhythm and cadence with a really tender and close set of themes," says Araluen.

Araluen says van Neerven's collection is about food, culture, family and country, and shifts from the intimate to "silly riffs" about meals.

"And then also there are these devastating and heartbreaking reflections on country and culture.

"It's something that I still feel like I have to keep re-reading because there's a kind of magic to it that I've tried to learn myself in my own poetry," Araluen says.

"So every year again and again, I'm going to read it until I just learn how to do what Ellen can do with a work like that."

Brian McGilloway: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Northern Irish crime writer Brian McGilloway (The Last Crossing; Borderlands) often finds himself returning to F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald's novel is set on Long Island at the height of the Jazz Age, revolving around the exploits of narrator Nick Carraway, wealthy playboy Jay Gatsby and fickle beauty Daisy Buchanan.

"This was a book that I first read when I was at school when I was 18, and it just opened my eyes to the potential of writing and the love of language," McGilloway recalls.

McGilloway is an English teacher, which means he's frequently re-reading the same texts.

"There are some of them that each year you get a growing sense of dread [when you read them] … [but] with Gatsby, every single time I read it, every single time I teach it, I find something new in it, I find some new joy in the language."

Ruth McIver: Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

Australian writer Ruth McIver's 2020 coming-of-age thriller I Shot the Devil won the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers in 2018.

McIver says she re-read Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis — a 2005 mock memoir by the American Psycho writer — many times while writing her debut.

"It's a superb voice-led novel and the thing that I absolutely love about this book is that it subverts every kind of genre expectation, which really, I think showcases the versatility of Bret Easton Ellis," says McIver.

She says readers come in expecting a postmodern literary fiction, but then find themselves in a work that shifts between memoir and horror worthy of Stephen King.

"I just find it to be such a unique and compelling book, and it really inspires me in terms of voice, and just that I don't have to, as an author, commit to one style of writing — or even one genre."

These authors are all appearing at ABC Radio National's second annual Big Weekend of Books festival, from August 28-29.


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