Shelf Aware — Robert Edeson

Robert Edeson

When I initially read through Perth author Robert Edeson’s responses to my Shelf Aware questions, I wondered whether any of my previous guests had given quite so much thought to my question about how their books are arranged. I laughed out loud at the images he carefully chose to accompany that particular question — and I laughed out loud several other times while reading the rest of his guest post. His intelligence and wit were immediately evident, and have combined to make me keen to start reading his new novel Bad to Worse (Fremantle Press), which promises to entertain, delight and provoke thought.

I’m not going to spoil Robert’s post by telling you any more about him, or the new novel, because he does that splendidly. I am going to suggest that, with Father’s Day looming this weekend, Bad to Worse just might be an ideal choice for discerning dads with an appreciation for uniquely clever prose with a touch of intrigue and adventure.


Q. How would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. I’m not sure that what I do is work in the ordinary sense; for me, it is more home-entertainment.

Still, I would describe it as writing novels that contain embedded nonfiction (I call it parafiction) that is itself indistinctly fictitious. Parafiction, such as apparently factual author commentary or academic referencing, is intended to draw the reader into believing to be true what is false, and sometimes even incredible.

It is one thing for readers to enter voluntarily and knowingly the make-believe of a story; it is quite another to have their credulity manipulated beyond the implicit boundaries of that story. But the fact that this can happen illustrates, I think, the principle and power of fiction, and ultimately its purpose, which fundamentally is to deceive.

I’m not saying that everything I write into a novel is a lie. Some of the scientific and philosophical content, both narrative and parafictional, is serious. Even so, I think of my new occupation as being a sort of literary mischief-maker.

How do I do this home-entertainment mischief-making? Like many others, I find that most writing occurs in the imagination, with only a small amount happening at the keyboard. So I spend a lot of time gazing into the distance, thinking about stuff. This state of affairs also satisfies my lifelong ambition to be a flâneur.

I don’t agonize over characters; I cannot claim they acquire agency in their own development or any autonomy in scripting. I think about what they think, what they say, and how they act; for my purposes, those three depictions construct the person, including their psychology, emotions, and motivation. I’m generally not interested in their physical appearance, what they wear or what they eat, unless it is relevant to the story. I don’t think descriptive detail necessarily drives realism, but rather risks appearing forced. I feel similarly about emotive backstories and novelistic character flaws. Let the reader imagine.

Q. What can you tell us about this new book?

A. Bad to Worse is a sequel to The Weaver Fish, following a new crime-fighting adventure of its protagonist, Richard Worse. The settings are Perth, the Ferendes (in the South China Sea), Chicago, and Dante, Arizona. The plot centres on an executive aircraft crash north of Dante and Richard Worse’s investigation into its cause. This exposes a criminal conspiracy involving a certain Mortiss Bros corporation, and Worse is drawn deeper into a century-old Mortiss family vendetta directed at his Arizona cousins.

Bad to Worse is also a sequel in the sense that it continues to address some philosophical themes of the first novel, such as evidence, belief, and moral good.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. Books are shelved throughout our house. My partner has her own study–library, as well as a collection of film books (and DVDs) kept in our lounge room.RE 1

RE 2

RE 3I have my own library, further shelving in a home office, and a shelf of current interest and recently referred-to books in our lounge room.

RE 4

RE 5

RE 6

RE 7There are also rogue piles that metastasize bedside or next to comfortable seating anywhere in the house.

Many years ago, when fixed abode meant books stacked on pine boards supported by rough, wire-cut builder’s bricks on rented floors, I had a bookshelf in our camper van. Its composition was fungible, but always included a Concise Oxford.

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. Arrangement is one imponderable of the book-loving life that presents to us the moment we receive our second book. It is at that point, I would guess, that adult preoccupations around possession and display begin their incubation in the infant psyche.

Every bibliophile wrestles with this problem, and soon discovers that classification is a fraught business, both practically and conceptually. (This is true in general.)

As much as I like numbers, Dewey included, a personal book collection is not a public library. That is because it is sentimental. It is also idiosyncratic, incomplete, and fractured. And who amongst us doesn’t slip artifacts into or between (or even in front of) books—postcards from a national portrait gallery, theatre programmes, clippings, tourist pamphlets, maps of mystical author-places, for example?

Then there are physical problems, like the over-sized volume that can’t fit on a shelf with congeners. And even if it does, it then dominates and ruins a subliminal graphic aesthetic. Try laying it flat; that can work but may not be space efficient, or beautiful.
One might easily conclude that the obsessive personality will never find peace in any enterprise of classification, especially with books. Let’s examine just one torment of the analytic perfectionist in the following argument:

A multi-volume work should be shelved right-to-left because then, when considered as a unit, total pagination is ordered.

Consider a two-volume dictionary shelved conventionally, as illustrated.

RE 8

Although the two volumes are ordered numerically left-to-right, the pages of the work, viewed as a whole, are ordered absurdly; they both begin on the left and end on the right with an M-word. So much for a dictionary presenting entries ordered alphabetically!
To ensure ordered total pagination (albeit right-to-left), we should sensibly shelve Vol II to the left of Vol I, as shown.

RE 9

Most librarians would find this offending.

Must the thoughtful bibliophile choose between these alternatives of (1) ordering the spines intuitively left-to-right, and (2) properly ordering the whole work’s pages numerically (and entries alphabetically) right-to-left? No: fortunately, there is a way of ordering the volumes left-to-right while having the pagination properly ordered, and also left-to-right. But it comes at a cost.

RE 10

(Incidentally, the abbess Magdalena Letterby’s mastery of these unconventional reading symmetries is alluded to on page 5 of Bad to Worse.)

At this point, some might accept defeat and try the lie-down easy solution.

RE 11

Note that this is a simple transform (left rotation in the plane) of the right-to-left ordering considered above.

Finally, is it possible to arrange the dictionary such that the two volumes are upright and ordered numerically left-to-right and the total pagination is ordered and is left-to-right and the text is upright? Incredibly and beautifully, yes: there does exist a lexical-order optimum.

RE 12

(Here the transform is a rotation through the plane of the right-to-left ordering. The research shelver should confirm that the same result can be obtained by a rotation of the upside-down ordering shown previously. Of course, if independent volume rotations are allowed, this is also a simple rearrangement of the conventional ordering first presented.)

It might be noted that in the simpler case of a single-volume work, left-to-right pagination with upright text is guaranteed in a similar manner. Imagine, then, our analytic perfectionist in charge of a public library and implementing this newly discovered, lexically optimal shelving solution. Good luck with finding anything!

I trust that readers might now better appreciate the suffering of a bibliophile with even just two books to organize (an anguish, as I say, that begins in infancy). Also, I think I have found an explanation as to why librarians seem always preoccupied.

We have friends who shelve books according to colour of spine. I was slightly shocked when I first heard the idea, but if this is the feature of a book that they best remember, and given a system exists for efficient retrieval, then it would seem a good high-level classification. It can also create a wonderful Mondrian wall, seen from a distance.

Anyway, I group novels and short fiction together, ordered alphabetically by author surname. Other categories are poetry, drama, essay collections, literary criticism, classical works (Graeco-Roman, ordered chronologically), history, biography, travel, education, finance, fine arts and architecture, philosophy, and general reference. Science books are grouped according to discipline. My largest single category is mathematics.
We recently had bookshelves replaced and enlarged throughout our house, and at this point I confess that they have been restocked with haste, and not yet with enough neurotic energy.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. Nonfiction predominates by far; particularly general and specialized reference books. Some relate to my career interests of medicine and science, as well as general knowledge, language, and mathematics.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

RE 13A. At home, amongst books, with a comfortable chair, quiet, and good lighting.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that
book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I am re-reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, as well as Middle English Lyrics, edited by MS Luria and RL Hoffman, out of interest and possibly toward a new project.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. My favourites have always been dictionaries and encyclopaedias. I couldn’t identify favourite authors.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. I like to imagine rescuing a book of books: a single volume that contains my every other book in facsimile. (Many will recognize the beginnings of a Russell’s paradox here: Does the super book, being my book, contain itself? Let’s agree that it is defeated in this case by the qualifier ‘other’.)

The second is a volume of Keats given to me by my mother.

The third would be a book of survival, and depend on the nature of the emergency—fire, flood, earthquake, plague, Armageddon, say. For example, in the event of foreign invasion, it would likely be a Korean phrasebook.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would you like to talk to them about?

A. Charles Dodgson, his alter ego Lewis Carroll, and the literary Alice. I don’t know that they are my favourites, but they would be interesting. Lewis Carroll has probably given the world more sophisticated bewilderment and entertainment than any other writer.

I would serve Indian tea and, if they insisted on eating, order in a curry.

I would ask them about their lives and times, pseudonymity, correspondence with Queen Victoria, early photography, logic, poetry, and sensuality.

Bad to Worse, by Robert Edeson, is available through Fremantle Press.

Shelf Aware — Goldie Goldbloom

Goldie with Gwen

In her responses to my Shelf Aware questions, below, US-based Australian author Goldie Goldbloom describes how Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners makes her “insides go funny” when she reads it. That’s pretty much what happened to me when I read Goldie’s most recent novel, Gwen, released by Fremantle Press earlier this year. It is an exquisitely crafted imagining of the life of artist Gwendolen Mary John, who studied at the Slade School of Art in the 1890s — at that time, the only art school in the United Kingdom that accepted female students.

Goldie’s book is set a few years later, in 1903, as Gwen travels from London to France with her companion Dorelia, and the two women walk from Calais to Paris, in search of painter and sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Gwen is by turns tragic, comical, erotic, haunting and breathtakingly beautiful, charged with an undercurrent of melancholy yet tinged with hope. I’ve kept it on my bedside table long after I finished reading it, because each time I look at it I experience a surge of bittersweet satisfaction.

As you’ll see from her responses, Goldie is warm, witty, engaging and possesses an enviable way with words. She made me laugh out loud on several occasions and left a lingering smile on my face — especially when she questioned my request for her favourite books or authors.  Her magnificent bookshelves had me on the verge of swooning — they are clearly cherished and must bring great pleasure to Goldie and her family.

As you’ll also see, Goldie’s favourite authors include some names familiar to Australian readers, as well as a few whose works I now intend to seek out. Enjoy every line of this delightful guest blog… I’m going to read it again now myself!

Q. Goldie, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. What an interesting question! I think of my work as a kind of slow undressing of a character, bringing them back to something elemental that they might not have been aware of in themselves. It’s not easy work, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the psychology involved and also pondering the inner life of my characters. It might just be an excuse for why I’m off with the fairies for much of the day, but I don’t really think so. I enjoy thinking and thinking about a question until I am able to come up with something that feels like a solution.

Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?

A. A while ago, I wanted to write a funny book for my son’s birthday, and so I began work on a young adult book and that’s been a lot of fun. I stopped working on it for a while when my son said he’d really rather have a bike, but I’m back on track now.

My favourite project right now is a new novel about two women who were professors at Columbia University in New York around the turn of the last century. They both worked with an organization that promoted peace around the world, but then one of them, a professor of chemistry, ended up working on the Manhattan Project, building the atom bomb. I’m really curious how a person moves from being a peace activist to someone who is enriching uranium. And how she continued to love and be loved by her peace-activist partner.

I am also working on a memoir. That’s embarrassing to admit. I’m not sure it’ll ever be published. Oh, but it’s hilarious!

Q.  Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

Works in studyA. I have far more books than anyone I know. My kids say that I’m a pack rat but only when it comes to books. That’s probably true. I have bookshelves in every room of my house except the dining room, and they are all full to overflowing. There’s a library with all of the Hebrew and Yiddish books and all of the young adult books on the first floor of the house. There’s a library of all the nonfiction books on the second floor. My study is also wall-to-wall books, but it’s the alphabetized fiction section of my library. I have three metre tall library shelving in my bedroom and another collection of bookshelves in the hallway that are full of poetry. Garden and architecture books live in the lounge room, next to the fire. Sewing, craft, art and costume books are all in the basement sewing room. There’s an eclectic collection to browse in every bathroom, just in case you are there for any time.

Goldie with books 2Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. I was formerly a research librarian, so my books are organized by category, and then within the categories, by either Dewey decimal system (for the nonfiction books) or by alphabetical last names of the writers (for the fiction/poetry/short stories and books about writing)

Q. What sorts of books predominate? (ie general fiction; specific genres such as romance, science fiction or historical fiction; non-fiction; reference books; short stories; novels; poetry; drama; children’s or young adult fiction; picture books etc)

A. It’s a bit hard to say. I have several rooms full of some of these categories. I’ll do my best. Here goes: I have a ton of general fiction, or perhaps literary fiction might be a better descriptor, since I don’t have any James Patterson books, for example. I really love (and teach) science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, weird fiction of any kind, so I do have a lot of volumes from that field. Every time I see a book about death, destruction, tattoos, weird stuff, teratology, circuses, medical curiosties or bizarre things, I usually buy it, so I have a giant collection that lands on my “Weird Stuff” shelves, which are nonfiction, but they are already crowded with natural history, biology, botany, zoology. I have a larger collection of children and young adult books than my local branch of the Chicago Public Library, so there’s that. Gosh…I don’t really know. I have a ton of everything you mentioned except romance books.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. My bathtub. It’s enormous. There’s a giant skylight overhead. All of this sounds like I’m rich, but actually, I just own a huge and crumbling Victorian house and spend all of my spare cash on used books.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I read different books in different places/times during the day. I just rounded up my books and there’s quite a pile.

I am currently reading I Forgot to Remember by Su Meck in the middle of the night when I get woken up and can’t go back to sleep. I purchased it to understand something more about amnesia, since I am writing about amnesia. I just finished reading Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, which was my previous midnight book. It was excellent. Highly recommended!

I just finished The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris which I saved for reading on the plane throughout February when I was lecturing in a lot of different places around the USA. I chose it because it’s about the chassidic community of which I am part, and I was looking forward to a well-crafted novel about my world.

Since I drive carpool for many hours a day and often have to wait for half an hour at a time, I have a special car book. Right now, it’s William Gay’s short story collection i hate to see that evening sun go down. William Gay came to me on recommendation from my friend Judy Smith. She thought I might like the harsh edges and I do. His story, “The Paperhanger,” will put icicles in your eyeballs.

I made a promise to myself to always read a short story every day, and those half-hour periods while I am waiting around are perfect for reading a short story. I keep a short story collection in my car at all times. It’s remarkable what you can get read in a day if you aren’t messing around with your phone.

My main bedside read right now is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is absolutely exquisite. I am insanely jealous of his lyrical writing. If you do nothing else today, run out and buy his book, and then sit down and read it. If I’m not in the mood for fiction (it happens!), I read Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree, another must-read book. He has elucidated things about the world I have never been able to get a grip on before. Brilliant.

Waiting for the moment when I finish my Richard Flanagan, is Ruth Ozeki’s new book A Tale for the Time Being. Most of my books are recommendations from other writers who have some sense of what I like to read, and so I rarely get a dud. Unlike when people rely on certain (swear words) mammoth bookselling giants, recommendations from friends are wonderfully random, and consistently broaden my horizons in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. It’s unfair to ask a parent to choose their favourite child.

I can give you a list of writers who are just phenomenal. Everything they write,
every time, takes my breath away. I know that’s not what you asked but it’s what
I’m willing to give…

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Richard Flanagan is a new favourite, Elena Ferrante, Andrea Barrett, Tim Winton,
Kelly Link, George Saunders, Peter Carey, Graham Greene, Angela Carter, Colm
Toibin, Shirley Hazard, Colum McCann, Deborah Levy, Ottessa Moshfegh,
Geraldine Brooks, Katherine Dunn, Margaret Atwood, William Trevor, JM
Coetzee, Patrick White.

Now I feel like a bad parent because this list is only a tiny portion of the writers I
really love and respect. See what you made me do?

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. I’d save my kids first. And then, and only then, if everyone were out, I’d go and say goodbye to my books. But I wouldn’t save any because I’d be crying too hard.

But in the event I’d be able to pull myself together (highly unlikely), I’d maybe save Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners because it makes my insides go funny when I read it. I’d probaby save the little handmade book I made about the first ten years of my kids’ lives, because it’s not replaceable now that my memory is going down the tubes. And Jim Crace’s Being Dead because then I’d be able to remind myself that things just keep on moving. And because it’s so extraordinarily beautiful, that while I wept over the loss of my library, I could console myself with the beauty of his words.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors (or poets, or illustrators), who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. Oh! I’d love to meet my own character, Gwen John, from my latest novel! I’d pair her with Andrea Barrett, because I think they’d get on like a house on fire, and because I love them both. I’d sit back and just let them natter on, I think. And I’d have to have Tim Winton, not so much because he goes with the other two, but just because I’m a crazy fangirl and I’d want to talk whales with him. So while we were chatting about sperm whales and animal communication and neural spindles and the gorgeous gorgeous ocean, which would have to be just off to the left, I’d have an ear out for what Andrea and Gwen were saying. Maybe I’d get up the nerve to ask Gwen some big questions, ones I’ve been wanting to ask her. But maybe I wouldn’t. I’m pretty shy. Andrea would have to do all the talking and she would, because she has this amazing unforgettable voice. And I’d serve them all cheese blintzes, because Gwen is a vegetarian. And because they are yummy and quick. And there’d be oranges. With salt.

Visit Goldie Goldbloom’s website here.

You can buy Gwen by Goldie Goldbloom through Fremantle Press here.