Julie Koh, Portable curiosities: Stories (#BookReview)

I’ve decided to try reading more audiobooks this year, despite not being a big fan of this mode of consuming books. I’m a textual person. I like to see the print on the page, how it is set out. I like to see the words. I like to see how the names are spelt. Given my reservations and the fact that I expect to “read” in short stints, I thought short stories might be the way to go. I think they are, though my overall reservations still stand.

My first book was one that was well-reviewed when it appeared in 2016, Julie Koh’s Portable curiosities. It won the SMH Best Young Novelists Awards in 2017, and was shortlisted for several other awards, including the Steele Rudd Award for Short Story Collections (Queensland Literary Awards) and the Glenda Adams Award for New Writing (NSW Premier’s Literary Awards). I checked to see who won the Steele Rudd Award that year, because Koh’s collection is great. It was clearly a strong year. There were co-winners, Elizabeth Harrower’s wonderful A few days in the country, and other stories (my review) and Fiona McFarlane’s High places, which I’ve also been wanting to read.

So, Portable curiosities. I had no idea what this collection was about, and was delighted to find a lively, engaged and engaging interrogation of contemporary Australia, particularly as it intersects with Chinese-Australian experienceIt is highly satirical, penetrating the myths and assumptions that underpin our shaky existence.

The order of stories in a collection is always worth thinking about, and it is notable that this twelve-story collection opens with a story called “Sight” which satirises immigrant Chinese mothers who are so ambitious for their children to fit in and achieve success that they discourage any sort of individuality or creativity. Many of the stories have a surreal or absurdist element. They start realistically but suddenly we find ourselves in another realm or dimension. “Sight”, starting off the collection, is an example. Here, we suddenly find our young narrator having a “third eye” painted on her navel. This eye represents her imaginative self, so her mother organises for it to be removed in an operation.

From here, having satirised Chinese immigrant culture, Koh moves on to critique, with biting clarity, aspects of Australian culture, from misogyny (in “Fantastic breasts” where our male narrator looks for “the perfect set of breasts to have and to hold” at a conference on “The difficulties of an objective existence in a patriarchal world”) to crushing, soulless workplaces that pay lipservice to their employees’ mental health (in “Civility Place”). “Satirist rising” mourns the end of the civilised world, with a bizarre travelling exhibition that aims to ensure the continuation of the “landscapes of our mind”, while the cleverly titled “Cream reaper” (you have to read it to see what I mean) tackles foodie culture, turning foodie-ism into an extreme sport. Along the way, it also skewers multiple aspects of our capitalist culture, like the housing bubble, the commercialism of art, institutional banking, and the plight of the tortured writer.

As a retired film archivist, I loved “The three-dimensional yellow man” which takes to task the stereotyping of Asians on film. There’s “no need for a back story”, our one-dimensional (yellow man) Asian actor is told, “you’re evil”. He belongs, after all, to the “cruel, meek blank-faced race”. Again, the satirical targets are broad-ranging from film festival panels to Pauline Hanson – and embarrassingly close to the bone.

Many of the stories, like “Two” and “Slow death of Cat Cafe”, explore success, materialism and power, while the 2030-set “The Sister Company” exposes a cynically commercial “mental health industry” through the application of androids to the problem. All these stories, despite, or because of, their laugh-out-loud moments and forays into absurdity, hit their mark. A couple, such as “Two” and “Cream reaper”, felt a bit long, even though I thoroughly enjoyed their imagination, but this might have been a product of listening rather than reading, so I’m reserving judgement on this.

My favourite, however, was probably the last, “The fat girl in history”, which opens on a reference to the popular (in Australia) CSIRO Total Well-being Diet. The narrator is Julie, and, although this story also moves into surreal realms, there is a strong sense of autofiction here. Remember, though, that autofiction is still fiction so … Our narrator is a fiction-writer experiencing a crisis of confidence. She has written about a depressed girl, androids and the future – all of which appear in this collection. She’s been told that she writes like Peter Carey, though she admits she’s never read him. She reads an article telling her that contemporary literature is “in the throes of autofiction”, that the “days of pastiche are over”, and then informs us that she’s going to write autofiction titled “The fat girl in history.” Australians will know that Peter Carey has written a short story, “The fat man in history”, and that his debut collection named for this story started his stellar career. I will leave you to think about the portents and threads of meaning Koh is playing with here, but her outright cheekiness in daring us to go with her made me laugh – particularly when I saw where she went.

Portable curiosities deals with serious, on-song subjects, and I so enjoyed seeing her address them through satire, absurdity and surrealism with a healthy dose of black humour. At times the lateral thinking in these stories, not to mention Koh’s interest in satire, reminded me of Carmel Bird. A most enjoyable collection, that was expressively read by Lauren Hamilton Neill.

Julie Koh
Portable curiosities: Stories
(Read by Lauren Hamilton Neill)
Bolinda Audio, 2018 (Orig. pub. 2016)
5hrs 48mins (Unabridged)
ISBN: 9781489440808

43 thoughts on “Julie Koh, Portable curiosities: Stories (#BookReview)

  1. Like you, I still prefer ‘reading’ to listening, though I did enjoy an audiobook (Trollope’s Doctor Wortle’s School) some months ago.

    This does sound an intriguing collection of stories; I must confess, my eyes were first drawn to the cat on the cover and I wondered which story it related to till I found the Cat Cafe. I do like the idea behind The Fat Girl in History, but I assume it will work best if one has read the Carey story

  2. OK, OK: I’m hooked.
    “Thank you! You’re ready to listen.
    Portable Curiosities Audiobook By Julie Koh cover art
    Portable Curiosities
    By: Julie Koh
    Narrated by: Lauren Hamilton Neill
    Length: 5 hrs and 58 mins
    Release date: 03-12-18
    Language: English
    5 out of 5 stars 1 rating”

  3. I tried audio books many years ago when I was driving between towns in rural NSW and into Sydney on a regualr basis, but they never took. I would go off into a trance-like state and miss half the story! (probably not something I should admit to when driving I guess!!) Having a playlist that encourages me to sing out loud is a much better driving tool for me.
    And I simply cannot put on headphones when I’m out walking. I much prefer the sound of birds and the wind in the trees and even the sound of cars and people talking than being enclosed in my head. Which is my long way of saying that I admire you for giving audio books another try, despite your misgivings.

    • I’m pretty similar to you Brona. I thought we’d use audio books more than we have on our regular trips to Melbourne. I’m with you on the singing, but in fact in recent years we tend to enjoy peace. I often just watch the scenery when I’m the passenger. Sometimes when I drive, or we have a long stint, I feel like listening to music or words. And yes, I never put on headphones or put in earplugs when out walking for the reasons you give.

      Hence my comment about “reading” in short bursts . For health reasons I bath rather than shower, and that’s been when I thought i’d try audiobooks instead of the radio as I had been. This means only listening in around 15 minute blocks so short stories, which I love anyhow, seem suitable.

      • Our book club is currently reading Archie Roach’s memoir, the ones listening to the audio are gushing as he narrates AND sings throughout the entire audio. It sounds marvellous and almost tempted me to try it, but then I thought, when will I actually listen to it?
        He’s also performing live in Sydney in April and a group booking has been made…but of course, it’s the same time as when we will be in Brisbane.

        • I read it a year or so ago, and while hearing him read and sing would be great, I really am with you. I wouldn’t find the same time to listen. I would hate being in bed next to Mr Gums with something in my ears and that’s when I do more of my reading. It seems such an isolating thing to do. At least when you are reading you are open to conversation, a comment, or even just aural awareness of the presence of the other person in the room. If all that makes sense.

        • It makes perfect sense to me Sue.
          The only time I consider such options is when stuck in the car and Mr Books is engaged in one his very lengthy football conversations (as President of the club during Covid, there have been more of these phone calls than usual).

  4. So you’re venturing into the audiobook zeitgeist!
    As you know, I used to listen to something every day when I was doing the daily commute, it would take about a week to do the average novel. But they just don’t work for me now that I’m retired because I don’t have long empty patches of time. Like Brona, I like to listen to the world as I take Amber for my daily walk, and I have friendly chats with fellow locals almost every time, fleeting though they be.
    The one time recently when an audio book was my friend was when I had my cataracts done.

    • Yes I remember, Lisa. And, if you read my answer to Brona you’ll see my answer re when I listen and why short stories might work. There are so many collections I want to catch up on. My problem, I think, is going to be availability. BorrowBox doesn’t seem to have many and I won’t be doing it enough to pay for a service like Audible, so we’ll see.

      I do think though that as we get older and sight becomes more difficult – like your cataracts experience I guess – that we’ll be grateful for audiobooks. My ma-in-law sure was. I bought quite a few for her.

      • Part of the problem is that (short stories aside, because I’ve never tried them on audio books), is that the range of books (understandably) focusses on popular and genre fiction and it can be hard to find the kind of books that we prefer to read.
        And some books — the more challenging ones in terms of experimentation and messy structures and unreliable narrators — just don’t work as audio books.
        But perhaps I won’t want to read those so much when I’m older and the grey cells are fading!

        • Yes, true re the BorrowBox selection, and re audiobooks not working for complex structures, experimentation too. Experimental writing in short stories are somewhat manageable in audiobooks I suspect … Koh’s were … but not long unusual works. As you say this issue may not matter if our reading capacity changes as we age. The good thing is that we will have some options, which is more than people in the past had.

  5. Good to see you enjoying more Science Fiction (yes I know pointing it out frightens the horses). You’ll be pleased to know I’m listening to Helen Garner’s short stories in beween others.

    Because I listen for long stretches I have to find ways to break short story collections up, and to be honest I’d much rather have an 1q84 for instance which runs all day for days.

    • I hadn’t even thought in terms of science fiction Bill! But, I suppose it has elements of sci-fi – and if it is sci-fi then it’s the sort of sci-fi I don’t mind!

      I can understand that listening to short story collections intensively on a long drive would not really work. You need space between each story, really, don’t you. Because I listen in short bursts long works, like IQ84 are just too daunting.

  6. I am quite the opposite, most often I enjoy books more on audio. And then there is the time element. You don’t need to find reading time for audiobooks, you just listen whilst commuting, walking or doing chores.

    The themes for this collection sound fascinating, but I am not sure about the surreal or absurdist elements. Sometimes, I love it, other times it doesn’t work for me at all.

    • Thanks Stargazer. I think if I commuted I would consider them more actively but I’m retired. I like silence when I walk, to enjoy the experience. Chores are a possibility!

      I’m like you re surreal or absurdist elements, and I liked this a lot. They worked well with the themes which, I suppose, suggest how ‘absurd’ contemporary life is.

  7. Great review! I greatly enjoyed this collection, too, Sue. Jury is still out on audio books for me. My problem is I fall asleep ‘reading’ them and then can’t figure out where I am up to!

    • Thanks Angela. It’s especially nice hearing from someone who’s read it, though if I’d actually “read” it I would have written a somewhat more detailed review. Possibly it’s better this way!

      And yes, I know what you mean. I would do the same listening to an audiobook if I weren’t doing something else at the same time. I reckon that will be the risk when/if I turn to audiobooks when/if my eyesight starts to fail.

  8. I have tried audiobooks but so much seems to depend on the narrator.
    I have borrowed this (in hard copy book form!) from the local library today. It was sitting on the shelf, apparently unloved and unread, so I rescued it!
    Reading is the best occupation on these hot summer afternoons, it’s too hot to go outside!

    • Yes, I agree that the narrator is really important, which is why I made a brief mention at the end of my post, because I thought this narrator was very good. A couple of times I got tired of the voice, just because the type of stories they were I think required a sustained “different” voice if that makes sense. but overall I think she enhanced these stories. I’ll be interested to hear what you think. This book made a splash when it came out and I have always been intrigued about it. I can’t believe that it’s been over 5 years.

      • So far I’m enjoying them Sue, they’re certainly witty!
        I think my only issue with stories like this is that I am unlikely to want to re-read them, yet I can read short stories by writers like Gillian Anderson (Stories From The Warm Zone) and enjoy re-reading these even years later. Perhaps they simply speak to me differently.
        I’m glad I rescued it from sitting on the shelf though! It’s certainly good fun & I would recommend it to my reading friends

        • I’m so glad Sue. They are witty aren’t they – she takes ideas to the extreme and then some. Funny but biting too. That’s an interesting point about re-reading. I’d have to think about what makes me want to reread a short story. I’ve read Marjorie Barnard’s The persimmon tree and other stories twice and would read it again. I feel the same about the Elizabeth Harrower collection I’ve reviewed here. Tone is part of it, plus ideas/feelings that speak to me, and language.

          I haven’t read Stories from the warm zone, but I do like Jessica Anderson. I may have that on my TBR.

          Anyhow, that’s great that you would recommend it to your reading friends. I think any writer would be happy with that response to their work.

  9. That’s an interesting way to think about developing one’s listening skills! I’m not sure if it would work for me. Especially with an entire collection. BUT I have enjoyed The New Yorker’s podcast where a short story writer recommends and reads another short story writer’s story. There, have I used the word ‘story’ often enough there to confuse everyone? They are exceptionally good stories. And there’s the extra benefit of their having been read very well (and sometimes by a writer of interest) with a bit of commentary (before or after, depending on the story). Free via your podcast app.

  10. I am always looking for something good on audio so might give this one a try when I get my next credit. I enjoy short stories, (as I think I’ve said before) on audio and non fiction, especially about nature. I listened to Phosphorescence on audio and enjoyed the format very much. I have started listening to audio on the bus into town or of course when I can’t get to sleep at night. I’m a terrible insomniac. I like the sound of this book. The stereotypes of the Asian culture has been so long ranging. As a child I thought all Asians knew martial arts. Michigan didn’t see many cultures outside of white middle class religious families. I’ve been catching up on the world ever since! 🤠🤠🤠🌿🌿🌿

    • Do you listen in bed, Pam? Or do you get up? If the former, does it disturb your partner?

      Anyhow, I hope you give this a go, as it dos address much that’s relevant to the zeitgeist, and is significant because of that, as well as as great listening/reading. The word and ideas play makes you laugh.

  11. These sound interesting but probably not for me. My husband reads almost exclusively on audiobook as he combines it with taking a brisk walk most weekday mornings (he used to walk half the way to work, now he works from home so goes out for a round trip). I find they send me to sleep, unfortunately!

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