What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

February 2019

 - Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Jack: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday  ‘Love is volatile. Recalcitrant. Irrepressible. We do our best to tame it, to name it and plan for it and maybe even to contain it between the hours of six and twelve, or if you’re Parisian five and seven, but like much of what is adorable and irresistible in this world it eventually tears free of you and, yes, sometimes you get scratched up in the process.’  For lovers of Rachel Cusk, Sally Rooney and Jennifer Egan....between the hours of eight and one.


Jonathon: Golden State by Ben H. Winters—In a future California, telling a lie is a crime and honesty holds society together. Or does it? And what about metaphor? Winters’ detective Laszlo Ratesic moves through a procedural frame to eke out the edge where the story that a society tells itself begins to fray, burn, or simply adjust with the needs of the powerful. A political meditation ripe for our post-factual times.


Janice: The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott—A young Irish immigrant finds it impossible to carry on and turns on the gas. The fire that ensues sees Sister St. Saviour, an old nun, appear in the damaged apartment and take over the lives of the widow and her unborn child. Thus, Sally becomes the convent child, growing up in the basement, playing while Sister St. Saviour does the ironing. Sally becomes involved with the work of the nuns, visiting the poor and feeding hungry. She goes to school and is influenced by her teachers to join them. Whether this will happen or whether an action of Sally’s makes this unlikely, we shall see. I like Alice McDermott’s Irish catholic family novels. She is a wonderful writer, her description of the New York slums is vivid and disturbing. I found the nuns, Sally and her mother, very believable, each trying to do the best they can under very difficult circumstances.


Judy: Mythos by Stephen Fry¬≠—What a pleasure to be told these tales by the amusing and erudite Stephen Fry! It’s all here, from Chaos to Prometheus, with many informative and hilarious footnotes. Zeus’ radiance as a young man almost painful to look upon is footnoted thus: ‘As is often the case with extraordinarily attractive people. It is incumbent upon us to apologize or look away when our beauty causes discomfort’. The pleasure of the narrator infuses the whole enterprise of Mythos.


John: Simon Mawer’s Prague Spring  skirts the border between literature and thriller. As the title suggests it is set during the historic events, 50 years ago, when the communist government of Czechoslovakia relaxed the restrictions on individual freedoms only to be crushed by the Soviets. The events are seen through the eyes of a young English couple, students from Oxford University, and a British diplomat and his Czech girlfriend. It tells their stories and their stories become intertwined with historical events. Wonderfully told and very deftly resolved. Highly recommended.


Andrew: The Wall by John LanchesterThe Wall is quite a departure from Capital,  Lanchester’s previous novel—which was a kind of contemporary Dickensian beast, based around a rapidly gentrifying south London street. It was fat and meticulously observed and very very current. The Wall couldn’t be more different. It is a lean and spare 200 odd page novel that I flew through. Set in a dystopian Britain in the very near future (a bit like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go). Britain has built an almost impenetrable wall around its entire coast, manned by a national guard, made up of young men and women on compulsory two-year stints. I will admit I was a bit impatient with this book for the first couple of dozen pages; I don’t love speculative fiction, and I found the climate change and refugee themes initially so obvious and blatantly telegraphed that I was about to give it up—but I’m really glad I didn’t. The plot kicks in with a series of enthralling voltas, and the tedium of life on the wall is replaced with incipient terrors every which way. It becomes a corker of an adventure horror novel that ultimately crams a lot into its relatively few pages; and manages, too, a real melancholy profundity. It is a real page-turner and where Capital tended to get bogged down with verbosity I think this sparer form suits Lanchester really well. 

Morgan: I love nothing more than discovering a new writer—new to me, anyway—and was bowled over by Valeria Luiselli, a Mexican writer who lives in New York and whose latest book is the utterly astonishing Lost Children Archive. In it Luiselli counterpoints two journeys—that of a couple, both sound archivists who, with their two precocious but funny and lovable children, drive from New York City to Arizona. The husband and father (no-one is named for reasons that don’t escape me but do annoy me) is researching the last of the Apache (much interesting history here) while the woman, a Mexican like the author, is trying to find her way in to a project about the thousands of children who travel alone, through dreadful hardship and uncertainty, from Central America through Mexico to the United States. A deeply intelligent, politically prescient and topical book, it is also one in which the prose swoops and soars and holds you in its thrall. In her skewering of the human condition, Luiselli reminds me of Siri Hustvedt, that other brainiac New Yorker.  Lost Children Archive is out this month and I can’t wait for you all to read it.


Morgan: Also out this month and highly recommended is the sixth and last book in Steven Carroll’s Glenroy series which chronicle a suburban Melbourne family from the early 20th, to the early 21st Century. In The Year of the Beast, WW1 and the rise of the suffragette movement provide the background to the story of the brave and resilient Maryanne who defies social mores to keep her illegitimate baby Vic—father of Michael, who the central character of the rest of the Glenroy series. Beautifully written, the book circles back and around the other novels and characters in the series but can be read on its own. The six books in the Glenroy series, along with his four books based on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, is  a remarkable body of work—which, despite several literary awards and shortlistings, has not wide enough a readership.  

Steve: As the apparently lone (almost?) Gleebooks staff member who does not read a lot of crime fiction/thrillers, it may stop the presses to announce I thoroughly enjoyed Christine Mangan’s Tangerine ($23, PB). Set in 1950s Morocco, a timid English wife, Alice Shipley arrives in Tangier in tow with her unpleasant husband who has married her for her fortune. He disappears daily into the city, while Alice remains afraid to venture out much at all. Then Lucy Mason, her one-time best friend and college roommate shows up unexpectedly. Estranged for years over a mysterious college incident, Lucy’s sudden reappearance and her determination to introduce sheltered Alice to the delights of city are told in chapters that alternate between the two women’s points of view. The past and the present unfold. As does Lucy’s darkening obsession with Alice and her increasingly manipulative, suffocating friendship. This book reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s unique Ripley thrillers. I found myself thinking that the sweltering, claustrophobic atmosphere of the tale combined with the lush, vivid descriptions of Tangier itself would make an equally enjoyable film—and it turns out that Scarlett Johansson has already been cast in the role of Alice in a forthcoming production.  

 Also recommended is Nicholas Thomas’ Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook ($25, PB). This finely written account covers all of the three voyages, ending in Cook’s death in Hawaii in 1779. No mere chronological travelogue—there are plenty of those—this is a freewheeling narrative which often sees the author step into the historical account himself and relate his own experience. Thomas highlights incidents that illuminate the two-way encounters of Pacific islander and the Europeans.