What We're Reading 

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

June 2017

 - Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Mike: Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor—Having done my research into this author, and the hype about this debut collection, I was mustard (keen) to get my hands on a proof. Taught by both Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer, with a fabulous blog rave by author Amitav Ghosh, there seemed no way this book could be a disappointment. And it wasn’t. It has stories about ancient times (including an Alexander the Great cycle), it has a post-modern look at the last speaker of a forgotten language, all the way to the last remnants of the United Nations watching on from an orbiting space station as the world tears itself apart. Some of the tales can be a bit ... open to interpretation, but the writing is immaculate. Challenging. Sublime.

Judy: Go Tell it on The Mountain by James Baldwin has got to be one of the most powerful testimonies to the African American experience ever written. Based on Baldwin’s own life—he was the son of a born-again preacher—this novel of a few days around John Grime’s fourteenth birthday sweeps along with the lifetimes of slaves in it’s train. The compression of it’s structure barely contains the passion and the energy, the rage and the complexity of it’s revelation. I wanted to read it in one sitting. John is pinned and writhing under the expectations of the Lord and of the Saints. All the members of this Harlem church—The Temple of the Fire Baptized—are called Saints. His hatred of his violent preacher father prevents his submission, and yet it is redemption he craves. Scattered throughout, the fragments of gospel, chants, hymns, the blues create this intensely sensual, deeply hopeful community for the reader. The ‘amen’ and the ‘thank you Jesus’ are part of everyday conversation. The weight of the Church, its necessity for these people envelopes the reader, it is so vivid.
The novel is set in 1935, but the stories of John’s father, Gabriel, his Aunt Florence and his Mother, Elizabeth, take us back to much earlier when being freed from slavery was still a living memory. The final chapter takes the reader into John’s complete breakdown at the altar. It is visceral. He is indeed, born again, but you are made to understand that this man is redeemed and freed in a different way—a way that brings his history and his galvanizing rage with him. This is the man who could write Go Tell it on The Mountain.

John: Rebecca Huntley is a social researcher whose new book Still Lucky makes for fascinating reading. This is not a book about how things are but how we collectively see ourselves our nation and the world. A book about perception rather than reality, it’s focused on the period since 2006 when Huntley started the Ipsos Mind & Mood report. With a nod to the past, not just Donald Horne, and a look to the future. Easy to read and comprehend, and occasionally seeming to state the obvious Huntley manages to place things in context locally, globally and through individual experience.

Andrew: Insomniac City by Bill Hayes—I’m reading the lovely memoir insomnia, of Manhattan, and life with Oliver Sacks (with whom the author had what seems to have been a really genuine and deeply supportive ‘late season’ relationship—one that springs to life on the page). I will admit I find some of the autobiographical writing a tad self-conscious, and some of the best bits are when he strays from the ‘memoir’ brief, and takes off on a tangent (one moment he is discussing the best subway route to somewhere or other, the next the mating and grieving habits of geese). Peppered with his own photographs, it is a very easy read, and a very sweet take on life from someone with a genuine knack for teasing out what is interesting in the people and city around him.