What We're Reading 

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

May 2019

 - Thursday, May 09, 2019
David:  Underland: A Deep Time Journey  is thrillingly ambitious, and important. This is a journey through ‘deep time’, traversing myth, the spread of geological time across the aeons till the present day. Rich in scientific and historical detail, it is still an extremely personal narrative, written with Macfarlane’s trademark lyricism, and full of extraordinary anecdotes of his own travels in the ‘underland’ (the catacombs of ancient Paris).   

Morgan: I was hugely impressed with Miriam Sved’s A Universe of Sufficient Size which is partly based on Sved’s grandmother. It is the story of a group of young Jewish mathematicians in Hungary before the war who would meet at a park to discuss their latest work—now that they are banned from attending the University. The story is told as Eszter’s daughter, Illy in Sydney in 2007, reads her mother’s diaries and begins to understand what a brilliant and complex woman she really is. The narrative jumps between contemporary Sydney and pre-war Hungary and post-war Brooklyn and ends with a fantastic twist. A fascinating story beautifully told.
  
Steve: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather—In 1848 two French, Catholic priests—Jean Marie Latour and Father Vaillant—are sent to New Mexico to establish a diocese in a country where the Faith has slumbered for centuries. Published in 1927, Willa Cather (1873–1947) had written about, visited and worked in the Indian villages of the Southwest for a decade before she wrote this book. The title may arouse expectations that are not met. The Archbishop’s death—solitary and peacefully contemplative in the land he has grown to love—is only one incident in the series of events, none of which are given much dramatic weight. Some reviewers declared it not a novel at all. The unobtrusive style and structure made the book hard to classify. Replied the author: ‘Why bother? I prefer to call it a narrative.’ A narrative of serene language and timeless simplicity. A masterpiece.


Jack: Lanny by Max Porter—An intoxicating book akin to flicking a radio dial end to end and hitting on a chant, a fable, a warning and a folkloric hymn. Tune into its frequencies and Max Porter will put a spell on you.


Victoria: Fusion by Kate Richards—This is a weird but compelling story about four people (well...you could say three as two of them are conjoined) living on the fringes of society for different reasons—but they care for each other as no-one else will. It raises questions of difference and love and dependency which is woven through a haunting tale. A well written first novel by this Australian writer.

 


Jonathon: You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian—Hell yes! This is such a fun feminist horror read. Roupenian is something like an edgier Sally Rooney, writing on sex, dating and relationships. Lots of the stories have a horror element, like the creepy take on gaslighting in The Matchbox Sign, or simply they present some horrific aspect of toxic masculinity, as in Cat Person. I read many of these stories either gleeful or worried that they were all too familiar. Loved it.


Andrew: Vietnamese-Australian author Nam Le is the author of an acclaimed short story collection, The Boat—the title story of which remains one of the most powerful and heartrending stories I’ve ever read. Its portrayal of refugees escaping from the Vietcong by boat is gut-wrenching, and has remained a moral touchstone for me in relation to the plight of refugees. I’ve been waiting eagerly for a decade for his debut novel, but, in the meantime, am delighted that he is publishing an appreciation of On David Malouf,  for Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series this month. Which is my rather lengthy explanation of why I’ve decided to pick up The Great World by David Malouf. This would have to be one of Malouf’s finest novels. I’m a little over halfway through but am finding it enthralling. It has so far flitted consummately from the Hawkesbury River, to a depression era Strathfield mansion, to the Burma Railway, to a raucous postwar Darlinghurst Road, and as such must be one of the great novels of Sydney, and of World War Two. Malouf’s prose soars in its realism one moment and swoops effortlessly into the metaphysical with the poeticism and precision of a bird of prey.


John: Set mainly in Paris and Israel, A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon is a great international thriller. When an Israeli citizen is kidnapped and later found murdered at Charles de Gaul airport an overworked French detective is joined by an Israeli ‘investigator’ Colonel Zeev Abadi who is in fact from one of Israel’s most secret intelligence agencies, Unit 8200. The chapters are short and pacey with the author sharing information as the story unfolds. Who was the target of the abduction and murder? Who are the assassins? The motivation of various key players slowly becomes clear—some acting in their own interest others are acting on behalf of the State. Bureaucratic rivalries and politics continually interfere with the investigation making it a perfectly believable scenario in the era of Trump and Netanyahu. A terrific page turner!


Viki: At the moment I’m relaxing with a read of Ben Elton’s new book Identity Crisis—an entertaining Gordian tangle of identity politics and #everything. So far Elton has managed to traverse every convoluted iteration of the identity debate without sounding like a whining old white guy, and I love the concept of England hopping on bandwagon and opting out of Great Britain - someone's sure to hashtag it and run. Elton’s book brings to mind an Australian book I really enjoyed last year—Ken Saunders' 2028. If you haven’t read it, this often laugh out loud (and to my mind entirely plausible) solution to our tax cuts for votes Australian democracy might give you some relief from the 2019 election carpet bombing. The other book I have open is Brian Phillips’ collection of essays, Impossible Owls. What a fantastic writer. I give you Phillips on Prince Charles: ‘He has the bearing of a man who has fought bitterly, with the tooth and claw of detachment and protocol, to survive the immense good fortune into which he was born...There are men who command a room with their presence, men whose vitality bullies the air. Charles compels attention through a mechanism inverse to this, a king of charismatic absence: Reality warps toward his titles as toward a reluctant black hole.’ This is from an encyclopaedic essay about the Queen that will satisfy many a The Crown viewer.