What We're Reading 

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

All the Light We Cannot See and more

 - Wednesday, July 30, 2014

John: I don't think I have ever thought of a novel as being better than the sum of its parts until now. All the Light We Cannot See is that book. Short alternating chapters, lots of adverbs and adjectives; things that often annoy me, but not in this case. Following two young people through the course of World War II, the story almost has a surreal quality which makes the reader an observer rather than a participant in the story. I am quite a fan of contemporary American fiction and found Anthony Doerr's new book to be a really interesting, easy to read, intelligent novel.

Louise: The House of Elrig by Gavin Maxwell—This is a short, lyrical childhood memoir by the author of The Ring of Bright Water, one of my favourite books as a child. The youngest of an aristocratic Scottish family, whose father died in WW1 before he was born, Maxwell describes a childhood that could not have been typical even at that time. Surrounded by a loving, and completely eccentric extended family (his mother was a Percy before she married), he was completely unsuited to the boarding schools he was sent to at an early age. A great writer about nature and landscape, this short book is full of wonderful descriptions of the wild country surrounding Elrig, and the fabulous menagerie of animals that he and his siblings tamed—owls, jackdaws and a heron, as well as the more standard animals—dogs, goats etc. All of which were good practice for the otters he lived with in adult life. I also just read The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham, which was fantastic —he can make the most unpromising people seem so likeable.

Andrew: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry edited by Anthony & Ben Holden.This book has been a slow-burn import  for the shop; we have struggled to keep up with a quietly constant demand, as it seems the local supplier runs out of stock as quickly as we order it in. I finally got myself a copy and it truly is a lovely book to indulge in. I read one or two poems from the collection every evening as a night-cap. I use the term 'indulge' advisedly, as I know poetry purists probably will sneer at it for its bold-faced popularisation and democratisation of poetry. A similar criticism could be levelled at Neil Astley's wonderful Being Alive anthologies, which I have similarly relished. The premise is simple; 100 contributors (and they are big names in the literary world; Tóibín, Rushdie, McEwan, Hollinghurst etc) introduce in a paragraph or two, a poem that has brought them to tears. The choices range from the contemporary to the 16th century. Sure, there are plenty on love and loss that speak for themselves, but for me the pleasure is in the more oblique and tangential works that are rendered just accessible enough (by virtue of their introductions) to allow one an easier entry point into the reading of the poem. If that is 'cheating' or 'dumbing down' the reading of poetry then I suppose I am guilty as accused.  If I have a problem with the book, it is in the rather pointless gender exclusivity of contributors (though not, thankfully the poets)—what twaddle! Though presumably a follow-up volume for the notoriously weepy fairer sex is already on some commissioning editor's desk somewhere….