What We're Reading 

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

May 2020

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, April 22, 2020
Jonathon: Providence by Max Barry—Military space opera with AI and aliens. Need I go on? I like the way this one uses the scenario of elite soldiers fighting a sublime, unassailable alien threat to talk about the powerlessness of humanity in the face of computers that are infinitely smarter than us; here, the AI that operates—or is—the warship Providence. It asks: what place do people take in the drama of their own lives when autonomy has been so fully alienated?
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton— This is just as pulpy and wonderful as you’d expect a book about dinosaurs eating people to be! But it also introduces a little more depth than the film. Dr Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum in the movie) has many pages about environmental destruction, the false promises of technology and the inevitable failure of human plans; the dinosaurs come to embody this and his tragic schadenfreude. And of course it’s a total page turner!
I Am Legend by  Richard Matheson¬≠—Matheson is a legendary early horror writer, famous for his story about a plane flight window and: ‘there’s something... on the wing!’ But I Am Legend (1954) is his magnum opus. He brilliantly inverts Vampire lore, introducing the idea that vampires are a new species, replacing humankind; with a lone surviving human having to come to terms with his position in a new natural order. The concluding twist is just wonderfully done. It’s no wonder that this book went on to influence so many images that we take as a given in horror.

James: The first movie that Joshua Wong saw in cinemas was The Dark Knight Returns. While I let the temporal implications of that sink in, let me recommend Wong’s book Unfree Speech as a lucid, potent reminder that protest has the power to change lives. It’s easy to feel despondent in the face of government inaction––Wong reminds us that there is hope. He charts his course from idealistic young activist to... well, you get the idea. His experiences on the front line of the Hong Kong protests are shocking, as he and his family are intimidated by Chinese Communist Party loyalists to capitulate, but Wong never waivers. If this kid, who was barely old enough to see an MA+15 film, can stare down government injustice I reckon we can too.

Stephanie: Nightingale by Marina Kemp—Set in rural France, in the small village of Saint Sulpice, a young nurse, Marguerite Demers arrives to care for a dying, frail, old man—Monsieur Lanvier. Once the wealthiest and most powerful man in the village, he is now an embittered, frightened and cantankerous old man. Decay is everywhere—in the rundown house and garden. Death is hovering. Yet Marguerite is comforted by the isolation, the quietness, the repetitive rhythm of caring for Monsieur Lanvier. The villagers are a wary and suspicious lot, especially of new comers and keep Marguerite at arm’s length. There is much speculation and gossip as to why she would swap her life in Paris for their quiet little backwater. What must she be running from? Marguerite is not the only person with a secret and as suspicion and jealousy are aroused in some, trust and friendship build between others. When the truth is revealed be ready for some serious twists and turns, in an emotionally rich tale where secrets and lies abound.

Chloe:  Weather by Jenny Offill—I’ve been waiting with bated breath for Art Monster Jenny Offill’s follow-up to Dept. of Speculation. That brief but perfect montage of life as a writer, parent, partner and generally encumbered human was published in 2014. My anticipation and anxiety levels were therefore fairly high when Weather finally made it into my hands in February. Could she do it again? Oh yes, in a very different way, she could. Weather is a pre-apocalyptic novel following Lizzie, a frazzled university librarian who has vague ideas about not having reached her potential, as she becomes increasingly climate-aware and climate-anxious. Her anxiety is focused on her only child, Eli, and the alarming political environment that does nothing to ensure his future. Lizzie begins a second job answering email for her former thesis supervisor, Sylvia, who ‘used to check in on me sometimes to see if I was still squandering my promise’ and is now a climate-action advocate. The emails Lizzie receives are full of questions about the Rapture, wind turbines and carbon taxes. In answering these, Lizzie’s own understanding of what is happening to the environment becomes increasingly nuanced, specific and alarming. While the vignettes of Dept. of Speculation were arguably less alarming and more hilarious, Weather follows in its footsteps through Offill’s ability to make everything uncannily relatable, from the parents at your kid’s old preschool that you try to avoid, to my own propensity for asking for medical advice from my husband, who is not medically trained in any way. Weather is also an ode to the peculiar intensities of having a single child, and the feeling that every stage is the only one so you’d better not mess this up. Offill is always eerily prescient—and just as we have been able to (temporarily, no doubt) stop checking our air quality apps, we’re suddenly preparing for a pandemic, Lizzie learns which things to stockpile and how to make a lamp out of a can of tuna and a piece of newspaper. I would not say that this book made me feel any better about the future; in fact, it definitely made me feel worse. But maybe that’s a good thing, because seriously, what are we doing?

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