In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

February 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

In Praise of the New 

This summer break saw me sitting for days under a golden Robinia tree full of rosellas and King parrots, edging closer and closer to my plate of Christmas cake crumbs, as I became more absorbed with each book I read. The books I read were neither summery or light, each was terrifically bleak in its own way—bliss.
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan ($33) is an extraordinary book, told in the first person by an unborn embryo. He is a very clever little chap, extremely erudite as his mother seems to spend most of her time languishing in a decaying Georgian mansion listening to podcasts. It is revealed very early in the narrative that Trudy, the pregnant mother, is plotting the demise of the baby’s father, much to the chagrin of her baby. The plot thickens, the identity of Trudy’s lover is revealed, and a Greek tragedy unfolds. It is, of course, the plot of Hamlet, which could be extremely irritating, but is not. The unborn baby is full of dreams, he is ‘immersed in abstractions’, a poet, and an expert on wine (sadly, Trudy drinks rather a lot of it). The baby’s father is a poet and a publisher—and the owner of the squalid, valuable house that the pregnant Trudy and her ruthless swain have set their sights on. Nutshell is a complex book, but easy to read—fast paced and clever. It is such an imaginative and unexpected book that its cleverness really belies the compassion and humanity underlying it. 
Ann Patchett’s most recent book, Commonwealth ($30), is also riveting. Starting with a drunken kiss at a christening party, two young, intact families unravel, and join up again as two different blended families. From then, the level of parental neglect is staggering, and the ramifications of the neglect ripple out for years to come. The evocation of the place and time is utterly brilliant, you are there as the six children tramp through the fields to the lake (yes, without their parents), and when the one single, terrible event later takes place, seen through their eyes. Everything leads up to this event, and everything falls away from it, and yet the author is without judgement. This is not a preachy book, but a clear eyed view of damage done, and life that keeps happening after that damage. I read Commonwealth twice, as I was muddled by all the characters at the beginning—perhaps an intentional device in the narrative. Not surprising that several Gleebooks staff named this as their favourite book of 2016.

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney ($30) is the third book about a golden couple, Corrine and Russell Calloway, set against the backdrop of Manhattan, across the two years leading up to Obama’s election. They appear to live a reasonably gilded life—Russell is a publisher and Corrine works in a food bank. They have twins, a boy and a girl, and live in a rent controlled loft. I haven’t read the first two books in the trilogy, but I wasn’t at a loss, although the flashbacks were useful. Full of literary allusions and discussions, great swathes of F. Scott Fitzgeraldesque descriptive prose, and lots of in jokes (someone books into a hotel using the name of an Edith Wharton character), all set a fairly familiar scene, one that the reader looks into, rather than is involved with. Overall this is a book about a marriage, complete with betrayals and loyalties, but with lots of interesting digressions into the world of publishing, and unlikely humour (I don’t often burst out laughing when I read a book, but I did with this one).

Now the halcyon days are over, back to work and reading on a train. I’m finding His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnett ($20) to be a suitable travel companion. It is a supremely grim, but imaginative book comprising documents of a fictional crime that took place in a crofting community in the Scottish highlands in 1869. Hard to keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, so compellingly real are the details, but it’s a salient reminder that the good old days weren’t always so, and the picturesque rural life had another side to it. Louise


I’d been wondering why Hogarth Shakespeare would want to commission the retelling of Shakespearean plays by famous authors, but changed my mind when I read Hag-Seed—Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest ($30). It’s brilliant and could easily stand apart from the project. Felix Phillips, artistic director of a Toronto theatre festival, is fired and replaced by Tony, his scheming rival, just as he’s about to produce The Tempest—with Ariel cast as a transvestite on stilts and Caliban as a paraplegic on a skateboard. So Felix goes off to live in a shack on the outskirts of town, where he plans vengeance, while communing with the shade of his daughter Miranda, who sadly died at the age of three. Felix assumes the name ‘Mr Duke’ and takes a job at the Fletcher Correctional Centre, where he teaches the prisoners Shakespearean acting, adding 15 points to their IQs in the process. The plot thickens when ‘Mr Duke’ schedules The Tempest for his class, taking the part of Prospero himself and importing the actress who was to have taken the part of Miranda in his earlier version of the play. The story sparkles with fun and mischief and a deft piece of ‘rough magic’ sees it all come to a happy resolution. I liked the prisoners’ ‘take’ on their characters, less so their ‘rap’ versions of Shakespeare’s songs. For those who don’t know Shakespeare’s original, Atwood supplies a useful digest of the plot as an appendix. I found this an exhilarating read.

Another engrossing read is The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman ($35), who explores the newly discovered brilliance of birds in a book which is part science and part travelogue. She cites the New Caledonian crows who make tools for getting at food and our own bower birds who make elaborate bowers to attract a mate. Some rascally bower birds will destroy a rival’s nest and steal his most attractive items, usually the blue ones, as red is not favoured by the fussy females. Birds make complex navigational decisions, their songs have regional accents, they have astonishing memories of where they’ve hidden seeds long ago, they share food and experience, and may even grieve, all with brains the size of a walnut. There’s a whole chapter on the homing pigeon and another on the house sparrow. Engaging and well written, this informative work is perfect as a bedside book. 

If birds are intelligent, so are trees, according to forester and author Peter Wohlleben in his informative book The Hidden Life of Trees ($30). Trees, he claims, can communicate with one another via their pheromones, warn of insect attack, send electrical impulses, and nurture their offspring through their root systems. As forester, Wohlleben has made sure that the forest he manages in the Eifel mountains has no machines, and if a tree has to be cut down it’s done by men and horses. This book is packed full of surprising information, and if you’d like to hear Peter Wohlleben, chase up the interview he gave to Phillip Adams on RN’s Late Night Live. 

The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy ($45) is another book which regards nature as both solace and marvel. When McCarthy was seven his mother was hospitalised and aunt Mary took him and his brother to live with her. Young Michael was consoled by seeing a bright storm of butterflies feeding on a buddleia bush. From then on he rejoiced in the joys of nature and became an environmental advocate. At that time, before the hedgerows were destroyed for broad-scale farming, birds and butterflies were plentiful. Now half England’s biodiversity is lost. McCarthy sees homo sapiens as Earth’s ‘problem child’: we are, he says, too numerous and consume too much, leaving little room for wildlife. One chapter describes the massive worldwide destruction of estuaries, which are the essential stopover places for millions of migrating wading birds. Another ponders the disappearance of the London sparrow. This is a profoundly troubling book yet it was the highlight of my summer reading. 

I also read The Short and Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain Abbott ($30) and The Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull, the Incredible Shrinking Man in the Top Hat ($30), both by Andrew P. Street. These are written in a manic larrikin style with amusing footnotes and are great fun. Benjamin Law describes them as catapults laden with truth bombs. Masochists may also like Mark di Stefano’s bizarre account of our eight-week 2016 election campaign in What a Time to be Alive ($28).

Finally, don’t miss Bob Ellis in His Own Words ($30), edited by his widow Anne Brooksbank. This is chock-full of good things, among which Bob’s 1999 address to the May Day rally in Newcastle is truly outstanding. Bernie Sanders would applaud every word of it. Sonia  

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