In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

February 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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

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