In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

November 2016

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, November 09, 2016


Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, author of the acclaimed Bel Canto, begins in Los Angeles at a christening party.  Gatecrasher Bert Cousins falls in love at first sight with the baby’s mother, they subsequently marry and their two spouses and six children have their lives irrevocably changed. Fast forward to Chicago, where Franny Keating, the baby of the christening, has dropped out of Law School and is working as a bar waitress. She resolves not to be a lawyer and not to take her clothes off, the former being easier than the latter when writer Leon Posen walks in and her life too changes irrevocably.  In pillow talk she tells him the story of her two dysfunctional families and he turns it into a bestseller, setting off more chain reactions. Patchett writes dispassionately but she has in effect written a morality tale. I shed a few tears over this one.

Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs is one of my favourite novels. Her latest, Miller’s Valley, is a coming-of-age novel. The narrator is Mary Margaret Miller, Mimi to everyone, and her father owns a not very successful farm which the authorities want to flood and turn into a reservoir. Her mother, a nurse who works the night shift at the local hospital, tells Mimi to make something of herself and get out of the place. Eddie, the eldest son, gets to college and becomes an engineer. Tommy, the apple of his mother’s eye, joins the Marines and ends up in Vietnam, coming home not Tommy any more. Mimi surprises herself by winning a scholarship to medical school. Quindlen cleverly gets her narrator to change from an  eleven-year-old to an old lady with laconic character assessments and vivid descriptive phrases. The valley eventually gets flooded and many secrets are buried under the water while some resurface. I loved this book.

Tell the Truth Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta, author of Looking for Alibrandi, is a thriller set in London. It begins in Calais with a bomb blast in a bus full of English teenagers. ‘Bish’ Ortley, a suspended Chief Inspector from the London Met whose daughter Bee was on the bus, is drawn into the case. Also on the bus was Violette Le Brac, whose grandfather bombed a supermarket twelve years before. The tabloids tag her as the bomber but she disappears with young Eddie Conlon and the race is on to find the fugitives. After the earlier bombing Violette’s father supposedly committed suicide, while her mother Noor who confessed to being involved in the crime is still in prison serving a lengthy sentence. By sheer coincidence, Bish was the person who took little Violette from her mother and  placed her in care. Since then she has grown up with grandparents in Australia who think she is in Tasmania on a Duke of Edinburgh Award hike. The so-called terrorists are of Algerian extraction and the reader soon suspects that there has somewhere been a terrible miscarriage of justice. The chief attraction of this novel is Marchetta’s depiction of the teenagers and their modes of speech and the engaging bunch of survivors that help Bish unmask the real bomber and prevent a further tragedy. A real cracker of a novel and another ‘Must Read’.

My daughter told me I should read the four ‘Neapolitan’ novels by Elena Ferrante so I did. They tell the story of Lila and Elena, two girls born in 1944 in a deprived district of Naples. Lila is stupendously bright as well as beautiful but her parents don’t let her go to high school, so she marries at sixteen—not a wise move in Catholic Italy with, at that time, no divorce. Elena goes to high school, wins a scholarship to uni. in Pisa and writes a bestseller. After each of the first three novels I vowed I wouldn’t read the next one, wrung out as I was by all the tempestuous carry-on and the incredibly horrible life choices made by the heroines—but each time I recanted, swept along by the plot and longing to see how everything was going to turn out. A journalist has recently disclosed the likely identity of Elena Ferrante but it doesn’t really matter because the novels are out there and truly brilliant. I’m very glad I read them.

My favourite novel for 2016 is Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. My favourite non-fiction is Idle Talk: Gwen Harwood’s Letters 1960–64.  Sonia

In Praise of the New 

The Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren created one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, Pippi Longstocking, while she was laid up in bed with an injured ankle, during World War 2. She had already written and published articles and short stories, but her job was working in the letter censorship division of the Swedish war office, reading and censoring all mail going in and out of neutral Sweden. At home, she started to create a diary scrapbook of war news at the outbreak of the war, not for publication, but for her own self, to make some kind of sense of the war. These diaries were not in the public eye until recently, and they make extraordinary reading.

Astrid Lindgren counted her blessings—the Swedes were far better off than their other Scandinavian and European neighbours, a fact she was acutely aware of. Her outlook is extremely global, possibly because of her day job, and very probably because she didn’t personally suffer many privations in her daily life. This is not meant to be a personal diary, the author doesn’t reveal very much of herself, but she does give tantalising glimpses into her family life—creating appealing vignettes of her domestic self. Her detailed descriptions of their celebratory meals are interesting (food is often a theme in war diaries, understandably); Sweden did have rationing, but nothing like the rest of starving Europe. Pippi Longstocking’s genesis is noted, but modestly, the author would have had no idea of what she had just created in the anarchic, freedom loving Pippi.

In her diaries, Astrid Lindgren was writing and collating articles for herself and her family, never the less, she is extremely engaging, descriptive but economical, summing up complex situations adroitly in just a few lines, and with an admirably clear eye. Her impressions are immediate, but considered—she had her own biases, but could always see both sides of a story. She was more than Swedish, she was Scandinavian, and extremely sensitive to the situation of her neighbours, particularly the Finns and Norwegians. With the addition of some news articles and letters, (mainly in Swedish), and a concise index of everyone mentioned in the diaries, this is a really compelling book, especially since its author was such a very outstanding person. A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45 ($40, HB) is due for release in December)

My favourite book for 2016 is White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer. I laughed, I cried, and  learned a lot about art and foreign travel in between. Geoff Dyer’s latest book is both funny and profound, he has a very clear eye, and a wonderfully light touch. ($33) Louise

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