The Wilder Aisles 

Janice Wilder has been a legend of Sydney bookselling for over 40 years.

November 2016

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Some time ago I became interested in the Manhattan Project and the making of the atomic bomb. I think it started with reading Los Alamos by Joseph Kanon, a crime novel, based on the secret happenings in the desert of New Mexico. I then went on to read some non-fiction, including Richard Rhodes’  The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Brighter Than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk. I don’t remember why I found all this so fascinating, but I think it was partly the men involved—Fermi, Feynman and Robert Oppenheimer, among others—all great men of science. This introduction leads me to a new book by Elizabeth J. Church, The Atomic Weight of Love. Beginning in Philadelphia, where Meridian Wallace is living with her mother and father—a father she idolises, who has instilled in her a love of science. After Meridian, known as Meri, wins a scholarship,in 1941, the action moves to  the University of Chicago. One of the youngest students and lacking confidence and social skills, Meri spends most of her time peering down a microscope. Her mother says she scares boys off with her brains, so she is surprised & pleased when she is asked to a dance by her lab partner Jerry. She enjoys herself despite the fact that her mind is never far from what is happening under the microscope. Then she meets professor Alden Whetstone—long tousled hair, large bushy moustache, wearing baggy corduroy trousers, a shirt with frayed cuff beneath his suit coat, a man of  great scientific intellect and over 20 years older. Meri thinks that in him she has finally met her expectations of what a scientific education should be. As their relationship develops, Meri decides to work with birds in her post-graduate work, concentrating e on crows. She has known for sometime that Alden is involved in some kind of secret work, but doesn’t know the details. This work takes him away from Chicago periodically—Alden tells her that he is working in New Mexico, but not exactly where. They exchange letters that are heavily censored, and eventually Alden invites her to visit him down south, so she postpones graduate school to visit him. Eventually Meri gives up on her education and moves to live with Alden in New Mexico. Her life is dramatically changed—from scientific study she now finds herself a housewife in a small house in the middle of the desert. How Meri copes with the change and what happens in the future is somewhat surprising. She carries out her study on crows and this leads to an unexpected meeting with unexpected consequences. A lovely touch is that each chapter heading is a collective name for groups of birds and the cover has lovely pictures of birds.

And now another book about Berlin (and London as well). Set in WW2, The New Mrs Clifton by Elizabeth Buchan follows the relationships between five people—Intelligence Officer Gus Clifton, his sisters Tilly and Julia, his best friend Teddy, and Nella, Teddy’s sister. Into this close group comes Krista—a German rescued by Gus from the horrors of worn-torn Berlin. She is sick, starving, her hair falling out, and terrified of everyone and everything. Gus marries her and takes her back to the family home in Clapham Common. To say that she is not made welcome is a bit of an understatement. For a start, Gus had been engaged to Nella, Julia’s husband Martin was shot down by the Luftwaffe, and Tilly has her own reasons for not wanting Krista there, although she does, at least, try to understand what Krista is going through. And then there is Teddy, furious with Gus for jilting his sister, but with secrets of his own. The locals are at first hostile to Krista, but gradually most of them come round. She likes to visit Herr Laube, the owner of the nearby second-hand bookshop—happy to speak her own language, while he gives her English books to help her understand the people around her. Gus’s work involves visits to Berlin, and he is forced to take Krista with him to act as an interpreter. She goes, reluctantly, and is devastated by the destruction of her city. Their work with war criminals is particularly awful for her—she is accused of being a traitor to her people, but she has no time for the perpetrators of such terrible violent acts. Why Gus married Krista, what happens to Julia, Tilly, Teddy and Tilly makes for a very entertaining read. I thought it a very good depiction of how war affects people lives, making them behave in ways they never would in peacetime. It seems that all walls are down and when rules that people live by are broken a new way of living needs to be found.

Just quickly, a couple of recommendations for some summer reading, First Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, which I reviewed a month or so ago—a story of love, marriage and children. Also, An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire, crime in country Australia. Music and Freedom by Zoe Morrison, music and love in London. And I have a confession to make—I have set aside for future reading Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, the writer behind the TV series  Midsomer Murders. I must say it looks like fun. I love the fact that so many people are killed, not just a namby-pamby one or two. I will let you know what it is like in the new year, but perhaps you could find out for yourselves. Janice

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