Well, these are still extraordinary times and likely to stay so for some time yet. By this time of the year our focus would be on an exceptional array of Spring author events (there are plenty, by the way, it’s just that they’re online, until we can open our upstairs space again), and on the bumper crop of Christmas and holiday reading (about which more to come next issue).
However, we find ourselves still very preoccupied with matters COVID, whether it’s disruptions to publishing schedules, shipping delays and warehouse health and safety impacts, or how we manage the ethics and practicalities of working and providing a service in our shops, while paying due attention to hand sanitising, face masking, social distancing etc. It’s tricky, and stressful, and I thank you all for your understanding and support for our staff at this difficult time.
In the meantime, there are books that deserve our attention, and I’ve a few that I’d like to mention, from last month’s reading. I have absolutely loved Richard Fidler’s homage to the history and culture of Prague The Golden Maze: A Biography of Prague. It’s immensely engaging, with Fidler occupying the roles of both tour guide and historian. Erudition, an inquisitive intelligence, and a sure grasp of subject and audience (hallmarks of his splendid ABC Conversations series) combine to make this a very approachable and rewarding history. Also non-fiction and concerning the history of Europe is a very different work of history: Philippe Sands’ The Ratline, the subtitle of which, Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, points to the essence of the book. Sands’ East-West Street was an exceptional piece of writing from one of the world’s most eminent jurists. Ratline is a compelling, and compellingly told, story. Not surprising, really, considering the eloquence and intelligence of the writer. And all the more intriguing as it embroils in one of the most widely known stories in our history—told from a unique perspective, that of the author’s involvement in the life of the son of a Nazi war criminal. The narrative purpose hangs on the relationship between that man (Horst), and the author, and Sands’ self-interrogation about Horst’s fidelity to an appalling, false memory he needs to create about his father. It’s exceptionally documented and footnoted, and scrupulously researched.
Fiction-wise, there are two new Australian books I’ve read—both first novels—that merit serious mention. At the outset I found Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams underwhelming—but I’m sure that was because an essential ingredient of its subject, the history of the making of the first Oxford English Dictionary, had been covered so brilliantly in Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne. But Williams’ narrative evolves strongly through the personal story of the childhood of Esme—daughter of one of the editors. Her growth to self-awareness in adulthood, combined with the story of the women’s suffrage movement, enriched and added layers of complexity that made for a very satisfying read. Meanwhile, The Last Migration has lots of people excited, and it’s easy to see why. This is Charlotte McConaghy’s literary fiction debut, and it’s very, very good. Set against a background of disastrous climate change and species loss, the novel traces the perilous journey of Franny Lynch as she follows the last of the Arctic terns, on what may well be the eponymous ‘Last Migration’ to Antarctica. Brilliant flashbacks flesh out the dark and haunting past of Franny’s life. The triumph of the book is to marry the personal to the epic, challenging and confronting the reader on multiple levels. A brave and beautiful book, as timely as it is engrossing and un-put-downable. David Gaunt