What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

March 2017

 - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley—Amongst my mementoes from primary school I still have a Gould League of Bird Lovers badge; had I known exactly what gaining his prodigious knowledge entailed, my pride in membership of the organisation might have been shattered. Focussing on Eliza Gould, The Birdman’s Wife describes in intricate detail the entire process of John Gould’s obtaining and studying birds and nature, as well as Eliza’s contributions, especially in illustrating his finds. Historical detail abounds: of London, then Tasmania and NSW in the 1830s, revealing elements of society, art and printing, lithography, science, nature and research. I was fascinated by all this, and struck with admiration for Eliza’s strength of character and the tremendously delicate skill of her oeuvre; none of which was mentioned in those school days. In her fictional account Ashley gives true weight to Eliza’s half of the partnership, illuminating the human costs of triumphs that are often overlooked when considering Gould’s vast legacy to natural history.  Lynndy

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders—Abraham Lincoln’s young son is dead and the president’s  grief is so raw and debilitating that it is manifesting in ways that may just tear the universe from its hinges. Bardo is an obscure Tibetan word that approximates ‘limbo’ and this novel takes place over the course of a single night in the graveyard where young Willie is still warm in the grave. Or the tomb to be precise.
Lincoln in the Bardo is simply stupendous. I haven’t been as enthralled by a novel this much in years. In form it is a bit out-there to say the least; made up of a bricolage of voices (some are authentic historical quotes, but the majority are the voices of the multitude of ghosts that inhabit the graveyard). Don’t be put off, however, if that sounds too difficult or too preposterous. The book is very accessible and wonderfully engaging; with a plot that is propelled just as competently as it would be using a more traditional narrative technique. It is, like its voices, a multitude of things. One moment it dwells on the moral ambivalences of an unpopular president sending thousands of young soldiers to war in a politically motivated, and in many circles, unpopular war (sound familiar?)—the next it ricochets off to a raucous bit of gutter humour. Outrageously funny, and yet tender and moving; macabre one moment, profound the next.
In a funny way it reminds me a bit of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, a really charming novel in which the voices of actors (who are putting on an outdoor history pageant) drift and echo around the English countryside. The Woolf is a light-hearted oddity; a bit stuffy, an obtuse, acquired taste, that I adore because it regularly spills over with luminous poetic prose.
Lincoln in the Bardo’s pleasures are far more manifest—it is brazen, big-hearted, and big-thinking. Vulgar, poignant, poetic, whatever you like; just read it. It could well be, although it’s only February, my book of the year. Andrew

I have just read an intriguing first novel set in Tasmania and Ireland, To the Sea by Christine Dibley. Like Elliot Perlman’s wonderful Seven Types of Ambiguity,  Dibley weaves her tale from a number of points of view while exploring the disappearance of 17 year old Zoe from her family’s coastal retreat. Blending police procedural, a family history rich with mythology, a love story, and a family strangely accepting of Zoe’s presumed fate. I picked To the Sea off the shelves and read a few pages expecting something along the lines of Jane Harper’s The Dry, but was surprised by quite a different story, one that kept me interested to the end. John

I just got a proof of the new Laurent Binet (to be released in May). HHhH, his novel about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the writing of history, was my favourite book of 2012. His new book, The 7th Function of Language, is a ‘semiotic detective’ story. In another intense mix of fact and fiction, the death of Roland Barthes and the possible theft of an important document is being investigated by an academic-hating cop and his unwilling sidekick—a post-graduate student dragooned into working for the cop as a semiotics interpreter. I’m 50 pages in and having a whale of a time. Gilles Delouse has just conducted a deconstruction of Jimmy Connor’s aristocratic low, skimming shots and Bjorn Borg’s proletarian topspin—Bayard, the cop, ‘sits down on the sofa. He has a feeling he’s going to have to listen to a lot of crap’. Viki