What We're Reading 

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

September 2017

 - Wednesday, September 06, 2017
Andrew: I’ve just finished an advance copy of Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, due out very late this month. Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of my all time favourite books. It was published in 2010, the year Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was supposedly saying everything that wanted to be said about modern life. I waded through the Franzen with a certain engagement and admiration, but it was Goon Squad that compelled me, and left me with the sense I had read a book that I wanted to clasp to my bosom, and to badger other people to read. And I still do.  The Guardian review called it a book of  ‘memory and kinship, continuity and disconnection, in which relationships shift and recombine kaleidoscopically’. It is a delight to read; a set of interrelated stories, in which a handful of characters appear and reappear. Egan’s prose is a thing of sublime beauty, as she bundles up the fractured and disconnected lives of her characters, and somehow, ineffably, effortlessly, makes them seem part of something whole. It is a quirky, dare I say it, postmodern book (one of the chapters takes the form of a Powerpoint presentation), and I suppose I was expecting something similarly oddball from  Manhattan Beach. But no. Manhattan Beach is a straight as a die historical novel. With a beguiling opening set in a bleak of winter of the Great Depression on the Atlantic beachfront property of the very wealthy, morally opaque, Dexter Styles. The book is set mainly during the Second World War in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It follows the intersecting lives of Dexter, one of his employees, Eddie Kerrigan, and Eddie’s daughter Anna, a diver for the US Navy who repairs warships. It is most fulsomely, and convincingly, Anna’s story. Egan’s prose style is as phosphorescent as ever; and the plot (one of underworld violence, intrigue, sexual tension and social change) is handled with page-turning panache. Set pieces in forties nightclubs, wealthy estates and naval shipyards all zing with a heady veracity. It plumbs similar depths to Goon Squad in an exploration of the disconnections that we all endure in our lives and relationships. The fractured, unlikely, lives of the three main characters snake and intertwine, contorting with a bewitching subtlety, and ultimately fuse together as they each try to forge a sense of meaning in their respective worlds. I will admit the ‘final reel’ of the novel fell away for me somewhat. Its loose ends are bundled up a tad unconvincingly; and there are other plot elements that probably don’t bear too close an inspection, but it remains a resounding winner of a book for me. One of the very best of the year.

Judy: Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner & Her Work has sent me back to re-read early Helen—The Children’s Bach and Postcards from Surfers (currently out of print). I found Bernadette’s book completely engaging. Because Helen Garner’s work springs directly and deeply from her own experiences, there can be no dry critical work that can do it justice. What I felt reading A Writing Life was that I was being shown both sides of a finely finished tapestry—the reverse showing all the fabulous threads, the weaving, the chaos and the strategy that produced the work itself. The Children’s Bach and Postcards from Surfers are still great. They are so full of dry wit, intelligence, intimacy and passion—and they are so very much our stories. They are a snapshot of their time, and they hold true well into the future. I recommend a read or a re-read.  

Louise: Edward Bawden Scrapbooks are an absolute pleasure to behold. This great English artist, along with his colleague Eric Ravilious, captured the first part of the 20th century with marvellous paintings, designs and illustrations—book covers, posters, murals, landscape paintings—their work was always in demand. Sadly, Ravilious died in WW2, but Edward Bawden pressed on, working until his death in 1989. This volume contains five of his scrapbooks, and includes sketches, roughs, collages and lots of ephemera. A fascinating insight into the artist’s body of work.

John: In my continuing series reviewing books by ABC employees is the recently released The Twentieth Man, by Q&A’s Tony Jones. The Twentieth Man is a political thriller that, like many great stories in this genre, blends fact and fiction. Set in Australia in 1972 with the background of social change and the first Labor government for 23 years. The story opens with two bombings in Sydney. A cell of radical Croatians are thought to be responsible—but which of the many groups are guilty. Central to the plot are a young ABC journalist and her missing lover, they are surrounded by a well drawn cast of characters—some historical, like Lionel Murphy who has a pivotal role. With lots of detail, well plotted and some well draw characters, The Twentieth Man is a compelling thriller. Tony Jones should have a very successful second career as a novelist.

Hannah: Last year I swore I would be a good bookshop manager and actually read my way through the Man Booker longlist. I think I only read four before I was distracted by the competing interests of other new releases and comfort-reading old favourites. In spite of this I have made the same silly promise to myself this year. Zadie Smith’s Swing Time was her most mature and rewarding book yet, and the polyphonic perfection of Lincoln in the Bardo was a revelation. What to read next? Home Fire by Khamila Shamsie. This brilliant novel is a modern take on Sophocles’ Antigone. Using the lives of a Pakistani family in contemporary Britain Shamsie explores Antigone’s motifs of natural justice, morals and filial loyalty—and it seems incredibly relevant to return to these themes in our post 9/11, post-Brexit, paranoid world. Although I think Home Fire will be a hard act to follow, I have my sights set on Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves next. 3 down, 10 to go!