What We're Reading 

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

May 2017

 - Wednesday, May 10, 2017
John: I have just caught up with and thoroughly enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles ($30). Having returned from Paris after the Revolution, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov has become a ‘Former Person’ under house arrest in Moscow’s grand Hotel Metropol. The count’s circumstances are in decline but his relationships with friends and staff members of the hotel enrich his life. Released late last year it unfortunately got lost in the flood of new books that publishers release in the ten weeks before Christmas. Its taken me six months to catch up with it and I think it deserves a far wider readership.

Andrew: I am a huge fan of Colm Tóibín. Possibly his most consummate novels have been set in or around County Wexford, where he was born, but I will admit to preferring his bolder, more imaginative, side—where he takes real historical people as his subjects; such as The Testament of Mary (as in the mother of Christ) and The Master (Henry James). So for me, his new novel, The House of Names, is a huge delight. Tóibín takes on the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (the king who is prepared to murder his own daughter as a sacrifice to the gods; the grief stricken and enraged wife, prepared to murder her husband in revenge), and that of their two children, Electra and Orestes, who inexorably play out the consequences of their parents’ actions. The universe of this novel is one in which the sway and influence of the gods has come to an end, and we are left to stare into the dark moral hearts of the protagonists with a modern eye—without the tedious safety net of divine intervention or fate. His Clytemnestra in particular is a superlative portrayal. It is quite a tightrope act to portray a woman, so clear-eyed in her anguished grief, discovering within herself the motivation to murder her husband. Tóibín pulls it off spectacularly.
If all of this sounds like hard going, I promise it is not. It is actually for the most part a barnstormer of a story wonderfully told. It divides its time between the shadows and malcontent of Agamemnon’s palace, and a remote coastal farm house surrounded by cliffs and wheeling seagulls. I’m not sure what fans of Norah Webster will make of this tale of mythological filicide and parricide, but for me this book was ultimately as moving. There is something essential, distilled, about Tóibín’s prose. I hesitate to call it spare or unadorned because he actually has this fantastic capability to conjure a wonderful lyricism out of nowhere. For all its downstage violence, it is a book of light and shadow, subtle observation and ellipitic emotions. In this it reminded me of another fantastic reworking of a segment of the Iliad—David Malouf’s Ransom; a much gentler novel that dwells on paternal love, and the wisdom of experience, but one that is just as confident in its skin. Read ‘em both!

Mike: I found Megan Hunter’s debut novel, The End We Start From ($20, HB) in a box of proofs—I admit, I was drawn to it because it was small and had a nice cover ... but, Wow! I read it in one sitting, and could not think of anything else for the rest of that day—it is the best thing I have read this year thus far. Wow. Just wow. A brief, but amazingly deep tale of a young woman (the unnamed narrator) who has just given birth to her first child in the midst of a catastrophic environmental disaster—London and the UK are sinking beneath flood waters. The writing is set in paragraphs of three sentences or so, which makes it extremely hard to put down (I’ll just read one more bit...). This is the first I’d heard of Hunter—but she can sure write.

Steve: A group of barely-competent, squabbling mountaineers set off to scale the 40,000-and-a-half-foot peak, Rum Doodle in Yogistan. Published in 1956, The Ascent of Rum Doodle ($25) by W. E. Bowman is an hilarious first-person parody of the travel–adventure-mountaineering narratives of the early 20th century. The team includes Binder, the naïve, good-hearted leader; Jungle, the radio expert and route-finder who is constantly getting lost; Wish, the scientist who conducts increasingly bizarre experiments and keeps an eye out for the famed Atrocious Snowman; Prone, the doctor who is always ill; Constant, the diplomat and linguist whose grammatical errors and imperfect language skills cause continual unrest with the Yogistan natives and Pong, the cook, who reduces the expedition’s plentiful supplies to daily unappetising meals. When The Ascent of Rum Doodle first appeared, it acquired a cult-following—as future classics released to initial widespread neglect often do. Its most ardent devotees consisted of mountaineers and polar scientists many of whom were convinced the author must be a pseudonym for an accomplished mountaineer. In fact, the creator of this gentle comic gem was Yorkshire-born Civil Engineer, William Bowman (1911–1985) who thought up the idea for the book while hiking in the Lake District. His inspiration came from British climber Bill Tilman’s 1937 account of the Nanda Devi Expedition.Bowman’s only other published book—The Cruise of the Talking Fish (1957) was a parody of the Thor Heyerdahl Kon-Tiki Expedition of 1947.

Judy: I am keen to draw your attention to Charlotte by David Foenkinos, who became obsessed with the artist Charlotte Salomon—her short, passionate life and her beautiful, vivid work. The novel is written in verse form and is a joy to read. This woman’s life was dogged by generations of suicides and it ended so very prematurely in Auschwitz, yet when you view her work it is only and all about life. Everything that was secretive and unbearably sad finds its place in her major work Life? or Theatre? She stands above her fate. This book and its celebration of Charlotte is a gift to any reader.

Viki: I’m reading Mary Gaitskill’s collection Somebody With a Little Hammer. What a fantastic, terrifically insightful writer—you can’t stop at one. Her essay on Dickens’ Bleak House—And It Would Not Be Wonderful to Meet a Megalosaurus has me seriously considering the not inconsiderable (timewise) project of rereading Bleak House. Whenever anyone says they don’t like Dickens I usually read them its opening pages (where you may meet a Megolosaurus)—now I think I’ll just give them Gaitskill’s essay to read. Her biographical piece on grief, love, trauma, you name it, and the search for the essay’s eponymous Lost Cat is a standout, as is the description of Sarah Palin in her election diary.