What We're Reading 

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

June 2020

 - Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Morgan: The Margot Affair by Sanae Lemoine—This French debut is a beguiling novel of love, secrets and betrayal. Margot is the 17 year old daughter of a well-known actress and a married politician. Her father has visited them regularly over the years but lives a double life. In an impetuous moment, Margot reveals this to a journalist and the ramifications are not quite what she expected. Beautifully written—and very Parisian. Also Daisy Johnson’s Sisters (due in August) is a searing portrayal of sibling love and envy, of the power one can have over another. Brilliantly written, this book will linger in the reader’s mind long after its completion.

Steve: On 29 April 1986, the Los Angeles Public Library went up in flames. Arson or accident? Susan Orleans’s engaging The Library Book is part true crime investigation, part history of the Library, part memoir of her lifelong love of books and libraries, and a grace letter to their cultural importance—even in this internet age. Some 400,000 books were destroyed, over 700,000 were damaged—among the casualties of the inferno were over 12,000 cookbooks —‘Their covers burst like popcorn’, the entire Shakespeare collection; five million American patent drawings and listings; 90,000 books on engineering; leaves from a 1635 Coverdale Bible—the first complete translation in modern English. Orleans also re-examines the case of the suspected arsonist, 27-year-old Harry Peak, who died in 1993. He at first admitted the crime and then vehemently denied it. In an engaging interview with Peak’s sister, Debra, Harry—a part-time actor and drifter—comes across as a fondly remembered fantasist and attention seeker. Orleans leaves it open—the faulty and often antiquated electrical wiring of an institution that was six decades old, seems a more plausible culprit. The long history of torching libraries through the ages also intrigues Orleans, as does the replacement and restoration of the L.A. Library’s salvageable books: thousands of books were frozen in an effort to preserve them. She also looks into the intermittent—but ultimately successful—efforts to restore and expand the library as it is today.

Scott V: Grant by Ron Chernow—Most biographies of Ulysses S. Grant concentrate almost exclusively on his Civil War exploits: his rise to Union Commander and his starring role in the ultimate victory over the Confederacy. Understandable: it’s the story of a man, considered to be a failure in every venture, who rises to become the saviour of the Union (in tandem with Lincoln), all the while fighting another epic battle—with alcoholism. But it’s Grant’s post Civil War life as a two term President during the period of Reconstruction that’s a revelation here. In many instances, he comes across as a naive leader who means well but who gets unwittingly embroiled in scandal after scandal—showing stubborn loyalty to those close to him, who turn out to be corrupt. The greatest tragedy, however, is that early and comprehensive gains in Civil Rights for former slaves (overseen by his administration and a Union military presence in the South,) are thwarted and rolled back by a bloody wave of domestic terrorism in the form of the KKK and other similar groups. The North, eager for reconciliation with the South, becomes weary of constant intervention, and so, it will be almost another hundred years before any further gains are made in Civil Rights for African Americans. Very interesting read.

Andrew: The Abstainer by Ian McGuire—What to read in a world post-Cromwell? I  came blinking into the light in May after finishing the Hilary Mantel, and have struggled to gain traction with other novels since then. I’m very keen to read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It is an imagined life of Shakespeare’s son and getting high praise all over the place, but I think I will do her better justice if I leave the sixteenth century alone for a bit. So, instead I’m knee deep in 1860s Manchester with a rollicking noir thriller of Fenian agitators and undercover police. Ian McGuire’s earlier Victorian icebound whaler thriller The North Water was one of my favourite reads of a few years ago. It was a gobsmacking adventure, with its mise en scène so far out of my ken that it made for a transportive experience. The Abstainer lacks this extraordinary thrill-of-the-new element but Maguire has impeccable historical knowledge and enough of a knack for character and pacing, that I’m pleased enough to come along for the ride.

Jack: Collected Essays by James Baldwin—From an essay, The American Dream & American Negro, published in 1965: ‘It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved a place for you.’  Fifty-five or four-hundred years later, is a change gonna come?

Louise:  In this time of restriction (globally), and poor concentration (my own), I have been so pleased to read books that have left an impact without being too demanding of my time, and quite frankly, of my emotion. Anne Tyler’s new book, Redhead by the Side of the Road, has fitted the bill perfectly. Micah is middle aged, an isolated man although he has plenty of family, and a job he excels at (he’s a tech geek with a business named Tech Hermit), and a girlfriend, who he refers to as a ladyfriend, given her age (late 30s). He lives in mainly self imposed isolation, a person of clean and regular housekeeping habits, with a rigid timetable and quite restricted ideas. Micah, thanks to his creator, does not lack charm, but you can definitely recognise a certain curmudgeonliness. Two events happen in the course of the book, that threaten to undermine Micah’s deeply organised life—will Micah recognise them as being catalysts or merely uncomfortable inconveniences?  Anne Tyler’s books are always a joy to read. They are literary, but accessible, with very well drawn characters that stay with you. I have loved her books for decades, but I particularly enjoyed the recent Clock Dance, and A Spool of Blue Thread. For all you podcats, there’s a terrific interview with the author on the BBC’s Fortunately podcast of May 29, 2020. In this interview Anne Tyler reveals that she has given Micah her housecleaning schedule, a fact that I’ve been laughing about since I heard it.  

Stef: Jessie Traill, A Biography by Jo Oliver—Born in the 1880s at Blackrock, on the edge of Melbourne suburbia, Australian artist Jessie Traill was independent and free spirited, adventurous and well travelled, and an artist, not only accomplished but pioneering in her style, method and her medium of choice—etching. Considered at that time a masculine pursuit, Jessie Traill not only mastered etching, she pushed it to its limits and discovered new ways of expressing line, subject and emotion. Her prints are beautiful. I think Oliver draws too heavily from Traill’s own diary and personal papers, and I would have loved her to explore the narrative of Jessie’s artwork as it really has a story to tell (like the effect volunteering during WW1 had on her work)—but as there is so little known of Jessie Traill the book is worth reading. And Traill’s own writing is lovely to read. Her walk around Bruges brought back strong memories.