What We're Reading 

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

Must You Go?

 - Friday, October 04, 2013
MUST YOU GO by Louise Pfanner
'Must you go?’ was the question that Harold Pinter asked Antonia Fraser on the night they met at a party at her sister’s house. Those three words were the key that opened the door of a remarkably long, happy and productive relationship that started as a clandestine affair, but ended in marriage. Antonia Fraser uses her diaries as the basis for Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter, to reveal with wonderful clarity a most extraordinary meeting of minds, and, in their determination to make their lives work together, an enviable lack of concern (mostly) for what people thought. No mean feat for two highly recognisable writers, both married with children. Because the diary has clear omissions, the reader doesn’t descend into voyeurism, and the lives of the six Fraser children, and one Pinter son, are written about with utmost respect for their privacy. The book is primarily about her rich, happy life with Pinter, however the lives of her parents (her mother, Elizabeth Longford was an extraordinary person), and of their families and friends are woven through the narrative in a most engaging way. 
Unlike Must You Go? which ends with Harold Pinter’s death on Christmas Eve, 2008, Julian Barnes’ latest book Levels of Life begins with the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh in 2008, and is about the ongoing grief he has lived with since. The book has three sections. The 1st is a brief history of 19th Century ballooning, and the pioneer of aerial photography, a Frenchman nicknamed Nadar. The 2nd imagines a meeting & friendship between two other ballooning enthusiasts, the actress Sarah Bernard, and an English colonel, Fred Burnaby. The wry tone of these first parts changes in the third section, when Barnes deals with his grief. Julian Barnes is an elegant, contained writer, but the simplicity and beauty of his language in no way lets the reader off experiencing the pain he has endured. For such a private person (he never mentions his wife by name), he reveals a lot about himself. His anger at the clumsiness of people’s sympathy, and their awful terms and clichés, make for uncomfortable reading. But it is also a book about love, memory and memorial, and contains some of the most vivid images of two lives braided together that I have ever read. As an ill-considered antidote to the sadness of Levels of Life, I reread Barnes' wonderfully funny collection of essays about his efforts in the kitchen, The Pedant in the Kitchen, (he is clearly a very good cook). But ‘She For Whom the Pedant Cooks’ was his wife, which somehow made Levels of Life seem even sadder on reflection.
Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton is a most curious book—a million miles from the books above. Working from the premise that EVERYBODY has an ex, and therefore is an ex, Leanne Shapton creates a sort of chain of characters, captured in a few lines of text, with a black and white illustration for each one. The drawings are spare and evocative, conveying not only the personality of the subject, but the whole underlying story. The tone of the book is sometimes wistful, sometimes bleak, but mainly incredibly funny. (For example over three illustrated double pages we read: Kelly and her boyfriend Len kept running into women he 'used to know'. One of the women Len used to know was an opinionated academic. She wore braces and they looked fantastic. Another posed for life drawing classes). At first all the characters seem random and disconnected (although one can’t help thinking of those television advertisements for STDs in the 1990s), but gradually the connections, the chains that bind us all together are revealed, and what at first seems like a rather frivolous, albeit very clever confection, transforms into a very profound (and at the same time extremely amusing) exploration of love and jealousy, and all that lies between. Louise Pfanner

Andrew: In the last few years we have seen some great local histories brought in by their authors—from the splendid Story of Australian Roller Coasters and Thirsty Work: The Story of Sydney's Soft Drink Manufacturers. This week I have been having a great time browsing a wonderful self-published title we have just received into the shop: Town Parks of New South Wales by Warwick Mayne-Wilson, $65.00. The first such history of its type, it is a great reminder of how profound our memories and usage of these public spaces are; and how important they are to the lives of our towns and suburbs. It has some comprehensive appendixes and andengaging commentary, but most of all it is chock full of splendid historical photographs. If you are fond of the series of books that cover the pictorial history of suburbs, this could be up your alley.

Morgan: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters—Switching between the present in Hollywood to the early 1960s in Italy when a beautiful American actress arrives in a tiny coastal village, this is an inordinately romantic, old-worldly but also very contemporary novel. Extremely satisfying—from the settings, the characters, the humour and pathos and a central conceit involving Richard Burton which works wonderfully well, to the beautiful ending, this is a book to be savoured and passed around your friends.

Louise: Scandinavian Design by Charlotte & Peter Fiell—This wonderfully comprehensive guide to Scandinavian design has given me hours of pleasurable reading. Many well known companies (like Georg Jensen, Marimekko, Itaala) are discussed, but it is the individual artists and designers that are most fascinating—Alvar Aalto, Carl Larsson and Arne Jacobsen to name a few. Richly illustrated, but not too image heavy, this book strikes a perfect balance between text and pictures. Despite being very extensive, it's also quite compact. Not so much a coffee table book as a good looking reference book—and very reasonably priced at just $30.

John: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes—One day during the election campaign there was photo and story on the front page of the SMH about some one who was actually not a politician. I read this story about a former SMH journo, screenwriter and now novelist Terry Hayes (isn't it great to have mates in the media?), and responding like one of Pavlov's dogs I retrieved a copy of I am Pilgrim from the shelves. By the time I had read a dozen or so pages I was hooked by this outstanding thriller. The protagonists are a retired master spy who used to work for a US agency that policed the shadowy intelligence world and a Saudi terrorist, traumatised by the execution of his father by the Saudi secret police. Its a real page turner, man against man, and disturbingly believable too. I look forward to reading more from this man who managed to gazump Messers Abbott & Rudd's stranglehold on the pre-election front page.