What We're Reading 

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

April 2019

Gleebooks Bookshop - Friday, March 29, 2019
Stef: If you love historical fiction, look no further than Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. From the very first page to the last, it is storytelling at it’s best— and storytelling is just what you’ll get when you stop by for a drink at The Swan, the local inn, set on the banks of the river Thames, in the village of Radcot. The Radcot village drinkers gather at The Swan of an evening, for a drink and to share a story. But the night of the winter solstice delivers a story that they would tell and retell for years to come. Shaped by the ebb and flow of the great river, this tale brings a stranger carrying a young child, seemingly dead, to their door. Miraculously, the child, a girl of around four has wakens and breathes again. But who is she? And who does she belong to? Three families come forward to claim to the child, but who is telling the truth. That is where you come into it dear reader—listen carefully as they each lay bare their own story in this atmospheric novel, brimming with mystery and intrigue.

The Suspect by Fiona Barton—Fiona Barton sure knows how to craft a real page turner. The Suspect is the third thriller featuring investigative journalist, Kate Waters. Two teenage girls are missing. They are on their first overseas holiday. It should have been a great adventure but it has turned into a nightmare. Can Kate Waters discover the truth behind the missing girls’ dream holiday in Thailand? Written in short bursts from different perspectives,this adrenalin fuelled thriller will keep you guessing to the very end.

Jack: The Collected Stories by Grace Paley—I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified. I’ve always thrilled to that opening, so it’s a quiet joy (in a Grace Paley kind of way) to have her funny and passionate short stories at gleebooks. Cherished by Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Joy Williams, Nathan Englander, AM Homes—and the occasional bookseller! Her story, Goodbye & Good Luck, is similarly affecting: I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. The thrill is now yours...

Andrew:  Deer Reeder: First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong. Because I am a fox! So don’t rite or spel perfect. 
I’ve just finished the sublime fable Fox 8 by George Saunders  which as you can gather is narrated by Fox 8 himself.  It is a short story that you can knock over in half an hour but the smart little hardback presents the story with line drawings by Chelsea Cardinal that suit the funny-sad prose beautifully. Whilst it is chock full of wry jokes, and Saunders’ trademark clever language play, this story of environmental carnage ultimately packs a heavy emotional punch. I’ve also just started the short story collection You Know You Want This by Kirsten Roupenian—another 2019 Sydney Writers’ Festival quest. One story, Cat Person, has garnered the distinction of being the New Yorker’s most shared article of the digital age. It is indeed a doozy. A blowtorch taken to the subject of dating in the age of the text message, it is a swirling, nauseous, rollercoaster of a story.

Judy: Outline, Transit & Kudos by Rachel Cusk—I recommend reading this group of three one after the other. It will be worth your time. They are written as episodes, conversations and encounters between a working author and the people she meets going to book festivals, conferences, creative writing classes, and in the process of renovating her house. The form she has chosen is revelatory and exhilarating—it becomes something of a high-wire act. She writes beautifully, deftly—I found myself re-reading passages for sheer delight, and the joy of seeing with her clear eye things strange, funny, threatening. The three books hang together as an edifying whole. Indicative of the boldness of the author is the final scene in the final book. After all has been said and done, she throws all the balls up in the air again concerning the major theme of the novels: the power struggles between men and women. It’s a stunning last episode.


Stephen: The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris ($23, PB) The subtitle says it all. Medical pioneer Joseph Lister (1827–1912) ushers surgery into the modern era with his use of antiseptics, sterilization of medical instruments and the necessity of personal hygiene. Before Lister, medical surgery was a charnel house of blood, dirt and infection. Victorian operating theatres were known as ‘gateways of death’. Post-operative infection mortality rates were so endemic in hospital wards that it was named ‘hospitalism’. Fitzharris narration of scientific progress in the brutal and bloody world of Victorian surgery is engaging, informative and gruesomely entertaining. Footnote: Joseph Lister did not invent Listerine, but it was inspired by his antiseptic techniques.

Jonathan: The First Bad Man by Miranda July—A brilliant, celebrated debut novel from the performance artist and filmmaker. Ultimately a warming story about loneliness, friendship and shaking off pasts that no longer serve us. This book will take you on a wondrous, hilarious journey. July also includes a witty commentary on Feminism in the late 20th Century in the women’s group that Cheryl Glickman works for. Just great.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff—A stunning re-evaluation of capitalism in the digital age. It is not so much that we are the products of ‘free’ social media apps, but that we are the raw materials of a distinct mode of production. Zuboff traces the invention of a world without privacy or personal sovereignty, where social media platforms turn our inner lives into grist for their mills. Scary, but also hopeful for push back. Zuboff writes beautifully, to boot.  

Viki: I’ve just overdosed on Trumpian America reading Richard Cooke’s ‘chronicle of American decline’, Tired of Winning, in one gulp—a very intelligent and highly readable outsider view of the ‘United’ States, with essays ranging from gun culture to the 1968 Democratic National Convention and its unintentional creation of Nixon’s ‘silent majority’ and the ‘Southernisation of the Midwest (quoting Norman Mailer—the Yippies’ ‘demand for all-accelerated entrance into a 20th century Utopia’ represented the ‘destruction of every saving hypocrisy’). An invigorating collection. 

On a less depressing subject, I’m planning a trip to Europe at the end of this year’s magazine and have started a related reading tour of London. First Peter Ackroyd’s doorstopper biography of London, followed by some of Iain Sinclair’s explorations in and around London’s fringes—but this week I’ve been on a side trip to Roman Britain with Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Roman Britain trilogy (this lead from another travel research related book, Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins). The first in the Sutcliffe series is The Eagle of the Ninth, which I’ve already ripped through. This is ‘childrens’ literature from an era when books for children were less compartmentalised, and the boundary between children's and adult fiction less defined. Sutcliffe uses a poetically descriptive pen without florid overuse of adjectives, capturing a sense of another time and sensibility, while at the same time keeping a tight rein on the narrative tension—the race for the safety of the Roman wall at the end had me on the edge of my seat. It’s writing that children can aspire to.

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