In Praise of the New 

Louise Pfanner shares her latest discoveries.

June 2019

 - Thursday, May 30, 2019

The characters in Tessa Hadley’s latest book Late in the Day are terribly familiar. An artist, a gallery owner, a teacher & a beautiful muse—four very distinct types—each engaged in the quadrille of their friendship. When Zachary, the gallery owner, and husband of Lydia, the muse, dies suddenly early in the novel, the events that follow are slightly shocking, but predictable, when the quadrille becomes a triangle. Hadley takes you back and forth in time, to the beginning of their friendships. Lydia and Christine, and Alex and Zachary, were friends from (separate) schools. The women went to university together, where they were taught by Alex, and through him, met Zachary. Eventually they all married, and each couple had a daughter. Alex also has a shadowy, charismatic son from his first marriage. Hadley supplies really wonderful, incidental details of their lives, and lots of quiet, sharp insights into the way people live and work as they get older. The small number of characters are clearly drawn, but in a very understated way—there’s not much dialogue, and lots of gaps in  the narrative that somehow make you feel involved and invested in the story. The quadrille is changed for ever when Zachary dies, but the dance goes on. ($38, HB)

More strange, but equally engulfing, is Guest Book—the latest book by Leanne Shapton. An opening poem by the late Canadian author Adam Gilders, sets the tone for the whole book—and gives you a clue about the book’s themes: there is a link between guests and ghosts, and the whole work is about visitations from the other side. The fact that Gilders died young is also pertinent, in this spectral collection of stories, drawings, poems, diagrams, instagrams, photographs—mostly fictional, but some about real people and incidents. Everything is linked, but in a submerged, opaque way—ghostliness may be the theme, but it’s really about the oddness of being alive, rather than not. Leanne Shapton is a truly original writer and artist. Everything she produces is unlike anything else, and truly ‘other’. Guest Book is an artefact as much as a work of literature, and quite impossible to describe in words, you really have to see it, and read it. I do not believe ghosts, and I don’t enjoy literature about the supernatural, but I love this book, it’s haunted me in a most delightful way. ($45, HB)

Another book that I have read this month is A Colorful Life by Louise Sandhaus and Kat Catmur. It’s a very comprehensive look at the work of the great American designer, Gere Kavanaugh, a girl from Tennessee who reached the heights of many areas of design, with her beautiful, vivid designs. Unusually for a woman of her time (she was born in 1929, and is alive today), she  forged a brilliant career in what were generally domains dominated by men—for example, she worked for General Motors and Gruen Associates. From designing shopping mall interiors, to tea towels, Christmas decorations, toys, no job too big, no job too small, her work is always colourful, seemingly simple, and very much alive. This book is full of wonderful pictures of her, her creations, her extraordinary collections, and the many articles that have appeared about her. It’s amazing to see how the work of a single woman has contributed so much of the visual landscape—she is an inspiration to anyone who ever picked up a colour pencil. I recommend this book highly to everyone who likes nice things. ($75, HB)