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From days in space, to parrots and an unusual thriller… here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.

What Claire is reading.

Orbital by Samantha Harvey has been chosen as the Roaring Stories book of the month and I agree heartily with this selection. I read it over a couple of meandering days during the holidays which gave me time to revel in it.

The book charts an Earth day in the life of four astronauts –  one each from the UK, Japan, US and Italy –  and two Russian cosmonauts, on the Space Station orbiting the earth.  Harvey shows us the intimate details of their lives eating, sleeping, exercising, and so on in zero gravity with intimate glimpses into their own interior worlds. As they orbit the earth 16 times over the course of a 24 hour period, Harvey charts the 16 sunsets and sunrises  which they experience and draws the reader to consider the beauty and profundity of our planet Earth and humanity’s existence on it.

I knocked off quite a few other books over my holidays, some of which have not been released yet and a few others which I found annoying and have little good to say about, so I will refrain.  I finished my holidays off the Robert Skinner’s I’d Rather Not. It’s a delight.  Satirical in parts and also laugh out loud funny.  It’s made it onto  quite a few lists of the best books of 2023.  The section in which he describes his experience with Robodebt skewers this ill conceived, and now formally deemed unlawful scheme.  Robert Skinner had the resources (smarts, time, ability to engage confidently with the system etc) to be able to challenge his debt, while so many people caught up in it did not.

What is Tim reading.

Sigrid Nunez’s novel ‘The Vulnerables’ attracted me at first sight due to the picture of a parrot on its cover. An ongoing YouTube infatuation with Tico the singing Amazonian parrot awakened in me an interest in the ornithological world that over the years I’ve dipped into without further exploration such that I’m also now rewatching a movie made during WWII called ‘Tawny Pipit’ about the ultra rare appearance of a pair of Tawny Pipits in a small English village during wartime and the bird lovers who seek these birds out.

 I thought to myself that the name Sigrid Nunez rings a bit of a bell so I’ll give this book a go and here we are. Reading Nunez’s novel which is one of the first I’ve read to portray experiences of The Pandemic (in The United States), the isolations of lockdown and empty city spaces and the dislocations and abrupt changes of these times and trying to develop a framework of understanding, I struggled. When I finished I thought yes that’s been a worthwhile experience. 

Parrots do play a part but so also do countless authors and observations on writing and ’the literary world’. As I write this appreciation I’m reminded of George Saunders’ ‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’ and his generosity in sharing his observations on the craft of writing. By exploring a series of short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol with his ’teacher’s hat’ on Saunders looks at all the choices and decisions a writer makes and helps his students and his readers put their own minds to constructive use.

Such is also the case in Sigrid Nunez’s book which seems to me almost as generous in exploring how forms of literature can coexist within the pages of a single novel as she playfully combines the freedom of fiction with the structural skills of an accomplished essayist in a manner which absorbs her readers’ attention and draws her reader in to the atlas of literature perceived as honoured guest rather than as unlearned interloper. She makes the publishing industry feel a little less intimidating to those who want to write and that’s quite an achievement. 

What April is reading.

It has been seven years since Nathan Hill’s first novel, The Nix, which is one of my favourite books of all time, so I started Wellness with some trepidation. I’m only a third of the way through but he’s definitely not a one hit wonder.

Wellness deep dives into a lot of different subjects and it does so through the relationship of Jack and Elizabeth who meet when they are young in the gritty Chicago art scene of the 90s and now, 20 years later, are living in suburbia with their young son.

The book takes long detours into different topics like the placebo effect, polyamorous relationships, social media, art, behavioural psychology, diets, marriage, middle age, fitness theories, marketing jargon and the list goes on. It has already veered close to the bone for me on a number of occasions, especially on the parenting experience.

As a review in The Guardian concisely put it, ‘Wellness is the kind of novel that feels genuinely capacious and lively, full of interconnected rooms stuffed with unexpected fascinations. A reader emerges from Hill’s world of Wellness with a keener eye for the tragicomic maladies of marriage, and a greater ear for the strangely affecting rhythms and algorithms of 21st-century life’.

I still have some way to go but so far, I’m loving this big, immersive and often funny look at modern life.

What Bronwyn is reading.

I love the summer break with its long, lazy days – it’s a fabulous chance to catch up on my reading backlog.

Two brilliant, thought-provoking reads were Richard Flanagan’s Question 7 and Kate Mildenhall’s The Hummingbird Effect. I’ve only just finished them and therefore still processing my thoughts but they both take their readers on an incredible story-telling journey through time and place while posing some rather large philosophical dilemmas.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura was a 2021 summer pick for Barack Obama and is referred to as an existential thriller in a number of places. It is and it isn’t. It’s not a thriller in the usual sense of a crime thriller but it is introspectively dark and tense as we consider the nature of evil and war crimes via a translator at The Hague International Criminal Court. All the way through I wasn’t quite sure what might happen. The possibility of menace hung around the edges of the story.

The two-sided coin of charisma and evil is but one of the ambiguities Kitamura explores throughout her book. There’s also the rather large theme of colonial injustice, moral ambivalence and partiality. Who gets to judge and who gets judged? Who is accountable? And who gets to decide?

This vague mistrust also plays out within the intimate relationships that develop throughout the story – between friends, lovers and colleagues. Kitamura explores the physical elements of closeness and proximity, plus their opposites, detachment and discretion. Can we ever really know everything about our lovers, and do we want to? How does this partial understanding and uncertainty balance against our need for security and belonging? How do we decide how close we get and to who? This particularly plays out when our translator is asked to translate proceedings for the former president of the unnamed country in this story. I found Kitamura’s descriptions about the technical, moral and psychological demands of the role and the nature of translation enthralling. The section on body language and tone of voice was an eye-opener. How do you juggle being so close to power, yet stay neutral?

The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan is powerful historical fiction about WWII told from a Malaysian perspective. A generational saga that shows how the early hopes that many Malaysians felt at the time that the invading Japanese would prove to be a friendly, fellow-Asian liberating force who would do away with the constraints, restrictions and inequities of colonialism and the British Empire, were quickly dashed. I was completely engaged and enthralled from start to finish.

Mistletoe Malice by Kathleen Farrell was my Christmas read. Although this gem of a book is set over the Christmas period, it could be enjoyed at any time of the year by anyone who wants a story about post-war malaise and dysfunctional families all wrapped in a delicious comedy of manners. Just like the all-observing, ill-natured cook, Mrs Page, we sit back with ‘the luxury of a forbidden cigarette while she considered the mysterious ways of families who meet for the purpose of making each other miserable and bad-tempered.’ A true hidden gem!