From the latest chronicle in the story of Frank Bascombe by Richard Ford, to several books that show the devastation of colonisation in Africa, to a translated work of Argentinian literature that, as Dave Eggers writes, ‘hits with the force of a freight train’. Here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.

Tim is reading…
Be Mine

A recent first bout of COVID left me feeling drained of energy and for a while without the desire to read. We read whether we feel like it or not in our everyday lives. Advertisements and shopfronts, labels and instructions, the quick glance at the newspaper online just to see if anything has happened in the world today. We read the tones and tunes in peoples’ voices and their mannerisms of body language and eventually in a moment of ‘quiet time’ we pick up a book again and feel a sense of relief that the world within those pages is still magically there.

Today I’ve finished Richard Ford’s Be Mine. I’ve long wanted to read his novel The Sportswriter but to my regret I’ve only managed a few pages here and there of his subsequent books, and even though Be Mine continues on from The Sportswriter with maybe a few books in-between, I never felt like I was missing out for not having started at the beginning. The book continues The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe’s story, as he cares for his middle-aged son Paul who has been diagnosed with the more rapid type of ALS, which I think is related to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and also to Motor Neurone Disease. I wasn’t aware of the subject matter of Be Mine when I began reading, but I did feel some kind of moment that so often happens in the reading zone, as I’d just learned that a dear friend from time past recently died of MND and I could kind of feel my friend’s presence as I read but also the reality of his absence.

Whilst trying to put this ‘What I’m Reading’ piece together I’d written a sentence that I rather liked: ‘Reading creates a learned citizenry in your head’ but Be Mine does a great job in reminding us that in life and death are things we just don’t know how to deal with and that human relationships in their very inescapableness somehow do that for us best (to my mind) represented in a novel. The complex interplay between a novelist, their characters and the plot they find themselves involved in becomes something that at the very least draws some positives and leads a reader towards art that encompasses all.

Claire is Reading…
Three tales of Africa

Recently I have been feeding an abiding interest in the history and cultures of the peoples and countries of Africa. Earlier this year I read Dictatorland: The Men who Stole Africa in which award-winning journalist Paul Kenyon examines the political histories of a handful of the 55 countries which comprise the continent, from the end of their colonial era through the following decades. In all the case studies, he gives insight into the corrosive power of colonialism and its lasting impacts, and the abdication of morality and ethics when people are confronted with the need to gain and hold onto power and resources. As an ex human rights researcher, I retain a perhaps ghoulish interest in the darkest stories of human nature. 

I’m lucky to be married to a bookseller I know, and recently Dan bought home a copy of Crossing The Congo by Mike Martin, Chloe Baker and Charlie Hatch-Barnwell. In its essence, this is the travel diary of three hardy twenty-something Brits – an ex-army captain, a medical doctor and a jack of all trades charmer – who decide to drive a battered old two-door Land Rover from Kinshasa, the capital of The Democratic Republic of the Congo, up to Juba, the capital of the new country of South Sudan. While the story focuses on the trials of these three, their resolve and ingenuity, it’s also a catalogue of the deterioration of infrastructure (more interesting than it sounds) in the decades since the departure of the Belgian colonial power and the deprivations faced by the Congolese people in one of the most resource rich countries in the world. 

Following this I asked Dan to order me Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun which was first published in 2006. In this beautiful sad book, the Nigerian author tells the story of the Biafran civil war in the 1960s through the eyes of: Olanna, the daughter of a wealthy Nigerian/Biafran family; Ugwu a house boy from a Biafran village; and Richard, an English journalist and writer who is spellbound by Biafran culture, language and art, and the Biafran cause. This had been on my ‘to-read’ list for many years and it didn’t disappoint. I’m now looking forward to reading more from this author. 

In a complete gear shift, I am now reading Rebecca F Kuang’s dark comedy Yellowface. This is a new release and a worthwhile exploration of some very prescient themes in our discourse including cultural appropriation, the rights of authors to tell stories which are not their own to tell and the incivility of twitter/social media. I’m about 2/3rds of the way through and it ties in nicely with the podcast The Witch Trials of J.K Rowling which I would also highly recommend. 

Kate is reading…
Kafka, and more strange dream books

I picked up Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez and was instantly lost to a fever dream that began with a woman in a large, beautiful though crumbling apartment, located in a neighbourhood from which wealth had long fled. Through the window she watched a sullen pregnant woman and her very young boy, homeless, sitting on a small rug outside an abandoned shopfront. A crime of the most unimaginable horror then occurs on the woman’s doorstep, after an encounter with the now-vanished child. I left off the book one night during a passage where the woman was confessing her suspicions around the crime with her friend, a trans hairdresser.

Then, the book was lost! I won’t go into how (it was not in a fire), but I have not been able to continue this surreal descent into darkness unknown, and it has been a yearning and a fret. There’s no question about it – I’ll have to buy a new copy.

In the interim, I’ve been reading about how Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to find himself turned into an enormous bug, and another book by Luke Beesley, In the Photograph, which is of its own strangeness – a kind of literary seismograph of the literary mind’s dreaming mind.

Enriquez, wait for me, we’ll be together again soon.