From Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize, to a history book about a killing at Uluru, to the gripping true story of a spymaster, a bomb-maker and two brothers. Here’s what our Balmain bookshop staff are reading this month.
Bronwyn is reading…
Ishiguro, Claire Thomas and many more! (as usual)
Since last I wrote, I’ve had a character-rich reading run. In between my rereads of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (which, by the by, I’m REALLY enjoying – second time around, Mantel’s superb wit is coming to the fore), several new releases have captured my attention, and my heart.
The Performance by Claire Thomas was one of those books I could not put down. I was so caught up in my reading experience that I forgot where I was and how much time had passed. The performance at the heart of The Performance is a Beckett play, Happy Days. Three women attend the performance for different reasons and find themselves distracted by their own thoughts. They wander off down well-worn grooves of thinking and soul-searching – about that thing they said or didn’t say to a loved one, problems at work, in their relationships, the aches and pains of ageing and maintaining an image. Thomas draws them all sympathetically and realistically.
Pakana man from Launceston Adam Thompson may be an emerging writer, but there are powerful and promising things going on in his book of short stories, Born Into This. Some of his stories pack a serious punch, others creep in quietly under your skin. Either way, it is the diversity of characters, settings and tone that is truly impressive. Thompson’s combination of subtle musings and direct attacks is quite intoxicating. Complex racial issues are presented in a thought-provoking way, so that every reader will be challenged to confront any preconceived ideas.
Nature writing in the hands of someone who is clearly passionate about her topic is a magical thing. Helen Macdonald, in her new book of essays Vesper Flights, has the power to make her words soar with poetic purpose. This is not a book to rush; each essay, each chapter becomes something to savour slowly.
Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan appears to be one of those books especially designed for that subset of people born in the 1960s – the babies of the baby boomers and the very first Gen Xers. Those people too young to get caught up in the whole 60s music scene, but by dint of being born during that decade, have become associated with it ever since. This is the story of a group of Ayrshire lads growing up in Thatcherite Britain. They love the new music of their age. The post-punk, goth-rock, new wave and new romantics. This is how they bond. However, the real story kicks in during the second half when they start turning 50 and one of them is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He wants to die with dignity. This request challenges the bonds of friendship and sends them off down the rabbit hole of questioning their own mortality and what it means to have a good life – and a good death.
Lonely, reticent characters on the outside of ‘normal’ seem to come naturally to Kazuo Ishiguro. In Klara and the Sun he questions, but does not answer, what is a soul, what makes us human, how do we connect and care for one another and what does our collective future look like. His stories are more like provocations; perhaps that’s why they get under one’s skin so deeply. There is always more going on under the surface than you first imagine in Ishiguroland.
I prefer Ishiguro’s historical fiction, but Klara’s story is full of his trademark bittersweet and tender storytelling. If you loved Never Let Me Go, then I think you will also love this. And, if like me, you are one of the few people who didn’t get into Never Let Me Go, then, I think, you will still find plenty in Klara’s story to intrigue you, like I did.
Tim is reading…
Two books about spies
I’ve recently read Margaret Coker’s The Spymaster of Baghdad. This is an enthralling account of how Abu Ali al-Basri – The Spymaster – and his elite unit, ‘The Falcons’, played a major part in defeating ISIS.
Without Coker’s skill and experience, I doubt that this story would have seen the light of day. The investigative radiance she shines upon this hitherto untold battle is built from the trust that the people she interviewed placed in her.
I read the book with a sense of appreciation, but also as a memorial and tribute to Harith al-Sudani, the Falcon who volunteered to go undercover inside ISIS. As the world struggled to cope with ISIS’s momentum of terror, an Iraqi father’s decision to act before a bomb took his family had global implications. If he hadn’t done so, the battle for Baghdad would most likely have claimed thousands more lives and the global geopolitical landscape might be quite different.
Coker reminds her readers that Iraq is where civilisation first flourished and that thousands of years worth of stories are contained within the region’s history. It seems fitting that the genius of this most recent victory over religious fanaticism emerges out of a culture striving for freedom from decades of subjugation and fear, and the living history of this region’s opposition to totalitarianism’s abject stasis continues.
In the past few days, I’ve also finished reading a book that’s taken me a long, yet worthwhile, time to read: The Spy Who Changed History by Svetlana Lokhova. It tells the story of Stalin’s master spy in The USA in the 1930s and 1940s, Stanislav Shumovsky, who almost single-handedly stole aviation secrets that changed the course of history and gave the USSR a longer life than it might otherwise have expected.
In Lokhova’s book I came across the term ‘invisible front’ in reference to a spy’s experience. The keen and practical intelligence and raw bravery on display in The Spymaster of Baghdad, working in conjunction with more conventional military agencies left me feeling a little more optimistic about this world within which, for millions of people, the free expression involved in reading and writing a book is itself an ‘invisible front’.
Kate is reading…
History, mystery and a road trip book
It’s a book about a road trip, among other things. But I didn’t realise that when I decided to read Driving Stevie Fracasso on my own road trip, an eight-hour drive there and back to Byron Bay for a wedding. I probably should’ve guessed from the fact it has ‘driving’ in the title and a picture of a car on the cover.
I can be very imperceptive like that.
I had a great chat with the book’s author, Barry Divola, and learnt the story behind the book. You can trace its origins back to his interview as a Rolling Stone writer with Roky Erikson’s younger brother, to his time in New York following 9/11 and then later, as it was spurred into life by another journo-turned-author, Trent Dalton.
The book itself tells the story of estranged two brothers, foils to each other in character and on opposite sides of the music world. One is a music critic, the other a former lead singer of a cult band. Meeting after decades as strangers, their journey is into the past, and to discover if what has been lost can be recovered.
Another book I read for an author interview is Return to Uluru. Described by Marcia Langton as “the most powerful narrative I have read of frontier injustice and its resonance in our lives today”, Mark McKenna’s book goes to the heart of the country, to its foundation of violence against traditional owners, and to the possibilities of reconciliation. It’s a compelling work by a leading historian, enriched by images throughout the book including old photos, maps and scanned documents. (I often wish more books of all kinds had pictures in them.)
As the sky wrung itself down on NSW, I curled up and comforted myself with a few other wonderful reads. I highly recommend Pip Adam’s Nothing to See – an uncanny and extraordinary fiction about two women recovering from alcohol addiction, and how we care for others and ourselves when society’s impulse is towards ostracisation and shame. I also discovered the slim volume called The Friend, a luminous novel by Singrid Nunez that reflects upon cancel culture, sexual politics, love, literature, friendship and grief, in a story somehow wrapped around the relationship between a woman and a Great Dane. According to NYTimes, it became an “overnight literary sensation” when it was published a few years back. Right now, I’m blissfully beginning Running in the Family, a memoir by one of my favourite authors, Michael Ondaatje.
With our (booked out) event with Ross Garnaut coming up, I suspect I shall be dipping into his new book Reset, too – Roaring Stories’ book of the month.