What we've been reading
By the Nomanis Editorial Committee
I recently read Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I raced through it a little, because I also wanted to watch the televised version that’s just been released. Both versions were fun and absurd in a Hitchhiker’s Guide sort of way. The TV show was possibly more enjoyable, but of course it benefited from the Michael Sheen factor. Keeping within the same genre of British-style humour, I’ve been digging into some new additions to my P.G. Wodehouse collection – most recently, Laughing Gas. As ever, his work is a joy to read. I have also (finally) started Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, albeit via audiobook. Although it’s lovely to listen to, I don’t find myself excitedly anticipating the next chapter. Given how universally loved this book is, I’m inclined to blame the audio medium rather than the writing for the slight drag. Quite possibly too, the serious tone of the book may be jarring against my other, more light-hearted reads.
Since starting a family, my spare time has turned to countless readings of Usborne’s touchy-feely book That’s Not My Owl, Smriti Prasadam-Halls’ Lift-the-Flap Colours, Monkey Business at the Zoo by Hinkler Books and Big Fish Little Fish by Jonathan Litton. While these are our favourites to pull from the shelves, the list of books we have also enjoyed a few times includes (but is not limited to) The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson), Never Touch a Crocodile (of the Never Touch series), Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak), Dear Zoo (Rod Campbell), The Mousehole Mice and the Theatre by the Sea (Michelle Cartlidge), Mr Men Adventure with Knights (Roger Hargreaves) and The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle). The local library has also provided such gems as One Night in the Zoo by Judith Kerr, The Ballad of Henry Hoplingsea by Julia Hubery, I Can Save the Ocean! The Little Green Monster Cleans Up the Beach by Alison Inches, The Playground is Like the Jungle by Shona Innes and As an Oak Tree Grows by G. Brian Karas. While this leaves little time for the consumption of more mature literature, I have managed snippets of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a nice change from the constant rhyming that pervades children’s literature.
My birthday and Mothers’ Day this year were a book bonanza. It’s great to get books that are a surprise package. Perhaps the biggest surprise was The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young. This is a short and entertaining recount of the unique personalities and peccadilloes, and in some cases, intelligence, of some of the many cows that lived on Kites Nest Farm in England. I was a bit worried that it might put me off steak but thankfully that potentially awful side-effect did not occur. I expected to like My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by Frederick Backman (who wrote the lovely book A Man Called Ove) more than I did. It seemed to be a children’s book written for adults and didn’t quite work as either.
I did like The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry which reads like a Victorian novel published in 2017. It is about a young widow who develops an interest in natural science and moves to the countryside where she becomes caught up in a mystery surrounding an apocryphal beast inhabiting the nearby estuary and falls in love, yada yada yada. Quite fun. I also read Reversed: A memoir by Lois Letchford, which is a very readable autobiographical account of how Lois helped her son Nicholas go from the boy who ‘failed’ Year 1 to post-graduate studies at Oxford University. Samuel Gregg’s book Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilisation is a cracker. No, seriously. It’s a well-written and thoughtful and scholarly explanation of Christianity’s coherence as a philosophy with scientific inquiry, reason, and enlightenment.
Recently, I discovered a new book series by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith. The Detective Varg novels are set in Sweden in the Department of Sensitive Crimes. McCall Smith refers to the novels as ‘Scandinavian Blanc’ as opposed to ‘Scandinavian Noir’. So far I have read The Department of Sensitive Crimes and The Strange Case of the Modern Extremists and I am looking forward to reading more in this series. Non-fiction reads have included I am Malala: The story of the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai, and Fake: A startling true story of love in a world of liars, cheats, narcissists, fantasists and phonies, by Stephanie Wood. Both were excellent (although very different).
Some other books I have enjoyed are The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman, and Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson, but my favourite recent read was The Fragments, by Toni Jordan. I’m always a sucker for books about books, and this one is a literary mystery set in dual time periods: 1938 New York and 1986 Brisbane. In 1938, a famous author dies in a fire, and her most recent book is destroyed before anyone has had a chance to read it. Many years later, the ‘fragments’ of this book, with an incomplete line of text, are on exhibition in Brisbane. A young bookseller attends this exhibition, where she meets a mysterious woman who seems to complete the line from the book. Who is this woman, and how can she supply the missing words? Highly recommended!
In the last few weeks I have read A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. I greatly enjoyed this book which focuses on the life of a World War II bomber pilot, although I must admit that I was blindsided by the ending which was a total surprise. Currently I have two books on the go. One is Julia Baird’s biography of Queen Victoria, Victoria, which is incredibly detailed but requires much concentration. The other book is Margaret Atwood’s newly released novel, The Testaments, a follow-on from The Handmaid’s Tale which I thought was wonderful. So far, I think this new novel is just as engrossing and just as well-written.
Just before embarking on a month-long period away from MultiLit in a mix of business and holiday leave, I found to my horror that I was almost out of new books to read. (Yes, I know I could have dipped into my library to re-read old favourites but …) I made a quick trip to Harry Hartog and made a rapid selection of three new (to me) titles. And I hit lucky three times.
Hair’s Fur, by Australian author Trevor Shearston, was a delight; gentle and heartwarming while instructing me in the finer points of pottery-making and glazing.
The other two were almost a metaphorical pigeon pair in that they both addressed a similar theme of loss in relationships but in very different ways. They reminded me of the famous opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The much-acclaimed Fleishman is in Trouble by New York Times writer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, tells the tale of an unhappily married, but about to be divorced, man whose wife suddenly disappears. No, it is not a thriller but rather an exposition of self-delusion and conceit as his ‘truth’ turns out to be rather more complicated than he chose to believe.
Swedish author, Carolina Setterwall’s Let’s Hope for the Best recounts, in almost diary-like form, the experiences of a woman who wakes up one day to find her husband is dead, only eight months after the birth of their son. In her grief, she also faces remorse as she too is forced to confront reality; that the relationship she had chosen to believe in was, again, perhaps rather different from what she had constructed.
My other reading has included 100 Books that Changed the World by Scott Christianson and Colin Salter. It was fun to see which selections one agreed with and which not. David Copperfield rather than Great Expectations? Like so many others, I was wowed by Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. Every Australian should read this book. But I was a little disappointed by both The Labrynth of the Spirits (by Carlos Ruiz Zafon) and Boy Swallows Universe (by Trent Dalton). What the world needs now is … good editors.
I have been aware of cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, for many, many years but to my shame I had never read any of his works. But since the last issue of Nomanis I have been reading Pinker’s latest offering, Enlightment Now – the case for reason, science, humanism and progress. Late night reading is not really the right context for dealing with the data and arguments that Pinker presents – hence I have not yet finished it – but it is one of those books that I think every human should read. Not without controversy, his take on how we got to where we are and what may happen next is fascinating.
Another book that I’ve enjoyed reading recently is Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood. A quirky autobiographical tale by the daughter of a “gun-toting, guitar-riffing Catholic priest” set in the USA, it is a comical, at times disturbing, and interesting memoir. I am also enjoying Let’s Hope for the Best by Carolina Setterwell (see Kevin’s entry). Captivated by the way Setterwell describes the deep, emotional responses to relationship, motherhood, death and grief, for me it is a perfect example of that exhortation of the great C.S. Lewis, that we read to know that we are not alone.
This article was published in the October 2019 edition of Nomanis.