Welcome back to The Booksellers' Book Club. Here you will find out what Avid staff members are currently reading, have just read, or plan to read next.
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Rather than referring to a celestial woman who can travel the astral plane as I'd expected, the title of this book is a reference to the astragalus bone in the ankle which breaks as Albertine leaps from the wall of a Parisian prison into freedom in the 1950s. After her escape Albertine is found by a man with whom she forms an profound bond, but the two must navigate their lives around a law under which both of their arrests are warranted. Albertine's intense love for Julien is but one instance of her perfervid character. Sarrazin's deliberateness, her resolve to do what she needs and how she needs to is celestial. And it is muscular. A woman, ready. Reading Astragal is like meeting a relative you immediately admire, recognising you have a stake in one another. The true story of a true heart.
Blood of the Dawn by Claudia Salazar Jiménez
Blood of the Dawn is told by three women during what Quecha speakers refer to as the 'sasachaky tiempo', the difficult time, in Peru. This internal conflict began in 1980 and seems to have ended in 1992, when the leader of the revolutionary communist group the Shining Path was arrested. Although the State was the party's ideological target, many rural peasant communities bore the brunt of the Shining Path's violence, a they attempted to subsume and mobilise these villager groups into their own party. In this English translation of Jiménez' work, orthodox chronology and grammar are warped and set into their own concordance: an eruption of female aggressions which mirrors the feral rhythms of war. Throughout the women's' stories the violence they endure is tidal, the convictions they work are a mainstay, and their voices are resonant. A magmatic story.
The Boat by Nam Le
I'm maybe a decade late, but Le's 2008 collection of short stories is still fantastic. To read The Boat is to flounder in the tumultuous lives of children at war: with their parents (Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice), with themselves (Meeting Elise), with expectations of what it means to become a man (Halflead Bay), to become a woman (Tehran Calling). Le does not universalise experience, he does not reduce hardship to relatability. Nope, each story maintains its own distinct portrayal people making intractable choices. They are common in their singularity. A book for those who like fiction with a bite
If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura
A young man is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and then the Devil arrives in a Hawaiian shirt and starts making his deals. The man lives a day at a time, deciding what is dispensable to get to the next. Absolutely absurd, the lot of it. A great book to start before a shift, ponder between routine retail questions, and finish in the afternoon. ICDFTW is a lighthearted consideration of values, priorities and when to say when.
China Dream by Ma Jian
I have just finished China Dream by exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian. Mocking President Xi's 'China Dream', Jian comically, and at times absurdly, chronicles the life Communist Party apparatchik, Ma Daode. He is tasked with implementing the China Dream, and ensuring that all citizens share the 'China Dream' - a task made difficult because of his indiscretions (he has many mistresses) that are at odds with the 'dream'. Ma Jian satirizes how it could be that the Communist's hypocrisy and failure to adhere to their own policies might bring them undone.
The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard
I have also just finished The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard. The winner of the 2017 Prix Goncourt, the book is a work of historical fiction that provides a behind-the-scenes account of the events leading up to Germany's annexation of Austria. Vuillard focuses on the role of Germany industry in supporting the Nazi Party, Austria's capitulation to Germany and Nazi Party hubris. The book is disturbingly relevant to the politics of today.
The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
I am currently reading The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. Building on his 2015 history of the Silk Roads, Frankopan turns his attention to the 'present and future of the world'. He argues that whilst events in the west (Brexit and the rise of Trump) appear victories for isolationism and fragmentation, in the East and along the Silk Roads, countries are focused on mutual cooperation, trade and the benefits of globalisation. Exploring China, Russia, Iran, the Middle East and Asia, Frankopan observes that the West's power appears to be waning, while the East is moving ahead. The New Silk Roads is an interesting new perspective on how national power is in a state of continual flux.
Microbia: A journey into the unseen world around you by Eugenia Bone
A journalist wanted to write a book about the microscopic world. She wanted to do it in a way that is easier to follow than the general books about the subject which are, quite frankly, bamboozling to the general public. Unfortunately for journalist Eugenia Bone, even the easiest of the books about microbes were much too difficult for her to untangle. To embark on the project she realised she would have to go back to university. Microbe is the result of this extraordinary task. Bone writes so eloquently about being a mature aged student in a world set out for the young, being a woman in science, a field traditionally dominated by men, and being a wide-eyed novice, fascinated by the tiny world around us. She suspects that it is microbes that link everything in this world and her amazing journey into this tiny world proves her theory right. We are all connected to everything, and the things that connects us are so small that we barely even give them a second thought. A well-written and amazing book.
Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn
I have just re-watched the Patrick Melrose TV series and finally, belatedly jumped into reading the books. I have started with the first book of the series, Never Mind. Each of the episodes is based on one of the five books in the Patrick Melrose series. There is a reason these books are considered modern classics. Aubyn has a way of marrying clear-sighted observations with comedy and tragedy to come up with something that is uniquely his own. Patrick Melrose is the most extraordinary anti-hero. Raised by an impossibly rich but entirely cruel abusive father and a mother who has given up and turned to drink and pills to save her, the young Patrick of Never Mind is trying to figure out how to negotiate a volatile family whilst enjoying the extraordinary luxury of his mother's family house in the south of France. If you haven't read the books I can highly recommend them! And if you haven't watched the series, then you are in for a treat.
Trieste by Dasa Drndic
Haya Tedeschi, 83, waits at her home in Gorizia, on the Italian-Slovenian border, northwest of Trieste, for the arrival of the son who was stolen from her 62 years earlier, during the war. While she is waiting we dive into the history of her Jewish family, living first under the Habsburg Empire and then under the Italians. We watch the rise of fascism and Haya's eventual love affair with a Nazi soldier. The love affair ends, the child they have together is snatched away and thousands of Jews are delivered to the gas chamber by the Italians. This is a harsh and brutal time in history and Dasa does not spare us with any sentimentality. It is a book about complicity, complicity in murder, in war and in memory. There are no heroes here, just tragedy and a clear-eyed narrator facing some harsh truths. Not a light summer read, but an important story told by a woman who was one of the world's greatest storytellers. Sadly Drndic died earlier this year. I feel sorry that I have come to her work so late.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
In the north of England, 17-year-old Silvie and her parents have joined a group of anthropology students and their professor on a study camping expedition. They plan to live as the ancient Britons did in the Iron Age by dressing in itchy tunics, sleeping on straw in dark huts, foraging food, hunting, and observing rituals. Silvie's dad is a bus driver by day and an amateur historian at night. He has a chip on his shoulder and is controlling and abusive. He believes that women should know their place, which is beneath a man. He is obsessed with authenticity and becomes increasingly frustrated with the women on the trip, who wear bras and insisted on bringing tampons, because they are not adhering to the way life would have been lived in the Iron Age. Silvie begins to imagine her life as something other than what she has, something that she glimpses from the students she is surrounded by. As frustrations swell, the tension builds to a climatic ending that will leave you breathless.
Moss has created an intricate novel that explores the intersection of nature and violence and asks how far have we really come from the "primitive minds" of our ancestors. This book is only 149 pages but is punchy, addictive, and one of my favourite books of the year.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Moshfegh writes novels that challenge the notion that characters - especially female ones - have to be likeable, and she does it very very well. This book is about a twentysomething New York woman who, after the death of her parents, decides to avoid life by taking a year out through a continuous drug-induced sleep. She quits her job at a pretentious art gallery and narrator pretends that she is severely sleep deprived and an insomniac. She visits a highly irresponsible physiatrist who gives her a paper bag full of drug samples and a stack of prescriptions. She then proceeds to plays with as many different variations of prescription drugs as she can get her hands on. This leads to blackouts resulting in impulse buying, affairs, partying, and binge eating that the narrator tries to piece together by the string of evidence left behind. All the narrator wants to do is sleep through life, and she is determined to find the perfect drug that will help her do that.
This book is addictive. It's bizarre and full of black humour, but it also has a deeper meaning. It explores the dangers of alienation, consumerism, and refusing to confront your issues.
Monkey Grip by Helen Garner
As part of the gradual hardcover re-release of her entire catalogue, I picked up this new (surprisingly clean and beautiful blue, considering the content) copy of Monkey Grip for a re-read and was just totally blown away all over again. It's a love story I shouldn't be able to relate to at all: I've never dated a junkie, never been polyamorous, and have never dated with a child, and yet I am aching and gutted for Nora. The voice is so no-bullshit and yet there are moments of transcendental beauty in her lyricism. Truth-bombs about human nature are sprinkled effortlessly here and there, as though they are like any of the other simple observations for which we've come to know and love Garner. Apparently 'divisive' when it was first released, this reprint marks its status as an Australian classic.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
This book made me weep with both laughter and love. Honestly, it's as witty and touching as everyone says it is. We meet Arthur Less at a particularly turbulent time in his life, and he's feeling down and rotten, and decides to take life by the horns but fumbles through it and meets with much misadventure and makes many new friends. This is my top pick for "a beach read" that is smart but not heavy, and is a love story minus all the corny sap somehow! Though-provoking on issues of age, art, genius, sacrifice, confidence, and legacy. I wish I could go back in time and read it for the first time again.
You Daughters of Freedom by Clare Wright
Don't let the size and heavy cover of this book scare you off! Wright is rightfully famous for telling historical stories in the primary-source voices of those actually present, and this book is a fast and fascinating look at white women getting the vote in Australia. I learned so much and appreciated Wright tackling both the highs (triumph!) and lows (racism!) of the suffrage movement in Australia which made this country famous for several years for having the most advances version of democracy in the world because it was so representative. I had the pleasure of talking with Wright about the book at her in-store event a couple of weeks ago, and I really admire her balance between hardcore-historian and entertaining-storyteller.
I am currently reading things in the tiny windows that I have between work, lovely baby things, and cleaning, and cooking, and writing. And, no, I don’t watch television.
There’s a copy of Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That by Jean Moorcroft Wilson sitting next to the loo, which I started reading because of Stephen Fry’s Mythos, which got me thinking about Greek Myths which led to Robert Graves which led to this book of which I get a few pages read a day on account of a high fibre diet. (TMI)
When I can (usually shopping or cooking) I’m also listening to Robert Grave’s Good-bye to All That on audiobook, both books work well against each other, and Robert Grave’s prose is a heartbreaking delight, particularly when contextualised by the Moorcroft Wilson’s book.
Then, when Essie’s in the mood, I’m reading her George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, which is complete fun and a delight to read aloud, which says something for a children’s book written while Queen Victoria was still getting around. Nineteenth Century authors certainly understood prosody. Essie is loving it, not that she understands a word, but the rhythm of the prose is a joy, and I’m getting lots of giggles.
Then, when I’m in bed, after writing for an hour if I’m lucky, ten minutes if I’m exhausted, I sneak a quick guilty read of something in my e-book (because I can’t turn on the light). I’m currently reading Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. It’s a great history of the early days of American SF, and it’s not frightened to puncture a few balloons, this is no hagiography. It details the rise of SF in American culture and the sexism, racism, and neuroticism (as well as the hunger for a messiah figure) that underpinned it, and has come to define so much of current US politics. SF has become a broad and beautiful church, but it wasn’t in the beginning. I like this one so much I’m going to try and get a few into the shop before Xmas.
Talking of which, I’m about to start reading our SF Bookclub book, Adam Robert’s By the Pricking of Her Thumb. I love his writing, and this one, a follow up the Real-Town Murders looks like an absolute delight. If crime SF is your thing, it’s definitely worth picking this one up, or even better, starting with the first book. It’s funny, and clever, and rattles along like a express train strapped to a Hitchcock movie, which makes sense when you’re as tired as I am, talking of which, it’s well past my bedtime, I better go and see what Asimov is up to next.