What We’re Reading: October

Annie
The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright and In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

I’ve been reading a couple of books that examine the idea of home and the role that the spaces that we inhabit play in our lives.

Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole is a series of essays that continues on, loosely, from her 2015 collection Small Acts of Disappearance. She has been struggling with mental ill health and disordered eating for many years, but this book posits that struggle more structurally. Issues of housing, inconsistent or unreliable work, racism and other tensions of contemporary Australia contribute to her feelings of dissociation and dislocation. Wright is a poet and academic, and these voices shine through, but the book as a whole is a triumph of cultural commentary and vulnerable memoir.

Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance is a Pulitzer-nominated historical novel set in mid-1800s America. The main character, Håkan, emigrates from Sweden with his brother but they almost immediately become separated. He decides to walk across America to find his lost sibling in New York, meeting many strange characters along the way. The book is atmospheric and unnerving, with the unfamiliar landscape and language dominating all of Håkan’s observances.

Charmaine
Unsheltered
 by Barbara Kingsolver

 I have just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Unsheltered, due for release this week – I read it in 3 days – fabulous writing, a wonderful cast of characters and a range of relevant issues. Basically the chapters alternate between a house and those it shelters in the 19th century, and a house and its occupants on the same land in the 21st century. In both cases the house is crumbling and unlikely to continue to provide shelter for its inhabitants. Of course this a metaphor for events in the lives of those who dwell within. Thatcher Greenwood, his young wife, her sister and his mother-in-law all live in the house during Charles Darwin’s time. Thatcher is a teacher of science, a believer in the theory of evolution but finds it difficult to hold his position in a school where the Christian principal insists on interfering with his teaching.

Here Kingsolver bases her story around a real person – Mary Treat who was a Naturalist and who had correspondence with Charles Darwin. Thatcher finds a friend in this passionate nature studier and as his house and relationship is collapsing, he and Mary find strength in their friendship. The concerns of those living in the house in current times include broader political issues of the American economy – loss of jobs, the rise of Trump (although his name is not mentioned), impacts on mental health (there has been a suicide in the family), caring for older parents and maintaining a roof over the family’s head. At the centre of this story are Willa and Iano Tavoularis, their 2 adult children, a baby without a mother and Iano’s sick and dependent father. This all makes for such a wonderful read, the dual narrative works well and the resolution for each and every character is realistic and satisfying.
Kate
Outline by Rachel Cusk and The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc

I’ve recently read the first book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. The first book offers musings on human nature through ten chapters, each one a different conversation. The narrator is a writer from London who is running a workshop in Athens. We don’t learn much about her except from her observations of other people. Through their conversations people divulge concerns about their partners, careers, children and thoughts on art. This is a quiet book and there is something curiously satisfying about these beautifully observed little snippets of people’s lives. Heidi Julavits in The New York Times wrote reading ‘Outline’ mimics the sensation of being underwater, of being separated from other people by a substance denser than air. 

I’m also part way through another quiet book by a French author I’ve never heard of before, Violette Leduc. Written in 1965, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is a portrait of a lonely woman in Paris. The character is in her 60’s and lives in a little attic in Paris. She counts her coffee beans every morning and wanders the city, alone and hungry, observing the people around her with a curious playfulness. One day she wakes with the desire to taste an orange but when she goes searching in rubbish bins for one, it is not an orange she finds but a discarded fox fur scarf. This discovery is a salvation and propels her further into her imaginative life. This book is only ninety or so pages but I’ve been reading it for almost a week, marvelling at the characters observations and moments of joy in an otherwise bleak existence.

About Annie

Annie has never felt more at home than surrounded by hundreds of books. She has been an avid reader for as long as she can remember, starting at age four with George's Marvellous Medicine. Now all grown up, she loves to read the weird and wonderful stories of the likes of Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman, Scarlett Thomas and Dave Eggers. Really, she's just a sucker for any well-crafted story. A self-confessed Francophile, she has a degree in French as well as one in English and would love to talk to you about your next trip abroad. Currently, she is completing a post-grad in Professional Communications and publishing an online magazine that celebrates literature and art in her spare time.

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