What We’re Reading: February

Annie —
The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich & Good Blood, by Julian Guthrie

Both the books I’m reviewing this month have themes of disease and community – one fiction, and one non-fiction.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich plays on the multiple meanings of the title: we have an ex-detainee, Tookie, who starts working in a bookshop in Minneapolis after her sentence is commuted. She starts a new life, but the story begins in earnest as one of her “favourite most annoying customers” passes away – perhaps killed by an extremely intense passage in a book. Flora begins haunting Tookie in the bookshop and she must solve the mysterious riddle of her death before she is able to move on to the next world. With a style that fuses Elmore Leonard’s snappy dialogue with a plot that could have come from a Murakami novel, Erdrich makes this story all her own by situating it over the course of 2020. It has brought back a lot of the feelings and fears of the early pandemic, along with the rage and sadness of the George Floyd murder and the subsequent rise of the BLM movement. Funny, surprising and deep, this book is a wonderful glimpse inside a bookshop that sits at the heart of a community in turmoil. Already this is my standout read of the year.

In Good Blood, Julian Guthrie takes a panoramic look at Rh disease, the Australian scientist who helped find a cure and the unprepossessing blood donor who saved millions of babies with his special blood. Rh disease occurs in pregnancy, when the polarity (+/-) of the baby’s blood type does not match the mother’s, causing her body to develop a resistance to the baby. Subsequent pregnancies can result in severe birth defects and have a much higher chance of infant mortality. In the 1950s, Dr John Gorman travelled from Melbourne to New York, where he began researching treatments for this blood disease. Another Australian, James Harrison, received a lifesaving blood transfusion as a teenager and vowed to donate blood for the rest of his life. With colourful storytelling, Guthrie explains how these two men’s paths converged to end Rh disease and save an estimated 2.4 million babies’ lives. A fascinating and moving read of scientific discovery and generosity.

Leela —
Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang

I’ve been drawn to a few autobiographies lately, and flew through Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang. Qian’s comfortable life in China is upturned when she turns seven, the same age her father was when his family’s political dissent made life difficult for several generations. Qian and her parents arrive in Brooklyn in 1994, where they live as undocumented refugees for many years. Qian must now navigate milestones in a childhood defined by hunger and constant fear that their secret will be discovered. Wang offers a complex portrait of her parents and herself, both as individuals, and as a family, amongst a background of New York City locations such as dark factories, Chinatown, the Subway, and public libraries.

Readers can take many messages from this book, which is inherently, if not directly, political. However, Beautiful Country is not a curated, inspirational story, and Wang offers little mediation of her story aside from the occasional, piercing poetic reflection. Instead, this detailed recount of events is striking because of Wang’s honesty; after forced silence, this is a powerful statement of existence.

Bebe —
Furious Thing, by Jenny Downham

Lexi is desperate to make her mum proud, to make her step-dad accept her and for her step-brother to declare his unrequited love to her. But in an unfair world where she fights to be heard and seen, anger is something to believe in and hold on to when the world lets her down. She wants for things to go her way so desperately that she is determined to swallow her anger and make it disappear. Lexi eventually discovers that pushing fury down doesn’t make it go away. Instead, it stews below the surface and waits to erupt. In Furious Thing, Jenny Downham perfectly recounts the rollercoasters of wildly untamed pre-teen emotions that come with the desire to be noticed and appreciated, and what happens when those emotions are let out of their cages.