What we’re reading: Maggie O'Farrell, William Boyd & Clémentine Beauvais
Each week we bring you a sample of the books we’re reading, the films and TV shows we’re watching, and the music we’re listening to.
Bronte Coates has two books on the go
This past week I’ve been snatching moments to listen to the audiobook of André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name – the story of a passionate romance between 17-year-old Elio and his father’s house guest, Oliver, during a restless summer on the Italian Riviera. This 2007 novel has come into the spotlight recently thanks to a widely acclaimed film adaptation by Italian director Luca Guadagnino, and I’m so glad. This novel is romantic, sensual and beautiful, sometimes provocative and sometimes unbelievably tender.
As a side note, fans of Hannah Kent’s fantastic debut novel, Burial Rites, might be excited to learn that Guadagnino has just signed on to direct Jennifer Lawrence in the film adaptation!
The psychical book I’ve been reading this week is Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. Jackson, who had an uncanny talent for blending the domestic with horror, is such an influential figure in American literature, and I’m very much enjoying Ruth Franklin’s absorbing biography. I keep thinking back to Janet Malcolm’s work on Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman. While the two books are quite different (Franklin’s is a straight-forward biography, while Malcolm’s is an investigation into the nature of biography), both are interested in the mythologies that surround the authors and the similarities between the two women can be painfully striking.
I happened to read the book’s chapter on Jackson’s notorious New Yorker story, ‘The Lottery’, this week, which served as an interesting counterpoint to the recent buzz surrounding a brand-new New Yorker story, ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian. The magazine reportedly received hundreds of letters from distressed readers, some of which thought it was factual, and most of which requested an explanation. It is now arguably one of the most famous stories of the American canon. If you’ve never read the story, I’d encourage you to do so. You can find it in this story collection.
Britt Munro is reading Piglettes by Clémentine Beauvais
Reading Piglettes left me with a stitch from laughing, a serious cheese craving and a very, very full heart.
Our heroine is the witty, big-brained and generous-hearted Mirielle Laplanche. She has been awarded a place in the ‘pig pageant’, an online competition for the ugliest girl at Marie Darrieussecq High School, for three years running. But Mirielle has much bigger fish to fry, including facing up to her biological father (who also happens to be a famous philosopher and the president’s husband), getting her mother’s philosophy manuscript published, and outsmarting insecure jock Malo – the administrator of the aforementioned pageant.
Our story begins when Astrid Blomvall, another winner from the pageant, shows up distraught on Mirielle’s doorstep. They set out into the night to find Hakima, the youngest winner of the competition, and when they’re finally together, the girls hatch a scheme to ride their bikes to Paris and crash the president’s garden party on Bastille Day. They also plan to sell homemade sausages out of a trailer along the way under the moniker: ‘Three Little Piglettes’. What ensues is a hilarious, warm, completely nutty and utterly absorbing adventure.
Mirielle in particular will inspire women of all ages – case in point, this book is aimed at 15-year-olds but I bought it for my 87-year-old grandmother as a Christmas gift this year! It is incredibly rare to find a young adult heroine like Mirielle, and when I turned the last page I felt like I had lost a good friend. Apart from the sheer rush of girl power (I haven’t had this same heightened experience since I was dancing to the Spice Girls back in my childhood lounge room) this book holds a very important message about valuing real-time relationships over internet presence, and about having empathy – even for one’s enemy!
Amy Vuleta is reading I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell
This memoir of the author’s ‘17 brushes with death’ had me engrossed from the first page. A young woman is hiking alone on a mountain path. She sees another hiker up ahead and realises with sinking certainty that he is waiting her, that she is in danger.
O’Farrell narrates the turns and tides of a life spent exploring questions of vitality, meaning and mortality. Her writing is skilful and novelistic, with an underlying sense of urgency and grace throughout. I am, I am, I am is my go-to recommend for just about anyone this Christmas. I’ve already got a couple of copies at home, wrapped up and ready to gift to a few people in my family.
I also recently finished reading Theft by Finding by David Sedaris, and found it to be fascinating and funny. Sedaris kept a visual companion diary for years, and I’ve loved flicking through his collages, found images and notes alongside his words.
The diary format is something I’ve been enjoying a little of lately (see The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits) as it’s so interesting to see what someone chooses to note from their day – what stands out, what they take the time to consider. Although a diary is written day-to-day, prevalent themes inevitably emerge, and the personality comes through, virtually unintentionally and unfiltered.
Chris Gordon is reading Any Human Heart by William Boyd
Last week our office had our annual Christmas get-together which is always a lovely event. We each bring in a dish to share, as well as a gift-wrapped book that we have enjoyed reading over the year. Then we gather in an assortment of chairs and share a meal, our plates balanced precariously on our knees, and after the meal, it begins…
The gift-wrapped books are placed in the centre of the room, and then we work our way around the room, taking it in turns to either select a book from the pile or each other. It’s part lucky draw, and part a fight to get what you want. The first book is unwrapped and displayed, then the second, the third and so on – and if you like the look of a revealed book you can choose to take it straight from that person’s hands. Your suddenly bereft colleague will need to choose from the pile again.
The very first book to reveal itself this year was Any Human Heart from Scottish author William Boyd, set during the twentieth century. I’ve not read any of Boyd’s work before but the novel certainly sounded compelling and I eyed it with determination. When my turn came, I apologised (insincerely) to my colleague as I took Boyd’s novel from her, leaving her to draw again. My decision seems to open the door for others to do the same and as books are swiped and noisy exchanges had, our peaceful office luncheon transforms into a messy muddled family gathering in the blink of an eye.
Any Human Heart was worth the grab. Written as a series of diary entries by an ordinary bloke in an ever-changing world, this is terrific read that’s richly detailed with wry observations and glorious nods to various twentieth-century influences. I’m already planning to seek out both the television series of the same name, as well as Boyd’s other novels. Thank goodness summer has arrived.
Wishing festive joy to my office family and to the wider Readings community.