Recent BookBrowse & Shiny New Books Reviews, and Book Club Ado

Excerpts from and links to some of my recent online writing for other places:

BookBrowse

Three O’Clock in the Morning by Gianrico Carofiglio

The quotation that gives Carofiglio’s tender novel its title is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up: “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” It lends an appropriate sense of time suspended, of earnest seeking and extreme circumstances: The main action of the book takes place over just a few days in June of 1983, when Italian teenager Antonio and his father are stranded in Marseilles while there for Antonio to be seen by an epilepsy specialist. The gift of this time outside of time allows them to get to know each other better, such that the memory of the trip will be precious to Antonio even decades later. I appreciated how the limited setting heightened this short novel’s emotions. Carofiglio invites readers to peer between the leisurely progression of events to see the bond that is being formed. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my related article on HarperVia, a new publishing imprint for international literature.)

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Inspired by the composition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this Australian debut novel explores the lives of the women on its fringes through the words that were omitted. The suffrage movement and World War I loom large as the storyline enters the 1910s. I most appreciated the relationships Esme has with the various women in her life. The main action spans the 40 years of the original composition of the OED. That scope means there is a lot of skipping forward in time. Especially in the first half, I longed for the narrative to slow down so I could spend more time with this character. Despite the first-person narration, I never felt I knew Esme very well. Women’s bonds and women’s words are strong themes in this forthrightly feminist novel that, despite its flaws, would make a great book club selection. (See my full review at BookBrowse. See also my reading list of books about dictionaries and lost words.)

Shiny New Books

 

Notes from Deep Time: The Hidden Stories of the Earth Beneath Our Feet by Helen Gordon

To assess the place of humanity, we can look back to prehistory, but also forward to envision the “deep future.” (It was only in a late chapter on nuclear waste disposal sites and warning messages to the future that I found too much direct overlap with Footprints by David Farrier.) This engagingly blends both tactics, surveying the fields of geology and palaeontology and pondering the future traces of the Anthropocene. I most enjoyed the middle chapters, in which science meets wildlife and cultural studies. For instance, a chapter on ammonites leads into a profile of Mary Anning and the history of both fossil hunting and women in STEM careers. The prose is well pitched to the layman’s level. Interviews, travels, and snapshots from her own life generally keep the material from becoming too dry. An invigorating interdisciplinary tour. (See my full review at Shiny New Books.)


My book club has been meeting via Zoom since April 2020. This is a common state of affairs for book clubs around the world. Especially since we have 12 members (if everyone attends, which is rare), we haven’t been able to contemplate meeting in person as of yet. However, a subset of us meet midway between the monthly reads to discuss women’s classics like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. For next week’s meeting on Mrs. Dalloway, we are going to attempt a six-person get-together in one member’s house.

Anyway, a neat thing we did last month was a Zoom chat with the author: a BBC correspondent who happens to be the brother of one of our members. If you’re a news junkie in the UK, you may know the name Jon Sopel, though since I don’t have a telly or ever listen to radio, I hadn’t encountered him until this “in-person” meet-up. He has been the BBC’s North America Editor since 2014.

UnPresidented is the third book he wrote over the course of the Trump presidency. It started off as a diary of the 2020 election campaign, beginning in July 2019, but of course soon morphed into something slightly different: a chronicle of life in D.C. and London during Covid-19 and a record of the Trump mishandling of the pandemic. But as well as a farcical election process and a public health crisis, 2020’s perfect storm also included economic collapse and social upheaval – thanks to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests worldwide plus isolated rioting.

UnPresidented served as a good reminder for me of the timeline of events and the full catalogue of outrages committed by Trump and his cronies. You just have to shake your head over the litany of ridiculous things he said and did, and got away with – any one of which might have sunk another president or candidate. The style is breezy and off-the-cuff, so the book reads quickly. There’s a good balance between world events and personal ones, with his family split across the UK and Australia. I appreciated the insight into differences from the British system. I thought it would be depressing reading back through the events of 2020, but for the most part the knowledge that everything turned out “right” allowed me to see the humour in it. Still, I found it excruciating reading about the four days following the election.

Sopel kindly gave us an hour of his time one Wednesday evening before he had to go on air and answered our questions about Biden, Harris, journalistic ethics, and more. He was charming and eloquent, as befits his profession.

Would any of these books interest you?

13 responses

  1. As you might expect, I loved Notes from Deep Time, which quite co-incidentally, I read at the same time as Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures – a nice bit of happenstance.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Jon Sopel’s news reports, during the Trump era he mostly seemed to be doing them through gritted teeth, holding back the eye rolls

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m sure it was nearly impossible to remain objective. One thing he stressed was that he never called Trump a “liar,” even though the BBC would consistently call out untruths in his press conferences. He didn’t want to assign intent.

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  3. I really want to read Notes from Deep Time and your post here and on Shiny only make me want to do so more! How lovely you got to have the book club chat – a real positive of these Zoom-times!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve also been able to attend so many more literary festivals, events and awards ceremonies than I would have otherwise, so all told I’m feeling very connected.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m attracted to UnPresidented although I don’t know if I have the stomach for it. The fact that many in the GOP are still drinking the Trump Kool-Aid is terrifying, considering the events of Jan 6 – which some are trying to minimize or alter the accounts. How wonderful you got to “meet” with the author!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He said that he’s going to update the paperback edition with more info on what happened between the election and Jan. 6. Others in the group said he could probably get a whole extra book out of that! I was pleased to hear that he’s been pleasantly surprised by how proactive and radical Biden has been in his first few months.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I’ll have to ask my book club members if they know any famous people who they could invite. I suspect not. Jon Sopel would be fascinating. I bet my husband would suddenly want to join if it was Katja Adler (BBC Brussels corespondent).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think lots of book clubs have been inviting authors to join their Zoom meetings! It’s a neat way for writers to continue publicizing their books when they aren’t able to do traditional tours.

      Like

  6. buriedinprint | Reply

    They all interest me! Just in different reading moods.
    I like the cover of layered earths and the wordplay of Presidented. (Wow, that was hard to type!)
    Different ways of meeting up has been an unexpected bonus over the past year for so many.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had to wonder how the book would have been different if the election had gone the other way. A different title and last few pages, and a sombre tone to the introduction, at least.

      Like

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