Single mother Anne Boyer, reliant on pay check when rough breast cancer strikes, shows what a real poet/essayist can do in the illness memoir field. “The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness” is an unrelenting, frank, intelligent examination of the experience and the modern culture and milieu of cancer. Boyer references today’s bloggers and ancient texts, she rages against the pain even as she takes it on, and she angles her camera in every way imaginable. I found myself swept along, sometimes nonplussed by the erudition but mostly admiring the prose. Our landscape of pain and death fascinates me (of course it terrifies even more) and I basked in this read. Recommended.
Nothing is more straightforward than breathing, right? Wrong, writes enterprising journalist James Nestor in “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.” His pell-mell, globe-trotting exploration of the seemingly mundane, but endlessly intricate, activity of human breathing is a stylish treat to read, and it never ceases to provide wonderment. Nestor tackles research papers, spends time in scientific labs, digs up accounts of way-out-there “pulmonauts,” interviews athletes and coaches, and travels the world looking for clues. I won’t spoil the book’s discoveries, which sometimes seem mundane and sometimes revelatory, but suffice it to say you’ll never view breathing in the same way again. Nestor is not afraid to present (indeed, to investigate them personally) almost contradictory breathing methods, and his narrative and explanatory grip of a vast expanse of material is outstanding. I now try to breathe differently. “Breath” is a valuable, intoxicating brew of research and advice.
Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien’s debut “Earth” is an odd throwback to that mix of prog and new wave and guitar rock that characterized his band at the outset, but which also draws on the meandering musicality of the late 1960s and 1970s. An eclectic grab bag of upbeat and muted songs, all fizzing with his intelligent guitar and synths, featuring his undramatic but effective vocals, “Earth” drifts and surges and chugs. The lyrics fit in with the instrumentals, more effect than substance. Check out the driving, proggy “Olympik”; “Brasil,” a long, soaring and churning highlight; and the irresistible, chugging, syncopated “Shangri-La.” If some of the tracks leave little to memory, the result is a pleasing lockdown-friendly whole.
A wonderment among “how-to” books, “How We Change (and 10 Reasons Why We Don’t)” is the distillation of a life’s work by psychotherapist (and sociologist) Ross Ellenhorn. I’m a fan of change management books, which is a way of saying I read many but act on very few. Unlike most, “How We Change” is not a recipe book of cause-and-effect steps but a closely grounded look at our inner psyches, drawing from a number of disciplines but principally existentialism (which I’m drawn to). Change, Ellenhorn explains clearly and engagingly, is tough for many deeply rooted reasons, some momentous, some (seemingly) trite, and psychologically we all have excellent reasons to resist change. Perhaps, he says, staying the same is an attractive option. At the very least, by running gently with ourselves on this issue, we can find it easier to shift. Populated by apt case studies, some drawn from his own experiences, the book lays out a fertile groundwork and then explores ten rationales (which can, in any given situation with a given person, be false or significant) that stymie change. Ellenhorn is a smooth prose stylist with just the right balance of seriousness and lightness and humor, and I turned the final page with a real sense of renewed purpose looking forward. Heartily recommended for anyone yearning to alter something, hefty or tedious, in their lives.
Heather Rose launches her novel “Bruny” with the speed of a rocket, plonking a United Nations conflict resolution expert back on her home of Bruny Island in Tasmania. A huge bridge-in-the-building has been sabotaged and her brother, the Australian state’s premier, and her sister, the opposition party’s leader, need her help. If all that sounds outlandish, Rose does a wonderful job of making it work, with a loping pace and stylistic brevity. The writing is first-rate and anyone who has ever been to the beautiful island will swoon at the setting. For over three quarters of the novel, “Bruny” is a captivating literary thriller heading for an impossible-to-guess climax. I confess the final portion of the book unparceled the tension and explained, rather than dramatised, the arcane plot, leaving me a trifle unfulfilled. Be that as it may, this novel is a splendid quick read of high topicality and punchy prose. Recommended.
A corporate New York thriller unfolding at breakneck speed, “Clean Hands” makes for entertaining reading. When a mobile, with incriminating documents, is stolen, a hotshot female lawyer engages a high-stakes fixer to, well, fix things. Featuring a cascade of characters, from petty thieves to underbelly procurers to Russian gangsters, the tale twists and turns agreeably. The Big Apple atmospherics are richly drawn. A certain flatness in the characters meant I never really engaged during my one-sitting lockdown read, but the tightly controlled pacing and the caper-style twists ensured an enjoyable journey.
“An Indifference of Birds,” a slim (109 pages), hard-to-obtain British masterpiece by writer/reviewer Richard Smyth, has enriched my life in a way that none of the other numerous birding books I’ve read managed to do. It’s achievement is this: by flipping the viewpoint to how birds view humans, rather than the usual perspective, it has revolutionized my thinking about us human creatures and the birds on our warming planet. An early new insight (I guess I knew it, but really didn’t) is that “no human was ever born into a birdless world”; birds have flown the Earth perhaps fifty times longer than humans have roamed it. And later in the book: “to birds, we might as well be weather”; we are the centre of our worlds, but birds are birds, and birds do what birds do. Each of the five chapters offers stark new perspectives on history, environmentalism, rewilding, global warming; on and on the thought gems flow. And Smyth is a beautiful, rhythmic prose stylist. How many times did I gasp with astonishment at his flowing riffs on the avian kingdom? Enough, enough: if you have any interest in the world beyond your door, latch onto “An Indifference of Birds,” a highlight of 2020’s lockdown reading.
“Darkness for Light,” the third in Emma Viskic’s noir series featuring deaf private investigator Caleb Zelic on the meaner streets of Melbourne, launches like a greyhound and never lets up. Zelic, burdened by a history of wrong turns and now determined to live a quieter life, is instead thrust into a violent battle against unknown foes. Reunited with a former partner who portrayed him, the two race to save a young girl. Emma Viskic has a gift for evoking the highs and lows of inner Melbourne, can unfurl a twisty, dark plot, and writes urgent, sophisticated prose. Most importantly, Zelic is a wonderful hero, driven to do right and struggling to persist in the world of hearing humans. Definitely a series to follow and savor.
“Double Agent” is the second in a spy thriller series with blancmange titles (the first was called “Secret Service“) that is very ambitious, Le-Carre-level ambitious. Starring MI6 spy Kate Henderson, whose entire family and circle of friends seem to be involved in the secret world, the series involves convoluted mazes of treachery and high geopolitical drama. Kate is kidnapped in “Double Agent” in order to be offered a high-level defection that claims to bring proof that the British Prime Minister is a spy. The plot sweeps from London to classic spy locations such as Berlin and across the Russian border, the storyline is paced fast and tightly. Kate herself is an engaging espionage hero, seemingly brave and talented, yet wracked by insomnia and tension (I won’t spoil a key plot element, but she should be anxious, a result of the first book’s betrayals). Tom Bradby, a TV anchor and documentary maker, is a smooth stylist who comes close to showcasing the secret world’s depth and ambiguity. I read the first three quarters in a rush of adrenaline, then had to blink while the finale’s gymnastic plot gyrations overwhelmed the book’s characters and themes. If I turned the last page with a slight sense of letdown, I’m hanging out for the next volume, and what more can one ask for from a spy thriller?
In “Wearing Paper Dresses,” Marjorie grows up in the Victorian Mallee, a harsh, unforgiving landscape, from the 1950s. With her sister, she deals with a highly strung city-bred mother who struggles to adapt, through the seasons of drought and rain, until tragedy strikes. An interesting tale of a struggling family, mental illness, and fortitude, “Wearing Paper Dresses” offers an escapist read deepened by insight, although the idiosyncratic, intrusive writing style proved irksome to me (something that might be a sub-genre effect).