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Searching the Bookshelves

Laura Kroetsch picks out the best books to read in preparation for the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week in March

One of the odd preoccupations of my life has been an overwhelming desire to have those around me read what I’m reading. So, it is no surprise that I’ve found my way to managing New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week, a splendid exercise in allowing one group of readers to select a bunch of books and their writers for another group of readers. For 2010 I think we’ve done a bang-up job, and as I read and re-read my way through the list, I smile, and then worry that our readers will miss something. So by way of preventing any near misses, here are some of my thoughts on what you might like to read to get ready.

Writers and Readers, like any good bookshelf, is a place to find familiar voices as well as some that are new and unexpected. A perhaps familiar voice is that of American novelist Susanna Moore. For those who don’t know her, I suggest you start with her first novel, the hauntingly beautiful My Old Sweetheart, a story about a little girl who loves her mother – a woman slowly succumbing to madness among the night jasmine on the island of Hawaii. Moore’s is a voice so filled with wisdom you ache for her characters and lament the landscape of her forgotten world. Once smitten, go on to Sleeping Beauties.

Wisdom winnows its way through the work of a number of our visiting writers, including that of Canadian novelist Lisa Moore, whose most recent novel, February, tells the story of a young woman, Helen, widowed by a maritime disaster. Hopelessly young, broke and pregnant with her fourth child, Helen’s story chronicles the life of a generous soul, one who learns grief’s lessons with grace and integrity. It is one of the most poignant and knowing books I have read about learning to live with death.

From the domestic we move to the global with Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, a novel about what it means to live with the consequences of history. This brilliant book tells the story of Hiroko, a Japanese woman who loses her German fiancé during the bombing of Nagasaki, and her subsequent journey out into the 20th century. Hiroko falls in love in colonial India, marries a Muslim who is banished to Pakistan and spends a lifetime in Karachi before retiring to a post-9/11 New York. Smart, elegant and incredibly thoughtful, this novel is about what it means to be a global citizen.

Shamsie’s concerns about the implications of history are shared with a number of other writers, and among the most intriguing are Joan London’s Gilgamesh and Iliya Troyanov’s The Collector of Worlds.

London’s Gilgamesh isn’t a retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh; it is an elegant riff on those who travel in the modern world. The novel begins at the end of the First World War and its cast of characters travels from London to Australia, Istanbul, Batum, Tiflis, Yerevan, Tabriz, Aleppo and Alexandria. As in the original story, each of the characters travels with a companion. Each pair encounters the nightmarish complexities of war, madness, love and personal loss.

The Collector of Worlds offers yet another account of the perils and joys of wanderlust, this time through a fictional account of the Victorian explorer Richard Burton’s travels. This wonderful novel begins in India in 1842, and covers Burton’s pilgrimage in disguise to Mecca and Medina in 1851–53 and finally his journey to Lake Tanganyika in 1858. Each journey is narrated in a third-person account of Burton and another exterior voice. In India, the second narrator is a professional letter writer, in the Middle East, the narration is done through a series of letters written by Islamic officials. In Africa the story is told by Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a man taken to India as a slave who returns to Africa as a free man. Together these voices create an extraordinary portrait of one of history’s most lionised figures.

Fiction is strong this year, for both adults and young readers. Young adult literature has come into vogue of late, and the very best of it is attracting readers of all ages; as you don’t have to be a kid to read children’s literature. We are thrilled to be hosting Neil Gaiman, the literary superstar, and Margo Lanagan, the Australian writer whose recent novel, Tender Morsels, has done that remarkable trick of ‘crossing over’ to adult readers. Both Gaiman and Lanagan are fabulous writers and even those who don’t think they like fantasy should give them a go.

Tender Morsels is an enormously clever retelling of the Snow White and Rose Red story. Lanagan’s extremely vivid, and often harrowing, version is about a woman called Liga who lives with her two daughters, both born from rape, in an innocent heaven free from passion and strife. Until, by chance, the girls encounter a magical bear and a rather mean dwarf, both of whom provoke in the girls a desire to experience the outside world. Lanagan’s is a provocative and captivating novel, one that by reaching back into history creates a future.

For those who don’t know Neil Gaiman’s work I suggest you begin with his most recent, the multi-award-winning The Graveyard Book. This charming novel tells the story of a boy whose family has been killed; as a result, he is raised in a cemetery by ghosts. This funny and at times scary novel about growing up is children’s literature at its very finest. But, if you feel you aren’t the right audience for a children’s book, try the much more adult novel American Gods, an ambitious, weird, scary, hallucinogenic road trip into the dark heart of the American soul. Gaiman’s genius is on full display.

I’m out of space and I haven’t even mentioned the non-fiction writers. Try anything by Simon Schama, Peter Singer, Geoff Dyer or Richard Dawkins, but for something unexpected read Geoff Dyer as he is the one with the best surprises – be they about jazz, photography, D H Lawrence or contemporary travel.


New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week
will run from 9–14 March as part of the 2010 New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington.

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This article first appeared in the New Zealand Book Council’s Booknotes