What We're Reading - 4 September 2020

Lucy Nathan
Opinion - Books Friday, 4th September 2020

The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables


Neill Denny
Any novel featuring suburbia, journalism and the strained relationship between an adult child and an elderly mother is bound to appeal to me, as these have all been - or indeed are - parts of my own life. These are all aspects of Clare Chambers' delicious Small Pleasures (W&N), although the central premise, of a virgin birth in Sidcup, is sadly beyond my ken. This is a detective story and a love story set in the brilliantly-realised outer London of the 1950s, which manages to be both funny, sad and well observed. My only criticism would be that the train crash is basically superfluous, but apart from that it has my favourite combination of literary fiction combined with narrative drive.

Nicholas Clee
I liked Ottessa Moshfegh's Booker-shortlisted Eileen, but only now - when she has a new book out - have got round to her 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Vintage). The setting is not, as the jacket painting of a young woman in a white dress may suggest, the late 18th century, but Manhattan in 2000 and 2001 - the period is significant. A young woman withdraws from her dysfunctional life, and with the help of a smorgasbord of drugs provided by a mad pyschiatrist, seeks to spend a year in oblivion, hoping for some kind of rebirth at the end. The modest cast list also includes a needy friend, a semi-detached and entitled lover, and a modish artist. It's a claustrophobic set-up that, thanks to Moshfegh's bitter comic tone and unflinching imagination, compels throughout.

Lucy Nathan
I am part of the way through the post-war section of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (Virago), and the way she describes that solitary Italian graveyard will stay with me for a long time. It's a remarkable and devastating memoir, a classic of the genre for a reason, and I have loved gaining a greater insight into the life of a nurse in the First World War. Since reading the incredible Endell Street by Wendy Moore (Atlantic Books) I've been hooked on finding out more about women during this time period and I don't think there are many books more illuminating than this one. (But recommendations would be highly appreciated!)

Jo Henry
I've been meaning to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador) for a long time now, and when better than during a global pandemic? It starts with the death of actor Arthur Leander on stage in a performance of King Lear - but within three weeks, nearly every single one of those in the play with him, as well as the audience, the stage crew and the rest of the world, are dead from a mystery virus. Twenty years later we're on the road with Shakespearean actress Kirsten and the Travelling Symphony theatre group, touring the remaining settlements around the great lakes of America, in a world being reclaimed by nature. The story unfolds through various protagonists, including pre-collapse Arthur and his first wife, with the stories overlapping and some central mystery yet to be revealed. I'm intrigued, engaged and impressed.

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