I always have difficulty writing about what I’m “now reading,” as it’s usually a.) more Robertson Davies and b.) more Patrick O’Brian. I’ve already written about Davies twice in this column, but since I’ve only written about O’Brian once, perhaps I can be excused for mentioning him again? I’m currently in the middle of the third book in the Aubrey/Maturin series, H.M.S. Surprise. I couldn’t summarize the plot if you asked me, despite my being on page 238, but that’s because the book’s power isn’t in its plot. I keep reading these novels (to the exclusion of other things that might give me inspiration for this reading list) because of the penetration and grace with which O’Brian develops his characters. As I was reading in a coffee shop last night, I ended up weeping into a handkerchief over the pathos of a few pages in which O’Brian opens for us the heart of one of his protagonists—not with sentimentality or emotionally manipulative language, not even with any description of the character’s feelings, but simply by laying out the scene with his usual precise economy. By now, we know enough to feel what O’Brian doesn’t have to tell us. You may not have any natural inclination toward novels of seafaring adventure, but O’Brian’s allure as a writer has very little to do with his subject.
Fiction Co-Editor Kristina Riggle writes, “I'm reading The Theory of Opposites, by Allison Winn Scotch. It’s about Willa Chandler-Golden, whose father is a famous author/talking head/guru. His big idea is that we shouldn't worry about anything, because our fate is entirely out of our control anyway, and all will unfold as it's meant to be. Willa neither wholly accepts, nor wholly rejects her father's theories, but she grew up resenting the way his theories and celebrity affected her and her siblings. When significant changes rock her life, she's all set to suffer through the interim and let it all play out as it must, when her best friend dares her to turn left when she's supposed to turn right, because it has to be better than sitting back and letting it be. So far, I'm most fascinated by imagining the family members of self-help life gurus. When the pundit is issuing pronouncements about the proper way to live, what's it like for the family at home? What if the theories don't ‘take’ in the expert's own real life family?”
Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant raves, “I'm in the midst of Zadie Smith's fantastic novel, NW, about four Londoners who grew up in the same rough housing project and are now making their way as adults. Smith's writing just crackles with energy; the narrative style is more or less fractured depending on the character we're following. As in her other work, Smith is exploring tough issues around race and class here, but the characters are so real, so deeply rooted in their place, the novel never becomes didactic. It's just a terrific read.”