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What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in March

What we’re reading: writers and readers on the books they enjoyed in March

Francesca Specter, author and journalist

I was lucky enough to be sent an early copy of David Nicholls’ forthcoming novel, You Are Here, a publication well-timed for those who adored the recent One Day Netflix adaptation. Nicholls’ latest book has long been on my radar, as I’ve written extensively about its central themes of solitude and loneliness.

You Are Here’s lovers, Marnie and Michael, are aged 38 and 42, out of the heat of wedding-and-baby season yet far from later life. This meant a refreshing absence of typical romcom tropes (eg proposals, weddings, a birth). Instead, the plot is framed around a coast-to-coast walk, while dramatic tension is created by the spectre of an estranged wife. The romance has sincerity and authenticity, notably in a river wrestling scene where one party is wearing zip-away waterproof shorts/trousers. There were echoes of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy, another book I loved.

For my neighbourhood book club, I read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a feminist, postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Antoinette Cosway, Mr Rochester’s “madwoman in the attic” first wife (whom he renames Bertha), is a powerful narrator with timeless resonance: “There are more ways than one of being happy, better perhaps to be peaceful and contented and protected.” It made me rethink the romanticisation of Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester (last January, we read Wuthering Heights … same story with Heathcliff).

While I’ve never loved the short story medium, a friend convinced me that Alice Munro’s Runaway would be the exception. He was right. The Nobel prize-winning author’s prose is pithy with unforgettable details, like a lost goat’s reappearance amid the celestial halo of a car headlight. I enjoyed how several characters reappear across stories, too, like encountering an old friend.

Helen, Guardian reader

I have been reading Other Women by Emma Flint, a crime novel that is based on the real-life murder of Emily Beilby Kaye by her married lover in the 1920s. It is beautifully written, but harrowing and full of tension. Kaye is reimagined as Beatrice, a woman who falls in love with a colleague, having been “left over” after the first world war – she was what was considered to be marriageable age when most eligible men were away at war. It was interesting to read about a character based on such women, who strived to make a life and career and were almost invisible in society.

Alba Arikha, author

It’s been 10 years since Michael Cunningham wrote a book and, being a fan, I awaited his most recent one, Day, with trepidation. Over three consecutive Aprils, from 2019 to 2021, we follow a Brooklyn family during and after the onset of Covid. Just like in his other work, there is something haunting about Cunningham’s writing. It makes one acutely aware of the imperceptible fragility of life: the way we speak to each other, who we are, and what we make of it. The book is a powerful example of dysfunctionality, and what happens when cues are missed or ignored. But it’s also about desire, the spaces we attempt to inhabit and escape from, not always successfully.

Because I’ve always wanted to read him, and in preparation for a writing class I’ll be teaching this summer in Greece, I dived into a collection of Isaac Babel’s short stories, Of Sunshine and Bedbugs. I found myself airlifted 100 years back into the ebullient, rich and colourful port city of Odessa, in the company of Jewish thugs, sex workers, cart drivers, milkmaids and rabbis. Though pogroms loom in the background, humour and irreverence preside.

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I began reading How to Make a Bomb by Rupert Thomson on a flight from London to NYC and finished it just before landing. The midlife crisis of Philip, a history professor, and his decision to “dispense with structure, and open himself to possibility and chance” is completely gripping. There are no full stops in this beautifully written novel, and as a result, the fragmentary rhythm catapults one breathlessly forwards.

For nearly two decades, Ann Wroe has written obituaries for the Economist. I remember my late mother mentioning her with quiet admiration. Which is one of the reasons why I picked up her book Lifescapes. And I found that same quietude rustling through the pages, alternating between prose, poetry, memoir and biography. “The smallest things may offer vital clues,” Wroe writes of her obituaries, which she calls “catching souls”. Chronologies do not interest her. But those clues, from objects to images, strangers to ghosts, the sacredness in blood to the sound of snow, do. There is a magical quality to her unusual, almost ethereal writing. A soul catcher she is and I’m still thinking about it.

Two Hours by Alba Arikha is published by Eris (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Rupert, Guardian reader

As a teenager in the 60s I followed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s relationship along with the rest of the world. Now I have had the chance to revisit the subject again, by reading Erotic Vagrancy by Roger Lewis, a fascinating double biography that delves deeper into the lives of that (in)famous couple and all of the people who surrounded them. There is a relentless, almost obsessive quality to Lewis’s writing that had me reading well into the night. I highly recommended this book.

Source: theguardian.com