In this new column, Editors’ Picks, the Kill Your Darlings editors share recent reading favourites. What are your picks?
An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett – Rebecca Starford, Editor
I’ve just finished An Uncommon Reader. It’s a delightful novella from playwright and actor Alan Bennett, most famous for the BBC television series Talking Heads, as well as the plays The Madness of George III and The History Boys (both of which were adapted to film).
An Uncommon Reader, first published in the London Review of Books in 2007 and only published in Australia recently, tells of HRH Queen Elizabeth II awakened to the pleasure of reading after stumbling upon a mobile library one morning on a walk with the corgis. With the help of Norman, the palace skivvy-cum-amanuensis, the Queen begins a literary odyssey – encountering the works of Jean Genet (‘Homosexual and jailbird,’ she hilariously interrogates the French President, ‘was he nevertheless as bad as he was painted?’), the Brontës, Beckett and Proust, just to name a few. Forget visits to factories, waving at babies and tours of Wales, old Liz wants to read her twilight years away.
There’s something poignant about the joy of her newfound habit; the Queen is, after all, one of the busiest and most dutiful people in the world. Bennett burrows deep into the meaning of reading itself. For Queenie, ‘it was anonymous; it was shared; it was common. And she who had led a life apart now found that she craved it. Here in these pages and between these covers she could go unrecognised.’ But when palace advisors conspire to close the books on her habit, desperate measures need to be taken.
This is a sweet, strange and at times very funny portrait of a familiar figure in unfamiliar scenarios. It reminds us too of the privilege of reading, and of being a reader.
The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – Hannah Kent, Deputy Editor
A few weeks ago, in a meeting, I was asked if I had read any of Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Patrick Melrose Novels’. When I shook my head, there were gasps in the room. ‘You must read them,’ I was breathlessly urged, and a full set of the five books was immediately pressed into my hands.
I love it when people, especially those familiar with my tastes in literature, insist I read a book. I enjoy being evangelised by literary proselytisers who are compelled by their own holy experience to push books onto everyone else. It was how I came to read titles from Cat’s Eye, to Dead Europe, to Watership Down; and there’s nothing better than moving from a state of obliviousness to rapture. And, oh, if any writer can make you a missionary of quality literature, it is St Aubyn. I write to you now as one of the converted.
The Patrick Melrose novels – Nevermind, Bad News, Some Hope, At Last and Mother’s Milk – are less of a ‘series’ and more – as many have suggested – ‘dynastic chronicles’ that centre on the titular character, Patrick Melrose, following him from a five-year-old suffering at the hands of his cruel, volatile father and his alcoholic mother, to adulthood, as he negotiates his past, self-sabotage, drugs, alcoholism, and the boredom and heady delights that come with a life of privilege. Yet, as with all good books, to merely summarise the trajectory of this ‘blasphemous bildungsroman’ is to belie the wonderful writing it contains. If you are a writer, these are the kind of books you will hurl across the room in envy, then scuttle over and pick up to continue reading.
As James Wood of The New Yorker has succinctly described, St Aubyn’s quintet has a beautifully realised ‘aristocratic atmosphere of tart horror’. In a few deft strokes, St Aubyn slashes to pieces the wrappings of propriety and nobility the English upper class are often cloaked in, laying his characters bare and vulnerable to the readers’ revulsion. And they are repelling. Across the five novels, each of which I devoured in quick succession, there were times when I was so nauseated by St Aubyn’s characters, including the poor Patrick, that were it not for his excruciatingly skilful and terribly funny prose I would have been in danger of retching. The comparisons to Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde are understandable, but there is a darker barbarity at the heart of the Patrick Melrose novels that makes St Aubyn’s work so utterly magnetic. Go forth and read.
Heat by Bill Buford – Estelle Tang, Online Editor
I am an extraordinarily impatient cook, and not a talented one, but I’m definitely an eater – so I delight in others’ accounts of culinary expeditions (Charlotte Wood’s Love and Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food is another wonderful read in this category).
This one’s a doozy. Buford, then an editor at The New Yorker, after profiling rock star chef Mario Batali, asked if he could become a ‘kitchen slave’ at Batali’s Babbo restaurant. Thus began a two-year odyssey of cooking, watching, butchering and getting burnt; as Buford’s curiosity takes root, he moves to Italy to discover more about the ancient arts of Italian cooking.
Those familiar with The New Yorker’s style will know what to expect from Heat: deft and immediate portraits of fascinating people; impeccable, germane research (Buford delves into Italian cooking tomes from the 15th century, hoping to discover when eggs were first used to make fresh pasta); and some very sharp writing. Batali, an alcohol-swilling, raw-fat eating bon vivant, is as much a character in this book as Buford is, and he basically writes himself (‘I don’t want to come across as a big druggy, but when a guy comes into the kitchen with a pizza pan turned upside down, covered with lines of coke, how can you say no?’). And there are other inspiring, quirky food devotees along the way, including a butcher who spontaneously recites passages from Dante’s Inferno.
Buford’s high-octane sentences match the adventurous spirit of his tale (although his feature-writing hustle can be exhausting over a book of such length), and what drives this memoir is a sense of unerring personal passion. If you need another reason? I’d read Heat for the Tuscan insults alone.