Feminist accounts of myths and classics have grown in popularity in recent years (see Zadie Smith’s Wife of WillesdenJessie Burton AstonishedPat Barker’s The silence of the girlsby Madeline Miller Circe). JR Thorp’s first novel, secular, continues in this tradition, turning its gaze to the unnamed widow of Shakespeare’s king in the period following the end of the play. The protagonist was banished to a convent years ago, but after Lear’s death, she can finally tell her story and reclaim her place in history. Australian-born, Irish-based Thorp is a highly skilled and thorough writer, teasing details about marriage, sex, motherhood and politics. Those interested in Shakespeare will find this work compelling and thought-provoking, but readers not so passionate about The Bard may find it a little too dense.
NON FICTION CHOICE OF THE WEEK
Kate Langbroek, Simon & Schuster, $32.99
I must be one of the few people who has never heard Kate Langbroek’s voice, but the voice that emerges from this wonderful memoir is an easy mix of light, funny, sad and sometimes dark. In 2019 Langbroek, husband and children moved to Bologna for a year. A huge move, rich in rewards but not without problems – especially with four young children who attended the international school in the city. They also had a lot of support, from family and work colleagues – Langbroek continuing to do his radio show from a studio in Bologna. You will be able to taste the pasta, the local reds, the thrill of meeting new friends and feel the adventure of daring to live differently. But things get really interesting when COVID and lockdown, Italian style, hits. An engaging account and intriguing snapshot of those strange days seen by a Melbourne family on the other side of the world.
The Incredible Life of Hubert Wilkins
Peter Fitzsimons, Hatchet, $49.99
Hubert Wilkins isn’t a name heard much now, but Peter Fitzsimons’ entertaining biography of the explorer might change that. Calling Wilkins an explorer is a bit like calling da Vinci a painter because in a truly epic life he went through many incarnations. From humble beginnings in South Australia in the late 19th century, he displayed an incredible blend of talent, instinct, sass and luck as, at various stages, a cinematographer in the film debut, an aviator, polar explorer, decorated soldier and war photographer – go over the top with troops armed only with a camera. If he didn’t find adventure, it did when he worked as a spy for British intelligence in Russia just after the revolution, meeting Lenin. Told in the present, it is a mixture of romantic and popular history.
Will Smith, with Mark Manson, Century, $35
When actor Will Smith was 11, his father insisted that he and his brothers build a wall in front of his father’s shop in Philadelphia, brick by brick. The lesson, which Smith applied throughout his life, was that to get the big picture, you have to focus on the brick. It was the same alcoholic father who beat his wife so often that she eventually kicked him out. There’s a lot of raw honesty in this portrait of the artist as a young black man growing up in a white Catholic school. But he was always watching people, how they absorbed and dealt with pain – in Smith’s case, his family was falling apart and experiencing racism. Smith used his pain to pull his art, as a hip-hop artist and later an actor, but there are no fiddles in this Philadelphia child’s tale. Simply written, thoughtful and moving, especially the death of his father.
The Long Song of Tchaikovsky Street
Pieter Water Drinker, Scribe, $35
In 1988, an elderly man approached the author in his native Holland asking him to take delivery of 7,000 illegal Bibles in Leningrad. He accepted and, of course, his life changed. Years later, living in Moscow with his Russian wife, his publisher asked him to write a book about the Russian Revolution to coincide with his 100th birthday. The result, between past and present, is this mix of memoirs and social history, taking his time as a tour guide quietly flogging Bibles and meeting his wife. Re-enactments of revolutionary Russia are vivid (including its hatred of the Tsar, Lenin, and Stalin) as is the day-to-day reality of life in glasnost Russia. There are positively Dostoevskyan characters, and his portrait of Russia caught in two moments of upheaval (1917, 1988) is an epic told with deceptive simplicity.
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