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Fight for survival
by Alasdair Lees December 08, 2017
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The young New York writer Garth Risk Hallberg pulled off a major coup in 2015. The film rights to his novel, City on Fire, were picked up by the Oscar-winning Hollywood producer Scott Rudin for nearly $2 million (Dhs7m) before he’d even signed a book deal. City on Fire, set in and around Manhattan’s punk scene in the mid-70s, was an overnight bestseller that turned Hallberg into the most hyped writer of the year.

A Field Guide to the North American Family, Hallberg’s first work of fiction, is now being reissued on the back of City on Fire’s success. City on Fire is Dickensian in scope and Joycean in its verbal inventiveness — a lexical high-wire act; A Field Guide, focusing on two modern-day middle class families in the Long Island suburbs, is a svelte novella made up of 63 interlaced vignettes, which runs to just over 120 pages. The fracturing of the Hungate and Harrison families — neighbours whose lives are thrown into turmoil by divorce and a death — is told through sketches that never run to more than a page. The entries are alphabetised under thematic headings, such as Optimism and Grief, each illustrated with pictures taken by a different photographer. It’s a wholly distinct aesthetic from that of City on Fire, but a work equally steeped in a fascination with families of different stripes.

Hallberg’s writing style here is more lucid and malleable than the expansive immersion of City on Fire, evocative of masters of American suburbia such as Updike, Cheever, Salter and Richard Yates. The photographs come with meditative captions and playful cross-references to other entries.The images themselves echo the work of photographers like William Eggleston or Alec Soth, in which mundane aspects of American life resonate with narrative power.

Conjuring a dreamily filmic spell, with shades of American Beauty and The Ice Storm, this is a work that can be approached (and rediscovered) a number of ways, all equally rewarding. It’s an ideal coffee table or bedside companion, to be dipped into for flashes of pleasure.

The Independent
UNIVERSE: EXPLORING THE ASTRONOMICAL WORLD
by Paul Murdin

Enclosed in total darkness, save for the soft outline of our own blue planet curving far below, a man in a puffy white space suit free-floats through space. The black is so deep and endless, and the earth from that vantage point so alien, that he looks positively inconsequential. He could be a bug.

The image isn’t a still from a science fiction film but a NASA photograph of Bruce McCandless on Untethered Spacewalk taken in 1984 before the Manned Maneuvering Unit — a veritable jet pack — was discontinued due to its obvious risk. The photograph is profoundly evocative of humans’ relationship to space — our vulnerability, our willful exploration. In Universe it joins other such images of the cosmos — some just as literal, others acts of imagination — created over millennia.

COLORS OF THE WEST: AN ARTIST’S GUIDE TO NATURE’S PALETTE
by Molly Hashimoto

Seattleite Molly Hashimoto took her passion for her pastime water colouring and made a life of it, teaching others at environmental institutes in Oregon, the North Cascades and Yellowstone. She has exhibited watercolours at galleries throughout the Northwest and at Bellingham’s Whatcom Museum of Art. In Colors of the West she presents not only a handsome coffee-table book of her work, with gorgeous landscapes from Oregon’s Ecola State Park to Wyoming’s Devils Tower, but also a useful how-to manual for hobbyists like me. The subject matter is delightfully organised by hue — green, blue, gold, red, orange and violet — with landscapes and wildlife to match. There are technique tips, material lists, pleasant snippets of poetry — plenty that will make any watercolour fan love this book.

GLASS HOUSES
by Louise Penny

In the most intriguing instalment yet chronicling Quebec’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and the quirky citizens of Three Pines, Louise Penny deftly combines crime and punishment, a timeless avenger and a dark exploration of the conscience.

Three Pines, often bringing to mind Twin Peaks with its odd inhabitants, is one day haunted by a dark, cloaked, masked figure standing as a silent sentry over the town. As the top police official, Gamache encounters this voiceless presence, but lacking any determination of threat or cause for arrest, he takes no action. Until a village visitor’s body is found.

What follows is a great and twisting tale, as we’ve come to expect from the previous 12 Gamache novels, but also an exploration of moral judgments, mental frailty and the eerie notion of reckoning: We all must pay our debts. Fans will be glued to Gamache’s struggle as he testifies at the suspected killer’s trial and where those complexities lead. Gamache himself, it seems, is also on trial in his own head. It’s a profound story, with all the warmth of steaming coffee drinks in the town bistro and the bitter cold of death and decay of the conscience.
 

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