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Shelf Reflection is a monthly series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of our featured First Book Club authors.

This month’s reflection is from Andrew Pippos, whose debut novel Lucky’s (Picador), a story about family, migration, a restaurant chain and a fire that changed everything, is our November pick. Stay tuned for more on our website and podcast later this month!

Andrew’s bookshelves. ‘there is an attempt at order, but it’s half-hearted and soon abandoned.’ Image: Supplied

What are you currently reading?

I recently finished Emmanuel Carrere’s Lives Other Than My Own (trans. Linda Coverdale). The book has been described as a memoir but Carrere is not the main subject of the book; he is cleverly occluded in a way that reminded me of the narrators of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and certain W.G. Sebald novels. The story begins with Carrere’s account of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, before he narrows his focus on a couple whose daughter dies that Boxing Day. The purpose of the book is soon established: Lives Other Than My Own closely observes the space that a person leaves behind in the world.

After the tsunami, Carrere returns to France and learns that his sister-in-law, Juliette, is dying. The rest of Lives is a portrait of Juliette—one that Carrere constructs after her death. There are many deeply moving scenes in the post-tsunami sections, including the moment when the terminally ill Juliette admits she has trouble accepting that her youngest daughter will not consciously remember her. She asks a friend, Phillipe, to take candid pictures:

Phillipe said he would and he did. But what was appalling, he remembers, was that the simple gesture of getting out his camera and pointing it at her began to mean: You are going to die.

The book is a series of memorials, too. I would recommend Lives to anyone, but especially to someone struggling with the task of loving someone who is no longer alive.

I’m a chaotic reader… I avoid re-reading some books, because I don’t want to remember them differently.

Borrowed or bought?

I bought the book after seeing it on The New York Times’s list of the Best 50 Memoirs in the Past 50 Years. I read lists. I often dislike lists but I read them.

What kind of reader are you?

I’m a chaotic reader. For example: I started Lives Other Than My Own but stopped midway through and read an American novel, then I started Carrere again and stopped about 50 pages later and read Ronnie Scott’s brilliant novel The Adversary (Editor’s note: read Ronnie’s Shelf Reflection and our First Book Club discussion on the KYD Podcast), and then I finally finished Lives. At no point did I think Carrere’s book was anything less than a masterpiece.

Most of my reading in 2019 was re-reading: I visited many old favourites, including Stendahl’s Charterhouse of Parma, Joseph Roth’s essays, Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. I avoided some books, because I don’t want to remember them differently (e. g. Great Expectations, Sentimental Education, Murphy).

What does your book collection look like?

I have several bookshelves and they’re all a mess. The picture above tells the story: there is an attempt at order—Faglestranslations are together—but it’s half-hearted and soon abandoned.

I have several bookshelves and they’re all a mess… there is an attempt at order but it’s half-hearted and soon abandoned.

What’s one book you found critical to the writing of your own book?

Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma is the novel that comes to mind. I first read Charterhouse in 2003 and still reread it from time to time: to be specific, I read the Waterloo sequence. Those 70 or 80 pages are perfect. At the outset, the novel’s quixotic young protagonist, Fabrice, leaves his home at Lake Como to join Napoleon’s army, only to reach this goal as the French army is retreating from Waterloo. The rest of the book is different in tone and pace: the novel changes as Fabrice grows up. But those early chapters are exhilarating. And the ‘canteen-woman’ is surely one of the great minor characters in the 19th century novel.

There are several strands of narrative in Lucky’s and some of those plotlines might be described as ‘literary adventure’. I believe the greatest book in that tradition is Charterhouse.

Lucky’s is available from your local independent bookseller.