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Books you need to read this February

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Books you need to read this February
The new novel from Pulitzer-winning author Michael Cunningham and an exploration of the Seven Ancient Wonders are Miriam Sallon's top literary picks this month

Day by Michael Cunningham

day michael cunningham
While Covid-19 will no doubt inspire a whole slew of literature and art in the coming years, we’ve only seen the first few attempts. Most likely because it’s still very fresh, and the consequences—biological, economical and cultural—have yet to be entirely clarified. But it’s also a very tricky subject to cover because, for the majority of us, there was a marked lack of activity. How do you write about mass stasis with interest?
Day shows a snapshot of a family on the same day over three years: the year before, the year of, and the year after the first Covid-19 lockdown. Dividing a book into three has become somewhat of a Michael Cunningham trademark. His Pulitzer-prize winning and major-film-adapted The Hours told the stories of three women affected by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and, my personal favourite, Specimen Days trod the same streets of New York across three different time periods.
"How do you write about mass stasis with interest?"
It might seem like a gimmick, but it’s an ingenious way of layering meaning and interpretation across the same ground. And in this case, it’s a brilliant loophole to the repetitions of daily lockdown life.
In April 2019, Isabel and Danny live in a Brooklyn brownstone with their two young children, and Isabel’s brother Robbie taking up the top floor. Entirely unaware of the strange global devastation ahead, each is concerned only with their own relationships and hardships. While to some extent, Covid-19 will render these worries moot, for the most part, life simply carries on: relationships continue to be complicated, and most of us are still torn between our own selfish desires and the desires of people we love. Covid-19 is simply a gossamer of melancholy that now gently sits atop it all. 
This is a quiet story to say the least, but it lingers, as with all of Cunningham’s work, and his ability to make exquisite the most banal detail pairs perfectly with a whole world confined to their living rooms.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World by Bettany Hughes

Seven wonders of the ancient world
In a landscape that values expediency and quick-fire progress over all else, it’s a treat to delve into the BCE years and discover the astonishing accomplishments of leaders and kings long, long dead, some of which still baffle the modern mind.
Hughes takes us through each of the Seven Ancient Wonders, not only marvelling at the construction and grandeur but, perhaps more interestingly, the experiences of those who imagined, built and enjoyed them.
"This is not a book to be quickly devoured, but enjoyed in delicious morsels"
This is not a book to be quickly devoured, but enjoyed in delicious morsels, regularly glancing from the page to inform whomever is in close proximity of the curiosities expounded: “Did you know the Temple of Artemis was destroyed and rebuilt three times, each more impressive than the last?” or “Did you know that when the Pyramid of Giza was built, it was a waterside feature, and the Egyptian landscape was verdant?”
Thoroughly researched and cited, Hughes also appears to have visited many of the locations, even those we can’t be sure of, and this first-hand accounting adds a much-needed element of engagement to the otherwise fact- and date-heavy narrative. Recounting the stench of bat dung while crawling through pyramid passageways, doing her own on-foot detective work at Rhodes to discover the location of the Colossus, I imagine her, not in a dusty library (as lovely as that also sounds) but donning an Indiana Jones hat and adventuring for legendary treasures.
Pyramids of Giza
"In 1303 CB a monstrous earthquake ripped through the Eastern Mediterranean. The trauma shook glittering casing stones loose from the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt—the most ancient of our Seven Wonders—and brought the remains of the youngest, the towering Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria, crashing to the ground. The Great Pyramid embodied enormous effort for the sake of one, virtually omnipotent man. Alexandria's Pharos Lighthouse had been a public beacon to keep travellers from four continents safe, and to announce a repository of all the knowledge that was possible for humankind to know. But across that complex arc of experience, spanning nearly 4,000 years, from the vision of a single, almighty human to a network of human minds, no human-made Wonder could prove a match for the might of Mother Earth.
The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were staggeringly audacious impositions on our planet. Incarnations of the beautiful, mournful, axiomatic truth of our species that we are compelled to make the world in our image and to modify it to our will. They were also brilliant adventures of the mind, test cases of the reaches of human imagination. This book walks through the landscapes of both ancient and modern time; a journey whose purpose is to ask why we wonder, why we create, why we choose to remember the wonder of others. I have travelled as the ancients did across continents to explore traces of the Wonders themselves, and the traces they have left in history. My aim has been to discover what the Seven Wonders of the ancient world meant to 'them'—to our relatives across time—and what they do and can mean to us.
The word wonder is pliable: wonder is both a phenomenon and a process. Wonders are potent because wondering helps us to realise that the world is bigger than ourselves. The wonderful generates interest, and frequently empathy, and that interest and empathy nourishes connection.
"Wonder is both a phenomenon and a process"
We process and internalise these connections. Intellectually and emotionally, via the physical process of thought, we realise we are, truly, one world. So we seek wonders—natural, man-made, philosophical, scientific, whether they are near or far—as a socialising act.
How then do we collectively decide what is wonderful? 
One time-honoured way is to create Wonder-lists. There have been many wonders at many times. There are wonders of the ancient, the modern, the engineered and the natural worlds. At the last count, seventy monuments have been officially claimed as catalogued wonders of history. There is now a vogue for the nationalism of wonders—the Seven Wonders of Everywhere, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, from Canada to Colombia. Spiritual too, the Seven Wonders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu and Christian faiths have all been eagerly gathered together.
But there was one international wonder-selection which seems to have formed a blueprint for all others. The discovery, and indeed survival, of this fragmentary alpha-to-omega inventory is close to miraculous. Compiled in the second century BC, the earliest extant recording of a Seven Wonders of the World compendium was found on a scrap of papyrus used to wrap an ancient Egyptian mummified body."
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