Rodham
Curtis Sittenfeld

Fiction 

What would have happened if Hillary said no to marrying Bill Clinton, and instead pursued a career in politics? What an interesting idea for a book. Its a daring premise which, instead of ‘shipping‘ two characters, presents an anti-love story – what filled the space of what could have been.

Rodham revisits some of the themes of Curtis Sittenfeld’s earlier books like Prep and the beloved American Wife, particularly the viewpoint of a woman navigating her own compromises in a hostile environment. For fans of Hillary Clinton, its a kind of wish fulfillment narrative where Hillary’s political ambitions are pursued without hindrance. It borrows from real life, where their romance in law school began and also fragments of dialogue from other characters and life on the campaign trail. Its an uncanny simulacrum where Obama, Bush and Trump appear, true to life and clinically observed and parts of it made us so deeply uncomfortable that we shrieked, involuntarily (nude saxophone scene is all you need to know).

Perhaps because its not something seen much outside of fanfiction, the use of real living people in fiction was the challenging bit. Real living people are used as narrative pawns and sometimes represented in pretty villainous ways; Sittenfeld dwells on Bill’s infidelity and abusive behaviours, not to mention Hillary’s hapless interpersonal naivety, and its deeply weird to think about a public figure’s sex life. But I think its a reflection on Sittenfeld’s skill as a writer that such a book can be compelling and so many strands can be gathered together in a (sometimes lumpy) narrative arc. It will certainly provoke some gleeful discussion if nothing else!

Penguin Books May 2020

We Can't Say We Didn't Know: Dispatches from an Age of Impunity
Sophie McNeill

International Affairs / Politics 

Whilst we sit cooped up on the couch unable to leave our dwellings, it seems that these scribbled-upon-pieces-of-bark we call books, have become the most important means to escape into some illusionary bliss. Meanwhile, around us chaos continues; the scurrying of rats, the imagined screeching of bats, sincerely accounted elbow coughs, indeed most prominently the ‘one at a time’ use water troughs. Bearing all this in mind, it was with some trepidation that I sat down one evening to browse through the first few pages of Sophie McNeill’s new book, We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know. My apprehension was of course ill-considered, I had fallen foul of the stereotype that sees the ‘Middle-Eastern situation’ defined and labeled by the abhorrent acts of a select few. The terrorist narrative is, of course, only a tiny piece of the puzzle.

McNeill’s account instead guides the reader through a collection of distinctive stories, proverbial anecdotes and personal triumphs, over seemingly insurmountable odds. Reporting on the ground on all issues and written with a gracious and personal delicacy are stories like those of  Khaled Naanaa, a nurse turned YouTube doctor who cared for the entire town of Madaya while they suffered a siege to the point of starvation from Assad’s forces, the distressing voyages of Nazieh and Ahmad, afloat atop the pitch black Mediterranean sea, and of the brave Ruhaf Mohammed, who fled her homeland under the gendered confines of the Saudi state to seek independence and autonomy as free woman. These stories, among others, recognize that despite the savagely unbridled rule of those such as the Assads, Netenyahus and Saudi Patriarchs, the fearless actions of the avowedly inconsequential mob act as the true emblems of hope and truth in a time where intergovernmental intervention is certainly failing.

It is time to turn our eyes from the spurious jaunts of the Hollywood elect, and instead focus on instigating change. At the very least recognizing the oppression of those 411 million who have for decades, been without even the most basic human rights.

If there is one book that everyone should read whilst in isolation, it is We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know. Indeed, we may just realize that sitting in the comfort of our homes is after all, not that bad. Perhaps then we might better be able to, like McNeill, give those who have been so persistently silenced a voice again.

HarperCollins 2020

Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming
Laszlo krasnahorkai

Fiction

Hailed as Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s masterwork, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is a freewheeling and shambolic account of an ailing aristocrat returning to the provincial town of his youth, where he hopes to reunite with his high school sweetheart. Moving between narrators and viewpoints, the novel is “a mesmerisingly strange experience: a slab of late modernist grindcore and a fiercely committed exercise in blacker-than-black absurdity,” with sentences that run for pages, disjunctive narrative breaks and unapologetic slapstick. It is sometimes hard to tell how much disruption is due to the translation, which I felt to be a little rushed. Krasznahorkai remains one of my favourite authors and I looked forward to this release, but I feel describing Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming as a masterwork diminishes some of his prior novels like Satantango and Seiobo There Below.

Allen & Unwin 2020 

Women & Power: A Manifesto
Mary Beard

Philosophy 

An effective and incisive manifesto, Women & Power by Mary Beard once again underlines that clichéd notion that directs us to conclude, that in order to understand our present we must first understand the heralded acts of our past. Whilst Beard is known primarily as one of ‘Britain’s best known classicists’ and a promoter of our ancient forbears, she cedes most willingly that it is certainly time we reassessed the nature of the Greco-Roman societies; particularly the pedestal on which they currently stand as scholarly exemplars, and the role that women were forced to play within these historic frameworks.

Her piece draws upon – among many other examples – the gendered binaries of both Homer’s Odyssey, and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and notes the passive statuette of Homer’s domesticated Penelope (the private woman), and the idiotic portrayal of Aristophanes’ public servant Lysistrata (the public’s spokeswoman). Beard demonstrates the almost unbridgeable gap between these spheres, differentiates how these complex anxieties are undoubtedly caught up in how one regards auditory power, and demonstrates the need to understand these evolving issues with historic clarity when analysing current political and social norms. Whilst perhaps not the most wholistic or dynamic narration of the subject, this 100 page discourse nonetheless offers an amicable first glimpse to the individual looking over the precipice toward feminist literature.  For all genders, Women & Power offers an insight into the historic calamity which has been the oppression of the powerless by the powerful. Yet perhaps all clichés do not have to prove true; firstly, as exemplified by Mary Beard – the so-called ‘losers’ can indeed write effective history. Secondly, for those uncomfortable with the prospect of shared power (e.g. my disagreeable brothers in arms), for one to cede power to another does not make oneself powerless.

Profile Books 2017

 
The Secret Commonwealth - The Book of Dust Volume 2
Philip Pullman

The latest book in Philip Pullman’s epic series which began with the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth is set in the same parallel world where we first met Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon. I re-read last year’s La Belle Sauvage, then the new book, and then the original books all over again, just to stay in this fictional universe a little longer. Its a world with many overlaps to our own and some differences, notably that a part of your consciousness is external to you in the form of an animal. It is immensely painful to be separated from your dæmon, and those who have been are viewed with fear and pity. It is one of the ways Pullman explores the idea of character and identity, an an irresistible concept if you’ve ever wondered what your spirit guide, anima or animus might be.  Dæmons are viewed as a possible manifestation of Dust, the mysterious substance flowing through the worlds in Lyra’s story. Although it began as a series for young people, this latest installment is years ahead and a lot more grown up, in much the same way the characters in the Harry Potter books grew with their readers. The Secret Commonwealth is almost bleak in parts, and the themes are dark and complicated. I felt that Lyra went through grueling punishment, especially the second part of the book where I winced through chapters of estrangement, sexual violence and a broken hand. I’ll be eager for volume three though, if only to see anything like a happy ending, or resolution to the story’s multitude of threads.

David Fickling Books / Penguin 2019

Pan's Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun
Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke

fiction 

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a personal favourite of mine.The strange parallels and thematic tessellations which accumulate throughout the film elegantly express the way that folktales haunt the worlds from which they spring. But how to make this rich texture yield to the page? Cornelia Funke, author of the Inkheart series, was apprehensive for this very reason when Del Toro approached her to author the novelisation. While the bulk of the narrative remains unchanged, Funke’s retelling captures both the childlike wonder and wartime terror which the film so skillfully blends. Funke’s writing softens some of the more frightening and gruesome moments, making it a bit more palatable for those who found the violence of the film a little overwhelming. Those familiar with the story will relish the vignettes detailing some of the concealed histories and myths which structure the original—from the opening paragraphs on Falangist Spain to the provenance of the Pale Man.

 

***

 

In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Ofélia and her pregnant mother, Carmen, travel to the countryside where the ruthless Captain Vidal—Ofelia’s new stepfather—is engaged in a guerilla war with Republican rebels. Ofélia is drawn to a labyrinth which lies at the edge of the forest, and which is home to a mischievous faun. There she learns that she is the long-lost Princess Moanna, daughter of the king of the underworld, and that in order to reclaim her birthright (and her memories) she must complete a series of tasks to prove that she has not become changed by her time in the human world. As the conflict intensifies and the tasks become increasingly difficult, the worlds of the fairytale and the war blend together, giving the reader pause to reflect on how the stories we tell about nations, the unknown, the other, and ourselves can have disturbing, beautiful, and bittersweet consequences.

Bloomsbury 2019

The Sheltering Sky
Paul Bowles

fiction

I’m hesitant to tick the ‘recommended’ box since this book is unusually, vividly bleak. it’s also considered a landmark piece of twentieth century literature. First published in 1949, it is set in a decimated postwar North Africa, through which Americans Port Moresby, his wife Kit and their friend Tunner move restlessly. Wealthy and aimless, they consider themselves travellers rather than tourists, with Port seeking some kind of defining philosophical experience in the remote Sahara. The precursor to the Beats, Bowles was apparently beset with hippies visiting his home in Tangiers in the hope of meeting a wise sage. He wrote the book in bed (a habit he adopted when freezing desert nights made it impossible to sit at a desk) dissolving writer’s block with liberal quantities of hashish.

I couldn’t find a single character with kindness or other redeeming qualities; the book is a relentlessly hostile description of the meaningless cruelties humans perpetrate on one another and our innate aloneness. Port and Kit are each punished for their wilfull ignorance and apathy. Some passages are a vertiginous deep dive into the horror of death. The writing shows its age by the startling racism and misogyny, branching off the deeper misanthropy.  Perhaps it is not the portrayal of people in the novel which is so upsetting but the creeping suspicion that Bowles might have seen through the artifice of polite society, and be right about us all.

Ecco Press / Harper Collins 2014 

No two persons ever read the same book.
Edmund Wilson

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