Microviews 59: The Summer Reading Stack Edition

on Thursday, February 15, 2018
Well, it's been a twenty five book kind of summer (and by summer I mean the first six weeks of 2018) which, I hope, goes some way to explaining why I've already fallen behind on updating this here blog.

I'm not going to review them all in depth (obvs!) but a few worth noting before I get into the longer form pontification:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie didn't quite live up to the hype, but I still found it to be a powerful and very timely reworking of Antigone, exploring some of our most pressing contemporary paranoias. Terrorism, Islamophobia, political upheaval and, well, forbidden love all get a good look in with more nuance (and less razzle dazzle) than, say, Houellebecq's sensationalist Submission. I was particularly taken by Isma and Parvaiz (the latter mostly because I'm interested in the process of radicalisation), which I suppose almost made up for the overly cartoonish Aneeka and total wet-blanket dickwad Eamonn.

Jim Heyman's Ordinary Sins was a rather intriguing collection of tiny character sketches of regular people going about their business while wrestling with their personal failings. There was something recognisable in each of them, something uncomfortably relatable. Worth a quick dip, I say.

At last I get the love people have for George Saunders. No I didn't like Lincoln In The Bardot. And I was only mildly entertained by Tenth of December. But holy shit, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, Saunders's batshit crazy novella, was a revelation.

A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman was a thoroughly beguiling novel about a young man (a hack writer, really) entangled by his grandfather in a scheme to defraud the German government with Holocaust claims for survivors deserving of compensation but who did not fit the very strict criteria for getting any. A somewhat ethically challenging, though witty and moving, book.

And now onto something a little more substantial:

The Only Story by Julian Barnes
The years have not been kind to the former rock stars of English letters. Ian McEwan now cranks out fair-to-middling minor entertainments on a semi-regular basis while Martin Amis has gone all scattergun on his readers, misfiring more often than not. Their books have become something akin to Dorian Gray’s portrait in the attic: withered, unseemly, a mere shadow of what came before. For Julian Barnes, however, the portrait remains intact. Time took a far more personal toll: stealing away his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. Since then, Barnes has been producing books of immense depth and beauty. Sure, they might resemble his early work but something more profound has crept between the covers, an understanding of life that most never come to possess. Sense of an Ending finally saw him win the Man Booker Prize. The Noise of Time was one the best meditations on art and power that I’ve ever read. And then there was his strange, uneven but moving memoir, Levels of Life. The Only Story continues Barnes’s quiet exploration of love and loss that seems to characterise his later oeuvre. What starts as a fairly standard May December romance - 19-year-old Paul meets 38-year-old Susan (married, of course) at tennis club, and begins torrid affair - gradually shifts into something much more significant and complex. The affair continues - the two run away and try to start a life in London. Paul begins to study law. Susan does her best to make something of her independence. The years pass, age creeps in: the depredations begin. Conventional wisdom has it that these kind of romances collapse with the weight of time. In Paul and Susan’s case, time is a trash compactor, crushing them against one another, leaving no avenue for escape. As Susan descends into chronic alcoholism and, later, dementia, Paul cannot let go. Perhaps love runs deep, but it seems that Paul is driven more by guilt and obligation. He has lost the chance to know what love really is. And, as a result, he lets opportunities for a fulfilling, dare I say normal, life pass him by. The Only Story is a sad book, wistful and philosophical. It is also throughly, thoroughly British. What might come as a bit of a surprise to Barnes fans is its stylistic experimentalism; Barnes slips between first, second and third person throughout, making the reader sometimes witness, sometimes accomplice, and sometimes protagonist. I doubt The Only Story will go down as one of Barnes’s strongest offerings - it is a little too quiet and slightly overwrought - but it remains a novel of considerable beauty and wisdom from a writer who, unlike his contemporaries, still clearly has a lot to say.
3.5 out of 5 Michael Douglases

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor
Early money had Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 a high chance to win the 2017 Man Booker Prize. When it failed to make the shortlist there was a collective gasp. Poor Jon had been robbed! I was more ambivalent; I had appreciated the subtlety of Reservoir 13, but couldn’t get quite as excited as my writer friends on Twitter who devoted entire threads to fawning about it. Maybe it was the buzz - they generally have impeccable taste and I came to the book quite late so my hopes were impossibly high. Or maybe it was because Reservoir 13 reminded me too much of one of my favourite novels of the past decade, The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard. That book also deals with the fallout from the disappearance of a child in a small town, and the ongoing ripple effect on those who knew her. As a study of grief, and the legacy of lost friendships, it is beyond compare. For me, Reservoir 13 lacked its emotional weight and narrative drive. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a very good book - it most certainly is! - but I felt there was something missing. Enter The Reservoir Tapes. Billed as a sequel, it is really more of an equal. Fifteen short pieces - interviews, snippets, side stories - in a slim, elegant volume that makes the main novel look like War and Peace. Here we hear the voices of those who knew poor, lost Becky, those who saw something, or heard something, or thought they saw or heard something, or might just be contributing to the scuttlebutt. Here we get to see McGregor doing what he does best: concise, daring, razor sharp storytelling. Indeed, had I just read this and not bothered with Reservoir 13, I’d have hailed it a masterpiece. It tells the same story better. Yep, this is the book that should have won all the prizes. This was the one robbed of the Man Booker. Whether or not you’ve read Reservoir 13, I implore you to rush out and buy this. For although it was conceived as a series of pieces to be read on BBC Radio, and perhaps almost an afterthought, The Reservoir Tapes is contemporary literary fiction at its absolute best.
4.5 Out of 5 Phantom Menaces

Lullaby by Leïla Silmani
Okay, seriously. What the fuck is with the whole “Next Gone Girl” thing? Sure, I get you need to shift units but whoever thought it would be a good idea to flog Leïla Silmani’s far more sophisticated Lullaby as some cheap psychological thriller should be made to read Gone Girl over and over again while sitting in a tub of week-old, lukewarm, curdled milk. Silmani won the Prix Goncourt - one of the world’s most prestigious prizes and consistent indicator of excellent literary cred - with this for heaven’s sake. Lullaby opens with a horrific scene: two little children are brutally murdered by their nanny. Rewind to Myriam, a driven, successful lawyer, and her aspiring music producer husband Paul, searching for a carer for their two kids. A bunch of decidedly unremarkable applicants are interviewed. Myriam and Paul are ready to give up when Louise appears. She seems perfect. Her references check out. The kids take to her almost immediately. Problem solved. Of course, as you would expect from any book billed as the next Gone Girl - particularly one that opens with a grisly murder - the cracks soon begin to show. Louise becomes a little too obsessed. Too clingy. Think Single White Female or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. We get flashbacks to moments in her former life. We learn she had an abusive ex-husband and wayward daughter from whom she is estranged. She is by and large homeless. She sees in Myriam’s family a chance to belong. The disappointment of her standing in the pecking order, when pointed out to her, is inevitable. as is her completely unhinged reaction. Lullaby is a pretty passable thriller but readers looking for the next Gone Girl are likely to be rushing back to the store and asking for a refund. What the book really does, and does well, is hold a magnifying glass over the relationship between servant and master. Louise is a fine study in the frustration of life when stuck on the lowest end of the socioeconomic totem pole. There is no question Louise had a terrible run, and Silmani demonstrates the kind of conditions that might (though she in no way determinative) result in catastrophe. For me, this strength is also the book’s greatest weakness. Because when it comes to examining the kind of relationship Silmani has chosen as her subject, there already exists an unassailable masterpiece: Magda Szabo’s The Door. No killing. No Gone Girl. Just a perfect observation of human relations. By all means read Lullaby - it is a throughly enjoyable book (though maybe if, like me, you are a new parent, you might want to give it a miss). But do me a favour. When you’re done go and read Szabo. That’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
3.5 Out of 5 Rebecca De Mornays

Peach by Emma Glass
Beware all who come to this book: it may well destroy you. In prose rich and visceral, Peach recounts the few weeks in the aftermath of a violent rape as the narrator struggles to make sense of her experience. The opening chapter is the most memorable thing you are likely to read this year. A woman stumbles home; battered, bruised, bleeding, defiled. It is as poetic as it is harrowing, written with a jarring rhythm that gives agonising immediacy while you are forced to bear witness. What follows is a hell ride into the hyper-real: Peach’s torment becomes your own. We learn little of the crime other than the name of its perpetrator - Lincoln. He is a sinister presence throughout, haunting Peach’s psyche, the counterpoint to her boyfriend, Green. How does she explain it to those who love her? How does she come to terms with her own body that has been so egregiously violated? How does she piece herself back together? And what of the child that might be growing inside her? Even the sympathetic characters have a ghoulishness about them: Peach’s parents try to force her to eat meat. That is when they aren’t bonking with gay abandon in the room next to her. Mr Custard, her teacher, begins to literally fall apart. Green seemingly metamorphosises into a tree. And Peach begins to disappear. To a large part I was reminded of the break from reality that also characterised Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. Indeed, the two have a lot in common, in their brevity, their form as prose poem, their haunting, surreal interpretations of loss and their astounding originality. Both are difficult reads, but essential ones if we want to glimpse the extreme edges of the human condition.
4 Out of 5 Straw Dogs

An Empty Chair at Tmol Shilshom: Aharon Appelfeld 1932 - 2018

on Thursday, January 4, 2018
It saddens me to start the year with a post in loving memory of one of my favourite writers. As some of you may have heard, Aharon Appelfeld, the last of the great survivor novelists, died today aged 85. Although eclipsed in the public eye by the likes of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, Appelfeld was the finest of them all. I long harboured a fantasy of meeting him in the cafe he was known to frequent, Tmol Shilshom. Whenever I went to Jerusalem, I made a beeline to Yoel Moshe Solomon Street, climbed the stairs, and plonked myself at a table. Without fail, I'd order a shakshukah, pull a book from my backpack and wait. He never showed. I did ask every now and then. He still came, I was assured. And he was famously generous with his time for anyone who cared to chat. Alas, it wasn't to be. I would only know him on the page. And maybe console myself with the knowledge that I sat where he once sat, and breathed the same fragrant air he breathed.

But back to his work. Appelfeld's compassion and unflinching humanity made him one of literature's truest moral compasses. He was also one of the few novelists I can think of who wrote multiple masterpieces: Tzili, The Iron Tracks, The Retreat, Katerina... I could go on. What sets his books apart from other Holocaust literature is the absence of the Holocaust itself in almost all of them. That's not to say it isn't there; it exists in the ether, either looming, peripheral or somewhere in the past, but we are never taken into the camps, or forced to bear witness to the horrors that have become the template for most other books. Appelfeld, in that way, was a soothsayer, a giver of wisdom and, most importantly, a town crier for what might still come.

Reflecting on his death it occurred to me that his greatest work is also his most relevant to our times. Written in 1978, Baddenheim 1939 - a slim, perfect novella - is the story of a bunch of Jews at an Austrian spa retreat at the dawn of the Second World War. As they frolic without a care, concerning themselves only with petty gossip and other such fripperies, turning away from the news that is seeping in, we sense their increasing isolation and, moreover, come to realise that they will soon be easy pickings for the Nazis. It is a cautionary tale of the highest order, and the ultimate train crash on paper: you know it's coming but you can't look away. That it ends just as the horror descends makes it all the more powerful.

A quick check of his works in translation proved an unexpected delight - he had another novel published last year that I have not yet read: The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. I ordered it straight away, knowing it will be my last "first dance" with this wonderful soul. Still, I will return to him time and time again in the coming years; for guidance, for a greater understanding of the craft, and for the familiar warmth of true goodness.