What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

February 2020

Gleebooks Bookshop - Friday, January 31, 2020
Jonathon: Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh—I loved the way this played on ideas of writing and narration to ask what we become in all the stories we tell. An elderly widow moves to a small town with her dog. Her mind grinds in circles of self-talk and narration—all bunctious and pitch black... you want to laugh along, but she gets mean. When she discovers evidence of a murder in a forest near her house, she takes it upon herself to solve the case, writing herself into an amateur detective story within the novel. Moshfegh’s clear prose gives you a brilliantly eerie space to ponder just what her investigation might reveal. (Due April 2020)

Judy: Here We Are by Graham Swift—This as a very English novella—spare prose, emotion compressed. It concerns the life of one small boy, removed to the countryside during the London Blitz. As if by magic, his impoverished and difficult life is transformed, though he remains the same haunted, solitary little boy. The price of his new easeful and beautiful life is the loss of any real relationship with his mother. He is shown the intricacies of magic and, indeed, becomes a magician. He teams up with a born showman and, abracadabra!, the perfect, beautiful assistant answers his advertisement. The trio are ever so successful during the summer seaside seasons of the 1950s, right up to the moment that the magician makes himself disappear. Life goes on, but he is never seen again. The story unfolds beautifully. Fate really does look like sleight of hand; a series of arrivals and disappearances. (Due March 2020).

Viki: Berlin Finale by Heinz Rein—This is a most fantastic companion to one of my favourite ever books, Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (or Alone in Berlin if you read it under its uninspired UK translation). Also written in the immediate aftermath of WW2, Berlin Finale follows the citizens of Berlin as the bombs fall on their thousand year Reich, and the allies close in on the German capital. Many Berliners, still in thrall to the Nazi propaganda machine (either because they remain true believers, or are afraid to attract the ever watchful eye of the SS or Gestapo) are ready to fight to the last man, woman and child, while the resistance are conducting dangerous conversations and attempted conversions to undermine Hitler’s desire to take every German with him to the grave. A bestseller in post war Germany, the book was ‘revised and improved’ by Rein in 1980. This new translation has a few clunky moments I blame on the lack of editorial and proofing at publishers these days, but that aside, I loved it. In these post-truth days, the de-nazification process is a schooling in how to talk those in utter denial off a ledge, into acceptance and maybe even action. I also ripped through American Dirt by Jeanne Cummins one recent hot and sleepless night. A middle class Mexican bookseller with a cartel-offending journalist husband is hurled, with her 8 year old son, into the stream of refugees heading to ‘el norte’ when her family is massacred. Cummins’ intention is to individualise and humanise the so-called Trump ‘caravans’ of rapists and criminals—and she does it very well. All the violence happens off the page—and this lack of sensationalising the horror makes it even more gripping. Using a middle class protagonist, who herself has to confront her own previous eye-averting complicity is a masterful move. No one leaves their home, comfortable or otherwise, unless they are forced to.

Chloe: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner—In its opening chapters, this novel could have come from the pen of Jonathan Safran Foer or a son of Philip Roth. Beginning in the third person, you immediately sympathise with Toby Fleishman, the altruistic hepatologist who has been abandoned by his mercenary ex-wife Rachel and left with the care of his two children. The language is at first dripping with Toby’s maleness—his gloomy sense of obligation and hen-peckedness is only marginally cheered by his discovery of internet dating and the many opportunities this entails. But through the subtle insertion of a narrator who slowly metamorphoses from an omniscient being to Libby, an actual first person, you slowly realise the extent to which you’ve been sucked in by Toby. Libby was (the past tense being important here) a magazine writer who made her career profiling men after discovering that ‘this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman...Trojan horse yourself into a man, and people would give a shit about you’. After years of struggling with the exact same impossible balancing act of kids, work and sanity that Toby is now faced with, Libby is now an invisible stay-at-home parent, still Trojan-horsing herself into the lives of men because that is her how she survives. Through Libby, we also learn some of Rachel’s story, and it becomes clear that the eponymous Fleishman is not one but two, and both of them are in trouble.

The Fleishmans’ New York lifestyles are ludicrously expensive and the expectations of their children are outrageous. It is only when his eleven-year-old daughter is expelled from summer camp for sexting that Toby realises how much beyond his control things have become: ‘He’d forgotten something essential about life, which was to make sure his children understood his values. No matter how many times you whispered your values to them, the thing that spoke louder was what you chose to do with your time and resources. You could hate the Upper East Side. You could hate the five-million-dollar apartment. You could hate the private school, which cost nearly $40,000 per kid per year in elementary school, but the kids would never know it because you consented to it. You opted in.’ This struck me as an illuminating observation that middle-class parents everywhere should consider as they drive their SUVs to the private schools they don’t believe in. Despite all this, Fleishman is in Trouble is not a didactic book. The narrative device is brilliant without being tricky and in the end my sympathies were with everyone and the binds they have unwittingly placed themselves in. Whereas previously, as Libby discovered, only ‘men's’ humanity was sexy and complicated’, Brodesser-Akner has well and truly Trojan-horsed these ideas. Everyone is sexy. Everyone is complicated. Everyone is in trouble. 

Andy: I've just finished Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel; her dark-as-pitch suburban comedy of a medium and her assistant/manager as they traverse the outer suburbs of London and the home counties, playing dingy pubs, clubs, and community halls. A slow burn corker of a book; deft prose and ultimately a staggeringly awful, sad, and vicious inspection of what lies hidden beneath the surface of suburban life.   I also am mightily enjoying Actress by Anne Enright; on the glimmering surface (Enright's prose is as perfect as ever) this novel is an attempted biography of a very famous Irish actress by her only daughter, carefully chronicled from the fifties to the late seventies; but delicate fissures in the narrative reveal a wealth in the pair's relationship. 

Louise: Tessa Hadley's 2015 novel, The Past, is about four siblings, three sisters and a brother, who meet for a summer holiday in the old vicarage they have all inherited from their grandparents. The house is old and dilapidated, set in an idyllic country village, there are streams and woods, and other cottages dotted around. Each of the sisters is clearly defined and recognisable, a radical, an actress and a maths teacher, with defined roles in the family group, and well worn grooves in their relationships with each other. Their brother arrives, with a new wife, and his daughter from a previous marriage, and alliances disassemble and reassemble again.
You enter into this adult family group, with a few extras, and then journey back in time to when the siblings were children, on a trip with their mother, who is returning home to her parents’ home in the vicarage, after discovering her husband’s infidelity. Even the minor characters in this book are incredibly vivid—the vicar, his wife, a village real estate agent, all finely drawn and believable. The past is with us, Hadley seems to be saying, and long ago actions can have repercussions today, even if we aren’t fully aware of them, then or now. This is a terrific, mesmerising book, and one that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it.

Morgan: Like many of us, I lay low and read a lot over my small break. Two debuts impressed: Braised Pork by An Yu, a Chinese writer (who doesn’t live in China) is a wonderfully evocative and contemporary tale set in Beijing and Tibet, about a young artist whose husband suddenly dies, leaving her questioning her life and her upbringing by her single mother and aunt. In beautiful language and incorporating elements of magical realism that really work, An Yu has written a tender story about love and family.
My Dark Vanessa is an American debut by Kate Elizabeth Russell—a book for the #metoo movement. Vanessa, a 15year old girl begins what she considers a ‘love affair’ with her teacher. She continues seeing him off an on through her 20s, always believing in his love for her, until another young woman accuses him of sexual harrassment and wants Vanessa to back her up. Now in her early 30s, Vanessa has to question and confront the beliefs she has held onto for nearly 20 years about the ‘affair’. Written in the first person, this feels like an astonishing insight into the psychology of an abused woman. It reminded me of one of the stories in Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women. Not brilliant literature but extremely readable, at times very moving, and very topical.

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