Here are the best books, articles and podcasts I’ve come across lately. They’re not all new; they are all interesting. If you’d read or heard something you’d recommend, let me know. It’s good to spread the word with likeminded folk.
Big Brother (2013), Lionel Shriver
Shriver wraps novels around issues – she’s like a bolder, sharper, more direct Jodi Picoult. Her work is smart and unflinching whether she’s crafting a story about gun control, the American health care system or – as in this book – obesity and the Western relationship with food. It’s not all issue though: her characters are credible and she’s a skilful writer – her sentences contain not a word too many or too few. Even if you find the topic uninteresting (though it is interesting), read this for Shriver’s depictions of complex family and marital relationships.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009)
American short story writer, essayist, novelist and translator Lydia Davis won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Deservedly, in my opinion. There was a lot of fuss about the judges’ choice because some of Davis’ stories are only one or two sentences long. I don’t know what number of words people deem the right number for a short story but if you can say everything you need to in a sentence, then more power to you. It’s a skill I lack but appreciate. The stories in this collection vary in length from short (a few sentences) to ‘normal’ (quite long, in fact, at 27 pages). And despite their brevity some of them seem wordy. These stories crawl under your skin, into your heart and mind.
Here is Davis’ story ‘Odd Behavior’:
You see how circumstances are to blame. I am not really an odd person if I put more and more small pieces of shredded Kleenex in my ears and tie a scarf around my head: when I lived alone I had all the silence I needed.
And ‘Happiest Moment’ (Read it twice. I’ve typed it exactly as written):
If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.
The Jungle (1905), Upton Sinclair
Sinclair was an American Socialist writer known for his huge output of work (fiction and nonfiction) critiquing Capitalism as a system that caused poverty and injustice. He lived from 1878 to 1968. He was said to be more anxious and intense, and more staid, than his flamboyant left-leaning contemporary Jack London. In The Jungle, Sinclair writes about the meatpacking industry in Chicago, and while his focus is on the appalling treatment of the workers, I read it as a vegetarian and was horrified by the whole godawful mess of one species methodically killing another for money. It’s a shockingly good read though – truly, there are moments in this book that will make your jaw drop. Sinclair is an entertaining storyteller – he knows how to keep your attention while he’s showing you something startling.
The Swimmer (2010), Roma Tearne
I reviewed this book for ABC Radio when it first came out. I like this book (the story is genuinely moving) but it depresses me that the issue it deals with – asylum seekers, specifically Sri Lankan refugees seeking home in the UK – has become even more fraught. I live in Australia, and our treatment of asylum seekers is nothing short of savage. If fiction can change opinions – and I believe it can – then this is a book for those who would turn away fellow humans in dire circumstances. For everyone else, here’s a review in The Independent explaining why it’s a great read with a thumping heartbeat.
Crazy Rich Asians (2013), Kevin Kwan
If the recommendations above do your head in with their earnestness, try this. It’s a zippy, light, comedic story about rich Asian people in Hong Kong, China, Singapore and New York. Were this written by a white person it would be unquestionably racist, but Kwan is writing about his own, so while some of the sweeping generalisations and twee mimicry might set your teeth on edge, it’s written with affection. A wink from one insider to another. He shows us characters living with wealth of which I can barely conceive but which is based on fact. Entertaining, funny, and only a little awful.
(Photo: Renata Addler by Richard Avedon)
Speedboat (1976), Renata Adler
I’ve read this book several times and love it for its oddness, humour and originality (I use that word with care). Adler has a cosmopolitan pedigree and impressive credentials: born in Milan, raised in Connecticut, degrees from Bryn Mawr, Harvard, the Sorbonne and Yale Law School, staff writer at The New Yorker, writer of novels and nonfiction. She displays all her smarts, confidence and worldliness in this book. Speedboat is unconventional in form and content, comprised of vignettes about life in New York, seemingly without plot, changing voice and pace without warning. It’s a delight to read and will remind you of the possibilities of a form repeatedly declared done and dead.
A Death in the Family (published in Norwegian 2009, in English 2013), Karl Ove Knausgaard
Everything about this book is weird and fantastic. It’s the most unlikely bestseller I can imagine, and yet it’s hugely popular. A Death in the Family is the first of Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir. He’s 46 years old and wrote all six volumes between 2009 and 2011. That sounds like a joke, I know, but it’s not.
Volume One is slow, sad, full of detailed disappointments, struggles with writing, and reflections on mortality. I, like so many others, enjoyed reading it. Maybe James Wood’s review in The New Yorker might explain why it’s so great. It’s beyond me to do it justice.
Wood writes: ‘the banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency. The need for totality that brings pages about playing the guitar, about drinking tea, about wearing his Doc Martens and listening to his Walkman, about how his brother, Yngve, has always thought the music of Queen unfairly underestimated, about the name of the band that he later formed with his brother (named, rather wonderfully, Kafkatrakterne), also brings superb, lingering, celestial passages…’
Zadie Smith wrote a review, also, hers in The Guardian.
Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (2010), Jessica Mitford
She’s one of those Mitfords – the aristocratic English family who were controversial back in the day for their lineage, divided affiliations (Jessica supported the Left and was a member of the Communist Party, Unity and Deborah supported the Far Right) and gadding-about-the-townness. Jessica (1917 to 1996) and her sister Nancy were both writers.
This collection of Jessica Mitford’s journalism is joyous. I’d especially recommend the piece Maine Chance Diary about her time in an upmarket health retreat in 1966, and the several essays on American Funeral Parlours. Mitford is witty, fierce, a diligent researcher, an elegant storyteller.
Read a review in The Daily Beast if you need more convincing.
Ghosting, Andrew O’Hagan (LRB, 6 March 2014)
O’Hagan writes about trying to work with Julian Assange on Assange’s autobiography. His experience is in stark contrast to Alex Haley’s (mostly, and see below). O’Hagan is an experienced, erudite writer who was given the royal runaround by Assange, a man who comes across as childlike, precious, stubborn and surprisingly lazy. Which is not to undermine the work of Wikileaks – it is a good thing this site exists and Assange deserves all credit for bringing it to life. He’s clearly passionate about his cause, but as a collaborator on a book… Well, I can’t imagine how O’Hagan put up with him for as long as he did.
Read the article for O’Hagan’s take on working with Assange. Or listen to him on the LRB podcast (same link as the article).
Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at His Worst, David Thomson (TNR, 5 March 2014)
I don’t want to be a hater. I enjoy a lot of Wes Anderson’s work. I love the same films everyone else loves – The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr Fox, Rushmore. Love them. Love the actors he works with, and the way his films look, and the soundtracks. Love the knowingness, the coolness. But…I harbour the reservation this journalist does that Anderson is often too concerned with the visuals, the hipness, the irony of everything. And it wears a bit thin, becomes repetitive, even bullish and overly insistent.
Thomson writes: ‘In Grand Budapest Hotel, the decoration is a constant onslaught, and finally it amounts to another intimidation. (Anderson and his fans may be surprised by that observation, but immense style can become authoritarian.) … Grand Budapest Hotel is dazzling, exhausting but bereft… It is a rococo dead end, a ferment of decoration, unwitting complacency and ignorance.’
I’m sorry. It just rings so true…
Why Go Out, Sheila Heti (Medium, 2014)
This article, like Sheila Heti’s other work, is beautifully honest, pure and self-effacing. And she’s touching on something I’ve felt many times. Maybe you have too?
Here’s an extract from her wonderful piece:
‘For many years I have asked myself, Why do you spend time with other people? but I never really attempted to come up with an answer. I always believed I was asking myself a rhetorical question, but this week I thought I would try and find an answer, because a question you ask yourself a thousand times eventually deserves to be answered.
And I figure if I know why I go out, I might feel less suspicious of myself for going out. I might criticize myself less. I might be able to look around a party without thinking, What a fool — why did you come — you should have stayed at home.’
Alex Haley talks to Studio 360 presenter Kurt Andersen about The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). It’s an hour long but listen to the whole thing – it doesn’t flag. The book is important for many reasons, and it almost didn’t get published: Doubleday cancelled their contract three weeks after Malcolm X died (fear of consequences) and the manuscript was picked up by Grove Press, still an outstanding publisher.
Haley talks about how he interviewed and collaborated with Malcolm X to write this book, about the Black Power movement of the 1960s, about racism, sexism, religion and power, and why the book is relevant to America now. This is a fascinating podcast always, and this episode is especially compelling.
The Believer’s Andrew Leland speaks on the Longform podcast. Again, it’s an hour long and worth your time. Again, this is a podcast that warrants regular listening. Leland is a warm, forthcoming, self-deprecating and generous interviewee. He talks about the early days of The Believer magazine and McSweeneys and offers great advice about the craft of writing. A must for anyone who wants to write for quality magazines.