Meet English teacher James Darke, a 60-year old grumpy, selfish, snob, as cynical, judgemental and politically incorrect as they come. Darke has decided to close the world out – literally – starting by drawing the curtains in his house, filling in the mail slot in his door and cancelling his email account. There are no limits to what Darke will do in his quest to be left alone, and that includes pretending to be deaf so he won’t need to talk to people. There is, of course, a reason for Darke’s dark behaviour, which, as it’s slowly revealed, turns out to be far from funny. If you, like me, enjoy dark humour, the occasional unpleasant character and many-layered stories, this book is for you.
... something funny
Yes, the Booker Prize winning The Sellout is a funny book, a book that makes you laugh (sometimes guiltily), a stinging satire devoid of political correctness that goes to the heart of America’s race relation problems. Sadly, it’s also a novel that somehow lacks direction; that appears to go nowhere, in which the author occasionally seems to revel in his own jokes. It’s packed with cultural references that I struggled to understand and I suspect I’m not the only one. For the last reason alone, it’s a puzzling choice as the first American winner of the British based Booker Prize since their rules were changed to include American books a few years ago.
I’m discovering I have a soft spot for Dave Eggers and his ingenious way of writing about modern life. I very much enjoyed The Circle (Eggers’ satire on our obsession with technology and connectivity) and A Hologram for The King, set in the ghostly King Abdullah Economic City in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, is just as good. A delightful, light and funny read to pack on your holiday. Can’t wait for his new book Heroes of the Frontier comes out in July!
Although first published in 1992, this English translation was only published 18 years later. It was worth the wait. Such a wonderfully translated piece, it zings and bounces with satisfying accuracy, which alone makes this book a ‘must read’. It centres primarily around an interview of the cantankerous and pernicious Nobel Laureate, Prétextat Tach, by the female journalist, Nina. After a slew of failed (male) attempts, Nina manages to match this obese and postulating intellectual in a war of thought and a battle of rhetoric. I found the philosophising duel of wits wonderfully unique, immensely clever, and absurdly humorous. Although I was a tad lukewarm about the ending, the first half is worth reading twice over and I would urge it on anyone looking for a light, funny, intelligent read.
Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb is published by Europa Editions and translated by Alison Anderson, 167 pages.
Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t shy away from the big issues in this Pulitzer Prize winning book about the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Rarely have American double standards, displacement, issues of identity and cultural imperialism made me laugh so much. The Sympathizer (the author’s first!) is not a novel without flaws but Nguyen’s excellent writing, original angle and biting satire make up for the shortcomings.
To be enjoyed by English, Brits and non-Brits alike. This amusing collection of observations is part humorous analysis of being English (listen to the shipping forecast, be self-deprecating/ironic/ apologetic); part practical advice (decipher: ‘AONB’, cockney, ‘tea’, ‘be disgusted, Tunbridge wells’, and ‘Lord Lucan’); travel guide (browse Charing Cross road, experience Glynebourne/ Coronation Street/Notting Hill Carnival) and endearingly, proudly English (recite/sing alternatingly Invictus/ Jerusalem/be eccentric). Makes a lovely little gift too.
102 English Things to Do by Alex Quick is published by Old Street Publishing, 226 pages.
It’s no secret that we are great fans of Alan Bennett’s work – from The History Boys and The Madness of King George to Smut and The Uncommon Reader. His absolute precision, his careful thought and trademark subversive humour make him irresistible irrespective of the format he chooses to write in.
Who’d have thought that this book would show up in British bookshops?! I’d heard of it’s huge success in my native Norway and Sweden (200,000+ copies sold), but thought for sure that’s where it would remain. Norwegian Wood is a non-fiction book about chopping firewood. Stacking firewood. Drying firewood. But more importantly, it’s about nature, patience, persistence and appreciating the small things in life. Norwegian Wood is a cross between the Cohen brothers’ film Fargo and the cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and predicted by my bookseller to become this year’s surprise Christmas bestseller.
It’s here! Genius declared ‘Great American Novelist’ Jonathan Franzen’s much anticipated new book Purity. In terms of compulsively readable, contemporary fiction with depth and humour, his last book Freedom was up there amongst the very best for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps Purity is not as good as his two previous best-sellers The Corrections and Freedom, or perhaps you will disagree with me, but despite moments of brilliance, I found Purity to be an uneven book, oscillating between Franzen-esque genius and rushed, flat, even – dare I say it – boring writing.
Perhaps Icelandic women are more forward thinking than the rest of us… or maybe they just aren’t?! Droll re-evaluations of what it means to be a woman, and an independent woman at that, in this quirky narrative of a road trip ‘into the wilderness’ after being simultaneously dumped by both lover and husband. Local insight: the irony being that there is only one road in Iceland, and it loops back on itself. Brilliant circular little adventure, full of the unnamed heroine’s sardonic wit and incongruous, but very human, weaknesses. The lack of moralising makes it a refreshing, light, read.