Five people plunge to their deaths when an old Inca bridge across a gorge in Peru snaps. Who were these people? And why these five? That’s what Brother Juniper, a Catholic priest, sets out to investigate in the glorious little novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. ‘Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan’ Brother Juniper reasons. So which one is it?
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Adelmo Farandola lives by himself as far up a rocky Alpine valley as possible. He hasn’t showered or changed clothes for as long as he can remember and he’ll do anything to avoid people. When a stray dog starts following him, Adelmo reluctantly takes it in and a strange relationship develops as they struggle to survive the brutal winter. Anyone with a soft spot for books set in wild mountains will love Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini. A bestseller in Italy, this quirky, darkly comic book about a grumpy loner losing his mind is a surreal little gem.
Here’s one to set off a fiery debate around the dinner table. Now that the first storm around #MeToo has settled, This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill takes a step back and looks at the fallout. Quin, a successful, charming publisher, has been a huge flirt his entire adult life. While never explicitly abusing his power, Quin has always operated at the very edge of acceptable behaviour (sometimes overstepping it). It has now come back to haunt him. Many of us have had a Quin in our lives. What do we think of this one?
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell is a 12-volume sequence of novels that has been lauded as one of the greatest works of 20th century English literature. The books start in the late 1920s and take us up to the 1960s, feature a huge cast of characters and offer a remarkable vision of changing social history, a deftly sustained narrative, some wonderfully memorable characters and a stark vision of the impact that time wreaks on our lives.
It is always strange when a foreign book published more than 20 years ago is suddenly picked up by an English-language publisher and goes on to receive rave reviews. This recently happened with the book Love by Hanne Ørstavik, an author who, with numerous novels, essays and short stories under her belt, has long been one of Norway’s most respected writers. Her 1997 breakthrough novel Kjærlighet was translated as Love by Martin Aitken last year and published in America, where it was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Now, Ørstavik’s strongest work has finally been published in the UK by And Other Stories.
Toby Fleishman is divorcing. He’s had enough of his absent, high-flying talent agent wife, Rachel, who never seems to be satisfied with his job as a doctor, their flat in Manhattan or indeed have time for their two kids. He’s fed up. In his new-found freedom he’s going through a sort of sexual renaissance. New York, it appears, is full of middle-aged horny women who will do anything to get laid by someone like Toby, or, actually, just anyone. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner has descriptions of the befuddling world of online dating that had me, literally, screaming with laughter. But there’s more to this book than clever comedy and the turn to a more serious tone is both its strength and weakness.
The assault on young women as an act of war is nothing new as the epigraph from Euripides’ The Trojan Women reminds us in Girl by Edna O’Brien. After a year of research including first-hand testimonies from survivors, O’ Brien brings this forcefully into the present as we confront the imagined traumatic fall-out from a schoolgirl’s kidnap and rape by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. In Girl, Edna O’Brien has produced a work that sharply distils language into a reduced and banal form, journalistic in its savage editing and brutal in its delivery. Language is manipulated to transmit emotion, to reveal how men use it to assert power and how trauma denies it space.
Laughter is the best medicine and for those of you who can’t stand Boris Johnson or Brexit, The Cockroach by Ian McEwan should make you feel a tiny bit better, at least for a fleeting moment. The rest of you might as well stop reading now. The premise is genius: a Kafkaesque metamorphosis in reverse. A cockroach wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and fellow cabinet members, many of whom also used to live under the floorboards of the Houses of Parliament, are seeking to get an absurd economic plan called reversalism, a reversal of all money flows, through the House of Commons. It won’t change your life – or political point of view – McEwan’s political satire, but it will make you snigger. Predictably, The Guardian loved this novella, The Telegraph didn’t. I found it quite funny.
Few things could hold me off from starting Margaret Atwood’s latest book, but The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig actually has. Zweig, an Austrian Jew whose wonderful novellas (The Royal Game, Amok, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman) many of you will know, was the world’s most popular author in the 1920s and 30s, until Hitler banned his books. The World of Yesterday is his autobiography, finished two days before his and his second wife’s joint suicide. It’s a lament for a lost world, a love letter to creativity and artists and an eloquent analysis of events that led up to both the first and the second world wars. The parallels with aspects of our own turbulent times are hard to ignore. Highly recommended.
None other than Karl Ove Knausgaard, Norway’s greatest literary export since Ibsen, has provided the endorsement quote on the reissued English edition of The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, stating that it is ‘the best Norwegian novel ever.’ Vesaas (1897-1970) is still considered one of the country’s most important writers, and is now deservedly being published in English as part of Penguin Modern Classics. (PS never mind the hipster on the cover. I’m certain this is not how Vesaas envisioned Mattis). Read full Review