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.
In the mood for...
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
Disaffected teenager Charlie Lewis is finessed into joining a summer holiday drama camp by a girl he meets by chance. She is beautiful, clever and well-read; he can’t act, has zero ambition and is only there because he fancies her. Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is a pitch-perfect, delicately choreographed love story that will make you laugh and cry and wish you were young again – and then be glad you’re not.
Ben Lerner’s pot smoking, pill popping protagonist Adam is an endearing, hilarious and vulnerable anti-hero whom I immediately warmed to. On a poetry fellowship to Spain from Kansas, Adam comes weighed down with self-doubt. His knowledge of Spanish is negligible, his skills as a poet questionable. Adam self-medicates to the point that much of his life has become an out-of-body experience. Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner had me in stiches, but just like Adam’s experience of life, this book has layers and layers of meaning, some hilarious, some profound, many of them both.
Russia is divided and trouble is brewing. Revolution is bubbling angrily beneath the surface. The poor are starving and desperate, yet in the Imperial court of Tsar Nicolas II the aristocracy live a life of senseless decadence and wanton excess. Two mysterious sisters burst into the Romanov Court. Princesses Anastasia and Militza arrive from the tiny impoverished backwater of Montenegro and, thanks to their socially aspirational father the ‘Goat King’, are married off to wealthy Russian aristocrats. The Witches of St. Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones is ideal beach reading: gripping, entertaining and gossipy.
We’ve all seen her by now. The little girl with the long plaits and a yellow rain coat desperately trying to save the world. No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg is a collection of her speeches, from The World Economic Forum to The Houses of Parliament, from the European Parliament to the UN Climate Change Conference. It’s the clarity of her message and the simplicity of her form that makes Greta and her message so powerful. Read this little book of her speeches and be inspired to act.
I have a soft spot for anything Wild West (yes, I did watch a fair bit of The Little House on the Prairie as a kid), so when West by Carys Davies came along I wasn’t hard to convince. It’s the short story of widower Cy Bellman who sets out from Pennsylvania in 1815 to find rumoured gigantic beasts after reading about the discovery of ancient bones in a newspaper. Left behind, in the care of strict Aunt Julia, is his 10-year-old daughter Bess. Like many a mid-life crisis, this one doesn’t end well.