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.
...something short (but good!)
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
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.
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.
In a faraway country torn apart by civil war, two men are paving a new road that will reunite the north and south. The job is dangerous, employees of large international companies are attractive targets for kidnappers, so the men are known by their code names Four and Nine. They are polar opposites as far as personality goes. Four is a risk-averse pedant, Nine a careless hedonist. The stage is set for chaos. I’ve always enjoyed the way Eggers throws characters into unchartered territories, a fertile ground for comedy, and here he does it again. The Parade by Dave Eggers is not his best book, but as a light, funny read it’s very enjoyable nonetheless. (The Parade will be published in the UK on 21st March.)
Our nameless narrator’s husband has just announced he is leaving her. Adrift with a three-year old daughter she attempts to rebuild a life, but 1970s Japan is an unforgiving place for divorced women and shame, sadness and responsibility weigh heavily on her. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima is a strange little book; its quietly powerful, sparse language perfectly captures despair and isolation in the wake of separation.
What really happened in the 1938 meeting when Hitler told the Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg to roll over or be rolled over? Or during the dinner at 10 Downing Street where Foreign Minister Ribbentropp waxed lyrical about macaroons while watching Chamberlain receive the news that Germany had invaded Austria? In The Order of the Day by Eric Vulliard, the author has pieced together the facts, filled in the gaps and created a fascinating and frightening account of a sleepwalk into disaster.
A respected clansman – the strongest, fiercest and proudest – Okonkwo is the very symbol of masculinity and power in his Nigerian clan. Enter the British colonialists, waving their God and Queen and, within a few years, both Okonkwo and his Igbo village Umoufia are crushed. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, published in 1959, was the first account of colonialism from the perspective of the colonised. It was written in English and widely published in the West and is an arresting portrayal of the destruction of an indigenous community.
A short novel that delivers a big punch, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss takes an unusual premise – a students’ archaeological trip – to expose the seam of violence underpinning our modern lives, and to draw chilling parallels between ancient worlds and our own. The disturbing prologue in which an iron age girl is sacrificed in front of her family and friends sets the tone for this unsettling novel which raises themes of gender equality, nationalism, misogyny and domestic violence.