It took the death of John McCain to turn this ‘senior official’ against the president. Like much about this book, that is absurd
A Warning fails to live up to the hype. Its author, “a senior official in the Trump administration”, offers few new revelations about the tempest-in-chief. Three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, the public is well aware he is neither stable nor a genius.
Think of Trump as godfather of birtherism. Think of Stephen Miller as a lab experiment by Pat Buchanan and Sarah PalinContinue reading... Read more »
In Christmas in Austin, novelist Benjamin Markovits rejoins the four Essinger siblings for a yuletide gathering at their parents’ house in Texas. Set two years after we first met the German-American clan (in A Weekend in New York, 2018), resentment and yearning prove hard to hide despite the festivities. Naturally, the novel is glutted with scenes of eating and drinking, but much recent upheaval needs digesting too. Susie is reconsidering an imminent family move to Oxford to support her husband’s career, Nathan is pondering the moral purpose of becoming a federal judge and Jean is worried about introducing her boyfriend (and former boss) whose cancer remission spurred his decision to abandon his family. Yet retired professional tennis player Paul faces the most piquant dilemma because of a recent split from girlfriend Dana (A Weekend in New York centred upon how Paul’s participation in the US Open exacerbated their rift). In the hopes of a reconciliation, matriarch Leisel has also invited Dana and her and Paul’s four-year-old, Cal, but will such a contentious gamble pay off?
Divided simply into sections that cover each day of this week-long get-together, the storytelling is a torrent of complicated behavioural minutiae: “This is how the morning wore on – family as information-producing machine… decision-requiring machine… argument-creating machine…” Yet the family drama is surpassed in ambition by the narration itself as it flits from the mind of one character to the next with a quicksilver ease.Continue reading... Read more »
In the 1990s, Tim Etchells – an experimental theatre-maker with the Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment – wrote a series of scabrous short stories, published as Endland: Or Bad Lives. Since then, he has intermittently written further tales from the same universe: Endland is a distorted version of England, where social divisions and geopolitical chaos are taken to absurd extremes.
All 39 stories are brought together here, with an introduction by Jarvis Cocker. Almost all depict the lives of a deprived underclass. Endland is a place of grotty estates, exploitative jobs and crap pubs. But these urban fables are a world away from dour realism: dragons and ogres feature alongside alcoholics and sex workers. Etchells makes sparks fly by allowing the mythic to rub against grubby everyday existence: there are disruptions to the space-time continuum in Doncaster; Greek gods with names such as Herpes, Apollo 12 and Stormzy drink too much and get caught up in the migrant crisis. This is scorching, bitter satire of how society is continually screwed by inequality.Continue reading... Read more »
In a 2005 newspaper article entitled “Madame Bovary was my mother”, Elena Ferrante revealed that she had always wondered whether her own mother had perhaps harboured the thoughts of Flaubert’s frustrated heroine: “It’s strange how ugly this child is.”
This is where Ferrante’s latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, begins. Giovanna, a meek, obedient 12-year-old growing up in a middle-class part of Naples, overhears her father comparing her to his estranged sister Vittoria, who her parents had always described as someone in whom “ugliness and nastiness were perfectly matched”. His words precipitate a series of events that throw Giovanna’s life into chaos as she attempts to unravel the reasons behind the family fallout.
Ferrante retains an extraordinary recall of the embarrassing teenage memories you hoped to forgetContinue reading... Read more »
To coincide with his retrospective at the V&A in 2013, David Bowie drew up a personal canon of 100 books. It was made up of the “most important and influential” works for the musician, rather than his favourites: biographies of artists,
20th-century fiction, books that touched on dadaism and surrealism, two histories of soul music… There were plenty of titles that suggested a curator who had come of age in the early 60s (On the Road, Billy Liar, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider), though with the inclusion of every issue of Viz, Private Eye and the Beano alongside Dante and Homer, the list was democratic, and clearly intended to give pointers on how to live a good life as much as signal an iconoclastic education.
With the exception of Bob Dylan, no one in pop has played their own mythology and held their mystique so completelyContinue reading... Read more »
From Mendelssohn to Marx, Kafka to Bernstein … a spirited account that explores how Jews changed the world
Norman Lebrecht takes some pride in being a Jew. The Jewishness that matters to him has nothing to do with biological inheritance: he knows there’s no such thing as Jewish DNA. Nor is it about religious piety: most of his favourite Jews are non-believers. Jewishness, as Lebrecht sees it, is essentially a matter of culture, especially high culture, and Genius and Anxiety is an exercise in boosterism, designed to show how Jewish talent has “remade the world” in the past two centuries.
The book begins in the 1840s, with a chapter focused on Felix Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Benjamin Disraeli. They were “the breakthrough Jews”, according to Lebrecht: the first to stand up to the immemorial insults hurled at them by Christians. He recalls how the Irish Catholic MP Daniel O’Connell, known as the Liberator, issued a routine denunciation of Disraeli as a descendant of the killers of Christ. “Yes, I am a Jew,” Disraeli replied, “and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” That riposte, according to Lebrecht, marks the moment when Jews “burst out of the ghetto, brimming with the bottled energies of two millennia”.Continue reading... Read more »
Growing up in 1970s Belfast means the thrill of punk and first love as well as the threat of violence
In Northern Ireland, there are now many fine young and emerging writers whose attentions have turned away from the subject of the Troubles: the poet Stephen Sexton, recent winner of a Forward prize; or Wendy Erskine, whose short-story collection Sweet Home is all about Belfast, but not that Belfast. Others, meanwhile, are finding new ways of looking back at recent history, including Anna Burns with her Booker-winning Milkman and Michael Hughes with his modern take on the Iliad, Country. Henry McDonald’s novel Two Souls provides another new and surprising perspective.
McDonald is a journalist who has been writing about Northern Ireland for the Guardian and the Observer for 30 years or more. His previous books include Martin McGuinness: A Life Remembered (2017) and a history of the UVF: basically, he has covered all the territory. Originally from the Markets area of Belfast – and thus familiar with the effect of the Troubles on the city’s working-class communities, as documented in his autobiographical Colours (2004) – he knows whereof he speaks. In Two Souls he speaks from the perspective of middle age to provide a nuanced coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop not only of the Troubles, but of the explosion of punk and the world of Irish League football.Continue reading... Read more »
‘Thunderclaps of wonder’ ... a moving memoir by a marine biologist who has spent decades exploring coral reefs
In August of this year, Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, called for the widespread ingestion of psychedelic substances to help bring about a transformation in attitudes to the climate crisis and the living world. The proposal may sound far-fetched, but it has some science behind it. Studies show that, in the right setting, psychedelics can not only be effective against addiction and depression but can also help people feel more connected to nature. Yet the living world of tropical coral reefs surpasses in wonder and beauty anything engendered in the human mind by psychedelics. As the evolutionary biologist Leslie Orgel once said, evolution is cleverer than you are. A reef will convince you that it also has a bigger, stranger and subtler imagination.
Most damage of the last couple of decades has been from manageable stresses like pollution, overfishing and developmentContinue reading... Read more »
Ball’s dystopian world in which citizens are allowed to kill refugees with impunity is a critique on our past and present
The US author Jesse Ball’s novel is a haunting and deeply felt parable about duty, morality and violence. In its three interlinked sections, continuous narrative and character development are less important than the creation of an intensely felt allegorical universe, which is as compressed and compelling as a folk tale.
The world has suffered a cataclysm. The animal population has collapsed and conflict has intensified, culminating in a “final, enormous war”. Huge numbers of refugees have resulted. Society has been transformed into what the narrator of the first part describes as “a kind of modern-day Sparta”: a brutally stratified culture. Incomers are marked, through a facial brand and later the removal of a thumb, and legally defined as non-persons. They are corralled into walled areas outside each city, called quadrants. These people become known as “quads” or, in a piece of cruel humour, “niners”. Citizens – or “pats” – are armed with lethal gas, which they can use with impunity against the quads. But their own lives are also rigidly ranked.
Ball fictionalises this culture of dominance, which metastasises into institutions of justice and educationContinue reading... Read more »