This month I mostly read books that were sent to me by publishers. Here are a few of the highlights, extracts of some of these are also featured on the Hub – and there’s a religious theme to all this too, from a comedy that knocks down whole rows of Jewish shibboleths, through the pagan and sectarian goings-on in night-time Britain. In light of recent studies that show a huge media bias towards books by men (which are often also reviewed by men) I can only apologise for the lack of ladies in this month’s reading matter and point out that I am a woman reviewing these books and that next month’s reading, which is already by the bed, will be more gender balanced.
Shalom Auslander – Hope: A Tragedy
This is a really an extraordinary book. You may even have already heard of it—Solomon Kugel moves to Stockton, NY and discovers that Anne Frank is living in his attic. At first, of course, he doesn’t believe that this could possibly be true. But, as she tells him, this is what the publishers said ‘nobody wants a live Anne Frank. They want a martyr, they want to know we’ve hit rock bottom.’ Kugel also has a mother who remembers holocaust tragedies that she never experienced, a shrink called (appropriately) Professor Jove and a lodger who is always complaining about not getting his own way. The story follows Kugel’s attempts to come to terms with this situation and (unsuccessfully) impose his will on this strange house of guilt and remorse. Of courses the jokes are a Freudian way of exploring much deeper taboos about what is still carried in the Jewish psyche as a legacy from the Holocaust. And how it is carried on a cellular, psychic level that is often difficult to address or even talk about. The voice is both deadpan and deadly serious, full of neat reversals, existential ponderings and fine comic details—for example, Kugel eats Ezekiel bread (a kind of bread available in the US which is made from a bible recipe) and gets terrible IBS. I loved this book—the muscular prose, the jokes, the constant sense of existential questioning. This will doubtlessly be on the shortlist for the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, it’s got that kind of clever glare. Perhaps it’s a little plotless but sheer chutzpah carries the whole thing along—a deeply impressive debut novel.
Ian Marchant – Something of the Night
Ian Marchant has written several books in this vein, a kind of rambling non-fiction project that really allows space for him to be the intelligent, funny, companionable narrator that he is in real life. His wonderful book—The Longest Crawl—took the idea of a pub-crawl and stretched it from each end of the British Isles, starting in the Scillies and ending up in Shetland, taking in Cider Festivals, pork scratching factories and the production of marmite in between. This project addresses the idea of the night in Britain—he interviews night-workers, goes to Lewes Bonfire (the most extraordinary sectarian spectacle in the UK) and visits a student night with his daughters, to hilarious effect. This is a kind of UK gonzo journalism fuelled, not by mescaline and bourbon, but by tea and spliffs, and which shows the kind of humour, honesty and sharp observation that made The Longest Crawl such a great read. Maybe this lacks the same kind of cohesive concept, but to be honest I didn’t care, this book is all about the journey, not the destination and Marchant is the most excellent companion for the ride.