The Sympathizer – fascinating and formidable

I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s much-feted, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer for a book club, and it did exactly what I think a book-club read should do – it plunged me into a world I might not otherwise have stepped into and left me better off for it. The Guardian’s reviewer notes on the cover that the story “reminded me of how big books can be” and I know what they mean. This is the story of a communist sleeper agent/Vietnamese army captain at the end of the Vietnam War and it traverses the complete range of human emotion – from rage to love, bitter disappointment to surprising soft sweetness, ennui to shuddering terror. The Wall Street Journal describes it as “savagely funny”, which I thought, as I began it, sounded bizarre given the subject matter but it is oddly very funny, which makes the horrifying moments even more hideous. As with horrifying moments in real life they spring as if from nowhere and change the whole landscape of the book’s world in seconds.

Our narrator, a mixed-race ‘bastard’, the son of a Vietnamese teenage girl who loved him beyond measure and a French priest who never even acknowledged him, describes himself often as a “man of two faces…a man with two minds”. He is, he says, for better or for worse “able to see any issue from both sides”. It makes him an accomplished spy, an excellent narrator and a man destined to be alone in a world which always wants you to pick a side and will never trust you until you do (of course, even then, it’s no guarantee of love, happiness or loyalty).

It is a big book, a huge book and it encompasses everything humanity is – hopeful, cruel, brave, foolish, loving and unspeakably awful at times. It’s a fascinating look at power and powerlessness and what these things do to us, what they spawn and how those things then take on lives of their own. It is a unique story, brilliantly written, and it deserves all of its many prizes. It is a formidable debut novel – Viet Thanh Nguyen was clearly born to do this.

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The Secret History – the treat is in the trick

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is ostensibly about a murder at an elite New England college, but unlike your average murder mystery, we find out who did it in the opening pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to how, why and what the consequences have been or indeed will be.

Our narrator Richard Papen arrives at Hampden, Vermont, hoping to escape an drab and enervating suburban life in Plano, California, with his miserable and distant parents, and falls in with an eccentric group of students on an isolated Ancient Greek course, taught by the charming and mysterious Julian Morrow. One of these students, the larger-than-life Bunny Corcoran, is the murder victim and the others, charming twins Charles and Camilla, oddball genius Henry, and vulnerable, quirky Francis, are the murderers.

It’s a long book, but hugely readable – I flew through it in a few days; it was the ideal holiday read. Tartt is a lovely descriptive writer and she conjures the world of Hampden, which she attended as a student herself in the early eighties, beautifully. You can almost smell the woodsmoke and hear the snow crunching underfoot.

But the most engaging feature of the book for me was Tartt’s psychological insight. She manages to create a group of selfish, amoral and spoiled characters that you want to see get away with murder. I felt affectionate towards all of them in different ways.  They were so believably human even in their inhumanity – a mirror held up to the darkest corners of selfish human nature.

Despite the fact that the central crime is never a mystery to the reader, there are a number of shocks on the way to the finale that kept me gripped, and a couple of moments where I, along with Richard, realised that I’d been masterfully misdirected by Tartt and her characters. That almost never happens to me. But I was seduced in this case by the charming cloistered world Tartt creates for Richard and for the reader.

It was truly a treat to be tricked by her, and I think The Secret History should be considered a modern classic, a delightful reading experience that is not to be missed.

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The Bricks That Built the Houses – a south London symphony

Carpe Librum: Review: The Bricks That Built the Houses by ...

The Bricks That Built The Houses is the debut novel from South London poet and playwright Kate Tempest. I first came across Tempest through her album Everybody Down, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize and has a lot of the same characters in it as this book. I didn’t enjoy the musical side of the album that much; I wanted to like it more – I thought Tempest was a great storyteller and the album was a great concept piece. So I was excited about the book, especially when I realised it must have somewhat arisen from the album – like she’s been carrying these characters around in her head for at least a few years and is finally ready to tell their stories in full.

The Bricks That Built The Houses did not disappoint. Kate Tempest is an incredible poet, and on every page of this book you know it. Her writing is accessible and beautiful and she makes the familiar world of South London sing. She makes everyday things poignant and special without polishing them up or manipulating the reader. She tugs on your heartstrings without trying. She quite literally draws you pictures with her words. You don’t build the scenes in your imagination – she shows you. Most novels aren’t quite so masterfully controlled by their authors.

The characters in this book are real, engaging, appealing or repellent, and the plot is good (we open with young drug dealers fleeing town with a suitcase full of money). But that’s not what makes it magic. It’s easy to describe writers as insightful, but when you see the gift in its true glory you remember what a rare thing insight really is. My least favourite part of this book was the ending, and I can’t tell if that’s because I didn’t think it measured up to the rest, or because I just didn’t like the fact the book was ending. I want to know what happens next to Becky, Leon, Harry and Pete. And I’m most definitely going to look out Tempest’s current two poetry collections (Everything Speaks In Its Own Way and Hold Your Own) while I wait, impatiently, for her next novel to come out.

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Naive, Super – short and sweet

Naïve. Super by Erlend Loe — Reviews, Discussion ...

Erlend Loe’s strange, sweet debut novel, translated from his native Norwegian starts abruptly. The story of a slightly odd young man, it has a unique voice, a Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time charm; the man quits university, unsure about life and how to live it and visits his brother in New York.

I took the short, squat, satisfyingly small and light paperback around in my back pocket and read it in cafes, and actually I thought it was quite perfect. Nothing much happens in it – action-wise, but it’s simply written, and absorbing. A lovely window into an interesting mind.

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So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – in and out of the Twitter trenches

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist Jon Ronson meets people who’ve had their lives turned upside down by public backlash after various degrees of wrongdoing. He poses the question: is Twitter the new town square where we hang criminals while jeering and throwing rotten eggs at them from our comfortable place in the crowd?

Ronson considers the case of Max Moseley who managed to masterfully ride out a tabloid shaming after what was reported as a Nazi-themed sex orgy. At the other end of the spectrum, we hear the heartbreaking story of Lindsay Armstrong who committed suicide after she was subjected to intense public humiliation during her attacker’s rape trial (truly a horrible story). He also covers a lot in between: like Justine Sacco who got fired from her PR job after an ill-advised and insensitive AIDs joke went viral, and Lindsay Stone who ended up hiding in her house for a year after taking a picture of herself with her middle finger up next to a military cemetery sign and getting destroyed for it online.

Some of Ronson’s subjects were easier to sympathise with than others. One man made a joke about dongles at a tech conference to the person sitting next to him and was publicly shamed by the woman in front of him; she posted his picture on Twitter and put him forward as a kind of misogynist poster boy. He was, to me, an obvious victim of someone who just wanted to be angry and offended. (His attacker then found herself the victim of a vicious backlash and ended up being shamed worse than the original shamee. And as usual, the mob took it way too far with mind-bogglingly awful threats and so on.)

Ronson then considers why, during these social media shamings, people yell for men to get fired and for women to get raped and murdered. Just writing that feels crazy. But that’s what happens isn’t it? Ronson suggests this is because we measure a man by his worth as a worker and provider and a woman by her sexual ‘market value’. In a proof of this book he wrote something that a friend suggested he should take out – it seemed to equate women getting raped to men losing their jobs. Ronson duly removed the offending text, only to get embroiled in a public shaming of his own when a reviewer quoted it from the proof. When Ronson said that he’d already thought better of including it in the book, he was told he should never even have thought such a thing. It’s an interesting idea – that we shouldn’t even be allowed to think stupid and insensitive and embarrassingly overprivileged, moronic things. Isn’t the brain the place where we’re supposed to sort the sensible stuff from things that should never be vocalised?

There were shamees in this book who I felt probably should have understood in the first place that what ended up happening to them was a possibility.  Lindsay Stone posing with her middle finger up in a military cemetery was dumb. And not funny. And you’ve got to be immature and sheltered and myopic not to think that might create bad feeling. Or to think that the internet is a private place – and that doing something stupid there is any different from doing it at a public event where there are photographers.

Do I think we need to be hounding immature teens to the ends of the earth and ruining their lives over it? No, that’s horrible. And I’m glad that when I was at my stupidest, social media was just a twinkle in the intenet’s eye.  But I do understand the irritation of people seeing that kind of thing and knowing they’ve never been overprivileged enough to expect the benefit of the doubt for these kinds of actions. I sort of understand why Ronson pissed people off with that quote even though he’d taken it out of the final book. We live in a world that is calling for men to lose their jobs for the same “offences” that it’s calling for women to be gang-raped over. So when white middle-class journalist Jon Ronson appears to make that same equation, it touches a nerve for some people.

He’s right, though, to ask us to take a look at our knee-jerk emotional reactions. Are we interested in changing people’s hearts and minds or just punishing them for a perceived infraction and enjoying ourselves while doing it? Is Twitter still a place of free speech or somewhere you better make sure you stick to safe and popular messages or risk being dragged through the mud? If we make the shame of messing up too great, the consequences too dire, we’ll all quietly keep our stupid opinions in our heads, unchallenged, won’t we? But if we want a better world, Ronson suggests, we have to hold fire before we jump to shaming, and first ask ourselves what we’re trying to achieve here and whether it can be achieved by other, less problematic, means. That is if it’s really change we’re after and the joy of shaming others isn’t the endgame in itself…

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Alone in Berlin – pièce de résistance

There are so many novels set during the Second World War, but most of the ones I’ve come across have been set on the battlefield or have focused on the experiences of soldiers. They’re about war in a way that Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin is not. This is a story about civilian life under Hitler’s government – the mistrust between neighbours, the way the Gestapo took advantage of it to find scapegoats, the way sociopaths were given a clear and simple path to social climbing, the way people were no longer left alone to be grumpy or odd or solitary. Everything suspicious, everybody only a few steps away from being thrown in a Gestapo basement for saying the wrong thing, or not saying the right thing, or getting caught in the crossfire of scores that are being settled. Even a Gestapo inspector is not immune from harm, and nor is a famous actor, even if he was once a favourite of Goebbels.

Fallada’s story follows the sudden and unexpected resistance effort of Otto and Anna Quangel, who begin dropping anti-war and anti-Nazi propaganda postcards around the city when their only son is killed at the front. What follows is a fascinating commentary on life under the Third Reich and human impulses, both heartbreakingly noble and depressingly mean and small. I haven’t read anything like it in a long time – a Novel with a capital N, written like a classic, timeless. Although it’s full of little portraits of humanity it also gives you something bigger.

Did you ever see the finale of Band of Brothers? The captured German leader takes a moment to give this moving speech to his men about how they fought bravely together and were brothers, and you catch this glimpse of how, on the ground, both sides were fighting in the same way throughout the war. Just men, trying to look out for each other and not die and get home and see peace. Not desperate to see the extermination of Jews or out for world domination. It’s always a thing isn’t it – people think they would have resisted the Nazis if they’d been alive at the time, but statistically very few would. They would have got swept along with the tide of fear and Fallada does a very good, very quiet job of helping you understand that. The Quangels’ resistance is tiny, almost certainly futile and yet the likely consequences are catastrophic. Fallada explores both sides of that coin in a novel that is fascinating, deeply moving and will probably echo in your mind a long time after you finish it.

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The Guilty Feminist – all together now

The Guilty Feminist review – flaws-and-all approach to ...

I was lent The Guilty Feminist by a girlfriend, who I notice from the sweet inscription on the first page, had it bought for her by another girlfriend. When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure about the tone – it felt a little bit you-go-girl-but-of-course-we-still love-cake – and I didn’t like the sound of guilty feminism, but it won me over quite quickly with a very interesting potted history of feminism through the ages and continued to cover a wide range of topics relevant to modern feminism. It reminded me a bit of when you start an interview squeaky and nervous but eventually settle down when you start talking about what you know.

In fact, that’s what won me over a little to the concept of guilty feminism, the idea that you don’t have to be sure you’ve definitely got this before you start, that you don’t have to have all the answers before speaking up – after all, men don’t hold themselves to that same standard, statistically speaking.

Frances-White talks at length about the different confidence struggles between men and women – how women behave in traditionally male spaces and why, and how we can change the way we relate to patriarchal environments to improve the lot of ourselves and other women. She covers internalised misogyny and talks at length about intersectionality, with interesting interviews with women of colour, transwomen, disabled women etc., throughout the book. Indeed, to list all she covers would be unwieldy, but the book is a really good starter-feminist jumping-off point and if you’re interested in feminism or women at all it’s a very worthwhile read.

One thing I noticed that the book makes a very conscious effort with is inclusive language – a desire to avoid alienating transwomen, disabled women or any other marginalised group is evident everywhere, and sometimes this does interrupt the flow and start tying the author up in knots as she tries to acknowledge every possible offence. To some older readers, I can imagine this being alienating in itself. To some, it seems the world is changing too rapidly to keep up, to others it feels like change is coming at a glacial pace and being fought tooth and nail at every turn. I’m a similar age to the author and often find myself doing the same thing – editing, re-editing, relearning. At one point, I started to wonder if maybe we were going a bit overboard with it all.

Then, when I was off on maternity leave I rewatched Friends from start to finish. This is a show I grew up on, that seemed modern and normal and, I guess, feminist, although it was an unfashionable term at the time. Ross is a gaslighting weirdo, and Joey and Chandler are creepy sex pests. Imagine you’ve been friends with a guy for years and he’s still trying to sneak a look at your boobs or saying sleazy things to you. There are things in that show and many others of the time that we no longer think are remotely OK – and that is because people made a nuisance of themselves and complained about small things like which words we use until the subconscious acceptance of certain concepts started to weaken.

Now when I sing my baby son ‘The Wheels on the Bus’, I alternate the pronouns so it’s not just the mummies on the bus that go chatter, chatter, chatter, but the daddies as well. And nobody does any shushing. There’s an interesting interview in this book with Becca Bunce where she talks about the social model of disability which says that “people are disabled by the way society is organised, rather than the person’s impairment, health condition or difference”. In many ways, that’s very true. When I started trying to live as a vegan, my eating out options were limited less by the foods I could eat than the foods that were on offer in a society that bases the vast majority of its meals on meat and animal products. Suddenly, it was a shock to be on the outside looking in.

When I first started trying to navigate London Underground with a baby in a pram, I started thinking ‘How the fuck do people in wheelchairs get around this bloody city?’ My privilege had been invisible to me until that point – which is why intersectionality is so important in the feminist struggle. No one is free until we all are free, and while he’s not the worst of the worst, time is still up for Chandler Bing.



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The Glorious Heresies – into the underbelly

Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies was bought for me by a friend who has excellent taste in books (she once lent me Alan Warner’s magnificent book The Sopranos), so I suspected I would be in for a treat. The novel is set in Cork and the city looms large here with its brooding skies and dark corners, almost like it’s a character itself and, to be honest, not a particularly savoury one. We follow the stories of teenage dealer Ryan with his violent and yet strangely feeble alcoholic father Tony, and his beautiful girlfriend Karine, underworld boss Jimmy, his crazy mother Maureen, local creep Tara, drug-addicted prostitute Georgie and her boyfriend of convenience Robbie, who kicks off the action when he is killed in a moment of panic by Maureen, when he breaks into her house (which used to be a brothel run by Maureen’s son and where Georgie used to work). Robbie was trying, in a moment of dumb romance, to rescue an old trinket of Georgie’s.

The stories of all of these characters converge, then, in this seemingly small world that is Cork’s seething underbelly. Tony, a childhood friend of Jimmy’s, is drafted in to help dispose of Robbie’s body, Georgie is introduced to Ryan by Tara when she needs to score drugs to get back out there on the game after Robbie’s sudden disappearance and so on. It’s like a patchwork quilt of misery and yet the poetry of McInerney’s writing and the thoughtful rendering of her characters’ inner lives lifts it well above this. None of them is ever reduced to a comfortable stereotype.

Looking back on those lives at the end is like looking back on life itself. A series of events, albeit more chaotic and dramatic than the events in many people’s lives (although hardly fantastical, plenty of people do find themselves in these predicaments) has unfolded and stitched together a story that at the outset couldn’t be predicted, and yet now seems grimly ordained. Of course that’s how it would end, you think, isn’t that always the way? That is McInerney’s real skill. She weaves together a complicated tapestry and makes it feel simple. She takes the mundane and makes it heartbreaking. She takes what is dark and rainy and sad and elevates it, making it something to really notice and feel.

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The Orphan Train – survival lit

It took me a while to take The Orphan Train down from my TBR shelf because the cover, with the little girl staring gloomily out of a train carriage window, said ‘misery lit’ to me. But Christina Baker Kline’s story actually came as a pleasant surprise and I rattled through it in just a few days.

The book begins with Niamh Power and her family leaving poverty in Ireland for a better life in New York City, but between her dad’s drinking, her mum’s moods and the fact that there’s too many kids and too little money, it’s already starting to look like things won’t be much better in the new world. That’s even before the fire in the tenement building that leaves nine-year-old Niamh an orphan, alone in the world in 1929. Niamh is put on a train to the Midwest by the Children’s Aid Society to seek her fortune with a new family; the likelihood at her age seems to be that she’ll be more of an indentured servant than a beloved adoptee – but alternative options are scarce.

Meanwhile, in present-day Maine, troubled teen Molly is at odds with her unsuitable foster family and faces a spell in juvenile detention if she can’t complete the hours of community service she owes for stealing a book from the local library. She ends up on the doorstep of a ninety-one-year-old woman – her task is to help Vivian (née Niamh) clean out her junk-filled attic, and an unlikely friendship and the revelation of all kinds of secrets ensues…

Vivian’s life story is fascinating – from the Orphan Train experience itself (these trains were real and ran for over seventy years from East Coast cities to the rural Midwest, taking some 100,000 children to new and uncertain futures) to her various foster placements, the kindnesses and much more often the ill treatment she experiences along the way, as well as her life as a young adult making her way in the world: small triumphs, big disasters, war, love, loss.

Molly’s story grabbed me less – to me she always felt a bit like the scaffolding for Vivian’s story – your basic troubled teen with a good heart and, at last, a chance to prove herself, but that was fine, her parts weren’t intrusive or overlong.

All in all, this is an absorbing and well-written book, and it deals with the depressing things that happen to Vivian with the old lady’s characteristic matter-of-factness, without sliding into the maudlin. Things got tied up a bit too neatly sometimes for my personal taste, which took away from the sense of realism and made me remember that I was reading someone’s work of fiction, that I was being moved through a story arc, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. You wouldn’t have to be an avid reader to appreciate or race through this book. I’m not surprised it was a bestseller and I can see it being a huge book club favourite.


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We Had It So Good – the origami of ordinary life

I loved Linda Grant’s magnificent The Clothes On Their Backs, which I reviewed here a while back, so I was excited to get my hands on We Had It So Good. I took it down from my shelf as a treat after a long, hard read and I’m pleased to report that it did not disappoint.

I don’t know if you can call someone your favourite author after you’ve only read two of their books, but I will say that I LOVE Linda Grant. This book is about Stephen, the Californian son of Cuban and Polish immigrants, a promising scientist who sails to Oxford on a seaman’s ticket to take up his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University. It is here that he meets his future wife, Andrea, with her bad teeth and pre-Raphaelite plumpness, her desolate childhood and an apparent softness that belies her ruthlessly determined core. And then there is Grace, beautiful, infuriating Grace with her promise of trouble and her dark secret.

I won’t say any more about the plot because the deliciousness of Grant’s writing is unfolding all the twists and turns of her characters’ lives like you’re dismantling a beautiful origami swam. Or rather like you’re dissecting a laboratory frog (if you’re not squeamish about that sort of thing) and marvelling at all the intricate workings that make a creature tick, that make a life, that mesh lives together. The coincidences, the turns this way or that way, the hidden genetic codes that tick away unknown inside us and explode when we least expect it.

Linda Grant is a genius at writing the human condition. Her characters are memorable, flawed, real. You root for some even as they frustrate you. You see yourself in others you couldn’t fathom at first, as their life takes an unexpected turn and they reveal a new side of themselves. She makes you remember that disaster can lurk around the corner of even the happiest lives – and not big dramas either necessarily, but the kind that touch everyone at some point. And that equally the passage of time can forge wonderful new things in people that might not have been predicted, either by themselves or by others.

I could go on and on and on and on about this but I will leave you here. Reading Linda Grant’s books is like watching real people’s lives. If you trace them back you can see how they came to be, but as time marches on, all you can do is marvel at the juicy, mesmerising, heartbreaking and heartwarming human surprise as it unfolds.


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