'West' by Carys Davies (2018)
Carys Davies' first novel brims with sharp insights and observations and a seam of gleaming dark humour. At just 149 pages – small enough to carry in your pocket – it can be devoured in one sitting or savoured in delicious bite-sized morsels. Whittled to perfection, every comma counts in this stunning debut novel by the award-winning Welsh short story writer, who now lives in Edinburgh. The hero of 'West' is 35-year-old widower, Cy Bellman, who sets out from his mule farm in Pennsylvania in 1815 travelling west to explore beyond the Missouri, because he has read about vast animal bones found in a swamp in Kentucky. He has a burning obsession to be the first person to find the giant creatures still 'alive and perambulating out there in the unknown'. There were 'no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was'.
Cy heads off into the wilderness with his guide, 'an ill-favoured, narrow-shouldered Shawnee boy who bore the unpromising name of Old Woman From A Distance', leaving behind his 10-year-old daughter Bess in the care of his sister Julie, who thinks him a fool and is unaware of the dangers facing her unprotected niece. The book's structure is shaped around these two tales – of the explorer and those left behind. The shiny items and clothes that Cy takes with him to barter with the Indians en route, including his dead wife's knitting needles, will come into their own when the two tales collide in a startling finale that gives the meaning to catharsis.
'Casket Girls' by Susan Castillo Street (2019)
The book that will make ideal summer reading is a novel called 'Casket Girls'. Its author is Susan Castillo Street, and the fact that she is an old friend of mine is neither here nor there. Published only a few weeks ago, it is a very well-researched historical novel set in New Orleans in 1728-29. New Orleans was then a French colony, and the 'casket girls' are orphaned teenagers, brought up in an Ursuline convent in their native France. Now they have been shipped over to a new convent of Ursulines in New Orleans, but not with the intention of becoming nuns. Instead they have brought with them a 'casket' which contains what amounts to a trousseau: the expectation is that in the colony they will soon find a husband.
The novel evokes the new world of French New Orleans – so different in manifold ways from France itself – with great vividness. It is narrated in turns by two of the 'casket girls', who respond and react to the world they find themselves in – both inside and outside the nunnery – in dramatically different ways. The result is a page-turner of a storyline that is gripping and entertaining. Yet it is not all Gothic extravaganza. The historical reality of a society based on slavery is an ominous theme throughout. Beautifully produced, the book is delightfully easy to handle and read.
'Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now' by Jaron Lanier (2018)
Lanier is a tech insider (one of the early architects of the internet we all now know, and a current employee of Microsoft) and, despite the title of this book, he is not anti-internet or anti-social media. Far from it. Lanier argues for a revolution in the way we talk to each other online. He argues, energetically and positively, for a better kind of social media than the divisive, dangerous kind we have now. The 10 arguments are stated directly (in all caps) in the chapter titles, from 'Social Media is Undermining Truth', to the more intriguing, 'Social Media Doesn't Want You To Have Economic Dignity'.
I was already uneasy about the impact of social media on my life, but this book explained to me the global implications of set-ups like Facebook and Twitter, and revealed the strange decisions that have been made by a handful of people about how the world interacts online. The startling reality – that human connection is being milked for profit by private companies – is something that cannot be overstated. This is a read that is frightening and inspiring in equal measure. It makes a surprisingly good beach read – turning a page, you can look up and appreciate a sunny, fresh, unfiltered beach view – and I promise you won't feel any urge to post about it on Facebook.
'Spring' by Ali Smith (2019)
It must be a tough job writing a state of the nation novel. When Ali Smith began her 'Seasonal Quartet' with 'Autumn' in 2016, I had some misgivings. I found novels such as 'How To Be Both' invigorating and challenging, and I was unsure about what her engagement with contemporary political life would entail. I have changed my mind now and I regard 'Spring' as a superb interweaving of stories that get under the skin of the puzzling times we are living through.
There is no single storyline, although 'Spring' does once again feature SA4A, a sinister unaccountable corporation funded by governments to carry out tasks like refugee detention. We also encounter the overlapping stories of individuals striving to make some sense of their space in the world. She leads us gradually into the hidden networks of something called the Auld Alliance.
Smith often introduces us to creative women artists, neglected by conventional arbiters of taste, and this time we meet Tacita Dean. Tacita's enormous chalk drawing of an avalanche roaring down from a mountain towards the viewer acts as a metaphor for the crises which face life as we have known it. We may feel that they are unstoppable, but while Smith offers no concrete resolutions, she does encourage us to value the sharing of stories among ourselves, as opposed to focusing on the stories that social media seek to make us share. 'There's ways to survive these times and I think one way is the shape the telling takes.'
It's rewarding to read Ali Smith's novels more than once, and when you've re-read 'Spring' you can go back and read 'Autumn' and 'Winter'. It could be a thought-provoking summer.
'War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line' by David Nott (2019)
Anyone who heard David Nott's interview in 2016 with Kirsty Young on BBC Radio 4's 'Desert Island Discs' may well have been queuing at their local bookshop the day his memoir, 'War Doctor', was released.
David divides his professional time as a surgeon between the NHS in London hospitals and on the front line. The conflicts he has worked in chart the last 30 years of global combat from Sarajevo and Afghanistan, to Congo, Iraq, Libya, Gaza and Syria; and he also volunteers during the earthquakes of Haiti and Nepal.
The anecdotes and the attention he pays to the detail make the book an awe-inspiring page-turner fit for a blockbuster film. The reader is taken to places we may probably never know. We get a detailed description of every patient – from a young Gazan girl who he refuses to leave on the operating table when the hospital they're in is about to be targeted, to Syrians in rebel-held Eastern Aleppo, to an Islamic State fighter. His role as a surgeon is to attempt to save the life of anyone who shows up on his table.
Woven into the stories of the victims of each crisis are beautiful accounts of the deep respect and friendships formed with the fellow local surgeons with whom he works, and who he ultimately ends up training in conditions unimaginable for most of his colleagues in well-resourced London hospitals.
While each anecdote is full of heroism, his account is light-hearted and modest enough for us to get to know an extraordinary man, who is also a human being, and as a protagonist, very easy to love. For example, after sitting next to the Queen at an awards banquet and becoming completely tongue-tied, he is rescued by the monarch's suggestion of feeding her corgis, who were gathered under the table; and the wondrous moment he meets and falls in love with his (now) wife Ellie, after ricocheting between global conflicts and wondering if he has anyone to live for, and then risks losing her due to his severe PTSD.
By the time you finish the book, you'll be waiting for his next memoir, and wanting to support his charity training surgeons in conflict zones all over the world: The David Nott Foundation. In an era where we are searching for heroic figures amongst our global leaders, the reader may end up wishing there were more politicians sacrificing themselves for humanity in the way that this surgeon does. A sobering, but ultimately uplifting summer read.
'Singer in the Night' by Olja Savičević (2019)
Istros Books is an innovative small publisher which brings us the very best of translated literature from south-east Europe. This novel tells the story of Clementine, a writer for TV soaps, who goes looking for Gale, her former partner and soulmate, who she is trying to track down. But it tells other stories too, of the recent history of Croatia, and of various eccentric and delightful characters, including a dog, a former soldier, and a missive from God himself, who is overworked and tired. But it is the lyrical language that is so engaging, the humour, and the profound insights about life slipped between descriptions of landscape, people and conversations. The ending is also mysterious. The narrator's memories are clarity itself, yet she claims she is becoming forgetful and unreliable. But this may be the biggest deception of all. This book is refreshingly experimental in both form and concept.
'The Photographer at Sixteen' by George Szirtes (2019)
Szirtes brings his poetic gifts for language to this compassionate memoir of his Hungarian mother who survived the second world war and Ravensbrück, and escaped across the Hungarian border in 1956 with her husband and family, arriving in England as political refugees. Family photographs which have survived lead into reflections on the characters and circumstances of the times she lived in. An utterly absorbing read, full of insights into the human condition, and how circumstances shape but do not necessarily define our lives.
‘No Wrong Turns and Into the Sunrise’ by Chris Pountney
Chris Pountney travels around the world using only his bike (which he talks to from time to time) and a boat. No other form of transport is permitted which is a problem when, at a certain border, the guards insist that travel through no mans land must be done in a motorised vehicle. So he starts his epic journey all over again. 'No Wrong Turns and Into the Sunrise' catalogues his journey, which has become a way of life. An author to escape with and have fun.
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