Six Good Books: Maggie Fergusson's choices include golden essays with a northern compass and a Holocaust novel with humour...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
Hope: a Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (Picador, hardback, out now). The Holocaust is still claiming victims: that’s the hypothesis here, and Shalom Auslander’s astonishing achievement is to explore it in a way that’s hilarious and disturbing, but never tasteless. Beset with bred-in-the-bone neuroses about concentration camps, a 21st-century salesman, Solomon Kugel, moves his family to a town “famous for nothing”—only to discover, living in his attic, the elderly, incontinent Anne Frank, rejected by publishers whose profits depend on her being “Miss Holocaust 1945”, and dead. Should he kill her? Or cosset her? In describing Kugel’s vacillations, which swing between hangdog self-pity and foul-mouthed fury at the power of the past, the author seems to be teasing out his own conflicting feelings. “It’s funny,” the book begins and ends—and it is, very. But Auslander’s not joking.
The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler (Chatto, hardback, out now). If you’re after an antidote to the Great American Novel, turn to Anne Tyler. Rather than take the moral temperature of the American middle classes, she focuses instead on the detail of apparently humdrum lives, finding the marvellous in the mundane. Aaron and Dorothy Woolcott make an odd couple. He’s gauche, gangly, stuttering, she dumpy and workaholic—a freak and a geek. But, when Dorothy dies suddenly, Aaron struggles to keep going. Using him as narrator, Tyler conveys the moment-to-moment torture of bereavement, while injecting wry humour into his battle to persevere with a career as a vanity publisher. Whether Dorothy’s fleeting post-mortem reappearances are real or illusory, we’re never sure; but they are thought-provoking. Given an unexpected moment with one you’ve loved and lost, what do you say?
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (Faber, hardback, out now). In this dual-perspective historical narrative, a double-Booker winner explores ideas so complex that they sometimes threaten to drown his story. It’s saved by its central characters, both unattractive but completely convincing. Catherine Gehrig is a worldly museum conservator whose lover has died unexpectedly; Henry Brandling a sentimental Victorian gent who has travelled to Germany to commission a mechanical swan for his consumptive son. The swan unites them across the centuries, and enables Carey to raise his vast questions. Are man-made machines forces for progress or destruction? If we can manipulate our moods with drink or drugs (Catherine controls her grief with vodka and cocaine), is there such a thing as an authentic self? Can human emotion be reduced to a science? Carey’s conclusion, elegantly reached, seems to be no.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie (Sort Of Books, paperback, out now). Kathleen Jamie’s natural compass points north. In “Findings” (2005) she made thrilling discoveries within a bike-ride of her home in Fife. Here, in 14 beautifully crafted essays, she expands her horizons, perching on the cliffs of St Kilda, eye-to-eye with gannets weaving parcel tape into their nests; sailing to the Arctic where the “mineral silence” makes her mind seem “clamorous as a goose”. Jamie has a travel writer’s gift for binding disparate experiences and reflections into a compelling narrative, and a gourmet’s sensitivity to the precise taste and weight of words. Her spare, unsentimental prose is shot through with images that are uncontrived and unforgettable. After a fortnight among the vast sea- and sky-scapes of the deserted island of Rona, she feels her bones “turning to flutes”.
The New Few by Ferdinand Mount (Simon & Schuster, hardback, April 26th). When the Soviet Union collapsed, a group of sharp-elbowed entrepreneurs filled the power vacuum. Similarly, argues Ferdinand Mount, since the 1986 Big Bang in the City, an oligarchy of freebooting businessmen and bankers has reigned in Britain, unchecked and unregulated. As chief executives pocket eye-stretching multiples of their employees’ salaries, so the politicians with whom they are in cahoots seek to centralise control; local government is neutered, the House of Commons bypassed, and cabinet government becomes sofa government. Shareholders and voters are both disenfranchised. Mount, a columnist who once headed Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit, thinks outside the party-political box. An exhilarating polemicist, never a whinger, he laces radical prescription with arresting phrases. And, though he deplores the rampant rise in inequality, he hasn’t entirely lost hope that the coalition government might reverse it.
Imagine by Jonah Lehrer (Canongate, hardback, out now). “It’s like a ghost is writing,” Bob Dylan said of composing lyrics. Striking a stimulating balance between neuroscience, human encounter and creative case histories, Jonah Lehrer seeks to demystify this ghost, and explain how we can encourage it to visit more often. He explores both individual and collective creativity—what goes on in the right side of your brain when you have a shower? Why are the Pixar studios so phenomenally successful? And while his conclusions seem sometimes to nudge towards a contemporary, “how to” version of Ecclesiastes—there’s a time to daydream, a time to focus; a time for espresso, a time for Benzedrine—he admits that the study of neurons has its limits. “Talent” is distinct from creativity; and then there’s “serendipity”. An element of mystery remains.
Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life, secretary of the Royal Society of Literature in London and author of the award-winning "George Mackay Brown: the Life"