Tag Archives: The Capital

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThe first batch of February’s paperback goodies didn’t set foot outside America but this second instalment starts in the heart of Europe with Robert Menasse’s The Capital, something of a bittersweet read for me given my country’s Brexit shenanigans. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club, sadly no longer a possibility. Like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Set in West Berlin during the summer of 1989, Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man follows eighteen-year-old Ralf who is enjoying a summer of freedom until he discovers something about his family which turns his life upside down. ‘As old Cold War tensions begin to tear his life apart, he finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, forced to make impossible choices about his country, his family and his heart’ according to the publishers. Regular readers may have noticed that a Berlin backdrop is catnip for me

It was its Berlin setting that initially attracted me to Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun. In 1923 newly divorced Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets a young dealer, apparently respectful of his expertise and eager for his assessment of a painting he wants to sell. Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clark’s engrossing, perceptive novel explores the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s The Narrow Land is about the marriage between two artists – one acclaimed, the other not. The summer of 1950 was one of many Edward Hopper spent with his wife, Josephine, on Cape Cod but this year a ten-year-old German war orphan, traumatizedCover image by war, has come to stay with their neighbours. Written in Hickey’s subtle yet precise style, unshowy and often appropriately painterly, it’s a pleasingly nuanced novel which I enjoyed very much.

Back to Europe for Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian which is something of a doorstopper, the kind I’d usually avoid, but Zadie Smith has praised it to the skies so I think I might have to give it a try. It follows a young Palestinian from the Middle East to Paris during the First World War. ‘Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War’ say the publishers. Apparently, Smith has never spoken of a student in such glowing terms in the fifteen years she’s taught.

I’m not entirely sure about Sadie Jones’ The Snakes, either, having failed to see what so many others did in The Outcast, her much-praised debut. Bea and Dan have rented out their flat for a few months and driven to France where they plan to visit Bea’s brother at his hotel. When they arrive, they find Alex alone and the dilapidated hotel empty. The arrival of Bea and Alex’s rich parents makes Dan wonder why he’s never met them before. All of which may not sound very exciting but ‘tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and even Bea with all her strength and goodness can’t escape’ say the publishers intriguingly. We’ll see.

Cover imageI’d also dithered about my last February paperback, Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Hadley’s writing but her books are set in a world that can feel a little too cramped for me however the premise of this one appealed. It follows a group of late middle-aged friends whose lives are blown apart and put back together in a very different way after one of them dies suddenly. Despite its small canvas, I enjoyed this latest offering with its hope of change and new beginnings emerging from the pain of grief and loss.

That’s it for February. A very satisfying month. A click on a title will take you either to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for any that have taken your fancy. If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment of paperbacks it’s here, new titles are here and here.

Books of the Year 2019: Part One

It’s that time again. Books of the year lists are being wheeled out right, left and centre. I’d love to tell you I’d managed to trim mine to a single post of gems but I’m not the Cover imagedecisive type so I’m afraid it will be the usual four, falling roughly into quarters, all with links to reviews on this blog. For those of you who think I’ve jumped the gun, I’m still a bookseller at heart, hoping to help out anyone desperate for gift ideas for their book-loving friends.

My reading year got off to a flying start with Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer whose premise is irresistible. A woman is about to sit down to supper when her sister calls. She’s killed another man and needs Korede’s peerless cleaning skills. Set in Lagos where Korede is a nurse and Ayoola charms men, My Sister, the Serial Killer is a short, darkly funny novel, an enjoyable caper with a sharp edge and a page-turning pace. I was delighted when it turned up on both the Booker Prize longlist and the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.

Two books stood out for me in February, each very different from the other. Given my country’s preoccupation with Brexit, Robert Menasse’s The Capital was something of a bittersweet read. This sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated weaknesses before returning to the founding values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club. Rather like the institution it’s satirising, Menasse’s novel is not without faults but there’s much to enjoy.

Entirely different, Joan Silber’s carefully constructed Improvement reads almost like a series of tightly linked short stories which explore the ripple effectsCover image of a car accident through a range of sharply observed characters. Silber’s writing is subtly understated leaving her readers to draw their own conclusions. Sadly, Improvement is her only book published here in the UK: all I can say to her publishers is ‘more please’.

Leapfrogging March into April, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans also explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in a small Californian desert town for decades. Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. It’s a quietly powerful novel which seemed to have had less coverage than it deserved here in the UK

The second of April’s treats is a bestseller which left me wondering why I hadn’t already read it. Paolo Cognetti’s beautifully expressed The Eight Mountains is about the friendship between two men who meet as boys when they’re eleven years old: one who has never set foot outside the mountains in which he was born, the other a city boy from Milan whose father yearns for a return to his own mountain roots. It’s a beautiful novel, a testament to friendship and a loving tribute to a challenging but gorgeous landscape.

Cover imageRounding off April’s favourites, Ayelet Gunder-Goshen’s lusciously jacketed Liar tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Tel Aviv girl who becomes caught up in a scandal after an exchange between her and a fading reality TV star is misinterpreted then seized upon by a media hungry for sensation leaving her trapped in an untruth she’s allowed to take root. A thoroughly enjoyable novel with a clear message: lies tend to lead to a deeper deception that can only end in tears. Politicians take note. Rare for a lesson in morality to be delivered with such acuity and style.

There, I seem to have ended 2019’s first quarter with politics, something which I’ve been trying (but failing) to avoid since mid-way through the year when I though I might be about to spontaneously combust with fury. Let’s see if I can stay away from it in the second instalment which will cover May and June.

The Capital by Robert Menasse (transl. Jamie Bulloch): Better in than out

Cover imageI’m sharing the last stop on The Capital‘s blog tour with Reader Dad. I’m not one for blog tours – this may well be both my first and last – but I couldn’t say no to this one. If you’ve been reading this blog for the last couple of years, you’ll be in no doubt as to which side of the Brexit divide I belong. Robert Menasse’s sprawling novel takes a sharply satirical view of the European Commission, exploring its many accumulated faults before bringing it back to the values which make me want to remain part of the EU’s flawed club.

The Capital opens with a pig running through the streets of Brussels, catching the astonished eyes of many of its characters. Martin Susman, who will conceive the idea for the ill-fated Jubilee Project, spots it from his apartment window. Auschwitz survivor Dave de Vriend sees it just as he’s about to leave his apartment for the last time. Fenia Xenopoulou catches sight of it from the restaurant where she’s hoping to finangle a transfer to another department. When Martin returns from Auschwitz, shocked at its commercialisation, he hits on an idea to rejuvenate the ideals of the Commission via the jubilee celebration he’s been asked to devise, putting the camp at its centre in counterpoint to the populist nationalism which has infected Europe since 2008. Fenia spots what she thinks is a winner but in a masterly piece of out-maneuvering, finds herself on the back foot and the celebration plans in tatters. Meanwhile, Inspector Brunfaut is trying to track down the pig, now a media star, while puzzling over why he’s been told to drop a murder investigation and Matek Oswiecki tries to dodge the consequences of what may well have been a botched assassination. These many and varied characters crisscross each other’s paths over a long hot summer in which migrants are heading for Germany.

A multitude of shifting character perspectives coupled with a good deal of information about EU institutions to absorb results in a slow start but patience pays off with The Capital. Swipes are taken at bloated bureaucracy, political manouevering and empire building but ultimately, it’s the founding values of the European Commission which are at the heart of this novel, that never again should Europe be faced with the horrors threatened by populist nationalism. Professor Erhart gives full voice to these ideals in a speech which horrifies his think tank audience, peopled with the self-important and self-interested, and would send Brexiteers running and screaming for the door. It’s a wide-ranging novel, at times wryly funny at others almost slapstick, but like all good satire it has some very serious points to make both about the EU and the forces that have taken hold in Europe since the financial crash. Rather like the institution its satirizing, The Capital is not without faults – some of its threads remained tangled for me – but there’s much to enjoy, bittersweet though it is in more ways than one.

If you’d like to catch up with previous posts on the blog tour, including Lizzy Siddal’s interview with The Capital‘s translator, Jaime Bulloch, here’s a list of links:

Winstondad’s Blog

David’s Book World

Nudge Books

Lizzy’s Literary Life

Books to Look Out for in February 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe second part of February’s preview wanders around all over the place rather as I’d like to be doing at this dank, drear time of the year here in the UK. I’m beginning the tour in Paris in 1929 with Whitney Scharer’s gorgeously jacketed The Age of Light which tells the story of renowned photographer Lee Miller and her stormy relationship with the Surrealist, Man Ray. ‘The Age of Light is a powerfully sensuous tale of ambition, love, and the personal price of making art. In this immersive debut novel, Whitney Scharer has brought a brilliant and pioneering artist out of the shadow of a man’s story and into the light’ according to the publishers.

We’re moving on to Thailand with Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which tells the story of a disparate set of the city’s inhabitants through the history of one building, A nineteenth century missionary longs for New England; a 1970s jazz pianist attempts to subdue the building’s ghosts and a young woman gives swimming lessons in a near-future submerged Bangkok, apparently. I’ve always had a soft spot for this kind of structure but I’m slightly deterred by the dystopian thread.

Off to Sydney’s working-class suburbs for Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats which tells the story of an Italian immigrant family whose misfortune coincides with the Tampa Affair which saw over four hundred refugees stranded off the Australian coast. Antonio is forced into early retirement after an accident at work, his dreams of a better future for his family shattered. ‘Manipulated by the media and made vulnerable by his feeling of irrelevance, Antonio commits an act that makes him a lightning rod for the factions that are bitterly at odds over the Tampa Affair and the “immigrant question”’ according to the publishers. The Tampa Affair took place in 2001 but this novel sounds sadly relevant today.

Former US Army medic Nico Walker’s Cherry is set in Cleveland Ohio where two students meet and fall in love in 2003. When Emily is called home, her lover joins the army leaving for Iraq after they hurriedly marry. He returns stricken with PTSD and a drug habit which turns into heroin addiction. When Emily becomes addicted, too, the couple’s attempts at a normal life collapse and he turns to bank robbery. ‘Hammered out on a prison typewriter, Cherry marks the arrival of a raw, bleakly hilarious, and surprisingly poignant voice straight from the dark heart of America’ say the publishers.

I’m ending February’s preview with a novel that I suspect will be bittersweet for me, on the eve of the dreaded Brexit. Robert Menasse’s The Capital is a satire on the European Commission as Cover imageit nears its fiftieth anniversary. The plan is to put Auschwitz at the celebration’s centre but while some members welcome the idea others most emphatically do not. Meanwhile, a murder investigation has been suppressed at the highest level in Brussels. ‘The Capital is a sharp satire, a philosophical essay, a crime story, a comedy of manners, a wild pig chase, but at its heart it has the most powerful pro-European message: no-one should forget the circumstances that gave rise to the European project in the first place’ according to the publishers. I couldn’t agree more with that last sentiment. Still hoping for a miracle…

That’s it for February’s preview of new novels. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have caught your eye, and if you’d like to catch up with part one it’s here. Paperbacks soon…