Bookmarks: Do it Euro-style and you might make this list
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
The London Sunday Times recently unveiled its “100 Modern Novels to Love”, a list of what its critics considered to be the best fiction of the 21st century. Introducing the list, the newspaper’s literary editor, Andrew Holgate, writes: “The literary world has changed a lot since 2000. Big beasts such as Updike and Bellow are gone, and the book world is a much more varied and, dare we say it, interesting place.”
That may be the case. But you wouldn’t say so, judging by the selection offered by the newspaper. It’s very Eurocentric, very Western, very pale. Only 16 of the 100 titles are novels that have been translated into English. That is, books by writers who live in far-off foreign places. “It’s not a canon,” Holgate suggests, “just a collection of the novels (the newspaper’s reviewers) have most enjoyed. To cast the net as wide as possible, we have limited ourselves to one book per writer.”
That net, sadly, came up with very few African novels: only Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo; and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany could be considered as being from the continent.
The full list can be found here.
The suicide bombings that killed more than 250 people in Sri Lanka over Easter brought to a violent end the 10 years of peace and recovery the island had enjoyed since the end of its decades-long civil war. For those seeking context about the country and the long-simmering tensions between its Buddhist majority and the Tamil minority a number of books are recommended.
The Booker-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje’s 1983 memoir, Running in the Family (Bloomsbury), is a particular treat. Born in Sri Lanka, he settled in Canada in 1962, but revisited the island 25 years later after a chaotic dream of tropical heat and barking dogs to piece together the colourful life of an eccentric family he never fully understood as he undertakes a reconciliatory journey in which he tackles his own ghosts.
The New Yorker writer Samanth Subramanian offers a more traditional history in his gripping 2015 account, This Divided Island: Life, Death and the Sri Lankan War (Thomas Dunne Books), which gives an extraordinary breakdown of the effects of 30 years of bitter fighting on the country’s soul and how the victory over the dreaded Tamil Tiger guerrillas was used to reshape memory and bury histories.
John Gimlette’s acclaimed 2015 book, Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka (Quercus), offers the armchair adventurer an ideal introduction to a country described by the Daily Telegraph has having “a geography from heaven and a history from hell”. Gimlette writes: “It’s not difficult to see why people have fought over this island for thousands of years … My work has taken me to all sorts of places, but none of them quite like this. Sri Lanka has to be the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen.”
This year’s big music “memoir” is Prince’s The Beautiful Ones, which will be released in October. According to publisher Random House, it will trace his life from childhood to his final days as one of the most successful musical acts of all time.
When he first announced the book, just weeks before his death in April 2016 at age 57 from an accidental overdose of the painkiller fentanyl, Prince told an audience in New York that the publisher had made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “This is my first [book],” he was quoted as saying. “My brother Dan is helping me with it. He’s a good critic and that’s what I need. He’s not a ‘yes’ man at all and he’s really helping me get through this. We’re starting from the beginning from my first memory and hopefully we can go all the way up to the Super Bowl.”
By the time of his death, the musician had reportedly completed more than 50 handwritten pages. In addition to this unfinished manuscript, The Beautiful Ones will contain photographs and memorabilia from Prince’s personal collection, scrapbooks and lyrics, including the original handwritten treatment for his 1984 hit, Purple Rain.
In a statement, Random House said the book will be framed by New Yorker writer Dan Piepenbring’s “riveting and moving introduction about his short but profound collaboration with Prince in his final months – a time when Prince was thinking deeply about how to reveal more of himself and his ideas to the world, while retaining the mystery and mystique he’d so carefully cultivated”.
Meanwhile, rumour has it that Chronicles, Volume Two, the next instalment in a reported autobiographical trilogy by Bob Dylan is due to be released in December. There’s been no official announcement yet from publisher Simon & Schuster, but Amazon in the UK are taking advance orders.
In September 2012, Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine he had already completed chapters for Volume Two that covered the recording of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Another Side of Bob Dylan albums, and that the book may primarily focus on the early years of his recording career. The biggest holdup, he added, was not the writing, but the editing. “I don't mind writing it,” he said, “but it’s the rereading it and the time it takes to reread it – that for me is difficult. The last Chronicles I did all myself.”
Chronicles, Volume One, published in 2004, received glowing reviews. Dylan later claimed he had been moved by the book’s reception. “Most people who write about music,” he told journalist Jonathan Lethem in 2006, “they have no idea what it feels like to play it. But with the book I wrote, I thought, ‘The people who are writing reviews of this book, man, they know what the hell they’re talking about.’ It spoils you … they know more about it than me. The reviews of this book, some of ’em almost made me cry – in a good way. I’d never felt that from a music critic ever.”
Elsewhere, a second autobiographical memoir, Then It Fell Apart (Faber & Faber) by Moby, the electronica star otherwise known as Richard Melville Hall, is released this week. He is the great-great-great-nephew of Moby-Dick author Herman Melville (hence the nickname) and, according to The Times critic Joe Clay, this is one whale of a tale, too, but not in a good way: “… like a self-indulgent double album – bloated and overlong, but with the odd corking anecdote”.
Moby’s first book, 2016’s Porcelain, told of how a struggling skinny white teetotal vegan Christian DJ released Play, an album he thought would be his swansong but went on to sell millions of copies – and open an astonishing new phase in his life. Critics deemed it entertaining and insightful. Then It Fell Apart is what happened next, the debauched downside that came with instant celebrity: alcohol, drugs, promiscuity and a life lived in a constant state of panic. In a nutshell: he craved fame, he got it, but it didn’t make him happy.
US author Jared Diamond is an historian who secured his reputation as a public intellectual with popular works like 1997’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which won a Pulitzer, and 2005’s Collapse, which presented intriguing explanations why civilisations crumble. He is what is known as a purveyor of “the Big Idea”, the grandiose notion that sweeps aside decades of scholarly research. In other words, academics and scientists do all the work, and Diamond gets all the credit. No wonder he is despised by many.
One paper by anthropologist David Correia, published in the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism in response to his 2012 book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?, is titled “F**k Jared Diamond” and accuses this “darling of bourgeois intellectuals” of trading in determinist tropes that verge on the “Kiplingesque” in its overt racism.
The opprobrium continues with his forthcoming Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change (Allen Lane). Writing in The Times, the historian Gerard DeGroot dismisses the book as “decidedly amateur”, an anecdotal history that is “shockingly ignorant and naive”. Its primary purpose, DeGroot continues, is to “offer Americans help with their present crisis, which Diamond considers the worst in his nation’s history”.
Diamond presents six “shallow” case studies: Finland after its conflict with its Soviet neighbours; post-Pinochet Chile; 19th-century Japan’s response to foreign superiority; Indonesia after the Suharto massacres; Germany’s postwar reconstruction; and Australia’s quest for a postcolonial identity. These countries were chosen simply because Diamond knows them. “Missing,” DeGroot says, “are any African countries, any impoverished ones, or any torn by nationalist civil war. Thus, no Rwanda, Serbia, or Lebanon.”
In a recent interview with the Guardian, Diamond suggests such antipathy is due to his success and the popular style in which he writes – and not because of his politics. “I don’t think that’s the reason,” he said, “because the reality is that I’m a mixed bag. My views about immigration do not coincide at all with extreme liberal American views about immigration, but I would be praised by anthropologists for my views on the intelligence of New Guineans compared to the intelligence of Europeans.”
One factor he does cite as being important in dealing with crises is a strong national identity. In this, Upheaval is forcefully old-fashioned in its insistence on the continued importance of nationhood. “Nation states are here now,” he argues, “and they are here for the foreseeable future.” His book, Diamond immodestly claims, is one that will “remain in print for many years” as a pioneering work in the field of “comparative studies of national crises”.
DeGroot is particularly scornful of this. “That’s cobblers. Upheaval is neither illuminating nor groundbreaking. Diligent scholars … have been plowing this furrow for years. After reading this book, I now understand why Diamond sometimes needs a bodyguard [when lecturing].”
THE BOTTOM LINE“This volume is bleak … I think we’re uniquely ill prepared to cope with the emerging challenges. So far, we’re not coping with them. Still, there is one sense in which I am less grim than in my younger days. This book ends with the conviction that resistance to these dangers is at least possible.” – Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben (Henry Holt & Company).McKibben’s “emerging challenges” to civilisation include the risk of nuclear war and many hazards associated with climate change: increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, threats to food production, rising sea levels, and ocean warming and acidification.