This month’s best paperbacks: Mary Trump on ‘Uncle Donald’, a new Elena Ferrante and more

Memoir

A scathing takedown of ‘Uncle Donald’

Too Much and Never Enough

Mary Trump

Too Much and Never Enough Mary Trump

A scathing takedown of ‘Uncle Donald’


Like America, Trump claims to be unique, exceptional, a shining self-creation. This book by his estranged niece demolishes that myth. Mary Trump’s ruthless memoir blames their family for creating him: she sees it as her patriotic mission to “take Donald down”, and she does so by showing how derivative and dependent the ultimate self-made man has always been.

Throughout the book, Mary’s uncle is not President Trump but simply Donald. With casual disrespect, she even deprives him of the definite article deployed by Ivana who always referred to him as “the Donald”. Mary’s professional credentials as a psychologist entitle her to briskly check off what she calls Donald’s “pathologies”, which include narcissism, sociopathy and learning disabilities that may be due to the dozen Diet Cokes he daily siphons into himself. In a startling final condemnation, she charges that his “craven need for ‘revenge’” on opponents makes him, in his nonchalance about coronavirus in New York, responsible for what she calls “mass murder”.

Erotomania can be added to the list of his vices. Once at the Mar-a-Lago pool, Donald disgusted Mary by sizing up her breasts: “Holy shit,” he remarked, “you’re stacked.” This wicked uncle is all slavering id, with no superego to restrain the fingers that itch to tweet, to toy with a big red nuclear button, or to “grab ’em by the pussy”.

Whenever Donald attempted to manage an actual business – an airline, casino or dodgy university – the result was bankruptcy. The lies he compulsively tells are for Mary another “mode of self-aggrandisement”, a cover for his quaking inadequacy. Sadly dim-witted, he even had to hire a surrogate to take the entrance exams for college on his behalf. All his life he has “failed upwards”; he relies on being “rewarded for bad behaviour”, which happened again when the Senate blocked his impeachment. As viewed by Mary, he is an undeveloped human being, who instantly passed from whiny infancy to doddery old age, missing out the intermediate age of reason and responsibility where the rest of us spend time.

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fiction

Coe’s love letter to the spirit of cinema

Mr Wilder and Me

Jonathan Coe

Mr Wilder and Me Jonathan Coe

Coe’s love letter to the spirit of cinema


In 1977, Calista Frangopolou, a young Athenian woman, is backpacking across California with Gill Foley, a Brummie teenager she befriended at a Greyhound station. Gill is invited to dinner in Los Angeles with an old business contact of her dad’s, who turns out to be Billy Wilder, septuagenarian Austrian émigré director of films including Some Like It Hot and Sunset Boulevard. Through contrived but amusing plotting, the ingenue from Greece is hired to provide local know-how during the shooting in Corfu of Fedora, the 1978 late-career movie by Wilder and co-writer IAL Diamond, another dinner guest.

The novel is affectingly underscored by the apprehension of Wilder and Diamond that a new type of Hollywood represented by “that shark film” (Steven Spielberg’s Jaws) may mean the end for them in the way that the talkies finished the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard.

A darker mood intrudes with the Nazi ghosts of Wilder’s homeland. The presentation of that material in the form of a 50-page fantasy screenplay makes this generally light and simple novel the most formally experimental of Coe’s later books. Stylistically, though, the prose is unusually relaxed about word repetitions. It also feels unlikely that, as a young single woman on a 70s movie set, Calista suffers no unwanted sexual attention. Coe may have been restricted here by using largely real-life characters, whose vivid plausibility is a great achievement. Wilder, charismatically wise-cracking but haunted by history, and Diamond, agonised by the lengthy complexity of turning words into pictures, give the book the feel of a real movie memoir.

An afterword acknowledges that many of Wilder’s best lines in the book are taken verbatim from interviews and biographies; impressively, a final footnote reveals that a startling detail of Wilder’s response to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was discovered by Coe during his research interview with the director Volker Schlöndorff. As cineastes say, it’s always worth reading to the end of the credits.

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Thriller

Meticulously plotted

Magpie Lane

Lucy Atkins

Magpie Lane Lucy Atkins

Meticulously plotted


Nick is newly appointed as master of an Oxford college. Self-regarding to the point of narcissism, he lives in the master’s lodgings with his near-mute daughter, Felicity, and his beautiful but vacuous second wife, Mariah. Felicity’s Scottish nanny, Dee, seems to build a rapport with her young charge; but when Felicity goes missing, it is Dee to whom the police come for answers. Tense, perceptive and meticulously plotted, Magpie Lane is an intelligent exploration of privilege, belonging, grief and parental responsibility.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Environment

Inside the extraordinary world of moss

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses Robin Wall Kimmerer

Inside the extraordinary world of moss


Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants was a surprise bestseller when it appeared in the US in 2014 (published in the UK last year). But she had begun exploring how to weave together scientific insights and indigenous natural knowledge in her 2003 book Gathering Moss, which Penguin have now brought out here.

Filled with gentle wisdom about the natural world and our relationship with it, it’s a book rooted both in her scientific knowledge of mosses and indigenous teachings about nature – as well as being a professor of environmental biology, Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

At the outset, Kimmerer recalls how her love of science began at the age of five when she was shown snowflakes through a magnifying glass by her teacher. She was overwhelmed by the realisation that something “small and ordinary” could be so exquisitely beautiful. There was, she discovered, “more to the world than immediately meets the eye”.

Each summer at the Cranberry Lake Biological Research Station in the Adirondacks, Kimmerer introduces her students to the same sense of wonder. Not snow this time, but mosses: beneath the magnifying glass they reveal “leaves as tiny and perfectly ordered as a snowflake”.

There are some 22,000 species of moss. According to Kimmerer, “knowing the mosses enriches our knowing of the world”. With a specialist’s passion for her subject, she reveals the science of mosses: how they are “beautifully adapted for life in the miniature”, surviving everywhere from the surface of rocks to the cracks in city pavements; how they evolved 350m years ago, the first plants to colonise the land; and how they developed diverse reproductive strategies, from sexually active ones to celibate and even transsexual ones: “some species alter their gender quite freely”.

Indigenous people used mosses as a natural nappy for their babies (“the first disposable diaper”), as they can absorb 20 to 40 times their weight in water. Mosses were also used by women during menstruation: “the good missionary ladies must have grimaced in horror at this practice, but I think something was lost in the transition to boiled white rags”.

Kimmerer invites us “to see the world through moss-colored glasses”. By studying the role mosses play in ecosystems like forests and urban environments (mosses are very sensitive to air pollution and can reveal whether air is free of toxins), she has learnt that “they take only the little that they need and give back in abundance”. This reciprocity – an idea drawn from the way indigenous people live in harmony with their environment – is a key principle that Kimmerer says we have lost. We need “to live like mosses”, if we want to preserve our natural world.

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fantasy

An extravagant, unnerving fantasy

Mordew

Alex Pheby

Mordew Alex Pheby

An extravagant, unnerving fantasy


Alex Pheby’s Mordew is the first in a trilogy set in a fantastical city ruled over by a lofty Master, swarming with slum kids, magicians, assorted citizenry, thieves and monsters. The city has been built over the dead body of God Himself, and His corpse is having a strange effect on the urban mud, breeding strange creatures and effecting a “weft” of magical potential into which some, like Pheby’s protagonist Nathan Treeves, can tap, a process called “sparking”.

Mordew tells Nathan’s tale: an outcast kid who, via perseverance and innate magical ability, breaks through the inertia of a stratified fantasy society to achieve remarkable things. It sounds by-the-rote for this kind of book, I know. Then there’s the worldbuilding. All the baroque curlicues of this neo-gothic realm are painstakingly laid before the reader: urchins, mages, whores, suspicious gentlemen, supercilious servants, talking dogs and talking books, resurrected megafauna and a retrospective odeum. Sometimes the city seems to exist in its own timeless space; sometimes Pheby hints we’re in a post-apocalyptic future. The whole has a strong flavour of Mervyn Peake, many touches of Michael Moorcock, moments of Studio Ghibli. There’s even a frontispiece map.

Mordew is a darkly brilliant novel, extraordinary, absorbing and dream-haunting. That it succeeds as well as it does speaks to Pheby’s determination not to passively inhabit his Gormenghastly idiom but instead to lead it to its most extreme iteration, to force inventiveness and grotesqueness into every crevice of his work. It seems that one way to take an apparently exhausted idiom and make it new is just to push through, with enough imaginative energy to refresh the tired old tropes. Mordew is so crammed with grotesque inventiveness that it overwhelms the reader’s resistance.

£8.49 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Translated fiction

An astonishing novel set in Ferrante’s familiar Naples

The Lying Life of Adults

Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

The Lying Life of Adults Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

An astonishing novel set in Ferrante’s familiar Naples


Giovanna has grown up in Naples, the familiar territory of Ferrante’s quartet. She lives high in the rarefied boulevards of the upper city, but has grown up knowing that there’s another city down below, where her father spent his childhood and his family still live. “To visit them you had to go down, and down, keep going down, into the depths of the depths of Naples.”

As the story opens, her parents are disappointed with her lack of progress at school. Giovanna overhears her father complaining that “she’s getting the face of Vittoria”. For Giovanna this constitutes a fall from grace: she has been beautiful but now she becomes ugly. Vittoria is her father’s sister, long banished to the depths, “a childhood bogey-man, a lean, demonic silhouette, an unkempt figure lurking in the corners of houses when darkness falls”. In Ferrante novels the fairytale is never far from the social realism, and here Giovanna is plunged into a dark quest to discover Vittoria and learn how her evil aunt has invaded her body.

For Ferrante’s loyal readers there’s a pleasure in connecting this bogeyman to the luridly frightening Don Achille in My Brilliant Friend. What’s remarkable is that the book manages to be all the more new and surprising for being layered with familiar Ferrante places and themes. It combines the slow-motion intensity of The Lost Daughter with the addictive momentum of the quartet, rendered in perfectly weighted prose by Ann Goldstein. As with Hardy’s Wessex or DH Lawrence’s Eastwood, the setting, by becoming so familiar, becomes a shared space between reader and writer. It feels as though Ferrante is playing with her fame, inviting us back into the poorer neighbourhoods of Naples that at the start of the book are more familiar to us than they are to Giovanna.

Giovanna persuades her parents to arrange a meeting for her with Vittoria and confronts the depths of the city that have been waiting to claim her. What follows is a fast-woven web of deception. At first Giovanna believes that she’s the one telling lies. She lies to her parents, telling them that she was bored by Vittoria, while secretly arranging more meetings. She lies to Vittoria, wanting the pleasure of telling revealing stories about her parents. “I ended up looking for small real anomalies and inflating them slightly. But even then I was uneasy. I wasn’t a truly affectionate daughter and I wasn’t a truly loyal spy.”

There’s the energy that Giovanna gets from Vittoria, as Lenù got it from Lila in the Neopolitan quartet. It’s the energy of the neighbourhood, the energy of a life lived foremost from the body, though this is a form of bodily vitality that’s unusually infused with psychic inventiveness and intellectual insight. “In Vittoria’s voice, or perhaps in her whole body, there was an impatience without filters that hit me in a flash.” This is a woman who manipulates everyone, who destroys her own happiness with the unpredictable violence of her desires. But even by the end, it feels possible that Giovanna was right to trust her and right to give her control in shaping the woman she will become: an energetic maker of her own world. What next, we ask at the end, as breathlessly eager for more as Giovanna herself is, plunging towards adulthood. And we have our answer in this astonishing, deeply moving tale of the sorts of wisdom, beauty and knowledge that remain as unruly as the determinedly inharmonious faces of these women.

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fantasy

A fizzing New York fantasy

The City We Became

NK Jemisin

The City We Became NK Jemisin

A fizzing New York fantasy


In Jemisin’s latest novel, all the world’s great cities, when they reach a certain size, are magically “born” into anthropomorphic form, individuals who live in, and guard, their metropolis. Such figures are at once the “soul” of the city and regular human people, somewhat bewildered to discover their calling. It’s an idea as old as Athena, although Jemisin’s treatment is rather less loftily divine than Greek myth. Her focus is the scuzzy immediacy of street-level city living. New York manifests as five separate figures: Manhattan becomes Manny, a likable young chancer, and other individuals emerge to embody Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. It’s lucky they do, since the city is under supernatural attack and in need of defenders.

The threat to New York appears as a series of ghastly Lovecraftian apparitions. One of the city’s cops metamorphoses into an eight-legged, myriad-eyed abomination and comes scrambling after Manny. Hideous tendrils squeeze up from between paving slabs. Tentacular unspeakablenesses lurk in the East River, huge enough to smash up bridges. Chapters open with sentences such as “Something is very wrong at Inwood Hill Park”, and “He can sense the prickle of the Enemy’s work nearby”. But our five heroes, under the mentorship of the avatar of the Brazilian city São Paulo, are up to the challenge. Jemisin is good on the interactions of her group – never too cosy; sparky, inclusive and likable – and her narrative is punctuated with enough incident to keep the reader reading.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Translated fiction

A dark, explosive follow-up to Convenience Store Woman

Earthlings

Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Earthlings Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

A dark, explosive follow-up to Convenience Store Woman


This novel takes the quietly spoken themes of Murata’s cult hit Convenience Store Woman and sends them into orbit. The two books might be seen as siblings, though Earthlings would definitely be the evil twin. Both feature young women who reject society’s expectations and seek comfort in replacement forms of community. For 10-year-old Natsuki in Earthlings, it’s the imaginary planet Popinpobopia, which she believes to be her destiny, at least according to her cuddly toy Piyyut.

So far, so kawaii, but the cute whimsy unrolled before the reader in the opening pages turns out to be covering a trapdoor. Natsuki conjures a makeshift family out of Piyyut and her cousin Yuu because her existing family doesn’t work. Her mother calls her “hopeless … she’s like a weight around my neck”. Natsuki and Yuu carry out a mock marriage, pledging to one another to “survive, whatever it takes”.

Twenty years later, Natsuki is in a sexless marriage of convenience, and views society as “the Factory”, a programme for breeding further humans. Popinpobopia seems very far away. “All I can do is keep my head down and pretend to be an Earthling.” At this point the book switches from muted tones to a Technicolor explosion, as Murata throws in a convulsion of sudden shocks including murder, necrophilia and cannibalism. This is a high-risk move: it takes a story about not fitting in and turns it into a sort of freak show – even though it’s hinted that the Grand Guignol grotesqueries of these scenes aren’t really happening. But whatever Earthlings is, whatever planet it comes from, it’s a tale of quiet desperation to make your brain fizz.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Essays

The larky, and moving, follow-up to How to Be a Woman

More Than a Woman

Caitlin Moran

More Than a Woman Caitlin Moran

The larky, and moving, follow-up to How to Be a Woman


In More Than a Woman – the sequel to the mega-selling 2011 book How to Be a Woman – Moran, now 45, takes a second look at womanhood, this time from the vantage point of middle age. Part memoir, part manifesto, it tackles such thorny issues as anal sex, smear tests, hangovers, teenagers, ageing parents, careers, the tyranny of the to-do list, big bums and the moment when your entire wardrobe seems to turn against you.

The chapters are built around a day in Moran’s life and carved up into specific themes such as: The Hour of Married Sex; The Hour of Physical Acceptance; and The Hour of Counting All the Things a Woman Will Have by the Age of Forty, Which Show What She Wanted to Be, But Hasn’t Been – Yet. While the subjects can feel a little shoehorned at times, it allows Moran to provide snapshots of her daily routine and, as is her trademark, use them to make broader points about the general state of things.

Threaded through the narrative is Moran’s commonsense feminism, underpinned by the principle that if men aren’t having to put up with this crap, then neither should we. She also reserves the right to change her mind. Having once raised a disapproving eyebrow at women who got Botox injections, the author says she has now thrown out what she calls her “Botox Police Hat” and, having tried it herself, is a convert. She now sees it as a “face chiller”, the use of which is no more radical than microblading your eyebrows or getting veneers for your teeth.

The parts about raising teenagers provide the book’s real emotional punch. At the age of 13, Moran’s daughter Nancy developed an eating disorder and began self-harming. The confusion, followed by alarm, followed by abject devastation felt by Moran and her husband is powerfully articulated, and sits in stark contrast to the larkiness elsewhere. We see Moran at her most serious and embattled, at sea in the face of illness and a child that she can’t reach. She wouldn’t be writing about this, of course, had Nancy not come out the other side and emerged a stronger and more resilient young woman. Whatever the calamity, Moran explains, “you outlive the bad times. Happiness comes again, eventually … Just by staying alive. That’s all you have to do. A year can pass so quickly. Your foot is on the accelerator now.”

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Memoir

A wise memoir about tragedy and family

The Consequences of Love

Gavanndra Hodge

The Consequences of Love Gavanndra Hodge

A wise memoir about tragedy and family


To the outside eye, Gavanndra Hodge’s childhood must have seemed impossibly glamorous. Her father, the celebrity hairdresser Gavin Hodge, was a man about town and spinner of near-mythic tales; her mother, Jan, a former model. They lived with their two children, Gavanndra and Candy, in a mansion flat in Battersea, not far from Chelsea’s stylish Kings Road.

Yet appearances are all too often deceptive and Hodge’s childhood, as this fine memoir makes clear, was an altogether more precarious affair. At its centre is a tragedy: the shocking death of Hodge’s younger sister, Candy, on a family holiday in Tunisia. Candy was nine when she died from a rare airborne virus and Hodge doesn’t flinch from describing her horrifying final moments: “You were running, one way and then the next, as though you were being hunted and you didn’t know the way to safety …. A trickle of phlegmy blood dribbled down the side of your mouth, making a zigzagging trail of red spots on the carpet.”

The tragedy destroys Hodge’s family, sending her father back to the bottle and needle and leading her mother to find solace in religion. Candy, meanwhile, is “locked away” in a series of boxes, one holding the clothes and toys she most loved and the other her ashes.

The cost of sealing off those memories lies at the heart of this story. Hodge marries, has two children and builds an outwardly perfect life. Yet, beneath that swanlike surface, her legs are paddling like mad, desperately trying to hold everything together and, more importantly, to keep that past from seeping through.

The Consequences of Love is not only the story of how Hodge came to let her memories of her younger sister back in, but also that of her relationship with another sister, Maranda, her father’s daughter by an earlier liaison, and the forging of a friendship that isn’t always easy but which becomes steadfast and true.

Most of all, however, this memoir is an acknowledgment that love demands a price. As a child, Hodge loved her father with an intensity that not only ignored his flaws but also gilded them with a tarnished glamour. Now, as an adult, she admits, “he damaged people and that damage lives on even though he has gone”.

Yet, as this wise and moving memoir makes clear, if you are prepared to meet the price – to accept unflinchingly all the different parts that live within you, both beautiful and ugly, and to acknowledge that others see and love them, too – then the rewards are worth the heartache.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Politics

Candid account of a Tory clique

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power

Sasha Swire

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power Sasha Swire

Candid account of a Tory clique


There’s a scene in this insider’s account of the Tory clique that has ruled Britain for the past decade, which somehow sums it all up. Ensconced for the summer of 2019 in his beloved new holiday home in Cornwall, David Cameron was conceding, at least in private, that he had “completely fucked up over Brexit”.

But while the country was reeling from the calamity he had inflicted upon it by calling the EU referendum and then losing it, the least worst of our last three prime ministers was intent on chillaxing. He claimed to be busy with meetings, but daughter Florence, clearly knowing her father too well, quickly branded him a liar after spotting him watching back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones.

If you needed proof that Britain has been misruled by the unserious, entitled, snobbish, incestuous and curiously childish then the acerbic Lady Swire, unwittingly or not, has provided it. In 500-odd pages of deftly edited diary entries covering her observations and conversations during the tumultuous years of 2010 to 2019, she lifts the veil on the doings of a political class that is difficult to like, admire or respect.

The court of King David, to which Sasha and her Etonian MP husband, Sir Hugo, belonged during Cameron’s Downing Street years, was nothing if not homogeneous. Swire notes that they all ate, drank, partied – and holidayed in Cornwall – together, attended the same schools and university, sent their children to play together and texted one another’s private, rather than official, numbers to bypass civil servants (who are evidently not PLU – People Like Us).

Those who took the details of their job seriously, such as the cerebral Europe minister David Lidington, were also not within the PLU pack but, rather, targets of derision. The “mateocracy”, meanwhile, stayed in one another’s grace-and-favour homes, while furiously falling out over who had the best pad, the nicest curtains, the poshest official car or the biggest security detail. And there was endless talk about sex. When Swire discovers Dave “laughing uproariously” in conversation with her husband about the supposedly unusual characteristics of historian Andrew Roberts’s “male member” and comparing notes on which female politicians were “beddable”, she is positively indulgent. After all, this is the same Dave who on another now-infamous occasion blamed pheromones for wanting to drag her into nearby bushes to “give her one”. What happened to dignity in Downing Street? I despair.

True to form again, she is brutal about “Old Ma May”, as she calls grammar school girl Theresa, and reserves what sympathy she can muster for our current PM who, though leading the country into disaster, is of course cut from the right cloth. “I can’t really sleep at night,” Boris Johnson tells our diarist. “It’s all so worrying.” Well, I’m with him there. It makes it no easier to hear that she believes him to be “desperately lonely and unhappy on the inside”.

Unsurprisingly, Lady Swire’s candour has prompted a certain backlash and cries of betrayal. But then if only half her recollections are true, she has done the rest of us a favour by removing all possible doubt about the unfitness of most of them to govern. The bonus is that she does so with a rare verve and wit.

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fiction

Witty debut novel from the popular podcaster

Ghosts

Dolly Alderton

Ghosts Dolly Alderton

Witty debut novel from the popular podcaster


Quick-witted Nina Dean is a likable food writer who lives in north London. The challenges she faces as a privileged single thirtysomething may, at first glance, seem like familiar terrain for a millennial novel to explore. Nina wrestles with generational conflict with her parents; the difficulties of maintaining friendships when husbands and babies arrive; and the quiet thrum of the biological clock alongside the vagaries of online dating and, more broadly, of a life increasingly played out online. No doubt Nina’s sharp-eyed observations on these zeitgeisty issues will remind many of Alderton’s bestselling memoir Everything I Know About Love and the conversations on her The High Low podcast.

Amid these comfortingly recognisable tropes, in her 32nd year, Nina’s life becomes even more complicated. Her father, a retired teacher, begins to display signs of dementia. Simultaneously, after a spell of romantic misfortunes, Max pops up on Nina’s dating app and drifts into her life. Max is a deliciously drawn confection, blessed with captivating “moss green eyes”; he looks “good in a chunky roll neck”, but can rattle off one-liners with as much adroitness as Nina. As one might predict, Max does indeed prove too good to be true.

Indeed, Max’s singular brand of cruelty and the novel’s other darker themes show Alderton’s writing at its strongest. The unnerving introduction of Nina’s threatening neighbour Angelo is a particular highlight. The depiction of her mother’s reaction to her new role as a carer – a brittle but steadfast denial that there is a problem – also makes for effectively unsettling reading that tests the boundaries of what used to be called chick-lit. It would be good to see this element of her writing – the difficult, the ambivalent – find an even fuller voice in Alderton’s subsequent novels.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Translated fiction

Entertaining eco-thriller

The Disaster Tourist

Yun Ko-eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler

The Disaster Tourist Yun Ko-eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler

Entertaining eco-thriller


Yona Kim is a programme manager for Jungle, a Seoul company that specialises in curating holiday packages in disaster zones. On trips to areas ravaged by tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, travellers journey through “the following stages: shock ⇾ sympathy and compassion, and maybe discomfort ⇾ gratefulness for their own lives ⇾ a sense of responsibility and the feeling that they’d learned a lesson, and maybe an inkling of superiority for having survived”.

When Yona’s own life is struck by disaster in the form of a predatory boss she numbly agrees to go on a “no-strings-attached business trip” to the island of Mui, whose major attraction turns out to be an underwhelming sinkhole. Here, Yona and her fellow travellers expose themselves to the islanders’ stories of trauma and grief in order to access a second-hand emotion, but end up sinking only into a feeling of boredom or disquietude.
Soon Yona finds herself caught up in a scheme to manufacture a more dramatic disaster in Mui in order to save the island’s economy and her own professional standing.

This is an entertaining eco-thriller that sets out to illuminate the way climate change is inextricably bound up with the pressures of global capitalism.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

History

A woman’s life in 19th-century Japan

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Woman’s Life in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Amy Stanley

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Woman’s Life in Nineteenth-Century Japan Amy Stanley

A woman’s life in 19th-century Japan


In 1839 a priest’s daughter called Tsuneno ran away from her village in Echigo, otherwise known as the Snow Country of north-central Japan. Her destination was Edo, the shogun’s city, which she had longed to see from the moment she first heard of its existence. The journey took two weeks and involved a treacherous mountain trek, but to Tsuneno it was worth it. Her village home was not only on ice from equinox to equinox, but its customs and expectations seemed frozen too. The shogunate, an ancient feudal system of governance, might be on its last legs but Edo still meant warmth and sizzle and the kind of social melt that allowed for fresh starts.

Tsuneno, though, was no one’s idea of a lovely young heroine. She was, in fact, a much-married middle-aged woman with such a bad temper that, on the occasion of her fourth marriage, her eldest brother Giyu felt obliged to warn the groom: “As you probably know, she’s a very selfish person, so please return her to us if things don’t go well.”

The great achievement of this revelatory book is to demolish any assumption on the part of English language readers that pre-modern Japan was all blossom, tea ceremonies and mysterious half-smiles. Instead, by working through the rich archive of letters and diaries left by Tsuneno and her family, Stanley reveals a culture that is remarkably reminiscent of Victorian England, which is to say deeply expressive once you’ve cracked the codes.

It would be pleasing to report that Tsuneno found her bliss in Edo. But as a migrant she was far more vulnerable than if she had stayed put: the nice-seeming man from her village who was chaperoning her over the mountains raped her the moment they left their home turf. Naturally, he wanted to marry her too. On arrival in the city there wasn’t much work. Tsuneno wasn’t young or sunny enough to be a geisha and was reduced instead to becoming a domestic servant, picking up after nine women before going home at night to her squalid tenement. She spent nearly a year shivering in one unlined kimono because her brother, now head monk at the home temple, refused to send the clothes that she had asked for.

Stanley works hard throughout this compelling book to make Tsuneno into a feminist heroine, a brilliant girl born ahead of her time who “always claimed what was hers”. But on the evidence provided here, it really wasn’t like this. Tsuneno is interesting and admirable precisely because she was of her time and had to make the best of the hand she had been dealt. It is her ordinariness, and her multiple failures at not getting what she wanted, that make her story so deeply absorbing.

£8.49 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fiction

Post-9/11 America through the eyes of a Muslim and his father

Homeland Elegies

Ayad Akhtar

Homeland Elegies Ayad Akhtar

Post-9/11 America through the eyes of a Muslim and his father


This courageous and timely novel deftly interweaves fact and fiction, memoir and history. The narrator, who shares Akhtar’s name, and is no longer a practising or believing Muslim, finds himself “still entirely shaped by the Islam that had socially defined me since 9/11”, interrogating “a culture that didn’t understand us, that didn’t want us”. For this reason, he says, “I only ever voiced my thoughts indirectly, through that particular prevarication called art.” Presumably it’s why Akhtar decided to examine his own life through the lens of fiction.

It’s hard to convey the breadth and brilliance of this work. Exploiting his skills as playwright and essayist as well as novelist, Akhtar depicts an immigrant family’s experience of the American dream through a son’s relationship with his father, and dissects the erosion of truth, decency and hope in a nation shaped by debt and money.

Akhtar’s parents were both doctors, born and educated in Pakistan and recruited by American hospitals in the 1960s, before settling eventually in Wisconsin. His father embraced everything America had to offer, while his mother quietly yearned for her homeland and her first love, who had returned to Pakistan. Their son, born on Staten Island in 1970, identifies as American until he looks in the mirror: “though I didn’t feel ‘other’ in any meaningful way, I clearly appeared only that way – at least to myself.”

In the 1990s, his father briefly treated Trump for an irregular heartbeat and, to his son’s horror, remained in his thrall until his election. Akhtar sees Trump’s ascent as a consequence of “the conquering rise of mercantilism with all its attendant vulgarity, its acquisitive conscience supplanting every moral one”.

Art sustains Akhtar. Homeland Elegies opens and ends with his beloved professor, Mary Moroni, described as “an angel in a Renaissance fresco”. She nurtured his love of reading, and helped cement his desire to be a writer. In a poignant coda, entitled “Free Speech”, Mary invites Akhtar to give a talk at her Iowa college. Thirty years later, it’s a different climate: “College was now a customer experience, not a pedagogical one.” Most of her students are in debt and less inclined to study, but Mary clings to the hope that art and imagination can help change the national mood. We come full circle when Akhtar learns of posters that have appeared around campus depicting him in front of the burning towers with the caption: Proud of 9/11. His novel serves as a fitting riposte.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fiction

Reclaiming Australia’s Indigenous voices

The Yield

Tara June Winch

The Yield Tara June Winch

Reclaiming Australia’s Indigenous voices


Winch’s moving novel begins with an invitation to take her language into your mouth. Poppy Albert Gondiwindi, of the Wiradjuri people of what is now called New South Wales, begins the story in the present day. “I was born on Ngurambang – can you hear it? – Ngu-ram-bang. If you say it right it hits the back of your mouth and you should taste blood in your words.” He is making a dictionary of Wiradjuri, a task which will have greater import than he will live to realise, for he is dying of pancreatic cancer.

Winch is herself of Wiradjuri heritage, and an afterword makes clear how significant it is for her to give that heritage a place in wider culture. It is an effort that is being recognised; when The Yield was published in Australia in 2019, it won the Miles Franklin award, Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. Poppy’s dictionary runs through this novel, with English words given their Wiradjuri translations; after each translation comes a brief glimpse of how the word links to family, to land, to story.

Laced into this rich catalogue of words, each one offering a glimpse of a civilisation that the colonisers of the land worked so hard to eradicate, are two other narratives. August is Poppy’s granddaughter, “about to exit the infinite stretch of her twenties” with “nothing to show”. She has left Australia for England but decides to return for his funeral; when she arrives, she finds that their community is under threat. There is a proposal to build a tin mine, two kilometres wide and 300 feet deep, another scar on a land already scarred for centuries: it’s enough to know that August and Poppy’s hometown is called Massacre Plains, named for reprisals against the Indigenous people who attempted to defend their land.

The third narrative is provided through letters written by the Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf in 1915, a missionary working among the people of Massacre Plains who comes to perceive that government policy – to eradicate native languages, to separate children from parents and worse – visits evil on the people he came, as he believed, to serve. He determines, at the end of his life, “to tell how wrongs became accepted as rights”.

Winch has built her novel with subtlety and strength. This is a complex, satisfying book, both story and testimony. The Yield works to reclaim a history that never should have been lost in the first place.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

History

A fascinating and overlooked history

Wanderers: A History of Women Walking

Kerri Andrews

Wanderers: A History of Women Walking Kerri Andrews

A fascinating and overlooked history


There have been plenty of books by and about male walkers, exploring the links between creativity and pedestrianism. But women walkers have been largely overlooked. But as academic and keen rambler Kerri Andrews writes, “the experience of being on foot has frequently meant markedly different things for women” than men.

In the past, men had both the time and the leisure to walk, as well as being encouraged to be mobile and alone. In contrast women have faced restrictive social attitudes regarding being alone in public: the term “streetwalker” has never had the same connotations for men as for women.

Through the life stories of 10 wandering women, Andrews explores “the previously unacknowledged breadth, depth and distinctiveness” of their writing, and reveals a rich “female tradition of walking”. Like Elizabeth Carter, one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the 18th century. Describing herself as a “rambling genius”, this brilliant woman, who was fluent in nine languages, aspired to be mistaken for a vagrant in her perambulations around the Kent coast, and found in walking “a most cherished panacea” for everything from ennui to grief.

When Dorothy Wordsworth moved to Kendal in the Lake District in 1799 with her brother, walking became central to her “physical, emotional and indeed spiritual well-being”. For many women like Dorothy, walking and writing became parallel processes of discovery – both of the world around them and of themselves.

For some women, such as Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt and Ellen Weeton, walking offered a vital escape route from unhappy marriages. By writing about their experiences of “running wild” (as Weeton put it), both women found new ways of understanding themselves and their relationship to the world.

Not all of Andrews’ subjects found inspiration in rural settings. Virginia Woolf paced many of her novels into existence in London. “To walk alone in London is the greatest rest, “ she wrote. Anaïs Nin, who sometimes wrote 100,000 words a year in her diary, was a keen observer of urban life. Walking through cities became a source of creativity, sensuality and solace: “I sometimes tire my sadness away by walking”.

For Linda Cracknell, who lives in the Tayside town of Aberfeldy, both writing and walking are empathetic activities. The paths she walks “ring with the voices of earlier women-walkers who passed there”. After writing this book, Andrews too finds her paths “companioned” (to use Nan Shepherd’s word) by other women-wanderers, part of a rich cultural heritage that her fascinating research has revealed.

£9.99 – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fiction

Coming of age in Uganda

The First Woman

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

The First Woman Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Coming of age in Uganda


Kirabo is an inquisitive child. She has even more unanswered questions than other girls in the run-up to puberty, the greatest and most mysterious of which is: “Who is my mother?” In the small Ugandan village of Nattetta, nobody seems to want to tell her, least of all the grandparents who have loved and protected her throughout her life; fleeting visits from her father, Tom, who is busy making his mark in Kampala, yield no further insight. So Kirabo, already unsettled by her ability to depart her body and soar above her neighbourhood, decides to consult the village witch.

Makumbi’s first novel, Kintu, explored the complex effects of masculinity and its limitations on the relationship between fathers and sons. Here, she focuses on the origin myths of motherhood, the contested ground of women’s sexuality and the intersection between personal, public and political power, in a style that is frank, funny and direct.

Kirabo gradually uncovers her identity as those around her plan her life. First her father, part of an emerging class of political and entrepreneurial wheeler dealers, takes her to live with him in Kampala. There she gazes wistfully at advertising billboards in which happy families advertise washing powder; such tableaux are at odds with the scene at her father’s house, where she is confronted by a stepmother and half-siblings she didn’t know about, and where her comically monstrous stepmother is revealed to have been equally in the dark.

The First Woman is a lively, engaging read, and Makumbi cleverly braids the immensely personal – Kirabo’s yearning for a mother who appears to want nothing to do with her – with far larger scale social and political shifts. It is a novel that deliberately meanders, and veers between delivering condensed gouts of information with more leisurely set pieces; but its energy derives from its considerable wit and the charm of its central character.

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Science and nature

How sharks are misunderstood

Emperors of the Deep

William McKeever

Emperors of the Deep William McKeever

How sharks are misunderstood


The fallacy that “sharks as a species are nothing more than bloodthirsty man-eaters, apex predators with no other purpose than to kill” is widely believed. The reality is different. In 2018, there were four deaths attributed to a shark attack. The US, which is the country with the most attacks, had one that year. Ants kill 30 people a year there, and bees 478.

As McKeever shows, sharks have more to fear from humans than we do from them. We currently kill between 100 and 273 million a year for their meat, skin, fins, liver, cartilage and as collateral damage from tuna fishing, which Greenpeace describe as an “industry out of control”. For every 10 tuna caught, five sharks are killed. According to McKeever, the longline fishing method used to catch tuna (literally a line up to 100 miles long covered with hooks) is “sadistic”: the fishing ships “are truly weapons of mass destruction on the high seas”.

In this heartfelt plea to respect the life in our oceans and especially the much maligned sharks, McKeever describes how these “evolutionary marvels” are today facing the gravest threat to their existence in their entire 450m-year history. Their plight should concern us all, for as apex predators these “beautiful and majestic emperors and empresses of the deep” are vital to the health and diversity of the oceans: “Kill the sharks and humankind cripples the seas.”

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fantasy

Rollicking fantasy set in an alternate 1980s London

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Garth Nix

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London Garth Nix

Rollicking fantasy set in an alternate 1980s London


Billed as a novel for young adults, Garth Nix’s latest novel The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (Gollancz, £18.99) is sure to be enjoyed by readers of any age with a craving for fast-paced, page-turning fantasy. The setting is an alternative 1980s London where punk sensibility and the ever-present spectre of Margaret Thatcher rub shoulders with supernatural creatures from nether dimensions. Eighteen-year-old art student Susan Arkshaw arrives to begin her studies while attempting to trace her long-lost father. She soon becomes embroiled with the young, gender-fluid Merlin, one of the eponymous Left-Handed Booksellers, a society of arcane individuals whose duty is to deal with creatures that seep into this reality from ancient myth. What follows, as Susan attempts to find her father, and Merlin tracks down the supernatural being responsible for the killing of his mother, is a madcap chase that is sure to win Nix new fans.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

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