Forget your iPhone and enjoy the summer break… with a BOOK. A book forces you to free yourself from the vice of “now” and allows you the luxury of parallel worlds, right there on the page. Really, if you think about it, books are synonymous with holidays.
So summer is here. The summer of 2010. And books are still on sale – despite all doomsday scenarios of a world in which Ashton Kutcher’s twitterings are the sole arbiter of cultural relevance and Steve Jobs has copyrighted every single marketable book and clothed it in a black turtleneck sweater for the iPad.
The book, you see, the physical book still has certain advantages in the wireless village, and one of these is its sheer practicability. Electronic reading devices are not suited for the beach. Sand, sun, water? I don’t think so. And what happens when the electricity supply in your off-the-beaten track hideaway of choice cuts out during a freak tornado and you can’t recharge your Kindle? More importantly, though, books are dogmatic. Books don’t encourage you to surf the net or check out Russell Crowe’s paunch or Russell Brand’s teeth on YouTube. A book forces you to read, to free yourself from the vice of now and allow yourself the luxury of parallel worlds. Really, if you think about it, books are synonymous with holidays – and here are seven to take you round the world on your own, private, exclusive, magical mystery summer holiday.
We start in the US where, as if to prove my point, Justin Halpern has turned his Twitter feeds into a novel, of sorts, entitled Sh*t My Dad Says (Boxtree, 2010). After returning home jobless and partner-less to his parent’s house in his late twenties, Halpern turned tragedy into comedy by twittering the comments he got – and gets – from his dad on everything and anything (baseball, puberty, personal hygiene, God).
The book retains the sound-bite format – except in slightly longer form – giving us a wildly comic look at the freshly opened wounds of childhood, with the author and his father performing a frustrated jig between then and now. When do twitterings turn into aphorisms? Right here, in this book.
We follow American film legend John Ford across the Atlantic in part three of Roddy Doyle’s Henry Smart trilogy. The Dead Republic (Jonathan Cape, 2010) covers Smart’s return to Ireland in 1951. He’s nominally employed by film director Ford, who wants to use Smart’s story as a former freedom fighter as meat for a film. Ford picks… and Henry bleeds as he surrenders his memories of the old country whilst confronting the new in this astonishing (meta-) narrative of stories and how to tell them – or not – from a writer who just gets better and better.
A hop and a skip across the Irish Sea and we’re in some God-forsaken English suburb were Laura is living the life of entitled Hausfrau in Suzanne Bugler’s This Perfect World (MacMillan, 2010), comparing hardwood tones with hair tints amongst a coterie of equally privileged friends – until she hears about the nervous breakdown of a former schoolmate. The message is not new: we are punished by our sins, not for them. But the telling is right on the money. Unsentimental, unsparing and understated, the novel’s post-feminist defence of Laura’s hard-won independence certainly bears repeating.
For more suburbia: the Oxford featured in Barbara Trapido’s Sex and Stravinsky (Bloomsbury, 2010) is also pretty underwhelming. Happily, the hodgepodge of family and friends gravitating towards and away from each other soon relocates to South Africa after Australian amazon Caroline goes there to hunt down her quirkily errant white South-African husband. It’s an interesting mixture, this notion of pervasive serendipity in which the pass-the-parcel of partner/parent/sibling all works out splendidly within the untidy confines of an evolving post-apartheid society. The idea that you have to believe in something to make it work is always appealing – and it works well here, too.
One large leap over the Indian Ocean brings us to the subcontinent, where debut novelist Aatish Taseer’s The Temple-goers (Viking, 2010) provides a grass-roots view of India’s emerging economy. Narrator/writer Aatish returns home with a western education to find himself stretched to breaking by his allegiance to the old India with its caste systems, political dynasties and cultural dogmas on the one hand, and his fascination with the brash glitterati of new millennium India on the other. Literature, and the art of writing, is not any kind of guarantee for moral rectitude and never has been. Here, though, the art of sitting on the literary fence has been taken to new ironic heights. Formally stunning, Taseer’s beautifully limpid sentences occupy a zone somewhere between VS Naipaul’s dulcet tones and the harsh realities of Aravind Adiga’s thrusting prose. One to watch.
A jump southwards now to Australia and a novel that does full and riotous justice to the notion of multiculturalism, turning it on the pinhead of a small, seemingly insignificant gesture. Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (Tuskar Rock, 2010) was originally published in Australia in 2008. Having won a number of prestigious prizes, it has now finally found a publisher in the northern hemisphere and is going down a storm. An adult slaps a child at a barbecue. It is not his child. The reactions to this action are as varied as the people who witness and describe it from their standpoint and, by extension, that of their respective cultures: Anglo-Saxon, southern and eastern European, Asian, Australian. Not only well written, this novel is also funny and uncannily zeitgeistig, cajoling the reader into some deep thinking on the theme of cultural relativity whilst telling a pretty good yarn.
Crossing the Pacific on the last leg back to the US, we land on the west coast in the gruesomely torrid world of Bret Easton Ellis. In Imperial Bedrooms (Picador, 2010), the author turns his dispassionate eye onto the same cast of characters that rocketed him to fame some 25 years ago with Less than Zero. Older and definitely not wiser, the screenwriters and pimps, dealers and directors drive up and down Sunset Boulevard seemingly intent on mutually assured destruction. Although the environment remains male-centric and dick-headed, Ellis’ writing is still strangely un-put-down-able in this study of Hollywood’s obsessively dark side. You’ll probably love hating it.
Seven books: take you pick and head off to the beach (bar). If you can’t bear to leave your iPhone at home, you can always use it as a bookmark.