Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Reading round-up: June

June 2016 books

Where Love Begins by Judith Hermann, translated by Margaret Bettauer Dembo – Full review / Buy
There's something pervasively dreamlike about this novel, the story of a woman who keeps being bothered by a neighbour. It's written in a simple, matter-of-fact style, and not much really happens: the 'stalker' doesn't do much more than knock on the door and write letters, which remain mostly unread. And yet I found it weirdly gripping. One for those who value atmosphere over a dramatic plot.

Invincible Summer by Alice AdamsFull review / Buy
Like a mash-up of David Nicholls' One Day and a much lighter version of Linda Grant's Upstairs at the Party, this debut follows a group of four friends for twenty years, starting with their first summer as students. Their disparate backgrounds and fates make for an enjoyable, if forgettable, journey through the past couple of decades.

Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts by Grafton TannerBuy
This slim non-fiction volume (what's the non-fiction equivalent of a novella? Should I just call it an essay?) seems at first to be almost absurdly niche: it sets out to examine modern ideas of 'hauntings', whether the incorporeality of our digital selves or what Tanner calls 'Western culture's preoccupation with the past', through the lens of musical microgenre vaporwave. But its scope becomes much broader than that, exploring contemporary notions of the uncanny and the fraught relationship between capitalism and culture. While it comes a little unstuck at the end (some of the conclusions are a bit hysterical), it's a really interesting read.

Lions by Bonnie Nadzam – Buy
This second novel from Nadzam may have a pleasing complementary title to her first – Lamb – but it is a very different type of book. Set in a Colorado ghost town where only a few families remain, it keeps flirting with touches of fantasy, but ultimately it is a quiet story about family relationships and the power of tradition. Where Lamb was tense and disturbing, Lions is vague and sedate. It has its own peaceful charm, but for me, it didn't live up to the author's debut.

Errantry: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand – Full review / Buy
This collection is filled with unpredictable, creepy tales for which the label 'strange stories' seems perfectly appropriate. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book, but it's particularly notable for 'Near Zennor', an absolute masterpiece of a story about weird events, both past and present, surrounding a remote Cornish farm.

The Execution by Hugo Wilcken – Buy
A combination of thriller and character study, The Execution charts the existential crisis experienced by its narrator Matthew after a strange accident involving a colleague, followed by the discovery that his wife is having an affair. Matthew is a contemptible character and, on top of that, he relates the story in a flat, emotionless voice, but its pace is exhilarating, with suggestions of unreliability that give it a surreal tone. If you liked Wilcken's The Reflection, chances are you'll like this too: it's like a less-polished practice run (but still more than worth a read).

Mythologies by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers – Buy
While some of the essays collected in Mythologies are inevitably dated, their basic premise – the idea of cultural phenomena, everything from washing powder and cars to wrestling matches and the face of Greta Garbo, as 'modern myths' – remains both relevant and accessible. Culminating in the longer, linguistics-heavy essay 'Myth Today', the book is intellectually demanding, but it's also playful and even funny at times. A challenging and thought-provoking break from fiction.

Pretentiousness: Why It Matters by Dan Fox – Buy
Having already read a number of extracts (an example), I knew Pretentiousness was a book I wanted to read, but I still approached it with a certain amount of caution, aware that a defence of pretentiousness might feel automatically exclusive of the likes of me. But it is actually quite the opposite, as Fox's argument goes back to the roots of the word and its ideas of performance, putting on a mask; he discusses autodidactism and how notions of pretentiousness are often tied to classism (the mistrust of those who have 'ideas above their station'). Ironically (or perhaps not?), it's so readable that I raced through it and was left wanting more.

The Many by Wyl Menmuir – Full review / Buy
An unnamed seaside town is in decline; fishermen are lucky to bring in meagre hauls, and the fish they catch are usually deformed. When an outsider moves into a long-empty house in this dismal place, curiosities and suspicions are aroused. The Many has a creepy, vaguely threatening ambience, but the source of this is hard to discern, and indeed the story as a whole remains inscrutable. I'd recommend it to fans of The Loney.


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