Books: ’Tis the season to get reading
David Gorin rounds up the top novels and nonfiction, as well as a collection of short stories, to add to your summer break must-absorb list
For the journey: Turbulence by David Szalay (Jonathan Cape, 2018)
This tight collection of 12 short stories, loosely connected by the thread of air travel, makes a perfect flying companion. Its smaller format is handy for carry-on luggage, too.
Each story starts in one city and ends in another, titled as the departure and destination airport codes. So the first story is called LGW-MAD, an instant guide-rope to the plot: a mother is returning home to Spain after visiting her seriously ill son in London. Szalay condenses a tense psychological drama into fewer that 10 pages, the flight’s drastic turbulence a motif for the mother’s distress at her son’s prognosis.
The other slice-of-life stories are just as masterful. Each vignette unveils a secondary character whose onward journey is picked up in a rolling narration of personal crises or conflicts.
Szalay is a close observer of human foibles in close, cramped situations — and is imaginatively poignant about our frailty when back on the ground, faced with life’s problems that put the inconveniences of flying into perspective. He highlights the connections between us, prompting the realisation that, despite the melancholic undercurrent of tense travel and the complexities, disappointments and absurdities of human relationships, it’s good to be alive.
To appreciate the ties that bind: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, 2019)
In the 1950s, the Conroys purchase a magnificent mansion in suburban Pennsylvania, constructed and ornately furnished by wealthy Dutch tobacco merchants.
The young children, Maeve and Danny, love their "Dutch" home, its nooks, crannies and idiosyncratic décor providing an anchor as their parents drift apart. But their mother is overwhelmed by the home’s grandeur, and leaves one day in what seems an unforgivable abandonment of her children, but which softens in explanation as the story unfolds.
Soon, a stepmother enters their lives. She covets the house as much as she dislikes her stepchildren — and when their father dies, they are cruelly evicted.
The fractured family undergoes a long path to reconciliation and redemption. Patchett’s understated, light style is a counterpoint to the novel’s weighty themes of love, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion.
Anyone who has faced a family challenge will see a part of their struggle in this ultimately heart-warming saga of how families can cleave, but how time and the cycles of life can bring healing.
Inspiring next year’s goals: The Rise of the Ultra Runners by Adharanand Finn (Faber & Faber, 2019)
What makes an endurance runner, and can these insights help us grasp what makes a man?
Or a woman. Extreme races are regularly won by the tougher, fairer sex. Courtney Dauwalter won the 387km Moab 240 event (in Utah in the US) in 2017. Jasmin Paris triumphed in this year’s 431km Spine Race along the PennineWay in the UK. On a page, these distances seem nebulous; it’s more striking to contemplate their times: 58 hours and 83 hours, respectively, of near nonstop running.
At this level of commitment, extreme running is not really about running. To properly comprehend, Finn embarks on the Holy Grail of ultramarathoners, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, a 170km circumnavigation of Europe’s famous peak. To enter he needs to rack up a series of qualifying races.
So the journey of discovery begins, taking Finn across continents — including competing in the Comrades marathon — and into the psyche of people who push beyond what seems human.
"In an ultramarathon, and in particular one of 100 miles [160km] or more, you get to a place, a state, that you never go to in the rest of your life," he writes. This book explains not just where that is, but why people explore that limit.
A peek into the Hermit Kingdom: North Korea Journal by Michael Palin (Hutchinson, 2019)
In May 2018, at the precise moment of US-North Korea rapprochement and the resumption of relations between the two Koreas, adventurer-actor Michael Palin is serendipitously filming a documentary in the world’s most isolated nation.
Everything — the journey, filming permissions, where they walk — is rigidly supervised by minders. Still, Palin’s chronicle is fascinating, and reveals routinely bizarre aspects of North Korean life. A barber shop poster depicts 15 mandatory styles — all essentially the same. Everyone older than 14 must wear a party badge over their heart, bearing the images of the two founders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il (respectively, grandfather and father of current ruler Kim Jong-un). A patriotic martial anthem, Where Are You, Dear General?, is broadcast over city-wide loudspeakers every morning hour from six, rousing the masses and exhorting them to get to work.
But human connections can’t be suppressed. Palin visits the demilitarised zone, and the North Korean commander smiles in agreement at his suggestion that in 20 years it may be a park instead. Photographs taken at the end of the trip show genuine smiles, hinting at affection between film crew and minders. The journal, then, reflects hope within a seemingly hopeless totalitarian regime, underscoring that there’s more to North Korea than propaganda and nuclear weapons.
A high-octane local thrill: The Last Hunt by Deon Meyer (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019)
It can’t be coincidental that Meyer launched his new Benny Griessel thriller in parallel with the screening of M-Net’s adaptation of his 2011 book Trackers.
Fans won’t mind: the more Meyer, the better.
The plot’s opening sequence intrigues instantly; the settings are local and European; the action flies fast and furiously. Less a crime novel than a political thriller, it capitalises on SA’s bedevilled politics, the hollowing out of the Hawks, and geopolitical manoeuvring by Russia. The meticulous research and pace is that of Frederick Forsyth at his best, but Meyer’s cleverest insight is to extrapolate a scenario, probably secretly imagined by many South Africans, into a credible international espionage episode.
Meyer writes sensitively and realistically in capturing everyday SA. Griessel and his police colleagues are still grappling with the nuances of cultural disconnect. "I don’t think you can write crime fiction in a society like apartheid was; you can’t have a hero like Griessel representing the state in that environment," Meyer believes, aware of legacies of racial tensions. To his credit, this theme is subtle but not lost in the suspense and twists of The Last Hunt.
For self-appreciation: The Body — A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, 2019)
Bryson’s premise is that we pass our lives in a space about which we know next to nothing.
His avuncular, abounding curiosity incorporates incredible and often amusing statistics; for example, we comprise 7-octillion atoms, a number that looks ridiculous when written. "No-one can say why those seven billion billion billion atoms have such an urgent desire to be you," he says.
The Body will be cherished by those who enjoy having information at their fingertips. The scientific word for fingerprints, incidentally, is dermatoglyphics — and the extremely rare condition of people born with smooth fingertips is adermatoglyphia.
He’s not a medical doctor or a scientist, so how does he know all this, and can the voluminous detail all be true?
Charmingly, Bryson remains awestruck at the miracle of life, noting that our cells and atoms are not alive, but "somehow when all of these things are brought together, you have life. That is the part that eludes science. I kind of hope it always will."
To understand powerful, unseen forces: This Is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber & Faber, 2019)
Disinformation, outright lies and conspiracies are the new norms, of both the news cycle and state control.
The technologies and spy games are intricate. But it behoves us to grasp the big picture; it will be unacceptable, in the years ahead, to say we had no idea.
Pomerantsev’s book helps, enormously. He provides a wide vantage, exposing coercive campaigns and political machinations across continents, demonstrating effects on real people, and explaining why social media, by polarising attitudes, is profoundly anti-social, and represents the biggest indoctrination tool in history. From personal persecution in the Philippines to the shrouding of an entire society in China, the art of propaganda has been scaled to a more sinister level than Orwell imagined.
If you think Western democracies have cottoned on, you’re not paying attention: the Trump impeachment saga has an unreal parallel narrative on Fox News, and election messaging in Britain is still being distorted despite the exposure of the Cambridge Analytica effect on the Brexit referendum.
Pomerantsev presents a chilling dissection of the new mechanisms of state power and influence. His book is a timeous warning and, in a maelstrom of manipulation, will help rebalance our thinking towards taking back control.
Gentle but disturbing dystopian fiction: The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde (Scribner, 2019)
Which is more powerful: provocation or the pen?
Greta Thunberg’s dynamic, youthful activism must be admired. Maja Lunde may be her literary equivalent, persuasively pushing looming environmental disasters into our consciousness using imagination and narrative.
Lunde’s follow up to her award-winning History of Bees continues the climate change dystopia, set in a not-too-distant future when our actions today have unravelled into dire consequences for future generations.
This is creditable cli-fi because its projection is wrapped within contextual realism and a believable story; the characters could be many of us, and the circumstances — especially involving water stress issues — are happening right now.
If you aren’t already seriously concerned about climate change, The End of the Ocean will immerse you in a thoughtful tale even as it forces you to engage with the issue.
Revelations of unimaginable courage: The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather (WH Allen, 2019)
This compelling nonfiction work proves there is much still to learn about the Holocaust, and heroism.
It tells a hitherto unknown story of an unheralded Polish officer tasked with organising resistance and garnering intelligence. The book’s stark opening sentence is riveting regarding his mission’s destination: "Witold Pilecki volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz."
Interned in September 1940, in messages smuggled via resistance networks he repeatedly urged the Allies to bomb the camp, long before the methodised murder of the Holocaust commenced. Pilecki remained in Auschwitz for two years; he escaped and continued fighting for the Polish underground and, post-war, in resistance campaigns against the communist regime.
Tragically, he was captured, tried and executed in 1948 by Poland’s Soviet-backed government, which deemed him to be a political threat not least because he had investigated Russian atrocities in his homeland during his post-Auschwitz missions.
For nearly 50 years after the war, Poland’s regime portrayed a propagandised version of Auschwitz in which only communist prisoners and Russian liberators could be heroes. Thus, Pilecki’s heroism was erased, and has only recently been uncovered as state archives have opened and Pilecki’s memoirs have been retrieved and translated.
Deservedly, albeit belatedly, we now know the extent of his sacrifice.
To shed new light on the past: The Colour of Time: A New History of the World 1850-1960 by Dan Jones and Marina Amaral (Head of Zeus, 2018)
What does colour add to historical perspective? In a word, amplification: of the cruel cunning in Stalin’s coal-black eyes; of the wide-eyed, fearful confusion of a doomed soldier in a Flanders field; of how Mata Hari’s vibrant apple-red lips contrast with the dull red of battlefield blood at Gettysburg.
Towards a final selection of 200 photographs, the book’s creators spent two years poring over 10,000 candidates — and researching: colours, and their shades, are lost in the past and required painstaking fact-checking. "A portrait of a soldier, say, will contain uniforms, medals, ribbons, patches, vehicles, skin, eye and hair colours … each detail must be verified," the introduction explains.
The Colour of Time is a masterful curation of segments of history. Dip into it to learn about the Native American tribes led by Sitting Bull or Red Cloud, or the 1954 Guatemalan coup, or to appreciate Jones’s incisive backdrop commentaries, such as his characterisation of the 1850s as "a time of extraordinary, near-unprecedented change which confused, delighted and killed people in roughly equal measure". Or simply revel in the photographs.