What the Prospect staff are reading:
I’ve flick-read Affluenza by Oliver James, especially the last section which was particularly recommended in Catherine Hakim’s review in the TLS. I want to like James’s stuff—I used to know him a bit and I admire his project—but I find his work irritatingly glib, especially his crude leftist politics, made worse by a jocular writing style. I’m also reading Ed Husain’s The Islamist—it’s a good (albeit slightly repetitive) and informative read—although having just spent a lot of time working on Shiv Malik’s story of the radicalisation of Mohammad Sidique Khan it is familiar ground.
Shamefully, I’ve never read any Kafka—I’ve always been put off by his miserablist reputation. So I have been surprised by how entertaining and, above all, funny The Trial is. There’s amazing comic potential in the idea of something happening (in this case Joseph K’s trial), which makes absolutely no sense but which everyone accepts. It’s a very modern idea. As in The Trial, it often goes with bureaucratic language/logic taking on a momentum of its own. One can see immediately the enormous influence Kafka has had—on Stanley Kubrick, on the zanier strain in modern American fiction (David Foster Wallace etc). Still, I don’t think use of the word “Kafkaesque” should be encouraged.
St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. Russell was recently named one of Granta’s “Best of Young American Novelists,” despite having published only this short story collection. Many of the stories are rather over-the-top and wacky. But the two that have already been published in the New Yorker, plus the title story, are rather brilliant as well.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. This eccentric book attempts to explain why it is that we are so bad at predicting “black swans”—events that come apparently out of nowhere, that have massive consequences and that we retrospectively try to make appear predictable. I’m hoping to write about it in the next issue of Prospect so shall say no more here. I have also been flicking through the latest issue of Seed magazine, an impressive American glossy popular science monthly. The latest issue features a story on Chinese attempts to reduce carbon emissions—an issue likely to become increasingly relevant in the light of President Bush’s attempts to forge a new global climate change deal that includes China and India.
Missing Kissinger, Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s collection of short short stories. Funny and tragic, and only a few pages each. A magician tries to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but takes out only its head, and lots of blood—the kids love it; a guy brings a girl home with him for the first time only to find that his best friend has pissed on his doorstep. There’s a casual, often dark, magical realism about these stories that’s inspired.
Owing to my habit of picking a random book to read from the shelf as I sprint for a train each morning, I read Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Dry for the first time today. It’s one of those books that clever people are supposed to be snide about, but I’ve found it absorbing and extraordinarily vivid in places. I even got slightly husky on the Northern line over Burroughs’s descriptions of an alcoholic with terminal cancer. It certainly makes updating the database of Prospect contributors seem a little more bearable.
Nationality: Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale, by Kester Aspden. Anyone around the age of 50 who lived in Leeds in the late 1960s will redden with anger at the mention of the name Oluwale, a Nigerian tramp systematically abused by two members of the Leeds constabulary in 1969. It would be easy to over-sentimentalise this case, but by and large Aspden maintains a sense of perspective: Oluwale was a nobody, a sad loner with a history of petty violence and mental illness. However, when doubts were raised as to the circumstances of his death, the police enquiry found two officers guilty and this led to substantial reform, in the face of a savage character-blackening campaign orchestrated by the Leeds judiciary.
I’m also reading Haruki Murakami’s latest, After Dark. In some ways this is standard Murakami fare—jazz musician, sad café, lonely woman, tidy but dysfunctional man, odd sex, the unexpected but somehow routine violence in seemingly ordered Japanese civic society. Not the best Murakami to start with if you haven’t read any others, but even on autopilot, he is a master. I don’t begrudge the huge fan club he has now acquired, even though I found him first.