The month in books

February’s highlights tackle big questions with a light touch
January 25, 2012

How important is money? It’s a question that preoccupies many of us in the turbulence of economic disaster, and this month’s books address it from different angles. Does money matter more than love, religious faith, memory or virtue?

The Street Sweeper (Faber, £14.99), the third novel by the Australian writer Elliot Perlman, has been generating much advance praise, and is being tipped as a contender for the Man Booker prize. A big, bold international work with a piercing moral sense, it follows the lives of three men, and encompasses aspects of the Holocaust, the seldom told story of African-American soldiers in the second world war and the birth of the American civil rights movement. As in his previous novel Seven Types of Ambiguity, Perlman’s unforced sympathy for characters who are not immediately attractive individuals is striking and enlightening. The story centres upon Lamont Williams, an African-American convict on probation, who becomes friends with an elderly Holo-caust survivor, Mandelbrot, in hospital. As their stories are interwoven with those of Adam Zignelik, a historian at Columbia University laid low by personal and professional crises, the novel illuminates the small acts of individual kindness, memory and compassion which must stand against the human capacity for cruelty and inhumanity. “Tell everyone what happened here,” is the novel’s refrain.

Alex Preston’s The Revelations (Faber, £12.99) satirises the sort of contemporary Christian cult that is as popular with bankers as with drifters. The charismatic David Nightingale promises followers of The Course spiritual enlightenment in exchange for chastity—but he is clearly just as interested in money. To a quartet of young, attractive people, each with personal problems ranging from a childless marriage to aimless lust, The Course appears to offer them a “crutch” to lean on until they find out who they are. Preston writes with black-edged wit about the kind of spoilt, confused young adults bred during the boom years, for whom luck has run out. If his debut, This Bleeding City caught some of the deadly emptiness of hedge fund trading, The Revelations is a more mature, tightly written exploration of the way spiritual yearning can become indistinguishable from the more destructive aspects of capitalism.

A very different kind of life is conjured up by Helen Dunmore’s novella The Greatcoat (Hammer, £9.99). Set in the 1950s, it concerns a young doctor’s wife, haunted by the ghost of a dead airman. An intelligent woman left to cope alone by her hard-working husband, she warms herself by huddling under a heavy woollen coat (this, of course, was a time when coal as well as food and cloth was still rationed). Is she really possessed, or is it a delusion fostered by the abandoned aerodrome nearby, loneliness and provincial isolation? Who, really, is the father of her baby? A powerful evocation of period, and the tricks the mind can play on itself, its unadorned prose builds a chilling effect reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw.

Zona (Canongate £16.99) is Geoff Dyer’s discursive, provocative account of how he became haunted by Tarkovsky’s cult classic film, Stalker, and its eclectic ramblings are a must-read for those who love the offbeat. Dyer describes in exhaustive detail how Stalker “has always invited allegorical readings, and since the film has something of the quality of a prophecy, these readings are not confined to events that had occurred by the time the film was made.” Following the eponymous Stalker, the Writer and the Professor, on their journey to the immeasurable, mysterious area called “the Zone,” which promises to fulfil a person’s innermost desires, Dyer captures the suggestive strangeness of the film and its power to excite the imagination. At times, Dyer teeters on the edge of becoming as absurdly self-referential as the obsessive narrator of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but it is rescued by Dyer’s panoptic intelligence, humour, and insight about the way myth and reality have become intertwined following Chernobyl and the collapse of Soviet communism.

Philosophers may be surer guides to the questions of how to live, love and be free. James Miller’s The Philosophical Life (One World Publications, £14.99) is an account of the lives of 12 famous philosophers, from Socrates to Nietzsche. Too many philosophy books are impenetrable to the general reader, but what makes this book engaging is the wealth of personal detail woven into each philosopher’s quest for wisdom. The unorthodox choice of Diogenes, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne and Emerson among the more obvious names is also refreshing. “To consecrate oneself to truth—and to examine oneself and others—appears if anything harder and less potentially rewarding than it seems to have been for Socrates,” Miller observes, gloomily, but the concision with which his mini biographies are written makes this an ideal book to dip into before another night of sleepless worry.

Or you could comfort yourself by turning to David Rothenburg’s Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution (Bloomsbury, £14.99) a compelling, lucidly written investigation into how beauty can evolve, when nobody is, as he puts it, in charge. Can a peacock possess an aesthetic sense in choosing the mate with the “best” tail? Rothenburg, a professor of philosophy and music, addresses these questions from the standpoint of a naturalist who has already published fascinating books about why birds and whales sing. As he says, sexual selection “may tell us why birds sing, but not what birds sing, which is often so remarkable and lovely.”