Lockdown 2.0: 9 Books to Read

In light of this second lockdown that is upon us, I’ve found the need to surround myself with a bunch of books to keep me occupied over the coming weeks (months?!). I foresee many a duvet day which is never complete without a good book.

I did a little bit of Amazon, a couple from Waterstones (because sometimes one is seduced by the books in a bricks and mortar bookstore and coughs up the full price), and a gloved and masked foray into a charity bookstore. This has given me a nice selection of old titles and some relatively new ones.

I shall list them here and you should (hopefully) see my reviews on here in the coming weeks.

Out of this list, there are 3 books I picked because I felt they sort of capture the current mood of the world and might possibly make an interesting commentary on current society. These are ‘The Mandibles’ by Lionel Shriver, ‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami, and ‘The Unit’ by Ninni Holmqvist.

‘The Other Americans’ is about a Moroccan immigrant who’s killed by a speeding car at an intersection and has a cast of characters “deeply divided by race, religion and class”, and with the US election coming up next week, this state of the world is more clear to me than ever before.

‘The Mandibles’ is set in 2029 and depicts a world where “The U.S. national debt has grown so enormous that it can never be repaid. The dollar is in meltdown. A bloodless international currency war will wipe out the savings of millions of American families.” The book was written in 2017, before the world had ever known about COVID-19, at a time when Shriver’s 2029 world seems so out of whack. Today, these circumstances feel like they could very well manifest within the next year. If we’ve learnt anything over the past few months it is that anything is possible.

‘The Unit’ is a dystopian novel set in the not-so-distant future where men and women deemed economically worthless are sent to ‘the Unit’ where they must donate all their organs, one by one. This brought to my mind the value of human life and how it has been cheapened over the course of this pandemic. How so many people feel happy to sacrifice the vulnerable and the elderly in exchange for freedom.

So that’s my lockdown 2.0 reading list; really looking forward to getting into these. Let me know if you have any recommendations for me. Also, what books are you guys taking into lockdown with you?

Modern-ish Romance as Explored by Aziz Ansari – Is Dating Dead?

It’s been just over 5 years since I last posted on this blog. Which is WILD. Have I read a book in the past 5 years? Erm… perhaps… a few. I quit my burgeoning career in publishing in 2015 (long story about glass ceilings and a disturbing lack of diversity) which may well be the reason why I’ve strayed from books these past few years. To give you an idea, that Aziz Ansari book (Modern Romance) pictured in my last post in October 2015 – I’m literally reading it now, hahaha. It only took 5 years.

I like the little that I know of Aziz Ansari. I’ve never watched his Netflix show but his sense of humour works for me. I wonder how I’d have felt about this book back in 2015 when I actually got it (free from work). Dating at the time, for me, wasn’t this laborious swiping that it is now. Perhaps I’d have been fascinated with the insights, maybe even disagreed with the notion of choice being a negative thing. However, reading it in 2020, I feel things have progressed since his time of writing so don’t feel as relevant now, and I also just felt it was affirming things I already knew quite well (though, to his credit, he explores the topics in a way that makes this affirmation feel rather warming knowing that your experiences are shared by millions – you are not the exception (points if you know which movie this line comes from)). Anyway, all the above is why I’ve called this review Modern-ISH Romance.

Look how dirty hardbacks with a white paper cover get when you drag them around for 5 years promising you’ll read them.

Firstly, this book isn’t what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be significantly more anecdotal than it actually is, it’s very much factual non-fiction with data and theories developed from scientific research and focus groups, albeit spliced with a lot of dry jokes and an attempt to explain certain observations with humourous individual examples.

It’s crazy to think how much has changed in the dating world in the mere 5 years since this book was published. At the time of writing, Aziz talks about apps in a hesitantly positive way whilst also acknowledging the perils of choice. Whereas now, I don’t know a single person who uses dating apps and thinks they’re a positive thing. I think 5 years on, in 2020, choice has become a burden that has left singles numb and so distanced from the hundreds of faces that are swiping across their screens that the apps don’t function the way they were initially intended. I speak from experience that I did not have in 2015.

The joys of technological romantic exchange

“Searching for Your Soulmate” is perhaps the chapter that I enjoyed the most. It was really interesting (whilst also being quite depressing) to see how finding a partner has changed quite drastically from when our parents and grandparents were out there looking. The “soulmate marriage” is what most of us strive for today – finding someone we love truly, madly deeply and want to spend the rest of our lives with. Aziz explores this notion of the luxury of happiness and how only 50 or 60 years ago people married for simple reasons like the physical proximity of the love interest and for the ability to move out of their family home that marriage gave them. Like I said, these are things we already know, however, seeing the statistics and reading the research sort of solidifies things and makes it resonate.

“We want something that’s very passionate, or boiling, from the get-go. In the past, people weren’t looking for something boiling; they just needed some water.”

These “companionate marriages” of past generations allude to a life much smaller than that which most of us live now. We like to think we’re more worldly now. But it’s always this idea of the grass being greener isn’t it? I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted to marry someone who lived within a mile of my family home whilst I was in my early twenties (or even much later in life for that matter). I would have wanted the choice of living my own life first before settling. I would have wanted the choice of men from beyond my hometown, beyone my country, beyond my continent even. And we got all these things we wanted yet the finding has become significantly more difficult, significantly more laboured because our expectations have been distorted by too much choice. We are now simply fatigued.

The book deals with a bunch of subjects like cheating, sexting, settling down and the notion of monogamy. What makes it really readable is Ansari’s really dry, self-reflexive style of writing. He often goes off on hilarious little tangents as evidenced below with this old, stock photo couple who may or may not be in an open relationship.

In the book, Aziz also looks at dating/romantic culture in certain countries around the world. This is where I genuinely learnt something that I had no clue about prior. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock but I had no idea about what was (is?) happening in Japan with regards to dating and how people feel about the opposite sex. They’re so uninterested in it all that the government, out of fear that the Japanese race will be no longer due to a lack of interest in having sex and making babies, has intervened and funds several initiatives to get men and women to get together. Subsidised dating initiatives and marriage initiatives that involve actual cash rewards (!). It’s an honestly fascinating read that I couldn’t believe to be true. Did you all know this about Japan??  See the below for some shocking statistics:

The Japanese Dating ‘Crisis’

Ultimately, I found the opening sentence of this book to be the conclusion of the study in its entirety: “Many of the frustrations experienced by today’s singles seem like problems unique to our time and technological setting”. However, Aziz’s advice is to “treat potential partners like actual people, not bubbles on a screen” resonated with me. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I was filled with hope about modern day romance and dating but it did reaffirm that we’re all in this together and that maybe soulmate finding should be viewed from a position of priviledge rather than burdern.

Buenos Aires and Montevideo – A Book-lover’s Paradise

If you love books (which I’m going to assume most of you do), then the one thing you must add to your bucket list is a trip to Argentina and Uruguay. Not the most obvious of choices, I know, but trust me when I tell you that you will not regret it. Here’s why.

The beauty of South American bookshops

The beauty of South American bookshops

Last month I spent 10 beautiful days in Buenos Aires and Montevideo generally feeling very good about myself. The reason being that almost every single street corner housed a bookshop and I felt very literary and intelligent while I browsed through their offerings. From run down, second-hand fares to slick branded chains and cozy independents, there are bookshops for everyone in these two cities. Here I will tell you about my top 3.

We stumbled across Libros del Pasaje on a sunny Monday afternoon in Palermo Soho (the bohemian neighbourhood in Buenos Aires) whilst trying to find somewhere to eat – a task that was developing into quite the adventure.

Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

Libros del Pasaje

As soon as I entered I had one of those ‘WOW, this-is-where-I-belong’ moments.

Libros del Pasaje, Buenos Aires

Libros del Pasaje, Buenos Aires

If you’re not a hardcore books person, then I’ll give you room to cringe, but the rest of you know what I’m talking about – the floor to ceiling shelves, the rolling ladders, the cozy chairs, the creaking stairs, the coffee shop nestled in a corner…. It was just perfect.

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Though it was my last day in Buenos Aires, I couldn’t resist spending a couple of hours in the sunny conservatory eating my cake and reading my book. A rare moment of serenity in the bustle of Buenos Aires. This place is a real treat.

Reading books, eating cake, drinking coffee = bliss

Reading books, eating cake, drinking coffee = bliss

ldp2My second favourite spot is in the old part of the city of Montevideo, Uruguay. It’s just off Plaza de Independencia and would be difficult to miss with it’s large, airy windows.

PV Restaurant & Lounge

PV Restaurant & Lounge

It’s strange because I don’t know the name of the bookshop, but the cafe upstairs is called PV Restaurant & Lounge. I had some beautiful scones there, washed down with this uh-mazing hot chocolate (it was surprisingly windy and freezing in Montevideo). I swear it had massive chunks of real chocolate just melting all over the place.

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The beautiful stained glass windows, the grand staircase leading you up to the first floor (or, alternatively, there’s an ornate, old-school elevator that can crank you up); it’s all so elegant yet so cozy and welcoming.

Now for the final bookshop (which is back in Buenos Aires), set in an old theatre and is just simply so breathtaking in its grandeur.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

El Ateneo Grand Splendid is just so very cool, with the box seats set up as private reading nooks and the main stage having been converted into a cafe. What’s not to love?

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

What made me sad about all this is that we don’t have anything even remotely like this in London. Amazon has taken over the publishing world and all the independents have closed their doors, leaving us with the likes of Waterstones and WH Smiths. Life is unfair. Make up for that by taking a trip to South America.

Looking for New Writers!

Newwriters Hello my dear readers (if there are any of you still left!),

This is an odd blog post. Mostly because I haven’t written here in forever (very shameful, I know), and also because this isn’t a review. I’m looking for writers. Real writers who have written an actual novel. If this is you, I’d love it if you would send your work my way.

I work at a literary agency and haven’t read anything good in so very long that (in addition to wanting to kill myself) I’m desperate to find something new to get excited about. In terms of what kind of stuff I’m looking for: something commercial yet upmarket, literary. My blog should give you an idea of the kind of books I like to read (even if your book is nothing like the ones I tend to read, if you feel it’s well written, get in touch anyway). I should probably point out that what I don’t like to read is historical fiction.

Please get in touch using the CONTACT ME page on my blog with the title of your novel in the subject line. Provide a brief synopsis and if I think it’s up my street, I’ll email you back and ask to see the opening three chapters. Feel free to ask any questions by commenting below and if you have any friends that have something good hidden away somewhere, tell them to get in touch too. Can’t wait to hear from you guys (she says with barely veiled desperation)!

Book Review: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

Everyone’s talking about this book, and it has to be said that I’m not the sort of person who reads the books that everyone is talking about (case in point, ’50 Shades of Nonsense’). However, I saw the author in person a few months ago and, you know, he was kinda hot, so I gave in to the hype and decided to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed.

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This is the US edition that I picked up on holiday.

I cannot remember the last time that I was so absorbed in a book that I actually switched off my Netflix. I was so desperate to see how the book ended that I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday night/Monday morning (knowing full well I would suffer at work the next day) just inhaling the book. That I am a slow reader is a fact. That I finished this 640 page novel in one busy weekend is another fact. This is such an effortless read, the pages simply turn themselves.

If you’re not one of those people talking about this book, then let me give you a bit of background information. The book was first published in France in 2012 and has since sold over 2 million copies, been translated into over 30 languages and has also won some literary prizes in France. Plus, the writer is only now 28 years old and looks like this:

I have come across uglier writers.

I have come across uglier writers. (c) Jeremy Spierer

Anyhow, back to the book. Marcus Goldman is our lazy but likeable protagonist who has achieved continuous success throughout his life, due to the very simple fact that he only competes in situations where he’s guaranteed to win, against people who he knows to be weaker than he is (and the one time he saw that he was not going to win a race, he chose to deliberately break his leg rather than allow the illusion of “Marcus the Magnificent” to be tarnished):

In order to be magnificent, all that was needed was to distort the way others perceived me; in the end, everything was a question of appearances.’

The book opens in New York in the spring of 2008 where Marcus is experiencing severe writer’s block. His publishers are on his case and are threatening to sue if he doesn’t deliver the follow up to his wildly successful debut. In search of inspiration, Marcus goes to New Hampshire to visit his old college professor and mentor, Harry Quebert, a novelist still famous for a single book he wrote in the 70s. This trip doesn’t work for Marcus’s creativity so he goes back to New York, resigned to the fact that his career is now over.

Except, a few weeks later,  he receives an urgent call from his agent urging him to switch on the TV. Harry’s in trouble and is all over the news: The body of a 15 year old girl who went missing 33 years ago has been found buried in his back yard. Buried with her is the original manuscript of Harry’s famous novel, The Origin of Evil. Maybe, now, Marcus has something to write about. Harry is quickly arrested and admits to having had an affair with the young girl. The national media hang him out to dry – not only is he a murderer, but a paedophile to boot. There is one thing though: Harry swears to Marcus that he did not kill Nola Kellergan, in fact, she was the love of his life. Marcus, eager to clear his friend’s name, heads back to New Hampshire to start his own investigation into what really happened on August 30, 1975, the day Nola went missing, the day the little town of Somerset, New Hampshire lost its innocence.

SAM_3959On the surface, Somerset is a quaint little New England town, but as the investigation progresses, one has to wonder if, perhaps, Somerset hadn’t lost its innocence long before Nola went missing. Marcus stays in Harry’s house receiving threatening mail as he continues to uncover the truth about the affair, writing his surefire bestseller as he goes along. This novel is as much about publishing and the writing process as it is about the Kellergan murder (very self-reflexive, metafictional stuff). There’s an interesting cast of characters here, a couple of which were slightly exaggerated and caricaturish, but that didn’t stop me laughing out loud at the (often dark) humour exhibited in their conversations. There’s the chauffeur with a distorted face, the pastor with the Harley motorbike and, of course, the seemingly unknowable Nola Kellergen herself, the object of Harry’s obsession. I was often struck by how young Nola came across. She would accuse Harry of being ‘mean’ to her and once said of God, “If you believe in Him, I will too.” On these occasions I found it difficult to understand why Harry was so consumed by her, why ‘once she had entered [his] life, the world could no longer turn properly without her.’ How could an academic have a relationship with someone so naive and childlike? But then we are told by a Somerset local:

 ‘That girl was madly in love with Harry. What she felt for him was something I had never felt myself, or I couldn’t remember ever having felt, for my own wife. And it was at that moment that I realised, thanks to a fifteen-year-old girl, that I had probably never been in love. That lots of people have never been in love. That they make do with good intentions; that they hide away in the comfort of a crummy existence and shy away from that amazing feeling that is probably the only thing that justifies being alive.’

The narrative flicks back and forth between 1975 and 2008, slowly piecing the facts together. Or at least what we believe to be facts. There are so many twists and turns in this novel so be warned that as soon as you’re convinced of one thing, several chapters later you will learn something new that weakens your conviction. This is your classic whodunnit at its best. There are 31 chapters in this book, and Dicker has very cleverly started off with chapter 31, making the reader work their way down to chapter 1 where we finally find out:

The million dollar question

The million dollar question

The last chapter is filled with pleasing revelations that allow everything to finally lock into place. It is only then that you’re able to let out the breath that you didn’t even realise you were holding.

I, personally, didn’t understand why everyone made such a big deal about ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘. I’ll admit that I haven’t read it, but I did recently watch the film on a rainy Netflix weekend and was left perplexed as the end credits rolled: the big twist in this blockbuster thriller is that the girl who everyone thought was dead had actually escaped in the boot of a car? Really?! That was Larsson’s great achievement? If critics have time to commend Larsson, then the same (actually, more) credit is due to Dicker. His story is much more layered, more intriguing and a hell of a lot more clever. Fact.

The British critics haven’t been very nice about this book (pretty brutal, actually), and I don’t think they’re being fair to Dicker. I do imagine that some of the elegance of the prose was lost in translation so, yes, there were one or two occasions when I felt the writing felt a bit basic (descriptive passages in particular), where the dialogue didn’t ring quite true, but did this detract from my overall enjoyment of the book? Not at all. I was, honestly, gripped. I sighed through my weekend engagements, my eyes lingering longingly on the book nestled in my bag, made my excuses to leave early and kept reading as I changed lines on the tube, unapologetically bumping into people as I walked. I just HAD to to know what would happen next, I had to finish it. And was then sad when I did. In the words of Harry Quebert:

The ending of a good book

The ending of a good book

The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly plotted murder mystery, cleverly constructed. Though it might not be as literary as the French claimed it was, it ultimately does not matter because it’s a bloody good read.

David Sedaris is My Bitch/Hero

So it turns out that I have a book blog and I haven’t posted anything on it in about six months. Yup. I think I passed the embarrassed stage about three months ago, now I just look at this blog fondly as a thing of the past. Get all nostalgic and sh*t about that time when I used to post more than once a week; it’s great. ANYHOW.

I recently (two months ago) went to a David Sedaris event. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as it was a ticketed event in a concert hall (wasn’t cheap) and it was titled ‘An Evening with David Sedaris’. Was he going to do some stand-up, read from his new book, mingle with his fans in a room of swirling cognacs? Turns out that is exactly what the evening was (minus the cognac).

I don’t remember the last time I had such a good time. So much so that I stopped feeling resentful about the money I had spent to go and see him. I laughed so hard throughout the evening, listening to David (we’re totally on first name terms now) recounting stories and reading diary entries in his surprisingly high pitched voice. I, honestly, fell in love with the man.

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The evening was coming to a close and David said he’d be outside signing books for a short while. Which reminded him of a time when a young guy came to one of his events and said his mum was a huge fan of David’s and would he mind writing something outrageous in her copy of one of his books. Naturally, David wrote ‘Your son left teeth marks on my dick’. HAHAHA. The boy was horrified.

No photographs were allowed, but I was feeling rebellious...

No photographs were allowed, but I was feeling rebellious…

My friend (whom I had very kindly introduced to the world of Sedaris) and I decided to get our books signed. The queue wasn’t moving particularly fast as some fans had his entire backlist with them that they wanted specially signed. Double sigh. So our moment finally came and my friend was nervous, which then made me nervous, which normally results in me talking too fast and laughing too hard at people’s jokes. And overcompensating for my quiet friend.

I asked David to write something outrageous in mine, and as I’m black, I wanted him to write something that was inappropriate and racist. He started telling me a story about a dog shelter run by some elderly people. Long story short, there was an important dinner being held and the words ‘black bitch’ were unknowingly thrown around in reference to a dog they wanted to move out of the shelter. This got us to the following inscription in my book:

wpid-20140327_220254.jpgFollowed by this in my friend’s:

807

I have to say, it was funny how, in a matter of minutes, he picked up on the dynamics of the relationship between me and my friend.

We talked to him some more and then made our exit. I was really impressed with how he took the time to speak to each person in that very long line, not the usual “Thanks for coming” type sh*t, but genuine conversation. If ever you get a chance to go to one of his readings, I highly recommend you do.

Book Review: The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

By his own admission Eric Nye is an asshole, ‘and not loyal to anyone, not even [him]self.’ He’s what you’d get if American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman and Mad Men‘s Don Draper gave birth to a man-child. “Chief Idea Officer” at Tate, a New York City ad agency, the bonus on top of Eric’s already six figure salary is dependent on him firing 50% of his staff – a task that he carries out with “HR Lady”, relishes and draws out for his own entertainment.

‘We pretend with each other in big, long sighs that it was difficult work, very hard, we would go out afterwards and have a nice meal and get shitfaced and take limos home and expense it because of how difficult it was.’

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SO; all appears to have been going as well as could be expected in the life of Eric Nye until “Intern” entered his life. After an almost one night stand, Eric finds that despite the fact he can’t remember her name, she’s now interning at his agency. Intern soon begins to stalk him, turning up wherever he may be to the point where Eric starts to question who’s stalking whom. For no logical reason, he can’t seem to get her out of his head, leading to his slow unravelling… Another chance encounter leads to a complaint against him being filed with HR, but there’s something about Eric that makes it very difficult to believe everything he’s telling you.  Is the intern to have a cathartic effect on him?

Eric is a darkly fascinating character. A guy who says things like ‘For no reason I consider hitting on birch-like juice girl but I fear there is too high a chance she will say yes‘, and ‘I sit in a deck chair and face away from the beach; something about the ceaseless idiocy of one wave after another strikes me as profoundly unimaginative‘, and who dismisses a beautiful view of the New York skyline as it’s ‘trying too hard.’ That he’s a jackass is no question, but he’s a hilarious jackass. Or at least I thought so. Even when he’s making certain staff members jump hoops, knowing full well he’s about to fire them, you can’t help but laugh because his cruel indifference knows no bounds (especially because at the office, when he’s not firing people, he does absolutely nothing).

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Living in a false world devoid of any real interactions, Eric struggles with his ‘unalterable inability to deal with [his] unreality.’ It doesn’t appear like he’s able to stay still; restless, deeply jaded and dissatisfied with what life has to offer:

‘Waiting, I realise, isn’t the time between things, it’s the thing itself.’

There are deep echoes of American Psycho here, but if you find the endless listing of material possessions to be boring, you’re missing the point entirely. That listing is what makes American Psycho a classic. The essential difference between Nye and Bateman is that Nye is mocking himself when he reels off his material possessions, aware of some of the absurdities, whereas Bateman loved himself (interestingly, Nye experiences self-loathing) and his possessions; full stop. What struck me as being quite amusing is that Eric neither desires or needs any of these ridiculously expensive items he owns, but he buys them because he can, and often bespoke so he can prove a point.

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For all that Eric lacks in character, he makes up for with the precision of his societal observations. He mocks the Brooklyn hipsters in a way that is so scathing, so sharp; I could not have articulated it better myself:

‘Never before have I seen so many people in one place who are exactly the same: the same age, the same race, the same wardrobe, the same facial hair, the same taste in music, socioeconomic background, college experience, shoes, political beliefs, and hair; but I suppose what really unites them is the shared fantasy that they are rebels.’

He goes to an art show called “Show Us Your Tits!” which features ‘lots of photos (taken, it seems, by anyone who can push the button on a camera) of girls flashing their breasts…I can’t decide if I like this show because it’s not really art at all, it’s just stupid, or if maybe I hate this shit because it’s trying so hard not to be art and there’s nothing more arty than that.’ Haha. Every major city has these hubs; in London the equivalent is Shoreditch/ Hackney.

Underneath the layers of dark wit and narcissism is an intelligent commentary on corporate America where we are told that ‘Advertising is how corporations outsource their lies.’

‘You see, what I think is interesting about what I do is that I personally don’t believe in what I do, or should I say that I believe very strongly that technology is actually destroying us as human beings, it’s taking away the fundamental truths about our humanity and making us pay to get them back: it’s called Creating Value.’

Without spoiling too much, the example he uses was quite an eye opener for me, showing how we have learned to buy back what was fundamentally ours to begin with.

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This is a highly entertaining read that is, in parts, hilarious, and although Eric is indeed an asshole of the highest degree (as it says on the spine of the novel, he’s ‘a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.’) I couldn’t help but be taken in by his unashamed self-centredness.  And what, exactly, is the Deep Whatsis? Well, you’ll just have to read to find out.

I received my copy of The Deep Whatsis from the publisher (Other Press) via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.