Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Independent on Sunday 1 August 2009

Indignation by Philip Roth (Vintage, £7.99) *****
Marcus is a young man who loves his hard-working father, he just can’t live in the same house as him; he’s a straight-A student who can’t get on with his room-mates at college so he keeps asking to be moved; he’s the object of beautiful Olivia’s attention but doesn’t know how to respond to a young woman who’s more sexually experienced than he is.
Roth’s ability to run the gamut of adolescent confusion and give it an urgency and an importance, instead of picking fun at disproportionate teenage responses to minor crises, might at first appear the consequence of setting his story during the Korean war. Marcus is constantly worrying that if he fails his studies, he’ll be called up and killed on the battle-field, just as his father is permanently full of fear at anything that might harm his son, or lead him astray. But, ironically enough, it’s not the overhanging threat of war that gives this story imperative.
Marcus’s refusal to join college fraternities casts him as an outsider, when already, as one of the few Jews on campus, he’s outside the social norm anyway. This refusal to be part of the team erupts during an interrogation by the college dean, who wants to know why he prefers to be alone. The American ideal of team-playing, more important than getting straight As, something Marcus finds incomprehensible, has been critiqued by Arthur Miller and others, but Roth’s portrayal of that ideal as an inevitable need arising from a nation made up of immigrants, is sympathetic as well as damning. While he resists romanticising the fate of the lone individual, he cannot let those in authority off the hook. Marcus is condemned to join in. This angry story of an angry young man, beautifully and simply told, is not easy to forget.

The Thrift Book by India Knight (Penguin, £7.99) ****
India Kinght’s real asset lies in her convincing display of soul-baring: when she says she is “naturally spectacularly crap with money”, with her “fair share of bailiffs over the years” and was served with bankruptcy papers, I believe her utterly and absolutely, when, for all I know, as a well-off, bestselling writer with a long-running column in a London newspaper, she’s actually as crafty as Fred Goodwin when it comes to her own money. But everything here has that authentic feel to it, which is necessary when you’re trolling through money-saving tips that are so self-evident and full of common sense you want to slap yourself for not thinking of them first: save left-overs from meals; only buy what you need; repair good clothes, don’t keep buying cheap ones you throw away after a couple of washes; holiday at home for a change; buy second-hand, not new, and so on. I could have done without the pictures: Knight’s writing style is breezy enough and she doesn’t need them to pep up her prose, which managed both to make me laugh out loud and feel guilty for being so crap with money myself at the same time, not an easy feat.

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger (Sceptre, £10.99) ***
It took ten years for Pullinger to research and write this book about real-life Sally Naldrett, maidservant to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, one of many aristocrats who travelled to warmer climes for health reasons in the nineteenth century. Duff Gordon suffered from TB, published a volume of letters about her seven-year stay in Luxor, and was close to her maidservant until she had the temerity to have an affair with Omar Abu Halaweh and get pregnant. Sally was cast off by her employer although Omar was excused his ‘indiscretion’. It’s a fascinating story in itself and one can’t help wondering if the length of time Pullinger took over it meant that she struggled with it somehow. Details are authentic and her portrayal of Duff Gordon convincing but Sally is a harder one to understand and I’m not sure Pullinger really gets to the bottom of her heroine’s psychological make-up. She gives Naldrett a life-long fascination with Egypt and a natural attraction to Omar but I felt that something more was missing, that there was reticence in the prose. That said, there is much to admire in this unusual love story, from the sights and sounds and smells of Alexandria to the horribly real description of ‘cupping’.

Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily by Matthew Fort (Ebury Press, £8.99) ****
Having been completely captured by Sicily myself when I travelled there two years ago, I can understand Fort’s enthusiasm to get back to the island after a first visit thirty years previously, and his frustration at the attempt constantly being thwarted by that irritating thing, real life. Because, as he points out in this wonderful travel tale interspersed with mouth-watering recipes, there’s something not quite real about Sicily. Perhaps it’s the decaying African grandeur of Palermo, the gaudy tourism of Taormina, or the Greek relics at Syracuse, but it does feel like an island in a book (it’s meant to feature in The Odyssey) that couldn’t possibly exist in real life. Fort relishes the food markets, the slower, old-world pace of life, the authentic recipes that produce miraculous meals from a few herbs and some pasta; even the Mafia history can’t get him down. He does worry about the threat to the individualism of the food produced and sold, from the proliferation of supermarkets and the flight of younger Sicilians to mainland Italy for better jobs, but then the sun comes out, wine is poured, there’s all that food to eat instead and, along with the rest of us, he’s as easily seduced as Odysseus by the Sirens.

Simone de Beauvoir by Ursula Tidd (Reaktion Books, £10.95) ****
Reaktion have published a distinguished series of these shorter critical appraisals of famous literary figures, or “leading cultural figures of the modern period” as their publicity has it: Kafka, Joyce, Dali, Baudelaire have all featured in the list of 21 biographies. De Beauvoir is, surprisingly enough, their first woman to merit the distinction and while the size of the book (180 pages) and its intention, does not allow for new archival research, Tidd does an excellent job of linking the life to the work. De Beauvoir’s philosophy is explained in the light of her experiences, both with men and women, her attempts to understand and explain the relationship between the self and the other seen in the light of her interactions with lovers like Jean-Paul Sartre, her student Olga Kosakievicz, the writer Nelson Algren. Because her philosophy was grounded in this need to live in the world, while also living apart from it, her personal life, perhaps more so than for any other philosopher, is crucial to understanding her thinking. This is an accessible study that doesn’t reduce or simplify de Beauvoir’s work in any way, while simultaneously attempts to understand her way of living. Hopefully now, more women will figure in the series.

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