Paperbacks of the year: Part 2

 

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The Independent Culture

Ammonites and Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively (Penguin £9.99)

In this beautifully written view from old age, Penelope Lively looks back over her 80 years of life, from her childhood in wartime Cairo to her present residence in a house in an Islington square. It’s not a full-blown autobiography – indeed it is a million miles away from the narcissism of most autobiographies. Rather, it’s a selection of memories and reflections, divided into five sections.

The first, “Old Age” provides dispatches from the frontline – what it’s like to be old, with its limitations and consolations, and the way fascination with the changing world continues even as engagement with it lessens. “Life and Times” is the section most similar to a conventional memoir, as she records highlights from an eventful and well-lived life – but even here, Lively is as interested in other people as in herself, and always wants to generalise outwards from her own experience. “Memory” is a meditation on the capriciousness of memories – why do some memories stick and others don’t, and how is a child’s memory different from an adult’s? “Reading and Writing” is, with typical self-effacement, more about the books that she has loved than her own illustrious writing career. She’s particularly interesting on the way one’s tastes change as a reader: she once enjoyed Barbara Pym, but can’t abide her now, and used to be unable to read Lawrence Durrell but now finds him alluring.

The final section, “Six Things”, focuses on six treasured possessions, including fossilised ammonites, and a 12th-century Egyptian sherd with a design of leaping fish, which evoke a sense of deep time, and human history, respectively. A wise book about how wonderful it is to be alive in the world – and a valuable handbook to take along with one into old age.

*****

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (Penguin £9.99)

Mark Miodownik is a materials scientist, and this book explores the chemistry and cultural significance of 10 key types of stuff. Based on a photo of him sitting at a table on the roof of his apartment, each of the 10 chapters is a learned, elegant discourse on one of the materials seen there: steel, paper, glass, concrete, etc. Miodownik notes that the Chinese knew the secret of glass-making but never pursued it seriously, unlike the Europeans for whom it brought architectural achievements, inventions such as the microscope and telescope, and wine-making and brewing as arts. The chapter on chocolate is so good you’ll want to run out and buy a bar. The chapter on plastic is written as a film script, telling the story of the invention of plastic billiard balls. The chapter on foam introduces aerogel, the lightest solid in the world, which despite being more than 98 per cent air is heat-resistant. This is a hugely enjoyable marriage of science and art.

*****

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman (Windmill £8.99)

Nate Piven was a high-school nerd, but is now a rising star on the New York literary scene. He has a five-figure advance for his next novel and a series of hot women queuing to date him. Characters are interesting when in conflict with others and with themselves, and Nate is a great example: he’s smart, decent, civilised, witty, thoughtful; he’s also smug, selfish, hedonistic and self-congratulatory. The central relationship of the novel is with Hannah, another writer, who seems a perfect match: Nate’s uncertainty over whether to commit is matched by the reader’s about whether he deserves her. A clever, funny novel which makes you both condemn and sympathise with its protagonist.

*****

Idiopathy by Sam Byers (Fourth Estate £8.99)

Many male novelists are incapable of depicting unsympathetic female characters. They load all the vices on to shallow, selfish, emotionally stunted guys, while the women are angels of sweet reason. Sam Byers isn’t going down that road. His brilliantly-drawn protagonist, Katherine, is bitter, sarcastic, spiteful, argumentative and rubbish at emotional commitment. The plot involves a bovine plague, Katherine’s relationship with a sex-addict, a meeting with her ex and the reappearance of an old friend. The writing is so great you could read pages in random order and still enjoy it. Anyone who’s ever argued with their partner about what the Real Problem is will wince.

*****

The Circle by Dave Eggers (Penguin £8.99)

Dave Eggers squares a number of circles in The Circle: a literary novel that’s also readable; a comic novel with serious themes; a thriller that’s also satire. Mae Holland can’t believe how lucky she is when she lands a job at The Circle – the world’s most powerful company, located in California and controlling everyone’s internet activity across the globe. But as Mae works her way up, she discovers a more sinister agenda .... Eggers has pulled off a brilliant balancing trick with Mae, who retains our sympathy while making all the mistakes we’d like to think we’d avoid. A prescient story of how new technology and new business structures will work on human nature; a brainy novel with tons of heart.

*****

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