Londonistan, By Melanie Phillips
The Noughties, By Ben Masters
The Man Who Forgot His Wife, By John O'Farrell
Tea at the Midland, By David Constantine
Will We Ever Speak Dolphin, Ed by Mick O'Hare

Paperback reviews of the week

Londonistan, By Melanie Phillips

Gibson Square £9.99

****

I'm in the unaccustomed position of agreeing with much of what Phillips says here. She takes the right side on the Rushdie affair – a case that, Dreyfus-like, neatly separates the good guys from the bad.

Britain should have risen up to defend Rushdie with one voice; instead, we had establishment figures such as Lord Dacre actually endorsing the fatwa. She's right to be disgusted by the pusillanimous British and US apologies in 2006 when the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons that caused offence to some Muslims resulted in mayhem and murder by Islamist mobs. I agree that it's ridiculous it took so long to jail and then deport Abu Hamza. Like her, I find it disturbing that so many young Muslim men are alienated from British society. I share her opinion of George Galloway. She's right that a profound anti-Semitism underlies Islamist thinking, and that Israel is scapegoated by the British media, while the brutal and undemocratic regimes of its neighbours go uncriticised. She argues that Britain is sleepwalking its way to Islamisation, and there is enough evidence marshalled here to make that seem alarmingly possible. I don't, however, agree that human rights and secular liberalism are at the root of our tolerance of illiberal practices and religious terrorism. Rather than a return to traditional Christian values, as Phillips urges, I think we need a stronger, more consistent commitment to human rights and secular liberalism. But the merit of this book – apart from its commitment to truth-telling – is that it draws you into the argument.

 

The Noughties, By Ben Masters

Penguin £8.99

**

They say you should write about what you know; and what Ben Masters knows is the novels of Martin Amis. This could be a sequel to The Rachel Papers: Charles, now called Eliot, stumbles from pub to bar to club on his last night at Oxford, reflecting on his three years there and the relationships he's buggered up. It's a homage that verges on parody, employing Amis's rhythmic repetitions, manic synonymising, self-conscious slang, flurries of swearing, literary allusions, pet vocabulary ("rug", "quotidian", "bullshit") and penchant for awful sentences such as "I go nuclear on the toilet". As irritating as early Amis, but less funny. But Masters writes with energy and invention; if he finds his own voice he'll write better novels than this. I just hope the next one isn't a sequel to Dead Babies.

 

The Man Who Forgot his Wife, By John O'Farrell

Black Swan £7.99

***

The comic premise here is inspired: Vaughan, a married history teacher with two children, loses his memory, and, on seeing his wife for what, as far as he is concerned, is the first time, falls madly in love with her, unaware that they are supposed to be going through a bitter divorce. But the telling of the story is not quite as inspired as the premise. The texture of the writing is thin, typical of a newish genre of domestic comedy – basically an update of the lad-lit novel, with all the stock characters 20 years older, including the ne'er-do-well best mate and the good woman who saves the hero from the consequences of his folly. Still, it's an amiable read and there are one or two laugh-aloud moments. It's not great literature, but it is pleasant literature.

 

Tea at the Midland, By David Constantine

Comma Press £9.99

*****

The 16 stories here are about marginalised people whose response to society is a sort of farouche defiance, expressed not as opposition but simply by being themselves, and extracting a fragile joy from the business of living. In "Goat", a soon-to-be-unfrocked canon dances with a homeless man in a derelict building at night to the strains of a penny whistle. The longest story in the book, "An Island", is part love letter, part suicide note, part empathetic observation of the lives of others. The writing is beautiful: the description of an undercooked turkey in "Ayery Thinnesse" is a prose poem in itself. The excellence of the collection is fractal: the whole book is excellent, and every story is excellent, and every paragraph is excellent, and every sentence is excellent. And, unlike some literary fiction, it's effortless to read.

 

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin? Ed by Mick O'Hare

Profile £7.99

***

Will we ever speak dolphin? Probably not: it seems that the communication system dolphins use is not really a language in the sense of being able to share "limitless, abstract information". Other questions answered in this collection from the New Scientist's "Last Word" column include why we get bumps on our heads but bruises on our legs, why we need to pee more in cold weather, why we like shiny things (which is answered by a poem), and how the gang might have got the gold out of the bus in The Italian Job. I especially liked the answer to why shooting a bow does not make the archer recoil backwards, as Newton's second law says it ought to; if the archer were on ice skates, it would.

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