Paperback reviews: Bark, Inventing the Individual, Her, Who is Tom Ditto?, Shady Characters

 

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Bark by Lorrie Moore

Faber & Faber £8.99

This wonderful collection of eight short stories achieves the rare feat of being both supremely literary and sweetly readable. The prose is elegant but quirky, full of arresting descriptions: “The nipples of her breasts were long, cylindrical, and stiff, so that her chest looked somewhat as if two sink plungers had flown across the room and suctioned themselves there.” It’s full of witty, perceptive asides, as in the explanation of why a middle-aged man has had some eye work done: “He would rather look startled and insane than fifty-six.” Moore’s territory is the minutiae of everyday life, and how layers of feelings, memories, wishes, fears, and fantasies underlie the most ordinary transactions.

“Debarking” tells the story of a divorced Jewish guy who falls in love with a crazy woman who has a disagreeable son; “Foes” is about a liberal couple who, at a charity dinner, find themselves seated next to a right-wing Republican woman who was badly burned in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon; “Wings” is about a broke couple who used to be in a band that never made it, and the woman befriends a rich, ailing old man at her partner’s urging .... Imprinted deep in all the stories is a sense of the evanescence of life. We’re not here for long, but so much stuff happens while we are! But I haven’t yet conveyed how funny these stories are.

The dialogue is marvellously good (are Americans the best talkers the world has ever produced?), and my way through the book was punctuated by snorts of laughter. I kept reading bits out to my wife, and I photocopied one page to send to my sister. Often books which are easy to read are also easy to forget; but I don’t think that will be the case with Bark.

*****

Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop

Penguin £9.99

Who said “it is a basic human right that everyone should be free to worship according to his own convictions”? John Locke? John Stuart Mill? No: this basic liberal principle was put forward by Tertullian, an early Church father, in the third century AD. Siedentop’s thesis is that the liberal principles of modern western states have their origins in Christianity.

Siedentop argues convincingly that the idea of the individual was born along with Christianity; in earlier societies, persons were not conceived of as having any rights separate from family, clan or tribe. Christianity, in stressing the individual’s relationship with God, made the idea of rights for individuals comprehensible and persuasive; the role of the clergy made representative government possible; the doctrine of the equality of all souls paved the way for greater rights for women. This magisterial work of history and philosophy shows that secular liberals owe far more to Christian ideas than they might think.

*****

Her by Harriet Lane

Weidenfeld and Nicholson £7.99

A psychological thriller, told in alternative first-person chapters by stalker and stalkee, Her recounts how painter Nina insinuates herself into the life of a young mum, Emma, in order to take revenge for an incident which happened decades ago, unremembered by Emma. It is efficiently creepy, and full of convincing observational detail about modern family life. It didn’t quite do it for me, partly because I didn’t find any of the characters likeable

enough to care about (not even the toddler whose wellbeing is at stake), and partly because it all seemed rather predictable. Interestingly, though, at one point Nina herself seems to anticipate these criticisms and sneeringly dismisses them as grounds on which to base a literary judgement.

***

Who is Tom Ditto? by Danny Wallace

Ebury press £7.99

This romp of a comic novel opens when radio newsreader Tom Adoyo finds a note from his girlfriend, informing him that she has gone, but she hasn’t left him. In his efforts to trace her (in between reading the news at the radio station) Tom unearths a secret club that she used to belong to, whose members make a practice of .... Well, I’d better not give away too much, but suffice to say that it’s a rich comic premise, and Danny Wallace exploits it to the full. Jam Nazis, a two-timing film star, a shock jock, and a disappearing meerkat also figure in the plot. It’s funny, witty, clever, good-natured – one of those purely enjoyable books you pick up with pleasure and put down with regret. It won’t change your life, but it will brighten it up for a while.

****

Shady Characters by Keith Houston

Penguin £9.99

Who knows what a pilcrow is? It looks like a backwards, filled-in P, and was used to indicate paragraph breaks. Shady Characters explores the history of this and many other non-mainstream punctuation marks, such as the interrobang, the octothorpe (that’s the hash symbol), the double-act of the asterisk and dagger, the manicule, and the ampersand. Houston explains the difference between the en dash and the em dash, and charts the various attempts writers have made at coming up with a symbol to denote irony or sarcasm. It’s full of curious lore – the dagger, for instance, was invented by an Alexandrian librarian, Zenodotus, to indicate spurious lines in Homeric texts. A must for anyone interested in the history of written language.

****

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