Paperback reviews: From Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri to Sex on Earth by Jules Howard

Also How We Are by Vincent Deary, The Following Girls by Louise Levene and Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

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The Independent Culture

Odysseus Abroad by Amit Chaudhuri, Oneworld - £8.99


Odysseus Abroad is not a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey, but is clearly inspired by it – and indeed by Joyce’s Ulysses as well, for the whole action takes place within one day. Ananda is Telemachus/Stephen Dedalus, an Indian student in London in the early 1980s, studying English literature; his uncle, Rhadesh, an elderly, celibate, wealthy retiree living in a bedsit in Hampstead, is Odysseus/Bloom. The parallels are not exact, for it’s Ananda who does most of the wandering, travelling around Bloomsbury and North London on his way to visit his uncle; but one keeps looking for glimpses of the ur-narrative – is Ananda’s tutor Hilary Davidson a Siren (because she is attractive and nearly lures him into mediaeval literature)? It’s a novel that celebrates the importance of literature, and much of the characters’ thoughts and conversations concern books and writers: Ananda is a devotee of the Modernists, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence (although – Chaudhuri’s little joke – he doesn’t like Joyce), while his uncle is a monster fan of Rabindranath Tagore.

However, the real meat, the most satisfying and nutritional part of the book, is the relationship between Ananda and Rhadesh. Both are lonely, dependent on each other; they love and exasperate one another; their weekly meetings are essential but they cannot stop sparring and quarelling. Rhadesh in particular is a superb comic character, with his pedantry, his fussy routines and rituals (he has to drink ten glasses of water after breakfast to “cleanse his organs”), his sense of superiority. It’s also an interesting Indian-eye view of the English in the 80s: Rhadesh has an anthropologist’s eye for the peculiarities of our race, observing drinkers outside pubs, children’s television and Arthur Scargill with the same detached, curious eye; quoting Forster, he notes that the English “never had gods, only goblins and fairies”. A novel that satisfies both head and heart.

The Following Girls by Louise Levene, Bloomsbury - £8.99


In the 1970s there was a strip in the girls’ comic Bunty, “The Four Marys”, and this novel offers a ruder, raunchier version of that idea with its four Amandas (one of whom, indeed, is nicknamed Bunty in homage), who smoke, swear, have boyfriends and break every school rule they can get away with. Most of the story is focalised through Amanda Baker, who despises all her teachers, hates her dad, just about tolerates her step-mum and is writing a deliberately bad novel parodying DH Lawrence. Baker receives a secret note from the sixth-form tennis champ, Julia, leading to illicit meetings in the organ-loft – one of many allusions to 1984 which are scattered throughout. The idea, perhaps, is that adolescence is a horrible purgatory, as bad as living in Airstrip One. The writing is clever but over-busy, full of puns and little bursts of rhyme or alliteration, parenthetical asides, sneer-quotes, hyphenated phrases, far-fetched similes, and lots of nostalgic 70s detail. You can appreciate the wit, but the narrative does not exactly sweep you along; it is also difficult to warm to a protagonist whose ruling passion is contempt.

Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz, New York Review Books - £8.99


A reprint of an original and influential literary experiment of the late 1960s, Talk is a novel in the form of a transcript of a series of conversations between three people: Marsha, a writer, Emily, an actress and their gay friend Vinnie, a painter. Rosenkrantz simply recorded them as they hung out at the beach one long hot summer, and edited it into a coherent narrative of 28 chapters. They talk about art, literature, psychoanalysis, work, relationships, sex and masturbation (Emily does it ten times a day.) Are New Yorkers the best talkers in the world? We’ve become familiar now with this style of talk – smart, witty, ironic, tangential, obsessing over trivia – through sitcoms like Friends; but Rosenkratz was among the first to realise that it’s an art-form in its own right.

How We Are by Vincent Deary, Penguin - £9.99


It would be misleading to call this a self-help book; it’s more a guidebook for people who are thinking of changing their lives. A blend of psychology, sociology, medical science, cultural studies and common sense, How We Are explores how vital habits and routines are to us, and the slow, painful process of changing them. It’s sometimes amusing: describing the difficulty of overriding lazy routines with more industrious ones, Deary writes: “But the workforce are just waiting for those Calvinist bastards to weaken a little, and an urge for tea will do nicely, and lo! The tools are down.” It’s full of literary and pop-cultural references, and personal anecdotes. But about halfway through it starts to feels repetitive, with Deary bringing in more and more analogies to make the same points again and again.

Sex on Earth by Jules Howard, Bloomsbury - £9.99


A work of popular science on the myriad different ways animals reproduce, this book is both informative and entertaining on the sex-lives of dinosaurs, frogs, sticklebacks, ducks and dogs, among others. Howard interviews researchers, quotes learned journals, and above all records his own observations of animals going at it. Quirky factoids abound: the tiny arms of T Rex may have been covered in colourful feathers and used for sexual display; clownfish can change sex; mice can retract their testicles; drakes’ penises explode (sort of). Howard also hypothesises that love is not an exclusively human emotion. It’s written in a sprightly, entertaining, Bill-Bryson-ish style, with punning chapter titles (“Mite of the Living Dead”), but the running gag that there is something a bit weird and naughty in writing about animal sex palls after a while.