Paperbacks: Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women
The Truth About Sascha Knisch
The Seymour Tapes
Adrift in Caledonia
The Case of the Missing Books
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Sunday 05 March 2006
Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women, by Rosemary Dinnage (NYRB £8.99)
In her introduction Dinnage confesses that she is "very ignorant of 'women's studies' and 'gender politics'", putting it down to her being the from the wrong generation (she was a child of the 1940s) and "even the wrong nationality". It's an interesting starting point for someone seeking to trawl history for memorable female loners - why would anyone embark on such a project without some sort of political motivation? The reason lies in Dinnage's long career as a writer and reviewer on topics as diverse as child-care and biography. The characters she has chosen suggested themselves from this welter of material, rather than arrived via lengthy research trails.
The women are divided into six groups: Solitaries, Partners and Muses, Seers, Exotics, Reinventors and Trapped, of which the last category is the only one to really contain individuals who might be called victims. From "Exotics", for instance, writers like Enid Blyton and Marie Stopes achieved isolation more through driving ambition than anything else. Dinnage's real strength as a writer comes from the vast store of knowledge she seems to have at her command. During a discussion on witches, for example, she tells us how "Freud, as he wrote magic and religion out of psychology, had a secret love affair with his collection of archaic statues, and brought back scriptural symbolism in another shape." Whatever its aims, this slightly eccentric book offers many thoughts as to why women often found it impossible to compete with men.
The Truth About Sascha Knisch, by Aris Fioretos (CAPE £12.99)
This is the kind of novel that's hard to review without giving something away; author Fioretos steadily reveals the secrets of his lengthy riddle from very early on. Set in Germany during the 1920s the book serves up murder mystery, farce and sexual fantasies in equal measure. Knisch, a part-time cinema projectionist, used to visit a woman called Dora to act out his desires; needless to say, these are a long way from standard hetero fare. Eventually their relationship developed beyond business transactions but, because of his dishonesty, she left him. The novel picks up just after the two have become reacquainted. Knisch goes to visit her, hoping she might still regard him as more than just a client, but finds she requires payment if he wants her company. In a state of undress he is forced to hide in a wardrobe while she answers the front door. After waiting for some considerable time, he lets himself out and makes a terrible discovery ...
Woven into this plot is a complex and subtle treatise on sexuality. Sascha describes to Dora in detail the various incidents from his life that may have shaped his sexual identity. His sister helped him dress up as her; the two of them would then present themselves to their mother: "Placing ourselves in front of each of the two sliding glass doors to the living room, we whispered through the milky glass: 'Here I am', 'Here I am' - and then in chorus: 'And who's who?'." A stylish, intelligent and eerily entertaining novel.
The Intellectual, by Steve Fuller (ICON £6.99)
It's hard to know what to make of Steve Fuller's guide to intellectuals. A breed of their own, he contends, they often find themselves arguing a case with strange allies - something he illustrates by pointing out how he contributed to the intelligent design saga in the US. Fuller spent six hours in the witness box testifying on behalf of the Creationists - sorry, intelligent design theorists - because he felt an important principle to do with the meaning of life (the Darwinian world-view means "each individual's existence is effectively casualised") was at stake. Being an intellectual, he says, means sticking with "the awkward squad".
This awkwardness extends throughout the book, making it hard sometimes to pin down the point he's trying to make. The four theses on intellectuals that he presents in the first half of the book contain so much information, presented in such an unsystematic fashion, that it's also difficult to know who he's trying to write for. Budding teenage intellectuals who want a bit of background on Socrates and the sophists? Writers and journalists desperate to find a slot on the Late Review where some notes on Adolf Eichmann might come in handy? Intellectuals, it seems, are different people from decent academics and philosophers, most of whom would know this stuff backwards. In his defence, Fuller is engaging and provocative and his intellectual acumen is never in doubt. That's the problem - it's difficult to read this book without thinking that the thing it promotes above all else is his career.
The Seymour Tapes, by Tim Lott (PENGUIN £7.99)
Dr Alex Seymour came to an unpleasant end in the "legendary" Skin Tapes - a video of his death. The tapes and this, Lott's account of the events leading up to their recording, are of course fictitious, but he does a very good job of convincing the reader otherwise. In a short preface he describes how Seymour's wife, Samantha, approached him after her husband's death asking if he would write a book about her family and Sherry Thomas, the woman held responsible for Alex's demise. What follows incorporates transcripts of taped interviews with Samantha, secret video tapes Alex made of his family after approaching Thomas at her firm, Cyclops Surveillance Systems, and tapes of Alex filmed at Thomas's flat. During the course of all these it transpires that, following a series of domestic problems, Alex became obsessed with achieving peace of mind. Sherry Thomas, it seemed to him, was able to offer this through her discreet surveillance systems. Gradually, though, he was drawn to her, visiting her flat and watching some of her thousands of video tapes. For the last 20 years she's filmed herself almost every day. Among the recordings are scenes of her having sex with a boyfriend and extreme activities which she says were filmed at gunpoint.
In spite of all the recordings, Lott shows how easily taped events can be manipulated. Reality TV shows rely on this, CCTV systems operate with impunity in spite of it. Surprisingly funny, brutal as a boot in the face, but above all highly relevant in our surveillance-obsessed society.
Adrift in Caledonia, by Nick Thorpe (LITTLE, BROWN £12.99)
On a May morning Nick Thorpe left his Edinburgh flat with a simple plan in mind. Using a succession of boats he hoped to hitch his way around Scotland in a "crumpled clockwise circle". The trip would have an open-ended itinerary with three exceptions: a stint crewing a square-rigged sailing ship around the Outer Hebrides, a voyage with a group of men re-enacting St Columba's fourth-century voyage from Ireland to the island of Iona (this would involve dressing in a monk's robe and singing hymns while rowing), and re-visiting an island off the west coast that had been a childhood holiday haunt. The account of his journey, blending travelogue with memoir, is presented here with off-beat, self-depreciating humour. These are not the words of a salty sea dog - more a writer all at sea.
The voyage around the Outer Hebrides, for example, is approached with admirable vagueness. Thorpe knows he will have to work his passage, but is unsure precisely what this will involve. Seeing the "handsome two-masted, 100ft brigantine with a navy blue hull and one of those old-fashioned bowsprits" moored in Oban harbour he wanders towards her (boats are all female in this kind of adventure) with the theme from the Onedin Line playing in his head. Climbing aboard, however, the Pogues soon kick in when the bosun finds he only drinks occasionally ("What's the fecking point of that?") and doesn't smoke at all ("We'll have to educate you a little"). It beats all those tales of travel writers foot-slogging through exotic lands in search of profundity and enlightenment.
The Case of the Missing Books, by Ian Sansom (HARPER PERENNIAL £6.99)
Somewhere in this ocean of quirks flounders a slap-dash comic novel. Israel Armstrong, our humorously named fat, corduroy-clad Jewish hero arrives in Northern Ireland to take up a position as the Tumdrum and District librarian. In spite of a degree from "one of the best former polytechnics turned universities in the country", his previous employment has been limited to a stint at a City Law firm's library, gained via his lawyer girlfriend, and three years at "a discount bookshop in the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock, off the M25, in Essex", so this job is important to him.
Unfortunately Israel finds that the library is being closed in favour of a mobile service which he is expected to operate. Cajoled into doing so by his boss, Linda Wei, "a big Chinese lady wearing little glasses and with a tub of Pringles on her desk", he finds that all of the library's 15,000 books have vanished. As librarian it's his job to get them back.
Any novel that begins with the word "no" repeated six times is unlikely to be an exercise in subtlety, but surely Sansom realises there's nothing less funny than an author who seems desperate to amuse? Israel finds himself lodging in a chicken coop at a farm run by a woman called George; when his suit gets burned he ends up wearing an NWA T-shirt ("Niggers With Attitude", as Sansom calls them - it's "Niggaz", but he doesn't seem to know the difference. At least we didn't get North West Airlines or the Nordic Web Archive.) There are some warm moments, but that may be because the book's so full of hot air.
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