Paperbacks: Hatless Jack
Two of Us
The Book of Ash
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 07 August 2005
The Jack in the title is John F Kennedy. His significance? Hat manufacturers apparently cite the fact he chose to go bareheaded as the reason why their industry failed. Steinberg chases down this proposition with a combination of thorough research and a fine turn of phrase. Kennedy chose not to wear a hat because, by the time he became president, "his face had filled out from age, the cortisone and steroids he took for his painful back, and a campaign trail diet of cheeseburgers and malteds". He knew that he looked ugly in a hat; furthermore, he'd seen the disastrous effects of hats on other politicians: Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson looked a fool wearing a cowboy outfit with a ten-gallon hat during the California primary, and Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver regretted being photographed in a coonskin cap at the height of a Davy Crockett craze. Kennedy, on the other hand, rode to the Whitehouse on the crest of his cool image: the image of a hatless man.
But as early as the mid-1930s, Steinberg points out, hatters had started to accept that the social norm of wearing a hat in public was becoming a thing of the past. Society had many reasons, from the popularity of the motor car and the end of mass pedestrianisation to the military associations of headgear, to go bareheaded. This book is a worthy project, a goldmine of trivia about the Kennedy era and a wonderful catalogue of the forgotten rituals and symbolism associated with hat-wearing.
Antichrista by Amélie Nothomb (FABER £9.99)
Blanche is the friendless, book-loving daughter of middle-class parents; Christa, a popular girl from what she calls "a disadvantaged background". Both girls attend the same university; but while Christa soon commands a group of friends, Blanche remains lonely and in awe of her. Nonetheless, Blanche gradually finds herself getting to know Christa and, learning that her new "friend" has to get up at four in the morning to attend classes on time, she suggests Christa stays with her one night a week.
Christa charms Blanche's parents and, full of admiration for this plucky young woman determined to rise above her unfortunate circumstances, they suggest she stays with them every weekday. By comparison, Blanche is a disappointment to them; a spoiled introvert with no ambition. In the end she has no alternative but to probe a little deeper into Christa's (or Antichrista's, as she comes to think of her) background.
Christa is a wonderful creation, a Machiavellian creature finely tuned to the tricks language offers. When she learns Blanche's favourite word is "bowshot" she says that hers is "equity". "You see... our choices are revealing: you like a word just for the love of that word; for me, coming from a disadvantaged background as I do, the word must be an idea, one that signifies commitment." Nothomb's wit is so dry, like smoke rising up off the charred remains of her characters' foibles; her intelligence is unnerving. She creates a very personal world, but few are more rewarding.
Ghosting by Jennie Erdal (CANONGATE £7.99)
Jennie Erdal's account of the 15 years she spent working as an editor for the flamboyant publishing tycoon she refers to only as "Tiger" (anyone with access to the internet will soon be able to track down the man's identity) is essential reading for anyone interested in the business of writing. Initially hired to handle a list of Russian books, she quickly gained Tiger's confidence and ended up ghostwriting the two novels he published under his own name. Revealing this has knocked a considerable dent in his reputation - so why do it? Throughout her time with him Erdal was loyal and attentive; more than that, anyone reading this book will recognise how she admired him in spite of his failings (extravagance, impatience and a gargantuan ego). In return, he behaved impeccably, even offering her a large, interest-free company loan so she could settle some debts. Right to the end of her employment there was never any real acrimony. So why publish this now? Erdal doesn't say.
That mystery aside, the book contains some extraordinary insights. Descriptions of the writing of the sex scenes Tiger demanded are amusing, even if the results are repulsive: "Her juices trickle down like a cluster of stars from the firmament." Elsewhere, she describes finding him sobbing uncontrollably, a broken man, at a time when the bank seemed liable at any time to seize his business. Comforting him, she learns his dog has died. A very funny, if sometimes unsettling account of a curious relationship.
Two of Us by Brendan Halpin (REVIEW £7.99)
When two lesbian mothers ("Mommy" and "Mom") are crushed by a lorryload of frozen poultry, their teenage daughter Rosalind is forced to live with Sean, the sperm donor who made her existence possible. But Rosalind would rather live with her aunt Karen, and refuses to communicate with Sean through anything other than emails and Post-It Notes. Readers of course are lucky enough to be able to follow Rosalind's grief journal, a focus for her angry thoughts suggested by her useless therapist Denise; and here we discover that, unsurprisingly, Rosalind hates everyone. Unable to cope with her grief, she gets into trouble and her schoolwork starts to suffer. Eventually she assaults a boy whom she overhears joking about a news report of her mothers' death ("I was laughing my ass off, two dykes crushed by meat"). Conveniently Sean works for a law firm ("I sue schools for a living") and the situation offers him a chance to shine.
This is an epistolary novel with the dubious addition of transcribed recordings, and Halpin appears so proud of the idea there's even a running joke about Minidiscs. The strength of this form should be its immediacy: presenting the characters' thoughts without an author getting in the way. Halpin, however, seems unable to do anything but get in the way. Why lesbians, and why a lorryload of poultry? "Two dykes crushed by meat" is not funny, but nor is the idea of an author apparently setting up a book just so this kind of gag works. None of the humour in this awful book is amusing; and all of the tragedy is predictable. Both are horribly contrived.
Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (ATLANTIC £8.99)
This isn't the first book entitled Occidentalism to appear in recent years; Couze Venn's pioneering and subtle analysis on the outcomes of European colonisation appeared in 2000. Judging from the footnotes, Buruma and Margalit don't appear to have read his work. It's a pity; Venn's arguments would have helped plug some of their book's holes.
They begin with a blunt assertion: "Our aim is ... to show that today's suicide bombers and holy warriors don't suffer from some unique pathology but are fired by ideas that have a history... without understanding those who hate the West, we cannot hope to stop them from destroying humanity." Buruma and Margalit try to demonstrate how anti-Western attitudes originated mainly in the West itself. It doesn't take a genius to realise that Marx had a profound effect outside his own culture, or that following the Meiji restoration in 1868, certain Western ideas were deliberately co-opted to strengthen the Japanese nation; but this approach, downplaying the importance of non-Western traditions and indigenous beliefs, reeks of hubris. At no point do the authors make a genuine attempt to examine what they mean by "the West" or to explain that curious appropriation of "humanity" in their initial assertion.
Jim Morrison may well have concluded that "The West is the Best", but he was a dopehead looking for a rhyme. You expect more from a couple of academics. There's something deeply unhealthy at the heart of Buruma and Margalit's project - it's the kind of thing you could spend a lifetime trying to unpick.
The Book of Ash by James Flint (PENGUIN £7.99)
The hero of Flint's third novel, Cooper James, grew up in the kind of grotesque middle-class commune where children are called things like Moon and Leaf. It wasn't a life he particularly enjoyed, especially when the complex free-love ethics practiced by his parents spilled over into acrimony and his American father, Jack Reever (loosely based on the artist James L Acord, who makes art out of nuclear waste), abandoned him and returned to the USA. Twenty years later, Cooper is working as a programmer at an American Military base in Yorkshire; his mother Stasie is sleeping with Moon; and Jack seems to be dead. That, at least, is the best conclusion Cooper can draw when a coffee tin decorated with the eye of Horus is delivered to him at work, containing what appear to be ashes and labelled with Jack's name. Having not seen or heard from him since the commune days, Cooper is understandably shocked, but to make matters worse, the tin with its suspicious contents triggers a full-scale evacuation of the base that leads to him being fired. Armed with his father's ashes Cooper heads off for the States to find out what his dad was doing for the last 20 years.
Cooper's road trip across America, supplemented by assorted fuzzy photographs and the occasional doodle, embraces art, the nuclear industry, and alchemy. Although Flint sometimes overwrites (rain on Cooper's neck becomes a "bunker-seeking precipitation missile"), he maintains the same course plotted in his previous books; this is a very intelligent, engaging novel blessed by a controlled passion for the perverse.
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