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Books of the month: From Jane Smiley to Michael Bracewell

Martin Chilton reviews January’s biggest books for our monthly column

Sunday 01 January 2023 08:09 GMT
Our January selection includes the first novel in 13 years by Bret Easton Ellis
Our January selection includes the first novel in 13 years by Bret Easton Ellis (The Independent)

Marion Turner, a professor of English literature at Oxford, believes that Alison, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, “has been a figure to be feared, hated, mocked, ridiculed and firmly put in her place”. In Turner’s challenging book The Wife of Bath: A Biography (Princeton University Press), she pieces together the story, in class, gender and narrative terms, of a scandalous character who faced domestic abuse and misogyny during her fictional travels. This engrossing academic study helps you appreciate why, nearly eight centuries after Chaucer brought her to life, this funny, sexually confident middle-aged woman remains a titan of literature.

Truth-telling seems to be an increasingly scarce commodity, and the arts of deception are analysed in the chapter “To Be Honest” in Justin Gregg’s If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity (Hodder & Stoughton). Put simply, it seems that being a better bulls***ter is correlated by most people with being smarter. “The bulls***ter has an extra advantage over a non-bulls***ter,” writes Gregg. “They don’t waste time worrying about the truth; they can focus all of their energy on being believed instead of being accurate.”

One of the most startling treats among January’s releases is The Book of Desire (Galley Beggar Press), Meena Kandasamy’s translation of the Kämattu p-päl, a 2,000-year-old Tamil ode of female love and desire, written by the poet Thiruvalluvar. Tamil is the world’s oldest classical language still in use, and Kandasamy’s feminist reclamation of the poem acknowledges the “rough seas of sexual desire” in transcendent language. “Every embrace breathes fresh life into me” is one of a score of eloquent lines.

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