Before the launch of 20 Books of Summer tomorrow, I am squeezing in my May Miscellany, looking at the non-746 books I’ve read this month and the music and movies I’ve enjoyed.
Trust by Hernan Diaz
I have heard great things about Diaz’s earlier novel In The Distance, but my interest was piqued when I read Fatma’s fantastic review of Trust a few weeks ago over on her blog The Book Place. I’m delighted that I took a chance with this as I found it to be a really engaging and intelligent novel about how stories are told and narratives are controlled.
Trust is set in New York in the 1920s and tells the story of a billionaire financier and his philanthropic wife four different texts – a fictional account of their life, the draft of a biography, a writer’s account of creating that biography and finally, the diary of the financier’s wife. Each text adds depth to the story of this couple, shedding more and more pretence as it goes along until it arrives at the primary source and the true nature of their relationship is revealed. It is a stunning achievement, with vast historical sweep, striking sense of place and beautiful characterisation. For a book that goes into the minutiae of Wall Street trading, it never lags, and Diaz lays bare the myriad ways that myths are created, particularly when it comes to men throughout history. No one part of this novel tells the whole story, but each works together to create a thrilling and affecting read.
Don’t just take my word for it, Fatma’s review says all this and more, much better!
True Crime Story by Joseph Knox
Another piece of metafiction, Joseph Knox’s True Crime Story purports to be a second edition of a work of nonfiction dealing with the unsolved case of Zoe Nolan, who disappeared while at Manchester University. Author Joseph Knox (so far, so Amis) has finished the investigation and the book following the death of the original investigator, Evelyn Mitchell.
Taking the form of a series of interviews with Zoe’s family and friends some seven years after her disappearance and featuring email exchanges between “Joseph Knox” and Mitchell, True Crime Story is an interesting enough interrogation of the true crime genre that zips along thanks to the short interview extracts and email conversations. Knox’s creation of this false world is definitely ingenious, but the narrative gets bogged down within the interview structure, which begins to impede rather than serve the story.
For me it was a little too clever for its own good and the lack of nuance and reliance on a ‘dead girl’ trope made me wish for a little less performance and a little more depth.
Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson
I loved Margo Jefferson’s short non-fiction work On Michael Jackson and was equally impressed with this new work, which is a fascinating hybrid of memoir, criticism and cultural and social history that defies categorisation.
Jefferson takes what you know of biography and memoir and upends it completely. Her approach is to present poetic fragments of her experiences as they ricochet off artists whose work and lives she has found meaningful. This is not a linear memoir, but rather a series of memories, musings and critical examinations of artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ike Turner, Will Cather, Jacqueline Baker and Bing Crosby. Throughout the book, she addresses herself, rewrites famous song lyrics and creates an almost diary form to explore her place, as a black woman, within American culture.
Constructing a Nervous System is an inspired and unstinting examination of American class, culture, and personal memory shot through with her unique perspective and relentless honesty.
After a very stressful week last week, The Farewell was just what I wanted to watch – a quietly amusing and emotionally uplifting celebration of family in all its pain and glory.
Based on an actual Chinese tradition, Billi, who has grown up in New York, returns to China when her whole family find out that their beloved matriarch Nai Nai has only a few weeks to live. To ensure that her remaining time is happy, the family have decided not to tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis and under the guise of a pretend wedding, they gather from their scattered lives abroad to spend this precious time together. “Chinese people have a saying: when people get cancer, they die,” says Billi’s mother “But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.”
The Farewell is a beautifully bittersweet piece of filmmaking, which has a light touch and a big heart. Fantastic performances from Awkwafina as Billi and Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai are at the centre of a film that blends sly comic humour with a heartfelt poignancy. Questions of identity, family and truth are explored, but never with a heavy hand creating a truly lovely viewing experience.
We all have thoughts about work/ life balance, but what if we lived in a world where a microchip could separate your work self from you home self, so that while at work, you can’t remember your life outside and while at home, you can’t think of work, because you can’t remember it? That is the premise behind Ben Stiller’s stunning series Severance that is one of the most stylish and intelligent TV shows I’ve seen in a long time.
Adam Scott plays nicely against type as Mark, a data inputter at the mysterious Lumen Industries, who has undergone the severance procedure as a way to cope with the grief of losing his wife. When his closest work colleague is suddenly fired, Mark starts to question the work he is doing at Lumen and enlists his colleagues to find out more.
Severance works as both an intriguing piece of science fiction (the world building is perfect) and a thoughtful exploration of profound questions about grief, free will and the existence of self. It is also very funny, stunningly shot, a perfect skewering of workplace life and features career best performances from John Turturro and Christopher Walken.
The Courier is a solid depiction of the real-life story of Greville Wynne, a salesman turned spy who was instrumental in bringing an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The film is a relatively predictable Cold War story (even if you don’t already know the details of Wynne’s experiences) which suffers from some pacing issues and lack of real tension, but is elevated by some impressive performances.
Merab Ninidze is fantastic as Wynne’s Russian counterpart and Cumberbatch is as good as you would expect in a role that he could probably play in his sleep. Jessie Buckley is predictably underused as Wynne’s long-suffering wife, but she has a scene where she visits Wynne in prison, which highlights just why she has already been nominated for an Oscar.
I have been a big fan of Wilco for a long time now and was delighted to hear about their new album Cruel Country which embraces those country roots of theirs that I love so much.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!