A stripped back short novel that examines the mystery of existence.
A single woman in her mid-forties lives alone in an Italian city. She works as a teacher, has friends she keeps in regular contact with and and endures a difficult relationship with her mother. Despite all these contacts with the outside world, the woman leads a solitary life. Every encounter she has on her simple daily journeys – to the supermarket, the beautician, a favourite coffee bar – leaves an intense impression. Innocuous interactions with strangers make indelible marks, to be unpacked and pondered in private moments. She describes a mundane, everyday world that is yet surreal and unfathomable.
Readers of Rachel Cusk's famous trilogy of autobiographical novels will lap up this beautifully introspective, elegant short novel. Jhumpa Lahiri divides the book into around 45 short chapters, making its penetrating investigations into the nature of being also a pleasure to read. A book for lovers of immersive literature, with a narrator whose simple day to day concerns and experiences many will identify with.
Whereabouts, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Published by Bloomsbury. $26.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Margaret Thatcher, The Clash and the IRA bombings form a turbulent background to this drama about late 70s England.
It's the late 1970s. The Labour government is on the nose with the British public. There are endless strikes and general industrial trouble. The garbage collectors' strike pushes everyone's patience to the limit, as rubbish piles up on the streets. Even longtime Labour supporters are now willing to give Margaret Thatcher a go. It's also a time of violence, with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) launching terror attacks and assassinations.
Four characters from different walks of life make for a multilayered plot in Anthony Quinn's new novel, London, Burning. Young policewoman Vicky Tress finds herself uncovering corruption in the police force, and manages to help save an innocent man accused of helping the IRA. Journalist Hannah Strode interviews high-level politicians and celebrities alike, often finding herself drawn into tricky situations. Freddie Selves is a theatre director with a high profile and a penchant for affairs on the side. Finally, there is Callum Conlan, an Irish academic suffering writer's block and trying to find a personal direction in life. All these characters throng a busy, turbulent London at a time of critical change.
London, Burning is wide ranging, with a large cast of characters and a story that sprawls in many directions. The novel would easily convert into a television series, with its historical focus and different plot strands. Quinn does tie up a lot of loose ends quite neatly in the end, but the book doesn't have a sharp focus or point of view. It presents more as an ambient piece on late 70s London, with a soundtrack featuring the likes of The Clash, David Bowie and Joni Mitchell. Music lovers of this period will enjoy discussions of their favourite albums and artists. Even Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" makes an appearance.
An enjoyable, page-turning trip through a time that would usher in a new political orthodoxy.
London, Burning, by Anthony Quinn. Published by Little, Brown. $32.99
A pithy, entertaining short history of China.
Writer and sinologist Linda Jaivin takes the reader on a speedy, drive-through history of China, starting with Stone Age Peking Man (homo erectus pekinensis) eking out a living along the Yellow River's fertile alluvial plain, through millennia of dynastic rule – the Zhou, the Qin, the Hang etc. – right up to the last great dynasty, the Qing. Incursions from the British (the humiliating Opium Wars) and the Japanese (the Rape of Nanking) during the 20th century caused great instability and civil war. Mao Zedong and the Communist Party would eventually win, only for China to be further plunged into turmoil, with famines and the so-called Cultural Revolution causing extraordinary mayhem and disorder. Jaivin finally documents the economic rise of China in the post-Mao era and ends with a word of caution about the repressive, authoritarian government of President Xi Jinping, with its cult of personality.
Linda Jaivin writes a snappy history, thronged with a teeming cast of great personalities. Special attention is paid to women's contribution, through sketches of female warriors, politicians, scientists, radicals and trailblazers. For those seeking perspective on this complex and multifaceted society, The Shortest History of China is instructive and enjoyable.
The Shortest History of China, by Linda Jaivin. Published by Black Inc. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An evolutionary biologist looks at the future of sex.
According to evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, the future holds an abundance of artificial intimacy. New sex technologies, from sex robots to virtual reality porn, will anticipate our every desire. So clever will the algorithms mining our personal data be that they will predict our every need. Dating apps will cut out the time wasted swiping and scrolling, express matching us with life partners we never knew we were meant for. Even further, machines could learn fantasies we never knew we had.
If all this sounds daunting, Brooks does weigh the possible negatives. Too much time spent enjoying ArtInt (artificial intimacies) could take time away from real-life relationships. Behemoth tech companies knowing your most private desires wouldn’t be able to resist the financial opportunities. But on balance, Brooks believes, the good will outweigh the bad: the lonely and sex starved will get some relief, and society will benefit from a more contented population.
From primatology to today’s incel culture of sexually frustrated young men, Artificial Intimacy takes an historical survey of human sexuality, employing the disciplines of economics, psychology and evolutionary science. Witty, accessible, always fascinating but surely contentious, this is popular science that will appeal to readers of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens.
Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers and Algorithmic Matchmakers, by Rob Brooks. Published by New South. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba. First published at Books + Publishing
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