The Herald Magazine - - ETC - NICK MA­JOR

LIKE a moun­taineer por­ing over maps be­fore set­ting out for the peaks, no ded­i­cated reader can re­sist thumb­ing through the new pub­lish­ers’ cat­a­logues to catch a glimpse of what’s on the hori­zon. But it doesn’t take long to find your­self stuck in a pulpy quag­mire of books about “bat­tling” one ail­ment or an­other, or the lat­est quasi-spir­i­tual puff about detox­i­fy­ing your mind or cleansing your life­style. Then, for the prose-lover, there are the hun­dreds of pages pro­mot­ing the new­est splurge of blood-spat­tered crime nov­els, all called some­thing cliched to do with death. Pity the poor pub­lish­ers, who have to make all this sound in­ter­est­ing. My sus­pi­cion is that the most re­li­able way of know­ing a book’s worth be­fore read­ing it is to scru­ti­nise the ti­tle.

Like the news­pa­per head­line, writ­ing a ti­tle is a del­i­cate art. The gen­eral rule is: keep it short and snappy. Amer­i­can

Dave Eg­gers has flouted this in pre­vi­ous nov­els, such as the un­wieldy Your Fa­thers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live For­ever? His new “true story’” is called The Monk of

Mokha (Hamish Hamil­ton, Jan­uary). That’s not bad, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing it is about Mokhtar Alkhan­shali, a San Fran­cis­can man of Ye­meni heritage who trav­els back to his na­tive land to im­merse him­self in its cof­fee in­dus­try and be­comes caught up in the 2015 civil war.

The ti­tle of Kirsty Gunn’s new novel might put off peo­ple. Nev­er­the­less,

Caro­line’s Bikini (Faber, June) is writ­ten by one of Scot­land’s best stylists and her last novel, The Big Mu­sic, was a for­mal tri­umph. So, ex­pect some­thing orig­i­nal and dar­ing.

In Scot­land, 2018 will be a fine year for the novel. But not be­cause of any­thing new, per se. Un­less you have been liv­ing on a frozen out­post in the Arc­tic for the last few months, you will have no­ticed it is the cen­te­nary of Muriel Spark’s birth. To cel­e­brate, Poly­gon are pub­lish­ing sleek new edi­tions of all her nov­els with new in­tro­duc­tions from writ­ers such as Ali Smith and An­drew O’Ha­gan. I’d rec­om­mend The Bal­lad of Peck­ham

Rye. It has a droll ti­tle and an hi­lar­i­ous open­ing line: “‘Get out of here you dirty swine!’”

Spark thought it “bad man­ners to in­flict a lot of emo­tional in­volve­ment on the reader – much nicer to make them laugh”. Pathos, how­ever, seems the cen­tral con­cern of most nov­els this year.

Karl Ove Knaus­gaard, for in­stance, is a writer who sobs his way through the world. But Fruits of My Labour (Harvill Secker, Septem­ber), the last book in his My Strug­gle se­ries, is sure to bring some peo­ple some kind of joy at the end of sum­mer. Rachel Cusk also pub­lishes a final in­stal­ment. She’s a writer who doesn’t lack hu­mour – of the dark, ironic kind. Ku­dos (Faber, May) brings an end to her el­e­gant tril­ogy about a cre­ative writ­ing teacher.

Many book­men and women think Cusk a dif­fi­cult writer, which is an­other way to say she is a se­ri­ous one. Other se­ri­ous nov­el­ists with work out this year in­clude Ju­lian Barnes, whose The Only

Story (Jonathan Cape, Fe­bru­ary) is about the “de­mands” love makes upon a man called Paul. It sounds pro­saic; Barnes, how­ever, is not. Peter Carey re­turns to terra Aus­tralis in A Long Way

from Home (Faber, Jan­uary); Philip Hen­sher’s last short story col­lec­tion was ex­cel­lent. He is back this year with a novel called The Friendly Ones (4th Es­tate). Michael On­daatje’s Warlight (Jonathan Cape, May) could be the high­light of the sum­mer. It is about a brother and sis­ter who are or­phaned in the Sec­ond World War and taken in by a man called the Moth.

Not many peo­ple can sur­vive the read­ing year with­out a few fic­tional mur­ders. The wise take their crime nov­els with an in­hala­tion of laugh­ing gas. If her no­to­ri­ous us­age guide Eats, Shoots and Leaves is any­thing to go by, there won’t be a mis­placed comma in

Lynne Truss’s new novel A Shot in the Dark (Blooms­bury, June). The first in a se­ries, it con­cerns a po­lice force wist­ful for the days of plen­ti­ful crime. Their hopes im­prove when a theatre critic is promptly shot dead while watch­ing a new play. As a critic whose judg­ment is unim­peach­able, I can tell you now that Truss’s new crime novel is an un­qual­i­fied mas­ter­piece.

For some high-brow death, you’ll prob­a­bly be in safe hands with Mario

Var­gas Llosa’s new de­tec­tive novel. The Scot­tish poet Alas­tair Reid said Llosa “al­ways pro­vokes at­ten­tion, for there are few nov­el­ists alive as ded­i­cated as he is to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of fic­tion, in all its moods, modes and man­ners”. The

Neigh­bour­hood (Faber, May) is set among Fu­ji­mori’s po­lit­i­cally cor­rupt regime in Peru dur­ing the 1990s. In the same month, Ma­cle­hose Press pub­lish trans­la­tions of two other fine writ­ers in the Latin Amer­i­can tra­di­tion. Juan

Gabriel Vasquez’s novel The Shape of the Ru­ins is about two po­lit­i­cal mur­ders, 30 years apart, that lay the groundwork for the vi­o­lence of mod­ern-day Colom­bia. Javier Cer­cas’ The Blind

Spot is a se­ries of five lec­tures on the novel, from Cer­vantes to the present day.

It is shap­ing up to be a good year for the es­say, new and old. An­thony Burgess thought “the ti­tle of jour­nal­ist very no­ble, but I lay no real claim to it”. Still, he pub­lished reams of book re­views and es­says in his life­time. His pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions are now out of print. The Ink

Trade (Car­canet, May) is a new se­lec­tion of his re­views and ar­ti­cles be­tween 1963 and 1993. In Fe­bru­ary, Zadie Smith re­leases Feel Free (Hamish Hamil­ton), which prom­ises us es­says on Jay-Z, the en­vi­ron­ment and so­cial me­dia. Across the pond, hopes will be high for Les­lie

Jami­son’s new book. Her pre­vi­ous one, The Em­pa­thy Ex­ams, showed she was a young es­say­ist with in­tel­lec­tual weight. Her new book, The Re­cov­ery: In­tox­i­ca­tion and its Af­ter­math, might be about the overly-doc­u­mented re­la­tion­ship be­tween the artist and the spirits, but it should be ex­cel­lent.

Mar­i­lynne Robin­son is one of Amer­ica’s finest nov­el­ists of the meta­phys­i­cal. What Are We Do­ing Here? (Lit­tle, Brown, Fe­bru­ary) is a col­lec­tion of es­says that prom­ises med­i­ta­tions on de Toc­queville and Emer­son. God knows Amer­ica needs minds like hers to keep its in­tel­lec­tual cul­ture alive. In Scot­land, erst­while Bishop of Ed­in­burgh and prac­tis­ing ag­nos­tic Richard Hol­loway has spent years sit­ting at the bed­sides of the dy­ing. In Wait­ing for the Last Bus (Canon­gate, March), he ex­plores our re­la­tion­ship with the big sleep. Stu­art Kelly’s The Min­is­ter and The Murderer (Granta, Fe­bru­ary) un­rav­els the case of James Nel­son, who served time in prison for ma­t­ri­cide, then sought to be or­dained in the Scot­tish Church. Athe­ism is of­ten seen as a refu­ta­tion of re­li­gious be­lief. The con­trar­ian philoso­pher John Gray ex­plores its com­plex his­tory in Seven

Types of Athe­ism (Allen Lane, April). That ti­tle, by the way, gets zero points for orig­i­nal­ity.

Doc­tors are of­ten un­der­stood as sec­u­lar priests. Ed­in­burgh GP and writer Gavin Fran­cis has al­ways been a lu­cent writer. Shapeshifters (Pro­file, May) is about how our bod­ies change, or how we change our bod­ies, over the course of a life­time. In the same month

an­other Ed­in­burgh-based doc­tor, Peter Dor­ward, pub­lishes The Human Kind: Sto­ries from the Heart of Medicine (Blooms­bury). Us­ing case stud­ies from his own prac­tice, Dor­ward looks at the sub­tle and of­ten dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship be­tween doc­tors and their pa­tients. Per­haps it is their prox­im­ity to ill­ness and death, but doc­tors so of­ten make great writ­ers.

The like­li­hood of mass death in a nu­clear war is pur­port­edly greater than it has been for some time. Daniel

Ells­berg is fa­mous as the man who leaked the Pen­tagon Pa­pers. He also drafted Robert McNa­mara’s nu­clear war plans in the 1960s. The Dooms­day Ma­chine: Con­fes­sions of a Nu­clear War

Plan­ner (Blooms­bury, Jan­uary) is a his­tory of the cold war arms build-up and an as­sess­ment of what nu­clear war could do to the planet. At the ad­vent of dooms­day, Scot­land would be the last place in the UK you would want to live. In Fac­ing the Bear: Scot­land and the Cold War (Bir­linn, Au­gust), Trevor Royle ex­plores how Scot­land’s mar­itime de­fence strat­egy after 1945 shaped its pol­i­tics. War, sadly, is here to stay. But Mike Thom­son’s Syria’s Se­cret Li­brary (Wei­den­feld and Ni­col­son, May) tells the hope-filled story of how civil­ians in the be­sieged city of Dar­raya started an un­der­ground li­brary in the base­ment of a bombed-out build­ing. As hard rain fell

from the sky, peo­ple sat around drink­ing tea and ex­plor­ing the 14,000 books on the shelves. Two re­lated books worth try­ing out are jour­nal­ist Daniel Trilling’s Lights in the Dis­tance: Ex­ile and Refuge

at the Borders of Europe (Pi­cador, May), which fol­lows the sto­ries of refugees try­ing to reach safe shores, and

Syr­ian Riad Sat­touf’s graphic novel The Arab of the Fu­ture (John Mur­ray, Fe­bru­ary). Sat­touf is a car­toon­ist whose work has been pub­lished in the French satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Char­lie Hebdo. This is the third in­stal­ment of his mul­ti­vol­ume mem­oir about his Syr­ian fam­ily.

A D-Day vet­eran is the cen­tral char­ac­ter in Robin Robert­son’s nar­ra­tive noir poem The Long Take (Pi­cador, Fe­bru­ary), which delves into the un­der­belly of a dark post-war Amer­ica. Else­where in po­etry, Wendy

Cope’s Anec­do­tal Ev­i­dence (Faber, March) will prob­a­bly be more light­hearted but just as good. She is an ex­pert of short witty verse. For­mer Poet Lau­re­ate An­drew Mo­tion con­tin­ues min­ing his fam­ily for fresh ma­te­rial in

Es­sex Clay (Faber, May), a se­quel to In the Blood. Fi­nally, Sean O’Brien re­sponds to our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal co­nun­drum in his ninth col­lec­tion.

Europa (Pi­cador, April) is “not a place we can choose to leave” but “a state of be­ing … where our com­mon dreams, vi­sions and night­mares re­cur and mu­tate”. Hear, hear.

Next month sees the pub­li­ca­tion of Feel Free, a new col­lec­tion of es­says by Zadie Smith

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