The Collection (Nina Leger)
The English language debut from French author Nina Leger had me reeling this month, devouring it in one sunny afternoon, accompanied by a box of ice lollies and a bottle of factor 50. It is a stifling read – an intimate examination of female sexual pleasure and the erotic, all told from a strangely neutral and detached narrative voice. The Collection won Leger the Anaïs Nin Prize in 2017 in its original language, and there is little surprise why. It follows the encounters of protagonist Jeanne, who creates a ‘memory palace’ out of the sexual experiences she has in anonymous hotel rooms across the city. The faces of the men blur together, but she retains the memories. The writing is provocative, compulsive and immensely descriptive.
It reminded me a little of Leila Slimani’s Adéle in the way it details matters of female sexuality with such brazenness, but The Colletion is more of an unravelling of a series of intellectual metaphors on the theme, with the act of sex remaining front and centre, as opposed to Slimani’s novel, which places the addictive nature of sex as the main pivotal narrative device. A truly enveloping read, and one I hope will be given as much attention in its translated form as in its original language.
As a sidenote, I’d really recommend reading the Goodread reviews of this book after you’re finished – some people are not so keen on the prominence of the phallus throughout, and it makes for incredibly amusing reading.
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (Jia Tolentino)
If Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women was the book of July, this has got to be August’s offering. It is everywhere, and rightly so. It’s thrilling to see a collection of essays receive such widespread attention. With testimonials from essay queens Zadie Smith and Rebecca Solnit, the acclaim is deserved, and the writing smart. Every phrase you will find yourself reading, rereading and rereading again.
New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino’s nine interlinked essays explore modern selfhood from all possible angles. With the rise of technology, the era of fake news and a widespread disillusionment with politics and democracy, the self has become a flimsy entity. Tolentino is particularly renowned for putting a millennial spin on topics, and in Trick Mirror, she does this and more, exploring the internet, reality TV, experiences with ecstasy and the phenomenon of scammers. Her writing is incredibly well informed, and the book is a perfect time capsule of this strange era we find ourselves living in.
Confessions of a Bookseller (Shaun Bythell)
I am always drawn to the finely honed attributes of a miserable bookseller. The elegant grunt as you come through the door, the suspicious side-eye as you pluck a vintage first edition from its shelf, the quizzical and slightly woebegone expression as you ask to buy a book they clearly don’t think is much cop. I can’t get enough. There’s something spectacularly British about the whole affair.
Shaun Bythell is one such bookseller, the owner of The Bookshop in Scotland’s Wigtown. His first book, The Diary of a Bookseller, was in fact, just that. His diary, telling the stories of the slightly odd people that entered his shop, what they bought, and how much he made every day. It’s about to be made into a TV series, apparently.
This latest book is a more intimate look at his life as a bookseller, but really there’s not much that’s different. The gentle meandering of his anecdotes is the perfect antidote to many of the heavier, harder-hitting books on the market at the moment, and his perspective is refreshing and always amusing. Wallow in it. For any expats, this is a book full of British eccentricities that’s sure to get you thinking of home far more than any passing copy of the Daily Mail you see in a dentist’s waiting room or any small, oversized branch of M&S you happen to find.
Sex Power Money (Sara Pascoe)
Sometimes I wonder whether Sara Pascoe is resentful of being so immensely talented across so many forms. A genius comedian – she is one of the few women in stand-up who regularly gets the call to take up the coveted ‘token female’ spot on panel shows – and an informed, bright writer with a fresh voice, covering issues rarely tackled in such depth by mainstream media. Her 2016 book Animal was so well received, and it was a thrill to see another book by Pascoe on the release list this year.
Sex Power Money is written in a similar way to Pascoe’s debut, with a blend of anecdotes, opinions, interviews and in-depth research and analysis. While Animal explored the female body in depth, Sex Power Money looks at the bodies of both genders and how they interact. All three elements in the book’s title mean so much to everyone in our society, but are still such loaded and complex issues. Pascoe tries to unpack what they mean to us and how they influence the ways we behave. Will we ever be able to overcome our obsession with status, power, youth and physicality?
While you’re enjoying Pascoe’s words on page, you may as well chow down on her accompanying Sex Power Money podcast. This seems to be a marketing technique adopted by a whole host of authors nowadays, and I for one, am here for it. In Pascoe’s podcast, she interviews a fascinating line-up of people she talked to in the process of researching the book, from sex workers and porn performers to historians and fellow comedians. It’s refreshing to see someone in her position allow people who are so often talked about to give their side of the story and given a platform.
The Copenhagen Trilogy (Tove Ditlevsen)
Tove Ditlevsen is a mysterious figure, whose writing is only coming to light now, 50 years after her death. Born in Copenhagen in 1917, she lived as an artist overwhelmed with alcohol and drug dependency, later taking her own life in 1978. This is the first time her work has been published in the UK, in the form of an autobiographical trilogy of a story of working-class life in Copenhagen.
By the age of 20, Ditlevsen is a published poet and married to a much older literary editor. The life ahead of her is desperately hard, tainted with abortion, physical pain and addiction. The Copenhagen Trilogy is a raw portrayal of a colourful but tragic life.
Period. (Emma Barnett)
Radio 5 Live and Radio 4’s Late Night Women’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett is something of a badass. She became the first person ever to announce live on UK TV news that she was menstruating. The fact that this was even seen as remotely unusual or revelatory is a shock in itself. Her comments were met with such embarrassment and hostility from those on the panel with her and the audience at home that she took it upon herself to make periods her raison d’être. Or, at least, the discussion of periods, as the taboo of menstruating is more paralysing than the process itself.
Period. isn’t a celebration of periods. Periods still suck. But it’s an open discussion about periods, with a reminder of the purpose of menstruation as a display of fertility. Barnett goes into detail about the social reception of women’s bodies, and the role menstruation plays in this gaze. It may not be the most revolutionary piece of writing for someone my age, who has read a lot on this subject, but I can’t help but thinking that this could have the same impact on younger readers as Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman did for a 16-year-old me. To have a stigma against something that happens to half the population every single month and can be massively debilitating is quite simply bonkers.
The Other Mother (Jen Brister)
Comedian Jen Brister has found a gap in the market. For all the billions of parenting manuals out there, there seems to be no advice or guides for same-sex couples. Brister and her partner found there were no books for parents in so-called ‘atypical’ families – those who don’t fit the usual narrative. Referred to as the ‘other mother’ through the process of IVF, she struggled to come to terms with her role, and what it means to not have a biological relationship with your child.
Brister’s tale is eminently readable, with touching insights and is incredibly self-aware throughout. The analysis is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but in a similar way to Emma Barnett’s Period., it’s still a wonder that these issues aren’t talked about more, and it’s a relief to see such issues given a platform.
There seems to be a host of comedians (primarily female) tackling really heavy issues in books at the moment, all through a funny and pithy lens. I think it’s brilliant. These issues are so often dealt with by very serious journalists, and will only be read by a small cross-section of society, most of whom are onboard anyway. But by giving a platform to comics – many of whom are intelligent and well-read – the discussion is opened up in a non-confronting way.
Sontag: Her Life (Benjamin Moser)
The access granted to Benjamin Moser for this book goes beyond anything achieved in Sontag biographies up to this point. The exclusive access he was given to her highly restricted personal archives and interviews he conducted with those close to her, including her partner, the legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, is unparalleled. This book is seriously weighty, packed full of unique insights on one of the 20th century’s towering literary figures.
Moser explores her formidable collection of writing – focusing particularly on her inquiries into pop and celebrity culture and subject matters perceived to be ‘low culture’ – and the personal life of Sontag away from the media spotlight. If you’re after a biography of Sontag, this is the only one worth considering. It’s a book that will stay on your shelves for years to come.
She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement (Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey)
When the now Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists broke the story on Harvey Weinstein in 2016, the world shifted slightly. Not only was the #MeToo movement born, there was also a trickle-down effect across the board, with sexual misconduct allegations unearthed in all industries. This book, written by Kantor and Twohey themselves, tells the story of the investigation that brought Weinstein to justice, and what happened after the article was published.
She Said should be required reading for any aspiring reporters – Kantor and Twohey reflect on their experience with forensic details. They also look back on the Christine Blasey Ford case, which occurred a year after the Weinstein story broke. It’s a stark reminder of the power structures that remain firmly in place, and how, with the backing of figures like Trump, any progress the Weinstein case may have achieved can be undermined in a second.
North Korea Journal (Michael Palin)
With my boyfriend all lined up to visit Pyongyang in North Korea next year to run its marathon, I picked up this book as preparatory reading. While he claims to have done extensive research on the topic online, I’m a more old-fashioned type, preferring to place my trust in books and, more specifically, Michael Palin.
First off, I was stunned with the sheer quality of production of this book. With illustrations and incredible photographs peppered throughout and a standard of paper rarely seen in new publishing, it’s a book to keep on any shelves. Palin wrote the journal based on the trip he took for a Channel 5 documentary. The book has real insights into his everyday life in the most secretive country in the world, and it’s really interesting to see his judgments and initial views evolve throughout the course of his trip.
It’s written with wit and a lightness of touch, with comical and surreal anecdotes. From visiting the tallest unoccupied building in the world to being woken up with the Pyongyang residents every day to the sound of patriotic music blasting through the city and the haridressers’ offering of 15 approved haircuts, there is so much to take in. It’s a country of contradictions and Palin’s writing is a brilliant examination of a particular moment in time – one in which relations between the North and South are warming, as well as those between North Korea and the US. But the interpersonal relationships are the most enlightening – Palin’s examination of the relationships he develops with the group’s ‘minders’ are perhaps the best example of a country trying desperately to control their own image. I for one can’t wait to welcome my boyfriend back to the UK with an approved haircut and demanding to be woken up every morning with a communist anthem.
A few others to look out for…
The Testaments (Margaret Atwood): Little known indie author Margaret Atwood has released a small, inconsequential book that you might not have heard of.
Gotta Get Theroux This: My Life and Strange Times in Television (Louis Theroux): Everyone’s favourite gangly documentarian’s latest book traces his journey into the weird world of TV. The stories are as amusing as you’d imagine, and the personal insights surprisingly charming.
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know (Malcolm Gladwell): The great American thinker returns with an exploration of the encounters we have with strangers, and how these interactions can go wrong and what it means for society as a whole.
My Last Supper: One Meal a Lifetime in the Making (Jay Rayner): The Observer’s restaurant critic Jay Rayner is constantly asked what his last meal on earth would be. So, in this book, he aims to work out exactly what that would be, because in the throes of death does anyone really have an appetite?!
Turbulence (David Szalay)
Originally written as an audio series for BBC Radio 4, Turbulence is a series of short story-style vignettes, a form of which David Szalay is something of a master. The characters’ lives are all loosely interlinked, but in a way that evokes less of a Love Actually vibe, and more of a series of genuine, albeit transient connections.
Twelve people are on the move around the world, so we see glimpses of their lives in this slightly liminal space between departure and arrival. With a diverse range of protagonists from all corners of the globe, we are witness to a hugely varied network of individuals, all appearing some form of turmoil or difficulty in their lives. A perfect portrayal of the repercussions of our actions.
When you’ve finished reading, try Easy on Netflix. Entirely unrelated, but similarly commanding of the form of overlapping narratives, with characters occasionally appearing in one another’s episodes as cameos. I think you’ll love it.
Words: Freya Parr