What books are we reading at Polari HQ this week?
I’ve known the writer and poet Jenni Fagan for a few years and she’s supremely gifted. When her first novel, The Panopticon, came out earlier this year, The Scotsman called it ‘the most assured Scottish debut for a decade.’ At the book’s heart is 15-year-old Anais Hendricks who has spent most of her life in what’s laughingly called ‘care.’ When we meet her she’s in the back of a police car, accused of seriously assaulting a policewoman and on her way to the young offender’s facility that gives the novel its title – a panopticon is a circular prison in which all inmates can be seen at all times. Anais is sometimes a bit too knowing and her world-view is never challenged in any substantive way, but she’s brilliant company and you find yourself really rooting for her. Above all, the writing is superb – Fagan’s prose glitters like wet granite and hers is a major new voice in British fiction.
Christopher Bryant – The Last Empire, Essays 1992-2000 by Gore Vidal
Ever since his death on July 31, Gore Vidal has been on my mind. I have been dipping into the essays, in particular the US edition The Last Empire. The clarity of Vidal’s writing, and the fierceness of his intelligence, makes for unparalleled reading. He is funny, angry, informed, and illuminating. The essay ‘The Last Empire’, which I saw him read – or perform, rather – at the Royal Festival Hall in 2007, lays out how the US forged an empire out of the ruins of Europe in the aftermath of World War II. “The nature of this militarized state was, from the beginning, beyond rational debate,” he notes. Precisely. ‘Mickey Mouse, Historian’, is an excellent first-hand report of how the Disney corporation tried to scupper his Channel 4 series, The American Presidency, in which he said of Thomas Jefferson that he was not the founder of the American political system, then added in an aside: “no one would be so cruel as to ascribe that to him”. Marvellous. The word genius is too often used imprecisely. With Vidal, it is altogether fitting and proper.
Andrew Darley – The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is a post-apocalyptic tale in which civilization has been eliminated and the landscape is turned to endless grey ash and dust. The book centres on the relationship between a father and son and their struggle to survive this unpromising circumstance. McCarthy’s poetic and sparse narrative strikes the balance between the character’s internal struggle and the hope and perseverance they hold as they journey across the austere and dismal environment. 40 pages in and what I’m particularly enjoying is the intimate depiction of the relationship between the father and his son. The metered prose lets the reader into the care and understanding between them and their selfless desire to protect one another.
Nadine Chryst – Bryant & May and the Invisible Code by Christopher Fowler
I love Bryant and May … not the matches (although they are also indeed very useful) no, the ancient detective duo created by the fabulous Christopher Fowler. Arthur Bryant and John May, the octogenarian pair who head the Peculiar Crimes Unit aided by their faithful and trusted band of Officers, Psychics, Witches (yes Witches) and generally crazy mix of off the radar reprobates. I am always first in the queue when I know another installment is due for release. I can’t get enough of them. Don’t expect traditional detection or mainstream ‘whodunnits’, these stories are full of humour and packed with truly fascinating facts about London both past and present. To be honest…there are also moments of genuine terror that make my heart beat just a little bit too fast and have me reaching for the big light and a fag … and relax, it’s just a story, surely the Leicester Square Vampire can’t really exist…???