He Wants by Alison Moore: reviewed

This short novel, written by the author of ‘The Lighthouse’, is certainly an interesting piece of work. The text makes ordinary people extraordinary and takes the reader on a strange journey. There are perhaps too many surprises in the plot, but otherwise the narrative successfully casts a troubling shadow on the way people strive for meaning in modern life.

Perhaps ‘The Lighthouse’ has gathered more praise than ‘He Wants’, but both stories make for quite compelling reading. The author has a keen eye for masculine vulnerability and a remarkable way with words. Her neat prose is readable without ever being dull.

When it comes to influences, D.H. Lawrence is the most blatant one as several quotations attest. Yet the writer is more concise than her predecessor and is less political. Given the problematic nature of the political views of Lawrence, this gap is a healthy one. Perhaps the last words should be reserved for Moore:

“He wonders whether his uncle Ted, if he saw the handwriting on the front of the envelope, would recognise the shade of the ink, the thickness of the line, the characteristics of his old pen, and he thinks, then, of a Stephen King novel that Edie once read, in which a man is bludgeoned to death with his own severed arm.”

The Plundered Planet by Paul Collier: reviewed

This text makes for uncomfortable reading. It is an attempt by a prominent academic to reach out to a wide audience with a political agenda. The avowed aim is to help address poverty in an environmentally responsible fashion. However, the main target of the book is arguably the diverse environmental movement in the West.

Apart from Prince Charles, the author rarely names names when attacking other views. He is content to deplore the thinking of “romantics” and “Marxists”, while briefly defending a few mainstream economists. He seems at his happiest when slapping down the contentions of strawmen and defending genetically modified crops. The title of the book is arguably highly misleading because Professor Collier wants the plunder of the planet to continue, albeit in a way which he considers reasonable.

One minor problem is that Collier does not acknowledge sources properly so it is hard to see the specific arguments he is contradicting. A major problem is that he seems to have little appreciation of the true scale of the environmental damage which has been done. It is also worrying that somebody who is ostensibly committed to fighting poverty is so relaxed about the consequences of privatisation, for example. The complacency of the economist is illustrated by his fatalistic view:

“We simply have to accept the crooked timber of humanity for what it is.”

Bark by Lorrie Moore: reviewed

These cutting short stories of ordinary life in the United States are written with a surprising deftness. Published in 2014, the book seems to have gained a little from the assistance of Julian Barnes. The author is generous in thanking him for his contribution at the end of the text.

The themes are varied, but a pessimism haunts the stories. Many of the tales focus on an American society which seems to have lost its way. The characters, despite not being working class in the main, often struggle with the pressures associated with contemporary capitalism. There is not much joy to be observed, and mental illness never seems far away. Relations between women and men are often strained.

The book appears to have been received well, perhaps because it strikes a chord in an age of anxiety. However, it is really the quality of the writing which is the winner here. Sharp insights are conveyed with brevity, with this example being typical:

“Like everyone he knew, he could discern the hollowness in people’s charm only when it was directed at someone other than himself.”

All That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon: reviewed

This dramatic novel about Chernobyl was ultimately a disappointment. It tried to draw a sharp connection between the terrible accident and the political system which formed its context. Despite the narrative mastery on display, the young author failed to accomplish this feat.

The notion that Chernobyl was the consequence of actually existing state socialism does not appear to be a sustainable one. Nuclear disasters have occurred within the heartlands of advanced capitalism. Back in 1957, the potential problems with the technology were evident in Cumbria when a big fire broke out.In 1979, a significant meltdown underlined that the United States was not immune from hazard. And the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan underlined that the dangers have not been consigned to history. Nobody knows where disaster might happen again. Perhaps the most striking thing about this vibrant novel was the famous quote it borrowed from Marx and Engels:

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”