All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This strange text won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015. Although its epic narrative focuses on war, the style and the content are unusual for a conflict-based tale. The difficulty for the reader is having the willingness to follow the author on his long flight away from realism.

It is possible for a plausible novel to contain a courageous blind girl. It is feasible for a story to include a Nazi who is not bad all the way through. Nevertheless, for a novelist to create a plot involving a meeting between a brave sightless girl and a less than sadistic Nazi is weird, especially when a rare diamond is added to the mix. If the reader can forget the ideological aspects of the fiction that helps in terms of critical appreciation.

Nonetheless, the imaginative boldness of Anthony Doerr is somewhat productive. This is because the author is committed to backing himself. Every twist of the novel may tend towards the absurd, but the writer has a poetic flourish:

“A light emerges, a light not kindled, Werner prays, by his own imagination: an amber beam wandering the dust. It shuttles across debris, illuminates a fallen hunk of wall, lights up a twisted piece of shelving.”


The Establishment by Owen Jones

This provocative call for a democratic revolution in the UK is a pleasure to read. Jones used his journalistic powers to get members of the establishment to talk about the shared values which tend to dominate sections of the British elite. However, the analysis contained several important silences and contradictions.

Firstly, the text does not dwell on the mechanisms which have historically blocked internal democracy within the Labour Party. As a result, the faction which has benefited directly from corporate funding is let off the hook. Secondly, the elite is attacked for endorsing economic liberalism while also being criticised for using the state to promote capitalism. Thirdly, using the establishment as a concept with which to criticise policy is revealed to be arbitrary because which parts of society belong to the elite depends on the point of view of the theorist.

A rigorous philosophical approach would have involved focusing on society as a whole. It would have considered in detail how ordinary people are implicated in the maintenance of the hegemony of others. Nevertheless, Jones should be praised for stimulating debate as a public intellectual. Further, he should be recognised for realising a key fact about contemporary politics:

“Without a coherent alternative, widespread resignation will only continue.”



The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht

This overtly political play is seemingly relevant in the era of Donald Trump. It tells how a dubious figure can rise to the top because other people consistently underestimate him. While the drama is set in Chicago during the 1930s, the themes of capitalism, protectionism and corruption remain pertinent to this day.

The content of the drama leans heavily on the calamitous rise to power of Adolf Hitler. Hence one of the characters represents the leader of the Brownshirts, while another stands in for an elderly general who helped the Nazis to progress. However, the influence of Shakespeare is important as Ui gets training in the art of oratory from an actor fascinated by the Bard of Avon.

The play was composed in 1941 and this means that Brecht could not be sure of what would happen to the fascist project. Although the authoritarian populism of Trump might not be the same as the politics of Hitler, it could be as well for Americans to heed the warning of Brecht:


“So let’s not drop our guard too quickly then:

Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard

The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This comic novel satirises English rural fiction. Written in the Hungry Thirties, it mocks the bold work of D.H. Lawrence, Mary Webb and Thomas Hardy. Nor does the author spare the Bloomsbury Group from her wit on the basis of their broader concerns. While the literary jabs sometimes fail to connect, the narrative raises questions about feminism and the politics of sympathy.

The main character brings an agricultural family to awareness of the modern age. Flora uses competence and capital to empower people. However, she does not seem to appreciate that suffering is no trivial matter. For her, providing empathy is less important than delivering practical solutions. Her uncritical appreciation of technology is epitomised by her love of aeroplanes.

Nevertheless, the agenda of the text is not a simplistic endorsement of progress. The matter of female emancipation is raised in a persuasive way. Unreconstructed males of a literary type receive deservedly savage treatment:

“‘Ha! A life of Branwell Brontë,’ thought Flora.’I might have known it. There has been increasing discontent among the male intellectuals for some time at the thought that a woman wrote ‘Wuthering Heights.’ I thought one of them would produce something of this kind, sooner or later. Well, I must just avoid him, that’s all.'”