This month’s best paperbacks: Dave Eggers, Rebecca Solnit and more

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The Guardian

Short stories

Affecting and funny tales

Afterparties

Anthony Veasna So

Afterparties Anthony Veasna So

Affecting and funny tales

History bears down like a weight in the affecting and funny short stories in Afterparties, Anthony Veasna So’s debut. Aimless and disaffected young Californians navigate feeling stuck at an age where, so it is said, one ought to be hungry and ambitious and on the move. Simmering under their lives is a history that feels as immoveable as it is unfathomable, as their families – who moved to the US from Cambodia in the 70s to escape Pol Pot’s genocide – are haunted by the past.

In one story, a college graduate returns home to work in his father’s car repair shop. The status-conscious wife of a doctor – the only couple in the community to ascend to white-collar labour – whacks him over the head with a magazine, asking why he did not “become a doctor”: “We escaped the Communists. So what are boys like you doing?!” “She tried whacking me again, but I stepped out of her reach” the narrator recalls: “’Please stop,’ I said. ‘Violence will not solve our problems, and neither will the model minority myth.’” The other adults in Afterparties live for survival, not status, and know the past cannot be wiped clean by climbing the ladder of social respectability. When a mysterious visitor starts frequenting her doughnut shop, Sothy, mother of two and owner of Chuck’s Donuts (a name she chose because it seemed “American enough to draw in customers”) fears that it is an old business partner coming back for retribution – a man who, “for all she knew, could have bankrolled Pol Pot’s coup.”

Elsewhere, a young man whose life echoes So’s own – born in to Khmer parents who fled the genocide; became one of the rare winners of the immigrant dream to attend Stanford University, then found work as a teacher – is reflecting on his fragile relationship with a tech bro in a soulless and gentrified Silicon Valley, and wonders “Here I was! Living in a district that echoed a dead San Francisco. Gay, Cambodian, and not even twenty-six, carrying in my body the aftermath of war, genocide, colonialism.” His job – teaching private school students the value of diversity and civic belonging through close readings of Moby Dick – appears to him both stupid and exhilarating.

Afterparties was published after So’s death in 2020, aged 28; eulogies spoke to his preternatural talent. His stories move fluidly between heart and humour, cynicism and wonder, speaking to how even in the thicket of historical violence people can and do continue to find moments of grace and laughter. His own voice emerges from the book bright, irreverent, and fully formed, while also bringing alive his characters, illuminating what they have inherited, and how and why, against the absurdities and unbearable histories in life, they continue to move onward.

Rebecca Liu

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

History

How we reached ‘peak car’

A Brief History of Motion

Tom Standage

A Brief History of Motion Tom Standage

How we reached ‘peak car’

Early one August morning in 1888, Bertha Benz set off with her two teenage sons to drive from Mannheim to visit her mother, 65 miles away. She was, as journalist Tom Standage notes, “the first person in history to use an automobile in a recognizably modern way – simply to get from A to B”.

She was driving her husband’s three-wheeled prototype, the Benz Patent Motorwagen. Up until then it had only been driven in the courtyard of his workshop and she wanted to show him that it was reliable enough to be used for long-distances. Bertha didn’t tell him she was going and had to wheel it out onto the road before starting the engine to avoid waking him.

On the journey, Bertha had to unblock the fuel pipe using a hat pin and use a garter to fix a leaky valve. Onlookers were astonished at the vehicle, some “found it so terrifying that they fell to their knees in prayer”.

Bertha’s daring trip to her mother was a PR triumph and today her route is marked with memorial signs. It convinced her husband that there was a market for his ingenious invention.

By 1900, 6,000 cars were sold in Europe. But in America, thanks to the 1908 Model T Ford, car ownership became more affordable. By 1920, 8 million Americans owned a car, far more than in Europe, and only 3-6 percent of vehicles were horse-drawn: an astonishing transport revolution. In the 1890s, there had been 300,000 horses on the streets of London, each producing 10 kilos of manure. No wonder horseless carriages seemed to be the obvious solution to cities’ transport problems.

But as Standage’s elegantly written and well-researched book shows, what seems like a quick fix for today’s issues can often end up creating new difficulties: the average speed of cars in central London now is 8 mph, the same as for horse-drawn carriages in the 1890s. And although there is less manure on the streets, the invisible pollution from cars is costing lives and contributing to climate change. This insightful book explores the five-thousand-year history of transport in order to place the decisions we face today into a broader historical context.

According to Standage, we have now reached “peak car” and ownership is declining. In China, people are opting to use ride hailing apps rather than own an expensive car. Indeed, apps offer a way of linking up diverse mobility services into “the internet of motion”, letting users plan trips and pay for different services on one platform. Cities like Helsinki and Berlin are leading the way.

This is, says Standage, the post-car future and the smartphone “is the true heir to the car”. It will allow us to avoid swapping one “transport monoculture” (such as the horse) for another (the car), and instead to create a flexible transport system fit for the future.

PD Smith

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Technology

A new kind of empire

The Digital Silk Road

Jonathan E. Hillman

The Digital Silk Road Jonathan E. Hillman

A new kind of empire

At a London conference in 1989, former US President Ronald Reagan predicted that the “communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen”. Amidst the mood of optimism at the end of the Cold War, many believed the information age would undermine the rule of the Communist Party in China and herald a new era of liberty. That has not happened.

Aided by cutting-edge surveillance technologies and the “Golden Shield”, aka the Great Firewall which turns the country into a digital fortress restricting access to the global internet, China has become “the biggest of big brothers”. As Jonathan Hillman argues, around the world “democracy is retreating, and digital authoritarianism is on the march”.

The Chinese Communist Party uses communications technology to underpin its hold on power at home. But in the last two decades, China has also become one of the world’s largest providers of such technology. The astonishing growth of companies such as Huawei is part of China’s Digital Silk Road.

First mentioned in 2015 it is integral to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s plan to position China at the heart of the global economy through infrastructure projects and high-tech industries. Hillman charts the meteoric rise of Chinese technology companies, from wireless networks, satellites, and surveillance technology, to how China is forging a new map of the internet, one which it can potentially monitor: “Beijing wants to carry, store, and mine more of the world’s data while keeping its own networks out of reach.”

The stakes are far higher than who makes your phone or router. According to Hillman, China is creating “a new kind of empire”, one in which it can exercise power far from its own borders without the use of military assets. Welcome to the age of the “Network Wars”. In October 2020, for instance, Mumbai lost power. A few months earlier Chinese and Indian troops had clashed in the Himalayas. Chinese hackers had been targeting India’s infrastructure for weeks with malware: “they may have had an inside track: nearly all India’s power plants built over the last decade use Chinese equipment.”

From the outrageous tactics used by Chinese companies to steal research and markets from Western companies, such as Nortel, to the security implications of using Chinese hardware, Hillman’s chilling and important book – the result of five years studying Chinese global infrastructure projects – raises deeply worrying questions about the technology on which we are all now so reliant in our daily lives.

PD Smith

£11.30 (RRP £12.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Health

The trip of a lifetime

This Is Your Mind on Plants

Michael Pollan

This Is Your Mind on Plants Michael Pollan

The trip of a lifetime

This book, which concerns our species’ symbiotic entanglements with three potent plant-derived substances – opium, caffeine and mescaline – is a further development of Michael Pollan’s lifelong inquiry, which began, he writes, when he took up gardening as a teenager and attempted to grow cannabis.

His essays on perhaps the three most dramatically efficacious medicinal compounds proceed in a similar way, weaving personal experimentation with each of the “drugs” into informed histories of the ways in which they have taken such a hold of different human cultures. At the root of each case study is a pair of questions: the first asks why, as a species, we have gone to extraordinary lengths to propagate and disseminate these consciousness-changing molecules, and the second is why they are subject to paranoia and regulation in differing degrees.

The results of these experiments open up as many public questions as private epiphanies. Pollan is the perfect guide through this sometimes controversial territory; curious, careful and, as his book progresses, increasingly open minded.

Tim Adams

£9.34 (RRP £10.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Politics

Deadheading with the writer

Orwell’s Roses

Rebecca Solnit

Orwell’s Roses Rebecca Solnit

Deadheading with the writer

This book simultaneously is and isn’t about George Orwell, just as it is and isn’t about roses. It belongs in a whimsical category of its own, meandering elegantly enough through lots of subjects loosely connected to one or the other; more of a wildly overgrown essay, from which side shoots constantly emerge to snag the attention, than a book. But at its root is the fact that in 1936, the writer and political thinker planted some roses in his Hertfordshire garden. And when Solnit turns up on the doorstep more than eight decades later, she finds the rose bushes (or at least what she takes to be the same rose bushes) still flowering, a living connection between past and present.

From this blooms the most enjoyable part of the book – a reflection on what gardening may have meant to Orwell, but also what it means to gardeners everywhere; beauty for today, hope for tomorrow, and a desire to create something for those who come after – all of which find an echo in the best of politics.

Gaby Hinsliff

£8.49 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fiction

A life in books

Checkout 19

Claire-Louise Bennett

Checkout 19 Claire-Louise Bennett

A life in books

Claire-Louise Bennett’s second novel, like her first book, Pond, enacts a quest for quiddity – the syntax that embodies a cast of mind, the phrase that nails a sensation, the narrative structure that feels like life as it is lived or anyway processed. At times the effect is exhausting. Bennett’s unnamed, 40-ish narrator, raised in south-west England but resident in Ireland, holds forth in fevered, looping, breathless prose, and displays a tendency to travel long and far down the blindest of alleys. She can be arch and even twee. But whatever challenges the book poses to breezy reading are the product of unswerving fidelity to its own raw spirit.

“We read in order to come to life,” the narrator asserts, a past-tense formulation that could be read as present continuous. But coming to life isn’t confined to becoming a writer. An immersion in literature serves to inspire in a larger sense, to inflame a feeling of wonder and possibility – a dynamic not only evoked but also achieved by this elatingly risky and irreducible book.

Leo Robson

£8.49 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

History

Humane and important

Partition Voices

Kavita Puri

Partition Voices Kavita Puri

Humane and important

The partition of India in 1947 displaced between 10 million and 12 million people along religious lines, causing refugee crises and violent tensions that continue to this day. As Britain left India, it drew a boundary, creating Pakistan, as the country split into two.

What Partition was, how it was managed and how it produced division between Hindu, Muslim and Sikhs has been written about extensively. We know it involved one of the largest ever mass migrations. We know that millions died. We know that certain regions are still disputed today. What we don’t often hear about are the people who became collateral damage in the aftermath of a hastily drawn border. I’ve often thought about those who lived through Partition and what they saw. What I had never appreciated was that some of them are here in the UK, dotted among us, dealing with the trauma of what they experienced and, in some cases, what they did.

Kavita Puri’s book is the most humane account of Partition I’ve read. Crucially, it distances itself from the politics of independence, from celebrating the British empire and the benefits it gave those under its rule. Instead, it gives a voice to those affected by Partition.

Partition Voices is important because Puri does not flinch as she dissects the tumultuous event, never shying away from the trauma. If the British empire is to be studied honestly, if colonialism and immigration are to be properly understood, we need schools and universities to embrace such oral histories or we will never know the truth about Partition and how it destroyed the lives of millions. We need a candid conversation about our past and this is an essential starting point.

Nikesh Shukla

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Crime fiction

A fitting goodbye

Riccardino

Andrea Camilleri

Riccardino Andrea Camilleri

A fitting goodbye

This 28th and, sadly, final Inspector Montalbano novel was written in 2005 and kept in a safe until the author’s death in 2019. It’s set, as usual, in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigata, where the humane and witty detective, grown ever more weary and cynical, is joined, for the first time, by the author himself. Equally tired and tetchy, the fictional Camilleri repeatedly chides Montalbano for his lack of progress investigating the death of the titular Riccardino, a man with a colourful private life who has been gunned down in the street by an unknown killer on a motorbike. As so often in Camilleri’s thrillers, the malevolent forces of the mafia and the Catholic church are pulling strings in the background – the wily prelate who tries to entrap Montalbano with questions of moral philosophy is particularly enjoyable – and the author joins in as well, with increasingly improbable suggestions about how the inspector should proceed. To give more detail would be to risk spoilers: suffice to say that Camilleri has contrived a fitting goodbye to a dear old friend who operates, to the very last, on his own terms. Both he and his creator will be greatly missed.

Laura Wilson

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Society

Extraordinarily dynamic

The Sex Lives of African Women

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

The Sex Lives of African Women Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah

Extraordinarily dynamic

Here is a book like none you will have read before. It draws on interviews conducted over six years by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah – a Ghanaian feminist activist and award-winning blogger – with more than 30 black and Afro-descendant contributors from across the African continent and its global diaspora in Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean.

It both documents and legitimises the desires and sexuality of African women, beyond every conceivable stereotype, in three sections: self-discovery, freedom and healing – and if the first two feel more substantial than the third, that reflects real life, just as at the heart of it all is the desire for freedom to be oneself. No topic is off limits as these conversations reveal and explore similarities and differences, about questioning societal norms, religious edicts, confronting the trauma of sexual abuse and searching for new narratives and identities on the path towards wholeness.

Sekyiamah has delivered an extraordinarily dynamic work, true to her own precept that “Freedom is a constant state of being … that we need to nurture and protect. Freedom is a safe home that one can return to over and over again.”

Margaret Busby

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Memoir

Rebellion and resilience

What It Feels Like for a Girl

Paris Lees

What It Feels Like for a Girl Paris Lees

Rebellion and resilience

When Paris Lees was seven years old her school called her mum to complain that her child was wearing tights. Back then, Lees was called Byron and the world saw her as a boy, though she knew different. Her mum phoned her dad, Gaz, who took her to a doctor. “An’ I told ’im. I’m a girl. I sez, ‘I’ve always known’,” Lees writes. The doctor referred her to a child psychologist, but Gaz declined to follow it up. “I don’t think he din’t take me coz he din’t believe me. He din’t take me coz he did believe me, an’ he din’t wanna face the truth.”

What It Feels Like for a Girl chronicles Lees’ teenage years and her struggle to be herself. Smart and exuberant, the book is written in dialect – think Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, but set in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, where “the streets are paved wi’ dog shit”. Her gender nonconformity is just one aspect of an adolescence that features violence, drug abuse, prostitution, robbery and a spell in a young offenders’ institute. But the most persistent problem for Lees is Gaz, a former boxer for whom humiliating her – for her sexuality, her appearance and her refusal to stand up to school thugs – is a daily sport.

While what happens to Lees is bleak, her telling of it is darkly (and sometimes uncomfortably) funny. She locks herself in a cubicle in a public toilet after school one day and, by accident, finds she can make money providing sexual services to middle-aged men. When one offers her a tenner, she notes: “I’m worth at least fifteen. A pound for every year, plus one for luck.” While the 14-year-old Lees doesn’t clock the gravity of grown men paying children for sex, the reader is left in no doubt.

Lees’ story ends with her arrival in Brighton to study English literature at university, where she delights in the sea view and having a room of her own. By excavating her painful past in her memoir, she has crafted a vivid story of trauma, rebellion and astonishing resilience.

Fiona Sturges

£9.56 (RRP £10.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fiction

Scathing big-tech satire

The Every

Dave Eggers

The Every Dave Eggers

Scathing big-tech satire

Kudos to Dave Eggers. In this follow-up to the admirable, big-tech, dystopian thriller The Circle (which you needn’t have read to enjoy the current book), he again squares up to the new enemies of everything untamed and brilliant in humankind. If you meant to read Shoshana Zuboff’s important and demanding The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, but were too worn down by surveillance capitalism’s intrusions to get round to it, The Every tackles the same concerns from a shared perspective of humanist outrage, in the form of a gulpable fictive entertainment.

The Circle’s titular startup turned metaphysical empire (think: Googlebook) has merged with an unmistakable e-commerce site referred to, doubtless for legal reasons, only by its nickname: “the jungle”. Messianically rebranded as The Every, the corporation is now run by Mae Holland, The Circle’s fast-rising, newbie protagonist. Under Holland, The Every pursues its heedless agenda of a worldwide, soft totalitarian order of mass behavioural compliance through surveillance. However, in part due to a corporate culture of timid self-scrutiny, there is a dearth of new ideas on campus. Enter another newbie, Delaney Wells, radicalised by her years studying under anti-monopoly crusader Professor Agarwal (surely based on the aforementioned Zuboff, Agarwal articulates the novel’s moral and intellectual conscience in letters to her former protege). Bent on bringing down The Every from the inside, Delaney conspires with her housemate Wes, a big-tech resisting “trog”, to sabotage the company. The pair settle on a strategy of terroristic accelerationism: if they can introduce enough vile or moronic apps into The Every’s portfolio, it might trigger a popular insurrection that will bring about the company’s downfall.

At 577 pages, The Every is not as tight as The Circle. As momentum builds, the plotting gets clunky, while the novel’s comic exuberance means it lacks the cathartic brutality of, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Eggers is a wonderful storyteller with an alert and defiant vision. His down-home decency means he pulls short of articulating a thought that recurred for me throughout reading The Every: threatened with spiritual extinction through conformism, sanitisation, shame, inanity and surveillance, it might yet be our evil, our perversity, our psychopathology, our hate that prove the saving of us.

Rob Doyle

£11.30 (RRP £12.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Fiction

Gloriously interwoven tales

Greek Myths

Charlotte Higgins

Greek Myths Charlotte Higgins

Gloriously interwoven tales

There is no shortage these days of lively, well-written retellings of ancient Greek and Roman myths, but Charlotte Higgins has embraced a central metaphor – weaving – that leads us through the labyrinth of interconnected stories in a startlingly fresh way. It throws radiant new light on their meanings. Although her chief model is Ovid’s phantasmagoric mythological compendium in his Metamorphoses, her voice is quite different – more tender and pensive – and she uses her considerable scholarly skills to mine many other ancient sources, rescuing some little-known stories from obscurity.

The book would make a perfect introduction to the entrancing world of Greek myth for any secondary school student. Its thoughtful introduction, ample notes pointing to the ancient sources, bibliography of accessible further reading, maps, genealogies and glossary make it a useful resource for far more advanced adult readers. And Higgins’s simple yet sonorous style contains treats even for those lucky enough, like her, to have read her ancient sources in the original languages. She includes deft Homeric epithets (“the deathless goddess”), unobtrusive embedded quotations of resonant couplets from Sophoclean tragedy, and luscious Homeric similes at unexpected moments. This excellent book should delight many generations of story lovers to come.

Edith Hall

£8.49 (RRP £9.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

Crime fiction

An intelligent mystery

The Twyford Code

Janice Hallett

The Twyford Code Janice Hallett

An intelligent mystery

Hallett’s bestselling debut The Appeal, an intelligent mystery set within the deceptively genteel confines of a local am-dram group, was a modern epistolary novel, told in emails. Her second is even better, and presented as audio files, complete with intriguing mistakes made by the transcription software. Recorded on an iPhone by ex-con Steven Smith for his probation officer, they are records of his attempts to find his old English teacher, who disappeared on a school trip to Bournemouth, erstwhile home of Blytonesque children’s writer Edith Twyford. Twyford’s books are catnip to conspiracy theorists; they’re thought to contain a code that may have something to do with their author’s activities during the second world war. Steven, with help from his former classmates and a librarian, sets out to crack it – and, in the process, solve the puzzle of his own life. This fiendishly clever book, which manages to be both tricksy and surprisingly moving, is the perfect antidote to the post-Christmas carb stupor.

Laura Wilson

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Purchase at the Guardian bookshop

July 15, 2022 at 02:55PM

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