Somewhere, surely, a psychologist has written at length on the significance and symbolism of humanity’s baggage. In particular, handbags and tote bags can carry us as much as we carry them, and their fetishization as objects of desire and aspiration means we perform our cherished self-identities every time we drape them lovingly over our shoulder or grasp them warily at arm’s length.
The central character in Laurie Levy’s The Stendhal Summer, Alison Miller, carries a lot of baggage on her trip to Europe. She struggles to wrangle her luggage on and off trains, in and out of taxis and hotels, up and down stairs. Alison, 54, is a professional PR writer from Chicago. Her husband George has left her for his latest young conquest, their twins Abbie and Dan are concerned for her happiness, her mother worries Alison will be mugged or worse. Alison has taken the risk of blowing her life savings in pursuit of her great love, the French author Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle, 1783–1842), whose biography she plans to write. Her travels take her from Grenoble to Milan, Civitavecchia, Rome and Paris; along the way, she meets old friends, encounters new ones, and is reawakened to the possibilities of life and love.
Reykjavík is a novel of the Cold War and its aftermath which takes as its starting point the Reykjavík summit in October 1986 between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Dylan Rose, aged 24, is the foreign correspondent for a New York paper. While in Iceland to cover the summit, he unexpectedly encounters Professor Nathalie Campbell, his former teacher of Russian at Berkeley, who herself meets and falls in love with Russian scientist Andrei Heilemann. Over subsequent decades, their lives criss-cross against the backdrop of the dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the rise of oligarch mobsterism in the new Russia. Andrei’s brother Mikhail is one such oligarch, and his personal/political vendetta with Andrei leads to espionage, danger, persecution and murder.
In Someone Else’s Conspiracy: a book review of Crowd of One, a novel by Filip Severin
The epigraph to Crowd of One is taken from Edward Bernays, one of the least-known and most influential figures of the modern era: ‘Men are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.’ Bernays pioneered what eventually became known as public relations (aka propaganda) by applying crowd psychology to control the ‘herd instincts’ of the ‘irrational masses’. What he termed the ‘crystallizing’ of public opinion rapidly evolved over the course of the twentieth century into the manufacturing of consent to the political and commercial imperatives of society’s managers and elites. Like it or not, we all live in Bernays’ world.
‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’: a book review of Apocalypse Chow, a novel by David Julian Wightman
The subtitle to Apocalypse Chow describes it as a ‘remix of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’. Pastiche, parody, or whatever we wish to call it is a difficult art, made more difficult if the original is a pillar of the western literary canon of which many people have heard, but few have read. Conrad’s prose is too dense and allusive for contemporary tastes, the novel was written a long time ago, and one has to be prepared to work hard to get to grips with it.
Monkey on a Wire: a book review of 72 Raisins by Nikki Nash
72 Raisins tells the story of Scott Mullan, a Los Angeles-based comedy writer for The Late Enough Show, whose star is the diminutive Dylan Flynn. Scott is fifty and married to Rebecca. They have two children, both of whom are due to start college and are busy choosing – along with Rebecca – where to go. Scott is hoping for promotion to head writer on the show, but his ambitions and his marriage are thrown into turmoil when his agent asks him to read the typescript of a book called Seven Mythic Doorways to Freedom by Ben Doss, with a view to editing it, a suggestion that Scott fears indicates he will never get the job he covets.
Ribbon of Memories: a book review of Do the Wrong Thing, a novel by Malcolm van Delst
On several occasions, I was fortunate to hear Malcolm van Delst, a writer based in Vancouver, Canada, read aloud from a work-in-progress called Do the Wrong Thing. The extracts she read left me puzzled and intrigued: I was unable to grasp exactly what the book was meant to be about, and exactly what she aimed to achieve. Do the Wrong Thing seemed to consist principally of details and fragments – often, details of fragments – set down more or less at random, from the life of a young woman whom I took to be the author herself. Now that I have read book one of Do the Wrong Thing (others are yet to be published), I am still puzzled, but the mists have cleared enough for me to relish the journey even while the destination remains obscure.
Painted Ladies: A book review of A Thing of the Moment, a novel by Bruno Noble
The power ‘to see ourselves as others see us’ is described as a gift by Robert Burns, but it is easy also to imagine it a curse. Self-identity is an elusive and shifting construct; anyone with a penchant for introspection quickly finds themselves in a hall of mirrors that reflect different versions of who they are, depending on time and circumstance. Besides, are other people’s perceptions of ourselves any more accurate or any less imposed than our own? Perhaps it is better to be misunderstood from the inside than it is to be misperceived from the outside.