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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

Instant history from Egypt, fictionalised history from the Forties, and an exceptional memoir

Maggie Fergusson | March/April 2012

CURRENT AFFAIRS Cairo, My City, Our Revolution by Ahdaf Soueif, Bloomsbury, hardback, out now. In February 2011, while Ahdaf Soueif was reporting almost daily for the Guardian from Tahrir Square, her editor called from Bloomsbury. For years, she’d been contracted to write a book about Cairo, but every attempt had read “like an elegy”. Now she could write with hope. The result is an interweaving of tough, colourful, moment-to-moment reportage on the “18 golden days” that culminated in President Mubarak’s resignation, with memoir, journeys into the labyrinthine passages linking buildings in downtown Cairo, and reflections on how Mubarak’s regime managed, over 30 years, to destroy Egyptians’ sense of nationhood, setting Muslim against Christian and rich against poor. Soueif’s love of her city is intense, and infectious. She invites readers not simply to understand Cairo’s recent past, but to feel involved in its future.

NOVELLA The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, Fig Tree, hardback, out now. In a prequel to her acclaimed debut, which told the story of a Japanese-American family sent to an internment camp in 1942, Julie Otsuka explores the deracination of a shipment of Japanese “picture brides” who sailed into San Francisco in 1919. Escaping the drudgery of the paddy fields, and a culture of entrenched chauvinism, most find they have exchanged one hell for another. Their husbands submit them to sexual degradation and back-breaking toil; their children feel they belong nowhere; after Pearl Harbour, most are transported to camps in Utah. In eight linked narratives, Otsuka writes chiefly in the first person plural—“On the boat we were mostly virgins”—laying experiences one on another until they form an incantation: a restrained but vivid memorial to lives that left little trace.

SHORT STORIES What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback, out now. Reading this deeply felt and unsettling collection reminded me of walking into the forest of concrete slabs that form the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. To begin with, all seems simple; soon you are in deeper, and darker, than you expected. The linking theme is Jewishness, and the Jews in Nathan Englander’s stories, whether orthodox or secular, are preoccupied by fine distinctions—between neurosis and humour, piety and superstition, legal contract and human trust. The first and last stories deal with the effects of the Holocaust as it casts its long shadow down the generations; in each, Englander’s spare, unshowy prose enhances a sense of devastation. The book comes so larded with compliments—from Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan and Dave Eggers, among others—that you set out feeling certain it will disappoint. It doesn’t.

MEMOIR Leaving Alexandria by Richard Holloway, Canongate, hardback, out March 1st. At the heart of this exceptional memoir is a paradox: Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, mourns something in which he no longer believes. As a working-class teenager, he fell in love with monasticism. As a grown-up, he turned his Christianity into a call to arms: he battled on behalf of the Gorbals’ poor, sat with men dying of aids, fought for the ordination of women. All the while, he was nagged by doubt, troubled by the tendency for institutional religion to inflict cruelty, especially through its rulings on sexuality. In 1998, at the Lambeth Conference, he flung his mitre into the Thames. Holloway conveys his rejection of religion with humility. It is rare to find someone in whom intellectual and emotional intelligence combine so movingly.

CRIME FICTION The Doll Princess by Tom Benn, Cape, hardback, out now. This punchy debut does for low-life Manchester what “Trainspotting” did for Leith, Edinburgh. It’s July 1996 and the IRA bomb has left Manchester twitchy. When Harry Bane, gofer for a local loan shark, learns that the body of his ex has been found dumped outside the McVitie’s factory, he turns detective, and finds himself up against a gang of human traffickers. Benn’s characters move through crack dens and brothels, speaking a tough, percussive patois. But their dialogue is spliced with stretches of prose filled with arresting imagery, and infused with a strange nostalgia. This is the era of landlines, faxes and cassette players. When some kids set their pit bull on a fox, it dies with a “weird, bubbly whine like a Walkman running low on Duracells”.

POETRY The Death of King Arthur by Simon Armitage, Faber, hardback, out now. The success of Simon Armitage’s 2007 translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” led him to the “Alliterative Morte Arthure”, a 4,347-line poem from around 1400, which survives only in a single manu-script at Lincoln Cathedral. The King Arthur of this version is less a courtly romantic hero than a brutal roving warlord. Provoked by the Roman emperor Lucius, he embarks on a bloodthirsty military campaign from Carlisle to Tuscany, cleaving heads and turning rivers red, before his hubris is revealed to him in a “dreadful dream”. While remaining loyal to the original scheme, three alliterative words followed by a wild card (when Arthur discovers Gawain dead, he is “face down in the field, fists full of grass”), Armitage transforms opaque medieval verse into a thrilling, energetic martial music, with a Homeric beat. 

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