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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

Jeanette Winterson on her mother, Joan Didion on her daughter, and Anthony Horowitz’s Holmes

Maggie Fergusson | January/February 2012

FICTION The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, Orion, hardback, out now.
Within seconds of being invited by the Conan Doyle estate to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel, Anthony Horowitz was off the starting-blocks, piecing together a plot as involved and involving as the best of the originals. All the old familiars are here: Lestrade, Wiggins, Moriarty, the warmth of 221b Baker Street and the freezing fogs outside. At the centre, however, is a crime Conan Doyle would not have contemplated, and, chronicling it after Holmes’s death, Watson becomes unaccustomedly wistful. The text is pot-holed with typos, but Horowitz rides through them with panache.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, 4th Estate, hardback, out January 19th.
You may need to bone up on baseball to enjoy this, but it’s actually about friendship, failure and coming of age. Set in a college on the shores of Lake Michigan, the story revolves around a student team preparing to exchange the security of the baseball diamond for the complexities of the real world. When their gifted shortstop is afflicted with the sports equivalent of writer’s block, all their lives begin to unravel. Harbach’s prose is sharp-eyed but big-hearted. Over 500 pages, he immerses you in his imaginary campus, provoking nostalgia for youth, and relief that it’s over. 

SHORT STORIES We Others by Steven Millhauser, Corsair, hardback, out now.
Millhauser, a Pulitzer prize-winner, is drawn to the surreal and uncanny, blooming on the fringes of ordinary lives “like growths of mold”. His title story is narrated by a ghost who, yearning for companionship, breaks the heart of a lonely teacher. Another, the inspiration for the film “The Illusionist”, follows a magician so good at creating illusions that he becomes, himself, illusory. In a third, a giant shopping mall seduces, then enslaves, an entire town. Behind his courteous prose, Millhauser seems to be holding something back, like a doctor soft-pedalling on grim news.

FINANCE Boomerang by Michael Lewis, Allen Lane, hardback, out now.
Following “The Big Short”, and again exercising his twin passions for high finance and human folly, Michael Lewis shifts his focus from America to Europe on a hilarious journey of “financial-disaster tourism” through the countries that gorged most grossly through the credit boom. Lewis enables you to see the wood and the trees, so while getting to grips with European debt you also form a mental gallery of bizarre vignettes: the governor of Iceland’s Central Bank holed up in his office writing poems; or Ireland’s Bertie Ahern exclaiming, on the collapse of Lehman’s, “They had testicles everywhere!”

MEMOIRS Blue Nights by Joan Didion, Fourth Estate, hardback, out now).
“What greater grief can there be for mortals”, Euripides asked, “than to see their children dead?” Joan Didion’s only daughter, Quintana Roo, died in 2005, two years after Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne, mourned so memorably in “The Year of Magical Thinking”. Here, her grief is just as forensically examined, but all the more devastating for being tinged with guilt. Quintana was adopted, and troubled. Were the two connected? Didion’s feel for the material world—fabrics, food and flowers—assumes a terrible poignancy as she contemplates oblivion.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, Cape, hardback, out now.
The question was asked by Winterson’s adoptive mother. Mrs Winterson, as her daughter chillingly styles her, is the star of this artful memoir, comic but appalling, a frugal, religiose tyrant who dispensed End Time commandments and hoarded Royal Albert china. Jeanette, born Janet, “self-invented”, racked by rage, asks her own questions. Why is she so bad at loving? Why did her real mother give her away? Was Mrs Winterson perhaps not “normal” herself? How does a mind work with its own “brokenness”? Her answers are tentative, but fierce, funny, harrowing.

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