Burger by Carol J Adams
Give Up Art by Maria Fusco
The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder
Small White Monkeys by Sophie Collins
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
The beastly winter has turned into a heatwave spring and books are blooming, too. Here’s a brief roundup of recent reading highlights.
Burger by Carol J Adams (Bloomsbury Adademic) is among the new batch from the moreishly designed Object Lessons, which muses on everyday objects.
“They wanted to live in a land which treated them as equals, a land filled with hamburger stands.”
In Burger, Adams interrogates the place of the ubiquitous meal in American culture and the food chain of its components, touching lightly on its developmental history, which is appreciated, as myriad other books have done so before. As well as shifting appetites from pork to beef, Adams charts vegetarian burgers from soybean burgers in the 50s seen as food for oddities, through eco-conscious countercultural movements, to the popular food of the present day. She explores the advertising trope of women depicted as meat, stuffed between burger buns to tempt consumers, and the cultural crisis of BSE, asking whether the ‘hamburger is the unsustainable solution to protein delivery’, before ending persuasively on the innovative meat replacement technologies being pursued by companies such as Beyond Meat. Burger is an enjoyable and lively critique of US food systems, Capitalism, and patriarchal cultural tropes around meat eating.
Give Up Art is a collection of critical writing by Maria Fusco (New Directions), collating art writing, essays, and theory published between 2002 and 2017 in magazines such as Frieze, The Happy Hypocrite (of which she is editor), and Art Monthly. In the varied pieces within, I was challenged, made to question the possibilities of form and structure, and inflected with the book’s playfulness and good humour.
In 11 Statements Around Art writing, Fusco states in point 4, “Art writing does not take modalities of writing as given, rather it tends to, and experiments with, non-division between practise and theory, criticism and creativity.” “In Which the World is Leaking In and You are Leaking Out – on The Joy of Sex” takes as its basis the illustrative polaroids of the iconic sex guide, with their 70s-specific “suede Chelsea boots or ruffled Biba panties,” questioning whether reading the book is a “purely archaist activity.” There are reviews of the work of filmmaker Charles Henri Ford, placing process and production against longevity, and Steve McQueen’s Hunger, questioning its engagement with “Politics with a capital P.” In “Say Who I Am, or A Broad Private Wink”, footnotes are essential to storytelling, woven into an otherwise conventional critical piece, which I, prone to skipping footnotes and giving them a cursory glance at the end, discovered with glee and immediately re-read from the beginning, turning my conception of the piece and its form on its head. “Thing Clutter” describes ten objects – playing cards, envelope, and measuring tape among them, with the literary-sensual pleasure of the latter doled out in inches. “Shhh, one. Shhh, two. Shhh, three.” etc. And a clear highlight sees Cosey Fanni Tutti joins Fusco in conversation in “Cosey and Maria Talk About Linguistic Hardcore,” discussing personal identity and signifiers, sex magazines, and music methodology.
There is a quote on the back of the book from James Elkins. “After a book like this, most nonfiction seems curiously unaware of what writing can be.” I am inclined to agree; in reading Maria Fusco I feel excavated from a pedestrian rut.
The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi, translated by Darryl Sterk (Text Publishing) was recently long-listed for the Man Booker International. In a quest to discover the missing father who left his bicycle behind on a beach (one in a series of missing bicycles), writer Cheng meets a series of people who tell him their own stories. It’s a meandering narrative, which dips between the present day and wartime Japan, tracing the legacy of combat warfare and the role of bicycles both as a military vehicle and as they increase in availability to citizens. Cheng becomes invested in the bicycle collection scene, in particular the brand Lucky, and there are diversions into butterfly artwork, antiques stores, the fate of zoo animals during wartime, and the pastimes of eccentric characters he meets along the way. I struggled to get into the novel at first, then accepted the wandering pace, and enjoyed its gentle ruminations on human connections made and lost, the threads of chance, loss, domestic mysteries and the personal quests each of us are on.
So Sad Today is a collection of personal essays by Melissa Broder (Scribe), the poet behind the until now anonymous twitter account which posts melancholic and frequently viral one-liners. The cover I picked up is a tie-dye whorl of pink and green. Personal essays get a bad rap set within the context of clickbait media which exploits intimate confession, but can still be a vehicle for rich exploration. So Sad Today is an example of when the personal essay can really sing, broadening out from itself to critique the zeitgeist. It explores sex and social media, feminism and bodies, and ways in which the narrator feels distanced from cultural norms within society or counter cultural feminism itself.”…what the fuck kind of witch eats Lean Cuisine mac and cheese and not Kraft full-fat macaroni cheese…?” It’s written in a breezy, youthful style, and often humorous, easy to eat though quickly. There’s an essay called I Don’t Feel Bad About My Neck, a reference to the Nora Ephron collection which came before. It lists examples of female archetypes. “I feel bad that I wax off all my pubes. What kind of artists waxes off all her pubes?” It questions authenticity and a desire to fit into a mold, even within feminism, political, or artistic scenes, giving the example of protesting vs posting online about yourself protesting, and the value in that. She wants to be seen as an artist-feminist, but finds her own language choices and personal grooming habits falling short of self-scrutiny. She ends on a note of considering police brutality, feeling bad that as a white woman, she can escape what others can’t, and the personal capital she gets out of that dynamic, which really puts the pube anxiety into perspective as a flippancy in the face of big issues feminists should really be considering. It’s a critique of feminism-as-clickbait and self-marketing culture, “the difference between being supportive of other people’s revolutions versus turning something tragic into your own experience,” which reminds me of some slick media feminism which turns me off; hashtags exploited to centre the self, feminism as a personal brand in op-ed. It calls to mind a section in Mary Beard’s Women and Power which criticises individualist “public prestige” at the expense of a collective working together to effect social change. It’s a very timely book, if you’ve ever questioned where you fit within contemporary feminist principles, and a really enjoyable one.
Small White Monkeys by Sophie Collins (Book Works) is a fragmentary text, of the kind I’ve really enjoyed in the last couple of years. It was researched at Glasgow Women’s Library, and there are a few archive photographs of its incarnation. It explores self-expression, self-help, and shame. One section quotes Elena Ferrante on literary truth, where she says “literary truth is the truth released exclusively by words used well.” Collins describes this literary truth as a “parallel-running language”, a kind of reality which can be tapped into, and which she seeks herself in writing. It’s a short, literary, feminist musing in the aftermath of trauma, well paired with her recent poetic work on Who is Mary Sue? which explores the belief a woman’s writing is autobiographical in every instance. Both works together look at the agency of a woman writer.
I’ve previously enjoyed Hari Kunzru‘s writing, in particular Gods Without Men, so I was intrigued by White Tears (Penguin) which got me through a couple of flights while codeine-high and still recovering from a broken arm. The novel follows two young white men, one rich, one not, who meet as students and become infatuated with the sound of old blues. They form a production studio and begin to take high profile clients, but are diverted by an obsession into a chance street recording of a man singing an unknown song, trying to track down his background, and fall into the world of rare record collecting. It’s a page-turning read, typical of Kunzru, a darkly satirical look at cultural appropriation, wealth, and race. As they follow the trail of a musician lost to history, they themselves lose their grip on reality, as a parallel narrative emerges like the flip side of a spinning record; the underside to the world they seek to buy into and capitalise on. Kunzru’s acknowledgements end with “Above all, I would like to acknowledge the singers, poets and musicians whose artistry flows through the blues tradition, particularly those whose names have been lost.”
Jessie Greengrass is an incredible stylist of prose. It’s impossible not to be struck by her artistry with words soon upon opening her debut novel Sight (John Murray). Her sentences are elegantly constructed and probing of truths, in a way that marks her out as special. It’s difficult to believe this, so accomplished and well constructed, is her first novel, and she deserves to be widely acknowledged. In Sight, a woman pregnant and anxious with second child reflects on her own mother and grandmother, and the excavations we must perform to understand ourselves; where we come from, psychologically. Along the way she tells stories of, for example, the invention of the X-Ray. It is illuminating, intelligent, and exquisitely written. If you read one book from this list, make it this one: I thoroughly recommend it.
I am late to Rachel Cusk‘s Trilogy (Faber), but seduced into beginning by the cover design of the latest editions. Outline begins with a woman in conversation with her neighbour on a plane as she travels to Greece to teach a creative writing course. I am slightly averse to books which make the business of writing their topic, particularly of the writers retreat mold, but nethertheless, enjoyed this story in ten conversations, where the narrator meets a variety of strangers who confess and muse upon their own lives. She questions the veracity of their stories when they touch upon others; the outline given to her of, for example, an ex-wife – who is really at fault? Outline is a study in subjectivity which reminds me, a little, of the words of the late French writer Edouard Leve who often made himself a subject in his semi-autobiographical novels, with the story arising from inconsistencies and contradictions in how he describes himself. Outline is a smart book, and I’ll read on to the next in the series.
I picked up The Leavers by Lisa Ko in an airport bookshop on a two-for-one deal. It’s published by Dialogue Books, a celebrated imprint dedicated to inclusivity and diversity. The Leavers tells the story of Deming, a young boy whose undocumented Chinese immigrant mother disappears suddenly from their home in New York City, and his life afterwards, adopted by a white and well-meaning couple upstate, who shape him into becoming Daniel while the Chinatown he knows undergoes changes, and in one heartrending scene, a visit to his old home shows strangers are now living there. As Deming/Daniel struggles to understand what he sees as abandonment by is family, details of his mother’s predicament become clearer, and she reveals the time she spent in a camp unable to reach him before being deported. At times the narrative doubles back on itself, but it’s an insight into immigrant life and struggles of straddling a dual identity, difficult parenting decisions and difficulty making a living, and an emotional pull to culture and place. – Laura Waddell
Other review and writing in Spring:
Recently I reviewed Break.Up by Joanna Walsh (Serpent’s Tail) for The Skinny, Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo, translated by Charlotte Coombe (Charco Press) for The Skinny, and The Half Sister by Catherine Chanter (Canongate) for The List.
Reviews pending include Asymetry by Lisa Halliday (Granta) for Review 31, Souvenir by Rolf Potts (Bloomsbury Adademic/Object Lessons) for Glasgow Review of Books, The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (Sandstone) for The Skinny, Mayhem & Death by Helen McClory (404Ink) for Gutter and Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (Portobello Books) for The Skinny.
Marbles magazine issue 3 contains a story I wrote about a visit to the opticians, entitled KNZHD. You can buy it here.
In podcasts/radio, I appeared on BBC Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth Show cultural review to discuss Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls 2 and the new David Byrne album, and Fermentations podcast recorded myself and Ruby Tandoh in conversation about her new book Eat Up! Fermentations is a new podcast exploring gastronomy and gender and it’s a great listen.
And finally, I’ll be a roving mentor for the Scottish Review of Books’ Emerging Critics Scheme, having graduated from its inaugural course. This year’s scheme, in partnership with Creative Scotland, launched with an opening seminar which included a conversation between myself and former mentor Alan Taylor on contemporary criticism, recorded for the SROB podcast, coming soon.