Culture Wars reviews contemporary fiction along with regular feature coverage of fiction festivals such as Jewish Book Week and prizes like the Orange Prize and Man Booker.

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Tuesday 1 October 2013

Larger than life

What does The Great Gatsby owe to Le Grand Meaulnes?

Once I’d realised the echoes in the characters and the themes, a host of smaller details hit me with their reverberations: in both novels there are grand parties that are thrown with total abandon; both festivities happen at sumptuous mansions, with romantic turrets and banks of lawns; later, there are fateful gunshots in each; and episodes of looking up at windows, waiting for lights to signal behind the curtains.

A humane vision

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton 2013)

The real problem of the novel lies in the title: it implies that it is indeed possible to get filthy rich in Asia, and that Asia is indeed rising. This is an illusion, certainly for Pakistan and probably also for India, and here I can say that my criticism of Hamid is not really specifically aimed at him but also at the other members of the current illustrious crop of Western-Asian writers like Mohammed Hanif and Aravind Adiga, all of whom I admire greatly

Saturday 22 June 2013

A rare kind of friendship

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (Hutchinson 2012)

What this narration achieves is to bridge the gap between the ghastly facts we read in the news and the internal mind of the perpetrator. The author has brilliantly imagined all the steps of self-justification; after all, how could anyone steel themselves to do such things?

Tuesday 5 February 2013

The family from Hell in the local tower (block)

The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson (Hammer 2012)

We never know much about these characters. Throughout the novel they remain a sort of raped, diseased and abused lumpen conglomerate, differentiated only by various repulsive physical characteristics and traits such as Elizabeth Device’s odd eyes, Jennet’s starving devouring of food (chicken including all the bones) and James’ madness etc.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Where cockroaches lurk

Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth (Serpent's Tail, 2012)

So far, so conventional — we might think. An injustice waiting to be resolved, a detective with a backstory of demons, all par for the conventional crime novel course. But this is where we make a classic detection error — leaping to judgement before all the evidence is gathered. In unfolding the story, Unsworth doesn’t simply deal with the issue of a possible wrong that needs righting. She leads us — with the aid of flashbacks to the time of the killing - on a journey into the underbelly of small-town life.

The literary Sorting Hat

Does JK Rowling have what it takes to transfigure herself into a writer for grown-ups?

For the most part Richmal Crompton’s books for adults have been forgotten, eclipsed by her all-encompassing reputation as a children’s writer. Crompton herself once regretfully acknowledged that William Brown, her supreme literary creation, had become her ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. Does the infantile furore surrounding her book’s publication point to JK Rowling sharing Crompton’s fate?

Friday 9 December 2011

Russian spring

Snowdrops, by AD Miller (Atlantic Books, 2011)

What is most refreshing about the story is its understated defiant quality. At a time when too much contemporary fiction seems expected to deliver superficial messages, it is good to read something based on more acute and genuine social observation.

Friday 21 October 2011

Away from the editor’s knife, the knife

Beginners, by Raymond Carver (Jonathan Cape, 2009)

What Carver’s collection bears out, though, is the way the real craftsmanship of good authors lies not in any superficial treatment of words as such – the editor’s art - but in a whole approach to the subject-matter.

Is writing a thrilling option?

Deon Meyer, Novel Books, Bryanston, Johannesburg, October 2011

Ideas for his characters may come from people he meets or sees, but on the whole he spends a lot of time creating them, imagining a back story for them so that he can feel how they will react in different circumstances. The more time he spends with them the more real they become and sometimes he is even surprised by how they react.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

From water spouts to rockets

Out of This World, British Library, London

If science fiction writers have been right about the future before, what are more contemporary authors saying and could they really come true as well. Some may argue they already are! George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ or indeed Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Both predict dystopias dominated by mind control and surveillance? Chime any chords?

Friday 17 June 2011

What ever did happen to Modernism?

What Ever Happened to Modernism?, by Gabriel Josipovici, Yale University Press (2010)

What Ever Happened to Modernism? indeed proposes its own definition of Modernism to reveal that it is more to do with a synchronic ‘structure of feeling’, to paraphrase Raymond Williams, than with a continuum in time. Modernism here refers to idiosyncratic approaches to art linked together by the wish to come to terms with the meaning of life and the value of language.

Friday 15 April 2011

Murder Ballad

Crash by JG Ballard (first published in 1973)

The combustion engine is crude, a barely harnessed explosion upon which the conveyed rides as if it didn’t exist. Yet the car occupies an exalted space in a human being’s life: people name them; lavish upon them more affection than they do their sexual partner; become emotionally attached to the fate of metal, glass and plastic.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Names and stories

The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline Review, 2010)

The reader is inevitably searching for the eventual links between the two narratives; and, intriguingly, so is Ted, the contemporary father, hunting for these same explanations in his life, but cleverly the reader is just ahead of poor Ted in realising the inevitable denouement. When you can see you have only a few pages to go, and how on earth will the author resolve the conundrum, she teases you yet again with a ‘not quite yet’, until eventually the inevitable occurs.

Saturday 26 February 2011

Back to the clinging soil

American Rust, by Philipp Meyer (Pocket Books 2010)

Meyer chose as his setting the Mon Valley near Pittsburgh, a wasted post-industrial region, where the relics of the abandoned steel industry stand rusting in the landscape, and there is no employment for the next generation. So this turns out to be the antithesis of the Great American Dream: no job prospects, no optimism, and the only way up is out.

Friday 25 February 2011

Quite an execution

King Death, by Toby Litt (Penguin 2010)

The novel starts with a heart being thrown from a passing train to the roofs over Borough Market. Though it is very clearly stated that it is a human heart, the reader might find the imagery so unlikely that one might think about the heart as something fantastic or metaphorical.

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Contemporary Writers
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London-based free literary magazine

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Independent publisher for experimental voices

Random House
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