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Reviewing from the road

I’m on holiday, winding my way from Toronto down to New York, not thinking much about politics, and reading a lot. So, for something a bit different, here’s what I’ve been reading, listening to, watching, etc… If you want to read about the holiday, head to my TinyLetter. (If you just want to look at it, my hyperactive Instagram is here.)

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. Like a lot of these, this is shameless and quite late bandwagoning. I’d never heard of Elena Ferrante until the explosion of commentary and debate when her real name and identity were (against her will) revealed. My Brilliant Friend is the first in the quartet of novels she’s most celebrated for. It was not what I expected. The way Ferrante’s work has been reviewed and praised, as well as the general fact that it sparks a lot of discussion in more highbrow outlets, had me anticipating a quite literary work full of elegant prose. My experience of it was quite different, more like the way I read as a child than anything else I’ve read recently: it kept pulling me back, and I finished it quite quickly, through sheer force of narrative. The plot is not, on the whole, particularly complex or surprising, but it feels as though it’s constantly pulsating and extremely alive. There are some passages of quietly stunning writing, but mostly the achievement of this writing is how entirely honest and compelling a voice it gives the narrator, and how crisply it manages to render her social world despite its teeming, dizzying liveliness. It’s also, though I’m not going to say any more about this, refreshing to read a book that’s so unashamedly about class.

Late Registration, Kanye West. Twelve years old! I only started listening to hip-hop last October. (My brother and mum have been fans for quite a long time, which I always found a it puzzling, until now.) This is an album I’ve been listening to a lot recently. It has some unbelievably evocative tracks (Roses; Addiction), but it’s also a particularly good example of how much better a lot of music is in whole-album form. I think this is a general truth - down with shuffle! abolish playlists! - but especially for this kind of music. (Enter the Wu-Tang is maybe an even better example of individually okay songs can sit together and improve each other dramatically.)

The Messenger. This one I’ve been on for a while: it’s a podcast about life in Australian asylum detention on Manus Island, PNG. Michael Green has been speaking to an asylum seeker in that centre since March last year, and most of what you listen to is that man, Aziz, describing his life and developments on Manus. They’re edited together very well, and even if (like me) you read a lot of news about Australian refugee policy there’s a lot to learn here. But maybe more important is just hearing the voice, the changes of mood, getting a small but powerful picture of the dreary and constricted life we make these refugees lead. Under a policy regime which stops these conditions being properly examined or reported, getting this kind of necessarily incomplete but deeply revealing personal insight is extremely powerful.

S-Town. This is getting hyped widely, because it comes from the producers of Serial and This American Life, which are probably the most popular podcasts ever made. It’s worth it! The synopsis: a man in Alabama emails a radio producer from New York, persistently over several months, asking him to come south and investigate a murder. But I don’t think it’s any great spoiler - I’ve only listened to the first few episodes - to say that this is not really what the show is about. It’s about the man, John B. Macklemore, whose bizarre and remarkable character drives the narrative. He’s a gripping central figure, it’s a beautifully told story, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Submission, Michel Houllebecq. This has been sitting on my Kindle for months after I bought it on a whim. I’ve read about half of it on the Greyhound bus I’m writing this from and it’s. Not good. The premise is a 2022 French presidential election in which the second round run-off is between Marine Le Pen and the candidate of a French Muslim Brotherhood party. The narrator and most of the people surrounding him are low-level but unambiguous Islamophobes, and that doesn’t appear to be something that the novel is playing critically or subversively. In fact it’s just taking as background for the plot a toxic, hyperventilating view of European politics: violent confrontation between Muslims and Christians is inevitable, Muslims in France think women shouldn’t be educated and have the political goal of altering demography through their higher birth rates, all the non-FN parties prefer the Muslim Brotherhood to French nationalism when forced to choose. Mixed in: a lot of tedious digressions about French literary history, and the crutch of sex-obsession that is somehow par for the course in even the most highbrow fiction - which this is decidedly not.