From anthropology and economics to psychology and zoology, Time Out swots up on autumn’s smartest books. Words Claire Bullen, Olivia Giovetti and Eryn Loeb
Economics A Week at the Airport
By Alain de Botton (Vintage)
If you happen to run a major international airport (in this case, London’s Heathrow), it’s a clever marketing ploy to hire a widely read author to live in your terminal for a week and detail his experiences, with no corner made inaccessible. It’s even smarter to hire someone as offbeat as Alain de Botton, whose diverse tastes include Proust, architecture, and the balance of dating and mating. Far from a publicity puff piece, de Botton’s Heathrow diary manages to expose the rather human guts of a seemingly inhumane experience.
Anthropology Gold Boy, Emerald Girl: Stories
By Yiyun Li (Random House)
Recently dubbed one of The New Yorker’s ‘20 Under 40’ noted new writers, Chinese-American author Yiyun Li (renowned for 2009 debut novel The Vagrants) displays a staggering poise and grace in her latest collection of short stories:
a touching portrait of humanity
with many of the characters making life-altering decisions (or stumbling into equally fateful situations).
With a host of backdrops, ranging from the political to the folkloric, the yarns spun in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl prove to be as wide-ranging and varied as humanity itself.
Literature Storyteller: The Authorised Biography of Roald Dahl
By Donald Sturrock (Simon & Schuster)
A colleague of Dahl’s, Donald Sturrock, scored the enviable job of writing the first Dahl biography with the full cooperation of the subject’s family. This hefty tome lives up to its promise, namely a no-stone-unturned examination of the man who gave us childhood favourites Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – from his upbringing in Llandaff, Wales, to his relationship with his siblings and mother, to his ill-fated flight to Libya during the second world war. Rather than being a straightforward biography, Sturrock focuses a great deal of time on Dahl’s pure imagination. Fascinating as this is, however, the book errs toward staunch academia. It’s informational, sure, but Fantastic Mr Fox is far more fun.
Zoology Ape House
By Sara Gruen (Spiegel & Grau)
Though Sara Gruen’s Ape House bears little resemblance to her wildly popular breakthrough novel (2007’s Water for Elephants), each book’s strongest aspect is its focus on animal-human relationships. Ape House centres on Isabel, a scientist who has dedicated her life to studying and communicating with a family of bonobo apes via
sign language. This idyll is disrupted when animal rights activists bomb the language lab, nearly killing Isabel, and confiscates the apes. Isabel teams up with crusading journalist John to rescue her bonobo family. Where Gruen fumbles is when she attempts to inject social satire into an otherwise engaging premise. Swipes taken at the superficiality of LA are neither relevant enough to merit narrative deviation, nor fleshed-out enough to add much humour. There’s a kernel of a fine idea here and Gruen wants us to appreciate it; a shame, then, that this becomes obscured by unnecessary detritus.
Psychology Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes
By Daniel Kehlmann (Pantheon)
Prodigious Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann samples Kafka for the Facebook-famous generation. Elegantly mining celebrity in nine stories, each one connected to the other like pearls on a string, Kehlmann eschews Tinseltown satire for a far more unsettling tone, with characters including a technician who receives a film star’s mobile phone and begins to adopt that actor’s persona. Identity, celebrity and human nature are heady topics, yet Kehlmann’s stark prose makes it a Tom Wolfe-esque, metro-friendly read. Just don’t miss your stop.
Poetry Human Chain
By Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The new anthology from Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (below) is as slender as the poems it contains, yet that’s precisely its draw: Heaney’s economic use of language is delicately lyrical and, at times, weightless. Heaney’s native Northern Ireland takes a backseat to more universal themes of love and loss, and nods to Greek and Gallic cultures. This is the poet at his finest.