10 to try: Book reviews

Time Out picks ten of the best fiction and non-fiction releases

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Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story Of Bonnie & Clyde

Jeff Guinn

Given the present state of America’s economy, Jeff Guinn’s terrific biography of Depression-era gangsters Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker couldn’t be more timely. Blown out of the west Texas dustbowl and on to the front pages by a succession of bank robberies, killings and daring escapes from the law, this seemingly glamorous pair became folk heroes to many and, during a crime spree that lasted from 1931 until their slaughter in 1934, were America’s most famous couple.

Guinn’s assiduously researched book captures the hopelessness of the Depression with more concision and verve than a hundred history books or hokey ballads, and brings to life a time when crooks could outrun lawmen who had neither two-way radios nor interstate jurisdiction. Its real success, however, comes from placing us on the running boards of history for Bonnie and Clyde’s breathless sprint toward infamy.

Doing for the sharp-suited ’30s hoodlum what the second half of Scorsese’s Goodfellas did for the Mafia, Guinn presents a life of discomfort, tedium and stress that’s a million miles from the somewhat larky 1967 Warren Beatty film version of events (up until which Clyde’s name had always preceded Bonnie’s). Clyde was in fact a scrawny little fellow with a pronounced limp from lopping off two of his toes to avoid a prison work detail and Bonnie had to be carried around during most of their exploits after battery acid from a car crash ruined her right leg. This is the clearest view yet of a pair of mythologised hoodlums whose career illuminates the short, brutal period that marked the last days of the Wild West.
Adam Lee Davies
Simon&Schuster Dhs98 Available to order from Magrudy’s.

The Storm Of War

Andrew Roberts

This is an exceptional accomplishment. With The Storm of War, Roberts has produced a readable, absorbing and intelligent history of World War II that switches dexterously between the different theatres as it heads towards its atomic finale. Like the generals he writes about, Roberts seems to be going for broke: wiping out his rivals by producing the definitive single volume story of the war, something that requires mastering overlapping chronologies and questionable psychologies, and the considering of each battle in isolation as well as in the context of history’s most devastating and, indeed, globe-wrapping conflict.

Roberts can do this because he gives the book a spine – his consistent argument that Hitler was a poor general whose efficacy was further compromised by his creed: the Nazism that led him to make decisions that were neither pragmatic nor realistic, and ultimately cost him the war and his life (along with that of several million others). Not unrelated to this argument is the question of Roberts’s own politics: his fervent if uncomplicated Conservatism (with a big ‘C’) could lead him to make assertions rooted more in ideology than they are in reality, but that inclination is more or less reined in.

Sure, you know exactly what his take on Hiroshima and Dresden will be (and, in the case of Dresden, he goes further down the path of ruthless utilitarianism than you might expect) and there are more cheeky jabs at the French (‘De Gaulle’s staple diet between 1940 and 1944 was the hand that fed him’) than strictly necessary, but with most of the controversial issues he does his best to present both sides; he is relentlessly evenhanded in his criticism and praise of soldiers, generals and politicians on both sides. Essential.
Peter Watts
Allen Lane Dhs163 Available to order from Magrudy’s.

Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon

From Thomas Pynchon, an author we expect to take decade-long breaks, now emerges his second novel in three years. The pace does him good: Inherent Vice, besides being the literary giant’s most accessible work, is the kind of confident, relaxed effort that might signal a golden age ahead. Pynchon has produced a detective mystery as laid-back as its hero, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a beach-town-dwelling private investigator who suspects that his psychedelic ’60s are ending.

And they are. It’s spring of 1970, and Pynchon’s hazy Los Angeles, as vivid a locale as any he’s described, is wracked with paranoia, a combo of Nixon-funded police fascism and surf-band diffidence. (One glorious rant from Doc’s lawyer friend, Sauncho Smilax, connects Charles Manson, the Vietcong and StarKist Tuna’s animated pitchman, ‘also named Charlie!’) Inherent Vice is no mere nostalgia trip, though. Leaning into a modern idiom, the author taps into the same cheeky cinematic vein as The Big Lebowski – Doc lackadaisically pursuing a wealthy land developer and a wayward blonde ex-girlfriend – along with, more ringingly, Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye.

Quickly, the novel grabs you in a sexier way than anything since The Crying of Lot 49, but with its familiar post-Chinatown structure (and an inevitable doozy of a conspiracy) comes an undeniable lightness. Drug deals and loan sharks are an underwhelming conclusion from a book that intimates a deeper social indictment; the heaviest it gets here is a Palo Verdes community dad leaning in and insisting to Doc, ‘We’re in place.’ Still, the welcome vibe of the novel has the feeling of cruising around suburbs on a warm night; it may become an LA classic.
Joshua Rothkopf
Penguin Dhs119 Available to order from Magrudy’s

The Accidental Billionaires

Ben Mezrich

When Mark Zuckerberg hit on the idea of hacking into the Harvard server to create a social network for college kids, fellow student and aspiring hedge fund investor Eduardo Saverin smelled an opportunity. The Harvard Connection quickly became Facebook, and the site was just three years away from Microsoft’s US$15billion (Dhs55billion) valuation. Along the way, lawsuits were filed, women were defiled and there was plenty of all-night typing in front of glowing computer screens. (Take it with you on the metro and gasp a lot while you read – it’ll be quite the ice breaker.) Mezrich is clearly writing for Hollywood here and he often plays fast and loose with the facts. As such, some scenes just don’t ring true, such as the steamy bathroom scene between Zuckerberg, supposedly an awkward geek with a ‘dead fish’ handshake, and a girl he met at a Bill Gates conference (this is before the site hit the big time and groupies poured in).

The great irony of Facebook is that as the site brought millions together, the founders’ friendship was disintegrating. We have to rely on Saverin’s version of events throughout because Zuckerberg declined the author’s ‘friend request’ and refused to be interviewed. With him went any chance of impartiality, or of sympathy with the bickering of these wealthy, privileged twenty-somethings.

Ultimately, The Accidental Billionaires has the perfect dramatic narrative for a Hollywood thriller, but you sense that the really juicy story will only come out when the notoriously publicity-shy Zuckerberg writes more than just another piece of HTML coding.
Steve Pill
William Heinemann Dhs78 Available at Magrudy’s.

We are all Made of Glue

Marina Lewycka

This big, bawdy, sledge-hammer subtle novel certainly knows how to enjoy itself. Its plot splurges in all directions like over-enthusiastically applied Tippex: a lovelorn journalist, Georgie, attempts to rescue an eccentric old lady from the social workers and estate agents who want to turf her out of her mouldering North London mansion, while simultaneously trying to save her son from religious paranoia, pursue a revenge-sex affair and write a romantic novel. Not surprisingly, the pace is pretty brisk.

Georgie is a frustrating narrator; forever getting sidetracked by her libido and hamstrung by anxious dithering, she’s not the saviour anyone would choose in a fix. The real star of the show, though, is the little old lady, Naomi Shapiro. She is a fantastically well-executed comic creation: feisty, wayward, stubborn and almost suicidally unhygienic, she is a survivor who embraces life in a way that is both daunting and inspiring for the timid Georgie. When it transpires that Mrs Shapiro’s past is full of secrets, her new friend determines to unearth the truth and along the way she has her eyes opened to both the Holocaust and the Nakba that subsequently befell the Palestinians. Georgie, ever the romantic, says from the start that she likes happy endings, and there’s never much doubt that she’ll get one, but her rather glib solutions to history’s big problems show up the weakness of Lewycka’s big-brush approach, no matter how ironically it may be intended.

Far better to ignore the platitudes about peace, love and harmony and just enjoy the scintillating characters – not just Mrs Shapiro and her hard-smoking conspirator, The Bonker Lady, but the two social workers Mrs Good Knee (evil) and Ms Bad Eel (nice), and the diabolically handsome estate agent, Mr Diabello. These people, and Lewycka’s do-you-dare-me determination to shoehorn in as many references to glue, bonding and adherence as she possibly can, are what spur the plot along and stop the book from coming, yes indeedy, unstuck.
Lisa Mullen
Fig Tree Dhs78 Available at Magrudy’s.

Daughter of Dust

Wendy Wallace

In Sudan, orphan girls are deemed in some way responsible for their misfortunes; Leila Aziz’s schoolmates contemptuously referred to her as a ‘daughter of sin’. She is now 40, a mother herself and a campaigner on behalf of other Sudanese orphans, but the scars of her experience are still very much in evidence. Journalist Wendy Wallace got to know Leila when working for the UN in Sudan; in this unconventional biography, she set out to document the tragic childhood Leila has overcome and the irreversible damage that this kind of uncertain start in life can cause.

Wallace has spent years in Sudan; she also has a nice feel for telling detail. So she shares with us Leila’s shy pride in knowing her age as well as the apologetic awkwardness of another child who is the only girl in Leila’s class who has not been subjected to female circumcision.

Leila doesn’t understand the simplest concepts: what a mother is, what marriage means. Asked by a friend’s mother whether she is hungry, she is bemused. ‘It’s lunchtime,’ she says, never having had reason to consider this before. ‘I must be.’

In Leila, Wallace has found an excellent centre-piece around which to arrange a discussion of the wider issues: the trials of exclusion from a deeply traditional society, the tensions between progressive and reactionary political forces and the cruelty, particularly of women to one another, in a misogynistic world. She may be over-involved with her subject; certainly she can stray into sentimentality. Leila’s early life is so thoroughly recalled that it raises doubts: could anyone remember this much? Still, this story of a woman born into misery who has had the guts and resilience to change her destiny provides a refreshing glimpse into a country often reported on, but rarely truly explored.
Jennifer Lipman
Simon&Schuster Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s.

The Years of the Locust

Jon Hotten

Rick Parker’s dream was to sell a white heavyweight boxing champion. In this book, subtitled A True Story of Murder, Money and Mayhem in the Last Age of Boxing, Jon Hotten tells the story of how the first boxer Parker backed, golden boy Tim Anderson, ended up shooting him dead, and exposes the fixing and more serious criminality endemic in American boxing in the ’80s and ’90s.

Hotten has previously written about unlicensed British boxing, but this account is more disconcerting for being far closer to the big time: Anderson fought George Foreman and Larry Holmes and beat Jimmy Young, a former title contender, while Parker set up a heavyweight title match in Beijing for Bert Cooper, billed as ‘The Brawl on the Wall.’ Yet Parker preferred hanging out with heavies like the so-called Knucklehead Boxing Club, a group of 25 toughs paid to travel around losing fights under numerous aliases to boost the records of the boxers being promoted. Parker partied with them; they also did his dirty work.

It is remarkable that Anderson, who was, at that time, widely considered a good guy in a world that contained very few, associated with Parker for half as long as he did. Parker, Anderson alleges, owed him nearly US$200,000 (Dhs367,300), left him alone in South Africa to be beaten up before a big bout and offered him money to throw a fight against his new white heavyweight project, Mark Gastineau. During his rematch with Gastineau, he was poisoned and reduced to a wreck for several years – he was, he claims, only trying to establish what the poison was when he shot Parker. He is now serving a life sentence for the crime.

Presumably Anderson was blinded by Parker’s ability to talk big fights into being, but Hotten’s extensive chronicling of the period’s boxing obstructs real examination of his characters’ motives. At the same time, the internal monologues characterising Parker and dramatising the story obscure Hotten’s sources, making it impossible to sift evidence from allegation. The book does not wholly satisfy as an investigation or as a story: like Parker, it entertains and appalls, but one isn’t sure how trustworthy it is.
Tom Cameron
Yellow Jersey Press Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s.

Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne

James Gavin

Thank goodness for YouTube. As various sources repeatedly claim in James Gavin’s meticulously detailed Lena Horne biography, the legendary African-American entertainer – still alive but reclusive at age 91 – has to be seen to be appreciated. This is due to the moody icon’s celebrated stage presence, which rarely translated to vinyl, and to her preternatural beauty.

Gavin, who proved himself a consummate researcher with his previous bio of Chet Baker and the New York cabaret scene encyclopedia Intimate Nights, has really outdone himself with Stormy Weather. Tracing Horne’s legacy – her bourgeois Brooklyn childhood, her unstable adolescence, and her ascent from Cotton Club chorine to Hollywood starlet to nightclub doyennne – the author deconstructs her myth while honouring her talent, and chronicles the appalling prejudice faced by African-Americans during the 20th century. With her mixed heritage, Caucasian features and showbiz stature, Horne became a symbol for her race, and thus a prisoner. No wonder she had a lifelong identity crisis.

Those familiar with Horne’s version of her story – especially her angry rants about the indignities she suffered at MGM – will be surprised to learn how much she plain made up. Gavin unearths incredible archival material (a skin-lightening cream endorsed by Horne) as well as extensive quotes from friends, fans, family and foes that shed a harsh spotlight on the icy diva. Still, he’s careful to contextualize even her worst qualities. The book may not be a love letter to the lady herself, but his adoring descriptions of her vocal abilities will inspire passionate searches for online clips.
Raven Snook
Atria, Dhs107.50 Available to order from Magrudys.

The Confessions of Edward Day

Valerie Martin

As Edward Day lays bare his feelings in Valerie Martin’s new fictional memoir, The Confessions of Edward Day, he reveals himself to be a recognisable urban type: The attractive, smug up-and-comer who tells you he loves you and he’s bored with you in the same sentence, or who cuts in line at a crowded bar, then flashes you a s**t-eating grin. Confessions is set in the East Village of the low-rent ’70s, and Ed plays himself, a struggling actor who longs for larger audiences. Another actor, Guy Margate, rescues Ed from drowning during a trip to the Jersey Shore, but the two men soon become enemies, competing for the same woman (another actor) and a better résumé.

Martin is aware that her readers will find ample reason to loathe her antihero. Still, despite a number of choppy passages and an awfully rushed ending, she maintains a thrillerlike pace and keeps her plot twists dark. It’s a relief that Ed’s gaze isn’t so firmly affixed to his navel that he can’t evaluate the foolishness of his professional and personal pursuits. ‘We hold ourselves aloof from the people we need and seek the approval of those who have no use for us,’ he says, contemplating his relationship with Madeleine. ‘Or at least I do.’ Many actual memoirs these days are by authors who prefer to sound cool instead of human. It is because of this that the flaws in Confessions make it seem that much more real.
Sharon Steel
Doubleday, Dhs100 Available to order from Magrudy’s.

Noah’s Compass

Anne Tyler

The logic behind this slightly oblique title is exemplary, and will come as no surprise to Tyler fans. The Noah in the book is Liam, 60 years old, divorced and now downsized as the inevitable end to an academic career that has consistently resembled a gentle downward slope. He has moved into a smaller home, but on the first night there he winds up in hospital, concussed by a would-be burglar. The actual invasion of his premises doesn’t disturb Liam too much: two wives and three daughters have accustomed him to aggression and interference.

In fact, as his ex-wife points out (wife number one is long dead), he tends to side with the aggressor. ‘You never argue with people’s poor opinions of you,’ Barbara says. ‘They can say the most negative things – that you’re clueless, that you’re unfeeling – and you say, “Yes, well, maybe you’re right.” If I were you, I’d be devastated!’ Yes, well: maybe they’re right. The crowding, unfeeling family is a Tyler fixture, as is the lost, irritatingly passive adult in need (but not in search) of revelation. She is the master of the middle-aged bildungsroman; Liam, however, may just be too old to change.

The burglar may not bother him but the fact that he remembers nothing about being burgled does, although no one around him (not the most empathetic bunch in any case) really understands why. This is the most interesting aspect of the book – after all, if you lose a memory that probably wouldn’t be pleasant, it is still a chunk of yourself that has gone with it – but Tyler is more interested in human interaction than in the powers and problems of mindfulness. Liam’s obsession leads him to Eunice, a sweet but shambolic thirtysomething whose job as human aide-memoire to a local tycoon gives Liam the obscure feeling that she may be able to help him. And, one way or another, she does.

But, unlike Noah, who was directionless through ineffable decree and so could literally float through life, Liam is in dire need of a compass. As always with Tyler, the prose flows sweetly from page to page, conjuring up characters so believable you frequently long to thump them. But her best work infuriates in order to soothe; in this book, she supplies the reality of crumbling lives without the magic of renewal, and fans could be forgiven for feeling mildly cheated.
Nina Caplan
Chatto & Windus Dhs103 available at Magrudy’s.

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