History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

A thought provoking and beautifully written book about family, relationships and the essentials of being human.

Linda is a teenage girl living with her parents by the lakes in Canada after an experiment in communal living broke down. A bit of an outsider, she latches on to a new family that moves into a cabin across the lake. She befriends the young Mum, Patra, and becomes a babysitter and stand-in sister for the young son, Paul.

But then the Dad – Leo – returns, a scientist and it turns out Christian Scientologist. Linda feels a spare part but then it gets worse. Paul seems to be ill, but the parents’ faith means medical treatment is forbidden…

A lot of this book is about how Linda reacts, or doesn’t, when Paul falls ill. In some ways it asks how someone who’s lived as an outsider might deal with a dilemma; but for many people the response may well be the same. It might be hard to see what’s going on, to not be blinded by the father, by the mother’s relationship with him, the feeling of being replaced, and it all happens fast. Who could say how they’d react in this situation.

Likewise, Linda thinks of herself as an outsider, but actually is she so much more an outsider than other teenagers? It’s hard to penetrate what’s perceived from what’s real.

A big theme of this book is, if you like, thought and action. Can you be held responsible for your thoughts? Mr Griegson, a teacher Linda has in her early teens, turns out to have images of young kids on his computer but never have acted on anything like it. Linda didn’t think or act to protect Paul. Leo’s thoughts and actions are out of kilter with modern world views. Big questions.

And the book is very much about the nuclear family and its limits – the commune collapsed, but are the dysfunctional nuclear families of Linda or Paul any better? If anything it’s the mutual relationships between families, as Linda cares for Paul and his Mum, that makes for the strongest set-up – the history of wolves of the title perhaps?

For me this is another brilliant book in an oeuvre of what seems to be ‘desolation fiction’: stories set in remote locations where the characters are thrown back to the bare essentials of life: wilderness, relationships, survival.

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The Electric Michelangelo – Sarah Hall

Told with precision and beauty, this is a hugely atmospheric story of a life both fully and partly lived.

It tracks one man’s life, Cy Parks, and how it grows and shrinks with those he love and ultimately loses – his childhood friends in Morcambe, Reeda his Mum, Eliot Riley his drunk mentor and boss, and Grace his would-be lover.

Set in the 1920s to the 60s, Cy is a tattoo artist who learns his trade in Morcambe under the tutorage of the alcoholic and ill tempered Eliot before moving to the US and taking a booth at Coney Island, where he meets the mysterious and powerful Grace. As he tattoos eyes all over her body, they appear to fall for one another, but the opportunity is cut short by an attack on her by someone who hated that she was a strong woman challenging the conventions of what it was to be a woman.

The descriptions and contrasts between Morcambe and Coney Island are vivid, conjuring up the people, the smells, the eccentricities, as well as contrasting the solid predictability of Morecambe with the transgressive-ness of Coney. Hall expresses both so well.

The female characters are strong in this book – his Mum is a hotelier by day and abortionist by night (it’s set in the 1920s to 1950s) and Grace’s life is one of fierce independence, someone who challenges the objectification of women by tattooing eyes all over her body.

So much of this book is an original and insightful exploration of tattooing – of how the skin is a vital organ, of how the skin bares the soul, how a tattoo is a way for people to express conscious and unconscious parts of their selves, and ultimately how skin, the body, is intricately linked to the mind.

Books I’ll never write #3: The bread is the thing. A short history of the bread riot

From France to Mexico, Britain to Russia, Egypt to Italy, we see time and again that when people can’t afford the most basic staple – their daily bread – they rise up in spontaneous revolt.

This book tells the stories of bread riots across the centuries and around the world, looking at the people, the problems and the panic. It analyses what causes bread riots – from underlying economic and political factors to the psychological motivation at work when crowds gather to demand the most simple of foods. And it examines the different impact that bread riots have had, whether causing an authoritarian reaction by the existing regime, forcing political reforms or kick

starting a revolution.

It reveals, through the stories and the analysis, the crucial role that bread riots have played in shaping people’s lives and the courses of history.

More than anything it’s inspired by Mike Davis’s Brief History of the Car Bomb and this brilliant quote, which says almost everything there is to say on the matter, from Hilary Mantel in A Place of Greater Safety:

“Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all

theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman on the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.'”

Alain de Botton – How Proust Can Change Your Life

Insightful, original and amusing, this is one of the finest bits of literary analysis I’ve read.

De Botton uses the work of Marcel Proust to explore some of the big aspects of life – how to be a good friend, how to maintain a relationship, how to express yourself, how to see things clearly, that kind of thing.

In it, he treats Proust with great respect, using his novels, letters and life as guides. We get Q&As, Proust’s characters are used as examples of what to do and what not to do, we get to learn a lot about Proust’s life. We also get a lot of comedy, a tongue in cheek tone that make what could be a hard read into a light one, a fun one – a page turner no less.

But most of all it’s filled with good advice for living a better life, advice which is probably partly from Proust, partly from de Botton’s reading of him, like: it’s important to find original words to express yourself, friendship takes work and the asking of questions, books are important insofar as they make you explore the depths of your own soul, and so much much more.

This is my second reading of this excellent book, and it’s highly recommended.