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Book Column Sept 2020

All the books to read in September instead of going back to school

Emma Cline’s stunning first collection delves into the dark corners of human experience, while Legacy Russell explores virtual spaces as tools for resistance, and Jake Hall brings us the history of drag

It’s September and we’re going back to school. After nearly six months of coronavirus shutdown, UK schools are opening their doors, while universities are going virtual. As we enjoy the last hurrahs of summer, we’ve chosen our favourite books to enjoy over the coming weeks. Whether you pick out a few or stockpile the lot, we can guarantee they’re 100 per cent better than that digital freshers event that keeps cropping up on your feed.

Legacy Russell’s debut explores the potential of virtual spaces as tools for resistance, while Emma Cline’s Daddy is a stunning collection of stories that plunges deep into the dark corners of the human experience. Lana Del Rey’s poetry release Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is finally here after months of waiting, and Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel is a murder mystery that gets increasingly unhinged with every page.

GLITCH FEMINISM, LEGACY RUSSELL

In 2013, curator and writer Legacy Russell coined the term #GlitchFeminism to describe a digital community built around resistance. Embracing the internet as a Black and queer space, Glitch Feminism explores how virtual spaces can be used to transcend the limits of the body and how its perceived within our current system. Russell does this by looking at the work of queer and Black artists who use digital avatars to split from binary perceptions of gender, like Boychild, Juliana Huxtable, and Victoria Sin. “With physical movement often restricted, female-identifying people, queer people, Black people invent ways to create space through rupture,” she argues in the book’s introduction. “Here in that disruption, without collective congregation at that trippy and trip-wired crossroad of gender race and sexuality, one finds the power of the glitch.” (GY)

Out now, Verso

OTHER GIRLS LIKE ME, STEPHANIE DAVIES

Stephenie Davies autobiography takes us on a wild and compassionate journey of activism, friendship, and self-discovery. Starting as a child in a small rural village in 70s and 80s Hampshire, Davies’ life changes when she decides to join a women’s peace camp outside a US military base at the age of 22. Accompanied by an irreverent group of lesbians, punk rockers, mothers, and activists, she embarks on a series of adventures, from a break-in to a nuclear research center to a doomed love affair with a punk rock singer in a girl band. What follows is a captivating and compelling account of one woman’s journey into activism, the power of speaking-up, and the strength of communities. (GY)

Out now, Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company

VIOLET BENT BACKWARDS OVER THE GRASS, LANA DEL REY

After months of anticipation, Lana Del Rey’s poetry release Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is finally here. Featuring more than thirty poems – some of which you’ll recognise from her audiobook – Del Rey paints a vibrant picture full of textbook Lana-isms, musings on Jim Morrison, midlife meltdowns, and athleisure wear, that give us a glimpse into her (or the narrator’s) life.There’s the boyfriend box full of receipts and movie tickets, the violets planted in the garden every time a relationship dies; The lonely summers in Long Beach and sailing lessons in the vibrant bay of (you guessed it) Marina del Ray.

After the success of last year’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the imagery in Violet can feel a bit cliche: LA is personified as a moody partner vaping beside her bed; death is juxtaposed with SoulCycle; and there’s countless references to Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Still, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is an undeniably fun read from the queen of Summertime Sadness herself, so check it out. (GY)

September 29, Simon & Schuster Ltd

THE CLIMATE CRISIS AND THE GLOBAL GREEN NEW DEAL, NOAM CHOMSKY AND ROBERT POLLIN

Praised by its supporters as the way to avoid planetary destruction, and vilified by opponents as a socialist plot to take away your ice cream, the Green New Deal is a congressional resolution that lays out a grand plan to avoid planetary destruction, while guaranteeing new high-paying jobs in clean energy industries. In this compelling read, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and progressive economist Robert Pollin present a convincing case for a realistic, feasible Global Green New Deal. Together, they map out the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change (vast stretches of the Earth will become uninhabitable, plagued by extreme weather, drought, rising seas, and crop failure), while debunking the idea that a transition to a green economy will result in economic disaster and unemployment. Chomsky and Pollin explain how a transformation needed to restore the ecosystem can, and will transform the organisations and lives of working people worldwide – for the better. (GY)

Out now, Verso

WHEN WE CEASE TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD, BENJAMIN LABATUT

Sometimes huge discoveries result in even greater destruction, argues Benjamin Labatut in his third book, When We Cease to Understand the World. Using epoch-defining moments from the history of science, from Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity to Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg’s opposing views on quantum mechanics, Labatut uses fiction to  crack open the stories of scientists and mathematicians whose expanded our notions of the possible, while also presenting them as human, all too human. (GY)

Out now, Pushkin Press

DADDY, EMMA CLINE

‘Daddy’ is a word that has been subsumed under pop culture heterogeneity – it is both innocent and psychosexual, bloated by sardonic internetspeak. It’s an apt title for Emma Cline’s first collection of short stories, which delve into the unlit crevices of the human experience. Masculinity and gender dynamics are rigorously contended with; whether overt violence or insidious, subtle passing moments, Cline approaches them with much-needed brevity. A young woman sells her underwear with destabilising consequences, an absent father collects his expelled son from boarding school after an unknown act of violence, a nanny for a famous family evades a tabloid scandal. Some of these stories have already appeared in the likes of Granta and the New Yorker, and though written over the course of a decade, the pulsing narrative thread unpicks an ordinary world unspooling, where inner consciousnesses are fraught by darkness and the search for connection, and the mundane brutality of everyday life is exposed. It’s a thrilling excavation of humanity that Cline did so well with The Girls, her novel about a Charles Manson-esque cult and a teenager brought into the fold. No story ends in a tidy or satisfying manner, giving the reader space to become a co-conspirator and thinker with Cline. (AC)

Out now, Chatto & Windus

THE LYING LIFE OF ADULTS, ELENA FERRANTE

Finally! After its release was delayed by the pandemic, Ferrante’s long-awaited 12th novel is here, and we’re back in her beloved Naples. The pseudonymous Italian author brings us back to a divided city to 14-year-old Giovanna, who overhears her father’s damning indictment that she has gotten ugly like her aunt Vittoria, an estranged relative and childhood boogeyman. Giovanna, in a fug of self-loathing and teen rebellion, leaves the life of refinement and a po-faced family to embark on a quest to meet this aunt her parents hold so much hatred for, and she becomes entranced by the mesmeric, coarse, and complicated woman. Vittoria represents the excessive, vulgar bowels of the city, and opens her up to a new world. As in her Neapolitan quartet, Ferrante fires up when examining the interplay between class, identity, and selfhood, and explores misogyny, the female body, and sexual desire with her trademark mercurial prose. The characters, of course, are ungovernable forces that package up Ferrante wisdom, with Giovanna one of the most alluring heroines of the year’s output so far. This book is painful in its intimate truth telling, and so, so addictive. (AC)

Out now, Europa Editions

THE ART OF DRAG, JAKE HALL

Journalist Jake Hall is bringing the history of drag to life in his new book, The Art of Drag. Hall meticulously details everything from the ancient beginnings of drag (see: Kabuki theatre and Shakespeare) to its present day ubiquity – which largely stems from the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race – and explores how fashion, theatre, gender, and politics come together to create the fabulous art form. Accompanying Hall’s extensive history is a seemingly endless supply of bold illustrations, created in collaboration with artists Sofie Birkin, Helen Li, and Jasjyot Singh Hans. (BD)

Out now, Nobrow

DIANE ABBOTT, ROBIN BUNCE AND SAMARA LINTON

In 1987, Diane Abbott became the first Black woman to become an MP, taking her seat as the Labour representative for Hackney North and Stoke Newington – a position she still holds today. Despite facing challenges throughout her career – Abbott was the most abused politician during the 2017 election campaign – Abbott is one of the most trailblazing figures in UK politics today. It’s unsurprising, then, that Robin Bunce and Samara Linton wanted to tell Abbott’s story in their comprehensive biography of her life, aptly titled Diane Abbott. Comprised of interviews with Abbott, her friends, colleagues, and political opponents, as well as extensive research, Diane Abbott traces the MP’s life from her upbringing in north London to her success as the longest-serving Black MP in the House of Commons. TBC if everyone’s fave M&S mojito story will make an appearance. (BD)

Out September 24, Biteback

HONG KONG IN REVOLT: THE PROTEST MOVEMENT AND THE FUTURE OF CHINA, AU LOONG-YU

In 2014, students in Hong Kong led the Umbrella Revolution – a series of peaceful protests against restrictive reforms to the electoral system. Fast forward to 2020, and young demonstrators are on the streets again, in protests that have been ongoing since March 2019. Initially triggered by a now-aborted bill that would make it easier to extradite people to China, the protests have transformed into a brutal fight for democracy. In his new book, Hong Kong in Revolt: The Protest Movement and the Future of China, Au Loong-Yu delves deep into the roots of the Umbrella Movement, exploring how political values and questions of identity have played a role in the unrest, and looking at the protests within the context of colonisation, revolution, and the modernisation of China. (BD)

Out now, Pluto

MY WHITE BEST FRIEND (AND OTHER LETTERS LEFT UNSAID), RACHEL DE-LAHAY

My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid) is a collection of letters by some of the world’s most exciting voices. Featuring work by Lena Dunham, Travis Alabanza, Ash Sarkar, and more, the collection was originally commissioned in 2019 by London’s Bunker Theatre as a festival tackling everything from racial tensions and microaggressions to queer desire, prejudice, and otherness. Edited by Rachel De-Lahay, the letters in My White Best Friend – including a note to the author’s younger self and an ode to one writer’s native tongue – express feelings and thoughts that are too often silenced. (BD)

Out now, Oberon

DEATH IN HER HANDS, OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

This is a murder mystery with an unhinged, isolated detective, but the murder she’s rabid on solving might not have actually happened. The arrival of Death in her Hands lends to the question of what Ottessa Moshfegh knows about self-isolation that the rest of the world failed to cotton onto before. Moshfegh is brilliant at capturing the intricate, monstrous beauty of a character’s thoughts, those of deadpan, alluring outsiders – this time, the My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen author diverges slightly from her young, oddball, benumbed female protagonists to give us 70-year-old Vesta. She’s a widow who lives alone in the woods with her dog Charlie, attempting to gain control of her life again by completely opting out of society, following her oppressive husband’s death. Left alone with fantasies encouraged by her love of murder mystery shows, her mind judders. On a walk through the woods, she discovers a note: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body”. Trouble is, there’s no body, and Vesta embarks on a fever dream investigation, stretching more and more deranged theories in search of a maybe not-real life, to ultimately confront the failings of her own. (AC)

Out now, Penguin