Browser reviews: Empires, global revolt and cleaning houses
New paperbacks from Daniel Immerwahr, Simon Prince, Sophie Ratcliffe and Jen Beagin
Jen Beagin has released a sequel to her successful debut Pretend I’m Dead. Photograph: Beowulf Sheehan
How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
Daniel Immerwahr Farrar, €35
The working definition of an empire describes a group of states or countries ruled by a single monarch or a sovereign state. Sometimes, depending on the context, that definition describes a commercial organisation, owned or controlled by one person or group. Do either of these sound like definitions that might apply to the United States? In his new book, academic Daniel Immerwahr argues that they do, in a style as sharp as his tone is caustic.
The key to Immerwahr’s text and the particular focus of his project lies in the title. This is a book about the Greater United States; the states beyond the States. It is, ultimately, an analysis of the influence the US has had on the wider world and the consequences of its consistently ambitious foreign policy.
From the Guano Islands to Puerto Rico, J Edgar Hoover’s many obsessions to the conception of birth control, How to Hide an Empire is an historical tour de force, an immensely readable and compelling alternative history of one of the most powerful countries in the world. Becky Long
Northern Ireland’s ‘68 - Civil Rights, Global Revolt and the Origins of the Troubles – Revised Edition
Simon Prince Irish Academic Press, €19.99
Last year was the 50th anniversary of the student, youth and worker revolts that took place and spread over many cities in Europe and North America. Towards the end of 1968 Derry began to take its place, albeit in a small way, alongside Paris, Chicago, West Berlin, Berkeley, Prague and many American universities, including Columbia and Wisconsin. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, modelled on the US civil rights movement, had been founded the year before, principally on issues of housing and “one man, one vote”. The author attempts, perhaps with only limited success, to link what was happening in Derry and at Queens University in Belfast to what was happening elsewhere. This juxtaposition results in the Irish narrative being somewhat disjointed. However, although not all will with agree with the author’s emphases, the book is a very useful account of events, particularly with key players including Eamon McCann, Michael Farrell as well as those behind the scenes such as Roy Johnston, Anthony Coughlan and Desmond Greaves, who led the Connolly Association in the UK. Frank MacGabhann
The Lost Properties of Love
Sophie Ratcliffe William Collins, £12.99
Sophie Ratcliffe was 13 when her father died at the age of just 45, “painfully, messily and before his time” and she has carried the premature loss with her for the past 30 years, initially coping by being a model schoolgirl during the day and secretly promiscuous in the evening. Most of this memoir is framed by rail journeys as she juxtaposes the story of her own life with the story of the Anthony Trollope/Kate Field relationship and musings on Anna Karenina, with references to the central relationship in Brief Encounter also figuring. Through these, adultery becomes a big theme (“any affair is an attempt to live twice”). She’s perceptively amusing on the “tiny boredoms” of married life with children. There is a lot going on in this book: death, an abortion, motherhood and marriage, reading, writing, teaching, music, films, even a chapter on handbags. So much, in fact, that it strains at the edges at times, but the intense, strange, jumpy and moving narrative carries us along on a revealing whistlestop tour of a messy, eventful life. Brian Maye
Vacuum in the Dark
Jen Beagin Oneworld, £12.99
Following the success of Begin’s debut Pretend I’m Dead, Mona returns in this sequel with her signature warm voice and black humour as she continues to clean houses in Taos, New Mexico. The houses she cleans are home to vivacious and complex characters and Mona falls in love with her client’s husband, Dark, which complicates matters significantly. Later, she meets the Hungarian artist couple who prompt her to confront an array of traumatic childhood memories, all of which are narrated in Mona’s sharp and caustic tone.
The past and the present reflect on to one another as memories and reality intermingle as the novel progresses, allowing the readers to gain a more complex sense of Mona’s character. Beagin’s attention to interiors and dialogue is impressive and she manages to capture intimate portraits of her characters with deft skill by focusing on seemingly insignificant details which tie together nicely to frame the novel. For fans of Jade Sharma and Ottessa Moshfegh.