Musings on the ‘muddled mayhem’ of modern life

Browser: Brief reviews of Thinking Again, by Jan Morris; A Girl’s Story, by Annie Ernaux; On Terrorism, by Tahar Ben Jelloun; Meaty, by Samantha Irby; The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts; and Plugging the Causal Breach, by Mary Byrne

British writer and historian Jan Morris, pictured at her home near the village of Llanystumdwy in Gwynedd, north Wales. Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty

British writer and historian Jan Morris, pictured at her home near the village of Llanystumdwy in Gwynedd, north Wales. Photograph: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty

 

Thinking Again
By Jan Morris
Faber & Faber, £16.99
Her travelling days may be over but now in her tenth decade, Jan Morris still delights in walking 1,000 paces every morning near her home in north-west Wales composing idle thoughts in her head for her diary. This second collection of 130 miniatures deals with “modest meditations” on a range of topics from bad language, racism and regrets to wine, music and kindness. As a former journalist, Morris retains a curiosity about the “muddled mayhem” of the 21st century, with opinions on Donald Trump, “like some baffling missile from outer space”, Brexit, and the royal family saga over Harry and Meghan. Thinking Again is a reflective collection but its underlying tone is melancholy and a weary resignation with the world persists in the author’s musings. – Paul Clements

A Girl’s Story
By Annie Ernaux
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £10.99
“It allows me to rise above time”, Ernaux says of her unsettling new reckoning, an exquisite elegy to a summer past, a life lived, a ghost of a girl. The girl at hand is the teenage Ernaux – “able to resurface and provoke . . . interior collapse”. “The unquantifiable hole” – a phantom-trace left by that summer’s haunting traumas (sexual, familial, bodily, intellectual, emotional) – is both character and subject. Ernaux lays bare childhood, womanhood, selfhood – the raw white light of experience – a moon illuminating suffering and metamorphosis alike. Time is a bone found on the shore-line; Ernaux is its harrowingly beautiful sculptor. – Kerri ní Dochartaigh

On Terrorism: Conversations with my Daughter
By Tahar Ben Jelloun
Hope Road, £8.99
Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning Moroccan novelist, critic and poet. Evoking Jostein Gaarder’s philosophic classic Sophie’s World, Ben Jelloun’s latest title stages a kind of Socratic dialogue, partly real and partly imagined, between himself and his daughter during which he not only attempts to explain terrorism but to give her the intellectual strength to stand against it. Instead of quieting her fears, he allows her to explore them, revealing the humanity in her feelings and building a sense of empathy in her that helps her to see the other side of the argument. While the translation is laboured and stiff at times, the clarity of Ben Jelloun’s message shines through. Essential reading for anyone who has ever wondered how to celebrate difference in the face of intolerance. – Becky Long

Meaty
By Samantha Irby
Faber & Faber, £9.99
Black American blogger and comedian Samantha Irby gives her experiences, memories and opinions in this random essay collection. Unashamedly self-revelatory, she treats us as confidants as she details childhood problems, dating difficulties, renting woes, running out of money and the horrors of Crohn’s disease among other life challenges. Her alcoholic father abandoned the family, her mother developed MS and then dementia and Irby tried to look after her from age nine to 13; the essay “My Mother, My Daughter” is powerful. “The Triplets” is hilarious and her love letters to blacks and whites, “Milk and Oreos”, has telling insights. With much swearing, scatological humour and lots about her malfunctioning sex life, it’s not for the squeamish and in places the laughter treads the verge of tears. – Brian Maye

The Lost Pianos of Siberia
By Sophy Roberts
Doubleday, £16.99
In the summer of 2015, a chance encounter with a young musician in Mongolia led British travel writer Sophy Roberts on a strange and sometimes treacherous journey across some of the harshest terrain known to humankind. Searching for historical pianos, Roberts finds herself exploring Russia in a way she had never previously imagined; through its intimate domestic spaces, through its people and their memories, and through its music. But of course, the pianos are more than mere objects – through Roberts’ beautifully nuanced prose, they come to stand for the heart and soul of the country and landscape she is so fascinated by. The book itself is more than the eccentric quest it narrates; it is an existential journey through the literature, history and music of one of the wildest and fiercest places on earth. – Becky Long

Plugging the Causal Breach, and other stories
By Mary Byrne
Regal House Publishing, €14.60
There’s a uniquely Hiberno-French voice to this collection of short stories. Many of the characters are immigrants – or just not “from around here” – planted in locations that they don’t quite fit in, but where they see things that the “natives” have stopped noticing. Byrne weaves atmospheres that reach into the reader’s imagination and places them in the shoes of the characters. For every frank discussion her characters engage in there is an undercurrent of unexpressed emotions that lead us to think that there are more questions than answers in the conversations. Tales range from administrative workers who are overseen by an odious boss, to neighbours contemplating their apartment building and shadowy fellow residents as the fire brigade bring a suspicious fire under control. – Claire Looby

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