Dorothea Lange: The Politics of Seeing

Lange: Unemployed lumber worker

(Barbican Art Gallery, London, closed on 2 September 2018)

Dorothea Lange was no stranger to adversity: at the age of seven, she survived an attack of polio which left her with a limp for the rest of her life. After studying photography in New York, she moved to San Francisco in 1919, opening a portrait photography studio in the city centre. She became the favourite photographer of the city’s elite, gifted with a shrewd insight into the personalities of her sitters. But in the early 1930s something changed. Lange began to see impoverished men, women and children flooding into the city from the ‘Dust Bowl’ states out east. Droughts and over-farming, coupled with the economic crash of 1928, had ushered in the Great Depression. Their plight electrified her: in 1934 she closed her studio and devoted her life to cataloguing the world around her. The Barbican’s stunning retrospective was a worthy celebration of this remarkable woman: a visionary artist with a social conscience, capturing images which, even a century later, evoke the brutal realities faced by many thousands of her countrymen.

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Love Online: Lisa Tuttle

★★

This is the first Lisa Tuttle book that I’ve read, though I have several more already lined up on my Kindle, and it probably wasn’t the best one to choose. English girl Rose Durcan has come to stay with her grandmother at Wishbone Creek while her scientist parents head out for fieldwork in Africa. This means Rose must attend American high school, something which fills her with anxiety: she’d much rather be online, playing long-distance with her brother Simon (a student at Oxford) in one of their multiplayer adventures. But school has to be endured, and her first day isn’t that bad: she sees the delectable Orson Banks, on whom she immediately develops a crush. Unfortunately, Orson only has eyes for the aloof Olivia, who in turn has no interest in dating. But there is one way that Rose can get close to Orson: the online gaming world of Illyria, where Orson takes the role of Count Orsini and Rose, eager to spend even some virtual time in his company, adopts the persona of a helpful young musician, Roberto.

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The Driveway Has Two Sides: Sara Marchant

★★★

Time for another Fairlight Modern novella! This time we’re off to a remote island on the east coast of America, to a world of crisp winter winds and pines, and sudden summer influxes of tourists; a world where the year-round residents all know everyone else’s secrets and newcomers are watched with suspicion. And the gossiping islanders have plenty to occupy them now, because an old rental cottage has just been sold to the young and beautiful Delilah. The neighbours wonder about her story (and her morals), gleefully scandalised while Delilah rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the business of transforming her little cottage into a home. But she swiftly realises that she isn’t the only mystery on the island. What about the man who lives in the yellow house next door, with whom she shares a driveway, but who hardly ever comes out into the world?

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The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

★★★

In the midst of a boring New York summer in 1969, the four Gold children sneak out of their apartment and head off in search of a clairvoyant who’s set up shop in their neighbourhood. They’ve heard that she can tell you the day on which you’re going to die. Egging each other on, they go one by one into the woman’s shabby rented apartment where, one by one, they’re each given a date. Out on the sidewalk once again, it no longer seems like such a laugh. The four children – pragmatic Varya; curious Daniel; fragile Klara; and little Simon – return home, each of them overshadowed by the length or brevity of their allotted futures. Surely, they tell themselves, it’s all a load of rubbish? But, as the years unfold, each of the Gold siblings will find themselves following a different path, more or less clearly determined by the clairvoyant’s eerie predictions.

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Karen Memory: Elizabeth Bear

★★★★

Elizabeth Bear has been on my radar since Heloise introduced me to the startling Iskryne books that she co-authored with Sarah Monette, although her solo work has (so far) been of a less blush-inducing stamp. I have all three of her Eternal Sky books, which I’m hoarding for a moment when I fancy a good solid dose of Genghis-Khan-inspired fantasy (which, to be fair, is always). However, I’ve kicked things off with this standalone novel, best described as Western steampunk noir. This delicious adventure takes all the elements of a good cowboy yarn – the tall, dark stranger from out of town; the slimy businessman who fancies himself as mayor; the plucky girls from the local brothel; and reimagines them in a feisty, female-driven romp with a brilliantly diverse cast.

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The Summer Without Men: Siri Hustvedt

★★★½

And news of a summer reading project!

With a certain sense of irony, I alighted on Siri Hustvedt’s novel. Acerbic, witty and intellectual, it tells the story of an emotionally tumultuous summer in the life of the poet Mia Fredricksen. Married for thirty years, she is blindsided when her husband Boris announces that he wants a ‘pause’, a euphemism that Mia can decipher only too well: ‘The Pause was French … She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses and an excellent mind.‘ Distraught and incandescent, Mia heads back to her childhood home – the town of Bonden in Minnesota – where she grieves, regroups and contemplates that eternally mysterious disconnect between the sexes. But, while her rift with Boris frames the novel, Mia’s time in Bonden gives her a fresh perspective on life, focused on the multifarious nature of female friendship.

P.S. Looking for more about that reading project? Scroll down to the end…

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There Are Things I Know: Karen B. Golightly

★★★½

Time for another novella from the Fairlight Moderns series, this time the tale of a little boy named Pepper. He’s eight years old, used to live with his mother in Memphis, Tennessee, and knows that he doesn’t see the world in quite the same way as other people. He dislikes loud noises, finds it difficult to read people’s emotions but finds numbers very easy to tackle: indeed, counting often keeps him calm when the chaos of the world threatens to overwhelm him. Now Pepper lives with Uncle Dan in Arkansas, but he’s having trouble adapting. In fact, he’s beginning to suspect that Uncle Dan isn’t really his uncle at all. But how can one lost little boy get hold of his mother when the only phone number he knows is missing its crucial three-digit area code?

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Bite-Sized Memoirs

Bite-Sized Books

Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…

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The Girls: Emma Cline

★★★★

Following Gone Girl, I switched my attention to Emma Cline’s sun-drenched, twisted slice of 1960s Californian life, which is inspired by the case of the Manson Family (a story, I should stress, that I knew nothing about beforehand). Unfolding at the dreamy pace of a marijuana trip, it doesn’t match Gone Girl’s urgency, but it offers more relatability, in its tale of a fourteen-year-old girl who just doesn’t fit in, and the seductive gang of dreamers who capture her imagination. Few of us, thank God, will have gone as far as our protagonist Evie Boyd, but I suspect that many of us can remember the pain of teetering on that brink between childhood and adulthood, feeling eternally divorced from either place and, somehow, feeling so much older than all the adults around us. Cline manages to produce a book that’s compelling, compassionate and wise, as well as plumbing some of the darker places in the human soul.

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Gone Girl: Gillian Flynn

★★★★

Better late than never, hmm? As an intense period at work came to a close, I decided it was time to welcome the advent of summer with a couple of good, old-fashioned, white-knuckle thrillers. The first of those was a book I’ve managed to avoid having spoiled for me: quite an achievement, considering that it’s a publishing phenomenon, a film, and has been read by everyone else on the planet except my neighbour’s cat. Finally, it was my turn to meet Nick and Amy Dunne, the picture-perfect couple whose marriage begins to go sour when they lose their jobs in the recession, and move from Amy’s native New York to Nick’s native Missouri. When Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, leaving signs of a struggle and traces of blood on the kitchen floor, everyone thinks they know how this story ends. Only they don’t. Only one person has even an inkling of what’s about to happen… and Nick Dunne is in no position to protect himself.

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