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Book Bites: 14 May 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
Alexandra Kleeman (HarperCollins)
Book buff
****
Alexandra Kleeman’s debut novel is an uncomfortable read. Her exploration and critique of modern-day society’s obsession with consumerism is unerring. Within the first few pages Kleeman, via the narrator, comments on the warped contemporary ideals of female beauty; the dangerous allure of advertising; and our innate need and insatiable desire to consume. It’s told in the first person narrative, simply by someone known as “A” who lives with “B”. They are 20-something women living in small-town America who are basically your girls next door. But “A” becomes part of a cult and their lives begin to unravel. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is unsettling as it hits so close to home. The characters in the novel are people you know, people you’ve met, you. Kleeman has written an existential, accessible novel reminiscent of Requiem For a Dream and Fight Club which will make you think twice before buying into any trend of any sort. – Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016
PJ O’Rourke (Penguin Random House)
Book real
***
Veteran journalist/humorist PJ O’Rourke’s latest work, on the US election, asks the question in its title. Unfortunately, much of the first part of the book is unfunny, college-style humour that will fail to find traction among readers outside the US. But he later gets into his stride, commenting on the two candidates: “Yet to call Hillary robotic is an insult to androids. She’s more like someone trapped inside a Hillary costume, one of those dressed-up characters pestering tourists in Times Square.” As for Trump: “Trump was the guy from the mailroom who somehow wound up with a job interview for the position of national sales manager. If you promote him it will be a disaster. But if you leave him in the mailroom he’ll take his pants down, sit on the Xerox machine, and fax the result to all your customers.” The closing chapters of the book offer an insight into the populist wave sweeping world politics, not least here in South Africa where “radical economic transformation” has become a catch-all slogan and supposed popular remedy for our economic problems. Being a libertarian and believer in small government, O’Rourke cogently expresses his disappointment with the revolt against ruling elites in the US and around the world. Instead of pursuing a new, libertarian option, however, voters find populism more appealing. He writes: “We should be learning the value of individual dignity, individual freedom, and individual responsibility from the failure of the elites and the fiasco of their vast political power. Good things are made by free individuals in free association with other individuals. Notice that’s how we make babies.” He continues: “But we aren’t learning lessons in individual freedom, because we’re too scared. We’re daunted at the pace of material change, unnerved over social configurations, fretful about economic instability, and terrified by terrorism.” Yes, the elites have messed up around the world, O’Rourke says, but the answer is not populism and a narrowing of individual liberty and responsibility. And certainly not Trump. – Patrick Bulger

A Gentleman in Moscow
Amor Towles (Penguin Viking)
Book thrill
****
This is a splendid tale of a man making the most of the cards life has dealt him. The story begins in the 1920s, when a Bolshevik tribunal finds Count Alexander Rostov guilty of being an aristocrat. His punishment: permanent house arrest in the attic of the luxurious Hotel Metropol. Here the count embarks on the biggest adventure of his life. It’s as much a tale of unlikely friendships and magnificent encounters as it is a fictionalised, wry account of Russian history. Towles is guilty of a well-wrought plot and vivid three-dimensional characters: the precocious nine-year-old, the volatile chef, the omniscient concierge, the nimble maître d’ and the conniving bishop make A Gentleman in Moscow a stylish, charming novel that informs and delights. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

The Golden Son
Shilpi Somaya Gowda (HarperCollins)
Book fling
***
Anil and Leena grow up together in the same Indian village. But the lives of the two friends diverge: Anil finds himself in the US training to become a doctor, while Leena is married to a man she doesn’t know and is brought to an unfamiliar village. The reality of their lives is at odds with their dreams: encountering racism, sexism, domestic violence, the culture of privilege and inequality. The Golden Son is a coming-to-America tale, illustrating the cost of travelling to new places: “He was a dweller of two lands, accepted by none.” – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie
 
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