EARLY INTO Naji Bakhti’s Between Beirut and the Moon, the novel’s protagonist Adam hides in a single bathroom with his family from Israeli aircraft bombs dropping in the distance. As the hours pass, Adam’s father asks him and his younger sister about school, literature, and soccer to distract them, while his chain-smoking mother reminds him that he’s “lucky” because he will now have inspiration as a writer later on. Adam resents his mother’s positive spin; not only does he find her use of black humor unsettling — after all, no citizenry would possibly be thankful for being bombed — but he dreams with unflinching determination of becoming an astronaut, not a writer: “I wanted to shout back … to exclaim that there was probably infinitely more inspiration in space than there ever would be in a tiny old bathroom in Beirut.”
In 1947, a 16-year-old David Cornwell left the British boarding school system where he’d spent many unhappy years and ended up in Switzerland, where he studied German at the University of Bern—and caught the attention of British intelligence. As the restless child of an estranged mother and a con-man father, and a precocious student of modern languages to boot, the young wayfarer was a natural recruitment target for the security services, which scooped him up in the late 1940s to be “a teenaged errand boy of British Intelligence,” as he put it in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. Over the next 15 years, those little errands would continue and grow, furnishing Cornwell with the material that would fill the whopping 25 spy novels he wrote under the pen name John le Carré.
Recommended by Robin Whitten
I wouldn’t say The Sandman is a comfort read! The Sandman is an audio adaption of Neil Gaiman’s comic book series. The graphic novels are not new—they’ve been ongoing for many years—but the series has been adapted by Dirk Maggs and performed with this incredible cast that’s led by James McAvoy. Neil is in it—who is of course a wonderful storyteller himself—Michael Sheen, Taron Egerton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis. It’s a great cast and the adaption that Dirk Maggs did is brilliant. If you’re not familiar with him, he was a collaborator with Douglas Adams on all The Hitchhiker’s Guides. So he has done many different adaptions and productions of audio drama and this is quite something. It’s dark, it’s very mysterious, but it’s very engrossing as a listening experience. It was too scary for me, but I loved the audio experience of it.
Roy shows that, while resistance is often dangerous and hopeless, it can also be joyful. There’s something gorgeous and seductive about Roy’s depiction of life among the “comrades,” the Maoist guerrillas in the Dandakaranya Forest who resist the Indian government’s violent attempts to convert their land into mines. These “strange, beautiful children with their curious arsenal” walk for days to reach a communal spot to dance together, right under the noses of the police and the murderous Salwa Judum. She doesn’t flinch from describing the diseases and violence she found among the Maoists, and certainly doesn’t advocate that everyone drop their lives to walk in the forest alongside these rebels. “It’s not an alternative yet,” she writes of the guerillas’ approach. “But it certainly has created the possibilities for an alternative.”
Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks
There’s just one problem when you’re trying to convince other people that the best book in the world is a book about nature. The problem is that a lot of people don’t like nature. Or it’s not that they dislike it. It’s that they don’t think about it any more than they think about stamp collecting or subatomic physics. No one will fly into a rage if you say you’re on the trail of the British Guiana 1-Cent Magenta or the Baden 9 Kreuzer Error Stamp, just as they’re not like to start throwing the furniture through a window if someone starts geeking out over the fact that beryllium emits electrically neutral radiation when bombarded with alpha particles. Scockers, whelms: it’s all East Anglian to them.
If Robert Perreau was telling the truth—if he had, indeed, been taken for a rube by his conniving sister-in-law—then he would hardly have been the first. From a young age, Margaret Caroline Rudd had an almost supernatural ability to manipulate those around her, especially when it came to men. Her opinion of the opposite sex was no doubt cemented in her formative years, after she was expelled from boarding school at the tender age of 13 for so-called “illicit relations” with a staff member. Social mores of the time placed blame firmly upon the victim, at least if the victim were female, and local gossip could barely keep up with the flirtations and affairs that supposedly followed. At 17, Caroline ran off with an English soldier whose regiment was stationed near her small Irish hometown, but his commanding officer promptly sent her home again. Undeterred, she continued courting military men—who offered both a secure income, and an escape from the drudgery of rural life—until she won the heart of another young soldier named Valentine Rudd. Ten days after meeting, the two were married.
An interesting story of a heist – of a rare book, committed by college students.
By one o’clock that afternoon, the 227-year-old liberal-arts college was swarming with campus police, uniformed Lexington Police, plainclothes detectives, and forensic teams, as well as local news crews covering the developing “Transy Book Heist,” a crime that would one day be listed among the F.B.I.’s all-time most significant art-theft cases. From the facts that were available, it appeared that a team of four men, described as Caucasian, in their 20s, had stolen some of the most prized books and manuscripts in the university’s collection, and attacked a librarian in the process. The take could be more than $5 million. The thieves left no fingerprints behind, and there were almost no witnesses.
When you immerse yourself deeply into nature, exposing yourself to discomfort and risk, you recalibrate more sensitively to unseen patterns and rhythms. You feel your own pulse and breath instilled with a peace and calmness. The rugged landscape becomes hewn differently, takes on more intimate contours. Immersed daily in the sea, swimming in all weathers, it is interesting how other aspects of your life start adjusting to this routine. Tasks are organised differently, more closely aligned to the bigger cycles of sun, moon and tides and seasonal shifts. Some call this biodynamic living, and it makes sense. It connects the unique solitude of every animate or inanimate sentience, and connects it to an expansive, interconnected universe.
It is easier to conjure the intellectual-literary atmosphere of an era when it is 30 years’ past than when it is a mere decade ago. It is hard to see 2010 right now, as we wait for time and the canon to true the lens, but I have a very clear sense-memory of revelation and exhilaration as I sped through David Mitchell’s epic-historical ghost story, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, wondering if the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson had momentarily taken possession of Haruki Murakami. Here was a reminder that the world of a novel—in this case, a very detailed rendering of an 18th-century Dutch trading post in the port of Nagasaki—can be fuller, more vivid, than our own, that it can exist as a hothouse for the reader’s moral imagination.
Ottessa Moshfegh is famous for writing about uncomfortable characters experiencing uncomfortable circumstances. When I received the press copy of her latest novel, Death in Her Hands (Penguin Press), COVID-19 was, in North America, a penumbra hovering over the early weeks of 2020. By the time I spoke with Moshfegh in early June, the world had changed—becoming, at least for many, a distinctly more uncomfortable place. The protagonist and narrator of Death in Her Hands is an older woman named Vesta Gul (her surname, perhaps tellingly, is oft mispronounced as “Ghoul”). A 72-year old widow, Vesta lives modestly in an isolated cabin in the New England woods with her dog, Charlie. At the beginning of the book, Vesta finds a note that reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”