ART HISTORY UMBERTO ECO On Ugliness (MacLehose Press) ●●●●●
Just as notions of beauty are very much in the eye of the beholder, what constitutes ‘ugly’ can be viewed differently across centuries and continents. Football teams who ‘play ugly’ might still end up as winners, while being told by your teacher (when such things could be said in the 80s) that you were ‘big enough and ugly enough’ was a tacit acknowledgment of a person’s ongoing personal growth. In the introduction to Umberto Eco’s lavish new art history book, he notes that reactions to an African ritual mask range from hair-raising terror to an assumption of ‘benevolent divinity’ depending on your origins.
On Ugliness may feature some off-putting chapter headings such as ‘The Ugliness of Woman Between Antiquity and the Baroque Period’ but within are incisive and entertaining commentaries by Eco (as well as everyone from Shakespeare to DeLillo) about fairytales, surrealism and architecture. (Brian Donaldson)
ILLUSTRATED POEM AXEL SCHEFFLER The Gloomster (Faber) ●●●●●
Any parents picking up this book would be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of Gruffalo sequel. However, this central character is seeking therapy rather than a mouse. Translated by children’s author Julia Donaldson, and illustrated by her long- time side-kick Axel Scheffler, The Gloomster looks to all intents and purposes like a kids book. Until, that is, you clock the pallid, morose-looking chap on the cover; the eponymous misery guts whose role in life is most certainly not entertaining children. This short tale started life as a poem by 19th
century German writer Ludwig Bechstein, and should probably have stayed that way. As always, Donaldson’s rhymes are witty and pleasing, while Scheffler’s colourful illustrations mix humour with pathos. But short of the odd metaphor that gets you pondering (‘nothing is right for me, turn out the light for me,’ says Herr Gloomster, lying in his bed), there’s little in this slimmest of verses to merit the £9.99 cover price. (Kelly Apter)
HISTORICAL THRILLER STEPHEN KING 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton) ●●●●● There is no doubting Stephen King’s abiding knack for a gripping yarn, but the American author’s latest novel could be doing with a few more thrills. That’s not to say that the plot is lacklustre or lacking in scale, taking a 35-year-old modern-day Maine protagonist named
Jake Epping and relocating him to the late 1950s/early 1960s, via a diner-cum-time-travel ‘rabbit-hole’. There, he is recast as George Amberson, who is charged with preventing the assassination of John F Kennedy.
There are several narrative distractions en route, as our central character tries to alter the histories of the people around him while he (inevitably) falls in love, but therein lies the disappointment: faced with the freedom of revisiting and ‘resetting’ the past repeatedly, would a character truly only do good? Would he or she not take advantage of such moral autonomy? Our hero’s extravagance stops at root beer. The book’s alliance of temporal gymnastics and presidential
assassination thriller variously echoes The Time Traveler’s Wife (but with less sci-fi existentialism) and The Day of the Jackal (but with less economic, meticulous suspense). It touches on potentially intriguing notions like the butterfly effect, coincidence, conspiracy theories and the parallels between the present and past, but King’s observations are too brief to inspire. The creator of Misery and The Dark Half retains a
supernatural skill for investing language with a sense of terror – the term ‘Jimla’ becomes such a word here – but it hints at a dreadfulness that never prevails, and even for a horror-phobe, this comes as something of an anti-climax. (Nicola Meighan)
SOCIAL DRAMA PENELOPE LIVELY How It All Began (Fig Tree) ●●●●●
It’s been 24 years since Penelope Lively won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger, but this new novel shows that her writing is still sharp and acutely relevant. On the surface, How It All Began is a light- hearted, sometimes comical drama about middle class Londoners. But it’s also an exacting look at how an unexpected event – from being mugged by a wayward youth to the current global recession – can wake people up to their own complacency. Ageing English teacher Charlotte has her bag snatched, a chance event that alters not only her own life but that of her daughter Rose, Rose’s
employer Henry, Henry’s niece Marion and so on. Occasionally, Lively over-eggs this motif; some personalities are more thinly drawn than others and a central love affair doesn’t quite catch fire. Overall, however, the entertaining ensemble of characters serves to channel the author’s primary idea – that a stranger can change your life – in her typically engaging manner. (Yasmin Sulaiman)
SHORT STORIES SARAH HALL The Beautiful Indifference (Faber) ●●●●●
Booker nominee Sarah Hall is being touted as one of the writers of her generation. There is little doubt that she creates some glorious imagery, and while her focus on gorgeous language occasionally means that a powerful storyline or two is sacrificed, the reader’s memory still lingers on a beautifully- realised moment or skilfully-drawn character.
The Beautiful Indifference is a collection of stories where nature pulses throughout. Foxes, horses, dogs and bees all feature, but Hall focuses her attention on human beasts. Thwarted ambitions, disintegrating relationships, bleak sex, and stripped
loyalties fray at the edges of these mini-dramas, with opening tale ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ a case in point. The brittle and violent Manda befriends the more winsome Kathleen who is drawn into a rural, isolated world that is both intoxicating and terrifying; this delicate flower is just as much lost at sea as the fearful rower in the book’s captivating finale, ‘Vuotjärvi’. (Brian Donaldson) 17 Nov–15 Dec 2011 THE LIST 51