The American writer George Saunders was eulogised by David Foster Wallace, whose irreverence and humour he shares, and Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith are also fans. In Tenth of December, Saunders’ fourth short story collection, his sharp satire and visions of a dystopian future are tempered with warmth and humanity.
In the title story, a terminally ill man wishes to avoid imposing on his family the fate he suffered when illness transformed his beloved stepfather into an irascible stranger. But his plans are waylaid by a bullied boy who takes refuge in childish fantasies. Saunders illustrates the stresses of the friendless child and the dying adult without ever indulging in misery.
He uses teen argot with panache in Victory Lap, in which a girl is poised between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, dreaming one minute about fawns and the next about boys. Her vernacular is spot-on: malapropisms; poor syntax; a self-conscious sprinkling of French and archaic English words. Poignancy and mordant humour are added by her former friend, whose life is rigidly controlled by his domineering parents. Somehow, Saunders forces the reader to consider our dysfunctional world without ever preaching.
Every page is packed with laughs; astute observations with deep implications are never far away either. In Sticks, the children of a miserly father grow up and find “the seeds of meanness blooming also within us”. The father desperately seeks redemption, but in vain. Home is about an Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In My Chivalric Fiasco, a boss at a medieval theme park tries to buy his way out of a rape case, but his attempts are thwarted by a male employee fed a drug, KnightLyfe, which promotes courtly behaviour. Escape from Spiderhead seems ostensibly to be about medical trial volunteers, but morphs into an Orwellian nightmare when it becomes apparent why the drugs are being tested, and on whom.
More hints of the sinister arise in Exhortation, a memo from an employer to his employees which initially seems to be encouraging a positive outlook, but is a veiled threat to workers to dump any morals. Al Roosten is an incisively witty tale about a bitter, self-deluding failure whose own anger is his greatest obstacle.
The masterpiece here is The Semplica Girl Diaries, in which a harassed man logs his efforts to do the best for his adored family in the face of mounting debt, unscrupulous big business, and a materialist society. His youngest daughter is the only family member to understand the horrific fate that their society thrusts on its most vulnerable members. The story took Saunders 12 years to write. It would have been worth it if it had taken 20.
This is a brilliant, trenchant and hilarious collection.
by Tim Birkhead
Fans of Birkhead’s Wisdom of Birds will love this fascinating coda about avian perception of the world. Birds can see in ultra-violet, hear with “the auditory equivalent of a slow-motion option”, feel with surprising sensitivity (receptors in the duck’s mouth enable it to find food in muddy water), respond to major taste categories despite having far fewer taste buds and use “olfactory cues” for mapping. They also have a magnetic sense that enables the bar-tailed godwit to fly 11,000km non-stop from New Zealand to Alask.
The Lost Empire of Atlantis
by Gavin Menzies
Given the fevered nature of most works on Atlantis, it is slightly alarming to read this sentence: “In 1970, as captain of the submarine HMS Rorqual, returning from America to Scotland, I requested permission to vary my orders… “ Fortunately, there is nothing in Menzies’s speculations to make the reader fear for the mental state of our submariners. His intriguing hypothesis that Minoan traders not only settled in Britain but also acquired copper from Lake Superior (North America is the real Atlantis) at least benefits from an in-depth knowledge of the Gulf Stream.
Some Kind of Peace
by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff
(trs by Paul Norlen)
The sudden blooming of Nordic crime thrillers is comparable with the efflorescence of Swedish tennis players in the Seventies and Eighties. This latest example of the genre centres on a psychotherapist, Siri Bergman, who lives alone in a log cabin in the countryside outside Stockholm, since her husband died in a diving accident (if it was an accident). A young woman – one of Siri’s patients – is found drowned in the nearby lake. Siri is investigated by the police at the same time as she is being stalked by an anonymous psychopath, who could be any one of her patients or even a colleague .... This is a tense, efficient thriller.