Books in brief: The School of Life, Jonathan Franzen and Yasushi Inoue

Three new books you might have missed.

Life Lessons
Various authors
Pan Macmillan, 128pp, £6.99 each
 
What can reading Henri Bergson teach us about gruelling departmental meetings? Can Friedrich Nietzsche, attuned to his inconsistencies, enable us to negotiate conflict and see the merits of a change of heart? A new series of books from Alain de Botton’s School of Life does for Hobbes, Freud, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Byron and Bergson what de Botton’s books have done for classical philosophers and Proust. They are short, snappy reads, reminiscent of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog – aphoristic digests from history’s great minds.
 
The Kraus Project
Jonathan Franzen
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £18.99
 
Karl Kraus, who died in 1936, was a Viennese satirist and poet who used his self-published newspaper Die Fackel (“the torch”) to rage against the media, capitalism and the stilted patriotism of an empire in decline. A century on, he is an ideal counterpart for Jonathan Franzen, who has translated and annotated Kraus’s essays. In notes along the bottom of each page, Franzen identifies parallels between fin de siècle Vienna and the technology-glutted US, while offering an autobiographical account of his kinship with the writer known by his enemies as “the Great Hater”. Consumer technology, Franzen argues, distracts us with perpetual yakking, making us restless and ill at ease, while companies such as Amazon run roughshod over the verbal culture to which Kraus belonged.
 
Bullfight
Yasushi Inoue
Pushkin Press, 128pp, £12
 
In 1949, at the age of 42, after working for many years as a journalist and literary editor, Yasushi Inoue began to write novels and short stories. Bullfight was his first. This novella has been translated by Michael Emmerich, known for his work with Banana Yoshimoto. It tells the story of Tsugami, a newspaper editor in Osaka, who takes a great risk when he agrees to sponsor a bullfight, only to find that his life increasingly resembles that of the bull.
The fantasy library at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories