Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Junot Diaz, Naomi Wolf and Pat Barker.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

“Junot Díaz’s short story collection is so sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working-class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison,” effuses Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph. “This Is How You Lose Her could have been an exercise in ghetto picaresque, a kind of Latino Shameless… But Díaz – so acute, so dexterous – is more ambitious than that. He has the ability not only to make you laugh, but to wince with pain, to feel that you’re being offered tender X-rays into social worlds that are too often ignored by the gatekeepers of mass media.” Sandhu makes sure to emphasise the key role that language plays in the book: “Díaz is both a minimalist – scraping, chiselling, honing his prose into its flinty essence – and a maximalist who’s capable of code switching, flipping between the colloquial and the highbrow, creating a taut lexical calabash made up of Caribbean phrases, black American vernacular and the playful pugilism of urban street banter.”

Sarah Hall’s review in the Guardian also picks out the language as the defining characteristic of This is How You Lose Her, in particular the narrative style of Yunior, the protagonist, which she calls “a mixture of identities and languages, Spanish slang, English slang, sci-fi, highbrow, street, Ameri-vario-cana. He's also extremely funny,” she adds “and, though frequently pitiful, is not self-pitying.” Hall believes that the most affecting narratives in the collection are those told in the second person, which she acknowledges might have been “a potentially overpowering device in the hands of a lesser writer,” but in the capable hands of Díaz become “a masterpiece of skill and sensitivity, which makes full use of this mode's fascinating inside-out quality.”

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room, the latest novel from Pat Barker, has been largely praised by the critics. “Her prose remains fresh, humanely business-like, crisp and unsentimental,” writes Freya Johnston in the Telegraph. “Images are scrupulously vivid, and the plot has real momentum. One strength of her writing, suggested by her title, is the description of spaces and buildings – including the cathedral-like structures of the dissected human body.”

Leyla Sanai at the Independent thinks that the value of Toby’s Room lies in Barker’s ability to convincingly depict plausibly flawed characters, as well as her refusal to paint situations as black and white. “As well as the more monumental themes, Barker conveys ordinary lives with skill,” she says, before going on to write that “in Barker's fiction, nothing is clear-cut – people are a mix of good and bad; destructive wars are fought for laudable aims. And facts… are multi-faceted and eroded by recall and subjectivity.”

The book follows on from 2007’s Life Class, giving the reader a chance to follow the fortunes of the young artists that Barker portrayed so vividly then. But Hermione Lee, writing in the Guardian, thinks that “Toby's Room is not treated as a sequel, and the connection between the two novels is a bit awkward, with earlier relationships and events having to be clumsily back-filled. Barker has never been a thrilling stylist, and can often sound ordinary… But you don't go to her for fine language, you go to her for plain truths, a driving storyline and a clear eye, steadily facing the history of our world. In these respects, Toby's Room doesn't disappoint.”

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

In the New Statesman’s review of Naomi Wolf’s latest offering, Helen Lewis discovers that Wolf’s return to feminism is not much more than a combination of pseudoscience and psychobabble that doesn’t quite work together. “The frontiers of western science are represented as underscoring the ancient insights of mystics, preferably eastern ones,” she explains. “Although it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suggest that a chronically bad sex life can affect your overall mood, often the science and self-help make uncomfortable bedfellows.” Lewis concedes that Wolf does have some valid points to make: “the section on the use of mass rape in war zones to dispirit and control the female population is both tragic and insightful… It’s a more sympathetic view than the 'all men have the potential to be rapists' approach and seems more likely to be true.” Ultimately, however, she remains unimpressed and disappointed with the direction Naomi Wolf has decided to take in this latest work. “Reading this book left me downcast. Has the Naomi Wolf I loved in The Beauty Myth really drowned in a soup of psychobabble about 'energies' and 'activating the Goddess array'? It seems so.”

Melanie McGrath’s review in the Telegraph picks out a further problem with the book. “Vagina is to be admired for its clear-minded and persuasive synthesis of new research on female sexuality, but by dividing the book into sections dealing, respectively, with 'misunderstandings', 'social control' and “the modern pressures desensitising men and women to the vagina”, Wolf sets up the vagina as essentially problematic and by pointing the finger at those of us with 'unliberated vaginas' she introduces yet another standard against which we women are judged and exhaustingly judge ourselves.”

Junot Diaz's short story collection has been well received by critics. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

Why are Moby, Ed Sheeran and Laura Mvula putting on gigs in the living rooms of total strangers?

Billy Bragg, The National and Nothing But Thieves are all doing the same.

Depending on your personal taste, Ed Sheeran turning up at your house, guitar in hand, to sings some earnest tunes could be a dream come true or a living nightmare. But what about The National? Or Moby? Or Laura Mvula? These are just some of the artists that have agreed to put on shows today in people’s homes around the world – from Washington DC to Cape Town.

Today, over 1,000 artists will play “living room shows” in 60 countries as part of Give a Home, “the largest global festival ever held”. Organised by Sofar and Amnesty international , the concerts are being held to raise awareness of the refugee crisis, and as a guesture of solidarty with the 22 million refugees worldwide: fans were given the chance to donate to Amnesty when applying to win tickets.

British rock group Nothing But Thieves have always injected a level of political consciousness into their songs. Their second album, Broken Machines, was released earlier this month, charting at number two in the UK album chart. I spoke to guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown about Give A Home and their concert tonight in London.

Why did you agree to be a part of Give a Home?

It’s just something that we’re passionate about. We write songs about the refugee crisis, and this is what we talk about as people: in the band, on the bus. My girlfriend works at NGOs like Care and Amnesty, so it’s something that we’re passionate about. When we got this opportunity to play we jumped at the chance - anything we can do to even marginally help, we will. This is going all around the world, Ed Sheeran’s doing one in Washington, and The National are doing one. It’s amazing how many bands and artists have got involved.

Any you’re particular fans of?

Well, I mean, Conor [Mason, lead singer] really likes the National – but they just beat us to number one album!

Have you done a gig like this before?

Yeah, absolutely. We like playing these stripped back sessions, it makes the song come alive a bit more in a way, because they’re really raw, and some of them were written like that: just acoustic guitar and voice.

Do you think musicians and celebrities have a responsibility to engage with politics and issues like the refugee crisis?

We feel that way. I feel like we would be letting ourselves down and neglecting some sort of duty to use your platform for good and for things that you believe in. I get that it’s not for every artist, and I don’t think every artist should be pressured into doing it. But personally, for us, we’re writing an album and we want it to say something. It wouldn’t represent us if it didn’t.

What do you hope people who go to the gig will get from it?

Hopefully it will give people a sense of community, that’s what this whole thing is about. Its about raising awareness for the refugee crisis: I mean, it affects 22 million lives. It’s important to do something that just lets refugees know that they’re welcome and safe. Anything we can do to help in that way would be a positive thing.

What can people do to support refugees?

You might have to ask my girlfriend! Just talking about it in a way that is compassionate is important. I think one of the problems we have, especially at the moment in the age of Facebook, is that although social media has done a world of good in some areas, it also creates an “us v them” enviroment, and I think that’s really dangerous for humanity. I don’t think that way of thinking is positive at all. If this can do anything to bring a sense of community and togetherness, then that would be amazing.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.