Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Maya Angelou, Charles Glass and Eric Hobsbawm.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

In the latest instalment of her memoirs, Maya Angelou tackles her tumultuous relationship with her mother. Miserable in her marriage and unable to cope with motherhood, Vivien Baxter sent Angelou and her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, where they remained for ten years. The Washington Post’s Valerie Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom both as a storyof how [Angelou] came to love the woman who had sent her away” and “of a dangerous time when she struggled as an unwed mother”. Although she acknowledges a lack of detail in some instances, Sayers says it takes little away from the overall design: “As an account of reconciliation, this little book is just revealing enough, and pretty irresistible.”

Writing about Angelou’s style, the Independent’s Fiona Sturges praises the way in which some of the more harrowing incidents in the book are presented. “Angelou has never been one for florid prose, and here she maintains a precise and economical style which makes these bleak moments more vivid, like a film from which you can't look away.” Both critics praise Angelou’s perpetual optimism. Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom as a book delivered with Angelou’s “trademark good humour and fierce optimism”, while Sturges describes it as a “profoundly moving tale of separation and reunion, and an ultimately optimistic portrait of the maternal bond”.

Deserter by Charles Glass

The latest book by journalist, broadcaster and author Charles Glass provides accounts of three young men who were drafted into the infantry during the Second World War. As its title suggests, Deserter explores what motivated a group of British and American soldiers to make the decision to run away. While the Guardian’s Neal Ascherson notes that not much of the book is actually about deserting – “most of it consists of the three men’s own narratives of ‘their war’” – he nonetheless regards the accounts as important contributions to the historical narrative of war: “Because they are the stories of individual human beings who eventually cracked under the strain of hardly imaginable fear and misery, they are wonderful, unforgettable acts of witness, something salvaged from a time already sinking into the black mud of the past.”

The Telegraph’s Keith Lowe describes Glass’s book as “sensitive and thought-provoking”. Focusing on the story of an American coal miner’s son called Alfred T Whitehead, who wrote a war-time diary riddled with lies, Lowe praises Glass for his nuanced approach: “Most historians would probably have abandoned it as a source. For Glass, however, this is exactly the point: why did this man tell such tall tales?” Simultaneously appalled and moved by the witness accounts in Deserters, both critics conclude with the same the same question: confronted with such horrific conditions, who wouldn’t also have considered running away?

Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm

Writing in the Observer, Nick Cohen has high praise for Eric Hobsbawm’s posthumously published collection of essays. This book, Cohen argues, “shows this revolutionary traditionalist at his best”. Cohen praises the revered Marxist historian and asserts that none of his contemporaries was “better at deploying a killer fact to make an argument stick in your mind”. The Telegraph’s Alex Massie is careful to warn readers that anyone “hoping for the final showdown between Hobsbawm’s unabashed communism and the reality of the Soviet Union’s own failure will be disappointed”, suggesting that although the articles may have been published at different times, the common thread throughout is “a nagging crisis of identity and a parallel fear of redundancy” as the author explores the evaporation of classical music and elitist high culture.

This reading is echoed by the New Statesman’s own Jonathan Derbyshire, who notes that Hobsbawm “evinces melancholy empathy .  . . for the art and culture of the ‘bourgeois society’ that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War”. It was, Derbyshire argues, Hobsbawm's interest in “the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues" in the Communist Party Historians Group in the mid-1950s. Perhaps the highest praise for Hobsbawm comes from Richard J Evans, in the Guardian, who says his “pessimism comes through in many of the essays in this book more clearly than in any other work he published after the fall of communism”. Despite teaching and writing modern European history for 40 years, Evans says that he “learned an enormous amount that I didn't know before”.

The late Eric Hobsbawm in 1976 (photograph: Getty Images)
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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder