Books in Brief: Svetlana Alpers, Paul Danahar and Meg Wolitzer

Three new books you may have missed.

Roof Life
Svetlana Alpers

“Confession is not to my taste,” writes the art historian Svetlana Alpers in the opening pages of Roof Life. After retiring from her job in California, she peers out of the windows of her new loft apartment in Lower Manhattan, recording what she sees. Alpers writes against the memoir form, creating a meditative self-portrait that pulls in family, literature, geography and a lifetime of looking at art. She aims for a kind of omniscience – to fix our attention and focus our responses, as we do when taking in landscapes from a great height. “The immediacy of distance” is her goal.
Yale University Press, 256pp, £18.99

The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring
Paul Danahar

Paul Danahar ran the BBC’s coverage of the Arab spring between 2010 and 2013 and is one of a small number of journalists who have worked across the “axis of evil”. He takes his epigraph from Tacitus – “The best day after a bad emperor is the first one” – reminding us that anything written on the Arab spring is necessarily a work in progress. The unifying theme of the book is the movement from stable (yet ruthless) dictatorships across the Arab world – many of them sanctioned by the west – to the birth of democratic nations that must reckon with complex histories, re-examine their identities and answer difficult questions of statehood, secularism and religion.
Bloomsbury, 468pp, £25

The Interestings
Meg Wolitzer

At a summer camp in upstate New York, six teenagers smoke weed and drink vodka and Tang from paper cups. They call themselves “the Interestings” because, well, they “clearly are the most interesting people who ever fucking lived”. Decades pass and the dreams that sustained them give way to dreary day jobs. Disappointment and envy become the norm. Wolitzer places her drama in a historical context, contrasting the private and the public and questioning the influence of big events on small lives.
Chatto & Windus, 480pp, £16.99 

Readers getting stuck in at the National Library in Beijing, China. 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 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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A new BBC program allows us to watch couples undertake mediation

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator is a rather astonishing series - and it's up to the viewer to provide judgement.

Somewhere in Epsom, Surrey, a separated couple, Sue and Peter, are trying with the help of a family mediator to sort out their financial situation. It’s a complicated business. Long ago, when she was in her twenties, Sue lived with a man called Bernard, a partner in the accountancy firm where she worked as a clerk. Bernard, though, was 25 years her senior, and because he already had three children the relationship seemed to have no future. Sue wanted a family of her own, and so she left him for his colleague Peter, whom she married in 1982. In 2015, however, she fell out of love with Peter. One morning in January, she cleaned the house, made a casserole for him and the two of her  three adult sons still living at home, and scarpered back to Bernard.

You wouldn’t call Bernard a Svengali. He is soon to be 80; his major pleasures in life appear to be golf and mah-jong. But he does play a role in all this. Every offer Peter makes, Sue takes home to Bernard, who then goes through the small print. If he sounds gleeful at what he regards as Peter’s pitiful idea of a settlement, she seems not to notice. But then, Sue, a housewife, seems not to notice anything much, least of all that the well-off Bernard insists he can’t keep her, financially speaking – never mind that, come lunchtime, it’s she who’s there in his well-appointed kitchen, dutifully dotting Worcestershire sauce on molten slices of Cheddar. Is Bernard taking his revenge on ­Peter for having nicked the woman he loved all those years ago? Or does he genuinely care only on grounds of fairness that everything is split 50:50? You decide!

I’m not joking: you really do. The BBC’s rather astonishing three-part series Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (Tuesdays, 9pm) offers no judgement in the matter of Peter and Sue, or any of the other couples it features. In this, it reflects the mediators, whose sanguine exteriors I find quite disturbing.

“You’ve had some intimacy, yes?” said Judith, a mediator working in King’s Cross, as a woman called Nichola complained that her ex, Martin, had broken into her flat and begged her for sex, an act that required her to have a “full health check” afterwards (post-coitus, she discovered he had joined an internet dating site). Nichola didn’t answer the question, choosing instead to stare at Judith’s earrings (dangly earrings appear to be a requirement for jobs with the Family Mediation service). Meanwhile, Martin walked out, fed up of Nichola’s “snidey remarks”. Another woman, Victoria, had agreed to mediation only if she and her ex-husband could sit in separate rooms; their mediator, Irene, had to shuttle between them every 15 minutes. How the mediators keep their mouth shut when people are behaving like this, I have no idea. To the long list of jobs I can never do, I must add another.

Everything about this documentary series is eye-popping, though that doesn’t mean I’ve much appetite for it. Some people descend into snarling madness when they split up; their hurt, to which they cling as if to a soft toy, makes rational thought all but impossible, and it is horrible to see. I was mildly surprised that National Family Mediation allowed the BBC access, but I suppose they’re only hoping to encourage more people to sign up, the better to avoid expensive court battles. What is far more astonishing is that these couples were willing to be filmed as they yelled and cried and exposed their most intimate flaws and secrets. Why did they do it?

Jason, who sends his ex-wife “helpful” web links mansplaining how a child’s teeth should be cleaned; Nichola, who won’t even talk to her husband when he delivers their small sons back to her (they must run in the dark from his car to the stairwell of her flat); Sue, whose mediation, thanks to Bernard, drags on for three months before she accepts Peter’s offer: I can’t think that any of them is a bad or cruel person. In their misery, however, they seem so. Lots of us have been there. But when things improve, we get to look back in horror, to gaze wonderingly at the sickness that then took hold. For these couples, it’s all preserved for posterity: the meanness, the futility, the mind-turning hate. 

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 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain