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27 January 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 10:47am

NS Recommends: New books from Richard Flanagan, Brian Christian and Vesna Main

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Flanagan, The Alignment Problem by Christian, The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic and Only a Lodger… And Hardly That by Main.

By New Statesman

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by RichaThe Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanaganrd Flanagan

The world is burning and the sixth mass extinction is under way. When Anna’s finger disappears, and then a short while later her knee, she thinks curiously little of it. But then she begins to notice disappearances everywhere, and all around people refuse to see what is really happening. The Booker Prize winner’s eighth novel is a raging tale about grief and loss that asks existential questions – is prolonging death the same as living? Will we refuse to see the flames? – but which contains moments of stillness and magic, too.

Chatto & Windus, 304pp, £16.99

The Alignment Problem by Brian Christian

This balanced and meticulously researched book by the American academic asks, how can we teach computers to leave bias behind and run according to human morals? This conundrum – in which computer science and philosophy meet – is the “alignment problem”, a topic Christian explored over four years through many hundreds of formal interviews and informal conversations. His discoveries were, he writes, “more riveting, harrowing, and hopeful than I had understood”.

Atlantic, 496pp, £20

The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic

In 1348, ten people quarantined outside Florence to escape the Black Death, and passed the time telling stories – or so Boccaccio’s Decameron goes. In 2020, as Covid-19 changed the world as we knew it, editors at the New York Times Magazine looked for short stories that would both distract from the current moment and make it more comprehensible. The result is a brilliantly varied assortment of tales: Margaret Atwood writes from the perspective of an alien sent to Earth as part of an aid package; Colm Tóibín muses on the perfect relationship from the banks of the LA River; and Yiyun Li considers the purpose of platitudes in times of personal crisis.

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Scribner, 297pp, £16.99

Only a Lodger… And Hardly That by Vesna Main

The Croatian-born novelist Vesna Main writes unusual and formally ambitious fiction. Good Day? – shortlisted for the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize – was written entirely in the circular dialogue of a novelist and her husband. Only a Lodger… And Hardly That is subtitled “a fictional autobiography” and hovers somewhere between memoir and novel, also playing with perspective and style. Main writes about a difficult upbringing in a compelling, continuous monologue before switching to sparser, more fragmentary prose, while later sections narrate the histories of her grandparents.

Seagull Books, 303pp, £18.99

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[see also: NS Recommends: New books from Bryan Washington, Jonty Claypole, Raven Leilani and Ijeoma Oluo]

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost