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18 June 2023

From Brandon Taylor to Stuart Maconie: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Blue Machine by Helen Czerski and Is This OK? by Harriet Gibsone.

By Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger, Matthew Gilley and Chris Bourn

Blue Machine: How the Ocean Shapes our World by Helen Czerski
Torva, 464pp, £20

In 1972, the Apollo 17 mission took a photograph from space that changed the perception of how people saw the Earth. The picture became known as “The Blue Marble” because it showed not a green planet but a blue one. Every land mass is surrounded by a single interconnected ocean that acts, says the physicist Helen Czerski, as “a gigantic engine, a dynamic liquid powerhouse” that “takes sunlight and converts it into giant underwater currents and waterfalls, hauling around the ingredients for life”. 

In this book, Czerski looks at both the physical properties of the ocean and the way they have influenced animal and human life. In lucid chapters she discusses such phenomena as the water walls and strata that sit deep beneath the surface, how different regions of ocean breathe carbon dioxide in and out; a marine ecosystem that is based on organisms so small 61 per cent are invisible to the human eye; and the societies – from Iceland to Polynesia – that have found different ways to live with and from the seas. This engine, she shows, is extraordinarily complex and we don’t understand exactly how it works. 
By Michael Prodger

Is This OK? One Woman’s Search for Connection Online by Harriet Gibsone
Picador, 304pp, £16.99

Harriet Gibsone and the internet evolved together. Her recollections of growing up online – in chatrooms, on MSN and MySpace – will be hilarious and cringe-inducingly nostalgic to anyone who as a teenager waited for the dial-up modem to make its connection in the precious few minutes before a parent demanded the phone line back. For Gibsone, already prone to fantasy, the internet fed her neuroses and amplified her “inherent lurk-mode compulsion”, giving her endless opportunity to stalk exes and engage in “parasocial” relationships with people she’d never met. Her IRL relationships are often fraught, perhaps even abusive.

Reading Is This OK?, you get the sense that much of its contents has never before left Gibsone’s private, interior world. When, in her early thirties, she discovers the symptoms she’s been experiencing – bloating, lack of periods, depression, anger, sweating – are due to premature ovarian insufficiency, catapulting her into a world of donor eggs, hormone replacement therapy and IVF, you feel the rude shock of its interruption. It’s a cliché to say “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry”, but with this book, you really will.
By Pippa Bailey

[See also: Peter Turchin’s empty prophecies]

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The Full English: A Journey in Search of a Country and Its People by Stuart Maconie
HarperNorth, 352pp, £20

Nine decades after JB Priestley’s English Journey presented his influential sketches of life beyond London, Stuart Maconie has retrodden the route for a 2020s update. Swapping Priestley’s chauffeured Daimler for trains and buses, and boiled-beef dinners for prawn puris, Maconie maps progress via topographies of vibrancy and decline. Like his hero, he leaves nothing un-flâneured, reporting on food and fashions, potholes and pub-life, and the bearing of folk as he finds them.

Maconie is entertaining on regional quirks and rivalries: Potteries people are “a mysterious, smoky lacuna between the Brummies and the Mancs” and he laments the ersatz “Panama hattery” of the Cotswolds. But he’s also on a mission to expose the absurdity of the pastoral, biscuit-tin caricatures of England dreamed up by a London-coddled middle-class media. In this, he hits his stride surveying the dejection of smaller towns in the Midlands and the north – deprived of industry and socially adrift – and celebrating the remnants of their proud working-class histories. While Maconie catches the exhausted national mood beautifully, a uniting idea of Englishness remains elusive. Maybe that’s his point.
By Chris Bourn

The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor
Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £18.99

Brandon Taylor’s second novel follows the Booker-shortlisted Real Life. It gathers a loose community of friends, lovers, coursemates and rivals around the University of Iowa in chapters told from alternating perspectives: an incidental character from one will be the main character in the next. The plot is minimal. These “Late Americans” – as Seamus, an acerbic, uncompromising poet, calls them – fall together and apart, a persistent melancholy apparent in these beginnings and endings. Sometimes Taylor seems to strain for this mood, isolating sentences as paragraphs and words as sentences.

There is melancholy, too, in the gaps between how people feel and how they act. Seamus’s interior critiques of contemporary poetry are perceptive, but in seminars he is petulant. Fyodor, one of the non-students, has beautiful thoughts but doesn’t know how to express them and lapses into silence. Fatima has to work to support herself, which alienates her fellow dancers, more or less oblivious to their privilege, and she never really manages to make her friends understand. Despite the characters’ frequent self-absorption, the novel’s mood is one of tenderness and yearning.
By Matthew Gilley

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[See also: Cormac McCarthy’s career defining books]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars