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20 September 2023

From Ben Lerner to Simon Heffer: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang and Stay True by Hua Hsu.

By Michael Prodger, Christiana Bishop, Barney Horner and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Sing as We Go: Britain Between the Wars by Simon Heffer, Hutchinson Heinemann, 960pp, £35

It is possible that the historian Simon Heffer is not simply possessed of a Stakhanovite work ethic but is in fact a machine. This account of the interwar years is the last in his quartet of volumes treating Britain from the accession of Queen Victoria to the outbreak of the Second World War. Together the books amount to more than 3,600 pages of compelling narrative – full of detail and portraits of the significant players of the age, as well as both the narrow and broad sweep of politics. 

In these years, Heffer says, “change in Britain was gradual”, and among the themes he discusses here with verve and insight are the death of deference (George V in 1924, when greeted with the first Labour government, noted sagely: “They have different ideas to ours as they are all socialists”); the birth of the welfare state; technological and cultural developments from cars to the cinema; and set-pieces such as the General Strike and the abdication crisis. The new world took some getting used to, and colouring almost everything was the legacy of the previous war and the gathering momentum towards a new one.
By Michael Prodger

Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang, Hutchinson Heinemann, 240pp, £16.99

In a new work of dystopian fiction, the American author C Pam Zhang imagines a world engulfed in an acidic smog. The pollution has destroyed nature’s delicate ecosystems and diminished humankind’s ability to feed itself. As borders close and pantries empty, a chef accepts a position with a self-proclaimed billionaire who runs an “elite research community” on an Italian mountainside. This is a place where the air may be clean, but his intentions are not. 

The chef, however, seems only emboldened by risk. “On my 25th birthday I served black-market fugu to my guests, the neurotoxin stinging sweetly on my lips as I waited to see if I would, by eating, die,” she reminisces. “At that age I believed I knew what death was: a thrill, like brushing by a friend who might become a lover.” Zhang, whose 2020 debut novel How Much of These Hills Is Gold was longlisted for the Booker Prize, writes of the protagonist’s sense of longing: for food, intimacy, permanence, her mother. These desires are only heightened by the near-constant threat of death. Like the smog, the real-world effects of the climate crisis persist, adding a unique urgency to an already absorbing novel. 
By Christiana Bishop

[See also: Elon Musk’s death drive]

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Stay True: A Memoir by Hua Hsu, Picador, 208pp, £10.99

“This is a book about being a good friend,” Hua Hsu writes in the acknowledgements section of Stay True, his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “a term that only occasionally applies to me.” This tender and disarmingly candid rumination on friendship and on knowing one’s place in the lives of others is centred on his Berkeley university pal Ken, who in the late Nineties was murdered near their California campus. Hsu is trapped by a guilt that has followed his career into academia and as a staff writer at the New Yorker: could he have helped prevent Ken’s death?

Sensitively tracing his and Ken’s experience of growing up in the US, Hsu explores the way Asian-Americans often get marginalised in the country’s dichotomous debate on race. Yet he is careful not to ascribe racial motivations to his friend’s death; Ken was simply a victim of the general violence eroding the heart of America. Though Hsu never fully confronts the politics of social instability, his memoir nevertheless reminds us that our path through life is defined not by its threats, but by human intimacy.
By Barney Horner

The Lights by Ben Lerner, Granta, 128pp, £12.99

Poetry was the first literary love of Ben Lerner, the American author now best known for his novels (Leaving the Atocha Station, The Topeka School). Yet he is aware of the form’s decreasing popularity, as he set out in The Hatred of Poetry, his defence of the art. He seems to gesture towards this context in the opening poem of The Lights, his first collection for over a decade. Why would Lerner, a celebrated novelist and recipient of Fulbright, Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships, turn back to the comparatively maligned form? “How pretentious/to be alive now,/let alone again/like poetry and poems/indexed by/cadences falling about us while/parting,” he writes in “Index of Themes”.

The rest of the collection makes clear Lerner’s continued fascination with verse forms, as he writes with overlapping and contradictory timescales, moving quickly between the intimate (“Tonight I’ll shave”) and the public (“A kind of mock vampirism is spreading fast among America’s teens”), his juxtapositions heightened by the poems’ spatial restraints. In comparison, the block text of his nine prose poems, which are scattered throughout, feels weak. It is Lerner’s exacting word placement, most evident in his free verse, that produces this collection’s most potent moments.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: Bernie Taupin: good lyricist, bad writer]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers