Books of the week January 19, 2019

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Best books I never wrote: David Cohen

Gorski, by Vesna Goldworthy
Ten years ago I had an absolutely rotten time in London, and concluded that it might be best to give it a miss in future. One of the things that eventually got me back was this glittering work. Goldworthy’s super-elegant novel loosely reinvents The Great Gatsby by populating it with Russian oligarchs, antiquarian art and what love can and cannot buy in the British capital. What’s more, just as a reminder that the city is a magnet for smarties, the relocated Serbian author just happens to be writing in her third language.

Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Another pleasure of being back in London recently was checking out one of Ottolenghi’s namesake restaurants, whose deserved success owes much to this seductive work: part cookbook, part travel guide, part wishful thinking.

Collected Essays, by George Orwell
When I was a teenager, I used to write some of them out in longhand just to see how it was done.

Alys, Always, by Harriet Lane
Among the pleasures of this unsettling domestic thriller is the skill with which the author, a former Guardian writer, has managed to create an utterly believable media type as its central character. Lane’s casting of a memorably manipulative subeditor is a work of genius – and immensely satisfying to encounter for those of us in the same business.

Waiting For God, by Simone Weil
In France, Weil is widely considered a genius for her fiercely intellectual writing on religion and philosophy – all of which has appeared posthumously following her self-inflicted death at age 34 – but what makes her work equally memorable is the equally fierce originality of her written voice.

The Counterlife, by Philip Roth
Over the past year, I have been working on a short book about how one rather obscure Cohen (that would be me) gets to live a life to the backbeat of a somewhat better known Cohen (that would be Leonard). On the occasional morning when I felt bleary and the words didn’t seem to come, this is where I would often go to blow out the cobwebs. The Counterlife is a savagely funny, surreal romp through New Jersey, England, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Talk about intricate. Not only is it one of the best books I never wrote, it’s one of the best books that I ever read – and it’s a richly inspiring lesson in writing well, too.

Cohen on Cohen. David, the Kiwi author, has written about his life in the shadow of a rather more famous namesake, Leonard.

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Cohen on Cohen. David, the Kiwi author, has written about his life in the shadow of a rather more famous namesake, Leonard.

David Cohen is a Wellington author. His latest work, Book of Cohen (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, $29.99), is out in early February 2019. 

READ MORE:
* Books of the week January 12, 2019
Books of the week December 29, 2018
Books of the weeks December 22, 2018

This collection of stunning writing reminds us that, actually, it is that bad.

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This collection of stunning writing reminds us that, actually, it is that bad.

Not That  Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (Allen & Unwin) $29.99

In late 2017, the hashtag #MeToo started dominating social media, and we women discovered we had a new job.

First, we had to sift through our personal experiences and pick out a particularly traumatic one. Then we had to neatly package it up and present it to the public as an educational tool. Then we had to be available 24/7 to discuss said experience, with watertight rebuttals ready for anyone who challenged its validity. At the same time, we had to read everyone else’s stories, think pieces and public apologies, and dole out empathy, condemnation or forgiveness accordingly.

Those first few months left me profoundly exhausted. Eventually, as the headlines tapered off, I withdrew from the conversation, dipping in now and then but mostly holding all the thoughts it had stirred up at arm’s length.

Therefore, when Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture landed on my desk, I eyed it like a live explosive. I didn’t want to be immersed in rape culture (per editor Roxane Gay, “a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence”) for the length of an entire book.

But I had to review it, so I decided on a clinical approach – which lasted for about two minutes. It wouldn’t be accurate to say this book broke my heart. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t, deep down, already know. Rather, it made my heart hurt again in the places it had been broken before.

Thirty contributors, some male, most female, write here about rape culture’s impact on their lives. Their experiences fall all along what we now think of as the “spectrum” of sexual assault. I’m reluctant to use that word, because it reinforces the idea this book is trying to combat: there is a hierarchy, and if someone out there is worse off than you, you don’t get to complain. At least he didn’t rape you. If he did, at least he wasn’t rough. If he was, at least it only happened once. If it didn’t, at least you survived. It’s not that bad. But, the book insists, it is that bad, and we all deserve to be heard.

Gay could have used her considerable influence to assemble a group of celebrity contributors, which would have been great for publicity but bad for the final product. Instead, she stuck to bona fide writers (excepting actresses Gabrielle Union and Ally Sheedy, who hold their own). As a result, the writing is stunning, each story both sickeningly familiar and devastatingly specific.

“I’m writing this so it can be part of the compendium of other sad and bad stories like these,” explains contributor Nora Salem, “because maybe the compendium will say something in totality that we cannot say alone.” Here’s what Not That Bad says to me: rape culture isn’t something we can opt out of whenever we please. It’s the air we breathe. It really is that bad. – India Lopez       



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