Joe Moran, On Roads: a Hidden History (2009)

I’ve long been interested in social and cultural history, and there will always be a place on my shelves for books that illuminate the more unusual corners of history. On Roads is just such a book.

The British road system in the post-war years may not sound a particularly interesting subject for a work of history, but this is part of Moran’s point – roads are so commonplace that we hardly ever stop to think about them. What Moran suggests, however, is that the road system was a far more pragmatic creation than we might assume, and that the Brits’ relationship with their roads has, from the earliest days of the motorway, been an ambivalent one.

The sheer range of topics that Moran covers is remarkable, from road signs to service stations, caravans to roadside ecology. But, more than this, he tells fascinating stories (I had no idea that the design of British road signs had been so controversial) and makes some astute observations (such as that the image of the straight road has traditionally represented ‘cold modernity’ in England, whereas in America it’s a symbol of freedom and escape). On Roads takes an ostensibly ordinary topic and turns it into a rich and worthwhile book.

Link: Joe Moran’s blog

Johan Harstad, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? (2005/11)

Stavanger, Norway, 1999: Mattias is a gardener, perfectly content with his lot. Born on the day of the first moon landing, Mattias’ hero is not first-man-on-the-moon Neil Armstrong but runner-up Buzz Aldrin: willing to cede the glory, willing to be the second man. That’s what Mattias is happy to be – a cog in the machine, unconcerned whether others notice him.

But life won’t stand still and, when Mattias’ partner leaves him and his employer goes out of business, he accepts an invitation to go to the Faroe Islands with his friend Jørn’s band. However, instead of acting as the band’s soundman (or, as Jørn wanted, their singer), Mattias falls in with a psychiatrist named Havstein and the three inhabitants of his institution for those not quite ready to live independently – and now Mattias’ life is set to change.

Johan Harstad’s debut (translated by Deborah Dawkin) is a big, baggy novel which is unusually structured insofar as the narrative beats are not quite where one might expect them to be – but this gives the novel a distinctive flow. The story is told so thoroughly from Mattias’ vantage point that it distorts the very shape of what we learn; we gain only brief, distant glimpses of the other Mattias, the one who (for good or ill) is no quiet mediocrity.

There may be times when the prose drags, but some of the best moments are also the most densely written; overall, Harstad paints an interesting portrait of a man whose life is ordinary and remarkable all at once.

This review first appeared in We Love This Book.

Link: Video interview with Johan Harstad

Marius Brill, How to Forget (2011)

Magician Peter Ruchio was humiliated, and his career derailed, by a prank played by Titus Black at the latter’s eighth birthday party; fifteen years later, Black has grown up to be a famous illusionist (though he is not above committing murder to preserve his secrets), whilst Peter is performing tricks in restaurants and old people’s homes. A chance encounter with Kate Minola, a grifter on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, gives Peter the opportunity to take his revenge on Black; but his experiences ultimately lead  Peter to seek the help of Dr Chris Tavasligh, a neuroscientist working on a way to ‘reboot’ the human brain, thereby erasing all memories. That was three years ago, and Tavasligh subsequently disappeared; the book in our hands purports to be the scientist’s collected papers.

As befits a novel about a magician, How to Forget is full of misdirection; one is never quite sure which way the characters will turn, who can be trusted – and there’s a sense at the end that the real story is not the one we thought it was (the allusions to The Taming of the Shrew in the protagonists’ names serve, as far as I can tell, to highlight the idea of a story within a story). Not everything in the book works so well: the larger-than-life tone and occasional comic interludes tend to rub against the more serious episodes, rather than working with them; and it seems to me that Brill’s material on memory doesn’t quite integrate successfully with the plot. Better is the author’s comparison of Peter’s and Kate’s professions, which leads them to face up to some difficult questions; and the caper narrative has all the page-turning tension and momentum one could wish.

Link: Marius Brill’s website