Just last weekend, the British novelist Howard Jacobson was lamenting that he wasn’t being taken seriously. “There is a fear of comedy in the novel today,” he wrote the Guardian Saturday Review. “When did you last see the word ‘funny’ on the jacket of a serious novel?”
It’s the story of three old school friends who grapple with love, loss, and what it means to be Jewish in Britain — themes that are staples of Jacobson’s work. The Guardian calls the novel “laugh-out-loud exploration of Jewishness” and notes that it’s the first “unashamedly comic novel” to win in the 42-year history of the prize.
We’ve been lucky to have Jacobson on the show twice — he’s a fantastic talker, thoughtful and seriously funny too. In 2007, he read from Kalooki Nights (which was previously longlisted for the Booker Prize). And for our American Icons episode all about Superman, we asked Jacobson for his take on the caped crusader’s Jewish origins. Among his observations: “Krypton is like an ideal Jewish suburb. All the men are highly scientific and cerebral. An all the women are good-looking and motherly, but care mainly about whether their boys do well at school.”
When guests come into Studio 360 and get settled, I tend to have a bit of friendly small talk with them before we start the Official Interview. But as Jonathan Franzen and I chit-chatted earlier this week as we prepared to talk about his terrific new novel Freedom, one bit of that talk wasn’t so small. When I passingly, joshingly used the verb phrase “to man up,” it struck a nerve.
Momus (a Scotsman born Nick Currie) has a reputation as music’s darkest singer-songwriter, but his novel takes dark to another level. In The Book of Jokes, all jokes — obscene, cruel, etc. — actually happen, and they happen to one poor family. The beleaguered narrator, escaping his sexually predatory father, ends up on a picaresque accompanied by the Murderer and the Molester. This book is not for everyone, and it’s not even funny. But you’ve never read anything like it, and you might find yourself wondering at some of the jokes you’ve laughed at yourself.
Four twenty-something women (and their lone male buddy, good-looking but a loser) navigate careers and relationships in the hippest precincts of New York. But let’s be clear: Smith Rakoff’s novel is not Carrie Bradshaw territory. Instead, it’s an homage, 70 years later, to Mary McCarthy’s satirical novel The Group. The social satire is wicked, Smith Rakoff’s observations sharper than tacks; she registers shifts of inflection and emotion that are nearly imperceptible. But hovering over the novel is the tragic sensibility of Edith Wharton, whose weighing of the costs of our decisions is scrupulous and fearsome.
A vacationing British couple ventures outside the walls of their luxury resort. There, on a Nigerian beach, they run into Little Bee, a young girl fleeing a gang of brutal soldiers. The fallout of that encounter fuels the remainder of the novel. Readers will recognize their own human nature, for good or ill, in the finely rendered characters of Cleave, a British journalist. It’s just out in paperback.
This gorgeously written novel tracks young history professor Patsy MacLemoore through her alcoholic blackouts, vehicular homicide, prison sentence, and rehabilitation. Don’t let the grim subject matter turn you away. The story’s exploration of responsibility, punishment, and the ways our self-perceptions determine our behavior is authentic and searing.