Hot Reads

06.17.13

This Week’s Hot Reads: June 17, 2013

From a 1980s literary superstar’s return to a study of American trailblazers with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

The House of Mourning and Other Stories
By Desmond Hogan
A reclusive writer returns with a short-story collection of lost loves and opportunities.

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“The House of Mourning and Other Stories.” By Desmond Hogan. $15; Dalkey Archive Press; 240 pages. ()

Back in the 1980s, Desmond Hogan was a writer to watch, one of those figures who could light up a London literary party just by showing up. The following decade, though, he fell completely out of sight—even his close friends couldn’t track him down. Today, his name elicits blank stares more than anything else, but the Irish author is back with a short-story collection that seeks to restore his place among the likes of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, and Kazuo Ishiguro. In form, the stories range from impressionistic to fairly linear. In content, they deal in lost loves, lost opportunities, and the ambivalence inspired by a difficult childhood. Protagonists often remember a brief relationship that lingers still, decades later. In the title story, a murdered boy is remembered through a series of flashbacklike sketches. Here, Hogan shows an eerie knack for placing pop-culture references in places where they shouldn’t belong, but do. Collectively, the stories evoke an Ireland that disappoints even as it captivates, as gloomy and inscrutable as the author who conceived them.

—Sarah Stodola 

On the Floor
By Aifric Campbell
Longlisted for the Orange Prize, a novel inspired by the author’s work on the floor of the London Stock Exchange.

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“On the Floor.” By Aifric Campbell. $26; Picador; 256 pages. ()

These days it can be inadvisable to sympathize with those “masters of the universe” running roughshod over the world’s capital markets, and part of what makes Irish author Aifric Campbell’s third novel (the first published in the U.S.) work is her refusal to pity her characters, who toil precipitously in the financial worlds of London and Hong Kong as the 1980s recede into history. Her biography is worth mentioning: Campbell became the first female managing director on the floor of the London Stock Exchange while at Morgan Stanley in the ’90s. The distinction came two weeks after her first child was born and three months before a nervous breakdown ended her finance career. Likewise, On the Floor’s protagonist is a high-flying banker named Geri, who has thrived in London’s boys’ club ever since the enigmatic hedge-fund manager Felix Man chose her as his dealmaker. The honor, though, has become a burden. Felix is demanding she move to Hong Kong at the same time her faltering personal life (recently dumped, unable to get over it, drinking to forget) overwhelms her previously methodical mind. Campbell’s tough-talking, irreverent prose engenders an updated take on the Wall Street morality tale.

—S.S.

Electrico W
By Herve Le Tellier 
A French journalist tries to keep his photographer away from a woman he loves.

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“Electrico W.” By Herve Le Tellier. $15; Other Press; 272 pages. ()

The matter-of-fact prose through which Herve Le Tellier tells this multilayered story of unrequited love might deceive the reader at first into thinking this will be a straightforward novel. It isn’t. A French journalist named Vincent moves to Lisbon to escape the source of his broken heart, a woman named Irene. There, he accepts an assignment covering a murder trial, only to find that his photographer, Antonio, has taken up with Irene. At the same time, he learns that Antonio still pines for the first love of his life, a girl nicknamed Duck, who disappeared after becoming pregnant when they were teenagers. To draw Antonio away from Irene, Vincent decides to track down Duck. From there, the desires of each character entangle, leaving all of them unsatisfied. It’s the kind of story that seems to always be set in Europe, told with an earnestness that we see less and less of in novels in America. Le Tellier might remind readers of Robert Bolaño; both feature a poetic melancholy and characters that understand the world through the prism of literature.

—S.S.

America’s Obsessives
By Joshua Kendall 
Some of our nation’s trailblazers had obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

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“America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation.” By Joshua Kendall. $27; Grand Central Publishing; 304 pages. ()

Journalist Joshua Kendall has plucked seven trailblazers from American entrepreneurial and innovative lore, connected by not only their towering successes but also their obsessive-compulsive tendencies. His takeaway is that obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, rather than hindering efforts, can be just the thing to propel people to greatness. (OCPD is not to be confused with the more widely known obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, which is distinguished from OCPD primarily by being an unwelcome condition instead of a great motivator.) While everyone’s favorite contemporary obsessive, Steve Jobs, peppers the book, Kendall curiously declines to devote a chapter to him, choosing instead individuals born earlier, from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Heinz to Charles Lindbergh to Estée Lauder. Kendall has been thorough in his research, tracking down long-lost anecdotes that drive home the point: Lauder’s childhood task of assisting her mother with her beauty regimen, for example, which translated into an adult compulsion to enhance the face of every woman she came across; or Heinz’s need to quantify everything, from the steps leading to a cathedral to his own weight on a daily basis, which led to the creation of carefully calculated condiments ready-made for mass production.

—S.S.

Turtle Diary
By Russell Hoban
Two people yearning for company set out to free turtles from captivity in the London Zoo.

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“Turtle Diary.” By Russell Hoban. $15; NYRB Classics; 208 pages. ()

Every bit the lost classic described on the jacket, the story is simple enough on the surface: man meets woman; man and woman like each other; man and woman set out to free turtles from captivity in the London Zoo. Sunny days are hard for Neaera H., a children’s-book writer who has a healthy loathing for the genre. William G., a divorced bookstore clerk, doesn't feel alive unless he's smoking. They both yearn for company, but desperately require privacy, and their grumblings are wonderful to read as these characters are receptive to the world in ways that make you fall a little bit in love with them. Neaera, for example, is the sort of woman who is interested in her taxi driver's Jehovah’s Witness spiel; she truly wants to know the significance of the year 1975. William is the kind of man who tries to notice what his neighbors cook in his rooming house’s spare kitchen—is it kelp or some kind of octopus? All of this makes them perfect for one another. Theirs is a romance built on the rare feeling of being understood completely. They worry together, for each other. “There's not enough of me for that,” Neaera says early in their friendship. “I have no self to spare.” But she does, and it's exciting to see the two of them open up and stretch. You become giddy with hope for people who have lost it.

—Jen Vafidis