Welcome to our weekly un-paywalled Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Art of the Extreme, Elizabeth Day’s thriller Magpie and Love Lockdown.
For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.
Art of the Extreme 1905-1914 by Phillip Hook (Profile Books), £30.
Virginia Woolf famously said that “[o]n or around December 1910, human character changed”. Woolf’s vision of modernism’s revolt against Edwardian society is not as sudden as the first part of this quotation might make it seem. She continues to say that it was not as if a “rose had flowered or a hen had laid an egg,” but the change was radical all the same.
This period of transformation – slowly, and then all at once – occupies Phillip Hook’s new book, Art of the Extreme, 1905-1914.
The author is a former director at Sotheby’s, and this book is brimming with his knowledge and tact when describing works of art, and his insights are genuinely fascinating. It is too easy to believe that on the first of December 1905, the last vestiges of the nineteenth century immediately dissolved, but Hook deftly draws attention to the more traditional work of the likes of Eugène de Blaas and Émile Vernon – alongside which Matisse and Picasso’s pieces seem even more radical.
Hook is adept at writing about the many “isms” of this period. From the boldness of Fauvism to the proto-fascism of Futurism, in his hands, these movements are less the theoretical contents of a dry art history lecture than a truly interesting framework through which to view his period of history. This moment of pre-World War One freedom, creativity, and brilliance is all too easily either left to languish between the staid Victorians and the horror of war, or over-idealised as the perfect moment of artistic freedom: Hook pays it the critical attention it deserves.
Magpie by Elizabeth Day (HarperCollins), £14.99.
It is difficult to review Elizabeth Day’s latest novel, Magpie, without giving away spoilers because the book contains so many twists and turns that if you read the first and last chapter side by side, you would hardly believe they are from the same novel. The opening premise leans on the horror trope of the mystery lodger; Marisa has been unlucky in love until she meets Jake; he is older, demure and provides her with the stability her life has so far been lacking. Things accelerate quickly, and they move in together before financial trouble leaves them in need of a lodger to help cover rent. But when Kate moves in, something about the way she looks at Jake disturbs Marisa. What takes place over the next 32 chapters is impossible to predict.
At the core of the plot is a fertility struggle. This is an issue Day has spoken about extensively in her journalism and on her successful How to Fail podcast series, and the personal experience and depth of understanding truly shows. From the “language of failure” around a woman’s inability to conceive to the numbing impact of multiple rounds of IVF, fertility treatment is covered in an informative and empathetic way. For that alone, this book should be widely read, the ambitious web of a plot is an added extra.
“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told,” so goes the old nursery rhyme. Magpie could not be a more fitting title, for this novel contains sorrow, joy and secrets aplenty.
Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex, and Marriage in America’s Prisons by Elizabeth Greenwood (Simon & Schuster), £20.
When I picked up this book, knowing only that it was an exploration of love in the context of America’s prisons, I (mistakenly) assumed it would be about how relationships survive when a couple is torn apart by the incarceration system. Whilst this is a story about love and prison, there’s a crucial difference: Elizabeth Greenwood focuses on a particular sort of prison love, telling the stories of “met while inside” (MWI) couples- i.e relationships which formed when a partner is already stuck behind bars.
MWI wives are at the bottom of the prison wife hierarchy. “Why would you choose this life?” ask other perplexed prison wives, some dismissing them as “prison groupies”. The prison groupie stereotype isn’t unfounded. Indeed, serial killer Ted Bundy, with a body count of at least thirty people, boasted scores of women at his trial, revelling in his dark celebrity. “The higher the profile of the criminal, the more Heloises to the Abelard,” Greenwood notes.
This book, however, focuses on five women who don’t fit this stereotype: one is a trans woman actually serving time with her partner in a male facility, others met their partner through prison pen pal sites and one, a former editor at The New York Times, met her other half while volunteering for her church’s prison ministry. Greenwood paints a compassionate and complex portrait of all of these couples, who formed relationships in an environment that is, “by design, meant to keep love out.”
“Why pursue a relationship with someone who is, at least physically, unavailable?” she asks. In answer, she questions the very nature of human connection and what constitutes a meaningful, intimate relationship.