A Bookshop in Algiers by Kaouther Adimi (Serpent Books), £12.99.
Somewhere on Rue Charras – now Rue Hasani in Algiers – is a building that was home to Les Vraies Richesses, a bookshop opened by Edmond Charlot in 1936. It was the twenty-year-old Charlot who discovered Albert Camus, going on to print and publish his first works and many more greats of the 20th century. Les Vraies Richesses – or True Wealth – soon became the heartbeat of Algeria’s cultural life. And after the outbreak of the Second World War, Charlot helped the Free French dissidents based in Algiers publish literature against the Vichy regime in France. Later, after Charlot’s death, the bookshop became part of the Algerian government’s national lending scheme, before it was closed down.
All this is fact. But then along comes Kaouther Adimi, a young Algerian writer, who spins a fictional world around Charlot and his four by seven-metre shop. She brings Ryad, a lazy university student from Paris, back to Algiers to empty the shop of books because a family friend wants to turn it into a place selling beignets- the very sugary Algerian equivalent of a doughnut. Ryad is scared of books and doesn’t like to read, but eventually – helped by the presence of Abdallah who used to run the shop after it became a library – he begins to understand their power. A fable for our times.
Adimi’s writing is exceptional, beautifully terse yet plump with emotion and an understanding of the complexities of Algerian society beyond her years. It’s her third novel, one which sold more than 50,000 copies when published in 2017. Not surprisingly, it was nominated for the Prix Goncourt and Medicis and won the Prix Renault des Lycéens and the Prix du Style. It’s her only novel to be translated into English but it won’t be the last.
William Blake vs The World by John Higgs (Orion), £20.
“Shall I call him Artist or Genius – or Mystic or Madman?” Henry Crabb Robinson once asked himself after meeting William Blake at a dinner party in 1825. In John Higgs’s latest book, William Blake vs The World – the writer and cultural historian – asks himself the very same question – who exactly was William Blake? How did he go from being seen as a “madman first, artist second” to a globally recognised genius and a symbolic figurehead for English identity?
To find out, Higgs traces the life of the poet, artist, visionary and author of the unofficial English anthem ‘Jerusalem’ from his birth in 1757 to his “most glorious” death in 1827. As we soon learn, the rationale behind the ‘vs‘ in Higgs’s title is that Blake found it difficult to respond to the challenges of contemporary life and often found himself at odds with a world that – despite his unwavering commitment to his spirituality – only gave him ridicule and poverty in return. As Higgs notes, you can’t help but wonder what Blake would make of the 5* reviewed Tate Britain exhibition that showcased him and his works in all their glory- everyone seems to be convinced of his genius now, but why not then?
In the book, Higgs explains how Blake’s visions – from seeing trees filled with angels in Peckham Rye to seeing a procession of ghostly monks in Westminster Abbey – informed his attitude to sex, politics, religion, society and art. To put his eccentricities into a contemporary context, Higgs explains Blake’s mind and beliefs through references from interesting angles of modern neuroscience, quantum physics and comparative religion. However, the book’s greatest strength is how Higgs tackles some of the common misconceptions surrounding the visionary. For instance, Blake was never really a proper Romantic; yes, he had Coleridge-like beliefs about the importance of imagination, but his thoughts of nature were incompatible with that of Wordsworth’s.
As Higgs rightly concludes, as much as history tries to categorise and label Blake as a feminist, transgender, a drug user, a pagan, a Daoist, a sexist, a feminist, a genius, a lunatic; there is no point. He was a trailblazer that could not be – and should not be – pigeon-holed.
Sentient: What Animals Reveal About Our Senses by Jackie Higgins (Pan Macmillan), £20.
This book is not to be mistaken for light bedtime reading. The best accompaniment to Jackie Higgins’ Sentient: What Animals Reveal About Our Senses is oodles of time and Google search within reach. Higgins’ Sentient brings together a wide collection of zoological creatures, coming from land, air, sea and all across the world. All of whom help answer one question: what does it mean to be human?
Higgins quickly outlines that the definition of sentient has been debated for as long as the term has been used to describe humans. Deriving from the Latin sentire (to feel), she writes how philosopher Daniel Dennet playfully suggested that as there was no established meaning, people were free to adopt one of their own choosing; academics certainly didn’t need to be told twice. But now, Higgins takes this further and asks what animals can reveal about our senses and about human sentience.
The Goliath catfish, the most diverse and ancient fish in the world, for example, and its amino acid-fueled taste buds can teach us about humans’ ability to feel pain. Back on land, the cheetah can teach Usain Bolt a thing or two about speed and balance. Higgins’ book is educational, ground-breaking and meticulously well-researched. Her concluding remarks are that “a brave new world of sentience awaits,” for readers daring enough to pick up a copy, the new world begins.