1000 years of joys and sorrows: a memoir by Ai Weiwei
Bodley Head, 400pp, Â£ 25
The birth of the artist Ai Weiwei marks the beginning of his family’s misfortunes. It was 1957, the year Chairman Mao began his purge of “dissident” intellectuals in the anti-right campaign, and Ai’s father – a poet, revolutionary and Communist Party insider – found himself on the wrong side of his boss. He was exiled to the northern Chinese hinterland for “remodeling” through forced labor, before being banished again for five years in 1967, this time with his young son, who watched him clean up. the latrines in the freezing cold.
To say it was a training period for Ai would be an understatement: such events don’t train as long as they put a man in shape. But Ai resisted compliance. His memoir chronicles not only his life as a troublemaker artist, but also that of his father – a parallel story in which two men, decades apart, hone their craft in the West and return home to a regime that makes them feel better. intimidates them, then jails them. Ai may seem more interested in his father’s experience than his own: descriptions of his personal life are strangely impersonal, and his art is discussed as if it were from a distance. But of course Ai’s story is remarkable and her project is a powerful manifesto-memory. Greeting his father, Ai raises two fingers to the state.
By Katherine Cowles
Ah Guillaume! by Elizabeth Strout
Viking, 256 pages, Â£ 14.99
âIt’s Lucie. Lucy comes from nothing âis how Catherine, Lucy Barton’s mother-in-law, introduced her to friends. Such simple but deep heartache – declarative statements, no desire to cover up the facts – abound in Elizabeth Strout’s inimitable novels about Lucy Barton. In Ah Guillaume!, the third in the series, our narrator Lucy – herself an author – looks back on her marriage to her first titular husband. Her second husband recently passed away; William has problems in his third marriage; the couple’s two daughters start a family themselves.
Lucy, now 63, understands that life changes, but she remains haunted by the truths of her upbringing: her childhood in a poor Illinois town, her abusive parents, her relentless loneliness. A revelation about William’s family tree reunites the couple for a trip to Maine. The journey questions the importance of legacy and memory, but it’s Lucy’s deep observations that we read for. Why do some people move us, while others overtake us? Who do I have an impact on in my life? Who, when this is all over, will remember me?
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
[See also: Patricia Highsmithâs many vices]
The Magician of Colm TÃ³ibÃn
Viking, 448 pages, Â£ 18.99
Content from our partners
The Magician is the second book in which the Irish novelist Colm TÃ³ibÃn reinvents the life of a great literary man. His Booker-nominated 2004 book The Master centered around Henry James, and this latest book is about a man with whom James has a lot in common. Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning author (among others) of Doctor Faustus, was born in Germany in 1875. He and James both had brothers who were also authors; both wrote about homosexuality without ever revealing their apparent – and both had a penchant for overly long sentences.
Their style contrasts sharply with that of TÃ³ibÃn, whose prose is simple and cool, demanding and unpretentious, and at times comical in an easy and uneducated way. The magician follows Mann through his upbringing – his mother’s widowhood and the family’s move from calm LÃ¼beck to bohemian Munich – marriage and fatherhood, exile, the suicides that marked his family and his suppressed desire. It is also the story of Germany, its unification, the First World War, the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s Reich; an intensely private portrait of a public figure who lived through a moment in history that shaped the world.
By Pippa Bailey
The Ritual Animal: Imitation and Cohesion in the Evolution of Social Complexity by Harvey Whitehouse
Oxford University Press, 256 pages, Â£ 25
We are the only animal, says anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, to perform rituals – funeral rites, for example, or memorial services – that provide no immediate physical benefit like food or warmth. In his book, he examines sources ranging from group psychology and evolution to studies of child development to explain why rituals are nonetheless vital. It shows too many âritual codesâ and how they can vary in intensity: unpleasant initiation rites, like in the military or sport, bind small groups tightly, while less extreme rituals, like community prayer, have less motivating force.
Whitehouse himself is a devotee of the ritual, and his book is written in the often barbaric language of his tribe – specialized academia. It is a shame because its decryption of our common history and the transmission of the genuflections that bind families, promote fairness and promote loyalty are full of fascination. The same is true of his ideas on how rituals and our respect for them could be used as tools to tackle many ills, such as global warming and ideological extremism.
By Michael Prodger
[See also: Olga Tokarczukâs The Books of Jacob: an epic that sinks under the weight of facts]