Books you need to read this September

BY James Walton

5th Sep 2023 Culture

3 min read

Books you need to read this September
Anne Enright explores the dynamics of a fraught mother-daughter relationship, and Jacques Peretti pulls back the curtain on reality TV

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright (Cape, £18.99)

The Wren, The Wren
Maybe it’s just because I’m a bloke—although I like to think it isn’t—but one type of novel I’ve begun to find a bit tiresome is the type whose essential message is that women are great. Not (of course!) that this is a message I disagree with. The trouble is that such novels generally feel not just predictable but strangely needy, as if they’re almost begging for reassurance.  
It was, then, with some dismay that I read on the jacket that the new novel by Anne Enright—one of Ireland’s best living authors—is “a testament to the glorious resilience of women”. Surely she too hadn’t gone for something so banal? Well, as luck would have it, I needn’t have worried, because the book itself is far richer and more interesting than that. 
The first section is narrated by Nell, who’s drifting through Dublin and her early twenties in a haze of booze, unsatisfying jobs and dodgy flats. She also has a troubled relationship with her mother Carmel, based on a mutual combination of love and exasperation, which the book captures in a beautifully matter-of fact, even semi-amused tone. The same applies to a smitten Nell’s on-off romance with the obviously unsuitable Felim. 
"Enright traces the resulting damage with clear-eyed skill and the odd touch of anger"
We then move to a section about Carmel’s early life that goes quite a long way to explaining how both women have ended up as they have—which on the whole is seeking male approval while wishing they didn’t. At the heart of this dilemma is Carmel’s late father Phil, a successful poet whose fame and charisma apparently allowed him to get away with doing whatever the heck he liked. 
Enright traces the resulting damage with clear-eyed skill and the odd touch of anger, but mainly with a rueful wisdom that’s accepting of Carmel and Nell’s frailties, although never so sentimental as to make either of them entirely blameless—or to underplay the damage they cause in their turn.  
By the end, the two do come to a hesitant and touching accommodation with each other. Even so, to describe this subtle and unsparing novel as a “testament to the glorious resilience of women” you really would have to be a blurb writer.
The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright is published by Cape at £18.99

Edge of Reality by Jacques Peretti (DK, £20)

Edge of Reality cover
Like many of us, Jacques Peretti finds reality TV hard to resist. But, as this distinctly alarming book makes clear, that’s part of the problem. At heart, we may know that everything we’re seeing has been carefully constructed for our entertainment and/or titillation. Yet we’re still willing to buy into the idea that the makers have simply pointed their cameras at things that would have happened anyway.  
So, you might be thinking, where’s the harm? Or at least you might be before you read on—because, for all his professed fandom, Peretti certainly doesn’t spare us the business’s ugly side. Reality TV, he says, has led to around 40 suicides and left scores of people with serious mental-health problems.  
The book brings us several of these stories. Nonetheless, what’s perhaps more horrifying still is how foreseeable the damage is, given the way the makers behave.  
"Peretti certainly doesn’t spare us the business’s ugly side"
Most of the shows do employ psychologists and even private detectives to find out about the participants. Often, though, this is not so as to protect them—but to spice up what takes place on screen. According to Peretti, “putting the violent with those recovering from violence, people who’ve been abused with the abusive” are not “failings of reality TV”. Instead, they’re part of the business model. After all, “conflict means more viewers and more viewers means more money”.  
Not that the participants, especially the celebrity ones, are always innocents. Here, for example, is the backstory of Keeping Up with the Kardashians—when Mrs K realised her daughter Kim was making an impact as Paris Hilton’s assistant on another reality show, The Simple Life. Noting the success of The Osbournes, she then contacted TV producer Ryan Seacrest…
“The Kardashians were already part of Hollywood royalty: very rich, albeit practically unknown to the public. Kris Kardashian was Kim’s mother but, like Sharon Osbourne, the real power behind the family throne. A ‘momager’. She spotted a business opportunity for the whole family in the fascination generated by Kim in The Simple Life. So Kris pitched the idea of her entire family as a show to Ryan Seacrest.  
Watching the trailer for season one of Keeping Up with the Kardashians now, it’s cute. The family is waiting to take part in a photo shoot, with kooky music introducing the characters you’re going to come to love…and love to hate. Khloe, who looks tough; Kourtney, who’s a bit annoying; Caitlyn, hanging around sweetly in the background, looking bemused; two teen sisters called Kylie and Kendall making gang signs a little inappropriately; a bloke called Rob, who looks clueless; Kris, of course (the all-powerful matriarch). And then a cry from the group for the one daughter who hasn’t even bothered to turn up: ‘Where’s Kim!?’ (Kim, it will transpire, is always late.) It’s clear from the very start that Kim is the star.  
Ryan Seacrest has set himself a challenge: take a family that, essentially, no one outside Beverly Hills has heard of, and turn them into the most famous family on earth. Then make their most on-brand daughter—Kim—a template for all successful businesswomen.  
But there was a problem: no one wanted it. ‘Who’d care about Keeping Up with the Kardashians?’ network heads asked. The show had nothing to mark out this particular rich family from the sea of other celebrity-led reality shows spreading across our channels. Sure, they’d be nice, go designer shopping on Rodeo Drive, bicker occasionally round the pool and make up. It was all a bit meh.  
"Nothing sells like a scandal"
Then comes the breakthrough. The thing that makes the show huge. A watershed reality-TV moment that, depending on your viewpoint, is either a grand conspiracy of JFK grassy-knoll proportions, ushering in a cynical age of ‘post-truth’, or simply a clever homage to that age-old Hollywood adage: nothing sells like a scandal. A 2003 sex tape of Kim with her then-boyfriend Ray J mysteriously resurfaces in 2007 at the very moment the future of Keeping Up with the Kardashians hangs in the balance.  
The timing of this unearthing of this bombshell is either: a) the result of tenacious muck-raking by journalists or b) something more sinister and calculated. Kim’s ex-boyfriend Ray J says that Kris Kardashian, Kim’s mother, leaked the sex tape of her own daughter to get Keeping Up with the Kardashians the publicity it craved to become a hit. 
Did she? We will never know. But one outcome of the global publicity the sex tape generated was for sure: Keeping Up with the Kardashians was suddenly the show to watch, and Kim our new idol. No longer Paris Hilton’s assistant, her and her immaculate hair broke the internet every time she posted a selfie.” 
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