Two Books Tipped for Prizes

I seldom follow closely the longlisted or even shortlisted books for any of the International Literary Prizes. I might pick up a winner if it sounds interesting to me anyway, or I might pick up the one that other people think should have won (or been shortlisted). However, there is one advantage with shortlisted titles (at least for the UK) – they raise the profile of the author and usually make it to the shelves of my local library.

That is where I found Fiona Mozley’s Elmet and I can see I’m only the fourth person to borrow it, with the other three all taking it out around the time of the Man Booker Prize 2017 announcement. This is a shame, because it is a beautifully written book, which deserves a wider readership. But it will never be popular – the subject is too grim, the pace is too slow. Above all, it contradicts the established canon of British nature writing as a nostalgic retreat into a rural fairyland. Nature as fond mother cradling and redeeming the sinners (sorry, Amy Liptrot) or close observation of natural phenomenon as if to document its universal appeal (Melissa Harrison, whose work I enjoy a lot). Mozley writes sensitively about the tranquility and beauty of the countryside, but this is a landscape under siege from the brutality of developers, large-scale farmers, supermarkets and progress more generally.

This is unvarnished countryside, with rough and unlikable people being shaped by it. Daniel, his sister Cathy and their father are outsiders and rather disturbingly eccentric, to be perfectly frank. They do not automatically become good people because they co-exist harmoniously with nature. This is the view of the countryside that my peasant family would recognise: a hard, unforgiving life. Nature is not all nice and pretty-pretty, something to be admired and set aside when we’ve had enough of it. Land has been (and still is) the thing most fought over, as countless wars testify.

Let me share two contrasting passages with you, both from the beginning of the book, but at different moments of time. Before and after the rape of the land, if you will:

We arrived in summer when the landscape was in full bloom and the days were long and hot and the light was soft. I roamed shirtless and sweated cleanly and enjoyed the hug of the thick air. In those months I picked up freckles on my bony shoulders and the sun set slowly and the evenings were pewter before they were black, before the mornings seeped through again. Rabbits gambolled in the fields and when we were lucky, when the wind was still and a veil settled on the hills, we saw a hare.

The long, run-on sentences and lack of punctuation mimic the unity of human and nature, of the family who has arrived in these places, as well as the lazy, hazy summer days. Contrast that with:

I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear those voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through the wood. And the lick of the flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste.

How fragmented, spiky, rough those short, sharp phrases are now! It is the pant of someone enraged, scared and running away. Leaving nothing behind. It reminded me somewhat of Fiona Melrose’s book Midwinter (and not just because the authors share a first name) – the same timeless quality to the prose and the story. The main characters exist on a different, unrushed timescale to the rest of us – the rhythm of nature perhaps – until they are forced to submit to our cruel contemporary world.

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has recently been shortlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize and is therefore more readily available. When I first heard of it from Naomi Frizby’s blog, it was much harder to get hold of it and I had to order it from abroad. I was fascinated by the (somewhat autobiographical) premise: a well-educated woman who wants to become a writer is trapped in an unhappy and violent marriage with a well-educated but very controlling professor. I suppose I sought out the book for parallels to my own life, although I never experienced physical violence. Yet it is much more than a simple account on a topic which is still somewhat taboo (particularly in India, I would imagine). If it had been just a straightforward memoir of domestic violence, I might have avoided it, as the topic is too painful.

The scenes of violence are certainly difficult to read, but this book is also about trying to emerge as a creator when you feel you are having all creativity thrashed out of you. The narrator is reframing and taking back control of her story after months of feeling powerless, that agency had been taken away from her. And she does so in fun, experimental ways, making lists, bringing in quotes, finding a soundtrack and becoming the director of the film of her life.

And cut! I am the wife playing the role of an actress playing out the role of a dutiful wife watching my husband pretend to be the hero of the everyday. I play the role with flair. The longer I stretch the act of the happily married couple, the more I dodge his anger. It’s not a test of talent alone. My life depends upon it.

It’s not just the acting that I have to consider, though. I’m responsible for the whole, flattened film that has become my life. I think of camera angles.  think of how I should preserve the intricacies of the set. I must manage to capture what it means for a once-nomad to be confined to the four walls of a house. I must figure out a way to show on screen how even a small space of confinement begins to grow in the mind of the woman who inhabits it with her sorrows, how the walk from the bedroom to the door of the house becomes a Herculean task, or how the thought of checking on the slow-cooking chicken Chettinad curry when she is busy reading a book becomes an impossible chore.

I’m now curious to see what else both of these authors have written or are going to write. They certainly fill my heart with hope that the future of feminine writing is in good hands.

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April Has Ended: Reading Summary

12 books, 8 countries, 5 women writers, 4 translated books – that is the summary for April 2018. It’s been a good month, with only 1 DNF (Brian Aldiss in non sci-fi mode) and no average reads at all! Perhaps I am getting better at picking books, thanks to all the great recommendations I get from your blogs.

I’ve already mentioned five thrilling crime novels that I read in a row and I had another excellent one to add to that list, although I don’t really consider it crime fiction, namely Sébastien Japrisot’s One Deadly Summer, transl. Alan Sheridan. This last one builds tension up gradually but is quite explosive in subject matter and characterisation. The textbook shifts in points of view show us how much more complex everything is than it first appears. A masterclass in slow-burn, simmering, sultry drama, like the land before a thunderstorm.

The other two books in translation I read were Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, transl. Geraldine Harcourt, and Domenico Starnone’s Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri (courtesy of Asymptote Book Club). There are some similarities between the two books: both are narrated by a reasonably self-centred person who is somehow stuck in a groove or on the brink of an abyss and is trying to find themselves again, partly with the help (sometimes with the hindrance) of a child. Of course, in Territory of Light it is a young mother on the cusp of divorce, while in Trick it is an elderly artistic grandfather. Both of these deserve a more detailed review – if I get round to it.

Two other books were at least partially set abroad, although written in English. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London still sounds uncomfortably current, while Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You sounds like it should be set in the 19th century, but is unfortunately something which can be seen in contemporary India still (and not only there). A well-educated, artistic and academic young woman is seduced by the intellect of a university professor and marries him, but gradually has all ambition, hope and trust crushed out of her through physical and mental violence. He also seeks to justify his brutality through his socialist ideology, which leads to some horrifying yet funny statements. It is a story which has been told before, but the style is original and the emotions raw. I’ve had this book for a long time, since Naomi Frisby recommended it, but it is now shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in Fiction.

The final book also deserves a more extensive review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps I will have time to do a vlog review soon for those I haven’t reviewed yet.

If you promise not to laugh, I promise to turn a new leaf in May and not leave it so long after reading a book before I review it. Also, to restart the submission game. Also, to revitalise my #EU27Project, as time is running out…

 

April #DavidBowieBookClub: George Orwell

Judging from David Bowie’s list of favourite books, I suspect he was not only a voracious reader but also very interested in issues of social justice and equality. After James Baldwin in February, April’s book club choice was Orwell’s seminal study of poverty Down and Out in Paris and London. A reread for me and one that I very much enjoyed. And yet another reason to love David Bowie.

Unlike more recent works in this area (very much worth reading too: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America or Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain), this is not a journalist going undercover to research poverty, but an actual memoir of a certain period in Orwell’s life, so more similar to Linda Turado’s memoir Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America.

Working as a dishwasher in the Parisian kitchens (the lowest of the low in the hospitality industry hierarchy) to pay his rent, often going hungry, Orwell not only shares his personal story, but also the stories, hopes and disappointments of the people he meets along the way. This compassion and empathy for others shines through in his work, even when we flinch at some of the anti-semitic terms he uses. However, reading more carefully, this appears to reflect the common attitude at the time (he quotes others making these statements, for instance the joke about ‘Trust a snake before you trust a Jew. Trust a Jew before you trust a Greek. And trust any of those before you trust an Armenian’). Perhaps he is presenting these statements as so much rope for those speaking to hang themselves with. Or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking and he was a child of his time, although far more progressive than most.

In the second part of the book, he is living in homeless shelters in London and speaking to tramps, who had previously been misrepresented in literature. Orwell doesn’t make them stock figures of fun or sentimentalise them (the tramp with the heart of gold), like Dickens is prone to do. He does not see himself as superior or more deserving in any way. He gives them dignity and respect by listening to them and by telling their stories, in clear and fresh language that doesn’t sound at all as if it were written nearly 80 years ago.

The comparisons between squalor in Paris and in London are interesting as well: there are similarities but also differences. There are jobs in Paris, but they are exploitative ones with long hours, while in London it seemed easier to end up on the street. The poor were mainly foreign-born in Paris, while the London ones were natives. Of course, that was all about to change.

It is tempting to wonder what Orwell would have written if he had been living today. And to wonder why we don’t have many journalists writing today, willing to listen, understand, write in depth. Or is it that we don’t have people willing to listen and read?

 

 

Latest Book Haul – and One Book Abandoned

Libraries and bookshops are my downfall. Despite the numerous ARCs I receive for review, I cannot resist adding to my TBR pile every time I enter one or the other building containing books. While it’s understandable that I try to save my already quite depleted wallet by going less frequently to bookshops (I’ve managed to reduce it to no more than 1-2 times a week!), I’ve recently changed my policy about library loans. I was trying to be realistic and not borrow more than I could consume in three weeks, but my local librarian told me that if a book hasn’t been on loan for a year, it gets sent down to the basement of gloom known as ‘Reserve Stacks’. After a few years of gathering mould there, they are killed off. [I’m not sure if they get given to charity shops or pulped, everyone seems coy about that.] Besides, PLR are a source of author revenue. So I now borrow books merrily, try to renew them when I can, or return them unread and borrow them later again.

What have I acquired this week?

I bought Kate Briggs’ This Little Art, a long essay about the art of translation, with many revelatory examples. All of the readers of translated literature in my timeline have been raving about this book, and as an occasional dabbler in translation myself, I had to have a personal copy, so I could underline passages of interest.

I finally acquired Sebald’s The Emigrants (transl. Michael Hulse), which (it won’t surprise those long-term readers of my blog to hear) is one of my favourite books. Exile and loss, displacement and nostalgia – yes, please! I should have got it in German of course (yes, I’m still snobbish about preferring to read books in the original where I possibly can), and I probably will at some point when I am next in Germany. The last book I got is not a translation from German but written by a German who emigrated to England. It was an impulse buy: Fred Uhlman’s Reunion. I’d vaguely heard of Uhlman, but have never read anything by him and I am always, always fascinated by stories about the personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s.

At my local library, I was pleased to find Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, which I have already devoured. The sentences and the landscape and atmosphere are so perfect, I found myself seething with envy on every page. I also picked up Marina Lewycka’s The Lubetkin Legacy, for a comedic change of pace. I’ve read one or two of her novels in the past and enjoyed the voice of the outsider gently mocking life in England. Last but not least, I got A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, because American dysfunctional families are so much weirder and deadlier and more fun to read about than European ones.

However, I’ve had to abandon one of the books I recently borrowed from the Senate House Library. I am patient and usually give books a good 50-100 page chance before reluctantly putting it aside, and normally the setting of an international conference would appeal to me. But alas, Brian Aldiss starts off his novel Life in the West far too slowly, with details which not only seem irrelevant, but also of horizontally reclining platitude. For example:

By each place was a name card, a microphone, a folder and pencil, a shining drinking glass with a sanitary paper lid, and a bottle of San Pellegrino mineral water still beaded from the refrigerator. Thomas Squire found his name looking up at him, and sat down, laying his briefcase before him… He opened his folder. In it was a ballpoint pen, clipped to a timetable of the sessions of the conference with a list of speakers. Tucked into the pocket of the folder were some foilwrapped perfumed tissues for refreshing the face and hands, and a map of the city of Ermalpa and surroundings, presented by courtesy of the local  tourist board.

As a former conference convenor, this feels to me more like a checklist for event organisers. Would you read any further? This was a serendipitous pick from the library, but hey ho, you can’t win them all.

 

Quick Reviews for April – Crime Fiction

I’ve fallen behind with my reviews for this month, so I’m going to do a bit of a brain dump here regarding the crime novels I read recently.

First of all, I was fortunate enough to read five in a row which were really good fun and page-turningly exciting. That doesn’t happen all that often, even to a huge fan of the genre. All too often I have a string of so-so, disappointing or not so memorable ones. But the following are all highly recommended and I read each one of them in 1-2 days at most (sometimes overnight). Plotting is a hugely underestimated skills – far too many disdain it as ‘potboiler’ novels, but they are actually very difficult to write. I often read books where plot is either non-existent or confused with a laundry list of events.

Zhou Haohui: Death Notice, transl. Zac Halusa  – not only a well-paced serial killer novel, but also exotic because it describes the workings of police in China (without going into politics). Inspired by American thrillers, it is full of nail-biting moments and maverick characters (yes, some may be a little two-dimensional, but the plotting and suspense will carry you through). The topic of fighting against a shadowy figure who is killing off those who deserve to be punished is also surprising, given China’s recent history. Full review will be available shortly on CFL.

Philip Kerr: Prussian Blue – Bernie Gunther back in fine fettle as a cynical, world-weary and mouthy Berliner detective, with a dual timeline. I have to admit I was more interested in the 1938 timeline in Bavaria, but Kerr is certainly the master of leaving you on a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter and then moving serenely to the other timeline. Most of the characters really did exist, although Kerr may be giving them different characteristics and motivations. The claustrophobic atmosphere and palpable fear of the Führer and his cronies is impeccably rendered here. The Cold War villains are perhaps slightly less convincing.

Catherine Ryan Howard: The Liar’s Girl – who hasn’t done something foolish as a student, loved the wrong person? For Alison Smith it gets far more serious than that, when her boyfriend Will is convicted of killing several young female students in their first year at an elite Dublin university. Alison has fled abroad and tried to put all that behind her, but when another girl is found in the Grand Canal ten years after those events, the police believe they might have a copycat killer on their hands. And so both she and Will get sucked back into the past. While there are a few predictable places, the author is One of those ‘what if’ novels that leaves you wondering just how blind love can make you.

Rebecca Bradley: Dead Blind – a standalone from Rebecca, whose series books I have mentioned before. I predict this is going to be a breakout novel for her, as it is such an interesting concept. Ray Patrick is a police detective who was injured on duty and now finds himself unable to recognise faces. He doesn’t disclose that condition to his colleagues, for fear of being kicked out. After all, he leads others rather than doing the day-to-day nitty-gritty job, so he should be all right, or so he tells himself. When his team gets involved in a police operation that targets an international trade in human organs, he witnesses a savage murder. He sees the killer’s face – but he will never remember it. Coming out in May, this is both an exciting story and poses a real dilemma around disclosure of disabilities.

Mark Edwards: The Retreat

I’m a sucker for stories about writers, and this one takes place on a writing retreat. So you have all of the funny observations of writers’ egos and intrigues, but also a really creepy house with a tragic past. At times I feared this might be veering too much into the realm of the supernatural but the main protagonist, horror writer Lucas refuses to believe in such things (ironically enough, given he makes money from scaring others). Really suspenseful. I love the fact that Mark Edwards writes standalone novels which are all different from each other and  yet play so well on our psychological quirks. He is very skilled at tackling all of the current horror and crime clichés and subverting our expectations. Full review on CFL soon.

 

 

 

 

Journey Under the Midnight Sun for #TranslationThurs

Keigo Higashino has emerged as a Japanese crime writer to whom Western audiences seem able to relate. That could be both a good and a bad thing. It means there are enough twists and moments of suspense to meet Western expectations of crime fiction, with perhaps less of the ‘coldness’ that readers often remark in Japanese fiction (which I think often has something to do with the translation and lack of context). On the other hand, it could mean that the writer is making too many concessions to appeal to someone outside their culture.

This is certainly not the case here. After the comparatively short (300 or so pages) psychological thrillers such as The Devotion of Suspect X, Malice or Salvation of a Saint, all of which seem to take place over a matter of a few days/weeks and be tightly focused on a small cast of characters, Journey Under the Midnight Sun is a sprawling epic 530 page door-stopper with a massive cast of characters over a 20+ year time frame. No concessions are made at all to the non-Japanese reader – despite the best efforts of the translator, some of the events and cultural subtleties might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with Japan to follow.

The middle-aged owner of a pawnshop in 1970s Osaka is found murdered on an abandoned building site. Detective Sasagaki discovers some promising leads, but it all ultimately leads to nothing and 20 years later he is still unable to find the perpetrator or make any arrests. In the meantime, the son of the murder victim and the daughter of the main suspect (whose guilt was never proved) grow up, move away and we see how other people wander in and out of their lives, and how that murder still has repercussions many years later.

Not quite the site, but similar in atmosphere, Abandoned Sumitomo Osaka Cement Factory, from Abandoned Kansai.

It took me a while to get into the story, and not because of the similar-sounding Japanese names (a common complaint amongst reviewers, which is a bit like saying that all Asian people look the same – in Kanji they would all be quite different and have very varied meanings). It took three days to cover the first three chapters because I couldn’t spot any connections, it somehow didn’t click – but then, when it did, when I started to suspect what was going on (a bit of it but not everything) it took me just a night to finish the rest. As you become immersed in the world Higashino creates, as you start to sympathise with the secondary characters and hope that they won’t come to harm (the author has no compulsion about preserving any of his narrators, so you never know who is going to have what fate, which adds to the sense of suspense), you just can’t stop reading. A fresco of Japanese life from 1973 to about 1992, the book can be read on many levels: enough twists and turns to satisfy a crime fiction addict, but also plenty of social commentary, psychological insight, and subtle, sly asides. It’s a crime novel that breaks all the rules – we begin to know the perpetrators quite early on, we read to see what they can get away with, yet there is always more to uncover. There is depth of pain and sadness here which is conveyed with a light touch, not at all belaboured. Yes, it’s long, but I found it quite riveting and all the details add to the carefully crafted puzzle and characterization.

I really enjoyed this – and would love to hear what someone who is not a Japan aficionado makes of it. Oh, and why the title? It comes from this quote:

We all know how sun rises and sets at a certain time each day. In the same way, all of our lives have a day and night. But it’s not set like it is with the sun. Some people walk forever in the sunlight, and some people have to walk through the darkest night their whole life. When people talk about being afraid, what they’re afraid of is that their sun will set. That the light they love will fade, that’s why they are frightened.

March 2018 Reading Summary

Another month has whizzed by and there has been quite a lot of crime reading going on, with a few unexpecteds cropping up on my planned list. 13 books, 6 of them by women writers, 6 of them crime, 5 of them foreign language books. All in all, 11 countries were visited in the course of the reading (if we consider Wales a separate country). Only one that I regretted spending time on and one DNF, but since the latter was short stories, I didn’t feel guilty about it at all.

Book igloo from Curious Mind Box.

Stuart Turton: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – ambitious, mind-boggling, unexpected

Stuart Evans: The Caves of Alienation – interesting concept, perhaps a bit long in execution, but enjoyable

Katy Mahood: Entanglement – what-if novel, love story over the years, not my cup of tea

Tom Hanks: Uncommon Type – writes better than I expected (better than Sean Penn, for sure), but the stories are slight and feel like ‘so what’. DNF

Dan Lungu: I am an old Communist Biddy – thoughtful humorous appraisal of post-Communist life, wish I could have translated it

Victor del Arbol: A Million Drops – moving saga of idealogy, betrayals and survival, set in Spain and Soviet Russia. To be reviewed on Necessary Fiction asap.

Ödön von Horváth: Tales from the Vienna Woods – anything but pretty story of 1920s Vienna, will be taking a closer look at translation on my lbog

Spike Milligan: Puckoon – farce which nowadays doesn’t seem quite so funny (and probably even less so in the 1980s).

Margot Kinberg: Downfall – for fans of academic environments and less violent crime, a rather sad story of young people being let down by private interests

Karin Brynard: Weeping Waters – review coming up on Crime Fiction Lover, but an excellent new series about South Africa, which does not shy away from controversial topics such as race and land ownership

Rebecca Bradley: Fighting Monsters – Hannah is back on form, trying to cope with new boss, new team member and a potential harmful leak within the police force

Iona Whishaw: It Begins in Betrayal – attractive feisty heroine is a retired  WW2 spy, with wholesome Canadian characters and unsavoury European ones – great period piece and fun. Review to come on Crime Fiction Lover.

Hanne Ørstavik: Love – excellent build-up of emotion and dread

So, how has your reading been in March, and what are you looking forward to reading in April?