Quick Reviews of Non-Japanese Books

Although I’ve posted mainly reviews of the books I read for January in Japan thus far, I’ve actually read quite a lot of enjoyable books this month.

Lucy Atkins: Magpie Lane – a modern take on The Turn of the Screw, with a very classical feel to it nevertheless because it is set in Oxford and its rather anachronistic college system. A dysfunctional family with a selectively mute child, viewed through the no-nonsense eyes of a nanny who is an outsider to Oxford. Excellent build-up, although I felt slightly ambiguous about the ending.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I am probably being a bit unfair on this one when I say it is a very narrow world that is being presented here: the world of writing and publishing, a young woman in search of success and love. I like such subject matter (and probably would have loved it even more in my 20s), but it’s a bit of a disappointment after King’s previous book Euphoria, an excellent and rather revolutionary book about anthropologists, which felt like it was painted on a much larger canvas with bold brushstrokes. This one is a neat little miniature.

Jenny Offill: Weather – I was perhaps the only person in the world who was not smitten with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. It had many witty observations which struck a chord with me, but overall I felt it was a lazy way to tell a story. The fragments just did not seem to build up to a coherent and complex whole (unlike Tokarczuk’s Flights, for example). But I do think she is an interesting writer, so I was willing to give her another chance. This is also a fragmented novel, but the format suits the subject matter better: the musings of a mother trying to navigate the opaque education system in the great American cities, interspersed with her work with a climate activist, her reactions to the 2016 presidential elections and so on. A state of the nation novel, but on a much shorter scale than Ducks, Newburyport (as far as I can tell, not having read the latter).

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street – the most poetic German crime writer you could ever hope to find, her style is an intriguing mix of noir and jazz and modern sensibilities. I liken it to my own personal Cowboy Bebop (the cool cult anime series of the 1990s). This volume is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story set in the Mhallami community (yes, new to me too, an ethnic minority historically designed to protect the Eastern flank of the Ottoman Empire) in Germany.

Matt Wesolowski: Beast – There are six sides to every story, or so Matt Wesolowski tells us in his series of books imitating true crime podcasts. With every new ‘podcast’ we get a different view on the story, an added layer of complexity, and it really shows us that there is no such thing as an ultimate truth or an easy answer. This one was particularly terrifying, not so much for its links to vampire stories, but because it is about a young girl, Elizabeth Barton, a popular vlogger, who is found frozen to death in a ruined tower on the Northumbrian coast. It depicts how desperate some people are to find online fame and friendships, and it frightened me when I thgouth how this might affect my own children (even though they say it doesn’t).

Neil Blackmore: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle – Perhaps the weakest of the bunch, because the plot felt rather predictable. Two brothers, sons of a rich tradesman, set off on their European tour in the 1760s. They are well-read but haven’t been able to break into ‘good society’, so this is their chance to impress. But things go awry when they meet the rebellious, cynical, charming and utterly corrupt Mr Lavelle. Although at times it did feel like a philosophy tract (look, I like my dose of Voltaire as much as anyone, but it didn’t have all that much bearing on the story!), it was on the whole great fun to read, quite a lot of description of gay sex, and an excellent rebuttal of British snobbery past and present.

Liz Nugent: Our Little Cruelties – Another book, another dysfunctional family, this time three brothers who have competed all their lives for their mother’s love and admiration. Written from the points of view of each of the brothers, it is clever in the way it shows how easy it is to justify even our ugliest actions to ourselves – and that we never learn from mistakes but merely blame others. Liz Nugent is frighteningly good at depicting male narcissists.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – a last-minute entry for the mini #PersephoneReadathon, deserves a separate review and got it

I am currently reading Square Haunting by Francesca Wade about five formidable women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square at some point in the 1920s and 30s, and I can already see it will become a firm favourite!

Novel or Novelty Gimmick?

It was sheer coincidence, reading three novels with unconventional structures in quick succession. So uncoventional that one might question if they are even novels. They certainly felt more like essays or biographies or memoirs, but with fictional narrators and characters. You could say it’s a trend, but while two of the novels are recent, one was published in the 1970s. In fact, it might be safe to say that such novels have existed since the beginning of time: 1001 Nights, Tales of Genji, Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote all mess up with our love of clear chronology and neat linear narratives. So why do I feel that perhaps there is more of an appetite for it now, and that some authors and publishers are deliberately jumping on the bandwagon? Is it indeed that, as our attention spans have shortened, as we get inundated with scraps of half-digested and unproven information, we find it difficult to believe in the authoritative author’s voice and unified narrative?

The three books that got me thinking about all this and more are: Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, Joanna Walsh’s Break.up and John Berger’s G. However, other recent publications also come to mind, such as Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, Heidi Julavits’ The Folding Clock, Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy (I’ve yet to read Kudos), Lisa Owens’ Not Working  and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I’ve loved some of these and not liked the others all that much, so I don’t think it’s a lack of willingness to engage with experimentation. (On the contrary, how often have you heard me complain that the author has an original concept but simply does not go far enough?) When done successfully, you can feel there is an underlying pattern and intent there, even if you are not sure that you understand it. At times, however, the lack of structure or ‘démontage’ of structure feels more like a lazy mess than deliberate experimentation.

The authors of these novels (not all of them describe their work as novels) justify what they do by saying they are ‘lassoing moments that were about to be lost’ (Julavitz) or they are emulating Heraclitus’ river (no matter where you step into the book, it is never the same book – Maggie Nelson). Tokarczuk speaks of the constellation novel, where each person detects their own pattern, based on their past experiences and present sensibilities. Cusk presents the flat, bland heroine who seems to reflect back the thoughts, desires and words of all the people she meets – what I would call the would-be objective anthropological narrator (although we all know that there is no such thing as complete objectivity). Joanna Walsh describes her work as ‘hybrid’, and her ‘novel’ is about the end of an affair (which seems to have existed largely in the narrator’s own mind), a travelogue and lots of internal monologue or attempted dialogue with the absent lover. John Berger’s retelling of the adventures of Giacomo Casanova during a troubled period of history is anything but a conventional biography, going off on substantial tangents and interspersed with secondary characters’ thoughts and back stories. Meanwhile, Jenny Offill argues that the broken structure of her novel reflects the narrator’s broken state of mind, with thoughts randomly coming into her head without too much context. Lisa Owens’s heroine is full of acerbic asides and amusing observations – a fragmented, post-modern Bridget Jones maybe.

I fall for the theoretical explanations of purpose every time, but I have to admit that not all the books are equally adept in the execution. I still think it is far harder to have an overarching theme that plays out through a perfect balance of characters and plot. The danger of fragmentation of course is that the novel becomes a kind of pick’n’mix. Readers will like certain parts and hate (or skip others). Perhaps it is not that different to how I read War and Peace, skipping over most of the battle scenes, unless they featured Napoleon or Prince Andrei? Or does it help if I think of them as poetry, like in the case of Bluets?

Perhaps that is why I enjoy the Spanish or Latin American novels way of storytelling? There are many, many tangential stories in those novels that seem to bear no relationship to the main story and yet you feel that you are progressing, that there is a purpose to the story. Of the books I mention above, I felt that same sense of ‘the author knows where she is going’ with Flights and Bluets, and they are the ones that stayed with me most. And a final point which puzzles me: why are most of these novels written by women in the English-speaking world (which is most certainly not the case in the Spanish-speaking one)?

 

 

 

February Reading and Challenges Update

So yes, you may have noticed that I have fallen ever so slightly off the TBR Double Dare waggon this month (ahem! five books or so, without counting the ‘official review copies’). I am all for a combination of planning and serendipity, but this is ridiculous! I blame a conspiracy of libraries and reviewers/editors who are far too good at PR. So here is the summary:

Books from the TBR Pile:

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Eva Dolan: Long Way Home

Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales

Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson – Work and Love   [Not reviewed because I want to write a feature on her, the Moomins, The Sculptor’s Daughter. She is one of my favourite writers and a great artist as well.]

avionbussiRead for Reviews:

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Cognac Conspiracies (transl. by Sally Pane)

Pierre Lemaitre: Camille – the last in the Verhoeven trilogy, to be reviewed shortly on CFL

Michel Bussi: After the Crash – coming out next week, to be reviewed on CFL

Book Club Read:

Fred Vargas: The Chalk Circle Man (reread) – not my favourite of the Adamsberg series, as it’s the first one and has a lot of set-up, but still a quirky notch above the rest

Library Impulse Loans:

Karim Miske: Arab Jazz

partttimeindianSherman Alexie: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I don’t know why I don’t read YA literature more often – perhaps because a  lot of it is derivative and too ready to jump onto bandwagons and second-guess the trends. This one rings so true and is heartbreakingly matter-of-fact. It also fulfills one of my North America slots for Global Reading Challenge, as I’d never looked at Native American culture before in a novel. The pain of living ‘between’ cultures, of never being fully accepted in either of them, the unsentimental view of the flaws of each type of lifestyle, yet plenty of humour and tenderness to temper it all: I loved it!

Hubert Mingarelli: La route de Beit Zara

Another book that meets my Global Reading Challenge requirements – this time for Israel/Middle East/Asia. Despite the fact that it’s written by a Frenchman.

Sold to me via word of mouth:

Kate Hamer: The Girl in the Red Coat

Twelve books, of which a third were from the TBR pile, a quarter for professional reviews and only a third snuck in unexpectedly… When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Seven of the books were by foreign writers, but six of those were by French writers. So perhaps I am swapping the comfort and familiarity of Anglo writers with Gallic ones?

Seven crime fiction novels. My top crime read of the month (which is linked up to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme hosted by Mysteries in Paradise) was undoubtedly Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. A multi-layered story with real contemporary resonance. But Camille came close for the storytelling momentum, while Arab Jazz was excellent at showing us a less romaticised picture of Paris.

Anyway, next month will bring the huge, huge temptation that is Quais du Polar in Lyon. How can I possibly not impulse buy books and get them signed by so many wonderful authors? Wish me luck…

Also Read: Dept. of Speculation

OffillJenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that I really expected to like. If I just quote the blurb, you will realise that it sounds exactly like my existentially angsty cup of tea or coffee:

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

And it is, indeed, beautifully written in parts, certainly thought-provoking, with glimpses of universal recognition. It’s the story of a nameless woman (initially narrating in the first person, then gradually distancing herself to become ‘she’ or ‘the wife’), who dreams of becoming a great writer, but becomes domesticated, married, a mother instead. Maternal love surprises her with its intensity, the pain of being a betrayed wife is ferocious (yet much more civilised and philosophical than the raw cry of abandonment of Elena Ferrante’s heroine). There is something of the tragicomic musings of Jewish introspection of the early Woody Allen movies – or is that just the New York style? A layer of wit to make the pain more bearable. It is a very personal and often funny story of how, little by little, we get snowed under by life’s demands. We compromise and dead-end. In the end, life is made up of these small everyday emergencies such as bedbugs, soul-destroying jobs that pay the rent, a colicky baby, trying to keep up with the organised mothers at school. At some point, however, we stop to ask ourselves: is this what I really want? How did I end up like this? So, in many ways, this book is an extended description of mid-life crisis

There are whole passages that I want to underline or keep in my quotations folders:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.

Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?

The wife reads about something called ‘the wayward fog’ on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream… It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. ‘What are you reading about?’ the husband asks her from across the room. ‘Weather,’ she tells him.

And yet… and yet…

Much as I admire the courage to experiment in literary fiction (and wish publishers would allow more of these books to reach us readers), I do wonder if a daisy chain or even a string of pearls makes for a satisfying book. I’m probably being too severe here, but, even though there is a narrative arc here, the apparent random clustering of one idea after another just feels slightly lazy to me.

Have you read this book? And what did you make of its style?