Incoming Books

Whenever I am worried about the state of the world, or my family, or my health, I build a wall of books around me. So, needless to say, October has been a month of intensive book acquisition.

Starting from the top, a book by an Austrian writer Franz Schuh, whose latest book of essays (somewhat in the acerbic satirical tradition of Karl Kraus) was written during the pandemic. The title is certainly quite a sobering one Lachen und Sterben (Laughing and Dying). I will be reviewing this for the Austrian Riveter produced by the EuroLitNetwork. I love it, but will it work for someone who is not as partial to Viennese humour and cynicism as myself?

A Quebecois journalist, travel writer and novelist next: Isabelle Grégoire. I’ve actually received two novels by her from a translator friend: Fille de Fer (The Iron Maiden? – not pictured here) is set on the railway lines of the very far north of Canada, while Vert comme l’enfer (Green Like Hell) is set at least partly in the Amazonian jungle.

Scottish writer Iain Hood’s Every Trick in the Book was a very kind present from Karen (whom you might know as Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings). She reviewed it on her blog, and I thought it sounded quite amusing and very clever.

The Haunted Hotel is the first of two Wilkie Collins acquisitions this month, inspired no doubt by Eleanor Franzen’s deep dive into this author. I had to buy his best-known novel, The Woman in White, too, because I realised that although it is one of my favourite English 19th century novels, I do not actually own a copy of it. You can’t go wrong with the very pretty, tactile Alma Classics editions, which often have some bonus material at the end of each book.

I think it was in an Australian contributor’s #6Degrees of Separation post (and I apologise, I cannot remember exactly who it was) that I came across the book Women of a Certain Rage, a collection of personal stories and essays about angry women by Australian women writers, introduced by Liz Byrski. Women openly expressing their rage is still perceived as so unseemly, so dull, so unnatural, and it makes me seethe (just like my mother’s admonishments: sit nicely, speak softly, don’t frown, don’t raise your voice, don’t lose your temper).

I have become a complete Marlen Haushofer fan and had been meaning to buy her biography for ages (or at least since I attended a conference about her work). Written by Daniela Strigl, its title is a quote from the author herself: ‘Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt…’ (I may well be crazy). I also bought her novella Die Mansarde (The Attic Room) and will probably read it asap for German Lit Month and Novella in November.

I’ve loved Lissa Evans‘ Old Baggage and Crooked Heart, so I acquired V for Victory on my Kindle soon after it came out. However, I never got round to reading it and when I saw a hardback at my library, I thought I would prefer to read it in this format. I am already 40 pages in and it’s proving the perfect comfort read.

Not one but two Bloomsbury books next. I used to joke in my 20s that if I ever appeared on Mastermind, the Bloomsbury Group would be my specialist subject. But in the meantime, there have been quite a lot of new books published about them, as they seem to be a perpetual source of fascination, scandal and gossip even with this generation. I have read Frances Spalding’s biography of Vanessa Bell, but thought it might be nice to own it, but I did not know about the biography of David (Bunny) Garnett, Bloomsbury’s Outsider by Sarah Knights, and am curious to see if my rather negative opinion of him will be swayed in any way.

Yet another chunky biography, this time of the problematic but hugely talented Austrian writer Joseph Roth, Endless Flight by Keiron Pim. This is turning out to be quite an Austrian acquisition month, isn’t it?

Finally, another library book, one I had to wait for, the ever-popular Anthony Horowitz with his latest Hawthorne mystery A Twist of the Knife, in which the author as ever makes an appearance as a somewhat egocentric, hapless participant, this time accused of murder because a critic panned his play on opening night. Great escapist fun!

I have also acquired some e-books, either buying them directly or from Netgalley. These are mostly light reads, perfect for cosy evenings under the electric blanket.

Kirsten Miller: The Change – a quiet Long Island community is shaken out of its complacency when three menopausal women find unusual means of empowerment. Sounds like a laugh, very Hocus Pocus or Practical Magic.

Susi Holliday: The Hike – two bickering sisters and their husbands go on a hiking trip to Switzerland but only two make it down the mountain. How can I resist the scenery and the premise (makes me glad to be an only child, right?).

Tom Hindle: The Murder Game – one house, nine guests for a murder mystery fun evening, trapped by the snow, very Golden Age feel to this one

Machado de Assis: The Looking Glass. Essential Stories (transl Daniel Hahn) – I’m terribly fond of this Brazilian writer, and these stories sound spooky, slightly sinister, quite bonkers. I still want to get hold of his novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, but am not sure which of two translations to get (probably the Margaret Jull Costa one).

Jo Callaghan: In the Blink of an Eye – I had the pleasure of hearing Jo read a little from this at the Bay Tales Noir at the Bar Halloween Special (where our author Jonina Leosdottir also read from her novel Deceit). It sounds like a fantastic slightly speculative crime novel: a real-life policewoman partnered with an AI officer.

Keigo Higashino: A Death in Tokyo – after rereading his Malice for our Crime Book Club, I couldn’t resist finding something new by this clever Japanese author with a great insight into the darkest depth of the human psyche.

Gregg Olsen: Starvation Heights – I don’t usually read much true crime, but this one’s a little different, about a sanatorium for ‘fasting cures’ in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century. This one does sound grim, rather than comfort reading, so I might leave it for later.

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.

Summary of Cultural Events 11th March 2018

Quite easy to summarise the last fortnight of cultural events: there were none! The snow spoiled plans to go and watch tango at Sadler’s Wells (but I managed to change the booking for this coming week). The International Women’s Day event organised by the University of London got postponed because of the UCU strikes. I’ve felt pretty run down and tired this week (also fed up with those everlasting financial disagreements with the ex), so I caught the bug that had been doing the rounds at the office, so I’ve cancelled plans for this weekend.

However, I did go to watch Lady Bird at the cinema just before the Oscars. While it was not the greatest film of all time (but then, how many of them are?), it was a rather delightful coming of age story from a girl’s perspective (we’ve watched so many from a young man’s perspective), with a lot of relatable humour, nuanced observation and characters we all remember from high school (the spoilt popular girl, the elusive poseur, the just-a-shade-too-encouraging married teacher etc.) and a fraught mother/daughter relationship which reminded me a little too much of mine.  I even wrote a thread about that on Twitter (and I normally never do threads – or at least not more than 2-3 tweets at a time). Maybe I was overthinking it because of the lack of other cultural events.

I did get quite a batch of books to add to my March reading plans though. While searching for something else at the library, I found Ödön von Horváth’s Tales of the Vienna Woods in both German and English and thought I would do one of my ‘closely observed translation study’ of it. Horváth was a true child of the Austro-Hungarian empire and learnt German only in his teens.

If you ask me what is my native country, I answer: I was born in Fiume, grew up in Belgrade, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Munich, and I have a Hungarian passport, but I have no fatherland. I am a very typical mix of old Austria–Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech; my country is Hungary; my mother tongue is German.

Perhaps I can relate to him just a little… For the rest of his brief life, he would write in German – mainly plays, but also essays and novels. He was a keen observer of the absurdities of life and the rise of totalitarianism through indifference and the subjugation of popular culture, especially in the 1930s Germany and Austria. He fled to Paris after the Anschluss of Austria in 1938 and died that same year in a freak accident on the Champs-Elysées. Tales of the Vienna Woods was not only required reading at school, but I also happened to live on the outskirts of town, just about where those woods began, so it felt like he was writing for me. His work is full of quotable moments of flawed humanity:

Actually I’m quite different. But I so rarely have time to show it.

Based on Ann Morgan’s recommendation (it is she who read her way around the world in 2012), I also ordered Tiphaine Rivière’s Tiphaine Carnet de These, a humorous but realistic look at the life of a Ph.D. student. It is now available in English as well (translation by Francesca Barrie) and is a BD, which I really miss. There are comic books and manga available here in England, but it’s not quite the same.

Another local library find was Keigo Higashino’s Journey under the Midnight Sun, which looks seriously chunky, so I will probably have to renew it indefinitely. But you know I can never resist Japanese fiction!

Last but not least, I was sent an interesting crime novel from South Africa (another of my weaknesses), translated from Afrikaans. It is Karin Brynard’s Weeping Waters, translated by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon, and to be published by Europa Editions in April.

The Devotion of Suspect X

January in JapanPerhaps this is not quite the literary work that Tony had in mind when he proposed the January in Japan reading month. It’s crime fiction, so it combines my love of a (fictional) criminal life with my love for Japanese authors. But, above all, it is a love story of a very unusual kind, something that Japanese literature excels in.

I had never heard of Keigo Higashino when I downloaded a copy of ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’. I let it sit on my e-reader for a while: perhaps the blurb ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ put me off? But then I heard this novel had been nominated for awards both at home and abroad, and several bloggers I trust also gave it the thumbs up. (A couple did not like it, though, which made me all the more curious to read it.)

DevotionI am used by now to the challenges of translating well from Japanese. A simple, unadorned style becomes flat and lifeless in English and yes, the American slang was slightly disconcerting. However, setting that aside, I found much to like about this book. It is not a flashy thriller with wacky surreal elements in the style of Murakami (either of the two, Haruki or Ryu), nor is it relentlessly dark and hopeless like a Natsuo Kirino novel. This is an apparently simple story of cat and mouse, slightly reminiscent of ‘Crime and Punishment’. A murder is committed, somewhat accidentally, within the first few pages of the book. Single mother Yasuko and her daughter are distraught and rely on the help of their next-door neighbour Ishigami to cover up the crime. The rest of the book is dedicated to trying to unravel their alibi. Police detective Kusanagi feels something is not quite right about the scenario, and finally turns to his friend, physicist and amateur detective Yukawa, for help. It turns out that Yukawa and Ishigami knew each other in college, and they engage in a rather chilling battle of wits.

It’s not just the puzzle which I find intriguing (and the author manages to keep a few tricks up his sleeve), but the way in which guilt, sense of duty, obligation and affection affects these rather lonely characters and draws them to one another. I had a strong sense of sadness while reading this, feeling sorry for all the people involved, especially those who are deluded enough to believe that logic alone can triumph. The ‘unknowability’ of human feelings always interferes and spoils the best-laid plans.

This book should be more palatable to Western audiences than Kirino, yet it still retains enough Japanese characteristics to make it a quirky read, rather different from standard crime fiction fare.