Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Publishers’ Category

IMG_0109Winner of the 2014 Akutagawa Prize

Translated from Japanese by Polly Barton

From one beautiful cover to the next – Pushkin Press certainly know how to package their goods!  But. While The Disappearances had me page-turning from the start, I can’t say I found Spring Garden so rivetting. But once I accepted that this is a quiet novel and a slow burner, I began to appreciate it a little more, even if I never really warmed to it.

Taro, a young divorcé,  who has decided that he can no longer share his space, lives alone in an emptying apartment block in Setagaya, a middle class suburb of Tokyo.  The landlord has decided to demolish the building and sell the land for redevelopment.  Taro is one of the last renters in the block.  He has no friends, and spends his time, when not working, lounging on the floor brooding about his recently deceased father.  The ever increasing void around him doesn’t perturb him unduly.  He’ll find somewhere new to live when his lease expires.

One day he notices one of his remaining neighbours spying on the sky-blue house opposite the apartment block. A casual friendship develops between him and Nishi, the older women “spy”.  Her fixation on the house began years before when she found a coffee table book entitled “Spring Garden” with this house and the life lived by its then inhabitants as its subject.  The life seemed ideal, the couple happy, and yet they, a famous commercial producer and his actress wife, divorced only a couple of years after the publication of the book. Nishi has analysed the photographs for clues as to their unhappiness to the nth degree, but does not understand. Her objective is to see the whole house from the inside. When the opportunity arises, she takes it, but needs Taro’s help to complete her quest in its entirety.

I use the word quest purposefully, because to Nishi, it is just that, even if it doesn’t seem much of an adventure to me.  And so much of this novel seemed off kilter in other ways.   There is a mystery surrounding the celebrity couple, that turns out to be a non-mystery.  Those remaining in the apartment block – particularly Taro – seem stuck in a state of permanent stasis. Are they paralysed by the non-stop change of the city in which they live?

Because I have to say there doesn’t seem to be much character development or even story-arc.  That’s not to say that there aren’t character studies.  It’s just that they didn’t run particularly deep for me, and I couldn’t decide whether Taro was grief-stricken or simply lacksadaisical. Perhaps the objective of the piece is to simply to document the realities of urban life in contemporary Tokyo; loneliness, chance encounters and the resulting fleeting friendships, the temporariness of our place in the world. This latter point emphasised by fine observations from nature.

Spring Garden works on this thematic level.  But it falls apart when I start looking at details.  What is the purpose of that change of narrator 4/5ths of the way through the novel, for instance.  To help us see Taro through sympathetic eyes, those of his sister? To endear him to us?  It didn’t work.  And as for that plot device in the final scene in the Spring Garden house.  My eyes rolled. (Honestly I remember using it myself in a primary school story.)

Given that Spring Garden won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, I will assume that Japanese tastes differ widely from mine, and that I am blind to this story’s virtues. I wonder, though, whether the same would be true of the other titles in Pushkin Press’s Japanese novella series.  Has anyone read them?  Are they worth picking up?


This read, a rare fail, completes my Round the World With Pushkin Press reading project.  Or rather, it would have done, had I not had so much fun visiting 10 countries on my first circuit, that I’ve decided to add a second!

Next stop: Australia

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

IMG_0090Named Best Argentinian Novel of 2012 by the daily La Nacíon.

Nominated for the Edinburgh Book Festival First Novel award

Translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff

So the thing about Edinburgh Book Festival is the discovery of new-to-me books in their pop-up bookshop … and there were many this year.  (I’ll tell you all about the ones that came home with me when Rossetti isn’t looking.) A number of these started their journey to my library from the shelves dedicated to the Edinburgh Book Festival First Novel Award.

023C95E8-33C6-4C7F-879C-16D309032220.jpg

Edinburgh First Novel Award Bookshelf 13.08.2017

The contents of these shelves change throughout the festival.  Harwicz’s novel wasn’t there on day one.  I think I read a tweet saying copies arrived about 3 hours before her event. I wasn’t at her event either, but I decided to read this novel first from my #edbookfest purchases so that I could sneak in a last minute review for both #spanishlitmonth and #WITmonth.

Why did I buy it? Title, title, title.  I imagined some kind of schizophrenic virago snarling the first word, then, after sticking the knife in, caressing her victim with soft sweet nothings ….

Well, not being a psychologist, I can’t confirm whether the female protagonist is schizophrenic, sociopathic or even psychopathic, but she is definitely unhinged, nay, severely unhinged …

and, because this novel is written in 1st person, there were times when I was unhinged myself!  I couldn’t recognise the world at all through her eyes.  At first there was no common ground, just weird, animalistic behaviour complete with sexual fantasies that turned out (I think) to be anything but fantasy. But gradually, an external reference, an expression of resentment, and I realised that this is a world seen through the prism and alienation of severe post-natal depression.

The woman’s story can only be put together retrospectively as Harwicz throws the reader right into her crisis. First sentence:

I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular.

There’s the knife of my imaginings, but it made me question which love was to die.  Because with a title like that, something’s going to end badly.  And Harwicz kept me guessing.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the woman’s story but she is an educated woman, now living in the countryside with her husband and son.  Bored.   In a downward spiral that is accelerating. The birth of her son precipitating, if not completing, an absolute loss of self.

It’s not easy on her, her husband (who really does try to help her), her son (for whom I was truly afeared) or for the reader.  That 1st person narrative – it’s not a stream of consciousness, more a stream of existence.  Reality, fantasy, insanity, hallucination, smidgeons of logical thought, blended into an unchronological narrative.  Challenging.  I’d say exhilarating (if the subject matter wasn’t so dark.) Told in short, sharp passages, meaning the reader can come up for air, even if the protagonist and her family cannot.

A book that will reward a second reading, if I dare brave its intensity again.


Die, My Love is one of the first of titles to be published by Charco Press, a new publisher based in Edinburgh, whose remit is to “select authors whose works feed the imagination, challenge perspective and spark debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors whose works have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.  Until now,”

Not everything they publish will be for me, but I will definitely keep a close eye on what they do.

Read Full Post »

As I have read very little science fiction, and own a small number of unread sci-fi classics on my shelves, I have that decided that the science fiction thread of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival is an ideal opportunity to get to know the genre a little better.

So, in preparation, my gorgeous Folio Society edition of The Martian Chronicles was pulled off the shelves and read early in July. It promptly became my 5-star book of the month! Not because of Mick Brownfield’s wonderful illustrations either. Simply because of Bradbury’s extraordinarily imaginative and vivid storytelling. Bradbury’s brio in short.

The Martian Chronicles isn’t a novel per se, although the story arc has a beginning, middle and an end. Rather it is a set of 26 interlinked short stories chronicling man’s conquest of the planet Mars – doomed conquest I might add, because, as we know, from the sorry story of man’s governance of the earth and his fellow creatures, as a species we’re not capable of happy endings. You may disagree. But there you have my natural pessimism and the reason why Bradbury’s work struck such a chord with me.

Still, on a story-telling level, The Martian Chronicles is superlative. The first three stories tell of the three failed expeditions, Not that man didn’t make it to the planet. He did, but he faced a hostile indigenous population, clever enough not to register its hostility, and cold-hearted enough to eliminate its enemies without them having a chance to defend themselves.

During these three stories, told from different points of view (the first a Martian, the second and third from the respective captains of the earthly missions), it is established that the Martians’s secret weapon is telepathy. They can see not only the present but also the nostalgia for the past in men’s minds. Man is naive and unintuitive in comparison, and, by the time the traps are lain and the pennies drop, escape is impossible.

And yet, the fourth expedition is met with an almost uninhabited planet. Man has a secret weapon too. Chicken pox!

Which leads me to Magrs insights:

1) Science fiction is not about the future it is about the present and The Martian Chronicles (1950) is specifically about 1950’s Cold War America.

You know it’s America, because disease wiped out most of the indigenous population when the Europeans arrived. Also the Martian and human townships are reminiscent of the small, cozy towns of the 50’s. The ever-present threat of nuclear war places it firmly in the Cold War era ….

… although that threat appears closer today, than ever before. With two – shall we say, – mavericks, bouncing egos off each other, who knows where we’ll end up? Hopefully not as depicted in story 21.

2) Science fiction is a response to real life, often a critique.

And that often makes Bradbury’s bleakness comical in its knowingness. So for example: the hurt feelings of the astronauts in story 2, when the Martians seem entirely underwhelmed with the success of an impossible journey. Or – my favourite – when Bradbury summarises the trajectory of man’s colonisation of Mars.

But after everything was pinned down and net and in its place, when everything was safe and certain, when the towns were well enough fixed and the loneliness was at a minimum, then the sophisticates came in from Earth. They came on parties and vacations, on little shopping trips for trinkets and photographs and the ‘atmosphere’; they came to study day apply sociological laws; they came with stars and badges and rules and regulations, bringing some of the red tape that had crawled across Earth like an alien weed, and letting it grow on Mars wherever it could take root. They began to plan people’s live and libraries; they began to instruct and push about the very people who had come to Mars to get away from being instructed and pushed about.

Recognise the sociological inevitabilities/imperatives there?

3) The heart of the Martian Chronicles is a matter for discussion.

If the book is, as Magrs, described it a pomegranate (non-hierarchical, a cluster of individual sacs, coalescing to form a whole), where is the heart, the pulse, if you like?

Is it a theme? Such as the evils of colonialism, or the incapability of man to learn and thus the inevitability of repeating past mistakes (my reading).

Or is it something entirely more personal? Magrs spoke of his troubled childhood and the disillusion that results when people reveal themselves to be other than their public persona. (His father, in particular.) The moment when the mask slips. It’s true, there are many such moments in The Martian Chronicles.

That aside, for Magrs, the true heart lies in the story of The Martian, a weakened native, survivor of the chicken pox, now trying to find a place to live safely. Thanks to his telepathic powers, he assumes the form of Tom, the dead son of an elderly human couple, in order for them to accept him into their home. Yet he wishes to remain separate for other human incomers. When he is forced to go into town, Tom is lost, as he shapeshifts into the lost daughter of another bereaved couple. In his weakened state, the Martian is no longer in control of his powers and his empathy for others forces him into another self, It ends badly; his identity and being pulled to smithereens by the needs of others. The lesson for Magrs, a gay teenager in North East England of the 1970’s? That you can’t be all things to all people. You have to preserve yourself.

I love these reading workshops in which authors and translators discuss their personal experience of works by others. They are always illuminating, with plenty of food for thought. May they remain in the festival program for many years to come.

Read Full Post »

IMG_0037Sometimes judging a book by its cover is the right thing to do!   When I saw the hand-stitched embroidery effect of the cover of The Disappearances, the needle  pulled me right in as it were.  And it was no stitch-up.  This young adult novel delivered on my anticipation in every way!

Imagine a world in which every 7 years something huge disappears. Reflections, for instance.   The stars in the sky.  Dreams.  Imagine the foreboding at the end of each 7-year cycle, knowing, wondering and fearing the next disappearance.  This is the world which greets 16-year old Aila and her younger brother, Miles, when they are sent to live in Sterling with family friends, following the death of their mother, and the drafting of their father to fight into WWII.  The town is not only cursed, but unwelcoming and hostile.  The people hold Aila’s mother responsible.  She had been the only person to leave the town and retain the faculties lost to others.  Why?  Obviously she was the one to cast the curse, and her children are regarded with suspicion.

Those suspicions may be well-founded.  For not only does the next disappearance arrive bang on time, but another follows almost immediately.  The disappearances also spread from three towns to a fourth. The arrival of Aila and her brother has strengthened the curse!

This story is full of opportunity to explore typical young adult themes:  the loss of one’s parents, being the outsider in a hostile environment, coping with the  bullying that ensues.  Fortunately Aila and her brother have their protectors: the family that has taken them in, Professor and Mrs Clifton and their handsome son, Will, with whom Aila falls in love.  Oh yes, the trials of unrequited first love (remember them?) made so much worse by that unexpected fifth disappearance, which threatens to reveal Aila’s closely guarded secret.

In addition there is the necessity of understanding and unravelling the curse.  Aila feels impelled to do this if she is to clear her mother’s name.   The stories that the people of Sterling tell do not gell with her memories of her mother. Fortunately, just before leaving home, Aila discovered a notebook, full of her mother’s incomprehensible scribblings.  Now that she is in Sterling though, they seem to point to a connection between the disappearances and Shakespeare.  Whatever can the bard have to do with these mysterious events?

There was a ring too, which her mother was about to return to a man named Stefen.     Who is this man and what was he to her mother?   A parallel narrative uncovers the history of this unfortunate, and this is altogether darker and more twisted than anything Aila and her brother experience or can imagine.  And in one section, particularly cruel to animals.  (At first, this section struck a discordant note, but then, for all its magical elements, The Disappearances, always retains one foot in the real world, and experimentation on animals is – for good or ill – a part of that.)  Stefen’s narrative also explains his desperation to get his hands on the ring, and the reason why he is ultimately a threat to Aila and her brother Miles. Yes, he’s the villain, and yet, it is hard to hate him.  His story is the dark side of the charmed existence of Aila’s mother, and his bitterness all too easy to understand.

I liked that subtlety is Murphy’s writing – the world isn’t black and white.  I loved the magic realism (not usually my thing) fused with the period feel of the 1940’s,  and the literary mystery involving Shakespeare, requiring the tenacity of a motivated adolescent in a pre-internet world to solve it.  (Aila must read; search engine shortcuts were not an option for her.) The promise of the rich tapestry on the book cover was fulfilled in every detail.  But I’ll let Aila summarise – she’s better acquainted with this story than I am.

When just the right things come together, there is always a bit of magic. And when just the wrong combination of things do, there is tragedy.

Expect magic, tragedy and delight if you pick up The Disappearances. There is an extract available here, and, should you wish to read more, Pushkin Press have kindly made three copies available to giveaway to UK readers.  To enter, please leave a comment, preferably with the title of your favourite young adult novel, as I’d like to incorporate more of these into my own reading. Winners will be notified on Friday 11th August 2017.

Read Full Post »

image

Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

Subtitled Or Something to Do with Books

It was the subtitle that reeled me in.  I dived in expecting this to be full of nostalgia for the books that influenced the 1972 Nobel Laureate. There is some of that but it is not the main focus. Set in the years 1933 -1937, this is a memoir of Böll’s formative schooldays which just happened to coincide with the years in which the Nazis consolidated their powerbase.  So fond school memories, with which Böll begins most chapters, are soon related to the background. There are bigger isues to deal with.

Written some 45 years after the events, Böll is careful not to let hindsight impinge on the story.  His aim is to describe the boy he was and the family he belonged to together with the impact that events had on their lives and the city they lived in (Cologne). The book ends very specifically on February 6, 1937, the day Böll graduated from high school, but he makes no other claims to historical accuracy with regard to the chronology of events. As he says, all his notes were destroyed during the war.

Böll’s family was Catholic with bohemian leanings and a natural aversion to Nazism. Outsiders though not belonging to any persecuted minority. They did not join the Party, did not attend rallies and, for a while at least, did not have to compromise. At school Böll was bored and, often played truant with his mother’s collusion, bicycling through the Rhine valley, often with a girl for company. When he did attend school, he studied Mein Kampf in great detail …

Our teacher, Mr Schmitz, a man of penetrating, witty, dry irony … used the hallowed text of Adolf Hitler the writer to demonstrate the importance of concise expression, known also as brevity. This meant that we had to take four or five pages from Mein Kampf and reduce them to two.

Thus, says Böll, not entirely tongue in cheek, I can thank Adolf Hitler the writer for some qualification to be a publisher’s reader and a liking for brevity.

If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, these would have been an idyllic few years. But the face of the German world was changing and Böll’s memoir conveys the shock of the general populace by events in 1933 such as the burning of the Reichstag, the signing of the Concordat (described by Böll as a body-blow) and the execution of alleged Communist conspirators in Cologne. Still the hope that Hitler wouldn’t last long died on June 1934 with the Röhm putsch. It was the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.

As the Nazi grip tightened, and the family finances deteriorated because Böll’s tradesman father couldn’t obtain any contracts, it was decided that material survival took priority over political survival, and that one member of the family had to join a Nazi organisation. His elder brother, Alois, was elected by the family council. Alois never really forgave them for it, even though in those early National Socialist years there were way of bribing your way out of the obligatory duties

The family’s biggest worry though was what’s to become of the boy? They all knew that Hitler meant war. Böll talks about his generation being schooled for death, the greatest honour being to die for the Fatherland. Which profession would offer a safety blanket? The priesthood? But Böll had discovered the opposite sex and was not willing. So with membership of the Nazi Labour Front an inevitability, Böll decided to do something with books and obtained an apprenticeship in a quiet, non-Nazi bookstore.

As the memoir ends, the illusion of remaining an outsider prevails. Böll has dodged a metaphorical bullet. As history shows, he wouldn’t be so lucky dodging the real ones which began to fly just two years later.

_________________

December 2017 marks the centenary of Böll’s birth, so to commemorate the event, I intend to work my way through Melville House Publishing’s Essential Böll Series.  I started with the memoir to have a biographical reference point when (re-)reading his fiction.

Read Full Post »

About 12 years ago I started my 20th Century Challenge – to read 100 authors, one book for each year of the 20th century. The idea was to complete it by the time I turned 50.  Then I started this blog and got distracted.  The new deadline is to finish the project in the next 18 months (or by the time I hit 60).  If all my choices are as delightful as the 1917 entry, the prequel to Morley’s more famous The Haunted Bookshop,  then this won’t be any hardship.

imageParnassus on Wheels is a delicious bibliophilic delight with none of the cloying sweetness I’ve tasted in other book of this nature.

Miss Helen Mcgill lives on the farm with her brother Andrew. When he become an author, he  neglects his farmer’s duties, and Helen finds herself running the farm as well as the household. Naturally she resents this, so when she is given an unexpected opportunity to escape she takes it.

One day, out of the blue, Mr Roger Mifflin shows up with his horse-drawn travelling bookshop, the eponymous Parnassus on Wheels.  He has decided that life on the road is too lonely and is hoping to sell his business to Andrew.  But Andrew is not at home.  Helen is, and she is in the mood for an adventure.

An avid reader herself, she believes that

When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.

When she buys herself the Parnassus, she buys herself a whole new life.  She sets off with Mr Roger Mifflin, who will first train her in the art of preaching the gospel of good books before he catches his train back to New York.  Now he could sell coal to a coalman whereas Helen has no natural patter and a knowledge of the book trade that is less than encyclopaedic. Still she shows promise. A series of misadventures, however, results in an extension of her apprenticeship, during which Roger and Helen become unwittingly fond of each other.  Though they don’t recognise it until the machinations of her brother, incandescent at losing his unpaid skivy, threaten to deprive Roger of his freedom.  It is now Helen’s turn to ride to the rescue.

This a charming romantic comedy between an unlikely couple: Helen, a matter-of-fact spinster approaching middle-age and Roger,  a funny looking-man with a red beard, who, for all his salesmanship, might possibly read more books than he sells.  Set in a world in which the First World War had yet to encroach although there is a light-touch political undertone regarding the revolt of womenhood as Miss Helen McGill strikes out for the right to make her own decisions.  Three cheers for her and for the man who enables and defends her right to do so, Mr Roger Mifflin! While we’re cheering another three for all the books they discuss along the way!

Read Full Post »

image

Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

When Ali Smith describes a collection of short stories as the best she has ever read it proves impossible not to follow through on that recommendation (even if the book then lies on the shelf awaiting its reader for a further two-and-a-half years!) Anyway now that this reader has read it,  I can’t say that I agree (because – you know – Chekhov) but I can say that it is a pretty marvellous collection and certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.

It is the first time Fraile’s stories have appeared in English and it is thanks only to the efforts of the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, to persuade a reluctant author that they have done so.   Jull Costa first submitted a few of her translations to a committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter. They meticulously examined these around the kitchen table and  began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the collection, which consists of 29 stories covering the author’s career from 1954-2010.

Many are only 5 or 6 pages long, with the longest being 10 or 11 pages, so this is a collection which is ideal for carryng around and reading whenever there is a spare 5 minutes.  What I particularly enjoyed was the immediacy of setting, the author ensuring that the reader is given a complete set of  bearings within the first couple of paragraphs.  No flailing around wondering, who, what, when?  For starters, there isn’t time in vignettes such as these and secondly, there are a multitude of situations, most from everyday life.  Ordinary people, everyday interactions and objects,  situations we recognise and can transpose into our own lives, but filtered by Fraile to show how special or influential they may be, and how appreciative we should be.  As the dying grandmother says in The Last Shout

The thing is that miracles happen so often, they seem normal to us, the morning comes and then the night, the sun and the moon rise and set, the earth gives us harvest after harvest, and we say I’ll do that tomorrow and tomorrow we’re still alive to do it. …. Reality is a miracle.

The emotional registers are varied. There are straight-forward humorous stories with punchlines as in the title story  Things Look Different in The Light  for what can possibly go wrong when the foreman doesn’t communicate with the underground sign-painter?  In others the humour is altogether more wry as in Typist or Queen where the narrator gently mocks himself and his other male colleagues for their swarming around the beautiful office queen bee, Carmencita.    The Cashier is another queen whose reign over the restaurant’s cash register is supreme until a chance of romantic happiness appears.  Sadly ’tis but a fleeting moment as the uncertainities of life intervene. In  other stories the melancholy consists of the inevitable passing of time:  The Lemon Drop contains not only a little nostalgia for the sweets we used to enjoy as kids but also the memories they bring back when we eat them as adults;  Child’s Play surprisingly defines old age as a darkening of the world. As they age Flora’s and Martita’s need for light increases each day

They needed light so that their hair would shine and  heir eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could …. still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.

Finally they install a chandelier that emits so much light, that when they die their bodies glow in the dark … For a while at least.

This slight magical element reappears in one of my personal favourites, The Shirt. It belongs to Fermin Ulía, a sailor, who falls for Maureen, his girl in the port of Dover.

He stood staring at her for a full three minutes, two of which he devoted to her nose alone. She had a turned-up nose that made her look as though she had a cold, but a very attractive cold, with no complications.

He comes back from that trip with a tartan flannel shirt that Maureen had chosen for him and ever after wears it whenever he goes sailing. But what happens on the day he fails to wear the shirt?

Each reader will have their own favourites here.  I asked Ali Smith to pick out hers, when she signed the foreword for me.  Without hesitation she highlighted Berta’s Presence, Things Look Different In the Light, and The Bookstall – all three have communication as their main theme.  My favourites have tragedy or old age at their core, so no surprise that my absolute favourite – Reparation – has both.  Is that because old age is a tragedy even if it approaches us all?  Perhaps a change of viewpoint is needed.  Things do look different in the light of the old lady’s comments at the beginning of this review.  Reality is a miracle, and it is truly a miracle that some of us ever reach old age.  So the lesson is to appreciate the small moments and enjoy.  These stories are as good a starting point as any.

_______________________________________________________________

Stage 7 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is my final post for Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. Thanks, Stu.  I had a blast!

Next stop: Africa

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »