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Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto #bookreview

goodbye tsugumiGoodbye Tsugumi is the story of one summer in the lives of two girls who are related by blood if not by temperament. 

Tsugumi  Yamamoto is a mercurial character. An invalid from a young age she has grown up in a small seaside inn as a spoiled and occasionally mean spirited girl around whom everyone tiptoes, afraid to spark her ill-humour.  According to her cousin Maria, Tsugumi “was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky.

Maria  Shirakawa (the narrator) is a more thoughtful girl, a model of patience and affability who has learned to deal with the uncertain relationship of her parents – her father is a businessman living in Tokyo, her mother is his mistress who lives and works in the inn. She is aghast at some of Tsugumi’s pranks and hurt to be the victim of her acid tongue but she is still drawn to the girl.

It wasn’t narcissism.  And it wasn’t exactly an aesthetic.  Deep down inside, Tsugumi had this perfectly polished mirror, and she only believed in the things she saw reflected there.  She never even considered anything else.
That’s what it was.
And yet I liked her even so, and Pooch [a dog] liked her, and probably everyone else around her liked her too.  We all continued to be enchanted by her. 

Part of Tsugumi’s attraction is that she has a vivid imagination which makes her fun to play with. She creates wild and inventive games for her and Maria, including their favourite “The Haunted Mailbox” in which they pretend to receive letters from the dead in an old rusted box behind their school.

When her father gets his divorce, Maria and her mother move to Tokyo and Maria  embarks on a new path in her life as a university student. But a call from Tsugumi offers her a chance to return to the inn for one last summer before the place is sold. It’s a chance to recapture idyllic summers of the past and to deepen the bond with her difficult cousin. She acknowledges that Tsugumi is “really an unpleasant young womanbut that summer she sees for the first time the inner strength of her friend and has to face the real possibility that she could lose her.

In essence this is a coming of age novel in which Maria comes to appreciate that time does not stand still, that her childhood is in the past and loss is a part of growing up.

Summer was coming.  Yes, summer was about to begin.
A season that would come and go only once, and never return again.  All of us understood that very well, and yet we would probably just pass our days the way we always had.  And this made the ticking of time feel slightly more tense than in the old days, infused it with a hint of distress.  We could all feel this as we sat there that evening, together.  We could feel it so clearly that it made us sad, and yet at the same time we were extremely happy.

This is a beautifully atmospheric novel rather than one which has a strong plot. We get a  strong sense of sadness at the loss of the idyll of one’s youth (the goodbye of the title is not the end of a relationship but the end of childhood innocence) but there is also a feeling of hope as Maria comes to appreciate the potential of her own life in the future. 

Yoshimoto’s description of nature and the beaches and the mountains at the resort have a poetic quality which also drew me in.

The whiteness of the flowers seemed to levitate in the dark. Every time the crowd of petals bobbed under a puff of wind you were left with an afterimage of white that had the texture of a dream. And just beside that dream the river continued to flow, and off in the distance the dark nighttime ocean stretched the glow of the moon into a single gleaming road. The black waters before us swelled up and fell back again, glimmering with tiny flecks of light, the dark motion extending all the way to infinity.

I also enjoyed her gentle, yet thoughtful style. Here is just one example:

Each one of us continues to carry the heart of each self we’ve ever been, at every stage along the way, and a chaos of everything good and rotten. And we have to carry this weight all alone, through each day that we live. We try to be as nice as we can to the people we love, but we alone support the weight of ourselves.

I’ve seen some comments from other reviewers that Goodbye Tsugumi isn’t as strong a novel as her debut work Kitchen. Since I’ve not read that or anything else by Yoshimoto in fact I can’t judge how accurate that assessment is. Goodbye Tsugumi may not be as rich in philosophy or big ideas as some of the other Japanese authors I’ve read but I still enjoyed it.

Footnotes

About this book: Published in Japanese in 1989, translated into English in 2002 by Michael Emmerich.

About the author:  Banana Yoshimoto is the pen name of the Japanese writer Mahoko Yoshimoto whose debut novel  Kitchen was widely applauded on publication in 1988. Yoshimoto began her writing career while working as a waitress at a golf club restaurant. Apparently she adopted the name Banana because of her love of banana flowers, but also because she considers it “cute” and “purposefully androgynous.”. She has written 12 novels many of which deal with themes  of love and friendship, the power of home and family, and the effect of loss on the human spirit. 

Why I read this book: I have a feeling I came across the name of Banana Yoshimoto when I was reading about the Japan in January project run by Tony at tonysreadinglist. It’s been stuck on my shelves for a few years now but I dusted it down ready for Japan lit challenge. It also counts as one of my 20booksofsummer reading list.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews

finkler question-1I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).

The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.

One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular  mainstream books on philosophy.  Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”  Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.

In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.

A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family.  In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”

According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew.  Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.

That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.

Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know  whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C . 

About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the remaining 10 titles in my Booker prize project. I also made it one of my 20booksofsummer titles 

 

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett #bookreview

Bel CantoAnn Patchett’s Bel Canto makes a grand claim for the power of music not only to sustain the spirit in the bleakest of times but even to transform a life.

In an unnamed South American country,  the world-renowned soprano Roxane Coss sings at a birthday party in honour of a visiting Japanese industrial magnate. She’s the bait in a plan by the hosts to persuade Mr Katsumi Hosokawa, one of her biggest fans, to rescue their failing economy by building an electronics factory in their country. Unfortunately the plans go awry because on the night of the party in the vice presidential mansion, a band of guerrillas swarm in through the air ducts. Their quarry is the president but he’s nowhere to be found having decided he much preferred to stay home watching his favourite  TV soap opera rather than entertain a room of distinguished and powerful diplomats and leaders from around the world.

Taking advantage of a bad situation the invaders decide to take all the party goers hostage and use them as bargaining tools to secure the release of their comrades held in prison. They’re pretty ineffective negotiators and not much better at controlling the hostages. It soon becomes clear that it’s the soprano who is calling the shots. During the month-long standoff with neither government nor guerrillas giving ground, her singing keeps the atmosphere calm. Soon the guerrillas are running around to satisfy her whims just to keep her singing — one minute they are finding dental floss and herbal throat lozenges for her, the next it’s musical scores she needs.

Unexpected talents and depths of character emerge during the stand-off. The vice president for example assumes the dual roles of housekeeper and gracious host:

He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge … Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.

Near the end of the stand-off he has a moment of epiphany in the garden, appreciating for the first time the sensation of grass beneath his feet and the scent of flowers. And he resolves there and then to be a better man, a better father and a better husband.

Change comes to the rebels too. Enchanted by the grandeur of their surroundings they begin wandering through the house sniffing hand lotion and snaffling pistachio nuts. They become so hooked on a TV drama (the same one that delights the president) much to the disgust of their commander,  they begin missing drills or fitting them in around the program schedules.

Amid the tension, love is kindled. For Mr Hosokawa, proximity to his idol is a dream come true. He has already seen her 18 times in performances around the world, often inventing business trips that will place him in the audience. Hearing her in the close, intimate setting of the besieged mansion, admiration burgeons into love. Captivity also brings romantic fulfilment for his loyal translator Gen Watanabe, in the form of a guerrilla fighter appropriately named Carmen for whom her time in the house is the happiest point in her life.

Roxane and Mr Hosokawa, Gen and Carmen are the novel’s principals but they are surrounded by a strong cast including a Frenchman, Simon Thibault, who weeps into the stole his beloved wife leaves behind when all the women except Roxane are allowed to leave. There’s a Red Cross representative who interrupts his holiday to act as a hostage negotiator though in his suit and tie he looks more like “an earnest representative of an American religion” and a chain-smoking Russian, who makes an unexpectedly delicate declaration of love, regaling Roxane with mournful and meandering childhood stories.

What unites the 50 or so people thrust together in the mansion, is music.

Mr Hosokawa’s eleventh birthday was a life-changing experience. It was the first time he heard opera,  a moment imprinted on his eyelids that marked the beginning of his love affair with music, a love that surpassed all other interests and responsibilities.

The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love. Not his wife, his daughters or his work. He never thought that he had somehow transferred what should have filled his daily life into opera. Instead he knew that without opera, this part of himself would have vanished forever.

In the vice presidential music a young priest undergoes a similar experience when he hears opera sung live for the first time.

It was different in ways he could never have imagined, as if the voice were something that could be seen. Certainly it could be felt … It trembled inside the folds of his cassock, brushed against the skin of his cheeks. Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness.

For her part Roxane comes to appreciate the true power of the music that has been her life’s work, causing her to sing ”as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.” Patchett’s idea of the power of music does strain too far however when Roxane takes an interest in one of the rebels she discovers is a musical prodigy, able to repeat perfectly the notes and lines that she sings. As if her readers don’t really understand that this talent could be his escape route from poverty, Patchett makes the General her mouthpiece:

It makes you wonder, All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected  we knew how.

Such a cod piece of philosophy strikes a really duff note in an otherwise absorbing and finely tuned novel about the the various ways in which human connections can be forged, even in the most unlikely of circumstances and situations.

Footnotes

About the book: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett was first published in UK by Fourth Estate in 2001. My paperback copy dates from 2002. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002. The novel is loosely inspired by an event in December 1996 when members of a guerrilla group entered the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, seized nearly 600 hostages and demanded the release of a number of political prisoners. The resulting siege lasted four months.

About the author: Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Bel Canto is her fourth novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late Harvest Havoc – murder among the vineyards

late-harvest-havocI’ve been known to enjoy a glass of wine (or two even). Even more appealing if I can do this while looking out onto some splendid French vista.  Wine + France is a near perfect combination (now if only someone would create a chocolate flavoured wine I’d be in heaven….) Add a touch of mystery to that combination and you have the set up for The Winemakers Detective Series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balan. This highly successful series delves into the darker world of the wine industry with the aid of two amateur detectives: master winemaker Benjamin Cooker and his aide-de-camp Virgile Lanssien.

In Late Harvest Havoc, the latest episode to be translated into English,  the duo are in the Alsace region. It’s winter time and in the countryside dark clouds are gathering.  Someone is vandalising local vineyards just as the late harvest is about to start. There seems no pattern to the attacks, nothing to connect the damage at one estate to that of another a few miles away. Is this vengeance for a personal grievance? Is there a connection to the days of German occupation? Cooker and  Lanssien put their collective brains to work to try and bring peace.

Detective work is demanding so of course the duo need plenty of sustenance. This is a novel which it’s probably not wise to read if you’re hungry or thirsty. Every day comes with details of something rather scummy sounding from foie gras de canard; caisson de porcelet rôti aux épices douces, and duck and sour cherry terrine to baba au rum. Cooker is a man who likes to eat well and whose palette is as sensitive to food as to wine:

He loved it perfectly ripened, when the golden crust was nice and firm and he rind had gone from soft to creamy. As with wine, Benjamin Cooker assessed Munsters with his nose. He’d plunge his knife in to reveal the centre of this cheese from the Vosges plateau. The more tenacious and rustic the aroma – even a tad repugnant – the more the cheese lover’s nose quivered.

The plot may be rather on the skimpy side and the writing plodding at times but by the end your knowledge of the finer points of  viticulture will have increased markedly. The novel is peppered with gems of info with which to impress your friends. Did you know the best wines in Alsace come from the slopes of the Vosges Mountains, that the Rosacker vineyard takes its name from the wild roses growing nearby or that Riesling needs “exposure to southern sun and a steep incline in slate-rich soil that furrowed in stormy weather.”

All this focus on eating and drinking seems fitting given that the idea for the Winemakers’ Detective Series originated over a meal and a bottle of Château de Gaudou 1996 which is apparently a red wine from Cahors.  I’ve no doubt the detailed descriptions of the wines are accurate but I did wonder whether someone who makes a living from his tastebuds would really smoke as many cigars as Cooker. Wouldn’t that affect the palette so much it would be difficult to pick out the subtler notes of each wine?  Maybe I’m quibbling too much and the finer points don’t matter to the fans of this series or the millions of viewers who watch the TV adaptation.

End notes
Late Harvest Havoc has been available in France since 2005 but only became available in English in 2015. Translated by Sally Pane it is published in the UK by Le French Book, Inc. My copy is courtesy of  the publishers. For details of the book tour organised by France Book Tours. For full tour dates click here.

Win a copy of Late Harvest Havoc 

5 copies of Late Harvest Havoc are available in a giveaway. To enter click on this link.

I’ve tried updating this after some readers alerted me to the problem. If this new link still doesn’t work, go to this book tour page at Words and Peace blog site where Emma has the giveaway open until January 23

Winners will get a choice of print or digital if they live in US residents. In other countries, winners will receive digital copies.

 

Book blogs minus the reviews?

During the clean up of my email in box (now down to a more manageable 250 unread emails) I came across an old post on the 101 books blog where Robert had commented that he doesn’t like reading book reviews on blog sites. “Book reviews are boring,” he declared, a simple statement which provoked a lively debate.  To be fair, he also said that he finds the act of writing them on his own site rather tedious and he would rather just write about other book related topics, facts about authors that you didn’t know for example.

People who left comments seemed to agree on a few things: writing a good review takes time and effort and you need to do more than just explain the plot if you want to engage people. A few people said they were not at all interested in other people’s reviews or that they only read those where the featured author was one in whom they were already interested. One big area of agreement seemed to be that blog sites which featured only reviews were a turn off.

I can certainly relate to the comment about how much effort it takes to write a review that might be worth other people reading. Hence why I am about 10 reviews behind right now – I keep procrastinating because I want to say something more than just whether I enjoyed the book.  There is an art to this reviewing business, especially if you want to do more than simply regurgitate the plot or repeat the publisher’s blurb. I look at pieces written by professional reviewers in some of the leading newspapers and sigh because they are light years ahead of my attempts. Despite sniffy comments from some quarters (Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously was one of the guilty ones here) some bloggers are equally as skilled in reviewing and even though I don’t particularly have an interest in the author or the genre, I enjoy seeing what they think or feel.

But just as a diet of ice-cream and cakes would get tedious after a day or so, I’m not enthused by reading review after review after review. I find that I can get through only so many straight review items in my feed reader before I’m longing for something different. I’ve tried mixing up my own posts to try and avoid equally boring my own readers – actually I find these non review posts much more fun to write. And I’ve been experimenting too with how I write the reviews – giving them a (hopefully) more interesting title than just the name of the book and the author. So far I’ve just done two reviews using that new approach – my ‘5 reasons to read The Miniaturist’ and ‘A question of identity: Marani’s New Finnish Grammar’. A small start but at least it’s a start.

What are your thoughts on reviews – do you try to mix them up on your own site with non-review posts? What do you think of sites that have very few reviews?

Here’s the original post on Robert’s blog if you are interested: http://101books.net/2014/06/27/5-things-your-mom-didnt-tell-you-about-book-blogging/

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

A J Fitkry

The Storied Life of A.J Fitkry

It would be hard to picture someone less likely than A.J Fitkry to be the owner of the only bookshop of a small  New England island.

Fitkry does love books. It’s his customers he doesn’t much care for, particularly those who spend all afternoon looking at his magazine collection but buying nothing, and those who know nothing more about the book they want than it was in the New York Review of Books and it had a red cover. Still less does he care for publishers’ reps who turn up at the door of Island Books trying to push their latest catalogues. And he definately doesn’t have a very high opinion of writers, viewing them generally as “unkempt, narcissitic, silly and generally unpleasant people.”

He does hold very clear views on what constitutes good literature and it certainly isn’t anything in the realm of “postmodernism, post apocalyptic settings, postmodern narrators, or magical realism.” He loves short stories but his customers are no so enthusiastic. Hardly surprising that Island Books is experiencing its worst ever sales. Only the annual influx of tourists in the summer will help keep the ship afloat.

Fikry’s life is similarly in a downward spiral. Since the death of his wife in a road accident, he’s turned his back on the world. He numbs his pain with copious amounts of wine and dreaming of a retirement financed by the sale of his most prized possession, a very rare first edition of early Edgar Allan Poe poetry. Those plans are thrown into chaos however when the book is stolen.

Two events change his world.

First, Amelia, a new and ultra keen sales rep arrives from Knightley Press. She and A.J fail completely to connect on her first visit but slowly the ice thaws and they develop a relationship vial email and occasional lunches. More unexpectedly, someone deposits a baby girl named Maya in his shop, asking Fikry to take care of her, which he does, reluctantly at first but gradually forming a close bond with the child. Maya and Amelia provide the watershed in the life of this curmudgeonly book seller, giving him a chance to see everything through new eyes and to form new friendships.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is essentially a tale about redemption and the way life sometimes deals us a second chance to reconnect Running through the novel is a message about the transformative power of reading. The women who turn up to give him free child-minding advice turn into customers and then a book club and a police officer who is Fitry’s self-appointed guardian angel gets the reading bug too and starts his own book club for police and fire officers (they spend most of their meetings arguing about the validity of the detection methods in the crime novel they read that month.) Even Fitry has to change his opinions and finds there are such things as well written children’s books.

Appropriately for a novel featuring a book shop, there is a high bookish element to this novel — apart from the many references to books made by the characters, each chapter begins with the title of a real short story and a brief personal note from Fitry to Maya about the story . His verdict on Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Claveras County is that it’s worth reading because of the fun Twain has with narrative authority even if the author is having more fun than the reader. Irwin Shaw’s Girls in their Summer Dresses prompts a fatherly note to Maya: “Someday you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”

This is a perfect novel for those who like fiction with a high poignancy and life affirming quota. It’s not quite my cup of tea. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it — Zevin is an accomplished author so her story reads very smoothly and I enjoyed many parts of it, particularly the section that leads up to the discovery of the child and the humour of the police chief’s book club. But much of the book felt too much like the adage ‘happiness writes white’ for my taste. I’d have preferred it if Fitry had stayed grumpy for a lot longer and Maya wasn’t portrayed quite so much as an extraordinary child. Maybe that’s just me being grumpy though.

End notes

The Storied Life of A. J. Fitry by Gabrielle Zevin is published in paperback by Algonquin Books in US and Little, Brown in the UK in April 2014.

Thanks to the publishers for providing me with an advance copy.

Gabrielle Zevin has published six novels – learn more about her work at her website http://gabriellezevin.com

 

 

Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon by Simon Okotie

haroldabsalonIf there is such a thing as a quirkiness index for novels, Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? would be well towards the top. It’s a novel that will either have you scratching your head in bewilderment but nevertheless enjoying the feeling or giving up in frustration but not until you had screamed what-the-hell-is-going-on several times and maybe even thrown the book into the corner. This is therefore a book which you will either love because of its convoluted humerous narrative or loathe on the basis that the narrative is too digressive and ultimately ‘nothing much happens’.

The fact that nothing much happens is indeed central to the story. Okotie leads us a merry dance with this book, on foot and by bus through the streets of an unnamed city in a hunt for Harold Absolon, the missing transport advisor to the city’s mayor.  On his trail is a detective/private investigator called Marguerite who comes up with a plan to find Harold by following his wife Isobel.

Marguerite dissects in minute detail, the implications of everything he experiences on his journey, analysing what he sees from every possible angle in an effort to ensure he will not make a mistake. Acutely aware that his handling of the situation will be judged at some future point,  that he “would stand accused, in short of both fabrication … and actual indolence”, and his “thoughts cross-examined at some point by someone less kind to himself than himself” he is at pains to do things by the book.  But every new situation he discovers has so many possibilities for interpretation that take him down blind alleys, that he never really makes much progress with his investigation.

His digressions become more and more absurd as the book progresses. In the first chapter seeing his quarry disappear into a lift, he meditates on why lifts simply go up and down but not sideways; minutes later as he follows Isobel through the streets, he considers the correct nomenclature for T junctions and crossroads which are not in fact shaped like a cross. Later we find him advocating standardising the conditions for the term ‘bicycle’. Every thought spurs another thought and sub thought. He gets so deep into these internal debates he completely misses what is obvious to the reader and also loses the very person who is supposed to lead him to Harold; “satisfied with this conclusion, Marguerite looked up to see that Isobel Absalon, her friend and baby, had disappeared.”

Marguerite  thinks of himself as a great detective, renowned for his incisive precision. Or as he prefers to describe himself:  “the golden retriever of detectives whether or not they were the same as labradors, gold signifying in his mind the best of the best, the Olympic champion investigator, and retriever indicating the retrieval of missing persons.” It’s abundantly clear to the reader however that he is a bumbler.  Every time he gets near to a discovery that could help him solve the mystery, he misses the clue because his mind is too focused on the minutiae.

If this was the novel in its entirety, I wouldn’t have finished reading it on the basis that it’s humour was repetitive. But Simon Okotie does something quite clever with this narrative which is what kept me reading. Alongside his main story another darker story unfolds, told through 26 random footnotes. Someone — and its not absolutely clear who that person is for some considerable time —  gives us a tale of jealousy and possible revenge, in which Marguerite becomes increasingly implicated. It’s an inventive touch that effectively destabilises the main narrative, causing us to look beyond the humour to create our own interpretation.

Okotie crams a lot into a short novel (just over 200 pages) where the action lasts for little more than 30 minutes. He does so with great panache.

EndNotes

Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? was published in 2013 by the UK company Salt Publishing. 

Simon Okotie was born to Nigerian/English parents. He lives in London. His autobiographical first novel about growing up in rural Norfolk was a runner-up for the 1998 Saga Prize for black British fiction.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene: Book Review

Power and gloryIn what many experts consider Graham Greene’s masterpiece, a human drama is played out against a background of opposing idealogies.

The Power and the Glory chronicles the struggle by a Catholic priest to evade capture in a country which has outlawed his religion and forced his fellow priests to either renounce their vows or to face execution. Greene pits the fugitive against the forces of law epitomised by a young lieutenant of high principles and a strong commitment to eradicating Mexico of all vestiges of the Catholic faith.

Hunter and quarry circle each other through poor, remote villages and on bleak mountains, encountering desperation and fear among a population who yearn for the consolation of prayer even though they are afraid of the consequences of harbouring a wanted man.

Each time the priest makes a move that will take him across the mountains and into the safety of a neighbouring state, someone in a village or a fellow traveller calls on him for pastoral succour. He goes to their aid knowing that every day he delays his departure, he risks capture and death.

This nameless priest is no saintly figure however. Greene’s protagonist is a flawed character; a  drunk, a coward and a lecher. He prefers alcohol to prayer and has secretly fathered a child.  In one of the key scenes in the novel, when the priest is taken to prison for possessing forbidden spirits, he admits that he craves drink more desperately than he needs God.

Yet though acutely aware of his unworthiness, he still cannot abandon those who need him.

He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind — a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind; somewhere they accumulated in secret — the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.

His antagonist, the nameless police lieutenant, despises the Catholic church. His revulsion dates from his childhood experience of priests who paid more attention to their own comforts than to the needs of the poor. For him, the Church is a dangerous tool of oppression and injustice, an agency that simply holds out false hope of a better life in the hereafter rather than giving practical help in the here and now.

He is on a mission to remove poverty, superstition and corruption from the lives of ordinary Mexican people and if necessary, he is ready to kill to achieve his desired utopia. The Church is simply the first obstacle that has to be eliminated.

The pair seem to hold diametrically different views of the world and yet Greene shows in the course of three encounters between the men, that there are in fact similarities between them. They both have a vision of a world with “no unjust laws, no taxes, no soldiers and no hunger” though they differ about when and how this vision is to be achieved.

If by the end of the novel, the lieutenant’s idealism is not reconciled entirely with the priest’s disillusioned materialism, reach a kind of qualified understanding of each other and recognise their mutual moral worth.

The Verdict

A powerful and intense novel which poses questions about faith and devotion, about religious and Marxist ideologies. Greene seems to side with the Church but his endorsement of the Catholic world view is not crystal clear which is one reason why The Power and the Glory was put on the Vatican’s blacklist when it was published. In 2005 The Power and the Glory was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels since 1923. It’s an accolade that is richly deserved. 

The Man who Forgot His Wife by John O’Farrell

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I read The Man Who Forgot his Wife by John O’Farrell for the sole reason that it was the book club read for December. I say read but by the end I was skimming it, having lost all interest in the characters or the plot.

Apparently this novel belongs to a sub genre of fiction called “lad lit” or “bloke lit” which is presumably a marketing ploy dreamed up by some publishers in the hope it will generate the same level of popularity as chick lit. I’ve not read any chick lit and if The Man Who Forgot His Wife is an example of its male-orientated partner, I won’t be in a hurry to read anything of this ilk again.

This is not to say everything about O’Farrell’s book was dislikable. The premise was an interesting one: a middle aged man  experiences acute amnesia while at  a London Underground station. Why is he there? Where is he going? Where did he come from? He doesn’t know. Nor does he know he is called Vaughan or anything else about himself. He has no form of identification in his pockets; nothing who can answer even the basic questions about his name, address, age. No-one seems to have reported him missing.

He has in essence,  disappeared.

After a week in hospital where he is diagnosed as suffering an amnesia style fugue, he is tracked down by his best friend, the very boorish Gary. The remainder of the book shows how Vaughan re-discovers elements of his life including the welcome news that he is married to a very attractive woman and has two children. As he goes through the process of rejoining the pieces of his life, he learns to be a better husband, son, father, teacher etc. In short, he doesn’t put his old life together but rather, he constructs a new one.

The novel contains some thought-provoking reflections on the nature of memory and our identity. In a world where anyone with access to a computer can re-invent themselves via an avatar, it asks us to consider whether the concept of who are is completely an artificial construct  — the result of our own idealisations and re-invented recollections of the past.  If O’Farrell had made this the focus of his novel, it would have sustained my interest. Unfortunately it wasn’t prominent enough to compete against the repetitive nature of the narrative. Nor was the reflective aspect enough to contend with the fairly lightweight humour.

In fact it would have been a better novel all round if half of the jokes were eliminated. They were just not funny enough and felt often as if the author was just trying too darn hard to be funny — even the running gag of a postcard featuring an Irish leprechaun which was amusing the first few times it appeared, became predictable by the end.

I had multiple issues with this book beyond the quality of the humour: the characters lacked real depth and were not people I warmed to in any way. Gary was especially irritating but I didn’t much care for Vaughan either. The narrative was at times inconsistent — at one point Vaughan conveniently remembers his wife’s computer password and also where she keeps her passport — and also felt very much as if the author had one eye on the film rights.

While most of the members of the book club felt it wasn’t one of the best reads, they were rather more tolerant than I was, so it ended with a score of 6.5 out of ten. That was a long way off the score I awarded!

The Verdict

The Man Who Forgot his Wife is an easy, light hearted, quick read but has little of substance to hold the attention.

Possibly my worst read of 2013

PhysickBookI’m not going to beat about the bush on this. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is one of the worst books I have read all year.  Not the absolute worst, but certainly only  a whisker away from the bottom of the pile.

But before I explain why I’ve taken such a dislike to this book, here is a brief synopsis of its plot.

The novel is set in Massachusetts in the summer of 1991. It features the young, aspiring Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin who intends to spend the summer researching for her doctoral dissertation. Her plans are thrown awry when her mother asks her to handle the sale of  a long-abandoned house in Salem that once belonged to Connie’s grandmother. In the house Connie discovers a seventeenth-century Bible and hidden inside, a key and a small fragment of parchment bearing the words Deliverance Dane. Connie duly embarks on a quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane and the location of a rare book of physick.   In doing so she discovers a personal connection to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.

1876 illustration of Salem witchcraft trials. Published under Creative Commons licence

1876 illustration of Salem witchcraft trials. Published under Creative Commons licence

Fact and fiction are woven together in this book through a dual time-frame narrative — in between the story of Connie’s quest, we experience scenes in the household of Deliverance Dane and in the jail where she awaited trial.  Deliverance Dane did actually exist — she was one of many women condemned as a witch though, unlike nineteen other women,  she escaped the hangman’s noose.

In the hands of a more experienced novelist, this could have been an interesting take on an infamous period in history. But this is Katherine Howe’s debut novel and sadly her inexperience is evident.

First of all the character of her protagonist isn’t that convincing. Here we have a girl who, right at the start of the book, wows a group of leading academics with her encyclopaedic knowledge and insightful interpretation of historical themes and issues. She has spent months amassing data from the past and yet  we find only a few pages later that she is astonished to discover that up until the seventeenth century (one of the periods she has studied) the word receipt actually meant recipe.  Maybe she should have watched some cookery programs on TV instead of reading academic  tomes?

But there was an even earlier moment at which I rolled my eyes in disbelief. If you’d pitched up on the doorstep of a seventeenth century house (having first had to virtually hack your way through creepers and other vegetation to get the door) and discover it has no power or phone and is inches deep in dust; would you want to stay the night? No, neither would I. I hazard a guess that most girls in their early twenties also wouldn’t trade it for the comforts of their flat in Cambridge. But not our Connie. She not only stays the night, she makes it her for the summer.

If characterisation isn’t this book’s strong point, then neither is the writing style. The flashback scenes to the 1680s and 90s are, on the whole, evocative of the period but the modern day sections are riven with cliches, inconsequential detail about the character’s clothing and dry dialogue. And there are also some dreadfully clunky sections where the author tries to impart some factual information but can’t quite manage to do it seamlessly.

I’m conscious that all this sounds rather harsh criticism of someone’s first foray into the fictional world but actually I think the fault lies with the publisher and editor for failing to identify where improvements could have been made or maybe even suggesting that the book would have been so much better without the modern day hocus pocus quest.

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