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Top ten Tuesday: book club recommendations

The Broke and Brookish this week is looking for suggestions for book club reading.

This wouldn’t be an easy one for me since our book club has rather wide ranging tastes – each person chooses a book so it reflects their taste rather than necessarily what the club as a whole likes. We went down the path of chick lit for a while turned me off but I’ve been introduced to some new authors in other month so it’s almost balanced out. For me a good book club read is one that has plenty of issues and dimensions that can lead to a good discussion – I want more than someone saying “I picked this because I thought it would be fun” and that’s all they can say about the book (believe me it has happened). The book choice doesn’t have to be particularly weighty but something to at least get your teeth into.

If I had my wishlist it would include:

book-club-recommendations

I’ve gone for a mixture of styles, subjects and country of origin of the author (too many book clubs seem to focus only on Western literature).

  1. The Many by Wyl Menmuir reviewed here. A Booker long listed title from 2016 that I thought superb. It keeps you guessing about what the main message is.
  2. Another Booker 2016 candidate – and one I would dearly have loved to see win – is Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing which traces the effect of Communist rule on three musicians. It’s an epic that stretches across centuries and countries. Not always easy to grasp it had tremendous emotional power. Reviewed here 
  3. The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw. Set in Japan, a wonderful elliptical story in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles.It’s a metaphor for how our lives are constructed by fragments. Reviewed here 
  4. The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien. Set in a remote Irish village it examines what happens when a dictator on the run from atrocities he committed in his country attracts the attention of a lonely housewife. This book will have you thinking about actions and consequences and forgiveness.  Reviewed here 
  5. From Korea comes a book that was a knock out bestseller and not just in Korea. Please Look After Mom  by Shin Kyung-sook looks at the mother-child relationship which is thrown into question when an elderly mother goes missing in an underground station while on her way to visit her children. As they search for her they discover secrets about her life and uncomfortable truths about their own attitudes.Reviewed here 
  6. Possession by A. S Byatt was my choice when I joined the book club. I wasn’t sure I had make the right choice until the meeting but surprisingly we had a great discussion about the different forms possession can take -whether for artifacts f the past or for another individual. Reviewed here
  7. Holiday by Stanley Middleton.Who is he I can hear you asking. Not surprised really.Despite having written more than 40 novels he has more or less disappeared from our radar. A pity. This is a short novel from 1974 in which a middle aged man facing a crisis is his marriage takes a spur of the moment holiday at the seaside. It’s the same resort he visited year after year as a child when his parents took him for their annual holiday. Reflections of those times  days mingle with more recent and more bitter memories. Good for discussions around nostalgia and relationships. Reviewed here 
  8. L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. It’s not the first book in Zola’s Rougon-Marquet series of 20 titles but this doesn’t matter too much. Read it for its superb rendition of life on the breadline in nineteenth century Paris. You can, if your book club is of an academic mind, get into all kinds of discussion about Zola’s theory of naturalism and inherited conditions. Reviewed here
  9. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chances are that your club has already read Half a Yellow Sun which is an earlier novel by Adichie. Americanah gives a view of life for a girl who leaves Nigeria – one of the people who achieves the dream – only to find its not what she expected. Can she make a new life or do the ties that bind back to the homeland prove stronger? It’s a novel about choices you make to fit in with a new way of life and how experience changes you. It might sound rather sombre but there are some outstandingly funny scenes in a hairdressing salon. Reviewed here
  10. Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan: We hope this never happens to anyone. But it does. What if you were one of the passengers in a ferry or cruise liner that is sinking. You’ve got yourself into a lifeboat and are now waiting for rescue. But days go by, water and food supplies dwindle. Who gets to live in those circumstances?  Who deserves to die?  And who has the right to make those decisions?  Those questions lie at the heart of Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel. This isn’t the best written novel I read in 2013 but it was one that stimulated a lot of discussion in our book club meeting. Reviewed here 

Those are just some of the books I’d suggest. What would your recommendations be?

The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

Some pieces are small, others large, but all are calculated to deceive, to lead one astray, in order to make the solution of the puzzle as difficult, as challenging, as possible. In our tradition, how a puzzle is made, and how it is solved, reveals some greater truth about the world.

This quote comes from an episode in Mark Henshaw’s The Snow Kimono in which a professor of law tells a story about his father’s fascination with traditional Japanese jigsaw puzzles. It could equally describe the way Mark Henshaw’s narrative is constructed.  Each chapter builds on the preceding one, enabling the story to unfold one layer at a time and bring with it ever-deepening insights and fresh revelations.

thesnowkimonoThe novel opens in Paris in 1989. Retired police inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers, where he once served as an intelligence officer. She claims to be his daughter. Back home in his apartment he finds a stranger waiting for him – Tadashi Omura, a former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan who bears a strong resemblance to the Emperor Hirohito. Omura begins to relate the story of his own lost daughter Fumiko and his friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda. As the story of a fractured friendship, lost lovers and orphaned children unfolds, Jovert cannot help reflect on the parallels with his own life which, like Ikeda’s, is built on a lie.

Each strand of the narrative pivots between various characters and locations, in France, Japan and Algeria. It’s written in a slightly off-beat enigmatic style which keeps readers uncertain how everything fits together and how it will all end. Many of the tales use beautiful evocative imagery.

Behind me, the mountain peaks blaze like white teeth in the first rays of the sun. Darkness seeps back into the earth. The grey-tiled rooftops of the village, clustered together like sleeping cattle, begin to surface.

or in another scene:

Banks of cloud the colour of egg white hung low and flat on the horizon.

The Snow Kimono is a meditation on love, loss and betrayal but one whose meaning becomes evident only in stages. Omura counsels Jovert early on in their relationship that if he wants to understand, then he needs to change his perspective. “In Japan we have a saying. If you want to see your life, you have to see it through the eyes of another. But what if what you see is not what you want to know.” Jovert, reminiscing about his career comes to appreciate that the techniques he used in his career would not be sufficient to reveal the truth about life “… life, unlike crime, was not something you could solve. What people told you was not always the truth; the truth was what you found out, eventually, by putting all the pieces together.”

The non-linear structure and the enigmatic nature of the plot alone would make The Snow Kimono a fascinating novel but add the haunting, fluid, lyrical style and the result is the most remarkable novel I’ve read all year. From the first page I was enthralled. By the time I got to the last page I wanted to start all over again to try, like Jovert, to put all those pieces together.

End Notes

Mark Henshaw was born in Canberra, Australia. He published his first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, 26 years ago to huge critical acclaim. Since then he’s published detective novels under the pen-name of J.M.Calder but under his own name, nothing. Why the long silence? An  interview in Sydney Morning Herald may provide the answer. 

The Snow Kimono is published by Text Publishing. They took on the publication after  32 other publishers turned it down. The Snow Kimono went on to win the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2015.

2 disappointments and 1 soaring success

sundaysalonI’ve now read two of the 2015 Booker longlist titles; neither of which I think will be declared the winner.  Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations was a far better novel than Anne Enright’s The Green Road in the sense it actually had a message but both were rather straight-forward stories. No real experimentation with form such as we’ve seen from recent winners like Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton. Maybe the judges are not looking for that especially but I would expect them hone in on a novel that has a unique quality, one that stands out from the crowd in one respect or another. Neither O’Hagan or Enright did that for me. Maybe my next Booker longlist contender A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will be more remarkable. It’s the early favourite for this year’s award but the judges have not always followed the popular vote so I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in the betting odds.

thesnowkimonoFortunately the disappointing experience with those two titles is overshadowed by the book I’m currently reading: The Snow Kimono by the Australian author Mark Henshaw. It’s his first novel in 25 years and was apparently  rejected 32 times before Text Publishing stepped forward. It was a smart move since Henshaw’s novel went on to win the Premier’s award.

From the first page I was enthralled.  The novel begins in Paris in 1989 when a retired police inspector receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter.  Two days later a stranger knocks on his apartment door. Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan, begins his story of his best friend, a brilliant but arrogant writer and the lives of three Japanese women. That summary doesn’t however do any justice to this wonderfully mesmerising tale that unfolds like a puzzle. What a shame the judges didn’t longlist this novel.

Reading overload

breatheI blame the people who run our public library service. They’ve made it too darn easy to reserve books on line. Don’t they know there are members like me who just can’t stop themselves acquiring books? It’s really not my fault that I am faced with a glut of books and only a few weeks in which to read them because we go on holiday in three weeks and I don’t want to lug hard cover books around with me in Germany.  It surely couldn’t have been me that went into the reservation system the day the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced on Wednesday and clicked on three titles that were already available. Just as it wasn’t me a few weeks ago who did something similar on the night the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize was announced.

Sometime you can wait months for a reserved book to become available (I often forget I’ve even requested some of the books) but yesterday I dropped into the local branch to say farewell to one of the librarians. When she handed me three books that had just arrived, she burst into giggles at the horrified look on my face. I left, trying to work out how I was going to get through them and concluding one of them would probably have to be returned unopened. Just as I was getting into the car she came running up to me; she’d found another one that I’d reserved.

So now I have on my bedside table three Booker prize candidates:

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan
The Green Road by Anne Enright
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

And a fourth is a novel that I requested about two months ago The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw.

All of these are calling out to me but I had to make a start somewhere. Since O’Hagan was on the top that became the one I started yesterday. It’s such a well written novel about two characters; one an elderly lady who is trying to remember her life when she was a photographer of note and her grandson who is trying to forget his time as a soldier in Afghanistan. O’Hagan is as insightful when he is portraying life in a care home and the onset of dementia as when he is portraying life on the front line in Helmand province and the mental disintegration of a career solider. It’s one of those novels that you just have to keep reading, reading, reading. If you want go get a taste of this novel there is an extract in The Daily Telegraph from one of the Afghanistan sections.

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