April Reads I
I’ve had to split this into two because of restrictions on email size (it’s the pictures, rather than the text, before you panic), so I’ve roughly divided them into a new/print books round up here and an ebooks/things long languishing on my tbr shelf in “April Reads II” which follows quickly on the heels.
Recommendation of the month goes to Inlands by Elin Willows (translated by Duncan J. Lewis). It was just about perfect in every way. My gods. Sparse, barren, powerful. Storytelling at its best, inviting the reader inside the world, treating the reader as an intelligent being with life experience who doesn’t need motivations, emotion or reaction explained to them. A young woman leaves Stockholm for rural Sweden to live with her boyfriend, but the relationship ends almost as soon as she arrives. She decides to stay anyway and begins building a new life for herself. Those are the facts but really it’s a portrait of loneliness, of depression, a true existentialist exploration that trusts you to fill in the blanks yourself. I enjoyed this so much I immediately bought everything else Nordisk have put out (having already bought half of their output last time). I cannot recommend this enough.
Another book that came my way via Viet Thanh Nguyen (after last month’s The Mountain Sings by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai) is The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour. She wrote a stunning essay in The Displaced: Refugee Writers of Refugee Lives which Nguyen edited, and I immediately went out and bought this novel off the back of it. There’s something of the Salman Rushdie about this story of a feral boy raised amongst birds, particularly in the opening section, but if you aren’t a Rushdie fan (as I know many aren’t, but I am) then don’t let that comparison put you off. Khakpour has a style unlike anything I’ve encountered, absolutely contemporary in its mix of intellectual clarity, smart-casual register and confident, almost fashionable lilt. The narrative voice is compulsive, impossible not to like, inviting you in to see wonders. I’ve never read anything like this before, and I’ll be buying everything Khakpour has published as soon as is humanly possible.
I pre-ordered Hex by Jenni Fagan months before it was published and had to wait more than a month after it came out thanks to Brexit screwing everything up, but it was totally worth it. Fagan’s Luckenbooth was one of my favourite books last year, so I would have bought this anyway, but the reasons just kept coming. Polygon (my publisher for Only Gaijin) are doing a series called Dark Tales, where Scottish authors write novellas around key moments in Scottish history, of which this is the second (the first being Rizzio by Denise Mina). I love the authors, I love the concept, and I love the novella form, so this was a guaranteed winner for me.
All The Lovers in the Night by Kawakami Mieko (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd) was an advance digital copy from the publisher and is my favourite Kawakami so far. Ms. Ice Sandwich I loved, Breasts and Eggs was great, Heaven was good but triggering for me, so I couldn’t enjoy it. All The Lovers in the Night was a writer firing on all cylinders. What is ostensibly a series of conversations grows into a beautiful portrayal of alcoholism and loneliness from the inside without any of the moralising or emotional manipulation that often comes with writing about this subject. Kawakami’s writing is deceptively simple and she uses that skill to great effect when dealing with issues such as this. Perhaps that’s where Heaven fell down for me - there’s less of the subtlety, more of the sledgehammer there.
Ōe Kenzaburō is probably my favourite Japanese writer, so I tend to ration his translations lest I run out too soon. Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age! (translated by John Nathan) is a perfect example of latter day Ōe. Formally, it straddles that fine line between 私小説 (I-novel), autofiction, memoir and creative lit-crit. His writer of choice for this book is Blake, used to fine effect as always (I have a paper planned on Ōe and the way he uses foreign writers in his stories, when there is time), and the theme is his disabled son, Hikari (Ōe has two themes: his childhood in Ehime and his son). Perhaps not a place to start with Ōe (that would be A Personal Matter) but for fans, this is right in the wheelhouse.
Nicholas Hogg is a writer I’ve been lucky enough to work with, editing his novel Danny Love for Freight. Unfortunately they went out of business before it could hit the shelves and still hasn’t seen the light of day (this happened to a lot of authors, and it still breaks my heart - publishers, there are print-ready novels by fantastic writers just waiting to be picked up). I’m not sure why I hadn’t read his second novel, The Hummingbird and the Bear, just an oversight rather than a deliberate choice, and I’m so glad I finally did. It starts off as if it’s going to be a straight-forward love story: boy meets girl and they get engaged, boy meets another girl he likes more who is already married, and either drama or comedy will follow. Well, straight-forward it ain’t. No spoilers but just when you think you’ve got this book’s number, it heads off in an unexpected direction.
Wintermoon by Robert MacLean was sent to me by the publisher, which is nice as I was planning to buy it anyway. If you’re a fan of haiku then this is for you: Collected sequences written over 25 years by a poet who lived in Kyoto. This is modern English-language haiku at its finest from one of the most interesting poetry publishers out there.
More poetry. Suzanne very kindly sent me a copy of her new collection Waiting which I really enjoyed. Collections where the poems stand independently but also combine to make a narrative may just be my favourite form of creative writing, mixing my earliest love, poetry, with my longest love - narrative. Waiting melds a true crime story - Suzanne went to the same high school as Sharon Faye “Shari” Smith, who was murdered in 1985 by Larry Gene Bell - with the stresses of adolescent life to make a powerful sequence or “novella-in-verse”.
A final advance review copy for this month was Kamusari Tales Told at Night by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. This is the second in a YA series and as I’ll be reviewing it for the Japan Times I won’t say too much here. It’s not my usual kind of book (YA ain’t been my thing for a few decades) but it’s a lot of fun and does a good job of both painting Japanese attitudes to the countryside and recording a lot of the myths and legends that underpin customs that survive today. A good bit of teenage fun.
Continued in April Reads II…