14 May, 2013
Hi there. Continuing my culinary journey in NYC, this week I talk about some fancy brunch. So check me out at Umami Mart: Slightly Peckish!
In bookish news, I just bought a copy of Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley to try and spur me on to do more running. I’m a crappy runner, struggling from the first step, gasping for breath and with a face as red as a boiled octopus. I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running which was very inspiring and impressive since he runs a marathon a year on top of writing his books.
So what I’d like to know is, what books do you read to spur you on to do some exercise?
I have also just returned from a weekend in Paris where I finally visited the Catacombs which was surprisingly well lit, beautifully maintained and did not smell although the queue was 2 hours long. I read Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat on the Eurostar there and came back with a copy of Asterix and the Belgians in the original French just to see how the English translations differ. Apparently quite a lot, it turns out, but I guess they can’t really do a direct translation and keep all the jokes intact. The fact that the names of the beloved characters are different was a bit of a shock though.
This has spurred me on to try my hand at reading some books in French even though my French is pretty atrocious. I put out a call on twitter for titles that are gentle for a reader wanting to improve their French reading skills which resulted in several recommendations from Camus to Fred Vargas, Collette, Sagan, Nothomb and short stories by Gravalda to children’s books such as Le Petit Nicholas, historical fiction such as Dans un grand vent des fleurs by Janine Montupet (about Grasse and the perfume industry in the 19th century) and of course French translations of English books such as Harry Potter. So thank you everyone and lots to choose from. I went and bought a copy of Fred Vargas’ Un peu plus loin sur la droite, the sequel to The Three Evangelists which hasn’t been translated into English. Let’s see how I get on.
Do you ever get the urge to read a book in another language? And what did you begin with?
9 May, 2013
Philip Sington’s new novel, The Valley of Unknowing, is about a washed out novelist in East Germany, a young woman from the West and a brilliant manuscript without a title page.
Bruno Krug is a washed out novelist who had made the decision of staying in East Germany because he couldn’t really be bothered to defect. Now decorated the People’s Champion for his contributions to the arts in the Actually Exiting Socialist state, he is living off his fame from his debut novel, The Orphans of Neustadt which was published over thirty years ago. His follow up novels weren’t as lauded although they conformed to governmental guidelines and he is getting increasingly jaded. And there is also the matter of one Wolfgang Richter, a young writer who constantly makes fun of Krug for what he perceives as him selling out. On the day Krug receives his award, he falls in love at first sight with a young viola player named Theresa Aden.
It turned out they were all from the Carl Maria von Weber College of Music, which used to be the Royal Conservatory before Saxon royalty was collectively vacuumed by the wind of revolutionary consciousness into the dust bag of history.
Unfortunately, he soon sees Theresa with with Richter and is gripped with jealousy. To make matters worse, his friend and editor, Michael Schilling has just handed him a manuscript of what looks likes a brilliant sequel to The Orphans of Neustadt and written by none other than his rival, Richter. As Krug is torn by jealousy, he sets in motion events that will put Theresa within his grasp but will totally change the course of their lives.
Philip Sington’s new novel, The Valley of Unknowing, is darkly comic tale of a successful, yet struggling, writer in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall who is under no illusions as to his abilities and who is given one last chance of changing his life. I really enjoyed Sington’s previous book, The Einstein Girl, and was looking forward to reading his new novel which is even better than his first. Sington manages to inhabit Krug’s wry and yet rather naïve novelist, a man who has finally fallen in love with a much younger woman from the West, whose affections he is very unsure of and for whom he would go to any lengths to impress and possess.
The desk and the trypewriter, the only permanent accoutrements of my official occupation, were strategically situated in the bedroom. I had some days earlier dressed the surroundings so as to lend them an unmistakable air of ongoing artistic endeavour, the leading props being a copy of The Magic Mountain lying open and face down, a small stack of leather-bound notebooks, carefully disordered, a pewter mug full of freshly sharpened pencils, a photograph of Ernest Hemingway in a cable-knit sweater, two items of fan mail, dates necessarily obscured, a map of Budapest and an edition of The Orphans of Neustadt in Portuguese (which I had stopped short of annotating, for fear of tactical overreach).
As much as you pity Krug, you can’t help but feel for him because Sington imbues him with such narcissism and childish wonder that you start identifying with him. Yes, he makes some questionable choices. Yes, you don’t quite understand why he loves Theresa so much but still you want him to be happy because he is beginning to realise just how alone he is with nothing much to look forward to and with his talent drying up.
It struck me as a waste, an emotional inefficiency, that I had squandered so much of my life among people who were destined to become strangers: people to whom I had no ultimate significance, and who were ultimately insignificant to me.
Sington brilliantly captures what life in East Germany must have been like. The mundane, the petty problems, the ever present paranoia that doesn’t quite drive you insane. The bureaucracy, the irony of living in a totalitarian socialist state where everything is for the people except that you aren’t quite sure who those people are. It’s comic and yet frightening at the same time.
There are some brilliant touches in the novel including one where Krug talks to Theresa about the dangers of suspicion and Isaac Babel (whom I first encountered in Elif Batuman’s The Possessed). Sington casts little, ironic asides which shows Krug’s satiric understanding of the situation he and his country is in, rather depressing and fooling no one.
This is just such a complete novel, nothing needs to be changed, it’s almost perfect. Almost, because I didn’t think the revelation at the end came as such a big shock although maybe that is in-keeping with Bruno Krug’s personality. I really enjoyed and loved this book. It made me smile and it also posed many questions on the nature of politics, free will and the idea of choice. It still surprises me to think that it was within my lifetime that the Berlin Wall had come down.
I would like to thank Vintage Books for kindly sending me a copy of The Valley of Unknowing to review.
3 May, 2013
Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is a collection of interconnected short stories that are about modern Japan but heavily dosed with the twisted and macabre. I have only read one of her previous books, the wonderful The Housekeeper and the Professor which was a rather lovely and warm depiction of family in a slowly fracturing world, but I was aware that her other books were of a much darker and disturbing quality and was reluctant to read them. But I was drawn by the wonderful reception of her new book and the beautiful cover.
Subtitled Eleven Dark Tales, the collection starts with a grieving mother who waits at a bakery to buy a strawberry short cake for her son’s birthday every year even though she lost him six years ago. As she waits for the shop assistant, she is drawn to what looks like the distraught pâtisserie chef speaking on the phone in the kitchen beyond. Not much happens but Ogawa sets the tone of her collection, one that combines an unsettling chill together with a sense of incompleteness. You wonder where she is taking you.
Although not as disturbing as I expected, I did find a number of stories got under my skin and left me feeling uneasy, especially Old Mrs. J (strange), Sewing for the Heart (grotesque) and Tomatoes and the Full Moon (spooky). My favourites were Welcome to the Museum of Torture and the two stories that followed closely which were more poignant and with a hint of fairytale and involves a Museum of Torture, a Bengal Tiger and a man with an interesting past which includes a dose of hoarding (the modern scourge). An intriguing combination.
Initially, I was a little disappointed at the brevity of the stories: the characterisation seemed brash and stifled, the emotions were dealt with in an offhand way. I was unsure about this collection and how it was going to proceed. But slowly, Ogawa begins to tie little sections together, mentioning a character here or an event from a previous story there until it comes full circle. She does this so seamlessly that it takes you a while to realise where you had encountered this snippet of information without taking you away from the story you are currently reading. And when the connections start making sense, you find yourself immersing into this dark, macabre ordinariness in which she so excels. Pretty impressive stuff.
I do recommend that you follow the order of the stories set in the contents as they follow a very loose but definite order and will ultimately make more sense towards the end. You’ll finish with a sense of wonder and a need to re-read the collection.
I would like to thank Harvill Secker for kindly sending me a copy of Revenge to review.
1 May, 2013
But in the spring of 1959, fifty-seven years after it was laid, the egg cracked apart. A child lay in the catastrophe of shells, a golden-skinned boy with eyes that burned red and wings that wrapped around his shoulders. …
He seemed to me to embody the ancient descriptions of the heavenly host, the passages that one finds in biblical literature, with skin like pounded gold, hair of silk, eyes of fire.
And so Danielle Trussoni’s Angelolopolis continues the dazzling tale she began in Angelology, binding together mythical folklore, history and philosophy to create a modern day twist to the ever-fascinating subject of angels. What she does here is something I hadn’t really come across before.
It’s been 10 years since the angelologist Verlaine last came in contact with Evangeline, the mysterious woman who has the blood of angelologists and the Nephil running through her veins. There is perpetual war between the the Nephilim, the human-angel hybrids, who have infiltrated the highest echelons of society through their breeding and wealth, and the angelologists who try and contain them. When Evangeline is captured by a vicious and mercenary angel named Eno who works for the ancient Grigori family, Verlaine sets out to rescue her and uncover the secret behind Evangeline’s lineage and stop the Grigori’s from accruing any more power. And what is the fascination behind Fabergé’s eggs so beloved of the Romanovs?
Whilst Angelopolis is filled with some delicious nuggets of twisted Baltic history, especially the Russian Imperial House, intertwined with biblical stories going back to the Flood and studded with philosophical asides from Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, which Trussoni has remodeled into a prison for angels in Siberia, to Rasputin’s mystical teachings, there were a few flaws in Trussoni’s second book.
Although the historical titbits were fascinating, sometimes they felt like infodumps, miniscule lectures slotted in between the action, more tell rather than show. As a lover of history, I didn’t mind but I can see other readers getting a little cross-eyed with all the information. Saying that, I really enjoyed the book and raced through it, wanting to know the fate that awaited Evangeline and Verlaine. However, some of the action scenes seemed a little contrived, the ferocious angels ultimately a little too weak and the ending felt rushed. And I wasn’t thrilled about the brand name dropping which seemed to jar a little with the religio-mythicism of the angels.
These are small quibbles to what I think is a fascinating take on angel lore and I’m more than impressed by how Trussoni weaves all the different strands, historical, mythical and scientific, into something coherent and, dare I say, almost believable. Comparisons with Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy may seem inevitable but they are two vastly different stories with Trussoni’s focus being more on the academic dissemination of angel lore and the scientific analysis and methodology in how to capture them. I loved it. And I can’t wait for the next installation!
I would like to thank Viking for kindly sending me a copy to review. Do click through to check out the Book Club Kit which includes a wonderful Q&A with Danielle Trussoni. Enjoy!
24 April, 2013
The sensation of fresh snow crunching underfoot was deeply satisfying to Isserley. Just the idea of all that water vapour solidifying by the cloudful and fluttering to earth was miraculous. She couldn’t quite believe it even after all these years. It was a phenomenon of stupendous and unjustifiably useless extravagance. Yet here it lay, soft and powdery, edibly pure. Isserley scooped a handful off the ground and ate some. It was delicious.
Isn’t that beautiful?
Under the Skin by Michel Faber was February’s choice for my book group made by Kim. I wasn’t really keen on reading anything by Faber since his most famous novel, Crimson Petal and the White, left me cold. But my book group choices often surprise me and so I picked a copy with an introduction by my favourite author, David Mitchell. For him to endorse this novel must mean it’s good, right?
And it was. I was blinded by its brilliance as it turned out to be something completely different from what I expected. I’m not going to dissect this book here because I want you to discover the twists and turns that kept me so enthralled yourself. Trust me, it’s a journey you won’t forget.
Set in Scotland, Faber’s prose immediately places you in a barren and cold land, with the sea breeze wafting on the bitter wind. It is on these isolated roads that we first meet Isserley, cruising to pick up male hitchhikers, especially ones with buff bodies. There is something gauche about Isserley, her hair is messy, her build is wrong, she squints through overly thick glasses but she has magnificent knockers which is all she needs to reel in the men. She makes you instantly wary about where this story is going. But it’s going some place you won’t expect. Back at the isolated farm, Isserley’s companions take over and drag the men away to be prepared and Isserley retreats to her cottage, grooming herself and to contemplate her life and the world in which she lives.
Apart from the plot which managed to twist and turn and slowly reveal a picture more intricate than what you will expect, Faber does a beautiful job in peeling away the layers that make the character of Isserley come alive. She is a monstrosity on the surface yet under the skin she is beautiful, a vital soul who questions and thinks deeply about her place in the universe. The beauty of nature around her touches her deeply and she experiences thoughts that don’t seem to cross the minds of her colleagues who are only engrossed in their work.
It’s been almost two months since I finished the book and I still keep thinking about it and her. You can’t help but identify with Isserley as she struggles with her past, her disfigurement and the consequences of her actions. And your heart will give a tiny leap as you watch over the subtle changes in her feelings for her boss’ beautiful and troublesome son, Amlis Vess, as she realises that he is the only other person who sees and experiences the beauty around them. There is a sense of mono no aware, a fleeting, wistful aura, in Faber’s novel which I found very moving.
One thing Under the Skin did really make me think about is what it means to be human and the choices we make as consumers. It’s a very clever book but not heavy-handed and Faber doesn’t spell things out but lets you, the reader, figure things out for yourself. The messages are there but you pick up on it slightly, unsure except for the growing horror as you realise exactly what is going on in the tale. It’s pure genius and I loved it. And I will certainly go and pick up another book by Faber.
Do go and check out Kim’s review of the book too.
16 April, 2013
Umami Mart‘s Editor, Kayoko, is away in Vietnam and so she’s asked us to pick a favourite post from the last 6 years and you can see my choice over at Umami Mart: Flashback Fave today. Go on, scoot over there and also check out what the other writers have chosen. I only picked one that wasn’t mine but if I had to choose a favourite Slightly Peckish post, it would probably have to be this , this and this.
In bookish news, Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists 4 was announced yesterday. I’m delighted that both Tahmima Anam and Ross Raisin were included in the Granta list and am looking forward to reading all the other writers, some of which I have on my shelves including Helen Oyeyemi, Ned Beauman and Evie Wyld of whom I have heard so much.
The much-anticipated shortlist for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction) was announced this morning amidst some misgivings that it’s the usual suspects but I can’t wait to read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies as I loved Wolf Hall and also want to try Zadie Smith’s NW. I read Smith’s debut, White Teeth, when it was published way back in 2000 but haven’t read her subsequent novels although my sister has a copy of On Beauty which I’ve been meaning to read after I read E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End (do I need to?)
And next week I’m planning to attend an event celebrating the publication of The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day where Terry Pratchett will be in discussion with his collaborators, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. You may still be able to get tickets from Waterstones Gower Street but hurry! I’ve read the first 3 books in the series and they are a wonderful mixture of the history of science interspersed with events in the Discworld which I highly recommend.
15 April, 2013
Many of you know how much I enjoyed and admired Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X which I read last year. In the interim, a drama series based on his short stories, Higashino Keigo Mysteries, aired in Japan and I watched with glee as he deconstructed the various mystery tropes that make up the successful crime writer’s arsenal.
And so I couldn’t wait to read Salvation of a Saint which once again featured the maverick and eccentric Detective Galileo aka phyics Professor Manabu Yukawa of the fictional Teito University in Tokyo who is invaluable in assisting the police investigations of his college friend, Detective Kusanagi. I was also delighted to see the appearance of Kusanagi’s deputy, Detective Kaoru Utsumi, who is one of the main characters in the tv series Galileo which aired in Japan in 2007 and which was my first introduction to Higashino’s mysteries.
Unlike in The Devotion of Suspect X, Professor Yukawa only makes an appearance from Chapter 9. The action is focused more on the police investigation into the murder of Yoshitaka Mashiba, a wealthy businessman with a beautiful wife, Ayane, who is a successful patchwork artist and teacher and a much younger lover, Hiromi Wakayama, who also happens to be his wife’s apprentice. But on that fateful weekend, Ayane was in Sapporo visiting her aging parents and Mashiba was supposedly alone. Told in flashbacks, the back story of the characters are slowly revealed in tandem with the progression of the investigation. When Utsumi suspects that her superior, Kusanagi, is being emotionally swayed by the captivatingly tragic Ayane, she calls upon Yukawa for his assistance. For the detectives are baffled at the inexplicable manner of Mashiba’s death and are unable to find any clues.
Unlike a conventional crime thriller, we are given a small number of suspects right from the beginning who are then slowly narrowed down as the police uncover clues. Higashino seems more interested in fleshing out the motives of each character through their interaction with the victim and unraveling the final trick with which the murder, if it can be proved, was carried out. Like with The Devotion of Suspect X, the mechanism of this trick is deceptively clever, if not slightly simpler as is the story itself which is a straightforward crime passionel.
This is a quiet book where the violence has already happened and the characters are dealing with the aftermath, all the while fending off prying questions by the police. There are no conflicts that are about to erupt. Everything is kept in check by the suspects. But this, contrarily ratchets up the tension because you aren’t exactly sure how the characters are going respond. Will they continue to put up a brave face or will they crack?
The mystery and the characters were satisfying but I am still unsure about the narrative structure and whether the flashbacks provided a cohesive plot. In some ways, I would have preferred if Higashino had embedded the characters’ pasts into the general narrative instead of giving us chunks in between which would have provided a more seamless reading experience.
The other thing of which I would have liked a little more explanation was the rift in Yukawa and Kusanagi’s relationship which I am suspecting happened in the previous book but which I seem to have forgotten.
Although I preferred The Devotion of Suspect X because of its sheer, shocking ingenuity, Salvation of a Saint is a solid crime novel providing you with a glimpse of affluent Tokyo and flawless houses that hide seething emotions just below the surface. Keigo Higashino’s work is hugely popular in Japan with a second series of Galileo and a film set to be released this year so I’m excited to see his novels featuring Prof. Yukawa appearing in English. I can’t wait to read more!
I would like to thank the lovely people at Little Brown who kindly sent me copy of Salvation of a Saint to review.