Reading round-up: early September

Time for another round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately.

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace (2014)

Nikesh Shukla’s follow-up to Coconut Unlimited is another exploration of how personal identities are shaped, this time revolving around the online world. Kitab Balasubramanyam is a writer who performs better on social media than he does in real life. Having lost his job and girlfriend, he’s drifting along – until a namesake who’s found him on the internet pays a visit, and his brother goes off to the US to find someone with the same tattoo. Shukla gradually reveals just how much Kitab is struggling to find stability for himself, and the lengths to which he’s prepared to go for it. Published by The Friday Project.

MalvaldiMarco Malvaldi, The Art of Killing Well (2011)

Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis, 2014

In 1895, Italy’s first cookery writer, Pellegrino Artusi, takes a break from his travels at the castle of Barine di Roccapendente – only for his rest to be disrupted when a body is found in the cellar. This is a rather jolly and enjoyable murder mystery, whose waspish third-person narrator takes swipes at the aristocratic characters, and makes arch comments about writing a novel set in the nineteenth century. The tongue-in-cheek quality of Marco Malvadi’s prose keeps it on the right side of charming, and I definitely want to more by him. Published by MacLehose Press.

Annie Ernaux, A Woman’s Story (1988)

Translated from the French by Tanya Leslie, 1990

This is a short book about the life of the Annie Ernaux’s mother, but it’s not a straightforward memoir. It engages with the author’s deep-seated feeling that she needed to write about her mother, and the inevitable limits to what she could achieve by doing so. There’s a real power in the underlying themes of change and loss. Published by Quartet Books.

Royle

Nicholas Royle (ed.), The Best British Short Stories 2014

The fourth entry in Salt Publishing’s annual anthology series. It’s a varied mix: there are writers whose work I’m familiar with and admire, such as M. John Harrison, Christopher Priest, and Stuart Evers. Then there others who were unknown to me: there’s David Grubb, whose ‘Roof Space’ tells poignantly of the relationship of a father and son by way of their model railway. In ‘Ladies’ Day’, Vicki Jarrett examines how a group of young mothers are searching for a new sense of direction in life, focused through a day at the races. ‘Guests’ is Joanne Rush’s first published story, and I hope there will be many more, as this one is superb: the tale of a woman whose house becomes filled with the ghosts of war dead while her husband is working in Bosnia. Whatever your taste in short fiction, there should be something to intrigue in here.

José Carlos Llop, The Stein Report (1995)

Translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis, 2014

1960s Majorca: Guillermo Stein is a newcomer at school, mysteriously different from the other boys. A group of his schoolmates tries to find out more about him; what they discover goes far beyond the life of one individual. What makes The Stein Report work for me is the sense of friction between the worlds of adults and children. The schoolboys’ world is complete to them; they know its contours. But when investigating Stein gives them a partial window on the adult world, we see just how much they still have to learn. Published by Hispabooks.

MaineSarah Maine, Bhalla Strand (2014)

In 2010, Hetty Deveraux visits her inheritance – an old house gone to seed in the Outer Hebrides – and uncovers human remains while repairing the place. A hundred years earlier, Hetty’s ancestor Beatrice marries the owner of Bhalla House, painter Theodore Blake. An intriguing mystery unfolds between the two timelines, but perhaps strongest of all is Sarah Maine’s evocation of the raw Hebridean landscape and the lives of its inhabitants. Published by Frieght Books.

Andrew Crofts, Confessions of a Ghostwriter (2014)

I really liked the idea of this latest title in The Friday Project’s Confessions series; it promised to open a part of the book world that we don’t usually get to see. And so it does – though only to an extent, naturally. Andrew Crofts mixes tales of his encounters with celebrities, politicians, and others with a story to tell; and entries on the day-to-day of the writing life. It’s an interesting combination that reveals a varied professional life; Crofts’ enthusiasm for what he does is palpable.

Neil Williamson, The Moon King (2014)

I reviewed Neil Williamson’s debut story collection way back in 2006; now he’s followed it up with a first novel. The Moon King looks rather different from much of Williamson’s short fiction, but it has the same dextrous approach to the fantastic. In a city whose inhabitants’ temperaments change with the phases of the moon, Anton Dunn wakes one day to find himself closer to the centre of power than he ever thought he’d be. There’s a vein of strangeness running through this novel that adds an extra dimension to an already intriguing story. Published by Newcon Press.

New Fiction Uncovered column: three Welsh novels in translation

For my third Fiction Uncovered guest column, I wanted to write about fiction in translation. I’ve reviewed three novels translated from Welsh, each of which won the Wales Book of the Year award:

  • Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis (translated by Gwen Davies)
  • The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (translated by Lloyd Jones)
  • Faith, Hope & Love by Llwyd Owen (translated by the author)

I didn’t really have a greater rationale for choosing those specific books, but actually I think they fit together quite well as a set of novels that deal with the effect of place on character. And they’re all worth reading in their own right.

You can read my new column here, and find links to the previous ones here.

Elsewhere: Unsung Female Writers and SF Masterworks

After this year’s male-dominated Booker longlist was announced, Naomi from The Writes of Woman got together a few other female book bloggers, who each suggested five female writers who they felt deserved more recognition (see parts one and two of the Unsung Female Writers series). Now, as a follow-up, Naomi has sought a male perspective: she asked me and Eric of Lonesome Reader for our suggestions. She also asked me to suggest a science fiction writer, as that’s not a field she knows much about. In the end, my entire list is SF-tinged to varying degrees – but you’ll have to read the post at Naomi’s blog to find out who I chose. Eric’s list is also well worth checking out.

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In another place, the SF fanzine Big Sky has marked Loncon 3 by putting together two special issues in celebration of the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. In issue 4, you’ll find reprints of my blog posts on Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation and The Prestige, and Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty.

New indexing

A short admin post today, to say that I’ve changed the way posts on the blog are indexed. I used to have two pages listing all my reviews, but they became unwieldy. So I’ve been working on a new way of categorising posts, which you can find in a drop-down menu to the right. In particular, you can browse for posts on individual authors, or books translated from particular languages. Hopefully that should make it easier to explore the archives.

Some thoughts on Loncon

So, Loncon: I haven’t the time to write a full report – and, to be honest, I’m not sure that anything I wrote could do justice to this wonderful event. It was big without being overwhelming, had more than enough to keep anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction engaged for the full five days – and perhaps enough to make uninterested people start to change their minds.

I caught up with some people I hadn’t seen in the real world for months (years, in some cases), and was pleased to meet others for the first time. My three panels unfolded mostly as billed, went very well from my point of view, and certainly seemed to be well received. I’d like to thank everyone who joined me in a discussion, as participant or moderator: Nina Allan; Anne Charnock; Scott Edelman; Chris Gerwel; Leticia Lara; Kev McVeigh; Patrick Nielsen Hayden; Aishwarya Subramanian; E .J. Swift; and especially Adam Roberts, who generously agreed to join the Genre and Mainstream Panel at short notice.

There are two other things emerging from the con that I’d like to highlight, one general, one more specific. My general point is about the atmosphere of the con. I may have my reservations about genre SF and the culture that surrounds it, but I also need to champion what the community does well. SF has a long tradition of reader criticism, and that means a lot of people who take a serious analytical approach to their reading – and, when they gather together at an event like Loncon, the result is second-to-none.

To take one of my panels as an example: I and a panel of writers and editors spent the best part of an hour talking about three specific short stories. Imagine the literary festival where a mainstream equivalent of that could happen. Now imagine one with dozens of panels like (and unlike) this. The interested literary reader has nothing to compare; I know, because I’m such a reader as well.

My more specific point is a thought that has developed from some of the panels I attended on non-Western SF, and SF in translation. The point was made that Western audiences can be resistant to stories that lack conflict (stories without ‘moving parts’, as the writer Amal El-Mohtar put it). And I’m struck that similar attitudes often prevail towards mainstream-published SF (they can be stereotyped as focusing on character at the expense of a fully worked-out background, and so on). Of course, these are two different issues in many ways; but I do wonder if there’s a connection somewhere – perhaps a limited view of what science fiction can (or should) look like? This is a thought I’m keen to explore further.

Finally, my thanks to everyone who was involved in the organisation of Loncon. You did yourselves, and SF, proud.

“In these pages, the Professor had walked beyond beaten paths, looking for truth in a place no one knows”

Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2008)

HPIt occurred to me when I was compiling my review list in preparation for Women in Translation Month that I’d read all bar one of Yoko Ogawa’s books which were available to me in English translation – so now seemed as good a time as any to complete the set. It’s a paradoxical feeling: on the one hand, I’ve now read everything of Ogawa’s that I can, so I must have some kind of handle on her work; on the other, it’s only four volumes out of a much larger bibliography, so how can I be sure?

This is particularly relevant in the case of The Housekeeper and the Professor, because it’s a little different from Ogawa’s other books that I’ve read – the intense focus on a distinctive relationship is still there, but it’s noticeably less dark. There’s still a sting to it, but the overriding tone is wistful. I believe from what I’ve heard that it’s not typical of Ogawa’s work as a whole, but I say that with a degree of uncertainty.

Anyway, our narrator is a housekeeper who goes to work in 1992 for a retired professor of mathematics (neither character is named). After being injured in a car accident, the Professor remembers nothing from before 1975, and his short-term memory lasts only eighty minutes – so, each time the Housekeeper arrives, it is their first meeting as far as he’s concerned. But the pair bond (albeit one-sidedly) over maths: it is the Professor’s world, literally and figuratively; and the Housekeeper becomes able to understand more because the Professor will happily explain concepts to her repeatedly (though for him, of course, it’s always the first time he’s done so).

Underpinning the novel is the idea of mathematics as a hidden, eternal map of the universe; Stephen Snyder’s translation really captures the joy of this view of maths. For example, here the Housekeeper imagines the universe as a vast, intricate pattern of lace:

The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth. (p. 124)

So the Professor’s worldview comes to influence the Housekeeper’s: she is inspired to do her own investigations into prime numbers, and even refers to her son solely by the Professor’s nickname for him, Root (derived from the flat top of the boy’s head, which reminds the Professor of the square root symbol).

It’s a sign of how far the Professor’s outlook comes to suffuse Ogawa’s novel that the little numerical questions he asks the Housekeeper as a greeting – ‘What’s your shoe size?’, for example – seem jarring when he blurts them out in another context (namely, in the barber’s chair). At that sort of moment, we see the Professor’s outbursts as the rest of the world sees them: the ravings of a confused old man; but when he’s with the Housekeeper, we understand that they are a part of his mental framework.

Stability is a key theme running through The Housekeeper and the Professor: mathematics as an eternal truth against the vagaries of life; maths again as the Professor’s store of knowledge against his fleeting memory; this particular job, these circumstances, as something the Housekeeper wishes to remain in. The melancholy truth, of course, is that the characters’ situation cannot last forever; but hope remains, because the numbers will go on.

Elsewhere
My other blog posts on Yoko Ogawa.
An essay on Ogawa’s work in the LA Review of Books, by Robert Anthony Siegel.

New Fiction Uncovered column: ten short story writers

My second guest column for Fiction Uncovered is now live. I want to cover my main reading interests in these columns, so this one is a celebration of short stories. It’s a list of ten recommended contemporary British short story writers. It’s not a ‘top ten’ as such, because of course there are more than ten authors whom I could have included – and I’d love to hear about your favourite short story writers in the comments.

Further reading

Here are links to my reviews of some of the stories and books mentioned in the column:

The Silver Wind by Nina Allan
Ten Stories About Smoking by Stuart Evers
‘Butcher’s Perfume’ by Sarah Hall
The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan
The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor
Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Leading the Dance by Sarah Salway
Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical and Everyone’s Just So So Special by Robert Shearman
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Keep up to date with my Fiction Uncovered columns here.