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Human Acts
Human Acts
by Han Kang
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Examining the Human and the Inhuman, 10 Feb. 2016
This review is from: Human Acts (Paperback)
'Human Acts' follows up Han's success with 'The Vegetarian', the writer this time examining the notorious Gwangju Uprising (or massacre) of May 1980. Told in seven parts, each related by a different voice, the novel examines the fate of a group of people involved in cleaning the corpses of the victims, each of whom is connected by their guilt over the death of Dong-ho, a middle-school student caught up in the violence. As the years progress, we see how the mental scars remain, even if the physical wounds have healed, leaving a generation haunted by the memories of the incident and unable to move on. As with Han's earlier novel, Deborah Smith does an excellent job on translation duties, skilfully bringing the writer's different voices into English. I suspect that 'Human Acts' will be another success for a writer whose stature will surely grow over the coming years.

For a more in-depth review, please see my site, Tony's Reading List.

by Erwin Mortier
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Memories of Youth, Youthful Memories, 5 Oct. 2015
This review is from: Marcel (Paperback)
Marcel (translated by Ina Rilke) is a short work narrated by a young boy living in the Belgian countryside of the 1970s. We meet him helping his grandmother with her monthly task of dusting and rearranging photos of the dead – an appropriate activity in a rather sleepy region.

Slowly, through a series of visits and conversations between grown-ups, one figure emerges from amongst the ranks of the dead, with the name Marcel appearing again and again in conversations the boy overhears. He becomes fascinated by the dead man, clearly a relative of sorts, evidently one who died in the war. Eventually, after the grandmother comes into possession of some letters, the boy is able to find out a little more about Marcel. Little does he realise the effect they’ll have when they are seen by someone he knows, a person who turns out to have been very close to the deceased…

Marcel is a rather short first outing from Mortier, but it’s a soothing, intriguing read, a book all about the past and its secrets (and not revealing them). Another book which won’t take much more than an hour to read, the beauty lies more in what’s hidden than in what’s revealed.

The setting, in terms of both time and place, is of great importance to the story. The Belgian countryside is slightly behind the times (as shown by the rather gaudy dresses the boy’s grandmother is asked to make for the locals), and there’s a preoccupation with the events of the past, happenings which have faded into the distance elsewhere. While the war has been over for decades, mental scars remain, as raw as if the ceasefire had happened a matter of weeks ago – as the boy will eventually discover.

The narrator is the central figure of the story, and Marcel is a Bildungsroman of sorts, with the boy just beginning to become aware of the world around him. Eavesdropping on his grandparents and other residents of his village, he learns about his family secrets. This is also a time when his sexuality is starting to develop, and the merest glimpse of his voluptuous female teacher (her body, her clothes…) affects him physically. However, it’s also a time of learning, and in an awkward encounter with his cousin, the boy discovers that others can have very different feelings to his own.

Clever and inquisitive (and spending much of his time with adults), the boy’s curiosity is fuelled by what he sees and hears. The old photos, of course, are a constant source of interest, and then there are the old clothes in a trunk in the attic:

“The shirts did not match the picture in my mind’s eye, which was of a slim figure, military, clean-cut. A dark shape scissored out of the night. The check shirt had a peasant collar. He must have worn it buttoned up to the top, the same way it now lay folded in the trunk. He may have rolled up the sleeves on hot days. Up to the elbows or over them. Probably over.”
p.74 (Pushkin Press, 2014)

The more the boy learns, the greater his obsession with Marcel becomes – as does ours…

In naming the novel after Marcel, Mortier is playing with us a little. The title raises the reader’s expectations, yet in truth it’s a bit of a red herring. Marcel is merely a representation of the unspoken memories of the past, and clue by clue we piece together what actually happened decades ago, a history the locals are not keen to discuss in public. Through snatches of conversation, we learn of the old prejudices of the villagers, memories of how everyone behaved in the war. By using the boy, Mortier forces the reader into his shoes, not yet trusted with these secrets; just as he does, we need to read between the lines to understand what’s being discussed.

The writing in Marcel is rather different in style to that found in While the Gods Were Sleeping, but elegant nonetheless (even if the content can be a little coarse at times). There’s none of the stream-of-consciousness rambling which runs through the later book, instead relying for the most part on simpler sentences, clear and descriptive, with an eye for comedy too:

“Master Norbert could very well have done with two chairs. The one he sat on struggled valiantly to support his rear, but was unable to suppress the occasional mild groan. Master Norbert’s torso seemed intent on annexing his head. It would not be long before there was barely a dent to separate the two.” (p.85)

This imagery is important to the book as the writer produces a series of scenes. Part of Mortier’s aim is undoubtedly to paint this childhood (the houses, fields and people) in his readers’ mind. By contrast, the plot almost seems unimportant (and for most of the book you could be forgiven for thinking the writer forgot to include one), even if the various threads do gradually come together, the final pages bringing a confirmation of our suspicions, while also shedding new light on the story.

Marcel is an enjoyable debut, even if it seems a little slight in comparison to While the Gods Were Sleeping. Still, I suppose it’s a good thing when writers develop over the course of their work ;) I’ve still got a few more to try, so I’ll be very interested to see how Mortier moves along from the simplicity of his debut work to the depth of the later novels. Another great IFFP discovery, then – let’s hope that even under the new branding the prize continues to throw up interesting books and writers.

A Time for Everything
A Time for Everything
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Angels, Angels, Everywhere..., 13 Sept. 2015
This review is from: A Time for Everything (Paperback)
A Time for Everything (translated by James Anderson, review copy courtesy of Portobello Books) is a slightly revised version of an earlier edition (A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven), with no difference except for a return to the original Norwegian order of the early pages. In his second novel, Knausgaard turns his undoubted attention to detail to a topic slightly less personal than that which many readers will be used to – the nature of angels.

Starting with an anecdote about a sixteenth-century expert on the topic, Knausgaard moves through the book by retelling bible stories. Cain and Abel, Noah, Lot and Ezekiel all get the Knausgaardian treatment before we return to our angel-obsessed friend. Then, there’s a coda, one in which Knausgaard talks about – a fictional version of himself. While it may not sound like it, the common thread running through the book is the nature of angels, with our writer friend coming to some rather bizarre and disturbing conclusions…

I was slightly disappointed by the most recent of Knausgaard’s odes to his youth, so this was the perfect way to move on from that. A Time for Everything is a wonderful book in which the writer makes great use of his style of meticulous analysis and an inability to leave any intriguing aspect of a story undiscussed. The prose in general is excellent too, with Anderson producing a flowing, expansive text that never feels clumsy or forced. With such an eye for detail, the writer is able to bring events off the page, breathing colour into what could be dry, turgid tales.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Knausgaard has developed it. The over-arching structure and theme of angels is woven in and out of the work, yet the book actually contains several stories which could be novellas in their own right (a missed marketing opportunity there). Early on, in setting up his journey into the past, the narrator accuses modern readers and writers of attributing modern thoughts to people from the past, frowning on this revisionism:

“Even if the events and relationships of his life were to correspond exactly with a life in our own time, one that we understand and recognise, we would still come no closer to him.”
p.13 (Portobello Books, 2015)

Then, of course, he proceeds to do exactly the same thing himself in his stories – what follows is less biblical and more Thomas Hardy in its bucolic descriptiveness (or George Eliot in the focus on thoughts and motives).

Once the preliminaries are out of the way, we move onto the tale of Cain and Abel. Confined to a mere handful of verses in the Bible, Knausgaard expands it here to nearly a hundred pages, developing a superb story of two brothers and their fate, a psychological tale of love and envy. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me tell you now – Knausgaard’s interpretation is rather more sympathetic to the exiled Cain than the Biblical version…

We then move on to The Flood, which in Knausgaard’s hands again becomes a sweeping epic. It’s a moving drama, one which often leaves Noah hammering away at his Ark, instead focusing on the plight of the rest of humanity. As the rain keeps on and the sea levels rise, with tidal waves and floods chasing them higher and higher, a small group of people do their best to reach sanctuary. Much of this section focuses on the back story of Noah’s family, and with this knowledge in mind, the well-known ending packs an even bigger punch. As much as it’s a Bible story, it’s one of struggle, with people trying to carve out an existence in the face of disaster – and very moving it is too.

These two sections are detached, neutral narratives, but in other places Knausgaard uses a very different style. For example, in his retellings of the stories of Lot and Ezekiel, the writer narrates the events, providing a running commentary along the way. He examines each word, stopping to question the motives, not only of the people but also of God and his representatives, and the way he steps back and ponders events allows us to see the stories in a new light.

A good example of this is where the writer considers how Ezekiel’s ravings would have appeared to the people around him, especially after the novelty had worn off. With hindsight, it’s easy to condemn those who looked down upon him as a raving madman, but for those watching and waiting (in vain) for anything to happen, turning their back on him was the sensible option. And then, of course, there’s Lot, led away with his family in the middle of the night:

“What’s going on, Dad?” says one of the daughters.
“We’re going away,” says Lot. “And we’re going now.”
“But it’s the middle of the night!” says the other.
“No buts! When I say now, I mean now! says Lot. (p.405)

These lines might not fit in with the aesthetic of Biblical language, but it’s certainly more realistic of how teenage daughters might have reacted…

While I haven’t mentioned the angels much in examining the stories Knausgaard develops, they are a constant presence even here, their light shining in the distance. The subject is handled in more detail, though, when he returns to the story of Antinous Bellori, a man examining the nature of angels and coming up with some unorthodox claims (in a time when straying from the orthodox often led to torture):

“In his major work, On the Nature of Angels, he argues that scripture is only one of the myriad manifestations of the divine, neither more nor less important than the others, and so invalidates the contradiction that has arisen between scripture and the world in a different and more sincere way than his contemporaries, who merely exchanged one value for another, without understanding that, in reality, they were two sides of the same coin.” (p.360)

The key point here is the question as to what actually angels are – are they closer to God or humanity? Are they eternally the same or capable of change? Bellori and Knausgaard have their own personal insights into the matter, leading to a shocking conclusion (one, again, I won’t reveal here).

However, A Time for Everything, while dealing with the divine, is more about the human. The book deals with human nature and the way mortality drives us to be ambitious and plan for the future. I realise that for the more religious reader, the interpretation will be slightly different, so perhaps a small trigger warning might be appropriate at this point. This is a work of literary fiction, and Knausgaard’s interpretation of biblical events may not reflect orthodox Christian beliefs…

And yet there’s more… Knausgaard’s Coda, a War and Peace-esque appendage to an epic story, takes place in Norway in the late 90s, where a certain Henrik Vankel (a very thinly veiled Knausgaard) is living in solitude on a small island. It might seem a bit of overkill after the main event, but it does serve a couple of purposes. Firstly, it puts the theory into practice, showing how a man’s life can be rendered meaningless in light of the revelations explained in the main part of the book. Secondly, it’s fascinating for the reader of the My Struggle series, containing future echoes of Knausgaard’s more autobiographical books. As well as touching on issues such as self-harming, conflict with a father figure and deliberate isolation, fiction begins to blend into real life as A Time for Everything is what he was working on during the period covered by A Man in Love. We can see why he was so driven, and frustrated, at anything, including his family, that got in his way during a time of intense productivity.

A Time for Everything is a wonderful book, one I’d recommend to anyone, especially those who have already enjoyed Knausgaard’s work. While it might shock the odd Bible literalist, most readers will appreciate the way Knausgaard handles the texts (just to show how much depth he went into for this book, he was subsequently used as an advisor for a new translation of the Bible into Nynorsk). The big question, though, is what his view on angels actually is. I won’t go into that, but the verdict of Antinous Bellori is worth considering:

“The angels have fallen. They are out there somewhere.” (p.240)

I’m really not sure if that is meant to be comforting or chilling…

The Miner
The Miner
by Natsume Soseki
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Going Underground, 10 Sept. 2015
This review is from: The Miner (Paperback)
The Miner (translated by Jay Rubin, review copy courtesy of the publisher) focuses on a nineteen-year-old on the run, a youth who has left his comfortable existence behind after unspecified trouble (which we later learn is actually relationship issues…). Within the first few pages, a chance encounter with a dubious-looking man leads to a snap decision to accept a job offer as a miner; as the youth has no plan beyond losing himself somewhere, a life in the bowels of the earth seems as good a choice as any.

What follows is a lengthy journey, over the course of which our young friend has plenty of time to reconsider his decision. As the narrative takes him, and us, further and further away from Tokyo, the youth experiences a very different life to the one he is used to. After the discomfort of the walk through the mountains, and the warnings of the people who meet him on arrival, it’s finally time to make a decision – does he really have what it takes to go down into the depths of the earth?

The Miner is a novel unlike many of Sōseki’s works, and at times it reads more like an allegory than a realistic story. Even the narrator, looking back at his experiences years later, questions his story’s right to be described as a novel:

“All I’m doing here is recording facts that don’t fall together. There’s no novelistic fabrication involved, so it’s not interesting the way a novel is. But it’s a lot more mysterious than a novel.”
p.117 (Aardvark Bureau, 2015)

That much, at least, is true. Much is left unstated in The Miner, and the description of a protagonist’s journey to an unknown location, with the reader often kept (no pun intended) in the dark, has distinct Kafkaesque undertones. With the narrator involved in a seemingly never-ending journey, some readers may struggle a little, hoping for a quicker end to the walk.

However, the patient reader (and they will need to be patient) will be rewarded. The Miner is a book where it’s more about the journey than the destination, even if it takes a while for this to become clear. The older self narrating the story is looking back at his own foolish youth, lending an air of detachment to the story (we’re fairly sure from an early stage that he must have survived his experiences…). What we’re reading is a description of his first glimpse of a wider world.

The boy (he would have been such in Japan) is a naive, well-off sort, a middle-class kid soon to discover that the real world is very different to the one he’s lived in up to now. Once he arrives in the mountains, he can’t help but notice the poverty and the hardship the workers must endure:

“Finally, the man stood, leaning heavily on the shoulders of two who had gone to rouse him. He looked my way. The single glance I had of his face at that moment sent a shudder of horror through me. This was not a man who had been lying down merely for the sake of rest. He was very, very sick – too sick even to stand up by himself.” (p.144)

It’s hardly surprising that health is a concern considering the conditions. The rice with a muddy consistency, the constant cold, the bedbugs – we’re not in Tokyo any more, botchan…

The whole story leads us to the point where the young man finally reaches the entrance to the hole, and it’s time to make a decision:

“This’s the door to Hell,” Hatsu said. “Got the guts to go in?” (p.162)

Yet this is not your typical Bildungsroman, and the youth’s descent into a Dante-esque world is simply that – a descent and an adventure. Despite the epic journey he’s had (and the adventures that follow), it’s doubtful that he actually takes much from it.

The appeal of The Miner to a Sōseki fan lies in trying to work out where it fits into his oeuvre. It was written in 1908, just before Ten Nights of Dreams and Sanshirō, and followed a couple of more realistic novels, Nowaki and The Poppy (this one is a far more abstract piece than those). The voice is particularly interesting as it appears to borrow from all stages of the writer’s career. While it can sometimes have the frustratingly naive tone of Botchan, at other points it’s much more analytical (c.f. Grass on the Wayside, Light and Dark). There are also glimpses of the wry humour found in Kusamakura and I am a Cat, making it hard to pin the writer’s intentions down.

Luckily enough, I didn’t have to think too hard about all that as Aardvark Bureau have found a couple of people to do it for me. The first is translator Jay Rubin, whose excellent translator’s afterword sets the historical context and examines what influence The Miner had on Sōseki’s later work. The other is Haruki Murakami (you might have heard of him?), a big Sōseki fan who provides an interesting introduction to the work. This is a more personal reading, making for an excellent contrast with Rubin’s academic view, and together the two pieces ensure the reader understands exactly how The Miner fits into the writer’s body of work.

I’m not sure this would be the best introduction to Sōseki for the casual reader – I’d be pointing you in the direction of Kusamakura, Sanshirō, Botchan or possibly Kokoro (if you like your books a little darker) -, but it’s fascinating reading for those already familiar with his work. Both Rubin and Murakami argue that this underrated novel underpins much of his later work – and who am I to argue with them?

The Miner is an interesting story, a tale of looking back at your youth and not really understanding why:

“I have a habit of recalling the adventures I experienced back then whenever I have a few spare moments. It was the most colorful period of my life. Each time I bring back those images to savor, I wield my scalpel mercilessly (you can do this with old memories) in an attempt to chop up my own mental processes and examine every little piece. The results, however, are always the same: I don’t understand them.” (p.61)

The narrator may struggle to come to terms with his time in the mine, and if you read The Miner, you’ll probably understand why. Hopefully, though, if you give it a try, you’ll have more luck making sense of it all :)

The Queen of Spades and Selected Works (Pushkin Collection)
The Queen of Spades and Selected Works (Pushkin Collection)
by Alexander Pushkin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Pushkin from Pushkin, 28 Feb. 2013
Who would have thought that Pushkin Press had never actually released anything by Pushkin? Happily, that is no longer the case, and this excellent collection is well worth the wait. Pushkin is primarily known as a poet, and half of this book is devoted to his poetry, whether short and poignant, long and epic or merely slightly inappropriate (there are a couple!). The first half contains two prose stories, 'The Queen of Spades' (a 40-page story about the dangers of gambling) and 'The Stationmaster', for those who prefer a little prose with their poetry.

The collection is translated by Anthony Briggs, and a fine job he has done too, on top of writing an introductionn and providing notes where necessary. A perfect introduction to Pushkin - and Pushkin Press...

For a more in-depth review, please visit my blog, Tony's Reading List :)

by Mikhail Shishkin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Modern Russian Classic?, 26 Feb. 2013
This review is from: Maidenhair (Paperback)
While many readers are aware of all those 'big' Russian classics, modern Russian writing doesn't get much of a look in (in English). Hopefully, Mikhail Shishkin, a big name in his home country, can change that. 'Maidenhair' is a fantastic, ambitious novel, one which whisks the reader around in time and space, playing with genres and making the reader work hard at times - it is well worth it though.

Although it is ostensibly about an interpreter working with Chechen refugees in Switzerland, there is a lot more to it than that. Shishkin uses stories, diary entries, postcards and interviews to look at love, war, peace and freedom - the big things in life. Obviously, this is a Russian trait...

In my blog review, I compared it (unwisely?) to 'Cloud Atlas', but there are nods to many classic Russian writers, and there are definitely some Joycean bits there too. If that sounds like your kind of book...

If you're interested in my full review, have a look at my blog, Tony's Reading List :)

The Investigation
The Investigation
by Philippe Claudel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In the Shadow of the Castle..., 11 Feb. 2013
This review is from: The Investigation (Hardcover)
'The Investigation' is a smooth read, an intriguing story about a man who visits an unfamiliar town to investigate a series of suicides at the Firm. However, he soon gets bogged down trying to sort out hotel rooms, food and crossing the road, leaving him with little energy to tackle the task at hand. He encounters a host of proplr, some helpful, some not so, and his visit becomes more surreal with every encounter. Having struggled to get into the Firm, he now wonders whether he'll ever get out...

This was my first Claudel, and I enjoyed it, but (like most readers) there is a but...

...for anyone who has read Kafka's 'The Castle', the first half of the novel will seem uncomfortably close to the Czech writer's work. Intentional? Of course. Even so, it does affect your enjoyment a little. The second half, when Claudel moves away from the Kafka homage a little, makes for better reading.

For a more in-depth review, please vist my blog, Tony's Reading List :)

Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China
Shi Cheng: Short Stories from Urban China
by Han Dong
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Ten Cities, 7 Feb. 2013
I've enjoyed plenty of Comma Press' collections of translated short fiction, and 'Shi Cheng' is no exception. It takes us on a trip around contemporary China, bypassing the usual country setting (and political turmoil) and concentrating on how people live in the big city (and some of these cities are *very* big). The translations are great, and if not all of the stories are as good as they could be, the majority are well worth a read. I love the idea of a literary road trip and can thoroughly recommend this one :)

For a more in-depth review, please go to: [...]

The Mussel Feast
The Mussel Feast
by Birgit Vanderbeke
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Talkin' Bout a Revolution..., 7 Feb. 2013
This review is from: The Mussel Feast (Paperback)
Not all revolutions have to involve falling walls and tumbling statues - sometimes it's important to stand up against petty tyrants too. In Birgit Vanderbeke's 'The Mussel Feast', a German family waiting for the father to come home start talking about their miserable lives and decide that enough is enough; it's time for the tyrant to fall... It only takes a couple of hours to read, but the author packs a lot into her pages, letting the reader know page by page why the family have got to the point of revolution (and how they let it get that way in the first place). I've read almost all of the Peirene books so far, and this one would be up there with my favourites :)

For a more in-depth review, please visit: [...]

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