Paperbacks to Look Out for in November 2016

Cover imageA quiet month for paperbacks in November with the book trade in full swing for Christmas. Just four of interest for me, one of which I’ve already reviewed. Guillermo Erades’ Back to Moscow didn’t seem to get the attention it deserved when it was first published back in March and is in danger of the same thing happening given everyone has their eye on their Christmas present lists by the time it’s published. I hope I’m wrong about that. You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s set in Moscow, back at the beginning of the century when the city was stuffed full of expats with their eye on the main chance. It’s the story of a young man, studying for a PhD more because of happenstance than any burning desire, and the things he gets up to – a kind of Rake’s Progress, if you like, but what could easily have been a cheap and lurid hedonistic tale turns out to be very much more than that. Steeped in Russian literature where happy endings are at a premium, it’s also an atmospheric portrait of a city in the midst of transforming itself.

Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower is set a decade or so before Back to Moscow, the tumultuous events which led to the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellite states yet to come. The East German experience is reflected and refracted through the experiences of a soldier, a surgeon, a nurse and a publisher against the backdrop of Dresden. ‘With evocative detail, Uwe Tellkamp masterfully reveals the myriad perspectives of the time as people battled for individuality, retreated to nostalgia, chose to conform, or toed the perilous line between East and West. Poetic, heartfelt and dramatic, The Tower vividly resurrects the sights, scents and sensations of life in the GDR as it hurtled towards 9 November 1989’ say the publishers. Tellkamp was born in Dresden in 1968 and was arrested in 1989 for ‘political sabotage’ which suggests that this will be an insightful read.

Translated by the excellent Anthea Bell, Saša Stanšic’s Before the Feast may offer a little light relief after that. It sounds a little convoluted and the blurb gives a flavour far better than I can, not having read it: ‘It’s the night before the Feast in the village of Furstenfelde (population: declining), but not everyone is asleep. The local artist, wearing an evening dress and gum-boots, goes down to the lake under cover of darkness. The village archivist is kept awake by ancient tales that threaten to take on a life of their own. A retired lieutenant-colonel weighs his pistol, and his future, in his hand. And eighteen-year-old Anna, namesake of the Feast, prepares to take her place in tomorrow’s drinking and dancing, eating and burning. On this night of misdeeds and mischief, they are joined by a dead ferryman, a hapless bellringer, a cigarette machine, two robbers in football shirts and a vixen on the hunt – as their fates collide in the most unexpected ways’ which sounds quite extraordinary. Anthea Bell has replaced the late Carol Brown Janeway as my translator to watch so this one goes straight on the list despite any reservations about magic realism I might have.

My final choice is, unusually for me, a short story collection: Helen Simpson’s Cockfosters. Her smart, witty Cover imagecollection of linked stories Hey Yeah Right Get a Life had me hooked when it first came out. She’s very funny – sharply observant of human foibles but compassionate with it – which makes me keen to read Cockfosters. The link here is Tube stations which should appeal to London commuters and seems tailor-made for a Transport for London advertising campaign although it does venture outside the metropolis, opening ‘irresistible new windows onto the world from Arizona to Dubai and from Moscow to Berlin’ according to the publishers, neatly taking this post back to where it started.

That’s it for November. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis for the last three titles and to my review for Back to Moscow. And if you’d like to catch up with November’s new titles they’re here.

Bookshops by Jorge Carrión (translated by Peter Bush): An anorak’s delight

Cover imageI suppose it was inevitable that I’d read and review Bookshops having worked in one for over a decade and spent a great deal of time in many others, both in my own country and abroad. It’s quite some time since I could call myself a bookseller but I still tidy up those table displays, surreptitiously move misfiled books to where they should be and scan shelves tutting to myself when significant titles are missing. Jorge Carrión isn’t a bookseller, current or ex, but he has spent an inordinate amount of time in bookshops across the world and has a great deal of interest to say about them.

Carrión begins what he describes as an essay by explaining that his inspiration was Stephan Zweig’s short story ‘Mendel the Bibliophile’ about an itinerant bookseller, a Russian Jew, with the gift of a prodigious memory which, as every bookseller knows, is an essential tool of the trade. From there he takes his readers on a journey around the world, dropping in on his favourite bookshops, from his home town of Barcelona to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Tangier, Paris to Denver, Colorado. It’s stuffed with anecdote, eruditely discursive, full of bookselling history and passionate in its tone. Carrión explores bookshops as reflections of society and engines of social change, as places of resistance, cultural centres, meeting places and havens. San Francisco’s celebrated City Lights and Shakespeare and Company in Paris both crop up frequently but many far more obscure bookshops make an appearance too. Carrión frames his bookshop thumbnails with often fascinating historical context, from Christina Foyle’s trip to Stalinist Russia to negotiate a deal for books slated for burning to a short disquisition on paper making which takes us from China to Turkey.

For those who find themselves drawn into bookshops wherever they are, even in countries where there’s no hope of understanding what’s between the covers, this book is a joy. Carrión manages to steer clear of fetishizing bookshops – just – exploring the idea of them as museums and tourist attractions (City Lights and Shakespeare and Company again) and suggesting that ‘style is more important than content in the global circulation of the image’ bringing to mind all those pictures of beautiful or outlandish bookshops which do the rounds on Buzzfeed and the like. He ends on a pleasingly optimistic note about the future of the bookshop, albeit a very different future from its history. A nice touch would have been to include a separate chapter on the bookshop in literature although there are references and quotations woven throughout. It won’t suit everyone – truth be told I suspect you have to be something of an anorak to enjoy it as much as I did – but it might make the more obsessive and literary booky person in your circle happy this Christmas which I’m sure is what its publishers are hoping you’ll think.

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (transl. by Charlotte Collins): Dark days in Vienna

Cover imageIt’s a both a joy and a worry when a second novel appears on the horizon following one quite so spectacularly good as Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Will it measure up or be a disappointment? What I hadn’t considered was that The Tobacconist would exceed my expectations. Very much darker than the A Whole Life which celebrated a simple life well lived, The Tobacconist is set in Vienna, opening in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria.

For the son of a fisherman, Franz is a rather spoilt seventeen-year-old, his hands too soft for the hard labour of the salt mines where most young men work. The hefty cheque his mother gets every month from her wealthy lover has kept them both comfortable until the lover is struck on the head by a bolt of lightning while swimming in the local lake. Calling in a favour, Franz’s mother sets him up with a job at a Viennese tobacconist and packs him off on the train. When Franz arrives, Otto tells him that the most important part of his job is to read the newspapers. Soon, Franz knows the regulars’ names and idiosyncrasies, cramming his head with the esoteric knowledge of a tobacconists’ accoutrements and anticipating his customers’ desires. When a frail man appears asking for Virginias, Otto tells Franz that this is Professor Sigmund Freud. Even a boy from the Austrian backwoods has heard of Freud and soon, registering a yawning chasm in his life, Franz decides to approach him for advice, first on how to get a girl, then on how to keep her. Initially a little impatient, Freud begins to look forward to Franz’s visits and his stories of the Bohemian girl who dances at a hole-in-the-wall club compèred by a Hitler impersonator. Played out against a backdrop of political disenchantment, rife anti-Semitism and the arrival of the Gestapo which soon has the city in its grip, Seethaler’s novel follows Franz from his country bumpkin arrival into a manhood marked by bravery.

Franz begins this novel as a simple soul, a little over-indulged but with an eager questing mind, who ‘never really understood the business with the Jews’. As his character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see. Often plain and clipped, the writing is studded with vivid images: Vienna ‘seethed like the vegetable stew on Mother’s stove’; Otto intends to run his shop ‘until the good Lord rolls down my shutters’. Seethaler pokes some pleasing fun at the pretensions of Viennese society and there are some particularly amusing passages about Freud who at one point, no longer able to tolerate the laments of a vast Viennese matron, tells her ‘with his most piercing stare “stop eating cakes!”‘. Such simple, sometimes slapstick comedy, throws the dreadful events unfolding throughout the city into stark relief. It’s a triumph, one of the best books I’ve read this year. Seethaler has written two other novels, apparently. Let’s hope that Charlotte Collins who translated both A Whole Life and The Tobacconist so expertly, is busy working on one of them right now.

Books to Look Out for In November 2016

Swing TimeA new Zadie Smith novel is always the cause of a great deal of pre-publication anticipation. Twitter has been all agog for some time ensuring that Swing Time will turn up in quite a few Christmas stockings. Moving between Smith’s home territory of north-west London to West Africa and New York, it spans the years from the 1980s to the present following two childhood friends who meet at a ballet class. ‘Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them’ say the publishers which reminds me of Kim Echlin’s wonderful, Under the Invisible Life, a novel which didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.

The subject of Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out is something of an attention-grabber. It looks at assisted suicide through the experiences of Evan, a hospital nurse who helps people to die, something he keeps firmly under his hat from his friends. A tricky love life, his increasingly unwell mother and his supervisor’s concerns as he sails ever-closer to the wind in terms of morality and law add further spice in what the publishers describe as ‘a brilliantly funny and exquisitely sad novel that gets to the heart of one of the most difficult questions each of us may face: would you help someone die?’ ‘Brilliantly funny’ may be the best approach to engage readers with this dilemma with which many countries, including the UK, frequently wrestle but never manage to resolve.Cover image

Mette Jakobsen’s What the Light Hides explores suicide but in a rather different way. Vera and David live in the Blue Mountains, still passionately in love after twenty years of marriage. Jakobsen’s novel begins five months after their son apparently took his own life in Sydney where he was at university. Vera is coping but David cannot accept his son’s death, taking himself off to Sydney to try to make sense of things. ‘Mette Jakobsen’s gifts of delicate and empathetic observation are on display in this tender and moving novel’ say the publishers. I’ve read several excellent novels from the Australian Text Publishing and have high hopes for this one.

Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle sounds a world away from her last novel Upstairs at the Party which I loved. It’s set against the backdrop of a TB sanatorium in Kent at the beginning of the 1950s, where a teenage brother and sister ’living on the edge of the law… … discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched’ according to the publisher. I haven’t enjoyed all of Grant’s novels but this sounds well worth a try.

Sara Stridsberg’s The Gravity of Love is set in another kind of hospital, just outside Stockholm. Jimmie Darling’s daughter visits her father in the psychiatric institution where he is in the charge of Edvard Winterson, happy to take his patients for the odd night out. When her mother disappears on holiday, the hospital becomes Jackie’s world and she makes the acquaintance of what sounds like a vivid cast of characters. ‘In Sara Stridsberg’s breathtakingly beautiful novel, the psychiatric hospital, set in a lovely park close to a lake, takes on near-mythic dimensions, both as an avenging angel and as a redeemer of lost souls’ say the publishers which sounds a little overblown but it’s been much praised in Stridsberg’s native Sweden.

Gerard Reve’s The Evenings is set in one of my favourite European cities which is one of its draws for me. It’s the story of ten evenings in the life of Frits van Egters as he walks the streets of post-war Amsterdam. That may seem a tad dull but it’s been voted one of the greatest novels of all time by the highly literary Dutch. Described by the publishers as ‘edgy, mesmerising, darkly ironical’ it sounds quite intriguing.

Cover imageMy last choice for November is Brad Watson’s Miss Jane which was inspired by the true story of Watson’s great-aunt, Jane Chisolm, born in rural Mississippi in the early twentieth century with, as the publishers put it, a ‘genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central “uses” for a woman in that time and place – namely, sex and marriage’. ‘From the country doctor who adopts Jane to the hard tactile labour of farm life from the sensual and erotic world of nature around her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her, the world of Miss Jane Chisolm is anything but barren’ continues the blurb. It sounds like an uplifting read which after several of the novels listed above may come as something of a welcome change.

That’s it for November. As ever a click on the title will take you to a full synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch: Roll up, roll up…

Cover imageI suspect Carol Birch has something of a fascination with the world of circuses and freak shows. Set in the nineteenth century, her last novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie, followed Jaffy who is sent to the Dutch East Indies to capture a ‘dragon’ for the eponymous menagerie but finds himself shipwrecked. Orphans of the Carnival ventures far further into that world, telling the story of Julia Pastrana, a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price.

Julia tucks away the card a visiting impresario hands her, knowing that it’s her passport into the world outside the small town she’s never left. Heavily veiled, she takes the long and arduous journey to New Orleans accompanied only by the crude wooden doll her mother made for her before disappearing. Rates can hardly believe his luck when Julia arrives, establishing her in his sister-in-law’s lodging house where she meets several more of his clients. She is to make her debut topping the bill of a show that will include Cato, an exuberant pinhead. Julia’s reception is more than Rates could have hoped for – ostensibly a musical performance, everyone knows it’s her unveiling that the audience have paid for. So begins a career in which she will be handed on from manager to manager, travelling the world but not seeing it, lonely and hoping for love, sometimes reunited with the few friends she makes, including her dearest Cato. When Theo Lent makes her an offer, dangling the delights of Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg before her, she takes him up on it and the world opens up a little. She’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball, welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Love of a sort is found but this is not a story that was ever going to end well. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip.

Orphans of the Carnival takes its story from the bare bones of Julia Pastrana’s life and it’s this knowledge that makes the book so poignant. Julia suffered from a rare genetic condition but lived in a time when human deformity was paraded around and presented as entertainment. Birch spins her story well, carefully avoiding the sentimental yet always compassionate – there’s a particularly heartrending scene when Julia whispers to a Saint Petersburg fortune-teller ‘Am I human?’ It’s an absorbing novel with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread. I’m still not entirely sure why Birch decided to include it; it seemed something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. We live in much more enlightened times these days but as I read Birch’s novel I was reminded of those queasy trailers several years back for a Channel 4 series featuring people with deforming medical conditions. Maybe we’re neither as sensitive nor as enlightened as we like to think we are.

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan: Redemption in spades

Cover imageI ended my review of Donal Ryan’s last novel, The Thing About December, by quoting Litlove’s idea that the higher your expectations for a book, the greater your disappointment when they’re not met. Both Ryan’s novels had been praised to the skies and although there was much to admire in his second, those raised expectations had not been met. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded or perhaps it’s because Ryan has ventured into different territory. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman.

After several miscarriages Melody is twelve weeks into her pregnancy. Hardly in a position to criticise given his visits to prostitutes and his predilection for porn, Pat storms out at the news that his wife is carrying the child of a man she supposedly met online. In truth, the father is a seventeen-year-old Traveller she had been teaching to read. As Melody’s pregnancy progresses she looks back over her life: the loss of her mother, her betrayal of her closest friend and the soured passion of her marriage. She visits the Travellers’ site, hoping to catch a glimpse of Martin but finding herself drawn instead to a young woman sitting on the steps of her caravan. Mary is caught up in a feud between clans. Unable to conceive, she’s left her husband so that he can find a fertile partner, bringing dishonour upon her own family. Retribution must be exacted and Melody finds herself caught up in Mary’s story in ways she could hardly imagine. By the end of this slim, intensely moving novella, redemption on a Shakespearean scale has been served.

Ryan structures his story in brief chapters, each one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. She’s an involving narrator, unflinchingly honest in her confession of guilt at her treatment of others, from her father whose eager concern has been rebuffed for years to the betrayal of her dearest friend in exchange for the approbation of the ‘cool girls’ and access to Pat. ‘I’m bad, for sure. There’s no kindness in me’, she says. Ryan’s writing is both clear and clean yet lyrical – ‘we insisted on marrying each other, and lowering ourselves onto a bed of terrible, scalding, comfortably familiar pain’ – and his ear for dialect is superb. He summons up beautifully the claustrophobia of living in a small town where everyone knows your business and no one is afraid of loudly judging you for it. All these are characteristics familiar from Ryan’s previous novels but what stood out in this one was his story telling: a seamless interweaving of both Mary’s and Melody’s stories leading to a dramatic conclusion. For me, it’s Ryan’s best novel yet.

breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes: Nuanced, empathetic stories from the Calais Jungle

Cover imagebreach is based on Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ exchanges with refugees who have lived in the camp known as the Jungle and the people of Calais where it’s based. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press commissioned the book to, in her words, ‘distil [their] stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can help to bridge the gap.’ The result is a collection that is both heartrending and enlightening. It’s the first in a series called Peirene Now! from a publisher who already has quite a reputation for fiction in translation.

In the first of the eight stories comprising the collection an unnamed Sudanese narrator ponders the fractured dynamics of his small group as they wait for the right conditions for the eleven-minute dash to the French border. The following six explore the world of the refugee camp from the many and varied points of view of those who live in and around it. In ‘The Terrier’ for instance, Eloise, happy to supplement her income by taking in a young Kurdish boy and his sister, struggles with suspicions fanned by her less tolerant friends but is won over after hearing their story and visiting the Jungle to see it for herself. From the young Ethiopian woman who wishes that volunteers would understand that she wants to dress fashionably, to the Afghan who has compromised his UK asylum application hoping to get home to see his sick mother; from the Kurd who when warned about walking on the motorway joyfully tells a British policeman that he’s illegal, too, to the young people smuggler keeping a close eye on the his boss’ weaknesses – everyone has an opinion and a story to tell. Set in the UK, the final story bookends the first, picking up Alghali who we last met counting down those eleven minutes, now learning English from a ninety-four-year-old convinced that ‘Europe is being overrun’ but who always offers Alghali a biscuit. It ends with news of the Paris attack.

Used as we’ve become to wrenching pictures of refugees rescued from appallingly flimsy crafts or walking through baking temperatures only to be turned back by soldiers and barbed wire or, in the heady days of the German welcome, greeted with teddy bears and welcome packages, it’s easy to see this crisis in easy shades of right and wrong. Popoola and Holmes offer a more nuanced view filtered thought the experiences of the people involved. The camp is a microcosm of society. There are places of worship, a school and a hospital in the making. There’s money to be made: shops and cafes prosper as do, on the dark side of the camp economy, prostitution and people smuggling. Refugees are good, bad and in between. Volunteers may be well-meaning but they can be irritating in their assumptions of what is best, or in the case of a white dreadlocked Muslim convert, unrealistic idealisation. Through their empathetic, vividly written stories Popoola and Holmes offer a multifaceted insight into the experience of refugees and our response to them. Part of the Jungle was bulldozed this year and there’s much talk of the rest of it being demolished by the end of 2016. It’s an intractable problem with no simple, obvious solution but a little more compassion would not go amiss.

If you’d like to know more about the background to breach, you might like to read Melissa’s interview with Holmes over at The Bookbinder’s Daughter.

The next Peirine Now! project is a Brexit novel by Anthony Cartwright, due to be published in June 2017. The funding for this one is to be crowd sourced. If you’d like to make a pledge, thereby securing yourself a copy, just click here.