Category Archives: Blasts From the Past

Blasts from the Past: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I know I bang on a lot about book jackets but I can’t talk about A Fine Balance without commenting on its wonderful cover which has been the same for as long as I can remember, certainly since I was recommending it as a bookseller. I’ve no idea if it’s faked or not but it’s superb. The book’s contents are pretty stunning too.

Determined to keep her independence after the sudden death of her husband, Dina sets up as a seamstress. As her eyes begin to fail she recruits two tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Om, supplementing her meagre income by taking in a student as a paying guest. What begins as an economic necessity becomes an arrangement between friends, each wrestling with their own demons. When Ishvar and Om are caught up in the government’s cruelly administered policies their unlikely family is first threatened, then torn apart. Through a cast of vividly drawn characters and with great wit and humanity, A Fine Balance explores the effects of the State of Emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India.

Hard to write about this book and not describe it as Dickensian, a comparison which many critics drew when it was published. Tolstoy also sprang to reviewers’ minds but Mistry claimed not to be drawn to either of these preferring Cheever, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Updike.

As far as I know Mistry has only published three novels – Family Matters came out in 2002 and there’s been nothing since. Sixteen years is a long time between books and I’m beginning to think that it may be time to give up hope.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen (2002)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

It was the jacket that first attracted me to War Crimes for the Home. There’s a nice little Rosie the Riveter period feel about it that made me want to read the book, and I’m pleased to say that all these years later it remains the same. I suspect that means Bloomsbury feel it’s not worth the usual repackaging that denotes a facelift for a steady seller, or perhaps the relaunch of an author’s backlist in the hope of a little boost from a new title. A shame – it has a superb main protagonist, gutsy and bawdily funny with it, plus a twist that while it isn’t altogether unexpected works beautifully.

Liz Jensen’s novel explores memory and old age through Gloria a reluctant resident of the Sea View nursing home. Gloria loves a joke, but her memory’s not so good. Nearly eighty, her passionate nights with the dashing Ron, an American Second World War pilot, are crystal clear but there are puzzling gaps, black holes that have to be filled when her son starts asking uncomfortable questions which she isn’t sure she can answer. Her wartime love affair with an American Air Force man has left a legacy of secrets so deeply buried that it seems even Gloria is no longer privy to them.

The irascible yet determined, ‘feisty’ (how I hate that word) old woman was something of a rarity in contemporary fiction when Jensen’s novel was first published – Lesley Glaister’s protagonists, who no one would dare to call ‘old dears’, or, of course, Angela Carter’s twins in Wise Children come to mind but that’s it. Nowadays they’re more common but Gloria remains one of the most convincing fictional old women I’ve encountered.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: The Next Step in the Dance by Tim Gautreaux (1998)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

The Next Step in the Dance is one of those novels that inexplicably – to me, anyway – went out of print in the UK for some time. I’m pleased to say that it’s been rescued by Fox, Finch and Tepper, a tiny publisher set up by my lovely local indie bookshop, Mr B’s, and has been reissued sporting a rather fetching jacket.

Set in Louisiana, Tim Gautreaux’ debut is a love story, and a very stormy one at that. Paul Thibodeaux loves nothing more than to go dancing on a Saturday night, happy to return to his job as a mechanic on Monday morning. He adores his smart, beautiful wife, Colette, but she wants more than smalltown gossip and a rundown dance hall for entertainment. Frustrated by Paul’s lack of ambition and tendency to stray, Colette takes herself off to California, swiftly followed by a bereft Paul who then follows her back again.

Doesn’t sound much, I know, but what lifts this book far above a run-of-the-mill domestic novel Mr B's Emporiusm of Reading Delights (sign)is Gautreaux’ vibrant descriptions of the Louisiana landscape and culture. He writes with wit, insight and a compassionate, clear-eyed view of human nature. You don’t have to make your way to Mr B’s to buy a copy – it’s available online – but should you be passing I recommend a visit.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (transl. Alfred Birnbaum) (1989)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I have the BBC to thank for introducing me to Haruki Murakami’s work. Someone picked A Wild Sheep Chase for Radio 4’s A Good Read way back in my bookselling days and I was intrigued by their description of it, as were many other listeners: we sold shed loads of this wacky novel by a writer hardly anyone in the UK had heard of at the time. It was actually published in Japan in 1982 but not translated into English until 1989.

A Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive is pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark after pinching an image from a postcard sent by a friend to illustrate some copy. The sheep has been spotted in the photograph by a shady character called ‘The Boss’ who has threatened our unnamed narrator with some very nasty consequences if he fails to track it down. Things become increasingly surreal as the narrator fixes the sheep in his sights on a trail that leads him from Tokyo to the snowy peaks of Hokkaido where he comes face to face with his quarry. There’s a good deal more to it than that but this is a book impossible to encapsulate in just a few words which is part of its charm. I read it with increasingly delighted astonishment. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd, it’s excellent.

It’s well over twenty years since I read A Wild Sheep Chase but I can still remember the excitement of discovering Murakami, gobbling up everything I could find by him. As for A Good Read, it’s still going strong and still well worth listening to for recommendations.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson (2005)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Linda Olsson’s Astrid and Veronika is as near as it gets to a perfect read for me: lean, elegantly beautiful prose which shows never tells all topped off with a gorgeous jacket fitting the novel beautifully. Books rarely move me to tears – it’s cinema that reduces me to a sniveling mess – but this one did.

In the hope of coming to terms with the death of her partner, Veronika has rented a small house in the Swedish countryside in the middle of a bleak, harsh winter. She wants to be alone, seeking the quiet stillness needed for thought, contemplation and writing. Her arrival is watched by Astrid, her reclusive elderly neighbour, who tentatively reaches out to Veronika, cooking her delicious meals, Theirs is difficult friendship which takes time to root itself but when it does these two find an affinity, confiding past loves, losses and secrets.

Astrid and Veronika is such a beautiful book. Olsson’s descriptions of the Swedish countryside are lyrical and poetic; her depiction of these two women, both immersed in sadness, heart-wrenchingly poignant. I wish I could urge you all to take yourselves off to the nearest bookshop and buy a copy but sadly, for UK readers anyway, it’s out of print here. The rest of you might have better luck.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2001)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Last year Cathy from 746 Books was kind enough to ask me to take part in her Books that Built the Blogger series. She’d just kicked off Reading Ireland month and asked me for my favourite Irish novel, a tough question if ever there was one – not a case of where to start but where to stop. The one that finally topped my list was John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun which has the feel of a man who has come to terms with his troubled past, a past stitched through McGahern’s earlier, bleaker novels as his autobiography makes clear. Somehow that feels appropriate for New Year’s Day.

Leaving their bustling London life behind, Joe and Kate Ruttledge have settled in a small lakeside community in Ireland. They have a farm, subsidised by Joe’s writing, and their life follows a slow, gentle rhythm, in tune with the seasons. The small dramas and quiet satisfactions of everyday life fill their world: visits from their neighbour and dear friend the incorrigibly inquisitive Jamesie, lambing and selling their calves at the cattle mart, and visits to town to pick up supplies and local news. McGahern’s gentle, almost wistful, novel traces a year in the Ruttledges’ lives, introducing perceptively drawn and wonderfully memorable characters while painting quietly restrained yet evocative word pictures of a world in which each small change delicately redistributes the balance of the whole.

McGahern’s writing has a very precise character, the product of the meticulous paring down of his prose out of which the occasional lyrical sentence shines brightly. His carefully crafted novels perfectly capture both place and time. And if I haven’t convinced you to read his work perhaps Colm Tóibín’s description of McGahern as ‘the Irish novelist everyone should read’ will.

Happy 2018!

Blasts from the Past: The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (1998)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

When I was in bookselling I knew that if a rep showed me a book on the Franklin expedition we were likely to be on to a winner. There seems to be an enduring interest in polar exploration – anything on Shackleton or Scott was also likely to be a sure-fire bestseller. There’s an air of romance about it: even though the expeditions were failures, they’re seen as magnificent failures. Andrea Barrett’s dramatic, vividly expressed novel, which follows Zeke Voorhees in his search for the remains of Franklin’s expedition, seemed to me to capture the spirit of the time and its overriding desire to extend the bounds of knowledge, either for its own sake or, in this case, to further secure Britain’s mercantile ambitions through the discovery of a new trading route.

Zeke sets off on his ill-judged voyage in 1855, ten years after Franklin, accompanied by his future brother-in-law Erasmus Darwin Wells, an amateur naturalist. As Zeke’s enthusiasm transforms itself into a lonely despotic command of the voyage, Erasmus becomes more and more uneasy about the outcome of the adventure. When Zeke strikes out on his own, Erasmus has no option but to try to guide the crew of the Narwhal – much depleted by the hardships of facing a winter ill prepared – to safety. On his return, he finds himself estranged from his sister who blames him for leaving Zeke behind, and derided by the public for the failure of his mission. When Zeke does reappear he brings with him two Eskimos, as the indigenous people were then known. Erasmus is at first delighted and then appalled by his plan to stage a lecture tour featuring the Eskimos as exhibits. What follows is heartrending.

Franklin and his crew’s disappearance remained a transfixing mystery for the public with many expeditions launched in search of their remains. In 2014 the Victoria Strait Expedition announced that it had found Erebus, one of the Franklin’s two ships, an announcement confirmed by the Canadian Prime Minster in Parliament.

 What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (2004)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I remember being deeply impressed with Nadeem Aslam’s writing when I first read Maps for Lost Lovers, not just because of its multi-faceted beauty but also because of his bravery in exploring relationships and tensions within a Pakistani community with no holds barred. It took him eleven years to complete, an indication of the dedication involved in making each chapter ‘like a Persian miniature’ and, perhaps, of the degree of soul-searching required for such unflinching honesty.

Chanda and Jugnu love each other dearly but are unable to marry until Chanda’s husband can be persuaded to divorce her. Instead they set up house together becoming the object of gossip and judgement. Their failure to return from a trip to Pakistan eventually results in the arrest of Chanda’s brothers for the couple’s murder. Jugnu’s brother Shamas, the respected director of the local Community Relations Council, and his devout wife Kaukab find their most cherished beliefs challenged as they try to cope with their distress and the uncertainty which ripples throughout both their lives and the tightly knit community in which they live. Aslam’s debut traces the year following Jugnu and Chanda’s disappearance. It’s a novel in which anger is balanced with compassion and tenderness for many of its characters, in particular for Kaukab who deludes herself that Pakistan is an earthly paradise but who is wracked by the reactions of her children to her piety, and for Shamas an educated liberal man who endures great pain and humiliation.

And what about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox (1999)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

This one’s a surprising one for me. It has elements of the fantastical which is usually a literary no-no as far as I’m concerned but Elizabeth Knox carries it off beautifully in this nineteenth-century love story about a man and an angel. Yes, I know but trust me – it’s a captivating read.

Knox’s novel tells the tale of Sobran Jodeau and Xas, the angel into whose arms he quite literally falls one midsummer night. When the two decide to share a bottle of wine and exchange news on the anniversary of their first meeting, a relationship begins that will span fifty-five years, intensifying as each year passes. Life in Sobran’s village in Burgundy goes on, its small tragedies, marriages and affairs punctuated by the turbulent years of the Napoleonic Wars. The murders of two young girls remain unsolved for many years until Sobran thinks he has found the key to the crimes. His family continues to burgeon and his wine to improve. His friendship with the mistress of the neighbouring château provides the villagers with fuel for speculation, as does his strange behaviour on a certain midsummer evening every year. But when one day Xas arrives unannounced and terribly injured, the relationship between angel and man changes irrevocably.

I’ve tried other Knox novels since reading (and rereading) this one but sadly none have hit the spot in the way The Vintner’s Luck did, possibly because they too explored the fantastical. There is, I gather, a sequel called The Angel’s Cut which takes Xas to 1930s Hollywood. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Blasts from the Past: The People’s Act of Love by James Meek (2005)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

The People’s Act of Love is one of those rare things: a novel that came to me via H’s recommendation. He tends to read much more non-fiction than I do, relying on my suggestions for fiction apart from crime of which I’m not fond. In fact, I think I handed this on to him as something that seemed more up his street than mine. He raved about it so I had to read it then became a fervent convert. We weren’t the only ones – it was praised to the skies by critics who bravely compared it with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

In 1919 the remote Siberian town of Yazyk is home to an extreme Christian sect. Stationed nearby is the remnant of a Czech battalion and their mad captain, desperate to get home after losing the civil war. The arrival of the charismatic but slippery Samarin, recently escaped from a Russian gulag, together with the suspicious death of a local shaman throws Yazyk into a chaos of suspicion and terror, further complicated by a beautiful young woman of ambiguous status whose attention has been snared by Samarin.

There are a multitude of storylines running through Meek’s novel. Hard to do it justice in a few lines. I’m wary of the old ‘literary page-turner’ cliché but this really is gripping with several quite shocking revelations. Meek’s descriptive writing is extraordinarily vivid, summoning up the harshness of the frigid Siberian landscape. It’s about war, love, idealism, belief and the extremes that people will go to in pursuit of them. Perhaps I should listen to H more often.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?