Tag Archives: Allison Markin Powell

Six Degrees of Separation – from Murmur to Johannesburg

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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We’re starting this month with Will Eaves Murmur, a slice of experimental fiction which explores Alan Turing’s life and ideas through dreams, correspondence and journal entries. Eaves’ extraordinary book won both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and this year’s Wellcome Prize.

The Wellcome Prize often has an interesting selection of books on its shortlist one of which was Sarah Moss’ Bodies of Light in 2015. It follows Ally in her struggles to become a doctor in nineteenth-century Britain.

Moss also wrote Names for the Sea,  an appealing account of her year in Iceland, which brings me to Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s very funny Butterflies in November in which a dead sheep is wrestled into a car’s passenger seat.

That sheep (and the style of Ólafsdóttir’s somewhat wacky novel) puts me in mind of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase which sees a Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd.

Hiromi Kawakami is another favorite Japanese author of mine who also knows how turn her hand to the surreal but not in The Nakano Thrift Shop. The eponymous shop is staffed by an endearing set of awkward and idiosyncratic characters who become so close they’re like family to each other.

As do the characters in Michael Cunningham’s lovely, heart-wrenching Home at the End of the World in which Bobby, traumatised by the childhood death of his brother, finds a family with Jonathan and Clare.

Cunningham is better known for his novel The Hours (although I prefer Home and the End of the World) which was made into an award-winning film. It was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as was Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg which follows a set of disparate characters through a single day as one of them prepares for a party on December 6th, 2013, the day after the death of Nelson Mandela.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from 1950s Britain and the reimagining of Alan Turing’s life to a tribute to Virginia Woolf, set in Johannesburg in 2013. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Books to Look Out for in June 2019: Part Two

Cover imageHard to match part one of June’s preview, having led with a new Kate Atkinson but Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favorite authors so I’ll start with The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino. Mr Nishino makes his advances to all manner of women: young, old, independent, grieving, cat-loving or interested in making their own conquests – all are considered fair game. ‘For each of them, an encounter with elusive womaniser Mr Nishino will bring torments, desires and delights’ say the publishers. I’m hoping for some of the understated prose infused with a gentle humour that characterised both The Nakano Thrift Shop and Strange Weather in Tokyo the covers of which are nicely referenced by this one.

I’m jumping from a favourite writer to one I know nothing about with Helon Habila’s Travellers which tackles the theme of migration through a diverse set of characters, from a Nigerian American couple who have been awarded an arts fellowship to a Somalian trying to save his daughter from a forced marriage. ‘Moving from a Berlin nightclub to a Sicilian refugee camp to the London apartment of a Malawian poet, Helon Habila evokes a rich mosaic of migrant experiences. And through his characters’ interconnecting fates, he traces the extraordinary pilgrimages we all might make in pursuit of home’ say the publishers. It sounds both ambitious and fascinating.

Carrying on the theme of migration, award-winning poet, Ocean Vuong’s lyrically named On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous takes the form of a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read, telling her the story of his life and exploring the family’s history in Vietnam before he was born. ‘At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity… … With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years’ say the publishers in the somewhat overwrought blurb. It does sound extraordinary, and Cover imageI’ve a weakness for novels by poets.

Carolina Setterwall’s Let’s Hope for the Best is apparently based on events in her own life, knowledge of which is likely to make her novel all the more wrenching. Written in the form of a dual narrative which flits back and forth between past and present, it tells the story of thirty-six-year-old Carolina whose partner dies in the night leaving her to bring up their infant son alone. Setterwall takes the story to the point where new love appears on Carolina’s horizon but will she be able to accept it. Reading the synopsis for Let’s Hope for the Best, I can’t help being reminded of Tom Malmquist’s powerful, moving piece of auto-fiction, In Every Moment We Are Alive.

The next two novels are reissues rather than brand spanking new ones but I’ve read neither of them. The first comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Alan Hollinghurst, who has written an introduction, and Rupert Everett who laments the passing of the New York City portrayed in Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. Set in the 1970s, it follows Anthony Malone who turns his back on small town America to throw himself into the dance parties, discos, saunas and orgies of the New York gay scene. ‘First published in 1978, Dancer from the Dance is widely considered the greatest, most exciting novel of the post-Stonewall generation. Told with wit, eroticism and unashamed lyricism, it remains a heart-breaking love letter to New York’s hedonistic past, and a testament to the brilliance of our passions as they burn brightest’ say the publishers. I like the sound of that even if it won’t be possible to read it without the sadness of knowing what comes next.

Cover imageThe second reissue is a feminist classic which I’ve heard of but never read. Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen follows Sasha Davis who drops out of college to marry but finds herself rebelling against her conservative 1950s upbringing as her thirtieth birthday draws near. ‘Alix Kates Shulman’s landmark novel follows Sasha’s coming of age through the sexual double standards, discrimination and harassment of the 1950s and 60s. Originally published in 1972, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was the first great novel of second-wave feminism. Five decades later, it remains a funny, honest and heartbreakingly perceptive story of a young woman in a man’s world’ says the blurb. According to the New York Times ‘women will like it and men should read it for the good of their immortal souls’. Amen to that.

That’s it for June’s new novels. As ever, a click on any title that’s snagged your attention will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2017: Part One

Cover imageThere’s a fair old mix of attention-snagging titles published in paperback this June. I’ll start with one that was hotly anticipated in hardback: Peter Ho Davies’ The Fortunes, his first novel since the much-lauded The Welsh Girl back in 2007. Spanning 150 years, Davies’ novel explores the Chinese-American experience through the lens of four characters: Ah Ling, the son of a prostitute, sent alone to California as a young boy in the 1860s; Anna Mae Wong, the first Chinese Hollywood movie star; Vincent Chin murdered in 1982 just because he looked Japanese and John Ling Smith, visiting America to adopt a child. Apparently, Davies has mixed real and fictional characters, drawing on his own mixed-race experience in what sounds like fascinating read, and that’s a great jacket.

Jade Chang’s The Wangs Vs the World looks at Chinese-Americans in a very different way. Set in 2008 with the financial world about to crash with the loudest of bangs, it’s about a family whose cosmetics mogul father suddenly finds himself bankrupt in a country he thought he’d made his own. He decides to claim his fabled ancestral land in China but first he needs to gather his family together, taking off on a road trip across the States in his first wife’s powder blue 1980s Mercedes. Chang makes some serious points along the way in this funny, entertaining novel.Cover image

Families – albeit a hugely dysfunctional one – and money are also the themes which run through Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest. The Plumbs have been counting on a windfall from the fund their father set up for them many years ago. What the financially compromised younger siblings have not been expecting is the plundering of their treasured Nest by their mother to get their eldest brother Leo out of trouble. Sweeney’s novel follows these four over the three months after Leo gets out of rehab until the longed-for payout day. A well-turned out, entertaining and absorbing piece of fiction which quietly delivers a serious message about money and expectations.

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk also has a foot in dysfunctional family territory, exploring ‘the violently primal bond between mother and daughter’ according to its publishers. It’s set in Spain where the daughter has taken her mother to an alternative clinic in the hope of discovering a cure for her paralysis which may or may not be psychologically induced. While her mother undergoes a series of odd treatments, the daughter becomes caught up in ‘the seductive mercurial games of those around her’. That synopsis isn’t entirely up my street but Levy has been praised by so many people whose opinions I trust that it’s worth a try.

Cover imageI’ll end this first June paperback instalment with Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, about colleagues so immersed in each other’s lives they come to seem like family. The socially awkward Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside the taciturn Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. One of my favourite books of last year. it’s a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.

A click on a title will take you to my review  for The Wangs Vs the World, The Nest and The Nakano Thrift Shop or to a more detailed synopsis for those I haven’t yet read, should you be interested. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new titles they’re here.  Second paperback batch to follow shortly…

Books of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. 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. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.

Books of the Year 2016: Part Three

Cover imageJust one July favourite this year although August brought an embarrassment of riches with five splendid novels. July’s title was Jane Rogers’ Conrad and Eleanor, a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is engaged in medical research as is Conrad but while she is a star in her particular sphere, his work has stalled. When Conrad fails to return from the conference he is supposed to be attending, Eleanor is forced to take a long hard look at their marriage . It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing novel. Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution.

There’s a kind of resolution in Marie Sizun’s painfully autobiographical Her Father’s Daughter, written from the point of view of the titular daughter, named France but known throughout as ‘the child’, who is just over four years old when the it opens, living in cosy, indulgent intimacy with her mother. When her father returns from the war her mother’s focus shifts and the daughter must learn to live in an entirely different world, deprived of affection and often violent. There’s an intense immediacy to Sizun’s writing, sharpening the effect of the child’s stark observations. It’s a beautifully expressed piece of writing – spare, wrenching and utterly engrossing.

The pain and puzzlement suffered by daughters is a theme in Sara Taylor’s second novel The Lauras, much anticipated after her excellent debut The Shore. Like The Shore, The Lauras is stuffed full of stories as Alex looks back on two years spent on the road as an adolescent. As they crisscross the USA, Alex’s mother tells stories about her life before Alex, packed with adventure and misadventure. At each destination, scores are settled, longstanding promises Cover imagefulfilled and debts repaid. Throughout it all runs the theme of identity – Alex’s determined decision not to identify as male or female, her mother’s sexual ambiguity and rootlessness – all handled with an enviable deftness.

The theme of mother/child relationships also runs through Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s very fine debut, Harmless Like You. After his father dies, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son. Buchanan’s writing is often very striking, her images vibrantly colourful. She underpins the book’s poignancy with a wry humour, neatly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Let’s hope there’s a second novel in the works.

One of my favourite writers, Ron Rash hails from the Appalachians and it’s there that he sets his award-winning novels with their smalltown mountain backdrop similar to Kent Haruf’s Holt, Colorado. His latest novel, Above the Waterfall, is about Les Clary, the local sheriff whose final case sees him repaying a childhood debt in a most unorthodox fashion. The writing is gorgeous – at times lyrical, at times stark – but there’s much more than polished prose to this morally complex novel. It’s a mature work: beautifully executed, compassionate yet unflinching in its portrayal of human frailties and utterly convincing.

Cover imageAltogether more gentle, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop is narrated by a young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging but the star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Very little happens in this charming novel but it’s an absolute joy and the ending is all you could hope for. Just what was needed after the multitude of barbs that 2016 seems to have hurled at so many of us and a very satisfying book with which to bring July and August to a close.

A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review and if you’ve missed the first two posts they’re here and here. Nothing much of note for me in September so the fourth and final post for my books of 2016 will leap ahead to cover October and November.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell): An endearing little gem

Cover imageThree years ago I reviewed Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo, praising the publishers for its splendid jacket and I’m delighted to see that they’ve used the same designer for The Nakano Thrift Shop. It’s not the only thing this quietly charming novel has in common with Kawakami’s previous book: it’s also narrated by an introverted, slightly awkward young woman not entirely sure of her place in the world. Hitomi looks back over the year she spent in Mr Nakano’s shop selling second-hand goods alongside Takeo who joins Mr Nakano on house clearances.

Mr Nakano’s shop has been open for over twenty-five years. Sometimes it’s busy, sometimes quiet but there’s always something to keep Hitomi occupied, whether it’s speculating about the regular customer who turns out to have eloped with a schoolgirl years ago or selling the many household bits and pieces acquired by Mr Nakano and Takeo. Hitomi is a little socially awkward but in comparison with the taciturn Takeo whose most likely utterance is ‘Sorry’, she’s a shining example of confidence and self-possession. As these two stumble into the most tenuous of relationships, Mr Nakano’s sister Masayo cheers them on from the side lines. Mr Nakano has his own romantic troubles, although at times he seems blissfully unaware of the emotional damage he’s wreaking. As the year wears on, Mr Nakano becomes increasingly entangled, Masayo pops in regularly exerting a magnetic attraction for customers, Takeo keeps himself awkwardly to himself and Hitomi wonders about everyone else’s love life while finding her own increasingly perplexing. A few things are bought and sold.

Written in quietly understated prose infused with a gentle humour, Kawakami’s novel is an absolute delight. The four principal characters are wonderfully drawn – eccentric, idiosyncratic and thoroughly engaging. Mr Nakano has a tendency to launch into sudden gnomic pronouncements, a continuance of his internal monologue, often eliciting a dumbfounded ‘What?’ from the astonished Hitomi. Masayo sagely offers romantic advice despite her own troubles while Takeo is both enigmatic and exasperating. The star of the show is undoubtedly our narrator, the awkward but endearing Hitomi. Over the course of a year, these four become woven into the fabric of each other’s lives. It’s an episodic novel, held together neatly by a series of objects which provide the focus for each chapter. There’s a nice little catch-up in the final chapter, three years after Hitomi’s year in the shop, and the ending is all you could wish for. I loved it – a welcome antidote to the twenty-four-hour misery cycle that is our news at the moment, and a reminder that joy can to be found in the most prosaic of lives.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (transl. by Allison Markin Powell): Judging a book and its cover

Uk cover imageThis slim, beautifully written novel begins one evening when, ordering a meal at a bar, Tsukiko sits next to an elderly man who chooses exactly the same dish. She recognises him as her teacher from her secondary school days but cannot remember his name saying nothing until he notices her. To cover her embarrassment she calls him Sensei, and will never call him anything else. They begin by occasionally bumping into each other at the bar, then becoming regulars pulling the barman into their orbit and going with him and his cousin on a mushroom hunt. Sensei is a pedant, constantly correcting Tsukiko but never irritating her – she is a loner, unaware of her isolation until her feelings for him begin to change. She flounces off from a cherry blossom party with an old school flame in a fit of pique at what she perceives as Sensei’s exaggerated interest in the attractive art teacher but somehow she can’t return the younger man’s interest. Sensei invites her to go away with him US cover imagebut they sleep in separate rooms. She avoids him for months but can’t forget him. Then they meet again.

Expertly translated by Allison Markin Powell this is a beautifully understated love story, a novel of sadness, longing and gentle humour. Although it was written in 2001 as far as I know it’s the first novel by Hiromi Kawakami to be published in the UK but I hope there will be more. Portobello Books have done a brilliant job in packaging the novel. A fellow blogger told me that it was published in the US with a rather uninspiring cover under the title The Briefcase which makes complete sense if you’ve read the book but sounds a bit dull if you’re browsing. In contrast, Portobello’s title is intriguing and the book’s jacket is a thing of beauty that makes you want to pick it up and start reading. I hope lots of readers will.