Tag Archives: Misha Hoekstra

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2018: Part Two

Cover imageI’ve read just one of this second selection of May paperbacks – Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal which picked up a bit of attention when it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. It sees fortysomething Sonja attempting to learn to drive, something she feels she really should have done some time ago, while failing to find a place for herself in the world. Nothing much happens in Nors’ sharp, very funny novella. Sonja stumbles from perplexity to perplexity, occasionally making stands, constantly finding herself out of step with everyone else until one day she has an epiphany.

With her pleasing eccentricities, Sonja wouldn’t be out of place in one of the seven stories comprising Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women if past performance is anything to go by. Each of them bears many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ – promises the publishers who also quote the author on writing short stories in the book’s blurb: ‘I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart will no doubt be rather more sombre than Murakami’s stories. It moves between revolutionary Zanzibar in the 1960s and 1990s London, following writer Paradise Salim whose happy childhood is disrupted by his father’s departure from his brother’s house where the family has been living. ‘Evoking the immigrant experience with unsentimental precision and profound insight, Gravel Heart is a powerfully affecting story ofCover image isolation, identity, belonging and betrayal, and is Abulrazak Gurnah’s most dazzling achievement’ say the publishers. Gurnah’s By the Sea remains one of the most powerful depictions of exile I’ve read.

I’m hoping for some light relief with Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation after that. It’s about modern marriage, a second marriage to be precise. Graham is charmed by the fun-loving, spontaneous Audra but tired out by her. When his first wife turns up again, Graham finds himself in a quandry: ’How can anyone love two such different women? Did he make the right choice? Is there a right choice?’ ask the publishers which doesn’t sound entirely up my street and there’s every possibility that I’ve been persuaded to look at it by Twitter, something I’ve had cause to regret in the past. We’ll see.

Francesca Segal’s The Awkward Age also tackles modern family life through Julia who has fallen in love with James. All looks set for happiness but their teenage children put several spanners in the works. ‘Uniting two households is never easy, but the teenagers’ unexpected actions will eventually threaten everyone’s hard-won happiness’ say the publishers which, once again, sounds a little outside my usual literary purview but I enjoyed Segal’s The Innocents very much

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is still sitting on my shelves unread although it is now the next in line. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers, promisingly.

That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to my review for Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and to a more detailed synopsis for the other titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of May’s paperbacks they’re here, new novels are here and here.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (translated by Misha Hoekstra): The loneliness of the learner driver

Cover imageI’ve not come across Dorthe Nors’ writing before although the Guardian included her Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space as one of their best books of 2015. It’s possible I dismissed Karate Chop out of hand, not yet having seen the light with regard to short stories, but if Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is anything to go by I may well seek it out. This short, funny novel sees Sonja attempting to learn to drive, something she feels she really should have done some time ago, while failing to find a place for herself in the world.

Sonja’s in her forties, a translator of popular Swedish crime fiction. She’s from Jutland but has lived in Copenhagen for many years. She lives alone, frets about why her elder sister Kate seems to avoid her calls and often thinks about her childhood – hiding in her father’s rye field despite strict orders not to, watching the whooper swans flying through the endless skies. Her driving instructor hurls incomprehensible commands at her while providing her with a furious running commentary on her own life and its many problems. Her flaky masseuse attributes every tense muscle to spiritual problems, insisting on the power of ‘medical intuition’. When she finally gets the nerve up to change her driving instructor she constantly frets that the new one will find out about her ‘positional vertigo’ and disqualify her from taking her test. One day, on her way to a concert with a friend who doesn’t seem the least bit interested in her, she helps a timid old woman and has an epiphany.

Nothing much happens in Nors’ sharp, very funny novella. Sonja stumbles from perplexity to perplexity, occasionally making stands, constantly finding herself out of step with everyone else. When her masseuse invites her on a walk she avoids the woodland glade meditation session. She heads off the pass she’s convinced her new driving instructor is about to make with free books for his wife when he’s simply relieved to be teaching some one his own age. Nors takes a few nifty swipes at Scandi crime: despite occasional trips to Sweden Sonja has ‘never stumbled across a corpse over there. It’s curious when you think about how many people die a violent death in Ystad alone’. Deftly combining wit with acute observation Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is essentially about loneliness, about not fitting in when it seems everyone else does. Its cover perfectly sums it up: shutting her skirt in the door is precisely the kind of think Sonja would do. Congratulations to both Nors and Hoekstra for their well deserved appearance on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist.

Books to Look Out for February 2017: Part Two

Cover imageThe second part of February’s preview begins with its feet firmly planted in the US – New York to be precise – before nipping over to continental Europe for the last two titles. I’m not sure why but Tim Murphy’s Christodora has been on my radar for quite some time, probably something to do with Twitter but I don’t remember a huge amount of brouhaha about it. The Christodora of the title is an apartment building in Manhattan’s East Village whose inhabitants the novel follows from the 1980s to the 2020s: ‘Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself’ as the publishers put it which sounds right up my New York city loving alley. Of course it could be a sprawling mess but I’ll certainly be trying it out.

Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is set in 2007, the year before the global financial crash. Recently arrived from Cameroon, Jende Jonga and his family have high hopes for their new life in America, all the more so when Jende becomes a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior partner at Lehman Brothers. The fates of the two men’s families become closely interlinked and the Jongas begin to believe that the American Dream might be within their grasp until it becomes clear that both the Edwards family and the world of finance have distinctly rocky foundations. ‘Faced with the loss of all they have worked for, each couple must decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams – and what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way’ say the publishers. The financial crash offers fertile ground for fiction just as 9/11 did, and this sounds like an interesting take on it.Cover image

Jaqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn takes us across the bridge to August’s old neighbourhood where she bumps into a long-lost friend triggering memories of the 1970s when ‘beneath the hopeful veneer, there was another Brooklyn, a dangerous place where grown men reached for innocent girls in dark hallways, where ghosts haunted the night, where mothers disappeared. A world where madness was just a sunset away and fathers found hope in religion’ says the publisher which sounds more than a little melodramatic but this one’s from Oneworld who have been coming up with some very fine titles over the past few years, not least the last two Man Booker winners.

Lutz Seiler’s award-winning Kruso takes us to Hiddensee – a Baltic island legendary as a destination for idealists and rebels against the East German state – where in 1989 a young student has fled a dreadful tragedy. Once there, he gets a job washing dishes at the island’s most popular restaurant and becomes friends with the eponymous Kruso to whom the seasonal workers seem to be in thrall. ‘As the wave of history washes over the German Democratic Republic, the friends’ grip on reality loosens and life on the island will never be the same’ say the publishers.

Cover imageFinally, we’re off to Copenhagen for Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. As you might infer from the title, Sonja is learning to drive. It’s all a bit of a struggle, something she should have done years ago when she was eighteen just like her sister whose life seems settled and perfect. ‘Dorthe Nors’ examines the absurdity of modern life, the complexity of human desire, and the ache of loneliness and disappointment in a novel shot through with flashes of humour’ according to the publishers which sounds very appealing to me and I do like Copenhagen.

That’s it for February’s new books. A click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis for any that snag your attention and if you’d like to catch up with the first part of the preview it’s here. Paperbacks soon…