Tag Archives: Valeria Luiselli

Books to Look Out for in March 2019: Part Two

Cover imageThe first instalment of March’s new titles was all about the USA. The second part begins with a novel about children knocking on its doors trying to get in. Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli’s first novel written in English, sees a family head off from New York on a road trip to the south west which once belonged to Mexico. Meanwhile thousands of children are making their way north from Central America and Mexico, hoping to cross the border against all odds. ‘In a breath-taking feat of literary virtuosity, Lost Children Archive intertwines these two journeys to create a masterful novel full of echoes and reflections – a moving, powerful, urgent story about what it is to be human in an inhuman world’ say the publishers. Hopes are high for this one.

As they are for Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel, Gingerbread, which sounds refreshingly original. Perdita Lee and her mother, Harriet, live in a gold-painted seventh-floor flat where they make gingerbread whose biggest fan is Harriet’s best friend Gretel. Years later, Perdita tries to track down Gretel. ‘As the book follows the Lees through encounters with jealousy, ambition, family grudges, work, wealth, and real estate, gingerbread seems to be the one thing that reliably holds a constant value’ say the publishers, promisingly. Apparently Oyeyemi’s novel was influenced by references to gingerbread in children’s classics.

I’m not so sure about Sadie Jones’ The Snakes having failed to see what so many others did in her much-praised debut, The Outcast. Bea and Dan have rented out their flat for a few months and driven to France where they plan to visit Bea’s brother at his hotel. When they arrive, they find Alex alone and the dilapidated hotel empty. The arrival of Bea and Alex’s rich parents makes Dan wonder why he’s never met them before. All of which may not sound very exciting but ‘tragedy strikes suddenly, brutally, and in its aftermath the family is stripped back to its rotten core, and even Bea with all her strength and goodness can’t escape’ say the publishers intriguingly. We’ll see.

I feel back in safer territory with Nicole Flattery’s collection, Show Them a Good Time described by Jon McGregor as ‘very funny and very sad, usually at the same time’. Flattery explores the lives of young men and women from a woman navigating a string of meaningless relationships to a couple of students working on a play knowing that unemployment looms, apparently. ‘Exuberant and irreverent, accomplished and unexpected, it marks the arrival of an extraordinary new IrishCover image voice in fiction’ say the publishers but it’s McGregor’s opinion that’s swung it for me. He was spot on with El Hacho, one of my books of 2018.

I’m ending March’s preview with the third in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, Spring, which comes with the usual opaque blurb: ‘Spring will come. The leaves on its trees will open after blossom. Before it arrives, a hundred years of empire-making. The dawn breaks cold and still but, deep in the earth, things are growing’. I’m sure it will be great.

A click on any of the titles that have snagged your attention will take you to a more detailed synopsis, although not so much with Spring, and if you’ve missed the first part of the preview, it’s here.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in April 2016

Cover imageI like to start these previews off with a book I can heartily recommend and I’m delighted to say that’s easy this April as two of my 2015 favourites hit the shops in paperback. Hard to choose which I enjoyed most so I’m starting with one and ending with the other. Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s wonderful Himmler’s Cook took me on a romp through twentieth century history. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ a credo that’s got her through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband. Rose is a fabulous character and, unlikely as it may seem, there’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s protagonist in Hausfrau is the antithesis of Rose, living a life in the Zurich suburbs so attenuated she’s almost faded into its background. Anna is an American who moved to Switzerland with Bruno nine years ago when pregnant with their oldest son. Bruno has settled back into Swiss life, living a short walk from his mother, but Anna has never felt she belongs there, speaking only the most basic German. Her psychiatrist has suggested she join a language class which might make her feel more of a participant than a bystander. Soon, Anna begins an affair and over the course of three months, finds herself embroiled and beleaguered until a calamitous event shakes her to her core. Essbaum’s language is striking and Anna’s story well told. Well worth a read.

The next three are new to me, although I’ve had my eye on Owen Sheer’s I Saw a Man for some time. It’s about Michael Turner who has lost his wife and is now living in London next door to the Nelsons with whom he has become close friends. For Michael, the Nelsons represent everything he has lost but their friendship is a solace to him until a catastrophe changes everything. The synopsis sounds a little trite but Sheers is a fine writer with a reputation for lyrical prose and I suspect his book will be worth reading for that alone.Cover image

I spend quite lot of time banging on about lousy jackets but in this particular case, it’s the jacket that’s sold the book to me so I can only hope the contents live up to it. Nell Leyshon’s Memoirs of a Dipper is about Gary, a seasoned thief, trained by his father on the job when he was just a child. He’s already done a stint inside, coming out of prison a career criminal. Bright, opportunistic, he knows all the moves ‘but all that changes when he falls for Mandy…’ is the nice little teaser from the publisher. A little outside my usual purview but I do like that cover

The same could be said of Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress which is set in 1255 but Elizabeth Gilbert’s description of it as ‘so beautiful, so rich, so strange’ has piqued my interest. Sarah is seventeen when she decides to be an anchoress, shutting herself away in a tiny cell beside the village church. She’s turned her back on the world and devoted herself to prayer in an attempt to escape her grief for her sister and her family’s determination that she should marry. Things, of course, are never so simple. ‘Cadwallader’s powerful debut novel tells an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear and the very human need for connection and touch. With a poetic intelligence, Cadwallader explores the relationship between the mind, body and spirit in Medieval England in a story that will hold the reader in a spell until the very last page’ say the publishers.

Cover imageI’m rounding things off with my other 2015 favourite, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth which was commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.

That’s it for April paperbacks. A click on anything I haven’t already reviewed will take you to a fuller synopsis should you want to know more. If you’d like to catch up with new titles for the month they’re here and here.

Books of the Year 2015: Part 2

Cover imageThis second batch of 2015 goodies covers April and May, and is made up entirely of women writers. No plan there – just the way this particular cookie crumbled. I’ll begin with The Shore, Sara Taylor’s beautifully packaged debut which appeared on both the Baileys longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/ Peters Fraser Dunlop award shortlist. Taylor’s novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories spanning a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and the novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. Taylor’s writing is striking, her characters believable and her storytelling entrancing. Can’t say better than that.

My second April book is Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, commissioned as part of an exhibition by the Mexican juice factory that appears in the novel. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. Ostensibly the somewhat outlandish story of Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, who has one aim in life – the perfect set of gnashers – the novel’s really about the art of storytelling. Often witty and fantastical, it’s a brilliantly original piece of work and translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is a wonderful finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions.

Christine Dwyer Hickey is the kind of author about whom there’s not a great deal of brouhaha – no fanfare of Twitter trumpets heralding her next novel or drip feed of showy publicity – which in some ways is a relief and in others a shame. I’m not sure she has the readership she deserves. Written in precise, quiet and unshowy prose The Lives of Women, follows Elaine, back from the States on her first visit home in many years, as she remembers the summer back in the ‘70s which has shaped her adult life. The story’s an old one – and sad – but told with great skill and the hope of redemption. If you’veCover image not yet come across Hickey, I hope you’ll try one of her books. I rate her enough to have included her on my Man Booker wish list but, as with the Baileys, the judges failed to agree with me.

A God in Ruins has recently made its way on to the Costa shortlist, although for the life of me I fail to understand why it wasn’t on the Man Booker longlist at the very least. It was the one title I’d have bet my shirt on. Beginning in 1925, it’s the story of Teddy, brother of Ursula Todd whose many lives were lived in Life After Life. In her author’s note Atkinson says she likes ‘to think of it as a “companion” piece rather than a sequel’ and indeed that’s how it reads. Atkinson flashes forward and back seamlessly, deftly tossing observations from the future, literary allusions, thoughts on nature, riffs on trivia such as the unthinking cruelty of parents when naming their children, into her narrative and stitching it all together beautifully. It’s a wonder from beginning to its intensely moving end.

I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here – or perhaps proving my incompetence as a literary prize judge, not that I’m likely to become one – but here’s yet another novel that appeared on my Man Booker wish list but not on theirs. The Mountain Can Wait is sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Sarah Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I’ve read this year.

Cover imageRounding off this second selection is Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, the second instalment of her The Last Hundred Years Trilogy which reflects the twists and turns in America’s fortunes from 1920 until an imagined 2020 through an Iowan farming family. The first part, Some Luck, made it on to last year’s books of the year posts for me – and many others – so I was looking forward to seeing what happens to the Langdons next. It opens in 1953 with a funeral neatly passing the baton on to the next generation and finishes in 1986 with a revelation which offers another pleasing twist in the lives of the family. Published here in the UK in October, Golden Age completed the trilogy, and suffice to say it’s the equal of the other two.

That’s it for the second selection. A click on a title will take you to my review and if you’d like to catch up with the first post, it’s here. More to follow shortly when yet another Man Booker unfulfilled wish will be aired.

The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (transl. Christina MacSweeney): A fabulous book, quite literally

Cover imageThis is my second Mexican novel in just over a month: another slim little number which you might consider gulping down in a few hours but, as with Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, you’d be wrong. There’s a great deal to absorb in Valeria Luiselli’s ‘novel-essay’ as she calls it, even more when you get to the end and find a fascinating schematic chronology of the protagonist’s life followed by an afterword explaining the impetus behind the book which made me realise I needed to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Lest this makes it sound like a ticksy bit of literary self-indulgence I should say now that it’s a triumph: one of the most interesting pieces of fiction I’ve read in some time.

Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, has one aim in life: the perfect set of gnashers. Aged forty, having spent nineteen years as a security guard for the local juice factory’s art gallery, he spots an opportunity and sets himself up as an auctioneer – a teller of stories persuasive enough to make the punters buy anything, even his own teeth. After an illustrious, peripatetic career he settles back down in his home town, choosing the Calle Disneylandia in Ecatepec on which to build a home and a warehouse fit to house his lifelong collection of artefacts. All seems set for his Grand Auction until the local priest approaches him to help raise money for the parish, hit by the financial crisis that has dented Highway’s own livelihood. Nemesis in the shape of his son, not seen for decades, catches up with him but a chance meeting with a budding writer puts him back on his feet again and soon he’s dictating the ‘autobiography’ of his teeth.

You may think that all sounds a little outlandish but it’s the barest of bones when it comes to this jigsaw puzzle of a book. It’s all about storytelling. Divided into six parts, beginning with The Story then progressing through four schools of auctioneering plus one devised by Highway himself, Luiselli’s book is a rich mix of cultural and literary references, tall stories and comedy. Highway is endlessly entertaining, a man of many tales and immense confidence who auctions his lots with ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth’. The ‘allegoric’ section is rich in witty, eccentric sometimes fantastical stories and littered with references to a multitude of writers including Luiselli, herself, and the aforementioned Herrera. And there are teeth, of course, many of them: after all, they are ‘the true windows to the soul’. Translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is the brilliant finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions. Teeth, here, too – who knew that Churchill’s teeth had been auctioned in 2010? They went for £15,200 apparently. No mention of the £500,000 advance paid for Martin Amis’s The Information which allegedly paid for his teeth to be fixed, though.

After all this Luiselli’s Afterword is the icing on the cake. We learn that there really is a Mexican juice factory with a gallery attached and that they commissioned what was to become The Story of My Teeth as part of an exhibition. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. I’d love to think that it was one of the workers who came up with the idea of a man who makes Chinese fortune cookies and speaks in Latin. An extraordinary book, truly original – and I don’t say that very often.