Tag Archives: Vintage Publishing

Blasts from the Past: Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman (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.

Lost in Translation is my first non-fiction blast from the past. It was published in the UK shortly after I became a bookseller and was one of the first books in huge demand that I felt I must read. It’s about many things one of which is the nuance of language, a subject dear to many readers’ – and of course writers’ – hearts.

At the age of thirteen, when most of us are beginning to forge an identity for ourselves, Eva Hoffman was uprooted from her beloved Poland to emigrate with her family to Canada. Born in 1945, her early years had been spent in Kraków, surrounded by friends, thoroughly immersed in a way of life she knew and loved. When she arrived in Vancouver, she had not only to learn a new language, but also a very different set of cultural references, a long, slow process which set her at a distance from other young people. When she won a scholarship to a university in the United States, she began to find ways of belonging in her new world without rejecting the old. Lost in Translation is an eloquent account of Hoffman’s experience of being caught between two cultures.

I’ve tried reading several of Hoffman’s novels over the years but none have made the impression on me that her memoir left. It’s come to mind often in the last few years when thinking about the refugee crisis and the cultural dislocation so many have had to face on top of their trauma.

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

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick Shortlist: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Cover imageRegular visitors to this blog will know that I tend not to review historical novels. There are exceptions, of course – Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree and Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall be Entirely Free spring to mind – but generally my feet are planted firmly in the twenty-first century. You might be surprised then to hear that Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was already sitting on my shelves waiting to be read before its shortlisting boosted it to the front of the queue. Gowar’s novel begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died.

Jonah Hancock is haunted by the stillbirth of his son and the death of his wife, burying himself in business, proud of his astute merchant’s eye and glowing reputation. When Captain Jones arrives, bearing the mermaid acquired by the sale of his ship, Hancock is at first horrified then persuaded that this shrivelled figure will make his fortune. He finds himself courted by Mrs Chappell, the sharp-eyed madam of a bordello who spots a business opportunity, persuading him to rent her the mermaid. Mrs Chappell enlists the help of Angelica Neal, much reduced following the death of her patron, instructing her to devote herself to Hancock at the lavish opening party for the creature’s display. Hancock isn’t as green as he may seem – he’s visited a prostitute or two – but he’s appalled by the lascivious goings-on, shrugging off the attentions of Angelica but not before falling heavily for her carefully cultivated charms. Out he walks, leaving Angelica to conceive her own passion which leads her into desperate trouble. When he next sees her, Angelica sets him a seemingly impossible task: she wants him to find her another mermaid.

Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail. Women are dependent on men to make their way in this world – Mrs Chappell earns her money from their debauchery, Bel finds her way to respectability and security through marriage – Mrs Flowerday is perhaps the most independent, shrewdly using her dowry as a counterweight when her husband oversteps the mark. As in the best morality tales, there’s a great deal of sly wit running through the narrative:

Mr Trevithick steps aside to draw her attention to the flagellation machine which sits in the corner awaiting its weekly polish.

Gowar engages our sympathy for her characters, deftly rounding them out: Hancock is a decent man, hoping to step up the social ladder but ill at ease with it, and Angelica’s flightiness is tempered with memories of an impoverished childhood. Just one criticism: I found the mermaid’s voice a little jarring but her passages are both short and few. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction, both absorbing and entertaining with a hefty helping of redemption.

If you’d like to see what my fellow shadow judge Amanda at Bookish Chat thinks of Gowar’s novel, her review is here. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow,

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: Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (1993)

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.

David Malouf is one of those writers who seems to be able to turn his hand to anything: fiction, poetry, libretti – he’s mastered them all. My favourite novel by him – so far – is the Booker Prize shortlisted, IMPAC Award-winning Remembering Babylon. It’s both an examination of the arrival of an outsider in a small, close-knit but barely established community and a commentary on colonialism, filled with vibrantly poetic images.

On a sweltering day in the mid-nineteenth century, a strange and ragged figure dances out of the Australian bush and into the lives of a small group of white settlers. Gemmy Fairley has spent almost sixteen years living with aborigines. At first his eccentricities are greeted with the amusement of novelty but in time the settlement becomes riven with suspicion. As the settlers attempt to impose their own kind of order on an environment which they perceive as hostile, many of them find Gemmy’s presence both unsettling and threatening. Where do the loyalties of this man, who is white like them but seems to have more in common with aborigines, lie? As Gemmy tries to find a place for himself in the community, friendships are strained to breaking point, brutality begins to surface but one family finds a new way to look at the world.

Gemmy’s arrival threatens the settlers’ fragile identities who Malouf has described as ‘a community that wouldn’t otherwise have held together but for their whiteness and Europeanness’. Strangers as they are in a strange land, they are faced with a man who seems to be is neither truly British nor Australian but a disturbing amalgamation of the two, a worrying prospect of what might become of them and their children. Every word counts in this slim dazzlingly vivid, novella. It’s a superb book, as novels by poets so often are, and it seems particularly apt right now.

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

Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Adventures in the publishing world

Cover imageI’d been looking forward to Jonathan Galassi’s novel, smacking my lips over the idea of a treat not to mention an escape from the ‘hell in a hand cart’ news we seemed to be drowning in. It’s all about the book world and what could be more comforting than that? Paul Dukach, the misfit in a family of beefy athletes, conceives a lifelong passion for Ida Perkins’ poetry as a teenager. By the end of the book Paul will have fulfilled his wildest dreams but not without a twinge or two of conscience. Galassi is a poet and one of the head honchos at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He knows a thing or three about Paul’s world.

Thanks to the well-connected Morgan, who introduces him to Ida’s work, Paul finds his way into the New York publishing world, soon gaining a reputation for his sharp editorial eye. He’s offered a job by Homer Stern, the louche, foul-mouthed owner of Purcell and Stern, one of the city’s two most revered literary publishing houses, its lists stuffed full of Nobel Prize winners. Paul would like nothing more than to publish Ida’s poetry but Homer’s rival, Sterling Wainwright, has an iron grip on the rights to it. Over the years, as Paul gains a reputation as one of New York’s finest editors, he becomes Sterling’s friend, privy to his stories about Ida and fellow poet Arnold Outerbridge, one of her many lovers. Through Sterling, Paul is given an introduction to his idol and after an afternoon spent listening to her stories finds himself presented with an astonishing proposition which pitches him onto the horns of a dilemma. Galassi’s smart, funny novel takes us into the world of literary publishing, replete with gossipy detail and sharply observed satire while posing questions about the nature of literary fame.

Beginning with a brief biography of Ida Perkins and ending with a bibliography of her work, Muse had me half-believing that I might somehow have managed not to hear about this celebrated poet. Of course, she doesn’t exist – a bit like the theremin playing Lena in The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt and just as cleverly drawn. Nothing like an insider to poke the sharpest fun and there’s a good deal to amuse here – thumbnail (possibly heartfelt) sketches of egotistical, needy authors; a biting description of the Frankfurt book fair that may raise a few blushes in publishing circles – with sharply funny lines peppered throughout. Paul’s moral dilemma is a little too conveniently resolved but that said it’s a brilliant piece of entertainment for anyone who’s interested in the machinations of the book world. Had I been an American there would have been the added spice of working out who was who although when Medusa rears its ugly head you don’t need to be a genius to realise who Galassi has in his sights. Hugely entertaining, then, and a much-needed escape for me. Poets who wince at the line: ‘Who was it who said the reason there’s so much backbiting among poets is because there’s so little at stake’ can take comfort from the knowledge that it was Kissinger and he was talking about academics rather than poets. It’s often quoted in this house.