Thursday, 31 May 2012

It's J-Lit Time Again :)

Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a big fan of Japanese literature, but what with all the other books I've been swamped with recently, it turns out (after looking at my little list) that I haven't actually read many Japanese works since the end of the last Japanese Literature Challenge back in January.  Perhaps it's timely then that June sees the return of my favourite challenge - Belezza, the host of the event, has just announced that Japanese Literature Challenge 6 is open for business, and it's time for all the Japanophiles in the blogosphere to get reading and reviewing :)

I'm hoping to get down to it as soon as possible, but given the lag I have between reading a book and publishing the final polished post, I probably won't have anything for your enjoyment for a good few weeks yet.  In place of a review then, I thought I'd start my challenge by whetting your appetites with a short summary of some of the J-Lit delights waiting to be read at Malone Towers.  Ikimashō!

Among the many volumes in my J-Lit library are a few which have languished there unread for an awfully long time, and this will be the perfect opportunity to do something about it.  Shusaku Endo's Silence was probably my unofficial book of the year last year (only edged out for the official prize by the four books of Steven Carroll's Glenroy Trilogy), so it's surprising that I haven't got around to another of his books, Deep River, yet.

The same could be said for Natsume Soseki's The Gate, the third in a loosely-linked trilogy of novels beginning with the excellent Sanshiro and Sorekara.  The book that's been here the longest though is Jay Rubin's take on the work of my favourite Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami and The Music of Words.  I meant to read this analysis of Murakami's work for JLC5, but I never quite got around to it - this year, I promise ;)

That's a pretty good start, but there's plenty more where they came from; I also have three more recent acquisitions which I hope to get to over the next few months.  One of these writers, Yasunari Kawabata, is no stranger to my blog, and I have high hopes for his Kyoto-set novel, The Old Capital, after the success of The Sound of the Mountain earlier this year.

The other two though are by writers I haven't tried before.  Along with Soseki, Ogai Mori is considered as one of the pioneers of modern Japanese literature, and I'm looking forward to sampling his work in the form of his novel The Wild Geese.  Slightly more off-beat is the last of these three books, Kenji Miyazawa's Milky Way Railroad, a classic story, described on the back of my copy as "a literary, scientific and religious fable" (which can only mean good things!).

Of course, once I heard that the challenge was about to begin again, I couldn't resist turning on the computer and browsing the electronic bookstores for some new toys as well.  After a few days of drawing up a shortlist of books, I eventually limited myself to three (which only cost me what one book would cost me from an Australian bookshop anyway...), all of which will be great additions to my collection.

The first is another classic, Some Prefer Nettles, a further psychological tale of sexual intrigue from the pen of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki.  I haven't read anything by Tanizaki for a while now, but I've heard good things about this one, so I'm looking forward to trying it.

The other two are both relatively modern works, and the only books on today's list by female writers.  I haven't always been overwhelmed by Banana Yoshimoto's writing, but after the relative success of The Lake, I decided to take a chance on Lizard (even buying a second-hand copy to fit in with my UK Faber and Faber copies with Kanji on the front!).  On the other hand, I was very impressed by Hitomi Kanehara's Autofiction when I read it, so it was high time that I picked up her Akutagawa-Prize-Winning debut novel, Snakes and Earrings.

That's just about it for starters, but there is one more book itching to be read.  I also have a copy of Donald Keene's Modern Japanese Literature, an anthology which combines short stories with extracts from longer works.  I'm not convinced about the idea of extracts (I much prefer to just read the books...), but the collection does contain fiction from some of the great 20th-century Japanese writers, so it has to be worth a look :)

And that's it - ten of the best to kick off JLC6.  Whether I actually stick to that list is extremely doubtful, but it's always good to have some sort of plan ;)  Please feel free to comment on my choices and suggest some new ones - The Book Depository is always open...

Post-Script: Of course, the problem with planning your reading is that it doesn't leave gaps for you to fill when you see other books which take your fancy...  Since penning this post, I've had a couple more J-Lit delights arrive, taking the tally to twelve ;)

I'd been eyeing off Akira Yoshimura's Shipwrecks for a while now, and I finally got around to buying it recently, but my other purchase was more of an impulse buy.  After reading a story by Kafu Nagai from the anthology above, I had a quick glance at The Book Depository to see if they had any of his books there - and spotted a copy of Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale (in a new translation by Stephen Snyder) for just AU$6!  Thirty seconds later...

The moral of the story is... well, I'm not sure there is one (apart from 'don't save your credit card details to book sites').  I certainly have a lot of books to read though :)

Monday, 28 May 2012

Video Saved The Literary Star - Part Two

Last week, I related my recent televisual experiences with period drama, both related and unrelated to classic literature, and today I'm back with another couple of little reviews on visual delights.  Get your remotes ready - but please don't change the channel ;)

After the relative disappointment of He Knew He Was Right, it was probably a bit of a risk to try another Trollope adaptation so soon.  Still, what are you going to do when the DVD gets to the library unexpectedly quickly?  The Barchester Chronicles is a seven-part series based on the first two of Trollope's Barchester novels, The Warden and Barchester Towers.  The first two episodes concentrate on the former with the other five devoted to the latter - the question is, of course, are they any good?

The initial signs were not encouraging.  The series dates from 1982, and this is painfully obvious in many regards.  The acting was a bit wooden at times, and some of the camera work looked like it had been done by my daughter messing around with my digital camera.  Despite the excellent work by Donald Pleasance, playing the titular Warden Septimus Harding, I wasn't overly impressed by the first two episodes.  Nigel Hawthorne as Archdeacon Grantly seemed overly aggressive, and the continuity didn't exactly flow.  To be fair, I think The Warden is probably not the easiest book to bring to the small screen, at times consisting mainly of large amounts of information related by the author himself, rather than his creations.  Still, I was a little reluctant to move on to the second part of the series...

...but I'm very glad I did.  Barchester Towers is a wonderful book, and it contains a lot more action than its predecessor.  In these episodes, the Archdeacon's fire is both justified and welcome, and Mr. Harding is again wonderfully played, if slightly more playful and sarcastic than he comes across in the book.  However, it is the new arrivals in Barchester that make the series come to life, especially the three new residents of the Bishop's palace.  The weak Bishop Proudie is played by Clive Swift, who basically plays the same role as he does as the hen-pecked husband in the BBC comedy Keeping Up Appearances, keeping his head down in the vain hope of a peaceful life.

This is denied to him, of course, by the loathsome Mrs. Proudie (played wonderfully by Geraldine McEwan) and his odious chaplain Obadiah Slope, this role being filled by a certain Alan Rickman...  Yes, Severus Snape himself (with a haircut) is the slimy clergyman who oozes across our screens, attempting to ingratiate himself with the local ladies and influence the bishop behind Mrs. Proudie's back.  This was Rickman's breakthrough role, and it's one he attacks with great gusto :)

All in all, The Barchester Chronicles was great fun, but I wouldn't recommend it to everyone.  If you love the novels, you'll get a lot out of the series, but I would imagine that the casual viewer would wonder what all the fuss is about.  That's if the camera work hasn't already given them motion sickness...

...a series I can recommend without reservation, however, is the BBC's 2005 adaptation of Bleak House. Whoever had the idea of making it into a sixteen-part series, fourteen of which run for only half an hour, is a genius.  Whatever some whingers may have said about it, the soap opera format is perfect for the book, reminding the viewer of the serialised format of Dickens' - and many Victorian writers' - work.

One of the strong points of this series was its casting, especially important when you consider the strength in numbers of the ensemble.  To match this strength in numbers with quality must have been a formidable task, but it was satisfied amazingly well.  All of the main characters were excellent, but if I were to single anyone out, it would probably have to be Charles Dance as Mr. Tulkinghorne, the arrogant, sinister lawyer who threatens to unravel poor Lady Dedlock's secrets.  Alun Evan's turn as Inspector Bucket would have to run him a close second though ;)

As mentioned in my previous post, Gillian Anderson later went on to play Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, but at the time of being given the part of Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, she was still best known for her role in The X-Files.  Hence, there were a few annoyed voices around at the time, wondering why on earth an American actress had been cast as this quintessentially English noblewoman.  She nails it though, playing the role of the doomed, imposing woman to perfection.  And if ever there was an inspiration for a song, it is Lady Dedlock.  Believe me - everywhere she goes, she always takes the (bad) weather with her...

I can only think of one major disappointment, and that's the soppy ending, common to most adaptations of classic literature, unfortunately.  That aside though, Bleak House is a wonderful series, one I'd advise anyone to watch.  It lasts for eight hours in total, and I got through it all in less than a week, desperate to go for just one more episode every time the credits starting rolling on the one I was watching.  Do you need any more convincing? ;)

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Tough at the Top

While I've had fun with a lot of translated fiction recently, it's always a pleasure to slip into something comfortable and while away a few hours with some Victoriana.  With me, of course, that usually means Anthony Trollope, and today's offering is another of big, bad Tony's political offerings.  Pipe and slippers ready?

The Prime Minister is the fifth in Trollope's Palliser Series and sees the return of our old friend Plantagenet Palliser.  The country is in crisis, parliament at a standstill - none of the usual suspects believes they can muster enough support to build a cabinet and bring the House through the session.  What they need is a respected, uncontroversial gentleman to pull the various factions together in a coalition government - and when it comes to reliable, if slightly dull, gentlemen, there are none so respectable (or dull) as the newly-honoured Duke of Omnium himself.

While one half of the novel recounts the traumatic experience of the thin-skinned Duke's term as PM, the other half, as is common in Trollope's fiction, introduces a new character, albeit one who will brush shoulders with the sizeable cast of players the series has already created.  This new man is Ferdinand Lopez, a young, attractive, well-mannered man about town, an habitué of certain clubs and guaranteed to be seen at the best parties and dinners.  Despite uncertainty as to his background, and suspicions as to the exact nature of his wealth, when he asks for the hand of the wealthy heiress Emily Wharton, her father can find no real reason to reject the match other than his own xenophobic and anti-Semitic tendencies.

These are gradually overcome, and Lopez and Emily (as the reader knows full well they will from the first mention of them) eventually tie the knot.  Once married, however, Lopez drops his act.  He has married both for love and for money, and finding the latter not forthcoming, he does his best to destroy any feelings of the former his wife ever had for him, demanding that she use her influence on her father to suck him dry.  This is one couple that will not live happily ever after...

Anyone who has ever read any of Trollope's work will no doubt be able to guess the ending of this particular tale (and could probably fill in certain details I've endeavoured to spare you too).  Lopez, a speculator in the newly invented futures market, has his day in the sun, but he is always destined to fly too close to it and have the wax melt from his wings.  The problem, you see, is that while educated and cultured, Lopez is not a 'gentleman'; he has never mastered the million tiny necessities which form the education of a true British man, and the moment times become difficult, the thin veneer of culture peels off all too easily.

And it is this predictability which mars the novel.  Lopez is a fascinating character, an outsider attempting to carve a way into the lives of the upper classes, and, unfortunately, for that he must be punished.  Trollope is hamstrung by the conventions and expectations of the Victorian novel and is unable, or unwilling, to make Lopez likeable (or even ambiguous).  He feels compelled to make his creation into a villain, one who becomes more black-hearted the longer the novel goes on, when a more balanced approach would have made for better reading.

There is also the question of the above-mentioned xenophobia and anti-Semitism to consider.  It is clear that the writer is attempting to reflect existing attitudes and suspicions towards foreigners in general and Jews in particular.  However, at times, it is tempting to wonder how much of this is really necessary.  Does Lopez have to be a Jew?  Does he have to take on the part of a Shylock desperate to bleed the Christians dry?  While the melodrama may have entertained at the time, it seems like a wasted opportunity to create something more nuanced and worthy...

You'll notice that I have spent a lot of the review talking about Lopez, and that is no accident.  The character dominates the novel, entering the lives of the Pallisers at one point in a sub-plot involving an inevitable by-election.  Once his story has run its course though (and it does so at a relatively early stage, allowing for a protracted and tediously conventional ending for Miss Emily...), the story loses its sparkle, and if you're not particularly interested in the political side, you may as well just close the book then and there.

Luckily however, for those (like me) who have followed Palliser's career throughout the series, the portrayal of the three years of his Prime Ministerhood is excellent.  Trollope has elevated his favourite character, his perfect gentleman, to a position which he is patently unfit to hold.  While he may possess the wealth and breeding necessary for the task of holding the coalition together (and lack the ambition and genius which would only get in his way), he does not have the one thing which is vital for the success of a Prime Minister - a thick skin.

As he suffers the slings and arrows of treacherous colleagues and slanderous journalists, the Duke is simply unable to ignore ridiculous slights which other politicians would laugh off.  Making things worse, his wife, the wonderfully mischievous Duchess (Lady Glencora as was), insists on doing her part to keep the coalition ticking - with predictably disastrous consequences for her husband's peace of mind...

The Prime Minister is a very entertaining novel at times, especially so if you've gone the whole journey with the Duke and his friends.  However, it's not a complete success, largely owing to the struggle of integrating the misfiring Lopez-Wharton side of the story into both the Prime Minister side and the larger, overarching narrative of the series.  In a period of his career where Trollope was writing his best work (He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now were both written around this time), The Prime Minister doesn't quite hit the mark.

But I'd still advise you to find that out for yourself ;)

Monday, 21 May 2012

Video Saved The Literary Star - Part One

I'm not usually one for watching a lot of television (unless there's a major football or cricket event on), and that includes period drama adapted from classic literature.  However, over the past month or so, I've somehow got sucked into ploughing through several series, and some of it has been very good viewing.  So, today (for a change), I'll be reviewing some viewing rather than reading.  Don't worry - normal service will be resumed very soon ;

The catalyst for all this was the discovery that the ABC here in Australia was showing the recent BBC version of Great Expectations, spread over three Sundays.  I'd heard good thing about it from many British-based bloggers and tweeps, and (as my review of the book shows) I love the book.  While very different from the novel in places, the series was nevertheless very entertaining.  Gillian Anderson made a very believeably-unhinged Miss Havisham, and Ray Winstone did what Ray Winstone does in the role of Magwitch - made you very glad he wasn't really in your front room.

It wasn't all good though.  The first episode was probably the highlight of the mini-series, and in the later episodes Pip came across as extremely vain without the hindsight of the adult Pip's narration.  The fact that Pip was prettier than Estella (and, as I read on Twitter, should probably have been down for the London season instead...) was also a bit of a distraction - although curiously that didn't seem to bother my wife at all.  As for the ending... Well, let's just say that if a book has a decent ending, you really should just leave it alone...

While Great Expectations seemed unintentionally camp at times, Downton Abbey had its tongue firmly inserted in cheek (preferably someone else's).  ITV's version of a period drama, an adaptation in search of an original book, appears to have been created by someone who wanted the feel of a classic novel without the boring bits.  Which has actually turned out rather well, surprisingly enough.

We raced through a marathon session after the first series was repeated here in Oz, which probably means that Series Two will be shown at some point in the near future.  It was great fun, pantomime humour without having to leave your comfy living room, complete with a couple of nasty villains you feel compelled to boo and hiss at whenever they enter the stage screen.  The racist matriarch, the unfortunate Turkish gigolo, the beautiful setting, the eyebrows...  wonderful, all of it :)

Sadly though, not all of my viewing has been as enjoyable.  I had high hopes for He Knew He Was Right, having loved Anthony Trollope's novel when I read it last year, but sadly the four-part series was a bit of a disappointment.  It wasn't unwatchable, but compared to the sustained psychological excellence of the book, the television version came across as very lightweight and almost anodyne.

One problem was that the main character, Louis Trevelyan, came across as a weak, whinging milksop, rather than the confronting monomaniac depicted in the book.  In fact, I wasn't overly impressed with the casting for this series, with the honourable exception of Bill Nighy as Colonel Osborne, whose marvellous impression of a middle-aged gentleman channelling Robbie Williams was a delight to behold.

Of course, the major talking point was the breaking of the fourth wall (when the actors speak directly to the audience).  The first time it happened, I was simply stunned - what is he doing?  The more it happened, the more impatient I got (and I wasn't alone with this - my wife was also less than impressed).  In an attempt to get Trollope's style of avuncular discussion of the plot across to the viewer, the makers opted for an unusual method of getting information across.  Unfortunately, it made it even worse.

And no, even seeing Doctor Who pursued by two carnivorous Victorian ladies didn't make up for it ;)

That's all for today, but never fear.  I've been very busy with my period dramas recently, so I'll be bringing Part Two of my musings to you all very shortly ;)

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Not Strange and Definitely not Childish

I don't receive many review copies of books, so when I do get the odd one, I try to read and review it as quickly as other commitments allow.  That's not through any feeling of obligation, but simply because I feel it's good manners to show interest in a book I've actually requested (unsolicited freebies are another matter entirely...).  Which is why I feel slightly guilty that today's book was unceremoniously pushed to the bottom of the pile by all the IFFP longlist reading I've been doing.  When that book actually turns out to be a really good one too, well, then I feel both guilty and silly.  Time to make amends ;)

Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Stranger's Child (review copy from Pan Macmillan Australia) was longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize but (somewhat controversially) didn't make it onto the shortlist.  It's a fairly long book, 564 pages in my version, but it never feels lengthy at all.  It's a wonderful creation, a novel in five parts showing the nature of reality and memory, and how they change as time passes.

We begin in 1913, at a modest country house in England called 'Two Acres'.  This is the home of the Sawle family, and the younger son, George, a student at Cambridge, is bringing a friend home to stay.  Little do the Sawles know that the visit of Cecil Valance will have a profound effect on the family's future - and it isn't just George who will fall under the spell of the charismatic Cecil.

We stay at 'Two Acres' just long enough to see George and Cecil's relationship blossom, and to witness the stirrings of interest in George's teenage sister Daphne, before the writer whisks us a decade or so into the future, where we re-encounter some of the people we met in the first part and get to know some new friends.  And this sets the scene for the rest of the book; just as we start to get comfortable with a certain set of people in a given era, the room spins, and we find ourselves whisked into the future...

Each time we move on, the characters have aged, and the focus has shifted slightly to the next generation.  If we take the example of Daphne, we are shown a lovestruck girl, a young mother, a middle-aged woman and a frail, elderly matriarch - all in the space of a few hundred pages.  It's a wonderful idea, and it's a credit to the writer that he pulls off this constant change of scenery without losing the reader's interest.

There is much more to The Stranger's Child than some clever sleight of hand though.  The novel is an examination of the notion of reality, exploring just what it is that we mean by 'history' and 'facts'.  The key to the story is Cecil, a minor poet whose immortalising of 'Two Acres' is to fascinate the coming generations.  With the truth behind the poem hidden, lost or deliberately concealed, time begins to blur the edges of the picture, leaving those who are interested in the truth (and there are a lot of them in this book) to hunt around for any remnants of history they can dredge up from disorganised archives or fading memories.

The more information comes to light, however, the less it all seems to correspond to what actually happened (and the reader, as an eye witness, feels that they are privy to the 'real' truth).  Documenting the past accurately is shown to be an impossibility, something tainted by the perspective you choose to take.  Those wanting to dig up juicy details, including several biographers of Valance's life, have preconceived ideas, notions they are loath to disregard, even in the face of contrary information.  The people who actually know what happened also have their own agenda - often preferring to conceal the very information the biographers are desperate to obtain...

One of the central issues of the novel is the one that family and friends prefer to cover up, and that is Cecil's homosexuality.  In a time when sleeping with other men could lead directly to jail, the nascent relationship between George and his poet friend was one to conceal at all costs, especially from their respective families.  As we progress through the twentieth century, finally arriving in the more 'enlightened' twenty-first century, attitudes towards homosexuality change, first in legal terms, later in more widespread public acceptance.  But does this justify a biographer's desperate attempt to ferret out the truth about a long-dead poet's sexual preferences?  The question the reader is confronted with towards the end of the novel is whether the dead, especially those who have achieved some sort of fame, have the right to take their secrets with them to the grave.

I had a quick look at the longlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, and (as expected), I hadn't actually read any of them.  However, if there are really five or six books better than The Stranger's Child on that list, I would be amazed - either it was a stellar year for Anglophone literature, or the judges messed up massively.  With every page, I enjoyed it more and more, and I'll definitely be having a look at Hollinghurst's back catalogue to see what I've been missing out on.

It's just a shame that it took me so long to get around to reading this one ;)

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

And The (Real) Winner Is...

After months of feverish reading, heated discussion and aching thumbs (and that's just me), the good people on the panel for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize have announced their choice for the best piece of translated fiction published in the UK last year.

And what is that book, the pick of the bunch in the eyes of the esteemed panel?  Well, would you believe it...

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld
Translated by Jeffrey M. Green
Published in the UK by Alma Books

Congratulations to all involved - no matter what we on the Shadow Panel think ;)

It's been an exciting and exhausting couple of months participating in the Shadow Panel process, but I've enjoyed the time immensely.  Over the past few days, I've been thinking a little about lessons to be taken from the events of this time, and I thought I'd finish my IFFP posts by musing a little on what I've learned.

1) Reading a longlist is hard work
It really is a tough ask :)  If you're doing it as part of your job, it's probably difficult enough, but making your way through fifteen books, especially fifteen demanding and, at times, lengthy books, all while going about your normal business, can be quite a challenge.  It's no surprise that we didn't all make it through the whole set (Stu managed it, I came close, and I think Mark and Lisa wisely gave up on Parallel Stories after it failed to make the shortlist), but luckily, with seven of us sharing the load, we managed to cover each book well enough to have a consensus opinion.

If I had to scrutinise our shortlist with hindsight, I'd probably say that if more of us had managed to read New Finnish Grammar before the deadline, it may have been included in our six, probably at the expense of Parallel Stories (which benefited from my fairly positive review and Stu's glowing one!).  On the whole though, I think we managed the strain quite well and came up with a list to be proud of :)

Of course, all this is just the mental strain.  Let's not talk about the bodily agonies I suffered from holding up Parallel Stories for hours on end...

2) There's no accounting for taste
Without wanting to criticise the judges of the IFFP, we in the Shadow Panel were frankly amazed at some of the decisions made for the shortlist, concerning both the books that made the cut and those that didn't.  Alice and Blooms of Darkness*** were two inclusions that had many of us scratching our weary heads, and we were a little disappointed that Next World Novella was passed over for the other German novel.  The biggest shock though was the omission of Scenes From Village Life, a book which was not so much pencilled into our shortlist as scorched with a flamethrower.

So how did this happen?  Why were we so wrong?  Was there a sense of rationalisation present in the real process that was missing from our more shadowy discussions?  If I were cynical (alright, more cynical than I already am), I might suggest that there was a spot reserved for a female writer on the shortlist - and, as regular readers will know, I'm very glad that it didn't go to a certain Korean author...  The same goes for a World-War-Two novel, with Blooms of Darkness getting the nod over The Emperor of Lies, and...

...but let's stop there.  I'd better leave the conspiracy theories to Eco and his character, Simonini.  I'm happy to believe that these simply were the panel's favourite books.

No, I am, really...

3) Shared reading is fun
Blogging can be a lonely business, particularly when you're mining the literary fiction end of the literature seam.  You hack around day after day, casting envious glances at the gaggle of bloggers chipping happily away at their YA or chick-lit part of the mine, wishing that someone would come and talk to you as you hammer away at a difficult 600-page chunk of translated fiction.  You're quite happy with what you're doing - it's just that you wish it wasn't quite so quiet at your end of the shaft...

...which is where events like the Shadow Panel are very welcome.  I'm not saying that it's something I'd like to do more than once or twice a year - I don't think the nerves would take it -, but it does make a welcome change to be able to discuss the books I'm reading in detail as I'm leafing through them.  Whether on Twitter or via e-mail, I've had great fun weighing up the merits and drawbacks of the fifteen books from the longlist with my fellow panellists; it's been two months well spent :)  For anyone wanting to look back (in anger, or otherwise) at the reviews we wrote, please follow the link to the page on Mark's blog where he has collected all of them - hours of reading pleasure!

So, before I sign off for the 2012 (Shadow) Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I'd just like to say a big thank you to my colleagues for making this such a fun venture to be a part of.  To Stu, Lisa, Gary, Mark, Rob and Simon - it's been a pleasure, and I'd love to do it all again some time...

...just not any time soon ;)

*** This post was largely written before the announcement of the winner - I deliberately decided not to change my views after the event...

Monday, 14 May 2012

And The Winner Is...

After what seems like years of reading, deliberating and pontificating, the time has finally come for the announcement of that most esteemed honour, the winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2012 - the real winner will be announced tomorrow, in case you're interested ;)

So, I'll leave you in the capable hands of Chairman Stu to hear about this year's journey - cue the tape...

"A quick word from me, Stu, the Chair of this year's Shadow IFFP. I want to thank all my fellow Judges for making this such a successful first year for the Shadow IFFP. We all undertook the journey of judging the 2012 Shadow IFFP eight weeks ago. This journey first took us to Asia - 1980’s Tokyo (or is it?), a mother's disappearance in Seoul, and a chilling look at the AIDS crisis in rural China. Then we read two Hebrew novels: the first set in the present, introducing us to an old man and a village; the other in World War Two, showing us a young Jewish man on the run, hiding in a most unexpected place.

Next, it was off to Germany, and two books dealing with death. In the first, a husband is shocked at discovering his wife’s view of him after her death; in the other a women called Alice has friends and lovers alike die around her. At this point, we relaxed for a while in Hungary, soaking in a little of the country's rich history - and its hidden sexual underground - until deciding to head north to make the acquaintance of an eccentric Icelandic autodidact with an interest in sea creatures and the occult.

We then journeyed further into Scandinavia, meeting a professor stuck in a mid-life crisis, who is witness to a murder, and a roguish leader of a Jewish community in a Second-World-War ghetto, before two Italian novels introduced us to a villain of the top order in 19th-century Europe, and a shipwrecked man with a forgotten heritage. Skipping forward to 1980s Paris, we learned about a group of friends facing the AIDS crisis head on, while a trip back in time courtesy of a Basque writer took us to Colonial Africa and a man heading into an army camp gone rogue.

This journey hasn’t been the easiest for us as judges, as most of the books dealt with death and the darker side of human life. However, they show the wealth of literary talent around the world and the wonderful work modern translators carry out. We as judges have discovered a lot about each other, digesting and discussing the books and slowly trimming our list down to our winner... and it is with great pleasure that we announce that winner:

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón
Translated by Victoria Cribb
Published in the UK by Telegram Books

We all liked - and some of us loved - this book; nobody really had a bad word to say about it. All of us felt entranced by the writing and by Sjón's voice. Through Jonas' eyes, the writer captured 17th-century Iceland so well, and this was helped by Victoria Cribb's translation which, through its usage of archaic vocabulary and grammatical forms, gave it the feel of a book that had just been unearthed, not written. From the Mouth of the Whale is a worthy first winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize."

So there you have it - a great choice, if I say so myself! Let's see what the real panel comes up with tomorrow...

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Fifteen

We've been in Europe for a while now on our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize magical mystery tour, so it's time to head to more humid climes.  It's off to the Congo we go, dropping in on some rather shady characters in the deep dark jungle, and taking a disapproving look at their colonial antics.  Machetes at the ready - we're going off-road with this one...

What's it all about?
Bernardo Atxaga's Seven Houses in France (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) transports the reader to the Congo in 1903, the height of the European conquest of Africa.  The small garrison town of Yangambi, manned by experienced, cynical officers (and a back-up of native soldiers), is awaiting the arrival of an addition to the ranks, a fresh young soldier from Europe.  We arrive in Yangambi with the new officer, the mysterious Chrysostome Liège, a silent young man who immediately rubs his new comrades up the wrong way...

You see, the hard-bitten residents of Yangambi like to blow off steam by drinking, hunting, swearing and grabbing local women to sleep with, and Chrysostome is unwilling to join the other officers in these less-than-noble pursuits.  The Captain of the garrison, frustrated poet Lalande Biran, accepts the new recruit, if only because of his formidable skill with a rifle.  Others, however, particularly Lieutenant Van Thiegel, are less impressed with Chrysostome, waiting only to discover a weakness before planning an attack on the innocent youngster.

Seven Houses in France is a critical look at the European colonial 'adventures' in Africa in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, and Atxaga doesn't paint a very pretty picture of life far away from Western civilisation and scrutiny.  While the locals are not treated as badly as in other stories I've read, the behaviour of the soldiers is intolerable by modern standards.  The local men are used as slave labour, with an armed soldier ready to cut down anyone who attempts to slip away into the jungle, and the women are fair game to help the officers satisfy their sexual urges.  What happens in the jungle, stays in the jungle...

And why are they there at all?  The reality is that it is all about money, exploiting the riches found in the unknown African interior for the amusement of the wealthy of Europe.  Lalande and his crew hack down thousands of mahogany trees, destined to be turned into expensive furniture in stately homes.  They hunt and slaughter elephants and cheetahs to satisfy the demand for ivory and fur.  In this way, the soldiers hope to become rich too - the title of the book refers to the properties Lalande's wife Christine hopes to attain from her husband's stay in the Congo.

Such wealth comes at a price, however, and it is one most of the soldiers will pay.  Marooned far from home, with only a thin veneer of imported pomp separating them from the unknown terrors lurking across the river, few are able to avoid the slide into alcoholism and paranoia, falling prey to disease caught either from the ubiquitous mosquitoes or the women the officers share.  Comparisons with Heart of Darkness are, inevitably, unavoidable, and Atxaga's men (especially Van Thiegel) appear just as crazed as the infamous Kurtz, the central character of Conrad's tale.

In fact, it is (just about) possible to feel a little sympathy for some of the characters.  Lalande is perhaps not sympathetic by today's standards, but he does try to keep his men in check.  There is also the sneaking suspicion that the seven houses his wife claims to desire are merely a pretext for keeping her husband imprisoned in the jungle, leaving her free to pursue her own affairs on the French Riviera.  In the end, it is very hard to see anyone leaving the jungle unscathed...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I went into this one fully expecting to say yes.  I came out of it thinking that it hadn't lived up to expectations.  Don't get me wrong, it's a very interesting book, enjoyable in style (although probably not in content), but it just didn't do it for me.  The tone seemed to be caught half-way between a Heart of Darkness-esque tension and a Boys' Own cheery excitement, and I was never quite sure which was meant to dominate.

I was also a little confused by the treatment of Chrysostome, who may or may not have been the centre of the story.  For much of the novel, he is an enigma, seen from the outside, and the reader has no real access to his thoughts and history, such as we have for the other characters.  Suddenly, towards the end of the novel, the writer tells us all about him - and then lets him go off on his own moody way again...  The sudden info dump spoiled the effect of the mysterious outsider, the catalyst for the events which followed, and left me a little disappointed.

The rest of the Shadow Panel appear to disagree with my thoughts, rating it very highly.  However, it's not one I'll be supporting when we make our final decision...

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
Apart from the ideas I discussed above, I have a sneaking suspicion that the topic of colonial-era Africa is not one which people particularly like to read about.  Heart of Darkness is a work which is frequently condemned, and many of the reviews and comments I've seen on Seven Houses in France have also been very negative.  The majority of this dislike is concentrated on the characters, particularly their horrific behaviour - and it's extremely challenging to make a case against that!  It seems to me that novels about the Holocaust are much more likely to be praised than those set in European-controlled Africa - although perhaps this is because these books focus more on the oppressors than the oppressed.  Comments, as always, are welcome...

That's just about it for our journey.  There is one more stop, but (unfortunately) I haven't quite been able to make it there yet.  Here's hoping I get the chance to brush up on a minor European language before the winner is announced ;)

Monday, 7 May 2012

An Obsession Laid Bare

Just before I got ambushed by my IFFP 2012 longlist reading, I was actually going through my shelves and polishing off a few books which had been waiting patiently for a reading for a long, long time.  One of those was the most recent novel by an old favourite of mine, Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked.  So if he's such a favourite of mine, why did it take me so long to get around to reading the book?  Patience, dear friends - all will be revealed...

The novel is mostly about Annie, a woman living in a dull seaside town in the north of England.  She has spent the best years of her life with her partner Duncan, an overgrown schoolboy who spends his free time on the Internet, chatting to like-minded folk about their shared obsession, reclusive American singer Tucker Crowe.  When a stripped-down acoustic version of Crowe's masterpiece album, Juliet, winds up in Duncan's inbox, he is overcome and publishes a piece expounding on its brilliance.  Annie, however, who knows a fair bit about Crowe herself, just thinks it's a classic case of the Emperor's new clothes...

As unlikely as it seems, this release, an album which soon receives the nickname Juliet, Naked, is the catalyst for the break-up of Annie and Duncan's moribund relationship.  Even more unlikely though is a further effect it has, for when Annie writes her response to Duncan's piece, she gets acknowledgement and agreement from a most unlikely source...

I'm happy to say that I enjoyed Juliet, Naked, which, given what I said in the introduction to this post, was only to be expected.  However, the truth is that Hornby is a writer for the reader I used to be, back in my late teens/early twenties, and I'm always a little concerned with how the current me will react to his books.  A while back, I reread Fever Pitch for the umpteenth time, and for the first time I felt that it really wasn't speaking to me as it used to.  That is almost certainly connected to the less significant role football now plays in my life, and knowing Fever Pitch as I do, I'm well aware of how ironic that loss of faith and apparent moving on sounds (Hornby does the same thing with football in the book!) - but still...

And it's true that Juliet, Naked isn't always up to scratch.  Coming at it after the heights of literary fiction is a bit of a bump, and there is none of the elegant, soothing prose you might find in the pages of other writers.  Annie is far from a complete character either, a little too prissy, correct and, above all, right.  Just as in High Fidelity, in Juliet, Naked the author has created an example of the typical Hornby couple: a useless, Peter-Pan type man, and a competent, sensible, better woman.  Duncan, gormless as he is, receives short shrift from his creator, and that's a shame as the book is actually more interesting when he's around.

The comic timing though is as impeccable as always, and there are numerous scenes which will elicit a smile (or a full-on belly laugh) from even the most curmudgeonly of readers.  The scenes with Annie and her shrink (a prim and proper elderly gentleman who only has one client) are among the highlights here, but some of Duncan's insanely stupid ideas (including a certain toilet stop) rival them.

For bloggers, of course, the character of Duncan is a particularly compelling one as he is an example of what might be if we get a little too carried away with all this reviewing nonsense.  His attempts to become an authority on something most people have moved on from long ago have eaten away at his personal life like a cancer, sabotaging his relationship and effectively stifling his career.  His efforts backfire when he attempts to be too clever with his review of Crowe's acoustic album, and...

...sorry.  I'm just realising the irony of some of my earlier pretentious comments...

Anyway, that's enough of this review - I have a family to get back to.  In summary, Hornby is not Proust, but he can be very funny and entertaining.  Is that really a bad thing?  I'll leave you to debate that amongst yourselves...

Saturday, 5 May 2012

April 2012 Wrap-Up

My wrap-up is a bit late this time around, but there is a good reason for that.  It's been another very busy month, with more wonders from the IFFP longlist, a couple of excellent review copies of new translated fiction, and even a couple of English-language books too :)  Time to add them to the list...

Total Books Read: 9
Year-to-Date: 43

New: 9
Rereads: 0

From the Shelves: 1
Review Copies:
From the Library: 5
On the Kindle: 2 (2 Review Copies)

Novels: 9
Novellas: 0
Short Stories: 0

Non-English Language: 7 (French, German, Hungarian, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Basque)
In Original Language:1 (German)

Murakami Challenge: 0 (0/3)
Aussie Author Challenge: 0 (4/12)
Australian Women Writers Challenge: 0 (4/10)
IFFP 2012 Longlist: 5 (14/15)

Tony's Turkey for April is: nothing

I was tempted, believe me.  At the 300-page mark of The Emperor of Lies, I was preheating the oven and thinking about getting the stuffing ready.  However, a good second half saved it from preparation for Christmas dinner - just...

Tony's Recommendation for April is: Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child

I wanted to give the prize to the excellent Traveller of the Century, I really did!  Then I just about managed to squeeze The Stranger's Child onto my April schedule, and I had no choice but to change my mind.  I'd never read anything by Hollinghurst before, but after devouring this wonderful treatment of memory and truth, I'll definitely be trying more of his work in future.

Sorry Andrés...

That's all for April.  May will probably be a quiet month on the reading front, mainly because it's going to be hectic both at home and at work.  Don't expect a lot of new entries in a month's time then...

Mind you, I've said that before ;)

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012 - Round-Up Number Fourteen

After my two-part odyssey around the world of Péter Nádas' Parallel Stories, you'd think that the next review for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize would be a lighter, more carefree affair.  Alas, we're back to the heavy stuff, the third-largest of this year's entrants, with a subject matter to match.  Take the strain...

What's it all about?
Steve Sem-Sandberg's The Emperor of Lies (translated by Sarah Death) is a chunky novel, running to well over 600 pages, taking place during the Holocaust.  The book is set in the Polish city of Łódź and revolves, initially at least, around Chaim Rumkowski, the de facto leader of the city's Jews.  Rumkowski, or the Chairman, is a crafty businessman who has somehow risen to civic leadership at a time when this leadership is vital.  The occupying forces have divided the city, segregating the Jewish population in a ghetto and forcing them to work for the German war effort.

Knowing that the Germans have no time for people who are not useful, the Chairman decides that the best way through these troubled times is to create an unparallelled industrial zone in the ghetto, a collection of factories which will ensure the continued survival of his people.  As the war progresses though, and times get tough even for the Germans, the Chairman will have to make some very difficult decisions.  The question the reader is faced with is just as tricky: is Rumkowski really protecting the best interests of the ghetto, or is he just saving his own skin?

The Emperor of Lies is based on a true story, and there is no denying that the Swedish author has done his homework.  However, I had a lot of trouble getting into this book, and I wasn't the only one.  Lisa explained in her post why she was unable to get through more than the first fifty pages, and I agree with her in many ways.

For me though, the problems mainly lay in other areas.  One was the fragmented, report-laden style of the start of the book, seemingly designed with the intention of putting the discerning reader off.  Some of Sem-Sandberg's writing is wonderful, but you have to wait a long, long time before you find any examples.  While many readers may appreciate the historical accuracy and the inclusion of posters and memos, they just worked as roadblocks for me.

The main issue I had with the first half of the book though was probably due to a misconception I had, albeit one encouraged by the title of the novel and the blurb.  I went into The Emperor of Lies believing that the book would sink or swim depending on the character of the Chairman and the credibility of his moral dilemma, and if this had been the case, the book would have been a disaster.  The man was evil, no doubt about it, and by the half-way stage of the book, I was seriously considering flinging it aside (which, as you probably know, would have been a first for me in my blogging career!).

Once the focus shifted from the vile Rumkowski, however, widening to include the other inhabitants of the ghetto (and the German officers controlling the city), the book actually became a lot more interesting.  The writing was better, the relationships became more detailed and nuanced, and I found myself actually becoming interested in the story.  The original title of the book is De fattiga i Łódź (The Tired in Łódź according to Google Translate), and that seems a more accurate summary of the situation.  If you take the book as an overview of the whole history of the ghetto, it is much more interesting - if only Sem-Sandberg (and the publishers!) hadn't got quite so obsessed with the figure of the Chairman...

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not really.  It wasn't one which came up at all in the Shadow Panel's discussions for the shortlist, and I don't think anyone was upset when it failed to make the cut for the real prize.  Personally speaking, the second half of this book would have put it mid-table on my list, just outside the top six, but respectable enough.  As a whole though, I wasn't impressed.  It was too long, repetitive, slightly unfocused and perhaps unsure of whether it wanted to be fiction or biography.

Why didn't it make the shortlist?
From the make-up of the final six books, I would say that the judges' focus is on short, elegantly-written novels, and The Emperor of Lies certainly doesn't fit into that category.  Besides, while we on the Shadow Panel weren't overly impressed with Aharon Appelfeld's Blooms of Darkness, the real panellists obviously were, and... is it too cynical of me to suggest that there was one spot reserved for a Holocaust book on the shortlist?

We're getting closer to the end of our journey now, but next time we have a significant detour to make.  You see, the writer wants us to go with him on a journey into the unknown - into the heart of darkness you might say.  Now, where did I put those malaria tablets...