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Rowan Hisayo Buchanan – Harmless Like You

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Not being admitted, or keeping one’s distance?

Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
Pages: 305
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-63832-7
First Published: 11th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 6th December 2016
Rating: 4/5

Following his father’s death, Jay flies to Berlin to find his mother to hand over the keys to the family home; Yuki has been absent as long as Jay can remember yet his father still wanted her to have the house. Yuki’s teenage years and early adulthood were troubling times; as an artist and Japanese American growing up in the 1960s she always felt uncomfortable, distanced, and the few relationships she does have are not enough to change that, particularly as they aren’t all healthy.

Harmless Like You is a rather well-written dual narrative novel that looks at discomfort, identity, isolation, and social-racial issues in mid twentieth century America, in turn examining the effect of an absent parent on their child as well as the effects of artistic frustration on a person. Both subtle and to the point it uses interesting turns of phrase to create something rather new and full of interest but doesn’t quite make the most of the setting and characters.

The writing in this book is really something. Hisayo Buchanan favours a poetry in prose sort of style that fits somewhere between the experimental and the more usual, a narrative that could have easily swung towards the self-indulgent but doesn’t. Rarely does the author fall back on common metaphors, preferring to look at things in a different manner that fits well with the idea of an artist, a very creative style wherein you can see how much time has been spent on every sentence:

The small, female oblong stood in the shadows beyond the doorway. Sun buttered the sidewalk where I stood, but she was dressed for a colder season.

In the playground, bodies swirled to the door like so much dish soap draining away.

Told in both the first and third person – one for each of the two narratives – the use of the two ‘persons’ boosts the overall atmosphere of distance and closeness; Jay, very much a part of society and in a loving relationship, even if it’s been strained recently by the birth of his daughter, speaks to the reader directly; Yuki, always feeling at arms-length to everyone around her and only at peace in an abusive relationship in which equates outbursts to love, is chronicled by the author. Yuki would probably be happy to narrate herself… sometimes. This use of third person means that although you spend a great deal of time with Yuki, far more than with Jay, and thus know a lot about her, the lack of the character’s own voice means you are distanced from her yourself. In any other book this would be a problem, and indeed some might say that even here it’s a problem, but it does reflect the author’s character and point well.

Yuki was a chīzubāgā [cheeseburger] – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.

Of points, Hisayo Buchanan uses a fine mix of the frank and the subtle. Yuki struggles with knowing where she fits in the world due to her heritage, ethnicity, and nationality – she looks Japanese and speaks it but does not want to live in Tokyo because it would not be a good fit, would not offer her what America can, which are things that match who she is. What and who she is are questions she asks herself often if not in so many words. In the same vein, this is a book in which Asian Americans – Japanese here – are both accepted and not, where many people have got past colour and many haven’t and the author shows both sides, where colour is irrelevant and unremarkable upon as well as that simple prejudice where it may or may not be discussed but certainly has an impact. It’s the latter that informs the text most, particularly because, like her usage of distance in her writing, the author shows unvocalised prejudice, the only vocalised questions and statements made by those who like Yuki and those who may or may not. It makes for an interesting reading experience because it allows Hisayo Buchanan to really look into Yuki’s anxieties, to show how many different elements make them up – she shows how the underlying feeling can have a big impact. Sometimes – we could even suggest it’s often – the girls who seem to dislike Yuki (because we see things from Yuki’s perspective ever time) have different reasons for disliking her, particularly as Yuki is what we’d now call flaky, other times you have to piece things together along with Yuki’s perception of what’s going on. And where there is room for debate, where it’s not definite whether Yuki’s thought is correct, there is Hisayo Buchanan’s frankness to show how Yuki has reached her opinion. (There is also a look at female friendship where distance and possible misunderstanding has eroded the connect, but this is distinct from the rest.)

Then there is the author’s own feeling, scattered throughout the text in a way that means you see it and the point of it but toes the line between the author being directly involved and not, about race and how we discuss it, of identity. It’s best to use an example:

‘So,’ Yuki’s boy asked. ‘Where’re you from?’
‘Six blocks away. Oh. My family,’ she replied. ‘Japan.’ When she moved back would she say she was from America?

There is also Yuki’s later exhibition, based on eating only white coloured food for a month, which is titled Shit’s Still Brown. It’s not commented on directly, but one can read subtext in it.

So this book is about being apart from people because of physical differences, perceived differences, and that stereotypical creative isolation – Yuki isn’t Cassandra sitting bin the sink, she’s Mr Mortmain in his room at the top of the house, staying away from relatives. Through its theme of artistry it also looks at the Vietnam war, Yuki using the Napalm girl photograph as a base for a photography series, contrasting the situation depicted with the childhoods she sees in action on the streets of America. It looks at artistic frustration and misunderstanding when Yuki photographs food for a series and people write to ask her about the restaurants instead of discussing the work itself.

And it looks at a life without a parent, parental neglect as well as purposeful separation, and the effects both have. Would Yuki have been happier if she’d not stayed with her friend and had followed her parents back to Japan? Would she have been a different person, capable of being a mother? Would she have left her abusive boyfriend earlier instead of finding comfort in the relationship? (That is something else the book looks at – why people stay, the reasons the have.)

This book does a very good job portraying characters – the main ones, at least; others aren’t so well drawn but that appears to be the point – and it does an excellent job in evoking the setting. It’s easy to imagine place and time. However the plot is minimal and this is only emphasised by the fact you know how Yuki’s life ends out because the author brings Yuki and Jay together as the introduction. The substance of this novel lies entirely in its themes and the ending isn’t particularly engrossing, Yuki remains roughly the same person as she begins. And as the theme work can be very subtle at times you do need to be happy with the idea of a gentle flow rather than something that you’re going to want to sit up and pay attention to. At times the writing becomes the best part. You may well very much enjoy the book but is it one you’d recommend to a friend?

Harmless Like You is a good début full of fine writing, well-written characters, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Yuki won’t be for everyone. And perhaps that’s also part of the point, falling very much in line with the thinking in the book. If you’re looking for something in particular, a literary element, you may find it middling; this is a book that uses broad strokes of the calligraphy brush liberally so there are patches where the ink inevitably misses.

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Dan Richards – The Beechwood Airship Interviews

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Fly away on my zephyr.

Publisher: The Friday Project (HarperCollins)
Pages: 510
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-10521-1
First Published: 30th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

An idea sparks an artistic journey – after a brief conversation about a decoration for a student bar, Richards sets about creating a model airship, which leads him to think about how artists work within their creative spaces. He decides to contact various people of the arts world, interviewing them in context with his thoughts. (Amongst the icons are Jenny Saville, The Manic Street Preachers, David Nash, and Dame Judi Dench.)

The Beechwood Airship Interviews is a work of non-fiction the defies genre. At once a slight memoir and an arts/culture book, it’s an intriguing work that sports an overall artistic interest that’s apparent no matter how much or how little you happen to know about the interviewees themselves.

Richards’ starting point is the eponymous airship – a zeppelin of wood he creates as a sculpture for his student union bar. It is through this that he comes to ponder creative spaces, an artist’s personal connection to the place in which they create their work.

Richards’ interviews tend to follow a basic network connection – he starts with Bill Drummond who often lends work to the student bar, then moves on to Richard Lawrence who is a printer Drummond knows, then to Stanley Donwood who knows Lawrence and so on. The interviews span several pages and are offset by photographs. White space between questions and Richards’ now usual footnotes mean that the book is not quite the possibly daunting length it infers itself to be.

The questions are what make this book, along with Richards’ joviality and writing in general. There are no queries as to favourite roles as there are on TV shows or in papers, for example; Richards’ mission in visiting the people was to be different, to achieve the exact ideas and answers he was interviewing them to find. Some of the thoughts conveyed here are really quite mind-blowing in that artistic, literary pleasurable way.

In amongst the interviews, then, is Richards’ journey through the airship creation, his travels between places – home, university – and general diary-type content. His personable style pulls you along during the brief introductory periods – the vast majority of this book is formed of the interviews (as you might expect!)

Something of great importance to Richards in terms of education is the way art courses are run, how they’ve changed to become a lot more about rules and regulations – working towards a construct – rather than about creative freedom and becoming the artist/writer/musician one is destined to be. His thoughts – blunt, no prisoners – form a large part of the end though the thread is there throughout.

You learn a lot thanks to these interviews. How particular people work, yes, but also specific ideas, concepts, that unless you happen to be well-versed in every subject covered will be compelling at some point. You get the set-up – the off-stage portion of his time with each person; the cups of tea, the phone call between Dame Judi Dench and her daughter, the banter.

But really it’s the power, the almost inevitability, of this book to really wow you at times – supposing you are interested of course – that makes it the success it is. Richards’ enthusiasm is infectious; he tells you everything, taking you along for the ride in its entirety. The book itself may be niche and all about Richards’ desire to learn for himself, but the angle he takes and his writing style means that you’re just as much a part of it yourself from the word ‘go’.

The book could be considered a little too long; it does cover a lot and at a couple of points goes into the sort of artist philosophy that might turn off non ‘arty’ types. But that’s the way of interviews and collections, there will always be something a bit less interesting, and it doesn’t affect the book beyond that nor for any particular length of time.

Speaking in the present, if you’ve read Richards’ later work – rather possible as this book is somewhat of an outlier – you’ll find a slight difference in style that’s interesting in terms of the writing journey; this book was published a good few years after it was written. The Beechwood Airship Interviews won’t suit everyone but in terms of today it’s safe to say that with the recent publication of Climbing Days the potential audience number has increased, because, particularly, if you liked that book, you’ll like this one too.

I’ve met the author a couple of times and have interviewed him.

Update, 14th December 2016: Changed second usage of ‘decoration’ to ‘sculpture’ to more accurately reflect the project specifications.

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Benjamin Wood – The Ecliptic

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Do not disturb.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 463
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-12672-7
First Published: 2nd July 2015
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

It’s some time in the 1960s or 70s and Elspeth is living at Portmantle, a mansion and grounds on an island near Turkey, a place for the most talented artistically-minded people who are finding creating impossible. Elspeth has been there a number of years – how many exactly she’s not sure, watching, together with similar residents, others come and go whilst her own project evades her. One day a new resident turns up and won’t fall in line with the status quo. And Elspeth starts looking back at what led her to escape the world.

The Ecliptic is a great novel that is at once very different and rather familiar, a book in which the themes are those not often studied in fiction but the overall presentation resonates in a literarily-relatable fashion.

Wood has a lot to say about artists and the creative process; he uses the book as a base, the story as the means by which he dissects various thoughts, conversation, and points of debate, to a highly effective degree.

The mansion and grounds of Portmantle are, of course, a well-placed – literally! – device by which Wood can look at the way art of all types is often created in isolation at the behest of its creator. The solitude and freedom from distractions, from criticism and review, from opinions whether positive or not so. And no one need do their laundry at Portmantle, either. The only chore is, potentially, that of creating. It’s a haven, an artistic utopia.

But like all fictional utopias, things aren’t as perfect as they are first presented to both reader and residents. Wood’s Portmantle is full of rules – meal times, the ability to stay or leave – that replace all the distractions of sociability at home with things that are perhaps even more stifling to those creative minds. Even the rules regarding the journey to the mansion – don’t bring your possessions, disregard your name, take this many moves before a phone call (I’m simplifying it but that’s the basic idea) – are far more controlling than any professor’s university assignment. And no names, thank you. Pick up a new one because no one’s work should be referenced to or put in the context of another’s.

I walked up to the board as though it were a boy I had decided to kiss and streaked a layer of phthalo blue across the surface with a palette knife, the floppy baking kind my mother owned, making an impulsive shape upon the wood. There was no history standing on my shoulders then, no classical references hanging in my head like dismal weather. I was alone, uninfluenced, free to work layers of chalky stolen paint with a big lolloping knife, to smudge with my fingers, pad flat with my fist, thumb, scrape, and scratch. No judgements of technique arose in my mind, because I did not invite them, did not think to. I simply acted, expressed, behaved, made gestures of the knife that seemed unprompted and divined.

It is the way formal education can have an impact on one’s inspiration, raw talent and subsequent work, that is seen as bad. Wood doesn’t say as much directly about the positive impacts of lessons but then he doesn’t need to, it’s shown in the subtext and in references to other ideas.

Another thing that mills in the background, less studied presumably because Portmantle is fiction, is the way that taking time out of life in such a context would impact the eventual reception of the work created. If Elspeth joined Portmantle in the 1960s and has been there a long time without access to the rest of the world – years, decades even – then won’t much of what she creates be irrelevant? The world would have moved on. As much as we like older works we need, crave, new ones. The world is in fact the antithesis of what pianist James Rhodes recently said on the subject of classical music; Rhodes said that people should not write new classical music, that anything new will never match the work of the masters.

But new is surely inspired by a love of the old, is the natural result of that love, and to discourage it would be to lessen the popularity of the old.

It’s interesting that it’s the ‘short-termers’ at Portmantle, those disliked by Elspeth – who actually get work done, that Elspeth and crowd are those no nearer to finishing.

Does Portmantle keep culture away from humanity? One of the possible answers to the mystery of the place is a prison for the highly talented.

The creativity in general, in this book, is exquisite. Yes, there is a lot about the process of painting to the extent you’d think Wood an artist rather than a writer, but there’s a lot for readers of any artistic persuasion. Reams of paragraphs that beg quotation. We should dissect art somewhat but, as Wood’s use of psychiatry shows, dissections should be limited. Some things really aren’t related, they are the result of pure in-the-moment inspiration. Not everything has a meaning behind it and nor should it have to.

There are a couple of aspects that skim the top from this book. The ending – the reveal – which may be considered a bit too been-there-done-that. And the text – Elspeth is in her 20s in the 1960s yet she uses a lot of present day language, colloquialisms from the 21st century – ‘towel off’, ‘unseeable’, for example – rather recent terms and ways of speaking.

So The Ecliptic is imaginative, awesome in its studies and more than worth a read if you’re a creative type, but it does have some draw backs.

One to explore, this book will make you think, want to debate, and quite possibly make you want to create. Get your paintbrush/pen/instrument; you’ll be here for a long time but unlike Elspeth and co you’ll make use of every moment.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Nicholas Royle and David Gledhill – In Camera

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Watched, photographed, painted.

Publisher: Negative Press
Pages: 40
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-957-38283-1
First Published: 10th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 23rd April 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Taken by her father’s instruction that she may hold his camera but never click the shutter, an East German girl living at the time of the Cold War cannot quite ignore her inclination to disobey.

In Camera is a short-story-length historical art book that pairs fiction with oil paintings. Gledhill found a photo album from the time of the Cold War, decided to create oil paintings from it, and asked Royle to compose fiction around his work. It is very much a concept book and a lovely one.

The story is told in a series of vignettes, different episodes in the girl’s life, moving in a linear fashion except for a few times when we move to a more modern time, perhaps this present day, for added context and to tie up the various tales. There is only one name given in this book – the father’s – everyone else is afforded but an initial. This helps to keep each vignette short and nicely presented – most scenes happen in the space of one page and there is a painting to accompany each. It also suits the time period, the initials conforming to the idea of filing, tracking, shorthand, secret synonyms.

It’s all about surveillance in the Cold War, but it’s subtle. This is a book wherein there is a lot packed into a mere handful of pages, much to learn and discover lying under the surface. Again, it suits. The camera at the centre of the story means that the girl is effectively taking records of things that we can assume could be used as evidence; it’s an innocent pastime with an uncanny significance. Spying is the name of the day – presuming the father knows about the photography, which we can expect as she appears young and doesn’t understand that there’s a film inside to show that someone’s been using the camera, he doesn’t so much as mention it – one could say the borrowing is condoned.

Everything layered is rounded off by the simple day-to-day of the girl’s life, her games with her brother and her life as an adult wherein the camera is in full use. We hear about the modern efforts to find out what was noted about people, gaining knowledge – the reader gaining knowledge – from another perspective.

The only thing not in the book’s favour is the size of the prints of the paintings; they are often very small and because of Gledhill’s photographic-like talent, end up looking more like actual photographs than paintings, which makes sense in a way but does negatively impact the point of them. This said, on the size of the paintings the publisher says something worth baring in mind: when it came to designing the book I wanted to make it subversive and circular, for the paintings to appear almost as photographs again, to add to the idea that things are not often as they seem.

In Camera is a wonderfully imagined piece of writing, and size aside, the paintings are lovely. If you like the idea of combining art and literature, you’ll like this book. If you like books with many layers, subtle stories that appear simple but have much more behind them, you’ll like this book. A lot.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

Edited later in the day to add the note about the publisher’s design.

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Roelof Bakker (ed.) – Still

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Visuals, the written word, and a vast reach.

Publisher: Negative Press
Pages: 171
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-9573828-0-0
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 14th November 2012
Rating: 5/5

Still is an anthology of short stories by an international mix of 26 writers. Each story is based on inspiration gained from a certain photograph. The concept of Bakker, credited as the editor, the book invites new interpretations of his photographic work. With submissions from writers such as Evie Wyld and Jan Van Mersbergen, and including some up-and-coming authors, the book is an assortment from the industry as a whole.

Combining artistry and writing, Still is a work stunning in both presentation and textual content. Not only are the photographs wonderful to look at – the oft-used macro details, the sharpness and detail, the sheer truth of the emptiness that engulfs you perhaps even more so than it might in real life – the design of the book is as much a strong point as the rest. Whilst for Bakker the photography is important, the book itself almost favours the writing, the photographs covering only 3/4s of a single page per story, the rest of that page given to the title. This makes it truly a book for those interested in either subject as well as those interested in both. Bakker took centre stage for his photography exhibition, and in continuing the theme by incorporating the stories and putting them first he has ensured the longevity of his own work, longer than it might have been otherwise.

The fantastic thing about the stories in Still is something Bakker notes in his introduction – often the writer has taken the photographic inspiration and run with it, leaving behind the notion of the derelict town hall. This means that there is a rough three categories of writing: the story based entirely around the photograph and its context, the story that starts with the photograph before leaping somewhere else, and the story that uses the photograph as a cleverly integrated device. Whilst the stories are in nature quite similar, which will be discussed in due course, the differences mean that the book never loses its brilliance, never becomes dull.

‘…entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an “event boundary” in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away.’

The book is incredibly international, with authors from all over the world contributing stories that highlight particular cultures, and bring into focus the similar experiences that everyone faces. And “faces” is the right word – these are not joyous stories, indeed some are harrowing, and most share an interesting sort of disconnect. This disconnect is between reader and the character and it almost emphasises the vacant nature of the town hall, which when you think of the way some stories do not reference the hall, makes for a whole new topic of discussion. Similar too is the basic storytelling method, one of the reasons the book is so disturbing in that fascinating way. The often sparse language, the difference in dialects and speech patterns that don’t necessarily conform to the author’s choice of setting, and the hard-hitting atmosphere these elements bring to the table.

There is a specific theme that runs through most of the book, that of politics, society, and domesticity. They may be different subjects generally, but the way they are all compiled in one binding effectively puts across the fact that they are connected. Though it is not as simple as saying that politics affects society that affects domesticity. In addition there is the theme of self and how one fits into the world. There are stories focusing on themes such as cleaning an old work place that was important to the person, a loss of place in the life of one’s child, seeking sanctuary in the church, the difference between sisters, and the loss of self and identity that can happen after an accident.

Burdensome womanhood: inviting unwanted attention from unsavoury men who give themselves permission to see a young sapling as a full-grown tree, ready to be mounted. Tiresome womanhood: bringing with it expectations of marriage, of fecundity and of the fruit of the womb. Worrisome womanhood: ushering in responsibilities and tentative, anxious dreams for one’s offspring. Militant womanhood: in a state of perpetual readiness to do battle, a lioness ready to kill for her cubs.

Bakker has achieved his aim of creating something new from something already existing, as well as creating an art book, a literary work, and a combination of both. Still would make a superb addition to the shelves of anyone who favours the freedom provided by short stories and the quick dose of cerebral reading that accompanies them.

The quotations used in this review were taken from the stories of Justin Hill and Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende respectively.

I received this book for review from the editor, Roelof Bakker.

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