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Hanif Kureishi – The Last Word

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Or words, plural. Many.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 344
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22755-1
First Published: 21st October 2013
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2017
Rating: 2.5/5

Harry is charged with writing a biography of Mamoon Azam, a literary giant; his editor promises it will launch his career. And so Harry goes to meet Mamoon and his Italian wife – his second wife, previously a fan of his work – and stays with them for a time, getting to know them both. There’s a lot to Mamoon’s life that Harry thinks should be included but the literary star has other ideas.

The Last Word is a somewhat comic novel looking at the situation and life of a fictional, rather pretentious person. Some reviews have said it seems to be a parody/based on V S Naipaul – Naipaul’s love life as reported on the internet does match Mamoon’s, albeit that Mamoon’s in this case is incredibly exaggerated.

The novel begins well and is very funny, but it quickly becomes stoic, with Harry, Mamoon, and Liana spending their days talking about various subjects and doing nothing else. The slight philosophical vibe of the book becomes overdone and repetitive, the plot never really going anywhere.

In addition to this the main characters are difficult. Harry spends his time talking about his strong feelings for his fiancée, Alice… whilst in bed with Julia, a person who works at Mamoon’s. Is this whole situation and sexual promiscuity likely part of the whole parody? Yes, but when there’s no really story arc to it and it’s included just because, it’s hard to say it’s of any worth.

This is to say that no one in this book learns anything, there is no character development at all and the plot doesn’t go anywhere. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason for the book, except perhaps, if it’s simply a sort of inside joke about another, factual, writer.

If you know a lot about Naipaul – if we consider it could be about him – then you might enjoy it but beyond the first few chapters (which are admittedly stellar) it’s difficult to say this one is worth your time. The type of comedy has a lot to recommend it – in another book, perhaps.

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Marie-Sabine Roger – Get Well Soon

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Doc, Grumpy, and perhaps one day, Happy.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 213
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27216-8
First Published: March 2012; 29th June 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 27th June 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: French
Original title: Bon Rétablissemnent (Good Recovery)
Translated by: Frank Wynne

Jean-Pierre is in hospital; dragged out of the Seine, no one as yet knows what happened, least of all Jean-Pierre himself, but whatever it was, his health has been set back and he needs to recuperate. Being in hospital isn’t great – the food’s very bland, it’s noisy, and no one ever closes the door to his room, but more to the point there’s an irritating 14-year-old girl, seemingly over-fed, who thinks she’s entitled to his laptop. There’s the young man who saved him with whom Jean-Pierre is having trouble communicating; thank god – even if you don’t believe in him – for the policeman who has taken a liking to him and visits all the time, even if that’s strange. At some point they’re going to have to find out what happened and hopefully Jean-Pierre will be allowed to get out of bed and get away from it all.

Get Well Soon is a fairly fun, short, novel. Completely character-driven, it’s a book that combines thought with the idea of a quick an easy read, a fairly literary book that will interest those who might not have time at present to invest into literary fiction.

This is a book about a slight mental and emotional journey. Jean-Pierre is a grumpy old sod – a description that suits his own word choices – grumpy enough you’d think he was older than he is, and Roger’s aim is to fully acknowledge this and allow it to continue whilst slowly introducing the character’s better qualities and a gentle change of heart. Her characterisation means you start out disliking him intensely before liking him a bit more and then becoming content with feeling somewhere in between.

There is a lot to like about the author’s way with words in regards to characterisation. Building a character slowly, with full attention paid to how the reader experiences it all seems to be, if this book and last year’s translation of the excellent Soft In The Head is anything to go by, Roger’s focus. However in the case of Jean-Pierre Fabre here, it’s perhaps too slow, to the effect that you feel something has been missed; there was potentially more of a change going on in Roger’s imagination of the character than has been marked down on the page. This is where ‘no plot’ and ‘slight journey’ comes in – this is a book full of gentle humour and heart but whilst reading Jean-Pierre’s musings on his life is fun, there isn’t much to them.

But let’s look at the humour – it graces most every page. Roger can be brusque, and never shies from presenting a person steeped in their own social and age-related context. Jean-Pierre meets enough of a stereotype for Roger to explain the basics quickly and then move on to the details. The cheeky jokes. The descriptions. The thinking behind Jean-Pierre’s actions, and the thinking done for thoughts’ sake. The process of a sort of everyday prejudice that starts to untangle itself as Jean-Pierre sees how things aren’t as they appear, or that for all that something may sound unpleasant, perhaps uncouth, there are reasons to be considered. It is the dissection of social constructs together with the humour, that make this book. It’s very much one small person’s considerations that won’t change him on a general level, but it’s a good read.

The translation is good – albeit that Wynne is aided by the French names and the references to French locations, Wynne’s choices ensure you never forget this is a French book. As such you won’t forget it’s a translation but that’s no matter as Wynne has let Rogers’ words shine through.

There is a bit to think about and much to enjoy; Get Well Soon is a quiet book, a nice example of Rogers’ writing ability. You likely won’t remember the character but you will remember the author’s technique.

I received this book for review.

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Tom Connolly – Men Like Air

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of.

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 373
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-908-43488-3
First Published: 21st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th February 2017
Rating: 5/5

Finn hops on a plane from London to New York City with girlfriend Dilly, looking forward to seeing the sights but most importantly to maybe finding his older brother, Jack, who looked after him as a child. When he meets Jack, the man is coming down with the flu and Dilly decides she doesn’t want to stay in what she feels is an underwhelming place, so they move on. In due course, Finn will find himself employed at a swanky art gallery after stealing money from a location in front of it – Leo, the owner, will be impressed by his guts and the idea of having someone so unsuited to the art world in their sphere. And the man Leo used to meet for breakfast everyday, brother-in-law William, will continue being content, nay, happy, with his simple routine.

Men Like Air is a book that uses stereotypes unashamedly in order to do what it wants to do. It’s all about character and is a whole lot of fun.

The book has everything you’d expect of a good novel that’s all about characters rather than plot. Even the plot, which is mostly day-to-day (in Jack’s case, for example, for a long time this book is mostly about trying to live through the flu, a level of detailing and time provided to routine illness that Connolly is obviously adamant needs to be realistic and is a welcome change from the very brief moments of illness or just being told someone is sick that happens in other books) will disappoint if you’re expecting a good one. There is a plot but the ending is quick, sudden, and not particularly satisfying outside of its prognosis for the characters. Go into this book for plot rather than characterisation and you’ll likely not enjoy it. (You can also go into it looking for patches of bookish discussion.)

In many ways, then, the book is a parody. The quick ending sports a brief forward-flash of what will happen in a way that mimics the ending of Mansfield Park – yes, two very different books that nevertheless share something specific. The time spent on the characters, making them real, is matched by the time having a laugh and doing things that reminds you they are fictional. Connolly uses a lot of devices to good effect – the extreme personalities, the use of female characters as supporting roles, the use of a past year when the present would have been fine, scenes that don’t do much to push the narrative forward. One could say it’s literary fiction that bridges the gap – literary fiction that those who don’t like literary fiction will enjoy just as much as those who do, even more so, perhaps.

New York is shown as both a tourist destination and in its day-to-day life. Finn looks forward to seeing it and there is a brief sudden trip up the Empire State Building but other than that the tourism happens in bog standard restaurants and lesser internationally well-known places. And the tourism mainly consists of Finn walking around. It is in some ways a character itself, especially when it comes to William’s ruminations on the mornings and beauty of it, but more than that it’s Connolly’s admiration that shows through. Evie Wyld’s blurb on the front cover says it perfectly: “An epic love letter to New York City.”

Coming to the narration, then, it’s third person past tense and moves back and forth between the characters with often a mere single linked sentence – if you’re not on the ball you may have to backtrack when you realise the point of view has changed. It’s the sort of narrative choice that can come under fire but with all the comedy and intentional extremes it’s easy to view it as another carefully considered device. Connolly often details, briefly, the situation of strangers who pass by the characters, adding to the comedy, but ‘briefly’ is the word – it’s quick, stopping before the time you’d get bored of the idea of a detour.

This is, as the summary says, a book about male relationships, but for all the comedy, parody, and simple delight of the work, it can seem a subtle one. In many ways it’s a book about the self. Is it very ‘manly’? Yes, but as said above, whilst the woman support, supporting is a device. There is often a female aspect at work, for example standing up to sexism, even whilst in the first chapters the worrier know-it-all whirlwind that is Dilly may make you want to stop reading (another feeling Connolly has created and knows when to stop – he’s quite the master of this sort of storytelling).

It is difficult to say exactly why this book is so good. It moves slowly through the days (if you ever forget that there is Jack’s continuing flu to remind you), slowly through everyday routine. You feel you’re learning something or being told something without being able to pinpoint exactly what. Things that suggest it would be boring. But it’s not. It takes time but it makes you smile, it steeps you in New York without really exploring it or detailing much about it (one assumes many of the locations – restaurants, galleries – are fictional), it allows you to laugh at it as well as with it. Throughout you can see the author considering his reader and, much like he has his characters, he’s considered many different types of reader rather than the idea of a whole.

As Wyld’s blurb continues, “…bold, absorbing and very funny.” Men Like Air is a super book that needs to be read – reviews will only ever be able to go so far in explaining it. It’s a book for mornings, for lunchtimes, for evenings. A book for weekdays and weekends. There is so much to it and whilst you may wish you could have spent longer seeing where the characters went, you won’t feel at a loss.

I received this book for review.

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Rachel Elliot – Whispers Through A Megaphone

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It’s no good keeping it all to yourself.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 342
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-992-91826-2
First Published: 26th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd August 2016
Rating: 4/5

Miriam hasn’t left her house for three years. All her life she’s been dealing with the effects of her mother – first as it happened as a child, then the repercussions as an adult. She’s also suffering from a worry over her ‘feral’ reaction when someone attacked her. But now she wants to leave the house. Ralph’s been married to Sadie for sixteen years but it’s not a happy marriage; there is something amiss with Sadie and she’s always on her phone. One day, thrown a birthday party he doesn’t want to have, Ralph decides to leave.

Whispers Through A Megaphone is a witty book about healing and living life with its various neurotic aspects.

Jilly Perkins was a genius. Ralph wanted to tell her this, but she hated compliments. They filled her with wind and suspicion.

Elliot’s story is one that’s based in reality with a bit of a bizarre twist that one could say has been added in part to make it easier to relate to. Beyond Miriam’s stay in her house the narratives, numerous on occasion (Elliot details a few strangers every so often, all with their own quirks), and situations are easy to relate to and because of this the humour and skewing slightly towards the extreme mean the book remains light and nice to read instead of bogged down, depressing.

Because the subjects are depressing. The abuse Miriam experienced at the hands of her mother is painful to read and something that happens a lot in our world. It’s affected Miriam to her core; there’s a constant voice in her head that she recognises as her mother’s. Miriam whispers because her mother hated hearing her and threatened her with atrocious punishments. But she’s always been aware of what’s outside her mother’s clutches – in leaving the house and meeting people she knows it’s potentially going to take some getting used to. This is what happens when a child is abused, says Elliot.

Alongside healing, regret is one of the subjects. Ralph’s wife, Sadie, has spent their marriage pushing back memories of her time at university, at the almost-relationship she had with Alison, wishing she’d done things differently, and for lack of anywhere to go, her grief has spilled into all other aspects of her life. She blogs and tweets almost compulsively, telling everyone about what’s going on at home and including things about her husband whose patients (he became a Psychoanalyst to please Sadie, who didn’t like him gardening) are following her. She has developed a crush on her best friend who is already married. She is what people would call ‘high maintenance’ – Elliot shows there’s generally a reason for neurotic personalities. The family is very normal in their dysfunction.

The writing is nice; it’s short, snippy, always to the point. There’s a lot of white space during the many dialogues because the lines are often just a few words long. The pace speeds up during some narratives, Sadie’s, for example, and then back down for Miriam, but it’s never slow. There are some tweeted sections to give you a good idea of Sadie and a brief look-back at the lives of periphery characters. The only difficulty here is when the narrative moves back in time; it’s not always easy to tell what period you’re reading about. It can also be hard not to see Ralph and Sadie with heads of white hair though they’re said to be in their 30s.

This is a book that doesn’t necessarily go the way you think it will. It has an ending of sorts but it’s far more about the exploration. It’s quite clever really, this book that’s about the absolute everyday, looking into the smallest of smallest details – it’s an ‘ah ha’ sort of book, Elliot’s keen sight for what’s behind the surface and her way of interpreting it for us. She says what we often know deep down but have trouble connecting to other aspects of our lives.

Joe Schwartz was the first guest to arrive. He was early, nervous, drenched in aftershave.
Stanley answered the door.
“You look amazing,” said Joe.
“Thanks,” said Stanley, his nose twitching. He hoped he wasn’t allergic to Joe. It was too early in their relationship for hypersensitivity, aversion, turning into his parents.

Whispers Through A Megaphone shows that one shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, that it’s in keeping quiet that regrets are formed (obviously it’s a little different in the case of abuse). It’s a lovely book that uncovers a lot in a short period of time, wading into tough waters whilst remaining something you want to go back to.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Ayelet Gundar-Goshen – One Night, Markovitch

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History, war… and humour?

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 365
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27163-5
First Published: 2012; 15th June 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 27th May 2016
Rating: 5/5

Original language: Hebrew
Original title: לילה אחד, מרקוביץ (Markovitch, Layla Echad) (Markovitch, One Night)
Translated by: Sondra Silverston

Yaacov Markovitch has an unremarkable face. No one really notices him. His friend, Zeev Feinberg has an amazing moustache that everyone knows about. The friends enlist in a programme designed to rescue Jewish women from Germany, to bring them back to the homeland and whilst Zeev has no issues with the idea of divorcing a wife – he has a girlfriend who smells of oranges – Yaacov finds himself married to the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, a woman who wants nothing to do with him and will ignore him in the years that follow.

One Night, Markovitch is a funny yet poignant book (‘poignant’ is on the cover; it’s perfect) about all sorts of things related to the self as well as war and the effects of it on people’s lives. It’s one of those books that is solid throughout and very special.

The humour is mostly laugh out loud and very well timed – never too much, never something you forget. The book is peppered yet it would be difficult to label it a complete comedy because it’s anything but stereotypical. I’m going to have to share a quote:

“Are you excited about the journey to Palestine?”
That she would be excited about their marriage was something he dared not expect, but he hoped that the excitement she felt at the proximity of the Holy Land would project a bit onto the means of her reaching it, that is, onto him.
“Definitely. I’ve read a great deal about the oranges.”
Here Bella Zeigerman stopped speaking, and Yaacov Markovitch decided happily that his wife, like him, was a fan of agricultural literature. On the narrow, crowded bookshelf in his house in the village, next to the writings of Jabotinsky, stood all sorts of guides – the mother of wheat and how to improve species, how to plough and plant grain, how to graft a tree without causing pain. Bella Zeigerman knew how to recite Gothe, but it is doubtful that she would be able to memorize, with the same degree of success, the list of insects that threaten to destroy grapevines. When she mentioned oranges, it was because she recalled a line from the Hebrew poet’s poem [she is in love with his work] that had been published in the newspaper.

Humour is found in Sonya’s eyes, which are a couple of millimetres too far apart to be pleasing. It’s found in the way she stands on the shore yelling curses at the long-gone Zeev Feinberg who will return in time. It’s found in Zeev Feinberg’s moustache. And it’s found in some of the ‘lad-ish’ humour – this is in no way a women’s fiction book.

For a while it’s simply history and humour and then there comes a point where the mood is more sombre, the humour sensitive, almost, and whilst it’s not quite that because the story turns ‘sensitive’ on its head, whilst the war trickles in from the beginning, there is a turning point wherein it becomes the focus.

Gundar-Goshen mixes in some politics. The book deals with the beginnings of WWII, its situation for German Jews, whilst also dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the Jews, their people persecuted in Germany, are in turn persecuting Arabs. Yes, it’s quite a bold statement. German Jews are fleeing Berlin before the major onslaught and in Israel, their ancestral land, they are in a good place. Gundar-Goshen does not say anything directly about the issues, the conflict betweens these conflicts, but there’s a flicker of an opinion.

This isn’t to say the wars are particularly detailed, however. For the most part they are in the background – Zeev Feinberg held an Arab by the throat today but now we’re seeing him at home with his children. The subtext is key. It spills out of the text – this conflict is everyday, a regular happening, and it’s in the ‘minor’ details like Zeev’s day that we see the horror of it.

Amongst this is the shock. It hits a few characters, informs their lives, but one in particular is commented on – Rachel Mandelblum. When in Germany – which she left for Israel, promptly ceasing to speak German, adopting Hebrew instead – Rachel experienced the horror of a murder, a skull being cracked. She can not escape the sound, it haunts her every day. Gundar-Goshen blends this specific horror into the humour of Rachel’s present situation, her pretending not to understand German, being not unhappy but no more than content living with the random butcher who proposed marriage when he saw her in the street. (She had no reason not to agree so she followed him home and had his child.)

The naming, whether cultural or not I’m not sure, is in a first-name-surname form every time. Rather than simply filling pages, it adds to the humour, though I can’t say why exactly.

The translation bares a strong sense of being true to the original. It’s an American translation, definite western words that are most certainly the choices of the translator rather than a choice based on how the text reads, but it’s by no means a bad text. It flows, it translates jokes into a western context for English speakers to understand… you know you’ve got a good translation when it doesn’t stand out.

The ending’s an interesting one for the way Gundar-Goshen refers to the audience, breaking the fourth wall (though there is, throughout, a feeling of that anyway) saying that, hey, she’s about to jump in time, but this is what happened in the interim she’s skipping, and it isn’t much, and this is why she’s had to do it, and so on. There are many books that jump in time for no reason – Gundar-Goshen’s explanation is a blessing.

One Night, Markovitch is superb. It’s fun, it’s serious with good reason and to good effect – it’s just a solid book all round.

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