The latest addition to my website is Marilynne Robinson‘s Jack. This is the fourth book in Robinson’s Gilead series. Unlike the others, none of it takes place in Gilead, Iowa, but is mainly set in St Louis. It goes back in time and tells the story of Jack Boughton and Della Miles, the outcome of which we learn of in Home. Jack is the black sheep of the family. He has been in prison (unjustly, he claims), drinks, cannot hold a job, steals and generally live the life of a down-and-out, a trial to his family. His father is a church minister. He meets Della, whose father is also a church minister. Della is black and, in those days, mixed relationship were frowned upon and cohabitation and marriage of mixed-race couples were illegal in some states, including Missouri. We follow Jack’s not always successful attempts to reform and Della’s not always successful attempts to help him, all the while knowing that she is upsetting her family and risking her job. If you read only this book, you will get the feeling that rather than a bad man, Jack is ultimately merely a weak man, unable to get his life on track. A good woman, which Della certainly is, should help but, as we know by the time of Home does not. This is superb book about a lost soul and his and Della’s attempt to save it.
The latest addition to my website is Sayaka Murata‘s 地球星人 (Earthlings). Eleven-year old Natsuki Sasamoto does not get on with her parents or her older sister. Her only escape is her cousin Yuu. He is an alien, awaiting the spaceship to take him back to the motherland, while Natsuki has magical powers through her stuffed toy. They only meet during the annual visit to the grandparents house in the mountains. They decide to get married. At school Natsuki is sexually assaulted by a teacher so next time she meets Yuu she asks to have sex with him. They are caught and she is locked up and future visits to Yuu are cancelled. Indeed, she is monitored well into adulthood. As an adult she marries Tomoya who, like her, wants no sex and only friendship, as a way to avoiding the Factory – the job>marriage>children routine that all are expected to follow. When Tomoya loses his job they decide to escape to the house in the mountains where the the only resident is the recently made redundant Yuu. The three decide to resist the Factory but the past and the Factory are not going to let go. This is a superb novel from Murata about how we are made to follow a pattern regardless of what we really want.
The latest addition to my website is Siegfried Lenz‘s Der Überläufer (The Turncoat). This novel was originally written in 1951, Lenz’s second novel. However, it was not published then, partially for political reasons, and forgotten, only for the manuscript to be found in his papers after his death in 2014. It was published to great acclaim in Germany in 2016, It tells the story of Walter Proska. We first meet him as a German soldier, returning to the front near Kiev from leave. His train is blown up but he escapes and then joins a German troop guarding the railway, not very successfully. The troop is eventually captured and, at the instigation of his of his comrades, Walter joins the partisans and is with them as they come to his home town just across the former German-Polish border. After the war, he works for the Soviet-controlled Germany, the future East Germany. However, he learns that he is about to be arrested. Lenz tells an excellent story, particularly the first part with the troop with it s colourful members and nasty corporal.
The latest addition to my website is Shalom Auslander‘s Mother for Dinner. This is a wickedly funny satire on identity politics and racism. Our hero is Seventh Seltzer and he is a Cannibal American (CA). The CA first immigrated to the US in 1918 though no-one seems to be sure where the Old Country is or, indeed, what it was like (there are two competing myths). Seventh is the seventh son of a woman the children merely know as Mudd – we never know her real name – and she is fiercely protective of the CA traditions and fiercely racist towards other groups. However, there is one tradition the CA have kept. When someone dies the immediate family has to eat the corpse. Mudd is preparing herself for death by stuffing herself with hamburgers. Her children, most of whom have married people who are not CA, are naturally reluctant to eat her but they discover if they do not they will not inherit the proceeds of the sale of the large Brooklyn house. Many of them have financial problems and need the money. What to do? Call Unclish, their father’s brother and keep of the flame and take Mudd’s body to the long since abandoned CA University and prepare for the feast. The book is very funny and holds nothing sacred though some will find it offensive.
The latest addition to my website is Francis Nenik‘s Reise durch ein tragikomisches Jahrhundert (Journey Through a Tragicomic Century). The book is a narrative non-fiction. It is the biography of a forgotten German writer, Hasso Grabner (link in German) who had something of a colourful life. He never knew his father, became a Communist early in his life, opposed the Nazis in the 1930s but ended up in Buchenwald and then as part of a punishment battalion in Greece, where he tried to sabotage the German war effort. After the war, he was in East Germany, working to build socialism but, because he was less than ideologically pure but very efficient, he was at one minute an ordinary worker and the next head of a major industrial combine. Eventually, he became a writer but, even then, clashed with the authorities. Nenik tells the story at a furious pace but makes plenty of comments and writes Grabner’s story as a novel not as a formal biography , which makes it highly readable and enjoyable. This is a book from new imprint V&Q Books, , headed by Katy Derbyshire, translator of this and many other fine German works.
The latest addition to my website is Miljenko Jergović‘s Buick Riviera [Buick Riviera]. Hassan is a mild-mannered low key Bosnian Muslim who fled Bosnia as the war was starting and is now in Toledo, Oregon, married to Angela, a German actress. He is devoted to his Buick Rivera, which Angela cannot stand. She works in Salem and normally gets a lift but he offers to pick her up. It is snowing and he skids into a ditch. He is rescued by Vouko, a fellow Bosnian but a Serb who, as we learn but Hassan does not, is a war criminal. Vouko is also loud-mouthed, aggressive and is currently leaving his American wife, after having killed her puppy for defecating in his slipper. When Vouko turns up in Toledo, having found Hassan’s lost wallet, the two men clash and both men make separate, major, irrational, life-changing decisions. Culture clash, how we carry our culture with us wherever we go and, ultimately, how people can make rash decisions that have huge repercussions on their lives are the theme of this interesting but occasionally disturbing book.
The latest addition to my website is Jóusè d’Arbaud (aka Joseph d’Arbaud)‘s La bèstio dóu Vacarés (The Beast and Other Tales). The title story is set in fifteenth century Provence and is about Jaume, a solitary gardian, i.e. cowboy/bull herder. While out riding he comes a strange creature and when he gets close to it, he finds that it has a human face, horns and cloven feet. He assumes it is the devil but neither the sign of the cross nor reciting an exorcism ritual has any effect. The creature can speak and assures him that it is not the devil. Jaume feels a mixture of fear and sympathy for the creature till it shows its extraordinary and fearful power, leaving Jaume affected for life by his experience – a fear, a friendship, a mystery and remorse, he says. Three other fine stories are also included in the book. Though the main story had appeared in a collection of French tales, it is wonderful to have this tale, a classic of European literature, properly translated and published English
The latest addition to my website is Narcís Oller‘s La bogeria (The Madness). This is a short novel set in the late nineteenth century about a Catalan engineer and landowner called Daniel Serralonga whom we watch slowly slipping into insanity. His parents soon fell out with his mother becoming very religious and his father a gambler. The father will disown Daniel’s younger sisters, saying he is not their father, so they are brought up by an aunt. The father will later kill himself. We are following the story through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, a lawyer, who is a friend of Daniel. He sees Daniel intermittently and each time there is some new episode dragging him towards instability – imprisonment for hitting a police commander, his obsession with General Prim and then conspiracy theories when the General is assassinated, a major inheritance dispute with his sisters, stock market problems. Each time we see him, he is looking worse and behaving more and more erratically. It is a delightful short novel, mocking, funny but also showing a certain amount of sympathy for a man who clearly cannot cope. The book is published by a new press – Fum d’Estampa Press – specialising in Catalan literature and I am looking forward to reading more of their publications.
The latest addition to my website is Vigdis Hjorth‘s Leve posthornet! (Long Live the Post-Horn). Ellinor, our narrator, is a thirty-five year old woman, who owns a small PR company with Dag and Rolf. She is already going through a bad patch, when she learns that Dag has suddenly quit, without warning. Soon after, he is found dead, possibly suicide. Her sister’s miscarriage does not help and nor does her mundane relationship with Stein, who also seems to be having his problems. However, she gradually takes over Dag’s project, helping the Post Office trade union oppose an EU directive which would open up the postal service to full private sector competition. She gradually gets more and more involved, seeing both the value of the postal service, particularly in a country with remote parts, and also the feeling that she is fighting for an important cause. Hjorth tells an excellent story of a woman who overcomes what she describes as her Sylvia Plath moment, to be saved by the Post Office.
The latest addition to my website is Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz‘s Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy (The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma). While very well-known in Poland, if this book is known in the English-speaking world, it is because Jerzy Kosinski borrowed extensively from it for his novel Being There. It tells the story of a poor young man, down on his luck, who manages, by dint of carefully listening to people and parroting what they said, saying very little himself and using the ideas of others, gradually rises to the top, being offered the post of prime minister. It is very cleverly done, as Dyzma keeps falling on his feet, both in terms of career and love life, while essentially being not very bright and being thoroughly amoral. Dołęga-Mostowicz is clearly mocking the corruption of contemporary Poland while giving us an original character whose name is now a byword in Poland for a phony, a fraud, especially one whose trickery depends on others’ assumptions, self-deceptions, and moral shortcoming. It is nice to have the book in English, nearly ninety years after its first publication in Polish, allowing us, if we want, to judge how much Kosinksi borrowed. However, read the book for its own merits and forget Kosinski,