Category: Authors

Weasels in the Attic by Hiroko Oyamada (tr. David Boyd)

Each of the three stories collected in Weasels in the Attic is linked by the narrator and his friend Saiki sharing a meal, meals that seem to become a focal point for broader currents at play. The stories may appear quiet on the surface, but there is an unsettling sense of more going on (or perhaps more being meant) beneath that façade.

In the first story, ‘Death in the Family’, the narrator recalls visiting a friend of Saiki’s named Urabe, who lived above his old tropical fish shop. Urabe still bred fish, and in the story all his fish tanks seem to represent the force of his personality taking up the space. Urabe invites Saiki and the narrator to snack on dried shrimp that he uses for fish food. This gathering feels like a boys’ club, with the shrimp a way of bringing the other men into Urabe’s world.

In ‘The Last of the Weasels’, Saiki has married a woman named Yoko and moved to the country. They have a problem with weasels in the house. When the narrator and his wife are invited over for dinner, she tells a story of how her parents once dealt with a weasel problem, and the narrator can’t square this with the in-laws he knows. I imagine the weasels here as standing in for the hidden problems in a relationship, experienced and dealt with beyond the sight of others.

By the time of the third story, ‘Yukiko’, Saiki and Yoko have a baby girl. The narrator is again invited to visit, and the different elements of the couple’s life feel more compartmentalised this time. The events of these stories ultimately reflect back on to the narrator’s own life, and a new phase of life is about to begin as the book ends. It’s fitting for a collection that constantly opens out the further you look in.

Published by Granta Books.

Tony from Tony’s Reading List is hosting his annual January in Japan event at the moment. Weasels in the Attic was his first title for this month, and you can find his review of it here.

The Moustache by Emmanuel Carrère (tr. Lanie Goodman)

Right, new year, new start – or at least, the start of getting back into reading. This 1986 novel begins with a small change that becomes all-consuming. “What would you say if I shaved off my moustache?” the protagonist asks his wife Agnes. “That might be a good idea,” she replies, laughing.

The man goes ahead and shaves his moustache, but is annoyed to find that doing so has left behind a conspicuous patch of pale skin in contrast with his tan. He’s surprised that Agnes doesn’t seem to notice, and even more so when their friends Serge and Veronique don’t say anything at dinner that evening.

Thinking that Agnes must be playing a prank, the man questions her, and she insists that he has never had a moustache. He grows ever more desperate in his attempts to prove that his perception is right, and in imagining the elaborate deceptions that he believes Agnes must have arranged. The stakes grow higher when Agnes denies knowing Serge and Veronique, and it looks as though the man may have lost all grip on reality.

Carrère keeps the narration tightly bound to his protagonist’s viewpoint – not so much that it can’t be questioned, but enough that its momentum does not let up. The ending is perhaps the protagonist’s ultimate attempt to assert the validity of his perception. I don’t know that I was drawn in enough for The Moustache to have its full effect on me, but it was quite the journey.

Published in Vintage Editions.

A selection of 2023 favourites

I don’t know why it happened, but there were times this year when I just fell out of the habit of reading. This is not what I want, and my aim for 2024 is to find my way back in – with this space to help. For now, though, I’m looking back on 2023. It didn’t feel right to do my usual countdown of twelve books, so instead I’ve picked out six favourites, in no particular order:

Appius and Virginia (1932) by Gertrude Trevelyan 

It sounds as though it will be whimsical: the tale of a woman who buys an orang-utan with the aim of raising it as a human. What it becomes, though, is a chilling exploration of the unbridgeable gap between one mind and another. 

Whale (2004) by Cheon Myeong-kwan
Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (2022)

I won’t pretend I always knew what I was reading with this book, but I do know I enjoyed it. Whale is a dance through recent Korean history, with trauma, violence, humour and magic all present in the stories of its larger-than-life characters. 

Is Mother Dead (2020) by Vigdis Hjorth
Translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (2022)

Johanna returns to Oslo after almost thirty years, speculating intensely over what may have happened to her mother. What I found most striking about this novel is how it transforms our perception of Johanna without changing the essential tone of her narration. 

Gentleman Overboard (1937) by Herbert Clyde Lewis

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this portrait of a man whose layers of gentility are literally stripped from him when he falls into the sea. I found it quite powerful, especially in how it highlights that the smallest things can be both significant and insignificant, depending on the viewpoint.

War with the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
Translated from Czech by M. and R. Weatherall (1937)

A shape-shifting satire in which intelligent salamanders are first exploited by humans, and then rebel against them. I was pleased to find that the novel still has considerable bite, and appreciated that it couldn’t be reduced easily to a single metaphor or interpretation. 

Time Shelter (2020) by Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (2022)

I love how the canvas of this novel widens, from a clinic that helps dementia patients by recreating the past, to a whole continent retreating into nostalgia. Time Shelter examines the dangers of becoming fixated on the past, and the narrator’s memory fails him, suggesting there is no shelter from time after all. 

***

There are my reading highlights of 2023. You can find my round-ups from previous years here:

2022, 2021202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

You can also fined me on social media at Instagram, Facebook, Bluesky, and X/Twitter. See you next year!

This Plague of Souls by Mike McCormack

Mike McCormack’s previous novel, Solar Bones, saw one man examine his life and the whole of existence in the same breath. This Plague of Souls also moves from a solitary portrait to the widest canvas without shifting focus. 

We first meet the protagonist, Nealon, as he returns home from prison, having been held on remand (and therefore caught between the worlds of inside and outside). His wife and son are nowhere to be seen: there are just periodic calls from an unknown person who insists he and Nealon should meet. 

Gradually we learn more (though by no means everything) about Nealon, including that he has an uncommon ability to see patterns in the world:

Art and politics, light and dark, past and future, he can see the links between them all. He can dwell on these separate things for hours before finally glimpsing what draws them together into an interlocking whole. Somewhere along the way he has mastered the trick of demarking opposing sets of circumstances while holding them together in his mind’s eyes, separate and apart, their multidimensional weave given free play without interference from himself or anything in him which might give bias or slant to their eventual coherence.

The world of the novel also opens up, from Nealon’s new domestic drudgery at the start, to the realisation that an unspecified disaster is unfolding in Ireland (and possibly beyond). Nealon decides to meet his mystery caller, who believes he’s worked out what crime Nealon has committed – a world-spanning crime that only someone with Nealon’s pattern-spotting skills could devise. 

In the end, This Plague of Souls represents a wager over whether the world can be made into a coherent whole. It’s a journey from the opening of a front door, all the way to a point where reality itself hangs in the balance. 

Published by Canongate in the UK and Tramp Press in Ireland. US publication is forthcoming in January.

Goldsmiths Prize 2023: Man-Eating Typewriter by Richard Milward

Man-Eating Typewriter begins with a foreword by the head of Glass Eye Press, a small Soho publisher. It describes how, in 1969, they were contacted by one Raymond Novak, who claimed that in nine months, he would commit a “fantabulosa crime” that would become the stuff of legend. Novak offered to send Glass Eye the chapters of his memoir, ready to be published as news broke of his crime. The publisher needed money, so here we are. 

Novak’s memoir is written in his version of Polari, a form of slang associated historically with (amongst others) fairground workers, the merchant navy, and gay men in Britain. For example, here is Novak talking about the difficulties of understanding the language when he’s been taken into a hostel as an orphan:

For months the lingo-barrier was like banging my tet against the Rosetta Rock and drawing blood. I savvied clear enough twas a specnalji privilege or punishment being dragged in before the Governor and the suits… 

I won’t say that this becomes easy to follow as such, but like the version of Old English in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, I found a rhythm that kept me reading. Novak’s life, as he narrates it, becomes more and more extreme and outlandish. But the effect of the Polari is to open up a world in which this life can take place – to establish life on Novak’s terms, not anyone else’s. 

The people of Glass Eye Press, though, are starting to feel that Novak’s memoir is a little too close to home. Footnotes chronicle their attempts to find Novak, and we end up with different voices and styles – which is to say, different versions of the world – clashing for space on the page. Milward’s novel is exuberant and well worth diving into. 

Published by White Rabbit Books.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Czech Lit Month: The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks

My second choice for Czech Lit Month is from 1967 (though it wasn’t translated into English until 2016, by Eva M. Kandler). I understand that Ladislav Fuks (1923-94) often wrote about the period of German occupation, but The Cremator stands out in his work because it focuses on a Czech collaborator.

When we first meet Karel Kopfrkingl he comes across as somewhat odd – for example, he likes to give things and people different names (even insisting on being called Karel when his name is actually Roman) – but essentially decent. He loves his family and believes in compassion for others: “How many people,” he wonders, ”would become good, nice, if there were someone to comprehend them, to understand them, to caress their withered souls a little.”

Kopfrkingl views his work at the crematorium as a noble calling, because it facilitates people’s return to the dust from whence they came, as set out in scripture. He is proud of how rigorously the crematorium keeps to its schedule. But this leads Kopfrkingl to have quite a mechanistic approach to life and death. Couple this with his tendency to parrot whatever opinion he’s been told or reads in the paper, and the circumstances are primed for his slide into collaboration. Kopfrkingl has a friend, Willi, who gradually persuades him to see the Nazis’ point of view – which leads to the darkest of consequences.

What makes this process particularly chilling to read about is how passive it feels. Kopfrkingl doesn’t seem to make a conscious choice – he just drifts that way due to his natural tendencies. The Cremator has an air of unreality (or perhaps heightened reality) that circles back to the all-too-real.

Published by Karolinum Press as part of their Modern Czech Classics series.

Charco Press: A Little Luck by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

I thoroughly enjoyed Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Elena Knows a couple of years ago, so I was excited to see that Charco Press and translator Frances Riddle were publishing a new Piñeiro title. A Little Luck is quite different in subject from Elena Knows, but still has the intensity of perspective. 

Our protagonist is Mary Lohan, who has travelled from Boston to Buenos Aires to evaluate a school for accreditation, on behalf of her late husband’s educational institute. However, Mary was born in Buenos Aires as María, and fled years ago. She has changed her appearance enough that she believes she won’t be recognised. But there’s one person in particular she doesn’t want to encounter – and wouldn’t you know it… 

A Little Luck gives up its secrets steadily, some quite early on. I like the way this is done, and I don’t want to spoil the effect for you, so I am going to be cagey about how much I reveal. A scene at a level crossing is repeated throughout the first part of the novel, embellished more and more each time, until we discover the key event in María’s past. Over the rest of the book, the protagonist explains and reflects on her decision to leave Argentina behind. In the end, there were no good choices for María, only the choices she made, Piñeiro’s novel captures the complexity of what flows from that. 

Czech Lit Month: War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

Stu at Winston’s Dad is hosting a Czech Lit Month this September. It’s not an area I know very well, so I have picked out a few books to read this month, using this list from Radio Prague International as inspiration. 

I’ll be working through my choices in chronological order, starting with Karel Čapek’s 1936 novel War with the Newts (I read the 1937 translation by M. and R. Weatherall, published in Penguin Modern Classics). It begins with one Captain van Toch discovering a colony of intelligent salamanders, whom he teaches to use knives to open oysters, before establishing a pearl trade with them. 

This grows into the mass exploitation by humans of the Newts, as the salamanders become known. They are encouraged to spread around the world, they pick up human languages, and are put to the work that humans would prefer not to do themselves. But this situation can’t last, and eventually the Newts turn against the human population… 

War with the Newts is a novel that constantly changes shape. It starts off drily humorous, lampooning groups from journalists to Hollywood stars. Its middle section covers the development of Newt civilisation, incorporating fictitious texts of various styles (such as newspaper articles and scientific accounts). Then a more serious tone comes to the fore as the war of the title begins. 

What I find particularly intriguing about Čapek’s novel is that (in my reading, anyway) the Newts can’t be reduced to a single metaphor or interpretation. There are reflections of slavery, Nazism, mistreatment of animals, capitalism, environmental degradation… Above all, though, there’s a message (still urgent now) about the consequences of our actions. In the final chapter, the author of what we’ve read debates the ending with his inner voice:

“Do you think through my will that human continents are failing to bits, do you think that I wanted this to happen? It is simply the logic of events; as if I could intervene.”

With irony, even the writer can’t face up to his own complicity. There’s power in this book, and I won’t forget it easily.

The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (tr. Jen Calleja): Strange Horizons review

I’m back at Strange Horizons with a new review. The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (translated from German by Jen Calleja) concerns a woman who goes in search of her parents’ birthplace and finds a quaint little town in its own bubble of reality – with a giant hole in the middle, where the secrets of the past can be conveniently lost. Eddelbauer’s novel is a striking metaphorical exploration of how people may seek to ignore the past, and how it may catch up with them. Published by Scribe UK.

Click here to read my review in full.

Melville House: My Weil by Lars Iyer

Up to now, I’ve been reluctant to try Lars Iyer’s novels, because I don’t know that much about philosophy. With a new one published, it was time to have a go. I mention this up front o you know where I’m coming from in what follows. This is how I read My Weil

Welcome to Manchester, as created through the thoughts and voices of a group of PhD students at All Saints University’s Centre for Disaster Studies. There is something uniquely authentic about this group, at least as far as they’re concerned. They see the PhD as the highest, purest form of study, “a passion of studious solitude”.

In this, they contrast themselves with the PhD students from the neighbouring red-brick institution, who have never known what it is to struggle to write. They’re far removed from All Saints’ homogenous undergraduate population (“Student-drones, preparing for the world of non-work. Student dullards, being processed for a society of busy nullity.”) And these humanities PhD students are the very antithesis of – shudder –Business Studies PhD students (“Where’s their doom? Where’s their crushedness? Their disease of the soul? There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with them.“)

Throughout My Weil, our group rails against the decline of academia into endless seminars on professional skills. They make a film to highlight the futility of making art in the present day. They induct hapless “Business Studies Guy” into the ways of real study, pursued for its own sake even if it might never reach a conclusion.

The swirl of voices surrounding the reader makes the tone of Iyer’s novel shift from humour to despair to yearning, and back again. Our group of students may think their concerns are more substantial than most, but there’s a level of weight even beyond them. Into their number comes one Simone Weil, who essentially has the same outlook as the philosopher Weil. Her greater engagement with the possibility of God challenges the PhD students’ view of the world. Perhaps the most deeply affected is Johnny, who sees in Simone’s level of conviction something he wants to reach for. Pockets of solemnity burst from the throng of conversation, rising to an end that has a texture all of its own.

Published by Melville House.

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