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January 27, 2014

Here, Kitty, Kitty: Even Dog Lovers Should Read ‘The Guest Cat’

KittyBy Juan Vidal

The best novels are often the ones that change us. They speak to a void, sometimes quietly, other times loudly from the proverbial rooftop. When done right, they bring to the surface important questions and compel us to look inward. Over time, they stay with us — like small miracles.

A best-seller in France and recipient of Japan’s prestigious Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat is a rare treasure. In just under 140 pages, it spans a wide spectrum of emotion and detail. Takashi Hiraide, the Japanese poet and novelist, blindsided me. His prose — so illuminating and achingly poetic — made me care. Damn it, it made me care a lot.

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June 14, 2013

All That Is, by James Salter, review

James Salter: we are “born in disregard of the times”

James Salter: we are “born in disregard of the times”

Long admired by Roth and Bellow, James Salter is set to join their ranks. David Annand hails the great American writer’s first novel in thirty years.

For 50-odd years James Salter has been the writer’s writer. Richard Ford calls him “the Master”, Bellow was an admirer, Roth, too, and all over Brooklyn satchels bulge with copies of Light Years and The Hunters.

It was something, I suspect, that always worked better for us than it did for him. We got that insider buzz of knowing that we were part of the cloistered few. He got lots of writerly plaudits about the precision of his sentences, but was denied, perhaps, the deep thematic engagement that comes with central cultural import.

Either way, it’s over. In a late flurry he has picked up The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize, the PEN/Malamud lifetime award, and, now, to coincide with the publication of what will surely be his last novel, across-the-board adulation.

You might have thought it irritating for old Jim that all this has happened deep into his eighties, past the age when you would want to take full advantage of the perks of full-blown literary celebrity. But really it’s of little consequence – he’s already done enough living and then some. Improbably masculine and accomplished, he was a combat fighter pilot in the Korean War. He became an accomplished skier (he wrote the screenplay for Robert Redford’s Downhill Racer); a daring mountain climber (Solo Faces, a novel, appeared on the topic in 1979); and found time to write five novels, dozens of short stories, non-fiction and some poetry.

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May 24, 2013

Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr – review

Holy-Sht-A-Brief-History-of-Sam Leith relishes an obscenity-strewn journey through Roman, biblical and medieval times.

It’s wonderful stuff, swearing. It stiffens the sinews and summons up the blood, and not just metaphorically. Obscenities actually do act on us physiologically. Swearing increases electrical conductance across the skin, pushes the heart rate higher and measurably increases resistance to pain.

Obscenities are also linguistically interesting in themselves: the more currency they have, the more their emotional colouring and the associations they trigger overwhelms what they actually mean. “Fucking”, these days, only rarely means “having sex”. And they become marvellously plastic, grammatically.

Swearing doesn’t just mean what we now understand by “dirty words”. It is entwined, in social and linguistic history, with the other sort of swearing: vows and oaths. Consider for a moment the origins of almost any word we have for bad language – “profanity”, “curses”, “oaths” and “swearing” itself .

Melissa Mohr’s title, then, is more than just an attention-grabber: the history of swearing is one of a movement back and forth between the holy and the shit. At different times in the history of the west, the primary taboo has been to do either with God, or with the functions of the human body. (The latter, though, does subdivide in a meaningful way between the sexual and the excremental. Really, this book should have been called “Holy Fucking Shit”.)

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May 16, 2013

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, by David Sedaris, review

David Sedaris: wherever he goes, low-level doom greets him

David Sedaris: wherever he goes, low-level doom greets him

America’s finest humorist turns a wry eye on his adopted home, says Viv Groskop.

After the success of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Me Talk Pretty One Day comes another book of biting, intimate anecdotes from America’s finest humorist. At first glance it’s not easy to pinpoint what this collection is about – but when the writing’s this good and the writer’s this funny, it hardly matters. Sedaris could write about flossing his teeth and you’d be embarrassed by how hard you were laughing. In fact, one of the best sections of this book is all about flossing.

This purports to be an “educational series” but really it’s an excuse for Sedaris to mouth off about his childhood, the annoying people he comes across in airport lounges and the tendency of people who live in rural England – he now lives in Suffolk – to trash their hedgerows with Lucozade bottles and crisp packets.

If you could identify a theme it’s the travails of a cautiously enthusiastic but alienated outsider. Wherever Sedaris goes, low-level doom greets him – whether it’s inside his own childhood bedroom, where there is a pet turtle he has accidentally killed, on a trip with his partner to a depressing cottage that will soon become their home, or in Hawaii where his passport is stolen. Yet he always greets whatever happens with a sideways smile. (Just as he greets the German language: “It’s like English, but sideways.”)

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May 15, 2013

Here and Now: Letters, 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and JM Coetzee, review

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 12:28 pm

coetzeenewcover_2553011aIn these letters, JM Coetzee plays the straight man to Paul Auster’s clown, finds Jon Day.

Here and Now is a collection of letters between Paul Auster and JM Coetzee described by the publishers as “an epistolary dialogue between two great writers who became great friends”.

The title implies immediacy, and the letters were written from 2008-11, but the overriding sense of the exchange is of things past. The letter itself is a dying object, and a hint of anachronism runs through the correspondence.

Every now and then Auster mentions his tech-savvy wife, Siri Hustvedt, responsible for printing out emails from Coetzee and passing them on. Later he announces that he has bought an overhauled Olivetti typewriter. Coetzee too is uncomfortable with contemporary technology, which is conspicuously absent from his fiction. He speculates on the ubiquity of the mobile phone and its influence on the novel:

“The presence/absence of mobile phones in one’s fictional world is going to be, I suspect, no trivial matter. Why? Because so much of the mechanics of novel writing, past and present, is taken up with making information available to characters or keeping it from them. One used to be able to get pages and pages out of the non-existence of the telegraph/telephone and the consequent need for messages to be borne by hand or even memorised.”

Much of Here and Now is, like this, a mixture of the quotidian and the fascinating. With no introduction and only skeletal notes, it plunges you cold into a wide-ranging exchange taking in sport (watching and playing), cinema (watching and writing for) and politics (watching and despairing of) and much else. The two writers quickly fall into their allotted roles.

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May 14, 2013

A Place in the Country, by WG Sebald, review

sebaldcover_2555245aWG Sebald’s intricately woven essays on six writers and artists who inspired him engross Jane Shilling.

There is a terrible poignancy to WG Sebald’s introduction to A Place in the Country, his collection of six essays originally published in German in 1998. His affection for his subjects, he wrote, “gave me the idea that I should pay my respects to them before, perhaps, it may be too late”.

Three years later Sebald died in a car crash at the age of 57. The publication of this book, translated by his former University of East Anglia colleague Jo Catling, is a reminder of what we lost by the silencing of his distinctive voice. Sebald spent his working life as an academic in East Anglia but wrote in German. When his “prose fictions” – Vertigo, The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz – were translated into English, their troubling originality and the contained brilliance of their prose elicited perplexed critical rapture and Sebald’s name was mentioned as a future Nobel laureate.

Sebald’s subjects are five writers – Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller and Robert Walser – and an artist, his contemporary and schoolfriend, the realist painter, Jan Peter Tripp.

A tragic-comic leitmotif of these essays, which span a period of almost 200 years, is what Sebald calls the “awful tenacity of those who devote their lives to writing”.

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May 2, 2013

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes – review

Levels-of-LifeJulian Barnes’s searing essay on grief reveals the depth of his love for his late wife, writes Blake Morrison.

There’s a great passage in Tobias Wolff’s autobiographical novel Old School, in which a pompous young teacher called Ramsey asks Robert Frost whether form really matters any more: isn’t writing that is spontaneous, even disorderly, a better way to reflect the traumas of modern-day experience? Frost’s reply is devastating: “I lost my nearest friend in the one they called the Great War. So did Achilles lose his friend in war, and Homer did no injustice to his grief by writing about it in dactylic hexameters … Such grief can only be told in form … Without it you’ve got nothing but a stubbed-toe cry – sincere, maybe, for what that’s worth, but with no depth or carry. No echo. You may have a grievance but you do not have grief.”

Julian Barnes’s new book is, in part, about the grief he suffered (and continues to suffer) after the death of his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, in 2008. On the matter of form, he is with Frost, not Ramsey. If it has taken him several years to express his grief in writing, whereas Joan Didion, for example, completed a book about the death of her husband within 12 months, that’s not because he was lost for words (he wrote hundreds of thousands of them in a diary) but because he needed to find the right form. His wife didn’t enjoy public attention: a confessional memoir wouldn’t have suited. The category-defying book he has written looks disjointed at first, until its different themes gradually converge.

“You put together two things that have not been put together before,” it begins, “and the world is changed.” That’s true of love but also of art. Ezra Pound made the combination of disparate things a principle of imagism, as in his poem on a station of the Paris Métro: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Faces and petals make an immediate visual match. The themes that preoccupy Barnes – love and ballooning (and grief and photography) – take a little longer to line up but discovering how they do is half the pleasure.

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April 29, 2013

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – review

AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel is a superb dissection of race in the UK and the USA

By Elizabeth Day

There are some novels that tell a great story and others that make you change the way you look at the world. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a book that manages to do both.

 It is ostensibly a love story – the tale of childhood sweethearts at school in Nigeria whose lives take different paths when they seek their fortunes in America and England – but it is also a brilliant dissection of modern attitudes to race, spanning three continents and touching on issues of identity, loss and loneliness.

This is Adichie’s third and most ambitious novel – her first, Purple Hibiscus, was longlisted for the Booker prize and her second, Half a Yellow Sun, won the Orange prize. A highly acclaimed 2009 collection of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, cemented her position as one of the most promising African writers of her generation. She was awarded a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” grant and in 2010, the New Yorker featured her in its list of the 20 best authors under the age of 40.

So a lot is expected of her. Gratifyingly, Americanah does not disappoint.

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April 19, 2013

Does Spelling Matter? by Simon Horobin – review

Look at me … Quirky spellings, as used in the film title Inglourious Basterds, invariably attract attention.

Look at me … Quirky spellings, as used in the film title Inglourious Basterds, invariably attract attention.

Tony Blair and Dan Quayle have both made famous gaffes. Henry Hitchings on the importance of spelling.

The title of Simon Horobin’s book poses what, at first blush, seems a banal question. I imagine most readers would answer “Yes, spelling matters”, perhaps adding “though not as much as some believe”. Yet if the question of how words should be written is not uppermost in many people’s minds, its nagging everyday presence is nonetheless evident in the existence of spell-checkers and school spelling tests, as well as in mnemonics designed to help us with spellings, such as the venerable “i before e except after c”.

Phenomena of this kind betray an unease about the irregularities of spelling, and English spelling (Horobin’s focus, though he does say a bit about spelling reform in French, Dutch and German) has long drawn complaint. This has ranged from the smooth-tongued – Jerome K Jerome’s line that English spelling “would seem to have been designed chiefly as a disguise to pronunciation” – to the splenetic, such as the view of the Austrian linguist Mario Wandruszka that it is “an insult to human intelligence”. Lament is certainly the norm, so it may be a surprise to meet with the assessment of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle that English spelling “comes remarkably close to being an optimal … system”.

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March 26, 2013

The Infatuations by Javier Marías – review

The InfatuationsJavier Marías’s haunting murder mystery, embracing all the big questions about life, love and death, is an instant Spanish classic.

By Robert McCrum

A fine murder story is like a great love affair: an infinite catacomb of excitement, sorrow and desire. Apart from tales of love and death, what else matters to mankind’s stone-age brain? While we continue to push back the frontiers of knowledge, most recently in digital technology, our consciousness remains hard-wired with some very primitive storylines. The lasting challenge to literature is to achieve a satisfying marriage between high art and the low drives of a simple plot. The latter is usually much more demanding than the former. To find such a rapprochement in the pages of a novel is indeed a rare treat.

This is where Javier Marías, one of Spain’s greatest contemporary writers, steps into the picture. The son of a victim of Franco’s dictatorship, Marías is a characteristically European version of the literary man. He works as a distinguished translator, has a column in El País, and runs his own publishing house. He is also the author of two short story collections and 13 novels whose lyrical, conversational, and even errant, style has sponsored widespread literary admiration.

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