Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa

A niggling sense of deja vu in this literary remix

A short way in to Hideo Furukawa's novella Slow Boat you might recognise a niggling sense of deja vu; an unnamed narrator comes to terms with his reality, trapped in the metropolis of Tokyo, which he recounts through the lens of his three most significant relationships. Furukawa'a novella Slow Boat is in fact a remix, yes it says so in the cover notes, of a short story by Haruki Murakami, Slow Boat to China, which appears in English in his collection The Elephant Vanishes (2003). 

In Murakami's story an unnamed narrator recalls the three most influential Chinese people he has met in his life and muses over whether he will ever see China himself. Furukawa uses Slow Boat to China as a starting point for a new story that picks up on some of the themes introduced by Murakami begging the question; how far can a contemporary Japanese writer really stray from the mighty Murakami?

Furukawa's novella contains Murakami tropes throughout;  the musical references, the loner narrator and the idiosyncratic women (like Knife girl and Areola girl), he meets along the way but don't be fooled, this is far more than mere literary homage. 

In both stories Tokyo is presented as a mega city navigated by sprawling subway lines but Furukawa explores this theme more acutely. In  Slow Boat the circular Yamamoto line protects the inner sanctum of the city much like the fortifications of Edo period Tokyo and is one of several physical barriers to overcome when escaping the city. Following two failed attempts to leave our narrator essentially gives up and decides to open a restaurant. The venture is about finding personal space and sanctuary; 'an autonomous region ... a place to fill with the music and smells and flavours that Tokyo can't handle'.

The three relationship stories are interspersed with chronicles, we find out the reason later, that demonstrate time passing in the story which begins from a teenage perspective and moves through to that of an adult. This adds another dimension to the story that is distinctly Furukawa in origin. The world around is changing and yet the city continues to exert a gravitational pull.

Slow Boat packs a punch for a short novella and David Boyd's translation feels natural and pacy in spite of the narrators own concern about the effectiveness of his story; 'I wonder if the Japanese language can do justice to my dreams now?' Whether viewed as a remix, an homage or as a stand alone novella, Slow Boat delivers and showcases Hideo Furakawa as a major voice in J-Lit.

Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa and translated by David Boyd published by Pushkin Press, 128 pages.     

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Wednesday, 24 January 2018

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Bell-bottomed Bohemia in the suburbs

The Buddha of Suburbia was first published in 1990 to huge success. Critics applauded Hanif Kureishi for writing a piece of 'post-colonial' literature that captured the immigrant experience in the second half of the 20th Century. The novel won the Whitbread Award for the best first novel and a TV adaptation followed in 1993 with music by David Bowie but how does he novel stand up, some 17 years later, in its latest reissue as part of the Faber Firsts series?

The Buddha of Suburbia is a book in two parts, part 1 'In the Suburbs' and part 2 'In the City' and as such is a story about opposites; a paradox which defines every relationship, and scenario Kureishi creates.

Firstly there's Karim 'an Englishman born and bred, almost' in Beckenham in South East London. Karim is a fish out of water in the parochial suburbs not because of his ethnicity - 'having emerged from two kinds of histories' - but because of the promise of the city on his doorstep; never has the sensual pull of London, 'the door to the future', been so alluring. This longing is personified in Karim's obsession with his friend Charlie; 'I coveted his talents, face, style. I wanted to wake up with them all transferred to me', who is comfortable in his own skin in a way that Karim can only dream of.

His father Haroon (or Harry), the titular Buddha of Suburbia, lives in his own paradox. When the dream of a new life in England fades to mundane reality he turns his back on the colonial promise and searches for meaning in Eastern philosophy or 'that funny business with no shoes on in Chislehurst' as wickedly described by Karim's heating engineer uncle Ted. When Harry's brother, Anwar, fails to find a suitable husband for his free spirited daughter Jamilla he becomes ill and literally wastes away on the sofa whilst Harry abandons his safe and steady civil service career, leaves his wife and immerses himself in teaching yoga and meditation.

Karim finds his meaning in literature, music and the arts through which he escapes the banality of suburban dreariness and indulges his dreams of a metropolitan Utopia a few stops away on the train. Though Kureishi paints a hilarious and sniping portrait of life of suburban life in 1970s South London it is his observations of the class ceiling which Karim must break through to become a successful actor which are most interesting when read today. Kureishi's London cultural scene is played out at drinks parties and orgies where middle class white producers with their 'inbred bourgeois mentality' cast productions of plays like Kipling's The Jungle Book in which Karim finally gets his break.

Karim must come to terms with both his performance as an actor and as a man with Indian heritage being asked to play in nothing but a loin cloth. These cultural tropes are used expertly by Kureishi as signs and symbols through which to create new meaning that lose none of their resonance after almost two decades. As you follow Karim's journey from Beckenham to London and then New York you're hard pressed not to admire his tenacity and bell bottomed bohemian ideals.  
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi published by Faber and Faber, 288 pages.     

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Thursday, 18 January 2018

How do we measure the benefit of a good local library in the community?

Photograph by Jessica Ruscello 

How do we measure the benefit of a good local library in the community?

We're now at a point when our libraries need a radical repositioning in the minds of the public. Events organised to celebrate National Libraries Day demonstrate that there ARE pockets of innovation and creativity at some independently minded libraries across the country but how can the success of one annual awareness day drive real change?

Libraries must leverage their role at the heart of the community to fill a huge gap being created by the decline of the traditional high street and cost saving in public services.

So, to that end here is the Word's Shortlist guide to the future for the neighbourhood library.....

1. Extended opening hours, at least on selected days, would open up library services to workers who struggle to leave their desks on tightly squeezed lunch breaks. Opening on Sundays would provide an alternative destination for families and couples during their leisure time. Demand will differ by location but libraries must be open when people want to use them.

2. Our local libraries should offer a programme of regular book clubs, gallery events, music recitals, film screenings and talks that bring like-minded people together. Events need not be managed by library staff but in collaboration with independent bookshops, special interest groups and a network of enthusiastic volunteers.

3. Pubs and cafes have long understood the benefit of providing groups and social clubs with a warm and friendly meeting place. Many libraries have unique and flexible spaces that could be put to similar benefit if they thought of themselves as 'destinations'.

4. Every town has a growing community of home workers and freelancers. Libraries should offer a place for them to meet, share and collaborate in a comfortable and connected environment. Who knows what future partnerships could be forged amongst the book-shelves. Free wifi is a start but communal hot desks would be even better.

5. Our local libraries should be knowledge hubs offering advice through courses, briefings, oh and yes books. Working closely with local schools and colleges could lead to reciprocal benefits. Some supermarkets even offer after school classes for kids - this should be owned by the neighbourhood library.

6. Bookstores have long understood the benefits of extending customer dwell time with cafes but libraries have been slower on the uptake. A new generation of librarian baristas wouldn't go amiss. Libraries could become the perfect testing ground for start up coffee brewers and artisan bakers.

7. With good quality newsagents on the decline in the high street Libraries have an opportunity to introduce a well stocked news stand covering specialist and professional print titles not stocked by WH Smith.

8. New start ups, Doddle and the like, are finding a growing market for parcel collection services at train stations. Libraries should work with a commercial partner in this area to help distribute all those Amazon orders (and maybe convert a few to book borrowing at the same time)

9: Many libraries offer much loved read and play sessions for pre-schoolers. This needs to continue but libraries also need to engage young adults. With YA publishing on a high libraries need to work harder at the stage when they currently lose their cool.

10: Finally, libraries need to embrace social media to communicate services and events and to attract new members. Book publishers create huge demand for new titles by developing digital content and working with online bloggers. Libraries are behind the curve.

So how do we measure the benefit of a good local library in the community; number of books borrowed, footfall through the door, demand for top titles, membership numbers? If each town had a happiness rating there can be no doubt that a well stocked and curated library, with friendly, knowledgable and approachable staff, that's open when people want to visit would take any town to the top of the league table.

The Word's Shortlist

Monday, 15 January 2018

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

Our monsters no longer hide under the bed

In his first full length novel Six Stories (2017) Matt Wesolowski introduced readers to his serial podcast style of writing in which one story is viewed from 6 different perspectives. This investigative style, led by presenter Scott King, is less 'whodunnit' and more of a deeper discussion into why. In new book Hydra, Scott King is back with an even darker case but will the Six Stories style of storytelling work second time around?
Hydra is concerned with the McLeod Family massacre, a case in which a young girl, Arla Mcleod, violently bludgeons her parents and sister to death at home. Over the course of the following 6 stories King investigates the case from the perspective of key players including people who knew Arla at the time, those who have cared for her at a high security mental health facility and with Arla McLeod herself.

With his unique take on serialisation Wesolowski creates pace and riveting tension throughout the novel. Those with a keen eye for detail will appreciate the meticulous attention to fact which Scott King uses to scrutinise his guests; never have the motives of a seemingly psychopathic protagonist been so well explored. Just when we're at risk of the transcripted interviews becoming overused or trite we are offered another fresh perspective that changes the course of the narrative completely. Suspicions come and go and doubts about the reliability of the narrators are rife.

Arla McLeod makes for an interesting anti-hero with her alternative taste in fashion, difficulties making friends and obsession with an edgy rock band. Is she simply a misunderstood adolescent responding to the lack of aspiration surrounding her life in a small post-industrial Northern town? Is she caught up in the influence of online gaming and trolls or was she, in fact, the victim of something far more sinister? And who are the Black Eyed Kids?

In Hydra Wesolowki plays on some prescient themes around internet trolls, sub-cultural trends and the isolation of kids who fall outside the mainstream but in doing so he writes a gripping and compelling novel. Wesolowski picks up the pen from 20th Century crime thriller writers like Stephen King with an deep understanding that our monsters are no longer under the bed but hiding on the dark web.

Hydra is more developed and nuanced than 6 Stories and Wesolowski clearly has a talent for good old fashioned story-telling.  

Hydra (Six Stories) by Matt Wesolowski published by Orenda Books, 320 pages.     

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Friday, 12 January 2018

A Cat, A Man, and Two Women by Junichiro Tanizaki

Tanizaki's feline femme fatale

At the heart of Junichiro Tanizaki's 1936 novella A Cat, A Man, and Two Women is a custody battle brought about by an unusual domestic scenario. The result is a unique love triangle with a feline femme fatale at the heart. Tanizaki's protagonist is a mature tortoiseshell cat named Lily who belongs to a timid and doting man, Shozo, who is happiest when spoiling his pet with hand served meals of the finest mackerel procured from the market by his wife Fukuko. 

The story concerns Shozo's spurned ex-wife Shinako, removed by his overbearing mother having been unable to bear Shozo a child, who contacts Fukuko to demand that Lily moves in with her to help manage the loneliness she now suffers. Fukuko waivers, though she may be jealous of the attention which Shozo showers upon Lily could this really just be an attempt by Shinako to win back Shozo's affections.

Tanizaki's characters are often driven by sexuality and destructive eroticism and the very same themes play out in A Cat, A Man, and Two Women albeit between a man a cat. Each of the characters uses Lily in one way or another to exert power, or to exact revenge enabled by the weak and effective Shozo who effectively hides from his responsibilities as a husband behind his indulgence for the cat.

Fukuko manages to convince Shozo to relent to Shinako's request and Lily is duly dispatched to her new home but this is far from the end of the tale. With Lily and Shinako now aligned the power balance shifts leaving Shozo to consider his true feelings whilst Fukuko tries to focus his attention on herself. 

The joy of reading Tanizaki today is that his subject matter and viewpoint is as contemporary as any new writing. There are times in the novella when you'll forget that it was written in the 1930s thanks to Tanizaki's Modernist approach to writing. Though the story is set in the Osaka/Kobe region it seems influenced by Tanizaki's own time spent in Yokohama where his career began in Japan's most internationally open city.

The novella is successful as a neat expose of an intimate domestic scenario but why Shinako and Fukuko tolerate Shozo's puerile obsession with his cat is ultimately frustrating. That said, the lengths people go to for their pets continues to amaze. 

A Cat, A Man, and two Women by Junichiro Tanazaki (translated by Paul McCarthy) published by Daunt Books, 96 pages.     

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Friday, 5 January 2018

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

Why use a paragraph when a sentence will do?

Pushkin Press have recently published a handsome set of novellas from Japanese writers less well known in the UK. Although authors such as Tomoko Shibasaki and Hideo Furakawa have won literary prizes and praise in Japan their work remains outside the mainstream of Japanese language fiction in translation but that could be about to change.

Mieko Kawakami is an Osaka born, Akutagawa Prize winning writer who came to literature, with her ground breaking novella My Ego Ratio, My Teeth and The World (2007), from an earlier career as a singer songwriter. Like many Japanese novels Kawakami writes about feelings of isolation but this is not to say that her work is overly melancholic. There is an existential loneliness that runs throughout a great deal of writing from Murakami to Yoshimoto that can seem unattractive to readers in translation but I would argue that this is what makes Japanese writing so compelling. 

Ms Ice Sandwich is the story of an unnamed boy who becomes obsessed with the lady who works behind the sandwich counter at his local supermarket. Though he is observant of all his idol's habits and nuances he is deeply introverted and struggles to interact with the woman he has become infatuated with. As his classmates begin to joke about girls and about sex Ms Ice Sandwich becomes a untouchable symbol to idolise from afar. His energy becomes focused on painting a portrait of Ms Ice Sandwich which he ultimately delivers to her at work.    

Though he is surrounded by female figures, such as his elderly grandmother and workaholic mother, it is Ms Ice Sandwich with her 'thick layer of electric blue' eye make up that causes our narrator to wake up to the intricacies of the relationships around him. This is most notable in his friendship with classmate Tutti which matures throughout the story. In one tender scene he breaks down into uncontrollable sobs when he shows the portrait to his grandmother, "she looks kindly into my face and there's a little trembling glow in the pupils in her eyes"..."Don't cry" she says.

Like her peers Mieko Kawakami is succinct and pithy in her prose. Why use a paragraph when a sentence will do? But Kawakami's prose is particularly lyrical and no doubt influenced by her experience as a poet and songwriter.  Louise Heal Kawai does a sterling job as translator bringing Kawakami's prose to life in English.

Being hailed by the great Murakami as one of Japan's greatest young writers will do Mieko Kawakami no harm at all. If Ms Ice Sandwich is anything to go by we have much to look forward to. As is stands reading this quirky coming of age novella was one of the best hours I've spent in sometime.

Once again, I'm in awe of the pop art cover design by Nathan Burton Design which really pops on my bookshelf! 

Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Louise Heal Kawai) published by Pushkin Press, 96 pages.     

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Thursday, 4 January 2018

All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook

Image result for granta books all the devils are here

The ghosts of the Kent Coast recover a lost past

David Seabrook's All the Devils are Here is one of those titles that booksellers must find so hard to display. Part social commentary, part essay and part travelogue this is a book that defies conventional genre; 'sui generis', the publishers call this wonderfully idiosyncratic style. The book was written in 2002 prior to the gentrification that the Kent coast has experienced over the last 10 years and Seabrook is drawn to the very darkest depths of Kent's underbelly, exposing the characters not usually cast in the 'Garden of England.'

The book features a number of well crafted essays concerning the faded seaside towns along the North Kent Coast from the Medway towns of Rochester and Chatham to Margate, Broadstairs and Deal. Seabrook considers the writers drawn to the coast for the huge skies and the salty air from Dickens and John Buchan to TS Eliot but also the artists on the fringes, like Carry On veteran Charles Hawtrey, drawn to the shadows behind the bright lights of the piers and theatres of Britain's original Riviera.

Reading Seabrook's bio I wonder at the extent to which his own studies into Marcel Proust have influenced his writing style. Could All the Devils are Here be Seabrook's attempt to portray the world in which he himself grew up?

At its most successful Seabrook locates the shelter where TS Eliot, convalescing in Margate, wrote his masterpiece, The Wasteland, to launch his magazine Criterion. "I look for a plaque; there isn't one. Yet Margate plays a deeper game. When I grow tired of examining this sea shelter I glance across to the building next to it and read TOILETS. It takes a few minutes for the spent penny to drop. I rub my eyes and look again: T.S. Eliot"

Secrets, spies, murder and intrigue; All the Devils are Here is a book that demands discussion. The front cover image of Margate's sea front with brutalist relic Arlington House looming over the dilapidated Dreamland amusement park goes someway to explain why the book has been republished for 2018. If ever a town represented the rebirth of the British sea side it's Margate.

With Turner Contemporary launching an exhibition exploring the significance of  The Wasteland on the visual arts there couldn't be a better time to give David Seabrook's work the discussion it deserves; the ghosts he describes in some way a recovery of a lost past.

All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook published by Granta, 173 pages.     

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