May 2011 Reading: The Elephant Vanishes, Incendiary, Zeitoun, Speaking with the Angel, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, The Finkler Question

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (1993, trans. 2003)
Yes, more Murakami.  Stories this time – seventeen of them, all deliciously bizarre and rather uncryptically titled.  I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I tell you that ‘On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning’ is about seeing a perfect girl one morning in April, while ‘Sleep’ is about a woman who finds that she can survive perfectly well without, well, sleep, which may invoke jealousy in anyone who’s ever suffered from insomnia.
Wandering into more fantastic realms, ‘The Little Green Monster’ and ‘The Dancing Dwarf’ teeter between parable and parody; the Brothers Grimm have nothing on Murakami’s warped fairytales.  However, he is equally at home on more realistic ground, depicting family relationships and chance encounters with a deep understanding of how we interact – his surreal sense of humour compliments rather than substitutes for his human compassion.
As much as I enjoyed Murakami’s novel, Kafka on the Shore, I think I am even more taken with his short stories: his forays into the surreal seem to work better over the sprint of a shorter work, where they are less distracting from the main narrative arc, and the sheer variety of ideas laid out in these seventeen stories cannot fail to impress.  By making his world strange in the extreme, Murakami highlights the oddness of our own, and encourages us to find the extraordinary in the mundane.
Incendiary by Chris Cleave (2005)
The publicity campaign for Cleave’s novel showed images of London billowing with smoke, beneath huge ‘What If?’ slogans, daring us, as Incendiary does, to imagine the horror of a Twin Towers Mark Two, this time in London.  This would have been controversial enough, but the release date happened to be the 7th July, 2005, when over fifty people were killed by four bombs throughout the city.  Unsurprisingly, this had a profoundly negative effect both on the book’s reception and on the author himself, and it was only months later that Incendiary began to receive anything like a fair analysis, and Cleave himself came out of what he describes as a period of deep depression.
In a less dramatic coincidence, I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up and began reading the day after Obama announced Bin Laden’s death.  The book opens:
Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop.  Well I wouldn’t know about that I mean rock n roll didn’t stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse.
It does make you begin to wonder if there isn’t something a bit eerie about this novel.  Actually, there is: the story of a young mother whose husband and son have been killed in a terrorist attack, Incendiary pushes only slightly at the boundaries of believability, so that a post-attack London of barrage balloons and curfews seems terrifyingly possible.  A scene on an overcrowded bridge, with panicking Londoners falling into the water, even made me a little bit jumpy the last time I was crossing the Thames.  But then, I’m a sensitive soul.
The narrator, writing her plea to Osama, is a working class East Ender who becomes involved with a ‘posh’ couple who live nearby, and with her late husband’s boss at Scotland Yard.  Her voice is convincing and original – she is a sharp, witty woman, run ragged by her grief, but still clinging on to life as best she can.  Not every scene rings true – some of the climactic episodes push things too far – but the courage of both narrator and author is impressive.  I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve heard it is disappointing – so skip it and read the book instead.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2009)
Time for a long-overdue work of non-fiction (my first this year, not counting books on writing, about which I’ll be posting soon).  I read the wonderfully titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers’ excellent memoir about bringing up his kid brother) a couple of years ago, and have since heard a lot about the great work Eggers has done to promote writing and storytelling around the world.  This book is not Eggers’ story, but that of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans resident who refused to leave the city when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.  Zeitoun’s experiences came to Eggers’ attention when he was interviewed as part of Eggers’ Voice of Witness project, which uses oral history to highlight human plight around the world.
Indeed, the book does have a flavour both of oral storytelling tradition and, unsurprisingly given Eggers’ journalistic credentials, eyewitness reportage.  What begins as a tale of one man’s determination to protect his home and help his neighbours takes an ugly twist when Zeitoun, who is originally from Syria, is mistakenly arrested by the overzealous law enforcers patrolling the flooded city.  Eggers presents events from the alternate viewpoints of Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, building up the suspense and allowing us to sympathise with this family.  Although at times it may feel that the story is somewhat biased (the Zeitoun family is a little too perfect; Zeitoun’s faith in his adopted country a little too naïve) Eggers’ skill lies in his ability to lay out the facts as presented by the story, which he has diligently checked and rechecked, allowing it to tell itself, and thereby removing any sense of an ‘agenda’.
Anyone who has seen the fantastic TV series Treme will know that the tragedy of Katrina lies not so much in the destructive power of nature but in the authorities’ failure to rise to the challenges posed.  While Treme gives us an insight into the hardships suffered by the New Orleans community by focusing on various fictional individuals, Zeitoun provides a fascinating view of the impact the storm, and the spectacular mismanagement that occurred in its wake, on a real-life individual.
Speaking with the Angel – ed. Nick Hornby (2000)
Technically a re-read, but I hadn’t looked at this collection of short stories for ten years, and thought it deserved another look.  I love anthologies of stories – you’re bound to find something you like, and it is a great way of discovering new writers.  Compiled by Hornby in order to raise money for a charity for autistic children, Speaking with the Angel is a tasty selection, with original stories by big names such as Zadie Smith, Helen Fielding, Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh, doing an honourable favour for their pal Nick.
There is also a story by Zeitoun author Dave Eggers (see above) – it’s a small literary world after all.  And it’s one of the best stories in here, dammit (it’s told from the point of view of a dog, but don’t let that put you off) – the man really is multi-talented.  Apart from Eggers’ ‘After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned’, I also enjoyed Giles Smith’s story about a woman who cooks on Death Row, ‘Last Requests’, and the novelty value of reading a story by Mr Darcy himself, Colin Firth’s ‘The Department of Nothing’.  (It’s not bad at all, actually).  Hornby’s own contribution, ‘NippleJesus’, about a controversial work of art, is the only story that hasn’t aged well – I feel as if we’ve moved beyond that kind of outrage and shockability – I doubt there is anything they could put in the Tate Modern now that would raise much of a fuss, but perhaps I am wrong.
The most unnerving thing about this book is how quickly all the stories came back to me – so either they’re brilliant, or a decade has passed in an eye-blink.  Let’s say they’re brilliant.
For more information about the charity that this book supports, visit
The Dog Who Came in from the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith (2010)
I am a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series; to me his books are the equivalent of Galaxy chocolate – a total indulgence, but guaranteed to make the world seem just a little bit brighter, if only for a short while.  I have read a couple of his other books (the man loves a series – he currently has four on the go) and while the lack of Mma Ramotswe and the sunny African setting might make me downgrade the guilty pleasure factor to that of a Fruit and Nut, I’ve always found them enjoyable.
Perfect reading, then, for a little weekend break.  This novel is his second set in Corduroy Mansions, a seemingly time-warped building in Pimlico where the neighbours still communicate with each other, even slipping notes under each others’ doors to invite them to ‘soirees’.  The cast of characters is rich and varied, but the main plotline concerns William French, whose dog is recruited by MI6.  So far, so P.G.Wodehouse, and indeed, most of the novel concerns ridiculously named posh people getting into implausible scrapes, and probably calling them ‘scrapes’ as well.  It reads like a series of interlinked short stories, and I can’t help wondering if it might have been a more satisfying read if it wasn’t presented as a novel.  But it is a lot of fun, and there aren’t many books that can get away with characters called ‘Oedipus Snark’ or dogs called ‘Freddie de la Hay’ these days.  Still, I’d recommend the Botswana series first.
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (2010)
After a holiday both literal and literary, time to plunge into another Booker winner.  I haven’t read any of Jacobson’s other work, or his column in The Independent, so I was coming at this quite fresh.  (Although halfway through my Dad told me he didn’t agree with a lot of his opinions, which always makes me think twice.  Father knows best.)
The plot of this novel is actually pretty scanty: three men past their prime meet up from time to time, two of them, Libor and Finkler, are Jewish, one of them, Treslove isn’t but kind of wants to be, then he gets attacked and thinks that perhaps he is.  Of the three main characters, only the older man, Libor Sevcik, is in any way endearing, mostly by virtue of his devotion to his now deceased wife of fifty years.  Finkler and Treslove, old schoolmates, have an intensely uncomfortable friendship, based on strange jealousies and petty rivalries that make for tough reading at times.
However, Jacobson’s refusal to simplify is what makes this novel so impressive.  Much of the time, we follow Treslove’s tortured thoughts as he struggles to carve out an identity that can never belong to him.  His agonising is depicted in minute detail; he constantly questions himself, is wildly insecure and almost wilfully unhappy much of the time – it is a sad picture of a man approaching his fifties, but one which may in fact be more accurate than many would like to admit.  The struggle to be happy is almost as contentious as the struggle for success in our society, and failure to achieve it becomes a reflection on our own weak nature.
In terms of conclusions or resolutions, the book offers no easy answers either.  Contemporary Jewishness in all its forms sprawls across its pages, but we are still left with more questions than answers about what it means to be a Jew in Britain today.  The most startling thing about this novel for me, though, as a newcomer to Jacobson’s work, is how effectively he blends humour and tragedy.  The aching hearts of the protagonists thrum in time with the impeccable comic beats that skip across the page, pithy one-liners nestle alongside real human suffering.  Whether or not the intensity of his style is for you, there is no denying that this is a writer who knows what he is doing.  Hence the Booker, I suppose.

April 2011 Reading: number9dream, The Last King of Scotland, The Harmony Silk Factory

number9dream by David Mitchell (2001)
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was one of those books that I thought was brilliant, until I spoke to a lot of cruel people who pointed out all of its flaws.  They ruined it for me a little bit, damn them.  Determined not to give up on Mitchell so easily, I decided to read one of his earlier novels.  Like Cloud Atlas, the novel flits through genres in an appropriately dreamlike way as we follow the story of a naïve Japanese boy, Eiji Miyake, facing life in the big city.  The plot, concerning his search for his father, is complex, and is interspersed by Miyake’s own fantasies, as well as extracts from a seemingly irrelevant and rather bizarre text that he is reading.  Thus the novel draws attention to the constructed nature of narrative, the dreamlike quality of fiction, and other such ‘postmodern’ concepts that make those who just want a good story squirm.
However, even as I recognised that some people might find this kind of novel frustrating, I was reminded of the three things about Mitchell’s writing that had engaged me before: his sense of humour, his depth of feeling and his incredible linguistic dexterity.  Maybe I am just a sucker for a deft turn of phrase or a startlingly fresh metaphor, but I even warmed to the hugely surreal ‘Goatwriter’ extracts, written by one of the characters, an author, to ‘warm up’ before she starts her real writing – yes, I am pretty sure Mitchell is just crowbarring his own fanciful scribbles into his novel, but they are funny, so I forgive him.  It may not be entirely consistent to have a goat, a hen and a prehistoric man running around in between Miyake’s encounters with Japanese gangsters, but it keeps things interesting.
And if you really weren’t a fan of Cloud Atlas, don’t read this, read Mitchell’s Black Swan Green instead.
The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden (1998)
On starting to read Foden’s novel, I found myself in the unusual and somehow shameful position of having seen the film first (shh!).  This meant that the book’s portrayal of Idi Amin had to live up to Forrest Whittaker’s Oscar-winning performance, and the protagonist doctor had to compete with James McAvoy.  No mean feat.
The book is very different from the film.  Foden’s style, which also characterises his World War Two novel, Turbulence, is scientific and detached, full of meticulous detail but strangely lacking in emotion.  Throughout the novel, Amin is a much more shadowy presence than he is in the film, largely absent from the narrative except at key points.   Amin’s deadly attraction is not so much implied by presenting him as a charismatic force of nature, but stated directly by the narrator, time and time again:
“Without question, there was something fascinating about him; a quality of naked, visceral attraction that commanded the attention, mustering assent, overcoming resistance – fostering the loss of oneself, or so it felt, in the very modulations of his voice.”
The idea that the cool, calm, formal doctor could ‘lose himself’ isn’t entirely plausible.  Nicholas isn’t a likeable character, and his attempts to excuse his actions are sometimes downright distasteful.  This changes the feeling of the book when compared to the film: instead of a happy-go-lucky, naïve protagonist who inadvertently gets in over his head, the novel’s Nicholas seems much more culpable.  When given the chance to explain himself, even in his own thoughts, he claims:
“a kind of mental speechlessness descends on me.”
This kind of emotional detachment on the part of the protagonist is also a feature of Foden’s (admittedly beautifully crafted) prose.  Personally, I would have liked a bit more feeling, a bit more mess.  Which is an odd thing to say about Amin’s Uganda.
The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (2005)
I have been playing it fairly safe with my reading this year – most of what I’ve read has been recommended to me.  So, in the spirit of mixing it up, I bought a book I had never heard of.  (Aside: how will this happen if the whole Kindle thing replaces books completely?  Do people ‘browse’ on Amazon in the way they do in bookshops?  Hmmm, more on that later, perhaps).
I’d like to say that my gamble paid off (not even that much of a gamble considering that The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread First Novel Award), but unfortunately I think I missed something with this novel.  It tells the story of a Chinese man, Johnny Lim, and his family in Malaysia in the 1940s (promising exotic location: check) and is divided into three parts, each narrated by a different character (interesting narrative structure: check).
After struggling for about a week to get into the novel (hence a slightly shorter reading list this month), and limping through the first two sections (narrated by Johnny’s son and wife respectively), I realised that my problem was that I really didn’t care about the characters.  Johnny is presented as a devil by his son, Jasper, and a pitiable wretch by his wife, Snow, (Aw is perhaps making a point about the unknowability of another person’s true character) both of whom are themselves entirely unengaging narrators.
Finally, in the last section, Peter Wormwood, the cantankerous old English ex-pat (a familiar breed) makes his bid as narrator, and at least manages to be quietly amusing, telling his companion, who believes that people are nicer in cold climates,
“I shan’t disabuse you of that notion […] If you are ever unlucky enough to find yourself in an English winter you will quickly learn the truth for yourself.”
However, Wormwood is relating the same events as Snow, and while it is kind of interesting to see them presented from another perspective, it does little to move the narrative towards any kind of conclusion.  I’d be really interested to hear from anyone else who has read this book – parts of it are beautifully written, but it left me cold.