Last week, Freight Books read…

Sorry we’ve been away for so long! It’s been an extremely busy July at Freight Books, and I’m afraid we were so preoccupied with creating some fabulous new reads that we forgot to keep on top of all the brilliant books that are already out there! Forgive us!Kate Tough Head for the Edge

Head for the Edge, Keep Walking by Kate Tough (Cargo, 2014). I very much enjoyed this book. It’s the first book in a long time that I felt I could actually relate to, which is nice considering the main character is so charming and witty! It’s the kind of character that you hope to see a glimmer of yourself in, though it’s not always the case…

Jill’s story begins with the end of a long-term, serious relationship with a man who has, seemingly, chosen his career over her and moved abroad to pursue it. If you’ve only read the first ten pages, you can be forgiven for thinking that the character is a bit of a relationship martyr, and annoyingly obsessed with this guy. It would have been tedious if the author wasn’t able to explore Jill’s distress in such a poetic, beautiful, and witty way. It was genuinely really, really, funny! Despite the book beginning on such a downturn, the character’s personality shines through and you find yourself wondering how anyone could dump this girl! She’s brilliant! But then she starts unraveling the details of the break-up, and the classic ‘it’s all his fault’ mantra starts to creep in, and you find yourself doubting Jill’s logic, which actually just makes the book more interesting. She’s flawed, but so is everyone.

I don’t even take off my coat. I beeline for the walk-in cupboard in the living room. Moving a portable heater to one side, I can access a large cardboard box to reach inside. Both blind hands are required to lift out a smaller box placed there in July; when I swore I’d never do this.

Cross-legged on the rug, my coat-seams cut into my armpits as I hold him.

My lungs remember air.

I slip-stop through the glossy stack: him alone, me and him, headshots, full-length family groupings. Set against: landmarks and landscapes and sun-loungers and celebrations.

Today has been a subway train rumbling towards this point, now arrived – I have to hear his voice. Just for a moment. The sound of it. I need to. I must.

I guess the point I’m making is that Jill is a real woman. She isn’t perfect, but that isn’t a problem. And the author feasts on every aspect of Jill’s life, not just the relationship stuff (which reeks of anti-feminism in my book). The author delves into Jill’s relationships with her friends, her parents, her health, as well as her career and desire and actions to progress within a company – trying to achieve her goals and improve her life! It made me laugh every time I read something and thought ‘that thought has definitely crossed my mind before’.

The funny stuff lies mostly in her forage into online dating, where she meets a host of interesting characters (one of whom asks her to treat his penis like a gear stick – I’ll let you make up your own mind about what that could possibly mean).

I found this book to be a really enjoyable, easy read. Totally perfect for reading outside in the sun. The story is gripping, emotional, honest, funny and little gems of poetry glitter throughout. I was hooked. I want to hear more from Jill and her friends!

Last week, Freight Books read…

The Original of Laura cover

The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Penguin Modern Classics). This is my first blog post in a wee while. and I’m ashamed to say that it’s because I’ve been drawn into the world of young adult fiction. Namely the Divergent trilogy: Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant. I thought that, after my Hunger Games post, folk might not be interested in reading another review on a teenage angst trilogy. If I’m wrong, by all means let me know and I will write that review! But anyway, today I will be rambling on a bit about The Original of Laura by Nabokov, his last, unfinished novel about the seductive Laura, or ‘Flora’ as is her real name. She is immortalised in fiction by one of her many lovers, and the knowledge of her infidelity drives her husband to self-destruction.

A short description of her appears at the beginning of the book, and it beautifully highlights the way that the reality of Laura intermingles with the fiction that has been invented:

She was an extravagantly slender girl. Her ribs showed. The conspicuous knobs of her hipbones framed a hollowed abdomen, so flat as to belie the notion of “belly.” Her exquisite bone structure immediately slipped into a novel – became in fact the secret structure of that novel, besides supporting a number of poems.

I don’t know if, had Nabokov had more time to finish the novel, he would have revealed more of this woman to us, or if the whole point is that she never gives herself wholly to any one person. She seems fragmented, illusive. Not entirely likeable, but that’s not the point.

Vladimir-Nabokov-001

The novel has been published, admittedly, against the author’s will, as he requested that the work be destroyed if he were to die before completion. His wife agreed to this, but never managed to fulfill the promise. Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, writes extensively in the introduction to the book on his decision to publish against his father’s will. He explains that it was entirely likely that his father did not believe that Vera, his wife, would be able to destroy the manuscript (as she had rescued an early draft of Lolita from the fire in the past) and that he knew that the book would eventually be published. I feel torn with regard to this. On one hand I think that the author should decide whether or not their work ever sees the light of day, but on the other hand I can’t imagine a world without Lolita, and it would have been burned if Vlad had had his way. It’s so tricky to know what the right thing is.

Having read The Original of Laura, I can see why Nabokov might have made such a request. His writing style is not one that lends itself to a posthumous publication. He seems to just write things as they come into his head, constantly adding notes to himself, and reproducing copy at different stages in the manuscript to work out where it should appear in the final piece. Solely taking this into consideration, I would argue that Dmitri had no right publishing the book at all, as it isn’t an accurate representation of Nabokov’s work and skill – the final piece pales in comparison to Pale Fire and Lolita.

the-original-of-lauraindexcardHowever, there was another reason to publish the book. Dmitri has given an insight into his father’s life as a writer, and has also reproduced the index cards with Nabokov’s scrawled notes and writing. It’s fascinating to be able to closely inspect his writing process, to see the words scrubbed out and replaced with better alternatives, the underlined phrases that he deemed important for some reason or other. It adds a whole new layer to textual analysis. The book even has serrated pages, so you can remove the index cards and rearrange them as Nabokov probably did.

It’s definitely worth a read, not only for the romantic and delectable turns of phrase so unique to Nabokov, but also for the fascinating insight into the author’s thought process. Any Nabokov fan should have Nabokov’s last novel on their bookshelf.

Last week, Freight Books read…

After the Fire, a Still, Small Voice by Evie WyldAfter the Fire, a Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld (Vintage). There are many covers to the book, but I think this is my favourite, especially for the way it ties in with my favourite book of 2013. This is Wyld’s first book, and it has made me inconceivably content because it proves that All The Birds, Singing was not a one-off, and Wyld will be writing many more excellent books in the years to come. ‘Prove it,’ you say, and so I shall.

‘At least he’s getting out of the house, chicken,’ his mother said to him as they watched his father lope down the street, away from them, his towelled bread held tightly to his body. He would go out until lunchtime and then come back, so that his mother could run her fingers through his hair, straighten his collar and sit him down for a sandwich or a piece of cake. After lunch he would go out again, mumbling something about looking for work, but the work was never found, and with Leon running the place they had no need of extra money anyway. When his father returned he’d be wobbly and thick-mouthed, looking at his tea as though it were dangerous, picking and sorting through the food rather than eating it. Then the routine became worn and thin in the middle so he returned later and later for lunch, glassy-eyed and drunk, and then not at all, only for supper, when he would be anxiously and darkly stared at by his wife, and he’d look at the floor, his eyes as wide as they could open, his breath hard in the back of his throat. Those nights he had to be herded up to bed by Leon’s mother and she said quietly, ‘hp, hup,’ as they climbed the stairs. Leon watched out of the corner of his eye as his mother touched his father’s face, only to have him flinch away; then her sad look made him pat her hand, but quickly like she would burn him.

This is a long extract, but I wanted to reproduce it in full because it exemplifies one of the crowning features of this novel, and that is the treatment of PTSD in the novel. The novel covers the Korean War and the Vietnam war, which many Australians were dragged into through aggressive recruitment and conscription. We are shown how a community attempts to reabsorb those damaged by the conflict, to begin to heal, only to be confronted with yet another war, and yet another generation of men coming back without a sense of place. This part of the novel is concentrated on Leon, the son of Jewish refugees, whose father is a wonderfully skilled baker. Descriptions of making sugarwork into wedding figurines are worth savouring.

The second story thread running through the novel is that of Frank, a man broken by childhood trauma, who can find solace (or something close to it) in solitude. He escapes  to his dead grandparent’s house, surrounded by sugarcane and scrub, and attempts, slowly, to rebuild his life. Naturally, this proves difficult. I really don’t want to give away anything, because this novel deserves to be read fresh, as a debut from an hitherto unknown author.

So all I will say is this: both strains of this story are utterly necessary and utterly brilliant.

Last week, Freight Books read…

the_hunger_gamesThe Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic).I’m back from my holiday! I can tell you all missed me terribly (unless you didn’t notice, in which case fair play, but also shame on you). I’ve been in Turkey for a little while doing some exciting water sports, but also, most importantly (and relevantly), I’ve been reading.

When I go on holiday, I don’t like to read anything too challenging, or really in any way ‘literary’ (forgive me for using this term, but it hopefully illustrates my meaning). I like to be carried along by an exciting plot, not assessing the author’s use of language or rhythm (although, admittedly, it’s difficult to switch this off when reading anything). Now, I’m going to stray as far away from the term ‘trashy’ reading as possible, but again, you all know what I mean by this. Easy reading. Holiday reading. Some of us veer towards romance, some mainstream fiction (i’m just wildly throwing around terms now, apologies). I lean towards teenage fiction, and this is why I decided to take all three Hunger Games books with me – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

First, I’d like to say that even though I read these on holiday, I in no way mean to suggest that these books are ‘trashy’. I think they’re brilliant. Easier to read because they’re targeting young adults/teenagers, but not lacking in depth. The characters experience real traumas – like, bad things happen to these people. It’s hard going in places, and the dystopian subject matter isn’t dealt with in a subtle way. There is true oppression at work, and society’s fight for political change has real resonance with today’s world. I found myself completely shocked in places, not expecting the violence to be so graphic in what is, essentially, teenage fiction (if you disagree, please let me know, this is just my opinion).

The-Hunger-GamesI know The Hunger Games books have been done to death in the media, particularly with the new films, but I don’t really care. I spent nearly two weeks reading these books so I’m going to let people know what I think about them. Verdict: incredibly awesome, though simple language and description in places reminds you that you should probably be reading something else. Why are some of the best books for teenagers? It hardly seems fair…Next stop: the Divergent books! (though I don’t have the excuse of being on holiday for reading these ones… hmmm, when’s the next bank holiday?…)

Last week, Freight Books read…

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi KawakamiStrange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami (trans. Allison Markin Powell), published by Portobello books.

What a beautiful novel! A funny, ethereal and above all heartfelt love story between two isolated people. Strange Weather in Tokyo was shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize and could quite easily have won it, in my book. My only criticism (and it isn’t really one) is that it was too easy to read; I flashed through it in a matter of days, buoyed on by an expertly crafted strain of will-they-won’t-they authorship. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan BlasimThe Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press), translated by Jonathan Wright. On the day the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is due to be announced, I finally finished The Iraqi Christ, which is shortlisted (edit: and has now won it). This takes my total to three of the six shortlisted titles (and I am just starting on Strange Weather in Tokyo). I have no idea who will win, so instead I should probably talk about The Iraqi Christ instead.

This is a fine collection of short stories by a clearly talented author. Dark, twisted, often fantastical and self-referential, they carry a wonderfully wry strain of humour that matches the often macabre settings we are treated to. The experiences carried in the novel are not exclusive to war torn Iraq; we are also taken to Europe and the experience of Iraqi-as-refugee. I enjoyed these stories the most because the sense of alienation, isolation and disconnect was really tangible. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

In Times of Fading Light by Eugen RugeIn Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (Faber), translated by Anthea Bell. This book won the German Book Prize (before it was translated, naturally), but for some reason missed out on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist. It is a novel of strands, charting the life of one East German family from the establishment of the German Democratic Republic through to the modern day. We flip backwards and forwards between the generations, starting with the Grandson, Alexander, who is visiting his ailing father Kurt, and then flitting backwards and forwards in time to visit each generation throughout that half century. Continue reading

On eBooks and pBooks

First off, I’d like to apologise for my use of pBook in the title. I could take it away, but I won’t, because it is an experiment on whether it works as a term. I heard it last month at the Publishing Scotland conference, where it fell from the mouth of Faber CEO Stephen Page—

 

pBook

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And there it lay, quivering as if with a silent mocking laughter. And we took it, folks. We just nodded our heads as if to say, ‘Oh of course, everyone says pBooks these days, we know exactly what you are on about.’ And then, if the rest of the delegates were anything like me, we all felt rather ashamed. Because it is pretty awful, isn’t it? Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

An Atlas of Remote Islands (and Pocket version, right), by Judith Schalansky and translated by Christine Lo (Particular Books, Penguin).

When I woke up this morning I was worried, because I had no translation to review today. Indeed, I had nothing to review (I’m halfway through three books, which is a situation I hate being in, and other options for review are awaiting a blog post I will be writing tomorrow) whatsoever. Then our extremely cheerful postman arrived with the book on the left, and a feature that I had been planning for next week suddenly became possible. Hey, it is even a translation – perfection is a chance discovery. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

fiftyyearsword coverThe Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski (Cargo Publishing). This book was a pretty challenging but fascinating read. There are so many little things at work here, that I couldn’t help but stop reading in places to admire the care taken to not only show the text in an interesting way, but to also create a unique reading experience. I’m not sure if it’s new – something like this probably exists elsewhere – but I’m yet to read another book like this one. Continue reading