11

Great Cat Books

I have grown up with cats, and despite not having a furry feline to call my own at present (boo, rented accommodation and its ‘no pets’ rules), I still very much enjoy reading about them.  Imagine my delight, then, when I came across a list on Goodreads, quite at random, entitled ‘Great Cat Books’.  I’ve chosen ten books which I haven’t yet read, and which really appeal to me.  You can see the full list here.

 

32571361. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron
‘How much of an impact can an animal have? How many lives can one cat touch? How is it possible for an abandoned kitten to transform a small library, save a classic American town, and eventually become famous around the world? You can’t even begin to answer those questions until you hear the charming story of Dewey Readmore Books, the beloved library cat of Spencer, Iowa.  Dewey’s story starts in the worst possible way. Only a few weeks old, on the coldest night of the year, he was stuffed into the returned book slot at the Spencer Public Library. He was found the next working by library director Vicki Myron, a single mother who had survived the loss of her family farm, a breast cancer scare, and an alcoholic husband. Dewey won her heart, and the hearts of the staff, by pulling himself up and hobbling on frostbitten feet to nudge each of hem in a gesture of thanks and love. For the next nineteen years, he never stopped charming the people of Spencer with this enthusiasm, warmth, humility (for a cat), and, above all, his sixth sense about who needed him most.  As his fame grew from town to town, then state to state, and finally, amazingly, worldwide, Dewey became more than just a friend; he became a source of pride for an extraordinary Heartland farming town pulling its way slowly back from the greatest crisis in its long history.’

 

2. The Fur Person by May Sarton
‘This enchanting story and classic of cat literature is drawn 20663754
from the true adventures of Tom Jones, May Sarton’s own
cat. Prior to making the author’s acquaintance, he is a fiercely
independent, nameless Cat About Town. Growing tired of
his vagabond lifestyle, however, he concludes that there
might be some appeal in giving up his freedom for a home.
Finally, a house materializes that does seem acceptable and
so do the voices that inhabit it. It is here that he begins his
transformation into a genuine Fur Person. Sarton’s book is
one of the most beloved stories ever written about the joys
and tribulations inherent in sharing one’s life with a cat. It is
now reissued in a gorgeous edition featuring David Canright’s
beautiful illustrations.’

 

627723. I Am a Cat by Soseki Natsume
‘”I am a cat. As yet I have no name.”So begins one of the most original and unforgettable works in Japanese literature.  Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature – from the dramas of businessmen and schoolteachers to the foibles of priests and potentates. From this unique perspective, author Sōseki Natsume offers a biting commentary – shaped by his training in Chinese philosophy – on the social upheaval of the Meiji era.  I Am a Cat first appeared in ten installments in the literary magazine Hotoguisu (Cuckoo), between 1905 and 1906. Sōseki had not intended to write more than the short story that makes up the first chapter of this book. After its great critical and popular success, he expanded it into this epic novel, which is universally recognised as a classic of world literature.

 

4. On Cats by Doris Lessing 4794097
‘Doris Lessing’s love affair with cats began at a young age, when she became intrigued with the semiferal creatures on the African farm where she grew up. Her fascination with the handsome, domesticated creatures that have shared her flats and her life in London remained undiminished, and grew into real love with the awkwardly lovable El Magnifico, the last cat to share her home.  On Cats is a celebrated classic, a memoir in which we meet the cats that have slunk and bullied and charmed their way into Doris Lessing’s life. She tells their stories—their exploits, rivalries, terrors, affections, ancient gestures, and learned behaviors—with vivid simplicity. And she tells the story of herself in relation to cats: the way animals affect her and she them, and the communication that grows possible between them—a language of gesture and mood and desire as eloquent as the spoken word. No other writer conveys so truthfully the real interdependence of humans and cats or convinces us with such stunning recognition of the reasons why cats really matter.’

 

112755. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
‘Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.  In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.  Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.’

 

6. The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas 64807
‘From the plains of Africa to her very own backyard, noted author and anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas explores the world of cats, both large and small in this classic bestseller. Inspired by her own feline’s instinct to hunt and supported by her studies abroad, Thomas examines the life actions, as well as the similarities and differences of these majestic creatures. Lions, tigers, pumas and housecats: Her observations shed light on their social lives, thought processes, eating habits, and communication techniques, and reveal how they survive and coexist with each other and with humans.’

 

7643047. The Hotel Cat by Esther Averill
‘One wintry day a lonely stray cat wandered into the Royal Hotel. He chased mice so well that he was given the job of Hotel Cat. Tired of always spending time in the cellar Tom ventured upstairs and met the gentle Mrs. Wilkins, a longtime hotel resident who had the ability to communicate with cats. She encouraged Tom to keep an open mind about the hotel guests.  One night, during the winter of New York City’s Big Freeze, Tom detected three cats in one of the rooms. It turned out that due to a boiler breakdown in his house, Captain Tinker had brought Jenny Linsky and her brothers Edward and Checkers to stay at the hotel until the boiler was fixed. Other homes experienced boiler breakdowns too and soon other members of the Cat Club could be found staying in rooms at the Royal Hotel. Before long, plans were underway for the Cat Club Stardust Ball, with the help of Tom, who had proved himself helpful and considerate after all. Soon he became a “friend for ever” of Jenny and her pals.

 

8. Mrs Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar- 128731Bound Cat by Caroline Alexander
‘When Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance became trapped in the Antarctic ice, all twenty-nine members of the crew were pushed to their limits of survival, including Mrs. Chippy, the ship’s estimable cat. Fortunately for posterity, Mrs. Chippy left a diary of the ordeal.  Closely based on the true events of Shackleton’s heroic journey, and illustrated with authentic photographs taken by Frank Hurley, expedition photographer, Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition is a firsthand account of one of the greatest adventures in history–from a unique point of view.’

 

173165859. The Big New Yorker Book of Cats
Look what The New Yorker dragged in! It’s the purr-fect gathering of talent celebrating our feline companions. This bountiful collection, beautifully illustrated in full color, features articles, fiction, humor, poems, cartoons, cover art, drafts, and drawings from the magazine’s archives. Among the contributors are Margaret Atwood, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Roald Dahl, Wolcott Gibbs, Robert Graves, Emily Hahn, Ted Hughes, Jamaica Kincaid, Steven Millhauser, Haruki Murakami, Amy Ozols, Robert Pinsky, Jean Rhys, James Thurber, John Updike, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and E. B. White. Including a Foreword by Anthony Lane, this gorgeous keepsake will be a treasured gift for all cat lovers.’

 

10. The Tiger in the House: A Cultural History of the Cat by Carl Van Vechten 328186
‘“A god, a companion to sorceresses at the Witches’ Sabbath, a beast who is royal in Siam, who in Japan is called ‘the tiger that eats from the hand,’ the adored of Mohammed, Laura’s rival with Petrarch, the friend of Richelieu, the favorite of poets”—such are just a few of the feline distinctions that Carl Van Vechten records in this glorious historical overview of humanity’s long love affair with the cat. As delightful as it is learned, Tiger in the House explores science, art, and history to assemble a treasury of cat lore, while Van Vechten’s sumptuous baroque prose makes every page an inexhaustible pleasure. ‘

 

Which are your favourite books featuring cats?  Do any of these catch your interest?

1

Reading the World: ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ by Haruki Murakami ***

Haruki Murakami is an author whom I consciously wanted to read during 2017.  Prior to picking up South of the Border, West of the Sun from the library, I had read and enjoyed Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, and been a little baffled by The Library Book.  This rather short novel has been translated from its original Japanese by Philip Gabriel, and was first published in Japan in 1992, and in its first English translation in 1998.

9780099448570Our protagonist is Hajime, an only child who grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in postwar Japan.  As a child, he was relatively lonely; indeed, his ‘sole companion was Shimamoto, also an only child’.  When Hajime’s family choose to move several miles away, however, the pair soon lose touch.  When we first meet him, Hajime is in his thirties, and is married with two daughters; his profession is the owner of a jazz bar.  It takes him rather by surprise when Shimamoto, ‘beautiful, intense, [and] enveloped in mystery’, and whose first name we never learn, reappears one night.

The pair, perhaps unsurprisingly, begin an affair, which has a strong effect upon Hajime: ‘As I drove away, I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go insane.  Once she got out of the car and was gone, my world was suddenly hollow and meaningless’.  We are taken right into the mind of Hajime, and are able to see the turmoil and sense of impending doom which he feels: ‘What would become of me tomorrow I did not know.  Buying my daughter a horse – the idea took on an unexpected urgency.  I had to buy it for her before things disappeared.  Before the world fell to pieces’.  Despite these insights, I did not really feel as though I knew Hajime very well once I had closed the final page.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is well translated, and just after I began to feel that the prose was too simplistic, there would be a sudden flash of beauty such as this: ‘Her hand, which up till then had lain on the back of the sofa, she now placed on her knee.  I stared vacantly at her fingers tracing the plaid pattern of her skirt.  There was something curious about it, as if invisible threat emanating from her fingertips was spinning together an entirely new concept of time’.

Whilst not my favourite Murakami, this novel is rather absorbing, and Hajime’s narrative feels highly realistic.  There are small puzzles lain in place along the way, and several unanswered questions come to light.  This adds a certain depth to the plot, whilst also making the novel more engaging.  It is undoubtedly the most interesting from a psychological standpoint, and a lot of analysis could be done, I feel, on the protagonists.  There is a lack of emotion at points, but I find that this aspect is often missing with Japanese fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun is multi-layered and well tied together.  Despite this, the plot was quite predictable, and the whole, I felt, tended toward underwhelming overall.

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5

Magical Realism

Magical realism is a genre which very much interests me, but one which I know I don’t read enough.  I have created a post where I wish to showcase ten works of magical realist fiction – five which I have personally loved, and five which very much intrigue me – with the hope of incorporating more books of the genre into my future reading.

97801404554651. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov *****
Mikhail Bulgakov’s devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin’s regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts—one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow—the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks, and a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, and the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) and his retinue—including the vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; and a writer known only as The Master, and his passionate companion, Margarita—exist in a world that blends fantasy and chilling realism, an artful collage of grotesqueries, dark comedy, and timeless ethical questions.

 

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern ***** (review here)
The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices plastered on lampposts and billboards. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.   Within these nocturnal black-and-white striped tents awaits an utterly unique, a feast for the senses, where one can get lost in a maze of clouds, meander through a lush garden made of ice, stare in wonderment as the tattooed contortionist folds herself into a small glass box, and become deliciously tipsy from the scents of caramel and cinnamon that waft through the air.  Welcome to Le Cirque des Rêves.  Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, a fierce competition is under way–a contest between two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in a “game” to which they have been irrevocably bound by their mercurial masters. Unbeknownst to the players, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.  As the circus travels around the world, the feats of magic gain fantastical new heights with every stop. The game is well under way and the lives of all those involved–the eccentric circus owner, the elusive contortionist, the mystical fortune-teller, and a pair of red-headed twins born backstage among them–are swept up in a wake of spells and charms.

 

3. The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter ****9781844085231
One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother’s wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure garden. And brooding Uncle Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshops. The classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative works.

 

4. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger *****
Audrey Niffenegger’s dazzling debut is the story of Clare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: his genetic clock randomly resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous and unpredictable, and lend a spectacular urgency to Clare and Henry’s unconventional love story. That their attempt to live normal lives together is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control makes their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

 

97800995382645. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender ****
The wondrous Aimee Bender conjures the lush and moving story of a girl whose magical gift is really a devastating curse.  On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother — her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother — tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.  The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden—her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.  The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a luminous tale about the enormous difficulty of loving someone fully when you know too much about them.

 

6. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.  As their paths converge, and the reasons for that convergence become clear, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers.

 

7. Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King 9781101994887
“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”  Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.  But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.

 

8. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood – where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.  In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor – engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven – but the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.  As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

 

97802419516519. Eva Luna by Isabel Allende
”My name is Eva, which means ‘life’, according to a book of names my mother consulted. I was born in the back room of a shadowy house, and grew up amidst ancient furniture, books in Latin, and human mummies, but none of those things made me melancholy, because I came into the world with a breath of the jungle in my memory’. Isabel Allende tells the sweet and sinister story of an orphan who beguiles the world with her astonishing visions, triumphing over the worst of adversity and bringing light to a dark place.’

 

10. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
‘On his third birthday Oskar decides to stop growing. Haunted by the deaths of his parents and wielding his tin drum Oskar recounts the events of his extraordinary life; from the long nightmare of the Nazi era to his anarchic adventures in post-war Germany.’

 

What is your favourite work of magical realism?  Have you read any of these?  Which other books would you recommend?

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6

One From the Archive: ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ by Haruki Murakami ****

I have wanted to read this novel for about five years, ever since one of the rather beautiful quotes from it was acted out as an audition piece on drama school-based ‘Nearly Famous’, one of my favourite television programmes.  Sputnik Sweetheart follows three characters: aspiring novelist Sumire, Miu – the woman whom Sumire surprises herself by falling in love with – and K, our male narrator.  A love triangle of sorts soon ensues; K is in love with Sumire, two years his junior, and Sumire treats him more like a friend and almost prophetic teacher than as someone whom she is interested in. 

The one problem which I tend to have with translated Japanese fiction is that the conversations can sometimes feel a little lacklustre and void of emotion.  I’m not really sure why this tends to happen (can anyone enlighten me?), but the problem is sadly present in Sputnik Sweetheart In the grand scheme of things however, the prose was often so lovely that the conversational patterns were somewhat outweighed.  Sputnik Sweetheart was not at all as I had expected it to be, but it was both engaging and compelling, and twists and turns were taken which made it an intriguing work of mystery.  The three protagonists were all well developed and believably constructed, and I now want to read more of Murakami’s work.  I shall leave you with this beautiful quote, which I hope will encourage everyone who has not done so already to pick up this peculiar but memorable novel:

“And it came to me then.  That we were wonderful travelling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits.  From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere.  When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together.  Maybe even open our hearts to each other.  But that was only for the briefest moment.  In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude.  Until we burned up and became nothing.”

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8

‘Kafka on the Shore’ by Haruki Murakami ****

As a fan of Haruki Murakami’s works, I was looking forward to reading ‘Kafka on the Shore’, a copy of which I had bought months ago but for some reason was still sitting on its self. And thanks to a community read-along, I had the chance to finally read it.

My feelings about this book are, in fact, kind of mixed. When I started reading it, I found myself hooked. I loved Murakami’s writing style, and as some of his previous novels that I had read, the plot was simple and realistic, not giving the reader much to think about initially. There were some boring parts, alright, but I was pretty satisfied with it.   kots

However, there were some pretty disturbing parts in the story. And me being weak-hearted and intolerant of some certain displays didn’t help at all. The story itself has quite a few ‘supernatural’ elements, or rather, quite a few elements that transcend reality and conventional storytelling. I was kind of confused about these parts at first (the incident about raining leeches, for example, even though it was never really fully explained) but as the story progressed, I came to realise that the events themselves weren’t the vital part of the story, but what came out of them. Therefore, there were many (peculiar) incidents that occured but were never given an explanation why or how they came to be. But given Murakami’s tendency to confuse dream and reality in his writings, this may have been how he wanted it to be. Or maybe he decided to leave some things up to the reader’s imagination. Which worked quite fine for me, actually.

Despite the disturbing scenes and the certain unexplainable events, I loved how wise, coming from Murakami once again, this book was. It was filled with the character’s uncertainties, insecurities and constant facing of dead-ends at certain points in their lives. Feelings we encounter all the time during our lives. The advice given, the wise words of the characters and the eventual determination to go on despite the hurdles that may occur in one’s life, made me fall in love with this book. It made me realise I should try harder if I want to change some things around me, and that I should accept everything that happens because they are what made me myself.

All in all, ‘Kafka on the Shore’ is definitely not Murakami’s best book. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, either. But still, it contains these elements that make you think about your own life and where you’re headed. And even if you’re pretty sceptical about this book at first, somehow, it manages to win you over.

0

Flash Reviews (29th May 2014)

‘The Whole Story and Other Stories’ by Ali Smith (Penguin)

The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith ****
Merely to be a gushing Ali Smith fangirly, I thought that I would begin this review by saying that it is really cool to open a library book written by someone so prolific and to see ‘local author’ scrawled on the front page.  If you had not guessed from this, I adore Smith’s quirky writing and creative stories, and she is certainly one of my favourite authors.

Before I begin each one of Smith’s short story collections, I know that I will very much enjoy every single tale which has been included within its pages, often for very different reasons.  As I very much – and rather predictably – loved or very much enjoyed every story in The Whole Story and Other Stories, I thought that I would jot down a few thoughts about each story, and the reasons as to why I liked them so much.

– ‘The Universal Story’: I loved the conversational stream-of-consciousness style; the way in which Smith describes how one can adore books and the promise of treasures in secondhand bookshops; one man’s admiration for The Great Gatsby, and the collection of copies of the novel.
– ‘Gothic’: the personification of personality traits; the growth of the story’s protagonist.
– ‘Being Quick’: the use of the reader as a character of sorts; the use of two different first person narrators; the fact that the couple who feature as the protagonists are nameless.
– ‘May’: an original idea; I have read this story several times before and still find its beauty striking.
– ‘Paradise’: the use of very long but perfectly constructed sentences; the imagery which Smith builds.
– ‘Erosive’: the sheer number of characters and the way in which they were introduced so seamlessly.
– ‘The Book Club’: the structure, which cleverly told both a present day story and a backstory.
– ‘Believe Me’: the skill and tightness of the conversation between the protagonists.
– ‘Scottish Love Songs’: the very contemporary style of the prose.
– ‘The Shortlist Season’: thoughtful and urgent.
– ‘The Start of Things’: the dual perspective of the same event.

Please, if you have not done so before, go and pick up one of Ali Smith’s books.  Whether you read a novel, a short story collection or a work of non-fiction, she is a novelist who is well worth discovering.

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Mary by Vladimir Nabokov **
Another book which I borrowed from the lovely Cambridge Central Library, determined as I am to really enjoy at least one of Vladimir Nabokov’s books.  I decided upon borrowing it that if Mary, like Speak, Memory and Lolita, was a three star read or below, I would not go out of my way to read any more of Nabokov’s books.  Surprise, surprise then, that Mary was only worthy of a two star review in my opinion.

I had no idea what the novel was about when I first picked it up, but I believed that as the work had been translated in collaboration with the author, it would at least be relatively true to the original.  The novel begins in Berlin, in a pension which was ‘both Russian and nasty’, and which hosts inhabitants as diverse as a Russian poet and two ballet dancers who are ‘both as giggly as women’.  Mary, the titular character, is the wife of Aleksey Alfyorov.  As I have found before with his work, the way in which Nabokov crafts his prose is lovely, but the conversations between his characters often feel stiff, awkward and unnatural.  The descriptions throughout are neither as grand, nor as frequent as they are in Lolita, and the characters never quite cross the line into feeling like real, rather than imagined, beings.  Like Lolita, the novel is almost entirely fixated upon relationships, sexual desire, and frustration.  The story did not grip me at first, and whilst it does become marginally more interesting as one reaches the halfway point or so, it soon becomes a little dull again.  The uneven plot and abrupt ending have not allowed me to award Mary more than two stars, and on reflection, I feel that even that is a little generous.

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‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ by Haruki Murakami (Vintage)

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami ****
I have wanted to read this novel for about five years, ever since one of the rather beautiful quotes from it was acted out as an audition piece on drama school-based ‘Nearly Famous’, one of my favourite television programmes.  Sputnik Sweetheart follows three characters: aspiring novelist Sumire, Miu – the woman whom Sumire surprises herself by falling in love with – and K, our male narrator.  A love triangle of sorts soon ensues; K is in love with Sumire, two years his junior, and Sumire treats him more like a friend and almost prophetic teacher than as someone whom she is interested in.

The one problem which I tend to have with translated Japanese fiction is that the conversations can sometimes feel a little lacklustre and void of emotion.  I’m not really sure why this tends to happen (can anyone enlighten me?), but the problem is sadly present in Sputnik Sweetheart In the grand scheme of things however, the prose was often so lovely that the conversational patterns were somewhat outweighed.  Sputnik Sweetheart was not at all as I had expected it to be, but it was both engaging and compelling, and twists and turns were taken which made it an intriguing work of mystery.  The three protagonists were all well developed and believably constructed, and I now want to read more of Murakami’s work.  I shall leave you with this beautiful quote, which I hope will encourage everyone who has not done so already to pick up this peculiar but memorable novel:

“And it came to me then.  That we were wonderful travelling companions, but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits.  From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere.  When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together.  Maybe even open our hearts to each other.  But that was only for the briefest moment.  In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude.  Until we burned up and became nothing.”

Purchase from The Book Depository