My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.


Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will

19 responses to “My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

  1. A very interesting month’s reading. I loved the Keun book – thought she got the narrator spot on. An interesting author. And I have the Mieville lined up for when I actually get onto it… 😉

  2. Glad you liked A Quiet Place. Thanks for the mention.
    I’ve thought about the Mieville book on and off over the years, but keep passing it over. I also passed over the Tokyo Zodiac Murders which sounds like a good move.

  3. Did you review this Keun Kaggsy? I’d love to read your thoughts if so. How does it compare to her others?

    The Mieville is interesting. It’d be a good choice for a long flight.

    Guy, the police procedural elements of the Mieville would I think help maintain interest. I read that it was his mother’s favourite genre and he wrote this partly for her, which is lovely if true. I suspect if you read either that would be a better match than the Tokyo Zodiac since I’ve not seen you be much more into the puzzly ones than I am (obviously you read cosies a lot more, but not so much for the puzzle element I didn’t think).

  4. Jonathan

    I thought A Quiet Place sounded familiar – it must have been Guy’s review. It certainly sounds like an interesting book.

  5. What a diverse month you had.
    I think I need to do such wrap up posts as well as I do read but have hardly any time to review them all. And sometimes, when I’m underwhelmed, I’m not in the mood. Keun is an amazing writer. I’m also glad you liked A Quiet Place. I enjoyed it very much. I tried that Mieville but didn’t get into it.

  6. I’ve promptly added A Quiet Place to the wish list. It sounds very good indeed.

  7. Alastair Savage

    I see you have been doing some Japanese reading in preparation for your trip east. I wonder if you’ve also read the classic ‘I am a Cat’ by Soseki Natsume, or another recent crime thriller, Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama ? Both are highly recommended!

  8. It’s good to know that you’re planning to do a more detailed review of the Keun as I’d like to hear more about it. I loved The Artificial Silk Girl when I read it last year – another book that features an engaging narrator, albeit a little older than Kully here.

    A Quiet Place sounds excellent too. I recall making a note of it after Guy’s review, so it’s great to see another perspective on it from you.

    Please do let us know what you make of the TV adaptation of The City and the City – I’m curious to know. After a strong start, I felt it lost its way towards the end (or perhaps more accurately, I lost interest as the mini-series progressed). Then again, I haven’t read the novel which I suspect is the stronger of the two. I’ve come across that story about the author’s mother too – I believe Mieville wrote the book as a ‘gift’ as she was terminally ill with cancer at the time. As you say, what a lovely gesture on his part – such a generous thing to do.

  9. Jonathan, it is good. I think it may actually have been Caroline’s review that put me onto it now I think back, but I’d lost the link to that.

    Wrap up posts are quite fun Caroline, plus if you don’t have much to say on a book (or not much time to) you can still give it a para or two. Kimbofo, hope if you read it you enjoy it!

    Alastair, I have I am a Cat but haven’t yet read it, mostly due to its length. I’ll take a look at Six Four.

    Jacqui, the tv series is more obvious than the book, which I suppose is unavoidable. The book has none of this “Trust Breach” stuff nor do Breach stand around looking sinister in tube stations. Instead they’re this invisible presence, referred to but never seen. The population view them as quasi (if not outright) supernatural and fear them.

    Similarly, there’s no signs saying “See Besel” or tannoys saying the same (which makes sense as if you’re in Besel you should already only be seeing Besel and if you’re in Ul Qoma you shouldn’t be noticing those messages so as to ignore them).

    The tv show also seems to have some odd subplot about his wife having disappeared and that being connected to the present crime – none of that is in the book. In the book he’s a detective assigned to a murder and everything flows from that, there’s no need for any personal involvement and it’s better for that as it’s a massive cliche.

    I’ve only seen episode one so far so it may diverge further. I do think some divergence is necessary – the book has an extra character who makes the phone call to him from Ul Qoma with a key clue early on, but I can see why the tv show thought it cleaner to replace them by using an existing character to the same end. That sort of thing is obviously fair enough.

  10. That’s really interesting as I didn’t find the stuff about his wife’s disappearance particularly satisfying in the end, almost as if it had been tacked on to show the detective’s softer, more emotional side. It did seem kind of unnecessary.

    Also, is the detective’s female sidekick similar in the novel? (That’s if she’s in it in the first place.) I’m going to sound like a real prude here, but what the hell – I just found her constant swearing REALLY off-putting. Not the sort of thing that usually bothers me, especially as I’m a fan of gritty crime movies/TV, but in this case it felt very annoying. (It’s possibly something to do with her manner too.) Great to see a strong female character in a fairly prominent role, but the stream of expletives was just too much for me!

  11. She’s similarly effective, but I don’t think she swears much if at all. That’s from the tv show. Also, in the novel the detective doesn’t hit a suspect.

    I actually took a look back at the scene in the novel where the van owner is interrogated. There’s no punch from the detective, there’s no swearing by Corwi, but there is a fair bit of swearing from the van owner who is plainly a petty villain. All of which makes sense. There’s a definite distinction between those enforcing the law and those breaking it which the tv show is a bit less clear on.

  12. That’s interesting. I wonder if it was a conscious decision to blur the distinction or whether it just happened to work out that way.

    Not sure if you’ve already come across this, but if not it might be of interest. China Mieville discussed this book on R4’s Bookclub a couple of years ago. I can’t recall much about it now, so I’m tempted to give it another listen via the podcast. There’s a link here:

  13. I really enjoy these round ups, Max. You are having a typically diverse reading year, it looks like.

    I tried City & City years ago and abandoned it, really didn’t get on with it. I think i brought quite an antagonistic mindset to it – unfair, but it happens. Something about the lionisation of Mieville (in certain quarters) has always grated with me.

    I read Zodiac on holiday last year – a curio, enough to keep me engaged despite ending it feeling a bit “meh” about the whole thing.

    The Matsumoto sounds very interesting.

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  15. I think the sow is just a bit more conventional. I’m two episodes in now and I think Mieville intentionally starts out with some very conventional elements (police procedural, conspiracies, possible supertech) but then undermines them all. The tv show seems to be taking them more at face value (for example there’s nothing in the book to suggest the Orciny glyph exists beyond the cities, while in the show it’s suggested it’s found in multiple cultures across the globe).

    Similarly in the show the academic is still fairly young and is handsome. In the book he’s much older and is distinctly embarrassed by his past as basically a peddler of conspiracy theories.

    All that said, the show does do a really good job I think of showing seeing and unseeing and the use of colour signifiers as ways of flagging which city you’re in.

    Ian, I think Mieville gets a lot of hype. Overall that’s presumably good for him since it comes with large sales and loads of fans, but I think the price one pays for that is that it becomes a barrier to some readers. I read his first novel, King Rat, shortly after it came out and really liked it but it’s the aura that’s built up around him since which I think stopped me reading more until now.

    I think describing Zodiac as a curio is fair. I didn’t actually love the Matsumoto s much as some, but it’s definitely interesting and worth a read.

  16. Just left a comment on your Keun post, but this looks like a good month’s reading. I have had the Mieville for years and have always meant to get to it. But I mostly wanted to chime in about the Matsumoto. I read it last year and although I left it off my year-end list, maybe I shouldn’t have. It’s stayed with me. Lots of surprising turns. Sort of a Japanese Patricia Highsmith kind of a thing.

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  18. I’ve finished the tv show now and the final episode diverges quite a lot from the book (it has to really given the wife isn’t in the book). In the book the detective is determined to solve the crime because that’s his job, in the tv show it’s because it’s personal (as it always is in these things).

    Of course, what works on the page doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen and it may be that a tv audience requires that more personal motivation. It’s not something I can really comment on. The book though is more subversive I’d say of the things it sets up early on.

    The tv show incidentally changes the Ul Qoma cop from being a youngish man to a slightly older woman, and that works really well mostly because the performance is great and the gender wasn’t remotely central to the character.

    Returning to the Matsumoto, I think a Patricia Highsmith comparison is actually really good and makes a lot of sense.

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