A thing of beauty

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

I bought this book the day it came out. I never do that, but I have loved all of Mitchell’s previous books so I went to Waterstones and walked home with it, lovingly stroking the exquisitely designed cover. I started reading it that night. And yet here we are months later and I’ve only just finished. So what happened?

Well, first of all, this is a beautiful book. Physically beautiful, I mean. So I didn’t want to carry it around with me and risk damaging it. The hardback is clothbound, illustrated with a picture of Japan, highlighted in blue glitter. The endpapers continue the theme, with Japanese-style artwork in blue and white.

And it’s definitely well written. Mitchell weaves a spellbinding story, with a huge cast and what I think – though I’m not certain about this – is some serious attention to historical detail. When you get caught up in a big, complex plot it’s easy to not notice the writing but Mitchell’s writing is as excellent as ever. But it did take me a while to get into.

This isn’t a book to read for 5 minutes here and there, with another book in your handbag and a third one at work, which is what I tried doing. The opening section is set at sea and between the 18th century seafaring vernacular and large cast I struggled a bit. I even put it down for a few weeks at one point. Once the action moved to the book’s main location – Dejima – I settled in and found myself hooked.

The setting is fascinating, historically and geographically – the Japanese port of Dejima, near Nagasaki, in 1799. At that time it was the location of isolationist Japan’s only link to the west – a trade post of the Dutch East Indies Company. Dejima is almost an island, separated from mainland Japan by a well guarded gate that Dutch visitors may only pass through with special permission, which is rarely granted. Dejima is occupied year-round by a handful of employees of the Dutch East Indies Company, charged with keeping the Dutch warehouses and their goods safe between trading seasons.

The book’s hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a clerk who has reluctantly agreed to come to Japan to earn enough money and raise his social standing enough to marry the woman he loves, Anna. He has a five-year contract with the Dutch East Indies Company and must spend those five years in Dejima, stranded between trading seasons with the limited European staff and their liaison with Japan – the official translators.

Much of the detail of this book – and the humour – derives from the cultural and linguistic divisions between the characters. Mitchell does a fantastic job of the scenes where two or three languages are being spoken, none of them English, and you know who is speaking which language and who understands which parts of the conversation. It’s masterful, I think.

There’s a lot of mistrust and resentment between the different races depicted but there’s also sharing of knowledge. One of my favourite characters, Dr Marinus, is a Dutchman who has settled on Dejima and trains Japanese apprentices in the art and science of “Dutch medicine”. The Dutch tradeship brings him new European textbooks every year, which he studies and shares through the translators. He attends meetings of Japanese scholars where the men debate scientific progress, philosophy and politics, including the wisdom of Japan remaining isolationist. I loved these scenes and would have liked more of them.

This large book encompasses many things – there’s humorous stories of daily life, the personal and public ups and downs of Jacob de Zoet, philosophical discussion, great adventures and mysterious evildoers (particularly in the middle section in which Jacob hardly appears), and also romance. Jacob is certainly in love with his Anna but there is also a young Japanese midwife who catches his eye, making him question his allegiances.

I’m glad I persevered with this book because it became something quite extraordinary. It is as exotic, remarkable and rich in detail as its beautiful cover suggests.

For an alternative viewpoint, check out these reviews by Leeswammes and Farm Lane Books.

Published 2010 by Sceptre.
ISBN 978-0-3409-2156-2

The simplicity of reality

84 Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

I hadn’t heard of this book until The Girl mentioned it on her old blog, but it turns out to be a bit of a modern classic. It’s quite simply the publication of actual letters exchanged between New York writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co. The correspondence lasted 20 years, from 1949 until the bookshop closed.

It’s a beautiful correspondence. On both sides there’s a great love of books (of course), open and engaging friendliness and plenty of humour. Hanff is wry, witty and deeply sarcastic. She’s also generous to a fault, sending food parcels to her London friends while they are still knee-deep in post-war rationing, despite her own meagre and unpredictable income as a TV writer (the exchange rate helped affordability considerably).

Hanff’s main correspondent is the bookshop’s chief buyer, Frank Doel, whose sudden death in 1968 prompted the idea behind the book (which, fittingly, is dedicated to him). It seems an unusual thing to do, in my eyes, and I don’t think Hanff expected the vast readership that the book eventually achieved.

The letters begin when Hanff, unable to find good quality hardback editions of her favourite books in New York, responds to an advert placed by Marks & Co. With characteristic contrariness she always pays by cash, in dollars, using an English neighbour to perform currency conversions. Over the years she amasses quite a collection, from Greek and Roman texts to English diarists to Jane Austen (one of her few sojourns into fiction).

As a booklover one of the great attractions of this volume is the taste and knowledgeableness regarding the books discussed. Hanff is quick to spot a poor translation or an incomplete “abridged” work but she also raves unreservedly about the beauty of certain books – the material, the binding, the gilding, the illustrations. Her enthusiasm is a real delight and it’s easy to see why so many of the bookshop’s employees (and their relatives) muscled in on the letter-writing.

One thing I found a little jolting was that the edition that I read also included Hanff’s next book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street as a sort of epilogue. This is Hanff’s diaries from her 1971 visit to London, when she finally got to see the bookshop (by then closed down and empty – in fact, Hanff takes the letters that had made up the shop sign home as a memento) and meet many of her correspondents and fans of the book. It’s certainly interesting and fills in some of the blanks that the letters don’t cover, but the delicate beauty of 84 Charing Cross Road just isn’t present and the magic of the first half of the volume is quickly lost.

The title stems from Hanff’s perception that she is being treated like a duchess, a status that she does not feel that she deserves. 84 Charing Cross Road was a slow-burner and did not top any bestseller charts; Hanff was only able to afford the trip thanks to advance money from Andre Deutsch for the UK publication and paid interviews conducted during the visit (that said, all her shopping appears to be conducted at Harrods and Selfridge’s, so she’s not that skint). The later stage, TV and film adaptations will no doubt have relieved Hanff’s situation somewhat.

My thanks again to The Girl for alerting me to the existence of this book. It absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic for bookworms.

First published 1971.

84 Charing Cross Road

Incidentally, for anyone who falls in love with this book and wants to go on a pilgrimage to the site of Marks & Co, be warned that its disappointingly non-bookish current tenant is Pizza Hut. But it’s still a beautiful building. Click on the photo above for a bigger view. Thanks to Liz of Eliza Does Very Little for posting about this so that I was forewarned.

The edge of sanity

Time Out of Joint
by Philip K Dick

Although this is part of the SF Masterworks series, the SF content of this novel is fairly slim and if anything the big reveal is a little disappointingly convoluted. For the most part the novel is about sanity and our acceptance of the reality around us. And in that respect it is brilliant.

A recent Guardian books blog suggested that SF, and Philip K Dick in particular, has great ideas but terrible writing. In my experience that’s complete rubbish. Sure, there’s some badly written SF but that’s true for any genre – and non-genre – writing. This is my first Dick novel and I thought it extremely well written. It’s not flowery or overly descriptive, which if anything is a style I prefer. The characters are complex and sympathetic, the majority of the story emanating from their thoughts, though the narration is third-person.

Middle-aged Ragle Gumm lives in suburbia with his sister, her husband and their child. Gumm stays home all day, making his living from a newspaper contest called “Where will the little green man be next?”, at which he is the national champion. He seduces the neighbour’s young, pretty wife, as much from boredom or a feeling that he ought to have a lovelife as any real attraction. He’s aware that his life is a little unusual, while at the same time being docile and unchanging.

But there are times when Gumm is convinced that it’s all very wrong, that the world around him isn’t real, that there’s a conspiracy at work. Perhaps he’s just insane. Or it could be a little of both.

What makes the story especially intriguing is that Gumm’s brother-in-law and nephew also notice oddities, irregularities that convince them that something strange is afoot, and the three of them work together to gather evidence and figure it out. But it is Gumm who is convinced that the world revolves around him, or that it appears to.

The depiction of uncertain sanity is so well crafted that almost anything becomes believable, because it could always be Gumm’s paranoia talking. As a picture of paranoia the novel is near-perfect. However, as I said, the attempt to explain everything away in the end with an SF storyline is a let-down. Unless, of course, you consider that section to be when Gumm passes the tipping point into pure madness. Which, now I think of it, works pretty well.

An afterword by Lou Stathis helpfully explains where this novel sits in Dick’s vast legacy of fiction. I will definitely be following his advice and adding The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer to my to-read shelf.

First published 1959 by Lippincott.
ISBN 978-0-5750-7458-3

Super extra bonus review

Scott Pilgrim books 1–6
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

So these books are a lot of fun. Considering it’s mostly boy geeks who are obsessed with them I was surprised to discover that they’re all about relationships. With a bunch of kick-ass fighting and geeky extras thrown in, that is.

Volume 1 opens with Scott Pilgrim aged 23, unemployed, living with (by which I mean scrounging off) his gay best friend Wallace in a one-bed apartment (that’s literally one bed, which they share, not that it’s awkward or anything) and playing bass in a band called Sex Bob-omb that may or may not suck. Scott plays videogames all day and is still mooning over some girl he broke up with a year ago but somehow he’s like catnip to the ladies and we gradually meet a whole string of his exes.

Then, like some great karmic revenge, he meets smart, pretty, funny, mysterious Ramona Flowers. Or strictly, she starts appearing in his head and he’s already obsessed before he meets her in real life and asks her out. She says yes, with one condition: he has to fight – and defeat – her seven evil exes.

Scott seems sweet and unassuming, and also pretty gormless and very forgetful, but it turns out that fighting is the one thing he got good at in high school. Plus he’s been training hard on the videogames, so how could he not kick ass? In fact it turns out he’s better at doing that than growing up.

These books are funny, addictive and well drawn. There’s a whole array of secondary characters, most of whom are thoroughly fleshed out, believable people. Obviously some of them are just bad guys Scott has to fight.

There are some brilliant comic touches that may actually be entirely in Scott’s mind, warped as it is from playing videogames more than real life. When he defeats a bad guy – or evil ex – their body disappears and a pile of coins appears, like in an old platform game. And when he learns something valuable he gets experience points. Genius.

There’s a lot of meta referencing, which I liked, with characters saying things like “I’ll tell you in book 3”. And there’s a subspace highway that runs through Scott’s head, which is convenient.

The dialogue is at once realistic and very, very funny and, like all the best comics, background detail is used to great effect, usually comedic. The books are chock-full of quotable comedy and, despite a few big reveals, completely re-readable.

It goes without saying (almost) that I think the film of this by Edgar Wright will be brilliant and I can’t wait to see it. From the trailers it looks like the tone has been captured exactly. And it would be hard to dislike anything starring Michael Cera.

First published 2004–2010 by Oni Press in the US.
Published 2010 by Fourth Estate in the UK.

Book 1 ISBN 978-0-0073-4047-7

Two worlds, one book

I’ll Never be Young Again
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an odd book, in some places brilliant and beautiful, in others disjointed and, frankly, a little far-fetched. Ever since I read Rebecca I have been making my way through the rest of du Maurier’s works and this is a typical example – a great writer not at her best but still captivating.

The book is divided into two distinct halves and they are so different they could almost be separate novellas. What they have in common is their narrator, an incredibly believably voiced Englishman called Richard. He is young, very young, and full of restless spirit. The book opens with him contemplating throwing himself off a bridge into the Thames. He is stopped by Jake, an older man who has just been released from prison and believes that life is for living. Together they travel around Europe. Richard veers wildly from enthusiasm to boredom, passionate about something one minute, the next whining that anything else would be better. Jake is greatly amused by Richard’s mood swings and youthful passion and teases him about them, so that gradually Richard becomes aware of himself, though it fails to change him.

This first half is essentially a picaresque adventure, with the men running away to sea, trekking through mountains on horseback and by foot, choosing where to go next one day at a time. It’s spirited and a little wild, with Jake’s constant assuredness the perfect foil to Richard’s naivety. In many ways it seemed unrealistic that a directionless, penniless youth would get to have this great adventure but maybe that reaction has more to do with how times have changed since this was written.

In the second half Richard settles himself in Paris to write a novel and meets a girl who he falls headlong in love with. His thoughts about her are so very familiar, such as his fear of commitment and desperation to spend every second with her, while not seeing how those might be contradictory. There’s an air of gentle mocking in these passages, it’s so clear to the reader that Richard is being ridiculous a lot of the time, but by this point you know him so well and he notices his own stupidity often enough that certainly my reaction was to smile at the follies of youth rather than be annoyed with him.

The relationship is followed very closely, with the ins and outs of Richard’s everyday life detailed, from what he eats for breakfast to how he copes with the cold or the heat at his desk. Paris and its changing seasons are described with great affection, even when Richard is in one of his more negative moods. What really stood out in this half was the realness of the narrative voice. Maybe that’s because it was a woman’s perspective of a young man during his first romance, subtly using his voice to express all the frustrations a woman feels. Maybe a man would be less impressed.

The end is very well done, delicately balanced between comedy and tragedy, and ties together the two parts in theory, but in practice I still felt they were worlds apart. Perhaps they were intended that way.

First published in 1932 by William Heinemann Ltd.

Twanging those heartstrings

Me & Emma
by Elizabeth Flock

This book grew on me slowly. At first I found it a little annoying, like it was trying too hard to tug on the reader’s emotions, but then I got caught up in the story and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it and impressed, even.

It’s narrated by eight-year-old Caroline, or Carrie, who details her life in North Carolina in her diary, or at least that’s how it’s initially presented (it doesn’t really make sense because there’s flashbacks, but I’ll let that go). Carrie daydreams a lot and loves her little sister Emma to distraction but the telling moment is when she declares that she doesn’t mind school because it gets her away from home.

Home is not a nice place for Carrie. Her stepfather is a violent drunk who coerces Emma into his bedroom frequently. Carrie’s mother either ignores or excuses the abuse and is not above beating the girls herself. It’s a shockingly horrible life and I suppose it’s a tribute to the author to say that it’s not a chore to read – somehow it’s not all negative, there’s lots of positives, at least the way Carrie sees it.

The characterisation is excellent, certainly in the case of Carrie. The prose is pretty realistically the voice of an eight year old. At first I found it a bit wearing, because eight year olds don’t have the greatest vocabulary and they do repeat annoying slang phrases and Flock has captured that very well. Thankfully she hasn’t misspelled it all realistically but she has used North Carolina vernacular.

This isn’t the greatest writing or the deepest of books and the storyline is likely to affect you more than the prose but it isn’t a bad read. Certainly better than I expected from the first few pages.

Published 2005 by Mira Books.
ISBN 978-0-7783-0084-7

The value of books

Books v. Cigarettes
by George Orwell

This is part of the Great Ideas range, yet another excellent and also stylish set of paperbacks from Penguin that are either excerpts from longer works or collections of shorter essays, as this one is. They’re small and affordable (unless like me you find you want to buy the whole set – there’s 80 of them so far!) and well designed. And from what I can tell from my sample size of two, the contents have been carefully and skillfully chosen.

It would be hard to go wrong with George Orwell, mind, which may be why Penguin already has three books of his writings in this range. Everything I have read by Orwell – fiction, autobiography, letters, newspaper columns – has been exceptionally well crafted, intelligent but also interesting and accessible. He was very open about things like money, social background, politics and patriotism, which are things we can all relate to and yet seem so rarely to be discussed.

I picked this book up in the wonderful Toppings bookshop in Bath, one of that now rare breed of independent bookshops that are bigger than a shoebox and have a genuinely good selection of books, which was appropriate because two of the selected essays deal with buying and selling books, and I found Orwell’s thoughts on the subject and expectations for its future fascinating. In the opening essay, he compares his spending on books with his spending on tobacco, to see whether there is merit in the claims he often hears that books are too expensive for “normal” people. With some lengthy reasoning and a little maths he concludes that this is rubbish and the true reason that people don’t buy books is that they consider reading to be a dull pastime, not the cost. I wonder what he would have made of the breaking of the Net Book Agreement.

Which brings us to his second essay, on bookselling. Orwell worked in a bookshop for a time and makes some lively, often caustic, observations of regular customers that he remembers. But what I found most interesting were his closing remarks. First, that “any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop…combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman” – a surprisingly shortsighted comment from the man who wrote 1984. And second, his description of how working in a bookshop made him fall temporarily out of love with books, almost made them repulsive to him. That was a real surprise to me and I’d like to hear from any booklovers who have worked in a bookshop to see if they felt the same.

The other essays deal with book reviewing (which he is most vicious about, sadly), patriotism (he was just too young to fight in the First World War and felt it very keenly), free speech, his experience of a particularly awful French hospital and his time at boarding school (an endlessly fascinating topic to me, and one that is of great interest here because he was a scholarship boy, so he was an outside observer to the high end of the class system that dominates such schools). It’s a truly excellent selection of writing and I doubt it will be long before I buy more books from this series.

Published 2008 by Penguin. Essays originally published between 1936 and 1952.
Number 57 in the Great Ideas series.
ISBN 978-0-1410-3661-8

The other side of the fence

The Romantics
by Pankaj Mishra

This debut from Indian novelist Mishra is at once beautiful and eye-opening. It provides an insight into different cultures in India, both native and visitor, and how they work (or don’t work) together.

The story follows Samar from university to postgraduate restlessness to his first job and in many ways is the tale of his ‘coming of age’ or ‘finding peace with himself’, but resolution is not the name of the game here and uncertainty is ever-present.

Samar is a Brahmin and, like most of his caste, by the 1980s his family has little of the old money left and can just afford to keep him until he’s 21. Until then he reads ferociously and, despite his studious quietness, mixes with quite a range of people. His neighbour Miss West is a middle-aged Englishwoman and through her Samar meets a whole host of westerners who come to India for spiritual reasons that he can never quite grasp (presumably these are the ‘Romantics’ of the title).

Mishra does a good job of encapsulating his hero’s mixture of revulsion and jealousy of these people, particularly of their money, freedom and opportunities – things he will never have. Mishra gently pokes fun at these visitors and their various reasons for coming to India – from having read a certain popular book to studying alternative medicine – but also points out the similarity between their displacement, their struggle to find a life path, and Samar’s.

I’m still not sure how much of my enjoyment of this book was based in it opening up to me a world I’ve never experienced, from a viewpoint I can never experience. It’s definitely a book that made me feel guilty for wanting to travel to far-flung places to widen my horizons when, of course, a week in Pondicherry could never tell me what life is truly like there.

Samar also has Indian friends, such as fellow student Rajesh through whom he sees a glimpse of India’s rural poor, a life lesson he badly needs after comparing himself to the westerners. His friendship with Rajesh and other Indians is markedly different from the one he enjoys with Miss West and her friends, which I found very interesting. The westerners are very quick to share the minutiae of their lives and each other’s. It takes a long time for Samar to discover that their true thoughts and feelings are kept just as hidden as his own, and cut them just as badly.

The book also includes a number of passages that lovingly describe India, particularly the Himalayas, and these could be quite moving. The author clearly loves his country. But it was the east–west relationships that really made this book the fascinating read that it was. From a glance at his website, it appears that he has written a lot of essays on this theme and other issues affecting modern India, so I shall be checking those out.

Published 1999 by Picador.

Teach a man to fish

The Old Man and the Sea
by Ernest Hemingway

I don’t need to tell anyone what a great book this is, I’m sure. It’s actually the first Hemingway I’ve read and was a great introduction. The prose is plain yet full of endless layers of meaning.

On one level this was a tough book for me to read. You see, I have this thing about fish: a profound dislike, repulsion even. So the story of a fisherman necessarily included details that frankly reviled me.

It was also slow to grab me (relatively; I mean, the whole book’s barely 100 pages long). Even though I knew from reputation that it’s a very simple story, I couldn’t help feeling, ‘Is this really it? Is there no more to it?’ But once the old man goes out to sea that feeling passed and I was captivated.

Hemingway’s ability to voice the old man’s every thought and emotion is astounding. This is a poor man, living a tough life that is nearing its end and his thoughts do meander to religion, death, the meaning of life and the beauty of nature, but always in just the right tone, staying clear of anything touchy feely or intellectual. The old man is very matter of fact and quickly snaps himself out of flights of fancy or memory trips. Only one incident from his past is described in any detail and this is because the old man draws on the memory to give him strength.

I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t get this book, or wouldn’t agree with the millions who rate it as one of the greatest novels ever written. I needn’t have worried and will definitely read more from my Hemingway boxset in the future.

First published in 1952. Specifically cited when Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

See also: review by Marie of Little Interpretations.

Know your medium

It Sucked and then I Cried
by Heather B Armstrong

So this is a lesson in how a decent blog does not necessarily make a decent book. Heather Armstrong’s blog Dooce is widely considered to be the most popular personal blog on the internet, with tens of thousands of visitors every day. She is a huge influence on other bloggers and has some interesting things to say. Taking one of the more eventful sections of her blogged life and writing a book about it should have been a great idea, right?

The thing is, what works in a blog does not necessarily work in a book and a decent editor would have stopped this book from being published in its current form. Large sections of text are reproduced verbatim from the blog, which I understand the temptation behind, as the blog is so successful, but a lot of the same people will read both and it’s disappointing to read the same jokes, the same descriptions, the same insults over again.

In a blog you can jump from one topic to the next, or start a story and then pick it up again a few weeks (and a few thousand words) later. In a book you need more structure. Skipping out of your timeline to tell a funny anecdote from the past doesn’t always work. And you also don’t need to keep repeating things. In a blog it’s acceptable to assume that people need reminding of a fact you mentioned several entries ago, if they read it at all. In a book it’s a fair bet that the readers of chapter 10 also read chapter 2. Quite recently.

But more crucially even than that, in a blog you can get away with writing in all caps for emphasis, assigning cute but stupidly long nicknames to people or breaking out in a sickeningly mushy ode to your loved one. None of those things are appropriate in a book. They make it incredibly hard to read more than a few pages at a time. One of the most grating things for me was the reproduction of Heather’s monthly letters to her daughter Leta. Now, this is something a lot of “mommy bloggers” do when they have babies and it’s a sweet idea that may even have been original to Dooce. On a blog you can skip past them if you’re not feeling soppy because they do tend to be very soppy indeed. Heather’s letters are no exception and they seemed wildly out of place in this book. The odd phrase from them could have been quoted or incorporated into the retelling but pages and pages of baby talk very nearly made me stop reading on.

It’s really very disappointing because the basic story of Heather’s difficult pregnancy, depression and postnatal depression is one that was interesting on her blog and these are subjects that should be talked about more. I commend her for her openness and looked forward to this book to find out more about the experience. Though there was some more detail than in the blog it was written in an awkward style and was hard to read.

What this book confirmed for me was that Heather is not a successful blogger because she writes well. She does not. She is successful because she has interesting and often controversial things to say and she’s sometimes funny. And because of that story about her being fired because she said rude things about her employer on her blog. Other bloggers have done this better and I think I know now why I haven’t read Dooce for a year or so.

Published 2009 by Simon & Schuster.