You can’t have too many cat books: ‘The Guest Cat’ by Takashi Hiraide


I had many reasons for being tempted by ‘The Guest Cat.’  Besides from the obvious (I like reading; I like cats) there were the arresting cover, the fact that I’d been planning on reading more Japanese literature this year and the peer pressure that comes with every literary best-seller.  Autumn is the perfect time for snuggling up with a book (and a cat, if the occasion provides).  If I needed any further excuse, finishing Natume’s ‘I am a cat’ gave me an added reason to enjoy contemporary feline-themed fiction.

I say contemporary, because the novel is set in 1980s Tokyo where the narrator and his wife have found the perfect apartment to rent.  They are aware of their own good fortune; as the book progresses, the housing market booms with consequences that sadly resonate all too well for readers today.  This dichotomy between the stability of a ‘home’ and the precarious status of the renters is embodied through their relationship with the neighbours’ cat, Chibi.

As the title of the novella informs us, Chibi is only a guest in the lives of our central couple.  Her relationship with them is ostensibly transient and temporary.  Her impact however is immense, turning the narrator into a cat lover and consuming his already animal-friendly wife.  In fact, though the picture on the book’s cover is very cute and the descriptions of Chibi’s charms very detailed, it’s also easy to read her as a symbol for much that is right and wrong with the society in which the novel is set.  Home-loving but promiscuous, domesticated but capable of violence, playful, clever and lazy, Chibi is a mass of contradictions held together by the love of her surrogate owners.

If all this sounds a bit philosophical, then blame the novel. There seems to be something about cat books that insists on going below the surface, from the discussion of ‘ineffable’ names in Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats‘ to Lynn Truss’s erudite and terrifying protagonists in ‘Cat Out of Hell.’  In less than 150 pages, ‘The Guest Cat’ covers love, death and housing prices with a dose of Machiavelli, Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan) and the working of a camera obscura for anyone who wants further food for reflection.  A slight volume that deals with big themes, it’s easy to see why the book was such a success.  Personally, I wouldn’t say it was my favourite cat novel (the field is simply too strong), but ‘The Guest Cat’ has much to offer lovers of cats, reading and thoughtful reflection and probably belongs in every well stocked bookshelf, at least until it wanders off again…

Posted in Cat books, Japanese Literature, Reading in translation, Takashi Hiraide | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Nobel prize for literature revisited, or, why I love Bob Dylan


Last September I wrote an unusually irritable post about the Nobel prize for literature.  Some of this was sour grapes (I don’t like feeling so poorly read when scanning lists of world-class writers).  Some of my complaints though, stemmed from genuine confusion; I really couldn’t understand the logic behind several of the choices and many of the omissions.  Happily, my irritation is now over, because I do love the way Bob Dylan uses words.

The  Dylan track I always used to insist on my father playing is from the album ‘Blood on the Tracks.’  ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ is not the kind of song I normally get to rave about in public, but this week is the perfect opportunity to share why this is my all-time favourite Western-genre piece of writing and, for my money, one of the best examples of masterfully condensed plotting and structure in literature.


The 9 minute long song tells a story that is both obvious and confusing.  We begin with the scene being set:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down
Anyone with any sense had already left town
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

This is what good structure is all about.  We know that there is a fall coming from the very first line, we have hints of vice and lawlessness and we have a haunting simile that will form the refrain of the story; it’s all about the enigmatic Jack of Hearts.

The anonymous Jack of Heart is not the only character in the song though.  Look back at the title.  Like all great Westerns (to my mind), this story is about women more than men.  While there may be ‘boys’ mentioned in the first line, it is female names that dominate the title.  The Jack of Hearts is the mysterious stranger in town, but there are two powerfully realised women who take over as events unfold.  First Lily, ‘a princess, she was fair-skinned and precious as a child’.  It makes sense that Lily hangs around with Big Jim who owns the town’s diamond mine.  It also makes sense that big Jim (when Dylan sings, it almost rhymes with ‘king’) has more than one girl in tow.  There’s also Rosemary, though her place in this royal family is less assured; we’re told ‘She slipped in through the side door lookin’ like a queen without a crown.’   Shades of Macbeth appear when she ‘started drinkin’ hard and seein’ her reflection in the knife’, but the plot has several more twists to go before all characters come to their foreshadowed ends.

The story itself has more cuts and odd perspectives than a Guy Ritchie film, and the overall impression is that you’ve got nearly, but not quite, enough information to fully understand what’s happening, if only it wasn’t happening so fast.  A bit like life itself.  I love the wealth of incidental detail that ratchets up the tension (one man in the saloon is the ‘hangin’ judge… being wined and dined‘), all the while diverting you away from what’s actually happening.  I love the contradictions that start to build up as the story progresses, because you can’t have a good heist without a lot of lies floating around.  Most of all I love the economic narrative that delivers my favourite crime story in under 10 minutes.  Trust me, there’s enough detail packed in for a whole novel’s worth of enjoyment.

I’m thrilled to have a 21st century Nobel literature laureate that I can really get behind.  In my previous post I was confused by the presence of philosophers, statesmen and general ‘men of letters’ on the list.  A poet and songwriter is good by me though, especially when it’s one who can write such a wonderful story.

For the full lyrics of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ click here.  I’d provide a link to the song being performed but I’m not clear on the copyright so I just hope you’ll seek it out.

Posted in Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize for Literature | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

Long before Youtube kitten videos: ‘I am a Cat’ by Natsume Sōseki (1905-6)


It can be hard to think outside the box when you’re as devoted to book lists and recommendations as I am.  Still, sometimes I think I manage to read something a bit more unexpected.  Take this autumn for example, when, falling in love with the Tuttle edition’s lovely cover, I decided that ‘I Am A Cat’ would be the perfect introduction to Natsume’s writings.  I know that his most famous book is ‘Kokomo’, a classic I’ve yet to begin, but sometimes some books just look too pretty to resist.

‘I am a Cat’ is an early twentieth century satire in which the feline narrator takes us through the mundane adventures in his life, nearly of all of which is spent at the home of an unimpressive schoolteacher.  It probably goes without saying, but as a cat, he is an outsider in society and is in the perfect position to critique and expose its idiocies.  The misanthropic schoolteacher has a whole collection of friends and neighbours who drop in and out of the loosely connected chapters.  Each has their own theories of life and most have pretty selfish aims, some of which cat and master can see, but in general our two central figures are equally impotent when it comes to navigating complex relationships or societal pressures.

Personally, I can find satire of other cultures hard to enjoy.  Because I’m also an outsider it has to be extremely heavy-handed for me to understand what is being mocked.  This meant that I didn’t have the laugh-out-loud experience that I suspect was the expected response to the book.  Still, there were things I could appreciate, not least the fact that his novel is contemporaneous with much of my Russian reading from last year.  Specifically, it gave me a Japanese civilian perspective of the Russo-Japanese war.  Based on this one novel, it does seem like the Japanese were less traumatised by the conflict, and it provided a very interesting contrast to Russian writings from the same period.  Both Russia and Japan were very sensitive to Western influences conflicting with their traditional ideas and ways of life, and this book brought home to me how much reading Japanese contemporary literature could add to my enjoyment of my Russian favourites.  For those who are more interested in Western European literature, it is also easy to see similarities between ‘I am a Cat’ and Flaubert’s ‘Bouvard et Pécuchet’ as the schoolteacher attempts to master various cultural pursuits.

Another reason for wanting to read Natsume’s first novel was that I thought it might be a good precursor for last year’s best seller ‘The Guest Cat,’ which I’ll be reviewing next in this mini-series of cats in Japanese books; there are some topics that just can’t fail to please!


Posted in Cat books, Japanese Literature, Natsume Sōseki, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Enjoying the 1947 club: ‘Bend Sinister’ by Vladimir Nabokov


It’s always a happy moment when Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings  and Stuck-in-a-Book put out the call about another book club.  Around this time last year I was thrilled to be able to join in the 1924 club with a top Russian read, ‘We’ by Zamyatin.  Since then, I’ve also been able to get medieval and a bit magical with T. E. White’s ‘A Once and Future King’ (the first volume of which was published in time to be included in the 1938 club).  Suffice to say, ‘Bend Sinister’ had a lot to live up to.


‘Bend Sinister’ was the first novel Nabokov wrote in America but as far as setting goes, it feels like it belongs more with my Russian reading project than any specific US genre or school of literature.  The story is set in a small obscure country, recently taken over by ‘The Party of the Average Man,’ where the ‘everyman’ dictator, Paduk, is determined that all citizens should join together in collegiality and mediocrity.  For a typically unsubtle example of state propaganda, the novel even contains a detailed government circular explaining the wonders of the new regime:

‘Dear Citizen, according to Article 521 of our Constitution the following four freedoms are to be enjoyed by the nation: 1. freedom of speech, 2. freedom of the press, 3. freedom of meetings, and 4. freedom of processions.  These freedoms are guaranteed by placing at the disposal of the people efficient printing machines, adequate supplies of paper, well-aerated halls and broad streets…’

Trying desperately to ignore the new status quo is the celebrity academic, Krug.  His high profile is both protection and a danger, not least because he has a personal connection with the new ruler (Krug was one of the more determined bullies who daily attacked Paduk, aka ‘The Toad’, at school).  The question throughout the novel is whether or not Krug will endorse the new regime.  He certainly despises everything it stands for, but he also has close friends and a young son; he may be stubborn, but its hard to guess quite how stubborn as the pressure steadily mounts.

This being Nabokov, I don’t think that readers will enjoy the book for the plot alone.  ‘Bend Sinister’ is only going to work for those who will enjoy or be able to ignore the florid and utterly over-the-top prose.  Nabokov’s admiration for James Joyce is in plentiful evidence and, if moments of the story reminded me of ‘The Trial’ in their grotesque depiction of power and ineptitude, the writing has none of Kafka’s sparseness of language.  If you thought ‘Lolita’ was a bit over-written then you should start your 1947 reading elsewhere.  If however you have a fondness for linguistic games, bureaucratic dystopias and writers who can truly shock,’Bend Sinister’ will deliver all this and more.

Posted in Vladimir Nabokov | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Another must-read from Sara Taylor: ‘The Lauras’ (2016)


Sara Taylor’s ‘The Shore‘ was one of my top reads of 2015; with a nod to Talyor’s nomination for the Peters, Fraser and Dunlop/Sunday Times ‘Young Writer Award’ my review was entitled ‘The Future of Fiction is Bright Indeed.’  The thing about discovering a wonderful book by a new young novelist however is that is can sometimes take many years for the initial promise to be fulfilled.  Fortunately, fans of the ‘The Shore’ can rest easy for a while, a new novel was published this summer and, for my money, it establishes Taylor as an enduring talent with a multitude of stories to tell.

I have a feeling I’m going to tie myself in syntactical knots in this review so I’ll try to get the confusion out of the way early.  The book narrated by Alex and, though first person narration and what seems like effortless literary slight of hand, Taylor avoids certain significant pronouns.  As some point it becomes apparent that we haven’t learned if Alex is a boy or a girl.  What could have been casual omission is shown to be a deliberate choice; when at a new school Alex is aware ‘that eventually someone would make an issue of my careful androgyny and I’d have to choose my side in the  war, make up my mind as to where my allegiance lay, whether I identified more with my mother or my father.  Because in my mind that’s what they were asking: do you want to grow up to be like your mom or your dad, Alex?  And I still wanted to know why I couldn’t be both, why it was an either/or situation.’  As the novel continues Alex hits puberty, but sexual awakening is kept carefully separate from gender categories.  Others may try to insist on answers, but Alex is belligerent; ‘knowing someone’s sex doesn’t tell you anything.  About that person, anyway. I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave towards them, the assumptions you make about who they are and how they live, tells an awful lot about you.’  This is not the major message or theme of the book, but it’s a view seldom expressed so well in literature.  I feel the need to mention it because of the problem it causes me as a review (and the joy it gave me as a reader), I won’t dwell on it though, to do so would negate the powerful point being made.

For Taylor, setting is just as important as character and is inextricably linked to plot.  One of the things that made ‘The Shore’ such a wonderful read was the physical environment.  The whole book is set within the same isolated West Virginian island and by the end of reading you feel like you’ve lived there too, as inescapably as the characters who share the claustrophobic landmass.  As the maps on the cover of ‘The Lauras’ show, the geography of this new novel is on a whole other scale.  Going broad rather than deep, the protagonists will trace their way across America as Taylor reworks the picaresque genre for the 21st century.  The story begin when Ma scoops Alex up in the middle of the the night and two of them leave Alex’s father, home and, eventually, West Virginia on journey of unspecified length and destination.

‘The Lauras’ is a book about growing up, about the American landscape and about story telling.  As the apparently aimless journey reveals itself as a series of quests, Alex starts to learn more about Ma’s troubled and restless past.  Ma is a woman who started running away early.  As a fourteen year old she first left home home to become a ranger; she only stayed away for one day, but her next attempt was more successful: ‘When they found her the second time she’d hiked nearly one hundred  miles of the Appalachian Trail.’  Since then, Ma has become an expert at wandering, so much so, that it takes a while to see the pattern in her most recent journey.  Pattern there is however, and it ties in closely with Ma’s own past.

With Alex as our mediator and Ma as our eccentric guide, the story told is unreliable, fantastical, dark, complex and utterly compelling.  As with ‘The Shore’ there is much more to rave about than I can fit into sensible blog-post length.  Instead I’ll have to satisfy myself with urging everyone to read it, and with hoping that Taylor will have another book out in 2017 that will be just as wonderful.

Posted in Sara Taylor | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Top Road Trip Novels

I’ve just finished Sara Taylor’s wonderful new novel ‘The Lauras’ and, while I’m processing how to write a review that encapsulates all my reasons for loving it, this seems a good moment to revisit other favourite travel books.  Fiction travel that is, and, as I’m slightly obsessed with ‘The Lauras’ I’m going to narrow this even more to mean USA road trip novels, a sub-genre of which I’m particularly fond.

imgresWell, it may not a be a classic yet, but this is the book that started me off on the topic of road trips.  In it, Ma and Alex travel from West Virginia across the length and breadth of America.  They spend time in Florida where ‘the waves rolled irregularly onto the beach, a moving mass of grey that seemed to be alive and breathing.’  They camp out in the desert ‘this landscape was steeper, scrubbier, the land more bone than flesh, more rock than earth.  At first I thought the whole place just looked dead, kaput.  But the arid land had a dusty, painted beauty of its own, and it crept into my bones as I grew familiar with the trails and overlooks and the clear bareness of it all.’  As well as the stopping places however, there are also the hours and days spend in the car: ‘Time felt funny then;  maybe it was the constant forward motion.  I felt like we’d been the car for years, not days.  Maybe it was like being in a rocket, ageing at a different rate to everyone on earth.  The blacktop rolled away under us and I felt time rolling away with it, diffusing into nothing.’  It’s what I read road trip books for.

imgresAnother new addition to the genre.  In Kelman’s ‘Dirt Road’ Murdo and his father are on the road to escape grief.  They leave Scotland at the start of the novel, numb from the loss of half their nuclear family.  The first thing for them to do on arrival in Memphis is take the bus to their American family, and the trip to Alabama itself reveals a lot about their relationship and ultimate ends.  Set throughout the Southern American states, ‘Dirt Road’ has the two elements that make a wonderful road-trip novel: the counterbalancing claustrophobic moments of static existence and the frightening yet compulsive attraction of a life that just keeps on moving (click here for my full review).

imgresPossibly a more controversial choice than the more recent items on the list, Lolita isn’t just a book about inappropriate love, it’s also a novel of movement. In the second half of the novel, Humbert Humbert and his young companion travel through America in search of anonymity and freedom from societal conventions.  The combination of freedom and claustrophobia is added to the other tensions of the novel as both driver and passenger realise that, while the roads seem to go on for ever, the two of them are trapped both by each other and by the wider world.  As long as road trips rely on stops at motels and in small towns, no traveller can truly escape from reality.

imgresMaking things a bit more wholesome, Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Carol’ has its two lovers escaping stifling convention on one of the most wonderfully aimless road trips in literature.  Free of constrains and of other companions, Carol and Therese are able to luxuriate in each other’s company.  Finally, it seems like loose ends will be tied up and that peace will be achieved, albeit through  non-stop movement.  Underlying the wonderfully slow pace of the journey however, are the typical Highsmith touches.  Why has Carol packed a gun?  Is there anyone following them?  How long can the idyllic journey last?  The tensest possible description of a holiday spent by two people happily in love, Therese and Carol’s road-trip is yet another reason to love this novel.  (You can see my full review here).


A Nobel prize winning road trip classic, Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is an epic novel of journeying through America.  The reluctant migrants that make up the book’s massive cast desperately travel West in search of the promised land, or, at least, a land that might in some way sustain them.  There are wonderful passages that describe the epic tragedy of the landscape traversed, matched by the pressing need of the families that cross it: ‘Listen to the motor.  Listen to the wheels.  Listen with your hands on the steering wheel; listen with the palm of your hand on the gear-shift lever; listen with your feet on the floor boards.  Listen to the pounding old jalopy with all your senses…’  ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is a powerful story of the personal and the national, showing that great road-trip novels are about much more than individual quests for meaning.

imgres-2.jpgSome novels just have to be included don’t they.  Personally, I’ve tended to have trouble with the Beat authors.  Mostly I think this is because I usually identify with women in books, and I rather feel Kerouac wasn’t writing with me in mind.  Still, ‘On The Road’ is an established classic and, more so than in any of Kerouac’s other works, I can see how the hypnotic writing swirls though it.  As we’re told ‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road‘.  ‘On the Road’ is a book that readers fall in love with and at least a part of that love has to be for the vast landscape the characters cross and recross as they meet new and old friends and discover new and old meanings to life.

imgres-1.jpgI realise that, technically, the Huckleerry Finn’s adventures take place on the great Mississippi rather than along the roads of the other novels in this list, but Twain’s 1884 classic more than deserves its place in the list.  I didn’t read this until I was an adult; as a child I enjoyed Tom Sawyer’s parochial small-town adventures far too much to want to leave with Finn.  Fortunately, the novel waited for me and as soon as I actually started reading I realised what all the fuss was about. I’m aware that the book is still under attack from readers and book promoters because of the language it uses when some characters describe Jim, and I’d definitely argue for it being taught with sensitivity and historical context if being used in the classroom.  When I read it though, I do so for the stout-hearted hero who is able to see the hypocrisy of his own society and form his own views on human worth, all while travelling through a hostile and abusive society.  River-trip writing at its finest.

At this time of year, holidays can feel a long way away.  In any case, I live in England and I can’t drive so there are some holiday experiences that I can only really get through books.  It’s a good thing I have so many to keep me going through autumn re-reads!  Let me know which others I should add to my list; if there’s one thing I always want more of, it’s a good armchair road-trip.


Posted in Book Lists, James Kelman, Patricia Highsmith, Sara Taylor | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

A Harrowing Memoir of the Rwandan Genocide: ‘Cockroaches’ by Scholastique Mukasonga


There are some books that are hard to review because of the weight of tragedy they contain.  There are also times when it’s hard to recommend books because, no matter how important their subject matter, the more details given, the less appealing the book is going to sound to those who, like me, mostly read for entertainment, enjoyment and escapism.  With these conditions in mind, I’m still going to try to review and recommend ‘Cockroaches’ by Scholastique Mukasonga, newly translated by Jordan Stump and published by Archipelago Books.

Mukasonga was born in 1950s Rwanda.  She was three years old when ‘the first images of terror were etched into my memory.’  This was during the 1959 pogroms against the Tutsis during which the family home was destroyed.  As a foretaste of what will become a theme throughout the memoir, when Mukasonga went back as an adult to see what remained ‘An old woman came running towards me from the banana grove, grumbling: Who is this stranger?  What’s she doing prowling around the hut? … Cosma?  Cosma, yes, she remembered him, or she’d heard about him. But she wasn’t there the day my house was destroyed, she was sick, or maybe she was getting married.  Why bring all that up again? It was so long ago.  Had I come to drive her out of her little house?’

This is a short memoir, dealing with Mukasonga’s own comparatively sheltered experiences.  After a murderous riot in her school, she and her brother walked to Burundi where they found a space in a refugee camp and avoided the militant activists who wanted to organise a Tutsi return to Rwanda, ‘only in our studies, we thought, could we find refuge, and perhaps later revenge: no matter what, it was vital that we stay in school.’  As refugees, several of her family escaped, some others even survived the subsequent massacres.  The rest were all murdered while Mukasonga was living abroad, unable to return and powerless to help.  ‘Cockroaches’ is a searing narrative of loss, and while the recording of names and the education of readers may be important it is clear that there is no way such efforts can in any way overwrite the devastation that occurred.

Earlier this year, I read ‘Wild Swans‘ and was equally moved and impressed by what it taught me about China’s Cultural Revolution.  ‘Cockroaches’ belongs beside this book as a memoir of a terrible episode in world history.  It is an important reminder that just because stories don’t appear on the news doesn’t mean they’ve gone and leave no legacy or trauma.  It also has important things to say about such nation wide crimes against humanity, from the denial of all witnesses and participants to the widening scope of ‘”ethnic” madness‘ affecting Hutus as well as Tutsis, ‘in Rwanda as in Burundi.’  ‘Cockroaches’ is heart-wrenching and haunting; it is a book I highly recommend, not least because it is explicitly framed as a survivor testimony.  In the prologue we’re told how Mukasonga remembers the dead ‘Over and over, I write and rewrite their names in the blue-covered notebook, trying to prove to myself that they existed; I speak their names one by one, in the darkness and the silence.’  Through reading we can help in the mission to prevent names and people from being written out of history.  It is a small act, but a powerful argument for reading this book.

I received my copy of ‘Cockroaches’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.


Posted in African Literature, Biography, Scholastique Mukasonga, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments