Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Spinning Heart

Country: Ireland
Author: Donal Ryan
Book: The Spinning Heart

This was one of my airport bookshop buys – from Belfast, NI, where I also bought one of my favourite books in translation, Strange Weather in Tokyo, a few years ago. Not the same airport, though, in case you want to be pedantic; though both had a shelf or two dedicated to Irish writers. Perhaps I should have chosen some James Joyce – I've still not read Ulysses, for instance – but with little room in my hand luggage, I needed to opt for something a bit slimmer. Added to that, this is a debut novel – and there's always something intriguing about that –  with enough good reviews to start its own fan club.

And I'd pay my dues. Donal Ryan's story of a rural Ireland struggling after the financial collapse of 2008 makes a strong impression. Each chapter brings in a new resident, each individually interesting yet each adding something to the narrative, centred around the implosion of a property developer. The strength of their voices, the use of colloquial language are what gives this novel is its texture and soul; their individual accounts of poverty, ambition, moral strength and weakness, of acceptance and hatred. It was easy to be absorbed by these rich pen portraits, so easy that, like every day life, it's not until the worst has happened that we can see all the forces conspiring to enable it. Empty promises and empty houses lead to a terrible act.

I loved how vividly the thoughts and feelings of Ryan's characters came across, how he balanced poetry with realism, how strongly this felt like an 'Irish' book – rooted in place and recent history. Next stop, Joyce.

Sunday, 12 February 2017


Country: Yemen
Author: Ali Al-Muqri
Translator: TM Aplin
Book: Hurma

When President Trump announced his travel ban, various bookshops published recommendations of writers from the seven targeted, muslim-majority countries. Unfortunately my local, fairly mainstream Waterstones didn't seem to have much translated fiction from the Arab world – a topic for another day. Blackwell's in the heart of Oxford, where I happened to be spending a weekend, however, had a whole section dedicated to books in translation, three or so shelves of Arab fiction, and one book from Yemen – Ali Al-Muqri's Hurma.

That may not sound like much choice, but it's actually borderline remarkable given how few books are published by native writers in Yemen, a country that only assumed its current form in 1990 and which has seen years of division and conflict. The Yemen Times reported that 20 novels were published by Yemeni authors in 2014; more than twice the number of the year before. The same article – well worth a read, as is this Middle East Monitor piece – reckons that there have only been around 300 Yemeni novels ever published. I haven't found any more recent figures, but I can't imagine they're good: war has torn the country since 2015, and the UN estimates that 19 million of the 26 million-strong population are currently in need of humanitarian aid.

Written in 2012, Hurma predates this latest horrific chapter in Yemen's history. It's by Ali Al-Muqri (b. 1966), a journalist and writer with eight novels to his name, of which this is the first to be translated into English, and it won the French prize for Arabic Literature. Given this was essentially an impulse purchase, I'm not sure what I expected from this slight book, but the yellow-and-black warning colours of the cover should have made me realise that this was not going to be a comfortable read. It was, however, compelling.

This is the story of an unnamed woman, her sexual desire, her attempts to satisfy it and society's attempts to both encourage and shame her for it. That the novel is set in Yemen seems, in many ways, peripheral: we know that she lives in the capital Sanna'a, but there's not much sense of place. But then we learn early on that women aren't allowed out alone or even to make phone calls or speak to neighbours: 'The Islamic Education teacher told us: "A woman's voice is as private as her face, and should not be heard in public, just like her face should not be seen."
The narrator is looking back at her life in a strict Muslim society, the tale punctuated by lyrics from a pop song on a cassette tape a neighbour gave to her, which she plays over and over, switching from side A to side B as she tries to make sense of things. She starts when she was a happy young girl. Her older sister brought in money for the family (no questions asked), her brother was a fervent communist who then became just as fervent about radical Islam. (Interestingly, South Yemen was communist before it joined with North Yemen in 1990.)

Everything happens behind closed doors; repression is the status quo. Early on, our narrator describes her curiosity about life and how it was denied: 'I reasoned that the desire to understand was in fact a type of question, and I had no right to be asking questions.' The consequent implicit acceptance of events gives it a distinctive narrative style, a storyteller's 'and then this happened' approach. It reminds of a Saudi Arabian novel I read a couple of years ago, and I wonder if this is a characteristic of literature from this region. Expert knowledge required…

Sex is the driving force in Hurma – the text is often explicit: she's shown 'cultural films', is regaled with her sister's sexual exploits (which read like erotic fantasy rather than reality), and ends up married to an impotent jihadi, heading to Afghanistan to fight and being arrested in Iran, before returning to her home country. All of this happens almost unthinkingly – there's no damascene moment when she's suddenly radicalised in religious or political terms. The real moment of clarity surrounds the rape of her fellow women travellers. At first she experiences terribly misplaced, naive envy but soon understands what rape really means: 'It is an act of abuse, an act of violence, committed for the pleasure of one party against another.' 

'Hurma' means, as the novel's glossary explains, 'literally "sanctity" – an entity to be protected from violation or dishonour, usually by a male guardian. The term implies ownership of the woman, and a lack of agency.' In its totality, it's a problematic concept from a contemporary liberal Western perspective; it's problematic for the narrator, too, who struggles and wrestles with how to reconcile her desires with reality. And I'll leave the issue of how this story that so powerfully gives public voice to an unheard, unseen woman might have been handled by a female rather than male writer for another day. The ending is unexpected, both bold and ambiguous and raising many more questions than it answers. Perhaps that, though, is how the narrator would have wanted it.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Drawing up the reading list

Right. Time to get organised. I started my Reading the World project in rather laid-back fashion. I've since realised a few things. One: unless I keep focused, it could be rather a long time until I navigate the globe. Two: some countries are going to be a lot harder to cover than others, so that will need a bit of planning. Three: reading is a solitary pursuit but for me this is about learning more about the world. I don't want to read in a bubble. I want to know what books people from far and wide can recommend. So, to start with, I put out a note out on Facebook. Over the past two days, I've had 55 book suggestions. They range from Jilly Cooper to Gogol. Shockingly, I've never read either…

If you've got any book suggestions, please do let me know by commenting or emailing.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Reading the World: bibliograpy

Signs preceding the end of the world Yuri Herrera

The Nakano Thrift Shop Hiromi Kawakami

The Spinning Heart Donal Ryan

Hurma Ali Al-Muqri

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Signs preceding the end of the world

Country: Mexico
Author: Yuri Herrera
Translator: Lisa Dillman
Book: Signs preceding the end of the world

When I picked up Yuri Herrera's Signs preceding the end of the world, I probably should have paid more attention to the title. This is a 2009 book about a young Mexican woman, Makina, who illegally crosses from her home country into the US. Topical even when I read it at the end of October, given Donald Trump's promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and deport all illegal immigrants. Now, the title seems grimly, ironically prescient.

I actually chose this novel by chance. Well, not quite chance. I was browsing the fiction section for a short book. No more than about a centimetre thick, however many pages that works out as. I wanted one of those novellas where all the words matter and there's something brilliant about its brevity. This certainly fits that bill; its story, too, is fascinating, giving an insight into the human cost involved in such a journey – required reading, I might suggest, for the incoming president.

Signs preceding the end of the world is a realistic tale but with a mythological quality. It opens with a sinkhole swallowing up a man, car and dog. 'I'm dead,' are Makina's first words, who is only just spared a similar fate. As she embarks on a quest to find her brother in America, there's a feeling that this could in fact all be an allegory about passing from life to death. It's certainly about leaving behind a past life for a new one. Interesting, too, that these migrants have to pass across water, so symbolic of rebirth. The physical crossing of the river is fraught, and Makina doesn't make it without falling in: 'the world turned cold and green and filled with invisible water monsters.' But she reaches the USA, where she experiences snow for the first time, strange fried food, and is called scum'by 'a huge redheaded anglo who stank of tobacco'.

One of the most striking things about this novel was Herrera's non-standard vocabulary, which features a rich amalgam of anglo-Mexican and newly coined words. Lisa Dillman explores the challenge of translating this unusual lexicon, particularly how to capture the essence of the neologism 'jarchar', a word that comes from Mozarabic poetry, used all over the place here and meaning 'to leave'. She chooses the word 'verse', to suggest its poetic roots and the idea of motion – traverse, reverse, converse. And of course, it points to the wider universe, encompassing the sense that this one story of one woman in a specific time and place in fact tells us important things about identity, culture and today's world.

So that's the first country and first book from my Reading the World project. Mexico, tick! Next up, Japan.

United Palace, New York, 2016

Head to 175th Street and your eye may well be caught by the United Palace – yes, the building on the corner with the signs. What is it, I hear you ask? Good question, and one I asked too. The ornate, eclectic facade and curious shape gives little clue to identity; I read later that its architecture has been described as 'Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco'. Seems fair.

Luckily it was Open House Day in New York, so the friend who lived locally and I could head in to take a look around. It was intriguing. A foyer lavish enough to rival an actual royal palace, a staircase grand enough for a Sunset Boulevard-style entrance. And a row of sayings plastered across one wall: 'Life takes from the taker and gives to the giver'; 'There is nothing so bad as a good excuse. The better the excuse, the worse it is.'; 'When you discover who you are, it doesn't matter what you've been.' I felt like I had stepped into a self-help book.

Turns out these, er, gems are the handiwork of Reverend Ike, a TV evangelist who bought the United Palace in 1969. Here's another of his nuggets of wisdom: 'The best thing you can do for the poor is not to be one of them.' It's capitalism-meets-religion, a sentiment that somehow seems to epitomise that very American 'fend for yourself' attitude, the idea that by wanting money enough, you will make the dollars flow in to your bank account. But his congregation flourished and his broadcasts reached 2.5 million people.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a TV evangelist would make his religious home in a former movie palace. The United Palace was originally an extravagant 3,000-seater theatre, which, for the best part of four decades from 1930, attracted audiences for films and vaudeville. Now, Reverend Ike's son owns the United Palace, and it's used as a church, live music venue and cultural centre. Bob Dylan has played there, so have the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle. Fantabulous, as Reverend Ike once said.


Thursday, 3 November 2016

Reading the World

The challenge? Read one book from every country in the world. Accepted. Inspired by writer Ann Morgan's blog, A Year of Reading the World, I've decided to embark on a literary tour of the globe. I'm not aiming to finish it in a year, but I am going to try to read a book from each of the 196 countries that she covers – here's an entry on how she came up with the list. I might add places (ie some of the territories not on the initial line-up); I'll see how I go. I have, however, decided that books I've already read don't count towards the final tally, although I might include them in my bibliography. Any suggestions of the best fiction to read from other countries, available in English translation, gratefully received.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Music for Life

100 works to carry you through. That's the subtitle of music critic Fiona Maddocks's latest book, Music for Life, which emulates those wonderful poetry volumes 'Staying alive' and 'Being alive'.  (Probably others, too, but those are the books I own and know.) Those themed collections offer poetic advice and musings on various life themes; this book does the same with music. It starts at 'Childhood, Youth' and ends with 'And Yet… Unfinished Works' (and a 'Last Word'), taking in areas like 'Land, Sea and Sky' and 'Journeys, Exile' along the way. Of course, reading about a piece of music isn't the same as hearing it, but the prose is such a joy to read that it becomes spiritual nourishment in its own right. The choices are fascinating, sidestepping the obvious for something a little more personal, although not stubbornly so. I've been inspired to go and listen, and that surely is the point.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Notes from a long flight

For us fearful-in-turbulence flyers, gorging on the in-flight entertainment film and TV is not a bad way to take our minds off the thought that there's nothing between the plane and … no… stop thinking about it. On my recent jaunt to Canada, I caught up with the Steve Jobs biopic. I've become increasingly cynical about big-budget silver-screen dramas portraying real lives, which tend to sentimentality (the instagram-filtered Theory of Everything) or simplification (the partial whitewash of The Imitation Game). Good, imaginatively-filmed documentary is just so much better. Anyway, however much the tranquilising glass of red wine gave me er, rose-tinted glasses, I found Aaron Sorkin's smartly scripted take on the Apple entrepeneur's story to be compelling from start to finish.


Once back on terra firma (hallelujah!),  it was good to hear that the film even convinced one of the two tech geeks in my family, my Dad – although Apple fiend that he is, he could also point out the liberties that had been taken in the name of art. Computers were always a part of my childhood, as was watching Formula One with Dad. Now, if you want to really see how to do biography on film, watch Senna. It features so much previously unseen, close-up real-life footage of the ill-fated Brazilian driver that you start to wonder if it was faked. (It wasn't.)


The aesthetics of technology was a theme explored in Steve Jobs, and the importance of artistry found its way in at other moments too. At one point, the famously difficult and demanding Jobs tells Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, of the time he met the conductor Seiji Ozawa, at Tanglewood. Jobs asks Ozawa what a conductor does that a metronome can't. (Beat the living s*** out of you, replies Wozniak.) The conductor's answer was more philosophical, and I hope, for sake of orchestral musicians everywhere, more realistic: 'The musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra.'

Seiji Ozawa clearly moves in famous circles. A book just out chronicles his conversations about music with the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, himself a lifelong music fan. I've not had a chance to read the whole book – perhaps on the next long-haul flight – but it begins in minute detail, picking apart a remarkable concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962. Leonard Bernstein turned to the audience to explain that he didn't at all agree with the interpretation of Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 that he was about to conduct. Bernstein added: 'I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept, and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould.'


Glenn Gould was an obsessive, visionary maverick, who first made a splash with his 1955 recording of JS Bach's Goldberg Variations. A fascinating documentary Genius Within: the Inner Life of Glenn Gould lets us in on his tricky private world and tries to trace the roots of his unique talent. And the Canadian pianist's career was shaped by his strong interest in technology: he withdrew from live concerts in favour of the studio, championed post-production work done on recordings, and believed that one day we would all be able to edit our own recordings (as we now can, easily, on our PCs and Macs). Interesting, then, that JS Bach was reputedly Steve Jobs's favourite classical composer, that the two Gould Goldberg Variations recordings of '55 and 1981 his go-to versions. 'The first is an exuberant, young, brilliant piece, played so fast it’s a revelation,' Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson. 'The later one is so much more spare and stark. You sense a very deep soul who’s been through a lot in life. It’s deeper and wiser.”

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A Banff panorama from Sulphur Mountain


I've just been lucky enough to go to Banff, Canada for work. What a stunning place! I'll be writing a feature about the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the Banff International String Quartet Competition 2016 for BBC Music Magazine's November issue. The music and musicians were as inspiring as the views. Some wonderful musical discoveries were made over the past few days, and I'll keeping a lookout for many of the quartets I heard.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Avon New Cut

The River Avon, after it runs underneath that dramatic sight, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, splits in two as it reaches Bristol. It feeds into the Floating Harbour, the large body of water at the heart of the city, kept in place by a series of lockgates and ingeniously engineered pumps. Houseboats, sailing boats, rowing boats, ferries, paddleboards and canoes keep the waters busy, while pubs, restaurants, cafes, blocks of flats skirt its edge. But the other day, tired of the crowds, I decided to follow the river's other route. Caught between two main roads, with the footpath itself between the river and a disused railway line, it's not necessarily the most obvious route to walk. Few people do. It's perfectly safe, I should say. You're in full view of the road and it's not far from one end to the other. But on a grey day, at low tide with the mud thick and glistening, the trees thick and dark on the opposite bank, it feels like a lost place. I spotted a yellow bicycle half-submerged in the mud in one place, a shopping trolley in another. Seagulls stood on the river banks. There were no boats. I've never seen any boats on this stretch. It's strangely deep and steep-sided for, what I had assumed, was the original river course. Turns out that isn't the case: this is in fact the Avon New Cut, made in the first decade of the 19th-century as part of the Floating Harbour scheme in a bid to divert the tidal river. And if humans seem to ignore its muted appeal nowadays, the wildlife hasn't. There are over 30 species of bird seen here, over 20 species of butterfly and day moth, over 30 species of trees and 120 of flowers.