“If Cats Disappeared From The World” by Genki Kawamura (2012)

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“If cats disappeared from the world, how would the world change?”

There seems to be an arbitrary divide in the world between “cat people” and “dog people”. Much as I do like dogs, I am definitely a cat person. There’s something endearingly sweet about them, and I like their nobility, which is often rudely punctured when they fall off something. We don’t keep cats – they just tolerate our presence. Of course they can be affectionate and loving, but I think it’s not possible to entirely tame a cat. The world would be a worse place without them, for sure.

In this Japanese novel, our protagonist is a postman who has just discovered that he has a brain tumour, and a matter of weeks or even days to live. Returning home to his pet cat, Cabbage, he struggles to think of anyone he needs to tell about this. He doesn’t have many friends, he’s been single for years, and he doesn’t speak to his father anymore, not since his mother’s death. While pondering, he finds that someone else has entered his house – it’s the devil, and he’s got an offer.

Our hero will get an extra day of life for everything he makes disappear from the world. The devil chooses something and he gets the option – get rid of it forever, or die. Desperate to stay alive, he agrees and over the course of the week, phones, movies and clocks are wiped out of existence. But when the devil suggests getting rid of all the cats, our hero is overcome with emotion for his beloved Cabbage. Can he really wipe out all the cats, just for an extra day of life?

There’s something almost melodic about Japanese writing. My previous encounters with it have been via Haruki Murakami and Kazuo Ishiguro (the latter of whom is actually British, but was born in Nagasaki), both of whom produced some books that I utterly adored, and again, Genki Kawamura does it again here. This is perhaps down to the translator, but there’s got to be something good beneath it, too. Casual in style and quite funny and irreverent in places, despite their being some deep themes here about making the most of every day and understanding what’s really important in life, I never felt I was being bashed over the head by the morals. The main character is sweet and I had a great deal of sympathy and fondness for him.

There is a certain amount of mystery regarding the novel – only the feline characters and one human get names – and no locations in Japan are explicitly given, but I didn’t really notice until I came to write this review and noticed I didn’t have any character names to hand. While the premise could be unbearably tragic, it isn’t, and while a “deal with the devil” story line is hardly new, it still seems fresh here and the version of the devil Kawamura produces is interesting, taking on whatever form the human he’s appearing to expects to see, rather than having one of his own.

A beautiful and thought-provoking novel about the important things in life, and living without regrets.

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“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

“Conversations With Friends” by Sally Rooney (2017)

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“Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together.”

A friend of mine raved about this book for months before I got hold of it. She kept sending me passages and telling me how great it was and, intrigued, I bought it and settled down. Another friend said that the title sounded like I was revising for social situations. But no, just a piece of fiction from a new Irish writer.

Frances is a university student in Dublin, who spends her evenings performing spoken word poetry with her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi. Frances is considered by some to be a little aloof, but she’s just an observant person who doesn’t always feel like she has much to say. The pair meet photographer and journalist Melissa. She loves their performances and wants to write a piece about them, with photographs to match, so the pair visit her house. She’s sixteen years older than them, and married to the effortlessly handsome Nick, a jobbing actor, and so begins a four-way friendship.

Things get complicated, however, when Frances begins sleeping with Nick and can’t work out exactly how she feels about him. She decides not to tell Bobbi about it, and hopes that Melissa doesn’t find out. They communicate mostly via e-mail, and Frances isn’t begins to doubt whether she can keep it up. Unfortunately, she and Bobbi have just been invited to Melissa and Nick’s holiday home in France, so the relationship takes on a new turn on the continent. The relationships between the four main characters drive the plot along as everyone tries to work out what they want and how to get it.

First up, the writing is beautiful. It sings. That was the overwhelming takeaway I had from the book, even early on. It’s no surprise to say that none of the characters are especially pleasant, but the Sally Rooney has something special going on. Her prose is finely balanced, startling and charged with emotion. In many ways, it’s quite poetic. Among these, I don’t think there’s actually that much plot happening. It’s mostly about a couple having an affair – a common plot point in fiction – but it’s explored with great pathos and I found that, somehow, I couldn’t entirely hate the characters. Bobbi and Melissa are more unlikable to me, and I wouldn’t particularly want to be friends with either of them: Melissa is snooty and selfish, Bobbi is pretentious and thinks she’s more alternative than she is. Nick starts off simply being dull, but redeems himself with a collection of interesting traits later on. Frances is the most intriguing character, perhaps simply because she’s narrating. She is always watching people and is quick to judge, even if only inside her own head, but she’s evidently talented. She is, however, also irritating, lacking any direction or indeed any desire for direction in her life. She’s one of those people who blunders along assuming that everything will sort itself out without any input from her. It’s a trait I know well – it describes me too. In fact, like with Not Working that I read the other week, there are a few too many home truths here.

There are some pretty uncomfortable scenes, too. These range from emotionally uncomfortable incidents where Frances and Nick try to work out what the other wants, but both are equally incapable of expressing themselves properly, to the physically uncomfortable, with Frances’s occasional bouts of self-harm, and an ongoing medical problem that she can’t bring herself to admit to people.

It is a wonderful book and the writing cannot be faulted, but the emotion I’m left with at the end of it all is sadness. It’s a tragedy, with characters doing bad things to one another behind their backs, and none of them ever changing or learning from their mistakes. However, I still enjoyed it, and I feel somewhat hollow now it’s over. A blisteringly truthful book, with angst peppered over every page.

“Danny The Champion Of The World” by Roald Dahl (1975)

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“When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself.”

I was expecting to be reviewing a collection of supernatural stories by Rudyard Kipling this week, but I struggled to get into them and in a new policy of not forcing myself to read something I’m having a hard time with, I decided to read the short stories in between other novels and so found myself back in the imagination of Roald Dahl.

Danny grew up with only his father, William, who he worships without question. His young life is happy, spending his days helping his dad fix cars, working at their petrol station, and living in their tiny gypsy caravan on the outskirts of a small village. When he’s nine years old, however, his life takes an interesting turn. He wakes up to find that his father is gone and, feeling scared and alone for the first time in his life, he is unable to sleep until his father returns from out of the mist. It’s then that his father reveals a secret – he is a pheasant poacher.

Having not indulged in his hobby since Danny was born, the temptation has grown too much for William and he is determined to once again steal some pheasants from the land owned by the vile Mr Hazell. His old methods don’t appear to work very well anymore, and the keepers in the woods have become more savvy to old tricks. But Danny has a trick up his sleeve – one that will very likely change the face of poaching forever…

The biggest takeaways for people about this book, I suppose, is about the importance of family, and it seems particularly to be a love letter to fathers everywhere. Danny and William have a very affectionate, sweet relationship and it can’t fail to make you smile. They clearly enjoy one another’s company and completely adore each other. Danny is originally shocked to learn that his father – and indeed every other adult in the village – has a dark secret, but it’s definitely a moment of growth for him, and one that most of us experience at one time or another. It can be quite a moment to learn that the heroes that we’ve been looking up to, particularly our parents, are infallible and perhaps not always on the right side of morality. Danny almost seems to grow up in that moment, and while he still knows when something is right or wrong, he’s able to see in a few more shades of grey.

Most interestingly, perhaps, is that this one more than ever plays up the links between all of Dahl’s worlds, as William tells Danny all about the BFG, the dream-catching giant who runs above the hills with his suitcase and blowpipe. This story is written seven years before The BFG would become its own story, so one wonders if Dahl had it planned all along, or he took the notion from this book later on. Similarly, in James and the Giant Peach, the peach rolls across the countryside demolishing a famous chocolate factory. There is definitely a thread running through his work that seems to imply they’re all somewhat linked. Danny even lives only a few miles from where Matilda grows up, although at the time of this publication, her story is still thirteen years away. Perhaps Danny’s school is Crunchem Hall before the Trunchbull took over?

Danny is a funny little book – the policeman’s dialogue is particularly well-observed – and my edition seemed off somehow, until I realised a few pages in that in my edition the illustrations aren’t by Quentin Blake. It’s not quite Dahl without him. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it. It differs to most of the other stories, lacking in a magical or fantastic element, and being one of the few books to include a stated moral, and the content is particularly weird given that it’s about a father teaching his son how to commit crimes, but it still works. It’s probably the most forgotten of Dahl’s novels, and unfairly so.

If you’ve bypassed this one, turn around and come back. You’ll thank me.

“Not Working” by Lisa Owens (2016)

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“There is a man standing outside my flat wearing khaki-greens and a huge Free Palestine badge.”

I, unfortunately, have a great deal of experience with the horror of late-twenties unemployment. I’m not going to go into it here – partly because it’s very boring, partly because I don’t want to – but Lisa Owens has done an incredible job of capturing the struggle in her novel Not Working.

Claire Flannery has just quit the job she hated with plans of finding the perfect job and one that she really wants to do. Unfortunately, she doesn’t know what that is. Sleepless nights begin and she struggles to get to grips with the job market and dealing with her judgemental friends and family who try to be supportive but have limited patience. It also doesn’t help that her grandfather has just died and at the funeral, Claire made an ill-advised comment and now her mother isn’t speaking to her, convinced that Claire has disgraced the memory of the deceased.

As Claire tries to work out exactly what she wants to do with her life, she begins to clash with long-term boyfriend Luke, her grandmother, several friends who are settling down with unsuitable partners, and her former colleagues. Desperate not to head back to square one, she wishes she could work out what she wants to do with her life, other than entering competitions on the Internet and sitting around in her pyjamas. But maybe it’s when you stop looking for things that life gets easier…

Owens is particularly good at capturing the minutia of life, from observations about people on public transport, to the silly little conversations we have with our nearest and dearest. There’s a great moment where Claire recites a text message from her father, complete with bad grammar and sudden switch to capital letters halfway through a word. She is also incredibly (and somewhat horrifically) skilled at pointing out a painful truth with a single line. I found myself somewhat stunned when I found one of my thoughts written down as if someone had crawled into my brain and dug it out while I’d been pretending it wasn’t true. (It was “I wish I liked myself a bit more, and wine more than a bit less.”) There’s also the thought many of us have probably had about how jobs aren’t necessarily as we imagine them to be: “I didn’t work hard at school and go to university so I could spend my life sending emails.” But the absolute killer, the thought that I’ve had but never been able to put into words, was thus:

What’s wrong is, I would tell them, if I could be bothered, were anyone even interested, but they wouldn’t understand, so what’s the point? But … what? Oh yeah, what is wrong with ‘her’ – i.e. me – is, I’m the spare human in the world. If you counted everyone up, I’m the one who’d be left over, the one who does nothing, only takes, always takes things, a drain on everyone, completely pathetic like the poor old – poor old thing, the poor old wooden spoon, floating in the dirty sink…

Ouch.

Despite the truth pills, it’s actually a very wonderful book – raw and honest and very funny. I’m not the first to say similar, but imagine the diaries of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones had had a child, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Owens doesn’t shy away from the stigma attached to being unemployed as an adult, and how everyone around Claire reacts feels very real. And yet, she also is great at talking about how many of us want to find the thing we’re really good at or really want to do, but unfortunately we don’t always know what that is.

A great little read, but prone to hitting a bit too close to the bone.

“Ivy & Abe” by Elizabeth Enfield (2017)

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“I’m aware of him looking at me.”

Most, if not all, of us spend parts of life wondering “what if…”. We think about how different our lives would have been if we’d gone to different universities, met different friends, or made different choices. Perhaps one of the most pressing of these questions focuses on the nature of soulmates. If there is one person out there for each of us, then does it matter when we meet them? Elizabeth Enfield takes a look at this premise in the sweetly moving Ivy & Abe.

Ivy Trent and Abe McFadden are soulmates, that much is clear, but is there a right time to meet them? Told from vignettes of Ivy’s life, this novel recreates their first meeting over and over again, every time at a different age and in a different situation. From 1965 to 2032, there are several versions of how they met. Perhaps it was when Ivy was widowed and not much looking forward to a future alone. Maybe they met as teenagers on a French holiday. Maybe they were both already married to other people, and didn’t expect the affair. Or perhaps they meet just fleetingly, for five minutes, and nothing ever happens.

This is a charming book, with an awful lot of heart. Ivy and Abe are both beautiful creations and it is fascinating to see their lives play out in numerous ways. I found myself every time hoping that this would be the right timeline, but they don’t always end in happiness. It seems that there really is a “right time” to go along with the “right person”. Ivy and Abe’s relationship is pretty much always, for the most part, loving, at least. Abe is a classic gentleman, and Ivy is very sweet. Both of them, in every timeline, have hardships to deal with that most of us couldn’t even imagine. Ivy’s mother, for example, is chronically ill, and her early death casts a shadow over her later life, and this in turn will also affect how Abe fits into her puzzle.

Despite all the timelines being separate, there are a few overlapping themes in them. Ivy and Abe both end up in the same careers, both suffer great tragedy, and they are always nice people. To tie them together, though, there is often a mention of déjà vu, and a frequent recurring element is a lorry containing hay bales and someone being concerned that they don’t look safe. Sometimes this concern is justified and relevant; other times it’s just mentioned in passing.

I was curiously struck by a note in it that resonated in this week’s return of Doctor Who. Our new Doctor, played wonderfully by Jodie Whittaker, gave a speech in the first episode of the series about how, as people, we evolve and change over time, never forgetting who we were, but not feeling tied to being that person for our whole lives. This is definitely a theme in this book, as the characters are slightly different people at different ages, and circumstances around them perhaps make them do things that other version wouldn’t have done. Like it or not, we are – at least partly  – products of circumstance and environment.

I don’t want to talk too much about the specifics of the book, lest I give away some of the sweeter moments, but it’s definitely one worth reading and Enfield is one to watch. She creates rich characters in a detailed world that makes itself clear that this is our world, with a number of scenes set around important times and trends of the era she’s dealing with.

I like a book that makes you think, and this one will leave you pondering about your life for some time.

“PopCo” by Scarlett Thomas (2004)

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“Paddington Station feels like it should be shut.”

Everyone likes a mystery – or rather, everyone likes solving a mystery. There’s little more infuriating than a mystery that is unsolved. They’re fun, sure, but the real mystery fans like solutions. There is a mystery promised at the heart of PopCo, but in my opinion it fails to entirely materialise. People have raved to be about Scarlett Thomas before, so I was curious to dive in and see what all the fuss was about. Turns out I think I dove into the wrong end of the pool.

Alice Butler works in the ideas and development department of PopCo, the third largest toy company in the world. Her childhood was unusual in many ways. Her mother died young, her father vanished one day, and she was raised by her grandparents who both had a deep love of maths, mystery and code breaking. Something of a loner, obsessed with paradoxes and crossword puzzles, she was headhunted by PopCo to work on their series of products centred around the world of codes and ciphers.

Now, she finds herself in Dartmoor at Head Office, with her and a number of others from the company told they have been gathered to come up with a product that will appeal to teenage girls. The staff members chosen are eclectic and diverse, coming from every aspect of the company including plush toys, video games and advertising. As time goes on and she attends many seminars, lectures and focus groups about the industry, she and those around her begin to rethink their lives. She embarks on a relationship with the quiet and handsome Ben, and then she begins to receive secret messages in a code that only she would be able to understand. Someone is trying to get hold of her, but is it someone from her past, or someone most nearer…

It’s always fair to first talk up the bits I liked about the book, although there aren’t many I can think of that I loved. I liked the grandparent characters, and I do generally find anything about secrets and codes quite interesting, so there is that. I also enjoyed the references to idea creation and the work of Edward de Bono, who I’ve used before too. There are some fascinating asides about how ideas spread and how we are now as a species almost blind to advertising. The big problem is a word I just used there – asides.

Because much of the code breaking plot requires you to know how these codes work, Thomas gives Alice long passages in which she explains how particular codes and ciphers work with explanations that slow the action to a crawl. Certain paradoxes, logic puzzles and riddles are discussed and analysed too, often to make a very small point, if they even have an impact on the story at all. I’ve no issue with it switching between Alice as a child and as an adult, that’s fine, but because of the frequent exposition dumps, it makes for a very erratically paced novel which can never get up to full steam. Every time you think you’re about to learn something new or have something answered, the brakes slam on and you have to read about another cipher.

Without giving too much away, the ending is also something of an anti-climax. Yes, I suppose things are tied up in some way, but not everything is explained to us (not necessarily a bad thing in a book) and there are definitely a few threads left hanging. Indeed, it feels like the story that Thomas actually wants to tell begins about fifty pages from the end, leaving absolutely no time for what, in my opinion, should be the bulk of the story. Alice’s characterisation feels slightly haphazard too, and in another writers hands, her idea of a product to appeal to teenage girls would be the focus, although almost certainly in a dystopian work. Here, the dystopian world is our own, which is somewhat depressing.

I’m reliably informed by many people that this isn’t Thomas’s best work, so I may return to her at some point, but I’m not enthralled as of yet.

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