Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Kate's Reading Challenge 2011: Books 12-14

No.12 "How I Lost the War" by Filippo Bologna (Pushkin Press, 2011)

In a rare B team read-off Nic and I decided to pick a novel and read it simultaneously. We both loved Pietro Grossi’s “Fists” (so much so we’ve invited him to be a special guest at one of our Book Lov
ers Unite! Events in July) and so when we spotted Pushkin had recently published another book by a young Italian author, “How I Lost the War” seemed like an obvious choice.

This is a novel spanning multiple generations of an established Italian family; from Terenzio Cremona, a community man who famously “whipped the peasants” to his great-grandson Federico who must protect his family’s history from the plans of greedy businessman Ottone Gattai. Gattai comes to the Cremona family’s small Tuscan village on a mission to take advantage of the local waters and build a ruthlessly modern spa resort. Shackled to the duty of guarding his family’s empire by his belief that his own destiny is linked to that of his grandfather’s rebellious brother (also named Federico) the young Federico enlists his friends and launches an ever-losing battle against the wealthy magnate. But Federico’s war proves a fruitless one, as Gattai steadily wins over the town and eventually the Cremona family, building a massive resort and even erecting a ridiculous sculpture in the town square as a tribute to the commercial epicentre he has created.

The span of characters and time encompassed in “How I Lost the War” demands a complex and rich style of prose, which at times I found challenging. This is a political novel about the resolute nature of change and Bologna isn’t afraid of the odd direct address to the reader to really drill this home. But amongst the bigger message of the book are some gorgeous descriptions of the beautiful location in which the novel is set and some genuinely funny passages about family life. The portrayal of Federico’s grandmother’s version of Monopoly tailored to include all of the family businesses and amended in accordance with the Cremona affairs struck me as particularly funny!

This isn’t a novel that you could recommend to everyone but I did enjoy it – I’ll leave it to Nic to let you know what he thought.

No. 13 “A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan (Constable and Robinson, 2011)

You know when a novel has had so much hype that you just can’t wait to read it – the reviews are great, your friends and customers agree that they loved it, and then it wins a Pulitzer prize, you think to yourself “I’m onto a winner here” – well that’s why I had to read “The Goon Squad”.

This is a novel set around the music industry that addresses a new character in every chapter, with some characters reappearing later on the book and others disappearing completely after their starring role. Chapters demonstrate different styles and moods appropriate to the focal character, and prove that Jennifer Egan is an impressively versatile writer. This format seems to me to be such an appropriate and effective format for a book about such a cut-throat industry where often, five minutes of fame often does boil down to just five minutes.

The other interesting point about this book from a stylistic perspective is there is one chapter written entirely as a PowerPoint presentation. When I discovered this I was both thrilled and fearful – it’s exciting to come across a book that plays with style, but what if it’s a gimmick? I must say the PowerPoint chapter was FANTASTIC – moving, funny and with a surprising amount of depth.

It’s no doubt that this experimental feel to “The Goon Squad” is what has earned it it’s Pulitzer and it’s many fans and I really appreciated Egan’s ambition and her execution of it. However, I do have one gripe and it’s quite particular, I didn’t like any of the characters. Normally a dislike for a book’s cast isn’t enough to turn me off, “The Rehearsal”, “A Fraction of the Whole” and “Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto” are all amongst my favourite books and there’s little to like about any of the characters in these books, but in “The Goon Squad” it seemed to matter much more. For me, the problem was that because of the length of time spent with each character (usually fairly brief) and because the novel centres around musicians and the like (who can be compared to an array of real life examples constantly written about in our press) a lot of the characters seemed a bit like caricatures, and because of this they became difficult to believe in.

Saying that, I think this novel has a fantastic appeal and I can think of a lot of people who would really love it. I certainly do not doubt that it is a really exciting contender for some big UK prizes this year… I’ll be really interested to see how it does.

No. 14 “A Riot of Goldfish” by Kanoko Okamoto (Hesperus 2010)

Call me shallow but I decided to read this pair of novellas simply because I loved the beautiful cover! Ashamedly this is my first venture into the world of Japanese fiction (despite having a boyfriend who reads almost exclusively Japanese authors) and I was really impressed by the intricate style, the honesty with which the characters are drawn and how very contemporary these 1930’s stories of class and romance seem.

“A Riot of Goldfish” centres around Mataichi, a young man who inherits his lower-class family’s goldfish business, whose adoration for Masako, the unattainable daughter of a wealthy man, borders on obsession. Masako is such a brilliantly original character – an irresistible concoction of smouldering beauty, and icy cynicism. She is the catalyst that drives Mataichi to succeed in his career in goldfish, despite his own initial lack of enthusiasm for the trade and his knowing that his success at work will not lead to success with Masako. With some financial help from Masako’s father, Mataichi applies himself to the task of breeding a rare and beautiful goldfish, but his concentration is constantly tested by thoughts of his muse.

The protagonist in “The Food Demon” is Besshiro, a poor man who attempts social climbing through his cookery, but to his extreme frustration he is unable to escape society’s sense of hierarchy. In his youth Besshiro finds himself unexpectedly mixing with the elite as he is enlisted to help out at various elegant occasions, he is well-liked at these parties as a shy but clever young man and he becomes ambitious to fit into this prestigious crowd as an equal rather than a helper. But fitting in proves more complex than Besshiro has anticipated, as his attempts to master the high arts leave him looking showy and foolish…

I liked both of these stories an enormous amount, they were clever and at times very funny, I think I will definitely be reading some more Japanese fiction very soon.


Susanne said...

If you are looking for more Japanese fiction you should try The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. It is the story of a woman who comes to work for a professor of mathematics who, due to an accident many years ago now has a memory that only lasts 80 minutes. It packs a large punch for a short book and even the bits about maths and formulae are fascinating!

Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights said...

Thanks Susanne, I've considered Ogawa's books before but never got round to reading any, maybe I'll give The Housekeeper a go, it certainly sounds interesting!