Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Satire (page 1 of 4)

A Japanese Nightmare…

Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothumb

Translated by Adriana Hunter

fear and tremblingThis unsettling novella has an apt title. When I looked it up to see where it might have come from, I found a bible quote (also the source for a work by Kirkegaard):

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

Philippians 2:12

Further investigation revealed that it also refers to the old Japanese protocol that you should look upon the Emperor with fear and trembling to show your reverence. Until 1947, the Japanese Emperor was considered a living god. The line of legendary Japanese emperors goes back to 660 BC, although the first one who probably actually existed ruled from 97-30BC, so precedes Paul’s letter to the Philippians…

Nothumb’s story is not about emperors or gods however, hers is a satire about office mandarins and the politics of the workplace in Japan of the late 1990s.

Nothumb is Belgian, and her father was the Belgian ambassador to Japan. They lived there for several years when she was small, moving on to China, like the heroine of her story, also called Amélie who is returning to Japan for a year to work (as Nothumb did too). As a young Western woman she is lucky to get a job in a large Japanese import-export company, Yumimoto, she is hired for her ability to speak Japanese.

On day one, she has the chain of command explained to her – from Vice President Mr Hameda at the very top down through another two levels to her immediate superior, Fubuki Mori, one of the few women employees. Then comes Amélie, right at the bottom of the food chain.

Her first task is to write a letter for one of the bosses accepting a golf date with a supplier. Giving a flavour of what is to come, he just rips up each draft. One of her jobs is to bring tea and coffee to the workers, and one day she has to bring coffee to a meeting in Mister Omochi’s office. She serves it to the visitors with discrete greetings in perfect Japanese.  Later all hell breaks loose, and Mister Saito (between Mister Omochi and Fubuki) has to tell her off:

“… Mister Omochi is very angry. You created the most appalling tension in the meeting this morning. How could our business partners have any feeling of trust in the presence of a white girl who understood their language? From now on you will no longer speak Japanese.”

I was dumbfounded.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You no longer know how to speak Japanese. Is this clear?”

“But – it was because of my knowledge of your language that I was hired by Yumimoto!”

“That doesn’t matter. I am ordering you not to understand Japanese any more.”

“That’s impossible. No one could obey an order like that.”

“There is always a means of obeying. That’s what Western brains need to understand.”

Instead of quitting, she carries on. Given nothing meaningful to do she shows initiative – memorising the list of employees names and details she starts delivering the mail each morning – only to discover she has upset the mail boy who comes in the afternoon who was now worried for his job. Bawled out again, she is given a huge photocopying job to do, but the boss is never satisfied the copies are straight – she repeats and repeats it – only to find that it’s the rules for his golf club.

All along, she thinks she has an ally in Fubuki, the beautiful and serene woman who sits opposite her. Of course, Fubuki is jealous of this Western girl when she herself has taken nine years to get to one step above Amélie. Fubuki gets her cross-checking employee expenses, but Amélie proves incapable of using a calculator (this annoyed me!) and Fubuki has to take it back. However, when a boss from another department secretly borrows Amélie to help with a report on Belgian goods, guess who dobs her in to Mister Omochi? Amélie still have seven months left to go on her contract, she will not quit and lose face. The only job left for her is to clean the toilets – and even that comes with its problems in this honour-bound society…

Until we got to the toilet cleaning I was enjoying this story. With its depiction of a department ruled by alpha males stuck into a rigid pecking order, workplace bullying and glass ceiling firmly in place, it reminded me of Helen DeWitt’s brilliant satire Lightning Rods (which I reviewed here).  However, in DeWitt’s witty office fantasy, the women are ultimately able to play the men at their own game which maintained the plot in a full-length novel, whereas Fear and Trembling started to peter out half way through its 132 pages becoming less witty and fresh.

Arguably, having worked in a Japanese office, Nothumb is qualified to comment in her fiction on her experiences there, however it did make me feel rather uncomfortable.  First published in French in 1999, and English translation in 2001, it won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 1999. However, its depiction of Western stereotypes of Japanese office-life do sit a little uneasily – and given that she calls her protagonist Amélie and builds in elements from her own experience it is hard to know where the satire begins and ends. However much of it is based on real-life, I hope that things have moved on some nowadays.

Having previously read another of Nothumb’s novellas, The Book of Proper Names reviewed here, which was an absurdist ugly duckling tale, I was looking forward to reading this one. I was slightly disappointed by Fear and Trembling, but I am still keen to read more by France’s ‘literary lioness’ as Nothumb is often monickered. (6.5/10)

witmonth15* * * * *

Don’t forget that August is Women in Translation Month – hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Fear and Tremblingby Amélie Nothumb, trans Adriana Hunter. Faber, paperback, 132 pages.

This novel is buzzing!

The Hive by Gill Hornby

hiveIt must have been quite daunting for Gill Hornby to publish her first novel – for she is the sister of the more famous Nick, and wife of best-selling author Robert Harris.  Now The Hive is out in paperback, she must be getting fed up of these facts being mentioned, as its a best-seller of her very own.

In The Hive, Hornby takes on female cliques of a particular kind – Mums of primary school aged children and the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) which fundraises for their schools. It’s a satire, but it’s also oh-so-close-to-the-truth!

I’ve done my stints on the PTA: at my daughter’s old school I was variously Secretary, Treasurer, Quizmaster, Fireworks supremo, Form Rep – you name it, I did it and I loved it, and I can honestly say that as a committee, we always got on brilliantly and worked as a team, managing to raise lots of money and have fun, (well, mostly!). The hardest part of doing anything was getting helpers on the night for things – even for just half an hour – putting out tables, chairs, clearing up, directing parking etc. (and selling tickets for anything to the teachers!) Now she’s at senior school, and fundraising is limited to a couple of annual events, so I’m having a rest from being on that kind of committee. Been there, done that…

It’s the start of a new year at St Ambrose, a C of E primary school. New year, new headmaster too; Mr Orchard has plans. Meanwhile, in the playground Bea is making an announcement…

‘I have been asked…’ she paused, ‘by the new head …’ the words ruffled through the gathering crowd, ‘to pick a team.’ She was on tiptoes, but there really was no need. Beatrice Stuart was the tallest of them all by far.
Rachel, sinking back against the sun-trap wall of the pre-fab classroom, looked on and smiled. Here we go again, she thought. New year, new project. What was Bea going to rope her in for now? She watched as the keenos swarmed to the tree and clustered around. Their display of communal enthusiasm left her with little choice but to stay put, right there, keep her distance. She could sit this one out, surely. She was bound to hear all about it from Bea later. She would wait here. They would be walking out together in a minute. They always did.

Except that Bea doesn’t ask Rachel. She walks off without her, and Rachel realises that not only has she not seen Bea during the summer holidays, that she hasn’t seen her since Rachel’s husband Chris walked off leaving her for a younger model.

When Bea’s fundraising committee meets, they find a willing volunteer in Heather to be the secretary and she takes copious minutes. Bea makes herself chairperson and doesn’t even let the Headmaster get a word in edgeways about what he’d like them to fundraise for. Separate from the Parents Association (PASTA) They are to call themselves COSTA – the Committee of St Ambrose, and will host a lunch ladder, gourmet gamble raffle and a car-boot sale. It’s not long before Bea’s feathers are ruffled though for in a subsequent meeting newbie Deborah, who likes to be called Bubba, offers to host a ball in her garden…

Rachel finds herself partly happy, partly annoyed about her exclusion. Although Rachel walks to school with Heather and their daughters, Heather worships Bea and isn’t her best source of information, but she can rely on Georgie to update her. You can imagine the oneupmanship that’s going to ensue: Bea doesn’t want the ball to be a success, Heather’s tendency to micro-manage gets ever more irritating, events become invitation only, the headmaster is single, and in thus in need of a good woman … and so it goes on.

The novel is mostly seen from Rachel’s point of view and I could sympathise with her having to get to grips with being newly single again. My favourite character, however, was Georgie. She’s given up work to be a full-time mum and is happiest with a baby at her hip. She lives in domestic squalor on a farm and is totally in love with her husband and he with her. Their kitchen is perennially untidy and muddy, but she can whip up a healthy meal in minutes with home-grown produce. Georgie is very straight-talking, and always diving out for a fag break as an excuse to avoid boredom.

It’s not all fun and games though. As with any group of families thrust together by circumstances, there will be friendships made and broken, issues to deal with like bullying between their kids, and occasionally tragedy and illness. Although the story is a broad comedy for the most part, Hornby does bring suitable gravitas to the serious bits, before diving back in to make fun of some of the others’ reactions to them.

The dialogue can be hilarious. She captures that tendency of a clique of women who all carry on their own conversations at the same time, while not really listening to anything anyone else is saying well. All the stereotypes of mum are present and correct and their fawning over Bea is almost sickening – vying to take their turns to collect Bea’s children when Bea announces that she now has a ‘job’.  Rachel is a bit weak, but I can understand her stasis having been through it myself.

The bee analogy works well for this group. The queen bee and her faithful workers, who will eventually decide that the queen is past it and cultivate a new leader. Hornby works the bee theory in rather too obviously though a) by making Rachel’s mother a beekeeper, and b) you’ll also either like or loathe the character names – Bea, Heather, Clover, Melissa and of course Mr Orchard… I was of the like persuasion in this case.

I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s novels – which tend to look at life mostly from a male perspective.  His sister has given us the female one – it’s overdone, but the premise is great and I enjoyed reading it for the most part. Newly out in paperback, this is an undemanding summer read. (6.5/10)

I’d just like to finish by saying that all schools need volunteers to help in many ways from running events and fundraising to helping out on school trips. I found it a rewarding experience, and you don’t need to get as involved as I did – any help is always appreciated – and real life at the school gates is, in my experience, much nicer than this.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Hiveby Gill Hornby. Pub 2013. Abacus paperback 384 pages.

A little Saki goes a long way …

Reginald by Saki

SakiCompleteShortStories

Nearly two years ago now, we chose to read some Saki short stories as summer Book Group reading. In the event, everyone managed to pick different editions with anthologised different Saki stories, and due to holidays etc our discussions were rather truncated.

Tidying up the books around my bedside table this morning, I came across the book I purchased for that month – the Saki Complete Short Stories. My bookmark was at page 40 out of 563 – that’s as far as I got at the time, but it does mark the end of the first group of stories, known simply as ‘Reginald.’

Hector_Hugh_Munro_aka_Saki,_by_E_O_Hoppe,_1913

Saki, doesn’t he look sad (right), wrote his stories at the turn of the century, wittily satirizing Edwardian society. Many of them are very short and few run to more than a handful of pages. According to Wikipedia his pen-name may have come from either that of a cup-bearer in the Rubaiyat of Oman Khayyam, or a particular type of small monkey – both of which are referenced in his works. Hugh Hector Munro, his full name, died in France during WWI, killed by a German sniper’s bullet.

The one thing I found when reading his stories, was that a little Saki goes a long way. Each short story is so full of pithy and witty one-liners, reading more than a couple at a time feels like overdoing it, you can only take so much wit. I realised this again, dipping back into the book this morning. I also left loads of tabs stuck on the pages to mark particular witticisms.

I hope to keep reading on, a couple of stories at a time when the whim takes me, for they are wonderfully arch, and Reginald comes out with some shocking things that made me guffaw out loud. Though I haven’t even got past all the Reginald stories yet to his other man about town Clovis, yet alone the Beasts and Super-beasts set, I thoroughly enjoyed them. I shall now leave you with a selection of quotations from Reginald, but do share your thoughts on Saki too…

Reginald on the [Royal] Academy

“To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to heaven prematurely.”

“To have reached thirty,” said Reginald, “is to have failed in life.”

Reginald’s Choir Treat

“Never,” wrote Reginald to his most darling friend, “be a pioneer. It’s the Early Christian that gets the fattest lion.”

Reginald’s Drama

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

“… and, anyhow, I’m not responsible for the audience having a happy ending. The play would be quite sufficient strain on one’s energies. I should get a bishop to say it was immoral and beautiful – no dramatist has thought of that before, and every one would come to condemn the bishop, and they would stay on out of nervousness. After all, it requires a great deal of moral courage to leave in a marked manner in the middle of the second act when your carriage isn’t ordered until twelve.”

Reginald’s Christmas Revel

They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fensl The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that colour), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me.

Reginald’s Rubaiyat

The other day (confided Reginald), when I was killing time in the bathroom and making bad resolutions for the New Year, it occurred to me that I would like to be a poet. […] and then I got to work on a Hymn to the New Year, which struck me as having possibilities. […] Quite the best verse in it went something like this:

“Have you heard the groan of a gravelled grouse,
Or the snarl of a snaffled snail
(Husband or mother, like me, or spouse),
Have you lain a-creep in the darkened house
Where the wounded wombats wail?”

Enough!  I can’t take any more!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Complete Short Storiesby Saki (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Complete Saki: 144 Collected Novels and Short Stories – for Kindle – just £0.99!

Whatever happened to …?

…Paul Micou

micou

Whilst I was sorting out my chunksters the other day I came across six novels by an author I’d much enjoyed reading back in the 1990s. His name is Paul Micou, and I wondered what had become of him. An American; since graduating, he’s lived in London and then France.

A little research later, it turns out that he wrote another couple of novels in 2000 and 2008 – and apart from a couple of Kindle singles, has published nothing since. Only his last novel is still in print.

As I know many of you like searching out books, I thought I’d write about the first few to introduce this author to you.  Here are his eight novels…

Micou books

I was immediately drawn to his first novel published in 1989. The premise of The Music Programme sounded like something straight out of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Set in a fictitious African country, the employees of a US-funded UN programme have been living it up but panic sets in when an inspector arrives.  I remember it as hilarious.

The Cover Artist (1990) is about an artist who makes more money passing off the expressionist paintings done by his black labrador Elizabeth as his, than his own works. My memory of this one is hazy, but I did love the dog.

The Death of David Debrizzi (1991) is his best-known novel, and possibly his best. The titular David was a child prodigy on the piano. He had two teachers, one English, one French.  The novel is told by Pierre Marie La Valoise (the French one), who is staying in a Swiss Sanatorium. When La Valoise hears that Sir Geoffrey Flynch has published a biography of David taking full credit for the boy’s, he has to retaliate. Some great comic set-pieces in this one.

I’ve only told you about the first three, because although I know I enjoyed three more my memory of reading them is even more hazy.  Micou has a great comic style though; these novels are gentle satires with a lot of humour and some spice. A bit William Boyd meets Paul Torday (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) via Richard Russo, and perhaps with a dash of Waugh and Tom Sharpe.

I’ve ordered a copy of his last novel, and found I had the seventh lurking unread on my shelves, so eventually my Micou collection will be complete – but I rather hope he decides to write some more…

Have any of you read Paul Micou’s books?
What other authors have fallen off the radar that you’d recommend

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Confessions of a Map Dealer by Paul Micou

My first encounter with Richard Brautigan …

It was last summer when Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings was participating in the Beats of Summer fortnight of reading from the Beat Generation, that I resolved to read a book by Richard Brautigan. As I am not a fan of On the Road or The Naked Lunch (bored by the former, weirded out by the latter), I thought I should branch out and try another Beats author before consigning them all to my bottom shelf. Viv Stanshall Richard_BrautiganOn Karen’s recommendation I chose Richard Brautigan (left), particularly because of his physical resemblance to Viv Stanshall (right). Then which book to read? A little research led me to Sombrero Fallout – (1976), not because it is one of his slightly less well-known books, but because the new Canongate edition has an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, and on the back is a quote from Auberon Waugh ‘Mr Brautigan writes five thousand time better than [Jack] Kerouac ever did‘. Viv, Auberon and Jarvis – good omens don’t you think? So, enough faffing around – to the book…

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

sombrero falloutThis is a short novel with dual linked narratives. The first, the title one, concerns a short story that a celebrated author is having problems with.

It concerns a sombrero that falls out of the sky in front of the Mayor of a small town, his brother and an unemployed man – who will be the first to pick said headgear up? However, the author isn’t satisfied with his story so far, so he rips it up and throws it in the bin where it takes on an absurd life of its own.

The second strand concerns the author and his ex-girlfriend. He is mourning the end of his relationship with Yukiko, a beautiful Japanese woman with long dark hair. She had split from him after two years, because she needed more from life than giving of herself to this author. The narrative flits between the author, who is obsessing about everything, but mainly her, and Yukiko who is asleep beside her cat, dreaming.

I mentioned the author obsessing about things. At one point he realises he is hungry, but can’t have a hamburger because he had one the day before – but he really wants a hamburger, unless …

After he had exhausted all thoughts of eating hamburgers, his mind entertained the possibility of a tuna fish sandwich but that was not a good idea. He always tried very hard not to think about tuna fish sandwiches. For the last three years he  had been trying to keep thoughts of tuna fish sandwiches out of his mind. Whenever he thought about tuna fish sandwiches, he felt bad and now here he was thinking about a tuna fish sandwich again after he had tried so hard not to think about them. …
Often he would find himself unconsciously picking up a can of tuna in the supermarket before he realised what he had done. He would suddenly find himself halfway through reading the contents on the can before he knew what he was doing. Then he would look startled as if he had been caught reading a pornographic novel in church and quickly put the can back in the shelf and walk away from it, trying to forget that he had ever touched it. …
The reason for this was a fear of mercury. …
When they discovered a few years ago that there was more mercury in tuna fish than normal, he stopped eating it, because he was afraid that it would accumulate in his brain and affect his thinking which would lead to an effect on his writing.
He thought his writing would get strange and nobody would buy his books because they had been corrupted by mercury and he would go crazy if he ate tuna fish, so he stopped eating it.

The extracts above from a two and a half page chapter entitled ‘TUNA‘ show the typical iterative nature of Brautigan’s narrative in this novel.  Each thought gets repeated, expanded upon, repeated, expanded upon and so on. This reminded me of the idée fixe of the ‘wing-backed chair‘ in Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, which I read last year.

This process happens in the sombrero story too, which becomes a tale of mass hysteria, very much in the vein of James Thurber’s The Day the Dam Broke, (see here) but far weirder and with guns!

The mention of Thurber reminds me that I haven’t told you that the author in this book is a humorist – but one totally without a sense of humour!  He is also attractive to women and good (enough) in bed. One wonders if Brautigan is having a laugh at himself in his portrayal of the author?

The role of providing a strain of sanity between the madness of the sombrero and the self-pitying of the author is Yukiko. She is calm, enigmatic, and strong. I liked her very much.

Boy, I chose an interesting book for my first read of 2014.  I didn’t find it particularly funny; although it has its moments, the whole sombrero strand got too out of hand for me – I far preferred the story of the author and Yukiko.

I certainly see something in Brautigan’s writing though that I like, and I bought two further novels by him on spec from Canongate’s pre-Christmas sale!.   Thank you Karen for encouraging me to read him, (Calvino soon, I promise).   (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Sombrero Fallout (Canons) by Richard Brautigan, Canonage 2012 edition, luxury paperback, 224 pages.

A novel about men and their 'work' – it must be Magnus Mills!

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills

explorers millsMills fifth novel is another very dark and subversive comedy about his speciality – men and their work.  This time though, it’s not about manual labourers, white van-men, bus drivers or any of their ilk; instead, he’s taking on expeditions to destinations unknown of the beginning of the last century. Mills’s satire this time initially targets the race between Scott and Amundsen to reach the South Pole – his subjects are not usually so obvious.

Two teams are involved in a race (except that it’s not a race – Oh yes it is!) to reach the ‘Agreed Furthest Point’.  One led by gentleman explorer Johns and made up of volunteers with a veritable herd of mules. They are finally ready to set off from the bunkhouse.  Scott Johns makes a speech:

 ‘Now it’s far too cold to stand her making speeches. I’ve no time for such flummery, so without further ado I think we’ll make an immediate start. I want to say, however, that I believe you have all been well chosen. I could not wish to begin an expedition such as this with a finer set of fellows. In Chase, for instance, we have one of the best navigators of our age. As you know, his excellent guidance brought the Centurion to this forsaken shore without a single fault, and I am relying fully on his judgement over the coming weeks as we head for the interior. Likewise, I regard Scagg as a most able deputy, and if anything should happen to me he will, of course, take command. As for the rest of you, well you are competent individuals without exception. You all know where we’re going and why we are going there. It may take a good while, but I am confident that we’ll achieve our goal as long as each of us pulls in the same direction. Now Scagg, the blockhouse has been left in a fit state, I presume?’
‘Yes, Mr Johns. Everything’s in order.’
‘All right then. Lock the door will you, and we’ll go.’

The other is led by Tostig with a professional crew of five. They have just ten mules and are incredibly well organised.

‘You know, it’s marvellous the organisation that’s gone into this voyage of ours. Quite exhaustive! Every aspect was planned beforehand, right down to the finest detail. For example, how do you think the weight of a water canister compares with a tin of biscuits?’
‘No idea,’ said Snaebjorn.
‘Have a guess.’
‘I’ve just told you I don’t know.’
‘Identical,’ Thegn announced. ‘They both weigh exactly the same.’
‘Really.’
‘Within an ounce. Apparently there were such huge logistical demands to be met that for purposes of simplification all items were classified in fixed units of weight. You could substitute a folded tent, say, with a coiled rope and it would make no difference to the overall load. The exact method used is described in the Ship’s Manual, if you’re interested.’
‘I’ll bear it in mind.’
‘Appendix B.’

Tostig’s team had arrived first, and have chosen to take a route along a dry riverbed making good progress. Johns’ team though, choose a different route entirely going over rocky scree. This terrain is monotonous and energy sapping in the extreme, yet Johns and his men manage to keep up with the others. They bicker all the way, yet that reserve of British stiff upper lip stands them in good stead.

And so it goes on. Day after boring day. They all inch towards their goal. You wonder when something is going to happen, and when it does, it comes completely out of left-field, and things turn even darker, more surreal and twisted than before. To tell you more would completely spoil the plot.

Mills’s deadpan humour is not to everyone’s taste, but if you haven’t tried one of his novels, at under two hundred pages, this is a quick read.  I loved it. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2005). Bloomsbury paperback, 192 pages.

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