Strange weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (Portobello)


“His full name was Mr Harutsuna Matsumoto, but I called him Sensei. Not Mr or Sir, but Sensei”

THE original title of this off-beat romance was The Briefcase which as I read it is titillating bait. Which way does this story go? What has the weather got to do with anything? It might also have been called Drinking Sake at Bar Saturo. Or Sensei. I am loath to let slip too much plot here, so carefully is it woven. It charms in the way it builds.

Tsukiko, a thirty something office worker – no details of that side of her life are given at all, she paints herself as just a manga girl in a bar – bumps into her former schoolmaster over tuna with fermented soybeans, fried lotus root and salted shallots. They drink (a lot) and eat which lends their conversations a certain intimacy. They pay their own bills. Sensei reveals the first of many idiosyncrasies, he collects railway teapots.

Great fiction is often buoyed by a writer’s enthusiasms – think of Hemingway with the sea, the bullfights, the eating and drinking etc. Japan has its own mysteries to explain which might have sustained us here but Kawakami goes a little deeper, a coming together of old and new, pupil facing teacher, mushroom hunting instead of going to the shops. And also the food and drink, little tidbits to go with the sake.

“He delicately poured vinegared miso over the last morsel of dried whale…”

And in Japanese style there is a leaning towards a haiku, very simple little poems as paragraphs, very literal, but very swift passages of descriptions that keep the story moving and always set in time and place.

“The late afternoon sun shone on Sensei’s upper body. A child was scattering popcorn on the path…dozens of pigeons would flock over….”

Plus Kawakami is clever in the way she diverges every now and then, to follow a thread and leave the plot to one side for a moment to pick out a detail, a thought, a vignette.

He is inscrutable, serene, notionally the wisdom. She is a hard drinking loner whose language could belong to a crimo where his is, obviously, poetry.

There are some explosive, singular surprise episodes that populate the whole book and deliver something rather lovely and unusual.

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The Testament by Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus)


“Only dead people are allowed to have statues, but I have been given one while still alive. Already I am petrified.”

THAT is, perhaps, one of the finest opening lines to a novel I have read, defining, coy, a come on, a play on words, a whole mystery set up, a whole biography to come…

The scary thing about Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale first published in 1985 was how well it foretold things to come. Like Isis brides, like a right wing elite taking over, like an environmental catastrophe:

“The sea fisheries were defunct several years ago, the few fish they have now are from fish farms and taste muddy”.

The Handmaid, of course, is about men taking over, about both sexes becoming infertile. About religion invoked as a power. The last we have seen – in the book version rather than the TV spin off – is Offred being loaded into the Van. To be set free or to be enrolled in further outrages…hedge your bets.

Now the prolific Atwood returns to the scene of one of her greatest fictions. She shares a style with that other great late 20th century titan Toni Morrison. They create a sense that they are there, they are in the now, their characters (or more personally I might say people) are living. Occasionally Offred would slip into story telling mode but only when she could hardly bear to talk of it herself, when her own story is too harsh to bear…but she commands her narrative, towers over it even if she is victim, down trodden, slave, baby machine. Her spirit lives. The Commander cannot command her even where he thinks he can do anything with her or anyone else around for that matter.

For the sequel we skip a generation. We have no idea of what happened after Offred got in the van. It is almost a YA narrative, after all the girls are still teenage and even the Aunts are not that old. Atwood has also been reading a few airport crimos. The story jogs along at a pace. It is staccato:

“…the remote was at the end of the table. I turned off the sound”

There is a level of texture in the writing that was in the first book which has not survived here, it is, as the title says Testaments, the kind of dry thing you might find in a file cabinet, curiously awful.

Here is a line from Handmaid’s tale:

“I’ve heard that rumour, passed on to me in soundless words, the lips hardly moving, as we stood in line outside, waiting for the store to open.”

Among the things lost in Gilead is some engaging prose.

In its place we get a girly bitchiness, a comic Bunty story about a bad day at the school.

“Becka said she wished she was ill, severely ill with something not only prolonged but catching…”

Bunty of course would be banned. Girls are not allowed to read. Not even the Bunty. It might upset sensibilities..

Try this for a bit of Girl’s Own dialogue:

“What can we do? I asked. “It sounds like there is nothing.”

“I am coming to that”, said Elijah. “As it turns out, there may be a chance. A faint hope, you could say.”

“Faint hopes are better than none,” said Ada.

Gilead is so regimented, the characters become self induced automatons, their main source of expression is being able to say how awful things happen. I am wishing we are back in the van with Offred and finding out what happened to her. She was just emerging from her cocoon like shell, from her iconic cassock.

It is pretty relentlessly bad. I don’t mean a bad book, rather an invitation back to childhood to a schoolgirls’ fantasy. All girls in a secret society within a secret society within a secret society as the trilogy of stories slowly start to wind around each other…

There is very little to grasp on to in terms of our sympathies. These child/women have no relationships, no real desires, no choices, just survival. There is none of the drama of the birth, none of the sense of sexual powers. It is an upstairs downstairs universe, the privileged, bratty, selfish or at least self centred, handmaids while downstairs are the minders and cooks the Marthas who seem to be the source of all rumours and knowledge. The Cammanders, the Wives, the Aunts sail through the story symobolically potent but detached. I might have liked a bit more Martha and little less handmaid but who these Marthas sleep with at night or why or where is not revealed. The deeply ingrained spite of the women to each other is almost repetitive. The men are almost non-existent except in their vague brutality when they turn up as a guard to yank the women off somewhere. Their most expressive gesture is an (imagined) lustful glance.

Of course there is an underlining, if trite, theme that writing itself will be the girls’ salvation but otherwise the intellectual structures of Gilhead are as much a mystery to its enslaved citizens as to the reader.

A word about the excellent production values and the brilliant illustrations from Noma Bar which aggrandize this first edition. The question is: did the Handmaid’s deserve a sequel? Atwood says her readers were asking for one. So is it a match for the first book? Not really. Do you want to read it? Probably. Should it win the Booker Prize, well not compared to Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay but he did not make the short list. Really? How come?

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Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)

My dearest Ellen,

Please excuse this too-long-delayed response

JOSEPH, how nice to see you again. Another tome, lovely. A pleasure, I am sure. A treat even.

Back in the Ghost Light territory are we? I never connected that Bram Stoker knew Ellen Terry or that they both knew the great actor and impressario Henry Irving but I do know the Lyceum in London and the Strand and all that, a little Edwardian pastiche is it to be. Turn of the century? Fine. Those opening Victorian chapter summaries

  • in which a couple, perhaps to avoid a quarrel, become engaged

that sort of thing. I see you have not lost your gift for words

  • a fetor of cordite stench
  • a miasma of an early morning sulk


  • Welcome to an absence called England.

Bram bequeathes from a hospital bed his notes and scribbles to Ellen, a clutch of diary pages, some in Pitman shorthand

  • ‘ …which I think you know. If you don’t, a local girl in the village will or there is Miss Miniter’s secretarial service near Covent Garden…

He is sick in Deal but we go back to find him travelling on a train for Bradford with an ailing Irving –

  • ‘a lot of thumping stories start on a train…’

and then further back to the young, would-be critic trying to have his theatre reviews published by a reluctant Dublin Mail. The editor – a small man,

  • a minor dandy in emerald green eye shade, shabby porcelain-buttoned waistcoat and scarlet braces.


  • I have been been meaning to have word with you about the theatre, Bram. Not quite the thing? Bit lacking in properness, the ladies a tad loose, one or two of the chaps a bit – you know…
  • A bit what?
  •  A bit Haymarket Harvey. I’m a man of the world myself, but I’ve advertisers to think about, Maybe you’d widen your purview?”

His purview is for more heartwarming stories of cats and dogs or warnings about the perils of gin.

Parts unfold with Bram as Bramy even Bramzie as Stoker as Auntie as Mother and in the first person as he struggles by day with the theatre lights, with Irving’s impossibleness, with Terry’s beauty and by the early hours of the morning with his own writing. The Shadowplay of the title is the writing of Dracula but also hovers over the cast of each Shakespearian performance, an inference of a gay underworld,  and ultimately of the roles of writers and players and even audience. This would be a good present for a theatre-lover.

Sentences have power

  • a gloomy old office building that for a hundred years has despised its reflection in the Liffey.

Some of the buildings seem, as in Dickens, to have as much character as the people. The Lyceum theatre, Irving’s great ambition to make theatre respectable, looms over all. The era and the city itself also wear hats. And all this is laced with sexual innuendo and Jack the Ripper fogs.

You might just read chunks as poetry irrespective of the narrative, the vocabulary is stunning. Here is a small passage from towards the end which in 66 words seems to cover more territory than someone else’s whole chapters:

  • The stately armchair in an alcove has about it something of a throne. He limps into it, seats himself, plucks a menu from the table. ‘Oh that’s better, that’s better, now a glass of champagne, little kidney rinse.’
  • ‘You know what the doctor said about drinking late at night.’
  • ‘But Bradford is known for champagne, old girl. Tiny wee sip. To scorn the devil.”

For once the back cover credits are not overstated – ‘sensual density’, ‘stupendous’, ‘smell the greasepaint’, ‘a work of art’ – respectively from Peter Carey, Sebastian Barry, Deborah Moggach and Essie Fox. Respect.

There is a small mention of O’Connor’s Star of the Sea here as it was a while between reading and writing this blog, but a longer appraisal of the Thrill of it All here.

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Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain (Gallic)


“It happened in the middle of a brightly moonlight night in the Beaujolais vineyards.”

ANTOINE Laurain writes the kind of stories that do not seem to get published in Britain – a plot, a gaggle of characters, mostly quite likable too, each of whom get a small chapter-ette apiece by way of introduction, a setting, usually Paris. It is not psycho-intellectual but elegant, charming vignettes. He challenges himself with tricky writing tasks, here to travel in time, which he manages in a fun, believable, detective-style fashion.

We open with a spate of sightings of UFOs, then the disappearance of M. Pierre Chaveau just after seeing Close Encounters of the Third Kind and drinking a bottle of Ch. Saint-Antoine, with his dog, “who everyone assumed was part wolf”- everyone is introduced with a twirl, even the dog. It is not an Orwellian future, rather a Jeevesian past of Gaulloise, cocktails, mink wraps, trams, close encounters and secrets. But it has a point to make. I enjoyed his other books here and here, but this is perhaps the more subtle. Perfect beach reading.















































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The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato (Penguin)


“The barbarous gold barons – they did not find the gold, they did not mine the gold, they did not mill the gold, but by some weird alchemy all the gold belonged to them.”

THE quote is from 1929, Big Bill Haywood, founder of the USA’s first trade union. The question has hardly changed. Money itself is the new gold.  For gold barons read financial institutions, read the credit offered to buy your car, read the drugs you might need to fight cancer, read the Internet barons.

Mazzucato is a professor of her subject at University College London and in the same vein as Yanis Varoufakis, the big question is value. What do we value and how do we put a price on it?

Essentially this is two books rolled into one. First we have a history of economics but as she explains economists rarely agree with each other and so we are grappling with hindsights. Was Marx right or Adam Smith wrong? You get the feeling that maybe we should have all  gone to the racetrack.

But laced through this scholarly arrangement is a compelling polemic:  namely that the financial institutions are running off with our money. And if you are not part of the club, watch out. Money has become a product and it is a closed shop as to who gets to play with it.

The only people making money these days are a financial cartel who have sold us on the idea that this is real economics where in practical terms it can only benefit them. They keep turning the same money around and picking up fees and bonuses in the process. It is not banking in the old sense of supporting business and community. It does not make anything, except them, richer. There is no investment. There is no end manufactured product.

And, interestingly, she points out that many of today’s great innovations, especially the internet, were not the result of entrepreneurial genius, but funded initially by government sponsored research grants to universities and laboratories. Although whether any of us have seen a return on that is pretty much the point.

And then what happens to things that you cannot put a price on, things that we invest in that are not pecuniary – motherhood for example, generosity perhaps, or in a more practical sense journalism – or even things we want to value like teaching, nursing, caring but discover we cannot because Big Pharma ran off with the piggy bank. Heavy duty psycho-intellectual with a political mauling to boot.



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Van Gogh and Britain (Tate)


“I’m gradually beginning to turn into a true cosmopolitan, meaning not a Dutchman, Englishman or Frenchman, but simoply a man” Vincent Van Gogh February 9, 1874.

THIS  book goes with the brilliant exhibition at the Tate Britain, but sometimes a book is the superior medium for all this expertise. For a start it allows time for reflection and consideration and a chance to return to the subject over a few weeks, even months.  Yes, you don’t see the great paintings themselves, but like Van Gogh himself you get to keep etchings, sketches by way of a scrapbook for ideas.

Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps a special case, extremely well read, some hold that his letters, mostly to his brother Theo , are some of the best writing on art from anyone. As a dealer, before he was sacked, he had a first hand experience of handling prints which is how he learned. And his reputation is such that he has drawn here a level of expertise among the editors that is awesome. Here we see that the painting of night time in Arles has London connotations because, well, he had lived by the Thames for three years and seen different works by other artists, so the Cockney DNA was really there. Here is a journey where different experts guide you through where and how other works might have inspired the Van Gogh vision. There are more than 20 pages of notes and creditations at the back in small type, academia at its finest and most astonishing.

Illustrated books are always a team effort – designers, illustrators, experts in different fields have to come together as well as an author, and even a good illustrator. Here  we have one of the greatest artists of his century who still informs, is still topical but we go beyond the clichés of sunflowers, of chopping the ear, of madness and suicide. Van Gogh it is clear saw no difference between art and literature…the books on the table of his woman from Arlesienne is in fact Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, a favourite. Even the tiny brush strokes smack of writerly techniques more than painterly splodges.

There is an intersection of different planes of culture. The graphic artists who provided the illustrations to London’s The Graphic Portfolio, Punch and Illustrated London News were an inspiration. And these same printers were also working on illustrating editions of writers like Dickens and Eliot. And Van Gogh shamelessly took on other people’s ideas like Gustav Dore’s etching of prisoners walking around a cell block at Newgate which he re-imagined in vivid colours but followed the original to a point of exactitude.


And we have scholarship in the array of writers here forensically picking apart his career – he would have seen this here, or that there. He learned this technique there.

Van Gogh was a very modern European, as he says in the opening quote, who spoke Flemish, English and French. He even ruminated on his own madness invoking great French writers who equated genius and madness. And he was a rebel, associating with the working man like miners, weavers.

A weaver who must control and interweave many threads…so absorbed in his work that he does not think but acts, and feel how it can and must work out, “ he wrote in 1883.

Carol Jacobi is the editor with contributions from Martin Bailey, Anna Greatzner Robins, Ben Okri, Hattie Spires and Chris Stephens. Hats off to everyone for a book that manages to go beyond art and be a fitting work in its own right and sets the great painter against a backdrop of friends, colleagues and the writers that inspired him and drove him insane.

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Spring by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)


“Now what we don’t want is Facts”

THE first two of this potential quartet – Autumn and Winter –  were pleasant if not totally convincing as the contemporary novel of weight and import. This on the other hand opens with a stream of vicious double thinking vitriol which ring  many bells. And then puts its foot hard on the accelerator. We are on the cusp of two eras. Sorry, three, or maybe four. Who knows? Three or four interwoven stories too.  It is now, or as now as a novel can be. Maplins is closing down. It is Tuesday in October 2018. After the event, which was April of the title, so in fact published in April 2019. Very neat and very tidy. Even a heroine is called Brit, after Brittany, not Britney.

The same device of the string of vitriol as in the opening is repeated later with a sinister, ominous list of permissions. You are welcome. Of course. Thank you.

The plot and characters have nothing seemingly to do with the first books – as neither did they with each other – but here Smith has grasped fully what she is trying to achieve. And she packs a punch.

The plot is masterfully crafted to the extent that details might be deemed spoilers. One tease: man throws his mobile phone away at Euston Station…fill that out as a start point for 335 pages. No, that is too dry. Smith massages her characters to life, even the ones on the sides, so you read in the comfort of knowing you are meeting people of interest. You might get a good party going with a cast of her characters. An immersive experience, indeed.  So our man and his phone are fleshed out warmly, even vicariously through his friend and the ambiguous twins and through her a little literary interest in a couple of authors from another time. With other voices. Who are being revived…

I am speaking in riddles, in abstracts. She is incredibly tight in her writing, tiny deliberate slashes of colours.

“A door opens. She goes through it.

Then Brit’s shift is over.

She could leave.

She went for the train.”

Such simplification bundles the plot along and mixes with more elegant descriptions:

“March…the cold shoulder of spring. Month of the kind of blossom that could still be snow, month of the papery unsheathing of the heads of the daffodils.”

Her sense of place – a Victorian pillar here, a mountain there –  is filled in with a light meaningful touch, as is her sense of humour like the woman in a sleeping bag who opens the coffee shop without anything to sell. This is not just good, it is very good, as the Imaginary Daughter might have corrected him.

Then half way through we shoot off into a parallel contemporary social commentary bound together by a sense of the now of today’s politics. The signposts of familiar contemporary debate – homeless on the streets, fake news, climate change, detention centres, immigration – are all there, as too are almost Grecian style choruses. Is that Nature talking to us? But there is a unifier, unlikely, magical, a small girl, a hope if you read it that way…and some magic.

“Is she magic? Or in need of magic? Is she jealous? Is she enchanted? Is she lost in the wood, young and foolish and about to learn a lesson?”

Psycho-intellectual? Tick. Very Brainy. Tick. But accessible.

As in the other books, there is a heavy reliance on popular culture, so we even get a mention of a panharmonicon, an instrument devised for Beethoven, but also, note, an internet card for a game. And Tacitas Dean. And a pub quiz of Play for Today’s and other novels because at its heart one explanation is that this novel is about the creative process, the creative decision making and is a new work in progress in parallel. Or you could say it is about communication. This all works beautifully on more than one level. There is a hint, a single one I think, that maybe a fourth book will somehow manifest itself as a collective conclusion which would be a double triumph. But his can stand on its own, whatever.



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