Mouthful of Birds is a collection of translated stories by an Argentinian writer, Samanta Schweblin. The stories are all perfectly well told, and all of them slightly odd, but reading them one after the other can feel somewhat mechanistic.
The stories are (mostly) very short, lack any real framing and pitch straight into a situation that appears normal but turns out to be a bit surreal. Once you know that it's going to have a weird angle, you start to anticipate it and the effect dims. And while the stories are well crafted and lucidly told, it is very difficult to recall anything about them after finishing the book. Even the last story - which you'd think might be the easiest to recall - had me diving back into the text just to remember what it was (it was murder as performance art). I have a recollection of abandoned brides, and a train that never stops, but little else.
On this basis, and without being able to point to anything specific at fault, it feels like a 3-star read.
review of Mirror Shoulder Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra.
The novel starts with Sonja, the main character having a driving lesson (from where they get the title of the novel from). Sonja is in her 40s, single and works translating the crime novels of a Swedish writer in the ilk of Steig Larsson, Gosta Svennson. he novel is told both in the present and look back at the past in rural Jutland, a past that no longer exists as the family land has been bought up by the local pig farmer, a guy with an unflattering nickname that I can not recall (sorry)
Sonja really doesn't like her job and particularly with the descriptions she has to go through in the task of translating Gosta's works into Danish. There seems to be a bit of a dislike with the obsession to the Nordic crime thrillers genre (something I can relate to, more so in terms of TV than with books as with books I do a good job avoiding them).
She also doesn't like her driving instructor, Jytte (the scene at the start I found very funny) who doesn't let her shift gears herself and her relationship with her sister is not good. Her sister's husband runs defense whenever she phones them and they barely talk except by accident. Her relationship with her masseuse sees her take a trip with her to do some meditative hiking but Sonya would as the blurb reads prefer to eat cake than hike meditatively. Can't blame her, really. She can't talk to her father as her father's work has damaged his ears.
Despite all these things that she doesn't like, I did like the character of Sonya, she is engaging and indeed very likeable. There isn't a proper story but more a series of events, Nors writing though is excellent and Hoekstra adeptly puts it to English to make a humourous novel. Obserrvant and funny, I really enjoyed this book
* * * * *
So this will be announced on wednesday next.
the shortlist is
Mathias Enard (France), Charlotte Mandell (US), Compass (Fitzcarraldo Editions) - Review David Grossman (Israel), Jessica Cohen (US), A Horse Walks Into a Bar (Jonathan Cape) Review Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett (UK), Don Shaw (UK), The Unseen (Maclehose) Review Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Misha Hoekstra (US), Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Pushkin Press) Amos Oz (Israel), Nicholas de Lange (UK), Judas (Chatto & Windus) Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Megan McDowell (US), Fever Dream (Oneworld) Review
So I've read four of them (Roy Jacobsen before the longlist, David Grossman while the longlist was announced and then the other two as a result of the longlist.
Overall my favourite of the four is Roy Jacobsen's The Unseen. This for me was a superb novel. This was a tender yet humourous story of family life on a remote island of Barroy off the coast of Norway.
David Grossman's novel is about a comedia doing a stand up show where he invited a childhood friend, now retired as a judge to observe the show. It is from the friend's point of view. Another novel I liked, though not as good as Jacobsen
Both Fever Dream and Compass in terms of both could be describes similarly, an unwell person talking out oud trying to make sense of the situation but this doesn't do justice to either. Schweblin's writing is recalling events of her main character's holiday in the country while on her death bed, Enard's book is less novelistic than the others and works more as thoughts to be bridged together.
Oh I liked them all in varying amounts but as I said in the review of Compass, I hope this doesn't win because it is more difficult read and more off putting to readers, I found it at times to be a difficult read, it is a book that is between good and very good.
I haven't read either Nors or Oz so those are the two most likely winners
review of A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen.
This novel is about a comedian and begins by him coming out on stage to do a show. But it is not a comedy. The comedian is Dovaleh G. and at his request, a guy he took a mathematics class has been summoned by Dovaleh to attend and make any notes or thoughts he may have on Dovaleh G.'s performance tonight. The narrator coping with his own lost and his early retirement from district court judge is hesitant at first, they have not seen each other for over 40 years and he needless to say is hesitant (is there a stronger word than hesitant. if so, this word should replace hesitant) but eventually he agrees to attend and during the novel, there are moments early on where he wants to sneak out very early as this is not really.
Also in attendence at the same show is a woman from the same neighbourhood as Dovaleh G. The woman seems to have a little bit of a learning difficulty.
Beneath the comedic facade of Dovaleh, there is the human side to it all and that it what takes over the novel. The novel I feel is one of loss and connection.
The night does not transpire as anyone expects, much like the novel from the opening start. Later on it shows a lot of tenderness, the start is difficult because of the pagentry of a stand up show but I found it thoroughly worthwhile and thought this was an excellent novel.
* * * * *
review of Compass by Mathias Eniard, translated by Charlotte Mandell
Franz is an Austrian musicologist, an insomnia and an opium smoker. He is also ill and interested in orientalism (for which he studied the music of the orient) and pining for another orientalist, french academic Sarah who is now in Sarawak in Malaysia. Her area is in contrast to Franz is History.
Sarah is an integral part of the narrative of Franz as he has a sleepless night.
I liked the book, but of the shortlisted novels of the Man Booker International shortlist, this is the one I hope that doesn't win. I think with a prize would garner additional sales and readers and for such a prize, it could put readers off investigating the other offerings in the prize as this was a difficult read with nods in style to other writers that hundred years on we think are great but at the time, their novels would be considered less accessible as other books and that is the problem here. this isn't as accessible a book as, not did I like it as much as the others. It is a novel verging between good to very good and it's addition gives a good breadth to the other novels shortlisted. It is not a straight through novel and I think this is where the difficulty lies, it is an opium smoker's thoughts and memories over a sleepless night so that is where part of the difficulty lies. But when Franz is in a flow in his narration, the writing is very good.
There are some really great scenes recalled by our narrator. Particularly stands out is the scene where a girl is very disappointed to find out that he is only a musicologist and doesn't play any musician himself. The scenes recalling leaving his mother and his mother's worry about detergent and such are also really good. Another thought of his was not to tell his mother he moved in with a person studying prostituition because in his mother's mind, this would become that he moved into a brothel. There is a wonderful line about when him and Sarah are talking, it being difficult to whisper sweet thoughts to her when she is talking about war and bodies.
This is a the opposite in French literature to works by Michel Houellebecq (who I do like also but he does have strong views about muslims in general, or at least his characters do), a long love letter to the the lands and people living there suffering in the barbarous regimes and fundamentalism (at times going into pieces a sadness about what ISIS is doing to people there encompassing various events including the mullah's overthrowing shah in Iran in 1979, events in Syria. There's also nods to the old empires of europe like the Habsburgs. Through the influence of Sarah on Franz, the old borders of both Europe and the Middle East featured which I enjoyed because as I've been through before, This is an interest of mine.
For both the narrator and reader, this novel can seem like a dream, parts standing out more than others.
I wrote star rating * * * 1/2 at start but writing this, is making me think maybe * * * * nut no, I'll keep it at
* * * 1/2
Oh and one more thing, don't let the chapter listing get you confused at the start and the bizarreness of the page numbers on the chapters.