by Trevor Moore
Sometimes I buy books because I like the cover. Sometimes I buy them because I know the author. I rarely buy them because they sport breathless epithets on their covers: “breathless prose” and “masterpiece” are so often the work of over-enthusiastic marketing people. Occasionally I buy a book because I have read a review of it. Sometimes it is the subject matter and sometimes I just want an easy read. So, here’s a selection of some recent reading – books that have been selected against my haphazard purchasing criteria, with predictable results.
I read a review of Nobber (Oisín Fagan, 2019, John Murray (Publishers), ISBN 978 15293 890 98, 296pp) in The Guardian where it was described as “a bloody and brilliant first novel”. Perhaps it is. Perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I was glad it was only 300 pages long as I was struggling to get to the end. (Another of my foibles is that if I have started then I must finish.) The book is set in a sort of dark ages context where plague has descended on the land and the few people that are left have barred their doors and harbour dark thoughts. The cover of the book describes the story as “hallucinatory and sly”. In a rare case the word “hallucinatory” is spot on and would have been enough to keep me well clear. I am not sure about “sly”. There is no doubt that Oisín Fagan has a vivid imagination and his prose is pretty good. It’s just that, for me, the plot didn’t hank together. I have put this book down to experience: it’s Fagan’s first novel and though it may be churlish of me to say it, I do not think I will risk his second.
I am not sure how I came across In the land of invented languages (Arika Orrent, 2010, Spiegel and Grau, ISBN 978 0 8129 8089 9, 340pp) but I am pleased that I did though I suspect that you would have to have a warped sense of enquiry similar to mine to enjoy it. Published almost 10 years ago this is the book for you if you are interested in language and the way we express ourselves. Orrent tells the story of our endeavours to build a better language than the ones that have evolved. These attempts go back to John Wilkins in 1666 when invented languages were, apparently, a bit of a fad. His language was based on a hierarchical categorisation of everything in the universe. It turns out that this doesn’t work because almost anything could be in one of many categories. Most of us have heard of Esperanto and those of us who are Star Trek aficionados will know of the Klingons. Klingon is an invented language and Orrent was crazy enough, but purely I am sure in the interests of research, to take and pass her Klingon Language Test. This is a fascinating book whose central theme is, I think, that evolved language works and invented ones do not. Not even Esperanto.
I was prowling around the Bookdepository website when I came across Life for sale (Yukio Mishima, 1968 (tr. Stephen Dodd, 2019, Penguin), ISBN 978 0 241 33314 3, 188pp). As you can see this book has languished in Japanese until this year when it has finally been translated. It is nothing short of brilliant – brilliantly conceived, brilliantly told and just a good read. It tells the story of Hanio Yamada whose attempt at suicide has failed. On recovering he sees his life as worthless, so he puts it up for sale. This book is definitely worth seeking out: I shall be reading other stuff by Mishima who in 1970 performed seppuko, a form of ritual suicide, in public.
Finally, I had to suffer the challenge of taking an aeroplane from A to B. A decade and a half ago I had a global job that meant I spent much time on planes between here and the US and here and Europe. You can do Beijing overnight and there used to be a round-the-world ticket that meant you could do the US and the UK in a week. As a result, I dislike flying and in order to assuage that dislike I selected The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman (Penguin Random House, 2019, ISBN 978 1 780 89902 2, 368pp) for no particular reason. Perhaps it was that the cover said “First comes love, then comes murder.” That’s not a particularly accurate summary of the plot. I have read one or two of Jonathan Kellerman’s 40 or so books, but I did not know that he is a guitar enthusiast and that one of his books is With strings attached: The art and beauty of vintage guitars. The vintage guitars, perhaps not surprisingly, get a mention in this novel. He writes in some sort of Californian pidgin that I found sometimes odd. But the storyline is good. A bridesmaid at a wedding discovers a body in a cupboard in the wedding venue. The body has no form of identification. That’s the story: the heroes Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgiss (regular heroes to readers of Kellerman) set off to solve the mystery. Which they do. You can read this in 2 or 3 hours. It may not make you a better person, but it will pass the time.