Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Guardian readers and Sam Jordison
·6 min read

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from the last week.

Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima (6 August 1945) and Nagasaki (9 August 1945). ChronicExpat provided suggestions for a literary pilgrimage to the cities:

If you haven’t already read it, John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946; published originally in the New Yorker and subsequently in book form) is a must. Even if you have read it, read it again.

Masuji Ibuse’s 1965 novel Black Rain (黒い雨; John Bester, translator) is superb, and once read never forgotten. I am re-reading this one as my own commemoration.

Another Japanese classic is Keiji Nakazawa’s manga series Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン; multiple translations available including German, Polish and Arabic, with the most recent English version released by Last Gasp Publishing, 2004-2010). This is regarded by many to be among the finest manga works ever and comparable to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Nakazawa was a Hiroshima survivor and based the series (loosely in places) on his own experiences.

Also in Japan, although on a happier subject, greenmill reviewed On the Narrow Road to the Deep North by Lesley Downer, “a re-creation in 1989 of a journey made 300 years previously by Matsuo Bashō”:

Bashō was a traveller and poet whose haiku (17 syllable poems) made him nationally famous in 17th century Japan and whose travels provide an insight both into urban and remote rural life in the country during that period.

Downer’s primary motivation was to see whether any vestiges of the hermit priest way of life encountered by Bashō in the north of Honshu still existed. She certainly found communities far removed from the glossy, hi-tech supercharged Japan of the 80s/90s, villages where subsistence farmers assumed that all foreigners were richer then Japanese people, and were astonished to learn from Downer that most foreigners viewed the Japanese as among the wealthiest people on earth.

Downer has no qualms about walking and hitch-hiking her way around Japan, and is met with almost universal kindness and interest, lodging with and being fed by families who have in some cases little to share. Recommended.

Now back to 1689 where Bashō is sitting outside his lodgings in the evening:

The voices of plovers
Invite me to stare
Into the darkness
Of the starlit promontory

CorneliusThePainter has found something to treasure in Only a Lodger... And Hardly That: A Fictional Autobiography by Vesna Main:

Lovingly published last January by Seagull Press in beautiful hardback (as a possession alone this is a book to treasure), what is strangest about this “fictional autobiography” is that in terms of critical or commercial attention it appears to have made as much impact as a pebble dropped down a ravine - as far as I’m aware no newspaper has expended a word, and no prize judge has cast a glance, on what appears to be a masterpiece. On the acknowledgements page Main thanks Anna Burns for the generosity of her comments during the writing of this novel – tellingly, this is possibly the most astonishing new novel I have read since Milkman.

His Master’s Voice by Stanisław Lem (translated by Michael Kandel) has impressed mrfloydthursby:

It describes a team of scientists’ attempts to decipher a mysterious signal sent to Earth from the Canis Minor constellation. Isolated in a decommissioned nuclear facility in the middle of the desert, they succeed in synthesising a fragment of the transmission into a bluish spawn-like substance, whose properties of energy transference they fear might be appropriated for military purposes.

The summary of the plot I have just given suggests that the novel is a variation on a well-worn SF trope: a remote setting, a closed group, an unknown alien life form, all set against a backdrop of Cold War paranoia. In fact, the book is a densely packed novel of ideas, framed as the memoir of the project’s leading mathematician, a rigorous account of a failed experiment written in purposefully desiccated prose, almost entirely free of dialogue. Although it has none of the awe-inspiring descriptions of the vertiginous alien landscapes of Solaris (the work for which Lem is best known), its calculated and measured voice is no less compelling, and the ideas themselves – the impossibility of comprehending our place in the universe – provoke their own sense of wonder.

“Just completed a novel that is getting much love here,” says safereturndoubtful of Caoilinn Hughes’s The Wild Laughter, “and I’m delighted to add to that”:

It takes a special writer to make a story of assisted suicide and the 2008 recession engaging and witty, but that is exactly what Hughes has pulled off in this memorable novel … a sharp and quick-witted depiction of fatherhood and pathos, one that is bravely told and tenderly constructed.

The Queens of Animation by Nathalia Holt seems like a promising read to DaphneDuMaurier:

It’s about the women artists who worked at Disney mostly in the early years. Most of them worked in ‘Ink and Paint’ where they traced with great precision the animations of the male animators that Disney preferred to employ (as they wouldn’t go off and have babies – or at least wouldn’t have to give up work!) but a few gained access to the storyroom department where they encountered all sorts of sexism, lower pay etc. Will be interested to see how much these women influenced or otherwise the Disney princesses we associate with the early films. So far I’ve learned that one of these women served as the model for the Wicked Queen in Snow White, and that Bambi’s first steps were based on hours of drawings that one of the women, Bianca Majolie, did from being dispatched to observe the real birth of a deer in San Diego Zoo. Think I’ll enjoy it very much…

TomMooney recommends Cat Chaser by Elmore Leonard:

This is not Elmore’s best novel but his genius still shines through. The way he puts everything in place for that final, cinematic scene. The guy was fucking ace. He would still write the ass off pretty much every crime writer today.

Finally, proust has been enjoying Mrs Eckdorf In O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor:

Trevor is a sublime writer, who would have been a welcome Nobel winner (he was nominated, apparently, a few times); and unquestionably one of the greatest English language writers of late 20th century … Mrs Eckdorf In O’Neill’s Hotel is worthy of Greene, Waugh and Spark in its ironies and sardonic humour. I would defy anyone not to be captivated by the first chapter. It would be good if the Reading group chose one of his novels at some point.


Interesting links about books and reading

If you’re on Instagram, now you can share your reads with us: simply tag your posts with the hashtag #GuardianBooks, and we’ll include a selection in this blog. Happy reading!