Book of the month: Yoko Ogawa

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I wasn’t sure whether to write about this book. I’ve read some marvellous novels this month – among them Angolan novelist José Eduardo Agualusa’s Man Booker International Prize-shortlisted A General Theory of Oblivion (trans. Daniel Hahn), Brazilian star Alexandre Vidal Porto’s Sergio Y. (trans. Alex Ladd) and Taiye Selasi’s powerful Ghana Must Go. With such a strong selection of titles to choose from, it wasn’t easy to single out one to review.

When it came to Japanese writer Yōko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris (trans. Stephen Snyder), however, there was an additional reason to be uncertain. Brilliant though it is, the book made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the way it treats its dark themes or how to describe its strange and unsettling plot.

But if this project has taught me anything, it’s that when I identify a personal limitation or blind spot, I ought to confront it head-on. And so, erhem, here goes.

Like Manazuru, the Japanese book I read for this project back in 2012, Hotel Iris takes place largely by the sea. The protagonist-narrator is 17-year-old Mari, the daughter of an overbearing hotelier who requires her to work long hours to keep the business afloat. But when a middle-aged guest is caught up in a scandalous scene after a prostitute refuses to comply with his wishes, Mari finds her world shifting. Drawn to the man’s voice, she seeks him out and fosters a friendship with him that quickly turns to something much deeper and darker, testing the boundaries of her being, releasing her from her mother’s rules, and allowing her to explore the nature of pain, pleasure, humiliation and desire.

The summary makes the book sound sensationalist and even trashy (I defy you not to think of EL James), but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For one thing, there’s the writing: a spool of precise sentences consisting of descriptions of small details that hint at the calibration and adjustments going on beneath the surface. The succinct simplicity of Ogawa’s (and Snyder’s) writing about Mari’s mother’s obsessive styling of her daughter’s hair or the snatches of music that drift through the hotel from the rehearsals of a visiting choir, for example, belies the sophistication of this multi-layered text.

There is humour and there is beauty, too, evoked through neat flashes of insight that net a moment, a character, a view in a handful of words. The kleptomaniac maid who nearly betrays Mari’s secret, for example, only appears on a handful of pages, and yet she feels like a familiar figure when she stumps into view, swigging beer and helping herself to unsupervised trinkets.

We see intimacy and vulnerability in both Mari and her partner, but we also hear a frightening clarity in her words. Time and again, she smashes open her descriptions with a final jab or last detail that lays bare the darkness beneath.

This is particularly true when the narrative spirals in on the violence and humiliation Mari silently wills the man, who we learn is a translator, to inflict on her. Here, the shock is often delayed, just like the translator’s blows, to fall all the heavier when it comes, as in this sentence, capturing the narrator’s anticipation of the physical engagement to come: ‘The fingers clutching the pen would grasp my breast, the lips pursed in thought would probe my ribs, the feet hidden under the desk would trample my face.’

Reading Mari’s frank descriptions and her admission that ‘only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure’ is troubling. The violence is one thing, but what lingers long after the final page is an uncertainty about how to view the events described.

Should we see this as an account of a vulnerable young person groomed and seduced by a ‘pervert […] not fit for a cat in heat’, as the prostitute calls the translator in the opening chapter? Or does Mari’s pleasure in and desire for what befalls her turn the story into something else, regardless of the fact that – as far as she tells us – Mari never openly expresses her longing or consent so that for all her partner knows she may be enduring his ministrations under duress.

Is Mari, in fact, another kind of victim – warped in her sexuality by her mother’s control and the sad deaths of her father and grandfather? And does the fact that Hotel Iris is written by a woman have any bearing on how we answer these questions?

Honestly, I don’t know. But I think that this may be part of the point. In allowing all these possibilities and questions to co-exist between its covers, this novel pulls off quite a feat. Not only does it make us question human nature, sexuality, power and agency, but it also forces us to examine the way we respond to narratives, make choices and give credence.

In short, Hotel Iris makes us explore how we read.

Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (Picador, 2010)

Book of the month: Gail Jones

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The morning I started reading this month’s book of the month, a woman sitting opposite me on the London Overground leaned across. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘Could you tell me about that book? You see, I’m moving there tomorrow.’

I glanced at the cover of Gail Jones’s A Guide to Berlin and smiled. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘It’s not a guide to the city. It’s a novel by an Australian writer… But good luck with the move. From what I hear, it’s an amazing place.’

The fact that a coincidental encounter attended my reading of this Stella prize-longlisted book turned out to be quite fitting because chance connections play an uncanny role in the story. Told through the eyes of Cass, a young Australian woman who rents a bedsit in Berlin to try to write and falls in with a group of foreign nationals living in the city, the novel explores the surprising, strange and sometimes terrible things that link us.

The new friends – Yukio and Mitsuko from Tokyo, Gino and Marco from Rome, and Victor from New York – are brought together by a shared love of the work of Nabokov (the book’s title is also the name of one of his short stories). They use this common interest as a launchpad for a series of ‘speech-memory disclosures’, meeting regularly and taking turns to tell the others the story of how they came to be who they are. Yet, as the stories unfold, more comes out than the group could have imagined, leading to a violent climax that leaves each of the six central characters changed.

In many ways, it’s just as well that my fellow passenger didn’t have time to read this novel before she moved to Berlin: Cass’s first impressions of the city, which strikes her as ‘stiff and dead’, are far from inviting. Yet, as the pages turn, a rich, layered collage builds up, with Jones sending us whizzing along the lines of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, stumbling over Stolpersteinen, walking in Nabokov’s footsteps and blundering into the makeshift shanty town established by African asylum seekers at Oranienplatz.

This mining of ‘remnant presences and the traces of suffering lives’ takes place against some of the most deliciously evocative descriptions of winter and snow that I have had the pleasure of encountering. Not since I read the Belarusian classic King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, has cold seemed to billow from the page in the way it does in the ‘scintillating night and […] smothered calm’ of Jones’s Berlin.

Yet, while the German capital may be a focus in the novel, the speech-memory disclosures remind us that each of us carries something of the places we come from. As a result, we learn about the hikikomoris and Lolita girls of Yukio and Mitsuko’s Japan, and the fallout of a bomb blast in Rome, as well as Cass’s ambivalent feelings about her homeland and the way outsiders regard it – her shame at the ‘government policy of hard hearts’ in relation to immigration, for example, and the idea that ‘in Europe, Australia is regarded as a fiction of beautiful lies’. In this way, the narrative plays with the mirage-like quality of national identity, a concept that seems to dissolve the closer you get to it.

Jones’s eye for the minutiae and hidden workings of human interactions is one of her major strengths. Time and again, the narrative mines the insecurities and foibles of its characters, bringing arresting truths to the surface. To read this book is to recognise repeatedly what it is to be a person. From the snags and spools in conversation, to the way we fictionalise our lives and concerns, editing and embellishing our histories as we go.

For the most part, these insights are delivered in stunningly precise prose. In the early chapters, a few metaphors misfire and adverbs clog odd sentences, making some passages feel awkward and self-conscious. By 20 or 30 pages in, however, these hiccups are mostly gone. It is as though Jones writes her way into the book, just as her heroine explores her way into Berlin.

Some readers, Reading Matters book blogger Kim Forrester among them, have criticised the dramatic events of the closing chapters as rushed and inauthentic, particularly after the slow drift of a narrative that, until that point, largely consists of people talking in a series of rooms. Credulity certainly creaks here and this abrupt turn of events will no doubt break the spell for some.

For me, however, the book has so much to offer that I was more than prepared to brush this aside. As a writer, I found this an extraordinarily nourishing read – a novel that inspires me to push my craft further, to write better, to imagine my way more fully into things. I was right to tell my fellow passenger that it is not a guide to the German capital. Instead, as the best books do, A Guide to Berlin reveals something about all of life and the whole world.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones (Vintage, 2015)

World bookshopper: #6 Three Lives & Company, New York

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Bookshops, I’m beginning to discover, are as interconnected as books. They refer to one another, inspire one another and sometimes share creators. And with the help of all sorts of international events, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair and Guadalajara International Book Fair, the people behind them and those that love these stores meet, mingle and spark new ideas between them.

This was brought home to me last month during a conversation I had at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. The member of staff I was talking to revealed that the owner of New York bookstore Three Lives & Company had stopped by a few days previously. To me, this piece of information was rather surprising, as I had been at that shop in Manhattan’s historic Greenwich Village only a few weeks before…

On the day I go, the store is looking handsome. I’m there in response to comments from Vicki and Kht, who both answered the call I put out for NYC bookstore suggestions late last year by recommending I pay Three Lives & Company a visit.

Even before I cross the threshold, I can see why they love it. Nestled on its corner site at 154 West 10th Street, with books peering from every pane of its windows, the store seems to gleam in the gathering winter gloom.

Inside, Three Lives & Company is equally alluring. The small space is almost entirely lined with wooden bookcases, which display their wares in the sort of soft, golden light you get in old-fashioned library reading rooms. As I wander through, gentle music accompanies the mutterings of customers and counter staff, who manage the tricky balance of acknowledging visitors’ comings and goings without intruding upon browsing.

No offer tables here. No ‘buy one get one free’ – at least not on the day I visit. Instead, I get the feeling that each of the books lucky enough to have been given shelf-room here has been hand-picked for what it will add to the shop – and is far too valued to pile high and sell cheap.

Though the number of volumes Three Lives & Company can carry at any one time is necessarily limited, its selection is diverse. Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound keeps company with works by Marilynne Robinson, Chaitali Sen, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Omar Musa. Signed copies of Pulitzer prize-winner Michael Cunningham’s latest beckon from a display.

Most of the usual suspects in translation populate the fiction section – Kafka, Ferrante, Pamuk and Murakami are all there – although I am struck by the absence of Nesbø, who I can normally count on seeing anywhere. Instead, in almost precisely the place I would expect to find Harry Hole and his associates, I spy Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb’s wickedly witty Pétronille.

At length, I select Italian Nobel Prize laureate Dario Fo’s The Pope’s Daughter and take it to the till. There, I meet another friend. Just next to the cash register, I spot a copy of Lingo by Gaston Dorren, the Dutch writer I shared an event with at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year.

It seems the best bookshops can’t help but forge and strengthen connections.

Giving books away

 

One of the most common queries I get is whether I can share e-versions of the books from my year of reading the world for free.

This question always provokes mixed emotions in me. I can well understand the excitement and eagerness that prompt it. The idea of broadening your horizons through reading is thrilling. When you realise how much world there is out there and that books could enable you to explore it, you can feel as though a whole new reality has opened up to you (as I did when I put an appeal out to the planet’s bibliophiles to help me read the world one rainy evening in October 2011). You’re impatient to get started and if someone can send you files that can speed you on that journey, why wouldn’t you want to jump at the chance?

The problem for me is that, in their excitement, these would-be literary adventurers often don’t realise that what they are effectively asking for is pirated copies of books. If I were to scan and make available e-versions of the books I read, the writers, translators and publishers behind them would not receive any money.

This would not only be unfair but also, cumulatively, could be very damaging. If I were giving away unlimited free versions of books, it would make those titles less likely to be kept in print and available for commercial sale (and it would make anglophone publishing deals very unlikely for those titles that are not yet published in English). Over time, it could further reinforce the economic imbalance which sees English-language writers like me much more widely published than those writing in other languages (and consequently much more likely to be able to live off writing – although, according to a 2015 survey, only around 10 per cent of UK authors do so).

But the mixed feelings don’t stop there because, while I’m very conscious of the financial challenges facing writers in many parts of the world, I’m also aware of the economic difficulties facing a lot of readers. I’m lucky that I’m able to afford to buy the books that intrigue me. My year of reading the world wasn’t cheap (it cost me several thousand pounds – perhaps a little more than a month’s salary at the time – to track down all those books, several of which were quite rare), but it wasn’t impossible. These days – rare books aside – most of the titles I buy cost less than £15, a small fraction of my weekly income.

That is not the case for readers in many parts of the world. Even though cheap e-books for smartphones are making much more literature available to people in a large number of the world’s poorest countries, the cost of physical books relative to income is still prohibitive. When I interviewed Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov for my book, Reading the World, he told me that translated books in the unofficial markets in Tashkent during the Soviet era often used to sell for about the same money as he made in an entire month. In other words, it cost Ismailov proportionally the same amount to buy one translation as it cost me to read the whole world.

So, although I do not share versions of the books I read during my project (except the titles like my Maldivian read, which the creator has chosen to put online), I am always very glad to hear about and support initiatives that make literature freely available to others. These include Chinese translator collective Paper Republic’s excellent project to put one English translation of a short story by a Chinese author online each week ‘for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water’, as their website says.

As a result, I was delighted to hear recently from a group of students in Mexicali, Mexico, near the US border. Inspired by hearing about a year of reading the world, they decided to do something to help people in their community who might not be able to get hold of many books. They collected  a load of secondhand titles and created El Librero Communitario, a community bookshelf giving away books for free. The film above shows what happened when they took the bookshelf to a bus stop in town.

The project has been such a success that the students are looking for more donations, so if you have some books you no longer need, why not contact them through their Facebook page? I’m sure there are many readers who would appreciate it.

World bookshopper: #5 Word on the Water, London (various locations)

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So far, I’ve had to go to all the bookshops I’ve featured in this series. But this week, a bookshop came to me.

I was doing some work for a client in Haggerston in east London, a stone’s throw from the Regent’s Canal. The weather’s been pretty miserable lately, so I decided to take advantage of a dry spell to go for a lunchtime walk beside the water in the company of an audiobook (Natasha Pulley’s The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – such an enjoyable listen).

No sooner had I ventured onto the towpath than I heard it: orchestral jazz drifting over the water, lending the Watchmaker a jaunty backing track. Once I’d walked over a humpback bridge, it came into view: a barge topped with a sail-like canopy and bristling with shelves of books. I knew what it was before I was close enough to read the sign outside: this was Word on the Water.

I’d heard of London’s only floating bookshop before. Chuntering up and down the Regent’s Canal for the past six years, it has become something of a (shifting) local landmark. There was a petition to save it when it lost its mooring last year (the campaign won and the barge will soon be moving to a permanent site near Granary Square).

In fact, I’d even seen it once or twice during my time working at the Guardian offices near King’s Cross in 2012. Back then, I’d been too absorbed in reading and blogging about one book every 1.87 days to be able to spare the time to venture aboard.

Luckily, this week was a different story.

An eclectic array of secondhand titles awaits me on the shelves and ledges on the outside of the boat. The Illustrated Guide to Egyptian Mythology rubs shoulders with a book about Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief. There are novels by Anne Enright, William Faulkner, Will Self, Annie Proulx, Sena Jeter Naslund and Dave Eggers. Studies in European Realism, a biography of Federico García Lorca and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City Bombay peer up at me, while the obligatory Jo Nesbø stares out from a shelf. Things are kept simple by a flaking sign, which informs me that all paperbacks are £3 or two for a fiver.

Inside, the arrangement of the barge’s deceptively extensive stock is more regimented. The fiction bookcases run alphabetically, with a separate section for classics. Meanwhile, the Harry Potters have a shelf all to themselves, nestled beneath a window, through which I watch a shoal of learner canoeists windmill past.

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Small though it is, the bookbarge feels homely and inviting. There is a corner sofa on which you can imagine whiling away an hour or two as the woodburner crackles nearby (sadly, I don’t have this luxury, being on my lunch break).

Quirky antiques and ornaments nestle in odd spaces: a typewriter here, an old telephone there. Up near the entrance, a statue of the Buddha presides over the steps down into the belly of the barge.

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As is the case with many secondhand bookshops that rely on the cast-offs of anglophone readers, who often don’t read many translations, for their stock, the selection of books originating from other languages isn’t massive. However, I do happen upon Nick Caistor’s translation of The Hare by Argentine writer César Aira in the fiction section.

What Word on the Water may lack in international literature, however, it easily makes up for in passion. When I go to pay for the Aira, co-owner Jonathan Privett talks warmly about his experience co-running the barge. He tells me that sourcing titles from charity shops and house clearances is one of his favourite parts of the enterprise, and that he wouldn’t change his 20 years in the book trade for anything – even if the rewards are rarely financial.

‘I love doing this,’ he says. ‘If it was about making money, I would have got a job.’

Before I leave, Jon kindly poses for a photo with his dog, Star, who has been punctuating our conversation with some enthusiastic barks as she waits for Jon to play fetch with her on the towpath.

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As I climb out of the boat, he invites me to come back and do a reading from my novel, Beside Myself, sometime. I might just have to do that.

Then again, perhaps Word on the Water will come to me…

World bookshopper: #4 Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath

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Picture a classic, old-fashioned bookshop: square-paned windows, handsome wooden bookcases, lots of nooks and crannies in which to escape into stories. Now imagine that this space has been given over to a lovable eccentric with a penchant for rare and quirky things.

If you concentrate hard enough, what you come up with may be something approaching Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights. That’s the bookshop I found myself in this week. And it is quite simply one of the most charming wordmonger’s I’ve had the pleasure of visiting to date.

Mr B’s is in Bath, a handsome city in south-west England that was the site of elaborate Roman baths and became a popular spa town in Georgian times (many of Jane Austen’s characters frequent the place). Like St George’s in Bermuda – the home of my previous World bookshopper store – it’s a World Heritage Site.

I was at Mr B’s to meet six other novelists, all of us published by Bloomsbury, in advance of a joint event we were doing at the Bath Literature Festival. I was excited to chat to these writers – among them Natasha Pulley, author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, David Savill (They are Trying to Break Your Heart), Ali Shaw (The Trees – such a great premise) and Paul M M Cooper, who wrote the achingly beautiful River of Ink. But the shop was so fascinating that, while the others made their introductions and swapped anecdotes about their journeys, I found myself irresistibly drawn away to explore its three floors.

There were unexpected delights round every corner. An antique Remington typewriter perched nonchalantly on a step. One wall of the staircase up to the top floor was papered with pages from a comic. A bath filled with books nestled under one of the windows. In the basement, the ceiling was covered with cloth tote bags from other indie bookshops around the world.

But perhaps the crowning glory was the upstairs Bibliotherapy Room, an idyllic space, complete with a complimentary coffee pot and a modern take on a roaring fire (a clever, gas-fired gizmo, glazed in so as to keep the books and their prospective buyers safe). No doubt, had one of Austen’s heroines wandered in from the narrow street outside, she would have felt right at home whiling away an hour or two here.

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This attention to detail is backed up by a rich and full selection of merchandise, with sections including ‘Books about Books’, ‘Graphic Novels’, ‘Food & Drink’ and a case of ‘Livres, Bücher, Livros’ (titles in French, German and Spanish).

The extensive fiction section bristles with tempting translations, alongside anglophone big hitters. The usual suspects are there – Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 hovers a shelf above a rabble of Jo Nesbøs, while a Sofi Oksanen stares up winningly nearby. Nobel laureates are out in force too, with strong showings from Orhan Pamuk and Naguib Mahfouz.

However, the selection is easily broad enough to allow for new discoveries. I was particularly pleased to spot a handwritten staff recommendation for Danish author Carsten Jensen’s We, the Drowned. Although this book was hailed as an instant European classic when it was published a few years back, I had not come across it before (needless to say, it is now on my lengthy to-read list).

This sort of personal touch is Mr B’s strongest suit of all. While I am browsing, several customers come in and ask for particular titles or genres. The staff respond enthusiastically, revealing not only extensive knowledge of the bibliouniverse, but also a profound love of books. As I listen, I discover a little heart-shaped wire frame on the wall, full of cards on which visitors have recommended their favourite books – titles by Helen Dunmore, JK Rowling, Brady Udall and Richard Yates all feature.

Clearly, Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights is not just a place to buy books, but to share and cherish them too. Small wonder that in 10 years of trading, it has twice been named the UK’s Independent Bookshop of the Year.

Do pop along if you get the chance.

World bookshopper: #3 The Book Cellar, St George’s

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If you want to go to The Book Cellar in Bermuda, you have to pick your moment carefully. The first time I visit this store, located in 265-year-old Tucker House on Water Street in St George’s, it is shut.

According to the owner of the shop next door – which is open that day – this is not unusual. Many of the businesses in the historic settlement of St George’s – a UNESCO World Heritage Site said to be the oldest continuously inhabited English town in the New World – keep part-time and sometimes unpredictable hours. In fact, that week the business owners were due to be having a meeting about it to see if they could agree a joint opening schedule that would help create more consistent buzz around the town, which has suffered since cruise ships stopped visiting this end of the island.

Luckily for me, the Bermudian friends I was staying with know Kristin White, the owner of The Book Cellar. After an exchange of emails, Steve and I make arrangements for a return visit at a time when we are certain the store will be open.

Kristin is just setting up as we arrive, pushing back the shutters to reveal a sign promising ‘Books’, ‘Toys, Gifts & Souvenirs’, ‘Art’ and, intriguingly, ‘Oddities’. She welcomes us warmly and it immediately becomes apparent that, while her shop may keep part-time hours, Kristin’s love of stories and the community of St George’s is a full-time, wholehearted commitment.

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As well as running the bookshop, with local poet Yesha Townsend, Kristin is development director of the St George’s Foundation and the town’s cultural tourism manager. She stars in a weekly ghost tour she created to bring some of the place’s 400 years of history to life. In addition, she writes creative non-fiction, and recently masterminded a historical murder-mystery evening at a nearby restaurant, using a scandal that took place in the town several centuries ago.

While I wander around the shop, she is constantly greeting customers, talking to fellow business owners and waving to people passing in the street.

Kristin’s creativity and enthusiasm are strongly reflected in The Book Cellar. Its two, small rooms are crammed with fascinating stories and objects, and there are several works by local artists on display.

Up on the shelf near the doorway into the second room, an old hardback volume stands, fanned open with the word ‘Love’ carved into its pages. On a table nearby, a newspaper-wrapped oblong promises the purchaser a ‘Blind Date with a Book’ for the bargain price of $5. Whoever is bold enough to buy it will know only that the package contains ‘Young adult fiction perfect for readers of adventure & action’ – until they hand their money over.

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Although the selection of new books is very small, it is eclectic. Alongside various poetry volumes, as well as Suzanne Finamore’s Split: A Memoir of DivorceCheat: A Man’s Guide to Infidelity and Greg Kading’s sensational-sounding Murder Rap: The Untold Story of the Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur Murder Investigations, I am pleased to see a number of translations, including Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

When I remark on this to Kristin, she tells me that, when she took over the store four years ago, her aim was to focus on international fiction, as it is a particular interest of hers. The stock is low at the moment, but she and Yesha plan to reassess and bring in some more books in the coming months, with several trips to literary events abroad on their wish list.

Meanwhile, The Book Cellar’s second-hand section is thriving. You can almost hear the shelves in the back room groaning under the weight of the titles stacked on them. And although the selection here is fairly mainstream and anglophone – a lot of James Pattersons, Dick Francises and Stephanie Meyers, some Anne Fadiman, a Tom Wolfe and two copies of Bill Clinton’s My Life – there are some more unusual finds to be had. Over by the window, Steve spots the gekiga manga Path of the Assassin by Japanese writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojim.

Back in the new books section, I settle on Ways of Dying by the South African writer Zakes Mda. I take it to the till and pay as Kristin tells me about plans she has for two further tours in the town – one to do with food and the other, a bicycle trip.

‘When people ask me what I do, I say I sell story,’ she says. ‘St George’s main export is story.’

Back on Water Street, walking down towards the main square, where even now a ducking-stool juts out above the water showing where town gossips used to be dunked in the sea (and re-enactors still get wet from time to time), I can’t help thinking she’s right.

Book of the month: Fariba Hachtroudi

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A few weeks ago, I had a rather dramatic flying experience. Travelling from New York to a mystery destination (which will be revealed in the next World bookshopper post), I ended up having to take three flights in place of one when my plane was unable to land because of high winds. We were sent back to JFK and flew back for a second (successful) landing attempt later the same day.

Spending seven hours doing a journey that you had expected to take less than two is rarely fun. Luckily for me, the silver lining in this – rather turbulent – cloud was that I had an excellent novel with me that managed to keep me enthralled for much of the journey. The book was The Man Who Snapped His Fingers, the English-language debut from French-Iranian author Fariba Hachtroudi – and it impressed me so much that when I finally got off that third flight, not only shaken by the journey but very much stirred by what I’d read, I knew that I wanted to tell you about it.

Premises don’t come much more gripping than this one: years after a brief encounter in a torture chamber, a former senior official of a tyrannical Theological Republic and a woman who was one of the regime’s myriad victims come face to face. This time, the power balance is reversed. The former colonel is in the final stages of a last-ditch attempt to secure asylum in a northern European state; the erstwhile victim is his translator, and his only hope of winning the visa that will save his life.

As the translation angle might suggest, this is a book about words and storytelling, and the power they have to free, enslave and condemn. As the narrative alternates between the perspectives of the asylum seeker and the translator, gradually revealing their troubled and intertwined histories, we witness the way that human beings construct accounts in an attempt to establish and preserve their identities. With the drip, drip, drip of what happened comes the erosion of the concept of objective truth.

The writing, translated by Alison Anderson, ably reflects and develops this theme. The descriptions are sharp, vivid and brutal. Calling to mind some of the best passages of works such as Jérôme Ferrari’s Where I Left my Soul and Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop, they stretch language on the rack of human experience, testing its limits to contain and express suffering and trauma.

As a result, this is not a book for the fainthearted. It is also not a book for readers who prioritise plot over substance.

When I started it shortly after take-off, I half expected the narrative to pursue a sensationalist line, with the translator exploiting her power to twist and shape the asylum seeker’s story as a means of exacting revenge. In fact, Hachtroudi’s choices are much more interesting than that and the novel is much richer and more thought-provoking as a result. Instead of events, ideas take centre stage – from the ways we construct ourselves, to conflicting notions of love.

This may mean that the The Man Who Snapped His Fingers is too diffuse and slow-moving for some tastes. Indeed, Europa Editions has done well not to jump on the thriller marketing bandwagon with this one. (The grabby premise is only loosely described in the jacket copy, with the emphasis placed instead on the sifting of the past that the character’s encounter provokes – a much more accurate reflection of the book than a campaign focusing on the opening hook would probably achieve.)

All the same, from where I was sitting (in seat 17C or thereabouts), the slower pace and looser-than-anticipated plot only heightened the novel’s appeal. I was gripped, through three rather bumpy attempted landings, a return flight, an hour’s wait and yet another take-off. I’m not sure many books would stand up to such a test.

The Man Who Snapped His Fingers (Le Colonel et l’appât) by Fariba Hactroudi, translated from the French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2016)

Twin audiobook giveaway results

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Many thanks to those who took the time to tell me about their favourite twin novels. As always happens when I ask readers for advice, there were some thought-provoking suggestions.

Familiar English-language titles, such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, featured alongside several other world classics. I was particularly grateful to Barbara for recommending Erich Kästner’s Das doppelte Lottchen. I watched the 1961 The Parent Trap recently, but hadn’t appreciated that it was an adaptation of this German novel.

I was also pleased to see that Dutch novelist Tessa de Loo’s The Twins appeared among the tips. I came across it some years ago and can agree with Betsy that it is a very worthwhile read.

Several of the titles you suggested were unfamiliar to me. I was particularly intrigued by Hungarian author Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook, which Sabina brought to my attention. From what I’ve read about it online, it sounds like a fabulous book – even if, as Gremrien warned, it is rather dark.

In the end, though, I could only pick two winners to receive an audiobook of my own twin novel, Beside Myself. After much deliberation, I plumped for two commenters who had not only suggested tempting titles that were new to me, but had also described them in intriguing ways that have already sent me scampering off to track them down. They are Lizsmithtrailingspouse, for her suggestion of Italian classic The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and Gremrien, who suggested Anatoly Pristavkin’s The Inseparable Twins.

Congratulations to them and very many thanks to everyone else. Winners, I’ll be in touch.

World bookshopper: #2 Rizzoli Bookstore, NYC

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At first glance, there’s a huge contrast between Rizzoli Bookstore on Broadway and the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, which was the subject of my first world bookshopper review. Where HW is charmingly quirky and a little worn round the edges, much like many of the titles on its shelves, Rizzoli gleams. And while a large part of the fun of visiting the former has to do with the fact you never know what lucky finds might leap out at you from the donated titles ranged on the shelves, curatorial flair and selectivity are the name of the game at Rizzoli, which reopened at 1133 Broadway last year, after closing its previous store on 57th Street.

On the day I go, the main window is given over to one title alone: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. Copies of this lavish book – created to tie in with an eponymous exhibition, which was showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – are deftly stacked and propped to catch the eye of people passing along the snow-heaped sidewalk. Their uniformity is broken only occasionally by a Lonely Planet guide to Africa, several blue ceramic animals, a book on African art and a copy of Alaa Al Aswany’s The Automobile Club of Egypt – stylish touches that set off the handsome hardback admirably.

The same keen aesthetic sense is apparent when I get inside. Black pillars flank a harlequin marble floor. The wooden bookshelves shine warmly, proclaiming the subject matter of their contents in tasteful, serif font. Above them, a mural showing clouds against an azure sky softens the effect of the monochrome stone. Small wonder that the shop’s website proclaims it ‘the most beautiful bookstore in New York’ – someone has given its interior a lot of thought.

This appreciation of the visual finds its echo in the store’s merchandise. Substantial sections are given over to architecture, art, photography and design. Audrey Hepburn gazes coolly from the covers of many of the books devoted to fashion.

Similar care and taste goes into the selection of titles in the new fiction and new non-fiction sections too. I spot the latest offerings from international names such as Leila Aboulela, Per Petterson, Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburō Ōe, as well as books by Stephen King, Sally Mann and Patti Smith.

There are also collectors’ items, such as the awesome The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by translation celebrity Ann Goldstein (she of Elena Ferrante fame). Housed in a glossy casing, this handsome three-volume celebration of the Italian holocaust survivor’s extraordinary oeuvre seems to demand lofty surroundings. I decide that if I wanted to buy it and own it, I would first have to sell my little flat and purchase somewhere much bigger, with a library handsome enough to do it justice.

Opposite the new fiction and non-fiction area, a literature section contains collections of essays – or what are described on the shelf as ‘belles lettres’ – as well as poetry and more paperback fiction. Allen Ginsberg rubs shoulders with Lena Dunham, and there are works by Mikhail Bulgakov and Peter Carey too.

Nearby, a stand of Italian- and French-language fiction tempts me for a moment to dust off my A-level French and try something in the original.

In the end, though, my head is turned by Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole’s novel, Every Day is for the Thief. (On the flight out of New York – during which I devour this novel in one go – I’m very grateful for this decision. Not only is this novel about a Nigerian man’s return to Lagos after years in the States exceptional – seriously, you should read it – but it occurs to me that I wouldn’t have been able to fit a French dictionary into my hand luggage. I resolve to schedule my next bout of French-language reading for a time when I am not in transit.)

As I queue to pay for the Cole and pick up a postcard bearing a tasteful photograph of the bookstore at the counter, I am struck by a thought. The care and attention that goes into choosing and presenting books beautifully at Rizzoli actually has a lot in common with the come-one-come-all eclecticism of Housing Works.

In their contrasting ways, both these distinctive stores are physical embodiments of a love of books and a desire to create a good environment in which to share them. At root, the people behind them share many of the same beliefs – that the written word is important and necessary, that it has power to make the world better, and that it should be showcased in a joyful space where people relish spending time.

I step out through the stylish glass door into the chill of the Manhattan winter. Already, I am eager to see where my world bookshopping will take me next…

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