We cannot count the ways the summer has gone bananas – and, foul as it is, we don’t wish to restrict our remarks to the weather, as Mrs Dashwood so exhorted Margaret to do in Emma Thompson’s fine script for ‘Sense and Sensibility’. Jane Austen, wit and novelist of all delight, who died two hundred years ago last month, has recently been celebrated by the leader of the House of Commons as “one of our greatest living authors”. Great art clearly lives forever…
But the Great Banana of the moment is a Japanese woman, Banana Yoshimoto, whose latest novel ‘Moshi Moshi’ is selling very well and is adored by several of us here, as is her earlier ‘Kitchen’. Both share an understated and bittersweet homeliness, with just enough oddness, a curious and deliciously quiet surrealism, to slide the reader into a parallel world.
Another in the recent favourites section of our Summer Catalague is Salley Rooney’s ‘Conversations with Friends’. The characters in this romantic comedy hide their vulnerabilities beneath layers of sarcasm, irony and intellectual-snobbery – it’s a fantastically enjoyable picking-apart of the obsessive and contradictory millennial psyche. So say the millennials in the shop, at any rate. Other pleasures we have been enjoying are William Finnegan’s Pulitzer-winning memoir, ‘Barbarian Days’; ‘The Return’ by Hisham Matar, ditto, and again.
A consistent pleasure of our catalogues is seeing particular books do well, which might otherwise disappear leaving little trace. The Summer list contains three such semi-anomalies, all of which are doing very much better than the new novels by some very well known authors. One is Louise Foxcroft’s ‘Gayer-Anderson: The Life & Afterlife of an Irish Pasha’, published late last year by the American University of Cairo. It’s based on the journals of Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson (1881-1945), Egyptologist, poet, surgeon, soldier, psychic, and collector; wrestler of crocodiles, veteran of Gallipoli, friend of TE Lawrence, Eric Gill, Conan Doyle… A short biography of a fascinating practitioner of the Stiff Upper Lip.
The other two are classics of world literature – ‘The Conference of the Birds’, Farid al-Din Attar’s twelfth-century mystical epic, newly translated by award-winning poet Sholeh Wolpé, and ‘The Tale of Genji’ by Murasaki Shikibu, in a new translation by Dennis Washburn. This is generally regarded as the world’s earliest novel, written in C11th Japan by a lady-in-waiting at the Heian imperial court. Both are published – and beautifully so – by Norton & Co. It is very heartening that these books, so far from the mainstream of publishing, have struck a chord with so many of the discerning readers of our catalogues.
And we have had another brush with Japan recently, when a charming person came to visit the shop several times, with unfailing politeness, to spend hours looking, exploring, talking, noting, photographing. The result may be read here . The author’s name is Reina Shimizu, a writer and journalist based in Tokyo. We have had to rely on Google Translate to interpret her article, which is full of kindness and humour. And flattery. Sandoe’s is to be found where Mary Quant ‘sent a miniskirt to the world’ at the end of the 1950s; and as for our parcels, “in order to deliver the book in perfect condition, for example, orders of lucky people living in the small island of Greece are delivered from the helicopter in the form of dropping on the ground”. It’s a lovely piece, Reina, thorough and trouble-taking; we know what you mean even if something has gone delightfully wonky in translation. We are very grateful to you.