29.4.13

'Minotaur' by Benjamin Tammuz

The keen readers amongst you will have noticed a few Europa Editions posts amongst my reviews of late; this, the third, is Minotaur by Benjamin Tammuz. Minotaur, an Israeli novel originally published in Hebrew in 1989, is the story of a handful of individuals who form the four-corners-of-a-love-square, if you will, bound and connected by obsession, desire and perverse, destructive love. Each character takes a part of the narrative, which begins with an Israeli secret agent noticing a beautiful teenager on a London bus on his forty-first birthday...

I found this book to be an addictive and riveting novel of doomed noir, reminiscent of John le Carre's European spies, but backlit by Middle Eastern dust, sunshine and politics. The telescopic narrative, narrated by the four to the story's conclusion, felt akin to moving down a tunnel which progressively narrows and tightens until it collapses in on itself, trapping the reader, as well as all the characters, as the title might suggest. It is claustrophobic, thick with secrets and ambiguities, and written/translated in a sparse and elegiac hand. I read it in a day on holiday, falling further and further into the twists and turns of the story, before reaching its conclusive and satisfying end.

Surprisingly, given the Israeli and European links of both the author and the story, this story felt quite Japanese to me, and reminiscent of the characters and tone of a number of modern Japanese writers, such as Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami. A number of the main motifs are there: the distant, nostalgia-fulled, almost-invented relationship between the central male character and his idealised object of affection - who seems to offer beaming salvation to him based  purelyon a look, a face, a memory - wasn't dissimilar to the relationship between Shimamoto and Hajime in Murakami's South of the Border, West of the Sun. This book also features crippling, inescapable loneliness as well themes of delayed gratification, narcissistic love and ambiguous self-concealment, which felt Japanese to me in description and tone. This gave it a langourous elegance and an extra layer of interest which might serve to expand its possible readership if anyone else picks up on that also. This, layered upon the dry heat of a settlement and several of the most intriguing corners of Europe, adds up to a cosmopolitan and complex novel which unfurls slowly and deliberately until its final page.

My only criticism would be based around the structure of the book: I found the final section to be a bit long and in need of different voice or another type of variation, but overall I found this to be an unsettling, beguiling and addictive literary thriller, awash with noir and atmosphere, which has stayed darkly in my mind in the weeks since reading.

Title: Minotaur
Author: Benjamin Tammuz, translated from the Hebrew by Kim Parfitt and Mildred Budny
Publisher: Europa Editions
Publication date: Original 1989, translation 8th May 2013
Format: Paperback, 185 pages, and I was sent it by Europa as an ARC.

15.4.13

'The Hunger Games Trilogy' by Suzanne Collins

I know I'm possibly the last book blogger on earth to read Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games Trilogy, so I'm not going to go on about them because, frankly, what's the point? There must be thousands of beautifully written reviews of these three books out there and I don't feel a great need to add to them, so let me just say I LOVED these books. 

I ate up all three in three days and haven't stopped thinking about them since. And Katniss! What a character. What a feminist icon, although I imagine she's sick of meaning so much to so many, so I'll say that once and move on. Full, fleshed-out, flawed characters in a beautifully conceived world that presents both a horrifying reality and an almost impossible range of obstacles, which a fabulously diverse and powerful group of people manage to overcome, albeit it at devastating cost to themselves. I take a thousand hats off to Suzanne Collins, and a thousand hats off to the keener-than-me readers who made this such a great word-of-mouth hit.

And the second film trailer is out...


 

14.3.13

'My Brilliant Friend' by Elena Ferrante

I'm breaking my silence of almost a month for a book I absolutely loved - My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. It tells the story of Elena and Lila, two girls growing up in 1950s Naples, which is as brutal and volatile as you might imagine, and in this book is vividly and evocatively portrayed. The complex friendship that exists between the two girls contains all the elements that I recall from the close friendships of my teens: their bond is combative, competitive, intimate and subject to an ever changing power dynamic, played out across some of the most formative years of their lives. I loved it.

The episodic structure and language are both very classical - my one criticism might be that it needed a little more narrative thrust - but I found that this book had knives hidden within the text - sharp points that made me pause or wince with their perceptiveness - that mimicked the blades that so often flash within the story. Elena Ferrante, whose real identity is only know by her Italian publisher, although it's assumed she's a woman, is a serious, interesting, incisive writer, and I look forward to reading more of her books. I felt that she really cut through to the marrow of relationships and situations, but in a very sympathetic manner, meaning that no-one in this Neopolitan quagmire of vendetta and violent is really blamed or excused, although some are very heavily implicated. This felt like a very close book, like Ferrante has lived this and knows that community and the people within it: that quote about Edith Wharton describing things as familiarly as if she loved them and as lucidly as if she hated them (I'm paraphrasing) actually springs to mind, and feels like it might really apply.

The translation is also very good, save the odd overly heavy or overly short sentence, with some beautiful language choices:
'It was an unforgettable moment. We went towards Via Caracciolo, as the wind grew stronger, the sun brighter. Vesuvius was a delicate pastel-coloured shape, at whose base the whitish stones of the city were piled up, with the earth-coloured slice of the Castel dell'Ovo, and the sea. But what a sea. It was very rough, and loud; the wind took your breath away, pasted your clothes to your body and blew the hair off your forehead. We stayed on the other side of the street in a small crowd, watching the spectacle. The waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white foam on their peaks, then broke into a thousand glittering splinters and came up to the street with an oh of wonder and fear from those watching. What a pity that Lila wasn't there.'
At times this was not a peaceful read, but I felt it to be sharp and honest and pulsating with life. The ending is spectacular, although you're not going to hear it from me! It also felt very wise in its dealing with the difficulties of growing up, and how the realisation that you've irrevocably changed can be as challenging for you as for those around you, but once life has moved on, there's no going back.The subversion of the title that occurs towards the end also felt masterful. I really recommend this book, and I'm thrilled to read that this is part one of a trilogy.

Bravo all round.

Title:  My Brilliant Friend Author: Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein Publisher: Europe Editions Date: Original 2012, translation 2012 Format: Paperback, 331 pages, and I was sent it by Europa Editions for review.

15.2.13

In Which I Have Some Quiet Time...

Hey all, apologies for the quiet on here as late, but I am tres busy doing many things and have rediscovered a somewhat forgotten pleasure: reading for myself, and myself alone. It won't last too long I don't think - I'll very soon have something I am desperate to say - but for now I'm enjoying the experience of it being just me, myself and my page.

In the last few weeks I have read Lewis Hyde's The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, which was quite beautiful and profound, and made me realise some truths like I'm not at all unusual for the type of person I am, and that I'll never be rich unless my writing takes off as I'll always put a lid on my professional activity to leave room for my creative endeavours. A really great book if you're into that kind of thing. I also read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a devastating work of schmaltz, and disappointing similar to Everything is Illuminated, which I think is the superior novel. 

Last week there was a glorious re-read of Girl With a Pearl Earring, a quiet classic ever-present in my mind, and also a delve through The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, which made me both sad and excited for the future, but seemed to willfully ignore the fact that not all women in the workplace are Google execs who can demand that their company pay for a business class flight for their nanny so they can commit fully to family and the workplace at the same time, and the some such. 

There was also too much focus on one socio-economic and racial group, not enough consideration of welfare, single parenthood or the fact that not everyone has all the components of family and economic life lined up like ducks waiting to be utilised, like idle grandmothers and houses near head offices so they can be the CEO, if just their husband would help them with the washing up. It was well-written though, clipped along at an entertaining pace and I did recognise several people in my life within it.

Anyway, should you miss me until my next post there's always my column to read, as well as my short story Poinsettias, which appears in Danse Macabre #66 (if you click through, turn your sound up.)

x

31.1.13

'The Mussel Feast' by Birgit Vanderbeke

Although not part an official part of mine and Sam's triumphant Peirene Press Readathon which came to a close last week, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke is the newest Peirene Press publication upcoming so I thought I'd review it here using the same pattern as before. Regular readers of this blog will now be more than familiar with the Peirene brand (!) so will understand what I mean when I say that this book is the first in the 'Turning Points: Revolutionary Moments' series.

So,  in short, The Mussel Feast is about a small scale revolution that happens within a German family one night when the tyrannical father of the family does not come home as planned. Having fallen into a years-long pattern of submitting to his will - the children in the family are teenagers at this point - the mother has cooked mussels for his return even though no-one else in the household really likes them. Over the course of the evening, the children talk and the wine comes out and the facade of happiness falls even from the face of the mother, who has been a passively unhappy stoic in the face of her husband irrational wrath for many a year.

I loved this book - it's up their with the best of Peirene, and the best of modern literature. For a book so troubled in tone, I found it to be funny and inventive, and with surprising flashes of relatability to  familiar aspects of family life: 
 'Everything in our lives revolved around us having to behave as if we were a proper family, as my father pictured a family to be because he hadn't had one himself and so didn't know what a proper family was, although he'd developed the most detailed notions of what one was like...they may have been incredibly precise, but were impossible to fathom as none of us understood the logic behind them.'
Just last night I told my husband that we should turn the television off ans have a proper conversation, based, I suppose, on my ideas of how we, as our own little family, should behave :) The crux of the problem with this in the book  though is that the father is wholly rigid and arbitrary in his illogical rule-making - whilst feeling himself to be a last bastion of logic and science - and is inflexible enough not to be able to bend for such small family considerations as individual character or domestic happiness. What he says goes, until this fateful evening when he doesn't come home.
'And we glared at the mussels until my mother fetched from the fridge the wine meant for that evening's celebration. It was Sp├Ątlese, a special one...in fact we ought not to have been drinking it before my father arrived home, but we couldn't spend the whole evening staring at the vile mussels , with my mother feeling bilious. She opened the wine and we felt terribly insubordinate.'
I found it fascinating to consider this in light of the quote from Birgit Vanderbeke on the back of the book which says that she '...wrote this book in August 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall...' as she wanted '...understand how revolutions start. It seemed logical to use the figure of a tyrannical father and turn it into a German family saga.' Suddenly the story means so many other things, and I found it very interesting to context the twists and turns of the narrative in the context of revolutions, both historical and recent.  The narration, which comes in a breathless, intuitively meandering first person from the teenage daughter, rings true with all the little asides and explanations that one would give in telling a secret family story, and I loved the intimacy that created between myself and the characters within it. As a reader, I pitied them, I laughed with them and I related to them, and by the end I wanted to throw those mussels out of the window and shake them all by the hand :)

As I said before, I loved this book. There was a bit about the father being particularly bad-tempered after being forced so sit down and do his tax return that had me laughing outloud, and, without giving the ending away, the story ends on a dynamic, hopeful note that makes reading it a satisfying and fulfilling roller coaster ride.  

The reviews in our Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine) ¦ (Sam's)

Peirene Discussion Post #1 - Female Voices: Inner Realities

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (mine) ¦ (Sam's) 
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (mine) ¦ (Sam's) 

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (mine) ¦ Sam's 
Peirene Discussion Post #2 - Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy
 
The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg (mine)  ¦ (Sam's)
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Peirene Discussion Post #3 - Small Epics: Unravelling Secrets

Title:  The Mussel Feast
Author:  Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Publisher: Peirene Press
Date: Original 1990, translation 2013
Format: Paperback, 105 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press to review as I wished.


 

25.1.13

Peirene Press Readathon, No. 12: 'Small Epics' Discussion Post

Today we have our third and final Peirene Press readathon discussion post, of the 'Small Epic: Unravelling Secrets' series, which is made up of The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg, The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul and Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe (for reviews, see the links at the bottom of the page.) 

For those who don't know, Peirene Press is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which have not been translated into English prior to now. Peirene novellas are organised into groups of three because of thematic and other similarities, the idea being that they inform and comment on each other.

Here are mine and Sam's thoughts on the series:

L: Hi Sam, how are you? Have you enjoyed the 'Small Epics: Unravelling Secrets' series? Did you have a particular favourite?

S: Before we started the readalong, this was the series I was most anticipating and it hasn't disappointed. Although I enjoyed all three, The Brothers was my favourite. I loved the gothic, wintery setting and the atmosphere that crept into the story. It was the book that most transported me to another time and place (Finland) and the author kept me guessing with all the family secrets and twists and turns. As I love historical fiction, it probably isn't a surprise that I enjoyed this one so much! 


L: That's fab; for me, my favourite is a tie between The Brothers and The Murder of Halland - I loved them both! I agree with your thoughts on the beautiful atmosphere and unexpected plot line of The Brothers; I found it so completely immersive and evocative, and so wide in scope and meaning. Just thinking about it now, I feel chilly, and I can picture the enormous, war-like horse! I loved The Murder of Halland for different reasons: it really got under my skin. I loved the narration, the nature and complex ambiguity of the story and the way in which Bess, the main character, was allowed to be irrational, passive and downright exhausted for a lot of the story. It seemed to me to be a very enlightened and honest account of grief and it still crosses my mind often.


L: Do you think these three books deserve the title of 'Small Epics'? 


S: The Brothers and Sea of Ink were unquestionably epic, but The Murder of Halland doesn't seem as grand initially. But it is epic in terms of the journey the central character takes emotionally after the murder of her husband.


L: Yeah, I came to a similar conclusion: the fact that after reading The Murder of Halland I feel I have a better understanding of the experience of grief definitely pushes it into 'epic' territory, as that's quite a thing to achieve! It easy to see, with the scope of the novellas, and the way the specific stories speak of the world in general terms, why The Brothers and Sea of Ink come under the 'Small Epic' title. It's perhaps particularly clever, in fact, that the books are grouped in this to make us actually this about what an 'epic' really is.

L: Considering that they are linked as a thematic trio, did you see any similarities between them, or any common themes? Any differences, also? 

S: Tricky question! The settings and time periods are all very different. Sea of Ink and The Murder of Halland are both about individuals in difficult circumstances (political upheaval in China and a murder investigation) whereas The Brothers is more about how a family unit reacts to a difficult circumstance (war). But then The Murder of Halland and The Brothers are linked as they are concerned with family relationships and what family means to us.


L: That's true. I think another strong similarity is that they are all concerned with the true finding of self: The Brothers have to alter what they believe to be the truths about their lives radically, and Bess in Halland finds that she really didn't know her partner or her ex-husband at all, whilst getting to know her estranged daughter, who is a huge part of her self. And in Sea of Ink, Bada Shanren has a great number of different incarnations; so much so that he keeps changing his name! That exploration of truth, secrets and humanity felt like a common theme to me. As for differences....I can only think of superficial ones. 

L: Seeing as this is our final discussion post, how do the first three books, from Female Voices, appear in the context of the other six? And Male Dilemma? Do you see any similarities throughout all nine?

S: I've really enjoyed the readathon. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the first book in each series (Beside the Sea for 'Female Voices', Next World Novella for 'Male Dilemma' and The Brothers for 'Small Epics') the most, although I can't think of a logical reason for this! Aside from top quality writing, all the novellas deal mainly with the human condition and put you inside the head of a range of distinctive characters. I'm glad that I've read them all, especially some that I would never have picked up without the readalong.


L: That's so funny! I'd say my favourites have been The Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, Stone in a Landslide, The Brothers and The Murder of Halland, so no particular patterns there :) Agreed on the huge mix of wildly interesting characters, and kudos to Peirene for placing so many unsympathetic and challenging ones in there too. Cheesy I know, but having read them all, I'll read everything they publish from now on as I trust them to pick good books for me!

It's been interesting in this last week to re-read Sea of Ink in the context of the other books, and in the right order, as I started with that one back in September. Now, I can see that Bada Shanren, whilst being Chinese, historical and based upon a real painter, has a huge amount in common with the most modern European literary creations, which I suppose is a reminder of the fact that people and what it means to be human rarely change. 

The reviews in our Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine)
¦(Sam's)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine) ¦ (Sam's)

Peirene Discussion Post #1 - Female Voices: Inner Realities

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (mine) ¦ (Sam's) 
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (mine) ¦ (Sam's) 

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (mine) ¦ Sam's 
Peirene Discussion Post #2 - Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy
 

The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg (mine)  ¦ (Sam's)
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul (mine) ¦ (Sam's)

Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
 

22.1.13

'The Island of Last Truth' by Flavia Company

I finished The Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company last week, but alas, I've been poorly, so I'm just reviewing it now.

The Island of Last Truth is the story of Mathew Prendel, a doctor with a penchant for sailing that ends up getting him marooned on a desert island in the South Atlantic after encountering pirates on one of his expeditions. However, he is not alone (dun dun dun!) The story is told to us as it was told to his girlfriend years afterwards, just before his death, from whence she then goes to tidy up the loose ends for him, so to speak (those aren't spoilers by the way - you find all that out on the first page.)

Unfortunately, this book was underwhelming for me. The first chapters were very engaging, and because I like fiction in translation (this was originally written in Catalan), I had high hopes. The story of how Mathew ends up on the island was interesting and well illustrated, but the tale of his exploits on the island was too far-fetched for me to think it realistic, but too realistic for it to be some kind of mystical story, or an allegory of sorts. 

It probably suffered from me having seen, and loved, Life of Pi at the cinema recently, but I'm not sure it knows on which side of the fence it wants to sit: it was neither plausible as a true story nor actually representative of something else. I'm also not really a fan of popular thrillers and by the ending it's very much going that way, so it wasn't really for me.

Some of the writing is lovely though, and the translation itself is well done (this book actually shares a translator with Stone in a Landslide which I've recently reviewed). For instance:
The mother, naturally, cries. How many times must she have cried without realizing it, while she made a meal, or the beds, or did the laundry. As though she were coughing or sneezing. Her children don't look at her. Her husband, on the other hand, moves a hand closer to her and she takes it as if he were passing her the salt or the bread, in any case something she has asked for because she needs it.
 Overall, an interesting book and a good translation, but one for fans of thrillers or shipwrecks, rather than me.

Title: The Island of Last Truth
Author: Flavia Company, translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin
Publisher: Europe Editions
Date: Original 2011, translation 2012
Format: Paperback, 124 pages, and I was sent it by Europa Editions for review.


 
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