Peirene Press Readathon, No. 8: 'Male Dilemma' Series Discussion Post

It's Sam's turn to host our Peirene Press Readathon discussion post for the 'Male Voices: Quest for Intimacy' series this month, so follow this link to find our discussion of Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki, Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen and Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig. Reviews for the next book in the series, The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg, will appear on both our blogs on Thursday 3rd January 2013!

So, I'm not going to do a 2012 round-up post because, frankly, my head is already too full of icing and holly, but I will happily direct you to a guest post I did on These Little Words last month about my favourite book of 2012.

Also, you should check out, if you've not done so already, Homespun Threads, an e-anthology that features a childrens' story of mine, just in time for Christmas, which is available through both Amazon and Smashwords. There's also a short story of mine featured in Issue #19 of The Bicycle Review, published just a few days ago, which is hopefully worth a read, even though it's not at all Christmassy, lol.

Well, I hope you all have a lovely break, whatever you're doing and whatever you're celebrating, and I'll see you back here in 2013! 


'Christmas Pudding' by Nancy Mitford

So, I received this gorgeous, holiday-keepsake, hard-cover copy of Christmas Pudding by the glorious Nancy Mitford direct from the lovely hands of Capuchin Classics, a small London publisher who specialise in 'reviving works of fiction that have been unjustly forgotten or neglected', and what a lovely time I've had with it! 

Y'all know I love me some Mitford, after all, and I feel that this might be the perfect witty, sparkling antidote to all that Christmas sentimentality that can start to cloy as the big day approaches: the dry, sharp champagne to wash down all the overly-sweet office party nibbles, if you will.

The plot revolves, as all the Mitford novels I've read do, around a group of highly-monied and highly-cutting party animals who gad about town glossing over heartbreak and ruin, pouring themselves more drinks and being wildly funny as they go. The central plot of sorts centres on Paul Fotheringay, a poor but charming young writer who is most depressed that his début novel, a work of great, sweeping tragedy, has been deemed the funniest book if the year and categorised by most as a farce. Put out by this as he is, he decides that his next work with be a biography, a genre he sees as the height of sober respectability, and settles quite randomly on writing the life of Lady Maria Bobbin, a 19th-century poet, whose descendants still live at Compton Bobbin, a grand Tudor pile in the Gloucestershire countryside. 

Paul's request to see Lady Maria's diaries and personal correspondence subsequently refused, he and the lovely Amabelle, a doyenne of the circle with a risqué past, concoct a plan to get him hired at Compton Bobbin as a tutor, whereupon he falls in love with the daughter of the house, the beautiful if bashful Philadelphia Bobbin. With another suitor on the scene and a biography to write in secret, plus all the aforementioned gadding about town, things get rather complicated over their Christmas in the countryside.

The joy of this book is the humour, which is on top Mitford form despite this only being her second novel, published a year after Highland Fling, in 1932. It's so funny - I read this soon after a P. G. Wodehouse and barely noticed the change in terrain:
The two children of Captain and Lady Brenda Chadlington took a tremendous fancy to Paul, and he, although in the first place he had been completely put off by the fact that their names were Christopher Robin and Wendy, decided after a day or two that he would overlook this piece of affectation, which was, after all, not their own fault. He addressed them as George and Mabel (his lips refusing to utter their real names) and became very much attached to them. 
The foreword also references the Wodehouse aspects, saying that 'it does seem rather as if he [Wodehouse] and that other great contemporary master Evelyn Waugh had been passed through a not-at-all raucous and really very caring blender...', but that the additions of 'individual pitch, heightened éclat and a very witty woman's perspective' produce a 'slaveringly appetising result.' The feminine edges of her writing are not to be underestimated: I find her much more arch and ferocious than the other two, with an instinctive knowledge of the underpinnings of her characters that means that, with a sentence, she can cut them all down to size; very much in the manner of a woman with a cocktail at a party, rather than the man in tweed at his desk. She's that girl - glamorous, witty, mean to a virtue - that you always wish was your friend (or I do, at least.)

Keen Mitford fans will also find in this book interesting hints of the Nancy's trademarks-to-come: two characters are found 'having been sitting out for more than two hours in the linen cupboard' and there is a make-believe language used throughout, which seems to involve placing a 'ge' after each syllable you utter; I couldn't fathom it though - I'm far too non-U.

My only criticism of this delightful novel is that it seems reasonable to assume that Nancy got better at plotting her books as time went on, as this one meanders a little and takes a rather long course to the end. It's a little Groundhog Day-esque, although the lives of these characters seems rather that way also, there being so much fun to be had and so little time in which to have it. Maybe if Paul Fotheringay was a little stronger as a protagonist he could have pulled the story after him; in any case, it's a relaxing read for that reason, it never demanding too much of you in a sitting or putting your life-shredded nerves on edge.

I'd recommend this as a lovely Christmas present for anyone who you think might fancy a sparkling, witty novel with which to wile away some time, punctuated only by mulled wine, a real-life Christmas Pudding and a boatload of raucous giggles.

Title: Christmas Pudding
Author: Nancy Mitford, with a foreword by Joseph Connolly
Date: Originally 1932, this edition 2012
Publisher: Capuchin Classics
Format: Hardback, 207 pages, and I was sent it by Capuchin Classics.


Peirene Press Readathon, No. 7: 'Maybe This Time' by Alois Hotschnig

So, here we are at post no. 7 of mine and Sam's full and wonderful Peirene Press Readathon, throughout which we are reading all the Peirene books published to date and interspersing them with discussion posts every fourth week, grouped as they are in thematic series of three. 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. 

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig, a highly-acclaimed Austrian writer, is something of an anomaly in the Peirene Press series, being a collection of nine short stories rather than a novella. The stories themselves have a surreal, Kafka-esque feeling of disquiet about them, being opaque and confusing like dreams with enough of a grounding in reality to make them enormously affecting. Thematically, we have voyeurism, alienation, loss of identity and great lashings of that insidious feeling of looking at a scene or hearing a story and feeling somewhere low down in your gut that all is not fine. Narratively, we have a man obsessed with his neighbours, a man who wakes up and doesn't know who he is, recounted town scenes that bely a recent tragedy, a frighteningly realised encounter between insects, and a man, in the final story, whose identity seems to alter and shuffle like an ace through a pack of cards.

In short, I loved them. Nothing pleases me more than left-field, open-ended fiction that leaves me wistful and worried for the characters' future and leaves me with few reassurances. I mean, doesn't that sound like life? Or maybe I spent too long studying East Asian cinema, lol. But I found these bizarre and alarming stories utterly refreshing, and at times, grotesquely hilarious. This quote is from Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut, where a man comes face-to-face with a woman and the dolls she keeps, one of whom looks just like him:
My name is Karl, I said, but the woman didn't answer. I didn't know how to handle the situation or how to deal with my new friend - a friend I was obviously starting to accept.
He's not a bad kid, she said. Peculiar, yes, but you already knew that and, let's face it, you're all he's got. And he's been waiting ever since you abandoned him. That's when he came to me. He can't talk to you about it, at least not yet. But things will work out now you've finally come back. And now I'll leave the two of you alone, she said, and stood up and left the room.
 That is the doll they're talking about, FYI. One thing that really struck me about this short story collection is how easy it is to read: one might presume that high literature will be a slower read than the lighter stuff, but this I swallowed down very easily indeed. It was a delight, in fact. 

Otherwise, I have little to say, most likely because with a collection of stories it is harder to pinpoint and single out trends and details, so my sum thoughts are that this book is brilliant, undoubtedly my favourite of the 'Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy' series, and that this would be the perfect intelligent, unsettling read to while an hour away with over a big coffee. And it's quietly terrifying, so I'll get back to you about the nightmares.

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine)
¦ (Sam's)
Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (mine)
¦ (Sam's) 
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (mine)
¦ (Sam's) 
Title: Maybe This Time
Author: Alois Hotschnig, translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis
Date: Original 2006, translation 2011
Format: Paperback, 107 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press for review as part of this readathon series.


Links and an Update

Lyndsay Wheble
My new logo!
Hello all, I have a few new links to share with you before my next Peirene post on Thursday:

My beautiful, new, shiny website - click to find all my links, writing and info in one happy place.

A link to Homespun Threads, a fairytale e-anthology featuring my first ever children's story, Firefly Mountain, which is available via Amazon and Smashwords and is raising fab funds for Homespun Theatre to take their latest children's show on tour in 2013. So buy it for all and sundry this Christmas!

And lastly, my latest post on Side B Magazine, as part of my fortnightly Small Island Culture series on the site, about the Peirene Press literary salon I attended on 1st December with Andrew Motion in attendance, which might interest those of you following mine and Sam's Peirene Press readathon series.

Thanks all! :) 



Peirene Press Readathon, No. 6: 'Tomorrow Pamplona' by Jan van Mersbergen

Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen is the fifth book in the epic Peirene Press Readathon that Sam and I are in the midst of, where we read all nine of the Peirene Press books currently published, and then discuss them thematically in threes. This book is the second in the 'Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy' series. 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. 

Tomorrow Pamplona is about Danny, a Dutch boxer who we find stood hitch-hiking on the side of the motorway, soaked to the skin, who is picked up by Robert, who is on his way to Pamplona to participate in the famed annual bull run there. Eventually he invites Danny to travel all the way with him, which Danny accepts, and it is interesting to note the contrast in circumstances between Robert, a family man who runs with the bulls annually to alleviate some of the boredom and responsibility of family life, and Danny, who is running from a bad circumstance, the actual details of which only become clear as the book progresses. One has too much order, one has too much chaos, and neither know how to deal with it. Let's just say, it became clear to me early on why this book was part of a series exploring male dilemma and intimacy issues.

I found Robert and Danny both to be interesting characters, increasingly so as the book progresses; I wasn't immediately grabbed by the first few pages. Danny is the central figure and through chronologically-arranged flashbacks we find out what lead to the horrific incident that has left him on the run, as he explores them on the course of the drive from the Netherlands to Pamplona inside his own head. You'd think the bull run would be the actual climax of this book, but it's not: the key moments come as they make decisions about the future and how to face it, or not, as the case may be.

This book made me sad for men. The pervading message of it, as communicated to me, is that literally staring down a bull or patting a crocodile is easier than having an honest conversation with a woman you're in love with. I can't even imagine being that emotionally inarticulate. Obviously, not all men are like this (thank god), but the men in this book were not unfamiliar to me, and I'm sure they wouldn't be to any reader. Anyway, male judgements aside, this book is macho through and through, in theme and character and tense, unromantic language, and the women in it are either distant wives, deceitful girlfriends or waitresses to be ogled at; they seem to have little idea, the pair of them, how to really cross this great gender divide to where real intimacy lies. Robert, the family man, even describes the birth of his children as an awe-inspiring but ultimately alienating experience:

Do you know what the problem is with childbirth? You can't do a bloody thing. As a man, you can be there with her, but there's sod all you can actually do...
...So you just stand there looking. Well, that's what I did. I didn't have a clue what to do...I kept on saying: You can do it, you can do it. Until finally she just screamed at me to shut up. With the second one, I just sat by the bed and kept my mouth shut...All that time you're just sitting there. And you know what? You'd rather be facing the bulls.
I mean, I can't even imagine.

As you may be beginning to guess, the tone of this book owes rather a large debt to a certain Mr. Hemingway, with the bulls and the machismo and lots of talk of blood pumping and staring down the barrels of things, which, rather pleasingly, is something van Mersbergen readily acknowledges:
He shows them a framed photograph that's screwed to the wall.
This is Esteban Domeño.
It's a portrait of a man with a dark moustache. He's wearing a black jacket and a hat.
Esteban, the man repeats. He sniffs. They even took his name from him.
What do you mean?
His name. Esteban Domeño. An American wrote a book about the fiesta. He's described Esteban's death, but in the book he was called Vicente...Everyone goes to the bull running and they all know the name of Vicente Girones...
I enjoyed this contextual reference to The Sun Also Rises, which felt delightfully meta, and I enjoyed this book as a whole, especially as it progressed. 

My only bug-bear would be that the dialogue is not demarcated in any way, as there are no speech marks or anything, but this is not the only book guilty of that. I'd also have appreciated it if the language had been a bit less sparse - although an excellent imitation, I didn't hear a deep echoing sadness between the words, as I did when I read The Old Man and the Sea the other day - but it was a good fit for the topic and themes of the book, and added to the deliberate intensity of the experience. 

I look forward to the third book in the present series, Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (FYI, I can't see that title without playing the Cabaret song in my head) and also the discussion post about the Male Dilemma series, which Sam will be hosting the Thursday after next.

Other readathon reviews:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine)
¦ (Sam's)
Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (mine)
¦ (Sam's) 
Tomorrow Pamplona by Jan van Mersbergen (Sam's)

 Title: Tomorrow Pamplona
Author: Jan van Mersbergen, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Date: Original 2007, translation 2011
Format: Paperback, 189 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press for review as part of this readathon series.



'The Inimitable Jeeves' by P.G. Wodehouse

Being in the midst of a readathon as I am, I picked The Inimitable Jeeves off the bookshelf for the perhaps-not-so-flattering reason that I knew I could skim through it quickly, therefore not interrupting my scheduled readathon flow. We have ten Jeeves & Wooster books in the house, all lined up on the shelf, a rainbow of colour, because I bought a collection for my husband for his last birthday: he loves P.G. Wodehouse and the abundance of sets available makes it feel either very silly or just foolhardy to buy them one by one. 

Rather confusingly, this is the first Jeeves & Wooster book listed on the list at the front of the book, but this book does not start at the beginning of the saga, where Jeeves and Wooster meet, as in the TV series; that takes place in another book altogether.

Not that that really matters though. In my mind, Jeeves & Wooster operates as a kind of early version of the American sitcom, with humour and exploits aplenty and a revolving set of regular and occasional guest characters, but you know that they will most likely make up and sort things out by the end of each episode/short story so they can start afresh next time. And the books aren't novels; they're actually just short stories and singular episodes arranged in some kind of order, in a rather arbitrary grouping. Therefore, it doesn't really matter that this is not the 'beginning' because the fact that they've met means they once met for the first time, and when they get to the point of sharing that with you it'll be as equally funny as if you'd started there first. So, good-natured hijinks aplenty, and an inertia worthy of The Simpsons. No wonder it worked so well as an actual sitcom :) I presume the fact that no-one ever ages, makes any major life decisions or dies is probably the reason that I read once that P.G. Wodehouse is the most read author amongst hospital inpatients, assuming as I am that all his books proceed along similar lines. I would tell you about the plot, but really, there's no need.

Also, these books are really, really funny. Totally shallow and full of fops and nincompoops doing silly, non-worthwhile things whilst speaking in cut-glass accents, but sweet and gentle and uniquely hilarious. The ultimate end-of-a-busy-day book, if you will. Bertie is adorably useless, all wide-eyed and Aunt-fearing, hanging out with his similarly foppish friends at their London club, unchanged from the first day at boarding school, and Jeeves is the omnipotent raised eyebrow, overseeing and only occasionally commenting whilst saving the day by exercising his formidable mind. I also sympathise with his hatred of purple socks and scarlet cummerbunds, and all the other garish articles Bertie dons - I raised pointed eyebrows myself at a number of my husband's corduroy shorts and multi-coloured rugby shirts before they quietly left the building. Also, there's a lot of a character called Bingo in this collection, a young chap with rather an excess of romantic feeling, which is nice as he's one of my favourites.

So, rather a muddled review, or not a review at all, as I have little criticism and no plot points to explore. Maybe the one point to take from this is that if you or a friend or relative have been a bit down lately, buy them this for Christmas. It's pretty much
bright sunshine on a page.

just a little sprinkling:

Title: The Inimitable Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Date: Originally 1923, this edition 2008
Publisher: Arrow
Format: Paperback, 253 pages, with a preview of Piccadilly Jim at the back, and I bought it.


Peirene Press Readathon, No. 5: 'Next World Novella' by Matthias Politycki

Today we are looking at book no. 4 in the Peirene Press series, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki, which is the first of the 'Male Dilemma: Quests for Intimacy' series and post no. 5 of mine and Sam's epic Peirene Press Readathon; post no. 4 was a discussion post covering the 3 books of the 'Female Voices: Inner Realities' series.   

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.

Next World Novella is about Hinrich Schepp, an ageing university Sinologist, and his wife Doro, who he finds dead at her desk at the very beginning of the book, having died in the act of editing some of his writing. He doesn't call an ambulance - clearly the moment for that has passed - and is surprised to find that she had been editing a forgotten fiction manuscript of his that he'd deemed to be a failure, so he'd never shown it to his wife. The story progresses therefore with her dead in the room beside him whilst he reads her comments on his semi-autobiographical manuscript and realises that in many ways both his wife and marriage were really not as they seemed. The story works as a story within a story, as excerpts of Hinrich's manuscript are inserted into the narrative so the reader can draw their own conclusions about Hinrich's rather pathetic mid-life crisis, whilst also reading Doro's increasingly harsh and damning comments upon it, which reveal that she knew much more of what was going on than Hinrich suspected. 

Never have a read a book where a dead character holds the story in such a choke-hold, or has so much to contribute: though dead, Doro is presented as a fascinating, beautiful, aristocratic woman who feared being alone in death so much that she married Hinrich, a promising but ultimately mediocre academic, abandoning her own burgeoning academic career in favour of raising their children and editing his papers. It is made clear that their channels of communication dwindled over the course of their marriage to the extent that Hinrich, re-enamoured with life after mid-aged laser eye surgery, spends his night drinking and mooning over a waitress without realising the effect that this is having on both his marriage or his wife. The fact that Doro is lying dead, first at the desk, then rearranged on the chaise longue, whilst he realises this lends a macabre, slightly comical air to the story, although I felt full-on nauseated when a fly crawls out of her nostril, and I could happily live my life without reading about the details of livor and rigor mortis ever again, thank you very much.

I enjoyed the tone of this book - it is wry, ironic and slightly mystical - and thought a lot was added by the Chinese elements that quietly illuminate parts of the story. The Sinology department described tallies closely with my memory of four years studying in an East Asian Studies department, so there was an extra smile for me there too. The set-up was also very original, decaying bodies and all, and the book moved along at a good rate, with some great twists and turns. The characterisation is also great: Hinrich is utterly pathetic next to Doro's vengeful, circling anger, and both are very well-drawn.

I wasn't so sure about the motif of the lake that one must cross when one dies though, based on Arnold Böcklin's painting Isle of the Dead and presented as Doro's feared vision of the afterlife and also one of her main motivations for companionship: I found it hard to believe that she'd marry a man like Hinrich Schepp just for the peace of mind that they'd wait for each other in death, so neither one would have to cross the lake, where one experiences a second death, alone. I thought as an academic she'd been more inquiring about her fears, rather than coming to one slightly out-there conclusion. Also, I wasn't keen on the big twist at the end; I found it undermined the main elements of the story in an unnecessary and, frankly, slightly bewildering way, which also felt a bit dated.

So, this is a good read with an unusual and well-thought-out set-up and tone, but for me the novella was let down by several of the plot points. Never will I allow flower stems to go fusty in a vase again though, that's for sure!

Previous Peirene post readathon links:

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)
Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Sam's)

Title: Next World Novella
Author: Matthias Politycki, translated from the German by Anthea Bell 
Date: Original version 2009, translation 2011
Format: Paperback, 138 pages and I was sent it by Peirene Press as part of this readathon series.


Peirene Press Readathon, No.4: 'Female Voices' Discussion Post

Today's post is of a different kind: Sam and I are continuing our epic Peirene readathon but rather than reviewing the next in the series, we are going to discuss the three books that have just been, which comprise the 'Female Voice' series; these are Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal and Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (see the bottom of the page for our review links).  

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. 
L: Hi Sam, how are you? Let's start by reiterating our favourites and why that is...

S: So,  although I enjoyed all three, my favourite was Beyond the Sea. I think books touch us the most when there is something we can relate to and I've met many mothers a bit like the mother from the story, who are well meaning but finding it hard to cope with life. I often deal as a teacher with the children of parents like this - children who never have the correct school uniform, turn up late for school, don't read with their parents etc. so I found it really powerful to read from the mother's point of view. I think I can guess your favourite, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman? And I'm guessing your reasons are similar to mine?

L: Yep, you're right, and yes, my reasons are very similar - empathy and personal experience! I won't go into it again as I talked at length about it in my actual review post, but, like the protagonist, I have been somewhat abandoned in a foreign country, knowing very few people and not speaking the language, whilst my husband has been off at war, and so every word of Margarethe's story rang a small, sad, nostalgic bell within my mind, and I understand the way in which she is fooling herself, and why. I also really enjoyed all three, and although I preferred Beside the Sea to Stone in a Landslide upon immediate reading, it's actually Stone in a Landslide that's stayed with me and that I remember most fondly, so I suppose that would be my second favourite!

It's interesting though, although perhaps not wholly surprising, to note that that our favourites were the ones that tallied most with our own personal experience; do you think that would be so much the case if these were male voices/characters, rather than female?

S: I'm hoping I will have the same connection with the male characters in the next series of books. Many of the female voices focused on motherhood, which I have no experience of, but I could still relate to the characters. I don't know if I will find the male voices as powerful as the female ones, but I'm hoping to see something of the universal human experience in them.

L: Mmm, I agree. Looking at it objectively, if the writing is of the highest quality, the universal human experience element you talk of should allow us to bond as closely with the male voices as the female, but I think we'd both acknowledge that this is not always the case when reading cross-gender, and also that the actual content and narrative of the novellas will also play a big part in that. Good writing and characterisation that central to making a reader bond to a character though, and I don't doubt we'll have that!

Looking at these three books as a group, how representative do you think these stories are of women (!) and of stories written by and about women as a whole?

S: I don't think any series of three books could represent women! Also, the three women were all in extreme circumstances (mental health difficulties and war), which makes them not representative of women in thankfully more ordinary situations. But there were a lot of themes that will resonate with women and humanity as a whole - love, loss, tragedy etc. I think it would have been nice to have one female voice that wasn't about being a mother (Conxa's story was the closest to this), as often women are reduced to mothers and there is so much more to us than that. Would you agree?

L: Definitely. Women get put into so many simplified roles, be it the shopaholic airhead, the put-upon mothers, the icy, career-driven, ball-breaking older woman who will eventually admit that they regret 'not giving love a chance!' or, finally, grandmothers who are either bitter and reproachful, or rosy-cheeked cake-making martyrs who are slightly forgotten at the hub of the home and ask nothing for themselves. Men don't get characterised like this, I don't think. But, saying that, these are not simple, stereotypical women - far from it - and their presentation in these novellas is both impeccable and sympathetic,and I suppose that's better criteria for selecting a novella for publication than thinking 'I must have a female voice in her twenties, I must have one in her forties, and I must have one that's single.' 

However, it is family that defines all three of these women, and it is largely the absence of husbands and fathers that cause them their troubles...but then the majority of women do marry and have children and I suppose for many their most vivid experience comes from instants or upsets in romantic or familial love...maybe we could request that an upcoming trio be an addendum to this, following independent, non-maternal female characters? I personally am a bit disheartened, on reflection, that all three stories talk about women in relation to their husbands and children; I bet that the next three protagonists are not presented as strongly in relation to their children and wives.

Anyway, to happier topics: did you have a favourite, or a least favourite, scene or passage from the three?

S: A scene that really affected me was the scene in Beyond the Sea where the mother arrives at the seaside resort with high expectations only to be greeted with a rainy, dark, grotty town and a grimy hotel. We've all experienced that let down feeling when something isn't what you expected. What was your favourite scene?

L: Although I found it deeply upsetting, I would have to pick the closing scenes of Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, as I was quite overwhelmed by the power of the Bach music crescendo juxtaposed so skilfully against the emotional climax of the book. Sad times! I also adored all the descriptions of Conxa in the fields, and also the scene in which she first dances with Jaume. I found these scenes so very vivid.

Considering that these novellas are linked as a thematic trio, did you see any marked similarities between them, or any issues on which they all had something to say? Any differences, also? Why do think that is?

S: One theme I identified was women under pressure, and the resilience we can show under difficult circumstances. The narrators of all three books also had a distinct, clear voice, something that you don't see in all novels. I'm hoping the male voices in the next series will be just as developed and powerful. Did you spot any common issues?

L: The main one for me was the overwhelming impact that men, or the absence of them, had on these women's lives, and how often they felt and were powerless to change their circumstances, bound by relationships or to a particular place in a way that the men didn't seem to be. The father runs off so the mother can't in Beside the Sea, Jaume travels, learns and fights whilst Conxa must live at home with one family member or another, and Margarethe must wait for the inevitable event of her baby's birth, and she must cope with that, no matter the truths that on some level she already knows. Resilience too, I absolutely agree, in such awful situations. Not to get too lit studies for a second, but the trio really put me in mind of Virginia Woolf's famous quote 
This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an unimportant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room
because another common theme is that these women are often circling wildly within their own heads, drowning often in feeling, but their perils are reactive, not active. Two of the three are literally in the midst of war, but theirs is the social history, not an account of the battlefield. Not that these books have not been marvellously well-reviewed of course, lol.

As a final thought, which of these three would you recommend to your mother/a parent? Your sister (congrats on your nephew!)? A colleague? Someone you're not close to? And why?

S: As my sister has only been a mother for a week, I wouldn't want to scare her with Beyond the Sea! I think my Mum would enjoy Stone in a Landslide as it's more of a retrospective on a whole life and that would appeal to her. To be honest, all three are well written so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend them to others.

L: Good call about your sister! I think Stone in a Landslide for my mother too, as it's the most classical structure and narrative; Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman to a colleague or a close friend as I'll look so clever, considering the radical one-sentence structure,  and also many of my friends have similar experiences as me to draw on, and I think Beside the Sea for someone I'm not close to as it's such a strong story, with such a horrifying resolution, that it might give us something to talk about.

 Come back next Thursday for our thoughts on the first of the next trio, 'Male Dilemma', which is Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki.

Review links:

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)


'The End of Everything' by Megan Abbott

I bought The End of Everything by Megan Abbott upon seeing it in the window of my local charity shop, having read about her newest novel, Dare Me, on The Million's Most Anticipated List back in July this year. Megan Abbott is an enormously well-regarded crime writer in many circles and I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.

The End of Everything, Abbott's sixth novel, is the fractured, complex story of Evie and Lizzie, two incredibly close teenage friends who do everything together until Evie suddenly disappears from their quiet suburban street. This horrific, life-changing occurrence leads Lizzie to question everything about the people around her, and also her relationship with Evie, given the unsavoury and confusing truths that steadily emerge.

I thought this book was beautifully, if  breathlessly, written, and captures the manic, deceptive confusion of Lizzie, the main character, who narrates the story to the reader in moment-to-moment retrospect both before and after Evie's disappearance. That same breathlessness has been a common feature of a few books I've read lately - namely, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman and Beside the Sea - so to my mind, considering the content of the other titles also, this type of heavily comma-ed, freely associating narration is becoming the mark of a female narrator drowning in their circumstance:
Voices pitchy, giddy, raving, we are all chanting that deathly chant that twists, knifelike, in the ear of the appointed victim. One o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock, four o'clock, five o'clock...And it's Evie, she's it, lost at choosies, and now it will be her doom. But she's a good hider, the best I've ever seen, and I predict wild surprises, expect to find her rolled under a saggy front porch or buried under three inches of dirt in Mom's own frilly flower bed.
The characterisation in this book is great - the few primary characters are vivid and well-drawn - and the incessant darkness and slightly unreliable narration gave me a nightmare or two and drove the my morbid curiosity right through to the end. A great twist comes about two-thirds of the way through which sends the book off in an unexpected direction, and the revelations and final conclusion are all expertly handled. Abbott has a multitude of haunting and perceptive things to say about the burgeoning sexuality of teenage girls, sibling rivalry, the secrets of those closest to you, and also about the varying relationships that girls can have with their fathers.

This was a dark, immersive read which is beautifully written and fulfils its potential, but I was surprised to find that it left my psyche much sooner than anticipated. I'm keen to read other Megan Abbott books, having enjoyed this, but I may well donate this book to the charity shop where I found it as I feel no keen need to keep it near or to plan a re-read. I think it's probably fair to say that I respected it for its objective literary excellence, rather than took it to heart for its emotional impact, but it's a good book all the same.

Title: The End of Everything
Author: Megan Abbott
Publisher: Picador
Date: 2011
Format: 246 pages, paperback, and I bought it.


Peirene Press Readathon, No. 3: 'Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman' by Friedrich Christian Delius

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the third book in mine and Sam at Tiny Library's exciting, illuminating and expansive Peirene Press readathon, in which we are reading all nine of the Peirene Press novellas published to date. 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 before now.
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the third of three in the Peirene series 'Female Voices' - the other two are Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi and Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal - and as you can probably see, it is the first and only book of the three actually written by a man, and also the first published in German, in 2006.

The story centres on a young German woman who is stranded in Rome in January 1943, having travelled there from her parents' village to meet her young husband who is stationed there having been sent back from Russia 'lightly wounded' to preach in the German-adopted Lutheran church on Via Sicilia in Rome, the Germans and Italians of course being WWII allies at this point. She is heavily pregnant and alone in the city but is well-looked after by German nuns in a sort of hospital cum boarding house, so for her this is a oddly comfortable yet nightmarish time, her husband serving in Africa and her about to have her first child. 
Walk, young lady, walk if you want to walk, the child will like it if you walk (p9)    
says her doctor, so through the course of this novella we follow her as she walks through the Eternal City from her boarding house to the aforementioned church on Via Sicilia, which is holding a Bach concert at four 'clock on a sunny afternoon. It is a picturesque and timeless journey through some of Rome's most beautiful vistas and alleyways, so the scenery of Rome is described evocatively and idiosyncratically to us, woven tightly within her taut, meandering thoughts, reminiscences and dreams. Hers is a fascinating mind: it is so ordinary and typical, you could say, but from a modern perspective it is fascinating as she lets us in on all the influences that would have invaded and coloured the average German mind by 1943. As one might imagine, they are not straightforward.

The experience of reading this book is particularly special because of one unique structural quirk: the entire novella, all 125 pages, is written in one epically long sentence that uses commas and paragraph indents liberally,  but only has one, final, full stop. The effect is...unsettling, frantic and compelling, and it means it is very difficult to leave her as firstly she is always straight into the next thing, and secondly because there are no page or chapter breaks. She talks and talks and then we leave her forever, listening to Bach, sat in a pew. It is amazing but Delius pulls it off. I can't even imagine what a nightmare it must have been for Jamie Bulloch  to translate.
and she tiptoed across the terracotta tiles in her hallway, it was still siesta time, back into her room which she shared with another German woman, whose fiancé had been interned in Australia and who, although almost thirty years old, was known as "the girl" and who worked in the kitchen and helped serve meals, Ilse was still lying on her bed, reading after her siesta,

while she, the younger woman, put on black lace-up shoes, fetched her dark-blue coat from the wardrobe, cast an eye over her bed that had been made and the table that had been tidied and found everything in order, said See you at supper!, shut the door, and walked past the bathroom towards the lift and the main staircase... (p10) 

So, my thoughts. I almost have too many. This book is AMAZING. I read it in what seemed like a moment but was actually a few hours. This girl...my heart broke into tiny little pieces, and by the end I was sobbing as I knew what was happening and I couldn't stop it and there is no pausing for breath; and then it's over. This book turns on a sentence, a sentence of epic, weighty proportion, and I felt it approaching and when it did I could barely bear to read it, but what can you do? I actually hugged the book (I know) for quite a while after closing it, and was almost despondent with sadness for the main character until at least the following day (but still now, really, writing this.)

I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but to explain my review I perhaps need to open the door a little more and say that I loved this girl because I understood her. And this is because...my own husband got sent off to Iraq just after we'd married and been sent to Germany to live by the British Army, right at the moment when winter began to close in and the nights got very, very long. Now, it wasn't anything like as bad as in this book, but then I was still only learning the very basics of German at that point and didn't really know that many people, so can vouch for the truth of this girl's forging of an artificial and lonely routine for herself to shield her mind from the worst of the worry of a husband at war. 

I mean, you can only stay in bed and cry for so long before you have to do something, but you don't know anyone or the place you're living, so the small things you do know - for instance, the concerts at church on Via Sicilia - get put up on a pedestal of wild importance and become entrenched in your experience of a time and a place. Then, once you've established a routines of sorts, the completing of that routine becomes a comfort to you and almost a talisman for your husband's safety...and so you can spiral, if you're not careful. All is fine now lol, but, suffice to say, I felt every word she said. On a very personal note, it reminded me once again how liberating and devastating it is when a unknown writer accurately details shades of your own experience, and how important and life-affirming it is that they do.

So, read this book. It's my undoubtedly my favourite Peirene book so far, and that is impressive.

Other reviews in the Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)

 Title:  Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
Author: Friedrich Christian Delius, translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Series: Female Voices
Date: Original 2006, translation 2010
Format: Paperback, 125 pages, and this is actually a copy I bought long before this readathon was even thought of, namely for the title because all my friends are having babies and if I have a question about life I, you know, read... :)


Peirene Press Readathon, No. 2: 'Stone in a Landslide' by Maria Barbal

Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal is the second book in the wonderful Peirene Press Readathon that I am doing with Sam from Tiny Library; starting last week, we are reading our way through the nine Peirene Press novellas currently published as well as stopping every three books to discuss the thematic trio's themes and differences. Peirene Press, for those who don't know, is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which, for some reason or other, have not been translated into English before now.

So, after last week's journey on the French coast in Beside the Sea, Stone in a Landslide is a Catalan tale from the Spanish Pyrenees, published originally in Catalan - the national language of Andorra and a co-official language in parts of Spain, such as Catalonia and the Balearics - in 1985. It is the story of Conxa, a Pyrenean woman born around the turn of the 20th century, whose life in the Pyrenees in punctuated by work, marriage, child-rearing and, most importantly, the Spanish Civil War, after which it changes irrevocably.

Conxa is a stoical, hard-working woman, raised on the land and to swallow down hardship, who feels the effects of time's passing and random will over every part of her life, which by turns is joyous, brightened by work and family, and horribly, crushingly sad. She is born in a village called Ermita but, as her parents have more children than they can feed, is sent off to work on the farm of her Aunt Tia in the village, Palleres, where she makes her long-time home. As readers, we experience her very personal viewpoints on work, of her falling in love, of raising her children, of caring for relatives and being part of a community, as well as getting swept up quite blindly in the Spanish Civil War and then her feeling life's slow and inevitable decline. A lesser character might become boastful when things are good or despondent when things are sad, but Conxa is a stoic and a pragmatist,  and her lack of formal education means that this novella is written in language that is solid and clear, with little unnecessary flair, that feels tied to the land and the region.
She does what I am not capable of doing. I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I'll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I'll be here, still, for days and days...' (p89)
She sees the world change but does not resent it for doing so, whilst also becoming increasingly objective about her family and the world around her; by the final sentence (which I am not going to give away here), she seems to have let go of her grasp and desire for a world which has taken so much, and left her with so little.
I knew he was dead and I would never have him again at my side, because war is an evil that drags itself over the earth and leaves it sown with vipers and fire and knives with points upright. And I was barefoot with my children, and I had nothing apart from still being alive. (p95)
Stone in a Landslide's Conxa reminded me of Pelagia, a character from Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which is one of my all-time favourite novels, in the way that she revels in a world she knows and falls in love in, only for war and death to rip her life to shreds and for her to grow old and lose touch as the world moves ceaselessly on without her. There is also the same feeling of children - or in Pelagia's case, the children she raises as her children - growing apart from their mother and how this change is confusing and saddening, as also how grandchildren can be both the revival of past members of a generation and also alien beings, raised in a completely different world.

I didn't find this book as immediately engaging as Beside the Sea, perhaps because the pace is much slower and the voice is less frantic, but this is an important, vividly drawn book about life, love, loss and growing old, as well as a comment on the changing relationship that people have with regions, community and with the land.

Other reviews in the Peirene Press Readathon series:

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (Sam's)

Title:  Stone in a Landslide
Author: Maria Barbal, translation from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell
Series: Female Voices
Date: Original 1985, translation 2010
Format: Paperback, 126 pages, and I was sent it, along with the rest in the series, by Peirene Press, to review as I wished.


Peirene Press Readathon No. 1: 'Beside the Sea' by Veronique Olmi

I've been keeping a little secret on this blog for the last few weeks and it thrills me to announce now to you all - with gleeful literary excitement - that:

Sam from Tiny Library and I are doing an epic Peirene readathon, starting today, in which we will read every novella published by the wonderful Peirene Press in the order that they were published - which means nine reviews, plus three thematic discussion posts where we look back over the previous three books (all will become clear as we go), so twelve weeks in all - so if you are a Peirene fan, check back here every Thursday.

As you might remember from a few posts back, I reviewed the recently published Peirene novella 'Sea of Ink' by Richard Weihe and also talked about a wonderful Peirene event back in September, which is where Meike (the publisher) and I first came up with the idea for a readathon extraordinaire, where we, rather innovatively, start from the beginning and read through to the end, lol. Peirene Press, for those who don't know, is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which, for some reason or other, have not been translated into English before now.

So, to the first book! Let me tell you, we have started with a bang. '
Beside the Sea' by Veronique Olmi is a haunting, shocking story, translated from the French, of a mother who is coming apart at the edges, ironically endangering the lives of her two sons, Stan and Kevin, far more than the dangers she sees and is desperate to keep them from in the outside world. We meet them at the beginning of the story catching a bus to the French coast as, quite momentously, they were going to see the sea (p9).

There are early indications that all is not well, as the mother seems exasperated and ill-equipped to deal with the demands of her two sons, and says odd things like
...it felt really strange driving away from the city, leaving it for this unknown place, specially as it wasn't the holidays and that's what the boys were thinking, I know they did. We'd never been away for a holiday, never left the city, and suddenly life was new, my stomach was in knots, I was thirsty the whole time and everything was irritating, but I did my best, yes really my best, so the kids didn't notice anything. I wanted us to set off totally believing in it. (p10)
It soon becomes clear that this is a final holiday, and that once they've seen the sea the action she wants to take, to protect them from the cruel and frightening world, can be taken. Her inner monologue is frantic and repetitive, radiant with anxiety, and Olmi cleverly uses very few full stops, mimicking breathless, obsessive speech. Immediately you are plunged into the world of this woman on the edge, seeing both the world and her sons through her sad eyes, and realising the depth to which she worries that one is not fit for the other. I read this novella in one sitting and the experience was like falling down a rabbit hole into a frightening, lost mind where you are desperate for someone to intervene but you fear that they never will...I'd actually recommend reading it in one go - a short novella at 111 pages, it took me around 90 minutes - as I think it allowed me to fully experience the immersive qualities of the writing and the tremendously well-executed tension building and narrative arc. FYI though, the end is quite chilling, so I would not recommend reading it in the house on your own on Hallowe'en, lol.

This novella also bravely provides a chillingly full portrait of how some mothers are more of a threat to their children than the actual dangers they perceive in the outside world. Social workers and psychiatrists are mentioned, which for me made the situation more terrifying: although questions have clearly been raised, these children are still fully under their mother's care, without intervention or help. The portrayal of the two boys reminded me of kids I went to school with, who were always late, dirty or tired, and never had gym kit, or would get caught stealing from teachers' bags and then get treated in an oddly lenient manner. The elder son in this story has clearly bonded with his school teacher, Marie-Helene, and is keen to progress and read and learn, but the fact that the teacher asks pertinent questions of his mother actually seems to push the son further from help as she is so offended, which as Sam says in her review, is a terrifying thought for both teachers and children alike.

I applaud Olmi for exploring such an extreme picture of the darker aspects of motherhood, as inconvenient and shocking as they might be, as the news tells us everyday of the terrible things that happen right under people's noses, but rarely do we hear the full story or receive any insight into the lead-up of what happened. I suppose it's also important to realise, for those who are mothers and for those who aren't, that despite a myriad of state and welfare structures being in place in this country when you have children, for the main part it's just you at home, alone, with your kids, and that that can be a very difficult, stressful and oppressive thing. Bravo to Peirene for starting their Female Voice series on such a gutsy and thought-provoking subject.

Moving away from the subject matter, I felt the characterisation of this book was excellent - it would not have the power it does if it wasn't - although, rather oddly, I kept getting her two sons muddled up, forgetting which was the elder, although that's probably just me being tired, and this tiny confusion had no real impact on the story. The voice, the voice of the narrator, is the kind of voice I imagine Creative Writing lecturers dream of finding amongst students - clear, passionate and real, and utterly absorbing. The only small language or translation issue I had was that the narrator kept referring to her younger son as the littl'un, which is most likely the perfect translation of whatever French phrase was used but I found that whenever I came across it it whipped me out of France and dumped me in the heart of South Yorkshire, rather funnily (as I said, just a small thing.)

Overall, this is a strong Peirene lead and an intelligent, brave and haunting book. I am so excited for the rest of the series and know that this novella, Olmi's first, will stay with me for a very long time.

Title: 'Beside the Sea'
Author: Veronique Olmi, translation from the French by Adriana Hunter
Series: Female Voices
Date: Original 2001, translation 2010
Format: Paperback, 111 pages, and I was sent it, along with the rest in the series, by Peirene Press, to review as I wished.

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