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.

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