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.


 

17.1.13

Peirene Press Readathon, No. 11: 'Sea of Ink' by Richard Weihe

Today I find myself in the nice but slightly odd position of wanting to review a book I've actually already reviewed - Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe; it being both the final book in the 'Small Epics' trilogy (the other two being The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul and The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg) and the next book in mine and Sam's epic Peirene Press Readathon series.

To do that seems daft though, so I'm just going to point you to my review from September 2012, when I was kindly sent a review copy and effectively began this little journey I'm on with Peirene Press.

Also, I described the event which accompanied the book's launch here.

Check back next week for mine and Sam's discussion of the 'Small Epics' series. 

 The other 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)

Title: Sea of Ink
Author: Richard Weihe, translated from the Swiss German by Jamie Bulloch
Date: Original 2005, translation 2012
Format: Paperback, 112 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press for review as part of this readathon series.

10.1.13

Peirene Press Readathon, No. 10: 'The Murder of Halland' by Pia Juul

Today we have The Murder of Halland, the final book in Peirene Press' 'Small Epics: Unravelling Secrets' trio and the eighth book in mine and Sam from Tiny Library's full Peirene Press Readathon, in which we read all of their novellas published to date (...although maybe I have a copy of the as-yet unreleased The Mussel Feast as well, who knows?:) 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. 

The Murder of Halland is the story of Bess, a Danish woman living in a small town, attempting to cope with the aftermath of the murder of her partner Halland, who is shot with a hunting rifle one morning upon leaving the house to go to work. Her first personal narration allows the reader into her mind, through a door left shockingly wide open, and to also observe the peripheral activities of both the police's murder investigation and also the unknown figures with a sometimes-suspect link to Halland who start appearing out of the woodwork.

I found this book to be an absorbing, bewildering, touching read, which almost made me late for work one morning as I couldn't put it down. The writing is sparse and leaves wide lacunas for the reader to fill - this is an intuitively written book for the intuitive reader. There is no spoon-feeding, let's say! Pia Juul is a wildly successful exponent of the subtle skill of saying vs. not saying, and her written is totally immersive: I had the creepy sensation I few times of feeling that I was Bess, which was bizarre, frankly, and alienating beyond the page. She really got under my skin.

I thought the portrayal of the relationships in the book was excellent too, and very affecting, particularly with regards to Abby, Bess' estranged daughter, who is to Bess, after not seeing her for a decade
...the most beautiful creature I had ever seen...
and also Brandt, her neighbour. The people who stumble into her life looking for Halland or wanting something from him are skilfully drawn, some of them barely appearing on the page, and they were all useful, fleshed out and not a look or word is wasted. There's his 'niece' Pernille who is heavily pregnant; Funder, the detective; Troels, Bess' ex-husband. Each have a place in the structure and subversion of what is a re-imagined murder mystery, within which Bess is also naturally a suspect. Everything in this book feels necessary - I can think of no better way to describe it - which means you don't get bogged down in back stories or extraneous detail, which I loved; Juul seems to credit the reader with enough intelligence to presume some things and to infer others for themselves. Also, she's not afraid to let a question mark hang, which I loved.

On an emotional level, my perception of the experience of extreme grief has altered, and I found that this disorientating book rang absolutely true. I was touched by Bess' grief-stricken irrationality - she gets drunk and embarrasses herself, she yells at people and shouts down the phone - and appreciated the fact that Juul wrote her as a person, not a paragon or the archetypal grieving woman. I also enjoyed the subtle unveiling of the facts, leading to the obscure but likely conclusion.

A disarming and unforgettable read.

The other 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 (Sam's)

Title: The Murder of Halland
Author: Pia Juul, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
Date: Original 2009, translation 2012
Format: Paperback, 167 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press for review as part of this readathon series.


3.1.13

Peirene Press Readathon, No. 9: 'The Brothers' by Asko Sahlberg

Happy new year everyone! I hope you all had a nice restful break and are looking forward to what 2013 will bring. I am, for sure, although my first day back at work, which was today, has left me sleepy and yearning for Christmas again...

Anyhoo, back to the ol' routine, and regular readers will know that for the last eight Thursdays this has meant a post on mine and Sam's epic Peirene Press Readathon, and today is no exception! During this readathon we are reading all nine (actually now ten) books published by Peirene Press to date, plus reviewing the three-book-series, into which the books are arranged, as a whole every fourth week. Today's book is The Brothers by Asko Sahlberg, which is the first book in the 'Small Epic' series.

This novella focuses on one house in the wilds of Finland in 1809, shortly after the end of Swedish-Russian conflict over territory in Finland in which the two brothers of the title, Erik and Henrik, fought on different sides. Now Henrik, who fought for enemy Russia is back at the house, where Erik, his wife Anna, their mother, the Old Mistress, their cousin Mauri, a maid and a farmhand reside and, as you might imagine, tensions simmer and boil over, secrets are revealed, grudges are honoured and it is very,very isolated, snowy and cold.  The family initially reminded me of the Vangars of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, all hateful and alienated on their snowy island, although that feeling softened as the story progressed and actually by the end I felt for all of them, even the most unsympathetic.

I found this book to be majestic, elegant and regal in its calm examination of the effects of living so far from others, where few it seems really want to be, and the impact that familial relationships and hierarchies can have, when forged in childhood and adolescence, on the rest of your life. The Helsingin Sanomat quote on the back of the book says that
The comparison to Shakespeare might seem grandiose, but it's justified...
and I totally agree. This book, constructed around multi-voice, intimate first-person narratives, sweeps most impressively from the smallest, most personally illustrative detail, such as
I have barely caught the crunch of the snow and I know who is coming. Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth. The brothers are so different. Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone...
 to sweeping statements about timeless events on the world stage that sent shivers down my spine:
Nor did I understand that wars are being waged all the time, that lines of men marching with their muskets are merely the visible culmination of constant power struggles, and that actual warfare takes places in salons lit by oil lamps in which liveried flunkies pour expensive champagne into crystal glasses, and wasp-waisted women wave their ivory fans languidly, and gentlemen sitting amidst thick cigar smoke - heirs of noblemen knighted by Gustav I of Sweden, or offspring of the Grand Dukes of Novgorod, owners of tens of thousands of souls - realize that they suddenly hanker after a ninth city palace or a sackful of diamonds, or that their lives have simply become too monotonous...
Isn't that gorgeous and horrifying, in equal measure? The first quote is actually the first paragraph of the whole book and when I opened that page and began reading yesterday, I immediately felt in the safest of hands.

Three things struck me as particularly impressive about this novella: one, that the individual character monologues are so delicately and tunefully rendered, marking real individuals whose joint experience spans Finnish society at that moment in time; two, that the plot is genuinely surprising - I had no road map for it, and I had no idea of the end of the book until literally the final word had been read - and three, how atmospheric it is. I went to Finland to visit the home of my lovely friend Sini for a few days in 2009, and the sheer scale of distances between places and the loneliness of the homes really rang true with my memories of it, as well as the fact that households are set up as self-contained fortresses of sustainment and endurance through the wild seasons and the bitter cold. I read this book in a few hours yesterday afternoon, first in a cafe then snuggled on the sofa wrapped in slippers and blanket, and at no point in that would I have been surprised to look up from the page and see miles and miles of quiet Finnish forest and snow. It's just so vivid.

So, a wonderful book that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. It felt to me like a proper grown-up book, with epic themes and the calm yet passionate authority of the timeless horse who tops and tails the book with a snorting, rueful peace. A Small Epic indeed.

 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 (Sam's)

Title: The Brothers
Author: Asko Sahlberg, translated from the Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah
Date: Original 2010, translation 2011
Format: Paperback, 122 pages, and I was sent it by Peirene Press for review as part of this readathon series.

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