Posts Tagged ‘Teffi’

It’s the last day of the month and I won’t finish another book before midnight. It’s been a good month of reading for me, and despite not being very well, I wanted to share it with you all. February has been #ReadIndies month, hosted again by Lizzie and Karen, it’s a month that seems to perfectly suit my kind of reading, and I have really enjoyed this month’s books. #ReadIndies has become one of my favourite reading events. Honestly, where would we be without these brilliant, independent publishers?  

Unfortunately, I just won’t get around to writing about everything, hopefully I will write in more detail about a couple more of these in the coming days or weeks. One of the review copies I received is actually not out until April, so that gives me plenty of time to write a proper review of it. Three of these have been reviewed previously.  

My first read of the month was a collection of stories Other Worlds (edited 2021) by Teffi (NYRB Classics) translated from Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler & others. Focussing on other worldly themes, the collection comes from across a forty-year period in Teffi’s life.  

Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks (Faber) is a book I only heard about from other bloggers. The only novel by the celebrated poet and first Black author to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. Told in a series of poetic vignettes, this is the story of Maud Martha Brown who grew up on the South Side of 1940s Chicago.  

Cold Enough for Snow (2021) by Jessica Au (Fitzcarraldo Editions) a tender, delicate little novella about a mother and daughter visiting Japan together. This was my first of two visits to Japan in my February reading. The two meet in Tokyo, share meals in restaurants, walk around the city, visit galleries and talk. It’s an exploration of their pasts, memory and their understanding of each other.  

Bird of Paradise (1914) by Ada Leverson (Michael Walmer) a wonderfully bright, witty novel, that gently satirises a society in which love, and money go hand in hand.  

Appius and Virginia (1932) by Gertrude Trevelyan (Abandoned Bookshop) I was so looking forward to reading this, Gertrude Trevelyan’s first novel. I wasn’t disappointed – though it often made me sad and a little angry. It tells the story of Virginia Hutton who embarks on an experiment – to raise a new-born Orang-utan as a human child. She names him Appius and buries herself in a cottage with no servants and over the course of about a decade goes about the business of teaching Appius how to talk, read, play and daily become more and more like a real boy. There are one or two uncomfortable comparisons between Appius and people Virginia considers inferior – which for me went hand in hand with the character’s attitudes. Throughout the novel there is a conflict between nature and nurture, and what happens when Appius becomes aware of his true origins. A fascinating, thought-provoking novel, in which the reader is firmly on the side of Appius. 

Latchkey Ladies (1921) by Marjorie Grant (Handheld Press) set around the end of WW1 this is the kind of novel I love, a novel about women, living and working independently at a time when that was less usual.  

A Summer with Kim Novak (1998) by Håkan Nesser (World Editions) translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel. Nesser is a very successful, well-known Swedish crime writer, who I hadn’t heard of. I read about this novel on another blog and wanted to read it. Although there is a crime in this novel – generally referred to by the narrator as the incident – it is in fact much more of a coming-of-age novel – and that’s what initially appealed to me most. Fourteen-year-old Erik and his friend Edmund spend the summer of 1962 by a Swedish lake, swimming, riding their bikes and daydreaming about a young schoolteacher called Ewa who looks just like Kim Novak. When Ewa’s boyfriend is found dead, Erik’s older brother is initially the prime suspect. Many years later, Erik looks back on what happened that summer. 

How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart (2023) by Florentyna Leow (Emma Press) is a collection of essays about the author’s time living in Kyoto. Florentyna takes up the offer of a house share in the hills of Kyoto. She starts a new job as a tour guide, falls in love with Kyoto, becomes a regular at a tiny, jazz bar. Meanwhile her relationship with her house mate becomes intense, and eventually begins to break down. This collection is a meditation on place, and the loss of friendship.  

In the Belly of the Queen (2023) Karosh Taha (V&Q books) translated from the German by Grashina Gabelmann. A novel about class, race and gender this novel is told in two parts. One runs from front to back – the other part (turn the book over) runs back to front – like Ali Smith’s How to be Both apparently. You can read which ever part you like first – I started with the slightly longer section first. As this novel – which I really enjoyed – isn’t out until April I will save my thoughts for nearer the time.  

Foster (2010) by Claire Keegan (Faber) another small novella which was lovely to read in one sitting. Set during a hot summer, a child is taken by her father to stay with relatives on a farm in rural Ireland. In the house of the Kinsellas the young girl finds an affection she has never known. Gradually in their care she begins to blossom. Only, there is something not talked about in this household, and summers have to end. A slight novel perhaps but one of absolute perfection.  

So, that was February, I don’t have any concrete plans for March – but I do hope to join in with Read Ireland month. I might read a William Trevor collection of stories and I have a couple of books I had meant to read this month that I ran out of time for. I have started reading The Fawn (1959) by Magda Szabo translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix – only fifty pages or so into it, but it seems promising so far. 

I would love to know what your highlights of February were – and what if any your plans are for March.  

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Edited by Robert Chandler, Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler & others.  

Despite not having reviewed many of the books I read in January, I am moving straight on to my first read for #ReadIndies month. I might go back to some of those January reads yet – but I doubt it. #ReadIndies is hosted by Karen and Lizzie and is a lovely flexible challenge – you can read anything at all as long as it comes from an independent publisher. Independent publishers are so important, giving us a range of different voices from writers all over the world, reissuing classics and producing quirky titles and interesting editions that differ to those produced by the big publishing houses. I particularly appreciate those publishers bringing out translations and backlisted titles by women.  

My first title for #ReadIndies was Other Worlds: peasants, pilgrims, spirits, saints by Teffi sent to me for Christmas by Jacquiwine, a NYRB classic. I don’t read much Russian literature these days (I had a short Russian phase in my early twenties) and I have never read Teffi – but I do enjoy short stories and so this felt like a great collection to start with. Apparently best known for her satirical sketches of pre-revolutionary Russia, this collection focus on more other worldly themes. The stories were written over a forty-year period, from the times she was writing in Moscow through to those days when she was living in Paris.  

It is difficult to review this kind of collection, though I hope I can offer a little flavour of it. These stories have themes of religion either Christian or Russian orthodox and folklore and spiritualism. The collection is organised into five parts, with each group of stories taken from one of Teffi’s collections. Here we have stories of the poor and the rich, of pilgrims travelling together sleeping in hostel type accommodation, of wolves, shapeshifters, of witches and spirits, fear and superstition.  

For example, In Confession, a young girl prepares for her first confession, she worries about a lie she told, the event looms large and fills her with anxiety. In a A Quiet Backwater a laundress discusses the name days of the flora and fauna around her. It’s a beautifully descriptive story, presenting us with a very visual scene of traditional rustic life.  

“Every sea, every great river and stormy lake has its quiet backwater. The water is clear and calm. The reeds don’t rustle, and there are no ripples on the smooth surface. Anything there is an event – the mere touch of a dragonfly’s wing, or that long-legged dancer, an evening mosquito. 

If you climb the steep bank and look down, you’ll see at once where this quiet backwater begins. A line has been drawn with a ruler.” 

(A Quiet Backwater)  

In Solovki – a group a pilgrims travel to a monastery. Two of the pilgrims are Semyon and his wife Varvara – and Semyon wastes no time in telling the story of his wife’s transgression to the other pilgrims – a story he has been repeating to everyone he can for months. It becomes clear to the reader that he doesn’t know the full story.  

Some stories concern matters that are little darker – lightly brushed with horror, they explore the deep superstitions of spirits, witches, shapeshifters and things unknown. In Witch a couple come to believe their servant is a witch, the final straw for the young wife is finding the dining chairs all turned around, facing outwards (not a superstition I have heard of before). Wild Evening is about the fear of the unknown, all the characters seem to be in a state of fear. Shapeshifters explores the various stories around shapeshifters, werewolves and shewolves. The Dog tells the story of a loyal lover, war and a legend from an old mill that a group of young people once joked about.  

“We liked Tolya’s old legend. Vanya Lebedev, however, said, ‘That’s splendid, Tolya. Only you could have told it better – it should be more scary. You should have added that the mill’s been under a spell ever since. Whoever spends one whole night there will be able, if ever he wishes, to turn himself into a dog.” 

(The Dog)

All these stories are wonderfully visual, Teffi is a very atmospheric, descriptive writer. I was at first a little perplexed by the translation of some of the dialogue in a few stories. Several stories – like that of Yavdokha, about a peasant woman who receives a letter she is unable to read – have a local dialect spoken between characters. The speech that is reproduced in some of these stories began to sound to me like the dialect of someone from Yorkshire. I was a bit discombobulated, but flipped to the explanation, written by Robert Chandler on this translation, in the back of the book. I was glad I did, his explanation is rather too long to reproduce here, but reminded me how difficult translation is and how important it was for the translator to provide differentiation between peasant characters and say middle-class people, monks or even wealthy landowners.  

This collection was a superb introduction to a legendary writer – thank you Jaqui! It really got my #ReadIndies reading off to a good start.  

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