Posts Tagged ‘#WITmonth’


Things have continued to be pretty difficult here – and that’s an understatement. I am not expecting things to improve hugely in the next couple of weeks, so all I can do is battle on. All this has affected my blogging, not just because my hands are often too painful for typing, but because I have just completely lost my mojo. Today I wanted to get something pulled together in a bid to say hello to you all – so I thought a post about some of the books I have read might be in order. I have at least been able to read, though perhaps not as much as I would have liked. Only now I feel quite overwhelmed at the number of books I still have to write about (eight) so although several of these books I had really wanted to review in full, I think I shall have to compromise with mini reviews instead. 

Whatever reading I have been doing I have really enjoyed because I have stuck to going with my mood and not putting myself under pressure to read more than I have been able to cope with. It’s helped me appreciate just being able to sit and read even if it is just for a short time.  

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me talking about the joy of kindle – my Rheumatoid Arthritis affects my hands and shoulders as well as my knees. So often holding a book is really difficult, kindles are easier (though not entirely without issue). It has allowed me to read when I have been in a lot of pain, and that is a comfort.  

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi (2020) – the author’s second novel though the first of them I have read. I thought it was absolutely outstanding, I shall definitely read more by Yaa Gyasi.  

It’s the story of an American-Ghanaian family and their life in Alabama. Gifty is doing a PhD in neuroscience, studying reward seeking behaviour in mice, determined to find an answer to the suffering she sees in people around her. Gifty’s mother is hugely depressed, suicidal and living in the bed in Gifty’s apartment. Gifty’s father had left the family when she was young, returning to Ghana, while her brother Nana had become a high school sports star but following an injury became addicted to painkillers and later heroin. The heroin finally killed him, and his death killed something in their mother. 

Despite having a life rooted in science, Gifty finds herself drawn to the memory of the faith she had had as a child. She wrestles with the evangelical church in which she was raised.  

This is a stunning, intelligent novel about family life, grief, addiction, science and faith. I hadn’t known to expect the vivisection stuff – it took me aback a bit and made me wince – but it’s not too gratuitous.  

An Elderly Lady is Up to no Good (2018) & An Elderly Lady Must Not be Crossed (2020) – Helen Tursten translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. Read for #Witmonth two collections of quirky short stories about an elderly lady who has an interesting way of sorting out people who cause her difficulties. I didn’t read these back-to-back, but the second book was definitely calling to me after finishing the first, so they were read close together.  

Maud is 88 years old, though certainly not feeble (but she can act it when necessary). She lives alone in the large Gothenburg apartment, where she had grown up with her parents and older, disabled sister. She lives a contented life, now that she is retired from teaching, travelling widely – there aren’t many places in the world she hasn’t visited.  

Every now and then though, someone comes along intent on causing problems, or taking advantage. They are no match for Maud, as she is not averse to a little murder, where it’s necessary.  

These stories are laugh out loud at times, the second volume telling a couple of tales from Maud’s past.  

Things do get a little sticky for Maud when the police call to investigate a death in her apartment building, but Maud is sure she can evade suspicion, she is just a little old lady after all.  

Green For Danger – Christianna Brand (1944) – It was Jacqui’s recent enthusiasm for this that made me pull this from the shelf, a rare non kindle read. I wasn’t disappointed an absolutely enthralling wartime mystery, and it really kept me guessing.  

Set in a military hospital during wartime, this is an intriguingly plotted mystery with a smallish circle of suspects. A patient dies under anaesthetic and then later a nurse who was present on that occasion is murdered. Inspector Cockrill (a detective Brand wrote several novels about) is brought in to investigate – sure initially that the first death is nothing more than an unexplained tragedy. With the murder of the nurse and an attempt being made on another, Inspector Cockrill has quite a puzzle on his hands, and all his suspects are the nurses and doctors who were attendant when the patient died so unexpectedly.  

A thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age type mystery – with the kind of setting I find particularly pleasing.  

Elena Knows – Claudia Piñeiro (2007) translated by Frances Riddle – another excellent read for #WITmonth. Published by Charco Press who produce a range of literature from contemporary Latin American authors. Beautifully written, heartfelt and poignant I really loved this.  

Elena’s daughter Rita had been found dead in the bell tower of the church. The official investigation ruled it suicide and was quickly closed. Elena doesn’t believe that can possibly be true – but she is the only person who believes this. Elena is battling Parkinson’s she relies on medication to be able to leave the house.  

Elena sets out on a difficult journey across the city, to call in an old debt. Going in search of a woman she met only once many years earlier. Someone who will help her get at the truth.  

Slowly this enthralling narrative reveals hidden truths about the characters and shows painfully the reality of being at the mercy of an illness, needing care and contemplating greater deterioration.  

So that’s all for now, more soon, I hope.  

I have just downloaded the first Cazelet chronicle by Elizabeth Jane Howard to my kindle, only about 80 pages in, but I am wondering why it took me so long.  

Read Full Post »

Well, I am horribly behind in my reviewing (and blog reading too, I’m afraid) still clawing my way back to feeling more like normal. I simply wasn’t up to blogging last week at all. With seven books still to write about I am kicking off the catch up with a combination post.  

Both of these were read during July; I had no plan to get ready for #WITmonth it just happened to be what I read.  

Vivian – Christina Hesselholdt (2016) (translated by Paul Russell Garrett)  

A lovely Fitzcarraldo edition that Jacqui kindly sent me for Christmas. Danish writer Christina Hesselholdt examines the life of enigmatic photographer Vivian Maier. This is a wholly fictionalised examination, an imagined life of a woman about who little seems to be known. The real Vivian Maier died in 2009 – after which her work became widely appreciated and left many wondering about the woman herself.  

It’s always challenging to write a fictional account of the life of someone who lived – yet I suppose as so little was known about Vivian it gave Hesselholdt the space to fill in the gaps about this woman who during her lifetime took more than 150,000 photographs, mainly with a Rollieflex camera. Her photographs were extraordinary street scenes of New York and Chicago from across four decades. She hoarded her photographs, negatives and newspapers and it was only shortly before her death that the photographs were discovered in an auction.  

“Viv – Today I photographed a pigeon resting on a cornice, blinking down at the streets. In my version it became heroic. Because it took in the streets with its small gaze.” 

Vivian Maier lived a quiet life – working for many years as a nanny for wealthy families in New York and Chicago. She had been born in New York in the 1920s, the daughter of French and Austrian immigrants, it was a very dysfunctional family, with alcoholism, abuse and mental health issues just part of the landscape Vivian grew up in.  

Hesselholdt’s narrative is told in a chorus of voices – including the questioning, non-objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself of course, a child she cared for, the parents who employed her, Jeanne Bertrand another photographer who had lived with the Maier family when Vivian was a young girl, and various members of Vivian’s family.  

We see Vivian at different points in her life – the narrative of this very modern novel is not chronological, which I rather liked. Slowly an indistinct picture begins to emerge – a little like a photograph in a tray of chemicals in an old-fashioned dark room. Hesselholdt allows Vivian to remain enigmatic, and we will never know how close to the truth this fictional life might be. It is however a fascinating portrait and a beautifully written novel.  

After Midnight – Irmgard Keun (1937) (translated by Anthea Bell) 

After Midnight is the third novel I have read by Irmgard Keun. Written while Keun was living in exile, having left Nazi Germany, this deceptively straight forward novel is a brilliantly subtle critique of life in Nazi Germany.  

The plot takes place over a couple of days in 1936, at a time when Hitler was paying a visit to Frankfurt. The novel is narrated by Sanna a nineteen-year-old girl who like anyone her age wants a little fun – but Sanna and her friends must do their socialising to a new and frightening back drop – a world full of rules, where saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could be life threatening. Sanna spends her time with her friend Gerti, her stepbrother Algin and his beautiful wife Liska the group often joined by journalist Heini. A group of young people for who the world is not as carefree as it once was. Sanna is naïve, though sharply observant of what is going on around her, she is not at all political, happy to drink and flirt with anyone. The changes that have come to Germany are evident though, journalist Heini has fallen foul of the authorities and Sanna’s writer brother is already on the blacklist.  

Sanna recalls how she left her home to travel to Cologne to stay with her aunt and cousin. The aunt is a suspicious, difficult woman and denounced Sanna to the authorities – after which she hurriedly left for Frankfurt. She had fallen in love with her cousin Franz though, and now as the narrative moves toward its climax, Sanna is determined to find a way for them to escape Germany together.  

“And more and more people keep coming in. This Gestapo room seems to be a positive place of pilgrimage. Mothers are informing on their daughters-in-law, daughters on their fathers-in-law, brothers on their sisters, sisters on their brothers, friends on their friends, drinking companions on their drinking companions, neighbours on their neighbours. And the typewriters go clatter, clatter, clatter, all the statements are taken down, all the informers are treated well and kindly.” 

Keun recreates this world brilliantly, a world where people happily denounce one another, a world in which Sanna despairs that her friend should chose a ‘mixed race’ (a person with a Jewish father) as her lover when there are so many other men around. It is a stark reminder of what ordinary Germans lived with in the years before the war, and how much was known at the time by the populace. Three years before the war would break out and yet everything is here – Sanna’s straight forward narrative highlights the horror that existed alongside ordinary life. 

As Liska throws a lavish all-night party, the mood darkens – and there is a real sense of what is to come, though Keun could not possibly have known just what was ahead.   

Two fantastic novels got my #WITmonth reading off to a great start this year. 

Read Full Post »

Well August has been a funny old month – stressful and dragging where my house move is concerned – and flying by in other ways. My reading has taken a bit of a hit, because while I continued to be away from work, my reading has been quite a bit slower – definitely stress induced. As has become traditional I wanted to concentrate on #Witmonth and vmc reads for All Virago, All August. I did quite well with #Witmonth – especially as I had already read two #witmonth books at the end of July. However. I did much less well with my vmc reads this year, managing only two, though they were both excellent.

I began the month reading In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale. A fascinating book, gorgeously written much lauded by other readers. A mixture of genres it tells the story of the author’s Russian Jewish family, and wider Europe over about a century. It is an incredible piece of work.

I have been reading Maya Angelou’s seven volume autobiography with Liz and our friend Meg. Singin’ & Swingin’ & Getting Merry Like Christmas is the third volume. It concerns her relationship with her son, her first marriage and the beginnings of her life in showbusiness including her time on tour with the cast of Porgy and Bess.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki translated from the Greek by Karen van Dyck was one of the books I was determined to read for this year’s Women in Translation month. A beautiful coming of age novel about three sisters in the years before the Second World War. There is a lot more going on in this novel than the premise might at first suggest, themes of marriage, fidelity, women’s roles, the bond between siblings and motherhood are all delicately explored. 

The first of two kindle reads this month, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery translated from the French by Alison Anderson was a book I had been aware of for some time, but really hadn’t known much about it. Renée Michel is a concierge at an elegant apartment building in the centre of Paris, like twelve year old Paloma in one of the apartments upstairs, Renée hides her true self from the world. How these two unlikely people find a common bond is beautifully told.

The British Library are very good at producing anthologies of brilliant mystery stories, Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards is a particularly good example for the book lover. Stories from a range of brilliant Golden age writers set in libraries or involving writers.

Another #Witmonth read was a book I had heard about from other bloggers; The Union of Synchronised Swimmers by Cristina Sandu – translated from the Finnish by the author. A novella really, it tells the story of six girls from an unnamed country who join a synchronised swimming team in order to escape the country they are from. It’s quite an odd little novel, but not unenjoyable.  

My second vmc read of the month was Old New York by Edith Wharton, and what a treat it was, she was such a wonderful writer. Four short novels of Old New York in one volume, full of Wharton’s observations of society with all its strictures and pitfalls. Containing themes of class, jealousy, infidelity, and illegitimacy.

As I entered the week when I was expecting to exchange contacts and complete on my flat purchase and house sale, I needed something, diverting but not too challenging. I chose The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas, which I probably originally bought for the title alone. I wasn’t sure whether it would be my kind of thing really, but it proved exactly right in fact, generally well written, but reasonably undemanding, with an engaging witty tone, it was fine if not a little underwhelming.

So, on to September – and really I don’t know what to expect from September book wise – I am not making any plans or putting myself under pressure. I am currently reading A Bite of the Apple by Lennie Goodings, which Liz bought for me for either birthday or Christmas, though not sure which year, and which she selected for me to read now when she came to see the flat and help with book sorting. I shall of course be settling into my new place – and also later this week returning to work after another long break. So, my reading will certainly be affected by all of that. I shall be reading strictly according to mood – and if I am able to read anything at all and really enjoy it – that will be enough.

As ever, I would love to know what you have been reading, and what plans you might have for September.

Happy reading.

Read Full Post »

Translated from the Finnish by the author

My final post for #witmonth is a little bit of a shorter post. The Union of Synchronized Swimmers is a novella – an odd little book in some ways, though not unenjoyable.

There is a lovely poetic quality to certain sections of this novella which I particularly enjoyed, a delicate use of language to describe movement and water.

“The girls started to play, though they were too old; their movements aimless at first, like they could’ve been doing anything else. They plunged into the water and sprang up, parting the surface with their hands. They crept among the reeds and made birds scatter from their nests. They tore flowers growing by the river and drew shapes in the air. They pushed each other’s heads under the surface and kept them there, as if performing a baptism. They stood on their hands in the water, their feet swinging madly against the branches of the trees.”

In an unnamed country – though the implication perhaps is that it is a former Soviet country, a group of six young woman meet by the river. Here they mess around in the water together. They are workers from a local factory, this is where many of the local women work, so many of the men have left the country to find work. They can see across the river to another place, another country, where things are very different. Soon the fun at the river turns more serious, the women start to train – they become a team, a team bringing some Olympic hope to their poor, struggling nation. For the women though this is their chance to get away, perhaps their only chance – to discover what really lies across the river.

“In the evenings, when they fell on their beds like lumbered trees, the girls felt the movement of water inside their bodies. It rocked them to a place that belonged neither to this nor to that side of the river. The beauty of the threshold: on the other side of it, everything was still possible. Perhaps they were happier then, more complete and satisfied, than they ever have been or would be.”

In alternate chapters we see the young women in the past, as they train together and in the present as they live lives far away from where they started – each of them in different countries. In chapters named for each of the six young women; Anita, Paulina, Sandra, Betty, Nina and Lidia – we see something of what happened next. Running away can’t always bring complete happiness though as these women find out – there are difficulties ahead for all of them, and one of them will decide ultimately to go home.

Anita lives in Helsinki, when she starts a relationship with a man from her own country, she decides to hide her true origins from him – never allowing her knowledge of their shared language to escape. In California Paulina goes on a boat trip – the kind tourists and new arrivals might take, but the experience only makes her feel more of an outsider than ever. In Rome Nina orders coffee in a café, goes to work at the warehouse – she is proud of her new language skills, and is acclimatising herself to the noise of the warehouse.

“There’s nothing I can’t say in both languages, she thinks, and grabs the handles of the cart. Nothing stays inside one language. Each thought – like the one of how she will eventually grow numb to the noise and the smell of the warehouse – begets its double.”

Language is an issue for all of them in some ways, in the Pyrenees Sandra is mocked for her accent and pronunciation. Meanwhile in San Martin, Betty gambles in a casino, reflecting on the difficult time she had when she lived in Bucharest, the place she had landed in first – a place where she had once stolen fish heads out of a rubbish bin. This move has been more successful she thinks – she tells her fellow gamblers at the table how she had travelled from Bucharest to Paris with a truck driver.

Lidia is the one who goes home – worn out by the years away, finding peace in the place she came from.

Cristina Sandu’s prose can be quite spare and there is a fragmentary nature to this story of leaving home in search for freedom – and to me the ending felt very abrupt. Still, it certainly gives pause for thought about the meaning of freedom, or what home might feel like – and how for some, on the other side of the river, the grass may not be quite so green after all.

Read Full Post »

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

I think for many of us there are those books which we have been aware of for years, the covers of which are instantly recognisable, and yet have still totally passed us by. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one such book for me – I didn’t even really know what it was about, and had forgotten it was a novel in translation. So, this #Witmonth I decided to read it having seen quite a bit of hype about Muriel Babery’s latest novel on social media.

My ignorance of this book was such, that I had no idea of just how literary it is, nor how philosophical. I am quite happy reading literary novels, I do so quite frequently, the philosophical I am less keen on, but actually in this novel I was fine with it. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a novel that celebrates the inconspicuous among us, it’s poignant, funny, and intelligent.

“As for Madame Michel…how can we tell? She radiates intelligence. And yet she really makes an effort, like, you can tell she is doing everything she possibly can to act like a concierge and come across as stupid. But I’ve been watching her, when she used to talk with Jean Arthens or when she talks to Neptune when Diane has her back turned, or when she looks at the ladies in the building who walk right by her without saying hello. Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.”

Renée Michel is a concierge at an elegant apartment building in the centre of Paris. A building inhabited by gracious, wealthy bourgeois families. Once she ran the building with her husband, but now she is a widow, living alone with her cat. Her one friend in the world is Manuela Lopes – a cleaner of other people’s homes, who one day plans to go home to Portugal. On Tuesdays and Thursdays at two, Manuela arrives to drink tea with Renée.

Renée is purposely unremarkable, a small dumpy, middle aged woman she prefers to perpetuate the stereotype of a building concierge with the people living around her. In fact, she has a fierce intelligence, a lover of art, music and great literature, a deep thinker and lover of Japanese culture. She is also a wonderful observer of people, and it is with some humour that she watches the comings and goings of the apartment dwellers – none of whom give her much of a second glance.

Upstairs, in one of the gracious Parisian apartments lives Paloma, the twelve year old daughter of a dull parliamentarian. She has little time or patience with either of her parents or her older sister – for she is a quiet genius. Rather like Renée she tries her best to hide her true abilities. In despair at the world in which she finds herself she has decided that she will end her life on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Until then, Paloma will continue to act as just another average pre-teen – wholly unremarkable – conforming to the expectations already laid down.

“no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.”

Renée and Paloma are both separately hiding their true selves from the world – a world that is incapable of really seeing them, a world that can’t appreciate them. However, when Ozu; a wealthy Japanese man moves into the apartment block, Renée and Paloma discover the other to be an unexpected kindred spirit. It seems that only Ozu can win over the cynical Paloma, and see through Renée’s disguise to the person she really is.

‘They didn’t recognise me,’ I say. I come to a halt in the middle of the pavement, completely flabbergasted. ‘They didn’t recognise me,’ I repeat. He stops in turn, my hand still on his arm. ‘It is because they have never seen you,’ he says. ‘I would recognise you anywhere.’

This novel is a real celebration of the unremarkable, it beautifully captures the mind of someone the world has overlooked. As for why Renée is so keen for the world to see her as a simple concierge, unremarkable, uncultured unnoticeable – well you will have to read the book to find that out – it was a question I kept asking myself – and we do discover the reason in time.

There is a poignant, inevitability to the ending, which shocked me a bit – but then I realised that it was actually the perfect ending, though it was very bittersweet. I’m so glad I finally got around to a book I had been aware of for so long.

A little bit of housekeeping – I am moving house tomorrow. So, I will likely be a bit quiet for a while, not sure how long before I have Wi-Fi again to start with. I will do my best to keep up with blog posts, social media etc via my phone but don’t be surprised if there is a bit of a lull.

Read Full Post »

Translated from the Greek by Karen van Dyck

Three Summers is one of three #Witmonth books I still have to review, ideally by the end of the month. I have rather a lot going on at the moment so not really sure if I will manage it.

This is a novel that several bloggers have reviewed over the last year or so, and it became one I really wanted to read. Jacqui kindly sent me her copy (which I shall be sending back soon) so that I could read it over #Witmonth and I am so glad that I did. It’s a modern Greek classic, a coming of age type story, filled with sunshine and the voices of three sisters.

“That summer we bought big straw hats. Maria’s had cherries around the rim, Infanta’s had forget-me-nots, and mine had poppies as red as fire. When we lay in the hayfield wearing them, the sky, the wildflowers, and the three of us all melted into one. ‘Where are you? Off hiding again?’ my mother called. Shhhhh. We whispered and told secrets. Other years Maria and Infanta had told the secrets, leaving me out since I was the youngest. But this year…”

Growing up between the wars, in the Greek countryside near Athens are three sisters, living in a big old house with their mother, grandfather and Aunt Theresa, surrounded by a beautiful garden. Maria is the oldest, sexually bold, but ready to settle down and raise her own family, Infanta, distant but beautiful and the youngest Katerina – through who’s eyes we see the majority of the story. Each sister has their own small plot of garden to tend, each plot reflecting the personality of its owner. Maria’s garden is all little neat squares, while Infanta’s is wild, and has almond trees which need lots of watering, Katerina’s garden is full of flowers, the planting as spontaneous as she is.

Katerina is dreamy, rebellious, and deeply curious. There are secrets and dark events in the family’s past. Aunt Theresa changed forever when she was raped by her fiancé as a young woman. Katerina is especially drawn to the story of her Polish grandmother – who scandalously ran away from her husband and two children. Katerina is fascinated by this romantic figure – who nobody ever mentions, but Katerina gets some little bits of information from the family housekeeper who has been around for years.

“Memories… memories. The air is heavy with them. I can’t stand it anymore. I no longer fit in that big room with the piano, the little boxes of seeds, the peacock embroidery. I run outside and lie down on the grass. I look up at the moon between the two eucalyptuses; it touches the ledge of the cistern, and I can see the silhouette of a frog in its circle of light. But the frog is not on the moon. Like me, it is on the ground looking up.”

The sisters enjoy a good relationship, sharing secrets and dreams, talk about the local boys, gossip about neighbours, and try to figure out their parents. Their parents are separated, following their father’s infidelity, he now living in Athens – they visit him and his colourful brother from time to time.

As the title suggests the novel is set over three summers. Three summers during which these three sisters lives start to change, as they cross that divide between girlhood and adulthood. In the first summer, Maria has a sexual adventure with a neighbour’s son, who she has no intention at all of marrying. She wants to marry, as she announces to her surprised family, and she settles quickly for another neighbour; Marios, the equivalent of the boy next door.

Marios’s mother, Laura Parigori, is a fascinating character, a traditional wife and mother in many ways, she clearly yearns secretly for more. We feel an unspoken frustration in her for the smallness of her life, the things she will never do, she is still only in her forties, and while that was older then, than it is now, the years stretch ahead of her, formless and empty.

Time marches on and both Infanta and Katerina must negotiate their own fragile love affairs – while watching their elder sister settle into marriage and impending motherhood. Intense feelings, jealousy and uncertainty enter the lives of these young women – as they try to make sense of these new and exciting relationships. Katerina falls madly in love with David an astronomer who is writing a book – and when she sees him in the company of Laura Parigori a few times, she is mad with jealousy. Infanta seems taken up with Nikitas, with whom she shares a love of horse riding which they are able to do together.

Ever curious, Katerina begins to make discoveries about the past, her mother, a somewhat shadowy figure throughout this novel – seems to be acting oddly and Katerina is determined to find out why.

There is a lot more going on in this novel than the premise might at first suggest, themes of marriage, fidelity, women’s roles, the bond between siblings and motherhood are all delicately explored. The gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, the lushness of Liberaki’s prose and this beautiful translation make this a gorgeous summery read.

Read Full Post »

Translated from Russian by Sasha Dugdale

In Memory of Memory is a book that has been reviewed brilliantly by so many other bloggers, that if I am honest, I haven’t really been looking forward to trying to write about it. It is a book that is difficult to categorise, I have generally seen it described as autofiction –though it was published by Fitzcarraldo with a white cover, signifying non-fiction, but shortlisted for the International Booker Prize which is for fiction. So, I was a bit confused before I even opened it. Perhaps an exact categorisation doesn’t much matter, because what ever way you categorise this book, it is a remarkable achievement. A complex work which combines, memoir, essay, fiction, history, and travel to slowly reveal the story of a family and the Europe in which they lived and died along with an exploration of culture and memory. It is a fascinating and thoroughly immersive work, not a quick or easy read but one I am glad I tackled for this year’s #Witmonth.

When the author Maria Stepanova’s aunt dies, she is left with an apartment full of ephemera to sort through. Letters, postcards, souvenirs alongside the more personal things like diaries and photographs. Together these represent a century of life in Russia – a century during which the world changed and changed again. Carefully, over time Stepanova begins to piece together the story of this fairly ordinary Jewish family, who – despite the odds, the numerous persecutions, wars, and hardships – managed to survive.

“…that’s why I love photographs that need no interlocutor and have no desire to engage with me. They are in their own way, rehearsals for non-existence, for life without us, for the time when the room is no longer ours to enter.”

I think I have a similar feeling for photographs – well old photographs at least – Instagram has rather changed our relationship with photographs now I think. In fact, Stepanova discusses this very thing – the modern cult of the Selfie as she examines Rembrandt’s self-portraits. There are many fascinating cultural, literary, and artistic references and portraits throughout this book, setting the times of her family in yet another context. All families have those piles or albums of old photographs which when got out spark a memory or a long forgotten story. Those stories weave together to make a complete and complex picture of life – and this book does something very like that.

These stories are elusive, fragmentary and Stepanova has to fill in some gaps for us – this in no way a linear biography of a family, there is much more going on here than that. In order to fill in those gaps she travels around Russia, she goes to the places her family once lived she sees and experiences these places and shares them with us. Maria Stepanova had wanted to write a book about her family since childhood, so in a sense this is a quest for herself an intelligent, loving and ever curious examination of the past. She discusses the very nature of memory, how our memory can’t always be entirely relied upon.

As readers we are left with the memory of a host of vibrant personalities. Too many to write about here – but for me, two women emerged from the shadows of the past – and their stories held me fast. The first was Charlotte Salomon an artist, who I hadn’t heard of previously. She died in Auschwitz. Though Stepanova wants us to see her as much more than another victim of horror. Salomon wasn’t a member of Stepanova’s family, she is one among many artists and writers like Sebald, Susan Sontag, Barthes and even Dickens who come find their way into the pages of this book. The Second of those women was Stepanova’s Great-grandmother Sarra Ginzburg, a doctor who had studied in Paris but returned to the Soviet Union to practise.

“The ability to skip large chunks of time might be useful in the writing of novels, but it starts to frighten me when I realize I am doing it in life, and with real living people – that is, with dead people, of course, although there isn’t really any difference. Great-grandmother Sarra’s youth before Lyolya was born feels like the beginning. Everything is ahead of her, anything could happen. After 1916 time begins folding itself up, tightening into the felt roll of collective fate. A hundred years later I began following in her footsteps, visiting her St. Petersburg addresses, buildings with rebuilt facades, missing apartments and whole missing wings, in poor areas of the city, lit by the setting sun and inhabited by flocks of Sunday soldiers. It always seemed that if I took just another turn to the right, then that would be enough, I could transform her life, restore it, make it fit to be seen again.” 

Of course, it isn’t just the women who have extraordinary stories to tell. One especially memorable one that of Leonid Gimmelfarb, Stepanova’s grandfather’s nineteen year old cousin, who was fighting in the marshes and forests near Leningrad during the siege. He wrote regularly to his mother, and his letters are poignant though often matter of fact, he asks often after the family he has left behind.

The book as I said already isn’t structured in any linear way, Stepanova organises her book around various ideas or particular people. Interspersed with these chapters are short sections called ‘not-a- chapter’ in which through letter extracts we hear from some of these people themselves. The whole becomes a wonderfully personal work, as well as a thoroughly immersive one. Stepanova’s prose is absolutely gorgeous, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that she is a poet.

On a personal level while I enjoyed this book very much, I was probably a little less wowed by it than many others. There is a huge amount to admire in this book, the writing is glorious and I found I was learning about so many fascinating people. However, the fragmentary nature of it took me a while to settle into, and for a while I kept getting people mixed up. Overall, though it is an extraordinary piece of writing and I am very glad I have read it.

Read Full Post »

Translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway

My second review for this year’s #Witmonth is The Pear Field from the independent Peirene Press, longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. I may have swerved this one, had I known just how dark it was, but the subtlety of the writing and beautiful translation by Elizabeth Heighway (a translator local to me I believe) held me fast, and I couldn’t look away, even when I wanted to. However, future readers should be aware that the novel concerns child abandonment, child abuse, peer abuse, violence, and international adoption. A tough read in many respects, but one I am glad I made time for.

On the outskirts of Tbilsi, in post Soviet Union Georgia is a residential school for Intellectually disabled children. The locals call it the school for idiots. In fact, there is nothing wrong with the majority of these children – they have simply been abandoned by their parents, and all the children’s homes are full. Some of the children do believe their parents will come back for them one day. This is not a happy place.

“On every floor there are toilets at the end of the corridor. The wind blowing in through the broken windowpanes carries their stench deeper into the building, making the entire corridor smell like a station toilet. The bedrooms, TV room and playrooms have their own smell, and no amount of fresh air can flush it out. It’s the smell of dirty children, or sometimes of clothes scrubbed clean with laundry soap; the smell of musty linen and hand-me-down bedding; the smell of paraffin lamps and, in winter, wood stoves: the smell of old armchairs and sticky tape covering cracks in the windows and Chinese mallow plants lined up on the sill. Lela knows each and every smell, even though sometimes they all disappear behind the acrid stench of the toilet.”

At this school the children merely survive – it’s a rough, bleak existence – where there is little if any care or compassion. The children look to one another for friendship and support – however there is also a lot of violence and abuse even among the children their games are disturbing, mirroring the horror they have already lived through. The staff few in number are ineffective and probably overwhelmed. One member of staff; the deputy head and history teacher Vamo has been an abuser for years, as Lela, now eighteen remembers with hatred and anger– her desire to kill him preventing her from leaving – yet. For now, she waits, remaining in the place she plans to leave soon, watching the other children with some anxiety. Former pupils who have left the school and gone on to live their own lives have achieved almost legendary status among those who remain – the ultimate, unspoken goal seems to survive long enough to leave.

The Georgia depicted in this novel – at least this area of Tbilisi is a dark and dangerous place, men are aggressive, violence is common, there is great poverty and throughout the novel a feeling of hopelessness. The pear field of the title is a large field of stunted pear trees next to the school, a symbol of all that is wrong, and bad in this awful place. The fruit is inedible – the ground swampy –it is here some children have subjected their victims to terrible abuses.

“The field looks so enticing, especially to new arrivals at the school, who run out on to the field and then slow involuntarily, ominously, as their feet sink into the waterlogged soil, So the pear trees just stand there with their knotted trunks and tangle of low-hanging branches, alone and forsaken, and every spring they bring forth large shiny green pears which nobody touches.”

Lela has taken Irakli under her wing, he is only nine – and believes his mother will soon return for him. From time to time, Lela accompanies him to the apartment of a woman who lives close by, from here Irakli phones his mother – wanting to know when she will come, conversations Lela listens to with fury – knowing full well that his mother has given him up – and won’t be coming back. As much as Irakli needs to believe his mother will come for him, Lela in her already world, weary cynicism and anger wants him to face the bitter truth.

When an American couple arrive at the school looking to adopt a child, Lela decides she will do all she can to make sure that child will be Irakli. If she can secure a better life for him, she only has one more thing to do before she can leave.

“I’m going to kill Vamo before winter, Lela thinks to herself. It’s summer now. Plenty of time. Irakli’s leaving in September and once he’s gone, I’ll kill Vamo. By the end of the winter. After that it might be too late. He’s so old he might just die, all by himself.”

Irakli gets swept up in Lela’s plans for him, America seems like such a dream. He agrees to take some English lessons so he can communicate with his new family – and Lela pays for them with the money she gets from the work she does around the school.

Throughout the course of the novel, we meet a host of colourful local characters, staff, and neighbours. The school play host to a wedding, the children raid a cherry orchard at night. It is very filmic – probably not surprising given the author is herself a film director.

This is a shocking novel in many ways – the period depicted not that long ago – the 1990s I believe. The lives of these children are horrendous – and there is little hope for anyone. If you can cope with the dark themes, then it is definitely worth reading.

Read Full Post »

Translated from the German by Michael Hoffman

My first review for #witmonth is Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun – she is probably best known for her novel The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) which I read a couple of years ago.

Kully is the memorable child narrator of this novel – which portrays the displacement of a family who have left Germany in the 1930s, to escape the Nazis, and whose fate is to now wander Europe as visa after visa expires. Kully and her parents live their lives moving from country to country staying in a series of hotels, struggling to pay the bills. Kully’s father is a writer, and they seem eternally hopeful of money that is owed to them somewhere or other, or money which might come to them when his new book is published. There is a lovable, precocity to Kully – who is still very much a child, despite this new way of living – and the fact she has no one to play with.

“When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany anymore, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to learn to read and write?”

There is so much for Kully to learn about in this new way of life – the eternal problem of passports and visas, and how to act in hotels. As the novel opens Kully and her mother are alone, as Kully’s father has gone to Warsaw. It won’t be long before they are all on the move again. One hotel giving way to the next on a journey around Europe with no visible end. In the hotels Kully tries to make friends with the maids, she gets stamps from the maître d’ which she saves – she is allowed to press the buttons in the lifts – when they take the lift – as sometimes they dare not as they can’t afford to tip the lift man. Sometimes they can’t afford to go to the restaurant so hide in the room that Kully shares with her mother and her pet tortoises – later she buys some guinea pigs that escape under the wardrobe. The maître d’ stops giving Kully stamps soon enough and it’s obvious they are regarded with suspicion by hotel staff, so have to keep a low profile. When her father sends Kully a parcel for her birthday, there is duty to pay on it which she and her mother don’t have, so Kully never does find out what is in her parcel.

“Above all, I need to learn what a visa is. We have German passports, which the police gave us in Frankfurt. A passport is a little booklet with stamps in. Basically, it’s to prove that you’re alive. If you lose your passport, then as far as the whole world is concerned you might as well have died. You’re not allowed to go to any more countries.”

Through Kully’s wonderfully, innocent, wide eyed view of the world we understand the stresses and strains her parents are living under. An existence with no security, where money, the earning of it, the spending of it the saving of it becomes as vital as breathing. Kully’s father is a charming, rather hopeless man, whose optimism that all will be well waxes and wains with their changing fortunes. Kully’s mother has to try and get an advance from one of her husband’s publishers, pretending she has forgotten to bring the new manuscript with her each time they meet – a manuscript which in reality doesn’t exist yet. Kully’s mother is clearly depressed, struggling to cope with the unending struggle for money and the need to keep moving, she is a much more shadowy figure in this novel than her husband.

“Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t. When he doesn’t, we can’t do anything about it, my mother and me. Nothing is any good when he doesn’t love us. Then we’re not allowed to cry in his presence or laugh, we mustn’t give him anything, or take anything from him either. Any steps we might take only have the effect of delaying even more the time when he will love us again. Because he always comes back to us. We just have to hold still and wait, and then everything takes care of itself. There’s nothing else we can do anyway.”

Irmgard Keun reproduces that naïve childish voice perfectly – through Kully’s all seeing eye we see the world as it is for both adult and child. The fragility of this family’s position was one lived by hundreds, perhaps thousands of others at this time. The storms were already brewing across Europe – and reading this novel so many decades later we know what is to come – something Keun couldn’t have known in 1938. We can’t help but wonder, after we finish this novel, what happened to this family and this child of all nations – as the world tip-toed closer to war.

Read Full Post »

Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This will be my final post for this year’s #Witmonth – I haven’t read quite as many #wit books as I had originally intended but isn’t that what always happens? The Memory Police was my sixth read for #wit – and they are all too different to pick a favourite but this one will stay with me for a long time I think. I was captivated from the first page.

The novel was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize – it didn’t win – the winner was announced yesterday as being The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translated by Michele Hutchison. It’s a book I really want to read though I am slightly put off by some reviews describing it as tough or harrowing (not sure I have yet recovered from Hurricane season) but as I do own a copy I may just give it a try. Sorry I digress.

I do occasionally enjoy dystopian fiction (as opposed to sci-fi which I tend to avoid) I find the depiction of altered but still recognisable worlds to be fascinating, the imagination that goes into creating a credible society, with all its strange rules and procedures is incredible. The Memory Police combined all the things I enjoy about dystopia; spine tingling fear, an uncertainty about what is happening, that fascination of a changed society with a deeply poignant, rather haunting story of memory and loss.

“Memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them.”

Our unnamed narrator is a young novelist on an unnamed island where things have bit by bit begun to disappear, sometimes people disappear too, like her mother. Random objects no longer exist – hats, ribbons, birds, roses – have disappeared from this world as have many other things. When something disappears it simply has no meaning for the people of the island and can be disposed of easily and unemotionally, burnt or handed over to the memory police. The world moves on and everyone continues to live without that disappeared thing – as if it never was. Hats and ribbons are one thing – but what about calendars, photographs, books – and what will be next?

“My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

Our narrator is an intelligent, caring young woman – she empathises with her friends and neighbours, worries about people getting picked up by the memory police, but she has little nostalgia for the past, except for when she is remembering her mother. Her mother had had drawers full of strange and inexplicable things in the basement of their house – objects that she would weave stories around – but her daughter can’t really remember those now. There is a sense of loss when she thinks about her mother, a wish to know what happened to her.

There are some people who retain their memories of things that have disappeared – those are the people who are at risk of being taken away by the memory police. When our narrator learns that her editor R is one such person – she is desperate to help him. Her best friend is an old man who lives on a boat near her home – he used to operate the ferry before the ferry disappeared – she gives him copies of the books she writes – but he doesn’t read them.

“…he has never read a single page of any of my books.
Once, when I told him I’d love to know what he thinks of them, he demurred.
“I couldn’t possibly say,” he said. “If you read a novel to the end, then it’s over. I would never want to do something as wasteful as that. I’d much rather keep it here with me, safe and sound, forever.”

Together the young novelist and the old man hatch a plan to save R from the memory police. They hide R is a tiny secret room between the floors in the young woman’s home – the old man rigs up ventilation and plumbing and a speaking tube – and R leaves his family and takes up a new life, hidden from view. He tries to teach his host about the things he remembers, to ignite her memory – but all that returns are meaningless flashes that have no emotional significance and immediately start to fade.

Meanwhile the novelist is working on her latest book – a novel about a woman taking typing lessons. Bit by bit the woman in the novel relinquishes control of her words to the teacher – until she has no voice left. It’s a powerful little allegory in itself.

As R desperately tries to hold on to the things that disappear – the novelist lets them go without a pang – even when novels disappear.

The Memory Police is a compelling and powerful novel – in it there are of course echoes of classics such as 1984 – although this novel is less about a regime and its bureaucracy and more about the impact on people – their survival especially. We never find out why things disappear – they just do – and to keep a disappeared thing or to retain the memory of what is disappeared is dangerous. A novel of memory, loss and control The Memory Police is hauntingly written and will no doubt encourage me to explore more by this incredible writer. I was surprised that this novel first appeared as long ago as 1994 – not only does it feel very current, frighteningly relevant – but I was puzzled as to why it’s only now been made available in English.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »