I like to take reading material related to my destinations when I travel, and these are the companions I have chosen for my current trip. So where am I going? All is likely to be revealed on Twitter in the next few days. In the meantime, the blog will be taking a breather. Back soon.
Let me start with my final event at this year’s AyeWrite, which featured two ex-journalists turned crime writers (Craig Robertson and Stav Sherez) both explaining that journalistic time pressures turned them away from their original trade. That pieces are frequently published that could be improved if time would just permit.
This preamble serves as an explanation as to why I can only provide this quick roundup of this year’s festival. Time for blogging has been scarce – reading and attending literary events does that, funnily enough. And that is set to continue. In the meantime I present the books I read for AyeWrite 2017 …..
…. bookended by two novels of epic proportions.
Starting from the bottom, Stef Penney’s eagerly anticipated 3rd novel, Under a Pole Star. Set in the mid-19th century, it is her paeon to the golden age of polar exploration but with a female lead explorer. Not historically accurate then. Still it is full of good things: exemplary descriptions of the arctic landscape, an intriguing investigation of the Innuit way of life, which had/has (?) no notion of privacy (solitude in such a climate inevitably meaning death), competitive rivalries between explorers seeking to make their name. All of which I found fascinating. BUT there’s a love affair and explicit scenes that I wish she (or her editor) had excluded. (And I said as much at the event.) Such content serves no purpose in a literary novel. Leave it to Harold Robbins or Jilly Cooper. Or have some kind of advisory note for the reader.
Actually the second epic demonstrates just how a great love can been portrayed (and understood by the reader) without recourse to extended XX-rated scenes. I finally read Dr Zhivago, now marketed as the greatest love story ever told, before attending the author’s grand-niece’s event. Anna Pasternak was presenting her book Lara, The Untold Love Story that Inspired Doctor Zhivago, and she spoke with more passion than I’ve ever seen an author display before. In biographies of Boris Pasternak, Olga Ivinskaya has been dismissed as a non-entity, of no importance. That’s the official line of the Pasternak family, whose purpose it serves to ignore her. Anna Pasternak is on a mission to rectify that. In fact, she argues that without Olga, Dr Zhivago would not have been completed. She made clear that Olga paid a heavy price for her love of Boris Pasternak, and suffered in ways that could have been avoided, had he behaved differently. “I don’t forgive him for that”, she said, “but I do understand him.”
Now I had resolved not to buy any books at this year’s festival, but that statement served the bait that hooked me. More bait in that it analyses biographical parallels and their influences on the novel. Which may help me because my reading of Dr Zhivago wasn’t issue free – particularly in relation to character development. More to follow once I’ve read Lara.
2nd from the top is Ron Butlin’s latest Billionaire’s Banquet. I’ve been on a mission to read all of Butlin’s prose since I was bowled over by The Sound of My Voice. According to its strapline Billionaire’s Banquet is an immorality tale for the 21st century. Make of that what you will! It is the story of how Hume (a unemployed philosopher), St. Francis (an ex-seminarian), and the Cat (a mathematician) become successful, but in order to do so, they must lose their moral compass and their absolute values. The novel starts in 1985 (mid-point of the Thatcher years, when the rich were getting richer and the poorer, including our main characters, poorer), jumps to 2005 (the year Scotland hosted of the G8 summit), before jumping again to 2016. In 1985 the 3 characters are sharing an Edinburgh tenement flat – one the author once lived in, though hopefully not in an understairs cupboard like his character Hume! By 2016, they are … that would be telling because those circumstances are made possible by the pivotal events of 2005, including the Billionaire’s Banquet of the title.
After establishing a successful butler service for the rich of Edinburgh’s New Town, Hume finds himself hosting this highly symbolic fundraiser, attended by Edinburgh’s hoi polloi. Ten lucky donors will receive refunds, and dine like billionaires, while the remainder will feed on rice and water, as a reminder that the rich feed off the poor. Unfortunately for Hume the event coincides with the London Bombing, and activists, in Edinburgh for the G8 summit, are outraged that the event is not cancelled to respect the dead. Hume is sabotaged by both external forces and internal – the hoi polloi are not as decorous you would expect – and the resulting descent into mayhem is a hilarious and merciless piece of satire.
It also left me wondering at what point an immorality tale becomes an ammorality tale? Perhaps Hume, once he pins down Kant’s Perpetual Peace, would answer that?
In amongst the naughtiness and (advisory note alert) much profanity in the first two sections, the philosophy and the social politics (both – thankfully – worn lightly) is a portrait of the changing face of the Scottish capital. The Edinburgh of 1985 is markedly different from that of 2016, and the differences are documented, I suspect, quite thoroughly over the course of the novel. At times I was unsure whether Butlin was celebrating or lamenting, (perhaps both) but I can see myself using Billionaire’s Banquet as an unconventional travel guide during a future excursion.
Finally I was delighted that Stav Sherez was invited to AyeWrite! It provided the impetus to acquaint myself with his much lauded Carrigan and Miller series – starting with book 3. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do this. I think it gives too much away about book 2. That said,The Intrusions is an unsettling read, based on the realities of the web, as we possibly don’t know them. Well, maybe we suspect them, given recent reports of how smart devices on the internet of things can be used to spy on individuals.
The intrusions occur when a “ratter” uses RATs (remote access trojans) to not only to spy on his victims but to play mindgames, to bully and intimidate. Once he has broken them down, he claims them and kills them horribly. The novel is a police procedural which follows detective sergeant, Geneva Muller, as she races to establish pattern, motive, and to fathom out the technology, not just to get one step ahead, but to avoid becoming the the next victim. There are internal pressures too. An audit has been instigated as a result of anomalies in the previous case, and the career of her boss, Jack Carrigan, is on the line.
I’m not yet invested in Jack Carrigan. That will most likely change when I’ve read the first two novels. For me the fascination of The Intrusions was the technology. The novel is a showcase for tools, some possibly imaginary (though I suspect not) that can both enable crime and prevent it – but at what cost to our privacy? Or is privacy just an illusion these days?
Question from audience: Did your research change your behaviour? “Yes,”said Sherez. “There’s always a piece of blue-tac over the camera on my computer when I’m working.” And that’s why there’s now a piece over the camera on my device as I type this.
Subtitled Or Something to Do with Books
It was the subtitle that reeled me in. I dived in expecting this to be full of nostalgia for the books that influenced the 1972 Nobel Laureate. There is some of that but it is not the main focus. Set in the years 1933 -1937, this is a memoir of Böll’s formative schooldays which just happened to coincide with the years in which the Nazis consolidated their powerbase. So fond school memories, with which Böll begins most chapters, are soon related to the background. There are bigger isues to deal with.
Written some 45 years after the events, Böll is careful not to let hindsight impinge on the story. His aim is to describe the boy he was and the family he belonged to together with the impact that events had on their lives and the city they lived in (Cologne). The book ends very specifically on February 6, 1937, the day Böll graduated from high school, but he makes no other claims to historical accuracy with regard to the chronology of events. As he says, all his notes were destroyed during the war.
Böll’s family was Catholic with bohemian leanings and a natural aversion to Nazism. Outsiders though not belonging to any persecuted minority. They did not join the Party, did not attend rallies and, for a while at least, did not have to compromise. At school Böll was bored and, often played truant with his mother’s collusion, bicycling through the Rhine valley, often with a girl for company. When he did attend school, he studied Mein Kampf in great detail …
Our teacher, Mr Schmitz, a man of penetrating, witty, dry irony … used the hallowed text of Adolf Hitler the writer to demonstrate the importance of concise expression, known also as brevity. This meant that we had to take four or five pages from Mein Kampf and reduce them to two.
Thus, says Böll, not entirely tongue in cheek, I can thank Adolf Hitler the writer for some qualification to be a publisher’s reader and a liking for brevity.
If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, these would have been an idyllic few years. But the face of the German world was changing and Böll’s memoir conveys the shock of the general populace by events in 1933 such as the burning of the Reichstag, the signing of the Concordat (described by Böll as a body-blow) and the execution of alleged Communist conspirators in Cologne. Still the hope that Hitler wouldn’t last long died on June 1934 with the Röhm putsch. It was the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.
As the Nazi grip tightened, and the family finances deteriorated because Böll’s tradesman father couldn’t obtain any contracts, it was decided that material survival took priority over political survival, and that one member of the family had to join a Nazi organisation. His elder brother, Alois, was elected by the family council. Alois never really forgave them for it, even though in those early National Socialist years there were way of bribing your way out of the obligatory duties
The family’s biggest worry though was what’s to become of the boy? They all knew that Hitler meant war. Böll talks about his generation being schooled for death, the greatest honour being to die for the Fatherland. Which profession would offer a safety blanket? The priesthood? But Böll had discovered the opposite sex and was not willing. So with membership of the Nazi Labour Front an inevitability, Böll decided to do something with books and obtained an apprenticeship in a quiet, non-Nazi bookstore.
As the memoir ends, the illusion of remaining an outsider prevails. Böll has dodged a metaphorical bullet. As history shows, he wouldn’t be so lucky dodging the real ones which began to fly just two years later.
December 2017 marks the centenary of Böll’s birth, so to commemorate the event, I intend to work my way through Melville House Publishing’s Essential Böll Series. I started with the memoir to have a biographical reference point when (re-)reading his fiction.
About 12 years ago I started my 20th Century Challenge – to read 100 authors, one book for each year of the 20th century. The idea was to complete it by the time I turned 50. Then I started this blog and got distracted. The new deadline is to finish the project in the next 18 months (or by the time I hit 60). If all my choices are as delightful as the 1917 entry, the prequel to Morley’s more famous The Haunted Bookshop, then this won’t be any hardship.
Parnassus on Wheels is a delicious bibliophilic delight with none of the cloying sweetness I’ve tasted in other book of this nature.
Miss Helen Mcgill lives on the farm with her brother Andrew. When he become an author, he neglects his farmer’s duties, and Helen finds herself running the farm as well as the household. Naturally she resents this, so when she is given an unexpected opportunity to escape she takes it.
One day, out of the blue, Mr Roger Mifflin shows up with his horse-drawn travelling bookshop, the eponymous Parnassus on Wheels. He has decided that life on the road is too lonely and is hoping to sell his business to Andrew. But Andrew is not at home. Helen is, and she is in the mood for an adventure.
An avid reader herself, she believes that
When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.
When she buys herself the Parnassus, she buys herself a whole new life. She sets off with Mr Roger Mifflin, who will first train her in the art of preaching the gospel of good books before he catches his train back to New York. Now he could sell coal to a coalman whereas Helen has no natural patter and a knowledge of the book trade that is less than encyclopaedic. Still she shows promise. A series of misadventures, however, results in an extension of her apprenticeship, during which Roger and Helen become unwittingly fond of each other. Though they don’t recognise it until the machinations of her brother, incandescent at losing his unpaid skivy, threaten to deprive Roger of his freedom. It is now Helen’s turn to ride to the rescue.
This a charming romantic comedy between an unlikely couple: Helen, a matter-of-fact spinster approaching middle-age and Roger, a funny looking-man with a red beard, who, for all his salesmanship, might possibly read more books than he sells. Set in a world in which the First World War had yet to encroach although there is a light-touch political undertone regarding the revolt of womenhood as Miss Helen McGill strikes out for the right to make her own decisions. Three cheers for her and for the man who enables and defends her right to do so, Mr Roger Mifflin! While we’re cheering another three for all the books they discuss along the way!
What is it about February? Last year I had 6 DNFs in total, 3 of them in February. If the pattern holds, there will be 8 DNFs this year. Yes, there were 4 this month. I don’t usually name DNFs, but I must mention one, simply because finding a what seemed to me perfect summary in the novel I read immediately afterwards, is a coincidence not to be ignored.
Firstly, the critique of one of the novels shortlisted for The Prize in Filippo Bologna’s The Parrots:
Yours is a very special book, almost a kind of prose poem, with an epigrammatic, fragmentary quality that somehow magically creates unity
Yes, I thought that fits Saša Stanišić’s International Dublin Literary Award longlisted Before The Feast. Of course, it’s already won a host of other literary awards, but at 100 pages, it was taking an age to go anywhere. And its tricksiness was such that I actually despaired of there being any destination at all, so it was time to give up. Tellingly though I also DNF’d his multi -award winning debut. I guess we’re just not compatible.
Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, also longlisted for the International Dublin Literary award, was another disappointment. I was expecting great things given the love for her in the blogosphere. It’s always a risk when a novel follows two characters going their separate ways. What if one character’s journey is more interesting than the other’s? Well, that’s exactly what happened here. The wife stays behind to forge a career in Victorian mental institutions (interesting), while the husband goes on an extended trip to Japan, and falls in love with its culture and craftsmanship. Chapter after chapter, full of descriptions of beautiful artifacts. And then more of the same for good measure – or so it seemed. To say it dragged is an understatement.
Unlike the two Japanese novellas that kicked off Pushkin Press fortnight. Things picked up from that point on and this then became the month that just kept giving! Firstly I created Pushkin Press Corner which, now that I can see my entire Pushkin Press TBR at a glance, has triggered a project that will see me circumnavigate the world at least twice reading only titles from the Pushkin Press catalogue. I read and reviewed eight books in the fortnight, “travelling” from Japan to Spain via Russia, Israel, Austria and Italy. Anyone care to work out the airmiles?
While I didn’t visit Germany with Pushkin Press due to the Stanišić DNF, I did so anyway thanks to David Young’s thriller Stasi Wolf. No lack of action or movement to report in those pages!
Total YTD: 22 read, 4 DNF
Totals for February 2017:10 read, 4 DNF
Reviews February 2017: 9
– Stasi Wolf – David Young
– The Hunting Gun / Bullfight – Yasushi Inoue
– Rasputin and Other Ironies – Teffi
– One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
– The Last Days – Laurent Seksik
– The Governess and Other Stories – Stefan Zweig
– The Parrots – Filippo Bologna
– Things Look Different In The Light – Medardo Fraile
Book of the Month: This is only the second month of choosing a book of the month and I’m beginning to regret the idea. I suspect 3 of the Pushkin Books will make my best of year awards – Seksik, for saddest book, Bologna for best satire and Fraile for short stories. But if there has to be a book of the month, then Medardo Fraile’s brilliant collection convinced me that I did, in fact, save the best till last.
When Ali Smith describes a collection of short stories as the best she has ever read it proves impossible not to follow through on that recommendation (even if the book then lies on the shelf awaiting its reader for a further two-and-a-half years!) Anyway now that this reader has read it, I can’t say that I agree (because – you know – Chekhov) but I can say that it is a pretty marvellous collection and certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.
It is the first time Fraile’s stories have appeared in English and it is thanks only to the efforts of the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, to persuade a reluctant author that they have done so. Jull Costa first submitted a few of her translations to a committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter. They meticulously examined these around the kitchen table and began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the collection, which consists of 29 stories covering the author’s career from 1954-2010.
Many are only 5 or 6 pages long, with the longest being 10 or 11 pages, so this is a collection which is ideal for carryng around and reading whenever there is a spare 5 minutes. What I particularly enjoyed was the immediacy of setting, the author ensuring that the reader is given a complete set of bearings within the first couple of paragraphs. No flailing around wondering, who, what, when? For starters, there isn’t time in vignettes such as these and secondly, there are a multitude of situations, most from everyday life. Ordinary people, everyday interactions and objects, situations we recognise and can transpose into our own lives, but filtered by Fraile to show how special or influential they may be, and how appreciative we should be. As the dying grandmother says in The Last Shout
The thing is that miracles happen so often, they seem normal to us, the morning comes and then the night, the sun and the moon rise and set, the earth gives us harvest after harvest, and we say I’ll do that tomorrow and tomorrow we’re still alive to do it. …. Reality is a miracle.
The emotional registers are varied. There are straight-forward humorous stories with punchlines as in the title story Things Look Different in The Light for what can possibly go wrong when the foreman doesn’t communicate with the underground sign-painter? In others the humour is altogether more wry as in Typist or Queen where the narrator gently mocks himself and his other male colleagues for their swarming around the beautiful office queen bee, Carmencita. The Cashier is another queen whose reign over the restaurant’s cash register is supreme until a chance of romantic happiness appears. Sadly ’tis but a fleeting moment as the uncertainities of life intervene. In other stories the melancholy consists of the inevitable passing of time: The Lemon Drop contains not only a little nostalgia for the sweets we used to enjoy as kids but also the memories they bring back when we eat them as adults; Child’s Play surprisingly defines old age as a darkening of the world. As they age Flora’s and Martita’s need for light increases each day
They needed light so that their hair would shine and heir eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could …. still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.
Finally they install a chandelier that emits so much light, that when they die their bodies glow in the dark … For a while at least.
This slight magical element reappears in one of my personal favourites, The Shirt. It belongs to Fermin Ulía, a sailor, who falls for Maureen, his girl in the port of Dover.
He stood staring at her for a full three minutes, two of which he devoted to her nose alone. She had a turned-up nose that made her look as though she had a cold, but a very attractive cold, with no complications.
He comes back from that trip with a tartan flannel shirt that Maureen had chosen for him and ever after wears it whenever he goes sailing. But what happens on the day he fails to wear the shirt?
Each reader will have their own favourites here. I asked Ali Smith to pick out hers, when she signed the foreword for me. Without hesitation she highlighted Berta’s Presence, Things Look Different In the Light, and The Bookstall – all three have communication as their main theme. My favourites have tragedy or old age at their core, so no surprise that my absolute favourite – Reparation – has both. Is that because old age is a tragedy even if it approaches us all? Perhaps a change of viewpoint is needed. Things do look different in the light of the old lady’s comments at the beginning of this review. Reality is a miracle, and it is truly a miracle that some of us ever reach old age. So the lesson is to appreciate the small moments and enjoy. These stories are as good a starting point as any.
Stage 7 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is my final post for Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. Thanks, Stu. I had a blast!
Next stop: Africa
In the world of literary awards, may the best book win. Not so for the prize that is at the centre of Filippo Bologna’s satire, The Parrots, where winning The Prize (always capitalised) depends on mounting the best campaign. (Is this invented or do things work differently in Italy? Please tell in comments.)
Three authors are finalists for the prize in question: The Beginner, the Writer and the Master. Never named, they are obviously ciphers for the various stages of the literary career. The Beginner has written a flawed but otherwise excellent début, the Writer is at the height of his powers but getting a bit predictable, and the Master has written a highly literary novel that might be a tad worthy. For each man winning The Prize is a big deal: the Beginner to launch him to literary stardom, the Writer to give him the critical acclaim he craves, the Master because, having been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it is his last chance.
Of course the publishers are just as invested. The Beginner is sent to pound the bookshops with signings to raise his literary profile, the Writer is told to stop resting on his laurels, while the Master resorts to unfair influence. They all have to attend the various press conferences and official parties, parrot out the correct clichés and generally inveigle themselves with the judges.
The novel begins three months before The Prize Ceremony, when everything is fairly calm. At one month to the Prize ceremony, each author is beseiged by an extreme personal crisis. The Beginner’s Girlfriend, who feels that his success has made him vainglorious and selfish, has made their future relationship dependant on him losing The Prize, the Writer’s big (and brilliant) secret is threatening to end his career prematurely, and the Master has made enemies in all the wrong places.
One week to the ceremony and the publishers have done all the canvassing they can. It is now entirely up to the authors. The Writer is the bookie’s favourite but behind the scenes, the Beginner is in poll position (“because when you’re at the start, the critics forgive you everything“). What are they prepared to do to lose/win The Prize? Whatever it takes. By fair means or foul. Some of it is foul indeed. And it does affect the outcome.
Bologna has his sights trained on all aspects of the literary world: writers in all stages of their career, big publishers, small publishers, judging committees. Even literary audiences are not exempt from a lampooning. The omniscient narrator is knowing, and very, very funny, with the joke never falling flat. The pacing is excellent with those increasingly desperate measures ensuring that the pages turned entirely of their own volition! (Or so it seemed to me.)
The Parrots of the title are a bit of a curiosity. I think they do allude in some way to the three authors. But there is also a strange malevolent black parrot that crashes into the Beginner’s flat window at the start. Another (or is it the same one) appears in the final scene. I have no idea what it portends. All theories welcome.
Stage 6 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.
Next stop: Spain
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