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Archive for March, 2012

I was delighted when this year’s longlist was announced as I’d already read two titles.   I hadn’t reviewed them. The reviews fell prey to the busy-ness associated with attending last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival.  However, both have added to the to-be-reread with my book group pile.  Which is a recommendation of sorts, isn’t it?  Let’s see what I remember about them 6 months down the line.

Ann Patchett – State of Wonder 

Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is one of my favourite Orange Prize winners.  So I was delighted when she returned to South America with her latest, although the setting in the Amazonian jungle is as far away from the interior of a Japanese embassy as you can imagine.   The setting in a State of Wonder is as colourful as the wonderful hardback dustjacket; the sense of adventure is great.  The plot does rely on a couple of coincidences that I found hard to swallow but it is well-paced and engaging.  The main reason I really want to read this with my book group, however, is for the discussion that the book will generate regarding issues of fertility.  When it comes to science, medicine and ethics, I am very much of the mindset that just because we can, doesn’t automatically mean that we should.  The journey that the fairly unsympathetic Dr Swenson takes during the course of this novel is one that I relish the thought of debating with my book group.


Jane Harris – Gillespie and I  

At 528 pages in the hardback edition, Gillespie and I, is 150 pages longer than State of Wonder and the pace accordingly much more leisurely.  So much so that during the first half of the novel I wondered what the editor had been thinking.  Come the second half and I began to understand.  Harriet Baxter’s perambulatory narrative is meant to beguile.  To assure us of her sincerity and trustworthiness despite her warnings of dark times to come.  Repeated warnings which didn’t sit well with me - I’m not a fan of this technique.  On second thoughts though, they are in keeping with Harriet’s garrulousness.  And the twists, when they came, did surprise.  Perhaps I was reading too quickly and failed to pick up the clues.  I’ll be paying much more attention second time through.  For these details will provide much fodder for my book group as indeed will the portrait of late nineteenth century Glasgow.  Motherwell is only 20 miles distant.

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I love events when authors signal that they’re not going to behave.  When Stuart Kelly (the chair) told us that he had limited John Burnside to 3 mentions of windfarms in Scotland and John Burnside groaned “Don’t get me started”, I knew this was going to be an event to savour.   It was.  Whether that be Burnside’s reading of the first few pages of his latest novel “A Summer of Drowning”, a novel he called a homage to Henry James’s A Turn of the Screw (and one which subsequently landed on my must read pile),  to his battle with his glasses – one pair for reading, another for looking at the audience, to his statements “The only forgiveness I seek is my own. I’m not going to forgive society for a very long time” or  “I can live with any extreme.  It’s moderation I can’t do!”.

Seeing as today is Blog More Poetry Day,  let’s concentrate on his statements re poetry.

  • Poetry is a political act because a) it rescues language from the abuse that government inflicts on it and b) it insists on valuing the everyday experience: tenderness, animals, the natural world.
  • Poetry forces us against the hurriedness of life.  It makes us slow down and take things in.
  • A poem starts as a rhythm in his head.
  • For that reason, he doesn’t rate his poem about the war in Iraq, Base, at all.  (The word he used was cr*p.) Commissioned by the Guardian, he wrote it in 3 days and it is an example of the poet taking control of the form rather than the form and the words coming to the poet.

He didn’t dwell on his latest collection, Black Cat Bone.  He did say that once his poems are in print, his relationship to them cools.  Writing poetry is like working with metal.  The poem is hot and malleable until it is dipped into the cold water of print and so rather than read from that collection, he read a sample of his new unpublished work.   What a character – only John Burnside would refuse to herald his astounding successes.   Black Cat Bone won both the T S Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Poetry.

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Longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award 2012
Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire
Published by Seagull Books

Inka Parei’s debut novel took 12 years to be translated. First published in German in 1999, the novel in English was published in 2011 by Seagull Books. As an object it is beautiful. A strong sturdy hardback with an evocative black and white cover adapted from photographs by Naveen Kishore.

I’m assuming that the cover shows the view from one East German appartment block onto another.  The view perhaps from the flat inhabited by the female protagonist Hell (German = bright), a martial arts enthusiast. Sharing her squat, albeit in a separate appartment, is another female, Dunkel (German = dark). The two women never have anything to do with each other, but when Dunkel goes missing and leaves, Hell alone, in the now abandoned soon-to-be-demolished building, the later becomes obsessed with finding her former neighbour. Into the mystery walks März, a bank robber, the last person to have seen Dunkel, and someone with whom Hell immediately falls in love.

Such a promising setup. Shame then that the book diverted from that path. As Hell is martial-arting her way through various half-adventures, and fighting unknown shadows from her past, I began my own fight with the wispy characterisation and unexplained motivations.  Ultimately I became disinterested. Though maybe that is the point? The reader alienated from the characters as they are from their own world? Even so, such minimalist – perhaps even postmodern – writing isn’t to my taste at all.

Yet there’s nothing minimalist or spare about the portrait of the city. It’s a very concrete presence. As Hell and Marz wander through the city, the fabric of Berlin is built one brick, one building, one road at a time constructing a snapshot of Berlin as it stood at that seminal point in history.

I simply couldn’t reconcile the discrepancy between the precise portrait of the city and the light brushstrokes used on the characters.

Then there’s the matter of the characters’ names. No problem with Dunkel. Many with Hell, not least the negative connotations of the English word and the contradictions that creates superimposed on the German meaning. I thought I’d ask the translator about her thoughts on this.

I did think about translating the names, but not for long. There were a number of reasons not to do it: Firstly because it’s very firmly set in Berlin, and it simply wouldn’t have made sense to me for the characters to have such plainly English names. I also didn’t want to make things too easy for readers – although I did add a tiny explanation of the meanings at one point, when the postman muddles the two names. But as a reader, I love solving little puzzles like that, and I thought others might too. Obviously I was aware of the issues around “Hell” in English. But I liked the fact that the meaning shifted slightly – I find those strange twists in the course of translation quite fascinating. Not to forget that German readers, being au fait with English, probably hear those connotations in the background too.

Her answer confirmed my suspicions – that this book and I are incompatible and that while Katy and I both love German books, we love different German books.  Puzzles like this, spare minimalist characterisation or even urban edge don’t do it for me.   I do, though,  like Katy Derbyshire’s supplementary  blog, www.shadowboxingberlin.wordpress.com, a photo portrait of some of the book’s settings.  No wispiness about that at all.

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Not that I’m a Dickens expert by any means, but Bleak House is my favourite by him.  As this magnificent piece shows,  I share that sentiment with Lynn Shepherd.  Now as I was awandering through ye olde Dickensian London a few weeks back, Shepherd’s second novel hit the shelves and heralded the end of my 2012 TBR dare.  I wasn’t going to miss reading this homage to Dickens and his masterpiece while actually in situ.

I’ll let the author introduce it.

Tom-All-Alone’s sounds like an extraordinary read and it is.  The details of the crimes at its heart are told in the graphic (and sometimes gory) detail expected by a 21st century audience whilst being enveloped in the time, atmosphere and stylistic techniques of Bleak House.  So, for example, the London fog eddies and swirls its way through the pages after making its first appearance in only the 2nd sentence.  The structure of the original is retained with its two narrators, the first person narrative of Esther Summerson and that omniscient third with its eye that spans the macrocosmic before zooming right in to the microcosmic.  Shepherd’s impersonations are true to their Dickensian originals.  Goody-two-shoes Esther annoyed me in Bleak House, and she’s just as cloying here, but because Shepherd is not restricted by 19th century convention, an all together more sinister reading of what is happening between the lines becomes possible.  As for the omniscience of that unknown third-person narrator, there is no getting away from it.  The effect is claustrophobic.

The cast of characters is a mix of old and new.  By making the events of Tom-All-Alone’s run in parallel to those of Bleak House, Shepherd can be selective as to who populates her pages.  Of course, she had to retain the villain, Tulkinghorn, and the great Inspector Bucket.  But, much to my chagrin, Lady Dedlock appears only as a cameo and Lord Dedlock (my favourite character in the original) not at all.  Her own characters jump off the pages much as a Dickensian invention would.  Charles Maddox, a fledgling private investigator, is impetuous, headstrong and stubborn tenacious.   The depiction of the debilitating illness of his great-uncle and mentor, which remains unnamed as it would have been back then, shows just what a puzzle Alzheimer’s was in those times.

Shepherd throws in other neat tricks and flicks for good measure such as a hypothesis on Jack the Ripper’s early career.  I like the idea that Charles Maddox’s great-uncle, also named Charles Maddox,  was the investigator in her first novel Murder at Mansfield ParkTaking that as a clue to possible future offerings, Charles Maddox III should appear in a rewrite of a British classic from the 1890′s.  (See footnote.)  Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what it might be?

(Mansfield Park published 1812-1814, Bleak House published 1852-1853, ??? published ca 1892)

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I love a good list, don’t you?  And right now, we’re in the month of plenty.  There are currently 3 interesting longlists to select from:  The Best Translated Book Award (BTBA), the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) and the Orange (no abbreviation necessary).  In total I have 8 books in the TBR from those lists:  4 translated from German (no surprise there), 1 from Portuguese and 2 Oranges.  So in the next few weeks I shall alternate between reading and reviewing titles from these lists.  As a challenge to myself, let me add a fourth.

Scotland’s Bookshelf was unveiled at Glasgow’s Ayewrite festival last night. Ayewrite! takes places at the Mitchell Library which celebrated its centennary on its current site in November 2011.  To celebrate this landmark, the librarians of Glasgow have selected a bookshelf of Scottish must-reads, with each decade of the last 100 years represented by just two books.  They have also produced a lovely little booklet, which Stuart Kelly last night described as a primer for the last 100 years of Scotland’s books.  With him on stage to discuss the list were Rosemary Goring, who chaired the panel responsible for in the selection on the bookshelf; T C Smout, author of the only non-fiction title on the list, A History of the Scottish People (1969); Allan Massie who wrote the 1989 entry, A Question of Loyalties and finally, bringing up the naughties, Janice Galloway, author of the the luminous Clara.  (3 cheers for that choice!)

Here’s the list in full:

1911-1919  J M Barrie – Peter and Wendy John Buchan – The 39 Steps
1920-1929 Hugh MacDiarmid – A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle Lorna Moon – Dark Star
1930-1939 Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song A J Cronin – Hatter’s Castle
1940-1949 Neil Gunn – The Silver Darlings Sorley Maclean – Dain Do Eimhir agus dain Eile
1950-1959 Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam Robin Jenkins – The Cone Gatherers
1960-1969 Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie T C Smout – A History of the Scottish People
1970-1979  George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe William McIlvanney – Docherty
1980-1989 Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory Allan Massie – A Question of Loyalties
1990-1999 Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting
2000-2011 Janice Galloway – Clara Ali Smith – Girl Meets Boy

Rosemary Goring described her hesitation at presenting any list, saying such a process is necessarily divisive, particularly one that isn’t purporting to be a list of the greatest Scottish literature of the last 100 years (authors on the stage excepted, of course!), but a list of the most enduring and influential. (There followed comments about the faults of Buchan and Trocchi’s books.) There was very little rancour in the audience last night – with the notable exception of the person who commented that “there was a lot of mince in the longlist at the back of the book and a criminal lack of poetry”.  I’m not going to attempt to precis the discussion – it lasted 90 minutes and at times was a complex piece to follow, particularly when someone asked for the definition of Scottish used to determine eligibility!  I will say that I attended the event in the hope of discovering more about the books that were chosen (I’ve only read 5).  Instead the discussion centred around the books that weren’t chosen and as most likely the only English (sssssh!) member of the audience, I found myself bamboozled with names I’d never heard of, names I absolutely had no hope of spelling and thus noting, and a sense that the well of Scottish literature was much deeper than I had any inkling of. (After all, I’ve only lived here for 23 years!)

I’ve since discovered I can find a rationale as to why these particular books were chosen in the Scotland’s Bookshelf book, which can be downloaded from here.

The discussion may not have followed the trajectory I was anticipating but even so, I did add a few titles to the virtual TBR.  I fully expect to be spending time with George MacKay Brown’s Greenvoe in the near future.  And Alan Massie’s A Question of Loyalties, a book the author said now depressed him because he doesn’t have the physical and mental energy to take on anything that challenging again.  Ah bless.

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It’s at this point that I tell the untold story of the aftermath of last year’s London bookshopping expedition.  As I sat on the train home, I felt a twinge in my left knee.  My excesses had caught up with me and during the months following I had to spend £’s and £’s on glucosamine, cod liver oil and ginger root before my newly-arthritic knee stopped giving way as I went up and down steps. So this year, unwilling to forego the pilgrimage round London’s bookshops, I decided to pace myself and take not one but two days to do it and to make better use of public transport than I had last year.  I had two guide books for company, both from Haus Publishing.

The first, London Fragments A Literary Expedition by Rüdiger Görner, was one of last year’s purchases.  Each of the 10 chapters focuses on a specific area of London, peeling back the history of the place. As I stayed in Bloomsbury this trip, we’ll concentrate on Chapter 6, The Omega of Bloomsbury. Let’s skip all allusions to the Bloomsbury set for once and concentrate on the history of this area, before Virginia and Leonard stamped their mark upon the place.

Wine grew here in the 11th century, and the woodland provided for at least 100 pigs to snuffle for truffles, so says the Domesday Book ….. Bloomsbury was originally named Blemondsberi, because this is where a certain William Blemond had his ‘bury’ or country seat …. After the civil war the Earl of Southampton’s son had the medieval walls torn down and build Southampton House, with houses for the servants nearby and a fenced-in garden in the middle; this architectural design, which contemporaries greatly admired as one of the many “English wonders”  was named a square by the Earl.

It turns out that today this archetype is known as Bloomsbury Square, the precursor of the many squares in the district:  Bedford Square (home of Bloomsbury Publishing), Fitzroy Square (Virginia’s former abode) as well as Russell Square (my base for this trip).

Rüdiger Görner is Chair of the German Department at Queen Mary College, a German Anglophile who has lived in London for upwards of a quarter century. The preface to his book states that it documents the illusion that this city can be tamed with words … and that London cares about the way it is represented in literature. The book takes a tour through the London of literature, from the moment it entered the stage of modern literature in Samuel Pepys’s diary entry recording the Great Fire of 1666 up to contemporary images recorded for example in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. An erudite tour, as you would expect of a German professor,  but it also documents his personal odyssey through the capital, observing things that only a non-native would see.  So for instance his aside that London must have more luggage outlets than any other city in the world brought a wry smile of recognition as I emerged from Russell Square tube station to be greeted by a luggage stall.  I probably wouldn’t have clocked it had it not been for Görner s tip.  It was to prove extremely useful.

My second guide was Peter Clark’s Dickens’s London as, in this bicentennary of his birth, it would have been neglectful not to have gone in search of the great author himself.  The London of Charles Dickens has largely disappeared from sight but this book makes it visible to the mind’s eye once more.  It  is divided into 5 walks around Central London, each o which would probably take me a full day to complete.  However, I didn’t have the time to be so structured.  After all I had bookshops to visit and as they were the primary object of my meanderings, I used Clark’s book as a reference guide.  So it was that I discovered that Joseph Grimaldi (whose memoirs were edited by Dickens) died in poverty ironically in a building now housing a goldsmith,  just 3 houses away from independent book shop Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market (EC1).  Heading back to Russell Square, there’s the Charles Dicken’s Museum at 48 Doughty Street, a hop skip and a jump away from Persephone Books in Lamb’s Conduit Street. (WC1).  Moving back into the heart of Bloomsbury we find another square, this time Tavistock Square, home of the British Medical Association.  In former times this was the site of the house in which Dickens wrote Bleak House.

Ah yes, Bleak House, my favourite Dickens.  Cue tube to Chancery Lane and legal London, a veritable treasure trove of Dickensian venues. We enter through Staple Inn, where Mr Grewgious, Neville Landless and Mr Tartar, all from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, had chambers.

Let Esther Summerson describe her first visit to the offices of Kenge and Carboy at No 10 Lincoln’s Inn.  We passed into sudden quietude, under an old gateway

and down on through a quiet square, until we came to an old nook in a corner, where there was an entrance up a steep broad flight of stairs, like an entrance to a church.

She also passed the old hall, where the infamous case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce was heard. (Suitably shrouded in a light mist on the day of my visit.)

I didn’t have time to wander right round Lincoln’s Inn Fields but had I, I would have discovered Tulkinghorn’s abode at No 58 and (pre-raphaelite diversion alert)  a former home of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The second day of my wanderings was just as fruitful.

It was inevitable that I would return to Haus Publishing in Chelsea, SW1.  Dickensian links here being St Lukes Church, where Dickens married Catherine Hogarth and the Carlyle Home where he was a frequent visitor.  To rest the knee, I made my way by a long bus/tube back up to Marylebone.  My destination was the beautiful Daunt Books (W1).  I walked there from Regent’s Park tube station to pass this frieze on the site of the former 1 Devonshire Terrace, the house in which Dickens lived between 1839 and 1851 and where he wrote The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield.

Really this slim pocket-sized book is an enlightening companion. The helpful index at the back ensured that no matter where I found myself, there was a Dickensian link to be explored. There’s really no need to go out of your way to find a connection to the man or his works but at the end of my trip I did just that.  There was one more bookshop that had to be visited, to tie together the Dickensian and bookshop themes of this trip.  Back into the heart of Bloomsbury we go, to Great Russell Street, WC1 and the British Museum.  Just opposite to the right we find Jardynce Booksellers.

Scene of the most appropriately dressed shop window in town. Complete with authentic 1st edition Dickens!

Talk about temptation.  Just as well the shop was closed ….. it meant I still had money left to buy a new suitcase from the luggage stall mentioned above.  Because as you can imagine, I had booty to carry home and Rüdiger Görner’s tip was about to prove invaluable.

I selected this post to be featured on my blog’s page at Book Blogs.

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