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Archive for the ‘non-fiction’ Category

December and my thoughts turn to which books on my Best of 2017 list I have yet to review.  Thus today’s post features Lizzy’s Most Beautiful Book of 2017.

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It’s not often I start a review with a picture of the endpapers, but as anyone who has strolled through Edinburgh knows the front doors of private properties, particularly in the New Town, are one of its greatest charms.  I have untold numbers of photographs, and now I have a wonderful selection of sketches.

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Strolling is the ethos behind this book –  taking an imaginary, leisurely stroll through Edinburgh, a city of “pure theatre, with its battlements, crags and classical columns”. Coffee-table book sized, it’s not definitely not a book for carrying with you as you do it.  Neither is it a history book, although it does includes lots of interesting snippets of information.

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The book is a local labour of love. The authors Iain Fraser and Anne Fraser Sim have lived in Edinburgh most of their lives.  He is the owner of The Elephant House Café.  You know the one in which the first Harry Potter was written.  The 150 colour illustrations by Scottish based artists, Keli Clark, Irina Cucu, Cat Outram and Catherine Stevenson, are intricate, accurate and an absolute delight.  (And perhaps, the inspiration I, the girl who cannot draw a straight line with a ruler, need to sign up to an art class or two.)

A Sketchbook of Edinburgh features all the iconic areas of the city.  There are chapters devoted to The Old Town, The New Town, The West End and The East End, in addition to areas outwith the touristy centre in chapters entitled The Northern New Town, Heading North, Heading South.  I read about lots of interesting new places, including bars and cafés,  to visit in these, despite Edinburgh being my day out city of choice for many years. For instance, top of my to-be-wandered-through list is Stockbridge.

Everyone will have their favourite spot in Edinburgh. No prizes for guessing mine ….

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The only suggestion I have for improving on this sketch would be to have featured Charlotte Square during book festival time!   But perhaps that’s one I can submit to the authors for a second volume. They are planning one, and do ask for suggestions on the last page. I’m sure the citizens of Edinburgh will oblige, and I look forward to its future release!

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AC2CBA34-9700-4D1E-83D7-9C95927BC9FETranslated from German by Jamie Searle Romanelli

I opened this book in the expectation of gossipy anecdotes about misbehaving chefs or clientele.  It may have been the mood I was in (work on the house was not going well) combined with the book jacket.

There were plenty of anecdotes, but no muck-slinging (apart from one anecdote on page 129, which I’ll come back to) for this is a serious history of the restaurant and its place in our society, though written so entertainingly that you don’t realise how learned you have become, until you have been educated. Should you want to formalise that education, you can always dive deeper into the extensive bibliography.

There are four chapters, which take us from the beginnings of the restaurant through to modern times.   Development of restaurants in all their gastromical guises are included from best restaurants in the world to the fast food joints in America.  I particularly enjoyed the story of how ‘foreign’ restaurants began their post-war takeover of Germany with a pizzeria in Würzburg railway station.  The history is told chronologically, although multiple stories are told in parallel in short anecdotal passages interweaving with each other.  This could be frustrating, but, actually the style doesn’t take much getting used to at all.

The style is especially effective in showing how the bigger picture affects the individual experience.

Gerta Pfeiffer, a textile designer in a south German weaving mill, sits at an inn with her colleagues. She is enjoying the atmosphere, something she rarely does nowadays. Since the ‘Nuremberg Laws’ of September 1935, her life has been dominated by fear. She is feeling increasingly isolated, and less and less willing to talk to people in public. She is afraid that either someone could start a  rumour about her for being a Jew, or that someone else could come to harm through having contact with her. While other young people go dancing, she spends most of her time alone. Tonight, though, here in this restaurant and in the company of her colleagues, Gerta Pfeiffer is feeling cheerful again. Which prompts the diners at the next table to tell the innkeepers that if they see the Jewess laugh one more time they’ll throw her out onto the street.

Poignant, without being wordy.  (The good news provided in tbe endnote is that Gerta Pfeiffer managed to emigrate to Britain.)

Ribbat fills his book with the stories of the famous and the not so well-known (both establishments and personages.)  The reader’s prior knowledge will determine how many fall into the latter category. For me, it was many. My knowledge of famous cooks is limited to the modern day celebrity chef, and even then just a handful.  And so, when Ribbat added a new name to his soup, this was the start of a career in my head and I could enjoy the success story. When Ribbat mentioned  a name I did recognise such as Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) who worked in the kitchens during his down and out days in Paris, or Heston Blumenthal, I experienced many well-well-I-never-knew that moments.

The glamour of the fronthouse is contrasted with the hard graft in the kitchens and it is 99.9% fact.  I recognised the one fictional anecdote on page 129 from Melinda Nadj Abonji’s novel reviewed here.  I breathed a sigh of relief when Ribbat confessed its true nature, because I really, really didn’t want to believe that the human race would stoop so low. (Though actually and unfortunately …)

And so it was that Ribbat’s history of the restaurant, the workforce and the clientele had me ruminating on philosophical and sociological matters. I’m sure Ribbat had these issues in mind (the subtitle gives it away somewhat), but they are interwoven lightly and won’t spoil the pleasure for someone reading solely to discover more about main subject.

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IMG_0146Earlier this year, I read James Hawes’s The Shortest History of Germany – it was illuminating to say the least (and I thought I knew a thing or two about German history). So I decided to take the book he published in 2008 with me on a recent trip to Prague.  What was he going to teach me about the city’s most famous inhabitant?

To summarise in a sentence: Everything I ever thought I knew about Kafka is a myth!  Really? Yes, really.

The “facts”  – the accepted truths – are listed by Hawes on pages 6 and 7.

  • Kafka’s will ordered that all his works should be destroyed.
  • Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime, partly because he was shy about publishing.
  • Kafka was crushed by a dead-end bureaucratic job.
  • Kafka was crippled for years by the TB that he knew must inevitably kill him.
  • Kafka was incredibly honest about his feelings with the women in his life – too honest.
  • Kafka was imprisoned, as a German-speaking Jew in Prague, in a double ghetto: a minority-within-a-minority amid an absurd and collapsing operatta-like empire.
  • Kafka’s works are based on his experiences as a Jew.
  • Kafka’s works uncannily predict Auschwitz.
  • Kafka’s works were burned by the Nazis. 

The remainder of his book is spent debunking, each and every point, one by one.  Convincingly and yet the K-myth, as Hawes calls it, is still the one perpetuated by the industry. The enigma must be good for business.

Well I was in the right place to check things out. (No pun intended.)  I marched myself off to the Franz Kafka Museum.  What are they saying?

Let’s look at myth point 3: Kafka was terrified of his brutal father.  This is backed up by the museum, as the first exhibit introduces us to the “shadow of Hermann Kafka … the huge, oppressive figure which the writer chose as a recurrent motif in his inner life”. The museum presents the Letter to My Father as “a biographical and literary document of the first order” though I suppose there’s sufficient room for manoeuvre in its evaluation of the work as “an over-the-top diatribe” to suggest that, as Hawes argues, the relationship between son and father in the Letter to My Father is not to be mistaken for that between the real-life counterparts.

Myth point 2:  Kafka was virtually unknown in his lifetime. There’s plenty of evidence in the museum to show that Kafka was well-known in immediate circles, but interestingly not a scooby about his winning the Fontane Prize for Literature in 1912!   I wasn’t aware of that until Hawes brought it to my attention.

Myth Point 1: That legendary will exists and the literary world will be forever grateful for Max Brod’s act of disobedience.  Certainly that is how this is presented in the Franz Kafka Museum.  How can Hawes argue against this?  That Kafka was using reverse psychology which Brod, due to the closeness of their relationship, would have understood all too well.

I’m inclined to believe Hawes because there is just so much in these fascinating pages that brings a completely new image of Kafka, the man, to life.  “A clubber with a penchant for porn” as James Walton aptly phrased it in The Telegraph. (And I’ll leave you to wonder about the revelations in that particular chapter.)

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Once read, never forgotten

Enough about the man, what about his literature?  Here’s another myth: Kafka’s style is mysterious and opaque.  I certainly found that to be true at university and remember hurling (literally) “The Castle” into the rubbish bin!  Yet the section that Hawes devotes to analysis of Kafka’s works – including that beetle story – as the depiction of the “abiding psychological tension of our modern world” makes tham seem not only interesting, but perhaps even approachable. I’m not going to use the word enjoyable,  because I don’t to want chance my arm, but I do find myself contemplating what would have been uncontemplatable a couple of months before.  A reread of Kafka’s novels.  My stomach clenches at the thought, perhaps something shorter.  Hawes suggests there is no finer place to begin than with “The Judgement”, and, as I trust him, so I shall.

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I remember the first time I met Teffi.  It was in the literary oasis of Watermark Books, King’s Cross Station (sadly no more, and funnily enough I haven’t visited London since it closed. Make of that what you will.) They had a table tucked at the back of the shop, filled with translated fiction, most of it published by independent presses. A table I approached with great excitement every time I visited, because I knew I would find something special.  One time Teffi’s Subtly Worded was waiting to greet me.  I opened it randomly and this is what I read:

I’m in love with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. I hate Natasha, first because I’m jealous, second because she betrayed him.

Teffi was talking about her 13-year old self, and her teenage literary crush.  He was mine also; he probably still is.   And that sentence was enough to secure a place for Subtly Worded and Teffi’s other works, published by Pushkin Press on my shelves.

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Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France and Anne Marie Jackson

For obvious reasons, in this centenary year of the Russian Revolution I decided to read Rasputin and Other Stories, a selection of essays, that shows Teffi to have been anything but the fool her nom-de-plume suggests.  Born in 1872, Teffi lived through turbulent times; a liberal in the days of the last Tsar, not Bolshevik as Lenin came to power, and yet she survived.  In the introduction  this volume, Robert Chandler attributes this to the witty tone of her voice, which made it palatable to her foes, despite incisive and non-complimentary observations.  Nevertheless she was eventually forced into exile in 1920, never to return to her homeland again.

The first 2/3rds of these autobiographical writings cover her childhood, her writing career up until her exile. We see her develop from a nervous ingenue – My first steps as an author were terrifying –  to the confident investigative journalist gleefully thwarting Rasputin’s attempts to hypnotise her.  The final 1/3 comtains memories of famous Russian authors.

Taking centre place are the two longest pieces; one chronicling Lenin’s ruthless takeover of the newspaper, The New Life, and the second, her two encounters with Rasputin.  In both she is dropping the names of famous Russians like sweeties. She’s not being boastful – this was simply her world, and she is describing people and events as she experienced them.  The pieces, written years after the events, are therefore lively, filled with quirky details that historians would pass over.  For instance:

Lenin was living in Petersburg illegally. He was, of course, under official surveillance. ….. Nevertheless,  he would come into the office, quite freely, day after day, simply turning up the collar of his coat when he left so as not to be recognised. And not one of the gumshoes on duty ever asked any questions about this character who was so keen to cover up his chin.

Teffi may pass herself off as a clown (in the essay My Pseudonym) and some of the pieces may have comic intent, but others are bitter, such as The Gaderene Swine, which describes the panicked flight of the Whites in 1919. Neither does she hold back when delivering her judgments of people. How’s this for a sardonic put-down?

Andrei Bely writes that Merezhkovsky wore shoes with pompoms, and that these pompoms epitomised the whole of Merezhkovsky’s life. Both his speech and his thought had “pompoms”.

Not the most precise of descriptions, but certainly not a very kind one. Though Andrei Bely was not without “pompoms” of his own.

Stories about her childhood and her early encounters with literature are full of charm.  Her meeting with Tolstoy – she decides to go and plead for Prince Andrei’s life – shows none of the great author’s curmudgeonly side.  I was delighted to find My First Tolstoy included in this collection too. Besides providing a link to my first Teffi, it added the -est onto an altogether fine reading experience.

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This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.

It’s also a stop 2 of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press reading project.  Next stop: Israel

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Having ignored Book Week Scotland for the last few years due to the clash with #germanlitmonth, I decided to challenge myself to find a book that satisfied the demands of both events.  Et voilà!

imageTranslated from German by Brian Battershaw

At the age of forty, twenty years before turning his pen to fiction, Theodor Fontane travelled to Scotland with his friend, Bernard von Lepel,  like many others enticed by the romantic historical novels and ballads of Sir Walter Scott and entranced by the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their journey was a pilgrimage of sorts, and, I must admit,  well-planned.  I’m not entirely sure how long it lasted – matter of months I suspect – but they accomplished more that I have managed in 28 years of living here!

imageThe map on the right shows the route, and those in the know, will realise that it takes in  sites that are still major tourist attractions today.  Most of which I have visited too, and I found it interesting that the places Fontane describes are often as they appear today. (The places around them will have changed beyond all recognition and so I challenged myself to spot the details that Fontane didn’t mention: so no Nessie in Loch Ness (the story only began to spread in 1933), no McCaig’s tower in Oban (erected 1897) and curiously no mention of the bird colonies on the Isle of Staffa (and they must have been there when Fontane visited.) Neither did he visit a distillery, or if he did he didn’t tell us about it – perhaps the many temperamce preachers he met imfluenced him after all!

But enough of things, Fontane and Lepel didn’t see.  Here are some of the things that they did.

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Fontane’s travelogue is detailed amd multi-faceted with fastidious descriptions of places and people, historical anecdotes (lesser known as well as milestone events), translations of Scottish poems, retellings of Scottish legends, interspersed with personal experiences. These latter show the realities of travel in the mid-19th century.  Remind me never to take the end seat on the outside of a stage-coach.

passengers at the ends of each row … sat with only one cheek on the bench, so that the outer half of each individual dangled and swung to and fro together with hat-boxes and portmanteaus.  I need hardly say that such a minimum of travelling comfort would have been unbearable over a stretch of 75 miles, but for  the fact that at every stage the flanking passengers on the outside changed places so that their right and left halves, alternately rested at the last stage, constituted fresh reserves to put into  line.

The sketches  of his travelling companion Lepel complement the text.  3 of these are reproduced on the book jacket.  (From top to bottom: Loch Leven Castle, Isle of Staffa, Edinburgh) The book was intended to be a travel guide, and, for the most part, it could still serve that same purpose today (modes of transport excepted, of course.) I enjoyed Fontane’s keen observations and I learnt much about Scotland too.  A couple of  examples shall suffice.

1) Of Edinburgh and Stirling castle (Page 100)

Edinburgh Castle is like a recumbent lion while Stirling Castle resembles a sitting one.

2) Of the British Army (Page 102 doubtless a sly swipe at the Prussian Army and possibly not true today.)

We make a great mistake if we think of the British Army as a machine that removes the last vestiges of freedom and independence from the individual.

I will say, however, that there are very few references to the weather – from this I shall assume that the late summer of 1858 must have been a good one!

9 of the 27 chapters are devoted to Edinburgh.  Glasgow is lucky to get 9 lines! How so?  One look at the 300 foot-high factory chimneys of which a number were to be seen rising into heaven like pillars of petrified steam sufficed to make Fontane and Lepel rush for the  next train back to Edinburgh.

Fontane’s most scathing comments, however, are reserved for Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s self-designed ‘Romance in Stone and Mortar’.

There is a rhyming party game in which the participants write a line, then turn the paper down save for the last word, so that there can be no possible connection between what  the next man writes and what has been written before him.

Abbotsford is like that. It has been built for the sake of some forty or fifty catchwords.

No-one is more mortified than Fontane himself that he cannot adopt that tone of love and reverence to which one’s lips  have almost become accustomed when they utter Sir Walter’s name.  Lest we forget, visiting the places that Sir Walter Scott had written about was the primary reason  for Fontane’s journey.  Scott’s ballads were also the inspiration for Fontane’s early writing, who gave a number of his own ballads  Scottish settings. So to find his hero guilty of such poor taste was devastating. (Incidentally I disagree with Fontane here – I find Abbotsford quite charming and Scott’s novels unreadable.)   Regardless, the disappointing visit to Abbotsford, which lies on the Tweed,  is the final stage on this journey and signals a change of direction for Fontane.  When he finally publishes his debut, the historical novel Before the Storm in 1878, there is no trace of Scott’s romantic style and chivalric flourishes. He has become the realist writer on which his fame is based.

His love affair with Scotland had not ended, however.  Some 30 year later he wrote that this journey was one of the most beautiful in my life, at all events the most poetic,  more poetic than Switzerland, France, Italy and everything that I saw later on.

As a Sassenach in Scotland, I’d better not argue with that!!

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imageWinner of the 2015 Costa Biography Award

When Alexander von Humboldt, at the age of 30, took himself off to South America in 1799 little did he, or the world, realise that he would be there for 5 years and that he would formulate the theories and proofs that would shape and inspire scientists and thinkers for centuries thereafter. He would show that the earth, the sea currents, the air currents, the ecosystems are bound together in one living organism, a great chain of cause and effect. Disrupt one link in the chain and you disrupt the whole. He was the first to become concerned with the ecological damage we humans cause in general and with deforestation in particular. Not only that, he knew how to engage the public. His writings presented his findings in a way that was inclusive – blending science with literary flourish and sentiment to enable non-experts to understand his discoveries. His drawing of the natural landscape and the plant distribution in the Andes was revolutionary.

Geography of Plants in the Tropics (from wikmedia)

The books he published were magnificent. Lavishly illustrated, no expense spared. The production team consisting of the best cartographers, illustrators, typesetters and bookbinders available to him. By the time he published the first volume of Cosmos in 1845, they were collector’s items before they even left the presses and the rest of world waited breathlessly until a translation became available. (I’ve added an activity to my bucket list. I need to see an original one day. )

So how did Humboldt, the discoverer of continental drift, the magnetic equator and the inventor of isotherms we see every day on the weather maps, become “The Lost Hero of Science” in the English-speaking world? We may have chosen to forget him due to his nationality and the course of 20th century history. ( A supreme irony in that he was happier in France than in Germany and would have chosen to stay in Paris, had he not been dependent on his income from the King of Prussia. His inheritance was spent financing the South American trip.) Or we may have assimilated his ideas so completely, that their originator has been rendered invisible. Andrea Wulf wrote her book in order to find him, to make him rematerialise and to reassess his importance to our current understanding of the world.

Her book is a wonderful read, written in an accessible style that Humboldt would approve. Tracing Humboldt’s early years of restlessness and frustration, staying in Germany on the orders of his mother – no inheritance otherwise. Sailing to South America with Aimé Bonpland on that life-defining and dangerous adventure, one which Wulf brings to life. Returning to the Europe of the Napoleonic Wars, striving to remain apolitical until recalled to Germany to serve the king. His restlessness never leaving him. Making his final expedition across the Russian Steppes and into China at the age of 60! What a man! What a mind! His monarch, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia once called him “the greatest man since the deluge”. I wouldn’t ascribe to that but I understand  the sentiment.

The final third of the book is devoted to the influential scientists, writers and environmentalists who took up Humboldt’s ideas and ran with them: Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. These chapters are as immersive as Humboldt’s biography, with every word proving Wulf’s point that the man who shaped the way we understand the world, whose centennial in 1869 was celebrated with parades on the streets of America but is now largely forgotten, deserves to be restored to his rightful place in our collective memory.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

 

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Summer Before The DarkHow long have I wanted to read this book?  From the minute Thomas reviewed it during German Literature Month 2014. I got really excited when Mel reviewed the English translation by Carol Brown Janeway during German Literature Month 2015. I think that makes it Lizzy’s most anticipated release of 2016.  Thankfully with a January release date (today!), I didn’t have to wait until German Literature Month 2016!

Was it worth the anticipation?  Yes, yes and yes again!

(Editor: Calm down, Lizzy, you’re meant to be reviewing – not gushing.

Lizzy takes deep breathes, and works out how to write the piece without the adjectives, wonderful, fantastic, superlative, etc, etc.

Pause …….. Thinks a bit longer ……. This is tough.)

I’m tempted to leave it there, with an invocation to every fan of Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth and Irmgard Keun to go out, grab a copy and read it now.  Do the same, even if you’re not. You won’t read anything more illuminating about these writers or the extended community of artistic exiles that congregated in Belgium in 1936.  Nor will you read anything faster.  I sat down intending to read just the first chapter.  Next time I looked up, I had turned the final page. (168)

The summer of 1936 was a time for reflection, for working out what to do now that doors were closing in Nazi Germany.  Putting a brave face on it, enjoying the summer, each other’s company in the Café Flore, plenty of drink and a passionate, if extremely puzzling love affair (Roth/Keun).  Their worlds may have been falling apart, yet still they found the wherewithall to write literary masterpieces.  The supportive and collaborative community they formed that summer enabled that.  Weidermann shows how that community came to be, the dynamics involved and just how that period was the summer before the dark.

As a long-time Zweigette ( 😉 ), I offer this book as an antidote to the venom of that article written by Michael Hofmann. (See footnote.).  Yes, Zweig was a multi-millionaire, some of it inherited, most of it earned by his writings.  (He was the best-selling author in the world during his day.) Of course, this gave him a position of privilege.  Yet he used his wealth to support many less fortunate – such as Roth, who he bankrolled for 10 years.  (Think of all the masterpieces that wouldn’t have existed for Hofmann to translate, had Zweig not done that.)

(Editor: Lizzy, behave yourself!  You’re reviewing, not polemicising.

Lizzy: Sorry, Ed, but 6 years later, to the day, I am still outraged.)

The point I’m making is that Weidermann’s portrait of Zweig is sympathetic, a response to those who think him insincere, or a non-entity in terms of world literature.  In fact, Weidermann shows how much of a hand Zweig had in the some of Roth’s work.  (And vice versa.)

Now for a confession.  I’m not particularly fond of Roth or Keun as writers.  This statement is based purely on having read a single book by each: The Radeztsky March and The Artificial Silk Girl. But having now “met” the people behind the pens, I’m curious to read more, particularly the books they wrote during that summer of 1936: Roth – Confession of A Murderer; Keun – After Midnight, and, of course, Zweig – The Buried Candelabrum. Also Britta Böhler’s The Decision, a contemporary novel about Thomas Mann, who at this time in 1936, had not yet made his stand against Nazi Germany, and was ridiculed for it by the exiles in Ostend.

(Editor: Lizzy! I commissioned a review, not a reading list!

Lizzy: Sorry Ed, I don’t know how to review non-fiction without simply reiterating book content, and this book is so much more than a stand-alone read for me.  For a while I’ve been intending to delve deeper into the literature of this period. I have found my springboard and I shall be diving in for the rest of the year.  But as you insist on a final verdict ….. )

Absolutely fab-u-lous! (A modest amount of gushing is allowed, isn’t it?)

5stars.GIF

(Footnote: I refuse to link to it but search for Vermicular Dither if you must.)

 

 

 

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