Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Autumn – Ali Smith

“Ali Smith needs a second chance?”, cried a bemused fan when, following her event in Edinburgh, I said that I was prepared to give Autumn a go.

You see, if I don’t like the first book I read of a given author, then I take a lot of persuading to pick up a second.   I was short and scathing about The Accidental, and no amount of fulsome praise, Booker shortlistings and other literary awards bestowed in the intervening 11 years has persuaded me to return to Ali Smith.  But her performance at Edinburgh did.  As those you have seen her live will know,  she was sparkling, all synapses firing with her intelligence and wit,  and, this is where the read of Autumn became a done deal, she read the beginning of Winter.  She hadn’t yet handed in the manuscript; there was still 3 weeks to her deadline, but as she was sure that this opening section was not going to change during the final edit, we were treated to a sneak preview of a prolonged riff on A Christmas Carol; angry and passionate, with wow factor in spades.   And because I absolutely now have to read Winter, Autumn had to be read first.

IMG_0204I didn’t love it, and in places it irritated me just as The Accidental had. Smith’s stylistic quirks obviously don’t gel with me.  I’ve come a long way since reading The Accidental, and now enjoy intertextuality as much as anyone.  Autumn is replete with it.  It is a celebration of Dickens and Shakespeare and the pop art of Pauline Boty.  2 of the 3 are whom not exactly my cup of tea (Dickens and Boty), but even so I enjoyed Smith’s homage.  However, the episodic narrative, chopping and changing, back and forth throughout time without any obvious connections, grated on me so much that one third of the way through, I thought we were heading to a DNF.  And then I read this:

Collage is an institute of education, where all the rules can be thrown into the air, and size and space and time and foreground and background all become relative, and because of these skills everything you think you know gets made into something new and strange.

It’s the first passage I marked and I believe it is the key to the structure of Autumn.  There are other clues, as in Boty’s pop art collages, for that is what Smith is doing here.  Throwing away the rule book with regards to narrative size and space and time  – my Scottish literary inheritance allows me to do anything I want in my books, she said at Edinburgh. In the context of Daniel Gluck, the main protagonist, who is lying in a coma, at the beginning of the novel, this makes sense.  As memories of his life replay in his mind, they’re not going to do so in chronological sequence.  They’re going to form a collage. And once I got that idea in my mind (rightly or wrongly), I began to enjoy the book.

At the heart of the novel is a the story of a friendship between Daniel,  an old man, and Elizabeth Demand, child of a single mother, who uses her neighbour as a baby-sitter when it suits.  But the mother doesn’t entirely approve of Daniel; she mistakenly thinks he’s an “old queer”, but it’s a case of needs must.  He is an educated man, a lover of art and music, and much of the novel consists of conversations between himself and Elisabeth which expand her mind and take her outwith her mother’s limitations.  The friendship between the two endures, despite Elizabeth going off to,do what all young people do, live her own life, but Daniel’s influence is never far away,.  But when he, now a very old man, is lying in a coma (or is he really just sleeping?) Elisabeth returns to his bedside and reads to him and relates tales from their common past.

Autumn is a melancholy novel about the fleeting nature of life, but also about the divisions we create by not accepting people as they are, or imposing artificial boundaries, or, in the case of politicians, telling lies. Which brings us to the B-word. Marketed as the first post-Brexit novel, published a matter of months after last June’s referendum, Smith uses the infamous Profumo scandal of the 1960’s to draw comparisons with the current state of the nation.  The novel was edited following the vote with contemporaneous passages inserted, reflecting the clear dismay of her characters at the outcome.  I don’t want to stray into political argument here, but for all the nuance in the rest of the novel, there’s a complete lack in the portrayal of Brexiteers. They’re all thuggish and racist. I’m not saying these people don’t exist but there are Brexiteers from a different mould with whom it is possible to have dialogue (something Smith calls for often in the novel.)  They are missing from these pages.  Though that is perhaps the point. No dialogue was possible in the days after the referendum  The country was completely divided.  The arguments were even fiercer than before the vote.  It will be interesting to see how she interprets the current aftermath in the forthcoming novel.

To sum up.  Autumn is an issues novel with which I had some issues.  However, its balance ended in the black, thanks to the credits banked by those appreciative descriptions of trees and leaves.  I’m with Smith on the glories of our arboreal cohabitants.  (Cf veritable gushing in this interview.) And that’s more than enough to ensure that I’ll be heading towards Winter as soon as I get my hands on a copy.


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IMG_0160What attracted Tracy Chevalier to writing a modern day Othello for The Borough Press?  “It’s the quintessential story of an outsider”, she said.  “And I’m an outsider.  I still sound like this (referring to her American accent) after 30 years,” she quipped. (See footnote.)

Was she constrained by the thought of following in Shakespeare’s footsteps?  “Not at all.  I had a setting I know well and I was liberated from all the historical research!”.

By choosing to bring Othello into a 1970’s Washington school playground, Chevalier not only knows the setting, she has lived it. There are details in this book straight from her childhood, even if the racial element is inverted.  Chevalier was a minority white kid in a mostly black neighbourhood.  She knows how her Othello, or Osei Kokote, the son of a Ghanian diplomat feels.

And she knows how modern day 6th graders behave.  I’ll be honest – all these pre-adolescent relationships between boys and girls felt a bit grown up to me.  But Chevalier says these “couplings” – even if they only last for one hour – are the norm in her son’s school.  The kids are trying it out.

So back to Othello – his  passionate relationship with the lovely Desdemona,  the deadly nature of his unjust jealousy fired by Iago’s betrayal. It’s a true Shakespearian tragedy, and it ends with bodies strewn all over the stage.  “I couldn’t follow Shakespeare there.  In a theatre the audience is prepared to suspend disbelief.  But my novel is in a playground.  I’ve made the ending fit the scenario.   Even so I’ve littered my last act with metaphorical dead bodies.”  said Chevalier.

Don’t let that fool you.  The ending may be an emotional softening but it remains devastating.  Chevalier’s retelling is set over the course of one day.  Perhaps she sacrifices an element of realism in doing this?  Would things escalate so quickly, even in a 1970’s playground, where the supervising teachers are as rascist as the pre-adolescent Iago? Maybe not, but it ensures that the pace never slackens. Chevalier also incorporates the development of Othello’s and Desdemona’s relationship – something Shakespeare never did. Was it really the great love we assume? Chevalier certainly wasn’t convinced. Nor is she happy with the relative silence of the women in Shakespeare’s play.  “I’ve kept to his five acts”, she said.  “I’ve just given more airplay to the girls.”

She does this by following the action over the shoulders of her four main characters:  Osei and the golden-haired Dee (Othello amd Desdemona); Ian and Millie (Iago and Bianca). This allows her to examine the issue of racism from multiple perspectives, including the black boy’s point-of-view.  The decision to keep the narrative third-person avoids any accusation of cultural appropriation. (See footnote 2.)

The result is, as I have already said, a fast-paced and intense read, and, for me, the most enjoyable Hogarth Shakespeare retelling to date.   Once I suspended my disbelief.  6th grade = 11 years old for goodness sake.  Mind you, it is a long time since I was in the 6th grade playground.  What do I know?

Footnote 1: Edinburgh Book Festival 20.08.2017

Footnote 2: Am I alone in feeling distressed at the fact that Chevalier even had to consider this? What happened to artistic license?

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There’s an industry when it comes to writing about Kafka.  His works are analysed and reinterpreted again and again.  But has anyone written about baking with Kafka?  Not that I know of.  Not even Tom Gauld.  But he has drawn a cartoon.


Baking with Kafka is a collection of cartoons, mostly commissioned by the Guardian, the New Yorker or the New York Times.  The vast majority have a literary theme with others referring to art, film and world of the critic. As such the cartoons are current, well-informed and extremely witty.  There are a few pointed barbs scattered in the mix, but these seemed reserved (quite rightly) for the world of politics.

Gauld projects into the bookish future with advice such as how to get published in a skeleton apocalypse and a demonstration of the behaviour of a rogue bibliophile in 2500 AD.  Staying firmly in the now, however, whether you are a reader, a writer, a translator, or a critic, Gauld captures your pecadilloes in a way that you will recognise and make you smile.

On second thoughts, maybe translators won’t smile.


Consisting of 150 cartoons, this is a book for devouring in one sitting, and then dipping in and out of whenever in need of a quick pick-me-up.  I’ve also spent quite a while trying to determine my three favourites. It was an impossible task.  Instead I will leave you with three cartoons that tickled my funny bone all over again whilst writing this review.


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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.)


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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IMG_0109Winner of the 2014 Akutagawa Prize

Translated from Japanese by Polly Barton

From one beautiful cover to the next – Pushkin Press certainly know how to package their goods!  But. While The Disappearances had me page-turning from the start, I can’t say I found Spring Garden so rivetting. But once I accepted that this is a quiet novel and a slow burner, I began to appreciate it a little more, even if I never really warmed to it.

Taro, a young divorcé,  who has decided that he can no longer share his space, lives alone in an emptying apartment block in Setagaya, a middle class suburb of Tokyo.  The landlord has decided to demolish the building and sell the land for redevelopment.  Taro is one of the last renters in the block.  He has no friends, and spends his time, when not working, lounging on the floor brooding about his recently deceased father.  The ever increasing void around him doesn’t perturb him unduly.  He’ll find somewhere new to live when his lease expires.

One day he notices one of his remaining neighbours spying on the sky-blue house opposite the apartment block. A casual friendship develops between him and Nishi, the older women “spy”.  Her fixation on the house began years before when she found a coffee table book entitled “Spring Garden” with this house and the life lived by its then inhabitants as its subject.  The life seemed ideal, the couple happy, and yet they, a famous commercial producer and his actress wife, divorced only a couple of years after the publication of the book. Nishi has analysed the photographs for clues as to their unhappiness to the nth degree, but does not understand. Her objective is to see the whole house from the inside. When the opportunity arises, she takes it, but needs Taro’s help to complete her quest in its entirety.

I use the word quest purposefully, because to Nishi, it is just that, even if it doesn’t seem much of an adventure to me.  And so much of this novel seemed off kilter in other ways.   There is a mystery surrounding the celebrity couple, that turns out to be a non-mystery.  Those remaining in the apartment block – particularly Taro – seem stuck in a state of permanent stasis. Are they paralysed by the non-stop change of the city in which they live?

Because I have to say there doesn’t seem to be much character development or even story-arc.  That’s not to say that there aren’t character studies.  It’s just that they didn’t run particularly deep for me, and I couldn’t decide whether Taro was grief-stricken or simply lacksadaisical. Perhaps the objective of the piece is to simply to document the realities of urban life in contemporary Tokyo; loneliness, chance encounters and the resulting fleeting friendships, the temporariness of our place in the world. This latter point emphasised by fine observations from nature.

Spring Garden works on this thematic level.  But it falls apart when I start looking at details.  What is the purpose of that change of narrator 4/5ths of the way through the novel, for instance.  To help us see Taro through sympathetic eyes, those of his sister? To endear him to us?  It didn’t work.  And as for that plot device in the final scene in the Spring Garden house.  My eyes rolled. (Honestly I remember using it myself in a primary school story.)

Given that Spring Garden won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, I will assume that Japanese tastes differ widely from mine, and that I am blind to this story’s virtues. I wonder, though, whether the same would be true of the other titles in Pushkin Press’s Japanese novella series.  Has anyone read them?  Are they worth picking up?

This read, a rare fail, completes my Round the World With Pushkin Press reading project.  Or rather, it would have done, had I not had so much fun visiting 10 countries on my first circuit, that I’ve decided to add a second!

Next stop: Australia

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IMG_0090Named Best Argentinian Novel of 2012 by the daily La Nacíon.

Nominated for the Edinburgh Book Festival First Novel award

Translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff

So the thing about Edinburgh Book Festival is the discovery of new-to-me books in their pop-up bookshop … and there were many this year.  (I’ll tell you all about the ones that came home with me when Rossetti isn’t looking.) A number of these started their journey to my library from the shelves dedicated to the Edinburgh Book Festival First Novel Award.


Edinburgh First Novel Award Bookshelf 13.08.2017

The contents of these shelves change throughout the festival.  Harwicz’s novel wasn’t there on day one.  I think I read a tweet saying copies arrived about 3 hours before her event. I wasn’t at her event either, but I decided to read this novel first from my #edbookfest purchases so that I could sneak in a last minute review for both #spanishlitmonth and #WITmonth.

Why did I buy it? Title, title, title.  I imagined some kind of schizophrenic virago snarling the first word, then, after sticking the knife in, caressing her victim with soft sweet nothings ….

Well, not being a psychologist, I can’t confirm whether the female protagonist is schizophrenic, sociopathic or even psychopathic, but she is definitely unhinged, nay, severely unhinged …

and, because this novel is written in 1st person, there were times when I was unhinged myself!  I couldn’t recognise the world at all through her eyes.  At first there was no common ground, just weird, animalistic behaviour complete with sexual fantasies that turned out (I think) to be anything but fantasy. But gradually, an external reference, an expression of resentment, and I realised that this is a world seen through the prism and alienation of severe post-natal depression.

The woman’s story can only be put together retrospectively as Harwicz throws the reader right into her crisis. First sentence:

I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular.

There’s the knife of my imaginings, but it made me question which love was to die.  Because with a title like that, something’s going to end badly.  And Harwicz kept me guessing.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the woman’s story but she is an educated woman, now living in the countryside with her husband and son.  Bored.   In a downward spiral that is accelerating. The birth of her son precipitating, if not completing, an absolute loss of self.

It’s not easy on her, her husband (who really does try to help her), her son (for whom I was truly afeared) or for the reader.  That 1st person narrative – it’s not a stream of consciousness, more a stream of existence.  Reality, fantasy, insanity, hallucination, smidgeons of logical thought, blended into an unchronological narrative.  Challenging.  I’d say exhilarating (if the subject matter wasn’t so dark.) Told in short, sharp passages, meaning the reader can come up for air, even if the protagonist and her family cannot.

A book that will reward a second reading, if I dare brave its intensity again.

Die, My Love is one of the first of titles to be published by Charco Press, a new publisher based in Edinburgh, whose remit is to “select authors whose works feed the imagination, challenge perspective and spark debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors whose works have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.  Until now,”

Not everything they publish will be for me, but I will definitely keep a close eye on what they do.

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Be still my beating heart! Sarah Dunant remembers the romantic historical novels that sparked her interest in history.

Think of 3 adjectives to describe Lucretia Borgia. Now hold those thoughts while I describe Sarah Dunant in 3 adjectives.

Earthy, funny, cool.

This was by far my favourite event of the 2017 festival, and that was, in no small part, down to the author’s engaging style – she really connected with the audience, talking to us not to the chair.  She had us eating out of her hands in no time.

Of Lucretia Borgia’s reputation, she said: “I started my research and within about 15 minutes, I thought, hang on someone’s done a number on her.  This is a classic example of the victors writing history.  But if Lucretia has been maligned, then who else has received the same treatment?  And isn’t it about time someone set the record straight, instead of perpetuating the myth?”

And that is the purpose of her two novels, Blood and Beauty and In the Name of the Father.   It is an attempt to rehabilitate the Borgias, except that sometimes that is impossible.

On Rodrigo, Pope Alexander VI, Lucretia’s father: “I can’t rehabilitate him. Rodrigo is bad news, but he must be judged by the times he lived in.  He was a Spaniard, an interloper, not an insider in the Vatican court.  He had to be a consummate politician to get to the top.  His behaviour was no different from everyone else, except that he did everything in technicolour.  Rodrigo was a big man of insatiable appetites – that’s why Jeremy Irons (who played him in the recent Sky series) is too thin in many ways.”

“His Catholic church was corrupt but don’t forget that that corruption financed the creation of some of the greatest Renaissance art.  ”

Rodrigo loved all his illegitimate children and held them close, but viewed them as valuable political assets when they came of useful age – in Lucretia’s case at the age of 13, when he married her off for the first time.

Of Cesare: ” Cesare was a man of extraordinary physical presence, popular with his troops, asking nothing of them that he wouldn’t do himself.  A ruthless manipulator and strategist, aware that time was running out as his father got older. Frustrated at what he saw as his father’s dithering.  “The trouble with the old is that their blood runs tepid, while ours runs boiling hot”, he says at one point In the Name of the Family.”

Can Cesare, who did murder Lucretia’s second husband, be rehabilitated?  Partially … when we remember that he was afflicted with syphillis at a young age, (actually when he was a cardinal) and so badly disfigured by it, that he resorted to wearing a mask, and yet look at what he achieved, despite the protracted illness.  I began to think of him as a malevolent superman while reading Dunant’s novels.  What did Dunant say? “An extraordinary physical presence.” She also said of him: “I think he was, without doubt, a sociopath, but, looking at his patterns of behaviour, I also think he was bi-polar.”

Machiavelli makes an appearance in the second novel as a young Florentine diplomat, observing Cesare Borgia, whom he was later to capture in the pages of the infamous The Prince. A consumate piece of political reporting according to Dunant.  “His dispatches from that time are gold-dust,” said Dunant.  She also said: “I thought he was smart.  I like smart!”

But what of Lucretia? Have you been following how she has been used by the men in her life?  Married to Giovanni Sforza at 13, forced to divorce and marry Alfonso of Aragon at 18 (a man she came to love), widowed at 20 by the hand of her brother.  Her third marriage to the much older and syphilitic Alfonso de l’Este, Duke of Ferrara at the age of 21.  Does this sound like the well-known strumpet of ill-repute or more like a dutiful daughter?  She became Rodrigo’s and Cesare’s political tool at the age of 13, and look at the pain they put her through by the time she was 20!

Yes, she left her son by her second husband to be brought up by others when she married for the third time.  But Dunant stressed that she should not be judged by our standards, but thar we should live with her in her own moment when this was the done thing.  She’s not the feisty heroine the C21st desires, but – and here is where she earns Dunant’s admiration – she gradually realises that the only way to gain a measure of independence is to get out of Rome.  She agrees to the marriage with the Duke of Ferrara and rides away, knowing that the Ferraras do not want her.  Because of her family connections, she is tainted goods, but Rodrigo makes the marriage worth their while with the biggest dowry ever paid in Italy. She does not love her third husband, but is sufficiently savvy to understand that her marriage is a diplomatic alliance and eventually forges an effective partnership with him.  She establishes her court, and transforms herself into the well-respected Duchess of Ferrara.  This is the journey Lucretia makes in the pages of In The Name of The Family.

So where does the rumour of incest originate? Dunant pinpoints it to the first divorce.  Lucretia had been married to Giovanni Sforza for 3 years without issue.  But Sforza had outlived his usefulness and Rodrigo needed her to be free to make another strategic marriage.  He decided to annul the marriage on the grounds of Sforza’s impotence, and Lucretia, who still did everything her father demanded of her, signed papers to that effect.  How did Sforza react with the following statement: “I have known her an infinity of times, but he (Rodrigo) just wants her back for himself.” Thus is a reputation destroyed!  “Fake news!”, cried Dunant.

Had these people no conscience?  “The Catholic practice of confession allowed them moral wriggle room”, she explained. “But, at times, it became a wild dance.”  Indeed and it is one that she captures brilliantly in her two Borgia novels, which I devoured within a week.  They are truly compulsive; with such protagonists and shenanigans, how could they not be? And there is also a feisty heroine in the form of Machiavelli’s wife.  He didn’t have it all his own way.  However, I would argue that there is a character bigger than any named so far:  Syphillis – a pestilence that arrived in Europe when Columbus returned from the Americas and cut a swathe so rapidly that, following the first reported cases in Naples in 1494, brothels were closing in Aberdeen in 1497.  Dunant includes the then hopeless fight against the disease and details the gruelling treatments that Cesare had to endure.  The doctors were at a loss – all they could do was slow its progess in an individual, but they could not cure.  As Dunant pointed out, syphillis remained a killer until the discovery of penicillin in 1946.  She is also convinced that Lucretia died of it, contracting it from her third husband.  It was the final wrong done to her by the men in her life.

To conclude the session, the chair, Jenny Brown, asked Dunant to summarise Lucretia in 3 adjectives.  She chose:

canny, loving, able to learn

Were these the words you picked at the beginning of this post?

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