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Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

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.

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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

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It was love at first sight – truly.

The book stood out from the others on the bookshop shelf in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar.

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The word play in the title made me laugh (you only need to change one letter (s to b) in the German to get to the saying live and let live).  The jacket illustration made me laugh as well. I knew I could recreate it.  And so I did, once I had reclaimed my reading sofa from the unruly TBR.

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But the clincher was when I flicked through and discovered the book-culling poem by Eugen Roth.  What other treasures was I going to discover?

As it turned out a great many because Daniel Kampa’s selection of prose and poetry about the joys and frustrations of readers, writers, booksellers and critics is inspired.   The renowned Nikolaus Heidelbach has also illustrated the book, and those illustrations are as quirky as some of the pieces.  Sometimes they match the text, oftentimes they do not. But they do form a couples of series: the first of human readers,  the second the  imaginary animal reader.  Heidelback obviously has a high opinion of the cat’s intelligence, whilst he feels the canine to be a less sophisticated beast. (Grrrr.)

 

The reading itself consists of 51 pieces of prose and poetry from authors around the world.  Old favourites (Böll, Chekhov, Zweig) plus many, many more I had not read  before.  So in addition to introducing me to German authors (Mascha Kaleko, Joachim Ringelnatz,  Eugen Roth, Kurt Tucholsky)  I have also read the following for the first time: Chilean Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Book (II), Czech Jaroslav Hasek being very mischievous at a book group, French Marcel Proust spending a day reading and Italian Italo Calvino putting his protagonist reader through hell on a beach!  The English-speaking literary world is also represented with pieces from Nathanael Hawthorne, A A Milne, Flann O’Brien, Henry David Thoreau.

As I was reading, I kept wishing that the book was in English, so that I could quote extensively here.  As it is, I’ve found two of my favourite pieces online: A A Milne on his library, which has made me less worried about the shall-we-call it random nature of my book piles; and Flann O’Brien’s satirical piece on  book-handling services for the rich, whose pristine libraries need to look a little more used.

I was reading the book throughout January. A slower pace than is usual for me, not because of the German – there was only one piece that made my brain ache – Karl Schimper’s poem Ein Leser.  Rather I kept taking diversions.  So an extract from Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop sent me to the shelves to read the whole thing as well as the prequel Parnassus on Wheels. Then last night I made a beeline for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, because, after the piece noted above, I needed another fix.

Lesen und Lesen Lassen is a 5-star delight from the first page to the last. (In fact, that pithy little 4-line epigram from Goethe on the final page deserves 6 stars!) I expect I shall refer to this anthology time and again – particularly when I need a pick-me-up.  Plus there are the reading trails it has opened up.  In addition to those already taken, I used January’s purchase allowance on 2 books that I can no longer live without: Eugen Roth’s Menschlich/Merely Human and Flann O’Brien’s Best of Myles.

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I haven’t revealed my books of the year in gradual fashion before, but when I started compiling the list for 2016, I realised that I still have a goodly number to review.  (Reviewing falling victim to time constraints at literary festival time.) So I shall spend this week putting that right, starting with the short story collection of the year, the hysterically funny read of the year and the best first liner of the year. Contender for my book of the year? Most definitely, although I have yet to make my final decision. (It is a close run thing.)

imageLet’s roll back to the first line of the first story in American Housewife, entitled What I Do All Day.

Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.

It tells you all you need to know about the housewives in this collection.  These ladies are sassy, full of attitude, and not at all ashamed of their status in life. In fact, you could say they are rich housewives on steroids!  As Ellis said at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, “I became a housewife, and realised it was a really good gig.” Taking inspiration from the author, none of her creations want out of their lot in life, and why should they? The home is their castle, and let no-one mistake this, they are the queens of their castles and they will do anything, and I mean anything, to defend them.

In fact, The Wainscoting War is a literal turf war over the decor in the common hallway. When Angela Chastain-Peters moves in, she decides she would like to remodel the hall and advises her new neighbour of such in her first email, ostensibly a thank-you note for a welcome gift. In actuality an opening salvo in the war for dominance. Well how would you interpret the following?

Hi neighbour! Thank you for the welcome gift basket you lefy outside our apartment door. My husband  and I don’t eat pineapples … But we appreciate the gesture.  We gave the pineapples to the super, who said he’d ask his wife to ask you for your recipe for pineapple-glazed ham.  Apparently you make one every Easter that makes the elevator shaft smell like a barbeque. WOW!

The resulting battle between neighbours is laid bare in the email trail that follows.  Petty and catty as it may be, there is a deadly intent in Angela Chastain-Peters that is not to be thwarted.

I’ll mention just one more story in detail, otherwise I’ll find myself re-reading the whole book. In Hello! Welcome to Book Club, a new member is welcomed by the hostess, Mary Beth. The name is a pseudonym, a book club name. At first, this seems like a quaint idea, but as Mary-Beth introduces the other members and their reading tastes, something darker and altogether more desperate emerges. For Mary-Beth is as indiscreet as they come revealing the histories and secrets of each woman.  It’s a one-way conversation. To give you a flavour

Marjorie loves celebrity memoirs. She likes to have Book Club read about beautiful people who remain beautiful people despite life’s little challenges such as bankruptcy, infidelity, alcoholism, and infertility.

You’ve had three out of four of these challenges, haven’t you, dear?

That turns out to be true and not having experienced the 4th is the reason for the new recruit’s initiation into Book Group, because she is there to serve a purpose ….

Contemporary culture such as celebrity reality TV and child beauty pageants are pilloried.  Ellis’s satire is as ruthless as that of her narrators. Laugh out loud funny in places and yet merciless in revealing the darker edges and emptiness beneath exterior surfaces. Other stories (Southern Lady Code and How to be a Grown-Ass Lady) are lists, comprised entirely of tweets from the author’s twitter account @whatidoallday. The final story is one of a writer battling writer’s block.  Interestingly this is something Ellis has struggled with herself.  She has said that becoming a housewife helped her find her voice.  Who would have thought that the 4-letter words I hate – dust, wash, iron – could be such fertile ground for the imagination?

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Helen Ellis at EIBF 21.08.2016

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Translated from Dutch by Richard Hujing

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Bottle-dungeon St Andrew’s Castle

One of the most chilling things I have ever seen is the bottle dungeon at St Andrew’s Castle in Fife.  Impossible to capture in a photo without a very wide-angled lens (as you can see on the right), but imagine this.  There is a hole in the ground with a 30-ft fall to the rocky bottom. It is pitch black and you are about to be thrown into it, knowing that even if you survive your inevitable injuries, you will never come out alive because there will be no food or water provision.  Your fate is to die in pain of hunger and thirst surrounded by the dead and dying who have preceded you.

imageI had nightmarish visions about what that must be like, and so, when I came to Bel Campo’s story in the recently released Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, I was amazed to find those nightmares on paper.

The story begins as the unnamed warrior is cast into the dark pit, not knowing what awaits him there.  Man-eating animals perhaps?  As his eyes accustom to the gloom, he discovers he is in a human pit full of vanquished peoples, in various states of decay.  Noone is moving, noone is speaking.  Each man is resignedly undergoing the decline of the body.

What is there left to do, except to cling to life for as long as possible, as an act of independence against the conquering nation?  To reminisce on the sweetness of life, before it was darkened by war and ethnic cleansing.

That was the stuff of my nightmares but Bel Campo had even more horrific things in store.  For our prisoner’s enemies are not content with allowing their prisoners a dignified death.  Deeper humiliations await.  They wish to further divide and conquer, to reduce their prisoners to the level of animals, to strip them of all vestiges of humanity.  This they do by staging what I can only describe as a diabolical banquet. No further details here, but I was reminded of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as I read ever more wide-eyed.  The temptations of the flesh leading only to death and damnation for both conquerors and conquered ….

… and yet, in the midst of this hell, the unnamed protagonist manages to find a kind of grace in the form of true love. What a twist!

Belcampo’s story is as vivid and visual as a painting, and it is a shame that this is the only story of his that I can find in English.  An admirer of E T A Hoffman, this nom-de-plume is taken from one of Hoffmann’s characters, which suggests that there is is a fantastically gothic oeuvre just waiting to be discovered by Hoffmann’s many English-reading fans.  If only someone would translate it.

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Let the first review of the year be of the first book read.

January the First is inseparable from the Strauss concert and an accompanying glass of bubbly because, if ever my name surfaces during the draw for (affordable) tickets to the real thing, I would definitely be drinking champagne in the Wiener Musikverein. In the meantime, while I fantasise, it was music, champagne and accompanying reading material all the way a couple of days ago ….

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I knew that this selection of 17 short stories from Austria was in good hands (translator – Deborah Holmes, editor Helen Constantine) when I saw it bookended by my favourite Arthur Schnitzler. Which is not to say that there is any lack of quantity in the stories from other contributors.  Established names from the past such as Joseph Roth, Adalbert Stifter, Ingeborg Bachmann and Veza Canetti are all present, alongside contemporary authors: Friedericke Mayröcker, Alexander Kluge, Dimitri Dinev, Christine Nöstlinger, Eva Menasse and Doron Rabinovici.

Of the 14 authors I had previously read 4, so this volume also served as an introduction to a wider range of Austrian writing.

There  isn’t space here to summarise all every story, but I will quickly list my three favourites.  I’m leaving Schnitzler out of this – he has an unfair advantage.  In no particular order, apart from ladies first.

Oh my eyes – Ingeborg Bachmann
Partially sighted Miranda is forever forgetting (aka refusing)  to wear her glasses.  Her physical eyes may be failing but there’s nothing wrong with her intuition.  Which does not bode well for her romance with Stasi.

This was my first encounter with Bachmann.  It won’t be my last.

Spas Sleeps – Dimitri Dinev
Set in 2001, Spas is a refugee from Bulgaria wanting to make a life for himself in Vienna.  He isn’t the first and, as events in 2016, are proving, he won’t be the last.  He is seeking the Holy Grail of work, but, even in 2001, this is difficult, if not impossible, for unskilled labour.  Fortunately for Spas, he teams up with a former school acquaintance.  They weren’t friends then, but circumstances now are to render them inseparable.  This is life on the periphery of city living; a hard and oftimes desperate experience.

The Prater – Adalbert Stifter
Perhaps the best matched story  for the would-be tourist – Stifter’s stroll through the Prater on May Day is a reminder of the delights that await and a warning to avoid the overcrowded areas like the plague on a public holiday. And he was writing in 1841!

Holmes organises the anthology not chronologically but geographically starting from the outskirts coming into the centre before returning to the outskirts. This emphasises underlying themes  – life on the periphery for example  – but also demonstrates a city undergoing change through the ages. So Dimev’s story of C21st refugees sits very close to Stifter’s C19th walk through the Prater.  We pass by famous landmarks, even at one point eating ice-cream with Lenin in the café Demel.

We don’t, however, eat chocolate cake in the Hotel Sacher, an experience I now have such a yearning to repeat. This might actually be doable in 2016,  as I now discover it’s cheaper to fly from Edinburgh to Vienna than to travel by train to London ….

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Short Stories from And Other Stories

I enjoyed Angela Readman’s short story Don’t Try This At Home when I shadowed the Costa Short Story Award in 2013. Although I didn’t pick it as my winner, I can say 2 years on, that it is the only story of the 6 that I remember. Not hard to do, this tale of a woman cloning her man, by slicing him in half every time she needs more from him, is pretty unforgettable, and is now the lead story in Readman’s first published collection. The story in which she won the Costa Short Story Award in 2014, The Keeper of the Jackalopes, is also included here.

Mixing the everyday with the fantastical, this is a collection to whizz through. By turns sad (the girl condemned to be a circus freak, the club-footed hunchback sent to live with the witch in the wood); by turns quirky and macabre (nothing more so than the lead title); by turns thought-provoking (just how would you react if a homeless old woman knew everything about you?). Always entertaining and very visual. You don’t read this pages, you watch them. No better way to expose the prejudices at the heart of many of these tales. Give me more!

Ivan Vladislavíc’s 101 Detectives could be a much more intellectual exercise. I’ll quote for a moment from the dustjacket. “Each story can be read as just that – a story – or you can dig a little deeper. take a closer look, examine the artifact from all angles and consider the clues and patterns contained within”.

I’ll save all that for a reread because first time through I was too busy enjoying myself. I wouldn’t say that every story hit the spot but the majority did. I loved the twist in the tail of the 101 Detectives, the dismount of the corporate ladder in Exit Strategy (was I meant to LOL reading this?) and the utter absurdity of the Industrial Theatre caused by the launch of the Ford Kafka. (As you can imagine lots of intertextuality to admire here!)

My favourite stories came towards the end; The Reading which charts the breakdown of the translator, as the author reads a harrowing account of her past, and The Trunks – A Complete History in which a dead man’s papers are retained for years by one hoarder after the next in the vain hope that a) they will be read and b) turned into a biography.

I recognise all the arguments but they have yet to subscribe wholeheartedly with the message of Claude’s trunks:

They were more than a warning about a debilitating fascination with the leavings of one life …… They were a prophecy of the distasteful end that awaits all those who set too much store by the written word. The pointlessness of paper.

Regardless, this collection has got me thinking and excited. Not at the prospect of the amount of paper material I will discard once the logic has permeated my brain cells, but at the amount of pleasure to come. Vladislavíc, although new to me, is an established multi-award winning South African author. & Other Stories publish a number of his novels, including The Restless Supermarket. Who can resist a title like that? Not me.

Don’t Try This At Home  4stars.GIF / 101 Detectives 4stars.GIF

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Thankfully German Literature Month (GLM) starts on Saturday and that will give me time to review some of the books I read in preparation. (4 completed and pictured with just 50 pages to go of a 1000-page extravaganza).  I kept myself reasonably up-to-date review-wise during September, but October whizzed by in a flurry of flu, a renovation project and an unrelated broken boiler that caused far more disruption than they should have, plus house guests from Canada. (Fortunately house was rendered habitable just-in-time for their arrival.) Given that I just wanted to read in downtime, I’m afraid reviews of October’s non-GLM books and activities shall be confined to the following summaries.

Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of short stories, Stone Mattress, is all kinds of magnificence. I could tell she was enjoying herself writing these.  They are playful, exuberant, full of wicked wit and an absolute joy to read.  If you need more detail, see Victoria’s review at Shiny New Books.  I agree with every word. My only regret is that I read a library book. I now want my own copy. Five_Stars.GIF

Nathan Filer’s The Shock of The Fall, winner of the 2013 Costa Book of the Year is another reading highlight.  A dead cert to win my tearjerker award of the year.  I haven’t had such a cathartic sob for years!  Five_Stars.GIF

Oh yes, North Lanarkshire’s Encounters Festival was held during October also.  And Nathan Filer appeared at it!  Interesting questions and experiences from the audience who were more concerned with the mental health issues than the literary aspects of the novel. 

Then there was the 10th anniversary of my book group which was celebrated with cake, cava and a visit from the Scottish crime writer and co-founder of Bloody Scotland, Lin Anderson.   Don’t we look pre-cava pretty?

I’ll confess to not having read Anderson before the event but I was absolutely blown away by the opening chapter of Picture Her Dead.  Best 1st chapter of the year … and the rest of the novel is pretty darn good as well. It’s the 8th in her Rhona McCleod series – not that it matters.  I had to read it as a stand-alone, and it works as such. Who knew there were so many disused cinemas in Glasgow or that they would spawn such an intrigung premise for a crime novel!  The only downside is that I now want to start reading the series from the beginning.  But do I have the time to add another 7 novels to my 1000+ TBR?  Rhetorical question.  The answer is no but I will read number 9 sooner rather than later. 4_stars.GIF

So there you have it, proof that Murphy’s law does indeed exist. In a period when I had precious little time for blogging, I read three books which will doubtless appear in my best of year list. 

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