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Simon and Karen are once more hosting an event based on the books written in one particular year.  This time it’s 1951.   I’ve read a selection of books from that year, though it appears most were pre-blog. For example:

Suspicion – Friedrich Dürrenmatt

The End of the Affair – Graham Greene

Mist over Pendle – Robert Neill (Must read for Lancastrians.)

The Catcher in the Rye – R D Salinger

The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1951 was also the year in which Dennis the Menace made his first appearance!

And yet, I don’t get the impression that it was such a tremendous year for fiction. Only the Wyndham in the list above knocked my socks off.  Many of the authors I’m interested in didn’t publish that year.  Neither have Persephone Books published anything from 1951. Still I have put together a capsule TBR now vying for my attention.  Perhaps these books will change my mind about 1951 in general.

Given the imminent film release, I’ve started with Du Maurier ….

I have returned to the cold, grey skies of Scotland after a hectic but satisfying fortnight in the warm, blue skies of Germany where there is a beautiful spring in progress. (Sigh) You guessed that much, but to which cities did my four travelling companions accompany me?

1) Berlin – Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear is partly set in Berlin, and you could say that I was partly there too. My stop-over lasted a couple of hours – enough time to transfer from airport to railway station, grab lunch and snap a covert picture of the Reichstag. It’s there on the left.

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2) Leipzig – I was on my way to the Leipzig Book Fair, which is quite unlike any Book Fair I’ve previously visited. Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Sand was the 2012 winner of The Leipzig Book Fair Prize and Clara Schumann, the heroine (for heroine she was) of Janice Galloway’s Clara was born there.

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3) Bonn – Clara’s husband, Robert Schumann, died in a mental instition in Endenich, Bonn. The city is also the location of Heinrich Böll”s most popular novel The Clown (and the Bönnscher Brewery. 😊 )

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Reviews of the Leipzig Book Fair and three novels to follow.

I reviewed Clara back in 2007  when it deservedly became my Book of the Year. In the meantime I have travelled extensively round Germany and seen many of the places Clara Schumann lived and worked, and that really augmented this long overdue reread. I didn’t intend for this trip to become a Clara Schumann memorial tour, but in many ways that is what it became. Places I visited in Leipzig: the Gewandhaus, the concert hall where she played her first concert at age 9; the church where she married in Schönefeld, and her first marital home at Inselstrasse 32. In Düsseldorf her final marital home at Bilker Strasse 15.

Not that you need to have seen these places to appreciate Galloway’s wonderful novel, but they show how modestly the Schumanns and their huge brood lived despite their superstar status,  and how their histories have been sanitised. You’d be hard pressed to detect any kind of struggle in their lives at all. I can only recommend you read Galloway’s novel to discover the real-life passion and the pain in the life of a creative genius.

I like to take reading material related to my destinations when I travel, and these are the companions I have chosen for my current trip. So where am I going? All is likely to be revealed on Twitter in the next few days. In the meantime, the blog will be taking a breather. Back soon.

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These four books represent a 3 city tour

Let me start with my final event at this year’s AyeWrite, which featured two ex-journalists turned crime writers (Craig Robertson and Stav Sherez) both explaining that journalistic time pressures turned them away from their original trade. That pieces are frequently published that could be improved if time would just permit.

This preamble serves as an explanation as to why I can only provide this quick roundup of this year’s festival. Time for blogging has been scarce – reading and attending literary events does that, funnily enough.  And that is set to continue.  In the meantime I present the books I read for AyeWrite 2017 …..

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…. bookended by two novels of epic proportions.

Starting from the bottom, Stef Penney’s eagerly anticipated 3rd novel, Under a Pole Star. Set in the mid-19th century, it is her paeon to the golden age of polar exploration but with a female lead explorer. Not historically accurate then. Still it is full of good things: exemplary descriptions of the arctic landscape, an intriguing investigation of the Innuit way of life, which had/has (?) no notion of privacy (solitude in such a climate inevitably meaning death), competitive rivalries between explorers seeking to make their name. All of which I found fascinating. BUT there’s a love affair and explicit scenes that I wish she (or her editor) had excluded. (And I said as much at the event.) Such content serves no purpose in a literary novel. Leave it to Harold Robbins or Jilly Cooper. Or have some kind of advisory note for the reader.

Actually the second epic demonstrates just how a great love can been portrayed (and understood by the reader) without recourse to extended XX-rated scenes. I finally read Dr Zhivago, now marketed as the greatest love story ever told, before attending the author’s grand-niece’s event. Anna Pasternak was presenting her book Lara, The Untold Love Story that Inspired Doctor Zhivago, and she spoke with more passion than I’ve ever seen an author display before. In biographies of Boris Pasternak, Olga Ivinskaya has been dismissed as a non-entity, of no importance. That’s the official line of the Pasternak family, whose purpose it serves to ignore her. Anna Pasternak is on a mission to rectify that. In fact, she argues that without Olga, Dr Zhivago would not have been completed. She made clear that Olga paid a heavy price for her love of Boris Pasternak, and suffered in ways that could have been avoided, had he behaved differently. “I don’t forgive him for that”, she said, “but I do understand him.”

Now I had resolved not to buy any books at this year’s festival, but that statement served the bait that hooked me. More bait in that it analyses biographical parallels and their influences on the novel. Which may help me because my reading of Dr Zhivago wasn’t issue free – particularly in relation to character development. More to follow once I’ve read Lara.

2nd from the top is Ron Butlin’s latest Billionaire’s Banquet. I’ve been on a mission to read all of Butlin’s prose since I was bowled over by The Sound of My Voice. According to its strapline Billionaire’s Banquet is an immorality tale for the 21st century. Make of that what you will! It is the story of how Hume (a unemployed philosopher), St. Francis (an ex-seminarian), and the Cat (a mathematician) become successful, but in order to do so, they must lose their moral compass and their absolute values. The novel starts in 1985 (mid-point of the Thatcher years, when the rich were getting richer and the poorer, including our main characters, poorer), jumps to 2005 (the year Scotland hosted of the G8 summit), before jumping again to 2016. In 1985 the 3 characters are sharing an Edinburgh tenement flat – one the author once lived in, though hopefully not in an understairs cupboard like his character Hume! By 2016, they are … that would be telling because those circumstances are made possible by the pivotal events of 2005, including the Billionaire’s Banquet of the title.

After establishing a successful butler service for the rich of Edinburgh’s New Town, Hume finds himself hosting this highly symbolic fundraiser, attended by Edinburgh’s hoi polloi. Ten lucky donors will receive refunds, and dine like billionaires, while the remainder will feed on rice and water, as a reminder that the rich feed off the poor. Unfortunately for Hume the event coincides with the London Bombing, and activists, in Edinburgh for the G8 summit, are outraged that the event is not cancelled to respect the dead. Hume is sabotaged by both external forces and internal – the hoi polloi are not as decorous you would expect –  and the resulting descent into mayhem is a hilarious and merciless piece of satire.

It also left me wondering at what point an immorality tale becomes an ammorality tale? Perhaps Hume, once he pins down Kant’s Perpetual Peace, would answer that?

In amongst the naughtiness and (advisory note alert) much profanity in the first two sections, the philosophy and the social politics (both – thankfully – worn lightly) is a portrait of the changing face of the Scottish capital. The Edinburgh of 1985 is markedly different from that of 2016, and the differences are documented, I suspect, quite thoroughly over the course of the novel. At times I was unsure whether Butlin was celebrating or lamenting, (perhaps both) but I can see myself using Billionaire’s Banquet as an unconventional travel guide during a future excursion.

Finally I was delighted that Stav Sherez was invited to AyeWrite! It provided the impetus to acquaint myself with his much lauded Carrigan and Miller series – starting with book 3. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do this. I think it gives too much away about book 2. That said,The Intrusions is an unsettling read, based on the realities of the web, as we possibly don’t know them. Well, maybe we suspect them, given recent reports of how smart devices on the internet of things can be used to spy on individuals.

The intrusions occur when a “ratter” uses RATs (remote access trojans) to not only to spy on his victims but to play mindgames, to bully and intimidate. Once he has broken them down, he claims them and kills them horribly. The novel is a police procedural which follows detective sergeant, Geneva Muller, as she races to establish pattern, motive, and to fathom out the technology, not just to get one step ahead, but to avoid becoming the the next victim. There are internal pressures too. An audit has been instigated as a result of anomalies in the previous case, and the career of her boss, Jack Carrigan, is on the line.

I’m not yet invested in Jack Carrigan. That will most likely change when I’ve read the first two novels. For me the fascination of The Intrusions was the technology. The novel is a showcase for tools, some possibly imaginary (though I suspect not) that can both enable crime and prevent it – but at what cost to our privacy?  Or is privacy just an illusion these days?

Question from audience: Did your research change your behaviour? “Yes,”said Sherez. “There’s always a piece of blue-tac over the camera on my computer when I’m working.” And that’s why there’s now a piece over the camera on my device as I type this.

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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

Subtitled Or Something to Do with Books

It was the subtitle that reeled me in.  I dived in expecting this to be full of nostalgia for the books that influenced the 1972 Nobel Laureate. There is some of that but it is not the main focus. Set in the years 1933 -1937, this is a memoir of Böll’s formative schooldays which just happened to coincide with the years in which the Nazis consolidated their powerbase.  So fond school memories, with which Böll begins most chapters, are soon related to the background. There are bigger isues to deal with.

Written some 45 years after the events, Böll is careful not to let hindsight impinge on the story.  His aim is to describe the boy he was and the family he belonged to together with the impact that events had on their lives and the city they lived in (Cologne). The book ends very specifically on February 6, 1937, the day Böll graduated from high school, but he makes no other claims to historical accuracy with regard to the chronology of events. As he says, all his notes were destroyed during the war.

Böll’s family was Catholic with bohemian leanings and a natural aversion to Nazism. Outsiders though not belonging to any persecuted minority. They did not join the Party, did not attend rallies and, for a while at least, did not have to compromise. At school Böll was bored and, often played truant with his mother’s collusion, bicycling through the Rhine valley, often with a girl for company. When he did attend school, he studied Mein Kampf in great detail …

Our teacher, Mr Schmitz, a man of penetrating, witty, dry irony … used the hallowed text of Adolf Hitler the writer to demonstrate the importance of concise expression, known also as brevity. This meant that we had to take four or five pages from Mein Kampf and reduce them to two.

Thus, says Böll, not entirely tongue in cheek, I can thank Adolf Hitler the writer for some qualification to be a publisher’s reader and a liking for brevity.

If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, these would have been an idyllic few years. But the face of the German world was changing and Böll’s memoir conveys the shock of the general populace by events in 1933 such as the burning of the Reichstag, the signing of the Concordat (described by Böll as a body-blow) and the execution of alleged Communist conspirators in Cologne. Still the hope that Hitler wouldn’t last long died on June 1934 with the Röhm putsch. It was the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.

As the Nazi grip tightened, and the family finances deteriorated because Böll’s tradesman father couldn’t obtain any contracts, it was decided that material survival took priority over political survival, and that one member of the family had to join a Nazi organisation. His elder brother, Alois, was elected by the family council. Alois never really forgave them for it, even though in those early National Socialist years there were way of bribing your way out of the obligatory duties

The family’s biggest worry though was what’s to become of the boy? They all knew that Hitler meant war. Böll talks about his generation being schooled for death, the greatest honour being to die for the Fatherland. Which profession would offer a safety blanket? The priesthood? But Böll had discovered the opposite sex and was not willing. So with membership of the Nazi Labour Front an inevitability, Böll decided to do something with books and obtained an apprenticeship in a quiet, non-Nazi bookstore.

As the memoir ends, the illusion of remaining an outsider prevails. Böll has dodged a metaphorical bullet. As history shows, he wouldn’t be so lucky dodging the real ones which began to fly just two years later.

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December 2017 marks the centenary of Böll’s birth, so to commemorate the event, I intend to work my way through Melville House Publishing’s Essential Böll Series.  I started with the memoir to have a biographical reference point when (re-)reading his fiction.

About 12 years ago I started my 20th Century Challenge – to read 100 authors, one book for each year of the 20th century. The idea was to complete it by the time I turned 50.  Then I started this blog and got distracted.  The new deadline is to finish the project in the next 18 months (or by the time I hit 60).  If all my choices are as delightful as the 1917 entry, the prequel to Morley’s more famous The Haunted Bookshop,  then this won’t be any hardship.

imageParnassus on Wheels is a delicious bibliophilic delight with none of the cloying sweetness I’ve tasted in other book of this nature.

Miss Helen Mcgill lives on the farm with her brother Andrew. When he become an author, he  neglects his farmer’s duties, and Helen finds herself running the farm as well as the household. Naturally she resents this, so when she is given an unexpected opportunity to escape she takes it.

One day, out of the blue, Mr Roger Mifflin shows up with his horse-drawn travelling bookshop, the eponymous Parnassus on Wheels.  He has decided that life on the road is too lonely and is hoping to sell his business to Andrew.  But Andrew is not at home.  Helen is, and she is in the mood for an adventure.

An avid reader herself, she believes that

When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.

When she buys herself the Parnassus, she buys herself a whole new life.  She sets off with Mr Roger Mifflin, who will first train her in the art of preaching the gospel of good books before he catches his train back to New York.  Now he could sell coal to a coalman whereas Helen has no natural patter and a knowledge of the book trade that is less than encyclopaedic. Still she shows promise. A series of misadventures, however, results in an extension of her apprenticeship, during which Roger and Helen become unwittingly fond of each other.  Though they don’t recognise it until the machinations of her brother, incandescent at losing his unpaid skivy, threaten to deprive Roger of his freedom.  It is now Helen’s turn to ride to the rescue.

This a charming romantic comedy between an unlikely couple: Helen, a matter-of-fact spinster approaching middle-age and Roger,  a funny looking-man with a red beard, who, for all his salesmanship, might possibly read more books than he sells.  Set in a world in which the First World War had yet to encroach although there is a light-touch political undertone regarding the revolt of womenhood as Miss Helen McGill strikes out for the right to make her own decisions.  Three cheers for her and for the man who enables and defends her right to do so, Mr Roger Mifflin! While we’re cheering another three for all the books they discuss along the way!

What is it about February?  Last year I had 6 DNFs in total, 3 of them in February.  If the pattern holds, there will be 8 DNFs this year. Yes, there were 4 this month.  I don’t usually name DNFs, but I must mention one, simply because finding a what seemed to me perfect summary in the novel I read immediately afterwards, is a coincidence not to be ignored.

Firstly, the critique of one of the novels shortlisted for The Prize in Filippo Bologna’s The Parrots:

Yours is a very special  book, almost  a kind of prose poem, with an epigrammatic, fragmentary quality that somehow magically creates unity

Yes, I thought that fits Saša Stanišić’s International Dublin Literary Award longlisted Before The Feast.  Of course, it’s already won a host of other literary awards, but at 100 pages,  it was taking an age to go anywhere.  And its tricksiness was such that I actually despaired of there being any destination at all, so it was time to give up.  Tellingly though I also DNF’d his multi -award winning debut.  I guess we’re just not compatible.

Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, also longlisted for the International Dublin Literary award, was another disappointment.  I was expecting great things given the love for her in the blogosphere. It’s always a risk when a novel follows two characters going their separate ways.  What if one character’s journey is more interesting than the other’s?  Well, that’s exactly what happened here.  The wife stays behind to forge a career in Victorian mental institutions (interesting), while the husband goes on an extended trip to Japan, and falls in love with its culture and craftsmanship.  Chapter after chapter, full of descriptions of beautiful artifacts.  And then more of the same for good measure – or so it seemed.  To say it dragged is an understatement.

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Books read February 2017

Unlike the two Japanese novellas that kicked off Pushkin Press fortnight.  Things picked up from that point on and this then became the month that just kept giving!   Firstly I created Pushkin Press Corner which, now that I can see my entire Pushkin Press TBR at a glance, has triggered a project that will see me circumnavigate the world at least twice reading only titles from the Pushkin Press catalogue. I read and reviewed eight books in the fortnight, “travelling” from Japan to Spain via Russia, Israel, Austria and Italy.  Anyone care to work out the airmiles?

While I didn’t visit Germany with Pushkin Press due to the Stanišić DNF, I did so anyway thanks to David Young’s thriller Stasi Wolf.  No lack of action or movement to report in those pages!

Total YTD: 22 read, 4 DNF
Totals for February 2017:10 read, 4 DNF
Reviews February 2017: 9

Stasi Wolf – David Young
The Hunting Gun / Bullfight – Yasushi Inoue
Rasputin and Other Ironies – Teffi
One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
The Last Days – Laurent Seksik
The Governess and Other Stories – Stefan Zweig
The Parrots – Filippo Bologna
Things Look Different In The Light – Medardo Fraile

Book of the Month: This is only the second month of choosing a book of the month and I’m beginning to regret the idea.  I suspect 3 of the Pushkin Books will make my best of year awards – Seksik, for saddest book, Bologna for best satire and Fraile for short stories. But if there has to be a book of the month, then Medardo Fraile’s brilliant collection convinced me that I did, in fact, save the best till last.