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imageThis Is Where I Am – Karen Campbell (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Well done, book group.  I could not have have started the 2015 reading year in better fashion.  This is Where I Am is a rivetting novel that I urge everyone to read – especially if you are from Glasgow.

It is the story of two people starting from a personal ground zero.  Deborah is a recently bereaved widow who volunteers at the Scottish Refugee Council in an effort to fill her time. Abdi is an asylum seeker from Somalia who has arrived in Glasgow with his 4 year-old daughter, Rebecca.  We do not know what has happened to bring him here, but we do know his daughter stopped speaking following the loss of her mother.

Deborah is assigned to Abdi as a mentor.  Her role isn’t just to guide him through the process of applying for refugee status.  She is to show him the city that may become his home and help him adjust to his new existence. It’s not plain sailing.  First there is the physical reality. “There are not that many tall, black men in Glasgow”.  Abdi is conspicuous. Glasgow has its fair share of rascists and Abdi is targeted.  Secondly, the mental trauma of the past. A series of flashbacks reveal the reasons for Abdi asylum seeking status and his daughter’s silence.  Thirdly, the trials of a bureaucratic system, designed, at times, to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from making progress.

Deborah too has much to learn.  She is financially comfortable but the long years of caring for her husband have left her isolated. So the volunteer work is a first step into reconnecting with society.  Perhaps for this reason, she invests more in the relationship with Abdi and his daughter than I would have expected, though it’s fortunate for them that she becomes a friend who cares, despite the emotional scars and cultural minefields that must be negotiated.

You could say that this is a political novel and, in these days when – shall we say – foreigner-bashing is becoming increasingly prevalent, it will make some question their preconceptions. However, in no way is this a didactic read.  It is a humane story of reentry into society.

It is also a portrait of a city. Each chapter begins with the description and history of a place, whether that be one of Glasgow’s iconic sites, such as the Kelvingrove museum, or one of the less touristy spots, such as Leverndale mental hospital. They are all places where Deborah and Abdi meet and the descriptions serve to show the contrast and colour of Scotland’s largest city.  The same is true of the demography.  The supporting cast is just as varied.  For every obnoxious rascist (and one is particularly beyond the pale), there is a warm, generous-hearted Glaswegian.   For every hypocritical professional cum politician, there is a sincere man of the streets.  For every asylum seeker who succeeds, three fail with differing fates awaiting them.

Campbell is not just showing where Abdi is, but how it is, and it’s not always pretty. It is an emotionally honest novel, uncomfortable in places. Campbell does give us an ambiguously happy ending (you have to read it) but at the cost of an unfeasible plot twist.  (My only criticism.)

That said, this doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the novel at all.  Primarily due to the language.  Whether it be Glaswegian banter in a supermarket fishmongery, impenetrable bureaucratic jargon, or the bemused misunderstanding of someone coming to terms with English idiom, the pitch is flawless and frequently hilarious.

Her Sunday School teacher told her she was a ‘mucky pup’ after craft-time, when she had glue on her hair and chin  I looked up “pup’ in my dictionary afterwards – it means young dog.  She called my little girl an animal!

Fortunately Abdi realises this is not an insult and adopts it as his daughter’s nickname. Lovely, isn’t it? Just another of this novel’s many endearing features.


Winner of the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
Translated by Anne McLean

This novel first came to my notice at last year’s Ayewrite! Festival when Kamila Shamsie extolled its virtues.  It then went on to win the IMPAC. As I’m about to start reading the TBR books longlisted for this year’s prize, I thought it would best to read last year’s winner first.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. It was a pleasant surprise, I hasten to add. I think I was expecting the horrors of a political dictatorship. No idea why (something to do with Vásquez’s previous novel, The Informers, perhaps?) In many ways though, it is about dictatorship, albeit the dictatorship of post traumatic stress disorder.

The narrator, Antonio, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He barely survives an assassination in which his companion, the target, is killed. As the two men were in the early stages of a tentative friendship, not much is known about why someone would want Ricardo Laverde dead. Except that he had just been released from a 19 year imprisonment.  There is also the mystery surrounding the recording that reduced Ricardo to tears shortly before his death.

Antonio is deeply traumatised and, following a lengthy convalescence, becomes obsessed with discovering the whys and wherefores.  This search, while understandable, is full of personal risk. His partner is beginning to weary of his post-incident  preoccupations and Ricardo Laverde’s past can be nothing but murky.

So it proves to be, and, within the context of Colombian 20th century history, this inevitably involves the drugs trade. Vásquez takes us back to the time when it all began; when it appeared harmless. The contemporary narrative post dates the era of notorious drug baron, Pablo Escobar – his ranch is already lying in ruins –  but the ongoing and murderous effects of his legacy are all too clear.

Two families are ruined by it. It is the human interest in these stories that form the heart of the novel, and make it beat.  That and the tour of Columbia, from the streets of Bogota through the mountains to La Dorada in the hot and sticky Magdalena Valley. Vásquez never takes us into the seedy drug dens or the world of the addict.  He has no need.  There is drama aplenty. For Columbia also has a legacy of fatal air accidents and Ricardo Laverde’s life is irrevocably coloured by the fallout from two of these. The sounds on the tape mentioned earlier are of his future falling apart.  As Antonio’s quest progresses, patterns in his life begin to mirror those in Ricardo’s – to the point that he, too, is left in possession of the sounds of his own life falling into the abyss.

35_stars.GIF

I have too many books.

I know this because  a) books go missing and remain lost and b) 2014 was the year I lost control of the TBR (I couldn’t keep my catalogue on librarything up-to-date) and c) I face analysis paralysis deciding which book to read next and then when I do, I can’t find it, bringing me full circle to a).

I was going to post a picture of my physical library to demonstrate the sorry state of affairs, but it is a disgrace, a battleground no less. Gone are the days of the pleasant reading space.  These days I must cut a swathe through the book stacks, risking life and limb, or more likely concussion, just to find a reading seat.

Woodcut from Swift’s Battle of the Books

In 1704, there were similar scenes of aggression in St James’s library, although the battle was not between books and reader.  It was a civil war between ancient and modern books. Did the Ancients contain everything one needed to know, or did one need the Moderns?  Could the Moderns claim superiority when they were standing on the shoulders of giants?  Were the Moderns deserving of the shelf space they occupied in the King’s Library? 

Jonathan Swift satirises the controversy then raging in European circles by pitching the books and their authors against each other in an epic battle, replete with sabre-rattling, insults and side skirmishes. The argument had started in France with Fontanelle arguing for the Moderns.  Sir William Temple countered robustly on behalf of the Ancients.  Considering he was working as Temple’s secretary at the time, Swift showed considerable panache/courage/bravery satirising the controversy, and you might think that the outcome was a given.  Indeed the narrator does at times show Temple’s bias: The army of the  Moderns

Consisting chiefly of lighthorse, heavy-armed foot and mercenaries – whereof the foot were in general but sorrily armed and worse clad, their horses large, but extremely out of case and heart. However, some few by trading among the Ancients had furnished themselves tolerably enough.

However, Swift gives his text the feel of an ancient manuscript, feigning missing lines, sections and ultimately, leaving the battle unfinished.  The argument is for others to win, not the satirist.

Now I’m no expert on either the Ancients or Swift’s 15th-17th century Moderns, and so I cannot comment on the outcomes of the duels as they occur in The Battle of the Books.  Nor can I say I’m particularly curious to investigate in detail.  However, it strikes me that the argument is timeless.  In my library, contemporary literature could well be slugging it out with the literature of the 18th-20th centuries.  I might spend some time during 2015 setting up a similar battle. A mini tournament of books if you will. But first I have to identify (and find) the champions for either side.

I have girded my loins and donned protective headgear.  I’m going in …

… guaranteeing carnage in the form of a cull.

 

This was 2014

I’m not doing an eclectic “best of” this year because my reading patterns are changing.

I’m finding that instead of reading more widely, I’m reading more deeply – picking a theme and staying with it for 1,2,3 or even more books. It’s a pattern likely to continue throughout 2015.

As will most likely my picking of reading material associated with travelling. I did a lot of that during 2014: holidays,  weekends and days away, attendance at literary festivals and ad-hoc events.  It didn’t seem to rain as much in Scotland this year. (Long may that continue.)  Loved it all and hope for more of the same next year.  Less reading time converted into  15 books/5000 pages fewer than last year though surprisingly I wrote the same amount of blog posts. (93 to last year’s 91).  I’ve enjoyed 2014 in ways other than having my nose stuck in a book (gasp!)  and the following list of favourites are inevitably associated with some of that.  They haven’t been picked solely on the basis of their literary merit.

That said, I’ll start with my favourite (and best, in every sense of the word ) book of the year.

For the second year in a row, I’ve found my Book of The Year during German Literature Month.  Though this one is neither  written in German, nor is it literature, but Neil McGregor’s Germany: Memories of A Nation is a work of genius.  Not just for Germanophiles, but more than likely to be.  It just pipped Rory McLean’s Berlin: Imagine A Citywhich I read while there, into second place.  McLean’s book sparked a reading project to follow Berlin through the ages via fiction.  That turned out to be a great idea.  The first novel I picked up in this project, Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, just happens to be my Novel of The Year.  Staying in Berlin a little while longer, Ben Fergusson’s The Spring of Kasper Meier, set amidst the devastion of Berlin in 1946,  conjured the best evocation of place.

A cracking debut novel it is too, yet not my debut of the year.  That rosette is embossed with Sarah Maine’s Bhalla Stranda Victorian saga and another novel I picked up to coincide with my travels, this time to the Hebrides. I was superglued to its pages.

Now that we’re in Scotland,  one of my highlights of the year was participating in the Read Scotland challenge.  (The only one I completed as it turned out.)  Although intending to continue reading one Scottish book a month through 2015, not many of the 15 Scottish novels I read in 2014 make it to this list.  It appears that the Read Scotland Challenge was an accumulative pleasure.  I will mention Lin Anderson’s crime novel Pictures of the Dead, set in the derelict cinemas in Glasgow though.  Hands down, best first chapter and my favourite crime novel of my year.

The other Scottish call-out goes to R L Stevenson, whose A Child’s Garden of Verses charmed the socks off me …. and added him to my completist reading list.

Elena Ferrante was also added to that list; My Brillant Friend, as brilliant as everyone says it is.  Novels 2 and 3 not hitting the same heights.  Addictive nonetheless and I’m looking forward to the final volume of the quartet in 2015 (hopefully).

While supporting #readwomen2014, I concentrated on the ladies on my completist list.  My favourite from this selection was Margaret Atwood’s short story anthology Stone Mattress, which I didn’t review in full because Victoria did such a splendiferous job on Shiny New Books (winner of my best newcomer award. :) ). I was relieved to see Atwood back on top form as Maddaddam was a DNF earlier in the year.  Stone Mattress is currently longlisted for the Folio Prize as is Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf In Manhattan, the most imaginative homage I’ve read to date.

Each year I have a standard goal to read 33% in translations.  Last year, thanks mainly to the Simenon reissues and German Literature Month I’m just over 50%.  Yet only 2 of the books mentioned so far are translations (which is rather telling).  So let me give Yogo Ogawa’s short-story collection Revenge an honourable mention as it was in the running  for both Favourite Translated Fiction (edged out by Baum) and Favourite Short Story Collection (edged out by Atwood).

Finally, the book that was most fun was built on the idiosyncrasies of  German compound nouns and written by a non-German speaker.  Schottenfreude, was exactly that, a joy from start to finish and the most beautifully designed to boot.

———-

For the purists

5-star reads of 2014 (7/86)
Stone Mattress: Margaret Atwood, Grand Hotel – Vicki Baum,  The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer, The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey, The Boat – Nam Le,   Germany: Memories of A Nation – Neil McGregor, Schottenfreude: German Words for the Human Condition – Ben Schott.

4.5 star reads of 2014 (2/86)
Schroder – Amity Gaige, Revenge – Yogo Ogawa

Complete reading list with ratings

—–

For the statisticians

Male:female reading list ratio 43:42 (1 mixed anthology)
Male:female favourites ratio 5:7

Fiction:non-fiction reading list ratio  76:10
Fiction:non-fiction favourites ratio 9:3

Anglophone:translated fiction reading list ratio (includes poetry) 35:37
Anglophone:translated fiction favourites ratio (includes poetry) 6:3

Published 2014: published pre-2014 ratio 40:46
Published 2014: published pre-2014 favourites ratio 6:6

New-to-me:Previously read authors reading list ratio 43:27
New-to-me:previously read authors favourites ratio 9:3

Review copy:Purchase:Library Book Ratio 40:42:4

This is where I thank the OUP blog for alerting me to the Radio 4 series compiled by the Director of The British Museum, Dr Neil McGregor and seeking to distil 600 years of German history into 30×15 minute episodes. (The series is still available on iplayer for another 12 months, if you’re so inclined.)

The premise, which enables such concision, is the exploration of German history and culture through objects: one iconic object per episode. The series begins with the Brandenburg Gate and ends, completing its circle, with the Reichstag.  Inbetween there is a diverse mix of the great (Charlemagne’s crown) the good (Barlach’s Angel), the small (the coins of the Holy Roman Empire) the seemingly insignificant (a diving costume),the literary (Christa Wolf’s debut novel) and the absolutely essential (beer and sausages) … although not a mention of toasted almonds.  Tut, tut.

As brilliant as the series is, I found myself a little frustrated.  I am a visual communicator and I needed to see these artifacts. Without the time to visit London to see the special exhibition at the British Museum (on until 25.01.2015), I decided to treat myself to the accompanying book.  (At £30 it wasn’t cheap, but it was affordable and worth every penny.) I continued listening to the radio as I paged through the chapters, reading the more detailed text simultaneously   Pictures I wanted, and I was rewarded with a visual banquet  … of everything imaginable.  Maps of Germany through the ages, portraits, sculptures, historical documents, objects of state, domestic artifacts. Tales of grandeur, tales of the everyday.  Surprises.  For example: I had no idea Germany used to stretch – legitimately – into Russia or that Kant never left Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and so never set foot in the Germany of today. I hesitated only as the dark chapters of the 20th century approached but even here McGregor provided details that are stranger than fiction such as the irony of design in the Buchenwald concentration camp gate. 

History has never been so immersive.. Nor do I think this book will be consigned to the shelves to gather dust.  I’m pretty sure it will serve as a springboard to more German history and a contextualising reference to further German literature reading from this point on.

Five_Stars.GIF

Just in case you missed it, 2014 was the 25th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the publication of Fiona Rintoul’s debut novel which takes us back to the GDR in 1985 is well-timed.

Magda is a student linguist, desperate to escape along with her lover, Marek.  She’s not adverse to sleeping her way to freedom, if that’s what it takes.  So when Robert, a Scottish student studying for his Ph.D at Leipzig University arrives, she sees a means to an end.  He falls in love.  Both are double-crossed and must bear the wrath of the state.  In Magda’s case brutally. In Robert’s case, no less ruthlessly. That, however, is only half of the story. Years later, long after the Wall has disappeared, the truth of what happened in Leipzig is finally revealed.

The first half of the novel takes place when the GDR was firmly in the grip of communism.  While there is some freedom of movement and some black marketeering, the illusion of freedom is just that.  Every move is monitored and every life controlled.  The bluff and double-bluffs of the dissidents are more than matched by the Stasi. Magda might think she knows who is spying on her and who she can trust, but does she?  Enemies in plain sight are always the best camoflagued.

Robert’s story is just as interesting.  Why does a Scot studying at St. Andrews transfer to Leipzig in the mid-1980’s?  How do subsequent events scar him for life, lead him to a life of excess in the City, ultimately forcing him back to Germany to face his demons? 

Germanophiles will love this novel for its realistic depiction of the sinister heart of the GDR and for the truth that lives weren’t miraculously healed when the Wall fell.  Those less preoccupied with German history will enjoy the mystery at its core.  I did figure it out but only a couple of sentences before the reveal.

Rintoul deservedly won the Sceptre Prize and The Virginia Prize for Fiction with this novel.  I look forward to her second.

4_stars.GIF

 

The second novel in my Berlin through the ages themed read takes place in 1946, just after the war, when Berlin lay in ruins. In fact, the depiction of Berlin at that time is so good, that I would award The Spring of Kasper Meier an honorary membership of German Trümmerliteratur, were it within my gift to do so!

They arrived at the back of the Reich Chancellery and stopped on the corner of Voßstraße. Standing side by side they looked across the barren grounds that had once been the Chancellery’s garden. surrounded by thin barbed wire in a meagre effort to deter souvenir hunters,it was now a strange landscape of charred trees, scrap metal and fallen stone. The concrete masses of the exploded bunker, with their intensely black shadows, appeared like a geometric puzzle – an upturned cube, a cylinder, a cone. Behind it, the Chancellery itself had retained only a few solid buildings, lne rooms amid rows of ruined walls, like broken teeth.

in the midst of this desolation, Kasper Meier is eking out a living on the black market as he tries to feed his elderly father and himself. His network of contacts is such that there is very little that escapes him or that he cannot find out should he have need of it. He soon does. Into his life walks Eva, who is trying to trace a British soldier. Meier, who wants to keep away from both the politics of post-war Berlin, and any association with the wave of murders of occupying forces, refuses to engage, only to find himself threatened with blackmail. For he, like everyone else, has secrets, which in the wrong hands could spell disaster.

Thus begins his search, not only for the British soldier, but, also for Eva’s mysterious employer, the ever pervasive Frau Beckmann. Kasper may kid himself that he is seeking to protect Eva, but there is a fair dose of self-preservation in his motivation. This path is fraught with danger for the occupying forces are hostile. Frau Beckmann also has two protective protegés, the twins Hans and Lena. More chilling psychopaths I have yet to encounter.

There is a sticky web of deceit at the heart of the plot, which is full of page-turning suspense. Yet the real strength lies in the the historical detail.  Fergusson’s interest in the city of this period was sparked by the scars on buildings that remain visible to this day.  Four years of resultant research has enabled him to recreate both the everyday and the alien, hostile and dangerous world that Berlin of 1946 undoubtedly was.

4_stars.GIF

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